Rabbit had just settled onto the seat of his bike and was adjusting his goggles over his eyes when his phone began to ring. He looked at his pocket, considering whether or not he wanted to answer, and was glad that this particular phone had come with a few normal ringing sounds so that he didn’t have to use something that sounded like it should have been the theme song for a bad cartoon show.
When the phone rang a second time, he pulled it out and checked the name of the caller, though his goggles made it difficult to read the screen. On the third ring, he answered.
“Rabbit? It’s Billie.” The woman’s voice had the matter of fact tone of a focused businesswoman.
“I know.” Rabbit, on the other hand, sounded somewhat bored.
“I have a problem. Would you mind coming by?”
“What kind of problem?” A million possibilities concerning the sort of problem the mistress of a brothel might be facing ran through his head. He dismissed all of them as implausible, but could not completely put any of them past her. He’d known Billie and many of her employees too long to put anything at all past them.
“What kind of problem do you think?” Her tone was sharp, but not unkind, as though she was only playing at being angry.
He leaned back in his seat and looked up at the buildings above him. The lenses of his goggles tinted the whole world green. “Fine. When do you want me?”
There was a pause and a muffled exchange on the other end of the line, which Rabbit had the distinct feeling had absolutely nothing to do with him or the conversation Billie was having for him. He waited.
“Now. Is now good?”
“How about next year?”
“Great, see you in a few.” She hung up, and he gave his phone a look that was caught between annoyance and affection. Trust Billie to completely ignore him, whether he was serious or not.
He checked the time, then put his phone away. He could get to Billie’s in under ten minutes, take care of whatever problem she was having, run Alan’s errand for him, and hopefully still get home in time to get some work of his own done. It would have been nice if she’d told him what it was she needed from him so that he could gauge the time it would take and probably already have a partial solution for it by the time he got to her; he supposed this was her way of taking control of the situation even though she was the one asking him for help, and he supposed that if she weren’t able or didn’t wish to be in control at all times, she wouldn’t be in her line of work at all.
He stayed in his half-reclining position, taking in the green world his goggles showed him. Making Billie wait when she wanted urgency from him was high on his list of “Things that Amuse Rabbit.” It closely followed “wake Alan up at ungodly hours.”
For a few minutes, he toyed with the idea of picking up some food on his way over, partly so that he could have some lunch and partly as a peace offering for making her wait, but he discarded the idea. Billie was the type who would turn her nose up at take-out and he wasn’t particularly hungry himself. He never was, lately. He had no idea why this had happened and he couldn’t remember when it had started, but he’d lost his appetite completely. And not only was he never hungry, nothing had a taste anymore. Anything he put in his mouth seemed to turn to ashes, which made eating a chore that he was unwilling to do multiple times a day. These days, he usually just choked down some sort of protein drink every morning and avoided eating unless he had to for the rest of the day. How he managed to retain any sort of muscle mass--or good health in general--was beyond him, and he had the sense not to question it.
It was easiest to chalk the changes in his appetite up to prolonged drug use, even though he knew that they were not the sort of after effects he should that occurred after two clean years. Though Rabbit wasn’t the sort to let things go unexplained, he was often guilty of using the most convenient explanation he came across. It was a way of keeping himself from learning uncomfortable truths; a mechanism that allowed him to function without falling prey to paranoia and anxiety.
His gloves creaked; his hands, clasped behind his head, would have been shaking if he hadn’t been clenching them so tightly. This sort of reflection was getting him no where--or, at least, not anywhere that he wanted to be--and thinking about things that he didn’t want to think about, even indirectly, was more than counter-productive.
He heaved himself upright and gunned his engine before taking off. Billie’s was only a short ride away from Alan’s shop. The two were similarly out of place in Solace’s residential ring, though very indicative of the needs of those people who lived out their entire tedious lives without leaving the confines of a few square miles.
Of the world’s nine population centers, Solace rated the best as far as infrastructure, urban planning and social services went. Any given Solacian was within fifteen minutes of any civil or emergency services they needed--closer, if they lived in the Core. The city had created a very safe life for most of its residents, but also made for a terribly dull one.
A good infrastructure hadn’t kept the city from developing an unacknowledged, but perhaps not unintentional caste system, though. The system was based on location and location was linked to economic status--where ever one was born was where he or she could count on remaining; those born in the Core stayed rich, the middle ring continued to get along, and those on the Fringe barely survived, most of the time. Breaking into another economic class was difficult and usually worked in only one direction: downward. Though a few in each generation usually managed to claw their way up to the next rung of the ladder, but they had to fight hard to earn their new status, and even harder to hang onto it. For most people, it was too much work--too hard to change the way things were, and so very easy to remain static; a person might not have anything to show by staying in their place, but they didn’t have anything to lose by it either. Rabbit knew well enough that the system could be cruel to anyone who didn’t play along, and was not very rewarding to anyone who did.
Of course, there were a few system-beating anomalies--the Surge, for instance. Though no one was really sure enough of his origins to know if he was a bored rich kid who’d been willing to pay the price for the surge coat he was named after, or if he had started out as a street kid, stolen the technology from some unsecured, forgotten military warehouse and used it to pay back the people who lived on the backs of their fellow citizens. There were a million different ideas floating around about him, and Rabbit was beyond the age where he followed along with any of them--that the Surge’s existence was widely accepted and that he’d become a household name satisfied Rabbit.
The city blurred past him so fast that he hardly had time to recognize his surroundings before they were gone. His was one of the few non-commercial vehicles on Solace’s roads, and he didn’t bother sticking to safe speeds or following the suggested traffic safety precautions. He wove between lumbering delivery trucks and didn’t often bother to stop at intersections no matter how heavy cross traffic was. His navigation techniques verged on the suicidal; he just took risks and couldn’t make himself care about the consequences.
He supposed that was how he’d ended up in whatever accident had left him with a gap in his memory and a scar that twisted from his navel, around his back and up to the top of his rib cage on the opposite side of his body. He had only a vague idea of an accident, and no memory whatsoever of the specific circumstances. He couldn’t fathom how he was alive at all, but he didn’t think about it too much, especially not in transit. The whole thing, especially the not knowing, gave him the shakes.
Skidding to a stop in front of Billie’s brothel, Rabbit looked upward, lowering his goggles to hang around his neck. It took up two floors of a building that was smaller than most of its neighbors, and it was well-known and well-liked in the area. Also, very lucrative for Billie and her employees, who included not only the men and women involved in the sex-trade, but also a housekeeping staff who cleaned up after the other employees and their customers, cooked for the live-in employees, and did routine maintenance on both the building’s original fixtures and the later additions Billie had installed. Overall, the business was a very respectable one--the facilities and employees were clean, and the latter very choosy about who they would serve. This respectability gave it a better client base than most similar businesses, especially those run on the outskirts of the city.
Rabbit put his kickstand down and made sure that his bike would be safe while he was gone, before entering the building and taking the elevator up fifteen or so floors to the first level of the brothel. Unlike most in her profession, Billie allowed anyone to enter the first floor of her business. The second floor was reachable only by a private elevator that ran between the two floors she owned; the building’s main elevators couldn’t get to the second floor of her business at all. This was to protect the privacy of her live-in employees, whose rooms were located on the second floor, and of her more kinky customers, whose playground was also located there. The first floor had a few offices, a kitchen, laundry facilities, and then the rooms that were for the “normal” customers who didn’t require anything too extreme.
Rabbit himself had only been to the second floor once, to take care of a computer error for a piece of equipment that was run through a console behind a two way mirror. He’d drunk himself to sleep that night, trying to stave off a panic attack.
He stepped into a reception area, where he was greeted by Anne, the receptionist. And Anne was strictly just a receptionist--she’d told him so on a number of occasions, without his having to ask.
“She’s been waiting for you. Quite impatiently, too.” Anne smiled at him and pressed a button on the underside of the counter to unlock the door to the left of the reception area; the door to the right went to where the fun was. Or so he was told. He’d never gone through that door, himself.
