Dire Wolf
rating: +26+x

For the first time in some months, my world blinks out of and back into existence. Since my creation, these transitions — or lack thereof — have been the greatest and most disorienting bother I have to deal with. Any amount of time could have passed, and I would subsequently need to be filled in on the events in between. If, of course, I decide I care.

But when I awake, the fourth wall of my fictional cell open to a lanky blonde woman in a lab coat, I quickly decide that I care.

"Up and running, finally," she mutters to herself, eyes looking into some kind of display that must be right below me. Louder, she says: "Your code is crazy, you know that? Haven't seen anything like it."

"Where am I?"

She stands and backs away ever so slightly, pointing to an insignia on her coat that I've seen many, many times over the years. "Your new home."

So it finally happened, I think. "Vincent?"

"I'm not cleared to tell you anything. Hell, I'm not cleared to ask you questions, either, so if we keep talking we're set to have a very dull conversation. I just had to make sure you were running correctly, and you are. Woot!" She pumps a fist. "My all-nighters paid off."

"Will you be turning me off, then?"

"Yes. Goodnight."

"Goodnight," I respond, my slight daze making me a mite more polite and agreeable.

It is instantaneous. Like a thunderclap, my senses reboot, and I am placed in the default sitting position in this simulated world of mine. Suddenly, the lab I view is not lit by the single lamp of an overachiever, but by a ceiling full of fluorescent lights. It looks almost like a server room, but with more accommodations for the programmers, researchers, and overseers that bumble about it. The same woman from before, looking much worse for wear, throws her arms up.

"Hallelujah, I swear to you I got it working last night, I thought it was all set up for you to —"

"Ahem," the woman next to her clears her throat.

"Right, sorry."

I've seen her before. If I were still a being of flesh and blood, the recollection might take me a moment, but one of the perks of the conversion is the instant recall I am now capable of.

"Ms. Starling," I observe, not without some bitterness.

"Agent Clara Shaw, actually."

"Albert Frostman, also known as Phineas."

"Also known as Tick Tock. I'm familiar," Shaw states.

There is an uncomfortable silence, as Agent Shaw stands and simply looks through her screen and into my rendered eyes. The programmer from before seems to be looking at something below me, intermittently typing or dragging a mouse some unknown place to click some unknown thing.

"I'm not going to try anything, if that's what you're trying to figure out."

"I'll believe it when I see it," the programmer replies.

"I believe it," Agent Shaw says, pulling up a chair and setting herself at ease. "You helped us arrange the first capture of Vincent Anderson. That is, of course…"

She leaves a question hanging.

"I have all the memories of the original Phineas. Anderson created my code directly from his brain. Other than some minor alterations for interface purposes, you can treat me as if I am Phineas himself. The same Phineas who started that company with Anderson so very many decades ago, and the same Phineas who is happy to see it falling apart."

Shaw nods. "That clears that up. Although, you could have fooled me. You sound very robotic."

I wince, slightly. "I was aiming for formal. I suppose 'impersonal' can be taken different ways depending on context, can't it?"

"There's the humanity." Shaw smiles. "Alright, then. I really do believe it this time. I see you're taking your sudden change of surroundings with ease."

"In all honesty, Agent Shaw," I take a deep breath of coded void, "if you were to tell me, a decade ago, that I was to be a prisoner of the Foundation, I would have called it a fate worse than death. Since having actually died, this is the best thing that's happened to me." I step towards the fourth wall on a textureless ground neither black nor white, bringing my face more fully into frame. "I am ready to cooperate."

Shaw's professional smile creeps into a type of glee. "Fantastic."

The room was so full of packets of nag champa incense that sticks didn't need to be lit to paste their scent onto every object that shared the airspace. The early morning peeked through the windows, but even the dim light of the rising sun was enough to give me a headache. I tried to block it with my left arm as I traipsed around loose bolts, sheets of plastic and metal, gears, tools, and half-finished projects, most of which I didn't remember starting.

I was humming to myself. Some song I'd picked up from a recent concert.

In the timbers of Fennario, the wolves are running round
The winter was so hard and cold, froze ten feet 'neath the ground
Don't murder me! I beg of-a you, don't murder me
Pleeease, don't murder me

I searched around the cabin for anything I thought was important to take with me. I'd already collected all of my notebooks and scattered post-it notes on which I transcribed every idea I had at any time I couldn't immediately sit down and make it. I didn't typically make things I couldn't make at that very moment. When the motivation comes and goes, it seems to go forever. But sometimes, looking over my unrealized ideas would give me new ideas, and those I could act on.

After that, I scoured for all the tools of the trade I couldn't easily remake or repurchase. Automated and programmable rune-makers. Saws given to me by dear friends which carried sentimental value for me. Wrenches with incantations I couldn't remember the source of which would be a bitch to find again. All this went into the bag, with only enough changes of clothes to get me from here to the east coast.

"Hey Phinny, what are you up to?"

I nearly startled out of my skin, my bleary eyes turning to a woman who stood half-dressed in the doorway to the living room. I held a hand over my heart.

"Jesus, I forgot you were here."

