Code of Silence

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Chapter 19

The trip to London for the AI conference had definitely been worthwhile, and something of an eye-opener. I had no idea that we’d see Theo there, particularly with such a high profile, and I’d certainly not expected to see anything like the breakthroughs he seemed to have made with Vvox. I had a message from Khan confirming that he’d caught up with Theo too, and had found him to be in good spirits. Alex had also sent another message of encouragement to Theo, and suggested catching up when he felt he was ready to do so. He’d replied, and appeared to be keen: he had suggested we go over to see him at his parents’ house.

I was in two minds now about the voice project we were developing to help my dad. We’d worked hard on the voice synthesis prototype, but having had further discussions, Alex and I agreed that it seemed like a pretty low tech solution now that we knew what Theo had created. Alex, being a little less obsessed with it all, encouraged me to stick with it and ignore any possible distractions – technology was always being rapidly developed to supersede previous versions, and it was normal with these sorts of things to expect at some point that our work might feel a little dated, despite the fact that it wasn’t even complete yet. In the end, I resigned myself to this and we continued with the work. I was keen to visit Dad again during the term break, and hoped to get him to try it out, anything to help him get back to some sense of normality as his body adjusted and slowly showed further signs of recovery.

I suggested we go over to Theo’s house one lunchtime. Theo had said not to bring anything, as his mother and sister were in London so he’d order delivery pizza for lunch, and we could just catch up and hang out. I thought it would be useful for Theo to get back to some sort of normality too, perhaps even start attending some of the courses he’d missed so much of recently. And both Alex and I were desperately keen to find out more about his incredible new Vvox technology and what his plans were for it.

Alex drove over to my place. I saw the car pull up through the tangled venetian blinds and grabbed my stuff on the way out.

“Hi,” said Alex, as I slammed the door and slumped into the passenger seat.

“You know where he lives then?” I said, straining to bundle my rucksack onto the back seat.

“No, but this does,” Alex said, tapping at the smartphone mounted on the dashboard.

We knew roughly where we were headed but used the satnav anyway. Around half an hour later we arrived at the village that was home to Theo’s parents’ sprawling country house, and pulled up close to one of the large red-brick gate pillars at the entrance to the property. Theo’s disembodied voice echoed from a wall-mounted intercom as the wrought iron gates juddered, then moved slowly inwards, granting us access to a long stretch of gravel driveway.

Theo greeted us at the imposing double front door, ushering us in to the impressive hallway before closing and locking it again. It was a stunning home. I looked around, admiring the tasteful luxury, before following Theo into a huge brightly lit kitchen-dining area overlooking a patio and extensive gardens. We perched on bar stools at a large central island. Theo seemed perfectly at ease, perhaps bolstered by the success of the AI conference and now getting temporarily used to life with his father incarcerated in Russia.

“So, how’re you doing?” I said, placing my phone carefully on the immaculately polished marble work surface.

Theo managed a smile while responding. “Yeah, okay thanks. Feeling a lot better about things. Obviously still worried about my dad, but we know it’ll take time to resolve this mess. It’s all a bit crap, really.”

“I just can’t imagine what you’re all going through,” Alex said. “If we can help at all …”

“Thanks,” said Theo, as he looked away, attention diverted to the pizza delivery menu in front of him.

I shot a glance towards Alex. “So, tell us a bit more about Vvox, then. Didn’t see that one coming. Puts our efforts to shame!” I said, quickly making eye contact with Alex again.

The conversation began to flow a little more easily. Apparently Khan had mentioned our project to Theo, but he had been too immersed in his own work. He didn’t see any comparison or conflict with his own advanced developments, but politely praised our efforts and wished us luck with it.

The delivery man dropped off the order then left on his moped. We sat around the island opening the boxes, tearing slices off the pizzas and popping cans of coke as we chatted and chewed. Theo began to open up a bit more about the Vvox technology and told us how he’d been involved with the project with Ross before his father disappeared. He hadn’t been at university for a few weeks now, which had given him plenty of time to really get his teeth into things at Vvox. He was respectful about Ross’s ability, but it was clear that he rated his own skills, and had adopted the role of self-appointed successor in his father’s absence.

Ross had moved aside, in deference, to focus on new developments, enabling Theo to take control of the AI voice synthesis project. I was impressed with Theo’s deep knowledge of the whole AI space, particularly regarding the voice applications, and guessed that was why he’d been so eager to meet with Khan before even starting at the university. The experience at the conference testing Theo’s amazing new technology was still fresh in my mind, so I quizzed him on what his next move might be.

Theo was happy to share his thoughts about his newly developed technology and where he could take it next. He’d been doing some background research while on his self-imposed sabbatical from the university. Khan had also been guiding him, offering mentoring advice to Theo as he’d done with Alex and me. Theo was aware of the frenzy of activity in the USA for this sort of technology, and the fact that Khan had a partial involvement with the CITS projects over there. He understood what we were trying to achieve with our own development and could see potential there as well. There were a number of routes that he talked around regarding where to take his own technology next, but I could tell he still wasn’t quite sure. It was like he was at a crossroads: uncertain whether to continue his education, or do something with his new technology, and all of this was clouded by the fact that his father’s sudden disappearance remained unexplained.

