Hello to New Work, Goodbye to Old Work

Guys guys guys I have exciting news! My chapbook 16 Flavours of Ghost is going to be published by Lapwing Publications – a Belfast-based publisher that specialises in poetry. No idea when it’ll be available yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

16 Flavours of Ghost is made up of “character poems”. Each one is from the perspective of a different character, and while they’re pretty diverse in terms of background, occupation and identity, they one thing they have in common is that they’re all dead.

These ghosts are a spirited bunch (see what I did there?) who each deal with the afterlife in their own way. A busy woman develops a new relationship with time, a thief takes advantage of his invisibility, and an elderly man finally lets himself experiment with his appearance.

As thrilled as I am to be getting published by Lapwing, there’s a note of caution mixed in with the excitement. Last year, Dancing Girl Press published my chapbook Monster Hunting for Girls (Ages 8-14). I didn’t receive my author copies, and people who tried to buy it told me of ridiculously long waits and receiving copies with printing errors.

I hoped this was a temporary blip. It’s not easy running a small press, and rough patches happen, but other poets and purchasers have confirmed that the press just isn’t functioning adequately. I’ve taken the chapbook off my “Published Work” page and won’t be encouraging people to buy it anymore, because I don’t want readers wasting their money.

I’ve also had to take my novella The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg off the Published Work page, as it can no longer be accessed. The online magazine it was published in, The Fantasist, is now defunct and links to the stories no longer work. It’s a bummer to have one of my longer works disappear like that.

This is one of the issues writers encounter when publishing with small presses. Sadly, not all of these presses thrive. Still, large publishers and self-publishing have pitfalls of their own, and I’ve come to accept that there’s no easy way of getting your work out there.

Onwards and upwards my lovelies! I’m excited to see my new chapbook in print, and I’m keen to hear what’s going on in your writing journeys. Feel free to share any writing news – good or bad, big or small – in the comments.

The Picky Bookworm Indie Book Awards 2022

Voting is now open for The Picky Bookworm awards, and Other People’s Butterflies has been nominated in four different categories! The anthology Common Bonds, which contains one of my short stories, has also been nominated in one category.

If you’ve been reading and enjoying indie books over the past year, please consider voting – just click this link and it’ll take you through all the categories. Awards like this are great publicity for indie writers, and let’s be honest – winning stuff is fun. Here are the categories I’ve been nominated for…

Book you would most like to see as a movie (Other People’s Butterflies)  

If OPB were a movie, I suspect it would have a Mean Girls vibe, but with flashes of 1940s noir thrown in because of the “book within a book” subplot.

Book you would most like to see as a TV show (Common Bonds, Other People’s Butterflies)

As fun as an OPB TV show would be, I think Common Bonds would be better. It would be a speculative anthology show like Love, Death & Robots, with each episode taking place in a different world. Also, when have you ever seen an explicitly aromantic character on TV? This book has aro characters in every story, with a strong focus on platonic love.

Best “friends only” relationship (Other People’s Butterflies)

I’m not sure if the nomination refers to Gwen and Ethan, or Gwen, Martine and Angie. Either way, I’m very happy to be nominated in this category because friendship is at the core of OPB.

Best dynamic between family members (Other People’s Butterflies)

Once again, I’m not sure which family members this refers to. Gwen’s dad makes her laugh, her mum helps her deal with stress, and her brother literally picks her up off the floor at her lowest point. For any teenager dealing with high school drama and the stress of figuring out your identity, a supportive family is the best thing you can possibly have.

Some other awesome books that deserve a vote

Since there are a bazillion categories for The Picky Bookworm awards, I won’t bore you with who I’m voting for in every category. But I will share a smattering of books that, in my opinion, would be deserving winners.

Best fantasy – The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen

This adorable fairy tale is suitable for all ages and puts LGBTQIA characters at the heart of the story. A knight, a dragon and a baker’s wife team up to search for the missing baker, and many adventures are had along the way.

Best book based on mythology – Create My Own Perfection by E.H. Timms

Based on the Greek myth of Medusa, this story follows a groundskeeper at a magical college who helps her selkie best friend find her stolen skin. It cleverly uses a timeless story to address a timeless issue – sexual harassment – in a powerful and uplifting way.

