— Sister Agnes
While using her Agnes Abrahams ambulant unit, she looked like an elderly woman.
A fan of Meat Loaf, she owns a Harley with the slogan 'Bat Into Heaven', painted on it by Joshua.
Madison West 5
Joshua came to visit her and even brought Lobsang with him, even if he was still mad at him for not being able to prevent the Madison bombing, and asked if he could do anything to ease her suffering. Lobsang asked her if she had any regrets and she answered “So much left to do.” She finally passed away in autumn.
She was buried in a small cemetery by the Home in front of some important people, there was even a representative of the Vatican that day, among them some who would have liked to see her dead sooner according to Joshua. It was the only grave in the cemetery at that time.
Agnes woke up and cautiously asked if she was in heaven but a voice replied that heaven could wait and that they had more urgent matters at hand. She asked if there would be a band of angels and the firmament praised her for making a reference to the work of Jim Steinman in her first minute of revived consciousness. What was more surprising to her was that all the conversation was in Tibetan and that she understood every word. The voice told her she had to sleep some more and darkness returned.
She woke up again some time after that. The voice told her they had to wake her up to do some calibration. She heard some music and chanting and asked about it. The voice told her she could blame John Lennon for the music and the chanting were a hundred Tibetan monks singing quotes from the Book of the Dead.
The disembodied voice told her she would be able to look at herself in the mirror and a soft light started to grow steadily until she was her new body : pink, raw, naked and very female. She asked who ordered "those" to the confused voice and proceeded to explain that her bosom has never been this size. The voice told her she would be presentated with a choice of several bodies and that she will be able to pass as human even there were not a lot of human left.
It also added that she was attended by surgeons and medical staff under the Black Corporation's payroll and that they had no idea about her identity. Which seemed quite fun to the voice. It was at that instant that Agnes understood that it was Lobsang who brought her back to life. She started to shout at him but darkness rose at the same time as anger was filling her.
2040, Agnes woke up again and was greeted by Lobsang's voice, telling her it was the final procedure of her revival and that he has been working on bringing her back for three years. He added he expected to meet her in person for breakfast the next morning.
She woke up yet again but this time she was lying in a bed with a tray next to her with coffee, bacon and eggs. A young Asiatic woman, perhaps Japanese, greeted her and introduced herself as Hiroe saying she could take all the time she needed and was to ask her help about anything.
The young woman helped Agnes to the bathroom of what looked like a hotel suite. The nexly resurrected nun took a shower and inspected her perfect teeth in a mirror. After the cleaning, Hiroe told her they have been training her body while she was in deep sleep and asked her to walk up and down. She did so and gave her report. Then she tasted the coffee and the bacon and was surprised to see that it was crisp just like she always liked it.
She was then brought in front of a closet comprising various items of clothing including a nun's garnment. More confused that she had ever been about her theological status, she still supposed her vows still applied and put on the habit. As she dressed up, she smiled when she realized that the age-induced aching in her joints had disappeared and enjoyed a liberty of movement she hadn't felt in years.
Agnes then turned to the Japanese woman and asked if she had an appointment with Lobsang. Hiroe said that Lobsang told her she would get straight to the point and ask Agnes to follow her. she was brought to a room that could have been Charles Darwin's study and remembered Joshua's description of Lobsang's study. Across the room was a swivel chair, its back facing her.
Agnes started to ask if the fire was fake like the one Joshua saw ten years ago but got no response. She then proceeded to say she didn't know if she was supposed to feel grateful or angry when Lobsang interrupted her saying it was what Joshua asked in her behalf. He then reminded her that he visited her with Joshua in the Home in Madison West 5 when she was ill and suffering.
He told her that Joshua asked him to ease her suffering throught greeted teeth. Agnes replied that Joshua probably meant to ease her way, not to perform this 'blasphemy', in lack of a better word. The chair swivelled and Lobsang faced her, he had his head shaven and was wearing an orange robe. He told her he'd rather talk about the reason he brought her back.
Agnes inquired about the reason of her resurrection and he answered that he wanted to give her a new purpose in life. Holding the amount of power he had, he felt like he needed an adversary, someone to tell him when he would be out of order and stop him. Learning about Agnes from Joshua, other sources (including her own diaries), he thought she was the best suited for the task.
She asked him if she had a choice in all this. Lobsang told her she had the choice to walk away and would be taken anywhere in the world and never hear from him again if she wanted to, that she also had an off switch but knew she would not take those options. When she prompted why, he reminded her of what she told him on death bed "So much left to do."
She remained silent for a while then asked about her Harley. Lobsang informed her that Joshua had it properly stored and taken care of. She then asked if she would be able to drink beer with this new body and Lobsang confirmed. Agnes asked where she was and Lobsang told her they were in Sweden, that the day was nice outside and they had bikes. He then asked her if she wanted to go for a ride but as strong as the temptation was to be young again, she asked about Joshua.
Agnes saw Joshua again only in May 2040 while he was visiting her grave at the Home cemetery on Madison West 5. He spent some time there, alone, standing in front of her grave, like frozen in time. She watched him from across the street. Then he started to exit the cemetery and saw her. He headed in her direction and asked if he could be of any assistance.
