Mist wraps around the mountains like a thick cloak, stained grey-pink with early morning light. There’s an unnatural stillness in the air, the heavy silence that comes from the sudden absence of human life. In the distance is a massive downed ship, smouldering still in the distance; a dead, metal behemoth so like just another mountain on the horizon.
A bleat breaks through the silence, then another, and another still. Shadows move behind a curtain of fog, until the pale tendrils peel away from a grassy outcropping where the dark shapes manifest into a flock of sheep. In the midst is a faceless guardian, standing against the bitter breeze with a branch-turned-staff clasped in one cold hand while a velvet face, haloed with frosted breath, nuzzles the other.
“How are you this morning?” she asks the creature by her side, her synthetic voice soft and feminine. The ewe the Farmer calls Bramble gazes up at the shepherd with dark eyes, then lowers her head to join the flock in grazing.
Efa turns her smooth face towards the rising sun’s faint glow, the hidden photoreceptors that act as her eyes taking in the view that tints her dirt-streaked ceramic body. Surrounded by such gentle creatures on a calm morning like this, Efa feels what she thinks could be peace—though she can’t be sure without the Farmer around to ask. Not that she is prone to really feeling, but this peaceful absence comes with a silencing of responsibilities. In this moment, her artificial mind quiets.
The real world does not.
The sheep are the first to react, their heads snapping up to stare into the dark woods stretching around the mountain to the west. Efa follows their gaze and hears the snaps of twigs underfoot, the crunch of dead leaves trampled.
Brushing her hand against Bramble’s soft flank to reassure the beast, she speaks softly to the anxious herd in an attempt to calm the creatures before they bolt. As the sounds grow quickly closer to their clearing she steps towards the treeline, ready to face whatever approaches before it can touch her sheep.
A low moan echoes out from the darkness and the rising mists of the woods. It is nothing safe, nothing healthy. Holding the staff in a way reminiscent of a weapon, Efa watches the shadows and runs through simulations in her head. A wild boar? A rogue, defective war droid? Whatever it is, she will have to be torn to defunct pieces before she lets it harm the animals under her watch.
A human emerges—a girl not yet an adult, but no longer a child—stumbling across the dewy grass before falling to her knees with ragged breaths and wide eyes. Her right arm is clutched to her side, coated in blood and wrapped in rags stained with the colours of infection.
Snuffling, the sheep shy away from the girl, a girl who glares up at Efa defiantly as if daring her to finish the job that another has started. Efa cannot smell, but if she could she would notice the stench of death, smoke and metal that enshrouds the girl like the cool fog.
Eyeless, Efa watches the human, and after a tense moment the girl seems to realise she’s not faced by killing droid. With a slight gasp, she seems to let the anger and fear ebb from her tense body.
“Help me,” she gasps, pulling her hand away from her bandaged arm to plead with Efa. The movement is apparently too much for her in this state, as her eyes roll back into her head and she pitches forward, face planting straight into the damp grass.
She is still. The sheep are not, huffing and mewling as they stamp their petite hooves in an attempt to make their shepherd follow them away from this threat.
Instead, the droid kneels beside the girl, brushing light hair away to touch her fingers lightly against the carotid artery. A weak pulse beats beneath Efa’s smooth fingertips, and though she cannot feel the heat her sensors tell her the girl’s temperature is raised beyond what is considered acceptable. She turns the girl’s head to the side, carefully watching the soft puffs of steamed breath at her mouth; each just a little too rapid, just a little too faint.
“A fever,” the droid murmurs, partly to herself, and partly because she has found hearing her voice calms the sheep. She gingerly rolls the girl onto her back to lift and inspect her damaged arm. The makeshift bandages are soaked with blood, bright and fresh, dark and cracked. The rags are stuck to her flesh, which has been burned beyond blistering, and the fabric has started to become like a new skin for her infected arm.
Opening her chest compartment, Efa makes a sound, one that could almost be mistaken as a sigh if only androids of her make had been programmed to feel anything but obedience. She knows there is only one way to save this girl’s life, and though she also knows she will likely fail, it is against her programming to let the young human before her die.
Within her chest is the farm-class medical equipment only ever meant to be touched in emergencies. The last time she needed to open her chest was when the Farmer—someone she has not seen in days—slipped down a muddy slope and broke his ankle with a startling crack. Though he’d emitted no complaints of pain and tried to walk the injury off, Efa was ready and waiting with bandages, painkillers, and arms strong enough to carry even a man of his size.
Though she’d never speak of it for fear of a mind wipe, Efa sometimes dreams of emptying the compartment of the sterile equipment and filling her chest instead with dirt and plants and growing real life inside of herself. Become part of the living world in a way she cannot otherwise be. Rather, she considers the idea. She doesn’t dream, can’t dream.
Loathe as she is to waste any supplies that the sheep may need, Efa knows that simply walking away isn’t something she can do here. Glancing around at the flock as they form a half-circle a safe distance from her and the unconscious girl, Efa hums a soft song the Farmer’s wife used to sing to calm the baby. A lilting, sad melody sung in a language Efa’s model has never been programmed in, the song always seemed a sweet gift to the droid on the rare mornings she caught it drifting through the farmhouse.
The sheep will not leave her, not for a while yet. Every small face is so unique and familiar to her, each a face she would sacrifice her life for. The sheep will wait, she knows, because she is their shepherd and they are her flock.
Moaning in her fevered stupor, the girl’s fingers claw into the grass and dirt. Unlike the sheep, she cannot wait.
“Please live,” Efa says, pressing an injection gun to the girl’s paled skin. As the painkiller rushes through her bloodstream, the girl’s fingers uncurl and her breathing calms. If Efa could feel fear, anxiety, worry, this would be the time. All there is, is the sense of purpose that comes with having her whole identity written for her, and the knowledge that she can’t let this human die. Not here, not now, not ever.