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, XXXVIII

Upon reaching his small sleeping area, Nathan stopped to get his hurried bearings. He squinted at each familiar object: bed, nightstand, walls, doorway, closet. The last was his goal and he groped to his clothes through blurred vision and the ever-present dimness of the cheap lighting.

I wonder if I’ll earn enough to afford good light, one cycle, he wondered. Remembering the importance of a powerful mindset, he cleared his thoughts and said, “I will get an apartment with good light. With daylight.” The near-barren hole that passed for a closet echoed his word-sounds and returned them in a garbled state.

His hands felt among the hangers till they gripped a plastic lining over a thick garment. His suit. He pulled the ensemble to his chest like a precious thing and carried it to where he remembered his bed rested. Laying the loosely-bagged suit atop his blanket wad, Nathan withdrew each clothing piece and began dressing.

Though the process took far less time than his last costuming, he knew his time was already gone. Grabbing his slipshods from the floor, he rushed and stumbled back to the bathroom. Shower, off. Panel, closed. Comm, pocketed. Wristwatch, strapped.

He flung a quick glance at his reflection and nearly jumped out of his skin. Either he was more shaken from his dreams than he’d supposed or he had heavy-handed the eyedrops. The man staring back at him from the cheap, splotched mirror was a complete stranger, somehow adept at following his every movement and occasional blink.

“I intend to demonstrate the full capacity of a united workteam, led by a competent manager,” he tested. The mirror man spoke as well; his words were powerful in the cramped, reflective space. Try me now, Caill, he thought.

His pocket vibrated. He withdrew it and read its angry message: Inpracticum set to begin. Status?

“Reply,” he told the message response system. “In transit.” Waving the answered query to the side, he instead pulled up Transport Request. Expenses be damned; he couldn’t risk further tardiness. The program *pinged* and a green transport icon moved to his virtual location as a real one simultaneously did so outside his apartment.

Nearly sprinting through hallway, lockdown, and out the exit; he just missed knocking into someone swaying across the landing. It was Franks, but Nathan hadn’t the time to deal with charge demands now. He hadn’t the time for anything. He sprinted up the stairs, as quickly as a man in a skin and full suit could run. There sat a transport; his transport, rocking a bit in its streetside idle.

He strode forward past the usual street dwellers. They sat in a chorus line of hunched, silent misery, too saturated to know or care that he passed. Just before he activated the door of the waiting transport, one face lifted. Nathan’s comm moved over the door panel and he ducked and entered his paid ride.

It was after the door closed that his brain recognized the long, pale, older face that looked up. Shin.

“Well, howdy agin!” an exuberant voice jerked him away from his shocked surprise. Rex the operator grinned back at Nathan with what was left of his teeth. “Where to now, Sonny?”

 

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

Skinwalkers, XXXVI

His new comrades relaxed their trap enough to allow Nathan an exit, and he used every bit of a waning self-control to keep that exit casual. Once outside Ware Tech, however, he broke into a run. Pent-up adrenaline and relief pushed him away from his detested workplace, while anticipation of his future job appointment pulled him toward his beloved slums.

Not even the clustered groups of autoad workers on the citywalks could slow him. They may have thought to, if their guards had been hired from a higher class of people. He sprinted past the huddled groups, catching random bursts of light from their repair equipment and a few curious, slow-turning faces from their repair crew.

At last, his slipshods clattered down the cement hole of his apartment landing. He wasted a full moment staring at Franks’ entry before activating his own. Nothing. Nathan had still not heard from Shin.

His own door opened. He rushed in. A hurried security update and shouted lighting command and he almost ran to his food station. Besides its new functionality, he knew today was chargecycle and the supply would have been refreshed automatically. This was the one time he trusted enough to eat the premeal bundle.  He pressed the corresponding option and enjoyed the relaxing sounds of a machine working perfectly. His stomach rumbled in anticipation of fresh food.

