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The First $20 Million Is
@lways the Hardest

illustration
Illustrations by Rick Geary

A Silicon Valley Exclusive
From a New Novel

By Po Bronson

TINY CURTIS REESE wasn't too shabby with networks. Salman Fard would try not to bungle the hardware. Darrell Lincoln would write applications small enough to download quicky over the network. Andy Caspar, the team leader on the VWPC Project, would try not to ride them too hard. He called his team together at the Peninsula Creamery. The Peninsula Creamery was not one of those chichi diners where all the waitresses were young artists and the specialty of the menu was a $22 flaming cabbage, though there was an oyster bar across the street that catered to that crowd--a crowd that at lunch was composed mostly of software salesmen schmoozing purchasing agents. Through the Creamery's big plate-glass window, the guys could see them at their sidewalk tables, wearing prescription sunglasses and tossing back shots of French water, sans gas. The Creamery was the ironmen's type of place. Practical. Beside every booth was a chrome coat rack. All the forks were the same size and had the same number of tines, four. Nobody came around scraping crumbs off the tabletop while you were eating. They didn't play music in the bathrooms, and nobody had ever paid attention to the lighting, except to make sure there was some.

Andy Caspar laid down only two rules for his team to live by. First, the VWPC had to be built so it could sell in stores for $300. There was nothing magical about that figure, $300, no technological reason for sticking to that price. But conventional wisdom suggested that for a consumer item to reach a critical mass of homes (as the team hoped for their box), it couldn't cost more than other home appliances--TVs, microwaves, refrigerators, stereos. Several video game consoles had been introduced the previous year, and the two consoles priced around $400 were poor sellers, despite offering superior technology. Darrell Lincoln was a huge video game fan, and when anyone questioned Andy's $300 Rule, Darrell quickly piped in with an anecdote about the graveyard of discontinued devices.

Andy's second rule was that the hardware for the VWPC had to be chosen from parts already available for sale--there was not enough money in the project's budget to manufacture and test original chips.

"This is hopeless," Salman said, rubbing his temples. "There's no way this can be done."

"Stop thinking about the big picture!" Andy said. "Just work on one part at a time."

"If I tell myself to stop thinking about the big picture, then that's still a way of thinking about it."

"Resist it."

"I can't help it."

So Andy broke it down farther. "All right, Salman. Fuck the weekly plan. You've got until nine o'clock tonight to figure out what our options are for central processors."

Salman said, "Or else what?"

"What do you mean, 'or else what?' You've got to get it done by tonight, that's it."

"That's not how you do it. You have to threaten the stick. You know, the carrot and the stick. What's the stick?"

"You wanta be the team leader?" Andy asked.

"Jeez, I'm just telling you how it's done," Salman said.

"I never figured I was going to have to hold your fucking hand on a daily basis."

"You don't have to hold my hand. Just give me the carrot and the stick, that's all."

Andy was getting irritated. "If you don't get it done by nine, then you have to spend the night here until you do get it done, how's that?"

Salman shook his head. "Not enough. I'm already figuring on spending two nights a week here, minimum."

Andy went into the john to think about it for a minute, and then he came back with a plan. He made Salman go over to the pay phone and call his girlfriend and tell her to meet him for dinner at MacArthur Park at 8:30. Andy stood by Salman's side while he made the call. It was very uncomfortable for Salman because Andy overheard how his voice softened when he talked to his sweetie-pie.

"Boy, she's gonna be pissed if I'm late," Salman said when he got off the phone.

"That's what I'm counting on," Andy said.

[line]

A Q&A with the $20 million man, plus web links.

[line]

HANK MENZINGER HAD A BROAD back and a thick gut, a symbol his ironmen interpreted as greatness of character rather than weakness for sweets. He had broad flat lips and long wiry hair that had once been red and a grin that made other men in its presence feel less alive. Hank Menzinger had taken over many a cocktail party with his sheer magnanimity. Students flocked to work for him. Reporters loved him. Companies gave him money. Hank Menzinger had once been an engineer, a good one, and had worked at Fairchild Semiconductor in the '60s, when that meant something. But at some point along the road Hank realized that his greatest gift had not been the power of his brain but the power of his personality. And that was nothing to be ashamed of, particularly if he applied his energy to the same goal he'd been applying his mind to--jolting society out of its infinite loop!

