Madison, Wisconsin was gone. The original was, at any rate.
Joshua stood in shock, gasping. Sally clutched his arm. They stood in a plain of rubble. Gaunt shapes, fragments of wall sticking out of the ground. A few twisted tangles that must be the remains of reinforced-concrete structures. Dust, dry as hell, choked him immediately. Lobsang’s battered airship, the Mark Twain, hung blindly over these ruins.
Somebody was standing before them. Some woman in a coverall suit.
"We're here to meet steppers," she said, her voice a relay from a speaker. "Get out of here. Go straight back."
Alarmed, shocked, Joshua and Sally stepped. They didn't go forward or back, left or right, but a different direction entirely. The pair stepped into a parallel world, untouched by the hand of Man for all history, save for the last dozen years and change. By convention, these parallel worlds were labeled "West" and "East" of the Datum Earth, where Man had evolved. Joshua and Sally stepped hand in hand back to Madison West 1, dragging the nearly-inert airship with them on a tether.
Here, in the bright sunlight, another young woman in a FEMA uniform approached them with a clipboard and data pad. She looked up at the airship, shook her head in disbelief, and said reproachfully, "You're going to have to go through decon. We do post warnings in the neighboring worlds." The FEMA lady almost sounded apologetic. "Hey, you can't catch everybody. Don't worry, you've broken no law. I'll need your names and social security numbers..." She started to peck at her pad.
Joshua began to take in the surroundings. In their rush to return home, he and Sally had ignored the last dozen worlds or so as they stepped eastward. This parallel Madison was crowded, compared to the last time he had stopped here. Tent cities, field hospitals, feeding stations. A refugee camp.
Sally said bitterly, "Here we are in the land of plenty, with everything anybody could ever want, multiplied a million times over. Nevertheless somebody wants to start a war. What a piece of work is Man."
"But," Joshua said, "you can't start a war if nobody turns up. Listen, I need to get to the Home. Or wherever the Home would be..."
The FEMA official's phone rang at her waist. She looked at the screen, seemed puzzled, and glanced at Joshua. "Are you Joshua Valienté?"
"It's for you." She handed him the phone. "Go ahead, Mr. Lobsang."
2015. Step Day. Everybody remembers where they were when the children started disappearing with their potato-powered toys. It wasn't until the children started to return and the adults got the full story that the truth began to spread. There were copies of Earth out there, each almost identical to our own, save for one fact: they were untouched by the hand of Man.
On Step Day, the world discovered how to reach the Long Earth. Most people suffered from nausea and disorientation for up to fifteen minutes after each step, although a select few such as Joshua Valienté and Sally Lindsay could not only step without ill effects, but they could do so without a potato-powered Stepper Box.
Nobody knew the true extent of the Long Earth. Some speculated that it was infinite. Some speculated that if you stepped far enough in one direction, you would eventually loop back around to the Datum. But nobody knew.
Lobsang intended to find out.
Lobsang was the first – and so far only – artificial intelligence to be recognized as a "person," with all of the rights that entailed. The primary argument to his claim of personhood was that he was the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, and his extensive knowledge of his previous life as well as the fact that his initialization coincided with the Tibetan's death to the nanosecond were very convincing. His protein-gel brain was close enough to a human's that it could conceivably house a soul, too... or so the story goes.
In 2030 and with the help of the Black Corporation, Lobsang developed an airship with which he could step to the parallel worlds. Normally, a "stepping ship" would never work, as nothing can step between worlds unless it is either sapient or is being carried by a stepper. However, with Lobsang incorporated into the ship's systems, the ship became, essentially, Lobsang's body. The experiment was a successful one; for Lobsang, this was just more proof that he was "real."
Lobsang recruited Joshua Valienté for his excursion into the "High Meggers," the worlds located millions of steps away from the Datum. Joshua served as Lobsang's companion and as his ultimate failsafe to return the AI back to Datum Earth should anything go wrong.
Somewhere past West 1,000,000, Joshua and Lobsang encountered Sally, and with her help the pair realized that there was a mass emigration of hominid creatures with the natural ability to step – "trolls" and "elves," among others – eastwards towards the Datum. The stepping creatures were all fleeing something.
