Skinwalkers, XLVIII

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

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

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

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

THE END

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLVII.

Skinwalkers, XXV

Nathan’s solitary walk back to his own cement hole felt less solitary than usual, yet somehow more isolating. If only the cost of rent in the slums afforded them all the same luxuries it did in areas like Beta. Obviously, if that were the case, they’d not only be free from autoads. They’d also enjoy fewer street dwellers, less concentrated smog, lighter traffic, better living quarters…

Time and technology may move ever forward, he philosophized, but each suncycle passed much the same as it always had for humanity. What had his grandfather often said? “The toilet gets fancier, but we all still take a -”

N, man. How’s the air?” a familiar voice interrupted. Nathan’s thoughts returned to his current reality. His autodrive walking had led him down the citypaths, down the familiar cracked stairs to his entry, and, obliviously, down past Franks.

Nathan stopped and turned, clearing his face of concern. In the mere jiff of the movement, he relaxed his jaw, released his scowl, and widened his eyes slightly. “Franks?”

Fortunately, his neighbor was alone. Unfortunately, he appeared overloaded. Does the guy ever just eat and sleep? Nathan thought. Like most fixers, Franks also depended on the various substances he helped mix and distribute. Nathan almost felt sad for the emaciated, twitching man. Almost.

“You forgot to answer.” Franks’ shoulder jerked a millimeter, then again.

“I was at work.”

“Comms work at work.” Twitch.

“Not mine. What you need?”

Franks paced. “Neo.” Stop. Pace. Stop. Pace again.

Nathan spent a useless jiff wishing he knew what his unpredictable neighbor had taken recently. He had to get through this conversation before Franks hit an aggressive stage. There was no way he could afford the charge he owed to Franks’ contact before next paycycle. “Neo?”

Franks stopped, scuttled closer. Keeping his unshod feet flat on the ground, he tried to meet Nathan’s eye as he’d done the last time they’d met on the landing. Nathan blinked harmlessly. He watched Franks’ brows draw together in confusion; watched him look away and shake his head with a sharp jerk. “Neo…” he mumbled, as he stumbled back to his own entry.

Nathan continued watching as Franks managed to open the door, grope his way through, and activate living lockdown. He saw Franks fall to the floor just before the door slid home.

He allowed his pent-up tension out through a long, even exhale. “That was close,” he quietly told the empty landing. Though he felt drained enough to follow Franks’ example, Nathan decided to check his main comm before collapsing. Pulling out the one he’d used for work, he scanned open his own dark apartment.

He walked in and activated its security. Squinting into the cramped living space, he said, “Light.” The lights and his comm obeyed. He’d really have to change the activation word for one or the other, he mused. A few steps led him into the sleeping area; a few more, to his bed. He depressed the hidden night stand knob and switched comms. The night stand drawer closed.

10 new messages, the screen displayed. Feeling too tired to peer at its tiny surface, he said, “Display.” Nine queries from Franks floated in the air above the small, black device. One at the very bottom, however, was from Carapace.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XXIV

To say Shin breathed a little more easily would completely neglect the air quality in the metropolis slums, but Nathan did note his friend’s more casual step, his decrease in nervous clicking of the autolight he still carried.

Nathan was going to miss Shin, he realized. The slightly-older man’s antics just a tick prior had completely distracted Nathan from his selfish preoccupation with Carapace. Humor was not enough to save a man from small town occupations, however. Shin had teased about not returning from mining, but Nathan knew Shin’s levity was a flimsy veil for a very likely outcome.

Their premeal stroll was therefore tinged with an inevitable sadness, a knowledge of finality to a friendship with one of the last people whom Nathan felt knew his true person.

Thankfully.

This return trip was tinged by something else as well. Normally, he only saw traveling work crews out this early. He was accustomed to varying, dismal shades of company liners, all shuffling to or from the cement holes they slept and ate in. This suncycle, he saw an unusual number of standing, active, working clusters. The members wore colors and patterns he did not recognize. They were gathered at measured points down the paths, each participant attentive to his role.

Shin noticed the groups a few jiffs after Nathan did. “Whatch- ” he began, breaking off at the threatening glare of a man playing guard to a nearby cluster.

“Nonyer bizness,” Guard said, in case Shin were too thick to read a mere glare.

