It was precisely eleven fifty-nine p.m., and the bustling city of
Across the gently fizzing blue Thames (mercilessly poisoned into a façade of cleanliness by a toxic cocktail of chemicals) to the now more or less defunct Houses of Parliament, Big Ben’s multitude of cogs whirred noisily to itself, bubbling itself up in preparation for its usual joyful celebration of midnight.
Three… Two… One…
The East clock face exploded with a blaze of unnatural light and rancid smoke; the great bell, suddenly now shamefully naked to the elements, jangled discordantly. Silhouetted against the outstretched flames, a slim figure threw itself off the platform exposed by the bomb blast, curving into a perfect swallow dive through the smoke and fire. Ten feet from the ground the shadow flipped over, to land on its back in the conveniently-placed rubbish truck filled with conveniently-cushioning cardboard boxes. For a moment, nothing; then a pale hand reached from within the pile like a struggling swimmer and Nix Gordon pulled herself free from the sea of boxes. Once out, she leaned back in to rummage through them once more, eventually yanking a battered black top hat free from the wreckage of her fall, hissing fierce expletives to herself as she did so. Some sound sixty feet above her made her look upwards, to see with horror a new silhouette appearing in the hole the bomb- her bomb, she reminded herself dazedly- had made. The figure appeared torn between the certain dangers of the flames licking the tower and the black unknown of the fall.
“Jump!” As if in a trance, Nix heard herself scream. “It’s a soft landing!” Not exactly soft, she reminded herself, wincing at her bruises, but better than concrete. The figure still hesitated, and she risked one more yell. “Jump, damnit!”
Every muscle, every nerve screamed at her to run, to get away before the police- the Peelers- caught her, but she couldn’t drag her eyes away. She had to see if he, or she, or whoever, made it. After what seemed like eternity, the silhouette above her made its decision. The leap into space was not as graceful as her own, the figure gangly and somehow distorted, but nonetheless it landed in the back of the rubbish truck with a dull thump. Nix reached in, found an arm and yanked the body out into the shadowy street.
“Are you okay?” she asked, squinting at the figure; cloaked in darkness, all she could see was that it was a humanoid of some description.
The creature hesitated. “I-I think so.”
“No bones broken? Who are you? What were you doing up there?” Words spilled in a rush from her mouth, but were dammed abruptly as the moon sailed out from behind its cloud, bathing the strange form of her find in lukewarm illumination. From above the waist the creature was a young man of perhaps nineteen, shirtless (now shivering in the cold night air), a green woollen scarf wrapped tightly around his neck; lightly bearded, curly-haired and with scared blue eyes- but were those horns peeping through the curls on his head? Below the waist, he seemed to have the legs of some kind of hooved animal- a goat, or perhaps a deer, she couldn’t see. “What- what are you?” Nix gasped out.
“I- I don’t know?” the figure tried. “B-but I th-think my n-name’s B-Begby. B-Bio-Evolutionary Guardian by Babylon Incorporated, the-they called me. B-Begby for sh-short.
“I’m Nix.” Mildly dumbfounded, it was all she could think of to say for a moment; when she opened her mouth to say something more, the strident blare of a pack of Peeler cars, frighteningly close, cut her off. “Well, follow me unless you want to be shot for doing that!” Nix yelped, waving a hurried hand upwards at what was rapidly becoming an inferno. “Run!”
She grabbed his hand and suited the action to the word.
Nix Adelphis Gordon herself, whilst not as bizarre a personage as her newfound companion, was nonetheless a rather odd-looking creature. A tall, sleekly-built young woman of nineteen, her head was completely shaven bald in rebellion against the fact that hair higher than mid-back was effectively illegal for women; the lack of hair gave her pale, pointed face a deceptively delicate, almost luminous appearance. She possessed large, intelligent bright blue eyes, a full, humorous red mouth and a perpetual air of mischief. For clothes Nix generally wore a crimson corset and black men’s trousers under a black, full-length man’s overcoat, with the trousers tucked into sturdy black combat boots: all in all, a fairly thorough corruption of the ruling ‘Techno-Victoriana’ fashions. Both her ears were pierced all the way around with silver hoops, and when outdoors her bald head was covered by a black top hat.
“Don’t panic,” Nix repeated to herself in a panicky mantra, leading Begby unerringly through shadowed backstreets and smoky alleyways and shady side streets, struggling to avoid the crowds for whom panic at the sound of the bomb blast had over-ridden prudence, bringing them out onto the streets heedless of the curfew law. She desperately wanted to contact Headquarters, but orders had been to maintain a strict radio silence from an hour before the bomb. Her watch had broken, she realised: the explosion had been scheduled for exactly midnight, but her watch had still been, and still was, showing only ten to twelve when the bomb had detonated with deadly force and she, Nix, had been flying down the stairs only two floors below. At least the contingency plan, such as it was, had worked- until she’d managed to adopt this creature, at least-
“I think we lost them-- Where are we going?” that ‘creature’ gasped, breaking into her thoughts.
