Skinwalkers, XXXIX

“Erm,” Nathan managed to croak.

Rex slapped his steering wheel and released an airy chuckle. “YOU called a transport, you know! Just where’re ya plannin’ to go?”

Nathan blinked and straightened. He was in charge here, not some nearly-dead operator with questionable manners. “Walls and Pruitt, 34th Beta,” he said, glancing past Rex and addressing the dash, instead.

The computer, however, remained inert. Rex wheezed his variation of laughter again. “Me nephew added a little something yesterday. You gotta say, ‘please.'”

Nathan was not certain how much of his shock showed on his face, but he knew time was not only against him, it had passed him and was taunting from a few paces ahead. “Please!” he burst out. His grandfather would have been critical of his insincere tones, but the lights of Rex’s transport activated and the vehicle jerked to life.

“Darn tootin’!” it responded in happy tones.

“You might wanna work on yer sincerity,” Rex noted, saying the final word in a drawn-out fashion so that Nathan could not miss which word was most important in the old man’s reprimand.

The transport bumped down its strip and Nathan took out his comm. His preferred option involved injuring a senior and being barred from using transports again. He figured ignoring was therefore more polite. Problem was, he couldn’t follow the news thread very effectively in the moving environment. He found reading especially impossible with the constant stare of Rex just beyond the screen, but persevered anyway. Surely the bushy-haired operator would get the hint and leave him alone.

Not soon enough, they bumped to the curb before Carapace’s expensive façade. Nathan pushed out the door and almost ran up the steps to the familiar entry station. He was handing his comm to the stolid security guard when he heard Rex call out, “If I don’ get another client, I’ll wait for ya!” This generous announcement ended in a sudden blare of dated music, the sort Nathan’s grandfather had referred to as ‘Oldies.’

The guard cringed; Nathan looked at him and the man hurriedly smoothed his features and activated the main doors with his tablet. Nathan walked forward to the *shoosh* of automatic doors releasing heaven’s breath. His basic slipshods sunk once more into the lush carpet and his lungs drank the manna of purified air, as he saw the guard marching down to have a little talk with a certain transport operator.

Nathan hoped Rex might lose his license to pilot around Beta, yet wondered at a simultaneous sadness he felt at the thought.

“Hello, N. Reed,” a familiar, feminine voice called from the end of the room. “Welcome back.”

His hands pulled at his suit of their own volition and his face grinned happily. Regaining control, he dropped the hands and turned the sappy grin into a determined set of jaw. The swaying plants waved in his passing stride, the carpet sunk and rose with his solid steps, and the perfect air flowed in and out of his thirsty lungs as he walked.

He approached the desk. Familiar with the process from his last visit, he lifted his comm and scanned it. She tilted her head and smiled. He met her eyes for a half-jiff of eternity; noted her fan of auburn hair; memorized the deep curve of her bottom lip.

Then the panel wall opened with a muted *ding*. Her phone beeped at an incoming call. His feet walked forward, beyond her desk.

Nathan entered the lift and turned to face the foyer. Just before his reflection pulled across to block his view, he saw that the receptionist was still looking at him. Still smiling.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVIII.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Eight

Wil’s tenacious grip on the slide bar slipped, as did her treadless boots on the platform. With all the grace of a surprised, screeching sloth, she tripped, fell, and slid the length of the metal slide. She landed quite solidly on the frosted wood chips and closed her eyes against the cold night sky. Perhaps, if she squeezed her lids tightly enough, Eric and the world would go away. A portal into another world might open beneath her, or a wizard would appear and –

From a distance, she thought she heard running feet. “God; are you okay?” Eric said from quite close, his concern a tad more evident in his tone than his amusement.

Wil cracked one eye open, then the other. He stood over her. What she could see of his features seemed to resolve into an anxious curiosity. His mouth appeared to twitch at the corners, but she couldn’t be sure in the dim lighting of the apartment complex.

That lighting was never luminous, and tended to turn off at important times. Her mother had said the owners were conserving energy; her father said they wanted to conserve money.

As if on cue, the lamp overhead blinked off. Wil, Eric, and the playground were plunged into darkness. Wil attempted an evasive rolling maneuver to rise, and succeeded in smacking her head against the bottom of the slide. The slide reverberated in the chill, empty air like a gong.

