When Nix emerged, blissfully dry and warm and clad in a pair of heavily-patched jeans and a long-sleeved blue shirt with the words ‘FUCK THE SYSTEM’ scrawled across it, Gryff was still there, having returned to his sprawled-out position on the sofa. He gave her attire a curious look.
“Going a bit old-fashioned, aren’t you?”
She shrugged the shrug of someone who’s really not self-conscious at all, honest. “It’s comfy. And warm.”
He gave her a piercing look. “Your find asked you about your arms, did he?”
“...Maybe.” Nix was peering very closely at the water as she filled the kettle. She heard Gryff sigh, before moving her way to carefully place her top hat on her head.
“Screw ‘im. But not like that.” One finger gently traced the spot on her arm where he knew one of the bigger scars lay. “So you’re marked, so what?”
“He wasn’t...” She frowned, making up tea in a battered flask. “It wasn’t said to be mean. Just like curiosity, you know? But I’d almost forgotten they existed. And I don’t like remembering.”
“I know, love.” Gryff squeezed her shoulder. “’s all right.”
“No, it isn’t.” Nix screwed the top tightly onto the flask, stuffing it in a cloth bag along with large, wrapped-up chunks of cake and chicken that she took from the fridge. “But it will be, in the end.”
Uncharacteristically, she bent slightly to give him a brief peck on the cheek before swinging the bag onto her shoulder. “You’re still a star, though. Shortarse.”
“And you’re always a dorkface, Beanpole,” he fired back, blushing. “I’ll see you at the party, yeah?”
Nix saluted on her way to the door. “Yessir.”
She’d originally intended to first make her way to the cells, but the conversation with Gryff had made Nix realise that she really did need to apologise to Toby first. A proud girl, apologies were something she’d always hated, but putting it off would only make it worse. Besides, she wanted to see her mother and sister, too, so rather than catch the lift back up two floors she went down another three floors instead, taking the twisty path to a room whose door frame bore the rusted, nailed-on inscription of ‘Head Communications’. This door had an even higher security than the cells: there were half a dozen different codes to be tapped in the right order and two vocalised passwords in addition to the retina scan, double hand scanner and swipe card.
Inside was a cave of a room built on several levels, all of which were dominated by technology, in particular a vast television screen at one end that still showed a gently smouldering Big Ben. Lights, for the moment, came mostly from the screens and from occasional switched-on desk lamps on some of the desks. Toby’s dark head could be seen bowed in the middle of a vast cluster of computer screens, wires and various other incredibly illegal forms of technology, his shaven head gleaming like polished dark chocolate in the dim light of the screens now that he’d taken off the beanie hat. Brother and sister were not at all alike: though Nix was tall for a woman, Toby was tall by anyone’s standards, easily topping six foot seven; where Nix was built like an athlete, her elder brother – twenty-five years of age to Nix’s nineteen – was built like a tank; and where Nix was fiery and often impulsive, he was softly-spoken and cool-headed. But despite the differences in their personalities, Nix was uncharacteristically hesitant; she hung in the doorway, watching him, for several moments before Toby happened to look up and see her.
“Oh. Hey, sis.”
Nix offered him a slightly tentative smile. “Hey, Big. How’s work?”
He frowned, not exactly at her. “Confusing. C’mere and have a look at this.”
She crossed the room obediently to stand behind him. “What am I looking at?”
One enormous hand pointed to the largest of six or seven screens. “Obviously I’ve not run any real tests yet, but I gave your find the full benefit of all our in-cell scanners, and the results are processing now. I’m going to need to send out another team for a new digivision inducer, this one’s losing it a bit, but you can clearly see the amount of core energy he’s got. He should be burning up! But another scanner indicates his surface temperature’s more or less normal.” Nix’s smile broadened slightly at the stream of technobabble; they’d be all right, she and Toby. “Simply put, it does not compute. Never mind what he looks like... He’s like something out of Greek myth.”
“Or Narnia,” she murmured absently.
“Oh, I don’t know. But the first time I saw him, all I could think of was ‘he’s like Tumnus’. Remember, like in the book? And the DVD, I’ve got the DVD somewhere too.”
Toby grinned. “And there I always thought the only reason you paid attention in that was ‘cause James McAvoy spends the ‘ole thing shirtless.”
Nix had the good grace to look innocent. “No, but it explains why you never paid much attention to the plot.”
Her brother chuckled. “Touché.”
“Better believe it.” Nix rubbed his bald head fondly. “Sorry about earlier, Tobe. I should’n’t’ve got mad.”
