Frosted grass crunches beneath Efa’s feet as she flies across the paddocks. Dead to the world but still living, Harper sleeps, safely held in the droid’s arms. For Efa, there’s the niggling worry of concussion, wondering if they should take a break so she can check the girl over.
But the thought of the soldiers coming to and making chase with their ship and their guns wins out.
And so Efa runs.
The sky is lightening in the east when Efa finally slows, the gravel of the farmhouse’s driveway underfoot. Her entire body seems to creak with each movement, her mechanical joints pushed near fatigue. As she approaches the house, the heads of her sheep pop up from behind their improvised fence. She quells their curious bleats with words of reassurance, unable to contain her relief at her flock remaining safe and sound while she was gone. What would she have done had she returned to a slaughtered flock?
Better not to think of it, she decides.
The front door hangs ajar where Harper left it, the white frame disappearing into the shadows of the living room. Pushing it further open with her shoulder, Efa steps through into the house and stops, waiting for the Farmer to greet her, for the dog’s paws to scrabble against her thighs.
There is only silence, and the whisper of memories echoing through the empty house. Efa sets Harper sitting upright upon the worn couch and shakes the girl until her eyelids flutter. Harper snaps upright suddenly, her breaths coming quick with panic as she blinks furiously and grips her parka tightly.
“Look,” Efa says, “I’m here. I’m right here.” Harper’s eyes find Efa’s face, her hand reaching out to find one of the droid’s cooler hands. “Breathe,” Efa says, squeezing the girl’s hand.
Harper takes a deep, gulping breath, then another. Finally, she sighs, her hand slipping from Efa’s hold to clutch at the place where the gun met her head.
“Shit,” she says, her voice slurring with exhaustion and pain. Her hand comes away bloodied and she stares at the thick liquid, eyes squinting in the darkness. “Better than a bullet?”
“Much better,” Efa says.
Opening her chest, Efa sets to work cleaning and dressing the wound, then moves on to redress what’s left of Harper’s arm. Every so often, the girl’s head droops forward, then snaps back up with a snarl of pain. “I am sorry,” Efa says each time, but she doesn’t stop until she’s done.
As the first rays of the sun illuminate the dust motes in the kitchen, Efa bundles as many blankets as she can find over Harper. She turns to leave, to go keep watch outside, but Harper’s hand darts out from beneath her blanket pile and grips Efa’s wrist.
“Harper?” Efa asks, but the girl is already fast asleep, her head rested against the couch’s arm. While the rising sun floods the house with gold, Efa stands frozen, her receptors on Harper’s hand. Minutes pass, then an hour, and the light is smothered by dark, heavy clouds.
By the time Efa finally finds herself beside Harper on the couch, tin-can raindrops pelt the roof. Harper shifts in her sleep, nuzzles her head into the place between Efa’s head and shoulders. Not wanting to disturb the sleeping girl, Efa sits still and watches the storm roll in over the hills through the windows beside the front door, feeling the very real presence of Harper beside her.
She tries not to think of the soldiers at their camp, or the inactive war droids she tore the heads from in the rear of the transport, or the way all information from her hands ceased when she thought of losing Harper.
Of course, she thinks of all these things.
“Did you kill them?”
Efa starts at Harper’s quiet question. She’d thought the girl was still sleeping, had her mind dimmed to conserve power, and it takes her longer than she would like for her thoughts to catch up.
The girl’s eyes glint at her through the grey light with a furious curiosity. Efa wonders what Harper wants her answer to be; she wonders what she really wants her answer to be.
“No,” Efa says, feeling a strange relief at admitting the truth aloud. “I’m no war droid, it’s impossible for me to make the choice to kill a human. I did destroy the war droids they had, however.”
Harper snorts loudly, blowing dust from the blankets. “That’s something, at least. The droids deserved it—” she cuts off her thought suddenly, presses her face into Efa’s shoulder. “As much as those humans did, I mean.”
“It is fine. They cannot hurt anyone now.”
“Yeah.” Harper sighs, her fingers intertwining with Efa’s. “And anyway, I thought it was impossible for you to have emotions, so how am I supposed to know if you can’t kill people now? Do your old rules even apply anymore?”
Struck momentarily dumb by Harper’s words, Efa’s mind whirrs. The sound is masked by the rain thundering against the farmhouse’s roof, a blissful relief from the outward signs of her struggling. Before Harper, she never had to think so hard about anything, let alone question what makes her, her.
Eventually; “Perhaps I made the choice for it to be impossible to me, then.”
“Oh,” Harper says. “So you could kill someone? If you chose?”
Whrrrrr. “I… I don’t know. Not anymore.”
With a hmmph, Harper snuggles further into her blanket mound. “You and me both, then.”
Efa jerks out of her standby mode to an inhuman cry piercing the monotonous roar of the rain. Sitting alert, she watches the open door where rainwater has pooled just inside the house. Harper stirs beside her.
