A Stolen Bicycle
By Abbie Bernstein
A Stolen Bicycle is a story that features an alien invasion with a significant twist. The invaders have been monitoring Earth for eons and just before our species tipped the balance that would turn it into a slag heap; they emerged to rescue all the species that we have been exploiting. Their aim is to have all live in harmony and if they have to kill us to accomplish that then they will. Namaste fellow travelers.
A Stolen Bicycle
by Abbie Bernstein
Gwen was not in the habit of asking people if they were crazy when she first met them, but she made an exception for the man standing on her porch in the rising dusk. He was nice-looking, African-American, a little taller and younger than Gwen, and wearing glasses with thick black rims and a well-pressed, though sweat-stained, shirt. “Ms. Skipner,” he said, offering his hand to shake, “I’m Louis Deschance with law enforcement here in District 218.”
Gwen shook his hand. “What can I do for you, Officer?”
“Ms. Skipner, would you like to become a police officer for District 218?”
Gwen blurted a laugh. “Are you crazy?”
Louis chuckled back politely. “Only according to my friends. You seem a likely candidate.”
“Based on what?”
“Our records, for one thing.”
“You have records on me?”
Louis nodded, his tone reassuring. “Yes, ma’am. First grade teacher, laid off, and you were one of the organizers at the Lake Cantona refugee center . . .”
“That’s wrong,” Gwen felt obliged to say. “I wasn’t an organizer, I was just there, a refugee.”
“File says you were instrumental in keeping the peace.” Louis shrugged. “Maybe you just said something that impressed somebody. Samuel Buckner was there. You remember him?”
“Sure. He was one of the organizers.”
“He’s our government rep now. He sent your name to our precinct recommending we talk to you about joining the force..”
“As a cop.” Gwen silently added Samuel Buckner to her mental list of the clearly insane. “I helped organize food distribution, but . . . there have to be more qualified people out there.”
“Mm-hmm. The ones who are still alive and allowed to be police officers are mostly either in the big population areas or the trouble zones.”
This was news to Gwen. “There are trouble zones? Still?”
Louis nodded. “Well, what we consider trouble zones. You have to remember, our idea of trouble and Their idea of trouble isn’t always the same thing. District 218 has been a pretty quiet place since the Change. We just need a few people with some common sense who want to see things get back to normal. Would you say that describes you?”
“Normal?” The one thing Gwen found she and everyone else agreed on was that nothing would ever be really normal again.
Louis clearly took her point and nodded. “Well, you know, new normal. Look, if you have questions about the job, I’m happy to answer them, here or at the station.”
“I have a job. At the ice plant.”
“Yes, they say you do good work. You have two roommates,” Louis’ gaze fell on the door and the government-required sign indicating there were animals within. “And you live with four . . .?”
“Cats,” Gwen supplied.
“Ah.” Louis nodded. “That’s in your favor, too. But if you’d rather stay at the ice plant . . .”
“Well . . .” Making sure the right amount of ice went to the right places every day, necessary though it was, couldn’t exactly be described as fulfilling work. “Look, how about I bring you some tea, and we talk about it?”
“Thank you very much.”
Even with three billion people dead in the last five years and human beings no longer fully in charge of the planet, after three months in a refugee camp, the offer of a job as a cop–of all things!–was when Gwen Skipner finally felt life was changing.
Gwen talked about the offer that night in the living room with her roommates, Tammy and Sofia, who both taught at a local school.
“Oh, come on, you don’t want a government job,” was Sofia’s response as they munched their way through corn and soy protein rations.
“Everything’s a government job,” Tammy pointed out.
“Not like being a cop,” Sofia shot back. “Nobody likes government people.” She absent-mindedly stroked BK, the six-pound calico cat kneading away at the blanket covering the couch.
“Yeah,” Gwen said cautiously, “but somebody has to, I don’t know, make sure things don’t just devolve.”
“Well, They don’t care,” Sofia declared. “They’ll let us kill each other.”
“That’s why we need cops, right?” said Tammy. “Are you going to do it? Do you get any perks? Was he cute?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know, and what he looks like doesn’t matter if I’m going to be working with him,” Gwen replied.
“So what?” Tammy said. “Would I like him?”
“You’ve gone off-topic,” Sofia complained.
“Cute men are never off-topic,” Tammy said. “Would you have to move if you took the job?”
“No,” Gwen said. “The station’s two miles from here.”
Gwen gave notice at the ice plant and trained her replacement.
The following Monday morning, she showed up at the District 218 police station, a wooden structure of dubious-looking stability that had been cobbled together a year ago, around and over the remains of an older police station. It was furnished mainly in repurposed pieces of old cars. Few cars were on the roads these days—no gas for the old ones, and development was slow on the electrical vehicles, which were only in the hands of emergency services until they could be perfected for general use. The look of the place didn’t inspire full confidence, but Gwen figured the cops, like everyone else, were doing their best with what they had.
District Chief John Freeley was about forty, but appeared to be around sixty, probably courtesy of job stress. His face was lined, his hair mostly gone, and his blue eyes looked sad even when he smiled. “Hello, new about-to-be officers,” he greeted Gwen and the three others who had turned up. “Any questions before you take your oath?”
“Do we get guns, sir?” asked Paul Niles, tall, fit, and, Gwen thought, actually looking like police officer material.
Chief Freeley squinted at him. “Is that a serious question?”
Paul hesitated. “I know regular people don’t, but I just thought . . . since we’re police . . .”
Chief Freeley enunciated. “We do not have guns. We have no projectile weapons. You will be issued a nightstick and a pair of handcuffs. Use either or both only as a last resort. Any more questions?”
Another recruit, David Sekrazian, spoke up. “What kind of transportation do we have, sir?”
“Bicycles for now. If you’re interested in a horse, you can apply to the Department of the Complicate.”
“That’s really what it’s called, sir?” Gwen asked. “I thought people just called it that because it was such a problem to deal with.”
