I told you that you’d heal quickly now.”
“Yeah, well, still,” said Jack, “it’s the principle of the thing. And nobody likes being bitten in the butt! Couldn’t you have gotten my calf or something instead?”
“More meat in the typical human butt,” replied Nate. “And less chance you accidentally kick me or move at the last second.”
“Yeah, right. So, tell me all of these wonderful secrets that I now qualify to hear,” answered Jack.
“Ok,” said Nate. “Do you want to ask questions first, or do you want me to just start talking?”
“Just talk,” said Jack. “I’ll sit here and try to not think about food.”
“We could go try to rustle up some food for you first, if you like,” answered Nate.
“Hey! You didn’t tell me you had food around here, Nate!” Jack jumped up. “What do we have? Am I in walking distance to town? Or can you magically whip up food along with your other powers?” Jack was almost shouting with excitement. His stomach had been growling for hours.
“I was thinking more like I could flush something out of its hole and bite it for you, and you could skin it and eat it. Assuming you have a knife, that is,” replied Nate, with the grin that Jack was starting to get used to.
“Ugh,” said Jack, sitting back down. “I think I’ll pass. I can last a little longer before I get desperate enough to eat desert rat, or whatever else it is you find out here. And there’s nothing to burn – I’d have to eat it raw. No thanks. Just talk.”
“Ok,” replied Nate, still grinning. “But I’d better hurry, before you start looking at me as food.
Nate reared back a little, looked around for a second, and then continued. “You, Jack, are sitting in the middle of the Garden of Eden.”
Jack looked around at the sand and dunes and then looked back at Nate sceptically.
“Well, that’s the best I can figure it, anyway, Jack,” said Nate. “Stand up and look at the symbol on the rock here.” Nate gestured around the dark stone they were both sitting on with his nose.
Jack stood up and looked. Carved into the stone in a bas-relief was a representation of a large tree. The angled-pole that Nate was wrapped around was coming out of the trunk of the tree, right below where the main branches left the trunk to reach out across the stone. It was very well done – it looked more like a tree had been reduced to almost two dimensions and embedded in the stone than it did like a carving.
Jack walked around and looked at the details in the fading light of the setting sun. He wished he’d looked at it while the sun was higher in the sky.
Wait! The sun was setting! That meant he was going to have to spend another night out here! Arrrgh!
Jack looked out across the desert for a little bit, and then came back and stood next to Nate. “In all the excitement, I almost forgot, Nate,” said Jack. “Which way is it back to town? And how far? I’m eventually going to have to head back – I’m not sure I’ll be able to survive by eating raw desert critters for long. And even if I can, I’m not sure I’ll want to.”
“It’s about 30 miles that way.” Nate pointed, with the rattle on his tail this time. As far as Jack could tell, it was a direction at right angles to the way he’d been going when he was crawling here. “But that’s 30 miles by the way the crow flies. It’s about 40 by the way a man walks. You should be able to do it in about half a day with your improved endurance, if you head out early tomorrow, Jack.”
Jack looked out the way the snake had pointed for a few seconds more, and then sat back down. It was getting dark. Not much he could do about heading out right now. And besides, Nate was just about to get to the interesting stuff. “Garden of Eden? As best as you can figure it?”
“Well, yeah, as best as I and Samuel could figure it anyway,” said Nate. “He figured that the story just got a little mixed up. You know, snake, in a ‘tree’, offering ‘temptations’, making bargains. That kind stuff. But he could never quite figure out how the Hebrews found out about this spot from across the ocean. He worried about that for a while.”
“Garden of Eden, hunh?” said Jack. “How long have you been here, Nate?”
“No idea, really,” replied Nate. “A long time. It never occurred to me to count years, until recently, and by then, of course, it was too late. But I do remember when this whole place was green, so I figure it’s been thousands of years, at least.”
“So, are you the snake that tempted Eve?” said Jack.
“Beats me,” said Nate. “Maybe. I can’t remember if the first one of your kind that I talked to was female or not, and I never got a name, but it could have been. And I suppose she could have considered my offer to grant requests a ‘temptation’, though I’ve rarely had refusals.”
“Well, umm, how did you get here then? And why is that white pole stuck out of the stone there?” asked Jack.
