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, XXXIV

The next workcycle proved as hellish as any other Nathan had endured, with the added benefit of Shin’s absence. Not only was his friend not there to take the edge off Choms and the remaining grunt work at the Carapace job, his replacement was Lizard.

Lizard and Tod had wriggled out of their halfway-completed Fantastique assignment. This didn’t surprise Nathan since underhanded deals, blackmail, and outright threats were more frequent than employee turnover. Rather, he felt wary and confused that Lizard would want to work with him. The scowling bully of a man didn’t appear very bright, but Nathan knew better than to take people at face value.

Lizard had not spoken beyond a loud, “Looks like me and you, Nathaniel!” after Choms paired them, a, “Schweet!” when they entered Carapace, and a loud-whispered, “It don’t talk much, do it?” when their grumpy guide led them down the service elevator and hallway. But perhaps he was a better actor than his comments demonstrated.

As the pair returned to Ware Tech later in the dusky premeal light, Nathan tried to study his partner without drawing too much attention to his actions. He also ensured Lizard walked closest to the buildings and right in the path of the autoads.

With the exception of the female Sultronous video, at which he let out a catcall, Lizard seemed unaffected. Another mystery, Nathan thought.

He felt edgy. Besides worry over Lizard’s motives, he had not heard anything from Shin. Guilt or conscience or curiosity had prompted Nathan to message his friend before work. Similar motives had found him pressing his ear to the shared wall a few times before workcycle more than he would admit to anyone. Still, nothing.

No one at work seemed to care. This was also not surprising, yet Nathan felt the sting of Shin’s absence more acutely because of it. Loud sounds of postcycle relief and jocular teasing surrounded him as he deposited his gear in the locker and slammed the door closed. He was about to sprint back to the slums for an imperative rest when something clapped him on the shoulder.

“Nathaniel,” Lizard said.

Nathan looked up from his thoughts to discover a half-circle of workmates penning him. He and they were the only men in the locker room. His eyes flicked to the three possible gaps through which he might escape, his adrenaline suggested panic. His mind and training, however, overrode his other instincts.

Leaning against the lockers and smiling with a pleasant expression, he faced the group. “‘Sup, guys?”

 

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

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.

 

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, 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.