A shadow forms within the rain as something approaches, stopping just beyond the entrance. The sound comes again, clearly originating from the hunched, dark form as it hovers just beyond clarity.
“Who’s there?” Efa calls. The creature whines in reply.
Harper straightens, her eyes wide with recognition. “It’s a dog!” she says, voice hoarse with sleep.
And as she says it, the creature hesitantly moves towards the door, and its features take shape. Long, lean legs; a wolf-like muzzle; big, dark eyes; and little, brown oval patches above its eyes, like small eyebrows. The dog is bone-thin and wild-eyed, but there’s no doubt that it recognizes Efa, and that she recognizes it. The Farmer’s dog.
“Hello,” she coos, attempting to emulate the soft tone the Farmer’s wife would use to bring the baby down from its fits. “Hello, I am here.”
But Harper doesn’t wait for the dog to listen to Efa’s pitiful attempts at communication. She slides from her seat and approaches the dog on her knees, a hand held out for the animal to sniff. It seems to identify with something in Harper—her own feral spirit, Efa thinks—and gingerly takes a step across the threshold, then another, until suddenly it’s bundled in Harper’s arm and nuzzling her face. The girl laughs with a joy Efa’s never seen in her before, filling the house with light despite the heavy, grey shadows.
“What’s her name?” Harper asks.
“Eyebrows.” Efa says. When Harper snorts, she adds, “It was his wife’s idea.”
“The one who likes beans so much? What a weird lady!” Harper lets loose another laugh, nearly drowning the torrential downpour out, and buries her face in the fur at the dog’s neck. “Eyebrows,” she says, her words muffled by the fur. “I like it.”
While the rain continues, and the low-lying fields in the distance begin to fill with water, Harper lies on the couch, buried under blankets with Eyebrows. She watches the world through the same window Efa stared through earlier. Pulling on one of the raincoats hanging by the door, Efa ventures outside to move the sheep to shelter, and to hunt what few animals she can.
When she returns, dripping wet, Efa finds matches and lights the fire, then the gas stove—silently thanking the Farmer for leaving her a filled gas tank. She makes a soup of canned vegetables, fresh-caught rabbit, and cubes of stock pilfered from the cupboard. As the soup simmers, she steps into the border between the front room and the kitchen and gazes at the girl and the dog—her new life, and one of the few remainders of her old.
The room flickers with orange-warm light emanating from the fireplace, and the glow is not unlike that of Efa’s golden memories. She knows that this, too, will be one of those memories. She can feel it, like embers within her own chassis.
No, not embers.
The feeling continues on as she dishes out the soup for both the girl and the dog, leaving the latter bowl to cool as they sit together before the fire.
As Harper devours her first bowl, her second bowl, and half of a third, the warmth remains. The light is still glowing within her as Harper rests her head on her lap, the girl’s hand rubbing Eyebrow’s flank. Happiness, Efa thinks. This is happiness.
There’s a rumble of engines and the crunch-slide of tyres on gravel beyond the rain at their doorstep; a heavy, loud racket that can only mean one thing. Each head in the house turns as one, recognizing the sound of large vehicles pulling into the wide gravel circle before the house. Dropping her well-chewed stick, Eyebrow’s ears perk up. She growls deep in her throat, verging on letting loose a volley of barks.
Harper may as well be growling too, having moved into a crouch she can spring from at a moment’s notice. Her face is dark, her hand clutching the poker from beside the fireplace. A better weapon than her previous attempts, Efa notes.
Doors slam outside, loud voices are muffled by the rain. Harper gives Efa a look of mixed anger and fear.
“Is it them?” she asks, and Efa shakes her head.
“I do not think so. I did not see any ground vehicles with them.”
The two move to the door, crouching at its sides to peer through the glass. As Harper squints through the downpour, Efa switches her receptors to heat-sensitivity. Orange-red bodies burst into life outside. Ten humans spread out from their vehicles, their arms cradling raised weapons.
“What do we do?” Harper asks after Efa relays what she sees, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I do not know,” Efa says, suddenly terrified for Harper’s life. “We could hide. Or run.”
“They’ll have seen the smoke,” Harper says. “They know someone’s here.”
“Then you run.”
“Efa, no,” Harper hisses. “I am not leaving you behind again.”
Eyebrows growls again, and the side-door of the farmhouse bangs open. Two humans approach the front door, stepping up onto the patio.
“Hey!” Someone calls from the other side of the house. “Are there people in here?”
Harper gasps, nearly dropping her poker. “They’re our side,” she says, though by the way she tightens her grip on the poker again, Efa thinks she’s just as likely to swing at these soldiers. Before Efa can react, Harper stands.
“We’re here,” she yells back. “We’re unarmed. For the most part.”