Lloyd Acheson was the president of La Honda's Board of Regents, partly because he was also the CEO of Omega Logic, which was one of La Honda's biggest sponsors. Lloyd had carefully coiffed long blondish hair--the kind of color pinewood is when they call it blond, which isn't much color at all. The gray hair expected from a man of his age wasn't peppered in; instead, it had taken over its own separate but equal patch above one temple, coming down in a swoop. He wore a gray suit but Rockport shoes, made for walking. He had tiny little crimp marks around the eyes, rather than deep creases. He didn't carry any extra weight. All this casualness and vibrancy was betrayed by a slightly pained expression on his face, as if someone had just described to him a gruesome medical procedure involving long needles.

Lloyd Acheson didn't pay many surprise visits to La Honda. When he poked his head into Hank's office, Hank said, "Surprise visits scare me."

"What is it with you engineers?" Lloyd said playfully. "The most impatient breed of people I ever met ...You're all like children of alcoholics, terrible fear of the unknown. You hate not knowing what's going to be said."

Hank had long ago gotten used to Lloyd's capacity to outmaneuver him in an argument, and Hank had learned not to feel inferior about it. He just wished Lloyd didn't have to do it every goddamn time they met.

Hank wanted to get to the point. So he said, "Well, I've got a meeting downstairs. So if that's all ..."

"All right. Sit back down there, cowboy. I'll get to the point. I got your budget memo." The board had to review and approve a final budget before July 1. "I saw a line item, 'VWPC.' Unsponsored. Went looking for the description, found it in some old project lists."

"And?"

"Hank, are you outta your mind? A $300 computer!"

"Not sure it can be done, myself, but what the hell do I know?"

"Are we on the same page, Hank? It goes against everything we're about. It's an exercise in economics, not a science project."

"What, do you think I'm looking forward to having to find a sponsor for it? But ... it's the way this place works, huh? It's their project."

"Hank."

"What?"

"Let's say they design this thing, and people hear about it. What's that going to do to the reputation of La Honda, huh? It's a piece of plastic, Hank. When people think La Honda, they think big iron, not plastic. La Honda designs the computers that keep the margins high in our business. I have to say, Hank, from the point of view of one sponsor--I'm wearing my Omega cap now, not my La Honda cap--from my point of view, I don't like it when I hear you're going to build a product that would undercut my business. I don't like it at all."

A third voice interrupted them. "Ahhh, the dreaded Omega cap."

Francis Benoit was standing in the doorway, which had been left open. It was unclear how much he'd heard. Francis Benoit was La Honda's chief engineer and a strict advocate of keeping sponsors at a distance. He was never comfortable with the fact that Lloyd Acheson was both a sponsor and president of the board. "Lloyd, you give us money to design your chips. You're happy so long as you get your chip. Sponsors don't give a fuck about what else we're up to."

"Don't be naive, Francis."

"What's the big deal?"

"We've got that reporter snooping around here." The reporter was from the San Jose Mercury News, and she'd been invited to chronicle Francis Benoit's design of the 686 chip for Omega Logic. "Pretty soon she's going to include the project in her column. Now how do you think that's going to make me look? I'll be sitting in some congressman's office in Washington with the heads of LSI and Motorola, and we'll be arguing how we need Asian import tariffs relaxed, when in will walk some staffer with this article that suggests that of all people, Lloyd Acheson is the person trying to turn this industry over to the Japanese mass producers. And the guy from Motorola and the guy from LSI will look at me with a face like 'What the hell are you thinking? You're gonna kill the golden goose.' "

Francis countered, "Have you been smoking dope?"

"What? Huh? What do you mean?"

"You heard me. Have you been smoking dope?"

"No--why? What--?"

"Because you're paranoid, man. All that stuff about sponsors drying up, it's not going to happen just because a few engineers have a go at some garage tinkering. You can't just yank the team off the VWPC. Christ, the rest of the ironmen will revolt when they hear about it."

"Well, that's our problem, when you get right down to it."

Francis added, "This isn't some programming division at Omega. You can't just march in here and order people around."

This got Lloyd mad. "I'm not ordering anybody around! Who said I was ordering anybody around? I came in here today to talk about a solution. Talk it over with Hank here."

