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.
“HELLO JAY” appears on her body.
“D’you fancy trying something new?”
HELP ME LEARN.”
“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,
I FEEL SLUGGISH
LIKE A SLUG
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.