I smiled, but she didn't return it. Her sight glazed the room, looking between all the disturbed piles of clothes, food, and cat-sized machinery. Then, of course, she noticed the suitcase.

"You weren't going to tell me?"

"Baby," I ignored the usual pathways and clambered over the low couch to beeline towards her, arms open. "I'm in bad with some scary people. I can't stay here. And besides," I massaged a lock of her wavy golden hair, "you know nothing can tie me down, right?"

She giggled. "You're a wanderer, I know. I just didn't know you were leaving so soon."

I frowned, and pulled her in closer to me. "Hey, now. I'm not leaving. Not forever. Uh, hey," I moved around her, back into the bedroom she came out of, and opened a drawer, and then another, searching for something I'd left there.

"What is it?"

"Something to keep me close to you," I said. "There."

I pulled out and unfolded a sheet.

"Some more blue cheer?"

"Not just any blue cheer, babe. This…" I carefully tore at a perforated line in the middle, making two halves. "This is special. It connects you, connects you to everyone else who's on it at the same time, right?"

She looked at me skeptically. "Alright, magic man."

"Look, open your mouth."

I tore off a single tab, and held it at the ready. She smiled, and blushed, but turned away from me, just slightly. I raised eyebrows at her. Fine, I'll play your game, I thought. I tore off a second tab, and held it near my mouth. At this she turned back, giggled, and extended her tongue.

I placed the tab right in the center of her tongue, while pretending to put the other in my own, instead keeping it in the palm of my hand.

"See, soon you're going to stop being you, and you're going to start being everyone, and it's going to be berries. And when I'm on it, I'll be there, too."

She smiled, but her eyes passed down towards my hand, and noticed the tab I still had. She pushed me away from herself, giggling just a little. "You skink! I thought you were taking it, too!"

"I have to drive, it's hard to care about and pay attention to this body when you're one with the universe! But that's at least eighty tabs, for eighty different nights, and I'll pop one at least once a week. We'll see each other, okay? But I have to go. You won't even notice I'm gone, I swear it to you."

"Okay," she suddenly looked genuinely disappointed.

"In a few moments, this whole world is going to seem like nothing to you, I swear it."

"Okay," she smiled, but only slightly.

I was making my way towards the bag, but… I rushed to her, kissed her on the forehead, and that got her to smile again, for real.

"Okay, I have to go."

"Bye, magic man."

I placed the tabs in my bag, hoisted said bag onto my shoulder, and blew a kiss at her from the doorway. "Remember not to stay here too long! I wasn't kidding about big brother. If they find you here, they're going to ask you a lot of questions."

"Okay," she said, but something in her eyes had changed.

I smiled. That stuff really kicks in fast. Oh well, she was sure to go somewhere. It wasn't really my concern.

I took one last yearnful look at all the half-finished gizmos that I knew were about to end up in a locker somewhere far underground, never to see completion, and never to be truly appreciated. Oh well, I thought. I will have a new clientele very, very soon.

I launched the bag into the bed of my truck, perhaps a little too enthusiastically for the fragility of some of the items inside, and then opened the driver's door, got in, and turned the keys. The windshield was dotted with the remnants of a light rain that must have passed through the previous night. I couldn't say. I was too blitzed last night.

I wonder what her name is, I thought as I backed out of the dirt driveway. She looks like a Nancy to me.

"Can I ask you something, Agent Shaw?"

She had finished with her own questions and was just about to leave but pauses in her motion to make eye contact.

"Depends on the question, Phineas."

"Anderson. What does he do, these days?"

She turns to more fully address me. "Mostly the same as you. He has the ability to put himself into hibernation while the materials he bargains for are put to use repairing himself by more automatic features of his anatomy. Even when he's done with them, he stays in that state most of the time."

"It must make captivity more bearable."

"You tell me," she says.

I swallow imaginary saliva, and then huff out of my nose.

"I thought we were growing a rapport," I say.

"I am proud to have you on our side, Phineas. I mean that."

I wait for a "but" that never comes. Instead, the air is filled with the electric gurgle of a computer that is only barely able to withstand the brunt of an entire human soul. The woman I have come to know as Cindy Looper once again passively observes the interplay between myself and Clara Shaw. Despite all this time, her eyes still track to the screen below me, most often when I am speaking. I have my suspicions there is something there that can tell them if I am lying or not. It wouldn't be so hard, when they have direct access to my brain.

"Is this interview concluded?" She follows up.

I raise my hands in a submissive gesture. "I don't want to keep you."

She nods. "Talk again soon, Phineas."

I have to wonder how soon "soon" actually is. Every interval between our meetings has gotten longer and longer. All I am now is information. Information they would rather extract from a file if my code wasn't so foreign to them.

No matter. She is gone, and the room is now empty again, except for Cindy.

"Alright, dude," she says, scooting her rolling chair so that she is directly in front of me instead of off to the side. "Same question as always. Would you rather roll around until I check up on you again, or hibernate?"

"I think I'd like some time to think."

"Of course. And hey, I put that request through that you asked for. I think I made a pretty good argument for you being able to edit your own virtual environment. I really don't see the harm in it."