“Dad left me here. Or, I assume it was my dad. It was another snake – much bigger than I was back then. I remember talking to him, but I don’t remember if it was in a language, or just kind of understanding what he wanted. But one day, he brought me to this stone, told me about it, and asked me to do something for him. I talked it over with him for a while, then agreed. I’ve been here ever since.
“What is this place?” said Jack. “And what did he ask you to do?”
“Well, you see this pole here, sticking out of the stone?” Nate loosened his coils around the tilted white pole and showed Jack where it descended into the stone. The pole was tilted at about a 45 degree angle and seemed to enter the stone in an eighteen inch slot cut into the stone. Jack leaned over and looked. The slot was dark and the pole went down into it as far as Jack could see in the dim light. Jack reached out to touch the pole, but Nate was suddenly there in the way.
“You can’t touch that yet, Jack,” said Nate.
“Why not?” asked Jack.
“I haven’t explained it to you yet,” replied Nate.
“Well, it kinda looks like a lever or something,” said Jack. “You’d push it that way, and it would move in the slot.”
“Yep, that’s what it is,” replied Nate.
“What does it do?” asked Jack. “End the world?”
“Oh, no,” said Nate. “Nothing that drastic. It just ends humanity. I call it ‘The Lever of Doom’.” For the last few words Nate had used a deeper, ringing voice. He tried to look serious for a few seconds, and then gave up and grinned.
Jack was initially startled by Nate’s pronouncement, but when Nate grinned Jack laughed. “Ha! You almost had me fooled for a second there. What does it really do?”
“Oh, it really ends humanity, like I said,” smirked Nate. “I just thought the voice I used was funny, didn’t you?”
Nate continued to grin.
“A lever to end humanity?” asked Jack. “What in the world is that for? Why would anyone need to end humanity?”
“Well,” replied Nate, “I get the idea that maybe humanity was an experiment. Or maybe the Big Guy just thought, that if humanity started going really bad, there should be a way to end it. I’m not really sure. All I know are the rules, and the guesses that Samuel and I had about why it’s here. I didn’t think to ask back when I started here.”
“Rules? What rules?” asked Jack.
“The rules are that I can’t tell anybody about it or let them touch it unless they agree to be bound to secrecy by a bite. And that only one human can be bound in that way at a time. That’s it.” explained Nate.
Jack looked somewhat shocked. “You mean that I could pull the lever now? You’d let me end humanity?”
“Yep,” replied Nate, “if you want to.” Nate looked at Jack carefully. “Do you want to, Jack?”
“Umm, no.” said Jack, stepping a little further back from the lever. “Why in the world would anyone want to end humanity? It’d take a psychotic to want that! Or worse, a suicidal psychotic, because it would kill him too, wouldn’t it?”
“Yep,” replied Nate, “being as he’d be human too.”
“Has anyone ever seriously considered it?” asked Jack. “Any of those bound to secrecy, that is?”
“Well, of course, I think they’ve all seriously considered it at one time or another. Being given that kind of responsibility makes you sit down and think, or so I’m told. Samuel considered it several times. He’d often get disgusted with humanity, come out here, and just hold the lever for a while. But he never pulled it. Or you wouldn’t be here.” Nate grinned some more.
Jack sat down, well back from the lever. He looked thoughtful and puzzled at the same time. After a bit, he said, “So this makes me the Judge of humanity? I get to decide whether they keep going or just end? Me?”
“That seems to be it,” agreed Nate.
“What kind of criteria do I use to decide?” said Jack. “How do I make this decision? Am I supposed to decide if they’re good? Or too many of them are bad? Or that they’re going the wrong way? Is there a set of rules for that?”
“Nope,” replied Nate. “You pretty much just have to decide on your own. It’s up to you, however you want to decide it. I guess that you’re just supposed to know.”
“But what if I get mad at someone? Or some girl dumps me and I feel horrible? Couldn’t I make a mistake? How do I know that I won’t screw up?” protested Jack.
Nate gave his kind of snake-like shrug again. “You don’t. You just have to try your best, Jack.”
Jack sat there for a while, staring off into the desert that was rapidly getting dark, chewing on a fingernail.
Suddenly, Jack turned around and looked at the snake. “Nate, was Samuel the one bound to this before me?”
“Yep,” replied Nate. “He was a good guy. Talked to me a lot. Taught me to read and brought me books. I think I still have a good pile of them buried in the sand around here somewhere. I still miss him. He died a few months ago.”