“No,” Freeley said, “it really is the Department of the Complicate. We liaise with them from time to time. Are you ready to be sworn in?”
“Don’t we get training first, sir?” This was from the fourth recruit, Tom Pekorski, who was a little heavier than Gwen would have expected a cop to be.
“You train on the job,” Freeley answered. “We will pair each of you with a more experienced officer. Any more questions?”
When there was no response, he began, “Repeat after me. I do solemnly swear, on what I hold most sacred . . .” He paused while Gwen, Paul, David and Tom repeated the first line, then went on, “to uphold the New Law in District 218 to the best of my ability.”
Each clause continued much the same way.
“I swear to take no life, except in direct defense of myself or those beings under my protection.”
“And when it is necessary, I swear to stand against the human hand.”
In the silence that followed, Gwen asked, “Sir? How do we stand against our own hands?”
Freeley said, “In practical terms, if you see a person attempting to harm an animal, or a human being, you stop them. It might save the assailant’s life. It means we’re not going to endanger ourselves, or our community, by going against the way things are now. You want to be a private citizen, you don’t have to take the oath. You want any kind of authority under the New Law, you do. Do you want to help this community or not, Ms. Skipner?”
“Yes, sir, I do,” Gwen said, sincerely.
“Excellent,” the Chief said dryly. “Again, repeat after me, ‘When it is necessary, I swear to stand against the human hand.’”
This time, all four of them repeated it. They were now duly sworn police officers for District 218.
At the start, a novice peace officer’s day consisted of bicycling around the district and making sure that people had enough food, housing, and clothing, that their companion animals were being properly cared for, and so on. When Gwen wasn’t doing that, she was at one of those converted car-door desks, doing paperwork.
Gwen’s phone rang, patched through from Dispatch. She pushed hard on the extension button to make sure it took, “District 218, Officer Skipner speaking.”
“This is Hilary Maskell,” a woman said in a strained-sounding voice. “I’m calling from the produce center in Marshall, on Bloom Street. We’ve got two men beating on each other here.”
The produce market was about ten miles away, covered in half an hour by bicycle, even with dodging other single cyclists, pedicabs, a few horses, and the occasional deer springing across the asphalt, a more and more common sight these days.
High in the sky, so far up they looked like They could just be hawks, three of Them flew slowly and separately, in what appeared to be random patterns. Gwen knew the patterns weren’t random, though. Their presence up there was a warning. There was only one thing They cared about, only one change They had insisted on. But that change had caused the world to break apart and be remade.
Gwen and Louis arrived to find the two erstwhile battlers, both white guys in their thirties with bruised faces and bloodied knuckles. Between them, making sure they didn’t grapple again, were about twenty civic-minded, curious, or just plain pissed-off produce market customers, who had pulled the combatants apart and were keeping them in place until somebody in authority showed up to settle the issue.
This turned out to be ownership of a slightly banged-up bronze-hued bicycle with a metal basket on its front. “That asshole stole my bike!” asserted the man with the newly-broken nose.
“He stole it,” countered the man whose right eye was swollen nearly shut. “I was taking it back.”
Gwen looked to Louis for guidance, but he looked right back at her, indicating she should step up and handle it. Okay, Gwen thought, I promised to do this. “Sir,” she said to the man with the broken nose. “What’s your name?”
“Norman Fletcher,” said the man with the swollen eye.
Louis turned to Gwen. “Officer, how do you think we should determine the true ownership of the bicycle?”
“Do either of you have proof of ownership?” said Gwen.
“Of a bicycle?” Fletcher was scornful.
Griggs just shook his head.
Gwen thought for a moment, then spoke loudly. “Excuse me. Does anybody here know either of these men?”
The large, broad-faced woman who seemed to be in charge nodded, pointing at Griggs. “He came in here yesterday.”
“With that bicycle?” Gwen asked.
“I didn’t really notice,” the woman said apologetically. “Wait, he put the groceries in that basket on the front. So, yes, with that bicycle.”
“See?” said Griggs.
“He stole it two months ago,” Fletcher said. “Ask how long he’s been coming here with it.”
The woman shook her head in ignorance.
“I’ve only been here two days,” Griggs said. “I picked up the bike between here and San Diego, when my old one broke.”
“Yeah,” Fletcher growled, “he picked it up from where I had it tied in front of the town hall.”
“Town hall where?” Gwen asked. She didn’t remember ever seeing Fletcher before.
“Back home,” Fletcher said gruffly. “Thirty miles from here.”
Louis finally spoke up. “Mr. Fletcher, did you report your bicycle stolen at that time?”
“No,” Fletcher said.
“Why not?” Gwen asked.
“I live in Caldwell Town,” Fletcher said, as though that explained it. It was secessionist–at least, as secessionist as an area could be with still-living human residents–and that meant they weren’t likely to call in the new authorities.
“Mr. Fletcher,” Louis said, his tone smooth and patient, “you do know that you should come to your local peace officers when you feel there’s been a property crime.”
“Yeah,” Fletcher said sarcastically. “I couldn’t exactly walk the thirty miles, could I, with no bike.”
“You could’ve called, sir,” said Gwen. “Or borrowed a neighbor’s bike.”
“He didn’t have a crime to report!” Griggs objected. “It’s my bike!”
Fletcher looked like he was getting ready to lunge again. “It’s yours ’cause you stole it.”
“How’d you get here, then, Mr. Fletcher?” Gwen asked.
“Got a ride on a group rig,” Fletcher said.
“And what brings you here, sir?” Gwen went on, trying to think of relevant questions.
“Came up to see my boys,” Fletcher said. “They live with their mother.”
“Mr. Fletcher, if we went to Caldwell Town, would your friends and neighbors vouch that this was your bike?” Gwen asked.
Fletcher hesitated, taken aback by the reasonableness of the question. “Sure.”
Griggs looked pleadingly at Gwen and Louis. “Look, I think it’s entirely possible this man lost a bike that looks like mine. But it’s not this one.”
“It is,” Fletcher protested.
“Excuse us,” Gwen said. She beckoned Louis around a bin of pears, where she figured they’d be out of earshot, and asked in a low voice, “So, what do we do here?”
Louis ran a hand over his face. “It’s gonna look pretty bad if we just take it away from the Caldwell Town guy–new government discriminating against seshies. But we can’t just give it to this other guy, either.” He blew out a long breath. “What we have here is a situation that stinks.”
Gwen agreed. Then a thought hit her. “Would the bike stink? I mean, smell?”
Louis didn’t get it at all. “Smell like what?”
“Like whoever had it longest,” Gwen said. “Don’t They supposedly have amazing senses of smell?”
“Yeah . . . ?” Louis didn’t see where this was going.
Gwen was excited, feeling she was onto something here. “Well, if Fletcher had it first, his scent would be on it, right? I mean, not that we could tell, but one of Them could tell. If it wasn’t, that would mean it belonged to Griggs.”
From the way Louis looked at her, Gwen could tell he was at least a little impressed. “Yeah. But we’d have to get the bicycle and these two in front of one of Them, and I don’t know how to arrange that.”
Gwen frowned, annoyed that her good idea was getting road-blocked. “Can’t we just take it to the Office of the Complicate?”
Louis shook his head negatively. “That’s for dealing with humans and nonhumans, not property crimes. They’re dealing with famine and resettlement and, well, you know. They’re not gonna send one of Them out here for a bike.”
The idea was too good to forget about, Gwen decided, especially since neither she nor Louis seemed to have a better one, so she pressed on. “They’re supposedly all around, right? So can’t we just find one of Them and take a couple minutes of its time?”
“They’re not just gonna show Themselves for nothing,” Louis said. “And we don’t want to do anything to encourage one to show up.”
“Yeah, but there’s got to be some that are, I don’t know, staying somewhere. I mean, isn’t there supposed to be at least one of Them any place there are a lot of farm animals?”
“There’s sheep out behind the college,” the produce-market proprietress volunteered. “There’d be one there.”
“Oh, great,” said Fletcher, within earshot after all.
“We doing this?” Gwen asked Louis.
“Go for it.”
Gwen raised her voice just a little, trying to sound official. “Mr. Fletcher, Mr. Griggs, if we can get permission, would you consent to having one of Them try to determine the ownership of the bicycle by smelling which one of you it smells more like?”
Fletcher scowled. “If I say ‘no,’ does he get the bike?”
Griggs looked at him. “You afraid it won’t smell like you?”
“No,” said Fletcher evenly, “I’m afraid of the goddamn mass-murdering Thing they want us to face, and if you had the sense God gave to a rock, you would be, too, you capitulating fuck.”
Right when Gwen thought she might have her first official need to use her baton, five of the nice people who had pulled Griggs and Fletcher apart the first time kindly stepped in-between the two men again. Gwen wondered if she sounded as relieved as she felt. “Mr. Fletcher, there is no need for that kind of language. But it would help clear things up if you agreed to participate.”
Fletcher looked at her earnestly. “You ever seen one of these Things in action, ma’am? Officer?”
“Only at a distance,” Gwen replied honestly. It would always be a vivid memory–an army platoon on a hill, firing upwards at something large and dark that floated down through the air at them. The thing had looked like a manta ray swimming the sky instead of the sea, but it became so much larger as it drew closer that Gwen had known, even then, this wasn’t merely perspective–the thing was growing as it descended. The platoon shot directly at the thing, and it had jerked a little with the impact of each bullet, but had made no sound. It flapped a few times and came down to rest atop the whole platoon. There had been a few muffled shots and some screams and shouts. Then the thing dwindled away, replaced by a large dark bird that flew away from the hill without a backward glance. It was the only movement to be seen in that direction. All of the soldiers were on the ground, silent and unmoving in death.
Gwen swallowed, then went on. “Yeah. But as I understand it, They don’t hurt you if you aren’t planning to hurt one of Them or do harm to something living.” She’d held on to that, because if what she believed turned out not to be true, if They were just plain arbitrary in their killing, then she’d have to be scared all the time, and she wasn’t sure she could live like that.
“Bullshit,” Fletcher said.
Louis spoke up then. “Mr. Fletcher, if you agree to this arbitration and the bike turns out to be yours, you can have it back. If you don’t, we’ll just give Mr. Griggs the bicycle now and save ourselves a lot of time.”
Fletcher thought that over briefly. “All right, I’ll do it. Can I call my wife first, in case I don’t come back?”
Louis and Gwen, with their complainants in tow, walked over to the nearest pedicab stand. Louis picked the two strongest-looking youths available, who capably pedaled the rig containing Griggs, Fletcher and the bronze-colored bike back to the 218 station.
Once there, Chief Freeley thought Gwen’s idea was sound and gave her a phone so she could get permission from the Department of the Complicate to visit the sheep farm.
The call was answered by a sunny Southern accent. “Department of the Complicate, Susie Ballard speaking. How can we help you today?”
“Hi, this is Officer Gwen Skipner with District 218. We need permission to visit the sheep farm on the old Pierce Community College grounds . . .”
“You mean the non-human domain for sheep, Officer?” The question was perfectly even, without a trace of either correction or humor.
“I guess so.”
“What would be the purpose of this visit?”
Gwen explained the situation.
“Now, I wouldn’t have thought of that,” Susie Ballard said approvingly. “Can you hold, so I can put you on with a supervisor?”
The supervisor, a man named Thomas Wu, was not nearly as bubbly as Susie Ballard, but he did agree that Gwen’s concept was sound. “If this works, it may set a precedent.”
Gwen felt a flush of surprise and pride going up her neck. She hadn’t thought it was that good of an idea. “Really?”
