Updated: Apr 9
Chapter One: Nestor
Tuesday, 28th February 2017
Atlas University Halls, London
He wasn’t alone. Light filtered in through the blinds, playing across her beautiful face. He blinked and peered closer, amazed at his luck, his confusion causing her to smile mischievously. Her blue eyes glittering with merriment. ‘Hey you,’ she whispered in a French accent, moving closer and kissing his lips.
Mentally replaying last night, it became blurry after he had gone to the CroBar with Todd and Clyde. No, wait. He remembered going to Decadence afterwards. That’s right, he knew her from the dance floor. She was the girl who liked a brand of tequila called… Never mind, it would come to him later.
‘Hey you,’ he managed to squeak, kissing her back. Her breath tingled with the taste of aniseed. Coughing, he then repeated himself in a deeper tone. Nestor tried to think of something particularly suave to say. Then, his wit failing him, he slid out of bed. Running his hands through his black hair, Nestor tried to restore some life to it. The styling clay had caused it to go flat on the side he had slept on.
Unleashing his best smile, Nestor played it safe. ‘How do you fancy breakfast? I could do you a magnificent slice of toast, and I can brew the best coffee in London.’ She smiled in response. ‘I er, I order in special beans.’ Pausing for a moment, when he couldn’t think of anything else to say, he abruptly turned and headed towards the kitchen. On the way, he groaned and smacked his forehead. A grave error of judgement given the hangover. About three things had just occurred to him that he could have said only moments before.
Pulling on a shirt from the drying rack, he threw two slices of bread into the toaster. He attempted to blink away the cobwebs of sleep as he filled the coffee machine. The remnants of last night’s drinking lingered.
‘Aren’t you going to put on trousers?’ she asked, making him jump. She was standing right behind him. He wondered briefly how she got dressed so quickly.
‘I’m wearing trousers of the mind,’ he replied.
They stood in silence for a moment until the awkwardness was broken by the toast popping up. Nestor pulled out a slice, spread butter on it and handed it over. ‘Complimentary breakfast for...’
‘Jessica.’ She rolled her eyes at him but gratefully accepted his offering. Jessica started munching. ‘So, Nestor, isn’t it? Unusual name.’
‘My parents decided that people needed one more reason to mock me.’ He buttered his slice. ‘Also, my grandfather spent a lot of time in Greece during World War Two.’
Silence fell again, then she looked up to see a small grey drone, with four rotors holding up a central chassis, hovering in the kitchen corner. ‘What is that?’ Jessica asked. A small red light glowed like an eye.
Nestor looked up, then grinned, beaming with pride. ‘That is Bubo.’ Then, pointing at it, he put on his most commanding tone. ‘Bubo, play romantic music.’
‘Playing Eighties Love Classics,’ Bubo responded. “The Glory of Love” by Peter Cetera began to play.
Jessica put down her toast. ‘Is that a camera on it?’ she asked.
He foraged in the cupboards and found a plate for her. ‘Yes, a 16-megapixel camera, speakers and—’
‘Is it following you around?’ she said, ignoring the plate.
‘Yes, it is actually tracking this.’ Nestor held up his wrist, showing off a watch with a flourish. ‘But it also recognises my image and known associates around me. I made it myself. The operating system was coded from scratch.’ She didn’t seem as impressed as she should have been. He cocked his head, confused and disappointed by her reaction. ‘My family have always built ships for a living, but I have broken free of the family and become an AI programmer. Maybe found a startup, like Elon Musk. I’m nineteen now. By the age of twenty-five, I could even be colonising Mars. I have always loved robotics and drones—’
‘Is it filming?’ Her volume increased, pitch and tone slid sharply higher. The constant interruptions were getting annoying.
Nestor tried one of his big grins to deescalate the situation. ‘Always. Why?’ The glimmerings of rage on her face indicated that he hadn’t succeeded.
‘So it was filming us last night?’
So that is what was upsetting her. Sweat formed on the small of his back as he began to understand where this was going. ‘No, it films everything, not us in particular.’ He checked for exits and remembered it was his house. Cornered, with no escape. ‘Ah.’
‘That’s illegal.’ Jessica’s voice was pure stone now. Granite. ‘It's an invasion of privacy. I want the footage of last night deleted.’
‘Of course, I haven’t coded a procedure for that. But, look, I’m really sorry, I’ll go onto my personal cloud-based server and I’ll remove it manually.’ His voice had risen an octave. He coughed to bring it down again. How could he tell Bubo to stop filming when there is more than one person in the bedroom? It would need the camera to identify them. He would have to write a manual command.
Jessica stepped closer. If her eyes hadn’t been aflame, it would have been quite lovely. As it was, it was terrifying. ‘On the cloud? What if you got hacked? Delete it now, or you'll be hearing from my father. He is a solicitor.’