Past the Gap – a universe over two million steps away from the Datum, where Earth had been obliterated eons ago – the trio encountered the entity that the hominids were fleeing. The entity called herself "First Person Singular," and she was an ecosystem working in harmony as a single creature. First Person Singular had learned to step and she absorbed the life she came into contact with in the alternate worlds, adding it to herself; she seemed to exert a kind of mental pressure which the stepping hominids were sensitive to and fled from. Presented with an unmatched opportunity for gaining knowledge, Lobsang volunteered to merge his ambulant unit with First Person Singular, instructing Joshua and Sally to return to the Datum without him.
"Good morning, Joshua," said the voice on the phone. Lobsang's voice could and did change frequently as the AI made alterations to himself. However, there was always a slight air of pretentiousness behind his words that Joshua had come to recognize after nearly three months with nobody else to talk to. "I want to thank you on a job well-done. You've completed your contract by getting me back to Datum."
"What the hell, Lobsang?!" Joshua shouted directly into the small mouthpiece of the cell phone. "What happened to—" Joshua cut himself off before talking about Lobsang's submission to First Person Singular in such a public place, with the FEMA official standing right in front of him. "What about the circumstances of our separation?" he asked, moving away from the others to get a little bit of privacy.
"An iteration of me did merge with First Person Singular. However, as you know, my backups are constantly synchronized, and I have backups on the Mark Twain. I told you about the alloy surrounding my 'black box,' did I not?"
Joshua snorted as he tried to get dust out of his Mediterranean black hair. "The one you claim would put adamantium to shame?"
"The very same. Before you stepped away from First Person Singular, I was synchronizing between my backups on the Mark Twain and my ambulant unit. As you stepped back towards the Datum, the Mark Twain's automated systems synchronized with the various probes left on the worlds we passed – although my records show that I haven't synchronized with all of the probes launched. I assume you and Sally utilized some of her soft places to return home more quickly?" Sally's "soft places" were a phenomenon she introduced Lobsang and Joshua to: locations where one could step past several parallel Earths at once, and often involved geographical changes as well, unlike a normal step.
Lobsang did not wait for a response to his question. "As soon as you reached Datum Earth, another one of my iterations was activated, and I began synchronizing with my backup. You stepped away before I could complete the synchronization, presumably because of the destruction of Madison. I followed you to West 1 and... Synchronization complete!"
"You mean you knew about Madison?" Joshua fumed. Any existential arguments about whether iterations of Lobsang were still people could wait.
"All iterations of me that existed independent of the Mark Twain lay dormant during our journey. They passively gathered information so that I may be informed upon my return, but I could not have stopped the attack, Joshua.
"By the way, you may be pleased to hear that the evacuation to West 1 and East 1 was the idea of your friend Officer Jansson, and that everybody in the Home safely stepped away long before the blast hit."
Joshua let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. "Why are you calling me, Lobsang?"
"As I said, I wanted to thank you for and congratulate you on a contract completed. I also wanted to let you know that last week you were officially cleared of all charges over that nasty business with the 'assholes,' as you so aptly called them."
Joshua pinched the bridge of his nose before saying, "You didn't call me for a pat on the back, and it was inevitable that I'd be cleared of those trumped-up charges after you presented evidence of the man-eating baboons." He looked back to Sally and the FEMA official, to find them both watching him with curious eyes for differing reasons. Joshua turned his back and hunched over the cell phone. "What are you really calling me for?"
"You are perceptive, as always, Mr. Valienté! While I learned much about the worlds that First Person Singular visited through my connection to my ambulant unit, she similarly learned most of what I knew at the time. As you can imagine, this is a problem, as I know of the existence of Sally's soft places as well as the technique to double-step across the Gap, which would have otherwise halted her progress to the lower Earths.
"It will take some time for First Person Singular to become a direct threat to humanity; even if she was to begin stepping towards the Datum immediately, I suspect her stepping rate would be much slower than even a colonist dragging a phobic along for the ride, and she will most likely stop in each world she visits to absorb some percentage of the local biome." Joshua considered the comparison. "Phobic" was the new slang for the unfortunate condition that afflicted nearly one in five people. Not only was a phobic incapable of reaching the Long Earth without being carried by another, but phobics all became violently ill after each and every step. In extreme cases, Joshua had heard, phobics could begin seizing and would require immediate medical attention to survive the ordeal. Considering the availability of medicine and medical expertise dropped off rapidly as you stepped further away from the Datum, travelling with such an extreme phobic was all but impossible.
Joshua asked, "But what about the soft places? First Person Singular could potentially reach the Datum in a couple dozen steps that way."
