A Truant Disposition

"I must be idle."

The Shepherd Of The Uncanny Valley

Written By: Ainy Rainwater - Mar• 21•13

I was awakened at 5 am by one of the dogs urping. (She’s okay now.) As I was trying to get back to sleep, in that hypnogogic state, I saw a sheep with a hole in its head. The whole story unspooled itself in my mind word by word until I was fully awake and writing. One very light rewrite later, here it is. Enjoy.

He could clearly see the hole in the goat’s head from where he stood. A perfect round black circle on the grayish head. Not another one, he thought as he made his way down over the rocks toward it. He sighed. This was the second one in two months. The upgraded goats might be more sophisticated than the earlier models, but they still weren’t well-made. They’d taken the heads off for the upgrade — taking a few goats at a time so there would still be a good-sized flock for the tourists to peer at through binoculars — and when they’d returned them, they all had this access plate in the head. Unfortunately it screwed on with only a few shallow threads and it didn’t take long for them to work loose as the goats ambled and jumped on the rugged rocky alpine mountain. There was no hope of finding the missing screw-plate among the rocks and nothing to seal it up with against the elements. He shook his head. He’d have to carry it down and these beasts were¬†heavy, heavier than the real thing.

At least he wouldn’t have to worry about the wolves getting the flock while he was gone. The local pack was thin and slowly starving since all the animals were slowly being replaced by mechanical ones. The artificial goats literally scared the shit out of the wolves. They’d circled the new “goats” closer and closer, conspicuously whiffing the wind until two wolves had begun to creep forward. At a certain point the fur had stood up on their backs and the lead wolf had bolted in fright leaving a stream of shit steaming in the cold twilight air., with the other wolf fleeing right behind her. The pack had then melted away into the fading light. He’d caught sight of them a few times since but they’d never made a move to approach again.

The village was a quaint rustic tourist favorite, but not so big that converting it would’ve been too difficult. They had started with the picturesque flocks in the valley and on the surrounding mountains. They still needed a shepherd to complete the picture and he still needed a job, at least in the short term, so he stayed in his snug alpine hut and roamed the mountains as he always had. He missed the smell of the goats. He was 16 now and they’d offered him a buy-out nearly a year ago when his parents had left. They were in New Snevea. He opted to stay. “New Snevea”, he’d snorted. As if there had been an “old Snevea”. From everything he’d read, seen and heard, the new planned city was impressive and well-designed, which was great for the people who lived in the gleaming urban landscape. But he didn’t want to live in a big city.

When he reached the trailhead near the base of the mountain, he heaved the goat — deactivated so it couldn’t mindlessly kick him to death all the way down — into a small motorized cart and wended his way the rest of the way down to the village in the high mountain valley. After shoving the goat, with a scrawled “hole in head” note, down the chute outside of the village, he continued into town. He usually went into the village once a month for supplies and to pick up his mail. Internet connections weren’t good here for reasons he really didn’t understand or care about, so old-fashioned letters hadn’t fallen completely by the wayside. Besides the usual brochures for New Snevea and yet another copy of the standard buy-out contract, there were three letters from New Snevea, two from his parents urging him to join them and one from his girlfriend. He wondered if she could still be considered his girlfriend since he hadn’t seen her in almost a year and hadn’t spoken to her since that one time they’d managed to connect by phone four months after she left. She didn’t understand why he didn’t leave. She accused him of having sex with that creepy simulacrum they’d installed in her place. He was appalled. He hadn’t seen it and didn’t want to. His shock was genuine and came through over the hissing distance between them. He noticed that in this letter she hadn’t begged him to join “everyone” in New Snevea as she had in every other letter. He wondered if she had found someone else, someone real.

Increasingly, he felt like an outsider in the village, like somehow he was the one that didn’t belong, who wasn’t “authentic”. Every time he came down he found a few more people he’d known his whole life replaced by androids who didn’t quite look like them. He dreaded seeing the ones who had replaced his parents. It was too disturbing. The “people” were far more sophisticated machines than the livestock, which were only meant to be viewed from a distance. It creeped him out. Tourists often did a double-take when they saw him, so accustomed had everyone become to artificial people. They asked him questions and made jokes about electric sheep that he didn’t understand. “They’re goats,” he’d say patiently. And they’d laugh. They were real in a way that the resort staff and the baker, and the postmaster weren’t, but “not real” in the way that tourists are always “not real” to locals. They sometimes made reference to “The Uncanny Valley” which was not where they were, though they spoke as if it was. One of them finally explained what the phrase meant: how disquieting it is when an android looks too real. He made a mental revision; this place was indeed The Uncanny Valley now.

He went back to his snug hut on the mountain. He could hear the wolves howling forlornly in the night. He wondered how long they had until they were starved out or hunted down and replaced. He wondered how much longer he could hold out against the insistent pressure to sell out and be shuttled off to “the good life” in New Snevea. He imagined a day not too far in the future when he’d be the only real creature on the mountain or in the village, not counting the tourists. Him and the wolves. Probably not even the wolves. He knew what that would feel like. He was feeling it right now, lying in the darkness still awake. The wolves’ singing had stopped. Not caring much for firearms, he’d thrown stones at them and hated them when they had worried his sheep or goats. But he’d always found their singing soothing in the evening. Now that they were the only living animals of any good size on the mountain, he knew how they felt. Unbearably alone. There was no reason to sing.

Flowers were in full bloom as alpine spring turned into alpine summer. The air smelled fresh and alive and bright. The rocks were slippery wet as the day warmed up and more snow melted. He took a deep breath. He could not give this up. He could never go to New Snevea. The goats clicked and whirred among the rocky landscape. He caught the flashes of sun off the lenses of tourists in the valley, looking through binoculars or telescopes mounted on the deck of the resort, or taking pictures. He waved at the unseen humans. It wasn’t until a half hour later that he realized he was waving goodbye.

The wolves had approached. The pack was smaller, only seven starving wolves left. He hadn’t seen them in a long time and as their howls had been more distant and sometimes absent he assumed they’d been ranging further away as small game became scarce under the pressure of predation. He walked toward the wolves. When they fell upon him it would be a good death; he would be able to smell that animal scent he’d missed since the sheep and goats had been replaced. He’d be able to feel their fur. It was an irresistible thought.

When he was close enough he could almost touch them, the lead wolf leaned forward quivering. So hungry. He braced himself against the impact, taking a deep breath of wild wolfish odor. The lead wolf nipped at his fingers, then submissively licked his hand. He reach out and sunk his fingers into the wolf’s thin, but authentic, fur. Then he straightened, his other hand gripping his staff. “I will take care of you,” said the shepherd. Then he led the pack out of the uncanny valley to the wild land beyond.

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