Dr Skin almost skipped along the pavement as they moved through the city. It was the middle of the day and the streets were crowded, but Skin danced around the other pedestrians, soaking in the sights.
Behind him, Max wondered what the hell she was doing. Things had gotten weird lately, but this was pushing it. Skin didn’t look anything like her, but Max somehow knew she was his doppelganger in ways she could never properly explain.
But that still did not explain why she was willing to give Skin any help she had to give. There was some truth in what Skin had said earlier, Max’s world was stuck in a rut and she had been hoping something would come along that would push her out of it. She just wasn’t sure that following Skin was the most sensible way of kick-starting her life.
“Oh wow,” said Skin suddenly, grabbing Max by the wrist and pulling her along. “Look there. We gotta get something to eat.”
Max saw that Skin was dragging her towards another burger outlet and did not try to resist that much. She had, after all, not eaten in a while. Some people might have thought it was too early in the day for burgers, but Max had never been that kind of person, and Dr Skin seemed to be the same.
They went inside and ordered. Max was disappointed but not surprised when Skin made her pay for their meals, but she let it go. She was silently relieved when her payment wasn't declined, her pay must have gone through overnight.
Max ate her burger quickly enough and Skin wolfed down his meal with great enthusiasm.
“Wow,” he said as he mopped up the last of his food. “So much for the last meal.”
“Yeah,” said Max. “It wasn’t bad, I suppose.”
“Everything feels sharper here,” said Skin, staring off into the middle distance. “Pain is worse, but tastes are better. God, what will it be like when we go all the way?”
Max frowned. “I still don’t get that part.”
“What do you mean?”
“This whole thing about passing into new worlds. How does that work? And why is this starting to sound like something I believe in?”
Skin ignored the second question. He grabbed a sachet of tomato sauce and poured it out onto the table of the restaurant. He made several intersecting circles with the spilled sauce and punched a finger into each one as he talked.
“There are universes beyond this one, Max. Parallel worlds. Some of them are more parallel than others and you can travel through them easily enough. But some of them are on higher levels and take a lot more effort to get through to. I believe that there is a world beyond them all where everything is more real than anything you could possibly imagine. Infinite detail, utter complexity.”
“Uh-huh,” said Max. The diagram Skin had made on the tabletop had become smeared as he talked and now looked suspiciously like a hugely deformed smiley-face. “Well, I’m glad you cleared all that up.”
Skin stood up. “Right, let’s get going.”
Max went to follow, just as one of the restaurant workers came up to the table and saw the mess with the sauce. “What the hell?”
Skin grinned as he dragged Max out the door. “Sorry about that, but we’re dealing with the hidden secrets of reality itself. You’ve got to expect a little mess.”
The restaurant worker was not impressed by his explanation, but Skin and Max were already gone.
“We can’t go in there,” hissed Max as Skin kicked in the heavy metal gate, the padlock giving way with the first blow. “We’ll get arrested. This is private property.”
“Max,” said Skin consolingly, putting his arm over Max’s shoulder as he lead her over the broken gates. “I don’t think it really matters at this stage. What we need to move on is in here. Private property is not a concern.”
The industrial complex was one Max had passed more than a few times and while she had not given it much attention, the times she had had been enough to convince her it was somewhere she did not need to be. Huge, hulking factories stood tall and while they mainly looked unoccupied, there were odd noises that suggested they were otherwise.
“Over here,” said Skin. He pointed to a small polluted stream that ran right through the middle of the complex. “We follow that until we find a hill. That’s where we need to be.”
“Won’t there be guards?” asked Max, still nervous.
“I certainly hope so,” said Skin, his eyes narrowing.
They carried on in silence for a while and saw no other sign of life, apart from a stray dog that poked its head out from behind a run-down truck before disappearing again. Finally they reached the hill Skin had mentioned. Looking around once more, they began to climb, only to finally get caught.
“Oi!” screamed a voice. “You two! Hold it right fucking there!”
Skin smiled evilly as the security guard who had beat him earlier approached, brandishing his club.
The guard’s eyes lit up as he recognized Skin.
“You,” replied Skin as the guard drew closer.
“You never fucking learn, do you?” The guard raised his club as he stepped up to Skin, Max backing away quickly.
“I learn more than you might think,” said Skin, suddenly lunging forward and driving the straight fingers of his right hand directly into the guard’s wrist. Screaming in pain, the guard dropped the baton but didn’t stop and tried to kick Skin in the groin.
Skin stepped aside, swept the guard’s feet out from under him, sending him crashing to the ground. Skin leaped on him and punched him in the face several times, only stopping when Max stepped forward.
“Hey,” said Max. “That’s enough, man. Let him go.”
Doctor Skin looked at Max, looked back at the guard, punched him once more and stood up. The guard, bloody and beaten, moaned but didn’t move.
“Be nice,” said Skin to the guard, before turning back to Max and pulling her up the hill. “Come on Max, let’s conquer this peak.”
It only took a few seconds to do so, the two reaching the top without much effort. Max looked back at the guard, who was starting to twitch, but Skin paid him no heed, staring at the air in front of him.
After a minute of deep contemplation, Max was about to interrupt when Skin snapped his fingers.
“Oh! Of course! There it is!”
He reached out and grabbed hold of the thin air in front of him. It somehow tore, a two-metre hole appearing out of nothing. Skin winked at Max and stepped through.
“Come on Max!” he cried from the other side of the tear. “No more time to waste!”
Max hesitated. This really did not make any kind of sense and following Skin made even less. She was surprised to find she actually wanted to follow, but her legs would not answer.
“Come on, Max!” repeated Skin as the tear in space began to repair itself, the ends of it rapidly closing up.
“This is a bad fucking idea,” moaned Max, leaping forward and diving through the hole, just as it closed behind her.
At the bottom of the small hill, the guard wiped some of the blood off his face and looked up to see where the man who had attacked him had gone, but there was no sign.
On top of the hill, there was nothing at all.