Chapter 20


“The problem is, there’s too much we don’t know.”

“We know enough.”

“Maybe for pseudo-immortals, it’s enough, but for the rest of us, it’s pretty risky.”

Julian was only half listening while Riyad and Caine argued, Riyad airing a long list of holes in their current world-saving agenda, and Caine with his chin propped on one hand, eyes closed, and sounding half-asleep.

“Trust me.”

“I do, but--”

“I haven’t foreseen any difficulties.”

No one bothered pointing out that just because Caine hadn’t foreseen any trouble, that there wouldn’t be any. For the most part, he agreed with Riyad; there were just enough flaws in their plan that the whole thing would end in disaster if they weren’t phenomenally lucky.

The other Shards were keeping quiet as well. To one side of him, Rabbit was chewing on the edge of his thumbnail, either bored or in the beginning stages of an anxious spell. To his other side, Cross seemed to be biting her tongue, flashing annoyed glances across the table at Sasha, who only smiled back at her. Whatever silent signals the two of them were sending to each other, Julian had a feeling they would come to blows if they ever got around to voicing them. And he had a feeling that Cross would win, especially if Sasha’s hacking coughs were any indication.

Surge seemed to have picked up on the tension as well and had left an empty seat between himself and Sasha. This put him directly across from Rabbit, and although Julian could almost feel the two psychically butting heads in such close proximity, he knew that had to be much more comfortable for Surge than sitting beside the Witness.

“How are you so sure it’s all going to just fall into place?” Riyad pressed. “It seems like an awful lot of what you’ve outlined plays right into Hiroki’s hands.”

Caine shifted slightly in his seat, but didn’t open his eyes. “You really don’t need to worry about that.”

Nyr was somewhere nearby, cleaning up after a shared meal. Julian had offered to help, but Nyr had declined. All the Shards needed to be at the table to discuss the results of their investigations, he had insisted, while he, on the other hand, wasn’t needed and would stay out of the way. His self-deprecating smile as he’d added that last bit grated on Julian’s nerves, making him want to join him up to the elbows in the slippery film and near-rancid smell of greasy soap water out of spite, but he stayed put instead. With a sigh, Riyad sat forward, spreading his hands in front of him. “I get the feeling either you know a lot more than you’re telling us, or you’ve got a lot more faith in everything turning out alright than I do.”

“It might be a little of both.” There was a chuckle behind Caine’s words, but not one that was at Riyad’s expense. “There are things I’m not able to say. And as for my faith”--parti-colored eyes cracked open, and a warm smile quirked the corner of Caine’s mouth--“I don’t think it’s misplaced.”

“We still don’t know who the Prodigy is, and you said that nothing could go forward if he didn’t appear.”

“It seems that that’s being taken care of.”

Jin wasn’t present at all. He’d run out of the basement headquarters some hours earlier, a look of surprised realization on his face and muttering only half in Standard that he knew where the seventh Shard was. To hear Riyad relate the scene, he obviously thought that Jin had just been working too closely with the noxious chemicals he’d included in the bombs he’d made. The idea that Jin had suddenly just known where to find the missing Shard was somehow harder to believe.

“Even if Jin finds him, we don’t know what it was Yoko found out.”

Julian smirked. Yoko had called him about an hour before the meeting time, saying he had something to verify and wouldn’t be able to make it. Then he’d hung up before Julian could ask any questions. While this was irritating, it seemed that Caine and Riyad had gleaned all of the information that he had from him already, and so his presence wasn’t actually necessary. As Caine had assured them, Yoko knew his part in the plan and, as Julian had learned by now, Yoko probably didn’t care about the rest of the details.

Either way, Julian would be calling him when the meeting was over and he’d successfully convinced Rabbit to give him a lift home on his bike. If Julian couldn’t skip out on the meeting too, then Yoko would have to hear enough about it that he would feel like he had been there himself.

“He told us as much as he thought was relevant.”

“Which has nothing to do with what he actually found.” Riyad yanked on a curl resting against his cheek, more earnest than irritable as he stared at Caine. “I want to believe in him as much as everyone else, but I can’t condone something this dangerous unless we know for sure.”

“We don’t have a choice.”

Julian had to commend Caine on his ability to maintain an immaculate poker face without looking harsh or distant. He managed to remain serene even when he argued. There could be no other reason than that Caine absolutely believed in everything he said.

On this count, Julian agreed with Caine. While he knew the plan was shaky at best, he was too invested in the outcome now to back out for his own good. He’d never been one to think too far into the future; now was too much fun for that. Besides, it had been a long time since he’d gotten to do anything daring and hazardous. In a room full of people who defined the various aspects of the bad ass, he couldn’t let himself be the normal one.

