ORIGINAL FICTION: "Star Sheep Enterprise (Part 1)" by Kathryn Garrison Kellogg         

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

I.

I arrived on the transport ship Golden Hoof IV on what my log recorded as April the twenty-seventh, 2145. Although I did have college degree, I’m not what you would consider a rocket scientist. The colony didn’t need more rocket scientists, it needed construction workers, surveyors, and…farmers.

I had a hard time convincing myself that I was actually an astronaut, since my field of expertise is animal husbandry. But as I’d once heard it described to me, if you’re wearing aluminum pants, and riding in a space ship, in space—then you’re an astronaut.

I suppose that made my charges astronauts, too, although they couldn’t quite manage the aluminum pants part. That’s because they’re sheep.

Five thousand sheep.

I wasn’t in charge of them all—there were about a dozen of us involved with the terraforming program—but I had hardly had the opportunity to reflect upon the enormity of my responsibility before the whirlwind of training was over, and we had actually embarked . We were part of the third wave of colonists; those that had gone before had done the yeoman’s work in preparing for human habitation what was once an unprepossessing extrasolar moon with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and just enough sunlight to permit the growth of grass.

I was taught just enough about spacefaring to understand what was going on, and to not become a burden to the crew in case of an emergency. My job was to take care of the sheep, and to not push any buttons.

The ships were all built in orbit, due to their immense size, and took six months to load, shuttle by shuttle. The hay was contract-grown all over the world, so that there was a nearly continuous harvest. It seems strange to think of something as high-tech as a spacecraft equipped with a near-lightspeed star drive carrying a cargo of hay and sheep, but there it is. 

The ship had to be fitted out with artificial gravity, not so much for the comfort of the human crew, but for the benefit of the sheep. Humans can rationalize zero-g conditions, but animals can’t. I remember reading about the first experiments in sending sheep into orbit. The poor confused beasts paddled about for a while like so many fleecy white clouds. Then they began to express their consternation in a way inimitable to their kind…let’s just say they have itchy trigger fingers on their bladders in the best of times. Floating about like clouds was a sure way to induce a very unpleasant rain squall. So unless we wanted to spend two years diapering them, the ship would have to have artificial gravity. 

When our ship had set out, we didn’t have anywhere near five thousand animals on board, but as we say, sheep happen, so we were all pretty glad to finally reach our destination after two years. Even the mineralish tinge of the thin atmosphere smelled better than what we’d gotten used to on board the Golden Hoof IV. One of the cargo holds which had been stuffed full of feed at departure, now contained tons of precious black compost. It was good to breathe fresh air, air that didn’t taste like sheep, and the sheep seemed just as grateful to finally be allowed room to run about and stretch their legs. The rotation of the ship had been slowly matched to the lesser gravity of Thera, so that by the time we arrived, the sheep—and their keepers—were fully acclimated.

The ranch had been set up as the center of the colony. This was where the initial efforts to create viable soil that could grow grass had been concentrated by the second wave of pioneers. We had brought enough compressed hay with us in the Golden Hoof IV to last the sheep for two years, beyond what they would have consumed on board; we expected a supply ship to be following us within a few months, just to ensure the success of the project. On board, the sheep had been fed chopped hay, which was easier to store and made less of a mess, but planetside, the consuming of actual hay was part of the grand plan.

The concept we were working with was to start the sheep in one area, then move the flock out in concentric rings as the inner fields became overgrazed and thoroughly manured, and the distant outer rings got the soil prepared and the grass started. Agricultural procedures would then be performed on the fields that had been "treated to the golden hoof"—which is where the name of the transport ships came from. It was a model used by the ancient Egyptians as they drove their flocks over their agricultural grounds. 

No hay had been harvested yet, because the first season’s grass had been left to grow, and the second season’s grass had been mowed and allowed to rot into the nascent soil as "green manure." 

The grass was important. So important that huge grinding machines had spent several years tilling the rocky soil, and then an expedition had arrived bearing crates upon crates of microbes, bacteria, fungus, insects, and worms, all contained in a compost matrix, to begin the process of turning what was essentially sand into the precious, life-sustaining compound we all take for granted: dirt. Dirt, as it turns out, is not really as "common as dirt" in the galaxy. And on another planet, it wasn’t "dirt cheap," either.

So important is fertile dirt to human existence, that we had named our mother-planet "Earth."

I’d spent a lot of time, learning about dirt, and now I was getting the opportunity to be part of the manufacture of the stuff. An ancient Earth wag had once quipped that it was wise to invest in real estate, because they weren’t making any more of it; well, I was here to prove that guy wrong. 

Every day, hundreds of pounds of proto-dirt fell out of the back ends of the sheep, in the form of nutrient-rich pellets dispersed far and wide over the rolling fields the rock-grinders had sculpted for us. It was melted into the soil by the artificial-rain machines, which we had to use because there wasn’t yet enough of an evaporative cycle to cause reliable natural rainfall. Once the dung pellets had melted, the insects, worms, and microbes took over, further assimilating it into the layer of rich topsoil we were creating.

Some people think that the meek shall inherit the Earth. Well, here, the meek are the ones making the earth.

The rocks here are mostly volcanic in origin, which is one of the things the guys in charge of the project were looking for. They’d studied how life got a toehold in places like the Hawaiian Islands, and figured that if we could replicate those conditions, then we ought to be able to build a habitable and self-sustaining world in a matter of a few generations.

It was kind of a miracle that they found this planet, which they named Thera. It had everything they were hoping to find—an atmosphere we could breathe, liquid water, a magnetic field, a rotation. This last was kind of astonishing given that Thera was technically a moon, but the astrophysicists surmised that the planet had once been free-roaming and had been captured by the larger gravitational field of its primary, which had slowed Thera’s rotation but had not stopped it entirely. The wildly-spinning planet was dropped into a more regular cycle more conducive to life—"kind of like a socialite getting married to a steady sort of guy" I’d heard it described. Whatever had happened, it made Thera the prime candidate for colonization.

The other satellites in the system were too small to hold an atmosphere, but by literally astronomically good luck, this one was "just right." The influence of its sister-planet caused fairly regular volcanic and tectonic activity, which in turn was responsible for putting the water vapor and other essential gases into the air. The planet-moon had all the necessary basics for life, it just had never developed life beyond simple algaes, and believe me the survey teams had looked. There was even an ocean, in a manner of speaking, although the water had been deemed "unsafe for use" due to its chemical composition. This was discovered when they tried to grow seaweed for use as a foodstock early on in the project. The endemic stuff, though, did just fine.

The first colonists had lived in pods, which despite being extremely high-tech, and on another planet, were not much better than the crude sod huts my own ancestors had lived in on their journey across the American frontier. The project was all very well researched by the numerous robotic probes which had been sent out a century ago, because at the enormous expense involved, they could not afford to go bust. When we were being recruited, we were told in no uncertain terms that our trip to the colony was going to be one-way only. A resupply ship would come out about once a year, carrying necessities that we hadn’t been able to manufacture for ourselves, but otherwise we were going to be permanent residents. And, basically—on our own.

I can’t imagine the hardships my predecessors had endured, and I’m grateful that by the time of my arrival, a sort of town had been established, wells had been drilled, and even though the hills looked like Death Valley on a good day, the place at least had some cachet of being a home.

Sheep really are amazing creatures. It’s a shame that so many people take them for granted, because their domestication largely made human civilization possible. Their size makes them more manageable than a cow or a horse, and they are fairly docile when you take the time to work with them. Some can become as friendly and biddable as dogs. Most of ours were given names, and many of them learned to come when called. We had been encouraged to tame our sheep, for this would prove to be a handy trick once we were dispersing the flock into the unfamiliar terrain of the new world.

Their four stomachs permit them to get nutrients from all manner of vegetable matter, turning scrub and brush into meat, milk, fleece, and manure. On top of that are dozens upon dozens of other products you’d never dream had sheep-parts in them, but do, things made from the fats and hides and bones, as diverse as cosmetics and explosives. With no predators or parasites to trouble them, we had every expectation that the flock would reproduce exponentially, and with their increase, so too would increase the carrying capacity of the colony.

