When Rabbit arrived at the shop, Alan was behind the counter. Quinn, apparently, had slept in this time. Bad dreams, Alan told him as he dove at the box of donuts. Rabbit let him take them, and while Alan was distracted, passed out the drinks, setting Quinn’s aside. The excuse seemed odd to Rabbit. He perched on a stool behind the counter.
“What do you mean?”
“He had bad dreams.” Alan shrugged.
“Repeating yourself isn’t the same as an explanation.”
“It’s the only explanation I can give.” He craned his neck to look into the shop. “You! Yeah, you shoving that Remember-All charm in your pocket. It’s way too early for me to have this guy here kick your ass, but I’ll do it.”
The girl in question turned her back on them as though she hadn’t heard and slid the trinket into her other pocket. Rabbit thought he heard her mumble that it was past noon, and that wasn’t early at all.
“But he doesn’t sleep,” he insisted when Alan turned back to him.
“He does something close enough, like a trance. Doesn’t mean he can’t dream, though.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” Alan smiled at him and didn’t bother to brush the powdered sugar from his nose.
Rabbit nursed a plain glazed donut. He had realized long ago that ALan thought of everything in terms of possession. He was self-centered with his time and emotion, stingy with his creds and protective of anyone or anything he had decided was his. He was also convinced that he knew better than everyone else by virtue of the fact that he was older than everyone else.
“Eat that donut or give it to me.”
Rabbit’s eyebrow rose. “At least you woke up on time today.” He did not take a bite of the donut.
“Because Quinn had bad dreams, and I didn’t have to be up late resurrecting idiots last night. That reminds me, I need to get Yoko to sell me some essences.”
“You have his contact info?” Rabbit was surprised. “I thought he just came and went as he pleased.”
“Oh, he does. But if I needed to, I could find him.”
“Do you need to?”
“No.” Alan looked askance at him. “I never need a pissy midget scaring away my customers--”
“That’s what you’re here for.”
Alan ignored him with practiced ease. “--I’m just saying I could get him if I wanted to.”
“But you don’t want to.”
“Me wanting to or not wanting to is beside the point.”
“Then what is the point?”
“That I can.”
“...Right.” Rabbit took a bite of his donut finally. Alan, watching, looked a little smug. “Are you going to?”
“No. I don’t need spare essences that badly.”
“Apparently you do, if you use seven at a go.”
Alan made a face at him. “I told you, that was experimental.”
“You’re sure it’s not that you can’t keep good track of your stock?”
“That’s Quinn’s job, not mine. Take it up with him. See how many limbs you have left when you’re done.”
Rabbit smiled. He doubted the demon would ever hurt him, even if he was in a bad mood. “Whatever. I need to get going. Today’s job is in the Core.” He slid off of his stool and put the rest of his donut back in the box.
Alan pretended to pout. Badly. “You never stay very long anymore.”
“I have a lot of work to do.”
“Oh sure. I haven’t heard that one before.”
“I doubt that. Save some for Quinn, okay?”
“Then maybe I’m not the one who should be paying attention to how many limbs I have left.”
“Ass.” Alan’s sulk became more pronounced. “Quinn loves me.”
Rabbit smiled again, raised a hand in informal parting and made his way to the door, noting that the shoplifter had left with her memory charms while Alan had been distracted. He decided not to mention it to his friend; he didn’t want to deal with the tirade that would ensue if he did.
He took the tram most of the way to Maxwell’s, and walked the remaining distance. Taking his bike through the Core or even near the Core was more annoying than it was worth. Most of the streets were considered pedestrian zones, and any deliveries that had to be made by truck were made at ground level to various small U-trams installed just for the purpose of shifting cargo around the levels, and then sent where ever they needed to go from there.
Rabbit breezed into the lobby ten or so minutes before his appointment. The man at the front desk looked skeptical.
“I’m here to see Mr. Maxwell. I’m doing a job for him.”
“Then you should probably go to the staff entrance.”
Rabbit was unruffled. “I’m not normal staff.”
“Did you just forget your entrance card? Is that it?”
Rabbit eyed the man, but was saved the effort of a scathing retort. “It’s alright, Doug. Nicholas is expected. I’ll take him up.”
Rabbit turned while the concierge was muttering a reply and joined the speaker near the elevators.
“After you, Nicholas.”
Rabbit stepped inside and watched the doors close. “Thank you, Mr. Torim.”
“Ashe. I’ve never shown you the respect of calling you by your surname, so I don’t expect you to do the same to me.” The assistant smiled. Rabbit wasn’t sure if the expression was to soften his words or to add a little more stab to them. He wasn’t even sure if he’d meant what he’d said as an insult in the first place.
Ashe’s smile made Rabbit think of plastic. “Mr. Maxwell wants you to go to the surveillance hub, as I told you yesterday. He’s been having some issues with various records disappearing, losing pieces or not recording in the first place.”
“Indeed. Parts of the files will disappear or become somehow corrupted, making them unviewable.”
“What he needs is a computer tech.”
“What he needs is someone he can trust.”
Rabbit scoffed. “And what makes him think that’s me?”
“As I said yesterday on the phone, you can’t or won’t go to the police about anything you might see. You’re safe.”
“But I’m not a computer technician. What if I can’t fix the problem?”
Ashe laughed and the elevator doors slid open. “What are computer systems but numbers, Nicholas? And it’s like you always say...”
“Numbers always make sense,” Rabbit finished for him, stepping out of the elevator. “So this is the secret floor, hm?”
“Indeed. Mr. Maxwell is waiting in the records room. This way.”
“Hardware isn’t numbers, Ashe.”
Ashe looked over his shoulder, his face a mask of pleasant bemusement. “I’m sure that you can narrow down the problem and let us know if it’s hardware. And if that’s the case, we’ll take the necessary steps.”
Ashe smiled and faced front again. Shortly he opened a door and ushered Rabbit through. He didn’t enter the room himself, but stood in the doorway to announce the newcomer.
“Nicholas Rabbit, sir.”
“Thank you, Ashe.” James Maxwell sat in front of a terminal, surrounded by monitors, each one divided into quarters, each quarter flashing through separate video feeds. His public face of charisma and energy was no where in sight--before Rabbit sat a serious, borderline obsessed man. A voyeur in a womb. “Right on time, as usual, Rabbit.”
Rabbit shrugged. “You’re paying me to be here, Mr. Maxwell. Of course I came on time.”
“Of course, of course.” Maxwell vacated his seat. A vague movement of his hand indicated that Rabbit should take his place. “I’ve pulled up a few examples of the problems I’m having. Be aware, though, that there has been extensive damage to my files, beyond the few clips I’ve prepared for you.”
Rabbit sat, glad that he wouldn’t have to wade through hours of boring or unsavory footage to find the problem. Maxwell stood behind him; the door clicked closed, indicating that Ashe had left on some other business. Under Maxwell’s eye, Rabbit sat through the clips prepared for him. A few looked quite old—one was of Maxwell’s red-haired son, but parts of the recording were filled with static and the images were often pixelated in odd colors. Another had apparently had parts of a third file, much older than it and from a different area of the compound, spliced in. This one also contained Maxwell’s son, and another boy some years older in between shots of the kitchen staff cleaning. He leaned forward to catch the older child’s face and blinked when he recognized it: it was the idiot from the auction a couple weeks prior. Much younger in this video, of course, but the same, and staring with Maxwell’s face. And Rabbit had hoped the brother named Phineas Maxwell had just been a coincidence.
The screen went black and behind him, Maxwell sighed. “On top of that, whole files are disappearing, and new ones aren’t being recorded properly or at all.”
“I’ll take a look.”
Maxwell watched from behind him, no doubt bored out of his mind, while Rabbit ran through system checks to try to locate the source of the problem. Over an hour later, he swiveled his chair around to look at Maxwell.
“Well, it’s not your system that’s the problem, and I doubt it’s the hardware.”
“Then what is it?” The politician was becoming impatient.
“It’s an outside problem. Or an inside one.”
“What does that mean?”
“Someone else is screwing with you.”
“One of my employees? That isn’t possible. Only Ashe and I have access to this room, and even Ashe can’t get in unless the door logs that I’m either with him or already inside.”
Rabbit never ceased to be amazed by this man’s paranoia. “It could be a hacker. Or...”
Rabbit shrugged. “Or the Surge, maybe.”
Maxwell paused and turned his head a little, looking at Rabbit out of the corners of his eyes. “The Surge” was not a name one dropped casually, and Rabbit’s demeanor was nothing if not casual.
“Can you be sure it’s not just a hacker? What would make you think it was...him?”
“The Surge is a hacker, Mr. Maxwell. Hacking is at the very core of what he does. He just does it from inside the machine rather than from outside in a remote location.” Maxwell looked skeptical, so he added, “Or so we’re told.”
“It seems far-fetched,” Maxwell insisted, though his serious expression made it clear that he was considering it. “Why would he attack me?”
“Better question is ‘why wouldn’t he?’”
Maxwell deliberated, then nodded. “I see your point. I’ll look into this. In the meantime, I need as much of this data recovered as possible.”
“I don’t have the time right now.”
“When will you? If we wait too long, it may not be recoverable at all, right?”
“Right. But I have a bigger job I’m trying to take care of. I’ll call you when I have some time.”
Maxwell nodded and gestured at the door. “You can go, then.”
Rabbit had no wish to hang around, so he did as he was told. He was somewhat relieved that there had been no “witty banter” filled with bad puns on his name, but the lack thereof only indicated how serious the situation was. Or at least, how seriously Maxwell was taking the situation.
Rabbit showed himself to the elevator, glad to leave and with a great many things on his mind.