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Time in a Bottle, Part 3

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


This is part of CNET's Technically Literate series, which presents original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on technology. The first installment of "Time in a Bottle" can be found here, and the second installment is here.

When Meg accepted her first commission to create a house from scratch—a three-bed, two-bath, suburban Minnesota family home, circa September 1987—she viewed herself as a tactile craftsperson, which the VR and hologram people weren't and could never be, and the home, 121 Hillside, would be 3D re-creation's first masterwork, and in ambition and materials engineering, also a big step beyond the early AM-produced homes like Tennessee's Curve Appeal and Amsterdam's 3D Print Canal House. Meg had to charge the client a million dollars a month, mostly to attract and retain the best associate re-creators. Meg was cheap, but good help, still, was not. She'd asked for a few months from Jose Luis, but since he'd 3D printed the fabricated heart that saved the president's life, he'd been off the grid.

The last time she'd seen him, he'd set his club soda next to her glass of wine, and told her that she was the personification of what he despised about himself as a scientist and a person. You've built your career around a narcissistic, manipulative concept that I can understand, but would never express, he said. You're using our life-giving, inclusive science for vanity. How dare you hold up a mirror and call it growth. You behave in a way that would make me feel terrible about myself.

I'm sorry that we don't agree, she'd told him. I'm still about to do something that's never been done before, and it's all for somebody else.

So you say, he said.

But it was for someone else; it had to be.

Studying thousands of photographs and videos, visiting the location dozens of times, noting every variable of sensation, every imperfection and aberration, she at last moved to the former warehouse of a long-absent garden sprayer company in a small Minnesota town and disappeared into this most leviathan of projects. Even with 16 machines, 15 associate re-creators and 21 assembly assistants, it took 13 months to fabricate and assemble the countless pieces, including every scratched piece of furniture, every stained mug and chipped bowl, every yellowed book and folded magazine, every ash-streaked brick in the fireplace. It was here that Meg realized that the true power of bespoke fabrication was in its imperfections, and these were the features that her customers had always, from the beginning, most fervently and emotionally responded to. Everything is born perfect and anonymous, she told the client. Our flaws give us our names. Here are yours, she said, and opened the door to a house that the client hadn't experienced in over 50 years.

The client wept, instantly. The smells, she said. How did you get the smells right?

So many sources, Meg said, trying not to stare at the tears on the client's face, and trying harder not to take pride in them. Your diaries, when you mentioned your favorite meals and what your family had for dinner. The supermarket receipts you found in your mom's old handbags. What brand of cigarettes your father smoked and the fact that he smoked in the garage. The probability of mildew in the downstairs bathroom and laundry room. The age and type of fabrics in the carpeting and upholstery. The number of photographs in which I witnessed open windows. The fact that the banister was home-repaired with wood glue and varnish in June of 1987. We did the best we could.


As the client entered the modest kitchen. she fell on her knees, clutching her head in a storm of sobs, overcome by memory and who knows what these memories accompanied. Certainly, there existed no age-worn protocol yet for a re-creator's demeanor during a client's emotional apotheosis. At an impasse, Meg likened her station's mien to that of an expert heart surgeon or a top-line funeral director, in that she had to both act like she's done this a million times to instill confidence and compliance, and also act like this client was the first or only client ever, to ensure connection and satisfaction. A warm but brief hug seemed appropriate, followed by a few concluding words of validation and assurance. Then she handed the client the keys to a house that, atom by atom, had no natural place in our world, but was the most terrifically real place in the universe, to one person.

Returning to her house in California for the first time in over a year, Meg received a letter from Jose Luis in the mail the first full day she was home. As her friend's career had evolved, he used phones and computers less and less; postal mail was an expensive and inconvenient affectation, but it was the only way to reliably communicate with him.

Meet me at my new home, he said, and included the coordinates.

She hadn't seen him since a year before she'd started on the Minnesota project; she had no clue if he'd committed himself to yet another monstrously generous, world-changing project, until her car rounded a corner and she witnessed what he'd done.

She couldn't have imagined, after all of the years he'd insulted the subjective nature of her work, its sentimentality, its vanity and uselessness, that he'd have spent two years on an island in Puget Sound creating a replica of Meg's childhood summer home. Right down to the long glass porch that extended over the ocean from a rooftop patio.

Meg, at first, had no reaction. She viewed the house as though it were a toy or snow globe. She approached it, and as the grumble of driveway gravel summoned unrehearsed familiarities, she reached for an emotion she'd anticipated, an emotion that remained elusive.

He had done an even better job than she'd done, recapturing the funky smell of an unpopular guest bedroom, the scratches on a doorjamb, the coffee ring stains on the interior of a University of Michigan mug, her mom's stubborn lipstick on a champagne flute.

She stared out the kitchen window at the glass floor of the deck and saw Jose Luis. He looked tired, gaunt, desiccated. There was less of his body, and she felt less of him in it. Still, he smiled, holding a glass of wine. She arrived upstairs and saw a bottle of 1961 Mouton Rothschild on a table, livid and realistic, with a full decanter beside it.

This was actually the easy part, he said. Chemically synthesizing what a 1961 Bordeaux looked, smelled and tasted like the summer that your mom died, and under similar meteorological conditions. I was just going to make a single glass, but it was so much fun, I went ahead and made the whole bottle. It doesn't literally need to be decanted, but that's how you had it, so here you go.

Meg accepted the wine and stood out on the glass deck, looking beneath her feet at the ocean. She felt the glass vibrating between the wine and her fingers. The wine was as viscous and fragrant and miraculous as the real thing.

Is this enough? He asked. Is this what you needed?

Facing away from him, swirling the wine in her glass, she walked down to the kitchen, and held her reactions and emotions to herself, as she realized what her right hand was involuntarily doing, awakening the wine, opening up a slightly different complex of flavors than she'd experienced all those decades ago, just different enough to summon a falsehood into this near-perfect past. She drank the wine, thinking to herself that she couldn't quite remember what it even tasted like, opened her eyes, felt grateful for the passage of time, and felt relief that everything was the same.

That concludes "Time in a Bottle." Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here. Read more fiction from our Technically Literate series here.

Illustration by Roman Muradov.

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

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