Home > The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(8)

The Long Utopia (The Long Earth #4)(8)
Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter

No, the reason Nikos was so cautious was because, among the kids at least, there were stories about this particular house. Legends, if you liked. Legends about things that lived in there.

Oh, not just scavenging furballs and such. And not just the familiar monsters of the forest. Something worse yet. An elf, maybe, trapped in there, a Long Earth nasty, broken and bent and old but still vicious and just waiting to feed on unwary children. Or maybe, went one variation of this, it was the ghost of one of those very children, waiting to take revenge on those who had forced him or her to go in here in the first place …

Of course it made no sense. Nikos was old enough to see the flaws in the logic – if the Poulson house was haunted, why would the adults be using it as a store? – yet he was still enough of a little kid to be scared. Well, stories or not, he wasn’t going back without what he’d been sent to get, that was for sure, or the mockery of his buddies would be worse than anything any monster could do to him.

As he reached the porch, Rio sniffed the air, yelped, and went running out of sight around the corner of the house, maybe on the trail of some unwary furball. Nikos paid the dog no attention.

He opened a creaking, unlocked door, pushed his way inside and looked around. Only a little daylight was able to struggle through the green film that was slowly covering the windows. He had a wind-up flashlight that he dug out of his pocket now, so as to see better in the murk. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled with unease. He was used to tepees and lean-tos; never mind ghost legends, it was quite alien for him just to walk into a box of wood, all closed up. Still, he walked deeper inside, treading cautiously.

One main room dominated much of the house. He knew that was how these houses had been built: you started with one big space where the whole growing family lived and ate and slept, and added on others when you could, such as a kitchen, bedrooms, store rooms – but this house, like most of the others, hadn’t got that far. He could recognize stuff from the times he’d been here before, under the supervision of his father: the big old table standing in the corner, the hearth under a half-finished chimney stack, the floor covered with a scattering of rugs woven from reeds from the creek and coloured with dyes from local vegetables.

But the room was cluttered with junk, dusty old debris, heaped on the floor and the table and piled against the walls. Yet it wasn’t junk, not quite. The people of the forest were always short of stuff, because everything they had was either brought from the Datum Earth or the Low Earths, or they had to make it themselves, and either way cost a lot of effort. So if something broke, a bow or a bronze machete or a digging stick, and you couldn’t be troubled to fix it, you dumped it here in the swap house, the theory being that somebody else might make use of it, or at least bits of it – the bronze for melting down, a busted bow as a trainer for a little kid. There was a useful store of bits of wire and relays and coil formers, the kind of stuff you needed to make or repair a Stepper box or a ham radio. There was even a heap of fancy electronic goods from the Datum: phones and tablets, all black and inert since their batteries or solar cells had finally failed, their inner parts too fine and fiddly to be reusable. Even these were sometimes taken away to be worn as jewellery, or as shiny gifts for the forest trolls.

And there were always clothes, especially children’s clothes: underwear and pants and shirts and sweaters and socks and shoes, much of it brought from the Low Earths, some made here. The adult stuff was generally too worn out to be useful, but Nikos picked out a few colourful scraps for the latest quilted blanket his mother was making; even rough shreds could be used to pack bedding and the like. The kids’ stuff, though, was often barely used before the child in question grew out of it. The people of New Springfield were a mobile, nomadic people, and carried little with them. They certainly weren’t going to carry around baby shoes for twenty years, on the off chance of some grandchild coming along some day to wear them for a couple of months. And it was baby shoes that Nikos was particularly looking for today, for the benefit of Angie Clayton’s unborn.

After some rummaging he found a pair of beautiful little moccasins sewn from the scraped hide of some unfortunate furball, shoes that sat on the palm of his hand like toys.

That was when he heard Rio yelp, and a sound like wood cracking, and a rush like a heavy mass falling into a hole.

4

NIKOS DASHED OUTSIDE and ran around the house, the way his dog had gone. ‘Rio! Rio!’

At the back of the house, facing uncleared jungle, a row of poles had been driven into the ground, a half-finished stockade, intended to keep sheep in and big birds out. Nikos pushed his way through the tea plants and saplings that choked the once-cleared space between house and stockade – and he almost fell into a hole in the ground.

He took a cautious step back and peered down. The hole was maybe six feet across, and had been covered by rough-cut planks of wood that had evidently softened, made rotten by time. He could see from the remaining planks that they had been buried under soil, with a heaping of forest mulch on top of that. There were even a few hardy ferns sprouting in that skim of earth. But one of the planks had broken now, and fallen into the hole, revealing a deep black space.

Nikos scratched his head. The whole thing was kind of puzzling. Was this a cellar? It could be. As well as a place to store food and other stuff, a cellar was a sensible precaution against attack by bandits and others with nefarious purposes. If you had a Stepper box no wall could keep you out, after all; you just needed to step sideways into a world where that wall didn’t exist, walk through the location of the wall, and step back again … Nobody could step into a cellar, however. Not with the same location in neighbouring worlds blocked off by soil and bedrock and tree roots. There were even shallow cellars under some of Nikos’s family’s larger, better established encampments, dotted stepwise across the worlds.

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