Skinwalkers, XXII

A very hurried citycross led Nathan and Shin back to Ware Tech, back to Check In, and back in front of any humanoid’s least favorite supervisor.

“What took you ladies so long?” Choms leered as they entered. Not one of the room’s occupants laughed, but the odious man never needed outside confirmation of his incredible wit.

Nathan ducked his head and shrugged. He felt out of air, and moved past Choms and a few peers to deposit their gear. Shin, on the other hand, straightened. The graying storm cloud of despair moved aside and glorious midmeal light shone upon his face.

“We gotta go back next shift,” he explained, flippantly. Choms immediately puffed up in fury. Just before he released his usual torrent of inaccurate, angry reprimands; Shin added, “Oh, and I need to quit. See you never!”

He cheekily patted the spluttering Choms on a sweaty shoulder, then spun around and skipped a bit to his locker. Nathan stood by the bench, torn between shock and hilarity. His friend looked up and they shared a very brief moment of incredulous amusement before –

“Whaddya mean QUIT?! There’s formals, you dirk!” As Choms erupted into an ever-swelling wave of profanity and indignation, Shin calmly activated his locker and dumped his satchel in the bottom. Nathan winced at the sound of the autodrill and drivers impacting the metal; his friend seemed even happier.

Shin slammed the door so forcefully that Nathan saw his reflection wobble in his own locker door. Oblivious, Shin strode purposefully up to the still-shouting Choms; said, “I’ll need my depart charge.”

Their flustered supervisor literally shook with rage. Words now eluded him as that area of his small mind became engrossed in processing a reaction to Shin’s request. Nathan could watch Choms’ thought process through varying skin hues and feature contortions across the ugly man’s face.

After a full moment, Choms managed to activate his tablet. A moment more, and he’d fumbled open Shin’s work record. The instant Shin saw the prompt, he scanned his comm beneath the sensor. The paltry paycycle loaded; Shin’s work permissions simultaneously disabled.

If he thought he could do so without losing a limb this time, Nathan was sure Shin would have patted Choms again. “I’ll exit you,” Nathan offered, closing his locker and coming forward. He and Shin moved around Choms, who was still trying to get his voice to function.

Nathan activated the door just as Choms finally burst out with, “You’ll need to return that liner, you know!”

Shin stopped at the doorway, turned, and looked Choms right in the eye. He removed a pocketlight and ignited the tiny concentrated flame. Without breaking eye contact, he slit his company liner from knee to collar. He capped the pocketlight and stepped out of the charred-edge fabric.

A useless shell and acrid stench were all Shin left behind, as he gleefully left in only the skin birth gave to him.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXI.

Skinwalkers, XXI

A full shift later, Nathan and Shin followed their less-than-ebullient guide back through the lift and out the service entry. It left them in the alley, returning inside after commenting on how happy it would be to endure their company next shift as well.

Next shift, Nathan realized, he’d need a new partner. He and Shin stood amongst the other unwanted garbage of Carapace and swung their tired limbs in the premeal air.

“Gotta get back to Chomsy,” Shin said, after a bit. He smiled ruefully. “I need that last load if I don’t wanna walk back to The Virginias.” They started back through a shadowy cityscape, their path lit by building glows and occasional autoads.

*Low on load? Fastcred’s here to help* crooned a male voice of exactly the right tone and timber. Nathan couldn’t help but feel reassurance, almost a calming, as he walked through the visual and heard its words. He stopped just past the autoad’s glow. Confused, Shin halted beside him.

“Shin,” Nathan began. “Have you tried -” He stopped himself. Suddenly aware, suddenly suspicious, he scowled at the embedded adsensor they’d just activated.

“Ayight?” his friend asked. Nathan did not respond. “N? Nathaniel?”

“That was different,” Nathan finally answered.

“Oh?” Shin sounded curious, but wary. “Let’s keep walking -a bit guttery.” Nathan glanced up; they shared a look. Together, they continued down the citypath, intentionally walking nearly in the deserted street.

“So?” Shin prompted. His slipshods barely gripped the walkedge; he exaggerated the effort required to balance.

Nathan smiled at his friend’s antics, but could not be moved to full-out laughter. He felt deeply shaken, even violated. “I think,” he said, and could not find the right words. “I think that wasn’t sensory.”

Spinning, Shin tried his balancing trick backwards. His flailing arms and waving legs did not match his serious expression. He raised an eyebrow; queried, “Then what was it?”

Nathan slipped a bit on the edge. Regaining the path, he mumbled, “It influenced me.”

