Our top entry for the Plastics competition goes to Naomi Potter – Congratulations!
The Cleaners – By Naomi Potter
“Do you know why they call it plastic surgery?”
Rose glanced at him. They were both leaning against the railing. She was relaxed, knees and ankles loose, adjusting with ease to the dip and rock of the boat. He was simply affecting it: one hand clutching a cigarette, the other white-knuckled around the steel bar.
“I always assumed it was because they…”
She made a cupping gesture over her chest.
“…you know. Installed plastic.”
“I used to think so too!” She didn’t mind Gil. He liked sharing trivia, but not in an obnoxious ‘well, actually…’ kind of way. He reminded her more of an excited puppy, running up to you with the factual equivalent of an interesting stick or a chewed-up tennis ball. “But it’s from the old definition of ‘plastic’. From Greek – ‘the art of modelling’. If you needed to fix a cleft palate or whatever, they called that ‘plastic surgery’ before we had, like. PET-type plastic.”
“And they were using ‘plastic’ to talk about something you could mould or reshape in, like, the sixteenth century.”
“Huh,” she said, again.
“I was just thinking, it’s ironic? Back in the old days, you said ‘plastic’ to talk about something you could change, but now when we say ‘plastic’ we mean something that can stay the same for centuries.” He dragged on his cigarette. “Like, if you got in a time machine—”
“If I got in a time machine, they’d be all ‘behold, the woman weareth trousers! Burn the witch!’”
“…I don’t know if they did that in the sixteenth century.”
“Burn witches, or burn witches specifically for wearing trousers?”
“How much longer?” he asked. Rose checked her watch.
“They said about three hours.”
On the horizon they could see their quarry, the arched back of the craft slowly travelling across the morass of garbage it called home. The Autonomous Multifunctional Ocean Processor: A-MOP. A giant ocean-cleaning robot named by scientists who think they’re funny, had been Rose’s review at the time.
(“That’s kinda mean,” Gil had said, as they’d left San Francisco. “Maybe it was the marketing guys.”
“That’d be worse.”)
It was a bright day; the solar panels along its flanks caught the sun at a dazzling angle.
“Can’t we get it over here any faster?”
“If anyone could get it to do anything, we wouldn’t be here at all.”
“So we’re waiting,” Gil said, then lifted his cigarette butt to toss into the water.
“You’re right. Sorry.” He dropped it in his empty mug. “What do you think’s up with it?”
“I bet a wire’s been knocked loose. If the signal was garbled or – something, more likely it’d be a programming error? But since they’re not getting anything, it’s probably the transmitter.”
Politely, Rose didn’t say what they were both thinking: that if it was likely to be complicated, maybe there’d be someone with a PhD on board. She’d gotten into sailing
during uni at Aberystwyth, and eventually the sailing had gotten into her blood and the
study of Robotics and Embedded Systems Engineering (B.ENG) had felt less interesting.
The creation and launch of A-MOP was a triumph of cross-disciplinary partnership working – or a doomed exercise in throwing things at the wall to see what might stick, depending on the coverage you read about it. Rose hadn’t known much either way, had been between
jobs before this one.
“It’s a floating processing plant,” Gil had explained, back on dry land – after she’d asked. “The problem is that plastic isn’t just plastic, it’s a bunch of different kinds of plastic,
and they all need dealing with in different ways. And A-MOP has all of them. A few
different bacteria, enzymes, reagents, this stuff they found in a caterpillar, I think—”
“What does it break them down into?”
“Depends on what you started with. Some of it gets released back into the sea and degrades into nothing much. Some of it gets stored because it can be reused for energy or
put back into industry.”
“Huh. What about – I don’t know. Fish? Birds?”
“Usually, they’re smart enough to get out of the way,” Gil had said, frowning. “The system’s meant to be pretty good at not picking up fauna, but if it’s tangled up in something, then…”
“Then it’s gonna die anyway?”
“Does it not seem a bit, I don’t know…”
“Well, like a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card? ‘Here’s a robot to clean up your mess, go ahead and keep doing whatever.”
“I don’t think so. Like, we do have to stop trashing the ocean, obviously. But even if we stopped doing that, tomorrow, one hundred per cent? That doesn’t fix the problem we’ve already got.”
It was noon. The sunlight felt inescapable.
A-MOP had arrived an hour ago; rather, it had reached the spot where they’d dropped anchor on the assumption that its algorithm would bring it within easy reach. Their own boat wasn’t tiny, but it was dwarfed by the huge, gleaming shape of the processor craft. It was designed to be left to its own devices for months on end, powered by the solar panels and the energetic output of the various microscopic workforces on board.
It looked like some strange bottom-feeding creature with multiple mouths, each bristling with robotic arms to drag in the larger items, analyse them, tear them apart before they could tangle in the machinery. Constant suction to pull in the seawater and its invisible, toxic load of nanoparticles.
She watched Gil, dressed in his safety harness and toolbelt and helmet-mounted torch, as he clambered across the side of the A-MOP. It definitely wasn’t designed to be friendly to people, with access hatches and climbing rails having seemingly been added at the last moment.
“Looking good,” she told him, over the radio.
“Thanks. Nearly there. Hey – do you know how big the Pacific Garbage Patch is?”
“Bigger than Texas.” Then, out of apparent respect for her Englishness, he added:
“Three times the size of France.”
That didn’t help, when she couldn’t conceptualise the area of the single, actual France. Here, there was the problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees – so to speak. Everywhere she looked was some ugly knot of debris. More fishing nets than she’d imagined might exist at any one time. Stretching out to the horizon. Further. She consulted the screen in their little cabin.
“When you get to the hatch, there’ll be a maintenance panel immediately inside and
to your right,” she told him. “There’s an array of indicators in there we can use for
“Unless the maintenance panel is busted.”
“God, don’t even joke.”
“But if it is—”
“If the problem looks worse than we can fix with what we’ve got, we call back to base. Either they’ll talk us through something more complicated, or we’ll have to call it a day.”
“D’you think that’s likely?”
She bit the inside of her mouth.
She’d had time to sit with this, on the journey from the East Coast. Neither of them were staff, or even contractors, in any formal sense. They were both underqualified. That the A-MOP had stopped responding to remote control hadn’t hit the news, or even the vague murmurings of social media. They weren’t doing anything illegal, probably, but… She just couldn’t imagine the ‘marketing guys’ trying to spin how they’d had to send people to fix a giant all-consuming machine that they couldn’t switch off.
“Okay. I’m at the hatch now.” There was a pause. “God, this is stiff. Hold on—”
Rose thought about school, how they’d been taught to always cut open the
individual rings that held six-packs together, because animals could get trapped in them
otherwise. It felt like such a petty thing, in retrospect. Rearranging the proverbial deckchairs. Were kids still taught about that? She couldn’t even remember the last time
she’d bought a six-pack of something.
On her headset, there was a sound she couldn’t identify – a shearing, tearing sort of
noise – and then Gil’s loud rapid-fire cursing.
She could see him from too far away, loose from the dark web of his safety harness,
sliding down over the photovoltaic carapace. Limbs flailing for purchase in a way that might be funny in another context.
He landed, heavily, on the steel lip over one of the A-MOP’s huge mouths. One arm, one leg dangling over the edge into the foaming darkness and its maw of sensors and grasping robotic arms.
“Jesus,” she said. “Gil, are you alright?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” He even sounded fine. “Just had the wind knocked outta me,
that’s all. I just need to—”
That was the last she heard.
She thought about his helmet. The frame of his glasses. The soles of his shoes. The radio. All of it plastic.
To mould, or reshape.