Home > The Long Mars (The Long Earth #3)(6)

The Long Mars (The Long Earth #3)(6)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Joshua said ruefully, ‘I always kind of hope people have for gotten. Anyway they’d probably kick me off the podium because I’m so grimy. Damn ash, no matter how hard I scrub I can never get it out of my pores.’

‘Still going back to the Datum on rescue missions?’

‘We are going back, but there’s nobody left to rescue. Now we’re reclaiming stuff from the abandoned zone close to the caldera, across Wyoming, Montana, the Rocky Mountain states. It’s surprising what’s survived: clothing, gasoline, canned food, even animal feed. And we bring out anything technical that looks usable. Cellphone masts, for instance. Stuff we’ll need for the recovery efforts in the Low Earths. Most of the workers are impressed labour from the refugee camps.’ He grinned. ‘They fill up their pockets with any money they find. Dollar bills.’

Sister John snorted. ‘Given the way the economy’s tanked and the markets have crashed, those bills would be more useful burned to keep warm.’

He made to reply, but she shushed him as Cowley began his speech.

After a routine opening, all welcome and wisecracks, Cowley summed up the situation of America and the Datum world, eight months after the eruption. As winter turned to spring, things weren’t getting any better. The global climatic effects had locked in. The monsoon rains in the Far East had failed last fall. Since then, pretty much everywhere across the world north of the latitude of Chicago – Canada, Europe, Russia, Siberia – had endured the most savage winter anybody could remember. Now a matching calamity was already unfolding below the equator as the southern-hemisphere winter arrived.

All of which meant that a new world had to be planned for.

‘Well, now, we got through this first winter living off the fat of the past – of the pre-volcano days. We can’t afford to do that no longer, because it’s all – used – up.’ Cowley emphasized that with hand-chops on his podium. ‘And nor can we rely on food imports from our neighbours and allies, who have been more than generous so far, but who have their own problems, this cold summer. And hey, Uncle Sam feeds himself. Uncle Sam looks after his own!’

Cheers from the polite crowd gathered before the podium, and applause from the group of dignitaries behind Cowley on stage. As the camera panned across their faces Joshua noticed among Cowley’s aides a very young woman – no older than late teenage – slim, dark, sober, smart enough but dressed in what Datum folk tended to call ‘pioneer gear’: leather skirt, jacket over what looked like a hand-me-down blouse. He recognized her; she was called Roberta Golding, from Happy Landings. He’d met her last year at a school in Valhalla, the greatest city of the High Meggers, where, in now-remote pre-Yellowstone days, he and Helen had taken their son Dan as a prospective student. She’d seemed ferociously intelligent then, and if she was working in Cowley’s administration in some kind of position as senior as it appeared at such a young age then she was proving her potential.

Oddly Joshua was reminded of that family he’d helped out of Bozeman not long after the eruption had begun, and how they’d mentioned a ‘sensible young lady’ in ‘pioneer gear’ who’d come around with good advice. Could that have been Roberta herself? The description fitted. Well, as far as he was concerned, the more sensible advice humanity got at a time like this the better . . .

Joshua tuned back into the President.

With the pre-Yellowstone stores exhausted, Cowley said, now was the time to plant the crops and grow the food that would feed them all in the coming winter, and beyond. The problem with that was that the Datum growing season this year was predicted to be brutally short, thanks to the volcanic cloud. And meanwhile the infant agricultural economies on the stepwise Low Earths, none of them established longer than a quarter of a century, didn’t have anything like the capacity yet to take up the challenge. Why, barely a fraction of all that stepwise land had even been cleared of virgin forest yet, on any of the new Earths.

So there would be a ‘Relocation’, a new programme of mass migration, organized by the National Guard, FEMA, Homelands Security, and facilitated by the Navy with their twains. Before the eruption the Datum had hosted more than three hundred million Americans. Now the target would be that no stepwise world would try to support, this first year, more than thirty million – which was about the population of the US in the middle of the nineteenth century. And that meant spreading millions of people further out stepwise, out across a band of worlds at least ten wide, East and West. And, meanwhile, on all the settled worlds they would be ferociously clearing land for agriculture. All of this would have to happen this summer. For sure, Joshua thought, they were going to need whatever tools and hand-me-down clothes and whatnot he and the rest of the reclamation effort could retrieve from the shattered Datum.

‘It will be a movement of people to dwarf the biblical Exodus,’ Cowley said. ‘It will be an opening up of a new frontier that will make the expansion into the Old West look like clearing my grandmother’s front yard. But we are Americans. We can do this. We can and will build a new America, fit for purpose. And I can tell you this. Just as I promised you that nobody would be left behind under the shadow of that infernal ash, so I promise you now: in the difficult seasons ahead, nobody will go hungry . . .’ The remainder of his words were drowned out by whoops and cheers.

‘Have to admit he does this well,’ Joshua said.

‘Yes. Even Sister Agnes says he’s grown into the role. Even Lobsang.’

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