Wilhelmina Winters, Forty-Three

Wil awoke somewhat to the familiar irritation of a blaring alarm clock. She silenced it while maintaining a comfortable stupor of half-asleepness. The dark trees and mists of her dream still lingered round her subconscious, and confused her mind when mixed with the images her eyes sent of her plain, dark bedroom.

She yawned and chanced opening her eyes further. All was shapes and shadows of monochrome grays. She heard no sounds.

Her parents had been up late talking. Talking -and coughing, in Cynthia’s case. Her father rarely spoke, so Wil had found the deep rumble of his voice distracting at such a late hour. The coughing was not so distracting, since her mother had been doing it for such a long time -not that it ever ceased to be disturbing.

Wil decided that Cynthia would probably choose to sleep in, and complete her morning exercise with their neighbor. Rob could wake Cynthia to start her other routines before they left for school.

Wil’s assumptions were correct. After dressing, there was still no sound of waking from her parents’ room. She had to rouse them, then follow her father’s zombie-like tread around the apartment and out the door to their car.

She watched his face in the lines of streetlights, flashes of headlights, and dull glow of early morning as the car moved inexorably to school. Rob’s eyes opened only as far as necessary. His jaw -the entire bottom of his face- hung relaxed and unshaven below drooped eyebrows and tousled hair.

Wil wondered what had kept him up, and what still occupied his thoughts.

In fact, Rob emanated distraction more than fatigue. Although Wil was rarely able to sit quietly around her family, she picked up enough on his odd mood to not ask any questions.

Actually, what really silenced her were the only looks he had given her. Rob had looked at Wil when he first awoke with a sort of shock. The other two times, after he was more alert, his expression seemed sad and -well- distracted.

The only strange event of the evening before had been a letter he’d taken to his bedroom after getting home from work. If her father didn’t explain things by tonight, she was going to have to search for that letter.

Wil was not very sneaky, however, nor very good at finding what people hid.

“Bye, Gwen -er, Mina,” Rob said, as Wil exited the car at the curb.

At that exact moment, Wil was distracted by the vision of Hope walking alone. Maybe Wil wasn’t good at sneaking, but she knew someone talented enough to be listed officially.

 

Continued from Forty-Two (Again).

Skinwalkers, XIV

“BOY! Where are you, Boy?!”

Nathan cowered in the darkness, feeling every bit of his powerlessness as he heard his father stomping down the hallway. The bunk above him squeaked slightly as its occupant moved closer to the wall; the same wall Nathan pushed against in desperation.

The bedroom door slammed open with the force of an angry bull. Darkness spilled into darkness, but Nathan could still make out his father’s shadowy outline in the doorway. “I asked you a question!” The bull bellowed, then it lunged –

*Bee-bee-beep!* *Bee-bee-beep!* *Bee-bee-beep!*

Nathan sat up, sweating and gasping. His sheets twisted restrictively around his shaking body. His bedroom was pitch-dark, with the exception of his flashing comm. Like the small child he had just woken from, he scrabbled to its beeping, blinking safety.

“Light! Light!” He demanded, grasping it. Immediately, the dark was dispelled by both the bright beam from his device and the dim spread of the fixture overhead. To be certain, he panned the comm around each corner the cheap lighting did not quite reach. There was nothing.

“Alarm,” he said, finally silencing the noise. He calmed his breathing, his thoughts, his pulse, his position. Just a dream, he reminded himself. The Old Man’s dead and gone.

As his thoughts were successfully returned to the present, he sat up again. He dropped his comm back onto the night stand. Throwing the bedthings to their habitual lump, he leaped from the bed and jogged to the closet-hole. Within jiffs he had slipped a liner over his naked body. Its automatic heat-cling comforted his nightmare-sore body like a thin blanket.

Thus clothed, Nathan exited and entered the entertainment room. In keeping with the dimensions of his bedroom and bathroom, this main area was about large enough to be called a nook rather than a full-sized room. He quickly crossed to the food station within the wall and pushed the button marked burrito.

A sickening grinding sound met his ears, as usual. He gritted his teeth and silently prayed to Sirius Sustenance Supply, that he could continue putting off replacing their barely-functioning model for one more day.

