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—
She shakes Efa, screams at her to wake up, that she can’t leave her alone in this forsaken world because this droid is all she has left now. Frantically, she searches the droid’s body for a power button, but Efa’s model is unfamiliar and alien up close, built by a completely different company than the labour droids her family owned.
The sun glints off something in the corner of Harper’s eye and, turning her head, she sees the headless war droid collapsed upon the grass. Every bad thing that’s brought her to this point has been because of those droids, and the people who programmed them. All her rage funnels down into a single focal point: that droid.
Leaping to her feet, she hurtles at the droid and falls upon its chest, screaming. Fingers scrabbling, she finds every widened seam, every loose panel, and tears away at the droid’s body with all the strength of her single arm. She lets all thought flood away, leaving nothing but a pure, feral rage that feels like ash and flame.
In the back of her mind, she registers a soft chime—a sound she’s always associated with the break of dawn—but at this moment the noise means nothing to her until, slowly, the darkness at the edge of her vision fades and the world finds colour again. Panting, she feels a void within her chest, sucking everything out of her.
Dawn, she thinks, taking in her bloody nails and the partly-disassembled droid beneath her. Then, it clicks—the sound, and what it means, because she’s heard it a thousand times. The sound of Efa’s brand of droid starting up.
Whipping around, she watches Efa rise to her feet, the bloodied ewe in her arms. The flock moves closer to Efa, recognizing safety in her tall form, but she ignores them, just as she ignores Harper.
“You’re alive,” Harper says, sliding from the war droid’s carcass and rushing over to Efa. “I thought—”
“I failed. I failed him,” Efa interrupts, though Harper gets the feeling the droid’s talking more to herself than the human beside her. “I have to tell him.”
Shaking her head, Harper steps in front of Efa. “Tell who? Your farmer? You said he left.”
But something about Efa is off; in her stance, in her voice, in the way she stares right past Harper. She’s acting more robotic, more like the single-minded droids from Harper’s old life that wouldn’t hope they made the right choice, because they never doubted their own actions.
With purpose in her step, Efa pushes past Harper and heads towards the gravel driveway, the sheep hesitantly trailing along behind her.
“Wait,” Harper calls, grabbing at Efa’s arm. “Where are you going?”
Turning her head, Efa looks at Harper for just a moment—and even with Efa’s lack of eyes, Harper knows the droid is staring straight through her—then the droid pulls her arm from Harper’s grip and continues on in silence.
“What the fuck?” Harper asks, yelling after Efa. “Your farmer is gone! Where are you going?”
But Efa says nothing, crushing the grass beneath her feet with an urgent pace. For a moment, Harper watches in stunned confusion as the distance between her and Efa grows—this is the first time the droid has walked away from her, acting as if Harper is nothing more than a dying tree left to sway in the cold air.
Something’s wrong. I don’t like it, Harper thinks, stomping after the wayward droid. She’s sure Efa’s sudden change in demeanour can’t be anything but a bad sign, just the latest in a series of hints that the droid is slowly falling apart on the inside. No droid she’s ever encountered has ever acted so… so utterly, humanly unpredictable. The desire to find the farmer, as unfounded as it seems, makes Harper think of her own reactions after her mother’s death, weeks ago—
The way she would talk to the air, as if the older woman were still right next to her, straw-coloured hair pulled up in a loose bun. “It’s freaking cold today, huh? Should’ve packed a coat,” she’d laugh, before the bitterness of reality set in. No coat, no mother, but at least she had her.
For a time.
A wave of sadness threatens to drown her, so Harper turns her attention outward and to the present. Around her are the sheep, faithfully following their shepherd, their snouts occasionally dropping to the ground to nibble at the grass and clover at the roadside.
They follow a wider—yet unmistakably rural—road for a time, passing fences and pitch-stained fields scattered with now unidentifiable corpses. The larger ones, Harper thinks, may be cows, or horses, or maybe deer. Do they even farm deer? she wonders silently, trying to pick the shape of antlers out from the black mess.
