Authors: Tom Aston
Tags: #"The Machine, #novel, #Science thriller, #action thriller", #adventure, #Tom Aston, #Ethan Stone, #thriller, #The Machine
“Ethan Stone -
Professor of Peace Studies
.” He had to laugh. He wasn’t professor material, and he didn’t make much of a study of peace. More a personal war against the arms industry. Stone joked once that
Professor of Sick and Unusual Weapons Systems
would have been a better title, and that was the title Jayne stuck on his office door last Christmas. It made her laugh anyway, and since the Vice Chancellor thought it “sent out the wrong message”, Stone had kept the laminated sign on his office door for the whole year.
The phone rang again
‘George wants you as soon as possible, Stone. You’d better get your arse up here.’
‘Since you ask so nicely.’ Stone answered, ‘And can I just say I’ve always appreciated your professional manner?’
‘Just get up here!’ she laughed.
He hung up, but had no intention of leaving the room. He walked over and gazed out of the window again. He liked Jayne - she was fun, flirtatious. Much more his type than the hero-worshipping students who followed him around.
If Stone had ever had doubts why University Vice Chancellor George had impulsively hired him as the first Professor of Peace Studies at West Fleet, they didn’t last long. Stone’s NotFutile.com web site and his reputation had given West Fleet the image of being cool and radical. He’d attracted hordes of students. The whole university gained a higher profile. Journalists and camera crews were suddenly regular visitors. ‘
Good for business!’
as Watts always said, sounding like a marketing man. Which was what he was, mostly. Not his fault.
Stone remembered the words of one cringe-making reporter:
‘No straggly beards and sandals here,’
. ‘Peace activist Ethan Stone combines Zen-like commitment to his research work with the looks of Keanu Reeves.’
Keanu Reeves? It took him months to live that one down.
But it was true that the unconventional new Professor had given the university an image of being modern, progressive, ground-breaking. Stone himself had gained a kind of rock star persona
The girls at the student newspaper made him look cultish and cool, and always printed pictures of him. They said he had managed to make the non-violence movement sexy. Which was an achievement in itself, considering Stone was an
, and took a hard-line stance against consumerism. He took his salary in cash, refused a bank account, lived in one room like a student. They said he was a believer, a
man without hypocrisy.
And they were right. Nothing “eccentric” in that as far as he was concerned. Stone hated the publicity nonetheless.
There was a scuffling noise outside the office door and Vice Chancellor Watts burst in, red-faced, just as Stone’s phone rang again with a call from Jayne.
‘With you in a second, George,’ said Stone glancing down at the screen in front of him.
‘I need to speak to you, Stone,’ he said, flustered.
‘You don’t say,’ said Stone without looking up. Whatever George Watts wanted to say would have to wait. ‘As it happens, I need to speak to you too,’ he said. ‘I’ve just discovered something. I received a particularly nasty video through the NotFutile.com site,’ said Stone. Watts was looking mystified. ‘Illegal weapons testing in Afghanistan.’ Stone didn’t elaborate. Watts would probably have thrown up if he’d seen that film-clip. ‘But it’s more interesting than I thought. If interesting’s the right word.’
Interesting was definitely not the right word.
Watts looked nonplussed at being talked at by Stone, but Stone continued. ‘You see it seems the mercenaries, Special Circumstances, have been testing a weapon out there in Afghanistan, and sent the details to NotFutile.com to gain publicity. That’s bad enough,’ said Stone. Watts was still looking wary and confused. ‘But they made a mistake. The manufacturer of the weapon put a name plate on it. Only the mercenaries didn’t think to remove it, because they couldn’t read it.’
‘What do you mean they couldn’t read it?’ said Watts.
Stone’s eyes were cool, but behind them his mind was fixed on the image of Hooper, shot in cold blood by the mercenary. Stone was by nature dispassionate. He had a reputation for it, and it had made him a cool killer himself in his time. Yet he was seething with anger after what he’d seen - a cold hard anger. Stone's jaw was fixed with gritted teeth as silently turned the computer screen to show Watts the frozen image of Ekström’s dish-shaped weapon. He stared at Watts, his eyes like chips of grey ice, unblinking. It always made Watts nervous when Stone did that. Watts went red in the face and played with his cuffs.
