“Care package for Cho Xiaoping Jing-Jin,” Ethan called into the speaker by the side of the door. He almost had to kneel down to be low enough to be heard clearly through the box that only came up to his chest. He waited for a second, heard the click of the door lock disengaging, then stood up, cradling the package in his arms against his stomach.
The door opened wide and a small Chinese man poked his head out with a strange smirk on his face. “You know, I’ve never heard a big white guy pronounce that correctly before.”
“Your aunt made me practice. Said I’d get a big tip if I got it right.”
“Right. Here’s a tip: don’t take jobs from a Chinese Madam if you want to get paid. They’re cheap bitches.” Jin gave him a large smile and held his hands out for his package.
Resigned, Ethan handed it over. “Yeah, I know. The only reason I’m here is because I got her all pissed off. She won’t let me back in the buffet until I make amends. Riding that damn tram all the way here ought to do it.”
“Well, come on inside, I guess. You can get a quick bite before you head out or something. Last thing I need is you telling Aunty I’m a penny pinching asshole. She might get all proud of me or something and then it’s all down hill from there.” Jin stepped aside, watching the large man duck under the doorway and enter the headquarters of the Protectors of Antiquity. He locked the door behind them and showed him to a waiting area that was more a living room for the people living and working inside. When Ethan sat down on the couch it seemed like children’s furniture; Jin whistled under his breath and plopped down in a chair against a different wall, tearing into his package.
“She said it needed to be hand delivered because it wouldn’t make it through mail security checks,” Ethan noted, leaning forward with interest. “The hell kind of stuff did she send you?”
“Oh please, oh please, oh please, oh please,” Jin chanted as he wrestled the box open, ignoring Ethan. He practically screamed with delight and hugged the box once he’d seen what was inside. Ethan craned his neck to see.
Canned food. A box full of small cans of food. Ethan made a face. “Those had better be drugs disguised as food or I’m going to be pretty pissed. The hell kind of food can’t get through security?”
“The kind that might accidentally get lost in the mail” Jin said, ecstasy written on his face. He took a can out and kissed it. “Genuine imported crab meat from the water plantations in Xifeng. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find this, even in the core? You have to be real big shot to afford it.”
“How the hell does Miss Cho get it then?”
“Because it’s the kind of thing that accidentally gets lost in the mail. And she just happens to know the kind of people who make accidents happen.” Jin was rubbing the can against his face, purring like a satisfied kitten. “Oh my god, if I could marry crab meat I would and then kick the ass of every man who tried to get a piece of my woman.”
“Guess that means you won’t be sharing any of that with me then.”
Jin glared at him, his temperament completely changed. “Oh hell no, delivery boy. This is mine. You can have whatever the hell else you might want in the kitchen, but you touch my crab and I will sell your testicles over the CommNet.”
Ethan got the message. He stood up and wandered to find the kitchen, more than willing to make a debt-sized dent in their rations before he had to head out. He still had one more mission before he could board the tram back home and be allowed back into the buffet, and that was to find Phineas. And that wasn’t going on an empty stomach.
Madam Cho had been plenty disappointed in him after he’d told her what had happened the last time he had seen the small redhead. Somehow, he’d thought she would be sympathetic to him, seeing as he’d been used; turned out he was quite mistaken, and he hadn‘t been allowed back into the buffet or the brothel since. Stubbornness had kept him from trying to patch things up for a while but the smell of her cooking and the fine boned beauties at the counter made it harder and harder to remain resolute. He’d caved, looked Phineas up on the CommNet, and once he’d told Madam Cho his plan, had been given the added job of finding her nephew and delivering the package. It wasn’t exactly on the way, but a free meal was a free meal no matter how he looked at it. Besides, if it allowed him to regain entry to The Great Wall and The Chink, it was worth the detour.
On the kitchen counter was a large box that smelled of doughnuts. Ethan crossed to it quickly, bypassing at the note on the top in favor of opening it up. Ethan hovered over the box, eating everything that remained inside. He was licking his fingers clean when a man walked in, dark-skinned with straight, dark auburn hair and gold-brown eyes. Ethan watched him with interest, looking him over. Far too masculine for his tastes, but still an attractive man.
“Who the fuck are you and what are you doing here?” Du’shan asked, popping his knuckles as he stood on the other side of the kitchen island.
