The shepherd ran a practiced eye over his flock, counting methodically. He tutted, pursed his lips, and whistled. The clear note carried far across the escarpment. There came an indignant bleating from a tumble of wind-blunted rocks, and his two missing charges scampered out, and back toward their fellows.
“As I was saying,” the shepherd announced to his uncaring audience, the expanse of scrubby grass, and the last red sliver of sun, “the trouble with species that evolve too fast, and too aggressively, is that they tend to be malcontents. Nothing is ever enough. It’s fortunate it happens as rarely as it does, don’t you agree?”
The expectant pause that followed was filled only with the moan of the wind, the sound of rough grass being torn up, and the occasional wet parp. One of the errant pair that had just been whistled back, paused from its grazing, and looked up, blank eyes fixing on the shepherd. He stared back for a long moment, before nodding and continuing the lecture.
“Take humanity as a case in point. Do you see the first stars appearing in the night sky? Well, there used to be more. Over…” he searched with a questing finger, eventually fixing on a small patch of sky, “…the closest to us here on Earth was just there. It’s gone now.”
None of the flock looked up, though a couple of the smarter ones fixed their dull gazes on the end of the shepherd’s finger for a moment, doubtless hoping for a thrown scrap of food that was not grass. When that was not forthcoming, they looked down, and started munching again.
The shepherd’s voice deepened, and his speech became more dramatically enunciated, as if on stage in front of a vast, rapt crowd.
“Everything changed when humanity came boiling onto the galactic stage, full of hubris and rage! Oh, what a shock that was to the elder races! In only a few thousand years, uncounted worlds and ancient civilizations were conquered, or wiped out. Such was the speed of the expansion, the fury, and the pace of human invention, that it took millennia for the old ones to band together and relearn the ways of war.”
His finger crooked at a patch of sky darker than the rest. “It ended there, in a battle so terrible, a thousand stars were extinguished.”
A cross between a baa and a grunt was the only reaction, so the shepherd carried on, long practice making the story flow perfectly.
His up-thrust arm and pointing finger didn’t waver. The only noise was the wind blowing through the grass, and the slightly unpleasant sound of flat teeth grinding coarse grass to pulp.
The shepherd sighed, and was preparing to chase his flock back down toward the fenced pasture, when a single animal looked up. It was the same one as before. The beast followed the shepherd’s pointing finger to the empty patch of night sky, then turned its unkempt head to lock gazes with him.
For the briefest moment, something calculating sparked behind the docile eyes, then was gone almost before the shepherd noticed it. The grazing animal returned its attention to the grass, and the shepherd shivered. When he spoke again, it in a quieter voice.
“That’s why those humans who survived the final battle were sentenced to devolution. 500,000 years to return to a state where they would no longer be a terrible threat to sentient life, and then, perhaps, a fresh start on the upward slope again. That sentence has all but passed.”
The shepherd gazed over the flock’s stooped, hairy backs, at the rude splayed feet and dexterous thumbed hands raking the scrub grass for stalks. At the one he had been keeping one multi-faceted eye on this whole time.
“But I have decided you’re not ready, yet.”
David A. Gray is a Scots-born writer and designer, living in NYC. His shorts have been accepted by Abyss and Apex, Starship Sofa, Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, and others. His first novel, Moonflowers, came out in 2019, with a sequel, and a fantastical book set in 1980s Scotland, due out as soon as he can stop writing shorts, and focus on getting edited manuscripts to his publisher.