5200 words, short story
Ali Prasetyo mixed the plastic resin, before pouring the viscous liquid into the silicone mold. The colors swirled, like eddies at the edge of Mas River, just as he intended. He let it sit, fumbling with the prototype of the plastic toy in his hand. He felt the smoothness of the curves. It felt buoyant and he let it bounce on the table, listening to the light thwacking sound. There goes Earth, he thought. A short tremor traveled up his bare toes and up through his shoulders. A magnitude two, a mere blip on the Richter Scale, and yet his body was perceptible enough to feel the tiny quaver. His Earth rolled off the table and clattered to the floor. He bent down to collect the miniature planet and saw that his home of Indonesia was facing up, the many islands of the archipelago dotted in green signifying land in a swath of ocean.
Ali shook his head, put the ball in his pocket, and got on his scooter to bike to the local chemical supplier. He wasn’t satisfied with the way this prototype rebounded from the floor. There was a sluggishness to its ricochet. There must be something he could add to it, he thought, as he passed scooter traffic.
Ali had a way with plastic. He liked the way they shape-formed, like superheroes and monsters he used to read in paper comic books his grandfather collected. He passed by a bookstore and sped up. Brittle and yellowing, paper seemed so much the inferior material when compared to the shiny bright plastic that was so ubiquitous in his own generation.
He revved his engine and cut in front of a slow scooter with three kids sitting in them, along with their parents, two of the children with hard plastic helmets. He noted the grooves and holes, an irregularity on the side of the toddler’s helmet that faced him. Just as peripheral vision detected movement in an instinctive act, his eyes processed mold shapes and their contours instantaneously. In a second, he had passed him and his eyes focused on the road, an uptick in his brain registering the polycarbonate window that passed off as glass on a fleeting performance car that accelerated ahead of him.
As he watched the sports car disappear, he thought about his childhood and his dad who professed he longed to own a fast vehicle, but instead invested all his income on Ali’s future.
Ali excelled at plastic mold competitions, plastic erecting architecture, snap-on challenges. When he was five, he made his first model of a bird with his 3-D printer, with legs, guts, face, and all. When he was twelve, he focused on joints, moving parts, pendulums, and other mechanics using differently weighted plastics to achieve the kinds of kinetics he wished. When he was a high school graduate, he won accolades from the many contests he entered and placed. His teachers penned effusive recommendations for him and he won a scholarship to the university of his choice with the premier plastics engineering program. At the expense of their own dreams, his parents poured their energies into his and it paid off. They couldn’t have been prouder.
They could see their son was made for something great. He was one of the many youths ushering in a new era of material science, one of the great architects of the next generation. The kind of thing every parent tells themselves. Even as their dreams of race cars (with polycarbonate windows) sped off into the distance and winked away in the horizon.
Plastic was already overtaking all. Just as the world’s oceans were engulfed in plastic—where a knife slit in a dead bird’s body would reveal an autopsy of the polymer, just as even plankton consumed the micro-plastics—3-D printers started phasing in. They were the next best gift. They used plastic to make 3-D printers and 3-D printers to make 3-D printers. A kind of self-replication that assured perpetuity.
Ali browsed through the catalog of chemicals. As always, the warehouse was filled with mechanic humming and drumming but few conversations and shouts from vocal chords, with mostly machines operating the lines. Machine parts also printed from printers.
Printing was fairly easy. You could buy hardware off Amazon or you could just ask your buddy at school, your neighbor, your employer, someone else who has already invested in the hardware to make one of your own. Put in some specifications or download one of those many pre-made designs uploaded on snap share, and there you have it, a ready 3-D printer, ready to wash ashore more plastic debris, ready to raise plastic overconsumption as the number one threat to human health.
Ali took a can off the shelf. The can container itself was plastic.
When Ali created a small robotic car that had all plastic components, his parents took him bowling. His dad was especially elated. Then, one week later, he recreated a bowling alley out of plastic in their backyard. Every reward they offered him struck another chord of imagination, so that their attic filled to the brim with plastic appliances and knick-knacks. Then, when the attic was full, his parents allowed one car space of the garage to be dedicated to Ali’s contraptions. One car space soon became the whole garage, and next thing you knew, Ali had his first commission. One hundred dollars from his parents to build a shed of plastic to store his stuff. His parents thought themselves clever, but Ali thought they got the short end of the stick. He would get to appropriate more backyard real estate for his projects. Also, the lack of specification from his parents was his own gain. He built a shed that covered the entire backyard, from house to fence.