Shin took a misstep and stumbled dangerously close to an autodrive strip. Recovering, he climbed back out of the street and next to his preoccupied friend. Another autoad flickered to life and they jumped aside as if burned.

*Drink your meals the natural way.* Symphonic music swelled and a grassy, beast-less Outlands scene played. The projection became encapsulated in a virtual bottle, which poured into a virtual glass. *LIVE has everything you need, for a charge that’s hard to believe.”

Nathan and Shin uncharacteristically watched the ad to completion. It flickered off, returning two sobered expressions to building-light darkness. Shin turned to Nathan. “Might be a good thing to die in a cave after all.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XX.

Skinwalkers, XX

Nathan found most of hardware upkeep monotonous and repetitive. Given his and Shin’s current location inside Carapace, however, his senses were acutely more strained. He stole a glance at his friend. Shin wore the same introspective expression he’d modeled at Check In.

Nathan withdrew a tray and bowed over it with his currentmeter. Under cover of verifying a key bus, he studied Shin more closely. His friend sighed as he worked at a pace that would shame a lamed elder. His brows drew together; his face drew together. A small storm cloud hung over Shin’s dreary, hunched form. Nathan set his personal anxieties about Carapace aside.

“So, what’s itching you?” He casually asked.

He was rewarded with the nearly silent *clink* *clink* of a circuit board against metal side mounts and the eternal hum of machines and fans. Shin exhaled loudly, then answered, “Nothin’, Nathaniel. Thanks for asking.”

They finished a rack. Five down, thousands to go, thought Nathan. He and Shin stood and stretched their arms and legs before squatting in front of Rack #6. Each man removed a tray and began inspecting it.

“I’m not buying that,” Nathan said, in between trays.

“Good,” Shin quipped, shaking a tray slightly toward him. “‘Cause you can’t even afford a capacitor on this.”

Nathan laughed. “Nice.” They worked in computer silence once more, before he tried again. “You know what I meant. You look like my Grams at a deathing.” He glanced over and caught the end of Shin’s smile, just before it sunk back to its habitual frown.

They stretched, then opened Rack #7. “I gotta leave,” Shin mumbled. Nathan almost didn’t hear him.

“What? Why?”

*Clink* Hmmmm *Clink*

“Are you running?” Nathan asked. Shin didn’t seem the sort to be in trouble, but one never knew these days. Even he, Nathan, had gotten tangled in some less than legal dealings recently.

Shin coughed out a bitter laugh. “Nah, N. I just ran out of charge.” They each withdrew another tray from the tower. “The place is getting deactivated tomorrow,” he explained from a pretend-close scrutiny of the circuitry in his hands.

“Oh,” Nathan said. “Sorry.” The housing in the city may not have been picturesque, but he knew eviction black-marked one’s record for years. They worked their way through racks 7 thru 10 without adventure. “What are you going to do?”

Shin shrugged and returned a tray to its rack. “Go back home, I guess.”

“Oh.”

“Probably get stuck in a shaft before payment.”

“Oh? The mines are that bad, huh?”

Shin didn’t answer; just smiled sadly. “I’ll send you a shiny rock before it happens,” he offered.

Nathan forced a laugh, attempting a lighthearted sound. “All right, Shin,” he said. “But if it’s not shiny, I demand an in-person replacement!”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIX.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXI.

Skinwalkers, XIX

The corridor Nathan and Shin entered was light like the aftermeal air outside, but without ambient smog and fumes. Carefully mirroring his friend, Nathan took a deep inhale of pure air. Shin looked back at him, and they shared a smile.

“Now, that is tasty,” Shin commented. They proceeded down the enclosed hallway, breathing drawn-out intakes every few steps and grinning like addicts.

Soon they reached a terminating wall. There did not seem to be an access pad of any sort. “Hello?” Nathan called, glancing at edges and corners in case of surveillance. He saw none.

“That’s odd,” Shin said. He rubbed his chin, though Nathan could see that his facial hair had been burned within the last week.

Just then, the wall swung inwards in a sudden and violent manner. Nathan caught a shadowy, disapproving form before intentionally dropping his eyelids partway closed. He lowered his shoulders, hunching slightly, and leaned against the glowing wall. Shin did not notice. He stared at the humanoid apparition like a mental, fixated on his own surprise.

The shadow spoke. “Ware Tech, I hope.” Its androgynous tone gave nothing away of its feelings besides the usual contempt for laborers. Nathan heard a shift of heavy feet on tile as the person walked away. As he and Shin followed, it added, “You idiots never try opening the door.”

