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.
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.