Skinwalkers, VII

Nathan found his attention diverted by infinitely more distractions on this level, though he forced it to focus on the three executives he walked behind. They set a rapid pace, clearly accustomed to scenes he was not.

After leaving the plant-furnished area beyond the entry doors, the hallway they took had immediately entered a large, busy working space. Unit after unit filled the areas to his right and left. Their raised screens pulsed and shifted with information. Figures and graphs rose and dragged with data collectors’ finger swipes. A talking reporter described current events, was paused, then resumed.

A growing excitement built inside Nathan at the sight of it all. His mind easily fell back the few short years it had been since he was last immersed in technological industry, during Advancement Studies. Simultaneously, he tasted the bitter regret of his forced, premature removal.

This time, he thought, No one will take it from me. He’d made it on his own, now. He would make it the rest of his life on his own merits.

The suited backs he had been following paused momentarily outside a window wall. A panel moved and they entered. Nathan followed, entering likewise. Four chairs rested around the sides of a hexagonal touchsurface table near the space’s middle. Three of the chairs were closer together, and to those the executives drew.

This side of the window walls was tinted in some fashion. Nathan suspected them to be dimmable, like the natural daylight of the entire complex. These details were noted from his peripheral vision, and he strove to maintain a businesslike composure and not move his attention from his interviewers.

He sat as quickly as he carefully could, across from the triad of black suits. The woman crossed her ankles, folded her hands in her lap, and gave him a critical inspection. The men to her side chose a side-by-side foot position, relaxed hands on thighs, and less-sardonic expressions during their scrutiny.

Nathan waited. His wristwatch chose to beep again, which startled his examiners. They spent a few jiffs locating the source, then relaxed once the watch was identified. Man #2 laughed outright. “Why do you have that?” He demanded.

Keeping his face straight, Nathan replied, “To tell time.”

Now was the woman’s turn to laugh. As Nathan suspected, the sound was that of a suddenly freed bird: surprised, uncontrolled, and unnatural. “Ask a stupid question, Pul,” she rudely teased the man who’d first spoken. The left corner of Pul’s mouth pulled downward as his eyes sullenly registered her insult.

“It’s an interesting artifact …like your outfit,” she stated. She gazed at Nathan, challenge in her eyes. He couldn’t tell if she was referring to his skin, the suit, or even his behavior. This woman was tricky. Whether she was fully skinned or no, he bet she could hold that stony exterior in any situation.

Confidence, he told himself. I can play this game. Aloud, he answered, “Thank you.”

He thought he saw surprise cross her face, if briefly. The latest model of skin, then, if present.

“Now that we’ve discussed what a wristwatch is,” the woman continued, “Let’s begin where we traditionally do, with introductions.” She squared her shoulders, sitting up more fully. “I am known as Caill.”

“I am Stone,” Man #1 immediately offered.

“And I’m Pul, as you heard,” Pul ended. His discomfort at Caill’s blatant reprimand was still written in his lips and his glowering eyes.

Mentally, Nathan flexed his muscles. Caill was clearly a difficult one, but he intended to show her he was up for the challenge. He would play her games, and he would win.

 

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

Skinwalkers, VI

In truth, the smile was still not the sort Nathan was accustomed to seeing in his mirror at home. Another man’s high cheekbones lifted slightly, a stranger’s ears shifted, and someone’s symmetrical features were the ones expressing pleasure.

It was his eyes, he realized. Despite the effects of his eye drops, a sort of relaxed, inner light shone through. He’d assumed there was nothing left inside, nothing he would describe with words like light, anyway.

He looked down, unnecessarily adjusting his antique wristwatch.

Merely jiffs after closing, the lift sang its pleasant tone again. Nathan watched his reflection shimmer and pull to one side, to be replaced by the reception area of whatever level he’d been ferried to. This one also held plants, swaying and contributing to the delectable taste of unpolluted air.

The artistically arranged plants stood a balanced sentry against a paneled, daylight-glowing wall. Exiting and turning to look around, Nathan noted a vacant podium of sorts to his right. It stood near two large, closed doors. Accordingly, he approached. He withdrew his comm and ran it along the top and sides, but nothing activated.

He frowned, and walked to its backside. Still nothing. He looked, instead, to the wall-sized entryway. How would he get in?

Nathan paused for a few seconds, indecisively. Then, he recalled his morning-long mantra of confidence. He walked forward, and pushed at the doors. They moved inward, without any resistance. If he’d been in his own, lightweight skin, he would have fallen forward onto his ugly, imperfect face.

He would have landed right at the feet of a small audience, as well.

Three well-dressed, well-shod, and handsome business executives stood waiting. They seemed completely unsurprised to see him, a sentiment Nathan did not share. Suspecting surveillance equipment of some sort, he chanced a careful half-turn to look behind. The doors he had moved so easily were nearly transparent.

He looked back to the waiting party; attempted a level expression. The woman stepped forward slightly. “N. Reed.” Her cool voice said. It was a statement. “Welcome.” Nathan returned her greeting with a barely-perceptible nod. She smiled an executive smile, the sort that lifts one’s mouth but never reaches above that point.

One of the men straightened and clasped his hands together. “Well,” he began in a deep tone, “Shall we?” In eerie accord, he and the other two turned and began walking down the hall and away from Nathan.

This was it. will do this, Nathan reminded himself. Squaring his shoulders and suit, he followed the crushed carpet footprints of his potential employers.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, V.
Read to Skinwalkers, VII.

Skinwalkers, V

Nathan walked forward, gawking in the wonder of expensive surroundings. He sensed the door slide quickly and silently closed behind him. The expanse in front was more interesting, by far.

His basic-slipshod feet sank slightly into an opulent path of carpet. A solid and reflective flooring ran to either side of the path. Both led past a spacious, plant-furnished foyer to an impressive, raised reception desk of dark wood.

Daylight-simulation glowed from the walls, floor, and ceiling. He didn’t know how it could or how anyone could afford the affect.

In fact, any small corner of the area cost more than Nathan expected to earn in a lifetime. He couldn’t imagine, even, the price of actual plants; the price of keeping them alive was another phenomenal consideration.

“N. Reed?” a polite voice called from the desk. Her voice echoed pleasantly around the room to reach him, despite the foyer’s polished appearance.

Nathan swallowed; closed his slightly-agape mouth. He realized he’d been standing much like a castaway first waking on a beautiful island. The air felt so fresh, he could almost hear waves and taste airborne sea salt.

Straightening, he tried to regain some dignity as he walked toward the receptionist. The floor caving at each step distracted his feet. Green fronds swaying in the delicious currents whispered to his ears. Everything fought for his visual attention.

He reached the desk at last, and found that the young woman sitting there was yet another distraction. She smiled, making things worse. Mentally blessing the horrible Suspension Drops, he attempted to keep the rest of his face composed.

“Yes,” he answered. “I am Nathan Reed.” He tried to look collected, yet casual. All this must be normal. No, he wasn’t surprised by these settings. He couldn’t be; not someone as important as he.

“Wonderful!” she said, and appeared to mean it. Either she had one of the best skins money could buy -highly likely, considering what surrounded him- or she was very good at acting. “If you’ll scan your comm, here,” she tapped an unobtrusive panel at the top of the desk, “You’ll be able to proceed to the level you need through the lifts.”

At mention of her last statement, the receptionist brought her manicured hand from the panel to wave behind and to her right, at the wall. Squinting slightly, Nathan could see the outline of a door in the paneled wall.

His hand still held his comm. Nodding, he drew it to scan where she had indicated. A green bar briefly glowed, then faded. The lift, as it truly was, chimed a pleasant sound and its panel slid open. He pocketed his comm.

“Good luck,” the receptionist said, again seeming sincere. She also smiled again, which was unfair for someone with such flawless teeth and vivid eyes.

“Thanks,” he couldn’t help responding. He smiled, and wondered at the naturalness of it. Turning, he walked to and into the waiting lift. Its panel slid shut; his side was reflective, as he had hoped this morning.

Nathan was surprised at what he saw, though not for the reason he’d assumed while dressing. Yes, his appearance was strange for many reasons; however, it was the expression of lingering happiness that caught him the most off-guard.

When was the last time, he thought, that I smiled?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, IV.
Read Skinwalkers, VI.