Chapter Two: The Myth, the Meeting, and the Island
I was Army; Parachute Regiment. But that was practically an entire age ago, one where flying suits piloted by attractive teenaged girls was just the fanciful delusions of overly hormonal boys with creative licenses that should have been revoked long ago. The First Battalion provided me with all the things a dirty little working-class guttersnipe from Northampton could never have no matter how hard he worked. It also provided me with a family, and gave real meaning to the word, some faces to go with it.
Then this family died. IED trap. We pursued a recognised insurgent through the Afghanistani countryside and the next thing I know we're under fire with explosions going off all around us. I survived only because one of my family crawled on top of me – him with his insides spilling out onto the dusty ground – and hunkered over me, shielding me. Fuckers must have thought I was dead. Their mistake.
And I made them pay for it. Three weeks in recovery before I stole away with as much as I could and I hunted every one of those bastards down. I didn't kill them. I crucified them. They'd taken my family from me and for that a blood toll was in order. Torture was an understatement, and while I'm far from proud of what I did in that long, bloody week, I don't regret it. I walked back out of Helmand caked in blood and with a butcher's grin on my face.
My trial took place almost immediately. Families of the deceased cried and howled for my blood, one nut and his nut friends actually attacked the 'court-house' as it was. I cut my restraints, slaughtered five of the arsewipes and gutted the leader with his own knife to send him to join his cousin or brother or whoever in hell with the rest of the psychos. In recognition of my assistance in the defence of what was a rather precious military installation I was left with a dishonourable discharge and exile. MI6 spook told me never to show my face in Britain or around British Forces again if I knew what was good for me.
I probably would have starved to death on a street in the Arabic States with jihadists hounding my every step had someone not launched over two-thousand warheads at every major city in Japan, and if someone hadn't stopped those warheads single-handedly with the use of only a single machine. As it was, my crimes, my name, my very existence was overshadowed by the appearance of this new, fearsome technology. As it happened everyone focused on acquiring this 'Infinite Stratos', leaving me to try and find myself a new niche.
I turned once more to the craft of death. The name Elliot Grayson became associated not with Elliot Grayson: War Criminal, but Elliot Grayson: Soldier of Fortune. I made my trade in all kinds of battlefields in places you probably can't even pronounce, and I got good at it. Few were as keen shots or as brutal combatants as I was and eventually I was getting offers not just from PMCs and Intelligence Spooks, but insurgent organisations as well.
It was working for one of these that I first encountered the IS in combat, and from that encounter sprouted a myth that has long since passed from flattering to the ridiculous.
It was back in Afghanistan, funnily enough. I was hired for a not inconsiderable sum to help train guerrillas. What was I doing helping the people who likely helped killed my family in First Battalion? I really don't know. Much of my time in the seven years following my discharge passed by in a haze for me, I did things others might describe as illogical. It certainly wasn't for the cash, the amount they offered paled in comparison to the assassination of a liberal Italian Newscaster or the guarding of an illicit arms deal in California. Hell, some of the people I worked with might very well have been related to the men I butchered all those years ago.
Eventually the allotted time passed and my insurgent employers made me another offer: they were going to demonstrate the results of their training by attacking and making an example of a Police Station who refused repeatedly to accede to their demands. What these demands were I didn't know, they never explained them to me and I didn't really care much either, but they asked me to observe the attack (a fancy way of indirectly informing me that they were setting me up for execution in order to prevent a possible intelligence leak to the occupying Western powers). We started the operation at roughly 0700 local time.
Things went wrong shortly after that.
The police station was burned to the ground, with many of the officers who hadn't fled dead and those still breathing were soon going to wish they weren't. The predicted response was an American Army unit stationed roughly ten miles out of town. They didn't.
Instead, an American IS unit – one of the 467 in known creation – blasted into town.
Half the insurgents were dead in seconds.
I'd done my reading; we didn't have much of a hope in hell of fighting that thing so I did what any sensible commander would do in that situation: fall back. In the mountainous countryside we might still not be able to fight back, but there were far more places to hide from even the IS' Hyper-Senses (and the insurgents, who I knew didn't plan on letting me live).
We never made it to the mountains.
The distinctly one-sided battle took place just before the hills, with a screaming insurgent pitching to the earth never to rise again every other second. Finally they were all dead, and it was just little old me versus the deadliest machine humanity has ever conceived thus far.
Instinct drilled into my head from years of experience in conflicts of various degrees of viciousness all across the globe saved me. I threw myself aside just before the explosive could turn me into little red chunks but my gun was fried. The machine advanced through the cloud of dust it had created, the pilot wanted to make sure I was dead. It was like watching Death himself come for me, and for a moment, I thought with absolute certainty that those were my final moments on Earth.
