A Long birth
His mother, Maria Valienté, was a natural stepper (without knowing it) and a resident of the Home. Maria got pregnant at a young age, fifteen. Before Sister Agnes took over the Home because of this, her world was one of daily penance.
About to give birth, she panicked and Stepped, therefore gave birth to Joshua in a virgin world. She then heard a noise like lion's roar and Stepped back to Datum Earth, out of fear, leaving Joshua alone in this world. That's when he heard the Silence for the first time in his life. His mother Stepped back to get him and managed to bring him back safely. Unfortunately, she died of post-partum haemorrhaging shortly after.
This is how Joshua, left without a mother grew up at the Home under the watchful eye of Sister Agnes and the others nuns.
On Step Day, Joshua, who grew up to be a methodical thirteen years old kid, assembled his first Stepper box like any other kids and stepped. He found himself on the middle of a forest filled with children crying, throwing up (except him) and screaming. He soon found other kids from the Home (like Sarah and Freddie) and helped them get back to the Datum while more and more children came to seek his help.
After a while, he found the last stranded kid (who had speared a leg) and helped him get back by carrying him in his arms. Back on the Datum, he was welcomed by a police Officer, it was his first encounter with Monica Jansson. Afraid to be treated as a Problem, he Stepped away when another cops car showed. He then realized that he didn't need a Stepper box to Step and began Stepping as far as he could, to avoid trouble.
In those first months after Step Day, he built himself refuges in the higher Earths and tried to survive by himself for a night, to start with, but soon found out he needed to learn to hunt, fish and be able to recognize edible food if he didn't want to starve to death.
On those early days, the Low Earths were beginning to get crowded by curious people who wanted to see what this Long Earth was about. It angered Joshua to have to share his secret places with others. Worst, they got in the way of the Silence.
A few years after Step Day, Joshua was offered a guide and bodyguard job by Officer Jansson to lead an expedition across the Long Earth with a party of scientists, lawyers, a Congressman and soldiers. Around two thousand Earths, they got attacked by what Joshua refers as 'Assholes'. Joshua being the sole survivor and having no witnesses, some people thought he might have killed them all.
Fifteen years after Step Day, however, Joshua was invited to the transEarth Institute by Selena Jones who introduced him to Lobsang. They asked him to join on an expedition to the High Meggers and beyond, in exchange of what, Lobsang would give proof that Joshua is innocent in the Congressman's expedition slaughter.
The Mark Twain
A week after his interview at the transEarth Institute, Joshua was led to a stepwise Siberia on Earth West 4 where he discovered the Mark Twain, a zeppelin able to step and carry passengers and cargo. Aboard the ship, Lobsang, in an ambulatory unit, and Joshua explored and discovered the wonders and dangers of the Long Earth, from a world stuck in a perpetual red sand desert storm like in Mars to an ocean world with huge underwater creatures.
Trolls and elves
Even with all his years of exploring the Long Earth by himself, it wasn't until this journey that Joshua encountered the first trolls in his life when the Mark Twain made a stop on Earth West 33,157. His first encounter with elves ended up with him being severly injured.
On the way, they met Sally Linsay who brought them to Happy Landings and taught them about the Soft Places and the alarming trolls' migration Eastward. She joined them on their trip to find the cause behind this.
First Person Singular
With Sally onboard, they discovered traces of an ancient civilization, the Gap and First Person Singular, a colony organism who was responsible for the trolls' migration, causing a mental pressure (also felt by Joshua because of his affinity with the Silence) unbearable for them. Lobsang decided to merge with First Person Singular to prevent her to reach the Datum and keep on searching for the truth behind the universe.
A devastated Madison
Joshua, who was originally hired as a failsafe for Lobsang, managed to bring back the Mark Twain to the Datum with the help of Sally. At the Datum, they discovered the remains of Madison after the Madison bombing but also another iteration of Lobsang waiting for them.
An unwelcomed fame
Joshua, already famous after Step Day, saw his fame skyrocket after he came back from this expedition, now known as The Journey, to a devastated Madison with the Mark Twain, the first airship capable of stepping at the time, in tow and having Sally and Lobsang retreat back to the shadows at that moment didn’t help in that matter.
Life in Hell-Knows-Where
Ten years after that, in 2040, Joshua was living in Hell-Knows-Where and has been married for nine years with Helen Green, the young girl he met in Reboot when he came back from his journey in the High Meggers in 2030, with whom he had a son named Dan.
Together, they lived the typical pioneer family life except the fact that their Earth was the only one with satellite-navigation, thanks to Joshua’s connections with the Black Corporation. A novice settler compared to his wife when they decided to stay in that town, he was now a skilled hunter, butcher, general artificer, blacksmith and smelter. He even had been elected mayor by the townsfolks.
Obviously, being now a family man, he couldn’t go on his sabbaticals like he used to although he missed being alone, the isolation, being able to feel the Silence.
Joshua tried his best to not care about what happened outside the town’s limits, feeling like he had done his share after Step Day and The Journey.
The troll issue
All this came to an end on a late March day, when he was coming home after an afternoon’s work at his forge. Even from outside the house, he could hear the voice of his old friend Sally coming from the kitchen. Since his wedding day, nine years ago, a visit from her meant that something was wrong.
He entered the kitchen and found her sitting at the table, holding a cup of coffee and watching the gold ring set with sapphires he found at the Rectangles, now hanging on the wall from a leather string just above his Mother's monkey bracelet.
The old traveling companions greeted each other and Joshua asked the reason of Sally's visit, while Helen was getting salt, pepper and matches from the dry store. She replied that another idiot butchered a troll, at Plumbline, to harvest body part to make folk's medecine.
The man was arrested on a cruelty charge but his family was arguing that trolls were just animals despite being in the US Aegis. For Sally, it was a big mess since the government didn't have the ressources to enforce the law in so many worlds. Joshua informed her that in Hell-Knows-Where trolls were protected under an extension of their citizenship rights.
Sally reminded him that not all places were so civilized and that trolls knew about humans only from places like Happy Landings but now that mankind spread farther across the Long Earth, they met more and more ordinary folks and mostly idiots.
Sally asked Joshua to do his duty without saying more. Joshua knew she meant for him to go with her across the Long Earth on another journey and leave everything he built here behind. He reflected on how he felt that his duty was now towards his family and the town that elected him mayor.
They stayed silent for a moment until Helen came into the kitchen with beers and burgers and they sat to have dinner together. After dinner, as Helen stood up to clean the plates, Sally resume the conversation about the trolls and told Joshua that there were much more incidents but got interrupted when Helen presented them with ice cream.
While they had dessert, the Valientés invited Sally to spend the night and also to go see Dan's school play, sheduled to start in one hour.
The school play
As the three of them walked toward the town hall for the play, Joshua saw a twain hanging in the air, being unloaded. A common sight now, ten years after his journey aboard the Mark Twain, after Douglas Black gave away the secret of twain technology to the world.
Sally asked Joshua if he thought that Lobsang was in the twain but Joshua doubted it. An iteration maybe since the twains needed some intelligence to step but not Lobsang himself. She asked if he had gotten in touch with him recently but he replied that he hasn't spoken to him in years, since Lobsang, or one of his iterations, let Madison got destroyed by a nuke.
They resumed their walk to the town hall where Dan's school play "The Revenge of Moby Dick" was held. By the end of the show, even Sally was laughing out loud to 'Harpoon of love'.
At the after-show party, they got drinks and Helen asked if Sally was here to take Joshua away. Sally replied that yes, it was the case. Joshua knew it was about the trolls but didn't know what was expected of him.
Sally told him that she wanted him to use his fame to go in front of Congress and help draw some kind of troll protection order. Joshua, looking at his wife, said he would think about it. Helen then stopped the conversation saying that they should get Dan and that it was getting late.
That night, with Dan finally in bed, Helen told Joshua that if he would go, Dan and her should at least go with him to Valhalla where they were planning to send him to school. It could also be an occasion for him to see the Datum at least once in his life.
Joshua told her that he'd looked up the outernet updates and that Sally was not exaggerating about the troll incidents. Helen thought it was all set up and that a twain showing up in town at the same time as Sally's visit was not just a coincidence. Joshua kissed her cheek, yawned and rolled away. Helen, still sleepless, asked if he really had to go but he was already snoring.
The next day, Joshua wasn't surprised to see that Sally was gone. After breakfast, he went to his office in the town hall to do some mayoring.
After negociating the fees for the trip, inexistant since a twain was already waiting for them above the town, Bill accepted.
It took them only a few hours to reach Valhalla on Earth West 1,400,013. There, they were greeted by Thomas Kyangu, a friend Joshua met during one of his sabbaticals, and Sally, whom Joshua arranged to meet there.
Thomas drove them around in his buggy and brought them to the Healed Drum, the best hotel in town in his opinion, where he booked rooms for them for several weeks. When Sally discovered that the Valientés were planning to stay several weeks in Valhalla to look for a school for Dan, she grab her pack and stepped away saying it wasn't part of the deal.
The Free School
The next morning, Thomas came to pick them up with his buggy, while Bill went exploring on his own, and drove them to the Free School in Downtown Seven where the Valientés met Jacques Montecute, the headmaster of the school, and fifteen years old Roberta Golding, one of his pupils.
Joshua, having the impression that the name Montecute was familiar suddenly recalled his visit to Happy Landings ten years ago where he met Jacques's great-grandmother, place that Jacques and Roberta both come from.
As they discussed about Valhalla and how the city was sustained by combers, it proved quickly that the silent Roberta was an exceptionnally bright child who even won a kind of scholarship from the US government that allowed her to go, under Jacques's supervision, on the Chinese East Twenty Million mission.
While the headmaster left the office to give Dan a tour of the school, Joshua and Helen went to the cafeteria to get coffee instead of being left alone with Roberta.
The Gold Dust
In the end, they spent three more weeks in Valhalla to get Dan used to the place and then boarded the Gold Dust, heading for the Datum, where they were joined by Sally and were treated as honoured guests thanks to Joshua's fame.
On the second evening, as the Valientés were invited to dine at the Captain's table, Bill went on his own to have a raucous night with the crew. He was later joined by Joshua after Dan was put to bed.
