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Authors: Terry Pratchett,Stephen Baxter

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General

The Long Mars

BOOK: The Long Mars
8.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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{Richard Shailer}

Dedication

For Lyn and Rhianna, as always

                                                  T.P.

For Sandra

              S.B.

Contents

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Acknowledgements

About the Authors

Also by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Copyright

Copyright

About the Publisher

1

T
HE
H
IGH
M
EGGERS
:

Remote worlds, most still unpopulated, even in the year 2045, thirty years after Step Day. Up there you could be utterly alone. One soul in an entire world.

It did funny things to the mind, thought Joshua Valienté. After a few months alone you got so sensitive that you thought you could tell if another human, even just a single person, arrived to share your world. One other human, maybe on the other side of the planet. The Princess and the Pea wasn’t in it. And the nights were cold and big and the starlight was all aimed at
you
.

And yet, Joshua thought, even on an empty world, under an empty sky, other people always crowded into your head. People like his estranged wife and his son, and his sometime travelling companion Sally Linsay, and all the people of the suffering Datum Earth in the aftermath of Yellowstone, five years after the eruption.

And Lobsang. Always Lobsang . . .

Given his unusual origins, Lobsang had necessarily become something of an authority on the work known in the west as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Perhaps its most familiar title to Tibetans was the Bardo Thodol, roughly translated as Liberation Through Hearing. This funerary text, intended to guide the consciousness through the interval between death and rebirth, had no single agreed edition. With origins in the eighth century, with time it had passed through many hands, a process that had bequeathed many different versions and interpretations.

Sometimes, as Lobsang had surveyed the state of Datum Earth, first home of mankind, in the days, months and years after the Yellowstone super-eruption of 2040, he found comfort in the sonorous language of the ancient text.

Comfort, compared with the news that had come out of Bozeman, Montana, Earth West 1, for example, only days after the eruption. News to which his closest friends had responded . . .

On any ordinary day, the community growing up in this one-step-West footprint of Bozeman must be a typical stepwise colony, Joshua thought, as he pulled on his protective coveralls one more time. A bunch of Abe Lincoln log cabins cut into a forest whose lumber was steadily being worked for export to the Datum. A corral, a small chapel. If anything this copy of Bozeman lacked facilities you’d find further out in the Long Earth, such as a hotel, bars, a town hall, a school, a clinic; this close to the Datum it was just too easy to step back home for all of that.

But this day, September 15 2040, was no ordinary day in any of the stepwise Americas. For, seven days after the big caldera had first gone up, back on Datum Earth the eruption of Yellowstone was still continuing. Bozeman, Montana, was only fifty miles or so from the ongoing blast.

And, one step from the disaster, Bozeman West 1 was transformed. Though the day was bright, the sky blue, the grass a vivid green – no volcano skies here – the town was crowded with people, jammed into the cabins and housed in hastily erected tents or just sitting on tarpaulins on the ground. People so coated with volcano ash that they were uniformly grey, their skin, hair and clothes, like they were characters from some ancient black-and-white TV show,
I Love Lucy
, cut-and-pasted digitally into the bright sunlit green of this fine fall day. Men, women and children, all coughing and retching like they had 1950s smoking habits too.

The landscape around the town, meanwhile, had been appropriated by the official types from FEMA and the National Guard, who had marked out the ground with laser beams, police crime-scene tape, even just chalk marks, to match the layouts of blocks and buildings in Datum Bozeman. Some of the outlines extended into the woods and scrubland, land as yet untamed here. The officials had numbered and labelled these blocks, and were sending stepping volunteers back to the Datum systematically, marking off computerized maps on their tablets, to ensure the whole community was cleared of people.

In a way the whole thing was a display of the basic mystery of the Long Earth, Joshua thought. It was already a quarter-century since Step Day, when he and other kids all around the world had downloaded the spec for a simple electronic gadget called a Stepper box, and turned the knob as per instructions – and
stepped
, not left or right, forward or back, but in another direction entirely. Stepped into a world of forest and swamp, at least if you started in Madison, Wisconsin, as Joshua had. A world all but identical to Earth – old Earth, Datum Earth – save there had been no people in it. Not until kids like Joshua appeared, popping out of thin air. And, Joshua had quickly found, you could take another step, and another, until you found yourself striding along a whole chain of parallel worlds, with differences from the Datum gradually increasing – but not a human in sight. The worlds of the Long Earth.

And here was the basic, harsh reality of it. Datum America was now covered by a searing blanket of volcanic ash and dust – yet here, a single step away, it was as if Yellowstone didn’t exist at all.

Sally Linsay showed up, finishing a coffee from a polystyrene cup that she carefully placed in a bin for cleaning and reuse: good pioneer-type habits, Joshua thought absently. She was in a clean one-piece coverall, but the ash had got into her hair, the skin of her neck and face, even her ears, anywhere the FEMA facemasks and straps hadn’t covered.

She was accompanied by a National Guardsman, just a kid, with a tablet computer. He checked their identities, the numbers on the chests of their suits, the town block they were going into this time. ‘You two ready again?’

Sally began to fix her mask over her face once more, a breathing filter, steampunk goggles. ‘Seven days of this already.’

Joshua reached for his own mask. ‘It won’t be finishing any time soon, I’m guessing.’

‘So where’s Helen now?’

‘Back at Hell-Knows-Where.’ The National Guard kid raised his eyebrows, but Joshua was talking about his home off in the High Meggers, a community more than a million steps from the Datum, where he lived with his family: Helen, his son Dan. ‘Or on the way there. Safer for Dan, she says.’

‘That’s true enough. The Datum and the Low Earths are going to be a mess for years.’

He knew she was right. There had been minor geological events in the Low Earths, mirroring the big Datum eruption, but the ‘mess’ in the young worlds had been made by the vast spilling of refugees from the Datum.

Sally eyed Joshua. ‘I bet Helen wasn’t happy that you refused to go back with her.’

‘Look, it was tough on us. But Datum America is where I grew up. I can’t just abandon it.’

‘So you decided to stick around and use your stepping superpowers to help the afflicted.’

‘Don’t give me that, Sally. You’re here too. Why, you grew up in Wyoming itself—’

She was grinning. ‘Yeah, but I don’t have a little wife trying to draw me away. Big argument, was it? Or just one of her long sulks?’

He turned away, fixing his mask with an angry tug on the straps at the back of his head, pulling up his hood. She laughed at him, her voice muffled by her own mask. He’d known Sally for ten years now, since his own first exploratory jaunt into the deep Long Earth – only to find Sally Linsay was already out there. Nothing much about her had changed.

The National Guard kid positioned them by a strip of police tape. ‘The property you’ll be going into is right ahead of you. A couple of kids came out already, but we’re missing three adults. Record of one phobic. Family name Brewer.’

‘Gotcha,’ Joshua said.

‘The United States government appreciates all you’re doing.’

Joshua glanced at Sally’s eyes, behind her mask. This boy was no more than nineteen. Joshua was thirty-eight, Sally forty-three. Joshua resisted the temptation to ruffle the kid’s blond hair. ‘Sure, son.’ Then he snapped on his head torch and reached for Sally’s gloved hand. ‘You ready?’

‘Always.’ She glanced down at the hand holding hers. ‘You sure that fake paw of yours is up to this?’

His prosthetic left hand was a legacy of their last long journey together. ‘More than the rest of me, probably.’ They hunched over, knowing what was to come. ‘Three, two, one—’

They stepped into hell.

Ash and pumice pounded their shoulders, their heads, the ash like diabolic snow, grey, heavy and hot, the pumice coming in frothy pebble-sized chunks. The falling rocks hammered on a car in front of them, a mound already heaped up with ash. The background noise was a steady dull roar that drowned out their speech. The sky, under Yellowstone ash and gas and smoke from a plume that by now climbed twenty miles into the air, was virtually black.

And it was
hot
, hot as a pioneer town’s forge. It was hard to believe the caldera itself was all of fifty miles away. Even out as far as this, some said, the falling ash could melt again and flow as lava.

But the property they’d come to check out was right before them, as in the Guard’s plan, a one-storey house with a porch that had collapsed under the weight of the ash.

Sally led the way forward, around the buried car. They had to wade through an ash fall that was feet deep in places, like a heavy, hot, hard snowfall. Its sheer weight was only the beginning of the problems the ash caused. If it got the chance the stuff would abrade your skin, turn your eyes into itching pockets of pain, and scrape your lungs to mincemeat. Give it a few months and it could kill you, even if it didn’t just crush you first.

The front door seemed to be locked. Sally didn’t waste time; she raised a booted leg and kicked in the door.

Wreckage clogged the room within. Joshua saw in the light of his lamp that the load of pumice and ash had long overwhelmed this wooden-framed structure, and the roof and loft space had fallen in through the ceiling. This living room was cluttered with debris, as well as with grey drifts of ash. At first glance it seemed impossible that anybody could be left alive in here. But Sally, always quick to assess a new and confusing situation, pointed at one corner where a dining table stood, square and stout and resistant, despite a thick layer of ash on its own upper surface.

They pushed their way through. Where their booted feet scraped away the debris, Joshua glimpsed a crimson carpet.

The table was shrouded with curtains. When they pulled these aside they found three adults. They were just mounds of ash-grey clothing, their heads and faces swathed with towels. But Joshua soon identified a man and a woman, middle-aged, maybe fifties, and one woman who looked much older, frailer, maybe eighty years old; slumped in a corner, she seemed to be asleep. From the toilet stink that came out of this little shelter, Joshua guessed they’d been here some time, days perhaps.

BOOK: The Long Mars
8.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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