One layer of skin at a time. The cost of failure didn’t sound so bad at first.
I mean, humans have what, seven layers of epidermis or something like that?
He had so many tries to figure out the Sphinx’s riddle.
He looked down at his hands, winced from the pain and took off his spacesuit’s glove. The hand was… Well, it was sinewy. He flexed the fingers, he could see the muscles on his lower arm pulling against the tendons that controlled the fingers. Well, look at that! There were no muscles inside the hand, only the one for the thumb.
Actually, he didn’t hurt at all. That was three tries ago, when he gave the wrong answers and the top layers of his skin got peeled off. After a few tries, there was no pain, only the afterthought of one. He… felt like there should be pain, does that make sense? Like a phantom limb, he had phantom skin.
He was certain his condition could not have been sanitary at all, but he had no choice, really.
It was the Sphinx, or turn back.
And turning back was not an option.
The Sphinx wiggled her lion’s toes. She tried to look indifferent, but he knew that she enjoyed this ordeal of his.
He popped his lips, or at least tried to. It was surprisingly hard to breathe without lips. It was as if they performed a function, you know?
The Sphinx grinned at him, showing her canines. “Do you want me to repeat the riddle?”
“No,” he whined. “I remember it.”
He paced up and down the chamber, he was certain it wasn’t good for his skin or lack thereof to rub it any further, but it helped him think. “I’m blunt as a rock, dimorphus as light, white as the snow, brittle as the night. What am I?”
He bobbed his head while pacing some more. “What am I, what am I?”
He spun on his heels, pointing at the Sphinx. He opened his mouth, thinking his words carefully. “I am… a supernova! Did I get it? Did I?”
The Sphinx raised her paw and exhaled deeply. The mist from her lungs flew in the air and went straight for him.
“No, no, come on. That was it, I’m sure this time. It can’t be wrong.” He snapped his visor shut in a futile attempt to save his skin.
The mist went through the minuscule gaps in his spacesuit, plus his open glove connections. There was pain, but it was far less than the other sever or so times before. His nerves must have been flayed off along with the rest.
The Spinx didn’t move, she simply said, “Wrong answer.”
“Dammit!” he hissed, feeling his tongue weird. Wait, was his tongue just an exposed muscle now? “Ouch, that hurts. Ouch.” He hurt at each breath. He hurt while moving around, his exposed skin touching on the insulating layers of his spacesuit. And what was most important, he had gotten the damn riddle wrong again.
It was obvious. It’s brittle, it’s bright. Whatever. He was far too distracted to think clearly, he tried to sit down but it was worse. It seemed that you needed skin to sit on your butt. Imagine that. His gluteus maximus or whatever was pulling on his other things far too tight, it hurt. It probably injured him as well. He stood up, but didn’t pace up and down any longer.
He pulled up the keyboard on his left wrist, decided to use the voice synthesiser, the one they used in case communication was troublesome. His tongue hurt far to much for him to be using it any more. The synthesiser used his own voice, anyway, it was perfectly natural. Although it missed on some particular inflections of speech sometimes.
He typed in, “What did I get wrong this time?” and the voice synth said it out loud.
“I can’t answer that. But the answer you gave is wrong, just like the ones before that,” the Sphinx replied, repositioning her enormous body into a more comfortable position. She smiled, her human face pulling back to reveal her very sharp teeth.
“What are you doing, are you eating my skin layers?” he asked through the voice synth.
“No. Well, yes,” she replied. “In a way.”
He squealed something incoherent. He typed furiously, making many mistakes but the autocorrect had been trained for his usual ones. “You are what now?”
“Yes, alright. I guess I am eating you, little layers every time you fail to answer correctly.”
The Sphinx smiled again, this time without showing her teeth. She looked normal, from the midriff up. A bare-breasted woman with plenty of curves and a tiny hint of ginger fur. She moved her lion’s tail about, like slapping at flies.
“Can I try again?”
He felt the inside of his mouth, his teeth had begun to hurt, a lot. The roots were becoming exposed and he kept his mouth shut so it would be moist. That seemed to make it better. His tongue felt weird, as it was numb. And his nose, oh, everything burned every time he inhaled. His nasal cavity hadn’t been this clean in his entire life.
Everything ached and prickled and hurt him. And he was definitely going to have some serious infections, even if he somehow got out of this mess.
“Is there some other way you can let me pass?” he asked with the synth.
“I don’t see one. This is how you pass the test, answer the riddle.”
“Okay, I’m dumb. You got me. Give me another riddle, one for kids or something.”
The Sphinx smiled bitterly and shook her head left and right. “I’m sorry, but that’s not possible.”
He typed a whole lot of expletives and then deleted them, balling his fists and feeling the pain of his palms. After a minute, he calmed down and finally wrote. “Okay. I have another guess.”
The Sphinx perked up. “Oh? Please, tell me.”
“You never get tired of this riddle thing, do you?”
“I do not.”
“Okay, it’s ice. The answer to the bloody riddle is ice. Okay? It’s everything, blunt, brittle, white, it has a double nature…”
The Sphinx raised her paw again, and exhaled her usual mist.
“Oh, hell no!”
The mist assaulted him and ate up a thin layer of his body. There was no skin left, so he guessed the nanites or whatever she was using started to flay off sinew and muscle. He didn’t hurt any more than before, but it couldn’t have been good for his overall health.
“Dammit!” he synthed, but the voice did not come out as loud as he wanted to express himself.
“I’m sorry,” the Sphinx lowered her head.
He breathed in deep, hurting all the way down to his larynx. “Okay, lemme think. It’s not ice. It’s not the sun. It’s not a black hole. It’s not a white hole, and it’s not a supernova. It’s not a dog, it’s not a candle, and it’s not a tree.”
“And it’s not ‘Fuck you and your riddles, Sphinxy,’ which was your third try,” the Sphinx added.
“Yeah…” he glared at her.
She shrugged. “You insisted I count it as a try.”
“I did. Silly me.” He paced up and down, it hurt something less now. Or the damage was so extensive, it didn’t even matter. He thought about the soles of his feet sloshing around in his boots. He also thought about his balls, and he had a weird sensation down there in general, but he didn’t want to investigate further. Because if what he feared was true, he’d just find a way to kill himself. He felt a tug on the base of his testicles, a feeling that he hadn’t ever felt before. A sort of stringey pull, along with the pain, of course. He shook his head and put it out of his mind.
He turned to the Sphinx. “I have another answer,” he synthed.
“Very well. I’m listening.”
This time he thought about it some more. He paced up and down, and he immediately froze. He felt something snap and then sloshing down his pants and into the lining of his calves.
He shut his eyes and gulped.
This Sphinx would eat him all the way to the bone.
That was it. Bone. That was the answer.
But did he want to live like this now?
He turned around to the other spacesuits. There were dusty, with skeletons inside, cleaned out bones. He turned back to her. “Sphinx?”
“Has anyone ever found the answer to your riddle?”
“Not in time, no,” she frowned.
He looked up at the stars one more time. He liked the view, it was how he wanted to go. Looking up at the stars. He put his gloves back on, sealed them with the familiar hiss of pressurisation. He typed his responses one after another and held his finger over the button that would synthesise them all. With tears in his eyes, he pressed it.
His voice came out digitised and said. “Sphinxy, my answer is, water. My next answer is, flower. My next answer is, bullet. My next answer is, waterfall. My next answer is, rocket. My next answer is…”
It went on and on like that for a whole two minutes, reciting random things, whatever had come to his mind.
The Sphinx blew out her mist every time he gave a wrong answer, flaying another nanometre of his body.
When the voice synthesiser had nothing more to say, his spacesuit stopped moving completely, staying firm and upright from the automatics that helped him distribute the weight.
All that remained of him was the skeleton inside.
“And finally, my last guess,” the synthesised voice said. “My answer is, bone. Choke on it, Sphinxy.”
The Sphinx smiled and opened the gates behind her, then pushed the spacesuit through, letting it float into the void.