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The DCEU is a bad place. After the early struggles, a saviour is needed to rescue it. Can Wonder Woman be that hero?

The answer is an unequivocal yes. Wonder Woman is easily the best of the DCEU films to date, and provides some much-needed warmth to an otherwise set of cold characters.

It would be wrong of me to turn Gal Gadot (who plays the titular character) into an object, but can I just say, she is beautiful, and radiates a mixture of innocence and passion that is difficult to pull off. The journey of Diana (Wonder Woman is obviously not her real name!) from curious and headstrong child to who she becomes by the film’s end, is one of the most compelling origin stories yet done by a comic book adaption, and much of this is due to the strength of Gadot’s acting. At no point, even when facing the horrors of World War I head on, is Diana vulnerable, even though she is understandably baffled by social rules that make no sense to her.

At first, Diana is naïve, believing she can stop the war single-handedly (and end all wars) by slaying a god. However, she hurls herself into this task without fear, facing her enemies in the name of justice. Even as she gradually comes to realise that this ideal is too lofty, she remains true to herself – she fights for what is right, not for revenge or out of hatred.

There’s a reasonable supporting cast, though the only two characters we see much of are Diana, and Chris Pine’s character, Steve Trevor (an American assigned to British Intelligence). Trevor is trying to open Diana’s mind to the realities of the world, whilst at the same time admiring and drawn to Diana’s innocence and spirit.

There’s been a distinct lack of women superheroes on the big screen, and Wonder Woman is an important step in correcting that. This movie shows that a powerful female lead works, and works well, and that a woman can direct a blockbuster. It’s much better than the previous DCEU efforts, though it’s not quite at the level the best MCU films have to offer. It is heartfelt, funny, and tinged with emotion. The only area where it falls down is with the villains. Danny Huston is German General Ludendorff, who is somewhat one-dimensional, and Elena Anaya doesn’t get enough screen time as Dr Maru (aka Dr Poison). There is a nice twist toward the end, involving David Thewlis’ character, but the villain curse has once again struck a comic book film. Despite this, it’s still an excellent movie. 8/10.

Having racked up the hours on Breath of the Wild, and having encountered a great many different things, it’s now time I offer up whatever pearls of wisdom I can muster and present my archive of what’s what. Hopefully this will be of help to future players. It may well be of help to me!

Enemies

What opposes you in this brave new Hyrule? What will give you a headache, and what rewards do enemies yield? We’ll start at the beginning.

Bokoblins

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The danger factor of these guys is defined by two things – their colour and their weapons. Red Bokoblins are the weakest, and by the time you make serious progress with weapons and defences, they are easily dispatched. Blue ones are a bit tougher, and early on in the game could be quite a problem, but the toughest ones are the grey ones, which are quite aggressive and much better shots with arrows. If armed with spears, Bokoblins might try to swing them around in circles, or lunge at you – with small swords they’ll make quick attacks and with larger, two-handed weapons, they’ll rely more on raw power. As already alluded to, these guys can use bows and arrows.

Watching these little guys from afar reveals that they like to dance around fires and, like a lot of enemies, will go to sleep at night, which presents the chance to sneak up on them and kill them with a single sneak strike. They give you, erm, body parts for killing them, as do a lot of creatures.

Moblins

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These are larger forms of the Bokoblins and display a lot of the same behaviour. They too are colour-coded and they too will use different weapons, which changes the nature of how they fight. Because they’re bigger they’re also tougher, but not dramatically so.

Lizalfos

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The threat level from these things depends on what variety you come across – some are garden variety nuisances – others can spit fire or ice at you, and still others have a powerful electrical discharge. This is on top of their ability to wield weapons and, oh yes, swipe you with their tails. These enemies can also swim, and attack from the water.

Wizzrobes

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These guys go back to the very first Zelda game. They were annoying then and they can be annoying now. Depending on where you find them, you’ll face electrical attacks, fiery attacks or freezing attacks, which include not only direct shots at you, but the power to send these attacks raining down. They are best dealt with by sneaking up at them and using arrows – if you have the right sort of arrow, you can sometimes kill them with one shot.

ChuChus

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Common enough creatures, these once again vary based on where you find them. Out on Hyrule field, the water ones will be the most frequent pests, though they are easily avoided. Killing them gives you ChuChu jelly, which has different properties based on which type you kill. Swiping at electric, fire or ice ChuChus will lead to them discharging their attack if they’re fully charged, and hurting you.

Keese

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By now you’re probably picking up on the theme – there are several varieties of the same critter. This is true of these bat-like creatures, though with one difference – their ‘normal’ form sometimes operates in swarms.

Hinoxes

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The best way to describe these guys (found dotted around Hyrule) would be as giant Bokoblins. They are huge, but slow, and can be worn down slowly by the Sheikah Slate’s remote bombs, or by quickly running through its legs then slashing away at it once it’s tried to squash you. They tend to yield a lot of stuff, including weapons. It’s possible to sneak up and steal stuff from them without ever fighting them.

Stone Talus’

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Literally a large creation of stone that throws boulders at you. Remote bombs (or later, bomb arrows) are the means to crippling them so you can hit their weak spot. They dispense a lot of precious stones once killed.

Pebblits

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These actually look kind of adorable – they are mini versions of the Stone Talus’, but they do pack quite a punch! Fiery and icy versions of these also exist.

