Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(2)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(2)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Then she yelled, and scrambled back. When she looked again, the masked face was gone.

Josephine Barrow, one of her neighbours, walked over and looked down from above. ‘You OK, honey? Put your spade through your foot?’

‘Can you help me out?’ She raised her arms.

When Cassie was up on the surface, Josephine said, ‘You look like you saw a ghost.’

Well, she’d seen – something.

Cassie looked around at her house, which was almost ready to get its permanent roof put on, and the fields they’d cleared for their crops, and the hole they’d already dug to make a sandpit for their kid to play in some day … All the work they’d put into this place. All the love. She didn’t want to leave this.

But she also didn’t want to deal with whatever the hell was down in that hole.

‘We need to cover this up,’ she said now.

Josephine frowned. ‘After all your work?’

Cassie thought fast. ‘I struck groundwater. No good for a cellar here. We’ll dig a well some day.’ There was a heap of rough-cut timber leaning against the back wall of the house. ‘Help me.’ She started to lay the planks over the hole.

Josephine stared at her. ‘Why not just fill it in?’

Because it would take too long. Because she wanted this hidden for good, before Jeb got back. ‘I’ll backfill it later. For now just help me, OK?’

Josephine was looking at her strangely.

But she helped her even so, and by the time Jeb got back Cassie had spread dirt and forest-floor muck over the timber so you’d never know the hole was there, and had even scraped out the beginnings of a second cellar around the far side of the house.

And by the time they sat down to eat that evening on the porch of their home, Cassie Poulson was well on the way to forgetting she’d ever seen that masked face at all.

And a few years later, in March 2040, Miami, Earth West 4:

It was only a coincidence, historians of the Next would later agree, that Stan Berg should be born in Miami West 4, the Low Earth footprint city where Cassie Poulson had grown up. Cassie Poulson, on whose High Meggers property the primary assembler anomaly proved to be located – an anomaly which, in the end, would shape Stan Berg’s short life, and much more. Strange, but only a coincidence.

Of course, in the very year Stan was born the town began to change dramatically, as the first of a flood of refugees from a Datum America blighted by Yellowstone began to show up. By the time Stan was eight years old an increasingly crowded, lawless and chaotic camp had been taken over by government and corporate interests, and transformed into a remarkable construction site – and by Stan’s eleventh birthday there was a new ‘star’ in the sky, stationary above the southern horizon – not a true star, but the orbital terminus of a nascent space elevator that reached down to the local version of Florida, built by a community of hastily recruited stalk jacks that by then included Stan’s own mother and father.

But whatever the convulsions that would colour Stan’s young life, there was nothing strange about the love that filled Stan’s mother Martha from the moment she first held her child. And she, at least, saw nothing strange in the apparent curiosity with which, eyes precociously open, Stan inspected the changing world from the moment he was delivered into it.

Joshua Valienté was always sceptical about Bill Chambers’s Joker stories. But, he would realize in retrospect, if he’d paid more attention and thought a little more deeply about what Bill was saying, he might have got some earlier clues into the meaning of it all. Such as what Bill told him in 2040 – the same year Stan Berg was born – as he travelled with Joshua in an airship into the High Meggers far beyond New Springfield, a story about a Joker he called the Cueball:

Joshua had actually glimpsed this Joker himself. He and Lobsang had in fact discovered it, nestling in that band of relatively domesticated worlds called the Corn Belt, on their first journey out into the deep Long Earth, during which Joshua had first learned the meaning of the word. ‘Jokers,’ Lobsang had said. ‘Worlds that don’t fit the pattern. And there is a pattern, generally speaking. But the broad patterns are broken up by these exceptions: Jokers in the pack, as scholars of the Long Earth call them …’ Joshua already knew many such worlds, even if he’d had no name for the category. This Joker had been a world like a pool ball, an utterly smooth, colourless ground under a cloudless deep blue sky.

But even though he’d seen the place for himself Joshua knew better than to take Bill’s stories at face value. Bill Chambers, about Joshua’s age, had grown up alongside him at the Home in Madison, Wisconsin. He’d been a friend, a rival, a source of trouble – and always a consummate liar.

Bill said now, ‘I know a fella who knew a fella—’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘Who camped out on the Cueball for a bet. Just for a night. All alone. As you would. In the nip too, that was part of the bet.’

‘Sure.’

‘In the morning he woke up with a hangover from hell. Drinking alone, never wise. Now this fella was a natural stepper. So he got his stuff together in a blind daze, and stepped, but he says he sort of stumbled as he stepped.’

‘Stumbled?’

‘He didn’t feel as if he’d stepped the right way.’

‘What? How’s that possible? What do you mean?’

‘Well, we step East, or we step West, don’t we? You have the soft places, the short cuts, if you can find them, but that’s pretty much it …’

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