“Name’s Ethan. Just delivering something to Cho Xiaoping Quon-Yu Jing-Jin from his aunt in No Town. Said I could eat, so I am.”
Du’shan eyed the box of pastries and the drink carrier beside it that had only one insulated cup left inside. Even though the writing on it was small, he could still plainly make out his name printed on the side. Curious, Du’shan walked over to it; Ethan side-stepped away with the empty box in his arms as though to shield himself. Du’shan ignored him, now aware he was not a threat. He hated finding new people in his home right after waking up, though. Security was his job--or had been--and he didn’t like the feeling of failure. It made him uneasy to be caught surprised or off guard.
He picked up the coffee cup; the drink’s warmth was long gone. The lid had its contents scribbled on it in messy scratches that were only legible to someone who knew what he were reading. Du’shan knew what it said from experience--it was the only drink he got when he got coffee that he hadn’t made himself. He heard Jin walk in behind him and turned to see him hugging a box to his chest. “Who got breakfast this morning?” he asked.
“Nyr did. He’s not here though.”
Du’shan looked back down at the coffee cup, his face unreadable. Finally, he popped the top off of it and took it over to warm it up.
Ethan watched Jin walk through, to hide his crab meat most likely, and figured his welcome was already worn out. He’d finished off the box of doughnuts anyway. He set it down and backed out of the room and to the entrance. The door opened well enough for him on its own and closed behind him. Ethan headed back out to the street. The nearest tram station wasn’t terribly far, or so he’d been told by the person who hade given him directions. He’d never been outside No Town before, and the crowds and sights were unlike any he had encountered.
He was used to knowing most faces he saw and recognized strangers mostly as trouble. In No town, a large crowd usually meant there was a dead body in the middle and the only people walking around in suits were gangsters or pimps. This close to the Core, things were very different from his home and it scared him, made his insides bunch anxiously. Buses and trucks everywhere, a maze of people to dodge between, everyone busy, everyone in a hurry. In No Town, your life was connected to everyone else’s. Knowing that he was one man in a sea of strangers brought on the deepest sense of isolation he had felt since Gabriel’s death.
With the directions memorized, Ethan boarded the L-tram he needed and waited for another hour on the cramped transport for the true Core to show itself to him. He was less than eager to see it. It wasn’t just the core of the city that hade him anxious, though; Phineas himself was a large factor, and one he was very wary of.
The CommNet had said he was the rich child of a respected politician living in the upper levels. The fact that police officers hadn’t broken down the door and dragged Ethan away for his forceful tactics against the younger boy told Ethan that Phineas had at the very least been quiet about his time spent in Gabriel’s laboratory, or at least about that particular part of it. It would be so easy for Phineas to shout for his guards, or whatever he might have, now that he was in his own territory, and have Ethan shipped off to the Tower, though. Ethan had been angry and impulsive and like any other teenager, he did not want to face the consequences. If Phineas hadn’t said anything yet, perhaps he wouldn’t say anything at all. Ethan hoped so as he took his first steps onto the elevated ground of the city’s upper levels.
It shone like oil on water.
Ethan stood out. He was used to standing out--one naturally did when they were so very much taller than everyone else. Here, though, there were private vehicles, fancy statues, and more black suits than he had ever seen in one place in his whole life. Ethan imagined it would have taken several shops their entire inventories to dress all the men strolling along the street, and that more than a hundred shoe shops owed their entire net earnings to the women alongside them. There was the occasional splash of color, mostly in the form of a tie or a slinky, sexy dress, but otherwise the horizon was dotted with little grayscale soldiers all tucked into their corporate attire.
Ethan could see instantly why Phineas would run away from such a world and find sanctuary in his. Phineas was too colorful for this place.
Doug the counter attendant took one look at Ethan and found him to be too colorful as well. “Can I help you?” His voice was like bitter candy, deceptively nasty as he eyed the tall young man.
Ethan was nervous. He walked away from the mirrored doors he had passed through and over to the counter. He could see over the top that Doug’s hand hovered over a panic button. Thinking back, Ethan felt that he probably should have brought a nicer change of clothes. “Uh, yeah. Hi. I’m Ethan. I’m looking for Phineas...uh...Maxwell. He’s yea tall and lives here.”