Nathan and Shin shuffled along. They knew better than to answer their guide. They valued employment more highly than personal honor.

Although the hulking human shape leading them took up most of the hallway, Nathan was able to see that their path ended in a polished wall just ahead. Accordingly, they stopped upon reaching it. “Jo, is that a plant?!” Shin exclaimed. Their guide, ignoring this further proof of idiocy, removed a comm and ran it behind the fern Shin had just noticed.

*Ding* sang a pleasant note, and the wall opened to reveal a lift. They entered, just behind their guide. The wall closed. They rode in semidark silence for a long, silent jiff. Another chime drew the lift door to the side, revealing a darker, colder hallway.

The Carapace representative took the lead again, though Nathan hardly saw the point. This corridor held no exits nor entries; it existed solely for leading laborers like him and his friend down its burrow-like length, to terminate in one possible place.

Sure enough, the unnamed employee led them to the inevitable end: a set of green doors. Nathan hadn’t seen real, industrial doors since his childhood. The ones before him glared from metal-grid windows set in green metal sockets. They resembled the shed doors of the only doctor’s office in the small community Nathan had grown up in. Having little population and little funding, the doctor had resourcefully run his entire business from that shed.

Without hesitating, their large guide activated the door with its comm. They all entered, and all stood for at least a moment in awe. Racks and desks and shelves and hooks held row after row of hardware. The entire room hummed and whirred to the stirring samba of a million cooling fans.

The overweight overseer gestured to a far cluster. “You’ll start there,” it said, then folded its arms expectantly.

“Oh. Of course,” Shin answered, when Nathan did not.

He and Nathan lifted their satchels more securely over their shoulders and proceeded to the suggested cluster. “This won’t be easy,” Shin mumbled.

“Nope.”

“Bet we can’t even listen to streams.”

“Probably not.”

Nathan and Shin reached the cases The Lump had more or less indicated. Sighing their usual preamble, they got to work.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XVIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XX.

Skinwalkers, XVIII

Nathan’s worried thoughts fueled a helpless anxiety. They chased each other round his head like feral Outlands beasts of some sort, snarling without reason or satiation.

“Look out!” Shin exclaimed, grabbing at Nathan. He managed to grasp at enough of Nathan’s thin upper arm to stop his oblivious pace, just as a large transport swung a sharp right directly at their toes.

*Cheerp!* *Cheerp!* Called the trafficsection signal, as the exhaust from the retreating vehicle still rose in the putrid city air.

Nathan exhaled; turned to his friend. “Thanks.”

“Yep.”

They crossed. “It’s just further proof that the autodrives aren’t perfect,” Nathan noted as they walked down the citypath.

He glanced back at Shin, and was rewarded with a half-smile; a, “Nope.” A moment of even treading later, Shin added, “They still don’t solve stupidity.”

Nathan, who’d nearly been enveloped in his worries again, was a bit slow to hear the truthful tease. He stumbled, and turned a quick look to Shin. Shin’s eyes seemed focused on their path ahead, as he grinned broadly. Nathan took the moment of distraction to punch his friend’s shoulder.

“Ow!” Shin reacted, surprisingly pained. Quickly, he covered with a playful laugh. He pretended a return punch; but, Nathan noted, with his other arm.

*I only use sultronous* a sultry female autoad crooned. Her image dropped the towel it had barely been wearing to begin with. *Because I need my skin touchably soft.*

They walked through her without comment, stopping at their last crossing. Shin stole a quick glance at Nathan. “Did you feel something at that last one?”

Nathan considered. “Yeah,” he realized. “I thought they weren’t going to add sensory to the street ads, though.”

“Well,” Shin answered, nodding at the ever-present street dwellers, “Guess they’ll learn.”

“Yeah,” Nathan repeated. His friend’s comment drew him back to when sensory modifications had first been introduced. Every advertiser had clamored to use them and the citypaths had been saturated in perfumes, breezes, and flashing lights -until the dwellers systematically cannibalized them for parts. One sensory mod covered a week’s worth of hits from the right vendor.

“If they’ve got a way to get around it,” Nathan posited, “we ought to look into it. I could use new slipshods.”

“And I could use a hit,” Shin replied.

They walked to the other path, past two buildings, then stopped. Shin gave a low, appreciative whistle at the sight of the monolith before them. “Check that shade,” he marveled. He tilted his head back, attempting to see where Carapace’s grey pinnacle reached grey-clouded sky.

