Chapter 20 On The Threshold Of A Dream
I could get used to this life, I mean, seriously, who couldn’t? The only difference was that pretty soon, I’d be able to afford it. And not just for ten days but forever if I chose. I hadn’t yet, it was too early, but I’d know soon enough.
We’d just set down anchor for the night in the crystal blue green water and a gentle warm breeze bouncing from one of the dozens of tiny islands just off the coast of Croatia. I’d never gone bareboating before, and the thought of joining dozens of complete strangers with even less sailing experience than me didn’t concern me as much as I thought it should, even if it meant ten days of elevated levels of anxiety. My demons seemed to be retreating in the face of the overwhelming forces of happiness and hope, and the real possibility that this time next year, this might be all I had to do, forever.
It was August. I’d been warned to reconsider Croatia and Serbia, at least for now. That very month, that very August, and not very many miles at all from where we were floating and bobbing and partying, the first angry words were being exchanged in what would turn out to be one of the most vicious wars that Europe, not unused to vicious wars, had ever witnessed.
But I felt I needed the vacation, I was owed it, and the Dalmatian coast was one of the cheapest I could find. I might as well at least pretend to be frugal, a last tip of the hat to modest spending before I got past the point of not caring any more.
This was my prelude to a dream, and I so wanted to share the news with my new shipmates that pretty soon, very very soon, I could own one of these yachts. Or maybe two, or even three.
A week after the near perfect meeting with the team from Plessey, we hosted a similarly successful demonstration with a team from Racal, Plessey’s main competitor. And while the Racal team were less optimistic about the size of any initial purchase, or at least refused to commit, they did promise us a quick answer in exchange for being allowed to borrow two of the phones for a couple of weeks so they could test and verify our many claims.
We reluctantly agreed to one, it’s all we could spare, and they seemed just as happy with that because we could at least test the phone’s long distance capabilities between our office in Dublin and Racal’s office in Salisbury in the south of England.
I was a little worried that with plenty of time and the best equipment and engineers in the world, Racal might easily be able to reverse engineer our phone and steal all our hard work. Just build it themselves. Shea and the team assured me that without the original code, and our skills, the exercise would be a waste of time.
But apart from my family I had no one to celebrate this huge milestone with. Especially not Orla. Orla had left me, this time really left me, altogether and finally. Having her close by, physically, always just around the corner and easy to drop into for any reason, gave me comfort that if at any point I felt like working my magic, I could have her back. She would forgive me enough to come back. She still loved and wanted me enough, like she always had. And that’s all I needed to be content.
But not anymore, thanks to a Doctor in Canada. We were scheduled to attend a wedding in Chicago, my first visit to America, and then a short weekend across the border to Ottawa to visit another old friend who had just moved there. At the last minute I had to back out, although I think that was always the plan anyway. I didn’t want to fly, I still hated being so close to strangers, and I had too much to do with Intrepid anyway, we were so close to the end of everything. And it would have made Shea even more caustic and accusatory than usual so I chose his feelings over hers.
And so she chose someone else over me. She went on without me and when she came back, she came back differently. She never really fully came back at all. She met and fell in love with a doctor, the brother of the friend we planned to visit, and had decided instantly and absolutely that her future would be to sell her business and move to Canada as fast as she could, before anyone changed their minds, to be with a man she barely knew but clearly now loved more than me.
I thought at first the speed of the decision was just a test, to see how I might react to the news and this new threat, to see if I had any real commitment left in me. And I did, or at least I thought. And I begged. But to no avail. It was clear that she was no longer under my spell, that something had broken, that special connection, completely and forever. It was done and spent and now she was gone in every way. And it was all my fault.
Two months later I went to the airport with her family to see her away. And though I tearfully crossed my heart to stay in touch with everyone, to call them the very next day even, I never saw her or her family again. The pain of the loss was made worse by the loss of our friends too, and the realization that they came only as her friends and only remained because they were her friends. And now she was gone, so were they.
A month later I sat on the edge of my bed and wrapped my lips around both barrels of the shotgun. Not the kiss of death, not yet anyway. But a dry run to see if I could do that and still reach the trigger. And I could, so I was satisfied, it would be something to kill the pain if it got any worse. I always needed escape plans like these as a way to manage the torment, any torment. And there were so many. Knowing that I would always have the last word was comforting, even if I was kidding myself that they’re weren’t still, always, in charge. I won’t die on the vine, I would say. I plan to pluck myself from it.
I would do anything, say anything, to have her back or at least near. She was my best friend, one of my few, and closest confident, and I wanted so badly for her to stick it out for just a while longer. Long enough for me to prove I was right all along, that Intrepid wasn’t just yet another desperate and delusional coin toss into a well, that I really did have what it took to be successful.
The signs were very clear to her and to everyone else that my star was brighter than ever.
I had recently upgraded to the best and most expensive Volvo available, even if still a used model. And I’d expanded my wardrobe to add an Armani suit to match my one and only Hugo Boss. These were not the choices and options of a merely adequate man. These were yet more signs, and all unmissable. Except for Orla. She’d seen these signs before. She’d grown tired of hearing about Intrepid, and everything else too, no matter how close or real or exciting.
