Skinwalkers, XXXV

Lizard’s hand slid back to his side, his face showing some confusion at Nathan’s reaction. Nathan suppressed a rising smirk and continued to blink at his coworker with a trusting expression. He saw the ring of men relax shoulders and scowls; the newer addition he called Giant even stuck his hands into liner pockets.

From a face scrunched in concentration, Lizard finally said, “Uh, we gotta talk business.” His three cronies nodded and stances became more serious again.

“Okay,” Nathan answered, and waited.

“Look. We wanna know-” began Tod, but he was silenced by a hard elbow jab from Lizard. The two shared threatening glares till Tod turned away.

Lizard studied Nathan, and Nathan ensured his only threatening movement was a slow, occasional blink. At last, Lizard said, “That was funny what Shin did precycle. The guys’re still talkin’.” Giant snorted and received his own poke from Tod. “Yeah…” Lizard drawled, “We miss your mate. You seen him, after?”

Nathan considered. “After Mons gave him the liner, we walked to the edge of the slums, then had to split.” He shrugged. “He said he was goin’ home.”

The big man thought about Nathan’s answer. “How ’bout after that? He message you?”

Heavy-handed was obviously the way to get through the thick skulls surrounding him. Nathan placed his pointer finger on slightly-pouted lips and furrowed his brow. “Yes, before workcycle.”

Lizard’s tone grew excited. “And?”

“We-e-e-ell,” Nathan said, framing his features as apologetically as he could. “Sorry, but all he said was, ‘Later, eunie.'”

The half-circle of men shifted. Its two leaders frowned and Nathan could sense a rising emotional response. Quickly, he added, “He also included a dancing eunie pix.”

Giant burst out laughing, joined by the man to Lizard’s left. Nathan allowed himself a smile as well; and was relieved to see Tod, then Lizard reply in kind.

Lizard put his hand on Nathan’s shoulder again and rested it there. They locked eyes and Nathan was surprised at his opponent’s severely bloodshot-rimmed gray irises. Think dumb. Think dumb, Nathan willed to his own blue pair.

“Funny guy, that Shin.” Lizard said. His gang quieted down. He looked back at Tod, who nodded. Once. “Thing is, the guy owed us a little something.” Nathan saw Lizard lick his bottom lip before continuing. “Something dope. Get it?”

“Oh.” Swallowing, Nathan continued looking up at the bigger man with as much open trust as he could pretend. “Shin never told. I thought he was clean.”

The fourth man in the group broke into a laugh again, cut off by something Tod did that Nathan could not see. Lizard’s mouth twisted into a hard smile. “Not clean by a ways.” He backed up and removed his hand but kept watching Nathan’s face. “I like you, Nathaniel. You’ll tell us when Shin messages, won’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, and Nathan knew it.

 

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

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, XXIII

Shin’s age-lined backside led Nathan through the shadowed dark of Ware Tech and to the entry. It paused, expectantly, till Nathan activated the door, then marched a bit floppily out into the dimly-lit city.

Nathan found himself as much at a loss for words as Choms had been, though for different reasons. Shin waited, his mouth twitching to keep a serious expression. Nathan was certain Shin could keep that smile fully at bay, since he knew Shin had studied facial forms and theatrics in Midpath Studies. Such subjects were discontinued shortly after Nathan moved on to Advancement; his father’s philistine views were shared by most.

“So….” his train of thought died as Shin turned his bemused, smug expression to face his friend. Nathan couldn’t resist; pent-up laughter burst out and shocked the silent air. Shin bent over, leaning forearms on thighs, as he joined in.

Only half a moment passed, and then they sobered to reality. Wiping at his eyes, Nathan said, “How you gonna get home, eunie?”

Shin sniffed. “I’m clearly not a eunie.” He straightened his posture, standing boldly erect in order to prove his claims; added, “In terms of getting back, I am not sure.” He deflated somewhat back to his usual stance and his smile became rueful. “I only have till midmeal before deactivation, too.”

The door behind them opened to low-voiced chatter, quickly stopped once the speakers saw Shin. The rest of their work shift were exiting; Nathan recognized a few of the men.

“Hey, Shin,” Lizard said, coming forward and slapping a hand on Shin’s naked shoulder. Shin flinched at the impact. “How’s the air?” Lizard laughed in a commiserating way, joined by one or two others. He dropped his hand and set it on his own waist.

“Quite a show back there with Chomsy,” a burly youth said. Nathan didn’t know the young man’s name; so far, he’d mentally named him Giant.

They all turned as another clump of people walked out of the building. This group stopped as well. “You’re quite the act,” Nathan whispered to Shin; who blanched slightly, but swung his arms in an unconcerned manner. He couldn’t exactly hide, Nathan thought, out there on the public citypath.

Someone from the back of the recently-exited crowd pushed forward. “Hey,” a midage man addressed Shin.

“Mons,” Shin said, in greeting.

“Thought you could use some cover,” Mons replied, shifting a small satchel from his left shoulder and carefully setting it on the ground. He was one of the few to carry anything besides a comm to work.

Mons reached in, removing a basic liner. Sealing the satchel and returning it to his back, he stood and offered the liner to Shin. “Hey, thanks!” Nathan’s slipshod-only friend said. He began putting it on, then stopped. “How much ya charge?”

The left eyebrow on Mons’ face raised slightly and his mouth flatlined.

“All right, all right.” Shin said, redacting his question. “I’ll get this back to you then.”

Mons shrugged. “Whenever.”

The show was less interesting now; their crew began breaking up. “Good luck, Shinny,” Lizard called, in parting. Others nodded, grunted, ignored; all walked off in the direction of the cheap rent areas of the metropolis.

Nathan and Shin glanced at each other, then followed a few steps behind the others. “Right decent,” Shin remarked after a moment.

“Truth.”

“Didn’t know people had that anymore.”

“Me, either.”

They continued walking, thinking. The citypaths were dirty and sported an occasional dwellershack. They could taste exhaust in the smog-ridden air. Their bodies ached for rest. Yet, as their cheap slipshod steps echoed against dense surroundings, the dim and dingy city somehow felt lighter.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXIV.

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.