Skinwalkers, XXXVII

Lingering soporific effects of the sleeping drug dragged at Nathan’s normally decisive mind. The copious steam did little to assist; it wasn’t even doing its job of keeping his skin fresh and usable –tear it!

He sunk to the floor of the tiny bathroom, clutching at his head. Again and again he rubbed at his temples, eyes, cheeks. Wake up! Think!

Had the skin been a rag, a dud? He’d examined it upon purchase. It had lasted more than a tick; more than two full workcycles… With this in mind, he looked up through the mists to take a second, desperate look at the damaged skin in the case. Something about the torn sections poked at a memory; tickled a phrase a frustrated study peer had voiced during their research.

“It’s been three ‘cycles, just fine in the steam bath.” Her plaintive voice broke through his mind-fog at last. “THREE! Why the fudge do the fingers have HOLES?!”

Nathan laughed through his shock. He’d forgotten how Celine had always refused to curse. Trust her to keep to her religious quirks even in the face of a completely ruined Advancement project. She’d been experimenting with the new synthdermal strain’s durability over time and stress, using a skin glove. The experiment had been more fun than most, as he’d often looked over to find her scrubbing at a piece of pumice or literally playing with fire.

Yet her sample had broken apart without reasonable cause when stored…

He rose at once and entered his shower. A brisk rinse later and he stepped to the casing and removed half of the expensive skin with utmost care. Draping it over his left arm, he pressed his right palm against the wall panel to the side of the Skin Conditioner. The panel opened to reveal his private, miniature lab. The small array of solutions, tools, and substances in his secret nook calmed his pulse, as their organized appearance always did.

Beginning at the toes and moving up his ankles and legs, Nathan then applied the bioengineered wonder he’d gambled the remainder of his savings on. He worked quickly. The watch spoke up from the bedroom to remind him that one precious tick had passed, then fell silent to allow him to finish with the second half.

He sealed each vertebral connection and pressed at each seam with care. Fully skinned, he turned to his foggy reflection in the mirror. “One, two, three…” he counted. At every moment’s iteration (ninety jiffs), his fatted hands rubbed across the entire skin.

After three rounds of this, he reached to the wall nook and removed a priceless tube of silicone gel. “Thank you, Nimp,” he muttered, nearly smiling at the knowledge that Nimp had never parted with his rare substance willingly. Nimp was rich enough; one failed iteration wouldn’t set him back as it had Nathan.

Nathan jerked open the top sink drawer and withdrew his toothwash and Suspension Drops. He set them and the gel tube on the small counter top. He spent the next half-tick in another rhythmic pattern of rubbing, interspersed with applications of minuscule amounts of gel. Much to his relief, he watched the gel reactivate the torn edges of each hole. Just as Celine had realized when her glove tore, proximity to Nathan’s own, blemished skin reactivated his purchased variety’s regenerative properties.

The effect was not perfect; he found himself thanking God or Whatever Else might control fate that the facial area had not ripped besides a single line beneath his jaw.

One rinse with toothwash and an agonizing application of eyedrops finished his preparations. His encumbered, blinded sprint back to the bedroom to dress reminded him of his recent nightmare. This time, however, he intended to face a better perspective than that of his dead twin brother’s.

 

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

 

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, XXXIII

Despite the complete exhaustion that pulled at his every movement, Nathan did not feel ready to sleep. Perhaps his body knew he would rise in only a halfcycle for work. Perhaps it knew of the second interview he would attend after his full workcycle. Or perhaps it retained some remorse for whatever was happening on the other side of the wall between him and Franks.

He tried to get in the right mindset. He programmed security to sleepdown, cleansed with toothwash as he calmed his thoughts, set the correct comm atop the night stand and the work one within, and settled his grandfather’s wristwatch around his wrist. After stripping in the darkness and groping his liner onto a hanger, he climbed under the blanket wad and lay upon his back.

Still, his eyes saw swirling shifts of haunting thoughts on the black ceiling. His ears heard strange cries within the usual settling walls or late-arrival apartment dwellers. Breathing seemed more difficult than usual as well, though he was certain the air system was functioning properly.

Closing his eyes proved worse.

