Skinwalkers, XXXVIII

Upon reaching his small sleeping area, Nathan stopped to get his hurried bearings. He squinted at each familiar object: bed, nightstand, walls, doorway, closet. The last was his goal and he groped to his clothes through blurred vision and the ever-present dimness of the cheap lighting.

I wonder if I’ll earn enough to afford good light, one cycle, he wondered. Remembering the importance of a powerful mindset, he cleared his thoughts and said, “I will get an apartment with good light. With daylight.” The near-barren hole that passed for a closet echoed his word-sounds and returned them in a garbled state.

His hands felt among the hangers till they gripped a plastic lining over a thick garment. His suit. He pulled the ensemble to his chest like a precious thing and carried it to where he remembered his bed rested. Laying the loosely-bagged suit atop his blanket wad, Nathan withdrew each clothing piece and began dressing.

Though the process took far less time than his last costuming, he knew his time was already gone. Grabbing his slipshods from the floor, he rushed and stumbled back to the bathroom. Shower, off. Panel, closed. Comm, pocketed. Wristwatch, strapped.

He flung a quick glance at his reflection and nearly jumped out of his skin. Either he was more shaken from his dreams than he’d supposed or he had heavy-handed the eyedrops. The man staring back at him from the cheap, splotched mirror was a complete stranger, somehow adept at following his every movement and occasional blink.

“I intend to demonstrate the full capacity of a united workteam, led by a competent manager,” he tested. The mirror man spoke as well; his words were powerful in the cramped, reflective space. Try me now, Caill, he thought.

His pocket vibrated. He withdrew it and read its angry message: Inpracticum set to begin. Status?

“Reply,” he told the message response system. “In transit.” Waving the answered query to the side, he instead pulled up Transport Request. Expenses be damned; he couldn’t risk further tardiness. The program *pinged* and a green transport icon moved to his virtual location as a real one simultaneously did so outside his apartment.

Nearly sprinting through hallway, lockdown, and out the exit; he just missed knocking into someone swaying across the landing. It was Franks, but Nathan hadn’t the time to deal with charge demands now. He hadn’t the time for anything. He sprinted up the stairs, as quickly as a man in a skin and full suit could run. There sat a transport; his transport, rocking a bit in its streetside idle.

He strode forward past the usual street dwellers. They sat in a chorus line of hunched, silent misery, too saturated to know or care that he passed. Just before he activated the door of the waiting transport, one face lifted. Nathan’s comm moved over the door panel and he ducked and entered his paid ride.

It was after the door closed that his brain recognized the long, pale, older face that looked up. Shin.

“Well, howdy agin!” an exuberant voice jerked him away from his shocked surprise. Rex the operator grinned back at Nathan with what was left of his teeth. “Where to now, Sonny?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXIX.

Skinwalkers, XXXVI

“Nathaniel? NATHANIEL?!”

Nathan pawed at the blackness around him but his actions revealed nothing. He felt like a blind man with a cowl over his head. His breaths came in short, restricted gasps as he tried to move in the direction he thought was forward.

“Nathan-yieeelll!” he called again.

Little by little, he was drawing near to his goal. Despite the dark, he could feel it. And just as much as he wanted to find something –anything– he also strained against himself to turn away from the inevitable.

His feet dragged on.

A jiff and forever later he saw a shadowy shape ahead. The shape hung just out of gravity’s reach yet twisted slowly and obediently in its greedy pull. “Nathaniel?” Nathan whispered. His feet crushed over broken capsules and kicked empty bottles into an unknown abyss.

And still he walked forward. He was nearly to his brother’s dangling, turning, suspended feet when Nathan’s view shifted. Now he saw his own scared, pale face peering up in horror as his perspective twisted around and around a blank, expansive waste.

A noise; an irritant, incessant sound came from far away. Black mist thinned to a comfortable, familiar reality and his dizzy twisting resolved to a stationary side-lay as the repeated noise grew louder.