Octoroks

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Believe it or not, I found these to be among the most annoying enemies – they spit things at you, and they have very good aim. They also hide in the ground if you try to shoot them, though depending upon the type, you can use bombs and kill them from a distance.

Yigas

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Enemies of Link and the Sheikah Clan, the Yiga will pop up at random pretty much anywhere, and sometimes they are in disguise as ordinary travellers. They are also thieves of an heirloom you need to deal with one of the Divine Beasts. The two types you encounter are a scout who fires arrows at you, and an altogether more dangerous, sword-wielding fiend whose punch will send rocks driving at you. They actually give you rupees for beating them, as well as bananas (yes, seriously).

Guardian Scouts

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By now the image of the octopus-like Guardians has become one of Breath of  the Wild’s most iconic pictures – but the large contraptions wandering about Hyrule are not the only versions of these machines. Smaller types await you in Shrines and the Divine Beasts. These wield swords, spears and shields, as well as possessing a cannon to blast you with. Some of them are pretty weak – others are extremely tough.

Decayed Guardians

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The only saving grace with these is that they cannot move! Their turret can rotate, but they aren’t very strong and hitting their eye with any type of arrow will disorientate them. Early on in the game you will want to give them a wide berth, but later on they become easy pickings for machine parts.

Guardian Stalkers

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These are scary. Accompanied by intense music as a targeting beam lights you up, it’s usually best to seek cover – their beam weapons are not only accurate but they have a wide damage radius – even a near-miss will hurt Link. Once you have the Master Sword you can cut their legs off, but even then, they’re nasty. You ideally need Ancient arrows to dispatch them quickly.

Guardian Skywatchers

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Yup, there are flying versions of Guardians. Once again, Ancient arrows are the best weapon.

Guardian Turrets

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I’ve only found these at Hyrule Castle, and they are easily avoided because of their fixed locations, but combined with the other forms of Guardian that roam the castle, they can be a problem if caught in the open.

Stals

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At night you’ll be visited upon by the spirits of slain foes – in this case, the skeletal forms of Bokoblins, Moblins and Lizalfos. There are even a couple of Hinox Stals around. These are much weaker than their regular forms, but if you don’t destroy the head they will reform.

Lynels

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Nothing else in the game compares to Lynels. Big, centaur-like creatures, they come in various colours (that as with other enemies, appears to define how strong they are, but they are all tough foes), and stumbling upon one before you are ready will spell instant death.

They have bows, and usually these are equipped with shock arrows, and don’t think you’re safe hiding behind a rock, because they’ll simply shoot upwards and ensure their arrows rain down upon you. They wield huge weapons, have massive shields, can spit fireballs at you, can send out waves of fire, and have an attack that is similar to your ‘ground-pounder’ move. Oh yeah, and they’ll charge at you sometimes too. Did I mention they’re pretty quick for such big brutes?

The safest way to deal with a Lynel is to avoid it. Don’t engage. If you absolutely must fight one (and you might end up having to in Hyrule Castle), keep moving, if you can, quickly shoot it with arrows to the face to stun it, and make sure your timing for dodging is perfect – you’ll benefit from the flurry attack. It helps to have earned a lot of hearts by this point, and you’ll want a few meals to restore all your hearts, and give you extra ones if possible.

So that’s it for the enemies. Hopefully this has been of some help!

Back to Breath of the Wild

We’re kicking off a lot of film reviews with something of a modern cult classic, that has spawned a lot of memes, and speaks to animal lovers everywhere – John Wick. Starring Keanu Reeves as the titular character, it follows the story of a retired assassin of such skill and reverence that he became known as the Boogeyman. An overly simplistic analysis of the plot would be: John Wick’s dog dies, and he goes on a rampage. It’s not that simple, but a stupid-ass punk killing the post-humous gift of a dog proves to be the catalyst for numerous sequences that show off how lethal and ruthless John is. The film is very slick, with a surprisingly good plot, and you can’t help but get the feeling that no one is going to stand in John’s way – he is just too good, and too motivated, to be stopped.

Keanu has come under fire for not being a particular great actor, but his performance here is pretty good. He needs to convey a stoic and determined hitman and he does – perfectly. It might be a little unkind to say this, but I am having trouble remembering the supporting cast, as Keanu’s performance is overpowering.

There’s a sequel – but whilst it’s pretty good, it’s not as good as the original. I’d actually recommend this film quite highly, if you wish to switch off your brain and enjoy some action!

8/10

So the title is slightly misleading. I’m not dreaming of period dramas or ancient Roman battles. I’m actually dreaming about my own past.

To begin with, I’ve had two dreams involving my school chums. The details are a little vague, but one of them appeared to involved taking my wife to a school reunion of some kind. The final dream was about an old job, and meeting the colleagues from that job again.

I’m not sure why I’ve had three consecutive dreams about my past. Plus, they seem to be moving forward – will I eventually dream about the future?! If so, can I please dream up the winning lottery numbers?!

The narrative for this race kept changing. In practice, especially the first two sessions, it seemed Ferrari had a small edge on Mercedes, and Red Bull suddenly looked potent. A lot of drivers – including Vettel and Hamilton – appeared to struggle to get the best out of their tyres on a slippery surface. Who would take this weekend by the scruff of the neck and wrestle the best from their car?

Come qualifying, that question appeared to have been answered. Mercedes found another gear, and both Hamilton and Bottas began pumping out times that, in the end, were ominously out of reach for anyone else. Vettel had an excuse – his Ferrari was running an older engine after a water leak issue in practice – but Raikkonen was still over a second off Hamilton’s pace, despite having no mechanical trouble to plague him. Mind you, Hamilton was nearly half a second up on Bottas too, the result of one final, flying lap in Q3, when it had appeared he might have to settle for second, following a late red flag to the session when Ricciardo pinged the wall in his Red Bull.

Red Bull – largely in the shape of Verstappen – weren’t far off Ferrari’s pace throughout qualifying – a small upgrade to the Renault engine has clearly helped them. Would it aid them in the race? And could Ferrari’s race pace threaten the otherwise dominant Mercedes?

The very start of the race saw Hamilton get away cleanly and Bottas and Raikkonen collide at turn 4. Raikkonen was trying to nose his Ferrari past the Mercedes, going around the outside, and Bottas clipped the kerb, unable to control his car and bouncing into the Ferrari. Bottas came off a lot worse, suffering a puncture, and having to limp around near enough the entire track to change tyres and the front wing. This put him a lap down almost immediately. Further back, Kvyat’s Toro Rosso slipped off the track at turn 1 and nearly collected his own teammate Sainz, forcing Sainz into a spin to avoid serious contact.

The result was Vettel moving into second place, and Perez of Force India into third. Hamilton would quickly open up a decent gap, whilst on lap 8 the Renault of struggling Palmer would retire, slowly pulling into the pits.

By lap 10 Hamilton had opened a 3.6 second lead over Vettel, but the gap was holding steady. Was Vettel holding Hamilton to an honest distance? Meanwhile, Ricciardo would make a great move to hurl himself in 13th after an early stop, brilliantly passing Ericsson and Sainz into turn 1. On lap 11, we said goodbye to Kvyat, and by this point, we saw a good duel between Verstappen and Perez for the final podium place, with Raikkonen starting to close on the battling pair. It was a short-lived battle, as Verstappen’s engine would start to give up on him – not for the first time this season. His expletives on the radio summed up his mood. Lap 12 saw the safety car out to take Kvyat’s car off the track (a slightly delayed decision), and Hamilton took advantage to pit for the soft tyre straight away, as did Vettel, and pretty much all the front runners.

Lap 13 confirmed the fourth retirement in six races for young Verstappen – a mighty disappointment for him. It also saw Stroll of Williams briefly move up to third, having chosen not to pit under the safety car, at least not to begin with. He pitted a lap later, dropping to 7th.

Watching the cars weave under the safety car (that Hamilton was complaining was going too slowly, concerns echoed by Perez) was quite amusing and dizzying at the same time, but it felt like the safety car spell was going on forever. On lap 15 lapped cars (Bottas) could un-lap themselves, but we still waited. Finally, on lap 16, it was to come in, so we’d go racing again. Perez made a move on Vettel but couldn’t get by – Ocon did get by Raikkonen, who appeared to take front wing damage. Ocon immediately turned his attention to the Williams of Massa, and then we got yet another safety car again… Groan!

This time it was to clear debris from Raikkonen’s car, but the problem of tyre temperatures would only get worse. On lap 19 Vettel had cause to be quite annoyed at Hamilton’s late braking that might have caused damage to Vettel’s front wing, and in the restart, Vettel somehow held on to second, Massa launched into third, and the two Force Indias collided at the exit of turn 2. Raikkonen earned a puncture, and on lap 20 the safety car was deployed again. Perez had to retire, whilst the damage to the rear caused by the puncture forced Raikkonen to retire too. In all the chaos, we suddenly had Williams running third and fourth. On lap 22 the race was red-flagged, to give the marshals a chance to clean up the track.

It emerged from the replay of the safety car incident that Vettel had indeed suffered front wing damage after Hamilton’s little brake-testing moment, but Vettel’s reaction was also quite controversial, with Vettel turning into Hamilton and banging wheels, seemingly deliberately. It emerged that Perez could in fact return to the race – repairs to cars are allowed under red flag conditions, just not tyre changes. This also led to the return of Raikkonen.

After what felt like an age, racing finally began on lap 23, albeit under the safety car. Massa felt he had an issue with the car as proceedings got underway again, and then we had a grand prix again!

Ricciardo pulled off a classic move under late braking to go from fifth to third into turn 1, whilst Vettel was holding onto the back of Hamilton. Massa held off the Renault of Hulkenberg (who was up to sixth), initially at least, keeping whatever his problem was under control. It became apparent that Massa was seriously struggling, but it was a brilliant move from Magnussen in his Haas that saw him leap by both Hulkenberg and Massa to move into fifth. Alonso was soon by Massa too, moving into seventh, which became sixth when Hulkenberg retired, having broken his front right suspension and pulling off into a run-off area.

So, within a few laps of the restart it was all change, apart from the front two. Ricciardo was in third, Stroll fourth, Magnussen fifth and Alonso sixth. Sainz was seventh, Ocon was eighth and Bottas was ninth, whilst Grosjean had the other Haas up to 10th.

Another little factor emerged on lap 28 – Hamilton’s headrest (a key component of safety) had worked a little loose. Would he end up having to stop to deal with it? Well, on lap 31 Hamilton had to stop to change his headrest, and Vettel had to pit for a ten second stop-go penalty for banging into Hamilton! This put Ricciardo into the lead and Stroll into second!