Figuring out the command, Nestor’s face lit up. He held up his hands in what he hoped was a placating gesture. ‘Wait, I can do it. Bubo. Delete from bubo-blob-store-zero-one where create date greater than twentieth of April twenty-seventeen.’
Bubo confirmed in an unnecessarily cheery voice, ‘Data moved to Recycle Bin.’
Nestor nodded, ‘Bubo, empty recycle bin.’ Turning to Jessica, he winked. ‘All done.’
Figuring that he had resolved the problem, Nestor decided to go all in. ‘So anyway, about last night. It was fun, we should—’
‘Absolutely not,’ Jessica muttered. ‘This is why I don’t normally date English people.’
‘I’m not English. I’m Irish,’ Nestor said, aghast.
She looked down. ‘Wait. Do you have an erection?’
He paused, thinking fast. ‘No, it's just the pleats.’ Fuck.
‘The pleats in your mind trousers? I'm angry and upset, and you get an erection?’
‘I have a thing for strong women. I'm a...feminist?’
The door slammed behind her, and Jessica was gone. Nestor stood slowly digesting the morning's events. Bubo hovered silently, still filming.
Nestor looked up. ‘Shit.’ For the first time, he saw a downside to being constantly monitored.
Pulling on his clothes, Nestor patted his pocket. His wallet was gone. Must have left it in the club. Moving back to the bedroom, he turned on his computer. Opening the image store, he queried for all images captured by Bubo containing wallets in the last twenty-four hours. As he puzzled at the blank screen, he realised that his hastily formed delete command had wiped too much of the footage. He’d have to return to the club and check lost property when they opened later.
Time to write a better delete subroutine. His breakfast sat on the kitchen counter, growing cold as he tapped on the keyboard. Well, he’ll never see her again, he thought glumly.
Maybe they would bump into each other again at the club. Then, Nestor could buy her a drink. He never knew what to say to people, so he hadn’t had much luck on the dating scene at university, never mind with someone as full as life as Jessica. The memories of them dancing flooded back to him. He usually avoided dancing. Still, she had lured him out onto the floor, much to his eventual delight.
Focusing his mind on the code, he tapped his fingers rapidly.
‘Bubo. Play heavy metal.’ Nickleback started playing. He groaned as if his morning couldn't get any worse. ‘Bubo. Next Track.’ He smiled as the music changed and Led Zeppelin filled his room.
The sound of his mechanical keyboard filled the room as his fingers clacked across it.
Bubo flew closer, ‘Incoming call from Ethel Winters’.
The hell? The family housekeeper, he thought.
‘Bubo, answer call.’ He turned to face the drone, who immediately began speaking with Ethel’s voice. He shuddered as he remembered the terrifying woman with her gorgon-like eyes and grey hair dyed red.
‘Nestor, I apologise for the call out of the blue. Is this a convenient time?’ The Ethel-Bubo asked.
Nestor shrugged, ‘Sure, I’m just at home catching up on my coding.’
There was a moment's silence. ‘Nestor, there has been an accident. Port authorities witnessed an explosion on your family yacht, the Sea Mist, last night.’
Nestor stopped breathing.
‘Your parents are both reported dead. They have recovered the bodies and will be flying them home.’
Nestor exhaled with a long gasp. His hands grasped his head. ‘What kind of explosion?’
Bubo whirred quietly, ‘The authorities are still investigating, but it is currently listed as an accident.’
He shook his head. ‘No, no, we are a shipyard. Father is a brilliant engineer. He loved the Sea Mist. It is better maintained than Lynch House.’
‘I’m sorry, Nestor, it is a tragedy, but these things do happen.’ There was a pause on the life, then Ethel solemnly said. ‘It is time to come home, Nestor. We need you to return to Belfast.’
Nestor remembered his last conversation with his parents. They had reminded him that the previous four generations of Lynch’s had graduated from university as engineers. He had smugly informed them that he was a new breed of Lynch who would live his own life. Joining King’s College early at fifteen, he had already been making a name for himself.
‘Nestor, can you hear me?’ Ethel’s voice brought him out of this musing.
‘I heard. I’ll get the first plane back to Belfast. Thank you for the call, Ethel.’
‘Nestor, if you need—’
Nestor looked up. ‘Bubo, end call.’
As of now, he was an orphan.
He went to the bathroom to be sick.
Chapter Two: Nestor
Thursday, 2nd March 2017
In Belfast, the rain and slate grey skies were a constant. Nestor stood in his suit. Someone was holding an umbrella over him as he starred at two coffins. The priest was making a speech. Nestor was sure it was very moving, lots of excellent references about the nobility of his parents, maybe a paragraph or two on God's purpose, but he couldn't listen. His life had just had its bedrocks ripped out, and now he had been left alone. Maybe he would listen to the speech later. Above him, Bubo was flying despite the non-stop rain. The faithful drone was monitoring the event, his true companion. He watched the coffins as they sank into the graves on ropes. Handed a shovel, he numbly threw a spade load of dirt over his father's coffin, then repeated it for his mother. Someone asked him if he would like to say a few words. When he didn't react, they asked him again.
