Chapter 6


After playing for almost a week, Phineas reflected that most people would call it “working.” He had invented at least seven things in as many days and finished as many half-started projects; he had cleaned and reorganized the lab, and fixed the shelves Ethan had been pretending to put together. He’d met all the workers at the Chink and the Great Wall, and the kids Ethan could round up and keep still enough to introduce. They’d all been properly impressed by his inventions, and he’d let the kids have a few of the more fun ones.

Now, left to his own devices long enough to wander away in boredom, he’d been wondering what measures his father had taken to find him. He’d watched the news on the tiny hook up at Madam Cho’s (she insisted on the “madam” part, which was what Phineas liked about her), and there wasn’t any public search going on. That meant his father was keeping the information secret, which meant a private investigator, which obviously meant Julian. Anyone else couldn’t be trusted to keep the Maxwell secrets secret, and despite his posturing, Julian was a pushover for demands made by their father, especially when those demands were accompanied by ludicrous amounts of cred that he couldn’t possibly turn down.

Phineas reflected on all of this as he ignored the cat-scratch pain and muted jack hammering of the tattoo gun at his back. It was a Moebius trefoil knot made of multi-colored gears, centered between his shoulder blades--the perfect spot to keep it from being easily spotted by the people in his life who would desperately disapprove. He continued to muse, sitting motionless despite the burning sensation in his back. Ethan had handed him a cred card a couple days into his stay, explaining that he had other things he had to do sometimes, so if Phineas needed anything he should go pick it up.

This led to Phineas’s decision that he needed science tattooed on his body. That would probably in turn lead to his father’s decision to disown him, which was fine with Phineas, really. Then he could go back to his mother and the rest of his Jewish family, or come back to make more toys in Ethan’s lab.

He supposed he was lucky the girl behind him hadn’t carded him, though he couldn’t imagine any other reason than because he was holding money in his hand and was more than ready to spend it--he certainly didn’t look or act twenty, except perhaps in his stoicism toward the pain. The girl doing the tattoo didn’t seem impressed, and was chatting amiably at him over the window-rattling music blasting from the stereo. She didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t paying attention.

Phineas was finding that he liked No Town more and more. The people here were themselves and not so much pretending to be something else--and those that were pretending were so bad at it that he didn’t think they counted. Everything was smaller and closer together, more suited for someone of his size, and the food was good and cheap, and if he ate at the Great Wall, there was a girl from Xifeng who was shorter than him and looked at him out of the corners of her eyes in a way that made him blush without knowing why. Besides that, there were things to make and stories to hear and tons of abandoned and forgotten places to explore and crawl around in.

“’Kay.” The girl behind him straightened, setting down her gun and peeling off her gloves. “You’re done, love.”

Phineas slid off the padded chair and waited patiently while she taped cellophane over his new illustration-wound, and then pulled his shirt on over it.

“You know how to take care of it?” He turned to face her, finding her toying with one of the three rings through her lower lip.

“Keep it clean, huh?”

She flashed him a grin and a thumbs up. “You got it, love. You need any touch ups, you come back to me and I’ll fix you right up.”

Phineas nodded and held up his own thumb. “I will do that.”

The chime of the door as he pulled it open to exit sounded a little hollow. Was this one of those things teenagers did to rebel against controlling parents? Was he doing this just to piss off his dad? He guessed that with most kids his age, that would be the case, but he was certainly not most kids his age. He had no reason to want to anger his father and no reason to rebel when he got almost everything he wanted most of the time, despite all the rules he kept running up against. No, this wasn’t rebellion--this was just illustrative of his great love for science and mechanics. When his father finally noticed and began to be angry, he’d just point out that it was better and much less noticeable than his original wish to replace his own eyes with cybernetic ones, and that would hopefully appease the old villain.

For now, perhaps, lunch. He stepped outside and the door swung to behind him.

“There you are!”

Phineas turned to face the voice, blinking in the sunlight. A tall specter came through the sun haze toward him and eventually turned into Ethan, who stopped in front of him, fists planted on his narrow hips.

“I’ve been looking for you for hours,” he scolded, while Phineas continued to blink up at him.

”I got bored,” he said by way of explanation. “Can we go get lunch now?”

His request for food was ignored. “I left you alone for less than ten minutes. Hell, I didn’t even leave you alone, I just turned my back.”

“Yes, and I got bored.”

“So you came to get a tattoo?”

“Well, that’s not what I left to do, but that’s what happened.”

Ethan scowled at him, and Phineas could see him working through what to say about this. He finally settled for, “Let’s go back to the lab, and we’ll order take out.”

