Saturday Novel: Fountains of Mercy: Part Three

Basil, Kos Peilov, and the boys have gone to move the flocks down for the winter. But something is amiss . . .

They left early the next morning, as soon as they had enough light to see. Thanks to an errant rock one of the animal transport floats only had one working forward light, and the local Company vehicle inspector had issued Itzak one warning tag already, threatening him with a fine if he drove at night without all the lights repaired. Basil rode in the back of the smaller float, nestled in with the equipment, where she could nap if she needed to.

The trip up to the meadows passed quickly and quietly. Basil stared out the side of the float, between the slats, savoring the rich fall colors. The scarlet, gold, and brown trees glowed in the morning sun, and she caught glimpses of orange and fiery crimson brush splashed along the edges of the stubbly brown, harvested fields. A few of the pastures still sported rich green grass, and the blue sky and thin white streaks of cloud delighted Basil’s eyes. Thank you, Lord, for color. Thank you for making such rich worlds and beautiful. At first ColPlatXI had felt like a dream to her. Now the greys and blacks of the slums on Deepak’s Planet were the bad dream and ColPlatXI was home.

Speaking of home, I wonder if we’ll get the flocks home before the next Sabbath? I know Rabbi Kohl says that the Lord forgives emergency work done on the Sabbath, but would moving sheep and shahmas count? Maybe if the weather is bad, or if there really are dardogs. For the hundredth time Basil wondered why ColPlat Ltd. insisted on letting dangerous native animals stay after the terraforming.

She’d read the reasons as part of her studies prior to immigrating and again during acclimation in NewCorpTon, but they still made no sense. We don’t need additional dangerous predators if we are, like that mini-file claimed, the most dangerous predators in the system. We can hunt the pseudo-boar and pseudo-deer and keep their numbers where the xenozoologists think is optimal for species health. Oh well, at least we don’t have to cope with those giant herbivores on the other side of the Dividing Range. According to the data files, they had massive digging claws and stood almost three meters tall at the shoulder, with heavy pelts and lousy vision. They reacted to challenges and surprises by charging and smashing into whatever happened to have offended or threaten them. Basil had stared in awe at the holos of the damage they could do.

The sound of the engines shifted and she felt the float tilt a little. They’d started the climb off the main track and up into the hills proper. As she watched, the trees changed, from leafy to more evergreens and paperbarks. She also caught sight of stumps, not fallen stumps but cut ones, and tisked. Why would people thin so close to the track? Maybe it was for a firebreak. That made sense. Basil leaned back against the improvised seat and enjoyed the rest of the ride. She looked forward to being with Kos and the boys. She got along well with her sister wives, and Kos did his best to be fair to all three of them, but she wanted a little time alone with her husband, even if they had to be working.

Just after noon the floats slowed and stopped at the edge of a huge meadow well up in the hills. Basil waited until the engine sounds faded away and the hiss of the hover pads dwindled into silence before getting out and dragging her rucksack out with her. She took a deep breath of the crisp, cool air, savoring the sharp tang of evergreen and crushed grass. She heard the men talking, and the dull clangs and lighter jingles of the sheep and shahma bells from the flocks. Basil slipped away out of sight and emptied her bladder, then returned to see what needed to be done.

Kos gave the orders. “David, Itzak, Saul, Micah, get the floats ready for the animals. Baa, come with me. We’re going to double-check the animals and help the shepherds sort them, then start drifting the flock down here to the floats. Keep them calm.”

“Yes, dear.” Basil walked slowly and steadily up the slope to the spill of grey fleece and brown eyes waiting at the top of the meadow. I had no idea we had so many, she gasped, blinking in wonder. She thought she remembered Kos saying in the spring that they’d sheared two hundred animals, but she could barely see the sward for the sheep and shahmas. Right, quit dawdling. I need to look for the weak, the late lambs, and any that might be sick. Rory and Ted, the senior shepherds, had sorted the animals already, but it never hurt to have additional eyes. At Kos’s signal the men and their dogs began urging the animals to walk down slope, in the direction of the floats, and Basil spotted three more stragglers. She cut them out of the flock and nudged them to the men waiting by the floats. David marked them with dark chalk and then chivvied them into the transports.