Shit, Wil! What -” Eric began, but broke off at the sound of Wil laughing.

She laughed and laughed. Then she cried. She laughed and cried and didn’t know why. Sitting up, she stopped at the shadowy sight of Eric standing nearby. Did he need something? She attempted to stand, and made it upright with minimal wavering. Bits of dirt and pieces of wood clung to her scarf and backside; she brushed at herself accordingly.

Eric was still there when she finished, within the reach of her arm. She’d never realized how tall he was. “What do you want?” she demanded.

He stepped back. “I, er…” His face moved in the dark, seeking an answer from his feet, the playground, and the sky. Finally settling on his gloved hands, he mumbled, “Nothing, I guess.” She watched his shoulders lift as he sighed. He shuffled his feet.

“Wellllll….” Wil couldn’t think of anything to say. She didn’t even know Eric; she just rode in his car because his mom had a vehicle everyone could fit in. None of them liked Mrs. Crandall, either; but, Wil realized, that didn’t necessarily mean Eric was anything like her.

The light a few yards down the sidewalk turned on. Her eyes flicked to it, distracted, then back to Eric. She was able to make out more of Eric’s face. He was staring down at her, and he no longer looked amused. In fact, his expression reminded Wil of someone’s she’d seen recently. She felt a light, fluttering feeling somewhere near her stomach.

“Um,” Eric raised a gloved hand and coughed a bit into it. “So -are you okay, Wil?”

She couldn’t seem to pull her eyes away from his gaze. She nodded.

“Good.” He did the cough again. “Erm. Great.”

“Miiiinaaa!” came an echoing call from down the walkways. The voice sounded like her father’s, not to mention his use of her second-most detested name.

Wil blinked, the spell broken. “I need to go.”

Eric took a turn nodding. Then he smiled a small, shy, simple smile. He looked nice in a smile, even in the semi-dark. Wil smiled in return, then pivoted and ran to her father’s voice and to their building.

Her scarf fluttered behind her, waving goodbye in the night.

 

Continued from Sixty-Seven.

Skinwalkers, XXXVIII

Upon reaching his small sleeping area, Nathan stopped to get his hurried bearings. He squinted at each familiar object: bed, nightstand, walls, doorway, closet. The last was his goal and he groped to his clothes through blurred vision and the ever-present dimness of the cheap lighting.

I wonder if I’ll earn enough to afford good light, one cycle, he wondered. Remembering the importance of a powerful mindset, he cleared his thoughts and said, “I will get an apartment with good light. With daylight.” The near-barren hole that passed for a closet echoed his word-sounds and returned them in a garbled state.

His hands felt among the hangers till they gripped a plastic lining over a thick garment. His suit. He pulled the ensemble to his chest like a precious thing and carried it to where he remembered his bed rested. Laying the loosely-bagged suit atop his blanket wad, Nathan withdrew each clothing piece and began dressing.

Though the process took far less time than his last costuming, he knew his time was already gone. Grabbing his slipshods from the floor, he rushed and stumbled back to the bathroom. Shower, off. Panel, closed. Comm, pocketed. Wristwatch, strapped.

He flung a quick glance at his reflection and nearly jumped out of his skin. Either he was more shaken from his dreams than he’d supposed or he had heavy-handed the eyedrops. The man staring back at him from the cheap, splotched mirror was a complete stranger, somehow adept at following his every movement and occasional blink.

“I intend to demonstrate the full capacity of a united workteam, led by a competent manager,” he tested. The mirror man spoke as well; his words were powerful in the cramped, reflective space. Try me now, Caill, he thought.

His pocket vibrated. He withdrew it and read its angry message: Inpracticum set to begin. Status?

“Reply,” he told the message response system. “In transit.” Waving the answered query to the side, he instead pulled up Transport Request. Expenses be damned; he couldn’t risk further tardiness. The program *pinged* and a green transport icon moved to his virtual location as a real one simultaneously did so outside his apartment.

Nearly sprinting through hallway, lockdown, and out the exit; he just missed knocking into someone swaying across the landing. It was Franks, but Nathan hadn’t the time to deal with charge demands now. He hadn’t the time for anything. He sprinted up the stairs, as quickly as a man in a skin and full suit could run. There sat a transport; his transport, rocking a bit in its streetside idle.

He strode forward past the usual street dwellers. They sat in a chorus line of hunched, silent misery, too saturated to know or care that he passed. Just before he activated the door of the waiting transport, one face lifted. Nathan’s comm moved over the door panel and he ducked and entered his paid ride.

It was after the door closed that his brain recognized the long, pale, older man who’d looked up. Shin.

“Well, howdy agin!” an exuberant voice jerked him away from his shocked surprise. Rex the operator grinned back at Nathan with what was left of his teeth. “Where to now, Sonny?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXIX.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Seven

“Mina!”

Dr. Winters paused mid-rush, a sound catching her attention. Perhaps someone was paging her? She grasped at her lapel and realized she’d left her radio back in the office. “Just a moment, Tanaka,” she told the eager but often nervous undergraduate. She left him and walked a few paces back. Turning, she added, “I’ll meet you at the lab.”

A few paces more, and the brilliant woman had another thought. She pivoted and walked backwards. “Which lab is it again?”

Thomas Tanaka still stood where they’d parted. He morphed a rising bemusement into a thoughtful twist of his mouth. “A-23, Doctor Winters.”

“Mina!”

She glanced ’round the reflective, night-darkened hallway.

“Wil?”

Wil opened her eyes to see her sweet mother’s face peering over the front seat at her. Wil blinked and realized her father’s face also pointed her way. Her mother’s smiled; his sighed and was tired.

“I was awake,” Wil said. She felt stiff as she sat up and looked around the car. “Where’s Jakob?”

Cynthia coughed slightly. “He went inside already, honey. Said he had homework.”

For a reason Wil couldn’t quite recall, she thought to doubt Jakob’s claims. Some encounter at the hospital brushed against her memory. “Reagan,” she remembered.

“What?”

“Jakob’s going to message Reagan,” Wil said, tact and discretion always far from her first impulses.

Her mother choked on a laugh, which set her to coughing. Rob moved over and held his wife from an awkward front seat angle.

“I’m so sorry!” Wil agonized, but was rewarded with a pained expression from her father’s quick glance. Wil’s face crumpled. She pushed at the car door and stumbled out into the eerie mists of winter twilight. Recovering, she ran.

The world was a barren, cold, and heartless place. Mankind had learned to fight against itself and avoid all semblance of connections; embracing only empty, selfish pursuits. Nina Win knew this, yet also knew that there was no other world for her. She walked on, her army regulation boots stomping so loudly against the frigid cement walkways that they sounded from the many desolate buildings nearby.

A twisting, bulky shape rose before her. A playground. Why not? the ex-Marine thought. She clumped over abandoned, frost-crusted wood pieces and up a slippery plastic play slide. There at the top she viewed the crumbling housing complex. Families had lived here once, she knew. Children had played where she stood; happy children. Had the physical equipment she gripped in her creaking gloves not been present, Nina would never have believed those facts.

So intent was she upon her gloomy musings that she failed to remember her training to be vigilant. A dark movement shifted just under her left arm and began moving toward her. Despite rigid protocol to the contrary, she almost screamed.

The darkness resolved to a human shape. He stopped just beneath her vigil.

“Hi,” said Eric Crandall, the shy boy from apartment 5-3.

 

Continued from Sixty-Six.
Keep reading to Sixty-Eight.

Skinwalkers, XXXVII

Lingering soporific effects of the sleeping drug dragged at Nathan’s normally decisive mind. The copious steam did little to assist; it wasn’t even doing its job of keeping his skin fresh and usable –tear it!

He sunk to the floor of the tiny bathroom, clutching at his head. Again and again he rubbed at his temples, eyes, cheeks. Wake up! Think!

Had the skin been a rag, a dud? He’d examined it upon purchase. It had lasted more than a tick; more than two full workcycles… With this in mind, he looked up through the mists to take a second, desperate look at the damaged skin in the case. Something about the torn sections poked at a memory; tickled a phrase a frustrated study peer had voiced during their research.