Over the sound of Caine and Riyad speaking, Julian heard the entrance door open and close. He sat up straighter, trying to tune out the conversation in the kitchen to find out who had arrived.

There was no need; the new arrivals were chattering in what Julian assumed was Chinese and their pitched voices carried more clearly than the level tones of Standard usually did. He thought he recognized as Jin, laughing, and a second, female voice berating someone.

Though he couldn’t understand what they were saying, Julian couldn’t detect any hint of defeat or frustration in Jin’s voice. His search for the Prodigy must have turned up something, then, but Julian couldn’t help wondering what. Was the woman in the front room the last Shard? He thought it was unlikely that the Prodigy would be a total stranger, when all the others had managed to find each other one way or another.

Then a third voice, also masculine, chimed in with what Julian could only assume was laughable Chinese. Every third word sounded like it was being pronounced correctly, but the words in between sounded as though the speaker was either guessing or totally making it up as he went. The woman said something that was hardly a murmur, but the second man made an indignant noise in response. Julian cocked his head, brow furrowing. There was something familiar about that semi-squawk.

A moment later, the trio appeared in the kitchen doorway, led by Jin, who had his hands in his pockets and a self-satisfied smile on his face. His eyes narrowed like a cat’s as the room went quiet, pleased with the attention and with himself. Beside him was a tiny woman—though she would still have dwarfed Yoko—with a long scarf wrapped around her neck. One dainty hand was splayed across her belly protectively and the look she was leveling at the side of Jin’s head was recriminating. Behind them both, still outside of the doorway, was a lanky man, still on the short side, but taller than Jin. He scratched at the side of his face idly with one finger before reaching up to remove the goggles and knit cap he was wearing.

“Guess who,” Jin said, leaning back a bit at the waist. His eyes closed completely as he smiled. “This is my cousin, Dao Ming, and her baby-daddy—”

Julian’s chair clattered to the floor behind him as he rose, finishing the introduction for Jin: “Phineas!

The man—boy—man behind Jin had stepped into the room fully now and his hair was blinding under the white lights of the kitchen. A grin split his face and suddenly, it was obvious. Too, too obvious.

Julian couldn’t think about that, though, too stunned to think properly about anything.

He had grown. Still too thin, his face had lost most of the roundness that had always made him look younger than he really was, and Julian could now make out some muscle on his exposed arms—

Julian’s gaze fastened on his brother’s left arm. It was gone from the elbow down, replaced with banded metal and carefully articulated joints at the wrist and fingers. Filaments reminiscent of the inner workings of a terminal ran along his fingers and the inner surface of the arm.

Phineas, noticing the scrutiny, smirked and waved the metal hand at Julian. Ignoring the other people in the room, Julian rose and crossed to his brother, curling his fingers around the metal limb. He could feel a strange sort of life in it, but it wasn’t like a normal body. If it had been anyone but Phineas, he would have let go immediately. Instead, he tightened his grip, forcing himself to hang on.

“What happened?!”

“Improvements,” Phineas replied with an easy shrug and a smile.

“Improvem--!” He looked up quickly and froze as he met his brother’s eyes. At a distance it hadn’t been visible, but up close he could see that there was something wrong with them—they didn’t reflect light they way they should. Letting go of Phineas’s arm, he grabbed him by the face, one hand on either cheek, turning his head up.

Phineas looked back at him, blinking slowly, his expression bland. Leaning in close, Julian could see tiny bands of metal, carefully chosen to match his brother’s natural eye color, though none of them quite matched each other. His pupils were open holes, and he could see tiny rivets in the whites of his eyes.

What did you do to yourself?” He now had no doubts that Phineas had made and installed the so-called improvements himself, or that he had done so very purposefully.

The woman beside him, who had shuffled out of the way at Julian’s sudden approach, murmured something in Chinese, her voice edged. Phineas’s brows furrowed and he started to face her. Julian arrested the motion, keeping his grip on Phineas, though his reason was different now.

“Did Jin call you her ‘baby-daddy’?” he asked, interrupting Phineas’s reply to Dao Ming.

Phineas grinned and raised a hand to ruffle his own hair, bending the spikes but not subduing them. “Heh, yeah. Three months along. Don’t worry, though, we got married a few weeks ago.” His expression turned thoughtful. “That was more for the benefits if something happened to one of us though. And because she’s a really good cook! And because I’m pretty sure her aunt threatened my life, but she did it in Chinese, so I’m not sure.”

Julian was certain he was going to pass out. Or that the world had ended. Or both. Nothing made sense anymore and he released Phineas, stumbling back to his seat at the table. Beneath his confusion and the general feeling of exasperation at his brother’s hijinks, relief was pulsing through him, tempered by an odd melancholy feeling he hadn’t expected and didn’t want.

“...Well.” Riyad’s voice was only tentatively decisive in the suffocating awkwardness that followed this revelation. “We’re all here, then. I guess we should explain--”

“I already know about it. Jin told me about the ziggurat and the end of the world and that you guys have some kind of plan but it’s kind of a loose one.” Predictably, Phineas had wandered toward the lingering smell of food by the stove and was poking at the leftover containers there as he spoke, not even looking at the others in the room. “I dunno who half of you are, but I can figure it out as we go.”

A bemused look ghosted over Riyad’s face. He twisted in his seat to look at Jin, who was gesturing Dao Ming to follow Phineas and eat whatever was left.

“How did you know it was him?”

Jin grinned, shaking his head so that his sprayed out around his face. “Auntie Xiao pointed him out to me last time I visited. I didn’t think much of it then, but the things she told me he did--” He shrugged. “It clicked with what you guys said the Prodigy guy probably did.”

“What do you do, Phineas?” Surge’s voice was level, quiet after so many more animated voices.

Phineas looked over his shoulder, his mouth full of rice. “Do?” He swallowed without chewing, and Julian grimaced. Even if he looked older, he didn’t seem to have grown up all that much. “Talk to machines. Well, not talk. It’s like how Julian does. I can hear how they should be and make them do that. ‘S how the arm and my eyes work out like the real thing. And it helps loads with my work.”

Surge’s expression was unchanged, though there was curiosity in his voice. “Work?”

“Yeah, my work.” At the uncomprehending looks, Phineas smiled and reached into his pocket, shoveling food into his mouth with his other hand. “Here like this.”

What he produced was a disk about as wide and thick as the palm of his hand, with a depression near the middle and odd seams along its sides. Gripping it for a moment, Phineas pushed his thumb into the depression and immediately tossed the object into the center of the table.

The motion of the disk altering shape as it arced over Cross’s head was almost too fast to see, but when it landed, it looked almost like an insect, if insects had suddenly had their six legs sticking out at all angles. The thing turned over from one foot to another, obviously moved by its own weight and the way its points of articulation were set together. Coming to a stop, it teetered on one rounded foot, balancing precariously with little rocking motions until it finally stilled.

Those sitting around the table could only stare at it, looks of confusion, amusement, and disbelief mixing across their collected faces.

“You know. For kids!” Phineas spoke into the silence, one cheek bulging with food.

“For...kids,” Sasha repeated, looking away from the thing toward Phineas, his lips pursed shrewdly.

It was Cross who finally reached out and poked the thing, barely touching it with the tip of one short-cut fingernail.

As though electrified, the object spun into motion, cart wheeling away, but not in a straight line, as its off-balancing made it move in arcs and zigzags.

“It’s got no electrical parts in it. It moved because of its own weight and the joints. It’ll work forever, and it’s practically indestructible.” The pride in Phineas’s voice was clear, but overshadowed by his own delight watching his work in action. Julian had always known Phineas loved to show off what he could do, but now he thought maybe it had more to do with sharing his own enjoyment with others than with any expectation to be praised or to prove himself. There was a nostalgic feeling about that child-like joy, and Julian wondered why he’d never seen it before.

Dao Ming said something in Chinese and Julian glanced over to see her with one hand on Phineas’s arm and the other splayed across her belly. Julian looked back at Jin, who was watching the toy on the table with fascination. Julian cleared his throat, drawing Jin’s reluctant attention.

“Oh. She said her man is like a kid, so he always thinks of amazing toys.” Dao Ming spoke over him, and Jin continued to translate until she was finished. “She says he’s made a lot of money and...that’s why he can help the street kids and Auntie and her workers.”

Julian looked from Jin, to the couple behind him, and back to the toy. Maybe more grown up than he had thought.

Hunger apparently satisfied, Phineas crossed around to the other side of the table, plucking up his creation with fingers that were longer than Julian remembered and triggering something that made the thing fold in on itself, reverting to the disc he had originally produced. Then he dropped into the only empty seat at the table, across from Julian, between Surge and Sasha.

As soon as he was seated, something in the air shifted. There was a low thrum, more a feeling than a sound, and Julian sat up straight, eyes darting around the table. Surge was looking at Phineas from the corners of his eyes; beside Julian, Rabbit’s fingertips dug into the surface of the table. At the head of the table, Caine’s mouth curled in a content smile, his eyes closed.

“There it is,” he murmured. He opened his eyes again, looking more alert than Julian had ever seen him. “Now we’re ready.”

“But we still don’t--”

Caine held up a hand, silencing Riyad’s protest. “Everything will work out. The world is on our side.”