Harlequin

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LOG CELL ENTRY #29143: Harlequin

The squat round Cornet sat quietly in its place, in the corner of the station by the entrance to lockup. Normally it sat in lockup, to monitor any detainees held there. But there was no one in lockup… in fact, no one in the station at all. The small robot knew that, at times like that, its place was in the main office, in plain sight in case someone came to the station needing Peacekeeper aid.

Through its connections to the systems in the station, the Cornet monitored secretary traffic, station and exterior comfort conditions, high-attention camera monitors, and other Cornets in Midland. The highly intelligent mobile droneservants, and their non-security brothers, the Squires, often functioned as the eyes and ears of their human masters in their absence, as well as the eyes and ears of Midland’s secretary system itself. And although the Peacekeeper and Roller Cornets were actually capable of subduing a human (provided he or she was too slow to avoid it), this particular unit had never done more than relay messages to the Peacekeepers when they were out.

Remote sensors in the station door alerted the Cornet to the presence of two people in the entryway. The Cornet turned towards the door as recognition software in the entryway trained itself on the occupants. Within a second, the occupant to the rear was identified as Peacekeeper Frank DeJaye, and his condition as healthy and in control of the youth in his grip was established. The door opened to Frank and his charge, and the Cornet moved backwards to avoid being tripped over.

Frank caught sight of the Cornet just a half-meter ahead, and jerked the collar of the boy in front of him to the left. “We’re going this way, kid.”

The boy, a tall and skinny teen, jerked his arms around as if trying to struggle out of his shirt. “Hey, cut it out, man! I didn’t start nothin’! That lady was bullshittin’ you, man!”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Frank frowned, steering the boy through the door into lockup. He shoved the boy into the first cell, pulling the door shut before the boy could bounce off the wall and make for freedom. The boy thumped loudly into the bars instead, almost striking his head into them. “Okay, now, you’re going to be here for a while, so just sit down and cool off. Got it?”

“Man, don’t leave me in here! I get clausterpedic! C’mon, I didn’t do anything!”

Frank checked to make sure the Cornet, which had followed him into lockup, was rolling back into place to guard the boy. Then he stepped out of lockup and closed the door behind him, effectively muffling the boy’s wails. “Clauster-pedic. Jerk kids,” he muttered under his breath. He reentered the main office and sat down at the desk, activated the desk sec, and began the recording process. The recognition software had already managed to match a name to the boy, and had almost half of the information required for Frank to finish the report. Frank himself added the rest of it, including the cells of the statements given by the waitress at the restaurant and numerous bystanders, and the claims of the boy. It took only a minute to access a camera cell from the restaurant, which clearly showed the boy throwing food and starting a fight with another patron. He added that to the file and forwarded it to Midland’s police system. Once the Rollers reviewed the cells, they would come and pick up the boy, and take the rest of the matter under their jurisdiction.

Frank closed the cell, noting the time. It was still early, in fact earlier than he expected to be in, since he’d had his run-in with his food-fighter on the way to breakfast. Breakfast. The thought triggered a mild pang of hunger in Frank, as he just remembered that he hadn’t actually eaten breakfast. Well, he was here. He might as well order something to be brought in.

But before surrendering to hunger, he punched an access code into the sec and waited. The code belonged to Thomas, who had all of the Peacekeepers with him outside of Midland. They had been called out to assist in the investigation of an airship crash a few hundred kilometers from here, and this was the second day they were on-site there. It was a rare instance when airships went down, these days, but this catastrophe had been as impossible to predict as it had been to avoid… sudden severe weather conditions overtaking the airship, mechanical difficulties hindering their efforts to reach safe ground, and incredibly bad luck resulting in uncontrollable loss of altitude, the collision of the airship with a bluff, and its unscheduled landing. There had been many deaths resulting from the collision and fall, and many more injuries besides. The owners of the airship line, as well as the EMPA’s weather monitoring centers, would have a lot of explaining to do before the incident would be considered closed.

It took just a few moments for the sec screen to wink on. Thomas’ face filled the screen, looking down into his sleeve sec’s communicator. “Morning, Frank. You’re in early.”

“Yeah, I had an early start today. How are things going out there, boss?”

Thomas looked up from the screen, probably to survey the scene around him. Frank had seen the views they had sent back when they arrived, and he was sure it wasn’t pretty out there. “We’ve still got a lot of wreckage to sift through, and more analysis of the ship itself. There’s indications of metal fatigue in the rear sections which might have affected maneuverability, but that’s nothing definite.”

“Gotcha. How much longer do you think you’ll be?”

“Well,” Thomas replied, “the Flight Management Authority sent down a lot of Generals, but only a few Privates. So work is slow… none of these guys wants to get their hands dirty. We’ll be another two to three days out here, at least. How’re things there?”

“Oh, nice and quiet,” Frank replied, hoping the kid in lockup wouldn’t pick that moment to pipe up and make a liar out of him. “Worst thing I’ve gotten my hands on has been a thrown doughnut. Wish I could help you guys out.”

“I appreciate that,” Frank said. “If we do need anything from Midland, I’ll let you know. But take my word for it: You really don’t want to be here.”

He was probably right, Frank reflected. “Keep in touch. Say ‘hi’ to the others for me.”

“I’ll do that. Beak out.”

The screen’s image vanished, and Frank leaned back in his chair. It was looking to be a long few more days… especially if things didn’t pick up soon. His lack of anything immediate to do brought a growl from his stomach, and he again remembered he hadn’t eaten. Leaning forward again, he called up a menu from a nearby cafe, and picked out a delectable combination of quiche, sausage, fruit and rolls. He input the order, with arrangements to have it delivered to the station, then went to work on the city cells trying to find a good novel he hadn’t read yet.

~

Sure enough, the food fight turned out to be the highlight of Frank’s morning. Other than a few administrative duties, he had hardly moved from his chair all morning. He had finally found a good old-fashioned mystery, and had busied himself with solving Detective Barbieri’s Case of the Blue Bonnets. The wily detective had just reached the garden and discovered the stand of flowers with all the bulbs snipped off, when the text on the sec screen disappeared.

It was noon, precisely.

Frank was so startled by the face that suddenly filled the sec screen that he gave an involuntary cough of surprise and jerked upright in his chair. The face was smiling brightly… practically leering… and scanning around with his eyes, as if taking in the whole of the room. In the split-second it took Frank to recognize the face, it spoke.

“Well, tip-top-o-the-mornin’ to Midland! And look at all those bright, shiny faces with those goggling eyes bouncing up and down! I just love a stupefied audience!” The voice changed, sounding much more serious. “I would like to formally announce that today in Midland, Namerica has been formally declared to be Harlequin day! YAAAY!”

Frank could feel his blood go cold. “No. No. Not here. Not now. NOT TO ME!”

He punched at the sec screen to clear it, but the smiling face remained. It was clearly not human, being more an elaborate computer generation of a face, made all the more comical by its obvious emphasis on being artificial. The face of the so-called “Harlequin” seemed to be made out of a soft rubber which bounced as it spoke, the hair a garish brown plastic that resisted any movement whatsoever. The white collar below the neck was just a short, wide tube, at least four times as wide as the neck that ran down into it, and as completely without depth as a sec’s graphic construct can be. The plastic-looking red shape at the bottom could only have been called a shirt by virtue of its position below the collar.

“And as the first official act of Harlequin day,” the face was exulting, “I would like to introduce yourselves to each other! Oh, I know that you all know each other already… after all, you’ve all lived in this beehive together for sooo many years. But I’ll bet you don’t know each other nearly as well as you think you do. And don’t you think that’s wrong, don’t you think that’s so un-natural? You should all know each other completely and totally! You have to depend on each other, you know… to provide food, to make clothes, to chase each other’s wives, to kick the furnaces in the basement when they go cold… you know, the things that make it so good to be alive! So let’s celebrate life! Let’s explore each other’s spaces! Let’s see each other for what we really are! And I can’t think of a better place to start than… right here!”

Suddenly, the image on the screen disappeared, to be replaced by the view of a bedroom. Most bedrooms in Midland had wall-sized or medium-sized secs mounted in a prominent place, and all secs included viewing cameras. Most people kept their bedroom cameras off to preserve their privacy, but they were always capable of being overridden by voice command. They were not supposed to be able to be overridden by outside intervention, except by official channels, like the Peacekeepers and Rollers, but it was open now. There was a single woman in the room, standing by a full-length mirror across the room, her back to the camera viewing her. She was busy sliding a red stocking up her left leg. Other than the stocking already on her right leg, she was completely naked.

Frank howled and slapped both hands to his head. He bolted around the corner, into the conference room. The main sec screen on the wall, and the table unit, both showed the same image. He swiveled his head out the window, where he could see a public sec mounted on a nearby kiosk. A small crowd was gathered around the sec, where Frank could clearly see the exposed back of the same woman that was on his screen. It was probably on every screen in Midland.

The woman, meanwhile, had finished pulling up the stocking, and was now busy admiring the set, and her figure, in the full-length mirror. When she shifted and turned, every inch of her body was revealed to the camera, either directly or in the mirror. Even though the station’s walls were well soundproofed, Frank was sure he could hear the cheers and applause going on throughout Midland.

At that moment, the voice of the Harlequin came back. “Loooo-king goooood!” The voice was obviously broadcasting into the bedroom, for the woman started, then swung around, facing the camera fully. When she looked at the sec screen, Frank could guess she was probably seeing the leering caricature of the Harlequin there. She screamed, realized she was fully exposed to whatever it was, and tried to dash out of sight.