As the ship crossed the Mine Belt to pick up some ores, they encountered the Pennsylvania, a twain that got wrecked because of a dust storm some eighty thousand steps West of the Datum. Quickly, the crew of the Gold Dust and the other twains of the fleet organized themselves to form a rescue party. After some efforts, they asked for volunteers from the passengers.
Joshua and Sally volunteered and around three hours later, Joshua found himself trapped inside the Pennsylvania's envelope. He got rescued by Bosun Higgs and Sally and got extracted of the wreck with a cable wrapped around his ankle. The incident made the news and ended on the outernet. Sally stepped away, grinning, as everyone's attention was on Joshua.
Sally got back to the Gold Dust before it reached the Datum. As the passengers disembarked, they were all led to an immigration hall where their luggage was searched and they had to go through a full whole-body scanner.
As everyone finally passed all the security checkpoints, they stood on the outer hall waiting for a cab when a man approached them. When he got close enough, he reached in his bag and took out a metallic blade. Sally grasped Dan and stepped away with him as Joshua, who put himself between the man and his family, was stabbed above the right breast. He passed away as Helen knocked out their aggressor.
After the aggression, our travellers all grouped up at Monica Jansson's place on Madison West 5 while Helen was placed under custody for assault. Monica, being a retired cop, could fill them in on the man who attacked them, Philip Mott. Now with leukaemia, that she got because in 2030 she insisted to go back and forth to the Datum to help after the Madison bombing, she looked older and tired and has her mantelpiece stacked with medecine bottles.
Joshua started doubting that it was a good idea to come back to the Datum at all but was pressed on by Sally to keep up with their plans. Thanks to Monica's connections, she managed to arrange a meeting with Senator Jim Starling.
As Joshua and Monica started to talk about Madison, Monica's condition and the past, Sally went away, leaving the two old friends together.
The office's walls were covered in hunting trophies, mostly from inedible or protected species. Joshua made remark about it and on the symbolism it represented.
Finally Starling showed up and asked Joshua for an autograph for his niece, who was a big fan.
Then they got down to business, Starling asking them to give them a summary of their demands. Joshua told him about his concerns about the treatment of trolls all across the Long Earth and told him they extended their citizenship rights to trolls at Hell-Knows-Where.
Starling replied that trolls were powerful and dangerous animals to him. Joshua answered that humans and trolls were working together and added that troll labour was of a great economical value.
Despite this argument, Starling told Joshua about troll attacks on humans. Joshua explained that trolls were not more dangerous that bears in national parks and that the situation could only get worst as more and more trolls would be aware of those incidents through the long call.
Starling laughed at that and told the pioneers that it was all about the threat the trolls represented to the humans.
Bill let Joshua do most of the talking but snapped when Starling said he considered trolls like aliens that could just walk in the Datum and were a threat to national security. After Bill's outburst, Starling ignored him and resumed his talk with Joshua, which proved unsuccessful for the trolls in the end.
Before the pair left, Starling said that Sister Agnes, who passed away a few years ago, would be proud of him. This startled Joshua. Starling kept on by saying that he met her once when she came to this same office to argue with him about a different issue and that he was sorry for her death.
The two friends then went back to Monica's house where Helen, under house arrest, was waiting for them and listened to Joshua's frustrated encounter with Starling.
Joshua then told Helen about how Starling's mention of Sister Agnes put him off balance. Helen then urged him to go visit her grave since it was also in Madison West 5, where the Home has been rebuilt after the bombing of 2030, saying he would feel better after.
He slept on that and went the next day. Agnes's grave was the only one if the cemetery, a small plot of land next to the Home. There were already flowers there.
He stood alone for a while and lost track of time. Then he started to notice that the day was coming to an end and headed back to Monica's. As he was leaving the cemetery, he noticed a nun watching him from across the road. He headed toward her and asked if he could be of any assistance.
The Sister, with a bad Irish accent, said she was away for a while and only learned about Agnes's passing recently. She then introduced herself as Sister Conception, saying she knew Agnes for a long time and that they had taken their vows together.
Joshua didn't say a thing. Seeing his face, the nun understood that he was not fooled. Joshua told her that he'd knew Agnes in pitch dark, that she was a bad liar and worst at imitating an Irish accent.
Joshua quickly figured out that Lobsang was involved in this and threw his arms around Agnes, back from the dead.
The pair then went to a coffee shop, still in Madison West 5. As they were sitting in front of each other, sipping coffee, Joshua noticed that lots of the other customers, mostly Low Earths construction workers, took an interest to Agnes’s new curves.
Agnes hushed him, saying that all men were rudimentary creatures who reacted to symbols more basic than a crucifix and a habit. Joshua asked her how all this was possible and Agnes told him that Lobsang, using something Joshua said on her death bed as an excuse, downloaded her dying brain in gel and also had hundreds of Tibetan monks sing over her body for forty-nine days.
Joshua, flabbergasted, said he didn’t know about the reincarnation and the monks and asked if anybody at the Home knew about Agnes’s resurrection. She informed him that she got in touch with Sister Georgina as soon as she could, being the less apt, in Agnes’s opinion, to go crazy upon learning the news.
She still wasn’t public knowledge even if the Church knew about her but thanks to Lobsang, she wasn’t the first person to come back in silicon and gel form. If she wanted to resume her place in the world, she’d have to go public.