Eyes frantic, the sheep sidestep as far away from the pitch as they possible can, because even their tiny brains can sense the aura of death emanating from the dried liquid. At this point, Harper can’t help but feel like one of the flock, helplessly tailing an apathetic figure that is their only point of safety. Efa is the center of their universe, and they’re powerless to resist gravitating toward her as she drifts away.
Hidden behind a wall of unfamiliar bushes, a small driveway splits from the main road and twists uphill. Still wordless, Efa takes this path, and her flock obeys. Harper’s foot knocks against part of what once must have been a cute, pink letterbox, now smashed and scattered across the gravel road.
Staring after Efa and the sheep, Harper can’t help but feel dread settle over her like a heavy thundercloud, suddenly realising where the droid’s journey will end. Nothing up there can be good, not with shards of a once-loved letterbox crushed beneath her oversized boots. The sign of a happy home—what must be Efa’s home—now destroyed.
Stepping forward, she calls after Efa again. “Hey, stop. Stop!”
Of course, Efa doesn’t pause in her steady stride. Harper hurries uphill after her, the chilled air burning her lungs with every breath. “Damn it,” she groans. “I hate hills.”
One of the sheep glances at her with dark eyes as if judging her weakness. Readjusting the satchel’s strap pulling at her shoulder, Harper forces her heavy legs forward.
At the top of the winding drive is a wide circle of gravel that pools before an off-white farmhouse topped with a roof painted the green of a pine grove. Glimpses into the house’s living room and kitchen can be caught through large, grimy windows. A small balcony leads onto a yard at the side of the house, dirty outdoor furniture strewn across the dying grass.
Hesitating, Harper takes in the house—once a home—and knows in her heart that anyone left inside must be dead. For Efa’s sake, she hopes the farmer really did leave with his family, because the droid is already stepping onto the balcony and heading for a door smashed wide open.
Leaving the sheep to mill about the yard, Harper steps through the empty doorway after Efa, worrying that the droid suddenly finds it so easy to leave the flock alone. She moves close to Efa, clamping her hand down on the droid’s shoulder as her eyes adjust to the dim light.
“Listen to me, Efa. This place isn’t good,” she says, voice urgent. “Your farmer won’t be here. Listen to me.”
“He’s here,” Efa says quietly.
“No, he’s not.”
The droid’s voice cracks; “He’s here.”
Letting her hand drop, Harper forces herself to turn and look deeper into the house, though she already knows what she’ll see.
The farmer, wide-eyed and blue-faced, body twisted hideously in ways that betray snapped bones and torn muscles. Bile rises within Harper, searing her throat. She covers her mouth, turning away in horror, hot tears springing to her eyes.
Already she has seen too much death in her young life, each face imprinted behind her eyelids for what she fears will be the rest of her years. This man is just another to add to the long list, just another frozen face among the others, just one more nightmare to join the rest.
With a heavy thud, the dead sheep’s body hits the wood floor, and Harper can only watch as Efa turns and races from the kitchen, knocking a precarious pile of dirty dishes from the bench. As they shatter, Harper hears Efa howling in grief out on the balcony. She knows the feeling—that sudden realization that the people you love most are never coming back.
Back on the day they buried the family dog, Harper’s family insisted she’d regret not opening the coffin and looking at her dear dog’s face one last time. Peaceful, was a word they used, as if death could look anything but rigid and cold.
Lifting the lid slightly, she’d peered into what was essentially a box. There was her dog: coat dull and eyes closed, looking not at all as if he were simply sleeping. The sight was terrible, the complete opposite of peace. It took everything inside her to not burst into tears right then and there, because the last sight of her pup wasn’t going to be his golden tail wagging in a patch of late-afternoon sun anymore, but this—this empty husk.
Later that day, she’d screamed into her pillow until all she could see when she closed her eyes were stars.