"Sally, we need to use the soft places." Lobsang had changed into an orange gi and removed his hair. His attire matched the appearance of the bridge in the same way that representative democracy matches tomato soup. "I need you to teach me how to locate them."
"Ah. About that." Sally rubbed her right arm awkwardly. "Finding soft places isn't something I can really teach. It's not a skill you can learn, more like something you remember."
"Well, what do you do to find them?"
Sally sat heavily in the chair next to the communication station – why so many resources would need to be devoted to a task that would all but go unused she couldn't fathom. "I can feel the Earth's current." When that failed to elicit a reaction from either of her companions, she elaborated, "My family has been stepping across the Long Earth for generations, long before my father invented Stepper Boxes." She laughed, "My father isn't even a natural stepper, you know? He married into the family. I remember carrying him to his stepwise garden…"
Joshua and Lobsang waited while Sally collected herself. She leaned forward, resting her chin in her hands, and continued, "There is a natural flow to the Long Earth. Like a river to a waterfall, that flow pulls those people that can feel it towards soft places. People like me."
"So you can tell us where the waterfalls are," Lobsang began.
"It's not quite that simple, and not exactly easy when we're traveling this quickly. The soft places aren't constant; they drift, they close, new ones open, and old ones reconnect to new places. Plus, it's difficult to feel the soft places when I'm on an Earth that I haven't been to before." Sally sighed, "The only pattern I've found to them is that they tend to be far inland, near water, and stronger near twilight."
The blur outside the bridge windows of all the Earths blending together halted at once. The earthometer on the wall read 76,534: well into the Mine Belt, and not far from the Corn Belt and "Good Old Hundred K" at Lobsang's top speed. The Earth outside was arid, but particularly mineral-rich. The Mine Belt had people settling for work, not for pleasure; there were natural resources, but the land was unpleasant. The Corn Belt, which officially began at Earth 100,000, was much more desirable by most settlers' standards, being by and large excellent for farming: there were few thick forests to clear, and long growing seasons.
"I intend to travel many times the distance of our previous journey," Lobsang said. "I don't even plan to make any extended stops until we're past 10,179,097, so please, Sally. Anything you need that can get us there faster, I am at your disposal."
Joshua stared. He wasn't surprised that Lobsang was being polite; if anything, politeness was a baseline for the AI. He wasn't surprised that Lobsang was willing to throw resources at a problem; that was practically Lobsang's modus operandi. Instead, Joshua could read a subtext of begging in Lobsang's words.
"Why that specific Earth?" Sally asked, suspicious as ever.
Lobsang grinned, but said nothing. Instead he glanced in Joshua's direction.
Joshua shared a look with Lobsang for a moment, and then facepalmed. "That's where First Person Singular is from, isn't it?"
Over the course of the following two weeks, Lobsang maintained a rate of one world per second while Sally felt out the soft places from the bridge. Sally would periodically instruct Lobsang to reduce his speed while she got a fix on the nearest soft place that would take them further westward, and then the airship would fly to the appropriate geographical location once they arrived at the correct Earth, and Lobsang would slip through the soft place, arriving many Earths away.
The first problem with the arrangement became immediately apparent when Lobsang stepped through a soft place, and the ship's earthometer only incremented by one.
"Not to worry," Lobsang said, "I've still got data from our previous expedition, and I can compare our location to my records." After a moment, the earthometer spun up to 123,498.
"That's all well and good," Sally said as she leaned back in her chair, "but what are you going to do when we get past where your records stop? And surely you don't have data on all three million Earths you visited last time?"
"I have data collected from probes and external sensors on approximately seven hundred thousand Earths. If we land on an Earth I have no data for, we can re-sync the earthometer on the next Earth I am able to identify." Lobsang stood at the front of the bridge, staring out of the window down onto the open grasslands below. "Additionally, I have a significant fraction of the memories of First Person Singular and the millions of Earths she traversed. It will be more difficult to use, as my sensors are superior to her biological senses in every way except for scale, but data is data."
Sally cocked an eyebrow. "And by 'significant fraction,' you mean…"
"I estimate I managed to transmit three percent of her memories to the Mark Twain before you and Joshua stepped away." Lobsang did not turn towards Sally to see the look on her face when he named his dubious figure. "However, it is worth noting that is three percent of the mind of a creature that normally spans the entire globe. Three percent of approximately seven million Earths."
Sally stood and walked towards the android, saying, "I may not have the raw calculating power that you do, Lobsang, but last I checked three percent of seven million Earths is a lot less than the data you have on three million Earths." She grabbed Lobsang's shoulder and roughly spun him around so that she could look him in the face. "Just what do you plan to do with that 'data'? Guess?"