By lap 36 Vettel (who had emerged ahead of Hamilton) and Hamilton had cleared Alonso’s McLaren and began to press. Up ahead was Bottas, who had at one point been a lap down, yet was now in fifth. Magnussen was up into third for Haas, with Ocon and Bottas right behind him, and Vettel and Hamilton were closing in rapidly. Ricciardo was, in the meantime, comfortably leading Stroll. On lap 38 both Ocon and Bottas dove by Magnussen into turn 1, the Haas just not quite in the same league. The two Saubers had a moment when they touched, a worrying development with Ericsson sitting in tenth and the points.

Vettel and Hamilton continued to scythe their way up the field, moving up to fifth and sixth respectively, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Bottas ahead, though Bottas would get by Ocon on lap 40 into turn 1, moving into third and starting to push toward Stroll and Ricciardo. Force India took the decision to retire Perez on lap 41, to preserve the car. On track, Vettel was starting to close on Ocon, with Hamilton keeping Vettel honest. Bottas was gunning down Stroll at a considerable rate of knots. Would it be enough for him to catch Stroll? The rate at which Bottas was catching began to slow down a little as Stroll was told to up his pace.

So, Hamilton was catching Vettel, who was catching Bottas, who was catching Stroll. Hamilton was hoping Bottas would slow down and back Vettel up – a pretty unreasonable request, given Bottas was chasing second. There was a late retirement for Raikkonen on lap 48, who had struggled throughout.

Going into the final couple of laps, Bottas was nearly on Stroll, and Grosjean wisely got out the way of Vettel and Hamilton as they closed in on one another. Williams were willing Stroll on, and Hamilton was boring down on Vettel. Into the final lap, Hamilton was pressing, but would there be a chance to pass on an awkward track? Ricciardo took his fifth career win, more on that later. Bottas pinched second from Stroll on the final straight, right at the death, and Vettel kept Hamilton at bay to take fourth.

For Stroll in particular, despite just narrowly missing out on second, the result was a terrific boost for a guy who had three DNFs at the start of the season, but has now scored points at the last two races, and gained his first podium. He kept his cool despite the drama unfolding around him and can be very proud of his achievement. For Bottas and Ricciardo, both demonstrated superb recovery drives – and their results underscore their ability. There will be others who will rue collisions, brushes with the wall, and technical trouble, with Verstappen in particular wondering if he might have had a chance at victory before his car gave up. Force India were well-placed for a possible one-two, had they not collected each other at one of the restarts. We might have also seen more points for Renault if Hulkenberg hadn’t banged the wall. Still, the day belongs to Ricciardo, whose opportunistic side saw him get a great win. Red Bull ran pretty well here – can they do it again next time?

There will be many conversations about that incident between Hamilton and Vettel behind the safety car. Did Hamilton unreasonably brake in front of Vettel? The stewards didn’t seem to think so, but whether Hamilton did or didn’t, Vettel’s reaction was stupid. There may well be more fallout from this – we shall see. Austria is next. Who will prevail there?

 

With more than a little trepidation Peter opened the door. He managed to put on a false smile for Dalton, who wore a deeper scowl than he had earlier. Behind him stood Stanton, who shuffled nervously on his feet. Two other men, one short-haired dark-skinned man who looked like he’d been going to the gym all his life, and one wiry, beady-eyed pale-skinned man, stood a little further back. They weren’t in military uniforms; black jackets, ties and trousers were the order of the day for them, even in the middle of the night. They screamed spooks.

“Captain Myers, these men are from MI5. They have informed me that Eric Cooper is in possession of highly sensitive material that he shouldn’t have. They are here to arrest him.”

Peter did his ‘shocked’ face and looked at Eric with incredulity. “You fuckin’ wanker, I trusted you…” He took a step toward Eric but a restraining hand on the shoulder from Dalton stopped him.

“Not now Captain, he’ll be dealt with.”

Rob was wearing the same stunned expression. He shook his head at Eric as he walked out of the room, letting the MI5 officers head in.

“This isn’t true!” Eric shouted, kicking out at the wiry agent. The officer grunted in pain but moved quickly, yanking Eric’s hands behind him whilst his partner moved to slap on handcuffs. With practiced experience he delivered a head butt to the smaller of the two men, who gasped and grabbed at his nose. Peter and Rob both sprang into action, grabbing Eric, holding him still.

“Come on mate, don’t do this…” Rob said through gritted teeth as he tried to hold his struggling friend. “Just go with them.”

The other agent had pulled a pistol from a concealed holster. He held it by his side, eyes fixed on Eric. “Don’t do anything like that again.” His voice rumbled with threat. All Eric could do was to stare back, but his eyes held defeat.

Rob pulled the injured agent back to his feet. “Can we get this fella a towel, some tissue or somethin’?”

“Stanton, see to it.” Barked Dalton. The corporal scurried away. Other guards had clustered around, curious to see what was going on – a stern glance from Dalton saw them move on. “Captain Myers, you say you know this man?”

“Yes sir, we served together, as I said earlier. I can’t believe he would do this…” He began, as the MI5 agents began to haul Eric away. “I thought he was a decent guy.” His voice raised an octave, making sure Eric could hear.

“We’ll need to speak to you two as well…” The broader of the two agents said over his shoulder. By now Stanton had returned, handing a bunch of tissue paper to the wounded agent. Dalton rolled his eyes at what would inevitably be a messy scene. “Colonel, would you take their contact details for us?”

“Of course. I’ll have someone escort you out of the base.”

“Thank you for your cooperation Colonel.”

****

“Did you order it?” Peter asked Rob quietly as they climbed back into Rob’s car.

“Yeah, got the Chinese on order.” It was a code, in case anyone had planted a bug on his car. “You wanted the beef in black bean yeah?”

“Yeah. Let’s go home.”

****

The black Mercedes trundled down streets that were still surprisingly full of traffic, even though midnight had come and gone. Bright Christmas lights, hung between buildings, showed off the warmer spirit of the season, though Eric felt cold, and not from the weather. Will they torture me? Do they know anything of this code, or are they just following orders? He was handcuffed, and all too aware that the driver would probably have a gun in the glove box – MI5 agents and SAS soldiers were different in so many ways, yet alike in others.

The injured agent was muttering about his ‘broken nose’, to which the driver had told him – more than once – to stop moaning, and to not get blood on the light-brown leather interior. That was proving tricky, as the agent had nearly used up all the tissues.

Eric clung to the hope that Peter and Rob had avoided arousing suspicion and that they were safely away. The decoy USB was now in the pocket of agent ‘Harris’, the one nursing the broken nose. It wouldn’t take them long to realise what had happened once they arrived at their destination, but Rob and Peter were dab hands at evasion techniques. He watched as the car came down Horseferry Road and turned right into Thorney Street. Bollards protecting an underground car park to the left lowered and the security barriers retracted, allowing the car entry.

After heading down a couple of levels, the car parked up, next to another, similar vehicle. Eric was pulled from the car and marched toward a set of lifts.

“Am I actually going to be charged with anything, or is this all off record?” He said slowly.

“How about being charged with GBH you old fart.” Growled Harris. The other agent rebuked him with a look.

“Come on. And to answer your question…” He paused to slide a security pass into a reader by the lifts. “You’re facing charges pertaining to breaching national security.”

“Ah.”

The lift ride was quiet. They went up several floors, then the doors opened up into what could have easily passed for any average London office. A few private offices with their shutters down, a few rows of desks, a few of which were manned, even gone midnight (made sense), and several people walking around with folders. The water cooler looked nearly empty, and there was a half-empty vending machine too.

Toward the end of the bright corridor was a turn to the right, that Eric was led down, to see yet more offices. He was steered into one of them. Awaiting him was a simple room with a grey MDF desk, and three basic chairs that looked like slightly scaled up versions of what he’d been used to from his school days. A single fluorescent tube light was protected from tampering with thin grating, and Eric took note of the extractor fan in the corner, farthest from the door. A small camera poked out of the wall facing Eric.

Eric was manoeuvred into the chair, whilst Harris and the other agent sat down opposite him.

“I’m Agent Bevin, you’ve met Agent Harris…” Bevin’s voice was quite deep, a voice that commanded respect. “And you are Eric Cooper, formerly a corporal of the SAS. Currently working for One Touch Security, and residing in Upminster. Married, but no children.” Bevin leaned back. “You are also said to be in possession of highly classified material that compromises national security.”

Eric shrugged as best he could; he was still cuffed, with his shoulders starting to ache where his arms were crossed behind his back. “Given someone’s already tried to kill me to get it back, I’d say it’s very serious.”

Bevin and Harris exchanged a confused glance. It was very subtle, but Eric caught it.

“According to our report, an agent was sent to apprehend and arrest you.” Replied Bevin.

“Well, your report is wrong. Either you’re lying or someone is lying to you.”

Harris leaned forward. “You stole something you shouldn’t have, and killed to keep it.” Harris failed to keep the irritation from his voice.

“I found something, a backdoor, right into your systems, MI6, every government authority, every power grid and more. One so good you wouldn’t even know it was there.” Eric kept his voice calm and level. The camera would be recording every second, which meant anyone watching who was involved would be thinking of how to shut him up. If these two are compromised, I’m dead.

“Bullshit.” Spat Harris. “You’re lying…”

“Shut up Harris.” Bevin ordered. “Idiot…” He muttered. “Mr Cooper, we’re working to make sure we can defend this nation against any threats, internal or external, through the cleanest, quietest means possible. In this day and age, that includes computers and hacking, obviously. Let’s loosen those cuffs…”

Is this a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine? Eric wondered as Bevin got up, walked around and unlocked the cuffs, offering welcome and blessed relief to Eric’s sore shoulders. He rotated each one to get some blood flowing again.

“The fact is Mr Cooper, your employers are working on something for us. They’ve been working quietly for years to develop the tools we need to stop our enemies from getting into vulnerable systems. They have powerful corporate enemies of their own, to say nothing of other countries who are trying to develop similar systems. This is deep espionage, I’m sure you understand how far this rabbit hole goes.”

“Then why the backdoor into our own systems, including MI5?” Eric asked. “Why would you need a code so secret hardly anyone could find it or exploit it, in your own system?”

“There’s no ‘backdoor’. Our systems are completely secure, and sit outside the remit of One Touch. Has it occurred to you that one of their rivals, or ours, is trying to undermine us? Or perhaps you took the data in order to sell it.” Bevin stepped back in front of the table and stared at Eric. “A code like this is worth huge sums of money, and people will pay it. You’d be very wealthy.”

Eric sneered. “You know my history. You know what I’ve given for my country. I’m not about to sell out, and I’m telling you the truth. I’m sure you have ways and means of verifying if someone is being honest with you. Give them a try.”

Bevin exchanged a sideways glance with the pouting Harris. “Perhaps we will.”

There was a knock at the door. With a grunt Bevin walked over and opened it. A mousey-haired man in a suit whispered into his ear, but Eric could see the man’s lips. They’d discovered the USB he’d been carrying was a decoy.

The door closed again. Bevin stepped back to the desk. “Where is the USB with the code?”

“You took it.” Eric said simply.

“You switched it. Right now, the means to unlock every major electronic system of our country’s competitors, a vital tool to this nation’s security, is out there, who knows where, because of you. Where is it?” Bevin’s voice had taken on a harder edge.

“I have no idea.”

Bevin’s hands slapped down upon the table with an audible whack. “You’d better get an idea, and quickly. If that code falls into the wrong hands it can be reverse engineered and…”

“Ha. Someone’s already done that. You should be more worried about that than me.”

“Harris, get the drugs.” Bevin didn’t take his eyes off Eric. “I have the utmost respect for those who served their country, but you are playing a dangerous game sir. If you are telling the truth…” He said as Harris stepped out of the room. “Then why not come forward, to us, to me, right now. Why the cloak and dagger routine?”

Eric leaned forward. “Because I don’t know who to trust. I’ve already had one attempt on my life, and it cost me the life of a good friend. That tells me there’s someone in your organisation, feeding you disinformation. For all I know, you’re involved.”

“We need to verify your claims. I don’t act on someone’s word,  not unless I am very sure of that person.”

“Hence the drugs.”

“Hence the drugs.” Repeated Bevin.

For the second time Formula 1 cars will navigate the contrasting city of Baku, which last year hosted the European Grand Prix, and this year hosts the first Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Modern buildings exist alongside ancient castles and F1 cars will race down long, wide roads and snake between the relics of the ancient world, where the track contracts sharply. It will provide an interesting test.

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This circuit is one of Formula 1’s rare counter-clockwise venues, featuring three 90-degree left-handers in a row. The long stretch from turn 19, through the gentle curve that is turn 20 and the main straight, is a prime location for Mercedes and Ferrari to show just how much better their engines are than anyone else’s, and the run to turn 1 will be a prime overtaking opportunity. Turn 3 might also be a chance; beyond that, the way the track tightens as it winds through old streets will make it a challenge for anyone to make a move, especially with the wider cars of this year. The squiggly sequence that is turns 8-12 gives way to a series of increasingly sharp left corners, and then there’s only a handful of curves before hitting the fastest section of the track.

Last year Nico Rosberg won with ease here, whilst Lewis Hamilton put his car into the wall during qualifying to effectively end his chances of victory before a wheel had turned in anger. Baku will be unforgiving, and even more so given the wider cars and higher speeds. Much of the track is surrounded by barriers and they will ruin tyres and bodywork if contact is made, so precision driving is the key.

Given the nigh-impossible to predict nature of the season so far, it’s too close to call as to whether we’ll see a Ferrari or Mercedes victory. A lot of people thought Mercedes would struggle in Canada, yet they managed to make the ultra-soft tyres (one of the compounds on offer this weekend) work pretty well. On the other hand, the strong overall nature of Ferrari’s design might serve them well in the messy middle sector. We shall find out.

A red Astra trundled up to the sleepy London street, with only a couple of people milling about. A few other cars were parked up on either side of the road, and only a couple of the street lights were on, casting a slightly disconcerting orange glow. In the distance Eric could hear the sound of traffic – London never truly slept, even on cold December nights, and as he got out of the car, that buzz of activity seemed closer than it actually was. The rows of white-walled terraced houses all looked alike, with steps leading up to each door. Some of the steps were quite clean; others were spattered with bird droppings and wrappers from crisps and other items. Black fence poles cordoned off several steps that led to low-level flats. At least, that was how it was meant to look.

Attention to detail was everything, that Eric knew. These people operated in shadows; they knew how to misdirect. Peter pulled his grey duffel coat tight around his waist. “This way.” He drew curious glances from the other people in the street, and Eric knew why. A couple of them were starting to walk closer, quite briskly, but Peter wasn’t hurrying. He led them down one of the small, curving staircases to a black door, and slid a key card between a pair of bricks. The door clicked and Peter pushed it open. He looked up as the two approachees came over and flashed his card. They looked a little uncertain, but nodded and walked off.

“You two had better be right, because if you’re not I’m completely fucked.” He almost snarled as he quickly pushed Eric and Rob inside. The narrow corridor was lined with florescent tube lights, several of which flickered pathetically. Despite the appearance of cold brick walls, the corridor was quite warm, enough to prompt all three men to remove their coats. Eric made sure the USB drive stayed in his pocket.

Before long the corridor turned right and became wider. The lighting improved; big, circular LEDs ensured everyone could see. Several doors were lined up on both the right and left side of the corridor, each one with a key card access slot for entry. Sentries in green military fatigues shot Eric and Rob suspicious stares, but backed off when they realised they were with Peter. He slid his card into one of the doors on the right. “Corporal Stanton…” He asked of the closest guard, a young man with shaven black hair and hard, grey eyes. “Could you sort out proper clearance for these two? Ex-SAS that Colonel Dalton wants given Level 1 access.”

Stanton looked Eric and Rob up and down. Eric felt very sheepish in his tatty, stolen clothes, but years of training kept him cool under pressure. Rob smiled pleasantly.

“Very good sir.” Stanton headed off down the corridor. Peter pushed open the door.

“Why did you go and do that?” Rob asked as the door closed with a click. “We want to be discreet not obvious!”

“Yeah, and I want to keep my job, besides, sneaking around this place without proper clearance is pretty damn obvious.” Retorted Peter. Eric had to admit that the man had a point. “Besides, Dalton won’t refuse me, he owes me.”

“I dread to think why…” Said Rob under his breath.

The room they were in was reasonably sized, with a desk and two computers at one end – big towers hooked up to 19″ widescreen monitors. Headsets with microphone attachments allowed for private communications. The walls were plain white – repainted recently, judging from the faint smell in the air, though a fan whirred in the top right corner of the room. Two small black leather chairs with armrests were in front of either computer.

“Right, let’s get to work.” Said Peter as he slipped into one of the chairs. Eric and Rob both gestured for the other to take the other seat, before Rob more or less pushed Eric into it. “You might as well sit, you’ve been the one doing all the walking.” Rob insisted.

Peter picked up a small crosshead screwdriver from a little rack of drawers beside his terminal, and began to take the screws out the side of the computer, making sure to carefully stow the screws as each one fell out. With practised hands he then disconnected the wireless card, and the network card for good measure. “This will likely trigger an alert when I switch it on, so we best work quickly.” He said, more to himself. “Give me the USB.” He ordered. Eric didn’t argue and handed it over.

Peter fired up the PC, and it hummed into life. Lights flickered and the screen flashed up with familiar corporate logos that even the Army couldn’t avoid. Peter tapped in his login details – guarding them quite severely – and a series of icons appeared on the monitor. He stuck the USB drive into one of the slots, and tapped on the keyboard at a speed even Eric envied.

“What do we have that’s so important…” Peter opened up folders and sub-folders, clicking on random files. At least, it seemed random. There was a knock on the door.

“Answer that would you please Rob?” Asked Peter, never taking his eyes off the screen as lines of code appeared. Rob sneered but did as asked.

Stanton was standing there, his eyes as stern as before, and behind him, in standard Army khakis, stood a tall man with a crown and two gold stars on his shoulders, signifying the rank of Colonel. Whisps of silver snaked through his thick black hair, that was nonetheless starting to recede from his forehead. His blue eyes looked tired; Eric suspected that was from the weight of command, though tiny red lines and flushed red cheeks indicated Colonel Dalton was a man who had over-indulged at one or point or another. A small moustache was technically a breach of protocol, but here, of all places, it went unquestioned.

“Who the hell are you?” Asked the Colonel, unimpressed with a complete stranger being in his base. The anger in the gravely voice deepened when he spotted Eric. His eyes turned to Peter, who had yet to turn around.

“Captain Myers, what do you think you are doing?” Dalton didn’t quite shout.

“Apologies sir…” Peter span the chair around. “Please meet Corporal Rob Dennings and Corporal Eric Cooper, formerly of the Regiment. I needed their help sir.”

“With what?”

“Again, apologies sir, I cannot say with uncleared officers present…” Peter nodded at Stanton, whose scowl remained unchanged. “… It pertains to the Ivory Coast.” There was something in the way Peter spoke the last two words that just slightly drained the blood from Dalton’s face.

“Understood. In future, perhaps you could run your plans by me?” It was less of a question and more of a warning.

“Of course sir.” Peter came across as far too nice.

“Very good. Carry on, inform me of your progress.” Dalton was all business now.

“Yes sir.”

Dalton gave them each one final, searching look, before stepping away. Stanton closed the door.

“Thank fuck.” Peter span the chair back to the screen. “Can’t stand that arrogant prick. Still, he knows I can fuck him over. This is interesting. Very interesting.” He tapped on the keyboard again. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense!” Rob walked back over. “What is it?”

A 3D box had appeared on the screen, with different-coloured lines arching out of it and streaming off toward various icons. Eric squinted, making out a few words, including ‘power grid’ and ‘communications’.

“Eric was right, it’s a backdoor alright, the mother of all backdoors. Whatever this is, it allows unseen and complete access to anything with a chip made by One Touch, and fuck me do they get around. They’re global. They can get into the Pentagon if they want to. Access MI5 databases, the Kremlin’s computers, and Lord knows how many mobile phones, and no one – at least, not unless they were very sure of what to look for – would even know they’d been hacked. The coding is very well hidden. You said this was sent to you?”

“Yeah. Someone inside the company sent it to me. No idea why they chose me.” Eric wished they hadn’t.

“Probably hacked your personnel file, knew your history.” Said Peter casually. “God knows why they didn’t just go to the police or something.”

“Maybe the police are compromised, or they think the police are compromised?” Rob said. “After all, you said this software is everywhere, it must have taken one hell of an effort to do that.”

“Come to think of it…” Peter kept tapping on the keyboard. “One company managing to get all those contracts is very odd. I reckon someone up high is pulling some serious strings.”

“All the more reason to find out as much as possible before we go to the authorities.” Replied Eric.

“Yeah yeah. The USB only has details of this backdoor, it doesn’t seem to have anything else on it, no files on who’s involved or anything like that. Sorry mate…” Peter sounded apologetic. “You can suggest One Touch is up to something dodgy with this, but anyone might be working with them. Plus, if I were them, I’d just deny all knowledge. Easily enough done. Worse, you might get ‘plausible deniability’.”

“So, we’ve achieved nothing.” Muttered Rob.

“Oh, no.” Peter said with mockery in his voice. “We now know we face an enemy we can’t link anything to, stop, or even identify. That’s progress.”

“Don’t give us that sarcastic crap Pete. It’s not helpful.” Rob allowed disdain to enter his voice.

“Well what do you want me to say? That’s the boat we’re in, all of us, including me now you’ve dragged my arse into it. Only thing is, this code might…”

The sound of raised voices cut Peter off. An angry discussion started up, that quickly died down again. Someone started hammering on the door.

“Captain Myers, open this door, that’s an order.” Colonel Dalton sounded annoyed.

“Is there another way out of here?” Asked Eric, scanning the room for any options.

“Nope. Well, not from this room, but there are ways out of the base. You won’t like them.” Peter grimaced. “Fuckin’ dangerous but I don’t think we have a choice.” He yanked the USB stick out of the terminal and handed it to Rob. “They’ll want Eric, they’ll assume he has this.”

Rob smiled. “Diversion and misdirection. Just like old times.”

“Yeah, well, here’s where you go…”

Chapter 11

Back to Techno Fail

Round 7 of the 2017 season is done and dusted, with one pretty strong comeback, one easy win, and a team that cost itself points. Oh yeah, and Fernando Alonso was back in an F1 car following his Indy adventure. Was it a good race? Yeah, reasonably so. Did it have some interesting subplots? Yep. So, where to begin?

If you’re Max Verstappen you’ll be quite annoyed. A great start launched him from fifth to second into the first couple of corners, and he was managing to avoid Valtteri Bottas’ clutches, until lap ten, when his car failed, forcing to suffer yet another retirement. Verstappen had a major impact on Sebastian Vettel’s race too – he ran over the Ferrari’s front wing at the start, and this ended Vettel’s hopes of challenging for victory.

Behind the leaders was first-lap carnage. Carlos Sainz cut across the front of Romain Grosjean’s Haas as they came out of the first couple of bends, and spun, his Toro Rosso sliding sideways across the track and wiping out the Williams of Felipe Massa. Grosjean was able to continue but Sainz and Massa? They enjoyed an early shower. The safety car came out for a few laps, but Ferrari didn’t pit Vettel until lap 5, after the safety car had come in. Their strategy became aggressive – Vettel was given super-soft tyres and set off catching and passing others with relative ease, whilst Hamilton and Bottas cruised off into the distance. Daniel Ricciardo moved up to third for Red Bull, with the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen slipping up and nearly smacking the wall early on, something that provided impetus for the Force India duo of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon to move into fourth and fifth.

The Mercedes-powered Force Indias would start to close in on Ricciardo, especially after the single pit stops that most cars favoured. Perez would lurk on Ricciardo’s tail for some time, but would also impede the faster Ocon – something that would come back to hurt them both later on. Meanwhile, Vettel was on a charge, but would have to make a second stop to put on fresh rubber. The order of business became damage limitation, though he was aided in this cause when Kimi Raikkonen ran wide at the final chicane, letting Vettel up into sixth. With Perez refusing to let Ocon by to attack Ricciardo, and with Ocon making a nuisance of himself to get by his teammate, Vettel would catch the warring Force Indias with a handful of laps remaining.

Before long, he was by them both. What started as a real possibility of a podium for a Force India driver ended with posts lost, and it would seem Perez has to be the one held responsible. He ignored team instructions, and as a result, the team lost points. In this game, that could make all the difference come the end of the season. Likewise, the extra points gained for Vettel might prove crucial. He is now 12 points ahead of Hamilton, having dropped 13 points to his title rival, but might have lost 17 points and sit only 8 points clear. That could make all the difference later on.

The race saw a first for 2017 – a one-two finish for Mercedes. Hamilton saw out a comfortable win that included pole position and the fastest lap of the race, whilst Bottas was never troubled by Ricciardo. Mercedes regained the lead in the constructor’s championship too – Raikkonen had brake issues at one stage and could finish no higher than seventh. Elsewhere, Williams driver Lance Stroll scored his first F1 points, with ninth, and did so in front of his home crowd too. Nico Hulkenberg continued his fine form with eighth for Renault, and Grosjean took a point for Haas. In a not-so-surprising twist, Fernando Alonso’s McLaren failed him with two laps remaining, robbing him of a points finish. Alonso leaped from his car and ran into the crowd, to their great delight, but elsewhere, Alonso has been issuing warnings that he might quit McLaren if things don’t improve, and he is out of contract at the end of the year, whilst McLaren themselves are deeply concerned at how ‘lost’ Honda look, and are rumoured to be looking at returning to Mercedes power. The weekend will have done nothing to help Honda’s image.

Finally, Sir Patrick Stewart lent his distinctive booming voice to the podium interviews, and even indulged in Ricciardo’s famous ‘shoey’ (that is, he drank champagne from his shoe). It was a weird and wonderful way to conclude a race that saw one dominant performance, one fight-back, inter-team issues and an expected McLaren retirement. Next up is Baku.