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.

Goons – Chapter 9

210 days until takeover

“This room’s no good,” says Bossman. “Who booked it?”

“I did,” I say, because there’s no point delaying the inevitable. “What’s wrong with it?”

Bossman gestures around the room, which is a perfectly serviceable conference room. There is a large, oval table in the centre, a projector screen at one end of the room, and a water cooler in the corner.

“It’s too … it’s not dark enough.”

I look around at the bland magnolia walls, the pale pine of the table, and the light fixtures on the ceiling, throwing out warm white light.

“He means it’s not intimidating enough,” Em translates. “Look, they don’t design conference rooms to be intimidating, so unless you want to put up some Halloween decorations or something-”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bossman grumbles. “And don’t act like it’s not a legitimate concern. I have to turn powerful people into silly putty. D’you think that’s easy?”

Em rolls her eyes. I try a different tactic. “I know it’s not that impressive, but seriously, you don’t need a load of bells and whistles. The work speaks for itself.”

“Well, yeah, that’s true.”

I mentally high five myself, because it’s rare that Bossman agrees with anything I say. Having accepted the inadequacies of the conference room, Bossman, Em and I prepare for the meeting. Bossman puts out snacks – Oreo cookies and jam donuts – and when Em points out that snacks make the room look even less threatening, he says, “They’re for us, not them,” in an exasperated tone.

At 8.55pm, I watch from the window and see a black car pull up in front of the building. The Mayor of Bristol gets out. I was never remotely interested in local politics before I started this job, and wouldn’t have recognised the Mayor if I saw her. She is a middle-aged woman of Pakistani heritage, small stature and big hair.

The doors are locked and there is no-one in reception, so I dash out of the conference room and through the deserted office building to collect her. As I do this, I try to get into the right mindset.

My job is a little bit of everything. Part PA, part lab assistant, part housekeeper. But I am under no illusions as to why Bossman hired me – it was not for my organisational skills. As I walk down the empty corridor towards reception, I straighten my spine and puff out my chest. I make sure my expression is a featureless mask. A smile is a significant mistake. Without it, other people’s imaginations do most of the work for me. I am built like a brick shithouse and wearing a nondescript black suit. I look like I mean business.

I unlock the glass front doors of the building, sparing a quick glance for the Mayor. Her posture is rigid, and she is showing no obvious signs of fear. But she has agreed to a meeting at nine o’clock at night, which is a good sign that Bossman has her on the back foot. As I usher her wordlessly inside, I see another car pull up. This will be the Avon and Somerset Chief Constable, but Em will escort him up to the conference room. It’s important that he and the Mayor don’t have a chance to talk to each other.

The Mayor and I take the lift up to the top floor of the building, and she asks me my name. I don’t answer. The silence, always thick and stuffy in lifts, is practically suffocating. She is afraid now, clasping her hands in front of her to stop them shaking. This is going to get worse for her before it gets better.

We enter the conference room and I take up my position beside the door. Bossman greets the Mayor cordially enough, and Em soon arrives with the Chief Constable. He is stocky, mostly bald, and has a craggy, expressive face. It is currently expressing bewilderment.

With the Mayor and Chief Constable seated, and Em and I standing either side of the door, the meeting begins. Bossman is not one to waste time on small talk or going over a meeting’s agenda.

“You know who I am,” says Bossman, “and I know who you are. We’ve been in touch for some time now, and I know you have some idea of my technological capabilities. But you don’t know the full extent of them, and since we’re all sick and tired of Zoom meetings, I though it’d be best to show you in person.”

In a corner of the room, something about six feet tall is covered with an off-white sheet. Bossman reaches up to pull off the sheet with a dramatic flourish, and reveals Bill.

Bill is a bot. He doesn’t look anything like the smaller xenobots, but more like the kind of robot you see in films. His roughly humanoid shape is made up of 3D-printed, glossy black plastic. The only organic part of him is his nervous system, with a rudimentary “brain” at the top of his body. As far as I understand it, he is basically the opposite of Patty, who has organic sensors to collect information, and an organic body to respond to that information by moving or speaking, but a mechanical, artificial processor. Bill has artificial sensors that can detect body heat and pressure and all sorts of stuff, and a mechanical body to do what it needs to do, but an organic processor. I thought it was pretty damn cool, when Bossman explained it. Like taking one kind of robot and turning it inside out to make another.

