The old man read the Sacred Tract for the 29,505th time. Partly because it was his job, partly because it was the only way he had of keeping track of time. This was the second to last reading of the day. Sixty more readings, twenty more days, would mark his twenty-seventh year as the Xi-kun. He took his role very seriously, and was determined to have an epiphany before the anniversary. The Xi-kun was the religious leader of the small lunar colony that had begun as a penal institution. In the seventeen generations since its founding, the North Pole Colony had become self-sufficient, growing its own varieties of grain, recycling all air and water, and hunting the rats and giant cockroaches for meat. Which was a good thing - the last contact with Earth had happened some fourteen generations before. The last message had been simply, "Oh, sh-" And then they had witnessed the Great Conflagration, which had devoured the earth in a purifying fire. The third Xi-kun had puzzled over the last message for years, but had never deciphered its meaning. The Xi-kun since had largely forgotten about it, and concentrated on their duties - advising the Warden (also a hereditary position), reading the Sacred Tract, comforting the lost souls of the NPC, and practicing their withering glares. The seventeenth Xi-kun was spiritually descended from the first Xi-kun, a prisoner who had been a Buddhist, whatever that was. But he was different from the rest. For one thing, he deeply desired to translate the mysteries of the Sacred Tract. For another, he didn't give a rat's ass (considered the most savoury of morsels) about the rules. He could, and often did, discuss the text with the uninitiated, which was anyone else. Specifically, with the Warden, who knocked on his door. "Come in." "Greetings, Holy Xi-kun," said the Warden, a fat, jolly old fellow named Nick. "Greetings, Warden," the old man glared, more out of habit than any particular nuisance. "And have you found enlightenment in the Sacred Tract today?" the Warden asked, while his diminutive assistant sniggered. "No. Shall we discuss the Aether?" The Warden nodded. "It would hardly do to break with tradition. We are after all, old men." "Indeed." They discussed the Tract, which was ancient. Its two pages were preserved somewhat by the moon's atmosphere, or lack thereof, but now the paper was beginning to yellow. Or maybe it had been yellow to start with. The Tract itself was considered Sacred, as it hadn't been written by the Xi-kun, but had simply appeared, found in the washroom of the port. "So you still say that the four elements - air, earth, fire and water, are surrounded and supported by this Aether?" "I don't say it, the Tract does. But I say we should light a fire, to see. I still think this is the way to the Aether, and our ticket off this rock." The Warden shook his head, "We cannot, Xi-kun. Fire is forbidden - it eats the air too quickly. We would perish. Besides, we have nothing to burn." The Xi-kun sighed, looking out his porthole. "And I tell you we do. We have the old wooden cross, brought by the second Xi-kun. It will burn, I'm sure of it." "And now you will say that 'By the rood, shall ye be saved.'" "It says so, right there in the Tract." "I'm still not sure how you get 'cross' from 'rood'." "It just _is_, that's all. It is a _known_ thing, it is." here he faltered, "the wisdom of the Xi-kun, which has been preserved." "But what _is_ the Aether?" The Xi-kun slumped his shoulders in defeat. "I don't know. It holds the heavens, which I understand to be the velvet above where the stars lay, but I suspect that it passes between us and the earth." "You still maintain that if we light a fire, we can get back to Earth?" "Well, it's better than the theory of magic Rain Deers that your assistant came up with." "Hey!" "Enough," said the Warden, "I'm sorry, Xi-kun. I cannot allow a fire. Not until you can tell me more about the Aether." The Warden and his assistant left, repeating the performance of the last several years. The Xi-kun paced in his compartment, holding the yellow tract in his hand and reciting the sacred verses aloud, reminding himself that this must be the last time he read them today, lest he lose track. His reading was disturbed by a disturbance outside his window. Out on the street, Cornelius the Rude was returning from another rat hunt. He had spent the last several weeks down in the sewers below NPC, amongst the great filtration systems that reclaimed NPC's water. He was a large, burly man, who well deserved his moniker, being the crudest, crassest, meanest individual in NPC, with the most ridiculous accent. But he brought back the rats and the roaches, and was loved for it. There was talk of his being the next Warden, much to the dismay of the assistant. As he distractedly watched Cornelius shoving away an admirer, epiphany struck. "The Rude! The Rude!" he shouted, tearing out the door. On the street, the old man practically knocked Cornelius over, casually defying the laws of physics and inertia. "By the Rude shall ye be saved," he said, bowing low. "Please, Cornelius, is there fire down below?" Cornelius, taken aback by the attention of the old man, promptly fired a fist at the Xi-kun's head. Not used to this sort of treatment, the Xi-kun's neck snapped, and he fell back, gazing at the starts and dreaming of the Aether. The Warden and his assistant shoved through the gathered crowd, finding the Xi-kun dead and Cornelius weeping. "I don't get it," said the assistant, "Why'd the Xi-kun cross the Rude?" The Warden smiled in an epiphany of his own, "To get to the Aether side."
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