“My bike’s hidden near here,” Nix managed. “But we’ve had to go the long way round to avoid being seen.” They skidded round a corner, arriving on the street facing the
She yanked sharply at the Camoflex cover that had previously rendered a machine that resembled an old Harley Davidson almost invisible and pulled it out, the machine gleaming in the pale moonlight. She made as if to mount the skybike, then thought better of it and turned to Begby.
“Take that scarf off, quick!” she ordered brusquely. “And come here.”
He did so obediently, revealing a metal collar tightly attached to his neck.
“A tracker,” Nix said smugly. “I thought as much.” She fumbled in the pocket of her coat, producing a small metallic device rather like a screwdriver.
“This might sting…” she murmured from behind him. He felt a heavy pressure on his neck; something bleeped sharply three times and a short, sharp feeling like an electric shock shot through him before Nix snatched the collar away. The back of his neck felt like it was on fire; when he looked at her, rubbing it, he saw that the collar was smoking gently in her hand.
“Sorry,” she said apologetically. “Damn things.”
Taking the collar in one hand, she flung it as hard as she could towards the
Numb, he only nodded, wrapping the thin green scarf around his neck once more.
“Now then,” Nix was briskly businesslike once more. “Time to go.”
She threw one leg over the saddle of the bike and pressed her thumb against the scanner lock that would check her fingerprint; the engine sprang into life with a gentle ‘grr’ like a contented tiger. Turning, she looked at him expectantly.
“Well? Will you take your chances on your own, or will you come with me?”
“I… I’ll come with you,” said Begby at last.
“Then you’d better get on, hadn’t you?” Nix said impatiently; the wailing of the Peeler cars had started again. Awkwardly, he mounted the bike, hesitantly wrapping his arms around her waist, not seeing Nix’s thin smile as he did so. “All right then,” she said mildly. “Hang on tight now, this could get- interesting…”
The bike roared into full life, making Begby jump and hold her tighter. Her smile broadening slightly, Nix hit the ignition full throttle and they roared away, the thin green ribbon of Begby’s scarf fluttering behind them in an elegant thumb-of-the-nose to the pursuing secret police.
The bike roared down the darkened sidestreets, keeping as far away from people as possible as it wove its way back to the Thames, and compared to its roar the wailing of the Peeler cars somewhere behind them seemed so distant that Begby almost managed to forget their presence, imagined that they’d never see them at all, until they almost ran headlong into a Peeler techcar around a corner, the blazing headlights blinding Nix so that she barely swerved in time to avoid death on its bonnet. Blinking frantically to clear the spots of light from her vision, she reached down and blindly punched a button, causing the bike to rocket almost vertically upwards into the air. Begby cried out with surprise, clutching her so tightly it hurt, but she ignored the pain; she could think only of escape, of hurling the bike more quickly into the air and away from the blue and white monster before its pack could converge on them.
“I said it’d be interesting!” Nix choked out, finally able to see clearly. “Bastards!”
All around them, a hornets’ swarm of techcars was screaming into the air, and Nix said no more; all her concentration was for outmanoeuvring their pursuers, now. Begby felt something whistle viciously past his left ear as Nix jerked the bike sharply to the right: the Peelers were shooting at them! Nix didn’t seem particularly surprised by this development, but switched the skybike’s lights off to give them a little more cover, gunning the engine to further bursts of speed in an attempt to outrun them. Eventually the skybike shot into a patch of thick cloud; Nix quietened the engine to a low purr, fiddling constantly with the controls to keep the bike still and steady in the air. The wait was agonizing: both soaked to the skin and freezing, Nix and Begby clung to each other and the bike in the terrifying silence, hoping against hope for the Peelers to pass without seeing them. The wailing of their sirens was all around them; muffled by cloud, it was impossible to judge their distance, and to Nix and Begby’s frightened ears they seemed horrifyingly close. Every second they expected to be dazzled by the horrifying white sharks-tooth lights or to feel a bullet zip past them. They seemed to wait forever, but eventually the wailing faded gently away into the distance in a welcome anticlimax to the chase. Shivering now, Nix cautiously eased the bike out of the clouds, constantly scanning the sky for their pursuers, but only a shoal of stars were to be seen.