“It’s been three ‘cycles, just fine in the steam bath.” Her plaintive voice broke through his mind-fog at last. “THREE! Why the fudge do the fingers have HOLES?!”

Nathan laughed through his shock. He’d forgotten how Celine had always refused to curse. Trust her to keep to her religious quirks even in the face of a completely ruined Advancement project. She’d been experimenting with the new synthdermal strain’s durability over time and stress, using a skin glove. The experiment had been more fun than most, as he’d often looked over to find her scrubbing at a piece of pumice or literally playing with fire.

Yet her sample had broken apart without reasonable cause when stored…

He rose at once and entered his shower. A brisk rinse later and he stepped to the casing and removed half of the expensive skin with utmost care. Draping it over his left arm, he pressed his right palm against the wall panel to the side of the Skin Conditioner. The panel opened to reveal his private, miniature lab. The small array of solutions, tools, and substances in his secret nook calmed his pulse, as their organized appearance always did.

Beginning at the toes and moving up his ankles and legs, Nathan then applied the bioengineered wonder he’d gambled the remainder of his savings on. He worked quickly. The watch spoke up from the bedroom to remind him that one precious tick had passed, then fell silent to allow him to finish with the second half.

He sealed each vertebral connection and pressed at each seam with care. Fully skinned, he turned to his foggy reflection in the mirror. “One, two, three…” he counted. At every moment’s iteration (ninety jiffs), his fatted hands rubbed across the entire skin.

After three rounds of this, he reached to the wall nook and removed a priceless tube of silicone gel. “Thank you, Nimp,” he muttered, nearly smiling at the knowledge that Nimp had never parted with his rare substance willingly. Nimp was rich enough; one failed iteration wouldn’t set him back as it had Nathan.

Nathan jerked open the top sink drawer and withdrew his toothwash and Suspension Drops. He set them and the gel tube on the small counter top. He spent the next half-tick in another rhythmic pattern of rubbing, interspersed with applications of minuscule amounts of gel. Much to his relief, he watched the gel reactivate the torn edges of each hole. Just as Celine had realized when her glove tore, proximity to Nathan’s own, blemished skin reactivated his purchased variety’s regenerative properties.

The effect was not perfect; he found himself thanking God or Whatever Else might control fate that the facial area had not ripped besides a single line beneath his jaw.

One rinse with toothwash and an agonizing application of eyedrops finished his preparations. His encumbered, blinded sprint back to the bedroom to dress reminded him of his recent nightmare. This time, however, he intended to face a better perspective than that of his dead twin brother’s.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXVIII.

 

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Six

Wil began thinking up plans in her head for what else tomorrow might hold. Perhaps, once they were all awake, she could get Jakob to let her play his game with him. Maybe her father would take her practice-driving in the nearby church parking lot. Or she and her mother could…

Dr. Winters studied her screen of notes and frowned. The panning list of backlit research reflected in her serious glasses as she read. Despite copious notes and equations, she and her team had yet to produce a working sample of their proposed formula.

The door of her office opened with a snap. It almost upset her cup of coffee, perched atop the sprawling file cabinet and untouched since she’d made it hours earlier. “Dr. Winters!” the harried undergraduate student who’d just entered said. “Reagan thinks she may have found the error!”

The head of the department continued her scrolling. Her heart had felt to skip a beat upon Tanaka’s entry, but settled under her usual, cool control.

“Doctor?” Thomas Tanaka closed the door more quietly than he’d opened it, and waited.

“So…” Dr. Winters said after a half-minute. “Reagan has found the error?”

“Yes, she-”

Rose Reagan?”

“Well, yeah; the only Reagan on the team…”

His superior looked up. She had a face that could make a lab monkey decide to stop flinging feces and even consider teaching itself sign language. “I see.”

Her subordinate gulped. “Do you… do you want to verify?” Concerned at the icy response, he began speaking more rapidly. “We weren’t sure, either, as she’s not prone to successful tests in general, but were able to produce a solution with her conclusions and tested it on Subject A this morning and many of his symptoms have not been recorded since -”

Dr. Winters gasped. “What?!”

