The Little Shepherdess

WRITTEN BY
Gwyneth Jones

ILLUSTRATED BY
Rosanna Tasker

i

Lost in the Pacific, far south of the Peru basin, Diti strolled with the Remote Islands warden, in a scrubby, ochre and olive landscape that reminded her of Greece. She was a graduate student researcher, working on a species survey for an abyssal plains mining project on a nearby rig: but right now she was taking a half-day off, and watching the warden finish his wool harvest.

The St Margets comprised one cone-shaped island, and a cusp of reefs that mostly hardly counted as land. They’d been settled twice: a thousand years ago by an Oceanic people, otherwise unknown, who’d left a steep field system, and some enigmatic, geometrical ditches — and then, much later, by Scottish-origin farmers who’d soon given up and gone back to New Zealand, leaving a few Shetland sheep behind. Currently, the islands were uninhabited. The single building was the hut the warden used on his visits. The only large land animals were the sheep: by now naturalised, and protected. An occasional cull for meat, said the warden, unsentimentally, kept the flock within healthy bounds.

Shetlands don’t need shearing. They shed their thick, fine wool naturally every spring (a primitive trait, long since selected out in modern breeds), but the fleece can also be removed by hand, all of a piece by experts: a process called rooing. Diti and Ano, the warden, settled on a shoulder of the island’s central peak, the species-survey rig like a giant, angular insect on their blue-on-blue horizon, and waited for the last few sheep, encouraged by Ano’s dogs, to come and find them. The animals’ seasonal cycle hadn’t shifted, it was approaching what passed for winter at this latitude, not summer. But the Margets’ climate was extremely equable: they wouldn’t miss their coats.

Diti hadn’t expected company when she arrived here one day, in one of the rig’s dinghies. She was just stir-crazy in that metal and digital world. But she and the warden had become friends. Ano was also a paleo-agronomist, a specialist in ancient Oceanic crops. As the sheep came trotting up, stood for their health-check and knelt to be rooed (a process they seemed to thoroughly enjoy) he told Diti about long-lost grains and roots that had been cultivated right here, and could be valuable again, in the world’s growing food security crisis.

Diti told him about her isopods, deep sea crustaceans. She was attaching microchip cameras to their shells, using a miniature ROV, and waldoes. It was fiddly, and strangely exhausting, but chip by chip she was creating a live-action mosaic movie (with the aid of some serious number-crunching software), of the abyssal plain fauna, which was just amazing to see—

Ano, although resigned to the rig’s mission, was troubled by Diti’s part in the work.  This “species survey” had only one aim in view: to make the mining corporation look good, before the destruction of the habitat she was recording, and its entire fauna. She was a life-scientist! It was inexcusable.

“You know why you’re the only one to come on shore, Diti? It’s because your superiors are ashamed of their so-called ‘science’.” The stripped ewe hopped to her feet: touched noses with one of the dogs and skipped away, munching on a hand-out of sheep nuts. Ano grinned, to take the sting out of his criticism. “See, this is how to do it: don’t hurt them, hire them! I get the wool, and she’s happy too.”

Diti said that the deep sea held reserves of minerals vital for renewable energy technology. Renewables had to expand, hugely and fast, because the whole world was in crisis. Harvesting the polymetallic nodules, that lay scattered over the abyssal plains, didn’t need “intensive” mining methods that would destroy everything. It was the least worst scenario —

They didn’t persuade each other. But something Ano had said, half-joking, lodged in Diti’s mind like a barbed seed, and wouldn’t let go.

ii

The isopods, as seen through goggles in the ROV video tank, were giant, oblong-shaped bugs, clothed in pearly, scalloped scales. They crept around, occasionally, randomly, drifting free and landing again. Different species had eight lobes, seven lobes, six lobes to their fringed tails, but precise identification wasn’t relevant for this operation. They didn’t seem aware of the tiny ROV, or the tagging operation, but were very good at subverting and avoiding it—

When her head began to spin and her eyes burned, Diti awarded herself a break and moved to the other tank, to view the results of her endeavours. If she was honest, Ano might find this amazing movie a little slow . . . Often nothing stirred, except isopod camera-bearers, blundering into view; or the nodules themselves, shifting in the drift. This was not a vast deposit, like the Pacific fields further north, but it was still extraordinary. The precious blooms of metal were just lying there, crowds of them, (and Ano was right, alas. Diti’s isopod movie would be of great interest to the mining corp.) . . . At last a single, female timid squid appeared. She checked it off on her log: Amaryllis Menoetes, the sparkling herder. It was a pretty species, with a tapering bulb of a body, and arms that formed a flared and fluted bell at full extension; shot through with yellow sparkles. The little creature (about 20 cm high in real life) tripped around as if it was dancing. They’d been observed moving the nodules about, a behaviour someone had dubbed nest-building; which couldn’t be right. . . But there were so few direct observations of abyssal plain fauna, nonsense “facts” went unchallenged for ages.

The yellow photophores acted as camouflage, but the longer Diti watched, the more timid squid she could see. Were they hunting? They definitely seemed to be groping at the crusty blooms; even pushing them together, into heaps . . .

She kept watching, occasionally logging another species that came along, until eyestrain set in again. Then she noted up her shift and left the RV studio (a repurposed shipping container, which was almost Diti’s private domain). As she’d hoped, Helmut, the head of operations —who loved cooking— had organised a meal in the big compartment that was their meeting space. Squid was not on the menu. It was delicious spicy bean stew, with grilled prawn or tofu wraps and plenty of cold beer. The scientists and support chattered the way adults do, never anything about their work; except for a focus on the price of cobalt, a topic important to them all.

Diti was bored and wondered aloud, just idly, if the species-rich concentrations of fauna, fatally drawn to the most desirable deposits on the ocean floor, might be looked at the other way round? The nodules were porous, and not hard to shift —

“It’s the stock market floor!” shouted Carl, statistician from the University of the Galápagos. “The abyssal traders have their own metals exchange!”

“Why not?” said Diti, who didn’t like Carl’s habit of shouting, or his stupid ‘amusing’ interruptions. “Trade isn’t a cognitive activity. Slime moulds do it.”

Perita, the DSV (deep-submergence vehicle) pilot, a very vocal anarchist, flung up her arms: “I absolutely knew that!” she cried. “This explains everything about our world! No cognitive activity in capitalism, only brainless cellular function!”

Helmut changed the subject, and conversation became general again.

But Diti’s interest in her “idle” suggestion, stung into life by Carl and Perita’s mockery, led to more, targeted viewing sessions. Her idea became a report: backed by sealed video recordings, and a set of meticulous drawings of the sparkling herder; plus others showing curious, flat, four-pointed stars that folded into cones… Cellulose-based material for the “stars”, she thought. The propellant and delivery system would be chemical… The circular central plates must mimic exactly the triggers that caused the little squid to choose a “nesting” place.

Like eye-spots …

She thought as she worked, of her refugee mother, who had died. And of her Greek papa, who’d married a brave, lovely woman, and had been left alone with an angry, damaged, dreadful little child. “I wanted you to value yourself,” he used to tell Diti. “I thought: how can I give the child value?

You can’t insist a timid squid sticks at her studies, and carries on to grad school. But trade is the breath of life, papa would say, and that was a clue to follow.

iii

Finally she took her report to Helmut. In the cubby hole that was his office she waited as he turned the printed pages, and peered at video. (The star drawings weren’t included. They would come later…) She was very nervous. She should have involved him sooner, and led up to this moment by stages, instead of dumping it all at once. But she’d been too obsessed. A bad error!

Helmut sat back. He scratched his head, on which a blonde-turning-grey thatch was always standing on end. “This is funny! You were looking so grim, today, I expected you to tell me you were quitting. But this is not quitting!”

“Not grim,” said Diti. “Just concentrating. I know it’s very rough. The data I’m sure about, and the projection, as far as it goes, but the presentation is probably rubbish?”

“No, no…” Helmut flipped her pages. “The presentation is good. So, you’ve been studying the little shepherdess…”

Amaryllis Menoetes?”

“Also called ‘the little shepherdess’. Because of the pretty ‘skirt’, you see?”

Diti wished she’d remembered the English name, but she shrugged. “Okay.”

“And this isn’t about her nest-building?”

“There is no nest building.  Amaryllis Menoetes males are solitary, as far as they’ve been observed. The females are sociable, and long lived, if they don’t meet a male. But they don’t rear young. They die after spawning; the young are free-swimming from birth.”

“That’s a pity. No protected breeding ground for us to defend?”

Diti shook her head. “That wouldn’t work, anyway. We’d never get away with something like that, not up against a global emergency—”

“Because the woods are burning, yah. Burning like hell, and growing money trees at the same time. So tell me what you have.”

“They don’t build nests. They do shift the nodules. It’s in the name, they’re timid. They create shelters, and move on; again and again. I think I’ve seen other species do it too.  It’s a stereotypic behavior. What if sometimes, or often, concentrated deposits, useful to the mining, I mean the harvesting, are created that way? And it would need more research, but if so, could the process be allowed to continue?”

Helmut returned to the report. Then he sat and stared for a while, as if still deep in thought.  “Hm! Aphrodite, born of the sea foam. But you are Syrian, I think? How do you have the name of an ancient Greek sea-deity?”

“I was a refugee from Syria, with my mother. I was very small, and I thought people with Syrian names all got killed, so I wouldn’t answer to mine. My Greek papa gave me a Greek name. But he said I would want to remember my Syrian family name, later on, and he was right, so I use both.”

“I see. Well . . . Afroditi Algafari, who knows where this will go? But I’m already sure I’m going to share your report with my boss. She’ll want to speak to you.”

Diti, so shocked that she panicked, felt as if the rig had lurched under her. “I did try to keep up with everything else… Am I going to be fired?”

“Worse than that! I think I’m going to have to send you to Geneva.”

Geneva?”

“Ah, Diti. Listen. A green heart is not enough; you also need a hard head, which I think you have. You speak cautiously, that’s good too. But you must work fast now, to make this happen, and prepare to be flexible. Think about that, while Mavis and I ruminate like old cows, about how to handle your hopeful monster. And please, get some rest! Your eyes are like black saucers. But be ready to pack your bags, and keep an eye on the price of cobalt.”

iv

Helmut advised her to recruit two team members she could work with. It didn’t take much thought: she asked Carl and Perita. They’d annoyed her by jumping on her idea, but they were young, respected for their skills, and at least they’d noticed what Diti was saying. This meant a lot, in hindsight. They accepted at once, and the three made swift work of turning Diti’s report into a conference presentation. Meanwhile Mavis Couthold, Helmut’s boss —who was in Geneva with ESAMP, the group that advised the UN on marine protection, organised their trip.

The International Seabed Authority was in Geneva for a special session, hosted by the UN: reaching an agreement between the “intensive” sea bed mining companies, who were lobbying hard for new licences and less regulation, and the scientists and sovereign nations, who were pushing back. Nodule harvesters weren’t directly involved, but as Mavis explained, when she met them at the airport, everyone turned up for events like this. The ISA session was the centerpiece of a deep sea trade fair, a talking shop and a forum for new ideas.

They were staying out of town, in a house by Lac Leman belonging to Phillipe Lebrun, CEO of Remote South Pacific Resources. Lebrun himself was their host. Diti wondered what he was really thinking, as he walked with his guests by the shore, the evening they arrived: smiling and silent, while Mavis outlined her campaign, and Mont Blanc’s patchy summer snows gleamed, on the skyline across the water. The big boss had many interests, and was hugely rich, but surely he couldn’t want research on a little squid to halt his Pacific mining in its tracks?

Phillipe caught her eye. “You’re suspicious of my motives, Diti?”

“Er, no! Not at all.” said Diti, startled.

“It may surprise you, but I love the deeps, as much as I love the game of making money. And I’m always ready to change my mind, if I see the game is changing.”

v

Everything went well. Mavis, Carl and Perita circulated: leaking sneaky peeks of video, and talking to anyone who would listen… Before they’d been in Geneva three days, these efforts were such a success that Diti’s presentation had to be moved to a bigger venue, with a modest press conference beforehand. The little shepherdess was a feel-good story, and marvellous science, too: an irresistible combination for many in this crowd. The others were thrilled, but Diti (who was being “kept under wraps”) felt unaccountably depressed. Of course it was great, if they won a cosmetic pause for research . . . making RSP Resources look good; as Ano had said. What more could they hope for? Her fantasy of something different was ridiculous.

Then on the fourth day, disaster struck. Diti was out sightseeing; thankfully, being “kept under wraps” didn’t involve house arrest.  She’d noticed that her friends were strangely silent, but thought nothing of it, until a lone, terse text summoned her to the house by Lac Leman. Perita and Carl were waiting in the hall, with dreadful news.

“It’s those devils of vacuum cleaners!” howled Perita, clutching at her tangled black curls. “The bastards! They’ve made up a pack of dirty lies, and convinced the CBL crowd you’re an evil existential threat! We’re dead in the water!”

The success of their campaign had backfired.

CBL —a continuous bucket line, or conveyor-belt system— was the nodule harvesting method favoured by Remote South Pacific Resources. The “vacuum cleaners” had a more intensive approach, with large, remote operated vehicles, thundering around on the deep sea bed, and apparently they’d decided that Amaryllis Menoetes was going to put them out of business. How they’d come to this conclusion was a mystery, but they’d been ruthlessly attacking Diti’s unseen report, offline and behind closed doors, and demolishing her reputation.

“Mavis is attempting damage limitation right now,” said Carl, despondently. “But it’s hopeless. They say you’re a green fake, secretly getting paid off by the deep sea open-cast miners, to wreck low-intensity nodule harvesting. The timid squid observations are fake too, simply photoshopped. It’s all lies. They can prove nothing, but that’s not the point, they don’t care, as long as they ruin your presentation.”

Diti sat down, slowly, at the foot of Phillipe’s grand staircase. “But why?” she murmured, amazed.  “Why are they acting so threatened —?”

“Hey, it’s not over. We’ll fight this, Diti!” Carl protested.

“No we won’t!” snapped Perita. “If we fight, they win, idiot. We’d just be spreading the dirt!”

“Time for a change of tack . . .” said Diti, almost to herself. She left them squabbling, hurried to her room, and opened the presentation on her laptop screen.

The Timid Squid: Stereotypic Behaviour in Amaryllis Menoetes

What a dull, harmless, graduate-student title!

Nothing ventured, nothing gained . . . She wiped it out, and typed instead:

Zero Disturbance Harvesting.

She checked some delegate details, left the house by a side door, and called a taxi. Soon she was standing outside a guest room in one of Geneva’s big hotels, hugging her laptop, and that secret portfolio of drawings. She’d thought it better not to announce herself at reception. She took a deep breath, and knocked. The man who opened the door was tall and broad, with slick dark hair cut square at his jaw, and piercing blue eyes. Originally light-skinned, Dutch-Indonesian mixed race, he now looked as if he’d been carved from seasoned teak. His name was Hans Blum, and he was technically a rig operator, not a mogul, but he was one of the most powerful people in the nodule harvesting business.

“I’m Diti Algafari,” she said. “Could we talk? It’s about an engineering problem.”

Hans Blum stared for several seconds, in silence. “Did Phillipe send you?”

“No, but we both need to talk to him. He’s been keeping something from us.”

The teak giant thought this over, narrow-eyed.  “Explain yourself a little.”

“If deep sea engineering includes turning isopods into mobile cameras, I know a little about that. You can ask Helmut. And I really might be the world expert on Amaryllis Menoetes stereotypic shelter building, right now. A harvesting system that uses abyssal fauna’s natural behaviour is bad news for the vacuum cleaners, they couldn’t adapt. That’s why they’re gunning for me. Phillipe’s interested; I know he is.  I have my presentation here, and drawings you might want to see.”

“An engineering problem,” said Hans. “I like those. Come in, let’s talk.”

vi

Deep sea mining had a few quiet years after the Geneva ISA session. The price of conventionally-mined cobalt finally rose, making seabed projects more attractive to investors, but “Urban Mining” (the recycled metals market) also prospered; almost negating the effect. But in that time, with more research, the industry’s close attention, and the backing of a wealthy, adventurous entrepreneur, Diti’s idea took shape. An effective, working process emerged, replicable almost wherever the precious sea metal was found —and became one of the early triumphs of the “life-modelled” industrial revolution that was changing the whole world.

The sparkling herders, and their sister abyssal fauna, busily heaped the nodules, like jumbles of sheep in a pen. The four-pointed stars snapped shut, and sped away, gravid with mineral wealth, to solar-powered rigs that drifted, far, far above. The herders might be disconcerted when their creations disappeared. But they never tired of “nest building”, and there was always another ideal spot close by, so they weren’t worried for long…

Diti Algafari, of course, had moved on, before the commercial version took off. But of all her adventures, in a marine bio-engineering career that spanned momentous decades, maybe the affair of the little shepherdess would always be closest to her heart.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gwyneth Jones is a writer and critic of genre fiction. She's won the Tiptree award, two World Fantasy awards, the Arthur C. Clarke award, the British Science Fiction Association short story award, the Dracula Society's Children of the Night award, the P.K.Dick award, and the SFRA Pilgrim award for lifetime achievement in sf criticism. She also writes for teenagers, usually as Ann Halam. She lives in Brighton, UK, with her husband and two cats called Ginger and Milo; curating assorted pondlife in season. She's a member of the Soil Association, the Sussex Wildlife Trust, Frack Free Sussex and the Green Party; and an Amnesty International volunteer.