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Time in a Bottle, Part 1

Original fiction from CNET's Technically Literate series. In this three-part story, a glass of precious wine leads to a precious technological breakthrough.

J. Ryan Stradal
J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Kitchens of the Great Midwest." His shorter work has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, and Hobart, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles, where he's an editor-at-large at Unnamed Press, and is at work on a novel set in his home state of Minnesota.
J. Ryan Stradal
6 min read
Roman Muradov

This is part of CNET's Technically Literate series, which presents original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on technology.

Meg's final, enduring memory of her mother Helen's face was from when Meg was 16 years old, standing on the glass-bottomed deck that extended from her family's rooftop patio over the Atlantic Ocean. The deck had been an invention of Meg's father, Bill, whose favorite places in the world were locations that gave the illusion of peril, like The Ledge at the Willis Tower and the 470-yard glass bridge in China's Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon. By that summer, Meg and her mother had been on it so many times, they rarely thought to glance down at the gorgeous teeth of the ocean two hundred feet below them.

Meg's father, an affable, tired man who always had a glass of something or other in his hand, had been a principal at a hedge fund. It had long been his dream to cash out, and, with Meg's mother, open a winery in Idaho, which they believed would produce some of North American's best wine grapes by 2050. Everyone knew what huge wine snobs they were, and Helen expected that her husband's cash-flush work buddies would outdo themselves with the going-away presents. It'll be an interesting night, Helen said, sighing at the pink sunset as the first guests arrived to her husband's retirement party.

Helen despised her husband's colleagues. Meg guessed it was because none of them were women, and very few of them treated her mother with the respect and deference that a biology professor deserved. She also noticed that when these men brought women with them, they never looked like Meg or her mother, and couldn't speak with depth or insight on any topic that was interesting. By 16, Meg had realized that her mother's warning to avoid these men was one of those rare instances where her mother was completely correct. When her dad's friends were visiting, Meg did her best to stay out of sight, but it was impossible to completely forget their presence on that night.

As predicted, Bill's former colleagues annoyingly lavished their buddy with some of the world's most celebrated wine and spirits, most of which the house had seen before: a 2000 Chateau Petrus, a 23-year Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, a bottle of Courvoisier Succession J.S., a 1985 Sassicaia and a couple of 2000 Lafite Rothschilds. There were also a few bottles of 2001 Chateau d'Yquem from the people unwilling to spend four figures, and bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue from the guys who hated Meg's father and planned to never see him again.

Amidst all of these mostly legendary beverages, one show-off brought a bottle of Louis XIII de Remy Martin Grande Champagne Cognac, which cost more than the brand-new Honda Civic that Meg had just received for her birthday. Druby, the guy who brought the now-inferior cognac—the Courvoisier Succession—he looked as if he'd just seen Santa Claus get boiled alive. He was so depressed he opened the Succession and mixed himself a Sidecar.


That Louis XIII should've been the most ridiculous and ostentatious gift, but in the roiling, agile competition of these men's hearts, there existed a compulsion to not just defeat, but humiliate. Indeed, the hedge fund's CIO, Clark Pike, wheeled in a refrigerated wooden crate housing an entire case of 1961 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, perhaps the finest existing vintage of one of history's greatest wines. This was a wine that she'd only heard her parents talk about with the dumb hope and resignation that underscores any long-odds American dream. It was irrational, but Meg wanted a glass, perhaps only because it was one of the few things her parents admired that they hadn't attained.

Meg was hiding downstairs in the kitchen, one floor below the deck, out of sight but not earshot when she heard Clark Pike say, Everyone drink up.

Her father shook his head as Clark opened the crate and removed an upright bottle.

Ha, Bill said, not the way you've been storing that wine.

I've had it upright for two days so the sediments could settle, you hopeless wimp, Clark Pike replied. Now, bring me a candle and a cradle decanter.

These items were procured and all 12 adults in the house crowded onto the deck as Clark Pike held the bottle's neck over the candle, watching the sediment amass as he decanted a wine older than anyone on the property.

It has to meet its air slowly, Clark said, because air changes everything about wine. You don't want a child this beautiful to grow up too fast, he added, employing an uncomfortable analogy. A second bottle was decanted so all the men could swallow their CIO's superior taste, except Druby, who'd ruined his palate with that Sidecar.

I'll take Druby's glass, Helen said, and made for the stairwell.Where are you going? Have it with us, Clark Pike said.

Helen felt that men like Bill's friends believed that if they provided access to pleasure, the recipient's pleasure was meant for them, as if pleasure even had an owner. Helen believed that pleasure had no leaseholder, it had squatters, hitchhikers and transients, and this wine, now almost completely vanished from the earth, may be the most transient pleasure a person could withstand.

No thank you, she said, walking the wine downstairs into their kitchen with the serious, delicate caution of a new father carrying his first child.

Here, Helen whispered to her daughter. This is for you. Don't say anything.


Meg hadn't even dared to ask for a glass. She wanted it, sure, but not as much as this sweet, conspiratorial moment with her mother, bonded in this house of men, alone together with what her parents believed was one of the rarest, greatest things in the world, for her.

As Meg's fingers touched the stem of the glass, she could feel the wine's presence inches away from her body, resting with incredible restraint, like a V12 engine idling in a garage. It hadn't seen air or sunlight in almost 60 years and as the men upstairs swirled it awake in their glasses, she let it whisper in its sleep.

By 16, she'd had great wine before, especially in this house, with parents who constantly spoke of AVAs and varietals and terroir, but she suspected that it would be an experience beyond the realm of her comprehension.

Meg lifted the lip of the wine glass level to the ridge of her chin. That nose! She could feel it in her fingernails, her follicles. Cigar paper, Malabar peppercorn, French coffee, childhood, mint, lemongrass, parents laughing in the bedroom, strawberry pie filling, sweet basil, birthday cake candles, a push on a swing set, legs dangling above the clouds, the air between her and her mother's hands shrinking and expanding, always returning, a closed loop of sun-warmed, untamed joy. In her mouth, all initial descriptive thoughts contracted and floated away.

How does it make you feel, Meg's mother asked.Meg still couldn't speak.

Bill called for his wife, and Meg's mother groaned as she returned to the upstairs patio. Lit from behind on the staircase, she looked beautiful and powerful in a way that none of those hedge fund guys, except her father, ever seemed to understand.

Alone, Meg took another sip. This wasn't wine, this was a foreign dictionary, this was a naked dive in a midnight lake, defiant, peculiar, opaque, wondrous. Sure, she tasted fruit, leather, cassis, but she also tasted meteors, glaciers, aquifers, and she felt time collapse in a thoughtless, silent moment. The finish lasted longer than her first eight kisses combined and was 80 times as sensuous and elemental. She swallowed it and the walls of the kitchen screamed. Men's voices burst open in the air around her. She perceived a terrific cracking, and the earth quite literally seemed to move under her feet. Voices hollered from somewhere below.

She opened her eyes and saw part of the glass deck hanging like a tongue in front of the kitchen window. Her father clutched into the air where Clark Pike, the case of 1961 Mouton Rothschild, and her mother had been. Meg took the deepest breath of her life. She's been trying to exhale that breath ever since.

You can find Part 2 of "Time in a Bottle" here.

Illustrations by Roman Muradov.

Technically Literate: Original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on tech, exclusively on CNET.

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