Zara Hightower stepped into the town car with its tinted windows, sliding along the leather seat, positioning her briefcase at her feet on the floor. She gave the man who slid in beside her a small smile and looked out the window, ignoring the way her heart wanted to accelerate. It was always this moment, when she was so close to her goal, that her body wanted to betray her. She never let it. Never. She was very, very good at staying in control. Breathing. Keeping her heart rate perfect, adrenaline at bay.
The car moved forward and her head went up alertly. “Wait. I need my interpreter. She always travels with me.”
The car kept moving. The man beside her, Heng Zhang, turned his head and gave her a small, polite smile. “Miss Hightower, you do not need an interpreter. I speak English.”
“I’m aware that you do, Mr. Zhang, but I require my own interpreter. I made that very clear to Mr. Cheng when he invited me. I was given assurances when I agreed to speak with his people. I’ve turned down his request four times, and will do so this time as well if you don’t stop this car immediately, turn it around and get her.”
She kept her voice smooth and even. She had a certain reputation to uphold. She never lost her temper. She never raised her voice. She was always polite. She cut people down sweetly, so sweetly they almost didn’t realize at first that she was telling them off. She was an expert at that as well. Seeing as how she was considered one of the leading minds in the field of artificial intelligence in the world, those around her should expect that she could hold her own with anyone, but they always took one look at her and judged on appearances. Like now. Zhang made the mistake of looking her up and down, gave her a look that said she was nothing in his eyes before turning away from her and looking out the window.
In her head, she went through the moves that would end his life and then the driver’s life. She would use one hard-edged chop to his throat, hard enough to drive through the trachea. Or she could just scratch his arm accidently. Smile and apologize. Then when he slumped on the seat, for good measure, she could follow up by taking his gun and shooting the driver in the back of the head, shooting Zhang to be certain and then taking control of the car. One, maybe two seconds was all she’d need.
Zara sat very still, appearing as she always did. She looked like a beautiful model with her long legs, her oval face, flawless skin, large slate blue eyes and long red-gold hair that fell down her back, thick and unusual, sheets of it falling below her waist, looks that most reporters ended up commenting on when they should be listening to what she had to say. Still, her looks enabled her to get her work done. She shouldn’t complain. It was her looks that often kept her alive.
She turned her head and looked out the window, resisting the impulse to kill Zhang with his smug, superior attitude. They probably had a camera on her. She let her mind drift, uncaring of the direction they were taking her. She knew where Cheng’s lair was. He was famous in the district, his building a fortress. The government tolerated him because he paid them well and gave them all sorts of reasons to keep him protected. Cheng bought and sold secrets and shared them often enough with the government to buy their protection.
Once at the facility, the car pulled into the underground parking garage, went through three guard stations and pulled right up to a private elevator. Zhang got out first and went around to her door. For a split second, Zara debated whether or not to have it out with them right there in the parking lot by refusing to move from the car. She knew they would force her, but she also knew they wouldn’t kill her.
Cheng needed her. He wanted the information she had. He had kept doubling the price each time she refused to come to his private facility to give her talk on the VALUE system, as she called her project, and its uses in the business world. He thought he had her bought with his more than generous offer—the one that would set her up for life—or get her killed—if she accepted it.
She slid out of the car without looking left of right, and followed Zhang into the elevator. Neither spoke as they were whisked up to the middle floor where Cheng waited for her. She was stopped as she stepped off. Two guards with automatic weapons took her briefcase and pointed to a door. She stepped through it into a narrow cubical. Immediately her entire body was scanned looking for listening devices, weapons and cameras, anything that might harm Cheng in any way.
Zara knew Cheng was paranoid, and deservedly so. He had his hand in every criminal activity around the globe that had to do with running guns, drugs or political secrets. He had top minds working for him developing all kinds of weapons that he sold on the black market. What he didn’t develop, he stole. She knew every paper in her briefcase would be scanned and copied before it was returned to her. She’d come prepared for just such a thing. Those papers were ‘encrypted’. No one could break the code because there wasn’t one. In reality, the code was nothing but sheer gibberish, but it would give Cheng’s people something to keep them busy.
