Authors: Tom Aston
Tags: #"The Machine, #novel, #Science thriller, #action thriller", #adventure, #Tom Aston, #Ethan Stone, #thriller, #The Machine
The Peace Campaigner thing was Stone’s way of cleansing his psyche of those feelings – but it only worked up to a point. It was displacement activity. Deep down he knew he was simply looking for danger and confrontation in different ways. Repressing the feelings, but not getting rid of them. Was he motivated by anger about Hooper’s killing? Yes. Did he have an urge to get Semyonov? Yes. A long, long way back, Hooper had been his friend, the kind of deep comrade-friend that only soldiers can know about. And Stone owed him. Stone owed very few people anything at all in life. He liked it that way. But Hooper – he owed Hooper. So going after Semyonov - and whoever else was behind that charnel house in Afghanistan - was a way of scratching the itch.
Stone was snapped back to the present by the image of Semyonov on the seatback TV. He put on the headphones:
‘In a surprising development to the Semyonov story, advisers to SearchIgnition Corporation confirmed that they have already sold one hundred percent of the shares belonging to SIC founder and majority shareholder, Steven Semyonov. Semyonov’s holding netted the search genius a total of $25.9 billion in cash.
‘Meanwhile, Semyonov is said to have travelled to Hong Kong, where he’s set to make yet another “major announcement” tomorrow evening.’
Semyonov had taken his money, and himself, out of the US with indecent haste. It looked as guilty as hell. It looked like Terashima was right. But how had she known?
Chapter 6 - 9:30am 3 March, San Francisco, California
Nine-thirty in the morning. Lawyer Abe Blackman of Blackman, Vascovitz Intellectual Property Law, rubbed his eyes with fatigue. He had worked late, and had made an early start once again.
Blackman’s speciality was the law of patents, and he was the best. He had made hundreds of millions for his clients, working with some of the most creative minds from Silicon Valley. From his mahogany desk Blackman had seen all manner of ideas - most of which he turned down, saving himself for the “money-makers”. He was seldom surprised by the way things turned out.
But surprised he had been when a Chinese gentleman calling himself Shin arrived the previous afternoon, wearing an ill-fitting suit and cheap shoes. He said he was from Taiwan and he carried an outsized briefcase.
Blackman doubted Shin had anything of note in that bag of his, and he came to the point. ‘Why should I look at your work, Shin?’ Blackman asked, barely looking up from his desk.
The first surprise came when Shin produced a banker’s draft. ‘I give you twenty thousand dollars to review these papers, Mr Blackman. On the condition you alone should examine them.’ Shin then produced a very professionally drafted non-disclosure form for Abe Blackman to sign.
Twenty grand? It wouldn’t hurt. Blackman took the cheque without speaking, and scribbled on the non-disclosure agreement.
Shin took the signed agreement and inspected it. Then he placed a number of thick files on the desk.
At this point, Blackman attempted to bid Mr Shin goodbye, but the Chinese insisted on sitting in the office while Blackman read the papers. Shin stood up and went to sit silently in a chair by the door. Blackman shook his head, took out his reading glasses, and began to work.
As the antique clock ticked softly in his office, Blackman quickly realised Shin was no time-waster. These were fundamental technologies. There were nine or ten first rate patents that he could see at first glance.
The first file was an outline for a system of wirelessly-controlled industrial robots. Within that, there were patents in software, miniature engineering and nanotechnology. Then there was a quite incredible system of sensors, which would allow the tiny robots to hover and even fly at slow speeds. Blackman felt out of his depth momentarily – for the first time in twenty years.
After two hours of reading the details of the first file, Blackman realized his mouth was dry. This stuff would work, it would actually work. The sensors could be mass-produced – very cheaply. So, given the right equipment, could the nanotech parts. Yes, in theory this incredible technology looked not only viable, but cheap to make.
The Chinese man sitting in the corner of his office, his eyes half-closed, was a genius, sitting on an astonishing fund of technology worth billions of dollars. Either that or he was a lunatic, a maniac who had spent months forging research papers
Blackman made his decision. He left a voicemail for his secretary to cancel his morning meetings. He asked for coffee and caffeine tablets. He would be working through the night.