Within seconds and despite uninterrupted mechanical protests, a mostly-cooked tortilla-wrapped bundle dropped into the vending area. He cracked open the translucent door and retrieved it. It was somewhat frozen still, in the middle, but a warmer temperature setting would only serve to burn the outsides. He also considered these results a decent answer to prayers, given that he’d be late waiting for a fully-hot burrito to cool enough to eat it.

Nathan stood, eating bites and drinking occasional bursts from the wall fountain to the right of the food dispenser. Mentally, he went over his list of daily tasks. He’d attended the interview, removed the suit and skin, napped, dressed, and was now eating. By next tick he needed to be walking, or he was likely to arrive late.

“Choms just wants an excuse to fire us,” he mumbled, bitterly. Only last week, two of his peers had been dismissed over trivial issues. One had forgotten his rags; upon returning after retrieval, he was given Notice. The other had been two minutes late, and showed up in another business’ liner.

“It’s not like anyone sees us,” Nathan noted, as if he could possibly speak to or defend anyone involved in the terminations.

He heard a chirp from the watch, though it was muted. He stuffed the last of the burrito in his mouth and returned to his bedroom. Finally pulling the watch from under his pillow, he studied the time: 2:46 p.m.

“Zut!” He exclaimed. Quickly, he docked the comm. After looking furtively about in suspicion, he pressed a small knob in the wood just beneath the night stand’s top surface. A drawer popped open; revealing faded photographs, sundry envelopes, a dried flower or two, and another comm.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIII.

Wilhelmina Winters, Forty-Two (Again)

(Because this number needs an accurate tribute.)

The apartment squatted at the end of a small path on the interior of the complex. It was the bottom corner of a building with five other apartments, and had a view of a few tree branches hanging over the back of the cement walls of the communal garbage bin. Not an exceptional apartment at all -it was built during the economic recession, stuccoed, rectangular, and had decorative stucco accents along its side of a color and position which basically failed to appeal to anyone.

The people for whom the apartment held any significance were the Winters family, and that was only since they lived there. They had been renting for about four months, ever since the lease agreement ran out on their last apartment because it made their bank account too low. They had come out of the recession as well, leaner and usually serious. What made them more serious was when people asked why they looked so solemn.

Rob Winters worked at a machine shop which he always told his family nothing about because he rarely enjoyed talking. They knew it, too -that is, they knew nothing about what he actually did every day at his job.

The Winters hadn’t quite come around to the idea that disruption wanted to visit this place where they lived.

In the evening of a Thursday in February, Rob Winters didn’t feel well. He came home tiredly, walked in the door, trudged tiredly into the kitchen, deposited the mail on the counter, saw a letter written in a familiar hand, noted his family, and stumped to the sink to wash.

Soap foamed into his palms -thus. Scrub.

Wil’s face – turned to her father. He met her gaze. A different face looked at his with his own hazel eyes. Shaking his head, Rob saw his daughter again. He finished cleaning his hands, rinsed, dried, and stumped to the couch to seek someone lovely to hold in his arms.

Cynthia, couch, IV, arms, hug. Sigh.

Wil saw a thought cross Rob’s features and attempt to settle distantly in his eyes.

The envelope on the counter was small and worn, with extra inked messages stamped by the post office.

He turned to look at it.

“Letter,” Rob said to Cynthia, who responded with a puzzled look.

Wil matched the definition for a vocabulary word, and another. She wondered if her father might be late for an appointment with his bed. What was he thinking about? Was there something important in the mail? She thought it likely. Wil saw the small, crumpled corner of an envelope. “Letter?” she wondered to herself.

Rob sat up and remembered. Cursive, he thought. Why was that familiar? He hazily recalled reading it before, reading that handwriting somewhere significant. Wil saw him sitting, but considering something nagging, she thought: the best way to describe her father was preoccupied. There was something he’d received today.

Rob realized the letter had been sent awhile ago, been forwarded, and only just reached their new address. Incredible. He turned to look at his wife again. He would figure it all out, he resolved, he usually took care of everything, nothing changed. He could figure it out.

The workday had paid Rob’s wages in exhaustion. He looked at his wife, stepson, and daughter. He ran a hand through his blond hair. Letter, he told himself. The image of cursive handwriting on a forwarded letter floated round his brain, attempting recognition.

Forty-two seconds later, Rob was off the couch and tearing open the envelope in the safety of his own room with the door closed.

 

Continued from Forty-Two.
Keep reading to Forty-Three.