“This is S-16,” says Bossman. “Say hello, S-16.”

Bill raises an arm in greeting. His “hand” doesn’t have fingers exactly, just three hook-like structures for grabbing things.

“Now get on the table so our guests can see you better.”

Bill crouches, the hinge of his knees making a quiet hissing noise. Then he springs onto the table and lands with a thud. The Mayor actually shrieks. The Chief Constable tries to push his chair away from the table and almost tips it over in the process.

“Engage guns.”

A small barrel projects from the palm of each of Bill’s hands. This is the only part of Bill’s design I was never impressed by. I was expecting lasers, or heat-seeking missiles, or something with acid. Bullets seem so unimaginative. Still, Bossman is American so I guess guns are a part of his psyche and there’s no getting away from them.

“Put the guns away,” says Bossman – thankfully, because the Mayor and the Chief Constable both look as if they might piss themselves and I don’t fancy cleaning that up. “Now, play Rockabye Baby.

From a speaker on Bill’s chest emerges the sound of a woman’s voice singing,

Rockabye baby

On the treetop

When the wind blows

The cradle will rock

“What the fuck is this?” says the Chief Constable, between heavy breaths. God, I hope he doesn’t have a heart attack. A dead body would be so much worse to clear up than piss.

“I’m just showing you the different things my creation is capable of,” says Bossman, who I think is trying to seem calm and in control. He sounds manic, excitement and anxiety making his voice shake and his facial muscles twitch. “You should know that S-17 has exactly the same capabilities.”

“What is S-17?” says the Mayor.

“This is S-17,” Bossman answers, pulling down the projector screen. It is blank. There is an awkward pause while Bossman taps something into a laptop. Then an image appears.

A nursery, in the spooky green tones of something filmed in night vision. A cot, with a lump under the covers. A. changing table. A mobile hanging from the ceiling. And Ben, Bill’s counterpart, standing menacingly in the corner. The Chief Constable, who is the father of the lump under the covers, springs up from his seat and I get ready to tackle him if I have to.

“Okay,” says Bossman, taking an Oreo cookie from the packet and twisting it in half. “Let’s begin the negotiations.”

Goons – Chapter 8

Here are some remarkable things that Bossman can do:

  • Create living robots, capable of responding to their surroundings, learning new things and actually being useful sometimes.

  • Subtly and successfully manipulate the Chief Executive of Defence Equipment and Support.

  • Casually build himself a 3D printer.

  • Formulate a painstakingly detailed plan for combatting global warming, involving cloud seeding at the north and south poles, carbon capture technology, and genetically modified cows.

  • Recite Pi to 300 digits, and act like this is no more remarkable than being able to whistle. Stuff like this makes me wonder if he is autistic, but when I suggested it to Em she made a face and told me I was basing my whole idea of autism on Rain Man. Then I started talking about how Bossman hasn’t made eye contact with me since the day we met, but she got annoyed and said “Stop trying to diagnose him with things. No medical professional has been anywhere near that brain, and they never will until he’s dead and they get to dissect it.”

Here are some unremarkable things that Bossman cannot do:

  • Put a duvet cover on a duvet. I once tried to teach him how to do this and he ended up trapped inside the duvet cover. It is one of the most joyous memories I have.

  • Write normally. He uses his index finger to mark a space between each word, and it makes his writing slow and laborious.

  • Boil eggs. Even the most basic cooking is beyond him. Or beneath him.

  • Swallow pills. If he gets a headache, he crushes up paracetamol and pours the powder into a can of energy drink.

  • Maintain a relationship. I’m not really sure what his deal is. Maybe he doesn’t know how to flirt, or maybe he’s just not interested, or maybe he’s so busy trying to take over the world that he’s forgotten sex exists. I should get him really drunk and ask him.

Goons – Chapter 7

273 days until takeover

Bossman has no time for getting stoned in the panic room anymore. He has no time for anything that’s not strictly necessary for taking over the world, and that includes going out to get a haircut. But he also has no time for constantly flicking his hair out of his eyes and has rejected Em’s suggestion of bobby pins, so I have to cut his hair in the office.

This is my first time giving a haircut and I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of it. He is going to end up looking exactly like the mad scientist he is. While I snip away at the dark brown strands, he moves money around on his tablet (he is buying favour with the Society of Merchant Venturers) and Em sits at his desk and tries to convince him to socialise. She doesn’t call it socialising in front of Bossman, of course. She calls it networking.

“Okay, you definitely need to meet this guy,” she says, swivelling round and pointing at the computer screen, which shows a news article and a photograph of a round-faced black guy, about Bossman’s age. “He’s a leading tech entrepreneur. Artificial intelligence and machine learning – that’s your thing, right?”

Bossman doesn’t look up from his tablet. He says, “Em, when you tell people you’re a lesbian, do they ever try to set you up with their cousin just because their cousin is also a lesbian?”


“And don’t you find that deeply irritating?”

“Stop being difficult, this isn’t the same thing. He’s the CEO of a sodding unicorn.”

Em is keen on the idea of Bossman having a friend. She thinks it’ll be good for him to have someone in his life who he actually likes. Not an employee, but a human being to have an occasional drink with. Someone to prove to him that people aren’t a waste of oxygen. I feel like this is too much pressure to put on a person.

“I just think it’d be useful to get to know him,” Em persists.

Bossman actually stops tapping away on his tablet for a moment, because “useful” is a word that makes him pay attention. But it’s not enough to convince him.

“Did you run a security check on him?”

 “No, not yet.”

“Then you’re getting sloppy. What’s the number one rule?”

“No food or drink in the lab.”

“The number one rule in a networking context, for fuck’s sake.”

“Trust no-one.”


Since Bossman isn’t looking at her, Em catches my eye and makes a “give me strength” face. Then she smooths her expression out and says, “You trust us, though.”

“That’s different.”

Something strange is happening to me. The more I snip away at Bossman’s hair, the more aware I become of what is underneath it. Skull. A brain that contains the future of the world. Blood vessels that supply that brain with fuel and oxygen. I start to wonder where the biggest blood vessels are, and how easy it would be to puncture them with a pair of scissors. Would the blood really spurt out like it does in Quentin Tarantino films? How long would it take for an amateur barber to change the course of history?

My hands start to sweat, which is why I drop the scissors. Bossman snaps at me to be careful, then asks if I’m done. I say yes, because I seem to be having a funny five minutes and shouldn’t be handling sharp objects. Bossman checks his hair in the camera on his phone and says, “Yeah, that’ll do.” I am intensely relieved.

Goons – Chapter 6

27 years until takeover

In my first year of secondary school, there was a bully in my tutor group. Not a thuggish kind of bully, always shoving and punching and throwing his weight around. He was clever, and he was malicious. His name was Dex, so I’m guessing his parents were arseholes.

Dex would pick a new victim whenever he got bored, which was semi-regularly. Once he had decided on a target, he would discover their weak spots and then poke these tender places mercilessly. Maybe it was someone’s weight, or the way their braces made them speak, or the way they couldn’t or wouldn’t hide the fact that they were growing up queer. It was mostly words. Words that reduced people to nothing, or worse than nothing, but would have sounded pretty innocent if reported to a teacher.

There was other stuff too. Sharpened pencils jabbed into folds of flesh. Holding a kid down and cutting out a chunk of hair or drawing a dick on his arm (his left arm, so it would look as though he’d drawn it himself). Or just threatening the kid, in a giggling way that probably sounded like playing from a distance. A pen near an eyeball. An open pair of scissors near an earlobe.

There was always an air of chaos around him, as if he destabilised the ground he stepped on. If he walked towards you, it was obvious that something was going to happen. Something that would change you. I was twelve, and so afraid of him I probably would’ve licked his shoes if he asked me to. But he preferred that I make myself useful and be a lookout, so that is what I became.  I peeked around corners and doorframes, watching for teachers and signalling if one approached. More than once, I held someone down.

