They came for them in buses. Street by street. Queuing in the glare of the headlights as the sun went down. Packing everyone in. Standing-room only. Sean squeezed in next to his mum. No one spoke as their bus pulled up alongside dozens of others in the car park outside the hospital.
The crowd surged forward. The huge wave of humanity nearly knocked Sean off his feet and onto the Tarmac. He’d only experi- enced anything like this once before, when Dad took him to a football match at Wembley, but that had been like swimming in a tide of happy people. They were excited to see the game, fans were chanting and singing, and you didn’t mind the pushing and shoving.
But here everyone was fearful, quiet, worried about what lay ahead. This felt like drowning.
Nearby, a woman cried out and fell into a puddle. Sean caught a glimpse of blood. A gashed knee, grazed knuckles. A man helped her to her feet and Sean saw they were both crying.
‘Stay close, Sean.’ His mum gripped his shoulder. ‘Don’t get split up.’
That was the first time Sean saw one of them.
It was a Sentry. The different types of robot were named by those who survived the war, and eventually even the VC and Mediators adopted some of the names: Sentries, Drones, Snipers, Skyships, Lampheads, Cubes, or just Clankers. The Sentries were the most common, posted on almost every street corner. This one towered over the hospital entrance, standing two storeys tall, the high-powered beam in the middle of its faceless metallic skull sweeping across the crowd. Rows of silhouetted heads turned away from it, wincing at the intense light.
Sean felt sick just looking at it. Until now, he’d only seen blurred footage on the news. Shapes flashing by as fighter jets and tanks burst into flames, before the TV cut to presidents and prime minis- ters making speeches from bunkers, then not saying anything at all. But this one was real. From here, Sean could see small chips and cracks in the blue steel of its outsized arms. The wear and tear of invasion. Its weapon-arm crackled with energy, glowing red in the dark. Thick, clumping legs were attached to a segmented, ribbed torso topped with huge, brutish shoulders, in-between which nestled its tiny head with its circular lamp. Everyone was watching it. Would it turn on them? Had they been brought here to die?
There was a murmur at the front of the crowd, at something Sean couldn’t quite see, and now there was a faint drizzle in the air, the fine raindrops and searchlights creating a dazzling mist.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
‘It’s okay.’ His mum squeezed his arm as she craned her neck to get a better view. ‘Just some people coming out through the main door. I think ... I think that’s Robin.’ She sounded puzzled. ‘What’s he doing here?’
Sean inched forward for a better look. There were about a dozen people – the mayor, councillors, police officers – all milling about under umbrellas near the hospital’s main entrance. They were swapping sheets of paper, preparing to make a statement as someone wired up a microphone to a PA system. And on the fringe of the VIPs was Robin Smythe. Sean’s geography teacher, head of Year Ten and terminal dickhead. Sean wasn’t surprised to see him mingling with the nervous-looking town leaders. If anyone knew how to kiss the buttcheeks of power, it was Mr Smythe.
The mayor put the microphone too close to her lips. ‘—this on?’ Her distorted voice echoed off the hospital walls and around the car park.
Some people at the front started shouting questions.
‘Please!’ said the mayor. ‘I have a short statement, and then ... just please listen.’
The crowd simmered down, still restless.
‘As of midnight last night, in order to prevent any further loss of life, every government on the planet surrendered unconditionally to the Robot Empire.’
A wail swept through the crowd as people started crying. The rain began to fall more heavily.
‘We are now all subject to their laws.’ She was sobbing as she spoke and more voices rose up around her. Angry voices.
Sean felt a tremor beneath his feet and glanced around. More sweeping searchlights; more Sentries moving in, surrounding the car park. No escape.
‘Please, listen!’ the mayor cried, but the shouting grew louder. More organised. Threatening.
Someone threw a rock. It clanged off the first Sentry’s armour.
Without a second’s hesitation, the Sentry raised its gun-arm. The casing at the end split open with a whirr and a clank, revealing a glowing red mechanism that spun rapidly as it powered up. The flash of light momentarily blinded Sean and he felt the heat bloom brush across his cheeks. Four times. Five. There were more angry shouts, then, ‘No! Please, I didn’t mean to—’ And another voice was silenced by the searing heat from the Sentry’s gun. There was a new smell in the air: a strange metallic tang from the weapon’s energy discharge. Around Sean, people exchanged silent glances: most were terrified, some looked angry. A few, their fists and jaws clenched, looked ready to surge forward and attack, but they were also hesitant, unsure. Unwilling to die quite yet. Sean felt com- pletely helpless, and it took him a moment to realise that everyone else around him did, too.
Smythe grabbed the microphone from the mayor. Say what you want about a weasel like Smythe, he had a voice that carried authority.
‘Quiet!’ he bellowed, and he got it. ‘It’s very simple: we can cooperate or die. The war is lost. If you want to live, if you want your loved ones, your children, to live, then you must do as you are told.’ He was getting through to them. The silent, frightened crowd wanted someone to tell them what to do next. ‘You have been brought here today for registration. It’s a simple procedure, so let’s show the robots that we can work with them, that we’re better than a rabble. Our lives have changed and no amount of shouting, screaming or fighting is going to change that. The greatest armies in the world couldn’t change that.’ He let that sink in. ‘We’re going to read out some street names, and we’d like the people who live in those streets to come to the front. The quicker we get this done, the quicker you can get home.’
It actually worked. Any thoughts of uprising vanished as quickly as those who had died. The promise of home stopped a riot – or worse, a massacre. Only afterwards, when it was too late, did anyone realise the robots planned to make everyone’s home a prison for the next seven years.