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.


“Patty, come away from the vent.”


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



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



Lead the world, not-”








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.”


“I’ll talk to him.”


“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.”


“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?”



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


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 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?

Goons – Chapter 17

1 day until takeover

Tomorrow is the big day. We will drive to BBC studios, along with several of the S-type bots, and we will do whatever we need to do to ensure Bossman is able to interrupt Countryfile and say his piece to the nation. The bots are in perfect condition. We have investigated BBC studios security and rehearsed various different scenarios. Bossman has practiced his speech a hundred times. We are as ready as we’ll ever be.

The three of us go out to dinner, which is something we’ve never done before. It’s a cosy, nondescript restaurant with good food, and all around us people are enjoying date night or catching up with friends. There is a mildly rowdy birthday party at a large table in the corner. Me, Em and Bossman are just another small celebration.

Bossman, despite having an IQ of 224, can’t quite wrap his mind around spaghetti, and gets a substantial amount of bolognaise sauce on his tee-shirt. I choose lasagne with a side of garlic bread, because I feel like I ought to be carb loading. Em eats steak and chips, and she eats it like a wolf.  

When we’re done eating, Bossman raises his glass and says “I just wanted to say thank you to you both.” He looks lost for a moment, and then adds “Thank you.”

“Wow. I hope tomorrow’s speech is more impressive than that,” I say, and Bossman grimaces.

“I’m not good at this stuff.” This is the first time I have ever heard him admit to not being good at something. “But I appreciate you both very much, seriously.”

I don’t know how to respond to this, so I raise my glass and say “Cheers.”

Bossman clinks his glass against mine, smiling and maybe looking a bit pink in the face. Then I touch glasses with Em, who doesn’t look at me.

“Em, if you don’t make eye contact you get seven years of bad sex!”

“I doubt it,” she says, and drinks deeply.

She has been quiet all evening, eyes focussed mainly on her plate. I thought she was just hungry, but now I’m beginning to suspect something is wrong. For the first time in ages, I remember that conversation we had shortly after I started working for Bossman, about how she thinks the TV broadcast is when everything will go tits up. About how she doesn’t plan on being around to watch it go tits-up. It’s the night before, and she is still here. If she hasn’t changed her mind, she is running out of time.


Sleep doesn’t come easily. I keep thinking about a conversation I had with my dad, not long before he died. It was after he sold the farm, and I visited him in his poky little flat and we drank beer and ate mini scotch eggs. David Bowie had died, and Dad couldn’t understand why everyone was making such a fuss about this.

“If I hear the word influential one more time,” he said, popping a scotch egg in his mouth and leaving me to wonder what exactly would happen if he heard the word influential one more time.

“But he was, though, wasn’t he? The whole glam rock thing, and androgynous fashion, and all sorts.”

“Pop songs and haircuts. Don’t get me wrong, I like some of his stuff. Starman, Space Oddity. But he didn’t change the world, he wasn’t bloody … Napoleon.”

Goons – Chapter 16

19 days until takeover

It’s late, and Bristol is lit up in the darkness. I look out of the window and see people milling around, far below me. I see colourful dresses and colourful hair, muted in the darkness. I see a bloke dressed as a baby – nappy, bib, bonnet, the works – who is possibly part of a stag do or possibly just living his best life. The windows are sealed in the lab, but I imagine the smell of Caribbean cooking wafting up into the night. 

I wonder what the city will look like, after Bossman addresses the nation. Knowing Bristol as I do, it’s hard to imagine it being any different. But knowing Bossman as I do, it’s hard to imagine it being the same.

“Fucking piece of junk.” Bossman pounds his fist on the control panel of the autoclave. He’s been tense all day, and has drunk four cans of Relentless.

“Is the door stuck again?” I ask, keeping my voice calm and even.

His response to this question is to pick up a large spanner from the bench, and attack the autoclave with it. The clang of metal on metal reverberates throughout the lab. The autoclave cost a quarter of a million pounds, and it is only a matter of time before Bossman fucks up the control panel beyond repair. I turn to look at Em, who is gloved up to the armpits, feeding Patty in the isolator. She shrugs, and I sigh.