When I was thirteen, I grew. A lot. My shins hurt and I became clumsy, knocking my elbows on everything. As I began to tower over my classmates, something strange happened. The bigger I got, the less afraid I felt. I knew that, if it came to a physical confrontation, I could look down on any kid my age and laugh in his face. I knew I could hurt them more than they could hurt me, and without the fear of violence, what was there to be afraid of? Being teased? Being laughed at? It began to seem trivial, and by the time I was fourteen I was no longer afraid of Dex at all.

That probably should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. I stuck by him for several more months, hovering behind him like a huge, solid shadow. Dex made things happen, and I wanted to watch them happen. I wanted a front-row seat to the chaos he caused.

Goons – Chapter 5

320 days until takeover

Bossman is adjusting the temperature of one of the incubators. Inside the incubator there are transparent plastic flasks full of “babies” – millimetre long xenobots, roughly the shape of a fortune cookie. Not very impressive compared to Bossman’s larger creations, but he has grand plans for them nonetheless. They are going to clean up microplastics from the oceans and remove plaque from artery walls and start revolutions in environmental repair and healthcare. Taking over the world is really only step one of Bossman’s plan. Step two is fixing it.

“D’you wanna get stoned in the panic room?”

Bossman asks this without looking at me, and the question takes me by surprise. It’s his thirtieth birthday today and he hasn’t said anything about it. There have been no phone calls. It’s past eight and he obviously doesn’t have any plans. I tell myself this is not my problem. He might be my boss, but I am not an early 1960s secretary and it is not my job to make him feel important and special.

“Um … can you smoke in the panic room? Is it, like, ventilated?” I ask, stalling for time.

“Yeah, of course. I go in there to relax sometimes. It’s got beanbag chairs, a mini fridge, the works. How about you, Em?”

“I don’t smoke that stuff, it makes me paranoid.”

“So come for the snacks. I’m gonna shower, but I’ll meet you both there in twenty minutes.”

Twenty-five minutes later, I am clumsily negotiating a beanbag chair in a panic room that looks like it belongs in a student house, aside from the lack of windows. Bossman hands me a joint. I inhale deeply – the weed has a brown, biscuity taste – and it occurs to me that I didn’t actually agree to this.

Neither did Em, but now that she’s here, she chomps her way through almost all the snacks (Doritos, Jaffa Cakes, American sweets called Junior Mints that Bossman has a seemingly endless supply of). Then she licks her lips, stands up and says “Better get going. I promised Gillian I’d cook dinner tonight.”

“You’re ditching us to go eat dinner?” says Bossman, appalled. “After you just ate most of the snacks?”

“I’ll cook paella. I don’t like it but Gillian loves it, so I’ll cook it just for her and earn some brownie points.”

Em leaves, and Bossman stares at the empty Junior Mints box, looking affronted. “Unfuckingbelievable,” he mutters.

“Well, she really needs those brownie points with Gillian, since she missed their six-month anniversary.”

“There’s no such thing as a six-month anniversary.” His tone of voice suggests that he will one day attempt to ban six-month anniversaries and make them punishable by a substantial fine. The thought threatens to come out as a giggle. It has been ages since I last smoked weed and this stuff is strong.

“Hey, you know what would be funny?” he says.


“If we got one of the bots stoned.”

I picture Walter and Jesse whizzing around woozily, bumping into each other, then look at Bossman and realise he is actually suggesting we do this.

“Would that work? I mean, they don’t have lungs.”

He rolls his eyes as if I have said something stupid, and says “Plenty of organisms without lungs get high. Stop being a wet blanket and go get one of them. It’s gonna be funny, I promise.”

I unfold myself from the beanbag chair, open the panic room’s heavy door and make my way to the lab in a pleasant daze.

“Bots!” I call, flicking the light switch and illuminating the lab. “Who wants to take part in a very special experiment?”

The first one I see is Igor, dragging himself along a bench. I consider the effects of marijuana on this clumsy, misshapen creature and decide against him. A glance upward reveals Patty, clinging to the ceiling and cleaning the air inlet with an alcohol wipe.

