Skinwalkers, XLI

Nathan mentally cursed the Suspension Drops as he stood in the newly-formed dark. Despite the redlight influence, he could not see anything.

“N. Reed?” Pul asked with concern.

“A moment.”

Nathan used his reprieve to squint, blink, and peer around. Black nothing resolved into red bits. The red bits became various light sources. Those red sources reflected from equipment on desks and the expectant faces of a handful of seated laboratory workers.

Turning to the eerie face of Pul at his shoulder, Nathan announced, “I am ready.”

“Excellent,” answered the voice of Caill. “We’ve already lost time waiting for your arrival.”

Tracing the sound of her strident voice, Nathan found the executive standing just a few paces beyond him and Pul at the front of the room. She was scowling, her features appearing more demonlike than usual in the crimson ambiance. “Then, by all means, outline the inpracticum,” Nathan responded, mildly.

Caill scowled further, he thought. Straightening pose and lifting chin, she complied. “This is one team of research adherents. They represent who you might be working with if assigned.” She paced, a nervous gesture. “You are to lead them through a randomly-assigned task provided by Stone.”

“Stone?”

“Here,” the succinct executive provided. Nathan turned his body to view a back corner of the room. Stone did not look as sinister as his female colleague in the redness; his masculine features instead gave the impression of a face chiseled in a mountainside. He strode forward and handed a tablet to Nathan.

Without even glancing at the display, Nathan accepted the tablet and marched to where Caill awaited. “If you don’t mind,” he said, almost deferentially. She moved, stepping down to stand warily beside Pul and Stone.

“Now,” Nathan said, addressing his new team, “I am Nathan Reed. We will be working together this inpracticum and for many cycles henceforward.” He ignored an intake of exclamation from Caill. “Let us see what we will accomplish.”

Nathan fought the internal anxiety of the small space, the stares of so many strangers, and the challenge of whatever his assignment might be. To the view of his expectant audience, however, he was confidence and control.

Glancing down, he read the tablet’s instructions. His wristwatch beeped; it was time to get started.

 

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

Skinwalkers, XXXVI

“Nathaniel? NATHANIEL?!”

Nathan pawed at the blackness around him but his actions revealed nothing. He felt like a blind man with a cowl over his head. His breaths came in short, restricted gasps as he tried to move in the direction he thought was forward.

“Nathan-yieeelll!” he called again.

Little by little, he was drawing near to his goal. Despite the dark, he could feel it. And just as much as he wanted to find something –anything– he also strained against himself to turn away from the inevitable.

His feet dragged on.

A jiff and forever later he saw a shadowy shape ahead. The shape hung just out of gravity’s reach yet twisted slowly and obediently in its greedy pull. “Nathaniel?” Nathan whispered. His feet crushed over broken capsules and kicked empty bottles into an unknown abyss.

And still he walked forward. He was nearly to his brother’s dangling, turning, suspended feet when Nathan’s view shifted. Now he saw his own scared, pale face peering up in horror as his perspective twisted around and around a blank, expansive waste.

A noise; an irritant, incessant sound came from far away. Black mist thinned to a comfortable, familiar reality and his dizzy twisting resolved to a stationary side-lay as the repeated noise grew louder.

*Bee-bee-beep!* *Bee-bee-beep!*

Nathan realized he was staring at a pulsing light; that it was his comm that had called him back from the twisted memories within his mind. He breathed true, dank air in deep draughts, just for the reassurance that he still could. “Light,” he croaked. The comm and the apartment obliged and he squinted in the rapid difference.

The comm was still beeping and pulsing, along with pointing its light skyward. He pulled it to him and manually deactivated each application. The wristwatch beeped. “No, it can’t be,” he told it, yet checked the comm’s display. It confirmed his watch’s warning: merely two ticks till the second interview.

“Lepros!” he cursed and flew from the bed. He sprinted the short space to the bathroom and set the shower to its hottest. Hopefully, he thought, as he used the other facilities, that would encourage the cheap heating system to bring hot water to his apartment faster. He ran to the food station and returned with a drinkable snack. Wishful thinking led him to believe he saw some steam forming and he closed the door to encourage an extended stay.

Nearly a moment later, the room was swimming in warm, swirling currents. He adjusted the water temperature back to midhot and began a vigorous rubbing of his skin. Certain he’d agitated all he could reach, he turned and started pulling at the seams of the Skin Conditioner. He couldn’t afford to wait another jiff.

The casing hissed open as it had the last two times he’d activated it. Unlike the previous times, however, Nathan was not reassured by what he saw. He stood in shock as the steam billowed and bounced around him.

The skin was there, yes, but nowhere near as whole as it had appeared just a halfcycle ago.

 

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

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, 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.