sleepy Nyingla
sleeping Nyingla

Tough Times

    Palk was now a reader.  And not just any reader.  Two years ago, at eighteen, he had become the youngest initiate to start the difficult study of the ancient scripts.  Just one year later he had volunteered for duty among the ghosts, and had been accepted.  Within six months he had found and brought back his first relic.  The thin, frail paper of those days, soaked in floods, chewed around the edges, but still legible, traced the fall of a meteor in a snowbound wasteland.

    His father shook his head and muttered that no one had ever survived a winter by reading, but Palk didn't care.  He was young and impractical and full of large ideas.  The very next day he sneaked off to the city again.

    Palk's zeal couldn't stop him from being cold to the bone.  After a good sixth of the day spent rowing, and then walking through huge, weed-filled streets, now he sat on his creaky stool in front of the old, rusted table in one of the buildings of books.  Great ruined gaps in the ancient structure's thick stone walls let in light for him to see by, but they also let in whistling wind and dry, rattling leaves.  Ghosts whispered in every corner where he wasn't looking.  He pulled his leather cloak more tightly over his knitted shirt, and curled his toes inside his straw-filled clogs.  He thought of what his father was going to do when he returned home with paper instead of turnips.

    In front of him, carefully spread out, lay a fragile printed document, the color in the pictures still detectable after three hundred years.  He scowled at one picture in particular, of a happy group climbing some structure, wearing the impossibly thin and elegant shoes of the day.  They obviously didn't have to stuff their shoes with any itchy straw.

    Pulling himself back to his task, he quoted the priests' saying, 'Hatred reduces knowledge.  Knowledge reduces hatred.'  Only wiser heads than his could decide why brainless, careless butterflies were privileged to live in the Age of the Gods, while he suffered cold, and hunger, and hard labor.  But unbidden thoughts tugged the corners of his mouth up: the flutterheads and their good shoes were all long dead, and the peasants had survived.

    He looked carefully all over the page before turning it.  Nothing there about about comets or meteors, or, the new word he had recently learned, asteroids.  Then on to the next page.  The light faded imperceptibly as the sun slid past noon, yet Palk looked out through the gaps and noted it.  He had to be sure to leave himself enough daylight.  Just because, as a reader, he was on speaking terms with the ghosts, didn't mean he wanted to be at their mercy when they walked.

    On the tenth page he finally found something of interest.  "Perseid storm the best ever!"  Most readers would have missed it, since the important key words everyone searched for were omitted, but this was precisely why Palk was so good.  His mind made connections, and kept them, and from somewhere he recalled that certain meteors had been called 'Perseid' in those far off times.  Carefully he removed the page, and noted that the writing was to be continued in the next issue.  He went back to get it, but, plague and triple-plague, there was that cryptic sign again: "Further issues stored online."  He had to admit there were parts of the huge building where even he was afraid to go, but he had looked almost everwhere, and never found anything labelled "online."

    Reciting another of the priests' homilies, "Do what you can, forget what you can't," he returned to studying the pages.  It was almost time to leave when his eye fell on a small boxed item.

"Near Earth Asteroid Survey Cancelled.  Ten million dollars to continue mapping the orbits of earth-crossing asteroids was cut today in the final House-Senate conference on next year's budget.  Lieutenant Garcia of Space Command testified that altering asteroid orbits was feasible if they were known far enough in advance.  However, Congressperson Wokes, Head of the Appropriations Committee, noted that times were tough, and that the Committee had to make difficult choices, allocating taxpayer money to projects of the most practical benefit to all."

    The wind whistled through the huge dead rooms.  Palk stared at the page, unseeing.  Finally, he noticed the dimming light and jumped up with a start.  Carefully he took the page, and cautiously picked his way through the rubble out to the open.  The wind caught his cloak and his hair.

    Few people counted much beyond a hundred in Palk's day.  He wasn't quite sure how much "ten million" was.  Maybe, he thought, as he flitted down the broken street to his boat, it was more money than there was in all the world?