Skinwalkers, XXXII

*Beep* chirped the wristwatch, intentionally raising Nathan’s anxiety levels. “I know,” he muttered as he and Shin waited outside Franks’ apartment entry. Shin raised a curious eyebrow to Nathan but did not comment.

It was late. Nathan was tired. He’d almost taken the wrong comm as they left, almost forgotten to lockdown, almost forgotten his future plan as Shin subconsciously shifted the satchel to his uninjured shoulder while they stood in silence.

Nathan resisted the urge to scan again. If Franks was alert, he’d come soon enough.

“Nathaniel,” hissed Shin. “D’ya think-”

The door pulled to the side to reveal a strange sight. After two or three double-takes and his eyes adjusting to the dim entry lighting, Nathan recognized Franks. His neighbor stood with the aid of the door frame. Stood in a rather unsteady way. Stood there wearing a second-rate skin.

Pulling his attention from the distracting bulges and blobs, Nathan looked instead to Franks’ bloodshot eyes. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Erm…” Nathan decided to ignore the obvious elephant’s skin in the room and cut straight to their purpose. “This is Shin, from work.”

The wrinkle-surrounded eyes flicked over to his friend, his satchel, then back to Nathan.

“He’s… I told… Well… We’ve got something we need to sell.”

Even with the aid of a skin, Franks was a terrible actor. He pulled away from his leaning stance and even shuffled forward a few steps. “Oh?” His hands drew together, felt the increased artificial distance, and wiped at his fattened thighs instead. “What is it?”

Nathan turned to Shin. Shin shrugged. “Couple-a sensory mods.”

Franks came closer. “Mods?” he asked, his tone betraying his interest. “A couple?” He peered at Shin. “How many?”

Nathan held his breath and tried to catch Shin’s eye. “Oh,” Shin said in a casual tone, “I think I got three.”

“Got?” Franks nearly shrieked. “Just now? Where did you find them?”

“Now, Franks…” Nathan warned.

Licking his lips and stepping back a pace, Franks changed tactics. “I don’t know if I can help you nudes. No one’s buying the old mods for much.”

Nathan laughed. “Not from what I’ve heard.” He felt the look his neighbor shot him, even through all the folds and bunches of skin. Still, Franks looked barely able to stand up straight, let alone follow through on threats. “Shin here picked them up brand-new.” Nathan paused. “I guess you haven’t been streetside yet.”

Confused, Franks answered, “No. Why? They handin’ out free mods?”

Shin chuckled nervously; Nathan did not. He instead rubbed at the back of his head and glanced at his feet. “I wouldn’t say that, Franks.”

“Oh.” A pause, then, “Ohh ho ho!

In a complete change of demeanor, Franks stepped toward Shin and extended a friendly arm. “Come on in,” said the spider to the fly. “We have things to talk about.” He pulled Shin toward his apartment.

Shin looked back at Nathan as he was awkwardly guided into the entry. “You comin’?” he called back.

Nathan shook his head slowly in the negative, and Franks’ door slid closed between them.

 

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

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, XXX

Nathan coughed, choking. He stumbled mentally as well, in the absence of the quick-thought and decisive actions to which he was accustomed. Shin merely stood, waiting, watching; prepared to do so until Nathan answered to his satisfaction.

“Well, I …” Nathan began; stopped. “How…?” was another attempt. “Shin, I …?” He met his friend’s expectant gaze and abandoned most of his excuses. Beyond Shin, he saw the functional food station. He considered the stolen sensory modules and recalled many wise, subtle looks Shin had cast his way during past conversations. How could I have been so stupid?

Shin’s half-smile pulled at his serious expression as if he could read Nathan’s thoughts, and fully agreed with them.

“You saw the skin?” Nathan asked after the half-moment’s silence.

“Yup.”

“What about the comm-?”

“One on your bed got a note when I was stepping past your lazy, tart-eating corps.”

“Huh.”

Shin’s smile grew more pleased than humored. “No amount of theatrics study can replace good, old-fashioned observation.” Folding his arms, he repeated, “So, why, Nathaniel?”

Nathan’s brain came out of its reverie in a snap, quickly making up for its earlier behavior. He cast about, dithered, shrugged, and then admitted, “Nothing much. I tried for a job.” Feigning some embarrassment, he added, “It was at Carapace.”

Shin’s eyes widened and his mouth nearly dropped open. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Nathan continued. “Trying to rise up a little is all.”

Shin was quiet for half a moment, no doubt recalling Nathan’s anxiety en route to the job precycle. “And the extra comm?” he asked.

“Aren’t we fresh early on?!” Nathan teased. He paused, folding his arms, pretending consideration of the matter. After a jiff, he breathed in, then sighed loudly. “Nothing big, really. I worried about the work files on the old one.”

“Oh.” Shin turned this information over in his mind. “So…” he paused. “You were avoiding the stench of Ware Tech association.”

Carefully, Nathan nodded.

“Ha!” his friend said. “And I thought you were turning into a crime lord or something!”

“What?!” Nathan was truly surprised by this assumption, and showed it.

Shin chuckled a bit more, then trailed off to another awkward silence. He looked at his impressive display of illegal electronics. “Damn.”

“What?”

“Well…” Shin rubbed the back of his head. “Now what am I gonna do with them?”

 

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

Feeling lost? Go back to the very beginning with Skinwalkers, I.

Skinwalkers, XXIX

“You’d better take that,” Nathan said. “I’m fat.”

Shin laughed. “You know that used to mean -”

“Yeah.” Nathan smiled. “I know.” Patting his abdomen, he said, “I ate the tartlet after a full midmeal bundle, so I might be that definition, too.”

They both stared at the hot food, their levity evaporating with the steam. For a moment, neither moved. Neither spoke. The air between and around the two friends filled instead with a thousand unspoken questions, of potential connections that neither wished to initiate.

Nathan moved first, turning to glance at Shin’s impressive collection of stolen sensory modules. “So, what’s your plan with the mods?”

Shin eyed them as well. Sighed. “I, um, well… I thought to sell them and make enough to stick around.” He rubbed the back of his head and shuffled his feet. “Don’t really know the right contact, though.”

“Hmm.”

Shin stopped shuffling and looked slyly at Nathan. “You wouldn’t know anyone, would ya?”

Now Nathan shifted uncomfortably. He did, but also knew the potential risk that awaited those who thought to walk illegal paths. In fact, he was only just seeing the crumbling edges of the business deal he’d made with Franks, one he’d felt confident he could handle.

“Nathaniel?”

Shin’s anxious query, his concerned look brought Nathan back to the situation at hand. “I don’t think it’s as easy as you think it might be…” Nathan began. His gaze flitted to Shin’s face, but his friend seemed bemused.

“Well, I don’t think it’s a simple citystroll down to Wal-Bank or something!”

“Sure, it’s just that -”

“Nathaniel.” Shin’s smile became a piercing expression. “Let’s get real.” He straightened, all pretense gone.

Nathan, riveted, subconsciously held his breath.

“I’ve got some real cred here,” Shin began.

Nathan let out a little air.

“I need a way to charge in.”

Nathan relaxed a bit more.

“Really, though,” Shin said, “I think we need to address the big questions. Like, why do you have two comms, a fresh skin, and the insistence to keep this all to yourself?”

 

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

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, 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, 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.