A home is a place you should feel safe. A place to keep the dangers out. The spectres were dissolving Tom Deringer’s sense of home by the minute. Their click-clacking metal feet probed for open windows, cat flaps and chimney pots, any easy access to inside and fresh victims. They were everywhere outside, crawling on the cars, skittering up the street, tipping over dustbins and pouncing on pets that had not been called in before the rolling scream of the town’s warning siren. Over recent days, his fear of them had turned to a volatile rage and finally, like standing too long in a blizzard, the inevitable tiredness drained his power from the relentless assault and crumpled him. The overwhelming onslaughts finally stole his fire and replaced it with a numb grey fog.
Tom’s daughter ran into the lounge where he was sitting, his large frame slumped in defeat on the sofa. She could see that he hadn’t shaved or washed in days, his clothes were unchanged, just more dishevelled and stained. It was as if he had aged ten years in a week. She loved him more when observing his weariness, she understood he was vulnerable and she knew she was all he had as a steady constant against the noise. She jumped into his lap in a bundle, shrinking into a ball for a feeling of protection. Her hair was matted, her jumper and jeans muddy and torn – a delicate moth with tattered wings. His arms slowly raised as if leaves were unfurling with sunlight, and curled around her shoulders as a makeshift blanket.
“It’s okay Emma, it’s okay. I’ve sealed every doorframe and window. They are not getting in.”
“But they will get in one day. They will…” she squealed, as if in physical pain at the idea.
In the previous attack two days ago, she had witnessed one of the few neighbours they really knew and talked to, Mrs Wilson, stripped of her clothes in the street and lanced by a hundred little stiletto blade legs. The elderly lady had been too slow to return to her house, hobbling desperately toward her front door with a walking stick pitching awkwardly into the damaged tarmac with one hand, the other clutching a small, hard loaf of bread. The whole street was screaming at her from behind cracked windows to hurry, but no one dared come out to help. It was too late, it was futile.
The autonomous robots were simple and efficient with their kill algorithms. No one could reason with them or plead or beg for mercy. They were programmed and let loose from the shell-like armoured vehicles that had encircled the town. They would not stop until they were recalled, or their batteries ran down. The streets were stained red in every direction. Bodies were cleaned away into makeshift pits in between each wave of attack. The stench of a dead deer on the roadside is enough to make a man gag, but out there, the foul odour permeated the walls and ground.
“Why are they doing this?” asked Emma for the thousandth time.
“I don’t know… I suppose the invaders want what we’ve got?”
“Then why are they destroying everything?”
“Try not to look too hard for reasons that make sense, Em.”
A swarm of the machines, each no bigger than a small dog, was accumulating on the roof, sounding like a terrible rainstorm, the stamping taps of the spectres’ spider-like legs unrelenting above them. Beyond the drumming sounds, Tom could hear something that alarmed him even more. He gently peeled his little girl off his chest, shutting out her protests to be separated, and stood up straight, to listen more intently to what sounded like the slate tiles being plucked out one by one. This was a new development. The AI was finding new angles to work with. Sure enough, the broken, dislodged tiles clattered and crashed down the steep angles of the apex of the roof and bounced into the road and their little front garden to shatter. With the tiles rained down a few of the jagged looking machines, that were knocked off balance with the momentum of the tumbling tiles. Their upturned little bodies exposed their intricate circuitry where the casings had cracked off, reminding him that they were not alive, as they appeared to be.
“Emma, listen to me,” he said, stooping down to meet her scrunched up face and tears. “Stay calm and quiet. It’s time to be quiet now. Can you do that?”
She was trying hard not to release her distress, but it leaked out in unrestrainable bursts. Tom shut the door to the lounge and propped a chair he had ready, hard against the handle, so it kept it firmly level. He scanned the room to double-check what they had prepared. There were tins of food, the single gas-fuelled hob, a large tub of water and two spades, all bundled in one corner next to the defunct TV. His old work laptop and a heap of cables were there too. He would boot it up only if he knew there was restored wi-fi, to gauge the situation outside. With the electricity out, any news was despatched in gossip and whispers at the food and water queues.
Taking up the most space in the pile of survival necessities, there was the large chest, an old tatty, dark brown antique container used for storage. It was a thick hided, tough old thing, with brass brackets and reinforcing features all about it to make it stronger. It used to serve as a dumping place for house clutter but now represented their last resort if the worst happened.
The window was double-glazed, and half boarded up but through the wide gaps where light streamed through, he could make out the adjacent rooftops of the street being torn apart. Through machine-to-machine transmissions, the spectres were sharing their new strategy.