Skinwalkers, XIII

Removing skin was always a tricky process, often more so than applying it. Nathan had learned the best methods from his SciTecMed research, although the subjects he’d carefully deskinned hadn’t benefited much from his gentle care. As always, he was greatly relieved to see his own, living, blemished features slowly be revealed -instead of the ghastly, half-fused faces that haunted his nightmares.

He felt exhausted. The billowing steam cushioned his tired body and whispered sleep to his clouded mind. Doggedly, groggily, he continued slowly rubbing, releasing, and removing the synthdermal layer at its seams.

The wristwatch chirped twice during the entire ordeal: once, to remind him that it ought not to be worn; he acquiesed by removing it and setting it on the sink. Twice, to note that steam really was terrible for its inner workings and, next time, Nathan should remember to leave it in the bedroom.

The watch would have to wait. Carefully shrugging out of the top half of his skin, he pressed the floppy shell into the Skin Conditioner’s moist grooves. He repeated the process with the bottom half. Blearily, he checked each piece; pressing more firmly at a finger, straightening the right knee, then stroking gently across the eye sockets. He checked each area again, and a third time.

Finally satisfied, he stood back and closed the SC. Just in time; the shower was cooling. Nathan entered the cramped stall anyway, wincing and quietly yelping as the short output’s sprinkle hit his midsection. Squatting and reaching forward with his right hand, he managed to switch the spray to Wash. He awkwardly sudsed his hair, face, and upper half from a scrunched-up position around the rapidly-cooling water.

Grimacing and beginning to shiver, his left hand found the Rinse setting. He stood beneath the frigid output as long as he could stand, distracting his shaking limbs by fixedly watching soap swirls disappear into the floor beneath his feet.

None too soon, he jabbed it to Off. Next, was Dry. A blessed blast of foul -but warm– air roared from the vents near his backside. His lower extremities flapped uncomfortably and he fought the reaction to gag at the smell, but persevered for the sake of returning circulation to the rest of his body.

Pressing Off again, Nathan left the stall and the bathroom. He took the watch with him, of course; it had complained when he almost left it behind. “Keep beeping and I’ll deactivate your sound,” he tiredly told it. 10:01, it displayed, in response.

He stifled a rising swear word; Grandfather had detested profanity. “Gotta sleep,” he mumbled, instead, entering his bedroom. He stumbled to the mass of coverings he’d lumped together on the bed and attempted to straighten them across its top. Good enough, he decided, climbing beneath them.

Carefully, he set his comm in its locking station. He checked to verify its alarm would activate in time, then allowed its display to fade back to black. “Off!” He told the apartment lights, and was immediately immersed in darkness.

He buckled the watch over his left wrist by feel. Just before falling asleep, he whispered, “‘Night, Grandpa.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XIV.

Wilhelmina Winters: Forty-Two

A coyote cry echoed from a-ways West, far from the sleepy town.

Jakob Jawchaw stood silent and dusty, his black arm holding the creaking weathered door open. He looked expectantly at his partner, the notorious Miss Mina, impatience crossing his stern, solid features.

Miss Mina missed the look, or chose to. Deadly as her reputation warned, she never sought disagreement. Disagreement came to her, she would say.

The dusty desert air swirled tumbleweeds down the wooden sidewalks, the soiled kerchief knotted at Jawchaw’s throat, and Mina’s lace hem round her ankles. It tugged at her matching parasol, but she tightened her gloved grip on its bamboo handle.

The outfit came straight from New York City -or, so the merchant claimed- and made Mina itch and fidget something terrible. She wasn’t accustomed to looking so uppity and womanlike. True, she still had her trusty six-shooter strapped to her hip -but, she’d had to strap it under her skirt. There was no quick draw where finery was concerned.

Fighting the urge to hoist the cumbersome ruffles to her knees to step more lightly, Mina closed her parasol and stepped past her partner into the store.

The noise of the open, dirt-blown land snapped off as Jawchaw snapped the door shut. Specks of sand and store dust floated sparsely in the tepid, still, inside quiet of Midtown General Store. The manager barely glanced up from his well-worn newspaper: the Times from last month, mailed to Midtown just last week.

Jawchaw and Mina looked around, making a point to glance over the town notices tacked to the wall. They were pleased to see their faces missing from among the sketches of wanted outlaws. They could conduct their business like regular folk, ‘stead of jumping at every noise and itching to pull a gun on every shadow.

Jawchaw moseyed over to the counter. Mina walked the way she’d seen the ladies do; though she stumbled a fair bit more, on account of being out of practice wearing heeled boots. She took so long reaching the front that Jawchaw was already peeling bills from his pocket to pay for their supplies.

The air inside moved slightly; the rush of desert was heard. Someone had opened the door. Attempting a calm reaction, the two outlaws looked to see who had done it.

It was Cowpoke Crandall and her son, Eric. Mina turned quickly back around, hoping their disguises were worth wearing. Crandall would never be drawn on a wanted poster; she was infamous for sticking her snub nose into every person’s business -crook or not. She’d raise a warning for sure.

Jawchaw saw the danger at once. He collected their vittles and slunk quietly behind a display of tools to clean house. Mina tripped on those darn heels, but made it to a stand of ladies’ hats and scarves.

Crandall either hadn’t seen them, or hadn’t thought to bother with them. She waddled to the counter, her homespun dress swaying as she moved.

Jawchaw and Mina saw their chance, and took it. They snuck to the door, keeping low behind bins and shelves and suchlike. Mina pushed her way out into freedom, glancing back for just a moment as they left.

She couldn’t be certain, but her sharpshooter eyes told her that Eric had seen them leave. In fact, Mina couldn’t shake the premonition that he’d had his eyes on her for quite some time.

 

Continued from Forty-One.
Keep reading to Forty-Two (Again).

Skinwalkers, XII

Nathan could barely find energy to fight against the pull of gravity, dragging him more quickly than he desired down the cement stairs that led to his apartment. The soles of his slipshods slapped too noisily beneath him; their echoing clapping becoming a calamitous applause in the enclosed stairwell and landing.

Given the cacophony, he was only somewhat surprised to see the entry to Franks’ apartment slide open. Franks himself leaned against the intake wall. He looked well, causing Nathan to wonder what refreshers his neighbor had mixed this week.

Nathan stopped walking. The two men stared at each other. Franks moved first, standing away from his angled scrutiny and smiling. “Damn, man. You look iced!” He moved toward Nathan, and made a mock-reverential circle around him. Laughing, he added, “I didn’t know you could make a skin look so good.”

Nathan faked a cough. “Yeah, considering what you got for me,” he answered.

Franks laughed again. “You better watch out, or I’ll take it back,” was his return gibe. He stopped circling to meet Nathan’s gaze. Being shorter by several centimeters, this meant a balanced scrutiny from tiptoes.

Curious, Nathan glanced down. Franks was on literal tiptoes, as his feet were bare. Nathan pulled back to meet Franks’ stare.

“Use the drops?” Franks asked.

“Yep.”

“Ouch.”

“Yep.”

Franks sunk back down; stepped back. He acted suddenly distracted, as he usually became after a tick or two in Nathan’s company. Looking around and rubbing the back of his neck, Franks asked, “Need an SC?”

“No.” Nathan still had the Skin Conditioner it had come in, and knew Franks knew that as well.

“Right,” his distracted neighbor responded, stepping closer to his entry and not making eye contact again. “I’ll word your comm later,” he said. He was inside when he added, “After Neo.”

“Right,” Nathan called to the closing slider. Once it made full contact, he felt himself relax from an automatically-tense position. He didn’t relax fully, of course. Franks might still change his initial agreement and come demanding repayment anytime. Nathan would feel better once inside his own apartment, though the wall neighbor could easily get through one of the weaker sections if desperate.

“Hopefully, he has enough charge,” Nathan said, under his breath.

Turning, he intentionally walked a more quiet tread to his own entry. He withdrew his comm to unlock and activate the exterior door. Entering, he initiated living lockdown by applying his palm quite solidly against the doorscan. Fortunately, it was able to read through his skin after only a jiff.

He trudged wearily to the bedroom to relieve himself of the suit first. It looked like he’d thrown it at the hanger when he was done, but at least the garments were suspended. He returned them to his closet-hole, set his comm on the nightstand, and shuffled off to the adjacent bathroom.

Nathan activated the shower, and opened the SC he’d left in there since morning. As the water warmed, he stared distractedly at his distorted reflection. I did it, he thought, tiredly smiling. Thinking over the interview, Caill’s last expression, and Pull’s eyes, he grinned widely. He could feel the skin loosening with the movement, and ambient steam. He felt around to the back of his neck, rubbing to detach the vertebral bonds there.