“I know who Phineas Maxwell is,” Doug scoffed. “Do you have clearance?”
“Oh, I can duck under the doors that are too short, I don’t mind.”
The attendant was less than amused. “Security clearance.”
“I…didn’t know I’d need any.” Ethan stuck his hands in his back pockets. He’d spent almost the whole day on a tram. He wasn’t enjoying the idea of it being for nothing more than delivering canned crab. “Can’t you just call up and tell them I’m here to see him? Phineas’ll remember me.”
With an annoyed look on his face, Doug paged up to the Maxwell’s private estate. Ethan could only hear half of the conversation. “Mr. Torim, sir, sorry to interrupt. There’s a young man here named Ethan to see Phineas.... No, sir.... Of course, sir.... Thank you, sir.” He put the receiver down and smiled at Ethan. “No visitors are allowed today.”
“Well let me talk to him then,” Ethan protested.
Doug shook his head. “I cannot give out their private line. You’ll just have to leave.”
Leaving was hardly an option. Ethan looked around the lobby, noting the couch and chairs set up in the center. He walked to them and made himself comfortable, pleased to find such classy establishments spared no expense on the seating.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Well, if you won’t let me go up, I have to wait for Phineas to come down. It’s pretty simple logic. I’m sure you’ll get the gist of it someday.”
Doug was still not amused by the young giant. “Sir, if you do not leave, I will be forced to call the police.”
“You can’t kick me out for sitting here.” Ethan glared at him hard. “I saw the board, this place has businesses too. I bet plenty of people sit here waiting to go up and visit some office or whatever. I’ve as much right to wait here as they do. I’m not homeless, I’m not exactly loitering, so just lay off for a bit. I just want to see my friend, not assassinate Mr. So-and-So Bigshot or whatever the hell you‘re worried about.”
The attendant seemed to consider continuing the argument less important that other matters he had to see to and turned away. As far as stubbornness went, Ethan was undefeated, and was just glad he didn’t have to run from armed police officers for holding his ground. Not yet anyway.
Tucking his long legs under his body, he entertained himself by watching the vid screen. Every couple of minutes the view would change, mostly to beautiful places Ethan had only ever read about. Were Gabriel still alive, he would have asked him to make one for the laboratory, he thought, though he couldn’t decide what he’d want it to be of. The ones of grass and trees were too alien to him to be welcoming, even if they were lovely. Skylines were too ordinary in contrast.
He had finally settled on a view of an aquarium when the elevator behind him chimed as it reached the ground floor and opened wide. It didn’t even take a full turn of his head for Ethan to know who it was. Phineas stepped out and walked with purpose towards the front doors. It was as though he didn’t see Ethan, though the tall young man found that very hard to believe.
He stood up, giving a large, broad smile to his friend‘s back. “Phineas! Hey!”
Phineas looked over his shoulder at him, took in his presence, then turned away and continued towards the entrance.
“Should I call the police?” Doug offered, noticing Phineas’s obvious disinterest in his visitor.
“Nah, s’okay.” The small redhead waved a hand dismissively. “If I ignore it long enough, it’ll just go away.”
Ethan blinked. Though he knew he deserved it, he honestly hadn’t thought Phineas would be angry with him.
“If you say so, sir.”
“I do.” Phineas let that be his final word on the matter and left, the motion sensitive doors parting for him.
Ethan followed. He most certainly would not disappear just because Phineas didn’t want to see him. He walked at the younger boy’s heels, calling his name over and over, but Phineas continued to pay him no mind. They had gone over half a block by the time Phineas turned around finally and glared up at him.
“You are some kind of idiot,” he said simply. “It’s like you have no idea that I just saved your life.”
Ethan was, indeed, very much unaware of that fact. “What do you mean you just saved my life?”
Phineas threw his hands into the air in exasperation and leaned heavily against one of the buildings. “Here are the details, chamoyer du ainer. My dad doesn’t want anyone to know I disappeared. He figures I won’t tell because I know what’s good for me but he can’t trust an outside source like you to keep anything secret. Since Dad doesn’t know who you are, it’d be easy for him to assume we met when I was away. The best way to silence you is to kill you, right? So, I just saved your life. Unless we’re being followed in which case I just admitted to them by speaking to you that I do, in fact, know you. Either way though, if you get killed, it’s not my fault.”
