One Step Forward... by James Rumpel

Abel's destiny is as a scientist, trying to extend the life of mankind during a terminal ice age; by James Rumpel.

"Ignore the bullies." That was the advice Abel Fairweather's mother always gave him.

"Well, it is awfully difficult to ignore someone while they are sitting on your chest," thought Abel. What he said was, "Get off of me, Borg. I didn't do anything to you."

"You keep making me look bad," replied the behemoth eleven-year-old. Borg Runzel, at his young age, was already over six feet in height and weighed upwards of two-hundred pounds. His size and barrel-like build were in complete contrast to the skinny boy he was currently harassing.

"It's not my fault you're stupid," is what Abel wanted to say in reply. However, he wasn't stupid. "I'm just doing my best."

"So am I," shouted Borg. "School is dumb. What good does book learning do? It doesn't put food on the table. I'm already helping my dad on hunts. While you can barely even go outside." Borg jabbed a thick, sharp fingernail into Abel's cheek, twisting it to create as much pain as possible.

"Leave him alone," came a shout across the hall. "Mrs. Hoover will be here shortly and if you don't let him up right now, I am going to report you."

Borg slowly released his captive. He looked at the tall thin girl who shouted the order. Tamara was three grades higher. She would soon be finishing school and moving on to more important duties.

"School is dumb," Borg repeated as he and five of his similarly sized cronies left the common area.

Abel climbed back to his feet and gave a shy nod towards Tamara. He wanted to tell her that she was his hero and comment on how beautiful she was. "Thank you," he said, in a barely audible voice.

"No problem. Us intellectuals have to stick together. There aren't many of us left."

Four years later, Abel sat in a classroom thinking about how much he hated the color white. It was bad enough that Survival Base Beta, located in what was once Nebraska, was perpetually coated in snow and ice but the walls of the school pod were also made of ivory-colored plastic. The lack of color wasn't the only thing that Abel despised. At fifteen years of age, he was deeply immersed in teenage angst.

His classmates were cruel. They never relented in their constant verbal abuse. It wasn't his fault that his body couldn't handle the cold well enough to work or play outside for as long as they did. The fact that he enjoyed reading and understood math lessons should have been something that earned him praise, not ridicule. The most relentless jibes were directed at Abel's lack of facial hair. Even the boys in the grades below possessed full beards. They would constantly call him a 'girl' because of his smooth chin and hairless chest. Lately, it seemed that even the girls were hairier than him.

Mr. Grunell, the teacher, had just begun to chastise the rest of the class for their poor performance on a science test when he was interrupted by a knock on the exterior door of the school pod.

A blast of frigid wind almost ripped the door from Grunell's hands when he opened it. Two heavily clothed adults entered the room. One of them helped push the door shut. The newcomers spoke briefly before heading to the teacher's private office.

"Abel," announced Grunell, "you need to go meet with our guests. They have a question for you."

"They're probably going to ask how he gets such smooth skin," quipped Borg. He snorted as he laughed. A few classmates added their guttural chuckles.

"Or how anyone with a head as big as yours can have such a tiny brain," thought Abel. He made sure not to look at Borg, concentrating on the face of his teacher instead.

Grunell smiled slyly. "Abel, you are free to go since you don't need to hear me yell at this crew for their poor test performance. You got an A, as usual. Borg, on the other hand, has earned quite a bit of yelling."

Sheepishly, Abel rose from his seat and walked to the office which was separated from the rest of the room by a thick plastic door.

The office was not very spacious and with three people inside there was barely enough room. The two visitors were in the process of removing their thick parkas, snowsuits, and ski masks. To Abel's great surprise one of the guests was his mother. He squirmed past the desk and gave her a tight bear hug. He hadn't seen her since the semester began in February.

"Abel, I am so happy to see you. I miss you so," she said as she returned the hug with an even tighter embrace.

The mother and child silently held each other for an extended time. Eventually, the third person in the room, a man who Abel had never seen before, cleared his throat.

"Abel, I am Doctor Howman."

The boy recognized the name. Howman was the chief science officer of Beta Base. There was an elected leader on the base and an appointed military commander. Howman, however, was the true leadership. He and his people were more responsible for the base's survival than anyone else.

The doctor continued, "I have a very special offer for you, Abel. You have outstanding grades and have scored higher than anyone else in the school system on intelligence assessments. That is why I would like to offer you an apprenticeship with the science division."

Abel's mom smiled, proudly. "It's a great offer."

"We need the best, most intelligent, people to work in our division. We need young men and women of your potential to continue to work to improve everyone's lives and guarantee the survival of the human race. People with your talent are getting very difficult to find."

"So, I won't have to go to school here anymore?"

Doctor Howman nodded. "No, we have a much nicer and more challenging school waiting for you."

"I accept," said Abel as his mother once again wrapped him in her arms and squeezed.

Abel rubbed his eyes, trying to force them to focus on the computer monitor. He was at the point of exhaustion after three hours of staring at the screen.

"I'm not getting anywhere with my solar energy research."

Tamara looked up from the array of test tubes and beakers that filled her work table. "Believe me, genetics is no walk in the shallow snow either."

"I'm sorry for complaining," said Abel as he stood and faced Tamara. As the two youngest members of the science division, the two spent a great deal of time together. He liked Tamara very much. She was like him, not gruff and unpleasant like the girls his own age. "Your job is way more important than mine."

Tamara smiled back at him. "Yours is important too. Everyone needs heat, even the genetically enhanced."

"Well, I am certain you will find a solution to your problem. You are the smartest person I know." Abel moved closer and took her hands in his. "I think we both need a short break."

Tamara leaned forward and gave him a tender kiss. "Yeah, a short one. You want to make out?"

Abel rechecked the calculations. Doctor Howman was not going to be pleased. According to the latest analysis, there were going to be dangerous shortages of power and food. It had been more than thirty years since contact with any other bases or cities. Beta base needed to solve this problem on their own.

He set his pencil and paper aside and leaned back in his chair, trying to work out the kinks in his back. A pair of warm hands grabbed his neck from behind and began to massage the knotted muscles.

"Oh, that feels good," he said. He turned and took his wife in his arms. She gave him a gentle peck on the lips. "Howman isn't going to be pleased with these numbers."

"You know what he's going to say, don't you?" Tamara squinted her eyes and wrinkled her nose in her best Howman impression. "Science always has an answer. Look harder. Science will come through again."

Abel allowed himself a brief chuckle before getting serious. "I think even Howman is worried about finding an answer this time. There might not be one."

"You don't meet with Howman until tomorrow. Let's just forget about the numbers for a few minutes. We have other important personal things to discuss." She gave him another loving kiss.

Abel sighed, knowingly. "I thought we agreed. We can't bring a child into this world. Maybe when things get better."

"Our child would survive. We would take care of it."

"If we have a child, I'm not going to let it be genetically manipulated. The cost of giving the children additional cold tolerance is too much."

"So, then we won't do the genetic altering," pleaded Tamara.

He took her into his arms. "It's the law, even with the side effects. I don't want our child to be less than us."

Tamara pulled away from his grasp. "Who is to say that the new generations aren't more than us? Maybe survival has become more important. The next generations have a better chance of making it. A majority of the people on the base believe that."

Abel knew the conversation was nearing an unsatisfactory conclusion. "Let's see what Howman comes up with. Maybe he has a plan. We can wait, can't we?"

"We're always waiting," said Tamara as she stormed from the room. Abel let her go. She would calm down and understand his point of view. She always did.

"It sounds like giving up to me," thought Abel. Instead, what he said to Dr. Howman was, "We have the technology to construct cryo-tubes, but it will be a time-consuming process."

"I am well aware of that," said the tired and old looking leader. "I think our biggest issue is going to be creating a power source that will last as long as we need."

The young scientist nodded. "The sun is getting slightly stronger. We could probably create a system that could survive for two hundred years or so."

"I would shoot for longer," said one of the other scientists at the meeting. "The last ice age lasted thousands of years."

"This ice age is different," explained Abel. "This one is man-made. If the numbers continue as they are, we could see conditions improve significantly within the cryo-chambers' life expectancy."

Howman squinted toward Tamara, who was sitting silently. "I can tell from your expression that you have a concern. What is it?"

Tamara shrugged. "I don't get it. If we do this, there will be no one to keep everything working for the general population. We can't just go to sleep and leave them without help."

Howman looked about the room. "To be honest, the new generations don't need our help. They have adapted to the environment much better than us. They can maintain the systems we have in place. They'll survive without us."

Howman continued, "We are going to need about a thousand tubes for us and anyone one from the general population who wished to join us. Hopefully, when we wake up, we can help rebuild the world. I understand it is a very difficult thing I am asking us to do but it's the best solution."

"We are going to do this," he concluded. "We have a lot of work to do. Let's get started."

Abel and Tamara stood over Doctor Howman's cryo-unit. In the seven years since the emergency plan was put into effect seven-hundred eleven of the oldest members of the population and the science division were put into suspended animation. Howman, due to his failing health, had reluctantly agreed to take his place in a tube.

Abel looked at his wife. She was still beautiful but there was a constant aura of sorrow around her.

"You know, if we go into the next set of units, when we awaken, we could start a family."

Tamara smiled, but it wasn't a true smile. "We've discussed this before. We don't know if we will ever awaken or what the world will be like when we do. No, we need to keep doing our jobs." She too shed a single tear.

