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, 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, 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, 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 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.