Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(7)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(7)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

Nikos’s parents said the founders had been keen and eager and energetic, and when they’d come travelling out to these remote worlds – more than a million steps from the Datum, the first world of mankind – they’d had a kind of fever dream of their past, when their own ancestors had spread out into the original America and had built towns like this, towns with farms and gardens and schools and churches. They had even named their town: New Springfield.

But the trouble was, this wasn’t colonial America.

And this Earth wasn’t the Datum. Nikos’s father said that this world, and a whole bunch of similar Earths in a band around it, was choked with trees from pole to equator to the other pole, and he meant that literally: here, there were forests flourishing even in the Arctic night. Certainly this footprint of Maine was thick with trees that looked like sequoias and laurels but probably weren’t, and an undergrowth of things like tea plants and fruit bushes and ferns and horsetails. The warm, moist, dark air fizzed with insects, and the trees and the loamy ground swarmed with furballs, as everybody called them, jumpy little mammals that spent their lives scurrying after said insects.

And in such a world, the founders’ children had soon started to explore other ways of living, in defiance of their parents, the pioneers.

Why go to all the hard work of farming when you were surrounded by whole empty worlds full of ever-generous fruit trees? And rivers full of fish, and forests full of furballs so numerous they were easily trapped? Oh, maybe farming made sense on the more open worlds of the Corn Belt, but here … The drifters who came through here periodically, calling themselves combers or okies or hoboes, vivid examples of other ways of living, had helped inspire the breakaway. Nikos’s parents’ friends still spoke of one particularly persuasive and evidently intelligent young woman who had stayed here for a few weeks, preaching the virtues of a looser lifestyle.

Pioneers tended to have their children young; the sooner you raised a new crop of willing workers the better. But the numerous children of New Springfield, growing up in a world utterly unlike their parents’, had quickly learned independence of mind, and had rebelled. Most of the youngsters, and a good number of their parents, had given up and walked off into the green. The will to maintain the township had kind of dissolved away – indeed it had only lasted one generation.

Nowadays the Irwins and the other family groups didn’t really have permanent residences at all. Instead they had a kind of cycle of living places, which you’d visit according to the fruits of the gentle seasons, and keep clear of fresh brush with a little burning, and repair last year’s lean-tos and hearths. So they’d climb Manning Hill on one particular world a couple of steps East in the spring months, when the squirrel-moles came bursting out of the ground to choose new queens and found new burrows, and were easy to trap. Or, in the fall, they’d go to Soulsby Creek four steps further West where the annual spawning run of the local salmon was particularly rich. Nikos had grown up with all this, and knew no different.

As for the old township itself, meanwhile, as they grew old and weary a lot of the founders had gone back to the Datum. A few disappointed pioneers had clung on as best they could, and their relatives had kept an eye on these ageing heroes. Nikos’s mother told a wistful story of how she used to hear one old lady play that piano of an evening, and Chopin waltzes would waft out into the silence of the world forest, music written down in a century long gone and in a world very far from here, and sometimes picked up by responsive choruses of forest trolls. But the piano lost its tuning, and there came a day when the music ceased altogether, and now nobody played the piano any more.

Even after it had been wholly abandoned, though, Nikos’s group worked together to keep the New Springfield clearing open. It had some uses. Everybody needed a Stepper box, and for that you needed potatoes, and potatoes needed cultivating, so that was something useful to do with the remains of the founders’ farms. It had taken somebody a lot of effort to build the forge beside the Poulson place, and that was kept functional; you couldn’t carry iron across worlds, and preserving the craft of iron-working seemed another good idea. Some of the animals the founders had brought here – chickens and goats and pigs and even sheep – had survived, and bred. Every so often you’d be surprised by a wild descendant of those first porcine colonists bursting out of the undergrowth before you.

And this one house in particular, the old Poulson place, sturdier than the rest, had with time assumed a new role. It had become the swap house, as everybody called it, a place where you could dump and exchange stuff of all kinds.

Which was why Nikos was here today.

He walked cautiously across the clearing, towards the Poulson place.

With one hand on the sturdy bronze knife he carried on his left hip, the other on the Stepper box on his right, he was very aware of his surroundings. He had no real fear of the local wildlife. As far as wild critters went there were only three hazards in the forest: the ant swarms, the big birds, and the crocs. Well, he was too far from water for the crocs, and the big birds were ferocious but were used to chasing little forest furballs and were heavy and clumsy and slow-moving as a result, and if there was an ant swarm around he’d hear it coming long before it came sloshing over the ground like some gruesome corroding liquid, destroying everything in its path. Also the forest trolls would almost certainly sing out any danger, in time for Nikos to step out of its way. Almost certainly. Nikos had seen for himself one unwary kid get caught by a big bird, and it had been a terrible sight, and so you kept an eye out because of that weasel word almost.

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