Alex was pacing around the sofa where we’d been sitting, not quite sure what to say or do. I looked across at Theo who had returned to his chair, face now buried in his hands. The whole situation was like a bad dream.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get this sorted somehow,” I said, crouching down beside Theo’s chair. I hoped my words might help Theo, but I was terrified; my heart was racing and I was clueless about what we should do next.
Anyone could see that Theo was going to struggle to think properly right now. After all, he’d just taken one and a half million euros from Anatoly Dragovich, a member of the Vory, one of most dangerous criminal organisations in the world, and there was no way of just apologetically handing it back. Maybe he could continue with the deal he’d agreed with Dragovich. But that would potentially implicate him in some sort of global cybercrime activity, jeopardising his father’s chance of freedom and dragging the rest of his family into this nightmare at the same time.
There had to be a way out of this, but I was struggling to see it. Calling the local police right now seemed futile. They hadn’t really been able to do anything to help locate and release Theo’s father so far. Apart from maybe providing a presence at the house, they couldn’t stop the Vory coming after us. And Dragovich would want to see something in return for the first payment he’d made. Fortunately, Theo’s mother and sister were due to fly to Greece the next day to spend some time comforting relatives while the investigation continued. At least they’d be safer there, and less easy to track down for anyone that might have a reason to.
I turned to Theo again. “Have you talked to Khan about this?” Theo just shook his head slowly as he stared silently at the floor.
I thought it would be worthwhile. At least Khan might have a clearer understanding of it all. Maybe we were overthinking things or maybe we were just in too deep. A fresh perspective would be helpful, so we decided to head over to the university the next day to see if we could catch up with Khan.
After a while, Theo pulled himself together a bit and went downstairs, asking his mother if we could stay over for the night so that we could head to the university together the following day. Theo’s mother and sister were on an early flight the next morning, and he told us she’d been happy to know that he would have some company after they’d gone. We were welcome to stay.
We spent the rest of the evening running through a plan for the next day. If we could get to the university early it would still be quiet. Theo would encrypt everything on his devices and home servers before we left to provide a higher level of protection, but this wasn’t something that could guarantee security. Any experienced rogue hacker employed by a foreign state to infiltrate another country’s election campaign could sure as hell crack open Theo’s box of tricks.
As a backup, Theo had created some new coding that would self-delete any versions of the existing Vvox programme, a sort of self-destruct button, that would be triggered by any unauthorised access, hacking attempts or malware it detected. This would effectively wipe everything out permanently, and leave the only master key copy of the AI voice coding on Theo’s SED. It was a risky move, but as long as we had the physical SED then we were in control. It was also a very valuable item now, worth at least three million euros on the internet, probably a whole lot more on the dark web.
Khan was someone we could share things with, and he might have some immediate answers or suggestions. I’d messaged him saying we would be there first thing, hoping that Khan would also be in early doing his usual preparation for the forthcoming term. I hadn’t had a response yet, but thought we would track him down easily enough in the morning. The plan was to travel in Alex’s car, as Dragovich was familiar with Theo’s and would no doubt be monitoring its movements. If it remained at the house all day then the assumption would be that Theo was at home. Dragovich was unlikely to pay another visit, as he knew the police were keeping an eye on the family and could drop by at any moment.
We continued to discuss the best way to get out of the mess. Theo couldn’t pay the money back or release the software to Dragovich. The local police probably wouldn’t be able to grasp what we were talking about, so we’d have to approach the National Crime Agency in London, the headquarters for the UK’s serious organised crime and cybersecurity unit. Perhaps having Khan with us would be useful at that point too, if he agreed to help. A testimony by a university professor would be more likely to get us straight through to the senior people who needed to be involved. A desk sergeant at the local police station would probably think we were pranksters: three students with a mystery gadget and a tall story about the Russian mafia, trying to pull a fast one for some sort of YouTube stunt. At least if we could explain it clearly to someone who would take us seriously, and provide some form of evidence, then just maybe we could help find Theo’s father and secure the protection we needed at the same time. Our information might even support the Foreign Office’s case against Russia, especially if we could prove that there was some sort of foul play going on regarding Theo’s father’s disappearance.
The next morning I woke early, hearing a car pull up on the driveway. It was still dark outside, and sleep was not something I was currently very good at. Theo must have crept downstairs to say goodbye to his mother and sister. I heard him coming back up, but I lay there for a moment before rising, thinking over how the day might unfold. I quickly showered and dressed, unplugged my mobile charger and caught up on my messages and the weather report.
