Several generations of mechanical dogs had been developed for shepherding purposes, which enabled farm owners to better monitor their flocks, but good ol' shepherd dogs were still preserved. When the weather was bad or other forces of nature affected the electricity supply or the broadband grid, those silhouettes that breezed through the pastures like wind came in handy.
The people of Muzhou wanted to preserve their shepherd culture, even though it had been questioned by natives of other continents many times. The shepherding contest had lost its purpose from General Su Mu's days and turned into a profit-making business, they alleged. Still, the contest continued until present day because the people of Muzhou kept benefiting from it.
Each season of competition lasted a year, from the beginning of the calendar year till the end.
The competition format at the beginning of the year was straightforward. Teams that placed well in the first round of competition would advance to the next round. Each round was progressively more difficult. Fang Zhao and company were taking in early-round action, so the tasks weren't that challenging.
Fang Zhao had never been a shepherd before, but he had heard about the profession quite a bit from his pal Su Mu during the end of days. When his friends had gatherings, Su Mu loved to talk about his shepherd days. Toward the end of the apocalypse, when he no longer remembered what normal life was like, Su Mu'd had a crystal clear memory of his days as a shepherd. His management skills as a general had derived from his tenure as a shepherd.
Fang Zhao had also learned about shepherd dogs from Su Mu. Su Mu's squadron had the most battle canines. It also included several canine auxiliary units.
After the devastation of the end of days, sheep had evolved from their original form before the apocalypse, but after careful breeding by agricultural scientists, sheep of the shepherding variety had reverted back to their original state quite a bit. However, they were still larger in size than before and less meek in personality.
The broadcast of the competition began on the big screen.
"Team No. 1 has set off!" the commentator announced.
The first challenge evaluated the shepherd dogs' ability to round up sheep. For Muzhou's old hands, this was a telling skill that revealed the team's competence.
The respective farm owners coached their own shepherd dogs. In the early days of Muzhou's shepherding competition tradition, human contestants were allowed to direct their shepherd dogs, but eventually this proved to be too easy, so people were barred. The shepherd dogs had to act independently. Their trainers could only watch from afar. They had only three opportunities to intervene. When their dogs were struggling, the farm owners could ask for their images to be projected onto a designated area of the grassland. They would use hand signals and a conducting baton to instruct their dogs.
The first team ran into trouble soon.
"Dog C of Team No. 1 is out of position. It's veered off path, off course. It still hasn't corrected itself," the commentator announced loudly. "Oh, Team No. 1's farm owner has asked to instruct by projection. He has no choice. If the dog isn't corrected, they'll jeopardize their chances when they lose sheep."
It was easy to miss sheep if the dog attacked a single flank. The task was only complete when the dogs shepherded all 100 sheep into the pen. Thus, single-flank shepherd dogs didn't make for great competitors. Even the single-flank dogs that had been retrained would relapse. That was what was happening in Team No. 1. The farm owner wasn't mad. He just asked for instruction via projection with a resigned laugh. Using hand gestures and a baton, he redirected the out-of-position dog to the correct location.
Thanks to his owner's intervention, the shepherd dog that had veered off course corrected itself, but that resulted in a delay. Their final time was 8 minutes and 5 seconds—not a great result. At competitions of this level, finishing under 7 minutes was considered a good time.
When Team No. 1 wrapped up, Team No. 2 took off. One of its dogs was too aggressive and bit a sheep, causing it to bleed, which resulted in a penalty of 15 seconds. The second team finished in 8 minutes and 1 second, slightly better than Team No. 1.
The third team was the most hotly discussed team among farm owners before the contest. Many of the tourists had bet on it placing first.
"Oh, Team No. 3 has adopted a circular approach. Moving into position... a blockade formation... Beautiful!" the commentator yelled.
The farm owners in front of Fang Zhao started getting excited.
"My little babies, fall into position! Pay attention. Don't mess up now!" Wu Yi climbed onto his reclining chair and screamed at the top of his voice, which crowded out all other noises.
"Keep up! You're a bit off. Come back. That's a good boy!"
The farm owner was so agitated, it seemed like he wanted to run onto the pasture and give the dog that had veered off course a little kick.
"Head dog, follow the head dog! Good! Very good! Yes, that's the one. Stay in control!"
Fang Zhao watched on the big screen TV as the scampering shadows barked loudly as they herded the dispersed sheep into a single cluster. As for the farm owners, whether they were ringside or watching on the big screen, they looked like they had been injected with amphetamine. Even the dog next to Wu Yi was glaring at the screen.
Meanwhile, the tourists that were sitting nearby were a bit spooked by the show of emotion. They had probably never thought anyone could get this excited watching dogs herd sheep, but a few of the younger tourists were also quite engaged because they had placed money on the third team. Even though they were clueless about positioning and blockades, they could figure out the gist of the action and read the timer in the upper right corner of the big screen.
When the dogs of Team No. 3 had successfully rounded up the sheep and steered them into the designated pen and the commentator announced "mission complete," the farm owners howled.
"Five minutes and 32 seconds! Team No. 3 from Carrot Farm is in first place. They have a 2-minute lead on the second and third teams. Looks like our champion has been decided," the commentator said.
The winning result for the round was outstanding. After the teams finished, the big screen played expert commentary of Team No. 3's performance. The analysts broke down the limb movement and change in direction of every single dog using slow-motion replays, lavishing praise on their physical qualities.
"Big Sister Carla's farm is going to be famous again," the owner of a smaller farm said enviously.
"Haha, I'll have to ask big sister to lend me a helping hand, then." Wu Yi was happy for his cousin's team. "Do you know who the lead dog was from the team that competed just now? King Kong! He's the father of our dog Chubby Black. Hey, where's Chubby Black? Chubby Black!"
Wu Yi kept yelling for his dog. Soon, the black dog that had barked at Fang Zhao and company in the parking lot surged forward, wagging its tail vigorously and whining for attention. Come to think of it, the dog was indeed a bit chubbier than the shepherd dogs that had just taken part in the competition.
Wu Yi dragged Chubby Black to his side and kept talking. "Many of you may not be familiar with the name King Kong, but I'm sure you've heard of its great-grandmother Tornado."
"Oh, you mean the dog named Most Valuable Dog about a dozen years ago? Word is it was worth tens of millions."
"That's it. That's it. That's the one. So, strictly speaking, Chubby Black comes from quite the royal lineage."
As talk began of former MVDs and royal bloodlines, the tourists went blank. Amazing. A shepherd dog was actually worth more than all of them combined.
After bragging about his dog's lineage, Wu Yi nursed a glass of wine and glanced at the opening formation of Team No. 4 on the big screen before turning toward the tour group. "So you're blown away by how much Muzhou shepherd dogs are worth? You know, most humans from other continents don't live as well as our dogs."
It was a stinging comment, but coming from a Muzhou native, it wasn't mean-spirited or derogatory, just a factual description.
Muzhou natives treasured their shepherd dogs. Some of their famous dogs enjoyed greater stature than people from other continents. That was why many shepherd dogs in Muzhou were more obnoxious than people, totally milking their edge over the human race.
"Lots of folks from other continents want to move to Muzhou, but unfortunately, Muzhou land is not open to foreign ownership," Wu Yi said as he kicked up his feet.
Some of the lessons Wu Yi had learned were passed on generation to generation from his ancestors who were the original settlers. He had heard some of these stories since he was a young boy. The most important story was the tale of the folks who left for other continents when the plot was first being cultivated. To each their own. There was no need to pass judgment. But if you wanted back in when the farmland was bearing fruit? Sorry, why don't you stay where you are?
From an emotional standpoint, those folks who left and regretted it were viewed as traitors. Thinking purely from self-interest, no one wanted newcomers to stake claims on their land or future plots waiting to be cultivated. A protectionist stance was necessary. If you decided to leave in the first place, don't bother coming back.
That was why Muzhou residents presented a united front. Few outsiders had been able to land a major piece of farmland in Muzhou since the continent's founding.
But there were other ways of obtaining land in Muzhou. Among the prizes for punters who placed bets on the shepherding competition was land. Many foreigners dreamed about winning a piece of land from the competition venue of Muzhou's shepherding contest. The problem was that few outsiders realized that dream.
Wu Yi laughed as he watched, on the big screen, the fourth and fifth teams post poorer times than the third team. The competition was evolving as the commentator had predicted, with Team No. 3 taking the title early on. But he wasn't as ecstatic as the tourists expected. They thought to themselves, He's living up to his reputation as a member of the Muzhou nouveau riche. All this prize money is nothing to him.
Meanwhile, members of the tour group who'd bet big money on Team No. 3 taking first place were now quite excited.
Zuo Yu looked at his betting slip and smacked his lips. I was right—can't count on this artist-type too much.
But the farm owners turned serious again when the final team in the competition, Team No. 7, set off.
When the third team emerged, the farm owners had been delighted. They'd chatted loudly and gesticulated wildly as they cheered the team on. But they looked less emotional when Team No. 7 appeared. Their eyes were burning with anticipation and hidden angst.
The seasoned tour guides thought to themselves that their intuition was that the seventh team was what the farm owners were truly looking forward to. Who said you could only place bets on one team? Some of the farm owners might have bet on teams entered by their friends out of loyalty but also placed other bets in secret.
Team No. 7 burst out of the gates in fine form. The commentator got emotional again.
"The eight dogs of Team No. 7 have adopted a pear-shaped formation. Good, very good—they've set up a blockade. They've rounded up the flock in no time. They're dissolving the blockade now. Beautiful! Perfect coordination. Now they're attacking the sheep. Pay attention to their eyes. Check out the gaze of the head dog."
"Keep your eyes on the head dog, Team No. 7's A dog. This is a dog with a kamikaze aura. It's tracked down the head sheep now. They had a brief stare down. The dog has the upper hand. Impressive! This is its first shepherding competition, but that was the best performance of the day. I sense a future star in the making!" The commentator oozed passion. Viewers could hear him pounding his table. Judging from the force of the pounding, they knew his hands had to hurt.
The best shepherd dogs could control the head sheep and contain its emotions with a stare. The stare was more effective than barking or biting.
"The sheep are arriving in the pen. They're all accounted for. Four minutes... 4 minutes and 6 seconds! Team No. 7 has taken a commanding lead and clinched first place with their time of 4 minutes and 6 seconds!"
The tourists who were thinking they had just won big were now dumbfounded.
Team No. 7 is first? Team No. 3 has been bumped to second place? How is that possible?
Zuo Yu also froze.
He glanced at the final ranking on the big screen then looked at his betting slip. He coughed lightly, picked up his mug, and wolfed down a glass of water to calm down.
Zuo Yu had followed Fang Zhao's lead in placing bets. Unlike folk who had only picked the champion or predicted the entire ranking, Fang Zhao bet on the order of the top five finishers and placed a 20,000-entry buy.
And Fang Zhao's prediction had been spot on.