When Joshua questioned her about that, she reminded him that before her final illness she was the deputy chief executive of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and was in the middle of a fight with the Vatican about a book about the spiritual benefits of female masturbation written by a Sister Hilary in Cleveland.
Her eyes started to glitter as she told Joshua she wouldn’t wait to get back in the fray. Her new body allowing her to never rest and made a reference to the Energizer bunny that Joshua was too young to understand.
The Turin test
Joshua then asked her why Lobsang brought her back, doubting that it was for his sole benefit. Agnes explained that she was to serve as a moral compass to Lobsang, an idea that didn’t seem bad at all to Joshua.
She added that she hated him at first for bringing her back while feeling grateful at the same time. Joshua asked if Lobsang gave her a choice in the matter and she answered that yes, she had a choice. Joshua was curious about how he managed to convince her and she simply said that it was one particular conversation they had in the early days of her resurrection.
In those days, Lobsang was helping Agnes getting used to her new body and developing her physical reflexes. They were in what could have passed as a gym, both wearing tracksuits when Lobsang made a joke.
Agnes didn’t get it and Lobsang explained that he wanted to convince her that he was not just a computer and he was human. The nun, told him that he was trying too hard and wasn’t human. A very intelligent computer, more than human, but not human.
Hearing this, he proposed to pass the Turin test. Agnes, thinking he was referring to the Turing test told him it would be useless since machines have been able to pass the Turing test for years. Lobsang corrected her and explained that the Turin test consisted on both of them praying for one hour and see if God could tell the difference. Agnes laughed at that and realized that he might be more human than she thought.
Agnes told Joshua that he kept on surprising her with his humanity, even artificial, and she finally agreed to help Lobsang after a while.
Do the good that’s in front of you
Agnes told Joshua she had doubts. Was she really Agnes? She felt she was her, thought like her but wasn’t she just a blasphemous mockery of her? She told him she experienced her death but here she was in this new body. Maybe she was brought back to fulfill the will of God in this new age transformed by technology?
Joshua stood up, saying he had to go back to his family, they had their fair share of problems since they came back to the Low Earths and told her that, after spending time with Lobsang, the better thing to do was to get on with it and do the good that was in front of her, something she used to always say. After this final piece of advice, the old friends hugged each other as they parted ways.
Around May 2040, the trolls had enough of the humans and left the Earths with a significant human presence in them and news on the outernet said that Sally Linsay and Monica Jansson helped two trolls, held captives at the GapSpace facility, escape.
Three weeks after Sally's stunt, news of it finally reached Datum Earth through the outernet. Lobsang summoned Joshua for a face to face meeting at a transEarth Institute facility a couple of miles of Madison West 10.
A young lady welcomed him and directed him through a self-opening door that led to a white-walled corridor. At the end of the corridor, a small Asiatic woman greeted him, introduced herself as Hiroe and gave him a badge he had to wear at all times.
She also told him that Selena, the woman who first introduced him to Lobsang ten years ago, waged that Joshua wouldn't show up at Lobsang's request.
Hiroe brought Joshua to her office where, after some keystrokes on her computer, put him in the system.
The transEarth employee then took him out of the building where they sat on a bench to wait for Lobsang. Hiroe noticed that Joshua was feeling nervous and Joshua laughed when she told him so. He asked her if Lobsang could hear them from there but Hiroe told him that he had limited capabilites in this place, an idea of Agnes who thought it would be good for him if he wasn't omnipotent in at least one place in the worlds.
Hiroe, out of Lobsang's hearing, told Joshua she saw herself more as a friend than an employee and, despite the fact that Lobsang was everywhere, he was alone. She added that Lobsang needed friends and especially Joshua.
An old man with a shaven head and an orange robe approached, or Joshua thought, after a while he recognize Lobsang. As the old travelling companions greeted each other, Hiroe slipped away.
Find the trolls
Lobsang thanked Joshua for accepting to come and Joshua went straight to the point asking for why he was summoned and if it was to do with what Sally did at the Gap. Thanks to face recognition softwares and the footage of the return of the Mark Twain, Joshua was know a famous associate of Sally and had been harassed by the medias.
Lobsang replied that Sally's exploit had brought back the troll issue to the agenda and that trolls have started to take actions on their own, deserting the Earths with humans. He then proposed to Joshua to let his trolls show him what he meant. As a matter of fact, Lobsang's holding on the place extended to several worlds.
They found the pack of trolls around a dozen steps away from Earth West 10. Lobsang told Joshua that he had found this pack in the Corn Belt and invited them to follow him. In this troll reserve that spanned several worlds, he could continue his study of the trolls he started ten years ago, after their visit at Happy Landings, in conditions close to their wild state.
Joshua asked if it was the reason of Lobsang's humble pose but the artificial monk replied that it was an idea of Agnes. Joshua imagined Agnes laughing her head off but was not amused.
Lobsang remarked the stillness of his guest and understood that Joshua was still mad at him, even if ten years has gone since the Madison bombing. Joshua thought that Lobsang, or any version of him, could have stopped the disaster from happening. But for Lobsang, he couldn't take the risk to intervene and kill people just because of some hypothetical attack.
