ORIGINAL FICTION: "Star Sheep Enterprise (Conclusion)" by Kathryn Garrison Kellogg
PLEASE NOTE: This is part 2 of the story. Part 1 is online here: http://republibot2.nfshost.com/content/original-fiction-star-sheep-enter...
I brooded. I tried not to think about Hope. She was one of my special pets. All the sheep had been genetically selected to produce twins, but Hope had had two sisters, Faith and Charity. Their mother had been able to rear twins, but the third one needed to be raised on a bottle, and so I picked the smallest of the triplets and reared her myself. Hope wasn’t the only "bottle baby" I’d had in Scotland, but she was the only one who had made the cut to come with me to Thera; the excuse I’d given was that, as a triplet, she was more likely to produce triplets herself (and thus be of greater value) but the real reason was that I’d gotten attached to her. I was just glad that the consortium funding the colony had accepted my excuse. Faith and Charity came, too. It may have messed with the "genetic diversity" of the flock, but three sisters out of a thousand sheep couldn’t be too much of a problem, especially when the other two got assigned to different bands. Their computerized ear tags would make sure they and their progeny would be kept separated by at least three orders of generation. That is, if they were permitted to live…
Section Twelve lay on the other side of a spur from one of the dormant volcanoes, and as I found a nice level path to chug over, I expected to see six hundred and forty acres of virgin grass liberally speckled with my sheep, all happily munching. What I actually saw when I crested the ridge was completely baffling:
The sheep were gathered in a bunch at the bottom of the slope, looking exactly as though kept in bounds by a fence, only there wasn’t any fence. Captain was standing there looking frustrated and exhausted, and when he heard the hum of the tractor engine, he turned and gave a grateful bark. 'bout time! I heard, very faintly, since I was almost out of transmitter range.
I decided it best to just park the rig and go find out what the trouble was. Captain came loping up to meet me, his tongue lolling twice its normal length. I dropped to a knee and ruffled his head as he collapsed in front of me, panting hard.
"What’s the matter?" I asked, and his response sounded weary, but from disgust, since the words had nothing to do with his breathing.
sheep no go in field he stated.
I looked over his head at the flock. They were all looking back at me. A few of them vocalized, but for the most part, they were eerily silent. I started to get a bad feeling that ran from between my shoulders to my guts. This wasn’t normal, by any stretch of the term. They should have poured into that valley like grain through a chute.
"Well, make them go into the field!" I said to Captain, who just looked at me like I was an idiot making a bad joke. If he’d had arms, he would have gestured in frustration.
Cap try. sheep no go in field. say smell bad. he told me, getting to his feet and barking.
And the sheep, responding to his bark, all began to bleat as one. It sounded like a very large, badly tuned pipe organ.
When they quieted down enough for me to speak, I asked Captain, "They say it ‘smells bad?’ What do you mean, ‘smells bad?’"
Captain almost rolled his eyes. dirt smell bad! he replied. come! you smell!
I followed my dog down into the field, and he briefly touched his nose to the grass, then looked imploringly up at me. dirt smell bad! he insisted. you smell too!
Now, when a dog tells you to smell something that it thinks smells bad, you proceed with caution. I got down on my hands and knees, put my face close to the grass, and gave it a hesitant sniff. At first, I only smelled grass, but then I noticed another smell, a…a bad smell…like chemicals….
I sat up, took a breath of the higher air to reset my palate, then bent over and took a longer, more intense sniff. The sheep were right. There was an awful odor down there, just a few inches off the ground—
I stood. Couldn’t smell it up there, nor at waist height or even knee height. It was only down close to the ground, where a sheep’s nose would be, that I could smell it, a rotten-egg odor, and something else, like burnt metal or something.
And then I suddenly felt weird, kind of woozy, and sick to my stomach. Captain saw me reel and licked my face, which revived me just enough for me to stand up and get my head into the fresh air again.
"Okay!" I said, coughing, "We’re not going into Section Twelve! Get the flock to turn around and head back over the ridge—"
dirt smell bad there too Captain interrupted. sheep no want stay. say all bad. feel sick. go home.
