It’s All About You
They appeared out of nowhere, dozens of heavily armed men, women and other unknown species, all manner of shapes and sizes with murder in their eyes and hatred in their hearts. They came at him in a fury, ready to do him harm. Doctor Skin was unimpressed.
He did not know how long he had been walking through the deserted city before he was attacked. Skin had arrived here by accident after a transporter mishap in the 23rd century. He had been visiting the future to catch up with old friends on a parallel world where humanity had somehow managed to survive the inevitable nuclear holocaust, but he had tripped up as he went through the time tear, and had sent his atoms uncontrollably spiraling through the multiverse.
By the time he had pulled himself together, Skin found himself on an empty city street. The buildings around him were a mixture of architectural styles from a million different schools of thought, but they were all a little undefined, hazy at the edges and somehow lacking in depth, as if they were not quite real.
"So what?" Skin had sneered when he first appeared.
He had been traveling through space and time on his never-ending quest for most of his life and had taken to his new surroundings with his usual mix of childlike fascination and old man cynicism. After a little investigation he had found that, all things considered, his unscheduled trip to the haunted city had been for the best. Once again, despite his best efforts, he had turned up exactly where he needed to be.
Cryptic graffiti and the barest scent in the air had been enough for him to figure out he was not alone in the city, no matter how it appeared. The city had its inhabitants, even if he could not find them.
Further searching had led Doctor Skin to the conclusion that not only were there people living there, but the very person he had traveled so long to find was there. The oracle who he had been told would solve his dilemma was there, waiting to be found.
He had first heard of her about her at a gambling table in the Old West. The game had been going badly for a man in a red satin waistcoat and he had gambled his life on a game of poker. Right before he was shot dead, the man told of an oracle who could answer any question in history.
At first, it didn’t really matter. In the places and concepts Skin had traveled through, oracles were hardly uncommon. Everybody knew everything, or pretended they did. It wasn’t anything big or clever.
But as time passed, Skin heard more and more of her. Of the accuracy of her prophecies, of the mysteries she solved. She could help anybody with anything, or everybody with everything, depending on the enthusiasm of the storyteller.
In the end it all proved a bit much for Doctor Skin, and he had to find her. It went beyond a choice, far beyond a command. He had never quite grown out of his existential yearning and a chance to hear all the secrets of the universe had been too good to miss.
From the moment he passed that point, nothing else mattered. His quest lead him from one end of the universe to the other, so he moved on to the next one.
And the next one.
And the next one.
He had lost count long ago.
He had also loved and lost, fought and won, raced and failed to finish. The people and creatures he met rarely helped and often hindered. He had wandered aimlessly and willed himself onward with each step back.
And now, after so long, he was within sight of journey’s end. Everything he ever wanted was tantalizingly close. He would, of course, have to pay for it.
He had smelled them coming long before they showed their faces. The stench downwind from them was overwhelming after so long in the sterile air of the city. He had no weapons, but tightly gripped his fingers into a fist. He didn’t need any weapons.
There was the barest moment, where everybody knew exactly what was about to happen, and then they charged him. Some couldn’t help themselves and howled wildly as they leaped out of their hiding places along the city street.
Some of them were human, a few used to be, and some never came close. Dog women with large blunt objects, tall albinos with magic swords. Barbarian hordes with massive axes and ultra-modern hunter/killer cyborgs with laser guided heatseeking missiles with extra uranium. All the clichés Doctor Skin had expected and a few he had not heard of in a long, long time.
They leaped off buildings, crawled through windows that had not existed in the walls a moment ago.
The y jumped out of trash cans, pushed their way through manholes in the street and kicked open doors to apartment complexes that smelled of fish. They came running down the street towards him. All were brandishing weapons.
Skin was not armed.
“Come on then,” he whispered, rolling his shoulders and flexing his arms. “Come and get me.”
The first to reach him was a cavewoman in furs that reeked of animal piss, swinging at his head with her large club. Skin waited until the last possible moment, mainly just because he could. As the club came down towards him, he stepped forward and it swung harmlessly over his head. He spun around the cavewoman, hooking her ankle with his foot and tripping her up.
As the cavewoman tumbled away, Skin blocked a lazy punch from a wiry man with red skin and rocks in his face and slammed the meat of his palm into the next attacker’s chin. Three miniature cheetahs with opposable thumbs leaped on his back and tried to drag Skin down, but he grabbed them off, one at a time, and tossed them away.
An incredibly sharp samurai sword swung in out of nowhere and Skin barely caught the flat of the blade between his open hands. He twisted his wrist slightly and the sword shattered, following it through with a kick to the genitals for the swordless samurai, his intricate amour doing little to soften the sickeningly blunt blow.
