My Father's Keeper
by John R. Plunkett


"Oh, what in the world's wrong this time?" someone demanded as air hissed and the car squealed to a halt.

"Rail's broken," Julietta replied, resisting the temptation to add the same as it's been all along, you numbskull.

"Well, obviously," sniggered an individual who no doubt thought himself a great wit.

"Har de har har," Julietta growled under her breath. The Mainsencabre Stadtenbahn was colloquially referred to as the Rail; thus the would-be comedian was, strictly speaking, entirely correct: the Rail was broken. More specifically, however, one of the steel rails which comprised the track on which the cars ran had developed a crack. The track integrity circuit had then tripped, alerting the line dispatcher and setting Stop and Hold on the signals for several blocks upstream of the break. As luck would have it, the rake of cars in which Julietta and her companion travelers rode had come to a stop straddling the last switch before the break. After a spirited discussion between the rake's conductor and the line dispatcher- which Julietta had monitored with her pocket scanner- the dispatcher had agreed to let the rake back up and try the switch. Unfortunately, another rake had stopped behind them, preventing the lead car from clearing. Thus the dispatcher issued a call-on, permitting the operator to pass the red signal so the switch would be clear for rakes piling up behind. The latest movement had come about because the track workers needed to dismount another section of rail, which required the rake to back up. Now they were poised to take the switch; there weren't any more rakes queued behind them, traffic having been diverted further up the line. But the express track onto which they might have diverted was carrying both its own load and that of the local now under repair. It being the height of rush hour, the dispatcher decided to let Julietta's raft sit rather than screw up the schedule still further by holding up the line in order to let it in. Any chance of making up time had vanished long ago, so being more or less late didn't make much difference in the long run.

Julietta reached into one of her many pockets and drew out a large, gold watch. Though strictly speaking it was more of a clock, being nearly as big around as a saucer. Nevertheless it looked like a pocket watch; an intricately engraved portrait of Sir Valoris decorated the cover and the initials "SB" in large, floridly rendered Gothic script adorned the back. It looked like a pocket watch, with a finely crafted gold case. An intricately etched portrait of Sir Valoris decorated the cover It was much larger than a typical pocket watch, being nearly as big around as a saucer. Mr. Tock and Mrs. Tick It was a railroad watch, with jeweled movements and the initials "SB" engraved on the cover. New, it would have cost as much as Father's salary for about two and two thirds months. Julietta had aquired it because it was broken; the previous owner had said she could have it if she fixed it.

**********************

The specific problem with the Rail, in this particular case, was that one of the physical rails upon which the cars rolled had snapped. A track circuit meant to detect such things had locked the block signal at Danger, bringing to a halt the rake of cars in which Julietta and the other evening passengers now rode. By opening her window and looking forward along the tunnel through the use of a small mirror at the end of a rod, Julietta could see flashes of light. Judging by the character of the flashes the track crew had cut out the damaged piece and were now welding in a replacement. Shouldn't be too much longer, then. Not that it really mattered; Julietta was already hopelessly late. She wouldn't even get out of the subway before dark.

**********************

http://www.railway-technical.com/air-brakes.html

"Oh, please let it be for real this time," someone pleaded as the car's brakes released with a hiss of air.

"Oh, please, oh please," Julietta prayed, clenching all four of her fists tightly and squeezing her eyes shut.

Air hissed; the brakes released and the raft started with a lurch. The operator was in a hurry; he'd wound the controller up too quickly, no doubt in a desperate attemt to make up for lost time. Julietta slumped in her seat, heaving a tremendous sigh of relief. She might still have a chance...

The raft started with a lurch. Miracle of miracles, this time it kept moving.

"Next stop, Foggy Bottom," the guard announced over the public address, sounding intensely relieved. "We're really sorry for the delay. Next time a rail breaks, we'll try to have it at a more convenient time."

Some of the passengers chuckled grimly. Julietta didn't. Something wasn't quite right. Her lids drooped and her eyes unfocused as she concentrated her senses elsewhere. As the raft picked up speed there was a cacophony of noises: compressors laboring, air hissing, gearboxes growling, wheel flanges scraping the rails, suspensions creaking, third rail shoes arcing, and cars banging together, not to mention the whir of ventilation fans and the sounds made by passengers themselves as they talked, muttered, coughed, sneezed, hummed, shuffled their feet, rustled newspapers, and whatnot else. Yet through it all there was one sound: a faint thunk as each cars' wheels rolled over an irregularity in the track. It grew with each repetition as Julietta's car approached the spot, peaked when it passed directly under her, then faded as it dropped away behind. Julietta snorted; one of the welds wasn't up to par. The repair crew had done a rush job and botched it. Julietta gave it a week under typical load before it failed again. She made a mental note to avoid this stretch if she happened to be out this way at the time.

The guard entered through the end door at the head of the car, briefly admitting a blast of noise reflected from the tunnel walls. "Next stop, Foggy Bottom," he announced. "Tickets please... have your ticket stubs ready..."

Julietta drew her pass from the left breast pocket of her overalls and held it up as the guard approached. It was a laminated card with her picture in one corner, her name and address opposite it, and a florid, gold-embossed seal with the initials "SB" in the center- which stood for Stadtenbahn, though it was universally called the Rail for short, even in most official documents.

The guard paused. Julietta's pass was the sort given only to Rail employees, and highly placed ones at that: this one granted unrestricted travel over the entire division. He shifted his attention to Julietta herself, giving her a long, penetrating look. He beheld a young fem in her middle teens: fifteen or sixteen or thereabouts. Very small- no more than 120cm- but stocky and quite plump: ample thighs, broad hips, a noticeably protruding belly, a well padded torso, and an impressively large, firm bosom that many adult fems might envy. Her wardrobe consisted of a pair of worn but clean and meticulously mended denim overalls and a light blue, short sleeve, button up work shirt. The overalls were remarkable for the sheer number of pockets: in addition to the standard side and back pockets there were no less than three cargo pockets on each thigh and row upon row covering the entire front from neck to crotch. Moreover, almost every single one appeared full to capacity, if not a bit more. The shirt, on the other hand, looked entirely ordinary, except that it had been made for a male with two arms and tailored- competently, if not elegantly- to fit a fem with four.

What the guard really found remarkable was that he couldn't place the girl's species. Her body looked quite typically human, except only for the extra pair of arms sprouting from just above the bottom of her rib cage. That in itself wasn't so very unusual, but Julietta's were quite evidently natural: she'd been born with them rather than having them installed at some later date. In addition, she had no fur: the visible portions of her arms were covered with nothing but smooth skin that was a deep, very dark gray, almost but not quite black, with a faint bluish or purplish undertone. Her nails were truly black, which was their natural color, unpolished, and trimmed short. For feet she had cloven hooves, like a pig's, except that the vestigial toes weren't vestigial at all: in effect each hoof had three lobes, two in front and one in the back. When she sat, as now, the third lobe lay flat against the other two, but judging from the angle of its tip it could splay out to the rear when she stood, serving the same purpose as a heel in a plantigrade foot. This arrangement would cause her to stand and walk as if in high heels all the time, even when barefoot, as now. The hooves were black, just like her nails, and those portions of her feet, ankles, and calves which protruded from her overalls were covered with the same dark, hairless skin as on her arms, suggesting that the concealed portions of her body were probably the same.

Then there was her face. Slightly oval it was, soft and fleshy like the rest of her... and flat, without the slightest trace of a muzzle. Only her nose broke the plane and it was of an odd design: nostrils underneath instead of on the end and no trace of a harelip, unless one counted two parallel creases in her upper lip. The lips themselves were fairly thick, and black like her nails. Her eyes were a curious blend of red and gold that made them seem to glitter; the structure of her eyelids made them almond shaped, showing white all around. Her ears were cup-shaped, though mildly pointed at the tips, with fleshy lobes at the bottoms, and mounted on the sides of her head, which had a prominently rounded cranial dome. There too was the only visible body hair other than her eyebrows: a long, silky black mane, similar in texture to a horse's, which she wore drawn back into a single braid that hung to the middle of her back. On the whole it reminded the guard most of some apes he'd seen, but it wasn't really like any of them. Apes didn't have hooves, those pointy ears, or most especially curved black horns, like a goat's, growing from their temples. Moreover, even apes had proper pelts. All that naked skin looked somehow... wrong.

None of which precluded the possibility of this young woman having the Rail pass for entirely legitimate reasons. Despite her odd appearance she might very well be the daughter of some high-ranking mucky-muck... or a concubine. Besides, the pass had her picture on it and all the proper seals and ID strings duly affixed. "You really shouldn't be out this late, Julietta," he warned. "Your daddy isn't going to be happy."

"It's not my fault!" Julietta protested. "What was I supposed to do? It wasn't like I could predict that the rail would break!"

"If you'd started home when you were supposed to, you wouldn't have been caught," the guard pointed out. With that he continued on; he had to check every car before the next station.

Julietta slumped in her seat, glowering at the other passengers. The guard was right, of course. But why couldn't she be out late? She was fifteen years old, after all. It wasn't like she was a baby, who needed her hand held all the time. She could take care of herself.

The raft burst from the tunnel. Julietta looked out just in time to see a couple huge, ape-like creatures standing on the platform. From the quick look one might have thought that the studded metal straps around their hands, arms, and faces were for decoration. Julietta knew that they weren't; the bands were actually embedded in the flesh, which in turn looked- if you examined it closely- as if it had been stitched together from scraps. Which, likely enough, it had.

The raft came to a stop with a squeal of brakes. The doors opened; Julietta leapt from her seat and dashed out onto the platform, emerging just in time to see one of the apes duck into a car near the end of the train. The other waited; sure enough someone darted from the other door. The second ape snagged the miscreant with a long, muscular arm; the first emerged a second later and silenced the shrieking, struggling victim with a rabbit punch to the kidneys that probably ruptured an organ or two. Julietta shook her head; they'd get in trouble for that. The hospitals didn't like damaged goods; it cut into the profit margin.

Julietta turned away, slipping her pass into her pocket and buttoning the flap. Everyone knew the penalty for riding without a valid fare but they kept on trying. Though, in all fairness, most of those poor saps had little to lose. In Umgang it was all too easy to get crossways with the wrong sort of people. There were all too many of the wrong sort of people to get crossways with. It was said that Umgang was the freest of the boroughs, and it was. To get ahead all you had to do was be willing to do anything, anything at all, no matter how venal, vicious, or vile. You had to, in point of fact, because no matter how far you got there were always desperate, hungry people just waiting for the chance to stab you in the back and take your place. If you slowed down, hesitated, or simply made a mistake you got ripped to shreds. Literally, often as not; body banks were the borough's second largest industry and they didn't care where the parts came from so long as they could be sold at a profit. In short, if you weren't a predator you were prey... and only a predator so long as you kept a step ahead of the other predators. If you didn't like it or couldn't handle it the only other option was death... or escape. With Choppers, Lashers, and Grinders prowling the streets, not to mention the usual run of thieves, slavers, and organ-leggers, the Rail was the only way to escape.

Once again Julietta silently gave thanks to Valoris that her father worked for the Rail. He didn't make a lot of money but the Rail took care of its own. Company housing wasn't exactly luxurious but Julietta and her dad wouldn't be thrown out unexpectedly in favor of someone with influence. The company store didn't have much selection and the prices weren't great but they weren't ruinous either and the shopkeepers wouldn't try to trick Julietta's dad into selling her or himself into slavery. Dad didn't have to borrow money at obscene rates just to get by, then sell body parts to repay the loans. Yes, things could be worse. Much, much worse.

Julietta hurried up the stairs to the mezzanine. She ran and walked on her toes; the hind lobe only extended when she stood or moved too slowly to balance properly on the front two alone. Nor did her footfalls clatter loudly as one might expect; screwed into the bottom of each lobe was a thin metal plate with a rubber tread attached to it. They also kept her from slipping on the metal tread caps on the stairway.

Thick, dark mist coiled down the second stairway, which led from the mezzanine up to street level. Julietta paused, producing from one of her many pockets a large watch. The brushed stainless steel case filled her hand. The cover popped open, revealing a face with an enameled face with a bewildering number of hands. It showed what Julietta had known it would, and was in any case obvious from looking up the stairs: night had fallen twenty minutes ago. Completing her assignment would mean venturing onto the streets of Foggy Bottom in the dark.

Julietta moved to one side so as not to block the stairway. She didn't have to go; could still get home safely if she merely turned around and got back on the Rail. But that meant abandoning the package. This mission was time-critical; if she didn't get it tonight the whole operation would be scrapped and they'd have to wait for another opportunity. She snapped the watch shut and slipped it back into her pocket. Stated that way, it was a non-issue. Yes, venturing out onto the streets at night was dangerous. But, as with other dangerous undertakings, only the incautious and unprepared need fear the risks. From one of her thigh pouches Julietta drew a pair of bulky goggles, which she set firmly on her face. With her left hand she selected 1x magnification, with her right thermal imaging, which cut through the fog and revealed her fellow nighttime travelers as pale, luminous shapes. Next came a pair of devices which fit over her ears and stuck out to the sides, like miniature wings. Wires connected each one to a device in her right breast pocket.

Lamps around the Rail station entrance, their light diffused by the fog, created a zone of hazy, sourceless illumination. Beyond it lay darkness. Where the lamp standards stood at all the envelopes were broken or merely dark. Foggy Bottom was not high on Under-Duke SwanCloak's list for civic improvements. Most of the travelers who left the station hurried to the streetcar stop nearby or competed for the handful of cabs available. The rest hurried off into the darkness, drawing weapons if they had them. Julietta did not hurry; she ambled along at a comfortable walking pace, neither rushing nor dawdling. She didn't draw any weapons; there wasn't any reason to yet. The most dangerous thing on the darkened streets of Mainsencabre was not any of the horrors lurking there, though there were plenty of them, to be sure. The most dangerous thing was fear. Fear drew the night predators as surely as the smell of fresh blood attracted sharks. When the axe finally fell, fear led all to easily to panic, which caused a person to do stupid things that would get one killed, or worse. Living too long in fear deadened one to it, so that when the monsters came you just stood there. Anywhere else that could actually be considered a good thing. Death, as a merciful end to intolerable existence. But in Mainsencabre even death was no escape, but for a very lucky few. For the rest it was merely a gateway to entirely new dimensions of suffering.

Julietta wasn't afraid. Without a doubt some of it came from the natural bravado of youth. But not entirely. She had listened to her father, for all that most of the time it didn't seem like it. If the worst happened, he said, it happened, and there wasn't any point fretting about it. For the rest, be prepared. The trick was to constantly enlarge the domain of things one was prepared for. Which was why Julietta's overalls had so many pockets and all of them were stuffed full. Despite how it looked the composition of equipment and supplies was very carefully chosen and she knew exactly where to find each an every bit of it. She could have unloaded and reloaded her pockets while blindfolded, identifying each bit by location and feel. In fact she'd spent many long hours doing just that, until she got it right every time. Running down the street with a horde of Choppers on your tail wasn't the time to be fumbling for something you'd thoughtlessly put in the wrong place.

The fog drank sound. Even at Julietta's moderate pace, traffic and pedestrian noises quickly subsided, blending into the background of the city at night.

***********

It didn't take long for the sounds of footsteps and street traffic to fade out. The fog drank sound, blurring and distorting the city's evening noises. Julietta resisted the urge to pick up her pace; it would only draw attention to her. She did reach into her left back pocket and press a button on a device concealed there. With luck she wouldn't have to wait long for a ride.

An odd syncopation to the sound of her footsteps caused Julietta's hand to drop to the pocket holding the taster. Someone was following her. She looked up, scanning the nearby rooftops. No sign of her ride, naturally. It figured, really; the damn things were always hanging around when you didn't want one, so it stood to reason there wouldn't be one handy if you did. She drew the taser with her upper right hand; it emitted a faint whine when she hit the charging stud with her thumb. With her upper left hand she pulled the shock rod from a cargo pocket on her left thigh. Her lower hands gathered half a dozen cylindrical objects, each about the size of a disposable lighter, from various locations. They appeared to be made of aluminum with a red plastic band around the top; Julietta held five ready in her lower left hand and one in her right, her thumbnail hooked under the edge of the band, ready to flick it off. It only remained to see-

Ah. Julietta's goggles detected a flicker of warmth in two different locations. Most likely two more assailants loitering in doorways, waiting for their compatriot to drive the prey to them. If so they'd shortly start moving... and there they came. Then two more shapes appeared: individuals who'd been masked from Julietta's view until they broke cover. Julietta swallowed, keeping her hands close to her body. Her own goggles were of excellent quality; she'd built them using optics taken from a Grinder. But they weren't at all unique; supposedly it wasn't possible to practice Werk without Gold University certification but in Umgang the licensing laws were rather indifferently enforced. At any random tavern, pool hall, or street corner you'd likely find a Fixer willing to knock you up a pair for a song. Alternately, you could find a street doc and have him give you a new set of eyes. Failing either of those you could get a slave or Toy with the desired abilities. In short, there were myriad ways to get a leg up on the competition. All it took was the right quantity of Goldmarks... or the strength or skill to take what you wanted without paying. These early evening hunters might just possibly be as well equipped as Julietta herself, in which case things would get... interesting.

The four ahead spread out across the street. Either they didn't care if she saw them or didn't know she could; possibly a good sign. Given that they stepped lightly, so as not to make any sound, suggested that they didn't think they'd been spotted. It didn't mean they couldn't track her audially as well as she tracked them visually. She raised the taser, taking up the trigger slack; the infra-red spotting laser sparkled on the chest of the nearest one. Her thumb flicked the band from the cylinder in her lower right hand, then depressed the plunger. With a quick motion she lofted it into the street. It emitted a sharp, rising whine as it charged. The four ahead hesitated briefly at the sound. It bounced once, twice-

Each cylinder contained a battery and a superconducting coil. Pressing the plunger started the coil charging; at a certain flux density the coil's superconducting properties suddenly broke down. As a result the whole thing vaporized in an explosion as loud, sharp, and bright as stroke of lightning. It did very little damage, unless one happened to be right next to it when it went off, but the shock was incredible. Even through the fog it was bright enough to dazzle, though Julietta's goggled blanked automatically to protect her vision. The goggles included ear protectors but they weren't as effective; the explosion left her ears ringing.

The stalkers were either stunned by the blast or decided the game had become too rich for them; they turned and fled. Two collided and fell sprawling; one drew a knife and stabbed his companion as they struggled to rise. A third lost his way and ran full tilt into a wall. Julietta whirled, scanning behind; that one was running too. With a sigh Julietta put the grenades back in her pockets, but kept the taser out. The noise would attract attention; common folk avoided excitement like the plague, but tended to draw those who wouldn't be intimidated by a few flash-bangs. Julietta started jogging; she needed to get away quickly-

A moment or two passed before Julietta realized that the pinging in her ears wasn't because of the explosion. She stopped, pressing herself up against a wall, and looked around quickly, paying particular attention to the rooftops.

Imagine a wolf spider. Now picture that it's legs span a good five meters; they and its body are made of gleaming metal, its eyes glassy lenses. In place of standard mouthparts it has a collection of mechanical arms equipped with cutters, blades, saws, injectors, grippers, and other less readily identifiable tools. Where a normal spider would have an abdomen, this one has a large, bulbous tank full of greenish, gelid liquid in which... things float.

This mechanical horror is what Julietta saw, peering down from the roof of a building across the street. It tipped over the edge and scuttled down the facade just as a normal spider would, making remarkably little noise. It moved more quickly than it seemed to; much faster by far than Julietta or even someone much more athletic could possibly have run. First it came upon the fellow who'd run into the wall; he'd apparently knocked himself unconscious but he awoke quickly enough when the spider machine's manipulators started cutting away his clothing. He let out a shriek of pure terror and struggled frantically; the machine was prepared for such an eventually, however, and jabbed a hypodermic injector into his neck. He quivered, then went limp. Rather than finish him off at once the machine carried him along; the fellow who'd been stabbed struggled to his feet and shambled along, clutching at his side. Judging from the spreading hot spot visible in Julietta's goggles he was bleeding badly. The machine knocked him down with a leg and paralyzed him with a shot. Then it set to work with brisk efficiency, first slicing off the victims' clothing, then proceeded to cut them apart like a butcher preparing the morning's fresh cuts. With one major difference, though: the butcher kills his animals before butchering them; he doesn't cut them up while they're still alive. Nor does he do it in such a fashion that they stay alive, even as he's plucking out their internal organs. The wounded mugger was still trying to scream as the machine cut open his chest and pulled out his heart and lungs. Nothing went to waste, however; the ribs were cut from the spine and followed the other body parts into a mouth-like orifice to end up floating in the tank with the rest of the machine's haul. Last went the head, swallowed whole; Julietta saw it bobbing in the tank, eyelids flickering and teeth chattering. They weren't death spasms either; the gel kept all the parts nice and fresh. A victim might expect to remain conscious for as much as several hours.

When the machine finished its work there was remarkably little mess: only a pile of tattered clothing and a few random bloodstains. Then it turned and headed for Julietta.

Julietta put the taser and shock rod away; they wouldn't do any good against a Chopper in any case. She raised all four hands, closed her eyes, and concentrated.

