Authors: Sam Fisher
Tags: #Thriller, #Fiction/General
Danny Preston sat in his agent's office and waited for the secretary to place the cup of peppermint tea he had requested on the desk. The secretary smiled politely and crossed the vast expanse of carpet that stretched from desk to door.
Danny felt jumpy this morning, but he couldn't quite put a finger on why. At 71, he was still fit and still working. His skin was deeply tanned, almost as though it were a continuous brown tattoo covering him from hairline to toe tips. He had worn the same style of suit for 50 years, made by his favourite Savile Row tailor, and the waist measurement hadn't changed in 25 years. He had the same hairstyle he had when he was 35 and in his heyday. It was coloured fortnightly now, at Rick's on Rodeo Drive, but that was a mere detail. His personal trainer, Stanley, had assured him only this morning that he would live to be at least a hundred.
Sure, he had sacrificed much to reach the peaks he had scaled. His three marriages had followed roughly the same arc â infatuation, then a brief stability, followed by rapid disintegration. Three of his four children had claimed publically that they hardly knew him, and Tabitha, his favourite, had died of breast cancer at 29, only five years ago. But it was none of these things that troubled him today. He still had self-assurance in bucket loads. He had once been the highest paid, most successful actor in Hollywood. He could no longer command big bucks and he had not had a lead in a movie for over a decade, but that didn't matter a jot. He knew he was the best, knew he was one of the immortals. He was idolised by generations who had seen him evolve through bit parts to three Oscar nominations, and then on to the lofty heights of celluloid elder statesman. He was happy with that. Most importantly though, he was on the cusp of a career renaissance. Only a week before, he had agreed to work with Sigmund Dunning, the hotshot British director behind Dreamworks' new half billion dollar epic,
The Old Testament,
for which Danny had been offered the plum role of Moses. So what the hell was eating him up?
âWhat you got for me then, Charlie? You look like your fucking house just burned down.'
Charlie Hudson, self-styled âÃ¼ber-agent', looked uncharacteristically grave. Danny Preston felt his stomach knot and realised what had been disturbing him. In the twelve years he had worked with Charlie, Danny had never once been asked to come into the office on Wilshire at an hour's notice.
âI would've come over to you,' Charlie Hudson said, his voice the free-rolling and languid Californian that Danny had always hated. âBut it's already turning into a bastard of a day.'
Danny said nothing and waited. Part of him knew what was coming.
âOkay, I'll cut to the chase, Danny. Dreamworks have pulled Dunning.'
The two men stared at each other, expressionless, across the table. Finally, Hudson said, âThey're replacing him with Simon Blackburn.'
âWell that's that then. That bastard queer hates me.'
Hudson was nodding, letting Danny have the floor.
âThis is a disaster, Charlie, a disaster.'
More nodding. âI know,' Hudson managed.
Danny Preston looked away through the 10 metre high windows, out to blue sky, chrome and concrete.
This never happened in my day,
he thought to himself.
Never. No one would have dared dump the real directors, the men who had made Hollywood what it was. Who would have had the nerve to squash John Huston or David Lean like a beetle? No one. Now, some little shit in a Dolce and Gabbana suit could command ridiculous budgets and believe they were Eisenstein.
âSo what you going to do about it, Charlie?'
âDanny, my hands are tied.' The agent put his wrists together on the desk to emphasise the point.
âOh, don't give me that crap.'
âDreamworks have offered a generous compensation package.'
Danny Preston was shaking his head. âThe money is irrelevant, Charlie. You know that.'
âI know, I know.' Hudson had his hands up now. He pushed his chair back, folded his arms and looked out to the view Danny had been gazing upon a few moments earlier. A commercial jet swung behind a tower block and started dipping sharply towards LAX, glinting as it caught the morning sun.
âDo you want me to call Blackburn? Sound the guy out?'
Danny waved a hand dismissively at his agent. âNo, I don't Charlie. God, I would have thought you had more pride than that.'
The agent bridled. âI was thinking of you.'
âYeah, I know. Apologies. I'm just so damn angry. Is there anything we can do to get Blackburn out of the deal? Okay, we probably couldn't get Dunning back in, but ... stupid bastard must've really pissed someone off. Is there
Charlie Hudson was shaking his head. âDon't you think I thought of that, Danny? I heard first thing this morning and I've been on the phone ever since.'
