— Rocky Lewis on Roberta Golding's way of talking
A poker game gone wrong
Rocky was Stan Berg's friend since childhood. This is why in spring 2056, he found himself watching Stan playing poker with stalk jacks twice their age. Rocky started to feel uneasy as the pile of shards of spacecraft-hull ceramic used as chips was slowly growing in front of Stan.
The other players had started to notice as well and didn't look so happy, Rocky had seen it happen before and decided to find a excuse to get Stan out of the game before things would get ugly. The man sitting on Stan's right was fuming.
He came to Stan and pretexted that they have to go to do school stuff but Stan camly replied that school was out today. Rocky stood up and told Stan to cash in his chips but the fuming man grabbed Stan's arms saying he wouldn't go anywhere with his money in his pockets. Some of the people around them stepped away before the trouble started.
But despite what Marvin said, Alexei was still holding Stan's arm. Stan's clenched his teeth as the man's grip became painful. Then suddenly someone shouted that some kobold has been caught somewhere in the construction site.
Most of the people around the poker game rushed to see the new entertainment provided to them and Rocky used that opportunity to get Stan out of Alexei's grip. Stan's grabbed his chips and Marvin wished him good luck on cashing them as he was leaving.
Stan replied that there would be other games so he'll see him around and Marvin, to Rocky's puzzlement, replied that he will.
Bob-Bob, the kobold, trapped himself in the concrete shell of an liquid oxygen store under construction. As the boys approached the crowd, comprised of mostly men, Rocky lost Stan but knew where to find him : where the trouble was.
Surrounded by LETC workers on all sides, everytime the kobold tried to step, he would come back sometimes clutching his face or his belly. Rocky guessed that other men were waiting for him stepwise, ready to beat him up and send him back to Earth West 4.
The mood was still playful but Rocky saw two Arbiters, a man and a woman, walk forward in anticipation of trouble.
It was at that moment that Rocky saw Stan again, right in the middle of the crowd. Stan walked to Mario, grabbed the sash and handed it back to Bob-Bob. Then he turned to the crowd and asked what they thought they were doing.
Martha Berg, Stan's mother, appeared next to Rocky's shoulder, saying she knew her son was involved as soon as she heard a commotion and that they should get Stan out of here. Rocky said that maybe things would blow off.
Mario replied that they were just having some fun but Stan asked if it was alright to pick on people less smart than them. Then he dared Mario and the crowd to pick on him since he obviously wasn't as smart as them or he wouldn't had gotten involved in this mess.
As things seems to calm down, someone in the back threw a lump of concrete that missed Stan's head only by inches. Someone else shouted to get Stan and a fight broke.
Rocky lost sight of Martha but was pushed forward with the crowd. He used his elbows to reach Stan and was helped by the two Arbiters from earlier.
When they reached Stan, he was on the ground, grinning. The woman Arbiter told Rocky to get Stan out of there but Stan, still grinning, took Rocky's hand and stepped.
Rocky was grateful that no one was around to see him like that. They were surrounded by vast concrete shells and Rocky saw from the signs that they were in a virtual-reality theatre, a conservation project of the Museum of the Datum movement.
Stan led Rocky a couple blocks away and pushed open a door, revealing an empty cavernous room surrounded by sheer concrete walls. Then suddenly the virtual-reality simulation kicked in and the boys weren't indoors under the Florida sun anymore but outdoors under the Datum volcano winter.
An artifical cold wind blew from somewhere and Rocky, dressed for the Miami heat like Stan, started to shiver and wrapped his arms around his chest. He asked Stan what the place was supposed to be and his friend replied that it was somewhere in Datum England.
Stan added that he had something to show him and led the way through the deserted streets. They followed fading signs labelled 'Medieval City' and soon arrived in a muddy square in front of a cathedral. All this was new to Rocky who grew up in Miami West 4.
Stan pushed the cathedral's door and they entered the building. Rocky had never entered such a place in his life and was impressed by how old the building looked. The floor was bare, he guessed that the benches has been used for firewood, but the rest of the building, even the stained glass windows, was intact.
Stan asked if Rocky figured where they were yet but Rocky jokingly replied Disneyland. Stan told him he was an heretic and informed him that they were in a simulation of Salisbury, England.
The two friends sat on a floor by a wall and huddled for warmth. Rocky asked if Stan came here a lot and his friend replied that he had to go to the Datum to find old buildings but that this one was his favourite.
Rocky inquired why he cared about such places since he despised religion. He reminded Stan that when a preacher came to Miami West 4 to talk about the Pope, Stan made him cry.
Stan confirmed that he despised the religions they had, the divisions that religions brought to people who already had enough problems on their plates and con men like Father Melly. But despite all this, he still felt admiration for the devotion needed to build such a building with only thirteenth century tools.
Rocky reflected that the gap he felt sometimes between him and his childhood friend was widening as they grew up but that he couldn't help but stay at his side. He couldn't even explain it to himself but he felt some kind of dazzlement around Stan.
He finally interrupted Stan, saying he was scaring him. Stan told him he didn't mean it and apologized. Then he asked why Rocky was here if he was scared.
Rocky only replied that he was cold and wanted to go back.
When the boys stepped back to the warm evening sunshine of Miami West 4 and strolled home. They reached Stan's home first and Rocky got invited in by Stan's mother.
Inside, a woman in her thirties was sitting with Martha. Stan seemed to recognize her and told her it was about time they show up.
All sitting around a table in the living room, they talked about Stan's childhood, how his teachers struggled to keep up with him and how he ended up being homeschooled by his parents until they gave up as well.
To Rocky, the Next were just a legend from the past but here he was, sitting at a table across his woman called Roberta.
Roberta told Stan that she knew how it felt to grow up around humans, to have to hide but Martha told her that Stan didn't do a lot of hiding. Roberta added that if he had grown up among his kind, he would have discovered so much.
At this moment, Rocky couldn't take it anymore and intervened, saying that he couldn't stand how Roberta was talking about 'us' and 'them' like they were separate species. Roberta, calmly, told him that the Next were in fact another species and that it was confirmed by the neurologists of the US Navy who conducted the most intensive study on Next children before the creation of the Grange.
At this mention of the Grange, Martha asked where the Grange was but Roberta only said that it was far away on a stepwise location without giving any more details for their own security. She explained that the Grange was established after an incident at a place called Happy Landings where a threat was made to destroy the Next.
Despite saying they cut themselves from humanity and live secluded, Rocky found it disturbing that some Next, like the Arbiters, were among humans, working undercover and helping them in the shadows. He wondered how far their influence reached.
Roberta followed by saying that they were there to study the humans, help them in various ways and were looking for more of their kind, like Stan. Martha asked if she wanted to offer him a place at the Grange and Roberta only said that she was here to offer him a visit there to see if he would consider living there.
At this point Rocky asked what would happen if he didn't like what he saw and wanted to leave but the Next woman reassured him, saying that Stan would be free to go.
After a while, Stan said something for the first time, he told Roberta that it was interesting to talk to her and that it felt like a chess game, both already seeing the end game before the rest.
In the end, Stan stepped away to think, leaving Rocky alone with Martha and Roberta. Martha told her that she didn't need to have a super-brain to know that her son would travel to the Grange out of curiosity. Roberta warned her she should prepare herself to lose him anyway.
Months after Roberta's visit, in September 2057, Rocky was outside the Berg's house ready to go to the Grange. In front of him, a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties and introduced himself as Jules Van Herp.
Jules asked Rocky if he was ready for the Grange and Rocky quickly looked around to see if anyone heard that. In the months following Roberta's last visit, the Next could emphasize enough about how secretive the location of the Grange was.
Finally Stan came out of the house, looked at Jules, concluded that he wasn't a Next and asked what was his part in this and if that made Jules a native bearer. Rocky winced at that, for a kid that had a reputation of being wise, Stan could be quite cruel.
Jules didn't seem to be offended and simply replied that he was working for the Next, doing a job he liked. Rocky asked him if he already brought people there before. Jules said that he did it a few times and added that they would be going through soft places so they had to hurry up since soft places moved in time and space.
He asked the two boys if they needed to say more goodbyes but since the last months were spent saying goodbye while waiting for the Next to come get them, no additional goodbyes were needed.
