Fair hair splayed around her head like a storm, the human girl—Harper, Efa reminds herself—seems so oddly at peace when she sleeps, so unlike her conscious self. Awake, she is angry, near-feral like the weasels and wildcats that terrorize the chickens. Efa has never met anyone like her, though she can’t say she’s met many people beyond this farm’s borders before now. Perhaps the war the Farmer has mentioned has turned Harper into this wild animal, but Efa can’t picture her any other way.
“War brings out the monsters in people,” he’d said, his eyes focused on a horizon darkening with smoke. “Some days I can’t help but wonder if your kind might be better at humanity than us.”
She hadn’t understood his words at the time, and she still doesn’t now. Humanity seems such a complex and difficult thing, far beyond the grasp of a basic labour droid. Efa is a simple blade of grass, looking up at the bright and intricate colours of blooming flowers.
Though, Efa thinks, Harper might be more of a gorse bush. Golden and bright from afar, but thorny and dangerous to touch. She likely doesn’t share the Farmer’s views on droids, probably willing to tear Efa apart limb-by-limb if she had both her arms.
And there wouldn’t be a single thing Efa could do to stop her.
At the thought, her fingertips tingle, and she wonders if she’s starting to finally break down. Being able to feel anything in her extremities should be impossible, there must be a glitch in her code somewhere. She’s been out in the open for far longer than usual, and it’s likely she’s due for maintenance by now—this winter weather is hardly kind on machinery, let alone machinery not built to live outdoors.
Soon, she knows, the Farmer will return. He said so himself; “Look after the sheep, I’ll be back.” Two weeks ago. That was the last time Efa saw her Farmer, watching as the back of his head disappeared over a ridge, his dog trotting obediently behind. She’d expected him back later that day. Instead, she spent the night calming the flock as fire lit the night sky, and the roar of massive warships filled the valleys. The next day, they found the pitch-covered southern ridge littered with little bodies, and Efa lead the sheep away as fast as she could.
So, she waits, anxious in her own way that the farm she once knew so well is now filled with strange dangers that lurk in the shadows.
The itch in her fingers returns; it’s time to move.
Human fingers twitching, Harper sleeps on. Efa’s hand touches the smooth, dirt-streaked ceramic of her chest as she calculates two things: how many more medical supplies remain in the compartment, and whether or not it will be better to wake Harper or just carry her unconscious form.
Really, Harper requires shelter and new clothes, ones not covered in blood, infection, and splatters of the same black pitch Efa saw coating the grass. Harper and the droid share one thing in common right now, and that is the need for a good wash. Absentmindedly, Efa taps her chassis, her hidden receptors sweeping the horizon. There is a place nearby, an older cabin the Farmer is fixing up and sometimes uses for storage, that may hold what Harper needs.
As Nibbles, the smallest ewe of the flock, grazes by her feet, Efa sets her staff against a fence not far from Harper, a fence that should be humming with electricity. Power cuts are not uncommon here, but every fence has been silent and dead since the day Efa found the blackened field. Usually the Farmer would tell her to find the issue and fix it, but he’s not here to give her that order this time.
Stooping down, Efa slips her arms gently under Harper to lift her, hoping to keep the young human from stirring. Harper seems so light to Efa, so delicate and frail. How could any droid bear to hurt something so soft?
But the soft edges of Harper’s face quickly harden as a low moan escapes her lips, and her eyelids flutter, then fly open, wild panic flaring in her eyes. She screams something Efa can’t understand, squirming so violently that she breaks the droid’s hold and falls heavily to the ground, hitting her damaged shoulder with a piercing cry.
Her hand claws at the grass and dirt as she tries to crawl away from Efa. She gulps at the air as if she can’t get enough, growing more and more desperate until she is hunched and retching, tears dripping from her chin.
Bleating, the sheep shift uncomfortably away from Harper, looking to Efa to solve the problem, but all she can do is stare down at her own hands, her artificial brain feeling as if it has been encased in ice.
“What do I do?” she asks, a question she hasn’t uttered since the first time the Farmer’s baby began to cry in her arms. This time, there is no Farmer to answer her, to explain the steps to make things better.
She doesn’t approach Harper, anxious her presence will startle the girl further. “You are safe,” she says quietly. Harper snarls something in reply, too low to make out. “I will not hurt you.”
Baring her teeth, Harper gestures weakly at her missing limb. “Bit late for that.”
“I had no choice,” Efa says, and she knows it’s the truth, because she cannot lie.
Jaw clenched, Harper flashes Efa a sharp look. “Because you’re not human, right? Cause we always have a choice.”
Looking back down at her prickling finger, Efa is silent. Harper’s ragged breaths fill the void between them.
“Whatever,” the girl says, after a deep exhalation. “I’ll walk.”
The cabin isn’t much to look at from the outside, and Efa doubts the inside has fared much better. The paint peels from the weather-worn walls, mould and leaves fill the pipes, spiderwebs shimmer in the wind. A triangular pile of flat stones sits in the little alcove by the door, placed there years ago by the Farmer’s wife as she smiled and sang.
As the sheep graze on the overlong grass by the gravel road, Harper clomps up the cabin’s steps and tries the door.
“Locked,” she grunts, before picking up one of the stones from the pile and lobbing it through the glass panel beside the handle.
Efa starts, nearly dropping her reclaimed staff. “I could have opened that without damage,” she says, and Harper gives her a look that makes her realise she wasn’t just imagining her own voice’s sharpness.
Reaching through the jagged hole, Harper unlocks the door. She pushes it open, ignoring the loud creaking of the hinges, and steps over the shattered glass covering the wooden floor.
Turning back to the outside, she wrinkles her nose. “Smells like old people in here. Do you want to grab the stuff? Like I know where anything is, anyway.”
“I can’t,” Efa says, waving her staff in the direction of the sheep. “I must stay with them.”
“Fine,” Harper says, eyes widening with the word. As she turns back to head into the dim cabin, Efa hears her mutter, “Damn useless.”
While she waits, Efa wanders among the sheep to check on them, pausing at times to listen out for Harper, who is somehow so loud despite being so small. Bramble nudges Efa’s leg, looks up at her with big, dark eyes as if asking for reassurance.
“You are so smart, aren’t you?” Efa murmurs. “I’m sorry, I don’t know where he is either.” Snorting, the sheep lowers her head back down to the grass to nibble away.
Stomping loudly, Harper emerges from the cabin’s entrance, an old satchel slung over her shoulder and a bucket filled with sloshing water dangling from her hand. Her face is cleaner, her hair dripping, and her old clothes have been discarded. Bundled beneath the Farmer’s much larger clothes, her hand hidden beneath the sleeve hem of a parka, she looks even smaller, almost childlike.
“You know this is stealing, right? That not against your robot code?” she asks, stepping over the threshold and onto the stairs.
She pauses before taking another step. “Oh.”
Rubbing Bramble’s flank, Efa continues; “However, it is against my moral code.”
Harper’s eyebrows scrunch together. “So they didn’t tell you not to steal, you just decided yourself?”
“Were you never told not to steal?” Efa asks, genuinely inquisitive.
Shaking her head, Harper snorts. “Yeah, sure I was. But sometimes you have to do bad things to survive.”
“Which is what we are doing,” Efa says, her receptors on Harper’s empty sleeve. “I cannot let you die, so I must help you steal to keep you alive.”
As Harper considers this, the crease between her eyebrows seems to lessen. She raises the bucket. “I figured you needed a wash, too.”
“I would not disagree with that.”
Rolling her eyes, Harper beckons Efa over to the concrete stairs and places the bucket at her feet, pulling a soaked rag from the water. As the cold water—it could be nothing else without a fire burning in the hearth—drips from the rag, Efa feels suddenly thankful for her inability to feel temperature.
“Just stand there, I’ll clean you off,” Harper says, voice softer than Efa ever expected it could be.
She tilts her head. “Fine.”
As Harper’s tight mouth seems to crack into the semblance of a smile—young and unsure, not unlike a sprouting seedling—Efa’s fingers begin to tingle.