The two men were quiet for a moment, staring at each other. Hank took the chance to jump in. "I'm going to go talk to them."

illustration

ANDY CASPAR DID NOT STAY at the La Honda Research Center that afternoon. He had never left the center during daylight before, but there was some beer in his refrigerator at home. Beer would not remedy his disappointment, but beer might help him swallow it.

He drove home on 280. If you ever designed a freeway to be a serene place to think, 280 is what you'd come up with. The 280 freeway doesn't have eight lanes squeezed into room for five, it doesn't have billboards, it isn't lined with hotels, and it doesn't have a gas station at every exit. People don't shoot each other while driving along it. It didn't flood during rainstorms or crack during earthquakes and fall onto the streets below. There are no streets below. The only businesses off the side of the road are golf courses.

Andy lived half a mile from the Stanford campus, in an upstairs bedroom above an old lady who got mad and threatened to kick him out if he made too much noise. The house was ancient and it creaked; sometimes just walking around was considered too much noise.

There were two upstairs bedrooms, each with their own separate entrance behind the house, but they had no kitchen. Andy had rigged a kitchenette out of a closet, with a half-height refrigerator and a chrome toaster oven and a single-coil hot plate. There were fig and crabapple trees outside his window. He shared a bathroom and a short hallway with a woman who lived in the other bedroom, Alisa, a graduate student in industrial design. On her desk--which he could see through the window as he went up and down the stairs--she always had some contraption made from popsicle sticks or styrofoam. As he came up the stairs on this afternoon, he saw her face through the crack in the shade. Her hands were busy. She smiled. She was wearing a paisley-print orange handkerchief over her hair to keep it from dangling in her hazel eyes. He put his hand up to wave hello. He wanted to say something to her, to knock on her door and tell her his problems, but she had some music going lightly and seemed occupied with her project.

Andy sat in his room, drinking a big 22-ounce beer and gnawing on a rope of pepperoni. He heard Alisa in the bathroom filling up her rice cooker with water. If he went right now to get a glass of water, he would bump into her. If he just did it, right now, now.

She was bent over the sink, trying to wash her rice by pouring off the water and refilling the pot several times.

"If you want to get in here for a moment," she offered.

"Your bandanna's coming undone," he said, pointing to her head.

She said that she could feel that it was.

Andy went behind her and reknotted the handkerchief. As he looked into her rice cooker, he could see that it wasn't rice she had in there--it was spaghetti noodles, broken in half. "You're making spaghetti in a rice cooker?"

"It's an experiment."

He asked her why she was washing the noodles.

"I'm washing the noodles to get them to fit in the pot, so I can get the lid on. I don't know why I didn't just buy rotini or macaroni. I was at the store and had this inspiration, make spaghetti in the rice cooker!"

Andy laughed. There was a pause. Andy looked down at their feet. He said, "Uh oh, two people in the bathroom at the same time. We're probably giving old Mrs. Ferguson downstairs a fit. Not sure these old floorboards have been tested this way in years. She's probably recording this into her complaint log right now. Gettin' out the red pencil. May 28th, 5:45pm: Loud creak, followed by thudding."

Alisa started to laugh, then her brow furrowed with concern. "Does she really have a log?"

"No, I'm kidding."

"Thank god."

Andy said, "So, how have you been lately?"

"Working on my final project," she said.

He asked what her project was.

"It's an overnight travel bag for the modern businessman," she said with some zip, as if it were a slogan she had practiced.

Andy nodded with admiration. "Compartment for your running shoes, toiletry case that snaps in place, reinforced plastic sleeve for your ties, that sort of thing?"

"I just wanted to make something out of polyurethane, actually. Don't really know why I picked a travel bag ... but, hey--compartment ... toiletry case ... that's brilliant. You mind if I use those? What was that again about ties that you said?"

"No, please, by all means ... a sleeve, for the ties."

"I'm going to go write that down before I forget." She carried her pot of spaghetti into her room, leaving the door slightly ajar.

Andy turned and strolled back toward his room. Her voice cut him off. "So, I've never seen you home so early. What's going on?"

"Ahh ... it's a long story. The VWPC project, it's in trouble. La Honda's executive director came to me today and said he's having a hell of a time getting a sponsor. We're just about out of our preliminary budget. We might have to abandon the project in a month."

"Is that all right with you?"

"I've come to believe in this project. I don't get many chances in life to believe in something, and I'm not going to throw this away, not for Lloyd, not for La Honda, not for Hank, not for anybody."