Then my fingers curled around something in my tatty pack, and thumbed the switch by accident. The device – an improvised EMP, still no idea what that was doing in there – short-circuited the IS' shields and activated the machine's absolute defence mechanism, locking it up entirely. The machine had seemed to stop suddenly before gradually tilting over and falling unceremoniously to the ground.
Stunned by my good fortune, I'd risen to my feet. I should have just run but curiosity overcame me and I stepped closer to observe the fallen machine and its struggling pilot, who was offering some pretty choice words and promises of mutilation once she got out of the battle-suit. I don't know how long they had been observing the exchange but someone with a camera took a snap shot – a photo that spread across the globe – of my person, dressed like any other Afghanistani insurgent, with my features all too clear to see, standing over the fallen IS like a knight standing over the carcass of the dragon from tales of old.
The incident – and the story and images that accompanied it – catapulted me back into the spotlight. I was held up as a hero by males across the globe, I had several requests from some male celebrities to shake their hands, offers from various nations to serve as part of a bodyguard detail or Armed Forces Advisor, too much to remember. I still find it strange how no one addresses, or has addressed, the issue of what I was actually doing fighting an IS unit in the first place.
I enjoyed it for the first month or so. The respect downtrodden males gave me, the gifts and the increases to my payment offers. Hell it even pulled me some tail, lot of chicks dig alphas and at that time, I was the ideal. Then after that month it got tiresome, and I realised that being world-famous wasn't particularly good for my career as a gun for hire. I was idolised by thousands, but my everyday movements were being watched. I found myself having to turn down ludicrously high-paying operations for various employers because simply walking into the guy's mansion would bring a SWAT team on his head.
There was also the occasional assassin.
It was mostly restricted to whenever I was in Afghanistan (zealous jihadists made the connection that the 'IS-killer Elliot Grayson' and the 'Murderous Psychopath Elliot Grayson from several years ago' were one and the same), but eventually it began to happen in other places too. Not often enough to make me a recluse, but enough to make me wary of anything that, a year ago, I'd have jumped at without another thought. It wasn't just restricted to the ragheads either. So far I've had to neutralise and put down no less than five well-armed and well trained units of men who are written off as dead by their governments the moment I disable them.
You can imagine that all this led to me being one charming individual.
Up until yesterday I'd spent a brief stint in Helmand – a place I'd rather not have returned to – working as an advisor for a USMC outfit. This particular assignment was without doubt one of the more tedious, and now the three-week assignment was over I had kicking back in a fancy hotel (or as fancy as it could get in Helmand Province) waiting for the next email to tell me where I was going next and how much it'd be worth.
That was just under twenty minutes ago.
I was currently sitting in a tiny café in Yar, waiting for the man who'd supposedly give me the details for another job. I was more than sceptical, especially considering that it gave no detail as to the exact pay or the specifications as to what it all entailed. Ordinarily I'd never have considered the email, dismissing it either as a blatantly obvious trap or a lousy job. What made this different however was the name attached to the email.
The guy's a spokesperson, and a well-known spokesperson at that, for the Company 'Stonewall', an Electronics giant that blasted into the market a few years ago and has made stride after stride to tower over even well-established franchises like Sony and Samsung. The question of what such a company would want with a war maker like myself intrigued me.
'Sorry I'm late, bad traffic.'
The voice belonged to the man himself; quite literally the entire reason I had even bothered to attend this little meeting. He was a not unattractive gent who looked far younger than his age of thirty-four. He was dressed casually, a strange sight to me as I'd only ever seen him on the TV in a suit, in a hideous red and white Hawaiian short-sleeved shirt and a white undershirt, with faded jeans and dark shades that completely concealed his eyes from view. His shocking blonde hair was slicked back, and a winning smile seemed to be plastered to his face.
First impressions are… bad.
He took a seat opposite mine, and it was then that I noticed he'd brought a friend. The young woman didn't sit; she stood just a little behind Reynard. Bodyguard? Either she's packing an IS somewhere or she's much tougher than she looks. I gauged her appearance: strawberry blonde hair that fell in appealing curls just above her neckline, amber eyes, face from out of a model's catalogue, nearly perfectly proportioned from what I could tell in her casual tan cargo shorts and baggy white tee. Very much to my liking.
Which meant that she was almost certainly an IS pilot.
I took a moment to wonder how it was that no ugly girls seemed to be able to pilot an IS. Did their insane creator impose a beauty requirement on the IS cores or something? 'No girls below 7/10'? I almost chuckled at the thought.
