Authors: Tom Aston
Tags: #"The Machine, #novel, #Science thriller, #action thriller", #adventure, #Tom Aston, #Ethan Stone, #thriller, #The Machine
‘Stone!’ An American voice. Depressingly familiar. ‘
She said with false delight. Upper class, North Eastern United States. Self-consciously, intelligently
for a woman. The preppy, Vasser-educated woman from the airport. Virginia Carlisle.
‘I knew it was you,’ she said. ‘Did you find anything?’
‘I guess not,’ said Stone without looking at her. He was holding Semyonov’s gaze still. ‘You?’
,’ replied Virginia, immodestly. ‘But you’ll have to wait to see it on GNN “Wake up World” in the morning.’ She had on a black silk dress and looked more glamorous than ever. She moved up beside Stone and smiled at Semyonov five metres away through the crowd. ‘I was gonna say it’s a surprise to see you, but I guess I knew you’d get in here. Junko couldn’t make it, then?’
‘No, Virginia. She couldn’t,’ Stone replied, his jaw clenched. He couldn’t look at her, so he continued eyeballing Semyonov. Virginia was trying to be genuinely friendly now, as if their meeting in the Limo never happened. An actress. On another day, at another party, he would like Virginia if he was honest. She was sassy and upfront. She was intelligent, attractive, driven. Like him? No. Not like him. But there was definitely something.
‘Steven just looked at you Stone,’ said Carlisle. ‘He picked you out in the crowd. Wow!’
‘I didn’t notice,’ Stone lied.
‘Don’t be modest, Stone. Modesty’s a sin. You’re a cult figure,’ commented Virginia. ‘So act like it. You could be just as famous as me in your own way, except that everyone knows me and no one knows you. You just need more airtime on TV. You could be someone. A hero for the peaceniks and the anti-globalisation gang.’
‘Like you gave a shit about the “anti-globalisation gang”,’ he said.
‘Like you give a shit about TV,’ she retorted. ‘But you should. Most people here don’t even know your face. But it looks like Steven knows you.’
‘Maybe he was looking at you,’ Stone said, affecting boredom, still staring at Semyonov, who was now making an effort
to look at Stone. That pleased Stone. Semyonov, who had everyone’s eyes on him, could feel Stone’s cool grey gaze on him. Guilt? Or was he about to ask some guy wearing a silver hammer to nestle an automatic into Stone's ribs and show him the door?
‘Semyonov likes guys like you,’ Virginia went on, flashing a smile at Stone. Patronizing. ‘Radicals, charity people, do-gooders.’
,’ said Stone, aping her preppy American voice. ‘
Semyonov just loves us. Sorry to disappoint you, Virginia
but I had to crash this party, remember? Obviously not
doing enough good.’
Stone was thinking of the Snake Market only minutes before. He hadn’t done much good there either.
‘Anyhow, Virginia. I guess you’ve done your research again? What do you know about Semyonov?’ asked Stone.
‘I know plenty. It’s my job,’ said Virginia. Self-satisfied look again.
Stone still concentrated on Semyonov. He was going to be in The Man’s face any minute.
‘He was always a bright kid,’ said Virginia. ‘Studied at Columbia, then a masters at MIT. But he was no more than a bright kid. There were others like him. His search business was just the right thing at the right time. The weird thing is he was a regular guy back then. Averagely good looking, played a little basketball, brown hair. He looked and acted normal. Look at him now.’
Stone watched the beads of sweat on Semyonov’s smooth forehead. What was Carlisle talking about? The man’s skin was whitish-pink, and entirely hairless, and he had to be fifty, sixty pounds overweight.
‘Maybe the exertion of acquiring those billions did something weird to him,’ said Virginia. ‘Or maybe stress.’
Semyonov didn’t look stressed. The pinkish skin was completely without lines or dryness. In fact he looked – well, just weird, like a plump, bouncing baby, inflated to adult size and given an IQ of 200.
‘I have heard the whackos claim he’s an alien,’ said Virginia. ‘That you can’t just gain fifty points in IQ in your twenties,’
I’m not surprised.
‘Anyhow, he’s not average,’ she said. ‘He’s not even an average geek. And I guess looks don’t matter if you have the smarts.’
