Chapter 2

The gallows sang to him. They weren’t supposed to do that, or so he understood, but some fool had erected them at the opening of a box canyon, and the sou’westers really put some heart into the mournful dirge. They again. Why were gallows a plural? Gallow probably sounded too lonely. Company would be nice, he thought, as the hangman snuggled the sole noose around his neck. A pardon would be nicer, but his da’ always said you could shit in one hand and wish in the other - either way you’re washing your hands, young man.

A once-in-a-lifetime event, they’d said. Fuckers. This was as singular an occasion as any, but he wouldn’t retract the epithet. They would wake up tomorrow, having sex or breakfast or both, and then they’d yawn, decide how to spend their day. For all their words, they wouldn’t piss on his grave if it was burning. Where did that come from, he wondered; not one of da’s pieces of wisdom, probably just some last spasm of neural activity. How long did it take, to hang? It had to be hours since the snap of the trapdoor, and still here he swung. Death would come soon. It had to. This wasn’t dignified, wasn’t right. The hangman had been a real stickler, too. Professional pride, hooded cloak, measuring tape and all. Not an industry that fostered such concerns - no repeat business, not if you did it right. We each make our beds - now go make yours, you little bastard. That one hurt, accurate as it was. Underfed, underfoot and out of wedlock. That was his legacy, or so da’ told it. Why the hell am I still alive?


That wasn’t right. The noose was still hanging loose, no rhyme intended. The hangman still silent, preparing his speech. Time did that sometimes, got all hazy. This was still before the hanging. Be present to the moment.

The prediction net still functioned, it seemed. That would be the last thing to go. He choked on a laugh. This land had belonged to sheep, once, or so he’d been told. Sheep and their bitter, parochial keepers. It turned you ingrown, they said, working on the land. A people so focused on the soil underfoot that they missed the changes. Missed The Fall, if truth be told, and not only because they refused the implants. Maybe, if you saw yourself, immortality had no true appeal.

Horses. That was all the land was good for now. Horses and beauty, but beauty was free.

"You’ll want to stop squirming quickly, or you’ll end up like the others." The voice was female, but whispered in a growl. He peered under the hangman’s hood, and revised his assessment. Hangwoman. Or was hangperson more correct? This was the problem of disconnection. A million arbitrary words and conventions, lost to you in an instant. He remembered something about the gender wars, something about the evils of assumption and oversimplification, but memory couldn’t be trusted. She was about to hang him. That should probably be the focal point, whatever he called her.

Still, the prediction net might finally come in useful for something. Stop squirming? He could do that. Another laugh wriggled in his throat, and he stifled it. An entire life, fighting against the damn thing, the poster child for agency and against predestination. And here he was, taking a last breath of hope from a quantum algorithm.

His stomach still clenched as the whateveryoucallher stepped behind him and the gallows creaked. Some men emptied their bowels when the trapdoor opened. Some women, too. The crowd loved it, he’d heard. Others got aroused, going out with a bold protrusion for all to diminish and laugh at. The crowd, the anonymous many. Screw them. He’d go out with his dignity intact, thank you very much. He’d been many things, but an object of ridicule wasn’t... There was a sliding, rasping noise. Wood slipping on wood, the lever readied. He let out a nervous titter, and those in the front of the crowd roared with laughter. Their faces were radiant, upturned in delight and all eyes fixed on him. This is when they shine? Now, of all moments?

"Any last words?" The same voice, but amplified for the people. What a people. He forced his eyelids to close, to shut out the shining faces. If this was what it took to bring people together, he wanted no part of it. A small shake of his head. They didn’t want his words, they wanted his life.

One last rasp of wood, then a click. He fell.