These particular sheep had been genetically modified to thrive in the lower-light and somewhat lower-gravity conditions of the new planet that would be their home, and most of the broodstock had been cloned from about twenty superior individual sheep. That way we would have a variety of bloodlines, but all would be adapted to the environment. Since they had been kept in the portion of the transport ship which had been designed to provide a sense of gravity, the lambs which had been born in transit would not suffer from brittle bones and other problems. Still, we monitored them closely for any signs of physical weakness, and marked those individuals who were not robust to be sent to be slaughtered. The residents of the colony were delighted to see us arrive, let me tell you—they’d been living on prepackaged rations for so long that some of them had forgotten what meat tasted like. Some of the children had never tasted meat at all.

Except that there was a little bit of a problem with the kids.

The colonial children absolutely fell in love with the sheep. It’s impossible not to smile when you see baby lambs sproinging around a field, so full of joy and life that they radiate it like living sunshine. The kids, having been born into a world without living animals, thought the sheep were the best thing to have ever happened to them. When we first disembarked, the pens around the barns became a magnet for every child within walking distance, and that was just about all of them. As a gesture of goodwill, and to prevent any mishaps with the bolder ones trying to sneak into the pens themselves, we set up a little petting zoo with a few dozen of our very tamest ones, with their lambs, where the kids could run their fingers through the thick, soft fleece, let the sheep nuzzle their hands with their velvet muzzles, and otherwise bond with the creatures that would be ensuring the success of their parents’ great gamble—to start a new life on an alien world.

They also got taught respect for the sheep, who have hard hooves, razor-sharp molars, heads like bowling balls, and outweigh some people. In three strides a sheep can deliver a blow akin to getting struck by a car. Fortunately nobody got seriously injured, but that was mainly due to the vigilance of the keepers, who had already learned the hard way not to stick their fingers in a sheep’s mouth, or to trust one too much by turning one’s back on it. Of course, it was the aggressive ones that got to be guests of honor at the barbecue.

And then there was another problem: The grass wasn’t growing fast enough to keep up with the demands of five thousand sheep. 

This was not good.

The senior shepherds were frustrated because they couldn’t understand why the grass hadn’t grown faster. The system, they told us juniors, had been worked out by terraforming a barren volcanic island in the Hawaiian chain (nice work if you can get it, wink-wink) and then by repeating the process on another barren volcanic island off the coast of Alaska, where the climate was closer to that on Thera. The area had been considerably smaller than what we had to work with here, and yet the vegetal growth had easily been able to keep up with the sheep’s grazing pressures.

The other colonists appreciated our dilemma, and did whatever they could to help. If we had to kill half the sheep, to bring the numbers in line with the reduced carrying capacity of the land, it would seriously delay the deposition of fertilizer and the creation of the topsoil that was necessary to ensure the sustainability of agriculture on the planet. Not to mention we would all get real sick of mutton.

I don’t know about the other guys, but for me, it was traumatic to consider killing off half our flock. Slaughtering a few hundred was always part of the plan, and we accepted it, but this would be more like genocide. Even if we slaughtered all the inferior females and the males not marked to be saved for breeding, we would still have too many mouths to feed. I’d spent the last two years on rather close terms with each and every animal in my personal care. They were my responsibility, and I became as fond of them as anyone could become fond of pets. I know I ought to have been more dispassionate about it, but you can’t spend every waking moment tending to and worrying about the living things in your care, and then turn around and kill them, without it really tearing at your guts.

The problem drove us nuts. It was impossible that something had been overlooked or omitted, because so much was at stake; there had been decades of robotic probes being sent to Thera to analyze the air and soil and two generations of really smart people had spent their careers designing the system that would be used to coax life out of the barren volcanic soil. Everything had been taken into account, including the periodic eclipses as Thera went into the shadow of her enormous sister-planet. Everything down to a microbial level had been planned for.

It came down to the simple matter that this was, in fact, another planet, and in all likelihood the geneticists had made a best-guess on the requirements of the grass when they created the seedstock. Perhaps they ought to have given it some additional in situ testing, but everything about the program was based on a five-year plan, and not just because it was the Russians who were coming up with the grass. We were repeatedly assured it, "grew just fine in the Siberian trials."

It was clear we had to figure out a work-around, but we were stumped. One thing we all agreed upon, was that we wouldn’t do anything drastic until we had completely run out of options. Too much had been invested in those sheep. 

And they were the darlings of the colony! It was really stirring how dedicated the colonists were to saving the entire flock. While I was spending two years learning how to manage a flock in the windswept and barren wastes of Scotland, these people were preparing the fields. While I spent another two years in transit aboard a gently rotating space ship, they were growing grass, tending it just as assiduously and lovingly as I was bringing newborn lambs into the "world." They took it personally that the meadows they had made were not sufficient to support the sheep we had brought, and they were the sort of people who found solutions, not excuses.

The decision was made, unanimously approved, to utilize the stored hay we’d brought with us to preserve the flock, while the agronomists worked on trying to figure out why the grass was not growing as robustly as it should have been. For our part, we would have to make certain that the ovine population remained at its present level, which was easier said than done. We agreed to do it, but we were also quite aware of the fact that a lot of the ewes were starting to show signs of pregnancy

II.

I was out keeping watch over the five hundred head of sheep in my personal charge. As my new world was the satellite of a giant planet, there was usually a honking big "moon" in the sky at all times. I didn’t think I’d ever truly get used to that sight. Maybe I stared at it more than I should have.

*boss think. what.*

I heard the voice in my left ear, coming to me through the small receiver device I was wearing., and glanced down at the Border Collie resting at my feet. Captain had his face turned toward mine, and a big loll-tongue grin was splitting it. Yes, this is one of the perks of being a shepherd on a new planet: I had a talking Border Collie.

More accurately, he would be a telepathic Border Collie. He was the end product of a sister-project to genetically engineer what was already considered to be "the smartest breed of dog on Earth" so that it could think in sentences coherent to human beings; then computer chips were embedded into their brains so that these thoughts would be transmitted to the receivers we shepherds wore. Those of us who had been given these special companions nicknamed them "Borger Collies."

Captain had been partnered with me as a pup while I was in Scotland, and we became a team in so many ways. We’d each been given two pups, initially, to see which was a better fit personality-wise; Scout had been a very good herd dog, but Captain was a bit of a goofball and we got along much better. Scout was paired with another shepherd whose dog had died shortly before we left Earth, while Captain became my buddy. He learned human pop-cultural references from me, so we could talk about stuff in our off hours, and I learned to appreciate the world from a dog’s perspective. I now used my nose and my ears almost more than my eyes, and Captain could read. Well, sort of. Comic books, anyway. 

"Just admiring the view," I sighed, reaching down to scratch between my dog’s soft and silky ears. Captain nudged my hand so that it was massaging his throat, which was his favorite scritchy-spot.

*woolies almost through feed* Captain told me, and I gave another sigh. "I know." The chopped hay from ship’s stores had been deposited around on the area where the sheep were supposed to be grazing, so that at least the manure and urine would be distributed as planned, but the chopped hay was more quickly and thoroughly consumed which left almost no "scrap" hay behind to help enrich the soil by covering the exposed substrate. The original plan was that they’d eat the long-stem hay, picking through it as sheep are wont to do. Back on Earth, sheep were infamous for being "hay wasters," but in the terraforming project, all the uneaten, leftover hay would serve as a mulch to protect the virgin soil and provide a moisture-retentive matrix for the grass seeds to sprout. Every round bale of hay was to be placed on a new spot of ground, to get the flocks moving further afield, and to install a carpet of organic matter. At least, that was the plan…

*Cap fetch?* asked Captain, springing to his feet. He gazed at me with his ears pricked and his tail wagging low. Border Collies are not big dogs, but they have incredible energy, and are always eager to use it. If they were machines, they’d have two settings—"off" and "eleven."

"Not yet, Cap," I told him, and he dutifully sat down on my foot. 

I checked my chron. The planet would be going into eclipse soon behind its gigantic sibling, and we would have to have our flock back in the fold before it got too dark to see our way. Sheep don’t like to move in the dark. But I wanted to give them a little more time out in the open, build a little more soil…

*Cap fetch now?* Captain asked as he nudged my hand with his cold, wet nose. Some things just can’t be genetically engineered out.

"Okay," I decided, and Cap braced eagerly with his amber eyes sparkling, waiting. I waved my arm. "Away, Cap!"

The dog bounded off in a great sweeping arc, literally flying over the field, as his Earth-born legs laughed at the lighter gravity of our new world. The outlying sentry sheep saw the black streak headed their way, stamped their feet, and began grudgingly moving toward a point roughly in the center of the field.

I leaned on my crook and watched Cap gather the sheep. Five hundred little puffs all began to move and to flow into an increasing mass, as one tiny black dynamo soared around their perimeter. I could hear his thoughts long before the actual sound of his barks came to me--*awright, move it! move it! gather up! back home now!*

I whistled—not so much to send orders to Captain, but to reinforce to the sheep that it was time to go. Captain was my co-worker, my friend, and my companion, but the truth of the matter is that I had trained my sheep to respond to my spoken commands, and they would obey me with or without the Border Collie’s insistence. What can I say? There’s not a lot to do on a space ship, and after the novelty of looking at a bazillion stars wears off, there’s only the endless rounds of chores to keep one from losing one’s mind to boredom. I had talked to my sheep as though they could understand me. I had even told them stories about all the wonderful things we would do once we got to Thera.

"Come, sheep!" I bellowed, and they let out a collective "Baa!" in response. They were swarming around me in another instant, and I had to be fast on my feet to avoid getting swept under the tide. In full fleece, a sheep can bowl a human over simply by catching him in the knees with her very shagginess. That was something else I’d learned in Scotland. I had the limp to prove it.

I didn’t want them to get too excited, because the lesser gravity would allow a normally bouncy sheep to achieve leaps of breathtaking scale. I put a finger to my earpiece to make it act as a transmitter and stated firmly, "That’ll do, Cap." I couldn’t see the dog but I didn’t want him to get the flock any more worked up than they already were. Despite living in a place with neither parasites nor predators, the sheep’s collective memories instilled in them a visceral fear of the dog that might have been blown out of proportion by the very peacefulness of their present situation. The only thing they had to worry about was the dog, and I, as their Shepherd, was the one thing that they knew would keep them safe. And each and every one of them wanted to be as close to me as possible.

Their bleating voices were deafening as they milled around me. Sheep don’t actually sound like animals—they sound like people trying to make sheep noises. Say the word "Baaaa!" in a deep voice, and that is exactly what a sheep sounds like. It’s kind of surreal.

We headed down the trail that they knew led back to their fold, with its water tank, its troughs of grain concentrate, and its racks of chopped hay. Had there been grass in the field, it would have been nearly impossible to get them to come home, but at the present time, "home" was far preferable to the acres of barren ground they’d been browsing around all afternoon.

The light was already starting to diminish as our moon headed into the shadow of the giant planet. This would be the first time since I’d arrived that I would be experiencing a full eclipse, and I’ll admit to a certain amount of unease. We’d gone through two partial eclipses, but now we were on an orbital path about on plane with the planet’s equator, and could expect to be in darkness for several hours. That certainly wasn’t something you saw on Earth—

My attention was distracted by a ewe who had sidled up to me and was now walking beside me, step for step. Even in the dimming light, I recognized her without having to glance at her ear tag. She was one of the tamest sheep in my bunch and usually tried to place herself as close to me as possible in order to bum an extra helping of grain at feeding time. I reached down to scratch the top of her head. "How’ya doin’, Hope?" I murmured, and she responded with a throaty chuckle. She took my sleeve in her mouth and gave it an experimental tug, and when nothing edible fell out, she trotted off to find a plum spot at the feed bunk.

My boots squished as we entered the fold. After the rasping stony dryness of the field, the sensation was a welcome one—it indicated that we were doing our job, laying down that all-important organic blanket. It also meant that we’d need to move the fold to clean ground so the sheep’s hooves wouldn’t become irritated by the muck and moisture.

The sheep milled around as I prepped the feed augers and started the drive engine that delivered the grain to the long row of troughs. They crowded forward in a surging mass of fluffiness, and I think they would’ve loved to have just unhinged their jaws and let the concentrate mix pour into their bellies. Fortunately, a computer which read the chips in their ear tags regulated the amount of feed they were allotted, and shortly they were munching away as fast as they could while I stepped outside to watch the eclipse’s progress.

In a few minutes I was enveloped in a weird, ruddy darkness, as the light from our sun was bent around Thera Prime’s inhospitable atmosphere. The planet hovering above me looked like an angry bruise in a sky powdered with stars. A more poetic soul might have compared it to a garnet brooch on a black velvet tunic spangled with glitter. All I know is that I seemed to be the only living thing taking the slightest notice of it. And it was starting to get chilly.

So I climbed up into my shepherd wagon and went about preparing my meal. While the kettle was heating, I opened a pouch of dog food and squeezed it into Captain’s bowl, then set it outside for him. He looked at me as if wanting to ask to come in, but we both knew that his duty was to stay on guard, even though there was nothing to guard against. I suppose a sheep might get into some kind of trouble, and need my help getting out of it, but other than that, there wasn’t much guard duty for Cap to perform.

After a bit, the kettle boiled, and I made my freeze-dried soup and a cup of tea. The native water had a slightly odd taste, kind of metallic, and so the colony filtered it, but I could still taste it. It took several days before the sheep would even touch the stuff, when we’d first arrived, but their thirst finally overcame whatever objections they might have had. We really should have worried that the sheep preferred reprocessed shipboard water to the stuff from the wells on Thera, but the science guys assured us that the chemical analyses said the water was perfectly safe to drink, and that we’d get used to it after a while.

I just hoped the next supply barge would have a lot of sugar, salt, and flavorings in store.

I settled down on the bench that doubled as my sleeping platform and clicked up a book on Grassland Management on my tablet. It was written for Earth but it might just help me to figure out why we were having problems growing the stuff up here; maybe I could find some aspect that the guys in the white coats had overlooked, after all.

III.

As soon as it was light again, I lost no time in packing up camp for the move to Section Twelve. I turned the sheep out, and told Captain where to take them, and then set to breaking down the fences and equipment, which was all designed to fold into each other and be hitched in train to the tractor, which itself was quite an impressive piece of engineering. It came equipped with all the implements I’d need to maintain my camp, from a front-end loader to an auger that could dig a well, and its digester engine ran on anything I could shovel into it.

Once everything was packed and the trolleys were hooked up, I set the GPS on the tractor and popped some appropriate music into the on-board stereo. Yeah, being a shepherd wasn’t so bad. In Scotland we’d had to walk behind the flock when we moved them, the way shepherds had done for millennia. This wasn’t much faster, but it had more style.

The flock had at least a two-hour head start on me, and since the tractor with its train couldn’t move very fast, so I got to do some sight-seeing. Not that there was all that much to look at, but after two years cooped up in what was essentially a windowless office building, even the miles of desolation had a strange beauty. Thera Prime was still visible in the sky, but now it had a weird translucency, like the ghost of a planet—I never really noticed the effect with our own Earthly moon, but here, where the planet was so much larger than the moon had been, you really couldn’t miss it.

I gazed out at the undulating landscape and thought about how we would change it, clothing its gray stone with green grass and trees. It was exciting to be in at the creation of a world, and, even though I wasn’t particularly religious, I couldn’t help but think about how Genesis had got it right—you know, how you need reliable cycles of darkness and light, and water, and soil, and plants and animals to make a place fit to live in. And now we humans were taking a stab at world-building.

We just had to get this project off the ground, otherwise we’d have to cull the flock down to a level that could be sustained. This would mean killing off all the sheep that were even slightly "unfit," including the older ones that had been born on Earth.

To Be Continued...
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Copyright 2012, Kathryn Garrison Kellogg

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