All at once Efa’s body goes limp, slouching forward over the dying sheep. Though she has no breath to silence, there’s a sudden, deathly stillness about the droid that fills Harper’s veins with a cold fire.
“Efa,” she says, hesitantly at first, then again, louder: “Efa. Efa, wake up.”
The sheep have returned by now, crowding around with low bleats that remind Harper of her brother’s somber humming. They seem to look to her for answers, because Efa is quiet and cold in a way so like Harper’s mother, her sister, and—
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.
Efa stands still and silent as Harper wipes away the grime smearing her ceramic skin. She could be powered off, nothing more than a statue, but for the soft whirr within her. Her chest doesn’t rise and fall with the breath of the living; she has no twitching muscles, no fluttering eyelashes to betray her feelings.
Harper had thought cleaning Efa would have been like cleaning machinery, like washing her mother’s car. Instead, she finds herself hesitant to touch Efa’s body, as if she were a real human woman. There’s a strange quiver in her chest, something intimate, delicate and, yes, afraid.
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.”
A chill breeze brushes her skin, icy fingers prying her from a slow, fever-blurred death. Her eyes are sticky, covered in a film that glues her eyelids together like a thick ointment. With the breeze comes scents from a childhood long gone; animal musk, pine and grass and earth. Above all, there’s the clear freshness of land untarnished by city smog.
She is sick, she is delirious, and none of this can be real. In her final, aching moments in this forsaken world, her brain has constructed a story of fresh air and itching grass, of blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds that come into sharper focus as she blinks away the fog. Too real, she thinks dimly, watching the clouds meander across their candy-blue field.
There is the sound of small feet rustling grass, then a creature’s velvet snout is suddenly snuffling at her face, little huffs of air tickling her heated skin. The dark eyes and animal sounds are so new and surprising, the girl has to suppress a scream as she raises her hands to push the sheep away.
Only one hand meets the creature’s face, startling the sheep away with a small, twisting leap. The other hand—her damaged arm, she recalls vaguely—will not move no matter how much she wills it.
Something is wrong.
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.