IMPLANTS AND ROBOT OCCUPATION
Sean remembered getting his implant vividly. He and his mum were some of the first to be called. She held him as long as she could, tears streaming down her cheeks as they dragged him away behind a green hospital curtain. There he saw his second robot, headless, multi-armed like a chrome spider, devices whirring. Two doctors in white coats stained with red handprints strapped him to a bed as the machine went to work.
‘Hold still,’ one said, voice muffled by his face mask.
Sean, pinned down by the straps, could only look up. The hos- pital must have taken a few hits during the invasion. Whole panels had fallen away from the ceiling, revealing air-conditioning ducts and pipes swaddled in ragged insulation. A neon light dangled precariously from the damaged ceiling at the end of a couple of wires, glaring in Sean’s eyes. He squinted, turning away.
‘Keep bloody still,’ the other man said in a tight voice. Sean recognised that tone. His dad used it whenever he got angry and then instantly regretted it. This was a good man doing a bad thing. Sean could see it in the doctor’s baggy, bloodshot eyes as he grabbed Sean’s jaw, setting him straight.
It took less than a minute. An injection to numb the pain, a drill-like device stabbing into his neck, a punch followed by a tight squeezing sensation, and then it was in.
Without a word, the doctors unstrapped him and bundled him out into a hallway tinted a murky green by the flickering emergency lights. Sean didn’t know where to go, what to do. His mind tried to make sense of what had just happened. He looked up and down the hall. It was full of stooped, sorry figures, their implants glowing blue as they cried, ‘What have they done to us?’ and, ‘What is this thing?’ Howls of pain came from behind the rows of closed hospital curtains as more people were implanted.
Some clawed at them, tried to pull them out. One man had found a toolbox and was attempting to unscrew the implant of an RAF pilot in a tattered flight suit. Sean wondered if he was from the same base as his dad. He was about to ask when a doctor barged past and ran towards them, hands waving. ‘No! Don’t! It’ll—’
The explosion turned the pilot’s head into a red mist of brain and pulverised bone. His friend with the screwdriver lost his face completely. It was a mess of red-raw flesh, muscle and white, exposed skull. He tried to scream, but his lungs were burned and all he could manage was a gurgling, rasping noise before he fell dead to the ground.
Sean watched, frozen to the spot, ears ringing from the blast, his mind unable to comprehend what he’d just seen.
He felt a hand gently squeeze his arm. His mum, her eyes red from crying.
An implant glowed blue on her neck. Just like his. Just like everyone else’s.
‘Sean, sweetheart.’ Her voice trembled as she tried to keep it together for him. ‘Our bus is ready. Come on.’
It became clear after a few weeks inside that the robots were seri- ous about confining everyone to their homes. Those who tried to run or sneak out got one warning and that was it. A flash of light, followed by dark ashes floating on the breeze and that smell. That hot-Tarmac smell. Some mornings it wafted through the windows, and you knew someone nearby had tried to do a runner in the night.
The internet was shut down immediately. The robots had their own network that no human could access. The phone lines were all cut, and all mobiles and pagers were now nothing more than worthless lumps of metal and plastic. But the TV and radio stayed on.
The Mediator broadcasted daily, explaining the rules between repeats of old TV shows. People with VC armbands and green- glowing implants went door-to-door and handed out transcripts of the Mediator’s words. They made public information films that played on a loop on every channel for days.
Sean and his mum had taken a crowded yet silent bus back to their temporary home, the shelter at the school. Their street had been totalled on the third day of the war when a Tornado fighter jet spiralled out the sky, crashing with a plume of thick black smoke, killing dozens and destroying their house.
They’d been volunteering at the shelter at the time, helping those who’d already lost their homes. Sean’s first question whenever he heard a fighter had crashed – and it happened every day – was the same: ‘Was it Dad’s?’
His father, Danny, had left in a hurry on the first day of the war. His orders from the RAF came through at breakfast. He headed out with big hugs and a promise to be back soon.
Since then, Sean had kept count of the days and weeks, then months and years, first in a notebook at the school, then on the wall of his room in their new home. Over a thousand tiny scratches, spread in rows of green ink, red, blue, black. Each change an old pen run dry.
After a few weeks, the Volunteer Corps had found them a house in nearby Fleetwood Street, one in a row of redbrick terrace houses. Sean’s mum asked who had lived there before, but none of the VC would give her an answer. Few would even look her the eye. Clearing up, she found photos of a family: grandparents, children, grandchildren. She kept them safe. ‘Just in case,’ she said.
Mr Smythe, who used to work with Sean’s mum at the school, had pulled a few strings and pushed them to the top of the housing list. She didn’t find out till much later and was furious. ‘We don’t want any special treatment, Robin,’ she shouted loud enough from her doorstep so that all the neighbours could hear. ‘Especially not from you!’
Smythe had left in a huff that day, but he was back by the end of the week, apologising, squeezing her hands and trying to make amends.
But Sean was secretly happy about it. Having a place of their own was better than a sports hall full of crying children. Better than a playground ripe with the stench of death, and flies buzzing around rows of bodies in black bags. And the occupation wasn’t too bad to start with. Smythe visited regularly and kept them informed of the latest news. He reassured them that Danny would be found soon. The RAF had surrendered and the pilots were being held nearby. ‘Your dad’ll be here in no time, lad,’ he told Sean, scruffing his hair.
And while they waited they gorged on DVD box sets, read every book in the house, played every board game a gajillion times. The first year was like a long summer holiday. The sun shone and people still smiled. You could chat with neighbours from your doorstep, so long as you were careful not to cross the threshold and set off your implant. Everyone learned that the hard way. Sean had slipped over the line when mucking about by the front door and his implant briefly turned red. It had only been a few seconds, but the Sentry on the corner registered the infraction and it cost him a day’s rations. Mum had pleaded with Smythe, but he shrugged and said, ‘I thought you didn’t want any special treatment, Kate,’ in that calm Yorkshire accent of his, relishing the opportunity to throw her words back at her. The more sincere he tried to sound, the flatter and more inhuman his voice became. Whatever spark of humanity he’d possessed had died a long time ago. ‘Besides, I report to the Mediator and he won’t allow any acts of clemency. Zero tolerance is the only way to keep order.’
Mediator 452. Just thinking about the robot made Sean shudder.
The only humanoid model that Sean knew of, Mediator 452 appeared on their TVs every day. It looked like a child and creeped everyone out.
Morse Code Martin, who lived a couple of doors down, had told Sean about the Mediator. They’d been scaring each other with old ghost stories, but then Martin said he had a bit of gossip that would really put the willies up Sean. Rumours he’d heard from a loose-lipped VC ration officer about the boy robot’s construction.
‘The robots studied us for decades before the invasion,’ the old man told Sean. ‘They abducted people, did experiments on ’em and found out that humans responded positively to children. So they created these Mediator robots. Made ’em look like little kids, thinking we’d all pat them on head and smile, I s’pose. One in each zone, apparently. This one’s Smythe’s boss. Imagine that – saluting to a robot that looks like a little kid.’
Last January it had come down their street with Smythe on a routine inspection. It had gone door-to-door introducing itself like a politician polling for votes, probably Smythe’s idea. ‘Thank you for your cooperation,’ it said in its odd, boyish and fragmented voice.
Small children could be cute, Sean thought, no doubt. But the thing on his doorstep was a creepy, soulless automaton. Far from putting him at ease, it made him feel sick. Its glassy eyes peered at him in a mockery of human emotion and its smooth, plasticky skin made his own flesh crawl. Just looking at the odd Fuzzy Felt black hair stuck on its head, its bizarre grey hoody and shiny PVC trousers and its unblinking stare made him recoil.
‘The Robot Empire appreciates your patience in these difficult times,’ it said in a voice made up of dozens of different intonations, all rising and falling in pitch like bad Auto-Tune.
Some people spat at the Mediator on its rounds. They shouted and screamed, ranting about their incarceration, but Sean said nothing. The Mediator was about to move to the next door along when it stopped and looked at Sean again. The black implant on its neck pulsed, little white lights dancing across the circular display. It appeared to be studying him. Sean felt his mum’s grip on his shoulder tighten.
‘You are perspiring and your heart is beating at 117 beats per minute,’ it said. ‘Do not be afraid of me, Sean Flynn.’
Sean felt tears running down his cheeks. He couldn’t help it. How did this thing know his name? How did it know what his heart rate was? He felt invaded. They’d taken over his world, his country, his street, his doorstep and now him personally. He couldn’t bring himself to reply. The Mediator tilted its head in a simulation of curiosity, fascinated by this unexpected show of emotion.
Smythe’s guiding hand indicated the rest of the street. ‘Come, Mediator,’ he said, ‘lots to do today.’
That was the day when Sean realised the robots were keeping a secret. He didn’t know what it was, but the fact that they could sense heartbeats, that they knew everyone’s name, that they were making such an effort to be friendly, reeked of trying too hard.
They were hiding something.
He told Morse Code Martin his theory. The old man had the idea of knocking the walls through in the lofts so they could meet and talk and swap books, games and DVDs without the robots and VC spying on them. They marked the divides between each house with silver duct tape, careful not to cross for fear of setting off their implants. Sometimes he and Sean sat and talked in the loft on rainy days.
‘Of course they’re hiding something,’ Martin said. ‘They didn’t come all this way for a holiday, did they? You mark my words: they’re up to something. We’ll figure it out sooner or later, you’ll see.’ They were going to get through this, he kept telling Sean. They were going to survive. He often talked about the ‘Blitz spirit’.
But after the first winter, things changed and the Blitz spirit faded. The occupation felt more real and the weekly rations were getting smaller. The power, kept running by the VC, started cutting out. The water that came in sporadic hiccups from the tap looked less clear than it used to be ... And that’s when it dawned on Sean: they had another six years of this to endure.
From the start, Kate did her best to keep them both active, mentally and physically. She knocked up homework from memory and Sean worked out a daily exercise routine. He hated it to start with, but what the hell else were they supposed to do with all that time?
The first winter was hard, but the second summer was even worse; seeing the sunshine but not being able to go outside was torture. They opened every window, every door, and Kate filled the windowsills with plants bedded in old baked-bean tins from their rations. Anything to bring a bit of the outside in. She ran a length of hosepipe from the guttering so they could capture rainwater in the bath, then watered the plants with an old cracked water jug.
At night, Sean was sometimes woken by flashes of light, fol- lowed by screams, made worse when Smythe stopped by to tell them horror stories of people who thought they could sneak past the Sentries to see their family in the next street. He’d become Zone Chief within a year of the robot takeover and his visits were less frequent now, and he hardly ever mentioned Danny. Sean always had to bring his dad up. He knew it upset his mum, but he had to know.
Smythe never had any news, just more empty promises.
Well, after three years, Sean wasn’t waiting on Smythe’s bullshit anymore. He’d found a tube of tennis balls in the loft and had an idea.
‘Mum, can I borrow that photo of Dad?’
She gave it to him with caution. Everything else had been des- troyed in their old house and the one in her purse was the last remaining photo of Danny. He was smiling. They all were. It was taken at the beach during their last summer together.
Sean then tore a dozen or so blank pages from his old school notebooks, sharpened a pencil and started sketching.
He traced around his dad’s face. It wasn’t a good likeness, and he wished he could draw something that didn’t look like a bad Manga villain, but he got better with each attempt. The final one was the best of all, capturing his dad’s big grin and bright eyes.
Sean then cut a slit in each of the tennis balls and carefully folded a sketch of his dad into each one with a message and a description of his dad, headlined:
LOOKING FOR MY DAD – DANNY FLYNN – HAVE YOU SEEN HIM?
The back door creaked open. Sean stood on the threshold, not daring to go any further. He felt the sun warm his face, the gentle sea breeze wafting in from the beach. He could hear the waves lapping on the shingle even from here. The gulls, too. No cars, no planes, only the occasional distant rumble from squadrons of Drones, or a Skyship passing through the stratosphere overhead.
Sean placed a message-stuffed tennis ball into a large catapult made of bungee rope salvaged from some gym equipment he’d swapped with a neighbour. He clamped it to the sides of the back door and stretched it as far as it would go. The first ball arced over their garden into one two doors down. Not far enough. He tried again, pulling harder on the bungee. One after another they flew, over fences, roofs, and into neighbouring gardens and alleys. His note urged people to pass it on. If they couldn’t help, maybe someone in the next street could. Spread the word. Sean’s message included a crude hand-drawn map showing where he lived, where to return it. He knew if Smythe found out he’d be in trouble, but he was long past caring what Smythe thought.
The last ball was loosed. Sean watched it go, arching up into the sunlight as it spun over the roof opposite. He desperately wanted to go with it. To rush out and hammer on every door, screaming his dad’s name at the top of his voice.
‘Hey.’ His mum placed a hand on his shoulder and kissed his head. Now he was sixteen, she had to stand on tiptoes to do it. ‘C’mon. I’ve got some washing. Want to help?’
‘Lemme check my diary.’ He flicked through an imaginary calendar. ‘Ah, you’re in luck. I’m free for the next four years. Yeah, why not?’
As they stepped back inside, Sean scratched at the robot implant on his neck. Its weight tugged on his skin, which was numb where its metal edges pressed into him. They left the door open, the gentle sound of waves breaking on the shore drifting through the house.