“Not far now,” Nix murmured reassuringly over her shoulder, increasing their speed a little. “We’re almost home safe.”
She spoke the truth: it was ten, maybe fifteen minutes at most before they began descending, but to Begby, nerves constantly on edge, it seemed like a lifetime before Nix pointed to a blacker shape against the black landscape. “There,” she said, pitching her voice above the engine of the bike. “That’s where we’re headed.”
He’d never been so tired and yet so far from sleep. “That’s where you live?”
A small, thin smile in a whiter-than-usual face. “For my sins, yeah. It doesn’t look like much, but right now I’m past caring.”
Finally Nix’s intercom crackled blessedly into life. “Identify yourself.”
“This is callsign
A sigh. “Remember, remember, the fifth of November...”
“Gunpowder, treason, and plot,” completed the crackly voice on the other end. “Welcome home, Nix. All reports indicate no Peelers in the vicinity; feel free to land.”
“Be with you momentarily, Control,” she said with a smile. “Nix out.”
The bike touched down on a field with a much smaller bump than Begby had been expecting, purring through the grass and down a steeply-sloping black tunnel that suddenly opened in the ground.
“Lights!” Nix commanded; at her voice, several switched on with dazzling effect. When he could see again, Begby peered around; they appeared to be in some sort of huge underground garage. He could see at least twenty techcars and twice as many skybikes again around them, most covered with protective sheets. Nix steered them smoothly into an empty spot and dismounted the bike with a brief sigh of relief, offering him a hand down before tugging a spare tarpaulin over it.
“Time to face the music,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I won’t lie to you, Begby: this next bit probably won’t be too pleasant for you. My folks are going to want to know exactly who you are and where you came from, and they’re going to be suspicious. All I’ll say is, they’ll be a lot kinder than the Peelers would have been if they’d caught you.”
Begby nodded numbly, wrapping his arms around himself. “I just want to sleep,” he said softly, still shivering with cold.
She was clearly also freezing, but Nix ruffled his hair; he found the gesture oddly comforting. “I know, Begs, me too. Still. C’mon, we should at least be able to get cleaned up and warm before the music starts.”
She strode off, evidently highly familiar with their surroundings, leaving Begby hop-skipping to keep up in her wake.
He’d half-expected their path to slope back up towards the surface again, but instead he got the decided impression that they were descending. Once or twice during their walk Nix looked back at him as if about to explain something or other about their surroundings, which was a blank, austere tunnel with occasional doors leading off, but each time she bit her lip and kept silent, seeming to think better of it. He did notice that it got steadily warmer as they walked, until eventually it might have been quite comfortable if he weren’t still drenched in freezing cloud-water. Eventually they came up against a huge steel door, far larger than any of the others and evidently incredibly thick; the thing appeared quite capable of withstanding a nuclear bomb blast. Nix bent a little to peer at the small neat keypad next to the door, tapping in several different codes one after the other with only a brief ‘click’ sound from the door to distinguish between each, until she straightened up and the door swung smoothly inwards under its own steam. Above the door, Begby noticed, were three words made of steel strips neatly riveted into place:
WELCOME TO CYBERIA.
Beyond, there was only darkness.
But then Nix clomped confidently through the door in her army boots, and the room exploded with light and noise and whooping. Something loud and guitar-filled started blasting out from an old-fashioned boombox and two young men jumped down from a gangway a dozen feet up, unrolling a tattered Union Jack banner emblazoned with the roughly-painted phrase ‘ANARCHY IN THE UK’ as they leapt.
“London calling to the faraway towns,
Now war is declared, and battle come down
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls...”
One joined a gaggle of other people in slightly battered outfits reminiscent of Nix’s and who were all knocking back drinks from a hodge-podge of chipped mugs and glasses, but the shorter came running over to Nix and promptly tackled her to the floor with a shout, knocking her top hat flying. They wrestled, laughing, for several moments before she gained the upper hand and flipped him over to sit on him and pin him down.
“Aaah, you’re mean, Nix Gordon,” declared her wannabe adversary, but he couldn’t stop himself from grinning up at her as if he’d never expected to see her again.
Nix grinned down at him smugly. “Wouldn’t go calling me any names if I were you, Gryffie-Boyo, not with you where you are.”
“I’ll be good,” the young man promised meekly. “Can I get up now?”
“I suppose,” she conceded, getting to her feet and offering him a hand up. “But next time, remember who it is you’re trying to kill.”
“Yes ma’am!” Gryff sprang to his feet unaided and offered her a sharp military salute, making Nix giggle.