'Matthew Reynard,' he introduced himself, extending his hand towards me. I shook it after a cautious moment.
'This is Claire Eckhart,' he motioned towards the woman standing behind him, 'Australian IS Division.'
'I wasn't aware Australia had an entire Division dedicated to the IS,' I remarked, raising an eyebrow, 'or any nation for that matter.'
'There's only about a hundred of us. Twenty with the capacity to pilot and the rest on support,' said Claire, the distinctive twang of her homeland lacing her every word.
'Right… so what does an electronics company and an Australian IS pilot want with a wound maker like me?' I asked.
'Claire's working with us. We've leased her; so to speak, from the Australian Military under the pretence of developing IS technology that we'd be happy to grant to Australia first, as well as any additional advances made,' Reynard explained matter-of-factly.
'So, what, you're telling me you aren't?'
'In a manner of speaking,' Reynard said with a wry grin.
'I'm not sure if I like the sound of this,' I told the pair, leaning back in my chair, folding my arms.
'Why not? I've got your dossier Grayson, and you've done things that could get you locked up in no less than nineteen different nations,' he lowered his gaze and his grin faltered a fraction, 'could still get you locked up.'
'With all of those I knew exactly what I was headed into,' I told him, 'here you expect me to go along with it without telling me a thing except that you're keeping one big mother of a secret from the Aussies.'
I stood up fairly quickly.
'Sorry, but I'm going to ask you to piss off.'
Claire looked ready to make a move but Reynard stopped her with a gesture. The spokesperson sighed heavily.
'Well, it appears we won't be working together then. Shame, but I'll respect your decision. See you around Mr Grayson,' he said as I stalked away.
'I thought we were going to tell him about the ambush gang,' Claire said, taking the seat Elliot had occupied only moments before.
'What? Tell him we'll protect him from the threat of a bunch of amateurs we happened to overhear talking by the side of the road? Stupid plan. That guy's been dealing with people like them most of his career, I don't think a few more will make him–' he stopped and placed a finger next to the earpiece sitting in his right ear. He listened attentively for a few moments before a smile spread across his face.
'Well now… that is interesting,' he turned his attention back to Claire.
'Tail him from up on high, act on your own discretion as long as it keeps Grayson alive, if everything goes to plan we'll be able to wrap this whole business up before the end of the morning!' Matthew said, rubbing his hands together gleefully as he pictured all the pieces falling in place.
I'd got no further than the street corner before I realise I was being tailed. Call it paranoia if you want but this little habit of actively scanning my environment every minute or so has helped keep me alive in what is traditionally a very messy business in the best of circumstances. The five guys kept equal pace with me and were glowering at me with every step of the way.
I didn't feel much like being tailed all the way back to the hotel so I figured I'd have to drop them all. Starting a gunfight in a bustling town wouldn't help me in the slightest, so I'd need to be quiet about it. Spotting a side alley, I made a show of taking my smartphone from my pocket and pretended to answer it, stepping into the alley to make it appear as if I was simply getting out of the noise. As soon as I rounded the corner I found a little nook in the side of the alley and waited.
Sure enough, scant seconds later footsteps came scampering through the alley, three passed my hiding place, two with short, curved daggers in their hands and one with a taser. I made my move when I heard the fourth closing in.
Darting from cover, I practically jumped in the face of the fourth member of the kill team, with the fifth at his back. None of them seemed a year older than twenty. I threw out a quick jab, catching the confused kid in the throat. He dropped to his knees, clutching his neck and gasping for air. The fifth shouted a warning and made to reach inside his jacket. I powered towards him, closing with him before he could draw the gun. A flurry of punches to his midsection staggered him; while a vicious right hook put him down.
The sound of rushing footsteps told me one was almost at my back. I pivoted and swung myself to the side just as my attacker made a jab with the taser, aiming to both tackle and stun me in one go. My sudden movement cost him his balance, and a swift, brutal kick to his chin shattered his jaw. As he reeled and gasped at the pain lancing through his face I grabbed hold of his head with one hand and slammed it against the wall of the building.
I let go as a glint of steel caught my eye, the fourth assailant had closed the distance much faster than I'd anticipated. His movements were also smoother than the others, more practised. I wondered if he'd trained for this very moment. The thought was almost flattering. Still, I couldn't keep this duel going for too long or someone might notice the brawl and I'd rather not go through that kind of hassle.
