Six hundred years after she lost her one true love, the young woman in the faded blue jeans and the tan leather jacket returned to Cherryville. She’d stopped to shed her last vengeful tears at the way station ten miles back; now, cheeks dried and eyes clear and hard, she was ready.
She rolled into town on a weathered black sociable, its left seat long ago removed and replaced by a battered old rivercane basket, currently filled with an assortment of dried fruits, nuts, jerky and a faintly glowing data tablet, resting languidly atop this humble bounty.
Her tires kicked up dust and small stones as she braked to a halt in front of the first of three skyscrapers that loomed over Cherryville’s only street. In thirty seconds' ride she could put tiny Cherryville over the horizon behind her, but duty and destiny demanded their due.
She leaned her sociable against a hitching post and stepped onto the boardwalk, pausing a moment to stamp the dust from her black over-the-knee boots. She removed her black Stetson and with an offhand, almost lazy gesture flung it to land precariously balanced atop her sociable’s handlebars. For a moment it seemed a gust of wind would topple the battered old hat into the road, but the breeze subsided as if in deference to the visitor.
She gazed up at the towers of glass and steel before her. GENERAL STORE, pronounced the easternmost tower in bold block letters of carved and cracking obsidian. SALOON, read the middle tower in fading jade. And POST OFFICE, read the last in letters of worn marble. High above the skies began to roil, clouds of ochre and violet twisting impatiently beneath the silent glittering starscape waiting at altitudes incomprehensible, waiting on her and on Cherryville. Over the horizon other clouds rumbled their discontent, and she knew she’d allowed time to grow too short.
And yet she hesitated before the saloon doors and the murmuring voices beyond. One slightly callused but meticulously manicured hand brushed against the pistol holstered at her hip. Its deadly weight was cold comfort, leeching the heat from her body, a malevolent force pregnant with ugly potential. It had been her partner for half a century, and there was no ending their dark contract now. She took a breath and entered the saloon.
The skyscraper was mostly empty space, its one hundred fifty floors merely ringing the inner walls, ornate balconies of gilt stone open to the interior. On the ground floor hundreds of townspeople lined the bar or lounged at round oak tables as they dined, played cards, or, more commonly, ignored each other in favour of consulting their smart phones, eagerly devouring distractions that had ceased to matter centuries gone. There was no music, only the low rumble of conversation.
She stood at the saloon entrance until, one by one, all eyes were fixed upon her. At that moment she pulled her jacket open to reveal the large, polished black opal pinned to her blouse. The last echoes of conversation died away.
She spoke in the old formal tones, her voice initially cracking from long disuse.
“Hello,” she said. “At precisely noon today the extension granted you by the Confederation of the Living expires. Per the agreement, you will now surrender yourselves for conversion in an orderly fashion.”
She attempted a smile, a way to soften the blow.
“Congratulations on your perseverance. You are among the last corporeal –”
But the crowd didn’t let her finish. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the first terrified citizen drew his primitive sidearm, his blue eyes bloodshot and bulging with panic, beads of sweat glistening on his pale skin.
He was only halfway out of his chair before the young woman and her gun were one being once more, her arm extended, eyes half-open, her expression serene but sad. The first conversion slug burped from the barrel of her pistol and sailed across the room and through the citizen’s heart, its recording devices transmitting the sounds and sights of the man’s death to the young woman’s tablet on the street outside.
She would have preferred if the first violent conversion could have persuaded the others to surrender, but this crowd was too attached to this plane. Bullets, flechettes, darts and bolts crisscrossed the room in search of her flesh. She felt something bite sharply into her left side; an instant later another missile grazed her cheekbone, leaving a shallow gash that oozed a slow trickle of blood.
It wasn’t enough to distract the partnership. Her body moved with the grace of a dancer, long dark hair whipping in an arc as she pirouetted through the saloon, conversion slugs ripping through guts and brains and faces and lungs, every atrocity duly recorded. Once or twice an especially gifted citizen nearly managed to kill her, but her reflexes and the gun’s silent psychic warnings kept her injuries to a shameful minimum.
It was over in minutes. The carpet was soaked with blood that squelched under her boots as she left the saloon.
The Cherryville postman was standing beside her sociable, holding her data tablet, eyes agog. He looked up at her as she stepped down from the boardwalk, taking the tablet back.
“Anyone else in town?” she asked, gesturing with her chin at the post office and the general store. Her eyes were wet again, her vision blurred. Tiny rivers of blood dripped down her pale cheek to her jawline.
“Just me,” he said. “Everyone else was waiting for you in there. They thought maybe they’d have a chance if everyone...well. I thought I’d go with a little dignity.”
She nodded, wearing her mask of indifference through the tears. She reached out with her left hand, the polished black surface of her pointed nails shifting and whirling to reveal vast star fields, a universe on every fingertip. But before she could touch his grizzled cheek, he raised a hand to ask a question. She waited.
“Why do you take those awful pictures?” he asked. “Surely it’s not necessary, and who’s going to watch them...you?”
Her thin lips twisted in a sad smile. Tomorrow night she would indeed watch the replays, as she had watched all the others to remind herself of what she’d stolen, what she’d given, and what she’d sacrificed. When Earth at last was empty, someone must bear the burden of remembrance.
“I’m a sentimentalist,” she said.
The postman frowned, light years from understanding. Then starry fingertips graced his cheek and he burst into wisps of silver smoke, lost on the wind.