The 9,000 Year
The flotillas of the dead sailed around the world on underwater rivers. Very nearly nobody knew about them. But the theory is easy to understand. It runs: the sea is, after all, in many respects only a wetter form of air. And it is known that air is denser the lower you go and lighter the higher you fly. As a storm-tossed ship founders and sinks, therefore, it must reach a depth where the water below it is just viscous enough to stop its fall. In short, it stops sinking and ends up floating on an underwater surface, beyond the reach of the storms but far above the ocean floor. It's calm there. Dead calm. Some stricken ships have rigging; some even have sails. Many still have crew, tangled in the rigging or lashed to the wheel. But the voyages still continue, aimlessly, with no harbour in sight, because there are currents under the ocean and so the dead ships with their skeleton crews sail on around the world, over sunken cities and between drowned mountains, until rot and shipworms eat them away and they disintegrate.
Sometimes an anchor drops, all the way to the dark, cold calmness of the abyssal plain, and disturbs the stillness of centuries by throwing up a cloud of silt. One nearly hit Anghammarad, where he sat watching the ships drift by, far overhead. He remembered it, because it was the only really interesting thing to happen for nine thousand years.
The One Month Prologue There was this . . . disease that the clacksmen got. It was like the illness known as 'calenture' that sailors experienced when, having been becalmed for weeks under a pitiless sun, they suddenly believed that the ship was surrounded by green fields and stepped overboard. Sometimes, the clacksmen thought they could fly. There was about eight miles between the big semaphore towers and when you were at the top you were maybe a hundred and fifty feet above the plains. Work up there too long without a hat on, they said, and the tower you were on got taller and the nearest tower got closer and maybe you thought you could jump from one to the other, or ride on the invisible messages sleeting between them, or perhaps you thought that you were a message. Perhaps, as some said, all this was nothing more than a disturbance in the brain caused by the wind in the rigging. No one knew for sure. People who step on to the air one hundred and fifty feet above the ground seldom have much to discuss afterwards. The tower shifted gently in the wind, but that was okay. There were lots of new designs in this tower.
It stored the wind to power its mechanisms, it bent rather than broke, it acted more like a tree than a fortress. You could build most of it on the ground and raise it into place in an hour. It was a thing of grace and beauty. And it could send messages up to four times faster than the old towers, thanks to the new shutter system and the coloured lights. At least, it would once they had sorted out a few lingering problems . . .
The young man climbed swiftly to the very top of the tower. For most of the way he was in clinging, grey morning mist, and then he was rising through glorious sunlight, the mist spreading below him, all the way to the horizon, like a sea. He paid the view no attention. He'd never dreamed of flying. He dreamed of mechanisms, of making things work better than they'd ever done before. Right now, he wanted to find out what was making the new shutter array stick again. He oiled the sliders, checked the tension on the wires, and then swung himself out over fresh air to check the shutters themselves. It wasn't what you were supposed to do, but every linesman knew it was the only way to get things done. Anyway, it was perfectly safe if you— There was a clink. He looked back and saw the snaphook of his safety rope lying on the walkway, saw the shadow, felt the terrible pain in his fingers, heard the scream and dropped . . . . . . like an anchor.
The Angel In which our Hero experiences Hope, the Greatest Gift – The Bacon Sandwich of Regret- Sombre Reflections on Capital Punishment from the Hangman – Famous Last Words — Our Hero Dies – Angels, conversations about — Inadvisability of Misplaced Offers regarding Broomsticks – An Unexpected Ride – A World Free of Honest Men – A Man on the Hop – There is Always a Choice They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man's mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that it is in a body that, in the morning, is going to be hanged. The man going to be hanged had been named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents, but he was not going to embarrass the name, in so far as that was still possible, by being hung under it. To the world in general, and particularly on that bit of it known as the death warrant, he was Albert Spangler. And he took a more positive approach to the situation and had concentrated his mind on the prospect of not being hanged in the morning, and most particularly on the prospect of removing all the crumbling mortar from around a stone in his cell wall with a spoon. So far the work had taken him five weeks, and reduced the spoon to something like a nail file. Fortunately, no one ever came to change the bedding here, or else they would have discovered the world's heaviest mattress. It was the large and heavy stone that was currently the object of his attentions, and at some point a huge staple had been hammered into it as an anchor for manacles. Moist sat down facing the wall, gripped the iron ring in both hands, braced his legs against the stones on either side, and heaved. His shoulders caught fire and a red mist filled his vision but the block slid out, with a faint and inappropriate tinkling noise. Moist managed to ease it away from the hole and peered inside. At the far end was another block, and the mortar around it looked suspiciously strong and fresh. Just in front of it was a new spoon. It was shiny. As he studied it, he heard the clapping behind him. He turned his head, tendons twanging a little riff of agony, and saw several of the warders watching him through the bars. “Well done, Mr Spangler!' said one of them. 'Ron here owes me five dollars! I told him you were a sticker! He's a sticker, I said!'
'You set this up, did you, Mr Wilkinson?' said Moist weakly, watching the glint of light on the spoon. 'Oh, not us, sir. Lord Vetinari's orders. He insists that all condemned prisoners should be offered the prospect of freedom.'
'Freedom? But there's a damn great stone through there!'