Carefully dodging the spanner, I grab Bossman’s arm and intercept his attack on the autoclave. He’s not happy with this and I have to restrain him. I manage to get an arm around him, but he thrashes about like a landed fish, if a fish were made entirely of knees and elbows and was holding a spanner.

At this point – with Bossman properly restrained, but turning the air blue and still refusing to drop the spanner – I have a moment of what can only be described as profound job satisfaction. Nobody can do this job like I can. Other people would let him go to town on a very expensive autoclave, or get whacked with the spanner while trying to grab it, or hurt him, or hurt themselves. Whatever the hell this is, I’m good at it.

I feel very calm. Secure in the knowledge that I am earning my front row seat. I am earning my place in the history books.  

Goons – Chapter 15

Three years and nine months until takeover

“So…” Em took a swig of her cider, and gave me a searching kind of look. “How’s it going, so far?”

It was our first time meeting up outside work since I started the job. Em looked different in jeans and trainers. Softer, maybe, but only a little bit. We sat in a booth, with enough privacy and enough background noise to talk openly, albeit quietly.

“Okay, I think.”

Everything I’d seen and heard and done in the past month hung in the air between us. I drank half my pint of Carling in one go, then put down the glass and said “So Bossman literally wants to take over the world.”

“That’s right.”

“That’s mad.”


I shook my head in bemusement. “D’you think it’ll actually work?”

“No. There’s never been a king of the world, even when the world was only a few cavemen. And now it’s billions of people.”

“Some people have come close though, like ruled huge empires.”

She shrugged, as if she were not overly concerned by these people. I was beginning to realise that she rarely wasted words.

“What do you think is gonna happen then? Will he get bored, and like … decide to do something else? Or will it all go tits up?”

“Definitely tits up.”


Em muttered “Hell’s teeth,” which she had done on two previous occasions when I asked too many questions. She seemed to give this one some serious thought, though. Her forehead furrowed like a ploughed field. “TV broadcast,” she said. “It could go tits up at any point, but if I were a betting woman, I’d put my money on the TV broadcast. Y’know, when he’s going to interrupt the news and address the nation and all that.”

“You don’t think it’ll work?”

“He’ll get past security. He’ll get his fifteen minutes of fame. But he’ll end up in a secure psychiatric unit.”

“And what about us? Where are we gonna end up?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna end up buying a nice bit of land in the middle of nowhere and keeping horses.”

So Em wasn’t in it for the long haul. She had an escape plan. Before I could ask her for any details, she said “What would you change, if you ruled the world?”

“I dunno. I s’pose I’d just make everything bigger.”

When I went to bed that night, I gave the question some more thought but couldn’t decide on anything else to change. I didn’t really understand economics or politics, and the environment seemed fucked whichever way I looked at it. So the only thing I was sure of was that I would make everything more suited to people my size. Door frames would be higher. Cars would be roomier. I would re-shape the world to fit me.

I began to wonder if this was basically what Bossman was trying to do. His brain worked differently to most people’s brains, that much was obvious. Maybe he was trying to change the world so it would finally make sense to him. Not such a weird thing to do, really. Probably lots of people try to do exactly that, and it was only Bossman’s past – some odd combination of privilege and power and bone-deep loneliness – that made him think the most obvious way to change the world was to rule it.

Goons – Chapter 14

67 days until takeover

Em and Bossman are arguing. This is something they do a lot. Bossman is always eager to start an argument with Em because sometimes she’s less careful than I am. She does crazy stuff like saying things without fact-checking them, or expressing opinions. And Bossman, who has an entire Wikipedia inside his head, loves nothing more than explaining to people how and why they are incorrect. Not that Em is exactly a victim here. She’s a stubborn old goat, who knows that Bossman will abandon an argument in frustration if she sticks doggedly to her point and finds ways of making his points seem irrelevant or trivial. It’s fun to watch.