‘There was a manufacturer’s nameplate on that weapon, George,’ said Stone pointing at the screen with a pencil. ‘New Machine Technologies, Shanghai, China. The mercenaries didn’t notice, because it was written in Chinese, but it’s clear as day. I did a year of Chinese at Cambridge, remember?’
‘Before you dropped out, Stone,’ said Watts, tartly, but still playing with his cuffs. ‘But I don’t see where that gets us.’
‘I did an online search for this firm, George,’ said Stone. ‘New Machine Technologies is a Chinese company. It appears to be a subsidiary of ShinComm Corporation, also of Shanghai, although the ownership structure is a bit vague.’
‘ShinComm are huge,’ said Watts, trying to look knowledgeable. ‘They make smartphones, laptops that kind of thing. Mostly for the Western market.’
‘Sure. But I haven’t finished yet,’ said Stone, still pointing at the screen. ‘Take a look at this. This is a
video clip which came up when I searched on New Machine Technologies.’ Stone began to play the clip on the screen while George Watts watched.
clip showed a press conference with the search technology billionaire, Steven Semyonov. The video began as the camera alighted on a rookie reporter for GNN - Global News Network. An attractive young Japanese woman with the name Junko Terashima on her lapel badge. She looked nervous, almost guilty, like one of the quiet girls at school who'd landed herself in front of the principal. The camera flashed back to Semyonov’s face. He smiled like an all-knowing Buddha as she asked the question. Stone had watched this part maybe thirty times already.
Junko Terashima, GNN, Washington DC...
’ the young reporter began, voice quavering. The whole room looked at her. Her face had a sheen of nervous perspiration as she read from a card.
Mr Semyonov, can you confirm you’ve taken a major shareholding in ShinComm and New Machine Technology Company, of Shanghai, China?
The video flipped to a close-up of Semyonov. There was no reaction in Semyonov’s white face. The penetrating eyes betrayed nothing.
I have a great many investments, Junko
,’ he said casually. ‘
She cleared her throat again as if steeling herself, then read on. ‘
As a major shareholder, Mr Semyonov, you must be aware that experimental weapons manufactured by ShinComm have killed hundreds of innocent civilians. How do you feel about that?
Stone stared the close-up of Semyonov’s smooth face. It was the half smile that hooked him. A smile with the mouth and not the eyes, and it lasted a split-second too long. There was a hairline crack in his impenetrable intelligence.
You are mistaken, Miss Terashima,
’ Semyonov said simply, but deliberately, and moved on to the next questioner. As the video clip finished, Terashima was being bundled out as a troublemaker.
Watts looked more uneasy than ever. ‘I don’t see the point,’ he said. But Watts saw the point very well. Semyonov was a very powerful man – intelligent, rich. Most of all he was popular. ‘I don’t know what you’re suggesting Stone. But you’ve already made too many enemies since you came here…’
‘Then another one won’t hurt. Let me explain,’ said Stone. He couldn’t let himself say Hooper’s name, couldn’t admit the personal connection. ‘I just received evidence to back up what this Japanese woman was saying. There was a manufacturer’s nameplate on that weapon. No one believed her when she confronted Semyonov, but here’s the evidence..’
Watts looked at Stone in sudden apprehension. ‘Whatever you’re up to, Stone, I forbid you to make an enemy of Steven Semyonov. For the university or for yourself.’
‘Semyonov is famous for his cool, and his intelligence,’ said Stone, ignoring the objection. ‘He’s never stuck for an answer. Yet here’s a rookie reporter and she’s caught him out. It’s there in his face. You can see it.’ Stone was talking Semyonov, but his mind was fixed on Hooper and the image of Ekström's face grinning from behind that gun barrel. ‘Why would this rookie reporter do this unless she had something? Semyonov is Mr Nice Guy. He’s worth billions and the media love him. Then suddenly – bang! This is not tax fiddling Semyonov’s involved in, George – this is evil, nasty weaponry,.’
‘We’ve just seen a young reporter end her career,’ said Watts. ‘Nothing more.’
Reporter fired for challenging billionaire
”. Since when did that mean she was wrong?’ said Stone. ‘The firm Terashima cites is New Machine Tech, George. And New Machine Technologies made the weapon in Afghanistan. The dead women and kids in that village connect directly back to Semyonov.’
