Trial and Error
Her office was furnished in warehouse basic, befitting an environmental organization like Salvage the Planet. The thirtyish woman, framed up like a WNBA forward, shook his hand and returned to her seat behind a metal desk.
“Mr. McBain, Al, please sit down. Our conversation is being relayed to other board members so we can expedite this process. Is this all right with you?”
He hesitated, then nodded and sat down. Once he was settled, she focused in. “As you and I have discussed, we want you to give us up to five years of your life.”
Al McBain was dressed up in his charcoal gray, ‘I can be corporate’ suit, but his tie had a faint coffee stain and his shoes were meant to be outdoors.
“Ah, MS Keeler, Petula, thank you for your trust, but out of curiosity- there were other researchers in organic chemistry with better academic and corporate access. Why me?”
She frowned, rumpling an otherwise attractive face. “They’re often beholden to corporations in the plastics industry. You’re qualifications are as good or better, and you’ve been outspoken in support of environmental issues. We want to destroy polyurethane waste products; the plastics industry wants to create more of them.”
She smiled. “You’ll have something to build on. We’ve purchased the research of Terel Richards, a scientist who discovered a pseudomonas bacterium that could marginally deconstruct polyurethane.”
“I’ve read about that. Wouldn’t he have been someone to hire?”
Her smile turned into a frown. “We might have, but he died suddenly.”
SalP had an earned reputation as the bar fighter of environmental groups, and Al knew how seriously they took this project. “I’ll put every possible effort into achieving this in the laboratory. But the odds are long.”
“Hence the terms we’ve provided. Two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year in salary plus lab expenses, a million five bonus for the successful development of a usable bacteria.”
“And the rights to the research?”
“Are ours of course, Al. But as the creator you’ll be famous and undoubtedly sought after.”
Petula’s expression was calm but her eyes glinted. “It’s a rare chance to do applied research on your terms and possibly get both recognition and significant income. And begin to rid our world of a curse.”
He nodded, took a deep breath and said, “In order to improve the odds, I’ll need what I requested—an assistant capable of handling analytical tasks, a personal expense account of up to a hundred fifty thousand dollars per year for travel and interviews, and an operating budget of about a million. Oh, and a leased car.”
Petula looked down at the open lap top in front of her and held her gaze there for almost a minute. She looked up and nodded in turn. “These terms are acceptable to us, but we need to appoint the assistant ourselves, and you need to start almost immediately.”
Al’s lips turned up. Agreement gave SalP an informant. “That’s okay, so long as your man is technically competent.”
“I think she’ll pleasantly surprise you.”
Pressley Ray arrived while Al was halfway through converting a grocery store into a lab. “Are you Al McBain?”
“I am. You must be Pressley.”
Pressley was shorter than Petula but just as solid. She looked around, smiled and said, “Pretty dowdy for a high-tech bio lab.”
Al smiled back wryly. “It’s scheduled for beauty treatments. But I needed an open space with industrial grade ventilation, enough wiring for Dr. Frankenstein and room for a lot of refrigeration. That’s already here so we’ll save a lot of time and money.”
“I’ll pitch in,” she said, “just point me at it.” Pressley put down her attaché case and she and Al began to talk while they worked at clearing out the space. Al realized that his squealer was also a fanatical worker and a week later put her in charge of the painters and cleaners. In two weeks, he began to move in lab equipment. In four weeks, he started to receive cultivated bacteria and agar for testing and gene alteration.
After the first month, Al began buying two coffees on his way into work and giving one to Pressley. They would spend the first fifteen minutes of the day reviewing the screwups and disappointments from the day before, and the plans for that day’s work. Pressley, bobbed hair swinging in animation, was his doubting Thomas and reality principle.
“Al, what you’re doing sprains the academic specifications for a study.”
“Ain’t it wonderful? Your foundation is paying me for results, so I don’t have to worry as much about peer review or journal publication. I just have to create some plastic-eating bugs.”
Bacteria live and die quickly, and Al and Pressley scatter shot their way through recombinant genetic radiation experiments, trying to get the critters to survive long enough on a diet of polyurethane to reproduce. But all they were able to achieve were millions of starving test subjects.
They pressed on. The work was both strenuously disciplined and monotonous-irradiate a bacterial sample, then, using a sterile swab, transfer a small quantity from the slant culture to broth tubes. Place the tubes in a 37°C incubator overnight, with the top loosened. Microwave until the agar is melted. Add polyurethane and pour the molten agar into petri dishes. Observe feeding activity.
There wasn’t any. One morning, coffee ignored, Al and Pressley had a shouting session. Once it was over and they tried to drink the lukewarm coffee, Al conceded the bout to Pressley on points.
“Okay, say we do need a geneticist, where the hell would we find one?”
“I’ll e mail you her resume.”
Michaela Wiskind, the geneticist, was half the size of Pressley.
“So, Al, I hear you guys have been going buggy.”
He couldn’t resist a smile, despite the vintage corn. “Nature is refusing to take the course we’re pushing it toward. The pseudomonas bacteria won’t digest what we’re force feeding them. We’re hoping you can suggest a different approach.”
“I’ve reviewed your research. A little sloppy, but it would have been my initial approach. What about a crude variation? Irradiate the critters in the presence of polyurethane.”
“There’s no scientific justification to do that.”
“And none to exclude it. What’s the harm in a little overtime zapping?”
After agreeing to the modification, Al expected to kill off several hundred thousand bacteria and switch to another avenue, but the pseudomonas reproduced erratically and analysis showed that some of the polyurethane had been consumed. He and Petula generously paid Michaela to remain for another year, during which time the bugs could hopefully acclimate to their plastic menu.
The bugs still died young, and didn’t reproduce true, but Al stuck with his Russian approach- saturation bomb the suckers.
Eight and a half months into the experiment, Pressley cornered Al outside the lab while he was carrying in two coffees. They sipped while leaning against an unused bicycle rack. “Al, a woman from Gargantua Petrochemicals came to see me.”
“If it’s a job offer, hold out for more money. You’re good.”
“No, smartass, she says they wants to support our research. Says it’s the responsible thing for them to do, contribute toward disposing of their trash.”
“Why you and not Petula?”
“That was my thought as well. Then she started asking me about how we were progressing, avenues of research, people involved. I can smell fishing expedition stink, and I shut her down, sort of.”
“Ah. We need the money but he has no right to the information even if he pays up.”
“Something like that. I told him to contact Petula, but my guess is she’ll never hear from her.”
Coffee finished, they walked together into the lab.
“Curious,” Al said. “Tell me, how did Terel Richards die?”
“Ah, some kind of food poisoning, I think. Which is weird, because Petula told me he was a health food nut. Didn’t smoke, drink, do drugs. Didn’t even curse.”
“But did find a plastic eating critter. Like we’re trying to replicate. We’ve talked about the hazards of uncontrolled bacterial spread, of the critters eating the still usable Polyurethane, or even worse switching menus to polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride. I suspect Gargantua’s worry rather than their generosity.”
“I will, but they’re more likely to pick on you next time.”
“What was this corporate snakeskin’s name?”
“Robby Calas. Get her to buy you lunch before you tell her to self-copulate.”
“Hell yes.” Al took several seconds to think. “You’re providing progress reports to SalP, so maybe one of your crusaders has backslid. Or—the only paper trails we’ve left in the outside world are the purchases of bacterial cultures and powdered polyurethane.”
The lab was swept for cameras and mics and came out clean. After another coffee cup huddle, Al and Pressley agreed to a testing sub set—some plastic would be partially chemically degraded, making it hopefully easier for the critters to digest. “Baby food for our babies,” Pressley said.
The bugs undergoing the initial test criteria still had indigestion. But Pressley’s pupils once in a while survived. As the generations of bacteria reproduced, the decomposition level of their plastic was gradually reduced until they might, with many regurgitations, sip their plastic neat. Knowing how often research flattens like a bad tire, Pressley Al and Michaela kept any optimism to themselves. The pessimism was warranted. The bugs began cannibalizing themselves, preferring to eat each other rather than the plastic.
A fruitless month later, Robby Calas called Al.
“Mr. McBain, this is Robby Calas of Gargantuan Petrochemical. I’m guessing Pressley Rey has mentioned me?”
“She did, Ms. Callas. I’m afraid my answers to you will be the same as hers.”
“I think I have a different, hopefully more interesting proposal. Can we meet?”
“I’m afraid my lab schedule is pretty full.”
“Perhaps lunch then?”
Al hadn’t eaten an upscale restaurant meal in over a year. “Okay, when and where?”
“Le Sybarite, say 12:30 next Tuesday?”
Robby was wearing a tweed jacket and jeans. Al admired her preparation, he suspected that Robby had dug deep into her custom suited closet to come up with this camouflage.
“Al, I suggest the soft-shelled crab, they do a loving preparation of it here.”
“Thanks. I’ve never met one, but I’ll try it.”
Robby ordered a dirty martini, Al ordered iced tea.
“Al, I’ll avoid all the butter ups and get right to the point. We know what SalP has budgeted for you. We’ll double it, including extra associates. Yours is an iterative process that seems to be stuck, having more help will expedite eliminating alternatives.
“And in return?”
“We’re not asking for any managerial control, just full access to your accounting records and lab reports. If you fail, we’re out a few hundred thousand. If you succeed, we trust that you’ll give us credit for our assistance.”
Al’s forehead wrinkled. “And if you don’t like what we’re doing you’ll shut half of us down.”
“No, no, we’d provide written guarantees of funding for two years. No control, no interference, we’d just be an enabler and a witness.”
They poked at their food in silence. Al looked up. “Your apparent generosity is appreciated, thank you. But I’ll need to vet the idea with SalP. May I have a week before I get back to you?”
“Of course. How’s the soft-shelled crab?
Once back at the lab, Al took an hour to chew on what Robby had said, and make sure the crab stayed down. Then he made an appointment to see Petula Keeler.
She listened in silence while he reviewed the meeting with Robby and said, “I’ve met these pillagers before. There’s no way in hell that we’re getting in bed with Gargantua, they’d get kinky before the sheets settled.”
He shrugged. “Our testing really is a brute force project, the more we throw at it the sooner we’re apt to get usable results. It may be the devil’s money, but I don’t see how they could do anything but help our progress.”
Petula’s jaw muscles bulged. She hesitated, then said, “If you need to hire another chemist, we’ll support it. But we’ll never take polluted money from a defiler like Gargantua.”
Al called Gargantua and turned them down. Calas’ response was expected, but ominous.
“That’s too bad. You know, there are only so many places an organic chemist can earn a reasonable salary, and you may have prejudiced yourself at most of them.” She paused. “Perhaps we could reach a more informal arrangement?”
Al wanted to yell into the phone, but swallowed it down. “No, I don’t think so. Being a double agent has never been my style.”
“We aren’t going away, McBain. What you’re attempting is potentially too hazardous to our industry. I don’t think you’re going to like us as an opponent.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No, no of course not. Just a comment. I would never say anything that would make us liable.”
A day into the second year of research, Pressley was waiting for Al outside the lab. They leaned against the bicycle rack, sipping coffees and she started in.
“Al, we need the nuclear option.”
“I’m not ritually sacrificing any animals.”
She barely smiled. “We already are. We need to reexamine our raw materials.”
“Our pseudomonas bacteria, like lab rats, are carefully bred and screened to ensure consistency over generations.”
“We don’t want consistency; we want radical change. What happens if we ask the generating lab to give us their abnormalities, their sports, their malformations? The batches they would otherwise destroy.”
Al grimaced. “We lose control of the experiment.”
“And maybe we should. These reject bugs are already changeable. If we zap them and feed them mushy plastic we might just get somewhere.”
“God knows what we could create. Let’s stick with the established procedures.”
“At least reconsider it after three more months?”
“Reconsider? Sure, Pressley.”
They set up – test – repeated for three months of ten-hour days. In his whinier inner moments, Al thought about himself as a soldier on a forced march in miserable weather. Something needed changing.