Hudson could hear the older man's breathing. Beneath the surface, he was quietly pleased with the morning's news. He had every respect for Danny â they went back a long way, the actor had been best pals with his father, Jack Hudson, who had founded the agency. But he could not let sentimentality cloud the fact that he knew Danny Preston was way over the hill. So far over the hill, he was outta sight. The man had once been a fine actor, but those days had gone and Hudson had been secretly worried that Danny would be fired from the job or turn in a horrible performance and embarrass himself. This way was better, cleaner, and the old boy would never know how his agent felt.
âSo, what do we do now?' Danny asked and fixed the agent with tired eyes. âPlease tell me there's something else. Some good news would go down very nicely right now.'
âWell actually,' Hudson said, his face brightening. âOne thing has just come up. It's a bit wacky, but...'
Wearing a flowing silk top over black satin pants, and thigh-high boots with 10-centimetre heels, Kristy Sunshine stood still, arms in the air, as a lemon spotlight swept jagged patterns across the huge video screens dominating the back of the stage. Twenty thousand voices screamed in unison, the sound deafening. Waving to the adoring ocean of humanity, her band bowed and trooped off, stage left.
âThank you, London. I love you!' the girl shouted, and waved one last time. Then she was gone.
âKristy, honey, that was ... man, I'm lost for words!' Kristy Sunshine's manager Brett Littleton, towel held out for his protÃ©gÃ©, made to hug her but saw the expression on her face and thought better of it.
Ignoring him completely, she snatched the towel and whirled on her lighting tech, Jenny Svetzel, standing to Littleton's left. The singer's face was like thunder. âWhat the hell were you doing in the last number?' she screamed. Two of the band standing close by melted into the shadows, and the hangers-on milling around Kristy fell silent. Out in the auditorium, the crowd was still braying for more.
Jenny Svetzel was nonplussed. âWhat?'
âYou had the yellow beam on me, not the blue, you retard!'
âKris...' Littleton began.
âShut the fuck up, Brett,' Kristy Sunshine yelled. Turning back to the hapless lighting tech, the pop star bellowed, âThat's the last time I put up with that shit! You're fired. Get out of my sight or I'll call security.'
Jenny Svetzel turned pale and stepped back as Kristy charged past, almost knocking the woman off her feet.
âAnd get me a decent towel,' she hissed, flinging the 200-dollar piece of Egyptian cotton to the floor.
No one approached Kristy as she stomped away from the backstage area towards a long corridor leading to her dressing room. Some of her entourage knew her better than others. They knew this behaviour was nothing unusual immediately after a show â that the adrenalin of the gig couldn't be drained away straight off, that Kristy was a ball of energy when the lights went up and she had to decompress. But even her most loyal friends knew the singer was also a spoilt brat with an over-inflated sense of her own worth. Fame and fortune had come easily to Kristy, and she was far too young to deal with it. She had very quickly come to believe she could do no wrong, that everyone around her belonged to an inferior class of human being. She had yes-men catering to her every whim. All she had to do was keep singing and keep looking pretty. There was only one person to whom she deferred. Only one person who could tell her what to do.
Reaching the door to her suite of dressing rooms, Kristy began to calm down. She took deep breaths, letting the tension flow out of her as her Pilates instructor had taught her. Inside, the room smelled of jasmine and her private spa had been prepared. Brett Littleton followed her into the room, closed the door and pointed to a coffee table. âEverything's arranged, Kris.'
She silently perused the items on the table. A bottle of vintage Krug, a tray of handmade Belgian chocolates on a silver platter and three lines of the best Bolivian cocaine. Neither Kristy nor Littleton had noticed they had company until they heard a brief cough.
Kristy turned and saw her uncle, Freddy Tomenzano, sitting in a leather chair on the other side of the table. âNice show, Kristy,' he said, his voice like hot gravel.
She produced a vague smile. âThanks.'
âBrett? Could you leave us for a moment? I need to have a word with my niece.'
Brett shot Kristy a quick, questioning look. She nodded and he left.
âWhat is it, Freddy?'
The man looked at her, his face totally devoid of expression. He was a small man in a dark, sharply tailored suit, crisp white shirt and red tie. With slicked-back black hair and finely chiselled cheekbones, he looked like the CEO of a multinational or a financial minister from a small European state. He was, though, one of the most powerful men in the entertainment world, a feared agent and Svengali. He had made Kristy a global star. Other singers â the likes of Bethany Shakespeare and Mary Casey â were snapping at her heels, but thanks to Freddy's business genius and ruthless scheming, Kristy was staying top of the pile. And, as much as Kristy hated to accept the fact, her uncle was the only person in the world who could pull her strings and make her dance.
âYou seem a little defensive, my dear.'
âI've just come off stage.'
Freddy nodded sagely. âYes, I apologise. I meant it when I said it was a nice show.'
âThanks again. But what do you want, uncle?'
âOkay, you obviously have pressing matters to attend to,' he said, eyeing the goodies laid out on the table with a contemptuous half-smile. âI'll come straight to the point ... the Neptune gig.'
âThe opening of the Neptune Hotel? Remember? You weren't keen. We agreed to disagree and you said you would give it some thought. I said, you have a week, honey. The week is up.'
Kristy threw herself into a chair and let out a weary sigh. âYou're not going to let this one go, are you, uncle?'
âEr, no,' Freddy replied sarcastically.
Kristy was silent for a moment, staring at the ceiling, her jaw clenched. âI told you I don't want to do it. It sounds creepy.'
âThey're offering a million dollars for three songs, Kristy.'
âSo?' She could sense him looking at her. She hated his icy stare, but somehow she found the will to ignore him.
âIt's not so much the money. It's going to be a big media event. Don't you get that?'
âI get it. I just don't want to do it.'
âI told you. It sounds creepy.'
He was staring at her again and this time she couldn't fight it. She turned away from the ceiling and met his gaze.
âI have the contracts in my bag,' Freddy persisted.
âWhen is the gig?'
âNext Wednesday. You really weren't paying attention, were you, Kristy?'
She let her gaze fall on the items spread out on the table and started to feel angry. She resented this. She had just performed in front of 20,000 people, and put on a fabulous show. She deserved her rewards. For a second, she considered simply giving in to her uncle, doing whatever he asked to get him out of the place. Then she could have some fun. Wasn't that what she had always done? But then a new voice butted in, a voice of defiance. She stood up. âI need more time,' she said.
âNot possible,' Freddy said quietly. âI've promised the promoters I would have an answer for them tonight.'
âIn that case I'm saying no.'
Freddie held her with his intense, dark eyes. They sent chills down her spine. She had heard all the stories, of course. About how Freddy had killed at least one man, about his Mafia connections, and the sort of people he employed to ensure he got his way. Her own father, Vincent, Freddy's brother, had been terrified of him. Vincent had not wanted his only daughter to go into the entertainment business, but then he had gotten himself killed in a motorcycling accident on the Ventura Freeway. By that time, Kristy had developed an untameable desire for fame. She had won singing competitions and had begun to get noticed, and Freddy had become involved. After that, she had never looked back.
âI'm not doing it,' Kristy added, surprising herself.
Freddy stood up. He was at least 8 centimetres shorter than his niece. âVery well,' he said. Bending down, he picked up a metal attachÃ© case and turned towards the door. Kristy stood rigid, watching him silently, barely able to believe she was going to get her way.
Freddy stopped at the door, his tiny hand gripping the handle. Without turning, he said, âI'll contact the promoters right away, my dear. They've let slip they have a backup. Apparently, Bethany Shakespeare is
keen to do it.'
âRewind to 15.16 please, Sybil,' Pete Sherringham said to the air. Sybil was the base computer, the world's only quantum processor. It, or âshe' as the team liked to think of Sybil, was the nexus of a vast network that kept all the systems running smoothly at Base One, the command centre of E-Force.
âReady,' Sybil replied.
Pete sat back in the leather chair in his quarters and watched the holoscreen on his laptop. With amazing clarity it showed the three-dimensional images he had seen at least 20 times before: a Silverback, the dark blue hull of
, six weeks earlier. The plane was swooping low over a burnedout shell of a building when suddenly the starboard wing was hit by something. The engine exploded and the aircraft nosedived. Then he saw himself, a tiny figure in a cybersuit, rocketing away from the cockpit in an ejector seat. But he was too low. The chair plummeted and the chute opened no more than 10 metres above the ground.
Then the image changed to a different film sequence shot from a cybersuit helmet. The camera stabiliser technology worked well, but the person filming was running over rough terrain and the image wobbled slightly before the screen was filled with a man lying twisted on the floor. One severed leg dangled from a thread of suit fabric, the other was twisted and shattered under his body.
The screen flicked off and Pete suddenly felt the stillness of the room, the silence broken only by his own steady breathing. The doctors had offered him antidepressants, and Stephanie Jacobs, the team's medical expert, had talked to him about the psychological impact of what had happened. But he had decided against taking the drugs. Right now though, he wondered if this had been a wise decision. Instead, he seemed to have developed an obsession with watching the accident over and over again. A part of him kept insisting that the more he saw it happen, the better he could assimilate the reality of it.
The same thoughts kept going around inside his head. How on earth had he ended up in this position? A year ago he had put the action-hero life behind him. He had served his time in the British Army, given it eight years of his youth. He had faced death many times as a bomb disposal expert and had come through the first E-Force mission seven months earlier after surviving a powerful explosion that no one would have thought it possible to walk away from. Now, here he was, six weeks after another near-death experience.
Using the most advanced surgical techniques on the planet, his body had been repaired. When they found him â unconscious, thankfully â he was as close to death as it was possible to be and still survive. Both his legs had been so badly damaged nothing other than E-Force technology could have saved them. As well, one arm had fractured in six places, he had a punctured lung, a skewered spleen and his heart had stopped. But somehow, the team's medics had kept him alive and he had been placed in an induced coma for two weeks. In that time, he had undergone 15 separate operations. All of those had been conducted by nanobots supervised by a medical group led by Stephanie Jacobs. The bots had repaired his internal organs and some of his bones. Tissue had been cloned from his own cells and blood vessels, and severed nerves had been knitted together by billions of bacteria-sized nanobots all working in unison.
Following the surgery, he had gone through three weeks of intense physiotherapy while he adjusted to his new body. He had hated every minute of it. The therapy was repetitive, painful and boring, but Mark, Tom, Josh, Mai and Steph had been incredibly supportive. The lowest point had come when he had been forced to quell his natural impatience a week into physio. The team had been called out to avert a potential disaster when part of a subway in New York had caved in. Seeing the team live on the big screen in Cyber Control had given him a perspective he had never experienced before. Beside his chair were his crutches. He glanced over at Tom Erickson, the 20-year-old cyber genius confined to a wheelchair since childhood. Tom was at a nearby console, lost in concentration as he relayed detailed data to the Big Mac hovering over the East River. Tom had turned, seen Pete staring, and given him the thumbs up.
It had made him feel terrible, adding to his depression. After a catastrophic accident, he was on the mend. He would soon be back in action, but a similar medical miracle was still a long way off for young Tom. He had talked about it with Steph â it was one of the first things to occur to him when she had explained what they had achieved in surgery. Sure, they could clone new tissue for Tom and they could reroute some of his nerves, but his spinal cord had been severed in the childhood accident that had led him being wheelchair bound and which had rendered his lower body useless. Even for the techno wizards at CARPA, fixing snapped spines was still some way in the future.
The buzzer to Pete's quarters sounded and he heard a voice on the intercom.
âHey, Pete, my man!' It was Tom.
âLet him in please, Sybil.'
The door slid open and Tom wheeled in, seated in his motorised wheelchair. Walking beside him was Josh Thompson, the team's tall, dark-haired encryption expert.
âHow you feeling?'
âFit as the proverbial fiddle,' Pete replied, a trace of his Geordie accent just discernible in his voice. He stood up and did a little dance. âSee.'
âPromise me you'll never dance like that again, Pete,' Josh deadpanned.
âSo, you two here for a reason?' Pete said, tilting his head slightly.
âTom wanted to show off.'
âIt's not showing off. It's passing on information,' Tom retorted. âI've got the CyberLink to work.'
âYou have? That's excellent.'
âThank you, thank you,' Tom replied, nodding and twirling his hands in the air as though accepting applause.
âWhat was it again?' Pete asked.
âOh, for God's sake, dude.' Tom sighed heavily. âI've been working on it for three months. It's pure genius.'
âIs this the gizmo that allows you to hook up with any computer and get inside it as though it were a real object?'
âSuper-hacking, dude. It's called super-hacking. It's...'
âEven I know more about it than that,' Josh interrupted, frowning at Pete.
âAll right, all right. So, it's worked, yeah?'
âYes, it has worked, my friend. I just had a quick stroll around the Pentagon's mainframe. So cool.'
âWhen you say stroll...'
âLook, it's like this. Every computer in the world has a virtual counterpart, or cyber twin, if you like. Think about it. On the web there's every piece of information about any computer. The manufacturer has its design spec, the very components that went into making it, and their serial numbers are all online. We can find its IP address in a flash. We know who operates any given computer, where it is in the “real” world. And naturally, every piece of software running on it and every piece of hardware attached to it.'
âYeah, but that's a lot of information. Most of it irrelevant...'
âNo, nothing is irrelevant. Every jot of knowledge about a computer helps build the cyber twin.'
âAnd Sybil does that?'
âOf course. It would be impossible without a quantum computer.'
âAnd a genius like you, Tom.'
âYes, well that goes without saying.' Tom grinned.
âSo, you hacked into the Pentagon?'
âSuper-hacked, Pete. Learn the term, dude. There's a big difference. No more machine code, no more finding passwords or breaking through firewalls. I just walked in, had a little nose around, got what I was after and left. Not a trace of a cyber footprint. No one knew I was ever there.'
âActually, that is pretty impressive,' Pete admitted, looking at the young computer whiz with genuine admiration.
âYeah, and it would be even more impressive if it came with a little humility,' Josh said and sat down.
âI don't believe in humility,' Tom replied.
âWhat you got there?' Pete asked noticing a rolled up magazine in Josh's hand.
Josh handed it to him and he opened it out.
âNow that's what I call fame,' Tom said.
It was a copy of
. On the front cover was a picture of the six members of E-Force. Tom was in his chair at the front, and the others, wearing their cybersuits, stood or crouched around him, each staring at the camera with serious expressions. Over the picture it said: âMEET A NEW BREED OF HERO'.
âWell, isn't that something?' Pete said and held the magazine at arm's length.
The picture had been taken just before the mission to the stricken nuclear power station. The journalist had not been allowed on Tintara, but the team had convened at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, not too far from the site of their first mission together when they had rescued Senator Kyle Foreman in the bombed-out shell of the California Conference Center. Immediately after that first mission it was decided that E-Force would not behave like caped crusaders and try to hide their identities. Indeed, it was already too late for that. Their hi-tech equipment was concealed from photographers or anyone with a camcorder thanks to Camoflin, a special paint used to scramble any image taken. But the members of E-Force had all been seen by the public, their pictures taken, their identities known.
Going public had been a major decision and it had repercussions. The original plan for the team was that they would each return to their normal lives after the initial three-month training period the year before. But they had quickly realised this would be impossible. For a start, they were needed far more often than they had originally believed. Hardly a week went by when they were not called out. And second, having their faces splashed all over the media immediately after the LA rescue mission meant that even if they had wanted to, they could hardly go back to their ânormal' daily lives.
One or two of the team had secretly wondered whether this had been E-Force founder Mark Harrison's intention all along. In the beginning, he had hand-picked the team based on their extraordinary abilities and adaptability, but he had also chosen people who were not in long-term relationships and whose lives or careers had stalled in some way. Each of them had been bitten by the E-Force bug, and none of them could have contemplated opting out.
âDo you think they've caught my best side?' Josh asked, pointing at the magazine.
âDo you have a best side?' The voice was Steph's. She had just come through the door and they all turned to watch her approach. âJust came to remind you, Josh. We leave in ten minutes.'
âLeave?' Pete asked. âWhere you going?'
âThe rolling hills of Semja Alexandry,' Josh said.
âYep. Ten-day training course.'
âNice! Just the two of you?'
âYeah! Wonderful, isn't it?' Steph said, rolling her eyes.
Tom laughed. âCome on! It'll be cosy.'
Josh looked from Tom to Steph and back again. âAnd I thought you two were my friends,' he said.
âI am,' Steph replied. âBut I'm not sure I will be after next week.'