A muffled *beep* called from the night stand drawer of his sleep area nearby.

“In a jiff,” Nathan answered. A wheat product-wrapped mix landed in the deposit area, steaming in a very appealing way. He even caught the scent of bacon. No amount of psychological control could convince him it was all synthetic; as his memories drew him back to quiet farm mornings and real, actual, from-a-pig bacon resting on his breakfast plate.

“Grandpa,” he breathed, remembering. He picked up the food bundle and bit into its perfect corner. Almost, he thought as he chewed.

He walked to his bed and activated the night stand drawer one-handed. He glanced at his work comm one last time before switching it with the one within the secret compartment, but there was still nothing. “Fine,” he said, resolved.

The new comm had mostly garbage, a new threatening message from Franks, and a confirmation notification from Carapace. His inpracticum demonstration was set for just over a halfcycle away. He shoved the remaining premeal into his mouth, dropped the comm and his wristwatch on the bedding, and headed to the bathroom.

Relieving himself took little of his time, so he found himself staring at the closed Skin Conditioner as he worked the remaining food wad around inside his mouth. The skin would stay fresher inside, but a tiny voice in his mind began asking questions. What if the skin was so cheap it’s in bits when you open it again? What then?

He’d open it a little, check things over, then head to bed. His fingers found the conditioner’s seams, working the casing apart little by little. A hiss of repressed steam and the stretched suit was revealed in all its disturbing glory. Nathan released his own steam in the form of a relieved sigh. He closed the case again, pressing at all the edges to be certain they were latched.

Despite its dubious cleanliness, he drank and rinsed with the sink water. It tasted of metal and misery. He was only too glad to follow up with toothwash.

Time was against him as he skipped back to his bed. With utmost care, he searched through the blanket wad for his comm, his watch, and a half-full vial of blue liquid. They were all set upon the night stand as he stripped and flung his liner onto a hanger, then straightened and checked as he climbed beneath the wrinkled warmth of his bed.

His comm set, his watch mollified; Nathan bit below the auto-sealed segment of vial. Spitting the plastic-like material to the side, he downed the remains of the sleeping drug and fell unconscious immediately.

 

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

Skinwalkers XXXI

Nathan laughed, a quick, short chuckle. “I’m sorry, Shin.” He walked forward the two paces that separated them and placed a light hand on his friend’s shoulder. Even at such a delicate touch, Nathan felt Shin’s muscle flinch slightly.

“Speaking of secrets, Shin,” he began, but Shin pulled his arm and his person from Nathan’s reassurances.

From a withdrawn expression, Shin said, “It’s nothing. Probably wound the muscles up too much fixing your antique station.” He flashed Nathan a wry, hooded smile.

Nathan noted how his friend stood somewhat off-balance, favoring the arm Nathan had just touched. It was also the arm connected to the shoulder Lizard had slapped that premeal, and the one Nathan himself had punched in jest on their return from their workcycle. Still, none of those hits had been heavy enough to warrant the reaction Shin had. Nathan felt a pang of concern. “Shin,” he began.

“It’s nothing.” Shin moved away to the wall. He picked up the scanscreen and its wires and dumped them into his satchel.

Sighing, Nathan bent and carefully gathered a few modules. He carried them to Shin and set them on the floor. He returned and repeated the gesture till all were clumped just outside the bag.

“Thanks,” Shin grunted while packing the autodrill and the remaining tools.

“Shin,” Nathan said again.

“Hm?” Grunt. Pack.

Nathan thought for a full twice-jiff before continuing. “I… might know someone you can sell to.”

Shin glanced up, sensory wires looped over his wrists like rainbow bracelets as he gave Nathan his full attention.

Nathan shuffled his slipshods, watched their dance, and tried to think of the right words to say. He cared for Shin, he really did, but wasn’t certain how far he could help without risking his own future plans. “You saw the skin…”

Shin nodded, his actions still poised above the satchel opening. “And the comm,” his friend prompted.

