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Authors: Robert Culp

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BOOK: Stepping Up
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He’s leaning against a column, waiting for me.  He has a
pair of bags in hand as well.  He’s bought himself another cup of coffee.  I
only see the one and half expect him to hand me a receipt for reimbursement
when I walk up to him.  Instead he compliments me.  “Dressed like that you
won’t spend many nights alone.  Unless you want to, of course.”

“Thanks! Do you really think so?” I do a small pirouette. “I
was afraid it was hanging funny.  Buy a girl a pretzel?” There’s a vendor
pushing a cart by. “I bought you a coffee.”

“And I said ‘thank you.’ Buy your own pretzel. Do I look
like a fraternal relief organization to you?”  He sounds mean, but his eyes
have a twinkle in them.  Playing a hunch I give him my sad puppy face and
whimper a bit. He rolls his eyes, “Sister, you are so barking up the wrong
tree.”

“Fine!” I flounce away and hurry to catch up to the vendor
to buy myself a pretzel.  I go back and see if I can push my way into Freddie’s
‘inner circle’ a little further.  But this time I try a flanking maneuver.  “If
you could make improvements to your armor, what would they be?”

“You mean our Strike Armor? It works as is, I suppose.  If I
had to pick something it really should sync with the energy weapons better. And
of course if it didn’t weigh so much it wouldn’t drain a battery so soon. I
like the old Strike Armor better to be honest. The new suits are more like
vehicles.  They make you do too much. The previous ones you put on, sealed up,
and forgot about.  I hope the Captain is hiring someone to work on our stuff
soon. After our last scrap on Levi, we need some help.”

“I’m going to look into that.”  The pretzel is very salty. 
I reach for his coffee.

“Really? Have you been aboard long enough for a voice in
hiring?” He moves his coffee outside my reach.

“No, I’m going to look into improving the Strike Armor.”

“So you’re not just an alleged pretty face, but have brains
too? Who’d’a thought?”

“You say the sweetest things.  I’m sure you’re going to make
some pillow biter very happy some day.”  It’s the moment of truth.  I hope he
can take as good as he gives. Half of my pretzel is between us.  If he punches
me, I’ll have a minimal shock absorber.  But even so, I’m going to wind up with
a broken jaw and some loose teeth.  His coffee cup stops midway to his mouth.
He glares for a second but then continues the sip.  For a picosecond his lips
twist into a grin.
I live!
Enough frivolity for now.  I sober up the
moment and ask, “By ‘sync up’ do you mean the aiming point for the Head’s Up
Display on the visor inside the helmet?  My specialty is engines and they
require a lot of synchronization, but maybe I can take a peek at it.  Do you
know if there’s a spare suit and weapon I can experiment with?”

“Yeah, the targeting reticle. You’ll have to ask The Powers
That Be to screw with that stuff. The last dude that tried it died in a fire
from a power pack overload. Could’ve buried him in a sock.  So, do you have all
your chick stuff done? I gotta do a deal off script. You can either go lock
yourself up in the launch, or go with me. If you go with me though, you can’t
tell anybody about it.  Ever.  What’s it going to be?”

“What’s the deal?”

“What’s your answer?”

It’s a stalemate.  He won’t tell me anything until I tell
him I won’t say anything.  So it’s at least against ship’s regulations and
probably against local if not interplanetary laws.  I weigh the odds, the pros
and cons. In a bizarre way, it sounds like fun.  “I’m in.  What’s the prize?”

“The negotiated swag was two dozen plasma grenades and five
launchers to mount on an accelerator rifle.  We’ll use a cover I’ve been
working for months; I’ll be a Sonic Cycle Pariah biker and you’re my bitch. I
can get anything from these jerks. It may involve kissing and a few slaps on
the ass. Can you handle that?”

“Kissing who?”

“Me.”

I make my “horror” face.

He looks away, contempt, disgust and humor all fighting for
dominance on his face.  “Have no fear, you won’t hate it nearly as much as I
will,” he says.

“I can handle it.  I wish you had mentioned it earlier.  I
don’t think I can pull off the Pariah biker’s bitch look in this get up.  I
guess I need to get back into my coveralls? Can we stow our stuff in the launch
first? Or should I rent a public locker?”

“We’ll run by the launch and stow it. Here, you can change
into this at the launch.  I bought it while you were fawning over the frilly
crap.” He pulls a black leather suit out of his bag. “You may have to adjust
here and there, but show what you have and it will distract them enough.”  It’s
a black plastic and leather suit: pants and jacket. Judging by the tags it’s at
least a size too small for me.  So it should be a distraction to just about
everybody.  The boots are the right size with four and a half if not five-inch
heels. My legs and butt will look good. Real good. I hope I don’t have to do
any running.  The material of the garment is thin though.  And as tight as it
will be…looks like I’ll be completely “commando”. Despite his rough demeanor I’m
beginning to think Freddie may be a she queer.  He’s a snappy dresser in his
own right. He’s definitely in that I’m Ready To Kill You genre, but the colors
look good on him and the tailoring, like his grooming, is exquisite.

