Skinwalkers, XXVIII

Nathan scuttled nearer the cannibalized sensory modules as his friend got right to work. Before he fully settled onto the hard ground, however, something flew through the air and smacked him on his shoulder. It was the last meal bundle. “What the-” he began, looking up in time to see the tartlet falling toward him as well. In startled automatic response, he caught it.

“Smooth,” Shin said, glancing over. He laughed, deactivated power to the area, and began removing restraining bolts with the autodrill.

Nathan relaxed into a sitting position on the hard floor and watched Shin. He attempted to eat the food station’s final offering, and was not surprised to find the tartlet as tasteless as the rest. “Good effort,” he told the machine, mock-toasting it with the singed dessert.

“I can quit, you know,” Shin replied, in a bit of a grunt. His left hand was up inside the wall, twisting his back in odd convulsions. His gaze flitted to the scanscreen clutched between his right hand and the wall, checking to see when he made the appropriate connection. “There!” Dropping the scanscreen to dangle from a twist of wires, he marched to his satchel and pulled out a few more tools.

“Hey!” Nathan exclaimed, as Shin trod heavily very near to Nathan’s slipshod feet in passing.

Shin feigned innocence; began adjusting an interior mechanism. “Soon’s you’re done, sleeper, get over here.”

Although he’d had no desire to finish it, Nathan took a deliberate, minuscule bite of the tartlet. He kept his expression empty, in an overall appearance of nonchalance. Another nibble. Then another.

Shin stopped, turned, and put his hand on his hip. One of his eyebrows drew upwards as his mouth puckered in a twist. He even tapped a foot. The worn soles echoed dully in the near-empty apartment.

The treat in Nathan’s hand proved too small to keep him from action for long. Besides, the suncycle was moving on and he needed to rest. His wristwatch beeped in agreement.

“What was that?” Shin asked, saw the watch, raised a truly curious face to Nathan’s.

“A wristwatch.”

“Well, obviou-”

“Whatcha need me for?” Nathan interrupted. He rose and walked to stand near his friend, waiting.

Shin drew in a breath, a bit hurt, but not pressing the question. “Drag the tools closer, if you can.” Grunting, Nathan complied. Shin worked in near silence for half a tick, keeping further comments restricted to which tool he needed or whether he wanted Nathan to support a crucial piece.

“I’m trustly, you know,” he said, finally. His focus shifted briefly to meet Nathan’s eye, then back to the screen.

Nathan sighed. “I know.” He pushed tantalizing thoughts of forever friendships and open trust far from his imaginations, and left the conversation where it was.

“Time for the cover again,” Shin said. They hefted it in place and secured it. Shin reactivated power and the machine defied Nathan’s gloomy expectations by whirring to life. They could hear the cooling mechanism humming, even more quietly than it had before. Shin smiled. “Try it.”

Doubtful of the outcome, Nathan leaned in and pressed the Midmeal button. An indistinct whir of gears came to him from the food station, and a countdown lit up the display. “I didn’t know it could do that!” He said, and laughed.

Shin smiled a ghost of his usual expression.

*Ding* sang the machine, and a perfectly-prepared meal bundle landed in the vending area. It was even steaming.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXIX.

Skinwalkers, XXVII

Nathan spent his premeal moment chewing and working through the stages of grieving, for his food station. He delighted in doing so, since he’d learned the stages from a mindagent to cope with his father’s passing. Applying them to an equally soulless but more useful machine was the perfect, “Shuck you!” the old man deserved.

He had just determined to prise open the cover and sell the contents before they rotted, when his apartment notified him of Shin’s arrival. “Access,” he told the security, not moving from his position on the hard floor. Half a jiff after hearing the rush of outside ambiance, Nathan was rewarded with the appearance of his old work friend yet again.

“Missed me?”

Nathan smiled and stretched out his legs. “Yeah. I needed to tug a bit and remembered your endshift show.”

Shin laughed. “No thanks!” He stopped within Nathan’s outspread legs, stretched, and dropped a bulging satchel with every appearance of a feigned accident.

“Hey!” Nathan automatically sat up straighter against the wall.

“What?” Shin answered innocently. He walked over to the wall, whistled at the dead station and its offerings, grabbed a bundle, and sunk down next to Nathan to eat it. “Did it ever make tasty meals?” he said whilst attempting to bite into the singed part.

“Not really.”

“Hm.”

After a moment, Nathan turned to his friend. “You still have your tools?”

Shin grunted. Chewed.

“I thought to dig out the other meals. Sell them.”

Grunt. Chew.

“All right, maybe just throw them at a few dwellers.” He couldn’t read anything committal on Shin’s face. “You have them or no?”

Sighing around a bulging mouthful, Shin sat up and leaned toward his satchel. He drew it toward them and opened the top. His eyebrows lifted slightly in smug humor as he pulled out an autodrill, electrical supports, fasteners, and a scanscreen. Nathan gasped. Before he could verbally react, however, Shin swallowed and his face broke into that sarcastic half-smile. Reaching back in, he further extricated around ten wire-wrapped circuit boards and laid them in a neat line nearer to Nathan’s sleeping area.

“Are those…?” Nathan began, but didn’t finish. He knew what they were, from the articles he’d read when street dwellers cannibalized the autoads a couple of planetcycles ago.

None my bizness,” Shin imitated smugly, matching the tone and delivery of the worker who’d snapped at them just that premeal. “Now,” he said in his own voice, “Let’s see about fixing your station. Maybe I can even get it to make food.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXVII.

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 his slipshod heels walked out in only the skin birth gave to him.

 

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

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.