“Right. That, too,” Nathan said, allowing the illusion that the two were related. “Thing is, my neighbor hooked me up with the sk- with them.” He looked around, mostly to the wall he shared with Franks.

Shin defrosted, setting the mods into his bag and straightening. His expression appeared hopeful.

Internally, Nathan groaned. His conscience kicked briefly at his next words; though he swore it had died a full year ago, at the last funeral he’d attended. “Yeah, his name’s Franks. He’s got a cousin or something at Fantastique.”

Shin flinched slightly at the name, as any sane city dweller did. Still, he swallowed and tried to look more determined. “I do need to sell them,” his eyes fell to the remaining coils on the floor. “Especially since their absence will be noticed, like, imminently.”

Nathan laughed. “True.”

“So… can you mesh me with this Franks?”

Kick, went Nathan’s conscience. “Sure,” said his mouth. “I’ll walk over there with you right now.” He paused. “Er, you may want to pack everything in tightly and only show him one or two.” He turned to Shin, noting his friend’s awkward gestures around his arm’s condition. “I’d hate for you to get hurt.”

Shin met Nathan’s gaze. Each man’s eyes spoke of a vulnerability the other would never voice aloud. Instead, Shin nodded. “Thanks.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXX.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXII.

 

Skinwalkers, XVIII

Nathan’s worried thoughts fueled a helpless anxiety. They chased each other round his head like feral Outlands beasts of some sort, snarling without reason or satiation.

“Look out!” Shin exclaimed, grabbing at Nathan. He managed to grasp at enough of Nathan’s thin upper arm to stop his oblivious pace, just as a large transport swung a sharp right directly at their toes.

*Cheerp!* *Cheerp!* Called the trafficsection signal, as the exhaust from the retreating vehicle still rose in the putrid city air.

Nathan exhaled; turned to his friend. “Thanks.”

“Yep.”

They crossed. “It’s just further proof that the autodrives aren’t perfect,” Nathan noted as they walked down the citypath.

He glanced back at Shin, and was rewarded with a half-smile; a, “Nope.” A moment of even treading later, Shin added, “They still don’t solve stupidity.”

Nathan, who’d nearly been enveloped in his worries again, was a bit slow to hear the truthful tease. He stumbled, and turned a quick look to Shin. Shin’s eyes seemed focused on their path ahead, as he grinned broadly. Nathan took the moment of distraction to punch his friend’s shoulder.

“Ow!” Shin reacted, surprisingly pained. Quickly, he covered with a playful laugh. He pretended a return punch; but, Nathan noted, with his other arm.

*I only use Sultronous* a sultry female autoad crooned. Her image dropped the towel it had barely been wearing to begin with. *Because I need my skin touchably soft.*

They walked through her without comment, stopping at their last crossing. Shin stole a quick glance at Nathan. “Did you feel something at that last one?”

Nathan considered. “Yeah,” he realized. “I thought they weren’t going to add sensory to the street ads, though.”

“Well,” Shin answered, nodding at the ever-present street dwellers, “Guess they’ll learn.”

“Yeah,” Nathan repeated. His friend’s comment drew him back to when sensory modifications had first been introduced. Every advertiser had clamored to use them and the citypaths had been saturated in perfumes, breezes, and flashing lights -until the street dwellers systematically cannibalized them for parts. One sensory mod covered a week’s worth of hits from the right vendor.

“If they’ve got a way to get around it,” Nathan posited, “we ought to look into it. I could use new slipshods.”

“And I could use a hit,” Shin replied.

They walked to the other path, past two buildings, then stopped. Shin gave a low, appreciative whistle at the sight of the monolith before them. “Check that shade,” he marveled. He tilted his head back, attempting to see where Carapace’s grey pinnacle reached grey-clouded sky.

“C’mon,” urged Nathan, turning away.

