Home > The Long Mars (The Long Earth #3)(9)

The Long Mars (The Long Earth #3)(9)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Which was why, in this late fall of 2044, she had come to an otherwise unremarkable settlement, in the middle of the Corn Belt, in a stepwise Idaho: a place called Four Waters City.

And why she was carefully placing the gagged and bound body of a hunter by the back door of the sheriff’s office.

The guy was awake while she was doing it, his piggy eyes staring at her in alarm. He didn’t know his luck, she thought. He probably didn’t feel all that lucky, but given the kind of bad luck you sometimes got when it came to the ears of Sally Linsay that you had killed a troll – a female, a mother, and about to give birth . . . At least she hadn’t cut off his trigger finger for him. At least he was still alive. And the itching that was agonizing him now, induced by the venomous spines of a very useful plant she’d discovered up in the High Meggers, was probably going to subside, oh, in a couple of years, no more. Plenty of time for him to reflect on his sins, she thought. Call it tough love.

And it was precisely because she was so hard to find that places she was known to call at – like Four Waters City, even though her visits were not frequent and certainly not regular – were so useful for getting in touch with Sally if you really, really needed to.

That was why the sheriff herself emerged from her office in the dawn chill, glanced down without much interest at the blubbing hunter, and called Sally over. Once back in her office she rummaged in a drawer.

Sally stayed outside the door. There were powerful aromas emanating from the office, a concentrated version of the colony’s general atmosphere, which she was reluctant to breathe in too deeply. This particular community had always been a culture suffused with exotic pharmacology.

At length the sheriff handed Sally an envelope.

The envelope was handwritten. Evidently it had been sitting in that drawer, in the office, for more than a year. The letter within was handwritten too, very badly, but Sally had no trouble recognizing the hand, even if she had some difficulty actually deciphering the note. She read it silently, lips framing the words.

Then she murmured, ‘You want me to go where? The Gap? . . . Well. After all these years. Hello, Dad.’

Friends of Lobsang’s like Joshua Valienté. Camping on a hillside on a world more than two million steps West of the Datum. Escaping the ongoing five-years-on disaster zone that was the Datum and the Low Earths, fleeing into the security of one of his long sabbaticals. Utterly alone, missing his family, yet unwilling to return to his unhappy home.

Joshua Valienté, who, having celebrated New Year’s Day of 2045 with nothing stronger than a little of his precious stash of coffee, woke up with a headache. He yelled into an empty sky: ‘What now?’

2

WITH HER FINAL STEP, Sally emerged a cautious half-mile or so from the fence surrounding the GapSpace facility. Inside the fence was what looked like a heavy engineering plant, blocks, domes and towers of concrete, brick and iron, some of them wreathed with plumes of smoke, or vapour from the boil-off of cryogenic fluids.

Willis Linsay, her father, had specified a particular day for her to show up here. Well, however this latest interaction with her father turned out, here she was as requested on this January day, back in this supremely strange corner of a version of north-west England more than two million steps from the Datum. On the face of it, it was a bland British winter’s day, dull, cold.

And yet infinity was a step away.

The moon was up, but it wasn’t the moon she was used to. The asteroid the GapSpace nerds called Bellos had spattered this moon liberally with extra craters that had almost obliterated the Mare Imbrium, and Copernicus was outdone by a massive new impact that had produced rays that stretched across half the disc. Bellos had come wandering out of many stepwise skies, its trajectory a matter of cosmic chance, coming close to the local Earth, or not. Bellos had completely missed uncounted billions of Earths altogether. A few dozen, like this one, had been unlucky enough to be close enough to its path to suffer multiple impacts from stray fragments. And one Earth had been hit hard enough to be smashed completely.

Things like that must be going on all the time across the Long Earth. Who was it that said that in an infinite universe anything that could happen would have somewhere to happen in? Well, that meant that on an infinite planet . . . Everything that can happen must happen somewhere.

And Sally Linsay had found this huge wound, with Joshua Valienté and Lobsang, found this Gap in the chain of worlds. Their twain had fallen into space, into vacuum, into unfiltered sunlight that hit like a knife . . . And then they had stepped back, and survived.

The air here was cold, but Sally sucked at it until the oxygen made her drunk. She had lived through that fall into the Gap once. And now, was she really planning to go back?

Well, she had to. For one thing her father had challenged her. For another, people were working in there now. In the Gap, in space. And this was their base, one step short of the Gap itself.

The sea breeze was the same as she remembered, from her last visit with Monica Jansson five years ago – back in a different age, the age before Yellowstone. The big sky, the call of birds, were unchanged. Otherwise she barely recognized the place. Even the fence before her had developed from a flimsy barrier into a regular Berlin Wall, all concrete and watchtowers. No doubt the interior of the facility itself was riddled with intensive anti-stepper security.

The purpose of all this industry was evident. She could already see the profile of one rocket, elegant, classic and unmistakable. This really was a space launch facility. But it was not like Cape Canaveral, in the finer detail. There were no towering gantries, and that single rocket she spied was short, stubby, nothing like the great bulks of a shuttle or a Saturn V – surely inadequate for the task of climbing up out of Earth’s deep gravity. But it didn’t need to beat Earth’s gravity, that was the point; that rocket would not be launched into the sky but stepwise, into the emptiness of the universe next door.

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