She was taken from the cubical and marched through an open floor where there were several desks leading the way to the office of Cheng. He stood in the doorway, all smiles, as if she would be pleased to meet him after he’d broken their rules.
“Miss Hightower, how good of you to come,” he greeted.
She stopped moving a few feet from his office forcing Zhang and the two guards to stop as well. “My interpreter?” She didn’t smile. She kept her gaze fixed on Cheng without blinking, something she’d practiced for a long time. She was very good at it.
“I’m sorry.” Cheng didn’t sound in the least remorseful. “You must understand I have many enemies. I don’t, as a rule, allow any outsider into these facilities. There are always industrial spies. We won’t need an interpreter.”
Stubbornly she didn’t move an inch. “Don’t you think you should have let me know you changed the conditions? I’m uncomfortable without her. When I come to Shanghai, I always use her and have grown used to her.”
Cheng stepped back to clear his doorway, waving toward his office. “Please come in, Miss Hightower. My staff has made you tea, which I believe is your favorite drink.”
She stood for several seconds, letting them all worry. Zhang stepped close to her. “Miss Hightower,” he waved toward the office.
She looked at him coolly. Haughtily. Every bit as arrogant as his boss. “I’m deciding. I added this additional talk onto my agenda and as you both are aware, I’ve had a very tight and exhausting schedule. I did this as a courtesy. I don’t need the money. To have your boss break his word so quickly is disconcerting to say the least.”
Zhang switched instantly to his native language. “Do you want me to take her up to the interrogation room? Bolan Zhu can extract the information you require from her.”
Cheng shook his head, a small, humorless smile on his mouth, one that reminded Zara of a cold-blooded reptile. “Don’t be so blood-thirsty, Heng. She will cooperate.”
“I apologize again, Miss Hightower.”
“I dislike others to speak in their language when I can’t understand,” Zara said, still not moving. She had understood every word they said. In her resume, it was never added that she was gifted in languages. That was kept a secret for just instances like this one. She admitted to knowing a few pertinent words in the languages of countries she traveled often to, but was careful not to let on that she understood without her interpreter. Her heart had jumped at the name, Bolan Zhu. He was extremely good at torturing people.
“Zhang was only asking after your comfort. We knew you would have trouble without your interpreter, so we tried to think of other ways that would assure you would enjoy your visit with us,” Cheng lied smoothly. “We thought a tour of our labs was in order. Understand, this is a great privilege, one not extended often.”
As in never. A tendril of unease slid through her. He wanted her evaluation. She understood that. He wanted to hear what she was doing in her chosen field of expertise, she understood that too. She had the feeling that if he showed her his labs, especially his computers, the ones that stored all that data, the secrets he blackmailed or paid others to get so he could sell out countries—including his own—to the highest bidder, would earn her a bullet in the brain.
She kept her eyes steady on Cheng’s face. Zhang didn’t matter. He would carry out his boss’s orders, but he wouldn’t act on his own. He didn’t take her as a threat.
“Miss Hightower, I realize the circumstances are unusual, but if you would just come into my office and hear me out, I would appreciate it.”
She felt Zhang stiffen beside her. He didn’t like his boss asking. He was used to the man ordering others and if they didn’t obey, punishment was swift and brutal. The fact that she was a woman and an American probably offended him even more. Deliberately she made certain to stand as tall as possible so she could tower over Zhang. He was particularly short and she knew it irritated him that she was tall. Cheng was the same height as she was in her heels.
Zara flashed Cheng a small smile and walked past him into the spacious office. She took the chair he indicated and sank into it, deliberately crossing her legs. Zhang didn’t like her, but he appreciated her looks. Doing the leg thing always kept others from thinking she was brilliant. She’d found out that most people didn’t think looks and brains could go hand in hand.
Cheng seated himself across from her, not behind his desk, clearly trying to create a much friendlier atmosphere. He picked up a file and scanned it quickly. “This is very impressive. I see you went to MIT as an undergrad and then got your PhD at Stanford in Computer Science. Your subfield is machine learning?”