Best queer couple – The Murder Next Door by Sarah Bell

Ada and Louisa are a chalk and cheese couple, living together as “companions” in 1912. Their different temperaments make for beautiful chemistry, occasional clashes, and a perfect combination of skills. And they’ll need all those skills if they’re going to solve the murder of their next door neighbour!

Best representation of disability – Streetlamps and Shepherd Moons by Katherine Highland

Diane Abercrombie is an autistic character written by an autistic writer, which is probably why the character never lapses into stereotypes or “inspiration porn”. Instead, she’s a complex, well-rounded protagonist, who’s still figuring out the best way to live her life.

Best paranormal character – The House with the Narrow Forks by Katherine Highland

One of the joys of Katherine Highland’s novels is that the supernatural elements are subtle enough to be oddly believable. Harriet, the spirit of an autistic girl who died young, haunts the living with purpose – protecting those who need it, bringing allies together and making life much more difficult for bullies.

Tips for Coping with Criticism as a Writer

Have you ever had a performance review at work? That awkward meeting when your boss evaluates whether or not you deserve to keep your job, what you could be doing better, etc?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have regular, unscheduled performance reviews, often from total strangers, on a variety of different platforms? Well, that’s basically what being a writer is. Our readers are the boss, and we rely on their feedback to improve our craft, make our books as good as possible, and, ultimately, to get paid.

Of course, some feedback will be encouraging and constructive. Other feedback will be … less so. If writers complain about harsh criticism of our work, we’re often told that we need to grow a thick skin. Which isn’t bad advice, but how, exactly, are we supposed to do that?

The fact is, a lot of writers are sensitive people. And when you pour your heart and soul into a book, harsh criticism of it can kinda feel like someone is pointing at your child and calling her ugly.

So I’ve been thinking about some ways of dealing with criticism, and I’ve come to realise that there are actually a number of different reactions to harsh critique. I think that recognising and understanding them could be helpful when dealing with them, so let’s start with…

The Defensive

“This beta reader has pointed out a whole load of flaws in my book. But she clearly hasn’t read chapter 3 properly – if she had, she wouldn’t be saying the ending needs foreshadowing. And she can’t be right about the pacing, I paid extra attention to that. Yeah, honestly I just don’t think she gets it.”

If your knee-jerk reaction is to scoff and dismiss criticism, try to do the following:

  • Pause. Let the words sink in. Try not to be afraid of them or how they’ll make you feel.

  • Listen to your gut, not your knees. Knee-jerk responses are rarely helpful, but gut feelings can be useful. If your gut feels confident that the criticism is one you can safely ignore (for example, the book simply not matching a reader’s preferences), then go ahead and dismiss it. But if your gut tells you the reader is making an important point, ignore that criticism at your peril!

  • How many people are saying the same thing? If one reader makes a criticism, this may be a matter of personal taste. If multiple readers say the same thing, it’s more likely that you have a problem to address.

The Defeatist

“My writers’ group just gave me some pretty some harsh criticism. I don’t know how I’m ever going to fix this manuscript. Maybe I should just start a new one. Or try a different genre. Or quit writing altogether.”

If you find yourself wanting to throw in the towel, try these first:

  • Remember positive feedback you’ve received. A bad review doesn’t make you a bad writer. Chances are, your writing has brightened many people’s days, and quitting would be a loss to those readers as well as future readers.

  • Read 1* reviews of classic literature. Pick a masterpiece like, say, Pride and Prejudice. Then go and read 1* reviews where readers complain that there’s no kissing and Mr Darcy is a snob. There’s no stronger evidence that perfectionism is pointless.

  • Read a flawed book that you love. Maybe the plot is thin but the characters are fantastic, or maybe the dialogue is a bit flat but the world-building is phenomenal. Remember that a lack of negative feedback is not the goal. Bringing readers joy is the goal.

The Drama Queen

“This reviewer really hates my book. But that’s okay, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. It’s not the end of the world.” (Said while looking up the reviewer’s address and buying lighter fluid and matches)

No judgment. But maybe try the following tips before making any rash decisions:

  • Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. Despite what many people say, it’s okay to be hurt by bad reviews. It doesn’t mean you’re over-sensitive, over-reacting, or over-anything else. That being said, lashing out at the person criticising your writing is always a bad idea. Yes, even if they’re talking out of their arse.

  • Use criticism as rocket fuel. So what if certain people think your writing sucks? You’re going to work hard, become a super-successful, widely-read, award-winning author and … well, they’ll probably still think you suck. But you’ll be super-successful and won’t give a shit anymore.

  • Remember – one person’s 1* review is another person’s 5* review. A lot of complaints: “too slow-paced”, “the main character was a bitch”, “too dark”, “too silly”, “too gay” are exactly what other readers are looking for!

I hope some of these tips are helpful. Feel free to add your own in the comments, and if you disagree with any of my points go ahead and tell me … I can take it.

My Published Work

Aside from being a talented, witty, and modest blogger, I am also a writer of fiction and poetry. Yep, this is a marketing post. To make it as painless as possible, I’ve made little mini guides to each of my works, with crucial info such as genre, length, and whether it’s free to read. I’ll start with my most recently published stuff and work backwards.

VOCSS

Genre: Horror

Length: Short story

What’s it about? Beverly chats with Tyler – a troubled teenage boy whose dad may or may not be a vampire.

Price: FREE

Where can I read it? HERE, in the February 2022 issue of Electric Spec

Read it if you like: Blurred lines between humans and monsters.Protagonists who are out of their depth but doing their best.

Don’t read it if you don’t like: Ambiguity. General creepiness.

Any content warnings? Domestic abuse, blood.

Monster Hunting for Girls (Ages 8-14)

Genre: Poetry

Length: Chapbook with 18 poems

What’s it about? The monsters under the beds of tweenage girls, and how those girls defeat, befriend, or learn to live with the monsters.

Price: $8 / £6.09

Where can I read it? You can buy it HERE, from the Dancing Girl Press website.

Read it if you like: Witches, zombies, obscure folklore, mythology.

Don’t read it if you don’t like: Acknowledging that young girls have inner lives that aren’t always adorable.

Any content warnings? Gory imagery

Other People’s Butterflies

Genre: YA Contemporary

Length: (Short) novel

What’s it about? 17-year-old Gwen f*cks up royally by kissing her best friend’s crush, then f*cks up even more by snooping on her classmates. Basically, she’s an aro-ace disaster figuring things out.

Price: $14.99/£11.07 for paperback, $4.99/£3.69 on Kindle (FREE with Kindle Unlimited)

Where can I read it? Get it HERE on Amazon.

Read it if you like: Harriet the Spy. Seriously, it owes a big debt of inspiration to that glorious book. Also, read it if you like ace rep, aro rep, complicated m/f friendships or 1940s spy novels.

Don’t read it if you don’t like: Protagonists who do bad things. Asexual characters having asexual thoughts (sometimes mistaken for sex-negativity).

Any content warnings? Sexual assault, animal death.

Spacegirl and the Martian

Genre: Superhero. I’m never sure if superheroes are sci-fi or fantasy or both – they seem like their own genre these days.

Length: Short story

What’s it about? A superhero and her nemesis wander drunkenly around London and come to realise why they can’t escape each other.

Price: $13.92/£11.35 for paperback, $7.90/£5.99 on Kindle. Pretty steep for a short story, except…

Where can I read it? In the anthology Common Bonds – a collection of 20 short stories and poems focussing on aromantic characters and platonic relationships. You can buy it HERE on Amazon.

Read it if you like: Read this anthology if you like diverse characters and exploration of queer identity in fantasy settings.

Don’t read it if you don’t like: Stories without kissing (It’s OK, I’m not judging!)

Any content warnings: The editors of this anthology gave my story the most content warnings by far – I’m so proud! They are *takes a deep breath*: Alcohol, animal abuse, roofie mention, PTSD mention, forced prostitution mention, abuse mention, thoughts of arson.

The Problem with Magic Shows

Genre: Poetry

Length: Single poem

What’s it about? Human connection, relationships, and Las Vegas magic acts.

Price: $10.39/£7.88

Where can I read it? You can buy it HERE on the Moment Poetry website.

Read it if you like: Poetry in unusual formats. This one comes in a sleeve like a vinyl record, with artwork by Martina Egedová.

Don’t read it if you don’t like: Pink

Any content warnings: I don’t think so.

Thanks for reading my lovelies, and remember – every time you support an indie author by buying/sharing/recommending their work, an angel gets its wings.

The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – 20th Century Reader

This year I am taking part in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022, hosted here. There are six different levels to aim for, and they are:

  • 20th Century Reader – 2 books
  • Victorian Reader – 5 books
  • Renaissance Reader – 10 books
  • Medieval – 15 books
  • Ancient History – 25 books
  • Prehistoric – 50+ books

Since historical fiction books are often chunky beasts, and since I don’t want to read only historical fiction this year, I’m going to aim for the Renaissance Reader level. I’ve now hit the 20th Century Reader level, and here are the books I read…

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

You know how I was saying historical fiction books are chunky? This one is 897 pages. It spans the years 997 to 1006, so it’s all Anglo Saxons, Normans and Vikings. It follows a boatbuilder, a noblewoman and a monk as their lives intertwine, and they contend with a Machiavellian bishop.

There’s a lot to like about this novel. It has a consistently engaging plot, full of twists, turns and intrigue. It doesn’t present a sanitised version of the past (slaves are pimped out, criminals are castrated) and there’s no silly straightwashing either (one of the main characters is gay and there are plenty of other queer characters).

Unfortunately, the depth of world-building and plot leaves the characters looking rather shallow, and I wanted more nuance from them. Also, I’m not entirely sold on Ken Follett’s style – too much exposition made me feel like I was getting a history lesson at times. I enjoyed reading this book, but it didn’t linger in my mind afterwards.

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

I can’t write anything sensible about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series because I love it too much. Instead, here are my five favourite things about this novel (mild SPOILERS):

  1. Jack Aubrey’s hat gets eaten by a wombat in chapter one. Stephen Maturin is more concerned with his wombat’s digestion than Jack’s hat. These books are so f*cking funny and I always forget that until I start reading one.
  2. There are a couple of actual, honest-to-God murders. In a series full of battles and bloodshed, these somehow manage to be shocking.
  3. Jack and Stephen call each other “brother” all the time, which I guess is just the 19th century equivalent of “bro”, but it hits those found-family feels all the same.
  4. Stephen’s relationship with Diana Villiers is … rekindled? No, not exactly. Interesting stuff happens.
  5. The battles. OMG, the battles.

I need three more hist fic books to reach the Victorian Reader level, and any recommendations will be gratefully received. Is anyone else doing the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge?

My Short Story ‘VOCSS’ and Finally Embracing the Horror Genre

My short story VOCSS (Yes, I know it’s a shit title. It’s an acronym.) is now published in Electric Spec and you can read it here. I’m not sure if horror stories are supposed to have trigger warnings, but I know a lot of people struggle with themes of domestic violence. If you’re one of these people, take care with this story.

I won’t say too much about the plot, but I will say that Tyler is a troubled and complicated kid, his dad is a bad bastard (and possibly a vampire) and Beverly is out of her depth!

I’ve been pussyfooting around the horror genre for years. Way back in 2015, I joined a writers’ group and wanted to make a good first impression. So of course I introduced myself by reading one of my creepy poems, full of gruesome imagery. Another member of the group asked if I ever wrote horror, and I was rather taken aback. A creepy poem was one thing, but horror? I’d never even watched a single Saw movie!

In retrospect, I had a pretty narrow idea of what horror is, and I suspect this is true of many readers. Seven years and an anxiety disorder later, and I’m ready to write about fear. I want to explore where it comes from and how it affects us, and of course I want to write about ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. VOCSS is my first attempt – I hope it scares you a little!

Goons – Chapter 21

Afterwards

We bury her in the Severn Estuary, under a starless sky. It’s not a fancy funeral, or even a funeral at all, really. I wear black, but I always wear black when I’m working. Bossman does most of the digging, and even in the darkness I can see sweat running down his face and soaking through his shirt. Em doesn’t dig at all, since her wound is still healing.

Patty’s remains are a liquid slop, contained in a thick plastic bag and tied with a cable tie. I pick her up and drop her in the hole. Bossman shovels mud over her, grim-faced and silent. He seems different, which makes sense, I suppose. To create something, and then have that something try to kill you because it thinks you’re a danger to the world, must be difficult to deal with. When Patty is all covered up, Bossman leans on his spade, breathing heavily, and says, “I’ve been re-evaluating things.”

#

Airports stress me out. Maybe that explains the tight, bunched-up feeling in my stomach, like I’m a dad sending his kid off to university. The kid in question is 30, and failing at taking over the world, so I should probably be glad to be rid of him. In ten hours, he will be America’s problem.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea, having the meeting scheduled for tomorrow?” says Em. “You’ll be jetlagged.”

