— Willis Linsay
A bright man
Described as a highly intelligent man, Willis Linsay was, according to his daughter Sally, an unusual mix of brilliant theoretician and hands-on engineer. Being a hippie from a long line of hippies, he was always ethical.
The Stepper box
He was married to a natural stepper (Sally's mother) who came from a family of natural steppers, but unfortunately, he wasn't one; hence why he invented the Stepper and kept it hidden away (something he learned from his hippie days).
On the run
He used to work for Black Corporation under another name (Willis Linsay not being his real name either) but Douglas Black found out about the Stepper and tried to force it out of him. Willis decided then to disappear and took a theoretical physics post at Princeton, under a different name. Being tracked down by the Black Corporation, he moved again, this time to Madison, and worked as a peripatetic tutor at UW where Sally studied.
But it was not long before the people of the Black Corporation found him again. This time, he decided to give Stepping to the whole world and uploaded the circuit diagram of the Stepper box on to the internet, causing what is now known as Step Day.
By the time the police and Homeland security, thinking the Stepper diagram was a cover for a bomb diagram, got to the Linsay house, the house was on fire and Willis was nowhere to be found.
Meet me at the Gap
Father and daughter
This is how, in January 2045, father and daughter are reunited at the GapSpace facility after several years. They are shown around by Al Raup who brings them to an auditorium to witness the first live transmission of images from the surface of the Mars of the Gap.
There, her father told her they were going to the Gap Mars because it is a Long Mars, meaning that you can step on it. Not wanting to spend months stuck with Al Raup, she asked if Frank Wood was still around. An offer which he accepted.
A couple of weeks after her arrival at the GapSpace facility, Willis, Sally and Frank are in a stepper shuttle piloted by Al on their way to the Brick Moon, where they stayed twelve hours before boarding the Galileo to reach the Gap Mars.
Their trip aboard the Galileo lasted several weeks. The ship has three separate levels that each one of the crew could use as his personnal space. Willis and Sally, trying to stay as far away as possible from each other, both secluded themselves in their respective space and it was that way most of the trip to Mars except on one occasion when Sally joined Frank to observe the stars.
On March 15th, they finally landed on Mars. When Frank was busy planting the American flag and making a video claiming the Martian soil for the USA, a man in a spacesuit appeared from nowhere, just in front of him, singing the Russian national anthem and at the same time telling Willis that stepping on Mars is possible.
The man in the spacesuit, Viktor Ivanov, helped them unload their cargo and unpack the spare parts for Woden and Thor. While Willis and Frank were assembling the gliders, Viktor invited Sally to visit his base, named Marsograd by Willis. Together they rode in Viktor's truck, dubbed Marsokhod by Willis, to the spatial base and there she was introduced to Sergei Djanibekov and Alexei Krilov, two other Russian scientists.
Alexei explained how they were sent to the Gap Mars to study the local life forms and how humans could live on this world but unfortunately, after the Yellowstone eruption, Datum Russia was abandonned due to the new extreme weather conditions. It is said that Moscow is under ice and polar bears wander around the Red Square now.
After spending the night there, Sally went back to Willis and Frank.
The gliders, fully built sat next to each other on the Martian soil. After browsing around them, Sally found out that they were full of empty Stepper boxes, ready to be built. When asking Willis what they were for, being as secretive as usual, he simply replied they were "trading goods" without adding further details.
The three of them were invited to spend the night at Marsograd, where they watched a movie before being brought back to the gliders at dawn.
Frank, being the cautious type, insisted on taking the first step on the ground. Seating in Woden with Sally in the back seat, he stepped with the help of his Stepper box.
The MEM and the tire tracks left by the Marsokhod blinked out of existence to a lifeless Mars.
There, on Gap Mars East 1, they discovered that the Earth of this world was not the one with the GapSpace facility. Meaning that the Long Mars chain doesn't run parallel to the Long Earth and that their only way back was through the Gap Mars.
Stepping across the Long Mars
After a while they finally took off, making sure that they were at least two persons on the ground when the first glider took off.
Then both gliders where in the air and they started to step at a speed of sixty worlds a minute with a succession of dead Marses underneath.
Sally, still in the back seat, and thanks to her special ability, felt the presence of soft places on Mars.
Sand-whales and sand-crustaceans
A couple of hours later, more than forty thousand worlds from Gap Mars, they found themselves once again on a world with life.
Below the gliders, they witnessed sand-whales moving through the Martian dust like through a fluid.
First traces of sapience
More and more lifeless Marses until the twelfth day, around half a million steps East of the Gap Mars, when they found a city where the buildings were taller than anything built on Earth. The city presented traces of destruction and looked more like a vast cemetery.
They stepped away after Willis went down to take some samples.
Another dead civilization
On the fourteenth day, around fifty thousand worlds after the million step milestone, they found other remains of a civlization, this one technologically more advanced than the previous one.
Frank and Willis went down to take some samples. Frank tried to probe Willis about what he was looking for but he remained vague as usual.
This secrecy started to get on Frank's nerves and he confronted Willis about it.
They were interrupted by a radio message from Sally and left before getting affected by the radiations caused by debris left there.
More than forty days into their expedition, around one point five million steps East, they found a Mars with sapience. Below their gliders, a herd fire-breathing land-dragons was running away from sand-whalers riding sand-yachts, armed with spears and bows.
The sand-whalers soon spotted the gliders and raised their fists at them but lacked the technology to do them any harm. North, of the scene, Willis soon spotted five huge black monoliths with inscriptions on them.
They tried to reach the monoliths to record the inscriptions but they were protected by some sort of invisible field that gave them a headache everytime they got closer.
After a while, they noticed that the sand-whalers were not affected by the monoliths and were just riding past them on their sand-yachts without even slowing.
Willis, pretending to take one of the glider in the air for safety, established contact with the sand-whalers. He showed them how to build and use the Stepper boxes and gave them some survival bubbles to be able to breathe in the nearby worlds. The leader took some pleasure at stepping around one particular individual, dubbed the crustacean prince by Frank, to humiliate him.
In exchange for all this, Willis asked them to take a handheld cam as close as the monoliths as possible to get a recording.
Having what they wanted, and after a thunder was heard in the distance, they stepped away after Willis explained to them that the thunder they heard was actually the sound of the true predator of the land-dragons.
More dead Marses and more Jokers
As they left behind the world of the sand-whalers, they encountered more dead Marses and the occasionnal Joker like a flooded Mars where the northern hemisphere was drowned by an ocean and what looked like cities floated on huge rafts with crustaceans fishermen who came ashore on land-yachts to hunt whales or a glacial Mars where Sally swore she saw a herd of reindeer.
Eleven weeks since they landed on Mars, they finally found what Willis was looking for, around three millions steps East of Gap Mars. What Willis was looking for all along was a space elevator, a beanstalk, a cheap way to reach a planet's orbit without having to use rockets.
Willis predicted the existence of such things, arguing that any advanced civilization living on a Joker Mars will try to reach space before their world became too dry and inhabitable.
Upon getting closer to the root of the space elevator, they noticed the absence of maintenance facilities or housing, deducing that the beanstalk was probably several million years old.
To reach the base of the cable, the root station, they had to go down a twenty miles deep cylindric hole but Sally managed to convince Willis to wait until the next morning.
Down the beanstalk
It was decided that Willis and Sally would fly Thor down the shaft while Frank would stay on the surface as backup with Woden.
They rested, had dinner, slept and waited for dawn, in order to use the whole day to go down and have the time to inspect the root station before the sunset.
At about twelve miles deep, they started to see vegetation on the walls. Some kind of cacti like on Gap Mars.
The ground there was coated with life, purple-green bacterial slime, things like sprawled trees.
Sally even encountered a crustacean in the hole, like the lifeforms they met several worlds ago, but this kind, having been living in the dark for a long time, had no eye stalks.
Willis, on the other hand, found a crashed spacecraft and a crested skull, three times the size of a human head and arrow-shaped.
Their observations were interrupted when a piece of Woden landed on the floor.
Attack of the crustacean prince
When Willis and Sally reached the surface, they found Woden smashed to pieces.
Luckily, Frank was unharmed and was standing by their camp. He told them how the crustacean prince, the sand-whaler that got humiliated in front of his peers around one million point five steps West from this Mars, appeared out of nowhere and attacked Woden.
Willis, still at the command of Thor, took it in the air to preserve it and to draw the prince's attention while Sally and Frank were packing whatever they could salvage.
The prince shot a rocket-worm at Willis, a living fire-breathing organism that uses that fire as a fuel and act like a living missile, and touched Thor.
Willis landed quickly at the camp and Frank and Sally started to load the supplies they could gather when the prince came at them.
Willis then went back in the air while a rocket-worm was fired at Frank and Sally, missing them, but not from far.
Frank and Sally decided to split and run in opposite directions to give a better chance at survival to at least one of them while the prince was back at the campsite, trashing it.
Willis, after a moment's hesitation, decided to go down to pick up Sally.
From the glider, they saw the crustacean prince head toward Frank who was standing his ground.
They stepped away just after the prince, who jumped from his sand-yacht, drove his spear into Frank's faceplate.
Back to Earth
Inside the glider, Willis showed the Beanstalk cable sample they took saying that Frank's death was not in vain and how thanks to him, they will change the destiny of the world.
Thor having sustained too much damage because of the rocket-worm, Willis told her that they would have to ditch the glider and get back to the Gap Mars through the soft places.
Sally, recalling then Willis' hesitation during the attack of the crustacean prince, realized that her father contacted her after all those years only because of her ability to sense the soft places.
Disappointed at her father, she kept to herself all the way home.
On the Gap Mars, they were welcomed once again by the Russians.
Thanks to such corporations, Willis made a fortune out of his patent on beanstalk technology.