I bought a 3D printer the other day. I’d been reading about them in magazines over the past year or so, watched videos of guys in lab coats huddle solemnly around fabricated guns and waffles, and when I saw one on eBay I snapped it up without hesitating. It wasn’t listed as a 3D printer but a “dual extrusion autoforge.” When UPS rang downstairs I only nodded and signed my name, the same as if it were a shipment of boxer shorts.
I dug it out of the box, pawing around the Styrofoam peanuts, and set it on the corner of my desk. It was lighter than I expected, about the weight of a thick hardcover, and looked like a cross between a sewing machine and a toaster. I plugged it in. The light on the faceplate lit up, and the insides made a low humming sound as they calibrated. I thumbed through the manual (Step one: buddy up!), with its multilingual instructions and blue diagram-people tossing a printed frisbee (¡Ten cuidado!). The opposite page found them running from a Bengal tiger as it sprung from the printer’s lid (Inte skriva ut tigern!), followed by a 1-800 number and a link to an animal control site.
The first thing I printed was a banana. Figured I’d start simple. It didn’t come out all at once, but rather as a series of flat clay-colored discs laid one over the other, the dual extruder switchbacking until a banana clattered into the reception tray, fully formed and apparently peelable. Because I’d ultimately decided on the more affordable black-and-white dual extrusion autoforge, the banana was an aerodynamic gray instead of yellow, and had the clammy, slightly spongy texture of a futuristic eggplant. A banana, where before there had been none. I made a sandwich. I thought of Schrödinger.
Dave came over later that night, after his shift ended at the GameFill across the block. He knelt beside the printer and listened, tapping it with the dry end of a Fudgsicle stick. “Quiet,” he said. He ran his finger over the texture wand. “Robust.”
We ordered Chinese food. “Hey,” Dave said. “Why don’t we just print it?”
I had just cleared away the empty pails and chopsticks when something clammy and slightly spongy smacked against the side of my head. I looked up. Dave was brandishing a loose pancake of the gray material, slinging it back by his finger. “Dude,” I said. “I’m trying to watch Garbage Hunters here.”
“This is Jessica Alba’s actual forehead. I was gonna print her whole face out but I didn’t want to waste your ink.” He sat down beside me and gave Jessica Alba’s forehead a toss, like a pizza, and I snapped it out of the air.
“There are guys who would give their left nut to touch this forehead. What’s wrong with you?”
“This,” I said, putting the forehead in the fruit dish, next to the banana, “is crap.”
The next day I printed a donut, a coffee mug, a set of coat hooks, and a version of Bart Simpson’s head with spider legs coming out of its neck. A menagerie formed on the counter, parades of office goods and animal figurines, all four Ninja Turtles with their trademark bandanas, which I filled in with a tiny paintbrush. I printed a shoehorn. I printed a functioning typewriter. I printed a scale model of the jewel from Romancing the Stone and put it on a shelf.
“What?” Dave said when he came over that night. “What?”
“It’s the jewel from Romancing the Stone. You know, the Michael Douglas movie.”
“I know what it is,” he said, and turned it over in his hands. The chambers of the jewel caught his reflection, a galaxy of mini-Daves squinting up and down its facets, mimicking the eager glint in his eyes. “Actually, this gives me an idea.”
He wanted to print money. Small amounts, he said, quarters and fifty-cent pieces. Nothing serious. Imagine never having to get change for a snack machine again, he said. Imagine pinball marathons. Or beating the crane game.
“I don’t know,” I said. “This technology, we have a responsibility to it. We’re pioneers, you know? Pioneers don’t make counterfeit money on their laptops.”
He blinked at me, breathed sharply through his nose. He picked up the spider Bart Simpson head and knitted his brow at it, then at me. I couldn’t tell which he pitied more.
“You know who was also a pioneer?” he said, roughly setting the head back down. “Sacagawea.”
So we made Sacagawea dollars. They came out fast and furious, twenty to a batch, clunking into the reception tray in rolls. I peeled the paper back with a pair of scissors and let them tumble out into my hand.
“I don’t think coins are usually this squishy.”
“We’re not done yet.” He popped the coins in the oven and baked them to a medium-well, turning on the light to watch as they took color. They came out slightly burnt—I had to take the batteries out of the fire detector—but convincing. Before they could even cool Dave pocketed a handful of them and fled down the stairs.
“Where are you going?” I yelled.
“Fluzo’s!” he yelled back. I heard the door shut.
He ran up ten minutes later with a GamePro and a bottle of Gatorade.
“Dude,” he said.
“They took it?”
“No, fucking Fluzo made me use the ATM. Guy’s never heard of a Sacagawea dollar.” He cracked open the Gatorade and poured it into two glasses, then handed me one. “You owe me $1.50, by the way.”