“We’re all still working out how to get everybody back on track, Officer Skipner. If it works, we’ll use it. Now, who do you want to bring on to the domain?”
“Me, my partner, and the two complainants. We also have two rig cyclists, but they can probably wait out on the road.”
“That sounds fine. Problem is, we won’t have a translator free to come out there for about two weeks.”
“We need a translator?”
“Hard to say. Spoken-word skills among the Ones vary greatly, but spoken-word isn’t their first language.”
“Excuse me, the Ones?”
“That’s actually what they call themselves. Of course, they call every living individual a One, so it can be confusing.”
“Okay, thanks, good to know that,” Gwen said. “I don’t think we want to wait two weeks over something like this. Aren’t there humans on-site who work with the Ones?”
“Yes, and they’ll have some form of understanding between them. It should be fine. Now, is there anything we should know about you or your party?”
“Well, to be blunt, is there anything that makes you think that you or anybody else going up there might set the One off?”
“You mean, like if one of the complainants is a secessionist?”
There was a sigh at the other end of the line. “Yes, exactly like that. How secessionist is he?”
“How do you mean?” Gwen said.
“I mean, is he going in there simply angry on principle, or is he going to go in there thinking, ‘How can I fight this thing?’ or is he going to go in there trying to figure out how to take a sheep? The last thing we want is to have law enforcement take this man up there and have him killed as a direct result.”
“Wow,” Gwen said, so much for setting a precedent. “So this isn’t going to work?”
“Depends on your complainant.”
“Do you want to talk to him?” Gwen asked hopefully.
“No, I do not,” said Thomas Wu. “It’s not that I don’t want to be helpful, Officer, but I say from experience that we’d just antagonize each other. You and your department need to make a determination about the safety of the situation, and if you think it’s safe, you have the department’s permission to go up there. We’ll let them know to expect you, and you can let us know how it goes. If you think it’s unsafe, then don’t do it.”
“Then what do we do with the bike?”
“That’d be your department’s call, Officer. Anything else?”
“I don’t think so, sir.”
“Well, good luck then.”
Gwen hung up and rubbed her face.
She gestured for Louis to join her at Chief Freeley’s desk and she summarized the conversation for them.
“Oh, brother,” Chief Freeley. He beckoned over the other two officers in the station, Niles and his partner Thorsen, to get their input.
“I think you better scrap it,” said Niles. “I mean, how can we know what’s in this guy’s mind?”
“Ask him?” Gwen suggested.
“What if he lies?” Niles countered.
“Why would he lie?” Louis asked. “I mean, lying could get him killed.”
Niles shrugged. “He might think he could get away with it. Or maybe he wants to martyr himself.”
“The guy at the DoC told Gwen we could set a precedent here,” Louis said. “Do we want to set a precedent of basically telling secessionists they can’t appeal to New Law?”
Gwen felt something in her throat tighten. It was good to have someone stick up for her. She gave Louis a small, grateful smile, then said, “What do you think, Chief?”
“Mr. Fletcher,” Chief Freeley said, “can you conduct yourself safely in the presence of one of Them?”
“I can conduct myself just fine,” Fletcher said. “I’m not the one you have to worry about here.”
Chief Freeley scowled. “Mr. Fletcher, are you pretending not to know what I’m talking about or are you one of those people who don’t believe They know when you have hostile thoughts?”
Fletcher didn’t answer. Griggs spoke up. “Or maybe he’s just a moron. Sir,” he added respectfully when Chief Freeley glared at him.
“How about you, Mr. Griggs?” Chief Freeley asked.
Griggs held up his hands open-palmed. “I’ve got no problem with the New Law, never had. I just want my bike back.”
“Well, Mr. Fletcher?” the Chief asked again.
“What exactly is it I’m not supposed to be thinking?” Fletcher asked. “Like I can help what I think?”
“You can go in there angry, Mr. Fletcher,” Chief Freeley said flatly. “You can even go in there hating. You just can’t go in thinking you’re going to attack the One, or steal a sheep, or come back later and steal a sheep.”
“You think,” Fletcher snorted. “Yeah, I can go in there not planning to do anything, if that’s what you mean. But I do want all of those Things dead.”
“Oh,” Gwen said, disappointed.
“That by itself doesn’t matter,” Chief Freeley said. “Otherwise, They’d have killed him by now.”
“Maybe They just haven’t gotten ’round to it yet,” Niles suggested.
“I don’t believe it works that way, Officer Niles,” Chief Freeley sighed, which was when Gwen realized the Chief was backing her up, too. “Okay, go on then.”
At the edge of the sheep domain, there was a tall wire fence with a locked gate blocking the road. A guard shack had been erected just above and behind the gate. The unpainted structure looked like a tree house resting on stilts rather than branches.
As the little group wheeled up, a sentry poked her head out of the guard tower. “State your business, please.”
Louis tapped his badge. “We’re from District 218. We’re here to see the One out in the sheep pasture.”
“The DoC said you were coming,” the sentry said. “Hold on.” The sentry disappeared from the guard tower window, then reappeared a few moments later on the steep wooden staircase leading down to the ground as a second sentry took her place to watch from above.
The sentry evidently needed no more identification than the peace officer badges to let the whole group in the gate.
“You’re not checking us for weapons?” Gwen asked.
The sentry grinned. “We had two guys once show up right about there . . .” she pointed to a spot back down the road they’d come up, “with a rocket launcher. They were there I think literally one second when Mule Sam landed right on top of them. I mean, I didn’t even have time to think, ‘Oh, no, dudes have a rocket launcher!’ It was fuckin’ amazing–beg your pardon,” the sentry added quickly. Squinting for a better look, Gwen now saw that part of the road was a little darker than the rest, stained with old blood that hadn’t washed out with cleaning or rain. “If anybody had a weapon you weren’t supposed to, we’d all know all about it.”
