Skinwalkers, XLVII

Only a half-tick or so passed during Nathan’s second time in the dimly-red room, but his senses felt more heightened than before. He’d simply ignored Caill after securing Quý’s loyalty the first time. Now, however, he felt obligated to keep Caill’s actions in his sight. He also knew he needed Pul as witness. Accordingly, Nathan voiced an occasional question to one or both, or ensured he wandered nearer to Caill than necessary.

It was a long half-tick.

Once he saw six complete samples packaged and delivered via their automated bays, Nathan felt relieved enough to sigh -though only inwardly. The sly Caill was not the sort of prowling beast one ever let his guard down around. She made him nervous enough to sweat right out of his rented skin.

He smiled, knowing he literally could not sweat. Though exorbitant, the endoscopic sympathectomy he’d endured last planetcycle had literally saved his skin.

Caill appeared just as fortunate. Perhaps. Nathan knew her smooth mask was not wholly natural; it couldn’t be. He had not, however, been able to examine it closely. Anytime he drew close to her, a creeping sensation tickled at the danger centers of his mind. Something there was not right. As he and Pul exited just behind Caill and once again made their way to the landing of the lift; Nathan recalled, at their very first interview, a recoiling gesture Caill made at his mention of absolute biodermal fusion.

Curiouser and Curiouser, he thought; a phrase his grandfather had been fond of saying.

“Excellent work, Nathan Reed,” Pul praised, stopping outside the transparent doors. He pulled one open and held it for Nathan. Nathan exited. As he followed suit, Pul laughed. “Though, you already told everyone that.”

Nathan gave the man a slow, acknowledging nod and a somewhat smug lift to the left side of his mouth.

Pul smiled sincerely and exhaled in a happy manner. He reached forward with his comm and activated the fern-covered panel. *Ding* sang the lift and the wall slid open to reveal its empty interior. “You will be messaged,” said Pul, in dismissal.

Nathan strode forward and then turned back to face Pul. To his surprise, Pul gestured a thumbs-up just before the doors closed.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XLVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XLVIII.

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, XXXIX

“Erm,” Nathan managed to croak.

Rex slapped his steering wheel and released an airy chuckle. “YOU called a transport, you know! Just where’re ya plannin’ to go?”

Nathan blinked and straightened. He was in charge here, not some nearly-dead operator with questionable manners. “Walls and Pruitt, 34th Beta,” he said, glancing past Rex and addressing the dash, instead.

The computer, however, remained inert. Rex wheezed his variation of laughter again. “Me nephew added a little something yesterday. You gotta say, ‘please.'”

Nathan was not certain how much of his shock showed on his face, but he knew time was not only against him, it had passed him and was taunting from a few paces ahead. “Please!” he burst out. His grandfather would have been critical of his insincere tones, but the lights of Rex’s transport activated and the vehicle jerked to life.

“Darn tootin’!” it responded in happy tones.

“You might wanna work on yer sincerity,” Rex noted, saying the final word in a drawn-out fashion so that Nathan could not miss which word was most important in the old man’s reprimand.

The transport bumped down its strip and Nathan took out his comm. His preferred option and initial instinct involved injuring a senior and being barred from using transports again. Ignoring Rex, therefore, seemed more polite. Problem was, he couldn’t follow the news thread very effectively in the moving environment. He found reading especially impossible with the constant stare of a bushy-haired operator with few teeth and fewer manners just beyond the screen. Surely Rex would get the hint and leave Nathan alone.

Not soon enough, they jerked to the curb before Carapace’s expensive façade. Nathan pushed out the door and almost ran up the steps to the familiar entry station. He was handing his comm to the stolid security guard when he heard Rex call out, “If I don’ get another client, I’ll wait for ya!” This generous announcement ended in a sudden blare of dated music, the sort Nathan’s grandfather had referred to as ‘Oldies.’

The guard cringed; Nathan looked at him and the man hurriedly smoothed his features and activated the main doors with his tablet. Nathan walked forward to the *shoosh* of automatic doors releasing heaven’s breath. His basic slipshods sunk once more into the lush carpet and his lungs drank the manna of purified air, as the guard marched down to have a little talk with a certain transport operator.

Nathan hoped Rex might lose his license to pilot around Beta, yet wondered at a simultaneous sadness he felt at the thought.

“Hello, N. Reed,” a familiar, feminine voice called from the end of the room. “Welcome back.”

His hands pulled at his suit of their own volition and his face grinned happily. Regaining control, he dropped the hands and turned the sappy grin into a determined set of jaw. The swaying plants waved in his passing stride, the carpet sunk and rose with his solid steps, and the perfect air flowed in and out of his thirsty lungs as he walked.

He approached the desk. Familiar with the process from his last visit, he lifted his comm and scanned it. She tilted her head and smiled. He met her eyes for a half-jiff of eternity; noted her fan of auburn hair; memorized the deep curve of her bottom lip.

Then the panel wall opened with a muted *ding*. Her phone beeped at an incoming call. His feet walked forward, beyond her desk.

Nathan entered the lift and turned to face the foyer. Just before his reflection pulled across to block his view, he saw that the receptionist was still looking at him. Still smiling.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVIII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XL.

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, 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.