"I hope," Lobsang said calmly as he gently pushed Sally away, "to be able to find a pattern in the soft places, so that analyzing my data will no longer be necessary to correct our location. There is clearly something different about stepping through a soft place: the ship's external temperature dipped by a full three degrees during that jaunt, and a flaw seems to have developed in my chronometer." Lobsang straightened his gi and walked past Sally to the captain's chair. Once he sat down, he spoke again, "A few more steps through soft places ought to give me sufficient data points to find the pattern, should one be present. Once I have that, I can adjust the earthometer automatically."
Sally followed Lobsang's motion, putting her hands on her hips. "And if no pattern emerges?" she asked.
Lobsang flashed her his artificial smile, "My dear, the world is full of patterns. As it happens, I have been building a mathematical model of the Long Earth ever since Step Day, and your description of the soft places has already allowed be to make improvements on it."
"In point of fact, my current hypothesis is that the soft places are the result of a kind of strange attractor." Lobsang tapped the console attached to the left arm of his chair and called on the intercom, "Joshua, how's dinner coming? I believe Sally may be hungry." At that, Sally's face reddened with a combination of anger and embarrassment. "She also may be somewhat upset with me for my comment. I do hope you've put on some coffee for her?"
Joshua had just finished plating two meals as Lobsang and Sally walked into the dining room. Each plate had a large pink fish fillet with a thin, pale green sauce. The fish were accompanied by herb-roasted potatoes and sautéed string beans.
Lobsang sniffed the air as he sat at the empty placement at the table, "Snapper fillet with a fennel sauce, and…" Lobsang sniffed a second time, "anise, as well. Add some wormwood and alcohol to this sauce, Joshua, and you'll have yourself some absinthe!"
Joshua rolled his eyes as he returned to the kitchen, filling two mugs with steaming coffee. "Wormwood's potentially toxic, I'm not going to put that in my food on purpose. And the sauce has white wine."
"A white wine reduction," Lobsang countered. "You certainly can't make absinthe from wine, anyway."
"You can't make a proper absinthe without a distillery," Joshua said as he handed a mug to Sarah and took his own seat. "Also, absinthe uses whole herbs, while I've only used aniseed and fennel bulbs."
The table returned to silence as the two humans, each adjusted to being the only creature capable of speech for miles if not entire worlds, ate their meals in peace and the android looked on, apparently merely content in the presence of others.
The group settled into a kind of routine over the following weeks, with Sally navigating while awake, Lobsang surging ahead while she slept, and Joshua keeping himself busy with little else to do before the group passed what Lobsang considered to be the desolation in First Person Singular's wake.
The only major interruption to the routine was at West 2,217,643, where Lobsang paused for a few minutes to send a few messages back and forth with a research station that was slowly becoming the Long Earth's equivalent of Cape Canaveral on the Datum. With the Gap just one step West, launching a space ship no longer required escaping Earth's gravity well.
As Lobsang had predicted, after five steps through a soft place he felt confident in his ability to calculate just how far a soft place had taken them. "It's so simple, really!" Lobsang beamed once he'd discovered the solution. "Well, I mean the answer delves deep into special relativity, it would take months to calculate the distance stepped by hand, and human senses aren't precise enough to detect the fine differences between different soft place steps necessary to fill in the variables, but given the right sensors and just about any modern computer, it's simple now that I've got the math behind it down pat."
The last time Joshua had seen Lobsang this excited was just before his ambulant unit merged with First Person Singular. "Oh! But this invalidates several portions of my model for the Long Earth. I think I'll need to invent some new mathematics to get everything fitting back together again," Lobsang began mumbling as he walked to his private quarters with its blue door. Joshua managed a glimpse inside before the door closed again: a three-foot tall upright cylinder, intricately etched; behind that sat a golden Buddha set in red and green and gold leaf. Clearly, Lobsang concealed more about himself than simply his trade secrets.
On the sixteenth day of the Mark Trine's maiden voyage, the ship's westward progress halted once again, after an especially long step through a soft place. The earthometer on the bridge read 17,210,198.
"This is where our true journey begins," Lobsang said. "We now begin our hunt for either another sapient race capable of helping us against First Person Singular, or else technology left behind by such a race that will prove equally effective."
"So why didn't we stop at Rectangles?" Joshua asked. "There was high civilization there, or at least the remains of one."
Sarah, in the middle of trimming her nails, flicked one of her clipping at Joshua across the room. "Because Rectangles is irradiated and hunting for weapons there would kill the two of us, doofus."
"Also," Lobsang added, "based on the information we gathered, I have my doubts that any munitions recovered from that world would be sufficient, if they even still functioned." Lobsang shook his head and continued, "No, our best option is to forge ahead."
Joshua looked out of the windows at the coastline below. "Well, if nothing else, we've got crabs." Joshua stared at the living beach. "Lots and lots of crabs."