Silicon Follies

Chapter 52: Barry, beaten -- the rich man and the sea


Thomas Scoville
September 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The gods had finally come after him.

Barry stood at the helm of the Singularity, looking not so much a captain as a refugee. Though he gripped the wheel with all his strength, navigation was not much on his mind; he was hanging on for dear life, trying to stay upright as the waves washed over the cockpit.

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Already he'd lost two of his crew to injuries: one with a smashed ankle, another's arm flayed by a line of broken rigging, a thin steel cable whipping in the gale's fury.

They had sailed into a churning hell on high water. The Tasman Sea had blossomed into a true monster -- as angry and menacing as any of Barry's hyper-accomplished crew had ever seen, and considerably more so than Barry himself could have even imagined. Giant swells -- higher than the mast -- shouldered up to the boat like marauding thugs, rolling the 40-foot hull sickeningly, lashing out with quickening temper -- cresting, bristling, then backhanding the deck with heavy, gelid swipes.

Yet the worst was still to come, it seemed; the storm was bearing down on them. The Australian maritime safety broadcasts reported the heart of the storm only a few hundred miles from the stern. With still 220 miles to Hobart, this was not encouraging news.

But as discouraging as it may have been for Barry and his battered crew, it was far worse for the rest of the competitors in the regatta. As predicted, Singularity had seized the lead from the beginning, and had pulled away with every mile. Now, the rest of the field -- what remained afloat, at this point -- was well behind, and being ground into bits in the storm's maw. The distress calls rang out over the radio, previews of Barry's tribulations to come.

Thus the stage had been set in the usual way: The emperor would finally face forces greater than himself -- in this case, nature, death and chance. All would play their parts with equal vigor.

It is always the same drama, more or less: Act I: Defiance. Act II: Doubt. Act III: Despair. And, finally, a curtain call: reflection, perspective and regret. In the theater of mortal peril, the truth is always close at hand.

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Far too close, in Barry's case, to admit a graceful performance. Even the gods were surprised -- insofar as gods care to be surprised -- by his spectacular display of rebellion: No, he fiercely insisted, no. He had not wasted his life.

But by journey's end, Barry's resistance would be broken down by the sea.

Never let it be said the gods don't have a wacky sense of humor. Barry would have his victory. He and his Singularity finally dragged each other, bleeding and maimed, into the Tasmanian harbor.

But his hero's welcome would be subdued at best. Tragedy had touched this sportsman's paradise. The devil had taken the hindmost; reports of deaths and disappearances among slower yachtsmen had been trickling in for hours.

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Liz had not been mistaken. The woman run down on Zayante Road had been the very same she had met months before, in the feral hills above Santa Cruz.

How do you console a mother for the loss of a child? Some tragedies are beyond mending, beyond consolation, beyond compensation. Liz had known Kiki only a few months, and had met her bohemian, headstrong daughter only once. How could she help her friend -- so new in her life, so little shared history -- manage this loss? It seemed wrong, in a way -- too intimate, an invasion. She was unprepared, and unequal, to the task.

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But circumstance declared it: Liz would be midwife to a mother's grief. There would be little time for deliberation, in any case. Death was, Liz would quickly learn, a busy affair: autopsies, death certificates, arrangements for burial, obituaries, a hundred other details. She offered her assistance, and Kiki gratefully accepted.

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They chartered a fishing boat out of Santa Cruz on a crystal clear day, the Pacific as limp and lazy as a summer lake. Liz had never seen the ocean so gentle, so compliant, so manifestly full of sympathy.

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Kiki turned the urn out over the port bow, and the ashes spread across the motionless, mourning water, saturating, drifting into the depths like a languid, ashen rain. And for a moment, she took her grief in hand, and cobbled together a few doubtful words. Maybe it was a eulogy; if so, it was rife with question.

"Gretchen's confidence in the goodness of the world was taken early," she said, holding back the hair from her tear-streaked face. "I don't know what her life means. There's no closure -- no cheerful platitude, no comforting last detail, no happy ending. Only mystery and regret. And a few certainties: She loved, she was much loved, and I'll miss her."

One detail kept revolving through her mind, a specter that had haunted her since the news of Gretchen's death, the prospect of a single consoling hope.

Gretchen had not been carrying a child when she died.

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On learning this, Kiki had driven frantically up to Last Chance, to the same meadow in the woods where Gretchen's hippie clan had pitched their teepees. But they had moved on.


Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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