Two cows were missing from the Spiral Ranch. Piper tapped the Pasture 7 control screen and activated the LASSO app to check the headcount against her wrist unit. The app confirmed: two fewer than yesterday. She swiped over to the com and dialed Pasture 3.  
“Hey, Jayce.”
His voice came through the speaker a moment later. “Yes’m.” 
“You have any extra cows over there?”
“Uh, no ma’am.”
“Any missing?”
“Don’t reckon so. Why, what’s up?”
Piper pushed her hat back from her sweaty brow and scratched her head. “No reason.”
They’d rotated the herd up from Pasture 6 three days before, and all the cattle had been accounted for then. Piper hefted herself up onto the wall—an inward-bowing lip that let in fresh air and sunlight but kept the cattle from stumbling over the ledge—and peered down at the street eight stories below. No cows were splattered on the sidewalk. A couple of reggae buskers played on the corner and some tourists pointed cameras toward the skyscraper. Piper lowered herself back onto the grass. Maybe something had gone wrong with the tracking chips. She walked up the slope and around the curve until she hit the gate leading to Pasture 8, doing a manual headcount on the way. Still two short. 
The logs on the robotic milking station showed both of the missing cows had been milked the night before, but not this morning. The moveable slats that made a cattle guard around the cargo elevator were open and seemed to be functioning fine, so it was unlikely the cows had taken a ride down to another pasture. Besides, the LASSO app could detect any active chip within a two mile radius. Wherever the cows were, they weren’t in the building.
She checked the fallow pastures all the same, but to no avail, so she headed to the slaughterhouse. The Spiral Ranch was primarily a dairy producer, but they had small-scale meat processing as well, hidden in the basement so the people of Austin could pretend it didn’t exist. It was Piper’s second-least favorite part of the building.
She found Monique down there, singing century-old show tunes while she loaded packages of beef into delivery bots. Monique’s logs revealed no records of the missing cows, even when Piper checked for deleted or manipulated files. They were just…gone.
Up to the corporate office, then. Piper’s least favorite part of the Spiral Ranch.
She climbed the stairs from the slaughterhouse up to the lobby, and caught the public elevator there, riding to the top next to a few restaurant patrons. The elevator doors opened on a wide breezeway. The lattice of the rooftop garden crisscrossed green overhead, vines climbing down the walls on either side. The tourists turned left toward the restaurant, and Piper turned right toward Adrianne’s office.
She pushed the button next to the frosted glass office door. The button turned green, but Piper hesitated a moment before she turned the wrought iron flower doorknob, steeling herself for what was likely to be an unpleasant interaction. 
Adrianne sat behind a glass desk, arguing with someone on a holographic screen. Floor to ceiling windows stretched behind her, and flowering trees too tropical for central Texas lined the interior wall. Piper’s boots left scuffs on the immaculate white tile floor. She hung back awkwardly until Adrianne managed to close out the conversation and the screen disappeared.
“What was that all about?”
Adrianne crossed her legs, dangling one high heel off a toe. “Just more investors threatening to pull support unless we can improve our public image.”
“What’s wrong with our public image?”
Adrianne raised an eyebrow and let out a mirthless laugh. “Really? You didn’t see that smear video some reporter did, accusing us of animal cruelty and excess waste?”
Piper shrugged. “It ain’t true.”
“In any case, I need to set up a new advertising campaign to combat it, and the investors are shooting down all my ideas.”
“You could make an ad telling people how we’ve reduced the price of milk and cheese in the city by more than two-thirds.”
Adrianne scoffed. “In a city that’s sixty percent vegan.”
“How about how we’re a major energy producer, both solar and methane—”
“Every damn building is an energy producer!” Adrianne rubbed a hand across her face. “I’m sorry. Um, what was it you came in here to tell me? I’m real busy.”
Course you are. There was a time when Piper might have stopped into her office just to chat or make evening plans. But those days, it seemed, were long gone. Piper and Adrianne had been good friends back in college, and had drawn up the plans for the Spiral Ranch together. But that relationship had devolved since becoming boss and employee. Piper wanted nothing to do with all the paper-pushing, and Adrianne seemed to want nothing to do with the animals.
 “I can’t afford to have my inventory disappearing,” Adrianne said after Piper told her about the missing cattle. 
“I just thought you should know.”
