2: Pwinter

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The phone's blackboard-scraping alarm dragged him back out of Africa. For a brief second, staring at his ceiling, he thought he was still in the Congo, in the hospital or the prison camp. He returned there in dreams again and again, even though he'd only been in each for a few days, right near the end of his time in the service. Then the intervening seven years filled in. He realized he was holding his breath, and he let it out in ragged relief.

Somehow, breathing out triggered the onslaught of the headache. It hit him with tooth-rattling force, and brought with it all the mortifying memories of yesterday. He groaned and turned off the alarm (he hated its noise, but it was the only one that actually woke him up consistently), and lay there staring at the ceiling.

Yesterday he'd pitched his latest product idea to MS-Kickoff, Microsoft's venture capital subsidiary. It had gone very, very poorly.

He'd presented "Pwinter" to the investors as the greatest thing since Twitter. That of course was the reason for the idiotic name: it was supposed to convey the basic idea -- quick, easy, small-scale 3D printing -- along with a touch of nostalgia for Twitter's childlike allure from their glory days in the early twenty-teens. It's like Twitter, he'd say, but with 3D printers. "Pwinting". People could print objects up to 140 grams. 140! Get it? And they could pwint it to their friends who also had pwinter accounts... They could pwint any small object they could take a 3D photo of. Or a model of a larger object. And...

"People can already do this," Dale had said. Dale was MS-Kickoff's chief investment analyst, and a great friend, a wonderful friend. But she always hated Walden's ideas at first. Always. Eventually, though, she always came round.

But not yesterday. Everyone had 3D printers. Everyone could already print things they had 3D pictures of. Everyone had 3D cameras. So what, exactly, was "Pwinter" offering?

Walden pointed out that when Twitter started, people could already text each other, and send email. Twitter's genius was that character limit. It forced people to be quick, spontaneous. It made things viral...

Yes, Dale said. And Twitter was free. Is this free? And it was "retweeting" that made things viral. And links to photos and articles. And complete transparency, and easy publicity. Does Pwinter supply any of that?

Well, to be honest, he'd said, it doesn't, that's true, but...

But he'd had no good answer. The hard, hard truth was that Pwinter was really just a gimmick, and a pretty stupid one at that.

"This is a new low for you, Walden," Dale said afterwards. She was buying him a drink in the lobby downstairs after the presentation -- not a congratulatory drink, but a pity drink. "Look, we've been friends a long time. We've made some money, we've lost some money. Lately we've lost a lot of money. I want to invest in you again, I really do, but I need something solid."

"Solid like what?"

"If I knew what, I'd already be investing in it," said Dale. "But something for the military, maybe. They're spending again, now that we're back in Latin America."

"You know I don't do military," growled Walden.

Dale shrugged. "All right. Surveillance then. Always a call for more surveillance technology."

"Dale," said Walden, "what has happened to you? Weren't you in Anonymous back in the day?"

"I'm trying to help you, dammit," Dale snapped. "You wanted some pointers? Well, this is where the money is. Not in printing plastic toys. Seriously, Walden."

"All right. Surveillance. I'll bear it in mind. Anything else?"

"Geriatrics," said Dale. "A guy came to me just yesterday wanting to invest in tech to help the elderly. The Boomers are living a damned long time, and most of them made a killing in stocks the last ten years, and they're getting senile and gullible as hell. Don't look at me like that, Walden. Hey, maybe you can get one of them to invest in Pwinter. I'm serious."

Walden just slammed his drink down and walked out.

And then, because he had nothing else to do, he went home, got himself another drink, and then got himself another drink, and another...

Before, when businesses or projects failed, he'd usually grabbed some drinks with his partners and commiserated. But Pwinter was just him. There was no one to drink with. So he drank alone.

Now he was paying for it. He was so rarely hung over, he didn't really know what to do about it. He lurched over to the shower and stood in the warm water. That seemed to help some.

He missed Paula. He'd been missing her for... a year now? A year since they'd spoken. She was always someone he could talk to, even after they broke up three years ago. Somehow she just made him feel better about things. No one else could do that. But there had been that huge mess with Logan and the Subnoto startup, and Paula basically refused to talk to him after that. Should he call her now? Would she even answer?

Or his sister, Tori. Ever since their father wandered off into dementia a few years ago, Tori was the last family Walden had left. But he hadn't spoken to her in a year or so, either. And that was her fault, not his. He'd had no choice. He'd get no comfort there.

So that was it. All his partners, friends and family were effectively alienated. He was alone.

His headache was getting worse, and nausea was coming on, too. Maybe he could do something about that, at least...

"Computer," he said, pulling on his clothes. The system beeped acknowledgement. "Search for a hangover cure."

"One moment," said the system. Then: "Most online sources recommend aspirin, a high-protein breakfast, and lots of water."

Walden groaned. None of that would stay in his stomach.

He sat on the couch, staring out the window. It was a gorgeous Seattle summer morning, and his loft over Volunteer Park gave him a stunning view of Lake Union, Queen Anne, and, on clear days like this one, the pale blue and white Olympics marching beyond the Sound. Biplanes soared over the lake, cars crawled on the I-5, and delivery drones zipped from skyscraper to skyscraper like worker bees.

He should get up, he told himself. Get some tea, and sit on the porch, and enjoy the morning properly. Give himself permission to be in a bit of a funk today, to recover. Tomorrow he could start planning his next project. He had plenty of other ideas; one of them was bound to attract investment...

But that was a pipe dream, and he knew it. The sad truth was that "Pwinter" had been his very best idea. All the rest were even worse. There was no plan B.

No ideas meant no work. No work meant no career. And that was it: without career, friends, or family, there would be nothing but the Lubumbashi nightmares, and drinking every day until he ran out of money. Even after that, everything would continue the same, except he'd have nightmares and get drunk on the streets. Like Tori.

And his head was pounding too hard for him to handle that sunlight. He lurched to his feet and closed the curtains.

Black depression yawned in front of him, and he fell headlong into it.

Without making any kind of decision, he found himself headed to the liquor cabinet.

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