She replied with an Irish accent that she was away and had only learned about Agnes’s passing recently. She told him she recognized his face from the news, introduced herself as Sister Conception and claimed that her and Agnes had known each other for a long time and had even taken their vows together.
Joshua stayed silent. She looked at him and understood that he wasn’t fooled. He replied that he would be able to recognize Agnes in pitch black and quickly understood that Lobsang was involved. The grown-up man then threw his arms around one of the woman who was there for him since his birth until she pushed him away, laughing.
The Energizer bunny of militant nuns
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.
Now go get your broom, you missed a bit
Agnes, commited to her task, changed some aspects of Lobsang’s life. She thought it would be better for him to not be omnipotent in at least one place in the worlds and that if he wanted to be part of humanity, he had to be embedded in it, be down in the dirt, at the bottom of the food chain.
This was the reason why, around June 2040, when Joshua was summoned by Lobsang to talk about the troll issue and finally agreed to go the transEarth facility a couple of miles from Madison West 10 and meet with Lobsang for the first time since Agnes’s funeral, he found a sixty years-old looking ambulant unit of Lobsang holding a rake in his hands, complaining about how Agnes even refused to let him show movies that don’t have nuns in them.
Captain Kauffman and the USS Benjamin Franklin
After Joshua and Bill Chambers, also one of the boys Agnes took care of at The Home, left for the remote Long Earths in search of where the trolls were hiding at Lobsang’s request, the artificial old Tibetan mink had other cards to play. One of them was Commander Maggie Kauffman of the US Navy, Captain of the USS Benjamin Franklin, the only twain Captain who allowed trolls aboard her ship.
The idea of getting trolls aboard her ship had been suggested to her by Sally Linsay upon a random encounter in the Mine Belt. Sally told Kauffman she could pull some strings so Maggie could get her hands on a troll-call, a troll-human translation device designed by Lobsang.
One troll-call for a whole fifty person crew was not enough. Lobsang got fifteen troll-calls and wanted to deliver them in person to the Franklin. He also brought Agnes with him and Shi-mi, another gift, who would have to sneak inside the ship since Captain Kauffman was more than likely to refuse her.
Dr George and Agnes Abrahams
— Agnes as Agnes Abrahams
For this occasion, Lobsang used another ambulant unit, the Dr George Abrahams ambulant unit was his public persona, he used that to sign the instruction sheet for the troll-call, and looked nothing like his old Tibetan monk ambulant unit. Dr George Abrahams was a middle-aged man with silver hair, tall, slim and a little stooped.
Agnes had to pass as his wife, Agnes Abrahams, but didn’t use another ambulant unit but still had to let go of the wimple.
The “couple” rode on a commercial twain and used that time to practice their Swahili with Shi-mi]]. They finally reached the Franklin, some seven hundred thousand steps of the Datum, as the Captain and her senior officers were having breakfast on the ground.
The access ramp was lowered and Shi-mi started to stroll toward the Franklin as Lobsang introduced himself and Agnes to the Captain, who was quite surprised that they managed to find a military vessel so easily and asked how they managed it and what was the reason of their presence there. George Abrahams told her that they simply followed various outernet reports posted by civilians and were there about the troll-calls.
Kauffman, who didn’t seem to know who George Abrahams was, suddenly remembered that it was the name on the instruction sheet she received. Lobsang confirmed without any trace of modesty that he was indeed its designer and said he came bearing gifts, fifteen more translators for Kauffman and her crew.
Agnes then let Lobsang and Kauffman talk about the Black Corporation, Sally Linsay and the trolls. When she felt like he was ranting too much, she interrupted him saying that he was preaching to the already converted, that they did what they came to do and led him toward their ship.
The garden party
At the beginning of September 2040, the trolls were coming back across the Long Earth after Joshua and Bill found them in a remote Earth dominated by dog sapients and apologized with the help of a translating device provided by Lobsang.
For the occasion, Lobsang and Agnes announced that they would hold a garden party in the transEarth Institute facility that had been turned in a troll reserve in several footprints of Madison.
One of the guests, Monica Jansson, one of Joshua’s oldest friends, declined the invitation. Already ill with leukemia after being exposed to the radiations of the Madison nuke, she was a prisoner on the beagle world and took a lot of radiations from a nuclear weapon cache built by a reptilian-like ancient civilization on Earth West 1,617,498.
Agnes visited her in her convalescent facility on Madison West 5 and tried to convince her to come saying that it wouldn’t be the same without Joshua’s oldest friend from outside the Home. She even had Lobsang set up a summer house for her on Madison West 11 so she wouldn’t have to step anywhere on the day of the garden party.
September 8th, 2040, was the day of the garden party. Agnes was hanging out with Sister Georgina and Sister John, whom she has tasked to watch over Monica and help her every way they could, when she saw Monica emerge from the summer house. She quickly reached her and introduced her to the Sisters. Monica recognized Sister John from when she was still Sarah, a twelve year old living at the Home who had been rescued by Joshua on Step Day. Together, they headed for the barbecue area to find Joshua.
They arrived at barbecue area where Lobsang and his friend Nelson Azikiwe were standing. Joshua was also there with his wife Helen and their son Dan not far. The old friends hugged each other and talked about how Joshua has lost his left hand after his adventure.
