Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(11)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(11)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Then something cold touched his head. Blackness closed in around his vision, like he was falling down another tunnel.

He woke with a start.

He was lying on his back. There was blue sky above him, and around him were walls of dirt, good clean ordinary dirt. He was back in that half-dug pit, under the ordinary sky. Out of the big cellar. Almost in a panic he took a breath, and sweet air, thick with the scents of the flowers of the forest, filled his lungs.

He sat up, gasped and coughed, his throat aching.

Something touched his face. Thinking it was the silver tentacle of one of the nightmarish beetle creatures, he twisted away and got to his feet.

It was Rio. She’d licked Nikos’s face. And she’d dropped an animal on the ground beside him: just a dwarf raccoon, unremarkable, limp and dead.

Nikos looked around quickly, and searched his pockets, his pouch. He still had those baby moccasins. He’d lost his flashlight, and he wondered how he was going to explain that away.

But here was Rio, safe and sound. She submitted to being grabbed and petted. Then she was first to scramble out of the pit and head for home.

Nikos said nothing to his parents about his adventure in the old Poulson place.

The fear gripped him for a whole day and a night. He couldn’t even sleep for thinking about it.

But on the second day he went back to the fringe of the ragged clearing, and inspected the Poulson house from the safety of the cover of the trees.

By the third day he was going back in, with his buddies. Back into the big cellar.

5

JOSHUA VALIENTÉ’S SON Rod called for him at the old family home in Reboot, in a stepwise footprint of New York State a hundred thousand steps West of the Datum. Joshua met him on the porch. It was a little after midnight on May 1, 2052.

‘Happy birthday, Dad.’

Joshua shook the hand of his only child warmly. At twenty, the boy was taller than Joshua, taller than his mother. He had her paler complexion, his father’s darker hair. He wore clothes of treated leather and what looked like spun wool dyed a pale green. In fact he looked alien in the lantern light of the Green homestead, but comfortable in himself, in his own skin. And he looked like he must fit right in with the shifting, ever fragmenting, kaleidoscopic communities of the stepwise forests to which he seemed increasingly drawn.

And he’s Rod now, Joshua reminded himself. We named him Daniel Rodney, the boy was always Dan, and the man is Rod. His choice. Joshua simultaneously felt pride in this handsome, confident young man, and a stab of regret at the evident distance between them. ‘Thanks for coming, son. And thanks for making this trip with me. Or the chunk you’re doing anyhow.’

‘Well, we haven’t done it yet. And you haven’t seen the ship I got for you to ride in.’

‘Your “stepping aircraft”. You were kind of enigmatic.’

‘It’s not a twain, Dad. Nothing like that big old ship we rode to the Datum when I was a kid. What was it called?’

‘The Gold Dust.’ That was Helen, Joshua’s ex-wife, Rod’s mother; she came out of the house now and wrapped her son in a hug. Helen was dressed plainly, and kept her greying strawberry-blonde hair pulled back in a practical bun. On coming back to Reboot, after her marriage to Joshua had broken up, she’d resumed her profession of midwife, and by now was pretty senior in the stepwise-extended community of New Scarsdale. She was strong, you could see that, strong in the upper body, strong and competent. On such a birthday as this Joshua was very aware of his own age, but Helen herself would be forty next year.

And out came the house’s final inhabitant. Helen’s father Jack, leaning precariously on a stick, was in his seventies. ‘My boy, my boy.’ He wrapped his free arm around Rod’s shoulders, and Rod submitted with good grace.

Helen bustled around. ‘Come inside and let’s get this door closed. It might be May but the nights are still cold.’ She led them all into the house’s main room, the core of the structure and the first to be built, where, as a pioneer family in the years before she’d met Joshua, all the Greens had once lived in a cosy heap … All the Greens, except of course Rod the phobic, who they’d left behind in Datum Madison: Helen’s brother Rod, to her son a mysterious lost uncle, and whose name he had chosen to adopt.

Rod stood there awkwardly, by a table laden with food, back in a room into which he evidently didn’t feel he fitted any more. ‘Mom, you shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble.’

Helen smiled. ‘You knew I would, though, didn’t you? Look, I know you two are going to be keen to get away—’

Jack growled, ‘Not even stopping by to say hi to Aunt Katie and her girls, and the grandkids? You know how they look up to you, the great twain driver.’

‘I’m not a twain driver any more, Granddad.’

‘But even so—’

‘I’m only here for Dad.’

‘Fool stunt!’

‘If Dad wants to cross a hundred thousand worlds, all the way back to the Datum, on his birthday, a single day, fine by me. We’ll fly most of it. I want to do nine hundred miles to the Wisconsin footprint by dawn, and after that another six hours’ flying and more stepping over Madison.’

‘If you don’t break down on the way. Damn fool stunt if you ask me.’

‘Nobody is asking, Jack,’ Joshua said, gently enough. ‘And after Rod drops me off I’ll walk the rest of the way.’

Helen rolled her eyes at her son. ‘With Sally Linsay! Some birthday treat that will be. Two antisocial old curmudgeons stomping across the Long Earth complaining about how fine it used to be when there were no people to mess it up – none but them.’

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