"What is the point?" He said. "They are dead." He turned away. He walked back to where his car was waiting for him.
Frederick followed him. The gaunt man squelched through the mud. "The driver will take you to your family home. Don't worry about Lynch Industries. It is in good hands. I will keep it sailing on its course."
"Thanks," Nestor said numbly. Frederick opened the car door for him. He stepped inside, hearing silence at last. He tapped his watch and held out his hand. Bubo flew in and landed in his palm. He put Bubo on a docking station next to him. A red light flashed as the drone recharged. The car drew away from the grim cemetery. The windscreen wipers screeched over the glass as he looked out of the windows. He felt a disassociation with the world around him. The colours seemed drab, and the sound didn't seem to match what he was seeing. It was like a cheap DVD copy. It all seemed fake. Lifeless.
When the car pulled up at the family home, he got out and trudged to where the door was held open by Ethel Winters, the families housekeeper. He nodded at her and went to walk straight past when a voice like ice cut through his grief.
He looked at her with utter disbelief. She looked back at him through thick plastic rimmed glasses, the joint between the lens bound with tape. Her iron-grey hair framed a face radiating determination.
"I don't care how you are feeling. You'll be feeling a lot worse if you traipse mud through these halls." She said. She pointed at his feet. "Shoes."
He shook his head and kicked off his shoes angrily.
"I've had your things moved into the master bedroom." She began.
"Well, move them again. I won't be sleeping there. Set up a bed in the cellar and get all my tools moved down there." He said, walking to the cellar door. He heard her mutter behind him and ignored her. Ghosts of a family that meant nothing to him haunted these halls. He would be damned if he was going to live surrounded by their shadows. The cellar was full of dusty bottles of wine. He picked one at random and looked for a corkscrew.
"That needs to be aged," Ethel said from behind him. He jumped. "Perhaps you would prefer tea?"
"I don't want tea." Nestor snapped.
"Then you can have a beer," Ethel said. She gestured at two workmen who were bringing down an armchair.
"What is that for?" Nestor growled.
She ignored him, and he sat down on it sullenly. A small table appeared next to it. He stared at the wine racks. A cup of tea appeared next to him, and a plate with a sandwich and crisps. He drank the tea. She had clearly forgotten the beer, he thought darkly. As he sat, boxes appeared around him. Slowly the cellar transformed into a parody of his student digs. He didn't know when he fell asleep, but he awoke to find the tea and his uneaten sandwich removed. He looked down at a blanket that had mysteriously covered him. It had a faded print of Optimus Prime on it. He smiled. He hadn't seen that blanket in a decade. His watch showed thirteen notifications. He flicked through the messages from his friends. He didn't bother replying. His computer was in the corner, and it called to him. He shucked the blanket off and left it on the floor. Moving over to the computer, he started looking at the source code for Bubo and continued his work on the consent subroutines. After an hour, another cup of tea appeared next to him, along with a parcel wrapped in brown paper. He turned to Ethel and said, “what is this? And where is the beer."
"From the solicitors and coming right up." She said.
He swiftly forgot all about the beer as which was just as well as it never appeared. He turned the parcel around, wondering at its secrets. Then tore open he brown paper to find a framed photograph of the family from about six years ago. A bronze plaque said, “Nestor, everything you need is here.” He snorted. If the family was that important, then his father should have spent more time with it instead of being trapped in his office. He put it in a draw and carried on coding. Hunger eventually drew him upstairs, and he followed the rich scent of food to the dining room, where steaming beef stew and soda bread sat waiting for him. The massive table seemed like a continent. A monument to just how alone he was. A beer appeared next to him. Finally, he thought. He drank greedily. The stew was delicious, and warmth spread through him. When he finished, he retreated to his sanctuary in the cellar. Another full cup of tea waited for him, along with a slice of the densest fruit cake he had ever seen. He poked it with his finger. Gingerly he chewed on a bit of it. Shrugging, he returned to work. Bubo hovered around him, playing rock music as he typed.
Nestor awoke to a shriek. He tossed off the sheets and threw a dressing gown on. Emerging from the basement, he hurried through the rooms to the dulcet tones of a well spoken Radio Four presenter. Finally, arriving at the kitchen, he found a furious Ethel Winters wielding a brush and dustpan with deadly intent.
"What is the meaning of this?" She asked.
There was an uncomfortable silence where Nestor withered under her gaze. "Meaning of what?"
"This," she waved in the air, "this noise, this light."
Nestor grinned happily. "This is the future. I have brought this pile of bricks into the modern age. When Bubo detects that you have woken up, he turns on the lights as you enter the room and then plays your favourite radio station."
The brush and dustpan waved in his face with all the menace of a barbarian invader. He took a quick step back. "Well, if Bubo tries that again, instead of gathering up the pieces of a shattered bone china cup older than you, Nestor, I'll be sweeping up broken circuit boards." She pointed at the original tiffany fixtures. "I will turn on the lights when I am good and ready. Now, how do I stop this noise?"
