Blinded by her anger, Harper fights to escape Efa’s tight hold on her. All she can feel is the burning desire to grab the soldier hurting the dog by their collar and—
Efa lets out a mechanical scream. She shudders, then crumples, her arms dropping from Harper’s waist. The girl, driven by her own momentum, propels herself forward. Ears ringing, she falls to her hands and knees—except her right hand isn’t there to catch her like her brain expects. She slams into her arm’s stump and keeps going, her head cracking against the floor.
Sharp pain bursts across her entire skull like fireworks, stars filling her vision. She tries to rise, but the world tilts dangerously as a loud whooshing drowns out all other sounds.
“Efa,” she says, more whimper than word. “Help me.”
She tries to twist around to find the droid, her body screaming with the effort, but a boot slams down on her upper back and pins her to the ground.
“Stay down,” says the owner of the boot. “We don’t want to hurt you.”
“I’ll hurt you,” she snarls with her face pressed against the floor, squirming as she struggles to get free. “I’ll kill all of you if you hurt Efa!”
“Sedate her,” says another voice—the Commander, or Captain, or whatever the woman in charge of these soldiers is called. A hand grabs a handful of hair to hold her head in place, then something sharp pricks her neck and a wave of dull exhaustion washes through her. Cement fills her veins, dragging her body down.
She howls against the fatigue, fighting the darkness every step of the way.
Harper jerks awake, metal clinking at her wrist. With bleary eyes and a heavy head, her brain tries to piece her current situation together: a neatly-made bed upon which she lies, a stuffed deer toy by her feet; a dull throbbing in her head and the remains of her arm; cold handcuffs tethering her left hand to the bed’s frame; the Commander sitting across from her bed, a pen in her hands. Click. The pen’s tip springs out. Clk-click. The tip disappears.
Harper notices one more thing: Efa isn’t here.
“Hello,” the woman says. Harper glares back. “You needed time to calm down, and we needed time to secure the house.”
“It’s not your house.”
“Nor is it yours.”
“Fine,” Harper says. “But it is Efa’s.”
Click. Dark eyebrows raise over the Commander’s eyes. “Droids don’t have ownership over anything, let alone a house.”
The woman raises a hand, her expression giving her the same severity as one of Harper’s old therapists. Harper hated that therapist; she hates this woman, too.
“I’m asking the questions here.”
“She better be okay, or I’ll—”
“Or you’ll what, girl? You’re not getting out of this room without my permission, and if we need to we will sedate you until we can drop you off.”
“Yeah? Where?” Harper asks. Angry heat rises in her cheeks, the urge to pull at the handcuff until her hand breaks is so strong she has to fight herself to resist.
“We’ll be taking you south, back towards your home city.”
“But my brother is north.”
Clk-click. “Your brother is in another country. We don’t have the resources necessary to get you to him, and we’re heading south ourselves. You can contact him once you’re home.”
“That’s not my home,” Harper spits. “Fuck you. I’m staying here.”
The woman places the pen down on a desk beside her and clasps her hands in her lap. “Here? Where the graves are?”
Shit, Harper thinks, instantly understanding which direction the conversation is heading. She’d know that accusatory I-know-you-did-it tone anywhere, having heard it her entire life.
“What about them?” she asks, trying to quell the fire within herself.
“Did you kill the owner of this residence?” asks the woman.
“But you buried them.”
“Efa buried them.”
The woman pinches the bridge of her nose. “We know about your anger issues, Harper. Your records detail them very explicitly. We know war can push anyone beyond breaking. Did you kill them?”
“You think I killed a baby?” Harper laughs bitterly. “No.”
Sighing, the woman picks up the pen again. Click. Clk-click.
“This is the worst therapy session I’ve ever had,” Harper says. Click. “What, you think I’m some kind of monster? Fine.”
“I don’t think you’re a monster,” the woman says, frustration tingeing her voice.
“Fine. I think you’re one, though.”
“We’re on your side, Harper.” Clk-click.
Snorting, Harper jerks the handcuff taught, the metal cutting into her skin. “My side?”
“That’s for your own safety.”
“No. It’s for your safety,” Harper says. “Cause you better watch out if I get my hand on one of those pistols.”
The woman stands with a controlled slowness, her movements those of someone who knows she has power. Harper strains against the cuff more, feels her skin break beneath the sharp edge.
“You can come out when you promise to behave,” the woman says. Turning her back on Harper, she exits the room. Harper hurls expletives and anger at the closed door until her throat burns and the blood dripping from her wrist begins to pool. The Commander doesn’t return.
Ignoring the pain in her wrist, she slides from the bed and slumps against the frame, her head resting on the mattress. With the blinds closed there’s little to light the room, and Harper can’t tell what time it might be. Rain pounds against the roof, loud and unending.
She figures this is the spare room, given the bed isn’t large enough for the farmer and his wife, plus the lack of a crib for the baby. A layer of dust covers most of the furniture, except where she and the Commander have disturbed it.
Harper lets out a sigh, staring up at the paneled ceiling. There’s no easy way out of this, she knows, except to agree to behave—as if she’s some naughty kid placed in time out. The thought fills her with another bloom of anger, but she’s too tired and hungry to sustain it.
The rage fades, and all that’s left is a cold and empty loss. If only Ada were here, she thinks. Ada, with her sweet voice and warm, dimpled smile. Ada, with eyes so kind she could charm anyone. Ada would have found compromise with the soldiers, she’d have been calm and collected and Harper would have never ended up in this mess.
But Ada isn’t here; Harper is. And Harper never backs down.
Again, she scans the room, searching for something—anything—that can aid her escape. Anything that doesn’t involve losing her only hand, though she hasn’t entirely discounted breaking her fingers to squeeze through the cuff. This wouldn’t be the first time.
But something catches her eyes. There, on the desk: the pen, the end of it just sticking off of the side. The Commander must have put it down again when she left and forgotten it.
Kicking a boot and a sock off, Harper wriggles as far as she can from the bed, her arm stretched straight out. She reaches up to the pen with her foot, her leg shaking with exhaustion and pain.
She brushes the pen with her toes as she tries to seize it, sliding it back away from the edge. It rolls out of view, and out of reach. She clenches her teeth and growls through them. Liquid heat floods her.
The top of her foot meets the bottom of the desk with a solid thunk before she even knows she’s lashing out. She desperately hopes she doesn’t knock the pen even further away.
The pen flips off the desk, bumped by her kick, and lands right beside her. Dropping her leg, she just stares at it for a moment, wide-eyed and unable to believe her luck. Then, she scrambles back up to sitting, gripping the pen between her toes and twisting her body to grab it with her hand.
It’s a black pen with metal details that give away how much it must have cost. Maybe her week’s allowance, back when she had one. There’s no way this could be the farmer’s, at least in Harper’s mind. She never met him, but the house doesn’t give a sense of Efa’s family being the type for splurging on stationery. Too bad it won’t be worth much when she’s done, she thinks.
Holding the pen tightly—and ignoring the cold pain in her wrist as she tenses her muscles—she pulls it apart with her teeth, twisting the pen’s chassis off and freeing the spring. She drops the pen, the spring grasped between her teeth, and pinches the free end of the spiraled wire between her fingers.
Eventually she pulls and twists the spring into a straight line, feeling the muscles in her back complain about her hunched posture. Folding the wire in half, she bends and flexes it until it snaps in two.
Taking one half in one hand and the other in her mouth, she grins widely. This isn’t the first time she’s had her hands cuffed, nor the first time she’s broken her way out of them. Her first broken hand inspired her to learn better ways to escape.
Even with her missing hand hampering her efforts, it doesn’t take her long until the lock clicks on the cuff and it swings open, freeing her hand. She drops the wires, hurriedly pulls her sock and boot back onto her foot, and jumps to her feet with a silent cry of victory.
Moving quietly to the door, she presses her ear to the wood and listens. She hears muffled, softly-spoken words, and presses her head even harder against the door.
“… yeah, we tossed it in their garage. Dunno if it’ll turn on again after… it’s broken to shit. Mind-wipe can’t fix that.”
“Guess we can… for parts.”
“Yeah, yeah. You ever seen anything like that? A droid saying… like it thinks it’s human.”
“Nah, but I’ve heard…”
Harper rocks back from the door, crouching on her heels as she takes in the few words she could hear. They must have been talking about Efa, who Harper guesses is now in the garage of the farmhouse. No way to get there through that door, not with soldiers guarding her exit, but—
She heads back to the bed and climbs onto it, lifting the blinds covering the window slightly to peer out. Nothing but rain, wind and darkness. There’s no way for her to defend herself against the rain, but she knows the downpour will give her decent cover.
She opens the window as far as it will go and squeezes through, dropping unceremoniously into a puddle as deep as her ankles. Closing the window as much as she can behind her, she pulls her parka’s hood up and stumbles through the rain.
An awful howl echoes in the near distance, past the untrimmed bushes pushing Harper against the house’s outer wall. Harper’s head jerks in the direction of the sound, recognizing it instantly for what it is: Eyebrows.
Following the noise, she finds a path through the bushes and up into the meadow where Efa buried her family. To one side of the clearing is a shed, and Harper sees Eyebrows tethered up right outside the shed. Through the roaring rain, she hears bleats emanating from the little building.
Something moves in the shadows near a more covered part of the clearing, another soldier wielding a gun. The soldier walks with a stiff limp as they approach the shed, and Harper guesses by the slightly odd way they hold their leg that it’s a new, unfitted prosthetic. She’s seen it before, hastily-applied fixes when there’s no other option.
She grins again, feeling like a wild creature as the rain pelts her body. In her mind, her teeth are sharp and carnivorous, and her hair is a lion’s mane. Her heel digs into the ground and she springs forward, sprinting across the meadow and throwing herself at the soldier. They both fall forward, the soldier’s face planting into the grass and mud. As the soldier struggles to get free from beneath the feral girl, Harper tears the gun from their grip and slams it against the back of their skull once, twice, three times.
The soldier’s struggles stop, and Harper climbs off of their body and rolls them over onto their back. She watches for a moment, until she’s satisfied they’re still breathing, then searches their body for more weapons. The gun by her side is a big and heavy thing, and she needs something that can be used with only one hand. She pulls a pistol from a thigh holster and slips it into her pocket, then unclips a round device that looks not unlike a grenade from the soldier’s belt.
Grimly, she stands and turns to Eyebrows and the sheep-shed. There’s no doubt in her mind that the soldier was here to slaughter at least one sheep; for people surviving on ration packs, sheep meat must seem a huge luxury. Eyebrows leaps up at her, barking happily as she scrabbles at Harper’s legs.
“Down, girl,” Harper says. “I need you to stay here and look after the sheep, okay? I’m going to find Efa.”
Eyebrows wags her tail furiously, her front paws patting down the mud beneath her. Sighing, Harper scratches behind Eyebrow’s ears and then leaves, digging the round device out of her other pocket and examining it as she moves through the shadows. The pin at the neck of the device gives away that it must be a grenade of some kind—but what?
A memory strikes her suddenly, a vision of watching an injured soldier back in the city lob a grenade just like this one at a war droid. It exploded into inky blackness, the same deadly pitch that covered the paddocks she and Efa passed on the way to the farmhouse. The droid didn’t survive, neither did the soldier.
Harper finds her way into the garage through its back door, pausing just inside to let her eyes adjust to the unlit gloom. Even in the darkness, Efa’s easy to see; her white chassis defies the shadows. Picking her way over to the droid, Harper switches Efa on and waits.
Silence stretches from seconds into minutes. Efa remains silent and still.
Harper swears quietly. She knows she can’t carry Efa away herself, and if Efa won’t wake up, there’s no chance she can take out all the soldiers alone.
Crouching down, she presses her lips to Efa’s forehead. Cold skin to cold metal.
“You better be waiting when I get back,” she whispers.
She slips the grenade from her pocket again and feels fire in her chest. Time to burn them all down.
The side door the soldiers originally used to storm into the house is unguarded, though Harper’s hardly surprised at the fact. They likely still think she’s stewing away in her time-out zone, hardly a danger to them.
She sneaks into the house and presses her body into the shadows, listening for a certain sound: the Commander’s voice. It doesn’t take long to hear it, the woman’s sharp, commanding tone certainly carries.
Harper steps into the larger living room, a room filled with baby toys and the debris of a war droid’s path, and raises her hand above her head. Guns click as barrels point directly at her. The Commander rises from the armchair near the blazing fireplace.
“Hi,” Harper says. “I’m going to behave.”
The Commander’s eyes flash as she gives a look to one of the people near her. That soldier darts off, and Harper figures her own guards are about to get a reprimand or two.
“So, you got out.”
“I don’t like cages.”
“This isn’t exactly behaving.”
Harper takes another step. “I’ll tell you everything about the people who lived here and what happened, but only if you stop pointing those guns at me.”
The woman’s eyes narrow. “Why now?”
Shrugging, Harper drops her arm. “I tried to escape, but I’ll just die out there. What’s the point of fighting?”
For a long moment, the woman’s eyes seem to bore into Harper’s very soul, then the woman gestures with a hand and the soldiers lower their weapons. Avoiding sudden movements, Harper moves as close to the woman as she thinks is safe, then drops her gaze to the floor.
“So, what happened here?” the Commander asks.
Harper looks up quickly, gasping as her wide eyes seem to find something outside. The Commander’s attention flickers, as does that of the soldiers, and the instant it does Harper pulls the grenade from her pocket and grips the pin with her teeth. The weapons are back up, trained on Harper as she glares at the Commander.
“Leave,” she says, her word distorted by the metal held between her teeth. “Leave, or I kill all of us.”
“She wouldn’t,” says the soldier with the burnt face, but her voice wavers.
The Commander silences the soldier with a gesture, then stares right back at Harper, once more analyzing the girl with cold eyes. An icy silence descends upon the room as the two measure willpowers. Deep in her heart, Harper knows her desire to not continue living without the people she loves outweighs anything the Commander feels.
She understands they may shoot and kill her, but she won’t go down without pulling the pin. If she goes, they all go.
Something in her eyes must show how willing she is to die, because the Commander’s shoulders drop almost imperceptibly. Nothing in her expression changes, but Harper reads the woman’s surrender loud and clear.
“Fine,” the woman says. “It’s time we moved on, regardless. Lower your weapons, everyone.”
“Sir—what?” asks the burnt woman. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” the Commander says. “Clear out.”
The soldiers hesitantly lower their guns again, then hurry off to prepare for leaving. Placing a hand on Harper’s shoulder, the Commander lowers her voice.
“You think we’re the monsters? You’re the one willing to kill people for a droid. There’s not much humanity left in you, Harper.”
Then, she’s gone.
Harper parts her teeth and lowers the grenade, watching through the window as the soldiers pile onto their vehicles and drive away. She stands frozen for a long time, as if waiting for something.
The fire crackles.
Water seeps into the dirt as she pours, and she imagines the few tiny sprouts breaking the soil drinking the liquid up. She straightens, setting the empty cup on the windowsill so she can push her hair out of her face.
Efa rests on the armchair in front of the large windows, curtains drawn to let sunlight reach the sprouts. Her chest is wide open, filled with soil pilfered from a dead vegetable garden. No part of her moves, there are no whirring thoughts filling her head. Harper touches her fingertips to Efa’s lightly, her eyebrows drawn together.
She feels a grim refusal to admit that Efa is—
That Efa is elsewhere.
The droid’s body doesn’t look dead, not in the same empty way Harper’s own dog did, which the girl knows comes from Efa never really being alive in the first place. At least, not in the same way a dog is. But there’s still nothing peaceful about Efa’s body, no sense of her drifting off to a calm sleep. All there is, is a cold, empty silence.
Ice seeps into Harper’s veins, and she clenches her fist, trying to swallow the anger. She forces the windows open, resisting the urge to put her fist through the glass, and slips out onto the gravel of the driveway. Eyebrows looks up from her spot on the couch, but doesn’t seem inclined to follow.
Clenching and unclenching her fingers, she finds the pile of firewood she’s been working away at and places a piece of wood on the base stump. She wraps her fingers around the axe’s handle and swings, screaming as she brings the blade down to split the wood.
The axe misses the wood, slamming into the stump. She pulls at the axe, but the blade is firmly dug into the stump. Her vision tunnels, her chest constricting, and she picks up the piece of wood and hurls it back at the pile of wood with another scream.
From the other side of the lawn, the sheep watch her with dark eyes as she frees the axe from the stump and swings it down again, and again, and again
“What are you staring at?” she yells at the sheep, tears streaming down her face. “Do you think I’m a monster? Do you want Efa instead? She’s fu—”
She goes silent as a bright chime fills the air, the sound echoing across the mountains. The axe slips from her hands, her face turning towards the farmhouse and the open windows.
It’s a sound ingrained in her memory, one she’s heard a thousand times in another life; four melodic notes that sound like home, hope and, to Harper, dawn.
Efa’s barely stepped into the sunlight when Harper flies into her arms.
<— Chapter Nine |