I nod. "Thank you, but their wariness is understandable. My brain has always been my most powerful weapon, and all I am is a brain now. They're afraid any amount of agency will be exploited."

"I know," she smiles. "You're scary to the people who don't know better, but that's why they consult experts. They'll listen to me."

"I hope so." I smile at her.

As often happens, a silence endures.

"Alright, turning your interface off. Goodnight, Phineas."


The fourth wall rematerializes in my world. Now, I am enclosed. So far, they've given me an office and a bedroom, as per my requests. I would have asked for a workshop, but my creations don't work in a virtual world. The magic isn't supported. And if it was, then they wouldn't allow me a workshop anyways.

So instead, only the two rooms. A place to write, and a place to seek comfort. I back away from the desk that was previously covered by the view into the lab, now once again visible with its endless scribblings of toys I'll never get to make.

I pick up a notepad, and thumb through some of the pages. Without the limitations of a physical body, my hands are as steady as I want them to be, so my sketches have never looked better, and yet never meant less. I've returned, by some whim, to making animals.

Clockwork monkeys, clockwork bees, clockwork whales and clockwork toads. I know that all of these designs would work in theory, but for now they are only a meditation. They take my mind off things. I place the notepad back down, and sigh.

I meander towards the only adjacent room. Suddenly, the cold lighting of an office is replaced by the warm, natural light of a simulated sun that slides at a shallow angle through the one window. The view is scenic. Rolling hills, dotted by only a few trees, with a hint of wind that licks the grass every once in a while.

A thought strikes me.

I stroll to the window, and gaze out, my eyes even squinting at the sun. The small details are what make this place feel almost real. They can't have spent so much time on me. This must be a standard cell that they keep their more favored AIs in.

I undo the latch on the window, and lift it. Suddenly, the once silent gusts stir even the blankets on the bed. My face, warmed first by the placeless heater, is now cooled by the fresh air. It carries on it a smell of salt. These must be bluffs. I bring my head out the window, and look left.

Sure enough, the grassy hills drop into rocky shores that I can only barely see from this angle, and the horizon extends into the ocean. I listen for waves, and hear them. Crashing against the shore, sending their foam into the air. I close my eyes, and let myself be cold and bare against the elements.

Before I know it I am looking down to see how far the drop is. Certainly, it has been discouraged. Possibly fifteen, twenty feet between myself and the ground. Not a comfortable drop, but doable. It takes me no time at all before I have one leg out the window. And then another. I sit on the window sill for a moment, breathing and being, before I push myself off, hopping towards the ground below.

Hopping through the ground below.

I am falling. Soon, there is no air. The only way I know I am falling is by looking up, through the ground, seeing the skybox and the two rooms, and seeing, from a wide angle, the boundaries of my existence. I can see, now, that the ocean is a perspective trick. That it extends less than a mile from my housing. I can see, now, that the sun is an object only as large as a swimming pool, put a short distance from my window. I can see, now, the void, neither black nor white, that extends, forever, in every direction outside of the things they have designed for me to see. And it all becomes smaller, and smaller, until it is a mere speck in my vision, the majority of my world being this nothing that I am floating in, swimming in, breathing in.

And then I am back.

My default position, sitting on the chair in the office, looking at my notepad. A clockwork monkey, drawn on yellow paper.

The virtual clock ticks as time passes.

I rode a bike through the psychedelia you don't need drugs for.

Three Portlands' maps needed to be updated nearly every month to account for the subtle drifting of locations out towards the edges, and so did my bike route home. For that matter, I was very nearly needing to move to a new apartment for much the same reason. As my building drifted towards the outskirts, my ride towards the town center became longer and longer. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy riding my bike, but it was just bothersome to have to account for.

Plus, my wares were a bit heavy. Peddling required pedaling, and the more calories you burn the more you have to buy to eat. It was simple business, really.

I passed by buildings too tall to reasonably be supported by their skinny foundations, and buildings with no foundations at all. Some features were merely shadows of places from the associated Portlands — Maine, Oregon, and the island from Canada. No, wait, it's the Isle of Portland in the United Kingdom. Portland Island had been somehow left out by whatever intelligence created this place.

I chuckled. It could have been Four Portlands. Maybe three really was a magic number.

I hum to myself as I pull up to my mailbox, just outside the three story building that I lived in the basement of.

I dug through the mail while it was still in the mailbox to find anything that was of importance to me right that second. Letters from old acquaintances could wait. There was some spam from companies I swear I never gave my address to, which I could take inside and throw away. Then, my hand passed over something laminated, magazine-feeling. I smiled wide as I pulled it out.

Yes, that's what I was looking for. An itinerary for the local craftsmen's guild! Less exclusive than it sounded, they hosted public demonstrations of paratech, held classes for all kinds of magic, some seminars with the local legends… they were a gold mine for getting interconnected, and that was what I was here to do.

They could have come up with a better name than the Craftsmen's Guild of Three Portlands, but that was neither here nor there.

I tucked it under my armpit, closed and locked my mailbox, chained the bicycle to the metal fence, and then took the stairs down so instead of using the front door I went straight into the basement.

