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.
Harper’s hands—hand, she thinks, squeezing her eyes closed in frustration—has explored others’ bodies before and she feels no shame in that, but this is different. Solid and inhuman, her body cold to the touch, Efa is nothing. No muscles, no skin, no soul, her entire being written by faceless strangers in a faraway city.
And yet, somehow Harper feels there’s life, even a personality, albeit uptight, within Efa’s chassis. She at least fakes her humanity well enough that Harper pauses when she comes to the droid’s smooth face, water dripping at their feet.
Growling low in her throat, she flicks her wrist and throws the rag in the droid’s face. Efa starts, moving for the first time in a long, quiet while.
“Did I do something?” she asks, her question maddeningly sincere.
Harper shrugs, sits heavily upon the stairs. Wiping a hand across her face, she pushes her damp hair out of her eyes. “Why are you alone here? Did your owner abandon you?”
“He is coming back.” Turning her head away from Harper, Efa wipes the rag across her empty face. Her voice is sharper than usual, a steely edge in her tone. “He is.”
“Right. Fine. He tell you that?”
“Yes.” Letting the dirty scrap of fabric drop from her hand, Efa seems to look at Harper. Water splashes from the bucket, and Harper shivers at the thought of the chilled droplets. “Where is your owner, Harper? You are too young to be alone.”
Her lost arm throbs, an intangible ache that fuels the fire in her stomach. “People don’t have owners,” she says, biting at each word. “Droids have owners.”
Efa looks almost taken aback. “Of course. I am sorry.”
Snorting, Harper kicks at a rock by her foot. “Fine.”
“Harper,” Efa says, crouching as if to meet Harper’s eyes, “I only meant to ask why you are not with family.” Her voice is so soft, as if she is speaking to one of her stupid sheep. Swallowing, Harper focuses on her anger, tries to let it fill her, because as long as she is angry she can’t be sad and weak.
She shrugs again, eyes downcast. “I don’t know. Whatever. They’re back in the city, I guess. What does it matter? I’ll be gone soon anyway.”
“Oh.” The droid seems to fidget, pressing her fingertips together. “Of course.”
Guilt nips at Harper, and she hates herself for it. She owes this robot nothing, especially not her story. She takes a breath, runs her hand through her hair.
“My home’s gone. Family’s dead. But I have a brother in another country, and I need to get to him. He doesn’t even know I’m alive.” Miraculously, she doesn’t cry. Despite the heat she can feel rising in her cheeks, her body trembles, and she pulls the parka closer. The smells of the new clothes are strange, but somehow familiar; they smell of a loved home, of rooms warmed by real fire, of storms and clean rain. Worst of all, they smell of her. The urge to tear herself free of the clothing and just let her body freeze to death almost overwhelms her at the realisation.
Efa’s voice is barely above a whisper; “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The pity is what does it, what finally snaps Harper out of her memories. With one last exhausted burst of rage, she propels herself to her feet and pushes against Efa’s shoulder. The droid falls back onto the grass with nothing more than a small, confused—scared—gasp.
“Don’t act like you care,” she spits. “You’re just a droid, you don’t know anything about loss.” Throwing back her head, Harper yells wordlessly at the clouds above, letting her emotions out in the least violent way she knows. She stomps through the long grass to a fence, punctuating her cries with a final, tired, “Shit!”
Though she can’t see her, she feels Efa’s gaze on her back. The stupid, unreadable droid. She should tear one of Efa’s arms off, see how she likes losing part of herself in such a savage way.
For so long back in her old life, Harper tried to be kind and calm and good-natured, everything that everyone else thought she could be. With all those people dead, it feels as if it was all for nothing. She almost sees no point in trying to keep up the facade of a good person, it’s not like Efa even thinks she could be one, but then—
Hurting anything out of cold blood, that’s what the war droids do. To damage Efa out of spite would be to act like the droids who tore Harper’s home asunder. She can only hope that deep down, she is nothing like those droids, or the people who create such horrible things.
Letting out a long, drawn-out groan, she turns back to Efa. “I’m sorry.”
Inclining her head, Efa shrugs in an oddly human way. “Are you hungry?” She holds no grudges, it seems.
“Yeah.” Harper feels a smile tug at her lips, and for the first time, she doesn’t fight it. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
Flames crackle in the darkness, flickering as a breeze picks up over the hills. Harper sits within the warm pool of light, her knees folded up to her chin, eyes flaring gold with fire. She can hear the sheep moving around, snuffling through the grass, bleating at one another. Beyond them are the sounds of nature: wind rustling leaves, branches groaning, a creek gurgling in the distance. Sounds that still seem mostly alien to Harper, who expects the rush of traffic, the hum of electricity, the drunken laughter of young people without a care.
She used to be one of them, stumbling along in shoes too high and strappy to be comfortable, clinging to the arms of her friends as they laughed and sang off-key. That wasn’t her, not really, but she was still happy.
Running a finger around her knee in circles, she sighs. Thinking about all she’s lost only sharpens the constant, dull ache that fills her whole body.
“Efa,” she says, unable to bear listening to her own thoughts for a moment longer. “Where do you think your owner is?”
“Elsewhere,” Efa says. She stands just at the ring of light’s edge, her matte body tinted with orange and shadow. “With his family.”
“Do you even know what’s happening off this farm?”
“He told me there was a war.”
“Mmm.” Letting her hand drop from her knee, Harper presses her cheek against her knees and gazes out into the shifting darkness. “Do you know what that means?”
“A war is when people fight for resources, land, ideology,” Efa says, as if reciting classroom lessons. Her voice drops, becomes almost childlike as she says, “There have been very big ships in the sky.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen those, too.” A shiver runs down her spine. “So many of them, blocking out the sun. The war droids came from them.”
“War droids,” Efa murmurs, more thoughtful than questioning.
“They kill everyone. Everyone not on their side, at least.”
“What?” Efa moves to Harper’s side, crouches beside her. “They kill humans? That…” She pauses, stares right at Harper’s face. Though her face is empty, her flexing fingers and quavering voice betray her distress. “How?”
“Uh.” The fire dulls for a moment, caught in a sharp gust of wind. “They’re built to kill. It’s in their programming, I guess. The same as you and those sheep.”
Rocking back on her heels, the droid makes a mournful sound. Shocked by Efa’s clear anguish at this news, Harper’s words die in her throat. They become bitter ash, a dry lump that she fears will choke her.
Efa’s words are so quiet that Harper almost misses them; “I don’t understand.”
Scooting closer to the Efa, Harper tries to find words that might help. She opens her mouth, still unsure of what exactly she’s going to say, when—
The horizon erupts in columns of fire, followed by a deep rumble that shakes the earth. Harper stumbles to her feet, swaying, and Efa quickly stands too, reaching out to steady her. The two watch in silence as the light fades, then two more bright bursts illuminate the shapes of warships above the hills. Panicked, the sheep huddle together and cry helplessly, shaking their heads and stamping their little feet into the grass. Efa turns away from Harper to her sheep, speaking in her quiet, sing-song voice as she attempt to calm the flock.
But Harper’s eyes are glued to the dimming sky, her heart thudding in her throat. She wants to run—has nowhere to run. She realises now how ridiculous she was being, thinking that she would be safe to recover here for a while longer. Death and destruction will follow her for the rest of her life like a shadow, always at her heels at every step.
She needs to leave, soon. Before the war returns to these green, misty hills. Her brother is waiting up north, likely mourning his lost family as he watches the news broadcasts. This image, coupled with that of the battle far away, leaves her with an urgent, helpless feeling.
She turns on her heels, walks just a little too quickly back to the tiny cabin to disappear within its dark interior, ignoring as Efa calls her name.
Sliding her hand along the wall, she fumbles her way through the hallway to the main room, and the couch she heaped with blankets and too-big coats earlier in the day. Everything smells of dust as she collapses into the pile, burying herself in warmth and hiding her face from the cruel world. She wishes she could be like a child again, able to believe that the evils that haunt her will disappear as soon as she’s tucked into bed.
Her eyes may as well be closed with the world beneath the blankets so pitch black. She stares into the darkness, alone and scared, with only a shepherd-droid and her sheep to keep watch.