Nestor swiftly ordered Bubo to stop the radio. "This is the direction the world is moving in, Ethel. You should embrace the future, not flee from it."
Cocking her head, she said, "If this is how you want to live your life, then do it, but I have my own way of waking up. Now, if you will excuse me, " she moved past him, "breakfast will be at 08:00 as usual. Unless Bubo objects, of course."
Rolling his eyes, Nestor decided not to go back to bed and retreated down to his basement to set the rest of the house to manual. He had a tablet in his hand and was scrolling through all the information he could find on Lynch Industries.
After what appeared to be no time at all, Bubo bleeped and reported "Breakfast", he tore himself from his reading and wandered upstairs still in his dressing gown. It was hard to tell if Ethel was still angry or it was just her default cold exterior manifesting itself. Regardless, he decided to keep a low profile. A boiled egg, half a grapefruit, a pot of Greek yoghurt and some toast soldiers materialised in front of him, along with a fresh pot of tea.
Whilst his cup slowly filled, he made polite conversation, "Did you know that Lynch Industries doesn't make ships anymore?"
A bone china cup was placed in front of him. "The company hasn't had the best of times in recent years." Ethel conceded.
"Bridges." Nestor continued. "We build bridges in our shipyards now at a loss."
"Will you be wanting anything else?" Ethel asked. Nestor shook his head.
He poked at the grapefruit. Then he picked up the strange serrated teaspoon and poked at it a bit more. He sighed. "Ethel, we live in a first world country. Why do I have to do so much physical labour to eat my food." Silence echoed back at him. "Can I not have bacon instead of grapefruit." He gave up. She must have wondered out of earshot. He picked up the offending grapefruit peering at it in disgust before putting it to one side. Eggs will have to do. They are easy.
He had just returned to his basement and started coding when a knock on the door disrupted him. He was still in his dressing gown. He called for Ethel to come in.
The door opened. Ethel placed a fresh cup of tea on the table beside him. "You have a guest Master Lynch. Perhaps some clothes are in order."
Irritation flashed across his face. "Who is it?"
"Frederick Smythe, the acting CEO of Lynch Industries."
"I know who he is. I'll be up in five minutes."
"Very well, he will be in the drawing room." She said. She nodded and then left the room.
Nestor pulled out a fresh t-shirt and jeans from his cupboard and hastily got dressed. He ran his fingers through his hair, tussling it into a vaguely presentable shape and then walked upstairs. Daylight was leaking in through all the windows despite the best effort of the clouds. He walked down the hallway to where he could hear Frederick chatting with Ethel. As he entered the room, he noticed something odd had happened to her face. After a moment, he figured it out. She was smiling. Frederick beamed at him and stood, his teeth bared like gravestones. He shook Fredericks hand before sitting down. Ethel had placed a silver tray with tea and biscuits between them. Nestor exchanged the usual pleasantries with Frederick, before his face switched from paternal uncle to business mode.
"Nestor, an opportunity has come up, and as you are the majority shareholder in Lynch Industries, I wanted to discuss it with you." Nestor nodded warily. "Lynch Industries is up to its eyeballs in debt. I'm sorry, but this isn't what your father intended you to inherit. We've been losing money for decades. We don't even know if the banks are going to renegotiate our debts. Unless something is done and done soon then, the company will be bankrupt."
"I have been reading. Bridges?"
Frederick shrugged. "Your father took what contracts he could to keep the company on life support. With him gone, what little hope we had has also gone. I mean no offence."
"None was taken," Nestor said, "I don't really care for shipbuilding."
"That makes this next bit easier then. The Dragon Consortium, a Chinese company, is looking to purchase Lynch Industries. They have made a very generous offer, and I recommend accepting it. It will allow you to live in comfort for the rest of your life, or you could use the money to build a company that focuses on your strengths."
Without hesitation, Nestor agreed. As he did, he felt as if a millstone had fallen from around his neck. Frederick beamed at him and promised to have the paperwork sent over later on that very day.
He closed his eyes as Ethel escorted Frederick to the door. He hadn't realised just how much the legacy of his parents had preyed on him. He had always been seen as the heir to the Lynch Industries mantle. He had always understood this, but he had expected to take it on much later in his life. This was his opportunity to escape the shadows of his family and be a self-made man. He could sell the house, move back to Central London, back to the city's thrumming buzz, the vibrant culture, the parties, and the music. He opened his eyes. Ethel was standing in front of him, and the scowl was back. Briefly, he revelled in the fact that he wouldn't need Ethel in London and then immediately felt a pang of guilt.
"Did I hear that you are thinking of selling Lynch Industries?" Ethel asked.
Nestor shrugged. "It is either sell it or lose it. We might as well salvage what we can. The company is dead in the water."