This one is not the most ridiculous argument they’ve ever had, but it’s probably in the top five. They are furiously debating whether two blokes from ancient Greece (Alexander the Great and some guy whose name I can’t pronounce) were bumming each other.

“I’m so sick of men straightwashing history, just because they like to think that everyone who’s ever done anything important must’ve been a straight white male,” Em spits. “Alexander the Great was bi as hell, and Hephaestion was clearly his boyfriend.”

“You’re complaining about people altering history when you’re doing that yourself! You’re shoehorning someone who lived thousands of years ago into a twenty-first century idea of sexual orientation.”

“It’s not shoehorning to call someone who was attracted to men and women bisexual.”

“You have no evidence he was attracted to Hephaestion.”

“He gave the guy a funeral that cost the equivalent of 240 million dollars.” Em is grinning triumphantly now, because she’s invaded Bossman’s territory – the territory of obscure historical facts. “That’s something you do for the love of your life, not just some guy you work with.”

Bossman pinches the bridge of his nose in exasperation.

“I know you lot want to turn all of human endeavour into a Harlequin romance-”

“Oi, less of the you lot.”

“I don’t mean lesbians, I mean women,” he snaps, as if that’s any better. “But men are capable of doing great things for people they have no desire to fuck. Maybe women are different, but men have sacrificed their lives for each other and thrown very expensive funerals out of respect, loyalty, and brotherhood.”

He glances at me, as if he’s expecting back-up. This is not exactly what comes out of my mouth.

“Would you throw me a 240 million dollar funeral?”

Em smirks. Bossman scowls.

“What? I’m on your side, I reckon it could’ve been platonic. I’m just asking, would you throw me a 240 million dollar funeral if I died?”

You are no Hephaestion,” says Bossman, and storms off.

Goons – Chapter 13

Three years and ten months until takeover

I first met Bossman at a club. Outside, not inside. I can’t picture him inside a club, and the idea of him dancing is just bizarre. There was a place called Crush, where I worked as a bouncer for a while. I stood at the door and checked ID and dealt with occasional troublemakers, until real trouble arrived.

It was a Wednesday night, and Crush was medium-busy when I first saw him, standing a few metres away from the entrance and staring openly at me. I didn’t mind. Anyone my height is accustomed to being stared at.

He walked towards me and stood off to the side of the entrance, and he never once stopped staring.

“How tall are you?”

“Six nine. How much do you weigh?”

He grinned at that. “Six nine, huh? Same as Ed Kemper.”

“Who’s he?”

“Serial killer. Murdered ten people. He targeted female hitchhikers and did a lot of decapitating, dismembering, that sorta thing.”

The guy had an American accent and definite psycho vibes. I was starting to feel nervous about letting him into the club. I didn’t fancy seeing any of the regulars on the evening news, having been murdered and mutilated. It was a moot point, though, because he still seemed uninterested in the club and more interested in me.

“D’you have any martial arts training?”


“What, exactly?”

He frowned, and sounded impatient, like I was wasting his time instead of it being the other way around.

“Look, if you wanna make small talk come back after my shift’s over and we’ll spend some quality time together.”

“Oh my God, I wasn’t hitting on you!”

“Well, I’m working here so make your mind up. Either show me some ID and get inside, or bugger off.”

Weirdly, he did bugger off. Gave me one last look, up and down, then turned around and marched off into the night.

The following night, there was an Incident. I caught a guy with a can of spray paint, drawing a large, circumcised cock on the side wall of the building.

“Aren’t you a bit old to be drawing dicks on walls?” I said, and he froze.

He backed away from the wall, drawing himself up to his full height. He was a pretty big bloke, maybe 6’ 3” or 6’ 4”. Probably accustomed to being the biggest guy in the room. The stubble on his chin and neck was exactly the same length as the stubble on his head.

“You’re only as old as you feel,” he said, in a perfectly friendly tone. He dropped the can of spray paint to the ground and kicked it behind him. As it rolled away, I recognised the look of someone seeking a fight and felt my own muscles tensing in response.