Making my way downstairs, I could hear the other two were both already up and about, sorting out breakfast. It had been a late night, but Theo was confident that he’d made all the necessary preparations to protect the devices and servers that might provide any access to the Vvox coding. Most importantly, he had made sure that the SED download had completed before going to bed, ready for our trip to the university. The SED was compact and was safely in his pocket for now. He wasn’t going to lose sight of it or leave it to chance that he might forget it. I noticed that he kept checking it, resting his hand on the outline occasionally. It reminded me of going to the airport and how I would always reassure myself that my passport was with me. Irrational, I thought, obsessive even, but Theo had already made enough mistakes and this time the plan had to work.
“Morning, guys.” I said wearily, as I picked up a glass from the draining board and filled it from the tap. Alex looked a little tired too. I’d have been more comfortable waking up with a change of clothes and my own toiletries, but I’d survive. I cracked a joke about borrowing Theo’s sister’s deodorant, which made Alex laugh and Theo smile just a little.
It was still early and the sun hadn’t yet made it through the dull, dark, overcast skies, let alone the mist that hung over the gardens and in the fields beyond. Theo pulled out the SED and announced he was ready.
“There’s no way anyone can access the Vvox software now unless they have this little beauty, and I don’t plan to let it out of my sight,” Theo said, revealing the SED again. His tone was a little too bright, like he was trying to sound as if he was back on top of things. I didn’t think it was very convincing, but at least he was in a positive frame of mind. “Everything else is wired as we agreed, so let’s see what Khan suggests,” he said, grabbing his jacket and sliding the SED into the inside pocket, zipping it in just to be safe.
Alex and I were ready too and waited at the front door, jackets and rucksacks gathered. I waited for Theo to set the alarm, then followed Alex across the drive to the car. The gates clanked, whirred and slowly juddered open as we approached and left in the gloomy morning mist. Theo kept glancing back from the rear seat, checking as the gates slowly closed again. The back roads were quiet, there were no other cars around, which was reassuring. I’d imagined seeing vehicles tucked in laybys, monitoring our movements, following us, but so far there was no cause to be alarmed.
It was all quiet in the car, we were still waking up, I think. After a few minutes Alex began to look up at the rear-view mirror, once or twice but then repeatedly until Theo spoke.
“What’s up?” he said, turning to get a better view out of the rear screen.
“This guy’s in a hurry,” Alex said, eyes flicking between the mirror and road ahead.
I could feel my heart pounding. The headlights were a piercing glare through the gloom and the vehicle was travelling fast, bearing down on us as each second passed. I was checking in my door mirror, trying to see what was happening. Theo began to panic. Alex slowed down, I said not to. Theo stared, trapped in the headlights. The car drew close, hurtling by at a ridiculous speed. Lights blazing but no indicators. I squinted as the mirror glowed. It wasn’t a car, it was a mud-splattered pickup. It didn’t slow, it kept speeding onwards, disappearing into the damp dullness. I let go of my breath with an exaggerated sigh, relieved, and glanced at Alex who was already looking in the rear-view mirror, checking on Theo.
“Thank God for that, local farmer, I think,” said Theo, as he rubbed his tired eyes and clasped his hands behind his neck. We were all on edge and this was going to be a long day.
The remainder of the journey to the university was fairly uneventful. Theo sat quietly in the back, noticing stuff he didn’t usually see on his regular commute. It was still early so we avoided the morning rush hour, and the campus car park was empty. We decided to head straight for the café, the lack of cars indicating it was likely that most of the teaching staff wouldn’t be around until later. The café wasn’t quite ready to open and the shelves looked pretty empty as we walked towards it, so we decided to just hang out a bit before heading over to the science block to catch up with Professor Khan. Some students had remained at the university during the term break. Theo, having dropped in regularly, spoke to those he’d seen the previous week. I headed across to the café seating area to see a couple of rugby pals who had also returned early.
Alex decided to check on the staff rota by the administration office along the corridor from the café. It was an electronic touch screen with a list of staff names and an alphabetic index at the bottom. Pressing ‘K’ revealed the bad news, the professor wasn’t in. When Alex told us, I agreed it was strange, because it had said: ‘Out - London’ and not ‘Holiday’. Usually there would be a date indicating when he was due back after a term break. Not a great start, but we agreed we couldn’t wait until Khan returned, so Alex messaged him again instead. Perhaps we could meet locally off campus. It wasn’t usually what we would do, but this was serious stuff and we needed help.
“Okay, let’s go over anyway,” I said.
“They usually leave the lab open for cleaning,” said Theo. He’d been in before when the lab was empty, and said that Khan was fine about it. Theo planned to double-check the Vvox stuff he’d been working on at the uni, and update the encryption on Khan’s PC at the same time.
We walked through the main campus courtyard as the day began to brighten, and I was thinking about our next move. I suggested we try to get in touch with the NCA in London via email anyway. “At least we can log the enquiry, and then it’s in their system in case anything happens to us.” Just saying it made me feel anxious, as it sunk in that this wasn’t an ordinary trip to the lab for some extracurricular fun during a free morning.
