Skinwalkers, XLVII

Only a half-tick or so passed during Nathan’s second time in the dimly-red room, but his senses felt more heightened than before. He’d simply ignored Caill after securing Quý’s loyalty the first time. Now, however, he felt obligated to keep Caill’s actions in his sight. He also knew he needed Pul as witness. Accordingly, Nathan voiced an occasional question to one or both, or ensured he wandered nearer to Caill than necessary.

It was a long half-tick.

Once he saw six complete samples packaged and delivered via their automated bays, Nathan felt relieved enough to sigh -though only inwardly. The sly Caill was not the sort of prowling beast one ever let his guard down around. She made him nervous enough to sweat right out of his rented skin.

He smiled, knowing he literally could not sweat. Though exorbitant, the endoscopic sympathectomy he’d endured last planetcycle had literally saved his skin.

Caill appeared just as fortunate. Perhaps. Nathan knew her smooth mask was not wholly natural; it couldn’t be. He had not, however, been able to examine it closely. Anytime he drew close to her, a creeping sensation tickled at the danger centers of his mind. Something there was not right. As he and Pul exited just behind Caill and once again made their way to the landing of the lift; Nathan recalled, at their very first interview, a recoiling gesture Caill made at his mention of absolute biodermal fusion.

Curiouser and Curiouser, he thought; a phrase his grandfather had been fond of saying.

“Excellent work, Nathan Reed,” Pul praised, stopping outside the transparent doors. He pulled one open and held it for Nathan. Nathan exited. As he followed suit, Pul laughed. “Though, you already told everyone that.”

Nathan gave the man a slow, acknowledging nod and a somewhat smug lift to the left side of his mouth.

Pul smiled sincerely and exhaled in a happy manner. He reached forward with his comm and activated the fern-covered panel. *Ding* sang the lift and the wall slid open to reveal its empty interior. “You will be messaged,” said Pul, in dismissal.

Nathan strode forward and then turned back to face Pul. To his surprise, Pul gestured a thumbs-up just before the doors closed.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVIII.

Skinwalkers, XLVI

They paused outside the door. “N. Reed; Pul,” Stone acknowledged, exiting just after they did. He continued past them and down the corridor. Nathan’s eyes adjusted to the lighting to watch the broad-shouldered man retreating and he realized the suspension drops’ influence had worn off. Worn off… Off… Something’s off… A thought struck him. Turning to Pul, Nathan exhaled and made a show of lightly stretching his shoulders and neck.

Pul chuckled. “That was some performance in there, Nathan Reed.”

Nathan stood up on his toes, continuing his casual pretense. “Thank you, Pul.” He stood flat again. “I thought I may as well fix six blemishes with one patch.”

Pul laughed again. “That you did.”

“Still,” Nathan continued, “I’d hate for you and the others to catch trouble for any damage or waste to that many materials.” He met Pul’s eyes and raised one brow. “I’d calm if I could see them delivered.”

He watched the expressive executive’s own eyebrows rise in surprise. Pul had clearly not thought of this possibility. “Oh! Oh, of course!” As Nathan desired, Pul then spun and reactivated the door behind them. His motions were more hurried than last time. Before the entry had pulled to the side completely, Pul was back inside the red-lit room. Nathan stood right behind him.

“Pul! What are you doing?” a familiar, shrill voice demanded. Nathan stepped to the side and saw just the woman he wished to, in just the position he suspected. Caill stood very near a work station in a stiff posture. Upon spying Nathan, her hands began twisting around each other.

Surprised, Pul cleared his throat. A jiff passed and he cleared it again.

Nathan moved around him and walked in Caill’s direction. “We returned to deliver the samples,” he said. “I thought you and your associates might want to ensure their safety.” Stopping a little over a meter away, he stared right at Caill’s eerily-shadowed face. “It would be a thick loss to Carapace otherwise.”

The proud and crafty woman, once a prowling wolf, seemed more an outlands rodent now. Her hands wound round and round, and she stepped back from him involuntarily.

“But, perhaps,” he said, and paused, “That is precisely what you were doing.”

“Oh!” Pul recovered. “Of course! That’s what you were doing, Caill.” He gave a nervous laugh and came forward as well. “Well, then -I guess we’ll help. Which stations have you packaged?”

Caill appeared to be trying to remember something, and Nathan suspected it to be how to think on her feet. “I… um,” she said. “I actually just got started.” She smiled at Pul; it looked painful.

