by Gustavo Bondoni
Charlotte stomped down the gangplank, ignored the sailor’s admonition to be careful, and immediately slipped on the slick plastic of the raft. She landed in a wet patch she preferred not to look at too closely.
The clean-shaven middle-aged man who’d been standing on the platform rushed forward and helped her to her feet. Charlotte wanted to tell him to go to hell, but she’d been brought up better than that. She mumbled her thanks.
“I hope you’re all right. Footing is always a bit tricky on the Fossey. You get used to it after a few days, though.” Seeing that she was on her feet, the man released her, but she noticed that he was poised to catch her if she stumbled again. “I’m Dr. Da Silva. Call me Fernando. How was your trip?”
Long, cold and I spent most of it heaving over the side, Charlotte didn’t say. She shook the proffered hand. “Fine.”
“Come on. Let’s get you settled. Is that all your luggage?”
“Yes. They told me there wasn’t much in the way of social life, so it’s mainly t-shirts and sweaters.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find yourself pretty busy,” Da Silva replied, and then he smiled, a sudden explosion of white that lit up his dusky face. “But t-shirts and sweaters will be perfectly fine.”
She followed him down a long path made of what appeared to be plastic planks strung together with plastic wire. The footing was as advertised: absolutely treacherous. The path followed an arrow-straight line across a black tarpaulin that seemingly went on forever.
“There’s garbage underneath the sheet,” Da Silva explained. “Mainly plastic bottles and other stuff that the fish couldn’t eat. We use this as our source of raw materials, but I don’t think it will last much longer. We’ve already consumed five square kilometers of the stuff. We might have to go to the big patch to get some more. Of course that’s why Teresa brought the labs all the way out here in the first place.”
Without warning, Da Silva reached out and grabbed hold of her arm. A moment later, the path underneath her convulsed and lifted itself a meter into the air. Only the doctor’s hold on her kept her from another spill.
“You’ll get used to the swells after a while. Within a couple of days, most people can feel them coming.”
Charlotte didn’t want to get used to them. She didn’t want to be floating on a huge patch of garbage in the middle of the Pacific.
But Da Silva seemed oblivious to her reluctance. He led her on and, within a few hundred meters, the scenery changed. Despite herself, Charlotte gasped.
A series of low hills, each perhaps three or four meters high, covered with some kind of bright green succulent creeper appeared. The path disappeared into a valley between two of the nearest hillocks.
“What is that?”
“We use the plants to fix the topsoil above our fermentation banks. That’s what those hills are. We found that without the plants, we were losing too much of our production to every storm. So frustrating.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Da Silva, gave her an apologetic look. “I keep forgetting that we’re trying to keep this a secret. I don’t really know why, since everyone who wants to stop this already knows what we’re doing. Don’t worry. I’m sure Teresa will brief you tomorrow.”
With that, he walked on, and they lost themselves in a warren of hills. Their destination turned out to be a Quonset hut nestled in a small valley. “This is the women’s barracks,” he told her. “Make yourself comfortable—just grab whichever of the empty compartments you like. Only three of them are occupied. Teresa should be around shortly. Whatever you do, don’t disturb any of her things.” He smiled at his own private juke and disappeared into the green, leaving Charlotte standing by herself.
Teresa appeared nearly an hour later. From Da Silva’s attitude towards her, Charlotte had imagined a kind of dragon lady built like a bank vault and ready to heave her into the ocean for the slightest misdemeanor. Instead, the woman approaching her looked more like a movie star than an activist. Dressed in black form-fitting clothes from head to toe, and looking out at the world with sparkling grey eyes, she made Charlotte feel frumpy and unattractive. Which was completely unfair considering the fact that Teresa was at least twenty-five years older than her.
“Good, you’re here.” The woman said, nodding approvingly. “I was afraid Da Silva would forget to go get you and I’d have to send out search parties. I’m Teresa, by the way.”
“Yes, yes. Now, what time is it? Six-thirty? We still have an hour of daylight. Do you want to know what’s going on? Of course you do. Come with me.” Her English was excellent, certainly better than Da Silva’s, but she had the slightest Italian accent.
Without looking back, the woman set off at breakneck speed down one of the paths. Charlotte slid after her.