I dropped my guard a fraction and, to his credit, the kid noticed it and jumped on it in a heartbeat. I felt the blade slice across the skin of my right forearm, the sight of my blood seemed to excite the kid and it was then that he made the opening I'd needed. I stepped inside his attack and hammered his solar plexus as hard as I could manage. The blow winded him and the knife dropped from his hand. I caught it before it hit the floor – didn't want the blood staining the blade giving me away.
The last guy came at me with a vengeance, and the sheer bloodlust that emanated from the boy almost threw me off-balance. He bellowed something in his native tongue, which roughly translated as 'may God immolate your immortal soul for an eternity'. Unfortunately for him, my distraction was momentary, and he was far too enraged to take advantage of the lull, or even notice it in the first place.
He ran face-first into my fist, pitching him off his feet. I didn't give him time to recover. Two stomps and he drifted into unconsciousness. I'd have taken a knife and finished them all off then and there but the place was still bustling and there had been enough noise. Muttering expletives under my breath I resolved to check out of the hotel and catch the next flight out of Afghanistan as soon as I was able.
I was stopped by the sound of movement deeper into the alleyway.
I sighed and raised my hands in surrender.
'All right, I know how this might look to you, but they attacked me fir–' I stopped. What I had assumed was simply a curious bystander or simple passer-by was actually a man decked out in tan combat gear. He had a pistol pointed at my head, the same make as the gun one of those gangers had tried to use.
I made no attempt to move, at this distance it was simply a case of him pulling the trigger and me praying it would at least be quick. That didn't happen though. What did happen was a large blur landed in the middle of the alley just as the spook pulled the trigger, throwing up dust and filling my eyes and throat. I hacked and sputtered, wiping my eyes, no clue what the hell was going on. A heavy crunch reverberated throughout the space. Fighting down my rising panic at my lack of sight and breath as well as the possibility of an unknown hostile, I took a tentative step backwards towards the street.
The dust cleared and I found Claire Eckhart standing before me, the red gauntlet of her IS unit deployed and the soldier about to put me down was sprawled across the ground. I felt myself shiver involuntarily. The skirmish I'd had with the American IS all that time ago was permanently etched into my memory and in all honesty, I had little desire to be anywhere near one of those lethal machines, even if one of them had just saved my bacon.
Claire opened her IS' hand and let the body drop to the floor with a dull thump. The head was entirely crushed; gruesome way to go. I'd never have thought someone who looked like she did would be able to commit such an act, but did it she had, and without even a second of hesitation. She'd clearly seen action before.
'Come with me if you want to live,' Claire said.
She stared at me for a few seconds before a grin broke out on her face and she started laughing. It was mildly unsettling to see this beautiful creature display such mirth while standing over a body, even if I was fairly certain that her victim was still breathing.
'Sorry, sorry, I've always wanted to say that to someone,' she calmed herself down and fixed her features into a more serious visage.
'Seriously though, there are five others around, one in a vantage point with a sniper rifle that's been trained on you the whole time just in case the main team fails.'
That confirmed it.
'Assassins then? I'm used to dealing with those,' I motioned towards the unconscious Afghani kids.
'Even Special Forces? Like say… the SAS?'
I'm fairly certain my core body temperature dropped below zero for a moment there. I was in no doubts as to my capabilities; I was more than good, and I'd thought one time that there was none who could match me.
A brief tango in the Balkans with a four man team of Britain's best showed me just how wrong I was. Well-armed and exceptionally well-trained, the Special Air Service had a reputation that was more than deserved. Out of the ten man unit I'd been a part of, only three of us had survived the ensuing battle with them, and one had bled to death shortly after we beat our retreat.
I shook my head. I knew what she was trying to do.
The first syllable had barely left my mouth before she cut me off.
'To hell with it,' she said, and before I knew what was going on I was doubled up on the ground with her standing over me. A gauntlet took hold of me and the next thing I knew we were airborne, her IS fully deployed and sailing through the air.
'Is this a kidnapping?' I wheezed when my breath started to come back. I suppressed another shiver, we were travelling at well over a hundred kilometres an hour and, unlike Claire in her fancy machine, I had no protection from the biting wind and the air that whipped past us.
'It's an act of charity,' Claire replied, 'you can pay me back by taking the job you were offered by Reynard.'
'I'll think about it,' I replied, my teeth starting to chatter. It really was a bloody cold business this flying.
With that, she suddenly stopped and I was plummeting earthwards. I didn't dignify her with a scream, though it was more surprise that kept me from shouting out.
