Authors: Tom Aston
Tags: #"The Machine, #novel, #Science thriller, #action thriller", #adventure, #Tom Aston, #Ethan Stone, #thriller, #The Machine
‘Where?’ Hooper’s voice loud in the foreground. Two soldiers hauling a comrade into an alleyway. Loud cracks on the sound track. Rifle fire. The buzzing, hissing, venomous noise of rifle rounds passing close. You could feel them as much as hear them.
Then nothing, except for, ‘Shit, shit, shit!’ Hooper’s tense, emotional voice. ‘Get him in here. Move it! Did you see ’em? I didn’t even see them.’
The helmet-cam rested on a bad chest wound and a boy’s face turning rapidly grey, then continued to buck and weave as the group retreated through a low door into one of the compounds.
Stone could see that the enemy were good - whoever they were. They were controlling their fire, pushing and probing, forcing Hooper’s men back. And Hooper still had no idea where they were. Stone winced as Hooper went back and crouched in the doorway for a few seconds, the head-cam flicking this way and that. He had no clue who he was even fighting. Stone felt he wanted to get in there, take control.
Still no sign of the enemy. More impressively, no sound either. It was looking ugly. Hooper and his men were up against real pros.
Hooper scrambled back into the compound. The kid was dying in front of them. One of the lads was pressing on his chest with both hands to stanch the bleeding, though he was clearly wasting his time. Stone guessed the lung was gone, and by the look of it the pulmonary artery too. Jesus! What a mess.
‘Shut the fuck up, you lot,’ whispered Hooper’s voice in desperation. Black blood was pumping out. Hooper had no idea what to do, Stone could tell. He was just trying to buy a few minutes, even a few seconds. The helmet cam scanned across around the bare earth of the courtyard. Those walls must be four metres high and vertical. No sight or sound from behind them.
‘Yep,’ muttered Stone, to himself. Hooper and his men were trapped. Stone could see it, watching through the helmet-cam. Hooper must have known it. It was peaceful - no sound but for the rustling of the trees. Hooper looked round to see one of his men was clamping a bloodied hand over the dying lad’s mouth to stop the groaning, though there was a kind of rattle from the hole in his chest.
Stone knew what was coming next, because in his own Special Forces days, he would have done the same. Seal the entrance to the compound, then take the zero-risk option – kill them with grenades, hurled over the walls.
The phone rang and Stone paused the video. It was Jayne, his boss’s secretary. She could wait. Stone hovered the cursor over the “play” button. It felt like watching a snuff movie, even for someone as hardened as him. But he had to go on. He clicked “play” once more. He was going to wish he hadn’t.
Chapter 3 - 9:35am 27 March, West Fleet, England
Professor of Peace Studies, Ethan Stone. He wasn’t a real professor – or at least that’s what he told himself. It was a label and he didn’t like to be labelled or categorised.
Stone had left the British army’s elite Special Forces after only four years. Stone had been forced to “retire” after one particular operation had gone badly wrong. But he’d had enough by then – sickened by what he’d seen, by what he’d had to do. Sickened above all by the realisation that he’d enjoyed it. Being good at it would have been fine. But Stone had enjoyed it, and that’s why he’d had to stop.
It was ironic, because Stone’s work nowadays consisted entirely of studying modern weapons and their nauseating effects on the feeble human frame.
Stone sat at his desk and clicked the play button again. Hooper and his men were trapped in the compound, and Stone was wondering how the hell Hooper had got out of this one. Hooper’s helmet-cam flicked again and again between the high walls and the grey face of his comrade. That boy was dead. Surely Hooper could see that.
There was a shout from outside the compound. This was it. Stone had seen it coming. Two hand grenades arced gently over from opposite sides and rolled full of menace into the middle of the courtyard. The head-cam filled with dust, centimetres from the ground as Hooper dived for cover. Two loud bangs on the sound track. A scream.
‘I’m hit boss, I’m hit.’ More screaming. The head-cam flicked around at the two others in Hooper’s team. One was staring in dead astonishment. Shrapnel through the head – gone. Switched off. The other was screaming from a stomach wound. Was Hooper hit? It didn’t seem like it.
The helmet cam flicked up to the walls, back to the doorway. A few defiant rounds from Hooper’s MP5 blatted away pointlessly into the compound wall above. Then nothing. After the grenades and the gunfire, an enveloping silence, followed by the noise of two pairs of boots advancing towards Hooper.