“Right,” Pul responded. “Then I guess we’ll work on the last rows while you start where you’re at.”

The rabbit twitched her gaze from Nathan, to Pul, to her hands. She finally stilled her hands, sniffed at the air, and nodded. “O-of course.”

Nathan smiled and returned to assist Pul. Really, he thought, What other choice did Caill have?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVII.

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, XLIV

Six workers stood; six red-shadowed forms walked quickly to where Nathan had directed. Once seated, the six hurried to retrieve necessary intra-dermal materials from their new stations’ storage bays.

Nathan walked round them in a pattern designed to appear even and fair, yet focused his attentions on the worker named E. She had exhibited the most hesitancy and the longest working time, not to mention the most attention from Caill -as unobtrusive as Caill thought she was being in paying those attentions.

Despite those concerns and observations, Nathan saw no negative reaction from D, the young man who stepped up to work with E’s matrix. Considering, Nathan cleared his throat. “Due to the more intricate nature of this step, you will have a full tick’s time to complete it.” He continued walking as he spoke. “Subdermal construction is a specialty of mine, and I will be closely monitoring each worker’s efforts.”

E’s left hand twitched away from her task and she stole a glance at Caill. Nathan saw this but pretended he had not. He circled the redlit, wedge-shaped amphitheater in measured steps. His slipshods made little sound in the soft flooring but he knew that even the three executives felt and dreaded his approach.

Each of the six workers responded with a tensing of shoulders or arms, a rush to pull the material he or she needed, or a quick turn of head toward his bent scrutiny.

Each of the three persons monitoring the proceedings, meanwhile, responded according to personality. Stone did not change expression; Nathan’s more shocking announcements caused the stoic man to move his hand-clasping from behind his back to his front, or the reverse if he found them already before him. Pul, for his part, took to bouncing on the balls of his feet and a twitching of head and facial features into exactly what feeling struck him. Caill’s reactions were the most interesting for Nathan to observe, since the woman persisted in both shielding her emotions and being ignorant to how obvious that shielding was.

Her hands would jerk forward to wring around each other until she realized what they were doing and desisted. Sometimes, she caught them before contact; other times, not till a full jiff or two later. Their progress depended on the severity of her reaction. When hand-wringing was not enough, she paced a step or two -the distance, again, depending on severity.

Nathan made up his mind. After looping near D and stopping to admire his handiwork, Nathan strolled to E’s station. The woman grew more intent upon her model. He leaned down quite near her to watch.

In a voice just beneath a whisper, he said, “Whatever you have been told, I assure you: completely destroying your assigned step will ruin the materials for not just one, but six dermal samples.” Her hands shook and her eyes darted to his hovering face. “Do not look to Caill for approval,” he added, before she could. “You and I both know that she will discard you faster than a defective membrane if outed.” E snorted a silent, somber laugh but pretended to keep her focus on the task at hand.

“You also know the Heads at Carapace will not appreciate such an expensive waste of materials,” he continued, raising a hand to point at her sample. To any visually eavesdropping, he ensured their exchange had the appearance of casual instruction or curious query. “If they do not terminate this entire team, they will assuredly ask for the one responsible, and Caill is not the sort to volunteer for termination.”

“Now,” he moved his finger to a more specific location, “Let’s remove this ‘vessel’ and choose a more lively one.”

E jumped a bit. “Of course,” she said, barely audibly but with more composure than her previous actions had indicated. Picking up a pair of tiny tweezers, she extracted the plastic tubing she had inserted in place of an actual vessel.

“Thank you,” Nathan whispered. Without changing expression, he gestured to another area and asked, “What is your name?” He saw Caill pacing. Toward them.

“Quý,” E breathed.

“Thank you,” he said again. He rose and straightened his suit. In a normal tone, he said, “Excellent layering. Your placement will ensure a seamless tissue integration.” Caill paused and feigned an interest in C’s progress, to her side. She then turned and paced back the other direction.

Nathan smiled, the sort he saved for victory.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLV.

Skinwalkers, XLIII

Crude as Nathan’s rented outfit might have been compared to the skins used by Caill, Stone, and Pul, it served its masking purposes well. More than once, he felt enough of a burning stare from the three executives to elicit a rise in body temperature. Nathan’s normal epidermis, he was certain, was flushing and sweating. Not that he’d rented the cheapest skin possible, of course. Otherwise, the sweating alone would have ruined any adhesion and left him looking like a melted candle.