Alisa leaned her back against the doorjam to her room. "Why don't you go get a sponsor? Who can pitch what you're doing better than you?"

Andy nodded. "It's just not what we do. We're engineers. It's kind of against our code to be out selling ourselves."

Alisa put one foot up on her door. It was hard not to look at her leg.

"You'll think of something," she said. "You always do."

illustration

EVERY SELF-RESPECTING young man in Silicon Valley had considered the fantasy at one time or another. You could be pulling down six-figure salaries at Apple or Oracle. You could have two patents registered under your own name. You could have a division of programmers under your command, and it didn't count for anything unless you had taken a crack at the big spin. You had to know: "Could I do it?" It was easy for an older guy like Francis Benoit to ridicule the romance of a startup, but if you were 30, like Tiny, or 29, like Salman, you suspected that you'd never really lived if you hadn't done it at least once. They were always looking for the chance. And what constituted a chance? A decent idea and a team big enough to do the work fast but small enough to survive on credit cards. How many chances would they get like this? Darrell, meanwhile, had tried and failed once before, and he was just gaining enough distance on the experience to see the mistakes he had made. And so he was wondering: What if I don't repeat those mistakes?

Nobody talked about it openly, but the idea was never very far from their minds: What if? What if they just collectively resigned from La Honda? Where would they go when they woke up in the morning?

About that time, Salman was riding with his father down El Camino Real one Saturday night, on the way to dinner at a poolside smorgasbord buffet that was their favorite, when his father suddenly turned into a parking lot in Mountain View. He left the engine running and got out of the car, and went over to a patch of grass in front of a two-story, ugly, gray rectangular building. A "For Lease" sign had blown off the side of the building and landed in the grass. Salman's father owned a few gas stations and laundromats, and apparently he owned this building, too. The first floor was leased by the School for Contemporary Business, which was really a training school for secretaries. The second floor had been vacant for a year, Salman's father explained when he got back in the car. He'd been trying to sell the building, and he thought he might have a better chance of selling it if no tenants held long-term leases that prevented rent increases. So he hadn't rented it--hadn't even returned the phone calls of potential renters. Salman asked why he bothered with the "For Lease" sign. In order to write down the lost income on his taxes, his father had to pretend it was available.

"So ... nobody's up there?" Salman asked.

"Mm-mm," his father agreed.

"And it has commercial electrical wiring?"

His father said that it did.

"Like ... how many amps can it deliver?"

"Dunno. It's got separate fuse boxes for each suite. Five hundred maybe? Does that sound right?"

The next day, Salman came into the trailer with a big grin on his face. Secretary school!

"What are you so giddy about?" Darrell said, when he caught Salman daydreaming.

"It's nothing. Never mind."

"All right, that does it. Out with it. Come on."

"Naw, you wouldn't appreciate it fully. You have to be in a certain wistful frame of mind."

"Wistful? I'm wistful right now. I'm wistful that you'll avoid getting socked in the teeth and let me in on your secret."

"Aww, your expectations are already too high. I can't tell you now."

"Tell Tiny, then, and he can tell me."

So Salman went to Tiny and told him how in Mountain View there is this secretary school. Not only that, but above the secretary school is a vacant office space, 2,400 square feet. Then Tiny went to Darrell and repeated it back to him, word for word, without any expression.

"So what!?" Darrell screamed at Salman. "That's it? A vacant office. You got me all lathered up and all you have to report is a vacant office! You know I can't work when I get all excited. You know that. ... I've got a little news for you, pal. There's probably a thousand vacant offices between here and San Francisco."

Salman leaned back in his seat and shook his head. "Not owned by my father."

"It's owned by your father? Really?"

"Mmmm. There's more."

"What more? Give me more."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

Salman clucked his tongue skeptically. "If I tell you, you won't be able to work all day."

"That's OK."

"Maybe I should tell you at the end of the day."

"No! Tell me now."

"OK. It's free."

"What's free? The office? The office is free? Free for us to use? We can use the office for free?"

"Mmmm ..."

"What kind of wiring does it have?" Darrell's heartbeat was racing. He could tell he wasn't going to get any work done all day. Secretary school! It was too delicious to not spend a few moments fantasizing, and then the fantasy took a grip on their brains, so that every time they tried to stare at their last line of code it was like one of those secretaries-to-be was right at their ear, cooing, "Help me, help me, my printer's jammed."