The images flashed to the ground and back upwards. Hooper had dropped his weapon. He was standing up and his hands would be behind the helmet. Still no gunfire. Just the muzzle of an M16, centimetres from Hooper’s head-cam. Then the camera looked at another man, who was offering his hand in greeting, a tall, blond man. Hooper took the hand and lingered, as if unsure what to do. The guy had smart creases in his camouflage shirt.
They were mercenaries. Uniforms with no markings save for a tiny hammer on the lapel of that pressed shirt. Stone recognized the logo of SCC - Special Circumstances Corporation. It was all becoming clear. Hooper had stumbled on private military contractors – mercenaries - undertaking weapons’ tests and autopsies in the Afghan Wild West. No wonder Hooper had sent the pictures to the
whistle-blowers web site. The only wonder was he'd come out of this alive.
The tall, blond man gave the boy’s body a casual kick, like it was a sick animal he’d found in the courtyard. The mercs cuffed Hooper’s hands behind him, as the tall officer with the short blond hair, still with that satisfied smile, addressed his captive.
‘My men wanted to kill you,’ he said affecting a bored tone and inspecting Hooper’s MP5 in his hands. ‘But I was curious. Who comes spying on the world’s best–paid soldiers? You got some nice pictures, I hope, to show your friends?’ he said, smiling finally at Hooper. He was enjoying this. ‘I wagered five dollars with my captain that we could take you alive.’
‘Five dollars? To keep it interesting?’ said Hooper, holding back his anger. ‘I guess you were bored with no more kids to kill.’
‘Don’t misunderstand me,’ said the mercenary. ‘This is not mercy. I do enjoy killing.’
You don’t say
, thought Stone.
‘A job done efficiently, sometimes with a little
. It gives me great satisfaction,’ the blond man continued. ‘But in this instance, you can be useful to me.’
Stone was evaluating it all. The guy’s English was precise and fluent. Moreover, the evidence said he was telling the truth. The bodies, the shooting of the children, the autopsies. The blond guy and his men were devout killers. They would switch off Hooper and his men without a thought. Yet Stone was watching Hooper's video after the fact. So Hooper couldn’t be dead. And yet if they hadn’t killed Hooper - why not?
The mercenaries bundled Hooper out through the doorway of the compound. He was led through calm sunlight under the trees and out into open ground. Under the trees were two vehicles. After four years in his current line of work, Stone’s knowledge of the arms business was encyclopaedic, and he recognized the vehicles straight off. The first was a Cougar. Mine-resistant - the Americans had hundreds of them in Afghanistan. But the second vehicle was more of a collectors' item - a low slung armoured personnel carrier. A Chinese Type 90. What the hell was a Chinese Type 90 doing in the middle of Helmand? It was towing something too. Hooper’s head-cam went around the back to see some kind of radar-dish apparatus. The tall, blond man stood on the wheel-fender, then jumped down, cat-like, and approached Hooper again.
‘Take a good look,’ said the blond soldier. ‘This is our secret weapon. We have been running some tests, and I believe you saw the results on your way into town,’ he declared, smiling proudly at the head cam. The camera strayed all over it. The dish was two metres or more in diameter. Stone could see the detail of the control panel, even the manufacturer’s nameplate. Which, bizarrely, was in Chinese.
Hooper’s anger boiled over. ‘You fucking murderer,’ he growled.
Ekström smiled back at Hooper. ‘Fucking…
did you say?’ said the Swede, grinning. ‘Thank you for the compliment. In this job I get to do both. Fucking, and murder. But just one more thing...’ Ekström made an instant high kick, the sole of his boot flying up beside the camera into Hooper’s face. Stone was impressed in spite of himself. Athletic, precise, brutally fast. The picture flew upwards, to the sun-dappled trees above, and Stone could feel Hooper falling backwards to the ground. There was a blood fleck on the camera lens. No hands came to Hooper’s face. He was cuffed, defenceless.
Then the shock. The words that meant Hooper wasn’t going to escape at all. He was going to die, and Stone was about to watch it happen.
