Skinwalkers, XLIII

Crude as Nathan’s rented outfit might have been compared to the skins used by Caill, Stone, and Pul, it served its masking purposes well. More than once, he felt enough of a burning stare from the three executives to elicit a rise in body temperature. Nathan’s normal epidermis, he was certain, was flushing and sweating. Not that he’d rented the cheapest skin possible, of course. Otherwise, the sweating alone would have ruined any adhesion and left him looking like a melted candle.

Nathan couldn’t help but picture such an image under the red glow of the inpracticum lab lights, the tenaciously trusting glances of the workers, and the ever-present scrutiny of the three in charge.

Still, the group assigned beneath him was skilled. He felt grateful to the state of the current job market for that, although not for much else. Once equipped with new supplies for the task, Workers A-F crafted with a rushed efficiency that surprised and pleased him. He felt his natural intellect and past education surfacing from a half planetcycle’s disuse, barely keeping up with the flying fingers, tools, and computer-generated figures before him.

A lesser man might have recoiled from the challenge. A lesser man might have considered leaving the room at the first sign of a dark, enclosed space and the expectation of impossibility. Nathan Reed was never a lesser man.

“Set your matrix, and prepare to relocate,” he announced after a half-tick. All but E were finished; E close enough to move within a jiff. Five expectant, redlit faces lifted to his, joined by the sixth after a pause. “You will move across and up, with the exception of the back position,” he said. Raising his voice for the benefit of his judges, he continued, “When directed, A will move to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, E to F, and F down to A. The success of your creation will be judged by the one who comes after you.”

He stopped to allow them to think on this. Not wishing to obliterate a necessary amount of teamwork, he added, “The ease and exactness with which you craft your portion will result in six working samples within the same space that mediocre teams make only one.”

The rotating model of a dermal matrix floated above the front of the room. Nathan stepped below it. Still holding the tablet Stone had given him at Caill’s direction, Nathan swiped the display to show the next step. Colored demonstrations of cell and vessel integration replaced the first step over his head. “Are there any unfamiliar with this process?”

His gaze locked briefly with each worker. Each face returned a similar expression of cool experience, though A and E also glanced at the large display or at Caill. He made a mental note to watch D’s reaction to E’s work after the switch. One faulty cog would make for complete failure, but he knew no better way to expose a trap set for new applicants.

“If your current matrix is set, rise and move to where you were directed.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLII.

Skinwalkers, XLII

Nathan needed only a brief read-through to learn the basics of his task, though he knew he’d have to return to the screen for specific biological terms. One didn’t naturally memorize references such as dermal fibroblasts as easily as collagen bundles, after all.

He also knew he could not work with a team from the center of a stage. Determined, he walked to the nearest workstation on his left. “I am Nathan Reed. What is your name and skill set relevant to dermal bioengineering?”

The worker stole a look at the three executives before answering. “I guess I can go by A.” Her voice reminded Nathan of a balloon he’d played with once as a child, one that had developed a leak. “I have many skills but I’m tasked with matrix prep -preparations.”

Nathan nodded. “Thank you.” He moved to the next desk on the right. “Are you assigned as ‘B,’ then?” This worker nodded, her ponytail bouncing with the movement. “And what is your task?”

Calm and collected but barely audible, B said, “For this ‘cycle, cell and vessel ingrowth.”

Nodding and thanking B, Nathan moved to the next worker. He turned out to be D; the person to his left was C. Nathan thereby learned that each worker was an assembly-line step in a basic synthdermal construction.

With the exception of a few disagreeable glares aimed his direction, Caill and her associates kept to their position of observation during his interviews. He wasn’t certain they would maintain this silence with his next announcement.

Returning to the stage at front, he stated, “Our inpracticum is simple, given the advanced skills and knowledge that you all clearly possess.” He allowed the praise to sink in for a jiff and a half before dropping his bombshell. “Therefore, and to avoid waste and boredom, we will be addressing the assignment in a different manner.”

He tapped at the tablet screen, expanding the first step. Grasping the space just above the surface, he pantomimed pulling then flicking into the air above and behind his person. The image complied. Three-dimensional models of dermal matrices floated where all could read them. “Is there a technician here who does not know how to construct a matrix?”

No one raised a hand nor spoke aloud. A few tugged at an ear or scratched at a cheek. Most looked around to see what the others might do; particularly, the suited ‘others’ who were usually in charge.