“Maybe there’s something wrong with that app of yours. I’ve been looking into alternatives we might want to upgrade to. If you have some time, I’d like to go over them with you.”
Piper bristled. She’d coded the LASSO app from scratch and she was proud of it. It was running just fine. She stood, slapping her hat against her thigh. “I’m real busy.”
The next morning, two more cows were missing. Her searches and inquiries proved as fruitless as the day before, so when night fell, Piper stayed behind. Jayce had stopped by to do a repair on the manure collector. After he’d packed his tools and set the clam-shaped machine rolling on its course again, he hesitated by the elevator.
“Staying late, boss?”
“Think I’m gonna camp out and see if I can solve the mystery of the disappearing cows.”
“Want me to stay with you?”
Piper shrugged. “Only if you want.”
He stepped into the elevator, and Piper assumed he was gone for the night, but he reappeared about an hour later with a couple of roast beef sandwiches, two sleeping bags, and a guitar.
The sun sank in a dull orange display. Piper lay in the grass of Pasture 7 with her head propped on a rolled-up sleeping bag, swatting at the occasional fly. Some of the cows kept grazing, but most folded their legs beneath them to sleep. Jayce picked a slow, amateur rhythm on his guitar. From somewhere down the street, a live band rocked out for an energetic crowd.
“Why don’t we have cameras?” Jayce said suddenly. “So’s to watch what happens to the cows at night, I mean.”
“You really want cameras watching your ass work all day?”
“Not really,” Jayce said. “But cameras are everywhere else.”
Piper shifted on her roll-pillow. She’d been the one to convince Adrianne that cameras were a waste. She disliked the constant surveillance and data mining that were ubiquitous to modern life. “Never needed them, I guess. LASSO keeps track of the cows, tells us their vitals, better than a camera would.”
“’Til something weird happens.”
“’Til something weird happens,” Piper agreed.
After another long silence, filled only with Jayce’s next attempted song and the shuffling of the cattle, Jayce said, “Think it’s aliens?”
“What’s aliens?”
“What’s taking the cows.”
“What kind of fool question is that?”
Jayce looked hurt. “It ain’t a fool question. Didn’t you never hear about them cattle mutilations in Colorado?”
Piper raised an eyebrow at him.
“Back in the twentieth century. Lots of cattle were getting cut up right in the field, surgical-like. No one knew who was doin’ it. Seemed like aliens.”
“It’s damn near the end of the twenty-first century now and we still ain’t found no aliens,” Piper said. “If they’re around, I don’t know why they’re being so sneaky and picking on cows.”
“Fair enough,” Jayce said. “But no one did ever figure out who was slicing up them cows.”
“No, I remember now,” Piper said. “It was the government, wasn’t it?”
“What would the government want with cows?”
“There was some toxic spill or nuclear accident. They were testing the cows to see how dangerous it really was, without telling anyone.”
Jayce shrugged. “Could be government, I guess, but I thought they shut down all the nuke plants along with the coal.”
“I don’t know who it is,” Piper said. “But I’m going to figure it out.”
Jayce eventually fell asleep, snoring inside his sleeping bag. Piper kept hers as a pillow, crossing her arms to keep warm as the night cooled. Her toes itched, but she refused to take off her boots. If something happened, she needed to be ready.
Near two in the morning, the sounds of live music faded away, replaced with a chorus of cicadas. Piper was fighting to stay awake when a new soft buzz joined the night noises. She sat up, tuned her ear to it. The cattle staggered to their feet, pawed the ground, bumped into each other. A pair of glowing red eyes peered over the pasture wall.
Piper jolted. The whirring grew louder, and then a large drone darted into the pasture. The cattle panicked. Piper tossed her sleeping roll at Jayce and he snorted awake. 
“What the…” He jumped to his feet and narrowly avoided a stampede. “I told you it was aliens!”
“It’s not aliens,” Piper said. “It’s twenty-first century cattle rustling.” She snapped pictures with her wrist unit. It was an old police drone, but any identifying marks had been scuffed off. These drones had been common in the skies of any major city about a decade ago, but they kept getting shot down, captured, or hacked, so they’d been decommissioned and auctioned off. The drones were supposed to be strong enough to pick up a small car. This one positioned itself over a cow and a set of claws appeared, reaching down like an oversized arcade game.
Jayce grabbed a rope from next to the elevator and edged toward the drone. The propellers whacked the rope away. He steadied his feet, tossed it again.