“I’m going to take some time out,” Theo said, preoccupied with folding the Pizza delivery menu into a small square. “Getting my father back has got to be the priority, and then maybe we’ll do something together.”

“Yeah, I reckon that would be cool,” I said, catching Alex’s eye again as we both nodded.

Then Theo slowly got up to close the door to the hallway and, returning to his bar stool, he lowered his voice. “There’s one other thing, but you have to keep this between us, please.”

We listened as he described how at the end of the first day of the AI conference he was approached by someone from the company that had taken over his father’s business. The man was Russian but spoke good English, he said, and asked lots of questions about what Theo knew.

“I couldn’t tell him much about what my father did, but he then started to describe a disagreement they apparently had over the deal,” Theo said, stacking the plates and empty cans that Alex had passed to him.

“I was surprised, not knowing very much about the detail, but the Russian guy started to ask a lot more questions regarding the AI coding and voice technology I was demonstrating at the conference.” said Theo. I picked up my phone, opened up the photo library and then began to tell Theo about my experience on the Vvox stand.

“We met what I think was a Russian guy at the conference. Literally bumped into him, he was big, a massive bloke and hard-looking,” I said. “Shaved head and wearing a smart suit.”

“I guess this guy was pretty big, yeah. Fit not fat,” said Theo. “Smartly dressed, a businessman or lawyer, I assumed.”

Theo explained how the man had then revealed that he was from a Russian company that his father was working for when he disappeared.

“The guy was suggesting that there was some bad blood between the person that owns the company now and my father, and that with some sort of sharing agreement, or if I were to transfer the Vvox algorithm and coding rights to them, it would be possible to pull some strings and locate, even help release, my father.”

“Oh my god, so what did you say?” said Alex.

Theo shrugged, “I wasn’t sure what to say, to be honest,” he said, as he removed the pizza boxes and dropped them into a recycling box in the adjacent utility room.

He explained that he’d been pretty cynical, the Russian didn’t have any business cards and suggested he call a foreign mobile number to verify who he was. “I just got cold feet at that point and made an excuse that I had to split,” said Theo.

Alex frowned. “So it looks like there are a few interested people. Aren’t you worried about protecting it? What if it’s hacked or someone tries to steal it?”

“Not any more,” replied Theo, taking out a small leather pouch from his pocket. “Simple, really, old-school. I use the SED approach, you know, a Self-Encrypting Device.” Alex nodded. Then Theo looked at me. “They’re pretty simple, my father swears by them. It’s basically a closed independent architecture and includes its own processor, memory and RAM, so it imposes strict limits on the code that can run within it. Encryption of data happens in the drive controller itself, rather than relying on the device.”

He accepted my gradual nod as understanding. “Since the encryption key is created on the drive during manufacture and never leaves the drive’s protected hardware boundary, it’s impossible to hack and it’s immune to traditional software attacks.” Theo moved his attention back to Alex again. “Foreign software just can’t run on the machine until the drive is unlocked and the operating system is booted. I keep the master copy with me all the time,” he flipped open the pouch and slid the drive partially out. It was an ordinary-looking device, much like any hard drive. A clever solution.

He finished clearing up and dropped some of the pizza crusts into the dog’s bowl. “Hey, come on up and see the den,” he said. Theo beckoned us to follow him through to the hall and up the wide staircase. I looked around and down again as we slowly climbed the stairs; the hall was cavernous, the imposing front door now obscured by the huge ornate chandelier suspended above the centre of the hallway. Theo turned and walked towards a second flight of stairs, pausing at a door. “Open door,” he said, and a small blue LED lit up on an embedded panel in the door frame. The door clicked and parted slightly, Theo pushed through and held it open. I’d seen it on his vlog channel previously but couldn’t believe the size of the room, it was like a vast hotel suite that you see in movies: absolutely massive. Noticing the split level above, I moved back to get a better look.

“Watch this, it’s my favourite piece of tech,” Theo announced proudly, selecting an app on his smartphone and speaking briefly into it. The staircase performed smoothly, almost silently; it was as if the whole room was changing shape, the staircase gradually appearing and forming until it became the focal point of the space. It was impressive seeing it up close.

“Go on, help yourself.” he said, urging us to try it out.

Alex smiled, and moved over to it as I stood aside then followed. As we climbed the stairs I began to take in the hidden split level. It was crammed full of tech: gaming monitors, high-back gaming chairs, headsets hanging off the arms, a large workstation with huge double screens and a keyboard with a laptop beside it. To one side, a classic old lava lamp, plasma TV and a leather sofa with some impressive speakers set round the wall at ceiling height.

“Woah, this is incredible!” I said, sinking myself into a sumptuous leather gaming chair.