Abe Blackman sat red-eyed at his desk again the next morning. The unreadable face of Mr Shin looked on from the side of the room, as it had done all night. Blackman was nowhere near a detailed assessment of the three files, but everything so far was in order. There were questions over the programming - the software as described looked, well, astonishing. But that was a minor detail.
Blackman felt lightheaded. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. His every instinct told him to grab at the opportunity. But prudence dictated he know more about the mysterious Mr Shin. The third file in particular gave him pause. It was clearly a weapon - a device which generated and focused very low frequency sound waves. The waves affected the central nervous system of mammals to incapacitate. The idea had come from research work done on the roar of tigers. Crazy, but all backed up by research.
Abe Blackman eyed Mr Shin, then handed back the bundle of files.
‘I make it a rule not to sign in the heat of the moment,’ Blackman said finally. ‘But I’m sure we can work together. I’ll call you in a couple of days.’
Mr Shin showed no disappointment. ‘You have signed the confidentiality agreement,’ he said. ‘You are aware of the consequences if you break your promise?’
‘Naturally,’ Blackman replied, irritated. And then, ‘Forgive me. It is our practice nowadays to take copies of our clients’ passports...’
Shin took out his Taiwanese document. Blackman left the room to make a copy, and stared at the enigmatic face in the passport.
A minute later Shin was gone. Abe Blackman found himself looking at the photo of Shin’s unreadable face once more. He realized he needed to take stock here. Real life did not proceed like this, and he needed to make some further enquiries on the enigmatic Chinese man.
The usual agencies wouldn’t cut it. Blackman picked up the phone.
‘FBI?’ he said in clipped Californian tones. ‘Give me Special Agent Carl Hackspill. No, I can’t say what it’s about. It’s a personal call.’
12:15pm 29 March - Chep Lap Kok International Airport, Hong Kong
‘Professor Stone,’ said a polite female voice.
Stone looked round. A uniformed Chinese girl was walking towards him in the crowded terminal. Stone had just emerged from passport control into a concourse filled with natural light. The Chinese certainly knew how to build things big. ‘Professor Stone!’ she repeated, simpering at him. She had on a headset, and was holding up a neatly printed sign with Stone’s name on it. ‘There’s someone who wants to meet...’
Stone looked through her. He’d travelled on a false passport as usual. This shouldn’t be happening. But there she was.
‘No thanks,’ he said and walked on. People who made this kind of effort to meet Ethan Stone were usually hard-faced lawyers working for the arms companies. They’d given the girl a few dollars to look official, then someone nasty would be waiting in the wings. He wondered for a second if Terashima had been bait.
A taller, blonde woman swept in front of the uniformed girl.
‘Ethan Stone, The Man of Action!’ It was an American voice, female. Relaxed and confident, and vaguely mocking. ‘So pleased to meet you! I’m a great fan of your web site,’ she said with another smile. Her face was familiar. She carried on, walking by his side. ‘It’s just a shame no one bothers to look at it.’
Stone recognized her immediately, as she knew he would. The voice, the film-star looks - Virginia Carlisle, top reporter for GNN. War zones, Wall Street crises, celebrity murders. This woman had dominated the eyeballs on GNN TV for the last five years. What was she doing here? Stone walked away, but she strode beside him wearing her TV smile. He didn’t need this.
She had the kind of flowing blonde mane you might see in a haircare advertisement. Undeniably beautiful - attractive, if he was honest. Perhaps a bit upperclass for him, he thought, as she walked beside him.
‘Thanks for your kind words, Ms Carlisle,’ said Stone walking along. She was the last person he should talk to right now. She’d got wind of his story, or Terashima’s, and if he told her anything more, Ekström and his weapons would be live on prime time. Stone made to move away from her in the crowd. There was a man at a discreet distance holding a big Sony TV camera. Ready to leap out when Carlisle gave the signal.
Stone quickened his pace through the crowd, but Carlisle held him. She grabbed him not by his shoulder, or his arm, but his hand – her manicured fingers taking his. If she’d grabbed his sleeve Stone would have pulled away. As it was it surprised him. It was oddly intimate, flirtatious. He looked round at her instinctively. It was a good trick she had there. Where had she learned that?
‘Stone. We have to talk,’ she said. Her tone had changed, as if suddenly they were old friends. She was still holding his hand.
‘No, we don’t need to talk,’ he said, moving off again. In fact it would be a disaster if they did
She knew too much already.
‘Do you know who I am?’ she said, at last showing a flash of irritation. Stone saw what was happening. Virginia Carlisle was the big star at GNN, where Junko Terashima had been a rookie reporter. Junko’s words came to his mind:
Someone at GNN is blocking me...
Interesting. GNN’s top reporter doorstepping him for information at Hong Kong Airport. And “someone” at GNN was blocking Junko’s investigation of Semyonov. No coincidence.
‘OK,’ he said, pulling his hand away from her. ‘Let’s talk. But not here.’
Stone walked with her to her glossy Mercedes - idling in the no-park-zone for the last hour without compunction. No metro train or beat-up Hong Kong taxi for Virginia Carlisle. Stone held the door for her – he figured she was used to that - then stepped in beside her onto the cool leather seats of the limo.
‘I flew in on the red-eye myself,’ remarked Virginia Carlisle
: I should look like shit after the flight - like you. But I look fantastic.
‘I showered in the Platinum Lounge,’ she explained and turned round to Stone - looking the tall, slim Englishman up and down. Now she was in the car she dropped the flirtatious wheedling. ‘Don’t you need to collect your bags?’
Stone gestured to his small backpack. ‘I’ve got what I need.’
Carlisle glanced at the bag with incomprehension. No doubt she had three jumbo cases in the trunk.
Stone felt Virginia checking him out, examining his appearance, making her mind up. The shock of dirty blond hair, the faded jeans and denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up in the tropical heat. She saw he was tall but wiry, and had intelligent grey eyes, which creased when he smiled. She picked out the green New Age tattoo, beneath the pale blond hairs of his right forearm.
‘Do I pass?’ he asked. In spite of himself, Stone had to admit Virginia Carlisle was an impressive woman. As attractive as on TV, if not more so, but not in the least like her onscreen persona. On GNN she appeared to wear no make-up, wore combat fatigues, and had that stunning blonde mane blowing in the Iraqi breeze or wherever she was. Inside the Mercedes, she was all Fifth Avenue, in a tailored skirt just above the knee, tasteful blouse, and with large diamond studs in her ears. Real diamonds. Her tanned legs were arranged for Stone to look at, like they’d been enhanced in Photoshop for a magazine cover, and ending in five-hundred-dollar shoes. A whole different look from the war zone shots on TV, but she still had that rangey, athletic appearance. She was a strong woman, with a New England edge to her voice – an upper class, Ivy League thing, which she suppressed on television.
The legs were on display, but her body language was different. Her torso was turned rigidly forward, and she turned her neck to talk to Stone over her shoulder. A sign of unease, or of caution at least.
‘You know why I’m here, don’t you?’ she said, finally.
‘You’re from GNN. You worked with Junko Terashima,’ said Stone. ‘You stole her story from her, then fired her. Am I right?’
Stone was glad to see her eyes blaze angrily for a second. Nothing like insulting a journo’s integrity.
‘What do you know about Junko, Stone?’ she snapped. ‘What is she up to?’
He’d guessed right. She was either trying to steal Junko’s story, or she was desperate to block it.
‘What is this?’ he chuckled. ‘A quiz show?’ Stone looked away. He wasn’t such a rookie as to sit there and let himself be questioned. Nonetheless, he felt a frisson of pleasure in sparring with this woman. He threw it back at her. ‘You’re a famous person, Virginia Carlisle. An investigative reporter. Suppose you tell me what
you know about me
before we go any further. I guess you’ve done your research – or had an underling do it for you.’
Virginia looked round at him in the back of the limo with that knowing smile again.
‘You sure you want to hear?’
‘Sure,’ said Stone. ‘Something tells me you’ll have an opinion.’
‘OK. You asked for it,’ she sat up as if before the camera. ‘Let’s say it’s a celebrity profile feature. What shall I call this piece
- Ethan Stone: Where it all Went Wrong
.’ She looked at him for signs of surprise. ‘Stone, you’re one of those clever kids from some crappy town, who gets a scholarship to a good high school. You went to study math at Cambridge. Which is almost like a good school in the US, but cheaper. You got the whole education without spending a dime.’