Still grinning, his barely-perceptible reflection watched from the swirling clouds as he carefully peeled off his skin.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XIII.

Wilhelmina Winters: Forty-One

“Therefore,” Mrs. C. squeaked, “You can see that key words are the key to searching on the internet.” Her long pointer stick wobbled in her tiny, bony hand as she edged it through the air.  It made a small *THUNK* against the wall, then a slight *scree* as it slid.  She quickly brought her other hand up to support the base better, and the pointer end stopped.

She squinted up, following the long stick’s path between her and the fuzzy light projection displaying there. The light also flickered off her glasses, still perched atop her head and therefore out of her reach. Deciding that the pointer was close enough, she continued her lecture.

Wil and many of the class had glanced up at the pointer noise. Her attention held long enough to laugh quietly at its ending location: partially obscuring the end of the word “button” in the phrase “search button.” Then, Wil returned to her own thoughts.

Her pencil drew and re-drew the names of the Talented Teenagers on the lecture handout. It doodled hearts, smiles, clouds, maps, eyes, and question marks -icons of the listed talents. Besides trying to puzzle out why they thought she was talented and how they all thought she was imaginative, Wil was working on a new name for the group. If she could think of an especially witty one, she would feel more like a contributor and less like a misfit.

“Talented Teens, Smart Students, Smarties, Creatives of Central Junior,” Wil mumbled. She listed these and her other ideas between banal paragraphs of print. Sometimes, an itchy sensation caused her to turn and look at the row behind. Hope was always looking elsewhere, however. Wil couldn’t decide if Hope had truly not been staring or if she was, as listed, very sneaky.

Wil shrugged the sensation away again and turned to what she’d written so far. “Masters!” She whispered to herself.  That sounded cooler than “Talented Teenagers.”  But, what kind of masters?

Wil watched the tops of Mrs. C.’s glinting glasses over the computer monitors as the old woman spoke and bobbed her head. Mrs. C. had abandoned the idea of her pointer, and tried to gesture with her hands instead. Someone needs to get that woman a laser pointer, Wil thought to herself.

Wil’s pencil now outlined various ideas with the word “Masters” in them: Masters League, Master Teens, Master Creators, and Midtown Masters. She decided to ask Reagan about it at carpool, and maybe give her the list. Then, she played out actually talking to the strident girl in her head. Wil decided to save the list until she could meet with all of the group.

Folding up the lecture notes quietly, she slipped it into the secret folder of her binder. Wil had a habit of completely forgetting where she had placed things, so her mother made a point of assigning a secret spot where Wil would put her secret things whenever she started school.

Mrs. C. finally finished talking, or was finally getting hoarse from the exercise. She attempted the pointer again, almost resting it on where their assignment was flickering.

Wil sighed in relief as she woke the computer in front of her. Anything was better than just sitting.

 

Continued from Forty.
Keep reading to Forty-Two.

Skinwalkers, XI

Very shortly, Nathan found himself facing the main floor reception area of Carapace. He stepped from the lift and walked in muted carpet footsteps to the right of the receptionist’s desk. She was engaged, speaking animatedly to what sounded like a vendor.

“Yes, I understand you wish to contact M. Billings. I’m afraid you’ll just have to message him from the netsite.” She cocked a head to the left for a few seconds, and a light wave of auburn hair shifted to expose her perfect scoop of neck. Nathan mentally shook himself, and continued walking past her work area and toward the exit.

He heard her speak again, in a strained sort of politeness. “I’m sorry, but I can’t connect you in any other way. Thank you for your understanding.” He was nearly to the doors when she called, “Goodbye, N. Reed. Please, come again.”

Whoosh activated the doors, as the delicious air inside was sucked out into the stale environment of the city. Raising his right hand in a departing salute, he left without looking back. Unlike his entrance, he literally stumbled at the intersection of the fresh air with the polluted variety outside. He recovered, straightened his suit, and straightened himself.

Feeling the guard’s gaze upon him, Nathan walked resolutely down to the street. Unfortunately, no transports were idle. He’d have to activate one, or walk. He looked skyward, attempting to forecast the likelihood of precipitation in the ever-variable cloudcover. He’d better not chance it; he needed the skin undamaged.

