Efa spears the shovel into the soft ground, taking in her finished work. Four graves, two smaller than the others, rest beneath an old oak the Farmer’s wife once admired aloud on a golden spring day. The physical labour of digging and burying at least granted her a few good hours of work to distract herself, but now Efa finds herself alone with her own thoughts. Not feelings, she knows, because she can’t be feeling. But the thoughts are there, and they are not kind ones.
Nearby, the sheep drift around the small meadow as they graze, though many of them wandered over earlier to sniff what she thinks may have been goodbyes to Cinna’s small body.
Grey. Everything is grey. She can only liken the foggy clouds within her chassis to the ones hanging heavy in the sky, casting monotonous light onto the meadow. Shadow blends with illumination, the saturation sucked from the world.
Harper emerges from the overgrown path, her body pulled to the side by the weight of her satchel, which is overstuffed and straining at the stitches. She slumps to her knees between two graves and pulls the strap over her head with a groan.
“You are over-exerting yourself,” Efa says.
“No shit,” Harper says, bending her arm awkwardly to rub her shoulder. “You try living your life with one arm.”
Efa tilts her head to look down at the girl, expecting venom in Harper’s eyes. She finds instead only a heavy exhaustion, one that would likely be reflected in her own eyes—if she had any.
Flipping open the flap of the satchel, Harper reveals a mass of flat stones small enough that she could easily fit three on her palm.
Silently, she picks a stone from the bag and places it on the Farmer’s grave, then another, and another still until a circle begins to form. She moves with a smooth efficiency, eyes trained only on her goal, and Efa lets her work without words, though curiosity tingles in her fingertips.
When Harper has finished the second circle, she stands and drags the satchel along behind her as she moves around to sit between the two smaller graves. Only then does she speak, though she doesn’t lift her gaze.
“It’s a thing some people do,” she says. “Making a circle for a grave marker. They believe the circles act as, like, windows for the souls of the dead, I guess. But they’re also anchors, leading the souls back to the people they love if they ever need to come back.” She places the final stone of her third circle delicately, fingers lingering over the smooth rock. “Or something like that.”
“Oh,” Efa says.
“I’m not sure sheep have souls,” Harper says, shuffling around to start Cinna’s grave. “I’m not even sure anyone does, really. It’s just grounding, I guess. Feeling like you’re doing something.” She pauses in her work to wipe at her eyes. “Mum did it for my dog. I never did it for her, or … I couldn’t bury any of them. You know?”
Efa clasps and unclasps her hands, trying to find the right words for Harper’s tears, but already the girl’s eyes are dry again. In the end, all she can say is, “Thank you.”
Silence descends upon the two again for a while, as Harper steadily forms the last circle and Efa watches, her mind filled with incomplete sentences that spill together into a mess of unspoken words.
Finally, Harper stands and moves away to empty her satchel of the few remaining stones. When she turns back to Efa, the space between her eyebrows is furrowed with intense thought.
“Explain how you’re feeling,” she says. “I mean, I know you’ve got something in there. I’ve seen it.” She blows stray hair out of her eyes, shrugging at Efa’s confused silence. “It’s a thing my therapist used to make me do. ‘How does that anger feel?’ and that kind of shit.”
Looking down at her hands, so filled with the sensation of pinpricks, Efa lets out a sound that could almost be a sigh—and as she does, she knows she is mimicking Harper’s own sighs of resignation.
“I do not know the words,” she says. “I am not a human, like you.”
“I never know the words,” Harper says. “She pushed me to figure them out, I guess. Like, when I was angry at my teachers, it was this—” she grips the front of her shirt, crumpling the fabric between her fingers “—chest-tightening, cold thing. Like ice had frozen over my lungs, and it was moving its way up into my brain and freezing that, too. Different to being angry at my friends. That was hotter. A flash-fire burning through my veins.
“Just, I don’t know, try and explain what it feels like inside right now.”
“Empty,” Efa says, tapping her chest. “In here, it is empty, which is normal, but it does not feel normal anymore. In my head there are a lot of thoughts all running together, because I think my reasoning functions may be breaking down.” She speaks slowly, each word considered, because every word is like looking at herself in a new way.
“Yeah?” Harper encourages, moving to Efa’s side.
Efa wiggles her fingers before the girl’s face. “There is a prickling in my fingers, which should not be there. When I think of the Farmer, or of the future, or the world beyond the farm. Or of you,” she says. “I do not think I’m really feeling emotions, like you do. I think this is how I break.”
Chewing her lip, Harper stares at Efa’s fingers, which are now folded neatly before her white body. She’s doesn’t speak for a while, her eyebrows drawn together once more. As she thinks, Efa counts the freckles sprinkled across her face. One-hundred and three. Maybe more, though the rest are too light to really tell.
“Does it matter?” Harper asks, after a time.
“Does what matter?” Efa asks.
“If this is you breaking? I never—” she growls in her throat “—I never thought that any of you could feel anything, whether or not you were meant to. You’re artificial, people made you. Nobody’s ever mentioned a droid acting like you.”
“I did not know humans acted like you.”
Harper barks a laugh, brushes her messy hair out of her face. “Well, I’m broken too.”
Kneeling before the Farmer’s grave, Efa thinks of the man’s creased face, and his too-neat beard—how his wife often joked no farmer should ever spend so much time fussing over his facial hair. Were they broken people, too? Put back together by each other, or holding their pieces in place as they held the other close? She wonders: if humans can break and grow from there, why not droids?
“He once told me, ‘Some days I can’t help but wonder if your kind might be better at humanity than us.’ I still do not know why.”
Harper snorts. “That’s stupid. Humanity isn’t something you do, it’s not something you can be better at. It’s something you just have, or so they say. It’s bullshit philosophy—that humanity is some amazing thing. We’ve always fought and killed and hurt each other and everything around us.
“Droids probably have something better in them,” she says. “I mean, we built you to do better than us. Before the war, at least. I guess that came from us wanting droids not to act like us, just so they wouldn’t hurt us. But then we screwed that up.”
“The war droids,” Efa says. “They don’t have a choice.”
“I know,” Harper says, grimacing. “I still hate them, and I hate whoever made them. So much for humanity, huh? If that’s what comes of it. Maybe your farmer was right. Maybe it’s because droids aren’t human that you’re better than us.”
Efa gazes up into the oak tree’s bare branches. “Do you hate me for saving your life?” Behind her, she hears Harper huff.
“Of all the things in the world right now, you’re probably the thing I hate the least.”
As Harper warms her hand over the fire pit, Efa double-checks the makeshift fence she built to keep the sheep within the farmhouse’s yard. The flock tails her for a while, curiously butting their noses against the wire and wood, but eventually tire of her movements and drift back to nibbling at the dewy grass.
Sure that the fence will hold at least for tonight—assuming no sudden storms or high winds—Efa steps up onto the raised patio and sits beside Harper on one of the black chairs. Efa’s back is straight, her hands clasped in her lap. Compared to the slouched, fidgeting Harper, she can’t ignore how robotic she looks.
The old fire pit Harper found in the garage holds the flames well, with the twisting metal making up its frame matching the outdoor chairs. As long as Efa has lived at this farm, the chairs have always had their place on this patio. She’s only seen the fire pit brought out maybe four or five times though—a milestone birthday, a pregnancy announcement, other special, seemingly arbitrary occasions that her human owners revelled in.
Now, only she and Harper are here to enjoy the warmth of the fire. No celebrations, no loud laughter or clinking wine glasses. Just the wind and the crackling flames.
So, Efa speaks. She tells Harper of the Farmer, and of his wife and their bright-eyed child who would grasps her fingers with little hands. Stories flow from her: the Farmer’s beard, the wife’s cans of beans, the way the dog used to skirt around the baby as if afraid the small human would explode. Harper listens, sometimes laughs, her eyes flickering with reflected fire.
“You really seem to love them,” she says, when Efa eventually quiets.
“I did,” Efa says, realising at that moment that the words are true. Maybe she doesn’t feel it like a human does, but the knowledge is there. And Harper—
She doesn’t let herself think about Harper, with her harsh words and sharp cheekbones. With her tangled hair and near-permanent scowl.
Except she’s not scowling now, her eyes unfocused as she gazes into the fire, a soft smile forming upon her lips. Whatever memories are playing out within her mind right now, they must be golden ones.
“Sometimes, I want to grow plants within myself,” Efa says. Harper starts, scowl returning.
“Why?” she asks.
“I am not alive, but…” Efa’s voice catches, her mind unable to find the right words. She never could voice this desire to the Farmer, never thought she would need to string together a sentence that explained the images that bloom within her mind of her body brimming with green leaves and little, blue flowers. “I’m not alive, but it seems nice.”
Tapping her fingernails against the side of her chair, Harper blows air out of her nose. “I always liked the idea of bursting into flames. Not catching fire, just, getting so angry that I become the fire. Maybe your thing’s like that.”
“Maybe,” Efa says. Harper chews her lip for a moment, then, slowly, she begins to open up.
“My family was always so chilled out, especially my mum. They were cool-headed in every situation, which usually just pissed me off even more. My mum did yoga, my sister would knit, my brother liked to read these long, over-descriptive books about elves and trees and whatever. Boring shit, but they seemed so happy doing it.” She smiles again, though sadly.
“And then I met her—Ada—who was like that, too. But she had so much empathy—sympathy? I don’t know which, but she had it in bucketloads. If I was mad about something, she wouldn’t try and reason me out of it. She’d sit there and let me yell about it and then I’d feel better. You probably would have liked her.”
“Where is she now?” Efa asks. The look that crosses Harper’s face instantly makes her regret her words.
“I am sorry.”
“In the end, it wasn’t even the droids that got her. She got an infection, some stupid thing that could’ve been solved with a round of antibiotics. In any other world, a world where we aren’t killing each other, she wouldn’t have had any reason to worry about it.” Voice cracking, the girl turns her face away from Efa. “Of course in this world, the hospitals were bombed or overwhelmed, and all I could do was hold her hand and watch. After everything we’d been through, it was so quiet. She just slipped away as if falling asleep.”
Efa rises from her seat and kneels beside Harper, wrapping her arms around the shaking girl. Harper freezes, seems ready to bolt or lash out. But she doesn’t, instead melting into Efa’s embrace without a word.
In this moment, the world quiets.
Then, Harper speaks;
“When are we leaving?”