The rig and the police bicycles were left by the guard shack. The sentry suggested the two young drivers stay back with the rig–not that they wouldn’t be safe, but the One would want to meet them if they were part of the group. “You’d be surprised how much time that can take.”
“Oh, come on,” the rig driver named Cody pleaded, “I want to see one up close.”
“Yeah,” his co-driver echoed. “Come on, we drove all this way.”
“Well, that’s your job,” Louis pointed out, but he agreed to let the two drivers come along, providing that they stayed back far enough that they wouldn’t be considered part of the group.
Since the sheep pasture began just past the guard shack, it was impossible to miss. It went on as far as the eye could see, from side to side and pretty much back into the horizon. There were still a few buildings, some intact, some crumbling, on the one-time campus. Other bombed-out buildings had been razed. There had been a good deal of bombing during the war. Only from the human side, of course. The creatures had used no weapons other than their own bodies, and that turned out to have been enough for Them to win.
Sheep grazed in the grass growing in the ruins. More sheep grazed in the pasture proper, cropping both the growing grass and bales of hay that had been set out for them.
Each sheep had plenty of room. At least six ecstatic border collies darted among them, making sure none of the sheep wandered out of sight, where coyotes or other big predators might lurk. There were also a few humans walking unhurriedly through the field, some splashing water out of buckets onto the grass, and some with shovels, scooping up manure.
There were also two men, both with the very dark skin of lives lived nearly entirely outdoors, seated on the ground, their eyes on the pasture. Louis lifted an arm and hailed them. “Hello?”
The two men stood and waved back, smiling. “You police?” one asked.
“Peace officers,” Louis nodded. “Are you the shepherds here?”
“Si,” said the man. He had a strong accent, Spanish-like but not familiar to Gwen. Maybe South American, she thought. There had been a lot of human relocation during and since the Change. “Antonio,” he pointed at himself, “Octavio,” he pointed at the other man.
Louis introduced himself and the party. “We’re here to see your One.”
“Si,” said Antonio again. He raised his voice just a little. “Mule Sam, ones here to see you.”
It happened so fast that if Gwen and Louis hadn’t been facing the pasture, they’d have missed it. As the other sheep around him grazed unconcerned, one large ram reared back on his haunches, the rear legs, forelegs and torso lengthening, while the face flattened and rounded. The curled horns receded, vanishing into the skull, and the wool sank into the skin as human hair surfaced. In a few moments, the ram had become a man.
Gwen knew her mouth was open, but she couldn’t help it. It looked to her like the change had happened with no more effort than it took her to spread her fingers.
The man–well, he looked like a man now–strode across the pasture to them. At this point, he was hard to miss. He stood at least six-four, had reddish hair on his head, chest and forearms, and was completely naked, which didn’t seem to bother him at all.
When he was in speaking distance of the group, the naked man stopped, smiled with what looked like curiosity and put a hand to his chest. “Mule Sam, One,” he said.
Gwen stepped forward. “Officer Gwen Skipner.”
Mule Sam tried to repeat it. “Offzergnsknu One?”
Gwen remembered what Thomas Wu had said about spoken-word not being their first language. She simplified. “Gwen.”
Mule Sam looked at her and whiffed, his nostrils spreading to take her scent in. Gwen stood still, a little nervous, as he moved closer, opened his mouth and whiffed again, then a third time. Then he stood up, a big smile spreading over his face. He startled Gwen as he grasped her elbows, one in each big hand, and moved their arms together up and down. “Gwen One!’
Hoping it was the right thing to do, Gwen put her hands on Mule Sam’s forearms–her reach wasn’t long enough to get his elbows–and returned the gesture. “Mule Sam.”
“Louis,” Gwen’s partner introduced himself, offering both hands. Mule Sam moved closer to Louis, whiffing him repeatedly, an uncertain look on his face. Finally, Mule Sam shook both Louis’s hands with both of his, not coming in quite so close as he had to Gwen. “Louis One.”
“This is Mr. Griggs . . .” Louis began.
Mule Sam whiffed repeatedly and an expression of unmistakable joy came over his face. Before anyone could do anything, Mule Sam flung his arms around Griggs, then licked the man’s forehead. Griggs looked stunned.
“Jesus,” Fletcher said, revolted.
“Mer Griggs! One! Mer Griggs!” Mule Sam exclaimed happily. He released Griggs, then held his hands out.
Griggs, looking a little dazed, grasped Mule Sam’s hands and shook.
Still grinning hugely in delight, Mule Sam patted his own chest hard with both hands and said something that sounded like, “Kfft! Kfft!” with great intensity.
“I take it you guys know each other,” Louis said.
Griggs shook his head, sincerely bewildered. “I swear I’ve never seen him before.”
Antonio chuckled. “You San Francisco, man.”
“No, I’m from San Diego,” Griggs replied.
“No, not the city,” Antonio corrected, “the saint. San Francisco, with the animals. You good to animals, you never hurt one, right? The Ones like that.”
“Oh,” said Griggs, trying to be surreptitious about wiping his face where Mule Sam had licked him.
“I see that,” said Louis. “And this is Mr. Fletcher.”
Fletcher glared up at Mule Sam with great hostility, but Mule Sam ignored the look. His nostrils spread as he took a whiff. Then his mouth opened and he whiffed again.
Then Mule Sam looked at Fletcher without expression. Mule Sam’s face didn’t change, his mouth didn’t change, his fingers didn’t change–those were all the places where Gwen had thought a change might start. What did happen was Mule Sam growled from deep in his chest, a sound that didn’t at all match his human appearance. The undersides of his forearms split and opened into huge oval mouths that bulged with big, jagged, triangular teeth that ground against one another. Some kind of liquid–was it saliva?–ran out over these, dripping onto the grass.
“Oh, God,” said Gwen. Rationally, she realized she was in no danger. Viscerally, she had to fight a powerful urge to turn and run. She held her ground–not out of courage, but because she didn’t dare move. He’s going to kill Fletcher, and it’s my fault, this was my idea to bring him here, my terrible, stupid idea.
