Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

1

IN FEBRUARY 2052, in the remote Long Earth:

On another world, under a different sky – in another universe, whose distance from the Datum, the Earth of mankind, was nevertheless counted in the mundanity of human steps – Joshua Valienté lay beside his own fire. Hunting creatures grunted and snuffled down in the valley bottom. The night was purple velvet, alive with insects and spiky with invisible jiggers and no-see-ums that made kamikaze dives on every exposed inch of Joshua’s flesh.

Joshua had been in this place two weeks already, and he didn’t recognize a damn one of the beasts he shared this world with. In fact he wasn’t too sure where he was, either geographically or stepwise; he hadn’t troubled to count the Earths he’d passed through. When you were on a solitary sabbatical, precise locations kind of weren’t the point. Even after more than three decades of travelling the Long Earth he evidently hadn’t exhausted its wonders.

Which was making him think. Joshua was going to be fifty years old this year. Anniversaries like that made a man reflective.

‘Why did it all have to be so strange?’ He spoke aloud. He was alone on the planet; why the hell not speak aloud? ‘All these parallel worlds, and stuff. What’s it all for? And why did it all have to happen to me?’

And why was he getting another headache?

As it happened, the answers to some of those questions were out there, both in the strange sideways geography of the Long Earth, and buried deep in Joshua’s own past. In particular, a partial answer about the true nature of the Long Earth had already begun to be uncovered as far back as July of the year 2036, out in the High Meggers:

As long as they lived in the house in New Springfield, and it was only a few years in the end, Cassie Poulson would always try her best to forget what she’d found when she’d dug the cellar out back, in the summer of ’36.

Cassie hadn’t been too sure about her new world when she’d first arrived, just a year before that. Not that she was unsure of her own ability to make a home or raise a family, out here in the barely explored wilds of the Long Earth. Or of the relationship she had with Jeb, which was as strong and true as the iron nails he was already turning out of his forge. Nor did she doubt the folks who had walked with them all this way, an epic trek of more than a million steps from the Datum, in search of a new home in one of the myriad worlds revealed just a few years back by Joshua Valienté’s pioneering exploration in the very first of the Long Earth airships.

No, it was the world itself that she’d had trouble with, at first anyhow. Earth West 1,217,756 was forest. Nothing but forest. It was all totally alien for a girl who’d done most of her growing up in Miami West 4, which back in those days had been little more than a minor suburb of its parent city on the Datum.

But it had got better as their first year wore away. Cassie had learned to her delight that there were no real seasons here – none of the summers that turned Miami West 4 into a ferocious oven, and no winters to speak of either. You could just kind of relax about the weather; it would never bother you. And meanwhile, aside from the usual suite of mosquitoes and other nibbling insects, there was nothing in this forest that would harm you – nothing worse than a finger-nip from a frightened furball, nothing as long as you stayed away from the rivers where the crocodiles lurked, and the nests of the big birds.

And it got better yet when she and Jeb had cleared enough ground to start planting their first crops, of wheat and potatoes and lettuce and beets, and the chickens and goats and pigs started having their young, and she and Jeb had hammered together the beginnings of their own home.

Yes, it was all going fine, until the day Jeb decreed they needed a cellar.

Everybody knew that a cellar was a sensible precaution, both as a store and as a refuge from such hazards as twisters and bandits with Stepper boxes. While Jeb and the neighbours didn’t expect any trouble, well, you never knew, and it would be a comfort to have it in place before they started a family.

So here was Cassie, digging in the earth with the bronze spade she’d carried with her all the way from Miami West 4, while Jeb was off with a party trying once more to hunt down a big bird. The work wasn’t hard. The ground had already been stripped of tree cover and the roots dug out, and Cassie was strong, toughened up by trekking and pioneering. By early afternoon Cassie, filthy and sweating, was digging into a hole that was already deeper than her head height.

Which was when her spade suddenly pushed into open air, and she fell forward.

She caught herself, stepped back, took a breath, and looked closer. She’d broken through the wall of the nascent cellar. Beyond was a deep black, like a cave. She knew of no animal that would dig a burrow as big and deep as this looked to be; there were ground-dwelling furballs here, but nobody had seen one much bigger than a cat. Still, just because nobody had seen such a critter didn’t mean it couldn’t exist – and there was a good chance it wouldn’t enjoy being disturbed. She ought to get out of there.

But the day was calm. A couple of her neighbours were chatting over lemonade just a few yards away. She felt safe.

And curiosity burned. This was something new, in the endless unchanging summer of New Springfield. She bent down to peer into the hole in the wall.

Only to find a face looking back out at her.

It was human-sized, but not human. More insectile, she thought, a kind of sculpture of shining black, with a multiple eye like a cluster of grapes. And half of it was coated with a silvery metal, a mask. She saw all this in the heartbeat it took for the shock to work through her system.

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