“Come on, clear off. No need to make this diff-”

He obviously intended to make things difficult, because he swung at me. I dodged, but not completely, and his fist got my shoulder instead of my chin. I managed to block a second blow, aimed at my stomach, and grabbed his arm. I pulled him towards me and hit him with an upper cut that was, honestly, pretty weak. He shook it off easily enough, wrenching his arm free before I could twist it behind his back.

He took a couple of steps backwards, and I thought maybe that was it. But instead of retreating, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a flick knife. Everything changed. Before, I was dealing with a troublemaker at work and had to figure out how to get rid of him without either of us ending up in hospital. Now, it was a matter of survival and things were simpler. I was almost relieved.

When he came at me, I kicked him before the knife could get anywhere near me.  Booted him right in the chest, knocking the breath out of his lungs and the knife out of his hand. He took one more swing at me, but his heart wasn’t in it and I managed to use his momentum to spin him around and shove him decisively away. He stumbled, landing superhero style on the ground – one foot, one knee, one hand. I had a choice between kicking the knife behind me so he couldn’t get to it, and kicking him in the head. It was touch or go for a moment, but I chose the former. The man recognised a lost cause when he saw one, and made a run for it.

I picked up the knife, then felt like an idiot for picking it up. I’d have to hand it in to the police and now my prints would be all over it. I pictured the knife, held in the man’s fist, and realised he’d been wearing gloves.  


A week later, the doorbell rang and I opened the door to a tall woman in a black suit. I looked for clues that might explain why she was outside my door, but there was no lanyard announcing which charity she was raising money for; no colourful rosette suggesting she was there on behalf of a local MP; no pamphlets to educate me on religion.

“Morning,” she said. Then, without preamble, “I’m here to talk to you about a job opportunity.”

“Oh…kay. I already have a job.”

“Yes, you work as a doorman.”

I went from thinking she was dodgy in a pyramid scheme sort of way, to thinking she was dodgy in a much more unusual way. And I was intrigued. Still, it seemed like a bad idea to let her know that.

“That’s not really any of your business.”

“You can tell me to piss off if you want, but my boss is interested in paying you a shitload of money to do some pretty basic stuff.”

“How much is a shitload?”

“I’m not gonna talk money here in a doorway. You want to invite me in, or what?”

I invited her in. I didn’t believe I was about to receive a shitload of money, but I accepted that this shitload of money probably existed somewhere, and I wanted to find out more about it.

The woman sat down on my settee, swinging a leather satchel off her shoulder and dumping it beside her. I asked her if she wanted a cuppa and she said “Please!” in a charmingly desperate voice, so I went into the kitchen and made tea. While the kettle boiled, I attempted to process the limited information I had about the stranger in my living room. My first consideration was, inevitably, whether or not she was fit. I came to the conclusion that she was, but in that frustrating, probably-a-lesbian way. I also tried to place her accent, which definitely wasn’t local. I couldn’t pin it down to anywhere more specific than “Midlands”.

After I’d handed her a mug of tea and sat opposite her in my slightly battered armchair, she finally told me her name.

“What’s Em short for?” I asked.


“Wow. You don’t look like an Emmylou.”

“I know. Sounds like a seven-year-old with ringlets. That’s why I chucked most of the letters.”

“I’m Jay.”

“I know.”

I took a swig of my tea, trying not to look rattled. Whatever else she knew, I was going to act like it didn’t matter. Like every detail of my life was common knowledge. If this was about to turn into a blackmail situation, I had to come across as unblackmailable. “So what else do you know?”

“All sorts. I know that both your parents are dead, you have no siblings and no other family to speak of. I know which gym you go to and how much you can deadlift. I know your employment history. By the way, what’s it like working in a slaughterhouse?”

“Grim. I take it you already know I grew up on a farm?”

“You take it correctly.”

“I thought it wouldn’t be much different to farm work, but it is.”

She nodded, and put her mug of tea on the floor (I didn’t own a coffee table). Then she reached into her bag and pulled out a plastic wallet, from which she extracted a sheet of paper.

“The boss wants me to ask you about a gap in employment,” she said, running her finger down the paper. “What were you up to between November 2007 and September 2008?”

If I’d managed not to look rattled thus far, I probably failed at this point. Em gave me a reassuring smile and added, “It’s alright. I’m guessing things went off the rails after your mum died.”

“Mm. Dad was in debt. I didn’t have a lot of options.”

“Everyone has to eat. And you probably have to eat quite a lot, right? So you did whatever would bring in some money.”

I got the impression she knew more than she was letting on about November 2007-September 2008. I said nothing, wondering if she would drop the subject. She picked up her mug of tea, took a sip, and asked “Did you ever hurt people for money?” as casually as if she were asking if I had any biscuits.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“Mm. I s’pose you didn’t have to use your fists much. Just intimidate people, right?”

“Been doing that all my life. Doesn’t matter much if you’re doing it for a nightclub owner or a drug dealer or whoever, the way I see it.”

“Fair enough. So, let me give you the job description.” She took another sheet of paper out of the plastic wallet and handed it to me. “The role’s a bit of security, a bit of helping out in the lab, a bit of everything really.”

“Is that what you do?”


“D’you like it?”

She frowned, obviously not prepared for the question. She stared at me for a moment, like she was figuring out whether or not she could trust me. I thought it ought to be the other way round.

“The money’s fantastic,” she said. “Other stuff is shit. The boss is … extremely demanding. And if you sign up, you’ll be doing things that are dangerous and that don’t make a whole lot of sense.”

“Sounds interesting.” Em gave a short, sharp exhale that was almost a laugh. “So who exactly is your boss, and why does he want me to work for him?”

“Let’s call him a scientist. And I don’t know. He’s just taken a shine to you for some reason.”

I thought of the man outside Crush. Not the man I’d fought with, but the American who told me I was the same height as that serial killer bloke.

“Are you a loyal person?”

The question snapped me out of my own thoughts. Em was staring at me again.

“Oh. I don’t know.”

“Ha! At least you’re honest.”

“I could try. I mean, I could probably be loyal if I was paid enough.”

Goons – Chapter 12

A Speech

“Good evening, people of Britain. I would apologise for interrupting the ten o-clock news, but what exactly are you missing? More depressing shit about an incompetent government, a natural world being degraded and destroyed further with every passing day, and systems that were brought to their knees by a virus no more than two hundred nanometres in diameter.

“You may have sat in front of the TV and been convinced you could do a better job than the clowns currently running the world. But due to a lack of motivation, or imagination, or self-belief, you chose not to do anything about it. I am the person who chose to do something about it. I-”

“Boss, can I just stop you there a moment?”

Bossman looks up from his cue cards and glares at me. “It’s a first draft, okay? It doesn’t have to be perfect. Keep your questions and comments until the end.”

“It’s not about the speech, though, it’s about … I know you wanted to broadcast during the ten o’clock news, but that’s filmed in London, not Bristol.”


“I mean, we could always go to London.”

“Are you freakin’ kidding me? Every part of takeover day is planned around Bristol. The port, the MoD place at Abbey Wood, the-”

“We don’t have to go to London though, plenty of stuff gets filmed at BBC Bristol. You could broadcast during … errr…”

“Countryfile,” Em supplies.

Bossman is not happy with this suggestion at first, because he thinks Countryfile lacks gravitas. He doesn’t relish the thought of introducing himself to the British public when they’re watching a segment about the Chelsea Flower Show. It also means re-writing the first part of his speech. But eventually Bossman stops complaining and reads out the rest of it. Then he asks for feedback, which is not a common occurrence. Em makes the most of it, and tells him everything that’s wrong with the speech. It’s too long, it’s too wordy, it’s too pompous. Bossman says he would like to see Em do better, and Em obliges.

“Hello, unwashed masses. I am a mad genius with a shit-tonne of money and a robot army, so yeah, I basically own you now.”

“You think I’m a genius?”