Stone felt a thrill of anger. Junko Terashima killed, Hooper and fifty others dead in the Afghan village – did none of that matter if you “have the smarts”? Maybe Semyonov’s mind had become morally addled by his money and his IQ.
Virginia Carlisle’s face may be known on five continents, but Stone was barely listening to her. He wanted to see The Man’s reaction. To see that big, smooth, white face react when Stone asked about the weapons. Guilt? Pleasure? Shock? Relief even? Semyonov was close now, and the crowd tighter than ever around him. Two metres away.
Stone slipped away from Virginia, past a knot of three Australian programmers. Stood in front of The Man. His eyes smouldered. A bodyguard noticed and slid in beside Semyonov, spoke in his master’s ear and then stared again at Stone.
Stone could handle that guy, if he came looking for it. He kind of hoped he would. Stone looked directly at Semyonov’s red eyes – something no one else in that place seemed to want to do. But then he had a shock, like he’d been slapped across the face, or across the eyes to be precise. Semyonov finally looked Stone back in the eye, and Stone could see where the talk about an alien intelligence had come from. Up close, those eyes had an unknowable depth and intensity, even after a couple of seconds.
,’ quipped Semyonov. ‘You look as good as that well-known peacenik, Ethan Stone. Still, it’s only fitting to have a
at the Crabflower Club, I guess.’ Semyonov’s shaven pate glistened slightly. He’d just made a highbrow remark, a joke intelligible only to himself. His face was expressionless, except for the depth in his eyes. It wasn’t just an intensity either. Stone held the eyes and wondered whether even one other person in there had seen what he saw in Semyonov’s eyes. There was a weariness. Semyonov was jaded. All this stuff, the money, the adulation, the brains. None of it was enough for Semyonov.
‘No. You’ve changed, Mr Semyonov,’ said Stone after a pause. ‘You surround yourself with all these clever, creative people. Do they know your latest toy is a nasty line in Weapons of Mass Destruction?’
‘Do you?’ replied Semyonov, still expressionless.
‘How many do you think you’ve killed already, Semyonov?’ said Stone, undaunted. ‘Keeping score? Is that the big announcement everyone’s gossiping about? The latest body-count?’
Stone looked back at Semyonov’s eyes to record the reaction, but a black-suited arm came between them.
Chapter 14 - 8:55pm
Zhonghua Hotel, Central, Hong Kong
‘He’s not always this charming, Steven!’ said Virginia’s voice, heavy with irony. A big security guy had stepped between Semyonov and Stone, and was standing with his back to Stone.
‘Peace Studies isn’t it?’ said Semyonov, easing aside the meathead security man. ‘You’re doing great work in your campaigns against the arms trade. I congratulate you, Stone.’ Did he actually mean this? ‘But you need to work on the publicity. Get on TV. You should get Virginia here to help you.’
‘You deny New Machine Corporation is making weapons?’ shouted Stone, as The Man turned.
‘I deny nothing, Mr Stone,’ said Semyonov, and he walked off with the tuxedo’d security man.
Stone said nothing for a second. That was a reaction he hadn’t expected.
You’re doing great work. I congratulate you.
Was Stone supposed to buy that? And then there was,
I deny nothing
. Questions raced through Stone’s mind. Stone was an intelligent guy, but Semyonov had just confounded him.
Virginia moved up next to Stone again in the crowd. Spotlights were on Semyonov as he walked up to a stage at the front and took his place alongside some frowning Chinese dignitaries. The music stopped, the noise level was dropping. The entertainers and the waitresses had disappeared
Everyone’s eyes were on Semyonov. ‘What’s he doing?’ Stone asked. The three Chinese dignitaries were dressed in the plain, button-fronted suits of the Chinese Communist Party. This meant it was a serious occasion. Semyonov and the three Chinese were on large TV screens positioned throughout the Crabflower Club.
‘You don’t know?’ smiled Virginia.
‘I crashed the party. Remember?’
The TV screens were showing an ornate document, one copy placed in front of each person on the dais. It was written in English on one half and Chinese characters on the other. A contract document in both languages. The screen showed the title.
Investment Joint Venture - New Machine Research Corporation, Jiangsu Province, People’s Republic of China
The dignitaries, seated on either side of Semyonov, signed their names at the bottom of the deed and used their formal Chinese ink stamps to make it official. There was polite applause. Now it was Semyonov’s turn to sign. The room was packed with witnesses. Cameras were on him from five angles. An awed silence descended.