“Excellent,” Nathan said, in his best managerial tone. “Then, we will all be doing the first assignment. Synchronously.”

“N. Reed!” Caill began, “I do not-”

“Furthermore,” he continued without interruption, “When that step is complete, you will move to the side or down and work on your neighbor’s matrix when we begin cell and vessel construction.”

The workers were very intelligent and skilled persons. They blinked back at him in a bit of a shock.

“Any questions from those who will be working?” If Nathan had thought Caill appeared diabolical in the redlight, he would have appreciated seeing his face just then. A protest had been forming on Caill’s lips before she caught his look. He saw her intended censure; saw, with satisfaction, its retraction.

“Excellent,” he repeated. “Then, we begin.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLIII.

Skinwalkers, XLI

Nathan mentally cursed the suspension drops as he stood in the newly-formed dark. Despite the redlight influence, he could not see anything.

“N. Reed?” Pul asked with concern.

“A moment.”

Nathan used his reprieve to squint, blink, and peer around. Black nothing resolved into red bits. The red bits became various light sources. Those red sources reflected from equipment on desks and the expectant faces of a handful of seated laboratory workers.

Turning to the eerie face of Pul at his shoulder, Nathan announced, “I am ready.”

“Excellent,” answered the voice of Caill. “We’ve already lost time waiting for your arrival.”

Tracing the sound of her strident voice, Nathan found the executive standing just a few paces beyond him and Pul at the front of the room. She was scowling, her features appearing more demonlike than usual in the crimson ambiance. “Then, by all means, outline the inpracticum,” Nathan responded, mildly.

Caill scowled further, he thought. Straightening pose and lifting chin, she complied. “This is one team of research adherents. They represent who you might be working with if assigned.” She paced, a nervous gesture. “You are to lead them through a randomly-assigned task provided by Stone.”

“Stone?”

“Here,” the succinct executive provided. Nathan turned his body to view a back corner of the room. Stone did not look as sinister as his female colleague in the redness; his masculine features instead gave the impression of a face chiseled in a mountainside. He strode forward and handed a tablet to Nathan.

Without even glancing at the display, Nathan accepted the tablet and marched to where Caill awaited. “If you don’t mind,” he said, almost deferentially. She moved, stepping down to stand warily beside Pul and Stone.

“Now,” Nathan said, addressing his new team, “I am Nathan Reed. We will be working together this inpracticum and for many cycles henceforward.” He ignored an intake of exclamation from Caill. “Let us see what we will accomplish.”

Nathan fought the internal anxiety of the small space, the stares of so many strangers, and the challenge of whatever his assignment might be. To the view of his expectant audience, however, he was confidence and control.

Glancing down, he read the tablet’s instructions. His wristwatch beeped; it was time to get started.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XL.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLII.

Skinwalkers, XL

Nathan turned to his right and left in the lift, taking advantage of the short ride to examine the bits of skin that showed around his suit. He pushed at the slit below his jaw just as the mirrored doors pulled open. Only their notifying chime betrayed the rapid movement, and he walked out into a plant-lined lobby.

This landing was different than the one he’d stepped onto last time, though only one with as trained a critical eye as his could have recognized the differences. If pressed to explain, he would have said that particular fern was a couple millimeters to the left and that panel glowed more brightly than its fellows. But the overwhelming evidence was not visual cues so much as how his body felt. He always knew whether he was higher or lower; basement or upper levels. He was higher than before; but, to what extent, he knew not.

He pulled at his suit and adjusted his wristwatch. Striding past a podium, he pushed open the opaque doors to find Pul expecting him. Pul’s suit was different than last time as well; cleaner, neater, more black. The tall executive’s greeting was also not the same, as he extended his right hand and smiled warmly.

Nathan accepted the handshake; he refrained from the smile.

Pul seemed unperturbed. He stepped back and raised his left arm to that nearly-touching gesture of guidance he’d employed at their departure two suncycles ago. Accordingly, Nathan moved forward. Pul acted as guide, pushing doors, lifting an arm, or noting direction with a, “through this opening,” “to the left a bit,” and “just here.”

Although Pul and Nathan traveled down passages on a level Nathan had never visited, the scenery remained the same as the rest of Carapace’s main areas: expensive carpeting, tiled side-floor, living plants, and natural daylight emanating from the walls themselves. Carapace may have been politically blocked from front page listing, but it clearly had not suffered as much as its executives might feel.

