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The World At Large

Chapter Text

Much later, when it seems like every other article in the Mercury News is rhapsodising the endless potential of the internet, the site finally finally manages to get some traction with the media.

While Donna is thrilled at the opportunity to talk about all their hard work, it soon becomes apparent that every piece written about Phoenix will, invariably, focus on Donna's "epiphany" in the diner. Or, worse, her "Eureka! moment".

Donna can't help but bristle at either term. In her mind, that morning at the diner had felt more like a synthesis. The inevitable conclusion of a million hazy concepts and half-formed thoughts Donna had been turning over and over in her mind for what felt like years. That morning they had, without warning, clicked into place one by one like tumblers in a lock.

Yes, the realisation had come suddenly. Yes, it had hit her like a two-by-four while half her brain had been preoccupied, anxiously calculating whether she'd accidentally undertipped the waitress. But for the press to call it an epiphany seems to cheapen it somehow. As if it had come out of nowhere. As if Donna hadn't spent her entire adult life in tech. Hadn't spent the better part of a decade in a role where her primary job requirements were analysing industry trends, recognising potentially world-changing technology.

Maybe she objects to the way that word makes it sound like it all came so damn easy.

The first of what will be many articles refers to her "epiphany" three times, and is accompanied by a (thankfully otherwise flattering) photo of Donna with a lightning bolt zigzagging down to meet her head.

Subtle.

The article itself is favourable to the point of being a puff piece, which is equal parts gratifying and embarrassing.

Cameron, predictably, thinks it's hilarious. "You're a visionary now! They're gonna put you on the cover of Wired, we'll have to get you a black turtleneck and some pretentious eyewear."

Eventually the story has been recounted so often that it becomes something of a well-worn legend around the office: Donna Emerson, bleary after a long sleepless night, had been paying the check at a crummy diner when it had hit her; a lightning bolt of clarity that came out of nowhere and suddenly it was as if she could see for miles. Still clutching the check, she had bolted outside to intercept Cameron, who had been sat in her truck ready to drive across the country. Drive out of Donna's life. She'd explained her idea. Cameron had gotten out of the truck. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Donna doesn't mind, really. Why would she? It's a great story, as far as company founding myths go. It's compelling and, according to the marketing team, all the best company founding myths involve an element of serendipity. As if this startup were predestined, meant to be.

And Donna can't say she disagrees with that part. If nothing else, the timing had been staggeringly fortunate.

So she'll happily trot the story out for potential investors, wide-eyed new hires and eager journalists alike. If it helps her business she'll tell it a thousand times.

But that doesn't mean she doesn't have a few reservations about it.

Although, as Cameron loves to point out, most company creation stories are total nonsense anyway - "You really think Omidyar built eBay to help his wife complete her Pez dispenser collection? Please. That's the kind of saccharine bullshit only a marketing department could dream up. He wanted to create the perfect marketplace as some kind of weird wet dream for economists! At least your story is basically true: you had a great idea while you were sleep deprived. You sold me on it over waffles. We made something awesome."

Which, fine. It's not untrue.

But Donna would like it on the record that getting here was a hell of a lot more complicated than that.


---
1994
---


Donna is good at her job. Brilliant, even.

Women in VC don't make managing partner by simply being "good" at their jobs. She has had to be exceptional. And she is. Over the years she has guided countless fledgling businesses to market and sat on the boards of a dozen companies. She has given flawless presentations in front of hundreds of people and negotiated highly lucrative deals with the some of the most powerful men (they are always men) in the tech industry without breaking a sweat.

The point being: Donna is more than capable of pitching an idea to Cameron over coffee. This is not a high-pressure scenario. At least it shouldn't be. And yet her mouth is dry, her heart is thundering in her chest and she can feel her legs sticking uncomfortably to the vinyl seat of the diner booth.

Her mind drifts unbidden back to lugging the Symphonic into investor meetings with Gordon, young and hopeful and jittery with nerves. But instead of a dead-eyed investor staring at her with distaste she's sat across from Cameron, who's too busy stirring heaping spoons of sugar into her coffee to notice Donna's rising panic.

The trouble with sudden bolts of inspiration, Donna thinks, is that they are simultaneously so simple and almost impossible to articulate.