Shin was sitting on a bench at Check-In, looking sad. Shin’s wry smile looked over at him on their citycross. A meal bundle and tartlet flew at him, followed by Shin’s fully grinning face. Then a smaller, more uncertain Shin, favoring an injured arm, watched him as a sliding door closed forever.

“Ah, tear it all!” Nathan threw the blankets to one side. “Lights!”

In the blast of apartment and comm illumination, he stomped to the bathroom. “I’ll show you!” he grumbled under his breath. “Keep me up, will ya!” Opening the cupboard beneath the sink, he fumbled at an awkward angle till his right hand closed on his goal: a small wrapped package. He unrolled the bundle on the counter, taking care to watch for falling contents or tearing papers. His care paid off, as three minuscule vials of blue liquid rolled out against their brown wrapping. He removed one, set it away from its fellows, then re-wrapped the remaining vials and returned them to their hiding place.

As always, he held the selected drug to the light and enjoyed its sapphire refractions on the many reflective room surfaces. Carrying it back to bed, he resumed his original position.

“Off!” He commanded, and nearly felt the shroud of black that descended. He rolled the vial in an enticing way between his fingers. He checked that his comm was set to wake him. He checked his watch. He checked for any sound from Franks’ apartment.

“Nothing,” he said aloud. Raising to a sitting position and tilting his head back, he sucked half the blue liquid from its container.

Swallowed.

And fell back, asleep.

Then dreamed nothing, as most users were guaranteed to do.

Which was good, else he might have remembered that he would never hear a sound next door. Franks met all his clients in a distortion cloud he’d set up in his living space. A conscious Nathan knew that, from personal experience. An unconscious Nathan, on the other hand, knew nothing.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XV

Nathan exchanged the wristwatch and his original comm for the one resting secretly in the nightstand. “‘Bye, Grandpa,” he said, just before closing the drawer with a secure *click*. He retrieved his slipshods from the floor and rushed out into the bathroom.

This time, he yanked open the topmost drawer to locate his toothwash. Whilst he swished and swirled it inside his mouth for the recommended moment, he studied the reflection of a very human face in a very splotchy mirror. His cheeks bulged slightly with wash, but he thought that abnormality actually helped his plain and pockmarked visage.

After spitting out the solution, he made a hurried check for unexpected stubble. He wasn’t due to burn again for another week, but the odd case of a hair or two somehow avoiding purge did come up.

With or without extra facial hair, it was time to go. Nathan returned the toothwash to its spot, grabbed his new comm and slipshods, and headed out the door. He paused just long enough to slap the doorscan to lockdown the apartment, and to dress his feet.

The traffic sounds reaching him now were steadier, though an occasional large vehicle-bellow interrupted the vehicular white noise. He skipped quickly up the cracked cement stairs and began jogging down the block.

Many a strung-out street dweller turned his head at Nathan’s rapidly flying form. Those too far gone to know up from down or side from side merely dreamt a vision more real than life, of a skinny laborer sprinting past their cardboard home.

Puffing, panting, and pausing to collect his breathing brought Nathan within reach of his employer’s station. He continued jogging, albeit more slowly. He came to a large, black doorway at the building’s sunside. A green light flitted briefly across the panel he scanned. The door pulled to the side and he entered.

When he’d first been accepted to this job, he’d worked nights. Each time the door had opened then, he’d felt he was walking into an unknown cave. Surely something was lurking; waiting to grab him. Maybe his nightmares lay around, wanting to jump out and yell, “Boo!” They’d have a contest to see who was scariest, invariably ending in a draw.

Aftermeal sunshine, however, often shone at the lucky time he began this new shift. It lit up just enough of the space to lead him in a glowing path to the beginning of where autolights finally took over illumination.

Nathan walked forward quickly. He stopped outside a door reading Check In. Scanning his comm, he entered as soon as the door moved to allow him. A few, lingering coworkers were just finishing gear-up. The rest milled noisily about. As he moved to his own locker, he saw his friend, Shin, sitting on a bench.

“Sup, Shin?” He asked pleasantly, opening his assigned locker with his comm.

Shin looked up, and Nathan could see that Shin also appeared smaller and sadder than usual. Despite that, the older man smiled wryly.

“Hey, Nathaniel,” Shin answered. “Long time no see.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XVI.