Their journey took them to a sealed door set in a completely solid wall. Nathan fought a rising anxiety as he told his internal panic that he was really not that far from the outside. The rented skin added a level of confinement he hadn’t noticed until faced with possibility of an enclosed space. There’s an exit; there’s always an exit, he repeated to himself.

Meanwhile, the oblivious Pul took out his comm and scanned it. The door panel displayed a single line of green light. Pul then pressed his palm solidly against the wall just to the panel’s right. A second, blue line appeared beneath the green. “Pul Nguyen,” Pul enunciated, and a third strip of yellow appeared below the green and blue. The three were Carapace’s company colors, and the three activated the silent opening.

A dark space gaped before them, glowing with a dim redness. The only sound Nathan could hear was a slight scratching or shuffling. He saw no exit besides the one they were to enter through.

Pul looked back at Nathan; extended that guiding arm again. “Shall we?” he invited.

Nodding, Nathan walked briskly into the red-lit hole. Pul stepped behind him and the door closed, cutting off any outside light.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXIX.
Keep reading to Skinwalkers, XLI.

 

Feeling lost? Go back to the very beginning with Skinwalkers, I.

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 and initial instinct involved injuring a senior and being barred from using transports again. Ignoring Rex, therefore, seemed 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 a bushy-haired operator with few teeth and fewer manners just beyond the screen. Surely he would get the hint and leave Nathan alone.

Not soon enough, they jerked 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 the guard marched 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.
Read to Skinwalkers, XL.

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 face that 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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Skinwalkers, XXXV

Lizard’s hand slid back to his side, his face showing some confusion at Nathan’s reaction. Nathan suppressed a rising smirk and continued to blink at his coworker with a trusting expression. He saw the ring of men relax shoulders and scowls; the newer addition he called Giant even stuck his hands into liner pockets.

From a face scrunched in concentration, Lizard finally said, “Uh, we gotta talk business.” His three cronies nodded and stances became more serious again.

“Okay,” Nathan answered, and waited.

“Look. We wanna know-” began Tod, but he was silenced by a hard elbow jab from Lizard. The two shared threatening glares till Tod turned away.

Lizard studied Nathan, and Nathan ensured his only threatening movement was a slow, occasional blink. At last, Lizard said, “That was funny what Shin did precycle. The guys’re still talkin’.” Giant snorted and received his own poke from Tod. “Yeah…” Lizard drawled, “We miss your mate. You seen him, after?”

Nathan considered. “After Mons gave him the liner, we walked to the edge of the slums, then had to split.” He shrugged. “He said he was goin’ home.”

The big man thought about Nathan’s answer. “How ’bout after that? He message you?”

Heavy-handed was obviously the way to get through the thick skulls surrounding him. Nathan placed his pointer finger on slightly-pouted lips and furrowed his brow. “Yes, before workcycle.”

Lizard’s tone grew excited. “And?”

“We-e-e-ell,” Nathan said, framing his features as apologetically as he could. “Sorry, but all he said was, ‘Later, eunie.'”

The half-circle of men shifted. Its two leaders frowned and Nathan could sense a rising emotional response. Quickly, he added, “He also included a dancing eunie pix.”

Giant burst out laughing, joined by the man to Lizard’s left. Nathan allowed himself a smile as well; and was relieved to see Tod, then Lizard reply in kind.

Lizard put his hand on Nathan’s shoulder again and rested it there. They locked eyes and Nathan was surprised at his opponent’s severely bloodshot-rimmed gray irises. Think dumb. Think dumb, Nathan willed to his own blue pair.

“Funny guy, that Shin.” Lizard said. His gang quieted down. He looked back at Tod, who nodded. Once. “Thing is, the guy owed us a little something.” Nathan saw Lizard lick his bottom lip before continuing. “Something dope. Get it?”

“Oh.” Swallowing, Nathan continued looking up at the bigger man with as much open trust as he could pretend. “Shin never told. I thought he was clean.”

The fourth man in the group broke into a laugh again, cut off by something Tod did that Nathan could not see. Lizard’s mouth twisted into a hard smile. “Not clean by a ways.” He backed up and removed his hand but kept watching Nathan’s face. “I like you, Nathaniel. You’ll tell us when Shin messages, won’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, and Nathan knew it.

 

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