“I know what you’re thinking. You think you’re wasted here. You didn’t sign up to do menial tasks on a trash heap in the middle of nowhere. You joined ActionTerra so you could do something. I’ll bet you imagined that you’d be boarding a whaling ship somewhere, or chained to the entrance of a copper mine in Chile. Instead, they shipped you out here, far from the action. Hell, this isn’t even an ActionTerra project, it’s a legitimate scientific research institution funded by the very same governments that you wanted to protest against. Just how pissed are you?”
Charlotte didn’t know what to say. The woman’s rapid-fire monologue had left her head spinning.
“That mad, huh? I guess it makes sense. You’re young.” She turned back to study her. “But let me make something clear. What we’re doing here is much more important to getting this world working again than all the protests you’ll ever go to in your life. The shouting and attacking oil platforms play extremely well on the evening news, but they’re often counterproductive. On this installation, we are taking the long view, and actually working on something that everyone can get behind.”
“But what can I do here? I haven’t got any scientific training. Hell, I was a journalism major, with a minor in social networks. I’m worse than useless on a science outpost.” And, she didn’t add, on the job market, too. All they want are business graduates.
“That’s why we need you. We’re close to being able to announce results. The scientific papers have pretty much passed the peer review process. But we also want the general public to know what we’ve achieved. And that, we can only do via social networks. We’re terrible at Instagram.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Instagram is what my grandparents use. You want the Sexynet and OutThere.”
Teresa actually stopped talking for three seconds and turned to look at her. Then she smiled, an on-off expression that was gone before Charlotte was quite certain she’d seen it.
“Looks like we were right to bring you here. Now stop dawdling. You need to see this.”
The inside of the tent smelled like a garbageman’s armpit after a tough haul on a summer’s day. Charlotte gagged as the entered, but Teresa seemed not to notice anything amiss.
“This is our culture tent. It’s where we refine the bacteria that we harvest from the hills. Only a small amount has the mutations we need.”
“I’m sorry,” Charlotte replied, taking shallow breaths. “What bacteria?”
“I keep forgetting you don’t know. This project was officially created to breed bacteria that eat plastic bottles and either break down the plastic into other hydrocarbons or excrete them.”
“You’re turning plastic back into petroleum? So that more cars can dump it into the atmosphere? I’d rather keep the bottles floating around.”
“No. Our brief is to find a format that creates lubricant, not fuel. That way, the benefit is twofold: we can turn waste into something valuable, and the carbon is locked up in the lubricant. It’s a win-win.”
In Charlotte’s experience, there were very few groups concerned about finding win-win solutions to environmental problems. She immediately grew suspicious. “Who started the project?”
Teresa didn’t blink. She held Charlotte’s gaze when she answered. “Royal Dutch Shell.”
“Shell? Shell is the antichrist!”
“No. They’re not. They are stuck in a bad situation, and they’re doing their best to get out of it. This is one of the things they’re put in motion to revert the jam they’re in.” Teresa paused as if unsure how much more to tell her. “Besides, they’re no longer running the show. We’ve been co-opted.”
“I’m not going to like this next bit, am I?”
“You’re going to hate it with a passion. But the reason I handpicked you from among all the people ActionTerra offered to send us is that I think you’re smart enough to see the big picture. You believe in wanting to make the world a better place, not just mindlessly follow along with the environmentalist dogma. Or anarchist dogma for that matter.”
“Anarchist? What does that have to do with anything?” Clearly, the woman had access to Charlotte’s file, not just her résumé.
“Our main patrons are longer private corporations. We’re being jointly funded by the NSA and the intelligence arm of the PLA.”
“Wait, NSA, as in the spies?”
“And PLA… what’s the PLA?”
“The PLA is the People’s Liberation Army. It’s China’s military.”
“That makes no sense. Why would the superpowers be funding you jointly?”
“To keep the balance. Here, have a look.” She pulled the top off a metal drum to reveal a pool of brackish water. “What do you see?”
“Dirty water. I think there’s some algae floating in there.”
“All right. Hold this.”
Teresa handed her a tablet with a blank screen, a cable snaked out of the back and fed into the drum. Charlotte assumed that it was the temperature control. Then she bent, picked an old pop bottle off the floor and tossed it into the barrel. The water began to fizz softly, and the bottle was soon surrounded by a visible coating of greenish scum.
“We had some interesting side effects when we began to breed the cultures. What we wanted was to breed a bug smart enough to be able to identify the plastic and to tell other bacteria what they’d found so the process wouldn’t take forever. Then things kind of snowballed.”
She swiped the tablet and a series of numbers appeared on the screen. “We’re still working on the interface, but that’s not a priority.”
“What’s it doing?”
Another glimmer of human emotion crossed Teresa’s face. Charlotte could have sworn she saw embarrassment there. But there was no hesitation in the woman’s response. “It’s calculating Pi. It’s already millions and millions of decimal places in. It was the first thing we could think of.”
Charlotte handed back the tablet. It had become completely uninteresting to her. It sounded like something the engineering students in college would have talked about. “What’s the use of calculating Pi with a tablet?”
Theresa chuckled. “I’m afraid you didn’t quite understand me. It’s not the tablet that is doing the calculations. It’s the drum. The bacteria are doing this.”
That night, Charlotte tossed and turned in her bed. The floor was moving unnaturally as the Pacific Ocean rocked them this way and that. Even a platform five kilometers to a side was affected by the swaying of the sea beneath it.
But that was the least of her problems. The short snatches of sleep she was able to get were far from restful. Images of men in dark suits and sunglasses merged with Chinese troops marching in lockstep while a huge Shell Oil tanker steamed past in the background. Sentient tanks of hyper-intelligent bacteria were supervising the whole thing while naked human slaves kept them well fed. She’d wake in a cold sweat after every five-minute doze.
By the time dawn’s rosy glow established itself on the horizon, she had given up on sleep. She got up and got dressed. While she was here, she might as well explore this huge place that was entirely top secret. No one would be looking for her before breakfast, anyway. And that was at eight-thirty.
She didn’t want to go near the lab. That place gave her the creeps, so she walked in the opposite direction.
The green hills were breathtakingly beautiful in the morning glow. The sea air was cool in her hair. If it hadn’t been for the gentle rise and fall of the floor beneath her, she could have imagined herself walking in some unspoiled subtropical paradise. Eden itself couldn’t have been quite this lush, and it made her wonder where the desalination barge was. This amount of green needed more than just natural precipitation to irrigate it.
After about twenty minutes, she stopped. A strange sight greeted her from atop one of the little hills about a hundred meters distant. Charlotte walked over to its base and then, after a slight hesitation, walked off the path and up to its summit.
Da Silva smiled at her. “Good morning.”
“I’m glad you’re real. I thought I might be losing my mind. What are you painting?”
“Only what I see. Have a look.” He moved away from the easel so she could get a better view of the picture.
It wasn’t bad. She liked the way he’d captured the contrast of the reddish morning light with the green of the hills. “I like it.”
“Thank you.” Da Silva added another brush stroke. “I think, someday, when people realize where I was when I painted these, they’ll appreciate them even if, as an artist, I’m an excellent genetic engineer.”
She laughed, some of her bewilderment falling away, or at least being placed on standby for a moment. “I mean it. I like it.”
“Then when I’m finished, you can have this one as a gift. You might have to delay your departure, though.”
“Teresa told me you were so angry that you were probably going to leave.”
“I…” but Charlotte stopped herself. The truth of the matter was that she hadn’t decided what she wanted to do yet. She watched him paint for a few moments while she collected her thoughts. “What do you do here? Apart from picking people up at the dock and painting the world’s strangest seascapes.”
He sighed. “And just when I was starting to enjoy your company, you go and ask me that. I’ll tell you if you promise not to stomp off somewhere.”
“Why don’t I like anything anyone tells me?”
“Because you’re an idealist.”
“Better than being jaded and not caring, I would think.”
“Yes, it is. But being a realist doesn’t always mean you don’t care. Teresa is the worst realist I’ve ever met. She makes the rest of us look like moon-eyed dreamers. But she cares about the world more than anything. She truly believes that her plan will make a measurable difference.”
“By selling her soul to the devil.”
“Nah. She was born on the devil’s side. Her family owns stock in nearly every European company with more than four employees. She was never just one of the boys. But she was smart enough to see that something had to be done. And connected enough to get people with even more money to help her do it. Hell, only she could have been smart enough to get both the Americans and the Chinese involved. She solved our security issues and got our end users to audit each other and avoid any possibility of abuse in one stroke. Genius.” Da Silva had been painting as he spoke, punctuating each point with a sharp brushstroke. Now, he stopped. “If you’re looking for someone who sold his soul to the devil, then that would be me.”
“You? Why, what are you?”
“It’s much easier to explain what I used to be.” He paused. “I used to be you. Well, except I had done some postdoctoral work in genetic engineering. But other than that, we had the same ideals. I once chained myself in font of a bulldozer along with a dozen Amazonian aborigines to keep some loggers from advancing. And then I spent a month in jail for obstructing progress or something.”
“And now you work for big oil and the NSA.”
“Yep. Not only that, but I was the one who allowed them to become involved.”
“I thought Teresa ran the show.”
“She does. But I had the base research she needed, and the plan for how to move forward from it. All of this is my brainchild. She just helped me to get the funding I needed. Before we built this facility, I’d been restricted to ten square meters in a dark lab in the University of the Amazon in Manaus. I was getting nowhere.” The canvas was forgotten by now.
“You sold out.”
“I created a bacteria which eats plastic and turns it into something useful without liberating the carbon locked inside it.” He held her gaze defiantly.
“And how likely is it that the world will reap the benefits of that? Will Shell simply release it?”
“I don’t know. But even if they keep it for themselves until the patent expires, think of all the plastic that they’ll recycle cleanly and effortlessly.”
“Making them more billions.”
“That’s not my concern. Why should it matter if they make money if it’s something that’s good for the planet? My only condition is that they have to clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch. They signed that without any hesitation. It makes sense: the lab is here and the plastic they need is also here. Simple economics at work to help the planet.”
“It will take them centuries. The garbage patch is enormous.”
Da Silva shrugged. “Every plastic bottle helps. And don’t underestimate the amount of lubricant the world needs in a year.”
Charlotte was so furious that she very nearly did storm away. The only thing that stopped her was the knowledge that she would be proving him right.
“And the computer bacteria?” she asked instead.
“They are actually the same ones. We tweaked their genes so that they could communicate more effectively, and before we knew what was happening, they were collaborating like the neural networks in animal brains… one thing led to another, and the result is what Teresa showed you yesterday.”
“So what aren’t you telling me?”
Da Silva turned back to the canvas. She could tell he wasn’t really studying it. “I suppose you want to know why all the intelligence people are here.”
“Yeah. I’m pretty certain they can calculate the decimals of pi without your help.”
“I’ll show you, but you’ll have to sign some papers. The NSA hasn’t got much of a sense of humor. And you’ll have to promise me something, too. You have to promise that you’ll stay here with us for a week. After that, if you still want to leave, you have my blessing.”
“Whatever,” Charlotte replied. But her curiosity was piqued. There was something interesting happening, and she wanted to know what it was.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Let’s get to breakfast.”
“Hello, Charlotte. Da Silva wasn’t sure he would be able to convince you to stay. So it is a pleasure to meet you.”
The voice came to her through a bank of speakers on the far wall. It was a melodic female voice.
“Where are you?” Charlotte asked, looking around for a screen to see the woman they were teleconferencing with.
“Didn’t Da Silva tell you?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” the geneticist replied with a half-smile.
“Will someone tell me what’s going on? And don’t tell me I won’t like it. I know that already!”
“All right. We’re in the tank.”
Charlotte had ignored the tank. It was just a rectangular pool four meters to a was built into the floor of the tent. She now approached and saw that it was very deep and that there was a network of slimy ropes inside. Half-consumed plastic bottles fizzed on the surface.
She turned to Da Silva. “Is this a joke?”
“Not in the least. This is why the Americans and the Chinese are here. The world’s first sentient computer.”
“This isn’t a computer. It’s a life form.”
“Not to them, it isn’t. To the NSA and to Chinese intelligence, it’s just a computer that can outperform anything they have in their cryptography divisions today buy a hundred orders of magnitude. The fact that it happens to be self-aware is just a bonus. Think of all the money they’ll save on programmers.”
“I estimate the cost savings to be in the order of thirty billion dollars. Would you like me to convert that to Yuan?” the voice said.
Charlotte just stood there, not moving, unable to believe her ears.
“And you want me to cover this up for you?”
“No. We want you to tell the world how wonderful it is. The major media outlets are going to be breaking the story in about six days, across the planet.”
“Go to hell.”
“You can leave any time you want. But this project needs you. We can hire someone else, some PR agency to run our social media and write our releases for us. It would be a stupid expense, but the NSA won’t even blink if we ask them for it. Our problem is that, over the past twenty years, controlling the media is useless. Social media tells most people what to think, and we have no idea how to use it. And we know that a lot of people are going to really, really hate this project, for all sorts of reasons.”
She just glared at him.
“Your choice is simple: you can help us clean up the garbage patch and actually do something, or try to stop oil tankers by attacking them with dinghies and waving banners. We all know how effective that is. You promised me a week to think about it.”
This time, she did storm off.
“This doesn’t mean I’m not still angry with you. Both of you,” she told them as she sat down in the small office. “And it doesn’t mean I’m staying permanently. If I see anything that makes me think we’re not getting the job done, I’m out of here.” Charlotte sat at the computer with her name attached to it on a sticky note. The one she’d been ignoring for days.
“Relax. Just keeping the bacteria fed removes a hundred square meters of trash from the ocean every single day. And we’re building a bigger computer for the Chinese. And then the Americans will want one, too. Hell, if this goes on, we’ll have the Pacific clean in a couple of months. Our mere presence is making the world better.”
She snorted at him. Then she turned to Teresa. “And you? Are you that optimistic?”
“No. I thought Da Silva told you. I’m a realist. I fully expect the Russians to nuke us as soon as they find out about this place. That’s why I published the results. I figure someone else can replicate our results and make it silly to attack us. That’s also how I got both the Chinese and the Americans on board. They want to get the exclusive benefits while there are still exclusive benefits to be had. Plus, if they can’t protect us from the Russians, no one can.”
“So I suppose you’ll be flying off, then.”
“No. I’m staying right here.”
Charlotte held her gaze, but said nothing. It was absolutely clear Teresa was telling the truth. She turned to the computer they’d given her. “I can’t use any of what you’ve written. It’s all crap. If I share that, everyone on the Sexynet will be calling us the worst bunch of phonies on the net. We need video. Get the drone up and get me some footage. I’ll edit as I go. And this copy… argh.” She paused to give them a final glare. “What are you waiting for? And Teresa, wipe that smirk off your face or I’m quitting right now.”
Teresa laughed out loud. “I’ll see if the drone operator is around. I’m glad I was right about you.”
Charlotte began to type furiously.
I bet most of you have heard about the Pacific Garbage Patch. But I’m also pretty sure that you haven’t actually thought about it much. It’s three times the size of the United States.
She called out after Teresa. “Get me footage of the garbage patch, too. Send someone out there. I need it yesterday.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Garbage floating on the ocean not just as far as the eye can see, but as far as a plane can take you in hours.
I’m going to tell you about some eco-warriors—she grimaced as she wrote that, but there were things you just had to say—who are doing something about it. Lost in the vastness of the Pacific a tiny speck in the ocean is a totally weird installation that…
As she typed—she would shorten the copy once she had a narrative—Charlotte thought about the real reason she wanted to stay.
How would she liberate the living computers? Who could she ask for help? And where could they take them? What country would recognize their right to exist outside of captivity, in defiance of both the US and China? Sweden? She’d have to ask around.
It would take time. Meanwhile, a hundred square meters of garbage a day was nothing to scoff at.
As Da Silva said, it sure beat getting rammed by whalers.
She typed faster, and wondered what was keeping the footage. All they had to do was fly a drone around a few times. Would she have to do everything herself?
Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is Test Site Horror (2020). He has also published two other monster books: Ice Station: Death(2019) and Jungle Lab Terror (2020), three science fiction novels: Incursion(2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com
If you like this story, consider making a donation to keep HyphenPunk running.
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonateDonate