Theo heard his mother call up the stairs for the third time. “Theo, you’re going to be late, please hurry!” This time he raised his head from the pillow slightly, stretched his arm out from under the duvet and clumsily grasped his phone. It had been ten days now since the family had been informed of Tony’s disappearance. The British embassy in Moscow was doing everything they could to trace his last movements but had drawn a complete blank. They were apparently being supported by the Russian police, but it was anyone’s guess as to how much help that actually was.
Nobody was clear on exactly what had happened. There were mixed reports. The Moscow city police had not been directly responsible, and could only tell them that his father was not being held in any of their establishments. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs had expressed concern and had committed to looking into the case, but this seemed to be a slow process. The GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, had not commented some ten days after the event, but they were not known for their levels of cooperation, particularly regarding foreign affairs. It was as if they all knew what had happened but were adopting a code of silence, or at least a code of seeming busy but not actually doing anything.
Theo heard his phone alert sound; it was his mother’s messaging tone. She’d just left the house and was on her way to collect his older sister from the airport. Sophia had gone off-grid deep in central Ecuador. There was no internet, email or mobile connectivity, as the mountain range trek she had joined traversed some of the more rugged and sparsely populated areas of the region. She learned of the news about her father some three days after his disappearance, when she was able to connect online at a local internet café. Distraught and comforted by her friends, she travelled by foot for two days before she could even start her journey back by road, rail, and eventually a flight, which had been hurriedly booked by her mother to bring her home safely.
Theo had been hit hard by the news of his father’s disappearance. He’d grown up in an environment where he’d wanted for nothing. By the time he and his sister had been born Tony had established Varkasoft, the business was going from strength to strength, and the family were able to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.
Theo and his father got on well. They were similar in character, both had fiery tempers, were short and stocky and the family resemblance was instantly apparent when they were in the same room. Theo’s father was elated when the news came that he’d had a baby boy as their second child. He came from a long line of Greek heritage dominated by a very patriarchal approach to life, and Theo was to be Tony’s natural successor, or at least that’s what Tony had hoped for.
Theo’s bedroom was his sanctuary, the place he would retreat to when confronted with aspects of life and growing up which he didn’t understand, or didn’t really want to face up to. He’d locked himself away upon hearing the news about his father, only popping downstairs at mealtimes and reassuring his mother that he was coping.
Theo eventually did emerge from his room, showered and shaved, room as neat and tidy as it always was. He made himself some breakfast, although perhaps he’d call it brunch, he thought, looking at the clock in the kitchen. He’d had his time alone, barricaded in, safe from reality and the awful truth he was coming to terms with. He needed to be ready to help his mother and to support his sister when they arrived home. He’d also been doing a lot of thinking while hiding away. The university was aware of the circumstances and had been advised he wouldn’t attend his courses for the next week or so. Theo overheard his mother have the conversation a day or two earlier, but he wasn’t so sure that he wanted to return at all.
Up until this point, all he’d been thinking about was his father, the Christmas they’d spent together and the annual family ski holiday. About Vvox and their meeting with Ross, and what he was going to do next to help. Should he jump on a plane to Russia, ignoring his mother’s advice, and go looking for his father? He’d seen angst-ridden parents do this in the news, travelling to some exotic location on the other side of the world, handing out homemade flyers with grainy photographs printed on them of their beloved offspring whose emails, texts and social media updates had suddenly ceased.
Theo took a deep breath, he felt he had to get busy but he could do without the rigid structure of university life. Lectures, lessons, the early starts and well-wishing people. He decided to message Ross and arrange a meeting. He felt a strong sense of independence, a need to stand in his own two feet. If he couldn’t do anything directly to help his father he was sure that he could at least do something to make his father proud once this nightmare was over. Ross replied almost immediately. They hadn’t met or spoken since they sat down just before Christmas with his father, and by the tone of Ross’s sympathetic message he was keen to help in any way he could.
Theo scrolled through the many messages of support he’d been receiving each day, skimming the content, responding briefly to some. Most were familiar but then a new number appeared. He opened the message and read through it; the introduction confirmed they’d met while in Russia. His stomach turned. Then he calmed. It was about his father but it was from someone who had also been to the Russian school he’d studied at. It was brief, a sympathetic comment about the tragic news. An offer to meet up for a coffee and a chat if it would help. If not, then maybe catch up at the next IT session. It ended with: take care :) Theo read it again. He knew exactly who it was, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were both now studying at the same university. It was nice to hear from a stranger, or at least someone he didn’t know that well. And to just have a brief but kind message, very thoughtful.
Theo waited for his mother and sister to return and was prepared for an emotional reunion. There was a sense of normality returning with the thought that they would be back together; they were used to being at home without their father, although everything was currently overshadowed by the indescribable pain of not knowing what had happened, an edgy anticipation of news which made them jump at the sound of a phone ringing, the door being knocked or the dog barking at something outside.
The initial hours after Sophia’s return was important for them as a family, with an unspoken agreement that they should talk, that they could cry but that they had to be strong for their father and that life had to continue while they waited for news. This spurred Theo on. University could wait for a while; he was more interested in immersing himself in the Vvox project with Ross, and planned to meet with him later that afternoon.
Ross had told Theo that he had been running Vvox from an unused office at the Varkasoft HQ, but had chosen to work from home once he knew about Tony selling the business. Theo thought this was a smart move, particularly as Ross indicated that he’d been careful to keep everything that he worked on either on his own personal devices, or on the new Vvox server. It kept everything separate from Varkasoft, and clear of the deal. Theo grabbed his laptop, phone and a bottle of water and stuffed them into his bag. Saying goodbye briefly to his mother and sister, he closed the door behind him, strode across the expansive paved driveway and climbed into his black convertible.
After a half hour drive he arrived at Ross’s apartment building near the middle of town, parking in one of the allocated bays that Ross had mentioned. The door intercom entry system buzzed and let him straight in. He climbed the first flight of stairs and found Ross was waiting at his door to greet him.
It was an awkward moment, an extension of their uneasy meeting just prior to Christmas, but both were pleased to see each other.
“Hey, Theo, not sure what to say, but thoughts are with you and the family,” said Ross calmly, wedging the door open with his foot and leaning forward to shake Theo’s hand.
“Thanks, appreciated, it’s been tough.”
“Come in, come in,” said Ross, standing aside and then following Theo in, letting go of the door so it closed by itself.
It was a cool flat, Theo thought as his looked around; lots of tech stuff, open-plan with big sofas in the middle of the room and a low coffee table in between. Large artworks on the walls, together with the mandatory huge TV that any self-respecting single male would have adorning the wall. “Coffee, tea … beer?” Ross enquired, as he wandered over to the breakfast bar area.
“Nah, I’m good, thanks,” Theo said, removing the bottle of water from his rucksack as he hung it from the back of a chair.
Ross spoke briefly towards a sleek-looking device on the work surface, which promptly poured an espresso coffee; he then joined Theo on the other side of the low table in the lounge area. Ross sat on the edge of the sofa, hands clasped around the tiny coffee cup. Theo sat back awkwardly in the soft leather cushions, trying to look relaxed but fully aware that he wasn’t. It was a difficult and stilted conversation to begin with. Ross didn’t dwell on Tony’s situation, just reiterated his concern and offered his support before moving the conversation on to what Theo was doing at the university.
“I’m not really doing anything at the moment,” said Theo, consciously unfolding his arms and shifting his seating position. “Dipping out for a while until we know what’s happening with Dad, but I’m keen to hear more about developments at Vvox, and if I can help.”
Ross smiled, and nodded. Theo was glad he didn’t seem to be threatened by the idea of his involvement. And for his part, he understood why his father had recruited Ross, could see the leaps and bounds he was making, and he knew that one day he would become fully involved with it all.