That was when it dawned on me, what Captain was saying, and I rubbed my face and stared hard at my dog. "Wait a second…the sheep…are talking to you?"
Now, I had a telepathic Border Collie, but for some reason, it never occurred to me that he could communicate with the sheep, too.
In answer to my question, Captain replied, simply, yeah.
He must’ve thought I was just as crazy as I thought he was. Crazy or ignorant.
I looked at the flock. They were still all staring at me, like an audience waiting for the featured speaker to begin his lecture. "All of them? Can all of them—talk to you?"
old ones. lambs no. He looked over his shoulder at the sheep before adding, say hungry, want food boss now and water.
I started to cough, or laugh, or both. "All right!" I said, raising my voice so the flock could hear. Holding up both hands, I shouted, "Boss get food—you go back last camp!" I’m not sure why I started using Captain’s idiom, but it seemed to work, because the entire flock turned and started ambling back up the way it had come.
"Holy shit," I said, then looked down at Captain. "Buddy, I think you’re out a job!"
He glanced up at me. boss not know til Cap tell him he reminded me, then trotted off to follow the flock. I think I’d offended him.
As fate would have it, we ran across my supervisor, Callista, on our way back to the old camp site. A fellow shepherd, she also served as the colony’s veterinarian. She flagged me down and shouted across the seething mass of sheep, "You’re going the wrong way!"
"I know!" I shouted back, "I tried to put them in Section Twelve, but they refused. I’m taking them back to the old camp to figure out what to do next."
I watched her face scrunch up a little bit as she tried to process my words. "They refused…?"
"Yeah. Said the ground smelled bad, and it did—like rotten eggs and chemicals."
"Excuse me—what?" Her voice ascended the scale until only the dogs could hear her.
"The sheep said the ground smelled bad. I think there must be some gas leaching up through the soil—maybe that’s what’s stunting the grass growth. I’m going to set up camp and then call Kozloski in Geology and see if—"
By now the sheep had moved away from the rig, and Callista was able to jump from her Rover and stride over to my tractor and glare up at me with the most peculiar bug-eyed expression on her face. In very deliberate, measured syllables, she repeated, "The sheep told you the ground smelled bad?!"
"Yeah," I said, trying to keep a straight face, "Or at least, they can talk to Captain; he’s the one who told me why they refused to enter the field. So I got down to sheep height and had a smell, and they were right, it really smelled nauseating. So I’ll ask Koz his opinion, maybe get Larry from Ag in on it too, and see if there’s anything that might be able to stunt the growth of the grass coming up from underground."
"Show me," Callista ordered, digging her fists into her hips. I gazed back over her head.
"Well, the field’s an awful long way off now, and I have to set up all this stuff again before I can feed—"
"No!" my supervisor barked, and her face was flushing dangerously, "Show me the sheep can talk!"
I decided it was prudent not to antagonize her any further; anyway it wasn’t all that long ago when I’d been in her shoes myself. I shut down the tractor and dropped to the ground. "Mind you, Cap’s doing the translating," I said, as we walked around the front of the tractor to where the sheep were milling about under Captain’s watchful eye. "I was pretty stunned, too, when—"
"Just show me!" Callista snarled, "Because right now I am this close to having you hauled off to the freakin’ looney bin!"
Her outburst caused a number of the nearest sheep to balk and bolt; one of the first things we were taught was that losing one’s temper was counterproductive, around sheep. I whistled for Captain, and he appeared through the crowd to sit by my side. It was his style of saluting.
"Hey Cap," I said, "Any way we can prove to Dr. Callista, here, that these sheep can talk?"
Captain seemed to consider it, then asked, where andi?
Despite knowing my dog had a crush on the veterinarian’s dog, Andromeda, I understood why he was asking for her. Since we could receive only the thoughts of our own dogs over our earpieces, I turned to Callista and said, "He wants to know if Andromeda would like to have a word with the sheep?"
