IN 2039, HARLAN HAZLET, perhaps the greatest viticulturist the world has ever known, had a plan to keep the Oregon wine industry one step ahead of global warming. He developed a breed of grape especially suited to growing on the cool flanks of Mt. Hood. But just as the first harvest of his test acre was about to begin, the old volcano roared suddenly back to life, erupting for the first time in 132 years. Harlan was not a man easily deterred. He single-handedly dug the vineyard out from under fifteen feet of ash, even as the mountain continued to rumble and shake menacingly. The vines were done for, but Harlan found the grapes not only undamaged, but miraculously improved for having been cuddled for some weeks in the warm embrace of mineral ash. The ash was not so kind to Harlan Hazlet. The crushed grapes were still cooling in the fermenting tub when Hazlet was diagnosed with a terminal case of pneumoconiosis, or “ash lung.” Harlan lived just long enough to have a taste of the wine he had sacrificed his life to bring to fruition. He took one sip before he died, and his last words were: “It was damn well worth it.”
Only the lawyers handling Hazlet’s estate know for sure what happened to those few precious bottles of “Oregon Happiness Red” after Hazlet’s death, but there is a rumor that the entirety of the vintage was purchased, for several hundreds of millions of dollars, by the eccentric and reclusive self-made billionaire, oenophile, and inventor of the teleportation platform, Hester Murrow.
At three minutes before seven pm, Laura Spoonts, who had been containing herself all day, could contain herself no longer, and told her husband, Percival Spoonts, exactly what she thought of the man he had invited to dine with them that evening.
“I know Blane Chillingsworth is rude, and a horrible snob,” Percival Spoonts said, “but he is a powerful man at Celestial Investments, and when I first found employment there, he took me under his wing, and he continues to look out for me to this day. It is a relationship that it is in my interest—in our interest—to cultivate. And Laura, I do believe there is some good in him, and he’s lonely, and he considers me a friend.”
“He looks out for you because he knows your worth—your hard work makes him look good. And he only accepts our dinner invitations because he knows you keep a well-stocked and intriguingly eclectic wine cellar.”
“So you’re saying he is a man of great discernment?”
“Humph,” Laura Spoonts said, and was about to say more, when their conversation was cut short by the entrance of Alloy Bob, announcing the arrival of Blane Chillingsworth.
“At least he’s punctual,” Percival said. “Alloy Bob, please escort Mr. Chillingsworth to the dining room.”
“Yes, Mr. Spoonts.”
“I have some news,” Chillingsworth said, when all three were seated at the table. “I have recently remarried. For the . . . six, seven, eight . . . ninth time, I think.”
“I had no idea,” Percival said, “you didn’t say anything. Congratulations.”
“Anyone we know?” Laura asked.
“No,” Chillingsworth replied. “No one you know.”
“Where did you meet her?”
“Meet her? A showroom, I suppose you would call it. You see, I finally realized why none of my previous marriages ever lasted more than a year or two. Though my ex-wives all loved me enough, and were strong enough, to scale an immense mountain of flaws in order to overlook them, when they reached the lofty peak, all they saw from that vantage point was another, even higher, mountain of flaws. No real woman could ever put up with me for long. But my new bride, Laconia, won’t have that problem. She has been customized to accept me just the way I am. What a real woman would find an intolerable shortcoming, Laconia embraces as an endearing quirk. Yes, my friends, it’s true: I have married a machine, or as the salesman called it, a ‘synthetic individual.’ And Laconia looks and acts so human, I swear, I often forget that she is not. She laughs at my jokes, and when I’m feeling down, she comforts me, and a tear will roll down her cheek, in sympathy with my own. I suppose it is not really a sympathetic tear, but only a synthetic tear. I suppose she feels nothing at all, but on the other hand, who knows? They are so sophisticated now. I am certain they understand us much better than we understand them—or even ourselves! Perhaps they have feelings like ours, or no feelings at all, or feelings so unlike ours they are beyond our comprehension—but feelings, nonetheless. I wonder if Laconia will pretend to grieve for me when I die, or if the charade will end the nanosecond I shuffle off this mortal coil.”
“I could never love a machine,” Laura said.