It had been a powerfully strange feeling. She'd been leaning against the counter when time had seemed to slow down to a crawl. It was as though everything she'd been thinking about for so long had lined up in her head so perfectly, so obviously that it seemed ridiculous she hadn't realised it before. Suddenly, it was as if she could see the possibilities of the web unfolding before her in a hundred different directions and she had been awed by it. The scale of it. The sheer potential of it.

Donna had immediately rushed outside so Cameron could be awed by it too. And maybe she would be, if Donna could manage to wrestle her racing thoughts into something semi-coherent. Whether it was the adrenaline rush or the lack of sleep, the fact remained that the moment Cameron had looked up from her map and Donna had felt the full force of her gaze her brain had, essentially, short-circuited.

This was not ideal.

Donna had hoped that by the time she'd ushered Cameron back into the diner, sat them in a booth and ordered coffee from the bored-looking waitress she'd have gathered her thoughts.

Instead her mind is racing almost as fiercely as her heart. It's still early morning, the California heat barely underway, but she can feel sweat prickling the back of her neck. Donna places her palms on the cool, polished metal tabletop to try and ground herself a little.

Cameron seems outwardly calm, leaning back in the booth, both hands wrapped around her steaming coffee cup. But Donna can tell she is bouncing her foot by the way their knees keep bumping together under the table and oh god the longer this silence stretches the more it looks like Donna has contrived a reason to delay Cameron's departure, yet again.

Like she has fragrantly pulled an idea out of thin air rather than let Cam-

"So." Cameron says suddenly.

Her voice breaks into Donna's thoughts and snaps her to attention. She looks up guiltily, but when she meets Cameron's gaze there's none of the impatience she's expecting.

Cameron leans forward conspiratorially and drops her voice to a low whisper: "This idea... is it porn?"

The question takes Donna off guard. She cocks her head, puzzled.

"Because the audience is there," Cameron continues, voice dripping with fake solemnity and eyes dancing with amusement. "But I just don't know if we have the infrastructure in place to compete with Smut Hut." Cameron tries to raise what Donna thinks is meant to be a salacious eyebrow, but it only ends up leaving her looking a bit bewildered.

And just like that Donna feels the pressure in her chest ease a little. Because yes this moment feels heavy with significance, and she desperately wants to get it right, but it's still Cam. She's smirking a little but behind that Donna thinks she looks hopeful, quietly expectant. She wants this to be a good idea, Donna realises. She needs this as much as I do. If anything it makes Donna's throat feel even thicker, but she manages a dismissive huff of amusement and an eye roll.

Donna straightens her shoulders and takes a controlled breath. She has to swallow past the lump in her throat before she can speak, but when she does it is in her very best Managing Partner voice.

"Okay, so. The internet is going to be a game-changer, right? Since Mosaic we've got the number of web users doubling every few months, and when Netscape releases that is only going to accelerate. We are talking-" Donna waves a hand "-exponential growth."

Cameron only nods. She knows all of this already, of course. Donna carries on, her words picking up speed.

"Right now, the internet is in its infancy. But I don't think it's a reach to say that someday, not even that far off, all aspects of people's lives will be mediated through a computer. We've got a web magazine with Hotwired. We've got classifieds on EPage. IBM and Microsoft have websites, which means all the other corporations are going to follow." Donna's ticking these points off on her fingers in a way that hopefully looks like she knows where she's going with this. "There's a bunch of kids at MIT who set up a virtual mall that takes credit cards. There's a place in Santa Cruz that let's you order pizza online. All the big publications are calling this a fad, a gimmick. But this is not going to slow down. The Web is happening. I can feel it."

Cameron quirks an amused eyebrow. "You're saying you want to sell pizza online?"

"I'm saying that the internet has all this incredible potential. Not everyone can see that, but the people that can are laser-focused on media and e-commerce, because it's easy to understand, right? It's just taking the stuff we already know makes money, banks, stores and papers, and putting it online. But at it's core the internet's real strength isn't technological. It's social."

Cameron narrows her eyes. She shifts forward in her seat, setting her mug down on the table, hands still wrapped around it. Donna sweeps a hand across the table, brushing grains of sugar to the floor before she leans forward on her elbows.

"It's connection. That's the web's killer application." She gently slaps the table for emphasis, and also because her body is thrumming with nervous energy and it needs to go somewhere. "People have always wanted to communicate. Whether it's through HAM radio, forums on Compuserve or the Prodigy bulletin boards-"

"And now AOL," Cam interjects. "The house that horny chatrooms built."

Donna feels a smile tug at the corner of her mouth. "They really hate when you bring that up. But, yes, it's all about making those connections. People are looking to reach out. It's exactly what we saw with Community. And if we can tap into that need for connection-" Donna presses her palms together, "-if we can get people sharing their ideas, then that is a far more powerful use of the Web than banking or buying a pizza online."

Cameron taps a nail against her mug. "And you think you know a way to do that?"

Donna nods, confident now. "I do."

Cameron smiles, waving her hand in a by all means gesture.

Donna takes a breath. "The beauty of the internet is it's this uniquely democratic medium. It lets people participate in a way that we haven't seen before. TV, newspapers, radio, they're top down models. Which means-"

"-It's all one way traffic." Cameron speaks slowly, looking thoughtful.

"Right. Historically, people have been these passive consumers. They just take in whatever content is churned out. But here's this brand new thing that was literally built to be collaborative and open. Think of all those people out there with all that individual knowledge and unique experiences and, and stories!"

This is a valid point, but she makes it with maybe a little too much breathless enthusiasm. Donna thinks she might be skirting the line between building a persuasive narrative and sounding like a character in a bad Christmas movie.

There's a pause, while Cameron presumably thinks about all those people and their stories! The air is filled with the low murmur of conversation from the other diner patrons. A distant siren wails outside. Donna barrels on.

"What if we could give people the power to take what they know and put it on online? Make it so anyone can do it."

The door to the diner swings open, letting in a gust of cool air. An elderly couple enters, hands clasped together tightly. Cameron doesn’t seem to notice, just tilts her her to one side, frowning slightly.

"But anyone can do it. Already. You just said it, there're new websites popping up all the time."

That is not true. For one thing, Donna has a Computer Science degree and she's not sure that she could set up a web page without consulting Haley for some pointers, much less the average computer user.

Donna shakes her head. "That's the thing, not everyone knows this stuff. Most people don't have an advanced technical degree. Most people can't even program their VCR."

Cameron is nodding like she gets it but Donna knows programming is something that comes as easy to her as breathing. It's odd, working in this industry. Tech can be like an echo chamber, where everybody is constantly working on the next new thing. Innovating, creating, on and on. Technology built and bought and sold and obsolete within a year. It had been like that in Texas, but it's magnified by a thousand living in Silicon Valley. A place where everybody eats, sleeps and breathes technology.

It's so easy to forget that the rest of the world doesn't share their obsession. That 75% of Americans don't even have a computer.

At least, not yet.

But the way Donna sees it, with the way things are going, computer usage is going to skyrocket. Soon there will millions of people online with zero technical knowledge, and they deserve to be able to participate too. If they want to be heard they'll need tools, and Donna wants to provide them.

Donna gestures at their waitress, a ruddy-faced woman in her forties with witchy black hair, making her way towards the couple who have sat close by.

"What if she wanted to set up a website right now. What would she need?"

"Her?" Cameron's quiet for a moment, thinking. "What kind of website?"

Donna shrugs, exasperated. "Maybe she wants to put the menu for this place online, or she wants to publish her short stories. Or maybe she's just got a lot to say about, I don't know, Prince, or bio-mechanics. It doesn't matter. How would she do it?"

"Well, she'd need to know HTML I suppose," it seems to occur to Cameron that their waitress probably does not, in fact, have a working knowledge of HTML. "And I guess she'd need her own server to host it..." Cam's brows are furrowed now.

Donna picks up her own coffee. It is lukewarm, but the heat from the mug is soothing.

"As it stands, if you don't have the technical knowledge you are essentially locked out of having a real voice on the internet." Donna points out gently. "It's pretty elitist. Mosaic took the internet mainstream, but a lot of people still subscribe to this idea that it's for the geeks and the academics. They don't want to make the internet accessible, because that means letting the rabble in. But they're coming, it's only a matter of time."

"And you want to lower the bar for access."

"Exactly. If we can make it cheap and easy for ordinary people to create web pages we can give them a voice. We can give them a sense of ownership over the internet, because it belongs to everyone, not to Microsoft or IBM. We can give them a gateway and let them be a part of it."

She sets her mug down with a flourish, as if punctuating the end of her pitch. It's a little dramatic, and she feels a slight blush at the tips of her ears but aside from that she's feeling good now. There's a low buzz in her stomach that might be pride or anticipation.