Callista snorted softly, then turned and shrilled out Andromeda’s recall notes. The ever-obedient Border Collie sprang out of the Rover and trotted briskly to her master’s side, perhaps expecting to be asked to perform some task with the sheep. With the exception of her ears, her entire head was white, and, coupled with the intensity of her stare, she looked like her head was a bare skull. She was always all-business, aloof, and efficient. Kind of like the progeny of a ninja and a geisha. She may have been the best dog we had in the program, but I couldn’t imagine she was very good company.
The way Captain wagged his tail said that he thought differently. Andromeda completely and utterly ignored him. I heard him sigh, all rocks all space she land mine… I glanced down at him and wondered just when he had watched Casablanca.
I cleared my throat. "Now, Andromeda has no notion of what we were just talking about, correct? I’m going to go call one of the sheep, and she can tell Andromeda herself what they told me and Cap earlier. Would you believe me then?"
Callista was rubbing the back of Andromeda’s neck, and eyeing me warily. "I’d just about have to, wouldn’t I?" she answered.
Leaving the three of my work-companions behind, I approached the flock, and became the focus of their attention. I raised my hands again, and said, calmly, "I need one of you to come talk to Dr. Callista’s dog Andi and tell them what you know about the dirt in Section Twelve."
They looked uneasy, shifting their feet; none of them really trusted Andromeda because she was such an aggressive dog. In a lower voice, I added, "Look. This could be really important, ladies. Your lives could depend on this."
There was a jostling, and several of the ewes gave way so that one sheep could step out of the flock.
It was Hope.
I struggled to stifle the smile that welled up from my chest, reaching out to scratch the ewe’s forehead. "That’s my girl," I whispered, then turned back to rejoin Callista and the dogs, praying that she wouldn’t suspect some trick because the spokesheep for my flock was my known favorite. I counted on Callista not being able to recognize her out of four hundred and ninety-nine similar ones. Hope paced quietly along by my side.
"Tell Dr. Callista what you told me, about the grass," I said to the ewe, and held my breath.
For a long moment, the only sound was the whistle of the wind as it blew through the fence panels on the trolleys. The ewe gazed placidly at Andromeda, whose attention had been distracted by a tuft of fleece tumbling along the ground.
Then Andi’s head snapped up, and the dog stared straight at the sheep. Andromeda tilted her head and looked exactly like that old RCA mascot dog.
Andromeda whined, laid her ears back, and looked up at Callista, and wagged her tail so low that she was hitting herself in the hocks. I saw Callista touch her earpiece, and her eyes grow large and round; then she gasped, "Why haven’t they ever spoken to us before?!"
A second later, we both had to laugh, as our dogs translated for us Hope’s laconic reply.
sheep say everything much okay up til now.
Callista helped me set up camp, and I had never been so grateful for the assistance, because it’s a big job and I was exhausted after having to break it all down earlier. I think she was mainly interested in finding out more about the sheep, because that’s all she could talk about. I think she might also have been a little miffed that her own flock had never tried to communicate with her—and she had grown up on a sheep station in Australia. "I mean, I always thought they might be telepathic," she bubbled, "but I never had any proof—now though we have plenty of proof! Do you know what this means?"
"Yeah," I answered as I started pitching chopped hay into the augers, "It means that all those years Mankind wasted searching for intelligent life in outer space to communicate with, it was right underneath his nose the whole time!"
"No, I mean—well, yes, but that wasn’t what…I mean…" She looked at the flock, and an agonized helplessness crossed her face. "It means, how can we kill them now? How could we ever have killed them? They’re sapients…" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Why didn’t they ever say?"
"Maybe they couldn’t," I told her. "Maybe this is something that happened when the geneticists started twiddling with their DNA—like the dogs?"
"I wasn’t told they did any uplift on the sheep—not even experimentally," Callista shook her head. "And think about it—would that have been ethical?"
Captain, who was sitting on the feed bunk next to me, keeping the sheep from getting too pushy, interjected, sheep say always talk, twolegs just never listen good.
"Cap just said the they’ve always been able to speak—we just weren’t able to hear them, until now," I said to Callista.
