THURSDAY, AUGUST 5 LAS VEGAS
If anything happened to this kid, the professor would never forgive himself. The young man was more than just a brilliant protégé; he was like a son. He reminded Professor Kumari so much of himself at that age. Too much, sometimes. Except that Rajat was brasher, bolder than Kumari had ever been.Rajat Singh possessed his mentor’s gift for complex mathematical theories, but he had something more. At heart, Rajat was a businessman.
A risk taker. A part of India’s new generation of entrepreneurs. He had grown restless as a teaching assistant at the university; Kumari could see that. Rajat stayed out of respect for the professor.When Professor Kumari told his protégé about the Abacus Algorithm, the young man’s eyes burned with entrepreneurial fire. To Rajat, it was more than a math formula. It became an opportunity to piece together a historic agreement that might help millions of other Dalits, India’s caste of untouchables, achieve the same kind of success Rajat had obtained. Though discrimination against the Dalits had been outlawed, the vestiges of the caste system were everywhere. Professor Kumari preached patience, but Rajat would have none of it. He proposed a plan with such zeal and attention to detail that the professor couldn’t say no.This meeting was the culmination of Rajat’s plan.Kumari said a prayer, his head bowed as he sat in the driver’s seat of the Ford Escape he had rented. He had a bad feeling about this meeting, something he just couldn’t shake. He had insisted on elabo¬rate security precautions to protect the algorithm.
“You worry too much, grasshopper,” Rajat said from the passenger seat, trying hard to inject a worry-free tone into his voice. Kumari had once asked Rajat about the grasshopper reference; it was an allusion, as best Kumari could remember, to some old American movie or televi¬sion show, the type of thing that didn’t interest the professor in the least.
“That the birds of worry fly above your head, this you cannot change,” the young man continued with mock solemnity. “But that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.”
Kumari did not smile. He was known for being jovial and outgoing, having a type of mad-professor personality, which, he had to admit, was a reputation he did little to dispel. But this was not a time for smiles.
“Be careful, my son,” Kumari said.
Rajat took the cue, nodded solemnly, and instantly became the earnest young businessman. He looked professional in his dark blue suit, white shirt, and red tie. Professional --- and almost American. Still, he was so inexperienced to be handling such a sensitive transaction.
Kumari wanted to give Rajat a lecture, one of Kumari’s patented professorial pep talks, more about life than about academics. But Kumari sensed that the young man had already surpassed his teacher in so many matters of life and faith. The time for lectures had passed.
“God be with you,” Rajat said.
“And with you.”
The young man climbed out of the van, grabbed his briefcase, and strode confidently toward the MGM Grand. He did not look back to see the lines of worry etched into his mentor’s face, the birds begin¬ning to nest in the professor’s hair.
“Protect him,” Kumari prayed. He pulled away from the front of the casino, cutting off other drivers and ignoring their horns.
Twelve minutes later, Kumari entered his apartment, breathless from his climb up the outdoor steps. He disabled the alarm system, locked the dead bolt, and pulled the chain lock into place.
The living room and dining area, one long, L-shaped open space, was littered with twenty-four interconnected desktop computers and enough wiring to make the rooms look like a den of snakes. There were no pictures on the walls and no couch or recliner or television set. Just twenty-four desktop units, a small card table set up in the din¬ing area, two folding chairs, and a beanbag.
In the single bedroom were two air mattresses.
Kumari had chosen this unit twenty days ago because it met all three criteria on his list: high-speed Internet access, a monthly lease, and anonymity. He paid cash in advance and signed the application using a phony name.
He hustled across the room, accidentally kicking one of the com¬puters. He checked the lock on the sliding-glass door that led to a small patio, then pulled the blinds on the glass door and placed his lap¬top on the card table so he could hook it up to his improvised network.
Each computer had been maxed out with memory upgrades, according to Rajat, and then linked in such a way that the total net¬work capacity exceeded 256GB of RAM. The network was protected by three separate firewalls.
Kumari’s screen flickered to life, and he entered his password. He connected immediately to the Internet and opened the program that gave him remote access to Rajat’s computer screen. Kumari typed the words I’m on so that they showed up on a document opened on Rajat’s desktop. Then Kumari opened a second window on his computer that pulled up the video and audio feed from Rajat’s computer. When the MGM Grand conference room came into focus with the same grainy resolution that Kumari had witnessed during the trial runs, he began to relax a little.
Rajat, the more electronically savvy of the two, had wired his laptop with a hidden video camera on the back, inside a port that looked like an Internet connection. He squeezed a corresponding microphone into what appeared to be an expansion port on the side. His computer now fed Kumari a live, blow-by-blow broadcast of the meeting.