"While true, Sally has yet to instruct me on the manner in which she discovers soft places, and how she knows where they will lead. First Person Singular might use a soft place, but only on accident. Based on the information I have so far, such 'stuttering' tends to lead a stepper towards that bizarre township of Happy Landings in the High Meggers.
"Regardless, after absorbing my ambulant unit, the threat that First Person Singular poses is merely a matter of time. I predict that barring any stutters, she will reach the world with Happy Landings in less than two years; if First Person Singular has moved to the Washington area by then, her presence will also limit our ability to study that phenomenon."
"Get to the point," Joshua said.
"As you know, I take a long view of things, and that includes humanity's survival. I want to hire you and Sally for another expedition into the High Meggers. With Sally's sense for soft places, we can quickly reach far West of First Person Singular's location, and even West of the world she evolved on, West of any world she has influenced. I want to search for a solution to the problem that First Person Singular poses."
Sally pulled a small brush out of one of the pockets on her sleeveless fisherman's jacket, undoing her blonde bun and beginning to brush out the dust of the atomized Datum Madison. When Joshua glanced back to her, she gave him an inquiring look, and he shrugged. "Couldn't we just use some nukes?" Joshua whispered to the AI on the other end of the phone.
"Joshua, please. Even assuming we could transport the warheads to the High Meggers, it would take the entire arsenal of the United States of America to destroy just the portion of First Person Singular that we encountered. Please remember that she split off a 'small' portion of herself so that she could step, and that 'small' bulk was larger than Manhattan Island. The true First Person Singular is her Earth's entire ecosystem. The combined armaments of every country on the Datum would not be sufficient to destroy her."
An open-topped, carbon-fiber frame car skidded to a stop near the group and kicked up some dirt. "The car will take you out of Madison's fallout zone, so that you can return to the Datum and get some more efficient transportation." Lobsang hung up, and Joshua handed the phone back to the FEMA official.
Joshua looked away from the car, and he studiously ignored the driver who had climbed out. Instead, he caught the FEMA official's gaze and said, "Take me to Officer Monica Jansson."
The FEMA official seemed uncertain, but eventually decided that passing the buck was her best option. She called in the problem on her radio; some hurried words with no less than three mentions of the name "Black Corporation," two mentions of "Lobsang" and "VIP," and within minutes she was leading Joshua and Sally towards one of the more sturdy-looking medical tents. The FEMA official let the pair inside before returning to her own duties dealing with the Madison crisis.
Inside the tent was a flurry of doctors and nurses, tending to dozens upon dozens of patients with injuries spanning from a sprained ankle to compound fractures to – apparently – radiation poisoning. Officer Jansson was in the latter group, waving away her attendant nurses upon catching sight of Joshua. While Joshua and Sally had gotten a light dusting of Madison concrete from their few moments on the Datum, Jansson was in dire need of a bath.
"Well if it isn't the Hero of Step Day, come to see little old Spooky!" Jansson called out.
Joshua growled, "Don't call me that."
The aging cop laughed, her laughs devolving into a fit of coughs. "Hey, if I get stuck with 'Spooky' Jansson, I reserve the right to use a nickname for you."
Joshua and Jansson both smiled; the argument was an old one. "What are you doing here? I heard you orchestrated the mass stepping out of Madison."
Officer Jansson waved away the implied compliment. "There was no time to evacuate the city by conventional means. I simply took the next most logical alternative."
"Spooky," put Sally with a wry smile.
Jansson turned her attention to the new girl at the sound of Sally's voice. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure, miss...?" Jansson offered up a hand in greeting.
"You can call me Sally Lindsay," she said as she shook Jansson's outstretched hand.
"Lindsay?" Jansson echoed with interest. "You wouldn't happen to be related to Willis Lindsay, would you?"
"There is a man who went by that name when he published the designs for the Stepper Box and I am related to that man, yes. He was – is – my father."
Monica Jansson began taking in the young lady before her, who claimed to be the daughter of the man who had completely changed the world. Sally had restored her golden locks to their usual tight and practical bun, and her numerous pockets stored all manner of useful tools for life without any kind of human contact. Joshua quickly stepped in, though, and said, "I notice that you haven't actually answered my question, Monica. What are you doing here?"