*Bee-bee-beep!* *Bee-bee-beep!*

Nathan realized he was staring at a pulsing light; that it was his comm that had called him back from the twisted memories within his mind. He breathed true, dank air in deep draughts, just for the reassurance that he still could. “Light,” he croaked. The comm and the apartment obliged and he squinted in the rapid difference.

The comm was still beeping and pulsing, along with pointing its light skyward. He pulled it to him and manually deactivated each application. The wristwatch beeped. “No, it can’t be,” he told it, yet checked the comm’s display. It confirmed his watch’s warning: merely two ticks till the second interview.

“Lepros!” he cursed and flew from the bed. He sprinted the short space to the bathroom and set the shower to its hottest. Hopefully, he thought, as he used the other facilities, that would encourage the cheap heating system to bring hot water to his apartment faster. He ran to the food station and returned with a drinkable snack. Wishful thinking led him to believe he saw some steam forming and he closed the door to encourage an extended stay.

Nearly a moment later, the room was swimming in warm, swirling currents. He adjusted the water temperature back to midhot and began a vigorous rubbing of his skin. Certain he’d agitated all he could reach, he turned and started pulling at the seams of the Skin Conditioner. He couldn’t afford to wait another jiff.

The casing hissed open as it had the last two times he’d activated it. Unlike the previous times, however, Nathan was not reassured by what he saw. He stood in shock as the steam billowed and bounced around him.

The skin was there, yes, but nowhere near as whole as it had appeared just a halfcycle ago.

 

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

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, 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, XXVI

Nathan stared at the message display far longer than necessary. Carapace’s truncated opening line drifted harmlessly above the tiny comm: N. Reed, We request…

A hundred tiny, useless details pulled at his attention as he felt his mind attempt to avoid whatever the rest of the text might be. His bed, as always, was unmade and carried a faint smell. The apartment was dim; was that vermin he heard? A light glowed from the edges of the night stand’s hidden drawer where he’d stashed the other, still-lit comm. The shower dripped. The security beeped. An air system lamely whirred.

Finally, he extended his left hand forward. Pantomiming a grabbing motion, Nathan pulled the Carapace text from its position; spreading the same hand outward, he maximized the airborne display.

N. Reed, We request timely response to the following action item: Secondary Interview. Set for Suncycle 3.14 1300. Team lead inpracticum.

The lungful of sustaining air he’d held onto came out slowly. He blinked. He couldn’t believe it, even with the success he’d felt after the preliminary interview precycle. He had passed the first test. They wanted him back, postcycle. He hoped he’d have enough energy after another full work session, a short rest between, and reskinning.

This second round would also be much more difficult, of course. It was one thing to read and respond to three executives; quite another to demonstrate his managerial and technical talents before an entire team with those three executives as likely audience.

His Midpath theatrics professor had been right, after all, in declaring their exercises to be only that. Nathan hadn’t believed her at the time. All four paltry students attending had felt her tests impossible. They’d been in public, lines fully committed, all while reading the audience response.

“Touché, Madame Dremé,” he told the empty room. Sighing, he added, “Display.” The messages returned to only show on the comm’s small screen.

Feeling utterly drained, he once again pushed the hidden knob and withdrew his work comm. He manually deactivated the light and returned it amongst the other memories stored there. The watch beeped. Just before the drawer closed, he removed it and strapped it onto his right wrist.

His stomach rumbled in hunger. His grandfather’s watch was antiquated, but correct: mealtime.

Grumbling enough to match his stomach, Nathan stumbled over the few steps between the bed and his food station. This time, he selected the pre-programmed Midmeal button and stood in usual, silent prayer as it ground and clunked through selections. The machine stopped after a few jiffs without his food appearing. He smacked the front, the side, then the supply chute.

A noise like an outlands beast clawing back to life came from the wall. Lights blinked back on and a singed bundle dropped into place. Half a jiff later, another singed bundle fell. Then another. Just before succumbing to permanent technical failure, a tiny tartlet -also singed- completed the food station’s final offerings.

