First published in New Orbit Magazine, February 2020.
By S.A. McKenzie
Halfway up the rocky slope, Tama was starting to question his life choices. He grabbed at a clump of tussock to pull himself up.
“‘Get a PhD’, they said,” he muttered. “‘It’ll be fun’, they said. Nobody mentioned agricultural genetics research would mean having to play sheepdog.”
“Go left, Tama!” shouted Doctor Makereti, from a more comfortably level position far below him. Tama obliged, stopping to curse when he slipped into the embrace of a prickly gorse bush.
“That’s it!” the professor shouted as he extricated himself. “Now make some noise!”
“Woof,” Tama said, under his breath. He clapped his hands and let out a whoop. A dozen sheep burst out of the patch of bush in front of him and flowed down the rocky slope as easily as if it were a flat paddock. Down below, Jack Davey and his dogs set to work, herding them into the temporary yards on the flat to join the rest of the flock.
“Hey Tama, you missed one,” Makareti called. He could swear she was grinning.
A few metres away a young ram stood atop a rock, glaring at him. Tama leapt to an adjacent rock.
“I should warn you that I’m an Aries,” he told the sheep.
The ram seemed entirely unimpressed. Tama edged closer, readying himself for a flying rugby tackle. The ram anticipated his move and instead of heading down the slope after his flock, he dived straight over the edge of the small cliff. Tama stepped to the edge and looked down. The ram appeared to have backed himself into a dead end, stuck in the scar of an old landslide with a big gap between the outcrop he was perched on and stable ground.
Angie came panting up the slope.
“Want me to go get the ropes?”
“Nah,” Tama stuck out his chest. “I can manage.”
“Go on, Ed Hillary,” she said, with a smile that warmed him all the way to his toes. Blushing, not stopping to think about it, he teetered from one rock to the next until he was opposite the ram. It regarded him without fear, ears pricked forward. If he leaned out he should just be able to grab it. Tama stretched out and got his hands on the rock ledge the sheep was standing on. He reached one hand out to grab a foreleg.
The ram saw his chance. With a wild bleat that sounded more like a war cry, he charged forward, using Tama’s body as a bridge. Tama let out a yelp as heavy hooves pounded his head and back. With a parting snort, the sheep trotted merrily down the slope to join the rest of the flock. Tama eased himself back off the ledge and followed it down.
Angie grinned at him. “Tama Titoko, Sheep Whisperer,” she said.
He nodded solemnly. “I’m going to get some business cards printed.”
The transport truck backed up to the pen, and Davey lowered the ramp. The sheep were coaxed into the truck, moving faster when they got a whiff of the lucerne hay placed there to entice them.
All the commotion had attracted an audience. Some of the locals and their kids leaned on the fence, watching.
“You’re from the university?” a woman in a homespun jersey asked. “What would youse want with a bunch of scrub sheep? That lot are only good for dog tucker.”
Doctor Makareti never missed a chance to educate people about her work.
“This population of Merino sheep has been largely isolated in this valley for more than a century. They’ve never been crossed with any other sheep breeds. They thrive on poor quality grazing, and they’re free of disease.”
A small boy climbed up and perched on the wooden gate, swinging it back and forth. “Where are you gonna take them?”
Makareti smiled. “Eventually, they’ll be going up there.” She nodded to a point in the dimming eastern sky. Little winking lights formed a constellation, too regular to be anything but manmade.
“The Shipyards?” the woman said. “You’re going to send sheep up there?”
“Space sheep!” the boy said, staring upwards. “Cool!”
“We’re collecting genetic material from all the old breeds of farm animals in New Zealand,” the Professor said. “Arapawa and Cheviot sheep, Kunekune and Auckland Island pigs, seaweed-eating Enderby Island cattle and rabbits and many more. They’ll all be producing frozen embryos to go on the generation ships. No-one can know for sure what sort of conditions the colonists will encounter when they reach a new world, so we want to have the broadest possible range of genetic material available to them. And some of the livestock will be living alongside the settlers as they travel. It turns out goats and sheep actually adapt very well to a low gravity environment.”
Tama helped Davey lift the ramp back up on the truck.
“I think you’ve got something in your hair,” Davey said. He watched Tama with some amusement as the boy picked out a piece of sheep dung. Tama hastily checked to see if Angie had noticed, but she was talking to the kids.
“The things we do for love, eh?” Davey said.
“For science,” Tama said firmly, trying not to blush. “The things we do for science.”
Davey laughed and walked off, calling to his dogs.
Tama followed him, picking bits of vegetation off himself. A yellow slit eye was studying him from between the slats of the truck. He rubbed the back of his head, sure he could feel a hoof print.
“In three generations you little devils will probably be flying the ship,” he said to the ram. From inside the truck there came a bleat that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.
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© Copyright S.A. McKenzie 2020