“Yep, good idea, let’s hope they take us seriously,” said Theo. I said I would sort out the email, and then we agreed that we’d wait to see if we could rendezvous with Khan somewhere later that day, if he responded at all.
As we entered the science block and began climbing the stairs I pulled out my phone, leaving the others to go on ahead. From the staircase I could see Alex’s car in the car park, it wasn’t difficult to miss with its distinctive decorated roof. The car park was still quiet and remained fairly empty apart from a large black car parked right next to Alex’s, its engine still running by the look of the swirling exhaust fumes. Why pick that space, I thought? It wasn’t a great photo, but I took it anyway.
As we approached Khan’s lab the cleaning staff had just finished. Theo acknowledged the elderly gentleman he’d seen the previous time he’d visited, and we walked straight in. Theo headed towards Khan’s office at the back and picked up a remote from a shelf outside, turning and clicking it once. The huge wall-mounted screen gradually glowed into life. I opened my laptop, fired it up and began thinking about what to put in the email. Alex started searching for the NCA website and the contact options. Theo turned to Khan’s office door and tried the handle. It was locked. Theo said this was strange, as a couple of days earlier he’d been in and used Khan’s desktop when his own laptop charger had failed on him. The door hadn’t been locked then.
Khan’s office was a small rectangular room projecting out from the middle of the back wall of the lab. It had a glass door and main window on the front with small windows at ceiling height on both side walls. Both the door and the front window had the blinds closed. Theo checked again, the door was definitely locked. Perhaps the cleaner had the key. Theo removed his jacket and put it on the back of one of the bar stools, where he’d left his laptop bag, then said he was going to look for the cleaner. I noticed that Theo had a sense of purpose about him, and it was good to see.
“I need to get into the office to add the encryption to Khan’s desktop,” said Theo. “Don’t worry, it won’t affect his stuff, but it’s the last place that needs updating, then we’re just down to the SED,” he said, patting his jacket on the bar stool as he passed and headed out of the lecture room.
I drafted the email to the NCA with input from Alex, but thought I’d wait until Theo returned, just to make sure we all agreed on the wording before sending it. Alex checked for messages, but there was still no reply from Khan. I assumed maybe he was still on holiday after all, or perhaps just somewhere where he didn’t have a good signal.
This was a chance for Alex and I to talk in Theo’s absence. We hadn’t known him that long, but circumstances had bound us together. We’d been inseparable for the last twenty-four hours, and Alex and I agreed that we were prepared to support him, but we were equally wary about what we were getting ourselves into.
“You know, I haven’t mentioned this so far,” I said. Alex looked up from the laptop as I spoke. “When we left here to go to Theo’s yesterday I noticed a car in the car park, a big black saloon. Looked like a top-end rental.” I walked across to the window. Alex followed me over, but we couldn’t quite see the full expanse of the car park in the distance. “It was here again today, only this time parked right next to yours.” I showed Alex on my phone. “They could have parked in any space, so why there?” Alex shrugged. It was another reminder of what we were getting into. Perhaps we were worrying about nothing at all, but I wanted to make the point all the same.
After half an hour I messaged Theo. He’d been gone for longer than we thought he would, and we’d just seen the cleaner crossing the courtyard below, so it shouldn’t be taking this long to track him down.
“Maybe he’s bumped into someone else,” I said, peering down at the car park again.
“Let’s give him a bit longer,” Alex said. “He might just be needing a bit of space, it’s been a pretty intense time for him.”
There had still been no response to the message another thirty minutes later. I tried calling, but it went straight to Theo’s voicemail.
“Don’t like this,” I said, hanging up on Theo’s personalised voice greeting.
“Hmm, it’s a bit weird, but let’s not panic,” Alex said, wandering over to Khan’s office door again. “He’s probably just bumped into some friends.”
Alex was crouched low, looking at the door handle and the lock itself. “What you going to do, pick the lock with a paper clip?” I joked as I strolled over.
“No, but I’m going to give it a try with this,” said Alex, moving over to the shelving along the side of the lab where the 3D printer equipment was stored. “Khan was demonstrating this that time you had to dip out for your rugby tour. Let’s see if we can have a go.”
I pulled up a bar stool and watched, intrigued. Alex opened a lidded plastic packing crate with the words ‘3D Image Scanner’ on the label. As the device emerged from the storage crate, the protective plastic film still attached to the casing indicated that it was some sort of brand new, high-tech piece of equipment. Spherical, about the size of football, it was mounted on extendable tripod legs, the sort that bend and flex at the top, as well as providing support. It had a separate accessory device that looked like a probe, which Alex plugged in to a USB port on its side before switching the unit on.
