Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(3)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(3)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Stepping: on Step Day the world had pivoted around mankind. Suddenly, in return for the effort of building a Stepper box, a crude electrical gadget – and some, like Joshua, didn’t even need that – you could step sideways out of the old reality, out of the world and into another, just like the original yet choked with uncleared forest and replete with wild animals – for it was only in the original Earth that mankind had evolved, and had had a chance to shape its world. Whole planets, a short walk away. And, in either direction, East or West, you could take another step, and another. If there was an end to the Long Earth, as the chain of worlds became known, it was yet to be found. After Step Day everything had been different, for mankind, for the Long Earth itself – and, in particular, for Joshua Valienté.

But even the Long Earth had its rules. Or so Joshua had always thought.

‘… Anyhow this fella felt like he’d stepped a different way. Perpendicular. Like he’d stepped North.’

‘And?’

‘And he emerged on to some kind of other world. It was night, not day. No stars in the clear sky. No stars, sort of. Instead …’

‘Your storytelling style really grates sometimes, Bill.’

‘But I’ve got ye hooked, haven’t I?’

‘Get on with it. What did he see?’

‘He saw all the stars. All of them. He saw the whole fecking Galaxy, man, the Milky Way. From outside.’

Outside the Galaxy. Thousands of light years from Earth – from any Earth …

Bill said, ‘Still in the nip he was, too.’

That was the trouble with combers, Joshua had concluded. They were just expert bullshitters. Maybe they spent too much time alone.

But, he realized, reflecting in February 2052, he’d tended to think even of Lobsang as a bullshitter, albeit a shitter built on a truly cosmic scale. If only he’d listened to Lobsang when he’d had the chance.

Now it was too late, for Lobsang was dead.

Joshua had been there when it had happened, in the late fall of 2045:

He and Sally Linsay had waited by the door of the Home in Madison West 5. It was early evening, and streetlights sparked.

Sally was in her travelling gear, her multi-pocketed fisherman’s jacket under a waterproof coverall, a light leather pack on her back. As usual, she looked like she was going to light out of here at any moment. And the longer the Sisters took to answer the damn door, the more likely that became.

‘Look,’ Joshua said, trying to forestall her, ‘just take it easy. Say hello. Everybody here wants to see you, to say thank you for what you did for the Next. Busting those super-smart kids out of the Pearl Harbor facility—’

‘You know me, Joshua. These Low Earths are mob scenes nowadays. And places like this. This Home, where they lock you up for your own good. I don’t care how happy or otherwise you were here, Joshua, with those penguins.’

‘Don’t call them penguins.’

‘As soon as we’re done I’m going to get blind drunk, as fast as possible—’

‘Then you’ll need something stronger than our sweet sherry.’ Sister John had quietly opened the door; now she smiled. ‘Come on in.’

Sally shook the Sister’s hand with good enough grace.

Joshua followed them in, walking down a corridor into what was to him an eerie re-creation of the Home he’d grown up in, the original long ago wrecked by the Datum Madison nuke.

Sister John, her head enclosed in a crisp wimple, leaned closer to Joshua. ‘So how are you?’

‘Fine. Disoriented to be here.’

‘I know. Doesn’t quite smell right, does it? Well, give the mice a few decades to do their work and they’ll put that right.’

‘And you. You’re running the place now! To me you’ll always be plain old Sarah.’

‘Who you had to rescue from the forest on Step Day. When you come back here it feels like we suddenly got all grown up, didn’t we?’

‘Yeah. To me the superior ought to be a towering figure, and old—’

‘As old as me?’ Sister Agnes was waiting for them in the doorway of the Home’s parlour, the posh lounge where the Sisters had always received visitors.

But Agnes, eerily, now looked younger than Sister John. And when Joshua submitted to a hug there was just the faintest hint of artifice, an excessive smoothness in the cheek he kissed – and beneath her practical, slightly shabby habit an alarming, almost subliminal sense of super-strength. After her death, Lobsang had brought Agnes back to life, downloading her memories into a lifelike android shell while simultaneously chanting Buddhist prayers. To Joshua it was as if somebody had turned his life’s chief mother-figure into a terminator robot. But he had known Lobsang a long time, and he’d learned to see the spirit inside the machine. As with Lobsang, so now with Agnes.

He said simply: ‘Hello, Agnes.’

‘And Sally Linsay.’ With Sally it was a wary handshake rather than a hug. ‘I’ve heard so much about you, Ms Linsay.’

‘Ditto.’

Agnes studied her intently, almost challengingly, before turning away. ‘So, Joshua, how are your family? Such a shame you’re apart from your little boy.’

Joshua said, ‘Not so little … Well, you know me. I’ve a split soul, Agnes. Half of me always drawn away, out into the Long Earth.’

‘Still, you’re home now. Come and join the party …’

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