Wilhelmina Winters, Eighty-One

“Wil!” the crew chief said. “We’re here.”

Wil Power frowned in confusion and looked up from her idling IndyCar. Four hundred laps of looping, blackened tarmac still beckoned beyond the pit crew’s hunched shoulders. The hasty *bzzt* *bzzt* of impact wrenches played background music to the ever-present hum of the waiting track and its racers.

“Wil!” her father repeated. “Get out. I gotta go to work.”

“Oh!” Wil scrabbled at the straps of her backpack as cheering fans and roaring asphalt dissolved into a silent, gray schoolyard. She blinked. She turned to her father, noted his impatient expression, blushed, and stole a quick peck on his cheek. “‘Bye, Dad!”

Rob watched his impulsive daughter successfully exit the car and take off running toward the dim, dark building up the dim, dark hill. He hadn’t the time to reminisce after her waving scarf and hair, however. Leaning over the console and passenger seat, he sighed and stretched to pull her door closed.

Wil heard the telltale just-made-it clunking of her father’s engine as he accelerated out and away from the curb. A long, low *bonnng* sounded from the school. Huddled, rushing teenage bodies scurried around and before her as her scrambling boots slipped up the winter-dew grass.

She caught the shadow of someone slipping past; had the idea that it may have been HopeMan, she’s sneaky, was all Wil could think as she grabbed at a front door of the school building. Once inside, she rushed down rapidly-emptying hallways to her first class. Intermittent *bam* sounds echoed to her right and left as a few tardy people slammed locker doors shut.

She could hear Dr. L.‘s droning voice before she reached the hall of his classroom. “…We’ll see *mumble* *mumble* acidic *mumble*.” Wil turned a corner and saw the door near the end. “*Mumble* *mumble* bases and *mum*-acids are fairly inert at the midline, where you see water, blood, and urine.”

Wil walked in right when everyone snickered, yet also right when Dr. L. turned to his diagram to see what they all thought was so funny.

 

Continued from Eighty.

Wilhelmina Winters, Eighty

Wil checked the posted starting positions in a cool, passing fashion. As a race day wind whipped her long, dark curls, she donned her sunglasses with a dramatic flair and looked bored. She heard an increase in volume from the three hundred thousand cheering fans just a tarmac away; they loved her unaffected demeanor and professional detachment.

“You ready?” her crew chief asked.

She nodded. Once.

He nodded. Half of once.

Her team swarmed around her tracksuit body; taming the hair, gloving the hands, booting the feet, and even glossing the lips. They stepped away to reveal Wil Power: race car driver, today’s favorite to win.

Wil turned to the thousand-person section nearest her and blew them a red-lipped kiss. The resultant screams and foot-pounding shook the ground, even where she stood. Accepting her helmet from the last waiting crew member; she raised it, donned it, straightened it, tucked her hair in it. Spinning on a heel, she strutted the asphalt catwalk to her waiting car.

She loved her car almost as much as herself: sleek, fast, sexy; sporting the top sponsor every other driver envied her for.

Let them envy.

Her chief’s instructions droned in her ear as her hands and eyes ran their automatic checks over instruments, seat, steering, and panel. Properly fueled, newly tired, she could feel her IndyCar just waiting to fly.

Not soon enough, the officials were finally ready. Non-drivers began moving away. “Not yet, Baby,” she told her ride.

“Not yet,” echoed in her ear.

Crews scattered, engines started, the customary celebrity car inched forward to lead them.

Not yet, she felt in the impatient rumble through her seat.

The trio in front of her moved out and hers followed after a pause. She was on the inside of the track, seventh position. She was ready. In a clouded haze of pre-race meditation, Wil saw the race from a distance: thirty-three cars all weaving patiently; thirty-three drivers scratching, adjusting, rubbing visors, quadruple-checking screens.

“Two corners, then green flag,” her crew chief intoned.

“Almost,” she purred.

Almost.

Another celebrity stood poised atop the tower, his green flag already waving like mad. Wil Power did not even grant him a glance as her red baby zoomed across the start and hungrily revved to reach lap speed.

“Now!” they all chorused. Beneath the helmet, she smiled.

 

Continued from Seventy-Nine.
Keep reading to Eighty-One.

 

Want to start at the very beginning? It’s a very good place to start.

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Nine

Wil didn’t notice her interesting ensemble, and her mother was too kind to draw attention to it. Wil might have requested the information, had she known that a certain occupant of Building Five was spying more discreetly than even W could manage.