‘He’s actually going to do it, Stone,’ whispered Virginia. Even as a hardened reporter, she was staggered.
‘He doesn’t even know what he’s investing in!’ whispered a voice next to them.
That’s not right
,’ came another. ‘
He knows everything
’ Joking, but with a grain of truth.
I guess he works in mysterious ways, huh?
‘This is not a stunt, Stone,’ said Virginia solemnly, staring at the screen. ‘He said he’d do it. He’s giving them the whole lot. He’s going to sign it all away. Twenty-five billion dollars!’
Stone half-expected trumpets, some kind of fanfare. What they got was even better. On the screen, Semyonov picked up a gold fountain pen in his right hand, and a silver fountain pen in his left. There was another gasp as he proceeded to sign both halves of the document, English and Chinese,
, one pen in each hand. With the left hand he wrote his American signature, at the same time as he was signing with his right in elegant Chinese script.
‘I heard he could do that,’ whispered Virginia. She’d flushed red.
‘Have the Chinese brainwashed him, or what?’ asked a loud Australian voice behind them. Fair question. The camera panned over onto the Communist Party official next to Semyonov. His flat, unreadable face showed only indifference.
The Australian voice was there again
. ‘Writing with two hands at once? It’s not a normal thing, right?’
No, not a normal thing. Definitely not normal.
I’ve seen him do that before,
’ said another voice, ‘
Semyonov can totally do that.’
‘Forget the writing,’ said Virginia. ‘Signing away your whole fortune to the Chinese state is not a normal thing.’
There followed not so much an excited buzz - more of an uproar, a chaotic scene, confusion. There was shouting, cheering, hooting and surges through the crowd like it was a rock concert. Stone began to push his way through the shell-shocked crowd in the Crabflower Club towards the table where, of all things, Semyonov was signing autographs. With both hands. Showing he could actually do it and it wasn’t a trick. A different witty message with each hand.
It’s not a normal thing, right?
Stone caught sight of one
and the barman says, this is some kinda joke, right?
” was written with the left hand, while the right hand wrote, “
A Californian, a blonde and a rabbi walk into a bar,
”. An old one. And Stone was not in the mood for jokes.
Stone was three metres away. The bodyguard spoke in Semyonov’s ear again. The Man looked up to catch Stone’s eye. It looked like Semyonov was going to speak to him, but then the Chinese Party dignitaries stood up to leave. Stone was still eyeballing him, and it must have looked really intense.
Whatever the reason, Semyonov’s large white head and red eyes turned again toward Stone, and he made a tired gesture with his hand for Stone to approach.
‘Why did you do it?’ said Stone. It was the only relevant question, the only thing he could think of, because nothing here made any sense. But Semyonov was still impassive. He scribbled again with both hands, and handed the two slips of paper to Stone. The words weren’t even in English.
‘You didn’t get the Crabflower Club thing did you?’ said Semyonov, looking suddenly tired. Must he explain everything to these pitiable fools? ‘The Crabflower Club. Remember? It was the name of the poetry club in “The Story of the Stone”. The classic Chinese novel. I wrote you some verse, Stone. Thought it was appropriate.’
There was a shout to Stone’s left. ‘He can’t be leaving. Semyonov’s the party dude, he’s gotta stay!’
But Semyonov was indeed leaving. The Chinese VIPs made their way out through a rear door with the bodyguards. Semyonov turned his huge head and neck away from Stone, impassive again, like a great white bull, and was ushered away behind the Chinese. The SCC meatheads took him through the crowd at speed. Stone tried to follow, but it was a few seconds before he got free of the crowd. He gave one of the Crabflower staff an authoritative nod as he followed Semyonov’s party through the fire door. It worked. He sped up. Suddenly he was outside in the darkness of the loading bay behind the Zhonghua. There was a smell of fish and the harbour, the air sticky and hot again after the aircon inside. But no sign of Semyonov.
Stone looked around amongst the cars and trucks. Semyonov could be anywhere. He could have been whisked off already. Stone felt stunned. The two-handed writing, those intense red eyes, those mystical comments – Semyonov had completely outmaneuvered him. If he was a killer, he was a cold, heartless bastard.