Skinwalkers, XXV

Nathan’s solitary walk back to his own cement hole felt less solitary than usual, yet somehow more isolating. If only the cost of rent in the slums afforded them all the same luxuries it did in areas like Beta. Obviously, if that were the case, they’d not only be free from autoads. They’d also enjoy fewer street dwellers, less concentrated smog, lighter traffic, better living quarters…

Time and technology may move ever forward, he philosophized, but each suncycle passed much the same as it always had for humanity. What had his grandfather often said? “The toilet gets fancier, but we all still take a -”

N, man. How’s the air?” a familiar voice interrupted. Nathan’s thoughts returned to his current reality. His autodrive walking had led him down the citypaths, down the familiar cracked stairs to his entry, and, obliviously, down past Franks.

Nathan stopped and turned, clearing his face of concern. In the mere jiff of the movement, he relaxed his jaw, released his scowl, and widened his eyes slightly. “Franks?”

Fortunately, his neighbor was alone. Unfortunately, he appeared overloaded. Does the guy ever just eat and sleep? Nathan thought. Like most fixers, Franks also depended on the various substances he helped mix and distribute. Nathan almost felt sad for the emaciated, twitching man. Almost.

“You forgot to answer.” Franks’ shoulder jerked a millimeter, then again.

“I was at work.”

“Comms work at work.” Twitch.

“Not mine. What you need?”

Franks paced. “Neo.” Stop. Pace. Stop. Pace again.

Nathan spent a useless jiff wishing he knew what his unpredictable neighbor had taken recently. He had to get through this conversation before Franks hit an aggressive stage. There was no way he could afford the charge he owed to Franks’ contact before next paycycle. “Neo?”

Franks stopped, scuttled closer. Keeping his unshod feet flat on the ground, he tried to meet Nathan’s eye as he’d done the last time they’d met on the landing. Nathan blinked harmlessly. He watched Franks’ brows draw together in confusion; watched him look away and shake his head with a sharp jerk. “Neo…” he mumbled, as he stumbled back to his own entry.

Nathan continued watching as Franks managed to open the door, grope his way through, and activate living lockdown. He saw Franks fall to the floor just before the door slid home.

He allowed his pent-up tension out through a long, even exhale. “That was close,” he quietly told the empty landing. Though he felt drained enough to follow Franks’ example, Nathan decided to check his main comm before collapsing. Pulling out the one he’d used for work, he scanned open his own dark apartment.

He walked in and activated its security. Squinting into the cramped living space, he said, “Light.” The lights and his comm obeyed. He’d really have to change the activation word for one or the other, he mused. A few steps led him into the sleeping area; a few more, to his bed. He depressed the hidden night stand knob and switched comms. The night stand drawer closed.

10 new messages, the screen displayed. Feeling too tired to peer at its tiny surface, he said, “Display.” Nine queries from Franks floated in the air above the small, black device. One at the very bottom, however, was from Carapace.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXVI.

Skinwalkers, XXI

A full shift later, Nathan and Shin followed their less-than-ebullient guide back through the lift and out the service entry. It left them in the alley, returning inside after commenting on how happy it would be to endure their company next shift as well.

Next shift, Nathan realized, he’d need a new partner. He and Shin stood amongst the other unwanted garbage of Carapace and swung their tired limbs in the early premeal air.

“Gotta get back to Chomsy,” Shin said, after a bit. He smiled ruefully. “I need that last load if I don’t wanna walk back to The Virginias.” They started back through a shadowy cityscape, their path lit by building glows and occasional autoads.

*Low on load? Fastcred’s here to help* crooned a male voice of exactly the right tone and timber. Nathan couldn’t help but feel reassurance, almost a calming, as he walked through the visual and heard its words. He stopped just past the autoad’s glow. Confused, Shin halted beside him.

“Shin,” Nathan began. “Have you tried -” He stopped himself. Suddenly aware, suddenly suspicious, he scowled at the embedded adsensor they’d just activated.

“Ayight?” his friend asked. Nathan did not respond. “N? Nathaniel?”

“That was different,” Nathan finally answered.

“Oh?” Shin sounded curious, but wary. “Let’s keep walking -a bit guttery.” Nathan glanced up; they shared a look. Together, they continued down the citypath, intentionally walking nearly in the deserted street.

“So?” Shin prompted. His slipshods barely gripped the walkedge; he exaggerated the effort required to balance.

Nathan smiled at his friend’s antics, but could not be moved to full-out laughter. He felt deeply shaken, even violated. “I think,” he said, and could not find the right words. “I think that wasn’t sensory.”

Spinning, Shin tried his balancing trick backwards. His flailing arms and waving legs did not match his serious expression. He raised an eyebrow; queried, “Then what was it?”

Nathan slipped a bit on the edge. Regaining the path, he mumbled, “It influenced me.”

Shin took a misstep and stumbled dangerously close to an autodrive strip. Recovering, he climbed back out of the street and next to his preoccupied friend. Another autoad flickered to life and they jumped aside as if burned.

*Drink your meals the natural way.* Symphonic music swelled and a grassy, beast-less Outlands scene played. The projection became encapsulated in a virtual bottle, which poured into a virtual glass. *LIVE has everything you need, for a charge that’s hard to believe.*

Nathan and Shin uncharacteristically watched the ad to completion. It flickered off, returning two sobered expressions to building-light darkness. Shin turned to Nathan. “Might be a good thing to die in a cave after all.”

 

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

Skinwalkers, XX

Nathan found most of hardware upkeep monotonous and repetitive. Given his and Shin’s current location inside Carapace, however, his senses were acutely more strained. He stole a glance at his friend. Shin wore the same introspective expression he’d modeled at Check In.

Nathan withdrew a tray and bowed over it with his currentmeter. Under cover of verifying a key bus, he studied Shin more closely. His friend sighed as he worked at a pace that would shame a lamed elder. His brows drew together; his face drew together. A small storm cloud hung over Shin’s dreary, hunched form. Nathan set his personal anxieties about Carapace aside.

“So, what’s itching you?” He casually asked.

He was rewarded with the nearly silent *clink* *clink* of a circuit board against metal side mounts and the eternal hum of machines and fans. Shin exhaled loudly, then answered, “Nothin’, Nathaniel. Thanks for asking.”

They finished a rack. Five down, thousands to go, thought Nathan. He and Shin stood and stretched their arms and legs before squatting in front of Rack #6. Each man removed a tray and began inspecting it.

“I’m not buying that,” Nathan said, in between trays.

“Good,” Shin quipped, shaking a tray slightly toward him. “‘Cause you can’t even afford a capacitor on this.”

Nathan laughed. “Nice.” They worked in computer silence once more, before he tried again. “You know what I meant. You look like my Grams at a deathing.” He glanced over and caught the end of Shin’s smile, just before it sunk back to its habitual frown.

They stretched, then opened Rack #7. “I gotta leave,” Shin mumbled. Nathan almost didn’t hear him.

“What? Why?”

*Clink* Hmmmm *Clink*

“Are you running?” Nathan asked. Shin didn’t seem the sort to be in trouble, but one never knew these cycles. Even he, Nathan, had gotten tangled in some less than legal dealings recently.

Shin coughed out a bitter laugh. “Nah, N. I just ran out of charge.” They each withdrew another tray from the tower. “The place is getting deactivated tomorrow,” he explained from a pretend-close scrutiny of the circuitry in his hands.

“Oh,” Nathan said. “Sorry.” The housing in the city may not have been picturesque, but he knew eviction black-marked one’s record for years. They worked their way through racks 7 thru 10 without adventure. “What are you going to do?”

Shin shrugged and returned a tray to its rack. “Go back home, I guess.”

“Oh.”

“Probably get stuck in a shaft before payment.”

“Oh? The mines are that bad, huh?”

Shin didn’t answer; just smiled sadly. “I’ll send you a shiny rock before it happens,” he offered.

Nathan forced a laugh, attempting a lighthearted sound. “All right, Shin,” he said. “But if it’s not shiny, I demand an in-person replacement!”

 

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

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

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.

Skinwalkers, XVIII

Nathan’s worried thoughts fueled a helpless anxiety. They chased each other round his head like feral Outlands beasts of some sort, snarling without reason or satiation.

“Look out!” Shin exclaimed, grabbing at Nathan. He managed to grasp at enough of Nathan’s thin upper arm to stop his oblivious pace, just as a large transport swung a sharp right directly at their toes.

*Cheerp!* *Cheerp!* Called the trafficsection signal, as the exhaust from the retreating vehicle still rose in the putrid city air.

Nathan exhaled; turned to his friend. “Thanks.”

“Yep.”

They crossed. “It’s just further proof that the autodrives aren’t perfect,” Nathan noted as they walked down the citypath.

He glanced back at Shin, and was rewarded with a half-smile; a, “Nope.” A moment of even treading later, Shin added, “They still don’t solve stupidity.”

Nathan, who’d nearly been enveloped in his worries again, was a bit slow to hear the truthful tease. He stumbled, and turned a quick look to Shin. Shin’s eyes seemed focused on their path ahead, as he grinned broadly. Nathan took the moment of distraction to punch his friend’s shoulder.

“Ow!” Shin reacted, surprisingly pained. Quickly, he covered with a playful laugh. He pretended a return punch; but, Nathan noted, with his other arm.

*I only use Sultronous* a sultry female autoad crooned. Her image dropped the towel it had barely been wearing to begin with. *Because I need my skin touchably soft.*

They walked through her without comment, stopping at their last crossing. Shin stole a quick glance at Nathan. “Did you feel something at that last one?”

Nathan considered. “Yeah,” he realized. “I thought they weren’t going to add sensory to the street ads, though.”

“Well,” Shin answered, nodding at the ever-present street dwellers, “Guess they’ll learn.”

“Yeah,” Nathan repeated. His friend’s comment drew him back to when sensory modifications had first been introduced. Every advertiser had clamored to use them and the citypaths had been saturated in perfumes, breezes, and flashing lights -until the street dwellers systematically cannibalized them for parts. One sensory mod covered a week’s worth of hits from the right vendor.

“If they’ve got a way to get around it,” Nathan posited, “we ought to look into it. I could use new slipshods.”

“And I could use a hit,” Shin replied.

They walked to the other path, past two buildings, then stopped. Shin gave a low, appreciative whistle at the sight of the monolith before them. “Check that shade,” he marveled. He tilted his head back, attempting to see where Carapace’s grey pinnacle reached grey-clouded sky.

“C’mon,” urged Nathan, turning away.

Regretfully, Shin abandoned his scrutiny. Together, they stepped to the neighboring alley. As with most of their assignments, the service side was less impressive than the streetside façade. Still, this one was cleaner and more secure than others they’d visited.

Adjusting his satchel, Shin approached the access door. After groping around various pockets, he found and withdrew his comm. Nathan watched him place it on the sensor; watched the familiar green activation light.

The entry slid open, and they went inside.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XIX.

Skinwalkers, XVI

Solicitous queries were nearly forming on Nathan’s lips when Choms -the devil supervisor, himself- entered the room. Shin would have to wait. Nathan found analyzing their boss imperative to job security and workplace safety.

Luckily, Choms’ entrance had been a fairly average one for him: sudden, but on time; no bellowing; nothing being slammed or dropped; and the people nearest the door had not been pushed out of the way. Choms stood smugly, looking like the world had better not even touch him. Those still left under his jurisdiction were only too happy to comply. In fact, Nathan was sure that most of humanity was happy to comply.

He strapped his tool satchel around his body. Shin stood, blocking Choms’ view so that Nathan could check his contents without reprimand.

“All right, ladies!” Choms began. His staff was purely male, and he knew it. He also knew the social repercussions of specifically naming and insulting a certain sex; Nathan doubted the man could ever by induced to care. “We’ve got a busy shift today!” Choms continued. Drawing his tablet importantly up to rest against his obvious gut, the bellowing beast of a man tried to scroll down its display with flair.

Nathan heard Shin sigh; anything louder might be grounds for dismissal in these depressed times. Nathan took the opportunity to examine his least-accessible pocket and found it lacking an autodrill.

“Right!” Choms yelled, jabbing a fat finger on the screen dramatically. “We’ve got ten customers to get to. Grab a partner” -here, he simpered sarcastically over the term, “and get out of here before I have to look at you.”

The ugly man cannot find love, even in himself, Nathan found himself musing, then stopped as his own face briefly reflected in his locker’s somewhat-mirrored door. Hastily, he withdrew his autodrill from the floor of it, grabbed a few rags and an extra container of compressed air, and shut his image away.

He and Shin, by unspoken agreement, turned and shuffled forward as “partners.” They waited near the front of a queue of equally enthusiastic workers.

Choms was systematically running down his list. “Fanta!” He barked, and two men silently scanned their comms beneath the tablet. They moved tiredly out the exit door behind Choms. Meanwhile, the barking boss had already moved on to, “Fantastique!”

Nathan noted a slight hesitancy in the wavering lift of the next workers’ comms. He recognized Tod and Lizard, from working past details together. He knew they probably would not have raised their comms at all, if not for the automatic instruction their brains had already given to be ready. -Not like they could refuse; but perhaps the friends could have “accidentally” pushed another pair ahead in line if they’d had time to think.

An unusual murmur of commiseration passed down the line. No one liked performing jobs at the notorious Fantastique: a hodgepodge business of mostly illegal dealings, located in one of the worst areas of the metropolis. The most lethal weapon Nathan and his coworkers carried was acid cleaner, meant to simply dilute acidic compounds on infected hardware.

“Shut it!” Their loving and understanding supervisor snapped. Tod and Lizard hunched out the door to their fate. Two more sullen workers moved forward; they were assigned, “Diaplex.”

Now, Shin stood just before Choms. He could have kissed the edge of Choms’ tablet if necessary. Nathan could smell Choms’ cheap stall-wash mixed with genetically-overpowering body odor.

Choms squinted next to his finger, and announced their assignment, “Carapace!”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XVII.

Skinwalkers, XI

Very shortly, Nathan found himself facing the main floor reception area of Carapace. He stepped from the lift and walked in muted carpet footsteps to the right of the receptionist’s desk. She was engaged, speaking animatedly to what sounded like a vendor.

“Yes, I understand you wish to contact M. Billings. I’m afraid you’ll just have to message him from the netsite.” She cocked a head to the left for a few seconds, and a light wave of auburn hair shifted to expose her perfect scoop of neck. Nathan mentally shook himself, and continued walking past her work area and toward the exit.

He heard her speak again, in a strained sort of politeness. “I’m sorry, but I can’t connect you in any other way. Thank you for your understanding.” He was nearly to the doors when she called, “Goodbye, N. Reed. Please, come again.”

Whoosh activated the doors, as the delicious air inside was sucked out into the stale environment of the city. Raising his right hand in a departing salute, he left without looking back. Unlike his entrance, he literally stumbled at the intersection of the fresh air with the polluted variety outside. He recovered, straightened his suit, and straightened himself.

Feeling the guard’s gaze upon him, Nathan walked resolutely down to the street. Unfortunately, no transports were idle. He’d have to activate one, or walk. He looked skyward, attempting to forecast the likelihood of precipitation in the ever-variable cloudcover. He’d better not chance it; he needed the skin undamaged.

Sighing, he pulled out his comm and requested pickup. Within moments, a battered transport stopped curbside and idled unsteadily at his feet. Nathan scanned his comm and the door popped open. The transport seemed to shift more listlessly with his entry than the one he had taken just a quad prior. The operator was also less impressive, to say the least.

The man in question turned round from his front seat position. This side of him was even less impressive than the back had been. He seemed to be about 80 years old. An open-gap toothiness cheerfully smiled from beneath a gray and white mustache. All hair originating from his face and head stuck out, and was affected by shifting air currents. What Nathan could see of the man’s outfit seemed to consist of recycled garments.

“Where to, son?” The ancient operator’s happy voice asked.

Nathan hesitated. “128th Verge Slum,” he croaked out.

“Eh?” The old man asked. He wagged a finger at Nathan. “You’re gonna have to speak up a lot clearer or we ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Following this reprimand, the man wheezed and slapped his steering. Nathan realized the operator was laughing.

He cleared his throat, swallowed, then repeated himself more audibly. “128th Verge Slum.” He almost added a, “please,” but caught himself in time.

“Darn tootin’!” The dashboard computer responded, and the transport lurched forward on its track.

Nathan blinked in surprise. “Me nephew taught me how ta set it up with a voice I liked,” the man grinned.

Not wanting to appear impolite, Nathan answered, “I see.” He could tell that the strange man wished him to expound slightly more. “Um, it’s very creative.”

“‘Course it is!” Operator agreed, resolute.

Feeling a tad bewildered, Nathan pretended distraction in the rapidly-passing buildings. Peripheral vision and attuned listening told him that no change had been made in the position of the transport’s other occupant. It was like the man knew nothing of social awkwardness or personal space.

The sky-blocking rectangular structures outside grew increasingly drab and closer together. They were nearly to Nathan’s buildling, a fact he had not felt more grateful for in a while. Their transport stopped; he exited.

The operator deactivated a doorscreen between them and bellowed, “Call me agin, any time you need transport!” He wheezed his version of mirth one last time, and added, “Name’s Rex.”

“Of course,” Nathan answered, “Rex.” He’d remember that name, as one to never call again in his working life.

Rex, meanwhile, grinned, closed the open door remotely, and drove away. Nathan was certain, before the vehicle barely cleared the next bend, that he could hear Rex singing raucously through the open doorscreen.

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

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.