He made it a question but Zara didn’t respond. Instead she looked slightly bored. She was really good at that particular look as well. She’d perfected that as well as the wide-eyed innocent look she was certain she was going to need very soon.
“I see you teach at Rutgers University. Why not private business? You could make a lot more money.”
She shrugged. “Money bores me. I realize it makes the world go around, but I don’t spend much time in the real world, Mr. Cheng. My mind prefers other pursuits.” Which she supposed was the strict truth. She didn’t think about money because she didn’t have to. She thought about other things like life and death. Like survival. “I spend most of my time working on things others don’t understand and that’s all right. My programs, hopefully, will be a contribution to the world.”
“There isn’t a lot here about your earlier life.”
She frowned at him. “What does my earlier life have to do with my work?” She kept her voice mild, as if barely interested. She kept her heartbeat the exact same rhythm and that took just a little extra work, but she knew it was possible her vitals were being monitored just by sitting in the chair he chose for her.
“I like to know everything about anyone I do business with.”
“I’m not a businesswoman, Mr. Cheng. I lecture. I get paid to lecture. I give talks on exciting new breakthroughs in the world of artificial intelligence. That’s what I thought you wanted from me and knowing anything other than my credentials is not really helpful. I can assure you, my credentials speak for me. I’m regarded as one of the leading experts in AI and machine learning. I thought you were aware of that.”
“I’m very aware of that, Miss Hightower,” Cheng assured. “It’s just that you’re far younger than I thought you’d be. I noted your age, of course, but thought it was a typo.”
His gaze flicked several times to Zhang, and more than ever she was certain they were somehow determining if she was lying or not. She liked cat and mouse games. She was good at them. She was fairly certain his secretary, or whoever prepared the report on her, wouldn’t dare give him a report with a typo. His secretary wouldn’t survive the hour.
“My age does sometimes give people pause, but I graduated with honors, I assure you,” she said with a small shrug as if she didn’t care whether he believed her or not. She uncrossed her legs to switch them, drawing their attention immediately. Once comfortable, she moved her foot, clad in a sexy blue high heel to match the blue jacket she wore, around in lazy circles. That always seemed to mesmerize males. It worked with Zhang, but not with Cheng.
“You disappear for long periods of time.”
He made it a statement so she smiled sweetly at him as if waiting for a question, making him ask.
He sighed. “Where do you go?”
She shook her head. “I don’t really think what I do in my down time is any of your business.”
“You’re more of a consulting professor for Rutgers. I want to know where you go, Miss Hightower. You’re asking me to trust you around my researchers.”
She stopped the lazy circles, planted both feet solidly on the floor and leaned toward him. “Let’s get something straight, Mr. Cheng. I’m doing you the favor, not the other way around. I said no over and over. I made it clear I wasn’t interested in your money. You may think I agreed to speak to your people because the money was too good to pass up, but it was because you intrigued me. You were that persistent. I thought the research mattered to you. If you keep insisting on playing this silly game, I would very much like you to ask your driver to return me to my hotel.”
“Have I offended you with my questions?”
Zhang interrupted, once again in his language. “Let me take her to the interrogation room, Mr. Cheng.”
“That’s it.” Zara stood up, glaring at Zhang. “I can’t believe how rude you’re being when you invited me here. Please return my briefcase and escort me down to the car.”
Cheng stood as well. “Mr. Zhang will be leaving us. I’m sorry for his rude behavior. Mr. Zhang, send in Mr. Zhu.” He indicated the door with a jerk of his chin and it said something for the fear his people felt, even those closest to him, that Zhang hastened toward the door.
“Please, sit, Miss Hightower. I’m used to people trying to spy on us, stealing what we’ve worked hard to develop. Just a few weeks ago, a spy escaped with valuable information. It set us back months.”
