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August 14, 2011 / whirlingneedles

Project Polka


The overripe tomato soared over Agent K’s head to splatter on the wall behind her. The tomato juice dribbled down the wall, just adding to the various substances already splattered there. Agent K stood up from her instinctive crouch and glared at the tomato thrower.

“DYERS NOT PILLS!!!” yelled the thrower defiantly.

“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Agent K. She gave the thrower one last look of exasperation, then headed into the barn. Soft strains of several types of music mixed into a strange cacophony. The first pen on her right was piping out bagpipe music to sheep wearing pained expressions on their ovine faces. The next pen’s speaker was putting out a constant stream of umpahs, the sheep in that pen bouncing up and down to polka music. Beyond that, folk music from every corner of the globe issued from pen after pen.

The Agency’s experiment seemed to be working, not that that would make the protesters happy. Agent K checked the print out hanging from the bagpipe pen. The higher concentration of the drug developed by the Agency was definitely having an effect. Agent K leaned over the pen’s gate and scratched the rump of the sheep nearest to her. Yes, the higher concentration was definitely having an effect. The plaid pattern in the sheep’s wool was getting darker and more pronounced. She gave the sheep another sympathy pat and moved to the next pen.

The sheep in the next pen were definitely happier about their music. They bounced and gamboled about the pen in time to the polka strains coming from the speaker. Agent K had to snag one as it pranced by and hold it against the pen wall to examine it. Bright yellow polka dots were easily discernable against an electric blue background. These sheep were just about ready to be sheared, and the wool would be tested by the Agency. Self-polka-dotting wool would be an enormous time- and labor-saver, eliminating the dying step.

That was, of course, what the protesters were so angry about. The Agency Experimental Sheep and Wool Testing Facility (ESWTF) had been under siege since the word leaked out about the latest experiments. Independent dyers had been up in arms about the scheme from the start. The plan was to feed the sheep a special drug that was completely harmless to sheep, but caused their wool to grow in colors and patterns when they were exposed to various types of music. The accusations of animal cruelty were entirely unfounded. (Well, Agent K agreed that while forcing sheep to listen to bagpipe music around the clock wasn’t exactly cruelty, it wasn’t much fun for the sheep.)

As the experiment neared its conclusion, though, the protesters were becoming more aggressive. Agent K had learned to dodge pretty quickly after getting a face full of banana cream pie. (She had never really like banana cream pie before, but now she REALLY didn’t like it.) In her last report to her superiors at the Agency, she had recommended against continuing the experiment. That had been after one of the summer interns had had to go to the hospital to have tomato seeds removed from his eyes. The Agency had refused to budge until the experiment was complete and all the data had been collected. Instead of the halting the experiment, the Agency brass had sent over a bunch of lab safety glasses of the dorkiest kind. Most of the people assigned to the project preferred to take their chances on dodging the missiles rather than wear them. Fortunately there had not been any further injuries so far.

The latest results were worrying, though. The experiment was entirely successful from a scientific point of view. Agent K sighed as a sheep with a fleece resembling a Mexican serape trotted past. If the Agency actually put this into full production, there would be a full-out war between the Agency and the indy dyers. It would put the indy dyers out of business, or at least severely cripple their businesses. Agent K was all for progress, but she wasn’t sure if this was progress.

She opened the store room at the back of the barn, and was horrified to find the room filled with jars of the little pink pills they were feeding to the sheep to change their fleeces. Jammed into a corner of the room were boxes filled with compact discs of all the music they had been playing.

“What’s all this?” she demanded, grabbing the sleeve of a passing intern. (He was leading a sheep with bright red, yellow, and green stripes from the reggae pen.)

“The Agency just had all that shipped over,” he said, digging his heels into the barn floor to hold the sheep still. “They’re going to start distributing them to sheep farmers this afternoon.”

“But the experiment isn’t complete yet!” said Agent K. “We’ve still got a week of data collection!”

The intern shrugged. “I guess the brass decided that they didn’t need any more data, and to go ahead with the plan.”

“I see,” said Agent K, releasing his arm and watching him lead the sheep back to its pen. She chewed her lower lip in thought for a minute. Something would have to be done. The Agency brass was blinded by the commercial potential of the experiment, but in the long run it would be disastrous to the wool community as a whole. She had tried to explain that to them, but it was no good.

Agent K closed the door to the storeroom, but did not lock it. She was the senior Agent here, and it was her responsibility to do what was best for the wool community, even if it cost the Agency some money in the short term. She walked over to the electrical box that controlled the speakers in the barn, opened the door, and threw the switch that cut power to the entire barn.

There was a confused murmur, then heads began to turn to Agent K. She grabbed a wooden crate and pulled it into the center of the barn.

“My fellow Agents and scientists,” she began. “We all know that this experiment has been a success. But we all know that all successful experiments are not progress. Now that we know it CAN be done, we must decide if it SHOULD be done. Outside this barn are dozens of independent dyers who would be put out of business by this scheme for self-patterning wool. We would turn valuable allies in our fight to save our sheep and wool into enemies, or at least lose them as comrades in arms. We have the opportunity to prevent this catastrophe from occurring.” She gestured at the storeroom behind her. “In this storeroom, there are thousands of pills and hundreds of music CDs, to be distributed to farmers this afternoon. I say that this experiment is a failure, maybe not scientifically, but economically and strategically. I plan to send my report to the Agency stating just that.” Murmurs of agreement ran through the crowd. “But we can’t wait for the Agency brass to read my report and discuss and contemplate and decide on a study to decide on a course of action. I say we act now!”

She jumped off the crate, strode to the storeroom, and flung the door open dramatically. She grabbed a jar of pills and a handful of CDs, and marched to the front door of the barn. She didn’t look back, but knew that several other people had followed her lead and were carrying pills and CDs to the door with her. She flung open the door and instinctively dodged as a tomato soared in an arc over her head and splattered on the floor behind her.

“DYERS NOT PILLS!!!” shouted a chorus of protesters.

Agent K whistled sharply through her teeth, and an uneasy silence fell. The dyers seemed to pull together in a huddle like terrified sheep, expecting the worst announcement, that the project was moving forward.

“My friends!” Agent K started in a loud voice. “In my hands are the materials the Agency sent to be distributed to farmers so that they can grow self-patterning wool.” Loud and angry boos and hisses greeted this statement. “BUT,” Agent K continued loudly to drown out the boos, “we all know that this is bad for our industry in the long run. We are on the same side.”

She turned to the nearest protester, a dyer she had known for years. She handed her the pills and the CDs without a word, then turned and walked back into the barn. There was a stunned silence from outside, as the other scientists followed suit, handing pills and CDs out to the protesters. In a very short time, the storeroom had been emptied, the sheep mercifully released from another repetition of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, and the protesters had cleared out from the barn yard.

Agent K knew she would be in trouble with the Agency brass, but she was confident that it would all blow over in time. She had done the right thing, and they would come to acknowledge it eventually.

(There were no more self-patterning sheep experiments, but it is a fact that quite a few independent dyers were spotted sporting outlandishly dyed hair for the next few months.)

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3 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. RebeLovesBooks / Aug 14 2011 12:32 pm

    What gauge needle does one use to stick it to the man? 😉

  2. hbd / Aug 15 2011 4:35 pm

    I love the idea of self patterning sheep. Not sure I could put up with the music though.

    • whirlingneedles / Aug 15 2011 6:40 pm

      We need sheep headphones. Self patterning sheep without disturbing the neighbors!

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