“When are we leaving?”
The moment the words leave her mouth Harper feels Efa stiffen around her, the droid freezing so completely she may as well be sculpted stone. Efa’s silence descends upon Harper’s skin like a cool mist.
“We are leaving, right?” she asks. “We can’t stay here.”
Withdrawing from Harper, the droid straightens her legs and turns away to gaze at her sheep. “Why not?” she asks.
“Uh,” Harper says, eyebrows furrowing, “it’s not exactly safe here, is it? And I have to get to my brother.” Efa whirrs, but says nothing. “You don’t have to stay here anymore, Efa. Your owner is… he isn’t around anymore.” Pausing, Harper waits for a reply. Still nothing. “You don’t have to obey his orders now. You’re free, right?”
This seems to spark something in Efa, and she wrings her pale hands. The prickling, Harper thinks, recalling Efa describing the sensations within herself. For a flash of a second, Harper feels the intense urge to take the droid’s hands, as if her own touch could help calm the storm within Efa’s fingers.
“Maybe I am free,” Efa says, her voice taking on a lower, more organic rhythm. “But how can I then choose to leave my sheep?”
Fire flares in Harper’s chest. The world spins as she rushes to her feet, red crackling at the edge of her vision. She ignores the tilting ground, lets the blaze grow within. “Your sheep?” Her voice cracks. “You’d leave me alone for those dumb animals?”
“I think you would be leaving me,” Efa says. “I am not the only one making a choice.”
Harper stares at the droid, her mouth open. Not once did she consider that Efa might not want to leave with her, nor did she realize how much she was depending on it. Something inside her breaks and desperation floods her veins. Not for the first time, Harper resents the blank mask where Efa’s face should be.
“Just bring the damn sheep then! It’s not like it’s safer here.”
“Where do you plan on going? How do we travel with the sheep? This is the safest we could be.” Efa extends a hand to Harper. “You could stay here. With me.”
For a long moment, Harper stares at the droid’s hand, almost ghost-like in the flame’s glow. Her face is dark and furious, the fire she feels inside reflects in her eyes. She could say yes, could give up on her brother and let the exhaustion win. It would be so easy, she thinks.
“Fuck your sheep,” she spits. Turning on her heel, Harper storms into the house, stumbling around in the dim interior to find her satchel. As Efa calls Harper’s name from outside, she throws her satchel onto the kitchen bench and begins stuffing cans into the bag. Each can slams down with the force of her rage, drowning out the droid’s pleas. Tomorrow, she knows she’ll find some cans crumpled and dented. Tonight, she doesn’t care.
At the last moment, she finds the can opener amidst a messy cutlery drawer and thrusts it into her coat pocket. As she leaves the house, she pulls an oversized raincoat from the hook beside the front door and crams it into her heavy bag.
Efa steps into her path as she makes a beeline for the twisting drive, empty face looking directly at Harper.
“Harper,” she says. “What are you doing?” Soft and understanding, Efa’s voice sounds not unlike when she speaks to her sheep.
“This isn’t my home. You knew I’d leave eventually,” Harper says, face burning. She shifts her bag more comfortably over her shoulder, avoiding Efa’s gaze.
The droid seems to hesitate. “Yes.”
“Then get out of my way.” Or come with me.
“At least wait until the morning. It’s dangerous out there.”
The warmth of the fire tempts Harper back, far more inviting than the cold, dark world she would be heading into. She is so close to dropping her bag and falling into Efa’s arms, so close, when something snuffles at her hand.
A sheep, eyes almost pitch black with the lack of light, presses its warm muzzle into her palm as if looking for food. She stares down at the creature, feelings its breath tickle her skin, and feels something ugly grow within herself. Though the sheep are stupid, nothing more than scared animals, Efa has made it clear she’d rather stay with them than come with Harper. In a world where everything has been torn from her, Harper realizes she’s less important than simple animals to the only person—droid—she has left.
She grabs the sheep’s muzzle and pushes it away with all her strength, wishing she could rip its head clean off. The sheep makes a shocked sound, somewhere between a bleat and a confused toddler, and Efa is suddenly between Harper and the animal, her shoulders set defensively.
Harper’s heavy breaths hang between the two. She knows, at this moment, that she has torn whatever bond they had into two ragged halves.
“Leave,” Efa says.
Harper licks her dry lips. “Fine.”
Harper lets her knees collapse beneath her, falling into a patch of grass beside the road. Above her shines a crescent moon, barely bright enough to light the paddocks that seem to stretch on around the mountains for eternity. The fire that fueled her up until now has faded, the embers of her rage cooling inside her. Exhaustion fills her mind with gravel and concrete, weighing her eyelids down.
She’s left with nothing but a cold emptiness, the knowledge that she is alone once more. She tears a handful of grass from the ground and throws it at the road as if fighting off some invisible creature, but it’s half-hearted. Her strength has faded.
Leaving was stupid, she knows. Her brother is a whole country away, and she doesn’t have any knowledge of where she is, or which cities are even safe. She suddenly and viciously misses her phone, crushed in the ruins of her home, and the safe time of her life when she could rely on the device for everything.
As she falls backwards into the grass, a familiar sound echoes across the valley. She freezes, listening more intently over rustling leaves and a gurgling stream. It’s a sound she feels she hasn’t heard in a long time.
Scrambling to her feet, she casts about for the source of the sound, wondering if there are other survivors of the war camped out nearby. She worries she will find something worse.
The distant strangers laugh again, and she follows the sound as quickly as her tired limbs will carry her. Through a gate left ajar and the paddock she’d collapsed beside, down into a little valley where the ground has folded in to make way for the small stream she’d heard. Picking her steps carefully so she doesn’t slip, Harper makes her way along the stream until she can make out casual conversation.
Someone speaks in a language she doesn’t understand, but one so familiar it makes her freeze instantly. The strange, near-musical words that seem to run together. The accent that turns every sentence into a question.
Heavy fear fills her throat. Around the bend in the hill are soldiers of the other side. The people who command war droids. Who killed her family and friends. The enemy, her mind whispers.
Carefully, she slowly edges around the steep hill until she can see the edge of their camp. With every movement, her throat seems to close up more and more. She digs her fingers into the grass and dirt, afraid of falling into the water and giving herself away.
But the soldiers are distracted by their own good humour—and, she thinks, liquor likely stolen from a nearby farm. No watch has been set that she can see, the soldiers so arrogantly confident that nobody will attack them here, in the middle of nowhere.
What really captures Harper’s attention, however, is a hovercraft parked between the camp and where she hides. The ground flattens out for a murky pond, which reflects the bright fire flickering in the centre of the camp, and there sits the craft.
The hull gleams in the firelight, as black as ink and so smooth it could be glass. It is, to Harper, the most beautiful thing in the world. Her ticket out of here, and maybe even all the way to her brother.
Glancing back up at the soldiers, she watches their movements, waiting for any of them to look over to check the craft. Nobody does. A tall woman with her hair shaved down to pale fuzz gesticulates as if shooting with a large gun, and the group erupts into raucous laughter once more. A shiver runs down Harper’s spine.
Taking a deep, shaking breath, she ducks low and sprints the distance to the craft. Safely hidden beneath its wing, she presses her body against the cool metal and waits for the sound of the soldiers coming for her.
But there is no harsh cry of alarm, no lull in their conversation that hints that anyone saw her shadowed form. She wipes her forehead, pushes her hair out of her face.
After taking a moment to catch her breath, she makes her way around the craft, searching for the way in. At the side of the cockpit, her hand finds the crease of a door, then the handle. Biting her lip, she pulls at the handle, hoping the soldiers weren’t careful enough to lock the craft.
The door swings open easily, nearly throwing Harper off-balance. She drops into a crouch, her arm stretched up to where her hand still grasps the door’s handle, and waits once more for the group to notice her.
She waits for what feels like hours, but can only be minutes, until she thinks it’s safe. As quietly as she can, she crawls into the cockpit and pulls the door so that it rests against the frame, not quite closed. Now inside, she realizes the craft is much larger than she’d assumed. The cockpit has four seats, and enough space for people to stand and walk around easily enough. A barrier with another door—Harper suddenly realises she doesn’t know if there’s a special word for a door within a ship—separates the cockpit from a larger space that could hold anything. Maybe guns, or food, or just a bunch of seats for more soldiers. Maybe even war droids.
Pushing the thought out of her mind, Harper settles into the pilot’s chair and investigates the console before her as well as she can in the low light. Any labels are in the twisting letters of the soldiers’ home language, and there are so many strange switches and buttons that Harper’s head begins to spin.
“Didn’t even learn to drive,” she mutters under her breath.
Running a finger over a button near a small screen, she wonders if the risk of trying to steal a ship she doesn’t understand at all is worth it.
The door at the back of the cockpit flies open, and a voice cuts through the air. Harper cries out as lights blind her, twisting around to see the woman with the fuzzy hair take shape in the doorway. The soldier has a real pistol in her hand, and she aims it directly at Harper’s chest.
The woman yells again, and Harper raises her hand. “I don’t speak that!” she cries, choking her words out through the terror threatening to drown her. “Don’t kill me!”
Narrowing her eyes, the woman gestures with her pistol for Harper to stand. More strange words spill from her mouth, and though Harper can’t understand her meaning, her tone is clearly hateful.
Slowly, with shaking legs, Harper rises from where she sits and moves into the space between the chairs, her hand still held high. She wonders if she can use the can opener still sitting in her pocket as a weapon, if only she can get close enough.
The woman takes a step forward, but a startled cry from outside draws her attention from Harper. There’s more yelling, then the cracks of gunfire. Keeping her pistol trained on Harper, the woman moves forward and leans to look through the windscreen of the craft. Harper wonders if her own side has just ambushed the enemy soldiers, though she knows she may not live to see who wins. Not that it matters to her, both sides so disgusting to her she’d rather die than be captured by their armies.
Seeing the soldier’s attention divert, Harper slowly lowers her hand until she can slide it into her pocket, wrapping her fingers around the can opener. Outside, the commotion continues, though Harper dimly notices less gunfire now.
As the woman starts to turn away from the window, Harper swings at her head with the can opener. The small implement connects with the woman’s head with a dull thud, and she stumbles to the side with a snarl. Her arm snaps up and grips Harper’s wrist, pulling it around between her shoulder blades and forcing Harper to her knees. The woman barks out something harsh.
Harper closes her eyes and, knowing these could be her last moments, focuses on the world around her. The pain in her knees where they smacked against the craft’s hard floor. The smell of woodsmoke. The cold kiss of a gun’s muzzle pressed against her head.
The vibrations of feet stepping quickly through the craft.
Crying out, the woman pulls the gun away. Before Harper can react, a sharp pain explodes at the back of her head and stars burst behind her eyelids. Someone calls her name, but the world is slipping from her fingers.
She crumples. The can opener clinks against the floor.
Stars sparkle above her, a whole river of diamonds smeared across a navy-blue sky. A sight still new and beautiful to a girl from the city. Cold nips at her nose, and wind blows each of her iced breaths away before they can form little clouds.
She knows they’re moving—can feel the steady rhythm of Efa’s strides, the solidity of the droid’s arms holding her body—but she can’t remember how they got here. I thought I was dead.
“Efa?” she asks.
Questions tumble around her spinning head. “Why? How?”
“I couldn’t…” Efa drifts off, her voice shuddering. Her unspoken words disappear into the night, just like the mist of Harper’s breaths. But the droid doesn’t falter as she runs, and Harper lets her heavy eyelids droop, feeling the safest she’s felt since the first bombs dropped.
As she drifts back to sleep, she hears Efa speak softly.
“I couldn’t imagine the rest of my life without you.”