Chapter 15 You’re An Undertaker Now
Twelve exhilarating and nerve-ending weeks had passed since the summit with the Trinity at the Buttery, and all the news since then had been nothing but good. After two more painfully long and restless weeks, day into day of intense discussions and deliberations and calculations, Brendan and Daragh proclaimed themselves confident that there was a better than no chance they could indeed give us exactly what we and the Captain had hoped for.
The first ever implementation of CELP voice coding in a secure phone, powerful enough to do what we needed, and small enough to do it all inside a desktop phone and not a Cray computer the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
The core of Brendan’s calculations was based on the assumption that the latest digital signal processors made by Motorola would perform exactly as their specifications said they would. Although that was something we really couldn’t come close to determining until we got our hands on some of those processors and started with the tinkering.
The chips weren’t cheap, he said, and a fellow researcher had just paid a couple of hundred pounds for just one of them. It didn’t matter to me how much they cost, how much anything cost, because if we got this right, there would be no limit to what customers would be willing to pay for the secrecy and privacy we were promising. There would be no shortage of money to get us there even if very little of the expense would be mine.
Ciaran wasn’t idle either. It took him only a couple of days to propose that while in the long term it would make better security sense to develop our own proprietary encryption algorithm, for the sake of speed and security we should consider simply modifying an existing encryption system, like the Data Encryption Standard, as he’d already suggested.
The core of DES had been peer-reviewed for years and the major weaknesses already known. Our best path, Ciaran recommended, would be to create a far superior version of that workhorse and minus the known weaknesses that would firmly shut and shutter any backdoors. If we chose instead to create our own proprietary encryption algorithm, it would likely take years to create and validate. And one simple and even theoretical vulnerability would render it and us untrustworthy and failed.
Brendan said he found an article in a scholarly journal suggesting that the total cost to develop the STU3, our nemesis and our motivation, was closer to $50 million than the $200 million the Captain had suggested. It didn’t really matter, I said. We couldn’t raise anywhere close to either of those numbers, not in Ireland, and we’d have to get as far along as we could with what little we had or could raise.
I still had around twenty thousand pounds in my bank account, the richest I’d ever felt, even though I owed about the same to the bank. I knew my parents couldn’t help, they’d already remortgaged their home to help keep the Crock, my responsibility and future, afloat. And my father was already the co-signer on my overdraft. But there were other family members I could still turn to and persuade.
My older brother was the favorite employee, sailing partner, and golden child of the founder of one of Ireland’s leading technology firms. His boss and trusted friend was also a director of Ireland’s Industry Development Authority, the central figure in the Government’s efforts to develop Ireland’s fledgling technology sector. The IDA was on a well-publicized and even better funded mission to turn our tiny island of bar flies and bungalows into a hub of young technology rebels and leaders. And we were now clearly both.
The IDA’s focus was to identify and nurture a new crop of home-grown high tech entrepreneurs and startups that might help to lessen the country’s dependence on more established but less loyal giants like Dell and Microsoft, who only seemed to prefer Ireland because of its generous corporate tax rates and educated workforce. An advantage that could quickly evaporate with the rise of other young and hungry European technology hubs.
After a brief lunch and a week of due diligence, my brother’s boss and his business partner each offered an investment of ten thousand pounds in exchange for a 5% equity stake in our yet-to-be-formed new venture. Within a few weeks more, the Industrial Development Authority agreed in principle to invest another fifty thousand pounds for a 10% stake and more importantly, a package of loan guarantees up to fifty thousand pounds.
So within less than 12 weeks from that meeting with the captain, we had nearly a hundred and fifty thousand pounds of available funding; the support of the government, the army, some leading technologists, and Ireland’s biggest bank; and a team of engineers who seemed thoroughly committed and capable of making my personal dreams come true.
Now it was time to deliver, screamed the demons. But no going back now. I called the Captain to share all the great news and he seemed almost as delighted as my father was, although he encouraged me to get to the end of this adventure as quickly as possible because there was pressure from other unnamed government interests to buy only from the Americans and be done with it, “Yer on yer way now,” he said, “but just keep an eye out.”
Like a giddy child with a pocket jingling full of confirmation money, I distracted myself from my surging fears by going on a spending spree. We would definitely need an office, any respectable high tech startup would, but any office we chose would have to be a very modest one in order to make a good first impression on our investors. Even if not one of them ever even set foot in the place between the beginning and the end.