Sighing, he pulled out his comm and requested pickup. Within moments, a battered transport stopped curbside and idled unsteadily at his feet. Nathan scanned his comm and the door popped open. The transport seemed to shift more listlessly with his entry than the one he had taken just a quad prior. The operator was also less impressive, to say the least.

The man in question turned round from his front seat position. This side of him was even less impressive than the back had been. He seemed to be about 80 years old. An open-gap toothiness cheerfully smiled from beneath a gray and white mustache. All hair originating from his face and head stuck out, and was affected by shifting air currents. What Nathan could see of the man’s outfit seemed to consist of recycled garments.

“Where to, son?” The ancient operator’s happy voice asked.

Nathan hesitated. “128th Verge Slum,” he croaked out.

“Eh?” The old man asked. He wagged a finger at Nathan. “You’re gonna have to speak up a lot clearer or we ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Following this reprimand, the man wheezed and slapped his steering. Nathan realized the operator was laughing.

He cleared his throat, swallowed, then repeated himself more audibly. “128th Verge Slum.” He almost added a, “please,” but caught himself in time.

“Darn tootin’!” The dashboard computer responded, and the transport lurched forward on its track.

Nathan blinked in surprise. “Me nephew taught me how ta set it up with a voice I liked,” the man grinned.

Not wanting to appear impolite, Nathan answered, “I see.” He could tell that the strange man wished him to expound slightly more. “Um, it’s very creative.”

“‘Course it is!” Operator agreed, resolute.

Feeling a tad bewildered, Nathan pretended distraction in the rapidly-passing buildings. Peripheral vision and attuned listening told him that no change had been made in the position of the transport’s other occupant. It was like the man knew nothing of social awkwardness or personal space.

The sky-blocking rectangular structures outside were growing increasingly drab and closer together. They were nearly to Nathan’s buildling, a fact he had not felt more grateful for in a while. Their transport stopped; he exited.

The operator deactivated a doorscreen between them and bellowed, “Call me agin, any time you need transport!” He wheezed his version of mirth one last time, and added, “Name’s Rex.”

“Of course,” Nathan answered, “Rex.” He’d remember that name, as one to never call again in his working life.

Rex, meanwhile, grinned, closed the open door remotely, and drove away. Nathan was certain, before the vehicle barely cleared the next bend, that he could hear Rex singing raucously through the open doorscreen.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, X.
Read to Skinwalkers, XII.

Wilhelmina Winters: Forty

Wil read carefully, constantly admiring the neat printing. The paper read:

Talented Teenagers (“We need to work on the name, still,” Reagan interjected.)

Derek: Leader, Everyone’s Friend, Song Lyrics, Double-Jointed

Stephen: Penmanship, Cryptography, Cartography, Comic Artist, Observant,

Reagan: Actress, Sarcastic, Quick-Thinking, Fantastically Well-Dressed

Hope: Kind, Artistic, Quiet, Quick

Art: Intelligent, Funny, Easy-Going, Cooking

Wil: Good Writer, Imaginative

Art laughed his infectious chuckle again. “We suggested talents, and voted on them -except Reagan insisted on her last one. I still say we need to put ‘Domineering’ as one of hers.”

Wil wondered if he would poke so much fun at Reagan if he were sitting closer to her at the table. Even though she only had access to the lunchroom cutlery, Reagan looked a good aim.

“Why- ?” Wil began. She looked up from the list in embarrassment, not knowing how to finish her question.

“We all agreed to the talents Stephen wrote for you,” Reagan explained, understanding. “You get to suggest others, and then demonstrate them.” She stuffed some lunch into her mouth and gave Wil an encouraging look as she chewed.

“Actually,” Stephen spoke up in a nasally tone, “This is a work in progress. What we really want,” his eyes became dreamy and distant, “are talents that I am going to draw into a comic.” Suddenly realizing all attention was on him, he looked down again. “We’ll be like superheroes,” he told his food tray, less audibly.

Reagan rolled her eyes again. She was also talented at that, though Wil doubted it would get added to the list.

“Just think about it,” Derek told Wil. Wil gulped, which helped move what she had consumed to her stomach.

The rest of the group, satisfied with their explanations, continued to eat and talk among themselves. Wil read over the official roster and thought about what had been said.

She stared at her name, wondering how imagination counted as a talent, and whether any others would follow in Stephen’s neat print.

 

Continued from Thirty-Nine.
Keep reading to Forty-One.

