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  1. So, there's a man crawling through the desert.
  3. He'd decided to try his SUV in a little bit of cross-country travel, had
  4. great fun zooming over the badlands and through the sand, got lost, hit a
  5. big rock, and then he couldn't get it started again. There were no cell
  6. phone towers anywhere near, so his cell phone was useless. He had no family,
  7. his parents had died a few years before in an auto accident, and his few
  8. friends had no idea he was out here.
  10. He stayed with the car for a day or so, but his one bottle of water ran out
  11. and he was getting thirsty. He thought maybe he knew the direction back, now
  12. that he'd paid attention to the sun and thought he'd figured out which way
  13. was north, so he decided to start walking. He figured he only had to go
  14. about 30 miles or so and he'd be back to the small town he'd gotten gas in
  15. last.
  17. He thinks about walking at night to avoid the heat and sun, but based upon
  18. how dark it actually was the night before, and given that he has no
  19. flashlight, he's afraid that he'll break a leg or step on a rattlesnake. So,
  20. he puts on some sun block, puts the rest in his pocket for reapplication
  21. later, brings an umbrella he'd had in the back of the SUV with him to give
  22. him a little shade, pours the windshield wiper fluid into his water bottle
  23. in case he gets that desperate, brings his pocket knife in case he finds a
  24. cactus that looks like it might have water in it, and heads out in the
  25. direction he thinks is right.
  27. He walks for the entire day. By the end of the day he's really thirsty. He's
  28. been sweating all day, and his lips are starting to crack. He's reapplied
  29. the sunblock twice, and tried to stay under the umbrella, but he still feels
  30. sunburned. The windshield wiper fluid sloshing in the bottle in his pocket
  31. is really getting tempting now. He knows that it's mainly water and some
  32. ethanol and coloring, but he also knows that they add some kind of poison to
  33. it to keep people from drinking it. He wonders what the poison is, and
  34. whether the poison would be worse than dying of thirst.
  36. He pushes on, trying to get to that small town before dark.
  38. By the end of the day he starts getting worried. He figures he's been
  39. walking at least 3 miles an hour, according to his watch for over 10 hours.
  40. That means that if his estimate was right that he should be close to the
  41. town. But he doesn't recognize any of this. He had to cross a dry creek bed
  42. a mile or two back, and he doesn't remember coming through it in the SUV. He
  43. figures that maybe he got his direction off just a little and that the dry
  44. creek bed was just off to one side of his path. He tells himself that he's
  45. close, and that after dark he'll start seeing the town lights over one of
  46. these hills, and that'll be all he needs.
  48. As it gets dim enough that he starts stumbling over small rocks and things,
  49. he finds a spot and sits down to wait for full dark and the town lights.
  51. Full dark comes before he knows it. He must have dozed off. He stands back
  52. up and turns all the way around. He sees nothing but stars.
  54. He wakes up the next morning feeling absolutely lousy. His eyes are gummy
  55. and his mouth and nose feel like they're full of sand. He so thirsty that he
  56. can't even swallow. He barely got any sleep because it was so cold. He'd
  57. forgotten how cold it got at night in the desert and hadn't noticed it the
  58. night before because he'd been in his car.
  60. He knows the Rule of Threes - three minutes without air, three days without
  61. water, three weeks without food - then you die. Some people can make it a
  62. little longer, in the best situations. But the desert heat and having to
  63. walk and sweat isn't the best situation to be without water. He figures,
  64. unless he finds water, this is his last day.
  66. He rinses his mouth out with a little of the windshield wiper fluid. He
  67. waits a while after spitting that little bit out, to see if his mouth goes
  68. numb, or he feels dizzy or something. Has his mouth gone numb? Is it just in
  69. his mind? He's not sure. He'll go a little farther, and if he still doesn't
  70. find water, he'll try drinking some of the fluid.
  72. Then he has to face his next, harder question - which way does he go from
  73. here? Does he keep walking the same way he was yesterday (assuming that he
  74. still knows which way that is), or does he try a new direction? He has no
  75. idea what to do.
  77. Looking at the hills and dunes around him, he thinks he knows the direction
  78. he was heading before. Just going by a feeling, he points himself somewhat
  79. to the left of that, and starts walking.
  81. As he walks, the day starts heating up. The desert, too cold just a couple
  82. of hours before, soon becomes an oven again. He sweats a little at first,
  83. and then stops. He starts getting worried at that - when you stop sweating
  84. he knows that means you're in trouble - usually right before heat stroke.
  86. He decides that it's time to try the windshield wiper fluid. He can't wait
  87. any longer - if he passes out, he's dead. He stops in the shade of a large
  88. rock, takes the bottle out, opens it, and takes a mouthful. He slowly
  89. swallows it, making it last as long as he can. It feels so good in his dry
  90. and cracked throat that he doesn't even care about the nasty taste. He takes
  91. another mouthful, and makes it last too. Slowly, he drinks half the bottle.
  92. He figures that since he's drinking it, he might as well drink enough to
  93. make some difference and keep himself from passing out.
  95. He's quit worrying about the denaturing of the wiper fluid. If it kills him,
  96. it kills him - if he didn't drink it, he'd die anyway. Besides, he's pretty
  97. sure that whatever substance they denature the fluid with is just designed
  98. to make you sick - their way of keeping winos from buying cheap wiper fluid
  99. for the ethanol content. He can handle throwing up, if it comes to that.
  101. He walks. He walks in the hot, dry, windless desert. Sand, rocks, hills,
  102. dunes, the occasional scrawny cactus or dried bush. No sign of water.
  103. Sometimes he'll see a little movement to one side or the other, but whatever
  104. moved is usually gone before he can focus his eyes on it. Probably birds,
  105. lizards, or mice. Maybe snakes, though they usually move more at night. He's
  106. careful to stay away from the movements.
  108. After a while, he begins to stagger. He's not sure if it's fatigue, heat
  109. stroke finally catching him, or maybe he was wrong and the denaturing of the
  110. wiper fluid was worse than he thought. He tries to steady himself, and keep
  111. going.
  113. After more walking, he comes to a large stretch of sand. This is good! He
  114. knows he passed over a stretch of sand in the SUV - he remembers doing
  115. donuts in it. Or at least he thinks he remembers it - he's getting woozy
  116. enough and tired enough that he's not sure what he remembers any more or if
  117. he's hallucinating. But he thinks he remembers it. So he heads off into it,
  118. trying to get to the other side, hoping that it gets him closer to the town.
  120. He was heading for a town, wasn't he? He thinks he was. He isn't sure any
  121. more. He's not even sure how long he's been walking any more. Is it still
  122. morning? Or has it moved into afternoon and the sun is going down again? It
  123. must be afternoon - it seems like it's been too long since he started out.
  125. He walks through the sand.
  127. After a while, he comes to a big dune in the sand. This is bad. He doesn't
  128. remember any dunes when driving over the sand in his SUV. Or at least he
  129. doesn't think he remembers any. This is bad.
