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There was a moment of disorientation; then things steadied. There before him, seated in primitive wood chairs, were a man and a woman of his parents' generation, wearing rustic home-made clothing. He was similarly garbed, with a formidable knife sheathed at his belt. They looked healthy and strong. "Hello," he said. "I believe I have arrived."
"Welcome to Colony Planet Jones," the man said warmly. "I am Brett Peterson, and this is my wife Cora. We are the parents of Brian Peterson, your host body."
"I am pleased to meet you. I am Amber Shepherd."
Both colony folk looked startled. "Amber?" Cora asked.
He smiled. "Do not be alarmed. I am male. I think my folks wanted a girl, and didn't want to throw away the name. I am not unduly keen on it myself, and will be happy to use your son's name instead, while I have his body."
Brett shook his head. "We prefer not to use his name when he's not here. It could be confusing."
"Then I will gladly settle for my nickname, which is Shep."
"Shep," Bret agreed. "Your family were sheep herders?"
"Not as far back as we can trace. But it's a reasonable conjecture for our distant ancestry. At any rate, I know nothing about sheep."
"We don't actually herd sheep here," Brett said. "They exist wild, but we leave them alone. We do domesticate other animals."
No domesticated sheep? That was curious, but not worth exploring at the moment. "I am here to study the local culture," Shep said. "My major is in planetary management, and I don't want to be ignorant of the concerns of real people. Now I have researched Colony Planet Jones, and know that it was named after the first settler here, and that it is rustic, but I suspect there is a huge amount you will need to fill me in on. Just as my folks will be filling in Brian, on Earth. There's a protocol; it's part of the student exchange program."
"Yes, of course," Brett said. "We will do our best to make you feel at home. All we ask is--"
"That I not abuse your son's body," Shep said. "Just as I'm sure Brett will not abuse my body on Earth. You may be sure I will do my part."
There was a sound behind him. Shep looked around. A technician was just putting away equipment. That would be the umbrella-like device that surrounded the head of a person undergoing transfer; it connected to the one with his body back on Earth as the mind exchange was made. Brian would be seeing the same thing happening. It didn't look like much, but it did the job: they had in effect exchanged bodies and planets. Or minds, as the case might be.
There was a loud bleat outside. This was a pastoral planet; people and animals were closer together. Brett got up and went to the door.
He returned in a moment. "It seems we are being honored," he said with a grimace. "It must be for Shep." He beckoned.
Shep got up and walked with Brett to the open door. There was a large hornless sheep standing there. It wasn't exactly like the ones on Earth, but was definitely related, with woolly white fleece and a dull expression. It looked directly at him as if expecting something. "I don't think I understand," Shep said.
Brett sighed. "I think you have been summoned to be a shepherd."
"But I'm here to study the culture of this planet," Shep protested. "Not to herd sheep. My nickname is not literal."
"Life does not always proceed as planned."
"I know virtually nothing about sheep, as I said, and less about shepherding."
"These are not ordinary sheep."
Shep looked more closely at the sheep. It was a ewe; he could tell that much. She simply waited. "I know even less about extraordinary sheep."
There was a barking from a neighbor's yard. A huge dog hurdled the fence and came charging toward them. "Stand still," Brett said tersely. "We are about to have a demonstration. Do not try to intervene."
Shep stood still, not knowing what else to do. In moment the dog arrived, growling fiercely. It leaped for the ewe's shoulder, intent on knocking her down to gain more ready access to her vulnerable throat. Shep winced, anticipating the slaughter.
The dog connected. It yelped in seeming pain and slumped to the ground, bleeding from the mouth. Something very like the blade of a knife projected from the shoulder of the ewe. As Shep watched, the blade slid back into her wool and disappeared, leaving only a smear of blood. She had not moved her body at all.
"The sheep can take care of themselves," Brett said. "They are telepathic or precognitive; we're not sure which. And they are armed, as you can see; their hidden horns are deadly. They react only in self defense, but they are unerringly effective in that."
"So I see," Shep said, awed.
A man emerged from the house the dog had come from. He came across, stared at the twitching body of the dog, and shook his head. "Sorry about that. He's not yet trained."
"It happens," Brett said.
The man put his hands on the dog and dragged it away. The ewe stood unmoving. It was obvious that if the dog survived, it would never attack another sheep. Training was evidently brutal on a colony planet.
Shep was impressed despite his horror. At least now he understood why they did not herd sheep here. "Why would such a sheep need an ignoramus like me?"
"They need a shepherd. The ewes make annual journeys to the territory of the rams," Brett said. "To get bred. It seems they don't want to be bothered by the rams at other times, so there are no rams in this region."
"What about the lambs? No males?"
"The male lambs make a similar trip when they are old enough, to join their sires."
"I know nothing about the local terrain, or anything else," Shep said. "And less about shepherding, as I said. I'm completely unqualified. Any native could do a better job than I could."
"This was not our idea either. The excursion is dangerous, and we fear for our son's body. But the sheep have evidently chosen you. They will also select a guide." Brett gazed at him. "You will have to do it. It is part of our culture, so is in your interest in that sense."
"The sheep choose the shepherd?" Shep asked incredulously.
"They do. And the one chosen may not decline. They have ways of enforcing their decision, just as they have of defending themselves. No creature is immune."
"So I have to do this," Shep said. "When?"
"Now. I will fetch Brian's knapsack and staff." He went into the house.
"Boots and gloves too," Cora called after him. "And a change of clothing." She was someone's mother, all right.
"But I am not equipped physically or emotionally to travel through the wilds of an unfamiliar planet," Shep protested belatedly. "I'm in training for a desk job."
"There are supplies in the knapsack," Cora reassured him. "And Brian's body is rugged. He does like to hike." She frowned. "We would prefer him to marry and settle down, but he's a bit independent. Still has wild oats to sow. So we made him this deal: a semester of college on Earth, studying his music, and then he will decide his future."
That did seem to make sense. He was stuck for it. "At least notify the authorities why I'm out in the field," Shep said. "I'm supposed to check in."
"We will do that. We know this is hard for you," Cora said. "As it is for us. But it must be."
He glanced at the placid ewe. "I must say, this is not what I expected."
"The sheep know. They always select those who can best do what they need done. You will probably return safely in a month."
"A month! My exchange is only for half a year."
"Yes. You should have the rest of your time with us after your return."
"That's nice to know," he said with irony.
"We understand that it is a privilege to be selected by the sheep. You are the first from Earth to have the honor. It is also said that the experience is likely to be well worth it."
What could he say to her? Shep looked instead at the ewe. "Are you really as dull as you look, Lamb-chop?"
She ignored him, chewing her cud.
Brett returned with backpack and staff. Shep donned the one and took the other his his hand. It was a solid pole about six feet long, with holes carved in the side. "Just call me Shepherd," he said wryly. "Literally."
"Farewell, Shep," Brett said. "It is a necessary thing you do."
"I hope so." Shep looked at the ewe. "Lead on, McDuff."
To his surprise the ewe started walking. Bemused, he followed. Other villagers gazed at them from their yards, seeming interested but not completely surprised. They had evidently seen this before, and might not realize that he was not Brian. But apart from the massive inconvenience, it was curious: why should the sheep choose an alien visitor? Did they really know, or was it sheer mischance?
Shep shook his head. He did not believe in weird coincidence. There had to be a reason. He just hoped it made sense in human terms.
The ewe led him out of the village and into a nearby meadow. There were five other ewes grazing placidly. His ewe joined them, but another stepped forward, glancing at Shep. Then she walked away. When he did not follow, she paused and bleated authoritatively.
"So I am to follow you now, while the other catches up on her grazing?" Shep sighed. "Okay, wool-mind." He followed her.
She led him into the forest. The trail was rough, and now he had use for his staff, bracing himself, pushing aside brush. It was light and well balanced, weighted at the ends; it was surely effective for self defense too. His muscles handled it almost effortlessly, being attuned. Yes, his host was an experienced hiker.
Soon they pushed through a thicket of yellow saplings. There in a glade was days-old carrion, the rotting body of some animal. Several vultures were picking at it. They were surely aware of the intruders, but not alarmed, which was odd.
The ewe went to one particular vulture and bleated once to get its attention. The vulture looked at her and seemed to sigh, as if saying Oh, no! Not this. Shep had a notion how that was.
The vulture spread its wings as if to take off and fly away. But the ewe bleated again, imperatively, and the other vultures took note. They faced the selected one as if about to attack it. Shep could almost hear their silent dialogue: You have been summoned. You must go. Just as the Petersons had told Shep.
The one vulture capitulated. It walked to the ewe, then jumped, half spreading its wings, and landed on her back. It was not an attack, and no knife flashed. She turned and walked back the way they had come, carrying the big bird.
Shep realized that this was another protocol. By allowing the sheep to carry it, the vulture was acknowledging her dominance. Hereafter it might fly, but not to flee the responsibility it had taken on. But why did the sheep need a carrion eater? This continued weird.
They returned to the small flock. Then a third ewe—though he could not be quite certain, as they all looked alike to him—came out of the group, while the second one resumed grazing. The vulture flew to a nearby tree and perched on a branch, evidently for a snooze.
Shep followed the third ewe in a new direction. She found a rocky ravine and made her way down into it with sure hooves. Shep started to follow, but she glanced at him and bleated once. This was plainly a negation. So he sat down and waited, his staff across his knees, and looked around. The base of the cleft was dry, a mass of rocks and boulders with little vegetation; in a storm there would be a rushing torrent of water here.
The ewe reached the bottom of the gulch and bleated again, commandingly. And to Shep's amazement a huge snake emerged from a crevice between stones masking a hole in the ground. It was a python, maybe fifteen feet long, probably weighing more than Shep did, with a patterned hide. It did not attack the sheep; instead it glanced at her, then turned to slither away. It seemed that sheep were not its prey. No surprise there.
She bleated a third time. Shep could feel the voice of command. She was ordering the python to attend. And, reluctantly, it did. It slithered to her, lifted its head to hers, and froze in place. Some serpents were reputed to have a deadly stare, but the sheep was evidently immune. The python was first to break the gaze. Then the ewe turned and climbed up out of the gulch, and the snake followed. Here was another recruit to the mission, amazingly. How many more would there be?
They returned to the herd. The others were still grazing, unalarmed by the python. The vulture still snoozed in the tree. It was a peaceful scene.
A fourth ewe emerged from the pack, heading in a new direction. Shep, having learned the way of it, followed her. For some reason he was expected to attend the recruitments, maybe because he was the designated shepherd. She took him some distance along a trail only she could fathom, over a hill, through a neck of the woods, and to a small village of thatched cottages. Shep saw that these were elves, smaller than people but human in form, going about their business. They looked at the visitors but made no move either to greet or challenge them. It seemed that the sheep went where they would without hindrance.
The ewe stopped beside one cloaked female elf child playing with a collection of beads on strings. Her dark hair was bound back in a careless bun, and her small hands were nimble as they moved the beads. Shep realized with a start that she had a crude abacus, so must have been calculating something.
The elf looked at the ewe, who had plainly come for her. "Oh, piss!" she swore, evidently no more pleased to be chosen than any of the others were.
What a menagerie!CHAPTER 2
The elf child bid parting to her family, fetched a pack similar to Shep's and joined them. She was a couple of inches below five feet tall, and seemed thin under her voluminous cloak. Would he have to be taking care of her?
The ewe walked on out of the village, and the man and elf followed. What else could they do?
"This is an outrage," the elf muttered. "I have no interest in guiding these animals to their rutting place."
So she knew some of the adult facts of life. "It's not exactly my choice either," Shep said. "But it seems we are obliged."
She flashed him a withering look. "And even less interest in ruining my life by taking up with a town lout and herding sheep."
Lout? She evidently took him for the native man, understandably. "With whom do I have the dubious honor of associating?" he inquired with sarcastic flair.
"It doesn't matter. I'm stuck for it regardless."
This was one rebellious child! "It matters to me. We're both stuck with this crazy mission, and will have to call each other something if there is not to be confusion."
"Call me anything you like, yokel," she snapped. "We don't use names in the manner you do."
It was a kind of challenge. So he rose to it. "Then I will call you Elen, spelled E L E N. It's Welsh, I believe. Elen Elf, for the alliteration. Meanwhile you may call me Shep."
"Maybe I'll just call you Hick."
"You are not exactly the friendliest child," he said, letting his irritation show.
She took brief stock, as if he had said something significant. "Do you have any idea what's going on here, oaf?" she demanded.
"Very little," he admitted. "I arrived on this planet only an hour ago."
Now she looked at him with real interest. "You're not a local lout?"
"I am not. I am an exchange student from Earth, here for a semester in a local host body to study the planetary culture. This sheep business is a nuisance."
"Earth? You have an Earth education?"
"I do, for what little it's worth here in the hinterland."
"Can you prove it?"
"Why should I? What does it matter to you?"
"It matters. Let me ask you three questions."
"Ask, child," he said, resigned.
"What is a googolplex?"
He was surprised, but answered. "It is ten to the googol power. A googol is ten to the one hundred power. That is, the number one with a hundred zeroes following it. So a googolplex is written as ten to the tenth power, to the hundredth power, a double exponent. It is a very large number." He suspected that this was a good deal more detail than she could comprehend, which was why he offered it. It was a brushback pitch.
"What is the cube root of minus one?"
Or did she actually have an interest in math? The abacus suggested that. "Minus one. That number squared would be a plus one, but cubed becomes minus one again. The square root of minus one, in contrast, is indeterminate." Now he was curious whether she would understand.
"What is a logarithm?"
Shep had to pause, remembering that one from his historical math class. "It is an old system once used to facilitate calculations. It is an exponent, usually to the base ten, but not always; some are to the base e, or another number. There are printed logarithm tables. You use them by obtaining the logs of two numbers, adding them together, then translating the result back to a real number, which will be the product of the original two numbers. You can accurately multiply any numbers that way. But like the slide rule, this system has fallen out of use, because calculators and computers do it so much more readily."
"Oh, piss! You are from Earth."
He eyed her skeptically. "You do understand what I told you?"
Excerpted from Shepherd by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 2013 Piers Anthony Jacob. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 6, 2012
Posted February 17, 2013