The lease on the basement office that Orla and I had been sharing for nearly two years was coming to an end, like so much between us. As part of her continuing efforts at creating further separation, she announced that she had chosen a smaller office at the top of a building just a few doors away and that there would be no room there for me.
It didn’t really matter though. I’d been keeping her informed about every single successful meeting and magnificent step forward over the last three months, and while I could tell that she was impressed and even proud, she wasn’t moved. She had already moved on, in so many ways, and taken much of what we shared with her. Our former shared office was just a symbol, even an obituary, but still I’d miss seeing her every day.
I didn’t have time to grieve or intervene. I needed to find a new office, and find it quickly. Naturally I picked the very first one I looked at because, also naturally, it too was full of signs. It was another damp basement, even though I vowed that in all future endeavors I’d endeavor to live above ground.
This particular basement was in the bowels of a Georgian row home on Fitzwilliam Square and still just a quick walk from Orla’s attic. Apart from allowing me the opportunity to casually drop into her new office unannounced at any time, my new office was also about a hundred yards away from the only other company in Ireland that we knew of that was doing any work in the field of encryption.
That 6-person startup was called Baltimore Technologies, and run by an aging mathematics lecturer from Trinity College. They asked us, only once, for a meeting and suggesting that we might work together, combine rather than compete. We declined, Ciaran suggested there was nothing extraordinary about their work anyway. Baltimore soon soared, eventually to a valuation of $13 billion on the stock market only to finally crash and disperse and with our new lead cryptographer Ciaran as its chief scientist. But all that was yet to come.
Our new office was owned by a prominent firm of solicitors who had some unused space to rent, including a small single office on the third floor, and the entire damp basement. And because there were so few souls interested in living or working in that particular cold hole, they were willing to be very flexible with terms.
The basement had two distinct parts, a north and a south, and that significance would soon become very apparent. The front section, the sunny north, was directly accessed from the stairs and the street. It was nothing more than just a single modestly-sized room that had been divided into even smaller sections by cheap pine paneling that stopped a couple of feet short of the ceiling and managed to create four tiny offices and a reception. The back section, the moody south, was divided into two long rooms with a small kitchen and bathroom, and not much in that part of the office seemed to have changed since the time it was probably a kitchen or stable, or both.
Most of the paint was peeling, probably had been for decades, and maybe left untouched because the act of painting alone would dislodge the damp crumbling plasterwork even more. The thin linoleum-tiled flooring was worn and torn in most places and in others missing complete tiles and exposing what was left of the old glue.
I didn’t choose this damp hideout just because it was the cheapest we could find. Or because the landlord offered us the first three months rent free of charge in return for making it modestly habitable. Or even because the ancient iron bars on every window, as few as there were, would make it impossible for anyone to break in.
The main reason I fell in love with this particular hole was because at some point in its history, for whatever reason, someone had made the good decision to install a massive walk-in vault with a solid steel Chubb door nearly a foot thick. I assumed it was the solicitors and a way to keep their precious documents safe but they insisted the vault was already there when they purchased the building.
Shea seemed to like it too, or not dislike it enough to say no, in spite of the sneers and glares as I walked him through it a couple of days after I picked up the keys. “Beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose,” but I think deep down that deep hole was a kind of step up for him, a first chance to be a tenant in one of the most prestigious squares in the entire country and probably the kind of building no one in his family had ever set foot in. Not even to visit a doctor.
We spent a weekend painting everything that would accept paint, and Shea brought his two young sons and a first cousin to help get our new home ready for our first lodgers. When everything was finally dry we gave the office the cheapest frock we could find, a few rolls of industrial carpeting in a light blue color almost identical to the wall, a color we thought would provide a good contrast against the forest of pine dividers.
“We’re undertakers now,” Shea almost sang as we painted and bonded in our new crypt. “That’s what the word entrepreneur means,” he explained, “in case you didn’t know. Under taker.” And I didn’t, and wondered if the only reason he knew was because he knew his life was changing too and he needed to be better prepared for this new role and world.
We were undertakers alright and in more than one way. We were undertaking something very important for our country and ourselves, and for many more people and nations we had yet to meet. Or so we were perhaps conveniently convincing ourselves. And we would be responsible for many bodies and mouths if we kept on this same path, and that was beginning to terrify me. Or at least add to all the other terrors.
Shea asked for a private chat a couple of days after we moved in to announce that he had decided to retire from the phone company after more than 30 years, so that he could concentrate on Intrepid full time. And at the same time keep an eye over the ten thousand pounds he wanted to invest so that he could now be a legitimate shareholder, a stakeholder, an undertaker, and not just a colleague or employee.