  131. But, he has no other direction to go. Too late to turn back now. He figures
  132. that he'll get to the top of the dune and see if he can see anything from
  133. there that helps him find the town. He keeps going up the dune.
  135. Halfway up, he slips in the bad footing of the sand for the second or third
  136. time, and falls to his knees. He doesn't feel like getting back up - he'll
  137. just fall down again. So, he keeps going up the dune on his hand and knees.
  139. While crawling, if his throat weren't so dry, he'd laugh. He's finally
  140. gotten to the hackneyed image of a man lost in the desert - crawling through
  141. the sand on his hands and knees. If would be the perfect image, he imagines,
  142. if only his clothes were more ragged. The people crawling through the desert
  143. in the cartoons always had ragged clothes. But his have lasted without any
  144. rips so far. Somebody will probably find his dessicated corpse half buried
  145. in the sand years from now, and his clothes will still be in fine shape -
  146. shake the sand out, and a good wash, and they'd be wearable again. He wishes
  147. his throat were wet enough to laugh. He coughs a little instead, and it
  148. hurts.
  150. He finally makes it to the top of the sand dune. Now that he's at the top,
  151. he struggles a little, but manages to stand up and look around. All he sees
  152. is sand. Sand, and more sand. Behind him, about a mile away, he thinks he
  153. sees the rocky ground he left to head into this sand. Ahead of him, more
  154. dunes, more sand. This isn't where he drove his SUV. This is Hell. Or close
  155. enough.
  157. Again, he doesn't know what to do. He decides to drink the rest of the wiper
  158. fluid while figuring it out. He takes out the bottle, and is removing the
  159. cap, when he glances to the side and sees something. Something in the sand.
  160. At the bottom of the dune, off to the side, he sees something strange. It's
  161. a flat area, in the sand. He stops taking the cap of the bottle off, and
  162. tries to look closer. The area seems to be circular. And it's dark - darker
  163. than the sand. And, there seems to be something in the middle of it, but he
  164. can't tell what it is. He looks as hard as he can, and still can tell from
  165. here. He's going to have to go down there and look.
  167. He puts the bottle back in his pocket, and starts to stumble down the dune.
  168. After a few steps, he realizes that he's in trouble - he's not going to be
  169. able to keep his balance. After a couple of more sliding, tottering steps,
  170. he falls and starts to roll down the dune. The sand it so hot when his body
  171. hits it that for a minute he thinks he's caught fire on the way down - like
  172. a movie car wreck flashing into flames as it goes over the cliff, before it
  173. ever even hits the ground. He closes his eyes and mouth, covers his face
  174. with his hands, and waits to stop rolling.
  176. He stops, at the bottom of the dune. After a minute or two, he finds enough
  177. energy to try to sit up and get the sand out of his face and clothes. When
  178. he clears his eyes enough, he looks around to make sure that the dark spot
  179. in the sand it still there and he hadn't just imagined it.
  181. So, seeing the large, flat, dark spot on the sand is still there, he begins
  182. to crawl towards it. He'd get up and walk towards it, but he doesn't seem to
  183. have the energy to get up and walk right now. He must be in the final stages
  184. of dehydration he figures, as he crawls. If this place in the sand doesn't
  185. have water, he'll likely never make it anywhere else. This is his last
  186. chance.
  188. He gets closer and closer, but still can't see what's in the middle of the
  189. dark area. His eyes won't quite focus any more for some reason. And lifting
  190. his head up to look takes so much effort that he gives up trying. He just
  191. keeps crawling.
  193. Finally, he reaches the area he'd seen from the dune. It takes him a minute
  194. of crawling on it before he realizes that he's no longer on sand - he's now
  195. crawling on some kind of dark stone. Stone with some kind of marking on it -
  196. a pattern cut into the stone. He's too tired to stand up and try to see what
  197. the pattern is - so he just keeps crawling. He crawls towards the center,
  198. where his blurry eyes still see something in the middle of the dark stone
  199. area.
  201. His mind, detached in a strange way, notes that either his hands and knees
  202. are so burnt by the sand that they no longer feel pain, or that this dark
  203. stone, in the middle of a burning desert with a pounding, punishing sun
  204. overhead, doesn't seem to be hot. It almost feels cool. He considers lying
  205. down on the nice cool surface.
  207. Cool, dark stone. Not a good sign. He must be hallucinating this. He's
  208. probably in the middle of a patch of sand, already lying face down and
  209. dying, and just imagining this whole thing. A desert mirage. Soon the
  210. beautiful women carrying pitchers of water will come up and start giving him
  211. a drink. Then he'll know he's gone.
  213. He decides against laying down on the cool stone. If he's going to die here
  214. in the middle of this hallucination, he at least wants to see what's in the
  215. center before he goes. He keeps crawling.
  217. It's the third time that he hears the voice before he realizes what he's
  218. hearing. He would swear that someone just said, "Greetings, traveler. You do
  219. not look well. Do you hear me?"
  221. He stops crawling. He tries to look up from where he is on his hands and
  222. knees, but it's too much effort to lift his head. So he tries something
  223. different - he leans back and tries to sit up on the stone. After a few
  224. seconds, he catches his balance, avoids falling on his face, sits up, and
  225. tries to focus his eyes. Blurry. He rubs his eyes with the back of his hands
  226. and tries again. Better this time.
  228. Yep. He can see. He's sitting in the middle of a large, flat, dark expanse
  229. of stone. Directly next to him, about three feet away, is a white post or
  230. pole about two inches in diameter and sticking up about four or five feet
  231. out of the stone, at an angle.
  233. And wrapped around this white rod, tail with rattle on it hovering and
  234. seeming to be ready to start rattling, is what must be a fifteen foot long
  235. desert diamondback rattlesnake, looking directly at him.
  237. He stares at the snake in shock. He doesn't have the energy to get up and
  238. run away. He doesn't even have the energy to crawl away. This is it, his
  239. final resting place. No matter what happens, he's not going to be able to
  240. move from this spot.
  242. Well, at least dying of a bite from this monster should be quicker than
  243. dying of thirst. He'll face his end like a man. He struggles to sit up a
  244. little straighter. The snake keeps watching him. He lifts one hand and waves
  245. it in the snake's direction, feebly. The snake watches the hand for a
  246. moment, then goes back to watching the man, looking into his eyes.
  248. Hmmm. Maybe the snake had no interest in biting him? It hadn't rattled yet -
  249. that was a good sign. Maybe he wasn't going to die of snake bite after all.
  251. He then remembers that he'd looked up when he'd reached the center here
  252. because he thought he'd heard a voice. He was still very woozy - he was
  253. likely to pass out soon, the sun still beat down on him even though he was
  254. now on cool stone. He still didn't have anything to drink. But maybe he had
  255. actually heard a voice. This stone didn't look natural. Nor did that white
  256. post sticking up out of the stone. Someone had to have built this. Maybe
  257. they were still nearby. Maybe that was who talked to him. Maybe this snake
  258. was even their pet, and that's why it wasn't biting.
