Code of Silence

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Chapter 25

The piercing morning sunlight was intense. A warm shaft of light stretched across Khan’s fold-down tray and caused passengers on the other side of the aircraft to squint, shielding their eyes from the glare. He could feel the warmth on the back of his hands and partially closed the window blind to block out the rays. The breakfast he’d just been served was a welcome relief after an uncomfortable night’s sleep. He never could get a good rest on a flight, regardless of how sumptuous the airline’s seating was. There were just too many strangers crammed into one small space for him to be able to drift off into a proper and refreshing deep sleep.

He reflected on his trip to the USA following the AI conference in London. It was funny how events had taken over, he thought. He hadn’t expected to travel abroad during the term break, having planned instead to visit relatives. He was then going to head back to campus early to use the downtime to catch up, work on the latest transatlantic project he was involved with and to enjoy the peace without students being around. He’d enjoyed a busy and successful conference and received glowing feedback from the academic community on the presentation he’d given on the first day. Khan prided himself on being one of the leading lights in the field of artificial intelligence and voice synthesis, and always got a buzz when his participation in such events drew praise from his peers.

But his lasting memory from the conference was of Theo Varkanopolis. He recalled how Theo had approached him even before the term had started, and how he had been impressed with, even a little envious of, the work that Theo had eventually shared with him. Theo hadn’t required much input from Khan, but often used the lab and its facilities during any spare time after lectures. Khan had been able to help with coding problems that Theo was struggling with at times, and he quickly grasped things, although never fully revealed what he was working on. This frustrated Khan immensely, but intrigued him at the same time.

While he was the man in charge of all things academic within his faculty at the university, he’d always found himself on the fringe of things outside of education. The exciting things, the things that made people famous or rich, or both. In Russia, after co-founding a video game phenomenon, he eventually parted company with his then close friend Andrei Petranov. They had seen the future differently and Khan still regretted not taking a firmer stance. Things could have been very different if he had. The same had happened in the USA when he was part of the NASA and government sponsored group at CITS. It had all gone smoothly until the budgets were squeezed, costs were slashed and he was eventually forced to leave, returning to the UK where he fell back into mainstream higher education.

When he’d met Theo again at the conference, he was astounded by the transformation that had taken place in the young man since the last time he’d seen him. He’d gone from being an awkward fresher student who was trying to cope with his studies and the fact that his father had suddenly gone missing in Russia, to being a confident and articulate entrepreneur in the midst of launching some revolutionary voice technology, which he’d been working on right in front of Khan all along.

Theo, the Vvox software and all that it encompassed were truly impressive, winning the coveted accolade of ‘Best New Technology Breakthrough’ at the conference. This was an award usually bagged by major corporations from all corners of the world. Yet there was Theo, a fledgling student of his, walking away with it on the first attempt. Khan had spent some time with Theo on the stand on the second day. Rather than offering advice or being called on to resolve technical debates on coding, he was resigned to being an impressed bystander, like so many others who attended the conference and witnessed Vvox. Khan now had an intimate understanding of the Vvox technology, having studied it closely at the show, and could see its incredible potential.

He’d been inspired, so when he was approached after his talk by the company that organises the global AI technology conferences and gatherings, he jumped at the opportunity he was presented with. It was an all-expenses paid trip to the USA, San Francisco in fact, a city he knew well from his time working there previously. It was a long way to travel for just a week, but he had the time and they had the money, so he grasped the opportunity with both hands.

While there, Khan had attended two conferences and was invited to a dinner including many of Silicon Valley’s biggest names. His expertise and opinions had always been valued by the academic community and he knew that big business was now listening too. AI had long been considered as science fiction, but a new reality was emerging and it was clear that pioneering visionaries recognised the fact that this science could change the world. Not just by introducing cool home gadgets and devices or improving automation in the workplace. But by helping mankind to solve some of the biggest problems it faced, helping to increase the human mind’s ability, not replace it.

Khan had been approached by the young billionaire owner of a social media platform, newly launched to reinvent what was now seen as a stale market. The biggest players in the game had many millions, even billions, of users but it had all become a little tired and transparent. The lucrative advertising revenues had transformed them from impartial personal communities into money-generating advertising businesses. A new breed of entrepreneur had arrived and there were plenty of opportunities to innovate, particularly with AI, voice synthesis and machine learning, and plenty of deep-pocketed investors willing to back them. Khan had listened intently, and could also see an opportunity for himself. A chance to break out of academic life and finally become in involved in something much bigger, much more exciting, and ultimately, a lot more rewarding.

The announcements from the cabin crew began as the flight was approaching the airport in London. He could now see out of the small window without squinting, and raised the blind again. There was the usual bustle of activity, passengers replacing things in bags in overhead lockers, retrieving jackets or extra layers of clothing, heeding the captain’s announcement about the drop in temperature on arrival. Khan folded his tray back and continued to read his ebook, occasionally pausing to take in the view as the aircraft circled on its final approach to the airport. He was tired, but put that down to the fact that he hadn’t been able to switch off properly since his meeting with the young tycoon and his investors, and the proposals they had discussed. He folded the cover of his ebook over, relaxed back against the headrest and continued to think as the plane started its final descent.

***

In another much smaller airport, not too far away, a single engine plane approached the runway. Propeller a spinning blur, it looked as if it was about to land sideways, or would miss the runway completely due to the strong offshore winds. The sky was clear blue, and the sun was rising and starting to warm the cool spring day. A large black car pulled up in front of the wooden-clad offices of the small provincial airport near the coast. Most of the aircraft dotted around the main runway and its tarmac aprons were single engine Cessnas. There were a couple of small private jets and an area dedicated to helicopters, indicated by the large circled ‘H’ painted in yellow on a square of tarmac. Two idle machines sat close by, gleaming in the early morning light, rotor blades drooping as if resting in preparation for another hard day’s work ahead.

Anatoly Dragovich stepped out of the car, buttoning his jacket while his accomplice remained seated at the wheel. They’d had little or no sleep and Dragovich was still angered having missed his opportunity to apprehend his targets the previous evening. They had searched long into the night, but it became a futile chase so they had returned and waited outside the cottage, hoping to catch them if they eventually turned up.

He’d given up and tried to get some sleep instead, but their escape had troubled him. He knew time was not on his side now and that he had to get to them fast. His reputation was at stake, as was his future as a respected member of the Vory. It was said that once you no longer formed part of the Vory family you were better off dead. He wasn’t planning on that as part of his future, and so the hunt was back on again. “Stay with the car and keep an eye on the boy’s phone,” he said, leaning into the passenger window and handing the driver the device. He ran his hand along the car boot as he walked around the back and headed to the office door.

The airport was a small commercial operation mainly flying freight, newspapers and other goods around the country and to the various islands dotted around the south coast of England. It wasn’t particularly busy with people as it was early, but there were light aircraft taking off and landing regularly enough. Dragovich looked towards the helipad through the high mesh perimeter fencing, and a slight smile creased his lips. The building to his right was a low single-storey wooden structure featuring a double swing-door main entrance. The interior layout was basic and functional. There was an empty seated waiting area to the left, with a tall vending machine on one wall, plastic and metal-framed chairs on either side of it and along the opposite wall, with some tables and chairs spread around in the middle.

Dragovich entered the space and was greeted by a middle-aged man who was sitting behind a desk at the front of the waiting room area. Adjusting the position of the black-and-white reception sign on one corner of the desk, the man spoke first.

“Beautiful morning, how can I help you today, sir?” he said, as he pushed his chair back and closed one of his desk drawers. Dragovich was tired, in no mood for niceties and had seen what he needed.

“I need one of your helicopters for the day, one of those you have on the tarmac outside.” he said, pointing past the man towards the window to the rear of the building.

“I’m afraid they’re both booked for today,” said the man, as he looked at the helicopters, then turned to check the desk diary in front of him, “but we do have availability for tomorrow. I could put you down for one then, Mr, err …?”

Dragovich had heard enough, he turned and walked to the main door again, checking both ways through the windows and then locking it with the top bolt. Walking back to the desk he pulled out his gun and pointed it directly at the manager.

“Who is in there?” he said, brandishing the gun at a door towards the back of the reception area.

“Err, no one. What’s this all about?” said the man. He closed his diary, stood and stepped backwards with his hands in the air. Dragovich moved around the desk quickly, grabbed him by the arm and marched him to the internal door, forcing him to open it with his key and then following him in.

It was the main airport office, but very simply furnished. Just some metal-framed shelving with coloured files leaning against one another. Two old wooden office desks were facing each other, each with a tired-looking desktop computer on the corner, and with a shared printer in the middle. On the wall to the side of the desks was a wooden board with hooks, some with keys dangling from them, each with an aircraft registration reference above.

“Sit down,” instructed Dragovich, pointing at a chair with his gun as he walked to the window to check out the helipad. He moved back to the wall-mounted board and reached up for the key that matched registration number of the helicopter nearest the building. It was one he recognised from his days as a military conscript, a mandatory two year commitment all Russian men had to make.

