Skinwalkers, XLVI

They paused outside the door. “N. Reed; Pul,” Stone acknowledged, exiting just after they did. He continued past them and down the corridor. Nathan’s eyes adjusted to the lighting to watch the broad-shouldered man retreating and he realized the suspension drops’ influence had worn off. Worn off… Off… Something’s off… A thought struck him. Turning to Pul, Nathan exhaled and made a show of lightly stretching his shoulders and neck.

Pul chuckled. “That was some performance in there, Nathan Reed.”

Nathan stood up on his toes, continuing his casual pretense. “Thank you, Pul.” He stood flat again. “I thought I may as well fix six blemishes with one patch.”

Pul laughed again. “That you did.”

“Still,” Nathan continued, “I’d hate for you and the others to catch trouble for any damage or waste to that many materials.” He met Pul’s eyes and raised one brow. “I’d calm if I could see them delivered.”

He watched the expressive executive’s own eyebrows rise in surprise. Pul had clearly not thought of this possibility. “Oh! Oh, of course!” As Nathan desired, Pul then spun and reactivated the door behind them. His motions were more hurried than last time. Before the entry had pulled to the side completely, Pul was back inside the red-lit room. Nathan stood right behind him.

“Pul! What are you doing?” a familiar, shrill voice demanded. Nathan stepped to the side and saw just the woman he wished to, in just the position he suspected. Caill stood very near a work station in a stiff posture. Upon spying Nathan, her hands began twisting around each other.

Surprised, Pul cleared his throat. A jiff passed and he cleared it again.

Nathan moved around him and walked in Caill’s direction. “We returned to deliver the samples,” he said. “I thought you and your associates might want to ensure their safety.” Stopping a little over a meter away, he stared right at Caill’s eerily-shadowed face. “It would be a thick loss to Carapace otherwise.”

The proud and crafty woman, once a prowling wolf, seemed more an outlands rodent now. Her hands wound round and round, and she stepped back from him involuntarily.

“But, perhaps,” he said, and paused, “That is precisely what you were doing.”

“Oh!” Pul recovered. “Of course! That’s what you were doing, Caill.” He gave a nervous laugh and came forward as well. “Well, then -I guess we’ll help. Which stations have you packaged?”

Caill appeared to be trying to remember something, and Nathan suspected it to be how to think on her feet. “I… um,” she said. “I actually just got started.” She smiled at Pul; it looked painful.

“Right,” Pul responded. “Then I guess we’ll work on the last rows while you start where you’re at.”

The rabbit twitched her gaze from Nathan, to Pul, to her hands. She finally stilled her hands, sniffed at the air, and nodded. “O-of course.”

Nathan smiled and returned to assist Pul. Really, he thought, What other choice did Caill have?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVII.

Skinwalkers, XLV

The workers maintained their precise, quick pace through the remaining steps of membrane construction. Nearly a half-workcycle passed before the room’s red light illuminated a 10 centimeter square strip of perfect, useable synthdermal material at each station.

Nathan continued his roving inspections throughout, beginning them as a vulture and ending as an eagle. The team’s satisfaction was palpable. The judging executives’ surprised pleasure and respect was apparent in Stone‘s occasional nodding, Pul’s outright grin, and Caill’s pursed-lip jealousy. Nathan, himself, felt proud enough to burst through his Fantastique-owned skin.

He had passed the inpracticum, the second interview stage. He had to be the top pick; no other applicant would possibly think to change the program nor to watch for tricks.

“Set the bar so high, no one has a chance to even think to get a step stool,” his lab leader in Advancement Studies had told them all. Good old J. Wilson, onetime founder of the now-controversial Skinwalkers Corporation. “Never trust the skin you see,” was another of his. Nathan frowned, remembering the brilliant man. Too bad J. Wilson hadn’t applied his own advice about trust when public opinion went South, and Skinwalkers’ Heads needed a man to blame.

“Set your samples in suspension,” Nathan announced. The six workers complied, storing their scientific art in the appropriate bay beneath six desks. He watched and heard six pairs of hands disinfect just below the work surface, then clasp expectantly atop the same surface.

Almost in unison, they and Nathan turned to Stone, Pul, and Caill. There was a pause as the three in charge held a silent conversation. Stone nodded, and spoke aloud, “You may return to your normal cycle duties.”

