The morning begins with a scream. Piercing the still morning air, Harper’s voice echoes across the frosted landscape just as the sun’s soft light touches the mountains.
Head snapping around to look at the cabin, Efa rises from her crouched position and grabs her staff from where it rests.
“Harper?” she calls, tingling fingers tightening around the staff. Silence is her only reply.
She scans the area, but all she can see are the sheep with their heads turned towards the cabin. Running lightly across the field to the cabin’s steps, she clears the distance in only a few bounds, leaping over the stairs to the doorway, where she pauses and listens.
Heavy breaths echo through the dim hallway. Despite Harper’s distressed noises, Efa can’t see any danger beyond the shattered glass at her feet. Each shard reflects the pale light of the waking day, little slivers that gleam in the grey darkness. Briefly, they remind Efa of the refracted light of the full moon on a trough’s surface.
Calling the girl’s name again, Efa steps tentatively towards the doorway. Harper’s voice comes from the darkness, coarse from sleep and edged with panic; “I’m fine.”
“What was it?” Efa asks, hovering at the edge of the hallway. “Do you need me?”
“No,” Harper calls. There’s the rustling of fabric, a muffled sob. “It’s fine.”
“Okay,” Efa says, synthetic voice wavering. She sways at the top of the stairs, torn between the girl who was just screaming, and the sheep that have begun to gather around the dilapidated shack. Deep inside herself, she can feel the urge to step over the threshold and go comfort Harper, as if a physical force pulls at her.
She turns away. “I’m here if you need me,” she says, before stepping back down the stairs to return to her flock. Cinna, a ewe with a narrow face, daintily approaches Efa as if curious, little iced puffs of air blooming around the sheep’s muzzle. Reaching out, Efa tries to touch the frosted breath, grasping at the air with graceful fingers. How would it feel, she wonders, to see her own breath freeze before her eyes? To exhale—feeling the compression of her chest—and taste the chilled air on her tongue?
Cinna bumps her nose against Efa’s lingering fingers, searching for food in her empty palm. Efa reigns in her imagination, shocked at how far she falls into her fantasies with every new day.
The Farmer will help, she thinks. When he returns, he will know what to do.
Cinna starts at the scrape of glass against wood, and when Efa looks over her shoulder she sees Harper leaning against the doorframe, hair dishevelled and dark shadows ringing her eyes. In her hand is a dented tin can, dusty, but still in one piece.
“I found beans,” Harper says. “Guess your farmer really liked ‘em. Shitload of cans in the cupboard.”
“His wife likes them in stews. They last a long time,” Efa says, drawing on her memories of the Farmer and his family. The memories seem warm and bright, as if her mind recorded them with a golden filter.
Snorting, Harper tosses the can and catches it again. “Yeah, too bad they taste like shit.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Right.” Harper glances down at the can, eyebrows knitted together. “Lucky you,” she jokes, making a half-hearted attempt at a disgusted face.
Surprising herself, Efa laughs. All the subtle parts of her life that lead into the joke—her inability to taste food, the Farmer’s wife jabbing her husband in his side with a wooden spoon as he lovingly mocks her cooking, Harper’s dislike for the beans—suddenly seem to fall together in her chest, like something clicking into place. Eyes wide, Harper looks up from the beans to stare at Efa as if she is mad, and the droid falters, her laughter trailing off.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” Harper says. “I’ve—I’ve never heard one of you laugh before.”
Chassis glowing warm with the rising sun’s tones, Efa presses her fingers to her chest. “I’ve never laughed before.”
“Huh,” Harper says. “Huh.” She blows air through her nose and it clouds before her face. “Maybe you’re malfunctioning.”
“I would agree with you there.” White fingers tap against her breastplate. “The Farmer will fix me when he returns.”
Harper doesn’t reply, instead chewing her lower lip as she turns her eyes towards the horizon, where smoke still rises from the night before. A new warship corpse has morphed the silhouette of the mountains, turning a familiar view into one that’s instead ragged and disturbing.