We printed Sacagawea dollars all through that night, and the next. Dave manned the printer while I took oven duty, swapping out cookie sheets lined with the raw coinage and finishing them off with a crème brulee torch for a tarnished, slightly caramelized look.
I heard Dave cackle from the other room, clap his hands together. “Ha ha!” I heard him go. “Ha HA!”
He wasn’t printing money anymore. I knew that before I even opened the door and found him crouched over the reception tray, cradling the small, square thing in his fingertips. He knelt over it, not looking at me, but I could tell his face was tight with ecstasy.
“I. Have done. Something wonderful.”
He called them Pı-P7, secondary printers derived from the original source. They were about one-third smaller, each one emblazoned with a Dragonball Z character of Dave’s choosing and the word DAVEWARE where the original logo had been. They plugged away industriously, churning out Weas (as we’d started calling them) at a rapid clip, the coins spilling onto the carpet in pirate mounds.
“I can’t keep up with this. I only have one oven.”
“I’ve got you covered,” Dave said. A squad of toasters was already lined up along the wall, ready to go.
We bought things. Clothes. Jewelry. Designer sunglasses. I didn’t just beat the crane game; I put it in my house. At first, the exact purpose of the money was unclear to me—why spend it if we could just print whatever we wanted?—but Dave insisted on “buying real,” apportioning his Weas into takeout containers and heading to the nearest Coinstar to have them exchanged. Meanwhile, we made reproductions of the jewelry and sunglasses—we’d repurposed the laundry room as our dedicated manufacturing center—and sold them on the internet. Dave put a stripper pole in his apartment. I bought a flat screen. I poured gold flakes on my Corn Flakes.
At the end of the month I received an electric bill for $300,000.
“Did you see this?” I asked Dave, handing him the check. I looked around the apartment, at the lawn bags filled with Weas, the laundry tubs of knockoff Oakleys, at the four Ninja Turtles and the jewel from Romancing the Stone, which was currently the subject of a heated bidding war that had just broken five figures.
“Maybe we should take a break.”
Dave had a notepad in front of him and was scribbling away wildly, filling the page with diagrams and calculations before tearing it off and starting another. His eyes were red and his face had a dark film of stubble over it; he hadn’t been sleeping much. “Look at this,” he said and pushed the notepad toward me, sending the bill over the edge of the table. “Look at this, and then tell me you want to take a break.”
She came out feet first, a breech delivery. Phyllo-thin sheets of skin laid beneath bone (well, “bone”) laid beneath musculature (ditto) laid beneath skin again. Legs appeared, a torso, a birthmark, a clavicle, a notch of throat. “Hair.”
We’d printed Scarlett Johansson.
Sure, there were differences. The grayscale capabilities of the printer meant her skin had a blighted, slightly dead quality, and her clothing, a white jumpsuit from The Island, was hermetically fused to her body—was, strictly speaking, her body—but once again, the accuracy of the printer was uncanny. We spread out a tarp to receive her as she unfurled.
“Dammit!” Dave shouted as her head slotted forward. The printer let out a thin whine before giving up. “Dammit dammit!”
“Out of ink,” I said, glancing at the bright stretch of bone where Scarlett’s forehead should’ve been.
“Hold on.” He dug Jessica Alba’s scalp out of his shirt pocket and slid it over Scarlett’s head. The shade wasn’t quite right and it was a little on the small side, having once gone through a laundry cycle by mistake, but it was better than nothing. “Got a rubber band?”
Scarlett didn’t act like a real human. She couldn’t speak, for one thing, although sometimes her mouth opened and closed soundlessly, as if she were going, “Mom mom mom mom.” She couldn’t move by herself, but was highly poseable, Dave working her into a range of positions as both dance partner and puppeteer: crabwalking across the floor, doing the Macarena, picking her nose, picking Dave’s.
“Could you give it a rest over there?”
He’d installed two eyehooks in the ceiling over the ping-pong table and strung up Scarlett by her wrists, so that she hung forward with her arms aloft and her head propped up by an empty Hellman’s container. Meanwhile, Dave was standing on the opposite side of the table trying to wing popcorn into her mouth.
“Hold on, I’m about to beat my record.”
Her hair was held back with a twist tie to keep it out of the strike zone, while her face was at once bloated and sagged, like a sad piñata. An hour earlier the 1-800-AHH HELP representative had sweated me out in six Hindi-accented languages—“Where is the tiger? Tell me, where is the tiger?”—until I gently, quietly returned the phone to its cradle. A piece of popcorn zipped past me and ricocheted off Scarlett’s chin.
“That’s 14. You wanna go?”
I looked at the popcorn strewn around Scarlett’s feet and the unchewed kernels in her mouth, slowly becoming glutinous.
“We should take this down.”
“Fine,” Dave said, but he stepped toward me. He held out the paddle. “After you go.”
“I’m not going.”
“It wasn’t a request.”
We squared off, stuffed goats butting heads in a museum, our tableau as frozen as Scarlett’s. Then Dave pushed me, and I pushed back. He lost his balance and tripped over a Batmobile, catching his ear on the table edge as he went down. He made a high sound not unlike the printer. Scarlett watched us; her gaze now appeared stony, unforgiving. I thought I caught the hint of a smile.
“What the hell!” Dave said, scrambling back on his tailbone. He had his hand pressed against his temple. “What the hell!” he said again.
I picked up the paddle and the Batmobile, newly dented along its fender. “This is over,” I said. “Go home, Dave.”
“I thought this was a partnership. I thought we were pioneers.”
“Pioneers don’t string up celebrity sex clones and fling popcorn at them.”
He looked at his hand. He wasn’t bleeding, but he put it back against his head anyway. “Well, do you want to hang out later? They’re doing a Garbage Hunters marathon on History.”
I thought about it.
I couldn’t sleep that night. My brain kept circling back to Scarlett, still hanging in the living room, the air conditioner making her forehead beat like cellophane in a car window. I kept thinking about the printers, and what would happen if we used the secondary set to print a third, and from that set a fourth, and so on until they were so small and numerous that the whole surface of the earth was covered with 3D printers, from which a second, slightly spongier reality would be laid like a watermark over our own.
I’d only just fallen asleep when a crash jerked me awake again. I heard the front door slam, then hurried footsteps in the street below. I began to reach for my baseball bat (Babe Ruth’s, the same one that had fetched a million at Sotheby’s), but it only took a quick glance in the laundry room to confirm what I already knew: he’d taken the printers. All of them, from Pı to P20to the original, generative P.
I sat down at the kitchen counter, held my head in my hands. The banana lay in the fruit bowl before me, impervious to rot, as fresh and tasteless as the day it was printed. It wasn’t Schrödinger’s banana, not anymore. Now it was the banana of knowledge, Eve’s banana, plucked from the garden. The banana before the fall.
It was some time before I saw Dave again. He wouldn’t answer his phone, and my messages went straight to voicemail: “This is Dave. Dave not here. If you’re from Guild Wars and trying to reach frostmagus45, please call back on my landline.” I looked for him down at GameFill, but he’d quit weeks ago. “Just up and left,” the manager told me. He handed me an ID on a blue lanyard. “You can give this back to him. We don’t need it anymore.”
I went to his building later that day, misremembering the route and backtracking two blocks before I jogged up the stoop and rang the buzzer. I felt silly, like a jilted lover; I was about to turn back when he finally answered.
“Lair of frost.”
I shifted on the front steps, realizing I didn’t know what, exactly, I’d come here to say. “Hey man.”
“Oh,” he said. His voice was quiet through the speaker, grainy sounding. “Hey.”
“Not much, not much. What’s up with you?”
A woman with a handcart came out the door and started to hold it open, but I shook my head. “Not much.”
A moment passed. I could hear something else through the speaker, maybe the TV. Voices crackling.
“So yeah, I’d love to catch up, dude, but I’m actually kind of really busy right now.” I heard him pull the tab on a can; bubbles settled. “New business with the printers, you know, irons in the fire. I don’t need to tell you.”
“I’ve got this guy commissioning a replica of his own head and he’s being a huge bitch about it. The nose is too big, there’s not enough hair. Fucker looks like Ben Kingsley! So I probably better get back to that. I’ll catch you later?”
“I have your lanyard,” I said.
“Never mind. I’ll catch you later.”
As I was walking I turned to look into Dave’s window, the front apartment on the second story. I could just make out the shape of his head as he sat on the couch, facing the television. It looked like Garbage Hunters was on. And then there was someone else next to him, a slouched figure I couldn’t quite place. I kept walking. It was already getting dark outside, and lights were coming on in media rooms up and down the street.
It didn’t hit me until I’d opened the front door and sat down on my own couch, put my feet up on the coffee table. It’s not easy, you know, to recognize the back of your own head.
I wondered if they were having fun, if fun was something it (he? I?) could even process. Maybe it was more like a long, undifferentiated stream of color. I don’t know. I hoped I was enjoying myself.
I turned on the TV, the same episode they were watching at Dave’s. Today they were hunting garbage in an abandoned steel mill. I set up Scarlett on the couch and lay my head on her soft, ductile kneecap, where I stayed until finally, a little before nine, the electric company cut the lights.