She studied the animals. "I wonder if it would work to put a chip in their brains, like the dogs have…"
"I think it’s more practical to let the dogs translate—the sheep might be ‘speaking’ in a completely different manner than what we interpret as language. Remember, the dogs needed to be engineered to think in English rather than pictures."
sheep talk like boss many words Captain interrupted. This startled me.
"He says they talk like us," I told Callista. Then I bent over my dog. "Cap, would you be able to repeat something they tell you, word-for-word?"
He looked puzzled, flicking his ears forward and back. yeah.
I straightened. "Go call Andromeda. I want you to be able to hear this, too."
A few minutes later, we were gathered with the dogs and Hope outside of the feeding area, which was a noisy confusion. We instructed the dogs to relay to us every word the ewe said, exactly as she said it; it was one thing to know that the sheep were able to communicate telepathically, but now we wanted to be able to talk to them directly. To hear them in their own words.
"Hope," I said to her, as she munched from a bowl of sweet crumbles, "how long have your kind been able to speak?"
we amuns have always been able to talk to each other, mind to mind, Captain repeated, slowly and carefully, it’s how we stay together when we are out feeding on the range. you twolegs just were not able to hear us. we felt sorry for you because you were not telepathic. we figured you were just kind of stupid.
Captain whined and looked at me apologetically, and Andromeda also seemed embarrassed by the sheep’s insult, but I had a hard job not laughing. Sheep thought humans were stupid!
"Why did you allow us to use you as livestock, then?" Callista demanded. Hope looked up at her and flicked an ear backward and forward, the ear in which she wore her tag, with E20587-9-41 printed on it.
it was the bargain we made with your kind, ten thousand years ago. we realized that you could protect us, so we came down out of the hills and cast our lot with you.
"But we killed you and ate you!" Callista half-shrieked. Andromeda whined in distress to see her master so upset. "How could you let yourselves be treated like that?!"
you send your own out to be killed in war, the ewe responded, is that not more wasteful than giving up your body so that those who protect you may eat?
The ewe nibbled another mouthful of grain. you feed us and shelter us, you keep us safe from harm…you rescue us when we are in trouble, and save our babies when we are helpless to do so…you gather our food by the sweat of your brow, and give us medicine when we are sick. when one of us is missing, you search for her until you find her. you care for us. you love us. is it not right that we should nourish you with our bodies?
Callista was looking confused and horrified, and Hope reached out to nudge the veterinarian’s limp hand with her soft muzzle. A day or two ago, I would have thought she was bumming more feed. Now I realized she was trying to comfort the woman.
when we are old, the sheep continued, we lose our teeth and our joints grow stiff. it gets difficult to move around, and to graze. our lives are in our teeth. we do not want to suffer hunger and helplessness. it is far better to die quickly young than slowly old. you who care for us would not want us to suffer, either.
A few of the others came over, checked inside Hope’s now-empty feed pan, then stood quietly listening.
we protest unfair treatment. we do not enjoy pain. if we are treated kindly, we go along with what you wish. we know that you do not want anything bad to happen to us. we know that it is not your fault that the ground is making the grass sick, and we know that you do not want us to die. the fields are in a bad place. there is poison in the ground. you must move the pasture to higher ground, but away from the black hills.
"Black hills?" Callista interrupted.
"The volcanoes," I guessed. "There must be volcanic gases coming up through the soil."
"But all the survey teams said—"
"All the survey teams were wrong, weren’t they?"
"Oh, and you think we’re going to be able to convince them to move the entire settlement on the recommendation of a sheep?" Callista snorted.
"No—not a sheep," I replied quietly. "Five. Thousand. Sheep."
Well, the science types went out to Section Twelve, and ran some tests, and sure enough, it turned out that the rock grinding had made the crust permeable enough so that the "previously undetected" volcanic gases could ooze up to the surface, gases like hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide, in amounts that weren’t quite enough to actually kill anybody, but which could have become a much more serious problem had we not discovered it. The gases stunted the roots and slowed the growth of the grass, and the only way to fix it was to abandon the most badly affected fields to allow a few years of thatch to build up and bind the soil into a less-porous matrix.