Jansson waved a hand in the air, metaphorically batting away the question before speaking, "I stepped back to Madison once the bomb had gone off, assisting in the search and rescue efforts. These doctors are worried that I've been exposed to too much radiation." She shrugged, "I probably have been, but that's an issue for Future Monica, and frankly, Joshua, there aren't many Future Monicas left." For a moment, Joshua was stuck by just how old the woman sounded; she had been a recurring theme in his life for years, but despite facing death in the frontier of the Long Earth, he'd never really considered the natural mortality of a friend more than twice his age.
Sally nodded in comprehension. "Do you know who initiated the attack?"
"I carried over a phobic belonging to the Earth First movement who admitted to preparing the bomb. He didn't know its exact location or how to disarm the thing, though. You might have noticed a certain stain on my blouse; the boy didn't exactly react well to Madison West 1."
Joshua's fists clenched tightly, but he was interrupted by the late arrival of Lobsang's driver. The man was short, greying, and dressed to the nines in contrast to all the men and women in the area. "Sir, it is best not to keep—"
"Stuff it, Jeeves," Sally interrupted the driver.
There was a localized moment of silence in the chaos of the medical tent as Joshua and Jansson locked eyes, an entire conversation taking place in a single look. Joshua finally turned and acknowledged the driver's existence and said, "Take us to the Home on Allied Drive, or leave." The driver hesitated, but nodded and led the VIPs out to the car. Joshua waved goodbye to Officer Jansson as several nurses descended upon her once again like vultures in white uniforms.
All of the orphans who lived at the Home were alive and well, as were the eccentric nuns that cared for them. Sally remained in the car, insisting that Joshua talked far too much about the nuns to leave her any interest in meeting them. Sister Agnes had lost her "bat into heaven" Harley to the explosion, as it could not be taken stepwise due to the massive amounts of iron it contained. Even if she had tried to bring the bike with her, all of those iron and steel components would have been left behind due to the "iron stability phenomenon." She praised those people that had orchestrated the evacuation of the city and the relief efforts taking place afterwards, calling them "good Steinman fans" in the same way another nun might call someone a "good Catholic." According to Sister Agnes, nobody in Madison was injured by the explosion itself, although there were some people injured or killed during the evacuation, especially those in tall office buildings with no time to reach the ground floor. The Sisters held a vigil for those lost as a result of the attack.
The hovering presence of Lobsang's driver was a constant reminder that the AI had another job offer. As Joshua turned to leave, Sister Agnes called to him, "The Home may be gone, but your home will always be here." Joshua gave her a silent nod before returning to the car.
Joshua and Sally rode out of Madison in silence. The hobbled Mark Twain had been collected by employees of the Black Corporation. Once outside the danger zone, the pair of natural steppers returned to Datum Earth again to find a limousine waiting for them. The limo took them to a private airfield outside Janesville, where they boarded a Learjet that was waiting for them.
"I've got to admit, there do seem to be perks to working for the Black Corporation," Sally mused as the engines began to spin up for takeoff, nursing a mug of far-too-expensive coffee.
"I'm not working for the Black Corporation," Joshua insisted.
"Of course. You're simply fulfilling contracts for Lobsang."
"Well, transEarth, technically."
"Which is a subsidiary of the Black Corporation. And is run by Lobsang. Who owns half of the Black Corporation."
The plane's speaker's crackled to life as Lobsang began to speak, "Hello and welcome to No Such Airline! We know you have options when you travel—"
"Hah!" Sally shouted bitterly.
"–and we are happy that you have chosen to fly with us today. We will be arriving at our destination in approximately four hours and fifteen minutes, so please make yourselves comfortable. The minibar is well-stocked, I'm told!"
Sally drained her mug before crossing her arms over her chest and asking, "So where exactly are we going, anyway?"
"No Such Place, I'm certain," put Joshua. "It's the only airport No Such Airline flies to." Joshua looked up to the intercom speakers, as though it made a difference when addressing Lobsang. "Are you even bothering with a human pilot this time around?"
"Would it bother you if I was? Would it bother you if I wasn't?" Lobsang's response was void of any communications delay.
Joshua sighed; there would be no straight answers from Lobsang for now. He set his seat to recline as far back as possible and tried to put all of the recent troubles out of his mind. Madison, First Person Singular, Happy Landings, everything. He had four hours before any of it could catch up to him again, and Joshua Valienté decided to make the best use of the time that he could.