“C’mon,” urged Nathan, turning away.

Regretfully, Shin abandoned his scrutiny. Together, they stepped to the neighboring alley. As with most of their assignments, the service side was less impressive than the streetside façade. Still, this one was cleaner and more secure than most.

Adjusting his satchel, Shin approached the access door. After groping around various pockets, he found and withdrew his comm. Nathan watched him place it on the sensor; watched the familiar green activation light.

The entry slid open, and they went inside.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XIX.

Skinwalkers, XVII

Nathan stumbled slightly, as he found his own hand automatically lifting toward the scanner. He recovered quickly enough to avoid suspicion, refusing to meet Choms’ mistrustful glare or Shin’s questioning brow lift.

He and Shin shuffled out together, tightening their tool satchels and ensuring their comms were safely pocketed.

Once beyond the exit and out on the street, Nathan set a rapid pace. Just a moment before, he’d been ready to interrogate Shin regarding his friend’s oddly sad expression. Now, he sought to avoid just such an inquisition from Shin. Unfortunately, Shin kept his constitution in good health and shape. He had no trouble keeping up with Nathan, though he recognized Nathan’s obvious attempts to avoid conversation.

*Liners to love; liners that don’t leave you lacking* Bragged an auto-ad as they passed.

It was interrupted by *Sirius Sustenance Supply is serious about more than sustenance…*, which was cut off by,

*Need a skin on the cheap? Look no further than Fantastique!*

Nathan’s unusually fast speed made the ad sensors flash on and off more quickly than they were designed to activate. He and his work partner walked through oddly overlapping projections all down the main stretch of the city.

After nearly a tick of rushing, Nathan finally realized what a funny spectacle he and Shin made. He laughed aloud, startling Shin. “Two Grunts, speedwalking at aftermeal,” he explained, slowing a bit. Shin smiled a half-smile of supportive humor.

They stopped at a trafficsection, their slipshods activating the embedded pedestrian sensors. Shin turned to Nathan carefully. “Nathaniel?” he asked.

“Hmm?” Nathan answered, feigning aloofness.

“Why are we speedwalking?” The signal flashed and chirped, so they moved forward and crossed. “What’s itching you?”

Nathan pretended concentration on the citypath beneath their feet. He slowed their pace further, realizing Shin was too astute a companion to be fooled by his childish efforts of avoidance.

Still, he couldn’t let Shin know about his job interview. He looked skyward; shrugged. “I just heard something about Carapace during my Advancement Studies. I felt a little surprised that they’d hire us.”

Mollified, Shin nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed aloud. Now was his turn to laugh, albeit less jovially. “Maybe they can’t get their own workers to dirty their gloves.”

Lost in thought, Nathan heard Shin’s jibe a bit late. He covered with his own chuckle a jiff after. “Probably true,” he said. Still, he couldn’t shake a paranoid thought that kept surfacing.

What if they know? He wondered. Then what would he do?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XVIII.

Skinwalkers, XVI

Solicitous queries were nearly forming on Nathan’s lips when Choms -the devil supervisor, himself- entered the room. Shin would have to wait. Nathan found analyzing their boss imperative to job security and workplace safety.

Luckily, Choms’ entrance had been a fairly average one for him: sudden, but on time; no bellowing; nothing being slammed or dropped; and the people nearest the door had not been pushed out of the way. Choms stood smugly, looking like the world had better not even touch him. Those still left under his jurisdiction were only too happy to comply. In fact, Nathan was sure that most of humanity was happy to comply.

He strapped his tool satchel around his body. Shin stood, blocking Choms’ view so that Nathan could check his contents without reprimand.

“All right, ladies!” Choms began. His staff was purely male, and he knew it. He also knew the social repercussions of specifically naming and insulting a certain sex; Nathan doubted the man could ever by induced to care. “We’ve got a busy shift today!” Choms continued. Drawing his tablet importantly up to rest against his obvious gut, the bellowing beast of a man tried to scroll down its display with flair.

Nathan heard Shin sigh; anything louder might be grounds for dismissal in these depressed times. Nathan took the opportunity to examine his least-accessible pocket and found it lacking an autodrill.

“Right!” Choms yelled, jabbing a fat finger on the screen dramatically. “We’ve got ten customers to get to. Grab a partner” -here, he simpered sarcastically over the term, “and get out of here before I have to look at you.”