Ethan blinked at him in surprise, not quite sure what to make of the sudden tirade. “Is this about what happened in the lab before you left?”
“It’s about you getting a gun to your head for being dense.” Phineas pushed away from the building and started walking again.
Being a very tall man gave Ethan several advantages, one of which was having a great view down peoples’ shirts. It was a very fine position to be in when it was a woman standing below. The view down Phineas’s shirt was quite different. Only visible by looking down his collar was an array of bruises, still purple but marbled in greenish-yellow as well. “Was it your dad who gave you those bruises?”
The small redhead looked up and back without stopping. “Some of them. Made me beat myself with a pan from the kitchen too, though, so I guess you could say I gave me the others.”
“That why you ran away? Because he’s mean?”
Phineas shook his head. “Not really. I know how to not get beat same as I know how to get beat. I’m clever, remember? It was a calculated risk to leave home--not run away--and I enjoyed it regardless of how much it hurt afterwards. Which is why you need to not die. You have to take care of my laboratory till I can return.”
“Gabriel’s lab, not yours.”
Ethan growled a bit. Even if it was true that Gabriel would not be returning, it was still nice to remember it as his home and his laboratory, not this kid’s. “You know, you‘ve got kind of a nasty way of recruiting me to do stuff for you without anything in return.”
“And your dick does all the thinking your stomach can’t.”
“I guess that means you are kinda miffed at me about the last time I saw you.”
“Not really. Julian says I should turn you in to the police but from what I’ve seen, you’re not the type to do that maliciously. I figure I just turn you on. That’s rather interesting. I don’t imagine I need to tell you not to do it again.”
Ethan shook his head. Madam Cho had been very outspoken on the subject. “All the same, I should apologize.”
“You regret it?” There was almost a hint of disappointment in Phineas’s small voice. “Very well, apology accepted. Your conscience is clear. You can go now.”
“That’s it? I have to go? Can’t I take you out for lunch or something?” Ethan put his hand on Phineas’s head, his fingers spreading out to cover the top.
Phineas peered up at him. “Your treat?”
“For old times sake. If you’ll let me.”
Phineas hesitated only a moment before a youthful smile spread out across his face again, as though it was unable to keep hidden for long--too honest and genuine to keep locked up.
They walked to a small café. It was rather small and, unlike most of the buildings Ethan had seen in his days travels, lacked the luster of the Core. It boasted an authentic Mexican eating experience and had walls a dirty shade of yellow with bright colored banners on them. Ethan had no idea what exactly a Mexican eating experience was supposed to mean, but figured it must have some appeal to the rich and important to be where it was.
To his pleasure, the menu did not boast the kind of prices that he had feared it would. He’d seen cheaper, but it was still far from the forty dollars a plate Madam Cho had warned him were in his future if he didn’t make amends. He even recognized a few items on the menu from some of the Fringe establishments.
Smiling, Ethan looked up from the list of entrées and across the table at his friend. “I take it there aren’t too many decent buffets in the Core?”
“Nah. Cafeteria style mostly in the lobbies of lots of the offices and on the streets it’s alle fine dining. This place is good, though. When I’m let out, I usually come here. Big portions. Lots of food. The waiter says it’ll put hair on my chest,” Phineas added, looking down the neck of his shirt to illustrate that that was not yet the case. “I’ma get two plates though, I think. And dessert. So don’t get cheap on me.”
Perhaps what Madam Cho had meant wasn’t forty a plate, but rather forty a head. Ethan sighed to himself. He was good for it, but missed the all-you-can-eat meals that ten creds usually afforded him and his appetite. He went back to browsing the menu, picking out the appetizer, main platters, and dessert he’d be enjoying on his own.
Once the waiter had taken their orders, his eyes rather large in surprise, Ethan leaned his elbows against the table and held Phineas in a questioning stare. “So, what’s up with your dad? Why’s he such a prick?”
Grumbling, Phineas blew a quick chorus of bubbles in his soda. “He just is. I’m supposed to the heir to his empire but I’m not very impressive on the evil scale. Except when it comes to the evil cackle--I have got that down pat, but it’s much more an evil scientist laugh than a villainous roar of triumph. His is pretty good, though. One of those back of the throat, deep purrs of contentment. I tried to do one of those and just ended up purring for the hell of it. Kinda fun.”
“The heir of what? Politicking? Don’t you kinda have to be voted into that? Didn’t think it was passed on father to son.”
“It’s not. The black market agency he operates can be, though.” Phineas’s face went sour. “I’m the heir to one of the leading suppliers of illegal weaponry and substances.”
Ethan stared at him for a minute, assessing the validity of his statement. “Is that what you want to do?”
Phineas shrugged. “I like making things. Never really thought about what I want for myself, ‘cause that’s how you get in trouble. Just so long as I still get to invent and manufacture toys and other interesting things, its okay I guess.”
“What if you end up in jail?”
Ethan watched the boy’s face pinch in distaste. “Then I won’t get to make things anymore. That’s why I have to do as my dad says to and learn how to keep the business out of trouble.”
“Sounds like it sucks to me.”
Phineas nodded slightly, adding a shrug for good measure. “’S how it is. I follow the rules, I get freedom. I rebel, I suffer. You get used to it when you have to. Once he’s dead, then I can do whatever I want. Until then, it’s whatever he wants.”
“Or else what?” Even as he said it, he felt foolish. Ethan could still recall the bruises he had spied on their way to the café.
“Or else he makes me, and then I have to do it anyway but without the benefits that come from obeying in the first place.” Phineas noticed the waiter approaching them with teetering plates of appetizers and sat back, his golden eyes widening with delight, pushing aside his melancholy.
They ate in silence as always. The waiter was very good at sending them out their next course just as they were licking the leftovers from the ones before. It was good food, spicy and filling, and Ethan wondered slightly if the burning in his chest really was more hair beginning to grow. Phineas sat across from him, patting his stuffed belly with the same content smirk that Ethan remembered playing on his face.
“What if I kidnapped you? You managed to hide in No Town for a long time before someone found you. We can just tell your brother not to tell anyone and you can go back to living in the lab,” Ethan suggested.
Phineas glared at him. “Don’t be stupid. I already told you, my dad would most likely kill you if he ever knew about you. Why the hell do you want to go and piss him off even more?”
“Because it would make you happy.”
Phineas face became unreadable. Ethan cocked his head, watching the vacant expression as though it might at any second betray itself. He wasn’t used to the sudden lack of expression, especially on Phineas.
“Not still mad at me for being selfish and self-indulgent, huh?”
Ethan smiled. “We’re even, or close to. I don’t harbor any ill will if you don’t.”
Phineas gave a small nod, a softer smile lighting up his face. “Okay. Don’t do anything stupid though, okay? That means anything dealing with James Maxwell. I need you in No Town to look over my lab, remember? So you can’t get yourself killed pretending to be valiant.”
“Oh my honor, then,” Ethan swore. “I can still write to you though, can’t I?”
The red head considered. “Maybe. I’ll figure out a system. You’ll have to be a correspondent of some kind, though, since I don’t have friends. He’d become suspicious if I suddenly had a friend.”
“We could send each other binary messages,” Ethan offered.
Phineas gave another short nod. “Perhaps. I know the address of your server, so when I figure it out, I’ll send you word that way. Just keep the computer on.”
They stood up once their glasses were empty and walked out of the café. Ethan blinked in the sudden light; he wasn’t used to so much sunlight in the first place, and coming out of a small, dimly lit establishment only made it worse.
“You’d better go back to No Town now. I have to go home.”
Ethan nodded a bit, palming Phineas’s head again. “Yeah, alright. If you don’t write me, though, I’m just going to come back up here and bother you.”
Scowling at the giant’s lack of reason, Phineas gave him a short wave and began his walk home. Ethan watched him for a bit, noticing the slightest limp in his step, then turned back towards the tram station, hands deep in his pockets to calm the anger within him. It wasn’t right that Phineas had to live the way he was forced to. He was young and brilliant and could never be the evil mastermind it seemed he was being made to be.
Then the lights went out in a flash of stars across his vision, accompanied by the loss of sound and touch, leaving him only with the memories of a quick, sharp crack against his skull and how long he seemed to fall.
Chamoyer du ainer: You ass (Yiddish)