Rabbit nodded in acknowledgement and proceeded through the doorway to Billie’s office. He saw her through the glass panel to the side of the door, her smooth, heart-shaped face twisted in a beautiful frown at her handheld data pad as she sat behind her desk. He didn’t bother to knock before entering, but paused just inside; a young man was sitting in one of the chairs across the desk from her. A strange sort of tension hit him and froze him in place. It seared through him; made his mind was buzz like something had come loose, but after a moment, it settled back into place, allowing him to relax as though nothing had happened. Rabbit decided to forget it and looked at Billie, who was eyeing him.
“Took you long enough.”
“You’re lucky I came at all.” He walked around her desk to stand beside her.
She smiled. Veiled hostility was their way of showing fondness for each other. “Listen, I have to go take care of an...issue upstairs. I wrote out a list of the problems here.”
She handed it to him and he frowned--there were at least ten items on the paper she handed him, and half of them were an almost illegible mess of loopy handwriting. He didn’t comment, but glanced from the list to the young man on the other side of the desk.
He was asleep, his disarrayed brown hair framing a face that looked very young to be in Billie’s office.
Billie followed his gaze. “Oh. Don’t worry about, Caine. He came to ask me about tomorrow’s schedule, and he dozed off. Cute kid--falls asleep whenever he stays still for too long, it seems like. Doesn’t really bother anyone though; he’s got quite a few admirers among our clients.”
Rabbit nodded. He remembered the young man vaguely; he’d probably been with Billie for a year or so. Looking at Caine, he could feel the buzzing in his head again, but it felt as though it was just a normal vibration in his body. As though, even though he’d never felt it before, it belonged there, and should have always been there. At least that made it easier to disregard.
“Anyway, I’ll let you get to work.” Billie’s voice jolted Rabbit, as though he’d been half asleep himself. She was already at the door, smiling at him with a pleasantness that was marred by the sly tilt of one eyebrow. “And if you’re interested, you know his name now, so you can make a reservation.”
She left before Rabbit could form a retort, and in her absence, he settled for a loud sigh. She knew, through numerous offers and rejections, that he wasn’t interested in any her employees, but she seemed to feel a burning need to comment whenever he looked at one of them long enough to show that he was, in fact, a human being, capable of appreciating beauty. Though in Caine’s case, it wasn’t so much beauty as boyish cuteness. Nothing that would make him stare, and knew he had been without meaning to.
Rabbit settled into Billie’s chair and set to work first deciphering her handwriting and then tackling the problems she’d listed for him. Most of them had the same source: a malfunctioning security system. Once he’d addressed that root problem, the issues she’d been having mostly corrected themselves.
He ran a few checks to make sure that they had resolved themselves, then sat back in Billie’s chair; breaking off his concentration, he felt himself being watched. His green eyes snapped up, narrow and dangerous, and his entire demeanor shifted from relaxation to tension in only the amount of time it took his eyes to move.
Cool eyes looked back at him, one gray, the other brown. Since Rabbit’s arrival, Caine hadn’t shifted at all in the chair he was curled up in, except, at some point, to open his incongruous eyes. He smiled at Rabbit’s tension, expression serene.
“When the Healer touches you,” he began, his eyelids drooping, “you’ll both learn your true nature. It will be the end for you, and the end will be where everything begins.”
Rabbit stared at him, silent, his pretense of hostility slipping. The buzzing had spread into his arms and hands, and it felt like a thousand needles were pricking up and down his spine. Even so, the sensation hadn’t lost the feeling of familiarity--the feeling that even though it hadn’t always been there and that he wasn’t generating it himself, it belonged to him.
Caine’s smile was tranquil as he uncurled himself and stretched. He was taller than he’d looked initially, and when he stood, Rabbit could see that he was a good four inches to a half foot taller than himself.
“Sorry if I’ve disturbed you.”
It took Rabbit a moment to pull his scattered thoughts together enough to form a reply. “You haven’t. I just finished up.”
“You’re very focused on your work. It was fun to watch you.”
Rabbit blinked, deaf to Caine’s informal words of parting as the young man slid out of the office. How long had he been watched without noticing? He sat very still, his palms pressed flat against the surface of Billie’s desk; cold spread through his insides, and he couldn’t find an explanation for why that was, except that it must be just another of the many baffling facets of anxiety.
Feeling off balance, he decided that he would contact Billie about payment later, and left without waiting for her to return.