Nathan couldn’t help but picture such an image under the red glow of the inpracticum lab lights, the tenaciously trusting glances of the workers, and the ever-present scrutiny of the three in charge.

Still, the group assigned beneath him was skilled. He felt grateful to the state of the current job market for that, although not for much else. Once equipped with new supplies for the task, Workers A-F crafted with a rushed efficiency that surprised and pleased him. He felt his natural intellect and past education surfacing from a half planetcycle’s disuse, barely keeping up with the flying fingers, tools, and computer-generated figures before him.

A lesser man might have recoiled from the challenge. A lesser man might have considered leaving the room at the first sign of a dark, enclosed space and the expectation of impossibility. Nathan Reed was never a lesser man.

“Set your matrix, and prepare to relocate,” he announced after a half-tick. All but E were finished; E close enough to move within a jiff. Five expectant, redlit faces lifted to his, joined by the sixth after a pause. “You will move across and up, with the exception of the back position,” he said. Raising his voice for the benefit of his judges, he continued, “When directed, A will move to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, E to F, and F down to A. The success of your creation will be judged by the one who comes after you.”

He stopped to allow them to think on this. Not wishing to obliterate a necessary amount of teamwork, he added, “The ease and exactness with which you craft your portion will result in six working samples within the same space that mediocre teams make only one.”

The rotating model of a dermal matrix floated above the front of the room. Nathan stepped below it. Still holding the tablet Stone had given him at Caill’s direction, Nathan swiped the display to show the next step. Colored demonstrations of cell and vessel integration replaced the first step over his head. “Are there any unfamiliar with this process?”

His gaze locked briefly with each worker. Each face returned a similar expression of cool experience, though A and E also glanced at the large display or at Caill. He made a mental note to watch D’s reaction to E’s work after the switch. One faulty cog would make for complete failure, but he knew no better way to expose a trap set for new applicants.

“If your current matrix is set, rise and move to where you were directed.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLIV.

Skinwalkers, XLII

Nathan needed only a brief read-through to learn the basics of his task, though he knew he’d have to return to the screen for specific biological terms. One didn’t naturally memorize references such as dermal fibroblasts as easily as collagen bundles, after all.

He also knew he could not work with a team from the center of a stage. Determined, he walked to the nearest workstation on his left. “I am Nathan Reed. What is your name and skill set relevant to dermal bioengineering?”

The worker stole a look at the three executives before answering. “I guess I can go by A.” Her voice reminded Nathan of a balloon he’d played with once as a child, one that had developed a leak. “I have many skills but I’m tasked with matrix prep -preparations.”

Nathan nodded. “Thank you.” He moved to the next desk on the right. “Are you assigned as ‘B,’ then?” This worker nodded, her ponytail bouncing with the movement. “And what is your task?”

Calm and collected but barely audible, B said, “For this ‘cycle, cell and vessel ingrowth.”

Nodding and thanking B, Nathan moved to the next worker. He turned out to be D; the person to his left was C. Nathan thereby learned that each worker was an assembly-line step in a basic synthdermal construction.

With the exception of a few disagreeable glares aimed his direction, Caill and her associates kept to their position of observation during his interviews. He wasn’t certain they would maintain this silence with his next announcement.

Returning to the stage at front, he stated, “Our inpracticum is simple, given the advanced skills and knowledge that you all clearly possess.” He allowed the praise to sink in for a jiff and a half before dropping his bombshell. “Therefore, and to avoid waste and boredom, we will be addressing the assignment in a different manner.”

He tapped at the tablet screen, expanding the first step. Grasping the space just above the surface, he pantomimed pulling then flicking into the air above and behind his person. The image complied. Three-dimensional models of dermal matrices floated where all could read them. “Is there a technician here who does not know how to construct a matrix?”

No one raised a hand nor spoke aloud. A few tugged at an ear or scratched at a cheek. Most looked around to see what the others might do; particularly, the suited ‘others’ who were usually in charge.

“Excellent,” Nathan said, in his best managerial tone. “Then, we will all be doing the first assignment. Synchronously.”

“N. Reed!” Caill began, “I do not-”

“Furthermore,” he continued without interruption, “When that step is complete, you will move to the side or down and work on your neighbor’s matrix when we begin cell and vessel construction.”

The workers were very intelligent and skilled persons. They blinked back at him in a bit of a shock.