So instead I focused each day trying to distract myself with the race to the end of the beginning for Intrepid, even without her and all our plans. The arrival of the first printed circuit boards was a great distraction. It wasn’t just significant because it heralded the upcoming birth of a real telephone, the entire working guts of the world’s most advanced and significant secure phone that actually looked and worked like a phone.
But also because it heralded the arrival of our biggest challenges yet. A potentially final round of funding to bring us to full scale commercial production, our first sales, and hopefully an end to the constant humiliating distraction of begging for more money.
Milcode, Orla, and the impending shooting of my grand star all occupied my thoughts constantly for the ten days we bobbed aimlessly on the Adriatic. And even my return to the gray and the gloom of Dublin and Shea was tempered by a fax from Racal announcing their complete satisfaction with their tests of my phone during my absence.
And their desire to begin negotiations on a five-year initial contract that would give them the exclusive selling rights for Great Britain and the Middle East. Those two, and nothing more, but that was OK. It would still be enough to deliver the dream, and especially as Plessey would probably be happy with the rest of the world.
It took less than ten days for Shea’s mood to foul again, and quickly infect and deflate the rest of the office. But this time he had good reason, and once again, likely my fault.
“Did ya see this?” He dropped the copy of the Irish Times folded open to the business section near the middle, and a small story that wouldn’t be of any significance to anyone but us.
A handful of paragraphs next to a photograph of smiling faces as the IDA, our co-founder, funder, and trusted partner, proudly announced their agreement to provide a package of ten million pounds in grants to a manufacturer of secure phones that wasn’t us.
An American company called Cylink, who made a secure phone similar to the STU III and thus vastly inferior to ours, exactly the type of phone the world didn’t really want, would be setting up a European manufacturing facility in Ireland and eventually, hopefully, employ as many as sixty people.
Shea looked for a reaction from me but I had none for him. It had left with the wind that had been knocked out of me. My panic management mode kicked in. This would be a good thing, right? It was a very positive vote for the market for secure phones, and perhaps finally an acknowledgement by the IDA that Ireland, through Intrepid, could indeed be a world leader in this exciting and essential new technology.
But why were they giving all that money to them and not us? We were an Irish startup and they’d been telling everyone for years that Ireland needed to reduce its dependence on foreign manufacturers and innovators by nurturing its own. Forget sixty new jobs over the next five years, we’d already created nearly twenty, give or take, and without having even sold or built a single product.
Plessey had just finished telling the IDA that we were right all along, we were true innovators, leader of this new pack, a product far superior to anything else and willing customers, like Plessey, ready to bring it all to life if the IDA could just help out one last time.
There was no way to cut it other than our most trusted partner had utterly betrayed us, without any mention or discussion. While we were begging and pleading with them, almost weekly, for even just a little financial assistance, they had been quietly working for months to bring in a direct competitor. I began to wonder how many of our secrets the IDA had been sharing with this new American foe and their new favorite child.
I tried for days to get through to Malachy at the IDA, to get some explanation, any explanation, any relief, to calm me down and bring back hope to everyone at Intrepid. But I got no response, which only made the panic worse.
They had given us no choice. We would take our fight, our unanswered grievance with the IDA, to the people. And through the very same channel they had used to crush our spirits. I called the technology writer at the Irish Times who had written the initial story and shared in minute detail our story, the tale of Intrepid, the nature of our breakthrough, and the significance of everything that had happened in the last few months.
He bit. Not knowing much at all about secure phones and code excited linear prediction, he still agreed that if everything was as we’d suggested, the IDA might want to explain why our startup didn’t fit with their definition. Great, I said, glad you see it our way. When do you think the story will run? It had to run quickly immediately, we desperately needed more funding, we were already cutting back and laying off.
He said there couldn’t be a story until he’d heard the IDA’s side first but he would do his best to reach out that day. That satisfied me. A call from the venerable Irish Times that there might be an embarrassing controversy brewing might at least be enough to get a response, some kind of answer, from the IDA.
It turns out it was enough. Enough to generate an angry call the next day from Malachy who cautioned us first that our business discussions should always be kept private and not conducted through the newspaper. Even if the IDA had refused to engage in any discussions with us all.
And second, a promise of sixty jobs from an American company was still more appealing to the IDA than our measly twenty current real jobs, give or take; that we were just too young and too early for any more bets; and he really couldn’t say much more about the matter because of things like confidentiality and issues that I was not privy to.
I couldn’t tell if their position was because of a lack of competence or confidence. Their inability to tell just how significant and superior our beloved Milcode was, or shortly would be if they only helped? Or that same lack of confidence that most Irish seemed to have in homegrown startups? Ireland still struggled with a fascination with American companies over indigenous startups, that pervasive discomfort and sense of inferiority of anything Irish, that we would always be copycats, poor imitators, chancers.
But it still didn’t matter. None of it really mattered. We were safe now, I kept reminding myself. We had been verified and validated. In spite of this new uncertainty, we were far enough ahead to be free from danger. We had products, customers, investors, the best team very little money could buy, and a whole new world of encrypted everything to dominate. The written offer from Racal of even a modest contract would be enough to secure all the funding we’d need, in spite of the IDA. Until Racal sent us another letter.