Skinwalkers, XXXVIII

Upon reaching his small sleeping area, Nathan stopped to get his hurried bearings. He squinted at each familiar object: bed, nightstand, walls, doorway, closet. The last was his goal and he groped to his clothes through blurred vision and the ever-present dimness of the cheap lighting.

I wonder if I’ll earn enough to afford good light, one cycle, he wondered. Remembering the importance of a powerful mindset, he cleared his thoughts and said, “I will get an apartment with good light. With daylight.” The near-barren hole that passed for a closet echoed his word-sounds and returned them in a garbled state.

His hands felt among the hangers till they gripped a plastic lining over a thick garment. His suit. He pulled the ensemble to his chest like a precious thing and carried it to where he remembered his bed rested. Laying the loosely-bagged suit atop his blanket wad, Nathan withdrew each clothing piece and began dressing.

Though the process took far less time than his last costuming, he knew his time was already gone. Grabbing his slipshods from the floor, he rushed and stumbled back to the bathroom. Shower, off. Panel, closed. Comm, pocketed. Wristwatch, strapped.

He flung a quick glance at his reflection and nearly jumped out of his skin. Either he was more shaken from his dreams than he’d supposed or he had heavy-handed the eyedrops. The man staring back at him from the cheap, splotched mirror was a complete stranger, somehow adept at following his every movement and occasional blink.

“I intend to demonstrate the full capacity of a united workteam, led by a competent manager,” he tested. The mirror man spoke as well; his words were powerful in the cramped, reflective space. Try me now, Caill, he thought.

His pocket vibrated. He withdrew it and read its angry message: Inpracticum set to begin. Status?

“Reply,” he told the message response system. “In transit.” Waving the answered query to the side, he instead pulled up Transport Request. Expenses be damned; he couldn’t risk further tardiness. The program *pinged* and a green transport icon moved to his virtual location as a real one simultaneously did so outside his apartment.

Nearly sprinting through hallway, lockdown, and out the exit; he just missed knocking into someone swaying across the landing. It was Franks, but Nathan hadn’t the time to deal with charge demands now. He hadn’t the time for anything. He sprinted up the stairs, as quickly as a man in a skin and full suit could run. There sat a transport; his transport, rocking a bit in its streetside idle.

He strode forward past the usual street dwellers. They sat in a chorus line of hunched, silent misery, too saturated to know or care that he passed. Just before he activated the door of the waiting transport, one face lifted. Nathan’s comm moved over the door panel and he ducked and entered his paid ride.

It was after the door closed that his brain recognized the long, pale, older face that looked up. Shin.

“Well, howdy agin!” an exuberant voice jerked him away from his shocked surprise. Rex the operator grinned back at Nathan with what was left of his teeth. “Where to now, Sonny?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXIX.

Skinwalkers, XXXIII

Despite the complete exhaustion that pulled at his every movement, Nathan did not feel ready to sleep. Perhaps his body knew he would rise in only a halfcycle for work. Perhaps it knew of the second interview he would attend after his full workcycle. Or perhaps it retained some remorse for whatever was happening on the other side of the wall between him and Franks.

He tried to get in the right mindset. He programmed security to sleepdown, cleansed with toothwash as he calmed his thoughts, set the correct comm atop the night stand and the work one within, and settled his grandfather’s wristwatch around his wrist. After stripping in the darkness and groping his liner onto a hanger, he climbed under the blanket wad and lay upon his back.

Still, his eyes saw swirling shifts of haunting thoughts on the black ceiling. His ears heard strange cries within the usual settling walls or late-arrival apartment dwellers. Breathing seemed more difficult than usual as well, though he was certain the air system was functioning properly.

Closing his eyes proved worse.

Shin was sitting on a bench at Check-In, looking sad. Shin’s wry smile looked over at him on their citycross. A meal bundle and tartlet flew at him, followed by Shin’s fully grinning face. Then a smaller, more uncertain Shin, favoring an injured arm, watched him as a sliding door closed forever.

“Ah, tear it all!” Nathan threw the blankets to one side. “Lights!”

In the blast of apartment and comm illumination, he stomped to the bathroom. “I’ll show you!” he grumbled under his breath. “Keep me up, will ya!” Opening the cupboard beneath the sink, he fumbled at an awkward angle till his right hand closed on his goal: a small wrapped package. He unrolled the bundle on the counter, taking care to watch for falling contents or tearing papers. His care paid off, as three minuscule vials of blue liquid rolled out against their brown wrapping. He removed one, set it away from its fellows, then re-wrapped the remaining vials and returned them to their hiding place.

As always, he held the selected drug to the light and enjoyed its sapphire refractions on the many reflective room surfaces. Carrying it back to bed, he resumed his original position.

“Off!” He commanded, and nearly felt the shroud of black that descended. He rolled the vial in an enticing way between his fingers. He checked that his comm was set to wake him. He checked his watch. He checked for any sound from Franks’ apartment.

“Nothing,” he said aloud. Raising to a sitting position and tilting his head back, he sucked half the blue liquid from its container.

Swallowed.

And fell back, asleep.

Then dreamed nothing, as most users were guaranteed to do.

Which was good, else he might have remembered that he would never hear a sound next door. Franks met all his clients in a distortion cloud he’d set up in his living space. A conscious Nathan knew that, from personal experience. An unconscious Nathan, on the other hand, knew nothing.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXIV.

Skinwalkers, XXXII

*Beep* chirped the wristwatch, intentionally raising Nathan’s anxiety levels. “I know,” he muttered as he and Shin waited outside Franks’ apartment entry. Shin raised a curious eyebrow to Nathan but did not comment.

It was late. Nathan was tired. He’d almost taken the wrong comm as they left, almost forgotten to lockdown, almost forgotten his future plan as Shin subconsciously shifted the satchel to his uninjured shoulder while they stood in silence.

Nathan resisted the urge to scan again. If Franks was alert, he’d come soon enough.

“Nathaniel,” hissed Shin. “D’ya think-”

The door pulled to the side to reveal a strange sight. After two or three double-takes and his eyes adjusting to the dim entry lighting, Nathan recognized Franks. His neighbor stood with the aid of the door frame. Stood in a rather unsteady way. Stood there wearing a second-rate skin.

Pulling his attention from the distracting bulges and blobs, Nathan looked instead to Franks’ bloodshot eyes. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Erm…” Nathan decided to ignore the obvious elephant’s skin in the room and cut straight to their purpose. “This is Shin, from work.”

The wrinkle-surrounded eyes flicked over to his friend, his satchel, then back to Nathan.

“He’s… I told… Well… We’ve got something we need to sell.”

Even with the aid of a skin, Franks was a terrible actor. He pulled away from his leaning stance and even shuffled forward a few steps. “Oh?” His hands drew together, felt the increased artificial distance, and wiped at his fattened thighs instead. “What is it?”

Nathan turned to Shin. Shin shrugged. “Couple-a sensory mods.”

Franks came closer. “Mods?” he asked, his tone betraying his interest. “A couple?” He peered at Shin. “How many?”

Nathan held his breath and tried to catch Shin’s eye. “Oh,” Shin said in a casual tone, “I think I got three.”

“Got?” Franks nearly shrieked. “Just now? Where did you find them?”

“Now, Franks…” Nathan warned.

Licking his lips and stepping back a pace, Franks changed tactics. “I don’t know if I can help you nudes. No one’s buying the old mods for much.”

Nathan laughed. “Not from what I’ve heard.” He felt the look his neighbor shot him, even through all the folds and bunches of skin. Still, Franks looked barely able to stand up straight, let alone follow through on threats. “Shin here picked them up brand-new.” Nathan paused. “I guess you haven’t been streetside yet.”

Confused, Franks answered, “No. Why? They handin’ out free mods?”

Shin chuckled nervously; Nathan did not. He instead rubbed at the back of his head and glanced at his feet. “I wouldn’t say that, Franks.”

“Oh.” A pause, then, “Ohh ho ho!

In a complete change of demeanor, Franks stepped toward Shin and extended a friendly arm. “Come on in,” said the spider to the fly. “We have things to talk about.” He pulled Shin toward his apartment.

Shin looked back at Nathan as he was awkwardly guided into the entry. “You comin’?” he called back.

Nathan shook his head slowly in the negative, and Franks’ door slid closed between them.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXIII.

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, 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, I

Nathan’s watch beeped a warning chirp of impending tardiness; a friendly, authoritative sound. Frowning, he glanced down at its innocent display. He smoothed errant arm wrinkles near the expensive band, and returned to his mirror-task.

Cool, panicked eyes of blue looked out from a handsome, even-tempered face. He tried a confident smile, opening a seam near his cheekbone. Hastily, he brought large, artificially-fattened fingers to press at the sides of his neck.

Confidence was always a difficult one for Nathan to master.

He closed the worried eyes, gripped the stuck-down edge of countertop in both hands, and began his meditative-breathing exercises.

*Thumpety, thumpety, thumpet, thumpe, thump, thump, thump* slowed his heart’s percussion-nervous beat.

“I am the boss,” he whispered to the Formica. It dully echoed the end of his words.

Nathan cleared his throat. “I. am. the. boss,” he spoke aloud.

He opened his eyes again, telling himself they now looked self-assured. “I am the boss!” He loudly told them, the chipped sink, the splotched mirror, and himself.

“You sure are!” Came the muted reply from his wall-neighbor.

“Thanks, Franks,” he called, sarcastically.

“No prob, Boss!” Franks yelled back drunkenly. “Now, go to work and let us lazy asses sleep!”

Nathan took a breath in through his nostrils, and out slowly through his lips. Realizing a tingling feeling in his actual fingers, he released the countertop. He yanked convulsively at the top bathroom drawer; revealing toothwash, razor, eyedrops, and sundry hairs and paint chips. He withdrew the bottle of drops, dusted it, removed its stopper.

Carefully tilting his head back against its facial folds, he inserted a single drop into each twitching orb.

Immediately, a burning pain filled his ocular sensors. He tried not to wince nor rub at his eyes; resisted crying or yelling. Franks was trying to sleep off a hangover, after all.

Almost as soon as it had begun, the pain receded. That, or Nathan had acclimated. He was never quite sure. He glanced, again, in the mirror. A hazy reflection stared back at him with very solid, somewhat red-rimmed eyes.

Nathan tried to smile. Perfect.

 

Read Skinwalkers, II.