Zara kept her heart from accelerating, but it was difficult, not after hearing the name Bolan Zhu twice. She knew all about him. He was Cheng’s right hand and probably far more feared even than Cheng. He was the interrogator sent in for difficult subjects. Most people never got near him. He was the man Cheng trusted more than any other. Little was known about Zhu, until he served with the army.
Zara decided it was better to appear to cooperate than have Bolan Zhu threaten her. It was one thing for Zhang to do so, but Zhu was a different matter altogether. She sank into the chair and gave a pretty little moue with her lips. “I’m sorry. I think I’m being temperamental because I’m tired and your Mr. Zhang wasn’t the most welcoming.”
Cheng looked up as Zhu walked through the door. Bolan Zhu was tall and wore a very expensive suit in a dark charcoal. He gave Zara a small smile as Cheng introduced them.
“So nice to finally have you here, Miss Hightower,” Zhu greeted. “Cheng has spoken of you often. He is a great admirer of your work.”
Clearly the man was as charming as he was lethal. Her information on him included the fact that he enjoyed traveling abroad and when he did, he visited clubs nightly. He was considered quite a lady’s man and Zara could see why. He was extremely handsome. She gave him a smile and sat a little straighter.
“That’s nice of you to say so,” she murmured, lowering her lashes. She felt rather than saw the two men exchange a look. They bought that she was a little affected by Zhu’s good looks and charming manner.
“Miss Hightower was just going to tell me where she disappears to when she isn’t at the University, which is often,” Cheng said.
“It’s a little embarrassing,” Zara said, acting reluctant. She snuck a quick glance at Zhu as if talking in front of him was the reason she would be embarrassed. “I work very hard for long periods of time without sleeping or sometimes eating. I realize it isn’t the best thing for my health, but I just can’t remember to eat or sleep when I’m on to something. I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night and use my walls for paper to write on. I often take breaks, sometimes just a couple of weeks, but often longer, to regroup. I go on retreats where I don’t have access to a computer, phone or television. I have to shut out the world entirely. Sometimes I sleep for twenty-four straight hours.”
“That makes sense,” Zhu jumped to her defense. “Cheng told me you were a child prodigy, one of the leading AI experts at a very young age.”
“It’s such a fascinating idea,” Zara said, pouring enthusiasm into her voice, hoping neither man would realize she hadn’t answered the question of where she’d been. Only what she’d been doing. “Artificial Intelligence is a growing field, covering so many things that could be useful. People have the mistaken idea that it is just robotics, although that alone is amazing and forward thinking, but it’s so much more.”
“We spend some time and energy on robotics here,” Cheng said. “You think that’s a waste of time?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that artificial intelligence can be used in such a broader scope. I don’t want any student to get bogged down thinking in a box. Just thinking one thing. Already we have a small examples of machines learning. They can help so many people. On a small scale, people stuck in houses can just ask their devices to order food or supplies for them. If an elderly man or woman falls in their home they can call out to their device and have it call for an ambulance or family member. The possibilities are limitless.”
There was genuine enthusiasm in her voice. She sat up straight and her face lit up. Her eyes did. She was very aware of the changes in her and allowed them. She wanted Cheng and Zhu to see she was exactly what she said she was, a very young professor believing in exploring artificial intelligence.
“Why did you choose a subfield like machine learning versus something else, like robotics?” Cheng asked.
“I like machines. I like programing, not that I do much of that anymore myself, but numbers speak to me. Machines are logical.” Her long lashes fluttered and she made a small face. “I get carried away when I talk about my work. Please forgive me. What else do you need to know before I give my talk to your people, Mr. Cheng? I don’t want to take up any more of your time than I need to. It’s getting late and I’m certain your employees need to get home.”
“They would wait all night to get a chance to ask questions of you, Miss Hightower,” Mr. Cheng said. “Your briefcase has few papers we can understand. Your code appears to be unbreakable. Did you devise it yourself?”
She burst out laughing. “The few papers you can understand are used for my talk. The others are sequences of numbers I put together when I’m working out a problem in my head. It soothes me.”
“Hasn’t anyone ever stopped you, believing it’s a code of some kind?”
She shrugged. “It’s happened, but eventually they realize it’s nothing but me doing something repetitious that helps me think.”
Cheng’s brows came together and he regarded her with skepticism. “Didn’t you have trouble coming into the country with those papers?”
“I only had a couple of papers with numbers at the time and someone assured those holding me that it’s no code but random sets of numbers repeated over and over on several pages. That ensures everyone thinks I’m a little eccentric which I probably am.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Cheng said, suspicion in his voice.
“It does if she’s OCD,” Zhu pointed out, looking straight at Zara. “Those random numbers are repeated in sets of three.”
Zara didn’t change expression and she kept her heartrate exactly the same—a nice steady rhythm as if she didn’t have a care in the world. As if she wasn’t sitting in a room with two deadly vipers ready to strike at any moment. Zhu’s answer meant he’d looked at those papers.
A timid knock announced the arrival of the tea. It was Zhu who physically got up and opened the door. Zara found that fascinating. He didn’t call out to the woman carrying in the tray, but he got up and took the tray from her. She never entered Cheng’s office and Zhu lowered himself to carrying the tea tray. He set it on the small table in front of Zara. She knew she was really in trouble. Zhu didn’t care what others thought of him. He didn’t stand on protocol or ego. That made him very, very dangerous.
Was Cheng so paranoid that he didn’t allow anyone into his office? Probably, she decided. “I don’t mind pouring the tea for everyone,” she said, pitching her voice low, almost submissive. “I don’t know if that would be offensive to either of you. I’m unsure of the custom when there is no other woman in the room.”
She knew Cheng would never pour her tea. He’d already stepped far back as if that would save him from having to do such a menial task in front of her.
Zhu had no such problem. He simply smiled at her and shook his head. “We are very modern here, Miss Hightower. I have no problems pouring you tea.” He suited actions to words, picking up the little pot and pouring the liquid into three cups.
She watched very carefully, making certain he didn’t put anything in the tea. He poured quickly and efficiently, his long fingers looking incongruous on the small cups. He was mesmerizing. Frightening, but mesmerizing. Bolan Zhu was a very scary man. He appeared modern and sophisticated, very charming with his white teeth and startling green eyes. His shoulders were wide, filling out his suit beautifully and when he walked, he seemed to glide.
She noted that he served Cheng first and her second. They weren’t quite as modern as they wanted her to believe. She took the cup of tea, observing that Zhu’s index finger touched the rim, sliding around it in one continuous motion. The drug was on the outside of the cup, not the inside, but it was where her lips would go no matter where she placed them. Zhu also took a cup and deliberately brought the teacup to his mouth and drank. Cheng also drank. Both watched her.
Zara had a couple of choices. She could drop the cup and ‘accidently’ break it, or she could drink it and hope they weren’t trying to kill her. She suspected Zhu would interrogate her and whatever drug he’d just introduced to the rim of the cup would compel her to the tell the truth. She lifted the cup to her lips and sipped. She had to take the chance. She knew if she didn’t, Zhu would probably incarcerate her and that wouldn’t go well for her at all.
“Have you been taken around the city at all?” Zhu asked.
“No. I haven’t had time. I’ve been here four times and mostly I see the inside of hotels or facilities where I’ve been asked to speak,” Zara said, taking another sip. She looked at the liquid in the teacup. “This is exceptionally good. I don’t think I’ve ever had this before and I order tea all the time.”
Zhu sat in the chair closest to her and Cheng seemed to fade into the background. “All our teas are made from one single plant, did you know that? It’s actually an evergreen shrub that can grow into a small tree and live over a hundred years. It grows in Southeast China and the leaves are harvested year-round.”
He watched as she sipped at the tea. She smiled at him. “Well, it’s excellent.”
“Why did you come here?”
“I was invited, of course. I don’t like to travel that much anymore, so I only go where I’m invited.” She frowned. Something was definitely working on her brain. She had to puzzle it out fast. “That’s not exactly true. I turn down a lot of invitations as well. I travel to the countries I’m interested in. Ones that are beautiful, but then I don’t get to see them because I’m working.”