A man with two more arms than he needed attacked him with an antique and well maintained blade clutched in each hand, so Skin stole one of them and started hacking their extra limbs off. Using a priceless sword fashioned in the fires of the first civilization as a machete was the worst part about it for Johnny No-Arms.
“Noooo!” he cried as scarlet blood poured from the wounds. “There is no art in this wound, there is no honour! You can’t do this to me!”
Doctor Skin suddenly felt guilty about his harmful actions and whipped off his coat to staunch the wounds. A woman with an impressive moustache, dressed in an immaculate tuxedo and top hat tried to skewer him through the back with a large hatpin, but Skin kicked them in the chest as he stopped the flow of blood.
“Honestly,” moaned the pale two-armed man as he collapsed, “you call yourself a doctor?”
Skin let him drop and went on the defensive again.
And they kept on coming, wave after wave of warriors, all determined to put Skin down and out. He met each challenge head on, and after his experience with the arms, made sure they were only suffering the slightest of injuries. But they kept on coming.
Eventually the street was covered with fallen foes and Skin balanced precariously on their bodies as he saw off each new threat. As he fought, he kept letting blows through, one smacking him in the side of his skull and almost closing his right eye, another pushing his knee back slightly in a direction it was not designed to move.
Skin grinned and bared each new injury, but knew he could not hold off forever. Sooner or later, the fatal shot would get through and it will all end.
And then they stopped. An old-fashioned robot made of rusted tin that looked like it had been built in the 1930s was the last to try its luck, Skin punching it so hard in the face a screw in the side of its neck fell loose and its head swung around and around.
And then they stopped.
There were still dozens of the potential assassins who could have still tried to take him out, but they all, as one, took a step back, many of them bowing their heads in a dubious mark of respect.
On top of his pile of vanquished foes, Doctor Skin suddenly wondered what to do next.
A cowboy with six-guns unfired raised his eyes up from below the wide brim of his hat and hissed at Skin. “Go on, partner. The next step is free.”
Skin took his advice and stepped off the bodies, those still standing parting to let him through the crowd.
At the edge of the group, his path leads to a green door, standing alone in the middle of the street. Never one to turn down an invitation, Doctor Skin opened the door and stepped through.
The door slammed shut behind him and Skin squinted in the sudden, silent dark. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom and he soon saw the room.
It was ornately designed, with marble floors and walls, along with columns that stretched up to a roof that disappeared in the gloom high above his head. A few statues lay scattered around the edge of the room, each only half finished. The rear of a horse grew out of a block of pure stone, a naked man reached up to heaven from another unfinished masterpiece.
At first Skin thought he was alone, and then he saw the sandpit right in the center of the room. There was someone sitting in it. Someone small.
Skin moved slowly forward, ready for another attack at any moment.
“Silly man,” said the tiny figure in a high-pitched voice. “Don’t even know what you’re doing.”
As Skin crept closer he realized the figure was a tiny little boy with blond hair and blue eyes, playing with a bucket of sand and getting grains down the front of his red overalls with a colourful cartoon duck on them.
For once, Skin was honestly lost for words. “Um, hello?” he offered.
“Stupid man,” said the child, looking up at Skin, screwing his face up before filling his bucket with sand again. “Don’t even know what you’re looking for.”
“I’m looking for my life,” said Doctor Skin defiantly. “I need the oracle.”
“Who needs a stupid oracle?” asked the child.
The child dumped the bucket of sand down on top of another pile and carefully lifted it, but the sand was too loose and fell away.
“Not fair,” he said, throwing the bucket away. It smacked against the marble wall and bounced off behind one of the unfinished statues. The boy looked up at Skin. “I can help. I’m a big boy.”
“I’m sure you are,” said Skin dryly, “but your nose is running. It’s a bit hard to take you seriously when you look like that.”
The boy wiped his nose on his sleeve and his eyes suddenly clouded over, glowing a subtle shade of green. “Open door Alpha Alpha One. Watch your step.”
The air between Skin and the child began to shimmer, as if the atmosphere itself was about to catch fire.
“No!” cried Skin. “I don’t need another journey. I just need some answers!”
The child blinked once, very, very slowly and answered in a dull monotone. “How can I give you any answers when you haven’t asked me any questions?”
“Where is the oracle?” said Skin as he felt the familiar sensation of displacement. “I just need a little guidance.”
“You have to find your own path. You can’t expect somebody to give it to you.”
“But that’s too hard!” whined Skin.
“Life is hard,” scowled the child. “Stand up and start living it.”
And then the heat leapt out at Skin, wrapping around him like a cheap fur coat. He felt the hairs in his nostril burn away and his forehead instantly broke out into a sweat. And then he was gone.
“Stupid man,” said the child. It picked up a large plastic spade and began to dig as Doctor Skin melted away into nothing.