“No, I think you think you’re a genius.”

“Ha! You totally think I’m a genius. Not that it matters, I mean I have an IQ of 224 so your opinions are irrelevant.”

I listen to them bicker, and I wonder how things will change when Bossman is ruling the world. It feels like we are coming to the end of something, and the beginning of something else.

Goons – Chapter 11

150 days until takeover

“Did you eat today?”

“I had a smoothie. And some gum.”

“Neither of those things are food.”

“If it has calories, it counts.”

I spend a moment wondering if chewing gum actually has calories, assuming you don’t swallow it. I doubt the sugar-free stuff has many, and you probably burn calories by chewing, so…

“It doesn’t count,” I say, in as firm a voice as I can muster. “I’m going to write you a list of things that don’t count as food.”

“I don’t have time to sit down to afternoon tea and crumpets and shit,” he grumbles. Despite living in the UK for years, he is still convinced that British people eat crumpets on a regular basis.

“I’m ordering pizza.”

“I can’t work with greasy fingers.”

“Who said it was for you?”

We are in the workshop, where Bossman works on the S-type bots – the ones with organic nervous systems and mechanical bodies. There are 38 in total, though some of them are unfinished. Bill and Ben are the oldest, and help out with fetching, carrying, and holding tools. My role in the workshop is to be a spare pare of hands, an extra pair of eyes, and a sounding board to bounce ideas off. And to remind him to eat.

When the pizza arrives, Bossman predictably wants some. We pause work and sit on the floor, surrounded by chunks and sheets and shards of plastic (none of these bots contain any metal, apart from the firing pins for the guns) and we split an XXL pizza between us.  

“Can I ask you something?”

Bossman actually says “Sure,” instead of “You just did,” so I assume the pizza has put him in a good mood.

“Why didn’t you go with a virus? I mean, think how bad things were with COVID in the early days. You could invent a more deadly virus – something really scary, that makes people bleed out of their eyeballs or something – but also make a super-effective vaccine for it, and then people would have to put you in charge.”

Bossman looks blank, so I continue. “Not that there’s anything wrong with your way, it’s just … a robot army’s not the most obvious road to go down.”

“This isn’t an army,” he says, gesturing to the robot army around him. “This is a toolbox. You know the plan centres on money and influence. Show of force is just a small part.”

“Okay. But … why not a virus?”

“Viruses are boring.”

“They’re effective, though.”

“You don’t get it,” he says, the first signs of annoyance flashing across his face. “If I’m going to be working on something for eighteen hours a day, it has to be something I actually want to do.” 

He finishes the rest of his slice in silence. Before starting another, he says “Is that how you’d do it then, if you were me?”

“S’pose so.”

He snorts in amusement, and I wonder – not for the first time – what it would be like to be him. What exactly does it look like, inside his mind? Maybe it’s like a giant blackboard full of equations. Or maybe it looks like an episode of Rick and Morty.

“I tell you what,” he says. “If my plan doesn’t work out, we’ll give yours a try. Call it Plan B.”

I am 99% sure he’s joking.    

Goons – Chapter 10

Pros and Cons of Being Extremely Tall:


  • You can see over the tops of people’s heads in a crowd.
  • You can always reach the top shelf, and usually change lightbulbs without needing something to stand on.
  • Getting laid isn’t too difficult, because women like having a story to tell.
  • Lots of things are more fun when the feeling of being physically vulnerable is pretty much non-existent. Exploring a new city, going for a walk after dark, joining a martial arts class, having a bi-curious phase, etc.
  • Being tall makes you automatically masculine, so you have no reason to fear pink shirts.


  • People are always telling you how tall you are, as if you hadn’t noticed.
  • Clothes shopping is a nightmare.
  • Being tall gives you natural authority. I’m sure this is a pro for many people, but it never sat comfortably on my shoulders.
  • Back problems.
  • There is not enough legroom in the world. Buses, planes, cinemas, etc. are not designed for long legs.


  • A large man is a frightening thing. At some point, in some way, you will have to decide what to do with this.