Ross explained what he’d been working on since their meeting, and confirmed he was close to completing the evolutionary algorithm coding apart from some final testing. Earlier experiments had highlighted some issues, but these had now been ironed out and full testing was to be completed by the end of the month. Ross had an office in his apartment, so they decamped to there and Ross proceeded to take Theo through the main developments.
They were both on the same wavelength, and Theo was quietly proud that Ross was respectfully impressed when Theo made suggestions that he hadn’t thought of. Theo explained that he’d been working on various AI projects over the past year or so, but that his learning and ability had increased massively since working closely with a lecturer at the university.
Ross interrupted briefly. “Professor Khan, I’m guessing?”
Theo nodded, smiling. “Yeah, how do you know him?”
“The man’s a legend, been involved in some great AI stuff over the years, just never got lucky,” Ross said. “I know he’s been at the university for a few years now but he still gets the mentions. Always involved in voice synth stuff, publishes white papers, blogs. It’s in his blood.”
“Yeah, I rate him, he’s really down to earth, he’s always got a different take on things, too,” said Theo.
Ross went on to point out some of the loose ends he was trying to tie up on the coding he’d been working on, fine-tuning and the sort of things that the planned trials would help him to smooth over.
“Do you mind if I take a look?” asked Theo.
“Sure, be my guest.” Ross stood up, and strolled into the kitchen area for another coffee. “Still okay with water?” Theo nodded.
Ross planned to download some files for Theo onto a secure encrypted hard drive. He and Tony had agreed that while cloud-based servers were a convenient luxury, there was too much hacking activity going on to risk using them. Backups were carried out automatically on an hourly basis by their system, and the safest place for them was on a device that could be kept safe in the real world. Theo felt a sense of purpose now. He’d been locking himself away, sticking his head in the sand. There was nothing he could do for now to change his father’s fate, other than to be strong. For his mother, his sister and for himself. Getting stuck in and helping Ross would please his father, he thought, and he’d work flat out on the project until he was returned home safely.
On his way back from his meeting with Ross he remembered the message he’d read earlier that day. Now that he was in a better frame of mind, maybe it would be good to reacquaint himself with an old contact. He remembered spotting Alex with a friend at the IT lab one evening, but had been so caught up in what he was working on that he didn’t pause to strike up a conversation. Also, he knew he wasn’t blessed with the social skills of his sister, so had thought he’d leave it until their paths crossed another time. They had both been at the same school thousands of miles from home, but there had been plenty of other interesting English-speaking teenagers there so he’d tended to shy away from friendships that required effort. He’d got on well with two Chinese students, both as obsessed with technology as he was, and who lived in the same apartment block as he did, and that suited him. But now he was back home, with few friends to speak of, so he promised himself he’d make more of an effort next time he was back at the university.
After sitting down to an evening meal with his mother and sister, he made his excuses and headed upstairs, aware that his swift retreat back to his room was not commented on as it might have been under normal circumstances. Theo worked on getting his thoughts down on paper first. A page and a half of his notebook was quickly covered with diagrams, formulae and notes. A further two pages had flow charts with heavily circled and highlighted points: the contents of his mind and its workings noted down and ready to be translated into another language. The quality of coding Ross had created was good, but Theo knew he could bring something more to the party. It flowed from his fingertips into the keyboard and onto the monitors. On the left, the coding built and elongated to fill the screen; on the right, he watched each calculation, double-checking the information before entering more, creating, adding and building.
At around midnight, his mother paid him a visit, announcing that she thought he, too, should get some sleep, and that she’d locked up and set the house alarm. Theo didn’t argue. After a quick freshen up in his bathroom he headed to bed, for the most solid night’s sleep he’d had since his father had disappeared.
He was filled with purpose once more, and as he drifted off, he knew it wouldn’t take long to achieve a deep and restful sleep. Laying there, he smiled to himself as he heard his mother ease open the door again ever so slightly. She’d often carried out a double-check when Theo was in a coding frenzy, saying that he was going to bed but continuing on late into the night, head and shoulders silhouetted against the eerie glow of his monitors. Tonight, he was asleep in no time at all.