Skinwalkers, X

The name elicited an intake of breath from Pul, a twitch from Caill, and a frowning swallow from the ever-serious Stone. Nathan knew the shame all those in the grafting industry felt upon hearing the name, yet also knew the power given those who spoke the truth without fear.

Again, his comm projected a lighted image. In fact, it began spanning through a few, pausing for about a microtick on each. The first was one Nathan had lifted from his alma mater’s netsite: a gleaming laboratory of metallic surfaces, transparent suspension tanks, and LAD-illuminated work stations.

“As noted on my jiǎnlì, formal training in this area was conducted through SciTecMed: the top training facility nearest my area.” He felt his tone crack slightly, but hoped his audience was not so perceptive. Clearing his throat to cover, he continued, “I studied under the same director who initially founded Skinwalkers.”

The three executives grew more serious, but did not repeat their initial, surprised reactions.

As his comm moved on, so did Nathan. A stock anatomy illustration hung in the space between them, rotating artistically. “As such, we acquired the latest research on grafting.” He paused; added, “Beneficial and detrimental.”

He initiated the switch to the third picture, which was his own. He felt a slight emotional tug as blues and greens reflected from the windowed walls and executives’ faces. The scene was his research project, the one he had never finished. He knew Caill, Stone, and Pul would not have enough time to scrutinize all the elements captured in the image; that those elements simply made for an artistic representation of a live project.

“My personal studies were concerned with absolute biodermal fusion.” He thought he saw Caill pull away, though the movement may have been completely internal. Nathan filed away a mental note to examine later, at his leisure. Her associates seemed to draw closer, instead, as he spouted technological jargon to expound on his topic.

A chirping beep from the watch interrupted his concluding remarks. Again, they all jumped slightly. Now was Caill’s turn to ask, “Why do you still wear that thing?”

Nathan smiled his own executive smile. “Another time, perhaps.”

Her mouth closed reprovingly. Her eyes noted the point scored. Well, thought he, If you’re going to always attack, expect others to do so when you’re vulnerable.

Stone, of course, was unaffected by their little exchange. Pul seemed aware that Caill’s mood had worsened somewhat, as he tactfully said, “For whatever reason, it’s helpful to note that our time is spent.” He rose, followed closely by the others, and extended a hand.

Nathan followed their example, but paused at the friendly gesture. Slowly, keeping his eyes on Pul’s honest face, he reached his right hand out and accepted the firm handshake.

He saw Caill bend to retrieve the comm, and moved to quickly intercept. “Thank you,” he told her, sternly, as he deactivated the feed and pocketed it.

They all straightened in an executive seriousness, sizing each other up. Nathan thrilled, internally, at the shift in expressions and overall mood of the room. He knew they not only saw the man he claimed to be, but accepted him.

Stone nodded at Nathan; said, “We’ll notify you of results.”

Nathan kept his face straight as he returned the nod. First Stone, then Pul, and lastly Caill turned from him and exited through the very panel they had entered. The outside work area seemed overbright compared to their muted meeting room, especially with the additional human movement and accompanying energy.

He followed the three suited backs again, in a reverse order of their original entry path. Stations to the left and right formed a flashing hallway back to a plant-lined wall and transparent double doors. The odd podium and blank wall of the lift lay beyond. His interviewers stopped and turned to face him once again.

Holding her hands behind her, Caill attempted a smile. The gesture lifted her lips above the definition of a frown, but did little else to her habitually crafty expression. “N. Reed,” she stated. He inclined his head marginally; she stared for a bit, then walked back the way they had come.

Nathan turned to face Stone, whose acknowledging gesture indicated a predominant feeling of respect. He, too, returned back to the work area.

Pul was nearly grinning. The man almost put his right arm on Nathan’s shoulder, to guide him, as he walked forward and pushed against the doors with his left. They entered the lift area together, whereat Pul ran his own comm against an unobtrusive panel behind a convenient fern of some variety. The wall opened, lightly chiming as it did so.

Nathan looked at Pul one last time as he entered the lift, and nearly stumbled at the plethora of emotions within the man’s eyes. “Goodbye, Nathan. It’s been a pleasure,” Pul said, and meant it.

The reflective side slid across his view, leaving Nathan with only his own grafted face and surprised eyes to look at.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, IX.
Read to Skinwalkers, XI.