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

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

‘What “sensible young lady”?’

‘Came around a couple of days before the ash fall really kicked in. Wore kind of pioneer gear – never gave us her name, thought she must be from some government agency. Gave us smart advice about survival, very clear.’ He glanced at the older woman. ‘She also told us very clearly that the planetary alignment was nothing to do with it, and this wasn’t a punishment by God, and my mother-in-law seemed to find that a comfort. Didn’t take much notice of her advice at the time, but we remembered come the day. Yeah, we did OK. Although we’re running out of stuff now.’

The middle-aged woman shook her head. ‘But we can’t leave.’

‘You can’t stay,’ Sally said harshly. ‘You’re out of food and water, right? You’ll starve to death if the ash doesn’t kill you. Look, if you don’t have Stepper boxes we can just pick you up and go—’

‘You don’t understand,’ Brewer said. ‘We sent away the kids, the dog. But Meryl – my mother-in-law—’

‘Extreme phobic,’ the woman said. ‘You know what that means.’

That stepping between the worlds, even if Meryl was carried over, would invoke such a reaction in her that it could kill her, unless a cocktail of appropriate medications was quickly administered.

Brewer said, ‘I’m betting you’re out of phobic drugs already over there, where you’re taking us.’

‘And even if not,’ said his wife, ‘the young, the healthy will be prioritized. I won’t leave my mother behind.’ She glared at Sally. ‘Would you?’

‘My father, maybe.’ Sally started to back out of the crowded space. ‘Come on, Joshua, we’re wasting our time.’

‘No. Wait.’ Joshua touched the old woman’s arm. Her breath was a rattle. ‘What we need to do is take her someplace where they do still have drugs. Somewhere away from the ash cloud zone.’

‘And how the hell do we do that?’

‘Through the soft places. Come on, Sally, if there was ever a time to use your superpower it’s now. Can you do it?’

Sally expressed her irritation with a glare through her obscuring facemask. Joshua stuck it out.

Then she closed her eyes, as if sensing something, listening. Feeling out the soft places, the Long Earth short cuts only she and a few other adepts could use . . . Joshua’s idea was that Meryl could be carried, via the soft places, to someplace other than a stepwise Bozeman, to someplace where the medications would be more freely available.

‘Yes. All right. There’s a place a couple of blocks from here. In two steps I can get her to New York, East 3. But, Joshua, the soft places are no easy ride, even if you aren’t old and frail.’

‘No choice. Let’s do it.’ He turned back to the Brewers to explain.

And the whole house seemed to lift.

Joshua, crouching under the table, was thrown on his back. He heard timbers crack and fail, and the hiss of the ash making still more inroads into the house.

When it settled, Brewer’s eyes were wide. ‘What the hell was that?’

Sally said, ‘I’m guessing the caldera’s collapsed.’

They all knew what that implied; after seven days everybody was an expert on supervolcanoes. When the eruption finally finished, the magma chamber would collapse inward, a chunk of Earth’s crust the size of Rhode Island falling down through half a mile – a shock that would make the whole planet ring like a bell.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ Joshua said. ‘I’ll lead you.’

It took only seconds for Joshua to step the Brewers out of the house, and safely over into the impossible sunshine of West 1.

And, just as Joshua stepped back into the Datum ash to help Sally with the mother, the sound from the caldera collapse arrived, following the ground waves. It was a sky-filling noise, as if all the artillery batteries in the world had opened up just beyond the horizon. A sound that would, eventually, wash around the whole planet. The old lady, propped up by Sally, her dressing gown stained grey, her head obscured by towels, whimpered and clapped her hands to her ears.

Joshua, in the middle of all this, wondered who the ‘sensible young lady’ in the pioneer gear had been.

The Bardo Thodol described the interval between death and rebirth in terms of bardos: intermediate states of consciousness. Some authorities identified three bardos, some six. Of these Lobsang found most intriguing the sidpa bardo, or the bardo of rebirth, which featured karmically impelled visions. Perhaps these were hallucinations, derived from the flaws of one’s own soul. Or perhaps they were authentic visions of a suffering Datum Earth, and its innocent companion worlds.

Such as an image of dreamlike vessels hanging in a Kansas sky . . .

The US Navy airship USS Benjamin Franklin met the Zheng He, a ship of the Navy of the new Chinese federal government, over the West 1 footprint of Wichita, Kansas. Chen Zhong, Captain of the Chinese ship, claimed to have concerns about the role he was expected to undertake in the ongoing relief effort in Datum America, and an exasperated Admiral Hiram Davidson, representing an overstretched chain of command – well, everybody was overstretched, as the fall of this disastrous year of 2040 turned into winter – had mandated Maggie Kauffman, Captain of the Franklin, to take time out of her own relief efforts to meet with the man and discuss his concerns.

‘As if I have the time to salve the ego of some old Communist apparatchik,’ Maggie grumbled in the solitude of her sea cabin.

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