Rocky, with the head still aching for the party their buddies threw last night, followed Jules's lead. Stan and Rocky told their friends they were leaving to study beanstalk engineering a couple of worlds away. It took them minutes to reach the Miami's footprint in Earth West 10 where Roberta Golding was waiting with Marvin Lovelace, the card dealer.
Stan, jerking a thumb at Jules, told Roberta he didn't expect him or even Marvin for that matter. Roberta explained that Jules, being human, served as a middle man. Marvin added that he was chosen to tag along since Stan already knew him from the poker games. Roberta concluded that it was to help Stan being grounded, it was also the reason why they encouraged Stan to bring a friend, in this case, Rocky.
As they got ready to go, Rocky asked Roberta if anything was expecting from them to be able to travel through the soft places but she only told him, smiling, to hold her hand. The step felt like a plummet to Rocky. As the group arrived in another prairie, he was feeling a chill and realized that he was still holding Roberta's hand.
She explained that they traveled through a thousand steps from Earth West 10 and that they also move geographically. Stan asked her to teach him how to do it but she replied that it took training and mental discipline to be able to achieve this.
Stan interrupted her, prompting her to tell him anyway and Roberta, visibly no used at being interrupted, told him that he was all about visualisation. The smarter the person, the better the visualisation would be. She concluded that Stan would be able to learn and turned to look at Rocky, obviously thinking he lacked the capacity.
After this short lesson, they kept on stepping.
The group finally reached the Grange after going through a lot of soft places and arrived at the outskirt of a township. To Rocky, the Grange looked non-descript and seemed comprised only of houses. Stan noticed first that there were no churches nor town hall built. As Rocky suggested that maybe Next didn't like town halls, a group of Next showing a lot of skin passed by.
The two boys stared and the group, with their skin glistening from the river, noticed them, exchanged bursts of quicktalk, laughed and turned away.
Marvin made fun of them and told them they would get used to it but Rocky doubted it.
The little group broke up as Roberta and Jules were heading for destinations of their own while Marvin led Stan and Rocky to the house where they would be staying. There he told them to get some rest and that he would come to get them in the morning.
Before he left, he warned them that the only way out of the Grange was through the soft places. When he was gone, Stan dropped his pack and went to explore on his own. Rocky built a fire, made coffee and, not expecting to sleep much, spent his night reading comics on his e-reader, under the candlelight.
Surprinsigly, in the morning, Rocky was shaken awake by Stan. Stan asked if he was ok and Rocky replied that he slept like a baby. Stan suspected that they put something in the food to keep them docile but Rocky replied that he didn't have any.
Unphased, Stan said it was probably in the coffee and urged Rocky to get cleaned-up before Roberta showed up. Rocky was just putting his e-reader outside the cabin, to have it charge thanks to its solar panel, when he saw Roberta heading toward them. To his relief, she was showing less skin that the other inhabitants of the Grange.
Roberta wished them a good morning and asked if they were ready to go. Rocky asked where they would be going and she told him she was going to show them the school. Stan, looking indifferent, closed the cabin door behind him.
On the way to the school, she told them that Next only dress for practicality and showed them the sleeveless jacket she was wearing, saying that pockets was one of the best inventions of mankind. She added that they also dress for comfort and don't care much about appearances.
Stan explained to Rocky that she meant that the Next didn't get aroused in the presence of skin but Roberta told them that sex was important to them and that there were not obsessed by it.
Since they were not stimulated by anything visual, they also don't have visual art. That surprised Rocky, who thought about his e-reader filled with comics. Roberta added that they didn't have story-telling, lacking the capacity to immerse themselves in fiction but she admitted that they had music and liked to dance and sing.
Rocky told her that it was only possible for them to dress the way they do if they had the corresponding climate. Roberta agreed, saying it was one of the reasons the ones who chose to live on this world chose this particular one. Rocky deduced from her statement that she was not living at the Grange and asked her about it.
She admitted that since she grew up in human communities she was always drawn back there to serve as an interface but for her the Grange still felt like home, the place where she felt safe.
Stan looked around and made an inventory of the plants he was seeing. Roberta told him that if he wanted to guess his location by identifying the flora and fauna, it wouldn't work. Rocky asked if this place was a Joker but Stan, quicker at the uptake, understood that this place was engineered, the various plants imported from various biotas.
The trio passed a group working hard, digging a drainage ditch on their way to the school. Rocky thought at first that they were humans forced to work for their Next masters but heard quicktalk as they passed them. Roberta said that she knew what he was thinking. She proceeded to explain that the Next, when faced with a problem, already saw the solution and just did what was necessary.
She added that newcomers often asked about their governance system but since they were still few in numbers, they could still gather in one place and discuss the matters at hand.
Rocky felt like he needed to defend his kind and said that there must be cheats, crooks. Stan agreed, saying that game theory mandated it. Roberta told them that there were cheats of course but few succeeded since it was very difficult to cheat when everyone saw the endgame clearly. When someone's actions became too excessive, social pressure was enough to correct the problem anyway.
She added that they also had criminals but only a handful. Those were considered as 'ill' and dealt accordingly. Stan reminded that the very first Next that people on the Datum heard of was David, the criminal who hijacked a military twain and killed most of its crew. He told Roberta that Next criminals seemed to be attracted to the human worlds and asked her if all the Next that were encountered in such worlds were insane or criminals.
Roberta, keeping her temper, told him that he shouldn't rush to judgement and changed the subject as they finally arrived at the school.
Once at school, they saw children of various ages playing in freedom under the supervision of adults. Stan envied the freedom they had and Roberta told him he could act as a teacher if he decided to live at the Grange.
During their walk, they ran in Jules, who was sweating after participating in the digging of the drainage ditch all morning. He joined them and Roberta thanked him for joining in on the effort and Jules, pleased, tried to say something in quicktalk. Stan stared at him in disgust and compared Jules to a kobold, trying to get the Next's approval the same way kobolds were trying to act like humans.
This made Jules upset but he said nothing, hoping Roberta would defend him but she didn't say anything. Then Stan snapped at Roberta, evidently disappointed at what he has seen at the Grange so far, saying he was leaving. Roberta reminded him that he couldn't leave unless someone took him. But Stan said that was not true, he took Rocky's hand and stepped away through a soft place.
When Stan came back from the Grange, his head was full of new ideas and his started to preach around the beanstalk construction site. By spring 2059, whole crowds gathered to hear him speak and he even had followers who wrote everything he said and called him 'Master'. The crowd was in turn watched by cops and company security agents.
Once again, Rocky was attending one of Stan's speeches with Melinda, the Arbiter, who revealed herself to be a Next to Rocky, Roberta and Martha Berg the day Sally Linsay came searching for him to take him all the way to Earth West 1,217,756 and for this, she needed Rocky's help.
Roberta, Rocky and Sally went to the Long Earth Trading Company HQ where Mr Russo lent them a conference room so they could talk privately. Rocky complained that everyone wanted to get rid of Stan because he became a nuisance to the Next, the government and the companies like the LETC. Sally and Roberta agreed to tell him the truth : in New Springfield, an extraterrestrial race named the silver beetles were accelerating the Earth's spin to dismantle the planet and threatened to do the same across all the Long Earths. Having no means to stop them they still came up with an idea to prevent their spreading on other Earths by sealing the planet off.
Rocky asked why they needed him and couldn't ask Stan's help themselves but Sally replied that they couldn't afford him to refuse. Rocky, seeing no alternative, asked if Stan would be alone. Sally, held his hand and promised him that he won't.
When they headed back to the construction site, it was evening and Stan was still sitting at the same spot, still preaching. Rocky walked through the crowd toward Stan as Roberta, Sally and Martha stayed at tbe back of the crowd. Rocky said something to Stan and pointed to his mother. Stan took his jacket, excused himself to his followers and walked towards the three woman with Rocky's arm around his shoulders.
Rocky was present on Earth West 1,217,756 just before its destruction, as people were saying their goodbyes to Stan Berg, Sally Linsay and an android called Lobsang who were giving their life to save mankind. Rocky, obviously feeling guilty, told Stan he would not be forgotten. He started to apologize but Stan hugged him and patted his back, saying that he did what he thought was right. Rocky replied that not everybody saw it that way but Stan told him that he was ok and that it was all that mattered in the end.
After the goodbyes, everyone was evacuated aboard the USS Brian Cowley except for the three heroes.