Joshua understood that he would never find in himself to forgive Lobsang on the matter and went back to talk about the trolls. Lobsang told him about all the discoveries he made so far and told him that he offered them sanctuary - protection from humans - in exchange of them staying at the reserve until Lobsang released them.
In front of Joshua, he released them by clapping his hands twice. At that moment, the trolls stopped singing and all looked at Lobsang. After a short pause, they started to sing "Galway Bay" and flickered out of existence. Joshua understood that they were gone, just like all the others trolls across the Long Earth.
Lobsang informed him that a lot of companies, like the Black Corporation, were pressuring things for trolls to come back. He also thought that trolls had a vital role in the ecosystem of the Long Earth.
Joshua exited the facility through the Madison West 10 reception building, thinking it would be more polite to go out that way. And he had to give his badge back to Hiroe.
When he reached the lobby, he was quite surprised to see Bill waiting for him there. When Joshua asked what he was doing there, Bill simply replied that Lobsang sent for him, thinking he would need a companion for the trip despite the fact that Joshua agreed minutes ago to go search for Sally and the trolls.
Lobsang told Bill he would provide them with a translation device. Joshua, not feeling optimistic about it, said he didn't know where to start. Bill replied they had to start with Sally.
Since Bill didn’t know Sally very well, he was counting on Joshua on that part but, thanks to his comber connections, might be able to help with the trolls part. He produced a cassette and showed it to Joshua saying it was a lure but didn’t want to elaborate.
When Joshua said he had to go break the news to his family, Bill informed him that they already knew, then said he was going to get bladdered while he still had the chance and left.
Lobsang pulled some string with the Black Corporation to get them a twain that was used as a scout for the fleets travelling on the Datum-Valhalla route. The ship having only a corporate registration number, Bill baptized it the ‘’Shillelagh’’.
For some reason that Bill didn’t want to share, he wanted to take off from the Seattle area. The twain’s base being in a Low Earth Hannibal, they had to strip down the ship to parts, move it by rail across the Datum and reassemble it on the tarmac of the SeaTac airport.
All this took a whole week during which Bill and Joshua prepared for the journey. Joshua took that opportunity to visit places Sally was known to frequent from time to time, even Monica's place, where he took the gold ring he has found ten years ago at the Rectangles, and to face his family. His son was jealous but Helen stayed silent.
Then on a bright morning, they took off with Bill behind the wheel and Joshua sitting in the gondola and headed for Mount Rainier. It took them two days to reach Earth West 110,719, a world swamped with insect looking like fat dragonflies, where Bill said he had an appointment to keep.
Joshua had to get off the ship and spend the night camping on this stepwise version of Mount Rainier while Bill stayed aboard the ‘’Shillelagh’’, ready to help if things would go south. He packed his things, a handgun and took a portable radio to stay in touch with the twain.
As he was setting up his little camp, Bill told him about a cache with survival gear not far from his position, stuff left by combers for combers. The two friends had a chat about the existence of an underground comber subculture, how combers didn’t colonize the Long Earth like most people did but rather adapted themselves to live in it just like the trolls and how the comber way of thinking would help them to find the trolls
Joshua woke up at dawn and felt he was being watched. Still in his sleeping bag, he sat up and found an elf leaning against a tree looking at him. After Bill greeted the newcomer on the radio, the kobold replied in English to Joshua’s surprise who, up until this moment, thought that kobolds were only a comber legend.
The elf asked for the cassette that Bill provided and was currently in Joshua’s jacket, then dug out an old walkman from the leather pouch on his waist and started to listen to his new loot.
Bill told Joshua that Finn McCool provided him informations in exchange of music and that the elf has been doing that for long, hence the old walkman.
After checking the tape, the kobold tried to squeeze Joshua and Bill for more but they refused and asked where were the trolls. The response he gave was quite enigmatic but Bill figured out that it meant that the trolls were hiding in a Joker but not the one where they currently were.
It was when they tried to know which Joker Finn McCool was referring to that a dozen of elves, from the more aggressive kind, approached their location. Finn stepped away, leaving him alone and Bill, monitoring everything from the twain, had time to warn Joshua.
A first elf tried to cut Joshua with his wooden sword but Joshua smashed his portable radio on his jaw and kicked him in the groin as the elf staggered back. Bill, in the meantime, was lowering the ship to come to Joshua’s rescue.
Suddenly, Finn McCool and other kobolds arrived and engaged the elves. Joshua took that opportunity to run to the ladder that dangled from the twain and, only when he felt out of trouble, looked back.
When he looked down, he saw Finn with an injured arm, stunned and about to get a fatal flow from his opponent. Joshua, thinking he ought to help him, jumped down from the ladder, ran to the elf, picked a branch on the ground and hit the elf’s head with it.
The branch disintegrated on impact and didn’t have the desired effect. The elf, only astonished, was killed by Finn as he was turning around to look at Joshua. The kobold stood up and displayed an angry face. After shouting that he would kill the human, he tried to do it with a flying kick but Joshua was already running toward the ladder.
Bill raised the ship as Joshua was climbing up the ladder and Finn was cursing down below. When Joshua reached the gondola, Bill explained that according to kobold’s honor, he shamed him by saving him when Finn was the one supposed to save him. Joshua, tired, asked Bill to leave the place and the Shillelagh stepped away.
