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Authors: Robert Culp

Stepping Up

STEPPING
UP

Robert Culp

Kindle Edition

V1.6.1

 

“If that’s what you
think, then that’s all you’ll ever be.”

—Robert Preston as “Centauri”

in
The Last Starfighter

Welcome to the Tenth Millennium

Some theorize that the Universe in which we live is the
first of its kind.  Others believe that it is only the current incarnation in a
succession of many.  If a cosmic detonation happened, which has been labeled “the
Big Bang,” perhaps there will be a corresponding cosmic contraction that will
come to be known as “the Big Squeeze.”  Perhaps neither is right and the
Universe simply always has been.  The purpose of this work is not to say either
theory is right or one is favored over the other, as the creators of the time
and place of
Stepping Up
don’t really agree on their favorite.  Suffice
it to say that these events happen at a time other than “now,” in a place apart
from “here.”

Many of the planets in this novel have names familiar to
you: Earth, Venus, and Mars.  Others will have names that aren’t: Goliath and
Atlas.  Some continents will have names that only appear in legends or history:
Scotia and Lemuria.  Certain aspects of science (particularly physics) are represented
as accurately as I know, but I’m not a physicist.  Other principles have been
folded, spindled and mutilated in order to fit into the tale.  A few others
have been completely ignored.  Numerous religious practices are thrown around. 
Of course, I have my beliefs, but I’ve taken pains not to promote them.

Chronologically, in the Tenth Millennium scenario, the
planets are not as they are “now.” Mars is a planet with oceans and teeming
with plant life. It will not be until after the Ninth Interstellar War that
Mars, Earth, and Venus will be reduced to smooth rocks.  The poem that Sonia
will recite in this work is taken from a hymn written by John Ellerton in the
19
th
century.  I didn’t credit Mr. Ellerton with it in the
narrative, as he does not exist in Sonia’s universe or timeline.

Here’s the long and short of it:  The events portrayed
herein occur roughly 32,000 years ago, or about four centuries prior to the
Ninth Interstellar War.  Some aspects of this story, this campaign, this milieu
if you will, make sense and are verifiable.  Others don’t and never will. 
Don’t dwell on it.  Let it go.  They call it science
fiction
for a
reason. 

1 EMERGENCE

I simply must have been meant for more than this.

The ship is berthed; the crew has off loaded for whatever it
is crews do when they aren’t on starships.  Now that the engines are cool, they
can be disassembled and serviced.  That’s my job.

If there’s a dirtier place than the inside of the exhaust
manifold for an aqua-francium reactor, I don’t know where it is.  The carbon
fouling must be almost an inch thick.  The fuel itself burns clean, but no
matter how fine the filtration system, contamination always finds its way into
the mix, and when it gets to the exhaust manifold it burns, leaving a residue. 
And apparently this ship hasn’t been serviced in a while, so this will take
hours.  But standing here dreading it won’t get it done, however that doesn’t
mean I have to be in a hurry for it.  I methodically and slowly apply some
fresh anti-fog to my safety glasses, take my kerchief from my hair and tie it
over my nose and mouth.  While the residue I’ll be scraping isn’t toxic, it
sure tastes like it should be.  I cinch up my ponytail, grab my tools, lie on
the creeper and slide into the first chamber.  I’ve found it best to start at
the far end and work my way out, lying on my back and chipping the stuff away
above me.  In my opinion it’s the lesser of two evils, the alternative is to
support myself on my elbows or work kneeling.  I’ve done both and liked neither. 
Fifteen minutes into it, I hear a rap on the outside of the housing followed
by, “Hey, ‘Sonya.’”

Oh no, do I have to go through this nonsense again?

I take a deep breath and count to ten.  Then I do it again. 
“Morrie, my parents named me Sonia with a long O, not Sonya with a short O. You
understand the difference between long and short vowels, right?  You even
pronounce the ‘I’ like a double ‘E.’” He may be my supervisor and authorized to
give me binding instructions, but after four years, no matter what I do, he
still doesn’t treat me with any respect.

“Oh, please,” he huffs.  “Very well, ‘So-nee-ah,’ make sure
those perfect hips of yours don’t get stuck in the exhaust acceleration
nozzle.  It would be a shame to see such a luscious morsel of feminine flesh
get crisped by a starship engine.  Especially as I’ve not put any teeth marks
on them—yet.”  He laughs and walks away from the access hatch.

Okay, there is one place dirtier than this manifold.
Isis’s
ankles! Why is it that I never have a portable recorder when I need one?
Public school, then four years of engineering training and the best I can do is
cleaning maneuver engines for a sack of haggis with delusions of sexual
adequacy? I don’t think so.  I’ve reached my tipping point; my mind is made up,
and I’ve shilly-shallied long enough. I back out of the manifold and wipe my
hands on the rag hanging from my back pocket and toss it into the recycle bin.

