Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(5)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(5)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

He smiled at her. ‘Dear Agnes. This will not hurt, you know. It is just that I—’

He froze. Just stopped, mid-motion, mid-sentence.

Agnes cried, ‘Lobsang? Lobsang!’

Joshua rushed to his side, with Agnes. As Joshua held Lobsang’s shoulders, Agnes rubbed his hands, his face: synthetic hands on synthetic cheeks, Joshua thought, and yet the emotion could not have been more real.

Lobsang’s head turned – just his head, like a ventriloquist’s dummy – to Joshua, first. ‘I have always been your friend, Joshua.’

‘I know …’

Now Lobsang looked up at Agnes. ‘Don’t be afraid, Agnes,’ he whispered. ‘It is not dying. It is not dying—’

His face turned slack.

For a moment there was stillness.

Then Joshua became aware of a change in the background, the soft, routine sounds of the Home: a ceasing of noise, of the humming of invisible machines, of fans and pumps. A closing down. Glancing out of the window, he saw lights flicker and die in the building opposite. Whole blocks growing dark further out. Somewhere an alarm bell sounded.

Agnes grabbed Lobsang’s shoulders and shook him. ‘Lobsang! Lobsang! What have you done? Where have you gone? Lobsang, you bastard!’

Sally laughed, stood up, and stepped away.

Of course even Lobsang had never known it all. Some of the mysteries of Joshua’s own peculiar nature were hidden, it would turn out, not in the stepwise reaches of the Long Earth but deep in time. Mysteries that had begun to tangle up as early as March 1848, in London, Datum Earth:

The applause was thunderous, and the Great Elusivo could hear it as he went down the steps to the stage door of the Victoria theatre. His ears still ringing from the din of the threepenny gallery, now he was battered by the sights and sounds of the New Cut: the shop windows, the stalls, the jostling traffic, the street entertainers, the beggar boys tumbling for pennies. And of course there were people waiting for Luis outside, in the dark of a Lambeth evening; there always were. Even young ladies. Hopeful young ladies perhaps.

But this time a quiet voice, a male voice, called from an alley. ‘You move very fast, don’t you, mister? One might say, remarkably fast. Shall I call you Luis? I believe that is your rightful name. Or one of them. I have a proposition for you. Which is that I shall take you out to dinner at the Drunken Clam – Lambeth’s finest oyster-house, if you didn’t know it already. Because I do know you’re very fond of your oysters.’

The figure was indistinct in the shadows. ‘You have me at a disadvantage, sir.’

‘Yes, I do, don’t I? And the reason I am speaking so rapidly to you, not to say forcefully, is that I know that at any moment you wish, you may simply vanish. It is a faculty that serves you very well, as I see. Yet you do not know how you do it. And nor do I. To cut a long story short, sir—’

There was a slight breeze as the man disappeared.

And then appeared again. He gasped and clutched his stomach, as if he’d been punched. But he stood straight and said, ‘I can do it as well. My name is Oswald Hackett. Luis Ramon Valienté – shall we talk?’

And in February 2052, in the remote Long Earth:

Overhead Joshua Valienté’s own personal stars shone for his benefit alone. It was after all reasonable to assume that his was the only soul in the whole of this particular Creation.

He still had that headache.

And not only that, the stump of his left arm itched.

As something squealed and died in the dark, the spirit of Valienté moved on the face of the darkness. And it was sore afraid to the soles of his feet. ‘I’m getting too old for this,’ Joshua muttered aloud.

He started to pack up his stuff. He was going home.

2

THE FUNERAL HAD been held on a bleak day in December 2045, in Madison, Wisconsin, Earth West 5.

At first Sister Agnes had wondered how you could have a funeral service for a man who had not been a man, not by any usual definition, and whose body had not been the usual mass of fragile flesh – indeed, she had never been sure how many bodies he had, or even if the question had any meaning. And yet he, man or not, had evidently died, in any sense of the word that meant anything in the hearts of his friends. And so a funeral service he would have, she had decreed.

They gathered around the grave dug into the small plot outside this relocated children’s home, where ‘he’ had been laid to rest – ‘he’ at least being the ambulant unit he had inhabited at the moment of his ‘death’. It didn’t help the sense of unreality, Agnes thought, that four of his spare ambulant units stood over the grave as a kind of honour guard, their faces blank, dressed in their regular uniform of orange robes and sandals despite the bitter cold.

Compared with that, the prayers and readings murmured jointly by Father Gavin, of the local Catholic parish, and Padmasambhava, abbot of a monastery in Ladakh and, supposedly, Lobsang’s old friend in a previous life, seemed almost routine. But perhaps that was a reflection of the oddest aspect of Lobsang, Agnes thought: that he had come to awareness as a piece of software in an elaborate computer system, fully sentient, and yet claiming to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, and demanding full human rights as a consequence. The case had tied up court time for years.

Now, in his gentle Irish accent, Father Gavin read, ‘“I know not how I seem to others, but to myself I am but a small child wandering upon the vast shores of knowledge, every now and then finding a small bright pebble to content myself with while the vast ocean of undiscovered truth lies before me …”’

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