I was happy he had chosen to do both, work full time for Intrepid and make a donation to the cause and the dream. He was one of the most well-read people in my universe, and this partnership would not survive without a real technologist helping to manage it.
But I was hesitant too, troubled by the notion, the fear, that he might assume we were now equal business partners. I reserved the right to choose my companions on this expedition, and I was never comfortable enough to take the journey fully with Shea.
We had struggled for the few years we were together to trust or even like each other but we mostly settled for an uneasy truce. His mood usually vacillated between cynical and paranoid with a regular sidestep into rage. Our relationship was a mutual mistrusting dependence rather than a partnership or even a friendship. It seemed like we each knew we would be glad to get rid of the other as soon as possible, and I think he realized that with our three new experts on board, he might quickly become irrelevant. So he was just taking justifiable steps to reduce that risk.
But there were too many distractions to think about such things for long, and any reckoning that might come would have to wait. Our new tribe was growing bigger and stronger every day. From just me to just Shea and I, together and apart in our basement, our workforce had grown through the Winter to more than a dozen, and sometimes fluctuated over time to nearly twenty if you counted part time, consultants, family, orphans, and strays.
And sneaking in every day, slipping past the guards, hiding in the throng, were the demons. As the adventure grew larger, they seemed to grow louder, and the endeavor was beginning to feel like an unbearable weight. The simplest of things became events of dread. Each day I had to meet and speak with a reverential collection of almost complete strangers, to listen and to ask, to seem interested and understanding and appear sincere in both, to motivate and to lead and all the times the voices behind my eyes mumbling and mocking “if only they knew” and “if they ever find out,”
I wasn’t a leader, I knew that, and knew that I never wanted to be that. So at least in that I had the strength and good sense to embrace my weaknesses. But even less of a leader, I was barely a belonger. Not even part of the fawning crowd, but behind and away where I could watch and wonder but never be noticed. That was my safe place, my zone of comfort, my true realm. But as the head of Intrepid and this young entrepreneur seemingly gifted with the magic, every day was a show fraught with fright.
Small as my personal office was, keeping the door closed helped keep me calmer. Because the pine wall dividers stopped a couple of feet short of the ceiling, I could at least listen in to what was going on throughout the office. It was rudimentary buggery again, something that allowed me to be a part of discussions and conversations without leaving my lair. Just as I always liked things.
We had furnished our labyrinth of cells as cheaply as possible, buying nearly all our furniture from a bankruptcy warehouse in Smithfield and always wondering whose dreams those desks had become obsolete with. Used furniture wasn’t our only investment and the more we became aware of the significance of what we were attempting, and maybe who we were attempting to challenge, the more paranoid we became about security.
Our growing paranoia about what we were about to embark upon meant that caution sometimes bubbled into fear. So our final task before launch, before starting to fill our new home with our new and accidental family, was to make us safe.
The door to our basement, our crypt, and our greeting to all, was much too flimsy to withstand even the gentlest effort to push past it. So we repaired and strengthened it and added a steel plate quarter of an inch thick. Which lasted about a day before the weight of it started pulling the entire door off its hinges. So we reinforced the door and hinges a little more and finally the door was solid. Even if a little hard to open.
The basement had heavy and ancient iron bars on the outside of all the windows, front and back. We added more of them, but to the insides, and steel gates to the insides of two of the three external doors. Thanks to the bankruptcy auction we also had half a dozen surveillance cameras dotted around an office that wasn’t more than 800 square feet, even if the only one that worked was outside our safe zone.
What did work was the extensive burglar alarm we installed. Apart from the usual heat and motion detectors dotted on almost every wall, we also attached highly sensitive vibration detectors to the walls and the ceilings to detect any attempts by intruders to drill their way in. We attached the same wall and ceiling sensors to the inside of the vault that for most of our time there served as little more than a cavernous and near empty filing cabinet.
The alarm system was set up to dial directly to the nearest police station only about half a mile away. But even that wouldn’t be enough, not for us, not for Intrepid. “We need a radio backup,” said Shea. “In case they cut the wires. That would just make it all useless.”
So we spent weeks exploring the feasibility of running a cable up through the entire building, all five floors, to an antenna on the roof that could safely broadcast a radio alarm signal in case the wires we cut. Until we realized that any good intelligence agency worth its salt could easily jam that system and signal and make the whole exercise pointless. At which stage we just gave up and moved on because there were just so many exciting things to move on too.
