The darkness shattered into light; the Old Man felt electricity tearing at his body as he fell. Everything was blindingly bright and agonizing. He hit something hard and blacked out.
The first thing he noticed when he came to was that he was laying facedown on sand. Particles of pulverized rock were all over his skin; he quickly realized he was naked. The Old Man blinked several times, his eyes aching from the bright sunshine beating down. His entire body ached; whether it was from his rebirth or the impact, he wasn't sure. And yet, he felt better than he had in decades. It was as though he was nearly bursting with energy and vibrancy. The Old Man's eyes adjusted to the brightness, and he moved his head up a little bit to get a better view of his new surroundings.
He was in the middle of a desert. Not a Sahara sort of desert, with an ocean of cresting dunes. It was a high desert; a vast, flat plain of desolation as far as he could see, interrupted only by the occasional scrub and cactus. In the distance was a mountain range, but it looked to be a hundred miles away.
This is definitely not where I wanted to end up, the Old Man thought bitterly.
The heat of the desert was already causing his body to be drenched in sweat. The aches were fading, and he felt like he could stand. The problem was, he had no idea where to go. He didn't even know if he was on Earth anymore. It looked like Earth. Pale sandy ground, blue sky, white clouds. No rings or additional moons in the sky. Just a vast sheet of blue. The Old Man craned his head around to look forward as he got on his hands and knees…and found himself looking straight into the slitted eyes of a large rattlesnake.
The Old Man froze, too petrified to move. The snake was so close to his face that when it flicked out its tongue, the fork brushed his nose. The Old Man closed his eyes. Pleasegoaway, pleasegoaway, pleasegoaway…
The snake started to move forward, and that was all the motivation the Old Man needed. He darted to his feet faster than he thought was possible, and with a loud "shit!" ran as fast as he could away from the snake. He looked behind him, saw the snake in pursuit.
"SHIT!!!!!!" he screamed, running even faster.
So here I am, miraculously reborn into my second life, the Old Man thought to himself, panting heavily, and I'm being chased naked through the desert by a rattlesnake. This is definitely not the new life I had in mind.
The Old Man didn't know how long he ran through the desert. Minutes? Hours? However long it was, eventually the man's legs and lungs were strained to the point that he just couldn't run anymore. His feet stung from the sand digging into them. As the Old Man stumbled to a stop, panting and trying to keep from collapsing, he heard a rattle behind him.
The snake caught up to the man, and he threw up his arms in frustration. "Fine! Bite me! Kill me! Maybe in my third life I won't be thrown into the desert with a psychotic serpent!"
The rattlesnake glided to a halt a few feet away from the Old Man. For a few minutes, they stared at each other; the snake's tongue flicking in and out, the man's chest heaving from his frantic run.
The Old Man frowned in confusion. Why isn't the snake attacking?
The snake turned and began gliding away from the Old Man, and the exhausted man let out a huge sigh of relief. But then the serpent stopped, let out a short rattle. The Old Man looked up at it; the snake looked back at him, and then forward. Three times, it did this. Back, forward. Back, forward. Back, forward.
"No way," the Old Man muttered in disbelief.
The Old Man slowly started walking towards the snake, and it began gliding forward again. When the man stopped, the snake looked back at him and also stopped until he begin moving again. Yep, no doubt about it. Now I'm walking naked through the desert following a rattlesnake.
The Old Man followed the snake for a few miles, until the heat became so unbearable that he couldn't go any further. The man's tongue had dried out, his throat screamed for water. He fell to his knees, looking up to see the rattlesnake had stopped as well. For a moment the serpent stared at the Old Man. Then the snake took its rattled tail and plunged it into the ground, flicking out a clump of sand. The snake looked at the man again, then repeated its gesture.
"Okay," the Old Man said to the snake. "I think I know what you're telling me." He plunged his fingers into the dirt, digging frantically down until he felt the sand begin to moisten. Hope tickled his heart as he sped up his digging, until his hands uncovered a large puddle of water. The Old Man dunked his entire face into the water, drinking to his heart's content. Particles of sand scraped against his teeth and covered his lips and chin; he didn't care. The water was as delicious as a chocolate milkshake to his parched tongue.
As the Old Man lapped up the water, he noticed a strip of leather visible just to the right of the puddle, buried in the sand. He brush the sand away, and his mouth dropped.
It's a wineskin…?!
The Old Man filled the bag with water until the bag was nearly bursting, then slung the bag over his shoulder. It was heavy, the strap dug deep into the man's bony shoulder. The man was determined to endure the pain. Water was far more important than comfort. He reburied the puddle, and looked at the snake. "Thank you," he told the serpent sincerely.
If the snake understood, it didn't show it. It simply turned around and resumed the journey, making sure the Old Man was following.
The man felt much better with water in his system. As he followed the snake, he took the time to get a good look at his new body. He was very thin, almost to the point of starvation. He felt strong enough to walk, and run a short distance, but that was about it. His skin was gray and hairless, but also very smooth. The wrinkles and liver spots were gone. The man guessed he was in his late teens or early twenties again.
I'm not an old man anymore. I'm a boy again! A scrawny, gray boy...
After several miles, as the sun reached its apex, the heat was becoming unbearable, even with water. The Old Man, now a Gray Boy, began to slow down, the heat sapping the little strength he had. But just as the Gray Boy was about to collapse again, the snake stopped. It repeated its tail-dig, and the Gray Boy scraped away the sand until his fingers hit something hard. Brushing away the sand, he saw the object was a large box. Prying the lid open with his fingers, the Gray Boy pulled out a large pile of fabric. He unraveled the pile...a set of robes. Okay, this is all way too convenient.
The Gray Boy looked over at the snake again. "What the hell is going on?" The Gray Boy finally noticed how different his voice was. The elderly rasp was gone, replaced by a youthful baritone.
The snake did nothing except flick its tongue in and out.
"Oh sure," the boy snapped at the serpent as he put on the robes. "You sit there, acting like a normal snake. But you've led me to clothes, led me to water. I'm pretty sure normal snakes don't do that."
Tongue in, tongue out.
"Fine…" the Gray Boy sighed exasperatedly. He pulled the hood of the robes over his head, immediately feeling the relief of the hood's shade. "Where to now?"
The snake began moving again, and the boy followed. The pair of them traveled for miles across the desert, stopping only for a brief snack. The snake devoured desert rats, while the boy feasted on the fruit of cacti they come across. Getting the fruit off of the cactus was no easy task (and the boy got plenty of wounds from the cactus spines), but well worth the effort. Occasionally the Gray Boy saw another rattlesnake, but they gave his guide and him a wide berth.
When the sun finally set, the boy basked in the sweet relief of the night's chilly air. The unlikely companions stopped near a pile of rocks. The snake settled into a nook in the rocks to escape the breeze, while the Gray Boy tried to get comfortable on the hard ground. The ground was hardly accommodating; but after an entire day of walking, it was wonderful to finally be off his feet. The Gray Boy looked up into the sky, mesmerized by the sea of stars above his head. He had never seen so many stars, except in videos and pictures in his previous life. To actually see the beauty of the universe firsthand made him feel like a child again…which, apparently, he was.
As the boy waited to fall asleep, he found himself wondering how he actually was reborn. His scientific mind refused to believe that it was some "miracle." He still wasn't convinced the Eagle and the Shadow Spirit were real; his encounter with them in Nonexistence could have just been hallucinations brought on by the resurrection process. As for how he was reborn…maybe some quantum event? His subatomic particles spontaneously disappearing from the universe he died in and reappearing in the new universe, drawn back together somehow? The Gray Boy just didn't know...
A loud rattling in the boy's ear caused his eyes to snap open. "Ahhhh!" the youth yelled, leaping to his feet. His heart was pounding as he looked down at the rattlesnake, which was gazing up at him with cold, reptilian eyes.
"Don't do that!" the Gray Boy breathed as he tried to will his heart rate back down.
The snake slithered away, almost as if with an air of smugness.
The Gray Boy gathered up his wineskin and a few pocketfuls of cactus fruit before setting out. As he followed the snake, the lad noticed it was dawn. The sky was a deep crimson; the sun still hiding behind the mountain range. The air had a fresh scent from the cold, but it was only a matter of time before the heat of midday would make the walk all but unbearable.
The Gray Boy noticed how close the mountain range was, a great wall across the northern and eastern horizons. The rattlesnake and boy seemed to be heading north. They stopped only for food and to replenish the boy's wineskin; two days later, they reached the base of the mountains. The shade from the range was welcome relief from the heat of the sun; the sun only made an appearance for a few hours during the afternoon.
As the Gray Boy and his guide headed for the base, the snake suddenly stopped. It gestured toward the mountains with its head, then slithered away to the west.
"Hey, wait!" the Gray Boy yelled after the snake.
The snake didn't respond; it just glided away, so quickly that there was no way for the boy to keep up. "Dammit!"
The Gray Boy stood there, the shadow of the mountains looming over him, wondering what he was supposed to do. The only thing I can think of is to just keep walking toward the mountains; after all, that's what the snake seemed to tell me before it split.
The boy reached the mountains as the sun began to set. A deep canyon was carved between two peaks, and seemed to be the only way in without some major rock climbing. He headed into the canyon, the shadows of the mountains making the whole place seem sinister. There was no sound except for the howl of the wind through the crevasse and the scrunch of the boy's soles against bits of rock.
As the Gray Boy walked through the canyon, he felt a tingle up the back of his spine. He couldn't explain why…it was though the air was thickening, becoming almost claustrophobic.
The sand around the boy exploded, the force of it knocking him backwards. He covered his eyes to protect himself from the bits of sand; when he uncovered them, he found himself surrounded by a group of people clad from head to toe in thick robes. Even their faces were hidden behind slitted masks. All of them were pointing rusted machine gun rifles.
"Saku li chaka vu!" one of them yelled at the Gray Boy, their mask making it impossible for him to determine their gender.
"What?" the boy blurted, completely flustered.
"Hands up!" another person yelled in heavily accented English, but an accent unlike any the Gray Boy heard before. "Hands up or die!"
The Gray Boy slowly raised his hands. The robed figures swarmed him, yanking his arms behind his back and tying them up with some kind of thick cord. Then they shove the boy forward, the barrels of three rifles jammed into his back.
Yep..this universe is turning out to be loads of fun, the boy lamented as he was led away into the darkness of the canyon.