"Come with me," Ethel said, turning and walking from the drawing room. She led him upstairs past all the paintings and photos of past Lynch family members. Through a hallway lined with pictures of old ships, all built by his ancestors, until they arrived at his Fathers office.
He still felt trepidation entering the oak panelled room. Even with his Fathers death, he still felt like he was disturbing him. The vast mahogany desk brought back memories of his father surrounded by paperwork and books. Day and night, his father had slaved away only for the company to go bankrupt anyway, he thought bitterly. Ethel pointed at the photos in the office. Eight massive aircraft carriers lined the walls.
"The Vindictive, The Formidable, The Glory, The Eagle, The Warrior, The Magnificent, The Bulwark, The Centaur. In Britain’s darkest hour, those ships kept the enemy out with a wall of steel. Lynch Industries steel. We've made nearly two hundred ships for the Royal Navy over the centuries."
She doesn’t get it. How can I make her understand? He thought. "That was then, Ethel. This company is trading on past glories. Look at the Royal Navy now. Less than eighteen ships in total. The Navy couldn't keep the company afloat if we were the only shipyard in Britain, and we are not. Ethel, it is time to move on." She stood stock-still radiating defiance showing no sign of moving on. He sighed.
"Ok, Nestor. Time for a field trip. You are getting some fresh air." She led him to the porch, where she threw on a jacket and changed her shoes. He picked up a denim jacket himself and wedged his feet into some old trainers. As he walked up to the door, he was garroted by a woollen scarf thrown over his neck with the precision of a KGB hitman. He adjusted it slightly. He turned and, seeing her viewing a selection of woollen caps, decided to leave whilst he still had some control over his image. The massive oaken door swung open, giving him a vision of the outside world. He realised that he hadn't been outside since the funeral. He looked up at the slate grey clouds. They looked like a giant thumb had clumsily smudged the skyline.
It was an awkward taxi ride. The Uber driver made some attempts to make small talk, but Ethel's curt responses dampened his enthusiasm. Nestor ignored them both and was reading the latest updates on his phone. It had been fifteen or twenty minutes when they arrived at the Alpine Care Home. When Ethel got out of the cab, he followed bemused. An elderly gentleman in a suit watched them from his wheelchair as he puffed away on a cigarette. Ethel led him into the building and took him to the conservatory. Several of the residents were wheeled up to the glass where they could overlook the scratty, overgrown garden. Ethel gently touched one of the residents on the shoulder, it was a tenderness that seemed alien to this iron lady, and Nestor marvelled at it. The ancient lady turned without recognition until she saw Nestor, and then her face lit up.
"Jack. Am I late for work?" She tried to stand up.
"No, no. Sit down," he said. "I am Nestor. Jack was my father."
Ethel knelt and took up Doris’s thin, blue-veined hand in hers. "Doris. Could you tell my friend about HMS Formidable?"
Doris went silent. Her eyes watered, and she smiled. "I was only fourteen. We all went to see the launch. It was the biggest thing I had ever seen. It lay in the harbour like a city. We waited until dark, and it lit up like a fairy tale palace. They gave my parents free beers, and I had my very first KitKat. A brass band was playing. I sat with my parents for hours just gazing at it. We'd seen nothing like it before." Her voice was thin and reedy but dripped with emotion, "Three years later, I had a job assisting Jack Lynch and watched as he made more of them. But The Formidable was my favourite, my first. 'The Ship That Launched herself.'" Her smile dropped. "Am I late for work?"
"No, it is your day off," Nestor said. Ethel gave him a smile of gratitude. He nodded awkwardly back at her.
Doris closed her eyes, and Ethel patted her gently.
"The Ship That Launched Herself"
As they left the care room, Nestor asked, "Who was that?" quietly, already suspecting the answer.
"My Mother," Ethel said. They waited for the taxi to arrive. Ethel turned to Nestor. "Lynch Industries is an icon. It means everything to the people who work there. It has achieved so much in its time. You say that it has failed. Well, you have nearly a hundred employees. I can see that you have your father’s brain, but do you have his heart, his loyalty? Find a way to save your company, use that brain for the good of someone else for once."
He sighed. "It sells a product that nobody wants or needs." She doesn't get it.
Ethel gently poked his chest. "Then find a product they do need. Your father managed to keep the company alive. I challenge you to do better."
The taxi arrived, and Nestor climbed in. He looked out the window, deep in thought.
It was getting dark. Nestor was seated in a leather padded armchair in the drawing-room. A cold cup of tea sat unwanted next to him. There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” he said. He kept the uncertainty from his voice with an effort.
Ethel opened the door and gently escorted in Frederick. Smiling, he brandished his briefcase with mechanical precision. He paused, seeing Nestor shake his head. “Something the matter, Nestor?”
“Many things are the matter, but I have decided to face them head-on instead of just selling the company,” Nestor said.
Anger flashed across Fredericks’s face. “This isn’t a game Nestor. Every day you delay the value of the company plummets.”
“I know this isn’t a game. Nor is the reputation of Lynch Industries. I may not have been the Lynch who founded this company, but I will be damned if I am the Lynch who ends it.
Nestor motioned for Frederick to sit. He refused. Eyes locked. “Nestor, we have an all-hands meeting tomorrow where I was hoping to announce the news. The management team has been briefed.”
He shook his head. “Well, that seems a touch premature Frederick, you must have known that I wasn’t certain to sign.”
“Your father would have signed.”
Nestor waved away the statement. “I am not my father.”
“You can still afford redundancy money. Leave it any longer, and you leave yourself and your staff with nothing.”
“I think we are done here, Frederick,” Nestor said, rising from his seat.
Frederick went to leave. At the doorway, he turned. “This isn’t your world Nestor. This is the world of business, of industry. Run back to London.”
Nestor smiled and ignored the comment. Ethel arrived and took Frederick to the front door. He could hear Fredericks steps cracking against the wooden floor like gunfire.
When Ethel returned, Nestor looked up at her. “I’ve been researching. Do you know why The Formidable was called ‘The ship that launched itself.’” She nodded. “It was because when it was being launched, it broke free of the cradle and slid down the slipway, killing one worker and injuring twenty others.”
“She wouldn’t be tamed that one. I hope you kept on reading and saw what she did to Britain’s enemies.” Ethel nodded. “If you need anything else, I’ll be in the kitchen.”
Chapter Three: Erika
Monday, 6th March 2017
The conference room at Lynch Industries was bustling with people. High vis clothing mingled with thick jackets and the clomping of work boots. Erika queued to sign in at a cheap plastic table. A selection of biros was scattered across it. Finding her name, she managed on her third pen to find one that worked enough to sign in. She looked around for a bin and tossed the two failed pens into it.
Shuffling along the line, she filled a paper cup with two scoops of instant coffee, two of sugar and topped it up with hot water.
‘Oh, look, biscuits!’ She turned to see her friend Marlene, a middle-aged woman with a bob cut and dungarees, grab several of the plastic digestive biscuit packets and fill her fleece pockets. ‘Company can’t be doing all that bad if we have money for these luxuries.’ She gasped. ‘Oh, chocolate hobnobs!’ and grabbed another packet.
Erika smiled. ‘Only the best for Lynch Industries. Have you heard anything about Mr Lynch’s son?’
Marlene looked over at the empty podium looming over the ranks of plastic chairs. She whispered conspiratorially into Erika’s ear. ‘Some people are saying he is far too young for the role, but don’t worry. I have it on good authority that he is going to go through puberty very soon.’ She made herself a tea and then palmed another packet of biscuits.
They made their way to the centre of the chairs, close enough to hear clearly but not close enough to look like they were overly keen. The sound of chatter was deafening.
Erika shivered in her paint-stained jogging bottoms. The biscuit budget had obviously taken precedence over the heating budget. She looked at the ceiling to check that it wasn’t snowing on the inside. She wrapped her hands around the steaming cup. It would keep her going until the workers pressed together heated the room up with their bodies. The aroma of the place was already noticeable. Stale deodorant wrestled with the scent of cheap coffee.
As Chief Technical Officer Frederick Smythe entered in a black suit, white shirt and yellow hard hat, the room gradually quietened. Glancing pointedly at a handful of chattering people who hadn’t quite got the hint, Frederick waited until silence filled the room. ‘Welcome everyone, let’s make a start. Today we wanted to introduce you to your new CEO, Nestor Lynch. He knows that he has some pretty big shoes to fill, but we are confident that he will bring a wave of energy and enthusiasm to Lynch Industries.’ He took a step back and stood with his hands clasped behind him, taking up a position at the side of the podium.
Scattered applause rose from the seats of the middle managers. Awkward shuffling was the only sound until someone's phone beeped to indicate a text message. Frederick leapt forward, ‘All phones on silent, please.’ Then he resumed his previous position.
Peering at the CTO, Erika whispered to Marlene, ‘Why the hard hat?’
‘Managers always do that. They like to prove that they are one of us. Also, come the revolution, they need all the protection they can get.’ She whispered back. The hawk-like gaze of Frederick fell upon them, and they immediately fell silent and affected the usual look of mute ignorance and disinterest of the dutiful employee.
Suddenly, rock music blared through the hall, the opening bars of The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin. A teenager in a black suit and tie with a dark purple shirt bounced across to the podium as the music faded away. Raven black hair was spiked up with product, the tips dyed purple, and he was wearing sunglasses indoors. A drone flew above him, blasting out music. When the music died, the drone flew to the back of the room, where it proceeded to echo his words. The audio filter deepened his voice to a more manly, adult level.
Marlene stiffed a giggle. Erika blinked at the surreal scene. Marlene whispered into her ear, ‘Do you think Bono got lost on his way to the concert?’
‘I like his toy,’ Erika peered at the drone. ‘It's kind of cute.’