Morrie Collins, my supervisor, is doing his best to make
this day worse than it has to be.  I’ve been working for him for four years
now, and it’s never gotten any better.  To call Morrie obese doesn’t do him
justice.  I am convinced he has a greater circumference than he does height. 
Right now he’s leaning against my toolbox, cleaning his fingernails with one of
my screwdrivers, probably trying to think up a new way of making my life
miserable.

“Hey Morrie, I’m going for a coffee, you want one?”

“Cool your jets, my little sugar biscuit.  You just finished
a break and aren’t due another for at least two hours.”

“Yeah, but if I go now I can finish this manifold before the
end of the day without interruption.”

“Alright, alright, don’t get all PMSy on me.  Yeah, since
you’re going, bring me a mocha Cubano con Panna half-caff Ristretto. Extra
Whip.  Peaberry beans.  Make sure they’ve been roasted less than two weeks. 
Watch them grind it.”

“Mocha what?”

“I’ll send it to your perCom.”

“Excellent. Be back in an hour.”  Twenty minutes to get
there, twenty minutes to get the coffee, another twenty to get back.  He won’t
be looking for me for an hour.  Good luck on that coffee, lardass.  You’ll
never see me again. 

I’m done with Morrie; he just doesn’t know it yet.  Entering
the locker room, I see one of the other mechanics, Sid Hartley, getting ready
for his shift.  Why anyone would show up to this job early is a mystery, one I
will never try to understand.  I open my locker and stuff my personal
belongings into my knapsack.  After kicking my boots into the locker I peel off
my coveralls, donning running shorts and a sports bra.

“I’ll miss you, Sonia.  You really brighten the place up.” 
Sid looks at me then goes back to lacing up his boots.

I wrinkle my brow at him. 
How can he know?
  “What do
you mean by that, Sid?  I’m just going for coffee.” I sit to put on my running
shoes, sneaking a last look into my locker.  Everything not in my knapsack
belongs to the company anyway.

“No, you’re leaving.  I can tell by the way your jaw is set
and the pep in your step.  You don’t look happy, but you do look satisfied. 
The rest,” he stands and sighs, “is simple deductive reasoning.”  Sid’s a big
man, two meters and close to 300 pounds, but he carries it well.  His wild hair
and full black beard give him a bearish look.

“Good eye, but keep that under your hat, wouldja?”

“Give me a hug and your secret is safe with me.”  Pulling on
my tee shirt and closing the gap between us, I wrap my arms under his,
squeezing him. It’s brief, brotherly and sincere.  He closes his locker and
leaves.

The starport is 30 km from the edge of the city towards the
desert.  The maintenance farm is ten kilometers further still. For the first
class passengers and crewmembers there’s the FastTube, an electro-magnetic
train that crosses the gap separating the city and the starport in minutes. 
For the middle and working class passengers there is the bus, which also runs
on a pretty strict timetable.  And for the TMOD passengers and starport
employees, there’s the SlideWalk.

The perpetual conveyor belts run all day, every day, in both
directions.  There are actually two belts going each way.  The one on the
right, the outside, is moving at about the pace of a brisk walk.  The other is
wider and faster, a healthy trot.  Those who are really in a hurry can walk or
jog on the left side, it’s understood to be the “fast lane” and people standing
in it will almost always step to the right to let the hurriers pass.  The pairs
of belts are separated by a decorative tile mosaic median about ten meters
wide.  I step onto the right-side track, which will take me to the starport.

I want some distance first, so after cinching my knapsack
tight to my back, I jog in the fast lane, blissfully empty at this time of day,
to warm up.  At the two kilometer mark I figure I’m far enough out and hurdle
the handrail separating the track from the tile.  I hit the ground running.

There are no rules against being here, in fact a lot of
people do what I’m doing just not right now, it’s not unusual for kids to ride
anti-grav boards or whatever here.

I’m literally running away from my job with Morrie, but I’m
figuratively (metaphorically?) running away from being bound to Tammuz.  I
settle in to a comfortable pace and the scenery whizzes by me.

This is the time I love: no boss, no threats, no leers, and
no worries.  I hear only the sounds of my feet on the tile and my breathing.  I
wish I’d thought to cue up some music on my perCom, but it’s too late now, I’m
well into the thrill of the run.  Mummy used to say that animals sweat, men
perspire and ladies glow.  When I’m three kilometers from the starport I’m
glowing with a furious vengeance.

Verifying that the way is clear, I vault back onto the
SlideWalk.  This is the tricky part and I stumble, but don’t fall.  I jog a
kilometer as a cool down.  I have the track to myself so two kilometers from
the end I stop running and move to the right to stretch. I ride the rest of the
way in silence, relishing the absence of machine shop noises and profanity. By
the time I get to the starport my breathing is normal again.  I duck into a
public refresher, splash water on my face and change into my street clothes.

Tammuz has been an okay place to grow up, but it’s a big
universe and I want to see more of it.  Tammuz is the closest thing to a
backwater planet (as I understand the word) you can live on and still be in
known space.  The only people that settle here do so in support of the
starport.  That’s what my parents did and I just fell into the same mindset. 
But I just realized that while I have a past here, I have barely a present and
certainly no future.  Ever since Mummy and Da passed…well there’s just no
reason to stay anymore.  No defendable reason, no matter what I keep telling
myself.  It’s past time to take off in search of opportunities. 

And speaking of opportunities, that skinny fellow in the
kiosk twenty meters to my front probably knows of half a dozen or more.  There
is a coffee booth on the way to Jimmy. To maintain appearances, I buy two cups
of the house blend. One is for him.

“Jimmy Beez,” I say, “what’s the word?”  James T. “Jimmy”
Beezler is the eyes and ears of the Tammuz Starport.  No ship comes in or
leaves without Jimmy knowing about it.  He’s the fuel wrangler.  If they want
top quality hydrogen for their drives, they make it their business to keep him
informed of their movements.  Even though he’s at least twenty-five, Jimmy
looks like the stereotypical teenager.  His shaggy blonde hair, ill-fitting
clothes, and cap sitting cock-eyed on his head do nothing to divulge his stone
cold genius.

He turns to me with a scowl, but a smile soon splits his
stony face. “Sony Mac,” he says, “just trying to stay out of jail.” I hand him
the cup and we exchange our
Patented Super Secret Handshake.
  “What can
I do for you?”  Jimmy is easily six-three, but he doesn’t weigh more than a
hundred and seventy pounds.  However, I’ve seen him successfully take down
spacers twice his size.  He has quite the reputation but has always been a
perfect gentleman around me, and the closest thing I’ve ever had to a brother. 
The rumors are I’ve helped him hide a few bodies, but that has never been
substantiated.  I can say it isn’t true because I have no memory of it. 
However, there are blocks of time for which I cannot account; that makes me
wonder if he may have hypnotized me.

“I need to know which ships will leave within the week,” I
tell him. 
Please don’t ask me why!

“And in exchange for this most sensitive, secretive and
clearly valuable information…” he pauses for effect,  “…you will, of course,
allow me the privilege of escorting you to the local cinema where I will sit
with an arm around your milky-white, silky-smooth shoulders for the duration of
the photoplay?”  He says he will, but he won’t. The last time he tried, he gave
up after fifteen minutes and whined about a sore shoulder for weeks afterward.
His fingers dance across his clipboard as we speak.

“Hey, if it’s good information I may even let you have the
last four sips of my drink and,” I hold up a finger for emphasis, “the last
morsel of popcorn daintily anointed with…”

“Golden, delicious, buttery-flavored topping?  I fairly swoon! 
Dirty pool! How can a man possibly turn down an offer like that? It’s on its
way to your perCom my dear.  The
Zombie Sentinels
tonight? Pick you up
around 1830? It would be my pleasure to throw a burger or some other similar
synthetic creation down your swan-like neck before the teaser trailers
conclude.”

“You’re such a charmer, Jimmy. Stop.  I’m giddy.”  He
chuckles at my deadpan delivery.  There’s a beep in my pocket. I pull out the
alarming unit and look into my perCom: Three bullet memos from Tammuz Starport
Fuel Dispatch.  Well, a slim chance is better than none.

The personal communicator, or “perCom,” is a spectacular
little piece of technology.  Not only is it used to keep up with contact data
of friends, family and—shudder—coworkers but it’s also a good place to store
pictures, documents, music, just about anything that doesn’t need oxygen, water
or food.  Some models, with increasing popularity, are capable of interfacing
with nearby broadcasting computer networks and hence to the UniNet.  The
vendors claim they are coming out with artificial intelligence models, but
that’s not realistic for me now.  That requires the kind of coin I can only
dream of right now.

“May I ask for 1930 instead? I presume you’d prefer
‘breathtaking’ to my regular ‘dazzling?’”

“Surprise me.  It shall be the stuff of which my fantasies are
sure to be made either way.  If we make it 1930, that will not give us time for
what passes for adequate dining.  Will it suffice to do a drive-by at The Ranch
before said potential cinematic disappointment?  We can lean against the café
tables and make fun of the passersby.”

I nod, “Thanks, Jimmy, I owe you.  See you in a few hours.” 
My perCom beeps again, incoming call.  It’s Morrie.  I gleefully stab the
Ignore button and read the list Jimmy has sent me.  I have to make time to send
out three ‘please hire me’ letters and attach my resume.

Granger
: contact: Herbert Hanson, room 112, starport
hotel

FarGazer
: contact: Delilah Boudreaux, office 232,
Starport Authority Office

Night Searcher
: contact: Aria, local perCom code
65.88.982.

The first two ships have been docked for three days, while
Night
Searcher
is in geosynchronous orbit.  I keep a resume stashed in my perCom
awaiting just such opportunities, but I will have to tailor copies for each
ship. I’ll also have to consult the UniNet to get the down and dirty on each. 
Fortunately, Jimmy was sweet enough to include the appropriate URLs.  I’m
pretty oblivious to everything and everyone on the MagTrain ride to the station
in the neighborhood of my flat.  I do get all three communiqués off before
arriving at my stop.  Now comes the hard part: Awaiting their replies. 

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