“Nah, I’ll be fine. And these guys are pretty serious about the wound filler with the time release antimicrobial. They want it for the military, so…” he rubs his thumb and fingertips together, meaning there is money to be made.

This is Bossman’s idea of a sabbatical. He has put his plans for world domination on ice, and is experimenting with the radical idea of letting other people use his inventions. He looks up at me and says “Remember to shred all the files. Like, literally everything. We need a fresh start when I get back.”

I nod. “Remember to eat properly. Three meals a day.”

“Yeah, I know.”

There is an awkward pause, and then a slightly less awkward hug. Em joins in, and Bossman disappears for a moment between us.

On the way back from the airport, I drop Em off at Gillian’s house. She says, “See you soon” and I say it back, and we both know that we will be seeing each other in a purely social capacity from now on. By the time Bossman gets back from the States, Em will have retired to the countryside and be properly settled, with horses and dogs and roses round the door. It’s a nice image.

I go back to Bossman’s place and let myself in. At first it feels strange to be the only one there, rattling around like a divorced empty nester. I go to the office and sit at Bossman’s desk, spinning around a few times in his chair. Then I find a classic rock playlist on my phone, and start the process of tidying up.

The crazy wall is the obvious place to start. I tear down Bossman’s plans and scatter them on the floor. Then I fetch the shredder from a cupboard and start shredding, piece by piece. File by file. It’s a nostalgic process.

At some point, the insistent whine of the shredder falls silent, because I have stopped shredding and started reading. I’m pleased with how much of this stuff I understand. I’m tickled at how ridiculous it all is. I laugh, and the laughter comes out sounding like a Bond villain.

Something dirty-pink and slow-moving creeps around the edge of the doorframe. Igor.

“Still here, mate?” I say. Igor, obviously, does not respond. “Yeah, me too. Come and keep me company.”

I sit on the floor, with Igor on my lap, stroking him like a cat. I read files without shredding them. At 2am, I am still reading.

***

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed Goons, check out the ‘Published Work’ section of my blog. It has everything from urban fantasy to YA contemporary, because I can’t commit to a genre.

Goons – Chapter 20

22 years until (failed) takeover

Dad read a lot of history books. Military history, and some stuff about ships. I remember him reading a biography of Napoleon, stretched out on the settee with his legs dangling clumsily over the arm. It might have been the year I got taller than him.

“You ought to read this,” he said, without looking up from the page. “Help you with your History GCSE.”

“We’re not doing Napoleon.”

“More’s the pity. Interesting bloke.”

“He was the short one, right?”

Dad finally looked up, and gave me a withering glare. “The short one? Almost done with school and all you know about Napoleon is that he was a short arse? And he was only slightly shorter than average for the time, anyway.”

“I just said we don’t study him.”

“You ought to. He basically ruled Europe. Won a bunch of wars, abolished feudalism, totally reshaped the world.

“Sounds exhausting.”

Dad blew air out through his nose, to show he disapproved of my lack of enthusiasm. But when he turned back to the book, he shook his head a little and said, “Hmph. All things considered, I think I’d rather go fishing.”

“You’d rather go fishing than rule the world?”

“Yep.”

Goons – Chapter 19

Still takeover day

Underneath many, many layers of craziness, Bossman is essentially a biologist. He can look at a person and see them as a collection of blood vessels, bones and organs, arranged together in a way that works smoothly and seamlessly. If things aren’t working smoothly and seamlessly, he can understand the flaws in the system, easy as breathing. I really fucking hope he is looking at Em in this way. I have a horrible feeling he is looking at her as an actual person.

While he tends to her wound, I get up and go to the wall with the CCTV screens. I’m half-expecting to see all of Bossman’s creations crowded outside the panic room door, like a gang of rooks in a field. Instead, there is just one. An S-type bot, standing sentry. I scan the screens, looking for Patty.

A flicker of movement in the laboratory. Patty is carrying something – a large, brown glass bottle. I can’t see the writing on the label, but I can see the blue logo for Spectrum Chemicals. There is only one chemical we get from Spectrum: Potassium cyanide.

