For the first time since she had woken up—God had it only been that morning?—Rachel found herself with space to think as she and her two companions trudged through the desert. They had been walking for perhaps an hour at this point, and Rachel was finally starting to relax; the first thirty minutes or so she kept expecting some new calamity to strike, but apparently the narrative had exhausted itself with the snake and the army. At one point, she'd had to stop and just lean on her knees while she breathed through a massive attack of jitters. She wasn't sure if it was anxiety over what might happen, or just a delayed reaction to the absurd amount of violence she'd found herself thrust into. In any case, Bafubani didn't bother to stop walking, and Malken was evidently too cowed to do much more than hover inarticulately nearby. When she'd finally achieved something approaching equilibrium, they'd had to walk fast to catch up with the rabbit woman.
As she sought something to distract herself, Rachel's first thought was to get Bafubani and Malken talking. Every instinct from her past life was telling her that she needed to get a handle on her companion's temperaments so she could successfully find a place for herself.
On the other hand, unlike every other instance where she'd woken up in a new place, this time she was the person people needed to please because, hey…giant killer snake. She hadn't forgotten that Bafubani had thrown her straight into a conflict with people she had no grudge against, and if she wanted to avoid being drawn into politics she neither understood nor truthfully cared about, she needed to establish her personal priorities first. And if she was going to do that, she needed a better handle on her situation.
Snake? she thought to herself. You awake in there?
I need you to tell me exactly what has happened to us. You said that I would "consume" you, but I have no idea what that means. How are you able to take over my body? Am I in danger of becoming some sort of weird snake woman and losing my own identity? I need answers.
The snake didn't respond for several steps, and once again Rachel felt the strange sensation of coils flexing and sliding against one another deep in her mind. You have, in a very real way, consumed me. Perhaps there is some intrinsic difference between your original reality and this one, as I sensed the same deformity in the one who came before you. In any case, where most organisms generate a small amount of nima, at your core is the most severe nima deficiency I have ever sensed. I have some of the greatest nima reserves of anything on the planet, but am handily contained within you and even now you are still sucking down great quantities of nima from me.
Rachel frowned. Why would you want that? Doesn't having a lot of nima just mean you have a lot of power?
Nima is the flow of life. With sufficient awareness and training it is possible to manipulate it to your own ends, but nima on its own is not power, per se. As I grew larger, the amount of nima I necessarily had to consume began to outweigh the amount I could reasonably hunt. At last I descended toward the earth's core where nima is denser and more plentiful, simply so that I could survive. However, living as a thing partially integrated within molten rock is not life as I once knew it. In another few centuries or millennia I would have been little more than another natural process, part of the beating heart of the world and not truly an individual organism. Before you and your predecessor ripped through the veil, I had resigned myself to that end. But now, here I am, experiencing the world once more.
Well, that was consistent with the cryptic things the snake had told her earlier in the day. But what does me "consuming" you mean for me?
As we are now, not much. I have entwined us to ensure I can help you integrate with this reality, and to allow us to communicate as individuals. However, I would prefer to passively experience the world through your senses. Manipulating your physical self to the extent that we have done today is something that should only be reserved for emergencies. There is too much danger of me forgetting or breaking your intrinsic patterns, and should that happen you would not only die, but I would likely revert in short order to my original form. I am unsure what about you it is that causes this nima vacuum, and do not wish to risk it.
Very well, thought Rachel. What about me going home? You said you could help with that, right?
Correct. I was quite close when the phenomena that brought you to this reality occurred, and I believe with effort we could reproduce the effect, should you will it. At the present, it is regrettably not possible, however. We will need to learn together how to more tightly entwine when needed, since you will need to take an active role in drawing yourself through the veil.
Rachel shrugged to herself. That's fine. You mentioned my "predecessor" a couple of times, right? Well, I need to find him before I can go home.
Excellent, hissed the snake. That serves my desires very well. I knew I was right to approach you, Rachel.
Well, that had been informative. Rachel now knew two things: the snake could read her thoughts to some extent, so there wasn't any point in trying to come up with plans privately, and the connection went both ways. Throughout their internal discussion she'd focused on trying to determine if the snake was lying or dissembling, and from what she'd sensed she didn't think the concept of dishonesty was something the snake even understood. Distraction, perhaps, as it felt it was needed, but she got the feeling that deception was alien to it.
That the snake's goal was apparently just to experience the world was quite the godsend for her. She didn't frankly understand it, but then again she was a completely different species and her age compared to its was basically a rounding error. Perhaps by the time she was ready and able to go home the snake would be able to extricate itself from her and live a normal life again. That would be nice.
In any case, her personal priorities were clear: find Xavier, save him from whatever mess he'd gotten himself into, and then get the two of them home with the help of the snake.
But before she turned her attention to her companions, she needed to clear one thing up.
Snake, what's your name?
Name? I am a snake.
Yeah, but I can't exactly just call you "snake" all the time. What if we run across other snakes?
There are no other snakes like me.
Rachel chuckled in exasperation. But what should I call you? Look, it's a human thing. We like to attach names to stuff.
Call me whatever you like.
Hmm. That was kind of a puzzler. Rachel couldn't think of any really good snake names. There was that Greek snake that ate its own tale, but the name was escaping her at the moment, and other than that she couldn't recall any good snakes in literature. Oh, well. She'd just have to pick something random, then.
I'll call you Sedgewick.
She'd always liked that name, for some reason. Even if it did make her giant, killer passenger sound like some sort of old English butler.