Finding her own receptors drawn to the warship too, Efa wonders at a future where nature has once again taken control, where plants and vines have reclaimed the metal frame of the massive ship. Would flowers grow from such a heartless source? Would birds nest in its decaying, rotten skeleton?
Would she, too, meet a fate similar to the ship and the droids no doubt nestled within its massive body? The thought doesn’t scare her as much as it should, that real life might continue on within her when her own artificial life has faded.
Once more, she feels the urge to bury seeds in her chest, to open herself to sunlight and let green take her body over. She wishes she had a mouth, if only to smile.
A loud crack shatters Efa’s dreams.
There’s something in the woods off to the side of the cabin, out in the wild darkness beyond a barbed-wire fence. The sound is too loud, too heavy to be anything less than a bough snapped clear from a tree’s trunk. At once, the sheep band together behind Efa, bleating frantically. Quickly stepping down the stairs, Harper moves to Efa’s side, holding the can of beans like a weapon.
The sounds grow closer and louder as the source smashes its way through the undergrowth, something much bigger and heavier than Efa. All she can think is that if she hadn’t been distracted by her own fantasies, she might have heard something earlier, might have had more warning. Her thoughts race, the tingling in her fingers moving into her wrists and forearms as she grips her staff.
Last time she was here, it was Harper who emerged from the shadows between the trees, half-dead and covered in blood. Somehow, she thinks the same won’t happen again. No, this is something bad. Something dangerous.
A war droid stumbles into the fence—splattered with black pitch, one arm hanging in torn ribbons—pulling posts from the earth as it lurches through the wire and collapses to its knees. Harper muffles a scream, falls backwards in a rush to escape what can only be her nightmare rising back to its feet.
Efa swings her staff at her flock, crying out in desperation. Without much hesitation, they turn and run, their little cloven feet carrying them away down the gravel road. Turning back to the droid, Efa takes a single step forward, bringing her staff up to protect Harper and bar the droid from following the sheep.
The multiple, black eyes of the war droid focus on Efa, and a distorted, horrific sound escapes it. Once, back before a chunk was blasted from the droid’s head, the sound might have been words. Now it is only a hellish burble.
“Leave,” Efa says, her voice losing its human edge. “Leave now.”
The droid burbles again, seeming to hesitate in the face of Efa’s defiance. Now that it stands in the light, Efa examines the droid: the first war droid she’s ever seen in person. She can understand why Harper fears these tall, ink-eyed things. Though the base shape is humanoid, the droid is hulking and monstrous, with a misshapen head and its undamaged arm wound together from three vine-like appendages ending in sharp points. As she watches, the three vines unwind to form a strange, three-fingered hand.
Lunging forward, the droid crosses the gap between itself and Efa faster than she expects, hand wrapping around Efa’s head and pulling her off her feet. As her synthetic mind tries to process what’s happening, time seems to slow, and for a moment she can see everything as if frozen: the droid towering over her, dark and terrifying; Harper scrambling to her feet, a scream pouring from her mouth; a sheep, Cinna, straggling behind the flock; the light painting the clouds golden-bright; the tips of grass blades brushing her white toes.
Efa’s chest prickles. The war droid’s arm twitches and snaps, sending her flying. Her body hits the ground hard, bouncing. Pulses of warning discomfort run down her left leg, her vision flashing orange. Dimly, she discerns Harper’s shrill shriek, and when she raises her head, she sees the droid approaching the girl.
At once she is moving to her feet, bending her knees to leap to her companion’s aid. Her hip joint, damaged from her landing, slips out of place and she sees orange again. Leg collapsing beneath her, Efa can only watch as the war droid lashes out at Harper with its merged vine-arm.
She’s thrown by the momentum, blood splattering against the droid’s charcoal chassis. For a moment she struggles to rise, then her arm goes limp and she drops face-first into the dewy grass.
