Very shortly, Nathan found himself facing the main floor reception area of Carapace. He stepped from the lift and walked in muted carpet footsteps to the right of the receptionist’s desk. She was engaged, speaking animatedly to what sounded like a vendor.
“Yes, I understand you wish to contact M. Billings. I’m afraid you’ll just have to message him from the netsite.” She cocked a head to the left for a few seconds, and a light wave of auburn hair shifted to expose her perfect scoop of neck. Nathan mentally shook himself, and continued walking past her work area and toward the exit.
He heard her speak again, in a strained sort of politeness. “I’m sorry, but I can’t connect you in any other way. Thank you for your understanding.” He was nearly to the doors when she called, “Goodbye, N. Reed. Please, come again.”
Whoosh activated the doors, as the delicious air inside was sucked out into the stale environment of the city. Raising his right hand in a departing salute, he left without looking back. Unlike his entrance, he literally stumbled at the intersection of the fresh air with the polluted variety outside. He recovered, straightened his suit, and straightened himself.
Feeling the guard’s gaze upon him, Nathan walked resolutely down to the street. Unfortunately, no transports were idle. He’d have to activate one, or walk. He looked skyward, attempting to forecast the likelihood of precipitation in the ever-variable cloudcover. He’d better not chance it; he needed the skin undamaged.
Sighing, he pulled out his comm and requested pickup. Within moments, a battered transport stopped curbside and idled unsteadily at his feet. Nathan scanned his comm and the door popped open. The transport seemed to shift more listlessly with his entry than the one he had taken just a quad prior. The operator was also less impressive, to say the least.
The man in question turned round from his front seat position. This side of him was even less impressive than the back had been. He seemed to be about 80 years old. An open-gap toothiness cheerfully smiled from beneath a gray and white mustache. All hair originating from his face and head stuck out, and was affected by shifting air currents. What Nathan could see of the man’s outfit seemed to consist of recycled garments.
“Where to, son?” The ancient operator’s happy voice asked.
Nathan hesitated. “128th Verge Slum,” he croaked out.
“Eh?” The old man asked. He wagged a finger at Nathan. “You’re gonna have to speak up a lot clearer or we ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Following this reprimand, the man wheezed and slapped his steering. Nathan realized the operator was laughing.
He cleared his throat, swallowed, then repeated himself more audibly. “128th Verge Slum.” He almost added a, “please,” but caught himself in time.
“Darn tootin’!” The dashboard computer responded, and the transport lurched forward on its track.
Nathan blinked in surprise. “Me nephew taught me how ta set it up with a voice I liked,” the man grinned.
Not wanting to appear impolite, Nathan answered, “I see.” He could tell that the strange man wished him to expound slightly more. “Um, it’s very creative.”
“‘Course it is!” Operator agreed, resolute.
Feeling a tad bewildered, Nathan pretended distraction in the rapidly-passing buildings. Peripheral vision and attuned listening told him that no change had been made in the position of the transport’s other occupant. It was like the man knew nothing of social awkwardness or personal space.
The sky-blocking rectangular structures outside grew increasingly drab and closer together. They were nearly to Nathan’s buildling, a fact he had not felt more grateful for in a while. Their transport stopped; he exited.
The operator deactivated a doorscreen between them and bellowed, “Call me agin, any time you need transport!” He wheezed his version of mirth one last time, and added, “Name’s Rex.”
“Of course,” Nathan answered, “Rex.” He’d remember that name, as one to never call again in his working life.
Rex, meanwhile, grinned, closed the open door remotely, and drove away. Nathan was certain, before the vehicle barely cleared the next bend, that he could hear Rex singing raucously through the open doorscreen.
Continued from Skinwalkers, X.
Read to Skinwalkers, XII.