'Yes, there is that, sir, yes, there is that,' said the warder. 'It's only the prospect, you see. Not actual free freedom as such. Hah, that'd be a bit daft, eh?'
'I suppose so, yes,' said Moist. He didn't say 'you bastards.' The warders had treated him quite civilly this past six weeks, and he made a point of getting on with people. He was very, very good at it. People skills were part of his stock-in-trade; they were nearly the whole of it.
Besides, these people had big sticks. So, speaking carefully, he added: 'Some people might consider this cruel, Mr Wilkinson.'
'Yes, sir, we asked him about that, sir, but he said no, it wasn't. He said it provided—' his forehead wrinkled '—occ-you-pay-shun-all ther-rap-py, healthy exercise, prevented moping and offered that greatest of all treasures which is Hope, sir.'
'Hope,' muttered Moist glumly. 'Not upset, are you, sir?'
'Upset? Why should I be upset, Mr Wilkinson?'
'Only the last bloke we had in this cell, he managed to get down that drain, sir. Very small man. Very agile.' Moist looked at the little grid in the floor. He'd dismissed it out of hand. 'Does it lead to the river?' he said. The warder grinned. 'You'd think so, wouldn't you? He was really upset when we fished him out. Nice to see you've entered into the spirit of the thing, sir. You've been an example to all of us, sir, the way you kept going. Stuffing all the dust in your mattress? Very clever, very tidy. Very neat. It's really cheered us up, having you in here. By the way, Mrs Wilkinson says ta very much for the fruit basket. Very posh, it is. It's got kumquats, even!'
'Don't mention it, Mr Wilkinson.'
'The Warden was a bit green about the kumquats 'cos he only got dates in his, but I told him, sir, that fruit baskets is like life: until you've got the pineapple off'f the top you never know what's underneath. He says thank you, too.'
'Glad he liked it, Mr Wilkinson,' said Moist absent-mindedly. Several of his former landladies had brought in presents for 'the poor confused boy', and Moist always invested in generosity. A career like his was all about style, after all. 'On that general subject, sir,' said Mr Wilkinson, 'me and the lads were wondering if you might like to unburden yourself, at this point in time, on the subject of the whereabouts of the place where the location of the spot is where, not to beat about the bush, you hid all that money you stole . . . ?' The jail went silent. Even the cockroaches were listening. 'No, I couldn't do that, Mr Wilkinson,' said Moist loudly, after a decent pause for dramatic effect. He tapped his jacket pocket, held up a finger and winked. The warders grinned back. 'We understand totally, sir. Now I'd get some rest if I was you, sir, 'cos we're hanging you in half an hour,' said Mr Wilkinson. 'Hey, don't I get breakfast?'
'Breakfast isn't until seven o'clock, sir,' said the warder reproachfully. 'But, tell you what, I'll do you a bacon sandwich, 'cos it's you, Mr Spangler.' And now it was a few minutes before dawn and it was him being led down the short corridor and out into the little room under the scaffold. Moist realized he was looking at himself from a distance, as if part of himself was floating outside his body like a child's balloon ready, as it were, for him to let go of the string. The room was lit by light coming through cracks in the scaffold floor above, and significantly from around the edges of the large trapdoor. The hinges of said door were being carefully oiled by a man in a hood. He stopped when he saw the party arrive and said, 'Good morning, Mr Spangler.' He raised the hood helpfully. 'It's me, sir, Daniel “One Drop” Trooper. I am your executioner for today, sir. Don't you worry, sir. I've hanged dozens of people. We'll soon have you out of here.'
'Is it true that if a man isn't hanged after three attempts he's reprieved, Dan?' said Moist, as the executioner carefully wiped his hands on a rag. 'So I've heard, sir, so I've heard. But they don't call me One Drop for nothing, sir. And will sir be having the black bag today?'
'Will it help?'
'Some people think it makes them look more dashing, sir. And it stops that pop-eyed look. It's more a crowd thing, really. Quite a big one out there this morning. Nice piece about you in the Times yesterday, I thought. All them people saying what a nice young man you were, and everything. Er . . . would you mind signing the rope beforehand, sir? I mean, I won't have a chance to ask you afterwards, eh?'
'Signing the rope?' said Moist. 'Yessir,' said the hangman. 'It's sort of traditional. There's a lot of people out there who buy old rope. Specialist collectors, you could say. A bit strange, but it takes all sorts, eh? Worth more signed, of course.' He flourished a length of stout rope. 'I've got a special pen that signs on rope. One signature every couple of inches? Straightforward signature, no dedication needed. Worth money to me, sir. I'd be very grateful'
'So grateful that you won't hang me, then?' said Moist, taking the pen. This got an appreciative laugh. Mr Trooper watched him sign along the length, nodding happily. 'Well done, sir, that's my pension plan you're signing there. Now . . . are we ready, everyone?'
'Not me!' said Moist quickly, to another round of general amusement. 'You're a card, Mr Spangler,' said Mr Wilkinson. 'It won't be the same without you around, and that's the truth.'
'Not for me, at any rate,' said Moist. This was, once again, treated like rapier wit. Moist sighed. 'Do you really think all this deters crime, Mr Trooper?' he said. 'Well, in the generality of things I'd say it's hard to tell, given that it's hard to find evidence of crimes not committed,' said the hangman, giving the trapdoor a final rattle. 'But in the specificality, sir, I'd say it's very efficacious.'