Agent K stubbed her toe and nearly fell flat on her face, saved only the guiding hand on her elbow. The blindfold was necessary, they had insisted. If anyone knew where they had their base of operations, they would be in grave danger.
This was the Underground, a group that officially didn’t exist. They were mavericks, operating outside the law and recognizing no one’s control, not even the Agency’s. Some called them patriots, some called them extremists. Agent K wasn’t sure what exactly to call them, but she had been sent here to represent the Agency in negotiations for a formal treaty between the groups. She didn’t know if she could succeed, but she was willing to give it a try, if it meant being able to fight the aliens more effectively.
“Be careful, there are ten steps here,” said a disembodied voice into her ear. She gingerly felt her way down the steps with her guide’s help, then stood obediently still when he told her to stay put. There was a moment’s silence.
The blindfold was removed, and Agent K blinked in the light. She stood in a room arranged like a classroom or a church, with rows of seats facing a raised dais on which stood a high-backed chair. The walls were decorated with woven, knitted, and crocheted hangings of bright colors and patterns. There were no windows: in fact, the room seemed to have a below the ground feel to it. Powerful lights provided the brightness in the room, and they were all directed at the spot where Agent K stood. She wondered if they were always this bright, but decided that they were probably there as an intimidation tactic. All the intel said that the Underground would be tough negotiators, but they would find that Agents were hard to intimidate, especially Agent K.
“Welcome to the Underground,” said a deep voice. It was hard to see the chair on the dais due to the lights, but Agent K saw a tall, thin man wearing floor-length robes sweep up to the chair and sit in it in one fluid motion. “You are Agent K?”
“Yes,” replied Agent K, straightening her shoulders and raising her chin. “And you are?”
“I am Brother One,” he answered. “You were sent by the Agency to hear our demands. We have them here. First, that all sheep be freed from Agency slavery…”
“Hold on just one moment,” interrupted Agent K. “I came to negotiate an alliance on behalf of the Agency, not to bring back any lists of demands. The Agency is prepared to work with you to secure our sheep and wool against the alien threat.”
“We do not recognize the Agency. It is the front for a government conspiracy to drive up wool prices and oppress the sheep community!”
“Now just one minute…”
But Brother One was on a roll: “Too long has the government held the sheep in thrall! We demand the rights of free ovine citizens to determine their own destinies, free from the jackbooted foot of an oppressive Agency!”
“I think jackbooted is going a bit far…”
“Be free, my hoofed friends! Throw off the shackles and chains forged by the Agency! Let me hear your cry for freedom!”
“BAAA!!! BAAAA!!! BAAAAAA!!!!!”
Agent K whirled on her heel. While Brother One was speaking, the rows of seats had filled with acolytes, all wearing long flowing robes of felted wool. She hadn’t heard them enter, but there were at least thirty people in the rows of seats. They were all BAAAing loudly in response to Brother One’s speech. A few wore horns on their heads and waved them in Agent K’s direction, while other made pawing motions with paper mache hooves they held in their hands. Not a little weirded out and quite reluctant to turn her back on them, Agent K turned back to Brother One. He stood looking down on his flock from the dais, his robe flowing out behind him and his hands held up in the air in triumph.
When the BAAing died down, Brother One lowered his arms and addressed Agent K. “You will take our demands back the Agency. Number one, all sheep shall be freed from Agency slavery…”
“Now, just hold on. The Agency doesn’t hold sheep in slavery! Agency sheep are free to leave at any time they wish. Most don’t leave, because where else can you get three grassy meals a day and a cute haircut once a year for free?” Agency K said reasonably. “Besides, we’ve got more important things to discuss, like how to fight the aliens that threaten the Earth’s sheep.”
“The aliens aren’t a threat!” shouted Brother One. A few alarmed bleats sounded from behind Agent K. “The Agency is the threat! The aliens are with us and want our sheep to be happy and free!”
Agent K narrowed her eyes. “Really? Then why do they keep trying to destroy the wool? They’ll stop at nothing, including KILLING the sheep, so long as the wool threat to them is eliminated.”
“You have it all wrong,” said Brother One, as if explaining something obvious to a particularly slow student. “The aliens want only to free the sheep. The reason the Agency wants the sheep is for the wool. If the aliens get rid of the wool, the Agency will have no further use for the sheep and will set them free.”
“They’ve told you this? And you believed them?” asked Agent K, incredulous. “Listen, the aliens are not your friends. The Agency is. Do you really want a world where there are no wooly sheep in the pastures? Where there is no wool to felt for your robes, or weave for your hangings, or knit for your socks, or crochet for your hats? Really?”
Brother One looked thunderous, but the flock in the rows of seats bleated and baaed uncertainly.
“I like wool socks!” said one of the bolder members.
“Silence!” roared Brother One. “We have agreed to the aliens’ terms, and we will not negotiate with the Agency. The Agency is the enemy!”
“The Agency is not the enemy!” cried Agent K, appealing directly to the flock. “Join the Agency, and sheep and wool and all that they stand for will be saved! Ally yourselves to the aliens and you will be doomed to synthetic socks for the rest of your lives!”
The lone cry of “… but cotton socks!” was drowned out by the increasingly partisan shouting, bleating, and baaing. Brother One came down from the dais and tried to push his way to the center of the roiling mass of sheepy congregants. But it was too late. The battle was well-joined, and Brother One had lost control of his flock. Agent K backed slowly away from the fracas when a flying paper mache hoof nearly beaned her in the head. She watched dispassionately, curious to see what the outcome would be, as the wool flew.
“Quick, this way,” said a voice in her ear. It was her guide into the Underground, a young man with glasses and rams’ horns. “You’re in danger if you stay here. Once the flock is in a frenzy, there’s no telling what they’ll do. If Brother One gains the upper hoof, he may turn his fury on you, and if he doesn’t, the ones who are pro-Agency may hurt you inadvertently in their manic devotion.”
Agent K glanced once more at the flock and watched as one member buried his hoof into the stomach of his fellow acolyte. She turned to her guide and said “Get me out of here!”
He pushed aside a beautiful handwoven hanging to reveal a door. He pushed this open and led her up a few steps. At top of the steps was a thick metal door. Agent K opened this and found herself standing on a busy street. Her Agency-issued car was parked directly in front of her.
“Did you walk me around in circles for half an hour for the fun of it?” demanded Agent K, outraged.
The young man shuffled his feet. “Yeah, Brother One said that it was important that we make it seem like we were far away.”
Agent K rolled her eyes. “Well, what will happen now?”
He sighed. “I don’t know. I joined the Underground because I wanted to help sheep. My family had a sheep farm that was flattened by aliens. All our sheep were stolen. Now I don’t know what to do. Brother One has been getting crazier. These hooves were his idea.” He waved a battered hoof sadly.
Agent K hesitated, then pulled out her card. “Take this. Call me if you want to schedule an interview for the Agency. We may not always do the right thing, but our hearts and wool are in the right place. We need as many people like you as we can get, so tell your friends in the Underground that we’re looking for enthusiastic protectors of sheep. We can use you, but NOT if you cooperate with the aliens.”
He took the card. “I can’t promise anything. But I do know that the aliens won’t talk to Brother One unless he can get enough followers. Maybe I can get a few followers to follow me to the Agency.”
Agent K clapped him on the back in an encouraging manner, then got into her car and drove off. She looked back into the rear view mirror to see him still standing irresolute in his wooly robe, horns, and hooves. Maybe he would be a new recruit, maybe not. But she hoped that Brother One would be rendered harmless by today’s work. It was bad enough to have to fight the aliens.