“Sounds like a good guy,” agreed Jack. “How did he handle this, when you first told him. What did he do?”
“Well,” said Nate, “he sat down for a while, thought about it for a bit, and then asked me some questions, much like you’re doing.”
“What did he ask you, if you’re allowed to tell me?” asked Jack.
“He asked me about the third request,” replied Nate.
“Aha!” It was Jack’s turn to grin. “And what did you tell him?”
“I told him the rules for the third request. That to get the third request you have to agree to this whole thing. That if it ever comes to the point that you really think that humanity should be ended, that you’ll come here and end it. You won’t avoid it, and you won’t wimp out.” Nate looked serious again. “And you’ll be bound to do it too, Jack.”
“Hmmm.” Jack looked back out into the darkness for a while.
Nate watched him, waiting.
“Nate,” continued Jack, quietly, eventually. “What did Samuel ask for with his third request?”
Nate sounded like he was grinning again as he replied, also quietly, “Wisdom, Jack. He asked for wisdom. As much as I could give him.”
“Ok,” said Jack, suddenly, standing up and facing away from Nate, “give it to me.
Nate looked at Jack’s backside. “Give you what, Jack?”
“Give me that wisdom. The same stuff that Samuel asked for. If it helped him, maybe it’ll help me too.” Jack turned his head to look back over his shoulder at Nate. “It did help him, right?”
“He said it did,” replied Nate. “But he seemed a little quieter afterward. Like he had a lot to think about.”
“Well, yeah, I can see that,” said Jack. “So, give it to me.” Jack turned to face away from Nate again, bent over slightly and tensed up.
Nate watched Jack tense up with a little exasperation. If he bit Jack now, Jack would likely jump out of his skin and maybe hurt them both.
“You remember that you’ll be bound to destroy humanity if it ever looks like it needs it, right Jack?” asked Nate, shifting position.
“Yeah, yeah, I got that,” replied Jack, eyes squeezed tightly shut and body tense, not noticing the change in direction of Nate’s voice.
“And,” continued Nate, from his new position, “do you remember that you’ll turn bright purple, and grow big horns and extra eyes?”
“Yeah, yeah…Hey, wait a minute!” said Jack, opening his eyes, straightening up and turning around. “Purple?!” He didn’t see Nate there. With the moonlight Jack could see that the lever extended up from its slot in the rock without the snake wrapped around it.
Jack heard, from behind him, Nate’s “Just Kidding!” right before he felt the now familiar piercing pain, this time in the other buttock.
Jack sat on the edge of the dark stone in the rapidly cooling air, his feet extending out into the sand. He stared out into the darkness, listening to the wind stir the sand, occasionally rubbing his butt where he’d been recently bitten.
Nate had left for a little while, had come back with a desert-rodent-shaped bulge somewhere in his middle, and was now wrapped back around the lever, his tongue flicking out into the desert night’s air the only sign that he was still awake.
Occasionally Jack, with his toes absentmindedly digging in the sand while he thought, would ask Nate a question without turning around.
“Nate, do accidents count?”
Nate lifted his head a little bit. “What do you mean, Jack?”
Jack tilted his head back like he was looking at the stars. “You know, accidents. If I accidentally fall on the lever, without meaning to, does that still wipe out humanity?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it does, Jack. I’d suggest you be careful about that if you start feeling wobbly,” said Nate with some amusement.
A little later – “Does it have to be me that pulls the lever?” asked Jack.
“That’s the rule, Jack. Nobody else can pull it,” answered Nate.
“No,” Jack shook his head, “I meant does it have to be my hand? Could I pull the lever with a rope tied around it? Or push it with a stick? Or throw a rock?”
“Yes, those should work,” replied Nate. “Though I’m not sure how complicated you could get. Samuel thought about trying to build some kind of remote control for it once, but gave it up. Everything he’d build would be gone by the next sunrise, if it was touching the stone, or over it. I told him that in the past others that had been bound had tried to bury the lever so they wouldn’t be tempted to pull it, but every time the stones or sand or whatever had disappeared.”
“Wow,” said Jack, “Cool.” Jack leaned back until only his elbows kept him off of the stone and looked up into the sky.