Borg Runzel burst into the lab, interrupting Abel as he put the finishing touches on another solar generator. The improvements to the power sources were substantial. If there were no outside interference and if the sun continued to exist at its current capacity, the generators would last for centuries.

Borg seemed agitated. "It's been a long time, Abel," he said. "Nice beard." Abel suspected that the last comment was sarcasm though he could not get a good look at Borg's facial expression. The man's face was covered by a bushy brown beard, even his oversized nose was barely visible through the mass of facial hair.

"Hello, Chief," said Abel, trying to remain civil. He hated Borg for who he had been and for who he had become. His former classmate was not to be trifled with. Borg was the leader of the coup and personally assassinated the previous leader. "What can I do for you?"

"I have come to tell you that we are going to shut down your science division. It doesn't do anything. It's nothing but mumbo-jumbo."

Abel stood as tall as he could though he did not come close to the height of the base leader. He wanted to say, "You don't even know what mumbo-jumbo is." Instead, he said, "That's not true. What we're doing is easing the food shortage and giving hope for the future. We are supplying you with more power than ever before. We heat your buildings."

"Heat," scoffed Borg. "You're the one who needs the heat. We don't need your shelter or food. We can find what we need."

"Let me finish my final project," begged Abel. "There are only forty more cryo-units to put into operation and then we'll be gone."

"More mumbo-jumbo," growled Borg. "You are no longer part of our tribe. We will leave you alone." The hulking giant flashed a toothy grin. "Not because we are letting you finish, but because you mean nothing to us."

Abel laid his hand on the tube which held Tamara. He talked to her daily. He found it hard to believe that it was nearly two years since he talked her into entering suspension. The plan called for him to join her soon after but the process of finishing the final units was more time consuming than expected. She was nearly forty years old when she went in. Abel laughed; he would be nearly the same age as her when they woke up.

"If we wake up," he thought while he finished the final prep on his unit. Borg was gone, overthrown by his own son. The next generation of genetically altered humans were even stronger and more brutal than the last. It was very likely the new pack leader would begin an assault on the science building.

"It really doesn't matter. We tried." He climbed inside the unit which could easily prove to be his tomb and not his salvation. Without ceremony, he closed the lid on the unit and, quite possibly, on mankind's existence.

Abel lurched into awareness. He was amazed at how quickly his mind returned to normal operation. His body was a different story. None of his limbs cooperated when he tried to move them. Somehow, he found the will to force his eyes open.

In the dim light, he was able to make out the outline of someone leaning over his tube.

"Don't try to move too quickly. It takes some time," said a voice that he instantly recognized as Tamara's.

"We made it?" he whispered.

"Sort of," was her cryptic reply.

"What do you mean sort of?"

"Well, we only slept for about one hundred and twenty years. It's still the ice age."

"Why are we waking up?"

"The solar panels have started to fail. The ones closest to the ground have been damaged. The fail-safe in Doctor Howman's unit woke him. He's been bringing everyone back."

"I'm sure I can fix the solar generators." Abel tried to sit up but quickly realized the futility of his action.

"Hopefully, you'll get the chance."

"What do you mean?" asked Abel.

Before Tamara could answer, screams echoed through the chamber. Soon the sound of pounding joined the shouts.

"They're breaking down the door."

"They're coming."

Tamara leaned into the tube and kissed Abel on the cheek. "Now that we are awake and they are aware of us, they have begun hunting us." She tried to help Abel out of the tube. His stiff muscles fought against his every move.

They both stopped at the sound of a loud growl. In the doorway, stood a tall, muscular man. Looking closer, Abel realized it wasn't a man. The creature entered the room was something less, or was it something more. Fur covered it from head to toe. Long, sharp claws swatted one of the other scientists aside and the monster moved toward Abel and Tamara.

Abel found himself staring at the creature's face. Its large mouth and massive teeth reminded him of a bear, but its eyes were different. There was something almost human about them.

"Generations of genetically enhanced evolution has done its job," thought Abel. "Mankind has survived."


  1. Entertaining and relevant story ..
    jocks vs nerds and the distrust of science, plus climate change and genetic engineering all rolled into one. Kinda reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut for the absurd humor. Quite imaginative.

  2. A future where the human race is de-evolving and the weather is extreme. Sounds like where we're headed.

  3. Ironically those in this tale fighting against science survived because of science...sounds a bit too familiar. Mankind may survive...but it sure looks grim for humanity.

  4. James Rumpel’s “One Step Forward…” starts out as amusing but steadily descends into dismay; after all: the effective end of humanity. Harrison is right: the quirky humor is reminiscent of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or “Dead-eye Dick,” both renown for pillorying bullies. Well done, James, though it was a distressing story. But I smiled when Abel got the girl.