Nathan felt a slight drop in the room’s happy environment as his temporary team accepted their perfunctory instruction and rose to comply. On impulse, he said, “Excellent work, everyone.”

The backward glances and pleased, hidden smiles of the workers touched him, even while the confused and shocked (in the case of Caill) expressions of the executives brushed against his conscience at the same time. Their preoccupation with his audacity served to distract from a final, grateful look Quý sent to Nathan just before exiting.

He morphed a potentially-sappy smile into a more grim model as he turned to his three judges. He strode forward and was pleased to see them recoil somewhat at his approach. “Your tablet,” he said, offering it to Stone. Stone took it; an automatic gesture. Nathan worried the man might forget to keep his hold upon it, as Stone swung it back to his side while keeping his attention on Nathan.

Nathan returned their stares; allowed their confusion. As usual, Caill recovered first. He could watch her thoughts push across her face as her furrowed brow, eerie in the room’s dimness, cleared to realization then drew together in determination.

“I trust,” he said, beating her to vocalization, “This means we are finished.”

“Oh!” Pul responded. “O-of, of course.” Caill shot him a poisonous look. “Erm, are we done?”

Stone moved his head downward in affirmation; he was obviously fond of expressing himself that way, Nathan thought.

“Yes, of course,” Caill said, as if they had not all been delaying. “Pul, guide N. Reed to departure.”

Nathan hid his amusement from all but his eyes, trusting in the poor lighting to shield his feelings from Caill. At Pul’s guiding gesture, he stepped past her and Stone and out into the much brighter corridors of Carapace.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVI.

Skinwalkers, XLIV

Six workers stood; six red-shadowed forms walked quickly to where Nathan had directed. Once seated, the six hurried to retrieve necessary intra-dermal materials from their new stations’ storage bays.

Nathan walked round them in a pattern designed to appear even and fair, yet focused his attentions on the worker named E. She had exhibited the most hesitancy and the longest working time, not to mention the most attention from Caill -as unobtrusive as Caill thought she was being in paying those attentions.

Despite those concerns and observations, Nathan saw no negative reaction from D, the young man who stepped up to work with E’s matrix. Considering, Nathan cleared his throat. “Due to the more intricate nature of this step, you will have a full tick’s time to complete it.” He continued walking as he spoke. “Subdermal construction is a specialty of mine, and I will be closely monitoring each worker’s efforts.”

E’s left hand twitched away from her task and she stole a glance at Caill. Nathan saw this but pretended he had not. He circled the redlit, wedge-shaped amphitheater in measured steps. His slipshods made little sound in the soft flooring but he knew that even the three executives felt and dreaded his approach.

Each of the six workers responded with a tensing of shoulders or arms, a rush to pull the material he or she needed, or a quick turn of head toward his bent scrutiny.

Each of the three persons monitoring the proceedings, meanwhile, responded according to personality. Stone did not change expression; Nathan’s more shocking announcements caused the stoic man to move his hand-clasping from behind his back to his front, or the reverse if he found them already before him. Pul, for his part, took to bouncing on the balls of his feet and a twitching of head and facial features into exactly what feeling struck him. Caill’s reactions were the most interesting for Nathan to observe, since the woman persisted in both shielding her emotions and being ignorant to how obvious that shielding was.

Her hands would jerk forward to wring around each other until she realized what they were doing and desisted. Sometimes, she caught them before contact; other times, not till a full jiff or two later. Their progress depended on the severity of her reaction. When hand-wringing was not enough, she paced a step or two -the distance, again, depending on severity.

Nathan made up his mind. After looping near D and stopping to admire his handiwork, Nathan strolled to E’s station. The woman grew more intent upon her model. He leaned down quite near her to watch.

In a voice just beneath a whisper, he said, “Whatever you have been told, I assure you: completely destroying your assigned step will ruin the materials for not just one, but six dermal samples.” Her hands shook and her eyes darted to his hovering face. “Do not look to Caill for approval,” he added, before she could. “You and I both know that she will discard you faster than a defective membrane if outed.” E snorted a silent, somber laugh but pretended to keep her focus on the task at hand.

“You also know the Heads at Carapace will not appreciate such an expensive waste of materials,” he continued, raising a hand to point at her sample. To any visually eavesdropping, he ensured their exchange had the appearance of casual instruction or curious query. “If they do not terminate this entire team, they will assuredly ask for the one responsible, and Caill is not the sort to volunteer for termination.”