Marlene looked over and sniffed. ‘You can get them on Amazon for thirty quid. My sister used one to film her wedding. Bonus points to him for not wearing a hard hat.’
With a grin, Erika nodded towards Nestor. ‘Of course not. It would ruin that fancy hairdo.’
They fell silent as Frederick once more cast his baleful eyes over them. He was poised lurking over Nestor's shoulder like a gargoyle.
‘Well, I was supposed to read this pre-written speech to you all. But I think you deserve a little more authenticity than that.’ Nestor’s voice boomed out. The reedy voice that rolled out from the stage seemed to drop an octave when the drone echoed it. Theatrically he tossed the cards over his shoulder.
Nestor sounded enthusiastic as he reeled out a speech about embracing change and new opportunities. Erika stopped browsing her phone as the speech caught her attention.
Frederick’s eyes suddenly flashed. He stepped forwards.
‘An unfortunate turn of phrase, but no, we are not, as a company, embracing efficiency savings.’ A forest of hands shot up as an angry murmur spread through the crowd. Erika turned over to Marlene. ‘What happened? What did he say? I glazed over.’
Marlene shrugged. ‘I was checking Facebook. Jennifer has gone and utterly ruined her front garden. Look at that tarmac.’
Erika shushed her. Dave stood up. ‘Did you just say you were introducing efficiency savings? Are people being made redundant?’
Nestor blinked. ‘Redundancies? Nobody is being made redundant. On the contrary, I said that introducing drones like Bubo here into the workforce would allow for efficiency savings.’
Frederick whispered in his ear.
‘I mean to say that we probably aren't making any redundancies.’ Nestor amended.
Frederick gripped him by the shoulders and beamed a grinning rictus. ‘Thank you, Nestor. Your words were very much appreciated. I will now take questions from the floor.’
Nestor looked confused as Frederick directed him towards the exit. Then he suddenly turned and spoke into the microphone. ‘I don't know why you are all so worried. AI is the future. Drones are the future. The days of billion-pound destroyers, of fighter pilots, of ship’s helmsmen are over. This isn't optional. This is happening. In many places, it has already happened.’ Frederick turned off the microphone and whispered something to Nestor, who shook his head and left the room.
Watching Frederick, Erika had a sense that she was watching a modern-day Marie Antoinette. They were lucky the budget couldn't stretch to a guillotine. She shared her thoughts with Marlene, who scoffed, ‘At least the French were offered cake. What are we being offered? Did he mention a redundancy pay-out at least?’
‘Not everyone has nineteen years to cash in, Marlene.’ Erika waved at the podium. ‘He just said he wants to replace us with robots.’
‘Robots can't do what we can do,’ Marlene snorted with derision and went back to browsing Facebook on her phone.
Erika was so intent on her whispered conversation with Marlene that she missed the question from the audience. When the room fell deathly silent, however, she started to pay attention. Frederick was smiling so hard she was worried he'd crack a tooth. His lips were pressed shut into a taut grin. ‘We are, of course, looking to claim our next payment, but yes, HLS Shipping has gone into insolvency.’
Marlene had put down her phone and was now staring with a razor-sharp focus. ‘Oh, Christ on a bike. This might not even be redundancies. This could be bankruptcy.’
Erika watched as Frederick fended off a cascade of questions all centred on the theme of redundancies. Then, as it concluded, she sat back shell-shocked. At twenty, this was her first job, an apprentice electrician, and it was already at risk.
‘Pub.’ Marlene said grimly. When Erika went to answer, Marlene interrupted her, ‘Statement, not a question. After a meeting like this, absolutely everyone goes down to the pub. It's where we discuss it without management.’
Erika nodded numbly and filtered out with everyone. She wished she'd had the foresight to grab some biscuits too. Unfortunately, this could be her last opportunity.
Erika joined the queue to clock off. It was just after 17:00. Frederick must have known that nobody would be in the mood for work after the meeting and timed it accordingly. Stowing their hard hats in their lockers, Erika pulled out a pair of jeans and a new top. Refreshing her deodorant and reapplying perfume, she looked at herself in the mirror. Shrugging, she turned and faced Marlene, who shook her head.
‘Where do you think we are going? The Ritz?’ Grabbing her wrist, she pulled her through the other workers. ‘Come on, love, let's get spangled.’
The street was packed with a thick convoy of workers. Either whispering or shouting at each other, they all knew where they were going, led by a common instinct.
Sighting the pub, Marlene grabbed Erika by the sleeve. ‘There we go. Come along, poppet.’ Arriving at the bar, they found two pints of Guinness and two whisky chasers waiting for them. ‘Thanks, Steve. Glad you got the text.’ Marlene winked at him. Then passed a whisky to Erika, clinked it and downed it instantly. Erika stood holding the full glass. Looking up, she saw Marlene and the barman Steve lock eyes as Marlene waved her empty glass suggestively, ‘Go on then my little gem, sláinte…’ Sighing, Erika sculled the whisky and then started coughing. The stools were all taken, so they stood with their pints.