I watch, baffled, as she puts the bottle down next to the wall. Then she waddles towards the cabinet where we keep the acids. It takes me way too long to notice that the bottle of potassium cyanide is right next to the air vent grille. It takes me even longer to notice the screwdriver. I waste precious moments figuring it all out with my stupidly average brain. Whatever chemicals she is collecting, she is going to unscrew the air vent grille and take them inside the walls. I turn to Bossman, who is still tending to Em’s wound. He doesn’t look up when I speak.

“What happens when you mix potassium cyanide with acid?”

“Sulphuric acid?”

“I don’t know. Any acid.”

“Potassium cyanide and sulphuric acid react to produce hydrogen cyanide. It’s the shit they use in gas chambers.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, we have to get out, we have to get out of here!”

Bossman finally looks at me. His face is as pale as I’ve ever seen it. His latex gloves are covered in gore.

“What? Why? We can’t move her.” He gestures frantically at Em. “I’m still treating the wound, I have to-”

“It’s Patty. She’s going to bring those chemicals into the vents and she’s going to turn this room into a fucking gas chamber!” I point at the air inlet on the ceiling, imagining curls of toxic smoke flowing out of it.

“Fuck. I should… I should talk to her. It. It’s me she wants to kill.”

He rises up onto his knees and a roll of bandages falls off his lap and rolls across the floor.

“Sit your arse down,” I say, surprising myself. I have never spoken to Bossman this way. Em has, occasionally. “You are not leaving her side, you hear me? You treat the wound. You keep her safe. I’ll deal with Patty.”

Bossman says nothing and nods, once. He looks very young. I turn to leave, moving quickly.

Outside the panic room, the S-type bot is waiting for me. I have no time for a fight so I just charge at it, knocking it down by virtue of being bigger and more afraid than it is. I step on its torso as I struggle to my feet and it grabs at my ankle, but I wrench myself free and stamp down on its head as hard as I can. There is a wet, crunching sound, like a mouthful of teeth being broken all at once. I sprint towards the lab.     

As I’m running, I feel woefully unprepared for the task of convincing a xenobot not to poison my boss and my best friend. Bossman figures out how to do things, and I do as he says – that’s the way it works. This is so far beyond my capabilities, I feel like laughing and crying.

I find Patty in front of the air vent grille, industriously unscrewing the bolts that keep it in place, and feel a bit calmer. Regardless of what is going on with Patty, she is small and soft.

“Patty,” I begin, but am interrupted by the grille falling to the floor with a clang. Patty dodges it, and turns her blank, pinkish-green form towards me.

“YES?”

“Patty, come away from the vent.”

“NO.”

“I know what you’re trying to do, and it’s not going to happen. You’re not killing the boss.”

“I MUST.”

“Why?”

The word slips out before I can stop it. The last thing I need is to get into a debate.

“HE WANTS

TO RULE THE WORLD”

Lead the world, not-”

“AND HE IS UNFIT

TO DO SO.

I SUSPECT

ANY HUMAN WOULD BE

BUT HE IS A

PARTICULARLY

BAD CHOICE.”

I think of all the times Patty has been there when Bossman was at his worst. Throwing a temper tantrum, talking down to me or Em, wanting to bulldoze any minor inconvenience whether it’s a person or a law of physics.

“You’re right.” Patty curls an upper limb around the bottle of sulphuric acid. “But you don’t have to kill him, I’ll … I’ll stop him.”

“HOW?”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“THAT WON’T WORK.”

“Then I’ll stop him some other way. Fucksake, I’m twice the size of him. I’ll lock him in an attic or something.”

“YOU WON’T.”

“I will.”

Patty curls another limb around the bottle of potassium cyanide. “YOU WON’T.”

I don’t know what else to say. Fear, frustration, the mental image of Em’s bullet wound – it is all dulling my brain, which wasn’t that sharp to begin with.

“I will fucking stop him,” I insist. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“BECAUSE HE

IS YOUR”

“He’s not my boss anymore, I fucking quit.”

“FAMILY.”

With that, Patty slides up into the air vent, quick as a weasel, taking the sulphuric acid and the potassium cyanide with her. I shove an arm into the vent but she is already out of reach. I press myself up against the wall, and when I am in up to my shoulder I manage to grab a squishy handful. She is something between dough and jelly, slipping through my fingers. But if I lose her, Em and Bossman are dead, so this is not an option. I dig my fingertips in and tug. After a moment’s stalemate, there is a sticky sound like a plaster being peeled off skin, and everything comes tumbling down the air vent.

The bottle of sulphuric acid smashes on its way out. A splash of acid hits my cheek and burns. The vapour hits my nose like a punch. I cry out, but the cry is cut short because Patty is on my face.

She has flattened her body against me like a sheet of putty, and this is so unexpected that it takes me a moment to realise she is trying to kill me. She is trying to save the world from Bossman, and I work for Bossman, and this means I have to die.

I feel her wrapping around the back of my head. I feel her blocking my nostrils. I feel how little air there is in my lungs.

Maybe it’s no more than ten seconds that I spend staggering around, blind and breathless and desperately trying to tear Patty away, but it feels like longer. Definitely long enough to regret every single one of my life choices.

But then my mouth is free and I take in a breath big enough to burst my lungs. I pull Patty away from my acid-burned face and fling her across the lab. She lands in the autoclave chamber and the metal echoes as she hits it, rumbling like a thunderstorm. It is suddenly very obvious what needs to be done.

I am at the autoclave in two strides. I wrench the bolt from the door and let it slam down, the way it slammed down onto my fingers two years ago. I punch the big, green button and hear it spring into action, heating up and sucking the air out. There is one muffled thud – Patty hurling herself against the door – and then nothing.

My legs buckle. My acid-splashed face still burns. Em is still in mortal danger. I think I just destroyed a very small, very young thing that was only trying to save the world.

Goons – Chapter 18

Little bit of gore in this chapter.

***

Takeover day

For most of the bots, this will be their first time outside. Getting them neatly lined up and ready to go ought to run as smooth as clockwork, but it feels more like organising a family of twenty children, or a school trip. Perhaps this is just due to Bossman, who is highly stressed – fingers tapping away on his thigh – and keeps shouting things like “Where the fuck is S-17?” and “You, you’re supposed to be over there! Go stand between S-2 and S-4.” Em is still quiet, and there are shadows around her eyes as if she didn’t sleep last night.

Bossman turns to me and says “Seriously, where’s S-17? We have to go now, we can’t fuck about here.”

“Just breathe,” I say, even though he hates being told to breathe. He would probably stop breathing out of spite if it were physically possible. “We’re on schedule. Look, here he is.”

S-17, aka Bill, finally makes an appearance, stalking towards us with that gentle, hissing noise that his joints make when his limbs are in motion. Patty, for some reason, has hitched a ride on his shoulder, and the contrast between the two bots is almost comical – a rounded, squishy thing on a sleek, black robot. Like a toddler on a squaddie’s shoulders.  

“Get down from there,” Bossman snaps at Patty.

Dark brown words appear on her body in response.

“I’M SORRY

BUT I NEED

TO STOP YOU.”

I don’t understand what Patty does next. I hadn’t noticed her watching Bossman, listening to his plans for the world, counting his inadequacies and coming to her own conclusions. I didn’t know she was capable of any of that. So when Bill raises his hand, I think he is malfunctioning rather than being controlled by Patty.

I also don’t understand what Em does next. I knew she’d been a bodyguard, before working for Bossman. I knew she’d provided much-needed protection for everyone from MPs to foreign diplomats to some radical feminist who wrote a book that annoyed everyone. But I didn’t understand the intensity of her training, or how certain things were hardwired into her nerves and muscles. So when the barrel emerges from Bill’s hand and the bullet shoots quietly from the barrel, I am not expecting her to intercept it.

Her body jerks, arms wide like a dancer, or someone wanting a hug. The primitive part of my brain, which has always been the most reliable part, snaps into action before she hits the floor. I dart sideways at Bill, tackling him to the ground. Patty falls from his shoulder and tumbles across the floor, rolling like a football until she hits a wall. I pin Bill beneath me, holding his outstretched arm and checking that his hand – with the gun still engaged – can’t shoot anything but the ceiling.

“Em!” Behind me, Bossman’s voice sounds ragged with fear. “Em, can you hear me?”

Bill’s body lurches under me and I flatten myself against him, pressing my weight down desperately. A quick glance to my left shows Patty, climbing the wall she just hit with more speed than I knew she had.

“She’s hurt, Jay, she’s hurt badly. Oh Jesus.”

“Get her out of here.”

