Skinwalkers, XXXV

Lizard’s hand slid back to his side, his face showing some confusion at Nathan’s reaction. Nathan suppressed a rising smirk and continued to blink at his coworker with a trusting expression. He saw the ring of men relax shoulders and scowls; the newer addition he called Giant even stuck his hands into liner pockets.

From a face scrunched in concentration, Lizard finally said, “Uh, we gotta talk business.” His three cronies nodded and stances became more serious again.

“Okay,” Nathan answered, and waited.

“Look. We wanna know-” began Tod, but he was silenced by a hard elbow jab from Lizard. The two shared threatening glares till Tod turned away.

Lizard studied Nathan, and Nathan ensured his only threatening movement was a slow, occasional blink. At last, Lizard said, “That was funny what Shin did precycle. The guys’re still talkin’.” Giant snorted and received his own poke from Tod. “Yeah…” Lizard drawled, “We miss your mate. You seen him, after?”

Nathan considered. “After Mons gave him the liner, we walked to the edge of the slums, then had to split.” He shrugged. “He said he was goin’ home.”

The big man thought about Nathan’s answer. “How ’bout after that? He message you?”

Heavy-handed was obviously the way to get through the thick skulls surrounding him. Nathan placed his pointer finger on slightly-pouted lips and furrowed his brow. “Yes, before workcycle.”

Lizard’s tone grew excited. “And?”

“We-e-e-ell,” Nathan said, framing his features as apologetically as he could. “Sorry, but all he said was, ‘Later, eunie.'”

The half-circle of men shifted. Its two leaders frowned and Nathan could sense a rising emotional response. Quickly, he added, “He also included a dancing eunie pix.”

Giant burst out laughing, joined by the man to Lizard’s left. Nathan allowed himself a smile as well; and was relieved to see Tod, then Lizard reply in kind.

Lizard put his hand on Nathan’s shoulder again and rested it there. They locked eyes and Nathan was surprised at his opponent’s severely bloodshot-rimmed gray irises. Think dumb. Think dumb, Nathan willed to his own blue pair.

“Funny guy, that Shin.” Lizard said. His gang quieted down. He looked back at Tod, who nodded. Once. “Thing is, the guy owed us a little something.” Nathan saw Lizard lick his bottom lip before continuing. “Something dope. Get it?”

“Oh.” Swallowing, Nathan continued looking up at the bigger man with as much open trust as he could pretend. “Shin never told. I thought he was clean.”

The fourth man in the group broke into a laugh again, cut off by something Tod did that Nathan could not see. Lizard’s mouth twisted into a hard smile. “Not clean by a ways.” He backed up and removed his hand but kept watching Nathan’s face. “I like you, Nathaniel. You’ll tell us when Shin messages, won’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, and Nathan knew it.

 

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

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, 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, XXII

A very hurried citycross led Nathan and Shin back to Ware Tech, back to Check In, and back in front of any humanoid’s least favorite supervisor.

“What took you ladies so long?” Choms leered as they entered. Not one of the room’s occupants laughed, but the odious man never needed outside confirmation of his incredible wit.

Nathan ducked his head and shrugged. He felt out of air, and moved past Choms and a few peers to deposit their gear. Shin, on the other hand, straightened. The graying storm cloud of despair moved aside and glorious midmeal light shone upon his face.

“We gotta go back next shift,” he explained, flippantly. Choms immediately puffed up in fury. Just before he released his usual torrent of inaccurate, angry reprimands; Shin added, “Oh, and I need to quit. See you never!”

He cheekily patted the spluttering Choms on a sweaty shoulder, then spun around and skipped a bit to his locker. Nathan stood by the bench, torn between shock and hilarity. His friend looked up and they shared a very brief moment of incredulous amusement before –

“Whaddya mean QUIT?! There’s formals, you dirk!” As Choms erupted into an ever-swelling wave of profanity and indignation, Shin calmly activated his locker and dumped his satchel in the bottom. Nathan winced at the sound of the autodrill and drivers impacting the metal; his friend seemed even happier.

Shin slammed the door so forcefully that Nathan saw his reflection wobble in his own locker door. Oblivious, Shin strode purposefully up to the still-shouting Choms; said, “I’ll need my depart charge.”

Their flustered supervisor literally shook with rage. Words now eluded him as that area of his small mind became engrossed in processing a reaction to Shin’s request. Nathan could watch Choms’ thought process through varying skin hues and feature contortions across the ugly man’s face.

After a full moment, Choms managed to activate his tablet. A moment more, and he’d fumbled open Shin’s work record. The instant Shin saw the prompt, he scanned his comm beneath the sensor. The paltry paycycle loaded; Shin’s work permissions simultaneously disabled.

If he thought he could do so without losing a limb this time, Nathan was sure Shin would have patted Choms again. “I’ll exit you,” Nathan offered, closing his locker and coming forward. He and Shin moved around Choms, who was still trying to get his voice to function.

Nathan activated the door just as Choms finally burst out with, “You’ll need to return that liner, you know!”

Shin stopped at the doorway, turned, and looked Choms right in the eye. He removed a pocketlight and ignited the tiny concentrated flame. Without breaking eye contact, he slit his company liner from knee to collar. He capped the pocketlight and stepped out of the charred-edge fabric.

A useless shell and acrid stench were all Shin left behind, as his slipshod heels walked out in only the skin birth gave to him.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XIX

The corridor Nathan and Shin entered was light like the aftermeal air outside, but without ambient smog and fumes. Carefully mirroring his friend, Nathan took a deep inhale of pure air. Shin looked back at him, and they shared a smile.

“Now, that is tasty,” Shin commented. They proceeded down the enclosed hallway, breathing drawn-out intakes every few steps and grinning like addicts.

Soon they reached a terminating wall. There did not seem to be an access pad of any sort. “Hello?” Nathan called, glancing at edges and corners in case of surveillance. He saw none.

“That’s odd,” Shin said. He rubbed his chin, though Nathan could see that his facial hair had been burned within the last week.

Just then, the wall swung inwards in a sudden and violent manner. Nathan caught a shadowy, disapproving form before intentionally dropping his eyelids partway closed. He lowered his shoulders, hunching slightly, and leaned against the glowing wall. Shin did not notice. He stared at the humanoid apparition like a mental, fixated on his own surprise.

The shadow spoke. “Ware Tech, I hope.” Its androgynous tone gave nothing away of its feelings besides the usual contempt for laborers. Nathan heard a shift of heavy feet on tile as the person walked away. As he and Shin followed, it added, “You idiots never try opening the door.”

Nathan and Shin shuffled along. They knew better than to answer their guide. They valued employment more highly than personal honor.

Although the hulking human shape leading them took up most of the hallway, Nathan was able to see that their path ended in a polished wall just ahead. Accordingly, they stopped upon reaching it. “Jo, is that a plant?!” Shin exclaimed. Their guide, ignoring this further proof of idiocy, removed a comm and ran it behind the fern Shin had just noticed.

*Ding* sang a pleasant note, and the wall opened to reveal a lift. They entered, just behind their guide. The wall closed. They rode in semidark silence for a long, silent jiff. Another chime drew the lift door to the side, revealing a darker, colder hallway.

The Carapace representative took the lead again, though Nathan hardly saw the point. This corridor held no exits nor entries; it existed solely for leading laborers like him and his friend down its burrow-like length, to terminate in one possible place.

Sure enough, the unnamed employee led them to the inevitable end: a set of green doors. Nathan hadn’t seen real, industrial doors since his childhood. The ones before him glared from metal-grid windows set in green metal sockets. They resembled the shed doors of the only doctor’s office in the small community Nathan had grown up in. Having little population and little funding, the doctor had resourcefully run his entire business from that shed.

Without hesitating, their large guide activated the door with its comm. They all entered, and all stood for at least a moment in awe. Racks and desks and shelves and hooks held row after row of hardware. The entire room hummed and whirred to the stirring samba of a million cooling fans.

The overweight overseer gestured to a far cluster. “You’ll start there,” it said, then folded its arms expectantly.

“Oh. Of course,” Shin answered, when Nathan did not.

He and Nathan lifted their satchels more securely over their shoulders and proceeded to the suggested cluster. “This won’t be easy,” Shin mumbled.

“Nope.”

“Bet we can’t even listen to streams.”

“Probably not.”

Nathan and Shin reached the cases The Lump had more or less indicated. Sighing their usual preamble, they got to work.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XVIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XX.