Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(6)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(6)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Agnes slipped to the back of the group and stood next to an elderly man, tall, white-haired, dressed in an anonymous black overcoat and hat. ‘Nice lines,’ Agnes said quietly.

‘From Newton. Always been one of my favourite quotes. My own choice: a touch immodest perhaps, but you only get one funeral.’

‘Well, in your case, that’s to be seen. So, “George”.’

‘Yes, my “wife”?’

‘Good turn-out, even if you don’t count yourself. There’s Commander Kauffman, looking splendid in her dress uniform. Nelson Azikiwe, as solemn and observant as ever. Always a good friend, wasn’t he, L—umm, “George”? Who’s that woman over there? Attractive, forty-something – the one who’s been crying all morning.’

‘She’s called Selena Jones. Worked with me years ago. In theory she’s still my legal guardian.’

‘Hmm. You do come with baggage, don’t you? Even Cho-je has turned up, I see, and why he hasn’t been put out for scrap I don’t know. And Joshua Valienté and Sally Linsay.’

‘King and Queen of the Long Earth,’ said ‘George’.

‘Yes. Side by side, looking as always as if they belong together and yet wishing they were worlds apart, and that’s never made any sense, has it?’

‘You’ve known Joshua since he was a child. You tell me. But speaking of children—’

‘The paperwork’s all been submitted. It may take some time before the right child shows up. Years, even. Why, he or she may not have been born yet. But when the adoption clearance comes through we’ll be ready. And have we chosen the new world where we’ll raise our “son” or “daughter”?’

‘As I told you, I’ve asked Sally Linsay for help with that, when we need it. Who else knows the Long Earth as she does?’

Agnes looked over at Sally. ‘She’s the only one who knows about you?’

‘Yes. Save for you, the only one. In fact she said she’d never really believed my end was final; she kind of knew anyhow, before I approached her. But she’s discreet. I’ll swear she keeps secrets from herself.’

‘Hmm. I’m not entirely sure I trust her. Not about her discretion, I accept that.’

‘Then what?’

‘I don’t know. Sally has … an odd sense of humour. She’s a trickster. And you are sure you want to do this, aren’t you? To put everything aside, and just—’

He looked at her. ‘Just be human? Do you?’

And that was the question that stirred her own emotions, deep in the lump of Black Corporation gel she used as a heart.

Father Gavin read another line, and ‘George’ frowned. ‘Did I hear that correctly? Something about being like a sinner at heaven’s gate, and crawling back to me …’

She linked her arm in his. ‘You have Newton, I have Steinman. Come on. Let’s get out of here before anybody gets suspicious.’

3

IF NOT FOR his dog Rio chasing some imaginary furball around the back of the old Poulson place, Nikos Irwin would most likely never have found the big cellar at all. It was a kind of unlikely accident – or maybe not, not if you knew Rio, and the qualities of stubbornness and curiosity she had inherited from her Bernese mountain dog ancestors. But if not for Nikos and his stubborn pet, the whole subsequent history of mankind might have been different – for better or worse.

It was April of 2052. Nikos was ten years old.

It wasn’t as if Nikos particularly liked the old Poulson house, or the abandoned township it was part of. It was just that the Poulson place was used as the local swap house, and he’d been sent here by his mother in search of baby shoes, for her friend Angie Clayton was carrying.

So, with Rio loping at his side, he walked out of the shade of the trees, out of the dense green where somewhere a band of forest trolls hooted a gentle song, and into the harsh unfiltered sunlight.

He looked around at the big houses that loomed silently over this open space. Nikos had grown up in the forest, and instinctively he didn’t like clearings, for they left you without cover. And this abandoned community was an odd place besides. His parents always told him that the Long Earth was too new to mankind to have much history yet, but if there was history anywhere in Nikos’s own world, it was here. Some of these old houses were being swallowed by the green, but the rest still stood out in the light, hard and square and alien, with their peeling whitewash and cracked windows. The place even smelled odd to Nikos, not just of general decay after years of abandonment, but of cut wood and dried-out, dusty, lifeless ground.

All this was basically the work of the very first colonists to come here, the founders. They had opened up the forest to build their little town. You could still see the neatly cut and burned-out stumps where great old trees had been removed, and the fields they’d planted, and the tracks they’d marked out with white-painted stones, and of course the houses they’d hammered together in a few short years, with their picket fences and screen doors and bead curtains. Some of the houses had stained glass windows. There was even a little chapel, half-finished, with a truncated steeple open to the elements.

And in one big old house there was even, incredibly, a piano, a wooden box which somebody must have built from the local wood, and fitted out with pedals and an inner frame and strung with wire, all carried from the Low Earths: a remarkable feat of almost pointless craftsmanship.

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