“Now,” he moved his finger to a more specific location, “Let’s remove this ‘vessel’ and choose a more lively one.”

E jumped a bit. “Of course,” she said, barely audibly but with more composure than her previous actions had indicated. Picking up a pair of tiny tweezers, she extracted the plastic tubing she had inserted in place of an actual vessel.

“Thank you,” Nathan whispered. Without changing expression, he gestured to another area and asked, “What is your name?” He saw Caill pacing. Toward them.

“Quý,” E breathed.

“Thank you,” he said again. He rose and straightened his suit. In a normal tone, he said, “Excellent layering. Your placement will ensure a seamless tissue integration.” Caill paused and feigned an interest in C’s progress, to her side. She then turned and paced back the other direction.

Nathan smiled, the sort he saved for victory.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XLIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Skinwalkers, XLII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“N. Reed!” Caill began, “I do not-”

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

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

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

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

 

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

Skinwalkers, XLI

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

“N. Reed?” Pul asked with concern.

“A moment.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Stone?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Skinwalkers, XXXIX

“Erm,” Nathan managed to croak.

Rex slapped his steering wheel and released an airy chuckle. “YOU called a transport, you know! Just where’re ya plannin’ to go?”

Nathan blinked and straightened. He was in charge here, not some nearly-dead operator with questionable manners. “Walls and Pruitt, 34th Beta,” he said, glancing past Rex and addressing the dash, instead.

The computer, however, remained inert. Rex wheezed his variation of laughter again. “Me nephew added a little something yesterday. You gotta say, ‘please.'”

Nathan was not certain how much of his shock showed on his face, but he knew time was not only against him, it had passed him and was taunting from a few paces ahead. “Please!” he burst out. His grandfather would have been critical of his insincere tones, but the lights of Rex’s transport activated and the vehicle jerked to life.

“Darn tootin’!” it responded in happy tones.

“You might wanna work on yer sincerity,” Rex noted, saying the final word in a drawn-out fashion so that Nathan could not miss which word was most important in the old man’s reprimand.

The transport bumped down its strip and Nathan took out his comm. His preferred option and initial instinct involved injuring a senior and being barred from using transports again. Ignoring Rex, therefore, seemed more polite. Problem was, he couldn’t follow the news thread very effectively in the moving environment. He found reading especially impossible with the constant stare of a bushy-haired operator with few teeth and fewer manners just beyond the screen. Surely Rex would get the hint and leave Nathan alone.

Not soon enough, they jerked to the curb before Carapace’s expensive façade. Nathan pushed out the door and almost ran up the steps to the familiar entry station. He was handing his comm to the stolid security guard when he heard Rex call out, “If I don’ get another client, I’ll wait for ya!” This generous announcement ended in a sudden blare of dated music, the sort Nathan’s grandfather had referred to as ‘Oldies.’

The guard cringed; Nathan looked at him and the man hurriedly smoothed his features and activated the main doors with his tablet. Nathan walked forward to the *shoosh* of automatic doors releasing heaven’s breath. His basic slipshods sunk once more into the lush carpet and his lungs drank the manna of purified air, as the guard marched down to have a little talk with a certain transport operator.

Nathan hoped Rex might lose his license to pilot around Beta, yet wondered at a simultaneous sadness he felt at the thought.

“Hello, N. Reed,” a familiar, feminine voice called from the end of the room. “Welcome back.”

His hands pulled at his suit of their own volition and his face grinned happily. Regaining control, he dropped the hands and turned the sappy grin into a determined set of jaw. The swaying plants waved in his passing stride, the carpet sunk and rose with his solid steps, and the perfect air flowed in and out of his thirsty lungs as he walked.

He approached the desk. Familiar with the process from his last visit, he lifted his comm and scanned it. She tilted her head and smiled. He met her eyes for a half-jiff of eternity; noted her fan of auburn hair; memorized the deep curve of her bottom lip.

Then the panel wall opened with a muted *ding*. Her phone beeped at an incoming call. His feet walked forward, beyond her desk.

Nathan entered the lift and turned to face the foyer. Just before his reflection pulled across to block his view, he saw that the receptionist was still looking at him. Still smiling.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XXXVI

“Nathaniel? NATHANIEL?!”

Nathan pawed at the blackness around him but his actions revealed nothing. He felt like a blind man with a cowl over his head. His breaths came in short, restricted gasps as he tried to move in the direction he thought was forward.