Their talk was interrupted by Frank Wood, a space cadet from GapSpace, who was looking for Sally. Monica said she remembered him from her jaunt with Sally at the GapSpace facility in spring and the pair greeted each other. Helen told them that she saw Sally hanging around a group of trolls with some people from Happy Landings and led them there.
Upon reaching the group, Sally immediately came to Frank to ask for his presence there. He told her he came to thank her on how she handled the situation with the trolls back at GapSpace and that it helped his colleagues to find back their bearings. After a while, the noise became too much for Monica. Agnes was by her side and led her away, along with Frank Wood, who had taken a liking to Monica, despite her being gay.
They headed for a large group of trolls by the river. There they climbed a bluff of higher ground where they admired this world's version of the Madison isthmus.
Then suddenly, a commotion started behind them. They turned around to look and saw that an airship appeared just over Lobsang who looked frozen in place, meaning he had left his ambulant unit. This was followed by phones ringing all around and people star ted to step away.
The only words they could make of the various conversations were "Yellowstone" and "Datum". It was first day of the Yellowstone eruption.
In January 2045, she is in a workshop owned by the Black Corporation, outside Madison West 5, with Lobsang, reflecting about her relationship with him. Even if she was brought back from the dead to impose limits to Lobsang, she became more than that, a friend and a confidante.
But that didn't prevent her to think that Lobsang is still too powerful and needed to face challenges. This is why she hired Cho-je, to spar with him like he did with Joshua when they were travelling in the Mark Twain and also a resident of the Home to launch virus-attacks on him.
When Lobsang decided to travel to Happy Landings after the conflict opposing the Next and the American government represented by USLONGCOM's USS Neil A. Armstrong II and USS Eugene A. Cernan, she was there to witness the last moments of Happy Landings, obliterated by an asteroid launched from space by Lobsang to erase any clues that might lead to the Next's location.
The death of Lobsang
— Sister Agnes
In fall 2045, after the events with the Next were dealt with, Agnes decided to organize a small gathering with the ones she called Lobsang's friends, at the Home in Madison West 5. Joshua, Sally and Nelson were invited.
Together, they discussed Willis Linsay's plans to build space elevators and the disappearance of the Next. Lobsang admitted that even he couldn't know where they were gone and could only speculate. Sally laughed at the irony of this, Lobsang the omniscient entity reduced as a mere messenger by children. 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 at stepped away.
The funeral was held on December 2045 in Madison West 5. Agnes doubted at first if it was possible to hold a funeral for a being like Lobsang who wasn't made of flesh and bone but decided to have one anyway. The fact that four of his ambulant units stood guard next to the grave didn't help with the sense of unreality. Presiding over the aseembly, Father Gavin and Padmasambhava were jointly readings sacred texts.
As Father Gavin started to quote Newton, Agnes fell back behind the crowd and stood next to George Abrahams, the ambulant unit Lobsang used to meet with Maggie Kauffman. Agnes commented on the impressive turn-out, among the people present was Commander Kauffman, Cho-je, Selena Jones, who has been crying all morning, Joshua and Sally, standing side by side. The pair also discussed about paperworks for adoption that has been submitted in their name. Agnes warned Lobsang/George that it might take a while before the right child showed up and asked him if he already chose a world where they could start anew.
Lobsang replied that he asked Sally's help for that and said that, except Agnes, she was the only one who knew about him, even before he approached her. Agnes told him that she didn't entirely trusted her and that she could be quite a trickster from time to time and asked Lobsang if he had second thoughts on their projects. As she was pondering this, Father Gavin started to quote Steinman. Lobsang frowned at this and Agnes quickly linked her arm in his, leading him away, saying that they should leave before raising any suspicions.
A new life in New Springfield
It took nine years for the government to approve a child for adoption for the pair. So in late summer 2054 Lobsang, Shi-mi and Agnes travelled to Earth West 1,217,756 to the town of New Springfield where they would start their new life as a family with Ben their newly adopted three years old son. Sally Linsay was also aboard the ship since she helped them to find a suitable world for their project when Lobsang, under his George Abrahams persona, asked her help.
At first, Sally was surprised at Lobsang's will to have a son but Agnes argued that he was recovering from a breakdown after his encounter with the Next and wanted to live as a human. As the airship was dropping his anchor on top of the hill that dominated the the town, Agnes saw the neighbors coming to greet them. Little Ben was jumping up and down from excitement at the sight. Looking at Sally, Agnes couldn't help but feel like Sally thought the project funny, like some kind of hidden joke was at play. Her train of thought was interrupted by George, saying he would unpack the coffee pot before the neigbors arrived.
Agnes came down the ship holding Ben's hand and looked around her. The hilltop has been cleared and houses, now abandoned, had been built on top of it. Lobsang's plan was to settle in one of these old houses and use the cleared fields for crops. Shi-mi came out behind Agnes and commented on how it felt good to finally be off she ship. Agnes turn to her and reminded the cat that she was supposed to act like a cat and not talk in front of Ben and the neighbors. The feline agreed, adding that it felt good to have nothing to do now that she retired from her Navy career and darted towards the forest in search of the rodents that populated this world. The cat was soon followed by Ben who ran towards the undergrowth, laughing.
Meanwhile, Lobsang was separating the twain's envelope from the gondola. The gondola would serve as a temporary home until they could move into one of the houses and Sally would drive back the envelope to a Black Corporation facility on the Low Earths. Inside the gondola were tools, seeds, medical gears, cattle, horses and even a hidden workshop for Lobsang/Geroge and Agnes. Seeing the raggedy looking neighbors climbing the hill, she started to wonder if it was too much but saw that the local kids were already entranced by the animals. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by this, she realized she needed a moment alone and followed Ben.
Trailing after her son, she examined the vegetations and didn't recognize the species of the trees found in this world. She has been told that most were evergreens and that only a few trees shed their leaves during fall. She also knew that trees could be found all the way to the poles on this world. As she was thinking about the first pioneers of this world and what happened to them, Sally came to see her. Together, they watched the neighbors clustered around George and started to discuss about Agnes's feelings on the situation. She admitted that being a city girl, this was too strange for her. Sally tried to reassure her by telling her that this world was quite safe compared to others because the forest kept the critters small and was mostly unseasonal. Reflecting on this, Agnes saw a green flash from her corner of her eyes and looked at the moon. She could swear that it came from the dark side of the moon but didn't notice something unusual.
Somehow, her instinct told her tht something was wrong here and that Sally felt it too. But then Ben was tugging at her sleeve, requiring her attention. Back to reality, Agnes headed to meet her new neighbors with her son.
The barn dance
A couple of days later, the airship and Sally long gone, the family was invited to a barn dance held in their honour. The event took place several steps East since the weather was better there. The little family got ready for the evening, Agnes put on a gingham dress, George put ont a checked shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots and Ben was wearing a miniature version of his father's outfit.
Overall, around fifty people attended. Agnes thought that it was a scene you could find in rural Datum America expcept that people were wearing Stepper boxes in case of emergencies. Soon enough, the Abrahamses were dancing with their neighbors. George even tripping on his own feet and landing on the floor at some point. After a while, Agnes felt tired and took a break by the bar. She was soon followed by George who said that they should have been prepared for this. To what she replied that there was no fun in that and that he was supposed to be a city boy coming to discover the charms of a rural life. Before he could answer, he was grabbed by the elbows by two middle-aged women who brought him back in line.
At that moment, Marina Irwin approached to introduce herself to Agnes. Her son Nikos was actually babysitting Ben for her tonight, for a suitable fee. Agnes remarked that it was quite the sacrifice he was making but Nikos's mother replied that in one year, it would be impossible for them to keep him away from the girls. The former nun doubted it, her experience at the Home taught her that Nikos was more likely hiding something, something big and it has been nagging her since she's met him. Marina, on the other hand, oblivious that Agnes was lost in her thought, was still talking, saying that if the Abrahamses would give work to Nikos on their farm, it would do him some good to get a bit of experience since none of them farmed anymore. This prompted Agnes pointed to some sheep held in a pen not far. Marina agreed that they did a bit of farming here and there : sheep for the wool, potatoes for the Steppers. She began to explain that the founders of New Springfield wanted to created a farming community but soon their children wouldn't follow in their footsteps, prefering an easier way of life. Now, the first pioneers long gone, most of the locals were spread out on several worlds and worked together to maintain the farm enough to raise sheeps, chickens and grow potatoes.
Marina quickly added that the choice they made was not for everyone and that the Abrahamses were more than welcome to try their hands at farming. After saying this, Marina said subtly said the Ben would grow up looking like his father, with a hint of questionning in her voice. Agnes, knowing what she meant, confirmed that Ben was adopted, she even added that Ben's real name was Ogilvy, in case something happened to George and her and that Ben's parents died while working on a space elevator on Earth West 17. Knowing that they were saving their money to leave the Low Earths like the Abrahamses, George and Agnes applied for adoption, meaning to give Ben the life his biological parents wanted for him.
After this, Marina invited the Agnes to an Easter egg hunt on the day after tomorrow and then suggested that they both joined the others to have some fun.
Easter egg hunt
On the morning of the hunt, Agnes woke up before dawn but somehow felt dizzy. Having spent sixteen years in that artificial body of hers, she knew it had nothing to do with waking up early or with all the new food she has been eating since she arrived in that world. To her, it felt more like jet lag.
She went through her morning routine but couldn't shake that small sense of disquiet she felt. But she didn't want to ask Lobsang to run her system through diagnosis and didn't want to know the time. Even if she wanted to, she wouldn't be able to do so since one of the rules of this community was : no clocks. Living so close to the cycles of the sun and the moon, the locals argued that you didn't need to keep track of time.
After getting her gear, she greeted Angie Clayton, one of her neighbours, who came to babysit Ben during the hunt and exited the gondola, where George was waiting with Oliver Irwin. In total, the party was made of a dozen, including Oliver, Marina and Nikos Irwin. As they walked towards the river, Oliver taught the Abrahamses the names of the different locations of the landscape. Agnes asked Nikos about the old Poulson house on the way and he told her it which house on the hill it was and if she knew anything about it. She replied that his mother just told him it was a place to hang out and asked if it was supposed to be a secret. Nikos quickly closed the subject by saying that it was just this, just a place to hang out.
As they reach the far side of the river, the hunting party stepped East in small groups. As explained to Agnes before, the main world was Earth West 1,217,756 but the New Springfielders were jumping from one neighbouring world to the other depending on their needs, like for today's Easter egg hunt. Despite having Stepper technology integrated to her ambulant unit, she pretended to use her Stepper in front of her neighbours. As their reached the targeted world, Oliver added that they used the old Poulson house as a swapping house and that Ben will surely start to hang out there as well when he'll be old enough.
When they got to the forest, everyone spread out, walking and working silently, without uttering a word to each other, laying out traps and checking out old ones. Oliver came up to Agnes and started to name the different trees and plants to her when a small animal came out of the bushes. It didn't go far before Nikos's net fell on him. The little boy took the animal in his hands and broke his neck. As if on cue, more animals came out of hiding all around them and soon a small pile of corpses started to form in front of Agnes and kept on growing until the end of dawn.
Oliver explained that dawn was the best time to catch the furballs since it was at this moment that they go hunting for insects. He added that it was hard to find a furball in the middle of the day and that other types of critters came out at night but they knew nothing about them. George also mentionned the trolls since he heard them the night before. Oliver agreed that it was reassuring to know they were around and invited the couple to proceed to the Easter egg hunt that his wife promised.
The group entered the deeper forest and stopped at a small clearing in front of a bird nest that was six foot across. Agnes, impressed by the size of the nest, understood why the Irwins were being extra cautious in making sure that the mother wasn't around. While reflecting on that, Agnes was startled by a feminine voice coming from the ground next to her. She turned her head and saw Shi-mi, crouching down next to her. She quickly looked around and was relieved to see that the others were far enough and didn't seem to have heard the cat speak. Shi-mi, after Agnes inquired about her presence here, replied that the big birds were the only birds to be found in the neighbouring worlds, save for the chickens that the pioneers imported. Oliver, seeing the cat, grinned and warned her that in this world the birds were chasing the cats, not the other way around.
Nikos interrupted this exchange by declaring that the coast was clear. His father, looking around just to make sure of it, told him to go and to be careful. The young man crossed the clearing and extracted an egg from the nest. The egg was about two feet long and seemed heavy. Nikos put it in a net and slung it over his shoulder. Once he reached the adults, Oliver explained that they didn't do it for the food but to keep the big birds away from their campsites and the kids.
At this moment, Nikos pushed his father's head down. As they caught a glimpse of a big bird, Shi-mi began to describe it but got interrupted by George who just wanted to live a real pioneer life. The cat replied that by doing that they were denying the reality : the days were getting shorter. Agnes, startled, wanted to know more but Shi-mi couldn't elaborate. As the big bird moved away, unaware of the little group's presence, the Irwins slowly stood up and made their way out of the forest, followed by Lobsang and Agnes.
Life as pioneers
It was the year of 2056, two years after the Abrahamses set foot on this world, Ben, now five, was angry at Lobsang because his father wanted him to wash up before supper. Agnes, watching the scene holding her sewing basket, force herself to not intervene. Still, George was struggling to make his son listen to him, to his frustration. After Ben called him stupid and ugly, told him he was not his real father and said that he hated him, he spilled Shi-mi's litter on the floor and went out, banging the screen door behind him.
When Ben was gone, Lobsang turned to Agnes saying she could have helped him. She replied that as a matter of fact she was helping him by not intervening. For him, she was the expert he could rely on since she managed to raise Joshua to a somewhat normal adulthood. She gently reminded him that he was the one who wanted to be a father and that it was his chance to be one. She told him to go after him but he simply shook his head and spread his hands, saying he didn't know where to start since Ben hated him. Agnes reassured him by saying that Ben was only five, didn't know what he was saying and was only trying to jab at him. Before sending him away, she still gave him this piece of advice : find out what was really bothering Ben. He tried to protest but Agnes warned him that if he tried to drag her into it, she would take one of her naps. She reminded him that they were here because it was what he wanted and advised him to leave some litter for Ben to clean, just to make a point.
Lobsang gone, Agnes reflected on everything they achieved since they arrived in this world two years ago and how, despite that, they were all still learning, even the other New Springfielders and the ones who came before them. It was a relaxed way of living that she had never experienced before. Ben has started to go to the local school, surpervised by Marina Irwin. Alone, she looked around at this house they were fixing up together and realized that they were happy here. The only problem was that she still had trouble sleeping.
Hourglasses and pendulums
Three years after their arrival in New Springfield, in 2057, Agnes was sure of it: something was wrong with this world. The old Poulson place for instance, everytime Agnes went down there to look for Ben, since he has started to hang out there as well with Lydia Irwin, she sometimes smelled weird scents around it and even saw a green flash of light once coming from the back of the house. She felt like the place was an oddity, something that didn't belong to this world and wanted to ban Ben from going there but was afraid of how he would react.
But the thing that nagged her the most was the inability to tell the time. She never could sleep properly since she arrived and dawn seemed to always come too soon. She felt like some of the others felt it too and even the animals seem distressed : the furballs coming out of their burrows at the wrong time of the day and the big birds charging randomly around the forest, screeching like eagles. She considered asking Lobsang to access her internal clocks but kept putting it off, fearing that it would be the end of the dream.