  260. He tries to clear his throat to say, "Hello," but his throat is too dry. All
  261. that comes out is a coughing or wheezing sound. There is no way he's going
  262. to be able to talk without something to drink. He feels his pocket, and the
  263. bottle with the wiper fluid is still there. He shakily pulls the bottle out,
  264. almost losing his balance and falling on his back in the process. This isn't
  265. good. He doesn't have much time left, by his reckoning, before he passes
  266. out.
  268. He gets the lid off of the bottle, manages to get the bottle to his lips,
  269. and pours some of the fluid into his mouth. He sloshes it around, and then
  270. swallows it. He coughs a little. His throat feels better. Maybe he can talk
  271. now.
  273. He tries again. Ignoring the snake, he turns to look around him, hoping to
  274. spot the owner of this place, and croaks out, "Hello? Is there anyone here?"
  276. He hears, from his side, "Greetings. What is it that you want?"
  278. He turns his head, back towards the snake. That's where the sound had seemed
  279. to come from. The only thing he can think of is that there must be a
  280. speaker, hidden under the snake, or maybe built into that post. He decides
  281. to try asking for help.
  283. "Please," he croaks again, suddenly feeling dizzy, "I'd love to not be
  284. thirsty any more. I've been a long time without water. Can you help me?"
  286. Looking in the direction of the snake, hoping to see where the voice was
  287. coming from this time, he is shocked to see the snake rear back, open its
  288. mouth, and speak. He hears it say, as the dizziness overtakes him and he
  289. falls forward, face first on the stone, "Very well. Coming up."
  291. A piercing pain shoots through his shoulder. Suddenly he is awake. He sits
  292. up and grabs his shoulder, wincing at the throbbing pain. He's momentarily
  293. disoriented as he looks around, and then he remembers - the crawl across the
  294. sand, the dark area of stone, the snake. He sees the snake, still wrapped
  295. around the tilted white post, still looking at him.
  297. He reaches up and feels his shoulder, where it hurts. It feels slightly wet.
  298. He pulls his fingers away and looks at them - blood. He feels his shoulder
  299. again - his shirt has what feels like two holes in it - two puncture holes -
  300. they match up with the two aching spots of pain on his shoulder. He had been
  301. bitten. By the snake.
  303. "It'll feel better in a minute." He looks up - it's the snake talking. He
  304. hadn't dreamed it. Suddenly he notices - he's not dizzy any more. And more
  305. importantly, he's not thirsty any more - at all!
  307. "Have I died? Is this the afterlife? Why are you biting me in the
  308. afterlife?"
  310. "Sorry about that, but I had to bite you," says the snake. "That's the way I
  311. work. It all comes through the bite. Think of it as natural medicine."
  313. "You bit me to help me? Why aren't I thirsty any more? Did you give me a
  314. drink before you bit me? How did I drink enough while unconscious to not be
  315. thirsty any more? I haven't had a drink for over two days. Well, except for
  316. the windshield wiper fluid... hold it, how in the world does a snake talk?
  317. Are you real? Are you some sort of Disney animation?"
  319. "No," says the snake, "I'm real. As real as you or anyone is, anyway. I
  320. didn't give you a drink. I bit you. That's how it works - it's what I do. I
  321. bite. I don't have hands to give you a drink, even if I had water just
  322. sitting around here."
  324. The man sat stunned for a minute. Here he was, sitting in the middle of the
  325. desert on some strange stone that should be hot but wasn't, talking to a
  326. snake that could talk back and had just bitten him. And he felt better. Not
  327. great - he was still starving and exhausted, but much better - he was no
  328. longer thirsty. He had started to sweat again, but only slightly. He felt
  329. hot, in this sun, but it was starting to get lower in the sky, and the cool
  330. stone beneath him was a relief he could notice now that he was no longer
  331. dying of thirst.
  333. "I might suggest that we take care of that methanol you now have in your
  334. system with the next request," continued the snake. "I can guess why you
  335. drank it, but I'm not sure how much you drank, or how much methanol was left
  336. in the wiper fluid. That stuff is nasty. It'll make you go blind in a day or
  337. two, if you drank enough of it."
  339. "Ummm, n-next request?" said the man. He put his hand back on his hurting
  340. shoulder and backed away from the snake a little.
  342. "That's the way it works. If you like, that is," explained the snake. "You
  343. get three requests. Call them wishes, if you wish." The snake grinned at his
  344. own joke, and the man drew back a little further from the show of fangs.
  346. "But there are rules," the snake continued. "The first request is free. The
  347. second requires an agreement of secrecy. The third requires the binding of
  348. responsibility." The snake looks at the man seriously.
  350. "By the way," the snake says suddenly, "my name is Nathan. Old Nathan,
  351. Samuel used to call me. He gave me the name. Before that, most of the Bound
  352. used to just call me 'Snake'. But that got old, and Samuel wouldn't stand
  353. for it. He said that anything that could talk needed a name. He was big into
  354. names. You can call me Nate, if you wish." Again, the snake grinned. "Sorry
  355. if I don't offer to shake, but I think you can understand - my shake sounds
  356. somewhat threatening." The snake give his rattle a little shake.
  358. "Umm, my name is Jack," said the man, trying to absorb all of this. "Jack
  359. Samson.
  361. "Can I ask you a question?" Jack says suddenly. "What happened to the
  362. poison...umm, in your bite. Why aren't I dying now? How did you do that?
  363. What do you mean by that's how you work?"
  365. "That's more than one question," grins Nate. "But I'll still try to answer
  366. all of them. First, yes, you can ask me a question." The snake's grin gets
  367. wider. "Second, the poison is in you. It changed you. You now no longer need
  368. to drink. That's what you asked for. Or, well, technically, you asked to not
  369. be thirsty any more - but 'any more' is such a vague term. I decided to make
  370. it permanent - now, as long as you live, you shouldn't need to drink much at
  371. all. Your body will conserve water very efficiently. You should be able to
  372. get enough just from the food you eat - much like a creature of the desert.
  373. You've been changed.
  375. "For the third question," Nate continues, "you are still dying. Besides the
  376. effects of that methanol in your system, you're a man - and men are mortal.
  377. In your current state, I give you no more than about another 50 years.
  378. Assuming you get out of this desert, alive, that is." Nate seemed vastly
  379. amused at his own humor, and continued his wide grin.
  381. "As for the fourth question," Nate said, looking more serious as far as Jack
  382. could tell, as Jack was just now working on his ability to read
  383. talking-snake emotions from snake facial features, "first you have to agree
  384. to make a second request and become bound by the secrecy, or I can't tell
  385. you."
  387. "Wait," joked Jack, "isn't this where you say you could tell me, but you'd
  388. have to kill me?"
  390. "I thought that was implied." Nate continued to look serious.
  392. "Ummm...yeah." Jack leaned back a little as he remembered again that he was
  393. talking to a fifteen foot poisonous reptile with a reputation for having a
  394. nasty temper. "So, what is this 'Bound by Secrecy' stuff, and can you really
  395. stop the effects of the methanol?" Jack thought for a second. "And, what do
  396. you mean methanol, anyway? I thought these days they use ethanol in wiper
  397. fluid, and just denature it?"
  399. "They may, I don't really know," said Nate. "I haven't gotten out in a
  400. while. Maybe they do. All I know is that I smell methanol on your breath and
  401. on that bottle in your pocket. And the blue color of the liquid when you
  402. pulled it out to drink some let me guess that it was wiper fluid. I assume
  403. that they still color wiper fluid blue?"
  405. "Yeah, they do," said Jack.
  407. "I figured," replied Nate. "As for being bound by secrecy - with the
  408. fulfillment of your next request, you will be bound to say nothing about me,
  409. this place, or any of the information I will tell you after that, when you
  410. decide to go back out to your kind. You won't be allowed to talk about me,
  411. write about me, use sign language, charades, or even act in a way that will
  412. lead someone to guess correctly about me. You'll be bound to secrecy. Of
  413. course, I'll also ask you to promise not to give me away, and as I'm
  414. guessing that you're a man of your word, you'll never test the binding
  415. anyway, so you won't notice." Nate said the last part with utter confidence.
  417. Jack, who had always prided himself on being a man of his word, felt a
  418. little nervous at this. "Ummm, hey, Nate, who are you? How did you know
  419. that? Are you, umm, omniscient, or something?"
  421. Well, Jack," said Nate sadly, "I can't tell you that, unless you make the
  422. second request." Nate looked away for a minute, then looked back.
  424. "Umm, well, ok," said Jack, "what is this about a second request? What can I
  425. ask for? Are you allowed to tell me that?"
  427. "Sure!" said Nate, brightening. "You're allowed to ask for changes. Changes
  428. to yourself. They're like wishes, but they can only affect you. Oh, and
  429. before you ask, I can't give you immortality. Or omniscience. Or
  430. omnipresence, for that matter. Though I might be able to make you gaseous
  431. and yet remain alive, and then you could spread through the atmosphere and
  432. sort of be omnipresent. But what good would that be - you still wouldn't be
  433. omniscient and thus still could only focus on one thing at a time. Not very
  434. useful, at least in my opinion." Nate stopped when he realized that Jack was
  435. staring at him.
  437. "Well, anyway," continued Nate, "I'd probably suggest giving you permanent
  438. good health. It would negate the methanol now in your system, you'd be
  439. immune to most poisons and diseases, and you'd tend to live a very long
  440. time, barring accident, of course. And you'll even have a tendency to
  441. recover from accidents well. It always seemed like a good choice for a
  442. request to me."
  444. "Cure the methanol poisoning, huh?" said Jack. "And keep me healthy for a
  445. long time? Hmmm. It doesn't sound bad at that. And it has to be a request
  446. about a change to me? I can't ask to be rich, right? Because that's not
  447. really a change to me?"
  449. "Right," nodded Nate.
  451. "Could I ask to be a genius and permanently healthy?" Jack asked, hopefully.
  453. "That takes two requests, Jack."
  455. "Yeah, I figured so," said Jack. "But I could ask to be a genius? I could
  456. become the smartest scientist in the world? Or the best athlete?"
  458. "Well, I could make you very smart," admitted Nate, "but that wouldn't
  459. necessarily make you the best scientist in the world. Or, I could make you
  460. very athletic, but it wouldn't necessarily make you the best athlete either.
  461. You've heard the saying that 99% of genius is hard work? Well, there's some
  462. truth to that. I can give you the talent, but I can't make you work hard. It
  463. all depends on what you decide to do with it."
  465. "Hmmm," said Jack. "Ok, I think I understand. And I get a third request,
  466. after this one?"
  468. "Maybe," said Nate, "it depends on what you decide then. There are more
  469. rules for the third request that I can only tell you about after the second
  470. request. You know how it goes." Nate looked like he'd shrug, if he had
  471. shoulders.
  473. "Ok, well, since I'd rather not be blind in a day or two, and permanent
  474. health doesn't sound bad, then consider that my second request. Officially.
  475. Do I need to sign in blood or something?"
  477. "No," said Nate. "Just hold out your hand. Or heel." Nate grinned. "Or
  478. whatever part you want me to bite. I have to bite you again. Like I said,
  479. that's how it works - the poison, you know," Nate said apologetically.
  481. Jack winced a little and felt his shoulder, where the last bite was. Hey, it
  482. didn't hurt any more. Just like Nate had said. That made Jack feel better
  483. about the biting business. But still, standing still while a fifteen foot
  484. snake sunk it's fangs into you. Jack stood up. Ignoring how good it felt to
  485. be able to stand again, and the hunger starting to gnaw at his stomach, Jack
  486. tried to decide where he wanted to get bitten. Despite knowing that it
  487. wouldn't hurt for long, Jack knew that this wasn't going to be easy.
  489. "Hey, Jack," Nate suddenly said, looking past Jack towards the dunes behind
  490. him, "is that someone else coming up over there?"
  492. Jack spun around and looked. Who else could be out here in the middle of
  493. nowhere? And did they bring food?
  495. Wait a minute, there was nobody over there. What was Nate...
  497. Jack let out a bellow as he felt two fangs sink into his rear end, through
  498. his jeans...
  500. Jack sat down carefully, favoring his more tender buttock. "I would have
  501. decided, eventually, Nate. I was just thinking about it. You didn't have to
  502. hoodwink me like that."
  504. "I've been doing this a long time, Jack," said Nate, confidently. "You
  505. humans have a hard time sitting still and letting a snake bite you -
  506. especially one my size. And besides, admit it - it's only been a couple of
  507. minutes and it already doesn't hurt any more, does it? That's because of the
  508. health benefit with this one. I told you that you'd heal quickly now."
  510. "Yeah, well, still," said Jack, "it's the principle of the thing. And nobody
  511. likes being bitten in the butt! Couldn't you have gotten my calf or
  512. something instead?"
  514. "More meat in the typical human butt," replied Nate. "And less chance you
  515. accidentally kick me or move at the last second."
  517. "Yeah, right. So, tell me all of these wonderful secrets that I now qualify
  518. to hear," answered Jack.
  520. "Ok," said Nate. "Do you want to ask questions first, or do you want me to
  521. just start talking?"
  523. "Just talk," said Jack. "I'll sit here and try to not think about food."
  525. "We could go try to rustle up some food for you first, if you like,"
  526. answered Nate.
  528. "Hey! You didn't tell me you had food around here, Nate!" Jack jumped up.
  529. "What do we have? Am I in walking distance to town? Or can you magically
  530. whip up food along with your other powers?" Jack was almost shouting with
  531. excitement. His stomach had been growling for hours.
  533. "I was thinking more like I could flush something out of its hole and bite
  534. it for you, and you could skin it and eat it. Assuming you have a knife,
  535. that is," replied Nate, with the grin that Jack was starting to get used to.
  537. "Ugh," said Jack, sitting back down. "I think I'll pass. I can last a little
  538. longer before I get desperate enough to eat desert rat, or whatever else it
  539. is you find out here. And there's nothing to burn - I'd have to eat it raw.
  540. No thanks. Just talk."
  542. "Ok," replied Nate, still grinning. "But I'd better hurry, before you start
  543. looking at me as food.
  545. Nate reared back a little, looked around for a second, and then continued.
  546. "You, Jack, are sitting in the middle of the Garden of Eden."
  548. Jack looked around at the sand and dunes and then looked back at Nate
  549. sceptically.
  551. "Well, that's the best I can figure it, anyway, Jack," said Nate. "Stand up
  552. and look at the symbol on the rock here." Nate gestured around the dark
  553. stone they were both sitting on with his nose.
  555. Jack stood up and looked. Carved into the stone in a bas-relief was a
  556. representation of a large tree. The angled-pole that Nate was wrapped around
  557. was coming out of the trunk of the tree, right below where the main branches
  558. left the truck to reach out across the stone. It was very well done - it
  559. looked more like a tree had been reduced to almost two dimensions and
  560. embedded in the stone than it did like a carving.
  562. Jack walked around and looked at the details in the fading light of the
  563. setting sun. He wished he'd looked at it while the sun was higher in the
  564. sky.
  566. Wait! The sun was setting! That meant he was going to have to spend another
  567. night out here! Arrrgh!
  569. Jack looked out across the desert for a little bit, and then came back and
  570. stood next to Nate. "In all the excitement, I almost forgot, Nate," said
  571. Jack. "Which way is it back to town? And how far? I'm eventually going to
  572. have to head back - I'm not sure I'll be able to survive by eating raw
  573. desert critters for long. And even if I can, I'm not sure I'll want to."
  575. "It's about 30 miles that way." Nate pointed, with the rattle on his tail
  576. this time. As far as Jack could tell, it was a direction at right angles to
  577. the way he'd been going when he was crawling here. "But that's 30 miles by
  578. the way the crow flies. It's about 40 by the way a man walks. You should be
  579. able to do it in about half a day with your improved endurance, if you head
  580. out early tomorrow, Jack."
  582. Jack looked out the way the snake had pointed for a few seconds more, and
  583. then sat back down. It was getting dark. Not much he could do about heading
  584. out right now. And besides, Nate was just about to get to the interesting
  585. stuff. "Garden of Eden? As best as you can figure it?"
  587. "Well, yeah, as best as I and Samuel could figure it anyway," said Nate. "He
  588. figured that the story just got a little mixed up. You know, snake, in a
  589. 'tree', offering 'temptations', making bargains. That kind stuff. But he
  590. could never quite figure out how the Hebrews found out about this spot from
  591. across the ocean. He worried about that for a while."
  593. "Garden of Eden, hunh?" said Jack. "How long have you been here, Nate?"
  595. "No idea, really," replied Nate. "A long time. It never occurred to me to
  596. count years, until recently, and by then, of course, it was too late. But I
  597. do remember when this whole place was green, so I figure it's been thousands
  598. of years, at least."
  600. "So, are you the snake that tempted Eve?" said Jack.
  602. "Beats me," said Nate. "Maybe. I can't remember if the first one of your
  603. kind that I talked to was female or not, and I never got a name, but it
  604. could have been. And I suppose she could have considered my offer to grant
  605. requests a 'temptation', though I've rarely had refusals."
  607. "Well, umm, how did you get here then? And why is that white pole stuck out
  608. of the stone there?" asked Jack.
  610. "Dad left me here. Or, I assume it was my dad. It was another snake - much
  611. bigger than I was back then. I remember talking to him, but I don't remember
  612. if it was in a language, or just kind of understanding what he wanted. But
  613. one day, he brought me to this stone, told me about it, and asked me to do
  614. something for him. I talked it over with him for a while, then agreed. I've
  615. been here ever since.
  617. "What is this place?" said Jack. "And what did he ask you to do?"
  619. "Well, you see this pole here, sticking out of the stone?" Nate loosened his
  620. coils around the tilted white pole and showed Jack where it descended into
  621. the stone. The pole was tilted at about a 45 degree angle and seemed to
  622. enter the stone in an eighteen inch slot cut into the stone. Jack leaned
  623. over and looked. The slot was dark and the pole went down into it as far as
  624. Jack could see in the dim light. Jack reached out to touch the pole, but
  625. Nate was suddenly there in the way.
  627. "You can't touch that yet, Jack," said Nate.
  629. "Why not?" asked Jack.
  631. "I haven't explained it to you yet," replied Nate.
  633. "Well, it kinda looks like a lever or something," said Jack. "You'd push it
  634. that way, and it would move in the slot."
  636. "Yep, that's what it is," replied Nate.
  638. "What does it do?" asked Jack. "End the world?"
  640. "Oh, no," said Nate. "Nothing that drastic. It just ends humanity. I call it
  641. 'The Lever of Doom'." For the last few words Nate had used a deeper, ringing
  642. voice. He tried to look serious for a few seconds, and then gave up and
  643. grinned.
  645. Jack was initially startled by Nate's pronouncement, but when Nate grinned
  646. Jack laughed. "Ha! You almost had me fooled for a second there. What does it
  647. really do?"
  649. "Oh, it really ends humanity, like I said," smirked Nate. "I just thought
  650. the voice I used was funny, didn't you?"
  652. Nate continued to grin.
  654. "A lever to end humanity?" asked Jack. "What in the world is that for? Why
  655. would anyone need to end humanity?"
  657. "Well," replied Nate, "I get the idea that maybe humanity was an experiment.
  658. Or maybe the Big Guy just thought, that if humanity started going really
  659. bad, there should be a way to end it. I'm not really sure. All I know are
  660. the rules, and the guesses that Samuel and I had about why it's here. I
  661. didn't think to ask back when I started here."
  663. "Rules? What rules?" asked Jack.
  665. "The rules are that I can't tell anybody about it or let them touch it
  666. unless they agree to be bound to secrecy by a bite. And that only one human
  667. can be bound in that way at a time. That's it." explained Nate.
  669. Jack looked somewhat shocked. "You mean that I could pull the lever now?
  670. You'd let me end humanity?"
  672. "Yep," replied Nate, "if you want to." Nate looked at Jack carefully. "Do
  673. you want to, Jack?"
  675. "Umm, no." said Jack, stepping a little further back from the lever. "Why in
  676. the world would anyone want to end humanity? It'd take a psychotic to want
  677. that! Or worse, a suicidal psychotic, because it would kill him too,
  678. wouldn't it?"
  680. "Yep," replied Nate, "being as he'd be human too."
  682. "Has anyone ever seriously considered it?" asked Nate. "Any of those bound
  683. to secrecy, that is?"
  685. "Well, of course, I think they've all seriously considered it at one time or
  686. another. Being given that kind of responsibility makes you sit down and
  687. think, or so I'm told. Samuel considered it several times. He'd often get
  688. disgusted with humanity, come out here, and just hold the lever for a while.
  689. But he never pulled it. Or you wouldn't be here." Nate grinned some more.
  691. Jack sat down, well back from the lever. He looked thoughtful and puzzled at
  692. the same time. After a bit, he said, "So this makes me the Judge of
  693. humanity? I get to decide whether they keep going or just end? Me?"
  695. "That seems to be it," agreed Nate.
  697. "What kind of criteria do I use to decide?" said Jack. "How do I make this
  698. decision? Am I supposed to decide if they're good? Or too many of them are
  699. bad? Or that they're going the wrong way? Is there a set of rules for that?"
  701. "Nope," replied Nate. "You pretty much just have to decide on your own. It's
  702. up to you, however you want to decide it. I guess that you're just supposed
  703. to know."
  705. "But what if I get mad at someone? Or some girl dumps me and I feel
  706. horrible? Couldn't I make a mistake? How do I know that I won't screw up?"
  707. protested Jack.
  709. Nate gave his kind of snake-like shrug again. "You don't. You just have to
  710. try your best, Jack."
  712. Jack sat there for a while, staring off into the desert that was rapidly
  713. getting dark, chewing on a fingernail.
  715. Suddenly, Jack turned around and looked at the snake. "Nate, was Samuel the
  716. one bound to this before me?"
  718. "Yep," replied Nate. "He was a good guy. Talked to me a lot. Taught me to
  719. read and brought me books. I think I still have a good pile of them buried
  720. in the sand around here somewhere. I still miss him. He died a few months
  721. ago."
  723. "Sounds like a good guy," agreed Jack. "How did he handle this, when you
  724. first told him. What did he do?"
  726. "Well," said Nate, "he sat down for a while, thought about it for a bit, and
  727. then asked me some questions, much like you're doing."
  729. "What did he ask you, if you're allowed to tell me?" asked Jack.
  731. "He asked me about the third request," replied Nate.
  733. "Aha!" It was Jack's turn to grin. "And what did you tell him?"
  735. "I told him the rules for the third request. That to get the third request
  736. you have to agree to this whole thing. That if it ever comes to the point
  737. that you really think that humanity should be ended, that you'll come here
  738. and end it. You won't avoid it, and you won't wimp out." Nate looked serious
  739. again. "And you'll be bound to do it too, Jack."
  741. "Hmmm." Jack looked back out into the darkness for a while.
  743. Nate watched him, waiting.
  745. "Nate," continued Jack, quietly, eventually. "What did Samuel ask for with
  746. his third request?"
  748. Nate sounded like he was grinning again as he replied, also quietly,
  749. "Wisdom, Jack. He asked for wisdom. As much as I could give him."
  751. "Ok," said Jack, suddenly, standing up and facing away from Nate, "give it
  752. to me.
  754. Nate looked at Jack's backside. "Give you what, Jack?"
  756. "Give me that wisdom. The same stuff that Samuel asked for. If it helped
  757. him, maybe it'll help me too." Jack turned his head to look back over his
  758. shoulder at Nate. "It did help him, right?"
  760. "He said it did," replied Nate. "But he seemed a little quieter afterward.
  761. Like he had a lot to think about."
  763. "Well, yeah, I can see that," said Jack. "So, give it to me." Jack turned to
  764. face away from Nate again, bent over slightly and tensed up.
  766. Nate watched Jack tense up with a little exasperation. If he bit Jack now,
  767. Jack would likely jump out of his skin and maybe hurt them both.
  769. "You remember that you'll be bound to destroy humanity if it ever looks like
  770. it needs it, right Jack?" asked Nate, shifting position.
  772. "Yeah, yeah, I got that," replied Jack, eyes squeezed tightly shut and body
  773. tense, not noticing the change in direction of Nate's voice.
  775. "And," continued Nate, from his new position, "do you remember that you'll
  776. turn bright purple, and grow big horns and extra eyes?"
  778. "Yeah, yeah...Hey, wait a minute!" said Jack, opening his eyes,
  779. straightening up and turning around. "Purple?!" He didn't see Nate there.
  780. With the moonlight Jack could see that the lever extended up from its slot
  781. in the rock without the snake wrapped around it.
  783. Jack heard, from behind him, Nate's "Just Kidding!" right before he felt the
  784. now familiar piercing pain, this time in the other buttock.
  786. Jack sat on the edge of the dark stone in the rapidly cooling air, his feet
  787. extending out into the sand. He stared out into the darkness, listening to
  788. the wind stir the sand, occasionally rubbing his butt where he'd been
  789. recently bitten.
  791. Nate had left for a little while, had come back with a desert-rodent-shaped
  792. bulge somewhere in his middle, and was now wrapped back around the lever,
  793. his tongue flicking out into the desert night's air the only sign that he
  794. was still awake.
  796. Occasionally Jack, with his toes absentmindedly digging in the sand while he
  797. thought, would ask Nate a question without turning around.
  799. "Nate, do accidents count?"
  801. Nate lifted his head a little bit. "What do you mean, Jack?"
  803. Jack tilted his head back like he was looking at the stars. "You know,
  804. accidents. If I accidentally fall on the lever, without meaning to, does
  805. that still wipe out humanity?"
  807. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure it does, Jack. I'd suggest you be careful about that
  808. if you start feeling wobbly," said Nate with some amusement.
  810. A little later - "Does it have to be me that pulls the lever?" asked Jack.
  812. "That's the rule, Jack. Nobody else can pull it," answered Nate.
  814. "No," Jack shook his head, "I meant does it have to be my hand? Could I pull
  815. the lever with a rope tied around it? Or push it with a stick? Or throw a
  816. rock?"
  818. "Yes, those should work," replied Nate. "Though I'm not sure how complicated
  819. you could get. Samuel thought about trying to build some kind of remote
  820. control for it once, but gave it up. Everything he'd build would be gone by
  821. the next sunrise, if it was touching the stone, or over it. I told him that
  822. in the past others that had been bound had tried to bury the lever so they
  823. wouldn't be tempted to pull it, but every time the stones or sand or
  824. whatever had disappeared."
  826. "Wow," said Jack, "Cool." Jack leaned back until only his elbows kept him
  827. off of the stone and looked up into the sky.
  829. "Nate, how long did Samuel live? One of his wishes was for health too,
  830. right?" asked Jack.
  832. "Yes," replied Nate, "it was. He lived 167 years, Jack."
  834. "Wow, 167 years. That's almost 140 more years I'll live if I live as long.
  835. Do you know what he died of, Nate?"
  837. "He died of getting tired of living, Jack," Nate said, sounding somewhat
  838. sad.
  840. Jack turned his head to look at Nate in the starlight.
  842. Nate looked back. "Samuel knew he wasn't going to be able to stay in
  843. society. He figured that they'd eventually see him still alive and start
  844. questioning it, so he decided that he'd have to disappear after a while. He
  845. faked his death once, but changed his mind - he decided it was too early and
  846. he could stay for a little longer. He wasn't very fond of mankind, but he
  847. liked the attention. Most of the time, anyway.
  849. "His daughter and then his wife dying almost did him in though. He didn't
  850. stay in society much longer after that. He eventually came out here to spend
  851. time talking to me and thinking about pulling the lever. A few months ago he
  852. told me he'd had enough. It was his time."
  854. "And then he just died?" asked Jack.
  856. Nate shook his head a little. "He made his forth request, Jack. There's only
  857. one thing you can ask for the fourth request. The last bite.
  859. After a bit Nate continued, "He told me that he was tired, that it was his
  860. time. He reassured me that someone new would show up soon, like they always
  861. had.
  863. After another pause, Nate finished, "Samuel's body disappeared off the stone
  864. with the sunrise."
  866. Jack lay back down and looked at the sky, leaving Nate alone with his
  867. memories. It was a long time until Jack's breathing evened out into sleep.
  869. Jack woke with the sunrise the next morning. He was a little chilled with
  870. the morning desert air, but overall was feeling pretty good. Well, except
  871. that his stomach was grumbling and he wasn't willing to eat raw desert rat.
  873. So, after getting directions to town from Nate, making sure he knew how to
  874. get back, and reassuring Nate that he'd be back soon, Jack started the long
  875. walk back to town. With his new health and Nate's good directions, he made
  876. it back easily.
  878. Jack caught a bus back to the city, and showed up for work the next day,
  879. little worse for the wear and with a story about getting lost in the desert
  880. and walking back out. Within a couple of days Jack had talked a friend with
  881. a tow truck into going back out into the desert with him to fetch the SUV.
  882. They found it after a couple of hours of searching and towed it back without
  883. incident. Jack was careful not to even look in the direction of Nate's
  884. lever, though their path back didn't come within sight of it.
  886. Before the next weekend, Jack had gone to a couple of stores, including a
  887. book store, and had gotten his SUV back from the mechanic, with a warning to
  888. avoid any more joyriding in the desert. On Saturday, Jack headed back to see
  889. Nate.
  891. Jack parked a little way out of the small town near Nate, loaded up his new
  892. backpack with camping gear and the things he was bringing for Nate, and then
  893. started walking. He figured that walking would leave the least trail, and he
  894. knew that while not many people camped in the desert, it wasn't unheard of,
  895. and shouldn't really raise suspicions.
  897. Jack had brought more books for Nate - recent books, magazines, newspapers.
  898. Some things that would catch Nate up with what was happening in the world,
  899. others that were just good books to read. He spent the weekend with Nate,
  900. and then headed out again, telling Nate that he'd be back again soon, but
  901. that he had things to do first.
  903. Over four months later Jack was back to see Nate again. This time he brought
  904. a laptop with him - a specially modified laptop. It had a solar recharger,
  905. special filters and seals to keep out the sand, a satellite link-up, and a
  906. special keyboard and joystick that Jack hoped that a fifteen-foot
  907. rattlesnake would be able to use. And, it had been hacked to not give out
  908. its location to the satellite.
  910. After that Jack could e-mail Nate to keep in touch, but still visited him
  911. fairly regularly - at least once or twice a year.
  913. After the first year, Jack quit his job. For some reason, with the wisdom he
  914. 'd been given, and the knowledge that he could live for over 150 years,
  915. working in a nine to five job for someone else didn't seem that worthwhile
  916. any more. Jack went back to school.
  918. Eventually, Jack started writing. Perhaps because of the wisdom, or perhaps
  919. because of his new perspective, he wrote well. People liked what he wrote,
  920. and he became well known for it. After a time, Jack bought an RV and started
  921. traveling around the country for book signings and readings.
  923. But, he still remembered to drop by and visit Nate occasionally.
  925. On one of the visits Nate seemed quieter than usual. Not that Nate had been
  926. a fountain of joy lately. Jack's best guess was that Nate was still missing
  927. Samuel, and though Jack had tried, he still hadn't been able to replace
  928. Samuel in Nate's eyes. Nate had been getting quieter each visit. But on this
  929. visit Nate didn't even speak when Jack walked up to the lever. He nodded at
  930. Jack, and then went back to staring into the desert. Jack, respecting Nate's
  931. silence, sat down and waited.
  933. After a few minutes, Nate spoke. "Jack, I have someone to introduce you to."
  935. Jack looked surprised. "Someone to introduce me to?" Jack looked around, and
  936. then looked carefully back at Nate. "This something to do with the Big Guy?
  938. "No, no," replied Nate. "This is more personal. I want you to meet my son."
  939. Nate looked over at the nearest sand dune. "Sammy!"
  941. Jack watched as a four foot long desert rattlesnake crawled from behind the
  942. dune and up to the stone base of the lever.
  944. "Yo, Jack," said the new, much smaller snake.
  946. "Yo, Sammy" replied Jack. Jack looked at Nate. "Named after Samuel, I
  947. assume?"
  949. Nate nodded. "Jack, I've got a favor to ask you. Could you show Sammy around
  950. for me?" Nate unwrapped himself from the lever and slithered over to the
  951. edge of the stone and looked across the sands. "When Samuel first told me
  952. about the world, and brought me books and pictures, I wished that I could go
  953. see it. I wanted to see the great forests, the canyons, the cities, even the
  954. other deserts, to see if they felt and smelled the same. I want my son to
  955. have that chance - to see the world. Before he becomes bound here like I
  956. have been.
  958. "He's seen it in pictures, over the computer that you brought me. But I hear
  959. that it's not the same. That being there is different. I want him to have
  960. that. Think you can do that for me, Jack?"
  962. Jack nodded. This was obviously very important to Nate, so Jack didn't even
  963. joke about taking a talking rattlesnake out to see the world. "Yeah, I can
  964. do that for you, Nate. Is that all you need?" Jack could sense that was
  965. something more.
  967. Nate looked at Sammy. Sammy looked back at Nate for a second and then said,
  968. "Oh, yeah. Ummm, I've gotta go pack. Back in a little bit Jack. Nice to meet
  969. ya!" Sammy slithered back over the dune and out of sight.
  971. Nate watched Sammy disappear and then looked back at Jack. "Jack, this is my
  972. first son. My first offspring through all the years. You don't even want to
  973. know what it took for me to find a mate." Nate grinned to himself. "But
  974. anyway, I had a son for a reason. I'm tired. I'm ready for it to be over. I
  975. needed a replacement."
  977. Jack considered this for a minute. "So, you're ready to come see the world,
  978. and you wanted him to watch the lever while you were gone?"
  980. Nate shook his head. "No, Jack - you're a better guesser than that. You've
  981. already figured out - I'm bound here - there's only one way for me to leave
  982. here. And I'm ready. It's my time to die."
  984. Jack looked more closely at Nate. He could tell Nate had thought about
  985. this - probably for quite a while. Jack had trouble imagining what it would
  986. be like to be as old as Nate, but Jack could already tell that in another
  987. hundred or two hundred years, he might be getting tired of life himself.
  988. Jack could understand Samuel's decision, and now Nate's. So, all Jack said
  989. was, "What do you want me to do?"
  991. Nate nodded. "Thanks, Jack. I only want two things. One - show Sammy around
  992. the world - let him get his fill of it, until he's ready to come back here
  993. and take over. Two - give me the fourth request.
  995. "I can't just decide to die, not any more than you can. I won't even die of
  996. old age like you eventually will, even though it'll be a long time from now.
  997. I need to be killed. Once Sammy is back here, ready to take over, I'll be
  998. able to die. And I need you to kill me.
  1000. "I've even thought about how. Poisons and other drugs won't work on me. And
  1001. I've seen pictures of snakes that were shot - some of them live for days, so
  1002. that's out too. So, I want you to bring back a sword.
  1004. Nate turned away to look back to the dune that Sammy had gone behind. "I'd
  1005. say an axe, but that's somewhat undignified - putting my head on the ground
  1006. or a chopping block like that. No, I like a sword. A time-honored way of
  1007. going out. A dignified way to die. And, most importantly, it should work,
  1008. even on me.
  1010. "You willing to do that for me, Jack?" Nate turned back to look at Jack.
  1012. "Yeah, Nate," replied Jack solemnly, "I think I can handle that."
  1014. Nate nodded. "Good!" He turned back toward the dune and shouted, "Sammy!
  1015. Jack's about ready to leave!" Then quietly, "Thanks, Jack."
  1017. Jack didn't have anything to say to that, so he waited for Sammy to make it
  1018. back to the lever, nodded to him, nodded a final time to Nate, and then
  1019. headed into the desert with Sammy following.
  1020. Over the next several years Sammy and Jack kept in touch with Nate through
  1021. e-mail as they went about their adventures. They made a goal of visiting
  1022. every country in the world, and did a respectable job of it. Sammy had a
  1023. natural gift for languages, as Jack expected he would, and even ended up
  1024. acting as a translator for Jack in a few of the countries. Jack managed to
  1025. keep the talking rattlesnake hidden, even so, and by the time they were
  1026. nearing the end of their tour of countries, Sammy had only been spotted a
  1027. few times. While there were several people that had seen enough to startle
  1028. them greatly, nobody had enough evidence to prove anything, and while a few
  1029. wild rumors and storied followed Jack and Sammy around, nothing ever hit the
  1030. newspapers or the public in general.
  1032. When they finished the tour of countries, Jack suggested that they try some
  1033. undersea diving. They did. And spelunking. They did that too. Sammy finally
  1034. drew the line at visiting Antarctica. He'd come to realize that Jack was
  1035. stalling. After talking to his Dad about it over e-mail, he figured out that
  1036. Jack probably didn't want to have to kill Nate. Nate told Sammy that humans
  1037. could be squeamish about killing friends and acquaintances.
  1039. So, Sammy eventually put his tail down (as he didn't have a foot) and told
  1040. Jack that it was time - he was ready to go back and take up his duties from
  1041. his dad. Jack, delayed it a little more by insisting that they go back to
  1042. Japan and buy an appropriate sword. He even stretched it a little more by
  1043. getting lessons in how to use the sword. But, eventually, he'd learned as
  1044. much as he was likely to without dedicating his life to it, and was
  1045. definitely competent enough to take the head off of a snake. It was time to
  1046. head back and see Nate.
  1048. When they got back to the US, Jack got the old RV out of storage where he
  1049. and Sammy had left it after their tour of the fifty states, he loaded up
  1050. Sammy and the sword, and they headed for the desert.
  1052. When they got to the small town that Jack had been trying to find those
  1053. years ago when he'd met Nate, Jack was in a funk. He didn't really feel like
  1054. walking all of the way out there. Not only that, but he'd forgotten to
  1055. figure the travel time correctly, and it was late afternoon. They'd either
  1056. have to spend the night in town and walk out tomorrow, or walk in the dark.
  1058. As Jack was afraid that if he waited one more night he might lose his
  1059. resolve, he decided that he'd go ahead and drive the RV out there. It was
  1060. only going to be this once, and Jack would go back and cover the tracks
  1061. afterward. They ought to be able to make it out there by nightfall if they
  1062. drove, and then they could get it over tonight.
  1064. Jack told Sammy to e-mail Nate that they were coming as he drove out of
  1065. sight of the town on the road. They then pulled off the road and headed out
  1066. into the desert.
  1068. Everything went well, until they got to the sand dunes. Jack had been
  1069. nursing the RV along the whole time, over the rocks, through the creek beds,
  1070. revving the engine the few times they almost got stuck. When they came to
  1071. the dunes, Jack didn't really think about it, he just downshifted and headed
  1072. up the first one. By the third dune, Jack started to regret that he'd
  1073. decided to try driving on the sand. The RV was fishtailling and losing
  1074. traction. Jack was having to work it up each dune slowly and was trying to
  1075. keep from losing control each time they came over the top and slid down the
  1076. other side. Sammy had come up to sit in the passenger seat, coiled up and
  1077. laughing at Jack's driving.
  1079. As they came over the top of the fourth dune, the biggest one yet, Jack saw
  1080. that this was the final dune - the stone, the lever, and somewhere Nate,
  1081. waited below. Jack put on the brakes, but he'd gone a little too far. The RV
  1082. started slipping down the other side.
  1084. Jack tried turning the wheel, but he didn't have enough traction. He pumped
  1085. the brakes - no response. They started sliding down the hill, faster and
  1086. faster.
  1088. Jack felt a shock go through him as he suddenly realized that they were
  1089. heading for the lever. He looked down - the RV was directly on course for
  1090. it. If Jack didn't do something, the RV would hit it. He was about to end
  1091. humanity.
  1093. Jack steered more frantically, trying to get traction. It still wasn't
  1094. working. The dune was too steep, and the sand too loose. In a split second,
  1095. Jack realized that his only chance would be once he hit the stone around the
  1096. lever - he should have traction on the stone for just a second before he hit
  1097. the lever - he wouldn't have time to stop, but he should be able to steer
  1098. away.
  1100. Jack took a better grip on the steering wheel and tried to turn the RV a
  1101. little bit - every little bit would help. He'd have to time his turn just
  1102. right.
  1104. The RV got to the bottom of the dune, sliding at an amazing speed in the
  1105. sand. Just before they reached the stone Jack looked across it to check that
  1106. they were still heading for the lever. They were. But Jack noticed something
  1107. else that he hadn't seen from the top of the dune. Nate wasn't wrapped
  1108. around the lever. He was off to the side of the lever, but still on the
  1109. stone, waiting for them. The problem was, he was waiting on the same side of
  1110. the lever that Jack had picked to steer towards to avoid the lever. The RV
  1111. was already starting to drift that way a little in its mad rush across the
  1112. sand and there was no way that Jack was going to be able to go around the
  1113. lever to the other side.
  1115. Jack had an instant of realization. He was either going to have to hit the
  1116. lever, or run over Nate. He glanced over at Sammy and saw that Sammy
  1117. realized the same thing.
  1119. Jack took a firmer grip on the steering wheel as the RV ran up on the stone.
  1120. Shouting to Sammy as he pulled the steering wheel...
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