Phineas nodded and looked up and down the street, ready to lead the way. Then he remembered that he didn’t know which direction he’d come from to begin with. It just seemed appropriate that he lead and Ethan follow.

A hand clasped his shoulder and he turned to look at Ethan, who was pointing toward a walkway between buildings. With a nod Phineas started in that direction with Ethan beside him to give directions when necessary.

“Don’t you know it’s not safe to go out alone around here?” Ethan asked, stepping over a pile of garbage.

Phineas skirted around a trash bin. “Why wouldn’t it be safe?”

“Well, there’s all kinds of weirdoes living around here. You could get stolen or killed or something.”

Phineas cocked his head, nonplussed. Ethan had explained to him that he helped take care of the local street kids in order to save them from those very things, so it made sense that his concern would extend to Phineas now. But Ethan didn’t stay with the kids all the time, so he couldn’t possibly protect them at all times.

Unless they were quantum kids and they only existed because Phineas and Ethan were looking at them, and when the two of them walked away, the kids ceased to be. Phineas hadn’t thought of that before. He hoped he hadn’t given his new toys away to a bunch of non-existent quantums.

When he didn’t answer, Ethan sighed. “You’re really smart, you know? So why is it you’re not smart enough to be afraid of anything?”

Phineas looked up at him, affronted, and almost tripped over a crate. “I’m afraid of things that are real and in front of me, not of possibilities and probabilities. That’s a waste of time and energy.”

“You’re some kid, you know that?”

“Not some kid, but me.”

Ethan smiled at him, but apparently it wasn’t that easy to get off the hook. “If you’re not afraid of things you can’t see, why do you insist we sleep with the lights on?”

He probably meant to tease Phineas with that question, but Phineas considered it a legitimate inquiry. “I’m afraid of the dark. And I can see the dark, if there’s no light.”

Ethan made a face at him.

“You can’t know what the dark you can see is hiding,” Phineas explained.

“I thought you said you weren’t afraid of possibilities and probabilities,” Ethan interrupted, “and anything hiding in the dark is only a possibility.”

“This is the exception to that rule.”

“So really, what you’re afraid of is not knowing.”

Phineas scowled and decided to ignore that comment altogether. “The dark changes things. Say there’s a pile of stuff in the corner when the light’s on. When you turn the light off, though, there’s nothing to say that pile of stuff didn’t turn into something else--something less harmless.”

“Things don’t just change because you can’t see them,” Ethan pointed out.

“Not always. But they can.”

They came out of the narrow alley onto a main street. Phineas recognized their surroundings right away; the Great Wall was two blocks core-ward and around the corner, and the lab was a couple blocks beyond that.

Ethan sighed again as they turned in that direction. “Look. These buildings didn’t just disappear because you were gone for a few hours.”

“I could see them from the distance. My mind could have just filled in a blank space with what it thought was supposed to be there.”

“Well, the lab and the Chink didn’t disappear. Miss Cho and all the girls didn’t just cease to exist because you left, and they won’t start to exist just because you came back.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

“I was there!”

Phineas stopped and looked up at him. “The smallest particles we’re aware of in matter move in ways that can’t be predicted. If you know where it is, you can’t know how fast it’s moving, and if you know how fast it’s moving, you can’t know where it is. Those particles make up electrons, and electrons make up atoms, and atoms are mostly empty space. If everything we’re aware of is made up of those atoms, which are mostly empty, and atoms are made up of things we can’t predict or even really understand, then there’s no telling what’s real and what isn’t, or when it’s real and when it isn’t.”

“I...think that what you’re saying is a little over my head.” Ethan’s grin was sheepish.

Phineas started to walk again. Maybe it wasn’t worth explaining himself. Ethan was decently intelligent and Phineas didn’t really think that what he was saying was beyond his companion’s grasp.

Maybe he was making things too complicated. It was possible that if he tried to take the world at face value and accept that he didn’t qualitatively or quantitatively affect the reality he lived in, he would get along more easily.

He shook his head as they turned the corner and came in sight of the Great Wall and the Chink’s garish lights. They wouldn’t be turned on for several more hours. He wondered if the girl who his eyes always followed worked up there too. He hoped not.

Maybe Ethan couldn’t quantify him. The tall young man didn’t seem to mind--he was walking with his hands in his pockets, whistling tunelessly, as though he’d put the whole conversation out of his mind and was just looking forward to the take out he was going to order. Madam Cho’s workers in the restaurant and the brothel didn’t seem to mind his strangeness, and the street kids thought he was great fun. Maybe he would never be quantifiable to anyone. Maybe it didn’t matter.