“Hi Pattycake!”

“HELLO JAY” appears on her body.

“D’you fancy trying something new?”




“Great. Here, chuck that wipe in the bin.”

I hold out the nearest waste bin, and Patty drops the dirty wipe into it. Then I reach up, pluck her off the ceiling and carry her to the panic room as if she is a chubby, boneless, room-temperature child.

Bossman is delighted to see her, which is nice. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to how strange and amazing the bots are, but he just treats them as part of the furniture. Today, however, he pats Patty on her headless body and tells her he wants to see how she responds to a new chemical stimulus.

The process of administering said chemical stimulus does not go smoothly. I try to help by unscrewing Patty’s air filter, but Bossman slaps my hand and says “Wrong one, wrong one,” and I realise that I almost wrenched her computer interface clean off.

“You should really label these things, or paint them different colours or something,” I say, pointing to the two identical black disks – one of them an air filter, one of them as close as you get to a robot brain – on Patty’s back.

“You should really stop trying to help,” says Bossman, unscrewing the air filter, too stoned to worry about the possibility of Patty’s body being contaminated by dust or anything else that’s floating about in the air of the panic room.

He takes a big rip of his joint, and then I have the unique experience of watching my boss shotgun a xenobot.

For the next ten minutes or so, Patty seems normal. Bossman and I speculate about whether she will get the munchies, and whether she would want Jaffa Cakes or 25mL of Grace’s Medium if she did get the munchies. She wanders around the panic room, exploring it. Then she sits down with her lower limbs sticking out in front of her and says,






“She’s baked,” says Bossman, very pleased with this.

He answers all her stoner-robot questions good-naturedly. She asks how old the world is and he tells her it is 4.54 billion years old, give or take. She asks if she’s allowed to cut open the beanbags and see what’s inside them and he tells her no. But when she asks what it’s like to feel angry, it’s up to me to answer because Bossman is staring at one of the CCTV screens on the panic room wall.

“Everything okay in the lab?”

“Yeah. Igor’s staring at the camera.”

If he weren’t high as a kite, he’d never use the word “staring”. Igor has no eyes, and Bossman is nothing if not literal-minded. He also disapproves of the way me and Em anthromor …. anthrop… the way we treat the bots as if they’re human, or close enough. He does it too, out of habit, but he got pissy when we first named them and pissier when we started referring to them as “he” and “she”. Then Em politely asked if they were non-binary and he got so pissy he nearly sacked her on the spot.

“Maybe we should’ve brought all the bots to hang out,” Bossman continues. “It sucks to be excluded.” He flops back down on his beanbag chair and looks at me. He doesn’t do this often, and under normal circumstances it would be unnerving. But I am cosily stoned, so I snuggle into my beanbag and get ready to catch whatever verbal grenade he’s going to throw at me. After a moment’s silence, he says “I bet you were popular at school.”

 “Why do you think that?”

 “You’re tall.”

 “Yeah, but I’m freaky-tall, not attractive-tall. And I wasn’t tall as a kid, I just shot up when I hit puberty.”

 “So you weren’t popular?”

“Not really.”

“Everyone in my class hated me.” He says this with a casual mouth and very angry eyes. “Groups of them used to gang up on me and stick my head in the toilet. Little shits. So I poisoned them.”

This revelation enters my skull and glides over the surface of my weed-addled brain without sinking in. I picture Bossman, tiny and gap-toothed, carrying a big black bottle with a skull and crossbones on it. Maybe I look confused, because he says “Relax, it was just ipecac syrup.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t have it here? Oh, hey, I guess if you need to induce vomiting you could just eat British food.”

He laughs at this for a full minute, then explains how he made a batch of brownies with this puke-syrup and brought them to school on the last day before Christmas vacation, when rules were relaxed and everyone who wanted a brownie (everyone but little Bossman and a kid with severe allergies) was allowed to eat one in class.

“Didn’t anyone get suspicious when you wouldn’t eat one?”

“No, I brought them in early so nobody knew I made them.”

“And did they work?”