“Gotcha.” The rope caught around the body of the drone. Its claws clenched around the cow’s torso and lifted. These were dwarf cattle, about half the size and weight of their flat-ranch predecessors, but still a good five hundred pounds a head. The drone snatched it up like it was a plush toy. Jayce dug his heels into the grass, but the drone buzzed toward the open air gap, the cow mooing in protest. Piper homed the LASSO app in on that cow’s chip. The rest of the herd clustered in the farthest corner of the pasture. Jayce held strong, but the drone pulled him off his feet and he slid across the grass toward the ledge.
“Jayce, let go!” Piper ran after him. Drone and cow disappeared into the night. He let the rope slide out of his hands just in time to thunk against the wall.
She yanked him to his feet. “Come on. The LASSO app has a range of two miles. We can track where it’s going.” He stumbled after her toward the elevator.
She tapped her boots in impatience, checking her wrist unit as the cargo elevator snailed its way to Pasture 1. The cow’s chip was still in range, but getting fainter. The elevator door opened and the two of them burst out and ran down the stairs to the lobby. Outside, her electric motorcycle hummed to life. Jayce climbed on behind her. She zoomed off, transferring visual of the LASSO app to her bike’s console with a shout. Her hat flew back, caught around her throat by the leather chin strap.
Just past Sixth Street, she caught sight of the cow, floating placidly through the air between buildings. Its bellowing moo echoed through the quiet streets and it released a patty that splattered across a restaurant’s sign. That’s not gonna help our public image, Piper thought.
“They’re heading for the river,” Jayce shouted.
Piper looked back to the road. Sure enough. She dipped the bike into a dangerously sharp left turn. The drone crossed the river, widening the space between them. Piper considered the roadways. If she followed them, it would be another half a mile before they could cross. 
“Hold on!” She bumped the bike up a sidewalk and across a pedestrian bridge. 
Twice more she lost sight of the drone, but the cow’s location kept blipping on her screen. West of the city, where the buildings disappeared and the Carbon Sequestration Forests grew thick, the drone disappeared from sight and the blip on her screen showed it was headed deep into the forest. She pulled the motorcycle off to the edge of the road. Driving across a pedestrian bridge was one thing, but forging through a forest was another. It was a hearty bike, but not an off-roader.
“It’s them radical occupiers, ain’t it?” Jayce asked.
“Has to be.” Piper dropped the kickstand and stepped off. Jayce followed. 
“I’ve got cousins that sympathize with them,” he said. “Always telling me how the government stole the land from them to control food production.”
“Guess they want to start their own herd.” Piper examined the terrain on the map, but the resolution got fuzzy a mile or so in, right where the drone was heading.
Huge swaths of formerly agricultural land had been turned into Carbon Sequestration Forests in the mid-21st century. It was part of a global re-forestation program to counteract dangerous CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and helped move agriculture into city centers, where crops were now grown in closed-system vertical farms and community rooftop gardens. Even before the massive bee die-out that caused most of the remaining flat farms and ranches to fail, agriculture had already been moving cityward to reduce transportation costs. Piper remembered the shortages and riots from her early childhood, when her own family had to give up their small ranch and move into one of Austin’s new arcologies. There were still people who claimed both the bees and the CO2 levels were just conspiracies, like Jayce had said.
 The drone whirred overhead, going back the way it had come, now with no bovine cargo. “Feeling up for a hike?”
“You’re not going in there?” Jayce whispered.
“This is our chance to find out exactly where they’re hiding out. We can take their GPS coordinates straight to the police.”
“They got guns, Piper.”
“That’s why we need to be all sneaky-like. You don’t want to join me, you can stay here and keep a lookout.”
His mouth opened and closed a few times before he said, “Yeah. Yeah, okay, I’ll come with you.”
They hid the bike a few yards into the trees, then picked their way through the underbrush as best they could with only the full moon filtered through the branches and the glow of Piper’s wrist unit. It got sluggish and glitchy the farther they trekked into the forest, as though the signal were being jammed. A device that didn’t have the customization and firewalls Piper’s did probably would have shut down halfway there. The cow’s blip reported high adrenaline levels, but other than that, the animal was fine.
Jayce grabbed her arm and pointed. Piper followed his eyeline to a thin wire she was inches from tripping. They backed up, hyper-vigilant for other traps. From nearby came the familiar lowing of cattle. A few yards over, the trees broke enough to reveal a small clearing, with all five of the missing cows grazing between jagged tree stumps. Another blip appeared on the LASSO app—a sixth stolen cow heading in.
Jayce lingered back, but Piper crept closer, avoiding a few more trip wires, and took pictures. The drone whirred into sight. The cattle scattered and men emerged from a shack. Piper ducked behind a juniper.
A man with a thick horseshoe mustache tossed a lasso around the cow’s neck while a man with a curly mullet used a handheld controller to release the drone’s claws from around the cow. A third man, bulky and muscular, gave the animal some kind of shot. The drone settled into the field and lay like a giant dormant spider. Piper licked her lips. With the right equipment, she could hack it, easy.
A border collie looked her direction and began to bark. She picked her way to where Jayce waited, and the dog kept barking but didn’t follow. By the time they made it back to the bike, she had sore feet and a fair number of scratches and burrs, and at least one tick. 
She swiped through the images on her wrist unit, most of which were dark and fuzzy. “Let’s hope this will be good enough for the cops.”
Jayce frowned. “I don’t think we should go to the cops.” 
“What? Why not?”
 “It’s like to take forever that way. They’d probably pick off an entire herd before the paperwork even got filed.”
Piper nodded. “Fair enough.”
It would also bring a lot more public attention to the ranch, which would just aggravate Adrianne’s problems. The sky was beginning to lighten—dawn already. Fatigue fogged her brain, but ideas were beginning to coalesce like clouds on the horizon. 
“Okay, no cops. Not yet anyway.” Piper kick-started her motorcycle. “Let’s see if we can beat them at their own game.”
Jayce went in to work, but Piper called in sick, leaving the message before Adrianne got in so she wouldn’t have to talk to her. She slept through the morning, then gathered the equipment she needed in the afternoon. That night, she scanned into the Spiral Ranch, locked and armed the lobby doors behind her, took the public elevator all the way up to the top, then climbed the spiral staircase to the rooftop garden.
The open-air garden mixed decorative plants among the vegetables the restaurant used, and it offered a fantastic view of the city. Piper hung her hat from the corner of an ornate bench and waited for the drone, with a tablet on her lap containing a program she’d put together that afternoon.
A corner of Adrianne’s office window was visible through the lattice flooring. The lights were still on. Was she really working this late? This investor thing must really have her spooked.
When the drone whirred into sight, Piper was ready. She latched onto its signal, then directed it to veer right. It veered right.
“Easy as pie,” she muttered as she lowered the drone into the garden. She crouched over it. With a few tweaks, she could keep control of it while she sent it back into the forest to retrieve the cows. 
When the drone whirred into sight, Piper was ready. She latched onto its signal, then directed it to veer right. It veered right.
“Easy as pie,” she muttered as she lowered the drone into the garden. 
The propellers whirred suddenly to life and Piper ducked out of its way barely in time as the drone darted back to its original course. She scrambled for her tablet. By the time she’d recalibrated it, the drone had reappeared, cow in claws. The drone died for a second, dropping two stories. “No, no, no.” Piper leaned over the ledge. The drone caught, rose, and headed away from the Spiral Ranch. Piper latched onto its signal again, and it jerked, swayed, not sure which commands to obey. It veered dangerously close to a nearby high-rise apartment building. Piper held her breath. The cow bellowed in panic. Then the drone veered back toward her.
And crashed straight through Adrianne’s floor-to-ceiling window. Piper raced down the staircase and across the breezeway. Adrianne’s frosted door was also shattered, so she stepped through the frame.
Adrianne looked from the drone to Piper with a horrified expression. The cow staggered to its feet; the drone claws opened and closed against the floor as though reaching for the cow. Glass powder crunched under Piper’s boots. She leapt onto the sputtering drone, yanking wires and smashing circuits until the lights stopped blinking and it lay still.
“What the hell is going on?” Adrianne demanded.
The cow mooed and circled the office. The safety glass had shattered so finely it covered the cow’s hide like snow. It was relatively unharmed, but definitely spooked.
Piper climbed off the drone and opened her mouth to explain, but Adrianne cut her off. “No, you know what? Get this animal out of my office first.”
This “animal” is the root of your livelihood, Piper wanted to tell her, or have you forgotten it’s not all paperwork and advertising?
She patted the cow’s rump and led it out to the cargo elevator, down into Pasture 7. Back upstairs, Piper stood in the doorway, catching her breath. Adrianne shook bits of shattered glass out of her chair.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re playing at?”
“The missing cows.” Piper gestured toward the drone. “This is what’s been taking them.”
Adrianne pinched her nose. “And you thought crashing it through my window was the best way to get rid of it?”
Piper couldn’t bite back the sarcasm. “Obviously.” She strode over and tried to heft up one side of the drone, but it was too heavy, so she gave up and headed back toward the door without it. “The cow’s okay, by the way.”
“Don’t turn your back on me.”
“Why?” Piper rounded on her. “You’ve turned your back on the whole point of what we built here. You sit at the top of your glass tower, completely removed from the ranch.”
Adrianne took a long breath and spoke in a lower voice: “There are a lot of details involved in running—”
“You were supposed to lead school groups! Teach them about livestock, about where milk comes from and how we process methane energy. You were supposed to keep it local and simple, not be pandering to investors and trying to franchise out to every other city. We were supposed to be a community pillar and cultural heritage site. But we’re nothing but an architectural novelty. You won’t even step your dainty shoes in a pasture anymore.”
That had been building for a long time. Adrianne blinked at her. “Franchising? What are you talking about?”
Of course that was the only part of Piper’s rant that Adrianne noticed. A company in Pennsylvania wanted to do a Spiral Ranch knock-off; Piper had assumed they’d tried to franchise and Adrianne had asked for too much, but based on her current confusion, maybe they’d side-stepped her all along. Though she’d turned down an offer to work for them, she’d recently been reconsidering.
 “Nothing. Nevermind. This isn’t the right time to talk about it. We need to—”
The alarm sounded. Lights flashed, and Adrianne’s wall-screen showed a schematic of the Spiral Ranch, the point of violation blinking red at its base: the lobby doors on the ground level.
“They’re here,” Piper said. “I should have known they’d come after I disabled the drone. Can you lock them in?”
Adrianne tapped furiously at the screen for a moment, then shook her head.
“Great, looks like I have to do the dirty work again.”
Piper tore down the staircase four steps at a time, slamming the doors open at each pasture as she passed them. She had no plan, she just knew this was her herd, and she would be damned if she let them be carted off into the forest. All the pastures that were supposed to have cattle were fine, until Pasture 3. It was empty, and the gate leading down to Pasture 2 hung off its hinges. 
She hesitated at the door to the lobby. No one should have been able to get to the Pastures by either stairs or elevator without an employee badge, but someone had made it through. Piper eased the door open a crack, heard a man’s voice, and pulled it quietly shut. After a deep breath, she pushed it open again, peering through the smallest sliver she could manage. 
“Sorry for the disturbance, officer,” the man was saying to the screen in the wall. “We’re gettin’ them cows back under control now.”
The man was nothing more than a Wrangler-clad silhouette against the screen, but she knew that voice.
“Jayce, you son of a—” Piper muttered under her breath.
Piper eased the door open a crack, heard a man’s voice, and pulled it quietly shut. After a deep breath, she pushed it open again, peering through the smallest sliver she could manage
But then he cleared the screen, turned to another man lurking in the shadows, and said, “Okay, I told ’em what you said. Stop pointing that gun at me now.”
The man with the handlebar mustache didn’t lower his shotgun. “I might if you’d’a cooperated from the beginning.”
“This is my job, Mack. These are my friends.”
“What, the cows?”
“No, you smog-head. Them girls who run this place.”  
With a ding, the elevator opened and one cow clomped out. The man with the curly mullet herded the cow toward a livestock trailer, which was backed right up to the lobby door. The muscular man leaned out of the elevator. “How many more?” 
“’Bout ten.”
Muscles groaned. “This is so obnoxious.” He stepped back and the elevator doors shut. 
Piper smirked. The cargo elevator skipped the lobby and went straight from Pasture 1 to the slaughterhouse. The rustlers would have to transfer the cows one at a time into the public elevator to get them down here. That should buy some time, anyway.
“What’s going on?” Adrianne hissed at her ear. Piper jumped, eased the door shut, and pushed Adrianne back. 
“Just go upstairs and call the cops.”
“Just go. And stay up there where you’re safe.”
Adrianne’s scowl reminded Piper how she had insulted her for hiding up in her glass tower just a few minutes ago. But she only said, “Come with me.”