“Nate, how long did Samuel live? One of his wishes was for health too, right?” asked Jack.
“Yes,” replied Nate, “it was. He lived 167 years, Jack.”
“Wow, 167 years. That’s almost 140 more years I’ll live if I live as long. Do you know what he died of, Nate?”
“He died of getting tired of living, Jack,” Nate said, sounding somewhat sad.
Jack turned his head to look at Nate in the starlight.
Nate looked back. “Samuel knew he wasn’t going to be able to stay in society. He figured that they’d eventually see him still alive and start questioning it, so he decided that he’d have to disappear after a while. He faked his death once, but changed his mind – he decided it was too early and he could stay for a little longer. He wasn’t very fond of mankind, but he liked the attention. Most of the time, anyway.
“His daughter and then his wife dying almost did him in though. He didn’t stay in society much longer after that. He eventually came out here to spend time talking to me and thinking about pulling the lever. A few months ago he told me he’d had enough. It was his time.”
“And then he just died?” asked Jack.
Nate shook his head a little. “He made his fourth request, Jack. There’s only one thing you can ask for the fourth request. The last bite.
After a bit Nate continued, “He told me that he was tired, that it was his time. He reassured me that someone new would show up soon, like they always had.
After another pause, Nate finished, “Samuel’s body disappeared off the stone with the sunrise.”
Jack lay back down and looked at the sky, leaving Nate alone with his memories. It was a long time until Jack’s breathing evened out into sleep.
Jack woke with the sunrise the next morning. He was a little chilled with the morning desert air, but overall was feeling pretty good. Well, except that his stomach was grumbling and he wasn’t willing to eat raw desert rat.
So, after getting directions to town from Nate, making sure he knew how to get back, and reassuring Nate that he’d be back soon, Jack started the long walk back to town. With his new health and Nate’s good directions, he made it back easily.
Jack caught a bus back to the city, and showed up for work the next day, little worse for the wear and with a story about getting lost in the desert and walking back out. Within a couple of days Jack had talked a friend with a tow truck into going back out into the desert with him to fetch the SUV. They found it after a couple of hours of searching and towed it back without incident. Jack was careful not to even look in the direction of Nate’s lever, though their path back didn’t come within sight of it.
Before the next weekend, Jack had gone to a couple of stores, including a book store, and had gotten his SUV back from the mechanic, with a warning to avoid any more joyriding in the desert. On Saturday, Jack headed back to see Nate.
Jack parked a little way out of the small town near Nate, loaded up his new backpack with camping gear and the things he was bringing for Nate, and then started walking. He figured that walking would leave the least trail, and he knew that while not many people camped in the desert, it wasn’t unheard of, and shouldn’t really raise suspicions.
Jack had brought more books for Nate – recent books, magazines, newspapers. Some things that would catch Nate up with what was happening in the world, others that were just good books to read. He spent the weekend with Nate, and then headed out again, telling Nate that he’d be back again soon, but that he had things to do first.
Over four months later Jack was back to see Nate again. This time he brought a laptop with him – a specially modified laptop. It had a solar recharger, special filters and seals to keep out the sand, a satellite link-up, and a special keyboard and joystick that Jack hoped that a fifteen-foot rattlesnake would be able to use. And, it had been hacked to not give out its location to the satellite.
After that Jack could e-mail Nate to keep in touch, but still visited him fairly regularly – at least once or twice a year.
After the first year, Jack quit his job. For some reason, with the wisdom he’d been given, and the knowledge that he could live for over 150 years, working in a nine to five job for someone else didn’t seem that worthwhile any more. Jack went back to school.
Eventually, Jack started writing. Perhaps because of the wisdom, or perhaps because of his new perspective, he wrote well. People liked what he wrote, and he became well known for it. After a time, Jack bought an RV and started traveling around the country for book signings and readings.
But, he still remembered to drop by and visit Nate occasionally.
On one of the visits Nate seemed quieter than usual. Not that Nate had been a fountain of joy lately. Jack’s best guess was that Nate was still missing Samuel, and though Jack had tried, he still hadn’t been able to replace Samuel in Nate’s eyes. Nate had been getting quieter each visit. But on this visit Nate didn’t even speak when Jack walked up to the lever. He nodded at Jack, and then went back to staring into the desert. Jack, respecting Nate’s silence, sat down and waited.
After a few minutes, Nate spoke. “Jack, I have someone to introduce you to.”
Jack looked surprised. “Someone to introduce me to?” Jack looked around, and then looked carefully back at Nate. “This something to do with the Big Guy?
“No, no,” replied Nate. “This is more personal. I want you to meet my son.” Nate looked over at the nearest sand dune. “Sammy!”
Jack watched as a four foot long desert rattlesnake crawled from behind the dune and up to the stone base of the lever.
“Yo, Jack,” said the new, much smaller snake.
“Yo, Sammy” replied Jack. Jack looked at Nate. “Named after Samuel, I assume?”
Nate nodded. “Jack, I’ve got a favor to ask you. Could you show Sammy around for me?” Nate unwrapped himself from the lever and slithered over to the edge of the stone and looked across the sands. “When Samuel first told me about the world, and brought me books and pictures, I wished that I could go see it. I wanted to see the great forests, the canyons, the cities, even the other deserts, to see if they felt and smelled the same. I want my son to have that chance – to see the world. Before he becomes bound here like I have been.
“He’s seen it in pictures, over the computer that you brought me. But I hear that it’s not the same. That being there is different. I want him to have that. Think you can do that for me, Jack?”
Jack nodded. This was obviously very important to Nate, so Jack didn’t even joke about taking a talking rattlesnake out to see the world. “Yeah, I can do that for you, Nate. Is that all you need?” Jack could sense that was something more.
Nate looked at Sammy. Sammy looked back at Nate for a second and then said, “Oh, yeah. Ummm, I’ve gotta go pack. Back in a little bit Jack. Nice to meet ya!” Sammy slithered back over the dune and out of sight.
Nate watched Sammy disappear and then looked back at Jack. “Jack, this is my first son. My first offspring through all the years. You don’t even want to know what it took for me to find a mate.” Nate grinned to himself. “But anyway, I had a son for a reason. I’m tired. I’m ready for it to be over. I needed a replacement.”
Jack considered this for a minute. “So, you’re ready to come see the world, and you wanted him to watch the lever while you were gone?”
Nate shook his head. “No, Jack – you’re a better guesser than that. You’ve already figured out – I’m bound here – there’s only one way for me to leave here. And I’m ready. It’s my time to die.”
Jack looked more closely at Nate. He could tell Nate had thought about this – probably for quite a while. Jack had trouble imagining what it would be like to be as old as Nate, but Jack could already tell that in another hundred or two hundred years, he might be getting tired of life himself. Jack could understand Samuel’s decision, and now Nate’s. So, all Jack said was, “What do you want me to do?”
Nate nodded. “Thanks, Jack. I only want two things. One – show Sammy around the world – let him get his fill of it, until he’s ready to come back here and take over. Two – give me the fourth request.
“I can’t just decide to die, not any more than you can. I won’t even die of old age like you eventually will, even though it’ll be a long time from now. I need to be killed. Once Sammy is back here, ready to take over, I’ll be able to die. And I need you to kill me.
“I’ve even thought about how. Poisons and other drugs won’t work on me. And I’ve seen pictures of snakes that were shot – some of them live for days, so that’s out too. So, I want you to bring back a sword.
Nate turned away to look back to the dune that Sammy had gone behind. “I’d say an axe, but that’s somewhat undignified – putting my head on the ground or a chopping block like that. No, I like a sword. A time-honored way of going out. A dignified way to die. And, most importantly, it should work, even on me.
“You willing to do that for me, Jack?” Nate turned back to look at Jack.
“Yeah, Nate,” replied Jack solemnly, “I think I can handle that.”
Nate nodded. “Good!” He turned back toward the dune and shouted, “Sammy! Jack’s about ready to leave!” Then quietly, “Thanks, Jack.”
Jack didn’t have anything to say to that, so he waited for Sammy to make it back to the lever, nodded to him, nodded a final time to Nate, and then headed into the desert with Sammy following.
Over the next several years Sammy and Jack kept in touch with Nate through e-mail as they went about their adventures. They made a goal of visiting every country in the world, and did a respectable job of it. Sammy had a natural gift for languages, as Jack expected he would, and even ended up acting as a translator for Jack in a few of the countries. Jack managed to keep the talking rattlesnake hidden, even so, and by the time they were nearing the end of their tour of countries, Sammy had only been spotted a few times. While there were several people that had seen enough to startle them greatly, nobody had enough evidence to prove anything, and while a few wild rumors and stories followed Jack and Sammy around, nothing ever hit the newspapers or the public in general.
When they finished the tour of countries, Jack suggested that they try some undersea diving. They did. And spelunking. They did that too. Sammy finally drew the line at visiting Antarctica. He’d come to realize that Jack was stalling. After talking to his Dad about it over e-mail, he figured out that Jack probably didn’t want to have to kill Nate. Nate told Sammy that humans could be squeamish about killing friends and acquaintances.
So, Sammy eventually put his tail down (as he didn’t have a foot) and told Jack that it was time – he was ready to go back and take up his duties from his dad. Jack, delayed it a little more by insisting that they go back to Japan and buy an appropriate sword. He even stretched it a little more by getting lessons in how to use the sword. But, eventually, he’d learned as much as he was likely to without dedicating his life to it, and was definitely competent enough to take the head off of a snake. It was time to head back and see Nate.
When they got back to the US, Jack got the old RV out of storage where he and Sammy had left it after their tour of the fifty states, he loaded up Sammy and the sword, and they headed for the desert.
When they got to the small town that Jack had been trying to find those years ago when he’d met Nate, Jack was in a funk. He didn’t really feel like walking all of the way out there. Not only that, but he’d forgotten to figure the travel time correctly, and it was late afternoon. They’d either have to spend the night in town and walk out tomorrow, or walk in the dark.
As Jack was afraid that if he waited one more night he might lose his resolve, he decided that he’d go ahead and drive the RV out there. It was only going to be this once, and Jack would go back and cover the tracks afterward. They ought to be able to make it out there by nightfall if they drove, and then they could get it over tonight.
Jack told Sammy to e-mail Nate that they were coming as he drove out of sight of the town on the road. They then pulled off the road and headed out into the desert.
Everything went well, until they got to the sand dunes. Jack had been nursing the RV along the whole time, over the rocks, through the creek beds, revving the engine the few times they almost got stuck. When they came to the dunes, Jack didn’t really think about it, he just downshifted and headed up the first one. By the third dune, Jack started to regret that he’d decided to try driving on the sand. The RV was fishtailling and losing traction. Jack was having to work it up each dune slowly and was trying to keep from losing control each time they came over the top and slid down the other side. Sammy had come up to sit in the passenger seat, coiled up and laughing at Jack’s driving.
As they came over the top of the fourth dune, the biggest one yet, Jack saw that this was the final dune – the stone, the lever, and somewhere Nate, waited below. Jack put on the brakes, but he’d gone a little too far. The RV started slipping down the other side.
Jack tried turning the wheel, but he didn’t have enough traction. He pumped the brakes – no response. They started sliding down the hill, faster and faster.
Jack felt a shock go through him as he suddenly realized that they were heading for the lever. He looked down – the RV was directly on course for it. If Jack didn’t do something, the RV would hit it. He was about to end humanity.
Jack steered more frantically, trying to get traction. It still wasn’t working. The dune was too steep, and the sand too loose. In a split second, Jack realized that his only chance would be once he hit the stone around the lever – he should have traction on the stone for just a second before he hit the lever – he wouldn’t have time to stop, but he should be able to steer away.
Jack took a better grip on the steering wheel and tried to turn the RV a little bit – every little bit would help. He’d have to time his turn just right.
The RV got to the bottom of the dune, sliding at an amazing speed in the sand. Just before they reached the stone Jack looked across it to check that they were still heading for the lever. They were. But Jack noticed something else that he hadn’t seen from the top of the dune. Nate wasn’t wrapped around the lever. He was off to the side of the lever, but still on the stone, waiting for them. The problem was, he was waiting on the same side of the lever that Jack had picked to steer towards to avoid the lever. The RV was already starting to drift that way a little in its mad rush across the sand and there was no way that Jack was going to be able to go around the lever to the other side.
Jack had an instant of realization. He was either going to have to hit the lever, or run over Nate. He glanced over at Sammy and saw that Sammy realized the same thing.
Jack took a firmer grip on the steering wheel as the RV ran up on the stone. Shouting to Sammy as he pulled the steering wheel, “Better Nate than lever!”, he ran over the snake.