“Oh yeah. But it wasn’t such a good idea.”

“Why not? Did anyone figure out it was you?”

“No. Turns out I have a sensitive gag reflex. If I see or hear people puking, I puke too.”

I laugh at this for a full minute. He doesn’t get cross with me, which is nice. Weed clearly has a good effect on him.

“You know,” he says, looking pensive in a bleary-eyed kind of way, “I feel like I should apologise.”

 “I’m sure they’ve forgiven you, it was a long time ago.”

 “Not to those little turds. To you. And Em.”

 “What for?” (There is a long, long list, but I don’t want to guess and get it wrong.)

“For always firing you, and threatening to fire you. I’d never do it, y’know. I mean, I’d never fire you permanently. You guys are like family.”

I am pretty sure that’s the weed talking. He will be embarrassed tomorrow.

Goons – Chapter 4

Here is a list of all the times Bossman has fired me, rehired me, and given me a raise:

Fired for taking a banana into the lab. This was shortly after I first started working for him, and he never bothered to explain the laboratory rules so how was I supposed to know you can’t eat a snack in there? He disagreed with this logic.

Rehired three days after the banana incident because Bossman couldn’t be arsed to search for a new employee.

A raise after he broke three of my fingers. We were both trying to fix the autoclave – a big oven-type thing that we use for sterilising equipment – because the door was stuck. Eventually, Bossman got frustrated and pulled out a bolt, causing the heavy metal door to come crashing down onto my hand.

Fired for letting a pizza delivery man see inside the flat. He didn’t see much – it’s not like I gave him a tour of the lab and showed him the bots – but it was enough to make Bossman extremely angry.

Rehired on a whim, because Em was busy helping him in the workshop and he wanted someone to bring him a chocolate frappé.

A raise because I did something he liked. I don’t even remember what it was so I must have done it by accident.

Goons – Chapter 3

324 days until takeover

It is almost midnight and Bossman has been up for over 36 hours. Em is trying to persuade him to go to bed but he’s having none of it.

“That whole eight hours a night myth is bullshit,” he says, leaning back in his chair and cracking his knuckles, but never looking away from the monitor. “Napoleon never slept more than two hours in a row.”

“You are not Napoleon,” says Em.

Telling Bossman that he’s not Napoleon requires guts, but Em has always been more willing to stand up to him than me. Or maybe less willing to kiss arse. An argument ensues about how well brains and bodies can function when deprived of sleep, and Bossman obviously wins the argument because he knows more about brains and bodies (and everything else) than Em (and everyone else).

Five minutes later, Bossman tries to put his eye drops in and fails spectacularly. Eye drops all down his cheeks on the first attempt. Somehow in his hair on the second attempt.

“Need a hand?” says Em, sweetly.

“No,” says Bossman, making a third attempt and poking himself in the eyeball with the dropper. He throws the little bottle of eye drops on the floor and announces he is going to bed.

“Good idea, Boss,” I say, only allowing the tiniest bit of sarcasm into the words.

Me and Em never call him Bossman to his face. It’s always Boss when talking to him and Bossman when talking about him. Or sometimes The Princess, when he’s being particularly demanding. Daft, really, the little things you do to take power away from someone who has a lot of it.

Bossman closes the spreadsheets he’s been working on and shuts down the computer.

“I’ve been looking over the finances,” he says, as three side-by-side monitors go black. “And I guess I should warn you guys that I might have to fire one of you.”

Then he stumbles out of the office with a sleepy, malicious smile on his face. I look at Em. She presses her lips together for a moment, then says “I’m not dealing with that right now. There’s still a shitload of filing to do, and the bots need feeding.”

“Divide and conquer? You file and I’ll feed?”


Em parks herself at the desk beside the Crazy Wall, and grabs a ring binder that has many lime green post-its of crucial significance sticking out of it. There are shelves full of these ring binders, and computer drives full of folders, and of course the Crazy Wall – a 6’ by 6’ square of cork, covered in interlinked papers and photos like something from a crime drama. Put together, all this admin makes up Bossman’s plan to take over the world. It is our job to keep it neat and organised. Well, Em’s job tonight. I head towards the lab to feed the xenobots.