“No! The other way!” Frank yelled, as if she could hear him. She had run into a corner, which she immediately realized was not hidden from the camera. Bleating in fright again, she turned and ran back across the camera’s view, using her arms ineffectively to hide her breasts and crotch, to dart into the bathroom. Her half-hysterical screams could clearly be heard over the sec’s link.

The synthetic voice laughed crazily throughout the scene. Once she was safely in the bathroom, it called out in a singsong voice, “I can see you through the keyhole!” She resumed screaming, and a flicker of shadow in the corner of the screen made it plain that she was now dashing around in the bathroom, still trying to hide herself.

“We-ell, I’m certainly glad we stopped by… aren’t you?” The synthetic face once again covered the screen, smiling more broadly than any human could. “Let’s see if we can meet any of her neighbors, hmm? “Oooh, looky what we have here: Ain’t love grand?”

The scene had already switched to a young couple in their living room, fully involved in kissing and petting each other. They were fully clothed this time, much to Frank’s immediate relief. But within moments, the boy’s hand was sliding up into the girl’s blouse, while her hand moved to his crotch. “Go for it, kiddies! No better way to learn the basics, I say!”

“Oh, Damn!” Frank cried as the young couple yelped at the screen and ran into opposite corners of the room. “I can’t believe this is happening on my shift!” As the Harlequin resumed its verbal tirade, he punched the official override codes into the desk sec, clearing the screen and allowing him access to a trace circuit. But within four seconds, before he had set the trace up, the screen abruptly jumped back to the Harlequin. “No!” He tried again, with the same result. “NO!” Frank slammed his fist onto the desk in frustration.

“Oh, YASS!” The screen image seemed to look directly at Frank, and he momentarily froze. In the corner of the screen, a small box opened up to reveal a man poised in front of a desk sec. He looked furious, shocked, desperate, his eyes darting back and forth like a caged animal.

It was Frank.

“Hey! No tracing on my shift! You wouldn’t want to do anything antisocial, like cut me off, would you, Peacekeeper?”

“I sure as Hell would!” Frank tried the override code again. He was quickly cut off.

“Nooo, not yet! I just got here! And there are so many other people I haven’t properly introduced to everyone yet! Like this guy!” The screen changed to a man in what looked like a clothing boutique. He was a large man, trying unsuccessfully to squeeze his ample girth into a pair of slacks. Again, Frank was positive he could hear the laughter outside. “Actually, I’ll bet everyone knows someone like this. But, just in case you didn’t..!”

“Dammit!” Frank spat, punching the override back in. He stabbed at the dedicated access icon for Midland’s police system. He noticed in the second it took to connect that there were no incoming calls waiting for him. Considering the circumstances, most of the communications lines had probably been cut off by the Harlequin. He hoped his secure line to the Rollers was not likewise cut off.

Within another second, the screen changed, and a face that was definitely flesh-and-blood appeared. It was Renee Ricks, one of Captain Henri Gregorson’s senior rollers. Behind her, Frank could hear yelling and cursing, see people dashing back and forth. “Renee!” Frank called out, to be heard over the din on the other end. “What’s going on over there?”

“What do you think!” she barked at him. “Unless your secs are all broken up there, you know as much as we do!”

“We’ve got to find Singer Quiun!” Frank barked back. “Where’s Gregorson?”

“Thank you, I know very well who the Harlequin is!” Renee snapped back. “And he’s busy!”

“Do you have any access to directories? Can you trace?”

“What do you think I’ve got forty men here trying to do ? We’re cut off, too! We can’t even access our internal cells!”

Frank almost yelled back at the screen, then caught himself, and took a deep breath. When he turned back to the screen, he was noticeably calmer. “Renee, I’m sorry. I’m locked out, too. Listen, if you get anything-”

“Aawww, a lover’s quarrel. I so HATE to see that kind of thing.” Frank was caught in mid-sentence, gaping in surprise at the Harlequin that now filled his screen in place of the secure line. “It’s the long hours. When was the last time you sat down and just talked to each other? Not as enforcers, but as the lovebirds you were in school?”

Frank had to restrain himself from putting the back of his hand through the sec screen.

~

At two that afternoon, the scheduled skate cruised leisurely into the Midland terminal. The terminal itself was chaos: The sec screens and information screens that filled the terminal had been broadcasting the Harlequin for the last two hours, and as a result, no one was able to access schedule information, check on skate arrivals and departures, identify skates until they were actually in the terminal, or report when skates had arrived.

The skate’s doors slid open, allowing a wash of yelling crowds to spill in. The noise generated by the crowds, accompanied by the ravings of the Harlequin reverberating about the terminal, created instant panic in the skate. The occupants of the skate fought bravely to exit the cars, many being jostled by frustrated travelers. Terminal authorities swam among the crowds, trying to maintain order, but only added to the din.

No one noticed the man who worked his way out of the forward car onto the platform. There was nothing particularly noticeable about him, as he was fairly average of build and looks, although he was just slightly taller than most of the people in the terminal. He was dressed well, in the fairly typical style of suit worn by businessmen in Namerica, with a thin briefcase in one hand. As he stepped clear of the car, he was elbowed by a last young man, trying to enter the car before the doors closed on him. The elbow bent him over a bit, but he straightened up, and ran a leisurely hand through his hair to smooth it out.

At that moment, the Harlequin on the screens seemed to look to one side and do a double-take. On a large screen near the skate platform, the large image of the Harlequin seemed to be looking directly at the tall gentleman straightening his hair.

“Well, WELL, look who it is!” the Harlequin cried, and many people were forced by the changed tone of his voice to look up at the screens they had been trying to ignore, then follow the simulation’s gaze to see what had attracted its attention. “Yes, as I live and breathe… well, exist and process, anyway… if it isn’t my old friend, Singer Quiun! Quiun! YOO-HOOOO! Up here, handsome!”

The tall man looked up, around, and finally brought his gaze to the large screen and the simulation staring at him. In a well-modulated stage voice, the gentleman called out, “Well, hello, Harlequin. How are you?”

“Just peachy! Yourself?”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“I heard you were coming to town, old buddy, so I took it upon myself to entertain the troops until you arrived.” The Harlequin seemed to puff up a bit, and smiled widely. “I must say, I’ve had the place captivated!”

A number of people nearby noticed the exchange between the man and the image on the sec screen. Many of them began to crowd around to watch the conversation, keeping a close eye on both participants; despite the Harlequin’s caricatured appearance, the resemblance between the virtual face and the tall man was unmistakable. One of the terminal authorities was close enough to see the gentleman talking to the Harlequin, and ran for a supervisor.

~

“Well, WELL, look who it is!”

Frank DeJaye looked up from the wall panel which his arms were deep inside. He had been spending the last half-hour attempting to reroute the sec’s communication lines to bypass the annoying Harlequin’s broadcast, so far unsuccessfully. He thought he’d finally figured out a configuration that would allow him to lock a communication line down without a chance of outside interference, and had a number of lines unplugged around his hands. Not wanting to let go of the cables he had his hands on, he had to twist about to see the new development on the screen.

He could still see the Harlequin, but its tirade had apparently been interrupted by something. A small box in the lower portion of the screen showed a view of the Midland skate terminal, and in its center, a man stood talking to the Harlequin. The box was too small on the desk sec for him to make the person out at that distance, so he craned his neck in the other direction to see the image on the big conference room screen.

“Quiun! Dammit!” Frank started to extricate himself from the wiring panel, then thought better of it, and started hurriedly plugging lines back in. As he worked, the conversation between the man and the simulation played on every screen.

“Now, Harlequin, I sincerely hope you haven’t been annoying anyone in the city,” the man identified as Quiun spoke to the screen.

“Annoying? Moi? Oh, certainly not! Why, we’ve all been having such a wonderful time, getting acquainted, meeting our inner children, so-to-speak, playing all sorts of old-fashioned parlor games. You should have seen the winner of our ‘Hide-and-Seek’ game. She’s so excited, she can’t stop crying! Here: Let me show you what you’ve missed.” The screen abruptly changed to shots of the many people who had been candidly exposed by the Harlequin over the past two hours. The shots went by in such quick order that it was impossible to recognize anything but an occasional breast, buttocks or crotch. In three seconds, the flash of images was gone, and the Harlequin was back. “Whoa! What a rush! Wanna see it again?”

“No thank you, once was enough,” Quiun replied. “In fact, now that I’m here, I think you can stop ‘entertaining’ our hosts. You wouldn’t want to wear out your welcome, would you?”

“No, no you’re quite right,” the Harlequin replied with mock seriousness. “Well, it was nice talking to you, Mr. Quiun… we just don’t get together enough. Ta-taa!” And with that, the simulation turned and exited the screen with a flourish. Behind its retreat, the data and images usually displayed on the sec screens swept back into place as if they were printed on a closing curtain.

Quiun nodded at the now-cleared screen, and said, “Ta-ta, Harlequin.” He started to walk off through the terminal, amidst crowds all exclaiming relief at the end of the chaotic episode they had just endured. A few people applauded Quiun, in thankfulness or confusion, their apparent savior.

Quiun was anything but, as Frank, and every member of every security and authority organization in Namerica, knew very well. Quiun was renowned as a well-to-do business type, who traveled about Namerica on seemingly any errand he could think of. He had money, and he didn’t mind spending it. And that, in a nutshell, was all anyone knew about his life. Numerous educational institutions seemed to have him on their rolls, but could not absolutely state that he had graduated from their schools. There had been unconfirmed rumors that he had been a performance artist studying under the late Tobert. Other rumors suggested he had come unbalanced after the loss of a loved one, though no one knew who that loved one would be.

Then, he was known as the real identity of the virtual troublemaker known as the Harlequin… except that he wasn’t, really. Authorities had never, ever, been able to make more than a circumstantial connection between Quiun and the Harlequin, and no proof that Quiun actually controlled the digital entity had ever been nailed down. But the two of them were always in the same location, and the resemblance was undeniable. Harlequin was a clear caricature of Singer Quiun, like a nightmare doppelganger come to life.

When the sec screen cleared, Frank plopped himself into the chair before it and entered a retrieval mode. “Subject: Singer Quiun, private citizen, no known address. Presently located in Midland skate terminal. Request full detail of whereabouts over the last two weeks, starting with his origin point on the skate backward. Request notification of any people subject visits or contacts, and any hotel he checks into. Request constant full monitoring of subject—”

The sec interrupted him. “Full and constant monitoring of subject requires authorization of station chief, or override by ranking officer.”

“Identify Frank DeJaye,” Frank quickly replied. “I am ranking Peacekeeper. Authorization override given, code Beta-red-NAS-five-two.” Well, that was it, Frank thought; he’d put his neck on the line. He would be required to give a full report about his actions now, to Thomas and his superiors in Jetstream.

He didn’t give it a second thought as he charged up his Estaff and checked the load in his tranq grip.

~

Singer Quiun set the briefcase down on the bed of the hotel suite he’d just checked into. A larger suitcase sat on the bed next to the briefcase, sent ahead of Quiun under another name. He opened the suitcase and began moving articles of clothing into a nearby dresser. Occasionally he stopped to admire the view out of his window, one of the more scenic views of the forest and lands outside Midland that any hotel had to offer.

There was a buzz at the door to the suite. Quiun walked out of the bedroom, crossed the main room and opened the door. One official pace from the entry stood Frank DeJaye, standing legs apart, hands clasped behind his back. He made no sound, guaranteeing that Quiun could hear the slight hum of the Estaff slung on his hip. Quiun looked Frank up and down, taking note of the humming staff, and back up to Frank’s glaring eyes.

“Singer Quiun. Let’s talk.”

Frank walked into the suite before Quiun could object, pushing the door closed behind him. He walked directly over to the picture window overlooking Midland’s surroundings, seemingly taking in the view. Quiun slowly followed the Peacekeeper, keeping a respectful distance away. When Quiun was a few paces behind Frank, Frank turned around to face him. The light from the window darkened Frank’s features and seemed to add mass to his frame.

“I’ll bet you’ve practiced that,” Quiun stated matter-of-factly. “That was a very good entrance. Speaking professionally, of course.”

“Of course,” Frank repeated dryly. He stepped forward, until he was half a meter from Quiun. “I’ll put it to you simply, Quiun. I don’t want the Harlequin here.”

“What makes you think I have anything to do with the Harlequin, peacekeeper?” Quiun asked innocently.

“Don’t pull that shit with me!” Frank snapped, quickly closing the distance between them. “We both know that the Harlequin is your puppy—”

“That has never been proven, peacekeeper. You know that.” Quiun stepped back to regain his distance. “No evidence of my involvement with the Harlequin has ever been established. I’m just in town for a visit. I didn’t come here looking for trouble.”

“And if the Harlequin just happens to show up in town just before you get here—”

“Now, I hardly have any control over such a coincidence—”

Just as he’s shown up, each time just before your arrival somewhere, for the last six years—”

“—Perhaps someone may mean to implicate me by association, but there isn’t anything I can do about that—”

“Quiun!” Frank cut him off with a slash of his hand. “May I remind you that commandeering public and private comnets, vandalism and terrorism are illegal, and—”

“Vandalism? Terrorism? Really, peacekeeper…”

“Keep it up,” Frank gritted. “Just keep it up. I came to warn you, fair and square: I don’t care who you’ve blinded with your bullshit before, and I don’t care what you think you’re going to do here. I’m keeping an eye on you, and you’re not going to get away with it. If you pull anything else like this afternoon’s gag while you’re here, I’m going to throw you out of that window or into my jail, whichever you’re closer to. Is that clear?”

“As the proverbial crystal,” Quiun replied. “And if you’re ready to lose your job, just threaten me like that again while I’m here.”

“I never threaten.” Frank locked eyes with him for long moments, making sure his intent was clear. Then he stepped around Quiun and strode for the door. As he reached the door, he paused in the entry. “Do us and yourself a favor: Go visit someone else.” He left, leaving the door wide open.

Quiun waited until he couldn’t hear Frank’s footsteps in the corridor, then stepped forward and closed the door. Then he reentered the bedroom.

He opened the briefcase on the bed and removed a small, black case from its contents. He brought this case back into the main suite and set it down on a small writing desk, which he moved to the wall below the wall secretary. Just below the wall sec’s screen was a small access panel, matching the design of the wallpaper and affixed with a single screw. Quiun took a small tool from his pocket, unfolded a small screwdriver from its clasp, and put it to the screw.

In a moment, he had the screw out, and the panel removed. Just behind the panel were a few access sockets and a tiny control panel, part of the secretary’s diagnostic system. Quiun slid a panel aside on the black case he’d brought, and extracted a cord from a recess. There was a small black plug at the end of the cord, and he attached this to one of the sockets in the diagnostic panel. He pushed a hidden set of studs on the black case. Then, selecting six studs on the diagnostic control panel, he put a finger on each, and pressed them all simultaneously.

There was a quiet beep from somewhere inside the panel, and a single green light began to wink on and off beside the socket he had plugged into. Quiun smiled, and walked back into the bedroom. After a few moments, he walked back out with his briefcase, and left the suite.

~

“Oh, brilliant move, peacekeeper. Confront and threaten a private citizen, with no criminal or arrest history. Then order surveillance of said private citizen, using a criminal intent authorization. Did you belt him yet?”

“No.”

“I’ll give you a day to hold out,” Renee commented. “Really, Frank, how could you do that? You’re no rookie, you know how much trouble that can get you into!”

“Frankly, I couldn’t care less.” Frank leaned against Renee’s desk in Roller headquarters. He had gone straight to her, after leaving Quiun’s suite, to talk to her face-to-face, hopefully away from interruption or outside monitoring. “I wanted him to think I was a hothead, anyway. It might make him careless around me.”

“Or it might just provoke him, dummy,” Renee pointed out.

“Well, if it provokes him, maybe he’ll slip up, and we’ll nail him with something. Just so we get him.”

“Frank…” Renee shook her head, holding out a hand as if it had the facts balanced in it. “Frank, no one’s ever caught Quiun at this game of his! He’s brilliant, he’s sneaky, and he’s… brilliant! Whenever the Harlequin’s been sighted, surveillance and secnets have always established Quiun’s presence somewhere else. No one can do what he does with comnets and optronics. And he’s too good to trip up.”

“No, he’s not,” Frank stated. I’m going to trip him up. And I’m going to bring him down. Just watch me.”

“Watch you do what? Ruin your career? Don’t do anything stupid, Frank, I’m telling you.”

“Look, are you going to help me, or what? All I want is a roller placed on visual surveillance, and a warrant to search his hotel room.”

“Search it for what?”

Frank and Renee turned when they heard the voice of Henri Gregorson, Captain of the Midland Rollers. The burly man stood filling the door to Renee’s office, arms crossed against his massive chest. His thick white hair and bushy white mustache gave him a grandfatherly appearance, made all the more serious by his stern expression. “Exactly what is it that you expect to find in there, peacekeeper?”

Frank looked Gregorson in the eye. “Illegal or hazardous electronic and-or optronic equipment,” he quoted from a well-known regulation. “He’s using non-standard equipment…”

“Of course he’s using non-standard equipment,” Gregorson drawled, “but that doesn’t make it illegal.”

“I want to scan his equipment. If I detect any unauthorized emissions, I have the right to confiscate all of it for further testing.”

“And what if you test it, and don’t find anything?”

“Well, we’ll have removed it from his hands for a few days,” Frank replied. “That’s a few less days for him to pull this Harlequin stuff on us.”

“In other words, you just want to annoy him out of town.”

“Hey, it works for me,” Frank shrugged.

“Actually, it works for me, too,” Renee agreed, looking at Gregorson. “Let’s let him have the warrant, Henri.”

“And what if you don’t find any unauthorized transmissions in the first place?” Gregorson pointed out.

Frank smiled. “Don’t worry. I will. Say, can I tap into my office and see if he’s still in his suite?”

“Sure.” Renee moved over for Frank to use her sec. In a moment, he was accessing the PK sec and checking on his surveillance connection. The screen showed the hotel suite Frank had just left, where Singer Quiun sat quietly reading a book.

“Good, he’s stayed put. Now if—”

“Hold on.” Gregorson came around the desk, watching the image closely. “Keep looking at him.” The three of them stared at the image for long seconds. It soon became evident that the man in the chair was not moving an inch, even to breathe. “That’s not him. He’s pulled a fast one on you, son.”

“Damn!” Frank thumped a fist on the desk. “Some kind of false image! How the hell did it fool the sec’s cameras, though? They can scan full spectrum!”

“I told you he was brilliant,” Renee said. “He could be anywhere, and we have no way of searching for him with the secnets. What now, Frank?”

“Cut me that warrant,” he replied. “I’m gonna nail the self-confident sonuvabitch. I’m gonna nail him.”

~

The rest of the afternoon turned out to be as uneventful as the morning had been, except that Frank spent most of the day wandering around Midland in the vain hope of running into Quiun. Finally, hours after his shift was supposed to end, he gave up the search and called it a day. He probably would have kept at it, but he had made arrangements to meet a girl he’d recently been introduced to, and he had no intentions of breaking their date.

He got to his apartment in just enough time to shower and change, before his date arrived. She was a pretty young girl, with a bright smile, and Frank almost managed to forget the day’s tribulations when she greeted him at the door.

They went directly to a favorite restaurant of Frank’s, the High Side, on one of the highest outer levels in Midland. The restaurant overlooked the west side of Midland, and during sunset offered one of the most singularly beautiful and romantic vistas in the mall. Lena—Frank’s date for the evening—being new to Midland, she had never seen this most renowned of Midland’s sights, and was delighted and impressed by both the view and the person who had introduced her to it.

Unfortunately, Frank was too preoccupied to fully enjoy either the view or the appreciation. He kept finding himself looking over his shoulder, stealing glances at any sec screen within view, or cocking his head at any sound coming from a speaker. His date would have been a disaster, had it not been for Lena, who had decided that whatever was distracting him simply would not be allowed to upstage her. She proceeded to do what was locally known as “drenching” Frank with her charms, and after awhile, Frank had managed to almost completely forget about the Harlequin.

Once dinner was over, the couple found themselves back at Frank’s apartment, sharing drinks and an incredible dessert Frank had discovered at one of his wilder haunts in the lower levels… he avoided telling Lena exactly where he’d gotten it, but assured her he could get more of it by the kilo. Dessert led to more drinks, and more drinks put the two of them in a very amorous mood. Time and a path of hastily shucked clothing eventually led to the bedroom, and the two were soon lost in the throes of sexual frenzy.

Most couples tend to discover that they fit together best in one way, and spend a lot of time in that position. Frank and Lena had been no exception, so they found themselves on the bed, Frank on top and working at a smooth and relaxed pace… when he heard a throat clear in the room, to his right.

Frank and Lena jerked their heads around to the right, and found themselves staring at themselves. The wall sec was showing a view of Frank’s bedroom, with himself and Lena on the bed staring back down at themselves. This was actually something Frank had done purposely on occasion, although he hadn’t set it up on this particular night. But what was really alarming about the image on the sec screen was that it showed another man in their dark room, apparently standing on the other side of the bed with his hands in his pockets. Both of them threw their heads around to the other side of the bed, and saw no one there. Then back to the screen, where the man still stood.

“Can we talk?”

The voice seemed to come from the apparently unoccupied far side of the room. This proved to be too much for Lena, who cried out, wriggled out from under Frank, and dashed into the closet in a single bound. Frank was summarily bounced off of the bed, and landed in a sitting position between the bed and the screen. The figure on the screen walked around the foot of the bed to join Frank, leaned over, and asked, “I hope I didn’t alarm you.”

Frank looked away from the screen, and still saw no one in the room. “Daylights!” The overheads clicked on, bringing the room to full illumination. When the room lights snapped on, Frank saw the now-visible closet door snap shut on the screen. The form on the screen also brightened, assuming features in the light.

“Quiun.”

“Excuse me? The name’s ‘Harlequin’. Surely it hasn’t been all that long since you’ve seen me. Imagine confusing me with other people…” The person on the screen was undeniably Singer Quiun, not the obviously caricaturized face that had terrorized Midland during the afternoon. This image looked too good to be generated in real-time by a sec. Frank could only guess that Quiun was broadcasting his image from his hotel suite, and was somehow incorporating it into Frank’s room using his own equipment.

“What do you want, Quiun?”

“Why do you keep calling me ‘Key-oon’? Koo-inn, koo-inn, Har-le-koo-in. That’s me. Listen, Frankie… can I call you Frankie?…”

“No.”

“Frankie, baby, you and I are fighting for no good reason! I’m not here to hurt anybody. That’s the Rollers’ job, isn’t it?”

“Quiun…”

“Now, my job is completely different. It’s my job to wake people up to their disgusting, sterilized, nonentity-nonsense-filled existences. How’s that for a credo? See, I’m trying to enlighten people! I’m trying to broaden their perspective! I’m trying to show them that life is for living, love is for giving, beauty is for the taking, and sterile bandages are for cuts…”

“Quiun!”

“Harle—”

“Harlequin! What-the-fuck-ever!” Frank stood up and stepped toward the screen, pausing only a moment to look at the spot in the real room where Quiun was not. “You are not a harmless prankster. One of your gags set a man on fire once!”

“For all of two seconds: The water balloon put him right out.”

“Yeah, but the seventy-two-year-old man almost died of a heart attack, you asshole!”

“Hey, I can’t be blamed for a man’s bad health habits. Hey, I didn’t tell him to be born seventy-two years ago, now, did I?”

“And what about the lady you dangled out of a sculpture in New Quebec?”

“The sculpture was called ‘Hanging Violet’! At least I didn’t put a noose around her neck…”

“Violet Bailey happens to be a friend of mine, you sadist! I’m not going to let you do that to anybody in Midland… or anywhere else! In fact, I may blow off my career and just plain beat the crap out of you!”

“Oh, how you kid! Relax, man. I promise my next gag won’t threaten a single bodily organ! Listen, I gotta go. By the way: Nice tush, Lena. But yours is kinda skinny, Frank. Ta!”

Before Frank could say another word, the screen went blank. Frank stood there facing it, trying to keep himself from howling in frustration.

A few moments later, the closet door opened. Lena stuck her head out and looked carefully around the room, then came out, still wary of corners. She walked up beside Frank and huddled up against him. “What was all that about? Why were you talking to that Harlequin guy?”

“It’s a long story,” Frank said. “And I’m in the wrong mood to talk about it. Are you okay?”

“Yeah… just kinda spooked, that’s all. I thought bedroom secs aren’t supposed to be able to do that?”

“Oh, they’re not,” Frank agreed. “Believe me, if I knew how he did it, I’d kill him for the secret. Then probably patent it.”

Lena smiled wryly at that, and kissed him. She put a lot into it, and in moments, Frank found himself responding to her again. After a moment, they leaned back to recline on the bed again.

“Hey, watch it!”

They both yelped and shot back off of the bed as if propelled, staring at the empty bed and the blank screen in shock.

“Made you look! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

~

The next morning, Frank arrived at Quiun’s suite with a warrant cell in one hand and his PRT scanner in the other. He swept through Quiun’s room, swept the PRT over the cases and equipment on tables and on the bed, and announced that all of them “appeared to be emitting signals which were not part of the legal spectrum for publicly-used optronic appliances.” Quiun dutifully protested as Frank gathered the equipment up in a bag and left the suite, with a promise to return “all legally-operating equipment, after they were extensively checked out.”

Quiun ordered breakfast brought to his room. He greeted the Roller stationed outside of his door, when it was delivered. He sat down and took his time eating, occasionally glancing at the time display on his wall sec. At five minutes to nine, he finished breakfast, moved the tray to a distant table, and walked into the bedroom. Opening the door to the closet, he reached inside of a thick robe and pulled a small black case out of a hidden pocket. With the tap of a thumb, he disabled the field that hid it from the PRT scan. Then he brought it over to the wall sec, unscrewed the access panel, and plugged the case into the diagnostic outlet. Sliding the panel back on a small control face embedded into the case, he tapped out a code and set up the mechanism.

At nine precisely, Quiun put in a call to the city Administrator’s office. “Good morning. My name is Singer Quiun. I have an appointment with Mr. Bradley Westcott.”

“Your appointment is confirmed. Please stand by,” the office’s sec told him. Quiun sat quietly in front of the screen, examining his fingernails, and waited.

A few seconds later, the screen changed to the office of the Administrator. A thin man with a thin shock of dark hair sat regarding him. “I am Bradley Westcott.”

“I am Singer Quiun. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Mr. Quiun, your… reputation… precedes you. What business do you have with this office?”

“Sir,” Quiun began, “I was told you were the gentleman to talk to regarding funding efforts for the Midland arts program.”

“I see,” Westcott replied, regarding Quiun through furrowed brows. “Do you wish to donate your services?”

“No, not really. No, what I had in mind was something in the way of supplies. Raw materials.”

“Raw materials?”

“Yes. Specifically, marble. You see, I’ve recently entered a contract with the EMPA to restore a parcel of land to its original condition, and there is a marble quarry on the site.”

“Mr. Quiun, if you have a contract to restore that land—”

“Oh, no, Mr. Westcott, I assure you I have no intention of mining anything!” Quiun put up his hands in mock defense, and smiled. “But as it so happens, I’ve surveyed the land, and there is quite a bit of loose marble on site, already mined.”

“Mined marble still on-site?”

“Yes. I would guess that there was some impurity, or possibly a size limitation, that made the marble worthless to the quarry’s owners. Whatever the reason, the marble has been left in a corner of the parcel. And although they may be a bit impure, many of the pieces are sizeable, and quite nice.”

“I see,” Westcott said, although he didn’t appear to see at all. “And your intention is to donate that marble to our arts program?”

“That’s it, exactly. After all, budding sculptors need to work on something besides clay. And I hear there’s nothing like carving marble. So: If your office is amenable to our transaction, I should like to discuss the particulars with you.”

“Particulars?”

“Yes. Transportation details, shipping protocols, freight cost arrangements. Surely your office has handled things like this before. I’m new to bulk shipping, but I’m sure that with your help we can work out these details.”

“Oh. I understand. Well, yes, we can go over all of that. We have certain procedures that we prefer to follow, and I’ll be glad to go over them with you…”

“Say, look out for that vase!”

“Eh?”

“Behind you,” Quiun stated, pointing over Westcott’s right shoulder. “That vase looks like it’s teetering.”

“Eh?” Westcott turned and looked over his shoulder, at a vase on the table behind him. At that moment, Quiun reached for the case on the table next to him and tapped a small stud. Then he stood up and went into the bedroom.

Westcott reached around and placed a hand on the vase, as if steadying it. Then he turned back to the wall sec. He smiled at the image of Quiun on his screen, still sitting in the chair before him. “It seems to be fine, Mr. Quiun. Nothing to worry about.”

“Terribly sorry. Must have been a trick of the light.”

“That’s quite all right,” Westcott replied. “Now, where were we?”

“Procedures to follow,” Quiun’s image replied.

“Ah. Yes. Allow me to access the cells on those procedures, and we’ll go over them, one by one.”

“Take your time,” the image told him.

~

“Over there! Over there! If you hurry, you might still catch him!”

Frank dashed around the wall of bonsai trees that formed one side of the wide atrium. His feet suddenly slid on the flagstones, and he flailed like a madman, barely managing to keep his balance. When he came to a stop, he stared at the ground, realizing the entire atrium’s floor had the same slick sheen. When he looked back up, he saw fully two-dozen people approaching him on cautious footsteps. Everyone was dressed up, and one couple was dressed in what could only have been a wedding suit and gown. Although the flagstones looked like they had just been rained on, none of the people in the atrium looked even slightly damp.

One man, dressed in an old-fashioned blue tuxedo, led the charge. “Peacekeeper! He was just here, that, that Harlequin! He went that way!”

Frank followed the direction the man pointed in, straight up into the high balconies above. “He went where?”

“He came down from there!” the man insisted. “He came down on a wire!…”

“All right, all right!” Frank held up his hands to quiet the man and the half-dozen people trying to talk around him. In the back of the group were a young man and woman, in ceremonial wedding dress. He pointed to the blue tuxedo. “You: Start from the beginning. Now, you saw the Harlequin. Up there.”

“Yes!” The tuxedo stopped, took a deep breath, and continued. “Yes. He was on a wire… I guess some sort of a harness.”

“What was he doing?”

“Well, he had a big drum, and a hose. He came down, in the middle of the wedding ceremony, and started spraying all of us with the hose!”

There was general, and loud, agreement on this last point, causing Frank to examine everyone in the atrium. “How long ago was this?”

“It was just a minute ago!” blue tuxedo cried. “He was just here!”

“Come on, be specific. How long ago?”

“…All right, it was maybe two minutes ago. Three tops.”

“Oh, come on,” Frank said, waving a hand at all of them. “You’re all bone dry! Now, come on, someone with good timing skills, please!”

However, everyone insisted that the incident had indeed happened just two minutes before. Frank examined the sleeve of the tuxedo, and various articles of clothing on others, but could detect nothing. While he did this, others began to relax and joke about the incident. Even the bride and groom seemed relieved that nothing in the atrium had been actually damaged. After Frank checked the liquid on the flagstones, which appeared to be nothing but harmless water, he straightened up and shrugged.

“I can only guess that he was just trying to shock you all,” he said. “It doesn’t look like anything was damaged at all. If I were you,” he looked toward the bride and groom, “I’d continue with your wedding. Give ‘er a kiss for me, son.”

The bride and groom smiled, as everyone breathed a sigh of relief around them. The bride hugged close to the groom, and in response, the groom turned and kissed her.

They promptly turned red. That was the effect, at least; actually, only their suit and wedding gown turned bright, blood red before the eyes of the guests. Then, the suits and gowns of the guests around them began to turn the same shade of red, moving outward from the young couple and sweeping along everyone in the atrium.

Frank blinked hard, twice. The alarmed cries of the guests roused the newlyweds, who hadn’t noticed anything up until that point. When they saw the roomful of red suits and gowns, the shocked looks of the guests, the bride screamed.

The scream wasn’t much louder than Frank’s cry of rage.

~

“Well, I think that should cover all the details of shipping,” Westcott said, using one hand to close various menus on his sec screen.

“Yes, I think so, too.” Quiun settled back in his chair on Westcott’s screen, smiling and stretching his arms. “Such tedious details, but well worth the satisfaction of those budding artists.”

“I quite agree, Mr. Quiun…” Westcott trailed off, as he heard a commotion at Quiun’s end. Quiun turned in his chair to face the door of his suite, where loud voices snapped. A moment later, the suite door opened, and Frank DeJaye bounded into the room.

“Quiun! Get up, dammit!” Without waiting, Frank grabbed Quiun’s armpit and pulled him out of his chair. “If you think you’re going to get away with a stunt like that wedding…”

“Peacekeeper! What are you talking about?” Quiun yanked his arm free. “I’ve been here all morning, discussing shipping details with Mr. Westcott, here.”

“What are you… shipping details?” Frank looked at the screen Quiun indicated with a gesture. He recognized Westcott, staring at them from his office. “Bradley? What’s he talking about?”

“Frank,” Westcott replied in a surprised tone, “I’ve been on the line talking to Mr. Quiun for the last… well, a little over an hour now.”

Frank slowly turned to face the sec screen, doubt in his eyes. “Over an hour.”

“Yes.”

“When you came to me last month, asking about your… unique cell situation…” Frank paused long enough for Westcott’s expression to change, indicating he knew what personal and embarrassing subject Frank was dancing around. “…who did I tell you to talk to?”

“Uh… your brother, Tomas.”

Well, it was probably him, then, Frank decided. “Bradley, are you absolutely sure about how long you’ve been talking to Quiun? Check the call record from your end.”

“Hold on.” Westcott leaned forward and tapped his fingers across the screen. After a moment, he leaned back. “Okay, he called me at nine this morning… and the sec confirms we have been connected for the last eighty-seven minutes. It’s ten twenty-seven now.”

Frank automatically looked at the time indicator on his IS sleeve: It said 10:27A. He slowly lowered his arm.

Quiun turned back to Frank. “Satisfied, peacekeeper?”

“Not even slightly,” Frank said, and strode out of the suite.

Quiun looked after Frank with a shade of exasperation, then turned to the screen. “Mr. Westcott, as you can see, I still have my… reputation problems with the constabulatory… but I hope this incident proves that I am only the brunt of harassment. I’m sorry about all this. Anyway, we’ve concluded our negotiations, so we might as well end it here.”

“Yes, our business is concluded,” Westcott agreed. “Please call me when you’ve made the arrangements at your end, and we’ll confirm everything.”

“I will. Thanks again. Oh, and watch that vase.”

Westcott could be seen turning and adjusting the vase again, before the screen went blank.

~

Dana Minot loved a challenge. If anyone had walked up to her at that particular moment, she would have joked that she was having so much fun she was ovulating.

As an entertainment programmer, she spent her days creating simulated worlds, virtual characters and special effects for some of the fiction and non-fiction programs carried by the sec network in Midland. It was a job filled with interesting-to-exciting assignments, and Dana was one of the better people in Midland at her job. She was an artist, capable of creating simulations that often far surpassed reality, adding a dramatic flair that was uniquely her own, but still seeming as real as possible.

At the moment, she was staring with near-adulation at her workstation screen, but not at one of her own projects. She had managed to isolate the Harlequin broadcast that had so badly disrupted her morning the day before, locking the controls of her workstation and ruining her morning work schedule. She was at her job today, in fact, because of the backlog she had picked up as a result of the Harlequin. Now finished with her work, she studied the image on her screen carefully. She could only marvel at the skill at which the original program had been created, not to mention its ability to force itself on Midland’s networks, appearing on selective screens and in the middle of crowds, and being absolutely indistinguishable from the real people moving around it. She had never gotten up the courage to get in touch with Singer Quiun, the man who (according to authorities, anyway) created all this intricate magic, and ask him frankly about his secrets. But she was very close to doing so now.

“I knew it. You’re always one step ahead of me.”

Dana turned to see Frank DeJaye leaning up against the doorframe. The two of them were old friends, and had dated quite a few times, so she was very familiar with his body language. Although he was smiling, she could tell he was a very troubled man at that moment. “Hi, Frank. I wondered when you’d find your way up here.”

Frank chuckled lightly, but slowly dropped the smile from his face. It was replaced by a slight but clear expression of helplessness. Frank unfolded his arms, and said, “I could use some help, Dana.”

“I’ll bet.” She motioned him over to her workstation. “You’re right, I was just sitting here thinking about Harlequin. If it really is Quiun who creates that thing, I’d like to have a few of his kids.”

“It’s Quiun, all right,” Frank told her, stealing a wry glance at her. “Just because there’s no direct proof, doesn’t mean he’s fooling anybody.”

“Well, he’s definitely impressed me,” Dana admitted. “The guy makes me look like a hack.”

“Please, Dana, no more hero worship for today,” Frank said. “Quiun is dangerous. He’s hurt and near-killed people, including a friend of mine. I need you to help me shut him down.”

“Wait a minute… you never told me he almost killed someone you knew.”

“A girl I know in New Quebec… Violet Ki’lay.” Frank leaned over beside Dana and stared pointedly at the screen. “She was the one Harlequin hung from the ‘Hanging Violet’ sculpture, suspended at the sixteenth level over the city center.”

“Oh, god,” Dana whispered. “She was okay?”

“Yeah, but practically comatose with fear for two months.” Frank’s eyes seemed to blaze at the image on the screen. “We didn’t think she’d ever get over it.” He finally looked at Dana. “Whatever it takes. If I can’t stop him legally, I may simply break him in half and leave him for the wolves.”

Dana had rarely seen this side of Frank, and she found herself slightly taken aback by his intensity. She stared at him a moment longer, just to make sure he wasn’t joking. He didn’t crack a smile.

“Yeah.” Dana turned back to her screen. “Well, I’ve been studying the simulation for the last hour. Although the image itself isn’t too difficult, the human responses it makes to outside stimulation are downright incredible. The memory access it has must be massive and incredibly fast.”

“Too fast for a portable system?”

“Absolutely,” Dana nodded. “In fact, I’m not sure Midland’s sec could do this, without shutting down significant… and noticeable… parts of its database to process the raw data and simulate human responses so well.”

“Someone would notice the performance drop.”

“Would they?” Dana challenged. “Remember, when the Harlequin took over the Midland system, everyone’s secs were locked out. That means no one could check on performance cells. Half the automatic systems in Midland could have been disabled, and no one would have noticed, because no one could have checked it.”

“You’re right,” Frank admitted. “And if he could do that, then he could alter the cells to make it look like there was no performance drop-off.”

“That’d be the easy part.”

“What about recognizing the simulation? I think Quiun can simulate himself well enough to fool someone on the other end of a sec.” Frank described the events of that morning to Dana.

“Visual and response simulation? Damn… Well, recognizing it shouldn’t be hard. Human movements can’t be simulated by a program accurately for more than a few seconds… the randomness breaks down. It would fool the eye, but not another program. I can create a program that can recognize a simulation in just a few seconds.”

“Okay. Now, is there any way to cut off the program once it’s running?”

“Honestly? I don’t know.” Dana shook her head. “See, first you’d have to know where it was initiated… and whether it was controlled by an outside source, or self-contained in the system as it ran. If it’s self-contained, I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to stop it, short of cutting the power to the entire network.”

“Ouch,” Frank winced. He knew the Midland network controlled too many of Midland’s functions to make total shutdown a reasonable alternative. “Not my first choice of actions. I’d rather just shoot Quiun. Well, what about tracing the transmission to its source?”

“Uh… well, probably not the point of entry into our system,” Dana said. “But you know, I might be able to figure out where the original program was created, right down to the original sec used.”

“Whoa,” Frank said. “The original sec? How can you do that?”

“Well, every sec has a unique optronic signature, based on the laser microptics inside. That signature has to be converted into an optroelectronic action at the output source, and you can analyze the output signal backward, to get the original signature.”

“Of course, it’s obviously not that simple,” Frank stated.

“Right… first you have to have an isolated tap on the output source. Then, once you work out the signature, it’s up to you to find the sec that matches it. It’s like finding a set of fingerprints, but no cells to match them to. And no one records sec signatures.”

“No one? Not even the manufacturers?”

“No reason to,” Dana explained. “Each sec is manually coded to the owner, and that’s kept on cells.”

“You think Quiun knows about the optronic signature?”

“I don’t know. He’s obviously an excellent programmer, but I have no way of knowing how much he knows about the mechanics of his systems. If he’s like most people, he just plugs the stuff in and starts using it.”

“Uh-huh.” Frank considered everything she’d told him. “So, I can’t stop him, but if I can find the sec he used to create the original program, I may be able to pin circumstantial evidence on him…”

“Circumstantial?” Dana echoed. “What’s the point? He’s already proven he can beat circumstantial evidence, or he’d be locked up by now… right?” Frank paused, then nodded sourly. “Maybe you shouldn’t be worrying about all of this, and try fighting fire with fire.”

“Huh?”

“Think about it,” Dana said. “Quiun fakes his innocence. Why don’t you try faking his guilt?”

It was one of those things that, once said, suddenly made everything crystal clear. Frank slowly stood up straight, and Dana recognized that unfocused look in his eyes. He stood there silently for about half a minute. Then, slowly, a smile dawned and his eyes came back into focus.

Dana smiled, too. “You got it?”

“I got it.”

“That’s my Frank. Go get ‘em, tiger.”

~

They’ll be back this evening. I’ve got one more day. Frank shut off the desk sec and stared despondently at it. If he doesn’t do anything today, I’m sunk. He switched the sec to surveillance mode, homing in on Quiun’s suite. As he watched, Quiun walked into the living room of the suite, dressed only in tight-fitting shorts and an open-neck shirt. He settled into a wide stance in the middle of the suite, bent over, and touched his toes.

“Oh. Great. Exercises.” Frank looked over to the chair on the other side of the desk. On it resided a sec case that looked identical to the case in Quiun’s room, a pair of gloves, and an Estaff. He regarded the two items, then turned back to Quiun. “I may have to kill him outright.”

He looked up when the door to the station opened. Dana Minot walked in, carrying a case about half the size of the case on the chair, and set it on the desk in front of Frank.

Frank eyed the case. “So, what is it?”

“I told you I could whip up a program that would recognize a simulation from a real person.” She gestured at the screen, where Quiun was now standing erect and pulling one foot up to his waist with both hands. Then she held a hand out to the case. “This’ll do it. All we have to do is hook it into your system.”

“Good. There’s a terminal right there.” He pointed to the wall terminal he’d been elbow-deep in just two days before. Dana popped the cover from the wall, exposed a few plug outlets along one side, and opened her case.

Frank watched her for a moment, then turned back to the screen. Quiun had let go of his foot, which was now folded in front of him in half a lotus position. Then he reached down for his other foot, slowly picked it up, and placed it in the other half of the lotus position against his other foot.

Quiun was now floating about a meter off the floor. He looked directly up at the surveillance camera, and smiled.

“Don’t rush,” Frank sighed. Dana stole a glance over her shoulder, then did a double-take at the screen, muttering an oath under her breath. Then she turned back to her work, doubling her efforts anyway.

A flicker of light on the screen caught Frank’s attention. Instantly, the sec screen changed: No longer was it directed at Quiun’s suite. Now Frank was staring at a view of the center of Midland, most likely from one of the many cameras placed around the mall for official use. The camera panned upward as it looked out over Midland’s open center, until it stopped and zoomed in on a monstrous head and shoulders, floating in the center of Midland.

It was the Harlequin’s computer-generated face, smiling down upon the camera and winking its eye. When it spoke, its voice rang on every sec in the mall. “Well, won’t you just look at all the happy little people! And don’t you all look so precious, scurrying around like ants in your precious little hive?”

On the screen, Frank could see people stopping, looking at the nearest sec screen, then looking out over the expanse for a gargantuan floating head that wasn’t there. Frank had to refrain from going out and looking, himself. He didn’t want to miss what the simulacrum was going to say.

“…Well, you certainly look like ants from my perspective. In fact, if I had feet, I could squash you all, down there on the ground!” At once, a dozen stories above the ground level, a single clown-like shoe appeared out of nowhere, poised over the crowd like a malicious giant. Frank realized there was something different about this image: the people on the ground actually saw it there, not just on a sec screen, and they pointed and yelled. It hovered there for a moment only, then plunged down on the crowd. People screamed and ran, running into each other, falling over, throwing hands over their heads. But the holographic shoe slammed into nothing, not even kicking up dust as it passed through the ground and disappeared.

And the Harlequin laughed. “You greasy simulated geek,” Frank hissed. “Never again, dammit.” He got up and walked over to the chair, where he grabbed the gloves and slipped them on.

“You know,” the Harlequin continued, “you people look kinda tense… nervous… you know? It’s pretty obvious to me that you all need a break. For god’s sake, GET OUT A BIT! You’re always hanging around inside the house, and it’s such a nice day outside! You spend entirely too much time indoors… and if you won’t go outside, then I’m going to have to send you outside.”

“That’s it,” Dana announced, “I’m ready.”

“Hold on,” Frank said, putting up a hand to quiet her. He hadn’t liked the sound of Harlequin’s last sentence, and he stared intently at the screen.

“Nobody moving, huh? Okay, that’s it. You all know what a Quasar is? It’s a big, mean optic amplifier designed to pump up whatever light source it’s connected to. You have to be careful with ‘em… you wouldn’t want to connect one to an already powerful source. They have a tendency to overload and… how shall I put it?… blow things up when you do that with ‘em.

“Well, I have a Quasar. And I think I’ll use it! I’ve put my Quasar somewhere in Midland, and at precisely 1PM, it will activate at full charge and terminate whatever it’s attached to with… ex-treeemme prejudice. Now, it might only be attached to a door sensor. But it might be connected to the skate control terminals. Or the light regulators. Or the sewage disposal system. Who knows? It might not do much when it goes off. Or it might do a whole hell of a lot.

“So, your choice is simple: Wait for the big bang to go off. Or go outside, get out of your little sterilized hovels, and live outside like Men were supposed to! Oh, women, too.”

“He’s just crazy enough to have sabotaged something serious around here,” Frank said. “If he wants everyone outside, it’s so he can do some serious damage inside.”