“All right, Pressley, you win again. Let’s contact Bubonic Resources and see if they’ll consider sending us their culls.”
“Ah, Al, just as a contingency I’ve been talking informally with Bubonic for about six weeks now. They’ll supply us with their sports for a twenty five percent upcharge. All you have to do is sign the paperwork.”
“The hell you say. Am I really that predictable?”
“Well, yeah, but our current research is futilely masochistic. If you get on the phone with them, they might come down to a twenty percent surcharge.”
A few weeks after the deviant cultures arrived, truly ugly things began growing in the petri dishes. And two deformed batches showed sustained growth and reproduction on a diet of polyurethane.
Al had already set down stringent prophylaxis in the lab to prevent any leakage of contaminated samples, and added additional protective layers. He, Michaela and Pressley looked like nurses in a COVID ward as they worked with the deviant bacteria. One evening, three months later, after they’d decontaminated themselves, he asked the other two to come to his office.
He opened a bottle of champagne, poured out three glasses and said, “Just a little celebration to confirm what we’ve already seen in the data. We’re—we’ve achieved sustained polyurethane absorption on a laboratory scale. I hoped, but I guess I never really believed, that we could do it. The bacteria are genetically unstable but hold true to the polyurethane degeneration. The next step, industrial production of enzymes and use at waste sites, will probably take many years to achieve—the material would need to be sterile so that there’s no spread beyond the site. So skoal!”
Michaela sipped with him, but Pressley just held her glass. Once Michaela had left, Pressley set her glass down, her expression unreadable. “I need to tell you something that’s probably going to end our relationship.”
“What could be that bad?”
“First let me tell you about Terel Richards. Before we hired you, we’d hired him. He also got results, not as spectacular as ours, but results. He published a summary and Gargantua came nosing around. They threatened him, he told them to go to hell, and he got dead from an unidentified ailment.
“By the time we found and hired you, we assumed that Gargantua had a mole in our organization reporting on research developments.
Al’s mouth opened. “So much for your being naive.”
“I’ve tried to mask our results in the reports I send to Petula, but the word got out. We were told by our own source that Gargantua plans to completely destroy and sterilize your facility. We decided drastic action was needed. For the past several days, I’ve been spreading our renegade bacteria anywhere that looked fertile for them.”
“But they’ll mutate into God knows what!”
“Maybe. But with luck we’ll exterminate a plastic curse. I’m sorry Al, you’re a good man caught in ugly circumstances. I’ll pack up and go.”
Once Pressley had left Al looked at his champagne with distaste, his mouth sour from the taste of it. He pulled out his cell phone.
“Petula, it’s Al. How the hell could you-you need to order Pressley to immediately identify the places where she’s dumped the bacteria so we can decontaminate the areas.”
Petula sighed. “Al, I’m sorry, Gargantua forced us into this contagion. We didn’t want to jeopardize you and your associates, and we absolutely didn’t want to lose the effects of what you were able to do. But we’ve never had the muscle Gargantua does. Think of it as going public with a vengeance.”
“That’s crazy talk.”
Petula’s tone hardened. “Not crazy, just completely committed. We did make you whole, I just transferred your bonus to your account.”
“We’ll be forced back into the dark ages.”
“Nonsense, we did just fine without plastics, just a little more inefficiently. Al, do you know what a call option is?”
Al’s ‘no’ was angry.
“You option to buy stocks in the hope that they rise significantly and if they do, you pocket the increase. Profits potentially almost without limit.”
“I encourage you to use your bonus to buy call options on forest product companies. You’ll become quite wealthy.”
“I’ll go public with this.”
Petula laughed unpleasantly. “Al, no matter how this shakes out, you’re going to be the evil mastermind who destroyed a polluted standard of living. People will hate you. I’d find a gated community. We thank you though.”
Al hung up and set his phone down. He stared at his blank computer screen. From force of habit, he cupped his mouse and rolled it back and forth to wake the machine. Tiny flakes of gray drifted off the black plastic.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had four hundred stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of eight review editors. He’s also lead editor at The Scribes Micro Fiction magazine.