Was she babbling? It sounded like it to her, but the words just tumbled out. She had to rein it in. Think. Force her brain to process whatever it was, and work around it. She was good at repeating numbers in her head. That would lessen the effect of the drug on her. She watched the reactions of the two men and realized they expected her to babble and blurt things out. Well, she could do that.
“You find our country beautiful?”
“Don’t you?” She countered. “It’s so alive. I love the people.” She didn’t have to lie about that. “There are so many things to love.” She put her fingers over her mouth as if embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually carry on this much.” She took another sip of tea, careful to keep her mouth in exactly the same place. She didn’t need a larger dose of Zhu’s truth drug. Was it a new strain? Something that didn’t slow her mind. It had to be a new strain. This wasn’t making her slow and sleepy. It wasn’t slowing her brain at all. What was it doing to her? She continued to count sequences of numbers in her head and solve intricate problems. It helped to clear her mind of the effects of the drug.
Zhu leaned into her, took her teacup from her and placed it on the table. Very gently he turned her hand over and stroked her wrist once. Something slithered through her mind, something unsettling that coiled hotly in her belly. He was looking at her differently. Not with the eyes of a viper, but more like a predator—a wolf or a tiger, something with teeth about pounce. Her heart jumped. Stuttered. His fingers pressed into her wrist, right over her pulse and she forced calm when she felt more threatened than ever.
“Do you wish Mr. Cheng harm?”
Her gaze leapt to Zhu’s face. “Harm? Of course not. He seems a very nice man. He asked me to talk to his employees. I thought perhaps they would benefit from my work.” She needed to blurt something out. Something true. “You have a really beautiful mouth. I should know. I notice mouths all the time.” That was a truth that seemed to come flying out. She put her hand over her mouth again and tried to pull her arm away at the same time.
Zhu smiled at her and clamped his fingers around her wrist, but so gently she almost didn’t realize he was holding her still. “Thank you. I was thinking the same of yours. What is the true reason you’ve come to see us tonight?”
His voice was extraordinary. She almost told him so, but that calm she called on, the one that kept her heart from beating out of control, thankfully prevented her from blurting out that he was mesmerizing. Spell-binding. “I came to talk about a new project my team has developed to Mr. Cheng’s chosen researchers, the ones he thought would be interested in my work.”
Her eyelashes fluttered at him because she knew it was expected of her. She wasn’t a flirt. She never flirted because it would be fruitless to flirt. She couldn’t have a relationship with anyone. She was forever alone. Now that her best friends were gone, she was truly alone.
“You look sad.”
Those long fingers stroked her arm sending more ripples of awareness snaking through her. It was more unsettling to her than if he’d put a gun to her head.
“Do I? I guess I was thinking sad thoughts.”
“I lost my best friends recently.” She lifted her chin, making her eyes go wide in seeming surprise that she’d blurted out such a personal detail. “That’s personal and not pertinent to what I need to be doing here. Please take me to this group. It’s already late, and I’m getting tired.” It wasn’t the drug making her tired, but she knew it made her susceptible to Zhu and his mesmerizing voice. She could feel his pull on her. She kept up the numbers running in her head, combating the drug in the only way she could.
Zhu immediately pulled back and looked at Cheng who nodded. “Mr. Cheng thought you might like a tour of the facility. He’s very proud of it and the work environment he’s created here. It’s a haven of sorts for his people. They’re very loyal to him. He provides apartments, day care, and even exercise rooms.” He stood up and gently tugged on her hand until she was up with him.
The touch of his skin on hers sent an electric current sizzling through her. What was that? She hadn’t experienced it before. Not. Ever. The drug wasn’t a date rape drug, but it was something that made her respond chemically to him. In her mind, she gave a delicate shudder. She knew such things existed and they could even be permanent—causing the woman or man to be obsessed with the person giving off the pheromones.
Zhu led her out of Cheng’s office, one hand on the small of her back. She’d never been so aware of another human being in her life as she was Bolan Zhu as he walked her through the facility. She noted that several floors were avoided and most of the people failed to greet Zhu, in fact they kept their eyes downcast.
