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
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
"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,
"Yep," replied Nate, "being as he'd be human too."
"Has anyone ever seriously considered it?" asked Nate. "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
"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?"
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
"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
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
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
"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
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 forth 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
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
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
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
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 storied 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
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
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
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
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.