They are nowhere to be seen when I flick the lights on. I speak very quietly – just above a whisper – because Bossman likes me to test their sensory capabilities and report any problems.


Walter appears from behind the centrifuge and rolls towards me. He and Jesse are the fastest of the xenobots, though neither one moves faster than a brisk walk. They propel their Roomba-sized, donut-shaped bodies along the floor (and occasionally up the walls) with a smooth, fluid motion that comes from hundreds of tiny pseudopods on their undersides. These are basically just little bumps that do the job of feet.

I slip on a lab coat, latex gloves and a pair of safety specs, then bend down to pick up Walter. I tell him he’s a good boy and I’m going to give him his dinner. There’s no-one around to stop me speaking to the bots like dogs, so I indulge myself. I carry Walter over to the isolator and plop him down on the little trolley beside it, then spray him thoroughly with isopropyl alcohol.

Walter waits patiently while I clean the strong, flexible plastic film that encases his cells, and the transparent pouch in the centre used for transporting things around the lab. I place him, freshly-cleaned, into the isolator’s hatch, then shove my hands into the big blue gloves and set to work.

The different bots all have slightly different feeding requirements, and Walter has Grace’s medium – a bright orange liquid that looks like Iron Bru and turns his greyish cells a vomitty colour. He is made from lepidopteran cells, but I can’t remember what that means. Moth cells, maybe, or caterpillar cells. Or maybe those are the same thing since caterpillars turn into moths.

I don’t understand how the xenobots work. Bossman has tried to explain it to me, but he got frustrated and gave up. When I was in Year 9, a teacher told me that I had the soul of a scientist but, sadly, not the brain of one. You don’t need to understand the bots to take care of them, though. It’s easy enough to unscrew the small black disc that filters the air for Walter, and pipette the correct amount of food into him.

Next, I feed Patty. She is a larger xenobot, about three feet tall. Her colour can only be described as pinkish-green, and her shape is flexible. Most of the time, she toddles around on two short limbs, and uses her upper, longer limbs to manipulate objects. She has nothing resembling a head; just a rounded little body.

“Em, you there?” I say, hoping the intercom will pick up my voice.

“Yeah. You alright?”

“Mm. You don’t think he’s actually going to sack one of us, do you?”

“No, not properly. Maybe he’ll pay us less or do that thing where he sacks us for a few days, but he won’t get rid of either of us. He’s just being a dick.”

Words emerge on the surface of Patty’s body, where the chromatophores (colour-changing cells, I think) are. The letters are always dark brown and the sentences are always short and simple.


“Male genitalia,” I explain.

“What?” says Em.

“You have to watch your language around Patty. She’s been asking a lot of questions lately.”

“Good, that’s what she’s built to do. Independent learning. And I doubt Bossman’s going to mind if she learns a few naughty words.”

“If he does get rid of one of us,” I say, taking a freshly-fed Patty out of the isolator, “it’ll be me.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You’ve worked for him for longer. And we’re both good employees, but what he really wants is a mum.”

Em scoffs. “You’re more of a mum to him than I am.”

I want to disagree with this, but find myself wondering how many sandwiches I’ve made for Bossman over the years. It’s a lot.

The last bot that needs feeding is Igor – a two feet long, dirty pink creature who used to creep me out when I first started working here. He has a pair of stumpy limbs that propel him along on his “chest”, and is pretty much useless. I’m surprised Bossman hasn’t got rid of him by now. I’m almost done when Em says “You almost done?”

“Yep, just got to tidy up.”


I should get to bed. Or Em should. One of us ought to be sleeping.

“Yes, definitely movie.”


Bossman owns the entire top floor of the tower block. As well as the lab and the office, there is room for a workshop, a very fancy kitchen, spare bedrooms galore, and a home cinema. Me and Em probably use it more than Bossman. It’s not that he doesn’t mind, more that he doesn’t notice.

We watch Pillow Talk. At some point, we got into the habit of watching these romantic comedies from the fifties and sixties, especially ones with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. I have a weird kind of crush on them. Not either of them individually, just the way they are together.