It was definitely pheromones. Some kind of drug that made her physically susceptible to him. His fingers burned through her clothing right into her skin. She snuck a glance up at him. His breathing was much better than her own but not quite normal. He’d had to touch the drug with his fingers before administering it onto the rim of the teacup. He’d drank his tea. Had he touched his fingers to his mouth? She couldn’t remember. Her body had grown hot. She was almost too uncomfortable to listen to the sound of his voice.
Zara managed to ooh and ahh in all the right places, but it was clear to both of them that she was struggling against her attraction to Zhu more than she was paying attention to the things he was showing her. After all, that was the point, wasn’t it? She kept that uppermost in her mind so she wasn’t too ashamed of herself for the fight she had to put up to not give in to the drug’s effects. And she kept solving number problems in her head.
Before her talk, she had him take her to the lady’s room. She threw up like she did every time before she gave her talk. From experience she knew, once she got started, she would be fine, but the idea of standing before colleagues, others interested in AI work, always made her feel incredibly sick. She knew if Zhu was aware she was ill, he would think she had something to hide. He would never consider it nerves. She carefully rinsed her mouth and ate the strong peppermint candy she always carried before rejoining him.
“I’d like to take you on a tour of our city,” Zhu said as he brought her to the auditorium where they’d set up a podium for her. Her briefcase was there, sitting right beside the glass of water provided for her.
“I’d love that.” She’d be long gone, thankful she’d escaped with her life.
He took her straight to the podium and Zara immediately slipped into her role. She hated everything about her life, but this—talking about what she loved and believed in with those interested. That, more than anything else, always allowed her to escape the horrible shyness that made her the worst traveler ever. She had developed the character everyone saw and believed, and she hid behind her. Once she got passed her nerves, she could settle into explaining the program and why it could be so helpful on so many levels.
Zhu stood to one side. Close. Beyond the lights she could see half a dozen men with automatic weapons at the entrances. She pretended not to, but it was a very definite fight to keep her heartrate normal.
At her introduction, conducted by another very charming man in a suit, the applause was enthusiastic. She wondered if Cheng had threatened all of them—applaud her loudly or my goons will shoot you.
“Good evening. My talk is called, The VALUE system, the program you’d love to have as a partner. I think you’ll see why in just a moment…” She trailed off and scanned her audience. She’d given her talk dozens of times already and knew it was cutting edge. They would be hanging on every word if they were really interested in artificial intelligence and what it could do for them.
She reached out to the machines on the first floor. The computers. Touching them with her energy, that psychic gift Dr. Whitney had so carefully enhanced. She could talk to machines and they listened with rapt attention just as these people were listening. She had the ability to serve as a wireless conduit between the remote computers and her wireless hard drive. She instructed the remote computers to transfer their data from every one of the computers, floor by floor and store it in the PEEK-carbon nanotube hiding the SSD in her brain.
“AI game playing systems, since the 1960’s have been fixated on winning. Every twenty years there is a quantum leap in AI programs ability to win. Arthur Samuel built the first self-learning program in 1959, a program that learned how to play checkers increasingly better over time. The program reached a respectable amateur level status of play by the 1970’s. Fast forward twenty years, and in 1997, you could watch the deep learning program, Deep Blue, beat the reigning world chess champion, Gary Kasparov – an amazing accomplishment! Fast forward another twenty years, and in 2017, you see Google’s deep learning program, AlphaGo beat the reigning world Go champion.”
It took time to transfer the amount of data stored in the computers in Cheng’s facility. It would take as long to destroy every hard drive to ensure the man had no data on the GhostWalker program given to him by the treasonous Senator, Violet Smythe. Zara kept her voice even and calm, so that later, when Cheng and Zhu compared it with other speeches she’d given, there would be no difference. Inflections would be the same. She wasn’t under undo stress. She couldn’t possibly be the reason they lost the data on every computer. She was incredibly thankful for her mind’s ability to work on solving number problems. In doing so, it had lessened the effects of the drug enough for her to control the systems in her body.