“No, I need to make sure they don’t leave, track them if they do. Go. Hurry!”
Adrianne fled up the stairs and Piper rubbed a hand across her face. Charging into the lobby seemed like suicide, but maybe she could cut off the cattle rustling at the elevator. She climbed the stairs back to Pasture 2. A border collie kept the agitated cattle clustered toward the front of the pasture. The elevator opened and Piper ducked down behind one of the cows. Moving that fast and that low was a good way to get yourself trampled—they may have been dwarf cattle, but they’d still break ribs and cut nasty gashes if Piper found herself under their hooves. Muscles kick-shoved two cows to drive them into the elevator, then followed them in. The doors snapped shut. 
Piper grabbed a handful of seaweed feed and started the whoops and clicks they used when rotating the cattle to a new pasture. She shoved the seaweed at one cow’s face. The cow licked a long black tongue toward it, but the dog snarled and snapped, not letting any of them follow Piper. You can’t bribe a dog with seaweed, and apparently “Go on, git,” wasn’t a command it understood. Running out of time. She could already hear the whir of the elevator on its way back up. Only—wait, no. That wasn’t the elevator. 
The robotic manure collector puttered past. Piper glanced from the clam-shaped robot to the ledge above the elevator. Like most of these ledges, a bird had built a messy nest there. Only a few days before, Jayce had joked that they should heft the manure collectors up there to get rid of the nests. He’d even measured to prove that it could fit.
With the dog yapping at her heels, the cattle mooing and stamping, Piper kicked over a water trough and stood on it. The bird fluttered off with an indignant squawk, and Piper plucked the nest down and set it gently by the milking station. A couple of taps on the control screen brought the manure collector to a halt, and then she crouched down, hefted the smelly robot, and perched it on the ledge. She had just enough time to race back to the control panel and hit “go” when the elevator doors opened.
Muscles saw her, shouted, “Hey!” and then the manure collector rolled right off the ledge and onto his head with a clunk. He toppled unconscious to the floor. The robot landed tracks up, the storage compartment broken open and mess oozing onto the floor. She shooed the cows away from the elevator, then opened the slats of the cattle guard to keep them from crossing. Muscles had a pistol in a holster on his left hip. Piper grabbed it, stepped into the elevator. She’d been five when her family had finally turned over their land, sent their animals up to Nebraska and moved to the city, but her father had taken her once a year to a shooting range, saying it was an important skill to preserve. She’d never believed him until this very moment.
When the elevator doors opened, Mustache Mack had his back turned, but Jayce yelled “Piper!” and Mack swung around, pointing his shotgun at her. She stepped out of the elevator and pointed the pistol back at him.
“Just return the cattle, and we won’t tell the police anything about this,” Piper said.
“You’re in no position to negotiate.”
“I know where your homestead is.”
His gaze flickered for a moment. “I don’t want to have to kill you.”
 Jayce looked to the trailer, backed against the front doors, where Mullet was busy shoving the cattle up a ramp. Jayce licked his lips, then tackled Mack from behind, arm around his neck. Mack’s gun fired at the ceiling, raining tile and insulation down on them. Jayce let go in surprise, long enough for Mack to gain his footing and point his gun at Jayce.
“Guess this is just as good. You make any wrong move, girlie, and I shoot him.”
“You’re not gonna shoot me,” Jayce said.
“I just might, cuz. You ain’t making full use of both of them knee caps.”
“This is your cousin, Jayce? Why didn’t you say anything when—when—” She faltered. 
“Thought I could talk some sense into him,” Jayce said. “’Stead, he kidnapped me, used my employee badge to get in here.”
Kidnapped,” Mack snorted. Gun still on Jayce, his eyes flicked to the pistol she held. “Where’s Wayne?”
Must be the bulky smog-head upstairs. “He’s still alive. For now. Why are you doing this?”
“Cows ain’t supposed to live in skyscrapers. We just want to bring agriculture back to the land, back to the people.”
“By stealing our cattle.”
“Way I see it, we’re liberating them,” Mack said. “You know, we could use someone with your expertise. Pretty impressive, the way you hacked that drone. You could join us.”
He stepped backward. She was the one with her back to the wall, and he had only a few steps to make it to the trailer. Could she actually pull the trigger if he made a run for it? Piper had no way to know if any help was on the way.
“We want the same thing you want,” Mack said.
 “No,” she told him. “The Spiral Ranch may not be the best way, but we can’t go back to the old ways either. The land has to heal, re-grow.”
He took another step back. “That’s just propaganda, and you know it.”
She stepped forward, closing the distance between them. Someday, maybe people would spread out, start living horizontally again instead of vertically, but right now was a fallow time. 
“Let’s go, man,” Mullet yelled. He herded the last two cows into the trailer and latched the gate.
“I can’t let you take our cattle,” Piper said.
“Then I’d say we are at an impasse.” Mack cocked the gun. “Too bad. I—”
He didn’t get to finish that sentence. The manure collector robot dropped out of the shotgun hole in the ceiling and knocked him out cold. Jayce caught the weapon before it hit the ground but let his cousin fall. Piper looked up to see Adrianne waving down at her through the hole. 
“What did you do?” Piper shouted. “Crawl through the air vent?”
“Oh, hell,” said Mullet, racing around to climb into the truck. Jayce and Piper sprinted after him, but before they made it outside, lights flashed on the street, and two police cars pulled onto the sidewalk to block the trailer. 
“Oh, hell,” said Mullet, racing around to climb into the truck. Jayce and Piper sprinted after him, but before they made it outside, lights flashed on the street, and two police cars pulled onto the sidewalk to block the trailer. 
“Well, look who it is,” the officer said to Mullet. “Johnny-boy, I thought we had an agreement I wouldn’t be seeing you again.” She handcuffed him and led him to the car.
The second officer stepped into the lobby, looking from Jayce and Piper to the unconscious man on the floor, and wrinkled his nose at the manure robot, now definitely damaged beyond repair. Jayce slowly lowered the shotgun and leaned it against the wall. Piper lifted her hands, the pistol dangling from her index finger by the trigger guard. 
The elevator door dinged open then, and Adrianne stepped out, tugging her blouse down and standing tall despite the fact that she was covered in grease and manure. Bits of fiberglass clung to her disheveled hair. “Thank you so much for your quick response, officers. I’d appreciate if you’d get these intruders off my property as soon as possible. There’s another upstairs.”
After the cops dragged the unconscious criminals away, they took statements and had Piper, Jayce, and Adrianne fill out some lengthy forms. “And here I thought those reports about flying cows were due to some new drug,” one of them said with a chuckle. 
“They still have half a dozen head out in the forest,” Piper said.
“We’ll look into it.” The officer pointed his stylus at her. “Do not go out there again. You hear me?”
Piper swallowed, nodded. A tow-truck came for the truck and trailer. Cattle filled the lobby; a few of them wandered out along the street. After the police left, Piper approached Adrianne. She looked like hell. Bits of her hair had torn out of their clips and stuck out in all directions. She’d lost both shoes, and manure splatters spread across her sky-blue skirt.
“Guess you are willing to do some of the dirty work,” Piper said. Adrianne gave a weak smile. “I’m sorry I said all those things, before. I…I didn’t mean nothin’.” 
Adrianne shook her head. “No, you were right. About some things, anyway.”
“There’s another ranch up north, they wanted me to go up there, build a LASSO system for them, show them how we run things.” Piper looked at the floor. “I ain’t gonna do it.”
To Piper’s utter shock, Adrianne laughed. “Let’s talk to them together, see if we can work out a deal.”
“You’ve got the tech and knowledge they need. And a franchise opportunity sure would make my investors change their tune. I just wish you’d told me, Piper. I’m sick of people trying to steal things from me. Stealing my cows. Stealing my reputation. Stealing my partner.”
Piper grinned at that. She hadn’t felt much like a partner in this for a while.
The short summer night was coming to a close. The sky flushed yellow, and sunbeams reflected off the city’s many mirrored windows. Piper reached for her hat, but remembered it was still on the roof, if a breeze hadn’t sent it flying.
Jayce came down the stairs with the border collie, declaring that the dog was his now and he needed to take it home. Piper shouted at him that the dog would be helpful to round up the cattle still wandering the lobby and the street, but he was already gone. She sighed.
“Lot of repairs to do today,” Piper said.
“And cleaning.” Adrianne picked at her soiled clothes.
One of the cows snuffled at Adrianne’s hair. Piper patted its side. “Help me get these girls back where they belong?”
To her surprise, Adrianne agreed. They hung a “Temporarily Closed” sign on the lobby door and got to work.