“Any questions from those who will be working?” If Nathan had thought Caill appeared diabolical in the redlight, he would have appreciated seeing his face just then. A protest had been forming on Caill’s lips before she caught his look. He saw her intended censure; saw, with satisfaction, its retraction.

“Excellent,” he repeated. “Then, we begin.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLIII.

Skinwalkers, XLI

Nathan mentally cursed the Suspension Drops as he stood in the newly-formed dark. Despite the redlight influence, he could not see anything.

“N. Reed?” Pul asked with concern.

“A moment.”

Nathan used his reprieve to squint, blink, and peer around. Black nothing resolved into red bits. The red bits became various light sources. Those red sources reflected from equipment on desks and the expectant faces of a handful of seated laboratory workers.

Turning to the eerie face of Pul at his shoulder, Nathan announced, “I am ready.”

“Excellent,” answered the voice of Caill. “We’ve already lost time waiting for your arrival.”

Tracing the sound of her strident voice, Nathan found the executive standing just a few paces beyond him and Pul at the front of the room. She was scowling, her features appearing more demonlike than usual in the crimson ambiance. “Then, by all means, outline the inpracticum,” Nathan responded, mildly.

Caill scowled further, he thought. Straightening pose and lifting chin, she complied. “This is one team of research adherents. They represent who you might be working with if assigned.” She paced, a nervous gesture. “You are to lead them through a randomly-assigned task provided by Stone.”

“Stone?”

“Here,” the succinct executive provided. Nathan turned his body to view a back corner of the room. Stone did not look as sinister as his female colleague in the redness; his masculine features instead gave the impression of a face chiseled in a mountainside. He strode forward and handed a tablet to Nathan.

Without even glancing at the display, Nathan accepted the tablet and marched to where Caill awaited. “If you don’t mind,” he said, almost deferentially. She moved, stepping down to stand warily beside Pul and Stone.

“Now,” Nathan said, addressing his new team, “I am Nathan Reed. We will be working together this inpracticum and for many cycles henceforward.” He ignored an intake of exclamation from Caill. “Let us see what we will accomplish.”

Nathan fought the internal anxiety of the small space, the stares of so many strangers, and the challenge of whatever his assignment might be. To the view of his expectant audience, however, he was confidence and control.

Glancing down, he read the tablet’s instructions. His wristwatch beeped; it was time to get started.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XL.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLII.

Skinwalkers, X

The name elicited an intake of breath from Pul, a twitch from Caill, and a frowning swallow from the ever-serious Stone. Nathan knew the shame all those in the grafting industry felt upon hearing the name, yet also knew the power given those who spoke the truth without fear.

Again, his comm projected a lighted image. In fact, it began spanning through a few, pausing for about a microtick on each. The first was one Nathan had lifted from his alma mater’s netsite: a gleaming laboratory of metallic surfaces, transparent suspension tanks, and LAD-illuminated work stations.

“As noted on my jiǎnlì, formal training in this area was conducted through SciTecMed: the top training facility nearest my area.” He felt his tone crack slightly, but hoped his audience was not so perceptive. Clearing his throat to cover, he continued, “I studied under the same director who initially founded Skinwalkers.”

The three executives grew more serious, but did not repeat their initial, surprised reactions.

As his comm moved on, so did Nathan. A stock anatomy illustration hung in the space between them, rotating artistically. “As such, we acquired the latest research on grafting.” He paused; added, “Beneficial and detrimental.”

He initiated the switch to the third picture, which was his own. He felt a slight emotional tug as blues and greens reflected from the windowed walls and executives’ faces. The scene was his research project, the one he had never finished. He knew Caill, Stone, and Pul would not have enough time to scrutinize all the elements captured in the image; that those elements simply made for an artistic representation of a live project.

“My personal studies were concerned with absolute biodermal fusion.” He thought he saw Caill pull away, though the movement may have been completely internal. Nathan filed away a mental note to examine later, at his leisure. Her associates seemed to draw closer, instead, as he spouted technological jargon to expound on his topic.

A chirping beep from the watch interrupted his concluding remarks. Again, they all jumped slightly. Now was Caill’s turn to ask, “Why do you still wear that thing?”

Nathan smiled his own executive smile. “Another time, perhaps.”

Her mouth closed reprovingly. Her eyes noted the point scored. Well, thought he, If you’re going to always attack, expect others to do so when you’re vulnerable.

Stone, of course, was unaffected by their little exchange. Pul seemed aware that Caill’s mood had worsened somewhat, as he tactfully said, “For whatever reason, it’s helpful to note that our time is spent.” He rose, followed closely by the others, and extended a hand.