‘I don't do whisky or beer,’ Erika’s eyes misted from the shot. ‘I'm more of a wine drinker.’
‘Ah, well, sadly, Downton Abbey was fully booked. So I thought we'd slum it with these burly peasants.’ She waved over at the bar. ‘Another round, Steve.’
Erika looked to see an empty pint glass in front of Marlene and blinked. ‘I'm good, thanks.’
‘Oh, no worries. This is an interval pint for me, squidge,’ her thirst sated at least temporarily as Marlene finished her glass. Finally, she was able to focus on Lynch Industries matters.
‘So, what do you think will happen?’ Erika asked.
Marlene laughed. ‘Who cares! That is a problem for “Tomorrow Marlene”. We are trying to forget that god awful meeting.’ Two whiskeys appeared on the table. ‘Steve, I am a happily married woman.’ Steve waved the whiskeys. ‘But of course, we accept your offer of chasers.’ She raised her glass. ‘Sláinte!’
The whisky burned as it hit Erika's stomach. ‘We should consider karaoke.’ She pointed at the stage.
‘Way ahead of you, bluebell,’ Marlene waved over at Steve. ‘Put us down for Alanis Morrisette - the song to be decided,’ Erika whispered in her ear. ‘Then Smashmouth love. "All-Star". Not my choice.’ Grabbing Erika's arm, she dragged her to one side. ‘They look like they are leaving soon, so let's loiter.’
‘Bit rude, isn't it?’ Erika said.
‘No, the heavy eye contact is part of the process -- Oh! They are off. Knew it.’ They both swooped in like red kites on motorway roadkill.
Over at the stage, Brickie Dave had just started up a particularly gravelly rendition of Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On.” They applauded politely as he nodded graciously, returning to his pint.
‘Look, Erika, it's Janice. This is a miracle, alright. I've never seen her express an emotion before. Groundbreaking times.’ They watched as Janice started to sing R.E.M “Everybody Hurts”. Then silence, followed by polite clapping. ‘And I guess I still haven't seen it. Amazing. Couldn't predict that outcome.’
Erika woke up with the taste of last night’s kebab in her mouth. Her alarm was digging into her mind like an ice pick. A grunt from next to her caused her to startle, and she cautiously rolled over to see Brickie Dave. Oh, God. She lay back and slowly waited for the memories to return. As she did, she sensed movement, and a large middle-aged man in just a pair of faded y-fronts walked into her room. Christ on a bike!
He placed down a plate by her bed. ‘Tea and toast, mate. Thanks for letting us crash. You did us a solid.’
She smiled, ‘No problem,’ she said in a voice completely lacking in conviction. As she leaned forwards the room span. She paused. Then a wave of relief washed over her. She was still fully dressed. Again, she looked over at Brickie Dave, this time noticing the tell-tale straps of a vest. She lumbered out of bed and headed towards the bathroom. The concept of leaving the house was unthinkable. The concept of missing work was impossible.
Arriving at Lynch Industries, she queued up at the lockers to retrieve her hard hat and work clothes. At least she was working outside today. The cold air would be a refreshing balm.
A voice erupted from behind her. ‘Hello, Butter Bean, oh no, look at the state o’you.’ She turned to see an unfairly bright and breezy Marlene. She had never wished anyone dead before, so this was a new and exciting development in her life.
‘Hey,’ she managed to grunt out.
Marlene handed her a sizeable, greasy paper bag. ‘Sausage, bacon, mushrooms and a fried egg.’ Looking around, she whispered conspiratorially into Erika’s ear. ‘They call it the Grease Bomb, but personally, I think it is a form of medicine that should be available on the NHS.’
Erika took the parcel gratefully. ‘What happened last night? I remember singing Sonny and Cher, then nothing until waking up next to a, thankfully clothed, Brickie Dave.’
Blinking, Marlene peered closely at her. ‘Brickie Dave went home with you? I wonder what his husband thought about that?’ Marlene gave her a stern look. ‘I will be honest, I supported you in your life choice to sing Nickelback with them, but when you all opted to drink tequila, you chose a dark path, and I had to leave you.’ She munched on her roll. ‘I was in Mexico in the “90s. I signed a non-disclosure agreement, or I would tell you a tale that would shake you to the core.’
Suddenly more blanks started to populate Erika’s mind. ‘Ah. Brickie Dave is gay.’ Oh no. ‘Marlene, I think I've locked him in my house with his husband.’
‘Never you mind, Teacup, they are tradesmen. They'll get out. Besides, Brickie Dave is off work today. Most people take the day off after an all-hands meeting. Can’t handle their liquor. The lot of them.’
Erika filed that away for future use.
‘Right then, Petal. Let's go see if we still have jobs.’ Marlene linked arms with Erika, and they marched off to check the bulletin board.