Thomas swallowed again. “I said she’s not prone to success-”

No, no. After that.” She sounded different; excited. “The bit about Subject A.”

He backed up a step at her intensity; he felt the door handle behind his back. “I said that Subject A has not had many of his usual symptoms since this morning.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Dr. Winters asked. She walked forward and would have pulled at the handle through him if he’d not had the instinct to open it and scuttle out of her way and into the hall. “This is revolutionary!” she continued, taking off at a brisk pace with a breathless Thomas just behind. “Let’s study Reagan’s results and get started in replicating them for a test run on Subject B. Then, if successful, we’ll be able to present to the board and possibly begin human trials before the end of the year!”

Together, they stalked down the fluorescent-lit hallway.

Thomas began to lose some nervousness in the wake of his superior’s growing excitement. “Yes!” he agreed. “When I first read over our results, we were all really happy. Reagan said, ‘We’ve done it! We’ve finally cured Cystic Fibrosis!'”

Eyes closed, Wil smiled; as they pulled into the covered parking space of their silent and sleeping apartment complex.

 

Continued from Sixty-Five.
Keep reading to Sixty-Seven.

Skinwalkers, XXXVI

“Nathaniel? NATHANIEL?!”

Nathan pawed at the blackness around him but his actions revealed nothing. He felt like a blind man with a cowl over his head. His breaths came in short, restricted gasps as he tried to move in the direction he thought was forward.

“Nathan-yieeelll!” he called again.

Little by little, he was drawing near to his goal. Despite the dark, he could feel it. And just as much as he wanted to find something –anything– he also strained against himself to turn away from the inevitable.

His feet dragged on.

A jiff and forever later he saw a shadowy shape ahead. The shape hung just out of gravity’s reach yet twisted slowly and obediently in its greedy pull. “Nathaniel?” Nathan whispered. His feet crushed over broken capsules and kicked empty bottles into an unknown abyss.

And still he walked forward. He was nearly to his brother’s dangling, turning, suspended feet when Nathan’s view shifted. Now he saw his own scared, pale face peering up in horror as his perspective twisted around and around a blank, expansive waste.

A noise; an irritant, incessant sound came from far away. Black mist thinned to a comfortable, familiar reality and his dizzy twisting resolved to a stationary side-lay as the repeated noise grew louder.

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

Nathan realized he was staring at a pulsing light; that it was his comm that had called him back from the twisted memories within his mind. He breathed true, dank air in deep draughts, just for the reassurance that he still could. “Light,” he croaked. The comm and the apartment obliged and he squinted in the rapid difference.

The comm was still beeping and pulsing, along with pointing its light skyward. He pulled it to him and manually deactivated each application. The wristwatch beeped. “No, it can’t be,” he told it, yet checked the comm’s display. It confirmed his watch’s warning: merely two ticks till the second interview.

“Lepros!” he cursed and flew from the bed. He sprinted the short space to the bathroom and set the shower to its hottest. Hopefully, he thought, as he used the other facilities, that would encourage the cheap heating system to bring hot water to his apartment faster. He ran to the food station and returned with a drinkable snack. Wishful thinking led him to believe he saw some steam forming and he closed the door to encourage an extended stay.

Nearly a moment later, the room was swimming in warm, swirling currents. He adjusted the water temperature back to midhot and began a vigorous rubbing of his skin. Certain he’d agitated all he could reach, he turned and started pulling at the seams of the Skin Conditioner. He couldn’t afford to wait another jiff.

The casing hissed open as it had the last two times he’d activated it. Unlike the previous times, however, Nathan was not reassured by what he saw. He stood in shock as the steam billowed and bounced around him.

The skin was there, yes, but nowhere near as whole as it had appeared just a halfcycle ago.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXVII.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Five

A very somber Winters family walked down the wide hall to the hospital exit, intent on the bleak and cold parking garage beyond. Wil was so absorbed by her thoughts that she bumped right into someone in passing the main reception desk.

“Watch it-!” an angry girl’s voice began, then stopped. Wil stopped as well, her mind slowly catching up with her ears and eyes. “Oh, hey, Wil!” the injured girl said. “Long time no see!”

Wil blinked. It was Reagan. Not sure whether she should acknowledge their friendship or not, Wil decided on copying Reagan’s casual tone. “Hi… um… Reagan. Nice to see you, too.”

Reagan laughed outright. “Yeah.” She could barely suppress a wry smile. “Well, guess I’ll see you at carpool!” And she left, more laughter echoing behind her.

Shaking her head, Wil began walking to the exit once more. She stumbled into her stepbrother this time. “Watch it, Wil,” he grumbled. Surprised at the lack of insult, she glanced up to his face. Jakob was not looking down. He was staring off in the direction of Wil’s carpool companion, his expression one that Wil could not remember seeing before.

Reagan rounded the corner out of sight, and Jakob returned to the present to find Wil staring at him. “Real smooth, Wheels,” he said, shortening his favorite nickname for her due to their parents’ proximity. He slouched out the sliding doors.

“Wil.” She looked to see her mother smiling in an encouraging way. Cynthia held out a welcoming hand. Wil clumped forward to take it and relished the soft, loving, comfortable connection. Her father led her mother led Wil behind her sullen stepbrother and out into the dark winter evening.

Ice cloud crystals hung for seconds before their warm exhalations as they walked. The harsh, cold air cut through their coats and scarves and filled their lungs with frigid breaths. Cynthia began coughing with the strain; they huddled round her and moved more quickly to the car.

Jakob was waiting, leaning against the rusted blue hood of the car. Once Rob unlocked it, Jakob opened Wil’s door for her and half-bowed. Not to be outdone, Wil curtsied. She wobbled to a stand. Jakob pretended to shut the door, so she climbed inside.

Rob turned the key in the ignition and was rewarded with a low *chhh-chhhh-chhhhk*. He tried again, to no result. The third time, he offered it some verbal support. The fourth time, he remembered to give the old sedan encouragement from the gas pedal. At last, it clunked to life. They all relaxed to a shivering relief as the air slowly warmed up.

Rob put the car into reverse. He backed out, straightened, and headed for home. Cynthia turned to smile warmly at Jakob and Wil in the backseat.

“What do you say we all sleep in tomorrow?”

Wil thought that was a great idea.

 

Continued from Sixty-Four.
Keep reading to Sixty-Six.

Skinwalkers, XXXVI

His new comrades relaxed their trap enough to allow Nathan an exit, and he used every bit of a waning self-control to keep that exit casual. Once outside Ware Tech, however, he broke into a run. Pent-up adrenaline and relief pushed him away from his detested workplace, while anticipation of his future job appointment pulled him toward his beloved slums.

Not even the clustered groups of autoad workers on the citywalks could slow him. They may have thought to, if their guards had been hired from a higher class of people. He sprinted past the huddled groups, catching random bursts of light from their repair equipment and a few curious, slow-turning faces from their repair crew.

At last, his slipshods clattered down the cement hole of his apartment landing. He wasted a full moment staring at Franks’ entry before activating his own. Nothing. Nathan had still not heard from Shin.

His own door opened. He rushed in. A hurried security update and shouted lighting command and he almost ran to his food station. Besides its new functionality, he knew today was chargecycle and the supply would have been refreshed automatically. This was the one time he trusted enough to eat the premeal bundle.  He pressed the corresponding option and enjoyed the relaxing sounds of a machine working perfectly. His stomach rumbled in anticipation of fresh food.

A muffled *beep* called from the night stand drawer of his sleep area nearby.

“In a jiff,” Nathan answered. A wheat product-wrapped mix landed in the deposit area, steaming in a very appealing way. He even caught the scent of bacon. No amount of psychological control could convince him it was all synthetic; as his memories drew him back to quiet farm mornings and real, actual, from-a-pig bacon resting on his breakfast plate.

“Grandpa,” he breathed, remembering. He picked up the food bundle and bit into its perfect corner. Almost, he thought as he chewed.

He walked to his bed and activated the night stand drawer one-handed. He glanced at his work comm one last time before switching it with the one within the secret compartment, but there was still nothing. “Fine,” he said, resolved.