And while our backers seemed happy that we were now officially an employer, and a growing one, our hiring process was not unlike the way we purchased furniture. Most of our full-time employees were part of the inner city’s work experience program, where we paid them very little and the government even less but in exchange expected a great deal from them.
But Shea enjoyed the idea of giving hope and opportunity to aspiring young technologists, and felt confident that as long as they knew the basics and were smart enough to learn, he could teach and mold them. I think he reveled in the role of mentor because in his realm, at least with these fresh faces, he was the real technical genius behind the venture.
Our growing team included more than a handful of relatives. Shea asked if his younger brother could join us, to do anything, be paid anything, and to learn everything. I was happy with the idea. He was affable and talkative, and smart like Shea, and it kept Shea happy. So happy that I also agreed to allow his brother-in-law, a tar pit-eyed young artist, to work for us occasionally too.
Perhaps emboldened by the decision to allow Shea to add his family and cousins to the team, or maybe to balance things out, I announced that I would be adding two of my own. Young cousins, one studying electronics and who was quickly welcomed, snatched by Shea to join his development team at the other side of the door. The other, younger and prettier with hopes of being an actress who joined our tribe north of the door and who nearly tore both sides apart.
And then there was Gemma. I knew I’d need a gaffer, a showrunner to help manage the growing chaos, so I placed an ad in the Irish Times looking for an office manager.
She was the first to respond and the first I interviewed and the moment she walked through our steel-plated door, I was reminded that I still had all the magic. Our paths had crossed before, only a few weeks before, and as stealthy as I was she never laid eyes on me then.
It was at an exhibition at the Burlington Hotel, for paper, printing, and packaging, and Orla was sharing a booth with one of her suppliers. I dropped in to say hello and keep her company during the quiet, and as she filled me in on the day’s wonderful gossip about her competitors, I stole glances past her at an extraordinarily pretty, statuesque blonde standing little more than a dozen feet away, with her hair tied up in a messy bob and staring at her feet.
I wondered to myself, as I routinely did, would things be different if only Orla looked like that. But after a few moments as she and I both gazed and Orla gossiped, I headed back to the office and quickly forgot about my blonde Guinevere. And now she was Intrepid’s Guinevere.
Beyond our crypt, it soon became clear that others were working on our behalf, or at least talking about us. Barely months after we first opened the door to our crypt and long before we had anything believable to show, a letter from the IDA strongly suggested that if I were to submit my name for a competition to select just one entrepreneur to represent Ireland in the Export to Japan Study program being organized by the Japan External Trade Organization, it might work out well.
The Japanese government had grown sensitive to accusations that their markets were too closed or too difficult to navigate for foreign entrepreneurs. So to avoid the risk of trade retaliation, instead the government organized a program to offer dozens of winning entrepreneurs from around the world an opportunity for an all-expenses paid 10-day tour of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kyoto.
The application I submitted was hurried and vague, thinly describing our venture and technology, neither expecting nor wanting to be even considered. And I completely forgot about the opportunity until just four weeks later when I received a welcome pack and letter from JETRO congratulating me on my win as the first entrepreneur to represent Ireland and looking forward to meeting me in Tokyo in April.
I still didn’t want to go, in spite of the accolade, never had any intention of. I was too busy hunting for more funds, trying to find a company that could make a case for the phone, trying to constantly appease Shea who would have been unreservedly jealous, and we had nothing to show the Japanese or anyone else except our hand.
I still hated, was terrified of flying and the pain, and just as terrified at thoughts of airports, of being trapped amongst strangers for hours, days. My heart would start racing and my hands sweat each time I thought about the possible ordeal of it all. But I had applied and been accepted, and was certain that someone was working behind the scenes to ensure I was selected. And whoever they were, I couldn’t disappoint them.
I tried not to think about it too much until the date got closer and the anxiety became a fever and I had to finally give in to it. I had to find a reason to avoid Japan, to refuse their enormous gesture in a way that wouldn’t offend them. And whoever had orchestrated the invitation. So I fell off a horse. Not that it really mattered, I’d fallen off a horse before, more than once. But in this story, this version, I had so injured myself in the fall that I felt I would be unable to travel such a distance and would not be disappointed or hurt if the runner-up took my place.
It was an easy and plausible story. I’d regularly go riding with a handful of friends, usually little more than trekking in the Wicklow mountains, but sometimes galloping across the Phoenix Park on demonic hunters itching and chomping for the season to begin. In a sense the story was true, I did fall, many times. Just not this particular time. And how would they know the difference? And why couldn’t they just take no for an answer? I was wanted in Japan and that’s all there was to it.