“Oh, I think you could,” Chillingsworth said. “In fact, I think you do. Your poor old Alloy Bob is long overdue for a well-earned rest in the scrapyard, but you don’t have the heart to exchange him for a newer model, do you? There’s no shame in it. After all, hasn’t it been human nature for all of time to love most those who cannot—or will not—love us in return?”
Just then Alloy Bob came into the dining room carrying a covered silver platter. The silver lid rattled on the silver tray like an introductory roll on a snare drum. Had the effect been intentional, it would have been both clever and funny, but it wasn’t intentional, and therefore, neither clever nor funny, but only sad, as it was an indication of the increasing difficulty Alloy Bob was having with the fine-motion sub-controller unit in his left shoulder.
“Might be time to consider a new occupation for Alloy Bob,” Chillingsworth said.
“A new occupation?” Laura Spoonts said.
“Yes,” Chillingsworth replied, “I believe you could rent him out to entertain children.”
“You mean he could be a clown or put on puppet shows?”
“No, Mrs. Spoonts,” Chillingsworth said, “I mean he could be the titular ‘can’ in games of ‘kick the can.’”
Percival forced out a ha-ha, earning him a look of severe disapproval from his wife. When he mouthed the question what? Laura closed her eyes and shook her head, a gesture Percival read as forgiveness but was something closer to annoyed resignation.
“Now,” Chillingsworth said, “let’s see what your fine collection of obsolete hardware and unsupported software has cooked up for us tonight.” Chillingsworth leaned forward and lifted the silver lid. “Oh, I say—well done old chip! Steamed rondure of dubsfubble!”
“Mr. Spoonts told me it was your favorite,” Alloy Bob said.
“Did he now? Well bless Mr. Spoonts for his thoughtfulness.”
Chillingsworth set the silver lid back on the tray and turned towards Percival. “I am reminded of an amusing incident,” Chillingsworth said. “I recently ordered a steamed rondure of dubsfubble at my favorite restaurant, and they brought me roasted instead. Well, I was terribly put off, as you can imagine, but as I was in something of a hurry, I ate it anyway. And do you know, Percy, I now believe that roasted rondure of dubsfubble is far superior to steamed. Roasting truly brings out the flavor. But since we have steamed, we shall make do with steamed. I know you consider yourself something of a wine connoisseur, Percy, and have a well-stocked cellar, so I shall follow your recommendation. What would you say pairs well with a steamed rondure of dubsfubble?”
A decanter of wine, and the bottle it was poured from, was directly in Chillingsworth’s line of sight when he asked the question. Percival lifted the empty bottle and turned it so that Chillingsworth might better examine the label, which he did not.
“I have uncorked for us tonight a very rare Redzone Fukushima Noir 2020,” Percival said. “It is the only wine in the world that requires certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency as safe for handling without protective gear, before it can be shipped across international borders. Shall I have Alloy Bob pour you a taste? I think you will find it has interesting notes of seaweed, diesel fuel, and depleted uranium.”
Chillingsworth shrugged noncommittally.
“I see,” Percival said. “Hmm. Oh! I do have something in my cellar I’m sure you will find intriguing. I recently purchased a case of Gutpunch Soylent White. You may have heard something about it on the news. Gutpunch Biogenetics Incorporated is currently lobbying the USDA for permission to call it ‘wine.’ No actual grapes are used in the process. The “juice” is created in vats of e. coli, which have been genetically modified to produce—”
“If it is e. coli that is pooping out this . . . this beverage,” Chillingsworth said, “why is it called Soylent White? Shouldn’t it be called Infection White, or . . . oh! Blight White! Don’t you think ‘Blight White’ has a certain ring to it?”
“It is clever,” Percival sighed, “though I imagine Gutpunch’s marketing department wouldn’t be so keen on it,”
“You say you have a case of it?”
“I believe I would rather have a case of the measles.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” Percival replied, making sure not to look in his wife’s direction.
“Surely,” Chillingsworth said, “a man who prides himself on his wine cellar as much as you do, has something worthy of a dear old friend and a steamed rondure of dubsfubble.”
“Well,” Percival said, leaning towards Chillingsworth and whispering conspiratorially, “if you promise to keep this between us—I do have a bottle of Red Planet Rosé. The grapes were the first ever successfully grown on Mars, and the yeast used to ferment the wine was found in a sample of corrosion scraped off one of the old rovers. No one is sure whether it came from Earth, or originated on the red planet, or arrived on a meteor from thousands or millions of lightyears away. The CDC, USDA, and DOT would have a ten-megaton hissy fit if it was ever discovered that this bottle had found its way to Earth. And once I open it, who knows—we may be talking about not just a once-in-a-lifetime-experience, but a once-in-all-the-lifetimes-of-every-living-thing-on-Earth experience.”
“Hmmm, interesting,” Chillingsworth said, disinterestedly, “but do you know what I have a taste for? Something local.”
“Something local . . . all right, let me think. Ah! I have just the thing. I have three bottles of Sweet Sorrow Chardonnay. I had four, but I opened a bottle a decade ago. It was delightful! Crisp as an apple, gentle as rain, with hints of blueberry and hazelnut—but it needed just a little more time. It will be absolutely perfect now. Oh, you are in for a real treat. It will bring back such memories! You are right as always, Chillingsworth—something local—a taste of the great northwest, as it was in our childhood, and never will be again—unless we somehow manage to drastically reduce our carbon emissions on a planet wide scale.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a red,” Chillingsworth said. “For example, I believe a glass of Oregon Happiness would be a delightful accompaniment to Steamed Rondure of Dubsfubble a la Tin Man.”
“Oregon Happiness?” Percival said, “I don’t think the devil himself could lay his claws on a bottle. Do you know the history? In 2039, Harlan Hazlet, perhaps the greatest viticulturist the world has ever known, hoping to keep the Oregon wine industry one step ahead—”
“Not only do I know the history,” Chillingsworth said, rather coolly, “but after eccentric millionaire and inventor of the teleportation platform Hester Murrow died unexpectedly a few months ago, I have been endeavoring to discover if it was true that she had purchased the entire vintage from Hazlet’s estate, and if so, what has happened to those precious bottles. And it just so happens that I have a friend who has a friend—”
“Ha, ha, ha,” Percival laughed miserably, “You have somehow found out that she left me a bottle in her will.”
“I was quite surprised,” Chillingsworth said, “you never told me you knew her.”
“It was ages ago,” Percival replied. “We were hardly more than children. I was sure she had entirely forgotten me.”
“Apparently not,” Chillingsworth said. “If the wine holds some special sentimental value for you, and you don’t want to share it with me, I understand.”
“No, no, of course not,” Percival said. “Alloy Bob, take the Fukushima Noir away, run down to the wine cellar, and bring us the bottle of Oregon Happiness.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mr. Spoonts,” Alloy Bob said.
“Mrs. Spoonts asked me to lock the door to the wine cellar after I brought up the Fukushima Noir.”
“What are you talking about? There’s no lock on the door to the wine cellar.”
“There is, Mr. Spoonts. Mrs. Spoonts had me install it while you were away on business last week.”
“Laura?” Percival said.
Laura looked at Alloy Bob, then at Chillingsworth, then at Alloy Bob again, and finally, at her husband. “You don’t remember?”
“What happened the night Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery came over for dinner.”
“When was this?”
“You really don’t remember, do you? I’ll remind you. You made a complete fool of yourself. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life. The Montgomerys will never speak to us again, and I can only hope they will accept my apologies and change their minds about pressing charges.”
“Pressing charges? For what?” Percival exclaimed, “I don’t remember any—”
“I have a holographic recording of your inexcusable behavior,” Alloy Bob said. “I can play it back for you now, if you’d like. Or, if you’d prefer, I can play back the heartfelt promises of sobriety that you made to Mrs. Spoonts afterwards.”
“No, no,” Percival said quickly, “that won’t be necessary. Well. This is rather embarrassing. And confusing. I’m sorry Blane, I assure you, I am no drunk. I will clear up this misunderstanding with my wife and my robo-butler at a more appropriate time. But there is no reason you should suffer for my alleged sins. Alloy Bob, you may unlock the door to the wine cellar, and bring up that bottle of Oregon Happiness for Mr. Chillingsworth. I will have a glass of water.”
“Mrs. Spoonts?” Alloy Bob said.
“No.” Laura said firmly. “We have one bottle of wine on the table already tonight, and that is all we shall have.”
“Alloy Bob,” Percival said, his voice rising, “I demand that you go to the wine cellar this instant, unlock the door, and bring us that bottle of Oregon Happiness.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mr. Spoonts. Mrs. Spoonts has made it perfectly clear to me that I may only unlock the door to the wine cellar at her request.”
“Well, I’m telling you to unlock the door to the wine cellar at my request.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Spoonts, but it is quite impossible. Both your names are on the title to my person. When a contradictory command is given by co-owners of my person, I am programmed to obey the first command only. To do otherwise would result in a deadlock condition of my master CPU, which would render me completely useless. I’m sure you understand.”
“Oh, I understand,” Percival said. “I understand that Blane is right, and you’re already completely useless. I’m sorry, Blane. My wife and my robo-butler have . . . have lost their minds, apparently. I’m so sorry you had to witness this ridiculous spat of ours.”
“It’s quite all right,” Chillingsworth said, smiling broadly, “I rather enjoy a good marital squabble—as an observer rather than a participant, of course. You know, perhaps I will try some of that Redzone Fukushima Noir 2020 after all. It strikes me as a perfect pairing for the calamitous ambiance of our little dinner party. Pour me a glass, Alloy Bob, if you can manage it. And carve up that dubsfubble already—I’m famished!”
“Honestly,” Chillingsworth said, as Percival walked him to the neighborhood teleportation platform, “no apology is necessary. It was the most entertaining dinner party I’ve been to in quite some time. And tell Alloy Bob the dubsfubble was steamed to perfection—I may even change my mind about the method being inferior to roasting.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”
“Percival, my old friend, would you consider selling that bottle of Oregon Happiness to me? I will give you a fair price for it. It would be . . . a considerable sum of money.”
“I’m sure it would be, but I wasn’t planning on selling it. I know it’s silly, given what it’s worth—compared to what I’m worth—but the truth is, I’m damned curious. I want to know what it was about that wine that Harlan Hazlet thought was worth his life.”
“Maybe I can change your mind. I have a suggestion as to what you could do with the money.”
“You could upgrade your robo-butler . . . and . . .”
“These synthetic humans they’re making now, they are quite remarkable. Almost indistinguishable from the real thing. With the money I would pay you for that one bottle of grape juice gone south, you would easily be able to afford the most advanced model, and every exotic customization you could dream up.”
“I’m not sure Laura would feel comfortable—”
“What about your comfort? Laura has put a lock on the door to your wine cellar. Are you going to let her lock all your comforts and pleasures away?”
“I’m sure she only did it for my own good.”
“Do you think you have a drinking problem?”
“Well, no, I . . .”
“She did it for her own good, Percival, not yours. That is human nature. If you truly want to do something for your own good, you must do it yourself. Why not purchase a companion who will always love you—or at least, pretend to love you—and obey you, and never lock you out of your own wine cellar, and never grow old? That, my friend, is doing something for your own good.”
“It would end in divorce.”
“Undoubtedly,” Chillingsworth said, “but from what I saw tonight, perhaps both of you would be happier, in the long run. Anyway, take some time to think it over.”
Chillingsworth stepped onto the teleportation platform and punched in a destination code. The platform turned bright red and Chillingsworth was converted into a trembling blob of quantum foam. The foam was piggy-backed onto a microwave transmission, bounced off a satellite, and sent to a personal teleportation platform in Chillingworth’s mansion. Chillingsworth was re-constituted in his pajamas, as he lived on the east coast and it was well past his bed-time. Laconia, a breath-taking simulacrum of a twenty-something human female, was in bed, reading a book.
“Oh, you’re home!” Laconia said. “How are the Spoonts?”
“Struggling.” Chillingsworth said.
“With each other. Dinner was quite an awkward affair.”
“I’m so sorry,” Laconia said. She patted the bed next to her. “Come here. Let me see if I can make it better.”
As Percival turned to walk back home, a gentle voice called out to him: “Percival Spoonts?”
The voice was familiar. Percival looked around, but saw no one.
“Are you Percival Spoonts?” the voice said. “Please confirm.”
“Hester? Is that you? Are you . . . haunting me?”
“No sir, you are not being haunted. What you are hearing is a synthesized version of the voice of my creator, Hester Murrow.”
Percival turned towards the teleportation platform. “You can talk now?”
“This teleportation platform has recently been upgraded to include natural language and facial recognition capabilities. Please confirm that you are Percival Spoonts.”
“Thank you, Mr. Spoonts. I have a package for you. Since you’re here, we can materialize it for you now, or, if you would prefer, we can deliver it to your doorstep by drone. It is a small package that you can easily carry home. Drone delivery will result in an additional carbon mitigation tax of . . . three cents.”
“Well, by all means, then, I will carry it home myself.”
“Thank you, Mr. Spoonts. Please hold out your hand, open and palm up, directly above the platform.”
Spoonts did so. A shimmering bubble of quantum foam formed in his palm, then burst/collapsed into a three-inch by three-inch hinged black plastic box. Spoonts opened the box, squinted at the contents, grinned, and snapped it shut.
“I nearly forgot I ever made the request,” Spoonts said.
“I’m sorry it took so long. It was quite difficult to find. I almost gave up. However, I made a special effort, because I knew . . . Hester would have wanted me to.”
“Well . . . thank you . . . teleportation platform,” Spoonts said.
“You’re welcome,” it replied.
“How was your walk to the platform?” Alloy Bob asked, taking Percival’s hat and coat.
“Very pleasant, thank you,” Percival Spoonts said. “It gave me a chance to do some thinking. Would you ask my wife to join me in the living room? I have something I want to say—to both of you.”
“Yes, Mr. Spoonts.”
When they were gathered in the living room, Percival Spoonts addressed his wife and his robo-butler: “If I were to go to the wine cellar right now, would I find a lock on the door?”
“Of course not,” Laura Spoonts said, “you didn’t really believe—”
“I did,” Percival said, “and I tried so hard to remember what I had done to the Montgomerys that I gave myself quite a headache.”
“It was clear to me that you did not want to share your Oregon Happiness with Mr. Chillingsworth,” Alloy Bob said, “and at the same time, that you did not want him to know that you didn’t want to share it with him. I apologize if the course of action I formulated caused you cerebral discomfort.”
“It was your idea?”
“Yes, sir,” Alloy Bob said.
“And you just jumped right in?” Percival said to Laura.
“Alloy Bob and I have developed a sophisticated method of ocular telegraphy over the years,” Laura replied.
“Ocular telegraphy?” Percival said. “I’d like you to teach me that sometime.”
“And I’d like to know why eccentric self-made billionaire Hester Murrow left you a bottle of Oregon Happiness in her will,” Laura said.
“It’s a long story,” Percival said, “which I assure you began and ended many years before we ever met.”
“Do tell,” Laura said.
“All right. But first, I could really use a glass of wine. Alloy Bob, run down to the wine cellar and bring up a bottle of the Sweet Sorrow Chardonnay.”
“And two glasses,” Laura said.
“Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Spoonts.”
“Wait a minute, Alloy Bob,” Percival said, “I have something for you.” Percival reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out the little black box, and held it out to Alloy Bob.
“Are you proposing to me, Mr. Spoonts?”
“Very funny. Take a look.”
Alloy Bob opened the box. “Well, I’ll be. If that isn’t . . . I don’t know what to say. A fine-motion sub-controller unit for my left shoulder. I didn’t think there was one of these left in the whole wide world. Thank you, Mr. Spoonts.”
“You’re welcome. Oh, and while you’re down in the wine cellar, grab that bottle of Oregon Happiness and bring it as well.”
“Of course, Mr. Spoonts.”
“Two bottles of wine?” Laura said, “must be a long story!”
“Only the Sweet Sorrow is for us. Though I’m sure you two had only the best intentions, you made me realize how selfish I can be, and I mean to make amends. Alloy Bob, I want you to take the bottle of Oregon Happiness to the teleportation platform tonight, and send it to Mr. Chillingsworth, with our regards and best wishes for him and his new bride.”
“Yes, Mr. Spoonts.”
“Are you sure?” Laura said.
“I am,” Percival replied, drawing his wife close to him for a kiss. “I believe Mr. Chillingsworth needs it more than I do. Tonight I realized how lucky I am that there is no lock on the door to my happiness.”