“There’s plenty of charge in it,” Alex said, studying the small display screen. “Let’s see if I can do what Khan showed me last time.”
Kneeling by the office door, with the tripod legs of the scanner adjusted to the correct height, Alex inserted the flexible needle-like probe into the keyhole, and pressed a button on a remote-control pad. A single bleep sounded, and then the probe generated a bright green glow that appeared to rotate inside the lock for a few seconds; it then faded, and a high-pitched triple tone indicated that the process was complete.
Alex looked up, smiled and winked at me. “Impressive, huh?”
I didn’t know what to think.
“Khan showed me this equipment. He used it on an old storage chest to demonstrate what it could do. It scans the interior space of any 3D object, anything from something like a door lock up to the size of a coffee cup. Once you’ve downloaded the data to the 3D printer,” Alex said, nodding towards a machine to the right, “you can recreate the space in solid form; the more intricate, the better the results.”
We moved over to the other device. It was about the size of a microwave oven, both sides and the front panel were clear glass, the top incorporating some sort of control panel. Alex switched on the printer and plugged the USB lead into the port; selecting quantity ‘1’, and pressed a green control button.
“It’ll take a few minutes, but just watch,” Alex said, carefully monitoring the printer from above and then through the front glass panel.
There was some gentle movement, accompanied by electronic tones and clicks, and then the printer started to operate. The device lowered a pointed nozzle towards the base of the printer and repeatedly followed a small rectangular pattern on the flat surface, ejecting small amounts of a thick black substance as it did so. The nozzle and the flat base moved in unison, the base juddering erratically as the printer nozzle hovered above, repeating a pattern. As I watched, I could see the form take shape; the first couple of layers created were difficult to make out, but then it became clearer. It was a key. I was amazed.
“Wow, now that’s very cool,” I said, leaning in closer, eyes still locked on the shape materialising in front of me.
A few minutes later, the machine stopped and a tone sounded. Alex lifted the front panel, reached in and carefully picked up the key that had been produced. With a gentle twist and pull, the black printed key became detached from its template.
Alex handed it to me. “Still warm, isn’t it?”
“Incredible.” The key was solid, and substantial. I handed it back, and followed Alex over to Khan’s office door.
It went into the lock first time, a slight stickiness to begin with, but then slotted comfortably into place. Alex gave it a quarter turn and the door unlocked.
“Ta-da! How long do you think it’ll take Theo to figure out how we did this?” Alex said, grinning, opening the door and flicking the light on.
The office was tidy, an indication that Khan was indeed away. It was too tidy, though. Or maybe I was overthinking things again. Maybe he’d just had a real clear-out, or perhaps tidied it for some important guests who had paid him a visit.
Alex moved to the desktop and switched the main power button on. “We may as well boot it up now to save Theo some time.”
Reclining in Khan’s executive chair, Alex began looking at the photographs to the left of the tidy desk. There weren’t many. Khan was single, we knew that much, so no cheesy family portraits or children in awkward school-photo poses. There was one grainy, coloured one which had faded slightly, and was perhaps from a time before digital cameras and smartphones. It looked like it was from the time Khan had spent in California, judging by the hairstyles and funky clothes. There was the mandatory graduation shot of him wearing robes and mortarboard headgear, and an impressive photo of Khan and a friend at the top of Ayers Rock.
I couldn’t see any clues on the wall calendar to indicate where he might be, there were no obvious blocked out holiday dates. Neither of us had received responses to our messages, so maybe he was just taking a proper break and would address any queries once he was back on duty.
I checked my phone, but there was no response from Theo either; then I had an idea. A while back I’d suggested that we should all sign up to a new GPS location-tracking app that some fellow students I knew at the university were developing. Most of the campus had subscribed to it, as it connected with the internal social media stuff that was going on. It was incredibly accurate, to within a couple of metres, and useful for locating people within multi-site buildings.
“If we know where he is, I’ll just nip down and get him,” I said waiting for the app to open, and then tapping on Theo’s avatar.
“Bet you he’s gone for some coffees if the café’s open,” said Alex.
“And a sneaky muffin, I’ll bet,” I said, inspecting Khan’s new 3D office key up-close while I waited for the app to buffer.
I checked my screen, and froze. I turned to Alex. “Quick, look at this. Can’t be right.” Our bit of high-tech fun was about to be brought crashing to the ground. Theo was on the move, and moving fast. Already outside of the campus confines, he was in some sort of vehicle, judging by the app’s spinning wheeled icon. In a car, on the main access route to the university but heading away from us. This time Theo’s voicemail didn’t kick in. The phone was dead. His avatar stopped flashing and disappeared from the app.