Jokers and Diamonds
And so the ship traveled West, making a stop at well known Jokers, expecting to find the trolls or Sally. Bill sent word ahead to his comber friends staying in Jokers to radio him if they had any informations.
Bill spent his time telling stories about the Jokers that Joshua half believed, like the story of a comber who camped naked on the Cueball for a bet and found himself in another galaxy when he tried to step away.
On the night Bill told the story about the Cueball, Joshua dreamed of Sally. In the morning, when he search the twain for traces of her, he came up empty-handed. He resolved to never tell Helen about it.
Around three weeks after their departure from Seattle, he came to Joshua all of a sudden during the night. He sat up in his cabin and ran to the observation deck and stared at a blank piece of wall. The gold ring was gone.
Joshua pounded on the thin partition that separated his cabin from Bill’s in the middle of the night and said excitedly that he got “it”.
Bill, not in the best of moods, asked Joshua to elaborate. His old friend explained that somehow Sally managed to get into the ship to steal the gold ring set with sapphires that Joshua had hung on the gondola’s wall and that it meant they were supposed to go to the Rectangles on Earth West 1,617,498. Bill, unphased, told him they’d go in the morning and went back to sleep.
The Rectangles and the beagles
They arrived at the Rectangles three days after discovering the disappearance of the ring and didn’t see any signs of the trolls or of Sally. As Joshua was guiding Bill toward the arid valley where Lobsang, Sally and he discovered traces of an now extinct ancient sapient reptilian civilization, Bill spotted Monica below, standing on silvery emergency blankets, waving at them.
When the ship touched down this time, Bill disembarked as well and took Lobsang’s translation tablet with him and a Stepper box. Monica told them that Sally had foreseen their arrival and struck a deal with the beagles, sapients descended from wolves from Earth West 1,617,524, and that Finn McCool was somehow involved.
Monica led them to the beagles’s Earth were a dozen of them were waiting for the newcomers. Bill, even if Monica briefed him earlier, still couldn’t believe that he standing in front of upright wolf-like sapient creatures. He got even more surprised when they started to speak English.
After a brief introduction, Monica told Snowy, one of the beagles, that Joshua was the ambassador of great power that Sally promised. Bill and Monica both watched helpless as two beagle guards pinned Joshua to the floor and Li-Li, one of the beagles’s equivalent of a doctor, sewed a staple to Joshua’s back who passed out from the pain.
Ray guns for trolls
Joshua soon regained consciousness while Li-Li was checking on him. He was tied to a chair. As soon as we woke up, Sally went to him to warn him to not try to step and explained what Monica and she were up to until now.
Petra, the beagle princess, then started to converse with Joshua and told him she wanted ray guns, like the dead ones her guards were wearing on their belts, against the chance for Joshua and Bill to talk to the trolls. Sally, Monica and Finn McCool were to go to the Rectangles while Joshua would serve as a hostage to make sure they didn’t run away.
Joshua then asked Petra if they would be free to go after all this but the princess replied that he would still be alive if he displayed honour. While Joshua was trying to figure out what it meant, Bill reminded him of the scene with Finn McCool on Earth West 110,719 and that "honour" probably meant something else for the beagles as well.
Following their meeting with Petra, Joshua and Bill headed for the river bank where a band of comprised of hundreds of trolls were gathered while Sally, Monica and Finn McCool went back to the Rectangles to fetch the weapons.
Even if this band of trolls was quite big, they were several others bands like that scattered along the river bank as far as the eye could see. Bill unloaded his backpack and set up the translation tablet on a fold-out stand to face the trolls. Joshua was quite surprised that no further actions were required to turn on the tablet.
Bill then asked him if he had thought about what he were about to say and took a step back to give Joshua some room. Joshua, not the public speaker kind, opened up with a joke but only got blank stares from the trolls.
But suddenly, a hologram of Lobsang holding a broom appeared next to Joshua and took over, making the translator box play what sounded like a mass choir with a thousand voices, a blend of human and troll, that made the trolls snap to attention, while Lobsang was apologizing to the trolls about how some humans had treated them but that they were lobbies trying to push the US government to grant trolls human rights on the US Aegis.
Bill and Joshua were discussing about the trolls’s ability to understand or not what Lobsang was saying, the morality of providing ray guns to the beagles and other consequences of what unfolded when Snowy, the beagle warrior, came to tell Joshua to run.
Bill quickly started to pack the translation device, as Joshua ran towards the river bank and dived into the river.
The beagle, wanting to play fair, drop on all fours but closed his eyes to let Joshua gain some distance. Joshua took that opportunity to jumped into the river to try to throw the beagle off the scent and was carried away by the current. Joshua, who had trouble to keep his head out of the water, was thinking about finding a place to hide before Snowy caught up with him but underestimated the canine speed.
He saw Snowy sitting on a rock downstream, watching him pass by. The Beagle still warned him about the rapids that were further downstream.
Joshua got caught in the rapids and were pushed even further along the river. He couldn't see Snowy anymore, which meant he probably managed to outdistance him. As Joshua got out of the river and started to run, Snowy arrived in front of him.
The hunter was padding in front of his prey when suddenly he heard a male human voice not far away and ran to it. Snowy found the source of the voice, Finn’s Walkman, and destroyed it with his powerful canine jaws.
