Home > The Long Mars (The Long Earth #3)

The Long Mars (The Long Earth #3)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

1

THE HIGH MEGGERS:

Remote worlds, most still unpopulated, even in the year 2045, thirty years after Step Day. Up there you could be utterly alone. One soul in an entire world.

It did funny things to the mind, thought Joshua Valienté. After a few months alone you got so sensitive that you thought you could tell if another human, even just a single person, arrived to share your world. One other human, maybe on the other side of the planet. The Princess and the Pea wasn’t in it. And the nights were cold and big and the starlight was all aimed at you.

And yet, Joshua thought, even on an empty world, under an empty sky, other people always crowded into your head. People like his estranged wife and his son, and his sometime travelling companion Sally Linsay, and all the people of the suffering Datum Earth in the aftermath of Yellowstone, five years after the eruption.

And Lobsang. Always Lobsang . . .

Given his unusual origins, Lobsang had necessarily become something of an authority on the work known in the west as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Perhaps its most familiar title to Tibetans was the Bardo Thodol, roughly translated as Liberation Through Hearing. This funerary text, intended to guide the consciousness through the interval between death and rebirth, had no single agreed edition. With origins in the eighth century, with time it had passed through many hands, a process that had bequeathed many different versions and interpretations.

Sometimes, as Lobsang had surveyed the state of Datum Earth, first home of mankind, in the days, months and years after the Yellowstone super-eruption of 2040, he found comfort in the sonorous language of the ancient text.

Comfort, compared with the news that had come out of Bozeman, Montana, Earth West 1, for example, only days after the eruption. News to which his closest friends had responded . . .

On any ordinary day, the community growing up in this one-step-West footprint of Bozeman must be a typical stepwise colony, Joshua thought, as he pulled on his protective coveralls one more time. A bunch of Abe Lincoln log cabins cut into a forest whose lumber was steadily being worked for export to the Datum. A corral, a small chapel. If anything this copy of Bozeman lacked facilities you’d find further out in the Long Earth, such as a hotel, bars, a town hall, a school, a clinic; this close to the Datum it was just too easy to step back home for all of that.

But this day, September 15 2040, was no ordinary day in any of the stepwise Americas. For, seven days after the big caldera had first gone up, back on Datum Earth the eruption of Yellowstone was still continuing. Bozeman, Montana, was only fifty miles or so from the ongoing blast.

And, one step from the disaster, Bozeman West 1 was transformed. Though the day was bright, the sky blue, the grass a vivid green – no volcano skies here – the town was crowded with people, jammed into the cabins and housed in hastily erected tents or just sitting on tarpaulins on the ground. People so coated with volcano ash that they were uniformly grey, their skin, hair and clothes, like they were characters from some ancient black-and-white TV show, I Love Lucy, cut-and-pasted digitally into the bright sunlit green of this fine fall day. Men, women and children, all coughing and retching like they had 1950s smoking habits too.

The landscape around the town, meanwhile, had been appropriated by the official types from FEMA and the National Guard, who had marked out the ground with laser beams, police crime-scene tape, even just chalk marks, to match the layouts of blocks and buildings in Datum Bozeman. Some of the outlines extended into the woods and scrubland, land as yet untamed here. The officials had numbered and labelled these blocks, and were sending stepping volunteers back to the Datum systematically, marking off computerized maps on their tablets, to ensure the whole community was cleared of people.

In a way the whole thing was a display of the basic mystery of the Long Earth, Joshua thought. It was already a quarter-century since Step Day, when he and other kids all around the world had downloaded the spec for a simple electronic gadget called a Stepper box, and turned the knob as per instructions – and stepped, not left or right, forward or back, but in another direction entirely. Stepped into a world of forest and swamp, at least if you started in Madison, Wisconsin, as Joshua had. A world all but identical to Earth – old Earth, Datum Earth – save there had been no people in it. Not until kids like Joshua appeared, popping out of thin air. And, Joshua had quickly found, you could take another step, and another, until you found yourself striding along a whole chain of parallel worlds, with differences from the Datum gradually increasing – but not a human in sight. The worlds of the Long Earth.

And here was the basic, harsh reality of it. Datum America was now covered by a searing blanket of volcanic ash and dust – yet here, a single step away, it was as if Yellowstone didn’t exist at all.

Sally Linsay showed up, finishing a coffee from a polystyrene cup that she carefully placed in a bin for cleaning and reuse: good pioneer-type habits, Joshua thought absently. She was in a clean one-piece coverall, but the ash had got into her hair, the skin of her neck and face, even her ears, anywhere the FEMA facemasks and straps hadn’t covered.

She was accompanied by a National Guardsman, just a kid, with a tablet computer. He checked their identities, the numbers on the chests of their suits, the town block they were going into this time. ‘You two ready again?’

Sally began to fix her mask over her face once more, a breathing filter, steampunk goggles. ‘Seven days of this already.’

Joshua reached for his own mask. ‘It won’t be finishing any time soon, I’m guessing.’

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