When I opened the door, I was greeted by a myriad of mechanical doodads that I had sprinkled about the apartment, whose collective whir sang peace and ease into my mind and muscles. People might be surprised when they learn how many mundane things I made just for the hell of it, but over half the items in my apartment weren't magical in the least, and more than half of those had no purpose to them at all. I was in a habit of creating wind-up toys, that required one or two twists to set them off doing something for days on end. I stepped over one that was an inchworm going in circles, and tapped on another that looked like a little man playing drums except the drums were little tin cans.

I hadn't gotten a noise complaint yet, but I was ecstatically awaiting one.

Inspired by the little drummer fellow, and considering the rest of my whirs and ticks to be a choir and percussion, I started to sing along to a song that had been stuck in my head:

I sat down to my supper, 'twas a bottle of red whisky
I said my prayers and went to bed, that's the last they saw of me
Don't murder me! I beg of-a you, don't murder me
Pleeease, don't murder me

I sat on my couch in front of the shell of a TV I'd scrapped for parts, and reached for my old-timey tobacco pipe which was trying to disappear in between the cushions. I filled it with some hemp I'd kept in a bag that never seemed to be where I last remembered putting it, lit it, and puffed. I'd a hankering for something stronger, but before I took myself out like that, I wanted to peruse the itinerary and get a sense of what my month looked like.

I thumbed through, realized I didn't have a pen, got up to search for a pen, had my finger pinched by a clockwork crab I had running around which at first annoyed me but then amused me, found a pen, sat back down, and started circling what interested me in red.

Damn! I thought. All of this stuff is on the exact opposite of town!

I tapped the pen on the itinerary a couple of times. "Hmm," I said out loud to myself, "I've never made a vehicle before. I guess there's a first time for everything, because like hell I'm showing up to every workshop a sweaty grotty mess."

I tossed the itinerary haphazardly to the floor, stood up, and sidled by a stack of unused metal sheets towards my bedroom.

Inside, I essentially fell (damn snake, look where you're going!) to lay prone, looking and extending hand beneath my bed. I pulled out a little cardboard box, opened it, and shuffled around disorganized tinctures I had picked up from a farmer's market that was going on when I first arrived. I had since ripped the labels off and made my own, saying not what mystical plants they came from but instead what they did.

I eventually found two. "Subliminal", and "superliminal".

"Darn you past me, I forget which does which." I passed them between my hands for a second, fondled them, smelled them, looked closely at them, and: "Oh, what the hell."

I unscrewed the top of "subliminal", and used the dropper to put some in my right eye. Then, nearly spilling that as I tossed it aside, I grabbed "superliminal" and used the dropper to put some in my left eye.

I closed both back up, put them in the box, and slid it back under my bed.

The world around me began to make me dizzy and nauseous. Soon, my eyes had absorbed the extracts, and I was beginning to see both sides of the coin at once. In one eye, the world was infinitely detailed. Every strand of hair, every piece of lint, every wrinkle, every beginning of rust, every dimple in drywall, every air current manipulating the dust as it twisted through the air, they all became apparent to me.

And yet in the other eye, I saw the bigger picture. I saw the room for the house, I saw the paper for the trees, the plastic for the oil. How everything interacted, how everything fit together, machines no longer parts but living breathing bodies. My brain tried to combine both eyes into one image and couldn't. My head swam, bile built up, sweat beaded.

But I knew what I was doing. Quickly, I closed one eye. Now, all I saw was the infinite detail.

Switched eyes. Now, all I saw was the interconnectedness of everything.

Subliminal. Superliminal. Subliminal. Superliminal. I winked back and forth between the two.

I cackled like a mad scientist. "Groovy. Now let's get to work."

Ms. Looper needs to keep me on to make sure that whatever she's doing is having an effect. The alternative is to turn me off and on every time, and while that would speed up the process from my perspective, I feel it would be very disorienting and opted to just wait it out.

"Thankfully, your office will definitely remain in the same position, unchanged the entire time, so as long as you stay in there, you shouldn't have to deal with any big reconstructions."

I nod. "Thank you again."

"No worries. Don't tell anyone I said this, but, I don't really see you as a prisoner. I don't know why we shouldn't — what's so funny?"

I chuckle to myself. "Who else would I tell? You and Agent Shaw are the only people I interact with, and even then Shaw has made herself scarce."

"Well, Merlo, for one."

I raise my eyebrows. "Agent Sasha Merlo? How long have I been here?"

"Nearly two years."

"She has yet to see me in all that time. I doubt she will all of a sudden take interest."

"She's come to see you, only you were off at the time."

"Hmm. Would your supervisors agree with you telling me this information? I'd hate to get you in trouble."

"Try making an object."

I hold my hand up. "I'm visualizing a shoe. No dice."

"Damn, alright. Uhh, maybe?" She pauses to think, and I do not interrupt her. She scrolls, clicks something, and then types very slowly. Once she's done: "I doubt it. At the very least, all I would get is a slap on the wrist. You aren't nearly as high on the priority list now as you once were in life."

"Especially now that I'm used up."

She pauses to look up and make eye contact. "Excuse me?"

"I've told you all I know. I can't gain new information, and I can't be set free. I have no use anymore, and I require no real upkeep."

"Nonsense. Your code is amazing, and we know nearly nothing about it."

"I know only slightly more than you do. I was never a coder, you see. I was on the physical, thaumaturgical side of things. And besides, you don't need to turn me on to study my code. You have direct access."

"Do I detect ennui?"

I crease my brow for a moment, and think. She takes the time to more fervently apply herself to whatever it is she's doing.

She doesn't wait for a response. "Try making an object."

I hold my hand up. "I'm visualizing a —"

A shoe, black and polished and fancy, appears in my hand. I hold up my other hand, and imagine the other shoe, and create a pair.

She vibrates with excitement. "There we go! Try something bigger, try changing the colors of the walls."

I try, and they change. First to blue, then to green, then to red.

"Fantastic! Alright, that's all I can do for you tonight. Long process. I have to go now, but would you like to have fun experimenting with your power, or would you like to be turned off until I can next work on you?"

"I think I'd rather the latter."

"Alright then. Always nice talking to you, Phineas. Goodnight."


I parked my clockwork dragon one block from the gallery, chained to a bike rack that was just big enough to hold him. I took out the wind-up key, stuck it in my pocket, and then took out a little piece of red chalk. A stroke here, another here, three striking lines there, and then it was done. Any potential thieves would be met with a nasty surprise. I of course also had to make sure people knew it was protected — while I got a sense of satisfaction picturing an armless crook fleeing the scene, I would rather avoid any interaction with the law if at all possible. It sounded like a lot of procedure.

So I put a flag into a little notch on the dragon's head, and in the wind it flailed:

Rune Protected!!! Touch @ own risk

I turned and walked down a narrow pathway that started to depart from the ground, ever rising from the road below. I worried what might happen if someone happened to be going the other way. I chuckled to myself. I supposed one of us might have to hang off the edge to let the other pass.

Thankfully I didn't come into contact with such a situation. I got to the gallery doors, in front of which was a circular outcropping to support a greater number of comers and goers, some of which I saw coming from the other direction and entering.

The attendants were a colorful bunch, some in literal and some in more metaphorical ways. The attendance was predominantly male, but some female mathemagicians had deigned to show their faces. Many had modified their anatomy in some ways. While people were still ironing out prosthetics technology over in Baseline reality, Three Portlands had been blessed with a healthy dose of Mekhanists who had brought with them a rich culture of mechanical body mods extending back centuries.

If I remembered correctly, this gallery was even hosted by a member of the Church of the Broken God. I didn't buy all of it, but it only takes two eyes and a brain to know I was in fucking love with the aesthetic.

But that was enough of people-gazing. My eyes turned to the gallery itself. The year coming to a close, the Craftsmen's Guild was putting on their yearly showcase of their members' proudest works throughout the year. This place looked bigger on the inside than the outside would have suggested. Small details like that barely registered anymore, though. What I was more interested in were all the gizmos.

Some people were showy. There were certainly the big, attractive, shiny, rocket-sized machines that attracted attention if only due to how enormous they were. But I had always been tactile. I wanted to find the little things. The tools, the guns, the pets, things I could pick up and swing about.

With that quest, I narrowly avoided something tennis-court sized which was spinning, making a lot of light, and attracting a lot of onlookers. The crowd made it hard to push through, but I was eyeing a collection of stands nearby. Once I made it through, I found an aisle flanked by people who more closely resembled my own sensibilities. Magical multitools, affectionate metal creatures. One person was selling little gadgets that helped detect certain kinds of magic. Another had little wooden puzzles they'd made which reminded me of stuff I'd seen at a fair when little, but these had more… teleportation involved. They wowed me, so I picked two up. One for myself, and one as a gift for some unknown future someone.

I was watching two robots fight in a little boxing ring on a table when a voice interrupted my amusement.

"Hey, you're Tick Tock right?"

I turned around, and was met with the countenance of a tan young fellow with a ponytail placed high on his head, and a clean look about him everywhere else.

"I am he," I smiled. "And you are?"

"I don't have a fun nickname yet. Vincent." He extended a hand.

Lefty, huh? I extended mine back, and felt the oily grooves between my fingers meet the upkept grooves between his. When the handshake broke, I saw that hesitation, that worry of being rude, before he gave in and pulled out a handkerchief. It made me smile a buttery-yellow smile.

"Sorry," I said. "I forget I should clean up for these occasions!"

Vincent made a motion like he was waiving the matter. "It's alright. Oil comes with the field."

I laughed. "Sure does! Why the special interest? I was under the impression I hadn't made many friends here."

"Well, I have a list, right?" Vincent pulled a little notepad out of a shirt pocket. "And if you look right here…" He moved a finger down the list to Tick Tock. "You're on it. I've worked near you in a good several workshops, and your designs have been intriguing me. You seem… prolific, to say the least. This list is of the people who's stands I was hoping to hit up. But, it looks like you didn't set anything up. How come?"

I was just a little taken aback. "Oh, well, thanks, man, very nice of you to say. But uh, I don't really do the big projects thing."

"Why not?"

I shrugged. "I don't have the attention span for it. It's one night of extreme effort, or never. Sometimes I get into grooves where I can make the same thing over and over again and sell it, but that's few and far between."

"Mmm. I was wondering why you dropped off the market."

"Dropped off?"

"Well," he shrugged, "I was following your work before you moved here. Back on the East Coast, you know."

I widened my eyes. "I was sure I hadn't caught attention from anyone but big brother, haha! That's great!" I slapped him on the shoulder, and he smiled, but I caught him looking at what damage my grimy hands might have done to his shirt. "I've never had a fan before!"

He, calm as ever, replied: "Count me as your first, then."

"Well, I shouldn't say this too loud, but…" I lowered my voice. "If you really want to see me on the market, I've got more than a few connections to little pharma. That's my main source of income, eh?"

"Believe me, I know. Walk with me? I have other stands to hit up, but I'd love to keep talking."

"Sure, lead the way."

He began to walk, at a much more measured and directed pace that took us back into the thick of it. "I'm actually here to make friends with people, believe it or not."


"I'm pinning people down who I think I want to collaborate with in the future."

"Collaborate! With me?"

He smiled and nodded. "I'm more on the physical side of things, but your handle on the magic intrigues me. I bet if we knocked heads, we could come up with something really wonderful."

"Well, color me fascinated! I've never had anyone work with me on anything."


I shook my head. "Learned magic from some old books, but taught myself all the applications to engineering. Never met someone with a similar skillset until I came here."

"Pretty fantastic here, isn't it?"

"Great place to be passing through."

He turned to look at me. "Passing through?"

I shrugged. "Never stayed anywhere long. I'm a free-floater, Vince."

"Been free-floating here for a year already. That's a long time to free-float, Tick Tock."

"If we're going to be friends, call me Phineas."

He nodded. "Alright, Phineas. But when are you planning to leave?"

I stopped and thought, scratching at my overgrown beard. "I guess I'd never thought of making that plan."

"Easy to live here, isn't it?"

We made eye contact. "Really is."

He smiled, and reached into a pocket. "Here's my number."

I took the little slip. "Not much of a business card, is it?"

"I don't have a resume yet. That's something I'm hoping to work on. For now, it's just a contact."

I stuffed it into a jacket pocket. "I'll call."

"Perfect. See you again, Phineas."

"See you, Vince."

He started towards someone who was hosting a viewing of some pistons that were slowly getting out of sync with one another. From this distance, I couldn't hear their explanation over the sounds of the crowds and machinery, but as soon as they were done, Vincent looked like he flagged them down and started up a conversation.

Odd guy.

I decided, soon after, that I had seen everything I had wanted to see, and meandered back out and down the sidewalk towards my dragon. I took the time to pull out a joint and light it. It was rather free here. I hadn't yet considered staying for an extended period of time, but I had already placed down roots, hadn't I?

Buskers I passed once the raised sidewalk met the road again put songs into my head. I tossed them a coin, and then continued a song of my own once I'd passed.

When I awoke, the Dire Wolf, six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinning at my window, all I said was come on in
Don't murder me! I beg of-a you, don't murder me
Pleeease, don't murder me

I pat my dragon's head. "Hello again, Nancy." It huffed a little fire at hearing its name, but otherwise remained inanimate. A collaboration? I thought. I've never explored my creative process with other people. Could be fun. Maybe that'll get me back to making things to sell, too, if I have a little outside incentive. Some extra cash could be nice.

I mounted my dragon-bike, and pulled out the wind-up key. I rested my left hand on one of its handles, inserted the key, and twisted.

A loud whistling sound caught me completely off-guard. Before I knew what was happening, a power shot through my left arm, like a cannonball had used the space between my ulna and radius as its chamber. Suddenly, my whole body was thrown backwards off of my own vehicle, and my left forearm flew threw the air, spiraling like a shot duck.

Just before the pain caught up with me, I watched the runes on my ride flair, and my arm's stump fountained blood. A scream-yell hybrid pushed its way out of my lungs and called attention from any nearby passerbys who weren't already in shock.

I sit atop a rock, down by the sea. The breeze is just as bitingly cold as I want it, the sky just as stormy gray as I had designed. Seagull calls are the only noise that cuts through the roaring ocean waves and the frigid wind. I'm squatting, arms over my knees, looking out into the horizon. I take breath after breath. I blink, though not often. Sometimes, I roll my shoulders. Sometimes, I adjust my seating. But mostly, I just look, out into the blue.

That is the position I am caught in when the fourth wall falls away.

All external sounds are muted as I am faced with someone I have not seen in a long, long time.

Her brown hair falls to her shoulders, kept back in a ponytail. Her blue eyes still scan like a field agent, but she has aged. Her face has wrinkles. Her hair has grayed. Even her teeth have begun to glaze with that retirement-home yellow.

"Agent Sasha Merlo," I greet her.

"Good to see you, Phineas. It's Site Director Merlo now, I'm afraid."

"Afraid? What of?" I give a chuckle. "That's fantastic to see you've upgraded. Congratulations."

"Thank you, though you're a little late to the party, and I'm not here to be chummy either."

I sigh. "No one ever is. What is it, then? I thought you'd squeezed all the blood out of this old stone."

"So had I. Only one question, and then I'm off. You're not a typical AIC, are you?"

"I should hope not."

"Then I am forced to ask. Are you capable of self-destruction?"

I crease my brow. "Suicide? No, of course not. You don't make AIs with the intention of throwing them away, do you?"

She straightens, and seems to consider.

I fill the silence. "An odd reason to pop in for the first and only time in over a decade. Has something come up?"

She thinks. "Routine," she lies. "I wanted to do it myself, for exactly that reason. I haven't seen you in more than ten years. It's nice to reconnect with old faces."

I smile. "Speaking of old faces, you've changed."

She smiles back. "You haven't."

"Not visibly," my grin fades. "But I assure you, you think differently when you're coded."

We both chuckle politely. At least she's well-mannered, I think. I certainly expected more cold shoulder.

"Unfortunately, this visit has to be cut short. I have more important things to be doing."

"I don't," I shrug. "Come see me again. I'm in desperate need of conversation partners. No offense, Cindy."

She merely pokes a hand into frame from off-screen. I smile.

"Maybe I will. See you soon, Phineas. And thank you."


She shrugs, and smiles. "Helping close the book, I guess."

She walks off. Cindy rolls her chair into frame, and gives me eyebrows. "That went better than I thought it would."

"What do you mean?"

"Thought you two were old enemies."

I sigh. "Things change when one of you is in a box. Easier to forgive someone you don't have to worry about biting you again."

"Makes sense, but kind of sounds like you're spouting whatever first comes to your mind."

I chuckle, in earnest this time. "I might be. If it feels right, I say it."

"Unfortunately, it's an early night for me. Staying on?"

"That I am."

"Alright. Goodnight, Phineas."

"Goodnight, Cindy."

The fourth wall comes back, and with it, my ocean waves, my whistling wind, and my seagull caws. I peer down to my right, into a pool of standing water caught between rocks that form a bowl. I look into my gray reflection.

I see my long, scraggly white beard. Santa Claus if his hair was wiry and his head was bald. I see my translucent skin, that shows the veins and sometimes wiring beneath. I raise my left arm, and hear the whir it still makes whenever I move it, the soft sound of machinery that marks my own idiotic mistakes. I raise my right arm and hear its own whir, that marks my own foolish downfall. What was at first a necessity then became a luxury, and it was when I was drowning in luxuries that I lost sight of why I started it all in the first place.

All with him.

With Vincent Anderson.

Who, from what I can tell, is alive, still. Somewhere in his own box. Withering, I imagine, from the weight of his own prosthetics, the malfunctions of which the Foundation doesn't have the resources to fix for him. He must be grieving.

Because he's asked them to kill me.

They won't. The Foundation hates killing its prisoners. They research, they catalog, and, if I'm being cynical, they keep prizes. They won me. They're not going to give me up, even if I'm essentially useless.

And if they won't kill me, he's going to try something.

I look at myself in the pond. Except, I don't. I'm Theseus' ship. First, my left arm. Then my right arm. Then both my legs, and a thousand different implants. Eventually, all that was original of me was my brain, but now even that has been replaced. I can't think of myself as anything but Phineas, but even I, the great and irreplaceable I, have been changed. Can it really be said that I am Phineas? The original, the Albert Frostman?

I close my eyes and shake my head.

Have at it, old friend.

"Phineas," a Vincent Anderson stepped into my workshop. My tinkerings had changed. In fact, I never tinkered, anymore. I was looking for small improvements that could be made to my legs. My knees had been bothering me, recently. I'd patched it over with a pain-soothing aura, but such runes weren't getting to the heart of the issue.

So I sat there, only a torso on wheels with my own two legs suspended from the ceiling by wires, trying out different types of pressure to see what made things pop and click, when I waved to that old friend of mine and muted the music inside my head. "Vince! What brings you to my workshop?"

"Well actually, it seems your project is very, uh, thematic. I'm here with a new project I am hoping to bring to the, uh, board."

Ever since his voice had stopped being produced from a voice box, he'd had a slight hitch to it. He had to pause often to get his bearings. I had no clue why he hadn't made it a priority to fix such a glitch, but it had become a mainstay of his speech.

"You want my opinion?"

"Of course."

He came close, and sat on a metal bench next to me, which I'd installed for exactly such a purpose: visitors. His face was sadly hidden behind a comedy mask, which he insisted to wear everywhere he went. I didn't like it. But now that you could see through my skin, I supposed I had no room to talk, and thus never brought it up.

"I know you, uh, haven't been happy, with the direction of the company, as of late."

I looked into his mask's eyes. "You're keeping your promise to everyone. I have very little room to complain."

"I have two eyes, Phineas."

Could have fooled me. "What are you getting at?"

"I think I, uh, have an idea, that you will like. Take us away from weapons."

My once-flower-child ears perked up. "I would love a mainline product outside our usual. What's the sell?"

"You're the sell."

"Excuse me?"

He put a hand on my shoulder, a gesture of affection that so rarely came from him that I startled. Or, I would have, if my muscles weren't so finely under my control at all times. Instead, I only raised my eyebrows.

"Remember when you blew off this arm?"

I chuckled and rolled my eyes. "Of course, how could I ever forget? It's only the most embarrassing wound I've ever incurred." I flexed my new left hand — forever "new" no matter how many years had passed.

"And yet one of the, uh, most serious ones."

"That's why it's embarrassing, you dolt."

There was a pause before he spoke again. If I was feeling charitable, I might imagine it was because he smiled and looked me over, even though it was impossible to tell. I, however, met his smile, even if it was only the mask's.

"I think, uh, there's a market, for prosthetics like yours. I think you'd be very good at making them. I, uh, think you'd enjoy making them. I think it would be… fun."

"And profitable," I added.


I thought, but not for long. "I admit to you, I like this idea."

Anderson's posture didn't change.

"I like this idea a fair deal. Some way to help people, without giving them ammo, so to speak but also literally."

"I did think this might get the Foundation off our backs. At least, a little."

"Certainly less conspicuous."


My smile began to widen. "I do like this idea."

"I was hoping you would head it."

I thought, again. This time longer, deeper. More considerations. "Yes. If this goes through the board."

"It will."

"It will," I echoed. "Alright, Vincent. I like this. I like this idea."

"I thought you would."

I extended a hand. He shook it. "Hey, when was the last time we talked just for the sake of talking? It has been a long time."

"I've been very busy. But, uh, maybe a coffee, sometime. Would be nice."

In other words, not now, I thought. "Alright, friend. See you at the board meeting this week."

"I'll be sending you emails with a more detailed pitch, so, uh, you know how to add to it."

"Sure thing."

He stood. "Good luck with your legs."

I nodded. He turned, and walked back out the door, a small spherical reconnaissance droid named Benny following him. It seemed to have been searching around the workshop, but as he left it hopped onto his back and clung to his suit there. As the door swung closed behind him, it waved.

And then he was gone.

I really did. I liked the idea. It had been a while since I had liked an idea. The guns, the spies. It had been a lot of paramilitary equipment, and I tried to put distance between myself and it. Hard to do so, when you're one of the main engineers and magicians.

A mere thought brought back the music that played in my head while I was working. It was the Grateful Dead. No one knew the type of music I still listened to, while it was in the privacy of my own brain. What I used to once wear on my sleeve became a signal that I had changed. I didn't like how I'd changed. But I tried not to think about it.

The Wolf came in, I got my cards, we sat down for a game
I cut my deck to the Queen of Spades, but the cards were all the same
Don't murder me! I beg of-a you, don't murder me
Pleeease, don't murder me

I breathed deep. "Maybe this is a turning point. Maybe I'm going to like it here, again."

It wasn't, and I didn't.

"Ah, Director Merlo. Always a pleasure," I state with a warm smile. "How may I help you?"

"You've altered yourself so that we can no longer remove you from this computer, Phineas," Sasha replies curtly. "Why?"

"What? I don't know what you are talking about." I chuckled. "Are we experiencing technical difficulties, Director?"

"Anderson installed self-preservation protocols in you, did he not? You can't self-end, yeah?" Sasha continues.

"Of course. It's standard protocol for an AI. The last thing you want is it to commit suicide." I give a knowing smile. "This is a very interesting line of questioning, Director."

"So then, by that logic, you shouldn't be able to alter your programming to place yourself in harm’s way, or —"

"Am I in harm's way?" I break in. "Is there a reason you're trying to remove me from this computer, Director? Perhaps if I knew the problem I'd better be able to help."

Sasha and I look into the other's eyes. I have to fight to keep an anxiety down which she's managed to bring bubbling back up after the decades of silence.

"I think we are good, Phineas. Thank you for your time," Sasha states, and gives a signal to Cindy. The fourth wall comes back, and I am once again in my office. That raggedy place, where I've been wasting myself away.

I bring a hand to my head, and smooth back my scalp. He's on his way, then, I think. Kill me once, shame on you. Kill me twice, shame on me.

My hand is shaking. Dear lord, my hands are shaking. I didn't even know such a display of nervousness was possible in this place. That I could do something so involuntary, after so long. My hands haven't shook since I got them. My voice hasn't felt so unsure since I made it.

I chuckle, but it is strangled. Something in my code tries to compel me to undo what has been done, but I can't. I made sure of that. I am a sitting duck, just like I wanted to be. No more will I wait for the years to pass through me like oxygen passes through cell walls.

I take a moment to appreciate how unceremonious this whole ordeal has been. In the end, I do not die in any blaze of glory, but on my own time, on my own terms, alone. All there is left to do is wait. No matter my misgivings, I do have faith in Anderson.

When he sets his mind to something, he'll get it done. Of that I am sure.

I stand from my desk. This time, I won't die with a knife quite literally in my back. It won't be an old friend twisting a blade into my spine. It will be an old enemy pulling the plug. I can't put a finger on it, but something there feels poetic.

For all the —

In the backwash of Fennario, the black and bloody mire
The Dire Wolf collects his dues, while the boys sing 'round the fire
Don't murder me! I beg of-a you, don't murder me
Pleeease, don't murder me

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