A trophy for Petra
When he found Joshua again, still some bits of Walkman in his mouth, the human had picked up a tree branch on the ground and smashed it against Snowy’s head. The beagle stumbled, almost fell but came back to his senses as Joshua was trying to get one of the blades that Snowy was carrying in his belt.
The canine sapient easily pushed back Joshua to the ground and pinned him on his back, his paws blocking all the human’s limbs and preventing him to move.
Snowy was licking Joshua’s face as a friendly gesture as Li-Li joined them and proposed to give Petra another trophy, Snowy would have to pretend that he chewed up the head too much for it to be recognizable. Joshua, wanting to stay alive, agreed and Li-Li started to chew on his left wrist.
The garden party
In September 2040, after Joshua, now missing his left hand and wearing an antique prosthetic hand instead, came back from his quest, the trolls shyly started to show up in numbers again. For the occasion, Lobsang and Agnes decided to throw a garden party on their troll reservation in Madison West 11 that the Valientés attended on September 8th.
As they were hanging out by the barbecue with Lobsang and Nelson Azikiwe, they were joined by Agnes, Monica, Sister Georgina and Sister John, tasked to take care of Monica who took a huge dose of radiations from her adventure at the Rectangles.
After Monica and Joshua hugged each other, Joshua began once again to tell the story of how he extended his left hand's middle finger as Li-Li was chewing his wrist and that it was what was now nailed to one of the wall of Petra's palace, much to Monica's delight. A gesture that little Dan couldn't help doing every time his father told that story, much to Helen's chragrin.
Their talk was interrupted by Frank Wood, one of the space cadets from the GapSpace facility, who were looking for Sally. Helen led the group to the lake, where a cluster of trolls were singing and where Sally was hanging with Jacques Montecute and Roberta Golding, back from their expedition with the Chinese.
Sally immediately asked the reason of Frank's presence and he told her he was there to thank them for how they handled the situation at the GapSpace facility and how it helped him and his colleagues to get back their moral bearings.
After a few minutes, an airship materialized on top of Lobsang and he left his ambulant body, leaving it lifeless. Soon cellphones started to ring and people were stepping out of existence one by one.
Evacutating the Datum
Helen, who went back to Hell-Knows-Where with Dan to ensure his safety could stand the situation anymore and the couple separated somewhere between 2040 and 2045.
A new species
In January 2045, Lobsang asked Joshua to meet up with him at Twin Falls, Idaho to discuss about an emergence bright minds all over the US Aegis. The two haven't talked to one another for several years, Joshua being mad at Lobsang for not being able to prevent the Madison bombing and the Yellowstone eruption despite his omnipotence.
After a good night of rest and an inspection of the caldera, Lobsang asked Joshua to seek out this new intelligent species and establish contact with it.
Paul Spencer Wagoner
Paul, aged five, started to question Joshua about a number of things, like how the Mark Twain is able to fly for example until his parents, along with Judy, Paul's younger sister, came and introduced themselves while making sure Joshua was not annoyed by Paul. After a brief chat, they parted ways.
A year later, in 2032, while visiting Sister Serendipity's grave on Madison West 5 with Sister Georgina, Joshua ran again into Paul, now aged six, with a black eye and a swollen cheek, and his father.
Tom Wagoner told him how his family has moved to Madison West 5 and got a job as an accountant after he felt more and more uneasy with the increasing number of people showing up in Happy Landings.
He also explained how Paul got the black eye from one of his teachers and how the other kids gave him the swollen cheek. Paul told Joshua how it was frustrating at school and how the teachers made him wait for the other kids. Some parents at the school even asked to remove Paul from it because they were scared of him.
The father and son soon left, leaving Joshua and Sister Georgina worried for the future of Happy Landings, where there was a lot of smart kids like Paul.
As the years went by, Joshua somehow kept in touch with Paul and his family, out of curiosity.
In spring 2036, Paul was taken away from his father. When meeting up with Tom, now separated from Carla Spencer, at the Home, Tom explained how Paul started to turn on on him and make him feel bad about every mistake he made and how he couldn't cope with it anymore.
After some research, Joshua learned that Judy, Paul's sister, was taken away from her mother as well. Paul was admitted to the Home after Joshua pulled a few strings.
In spring 2045, a few months after meeting up Lobsang, Joshua went to Madison West 5 to visit Paul. On his way, he ran into a crying young woman named Miriam Kahn fleeing from the Home, followed by Paul, who could barely keep himself from laughing.
After a brief discussion around a coffee in downtown Madison West 5, Paul brought Joshua to a stepwise secret location to meet other Next like Greta, Janet and Indra and told him about his species. Since most Next have been institutionalized and most of them descend from Spencers or Montecutes (Happy Landings names), it was not hard for them to find each others. Their talk was interrupted by the sudden apparition of stepping police officers who got them into custody thanks to Miriam Kahn's indications.
After Joshua was released, around May 2045, he contacted Lobsang who in turn contacted Nelson and helped organized his visit to the USLONGCOM Pearl Harbor facility, where most American Next were being kept.
Helping the Next
Around the end of August 2045, when the US government decided to send the USS Neil A. Armstrong II and the USS Eugene A. Cernan to Happy Landings, a presumed incubator for Next, Roberta Golding, one of the Next, asked Nelson Azikiwe for help.
