Skinwalkers, XL

Nathan turned to his right and left in the lift, taking advantage of the short ride to examine the bits of skin that showed around his suit. He pushed at the slit below his jaw just as the mirrored doors pulled open. Only their notifying chime betrayed the rapid movement, and he walked out into a plant-lined lobby.

This landing was different than the one he’d stepped onto last time, though only one with as trained a critical eye as his could have recognized the differences. If pressed to explain, he would have said that particular fern was a couple millimeters to the left and that panel glowed more brightly than its fellows. But the overwhelming evidence was not visual cues so much as how his body felt. He always knew whether he was higher or lower; basement or upper levels. He was higher than before; but, to what extent, he knew not.

He pulled at his suit and adjusted his wristwatch. Striding past a podium, he pushed open the opaque doors to find Pul expecting him. Pul’s suit was different than last time as well; cleaner, neater, more black. The tall executive’s greeting was also not the same, as he extended his right hand and smiled warmly.

Nathan accepted the handshake; he refrained from the smile.

Pul seemed unperturbed. He stepped back and raised his left arm to that nearly-touching gesture of guidance he’d employed at their departure two suncycles ago. Accordingly, Nathan moved forward. Pul acted as guide, pushing doors, lifting an arm, or noting direction with a, “through this opening,” “to the left a bit,” and “just here.”

Although Pul and Nathan traveled down passages on a level Nathan had never visited, the scenery remained the same as the rest of Carapace’s main areas: expensive carpeting, tiled side-floor, living plants, and natural daylight emanating from the walls themselves. Carapace may have been politically blocked from front page listing, but it clearly had not suffered as much as its executives might feel.

Their journey took them to a sealed door set in a completely solid wall. Nathan fought a rising anxiety as he told his internal panic that he was really not that far from the outside. The rented skin added a level of confinement he hadn’t noticed until faced with possibility of an enclosed space. There’s an exit; there’s always an exit, he repeated to himself.

Meanwhile, the oblivious Pul took out his comm and scanned it. The door panel displayed a single line of green light. Pul then pressed his palm solidly against the wall just to the panel’s right. A second, blue line appeared beneath the green. “Pul Nguyen,” Pul enunciated, and a third strip of yellow appeared below the green and blue. The three were Carapace’s company colors, and the three activated the silent opening.

A dark space gaped before them, glowing with a dim redness. The only sound Nathan could hear was a slight scratching or shuffling. He saw no exit besides the one they were to enter through.

Pul looked back at Nathan; extended that guiding arm again. “Shall we?” he invited.

Nodding, Nathan walked briskly into the red-lit hole. Pul stepped behind him and the door closed, cutting off any outside light.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXIX.
Keep reading to Skinwalkers, XLI.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XV

Nathan exchanged the wristwatch and his original comm for the one resting secretly in the nightstand. “‘Bye, Grandpa,” he said, just before closing the drawer with a secure *click*. He retrieved his slipshods from the floor and rushed out into the bathroom.

This time, he yanked open the topmost drawer to locate his toothwash. Whilst he swished and swirled it inside his mouth for the recommended moment, he studied the reflection of a very human face in a very splotchy mirror. His cheeks bulged slightly with wash, but he thought that abnormality actually helped his plain and pockmarked visage.

After spitting out the solution, he made a hurried check for unexpected stubble. He wasn’t due to burn again for another week, but the odd case of a hair or two somehow avoiding purge did come up.

With or without extra facial hair, it was time to go. Nathan returned the toothwash to its spot, grabbed his new comm and slipshods, and headed out the door. He paused just long enough to slap the doorscan to lockdown the apartment, and to dress his feet.

The traffic sounds reaching him now were steadier, though an occasional large vehicle-bellow interrupted the vehicular white noise. He skipped quickly up the cracked cement stairs and began jogging down the block.

Many a strung-out street dweller turned his head at Nathan’s rapidly flying form. Those too far gone to know up from down or side from side merely dreamt a vision more real than life, of a skinny laborer sprinting past their cardboard home.

Puffing, panting, and pausing to collect his breathing brought Nathan within reach of his employer’s station. He continued jogging, albeit more slowly. He came to a large, black doorway at the building’s sunside. A green light flitted briefly across the panel he scanned. The door pulled to the side and he entered.

When he’d first been accepted to this job, he’d worked nights. Each time the door had opened then, he’d felt he was walking into an unknown cave. Surely something was lurking; waiting to grab him. Maybe his nightmares lay around, wanting to jump out and yell, “Boo!” They’d have a contest to see who was scariest, invariably ending in a draw.

Aftermeal sunshine, however, often shone at the lucky time he began this new shift. It lit up just enough of the space to lead him in a glowing path to the beginning of where autolights finally took over illumination.

Nathan walked forward quickly. He stopped outside a door reading Check In. Scanning his comm, he entered as soon as the door moved to allow him. A few, lingering coworkers were just finishing gear-up. The rest milled noisily about. As he moved to his own locker, he saw his friend, Shin, sitting on a bench.

“Sup, Shin?” He asked pleasantly, opening his assigned locker with his comm.

Shin looked up, and Nathan could see that Shin also appeared smaller and sadder than usual. Despite that, the older man smiled wryly.

“Hey, Nathaniel,” Shin answered. “Long time no see.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XVI.

Skinwalkers, XII

Nathan could barely find energy to fight against the pull of gravity, dragging him more quickly than he desired down the cement stairs that led to his apartment. The soles of his slipshods slapped too noisily beneath him; their echoing clapping becoming a calamitous applause in the enclosed stairwell and landing.

Given the cacophony, he was only somewhat surprised to see the entry to Franks’ apartment slide open. Franks himself leaned against the intake wall. He looked well, causing Nathan to wonder what refreshers his neighbor had mixed this week.

Nathan stopped walking. The two men stared at each other. Franks moved first, standing away from his angled scrutiny and smiling. “Damn, man. You look iced!” He moved toward Nathan, and made a mock-reverential circle around him. Laughing, he added, “I didn’t know you could make a skin look so good.”

Nathan faked a cough. “Yeah, considering what you got for me,” he answered.

Franks laughed again. “You better watch out, or I’ll take it back,” was his return gibe. He stopped circling to meet Nathan’s gaze. Being shorter by several centimeters, this meant a balanced scrutiny from tiptoes.

Curious, Nathan glanced down. Franks was on literal tiptoes, as his feet were bare. Nathan pulled back to meet Franks’ stare.

“Use the drops?” Franks asked.

“Yep.”

“Ouch.”

“Yep.”

Franks sunk back down; stepped back. He acted suddenly distracted, as he usually became after a tick or half in Nathan’s company. Looking around and rubbing the back of his neck, Franks asked, “Need an SC?”

“No.” Nathan still had the Skin Conditioner it had come in, and knew Franks knew that as well.

“Right,” his distracted neighbor responded, stepping closer to his entry and not making eye contact again. “I’ll word your comm later,” he said. He was inside when he added, “After Neo.”

“Right,” Nathan called to the closing slider. Once it made full contact, he felt himself relax from an automatically-tense position. He didn’t relax fully, of course. Franks might still change his initial agreement and come demanding repayment anytime. Nathan would feel better once inside his own apartment, though the wall neighbor could easily get through one of the weaker sections if desperate.

“Hopefully, he has enough charge,” Nathan said, under his breath.

Turning, he intentionally walked a more quiet tread to his own entry. He withdrew his comm to unlock and activate the exterior door. Entering, he initiated living lockdown by applying his palm quite solidly against the doorscan. Fortunately, it was able to read through his skin after only a jiff.

He trudged wearily to the bedroom to relieve himself of the suit first. It looked like he’d thrown it at the hanger when he was done, but at least the garments were suspended. He returned them to his closet-hole, set his comm on the nightstand, and shuffled off to the adjacent bathroom.

Nathan activated the shower, and opened the SC he’d left in there since morning. As the water warmed, he stared distractedly at his distorted reflection. I did it, he thought, tiredly smiling. Thinking over the interview, Caill’s last expression, and Pull’s eyes, he grinned widely. He could feel the skin loosening with the movement, and ambient steam. He felt around to the back of his neck, rubbing to detach the vertebral bonds there.

Still grinning, his barely-perceptible reflection watched from the swirling clouds as he carefully peeled off his skin.

 

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

Skinwalkers, III

Dressing was more difficult than Nathan had planned. The task was exacerbated by myriad factors, including lack of a full-length mirror. He grunted, twisted, pulled and straightened like a possessed interpretive dancer.

“At least I’m not in a dress,” he mumbled, finally groping with the outercoat and its attachments. The full suit would hide most of his glaring, epidermal defects.

The wristwatch beeped again, at an antique half-hour, and Nathan knew it signaled a few ticks before morning traffic began. If he didn’t get to a transport soon, he wouldn’t beat the better-paid commuters.

He grabbed his slipshod footwear and his comm. Rushing through the three small rooms of the apartment, he sincerely hoped everything appeared in order about his person. He also hoped the appointment was in a building with a reflective lift.

Just before exiting, he slapped the defunct doorscan to activate lockdown. The trick was applying enough force to get the cracked reader to work, but not depress it to a further state of disrepair. He wanted to get back in later, after all.

He paused outside his exterior door, listening. Traffic echoes swirled like engined ghosts down the cement stairway and circled, trapped for moments, at the basement landing where he stood. No sounds of human movement came to him. Franks must have gone back to sleep.

Leaning to one wall, then the other, Nathan slipped his feet within their slipshods. He felt the contoured fabric lifting and shaping up his foot and ankle. Once the sole hardened with its habitual *click*, he immediately climbed the cracking steps to mainground.

What luck! A transport sat waiting, anticipating the impending work crowds.

Striding forward purposefully, he focused on the memory of confidence. His eyes blazed. His steps were measured and certain. Artfully, he withdrew and scanned his comm, immediately entering the vehicle when its activated door popped open.

The man up front seemed startled as Nathan sat and the vehicle tipped slightly. Nathan, however, appeared unperturbed.

“Er…” The operator began. Clearly, the man needed authority. Nathan felt happy to oblige; this would be great practice for later.

“Walls and Pruitt, at 34th Beta,” he enunciated, looking past the slack-jawed operator and to the dashboard computers instead.

All business, the dash responded in light patterns and beeps. “Destination acknowledged,” its female tones confirmed.

Nathan deigned to grant the still-surprised transport operator a raised eyebrow -a question of the man’s choice of High British female voice command, perhaps- before turning his attention to his more-interesting comm feed.

A shifting of garments on seat-cloth told Nathan the man up front had decided to face forward. As he should, Nathan thought. It’s not like the man needs to do anything, anyway.

Nathan had even considered an operator job, before Franks’ cousin’s friend had gotten him such a good deal on the outfit. Imagine someone seeing him in a transport! He shuddered, and resumed panning through stories.

Thunk, thunk, thunk, drummed at the semi-transparent roof. Nathan didn’t bother looking up, as the commonplace acidfall splattered and spread harmlessly above him. Internally, he felt relief.

If not for recent loans, he would have been walking right now. Showing up in drips.

He shuddered again. He’d make this work. He had to pay everyone back, or face the reality of shuttling friends around in the only occupation left to someone like him.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, II.
Read Skinwalkers, IV.