After about two days, Andy picked up on the fact that almost no code had been written. "What's the matter with you guys? Don't you realize our budget is spent in three more weeks? We've got to. If we don't have some results by then, I don't know what. This is no time to procrastinate."

"There's no time to procrastinate like the present," Darrell said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Andy shot back.

"That was a joke."

"It's not funny." Andy sighed. He had barely slept or ate in days, and he hadn't been able to work much as a consequence.

"We might as well tell him," Darrell said, looking at the others.

Salman gave his customary mumble of agreement.

"Tell me what?" Andy said.

So they told him. "Why not?" Darrell asked. "For the next few months, we don't need much money. All we're doing is writing code."

"You think I haven't considered breaking away from here?" Andy responded.

"So let's do it," Darrell said. "What"s stopping us?"

Andy moaned. "Our work here--it's not owned by us. The design of the VWPC, the code, the chips and monitors is all owned by La Honda. It's their intellectual property. If we took the project with us, they'd sue us for stealing."

"But we invented it. It's not stealing to take what we invented."

Andy shook his head. "It is, too. Forget about it. Let's not have this conversation." As the team leader, Andy had been briefed on the legal issues by La Honda's counsel at the start of the project.

Darrell said, "Then we have to just stay here and wait for the money to dry up? Just like that? We have no other options? We're doomed. I'd rather quit and take my chances of being sued. Just go underground. They can't track us. What do you think? Huh?"

"Mmmm ..." Salman said.

"You think?" Darrell urged.

"Me? Uh, no."

"No?"

Salman said, "Be sued? You gotta be kidding. I'd rather use peanut butter for deodorant."

Andy interrupted them. "We haven't exhausted our options yet."

illustration

HANK MENZINGER was staring at a list of his monthly payables when he got a knock on his door. Hank yelled out that his door was open. In walked Nell Kirkham, the reporter from the Mercury News. She took a seat like she owned it. She sat with her legs crossed and her head tilted back so her hair fell behind her shoulders. She didn't wear earrings or a necklace or rings on her fingers, but only a tenth of the cost of the gold watch she was wearing was devoted to telling time. She didn't wear the kind of cheap makeup that needed reapplying after every meal. She was a woman who wanted it both ways--she wanted men to think she was beautiful but not to come on to her.

He hadn't seen too much of her lately--she'd been coming over to La Honda for an hour or two a couple days a week--but her columns had been adequate and had served Hank's purposes. The ironmen on the 686 team regularly pored over her printed text, trying to find their own names.

He said, "I hope they're treating you well enough on the 686."

She ignored his entreaty. "What can you tell me about Andy Caspar?"

Oh, shit. Hank stalled. "Caspar? Let me think. Caspar. Hmm. Oh, yes. Caspar. Right. Like what?"

Nell pinched a flick of lint from her nylons. "You know. His background, that stuff. Some good anecdotes, maybe."

Hank tried not to show alarm. How much did she know? "Jeez, hard to recall anything, kid's kinda quiet. You've been talking to him directly?"

"He cornered me, actually. Yesterday. Gave me a rundown on what he calls the VWPC. I think he's hoping I'll write about the fact he's looking for a sponsor. You know, score some free publicity. It's OK. I'm used to being manipulated."

"Hmmm. I want to apologize for Caspar, Nell. Your presence here, it's not for anyone's personal publicity campaign. I'm sorry he tried to take advantage of you. I'm sure you'll resist his efforts." Hank gave her a 100-watt smile until his cheeks hurt.

"Ordinarily, I would. But I was intrigued. I thought the engineers here were supposed to dedicate themselves entirely to engineering."

"Well they're supposed to, Nell. Ms. Kirkham. If I may help you understand ... I have been here 20 years, and I have seen some patterns. It is not unusual to find an individual who is a better rabble-rouser than programmer. He's usually about 30 years old, and after programming for 10 years has grown weary of mere code. He wants to make deals, be a manager, find sponsors to support projects doomed by his own involvement in them."

"You mean he no longer has the right stuff?" Nell said.

Hank nodded gravely, as if a coder who'd lost his stuff was equal to a terminal illness. "So if you write about him, you will merely reinforce his bad habits. He will be under the illusion he is actually accomplishing something merely by chatting up a reporter." Poor delusional chap.