‘In case you are curious, Professor Stone,’ said the blond man, speaking directly at the camera. ‘My name is Ekström. Johan Ekström, from Sweden. I am a fan of your web site, and I guess this will make a nice story for you. No doubt you would like a little extra colour to your story – an execution or a rape maybe? But perhaps another time.’ Ekström smiled laconically and turned to one of his men.
‘Give me your .22. The little one.’
The man threw a small automatic to Ekström. Ekström looked down and aimed centimetres to the side of the head-cam, right at Hooper’s forehead. Another bang and a muzzle flash, Ekström’s hand jumped with slight recoil.
Stone had just watched Ekström shoot his old friend through the head. He’d asked for a .22 so as not to damage the camera at close range with a more powerful weapon.
Ekström calmly bent down close to the camera on Hooper’s helmet.
‘And remember my name! I am Ekström!’ said the Swede, smiling at the camera. ‘
That grinning face. It was revolting, even for a man who’d seen what Stone had in his time.
Stone’s head span, but it was becoming clear what had happened here. Ekström had a reason for all this. Publicity. He wanted to spread word of that weapon and how many people it killed. He had taken the video from Hooper’s head-cam and sent it to Stone. Stone with his anonymous whistle-blowers’ web site was the perfect way to gain publicity. He was a real piece of work, this Ekström.
The telephone rang again. Extension 1311. Jayne again. Stone knew what she wanted, but she’d have to wait. Stone had just rewound, and frozen the video on the image of the weapon. He’d seen something. Yes, there was no mistake. It was a clear as day - for anyone who could read it.
Ekström had made a mistake and Stone was going to exploit it. For Hooper’s sake, Stone would make sure Ekström and whoever was behind him paid a high price for what they’d done.
Chapter 4 - 11:24am 27 March, Faculty Building, West Fleet University, England
Stone was still at his desk when the phone rang again. He’d frozen the video clip on the image of the dish-shaped “weapon”, and was looking at the writing he saw there. The name of the manufacturer. After that it had taken a matter of minutes. A few searches online were all it took, and an email to a reporter in the US. It had been a childish error on Ekström’s part, but he could see how it had happened. Stone was going to take it and blow the whole sordid mercenary thing wide open.
The telephone rang and Stone tried to shake the memory of what he’d just seen from his head. Ethan Eric Stone, Professor of Peace Studies at West Fleet University, looked at the phone with exasperation as it carried on ringing. Finally he picked up.
‘Stone? It’s Jayne. The Vice Chancellor’s in a spin. You know what he gets like. It’s “a very serious matter” apparently. He wants you up here.’
Stone hung up the phone, stood up from his desk and looked distractedly through the window of the ugly 1960’s faculty building.
A very serious matter.
His boss, Vice Chancellor George Watts, was panicking about something again
That was fine. But for now, Stone thought what he’d just seen happen to Hooper might just be more serious.
Stone ran a hand through his thatch of wiry, sandy blond hair as he looked from the window.
When Stone left the army four years ago, he had veered from the profession of soldier into that of peace campaigner. After the things he had seen in the army he had craved a detox from the violence. A deep cleanse of his psyche. The peace warrior thing was his way of doing it. He’d started his web site, called NotFutile.com, three years ago to expose the activities of the global arms industry. Ironically, the web site name itself had been Hooper’s idea – indirectly. It had been Hooper’s response to the whole idea of exposing the arms business, and the sordid commercial wars they encouraged. ‘Resistance is futile, Stone,’ Hooper would say, as if he were some kind of philosopher. ‘It’s fucking futile, mate. We’ve just got to get on with it.’
That’s why Stone chose the name NotFutile.com. The site was a kind of blind drop box for tidbits of information about the arms industry. People could send documents and leaks anonymously and get them online.
was the proper name, but it quickly acquired a cult following and was known amongst the regulars as
. Later it became almost a movement amongst the students. Someone designed a logo and even printed up some T-shirts.
But really, it was only a web site.
Stone had got lucky early when he pieced together a number of research papers and seemingly random press reports to uncover a highly secret UK government satellite surveillance system. Stone was arrested and held for a week under anti-terrorism legislation, but they’d had to release him because he’d broken no law. The story was picked up by mainstream media, and NotFutile.com took off from there.
In the early days, Stone was constantly under surveillance. He spent a year or so living out of one bag, alighting in one country after another. But then the bizarre offer of a professorship at West Fleet University had come along.