It's funny how our heads work. As I fell I didn't reflect on the life I've led and wonder what I'd do differently if I could do it all over again, nor did I think about life after death, or reincarnation, or my dear old dad, who'd tried his best to raise a good kid the days he wasn't so exhausted from work. I just wondered if it would hurt in the brief instant between contact with the pavement and my organs pulping and my skin rupturing.
'Thought enough yet?' I heard Claire shout. The cheeky bitch was following me as I fell! Just out of arms reach but close enough that I could hear her shout over the parting air.
'Fuck you!' I yelled at her, just making myself heard over the roaring wind.
'Bad answer Elliot,' she replied, shaking her head, arms folded. She craned her head so that she was looking down upon the quickly approaching ground, 'you know; that pavement's really not getting any softer.'
To hell with it, this really wasn't worth arguing over.
'Fine! I'll do it!' I said.
'Good to hear,' she said cheerily as she flew closer to me and took me in the thick, metal gauntlets of her IS, 'now hold on.'
'To wha–' I never got to finish as she suddenly accelerated with such force it quite literally stole my breath. The G-Forces were so intense I'm amazed I didn't pass out; especially when she flipped herself around, taking us up into the air and not towards a messy death on the ground (or a mildly uncomfortable crash in her case).
We landed at an airstrip roughly fifteen minutes later, where a private plane was preparing for take-off. As I'd guessed, Reynard was waiting there with an amused grin that I really wanted to wipe off his face.
'Apologies for what you went through Mr. Grayson. I'd told Claire to act on her discretion but I had no idea she'd actually coerce–'
'You mean threaten, surely,' I growled. I wasn't happy, not in the slightest, and as soon as I was out of Claire Eckhart's sights then I was skipping town.
'I'm sorry, you can rest assured it won't happen again,' I wished I could believe him. Actually not really; for all I knew this guy had ordered the entire event and was playing games.
I rubbed a hand through my dirty-blond hair and sighed heavily.
'Doesn't matter. Let's just go to wherever and get this over with.'
A wide smile spread across Reynard's face.
'Excellent! I can't promise you won't regret it, but I'm certain you'll find it… interesting,' he gave Claire a look, 'will you be joining us inside?'
'Nah,' Claire said, shaking her head, 'I think I'll fly on ahead and see if I can't roll out the welcome mat.'
'Excellent idea, we'll see you there. Let us know when you arrive, won't you?'
'Sure thing,' and with that she turned and deployed her IS – a sleek, white machine with scarlet streaks. Her boosters roared into life, powering her into the sky and by the time Reynard and I embarked on the plane, Claire Eckhart was a speck on the horizon.
'Incredible machines aren't they?' Reynard said as he took a seat opposite mine, taking note of the direction of my gaze. I merely grunted in reply.
'Though I suppose you know all about that; having tangoed with one of them, having beaten one of them.'
I shot him a withering look. If I'd known what I'd have gotten myself into all that time ago I'd have never agreed to take the job and maybe some other poor sap would be in my shoes. Or maybe the American IS would simply have killed everyone and that would be the end of the story.
The plane rises into the air, I swallow until my ears pop and the pressure in my head relieves itself, staring outside the window until we're so high up that even the ground is barely visible. Out of boredom, I turn my attention towards the interior of the plane.
It's luxuriously spacious, with a crimson red carpet that, even through the soles of my boots, feels silky smooth. A large flat screen television adorns one part of the wall and I realise now that the seats in the plane allow you to swivel, so that in the event all the seats are filled (which wouldn't be difficult to do, there being only eight seats in the passenger compartment), everyone might be able to watch it.
It's so frivolous it's almost sickening. Reynard removes his shades, revealing emerald eyes so green you could almost mistake them for gems. He's observing me quite intently, like I'm a laboratory specimen that intrigues him. He kept the creep act up for almost five minutes before pulling a laptop out from a pocket at the side of his chair and opening it up, typing steadily.
Roughly seven hours later he stopped typing and peered out of the window, and the corner of his lips stretched into a soft grin.
'Well Mr. Grayson, here we are.'
Curious, I peek outside, and my heart sank almost instantly.
'We claimed this piece of estate roughly four months ago. Lovely piece of land: lush green jungle, warm climate, and – best of all – well away from prying eyes,' he cast me a wry glance, 'Welcome to Stone Island, one of the largest isles in the Pacific Ocean, and centre of our operations for Project Vulkan.'
Did he just say the Pacific Ocean?
I angled myself to give the best view of the surrounding area. Indeed, there was a sizeable island with a stretch of runway and nothing but deep, blue ocean extending as far as the eye could see.
'Oh balls,' I breathed to myself.
Looks like I'm going to need an escape plan…
Happy New Year.