He could not rip his gaze away as the shining monsters scuttled into the bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms of the houses across from his. He caught glimpses of attacks in the windows that were not boarded or shuttered. The robots had one aim, slaughter, and they dealt it out deftly and with skill. He could make out the panic, hands flailing, rising up to block blades, shadows of people running, violent falling, blood, lots of blood. He had to remain calm, he had to keep them both safe, he could not afford a single miscalculation.
The spectres were inside his house, he could hear them tumbling clumsily from what he presumed was the shower extractor-fan hole, bouncing into the damp shower tray in his ensuite bathroom above. He could hear when they found the handle to the bathroom door and twisted it, to access the landing. He could track their spiky footfalls across his bedroom above, a spreading, fanning flood of razor legs. One after another they fell into his house and hunted in the rooms they encountered, searching for the shapes of humans.
Emma gripped his waist and buried her head in his side. He held one finger up to his lips to remind her to keep silent. The spectres scuttled down the stairs and investigated the length of the hallway methodically, trailing into the kitchen opposite. There were sounds of them dancing across the glass hob of the electric oven, springing on the dining table, scratching at the wooden tabletop with the tips of their knife-like legs.
It took them little time to locate and probe the lounge door. A solitary robot hiked up the wooden panel on the other side and tried to turn the handle with two of its front legs. Its small but powerful hydraulics pushed with the maximum force they permitted but to no avail. The angled chair frame prevented the handle’s rotation. The autonomous assassin gave up and returned to the hallway floor in a frantic pattern, poking every accessible corner.
With sighs of heart starting relief, Tom and Emma crept to the opposite end of the lounge and crouched on cushions propped against the far wall. The spectres could detect sound but were not sophisticated and had limited range. You would need to be within a few feet to trigger their attack via sound alone. Trapped in the corner of the room, the two of them curled together instinctively, and listened to the frantic scuttling, just beyond the wall.
Night fell abruptly, the darkness suddenly engulfing the shattered town. It was as if the sun had given up and abandoned them. The room’s features and furniture became submerged in black and all they could see was an eerie light that illuminated the door frame. The glow emitted from the spectres and danced about in long shafts as they zig-zagged in the spaces of the hallway. Tom realised the machines could not exit the house to regroup for recharging. The extractor fan hole was in the ceiling and with the smooth surface of the ceramic tiles to the shower, the metal legs would fail to grip, so they would not be able to climb out.
Their thirsty batteries were diminishing power, so there was at least hope. He could see from the dance of flashes from the doorframe that they were becoming slower and less frenetic. He decided they just had to wait it out, until the spectres’ last drop of energy was expended. The previous waves of attack had always left a litter of the robots that had accidentally trapped themselves in corners, in the holes and ditches, acceptable losses no doubt, for the invaders.
“Dad,” whispered Emma, her eyes hooded and tired but also a little desperate, “I need to go the toilet.”
He tried to restrain his sense of anxiety at her request.
“Can you hold it for a little longer, honey?” he said, speaking softly under his breath.
She shook her head sideways.
“Can you just go in your trousers? The sounds will be muffled?”
“No!” she said angrily, forgetting herself, “That’s gross, dad!”
It was a shocking tantrum of a moment. She was young, he should have known to be more tactful in his delivery. Emma immediately slapped her own hand flush over her mouth as if to push the outburst back in but it was too late.
A rush of metal legs, each a blade, began hacking into the wood of the door, slicing through it, splinters flying in all directions into the darkness of the room. Tom grabbed one of the long steel garden spades he had propped against the wall and swung it at the machines’ legs as they lanced the door. Some bent, some snapped and became stuck in the wood, but others continued their stabbing motions. The machines were an unstoppable horde of electric beasts, frenzied with the code of prey in their sensors. They had a target and were invigorated with purpose, as if they had been gifted the last chance to redeem themselves with their mission of murder.
He swung the spade hard, slipped, and bashed the chair sideways that was keeping the door from opening. The metallic horrors curled their steel spider legs around the door’s wooden edge and squeezed into the room. Tom continued to smash them hard, one by one, with the flat square head of his shovel. He was letting out little sounds of panic and grunts of exertion with every ferocious swing. They poured into the space like a river bursting a bank in flood, evading his wild movements and finding paths beyond his reach.
“Get into the box!” he screamed to his daughter.
He could feel the cold opening of slits in his flesh. The spectres were efficient at their incisions. Their blade legs slashed through his trousers and shirt, piercing his skin. The cutting was so neat and tidy it didn’t hurt at first, but after a second or two, his body experienced sickening sensations with each wound growing in dimensions. He exerted a last determined sweep with the shovel to clear them and create a moment to break away and dive toward the chest that his daughter had clambered into. She was crying as she held the lid open for him. Somehow, he made it inside and slammed the chest’s bulky top shut above them, banging his head hard as he did so. The spectres swarmed the box, slashing with their legs. In the impenetrable dark, he could feel his wounds gaping open, the trickles of blood pooling into the bottom of the box around his knees, and around Emma’s frail body.