There's a long moment where Cameron doesn't say anything. Donna can almost see the gears turning in her mind. But she isn't worried. Donna had had a feeling before, but now that she's spoken it out loud she knows for sure. This is a good idea, and Cameron will see that too. Donna has barely formulated this thought when she sees Cameron break into a slow smile.

It is so bright Donna feels it all the way down to her toes.


---


Donna's not sure how long they talk after that, only vaguely aware of the other diners coming and going around them. By the time the sun is high above them in the sky outside, Donna has a neat stack of napkins scrawled with notes at her elbow.

Cameron orders chicken and waffles, drenching her plate in so much syrup it makes Donna's teeth itch. She is sticking with coffee, her stomach still churning, but now with excitement rather than trepidation.

Cameron clearly likes her idea, judging from the way she's talking a mile-a-minute about CGI scripts and mark-up languages and, yes, Donna knows she should be paying closer attention but Cam is gesturing expansively with her fork to illustrate whatever point she's making, oblivious to the syrup dripping into her lap and she's got this look in her eye.

Donna remembers it from their Mutiny days, back when they'd be kicking ideas around and hit on something, and suddenly it would be like someone had dialled Cameron's intensity up to eleven and it wouldn't matter that they'd just worked a 14-hour day already, they were going to chase this idea down. It's a look that says I'm excited about this and we've got something here.

Donna has missed that look, and now she feels a deep swell of pride that she's the one who put it there. She's sure if she looked in a mirror she'd see the exact same look on her own face.

"-I haven't figured that part out yet. Good thing I've got 3,000 miles to think it over."

That part Donna hears, and it hits her like a bucket of ice water.

If she's being honest with herself, she had half-hoped that Cam would push off her road trip so they could get a running start on this project.

Okay, more than half-hoped.

She tries to school her face into something other than deep disappointment.

She can't be much of an actress, because now Cameron looks uncertain. "Unless you want to get started on this right away? I understand if you don't want to wait, and I'm not really sure how long I'll be gone-"

Donna cuts her off. "Of course I'm going to wait for you." Because she is. There was never any question in her mind about that. "You're right, you take the time to think about the mechanics of this thing and I'll do some digging into the competitive landscape, see if there's anyone out there that looks like they're doing something similar."

It's a solid strategy. It makes sense to scope out potential competitors before they jump into anything. Donna reminds herself of this as they walk out to the parking lot together. The sun is glaring off the brushed metal of the Airstream, which suddenly seems enormous and unwieldy, like it could tip over at the first sharp bend. Cam's going to drag that thing behind her all the way to Florida?

Donna is a very good driver (DUI notwithstanding) and she would be nervous. As a driver Cameron is... Well, distractable would be the generous way of putting it.

Donna suddenly has a distinct memory of Cam swerving the two of them around Dallas in that old Jeep she used to have, milkshake in one hand, fiddling with the radio with the other, Donna hiding behind her hands.

This does not seem safe.

But if Cameron is daunted by the journey ahead of her she doesn't show it. She squints at the map spread across the dashboard and scrubs at her eyes absently with the back of her hand. When she looks up at Donna her eyes are red-rimmed but bright.

"So... I guess this is really it. Unless you have any other groundbreaking ideas you want to run by me real quick?"

Donna attempts a smile but her stomach gives a strange little half-lurch, as if rebelling at the very idea of Cam leaving. She can tell this trip is important to her, and she wants to be supportive but every instinct she has is screaming at her to get Cameron to stay.

Instead, Donna places her hand on the open window and keeps it there for a few seconds, like she’s trying to buy herself just a little bit more time.

"Please be careful."

She tries so hard not to sound pleading that it comes out closer to reproachful, but Cameron just grins easily at her.

"Sure thing" she says, in such an offhand way that it does precisely nothing to alleviate Donna's worry.

The apprehension must show on her face because Cam rolls her eyes a little and then, with surprising gentleness, says, "I'll be back before you know it." She flicks off an awkward little salute then rests her hands on the steering wheel, flexing her fingers.

Donna opens her mouth to say - she's not sure what, something else embarrassing probably, but then Cam's putting the truck in gear and easing out of the parking lot with a soft screech, the Airstream rattling behind her.

Donna stays standing there long after she's out of sight.