Despite its fearsome appearance and gruesome mission, the Chopper was nothing but a machine. A very complex and sophisticated one, but a machine nonetheless. It's brain was a computer, yet another kind of machine. Julietta could see it in her mind's eye, like a complex, multi-dimensional diagram that somehow made clear everything the Chopper was. Like a master sculptor contemplating a block of stone, Julietta saw in a single blinding flash of revelation exactly how she'd change it to suit her needs. In her mind it changed, becoming that.

Julietta opened her eyes. The Chopper froze, it's front legs raised to strike. She grinned; it lowered them then crouched, laying its belly on the pavement. Julietta stepped between its legs and climbed up on its back. It rose, turned, and scuttled away. Julietta laughed; she couldn't help it. Changing the Chopper's programming was a rush like nothing else; for an instant it was as if she'd left her body, left herself, and become a being of pure thought which changed reality simply by imagining it. The sheer joy of exercising such literally Godlike power was so intense it couldn't be damped, even by the grim spectacle that had preceded it.

Mirth did not displace the knowledge that, by taking control of the Chopper, Julietta had taken a very serious risk that could ultimately put not only herself but her father and her friends in grave jeopardy. She needed to make sure that her nighttime antics would not be discovered. She leaned forward and placed the palm of her upper right hand flat on the back of the Chopper's head.

The Chopper had three brains, buried deep within its body and protected by several layers of armor. With the prevalence of Werk gear, Werk implants, and flesh mods, it couldn't safely be assumed that all the Chopper's victims would be as helpless as the latest ones. Not only that, but the Chopper itself was a collection of very sophisticated- and very expensive- hardware. Parts stripped from a disabled Chopper would bring a hefty price on the black market, or allow a person- as Julietta had done- to build some exceptionally high quality equipment. Nor were those the only valuable parts: the ones floating in the collection tank might net as much or even more than the Chopper itself. Everyone wanted body parts: to build constructs, to improve themselves, or to replace parts they'd lost or been forced to sell. Organ-leggers didn't give a damn where their stock came from so long as none of the donors were in a position to complain about it. Thus it behooved the Chopper's operators- in this case his grace Under-Duke SwanCloak- to make it tough enough not only to do its job but also resist the attentions of other predators.

The first line of defense was a set of positively Draconian penalties for anyone caught tampering with a Chopper or dealing in parts taken from one, be they organic or Werk. Second was the Chopper's own armor, weapons, and agility. Third- and most important to Julietta- was that each and every Chopper was constantly monitored by a central controller. The master brain not only coordinated the actions of all the Choppers out on patrol, it carefully checked each one for signs of tampering. If an individual Chopper got into trouble the master brain could take direct control of it, allowing it to fight with a skill and intelligence far above it's normal level. Other Choppers might be sent in to help. In extreme cases the Under-Duke's house troops would be notified, or the Chopper self-destructed.

The one weakness in the system was that if a person could compromise a Chopper without it knowing that it had been compromised, one then had access not only to the master brain but through it the entire network. Julietta's awareness seemed to flow out through her fingers, into the Chopper's electronic brain, and thence through the control link to the master brain. It was much smarter and more capable than any individual Chopper; it had already identified a potential problem: Julietta's Chopper had reported acquiring three targets but had executed only two attacks. Which wasn't an immediate problem; an attack might be aborted for any number of valid reasons. Julietta could simply order her Chopper to report that the target acquisition had been in error. But doing that more than once or twice would leave a trail of suspicious occurrences in the activity logs that would eventually be noticed, either by the master brain itself or its human operators. A much more satisfactory solution would be for Julietta to order the master brain to alter its activity logs, then forget that the alteration had happened. Of course to do that she'd need root access, and the system was designed not to allow root level commands to be issued over a remote link, specifically to prevent meddling of this sort.

Julietta grinned. If she'd been close enough to the master brain she could have changed its programming, just as she'd done with the Chopper. Since she wasn't, she had to find an exploitable flaw in the software. She let her mind flow out... and she saw it, laid out before her all at once, like a physical thing she could touch and explore. And explore she did, running her thoughts over the nooks and crevices of its logical pathways. It was said that Under-Duke SwanCloak had designed the system himself; if so he was an engineer of legendary skill, right up there with Under-Duke BrokenBack and Sir Valoris. But, alas, SwanCloak had left the running of the system in the hands of less capable people. Over the years these individuals had installed various upgrades, enhancements, and expansions, very few of which had been implemented with a deep understanding of the system as a whole. Because of that there were... irregularities. Places where the various modules didn't quite fit together as seamlessly as they should. Gaps in the security through which Julietta's thoughts flowed like smoke. It would have been easy enough to exploit one or two obvious flaws, but Julietta turned up her nose at such a ham-fisted approach. For one, it meant repeating essentially the same type of attack each time she needed to penetrate the system, greatly increasing the chance of her activities being noticed. More importantly, it was exactly the sort of lazy, small-minded thinking that led to the flaws existing in the first place. Julietta preferred a much more elegant, artistic approach: she exploited a whole collection of flaws, all at the same time, coordinated in a manner dictated by whatever the system happened to be doing at the moment. As such, not only was each attack unique, but reproducing the exact circumstances under which it had happened was pretty much impossible. Even in the unlikely event that the system's operators detected a problem, their chances of properly deconstructing it were as close to zero as to make no difference.

When Julietta returned to awareness of herself she found that the Chopper had stopped: she'd arrived at her destination. That was a little disturbing; she'd been out longer than expected. No matter; her attack had gone off perfectly. She dismounted and looked around.

The Chopper had parked itself on the roof of a tenement, crouched low so it wouldn't be seen from the street. Julietta dismounted, scanning the nearby rooftops. One advantage of riding a Chopper was that most folks avoided them, but Julietta had been taught- by Father and by bitter experience- that overconfidence was the quickest possible route to disaster. The muggers she'd met would surely have something to say on the matter. Those who could still talk, at any rate.

No dangers presented themselves so Julietta approached the building's roof access door. It was a solid steel panel with hinges on the inside, held shut by dogs at each corner. A lever on the inside operated push rods that set or released the dogs. As an added precaution the lever was padlocked. In short, there was simply no way to open the door from the outside short of blasting or cutting. Furthermore, there were pressure switches attached to two of the dogs that would detect if they were released.

Julietta rubbed her upper and lower hands together then placed all four of them flat on the door. Someone watching from the inside would have seen the push rods thickening, shortening as they did so, withdrawing the dogs from their sockets. No alarms sounded because the contacts in the pressure switches had been welded together. Julietta pushed the door open, slipped through, and closed it behind her. A moment's concentration restored the rods, re-locking the door, and re-armed the sensors. Humming to herself she hurried down the stairs. At apartment 419 she stopped and knocked loudly. A moment later came the sound of locks and bolts being withdrawn.

"Good evening, Mrs. Fanshaw," Julietta said as the door opened.

"Julietta, you should not bet here!" Mrs. Fanshaw replied sternly, planting her hands on her ample hips. "You're father's going to have a fit when he finds you've been out this late!" She grabbed Julietta by the hand and pulled her inside.

"Mmm, smells like turkey," Julietta exclaimed, inhaling deeply.

"It is," Mrs. Fanshaw replied, planting Julietta on a tall stool in one corner of the kitchen. "And you will sit right there until your daddy arrives, young lady." She opened the oven and lifted the pan lid with her left hand; Julietta sighed happily as a rich, meaty aroma filled the kitchen. A thin metal probe popped from the back of Mrs. Fanshaw's right hand, which she drove into the crisp, golden skin of the turkey.

Mrs. Fanshaw was a bovine, with a long, cow face, a soft pinkish nose, cow ears, and large, dark eyes. Her coat was a mixture of black and white in large, irregular patches; she had regular feet with large, black nails instead of hooves but did have a tail that swished back and forth when she walked and even when she stood still. Her build was thick and solid, her figure ample and soft. had been forced to sell her right arm to buy a friend's son out of the debtor's prison. Julietta had built her a new one, equipped with various attachments to aid her around the kitchen. With all the special attachments withdrawn, a long-sleeve blouse, and gloves, you couldn't tell the new arm was Werk instead of flesh.

Apparently the turkey was okay; Mrs. Fanshaw removed it from the oven and set it on the countertop to cool. Then she turned to the onions, giblets, and spices she'd set aside for the gravy. A monowire cutter extending from her index finger diced the ingredients quickly and precisely, and though it would shear through the toughest bone and gristle with hardly any effort it left no mark on the cutting table, nor would it harm Mrs. Fanshaw's organic fingers, in the highly unlikely event that she threatened to cut herself. The onions and giblets went into a saucepan to brown; then she added the drippings from the turkey, thickened the mixture with flour, threw in some seasonings, and left the mixture to simmer. Only then did she leave the kitchen and go into the front hall to use the telephone.

Julietta turned her


To Be Continued