Toby looked down at his hands. “Don’t ever yell at me in front of other people, Nix,” he said gruffly. “Even if you are my kid sister, I’m supposed to be in charge.”
“I know,” Nix said quietly. “I was outta line. It won’t happen again, promise.”
“Okay. Forget it, then.” Toby looked up again, and was hugged by Nix. He returned the hug, tightly. “Damn, Nix, you scared me.” Softly. “It’s good to have you back, sis.”
“Good to be back, Tobe.” As he released her, Nix straightened up. “Is God at home? I wanted a word with her and Thren.”
“Mamma’s in the office, yeah. I’m pretty sure Threnody’s back at the party. ‘Tonight’s the night’, apparently.” Toby rolled his eyes; she laughed.
“Hoo boy. That should be fun. Are you gonna go take a look?”
Toby shook his head. “Not right now. I want to look over these scan results when they come through, but I might head up later.”
“You should go, it’ll be a laugh,” Nix told him. “You spend too much time down here anyway.”
He gave her a mock salute. “Yes sarge. You sound just our mam, sometimes, you know that?”
She snorted, making for the other door. “Just because I’m right. I’ll see you later, Toby.”
“Bye, sis,” her brother said vaguely; when Nix looked back, Toby was already absorbed back in his technology. She shook her head with a grin, and pushed open the door.
Down the corridor and through another set of steel doors was an office, neat if rather battered; she tapped in the code and stepped confidently through. Behind the desk, the room’s sole prior occupant lounged with her feet up, reading something on her computer screen. Nix hung in the doorway again, but not out of nervousness this time.
Grinning, “Hey, Mamma.”
Chalcedony ‘Challie’ Harper looked up as the door opened and smiled broadly when she saw who it was.
“Nix Gordon, you daft cow, you scared the life out of me!”
Her adoptive daughter was enveloped in a bone-breaking hug that made Nix squeak even as she hugged back. “Gerroff, you big lug! Call yourself our mother...”
Challie released her, laughing. “Quit complaining, kiddo. Kids today...”
But Nix’s protests were not particularly surprising: along with skin the colour of polished hardwood, Challie Harper shared with her son Toby a physique that had much in common with a brick outhouse; she looked as though she could have been an Olympic athlete in her youth. Now in her mid-fifties, she still shared another of her birth son’s attributes: his height. In her cherry-red stilettos she was very near as tall as he was, and her smartly-tailored if well-worn black business suit, worn with a crimson blouse and black tie, further added to the impression of height. She could easily have been very masculine-looking, but her round, high-cheekboned face with its black braids plastered tightly to it in intricately-patterned swirls, was unexpectedly attractive if not precisely pretty. The clever, almond-shaped brown eyes behind her smart spectacles were old before their time, and she wore a slim gold band on her left ring finger.
Nix, still grinning, punched her mother lightly on the arm. “Shurrup, oldie.”
Challie perched with her on the desk. “Cheeky bint.” She glanced at Nix’s clothing. “I don’t approve of that shirt, by the way.” Nix just rolled her eyes. “You know I don’t like that word.”
Her mother gave it up as a lost cause – truth be told, Nix’s frequently-terrible attitude to authority was probably genetic and was at least a lot healthier than the subservience of teenage girls on the ‘outside’.
“So, give me your report.”
Nix got to her feet, standing straighter than usual, her hands behind her back. “Made my way to the city as arranged, landing and hiding the bike in __________ Street. Made my way to the Tower as planned, and was forced to punch out a guard I couldn’t avoid.” He voice was crisp and calm. “Unfortunately my watch must have been broken in the struggle, which I failed to notice. I then ascended the rest of the way, removing the bomb from its case and hiding it one floor from the top before setting it to activate at midnight. Unfortunately I didn’t notice my watch had stopped, and so was forced to take the plan B exit when it exploded before I had left.”
“Which worked well, I take it?” her mother interrupted.
Nix nodded. “I’ve got a few new bruises but my landing was actually fairly soft. Anyway, I happened to look back up at the tower and saw a new figure still up there, apparently trapped. I yelled for him to jump, which he did. He turned out to be some kind of – of experiment: he looks like a boy from the waist up, but from the waist down he looks like a – a goat or something. He was disoriented, not obviously hostile and very confused, so I took him with me rather than leave him for the Peelers to interrogate.”
Challie frowned, but said nothing.
“When we got back to the bike its scanners indicated that he was wearing a tracker, which I removed and threw in the
Challie nodded. “Good girl. You still checked the coast was clear before you landed, I hope?”
“Yep – bike wasn’t picking anything up, and I checked in with Control to be sure.”