“But here’s one thing we have yet to see. . . what about a program that could learn to intentionally lose when playing a little boy, so that boy could experience winning? What about a program that could learn how to propose "win-win" solutions for itself and someone else? What about a program that knows that “you can’t always get what you want” and learns how to “get what you need” by making good tradeoffs given limited, competing resources--time, money, people, materials, etc.?”
The idea had been talked about for years. For trade, such a program would be invaluable. It was expected that there would be a breakthrough sooner or later, but to be able to stand in front of them and announce it had been accomplished was exciting. Every. Single. Time. She had to be careful, to never lose sight of why she was really there. She needed the information in those computers. She’d done this so many times, but she’d never had to destroy the hard drives. Most businesses or Universities had no idea she’d taken anything out with her when she went because she only gathered information, she never left evidence that their computers had been touched. Destroying the hard drives of every computer in the building would definitely raise alarms.
“In this talk, I’m going to describe a program, the VALUE system, which integrates an entire suite of learning techniques, some old and some new, to do just that. The VALUE system integrates: the inverse reinforcement learning techniques of Russell and Ng for learning the value of others, our earlier deep learning techniques for creating and refining negotiations and compromise in a two-party circumstance, our new supervised learning techniques for reformulating design spaces based on human guidance with acceptable tradeoffs.”
She launched into her talk, trying not to get lost in the excitement of the artificial intelligence world and the endless possibilities that always consumed her mind when she allowed herself to become fully immersed there. She had a job, a much more important one, in terms of serving her country, saving lives and getting out of there alive.
As each of the computers gave up their data, the hard drive destroyed itself, wiping out all documents, making certain no trace remained. It was a big facility and she was used to delivering her talks while making the data transfers. She was certain the flow of information to her would never be detected so she was never nervous. It was a matter of instructing the machines in any chosen building to cooperate. She didn’t need to hack in, or figure out passwords. She just needed a wireless environment. Destroying the hard drives after was a much riskier thing to do and she’d never done it before. That left footprints. No one could prove she had anything to do with the losses, but she was there. On site.
Zara let her enthusiasm for her work show, in her voice, her mannerisms, the way her face lit up. She wanted to be animated, and she was. Her mind had finally let go of her curious obsession with Bolan Zhu, the need to focus on her academia and the particular program she was spearheading overcoming the last remnants of the drug. This program was her ‘baby’ all the way and she was totally immersed in that world and had been for a long while when the sirens blared loudly. Instantly, the room went electric. Zara stopped speaking to look around, allowing her heart rate to accelerate just as everyone’s had to be climbing. Her audience stood up in silence and began filing out of the room like robots.
Zara gathered her papers and turned to Zhu. “What’s happening?” Fear crept into her voice. Just enough of a note that she hoped Zhu would think was normal under the circumstances. She had to keep collecting the remaining data and destroying the hard drives as she went. There was no protection from her unless the wireless was shut down. Only a half a floor to go and she’d be finished. She had no way of knowing what data was in what computer on what floor, but even as Zhu reached her, gathering her into him, she kept up the transfer and destruction.
“We have to get you to safety and then I’ll check it out,” Zhu assured. “I can’t imagine a drill being scheduled, so this is more likely a glitch in the system or someone left chemicals out when they shouldn’t have. Don’t be alarmed.” He escorted her to a small room.
No windows, Zara noted. She heard the lock turn when he left her. She didn’t bother trying the door. Sinking down onto the chair, she glanced down at her watch, noting the time. She wanted to press the stop watch, but she forced herself to leave it alone. She had time, but it would run out fast if she didn’t get out of Cheng’s facility. She knew his lock downs could last a week or longer.
She told herself her mission was important to Whitney. He wouldn’t allow her to die, not when what she had in her head was so valuable to him. Calmly, she finished the data transfers and destroyed all remaining hard drives in the building. She could be calm because she had something for her mind to work on, but the moment that was done, fear poured in and she rocked herself in terror.