Wheat shines golden in the passing headlights. An occasional red glimmer lurks in the darkness they leave behind, but the driver’s eyes never stray from the road: until she sees the combine harvester, reaping and threshing and winnowing, a lightless silhouette under the full moon.
She brakes hard, more by instinct than design, and stares at the thing through her window. She can’t make out the driver: a wide-brimmed hat shelters them from the gleam of the night’s blackened sun. The combine is utterly silent as it moves.
Fear shivers down her spine. She floors the gas, tyres squealing, and flees from the spectre of something she’d hoped not to meet for many years.
“How are all you motherfuckers doing tonight?!”
The crowd roars. She stands before them in leather and corpse paint, feasting on the burning radiance of their euphoria. Behind her the double bass drums roll out a beat peppered with snare notes.
“You know this one,” she calls out, and suddenly stops. The guitar riff comes in, covering her silence, but her eyes are still caught by the figure at the centre of the pit: a man in a wide-brimmed hat, tall and thin and white, his clothes somehow blacker than those of the headbanging crowd all around him.
He finds her after the show. Her hair is streaked with moonlight and sweat, her eyes alight with challenge. “You come to take me, then?” she asks, in a tone that says Bring it.
The harvester smiles.
“I enjoyed the show very much,” he says. “I would like to repay you.”
“If you’re offering me drugs or sex, I’m not interested.”
“No,” he says. “I suppose you are not. Who do you think I am?”
She doesn’t answer, but the diamonds twinkling in the corners of her eyes tell him that she knows.
“Your time was meant to come today,” he tells her. “You would have cracked your head against the edge of the stage. But, for your music, I’ll give you the only thing I can: your life.”
She takes it from his hand, long-fingered and scrawny, and feels the world become her own.
She sees him again, not once but many times. He comes for cats and dogs and rats and mice, for aunts and uncles, siblings, niblings, bandmates, friends. He never comes for her.
She leaves on the first rocket. The earth has become tired, cold with the dust of frozen flowers. She finds new hope among the stars. There are worlds upon worlds to visit, to explore, to watch over as they sprout new stories, new music, new art: tin machines carry her from one galaxy to another as quickly as dreaming.
Here, now, she is a creature of legend. The Deathless One. Desperate queens and pirates vie for her service, showering her in credits and gifts; youngsters serenade her with theremins and electric lutes. Each time, she sends them away.
The harvester no longer wears his wide-brimmed hat. She sees him in a thousand different spacesuits, a million different blacker-than-black robes. Only his gaunt white face never changes, one century to the next.
She stops him one day at a crowded spaceport, the scene of a crash with six hundred dead. Tossing her life from one hand to the other, she asks: “You want to take this back?”
He smiles, as he always does. “Are you finished with it?”
“Yeah. It’s been good, but after a while immortality stops living up to the hype.”
“How would you like it to end?”
He nods, and tucks her life away into a fold of his robe. “I would very much like to hear one more song,” he says.
One last time, she sings.