If his parents’ generation was the silicon generation, then surely his would be the plastic one. But, silicon was still present. Tech companies still experimented with silicon, interlaced with the printable polymer. But, plastic start-ups were where all the investors fled.
The next day, Ali cradled his plastic filament, as he chatted with his coworker, Karina Hartono. He was one of the few that had opted for a biochemical minor and now he proved the utility of his passion. Not only did it lead him to a career in one of the most lucrative sectors of R&D, but it also led him to this particular lab with this particular labmate, Karina.
The filament he held in his hand was mostly plastic but included some organic material from seabed bottoms, reefs from which he chiseled. The resulting mix was something that could conduct heat. He could feel it pulsate in his palm, but he thought that might be his own heartbeat, beating away to Karina’s tinkling laughter.
He felt on top of the world, a love blossoming, the conductive nature of romance-to-be and the new product that he felt in his bones would soon be marketable. This was the one, he thought.
Conductivity is a conduit for plastic to be the one material which will rule over us all. The long-lasting, barely biodegradable emperor of its domain, Earth.
That was the first two sentences of a 3456 carefully-worded anonymous letter that came in the mail one week after his co-authored article, “The electromagnetic conductivity of reef-based calcium carbonate infused in new polypropylene varieties,” published in the Journal of Engineered Textiles and Science. It was one of many letters to come. Looking back at it, Ali would say it was perhaps one of the tamest, least filled with vitriol.
After Karina published an article on her other project with the team that she was leading, new methods of plastic tempering, they kept separate bins to compete to see who could get the most hate mail by the summer. Some were sent by post but most came through their work emails that they then printed out to add to their own pile. Letters that were mostly questions or requests from media on plastic-related topics didn’t count. It had to have at least a tinge of animosity to qualify for the bin.
Ali was winning. His stack was at least three times the size of Karina’s. While the letters Karina received were largely confined to the local area and too benign to be considered for the bin, Ali received letters with lots of colorful expressions. But, Ali himself was a much more vocal advocate, agreeing to appear on blogs and podcasts on textiles.
And his ‘fans’ were from around the world, too.
It was with this lead in competitive hate-mail receiving, that Ali asked Karina to go scuba-diving with him. That summer they spent a lot of time checking out reefs together, all across Java, Bali and further out into the pristine waters of the Raja Ampat archipelago, with Ali pointing out some of the flamboyant ones that inspired his latest polymers.
“Remember that one that in blue and yellow with a huge arm span reaching out towards the surface? It looked like a peacock,” he would say. Or make note of some other piece of ocean bottom he found particularly enrapturing.
“It was a sea fan coral, anchoring to softer substrates. I read they’re nocturnal, only growing their polyps at night,” she would respond, a twinkle in her eye. “Can you imagine that, an engorged limb reaching out in the dark sea waters?” Ali wondered if that was an invitation to say more. Karina exhibited an encyclopedic memory when it came to these formations and a spirited humor he appreciated but could not exactly interpret. He left it alone.
But one night, at a provocative remark on her part, “darting orange fishes like tongues,” he invited her to his room. She conceded, with a coquettish grin. That night, like the coral, they stretched out their limbs. Like wayward growth, they wrapped themselves around each other in the dark, their tongues mimicking the flitting movements of tiny sea life.
Twice a week for two blissful months, they would glide in each other’s paths for hours at a time, pointing out gaudy sea life and photographing exceptional coral constructions.
Then, they would surface in sync to a setting sun.
The first leaves of autumn had already fallen when Ali first saw the clip of the environmentalists attacking plastic physically. He couldn’t help but laugh.
“What a joke,” he said at the cooler to the HR manager, as they peered at the screen together, watching the rage unfold.
“Honestly, sometimes I can imagine giving some plastic a good whack, too,” said the manager. “But, I’m not actually gonna go out there and do it.” Their eyes fell away from the phone as the repeated hits relented at about three seconds left of the clip.