“If he does sack you,” I say, about halfway through the film, “I’ll quit.”


“I will.”

“Fine, but I’m not making the same promise.”

“I’m not asking you to.”

Em rests her head on my shoulder. “Why quit? A few more years working for him and you can retire at 45, like a banker.” 

“Couldn’t do this fucking job without you,” I say, and I mean it. “You’re my rock.”

“You’re my Doris.”


I hope you’re enjoying the story so far. I’m always happy to chat to readers and writers so feel free to say hi in the comments and talk about the story, your own writing endeavors, xenobots, etc.

Goons – Chapter 2

Two years and eight months until takeover

It doesn’t always go smoothly. For example, there was one time when we tried to steal liquid nitrogen from a laboratory at the University of Bristol. The three of us were crammed into a small room, crowded around a liquid nitrogen freezer like witches round a cauldron. I was wearing these padded gloves that looked and felt like oven mitts, and watching the steam billowing off the freezing liquid as we siphoned it into a smaller vessel. Bossman kept on and on at me about how dangerous the stuff was, and every movement I made was slow and careful. Until the security guard showed up.

He burst through the doors behind us, announcing his presence with a shout. He was forty-something, probably. Bearded. I feel like I should remember his face more clearly, but I don’t.

I remember shaking off the padded gloves and throwing the first punch, but then everything blurs. I’m usually clear-headed in a fight, but maybe I was having an off-day or maybe what happened afterwards messed my memory up. What I do remember is how it ended – with the security guard crashing to the ground, knocking over our chunky vessel of stolen liquid nitrogen as he fell.

Me, Em and Bossman all ran for it. Through a store room, down a corridor, past a laboratory. Behind us, an alarm sounded, but it wasn’t a burglar alarm. It was a low oxygen alarm. Apparently if there’s too much nitrogen in the air, it displaces the oxygen and you suffocate. We had just spilled a large quantity of liquid nitrogen, right next to a probably unconscious security guard.

We left the building and hid in the bushes beside it, getting stung by nettles and waiting for something to happen. For the guard to stumble outside in search of us. For a light to flicker on in the office. Any sign of life.

“He’s dead,” said Bossman.

“We can’t be sure,” said Em.

“Maybe you can’t, but I can.”

I was stunned. Couldn’t feel anything in particular, and my brain seemed to be working slower than usual. If the security guard was dead, it was my fault. And yeah, I’d hurt people before, but never to the point that they just … didn’t exist anymore.

“So we get out of here, right?” said Em.

“Wrong,” said Bossman (this is his favourite word). “We get rid of the body.”

He led the way round the back of the building. The sound of the low oxygen alarm leaked out between double doors, marking the room when the liquid nitrogen was stored. I strained my ears for any noises underneath the alarm – the sound of choking or gasping. There was nothing.

Forcing the doors open, I saw the security guard’s body sprawled across the floor.

“See, I told you he was dead!” Bossman exclaimed, his voice suddenly high and sharp with panic.

I stepped towards the body but Em grabbed my arm and yanked me back. “Wait until the alarm stops”, she said.

With the doors wide open, it only took a few more seconds for the oxygen level in the room to return to normal. Then I bent over the body and felt for a pulse. Nothing. Bossman started talking very fast, about how the body was covered in evidence, as well as being evidence itself. My DNA in hairs on his clothes, in skin cells under his fingernails. I felt sick enough to puke, but that would’ve been one more thing to clean up. I took the guard’s body by the shoulders and Em took his legs.


We buried him in the thick, sticky mud of the Severn Estuary. Em, who claims to be a staunch atheist, said a very quick and quiet Hail Mary. Bossman said a few words about collateral damage, and his fingers tapped out something that looked like Morse code on his thigh. This is something he only does when extremely stressed.

“Are you okay?” he said, giving me a sideways, suspicious look. “You’re not freaking out, are you?”

“No, I’m alright.”

“Good. ‘Cause let’s be honest here, this was gonna happen eventually. You knew what you were signing up for.”

I didn’t. That was the whole reason for signing up. Curiosity.