At the launch he chases the pilot out for a case of beer
while I step into the ’fresher. He pulls out his perCom.  I hear: “Wart? Mad
Dog. The meeting at Wailers still good for seven this evening?  Good. See you
there.”   He continues, but I can’t hear what he says. He must have walked
away.  He stows the unit as I step out of the ’fresher, his back to me. He has
also dressed for the occasion, trading his coveralls for jeans, a tee shirt and
jacket with a Pariah emblem between the shoulders.   “All set?” He turns “Wow,
considering your lack of decent plumbing, you look pretty good. Okay, ready?
Let’s do this. If all goes well, we can get done with Wart, get back here, get
changed back, go get the pickups, get back here, load up the deliveries, and be
off in good time. Let me help you with that.” He tugs the jacket’s zipper down
another inch and tugs on the lapels a bit.  The girls almost explode out.

I glance down and see just a hint of areola on both sides. 

“Yuck.” He says, “I wish I’d put my gloves on. Alright,
follow me.”

“And here I thought you didn’t dig girls.  Wait, before we
go I just have to ask:  We’re shipmates, right? I mean if anything goes bad, I
have your back and you have mine, right?  Just because you don’t…I mean…” I
look away, ashamed of the question.  I check my pistol.  Hammer down, round in
the chamber.

He rolls his eyes.  He fixes me with an icy stare. “Look
here, sugar. My preferences don’t have jack to do with any of this. I am a
professional soldier. I will die for you if need be. You’re not a soldier so I
don’t expect you to die for me.  But I may need you to pull a trigger a time or
two. Yes, I have your back. Come on now, let’s go already.”

“What would you have done if I’d said ‘No’?”

“What the…Fine! My first recourse would have been to take
Needa.  If she turned me down it was going to be Stan.  Honestly though, the
deal will work better if I show up with a skank in tow.  Now get your butt
moving!”

“Okay, ‘Mad Dog.’ Woof!”

“Muzzle it.”

“‘Muzzle it’? Freddie! You made a funny! Do you need a nap
now or anything?”

The MagTrain takes us to the outer district of Solorrom.
All the seats are taken so Freddie and I stand for the train ride.  He’s behind
me and has his hands all over me.  He acts borderline pornographic, and
definitely possessive.  I feel myself blush. The last time anybody touched me
like this I was worrying about making the copay. We draw stares from several
passengers.  I tell Freddie people are watching.  “Let’em,” he says, “none of
them are going to do anything about it.”  I have to admit, I like the way his
hands feel on me. For someone who says he doesn’t like girls, he sure knows how
to touch one. We leave the train at the third stop.  This part of the city has
definitely seen more prosperous times.  Freddie motions for me to follow him as
he finds an alley that leads down to an old theater that has definitely seen
better days. He knocks on the door.

A very rough looking woman answers. “Hey ’Dog, Wart’s been
expecting you. Who’s the new bitch?” Freddie replies that I am his squeeze from
Nineveh. “Oh, okay.” She opens the door and we enter. There are at least thirty
shady looking characters sitting around in old recliners in what used to be the
main theater.

I feel like a rabbit in a room full of wolves. I stick close
to Freddie, first hanging to his right, but he moves me to his non-firing arm. 
His left arm loops around my waist, his hand casually but firmly on my left
butt cheek.  I guess all the contact in the train was a rehearsal.  The
semi-intimate contact feels natural now, even welcome. I presume my best course
of action is to not speak unless spoken to. So that’s the plan I stick to. I
try to be casual about maintaining good situational awareness but still ooze
sexuality.  The squalor is almost a physical assault.  The place reeks of sweat,
tobacco smoke, stale beer, the gods only know which bodily fluids, leather,
and—if I’m not mistaken—gunpowder.  A haze of smoke diffuses what little light
there is in this contemporary cave.  It stings my eyes.  There’s the heavy
primal beat of a death metal band.  It’s loud, but not quite overpowering.  I
bump into Freddie then realize I’m doing it, my hips are gyrating to the beat,
matching the tempo.  And not just side to side.  Freddie’s hand doesn’t move
aside from his fingers tapping time on my hip.