Then, Ali grabbed his mug of kopi jahe, sipping the mix of bitter coffee and bright ginger, as he approached Karina’s desk. He pulled out his mostly-plastic phone to show her.
The environmentalists were beating plastic phones with metal bats. He couldn’t see the victims very well, but they appeared to be outdated Samsungs. The same group also uploaded a video of themselves taking blows at plastic medical machinery behind a hospital, using what looked to be old metal pipes they must have found rusting at scrapyards.
“Looks like they’re pretty hell-bent,” said Karina.
“Yeah, though I think I have a few letters in my inbox that are more provocative,” said Ali.
He clicked on the next video. For a few seconds they watched these determined protestors take swings at more plastic parts, this time behind an elementary school. The video must have been filmed right after lunch because kids started pouring in, running about the playground and yelling from slides and swings behind the protestors. The kids added to the general commotion, the sounds of banging plastic and the high-pitched cries and laughter of recess intermingling, until a school administrator asked the protestors to leave and the clip ended.
Later at home that night, Ali swirled his spaghetti with a LivingEssentials plastic fork, lost in thought.
It wasn’t as if he never considered the environment, he just knew it would work itself out. His job was to innovate and streamline machinery production through plastics. Other sectors had other responsibilities. Recycling and disposal were sectors outside his narrow field.
Anyway, the protestors could find more effective means of conveying their message, he figured. As if beating a few pieces of plastic technology would do anything but hasten their way into the food stream.
First, these tech pieces would be rendered unusable, some of it would be calibrated for reuse and the rest that could not be so easily recycled would be submitted to the earth as waste. Another bit of plastic discard. Then, whoever those environmentalists took from would simply create more plastic tech. Easy as calling in some superior printers, wave around some money, and within days, new plastic—some from old sources and some created—would be amalgamated into another lifecycle of waste.
Ali thought that if protestors could only use a bit of logic and political literacy, maybe they could direct their energies to the right ears and wallets. Beating plastic gears just wouldn’t cut it.
Ali and Karina had been dating steady for about two years when plastic superseded the boundaries of Earth.
They were watching industry news in the cafeteria, spooning chocolate pudding into their mouths after a lunch of some lackluster rubbery ham sandwiches, when the special came on. Collaborating textile specialists produced plastic that survived the onslaught of UV rays and X-rays from solar flares. Some of the polymers that Ali had worked on, now marketed to a general public, were involved in the innovations.
The textile specialists held out thin sheets of plastic. They explained that air pockets made them extremely lightweight, and its construction virtually indestructible by solar onslaught of electromagnetic radiation.
The reporter then finished the segment: And now plastic takes off to chart the cosmic seas.
As the value of their company stock took off, Ali and Karina talked about major life changes: marriage and the possibility of starting their own company. There were too many restrictions and bureaucratic stalls in their company and they were eager to dip their toes into the unknown, both in their relationship and in the trending industry of plastic for space exploration.
It was with their combined efforts and with the roles of many others that plastic accompanied the colonists to the moon and Mars almost a decade later. The colonists clothed in plastic, drank from plastic mugs, designed their residences in plastic, mostly bubbles of air trapped in plastic sheets, all thanks to Freeroam Industries Ltd. (once MicronLabs, division of Prasetyo Plastics, founded by the power couple and later sold for a whopping one billion in cash and stock.)
Humanity still breathed, ate, and expelled organic material. They were still life, after all. But, some argued that the fast food was mostly plastic anyway. Plastic worked its way up the food chain, they said, from the littlest fish up to the ones that reigned at the top. The omnivores that managed to conquer local space travel, also bore microscopic bits, buoyed in the fluids in their bodies.
Those who espoused humanity’s addiction to plastic pointed at these invisible bits of plastic coursing within. Humanity was likely crapping plastic. Peeing and bleeding plastic. Possibly breathing microscopic plastic.
It’s in this background of symbiotic relationship, when plastic took on a sentience of its own.
Ali was watching a program on the backlit screen when the news program followed.
“At first it was the merging of plastic and plankton, and the pieces that caught in those tiny digestive tracts must have intermingled with the replicating DNA of those tiny simple organisms, a threat invisible to the human eye,” said a woman holding a mic, her eyes peeping out a pair of glasses Ali could tell were at least ninety percent plastic.