His trembling hands held his daughter’s face. He couldn’t see it, but he could feel her terror and he wanted to reassure her he was there, they were safe and it would all be alright. His curved back and sore knees ached instantly. The chest was barely big enough for one, but for two, it was physical and psychological torture.
She winced. He realised she had wet herself in the dark, the terror overcoming control. Tom somehow found a moment of calm in himself, a moment to pull away from the paralysing cocktail of emotions that enshrined shock.
“Let’s sing. It will drive them nuts, ware out their batteries faster…”
He managed to let out a small badly crafted laugh, to reassure her.
“I’m scared,” she winced.
“Me too, but their blades are not enough this time. Trust me.”
A minute passed in the unforgiving dark, the monsters scratching and desperate around the old beaten-up chest and he began an out of tune chorus, one he knew she knew the lyrics to.
“Love, love… Money can’t buy me love… Love, love… money can’t buy me love…”
He felt her staring at him in the silence of her horror. She did not join him in the words. The tapping intensified an inch from their heads. It beat with a volume and violence that lost the gaps between each strike, escalating sharply, as if to pour every last spark of energy into the attack. Without warning, like a switch being flicked, it abruptly ceased.
The beasts simply fell away. They were spent.
They waited for as long as they could bear, waited in crushed postures for minutes of searing agony and panic-laced claustrophobia, until finally, Tom forced the top open with a mighty push upwards.
She scrambled out before he could fully unfurl. His body was unable to react swiftly, so he crawled out of the chest like a wounded sea creature emerging from a rock crevice. His face was white and drained of colour, made starker in contrast to flecks of his own blood.
The spectres had lost their power and curled up into static metal balls around the room. There were dozens of them, as if a species bonded by instinct had found their destined dying place.
“Fetch me the medical kit, Emma, please, quick…” he mumbled in delirium, blood still seeping and escaping, where he was pressing with one sticky red palm.
Despite the shock, she managed to find the kit without much fuss and as best she could she wrapped a bandage over his worst cut. The blood soaked into the white webbing instantly, drinking it up to create a soggy lump.
The defunct spectres were scattered liberally, their spiky metal bodies protruding upon the floor, the sofa, the windowsills.
“Be careful of them,” he instructed, as she poked one with a finger to make sure it was inactive. They were sharp and deadly objects, even in their dormant state.
Just as their adrenaline began to ease, heavy footfalls escalating in volume, thumped toward the house from the street.
A tall hulk of a man barged roughly through the front door of the house. His broad torso was clad in a camouflage military uniform. He was hard to make out in the dim. The moonlight revealed only his outline, the body armour and helmet, the shape of a weapon and flumes of warm breath in the chilled air. They held up their hands as if to surrender but he waved at them in a flapping motion of dismissal, to signify he was no threat, a small torch on his bulletproof vest shining harshly in their eyes to blind them with a dazzling beam.
“We’re checking house to house. You two are lucky to be alive, we’ve lost half the town this time.”
The soldier realised Tom was wounded, so he side-stepped around Emma to redress the saturated bandages more competently.
“The box was a good idea!” he offered in praise. “I’m Lieutenant Blake Ramond, I’m with C company and we’re taking survivors to the basements in the vineyard’s distillery, it’s a trek but it will be safer in there for the next wave.”
“How many others have survived…”
He did not answer but Tom realised there were no other neighbours with him.
Tom slumped against the wall, trying to catch his breath, and shift his body to compensate for the agonies erupting around his skin.
“We can’t take much more of this, Blake,” he slurred, like he was drunk. The morphine shot the soldier had just administered was taking effect quickly.
“Well, what would you suggest?!” he replied with an almost aggressive impatience. It was like a question he didn’t expect an answer to, but Tom had been forming thoughts.
“I am… I was… the chief engineer with the tech firm, Robotica, working out at the Crow Road industrial estate.”
“So?” snapped the soldier.
“So, the spectres outside have damaged casings – I can see their circuits exposed. These devices are programmed to kill, are deployed and recalled remotely and communicate to each other to keep all the robots up to date on tactics… I have my work computer and interface cables here. Get me one of those broken spectres and I might be able to reprogramme one… It might be possible… There’s more than one way to fight.”
The soldier fell silent, like he was calculating an abstract equation in his head.
“You could do that?”
“I said, it MIGHT be possible.”
The soldier sprang up and strode out of the house to scrutinise the debris on the front lawn. He scanned the scene carefully to select a suitable machine and picked up a broken spectre carefully with both hands, as if it were a crab that could nip him with the wrong handholds.
