Read Red Centre Online

Authors: Chris Ryan

Red Centre

Meet the team:

lex - A quiet lad from Northumbria, Alex leads the team in survival skills. His dad is in the SAS and Alex is determined to follow in his footsteps, whatever it takes. He who dares . . .

i - Expert in martial arts and free-climbing, Li can get to grips with most situations . . .

aulo - The laid-back Argentinian is a mechanical genius, and with his medical skills he can patch up injuries as well as motors . . .

ex - An ace hacker, Hex is first rate at codebreaking and can bypass most security systems . . .

mber - Her top navigational skills mean the team are rarely lost. Rarely lost for words either, rich-girl Amber can show some serious attitude . . .

With plenty of hard work and training, together they are Alpha Force - an elite squad of young people dedicated to combating injustice throughout the world.

Red Centre
Alpha Force are in Australia. What begins as a fun mission soon becomes a terrifying ordeal when a hunted terrorist crosses their path . . .


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ISBN 9781407050010

Version 1.0



Being up the tree wasn't the scary part. It was Ok if you looked straight ahead at what was in front of your nose. All you saw was the trunk, which was solid, gnarled and rough, with warty areas like the hide of a prehistoric animal. In places Hex could see tiny cracks, where a softer, redder substance showed through the bark. It smelled warm and woody and wet. In fact everywhere was warm and wet. Hex's clothes were drenched with sweat and when he breathed in, the air was damp like steam.

The trouble started if you looked anywhere but straight ahead. Not down - Hex knew better than to look down - but on either side. Then he saw thin air and foliage fading into a blue haze in the far distance and his senses started turning somersaults.

He felt his teeth baring in a fierce grin that was outside his control. It was partly nervousness, partly a sense of the absurdity of his position. Here he was, suspended ten metres up a red cedar tree in the Australian rainforest with his foot on a branch, waiting for the signal to swing on a rope to the next tree. A week earlier Hex hadn't even realized Australia had thick jungles like this. Now he knew - thanks to an online virtual tour while waiting to board his plane - that the vast continent harboured a great variety of terrains, and many extremes. Here at the very tip of the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland all was lush, wet and tropical. Hex knew that only ten or so kilometres away, the land became arid and the trees shrivelled to scrub and bush.

Hex focused on the tree he was clinging to, then swivelled his head slowly like an owl, careful not to risk a disorientating glance up or down. His gaze found the next tree, his destination. A bright yellow star-shaped target glittered there, pinned between two branches.

Together with four friends from far-flung corners of the globe, Hex was part of the group they called Alpha Force. They had tackled many arduous missions together but this had to be one of the strangest - volunteering to try out a series of games for a reality TV show. It's for charity, Hex reminded himself soberly, forcing the grin off his face before it turned into hysteria. For every star collected, a sponsor would pay money to a chosen charity, and so Alpha Force were here doing a trial run before the real contestants arrived.

Hex wasn't entirely in his element. The kind of games he excelled at involved codes and were firmly grounded in cyberspace: he was an expert hacker and code-breaker. His natural habitat was indoors, at his computer or in the gym. When he wasn't on a mission with Alpha Force, the only contact he had with the great outdoors was running and cycling across Hampstead Heath. But here he was, hanging up a tree in a steamy rainforest, waiting for the camera crew to finalize their positions and lighting.

The other members of Alpha Force weren't having it any easier. As Hex was edging his feet nervously along the branch, his Anglo-Chinese friend Li was hurtling towards the ground twenty metres away at the end of a bungee rope. Unlike Hex, though, Li most definitely
in her element. She was grasping the rope with both hands with her knees bent and her feet out ready for the impact. The moment she touched down on the forest floor, she folded at the waist and knees and then sprang up like a cat, propelling herself towards a box high up in another tree. The move was graceful and smooth, and executed with the pinpoint accuracy of one who has trained as an athlete from an early age. The tight plait of Li's long black silky hair sailed out behind her like a tail and her slim legs caught a branch with the ease of a trapeze artist. She wrapped her legs around it and steadied herself while she reached into the box for one of the yellow stars. Then, like a monkey, she dropped back down to the ground and lifted off again in one slick movement.

Paulo would have been happy right then to have joined his friends in the trees. He was on his hands and knees in a Perspex tunnel which was like a greenhouse in the fierce Australian heat. Brushing sweat out of his eyes with his wrist, Paulo came across one of the yellow stars and grabbed it, eager to finish the game trial and get back out into fresh air - or, at any rate, fresher air; the whole rainforest was like a sauna at this time of day. On Paulo's list of priorities right at that moment, saving the tiger from extinction ran a distant second to gulping down an ice-cold cola float.

Paulo lifted the target. 'Got it!' he called to the camera crew.

The first thing that hit him was an angry droning noise. On the earth in front of him, a black shape was spreading like treacle. Was it tar? Oil? Paulo had a split-second when he noted with curiosity that the black stuff glinted with a blue metallic sheen, and then a cloud of huge flies hurtled up into his face like missiles. They buzzed around his ears and pelted his skin, seeking out the sweat that dripped off him in a constant flow. He let out a splutter and they swarmed into his open mouth. He felt a crunching sensation, a bitter taste, and spat violently, shaking his head and then his whole body in an effort to dislodge them. Crunched flies stuck between his lips and teeth. The walls of the tunnel rocked from side to side. It made no difference. The flies were glued to the sweat on his face like a black lace veil. They began to swarm down under his collar and creep up his sleeves.

Paulo had reckoned he was fairly used to flies: on his ranch in Argentina flies and other insects were a constant torment to the livestock and the people who handled them. But this was something else.

'Who dreams up TV shows like this anyway?' he muttered under his breath as he crawled doggedly on into the next chamber. This was hung with spider webs. Maybe webs were just what he needed to deal with the flies, Paulo thought.

The webs stuck to him like sticky muslin, but he barely noticed against all the droning and fizzing in his ears. He lifted the next target and under it was a large spider.

Paulo grimaced at the spider. 'I'll swap you that star for all these delicious flies - how about that?' he said.

'Hold it there, Paulo,' called one of the camera technicians. 'We need to set up the close-up on the spider. Won't take a second.'

Paulo waited, grumbling to himself in his native Spanish. He wasn't too squeamish about wildlife, but this spider wasn't exactly his first choice of company in a confined space. Its body was dark and torpedo-shaped and marked with fine yellow flecks. Its legs were as long as Paulo's fingers and sported yellow bands. They shifted and fidgeted and Paulo imagined hypodermic needles ready to offload poison. Not that it would really be poisonous, of course. Not in a TV game show; Paulo knew that. He just had to keep telling himself.

'Sorry, Paulo,' called the technician. 'This is going to take longer than we thought. Make yourself comfortable.'

'Looks like we're stuck with each other,' Paulo told the spider wryly. 'Got any yarns you'd like to spin while we wait?'

Alex meanwhile was also crawling - even more uncomfortably. He was on his hands and knees in a trench that had been turned into a miniature swamp, complete with weeds and leeches - and an authentically rank smell. As Alex moved along he felt the bottom for the tell-tale hard edges of a yellow star. Actually, although the trench was most people's idea of hell, Alex didn't find it too unpleasant. It reminded him of stories his father had told him. Alex's dad was in the SAS, and survival lore - along with deliciously hair-raising stories of SAS selection - had been as natural a part of Alex's upbringing and education as football and double maths.

Alex's fingers found a target under the mud and he yanked it up, pulling it free of the weeds. The mud slurped thickly and released a pungent gust of gas - a clammy, rotting smell that caught the back of Alex's throat and made him gag. He paused and closed his eyes tightly, willing the nausea to pass. His dad had once told him how he had had to crawl through a sewer on a covert mission in Colombia - or maybe it was after a night on the tiles in Glasgow? Either way, Alex told himself he would have to be prepared for anything if he was to follow in his father's footsteps.

The mud was up to his shoulders and hips at this point and felt like thick warm slurry inside his T-shirt and shorts, but Alex looked on the bright side: at least it kept the mosquitoes away. He paused and slicked some of the mud over his face and neck like camouflage cream. This would be heaven if I was a hippo, he thought.

A short time later, the fifth member of the team, Amber, was wading chest-deep in a lake a few hundred metres away, making her way towards a clump of reeds where she could see a star target. Fronds of water weed brushed against her bare legs and occasionally she felt something more solid slither past, but that might have been her imagination. She was wearing her walking boots, so she felt fairly well protected. On the whole she was finding the games good fun. The lake formed an open clearing in the heart of the jungle, and Amber was enjoying being out in the sun, her black skin soaking up the rays greedily. It was the first time she'd seen the sun since Alpha Force had arrived in the rainforest the day before. So far they'd stayed under the immense canopy of trees; even at high noon it was like a dark, damp underworld. The green light filtering in shifting patterns through the leaves had reminded her of scuba-diving in the gloom of the ocean floor. Now she felt as if she had swum up and broken through the surface.

Water was a natural habitat for Amber. She was as much at home
water as
it. Her parents had been software billionaires and had owned several yachts. As well as being an expert sailor, she was proficient at all water sports, skiing, horse riding and archery. After her parents had died in a plane crash, Amber had discovered that they were a good deal more adventurous than she had ever imagined. Secretly they had put their skills and wealth to good use, exposing human rights abuses and smuggling film from oppressive regimes to newsrooms around the world. Amber had led a sheltered rich-kid existence up till then. Now she, like Alex, was determined to uphold the family tradition.

As Amber untangled the first target, she caught sight of Hex at the water's edge. He must have finished his game. Let's see how alert he is, she thought. With a flick of the wrist she frisbeed the target out of the lake.

Hex caught it in a smooth movement. 'You throw like a girl,' he shouted.

'Yeah? You catch like a geek,' said Amber, flashing him a grin.

Tracey, a production executive in her early twenties, was standing on the bank waving her wide-brimmed bush hat. 'Over there, Amber.'

Amber looked round. There was a second yellow star on a rock a little way off. She set off towards it, wading purposefully.

On the bank, Hex tapped Tracey on the shoulder. 'Excuse me, but have you seen that?' He pointed to a clump of reeds. A crocodile skulked low in the water, its rough back glistening in the sun like a wet log. Its half-closed eye was just visible above the water line.

Tracey looked up from her clipboard and peered at Hex over the top of her rimless glasses. 'It's not a real crocodile,' she said in a laboriously patient tone, as if talking to a small child rather than a teenager with genius-level IQ. She pointed to other dark shapes in the water. 'Look - there, and there. They're just props. Plastic.'

'I can see those other ones are plastic,' replied Hex. 'But I just came up from that direction and there wasn't a crocodile there then.'

Tracey gave him a condescending smile. 'They're plastic,' she said again. 'That means they float, and they tend to drift around a bit once people wade in and start stirring up the water.'

Another target came whizzing across. Hex caught it on reflex, even though he hadn't been looking. As he turned, he noticed a couple of men in green ranger uniforms standing near the water's edge holding what looked like tranquillizer guns.

'Smart catch,' said Tracey.

'Are they for authenticity too?' said Hex, nodding towards the men.

'Yes, we're going to use them during filming. It makes the audience think it's all for real, you see.'

Amber was wading towards a third star target when she stopped abruptly.

Hex instantly tensed. Something caused the hairs on his neck to prickle. 'Amber, you OK?' he called.

'My foot's stuck in some weed,' replied Amber. Hex could see her shoulders jerk as she pulled hard. But she didn't move. 'Darn,' she muttered. 'Must be caught on my boot.' She jerked her foot again, harder.

Hex's uneasy feeling hadn't gone away. He looked over to the crocodile again. It looked much the same as it had before. Or did it? Hex had an excellent eye for detail. He could explore high security computer systems and erase all trace that he had been there. He had learned to trust his instincts.
he told himself.
What's wrong with this picture?

He looked at the other crocs. They were just as low in the water as the one he'd noticed, moving from side to side in the ripples created as Amber tried to pull her foot free.

And then Hex realized what was wrong. All the other crocodiles were moving. But this one was dead still. It was real! It had sensed that Amber was in trouble and was stalking her.

In the water, Amber swore again, took a deep breath and sank below the surface.

Hex yelled at the top of his lungs, Amber, no!'

In the murky depths, Amber didn't hear him. She couldn't see a thing either. She had kicked up so much silt that the water was like vegetable soup. She groped around her ankle and felt the rope-like weed that had snared her foot. Her fingers explored it and she found a thick section, with some thinner fronds that had caught on the hooks of her boots. She was stuck fast.

Breathing out hard, Amber surfaced. The first thing she heard was Hex shouting furiously: Amber! Get out of the water! There's a crocodile!'

Amber's head shot round. She saw Hex waving his arms frantically, while Tracey was rooted to the spot. Next to them, the rangers were raising tranquillizer guns to their shoulders. Her heart pounding, Amber followed the line of the barrels and saw a dark shape, low in the water. She yanked her foot hard but it remained tethered to the bottom. She was helpless - an animal in a trap.

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