The new comm had mostly garbage, a new threatening message from Franks, and a confirmation notification from Carapace. His inpracticum demonstration was set for just over a halfcycle away. He shoved the remaining premeal into his mouth, dropped the comm and his wristwatch on the bedding, and headed to the bathroom.

Relieving himself took little of his time, so he found himself staring at the closed Skin Conditioner as he worked the remaining food wad around inside his mouth. The skin would stay fresher inside, but a tiny voice in his mind began asking questions. What if the skin was so cheap it’s in bits when you open it again? What then?

He’d open it a little, check things over, then head to bed. His fingers found the conditioner’s seams, working the casing apart little by little. A hiss of repressed steam and the stretched suit was revealed in all its disturbing glory. Nathan released his own steam in the form of a relieved sigh. He closed the case again, pressing at all the edges to be certain they were latched.

Despite its dubious cleanliness, he drank and rinsed with the sink water. It tasted of metal and misery. He was only too glad to follow up with toothwash.

Time was against him as he skipped back to his bed. With utmost care, he searched through the blanket wad for his comm, his watch, and a half-full vial of blue liquid. They were all set upon the night stand as he stripped and flung his liner onto a hanger, then straightened and checked as he climbed beneath the wrinkled warmth of his bed.

His comm set, his watch mollified; Nathan bit below the auto-sealed segment of vial. Spitting the plastic-like material to the side, he downed the remains of the sleeping drug and fell unconscious immediately.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXVII.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Four

Here we are again, Wil mouthed to her friend. The pale, dark-haired girl in the waiting room window spoke the same words, without sound. Wil shifted on the floor. Crinkling paper noises from her left fist warned her to be careful in her movements; she glanced at them and remembered.

Returning to her friend, she whispered, “I’m adopted.” Her friend frowned and furrowed her brow in confusion.

How is that possible? she replied.

They shrugged.

Wil extracted the birth certificate and read through its official type once more. A few, lingering last-hopes evaporated from her imagination as she found each line filled out with correct name, date, father, location, and features. “I was a small baby,” she said.

They nodded, seriously.

“Of course you were, Minnie Mouse,” Jakob called, from his slouched recline a few feet away. He moved deeper into his chair and adjusted his feet on the table.

Wil and her friend shared a look. What did he know?

“You were a preemie.”

They blinked. Wil turned away from the window wall. “A what?

“Preemie, dummy.” He rubbed his back inside his slouch. “Means you were early. Rob told me.” Closing his eyes, he tilted his head against the chair back. “Said you were lucky to be born and that he didn’t even know.”

She shared a stupefied look with her friend. Thinking over this new information, she asked, “How did he know?”

“‘Bout you?”

Wil nodded. “Yeah.”

Jakob groaned and tried to crouch into a side-lay within the small seat. From a yawn, he answered, “Not sure.”

A few more seconds told Wil her brother -her stepbrother- was unlikely to tell her more. The conversation had already run longer than any of his had in the last five years. She was about to resume the more satisfying exchange at the dark glass before her when Jakob stirred enough to add, “Ask Rob.”

Her friend tilted her head, considering. Not a bad idea, she told Wil.

They were all interrupted by a click, a creak, and a cheery, “Well, here we are!” Nurse Bea entered the waiting room, and then turned to hold the door for Rob. Just behind him came Cynthia.

Jakob stopped pretending to sleep and Wil waved goodbye to the window. Both rose and walked to their favorite mother.

“They’re releasing you?!” Wil asked. Jakob snickered and put his hands in his coat pockets.

Nurse Bea laughed outright. As expected, hers was the sort that came from deep in her stomach and affected her entire body upon its release. A moment of breathlessness later and she wiped her eyes. “That’s right, darlin’.” She smiled, though she already had been, and wagged a stern finger to Wil. “Now, you jus’ make sure you take care o’ your mom. She’s an angel.”

Wil’s pleasant return smile slipped off her face.

“Thanks, Nurse Bea,” Cynthia enthused; her smile radiating as usual. Supported by Rob and trailed by her anxious children, she walked out the waiting room doors.

If Wil had not been so preoccupied, she’d have caught the sparkling tear on the cheek of Nurse Bea.

 

Continued from Sixty-Three.
Keep reading to Sixty-Five.