Code of Silence

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Chapter 10

Although we’d been in the IT lab together on several occasions now, neither Alex nor I had really spoken with Theodore. Khan had sent us the link to Theo’s gaming and tech vlog channel, which seemed to have attracted a decent following. The content was mainly reviews of new tech he had, or which he’d recently bought, plus gaming tips and hacks which seemed to generate a lot of hits and likes from like-minded techies. I’d seen a few of the posts; he definitely knew what he was talking about and I was keen to see what he was working on so enthusiastically in the IT sessions.

In some of his recent vlogs ‘Theo V’, as he like to introduce himself, had been talking about how he’d missed his home while living abroad, particularly his huge bedroom in the family property, which he proudly showed off at every opportunity. He’d even created a virtual tour version for any newbies visiting his channel. Featuring a split-level mezzanine floor, the room had been converted onto his own private tech den, full of gaming equipment, multiple consoles, workstations, monitors and screens. The virtual tour started outside his bedroom door which was on a first floor landing, alongside a second flight of stairs that climbed sharply to the final floor of the house above.

As the door to his personal tech-pad opened, it looked like a fairly normal room apart from the sheer size. It was positioned on one of the corners of the huge house and enjoyed stunning views. The tall side window on the narrower wall looked out onto the extensive lawns, the tennis court and a covered swimming pool. The two main windows revealed the full expanse of the rear garden where rich and verdant manicured lawns stretched back towards a wooded glade, and explosions of colour peppered the well-stocked flower beds. To the side, a dedicated vegetable area, wheelbarrow and tools scattered next to freshly picked produce.

Aside of its proportions, the expensive built-in furniture and walls boasting huge framed prints of icons of pop culture, there was one aspect that stood out. The double-height ceiling, more at home in an entrance hall or hotel suite and which, Theo disclosed, had been developed to meet his extravagant wishes when his parents had acquired the property and proceeded to spend a hefty sum refurbishing it.

Along one of the bedroom walls was a steep angled structure, rising from the floor upwards to a mezzanine level around ten feet off the ground. Theo revelled in showing off this unique feature. Pulling out his smartphone and tapping on the app he’d developed he spoke quietly into the device which slowly and silently transformed the angled structure into a staircase to the hidden mezzanine level above. His personal e-scalator, as he like to call it. The area above the main room overlooked the bedroom below, with its king-sized bed and door to the en suite bathroom at the opposite end. I was determined to ask Theo more about his luxury room and the tech he had at his disposal there. In person he seemed quite shy, but he came alive in his vlogs; a true techie, and for that, a kindred spirit. I wanted to get to know him better.

***

Theo had just turned nineteen, and life had been easy so far; he’d breezed through school with a confident academic ability, less able or interested in anything on the field of sport, but with a razor-sharp intellect and a passion for all things high tech.

Theo’s life outside of school had revolved around technology. His activities depended on his mood. If tired and seeking relaxation, hours would be spent in his studio bedroom at home, gaming online with his many real and virtual acquaintances. Having lived and been schooled abroad he’d formed an international network of like-minded tech wannabes who all embraced similar pastimes.

When Theo was online he really was playing on a global scale, as most of his peers had also moved on, either to their original home country, or to some new far-flung outpost dictated by a parent’s latest career move. If feeling more creative and energetic he’d spend his time in front of his desktop PC, craning at the dual wall-mounted monitors above the workstation, creating endless new strands of coding until the early hours.

His parents had done well for themselves and had a relaxed attitude to bringing up their children. Confident that their financially secure status would provide for them and future generations, whatever might occur during their lives, they simply kept an eye on Theo and his sister academically, rather than driving them to excel. Theo’s parents were always busy; his father was distracted with Varkasoft, and his mother was an active supporter of charities, becoming a patron for several worthy causes. Consequently, the children had been self-sufficient from a young age, having a resident housekeeper to look after them if either or both parents were away. They simply indulged themselves in whatever was a priority for them at the time. Usually this was a mix of the conscientious studies of Theo’s globetrotting sister and his own obsession with technology, normally unrelated to anything he was doing at school.

Both children had a ridiculously healthy allowance to which they were granted access upon turning eighteen, and Theo had become complacent as a result of this over the last year or so. Schooling was important, he understood that, but he didn’t see why he had to continue his education at university. He’d had discussions in the past with his father about his desire to work at his father’s software company rather than enduring several more years of listening and learning, but his parents had decided that further education would be a better rounding process for their son, who had grown up wanting for nothing.

As a softener to this harsh reality check, his father also talked about how, once Varkasoft was sold, he’d create something special that Theo could become involved in: this would be Vvox, Tony’s replacement name for his personal spin-off from V-Works. Theo was easily persuaded by this vision, and relished the opportunity of perhaps trying to emulate his father’s business success, albeit with the security of a generous allowance trickling in each month and his father’s significant bank balance to fall back on.

Since returning home, Theo’s friendship group hadn’t really changed that much. After all, wherever they were based on the planet they were always online. He had friends from his school days before leaving to study in Russia, and a few he’d met while at international school, but he preferred those he’d connected with online. Theo was a bit of a loner, selective about friendships and perhaps a little lazy in making efforts to develop them. His online friends, unlike the others, never required too much organisation or travelling to meet up with, were always interested in what he was doing electronically, and were in awe of Theo’s technology skills.

Theo ran the gaming group from his own servers, giving him an element of control and this was something his peers were drawn to. He would spend huge amounts of his allowance on upgrades and additions, making things faster, more realistic and ultimately more addictive.

He also excelled at programming, not through any educational influence, more because he just seemed to get it. It was like being able to speak another language at a young age having picked it up while watching a foreign TV channel. He’d research stuff, of course, but he was able to think like a developer, laying down layers of coding that reflected what his brain was thinking and how he wanted the computer program to perform a task. His father had been impressed with this ability, which he displayed from a young age, and told Theo he was confident that with the right education it could be a valuable asset out in the world of business where he’d achieved success himself.

***

Theo was eventually introduced to the Vvox concept on a cold December morning as his father began to step back from the main business, preparing for some downtime over the festive period. The sale of Varkasoft had occupied most of Tony’s waking hours over the last year and it was time to reflect. Forever financially secure now and having handed over control, he was still coming to terms with his new existence as an employee. A senior and very wealthy Ekranotech employee, but this was a situation he hadn’t experienced since his early days selling photocopiers prior to setting up on his own.

Tony had agreed to stay on with Ekranotech after the deal for an agreed period to help bring the two businesses together, ensuring a smooth handover. It would mean frequent trips to Russia, which at his age would be tiring. But he was keen to do it that way and have his base in the UK, plus the reassurance and protection of a legal system he could trust. He’d learned a lot about Ekranotech during the negotiations, about Zoryn Radoslav’s past and his connections, and some of it was a little too unsavoury for his liking.

He would do all he could to ensure a smooth transition, but took the cautious approach, preferring to be in control of when he decided to leave the business that was no longer his own. He’d found he was able to do this in part by switching his focus from the usual activities, leaving his team of management successors to look after things, and dipping his toe into Vvox. He was pleased with Ross’s progress so far; he’d certainly chosen the right person to breathe life into his new venture, and received regular briefings from him in meetings, or through reports, depending on where he was based at the time. Tony felt that the time was now right to involve Theo, to enthuse him with the opportunity of one day perhaps taking Vvox onto greater things, and he hoped that this would help his son focus on university. He was still too young to run a business, but given time, Tony hoped that some of the Varkanopolis business acumen might rub off on his son.

Theo was introduced to Ross as they sat in his father’s home office one Friday morning. This was Tony’s preferred meeting location, and time of the week, because it kept Vvox separate and private from his main work priorities.

Several years older than Theo and far more versed with how business works, Ross had voiced his concerns about Theo’s attendance. It was the first time Tony had raised the idea of his son’s potential involvement, and he could understand that his protégé might feel a little threatened. Theo had been equally guarded when Tony proposed the meeting, quite defensive in fact. Tony sensed that he saw Ross as competition; he was his father’s son, yet there was an imposter heading up this fantastic new opportunity. Tony felt that this endorsed the concern he had about Theo needing more time to grow, but was quietly pleased to see his son’s possessive reaction. At some point maturity would settle Theo’s feelings and focus his skills and ability on the future of Vvox.

Ross and Tony had been engaged in small talk when Theo entered the room. Stopping so that the introduction could be made, Ross then trailed the conversation off and deferred to Tony for guidance. Turning to Ross, Tony took control of the gathering. “Ross, thanks for coming over at short notice. I know you’re busy on a million things but I wanted to introduce you to Theo, and also to acquaint Theo with what we – well actually, you – have been up to with Vvox over the past few months.” Tony added, “Bear in mind, Theo, that two of these projects Ross will talk us through were started before the Ekranotech takeover, but I kept them out of the deal, so it doesn’t stop us looking at our own versions if we want to at some point,” he said, and winked at Ross.

“Sure,” acknowledged Ross, prising open his laptop and positioning it on the coffee table so that both father and son could see the detail. “Okay, so I’ll assume you’re unaware of most of this detail, but stop me if I’m covering stuff you’ve already discussed with your father,” said Ross. Theo nodded, glancing briefly at Tony.

The screen showed a number of graphics covering the main areas that Tony and Ross had decided would be the focus for the initial work required to establish the Vvox business. Ross went on to explain things, keeping the business jargon to a minimum while exuding natural enthusiasm about how the technology projects they were working on could potentially solve problems they’d identified. Theo’s understanding of technology and his passion for programming and coding enabled him to quickly grasp the detail.

Ross began reviewing the main areas. “Firstly, cryptocurrencies, or the future of money, if you like. While there’s a rapidly emerging market and now several well established players, we feel that the blockchain element, or how cryptocurrencies are regulated, is fast coming under scrutiny. Primarily for the environmental issues it causes; it requires incredible amounts of computing power to manage the processes, and unsustainable amounts of energy to support them,” said Ross, glancing between Theo and the laptop screen, seeking eye contact with him but failing to find it. “However, within businesses we’ve talked to, we’ve identified ways to help organisations manage their own private blockchain systems for alternative and recycled energies, and this helps them comply with environmental regulations.” Tony watched Theo’s face closely as he absorbed the detail, but couldn’t gauge what his son was thinking.

Ross continued. “Then there’s the social media project, a sort of spin-off from what I was working on when I met your father. This time it’s about connecting individuals, organisations, communities, governments and financial institutions involved in disaster relief. Over the last year, billions of dollars have been donated, and millions of lives changed, yet we’re still only scratching the surface, and there’s little co-ordination between different contributors. Our plan is to create a unique global community which is interconnected, is able to react quickly on a global scale with resources, investment, fundraising, and generally offering whatever help is required.”

Tony signalled to Ross to pause, then added, “This is something that happens all the time with business networking sites, but Ross’s idea makes sense, don’t you think?” He was hoping that Theo might be drawn to it by the social media angle, which had played such a big part of his life during his teenage years to date.

“Cool.” Theo nodded approvingly, but said nothing further. Tony continued to watch him out of the corner of his eye, hoping for signs of engagement, some sort of positive feedback. He glanced at Ross, inviting him to carry on.

“Probably the most interesting area we’re looking at is artificial intelligence. Particularly around the area of voice synthesis for biometric security, ID authentication, health and medicine, gaming as well, of course.” Ross smiled as he emphasised the last point, hoping it would help break the ice. It had done just that.

“Okay, so this is something I’m into,” Theo said, shuffling to the edge of his chair and studying the laptop screen closely.

Ross continued, explaining how they’d witnessed several new voice synthesis technologies emerge, but saw fundamental flaws in the way they’d been designed. It was the beginning of a new era in security control and biometric innovation, adopted by millions of personal users in everyday life in the same way as digital voice assistants had grown in popularity, gaining over a billion users globally since they were launched. Many leading brands and corporations had also embraced this new technology, making security and operational procedures more efficient, secure and personalised.

The flaws Ross highlighted were evident in some of the security applications that had been launched by the giant US banking organisation Flexabank. Customer accounts had been compromised through hackers attacking and cloning files within their in-house systems, then empowering criminal organisations to do the same, allowing them to extract millions of dollars in a matter of minutes.

The work that Ross had been leading revolved around machine learning: creating a hybrid evolutionary algorithm. Effectively, algorithmic coding that combined the analysis of historical data with the ability to learn from real-time input or activity and enhance and evolve whatever process the computer was performing.

Theo was visibly intrigued now, moving the whole chair forward and studying the screen, making comments and asking questions which Ross was able to immediately respond to. They seemed to be getting on, thought Tony, and a subtle smile of relief formed as he sat back, gently tapping his pen against his bottom lip.

The meeting had been a success, and Tony was pleased with the outcome. Long after Ross had departed, father and son continued to discuss the Vvox projects, chatting animatedly. Tony’s concerns about his son being jealous or envious of the work that had been taking place were unfounded, it seemed. Theo appeared to be much more relaxed now that he’d been involved.

***

As Theo finally retreated to his room for the night he was buzzing, his head was full of ideas and he felt a strong desire to help his father achieve his vision. This was the motivation Theo craved but it had only made him even hungrier to get involved, and to do that as soon as he could, preferably avoiding several years of further learning that his mother and father were keen for him to complete. This was his future as far as he was concerned, and he had to find a way to convince his parents of that. Ross could do whatever he wished to do with the blockchain and social media projects, those didn’t interest Theo at all. Theo was only excited by the AI and coding work, particularly voice synthesis, a subject he’d been interested in for a while and something he wanted to introduce his own thinking to.

His recent enrolment on the computer sciences and deep learning course at the nearby university was something he’d been coerced into by his parents but perhaps now here was an escape route. He enjoyed some of the extended learning, the mentoring and the cutting edge facilities it offered, but he couldn’t see his future as a commuting student for the next few years. Confused in the past, he could now clearly see the opportunity he’d been waiting for; it was right there in front of him, or at least in front of Ross, for the moment.

His father was due back in Moscow after their annual New Year ski holiday, so Theo planned to broach the subject when he returned in an attempt to accelerate his involvement with Vvox.

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