George on the other hand didn't want to get involved in this and kept working on his farm and on fixing the house. He even started to learn to play the fiddle to be able to play at the barn dances. Part of her thought it was some kind of victory since she was revived to keep him in check in the first place. But this time, Lobsang was on the complete opposite side of the spectrum and devoted himself completely to his 'Georges' persona. Even the occasional flashes on the moon wouldn't make him stir away from his pioneering life. This wasn't enough for Agnes and she decided to do something about it.
Shi-mi came to find her sitting on the ground in the yard, measuring her own pulse while watching sand pour out of a funnel into a bucket. If this world didn't allow clocks, she decided that she would make her own. Shi-mi asked what she was doing and Agnes explained that she has made her own hourglass in order to be able to tell the time. The cat suggested to build a sundial but admitted that it would take time to calibrate. Agnes said she has planned to do that but wanted something that didn't depend on the sun. She added that her pulse always had a steady fifty beats per minute and assumed that Lobsang replicated it when he remade her. Shi-mi, underlining that it was quite an uncertain base, suggested to build a pendulum instead. Agnes leaned over and kissed the cat on the head. To her surprise, the feline shrank back from the touch. At this, Agnes forgot everything about her "side projects" and inspected the cat's body where she found hard masses on her belly. She inquired if Shi-mi was ill and the cat responded that she was simply getting old. Agnes asked if Shi-mi wanted something to be done about it, like rebuilding her, faking her death and even calling a twain, claiming that it brought them a new cat but Shi-mi refused, arguing that she couldn't be herself while pretending to be a kitten. The pair were interrupted as young Ben came running toward them.
Ben arrived with a basket full of grapes and showed it proudly to Agnes but her attention was on the silver bracelet he was wearing on his right arm. When she asked to see it, Ben first hid is arm behind his back but gave up in front of her authority. She took the silver bracelet and examined it. The piece was well made and very heavy. Shi-mi murmured, Ben still didn't know that the cat was artificial, that she had seen other kids wear that kind of jewelry around town.
Agnes asked Shi-mi's opinion so the cat licked the bracelet and confirmed it was top-quality, pure silver and that it was machine-made. Agnes asked Ben where he got it but he wouldn't say at first then lied to her by saying he had it from the old Poulson place.
Agnes told him that the swap house had only old, used things and that the bracelet couldn't even come from there and insisted. Giving up, Ben told her it was 'Beetle man' who gave it to him. Surprised, Agnes sent Ben away and told Shi-mi she wanted to inspect the place when Lobsang will be there.
After she had made her decision, the pair resumed their pendulum construction.
The silver beetles
The next morning, Agnes left Ben to play with Lydia, under the supervision of Marina, and went to inspect the old Poulson place with George, Nikos and Rio, Nikos's dog. George was complaining that he was taken away from his crops and didn't understand why he had to be involved in the childish things his son has been doing. Agnes argued that something bigger seemed to be happening under their nose and started to question Nikos about the beetles. The young man told her that he didn't see the harm in what he has done and was always safe around the beetles. He led them to the back of the house where a rough dug pit, probably an unfinished cellar, was.
Then went down the pit and into an adjoining chamber and were surprised to see that they were standing in a long and low chamber deep underground. Nikos told them he named it after a picture of a museum gallery he has seen in one of his mother's picture books as a child. While exploring this underground cave, the Abrahamses guessed that it used to be an iron seam. When they asked Nikos about the beetles, he told them to turn around and they came face to face with one of them. Agnes was frigthened by the sight of it and was ready to run if not for George holding her and telling her to calm down.
George admitted that the beetle was nothing like he has ever heard of before and assumed it didn't come from Earth at all. The Abrahamses then asked Nikos what he was planning to do with the rocks he has brought with him in his pack. The young man replied that he swapped rocks in exchange for silver artifacts and proceeded with a demonstration. Nikos held out a rock in his hand and the beetle seized it with one of his silver limbs, giving in return a silver pendant-like artefact. After the exchange, George asked Nikos where they could see more of these creatures and questionned him about the Planetarium. Nikos told them that they had to step there but the adults recoiled, saying it was impossible to step from a cellar unless the space was clear on the adjacent worlds. Plus, George told Nikos that they didn't have their Stepper with them even if Agnes and he both knew they had the Stepper technology integrated to their bodies. The young man replied that it was a funny kind of step and that he had to show them how to do it but the Abrahamses also didn't bring their Steppers.
In the end, Nikos, holding hands with his two companions, stepped to the Planetarium. Grinning, he turned to them and ask what they thought about it. Agnes, looking at her hands under this orange sky and started to shiver. George hugged her and tried to calm her. Too low for Nikos to hear, she told her husband that she didn't sign up for this. He gently reminded her that it was her idea in the first place and she replied that she did it because she thought Ben has been there before them. The two of them tried to guess where they were and George quickly deduced that they were very far from home, not even on any Earth for that matter and that it was probably due to some kind of flaw in the Long Earth. He also noticed how some stars in the sky were green-tinted on one side of the sky while the others weren't. Annoyed by his behavior, Agnes went to Nikos and asked him to bring them home.
Back on Earth 1,217,756, they found Shi-mi waiting for them by the door. The cat told Agnes that she was right, the days were shorter and were now twenty-three hours long. Agnes, staring at George remarked that the presence of the silver beetles, the Planetarium and the shortening of the day had to be linked and asked him about it. The old android, already regretting his quiet pioneering life, sighed and said he needed a twain to see the world and Joshua.
Joshua in New Springfield
Months after their discovery, Joshua came to [New Springfield]] aboard the Shillelagh. He was introduced as a friend of the family and none of the pioneers questionned that cover story. Generous with his time, he gave rides aboard the twain for the local kids and made sure to spend time with Ben and Shi-mi. He took some time finding since he spent more and more time on his sabbaticals since the breakdown of his marriage with Helen. Agnes was afraid of how he'd react when he'd learned that Lobsang was alive but Joshua took it well, saying that he knew it.
During the months they waited for Joshua, this world that used to be seasonless, endured storms, droughts and magnetic storms. But now that he was here, the old companions were ready to work. Agnes found Lobsang and Joshua sitted at the kitchen table with a wide variety of artefacts in front of them. The pair announced that they were ready to tour this world and find out what was going on. Lobsang, with the help of a mass spectrometer, found out that parts of the beetles' shell were made of local material. Confirming that the beetles were making more copies of themselves using the ressources from this world. The trio were trying to figure out the possible link with the shortage of this world's day when Ben called for Georges. While he went to see his son, Agnes and Joshua set out to prepare lunch. Together, they mused on how, with all the worlds they could settle down on, they ended up living on the world where Lobsang would be needed the most. Agnes had a recollection of Sally smiling on the day they arrived on this world and felt anger at the thought of having been led around. On the evening of the same day, they finished loading the Shillelagh and left the day after.
I am Ben's cat now
On one day, during Lobsang and Joshua's absence, Agnes decided to go pick up mushrooms and asked Marina Irwin to look after Ben while she was away. On her way back, she saw Marina waiting for her outside the house with a grave look on her face. Agnes smiled at her but she didn't smile back, not a surprise to her since things have been tense between the two families after the trip to the Gallery with Nikos. It took her a while to realize that the look on her neighbor's face smelled like trouble, she hurried to her and asked if something was wrong with Ben. Marina told her that Ben was fine and that he was napping but that there was something wrong with Shi-mi.
Agnes went to check on Ben first and then found Shi-mi lying by the hearth. The cat tried to lift her head to look at Agnes but it dropped to the floor. As Agnes was stroking her fur, the little android apologized for the mess she did and explained that she suffered an abrupt failure on her way to the litter. Agnes told her they could still bring her to the workshop in the gondola but she refused, arguing that this was her place, where people accepted her as a real cat and that she discovered that it was she ever wanted.
She then asked Agnes to say goodbye to Joshua, Lobsang and Maggie Kauffman. She also expected Mac to open a bottle of single malt in her honour.
Agnes stroked her as the light in Shi-mi's LED green eyes faded to dark.
A military intervention
After Lobsang came back from his trip with Joshua, he called the Navy so they could investigate properly what was happening to their world. In the months following his return, things had gotten worse on Earth West 1,217,656 and the day was now reduced to twenty hours. On top of that, now the impressive bulk of the USS Brian Cowley was towering over New Springfield.
The whole community was gathered next to the Irwins's main residence, everyone was grumpy and tired because of the shortening of the day. The Abrahamses were sitting together on a log and were keeping a low profile.
Unfortunately, the other pioneers didn't take kindly the presence of the militaries in their town since they've traveled this far so they wouldn't have people in uniforms to tell them what to do. As soon as Captain Nathan Boss started to talk, it was made clear that they had already overstayed their welcome.
While Boss and the other New Springfielders were exchanging jabs, Agnes reminded Lobsang that he did his duty by calling the Navy and that he should let Oliver Irwin, who was the closest thing to a mayor here, handle things. He sighed, said he'll try and stayed silent.
On the military side, Nathan Boss, feeling like he was loosing the control of the situation, let Margariat Jha, the ship's chief science officer, explain to them the consequences of a shorter day for all the lifeforms of this planet. When her explanation was over, he thanked her and told the assembly that they will continue to study the phenomenon and had to evacuate everyone in the meantime. He tried to reassure the crowd by saying that the ship was big enough to evacuate everyone and their cattle but this idea was rejected since the locals refused to give up their homes.
Jha confessed that they didn't know what the beetles were doing and Boss added that they knew next to nothing about what they were dealing with. At that, Lobsang sighed; Agnes fearing what was coming tugged at his sleeve and told him to stay put, to what he replied that he had to speak up.
At this moment, to Agnes's dread, Lobsang stepped up and told Boss that he knew what the beetles were building while Agnes covered her face with her hands and Ben was looking at his father, bewildered.
As he walked past Oliver, toward the Navy twain's crew as if taking charge, he explained that the silver beetles were building a Dyson motor and asked to talk to the scientific staff.
Al Todd, another pioneer, pointed at him saying that the trouble started the day the Abrahamses arrived and suggested they got a ride out of New Springfield on the Navy twain. After this, the meeting started to break up. Ben, confused, asked Agnes if Todd meant what he said but she reassured him that he didn't mean it and that he was just upset. To take his mind off the situation, while his father was dealing with the Navy, she took him to feed the chickens.
Lobsang has a plan
After spending some time with the military and learning more about the beetles, Lobsang finally came back to see Agnes. He briefed her about the beetle's goal which was to dismantle this world and recycle its materials to make more copy of themselves to colonize this entire galaxy. When he told her he had a plan, she was suspiscious and asked him what he had in mind since she felt he had done enough by blowing their covers and stepping up like he did. He felt that the universe didn't give him a choice but she argued that the universe didn't care about him and that it didn't have to be him. The reincarnated monk replied that he had to fight back and that he needed help for that.
Agnes reminded him that he had already sent Joshua and Sally on a quest and asked who else did he want help from. To what he simply replied that he needed help from the Next.
In January 2059, the day was now reduced to twelve hours, Nathan Boss decided to take a selected group of passengers on a global expedition to show the extent of the damages caused by the silver beetles and what they had learned so far. Among the passengers were Joshua, Sally, George and Agnes who told everyone that they were androids, a long-lost copy of Lobsang back from the remote Long Earths, Oliver and Marina Irwin as representatives of the locals and two Next, Stella Welch and Marvin Lovelace, summoned by George. The Irwins were trying to not stare at the Abrahamses and kept their kids away from them since George revealed their true nature to them.
Margarita Jha brought everyone to an observation gallery where Ken Bowring was waiting. The Irwins headed for the windows and started to see the damages brought to their world for the first time. All living things were either dying or burning, the lush forests were now burned out ruins. As they were flying in clouds of volcanic ashes, Margarita reassured them since all Navy twains had ash filters equipped since Yellowstone. Their destination was this world’s footprint of New York and they would reach it in twelve hours. Magarita took the occasion to announce that a cocktail party was going to be held in the Captain's cabin.
George and Agnes
The day ended quickly, a bit before dawn, Joshua went to the observation gallery where Agnes was standing with George, Lobsang, Marvin and Stella. Joshua asked how George was able to ask the help of the Next and the artificial pioneer explained that he had put word through various contacts and that he was sure that the Next were monitoring humanity somehow. As George was being praised by the Next and was smiling, Agnes couldn't stand to watch this and stormed off.
She was followed by Joshua who came to ask her if something was wrong, she explained that she was upset that George/Lobsang was abandonning the humanity he thrived so hard to achieve so he could be on par with the Next. Joshua reminded her that this was the reason why Lobsang brought her back to life but she announced that they were going to split up after this crisis was over. Having grown up under her care, Joshua knew that it was no use to try to change her mind. He asked if George knew about this but she admitted that she had just made up her mind about it. She then stayed next to him for a while, smiled sadly at him and left the gallery.
The next day, they finally reached New York's footprint. As they were hovering on top of this world's version of Rhode Island, Joshua saw that it was bare rock now when a few months ago there were still trees on it. Margarita and Ken explained to their passengers that any attempt at contacting or harming the beetles failed. They even used a nuke to destroy the viaduct by it was rebuilt in forty-eight hours.
Understanding that the beetles couldn't be stopped, Stella Welch, one of the Next, stepped up and announced that this world was doomed but they had to prevent the beetles to spread to the other Earths by sealing this world off from the inside. For this, they would have to ask for the help of a young boy named Stan Berg, supposedly the strongest Next there was, but it meant that Stan would be sacrificing his life.
The operation of sealing the world off was named the Cauterizing by the militaries. The day was now reduced to eight hours. Sally went all the way to Miami West 4 to get Stan Berg and came back. The Cowley was still hovering on top of what was left of this world, the New Springfielders long gone somewhere else.
Sally and George volunteered to stay with Stan until the end and insure the success of the plan. As everyone was saying their goodbyes, Agnes ask George if he had to stay. He gently reminded her that they have already been through this and that, since he contributed largely to the theory, he could lend support to Stan. She interrupted him by saying that it doesn't have to be him since he had a spare by pointing to the newly returned Lobsang but he replied that he was the only one of the pioneers who could be present for this event and that he had to be there to witness it. She tried to convince him by reminding him that Ben was alone crying his heart out in a cabin of the twain right now but he said that he couldn't do more for him now.
To light up the mood, Joshua joked with George and hugged him, saying he'll miss him but the android told him to not do such things in front of the Next. George then looked at his watch and left Agnes's side to make the final preparations. As George was leaving, Joshua came to Agnes and told her he was sorry. To what she replied that he didn't have to be and that Lobsang's behaviour was typical of him. She realized that she had lost him the day the Cowley arrived and he stepped up on behalf of the community or when the problems on this world became too big to ignore. Thinking back, she realized that maybe she never had him at all, thanks to Sally Linsay who brought them here. Joshua tried to justify Sally's action by saing that she might have felt like she didn't have a choice and remarked that, even if Sally knew what she was doing, she was paying the price herself.
To Joshua's surprise, Agnes told him that it was a good thing but then declared that she forgave her now that she said her piece. As if on cue, Agnes saw Sally approaching and told Joshua that she would leave the two of them alone. She squeezed her hand and walk away towards George while Joshua was saying his goodbyes to Sally.