“Zut.” If Franks was on better terms, he’d have been able to pass the extra food onto him -maybe even for some charge.

Nathan looked up at Sirius Sustenance Supply’s tarnished bracket still proudly attached to the top of his dead food source. He didn’t have time or charge for this. Grabbing the most edible-looking package, he bit off a chunk and returned to the sleeping area. He dropped his comm on the bed and removed the work one.

“Shin,” he told it, actually praying now. Please answer, please answer, please answer, sang his thoughts.

“Nathaniel?” Shin’s voice came through. Nathan released a silent, Thank you, with his relieved sigh. “Ever heard of messaging, you antique?”

“Yeah,” Nathan retorted, “You’re the one answering.”

Shin paused. “Hm.”

“Listen, I need a favor.”

“Hm?”

“My food station just died, but it dumped out three extra meals.”

“Hm?” Shin’s tone increased in interest.

“Yeah, I thought you might know someone who could use them.”

“I’ll be there. Message me location.” Nathan could hear him laughing as the call cut off.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXVII.

 

Skinwalkers, XIII

Removing skin was always a tricky process, often more so than applying it. Nathan had learned the best methods from his SciTecMed research, although the subjects he’d carefully deskinned hadn’t benefited much from his gentle care. As always, he was greatly relieved to see his own, living, blemished features slowly be revealed -instead of the ghastly, half-fused faces that haunted his nightmares.

He felt exhausted. The billowing steam cushioned his tired body and whispered sleep to his clouded mind. Doggedly, groggily, he continued slowly rubbing, releasing, and removing the synthdermal layer at its seams.

The wristwatch chirped twice during the entire ordeal: once, to remind him that it ought not to be worn; he acquiesed by removing it and setting it on the sink. Twice, to note that steam really was terrible for its inner workings and, next time, Nathan should remember to leave it in the bedroom.

The watch would have to wait. Carefully shrugging out of the top half of his skin, he pressed the floppy shell into the Skin Conditioner’s moist grooves. He repeated the process with the bottom half. Blearily, he checked each piece; pressing more firmly at a finger, straightening the right knee, then stroking gently across the eye sockets. He checked each area again, and a third time.

Finally satisfied, he stood back and closed the SC. Just in time; the shower was cooling. Nathan entered the cramped stall anyway, wincing and quietly yelping as the short output’s sprinkle hit his midsection. Squatting and reaching forward with his right hand, he managed to switch the spray to Wash. He awkwardly sudsed his hair, face, and upper half from a scrunched-up position around the rapidly-cooling water.

Grimacing and beginning to shiver, his left hand found the Rinse setting. He stood beneath the frigid output as long as he could stand, distracting his shaking limbs by fixedly watching soap swirls disappear into the floor beneath his feet.

None too soon, he jabbed it to Off. Next, was Dry. A blessed blast of foul -but warm– air roared from the vents near his backside. His lower extremities flapped uncomfortably and he fought the reaction to gag at the smell, but persevered for the sake of returning circulation to the rest of his body.

Pressing Off again, Nathan left the stall and the bathroom. He took the watch with him, of course; it had complained when he almost left it behind. “Keep beeping and I’ll deactivate your sound,” he tiredly told it. 10:01, it displayed, in response.

He stifled a rising swear word; Grandfather had detested profanity. “Gotta sleep,” he mumbled, instead, entering his bedroom. He stumbled to the mass of coverings he’d lumped together on the bed and attempted to straighten them across its top. Good enough, he decided, climbing beneath them.

Carefully, he set his comm in its locking station. He checked to verify its alarm would activate in time, then allowed its display to fade back to black. “Off!” He told the apartment lights, and was immediately immersed in darkness.

He buckled the watch over his left wrist by feel. Just before falling asleep, he whispered, “‘Night, Grandpa.”

 

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