‘‘I don’t care what you say,’ said Watts, shaking his head, more nervy than ever. ‘Semyonov’s a popular hero – a moral and intellectual hero. You can’t take him on.’
Stone persisted. ‘Junko Terashima knows about Semyonov, George, and I know about the weapons. Between us we have evidence.’
‘I forbid you to contact her.’
‘Chuck it, George. That’s weak, even for you. I’ve already been in touch with her.’ said Stone. ‘Terashima’s in Hong Kong. I’ve sent her photos of the weapon. This is bigger than Ekström and Special Circumstances. I’m going after Steven Semyonov.’
‘I forbid you to go to Hong Kong, Stone’
‘It’s a bit late for that, George. Jayne already booked me on tomorrow’s flight. Using your credit card, I should think.’
Stone had got what he wanted from George Watts – just. Most importantly, though, he’d kept up his cool persona – his front. Watts hadn’t suspected Stone’s underlying motives. He took another look at the email from Junko Terashima.
Stone-san. I heard Semyonov has left US for good and gone to China. Anyway he is Hong Kong, I am sure of that. I have a contact in ShinComm factory who told me Semyonov has been many times in China before.
I’m in Hong Kong. Semyonov’s people agreed to meet if I came to Hong Kong. I had to take the chance.
One more thing. Although I was fired by GNN, someone is still blocking me, even in Hong Kong. If I meet Semyonov’s people I may get the story, but I’m scared something’s going to happen. I think someone is following me.
Stone could see this Japanese girl had no clue what she was into. It was the tone of her email, and the way she looked on that Youtube clip. And that cringey
at the end. All of which begged the question: how on earth had she come by her information about Semyonov?
But it was academic. Stone wasn’t thinking about Terashima. His mind was imprinted with the image of Ekström’s gloating face as he put the bullet through Hooper’s brain. He was thinking of dissected bodies, of numbers in neat black marker pen on the foreheads, of the four dead soldiers. For once, emotion had got the better of him, even if he hadn’t shown it.
In his time with Hooper, Stone was supposed to be the cool, calm one. Yet here he was, doing a Hooper. Letting adrenaline and emotion tell him what to do. Stone’s rational mind knew this wasn’t about ShinComm, or Terashima, or weird weapons in Afghanistan. It was about Hooper.
Stone could easily convince George Watts – he always got the better of Watts. He could even convince a part of himself. Going after Semyonov was what NotFutile.com was all about, right? A technology genius like Semyonov building weapons? That was news. Oh yes, Stone could rationalize to whoever cared to listen.
But Stone had to be honest, to himself if no one else. This was about Hooper.
Semyonov’s a popular hero – a moral and intellectual hero,”
Watts had said
Stone smiled to himself, a genuine smile for the first time that day. He was going to get to Semyonov and his mercenaries, even if he had to swim to Hong Kong.
Chapter 5 - 28 March, Cathay Pacific Flight CX250, London to Hong Kong
Stone was sitting in coach, ten thousand metres over Central Asia. The seat-back TV was on in front of him, flickering away, but he was looking out of the window at the earth curving away beneath. Something was bothering him, like an itch at the back of his brain.
Stone hadn’t started NotFutile.com and his peace campaign immediately when he left the army. In fact he’d had “issues”. Some called it “post-traumatic stress”, but it wasn’t stress. It was more like “combat withdrawal”.
He’d found himself looking for fights. He’d once put on a dress suit and ordered a sweet sherry at one of the hardest bars in Portsmouth, just to see what would happen. Nearly had his ear torn off in the struggle that followed, but he’d finished on top. Just.
To credit the army, they gave help for this kind of thing. The “stress” counsellor talked to Stone about anger management, and asked him about something called
rules for living
. Did Stone feel the need to prove himself by violence, over and over? Did he feel constantly threatened? Stone had answered yes, to keep the counsellor happy, but the real answer was no - in both cases. Stone hadn’t felt threatened. He didn't feel a need to prove himself. The truth was, he enjoyed the violence. That was why he’d kept looking for trouble, looking for fights. It was also why he'd had to get out of the army. Over time he’d healed his mind, reduced his violent urges from an open wound to little more than an itch. But an itch that never went away. Right now that itch to harm someone was getting seriously irritating.