One of the gangers detaches himself from a pair of skanks
and approaches us.  He’s wearing a black watch cap, pulled down to his
sunglasses. 
Who in the world would want sunglasses in here?
His vest
sports a smaller version of the emblem on Freddie’s jacket.  He has a very
thick, bushy, black mustache. The rest of his face hasn’t felt a razor in
several days if not weeks. Tattoos adorn both arms and continue to his chest
and neck under the shoulder straps of his wife beater undershirt. “Long time,
dude. This bitch cool?” He and Freddie—‘Mad Dog’—shake hands and do that stupid
‘bro hug’ thing.

“This is Reba, a piece I picked up in Nineveh.  And not the
reason I’m here.  You have the goods or are you wasting my time?”

Wart looks me over, and takes a long hard look at my chest.
His gaze continues to slither down my body.  I have to admit I was feeling
excitedly sleazy in the leather when I saw myself in the mirror back on the
launch.  Now I just want a shower.  I feel defiled by his gaze.  He looks back
at Freddie.  “Okay, I got your hardware. Since I like you, I’ll drop the price
to fifty K and I get to nail your whore.  Come here and bend over, bitch.” His
hands fall to his belt buckle.

Freddie pulls me tight to his front, drawing me in close.
“We agreed on fifty five K.  That’s what I’m paying and that’s with a solid ‘no
damn way’ to you bangin’ my bitch.” The bikers all look at us.  Some stand up,
their hands move to the butts of their guns.  “Let’s all just take it easy
boys. Wart, you’re getting your money. I just said you can’t have her. She’s
mine.  You know I don’t share.  She fits and she’s clean.  Nobody pisses in my
well.  Let’s just do the deal and everyone walks away happy.”  With his right
hand Freddie snaps my chin towards his face and shoves his tongue between my
teeth. 
Didn’t see that coming.

“You won’t begrudge a brother a cheap feel though.”  From
the corner of my eye I see Wart’s left hand move towards my chest.  This is not
exactly what I signed on for, but a little groping never hurt.  Well, not for
long anyway.  And Freddie did imply I might get groped.  I try to keep my face
neutral, not showing my disgust.  Freddie’s hand is faster.  He’s reaching
across my chest, his left hand cups my right breast, and his forearm flattens
the left one against my chest.  The jacket shifts, I feel the zipper grind
against my nipple.

“I said ‘no,’” Freddie growls.  Wart’s hand pauses, but
resumes moving towards me.  But now he’s reaching for my face, not my chest.
It’s strange how the human mind works.  I’m standing in a literal den of
thieves.  The guy standing in front of me is a filthy arms dealer, a
degenerate, and a criminal.  The guy standing behind me has his arm wrapped
around my body, holding onto my boob.  I am almost blind because of the smoke;
I can barely hear because of the music. I feel Freddie’s breath on my neck, and
whatever the heck that green stain on Wart’s palm is, it’s moving towards my
mouth.  But I’m not scared.  Freddie has my back, so I’m going to be okay. 
Wart’s finger is millimeters from my lips. I get ready to bite him.  But I’m
too slow. Freddie’s hand moves to my right shoulder and I’m spinning to my
left.  I blink and then Freddie isn’t where he was anymore.  In the literal
blink of an eye, he has Wart’s arm extended in a full arm bar and has spun him
into the wall, pinning him there. Wart’s wrist is bent in a direction it wasn’t
designed to go.  Freddie growls as the others start to move forward. Without
thinking I place my hand on my pistol, and someone—I don’t see who—shoots a
grazing shot across my arm.
Ow! That hurt!
  I cup my hand over the wound
to keep it from bleeding any worse.

Freddie’s lips are curled back in a feral snarl.  He
looks…well he looks like a rabid dog. “Okay, boys,” he growls, “We’ve all made
our statements.  Drop my gear over there by the door, I’ll let Wart go and then
everybody goes back to whatever—or whoever—they were doing.”

Wart tries to break free but yields to the inevitable
outcome.  “Do what he says,” he grumbles in defeat.

“Reba, the money is in my back pocket.”
That bitch could
have killed me!
“Reba!” 
Oh crud, that’s me!
  I reach into his
pocket and pull out a wad of cash.
Nice butt!
I peel off forty five
thousand and throw it into the fetid air.  The notes disperse and flutter to
the floor.  The bikers all start chasing them.  I figure they don’t deserve the
extra five grand
and
I impose a five thousand-credit jerk tax.  “Now,
pick up that duffle and go through the door,” Freddie tells me.  I sling the
bag over one shoulder.  It’s heavy. I can hear and feel the weapons shifting
inside it.  I stagger through the door. 
Damned heels! Leave it to a faggot
to get something I can’t walk in!
Freddie throws Wart at the approaching
crowd, turns, snatches the bag from my shoulder, grabs me by the hand and we
start running.  “We have about twenty seconds.”  He says quietly.

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