“The murkiest seas give way to the strangest creatures, so it’s no surprise that it came from the ocean at first. Like the first of the Loch Ness Monster sightings, their existence was at first hard to identify. But, soon enough, footage caught these amorphous new organisms attached to each other like coral reefs, K’nex sets of monstrosity.”
Ali thumbed a message to Karina. “Urgent, check out the news,” it read. He clicked send and a ping let him know she would soon be cradling her own mostly plastic phone to read his dispatch.
Ali’s eyes glazed, frozen into the spherical molds, as he saw the material he had cradled and formed in his palms since a child, talked about in a way that smacked of new life.
“Sometimes they would wash up dead ashore. But mostly, they lay impassive on the seafloor. They consumed other organic material collected in the seabed, like sponges, filtering in the plastics and rich minerals of dead debris,” said the newscaster, her voice portentous, ending in a deep lilt.
Ali was scuba diving alone when he first saw them move. Karina was back at home, putting some finishing touches on a model of the Mars colony she was building for fun. Both of them had retired by now, their fortunes according them with leisure time for trivial pursuits.
Ali started and were it not for all his experience, he might have choked in his mask. A species of violet lichen cropped up that he never saw before. Ali thumbed through the registry of organisms that made their appearance on coral reefs that he had digitally collected in his mind.
Maybe it was a seasonal thing, a periodic thing, like locusts that come in regular passes of years, he thought. But, he had been scouring seafloors for many years and he never found a specimen much like this. He remembered the many formations Karina had rattled off to him throughout their lives together, years and years of collected knowledge.
Despite strict reef habitat regulations, he grabbed a sample. The purple creeped into his hands.
Ali, who had designed the merging of coral reefs and plastic many moons ago before his research took flight in capitalistic enterprises, felt a pang of dread. His years of investors, rising stocks in the company he co-operated and immersion in that territory amounted to a knowledge so in depth and wide in breadth, that he could recognize that there was a strand of something offbeat in this tiny sample. There was something nonorganic about this lichen.
He immediately called on some acquaintances to rent out a lab with limited oversight. For a hobby, he said, and no one would refuse him otherwise, because they owed their jobs to him and his name went places.
He didn’t want to raise any alarms until he knew for sure. Every day, he quietly slipped into the antiseptic room, hinting not even to Karina his whereabouts. He brought his scuba gear with him and said he would play with the corals.
Under the bright lab lights that passed through the microscope and through the manipulation of Ali’s adept gloved hands, the cells of the strange lichen quivered. Yet, they were not lichen, not really. Something about their molecular structure spoke of plastic. And yet, they weren’t entirely plastic either.
Unlike his own creations decades ago that kindled the plastics industry, these things grew. They were not content to stay bounded by the tenets of inorganic life, or staying simply manmade plastics, inert and lifeless. Rather, what Ali had first mistaken as lichen were plastics that had married into the plankton family, forged a union into the hum of the ocean bottoms, processed through the deep sea food chain.
They had taken reefs as hostages and lovers, which later Ali confirmed to be a kind of Stockholm syndrome that threatened to challenge the dominion of not only oceanic, but human existence.
After a month testing his initial conclusions in the lab, Ali decided he would need to see these plastics in person again. He spent days at the sea and was, at least, relieved that he no longer had to lie to Karina. His soaked wetsuit, sandy flippers, and constant run to the scuba gear suppliers for oxygen refills corroborated his story that he was scuba-diving daily.
Beneath the glittering sun, every day Ali jumped off his rented boat and cut through the surface of the water. He moved from shallower seas to deeper ocean, as the boat operator waited for him, often with fishing pole or book in hand when Ali returned hours later.
Under the bright ray of his heavy duty underwater flashlight, Ali watched how the plankton plastics divided and combined. He witnessed in person how they formed large masses as big as sea dollars, then starfish, then manta rays, darting in the sea like mystical creatures. They were not quite as fast as dolphins, not yet, at least. But, they were growing.
Ali didn’t want to stoke the understandable irrationality that lurked in human minds. He didn’t want to start a panic that once reached the media, would burst into a sensation online, a frenzy of apocalyptic shouts of doomsday approach.
Regardless, he couldn’t simply go down every day, watching the plastic coalesce.
