} "Damn," muttered the old prospector. "another vein shot to hell."
} Picking had been pretty lean this year anyway. It was hard enough with
} the queue drainers in the valley - at least a fellow could tell there
} was nothing worth panning for and move on. But this was different. Not
} only had all the good stuff been picked out, but it had been replaced
} with this junk. "Worse'n fools gold." the old man grated.
} He remembered the glory days at the beginning of the rush. Always
} plenty of questions, plenty of -good- answers, and the digests were
} infrequent enough that the Priests had time to pick out the REAL gems,
} put 'em up where all could see. Youngsters like him in that day had a
} model, someone to look up to, someone to emulate.
} But then it started to change. Gradually at first, then faster. Every
} fall brought its share of newbies at school - kids with stars in their
} eyes and shiny new e-mail addresses. They all made the same mistakes,
} the same jokes, the same questions, but eventually an old timer would
} take each one aside and explain why the woodchuck query just wasn't
} funny any more.
} Bless 'em all, they learned - every one of 'em. They learned or they
} grew bored and left - all the same in the end. Some of 'em even started
} teaching the newbies the next fall. Now -those- were Supplicants and
} Incarnations to be proud of! They just jumped right in and started
} But now, it was different. The influx of snot-nosed kids was constant.
} First it was AOL. Then Juno and Hotmail. They swarmed the queue like
} locusts, eating everything in their path and leaving nothing but
} insults and four-letter words. Frequently in all caps. There were just
} too many to teach. No sooner would one be shown the way than he'd get
} bored, or discover girls (or maybe boys - the old timer never asked,
} and the kids never told), or find some high-bandwidth-low-content Web
} page, full of dancing baloney, to waste CPU cycles on. Then another
} would replace him. And another, and another, and another...
} "I'm getting too old fer this," muttered the prospector. "Too old. I
} ain't seen a decent question in months, let a lone a grovel..."
} But now this. Not content to strip the landscape bare, the kids were
} filling it back up with useless trash. The once productive landscape
} now yielded only non-questions, as full of wit as a dead modem and
} about as valuable. Even null questions were better than this - at least
} an Incarnation could give a guy the benefit of the doubt, choosing to
} believe he was just a little too quick on the Send key, too anxious for
} a bit of Oracular wisdom and humor, and forgot to actually type his
} question first. But now, it was obvious. They took the time to write
} something, just to prove they weren't going to write anything. Like
} laying meat just out of a starving dog's reach... so close, but so far
} away. It was Hell, pure and simple.
} The prospector stood, stretched mightily, and stepped back from his
} terminal. The ping of arriving mail caught his notice, but he'd had
} enough. It would wait 'til morning. Or forever - he just didn't care
} any more. Still, old habits die hard. He bent over to squint at the
} screen. The subject caught his eye: "The Oracle replies!" His heart
} skipped a beat. "A reply? I haven't sent a question in ages..." He
} opened the message and read his question, recognition dawning. It was
} one he'd sent weeks ago, and had forgotten about it in the slew of
} searching for a question worthy of his Incarnation talents. But what
} really got his attention was the reply. It was clumsily written, but it
} was original. No r.h.o.d inside jokes, no four-letter words, and the
} spelling was atrocious, but it was funny!
} "Maybe..." he paused. "maybe there's hope after all." He thought. "A
} good answer starts with a good question. Guess I better start writing
} good questions." He sat down and composed a message. And another, and
} another, and another... the hunt was on. Not for grovels, not for
} questions, not for answers, but for something much more important. The
} old man paused a moment, remembering an old joke and paraphrasing the
} punch line: "With all this crap, there must be an Oracle in here