Doctor Skin walks the line.
The line is flat, straight and true, but Skin still feels a resistance as he walks it, as if it was up a long, steep hill. He presses on, even as every step gets just a little bit harder, pushes through towards his goal, moving on to the end.
The line is invisible, but where Skin walks now, nothing exists for sure, which makes it as real as anything else. It cuts right through reality itself, over the margins of existence, around the borders of the universe.
Skin keeps his eyes shut tight and holds his breath as he walks on, but feels no pain in his chest, no desperate desire for oxygen. His legs ache as he wades through the nothingness, but nothing else feels real. His fingers feel like they’re barely connected to his hands and that is reason enough for Skin to keep his eyes closed, fearful that they would have drifted away without his attention.
Doctor Skin walks the line.
There is no stagnation, no stillness in this non-place. Everything is in flux, nothing is set in stone. Perpetual motion is carrying him on through, carrying him on over.
There may be nothing around him, but everything is loaded with meaning inside his skull. No little problems, nothing trivial. It all matters.
He follows the line, taking it to the source of all his worries and anxieties and fears and deepest, darkest wishes.
Skin chases it, needs it, wants it and will have it, even if he doesn’t know what it all is.
Doctor Skin walks the line.
As he moves further and further into the unknown, he feels more and more transparent, like reality itself is flowing through him. But he also feels his own past build up around him. It all comes to the surface.
His past. His continuity. His story.
It’s not like he is witnessing his history, but more that he is reliving it all over again. He walks the line right through his own life, seeing it right from the beginning.
The death of his parents while he was so young he could not comprehend their loss. His internment on an Earth where child slavery was just another part of life, an accepted norm that nobody questioned.
Skin walks right through his childhood, a grim, desperate affair of forced servitude, working in dark factories on the most mundane of tasks. Only his dreams and hope for a better future push him on, the idea that things have to get better, because they can’t possibly get any worse.
And then his escape, tunneling through time itself in a desperate need for freedom. The world outside the factory walls opens up for him in all its colour and splendour. He is free.
Traveling alone, he learns to deal with the realities of life and he excels. He tries to beat anything that will push him down and he succeeds. He looks for true love and he finds it.
Following the path through his teenage years, Skin feels his heart tear in half as he meets Katarina again for the first time.
She smiles at him as he robs a bank in the far future and he is lost to her forever. They join together in every possible way, pushing the boundaries of good taste and offensiveness at any given opportunity.
They love and live for too short a time, until Katarina is taken away from him forever. He feels her hand slip away, see the pure joy in her eyes fade away for all time.
Dr Skin can’t bear it and he falls from the line, trying to hide from the terrible aching loss, dropping off it in total despair, unable to bear the pain of the unavoidable.
Skin fell to his knees, eyes closed as he sucked in air, fighting away the pain and panic as he slammed a closed fist into the hard floor.
“Oh, get up,” sneers a voice above him. “There is nothing wrong with you.”
Dr Skin looked up and saw a familiar face wearing unfamiliar clothes. “Mr. Green?”
“Hardly,” scoffed the man, although he shared the same features and voice as the man Skin had earlier met. But he was now wearing a pale yellow suit that actually made Skin feel a little queasy.
“We often get mistaken, but we’re very much different.”
Skin looked around. He was standing in a white space, with black and white ceramic tiles on the floor, stretching off past the horizon. He turned back to the other man.
“Let me guess. You must be Mr. Yellow.”
“Your powers of perception are outstanding,” yawned Mr Yellow.
“I’ve had no complaints.”
Mr. Yellow moved in a little closer. “Do you know why you’re here, Doctor?”
The image of Katarina’s smiling face loomed up in Skin’s mind, but he mentally forced it back down and put on a fake smile. “I’m trying to walk to the next world. Aren’t I?”
“You were trying,” corrected Mr. Yellow. “But you fell off the line. You really do need to be a lot stronger than this if you think you can carry on.”
“I can be strong,” said Skin, not convincing anybody, least of all himself.
Mr Yellow just smiled unpleasantly and pulled something out of his pocket, tossing it at Skin.
Skin caught the photograph and knew exactly what was on it even before he took a closer look. It was a picture of Skin and Katarina, his one true love, in happier times. They both grinned into the camera with hands that held complex ray guns draped over each other’s shoulders. Skin could even remember when that photo had been taken, just after they had help dethrone the Emperor of Ice Cream from his palace on the edge of the Alpha Centauri solar system.
“Oh god,” moaned Skin, falling to his knees and clutching the picture. He started sobbing pitifully, unable to bear the loss yet again.
“Pathetic,” growled Mr. Yellow, walking around Skin. “Like you’re the only person who ever lost anybody.”
Skin suddenly screamed at launched at Mr. Yellow, fingers curled into claws ready to rip his eyes out.
But as he covered the distance between them, he found he could only get halfway there. He tried again, but only got halfway again. He kept on trying, but only ever seemed to cover half the distance between himself and Mr. Yellow.
His rage was replaced by frustration and he stopped again, looking at the picture he clutched in his hands. The details began to fade and Skin almost sobbed again as they totally vanished.
“Such is the way of things,” said Mr. Yellow contemptuously. “Everything fades away, everything is lost to the past.”
“Just get to the fucking point, would you?” asked Dr Skin, dropping the blank picture to the tiles.
“I could tell you to do the same. You don’t even know what you’re looking for.”
His face set in stone, Skin wiped away a lone tear from his cheek. “I’m looking for a way out. That’s what I’ve always been looking for.”
“Go on,” said Mr. Yellow. He smiled just a little.
“I need to get up, I need to get out. I have to move on, I have to move up. Katarina showed me a life worth living, but that’s long gone and I’ll never get it back. Now, more than ever, I need to travel on.”
“Do you even know where you’re going, Max?”
“Of course not. That’s half the fun. I’ll end up where I end up.” Skin stopped and looked at Mr. Yellow, his eyes narrowing. “What did you call me?”
Mr. Yellow grinned. “I called you by your name.”
“You called me Max. Nobody ever called me that. I never told anybody my first name. Not ever.”
“I don’t blame you. Maxwell Skin. What a ridiculous name.”
Skin’s right fist clenched hard, but he held it to his lips to keep it from shaking. “It’s just a name, that’s all. Just a name.”
Mr. Yellow did not respond.
“Fuck it,” swore Dr Skin. “It doesn’t matter. I’m ready to move on now.”
“Move on? To where?”
“I told you. I’ll take the long and winding road to anywhere. I want to go beyond all worlds, beyond everything. I want… I need to be cosmically aware.”
“Sounds like fun. What world do you live in now, Doctor?”
Skin smiled. “I live in the world that has everything.”
He looked up above him, but there was nothing there, just clear white space. “Can I go now?”
“You’re not going to try and stop me?”
“That is not my job,” said Mr. Yellow. “My task was just to slow you down a bit. Let you catch your breath before the end.”
“Huh,” said Skin, unconvinced. “I don’t know. I thought somebody would be pissed. I thought somebody would try to stop me.”
“There is no adversary here. There is no enemy. You’ve left all that behind you.”
“Oh,” moaned Skin, actually a little disappointed. “No more fighting?”
“Oh no, there will always be conflict. Just don’t expect a nemesis. That’s just childish.” Mr. Yellow knelt down and picked up the blank picture. He rubbed it beneath his fingers. “Are you really over it now? Can you move on?”
Skin laughed. “Ha! No, I’ll never be over it. But I won’t let the pain cripple me. It’s here now,” he pounded his chest lightly, “and that is where it will stay.”
Mr. Yellow’s eyes sparkled. “Then you should get back on the line and get on with it. Take it a bit more slowly, but move on.”
Dr Skin looked back up at the nothingness above him. “How do I start walking the line again?”
“You already are,” said Mr. Yellow as everything suddenly switched off.
And he was.
Doctor Skin walks the line.
His life flashes forward, past the funeral, past the grief. It’s always there, but he moves on.
He sees the beginning of his quest and the word of the oracle. He relives the fighting, escapes the trap and eats his last meal all over again. He catches up with himself, walking the line, looking down upon himself as he looks back up. He is finally cosmically aware, but all that sticks in his mind is how badly he needs a haircut.
He pushes and pushes and pushes, and feels it all give at once, all resistance suddenly gone, everything open and free and honest.
Come down, let down, this is going everywhere.
Come down, slow now, let down, end now.
Up and over and back around again.
Doctor Skin is walking the line.
Space/time/mind/everything coagulates around him as he pushes it to the limit. Taking everything to the utmost reaches of contemplation, knowing it will lead inevitably to glory and honour, if he is looking in the right place. Hard and fast, just the way Skin likes it.
The final breach is made and an unknown barrier he did not even realize was there splits right down the middle and he falls through. It feels like he is drawing a breath for the first time, sensation exploding from within.
Everything goes black, but everything is not gone. He still exists, his body is still responding. He looks down and sees a silver sphere below him. It opens up and engulfs him, cutting off those first breaths. He panics and almost gives in, but there is something undeniably soothing about it and he lets things take their course.
He breaks through silver barriers, again and again and again until he reaches the last wall. He does not break through that, he waits, gives it a wink and lets it break over him.
The line is finished. Skin is beyond everything he has ever known. He has reached the top of his own Tree of Life, but there is just another level below him.
The line is done, and Doctor Skin must start at the bottom again.
Everything was perfect, but pure bliss instantly gave way to sharp, searing pain, each breath a chore.
Doctor Skin fell out of thin air into a world where the air was dirty enough to immediately sear his lungs. He tumbled down a hill covered with dead brown grass, cracking his head against a sharp rock as he fell.
Limp and lifeless, he fell into a small polluted creek at the bottom of the hill and lay still, his bleeding head submerged.
He did not move.