Ethan yelped and stuck his finger in his mouth, sucking on it as his other hand threw down the screwdriver in agitation. His muttered curse words went unheard in the empty room and he glared at the shelving unit that refused to cooperate. “B” output was screwed into “B” input, as seen in figure F, which showed a very happy cartoon man, who was supposed to get across the message “do what the picture says and you will be happy too.” Unfortunately, the man in figure F should have been drawn more like a very tall young man wrestling with the metal shelving, sporting a couple bumps and bruises and a scowl.
No longer interested in appeasing the smugly drawn bastard, Ethan crumpled the instructions up and set about gathering the screws that were scattered on the floor.
He wasn’t sure why he was bothering with the shelves. In total there were twenty-eight units along the walls, most with at least six metal shelves stocked tightly with machinery and components. The man who’d filled the shelves was dead, so there was no need for more storage space. Each item would just collect dust and fall apart slowly on its own where it sat. Ethan just did his best to dust and take care of the machinery, more in respect for his former friend than out of love for the things themselves. Gabriel Arch had been like a father to him, giving him shelter and something constructive to do in a world that easily forgot how much of a child he still was.
Gabriel had needed someone of Ethan’s talents. Standing at six feet and seven inches, he was by far the best ladder food could buy. As a tall child, he was suited for getting the things from the topmost shelves or handling the heavier items. As they both grew older, he became a good set of eyes and hands for more detailed work and a few more bars of common sense to add to what the older man lacked. Now, with Gabriel dead, Ethan was just tall.
Gabriel had often noted his growing lack of shelving space. He’d pointed to spaces in the middle of the room, showing Ethan where he would put another set of shelves if he ever got around to putting them together. His time was too precious to spend on mundane tasks, though.
Ethan made sure he had all the screws and dropped them into a plastic container. He’d try again later.
He set them up high so that they wouldn’t be knocked over and lost, then walked to the door of the laboratory. It was time to eat. He made sure the door locked behind him, listening for the confirmation beep from the electronic panel set beside the door. There were scrapes and burns on it from people trying to break in; just about anything inside except the shelves could go for a lot of creds on the black market or make a man famous if he took credit for its invention. Ethan had spent too long helping and taking care of his provider; he wasn’t going to fail him now, especially not because of the low lifes of No Town.
Leaving the more or less hidden alley where the entrance to the lab was located, Ethan waltzed onto the sidewalk of a busy street and began his walk to the nearest all-he-could-eat restaurant, The Great Wall. He licked his lips, thinking of the sweet and sour pork waiting for him next to the steak and broccoli. The owner knew him very well and was generally sympathetic to his large appetite, only having threatened to kick him out once after eating an entire batch of chicken in one sitting. That had been when he was homeless, though, before meeting and working for Gabriel. Ethan could still eat his weight in any entree, but being the benefactor of a deceased inventor and scientist meant he could at least tip handsomely now.
Standing at the front window to the buffet, Ethan noticed a strange child on his own. He wasn’t one of his orphans, who lived on the streets that sought protection from him. He was looking hungrily through the window at the buffet islands, which were hot and steaming with food.
The boy looked up at him in his reflection on the glass, surprised for a moment and then seeming disinterested a moment after.
Ethan tapped him on the head. “You from around here? What’s your name?”
“Phineas,” the boy answered though his tone was mischievous. “But my large intestine is a liar.”
“Your large intestine?”
Phineas nodded, not moving his gaze from the window. “You can call me Phineas anyway, though. My gut is sometimes very good at bullshitting.”
Ethan smirked at him. He was very much accustomed to homeless children being defensive and paranoid, but here was something he didn’t meet everyday. “I see. I can admire that in an intestine. How about I treat it lunch? Welcome it to the neighborhood and stuff. You too.”
Phineas was very suddenly at his side, tugging at his sleeve in earnest. “They put out fresh trays of that red-flavored meat substitute every half hour. That’s two minutes from now. If we hurry we can call dibs.”
“Oh yeah? Well, you don’t have to tell me twice.” Ethan escorted him inside, letting him run ahead to stake their claim on the next fresh batch while Ethan paid for both of them.
Madam Cho, the woman in charge of the restaurant and the Asian brothel on the floor above, eyed Ethan skeptically for a moment, her black gaze steady and cold. One of her girls cheerfully handed Ethan his cred card back, but he remained at the counter, smiling back through Madam Cho’s stern expression.
“Miss Cho, miss me?”
“I know you like younger ones, E-tan, but even for you, that boy is very small.”
Ethan laughed and smiled wide. “Nah, this one isn’t for tonight. Picked him up in front of your store ‘cause he looked hungry. Seen him before?”
Madam Cho shook her head, still giving Ethan a hard look. “Boy too small for you. You find nice girl, like my girls. I have nice boy, too.”
“I’ll think about it. I’m gonna go put you out of business down here first, though.” He smiled and grabbed a pair of extra silverware before finding a table for himself and his guest. Phineas stood his ground at the buffet, looking ready to pounce on anyone who dared come between him and first dibs. Ethan figured he had enough time to gather a few other things for his meal and got up to do so. When he returned with his plate full, he found Phineas sitting half hidden behind a mountain of steaming beef, a fork in each hand.
On the other side of the table was a similar stack reserved for Ethan.
“Oh wow...you leave any for anyone else?”
“I’ve been waiting a long time to get my hands on a fresh batch. They can wait half an hour,” he responded, digging in with vigor.
Ethan watched food disappear from his plate for a while, then started in on his own. “So, I take it it’s been a while since your last meal?”
“Talk later. Eat now.”
Ethan smirked at the abrupt reply and complied. By the time they were done, Phineas’s stomach was visibly distended. He relaxed back into the booth, using his finger to trace designs on his plate and licking off the sauce.
“Miss Cho is going to ban me if I make a habit out of this.”
Phineas shrugged, his stomach too full to comprehend too much else.
Ethan left a generous tip and ushered Phineas to follow him outside, walking back towards Gabriel’s laboratory. “Got a place to stay tonight, kid?”
“Not really. I found a nice box the other day, but some cat took it from me.”
Ethan shook his head. “That’s a good way to get yourself abducted or killed. Tell you what, you can stay at this place I got for the night and tomorrow I’ll introduce you to the gang and you can chill with them from now on.”
“Gang?” Phineas looked disinterested. “No thanks. I work better alone.”
“Alone and homeless don’t work, kid. Everyone’s in a gang around here. You end up going up against one of them just by yourself and you’re gonna be lucky if you can walk away from it. Trust me, okay? I’ll make sure you get set up with the right kind of people.”
Phineas shook his head again. “I’m not staying here long enough to have to worry about that stuff. I’ve got things to see first.”
“Whatever. Either way, you stay with me tonight. Got it?”
Phineas nodded. His whole body seemed to be drooping sleepily now that he was well fed.
Ethan shook his head, wishing the kid were more street smart. When they reached the lab Ethan placed his hand against the access panel and waited for Phineas to precede him. Dragging his small feet inside, Phineas activated the light sensor and the room was illuminated by the glow of the florescent lights.
It was as though the hunger that had seized him in the restaurant had returned. Phineas’s eyes went wide and he ran to the shelves, peering at the devices as though he couldn’t take them in fast enough.
“Just be careful you don’t break anything, okay? Don’t play with anything on the shelves.”
“What’s this do? And this one? Oh wow...is this what I think it is?” Phineas climbed up the shelving unit to get the item of his interest. It creaked a little under the additional weight, but Phineas was hardly a strain on its carrying capacity. He grabbed the item in question and jumped down and scurried to a workbench with it in his hands.
Ethan watched him, not sure if he should be horrified or not. “Hey, you don’t know what you’re doing. Give that to me so I can put it back.”
“No way. I’ve always wanted to make one of these. I can’t believe you’ve got a prototype here.” Phineas picked it up and eyed it in wonder for a second. “Do you know what this is?”
Ethan shook his head, coming closer to make sure he wasn’t about to drop it or anything.
Phineas held it up high and waved it around a bit making bleeps and boops to further illustrate what he meant in his pantomime. Then he added, as though it helped in any way to clarify what he meant, “You know. For kids!”
Ethan frowned. “You really should give that back to me.”
Phineas picked up a screwdriver from the surface of the workbench and began to make adjustments to the device in his hands. Before Ethan could take the tools away from him, the machine began to make beeping noises, then rolled out of Phineas’s grasp and began to spin circles on the tabletop.
They both watched as it spun around like a top and sang to itself in electronic sounds. Phineas sang along, though the words he used were gibberish to Ethan.
“What is that?”
Phineas smiled. “It’s a ‘Sing and Spin’. The one I wanted to make was more like a dreidl, but this one is nice too. I can take it apart and use its motor to make a four-sided version.”
“You make things?” Ethan watched in amazement as the top danced on the tabletop.
“Mostly toys. Machines like this have workings and they speak to me.” Phineas pulled the device closer and switched it off, rolling it around in his hands for a minute to admire the work that had gone into it. “Who made this?”
“A friend of mine. He’s dead now.”
“So who uses all these tools and plays with all the machines?”
Phineas shook his head. “Machines exist to be made useful. If they’re not being tinkered with, then they can get jealous and bitter. You should let me play here.”
“I don’t know if that’s what Gabriel would have wanted. I mean, these are his things,” Ethan explained.
“Must have been a really smart guy to have made all these things,” Phineas remarked, walking the top back to its shelf. “I’m a smart guy, too. And it’s not like I’ll be here all that long. I can’t do any harm. Just a couple days? I promise I won’t break anything.”
Ethan could feel in his guy that he was going to regret this. But maybe he had a liar for an intestine, too. “Okay. You can tinker for a couple days. But if you break anything that’s it, okay?”
Phineas’s smile was large as he hugged the top to his chest. “You’ve got a deal.”