“Nathan-yieeelll!” he called again.

Little by little, he was drawing near to his goal. Despite the dark, he could feel it. And just as much as he wanted to find something –anything– he also strained against himself to turn away from the inevitable.

His feet dragged on.

A jiff and forever later he saw a shadowy shape ahead. The shape hung just out of gravity’s reach yet twisted slowly and obediently in its greedy pull. “Nathaniel?” Nathan whispered. His feet crushed over broken capsules and kicked empty bottles into an unknown abyss.

And still he walked forward. He was nearly to his brother’s dangling, turning, suspended feet when Nathan’s view shifted. Now he saw his own scared, pale face peering up in horror as his perspective twisted around and around a blank, expansive waste.

A noise; an irritant, incessant sound came from far away. Black mist thinned to a comfortable, familiar reality and his dizzy twisting resolved to a stationary side-lay as the repeated noise grew louder.

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

Nathan realized he was staring at a pulsing light; that it was his comm that had called him back from the twisted memories within his mind. He breathed true, dank air in deep draughts, just for the reassurance that he still could. “Light,” he croaked. The comm and the apartment obliged and he squinted in the rapid difference.

The comm was still beeping and pulsing, along with pointing its light skyward. He pulled it to him and manually deactivated each application. The wristwatch beeped. “No, it can’t be,” he told it, yet checked the comm’s display. It confirmed his watch’s warning: merely two ticks till the second interview.

“Lepros!” he cursed and flew from the bed. He sprinted the short space to the bathroom and set the shower to its hottest. Hopefully, he thought, as he used the other facilities, that would encourage the cheap heating system to bring hot water to his apartment faster. He ran to the food station and returned with a drinkable snack. Wishful thinking led him to believe he saw some steam forming and he closed the door to encourage an extended stay.

Nearly a moment later, the room was swimming in warm, swirling currents. He adjusted the water temperature back to midhot and began a vigorous rubbing of his skin. Certain he’d agitated all he could reach, he turned and started pulling at the seams of the Skin Conditioner. He couldn’t afford to wait another jiff.

The casing hissed open as it had the last two times he’d activated it. Unlike the previous times, however, Nathan was not reassured by what he saw. He stood in shock as the steam billowed and bounced around him.

The skin was there, yes, but nowhere near as whole as it had appeared just a halfcycle ago.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XXXVI

His new comrades relaxed their trap enough to allow Nathan an exit, and he used every bit of a waning self-control to keep that exit casual. Once outside Ware Tech, however, he broke into a run. Pent-up adrenaline and relief pushed him away from his detested workplace, while anticipation of his future job appointment pulled him toward his beloved slums.

Not even the clustered groups of autoad workers on the citywalks could slow him. They may have thought to, if their guards had been hired from a higher class of people. He sprinted past the huddled groups, catching random bursts of light from their repair equipment and a few curious, slow-turning faces from their repair crew.

At last, his slipshods clattered down the cement hole of his apartment landing. He wasted a full moment staring at Franks’ entry before activating his own. Nothing. Nathan had still not heard from Shin.

His own door opened. He rushed in. A hurried security update and shouted lighting command and he almost ran to his food station. Besides its new functionality, he knew today was chargecycle and the supply would have been refreshed automatically. This was the one time he trusted enough to eat the premeal bundle.  He pressed the corresponding option and enjoyed the relaxing sounds of a machine working perfectly. His stomach rumbled in anticipation of fresh food.

A muffled *beep* called from the night stand drawer of his sleep area nearby.

“In a jiff,” Nathan answered. A wheat product-wrapped mix landed in the deposit area, steaming in a very appealing way. He even caught the scent of bacon. No amount of psychological control could convince him it was all synthetic; as his memories drew him back to quiet farm mornings and real, actual, from-a-pig bacon resting on his breakfast plate.

“Grandpa,” he breathed, remembering. He picked up the food bundle and bit into its perfect corner. Almost, he thought as he chewed.

He walked to his bed and activated the night stand drawer one-handed. He glanced at his work comm one last time before switching it with the one within the secret compartment, but there was still nothing. “Fine,” he said, resolved.

The new comm had mostly garbage, a new threatening message from Franks, and a confirmation notification from Carapace. His inpracticum demonstration was set for just over a halfcycle away. He shoved the remaining premeal into his mouth, dropped the comm and his wristwatch on the bedding, and headed to the bathroom.