Regretfully, Shin abandoned his scrutiny. Together, they stepped to the neighboring alley. As with most of their assignments, the service side was less impressive than the streetside façade. Still, this one was cleaner and more secure than others they’d visited.

Adjusting his satchel, Shin approached the access door. After groping around various pockets, he found and withdrew his comm. Nathan watched him place it on the sensor; watched the familiar green activation light.

The entry slid open, and they went inside.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XIX.

Skinwalkers, XVII

Nathan stumbled slightly, as he found his own hand automatically lifting toward the scanner. He recovered quickly enough to avoid suspicion, refusing to meet Choms’ mistrustful glare or Shin’s questioning brow lift.

He and Shin shuffled out together, tightening their tool satchels and ensuring their comms were safely pocketed.

Once beyond the exit and out on the street, Nathan set a rapid pace. Just a moment before, he’d been ready to interrogate Shin regarding his friend’s oddly sad expression. Now, he sought to avoid just such an inquisition from Shin. Unfortunately, Shin kept his constitution in good health and shape. He had no trouble keeping up with Nathan, though he recognized Nathan’s obvious attempts to avoid conversation.

*Liners to love; liners that don’t leave you lacking* Bragged an auto-ad as they passed.

It was interrupted by *Sirius Sustenance Supply is serious about more than sustenance…*, which was cut off by,

*Need a skin on the cheap? Look no further than Fantastique!*

Nathan’s unusually fast speed made the ad sensors flash on and off more quickly than they were designed to activate. He and his work partner walked through oddly overlapping projections all down the main stretch of the city.

After nearly a tick of rushing, Nathan finally realized what a funny spectacle he and Shin made. He laughed aloud, startling Shin. “Two Grunts, speedwalking at aftermeal,” he explained, slowing a bit. Shin smiled a half-smile of supportive humor.

They stopped at a trafficsection, their slipshods activating the embedded pedestrian sensors. Shin turned to Nathan carefully. “Nathaniel?” he asked.

“Hmm?” Nathan answered, feigning aloofness.

“Why are we speedwalking?” The signal flashed and chirped, so they moved forward and crossed. “What’s itching you?”

Nathan pretended concentration on the citypath beneath their feet. He slowed their pace further, realizing Shin was too astute a companion to be fooled by his childish efforts of avoidance.

Still, he couldn’t let Shin know about his job interview. He looked skyward; shrugged. “I just heard something about Carapace during my Advancement Studies. I felt a little surprised that they’d hire us.”

Mollified, Shin nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed aloud. Now was his turn to laugh, albeit less jovially. “Maybe they can’t get their own workers to dirty their gloves.”

Lost in thought, Nathan heard Shin’s jibe a bit late. He covered with his own chuckle a jiff after. “Probably true,” he said. Still, he couldn’t shake a paranoid thought that kept surfacing.

What if they know? He wondered. Then what would he do?

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XVI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XVIII.

Skinwalkers, XV

Nathan exchanged the wristwatch and his original comm for the one resting secretly in the nightstand. “‘Bye, Grandpa,” he said, just before closing the drawer with a secure *click*. He retrieved his slipshods from the floor and rushed out into the bathroom.

This time, he yanked open the topmost drawer to locate his toothwash. Whilst he swished and swirled it inside his mouth for the recommended moment, he studied the reflection of a very human face in a very splotchy mirror. His cheeks bulged slightly with wash, but he thought that abnormality actually helped his plain and pockmarked visage.

After spitting out the solution, he made a hurried check for unexpected stubble. He wasn’t due to burn again for another week, but the odd case of a hair or two somehow avoiding purge did come up.

With or without extra facial hair, it was time to go. Nathan returned the toothwash to its spot, grabbed his new comm and slipshods, and headed out the door. He paused just long enough to slap the doorscan to lockdown the apartment, and to dress his feet.