Shin and Nathan continued walking. None of their business, after all. Shin’s jolly jaunt grew more subdued with each busy crew they passed. At last, he and Nathan reached their juncture. They paused, lingering. “Whadya guess?” Shin asked, a waver to his tone.

“Dunno,” Nathan lied. His friend was leaving anyway; why concern him for his last quarter? He looked at Shin and was rewarded with the sarcastic half-smile he’d grown to count on each mundane work cycle. What could he say, after nearly a full planetcycle’s friendship? He coughed; settled on, “Stay fresh, all right?”

The half-smile became whole, retained its sarcasm. “K, Nathaniel. You, too.”

Each man turned; went his own way. Shin was most likely routing the lightest charge out to The Virginias, Nathan thought. They were the last musings he spent on Shin; for, though he worried for his friend, he felt a more urgent anxiety regarding the psychological effect he’d felt earlier from the Fastcred autoad.

His anxiety only increased as he passed group after group of workers busily installing ads all throughout the slums.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XXIII

Shin’s age-lined backside led Nathan through the shadowed dark of Ware Tech and to the entry. It paused, expectantly, till Nathan activated the door, then marched a bit floppily out into the dimly-lit city.

Nathan found himself as much at a loss for words as Choms had been, though for different reasons. Shin waited, his mouth twitching to keep a serious expression. Nathan was certain Shin could keep that smile fully at bay, since he knew Shin had studied facial forms and theatrics in Midpath Studies. Such subjects were discontinued shortly after Nathan moved on to Advancement; his father’s philistine views were shared by most.

“So….” his train of thought died as Shin turned his bemused, smug expression to face his friend. Nathan couldn’t resist; pent-up laughter burst out and shocked the silent air. Shin bent over, leaning forearms on thighs, as he joined in.

Only half a moment passed, and then they sobered to reality. Wiping at his eyes, Nathan said, “How you gonna get home, eunie?”

Shin sniffed. “I’m clearly not a eunie.” He straightened his posture, standing boldly erect in order to prove his claims; added, “In terms of getting back, I am not sure.” He deflated somewhat back to his usual stance and his smile became rueful. “I only have till midmeal before deactivation, too.”

The door behind them opened to low-voiced chatter, quickly stopped once the speakers saw Shin. The rest of their work shift were exiting; Nathan recognized a few of the men.

“Hey, Shin,” Lizard said, coming forward and slapping a hand on Shin’s naked shoulder. Shin flinched at the impact. “How’s the air?” Lizard laughed in a commiserating way, joined by one or two others. He dropped his hand and set it on his own waist.

“Quite a show back there with Chomsy,” a burly youth said. Nathan didn’t know the young man’s name; so far, he’d mentally named him Giant.

They all turned as another clump of people walked out of the building. This group stopped as well. “You’re quite the act,” Nathan whispered to Shin; who blanched slightly, but swung his arms in an unconcerned manner. He couldn’t exactly hide, Nathan thought, out there on the public citypath.

Someone from the back of the recently-exited crowd pushed forward. “Hey,” a midage man addressed Shin.

“Mons,” Shin said, in greeting.

“Thought you could use some cover,” Mons replied, shifting a small satchel from his left shoulder and carefully setting it on the ground. He was one of the few to carry anything besides a comm to work.

Mons reached in, removing a basic liner. Sealing the satchel and returning it to his back, he stood and offered the liner to Shin. “Hey, thanks!” Nathan’s slipshod-only friend said. He began putting it on, then stopped. “How much ya charge?”

The left eyebrow on Mons’ face raised slightly and his mouth flatlined.

“All right, all right.” Shin said, redacting his question. “I’ll get this back to you then.”

Mons shrugged. “Whenever.”

The show was less interesting now; their crew began breaking up. “Good luck, Shinny,” Lizard called, in parting. Others nodded, grunted, ignored; all walked off in the direction of the cheap rent areas of the metropolis.

Nathan and Shin glanced at each other, then followed a few steps behind the others. “Right decent,” Shin remarked after a moment.

“Truth.”

“Didn’t know people had that anymore.”

“Me, either.”

They continued walking, thinking. The citypaths were dirty and sported an occasional dwellershack. They could taste exhaust in the smog-ridden air. Their bodies ached for rest. Yet, as their cheap slipshod steps echoed against dense surroundings, the dim and dingy city somehow felt lighter.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXIV.

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 early 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.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXII.

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 street 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 others they’d visited.

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.