Upright, Nix’s friend was clearly several inches shorter than she was: a punked-out little sprite of twenty-one or two, with a shock of light brown hair half-covering a pair of wicked hazel eyes and single gold hoop through one ear. He spoke with a fast Welsh accent, and wore a battered khaki army jacket over a collection of dog tags on a silver chain and a black tank top; his well-worn khaki combats were ripped at the knees and tucked into bulky black combat boots identical to Nix’s. When he put his hand on her shoulder, Begby noticed that one of the fingers was cut short to a stump.
“Nix, y’soaked,” Gryff reminded her; Nix rolled her eyes.
“No, really? I hadn’t noticed.” He gave her a stubborn look. “I’ll go clean up,” Nix promised with a sigh. “So long as Control isn’t around to receive us…”
“Says who?” A deep voice enquired grumpily over the din from the boombox, as a huge young man in a bright blue woollen beanie hat poked his head out from a mass of wires and computers. “And what’s this about a guest?”
“Shit!” Nix clapped a hand to her mouth and whirled around to grab Begby by the hand and tow him forwards from where he’d remained at the door, shyly watching the scene more or less unnoticed by the crowd. “He was in the tower when the bomb went off, Tobe. Says his name’s Begby, short for… what was it? Bio-organic Evolutionary Guardian by Bri… No, Babylon Incorporated, that was it.” Begby nodded timidly. “Didn’t seem to know anything else about anything, so I brought him with me.”
The newcomer’s well-marked eyebrows shot skywards; Nix shrugged half-apologetically at the disbelieving looks both ‘Tobe’ and Gryff were giving her. “Didn’t think it was a good idea to leave him to the Peelers’ tender mercies, or have you forgotten?”
The crowd around them had all gone conspicuously quiet; in the silence, the two boys winced. “Okay, kiddo, you made your point.” Toby, who was easily six foot seven and built along the lines of a brick outhouse, fidgeted uncomfortably under the nineteen-year-old’s darkling look. “But you and your bloody heart’ll get us all killed one day, Nix.”
“God forbid we try to be better than the rutting Establishment!” Nix fired back. “I took every possible precaution. You’d never have left him either, and you know it. You know what they’d’ve done to him,” she reminded him softly. “Near as well as I do.”
“Yes, well.” Toby appeared to be mostly tongue-tied; for all his size, fights were clearly not his strong point. “We’ll talk about this later.”
“We’ll talk as much as you damn well please,” said Nix curtly, the danger note ringing more distinctly than ever in her voice. “After I’m dry. C’mon, Begs.”
“You can put him in a flamin’ holding cell, thank you,” Toby informed her gruffly. “Have some sense, Nix, before you get us all sodding well killed.”
“Yes sir.” Her low voice was thick with sarcasm. “Since I do in fact have the sense God gave green apples, thank you.”
She dragged a now thoroughly frightened Begby off, shoving her way heedlessly through the surrounding crowd, whose noise levels hastily picked back up now the argument seemed to be over.
“Sorry,” she told him over her shoulder. “We’re not really used to visitors.”
He didn’t reply.
“Calm down,” Nix said quietly, tugging him down another blank tunnel of a passageway. “’s not half as bad as it sounds.”
“A-aren’t you in trouble?” Begby asked hesitantly, once again struggling to keep up: Nix’s idea of a rapid walk was evidently closer to a run, and the smooth tiling on the floor meant his hooves were constantly slipping and skittering. “Because of me?”
“Not that much.” Nix’s mouth formed a wry smirk. “Toby’s a big pussycat, really. As you probably saw. Anyway, you could say I’m well-connected.”
“…I don’t understand.”
“Tell you later,” she promised. “When we’re dry. C’mon, suppose I’d better do as El Commandanté wanted and pop you in a cell for now. Don’t worry, it’s basically just a walled-off bit of corridor with a bunk and loads more security. I’ll go grab towels and food and come back for you, promise.”
Begby wasn’t sure at all why he believed her – certainly there wasn’t any reason to – but he did, nonetheless. He had done ever since her scream of command had ripped through the air at Big Ben to lead him through the dark to safety, and somehow he thought he always would.
The holding cells were more or less just as Nix had said they would be, but at least they were warm. Security consisted of voice recognition, an eyeball scan and a handprint scanner on the cell doors, all of which Nix seemed perfectly accustomed to. A low buzzing sound, like contented bees, hung fatly in the air. Begby obediently entered the cell ahead of her, and automatically curled up on its only furniture beside the bucket in the corner, a small rectangular bunk on the far wall.
Nix frowned, biting her lip. “Here.”