“Hey,” said Louis, very slowly and carefully, because there was a little tremor in his voice, “Now, we’re all peaceful here, right? Nobody is thinking about hurting you, nobody is thinking about hurting your sheep.”
“Ones,” Mule Sam said with his human mouth over his growl, the mouths in his forearms moving. “Not my.”
“Right, sheep ones,” Griggs agreed, getting the gist quicker than the officers did. “Not yours.”
“No pelegro,” Antonio said. “Mule Sam’s not gonna hurt him, just don’t like him.”
“Yeah, we see that,” Louis said, sounding tense. “Right, nobody’s going to hurt anybody, right? Antonio, can you ask him to please stop that thing with his arms? Por favor?”
Antonio gave an apologetic shrug, but then said something in Spanish. Mule Sam looked unconvinced. Antonio said something else and finally the teeth receded, the arm-mouths closed and sealed up and Mule Sam looked like a normal human man again.
“Thank you,” said Louis to both Mule Sam and Antonio. “Thank you very much. So, Mule Sam, we’re here to try to find out who this bicycle belongs to.”
“Words?” Mule Sam said.
“He no comprende,” Antonio explained. “You should have interpreter.”
“Well, you guys talk to each other, right?” said Louis.
Antonio laughed. “About sheep. Try showing him.”
“Great,” said Gwen. No longer going to get anybody killed, the terrible idea was downgrading itself to just plain bad.
“Okay,” Louis said, “Let’s try this.” He held up the bicycle. “Bicycle.”
“Bicycle,” Mule Sam repeated.
Louis moved the bicycle a little closer to Griggs. “His bicycle?” Then he moved it a little closer to Fletcher. “Or his bicycle?”
“Bicycle thing well?” Mule Sam asked.
“Huh?” said Louis and Gwen, pretty much at the same time.
“He asks, is the bicycle a good thing,” Antonio explained.
Gwen nodded emphatically. “Yes, the bicycle is a good thing.”
Mule Sam gave Griggs an approving clap on the shoulder with such force that the smaller man was nearly knocked over. “Bicycle thing well, give Mer Griggs!”
“Thank you,” said Griggs.
“That’s about what I figured,” said Fletcher.
“Well, we didn’t figure out who it smells more like,” Gwen said to Louis, “but maybe we better just leave it at this.”
Louis thought it over, but shook his head no. “I know what you’re thinking, but a growl and a dirty look doesn’t prove anything.”
There wasn’t anywhere they could go for privacy, so Gwen just lowered her voice. “I think I can, you know, mime ‘smell’ for him, but smelling Fletcher seems to get him so worked up, I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
“Look,” said Louis, “you got all excited earlier about maybe setting a precedent. You really want to set the precedent that only some people can come to the law for help?”
“You really think the bicycle is Fletcher’s?” Gwen asked.
“I really think we should do our best to find out,” Louis replied. “I’m gonna tell you something. I wanted to be a cop my whole life. This is not what I imagined it was going to be like, but I think we should do our best to do this job. What do you think, Officer Skipner?”
“I think . . . I’m scared,” Gwen said.
“Me, too,” Louis acknowledged. “But we have to try to keep things right. Otherwise, I think there’s just no hope at all?”
Everybody had different ways of getting through the Change, and Gwen knew Louis had just told her his. He was trying to keep things as civilized as they could be. “I think you’re probably right. Let’s do it.” She resolutely turned to Mule Sam. “Mule Sam?”
“Gwen,” Mule Sam said pleasantly.
“You know the word ‘like’?”
Mule Sam nodded, pleased to show his comprehension of human language. “Like sheep Ones, like Antonio, like Octavio, like Mer Griggs.” He glared at Fletcher. “Not like.”
“No,” said Gwen, “like, like, uh, similar?”
“Smeller?” Mule Sam pointed to his nose. “Nose?”
Gwen looked to Antonio for help, but he was just laughing. Louis was trying not to look frustrated, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to look at either Griggs or Fletcher. She tried something else. “You know the word ‘same’?”
“Same,” Mule Sam repeated thoughtfully.
“Ah!” said Antonio. “I explain.” Antonio bent down and picked up two small rocks lying in the grass. He showed them to Mule Sam, who gazed at them seriously. “Rock,” Antonio shook one rock, “word same as rock.” He shook the other rock, then dropped it. “Rock,” he shook the first rock again, “word no same as,” he tapped a blade of grass, “grass.”
“Ah!” Mule Sam said, happily imitating Antonio’s exclamation. “Word same. Comprende!” He beamed.
“Great,” said Gwen. She picked up the contested bicycle and did her best to imitate Mule Sam’s open-mouthed inhalation around its vinyl seat. “Bicycle smell same . . .” She went over to Griggs and made a show of sniffing him without getting too close, “as Griggs’s smell?” She then went to Fletcher, again keeping her distance as she inhaled. “Or as Fletcher’s smell?”
Maybe Gwen was imagining it, but Mule Sam looked bemused, as if he was trying to figure out why the smell of a bicycle should be so important to all these humans. However, he sniffed the bicycle–closed-mouthed, as if not needing to breathe in the scent–then took a long, pleased whiff of Griggs. Then, expressionless, he sniffed in Fletcher’s general direction.
“He didn’t even try,” Fletcher muttered.
Then Mule Sam used both hands to point, one finger aimed at Griggs, the other at Fletcher. “Smell, smell, smell. Same, same, same.”
“I don’t understand,” Gwen said. “No comprende.”
Antonio asked Mule Sam something in Spanish. Mule Sam pointed at the bicycle, then again at Griggs and Fletcher. “Same smell, bicycle thing, Griggs One, Fletcher.”
“Thank you,” Louis said. “And you’re saying this bicycle smells like–um, that is, the same as–both these men?”
Mule Sam looked the tiniest bit frustrated. He pointed once more to the bicycle and once more to the two men. “Smell, smell, smell.” He thought a moment, then pointed to Fletcher. “More smell same.”
“The bicycle smells more like him?” Louis pressed, pointing at Fletcher. “He had it longer?”
Antonio explained in Spanish and Mule Sam said, “Si,” then “Yes.”
Fletcher looked like he was about to say something, thought better of it and just raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, come on,” Griggs said.
Louis looked at Griggs sharply. “What’s your explanation for this, Mr. Griggs? You think Mule Sam here is mistaken, or lying?”
“Of course not,” Griggs said. “But . . .”
“But what? Did you take Mr. Fletcher’s bicycle or not?” Louis pressed.
“I found it,” Griggs insisted.
Now Fletcher spoke up. “Yeah, right outside the meeting hall.”
“No,” Griggs said defensively, “it was by the side of the road. Somebody’d left it there.”
Louis allowed sarcasm to enter his tone. “Yes, because folks are in the habit of leaving perfectly good bicycles on the side of the road. Mr. Griggs, please stop lying.”
Gwen jumped in. “Why would you take a bicycle? Did yours break?”
Griggs took this as sympathy. “Yeah. I went off a hillside, the frame bent–it was by Brea”–that was the old name for Caldwell Town–“and I just wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as possible.”
“Now, why would that be?” Fletcher asked.
“You felt like you were in danger there?” Gwen asked.
“Exactly,” Griggs said, sounding grateful.
“Were you being chased?” Louis asked. “Or threatened?”
“I would’ve been if I stayed,” Griggs said.
“So you preemptively stole this bicycle,” Louis concluded.
“If he wasn’t a seshie, he could just get a new bicycle like that,” Griggs said. “But no, they have to make things hard for themselves and for absolutely everybody . . .”
Fletcher started to throw himself at Griggs and got most of the way there when he was blocked by a tentacle that had shot out of Mule Sam’s shoulder where his arm used to be. The tentacle adhered to Fletcher, wrapping all the way around his arms once, then bending between where Mule Sam stood and the now-immobilized man so that Fletcher was smacked flat onto his back on the ground.
Louis threw himself on top of Fletcher, tentacle and all, looking back over his shoulder at Mule Sam. “Don’t. Please God don’t kill him. Mule Sam.”
Mule Sam looked irritated. “Bad,” he said emphatically.
“Yes,” Louis agreed, “bad.” He raised himself onto his arms and knees and looked straight down into Fletcher’s face. “Mr. Fletcher, if we can get Mule Sam to let you up, you will not go anywhere near Mr. Griggs. Do you understand this?”
Fletcher said, “I just . . .”
“Do you understand this?” Louis repeated.
“Yes,” Fletcher said.
Louis looked back over his shoulder. “Mule Sam, Mr. Fletcher here isn’t going to try to hit Mr. Griggs again. I think you can safely let him up now.”
The tentacle, which looked fleshy and muscular, suddenly shrank to a wisp about the width of a garter snake, then easily vanished back into Mule Sam’s shoulder, leaving a normal human arm where it had been before. Louis and Fletcher both got up off the ground slowly.
“I think you saved my life,” Fletcher said to Louis, his voice toneless. He looked like he might be just a little in shock.
“Looks that way,” Louis replied. “Okay, Mr. Fletcher, you take your bicycle and go.”
“Wait a minute,” Griggs protested, nodding toward Mule Sam, “he said he wants me to have it. You heard him.”
“Mr. Griggs,” Louis said, pronouncing each word carefully as though trying not to yell, “Mule Sam is the One Law. We are the everything else law. The bicycle falls under everything else. The bicycle’s a thing, right, Mule Sam? Not a One.”
“Bicycle thing,” Mule Sam agreed, understanding this much of what was said. “Bicycle thing well, give Mer Griggs.”
“But it’s Mr. Fletcher’s bicycle,” Louis tried to explain. “You said it smells like him. Mr. Griggs stole it, we have to give it back.”
Antonio made a gesture, fingers curved in toward his chest, then bent so that his hands touched the ground, scoring the earth with his fingers. “Must. They must give the bicycle to Mr. Fletcher.”
“Yes,” Louis said, “we must give,” he picked up the bicycle and gestured with it toward Fletcher, “this back to him. He had it first.”
Mule Sam glared at Fletcher once more. “Bad,” he pronounced. He pointed at the bicycle, then Fletcher, then Griggs, then Louis and Gwen. Then he shrugged with surprising eloquence. “Complicate!”
“It sure is,” Louis agreed.
Mule Sam startled Griggs with one more bear hug and another lick across the face, then let him go and said in a sympathetic tone what sounded to Gwen like, “Yev ra hai da khain.”
“Yev ra hai da khain,” Griggs said right back to him.
Mule Sam gave first Louis, then Gwen, friendly pats on the arm. Then he ejected a stream of urine in Fletcher’s direction; Gwen was relieved that it didn’t actually hit the man. I guess this is how Ones show that they really don’t like somebody. At least Mule Sam didn’t bite him. Then Mule Sam turned away, dropping to all fours as his legs shrank to haunches, wool sprouted all over him and he wandered back into the field, looking exactly like a large ram again.
Louis exhaled a long sigh. “Mr. Fletcher, why don’t you get on your bike and go right back to Caldwell Town now.”
“I can’t do that,” Fletcher said evenly.
“Jesus!” Louis’ patience had run out. “Why not? You want to make more trouble?”
“No, Officer, I don’t,” Fletcher said. “But I’m here to see my boys. I need to spend a few more days here.”
“Oh, for . . .” Louis closed his eyes briefly. His eyeglass lenses made his lashes look huge, Gwen noticed. “All right. Just don’t hit anybody else, even if you think they have it coming. We’ve all got enough trouble these days.”
“Believe it or not, I didn’t want to make trouble,” Fletcher said. “I just want to see my boys. And get my bike back.”
“Well, you got it,” Louis said. “So go.”
Fletcher was throwing one leg over his bicycle when Gwen spoke up. “When you do get home to Caldwell Town, please tell them a district police officer risked his life to save you.”
Fletcher nodded. “That seems fair.” He pedaled off down the road and through the gate. When Fletcher was out of earshot, Antonio chuckled. “That’s nice. You didn’t.”
“Beg pardon?” said Louis. “Who didn’t what?”
“You didn’t save his life,” Antonio explained. “That man wasn’t thinking of killing Mer Griggs. If he was, you don’t stop Mule Sam.”
Louis frowned. “I thought They only did that for animals,” he said.
“They do it for humans they like a lot too, like ‘Mer Griggs,’” Antonio said calmly. He looked at Griggs. “You were in the war, right? Helping Them?” Antonio grinned again, needing no answer.
“How can you know that?” Gwen asked.
“Mule Sam don’t say ‘Hola’ like that unless . . . you know,” Antonio shrugged. “But I don’t say in front of him,” he gestured in the direction Fletcher had left, “or he really does want to kill Mer Griggs and then Mule Sam . . .” Antonio made a gesture of finality with his hand. “Then his people hear and want revenge and, Madre de Dios, we don’t need no more of that here.”
“You are so right,” Louis said. “Thank you so much for your help today, sir. And you, too,” he added to the silent Octavio. “If our department can help you out here in any way, you just call.”
“Can I go now?” Griggs asked.
“Are you joking?” Louis replied. “You stole a bicycle, man. Then you lied about it. You made me and my partner here drag our busy asses all the way out here, and you created a situation where I jumped on a damn tentacle. No, you cannot go now. You come with us back to the station.”
“Or what?” Griggs asked.
Louis glanced briefly at the animals grazing peacefully nearby. “Well, I guess your pal Mule Sam might not like it if we tried to drag you out of here by force, so you could spend the rest of your life here with these sheep. You want to do that?”
Griggs actually looked like he was considering it. “Not really,” he said finally.
They all headed back to the station.
Griggs sat quietly on a chair while Gwen and Louis took turns recounting the day’s events to Chief Freeley. Freeley winced when they got to the part about Mule Sam’s warm welcome for Griggs, but he waited until they’d finished before he spoke.
“Mr. Griggs, what are you doing stealing bicycles?” Freeley asked. “Seems like you could have a job with the DoC.”
“How do you know I don’t?” Griggs replied quietly.
Freeley stared at him. “Mr. Griggs, I really hope you’re not going to tell me that someone from the Department of the Complicate, with all its resources, hasn’t come into this community and taken up the valuable time of two of my officers for an entire day.”
“This wasn’t DoC business,” Griggs said. “No animals involved, only humans.”
Freeley made a quiet noise. “Let’s not play twenty questions here. Are you DoC?”
“I was,” Griggs acknowledged. Louis shot Gwen a “what the hell?” look, which she returned in kind.
“What happened?” Freeley asked.
Griggs spread his hands and looked away. “Stress,” he said finally. “I needed to get away for awhile.”
“Well, I don’t need them breathing down my neck,” Freeley said. “You want to call them, have them bail you out?”
“No, sir,” said Griggs, “I’d rather not.”
“Will you accept the punishment of this office?” Freeley asked.
“Excuse me, sir, doesn’t he get a trial?” Gwen asked. “Or a plea bargain, or something?”
“I take it you haven’t dealt with the new court system,” Freeley said, with just a hint of a smile. “Something like bicycle theft falls within the purview of this office. You don’t contest that you unlawfully took the bicycle, is that correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Griggs said.
“All right,” Freeley said. “You will be on road clean-up crew here for two weeks, starting tomorrow. You will be wearing this while out in public for those two weeks.” Freeley picked up a lanyard attached to a small piece of cardboard. He wrote “BICYCLE THIEF” on the cardboard and handed the lanyard across the desk to Griggs. “If you attempt to flee, we will send a report to all neighboring law departments, and if they catch up to you, they will put you in lock-up.”
“I’ll do the road crew,” said Griggs.
“Good,” said Freeley. “At the end of two weeks, you will be free to go or stay as you please.” He handed Griggs a form. “This will get you into the boardinghouse at 5328 Grand Street, and show it to the road clean-up chief in the morning. Officers, good work.”
Gwen beamed despite herself. She saw Griggs turning to go and something occurred to her. “Mr. Griggs, that thing Mule Sam said to you when he was saying goodbye, ‘Yev’ something. What is that?”
Griggs mouth quirked in a little smile. “Yev ra hai da khain. I think it’s a misheard song lyric, actually. They like songs a lot.”
“What does it mean?” Gwen asked.
“It’s kind of like, ‘We all look forward to the day,’” Griggs explained.
“They rule the whole world already,” Thorsen said. “What day are They looking forward to?”
“The day all humans stop messing with each other and everything else,” Griggs said, his tone hardening a little. “The day the Ones can stop standing guard and go back to just doing what they want.”
“Well, They’re gonna be waiting awhile on that,” Louis said.
“Yeah.” Griggs nodded, and left.
It turned out that the handling of the stolen bicycle hadn’t exactly set a precedent–the ownership of stolen property had been determined in a similar way by several other law departments across the country–but this verified that the technique worked.
“That’s good,” Louis said to Gwen. “See? You have good instincts.”
“How come you’re being so encouraging to me?” Gwen asked. “I mean . . .”
“I told you, you’ve got common sense,” Louis said. “Besides, you don’t want to know about the last guy I tried to train for this job.”
It was late in the evening when Gwen got home, but Tammy and Sofia were still up. Sofia asked. “Gwen, what did you do today?”
Gwen wondered where to start. “Well, there was a stolen bicycle . . .”
© Abbie Bernsttein