He turned to the petrified office manager and could see he was not going to be a problem. He walked around and behind him, helicopter keys looped over his little finger.

“We can either do this the easy way, or my way,” he said, leaning in closer to the manager.

“What do you want? Please don’t hurt me,” said the manager. Dragovich moved quickly with the cloth in his right hand. The manager slumped in his chair. Easing him to the ground, Dragovich held him under the arms and hauled him through the toilet door, propping him in the corner on the floor. The chemicals would take a few hours to wear off, the cable ties and locked door would ensure he would not be raising the alarm anytime soon.

Dragovich could get on with the task in hand now. It had been a while since he’d flown, but he would enjoy this. His national service days had been spent with the special airborne forces and he’d flown many light aircraft and helicopters in the past. It would be a massive advantage over his targets, and soon he would have what he was after. Signalling to his driver through the windows of the waiting area to leave at once, he headed back through the office and out of the rear doors onto the tarmac, striding towards the waiting machine.

Within minutes he had started the engine and put on his headset and sunglasses. After flicking a few switches above him, the rotor blades lurched into life then gradually began to rotate, building up speed until they were just a blur above the cockpit. At first the take-off looked ungainly, the helicopter dipping and yawing, but it soon settled into a balanced hover just above the ground, before rising steadily above the hangars into the bright blue sky.

The coastline and glimmering blue sea beyond soon came into view as the helicopter rose further, sunlight glinting off the rippled surface. Dragovich could make out the small coastal town already, and decided to retrace his steps. Banking right, he set off to follow his route from the night before; maybe it would throw up some clues, perhaps even more. He knew exactly what he was looking for, it would be difficult for them to hide with such a conspicuous car.

There was nothing visible in the street they had waited in overnight near the cottage. It was easy to follow the route from there, east to the harbour and along the coastal road, then inland towards forested areas and open countryside. It was just a case of pinpointing that sharp turn where the trail had gone cold and he lost them. Nothing. It was still quiet on the roads and there were no obvious clues. He completed another loop of the area. Switching to the mobile frequency on the helicopter’s control panel, he contacted his driver, who he could now see carrying out a similar search at ground level. It was only a matter of time.

***

Back in London, Khan was surveying the surrounding landscape near the international airport as his aircraft, engines softly screaming, approached the main runway. An uneventful flight, thought Khan, but the day ahead could be quite the opposite. He was keen to catch up with his students. They’d been enthusiastic in all of their meetings and he could see a bright future ahead for both of them. He hadn’t had chance to catch up with them since the AI conference, but had told them he’d met briefly with Theo on the second day. They were both capable students, although it was clear to see that Theo was way ahead of them in ability, and had proven that with the success of Vvox.

Breezing through passport control with just his wheeled cabin bag and laptop case, he was soon through to the arrivals area and scanning the signage for the taxi rank, heading straight outside through the doors ahead of him. One benefit of being on the early long-haul flight from west to east was the crack-of-dawn landing in a quiet airport, he thought. There were many more taxis than there were people waiting. He was soon sliding into the back of a warm car and giving the driver his destination. As the car pulled away, Khan yawned and adjusted the rear headrest, but the opportunity for sleep was over for now.

The traffic was still light, and before he knew it they were in central London, passing familiar landmarks, the driver double-checking with Khan that he had the correct hotel. Khan paid, grabbed his things and got out, extended his cabin bag handle and strode towards the hotel.

He headed up the steps, through the revolving doors and straight towards the reception desks, looking for the restaurant and café area. Soon he was settled in a spot from where he was able to watch the television newsfeed, and would be able to see his guests arriving.

He took the opportunity to catch up on some emails, opening one again that he’d not yet fully read. It was a brief note that he’d innocently dismissed, thinking it could wait until the new term. It had an attachment which was the copy of the email sent to Alex’s father by his law firm. The warning message about the Russian deal meltdown, V-Works and possible threats to staff safety. He was startled by the content, knowing nothing about the companies or individuals involved. The only thing that registered with him was the detail on the British businessman who had disappeared, and the name could only suggest that it was Theo’s father.

There was something going on that appeared to involve his students but he wasn’t quite sure what. Theo had mentioned V-Works in his early discussions with him, but that wasn’t the name Theo was displaying on his stand at the conference. Ordering a coffee from the waiter, he began to try to piece things together. It was going to be intriguing to hear the full story when they arrived.

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