By the time he returned to the room, Tom had already opened the screen to his laptop and booted it up, untangling a cable as a screen saver erupted to light up the darkness. The image on the computer was of a happier day on a foreign shoreline, one long lost summer ago. It seemed out of place, shining in the darkness with colours and smiles.
Tom inspected the robot’s circuitry and prized open a section to reveal an interface port. Blake and Emma stared at him, his blood-stained face illuminated from below by the screen’s glow. He worked fast, despite being wounded, despite the strong painkiller in his veins.
Blake checked his watch; aware he was drifting off his orders. That always felt like the wrong thing to do but equally, it would be irresponsible not to follow up any idea that might thwart the swarms.
Tom stopped and slowly turned his head toward the lifeless spider-shaped device.
“What now?” Blake demanded.
“We need a power source, to charge its battery. Then we can see if it has worked.”
“Is that all?! Enough, come on, times up, we are leaving now, we need to get moving!”
As they lurched untidily to the front door, the town’s warning siren began its familiar ascending pitch, like a long, sorrowful lament.
“No!” cursed Blake, checking his ammunition instinctively.
This was the quickest turnaround between waves of attack yet, like the aggressors were plotting a violent last push. Tom had no choice now. Hiding was no longer a plan.
“Okay, I’ll try and feed this thing some power with my phone’s portable charger,” he blurted, “I can rig up a connection, I think. If I can activate it for just a few seconds, it will send the new message I programmed to all the other machines!”
“Do it! We can’t make it anywhere now, it’s too late. I’ll need to defend from this room!”
Most of Blake’s unit had been killed in action over the last days. The spectres were too many and too small to pick off in great numbers with small arms fire. Like everyone else in the lonely rural town, he had witnessed horrors that would be unfathomable only a couple of weeks ago. He felt his luck was running dry. The visions he had seen of death seemed to be present with him, like they were just behind his shoulder – he could feel their gravity.
Tom’s hands were shaking again, he too could sense the heavy moment upon them all. He worked to rig up the charger, using a screwdriver and masking tape, bodging the connections together roughly. He had no idea if it could really work but he had to try.
The sound of a thousand metallic stabbing legs scuttling nearer is a sound once heard is never forgotten. There had been no time to sweep the bodies away from before, so the spectres ran over them, often mistaking them for the living and fulfilling their brutal instructions.
In the dark, the solitary metal spider that Tom had tampered with, remained motionless.
The horde swarmed the house in minutes. In the time he had available, Blake managed to plug the shower’s extractor fan hole but that was it. The front door was compromised and now a window was broken in one corner. The lounge door was shredded too, with long splintered gaps in it.
“It’s all on you now, Sir…” Blake whispered. It didn’t go unnoticed to Tom he had been called Sir, like an offering of respect in a final fight. With hell’s army running at them, he realised, there was no time for weakness, he had to keep his cool.
Emma’s heart thumped faster, in tune with the cacophony of spectres enveloping the house. They clambered up the external walls like parasites on a battered host.
“They’re breaking through!” Blake shouted, obliterating the first emerging robots with well-placed rounds. The sound of gunfire drew them in magnetically. Sparks flew in the dark with each shot, exploding the bodies of the spectres into clouds of shrapnel.
They drew in, a constricting circle, easily reaching the lounge door. Emma screamed. At the same time, the solitary spectre hooked up to the charger, sprang back on its feet in an upright position with a single beep of confirmation. It made Tom flinch but shortly after he punched the air in defiance.
As the three of them scrambled to the furthest corner in the room, the mass of robots halted in their tracks, receiving the transmission Tom had programmed. They did nothing for the longest moment and then about-faced in unison, and like a retreating sea wave, vanished from the room, returning to their origin.
“It’s worked, it fucking worked!” Tom blurted and with a strange, other-worldly smile, he collapsed onto the floor in a heap, the whites of his eyes rolling upward between open eyelids.
Outside, the metal beasts scuttled back to their users, those confused operators sitting in their armoured vehicles beyond the border. They would all realise too late, before they could raise the lowered ramps they used for deployment and retrieval, before they could reach for their machine guns. Inside those lonely metal rooms on wheels, the ferocity of their own weaponised tools turned against them, ripping them to shreds with precision stabs, without feelings and without regret. If you forge a mechanical beast to behave without mercy, to discard morality, it will only see targets, never masters.
Blake patted Emma on the back as she hugged her sprawled father. He bent down and checked Tom’s vitals succinctly and Emma looked relieved as he seemed to relax, placing his gun on the floor.
“He’ll be fine,” he said.
“Are we safe?” murmured Emma, her red-rimmed eyes betraying exhaustion.
“For today, yes…” he said. “…But tomorrow… I can not say…”
Outside, somewhere in the distance, the faint but unmistakable sounds of human screams carried upon the fragile night breeze.