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, XXII

A very hurried citycross led Nathan and Shin back to Ware Tech, back to Check In, and back in front of any humanoid’s least favorite supervisor.

“What took you ladies so long?” Choms leered as they entered. Not one of the room’s occupants laughed, but the odious man never needed outside confirmation of his incredible wit.

Nathan ducked his head and shrugged. He felt out of air, and moved past Choms and a few peers to deposit their gear. Shin, on the other hand, straightened. The graying storm cloud of despair moved aside and glorious midmeal light shone upon his face.

“We gotta go back next shift,” he explained, flippantly. Choms immediately puffed up in fury. Just before he released his usual torrent of inaccurate, angry reprimands; Shin added, “Oh, and I need to quit. See you never!”

He cheekily patted the spluttering Choms on a sweaty shoulder, then spun around and skipped a bit to his locker. Nathan stood by the bench, torn between shock and hilarity. His friend looked up and they shared a very brief moment of incredulous amusement before –

“Whaddya mean QUIT?! There’s formals, you dirk!” As Choms erupted into an ever-swelling wave of profanity and indignation, Shin calmly activated his locker and dumped his satchel in the bottom. Nathan winced at the sound of the autodrill and drivers impacting the metal; his friend seemed even happier.

Shin slammed the door so forcefully that Nathan saw his reflection wobble in his own locker door. Oblivious, Shin strode purposefully up to the still-shouting Choms; said, “I’ll need my depart charge.”

Their flustered supervisor literally shook with rage. Words now eluded him as that area of his small mind became engrossed in processing a reaction to Shin’s request. Nathan could watch Choms’ thought process through varying skin hues and feature contortions across the ugly man’s face.

After a full moment, Choms managed to activate his tablet. A moment more, and he’d fumbled open Shin’s work record. The instant Shin saw the prompt, he scanned his comm beneath the sensor. The paltry paycycle loaded; Shin’s work permissions simultaneously disabled.

If he thought he could do so without losing a limb this time, Nathan was sure Shin would have patted Choms again. “I’ll exit you,” Nathan offered, closing his locker and coming forward. He and Shin moved around Choms, who was still trying to get his voice to function.

Nathan activated the door just as Choms finally burst out with, “You’ll need to return that liner, you know!”

Shin stopped at the doorway, turned, and looked Choms right in the eye. He removed a pocketlight and ignited the tiny concentrated flame. Without breaking eye contact, he slit his company liner from knee to collar. He capped the pocketlight and stepped out of the charred-edge fabric.

A useless shell and acrid stench were all Shin left behind, as his slipshod heels walked out in only the skin birth gave to him.

 

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

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.