By the time the finished, she could have sworn that more sheep appeared out of thin air. “I don’t understand,” she complained, looking from the grazing animals to the loaded floats. “That has to be at least a hundred beasts there, but the flock doesn’t seem any smaller.”

With a straight face Rory explained, “Oh, that’s easy, Mrs. Peilov. As you spread them out, their fleeces expand so they look like more animals.”

David laughed. “Nah, Mom Baa, it’s the shahma. Once you let the flock spread out, they bud and divide. ‘Pop’ and now there’s two shahma. One of those strange side effects of creating the chimera.”

She shook her stick at him. “David Saul Peilov, even I know enough reproductive science to know that multicellular animals do not bud under reduced atmospheric pressure. Otherwise every time we have a big storm, we’d have more shahma.”

“May the good Lord forefend,” Ted intoned. “Next you’ll be saying that sheep shrink in the rain.”

“No, they stink in the rain,” David corrected.

That’s certainly true, Basil thought, wrinkling her nose.

Kos called in the two-footed strays. “Itzak, you and David take the floats back to the farm and doctor whatever needs it. We’ll be down when we get there.”

“Right, Da. You have the extra energy packs for the rifles and short-out guns?” Kos pointed to a heavy-looking sack. David nodded. “Lord be with you and see you at home.”

Once the floats trundled off, Kos and the other men set up shelters for the night. Micah got the camp stove running and Basil heated supper. They’d start their “catered” meals the next day, so she’d only brought a few things, foods they could heat quickly. She also boiled water for tea. The Company’s environmental specialists swore that humans could drink all the water in the hills without suffering internal distress, but Basil doubted that they’d ever tasted the water. Besides, animals are not fussy about peeing in what they drink from.

“Baa, you get first watch,” Kos told her after supper. “And be careful.”

“Yes, dear. Um, are there dardogs in the area?”

He shook his head and played with the end of his beard. “No, at least not that Ted and Rory have heard or seen fresh sign of. There are,” he paused as if looking for words. “There are people who think scaring sheep is fun. If you hear or see anyone, blow your whistle.”

Basil tried not to shake. “Ye—, yes dear.” How could they? That’s mean! What kind of sick person comes all the way out here just to scare sheep? How can the Company allow that to happen? She set out not long after the sun set, walking around the edge of the flock, keeping her eyes on the edge of the trees around the meadow. Once she thought she saw motion, and she turned on her night-vision scope, but saw only pseudo-deer trotting through the browse at the edge of the forest.

Trouble struck the next night, after they found the food Mr. Plumber had cached for them along the right-of-way. Rory lit the stove and started heating the packets, while Micah went for water. He came back at a fast jog. “Men in the woods, Da. Carrying slingshots and stuff. I ducked out of sight and ran back as fast as I could.” Rory turned off the stove and jammed the food into his bag, while Ted and the others started bunching the sheep and shahma.

Kos grabbed Basil’s arm. “Get our rifles and come,” he hissed. She did as ordered and added a spare energy pack to the little bag she wore on her belt. “Down here,” he knelt behind some brush and thick, tall grass the shahma hadn’t found yet. He breathed in her ear, “Don’t fire unless you mean it, remember.”

I don’t want to shoot at all, she wailed silently as she nodded her understanding. She triple checked that the safety was on and that her finger remained clear of the trigger. She and Kos stayed still, listening hard for not-flock sounds. A few minutes later she heard voices from the woods. Kos shifted beside her and she turned off the safety on her rifle.

“Lookie! Sheepsies!” a man laughed, his voice high-pitched and cutting.

“Wonder how fast they can run?” a second, rough-edged voice asked.

Now she could see the four men in the evening shadows. They wore basic-issue coveralls and had dust-masks over their faces. She wondered for an instant if they had fleece or flower allergies. “Run pretty damn well, I’d guess. Especially once they go over that cliff,” and a third man pointed across the meadow. “They bounce funny, too.”

Kos stood up, rifle pointed at the strangers. “Go away and leave us alone.”

Two of them turned and ran at the flock, yelling and spinning their slingshots. Two more charged Kos, one with a short-out gun in his hand. Basil froze. Everything slowed down, almost stopped, and she saw the man with the gun aiming it at her husband. No! Not my man you don’t! Without thinking any more she raised her own rifle, sighted and fired, catching the attacker in the chest just like she had the holo-sims of dardogs. A char-rimmed hole appeared in his shirt and he fell over. His partner skidded and slowed, giving Kos time to shoot as well. Then Kos turned and fired at the men harassing the sheep. He missed, but the attackers yelped and ducked, changing direction. Rory’s dogs grabbed at them and the pair fled upslope, crashing through the brush in the twilight.

I’m going to be— Basil threw up, but only after confirming that she’d turned the rifle’s safety back on. She wanted to cry, and sat in the grass, hugging herself and rocking back and forth, tears making the world shift and shimmer. I killed a man. I killed someone. Lord forgive me, I killed a human.

A hard hand grabbed her shoulder. “Later,” Kos snapped, intense but quiet. “Go help Ted and Micah calm the beasts. Rory and I have work to do.” She sniffed, got up, collected her rifle and sheep stick, and eased through the grass, trying to be calm and to help keep the animals in order.

“We need to move on a ways, get the sheep especially away from the danger so they’ll settle down for the night. I’ll take the lead, you follow and watch for stragglers, Basil,” Ted ordered. “Micah, keep them away from the edge of the trees,” and he pointed in the direction the stranger had said hid a cliff. “Saul, watch the other side.” Basil nodded and began walking behind the blob of white, cream, and brown, urging them on down the right-of-way lane at a quiet, steady pace. She found two limping wethers and a shahma that seemed worse for wear, its fleece ragged around one hind leg. The flock slowed as darkness fell, allowing Basil and her three charges to catch up with the others without too much stress. Basil, Ted, Micah and the dogs got the animals bedded down. Then Ted held a light and Basil checked the slow animals. The shahma seemed fine, but one wether had a rock jammed into his hoof, and the other squalled when she pressed on his shoulder. Ted doctored the hoof as Saul held the animal down. “We’ll watch this boy and see what happens,” Ted decided after inspecting the second wether. “I think the shahma pulled a muscle, nothing major.”

Kos and Rory caught up with them not too much later, as Basil and Saul set up their night shelters. Rory re-heated their somewhat battered and scrambled supper of sausage, bread stuffed with vegetables, and fruit hand pies. Basil stared at the food. I think my appetite is still up in the meadow with dinner. But it’s a sin to waste food, and with that she forced herself to choke down the meal. When they finished, Kos led her to their shelter. “We’ll have the last watch, the dawn watch.”

She nodded, then burst into tears. Kos held her, muffling her sobs against his chest and shoulder and patting her back. “You did the right thing, Baa,” he assured her. “I warned them and they attacked.”

“But I killed a human,” she sobbed.

“So did I.”

“I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t know I was killing him until he fell over.”

Her husband held her until she stopped crying.

She sniffed, hard. “Kos, what are we going to tell the Company rep?”

She heard him shake his head in the darkness. “Nothing.”

“But we have to—“

“No.”

She tried again, “Their families will report them missing, and the Company searchers will——“

He put his hand on her mouth. “No. Rory and I took care of that. He knew what to do, and the scavengers will do the rest. The two that ran into the woods may regret it. We saw dardog sign in the dirt by the stream earlier today, and the tracks of something bigger.” He sounded like a stranger, ferocious and cold.

She shivered again. Beside her, Kos sighed. “I’m sorry they attacked us, and I’m sorrier that we had to kill them.”

“Kos, is this,” she stopped, not wanting to say her fear aloud. “Is this part of what you and David were talking about, with the machinery stopping and other things?” If this is what happens out here, what will the cities be like?

He rolled over onto his side and stroked her hair. “No. Nasty, mean people have always existed, even here on ColPlat XI,” he assured her. “Now sleep as best you can, little love, because we have a lot of walking to do tomorrow.”

She heard the truth beneath his comforting lie and wondered. Then she fell asleep.

(C) 2014, 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin. All Rights Reserved.

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