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Kai's Adventures in Troubleshooting, #23: Sheep's Clothing

Once upon a time, Kainudy had a real job...

Kainudy wondered why, in a world made by magic and populated by people that could conjure up almost anything they needed, she couldn't get a decent cup of coffee in her own office? She tossed her travel pack onto the shelf next to her desk, and frowned at the accumulation of newspapers covering the blotter.

"You look like hell," Reynald commented. Without looking, the dragoness knew that her officemate was dressed immaculately and in the current fashion, perfect teeth flashing from a perfect smile in a perfect elven face. "Did you solve Queen Helmsly's desertion problem?"

Kainudy sat down on her haunches behind her desk, and drained her mug of bad coffee before answering. "Yeah, it wasn't even desertion." She opened the window blinds and squinted at the harsh false sunlight.

Across the room, Reynald propped his elbows on his desk and raised an eyebrow in a clear 'go on' signal. If he was a bit greener, Kai thought he could pass for a Vulcan.

With a sigh, the dragoness elaborated, "Soldiers were just disappearing at the outposts. So I went to the first one to investigate. The conditions and location were horrible.. what military significance the Queen saw in a half-frozen swamp bordering the tundra I'll never know.."

Reynald flashed his Cheshire smile again, "Don't tell me you've never set up a platoon in the middle of nowhere when you were leading armies, Kai."

Kainudy ignored the jibe. "The problem of the missing soldiers was pretty obvious once I'd looked the place over. The food stores couldn't be protected from swamp-rot, no matter what they did, and the supply wagon only came once a month. So they just resorted to cannibalism. The Leutenant in charge of the outpost got a commendation for good resource management."

The elf's grin somehow got wider and brighter, "I see.. so it was a case of 'dessertion' afterall.."

Kainudy's empty mug and Reynald's skull were spared at the last moment by the opening of the outer office door. Marge, the human receptionist and secret owner of Troubleshooters Inc. (Once we shoot it, it stays dead!) sashayed in with a garishly dressed elf in tow. Kainudy immediately ducked behind the pile of newspapers on her desk, and Reynald managed to produce a thick folder of reports from thin air to pretend to be studying.

Marge tapped her high-heeled toe three times and snapped her gum before announcing the elf. "This is Mr. S'pan Dex, director of procurement for the Fruit of the Moon underwear corporation.."

The woman glanced over at Reynald's IN box, then headed for Kainudy's desk, each click of her heels sounding more and more ominous to the dragon. "Welcome back, Kainudy. Please take Mr. Dex's statement and get started on his case.. he's paid in advance."

Kainudy sighed and lifted her head, forcing a smile for the client. For his part, S'pan Dex looked absolutely appalled at the disheveled state of the dragoness, but approached her desk nonetheless. Marge left them and went to check the status of Reynald's various cases.

"Now Mr. Dex," Kainudy began, sounding cheerier than she felt, "What seems to be your problem?" She smiled reassuringly, a skill she had spent many days before the mirror to master.

The elf spoke in that not-quite-condescending-yet-not-quite-bootlicking tone that all middle-management types seem to acquire, "Are you familiar with the world of BaaaaBLEET, Mister..." The elf paused while he tried to read the plaque on Kai's desk, "Schantryssrhyn?" He never once made eye contact.

"It's Miss," Kai corrected out of habit, and immediately regretted it.

The elf's face flushed, going from pale to merely ill at the Elven curse. Kainudy's translater never seemed to handle that particular phrase properly.

She quickly recovered with, "That is, I'm female. I wasn't insulting your mother's cooking, honestly. And no, I've never heard of.. BaaaaBLEET"

The flustered elf recovered his composure, or at least the appearance of it. "Well, that's good, since the world is a corporate secret. You see, BaaaaBLEET just happens to be my company's primary source of woolen fibre for the UltraWeave Three Day Underwear line." He smiled and rested his hands in his lap.

"Fascinating, truly," Kainudy drawled. "And your problem has something to do with this supply of wool then, I presume?"

"Yes!" S'pan Dex exclaimed. "The last shipment is several days late, and we have not been able to contact the native shipper on BaaaaBLEET.. at least, not in any useful way."

A scaled eyebrow arched. "Please elaborate, Mr. Dex. If not in a useful way, then in what sort of way?"

The gaudy elf waved his hands in the air dismissively, "Oh, everyone that answers our signal babbles about having to prepare for the end of the world or some similar nonsense.."

Kainudy immediately wished she had stayed with the cannibals.

The Gate transition was rough, and Kai silently cursed Dex and his ilk for their paranoia. If they'd been willing to give her the location of the world, she could have arranged for a much softer arrival. Instead, she had been forced to use the permanent shipping Gate that Fruit of the Moon used to transfer wool and payments. It gave her a headache.

She stepped out of the portal into a large, musky smelling warehouse. Dozens of shipping palettes were scattered across the floor, but of the missing wool shipment there was no sign. Kainudy scratched at the floor, but no layer of dust hinted at long disuse. With the exception of the scattered palettes, the building looked as if it had recently been scrubbed down.

From FotM's files, she knew the warehouse was owned by one Lan O'lin, a native businesscritter that ran an agricultural supply company - said supplies being shipped here from Underhill in exchange for the wool. A sweet deal that both sides wanted to remain private. But Lan O'lin had disappeared after the few brief messages he'd sent, and the underwear giant didn't have any field operatives of their own to investigate.

So Kainudy was here now, standing in the middle of an empty warehouse.

Turning up the volume on her translator pendant, she called out, "Hello? Anybody home?" Even the expected echoes where muted by soundproofing. Why would anybody soundproof a warehouse? The dragoness headed for the nearest doorway.

Ignoring the large loading doors, she eventually found a personell entry. It wasn't locked, or even handled - it was simply a light-weight wooden square hinged at the top, about four feet high. Kainudy wondered if it wasn't an oversized cat door, but the only scent on it was the same musky aroma that permeated everything else. She lifted the door inwards a bit and peeked out through the wedge of sunlight.

The door led out into what looked like a major avenue. Smoothly paved cement paths were layed in parallel along a central median of bright blue well-kept grass, interrupted by occasional connecting paths. Both the broad paths and the grassy medians where dotted with sheep, differentiated by stance: on the paved walkways, they rose up on their hind legs and assumed a bipedal gate, while on the grass they went on all fours, the better to graze apparently.

Opening the door wider, Kainudy could see large marble buildings ranked evenly along the sides of the avenue. Each one was as large as the warehouse, and decorated with bas reliefs of idealized ovines engaged in farm and other labors. The marble was polished to such a sheen that it was partly reflective.

Unlike their buildings, the BaaaaBLEETians themselves were anything but uniform in appearance. Wool ranged from curly to thick to thin to short and to long, all in a rainbow of colors. Intricate patterns were shaved or dyed into the wool, and in a few cases where the person was sheared, tattooed onto their skin. There didn't seem to be a nostril or ear that went unadorned with some sort of bangle, and even the horns of the few rams she saw where wrapped with decorated bands of metal or woven chainwork.

The pedestrians and grazers all seemed quite calm and docile, despite the apparent 'end of the world' mentioned in Lan O'lin's last messages. The only sign of tension was the wariness of the large black ram that seemed to stand sentry over this particular stretch of roadway. The attention he payed to each passing or grazing native tagged him in Kainudy's experience as a city guard or policeman, despite his lack of visible weapons. She waited for a lull in foot traffic before trying to get his attention.

"Psssst," she hissed through the doorflap. "Psssst!!"

The ram's ear flicked, and one brown eye glanced her way, taking in the slightly ajar doorway. Kainudy stuck her hand out into the light and made a universal come-hither gesture towards him.

The sight of a large, blue-scaled hand with very unsheeplike claws got his full attention, and the ram marched towards the doorway with a dour look on his face. At least, Kainudy assumed it was a dour look. In her experience, sheep had always worn the same expression: dull-witted. She had also never had to back up from a sheep to avoid being hit by a swinging cat door before, but managed to do so anyway as the ram pushed through into the warehouse.

The ram looked her up and down without a flinch, as if dragons hiding in doorways were something he dealt with every day. Kainudy guessed he must have outweighed her by two hundred pounds, and his thick black wool would make an effective armor against her claws. Then she noticed that the bands decorating his horns were adorned with rather large, sharp-edged studs.

The menacing appearance was ruined by his soft voice however.

"Your master promised us three more days to surrender, alien. Why have you arrived early?" he bleated.

Kainudy didn't miss a beat, despite her utter confusion at the ram's words. Producing her badge and guild card, she said, "I am Kainudy Schantryssrhyn of the Underhill Greater Troubleshooter's Guild, investigating the failure of one Lan O'lin to make an assigned transaction with the Fruit of the Moon company of Elfhaim Cael Branith, Underhill. I am not here to demand the surrender of anybody, merely to look after the interests of my employers."

The dragoness took a deep breath after the long-winded spiel, and wished lawyers would someday write a disclaimer that left the speaker with at least enough breath to make a quick run for it, should the need arise.

Those big, soft brown eyes blinked in surprise at her. "Then you are not one of the invader's merciless, unstoppable soldiers?"

"No, I am not affiliated with this invader you mention," Kainudy replied, neatly sidestepping having to answer about the 'merciless and unstoppable' part.

The ram's big brown eyes took on a stony glint. "And yet," he bleated, "You seek out the accused Great Betrayer and Willing Dupe, Lan O'lin. How do you explain that?"

Oh great, just what I needed, Kainudy thought to herself, and said aloud, "I already explained that. Can you take me to Lan O'lin?"

"That worthy is a guest of the invader," the ram bleated, as if that gave all the information that was needed.

"And just who or what is this invader?"

"An ugly alien devil, like yourself of course."

Kai let the dig pass, as her curiousity was now boiling over faster than her temper. After all, nobody outside of the Fruit of the Moon upper management was supposed to know of this world. "In that case," she asked politely, "Take me to your leader."

The Council of Rams building was at the center of the city, which Kainudy learned was named Caash'Meer. The marble edifice was surrounded by a lovely water park and gardens, although they could have been open-air salad bars, since several citizens seemed to be nibbling on the colorful flora. The huge lintel over the entry was upheld by columns carved into the forms of nubile ewes, and the bas relief upon its face seemed to show an heroic battle between sheep and some sort of centaurs that were crosses between sheep and cows. It was all quite impressive.

Once inside this government building, Kainudy was not at all surprised to learn that the Council of Rams was actually run by ewes. The rams had been evacuated to some sort of country compound at the beginning of the crisis, the better to protect their sperm. The dragoness was brought before the First Sister, an ancient ewe named Lam B'chop.

She sat quietly on a cushion in the councilwoman's chambers, watching the elder ewe be sheared. A younger ewe was attending to it, carefully wielding the shaving tool to shear a precise amount of golden wool, which she then bundled up in a silk cloth and placed into a basket next to her before continuing. This went on until the basket was full, at which point Lam dismissed the attendant.

The old sheep seemed shrunken in her half-naked state, the clan-herd tattoos on her bare skin had even begun to fade with time. Her eyes were quite clear and lucid pools amidst her dark, wrinkled face. Her voice was little more than a hoarse whisper.

"Mu T'on says you seek the guest of the usurper alien. Is this true?"

Kainudy bowed her head and replied, "Yes, the businessman known as Lan O'lin is the one I seek.. although I am also curious about this alien which issues such threats of invasion."

The old ewe cracked a smile, showing teeth worn low by decades of use, "I am certain a meeting could be arranged.. if it should prove to be equitable to all parties concerned."

Kai returned the smile, feeling herself on familiar ground now. "I would be most grateful for the opportunity to review any information you have.."

Wurlitzer Q. Bombastic, would-be Alien Usurper of BaaaaBLEET, looked like he was about to blow a gasket. His already pudgy face seemed to swell while turning bright red. Even the hairs of his beard appeared to stand on end as he stormed and blustered around his tent, apparently trying to get his point across by strenuous arm-waving. Kainudy wondered if the overweight little human would spontaneously combust on the spot.

A dejected and clearly exhausted Lan O'lin - a small, unimpressive brown ram - held his hands over his ears in a futile attempt to keep out the noise. The six Councilors seemed ready to bolt, but whether they were frightened more by Bombastic's tantrum or the array of indecipherable charts and graphs taking up the far wall of the tent was anyone's guess.

Mu T'on, the tall black ram that had become Kainudy's de-facto escort, simply waited inside the tent flap for his chance to announce the dragoness. For her part, Kainudy did an admirable job of not laughing out loud.

"YOU'RE ALL HOPELESS!! GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!!" the little man yowled, and the six councilors were quick to comply. Even Lan tried to leave with them, before the human called, "Not YOU, Lan!!" The ram's face managed to fall even further on his already long face, and he trudged back to his place beside the displays.

The man fell to his rump on a cushion, which miraculously did not explode, and pleaded to the native businessman, "Why don't they GET it??"

"Profit and Loss projections have never been popular with politicians," the heretofore silent dragoness commented. Bombastic spun around to face her, a truly amazing sight that brought to Kai's mind the differential rotational speeds of Jupiter's cloudbands. The man's expression was one of mixed shock and relief.

Mu T'on stepped forward, announcing, "The Lady Kainudy Schantryssrhyn, guest of the Council of Rams." Kainudy stepped fully into the tent, and did a little head bow.

The human immediately broke out into a wide smile and extended his right hand, which already held a business card. "At last! Someone from a decently civilized world! I am Wurlitzer Q. Bombastic, Entrepreneur."

After the mutual exchange of business cards, Bombastic said, "I do hope you are here to help explain basic economics to these beanbrains. They have no concept at all of supply and demand or even currency." With an exasperated and elaborate gesturing of limbs, he continued, "Can you believe that they still use BARTER?"

Kai made a show of looking over the various charts, which meant absolutely nothing to her. "Actually.. I'm here to find out why mister O'lin here did not make his scheduled shipment of wool. And also to investigate certain claims that you are demanding the ruling body of BaaaaBLEET surrender its rule to you within the next few days.."

Bombastic waved his hand dismissively, "Exaggerations. I merely mean to bring proper business management to this world. And as for Lan's previous contracts, I am only protecting him from getting fleeced by those elves.." Realizing what he just said, the human began to guffaw! "Hey, fleeced! Get it??"

Drolly, Kainudy said, "Quite amusing.." Turning away from the displays, she asked, "And how do you intend to impose your.. management strategy.. upon the local economy?"

"Why, I'm bringing in the very best corporate lawyers money can buy of course! The firm of Raype, Luthe, and Pyllage!"

Kainudy now understood Mu T'on's earlier reference to merciless, unstoppable monsters. "So you intend to perform a hostile corporate takeover of an entire world?"

Again, Bombastic's arms spoke faster than his mouth, "Don't you SEE?? This world is a GOLD MINE! The finest wool in the known cosmos comes from here, and it's being wasted on foppish underwear in exchange for FARM EQUIPMENT! This place cries out for proper development!"

Kai thought of the immaculate avenues and well-kept gardens and public buildings. She didn't think it would be improved much by a few mini-malls. "You realize there is an easier route.. one where you don't end up sharing 80% of your profits with your lawyers?"

The idea of keeping all profits to himself clearly warmed Bombastic's tiny little heart. "How??"

Kainudy threw her arm around Bombastic's shoulder, and used her other to gesture towards the graphs and plots. "Why try to run an entire world, with all the overhead and political hassles involved, when you can start with your own off-world trading business? After all, your only competition would be poor old Lan O'lin here, and let's be frank, that's the same as no competition at all."

"But I already tried to get a business license here, and was denied!"

"That was just because you were an alien. What you need to do is become a naturalized citizen of BaaaaBLEET, and start your own clan-herd. A clan-herd is the equivalent of a corporation on this world."

The fat man blinked, "What's the catch?"

Kainudy grinned.. the kind of grin Bombastic had seen in the mirror before and that made Mu T'on and Lan O'lin cringe instinctively. The grin of a large predator scenting prey. "Well.. you'll need an off-world agent that can keep a secret. After all, if others discover this world you'll be up to your chins in competition."

Bombastic nodded, knowing quite well who that agent would have to be. "Okay, it's a deal! Where do we start?"

Kai guided Bombastic out of the tent, heading for the Council of Rams. "First, you'll need to register a clan insignia.. think of it as the company logo.."

Two days later, Kainudy was back in Lan O'lin's warehouse. Large bales of colorful BaaaaBLEETian wool were stacked on neat rows of shipping palettes, the first of which were now being passed through the Gate. Lan O'lin himself was approaching the dragoness, a new pattern shaved in his wool and a smile so wide it looked out of place on an herbivore. In one hand he held a tightly bundled bag of silk. Kai could smell the blood despite the musky perfume in the air.

"I see you've joined the new Clan Bombastic, Lan. Get a good share?"

"Very good!" the ovine bleated, hefting the silk bag high, "Although by the time I got there most of the best swatches were taken. It has turned out to be a very popular clan-herd." From the way the silk hugged the 'swatch', Kainudy guessed it contained one of Bombastic's ears. "Such a generous clanhead, too. He didn't even set a limit on membership! Although, I think he would have had he asked for more advice.."

Kainudy chuckled, remembering her first meeting with Lam B'chop. She had to admit that the BaaaaBLEETian system of joining a clan-herd was elegant and foolproof. All one had to do was get the proper tattoo, and a sheared swatch of wool from the clan leader. Obviously, only a limited number could join any clan-herd in a given season. Poor, greedy Wurlitzer Q. Bombastic declared no upper limit on how many could join his clan-herd in a season before learning all the details. Kai wondered if she should have warned him.. then shrugged it off.

Instead she said, "Well, if he survives then at least he will understand the first rule of BaaaaBLEETian etiquette." She bid Lan farewell, and entered the Gate after the last palette, musing on the phrase engraved at the base of the Council of Rams' founder's statue, which translated simply to Shear And Share Alike Shall Be The Rule Of The Clan.

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