Observational Trip #7167, Log 17

Observational Trip #7167, Log 17

The three tall Toba stepped out of the small shuttle onto the sloped mountain pasture, the scene unlit except by the stars overhead.

Once they were clear, the ramp silently folded up, sealing the airlock, and the shuttle lifted away, silently returning to orbit overhead.

“This is where the sheep were yesterday?” Shozoni asked.

Baldgaro scanned the mountain field through his Gaikvo Labs binoculars, which turned the predawn darkness into a clear daylight-bright image. He saw none of the animals. “Yes, this is the spot.”

The third Toba, Gitbo, lifted his own optics to his face and peered into the darkness to the south, then pointed into the blackness. “There’s the aqueduct we saw from orbit. I’ll let you two look for the sheep; I’m more interested in getting data on the human engineering.”

“OK. We’ll be here … or nearby.”

Gitbo nodded, then went tramping off in the direction he’d pointed earlier.

Shozoni looked around in the darkness. “We’re not going to find any sheep until the sun comes up.”

Baldgaro shrugged. “We can’t land in daylight, when the humans would see us.” He paused “Let’s make a fire while we wait.”

The two Toba set to the project, following the steps they’d learned in their Observational Environments (OE) contact classes to build a circle of stones, fine dead wood in the forest that bordered the field, and using a pocket flamer to start the branches on fire.

After relaxing before the small fire for two hours, Shozoni looked up at the brightening eastern horizon.

“It’s almost sunrise.”

Baldgaro took his meaning - humans could be around, and Contact Protocol needed to be obeyed. He concentrated and slowly his features began to change. His skin, very pale to start with, darkened to a more olive tone, curly black hair erupted from the top of his head and his lower face, and then - and this took the most concentration - he slowly began to shrink, height turning into bulk. “How do I look?”

Shozoni, who had almost finished his own transformation, looked him up and down. “Good. You pass for human. How about me?”

Baldgaro looked him up and down. “Yes, you also look good.”

The two then adjusted their togas, pulling the excess fabric that now dragged along the ground up and securing it with their belts. That was one nice thing about this culture’s dress: it adjusted quite easily with changes in body type, unlike the clothes of some other places they’d visited on Earth.

“Look, the sheep!”

Baldgaro looked to see where Shozoni was pointing, and there - at the far end of the pasture, where a narrow gap in the tree line gave way to a second connected pasture, he saw: dozens, perhaps hundreds of the fluffy white creatures. “They look almost like baras, don’t they?”.

Shozoni nodded. “Yes, if you ignore their tails, and the shape of their horns, almost identical. Come, let’s go get a sample.”

Baldgaro took a step forward, then held out a hand and stopped Shozoni. “No, wait, there’s a small human with them. Let’s wait here and let him approach us - it will be less threatening that way.”

Shozoni nodded, and the two sat back down on the log that they’d been using for a bench and warmed themselves in front of the coals.

A moment later the small human - a youth, perhaps? - saw them, hesitated, then began to approach. The herd of sheep moved with him, and the two Toba saw that there were two smaller creatures - “dogs”, perhaps? - running back and forth behind the herd, helping to keep them in a mass.

As the herder boy and his flock got closer, Baldgaro stood, and raised a hand. The boy, about as far from them as the length of a lentisi field, returned the salute. “Salvente, alieni. Mihi nomen est Marcus.”

Baldgaro realized with a start that he had not turned on his translation co-processor. He concentrated and heard the acknowledgment tone. “I’m sorry, what?”

The boy repeated himself “I said ‘hello, strangers, my name is Marcus’.”

“Hello, Marcus. I’m Baldgaro, and this is Shozoni.”

The boy tilted his head. “You have strange names…and a strange accent. You’re travelers?”

“We are.”

“From Greece?”


The boy’s eyes went wide. “Not from beyond the Rhine?!”

“No, no.”

“From where, then?”

Shozoni stepped in and answered, “We came via a ship.”

The boy nodded. “Ah, we don’t get many travelers from Asia Minor here.” He paused, then looked at them suspiciously. “If you come from the port, why are you here, so far off the viae publicae?”

Baldgaro improvised quickly “We came to buy sheep, and we heard from another traveler that there were herders in these mountain passes. We’re happy to have found you.”

The boy, mollified, nodded. “Buy, you say? You’ve got denarii?”

Baldgaro lifted the coin purse tied to his belt, showing its weight.

“We do.”

The boy moved from neutrality to smiles. “Excellent! Father always says that it’s better to sell a lamb in spring or summer than in fall, because a deal done is a deal done, but a deal delayed gives the lamb a chance to kill itself.”

Baldgaro was puzzled. “Why would a lamb kill itself?”

Now it was Marcus’ turn to be puzzled. “Don’t you have sheep in your home country?”

Baldgaro shook his head. “No, we don’t.”

“But … I was told that barbarians learned to speak by listening to sheep?”

Baldgaro looked at Shozoni, hoping for some explanation, but the other Toba was just as confused as he was. “Um…I don’t understand. But perhaps we can move on to the transaction?”

Marcus nodded. “OK. How many sheep do you want?”

Baldgaro said “Would it be possible to get four?”

The boy nodded. “I can sell you four.” He thought for a moment.

“That will be ten denarri.”

Baldgaro took his coin purse from his belt and emptied it out into his left hand as the sheep milled around them, chewing at the meadow grasses.

Marcus saw the glint of gold among the silver and copper, and his eyes went wide. He hastily added “…each…so that’s 40 denarri, or that’s the same as one aureus - yes, the gold one, there – and give more denarii - yes, those silver ones.”

Baldgaro noticed the delay between “ten denarri” and “each” and suspected that the herder boy had decided to cheat them, raising his price by a factor of four, but it mattered little to him. Gold and silver were spilled like water from the automated Toba mines, and machines in their starship could press as much of it into authentic-looking coins as they needed, and so Baldgaro counted the coins out without protest, and dropped them into the boy’s open and outstretched hand.

The boy slipped them into his own pouch, then lifted a leather container off his shoulder. “I don’t have wine to toast the deal with, but would either of you like some water?”

The two Toba waved the offer away, so Marcus shrugged, uncorked the wineskin, took a drink, and then replaced the plug.

Shozoni said “Those smaller animals - those are dogs, yes?”

Marcus tilted his head. “Yes, of course.”

“We would like to buy your dogs, too.”

Marcus said nothing for a moment. “The dogs aren’t for sale.”

“Why not?”

“I… I need them to herd the sheep back to the village.”

“Surely you don’t need both of them. We could buy one dog from you and leave you the other.”

The boy looked down and his two dogs, then back up at the Toba and shook his head. “No, I’m sorry.”

Baldgaro had noticed the how the boy’s eyes had widened when he had opened his coin bag. The metals were nothing to the Toba but must represent a huge amount of wealth to these primitive aliens, and so he poured more coins from the bag into his hand, and let the boy see them. “We are willing to pay well for the dog.”

The boy swallowed.

“I… I guess I cou-…no.” Then, as if to convince himself, he said it more forcefully. “No, Stephanos and Patricus aren’t for sale. They’re my friends.”

Shozoni looked at Baldgaro with a puzzled look. Had the herder boy said that the animals were his friends? Baldgaro looked just as puzzled. Shozoni turned back to Marcus and was about to ask for clarification when he was interrupted by a voice from the wood line behind them.

“Ah, I see you found the sheep!”

Shozoni and Baldgaro turned and saw Gitbo…who had not shifted to human form, and thus was still eight feet tall, pale, and thin.

“Gitbo! There is a human present!”

Gitbo was startled, and immediately dropped the piece of granite he was carrying and began his transformation - but it was too late.

Marcus had already seen him.

The herder boy cried out. “Are you a god? My mother told me that the old gods are fake, and that we should only believe in the One True God, but my grandfather told me that they’re real.”

The dogs picked up on Marcus’ distress and began barking, which in turn agitated the sheep, sending them running off.

Marcus turned, saw the sheep running off, then turned back and saw the three Toba-disguised-as-humans in front of him, and was torn between chasing his livestock and dealing with this strange new situation.

“Are you Ceres Augusta?”

Gitbo shook his head. “I don’t know who that is. No. No, I’m not.”

“Was this a test? If you are Ceres, know that I’ve never disrespected you, and I’ve always cared for my sheep - and especially my dogs! - well. I have passed the test. You saw that, spying on me from the forest.”

Gitbo was flummoxed. “No, I’m not Ceres. I’m not a god.”

Marcus grew suspicious, and even more afraid. “Then are you a demon?”

“I’m not a demon either.”

Marcus considered this, then a look of suspicion clouded his face. “A demon would lie about being a demon.” He took two steps backwards, putting distance between himself and the strangers before him, and then crossed himself.

Gitbo said “I mean you no harm, I just -“ and he took a step toward Marcus, meaning to comfort him, but this was more than the already near panicked youth could take, and he turned and sprinted away. The two dogs ran along either side him, barking, and the sheep pivoted as one and ran with them.

The three Toba were left standing alone.

A moment later the herder boy, his two dogs, and the flock disappeared through the gap in the tree line, into the next pasture, and - presumably - kept running towards the small villa below.

Gitbo blinked. “That went poorly.”

Baldgaro said “We didn’t get a dog.”

Shozoni said “Or, for that matter, any sheep.”

There was a long silence. Gitbo picked up the small block of granite he’d been carrying. “On the bright side, I did get a sample from the aqueduct.”

The other two Toba frowned at him.


“You got your sample, but we didn’t get ours …and this is the last day of the mission.”

Gitbo shrugged. “On the bright side, we’re off to a new star system tomorrow. You biologists can get your samples of livestock and crops there.”

“Well, yes, we can … but we just missed our chance on Earth…and the exploration schedule doesn’t have the Institute visiting this planet for another thousand years.”

Gitbo pursed his lips. “Yes…I’m sorry I forgot to transform and panicked the herder boy. And the dogs. And the sheep.”

Shozoni let out a long sigh. “Well…what’s done is done. Yes, there’s always the next system to look forward to. And I will just leave a note in the file for the next crew, to remind them to get samples of sheep.”

Baldgaro said “And dogs.”

“Yes, and dogs too. I’ll make a note.”