The ugly man cannot find love, even in himself, Nathan found himself musing, then stopped as his own face briefly reflected in his locker’s somewhat-mirrored door. Hastily, he withdrew his autodrill from the floor of it, grabbed a few rags and an extra container of compressed air, and shut his image away.

He and Shin, by unspoken agreement, turned and shuffled forward as “partners.” They waited near the front of a queue of equally enthusiastic workers.

Choms was systematically running down his list. “Fanta!” He barked, and two men silently scanned their comms beneath the tablet. They moved tiredly out the exit door behind Choms. Meanwhile, the barking boss had already moved on to, “Fantastique!”

Nathan noted a slight hesitancy in the wavering lift of the next workers’ comms. He recognized Tod and Lizard, from working past details together. He knew they probably would not have raised their comms at all, if not for the automatic instruction their brains had already given to be ready. -Not like they could refuse; but perhaps the friends could have “accidentally” pushed another pair ahead in line if they’d had time to think.

An unusual murmur of commiseration passed down the line. No one liked performing jobs at the notorious Fantastique: a hodgepodge business of mostly illegal dealings, located in one of the worst areas of the metropolis. The most lethal weapon Nathan and his coworkers carried was acid cleaner, meant to simply dilute acidic compounds on infected hardware.

“Shut it!” Their loving and understanding supervisor snapped. Tod and Lizard hunched out the door to their fate. Two more sullen workers moved forward; they were assigned, “Diaplex.”

Now, Shin stood just before Choms. He could have kissed the edge of Choms’ tablet if necessary. Nathan could smell Choms’ cheap stall-wash mixed with genetically-overpowering body odor.

Choms squinted next to his finger, and announced their assignment, “Carapace!”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XVII.

Skinwalkers, XV

Nathan exchanged the wristwatch and his original comm for the one resting secretly in the nightstand. “‘Bye, Grandpa,” he said, just before closing the drawer with a secure *click*. He retrieved his slipshods from the floor and rushed out into the bathroom.

This time, he yanked open the topmost drawer to locate his toothwash. Whilst he swished and swirled it inside his mouth for the recommended moment, he studied the reflection of a very human face in a very splotchy mirror. His cheeks bulged slightly with wash, but he thought that abnormality actually helped his plain and pockmarked visage.

After spitting out the solution, he made a hurried check for unexpected stubble. He wasn’t due to burn again for another week, but the odd case of a hair or two somehow avoiding purge did come up.

With or without extra facial hair, it was time to go. Nathan returned the toothwash to its spot, grabbed his new comm and slipshods, and headed out the door. He paused just long enough to slap the doorscan to lockdown the apartment, and to dress his feet.

The traffic sounds reaching him now were steadier, though an occasional large vehicle-bellow interrupted the vehicular white noise. He skipped quickly up the cracked cement stairs and began jogging down the block.

Many a strung-out street dweller turned his head at Nathan’s rapidly flying form. Those too far gone to know up from down or side from side merely dreamt a vision more real than life, of a skinny laborer sprinting past their cardboard home.

Puffing, panting, and pausing to collect his breathing brought Nathan within reach of his employer’s station. He continued jogging, albeit more slowly. He came to a large, black doorway at the building’s sunside. A green light flitted briefly across the panel he scanned. The door pulled to the side and he entered.

When he’d first been accepted to this job, he’d worked nights. Each time the door had opened then, he’d felt he was walking into an unknown cave. Surely something was lurking; waiting to grab him. Maybe his nightmares lay around, wanting to jump out and yell, “Boo!” They’d have a contest to see who was scariest, invariably ending in a draw.

Aftermeal sunshine, however, often shone at the lucky time he began this new shift. It lit up just enough of the space to lead him in a glowing path to the beginning of where autolights finally took over illumination.

Nathan walked forward quickly. He stopped outside a door reading Check In. Scanning his comm, he entered as soon as the door moved to allow him. A few, lingering coworkers were just finishing gear-up. The rest milled noisily about. As he moved to his own locker, he saw his friend, Shin, sitting on a bench.

“Sup, Shin?” He asked pleasantly, opening his assigned locker with his comm.

Shin looked up, and Nathan could see that Shin also appeared smaller and sadder than usual. Despite that, the older man smiled wryly.

“Hey, Nathaniel,” Shin answered. “Long time no see.”

 

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

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 and distant. He stuffed the last of the burrito in his mouth and returned to his bedroom. The watch must have not been fully strapped on, and had pulled loose with his twisting movements. Finally, he found it 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.
Read to Skinwalkers, XV.

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.