The Cost of Living by vegetables

Summary: When evil checkout machines appear in a tiny supermarket, the Doctor faces the greatest challenge of her lives— staying sane in a minimum wage job.
Rating: All Ages
Categories: Other Doctors
Characters: Other Character(s), The Doctor (Author-Created)
Genres: Alternate Universe, Drama, General, Horror, Hurt/Comfort, Introspection, Mixed, Series
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: Be Afraid
Published: 2018.05.13
Updated: 2019.02.24


Chapter 1: Cover
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
Chapter 9: Chapter 8

Chapter 1: Cover


Back to index

Chapter 2: Chapter 1

Author's Notes: I don't know how to do trigger warnings on WhoFic, but this needs a mental illness trigger warning, and possibly a "this story is unsettling" warning as well.

Grant had been having a terrible morning before the checkout machine started speaking to him. He’d felt so bad that he almost hadn’t noticed it, paying no attention to what its jolly voice was saying. It just added to his stress as the red lights flashed above him, of having too much work and too little money and a wife he couldn't get to leave him. No one would come along to fix any of those problems, and no one was coming to sort out the checkout machine now.

We’re sorry: there seems to be a problem,” the machine started saying again. As usual, it wasn't clear to Grant what the problem actually was. The frozen pizza which seemed to trigger the message looked exactly the same as the one that he’d put in his bag, but the machine seemed to see them as entirely different things. Frustrated, he looked at the screen for the first time.

And froze, as he noticed what it said.

Baggage detected. There seems to be a problem with Grant Noakes.”

Grant gasped and jumped back from the machine, throwing his hands in the air. He’d have thought the other shoppers would have noticed him making a scene, but nobody seemed much to care. He just heard them beeping their groceries away, continuing to keep their heads down.

He turned back to the accusatory device, his frozen pizza forgotten on the scanner. The bit you had to put it through was red, of course, a deep, dark colour like blood spilling across a floor. He’d never noticed it before, but the lamp at the top of the device flashed red in the same shade, angrily requesting the help that didn’t seem to be coming. The same shade, in fact, as the scanning laser that came up and over his body, fizzing and hissing as the shoppers around him kept on staring down…

...there was a beep, and for a second a product flashed up on the screen. But it wasn't one he’d scanned or even wanted, because he'd been trying to be a vegetarian these days.

Do you wish to continue?” asked the machine in its cheery and cheerless way. It was like all the other statements that checkout voices made; it was clear that there wasn't a person behind it. But for whatever reason, the question was haunting to Grant. Did he wish to continue? There was less enjoyment in his life than before, it was true. If anyone had suggested he’d been feeling down he’d have laughed it off, but he’d been finding things seemed to get harder with each of the months that went by. So much of his life felt like being at this checkout machine did, with everything breaking and no one coming over to help.

He looked again at the glowing screen, at the lines that told him about the meat he hadn’t bought. It was funny, but in a way the creatures who became that meat had done more for the world than he ever had. Providing people with an enjoyable meal, which he barely felt able to do these days! He thought of the screaming at home and the squawking in a battery farm, and for a second he wasn’t sure which one he’d prefer.

Do you wish to continue?” the voice asked him again. On the screen in front of them, white buttons showed the words YES and NO.

There was a big queue behind him; he didn't want his decision to take long. And it didn't need to, in any case. It wasn't such a difficult choice, once you saw things as they really were…

...the bright red light glared over his face, and he idly wondered what his family would think when he was gone. He raised his hand up high to make his choice–

–before the screen went black, and the red light above him exploded. There was a fizz of sparks from every part of the machine, and for a second his frozen pizza smouldered and caught fire. Around him shoppers continued to check their goods, all totally undisturbed. A long roll of receipt paper spurted out of a slot, printed with endless names. If Grant was as emotionless as the machine, he’d have noticed his own name at the end of the spool, the only one without a cost printed by its side. But he suddenly went into a blind panic, and so he noticed nothing at all.

He turned round as if sober after drunk. A woman wearing store assistant’s clothes grinned up at him, waggling a device that no shop worker would need. She smiled as the sparks kept raining down, as if all this was an everyday part of her job.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “These ones are a bit new. They’re always doing things that none of us in the store expect!”

“But it tried to kill me!” said Grant. “I was going to let it kill me,” he added, more softly.

“Oh, they’ll kill us all, if we’re not careful! Got the whole planet in their sights. But that’s the problem with these machines, isn’t it?” She grinned. “They seem to have a mind of their own.”

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Chapter 3: Chapter 2

On the previous day the Doctor wore different clothes, and gave little thought to groceries. She had bigger problems to think about in her life. Bigger, police box-sized problems, as her TARDIS stood on the living room’s crushed ruins.

“Home!” she’d cheerily said to her child companion, throwing open the doors of her blue machine. And then: “your mother with a knife!” less cheerily and with a note of panic. Chris looked disapprovingly at her mum as she held the blade in her hand, before she saw who’d arrived in her house and it was sheepishly squirreled away.

“It’s you!” said Chris’s mum. “Making that awful sound. Gave me a bit of a panic; I thought my washing machine had broken down. And then I thought it might be terrorists, although I don’t know what they thought was worth blowing up around here. But it’s just you,” she said. “Crushing my furniture.”

“Ah! Yes. Sorry about that. It's just that the houses I’ve landed in recently have had… well. There’s been a bit more space than this.”

“You’ve broken the television,” said Chris. “I was mad at you and then you broke our television!

“Don't be mad at the Doctor, Chrissy,” said her mother in a vague way. She saved both our lives a few hours ago. That's worth not having a television for a while! Although,” she added quietly, “it might be quite a long while.”

“It's not been half an hour,” said Chris. “We got lost on the way home. We met Charles Darwin, and a candy man. And a baboon!”

“Gosh,” said her mother, “I would love to meet Charles Darwin. Did you ask him any questions, Chrissy? It's bad to let a chance like that go to waste.”

“No, he was quite upset. I wasn't going to bother him.”

“Sometimes you have to bother people,” said her mother, “if you’re going to get on in the world. But you’ve had a busy day. We should relax, Chrissy, do something that doesn't need the telly. I think we’ve some dominoes in that awful cupboard.”

She looked sadly around the ruined room.

“I’ll get all this replaced,” said the Doctor awkwardly. “I’ve a few furniture-related favours to cash in, somewhere or other in the universe.”

“I wasn't thinking about that!” said Chris’s mother a bit too quickly. “Just that it's getting late. I’d’ve let you stay on our sofa bed, but…” she gestured at the chipboard that lay strewn across the floor.

“Oh, that's not a problem!” laughed the Doctor, pointing her thumb at her blue machine. “I’ve got loads of bedrooms in here.”

“Loads?” frowned Chris’s mother. “But it's so ugly and small! Like all of our homes, these days.”

“It's bigger on the inside!” said Chris. “There's a whole forest in there, and the Doctor says there’s a room full of video games that never got made–”

“Gosh,” said her mother. “That’s very modern. But then I suppose you’d make quite a bit, wouldn't you? As a qualified psychiatrist.”

“Well, I don't do that anymore. Handed my notice in. I was going to go off to that planet of wheels; ride one around for a while.”

Chris’s mother frowned. “You don't do it anymore? But… I mean, it takes loads of time to become a psychiatrist, and you can’t have been one for very long. You can't be much older than me.”

“I'm much older than you,” grinned the Doctor. “I just don't look it. You’d be down here” — she crouched down with her hand stretched near the floor — “and I’d be, oh, up there.” She pointed her hand up as far as it would go. “A long way up there.”

“Up there,” repeated Chris’s mother sadly. “Well. You’ll have lots of things to do, I suppose. Enjoy, you know, all your bedrooms. And thanks for saving our lives; we’re both very grateful about that!” she said as Chris looked down at her hands.

“It's no bother!” said the Doctor. “It's what I do, whether I'm a psychiatrist or not. Stay safe– and when you're not safe, don't forget to be afraid. Goodbye, Chris, and… uh, Chris’s mum.”

“My name is Lorna,” said Chris’s mother. “I was a lot more Scottish, back in the day.”

“Weren't we all,” said the Doctor with a smile.

“And look, I'm sorry about the knife. It's just been a hard time for me of late. Even before the skulls. They think they can cut the staff with all these new machines, but they break so much that if anything we need to hire more–”

“New machines?” said the Doctor, who was no longer smiling.

“You know! So people can do their own shopping. We’ve had them for years in the shop, of course, but these ones are supposed to be better. Good as a man should be, at understanding you. They said ‘man’ instead of ‘person’ too, at the presentation. We all noticed that in our row.”

“It's funny, isn't it?” said the Doctor. “The things you notice.”

She paused, deciding to try her luck.

“It’ll be hard, too, with the people going missing. Stressful. At times like that I bet people’d just stop turning up to work, without even mentioning where they'd gone.”

“It's been getting pretty bad,” said Lorna. “There aren't a lot of us regular staff left. We’ve got someone coming in from corporate tomorrow; just ‘cause we can't get the cover.”

She laughed.

“But you're the Doctor, aren't you? Killing your alien skulls. You don't care about how many shifts I'm working.”

“I care about everything. And it wasn't me who killed them, in the end. You bashed them good, with that big old pan of yours.”

“Pans and knives, eh?” laughed Lorna. “Getting quite threatening, the older I get.”

“It's always the way to be,” said the Doctor. “Take care, won't you? Both of you.”

She closed the doors of the TARDIS, and the two of them watched as it faded away. You wouldn't have thought the living room could look worse without the ruin of a box in the middle of it, but somehow it managed to anyway.

Chris and Lorna looked at the splinters and shattered glass for a while.

“Some people dream of being psychiatrists,” said Lorna to no one in particular.

Chris had been waiting for the Doctor to leave. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but it seemed the worst thing in the world if that woman would see her cry.

“Mum,” she said. “I– I’ve been–”

And then she was in her mother's arms, sobbing and bawling away. She hadn't meant to cry this much, even after the things she'd seen. And it somehow felt so wrong, to cry after travelling with the Doctor. But it was worse to keep it all in, so she cried until she couldn’t any more.

“Well,” said her mother after a lot of time had passed, “I'm sure there’ll be other doctors, eh? Anyway, Chrissy. I think I’ve got some tiddlywinks in the drawer.

Back to index

Chapter 4: Chapter 3

Lorna had felt bad, sending Chris off to school the next day. If she'd been able to find anyone who could look after her, she would– but at short notice, there was nothing much she could do. She hadn't asked the school for many days off when Chris’s friends had died, and they might use that against her now– they'd be angry at her for not wanting them then, to get away from the fact they’d kept her at school at all.

But at least Chris had cheered up a little when she’d seen the new furniture. The Doctor had somehow snuck it there in the night, fitting all of it in without waking them with the screech of the machine. The telly was bigger and flatter than any they’d ever seen; the sofa comfy and plush and posh. Lorna had told herself the Doctor had been sure to get nice stuff, as an apology. But she knew that woman wouldn't even have noticed how nice it was, and somehow that made it the worst choice she could have made.

She tried to think of things that weren't the Doctor as she rode the tram to her small shop. Neo would have been on to do the opening today, but she didn't think for a moment he'd turn up after all this time. The person from corporate would be there in his place, putting out the newspapers and seeing to the few people who needed cigarettes early in the day. There were still a few things a machine couldn't do, at least– although privately she wondered if the new person could, either.

It was still dark when she came up to her shop’s glass window, the light streaming out in its somehow unpleasant way. Whoever was staffing the shop didn't know to stay on the floor, it seemed– there was no sign of anyone bar a few customers at the machines. At the presentation they’d said the new checkouts could stop people stealing; that they emitted sound sophisticated enough to persuade any would-be thief to put everything back where it should. But they'd say all sorts of things to get corporate to buy some new devices, and she still believed you needed a pair of human eyes to watch the door.

It was silent as she walked into the store, with the whirr of the air conditioning and the beeps of the checkout machines the only sounds she could hear. And then all of a sudden it was incredibly loud, as a someone Lorna did not want to see again barrelled into view.

The someone was dressed in the normal work clothes of her supermarket, in exactly the way a normal worker should. She had normal hair and a normal face, and you would tell yourself how perfectly normal she was to stop yourself going insane. The word DOCTOR was chiselled on the tag where her name should have been, but Lorna decided there were other questions to ask.

“You!” she said. “You’re not a shop assistant!”

“Not usually!” said the Doctor. “Like you said, corporate had to send someone. Turns out the someone is me.”

“But you're not from corporate! You're from space!”

“Well, it wasn't hard to convince them I was one of their own.” She put on a strange, angry voice. “Invigilate the data! Synergise those files! You know the sorts of things they say.”

“Chrissy said that's how you became a psychiatrist. You just showed people a blank bit of paper and made them believe you were qualified.”

“Yes! But I did train to be a psychiatrist, after that. Job like this, I'm not sure there's an awful lot to learn.”

She frowned.

“Although we’ll need a bit of paper that's actually blank. What do you put on the door, when you need things to close for a while?”

“Oh!” laughed Lorna. “Now that's something I know all about.”

She went behind the single till and fished out a crumpled bit of paper, with BACK IN FIVE MINUTES typed out in a default font.

“We’ll be more than five minutes,” said the Doctor.

“Time is relative.”

“That's not what that means at all,” said the Doctor as she waved her sonic screwdriver over the nearest machine. As Lorna ushered the last of the shoppers to the door, a series of beeps and preprogrammed phrases blared out to the shop– although it was hard to tell why anyone would programme phrases that were quite so strange and disturbing.

“Those machines,” she said as she locked the doors and made her way back to the Doctor. “They do say some strange things. It's no wonder our kids are disturbed, hearing things like that every day!”

“I shouldn't wonder,” said the Doctor as she spooled a large mass of wire from behind a scanner. “Of course, your child would’ve had other things to deal with. Her friends burning to death. All these people going missing.”

“You can't compare those things, though! Her friends dying; that was aliens, doing whatever they did so we wouldn't take it too seriously. People going missing isn't anything like that.”

The Doctor counted to five in her head.

“Unless…” said Lorna, and suddenly she was gasping and clutching her hand to her mouth, goggling and pointing at the machines.

“But people going missing is like that! Oh. Oh, God. I told Chrissy I’d try harder to see what was right in front of my nose, and all this time there's aliens taking people and… and giving us checkout machines!” She frowned. “Although I don't really understand that last part.”

“The missing people are the checkout machines,” said the Doctor. “See, look, there's a human brain in here. Next to where you spool the receipts.”

Item confirmed,” said the checkout machine.“ Hello, Lorna.”

Lorna screamed, clutching her hand to her mouth. “You mean,” she said, “you mean there's a person in there?”

“Not exactly,” said the Doctor. “Not anymore.”

“But it didn't say that before! It just thanked people for shopping and apologised for the delays! Those wires coiling around. What do they do?”

Lorna bent down to where she imagined a checkout’s eyes might be, trying to engage it in a way it would think was polite.

“Hello!” she said in a far-too-jolly way. “It’s me, yeah. Lorna. Didn't recognise you there, what with you being all checkouty. You know me from behind the counter, right?”

Come on, Lorna, I know you!” said the machine in a voice too scornful to have been programmed. “ Always putting too much in the bins! Can't very well call the police on you now, can I? Here in this box in a shop.”

“Mr Barnes!” shrieked Lorna in horror. “But they’ve given you a woman’s voice! You won't like that very much at all!”

Oh, I don't know,” said the voice that had been Mr Barnes. “ It's not so bad really. No arthritis. No bills! I mean, it's not the sort of move you make in your old age, is it? Becoming a checkout machine. But when I had that special offer it all made sense, you know?”

“No,” said Lorna bluntly. “I don't know. I can't imagine doing… that. Becoming what you are.”

“These wires are a bit biological,” said the Doctor, interrupting them. “They're growing back faster than you could think. You two don't have long before your friend becomes… the thing he was before.”

“He’s not my friend!” said Lorna. “Sorry,” she muttered to the machine.

No need! Of course we're not friends. I've been glad to get away from you; hearing your arguments through my walls. Have a nice bit of peace, these days. Although…”

The machine just stopped, in the way they often do. An incomprehensible error message filled its screen, and above them a light began to flash in red.

Well. It's quiet, isn't it?” said Mr Barnes. “ No one to talk to! Nothing to say except to tell folk to become like this. Like I am! Else to…”

Furious beeping started coming from the machine that had been a man. If you had far better hearing than a human, you might have heard something a small way away, clunking as it rose up to its feet. And if you’d heard that you would have known why the Doctor was rising too, her worst suspicions finally confirmed.

“...oh God,” said the checkout’s voice in a way that was mechanical and despaired. “All those people! I didn't mean to…”

Lorna!” said the voice as urgently as it could, as her name blew in capitals across the screen.“ I'm not a bad man, am I? You didn't think so?”

“I… I’m not sure I thought about you much at all,” said Lorna. “Sometimes you’d make me mad, but I'd always forget, y’know? There was always something else coming along that I’d just get mad about instead.”

My mother used to say I was bad. That we all were! And that for any of us to be good we’d need transformed! Remade, into something no man would recognise. And I thought, well, no one back when she was alive would recognise a thing like this!”

“Lorna, I was thinking,” said the Doctor a bit too quickly, “maybe we'd best leave Mr Barnes alone? He’s got a job to do, in a manner of speaking”–

To be remade!” said Mr Barnes as the hole in his side crackled and zapped. “ Without our petty concerns, without our rage. You wouldn't have to be mad, Lorna, doesn't that sound better? For everyone! No anger, none of the squabbles. Just all of us being–”

The Doctor thrust her sonic screwdriver right into the broken mess of wires. There was a massive bang, before both women flew back in a shower of sparks. Shaking, Lorna got to her feet, to see the words THANK YOU FOR TAKING ADVANTAGE OF OUR OFFER! displayed cheerily across the screen. From a slot a long roll of paper unwound, a receipt for something no one had bought. Getting to her feet, the Doctor took it into her hands before grimly handing it over to Lorna.

HELP ME,” said each item on the receipt, repeated over and over again.

“Oh God!” wailed Lorna. “Mr Barnes! I mean, he was awful, really. I didn't like him at all. But I didn't want this. Although,” she said less miserably, “maybe this is what he wanted? I think he was quite alone, you know.”

“That wasn't him you heard,” said the Doctor grimly. “Not anymore.”

Just on the fringes of human hearing, something was coming to life. At the other end of the shop was a very unnoticeable oor, and behind it was something that would spell the end of the world.

“I’d not seen him for ages,” said Lorna. “But I thought that that was good! I just thought he was off… playing chess, or whatever old men do. I never thought that he could be in danger”– she frowned. “But that's the aliens, isn't it?”

“There aren't any aliens,” said the Doctor.

What?” said Lorna. “But you said”–

“I chose my words carefully,” said the Doctor, “because I didn't want to scare you.”

“You told me there was an alien invasion because you didn't want to scare me!?”

“Yes. ‘Cause what's really happening is scarier, and even I didn't want to believe it. I wanted to be sure, before I said what I thought was really going on.”

“And what's that?”

“Man who worked with you, Neo,” said the Doctor, changing the subject, “was he as clever as you?”

“What?” said Lorna, laughing uneasily. “I'm not–”

The Doctor looked her right in the eyes.

Lorna. This is important. Was he as clever as you?

Lorna looked away, unable to meet her gaze.

“Oh. Then… I think he was, yeah. We used to say if things had been different for him he could’ve done something brilliant, though we never knew what it was. He was too good for this, you know? I mean, everyone is. But we felt it more with him.”

She was quiet for a while.

“I… I don't like people to know that I’m…”

“I won't tell,” said the Doctor. “There isn't a school.”

From behind the door something started banging; loud hollow sounds against the faded metal.

“That’ll be Neo,” said the Doctor mildly. “Or what's left of him.”

What?” said Lorna. “But the thing that's making that sound, it doesn't sound like a person”–

“It isn't a person,” said the Doctor. “And that's not even what should scare you. ‘Cause if aliens didn't turn Neo into the thing that's in there now, it means that people did. The technology in those” — she gestured to the checkout machines — “it's very advanced, but it's clear it's been made by humans. The clever things you realised; the obvious things you didn't. All this” — she gestured at the machines, the door, the banging — “it's the shop that did it, obviously. But in a way it's your species, as well.”

“You're blaming us?” said Lorna. “You're saying it's our fault we’re becoming checkout machines?” Behind her, the banging got louder and louder, and the steel of the door began to break and bend.

“Not that,” said the Doctor in the end. “I'm saying… that it's a process, in a way. One that's happened so many times before. And it's one that happens for all sorts of reasons, in any kind of society you’d care to name. I've come to think that all it needs is for people to be desperate enough, when something they once loved is falling away. But it happens wherever there are people, and this is how it happens here.”

We will be with you shortly,” came a voice from behind the door, loud and bright against the banging. The metal was bowed out and twisted now, fragile and ready to break. Lorna boggled at the sounds that came from the far end of the shop, then turned aghast to the Doctor and boggled again.

“What is…” she said in the end. “How?”

“You said it yourself. There's some things these machines can't do. Mashing keyboards, shutting shop. Things you’d need a person for, or something like it. And it’d need to be a clever person, with everything they had going on. The sort of person that might feel bad about the choices that they’d made. So you might need to make sure they didn't feel much at all…”

Something that was no longer a hand smashed through the metal door, and Lorna began to scream.

“This was always the place that those machines would lead,” said the Doctor quietly, “replacing people, ‘till there's no need for people any more. Because this is the end of humanity,” she said. “And this is the dawn–”

—the something crashed through the buckled door—

–”of the Cybermen.”

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Chapter 5: Chapter 4

Unexpected item,” chirped the thing that had once been Neo, making its way across the floor.

“I suppose I am,” said the Doctor, drawing out her sonic screwdriver. She didn't show it, but she'd found the creature coming towards them unexpected in itself. In her many lives, the Doctor had seen Cybermen of all shapes and sizes, in every form a human body could be twisted. But there was still something different about the one in front of her now, stomping towards them in a way that didn't disturb the shelves. It scanned the shops with scanner eyes, red and glass and tinged with flickering lasers. It had a card-slit mouth and an off-white plastic body, all braced with bits that might have come off of a trolley. A brightly coloured handle extended above its head, with the logo of its supermarket cheerily stamped on its front. It was a person who'd been crossed with a checkout machine, and it was coming to kill its old friend.

“Neo,” said Lorna, taken aback. “What the hell have they done to you?”

The Cyberman didn't respond, continuing to plod down the aisle of canned goods.

“Don't talk to it!” barked the Doctor. “That's how they get to you!”

Lasers required on Aisle Six,” trilled the Cyberman. Key in on unexpected item.”

Help is coming,” chorused the checkout machines, each slightly out of time with the others.

“He's not an it!” cried Lorna as she tried to ignore the machines. “He’s my friend! You shouldn’t judge people like that. Mr Barnes was still normal, and he's now a bloody box! At least Neo still looks a bit human.” She glanced towards the Cyberman, whose glassy eyes had started to glow.

“Appearance is all it is,” said the alien pretending to be a woman. “The outside might look like a person, but what's happened inside“–

Before she could finish, a hail of red beams blasted from the checkout machines, zipping through the shop and narrowly missing Lorna and the Doctor.

Your death will be with you shortly,” said the machines.“ Please wait while we liquify your body.”

“Not likely,” muttered the Doctor, arcing her screwdriver to deflect the lasers across the supermarket aisles. Tins burst and juice cartons exploded, and all sorts of organic gloop began to spill across the shelves.

“Oh, come on,” cried Lorna. “I have to clean all that!” Something inside her broke, and she made her way towards the laser-firing machines.

“Don't do that!” cried the Doctor. “They'll kill you!” The not-quite human voices sang in the air, their lasers starting to adjust to the screwdriver's sonic field.

“You're forgetting,” said Lorna triumphantly, getting down low to the floor. “I've got a card! I know the codes!” Lasers crashed against a great display of tinned beans, bringing them clattering over the advancing Cyberman's path.

“They're”– the Doctor winced, “They're highly complex machines”–

“Don't I know it!” laughed Lorna. “Work with the things every day.”

“But they contain human brains”–

“Have to work with those a bit, too.” Lorna ducked and weaved through the lasers, so that a few glanced the shell of a checkout machine and caused it to crack into bits. She drew her card from out of her outfit’s pocket, and held it up to a machine from her place down against the shop floor. There was a beep as its screen registered the plastic of her card, then a series of smaller sounds as she tapped in a code from memory. Soundlessly, the machine stopped firing its lasers.

“I’ve done this job for a long time now, Doctor,” said Lorna as she disabled what had once been Mr Barnes. “I know a thing or two about doing it.” She nodded to the advancing Cyberman. “Isn’t It about time you started doing yours?”

“Quite right,” said the Doctor grimly. She dove down to the floor and changed the setting on her screwdriver, tumbling around as lasers screeched to the place where she had been. She raised her device to the face of the approaching monster and let it bellow a blast of sound…

...which glanced off the plastic face of the Cyberman, leaving no impression at all. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch that,” it said in a happy way.

“Screwdriver won’t do it,” muttered the Doctor. “So there’s nothing for it; I’ll have to use my screwdriver. The other one,” she added, noting Lorna’s confused expression. “The less sonic screwdriver.”

She pulled a device out of the pocket of her outfit.

“That’s just a screwdriver,” said Lorna.

“And it isn’t sonic at all!” said the Doctor merrily, advancing towards the Cyberman with it firmly held in her sonic-free hand.

Unexpected item,” said the Cyberman again.“ We’re sorry, but you cannot serve us.” It was close to the Doctor now, and its red scanner breastplate was crackling with lasered power. Desperately, the Doctor let out a few more sonic blasts, but each did as little damage as the last.

“Lorna!” she shouted. “Mr Barnes! Can you bring him back online? Rip out the wires, get his proper self talking again?”

Him?” gasped Lorna. “Are you sure about that? We’ve got enough going on out here already, without him telling us about his warts.”

“Trust me!” shouted the Doctor, rolling down to the floor and onto her back. “And he doesn’t have warts anymore.”

We’re sorry,” the Cyberman was saying as its hands both crackled red. “We’re afraid we will have to kill you.” Some way off the Doctor heard Mr Barnes came back online, with Lorna making a soft sound of relief even as the machine stayed silent.

The Cyberman began to reach downwards as its foe stabbed her less sonic screwdriver in the air, doing the tiny amount she could to seem like a credible threat. As she did so, she did something with her other device, distorting and sculpting sound until something like modern music filled the air.

Such a racket!” said Mr Barnes, all previous remorse forgotten.“ How’d’you listen to something like that? It’s just noise!”

“It’s a catchy tune,” said the Doctor as she clambered beneath the Cyberman. “This, though, well. This is just noise.”

The pulsing beat became a furious scream, like a fire alarm crossed with a howling baby.

Don’t do that!” said Mr Barnes. “ I’ve got lasers, you know! There’s no one right-minded who’d judge me!”

“I’m not sure I’d trust anyone who’s in their right mind,” muttered Lorna from her hiding place behind the till. “Especially not when they’re an interfering old busybody like you!”

Oh, you’ve done it now! I have to be polite all day, you know, now I’m scanning people’s fruit! But if you’re going to be rude, I’m damn well going to give as good as I get!”

A bright red laser blasted from Mr Barnes as the Doctor flung her body away from the Cyberman. The laser hit it square in its chest, and it turned to face the box that delivered the blow.

Out of order,” it said, in an emotionlessly threatening voice.“ We’re afraid you are out of order.” Underneath it, the Doctor flicked a switch on her less sonic screwdriver, its ordinary metal prong whizzing to electric life. Where the Cyberman’s legs met its body were some perfectly normal screws, and the Doctor raised one screwdriver to them as her other one blared out sound.

I’ll tell you what’s out of order!” barked Mr Barnes to the Cyberman, taking up all its attention. “ This bloody company giving you legs and graces, while sticking me here all unable to move!”

I’m afraid you were not selected. You have unwelcome emotions.”

UNWELCOME EMOTIONS!?” thundered the checkout machine, a barrage of lasers blasting towards his foe. In a jovial woman’s voice he tried to swear, each curse coming out as a furious beep.

We’re sorry. This supermarket does not accept your anger,” said the Cyberman.

It looked straight at the bleeping Mr Barnes.

We just need to remove this,” it said.

Lorna squealed as each machine fired lasers at the other, making the mess of the shop glow red with light.

“Not the only thing being removed,” muttered the Doctor as the base of the Cyberman’s body came away. She looked at her non-sonic screwdriver like it was a departing friend, then thrust it up between the monster’s legs as hard as she could.

Unexpected item in bagging area,” the Cyberman groaned.

The Doctor rolled away as the thing fell to its knees, whirring as its eyes began to dim.

There was silence for a while.

“Is your life always like this?” said Lorna from behind the till.

“More or less,” said the Doctor, getting to her feet, “although I don’t often get covered in beans.” She laughed. “Bet it’s not often this mad here, though! A little supermarket like this.”

“Um,” said Lorna.

“Oh, dear God,” said the Doctor.

“My first hour on the job a customer assaulted my colleague. Then the third hour my supervisor hit a different customer in the face! It’s always been messy, and exhausting, and violent. It’s just these days we’ve got far more machines.”

She looked sadly at the blackened wreckage of Mr Barnes.

“They didn’t deserve that,” she said. “Neo, and him. Dying, and being turned into plastic before they’d gone.”

“This Cyberman’s not dead,” said the Doctor. “You can’t kill a thing like this with a screwdriver; I know that better than anyone. There’s only one thing for it,” she frowned, “we’ll have to reopen the shop.”

Lorna stared at her for a while.

“I know,” she said in the end, “that you’re a very clever person–“

“I am!”

“–but that seems like, well, a very stupid thing to do”–

“We have to keep people safe,” said the Doctor.

“By taking them in here!? With the lasers?”

“Take it from someone who knows,” said the Doctor, “when things seem normal, even when they’re not, when things keep ticking along. There might be a seven-mouthed thing in the basement, but you can still take care of it, as long as nobody gets involved. Know what I learned on my medical degree?”

Lorna said nothing, feeling patronised.

“Sometimes it’s the body’s response that kills the person,” the Doctor went on, fiddling with something on the Cyberman’s back. “Not the thing doing the invading. Open the shop, and yes, there are lives on the line, but once the world gets wind it’s being replaced by monsters, well”–

She grimaced.

“That’s when it becomes war.”

Lorna glared at her, unconvinced. The Doctor sighed and threw her hands in the air.

“Hippocratic Oath, duty of care. I do know what I’m doing. I’ve got the Cyberman to broadcast a signal to the top; so nobody innocent in the company gets involved. Whoever comes here’ll be someone who’s responsible for this–“ her eyes narrowed “–and I know a thing or two about fighting monsters.”

“And do you know a thing or two about cleaning up your own mess?” said Lorna.

They both looked round at the ruined shop, sauce and broken biscuits covering the floor.

“I’ll clean up the mess,” said the Doctor with a sigh. “And I’ll tie up our friend here with sonic wire. He’s not dead, but he’s also not up to much. If he tries anything on, you can just hit him in the crotch with a hammer.”

“I can hit him?” said Lorna. “But we’re about to reopen the shop! We can’t put him out here in view of the customers! He’s too new-fangled for them.”

“Both of you in the back should do it. I’ll stay out here, in case the checkout machines try anything brutal again.”

You?” said Lorna. “Have you ever tried to run a supermarket before?”

Lorna,” said the Doctor. “I’ve saved the whole of reality; entombed the Abbots of Nyx. I assembled a living brain out of a shoe. Next to that,” she grinned, “what’s helping a few old ladies with their bags?”

Back to index

Chapter 6: Chapter 5

“THAT’S NOT THE SAME BUTTON!” shouted the Doctor a horrible while later. “Why would you have one button for two oranges and another for”–

She glared at the customer in front of her. “Humans,” she said, gesturing at the till.

“Tell me about it,” the customer said.

Help is on the way!” came the voice of a checkout machine.“ An assistant will be with you shortly.”

“Hear that?” said the man beside. “It says an assistant will be with me shortly. ‘Shortly.’ Not ten minutes from now.”

“Oh, you can’t go round believing everything people say!” snapped the Doctor. “It isn’t healthy. What’s holding things up there, anyway?”

“Says there’s too many things on the weighing scales.”

“But there’s nothing on the weighing scales!”

“I can see,” said the man, “how you attained such a high station in life.”

“Oh, that’s very clever. Look at him there, how clever he is! ‘Course, what’s a bit more clever,” smiled the Doctor, is this.

She wiggled her sonic screwdriver at the disgruntled machine.

Hissing, the bag of shopping alongside it melted into a smear.

“I liked that plastic bag,” said the man sadly.

“LORNA!” cried the Doctor as she once again rang the bell that should summon her friend. “LORNA!

Just like the last four times, her companion failed to appear. The Doctor sighed. She might be terrible at minimum wage labour, but at least she still had a few manners.

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Chapter 7: Chapter 6

Lorna was bored, but that was okay. When you worked in retail in this part of the city, bored was the best you could hope for. She thought about the skull-like aliens who had almost killed her and her child, how she’d told Chris they couldn’t be real. She might’ve said the same about tigers or Venice or Jupiter, because in a job like this nothing else seemed like it could really be out there. It made you feel the shop was all there was, until that seemed so true you forgot it was a lie.

She looked over at the tied-up Cyberman, and in a strange way found it reassuring. It reminded her that there was a world outside of this, even if it was strange and confusing and repeatedly trying to kill her. It made her feel the way the Doctor could make you feel, when you didn’t want to scream in her stupid face.

“You always knew you could be something,” she said to the thing that had once been Neo. “I don’t know that this was what you had in mind.” She sighed and looked round the wider room, not noticing as the Cyberman’s dim eyes flickered to life.

I’m sorry,” it said. “I’m afraid that’s not quite right.”

“You!” said Lorna, startled. “Don’t go lasering me like poor old Mr Barnes! The Doctor gave me a hammer; it probably has lasers too. I’ll laser and hammer your face, I will!”

“We have no desire to disintegrate you. You can take advantage of our special offer.”

“I’ve got discount,” said Lorna. “Though I could always do with more.”

“The offer I was given. To be promoted; to become something. You are eligible to become a Cyberman.”

Lorna burst out laughing.

The offer is sincere.”

“Ha! I’m sure it is. No offence, Neo, but you’re held together with screws! And Cyberman, not Cyberperson. Typical, isn’t it? The way these people think.”

She sighed.

“I’m sure it’s lovely for you, Neo. As a sort of checkout machine who’s a man. But it’s going to be a no, all the same. I don’t think it’s the life for me.”

And this is the life for you?”

Lorna said nothing for a moment, taken aback.

“I– I don’t understand what you mean,” she said in the end.

Stuck here in this shop,” said Neo, “with nobody even noticing that you could do so much more. People said I shouldn't be here, that I was too good for this. But nobody ever said the same to you. Because of how they see you. Not because of what you are.”

“That's what you thought?” said Lorna. “You never said anything like that when you had, you know, a proper face”–

”It used to make me angry,” said Neo, “but now we don't get angry anymore. The people who're made into checkout machines, they're kept as they are. There’s no need for further training. But you, Lorna... you're capable of something better.”

“No anger?” said Lorna, thinking it'd certainly make life with the Doctor easier.

“No emotion. Just logic, reason. Seeing the world as it really is, and how it can be changed.”

“No emotions?” said Lorna. “But emotions are“–

She stopped, because she didn't know what emotions were. She thought of the obvious ones — laughing at the shows she liked, beaming at something Her daughter said — and the other ones that didn't even have names, like feeling lost in a bookshop or tasting the rain on the beach. Giving all that up would seem insane– but then that wasn't all there was, was there? There was anger, and anxiety, and loss. Grieving, for someone or something that never came. And behind it all was an unspoken dread that something was wrong, that things were very, very wrong and whoever could fix them wasn't going to arrive...

“You don't sound like a checkout machine anymore,” she said in the end.

“Everyone talks a certain way when they’re on duty. All of us sound quite different when we’re alone. We tell stories to each other, of the world that we now see. You might call them... fairy tales.”

Lorna scoffed. “Machines don't tell each other fairy stories!”

We are creatures of total rationality. Of course we tell fairy stories. Of the universe we now can see, and all the monsters in it. The Sontarans, who glory in war. The Daleks, who thrive upon slaughter. And the people we once were, who are tarnished because of love.”

“Don't be an idiot,” said Lorna. “Love's a good thing! It's an amazing thing! You can't go comparing it to war, and to death!”

And what makes you think that, Lorna Robinson?”

“Because... because it's just good, I suppose. I know when I had Chrissy I felt... like things would be difficult, yeah, but that it didn't really matter. Like my world had changed, but that it also made more sense, so that everything was going to be worth it however hard it’d be. Like I had a purpose, and it was to protect her.”

“And the Sontarans and the Daleks think of death in just that way. Such a powerful sense of purpose, they feel as they move in to kill. They glorify what they are, they revel in it. And they do what they do for feeling, in just the same way as you.”

“It’s not at all the same! I keep my daughter safe; I don’t go killing anything. There’s no way that can be a bad thing.”

“Not in itself. But no one loved me, Lorna, when I was a person like you. No one made it their duty to look after me, to see I was done right by in the world. Love does not kill its victims cleanly, in the way a Dalek does. It feeds in silence on the people who are not loved. But no Cyberman loves another; puts one above the rest. I am cared for like any other now.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a mother,” said Lorna, “or even a parent. You’re trying to sell me something and all I hear is that high old patronising voice, talking to me as though it’s oh so bloody superior”–

“No. Superiority is a an emotional term. We are superior in only one way. The only one that matters.”

He fixed Lorna’s eyes with his glowing gaze.

“We. Will. Survive. Will you survive, Lorna, in this world you live in now? You have told me I don’t understand you, but I can see you’ve not told the whole truth. Your love; the way it defines you. It’s not just in a positive way.”

Lorna gave a small gasp and reeled away, though her old colleague was still bound tight in wire.

”You are eligible for an upgrade,” continued Neo. “To be like us; like me. An opportunity for your survival. A chance to be… redeemed. Redeem”, he repeated. ”Redeem.”

His eyes brightened in a way that still was dark, and a soft red light burnt round the tiny room. From his chest panel a laser began to creep, picking its way towards the woman before him...

Lorna felt so many voices screaming inside her then, saying not to listen, to do what was right by her child. But there was one voice that shouted that none of the others mattered, because Neo could take all of those other voices away. There were things you could never say about being a single mother, which were wrong but which grew louder for remaining unsaid. Sometimes you wondered what it would be like, if you could run away and be able to forgive yourself for it...

...Suddenly, the distant ringing seemed incredibly close, and stress flowed through Lorna as she remembered where and who she was.

“We have right old chats on our breaks, don’t we?” she heard herself saying from far away. “Talk about all kinds of things. Thanks for your offer, Neo,” she said, “really. But I've got enough on my plate at the moment, with this replacement of yours. You know how it is. My mind’s on the job, not on becoming a robot.”

”Cybermen are not robots,” said Neo, sounding put out. But Lorna was already up and through the ruined door to the rest of the shop, mind filled with the ringing bell from her desperate colleague.

Back to index

Chapter 8: Chapter 7

After fixing the checkout machine, scouring the burnt plastic from the floor, dealing with the queue that stretched down the aisles and fixing the same checkout machine again, the Doctor began to feel quite tired. In her last life she'd been a close-to-elderly man, and that man had come to view saving the universe with something he'd thought was exhaustion. There were only so many times you could do it, he'd said, before you began to want to stop doing anything at all. But as the till broke and the customers snapped and the machines kept chorousing their demands, the Doctor began to think that she'd never really known what tired was. People said so often how difficult it was to save an entire world. She’d never realised how hard it might be to live in one.

“Cigarettes,” said the old man in front of her, snapping her out of her thoughts.

“I'm sorry?” she said.

“I want my cigarettes,” said the man. “They're behind you, and I've asked you three times”–

“They're bad for you,” said the Doctor as she went to get them.

“What? Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn't do? Bloody thought police.” He looked at her gleaming badge that spelled out DOCTOR and scoffed.

“Doctor? That what they're calling it these days? Kids like you want so much to feel special that they say you're what, a Doctor of stacking shelves?”

The Doctor stared at him, her ways of controlling situations forgotten. “I– that's not what it”–

“Or maybe you really are a Doctor, of some nonsense course like Golf Management or Women's Studies! Spent years of your life being useless at my expense, now you're here being useless at this as well. What's your name, eh? Your real name?”

“John,” said the Doctor without thinking.

John?” said the man.

“Oh!” said the Doctor. “It's short for... Johnelda?”

“Your name is Johnelda?”

“Yeah. My parents were... my parents were stupid,” said the Doctor lamely.

“Runs in families,” said the man. “Good God. I don't know what's happening to this country, when I go out meeting people like you.”

“You have no idea who I am,” said the Doctor softly.

“Oh, I do. There's types of people, right enough, all more similar than your professors would admit. You'll understand that, when you're a bit older. Now, I'm asking for a fourth time. Give me my bloody cigarettes.”

The Doctor put through the man's shopping with clenched teeth; the cigarettes and the various groceries. She glanced briefly at the last item in his basket, then glanced at it again and froze.

“I can't sell you this,” she said to the man.

“Why the hell not?”

“It's got”–

She stared the man right in the eyes.

–“it's got too many regulations.”

The man's eyes narrowed.

“Bloody bureaucrats!” he said.

“Telling us what to do!” said the Doctor.

“I don't know,” said the man again. He paid for his shopping and stormed off, the unsold item still in the Doctor's hands.

Ringing the bell hadn't been enough. Hesitantly, the Doctor raised her sonic screwdriver and rang the bell again, modulating its sound to resonate with human brainwaves. Several people in the shop turned round, glaring at her, and the Doctor smiled at them apologetically in a way that made them all glare more.

Eventually, Lorna appeared at the other side of the aisles, then hurried over to the till when she saw the Doctor’s expression.

“We have to close the shop,” said the Doctor to Lorna.

“But the shop is only open because you said we should”–

“I did. And now I'm saying we have to close it. Only,” she sighed, “we need a way to get everyone out.”

“Not a problem,” Lorna said.

She turned to face the store.

“EVERYONE!” she shouted. “It’s nothing to be alarmed about, but we’ve had to call the police. An officer should be arriving in the store shortly, but there’s no reason they should interrupt your shopping”–

She stopped talking, because everyone had already bolted out of the shop, dropping their baskets of groceries to the floor.

“I wouldn’t have thought that would work,” said the Doctor.

“You learn things,” said Lorna, fishing out the BACK IN FIVE MINUTES sign from behind the till. “What’s this in aid of, anyway? We can’t just go closing the shop whenever it takes our fancy.”

The Doctor was silent and glum, a million light years away.

“Something’s wrong, Lorna,” she said in the end. “With space and with time. Everyone’s so angry! I just had this man who kept shouting at me, but I’m not sure it was me he was shouting about at all”–

“Nothing’s wrong with time and space,” said Lorna. “That’s just what working in a shop is like.”

“But I’ve worked in a shop before! People loved me! They laughed at my jokes, and complimented my bow tie…” she stopped. “Why are you smiling at me like that?”

“It’s just,” said Lorna, “you really haven’t been a woman before. Chris told me,” she added, looking at the Doctor’s shocked expression.

“You mean?” said the Doctor, glancing down at her woman’s body.

“Yeah,” said Lorna. “I’m sorry.”

The Doctor was silent for a long time.

“The things you notice,” she said in the end. “I had a friend, not that long ago. I was teaching at a university, and she was in the canteen, but she’d write these physics essays and they were good. And now I think, well, what if they were less good? Not bad. Just as good as everyone else’s, instead of better? I’d never even have noticed her. And I never even noticed what it was to serve chips all day to people who were stupider than you, because the world had given them chances that you weren’t allowed to get. And what it was for you not to be angry about that! To smile, to be joyful, to still be confident! And she’d been in that canteen for so long, and I’ve been here a day, and I never said anything about it to her and now she’s gone”–

She sighed.

”We can’t let the Cybermen win,” she said.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” said Lorna, “but if we have to close the shop every time a man is condescending to you, we’re not going to make any of our sales targets”–

“That’s not why we closed it,” said the Doctor. “This is. Something else that people didn’t notice.”

She handed Lorna the vacuum packed meat she’d refused to sell to the man. Lorna read the label once without responding, then looked at it more closely and retched.

“This is…” she said. “Oh God. How can they’ve done this?!”

“At least they’ve said ‘person’ instead of ‘man’ this time,” said the Doctor.

Lorna looked at her totally blankly, so shocked she couldn’t even remember how to make an expression.

“Sorry!” said the Doctor, clapping her hand to her mouth. “That’s the eyebrows, coming out again. I didn’t mean... it isn’t... I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”

“You’re right, though,” said Lorna. “It’s what they think of us. The words on this packaging, how they talk about our jobs. Happy voices from checkout machines, when there’s nothing behind them at all. Pretending’s worse than not, I sometimes think.”

They both looked at the package for a while, that advertised wholesome person that spent lots of time outdoors. People had thrown into their baskets without realising, because no one likes to think too much about their meat.

“I hate this place,” said Lorna to herself.

“An employee insulting the business on work time?” said a voice behind them both. “Come, now, that won’t do at all.”

Lorna and the Doctor had been so horrified by the day’s experiences that neither of them had noticed a smooth man enter the shop, small and powerful with a suit that cost more than the premises.

“Are you from corporate?” said Lorna.

“Oh, I’m quite above that,” said the man. “Simon Jones. Your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. I have a Wikipedia page. The woman you’re working with today contacted me on a strictly need-to-know affair. Now, I’d normally go to the back to discuss it, but since there’s nobody here and it’s so very nice and bright, well. Perhaps you’d go to the storeroom and leave us both alone?”

“I’m sure she can stay here,” said the Doctor, thinking of the Cyberman behind the door. “We all know how to keep our mouths shut, don’t we?”

“There are consequences for speaking out of turn, Jean,” said Simon, “and harsher ones for a shop assistant who doesn’t listen to someone who’s very high up the chain indeed. Now,” he turned to Lorna, “will you go away and leave us alone?”

“I can’t lose this job,” said Lorna weakly to the Doctor. She walked slowly to the door at the end of the shop, trying to look as confident as she could.

Once she had gone, Simon turned to the Doctor with a smile.

“Sorry for having to come to you,” said the Doctor. “It’s the advanced stage. The one being tried out here, where people can’t see it. It was acting so unusually, and I couldn’t tell why. I thought it might have something to do with the part of the company who programmed it?”

“And you want to know who that is,” said Simon. “So you can go there, and so you can stop them. Before we roll out our Cybermen as standard publically and across the country, and they start to be adopted throughout the world.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to say,” said the Doctor. “You know I’ve always been very loyal to this company”–

“And how do I know that? A little piece of paper, waved in front of my face? Don’t take me for a fool, Jean. We know there are those who’d object to what we’re doing, and we know when we’re being taken for a ride.”

“And why do you think that is?” said the Doctor, dropping the facade. “Why on earth would anyone object to turning human beings into checkout machines, just to make a little extra for the company’s bottom line?”

“We give people a choice,” said Simon with a smile, “there’s always an opportunity to say no. People like you, they think that they know what’s best for them. But we think it’s best to let our customers decide. And if sometimes we suggest they behave in a certain way, well,” he grinned, “it’s not so different from anything else we do.”

He waved his hand to indicate the shop before them, with aisles on aisles of food and things.

“Choice, and profit. They’re what built this place,” he said. “This shop, this city, all of it. It’s what led us to the world we have today.”

“And now it’s leading to the Cybermen,” said the Doctor.

“And why not change the human brain?” said Simon. “We innovate everywhere else, don’t we? Our minds are bulbs of fat designed for running from lions; it’s not surprising they’re afraid of the modern age. Depression, anxiety. Anger. But we can make all those things go away. Make a new kind of person, that’s fit for the 21st century. Your problem is that you think people would never want to become the Cybermen. But in our experience we often don’t have to persuade much at all.”

“Your company turns people into meat,” said the Doctor. “It kills them, and processes their bodies. That’s not what advancement is.”

“And that’s another choice!” said Simon, laughing. “What do people tell us, when we ask them what they want from life? That they want to help others, to make a difference. And now they can!” He smiled. “Meat nourishes people,” he said, “it gives them pleasure”–

“You’re a monster,” said the Doctor.

“I’m the future. And you’re certainly not strong enough to stand in progress’s way.”

“Don’t do that,” said the Doctor. “I’ve had enough of it today, of men not knowing who I am.”

“Oh, I know exactly who you are. You’re the Doctor. You’re an arrogant woman who likes telling people what to do, who never even realises how much trouble she’s really in. But I’ll give you some credit, Jean” — his hand moved to his breast pocket of his suit — “you do have the most lovely toys.”

From out of his tailored suit he pulled the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.

“What are you doing with that?!” said the Doctor. “There’s no way you can have that!”

“Wibbly-wobbly; timey-wimey,” said Simon. “You used to say such funny things.” The device in his hands let out an awful screech as sonic waves began to fill the air.

“We need to take the Cyberman here back,” he said. “I expect you’ve done quite a number on it. But it’d be a shame to stop our project here now. Seeing as you’re so down on choice, perhaps we won’t need to give your friend much of one”–

“No!” said the Doctor, “please, you can’t; she’s done nothing wrong”–

“Opinions,” said Simon. “You do seem to have a lot of them! But maybe the world isn’t listening to them anymore. Maybe they’d rather take advantage,” he smiled, “of something only we can provide.”

He chuckled very softly to himself.

The sonic howl continued to fill the air.

Back to index

Chapter 9: Chapter 8

Lorna was pacing up and down the storeroom, past boxes of beer and unpopular crisps. She had no idea who Simon was, but she certainly believed he was senior– some way above the level where he could make sure she’d never work with the company again. More people than she liked to think of skipped meals to keep their children fed; she’d felt so lucky that she wasn’t yet among them. It wasn’t just a job; the Doctor didn’t see that. She’d never understand how much a person could have to lose.

“Do you eat, Neo?” she said to the Cyberman. She turned round to where he was tied up–

–to see the sonic wire that had bound him unravelling and falling away, and his odd plastic body slowly starting to rise.

Congratulations,” he said.“ You have been selected for an upgrade. You will be redeemed.”

“About that,” said Lorna, getting behind a box. “I’ve thought it over and emotions; they’re pretty good, when all’s said and done. I think — if it’s all the same to you — that I’d like to just keep my brain.”

“We’re afraid it is not the same to us. You will be redeemed.”

“Neo,” said Lorna, “Neo, please! I don’t want this! I want to love! Oh, God,” she said, “I want to love!” A million feelings burst up inside her, emotions about what losing emotions would mean. Lorna didn’t let people see her cry, as a rule, but she was unable to keep it in now.

“Please,” she wept. “I want to love.”

We’re sorry,” said the Cyberman.

“LIAR!” said Lorna. “You’re not sorry! You can’t even feel what it is to be sorry at all!”

No. But soon you won’t feel sorry, too.”

It swept boxes away with its arms, fruit and packets of carrots rolling to the floor.

Redeem, said the Cyberman. Redeem.”

The monster advanced towards the wall where Lorna wept.


“LORNA!” the Doctor was shouting. “I can’t let this happen again! I can’t lose someone else to them!”

“But you can,” said Simon in his calm and victorious voice. “That’s the thing about you, Doctor. You’re so used to winning, you don’t realise you can lose, and you’re so familiar with getting what you want you don’t notice when things aren’t going to go your way.”

The shop door swung open as someone else entered, and the Doctor stared with horror at who it was.

“You see,” said the someone, “in more ways than one–

–”you’ve already lost,” finished Simon. He smiled at the newcomer who looked exactly the same as him, but with extra lines on his forehead nd a small shot of grey in his hair. His own self, from not too far in the future.

“A bold new vision for our company, but without the tech to get there,” said the older Simon. “So get to the future where they’ve already made it, and send it back to make that future happen. Now, you might say that’s breaking the laws of time, but we’d prefer to call it–”

“–innovation,” said the younger Simon. “And let’s see where that vision led us, Doctor. Let’s see the world where man was replaced by machine.”

Both Simons fiddled with a small gadget on their wrists, and a strange hum began to fill the air.

”Thank you for your time”, said the checkout machines all together, ”thank you for your time.”

The ordinary street behind the glass of the shop window began to distort and bend, and a new world appeared as the building moved into the future…

“No!” said the Doctor. “NO!” She ran over to the plate glass and squashed her face right against it, looking out to a world where humanity no longer ruled.

It had been silly at first, the rise of the checkout machines. People had looked at them and laughed about how they’d do all the jobs one day, before forgetting about them and carrying on with their lives. But many of the creatures the Doctor had fought had been silly, until the moment that they’d started to kill. All that needed to happen was for people to not see the threat, and to keep not seeing it until it was just too late…

Two Simon Joneses cackled and laughed to each other.

The Doctor stared up at the dark and laser-red sky.

This adventure continues in THE THINGS THAT ARE HUMAN.

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