The traffic sounds reaching him now were steadier, though an occasional large vehicle-bellow interrupted the vehicular white noise. He skipped quickly up the cracked cement stairs and began jogging down the block.

Many a strung-out street dweller turned his head at Nathan’s rapidly flying form. Those too far gone to know up from down or side from side merely dreamt a vision more real than life, of a skinny laborer sprinting past their cardboard home.

Puffing, panting, and pausing to collect his breathing brought Nathan within reach of his employer’s station. He continued jogging, albeit more slowly. He came to a large, black doorway at the building’s sunside. A green light flitted briefly across the panel he scanned. The door pulled to the side and he entered.

When he’d first been accepted to this job, he’d worked nights. Each time the door had opened then, he’d felt he was walking into an unknown cave. Surely something was lurking; waiting to grab him. Maybe his nightmares lay around, wanting to jump out and yell, “Boo!” They’d have a contest to see who was scariest, invariably ending in a draw.

Aftermeal sunshine, however, often shone at the lucky time he began this new shift. It lit up just enough of the space to lead him in a glowing path to the beginning of where autolights finally took over illumination.

Nathan walked forward quickly. He stopped outside a door reading Check In. Scanning his comm, he entered as soon as the door moved to allow him. A few, lingering coworkers were just finishing gear-up. The rest milled noisily about. As he moved to his own locker, he saw his friend, Shin, sitting on a bench.

“Sup, Shin?” He asked pleasantly, opening his assigned locker with his comm.

Shin looked up, and Nathan could see that Shin also appeared smaller and sadder than usual. Despite that, the older man smiled wryly.

“Hey, Nathaniel,” Shin answered. “Long time no see.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XVI.

Skinwalkers, XII

Nathan could barely find energy to fight against the pull of gravity, dragging him more quickly than he desired down the cement stairs that led to his apartment. The soles of his slipshods slapped too noisily beneath him; their echoing clapping becoming a calamitous applause in the enclosed stairwell and landing.

Given the cacophony, he was only somewhat surprised to see the entry to Franks’ apartment slide open. Franks himself leaned against the intake wall. He looked well, causing Nathan to wonder what refreshers his neighbor had mixed this week.

Nathan stopped walking. The two men stared at each other. Franks moved first, standing away from his angled scrutiny and smiling. “Damn, man. You look iced!” He moved toward Nathan, and made a mock-reverential circle around him. Laughing, he added, “I didn’t know you could make a skin look so good.”

Nathan faked a cough. “Yeah, considering what you got for me,” he answered.

Franks laughed again. “You better watch out, or I’ll take it back,” was his return gibe. He stopped circling to meet Nathan’s gaze. Being shorter by several centimeters, this meant a balanced scrutiny from tiptoes.

Curious, Nathan glanced down. Franks was on literal tiptoes, as his feet were bare. Nathan pulled back to meet Franks’ stare.

“Use the drops?” Franks asked.

“Yep.”

“Ouch.”

“Yep.”

Franks sunk back down; stepped back. He acted suddenly distracted, as he usually became after a tick or half in Nathan’s company. Looking around and rubbing the back of his neck, Franks asked, “Need an SC?”

“No.” Nathan still had the Skin Conditioner it had come in, and knew Franks knew that as well.

“Right,” his distracted neighbor responded, stepping closer to his entry and not making eye contact again. “I’ll word your comm later,” he said. He was inside when he added, “After Neo.”

“Right,” Nathan called to the closing slider. Once it made full contact, he felt himself relax from an automatically-tense position. He didn’t relax fully, of course. Franks might still change his initial agreement and come demanding repayment anytime. Nathan would feel better once inside his own apartment, though the wall neighbor could easily get through one of the weaker sections if desperate.

“Hopefully, he has enough charge,” Nathan said, under his breath.

Turning, he intentionally walked a more quiet tread to his own entry. He withdrew his comm to unlock and activate the exterior door. Entering, he initiated living lockdown by applying his palm quite solidly against the doorscan. Fortunately, it was able to read through his skin after only a jiff.

He trudged wearily to the bedroom to relieve himself of the suit first. It looked like he’d thrown it at the hanger when he was done, but at least the garments were suspended. He returned them to his closet-hole, set his comm on the nightstand, and shuffled off to the adjacent bathroom.

Nathan activated the shower, and opened the SC he’d left in there since morning. As the water warmed, he stared distractedly at his distorted reflection. I did it, he thought, tiredly smiling. Thinking over the interview, Caill’s last expression, and Pull’s eyes, he grinned widely. He could feel the skin loosening with the movement, and ambient steam. He felt around to the back of his neck, rubbing to detach the vertebral bonds there.

Still grinning, his barely-perceptible reflection watched from the swirling clouds as he carefully peeled off his skin.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XIII.

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.

Skinwalkers, III

Dressing was more difficult than Nathan had planned. The task was exacerbated by myriad factors, including lack of a full-length mirror. He grunted, twisted, pulled and straightened like a possessed interpretive dancer.

“At least I’m not in a dress,” he mumbled, finally groping with the outercoat and its attachments. The full suit would hide most of his glaring, epidermal defects.

The wristwatch beeped again, at an antique half-hour, and Nathan knew it signaled a few ticks before morning traffic began. If he didn’t get to a transport soon, he wouldn’t beat the better-paid commuters.

He grabbed his slipshod footwear and his comm. Rushing through the three small rooms of the apartment, he sincerely hoped everything appeared in order about his person. He also hoped the appointment was in a building with a reflective lift.

Just before exiting, he slapped the defunct doorscan to activate lockdown. The trick was applying enough force to get the cracked reader to work, but not depress it to a further state of disrepair. He wanted to get back in later, after all.

He paused outside his exterior door, listening. Traffic echoes swirled like engined ghosts down the cement stairway and circled, trapped for moments, at the basement landing where he stood. No sounds of human movement came to him. Franks must have gone back to sleep.

Leaning to one wall, then the other, Nathan slipped his feet within their slipshods. He felt the contoured fabric lifting and shaping up his foot and ankle. Once the sole hardened with its habitual *click*, he immediately climbed the cracking steps to mainground.

What luck! A transport sat waiting, anticipating the impending work crowds.

Striding forward purposefully, he focused on the memory of confidence. His eyes blazed. His steps were measured and certain. Artfully, he withdrew and scanned his comm, immediately entering the vehicle when its activated door popped open.

The man up front seemed startled as Nathan sat and the vehicle tipped slightly. Nathan, however, appeared unperturbed.

“Er…” The operator began. Clearly, the man needed authority. Nathan felt happy to oblige; this would be great practice for later.

“Walls and Pruitt, at 34th Beta,” he enunciated, looking past the slack-jawed operator and to the dashboard computers instead.

All business, the dash responded in light patterns and beeps. “Destination acknowledged,” its female tones confirmed.

Nathan deigned to grant the still-surprised transport operator a raised eyebrow -a question of the man’s choice of High British female voice command, perhaps- before turning his attention to his more-interesting comm feed.

A shifting of garments on seat-cloth told Nathan the man up front had decided to face forward. As he should, Nathan thought. It’s not like the man needs to do anything, anyway.

Nathan had even considered an operator job, before Franks’ cousin’s friend had gotten him such a good deal on the outfit. Imagine someone seeing him in a transport! He shuddered, and resumed panning through stories.

Thunk, thunk, thunk, drummed at the semi-transparent roof. Nathan didn’t bother looking up, as the commonplace acidfall splattered and spread harmlessly above him. Internally, he felt relief.

If not for recent loans, he would have been walking right now. Showing up in drips.

He shuddered again. He’d make this work. He had to pay everyone back, or face the reality of shuttling friends around in the only occupation left to someone like him.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, II.
Read Skinwalkers, IV.