“Or maybe he just wants us all to trample ourselves to death trying to get out of here,” Dana pointed out. She indicated the screen, and sure enough, people were flocking to the lifts and escalators, forming unmoving human clots at each lift door and stair landing. “I hope the rollers can handle that kind of crowd control.”

“They’re gonna have to,” Frank said. “I’ve gotta find Quiun.”

“Harlequin? Did someone say Harlequin?” Frank looked at the screen, and realized the computer-generated image was looking directly at him through the screen. “Heck, I’m always around! You know me, always trying to raise the consciousness of my fellow… fellows. But hey, I want to be fair to everyone. I suppose there’s always the chance that someone doesn’t want me to blow something up in their precious mall. So I’ve got a failsafe switch. It turns off the Quasar. And I’ve got it on my person, right now. All you’ve got to do is find me, and you’ve found the switch. ‘Course, you’ve only got about… an hour.”

“An hour. Great.” Frank tossed his hands up in frustration, but Dana was already working over the sec terminal.

“Thank goodness they’re not locked off this time,” she said as she set up a search program. “You should be able to find him quickly enough.”

Frank stood over her as she punched in the parameters and started the search. Almost immediately, the sec offered up a standard Midland interior location map’s reference number, and an image of the location. On the small square, they saw Singer Quiun walking along with a group of residents, heading for a nearby escalator.

“Hey!” Frank shouted, pointing at the map number. “That’s right outside here!” He bolted for the door before Dana could reply, and bounded into the crowds.

Outside, Frank almost came to a dead stop. The people were fighting to reach the escalators, and they didn’t seem too inclined to give Frank any leeway in that direction. Frank craned his neck to see Quiun.

Everyone’s back was to him in the direction of the escalators, but Frank managed to see the bright red jacket he’d seen on Quiun. He surged forward, and when he was in arm’s reach, he grabbed the jacket by the collar and yanked. He followed the figure to the ground, rolling him over before he had a chance to fight him off.

The man wasn’t Quiun. “Damn!” Frank picked the shocked man up, holding onto him by the jacket while he scanned the crowd. “Who gave you this jacket? Where is he now?”

“What are you talking about? This is my jacket! Let go, I want to get outside! Let go, Peacekeeper!”

In the commotion and noise, Frank barely heard his sleeve com beep at him. Pausing a moment more, he released the man and thumbed his com on.

“Frank, it’s… Frank, what are you doing! You let him go!”

“Dana, it’s not Quiun! He must’ve switched jackets or something…”

“Frank, I’m looking right at you.” Frank looked up quickly, could see one of the standard Midland monitor cameras pointed at him. “I watched you tackle Quiun from here. That guy was Quiun!”

Frank started to reply, then snapped his mouth shut. He thought a moment before he spoke again. “Dana, run that search again, right now.”

“Hold on.” Frank waited while she worked. “Got him! He’s…” Frank knew what was coming. “…on level nineteen? How did he get there so…”

“Quick, run it again.” Frank began to walk back to the station, pushing against the current of people to get to the door.

“Now he’s on sixty-four! What the hell…”

Frank managed his way into the station, moved over Dana and took over the search. Each time he initiated a search, the figure of Quiun appeared in a different place, everywhere in Midland. And each new reference number was accompanied by a visual of someone, each time wearing different clothes, having a different build, but always with Quiun’s face.

Frank groaned. Dana stared dumbfounded at the screen, occasionally squinting closely at the visuals on the screen. “Look at them, they’re seamless,” she half-whispered. “That man’s a genius.” She looked up at Frank in undisguised awe, but his sour expression returned her to the problem at hand. “But which is the real him? I suppose I could try overlaying my simulant recognition program over these images, but narrowing them down one-by-one is going to take forever…”

“We may not have to,” Frank interrupted. Dana looked up at him, as he scratched his head and stared at the screen. “Maybe we’re looking for the wrong person.”

“Huh?”

“We’re looking for Quiun… which is what he wants us to do, obviously, so we’ll waste our time doing this. Let’s look for the Harlequin, instead.”

“I repeat: Huh?”

“Look for the Harlequin!” Frank bent over Dana’s shoulder and worked over the sec. “The Harlequin said the failsafe was on his person. Not on Quiun!”

“He doesn’t want to connect himself with the Harlequin, so he wouldn’t say…”

“No, he wouldn’t have said it that way,” Frank insisted, as he finished the new parameters and initiated the search. “It’s all part of that warped sense of humor of his. The failsafe button is on the Harlequin. And I’ll just bet…”

At that moment, the screen changed. Beside a map reference deep within the bowels of Midland, a screen overlay showed a man in workers’ coveralls, sweeping up the floor beside a large piece of machinery. The man turned his head slightly, not quite revealing all of it to the screen. But the literally pencil-thin neck, smiling face and plastic-looking hair were unmistakable.

“Harlequin. See the big red button on his chest? That must be the failsafe switch.” Frank noted the location, then went over to the chair and picked up the E-staff and sec case.

“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it,” Dana said, as Frank pulled his own E-staff from his belt holster and replaced it with the one on the chair. Then he picked up the case. When he was ready, he looked at Dana, who watched him expectantly.

“Do me a favor,” Frank said. “Stay here and monitor him, so I don’t lose him down there.”

“Be careful,” Dana told him. “Those are the Power levels. He might have actually planted something down there, you know.”

“I don’t think he’d be down there, if it was all that dangerous,” Frank replied. “But I’ll be careful. Watch my back, okay?”

“Have I just been deputized or something?”

“If you want, I’ll nominate you for Emperorhood,” Frank said. “Just watch my back.”

~

Frank opened the manual door to Power level P4 and slipped past it. He didn’t bother to keep silent: Even with noise dampeners all around these levels, the generators and switching systems created a background hum which masked most quiet movement. Keeping close to the wall, he moved lightly down the edge of the massive room. Beyond and all around him, the massive machines that harnessed the river deep below the city to provide electric power gave no sign that they had been tampered with. On the other hand, the noticeable lack of workers on the level suggested the Harlequin had managed to frighten everyone away from the machine levels, and probably had free rein down here.

Frank hadn’t gotten any messages from Dana regarding the Harlequin’s position, so he assumed he was still in the same place. As he moved up to a corner and looked around, he caught sight of a lone man in workers’ coveralls. The man had a broom in his hand, but he was not sweeping. Instead, he seemed to be trying to look around the machines surrounding him, as if checking for someone or something. There was no doubt that this was a human being, not some kind of computer-generated simulant. And when the figure turned in Frank’s direction, he could clearly see that it was Singer Quiun.

Frank waited until Quiun had turned around to face the other way again, then came out from around the corner. Quiun did not hear him arrive, and when he eventually turned back around, he was surprised to see Frank standing there.

“You know,” Quiun said, a wry smile on his face, “I really didn’t expect to see you down here. At least, not so soon.”

“Don’t exactly have a high opinion of me, do you? But, of course, you’ve never shown any respect for officials of any kind, have you?”

“‘Officials’? You mean the few idiots who conspired to lock Mankind into these ground-crushing boxes, strangling our connection to the world that spawned us?” Quiun smiled and shook his head. “No, not really.”

“Well, I’m glad to be the one to say I was there when Singer Quiun finally outsmarted himself,” Frank said, allowing a Cheshire grin to spread across his face.

“Really? What gives you the impression that I have been outsmarted?”

In response, Frank gestured to the case he had placed on a utility box, on the floor beside him. Quiun noticed it for the first time, and took a long look at it, but otherwise did not move.

“That’s right, it’s yours,” Frank stated. “Just got it out of your suite, while you were screwing around down here. This is gonna put you away for a long time.”

“No, it won’t,” Quiun said. “There’s nothing in there that you can get at. You’ll find no evidence in there.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s well-coded,” Frank agreed, nodding a bit theatrically as he considered the box beside him. “In fact, I’m sure that if we try to break into your code, the entire case will probably self-destruct, or launch itself into the Sun, or something. Fortunately for me, though… I don’t have to see your data.”

Quiun’s smile seemed to fade just a bit. Frank knew he had him going, so he decided to let him stew a bit. “As long as we’re on the subject… Tell me, did you actually put something down here?”

Quiun seemed to have to change gears at the new direction the conversation had gone into. “If you think I’d be the slightest bit interested in making myself some kind of martyr down here, think again. Of course,” he added, “if some sort of device did manage to knock out the power to this precious city of yours, even for a few moments, it wouldn’t be particularly painful to me down here.”

Something in the sound of his voice didn’t seem to work, Frank decided. “You’re sure about that? I mean, you never know what kind of accidents can happen in these Power levels. Especially during an emergency. Lights go out. Hard to find your way around, even in the best of conditions. You could slip and seriously hurt yourself.”

Quiun was still smiling, but it was now a frozen mask as he regarded Frank. “That’s right, you’re in my house, now,” Frank said. “And your sec is in my hands, so I can run a few tests on it.” Quiun took a step forward, eyes locked on Frank’s. Frank calmly put a hand on the E-staff on his hip, and Quiun stopped again. “Y’know, I always knew you were using your own sec to initiate those programs of yours, even if it wasn’t doing the actual work. The program you use to slave larger systems to yours and do all the processing for you, must be pretty impressive. At first I was thinking about just getting your sec’s recognition signal… but then I realized that you’d know that, and could change that at any time. So the recognition signal would hardly be useful in proving your program transmissions originated from your sec.

“But I found out about something else I could use. I discovered that every sec has a unique optronic signature. That’s something that can’t be changed… it’s built into the optronic circuits themselves, and it’s measured at the atomic level. Which I didn’t think was a particularly useful thing to know, until a programmer friend of mine told me that the optronic signature can be used to identify the source of a foreign transmission in our Mall network.”

“You’re trying to bluff me.”

“It’s true,” Frank insisted matter-of-factly, and leaned against the wall beside the sec case. “See, Midland’s network has very sophisticated optical recognition software built into its input/output transceivers. You need them to be able to accurately separate and read information beamed from so many secs at any one time. The optronic signature is used to tag each transmission, and keep track of each one. Of course, the network normally dumps its signature data once the transmission is through. But yesterday, we made a few adjustments to the network. Do you know what we have now?”

“A story with too many holes in it,” Quiun replied, but there was little confidence in his voice. Frank smiled again, and shook his head.

“Uh-uh. We have recorded cells of each incoming transmission to the Mall network that started your Harlequin programs yesterday and today. Including the threat you made half an hour ago. When I take this case upstairs and have it analyzed, it’ll prove the commands came from here. From your sec. And that’ll be enough evidence for anyone.”

Quiun took another step forward, and Frank unstrapped his E-staff from his side. Quiun stopped again, eyeing the staff. Frank looked down at the staff, then up at Quiun. “You know, I get the impression that you’d really like to try your hand at mopping up the floor with me. And that the only thing stopping you is this staff in my hand.” Quiun did not reply, but continued to eye him silently. “Well, tell you what,” Frank went on. “Since it’s likely to be your last act as a free man, I don’t think I’d object to your trying to fight me for your freedom. Besides, I’d love the excuse.”

Frank shifted his grip on the staff, from the handle to the body. He placed it lightly on the box next to the case, giving it a pat, then removed his grip from its holster and ejected the cartridge of tranq shells. Before he had a chance to place them down, Quiun lunged at the case.

Frank cut him off, and Quiun obligingly ran full-tilt into him. Frank spun him around, trying to get him into a headlock, but Quiun managed to keep an arm free long enough to throw an elbow at Frank’s head. It struck him close to the temple, but too high, and Frank merely staggered back.

Quiun threw a roundhouse punch at him. Frank dodged it easily, realizing as he did so that he was being set up for the real blow. He saw the leg arching for his head at the same moment, and kept ducking, trying to reach the floor first. Quiun’s foot glanced off his shoulder, but it was enough to tip him over on his back. Quiun tried to drop on him knees-first, but Frank rolled out of the way.

Quiun was suddenly all over him. They rolled on the dusty floor, clawing at each other for purchase. Quiun was clearly in very good shape, something Frank hadn’t reckoned on, and he found he was having a tough time keeping from getting himself clocked.

A judo flip put Quiun on his back, and Frank scrambled to his feet. Quiun was already up and approaching, throwing a badly-timed kick at Frank. Frank dodged, and sent a fist at Quiun’s nose.

Quiun snapped a hand up and took Frank’s wrist… and Frank realized his mistake, too late. Before Frank could stop his momentum, Quiun was using it to throw Frank completely over him. A sickening moment of flight, and Frank landed hard on the floor on his back.

Frank groaned, and rolled over slowly. When he lifted his head, he realized the end of a long cylinder was hovering just inches from his nose. He stopped when he focused on the end of his E-staff, then looked up and past it. Quiun was at the other end, holding the staff with both hands.

“Well, I’d say that I might manage to do a few more things as a free man, won’t I?” Quiun smiled, trying to hide the fact that he was breathing as hard as Frank was. “And thanks to you, I can simply destroy my case, and there won’t be enough left of its innards for you to get ashes out of. I will go on being the Harlequin, and you’ll still have no proof of any of it.”

“Except for that confession you just made,” Frank stated.

“Oh… how melodramatic. You don’t mean to say you staged all this, just to tape a confession from me? Well, right after I self-destruct my case, I’ll just give you a tap with this, and your recorder will be fried like an egg. You won’t look much better, in fact.” He turned his head slightly towards the sec case. “Emergency order Quadrant-Beta-Smoke, now.”

The case sat there on the box, unmoving. Quiun shifted his eyes to look at the case closer, then back to Frank. Frank was smiling.

“Oh… did I say earlier that case was yours? I meant to say: No, it’s not yours,” he answered Quiun’s unspoken question. “Yours is upstairs, being tested right now. Do I really look that stupid?”

In response, Quiun reached for the power setting on the staff and charged it to maximum, pulled his arm back to strike, and froze. There was no hum from the staff. It was dead.

The instant’s space was all Frank needed to lunge out and plant a fist on Quiun’s jaw. Quiun’s head snapped back, then forward, and he collapsed like a rag doll on the floor.

“I guess I do look that stupid,” Frank said, bending over him. There was no big, red button on Quiun’s coveralls, but Frank was willing to bet that the failsafe was there, somewhere. A quick check revealed a large touchpad under his shirt, just where the simulated red button would have been. He tapped it once. He immediately heard a loud beep nearby, taking him by surprise, and he closed his eyes for a moment… just in case. When satisfied that his eyes, and the rest of him, weren’t going anywhere, he got up and searched for the device.

He found it lodged against a coolant pipe in a nearby switching machine. If it was some kind of explosive, the worst it could have done through its action was cut power to a small section of Midland. On the other hand, he really couldn’t tell for sure exactly what it was supposed to do.

He tapped his com sleeve. “Peacekeeper DeJaye to Captain Henri Gregorson.”

A moment later, a gruff voice barked out of his sleeve. “Frank! It’s Henri. I heard you’re in the power levels… you okay, son?”

“I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Send a few of your rollers down here to pick up Singer Quiun. I’ll be up with a taped confession later.”

Frank could hear other voices, then cheers, go up behind Gregorson’s voice. “Outstanding! I’ve got four of my men on the way down. Stay right there!”

Frank waited until the rollers arrived and carted Quiun off. Then he removed his PRT scanner from its sleeve holder. Using his PRT to get a base reading off the device, Frank scanned the rest of the machine room for any more devices. Being that the room was fairly sizable, this took him about forty minutes. Before he was finished, machine room workers began to trickle back into the vast room, looking a bit sheepish about rushing away from their posts. Frank placed the Harlequin’s device in his empty E-staff holster… it seemed to fit well… and acted to the workers as if he was doing a precautionary check only. Once he was satisfied that there were no more devices planted in the power level, he retrieved the dead E-staff and sec case and headed back for the station.

~

Frank had been as surprised as anyone else to see the rest of the Peacekeepers return to Midland that afternoon. According to Thomas, they had gotten wind of the problems in Midland, and were about through with their investigation anyway, but they had not been able to contact anyone to tell them they were flying back in. Once they arrived, they were surprised to find nothing out of place in Midland, a disgusted Singer Quiun in the roller lockup with a taped confession in Gregorson’s hands, and seemingly the entire population of Midland offering congratulations to a very smug Frank DeJaye.

“Don’t worry. It’ll wear off,” was all Thomas said, after hearing the report.

Thomas gave Frank the rest of the day, and the next day, off, for a job well done, and Frank didn’t bother to argue. He headed straight for his apartment, stripped off the uniform he had rolled all over the machine room floors in, and stepped into the shower. He took a long, leisurely shower, letting the hot water sap the tension from his shoulders and burn the last of the day’s grime off his skin.

He felt much better after the shower, and immediately thought of the best way to take advantage of his good mood. He threw on a light robe, then headed for his wall sec to make a call. Before he reached it, however, his door chime rang out.

Frank paused between sec and door, then smiled. He walked over to the door and opened it. “Lena. I was just thinking about you.”

Lena stood in the door and regarded him in his barely-closed robe. “Were you, now? And exactly what were you thinking about, hm?”

Frank glanced down at his robe, smiled and stepped back from the door. “I just jumped out of the shower. If you saw me fifteen minutes ago, you wouldn’t have recognized me.”

“Actually, I did see you. On MidNet. They showed you bringing Quiun in.” She walked in, closed the door behind her, and slid her arms around Frank. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m great. Especially now.” They kissed, dragging the moment out a long time, until they could feel each other’s arousal growing strong. “Say… didn’t we leave off somewhere the other night?”

Lena smiled, and allowed herself to be led into the bedroom. Once inside, they resumed kissing, Lena pulling Frank’s robe off in seconds and tossing it on the floor. Frank began to undress her, allowing item after item to drop on the floor at their feet. Once she was naked enough for his purposes, he began to move toward the bed.

“Ahem.”

Frank and Lena looked up. The sec screen had engaged, and the Harlequin was on it. It said nothing, but smiled a nasty smile. Then it rotated its torso, revealing a skinny arm where none had ever been seen before. The Harlequin balled up his newfound hand into a fist, drew it back, and let it fly at the sec screen. The fist expanded, like in an old cartoon, to fill the screen just before impact.

The bedroom shook when the sec screen itself shattered with a loud crash, throwing plastic shrapnel across the room. Frank and Lena had automatically pulled back at the sight of a massive fist flying at them, and the explosion hurled them arm-in-arm onto the bed amidst a shower of plastic and optronic bits. After making sure each of them was all right, they slowly lifted their heads to stare at the blown screen on Frank’s wall.

“YOU FLINCHED! HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”

 

Next story: The First Expedition

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