Nathan followed their example, but paused at the friendly gesture. Slowly, keeping his eyes on Pul’s honest face, he reached his right hand out and accepted the firm handshake.

He saw Caill bend to retrieve the comm, and moved to quickly intercept. “Thank you,” he told her, sternly, as he deactivated the feed and pocketed it.

They all straightened in an executive seriousness, sizing each other up. Nathan thrilled, internally, at the shift in expressions and overall mood of the room. He knew they not only saw the man he claimed to be, but accepted him.

Stone nodded at Nathan; said, “We’ll notify you of results.”

Nathan kept his face straight as he returned the nod. First Stone, then Pul, and lastly Caill turned from him and exited through the very panel they had entered. The outside work area seemed overbright compared to their muted meeting room, especially with the additional human movement and accompanying energy.

He followed the three suited backs again, in a reverse order of their original entry path. Stations to the left and right formed a flashing hallway back to a plant-lined wall and transparent double doors. The odd podium and blank wall of the lift lay beyond. His interviewers stopped and turned to face him once again.

Holding her hands behind her, Caill attempted a smile. The gesture lifted her lips above the definition of a frown, but did little else to her habitually crafty expression. “N. Reed,” she stated. He inclined his head marginally; she stared for a bit, then walked back the way they had come.

Nathan turned to face Stone, whose acknowledging gesture indicated a predominant feeling of respect. He, too, returned back to the work area.

Pul was nearly grinning. The man almost put his right arm on Nathan’s shoulder, to guide him, as he walked forward and pushed against the doors with his left. They entered the lift area together, whereat Pul ran his own comm against an unobtrusive panel behind a convenient fern of some variety. The wall opened, lightly chiming as it did so.

Nathan looked at Pul one last time as he entered the lift, and nearly stumbled at the plethora of emotions within the man’s eyes. “Goodbye, Nathan. It’s been a pleasure,” Pul said, and meant it.

The reflective side slid across his view, leaving Nathan with only his own grafted face and surprised eyes to look at.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, IX.
Read to Skinwalkers, XI.

Feeling lost? Go back to the very beginning with Skinwalkers, I.

Skinwalkers, IX

“Be that as it may,” Caill interjected, “We would certainly need someone with direct experience in such areas to even attempt the task…”

Nathan allowed her to ramble, to warm to her subject. Little did she know that he was learning about her personality, approach, nervous habits, feelings, and fears. The sensation he felt was almost like mind-reading. Like a telepathic sponge, he read nearly every bit of her person.

What would his dear father have said now? Nathan frowned slightly, knowing the answer would still have been an ignorant reprimand of a useless talent and wasted cycles learning more about it. “The Military, Kid,” the old man would have said, “That’s all you’re good for now. They always need targets.”

Caill was winding down. He brought his attention back to the present to hear, “Carapace simply can’t consider promises alone, no matter the reassurances given.” Her angular face pointed to aim directly at his. Her deeply-colored eyes coolly met his own rigid blue ones.

“Indeed,” he replied, equally cool. “How beneficial, then, that I have exactly the experience you mention.” Withdrawing his comm and setting it atop the touchsurface before them, he enunciated a single word: “Carapace.” Obediently, the small device projected a two-dimensional graph into the air. The white outline and red plot points reflected from three pairs of executive eyes.

Nathan gestured at his glowing creation. “Perhaps you’ve heard of a little company named Photap.”

“Of course-” Caill began, eager to interject, but he ignored her interruption and continued.

“I led a team of Advancement students for one quarterplanetcycle.” Nathan pointed at the dates listed under his image. “This quarter,” he added. A pretty blue line climbed an extremely steep slope from the first plot point to the second during his indicated time period. “Photap had been working for over a planetcycle to gain front page report status, and ‘allowed’ our team to work on it because they found it impossible. As you can see from the rest of the data, their market was all uphill from there.”

At his statement, the blue line continued rising between points. It topped out beyond the last; forming into a dainty little arrow that intentionally pointed beyond the reaches of his y-axis number counts.

Pul, again, made a noise of surprise. “Your team brought about Photap’s sudden climb?” He asked, disbelieving.

“Yes.”

Stone cleared his throat. Perhaps Nathan had convinced him, but the man did not wish to let Caill and Pul know of his opinion. “So, this was documented?” Stone asked.

