Skinwalkers, XIV

“BOY! Where are you, Boy?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIII.

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.

Skinwalkers, XII

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Use the drops?” Franks asked.

“Yep.”

“Ouch.”

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Skinwalkers, XI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Skinwalkers, X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Skinwalkers, IX

“Be that as it may,” Caill interjected, “We would certainly need someone with direct experience in such areas to even attempt the task…”

Nathan allowed her to ramble, to warm to her subject. Little did she know that he was learning about her personality, approach, nervous habits, feelings, and fears. The sensation he felt was almost like mind-reading. Like a telepathic sponge, he read nearly every bit of her person.

What would his dear father have said now? Nathan frowned slightly, knowing the answer would still have been an ignorant reprimand of a useless talent and wasted years learning more about it. “The Military, Kid,” the old man would have said, “That’s all you’re good for now. They always need targets.”

Caill was winding down. He brought his attention back to the present to hear, “Carapace simply can’t consider promises alone, no matter the reassurances given.” Her angular face pointed to aim directly at his. Her deeply-colored eyes coolly met his own rigid blue ones.

“Indeed,” he replied, equally cool. “How beneficial, then, that I have exactly the experience you mention.” Withdrawing his comm and setting it atop the touchsurface before them, he enunciated a single word: “Carapace.” Obediently, the small device projected a two-dimensional graph into the air. The white outline and red plot points reflected from three pairs of executive eyes.

Nathan gestured at his glowing creation. “Perhaps you’ve heard of a little company named Photap.”

“Of course-” Caill began, eager to interject, but he ignored her interruption and continued.

“I led a team of Advancement students for three months.” Nathan pointed at the dates listed under his image. “These three months,” he added. A pretty blue line climbed an extremely steep slope from the first plot point to the second during his indicated time period. “Photap had been working for over a year to gain front page report status, and ‘allowed’ our team to work on it because they found it impossible. As you can see from the rest of the data, their market was all uphill from there.”

At his statement, the blue line continued rising between points. It topped out beyond the last; forming into a dainty little arrow that intentionally pointed beyond the reaches of his y-axis number counts.

Pul, again, made a noise of surprise. “Your team brought about Photap’s sudden climb?” He asked, disbelieving.

“Yes.”

Stone cleared his throat. Perhaps Nathan had convinced him, but the man did not wish to let Caill and Pul know of his opinion. “So, this was documented?” Stone asked.

Unlike Caill, Stone seemed stoic merely from tired habit. Nathan felt much safer fencing questions from him, though the others were obviously still present to hear what responses he might give. “I have some documentation, yes,” Nathan told him. Caill twitched involuntarily; she’d clearly not expected an affirmative.

“So, where is it?” Pul asked excitedly. “Next image?”

Caill snorted somewhat, as Nathan hesitated. “You don’t have the documentation?” She asked. If only she would make as much effort to mask her tone as her expressions, Nathan thought, Caill might actually make it to whatever higher-level position she sought.

“I have documentation, but it’s classified,” He adjusted the watch at his wrist, then desisted. Who was exhibiting nervous habits now? He chastened himself. Aloud, he expounded, “I never break an agreement with an employer.”

The three sat in silence for a few moments. Caill’s face showed some disbelief, Pul’s was of a happier animation, and Stone appeared to be thinking.

Finally, Caill spoke, “Are we to believe your claims when you have no backup documentation?”

“No,” Nathan told her, levelly. “You are to know my claims are true because I said they were. Rest assured, I have all the knowledge needed to undertake this task.” He sat back slightly, aiding an impression of power and authority. “Now, onto my ‘direct experience’ with epidermal conditions,” he stated, intentionally quoting Caill’s phrase.

Looking down at his comm again, he voiced another single word: “Skinwalkers.”

 

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

Skinwalkers, VIII

“We had many applicants for this assignment,” Caill moved along, pretending they were engaged in everyday business; and not, as Nathan easily felt, a psychological battle. These were the only situations in which he felt grateful to his father’s unethical methods of child-raising. He might offer some post-mortem prayer of thankfulness, had he not known that the man had no altruistic motives behind the lifelong abuse.

Outwardly, he straightened somewhat and met Caill’s stare. He almost forgot to blink, since the sensation to do so had been removed with the eyedrops. Caill was equally cool; he suspected she needed no solutions to maintain her composure. Even her body language stayed in control. Given just the one tick he had been in her company, he would not have been surprised to learn that she controlled internal body functions one normally classified as autonomic.

Stone shifted slightly. “Tell us what you would bring to Carapace,” he said, also focusing on Nathan. To his side, Pul assumed a similar posture.

You’re on, Nathan told himself. Blessing his naturally-deep voice, he began his practiced speech. “Carapace is the leader in epidermal attachment procedures, by known reputation. Any person or entity in need of the latest advancements knows exactly which company to contract with.”

His words had echoed powerfully back from the hard surfaces of the bathroom at home, when he’d said them repeatedly since the interview notification. Here, he fought the muting of fabric surfaces.

There, his own pale features had watched him from the mirror. Here, three impassive faces reflected minuscule reactions.

“My goal is to bring Carapace to the forefront of any report; to finally ensure it receives the deserved recognition for being the foremost in its field.” Pul let out a small gasp, though Nathan was certain all three understood the import of his words. “My team will only raise the image Carapace shows the commercial market. They will understand hard work. They will work for the taste of winning. They will succeed.”

He realized he expected the lingering echo of his bass tones, as had happened during practice. Mentally crossing his fingers, he awaited the executives’ responses.

Caill thawed from the effect of his answer first. He pictured her like an arctic wolf, shaking his words from her thick coat like irritating bits of snowy fluff. Thus relieved, she warmed to conversational repartée. “Those are strong ambitions. I’m not certain you know the impossibility of such a goal.”

Her observation nudged Stone toward a similar realization more quickly than his mental abilities would have otherwise. “Our legality section has studied report recognition since Carapace went public -” he began.

“All the more reason for action,” Nathan cut him off. “We need to move before their influencers embed even more limitations. We need quick, precise solutions or Carapace will never be #1 as it deserves.”

Caill opened her mouth; closed it again. Clearly, he thought, she was changing tactics. She couldn’t know that he had anticipated any she might consider. “How exactly would a person of your situation and background expect to achieve that, or your other goals?” She tried to sound casual, yet haughtiness tinged her tone.

Nathan couldn’t help but smile, though he managed to release it as a determined, knowing smugness. He felt extremely pleased that Caill had phrased her insult so subtly. Clearly, she acknowledged his intelligence in the delivery, though she fought dirty in the content.

“My background is in detailed reference research, epidermal conditions, and institution management,” he began. Caill waved a perfect hand to interrupt, but he ignored her. “Besides this information, what you will know from this meeting is that I always do what I say.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers VII.
Read to Skinwalkers,  IX.

Skinwalkers, VII

Nathan found his attention diverted by infinitely more distractions on this level, though he forced it to focus on the three executives he walked behind. They set a rapid pace, clearly accustomed to scenes he was not.

After leaving the plant-furnished area beyond the entry doors, the hallway they took had immediately entered a large, busy working space. Unit after unit filled the areas to his right and left. Their raised screens pulsed and shifted with information. Figures and graphs rose and dragged with data collectors’ finger swipes. A talking reporter described current events, was paused, then resumed.

A growing excitement built inside Nathan at the sight of it all. His mind easily fell back the few short years it had been since he was last immersed in technological industry, during Advancement Studies. Simultaneously, he tasted the bitter regret of his forced, premature removal.

This time, he thought, No one will take it from me. He’d made it on his own, now. He would make it the rest of his life on his own merits.

The suited backs he had been following paused momentarily outside a window wall. A panel moved and they entered. Nathan followed, entering likewise. Four chairs rested around the sides of a hexagonal touchsurface table near the space’s middle. Three of the chairs were closer together, and to those the executives drew.

This side of the window walls was tinted in some fashion. Nathan suspected them to be dimmable, like the natural daylight of the entire complex. These details were noted from his peripheral vision, and he strove to maintain a businesslike composure and not move his attention from his interviewers.

He sat as quickly as he carefully could, across from the triad of black suits. The woman crossed her ankles, folded her hands in her lap, and gave him a critical inspection. The men to her side chose a side-by-side foot position, relaxed hands on thighs, and less-sardonic expressions during their scrutiny.

Nathan waited. His wristwatch chose to beep again, which startled his examiners. They spent a few seconds locating the source, then relaxed once the watch was identified. Man #2 laughed outright. “Why do you have that?” He demanded.

Keeping his face straight, Nathan replied, “To tell time.”

Now was the woman’s turn to laugh. As Nathan suspected, the sound was that of a suddenly freed bird: surprised, uncontrolled, and unnatural. “Ask a stupid question, Pul,” she rudely teased the man who’d first spoken. The left corner of Pul’s mouth pulled downward as his eyes sullenly registered her insult.

“It’s an interesting artifact …like your outfit,” she stated. She gazed at Nathan, challenge in her eyes. He couldn’t tell if she was referring to his skin, the suit, or even his behavior. This woman was tricky. Whether she was fully skinned or no, he bet she could hold that stony exterior in any situation.

Confidence, he told himself. I can play this game. Aloud, he answered, “Thank you.”

He thought he saw surprise cross her face, if briefly. The latest model of skin, then, if present.

“Now that we’ve discussed what a wristwatch is,” the woman continued, “Let’s begin where we traditionally do, with introductions.” She squared her shoulders, sitting up more fully. “I am known as Caill.”

“I am Stone,” Man #1 immediately offered.

“And I’m Pul, as you heard,” Pul ended. His discomfort at Caill’s blatant reprimand was still written in his lips and his glowering eyes.

Mentally, Nathan flexed his muscles. Caill was clearly a difficult one, but he intended to show her he was up for the challenge. He would play her games, and he would win.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, VI.
Read to Skinwalkers, VIII.

Skinwalkers, VI

In truth, the smile was still not the sort Nathan was accustomed to seeing in his mirror at home. Another man’s high cheekbones lifted slightly, a stranger’s ears shifted, and someone’s symmetrical features were the ones expressing pleasure.

It was his eyes, he realized. Despite the effects of his eye drops, a sort of relaxed, inner light shone through. He’d assumed there was nothing left inside, nothing he would describe with words like light, anyway.

He looked down, unnecessarily adjusting his antique wristwatch.

Merely seconds after closing, the lift sang its pleasant tone again. Nathan watched his reflection shimmer and pull to one side, to be replaced by the reception area of whatever level he’d been ferried to. This one also held plants, swaying and contributing to the delectable taste of unpolluted air.

The artistically arranged plants stood a balanced sentry against a paneled, daylight-glowing wall. Exiting and turning to look around, Nathan noted a vacant podium of sorts to his right. It stood near two large, closed doors. Accordingly, he approached. He withdrew his comm and ran it along the top and sides, but nothing activated.

He frowned, and walked to its backside. Still nothing. He looked, instead, to the wall-sized entryway. How would he get in?

Nathan paused for a few seconds, indecisively. Then, he recalled his morning-long mantra of confidence. He walked forward, and pushed at the doors. They moved inward, without any resistance. If he’d been in his own, lightweight skin, he would have fallen forward onto his ugly, imperfect face.

He would have landed right at the feet of a small audience, as well.

Three well-dressed, well-shod, and handsome business executives stood waiting. They seemed completely unsurprised to see him, a sentiment Nathan did not share. Suspecting surveillance equipment of some sort, he chanced a careful half-turn to look behind. The doors he had moved so easily were nearly transparent.

He looked back to the waiting party; attempted a level expression. The woman stepped forward slightly. “N. Reed.” Her cool voice said. It was a statement. “Welcome.” Nathan returned her greeting with a barely-perceptible nod. She smiled an executive smile, the sort that lifts one’s mouth but never reaches above that point.

One of the men straightened and clasped his hands together. “Well,” he began in a deep tone, “Shall we?” In eerie accord, he and the other two turned and began walking down the hall and away from Nathan.

This was it. will do this, Nathan reminded himself. Squaring his shoulders and suit, he followed the crushed carpet footprints of his potential employers.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, V.
Read Skinwalkers, VII.

Skinwalkers, V

Nathan walked forward, gawking in the wonder of expensive surroundings. He sensed the door slide quickly and silently closed behind him. The expanse in front was more interesting, by far.

His basic-slipshod feet sank slightly into an opulently clean path of carpet. A solid, reflective flooring ran to either side of the path. Both led past a spacious, plant-furnished foyer to an impressive, raised reception desk of dark wood.

Daylight-simulation glowed from the walls, floor, and ceiling. He didn’t know how it could or how anyone could afford the affect.

In fact, any small corner of the area cost more than Nathan expected to earn in a lifetime. He couldn’t imagine, even, the price of actual plants; the price of keeping them alive was another phenomenal consideration.

“N. Reed?” a polite voice called from the desk. Her voice echoed pleasantly around the room to reach him, despite the foyer’s polished appearance.

Nathan swallowed; closed his slightly-agape mouth. He realized he’d been standing much like a castaway first waking on a beautiful island. The air felt so fresh, he could almost hear waves and taste airborne sea salt.

Straightening, he tried to regain some dignity as he walked toward the receptionist. The floor caving at each step distracted his feet. Green fronds swaying in the delicious currents whispered to his ears. Everything fought for his visual attention.

He reached the desk at last, and found that the young woman sitting there was yet another distraction. She smiled, making things worse. Mentally blessing the horrible Suspension Drops, he attempted to keep the rest of his face composed.

“Yes,” he answered. “I am Nathan Reed.” He tried to look collected, yet casual. All this must be normal. No, he wasn’t surprised by these settings. He couldn’t be; not someone as important as he.

“Wonderful!” she said, and appeared to mean it. Either she had one of the best skins money could buy -highly likely, considering what surrounded him- or she was very good at acting. “If you’ll scan your comm, here,” she tapped an unobtrusive panel at the top of the desk, “You’ll be able to proceed to the level you need through the lifts.”

At mention of her last statement, the receptionist brought her manicured hand from the panel to wave behind and to her right, at the wall. Squinting slightly, Nathan could see the outline of a door in the paneled wall.

His hand still held his comm. Nodding, he drew it to scan where she had indicated. A green bar briefly glowed, then faded. The lift, as it truly was, chimed a pleasant sound and its panel slid open. He pocketed his comm.

“Good luck,” the receptionist said, again seeming sincere. She also smiled again, which was unfair for someone with such flawless teeth and vivid eyes.

“Thanks,” he couldn’t help responding. He smiled, and wondered at the naturalness of it. Turning, he walked to and into the waiting lift. Its panel slid shut; his side was reflective, as he had hoped this morning.

Nathan was surprised at what he saw, though not for the reason he’d assumed while dressing. Yes, his appearance was strange for many reasons; however, it was the expression of lingering happiness that caught him the most off-guard.

When was the last time, he thought, that I smiled?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, IV.
Read Skinwalkers, VI.