I’d remarked on the peculiar way the air had smelled when I first disembarked; apparently the colonists had gotten used to it and no longer noticed it. The wind dissipated most of the gases, but further investigation revealed that some of the storage buildings were capturing increasingly hazardous levels of toxins. The water, too, was double checked, and some of the wells had to be capped off.
I wish I had a picture of Dr. Kaplan’s face when I brought my suspicions to him, and told him how the idea had come to me. He thought I’d been spending way too much time with my animals, but a brief chat with Hope brought him completely into our camp. He suggested, though, that it might be more prudent not to let it get out into the general public that the sheep were sapient, and as Chief Agronomist for the colony, I could understand that his reputation and career might be on the line.
But Callista argued that the sheep had been responsible for making the discovery, and, if it turned out that the colony had been in danger, then we owed them our lives. Dr. Kaplan took a deep sigh and said, "We owe them our lives, anyway. After all, they’re pivotal to the success of this project—this isn’t one of those sci-fi stories with a Food-O-Matic that can synthesize whatever we need out of rocks and air. The whole point of our being here is to make this colony self-sustaining. The sheep are the most cost-efficient and practical way of providing us with food and raw materials for building the colony up. We use cutting-edge science, but in the end, we’re doing it the time-honored, old-fashioned way. All the technology in the world won’t make a bit of difference if you can’t put food on the table."
He looked at Hope, who was placidly nibbling on some samples of new Thera-bred grass strains being grown in a series of pots along the wall of the Ag Sciences building. "And you say they don’t mind being…you know…" Words failed him and he drew a thumb across his throat.
"As long as it’s done with respect and compassion…they say it’s part of the bargain we made." I told him.
"Bargain? What bargain?" asked the scientist.
"We’d protect them," I replied, "and they’d civilize us."
Dr. Kaplan regarded the ewe before him. I don’t know whether his smile was wry or resigned. "It’s amazing how many times thoughout history sheep have saved our skins," he mused. "And it looks like they’re about to do it again."
He leaned over with his hands on his knees and said in a joking tone, "Hey, Hope, how about you and your buddies show us where we ought to have set up the colony, eh?"
She stopped her browsing and looked directly at the ag man, with a sprig of the sample grass still caught between her lips, and her gaze was so steady that Dr. Kaplan blinked rapidly and cringed back a little bit. He knew she was answering him, but since he’d given me back Captain’s receiver, he had to turn to me. "Wh-what did she say?" he asked, and I looked down at Captain.
sheep say just say when, my dog translated.
It took some doing, but we moved the colony about ten miles to the east, and about five hundred feet higher from where it had been originally set up. The official reason given was that the geophysical engineers had determined that the ground was essentially unstable, and we could suffer a devastating volcanic event within five or ten years—which was true; the new site had enough of a separation from the gas field that we didn’t have to worry about being poisoned in our sleep.
We let the flock wander, and where they stopped, we set out our markers.
We still needed to feed the flock chopped hay from theGolden Hoof IV, but in the meantime, the grass in the less-poisoned fields began to grow as the fertilizer from the sheep did its thing, and within a few months the barren ground was verdant. We left it to grow for hay, which we would be able to use as per the original plan on the new sections that the rock grinders were busily preparing. It was a round-the-clock operation, but since it was all we had to do, we went at it full-bore until it was done.
When the Golden Hoof V arrived a few months later, the crew was annoyed that we had "arbitrarily" moved the settlement, but we told them where they could get off. It wasn’t like we’d pulled a Roanoke Colony on them, after all, and the new town site was actually much more attractively situated and enjoyed fresher air from the higher location. The flock had chosen very well. The groundwater even tasted better since it wasn’t picking up the gases from the volcanic vent.
So that’s how the colony started out. We had our ups and downs, we learned a lot, and we eventually forged ourselves into a real community, out there on an island in a vast sea of stars.
But mostly we learned not to take anything for granted. That lesson we learned from five thousand sheep and a couple of Border Collies.
Copyright 2012, Kathryn Garrison Kellogg