In those days, alone in the dark seas with only his flashlight and a mind full of dread as company, he thought about evolution. An instinct told him that these strange creatures would not be content to roam the seas. They would make contact with their inert brethren on land. Maybe they could even mate and awake them. He did not know if it was possible. But intuition told him, that the creatures would expand and expand, just as the plight of the inert plastics, taking up landfill space and cluttering up streets.
But, this was not simply about immobile, lifeless plastics. This was much more sinister. These were growing bits of life, merging with plastic. Or plastic merging with bits of sea life. They were not sterile, but robust entities. They divided and reorganized in swift movements.
They could have a dominion of not only the seas, but of the land and skies. Ali thought of an old drawing in a children’s museum depicting fish making their way to amphibians and then reptiles. He thought of these amalgams coming ashore, the evolution of this plastic species in touch with their already pervasive terrestrial and extraterrestrial brothers would mean a crisis affecting them all. He thought of a bouncing plastic Earth ball he made years and years ago, rolling off a table and falling into an abyss.
After much consternation and against better financial judgment, he alerted the officials. Over everything, he wanted to shield Karina from it all. Karina, his partner in this enterprise, who had seen him through two kids and the surges and ebbs of their life they grew around their business.
He knew that telling the authorities would mean falling stocks, a probe into regulation, and possibly dismantling of an industry they had worked so hard for. It would also mean personally putting their household under spotlight for their own roles in the course of plastic development. Sure, they were retired and they could do fairly well, but their children who were working in the industry might falter and this could mean the crumbling of an operation they staked their reputations in.
The officials Ali first contacted were scientists that watched over ethics. They never thought ethics could come to this. Typically, the concerns these officials fielded amounted to questions on human subjects and concerns over exploitation. Not the threat of a wayward species coming into existence.
The alarm that spread through the scientific community harked back to the atomic bomb. Not only did it open up new impetus in research on reverse-engineering plastic-related textiles, but it also garnered a wave of discussions and debates.
No longer scouring the seas and instead leaving the job to expert hands, Ali spent his days and nights watching the aftermath of his unpleasant discovery. He would sit in his couch, ignoring Karina’s pleas that they needed a break from this. Where could he go that he could not see plastic? Maybe one of the space colonies. We haven’t been there in years, she said. But, Ali would look glassy-eyed into the screen, strapped to his sofa as if it were his own retribution.
And he would soak in all the criticism: science as not tool but weapon, not helping humanity but bringing it to its demise.
And this weapon was growing and, if what Ali suspected was right, already sentient.
Again, tonight Ali settled in his sofa with his dinner of cold, leftover pizza as accompaniment. Karina was at the gym and texted to tell him she’d eat later. His fingers sent a quick reply and then clicked the plastic buttons on his remote a few times before settling on Channel 36.
6PM Nightly News, with your host, Clarissa Wang.
Today, we will be re-airing a special for those of you who missed the show from last week. Reporter Bill Taylor, biologist Penelope Jackson, and plastics specialist Advik Singh (son-in-law of former plastics moguls Ali Prasetyo and Karina Hartono) take us to the depths of the oceans to trace the phenomenon we’re calling “Plastic Terror.”
Everyone thought that when the singularity would happen, it would be metal cores with metal heads, metal limbs and metal breaths. Again, it was the projection of the times, the easy mistake that all short-sighted humanity falls for over and over again. The robots that fought back were never the shiny kind with tin folded limbs. They never had antennae jutting forth and walked on two feet. No, they were plastic. Plastic in all its versatility.
The way they formed together. The way they paired up in patterned numbers. It was the Fibonacci sequence unrolling before your eyes. There was something systematic to it all, something that surpassed simple mechanical unfurling of DNA and RNA. An intense curiosity and smartness emanating from the very fibers of their being.
“Fibonacci,” said Ali aloud with a groan, throwing an empty high-density polyethylene can of soda at the screen. It bounced off with an inoffensive bop, durable plastic coating shielding the ionized gasses within. He turned up the volume just as the urgency in reporter Clarissa Wang’s voice escalated.
Intelligence. These creatures were already sentient.
Soon they would contact their inert brothers, soon they would lay their replicated hands into their malleable bodies and turn them into machines of their own wills. Ingest them as one of theirs and regurgitate them for their own expansive motives.
Today we will explore the moment when the machines came alive and conscious. The phenomenon people are calling the singularity.
Cut to Reporter Bill Taylor: “Advik Singh leads us through some key areas of plastic manufacturing and disposal. Here is a waste pipeline of one of the leading plastics corporations (name withheld for legal purposes). To our left is the pipe in question that leads into the ocean. As you can see, it no longer pumps out waste, as the factory was shut down months ago.”
Cut to Plastics Specialist Advik Singh, as they walk around the waste pipeline. Then, cut to a mound of discard at an abandoned warehouse.
Advik Singh: “This is one congregation of our organic and inorganic refuse, all our disposable forks, spoons, and chopsticks, our blankets and machinery. My specialization is breaking down these plastics to benign forms that can’t be appropriated by sentient organic masses. Much of the technology is currently in development, but we’re looking at an accelerated time horizon for this project. Thanks to the disposal bill and the governmental funds pumped into the program.”
Cut to Biologist Penelope Jackson at the gates of a landfill: “All this is beat down to barely imperceptible crumbs and entering the breeding chains with plankton. Chambers of new life, new growth. The pact the lowest on the food chain made with the products of the highest.”
Cut to Reporter Bill Taylor: “When they came alive, they brought life to the plastic machinery that surrounded us, grew up with us, embedded into our own bodies in surgical procedures.”
Ali thought about the surgery Karina had last year on her hip. The joint replacement. He remembered her being more agile than he could ever remember.
(Roll in transition before commercials:)
This is how the machines came to life.
Singularity in plastic.
If it were a fugue, it would be an ominous cacophony. A provocative deep noise from the bottom of the sea. The yawns and shifts of countless single-celled creatures that lurked unnoticed eating and expelling. Making its way through the food cycle. More after this short break.”
Ali saw it all.
At the moment he scraped up that viscous violet that turned hard once on land, he had a hunch. Once his microscopes and plastic equipment ran the tests that affirmed what they were, already a pit as hard as cold plastic grew in his heart.
It was the worst hate mail he could never ignore: The demise of humanity for a superior race. And we did it unto ourselves.
Karina was always trying to be positive. When Ali’s mind turned to dark points of regret, she would say things like, “At least our kids are employed and passionate. Now that they transferred to jobs they find fulfilling.” Working to undo what we brought about was not what she added, but was the honest truth.
But, Ali’s mind went past the energies of their kids, springing into the far future beyond. Who knows what these masses of creatures will merge with next? Perhaps their race will continue to evolve, consuming us, bringing us squishy beings into their own folds. Maybe they would take us with them—out of local space and into the depths of the universe by way of combination with their tenacious materiality.
Ali wondered if by then he would be long dead, or at least altered enough not to be identified as Ali. Flagged instead as another kind of existence and intelligence. One that melts and reforms. One that can replicate itself and conduct messages with others. A new hardier life-form that could sail the cosmic seas like the voyagers that their polymer bodies promised.
It would be a kind of fitting irony, the company that he and Karina had erected, the textile giant that propelled an industry of space travel plastic manufacturing that eventually gave way to the metamorphosis of their own species in consolidation with another: the ultimate sentient colonizers.
At his workshop, Ali went back to his spherical mold of Earth, dabbling with it. This time the plastic hardened to a model whose colors were no longer green and blue, but a shocking, violent violet, textured with ripples, like the grape agates from Mamuju, Sulawesi that Karina owned as pendants. It didn’t roll off the table and fall into an abyss, but stood there on the desk, held back by its friction surface, challenging him. It seemed to pulsate even, tiptoeing towards him in the tiniest of movements, or maybe it was an illusion created by his own weakening eyes.
D.A. Xiaolin Spires steps into portals and reappears in sites such as Hawai’i, NY, various parts of Asia and elsewhere, with her keyboard appendage attached. Her work appears in publications such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Nature, Terraform, Fireside, Star*Line, Liquid Imagination, and anthologies such as Make Shift, Ride the Star Wind, Sharp and Sugar Tooth, Deep Signal, and Battling in All Her Finery. Select stories can be read in German, Spanish, Vietnamese, Estonian, French and Japanese translation.