Nell shook her hair and took a deep breath. "Well, maybe I should open this up. Let's not just talk about Andy Caspar. Do you allow the ironmen to bring in their own sponsors?"

"Always looking for a story, aren't you? Why don't you write about how the 686 compares to Intel's chip? Now that's a story the industry wants to read."

She considered this. "I'll put that in my idea file. But there's nothing timely about it."

"Intel's chip will be available next month."

"They say. Which probably means two months. Meanwhile, Andy Caspar is happening today. Now, about those sponsors--"

"You're not still thinking of wasting a column on Caspar, I hope."

"He might provide a good contrast to the other men. Show them in high relief, brothers in the bond, that sort of thing. I was thinking, if he had a different background, came from a different culture. You know. Black sheep."

"Not that I know of, Nell. He came from Stanford EE, like about a third of the guys here. About as plain vanilla as an ironman gets."

She seemed skeptical. "Hmmm. OK."

He still couldn't tell if she was going to write about Caspar. "So ...?"

"I'd like to talk to my editor about it," she said, and got up to leave.

Hank ran out of his office to look for Francis Benoit. He wasn't in his office. At his lab, someone told him to check the parking lot--they had just seen Francis with his car keys in the hallway. They all knew that Francis liked to think through problems while driving, often at high speeds, on the snaked roads that connected Skyline Boulevard atop the peninsula to the sleepy towns below. Something about the level of stimulation, the way driving fast partially occupied Francis' brain, allowed the unoccupied portion to work without self-conscious second-guessing.

Hank hustled out to the parking lot. Francis was just pulling out in his powder-blue convertible Fiat X19, a car shaped like a wedge of cheese. Hank ran in front of the car.

"I've got work to do," Francis said, looking up at Hank.

Hank never quite believed that Francis actually got work done while driving. Hank didn't deny the importance of Francis' ritual, not that. Hank just figured the driving loosened Francis' mind, at best. At worst, it was a form of hooky. "I need to talk," Hank said.

"Get in then."

"Can't we go to my office?"

"I told you, I have work to do."

Hank walked around the car and slipped into the passenger seat. He moved aside a clipboard with a blank piece of paper on it and put it on the floor.

"Hold that in your lap," Francis instructed him.

"It's OK down here."

"Give it to me, then."

Hank passed him the clipboard. Francis set it in his lap, then shifted gears and pushed down the accelerator. Hank shot back against his seat. The engine was right behind them. There was no back seat to speak of. Francis turned right at Old La Honda and maneuvered the familiar downhill hairpin turns without any effort. The Fiat felt like a go-cart with a rocket on the back. If they hit something, the whole thing would detonate. In a minute Francis had come to the bottom of the hill and let the motor idle.

Hank took this as a chance to speak. "Caspar went to Nell Kirkham. I don't know how much he told her, I can't tell. I think he's trying to get his own sponsor, thought she would give him the needed publicity."

Francis hit the accelerator again. "Is she going to write about it?"

Hank straightened his legs, bracing with fear. "I think I bought us a little time. But the issue's not dead." He explained how she was going to talk with her editor. "This is exactly what Lloyd predicted could happen. What do you think?" Hank was afraid to take his eyes off the road. They had started to climb Skyline again, this time on Highway 84 out of Woodside. Larch trees cast the road in shadow; in places, mudslides had left the roots protruding over the road. The speed limit was 25. Francis wasn't doing more than 50. Finally, on a 100-yard straightaway, Hank glanced over at Francis. Hank suddenly felt the urge to urinate.

Francis had his head down to write something on his clipboard.

"Jesus H. Christ, Francis!"

"Huh?" Francis looked up and spun them into a turn. "I know these roads."

"Will you slow down a moment?"

"I'm trying to work."

"Did you even hear what I said?"

"Yup. Caspar got to Kirkham, and if Kirkham gives him ink, Lloyd's going to freak."

"What are we going to do!?"

"How much longer will their budget last?"

"Three weeks, but we can't risk it. Besides, they don't spend any money, anyway. It's taken a little creative surcharging to use up their budget this fast."

Francis drove, using every gear, the big engine sending vibrations right through their seats. He steered with his left hand crossed to the right side of the wheel to give his hand leverage. Anise and coriander grew beside the road. Francis passed several cars without even pausing to see if the opposite lane was clear. Hank closed his eyes. When he opened them, Francis was writing again on his clipboard.

"What are we going to do?" Hank screamed into the wind.

"Fuck."

"Yeah, exactly."

"Fuck!!"

"Exactly." Finally, Hank thought Francis was understanding the severity of the crisis.

"No, I'm not swearing about you. My pen's out of ink." Abruptly, Francis stopped the car in the middle of the road. The car didn't swerve or skid. Francis leaned across Hank and popped the glove compartment, digging through the contents for another pen.

"What are we going to do, Francis? You said the solution is obvious."

"All good solutions are obvious. That's the nature of solutions. If it isn't obvious, then it probably isn't a solution."

"So you don't have a solution?"

"No, I do."

"What is it?"

"You give the VWPC team a waiver to the intellectual property. They'll vanish into the Bermuda Triangle of bungled startups. No story for Nell Kirkham, Lloyd Acheson is happy."

"But ... but do you think they will go? If we give them the waiver? Will that work?"

Francis said, "I know you've got a pen."

Hank finally gave him one he kept in his shirt pocket. It was made of gold. Francis took it without comment. He regunned the car and left rubber on the road.

"Did you hear what I said?" Hank asked.

"Of course I did."

"Well?"

"We'll give them a little more incentive to go."

ANDY CASPAR WOKE UP the next morning feeling like he had a hangover. Why wake up at all?, Andy wondered.

Then the thought popped into his mind that today, this day, was Wednesday. Wednesday! Nell's biweekly column would run today in the Mercury News. The VWPC might be mentioned. The phone might ring, a sponsor on the other end of the line.

Andy popped out of bed, skipped his ritual pushups, and drove to the Sharon Heights shopping center to trade two quarters for the morning paper. He sat down on the picnic bench outside the Safeway and spread the paper on the shellacked (not stained) table surface. This was a ritzy enclave; classical music was piped outdoors, even into the parking lot, where the shrubs were trimmed to the mold of cake tins. Rubbermaid garbage cans and recycling bins had been placed every few paces to ensure litter would never touch the ground. Every other car was a minivan. Hood ornaments, Andy noted, were back in style. As a kid he had been arrested for stealing them.

On Wednesday, the Mercury News broke out a special technology section, to which some of the business writers such as Nell contributed.

Her column was devoted to the arithmetic-logic unit of the 686.

It didn't mention the VWPC.

Andy stared at a blackbird that was hunting for crumbs off the table. It wouldn't find any.

He was out of ideas. Momentarily, he fantasized driving over Skyline out to San Gregorio beach to stare at the ocean. He'd had a lot of peace-and-quiet fantasies lately.

He didn't think he was the first to arrive at their lab that morning, since the door was unlocked. Then he saw that stacks of articles and spec sheets, which had been on their desks the night before, had been scattered onto the floor. Perhaps Darrell had blown his fuse during the night and thrown a tantrum. On Andy's desk was a present, wrapped in newspaper and ribboned with a phone cord. It was about the size of a shoe. Andy didn't touch it at first. A suspicious fear overtook him. He checked the monitors on everyone's computers to see if they were turned on--if maybe they had arrived and gone out for coffee. Tiny's screen saver was running across his monitor--a ticker-tape of classical poetry. All of the other computers were off.

Andy went back to the present. The wrapper, the newspaper, was familiar. It was that morning's edition of the Mercury. Specifically, it was Nell Kirkham's article, her cartoonized portrait looking up at him, the look on her face simultaneously friendly and tough. He picked up the parcel. Lightweight, but there was something inside the roll of paper. Andy unwound the phone cord. He looked toward the door. Holding the package with both hands, he unwrapped the newsprint. The content slipped through the roll and fell onto his desk.

A large gray rat.

Eyes half-closed, mouth slightly open, little hands frozen in a clutched position.

Who knew he'd talked to her? A shiver ran up Andy's spine. The shiver didn't quite exhaust itself, and it triggered another. His teeth clenched uncontrollably. He covered the rat in the paper, then threw the combination in his trash can. He removed the plastic liner from the trash can and knotted the top. He carried it out the door and down the hill toward the garbage dumpster. His eyes combed the trees and the upstairs windows of the South building for anyone watching him. He wondered whether to tell his team. He decided not to, which proved to be a mistake, because when Darrell came to work eventually, he opened the drawer to his desk and found a similar present awaiting him.