Relieving himself took little of his time, so he found himself staring at the closed Skin Conditioner as he worked the remaining food wad around inside his mouth. The skin would stay fresher inside, but a tiny voice in his mind began asking questions. What if the skin was so cheap it’s in bits when you open it again? What then?

He’d open it a little, check things over, then head to bed. His fingers found the conditioner’s seams, working the casing apart little by little. A hiss of repressed steam and the stretched suit was revealed in all its disturbing glory. Nathan released his own steam in the form of a relieved sigh. He closed the case again, pressing at all the edges to be certain they were latched.

Despite its dubious cleanliness, he drank and rinsed with the sink water. It tasted of metal and misery. He was only too glad to follow up with toothwash.

Time was against him as he skipped back to his bed. With utmost care, he searched through the blanket wad for his comm, his watch, and a half-full vial of blue liquid. They were all set upon the night stand as he stripped and flung his liner onto a hanger, then straightened and checked as he climbed beneath the wrinkled warmth of his bed.

His comm set, his watch mollified; Nathan bit below the auto-sealed segment of vial. Spitting the plastic-like material to the side, he downed the remains of the sleeping drug and fell unconscious immediately.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXVII.

Skinwalkers XXXI

Nathan laughed, a quick, short chuckle. “I’m sorry, Shin.” He walked forward the two paces that separated them and placed a light hand on his friend’s shoulder. Even at such a delicate touch, Nathan felt Shin’s muscle flinch slightly.

“Speaking of secrets, Shin,” he began, but Shin pulled his arm and his person from Nathan’s reassurances.

From a withdrawn expression, Shin said, “It’s nothing. Probably wound the muscles up too much fixing your antique station.” He flashed Nathan a wry, hooded smile.

Nathan noted how his friend stood somewhat off-balance, favoring the arm Nathan had just touched. It was also the arm connected to the shoulder Lizard had slapped that premeal, and the one Nathan himself had punched in jest on their return from their workcycle. Still, none of those hits had been heavy enough to warrant the reaction Shin had. Nathan felt a pang of concern. “Shin,” he began.

“It’s nothing.” Shin moved away to the wall. He picked up the scanscreen and its wires and dumped them into his satchel.

Sighing, Nathan bent and carefully gathered a few modules. He carried them to Shin and set them on the floor. He returned and repeated the gesture till all were clumped just outside the bag.

“Thanks,” Shin grunted while packing the autodrill and the remaining tools.

“Shin,” Nathan said again.

“Hm?” Grunt. Pack.

Nathan thought for a full twice-jiff before continuing. “I… might know someone you can sell to.”

Shin glanced up, sensory wires looped over his wrists like rainbow bracelets as he gave Nathan his full attention.

Nathan shuffled his slipshods, watched their dance, and tried to think of the right words to say. He cared for Shin, he really did, but wasn’t certain how far he could help without risking his own future plans. “You saw the skin…”

Shin nodded, his actions still poised above the satchel opening. “And the comm,” his friend prompted.

“Right. That, too,” Nathan said, allowing the illusion that the two were related. “Thing is, my neighbor hooked me up with the sk- with them.” He looked around, mostly to the wall he shared with Franks.

Shin defrosted, setting the mods into his bag and straightening. His expression appeared hopeful.

Internally, Nathan groaned. His conscience kicked briefly at his next words; though he swore it had died a full year ago, at the last funeral he’d attended. “Yeah, his name’s Franks. He’s got a cousin or something at Fantastique.”

Shin flinched slightly at the name, as any sane city dweller did. Still, he swallowed and tried to look more determined. “I do need to sell them,” his eyes fell to the remaining coils on the floor. “Especially since their absence will be noticed, like, imminently.”

Nathan laughed. “True.”

“So… can you mesh me with this Franks?”

Kick, went Nathan’s conscience. “Sure,” said his mouth. “I’ll walk over there with you right now.” He paused. “Er, you may want to pack everything in tightly and only show him one or two.” He turned to Shin, noting his friend’s awkward gestures around his arm’s condition. “I’d hate for you to get hurt.”

Shin met Nathan’s gaze. Each man’s eyes spoke of a vulnerability the other would never voice aloud. Instead, Shin nodded. “Thanks.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXX.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXII.