The Skinless Man Counts to Five9 min read


Paul Jessup
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Death or dying

The first corpse rode the waves to the beach and greeted the librarian on the shore. It was tied to a chair with catch ropes, skinless with eyes popped open and mouth gaping wide. Inside the mouth was a speaker, connected to an old ghostdrive in the corpse’s chest. The speaker said the same thing over and over again, in a rusty metallic voice. Clear and sharp as a bell.

“Five. Five. Five. Five. Five.”

The librarian snapped her fingers, took a quickpic, and uploaded it to the emergency datamines for the police to see. Now she just had to wait for them to arrive and take the body elsewhere. Goosebumps dotted her arms as the spiralsun slowly glittered to life, chasing away the starlamps, and finally bringing bright daylight to the generation ship.

After this, she would have a headache that lasted for days. Blistering.  The two detectives that eventually arrived barely listened to her and were no help at all. She spent the next few weeks muttering the number five to herself over and over again. It had gotten lodged into her thoughts, unable to escape. The dreams were gone and replaced with white noise and a shadow moving slowly towards her, just in the edges of her peripheral vision.

Back at the station the detectives wound into the hivemind and pulled up the feeds from earlier that day. The first detective looked closely at the collection of images, magnified them as best as he could. A large ominous shape rose from the waves in a constellation of stars.  The second detective had his back turned and was trying his hardest not to vomit. A low hum buzzed about in his head, and his knees ached. This was worse than rain. It was something else.

Maybe a solar storm outside the ship? Wouldn’t be the first time it messed everything up.

The first detective said, “Look, here, see? See? He almost has a face, but it’s not a face. It’s like every face I’ve ever seen all at once. Like the memory of a face made manifest.  See? Turn and look.”

“No,” said the other detective, “I don’t have to look to know what you’re seeing.”

The first detective spun around in his chair. Stars flung themselves past the windows overlooking the galaxies beyond, making a celestial halo around his head. “Tell me, then. What do I see?”

“A shape made of stars. A face made of faces.”

The first detective stood up, shook his head. “How do you know that?”

“No. I mean. I don’t know.”

The second detective leaned over and vomited. It was clear and blue and smelled like raw exhaust from the thermal engines. In the center of the pool of sick was a skinless finger encircled with a small glass ring. “What is going on with me …”

“Come on, let’s get you to the pharmhounds, and see if they can fix you up.”

“I don’t know if they can. Something is rotten inside, I feel it. This is a deep, in-the-bone feeling.”

They found an eyeball and several teeth in the second detective’s stomach. At the same time he was in the pharmcages, another body was found. This time it was in the night forest, high up in the pines. The branches brushed against the wind and made a soft whistling sound. Two little girls found it and called the cops, terrified. They kept saying that they didn’t know he was real, that there was no way he could be real. Was this another dream? Or something else?

The second body was much like the first. He was tied to the branches upside down, with his head pointed to the ground. He was missing some teeth and an eye and a finger. And, just like the first one, he’d had a ghostdrive placed in his stomach, and a speaker in his throat.

“Four. Four. Four. Four.”

After a week the girls stopped speaking altogether. At night they would pace their apartments near the westernmost quadrant, unable to sleep. Their minds repeated the music of fire in their thoughts, keeping them awake and restless. Until their quadrant was burned barren and destroyed by a freak accident.

Thankfully, the zoombots put an end to it and only a small handful of people died.

Right before they found the third body, the machines of the ship began to act erratic and uncertain. Cleaners spun in the dark howling of their wheels. Datacrunchers vomited numbers and letters in random order, unable to make sense of anything any longer. Their entire purpose in life wiped away in a single instant. The spiralsun flickered and burned with a low buzzing sound, while the moonlamps lit up brightly during the daylight hours.

There were even moments when the gravity went south, and the passengers of the slowship floated about weightless and lost. That was when the third body was discovered, right before gravity righted itself. An elderly couple was floating hand in hand when the husband screamed and turned inside out, his skin drifting around them like feathers. When the gravity turned back on, they fell and smacked hard on the ground. There was a speaker crammed in his throat, chanting.

“Three. Three. Three.”

His wife did not know how the speaker or ghost drive was inserted into her husband. It made no sense; they had never left each other’s side. She could not answer the detectives’ questions. Everything inside her was broken now, terrified of breathing and thinking and sleeping.

People ran through the halls and corridors and screamed. Panic was everywhere. It moved from body to body and sang through the hive in electrical streams. What was it counting down? The people demanded to know. Someone had to know! They rioted and tore out entire walls, ripped circuit boards to shreds. They yelled at those in authority, people who must know what would happen when the last corpse appeared (oh bright angel of death), and said that final number …


People argued, hypothesized, philosophized, but had no answers, only fear.

The detectives wound through the archives back at the station. They followed the elderly couple, viewing them from all these different angles, from the week that led up to the husband’s demise. And just like the last two bodies, what they saw raised more questions than answers. It was like each one was a riddle, daring to be solved. They saw restless shadows in the night, filled with stars, shuffling around the old man’s body as he slept.

The shadows placed things under his skin, in his eyes, opened his mouth, and put shadow hands in his throat. The second detective paced around the room, muttering the number four to himself and saying repeatedly, That could have been me. That could have been me.

“Do you want to watch your vidfeeds from that week? Maybe something similar happened?”

No, no, no.

They kept watching. Each night, every night, the shadows came and did the same thing. Opened mouth, hand down throat. Tiny scalpels making incisions, placing stars under his skin. For a moment, the bones glowed, flickered, and then went silent.

Elsewhere, dogs barked, and a pandemic reared its ugly misshapen skull in the darkness.

Very few people would be spared. Even the first detective fell ill, his body slowly wasting away with each day until there was nothing left. Just ashes under loose flaps of skin, propped up by an architecture of brittle bones. The second detective did not stop his investigations. He only grew more determined to uncover what was going on.

Right after the fourth skinless body was discovered in the ponds of the northernmost quadrant, a ship was seen outside of their windows. Long, slow, it seemed to be devoid of life. No light flickered, no bodies moved; it was a ruin in space. It also made no sense. How could there be another ship outside, so far away from their own galaxy? Had they turned around without realizing it?

And why was it dead?

Some people thought that maybe it was an alien ship, and they weren’t alone out here in the universe after all. Others postulated it was faster ships built to grab near light speed in bursts of powerful nuclear light. And since their ship was such a slow one, it could easily surpass them.

Yet, it was not surpassing them. It was still, motionless in the void of space, while their own ship crawled past it. They sent drones out to take pictures and study the inside with new recordings. At first, there seemed to be bodies moving in the shadows. But no, those were only corpses of giant humanoid creatures, propped up and mummified. They were posed specifically, but for what purpose? The humans could not figure out.

Were they dancing? They looked like they were dancing.

Then the feed cut out, and the ship vanished. It was as if it had never been there at all. Some people came to believe it was nothing, just a mass hallucination, and yet the feeds stored on the hive did not lie. They were preserved there for all time, for anyone to pull up and prove them wrong.

And all this time, the fourth corpse in cold storage still chanted out:

“Two. Two.”

The final detective would not give up. There were clues all around him, patterns and sequences that he knew could fit together in some morbid puzzle that would explain everything that was going on. He took notes, conducted interviews, uploaded massive troves of information into the hive and fed it advanced learning platforms to see if it could see any links between the data that his feeble meat mind could not.

Instead, it spewed back gibberish and images of the dead around him. One day, it showed him the corpse of the first detective hung from the rafters of the artificial sky. Behind him, starlamps twinkled on and off in rapid succession. Maybe the lights were a pattern. Maybe not. Would these be the constellations of the dead?

Somewhere, children walked into the waves, singing. They could not swim, and they died, clogging the lakes with their bodies. The lower levels flooded from the backed-up water, sending mile-high waves across the biomes. The spiralsun had been off for days now, or was it a few weeks? Maybe it was even a few months? Time didn’t matter anymore.  The days ran together, while the starlamps flickered overhead in a forevernight.

Many generations ago, when they were near the edge of the solar system, they were in a fleet of a hundred or so generation ships, linked worlds with massive star bridges extending between them. They could see something at the edge of the known system. The ship’s sensors sent off warning signals, the feeds filled with a pressing darkness that hurt the eyes to look at.

They were told to turn around, like the others. But the AI captain of this generation ship calculated no risk. It overrode those errors, called the humans silly emotional meat machines, and demanded that they stop being foolish and just look at the raw data. There was nothing to be afraid of.

It severed its bridges, cut all ties to ribbons, and pushed on forward. For almost four hundred generations it seemed to be working just fine. Until …

The last corpse was the final detective. He was found by a gang of rudderless teenagers, covered in tattoos and body piercings. A few of them had been genetically modified and were covered with soft blue fur and had large rabbit ears. One of them had a pair of tusks sticking out of his craw. They were on the edge of nihilistic despair after they had watched their parents commit suicide together in the center of the town, under the dead lights of the spiralsun.

Now the corpse was their trophy, their own little toy to play with. A razor blade snicked out; a baton dropped down. It had been a while since they had a fresh corpse to kick around and watch ooze out some sick liquid. But before they could do a thing, it simply said “ONE” in a very final and aggressive tone.

“Guys, hey guys, stop that for a moment and look. Look!”

They all turned and stared at the artificial sky as the constellations began to go out one by one, the engines wound down, and the machines went into a restless sleep. It wouldn’t be long now before the trees started to wither and die. When the oxygen tanks slowly dried up and rain stopped misting on the ground, the gravity would lighten up a bit and then a bit more, and they would all float in the center of the ship, suffocating in silence.

A ruin in space. One that waited for another lost generation ship to come find them and hear the chanting of their bodies as they counted down to a new number, a new warning, a new oncoming apocalypse.

  • Paul Jessup

    Paul Jessup is a writer with 20+ years of professional publications, ranging from Clarkesworld to Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Apex Magazine, Psuedopod, Interzone, and many more. He’s also a game designer and created the best-selling game Bad Writer that is available now on the Nintendo Switch.

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