Silicon Follies

Chapter 55: Barry's Singularity -- ship without a captain

By Thomas Scoville
September 22, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Barry and his Singularity had slipped away in the nautical midnight with no crew to meddle; this was a voyage strictly between him and providence. He hoisted his bad-ass bravado, trimmed his swollen conscience and wheeled into a fast reach.

But it wasn't the showdown he was hoping for. Though he shouted his argument to the rolling stars and pitch-black sky, no reproach would issue from that moonless night. And though the storm continued largely unabated, the sea seemed somehow kinder than the malevolent vortex of the day before. Now it extended a strange, turbulent comfort; Barry, to the end an admirer of unmitigated power, gave himself over to the muscular rocking of Neptune's massive arms, and there took shelter from his doubts.


And like centuries of imperiled mariners before him, he turned the wheel beneath white knuckles and comforted himself by singing a little sea chantey. Well, almost:

I skipped the light fandango

Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor

I was feeling kind of seasick

The crowd called out for more

Some kind of seaman he was turning out to be. No old, salty verses, just fragments of bygone hippie anthems. "Note to self," he shouted ironically over the storm's din. "Learn to sail."


This admission of vulnerability effected a curious liberation in Barry; for the first time in weeks, maybe months, he genuinely smiled. At first a little wistfully, then more broadly, then throwing back his head, he added his laughter to the tempest.

In the starboard darkness, the ocean returned Barry's burgeoning mirth -- first opening into a colossal smile, then erupting like laughter amidships with the voice of a million watery clowns.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


The morning sky, storm-scoured to a guiltless blue, stepped out over Hobart harbor. Out to sea, a pair of helicopters crisscrossed the horizon.

The Coast Guard skipper landed his launch at the dock, on a mission to coordinate the day's operations with the harbor authority. He hitched it to the cleats and vaulted off the deck toward the harbormaster's office.


He ambled through the office's salt-weathered doorway. "Right, mate, we found your
dinghy. Bloody kep-soized," he reported casually in a tangy, down-under accent. "Keel up and riding pretty low," the seaman illustrated with a tilt of his forearm, "but we pulled it over and pumped it out. Towing it back now."

"Fair dinkum," the harbormaster replied jauntily from his seat at the radio. "Find any crew floating about?"

"Not bloody likely," The guardsman answered, with that oddly upbeat enthusiasm born of disaster's novelty. "Whoever was at that helm is fish food, I reckon. Won't survive out there, even with flotation. Nah." He spat discreetly out the door. "All we found was a single harness line, snapped off on the end."


"Right," conferred the harbormaster. "So the rescue 'copters will hunt around for the rest of the day, burn up a ton of fuel, and then we all knock off at sunset and have a beer." He slapped his thighs and thrust out his chin. "Fine bit of sport."

"Righty-right," agreed the guardsman matter-of-factly, then gave a troubled look to the horizon. "The damnedest thing, though. There were one or two funny angles to it. Weird."

"Weird? Like how?"


"Like, here's this mega-pricey maxi hull out there, all the way down under from the States, and not only is it rudely inverted, but it's been vandalized."

This struck the harbormaster as unlikely. "Vandalized?" he questioned.

"Yeah -- vandalized. Like some maniac had taken a spray can to the stern -- tried to black out the name -- 'Single-something,' from what I could see."

"No accounting for rich Yankee eccentrics. Takes all kinds, especially in the 12-meter crowd. A fair number of those blokes have more money than sense."


"Yeah, I didn't think about it much, either. Until we flipped it right. Then you could see something else had been sprayed in above it -- like it had been re-christened underway, hasty, like a second thought." The guardsman shook his head. "Spooky."

This bizarre detail offered the harbormaster a rare chance to exercise his ironic sensibilities. "All right," he said impishly, "I'll bite. What did it say? 'Edmund Fitzgerald'? 'Ship of Fools'? 'Andrea Doria II'?"

"Woman's name, I think. Said, 'Gretchen' -- you know, like a German bird's name."

"Well, Gretchen," said the harbormaster, lifting his gnarled coffee cup, "here's to ya, wherever you are. Must be an angel."

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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