A chill breeze brushes her skin, icy fingers prying her from a slow, fever-blurred death. Her eyes are sticky, covered in a film that glues her eyelids together like a thick ointment. With the breeze comes scents from a childhood long gone; animal musk, pine and grass and earth. Above all, there’s the clear freshness of land untarnished by city smog.
She is sick, she is delirious, and none of this can be real. In her final, aching moments in this forsaken world, her brain has constructed a story of fresh air and itching grass, of blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds that come into sharper focus as she blinks away the fog. Too real, she thinks dimly, watching the clouds meander across their candy-blue field.
There is the sound of small feet rustling grass, then a creature’s velvet snout is suddenly snuffling at her face, little huffs of air tickling her heated skin. The dark eyes and animal sounds are so new and surprising, the girl has to suppress a scream as she raises her hands to push the sheep away.
Only one hand meets the creature’s face, startling the sheep away with a small, twisting leap. The other hand—her damaged arm, she recalls vaguely—will not move no matter how much she wills it.
Something is wrong.
Wincing with the effort, she raises her head and cranes her neck to look at the place her arm lies. Or, where it should lie.
There is no hand, no arm. From her cleanly bandaged shoulder down, there is a painful absence, the ghost of a limb recently taken. Anger and fear bloom in her chest and her breath quickens, though she hardly has the energy to rise. Someone has stolen part of her own body from her, taken it away without her consent. Memories rise behind her eyes—
flowers scribbled along her forearm in blue ink, another girl’s laughter—a brother’s touch, his hand squeezing hers in reassurance—the tracing of freckles, soft lips brushing sun-warmed skin—her mother’s smile, hands brushing her damp hair over her shoulder—
She balls her remaining fist against her mouth, willing herself to keep the tears deep down, hidden away from this cruel world. This is unfair, worse than death, because she has lost a part of her that held the touches of people she loved so dearly and lost so quickly.
The girl flinches at the voice—not quite human, distorted with a metallic undercurrent. The war droids had a similar cadence, though a deeper timbre.
Gingerly, she forces herself to sit up to confront the voice. Droids are rarely gendered, but she can’t help but think of the war droids as dark and terrible men, while the one now before her seems feminine. Its voice is softer and more serene than the war models, with an aura of peace seemingly emanating from its tall, slender body.
Faceless, the droid turns its head towards the girl, and she can’t help but feel unseen eyes watching her. A shiver goes up her spine, her fight-or-flight reaction hitting so hard she might lose her last meal, if only she’d had one.
Voice calm, the droid speaks again; “It was the only way to save you.” The segmented fingers of its other hand tighten around its makeshift staff, and its modulated voice becomes a whisper. “I think.”
Letting her body fall back against the grass and dirt, the girl’s eyes roll up in fatigued frustration. She shouldn’t blame the droid—a dim AI, surely—for being a model so old it couldn’t know better. Whatever, she thinks. Fucking whatever.
Amputation; such a barbaric last choice for such a newly barbaric era. War, death, vengeance. Humanity itself is surely gone from this country, though the dying people remain.
For the first time in what could be weeks, the girl speaks. A single word, her voice creaking like unused machinery; “Fine.”
“Are you in pain? Do you need painkillers?” the droid asks, crouching down with one knee in the grass, a hand hovering uselessly over the empty space the girl’s arm once inhabited.
“We may need to move soon, but I can carry you if you are too weak to walk.”
Disgust floods her at the thought of being in a droid’s cold arms, at the memory of synthetic limbs clutching at her like vines. She forces out a single word.
After a silent moment, the droid stands and turns away to tend to its herd. Exhaling, the girl tries to expel her anger and that heavy exhaustion. This droid saved her life, whereas the droids she truly fears tried to take it. They are not the same, though her trembling body seems unable to tell the difference. The shepherd-droid gave her a gift, a second chance at life.
So she gives all she is willing to give in return:
The droid hums inquisitively, unsure of the meaning of the word, and the girl silently curses old, unintuitive programming. “My name is Harper.” Her voice is stronger with each word.
“I am Efa.”
“I didn’t”—dehydrated coughs wrack her starved frame—”I didn’t realize your lot had names.” Efa tilts her head, muted sunlight gleaming from the matte surface of her chassis. Though she knows it’s ridiculous, Harper almost thinks she can hear the whirring machinery in Efa’s head as the droid thinks.
“Maybe not, but I do.”
Harper closes her eyes, tries to sink into the red-beige darkness behind her lids. “Fine.”
Sharp pain is spreading out from her shoulder like a burning weed, ready to bloom with blood and bone and stolen life. An agony so unlike anything else Harper has ever felt, filling her body in a way the crushing heartbreak never did.
“Actually, I could use some of those painkillers,” she groans unwillingly, fighting to keep the desperate whimpers from her voice. She hears Efa kneel down again, then there’s a sharp prick at her neck, then—
Blissfully, a coolness runs through her veins, numbing the fire and dulling the pain. A sigh escapes her chapped, bloodied lips, and with it an accidental whisper of thanks, the word out in the open air before Harper even realizes she’s thought it. Fine, let the droid feel useful. That’s all they’re good for.
“You’re welcome,” Efa says as she stands again, her voice filled with a tenderness that Harper can’t quite bring herself to believe is synthetic.
Stomach growling, Harper pulls herself from more fevered dreams; of faces she’ll never see again, of sticky blackness spilling from warships, of sheep that hum and click like little robots. The nightmares cling to her like tar, like the inky darkness staining the cities. Her throat is raw, lungs heavy and unwilling as if that very blackness has filled her chest.
It’s the scent of smoke and charred meat that drags her back to reality, back to the sunshine and winter-crisp grass of the hilly paddock. Efa is crouched over a small fire, holding a plucked bird Harper doesn’t recognise directly in the flame. All Harper can do is stare, watching as Efa’s head inclines her way in greeting.
“I thought you might need nutrition,” she says.
Harper snorts. “Nutrition. Right.” Her stomach rumbles again, and she can’t tell if she’s hungry or nauseous. “You can”—she nods at the bird—”you can kill?”
“This is neither human nor my sheep. So, yes.”
Groaning, Harper pulls a clump of grass from the earth, intending to shred it. The place her hand should be becomes a void so suddenly she feels as if she’s breathing underwater, life being sucked from her with each gasp. The grass falls from her remaining hand, though she can hardly see it through fogged eyes.
Efa is there at her side as if from nowhere, pressing the edge of a container to her dry lips. Water, less than sweet, fills her mouth and dribbles down her chin. Despite the metallic taste, she downs the entire container in one go, too thirsty to think about the droid’s other arm supporting her back.
Hot tears fill her eyes, spill down her cheeks. They cut trails in the dirt and blood staining her face, hinting at the freckles beneath. For days she has fought this, tried to keep the sadness buried beneath the rage that has fuelled her for so long.
But a dam has burst, the grief pouring from her in wails and whimpers. Efa is by her side the whole time, silent. Somehow, this makes Harper even angrier. The anger doesn’t last, only melts back down into more sorrow and shuddering sobs.
Slowly, slowly, an emptiness takes the anguish’s place, and Harper’s eyes clear once more. Weakly, she pushes Efa away, hiding her face beneath dirty hair.
“Okay,” Efa says, and Harper wonders if she’s imagining the sarcasm.
The droid moves away, back to the fire. As she goes, she whispers to the sheep with reassuring words Harper can’t quite make out. Harper always thought sheep were stupid animals, afraid of their own shadows, but she sees the way they act around Efa. Perhaps they simply see another dim creature, perhaps that’s why Efa seems to love them so.
No, not love. Droids can’t love.
Watching the droid pull apart the bird with a ruthless efficiency, the past and the present blur. Harper can only see the war droids’ hands as they tear and rend and kill, just as faceless and calm as Efa.
They don’t have names, she tells herself. They don’t save people.
Still, she can’t shake the nagging feeling that soon enough, this droid will turn on her, too.