“Loving what you’ve done with the place,” said Alex.

Theo was in his element again, the same bounce in his step, excited hand gestures and rapid-fire talk that we’d seen on his Vvox stand at the conference. I was puzzled, and asked why he even bothered going into uni to the IT sessions with all this kit at his disposal.

“It’s good to get away occasionally, plus it’s useful to talk to Khan; sometimes you just need a fresh pair of eyes, you know how it is.” Theo was keen to demonstrate the voice synthesis technology in action. “Watch this, you won’t have seen this on the conference demo,” he said, as he tapped the keyboard of the laptop on his desk. He brought up a control dashboard panel and produced a quick burst of typing. Theo then moved over to the top of the staircase we had just climbed and spoke in the direction of a small wall-mounted device.

“Close staircase.” Immediately, the stairs gracefully retracted, disappearing smoothly until they had become flush with the wall again. “Now you try to open it.”

I rubbed my hands together and leant in towards the wall. “Open staircase.”

Nothing happened, I looked at Theo, then Alex. Theo just shrugged, stifling the smirk that was trying to break across his face as he adjusted something behind his back.

“Try again,” he said, winking at Alex, who was smiling now as well.

I cleared my throat purposefully. “Open staircase.” Still nothing.

“Okay, here, use this,” Theo said, revealing an ultra-thin headset and microphone from behind him and handing it to me. “Go on, try it again.”

I was being pranked, but gave it another go anyway. “Open staircase.” It was Theo’s voice. Alex looked at us both as the stairs gradually reappeared, a faint mechanical humming noise barely audible as it formed smoothly once again. It was me who had spoken, but it was definitely Theo’s voice that we all heard. It was mind-blowing.

“That’s it in a nutshell, really. That’s how simple, yet effective, it is.” said Theo. He took back the headset and offered it to Alex.

“That’s absolutely brilliant!” said Alex, putting on the headset. “Let me have a go, please.”

I stared, listening as Alex repeated the experiment, watching as the staircase disappeared once again. Theo went on to explain some of the finer points about what he’d done to upgrade the technology that Ross and his father had been working on. I was hanging on every word; it was like we were sitting in front of Khan in the lab again, except the wisdom was coming from someone our own age. Theo admitted that working with Khan had been useful, and that he had spent more time than most with him, mainly as it was an area in which Khan had already been deeply involved.

“I guess in the past he’s always had to be part of the group when he’s been working with this sort of stuff, so to mentor me was refreshing for him, too.” Theo clearly respected Khan’s ability but I couldn’t help being impressed by what Theo had achieved, and effectively all on his own.

We spent a little more time talking about where Theo was heading with it all, but he was still undecided. Alex tried to push him more on the meeting with the Russian at the AI conference, and whether that might have been a genuine opportunity to find out more about his father.

“It might also be useful to try to meet up with Khan at some point and review it all. The AI conference must have been a big success for Vvox, but someone like Khan could be a good sounding board for you, maybe helping you decide on the next steps. Plus, it’ll be good to get back to your studies, keep your mind off things. You know, a sort of healthy distraction,” I added.

It was approaching the spring term break so nothing was likely to happen now until studies resumed and exams started, but I felt the day had been well spent. Theo seemed to be in a good place and with an exciting future ahead of him, but still had a huge problem that needed to be resolved.

“Maybe meeting Khan would be a good idea, but I’ll wait and see. It really depends on whether we get some news about Dad,” said Theo. He looked vaguely towards his monitors and fidgeted with the headset’s folding mechanism. “My mother and sister are with the Foreign Office and our solicitor today, it’s all still a bit sketchy. The police came here when I notified them of the Russian guy at the conference and what he’d said. Took lots of notes and said they’d investigate it, but I’ve not heard anything since.”

I didn’t feel we should be there when his mother and sister arrived home. They would probably have had a tough day and would want some family time together. I hoped our visit had done Theo some good and he’d be feeling a lot more positive and energised for when his family returned. We agreed we’d keep in touch over the term break. Theo was staying local, and Alex and I planned on brief visits to our families, but confirmed we would be back on campus at some point too.

We were about to leave when I remembered something and got my phone out. “You know that Russian guy you said showed up at the conference? Not sure if it’s the same guy I ran into, but was this him?”

I showed him the photo I’d sneaked as we left the presentation theatre. The big Russian guy was sitting at the back on his phone. It wasn’t the clearest of shots, but I’d just felt it was worth taking for some reason. I wasn’t really sure why.

“You didn’t tell me you took a photo,” said Alex, grabbing my arm to get a better view.

“Wasn’t sure if it was something or nothing, so I just took it,” I said, enlarging the image for Theo to check if it was the same Russian that had approached him.

“No, that’s definitely not the guy I spoke to,” Theo said. “My guy was big, smartly dressed, but he had a beard.” He shrugged.

As we said our goodbyes I closed the phone down again and slid it back into my pocket, but something still bugged me.

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