Nelson then contacted Joshua who, in turn, contacted Sally, back from her jaunt to the Gap Mars. Together, they helped the Next inmates of the USLONGCOM Pearl Harbor facility to escape to Happy Landings through the soft places and managed to arrive before the Navy.
They were soon followed by the Navy twains who took position above the township.
When the Armstrong II and the Cernan, loaded with a nuclear weapon, took position over Happy Landings to deal with the threat posed by the Next, Joe Mackenzie, the Armstrongs surgeon, suggested to hold a hearing between two advocates, one for the use of the weapon and the other against. In the end, Mac was designed to argue for the pros and Joshua Valienté for the cons.
After a heated debate, in the end, Joshua prevailed and the nuke was disarmed. The Navy twains then left Happy Landings in peace.
February 2052, Joshua was on another sabbatical on a remote Earth when he started to get another of his headaches. One thought leading to another, he started to think about Bill and his Joker stories and more precisely about the one called the Cueball. Dismissing Bill as a bullshiter like all the other combers, Joshua's mind drifted to Lobsang's death back in 2045.
Lobsang's death happened during the fall of 2045. That evening, Joshua found himself in Madison West 5 in front of the Home, waiting to the Sisters to open the door. Sally Linsay was with him but, as usual, looked ready to step away in a second if the nuns took their time to answer. Joshua tried to gain some time by telling Sally that she just had to say hi and that everyone wanted to thank her for what she did for the Next. While Sally was declaring her intention to get drunk as soon as she could get out of here, Sister John opened the door and invited them in.
Joshua, like usual, felt disoriented to be in this reproduction of the place he grew up in. With Sister John, they talked about the time she was just called Sarah and he had to save her on Step Day as they were walking down a corridor. Agnes, waiting by the parlour's doorway greeted them. She hugged Joshua and then shook Sally's hand, saying that she heard a lot about her. Sally replied that it was the same on her side and Agnes, after studying her for a second, turned to Joshua and asked about his family while leading them inside the parlour. Inside, were Nelson Azikiwe and Lobsang, sitting in overstuffed armchairs with tea cups and cake balancing on their laps. As the newcomers sat and Sally was introduced to Nelson, Agnes informed Joshua that it was her idea to gather Lobsang's friends here now that the crisis with the Next was over. Sally interrupted her by adding that Lobsang saw them more as gaming tokens than friends and Nelson told her that they were here nonetheless. Agnes reiterated firmly that they were all considered friends and that friends and family were all that mattered.
Lobsang used this opportunity to talk about Sally's family, more precisely about Sally's father and his project of building space elevators. He voiced his consent, saying that after Yellowstone, humanity should build again since they might compete with the Next in the future. At this mention of the Next, Nelson asked what his android friend knew about them but this one admitted that he only knew they left for a place called the Grange and nothing more. Sally laughed at the irony of this, Lobsang the omniscient entity reduced as a mere messenger by children. Joshua tried to hush her but the android agreed that it was a difficult time for him and pursued that he viewed the people present in the room as his family. The Yellowstone disaster felt like a lobotomy for him, his memories seemed to be incomplete and he had the odd sensation that he recalled his previous incarnations. He told them that after the Next, without his dream of becoming truly omniscient, he was nothing. Agnes appeared to be alarmed at this and asked what he meant by that. Lobsang started to talk and froze in mid-sentence.
Agnes and Joshua rushed to his side and try to reanimate him. Only his head moved and he said his goodbyes to Joshua and Agnes before dying. After this, Sally laughed, stood up and stepped away.
An unreal funeral
The funeral was held on December 2045 in Madison West 5. The fact that four of Lobsang’s ambulant units, dressed in their orange robes and sandals, stood guard next to the grave didn't help with the sense of unreality. Presiding over the assembly, Father Gavin, from the local parish, and Padmasambhava, a friend of Lobsang from his previous life, were jointly readings sacred texts.
May 1st, 2052 was the day of Joshua's fiftieth birthday and he has decided to do something special to celebrate the occasion : cross a hundred thousand worlds to the Datum in one single day. On this special day, he was standing on the porch of the old familial Green house in Reboot, greeting his son who know called himself Rod. His son even brought a stepping aircraft with him as a treat for his father but wouldn't elaborate on it, wanting to leave the surprise intact. As they were recalling the time they were travelling aboard the Gold Dust, Helen, who went back to live in Reboot after her marriage with Joshua broke out, joined them on the porch, soon followed by her father Jack. They hugged Rod and they all went inside the house where a table covered with food was waiting for them. Rod told his mother that she didn't have to but Helen convinced them to stay and eat a bit even if they were eager to leave.
As they ate and drank tea, Rod raised the subject of his mother's new boyfriend. Joshua, thankfully, had the time to process this before. Jack voiced his disapproval about this union that seemed more like a military alliance than one based on love but Helen replied that here in the Long Earth they didn't have the luxury to wait for someone they could fall in love with since the company was already scarce. Rod told her that he understood and that he would be there for the wedding.
This matter settled, Rod declared that they should get going and the father and son duo left the house towards a small clearing where Rod had landed a small plane.