Border Princes

ONE

The End of the World began on a Thursday night in October, just after eight in the evening.

It began with filthy, spitting rain creeping inland from the Bristol Channel, with a black SUV hammering east along the Penarth Road, with the bleep of a text message received.

‘Scale of one to ten?’ Owen asked. He was driving, peering out at traffic barely visible in the veil of rain.

‘One being slightly pressing and ten being insanely urgent?’ Jack wondered from the passenger seat.

‘Yeah.’

‘About twenty-six, twenty-seven,’ Jack replied mildly. He held up his mobile phone so that Owen could glance over and read the screen.

THE END OF THE WORLD.

‘Captain Analogy strikes again,’ said Owen.

‘There’s only room for one captain on this team,’ Jack replied, flipping the clam-shell mobile shut. ‘Uh, Owen...’ he added.

Looking at Jack’s mobile had taken Owen’s eyes away from the road long enough for tail lights to bloom bright like distress flares dead ahead. Owen stood on the brakes, rocking the SUV nose down, and downshifted to go around.

Headlights blinded them, oncoming and bright. A horn blared.

Owen made a tutting noise and hauled the SUV back into lane. Lurched hard in his inertia-reels by the drastic deceleration-acceleration-deceleration, Jack maintained a surprisingly beatific composure.

‘Sorry,’ said Owen, hands tight and white on the wheel. ‘Sorry about that.’

‘No problem.’

‘You seem remarkably relaxed.’

‘It’s the End of the World. A head-on prang on the Penarth Road seems somehow trivial by comparison.’

‘Ah,’ said Owen. The traffic ahead began to space out again.

‘Of course,’ said Jack, ‘he could be wrong.’

‘He’s usually right,’ Owen corrected. ‘Captain – sorry, Analogy Lad – has a nose for these things.’

The text bleep sounded again.

‘What’s he saying now?’ asked Owen.

‘Boiled egg,’ said Jack.

Owen floored the accelerator.

Boiled egg. ‘Four minutes or less.’

Gwen ran across the road in the sheeting rain towards the messy huddle of buildings cowering by the riverside. There were lights on in a nearby pub, a late shop, and a row of houses. The hiss of the rain was like persistent static.

The buildings directly ahead were derelict, and seemed to have been left in a state of schizophrenic disarray, undecided whether they wanted to grow up and be warehousing or a multi-storey car park. The pub’s neon window ads reflected in the long puddles on the road; pinks and reds and greens and Magners and Budweisers, stirred and puckered by the rain.

James was waiting under an arch of old, blackened brick. He started moving the moment she reached him.

‘Boiled egg?’ she asked, as she ran along beside him. ‘Really?’

‘Really.’

‘End of the World, or just the End of Cardiff?’

‘The latter is merely a sub-set of the former,’ he grinned. ‘Besides, I’m just relaying what Tosh told me.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Round the back.’

‘And what did she tell you?’

‘This is the blip she’s been seeing for a week, on and off. First real, solid fix.’

‘And it’s the End of the World why?’

‘Her systems crashed eighteen seconds after she painted it. I mean crash crashed. Forty-nine per cent of the Hub’s down. We left Ianto in tears.’

‘It’s aggressive, then?’

‘On a scale of one to ten?’ he asked.

‘Your scale or Jack’s?’

‘Mine.’

‘And?’

He shrugged, running up a short flight of rain-slick concrete steps. ‘Twenty-six, twenty-seven. It freaked the crap out of Tosh’s computers and they’re, you know, kind of the best us evolved apes have ever manufactured.’

They came out onto a vacant lot, tufted with virile weeds. The eastern end of the gravelly lot, marked by an ailing chain-link fence, was flooded with standing water six inches deep. Gwen could smell the river. The wind was cold, and held the particular tang of Autumn fighting a losing battle with