She and her mother suspected nothing. They walked their familiar, echoing path past the winter-dead trees and morning-shadowed playground. They spoke less than usual; they thought a lot more. Her mother had two coughing fits but insisted she felt fine enough to continue. Wil sighed deeply more than twice but insisted she felt fine enough to continue as well.

They walked the cold and empty route in a quiet unease; each with thoughts far from the areas she walked through or the person she walked with.

“All right, Wil…” her mother said once they were back at home. Her intended speech, however, was interrupted by yet more coughing. Wil closed the door, then walked her gasping mother to the couch. She held up the medicine bottle, the water cup, and then the nebulizer in turn. Cynthia shook her head at each but the last. Wil found and measured out the correct medication, attached the air hose, and offered its mouthpiece. She anxiously watched her mother inhale the vapor at a gasp in the coughing; cough; inhale; breathe out. Wil sighed, as she always did, in relief.

Her mother cleared her throat in the careful manner she’d used all weekend. “Now, Wil,” she said in a quieter voice, “Are you going to tell me more about your secret clues, or about Reagan, or…” She fixed Wil with a knowing look. “About why the playground outside makes you sigh?”

Wil looked up, shock plainly written all over her face.

“Or,” her mother said kindly, “Maybe you want to talk more about the letter from Gwen?”

Wil opened her mouth, changed her mind, and closed it. Her face changed expression to one of scrunched thoughtfulness as she considered what to say. She opened her mouth to try again.

“Mina!” her father said in surprise. He stood in the doorway to the hall, coat in hand and socks on feet. “We need to go!”

Wil hurried a glance to the microwave clock. They were late! “Oh! Sorry, Dad! Umm..” She searched around herself for what she might need to grab, as her thoughts searched around her head for what she might need to remember. Her mind grasped an idea before her hands did. “My bag! I’ll got get my bag from my room! Then we can go!”

She rose in a rush and made to dart around her father; who, for some reason, blocked her path. Wil looked up at him in confusion. A smile played at the edges of his mouth.

“Min- Wil,” he said. “Maybe pick some different pants first?”

Her gaze traveled back to her own person. “Gah!” she exclaimed, and again made to rush to her bedroom. This time her father did not stop her. In fact, she heard what sounded suspiciously like a chuckle just before entering her room.

 

Continued from Seventy-Eight.
Keep reading to Eighty.

Skinwalkers, XLVIII

Perhaps it was the archaic thumbs-up gesture of Pul that confused Nathan. Perhaps he was, quite reasonably, diverted by the auburn-headed receptionist in passing her office space on his way out. Perhaps the waiting presence of Rex‘s barely-functioning Transport outside surprised him.

Most likely, all three distractions combined with his current mental load to lead to his lack of judgement.

Nathan stepped down the impressive staircase of Carapace, took a sharp turn to walk away from Rex’s attentions, walked down the citypath in an inattentive rush, and hurried right across a busy trafficsection.

He had a half-jiff to regret his short list of life accomplishments before a food transport permanently ended it.

THE END

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLVII.

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Eight

The guard shifted again. W froze. Just as she thought to chase her instincts back to where her equipment waited, he sat up and turned on the bedside lamp.

“Mina?” his groggy voice asked, his eyes squinting. “That you?”

“Yes, Dad,” Wil answered, sighing.

Her mother moaned and moved her head. Wil and her father watched Cynthia roll over and turn off the breathing machine, remove the attached mask, and rub gently at her face. Perhaps sensing their attentions, she looked in Wil’s direction, then Rob’s. She smiled. “Good morning. Is it time for our walk?” She yawned and her audience felt obliged to yawn in reply.

“I think,” Wil ventured, “We’re actually a little late.” She came into the room, stepping over but mostly through the disarray. “Sorry, Mom.”

Her mother held out a friendly hand, which Wil took. “That’s okay.” She yawned again. “We’ll just do a few fewer laps.” Turning her attention to the bed and its surroundings, she said, “Now, if you two could help locate my clothes, I’ll get dressed and meet you at the door.”

Wil laughed quietly. “Sorry,” Rob supplied. “I’ve been meaning to pick up.”

“Looks fine to me,” Wil said, feigning innocence.

Now her mother laughed. Her father’s face twisted into an expression of humored irritation. “Suppose we both clean up today?” he proposed.

“Found ’em,” Wil said, grabbing at a pink bundle very near the bed on Cynthia’s side. She deposited them on her mother’s lap. “I’ll see you up front!” Her parents both watched the bouncing chaos of hair and stumbling movements of Wil skip from their room.

Rob sighed. He shifted and leaned over to kiss his wife’s cheek.

“Do you think,” Cynthia asked, pulling at the t-shirt she slept in, “She knows she’s wearing a striped purple top and plaid pajama bottoms?”

 

Continued from Seventy-Seven.
Keep reading to Seventy-Nine.

Skinwalkers, XLVII

Only a half-tick or so passed during Nathan’s second time in the dimly-red room, but his senses felt more heightened than before. He’d simply ignored Caill after securing Quý’s loyalty the first time. Now, however, he felt obligated to keep Caill’s actions in his sight. He also knew he needed Pul as witness. Accordingly, Nathan voiced an occasional question to one or both, or ensured he wandered nearer to Caill than necessary.

It was a long half-tick.

Once he saw six complete samples packaged and delivered via their automated bays, Nathan felt relieved enough to sigh -though only inwardly. The sly Caill was not the sort of prowling beast one ever let his guard down around. She made him nervous enough to sweat right out of his rented skin.

He smiled, knowing he literally could not sweat. Though exorbitant, the endoscopic sympathectomy he’d endured last planetcycle had literally saved his skin.

Caill appeared just as fortunate. Perhaps. Nathan knew her smooth mask was not wholly natural; it couldn’t be. He had not, however, been able to examine it closely. Anytime he drew close to her, a creeping sensation tickled at the danger centers of his mind. Something there was not right. As he and Pul exited just behind Caill and once again made their way to the landing of the lift; Nathan recalled, at their very first interview, a recoiling gesture Caill made at his mention of absolute biodermal fusion.

Curiouser and Curiouser, he thought; a phrase his grandfather had been fond of saying.

“Excellent work, Nathan Reed,” Pul praised, stopping outside the transparent doors. He pulled one open and held it for Nathan. Nathan exited. As he followed suit, Pul laughed. “Though, you already told everyone that.”

Nathan gave the man a slow, acknowledging nod and a somewhat smug lift to the left side of his mouth.

Pul smiled sincerely and exhaled in a happy manner. He reached forward with his comm and activated the fern-covered panel. *Ding* sang the lift and the wall slid open to reveal its empty interior. “You will be messaged,” said Pul, in dismissal.

Nathan strode forward and then turned back to face Pul. To his surprise, Pul gestured a thumbs-up just before the doors closed.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVIII.

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Seven

After their eventful weekend, Monday’s alarm startled Wil more than it usually did. She’d been dreaming of mists and searchings again, yet the feeling of the thing differed. Instead of a lost sensation, or a confused one, Wil had felt a …dread. The thing she sought in her dreams was now something she was not keen to find.

She lay staring up at her ceiling until the alarm rang again; she must have pushed Snooze at its initial sounding. “Oh!” she cried and fell off the bed. Graceful as ever, Wyl Winterling, she thought as she groped at the alarm and then at her laundry pile on the floor.

Soon enough, she had pants and a long-sleeved top. She resolved to ensure a matching outfit after the walk with her mother and a shower. Yawning and stretching, she dressed and clumped down the hallway. It was a good morning for Wil as she only bumped against the wall twice.

She heard her parents’ room before her eyes could make out the dark outline of its opening. A rhythmic machine-breathing came from that direction. The BiPAP was on again. She hadn’t heard it since the last time Cynthia was ill. Wil forgot how much she hated it despite how calm the soft, regular noise sounded.

W paused just outside the room, listening with an alertness acquired from years of training. A demonic *Shhhhsssshhh* *Shhhhhssshhh* emanated from the space, interrupted by a random rustling, a grunting snore.

What could it be? she wondered. She placed a thoughtful gloved finger to her lips in consideration. Alarm system? She’d disabled that upon entry, and the guard for good measure. Heating element? W knew no passive piece of equipment had a constant airflow, besides antiquated equipment like a ceiling fan. Is the hostage being subjected to a form of torture used decades ago?

With only one way to find out since her extendable cameras were inoperable this far beneath the ground, W peered around the corner of the doorpost.

At the sight of what lay beyond, she stifled a curse. Highly unprofessional, she knew. Still, what nefarious opponents had devised the assortment of cloth piles, closely-packed furniture, and random detritus before her?

A movement. A form upon the bed turned to its side yet still lay resting. The guard was asleep, then; good for him so long as he stayed that way. She turned her wary attention to her mission and her goal: the hostage. W gasped.

She realized, even before running a scan with her wristband, that the situation was more serious than she had been warned of. Her eyes traced the coils of tubing running from the box on the floor as her ears still heard its inexorable *Shsssshhhhssshhh* she’d first picked up outside the door.

Not only was the woman a hostage within the basement confines of a cement building, lying near a guard who might wake at any minute, she also literally rested within the clutches of a strange robotic device.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XLVI

They paused outside the door. “N. Reed; Pul,” Stone acknowledged, exiting just after they did. He continued past them and down the corridor. Nathan’s eyes adjusted to the lighting to watch the broad-shouldered man retreating and he realized the suspension drops’ influence had worn off. Worn off… Off… Something’s off… A thought struck him. Turning to Pul, Nathan exhaled and made a show of lightly stretching his shoulders and neck.

Pul chuckled. “That was some performance in there, Nathan Reed.”

Nathan stood up on his toes, continuing his casual pretense. “Thank you, Pul.” He stood flat again. “I thought I may as well fix six blemishes with one patch.”

Pul laughed again. “That you did.”

“Still,” Nathan continued, “I’d hate for you and the others to catch trouble for any damage or waste to that many materials.” He met Pul’s eyes and raised one brow. “I’d calm if I could see them delivered.”

He watched the expressive executive’s own eyebrows rise in surprise. Pul had clearly not thought of this possibility. “Oh! Oh, of course!” As Nathan desired, Pul then spun and reactivated the door behind them. His motions were more hurried than last time. Before the entry had pulled to the side completely, Pul was back inside the red-lit room. Nathan stood right behind him.

“Pul! What are you doing?” a familiar, shrill voice demanded. Nathan stepped to the side and saw just the woman he wished to, in just the position he suspected. Caill stood very near a work station in a stiff posture. Upon spying Nathan, her hands began twisting around each other.

Surprised, Pul cleared his throat. A jiff passed and he cleared it again.

Nathan moved around him and walked in Caill’s direction. “We returned to deliver the samples,” he said. “I thought you and your associates might want to ensure their safety.” Stopping a little over a meter away, he stared right at Caill’s eerily-shadowed face. “It would be a thick loss to Carapace otherwise.”

The proud and crafty woman, once a prowling wolf, seemed more an outlands rodent now. Her hands wound round and round, and she stepped back from him involuntarily.

“But, perhaps,” he said, and paused, “That is precisely what you were doing.”

“Oh!” Pul recovered. “Of course! That’s what you were doing, Caill.” He gave a nervous laugh and came forward as well. “Well, then -I guess we’ll help. Which stations have you packaged?”

Caill appeared to be trying to remember something, and Nathan suspected it to be how to think on her feet. “I… um,” she said. “I actually just got started.” She smiled at Pul; it looked painful.

“Right,” Pul responded. “Then I guess we’ll work on the last rows while you start where you’re at.”

The rabbit twitched her gaze from Nathan, to Pul, to her hands. She finally stilled her hands, sniffed at the air, and nodded. “O-of course.”

Nathan smiled and returned to assist Pul. Really, he thought, What other choice did Caill have?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVII.

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Six

“Not that I knew much about being a dad,” Rob continued. He looked at his hands, his wife, his children, his hands. “I was …pretty freaked out about the whole idea but I knew I couldn’t have someone out there…” He paused. Cynthia leaned a little closer to her husband and squeezed his arm.

Rob breathed in deeply, the air sounding ragged at the edges. He released the breath slowly through his nose. “I just… thought I couldn’t let a kid, out there, had made be …well, be killed -or, to think another guy was raising my kid.”

Wil sat back upon her ankles, stunned. “People,” she said in a hoarse whisper, “people kill their babies?”

Jakob responded first. “Duh, Nina. Happens all the time.”

Cynthia cleared her throat carefully. “While I don’t know what you’ve heard or learned, Jakob, I think that’s a bit exaggerated to say it ‘happens all the time.'”

Shrugging again, he settled back to his original position of half-closed eyes and slouched posture. “Seems like it.”

“So Gwen- my moth- the woman who actually had me wanted to get rid of me?!” Wil asked, her voice rising in anxiety and pitch. “Like, permanently?!” Tears pooled in her wide eyes and she felt them run down her cheeks. Of course I won’t respond to Guinevere Greene! she resolved. Who would do that to her own child -to me?!

“Wil,” Cynthia said in a beckoning tone. “Wil; come here, Sweetheart.”

Wil complied; how could she not? Rising and stumbling over Jakob’s feet, she walked to her parents and sat at the available edge of couch to the side of her mother. With a gentle, loving touch, Cynthia brushed Wil’s loose strands of hair away from her tear-streaked face. Wil turned to face the mother she knew and loved. She sniffed dramatically and Cynthia bit back an amused smile.

