Home > The Long Mars (The Long Earth #3)(10)

The Long Mars (The Long Earth #3)(10)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Overall, instead of being endearingly backyard-rocketship amateurish as it had been, the facility and its approaches now looked like one big engineers’ playground. The Gap had become big business these last few years, she knew, as governments, universities and corporations back on the Datum had gradually woken up to the potential of the place. Now hoardings shouted the names of every major technical outfit Sally could think of, from Lockheed to IBM via the Long Earth Trading Company – and including the Black Corporation, of course. This had become probably one of the most crowded stepwise locations beyond Valhalla, the greatest city of the High Meggers.

Which was one reason she hadn’t come near the place for years. And why it was hard to take a single pace forward, like she had a phobia. She reflected that Joshua Valienté would do better in this situation. Good old Joshua now seemed quite at home in moderately cramped social situations like this, while she was ever more a loner and a hardened misanthrope.

But it was her father who had summoned her here, and nothing could change him, for better or worse. Willis Linsay, dear old Dad: creator of the Stepping box, a gadget probably stolen out of the box from under Pandora’s nose and released into an unsuspecting world. That was Dad all over, tinker, tinker. If you couldn’t find him, just head towards the explosions and the wail of ambulances . . .

And as she stood there, reluctant, conflicted, uncertain, here he came, walking boldly out of the compound to meet her. How had he known she was here? Oh, of course he would know.

He was taller than she was – she had always had more of her mother’s colouring and body shape – and thinner than ever, like a man built of nothing but sinews and bone. After her mother had died he’d seemed to live on nothing but brandy, potatoes and sugar, for years.

He slowed as he approached her. They stood there, wary, eyeing each other.

‘So you came.’

‘What do you want, Dad?’

He grinned, a slightly deranged expression she remembered too well. ‘Same old Sally. Down to business, eh?’

‘Is there any point me asking what you’ve been doing – hell, since you turned the world upside down on Step Day?’

‘Pursuing projects,’ he murmured. ‘You know me. You either wouldn’t understand or you wouldn’t want to know. Suffice to say it’s all for the common good.’

‘In your opinion.’

‘In my opinion.’

‘And is there some new project that you brought me here for?’

‘Here?’ He glanced around at the GapSpace installation. ‘Here is only a waystation, en route to our ultimate destination.’

‘And where’s that?’

He said simply: ‘The Long Mars.’

Sally Linsay was used to wonder. She had grown up stepping, as a child she had walked into uncounted alien worlds. But even so, as her father spoke those words, she felt the universe pivot around her.

They were met at the compound gate by a guy her father introduced as Al Raup. While his scalp was shaven, a thick black beard sprouted from his chin, giving Sally the odd impression that his head had been rotated around the axis of his stub nose and re attached upside down. He wore canvas shorts, grubby sneakers with no socks, and a black T-shirt too small for his belly with a faded slogan:

SMOKE ME A KIPPER

He might have been any age between about thirty and fifty.

He stuck out his hand. ‘Call me Mr Ttt.’ Tuh-tuh-tuh.

She ignored the hand. ‘Hello, Al Raup.’

Willis raised an eyebrow. ‘Now, Sal, play nice.’

‘Come, let me show you around my domain . . .’

Raup swiped them through the security barriers, and they walked into the compound. Sally heard the growl of heavy vehicles, smelled brick dust and wet concrete, and saw giant cranes loom over holes in the ground. Workers wandered around in yellow hardhats. In some cases she saw ‘danger: radioactivity’ signs, and that was new since she’d last visited. Nuclear rockets under develop ment maybe?

She did notice a party of trolls labouring at a concrete mixer, apparently happy enough. Sally cared little for technology, or people, compared with animals.

‘So,’ Raup said. ‘Welcome to Cape Nerdaveral, Marsonauts!’

‘You’re exactly the type I remember from my last visit here,’ Sally snapped at him.

‘Ah, yes. When you snatched those trolls.’

‘When I liberated them. Glad to see your kind hasn’t gone extinct with the corporatization of this place.’

Raup waved fat fingers. ‘Ah, well, we geeks were here first. We figured out the basic parameters of how to use the Gap, we started the construction of the Brick Moon and sent over a few test shots, all before anybody even noticed we were here.’ His accent might have been middle American, but he had a strangulated, showy way of speaking, with looping vowels and over-precise consonants. She had an odd sense that he had already rehearsed in his head almost everything he said, in case he ever had an audience to use it on. ‘We’re no innocents. We filed a few patents. But in the end the corporate guys had no interest in screwing us over. Easier to buy us out; we were relatively cheap, in their terms, and we had expertise they needed.’ He grinned. ‘We Founders are all dollar millionaires. How cool is that?’

Sally couldn’t have cared less, and dismissed his bragging.

In among the gargantuan industrial facilities she saw sprawling residential blocks, bars, a hotel, a cinema-cum-theatre, a lot of casinos and gaming houses, and shadier-looking establishments she guessed might be strip joints or brothels. And there was one modest chapel, she saw, built of what looked like native oak, with a small graveyard set out within a low stone wall: a reminder that space travel was a dangerous occupation even here.

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