Tom Aston

The Machine

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 buzz. 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 The Man. Steven Semyonov, billionaire founder of SearchIgnition — loved, admired… revered. 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, Missy, 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 The Man, 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, Junko thought. 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 unknown 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.

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