Unlike Caill, Stone seemed stoic merely from tired habit. Nathan felt much safer fencing questions from him, though the others were obviously still present to hear what responses he might give. “I have some documentation, yes,” Nathan told him. Caill twitched involuntarily; she’d clearly not expected an affirmative.

“So, where is it?” Pul asked excitedly. “Next image?”

Caill snorted somewhat, as Nathan hesitated. “You don’t have the documentation?” She asked. If only she would make as much effort to mask her tone as her expressions, Nathan thought, Caill might actually make it to whatever higher-level position she sought.

“I have documentation, but it’s classified,” He adjusted the watch at his wrist, then desisted. Who was exhibiting nervous habits now? He chastened himself. Aloud, he expounded, “I never break an agreement with an employer.”

The three sat in silence for a few moments. Caill’s face showed some disbelief, Pul’s was of a happier animation, and Stone appeared to be thinking.

Finally, Caill spoke, “Are we to believe your claims when you have no backup documentation?”

“No,” Nathan told her, levelly. “You are to know my claims are true because I said they were. Rest assured, I have all the knowledge needed to undertake this task.” He sat back slightly, aiding an impression of power and authority. “Now, onto my ‘direct experience’ with epidermal conditions,” he stated, intentionally quoting Caill’s phrase.

Looking down at his comm again, he voiced another single word: “Skinwalkers.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, VIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, X.

Skinwalkers, VIII

“We had many applicants for this assignment,” Caill moved along, pretending they were engaged in everyday business; and not, as Nathan easily felt, a psychological battle. These were the only situations in which he felt grateful to his father’s unethical methods of child-raising. He might offer some post-mortem prayer of thankfulness, had he not known that the man had no altruistic motives behind the lifelong abuse.

Outwardly, he straightened somewhat and met Caill’s stare. He almost forgot to blink, since the sensation to do so had been removed with the eyedrops. Caill was equally cool; he suspected she needed no solutions to maintain her composure. Even her body language stayed in control. Given just the half-tick he had been in her company, he would not have been surprised to learn that she controlled internal body functions one normally classified as autonomic.

Stone shifted slightly. “Tell us what you would bring to Carapace,” he said, also focusing on Nathan. To his side, Pul assumed a similar posture.

You’re on, Nathan told himself. Blessing his naturally-deep voice, he began his practiced speech. “Carapace is the leader in epidermal attachment procedures, by known reputation. Any person or entity in need of the latest advancements knows exactly which company to contract with.”

His words had echoed powerfully back from the hard surfaces of the bathroom at home, when he’d said them repeatedly since the interview notification. Here, he fought the muting of fabric surfaces.

There, his own pale features had watched him from the mirror. Here, three impassive faces reflected minuscule reactions.

“My goal is to bring Carapace to the forefront of any report; to finally ensure it receives the deserved recognition for being the foremost in its field.” Pul let out a small gasp, though Nathan was certain all three understood the import of his words. “My team will only raise the image Carapace shows the commercial market. They will understand hard work. They will work for the taste of winning. They will succeed.”

He realized he expected the lingering echo of his bass tones, as had happened during practice. Mentally crossing his fingers, he awaited the executives’ responses.

Caill thawed from the effect of his answer first. He pictured her like an arctic wolf, shaking his words from her thick coat like irritating bits of snowy fluff. Thus relieved, she warmed to conversational repartée. “Those are strong ambitions. I’m not certain you know the impossibility of such a goal.”

Her observation nudged Stone toward a similar realization more quickly than his mental abilities would have otherwise. “Our legality section has studied report recognition since Carapace went public -” he began.

“All the more reason for action,” Nathan cut him off. “We need to move before their influencers embed even more limitations. We need quick, precise solutions or Carapace will never be #1 as it deserves.”

Caill opened her mouth; closed it again. Clearly, he thought, she was changing tactics. She couldn’t know that he had anticipated any she might consider. “How exactly would a person of your situation and background expect to achieve that, or your other goals?” She tried to sound casual, yet haughtiness tinged her tone.

Nathan couldn’t help but smile, though he managed to release it as a determined, knowing smugness. He felt extremely pleased that Caill had phrased her insult so subtly. Clearly, she acknowledged his intelligence in the delivery, though she fought dirty in the content.

“My background is in detailed reference research, epidermal conditions, and institution management,” he began. Caill waved a perfect hand to interrupt, but he ignored her. “Besides this information, what you will know from this meeting is that I always do what I say.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers VII.
Read to Skinwalkers,  IX.