The Cost of Living

by vegetables [Reviews - 0]

Printer Chapter or Story
  • All Ages
  • None
  • Alternate Universe, Drama, General, Horror, Hurt/Comfort, Introspection, Mixed, Series

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.