Though the resolution was not the best, Kumari could make out three business executives within range of the wide-angle lens. They sat across from Rajat, separated from him by a large, polished-wood conference table. The man in the middle had dressed casually; the others wore suits. All three appeared younger than Kumari had anticipated.The Chinese American man on the right looked more like a thug than a businessman. He had a low brow and thick neck, with veins bulging from a too-tight collar on his shirt, as if he couldn’t afford a custom fit. On the right side of his face, a scar started at his sideburn and ended at his jaw. His right ear was smaller than the left, as if he had lost part of it in a knife fight and a plastic surgeon had just sewn up what was left. A tattooed cobra was coiled on the left side of his neck, poised to strike at any moment.Kumari pegged him as security.The man on the left, pale-skinned and tall, seemed infinitely more sophisticated. Eastern European perhaps, with ice blue eyes and short, Nordic-blond hair. He slouched in his seat, a cool, disinterested look on his face.In the middle, the position of influence, sat a young man approximately Rajat’s age, probably the CEO, dressed in a black linen shirt, with long dark hair, a trim goatee, and dark, brooding eyes that seemed to pierce Kumari’s screen.Kumari had missed the introductions and casual conversation, if any had taken place. Rajat was sketching out the logistics of the transaction, a complicated matter since Rajat had insisted on having the fifty million dollars in the bank before the algorithm was transferred. The men opposite Rajat were employed by a deal-brokerage agency that represented the three largest Internet security companies in the world. Understandably, they wanted to test the algorithm before any money changed hands.“You will forgive my skepticism,” the middle man said, his expression difficult to read, “but the implications of your claims are enormous. Not to mention the fact that our top consultants believe rapid factorization into prime numbers is a mathematical impossibility.”“Did you bring the numbers?” Rajat asked calmly. His voice came across louder than the others, based on his proximity to the mike. Kumari could discern no wavering in it, no hint of the frayed nerves that surely had to be racking his young partner.
“Then we can talk theory or we can talk application,” Rajat said. “I mean, why bother finding out the true facts if we can just sit around and speculate based on the opinions of your experts?”
“We can do without the sarcasm,” the Nordic man said.
The CEO betrayed no emotion as he consulted a folder. He dictated a long number that Rajat typed into the open document on his screen. Next, Rajat read back the digits to the CEO, all 197 of them, double-checking them slowly. It took nearly two minutes just to verify the number. Kumari smiled. Child’s play. Using his algorithm, he should have the answer in less than five minutes. His laptop could process this one by itself. He copied and pasted the number into his formula.As Kumari’s computer crunched the algorithm and Rajat plunked away on his own keyboard, plugging in phony numbers and functions, the conference room grew remarkably quiet, tension filling the air, as if the executives didn’t dare jinx this moment by making a sound. From miles away, Kumari could almost tell what they were thinking: If this works --- if this really works --- it would destroy the foundation of Internet encryption. The RSA protocol, used extensively to secure transactions on the web, would be a sieve. It was, as Rajat had exclaimed when Kumari first told him about the breakthrough,
“The key to every lock!” Kumari had started working on his formula nearly twenty years ago as the result of a challenge from a fellow professor. Kumari called it a serious academic pursuit, a scholar’s desire to break new ground. Others called it an obsession. Whatever the label, he dedicated his best and most productive years to accomplishing something unprecedented: discovering an order in the sequence of prime numbers. Most theorists believed that the numbers sprang up like weeds among the natural numbers, obeying no law other than the law of chance. It was impossible to predict where the next prime number would sprout, they said.But where others saw chaos, Kumari saw the faintest outline of order. Over time, the outline became more discernible, the order more predictable, his convictions more resolute. He ultimately developed a complex mathematical algorithm, stunning in its reliability, which could quickly and accurately generate the prime factors of any number, no matter how large.Delighted, Kumari wanted to publish the formula in a respected, international mathematics journal. But his protégé immediately saw the tragic consequences of such an approach. The Internet would be thrown into chaos until encryption technology evolved in a different direction. When it did, the algorithm would be useless in a matter of months. Instead, Rajat talked Kumari into selling the formula to a conglomeration of the top global encryption companies. “It could help them see the Achilles’ heel in their encryption techniques,” he argued. “They could take steps to make Internet transactions more secure, to provide better protection for privacy.”
Then the clincher: “We could use the proceeds to help the Indian church provide Christian schools for the Dalits. An education in English for thousands of children. A way out of caste-based shackles.”It seemed like a good idea at the time. There were already hundreds of such schools in existence, but they needed thousands more. Otherwise, the children would be relegated to the plight of their parents --- degrading work on the fringes of society. Going through life with their heads down, cleaning the bathrooms of the upper castes. This money could be a good start.Kumari jolted back to the present when the answer popped up on his screen after only three minutes of computation. He typed in the results for Rajat.Not surprisingly, Rajat decided to add a little drama. He had not been pleased to learn that the brokerage company was owned by the Chinese. The least he could do was have a little fun with them.
“If I remember correctly,” he said, his voice gaining confidence, “a recent attempt to find the prime factors of a 193-digit number took more than three months, with eighty different computers working simultaneously. Altogether, about thirty years of computer time was utilized. Is that what you gentlemen recall?”