He didn't even try to listen for the Silence any more, not since learning that it was a signal from First Person Singular that he'd latched onto the day of his birth, when his mother had accidentally stepped and delivered him in a world without the pressure of billions of human minds. The same signal that was driving the trolls and elves closer to the densely-populated Datum and the low Earths.
Once the plane landed – a different "No Such Place" than the one Lobsang had taken him to before – Joshua and Sally were handed winter gear, several days' food, and camping gear, and were instructed to step to West 36,113. The Black Corporation employees or contractors or mercenaries or whoever they were did not follow, as they had no hope to match the pace of the two natural steppers. Joshua and Sally donned the winter gear and climbed a few meters of scaffolding before stepping to the ice age world of West 11, the start of the Ice Belt.
The pair kicked up their pace, stepping at a rate of nearly one world per second. Even at a rate that could only be matched by Lobsang and his stepping ship, getting out of the Ice Belt would take ten hours, and it would not be a good idea to fall unconscious from exhaustion in the middle of a frozen wasteland. So, after a few hours of stepping in the biting cold, they set up camp using the professional supplies donated by the Black Corporation.
Of course, there was no coffee.
The next day, Sally and Joshua made the push for the end of the Ice Belt, slowing their stepping rate as they approached, looking for signs of where to be when the ice disappeared. Eventually, they found an open-framed Day-Glo orange structure in the snow of West 36,105, clearly marking the location of scaffolding located the next Earth over. The steppers stumbled over, standing within the bounds of the marker before stepping to West 36,106. At the Black Corporation outpost, they stripped off the winter gear and left the bulky camping equipment with the mercenaries stationed there. The dark-skinned men waved as they wished the pair good luck, and Joshua and Sally stepped away once again.
Once at West 36,113, their destination was obvious. A large airship floated over a wide grassy plain; the new ship was similar to the Mark Twain they had been aboard during the first expedition. The appearance left the impression of an old French galleon, lifted skyward by a silvery-blue envelope. The dirigible was crowned with solar cell cloth, and many of the cables connecting the envelope to the carriage were obviously not load-bearing, but were instead conductors from the solar cells for power generation.
As Lobsang had previously joked, the hull of the new ship bore the name Mark Trine.
"So glad you could make it!" Lobsang's voice boomed over the external speakers. Mercenary engineers performed pre-flight checks of the Mark Trine from the ground, as Lobsang extended the ship's docking elevator so that Sally and Joshua could board.
At the top of the lift, Sally and Joshua were greeted by Lobsang in his ambulant unit, cheerily dressed for the occasion as a World War I flying ace. "Your outfit doesn't match the ship," Sally commented dryly. She brushed past the android and made her way towards the staterooms.
"Shouldn't you give her the layout of the ship before you let her wander about?"
Lobsang flashed an artificial smile. "The interior layout of the Mark Trine is almost identical to that of the Mark Twain. Most of my improvements are not visible to the passengers." He began walking down the corridor in the direction Sally had left, and Joshua followed. "You will be happy to hear that rather than relying on positive internal pressure to prevent harmful atmospheres from encroaching, the Mark Trine is air tight – except for the observation deck, of course. The structure of both the carriage and the gas bag is also capable of handling extreme pressure differentials, both positive and negative."
"You're expecting to run into another Gap world?"
Lobsang nodded. "I am prepared for that contingency. I've also managed to fabricate several rockets, should it become necessary to navigate geographically outside of an atmosphere. The possibility of an extremely high exterior pressure has also occurred to me, hence the flexibility. The Mark Trine is capable of operating in environments from vacuum to three atmospheres."
"So no deep-sea diving with the airship, then?"
"No deep-sea diving with the airship."
At her request, Joshua selected a stateroom far from the one Sally had selected. Lobsang returned to the blue door behind which he concealed all of his fabrication equipment and God knows what else, and the humans on the ground completed their final external preparations while Lobsang quickly dispatched the checks on the ship's internal systems. Within minutes, the Mark Trine began its Westward stepwise journey.
"Sally, Joshua, please meet me in the wheelhouse," Lobsang called over the intercom.
Both flesh-and-blood humans joined their silicon-and-plastic captain on the bridge. The room was a strange melding of the wheelhouse of the French galleon that the external ship appeared as, a modern jet plane's cockpit, and the bridge of the starship Enterprise (from the original series, of course; Lobsang was a fan of the classics). The earthometer on the wall claimed that the Mark Trine was already past West 37,000, and the counter was still spinning upwards.