She shrugged her big overcoat off, extracting the screwdriver she had employed earlier and a small arsenal of assorted weaponry from its pockets before offering it to him; he sat up enough to take it and pull it around himself with a grateful murmur. The coat was very warm, and smelled of comfort and some variety of women’s perfume, feminine enough but not flowery. Without the coat, it became clear that Nix’s pale arms were covered in an intricate map of scars that ran from her hands to her shoulders: most were faded enough as to be almost unnoticeable, but several on both arms stood out very clearly, almost like tiger stripes.
“--What happened to your arms?”
At Begby’s question, Nix hid her arms behind her back. “Stuff.” When she shrugged, her earrings glittered brightly. “Be right back.”
She swung quickly out of the cell, the reinforced glass doors swooshing tightly shut behind her to leave Begby alone.
Nix moved briskly down the complex’s network of corridors, navigating the warren with the ease of long practice: she’d lived in Cyberia since its construction. Right, left, third fork from the right, second on the left, into the lift, down two floors and left again and she was at the door of her apartment. She pressed her thumb to the fingerprint scanner beside the door handle and entered without bothering to knock.
Gryff was already there, sprawled out on an over-stuffed blue couch and flicking moodily through the channels on the widescreen holovid, a can of beer at his elbow. His army jacket had been tossed heedlessly onto the floor, exposing arms covered in swirling tribal tattoos, Celtic and Maori, that continued under his black tank top. Although while animated, his mouth had perpetually hovered near a grin not entirely unlike Nix’s, in repose his features tended to fall into a wry, wary frown.
“Took your time getting back, like,” he commented, hopping to his feet and tossing the remote back onto the sofa. “Was worried about you.”
Gryff opened his arms; Nix fell into them to be tightly enveloped in a hug. “Shh, love, ‘s all right. Shh, now.”
“Been a bit of a night,” Nix told his shoulder, feeling suddenly comforted. “But oh, Gryff, you should’ve seen it!”
“Watched it on the security cameras,” he told her, letting go. “Was it very shiny?”
Nix grinned at him brightly. “It was beautiful.”
Gryff returned her grin. “That’s my girl.”
She shook her head at him, but with a smile. “Did you put the kettle on? I’m gasping for a cuppa.”
“It’s already brewing, love. I knew how you’d say that, see.”
Nix snickered, tossing her hat onto one of the mismatched chairs as she headed for their kitchen. “Don’t know what I’d do without you, Gryffith Jones.”
“Go mad from lack of caffeine, I do expect,” he said sagely, passing her the milk from the fridge, which he’d opened in search of more beer. “Are you going back down to the party?”
She shook her head again, pouring herself an enormous mug of tea from their chipped teapot. “Not for a while. I said I’d go back down to Begby with tea and stuff, and I need to check in with Mamma as well.”
“Oh yeah, your find. What the hell is he, anyway?” Gryff took a swallow of beer from the can, regarding Nix steadily.
She shrugged vaguely, slowly stirring her tea. “I don’t know. He was up there when the bomb went off, like I said – I’m pretty sure he would’ve died if he hadn’t listened when I screamed for him to jump like I did.”
“You screamed –” A worried shake of the head. “Never mind. You’ve got ideas about him, though, haven’t you?”
Nix, leaning against the counter, stared into space across the mug wrapped in her hands. “
“No.” Gryff frowned. “I don’t like that he apparently can’t remember anything. And what the hell was he doing up at the top of Big bloody Ben, anyway?”
“No idea. We know they’ve been using the House of Lords for something scientific – maybe he escaped?”
“Unlikely, but not impossible. We did, after all.” The smirk showed through his frown; Nix rubbed her scarred arms absently. “Maybe your brother’ll know. Tobe was diving back into his beloved tech before you even left the room.”
She bit her lip. “Fuck. No wonder, I was such a bitch back there. I’ll have to go say sorry.”
“You did over-react a fair bit, but Toby’ll get over it. It’s just been that kind of night, like.” Gryff put his hand on her shoulder by way of comfort, squeezing slightly. “We were all worried sick about you, lovely. ‘Specially when you were so late getting back.”
“Not as worried as I was, believe me,” Nix muttered, finishing her tea. “I’d better go get changed and dry.”
Gryff nodded. “What’ll you do then?”
“Pick up stuff, go check in with Mamma and the siblings, then head down to Begby. Then either back here or the party, I expect.” She dumped the mug in the sink before heading for her bedroom. “See you at the party?”
“Probably, unless I get too tempted to throttle our little Drakey, in which case I’ll come find you before we can get to the homoerotic brawling. I think people would object.”
Nix was really laughing for the first time since the bomb as she vanished into her room. “Have fun!”