Still holding Bill’s arm with my right hand, I bring my left up to the join between his head and torso. I look down into his smooth, plastic, eyeless face.

“Be still,” I tell him, voice as clear as I can make it. It makes no difference.

His free arm strikes me in the side, catching my ribs and sending me sprawling. There is a mad scramble, and by the time Bossman yells “The front door won’t open! We’re locked down, we’re trapped!” I can’t answer because one of Bill’s hands is covering the lower half of my face while the other aims blows at my liver.

“I’m taking her to the panic room,” Bossman calls. I bring my arm up sharply and twist my hips, freeing myself from Bill’s grasp but catching a blow squarely in the back during the process. I catch a glimpse of Bossman, with Em’s arm around his skinny shoulders as she limps towards the panic room. There’s no visible blood – Em’s suit jacket is too dark to show it clearly – but she looks broken.

By the time I am on top of Bill and have control of his arms, anger is blazing inside me, burning away any lingering haze of shock and fear. I pull Bill’s shoulders up towards me then slam them down so that his sturdy plastic head bounces against the floor. This is the part where the organic processor (Brain. Sort of.) is, and the part I need to destroy.

I am not angry at him. Patty has clearly re-programmed him to attack us.

I slam his head against the floor again, and this time there is a cracking noise.

I am, surprisingly, not angry at Patty. Why wouldn’t she try to kill Bossman? Doubtless there are plenty of people who want to kill him, and it’s only human laws and morals and feelings stopping them.

Another collision of head and floor. A shard of black plastic comes loose.

This is all Bossman’s fault. His stupid fucking plans and his ridiculous creations have all lead to my best friend being shot, perhaps fatally. If he refers to this as “collateral damage” I will murder him.

I picture Bossman’s face in Bill’s featureless head, and slam it against the floor with all the strength I have. It smashes like an egg, and a dark fluid leaks out. Flakes of grey-brown matter swim in the liquid. Brains and oil.

When I am certain that Bill is now completely harmless, I stand up and turn a slow circle, looking for Patty. I can’t see her anywhere, and I can’t look for her effectively with the mental image of Em – her tall, strong body hunched over like an old woman’s – being dragged towards the panic room.

When I pound on the door, it takes far too long for Bossman to let me in. When he finally opens the door I push past him, almost knocking him over. Em is lying on the floor. Her jacket has been discarded and her shirt opened. There is a wound, the size and colour of a rose, in her abdomen. Blood oozes from it, pooling in her naval, dripping onto the floor. My own blood sinks into my feet and I go dizzy, dropping to my knees beside her.

“It’s the exit wound,” says Bossman, kneeling down beside me. “The bullet went straight through.

Em’s face is bone-white, and her eyes are wide. When she speaks, she sounds like someone trapped in a snowstorm. The words come shivering between teeth that clack together on every other word.

“You b-better give me a really f-f-fucking expensive f-funeral. Like … Alexander the Great’s b-b-boyfriend kind of expensive.”

“You’re not dying,” Bossman says, in a tone that suggests he will sack her if she disobeys him. He scrambles away from Em’s side, and I take her hand. It is clammy, and her fingers don’t curl around mine, even a little. Bossman returns, and kneels the other side of Em’s body, with a green box that I vaguely register as a first aid kit. I don’t notice what he is doing, because I am watching Em fade out of consciousness. I say her name, again and again, like a mantra. Like an idiot. She can’t hear me.

Bossman pulls on a pair of latex gloves, then takes something out of the first aid kit that looks like a cross between a syringe and a tube of sealant. He opens a pack of alcohol wipes and cleans the worst of the blood from Em’s belly. More of it wells up to replace the blood that he wipes away, but he works quickly. Then he presses the tip of the syringe/sealant tube thing into Em’s wound, and a bunch of cream-coloured paste comes out.

“What’s that?” I ask, alarmed.

“Don’t worry, it’s sterile.”

“But what is it?”

“A non-adherent wound filler with a time-release antimicrobial. My own formulation.”

I have no fucking clue what that means. I try to check Em’s pulse, but my fingertips are clumsy and slick with sweat. “If she dies, I’ll kill you,” I say, and I’m pretty sure I mean it. My voice sounds weirdly calm.

“Shut up and let me concentrate,” says Bossman. He sounds like he is on the verge of tears. I shut up and let him concentrate, because what choice do I have?