"Oh, shit!" he screamed. He stood up, his fists clenched at his sides. "What the hell's going on?"

Andy said, "Somebody knows I talked to Nell Kirkham."

"So? Does that deserve this?"

"Somebody thinks it does."

Darrell said, "Somebody who thinks we're the Marines. I hate this place, you know? Everything that was once cool about it now makes me claustrophobic."

Darrell tried to burn his rat with a Bic lighter. It wouldn't catch on fire, but the stink of singed hair made their stomachs turn. So Darrell strung a phone cord around his rat's neck and hung it from the wall.

"You can't ..." Salman tried to say. "It's going to decay. The stench."

"We won't be here long enough for it to decay," Darrell shot back.

Tiny hadn't come in yet. Andy checked Tiny's desk for surprises but couldn''t find anything. Andy called Tiny's apartment. There was no answer.

"Have you heard from Tiny? His computer's on, but he's not here," he asked Salman.

"Who? Me? Uh, no, not Tiny."

Andy drummed his fingers on Salman's desk. "Did your dad rent that place yet?"

"Nuh-unh. Like I said ... he doesn't want to lease it."

"What would you do, if you didn't have this?"

"This? Hmm. Go back to school, I guess."

"It's funny," Andy said after a moment. "Six months ago I was afraid to leave school. Now for the life of me, I can't imagine going back. It would be like retracing my steps."

"Mmmm ..."

In the afternoon, Andy got a call from Hank Menzinger. "He wants us in his office," Andy said, after taking the call.

"All of us?" Salman asked.

"Somebody leave a note in case Tiny shows up."

The three team members took seats in Hank's office. Andy apologized for Tiny's unexplained absence. Hank passed each of them a two-page, stapled document. It was a legal contract of some sort, with numbered paragraphs and boilerplate language denying the relevance of the headings to the contract. Andy's hands trembled.

Hank was chewing on some sunflower seeds. The charm had gone from his face. "Do you know what that is?"

"It's a waiver to the rights," Andy said.

Hank nodded. "A non-exclusive waiver. You know what that means?"

They didn't. Hank asked them if they wanted to wait for a lawyer to show up. Nobody did, though the mention of lawyers made the paper in their hands seem ominous. "Non-exclusive," Hank explained. "It means you can use your ideas, but it also means we can use your ideas--the work you've done so far. We can sell it, license it, sponsor it, publish it, put it in the public domain, anything we want. I can wipe my ass with it if I so choose. But so can you."

"You're giving us this?" Andy couldn't believe it. He didn't believe it. Where was the catch?

Hank pointed them to the bottom of page two. "You see that line there under my name? It ain't got my signature on it yet. That paper in your hands is just wood chips and glue without my Hancock. We've got a ways to go here."

Andy asked what he meant.

"Well, we've got to get Exhibit A together."

"Exhibit A?"

"Paragraph ... let's see, paragraph ... four. Top of page two. I need originals of everything you've done so far. Put it in a box. You can make copies. I want hard disks, floppy disks, Post-It notes, you name it. If you've got two motherboards, give me one. If you've only got one, it's mine. Memoes, email, everything. I'm not kidding you. Failure to comply 100 percent will be a violation of the waiver on your part, and we will prosecute you under criminal laws. Do you know what criminal laws means, Salman?"

"Me? Criminal laws ... uh ..."

"It means jail time. We don't kid around. This is not some civil disagreement where we sue your ass into bankruptcy, though there's nothing to stop us from doing that if we so choose. But sometimes kids don't have any money to lose, so they get to thinking there's no downside. Hey, if I withhold this here program, what can happen--they take my mountain bike? Ha ha. Right. Jail time, boys. Don't fuck with it, that's my advice. Get it?"

"Yeah," Andy said.

"Sure," Darrell added.

"We have an understanding, then?"

Andy said that they did. "But we have to tell Tiny."

"Well. You all have to sign the paper together. Where's Tiny?"

"We don't know."

"Find him fast. I want a team of security guards up there A.S.A.P. to watch you clean house. In the meantime, I suggest you read these two pages carefully. For instance, paragraph five says you can't make any discrediting public remarks about La Honda, or it will violate the terms of the waiver. When you walk out these doors for the last time, it's as if you never were here. Can I give you three a little advice?"

"What?"

"Don't ask for job recommendations."


Excerpted from Po Bronson's novel The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, Random House.

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From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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