A trio of soldiers soaked to the bone spill into the lounge, their guns trained on Efa and Harper. Efa pulls eyebrows to her, lifting the dog up so it can’t leap at the soldiers. The woman in front, who wears a uniform slightly different to the other two, seems to Efa to be the one in charge, at least here. Maybe a commander, Efa thinks. She lowers her rifle and points a long finger at Harper’s poker.
“Drop that, girl,” she orders.
“Why should I?” Harper asks.
“If you don’t, they don’t,” the woman replies, gesturing at the other two soldiers and their weapons. “We don’t want to hurt you, but we’d like to have a little trust.”
Harper growls, looking to Efa for an answer. Efa shrugs. “I think do what she says.”
“Fine,” Harper says, relenting. She drops the poker, letting it fall to the carpeted ground. The soldiers lower their own guns. “What the hell do you want?”
The woman scowls, the creases in her dark skin deepening. One of the soldiers behind her, a younger woman with the left half of her face marred with burn-scars, sneers.
“You’d think this kid would be more happy to see us,” she says. Her companion laughs, but their commander silences them with a cold look.
“Where are your parents?” She asks Harper. The girl shrugs, and the woman’s face takes on the appearance of stone. “Don’t be such a brat, we’re here to help you.”
“Are you?” Harper shrugs again. “My family’s dead. So, what do you want? Kinda rude to just barge into someone’s house, don’t you think?”
The Commander strides up to Harper and grabs her arm. As the girl struggles, she pulls a flat, pocket-like device from her belt and forces Harper’s hand into it. Efa steps towards the two, but one of the other soldiers jerks her back.
“What are you doing?” Harper asks. The device beeps, and information flashes up on a screen on the top of it. The Commander releases Harper and reads over the screen as the girl holds her hand close to her chest.
“Ah,” the woman breaths. “Nice to meet you, Harper. This is hardly your house. What are you doing all the way out here?”
Focusing on the device, Efa sees Harper’s information—her name, her family, medical notes, even school records—next to a little photo that must have been taken for an ID. Though she’s never seen anything like that particular machine, the Farmer had a small identification reader to tell his animals apart, and she realizes this must just be a human version of that. Perhaps it reads handprints, or takes blood, or does both of these things.
The soldier—the one with the burnt face—still has her hand on Efa’s shoulder, and with her other hand she pushes Efa’s head down. Eyebrows presses her nose against Efa’s smooth face with a scared whine. Something beeps behind Efa, near the base of her skull.
“This one ain’t registered to that girl’s family, that’s for sure,” the soldier says. “Where’s your owner?” she asks Efa.
“My family is also dead,” Efa says, feeling rebellion bloom within her in refusing to refer to the Farmer as simply her owner. Laughing, the soldier smacks her hand against Efa’s back. Eyebrows barks once as Efa sways forward, as caught by surprise as Efa herself.
“Family! This droid’s losing it. Must’ve been a while since your last maintenance, huh?”
“Piss off, Efa’s fine,” Harper says.
“Be quiet, girl,” the Commander says. Harper glowers, but keeps her mouth shut. “Earlier today we pushed the enemy back from this region. They’re retreating, letting us take back our agricultural sector—though I doubt that means much to you. Your home city’s safe too, has been for two weeks now. We’ll take you back with us.”
“Why?” Harper asks, her silence only lasting so long. “I don’t have anyone left there, there’s no point taking me back.”
“There are a lot of people left displaced like you. They’ve set up programs to help you settle back into life. This isn’t your home, and we’re not just going to leave you here. You need proper medical treatment, anyway.”
“What life?” Harper asks, and Efa hears the feral tone in her voice that signals her temper flaring. “Everyone is dead.”
“Calm down,” the woman says. “You’re acting like a child.”
“Fuck off,” Harper says. She pushes the woman, who grabs her wrist and twists her arm around until Harper is on her knees and howling expletives. Efa drops Eyebrows and leaps to Harper’s side, slicing her hand swiftly down onto the Commander’s arm. The arm cracks audibly and the woman releases Harper with a yelp of pain.
The soldiers raise their rifles again, training them on Efa. The two soldiers waiting outside the front door kick the door in, and Eyebrows barks and snarls until a soldier smacks the butt of their rifle against the dog’s. Eyebrows crumples, and Harper tries to lunge at the soldier, but Efa pulls her back, arms wrapped tightly around the girl’s waist.
“Leave us alone!” Harper screams. “I hate you. I hate all of you. You’re nothing more than war droids!”
“Shut down the droid,” the Commander says, seemingly ignoring her arm hanging at the wrong angle at her side as she gives orders. A soldier moves quickly behind Efa, and with Harper struggling in her arms, Efa can’t react fast enough—
Something clicks against the back of her chassis—
A burst of energy washes through her, bright and clear—
The last thing Efa hears is Harper screaming her name. Then, nothing.