“Excellent. Well, I’m not overly happy about this Begby creature, and the thing with the watch was basically one big balls-up, but I can understand why you did it and you acquitted yourself very well. Sit down, love, you did good.”
Nix grinned, relaxing again and sitting back down. “Thanks, Mamma. Did you get any chocolate?”
“Raided the kitchens before you got back,” sighed Challie, reaching behind her for a box. “You hopeless sugar-hound, Nix Gordon.”
Her adopted daughter giggled unrepentantly, snagging a chocolate. “Sugar is totally a very valid and highly important part of the diet, thank you.” She popped it into her mouth. “Anyway, this is a strawberry one and fruit is extremely healthy.”
She ducked, laughing, as her mother swatted at her head, and neatly caught her top hat as it fell off.
“I’d better vanish,” she said eventually. “I want to check in with Threnody at the party, and then I promised I’d take Begby something to eat.”
Challie frowned again. “Don’t get too attached to him, Nix. We don’t know anything about him yet.”
“Yeah, I know.” Nix fiddled with the rolled-up umbrella leaning against the desk. “I’ll try.”
Her mother gave her a peck on the check. “That’s my girl. Go on, then, I’ll see you later.”
Nix stood again and headed for the door. “Bye, Mamma.”
“Bye, love.” Challie waved, swinging neatly over the desk and back into her seat with one sudden display of athleticism. “Don’t stay away too long.”
“Yessir,” Nix saluted before opening the door.
She felt vaguely guilty about leaving Begby alone in the cell for long still, but much as she hated to admit it her mother had been right: she couldn’t risk getting too attached. Besides, she knew Threnody wouldn’t be happy until they’d seen each other – and when her little sister wasn’t happy, nobody was happy.
The party upstairs, in one of the disused old underground train tunnels, was unmistakably in full swing, and Nix mentally gave her brother the thumbs-up – if Toby hadn’t insisted on meticulously soundproofing everything, the revellers would most certainly have been heard by someone unfriendly long ago. As she entered a teenage boy with a vivid blue mohawk pushed a drink into her hands, grinning broadly at her.
“Happy Bonfire Night!” His shout was barely audible over the throb of the music, but Nix grinned, mouthing the same in return as she clinked her mug against his bottle of beer.
“Where’s Threnody?” she yelled at him; Blue-Mohawk shrugged uncomprehendingly. She repeated the question with no further joy, promptly giving it up as a bad job and moving on.
It was as if Cyberia had exploded with people: the spartan tunnels had been decked with banners and daubed with graffiti and were packed with cheering, laughing, dancing life and pounding rock music. Nix elbowed her way through the throng, looking around for her sister. Off to one side, Gryff was dancing with Toby; they were smiling soppily at each other, and Nix made sure she thwapped her brother neatly on the back of the head as she went past. By the time he looked around, Nix was long gone – she’d finally seen Thenody, dancing and chatting with a group of people in various states of scruffiness at the group’s fringe. She shoved towards them, elbowing a girl with neon pink dreadlocks out of the way when the girl trod heavily on her foot, eventually managing to reach out and grab the arm of a slightly taller black girl with a green digiglass visor pushed up over her waist-length dreadlocks. Threnody jumped, then realised who it was and tugged Nix round into a hug.
“Happy Bonfire Night, sis,” Nix bellowed into her sister’s ear. “Didja miss me?”
Threnody rolled her eyes, taking Nix’s arm and towing her off towards an alcove in a corner, where robust soundproofing on three sides made it comparatively quiet. A few moments later the friends Threnody had been dancing with followed, arranging themselves over a handy couch.
“Thought we’d better check you hadn’t throttled each other,” remarked the tallest in a slight French accent, her English fast and fluent, as the two girls hugged again. “We know what you two’re like, after all.”
“I am perfectly well behaved, thank you very much,” Nix and Threnody retorted in perfect unison, letting each other go.
“Yeah, and you’re freaking us the fuck out,” answered the same woman, who with her razor-sharp cheekbones, perfect coffee-coloured skin and black tumble of corkscrew curls could have been mistaken for a model if not for the burn marks on her arms and calluses on her hands. “Stop doing that, you know how creepy it is.”
“Yes sir, Veronique sir,” chirped Nix and Threnody, again in perfect chorus, until Veronique threw her bowler hat at them in exasperation, knocking Nix’s own hat off.
“You’ll never get it back now, you realise,” commented a plump, tiny Chinese girl, settling herself comfortably on Veronique’s lap. The taller woman slid her arms around her. “It’ll probably wind up on Nelson’s Column or something.”
“Toby did mention we’d have a new mission soon...” Nix mused. “What do you reckon, Thren? We could give Nelson a makeover at the same time.” “I hate the pair of you,” Veronique declared, throwing up her hands. “Settle down, fashionplate,” sighed her girlfriend. “Can we get some more booze? If I’m going to play referee here, I’m going to need some more booze.” “I’ll get it, Jen,” said a lanky boy, pushing a green digiglass visor up from where it had been slipping down over his black buzzcut. “I need another beer anyway. Anyone else want another drink?” “ “ Nix raised her eyebrows. “Wow, really? Always thought they were practically painting targets on themselves, they acted so wet.” “Really. I know, we were all shocked,” said Azzy. “We’ve not heard anythin’ from the Yanks yet, though. Anyone know what their targets were?” “Fireworks on the Statue of Liberty and bombs on the Nix took her drink, her face serious for once. “Ta, Leo. Any word from the New Yorkers?” He shook his head, giving up the trays thankfully. “Not a peep. Toby’s given up for now, that’s why he’s down here trying to pretend he’s not wanting to run upstairs every thirty seconds." “Yeah, but when ‘as that ever stopped your brother?” asked Dominique, reaching out for a chipped mug that smelt strongly of the whiskey inside. “You know what ‘e’s like.” “Doesn’t stop us from trying to stop him. I’ll bloody kill him if he –” Nix broke off, yawning hugely. “Bugger, I’m tired. I’d better clear off, I’ve got to check in with someone before I can sleep. Keep me in on the news from Threnody saluted, standing at the same time as her sister did. “You got it. Can I get a word before you vanish? On your own, like.” Nix quirked a quizzical eyebrow, but didn’t argue. “Sure thing, sis. C’mon, then."
He looked a little nonplussed, however, when all of them ordered. Still, and as Jenny Chen swiftly pointed out, he should have been expecting it, really.
“So,” said another boy, whose long red hair was tied back in a ponytail. He reached across, flicking at one of Threnody’s dreadlocks until she scowled at him. “What happened to you out there? You were late as all fuck, Toby was practically having a meltdown til you made contact.”
“No, really? I totally haven’t heard that about fifty times in the last half hour or anything,” Nix deadpanned. “There were a couple of hitches, that’s all, and I got shot at a bit. No big deal.”
“But the bomb went off okay, right?” Threnody cut in eagerly. “No problems with it?”
“Went like a dream,” her sister assured her. “You should’ve seen it, Thren, it was bloody beautiful. You did great.” Threnody grinned. “Have we heard from Elsecountry, yet?”
“Oi!” objected Dominique, reaching a long brown arm out to smack him in the head. “Be’ave yourself, Azzy.” He glared at her, rubbing the back of his head sulkily as she picked up the tale. “
The group winced as one.
Threnody shook her head, making the dreadlocks bounce. “He’ll give himself insomnia again if he’s not careful. ‘s not his responsibility any more.”
“I hate the pair of you,” Veronique declared, throwing up her hands.
“Settle down, fashionplate,” sighed her girlfriend. “Can we get some more booze? If I’m going to play referee here, I’m going to need some more booze.”
“I’ll get it, Jen,” said a lanky boy, pushing a green digiglass visor up from where it had been slipping down over his black buzzcut. “I need another beer anyway. Anyone else want another drink?”
Nix raised her eyebrows. “Wow, really? Always thought they were practically painting targets on themselves, they acted so wet.”
“Really. I know, we were all shocked,” said Azzy. “We’ve not heard anythin’ from the Yanks yet, though. Anyone know what their targets were?”
“Fireworks on the Statue of Liberty and bombs on the
Nix took her drink, her face serious for once. “Ta, Leo. Any word from the New Yorkers?”
He shook his head, giving up the trays thankfully. “Not a peep. Toby’s given up for now, that’s why he’s down here trying to pretend he’s not wanting to run upstairs every thirty seconds."
“Yeah, but when ‘as that ever stopped your brother?” asked Dominique, reaching out for a chipped mug that smelt strongly of the whiskey inside. “You know what ‘e’s like.”
“Doesn’t stop us from trying to stop him. I’ll bloody kill him if he –” Nix broke off, yawning hugely. “Bugger, I’m tired. I’d better clear off, I’ve got to check in with someone before I can sleep. Keep me in on the news from
Threnody saluted, standing at the same time as her sister did. “You got it. Can I get a word before you vanish? On your own, like.”
Nix quirked a quizzical eyebrow, but didn’t argue. “Sure thing, sis. C’mon, then."