Authors: Tom Aston
Tags: #"The Machine, #novel, #Science thriller, #action thriller", #adventure, #Tom Aston, #Ethan Stone, #thriller, #The Machine
A Novel by Tom Aston
ISBN of this ebook: 9780957175419
Published By Pigeon Park Press 2012
© Tom Aston
The Author asserts his moral right to be identified as the creator of this work.
Cover design by John Amy.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents herein are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the author and publisher.
Many people have helped with the writing of
. Particular thanks go to Camilla Wray for setting me off on the right track, and to Caroline Hardman for a lot of hard work and effort in the cause. I would like to thank all the early readers of The Machine, who contributed mightily with their reactions and feedback while it was still a work in progress.
And first, last and always, thank you to Sally, who has been with me every step of the way.
Chapter 1 - 4:04pm 21 March, San Jose, California
The conference hall was overflowing with journalists. Junko Terashima had covered some big stuff in her short time as a reporter with Global News Network, but she’d never known a press conference build so much excitement, so much
. All the big guys were here - MSNBC, Al Jazeera, Fox News, BBC, Washington Post. Junko felt like what she was – a rookie reporter, a small, willowy Japanese girl. But this was her moment. She was there to make the news, not just report it. Her stomach fluttered with nerves.
The VP of Communications for SearchIgnition Technologies looked tiny in her neat, grey suit as she rose to introduce
. Steven Semyonov, billionaire founder of SearchIgnition – loved, admired…
. Four-metre TV screens stood at either side of her, carrying a huge close-up image of her as she read a short introduction.
‘Steven Semyonov is well known to everyone here...’
Not as well known as you think
, thought Junko.
‘One of the three founders of SearchIgnition, Steven Semyonov is the brains behind the world’s most powerful search system, now used by all four major search engines in the US and countless others across the world. I’ll give you just one statistic today, ladies and gentlemen. Steven Semyonov’s technology is used daily by over ninety per cent of web users across the globe...’
The screens were now showing a close up of
Semyonov, seated beside the diminutive VP. The intro was superfluous, of course. Semyonov’s face was known to everyone in the room and to billions more besides.
‘As Chief Software Architect of SearchIgnition,’ said the VP, reading from an autocue, ‘Steven has been a driving force in taking SI from start-up to a corporation valued at eighty billion dollars in just seven years...’
The big screen zoomed further in. Semyonov’s features were indeed familiar to everyone. Because they were unique – his face and head entirely smooth and hairless – like an overgrown baby. The hi-def screen showed his wide, fleshy face had no jowl or wrinkle. The word was “sleek”, thought Junko, forming her next chunk of copy in her mind.
Like a sleek, overgrown piglet, babyish and pink, with intense, red eyes...
There was no stubble on his chin, just pale, downy hair. His teeth looked small in his big face, but what caught the camera were his eyes. The TV screens zoomed in on his preternaturally red eyes intimidating the throng with his intelligence, like an inscrutable Buddha of white jade.
‘It is with great regret that I tell you…’ The spokeswoman’s voice was cracking with emotion, and it wasn’t an act. ‘That Steven Semyonov is stepping down from SearchIgnition, the business he did so much to create...’ She went on for a few more sentences, but she looked as thunderstruck as anyone in that room, and by the time she sat down, she was dabbing at the corner of her eye.
Before the words had sunk in, Semyonov himself stood up to speak, looking suddenly huge beside the tiny spokeswoman. Behind him the four-metre screens were filled again with his pink face and penetrating eyes. Not a wrinkle or stress line, thought Junko, for the second time. Half the world knew that face, but no one else knew what she did. She’d done nothing for three months but dig up details on Semyonov. She’d nearly lost her job over it. After today, she almost certainly would.
The predictable questions rolled in from the journalists.
‘What drove you to leave the firm you loved?’, ‘Does this signal the end for SearchIgnition?’, ‘Is this a new phase for the Web?’, ‘What new technologies excite you?
Junko felt her heart beat faster as she raised her hand to ask a question. He’d see her and pick her out, she was sure of that. He had an eye for attractive women. He’d pick her out, but he’d never guess what she was going to ask. There was a prickle of sweat on the nape of her neck.
Semyonov’s answers to the journalists were smooth, articulate, delivered with a knowing smile in his relaxed baritone. Even predictable answers sounded surprising and witty. There was laughter, occasionally some applause. A bravura performance. Not for the first time, Semyonov had hardened journalists eating out of his hand.
What about the fights with his co-founders? The fundamental disagreements?
Even with the most searching question, Semyonov seemed honest and disarming. The slender Japanese girl felt intimidated by his intelligence, even at this distance.
Everyone believes him,
Everyone believes him. But will anyone believe me?
Junko stood with a set smile and her hand raised. She’d never felt this nervous. It was the
that scared her. So much had been written about Semyonov, but so little was known. How had he done all these things? As well as SearchIgnition, he’d built his own super-efficient electric sports car. He was testing a high-altitude jet engine to fly planes into space. And the eyes – those eyes seemed to scan the room, systematically, like an alien intelligence.
Junko’s heart thumped hard as finally Semyonov’s red eyes found hers across the room. He nodded, expressionless, to take her question.
‘Junko Terashima, GNN News Network, Washington DC...’ she began, sounding breathless. Semyonov’s gaze lasered her as she spoke. But he had no idea what was coming. Her question was going to land in front of Steven Semyonov like a red-hot hand grenade.
Chapter 2 - 9:15 am 27 March, West Fleet, England
The bodies lay in dappled sunlight under a low canopy of trees, out of sight of the NATO recon drones. Professor Ethan Stone stopped the video and counted fifty-five bodies in three orderly lines. Most looked unharmed – just dead - but the soldier’s helmet-cam rested on the broken capillaries on their faces. Even the children had them, like old men who’d been drinking for years. Stone noticed that all the corpses had fresh blood leaking from their ears. The bodies were all clothed, except for five, which had been stripped and evidently subjected to medical dissection. An old man, three women and a young boy lay naked in the spring sun, with long slices down their torsos from sternum to the pubic bone. On their foreheads there was writing in black marker pen. Numbers and the odd word in English.
Stone paused the video again. He remembered the stench of bodies from his own army days. And the smell of military quicklime. Something he was glad he’d put behind him.
Hooper and three other soldiers had become separated from their patrol and followed tracks to the settlement. It was already light when they crept to within a hundred metres of the village before they saw the bodies. The squad had been patrolling undercover in the death zone of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, checking out targets for a seek-and-destroy operation against Taliban cells that was now running on an industrial scale, night after night. Wearing yellow-brown Afghan garb like the Taliban they’d been tracking. It was first light when they’d spotted the village – the usual collection of trees and three or four walled compounds, their walls burnt orange in the early morning sunlight.
The situation felt like a flashback to Ethan Stone’s days in Special Forces, years ago, except this time, he was back in his office watching the helmet cam-footage, stopping every minute or so to figure out what was happening. The picture twisted and turned around the scene, stalking slowly down the narrow streets, the camera flashing nervously into every doorway, with Hooper’s rasping, whispered orders punctuating the silence. Just like Stone remembered Hooper’s voice from their days in the Parachute Regiment – hoarse with stress at the first sign of combat.
As well it might be in this situation. Hooper must have been on edge. The Taliban don’t do autopsies on their victims, and they certainly don’t write on their victims’ bodies in English. Something else was lurking in that village.
The spring air was clear and cool. It looked beautiful. Too beautiful for the slaughterhouse someone had made of this place. It was worse than anything Stone had seen before from Afghanistan. He’d served there himself in the early days, not long after Nine-Eleven. And in his work of collecting data and facts about different conflicts around the world, Stone had seen so many photos of Iraqi villages hit by airstrikes, old men and women murdered by the Taliban, Afghan families mistakenly taken out by helicopters. Stone knew that photos of slaughtered Afghans were a depressingly cheap commodity – certainly not newsworthy. But this was different, eerie. This wasn’t the work of the Taliban. Yet here it was - clinical, scientific killing in the middle of Helmand. Like some kind of experiment.
To Stone’s trained eye, the pictures of those bodies were worth more than the last three years of videos of deadly firefights, misdirected airstrikes or friendly fire incidents. This was something different, and it gave Stone perverse satisfaction to see them. Hooper had caught them red-handed – whoever they were - and had somehow smuggled the pictures through to Stone’s whistle-blowing web site.
Stone knew Hooper. He had recognised Hooper’s voice as soon as the video began. Stone and Hooper had enlisted in the Paras at the same time, and served together for three years until Stone moved on to Special Forces, and served a further four years there. Stone had left the army at that point – four years ago, after seven years. He’d had a bellyful of it by then, but yes, he knew Hooper.
On his screen, a silent atmosphere of death pervaded the village – no birds, or dogs or goats. No children. ‘Bastards,’ muttered Hooper behind the helmet cam. Stone had heard that tone in Hooper’s voice before, after some of the Taliban’s efforts back in 2004. Hooper’s mind would be swimming with images of dead children in each doorway. Stone knew Hooper. He would want to kill someone for this. Never a healthy emotion, but that was Hooper.
Stone had always liked Hooper. He had what Stone would call decent human feelings. Where some Special Forces jocks, Stone included, had stayed sharp-eyed and emotionless in contact, Hooper worked on stress and adrenaline, always looking out for his comrades. Hooper had the heart of a lion, and soldiers loved him for it. He’d risked his neck to save Stone a couple of times when probably he shouldn’t have. The real killers fought with their minds. It was when Stone realised he was one of the cold, clinical ones that he decided to get out.
Which was the reason why Stone was watching on a screen, while Hooper was still in that village. Hooper should have cleared out, coolly gathered intelligence and called in a larger team. Like Stone would have done.
Stone was sitting in his university office, five thousand miles away and a few weeks later – yet he could feel Hooper’s tension every time the helmet camera flicked with Hooper’s eyes into a doorway, every time he heard Hooper’s hoarse orders barked to his men. After all those bodies, the calm was unnerving. The sun and a warm breeze soughing through the narrow streets of this charnel house. The noise of Hooper’s ragged breathing, the hoarse orders to his men. Just like the old days. Tense as hell.
A couple of shouts, suddenly, from behind Hooper. ‘Man down, man down!’
The head-cam swivelled and jerked like an animal in a snare. A couple of shouts, suddenly, from behind him. ‘Man down, man down!’