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, XXX

Nathan coughed, choking. He stumbled mentally as well, in the absence of the quick-thought and decisive actions to which he was accustomed. Shin merely stood, waiting, watching; prepared to do so until Nathan answered to his satisfaction.

“Well, I …” Nathan began; stopped. “How…?” was another attempt. “Shin, I …?” He met his friend’s expectant gaze and abandoned most of his excuses. Beyond Shin, he saw the functional food station. He considered the stolen sensory modules and recalled many wise, subtle looks Shin had cast his way during past conversations. How could I have been so stupid?

Shin’s half-smile pulled at his serious expression as if he could read Nathan’s thoughts, and fully agreed with them.

“You saw the skin?” Nathan asked after the half-moment’s silence.

“Yup.”

“What about the comm-?”

“One on your bed got a note when I was stepping past your lazy, tart-eating corps.”

“Huh.”

Shin’s smile grew more pleased than humored. “No amount of theatrics study can replace good, old-fashioned observation.” Folding his arms, he repeated, “So, why, Nathaniel?”

Nathan’s brain came out of its reverie in a snap, quickly making up for its earlier behavior. He cast about, dithered, shrugged, and then admitted, “Nothing much. I tried for a job.” Feigning some embarrassment, he added, “It was at Carapace.”

Shin’s eyes widened and his mouth nearly dropped open. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Nathan continued. “Trying to rise up a little is all.”

Shin was quiet for half a moment, no doubt recalling Nathan’s anxiety en route to the job precycle. “And the extra comm?” he asked.

“Aren’t we fresh early on?!” Nathan teased. He paused, folding his arms, pretending consideration of the matter. After a jiff, he breathed in, then sighed loudly. “Nothing big, really. I worried about the work files on the old one.”

“Oh.” Shin turned this information over in his mind. “So…” he paused. “You were avoiding the stench of Ware Tech association.”

Carefully, Nathan nodded.

“Ha!” his friend said. “And I thought you were turning into a crime lord or something!”

“What?!” Nathan was truly surprised by this assumption, and showed it.

Shin chuckled a bit more, then trailed off to another awkward silence. He looked at his impressive display of illegal electronics. “Damn.”

“What?”

“Well…” Shin rubbed the back of his head. “Now what am I gonna do with them?”

 

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

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

Skinwalkers, XXVI

Nathan stared at the message display far longer than necessary. Carapace’s truncated opening line drifted harmlessly above the tiny comm: N. Reed, We request…

A hundred tiny, useless details pulled at his attention as he felt his mind attempt to avoid whatever the rest of the text might be. His bed, as always, was unmade and carried a faint smell. The apartment was dim; was that vermin he heard? A light glowed from the edges of the night stand’s hidden drawer where he’d stashed the other, still-lit comm. The shower dripped. The security beeped. An air system lamely whirred.

Finally, he extended his left hand forward. Pantomiming a grabbing motion, Nathan pulled the Carapace text from its position; spreading the same hand outward, he maximized the airborne display.

N. Reed, We request timely response to the following action item: Secondary Interview. Set for Suncycle 3.14 1300. Team lead inpracticum.

The lungful of sustaining air he’d held onto came out slowly. He blinked. He couldn’t believe it, even with the success he’d felt after the preliminary interview precycle. He had passed the first test. They wanted him back, postcycle. He hoped he’d have enough energy after another full work session, a short rest between, and reskinning.

This second round would also be much more difficult, of course. It was one thing to read and respond to three executives; quite another to demonstrate his managerial and technical talents before an entire team with those three executives as likely audience.

His Midpath theatrics professor had been right, after all, in declaring their exercises to be only that. Nathan hadn’t believed her at the time. All four paltry students attending had felt her tests impossible. They’d been in public, lines fully committed, all while reading the audience response.

“Touché, Madame Dremé,” he told the empty room. Sighing, he added, “Display.” The messages returned to only show on the comm’s small screen.

Feeling utterly drained, he once again pushed the hidden knob and withdrew his work comm. He manually deactivated the light and returned it amongst the other memories stored there. The watch beeped. Just before the drawer closed, he removed it and strapped it onto his right wrist.

His stomach rumbled in hunger. His grandfather’s watch was antiquated, but correct: mealtime.

Grumbling enough to match his stomach, Nathan stumbled over the few steps between the bed and his food station. This time, he selected the pre-programmed Midmeal button and stood in usual, silent prayer as it ground and clunked through selections. The machine stopped after a few jiffs without his food appearing. He smacked the front, the side, then the supply chute.

A noise like an outlands beast clawing back to life came from the wall. Lights blinked back on and a singed bundle dropped into place. Half a jiff later, another singed bundle fell. Then another. Just before succumbing to permanent technical failure, a tiny tartlet -also singed- completed the food station’s final offerings.

“Zut.” If Franks was on better terms, he’d have been able to pass the extra food onto him -maybe even for some charge.

Nathan looked up at Sirius Sustenance Supply’s tarnished bracket still proudly attached to the top of his dead food source. He didn’t have time or charge for this. Grabbing the most edible-looking package, he bit off a chunk and returned to the sleeping area. He dropped his comm on the bed and removed the work one.

“Shin,” he told it, actually praying now. Please answer, please answer, please answer, sang his thoughts.

“Nathaniel?” Shin’s voice came through. Nathan released a silent, Thank you, with his relieved sigh. “Ever heard of messaging, you antique?”

“Yeah,” Nathan retorted, “You’re the one answering.”

Shin paused. “Hm.”

“Listen, I need a favor.”

“Hm?”

“My food station just died, but it dumped out three extra meals.”

“Hm?” Shin’s tone increased in interest.

“Yeah, I thought you might know someone who could use them.”

“I’ll be there. Message me location.” Nathan could hear him laughing as the call cut off.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXVII.