My face felt sweaty and hot, and I sucked in quick, shallow breaths like I’d done the hundred-yard dash. This was my first rattlesnake bite. At least that I remember, I thought. Is this how I go out? Bitten by a freaking rattlesnake? There’s something I hadn’t thought to worry about while planning my escape. I guess I was too focused on the sun and heat.
“Remember,” Scott said as I left the Institute, “the sun doesn’t hate you, but it’ll kill you anyway. Take this hat, it’ll protect your head. I know you’re excited, man, but you don’t know what it’s like out there.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m tougher than I look.”
“Shivurr, my body’s seventy percent water. Its normal temperature is ninety-eight Fahrenheit; that’s about thirty-seven Celsius. I’ve seen your files. Your body’s water content is much higher, and your core body temperature is way below zero. You might as well be walking on Mars out there. If you didn’t regenerate like you do, it’d be a suicide mission. It might be anyway.”
“I should be all right as long as I’ve got enough water.”
“Yeah, I saw the files,” Scott said. “They’re still losing their shit over it.”
“I told you. It’s the Underfrost. I still can’t believe you can’t see it. It’s everywhere.”
Based on the files Scott hacked into, all that water mixes with crystalline particles composed of elements not found on the periodic table. By interacting, they form my lifeblood, internal structures and snowy form. These grains of elemental sand interact with each other at the quantum level. They arrange, rearrange, and alter themselves in a process that can only operate at sub-zero temperatures. The colder the better. In so doing, they cool and alter and shape the water into—well, into me. Like warm bloods, I sleep, but I can go a long time without it. I eat and drink too, to replenish lost elements and fluids.
Most warm bloods I’ve met think I’m magic. I get it, sort of; they’ve never seen anything like me. Then again, we’re a lot alike: machines that operate by chemical processes. They’re flesh and blood composed of cells and bacteria, grown out of a chemical reaction. I’m crystals and ice, but we’re both thinking, breathing, living organisms. Either one is miraculous to me.
I rubbed my throbbing foot a final time as the sting faded, then clambered back to my feet and limped onward. I guess I’m immune. Well, that’s something. I wobbled as a wave of nausea rolled through me. Okay, maybe not completely immune.
Aside from melting to death, I had other reasons to avoid sunshine; it’s a lot harder to go unseen. Bodhi Group agents would soon be on my trail, if they weren’t already. I also couldn’t afford to be seen by anyone, as they’d no doubt report it—I am quite memorable, I’m told—giving my pursuers a trail to follow. Buying water at a gas station was not an option, even if one could be found in the middle of the Great Basin Desert and I had money to pay for it.
Delirious from snake venom, the sun, or the heat, I saw another vision of my destination flash through my mind’s eye: a large cavern, steeped in darkness, decorated with statues encircling a Greek- or Roman-style temple-like structure, opposite a dais, inscribed with esoteric symbols, over which sat a floating globe of bright white light. I felt confident I’d been captured there but didn’t know why I was having nightmares and now waking visions about it or feeling an increasing sense of peril associated with it.
The Bodhi Group had messed up my long-term memories to the point that I could recall little about my life before I came to the Institute. What remained were just disconnected fragments, without context. I could not remember who I was, what my origins were, or how I was able to do many of the things that I could do. Some of what I knew about myself had been told to me by my captors. They’d acquired extensive knowledge of my physiology during my time at the Institute, as they studied me and my abilities. What they’d told me seemed to be true for the most part. Then again, the best falsehoods have a lot of truth in them in my more recent experience. Even if they hadn’t lied about anything, they might simply have been wrong.
As I staggered toward the crater from the southwest, I spotted a light blue Volkswagen Bus atop a hill in the distance. Scanning for people, I drew closer, intersecting with a dirt track, which I followed to the van at the top. The vehicle sat by the crater’s edge, a short distance from the gravel path. The windows were down, and its fold-out awning extended toward the crater. Two tents were pitched nearby.
No one was visible in the vicinity, but it seemed a sure bet someone couldn’t be far off—probably in the tents. I tiptoed closer to look for something to drink. Shuffling from bush to bush—a trail of steam in my wake—I made my way up to the side of the vehicle, keeping it between me and the vast crater on the other side. I stood still next to the van, held my breath, and listened. The sounds of laughter and playful shouts emanated from deep within the maar.
Chancing a look, I could see a group of people, their backs to me, as they walked a meandering path down to the crater’s floor. They were too far away to make out faces or ages, but one rode another piggyback, while the other two walked hand in hand a short distance away.
Tourists or locals out for a hike to enjoy the scenery, I guessed.
The coast clear, I crept around the vehicle, skulking forward in a low hunch. Seeing no one on the other side, I took shelter under the shade of the van’s awning, where I spotted a red cooler with a white lid, set between two lawn chairs. With a glance toward the crater to confirm the hikers weren’t looking, I opened the lid and gasped.
Within lay a treasure trove of soda pop, kept cool by large bags of clear ice. I ripped one open and shovelled ice cubes down my throat, smiling like a kid in a marshmallow-eating contest. My trembling hands grabbed one of the cans of pop and cracked it wide. Salivating at the hiss of escaping carbonation, I threw my head back and dumped it all in, moaning. Watery, life-preserving coolness swept through me like quicksilver. Sighing, I took in the view with liquescent eyes and belched the first few letters of the alphabet, holding in a laugh.
“Hey, guys,” said a voice from inside the van. “Back already?”
Footsteps and the rustling of fabric followed as a young man appeared in the van’s open doorway. He looked about sixteen years old. He had a long face, with thin lips stretched over a slight overbite. Dirty-blond hair, too long in the back, as if he aspired to one day tie it into a ponytail, fell a little past his shoulders. A faded black AC/DC T-shirt shielded his gaunt torso from the wind. Either it had shrunk from too many cycles in a clothes dryer or he’d bought it second-hand from a shorter person, judging by how it failed to make the distance to his garish board shorts, exposing a fuzzy, pale white abdomen beneath its bottom fringe. The smell of marijuana hung in a cloud about him.
With no time to do anything else, I froze in place, head back, eyes to the sky, with a can of soda held upended in my hand above my gaping mouth. A single drop of dark cola dropped from the can’s aluminum rim, even as the barefoot teen straightened to his full five feet seven inches and walked over.
“What the hell?” he asked, his voice trailing to a whisper as he studied my lightly steaming, frosty form. He glanced to his left in the direction of the crater, then back to me, blinking eyes still bleary with sleep. I still didn’t move an inch as he rubbed his eyes and took two steps to stand before me. The corners of his mouth lifted, making his faint moustache curl like a caterpillar, revealing the slightly yellowed teeth of a smoker.
“Good one, dudes,” he muttered, reaching a hand slowly toward me. His pointed fingers stopped an inch from me, as if he imagined touching me would make me disappear or pop like a balloon. Then, as if deciding, he completed the motion, poking me in the chest. The tips of his fingers left slight impressions before they faded away as he pulled back his hand. “Still ice-cold,” he said, licking his fingers. I stifled the urge to gag.
He turned away and called to his friends. “Nice one, dudes,” he shouted, flapping his arms. “You got me. Come on back.” They were now almost a quarter mile away, nearing the bottom of the crater, hundreds of feet below. They looked back and waved in return before continuing their hike.
Save your breath, kid, they’re too far away to hear, I thought.
Apparently drawing the same conclusion, he turned back to me and extended his hand once more.
“At least buy me a drink first, Slim,” I said, grabbing his outstretched hand before he could touch me again.
He snatched his hand away like it burned, stumbling backward and knocking over a lawn chair. He continued to backpedal, hands raised high. His face contorted and his eyes widened before he turned and fled into the crater at a full sprint. Dust kicked up behind him as he ran, sneakers pounding the earth, arms pumping. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit,” he shouted.
I tore the cooler lid off and tossed it to the side. It clunked against the ground. I stacked soda cans like firewood in the crook of my arm, then ran for it, arms full. The one I tucked under my chin fell, and I stopped to go back as footsteps thumped my way. “Hey, wait,” the kid said as he returned.
Leave it, I thought, doing a one-eighty.
A half mile later, I looked back, but the kid hadn’t followed. I slipped off the small backpack Scott had given me for the trip and secured my stolen booty.
Great, just freaking great, I thought. I should have kept my mouth shut and waited for a chance to slip away when he wasn’t looking. At least then, I reasoned, there would have been a chance that he would have explained away my appearance as an elaborate prank, that being the most plausible explanation. Now he had seen me move and heard me speak. He’d tell his friends; word of my appearance might get back to the Bodhi Group. Well, I told myself, maybe they won’t believe him, or they’ll consider it a marijuana-induced hallucination.
Whatever happened now, it was time for me to go. If I guessed right, the hikers wouldn’t make it back up the crater for a half hour or more. Adding time for the kid to get to them, I’d have an hour’s head start or so, and that was assuming they believed his story and came back right away. I skirted the perimeter of the crater, keeping an eye out for any other people, but I saw none. Isolated and hostile to life, the region was visited only by geologists and tourists with any regularity. Tourists kept to the roads, but geologists did not, so I still needed to be careful. At least that’s what Scott had told me during our preparations.
Fifteen minutes later I left the crater behind and turned northeast. I strode over miles of rocky terrain, covered with sagebrush, grass, and wildflowers that somehow survived the dry heat. The rugged landscape consisted of a lot of low hills and shallow valleys formed out of volcanic maars and cinder cones left behind by ancient conflagrations. I trudged up and down them for a while before the peaks and dales gave way to flatter, sandier terrain with far less foliage.
I walked north from there, toward a distant rise in the earth a few miles off.
That must be Easy Chair, I thought, thinking of the crater formed out of a two-million-year-old cinder cone volcano. From where I stood, it looked like any other hill. The crater and the sloping arms that had led to its name must have lain on the other side, beyond my view.
I thanked Scott in my thoughts for supplying me with satellite photos of the region. Although my visions and inner sense pointed me in the direction of my goal like a compass knows magnetic north, I still needed to navigate the difficult topography and wouldn’t have known what to expect without them. Going in a straight line was fine for crows, but not for terrestrial beings.
My mind wandered again after a while, returning to my earliest memories, just before I’d first encountered the Bodhi Group, just before they’d taken me.
Sometime a day or two before that fateful meeting, I remembered waking up from a deep sleep, surrounded by ice and fog. Clusters of crystals glimmered and gleamed, illuminating the haze, reflecting in a kaleidoscope of colours off the clear ice walls of a massive cavern.
I’d awakened with a sense of urgency, alarmed by some threat I could no longer remember. I had the vague sense that I needed to protect something that had been taken from me or that was threatened.
To do that, I remembered leaving the ice cave, in a vortex of blues and whites, and arriving in a large cavern, surrounded by alien people and equipment. It was the Bodhi Group, a secret US-led multinational collaboration of Western countries, corporations, universities, and other organizations established with the primary mission of researching and developing tools and technologies capable of quelling any threats to democracy, freedom, and peace.
I didn’t know that then as I stood before their representatives and researchers within a large circular structure. The building’s high ceiling towered over my head, supported by thick stone columns, squatting within another large cavern as big as the one from which I’d just travelled. This one was lit by strings of lightbulbs arrayed on temporary metal stands, rather than whatever magical light had illuminated the previous one, but with most of it lost in deep shadow.
A blinking audience stared at me from the steps leading up to the platform on which I stood. I took a few steps forward and spoke. They looked at each other, then at me, with wrinkled brows and shaking heads. One of them shouted orders—gibberish to me—and a man in a yellow hard hat ran off. The one who had shouted approached me like I was a bomb ready to go off, speaking soft-toned words that I didn’t understand. From that, everything else followed.
The next few weeks were a lot of gesticulation, drawing patterns in the dust, and fruitless vocalization, working out a basic vocabulary for communication. After several days of shouting and more than a little swearing, I finally succeeded in communicating my fears and they agreed to help, inviting me to go with them to what I later came to know as the Bodhi Institute: a secret underground facility that housed research and development laboratories focused on the development of weapons to combat those threats I mentioned earlier—chief among them the Soviet threat. There, they told me, I could live in cold comfort, drinking more of the wondrous libations of dark sugar water they offered as gifts during our initial meetings. They were happy to help, they said, but they needed my help too: just a bit of research to help in the fight against the Red Menace, then we’ll help with your problem.