“Wil… Guinevere, your mother, did want you.” Her mother paused, stroked at Wil’s hair, took Wil’s hand beneath her own. “Your father was only trying to explain his thinking at the time.”

“Then why,” Jakob, the statue, asked, “Didn’t this Guinevere keep Meanie?”

Wil closed her open mouth, surprised that her stepbrother had voiced the question before she had.

Now was Rob’s turn to clear his throat. “Erm, well, you see…. she wasn’t trying to get rid of you, Wil.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I think she just was a bit upset at things at the time and felt… well, maybe she felt like she would have to try to take care of you all by herself and just …um, well, maybe didn’t know how to do that.” He faced Wil and gave her a sheepish smile. “I lov- I liked Gwen a lot at the time we …were dating; but, honestly, she was a bit much for me to understand.” He coughed a nervous laugh. “Now that I’m older and can look back, I think she didn’t really understand herself either.”

They all paused to consider this, though Jakob may have been considering someone else of similar temperament.

“Anyway,” Rob said with more confidence, “I was saying that I told Gwen I would take care of you.” He sat up and smiled. “I didn’t quite know how to do that, and that’s when I went to the truck stop, and saw-” pausing, he caught Wil’s eye. His own eyes were twinkling with an unusual humor. She smiled, catching on.

Together, he and Wil chorused, “…The ugliest and scariest person I’d/you’d ever seen.”

 

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

Skinwalkers, XLV

The workers maintained their precise, quick pace through the remaining steps of membrane construction. Nearly a half-workcycle passed before the room’s red light illuminated a 10 centimeter square strip of perfect, useable synthdermal material at each station.

Nathan continued his roving inspections throughout, beginning them as a vulture and ending as an eagle. The team’s satisfaction was palpable. The judging executives’ surprised pleasure and respect was apparent in Stone‘s occasional nodding, Pul’s outright grin, and Caill’s pursed-lip jealousy. Nathan, himself, felt proud enough to burst through his Fantastique-owned skin.

He had passed the inpracticum, the second interview stage. He had to be the top pick; no other applicant would possibly think to change the program nor to watch for tricks.

“Set the bar so high, no one has a chance to even think to get a step stool,” his lab leader in Advancement Studies had told them all. Good old J. Wilson, onetime founder of the now-controversial Skinwalkers Corporation. “Never trust the skin you see,” was another of his. Nathan frowned, remembering the brilliant man. Too bad J. Wilson hadn’t applied his own advice about trust when public opinion went South, and Skinwalkers’ Heads needed a man to blame.

“Set your samples in suspension,” Nathan announced. The six workers complied, storing their scientific art in the appropriate bay beneath six desks. He watched and heard six pairs of hands disinfect just below the work surface, then clasp expectantly atop the same surface.

Almost in unison, they and Nathan turned to Stone, Pul, and Caill. There was a pause as the three in charge held a silent conversation. Stone nodded, and spoke aloud, “You may return to your normal cycle duties.”

Nathan felt a slight drop in the room’s happy environment as his temporary team accepted their perfunctory instruction and rose to comply. On impulse, he said, “Excellent work, everyone.”

The backward glances and pleased, hidden smiles of the workers touched him, even while the confused and shocked (in the case of Caill) expressions of the executives brushed against his conscience at the same time. Their preoccupation with his audacity served to distract from a final, grateful look Quý sent to Nathan just before exiting.

He morphed a potentially-sappy smile into a more grim model as he turned to his three judges. He strode forward and was pleased to see them recoil somewhat at his approach. “Your tablet,” he said, offering it to Stone. Stone took it; an automatic gesture. Nathan worried the man might forget to keep his hold upon it, as Stone swung it back to his side while keeping his attention on Nathan.

Nathan returned their stares; allowed their confusion. As usual, Caill recovered first. He could watch her thoughts push across her face as her furrowed brow, eerie in the room’s dimness, cleared to realization then drew together in determination.

“I trust,” he said, beating her to vocalization, “This means we are finished.”

“Oh!” Pul responded. “O-of, of course.” Caill shot him a poisonous look. “Erm, are we done?”

Stone moved his head downward in affirmation; he was obviously fond of expressing himself that way, Nathan thought.

“Yes, of course,” Caill said, as if they had not all been delaying. “Pul, guide N. Reed to departure.”

Nathan hid his amusement from all but his eyes, trusting in the poor lighting to shield his feelings from Caill. At Pul’s guiding gesture, he stepped past her and Stone and out into the much brighter corridors of Carapace.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVI.