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August 29, 2011 / whirlingneedles

The Lost Flock of the Amazon

Agent K pushed through the thick undergrowth, attempting to keep the bright red backpack of the guide in sight. The THWACK of the machete competed with the songs and calls of multicolored birds high in the canopy. The sweat trickled down into Agent K’s eyes, but her hands were fully engaged in pushing aside the branches, which had an alarming tendency to snap back into her face after the guide passed them.
They reached a clearing, and Agent K took a long, grateful swig of cold water from her canteen. This lost sheep of the Amazon had better be worth it! Rumors had been circulating for years about a mythical breed of sheep, rarely seen but occasionally spotted deep in the Amazon rain forest. Legend had it that a small herd of sheep had been brought by the Spanish conquistadors but had wandered away one night to be swallowed up by the jungle. These Spanish sheep had supposedly intermarried with local animals and now produced fleeces that were lighter and finer than standard sheep, and allowed the wearer to stay cool no matter how hot it got. There was a roaring trade in underwear purportedly made from this fleece.
Agent K seriously hoped that there was truth to these rumors. She was "glistening" like a pig and could really use some underpants with mystic cooling properties.
The local government had asked the Agency to investigate these legendary sheep, to see if there were any truth to the rumors. They could not crack down on local merchants selling "cooling culottes" unless they had proof that were no such things. Tests had been performed on some confiscated underpants, with varying results. Some of the pants were all cotton, some a blend of wool and cotton. None could be proven to cool anyone in a lab setting, but the merchants insisted that the government could not prove wild Amazonian sheep were nonexistent, so they should be allowed to continue to hock their wares.
Agent K privately thought the whole expedition was nuts, but she had her orders, so it was off to Brazil with her. At least she would have some fascinating pictures for the staff rainforest experts when she returned.
She groaned as the expedition leader signaled that the break was over and shrugged her heavy pack onto her shoulders. The momentary break had been refreshing, but the grueling pace set by the guide was tough. Agent K found herself plodding along as if in a trance as the unending trees and vines merged into a solid green backdrop.
Agent K stumbled to a halt, nearly running the man in front of her in stupor. She roused to attention, however, when she realized why they had stopped.
The guide held up a fluffy white piece of fiber that had been caught on a bit of tree bark. It was the first sign of the legendary lost sheep of the Amazon!
Agent K heaved the heavy pack off her back and unzipped it. Inside was her evaluation kit. Carding, chemical testing, and spinning equipment had weighed her down through this whole trip, but now she finally had a use for it.
She took a small bit of the fleece and lit it on fire, holding it carefully over a nonflammable metal bowl. There was a murmur of excitement when a smell of burning hair wafted up to the group, leaving a dark, irregular ash behind. It was definitely wool, not a plant or manmade fiber. There wasn’t quite enough to try to spin and knit the tuft, so Agent K sealed the sample in a plastic bag and labeled the bag with the time, date, location, and results of the burn test. She stowed this in her pack, and the group moved on with more energy than before. They had proof at least that there were sheep in the jungle, even if they were just plain, ordinary sheep.
It was not long before more sheepy signs began to appear. Another clump of wool on a tree, a few hoof prints, and, most exciting of all, sheep droppings. (Agent K was less enthusiastic about this last. She allowed one of the guides to carry that sample in his pack rather than carry it herself.)
Suddenly, there was a blaze of light as the group stepped into a clearing. The grass in the clearing bore signs of ovine life – closely cropped where the sheep had been grazing with hoof prints.
Agent K signaled to the group to remain quiet as she stepped forward cautiously. Her head snapped up as a faint "Baaaa" filtered through the forest. She slowly moved toward the sound to discover that it had come from a cave mouth. The cave mouth was just big enough for a sheep to enter with ease, but would require the humans to crawl. 

After a quick sidebar with the guide, Agent K dropped down to her knees and crawled forward into the cave. Hans, from the Agency’s Department of Unlikely Fibers,  crawled after her carrying some rope and flashlights. The rest remained outside the cave in case any sheep entered the clearing without entering the cave.

The cave was surprisingly cool after the hot, humid jungle. A light breeze blew Agent K’s hair into her eyes. The floor of the cave was hard-packed earth, and jagged rocks on the sides and roof of the cave tore at her clothes. There was just enough light for Agent K to see that there were more tufts of wool caught on the rocks. She left those
in place for the moment, eager to find where the cave led.

Deeper and deeper into the cave she crawled. She was starting to wonder if the other end of the cave was on another continent when the air suddenly changed, and she found herself in a large cavern with a cathedral ceiling. She straightened up, feeling her back pop and her knees creak. She turned to give Hans a hand through the opening into the big open space, then gaped about her as he huffed and puffed his way to his feet.
The cavern was at least the size of three or four football fields, with a ceiling one hundred feet or more above her head. Enormous stalactites hung from the ceiling, pointing down at gigantic stalagmites below. The floor sloped gently from where Agent K stood to a small stream of water that bisected the cavern and flowed through a crevasse in one wall. There were several large openings in one side of the cavern through which a sparkling greenish light filtered from the rainforest outside.
More impressive than the natural beauty of the cavern was the flock of sheep that inhabited it. At the other end of the cavern, Agent K could see a herd of thirty or forty sheep staring back at her in surprise and huddled at the far end watching her warily. As she watched, a lamb scampered across the cavern to seek shelter next to his mother, who glared at Agent K and pawed the ground nervously.

Hans took a hasty step forward, only to be knocked flat onto his face by Agent K. He turned indignantly to demand what exactly Agent K meant by it, but she just pointed to the scorch mark on the wall at just the right height for a laser beam to take off Hans’s head.
"Booby traps," she said. "I bet this whole cavern is covered in them. I saw the floor depress slightly where you put your foot and just barely tackled you before the laser went off."
"Thanks," said a shaken Hans. "Aliens, then?" He looked a little alarmed at the prospect. Hans was not a field agent, and had only the most basic of Agency training.
"Definitely," replied Agent K. She thoughtfully regarded the sheep huddled at the far side of the cavern. Were these really the lost sheep of the Amazon, or were the aliens doing experiments on ordinary sheep? First they had to get to the sheep, which would be tricky.
She picked up a handful of gravel and tossed it lightly into the cavern. A series of lasers shot out of the wall to her left and picked off the pebbles as they arced through the air. She tossed another handful, this time much lower to the ground. Only the pebbles that were higher than about two feet off the floor seemed to activate the lasers. She groaned. If they couldn’t find another way across, they
would have to crawl.
But now that she looked more closely, some sections of the floor were different colors. A vein of darker grey rock snaked back and forth across the floor. It was suspiciously about the width of an adult alien. As she craned her neck, she could swear that she could just make out the dried residue of alien slime, the kind they left behind when they oozed across a floor. Could it be a safe passage across the
cavern? She picked up a good-sized rock and chucked it along the direction of the darker-colored floor. No lasers!

She pointed out the path to Hans, and they both filled their pockets with rocks. Before they made any moves, they tossed a rock or two in the direction they were planning to go to check for lasers. They traveled all the way to the small stream in the middle of the cavern using the dark grey path.
Hans rubbed his hands, and kicked his foot out to hop over the small stream. The next second, he was hopping on his other foot, cursing. His foot had come in contact with a force field of some sort, that had zapped his toe with quite a bit of energy. Agent K steadied him with a hand on his shoulder to keep from hopping back into the laser mine field.
"There must be some way to get to the sheep," she said. "I wonder if this force field goes across the whole cavern?" She paced along the stream, careful to step only on dark rocks, and tossing pebbles across the stream at intervals. Every pebble bounced right back at her, accompanied by a ZAPPPP! sound, until she got to within a yard of the right hand wall. Then the pebble sailed right through and bounced across the rocky floor with no resistance. She put her toe out cautiously, and stepped across the stream. The sheep crowded around her, BAAing and nudging at her hands. She reached into her pack and pulled out a bag of sheep treats and scattered them a few feet from her. The sheep instantly abandoned her for the treats, and Agent K
stepped back to let Hans examine them. 

"They seem to be well-cared for," said Hans, running his hands over a sheep engrossed in munching on a mouthful of treats. "They’re well-fed. Their fleece is actually pretty clean for sheep." He raked his fingers through it. "There’s definitely something odd here."

Agent K ran her fingers through the fleece as well. From a distance, it looked like normal fleece, but up close it was light, clean, and completely untangled. She pulled a pair of scissors out of her pack and clipped a small sample. It was the strangest fleece she had ever handled. She grabbed her spindle and spun a bit of the fleece with it. The resulting yarn was feather-light in her hand and cool to the touch. She handed it to Hans, who took it with a look of wonder. He pulled his portable wool testing kit out of his pack, and in a very short time was running samples on it.
As he worked to test the wool, Agent K considered what their next move should be. The sheep seemed happy and healthy where they were. But she had no idea what the plan was for these sheep. Should Agent K and Hans leave them here, the aliens might return and do heavens knew what with them. They might be mutton pies waiting to happen. The wool that they produced was amazing stuff, and could revolutionize the wool world, opening up new markets in tropical climates. Agent K decided that if
Hans gave them a clean bill of health, they would return to the Agency with these new sheep.

She turned her attention to how to get the sheep out of the cavern. They could not depend on the sheep staying on the dark grey patches, and the last thing they wanted was a lasered sheep. There must be a way to get them out – the cave seemed like a holding pen, but there was no grazing or hay in the cave for them to eat. The tufts of fleece they had found in the rainforest implied that the sheep roamed free at least some of the time. She began to examine the rest of the cavern. 

A very cursory examination turned up a false rock front on the wall near the opening in the force field. With a little pushing and tugging, Agent K managed to slide the panel back, revealing a control panel. There were only two buttons – a red one and a green one. She pushed the green one.

Immediately, there was a BUZZ and the force field shimmered and deactivated. The floor shuddered briefly, then turned completely grey. The sheep, as one, turned and trotted nonchalantly towards the entrance to the cavern, where the passage snaked back out to the forest.
"Come on, Hans," she said, grabbing up bits of stray equipment and stuffing them into the packs. "We need to make sure we stick with the flock."
They raced after the flock, Hans crawling up the passage first with Agent K close behind. As Agent K entered the passage, she heard another BUZZ, and looked back into the cavern. The floor was back to its mottled grey appearance, and the force field shimmered briefly as it reactivated. The cavern was secure once again, but now it guarded nothing in particular. She hurried after Hans and the sheep.
She crawled out into the blazing green light of the forest, dazzling after the cool darkness of the cave. She blinked for a second, then looked up to find herself staring into the barrel of a rifle held by one of the local villagers.
"What?" she sputtered, glancing around to see the other members of the expedition seated under guard by other local men.  

"These are our sheep!" the local man growled, waving his rifle in Agent K’s face. "You have no right to take them out of their pen!" 

"But we thought they were penned up by the aliens," protested Agent K. "All those lasers, and pressure sensitive floors, and force fields!"

"It’s amazing what you can do with stuff from Radio Shack," one of the local men said smugly.
"You built all that?" asked Agent K. When the man nodded, she said "Have you ever considered a job protecting the planet from alien invasion? We could use a good force field from time to time!"
"Well, I never considered it before," said the man, looking eager.
"Enough!" shouted the man holding the rifle. "This isn’t a job fair! What right do you have taking these sheep away?"  

"If they’re your sheep, of course we won’t take them," replied Agent K irritably. It had been a long day, and she was hot, sweaty, and tired. "But you shouldn’t keep them hidden away like this! They’re incredible sheep. The Agency can help you develop the breed. There’s an enormous market potential for wool that keeps you cool in hot climates." 

"HA!" the man scoffed. "If you think I’m going back to my local spinning and knitting guild and telling them that I sold their sheep and there will be no more yarn for them, you’re sadly mistaken. Those knitters are terrifying in defense of their yarn."
Agent K could see that the man was truly afraid of that the local knitters would do to him if he lost their yarn. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead that she didn’t think was totally caused by the heat and humidity.
"Listen," she said in a calm and reasonable voice. "We don’t want to take your yarn. The Agency will leave them with you and send scientists and experts to help you expand your flock. Soon you’ll have enough yarn for your own needs plus extra to sell. Think of all the knitters around the world you’ll make happy!"
"If we let the Agency help us expand our flock, then we reserve the right to the fleece. We get to keep it or sell it, as we wish. You’ll talk to our lawyers before you go." He extended a hand to Agent K and helped her up off the forest floor, and they shook solemnly on it.
Several days later, Agent K was on a plane back to Agency Headquarters, feeling drained. Who knew that there were such sharp lawyers deep in the Amazon rainforest? But she had her agreement to develop the lost tribe’s fleece and a new electronics expert for the Agency labs. She elbowed Hans off their shared armrest and fell into a well-deserved sleep.


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