“Harper!” Efa screams. She twists her body, holding down her leg where it connects with her torso, and forces her false bones back into place with a sharp click. Rage fills her like an overload of information, all at once too much and nothing at all. This is what Harper feels, she thinks.
Stooping to scoop up her staff, she rushes to Harper’s side, prepared to fight the monstrous droid off so she can find Harper’s wound and stop the blood, but—
The droid is not focused on Harper. Instead, it has cornered Cinna, the straggling sheep, where two fences meet. Terrified, Cinna almost seems to scream as she tries to dodge and duck past the droid.
Once again, time seems to slow. Harper: the girl she is protecting, unconscious and damaged in ways Efa can’t yet tell. Cinna: one of her flock, a ewe she was tasked protect at all costs.
Feeling as if she’s pulling her very insides out, as if she’s bound to Harper and every movement away physically tugs at her, Efa stands. There is no choice for her here, only the code she was born with. She drops her staff.
Hurling herself at the droid, she leaps onto its back and wraps her fingers around its neck, pulling with her considerable strength. Confused by the sudden attack, and slow from damage, the war droid barely has time to reach around to grasp at Efa before she rends its head from its body.
The arm slackens, the ropelike fingers slipping from Efa’s frame, and the hulking droid pitches forward. Dropping the head and crushing it beneath her heel, Efa then grabs the droid’s undamaged arm and, placing a foot on its torso to hold the body down, rips the limb clear. In this moment, all she knows is that this droid, this abomination, must be destroyed. Torn apart, panel by panel, then crushed down into dust.
A weak bleat breaks through her rage. She lets the arm slip from her grasp and catches sight of her sheep. Cinna, who was fine only moments ago, now lies in the grass with her fleece slowly being dyed the colour of sunset clouds.
Falling to her knees beside the ewe, Efa cradles Cinna’s head in her lap, murmuring to the sheep as she checks its flank for the injury. When the droid whipped its arm around to grab at her, it must have slashed at Cinna too.
“No,” she whispers, her voice skipping as her mind fights to understand the situation. Here is her sheep, life seeping from its body slowly and painfully. The only way to help is to put the poor creature out of its misery, something she knows she cannot bring herself to do.
“Shit,” says a voice behind her. Harper, very much alive and conscious, crouches down beside Efa, her hand covering her mouth. “Shit. Is it okay?”
“No,” Efa says, scrutinizing Harper’s body for a wound that doesn’t seem to exist. “You were hurt. I saw blood.”
“Oh.” The girl holds up the can of beans, now torn open and dripping with red sauce. “Guess they’re good for something.” Neither of them laugh.
Hand softly stroking Cinna’s side, Efa feels the prickling return like before. Starting in her fingers, the feeling flows down her arms and fills her chest, as if a mass of the little, green moths that cover the farmhouse windows at night have taken residence inside her. Her solid skin feels suddenly constricting as conflicting thoughts crowd her mind, threatening to burst through the seams at the edge of her blank face.
She has to save Cinna. Cinna can’t be saved. She must put Cinna down. She cannot hurt her sheep. Around and around the thoughts go, faster and faster until they’re looping and clashing and overwhelming her. Feeling as if she’s about to shut down, she buries her face in Cinna’s wool and wishes she could sob like the Farmer did when his brother died in the early days of the war.
Softly, Harper places her hand on Efa’s back, leaning so close that her fair hair falls over the droid’s shoulder. Tears drip onto Efa’s hand, onto Cinna’s fleece. “I’m here, Efa.”
“I think I’m breaking,” Efa says, her words glitching and stuttering.
“You’re panicking, you need to breathe—” Cutting herself off, Harper takes a deep breath herself. “Look, I’m here. I’m right here.”
Focusing Harper’s words, Efa’s mind calms slightly. She’s here, she thinks. I’m not alone.
And then she remembers Harper saying she has to leave. This girl is going to leave her.
Her mind freezes, and the world goes black.