The Well-Oiled Machine
Icon Magazine


This short story appeared in ICON Magazine, The Fiction Issue, Issue 080, February 2010. Story by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Oron Catts. 

In the biotech future, an engine leak isn’t a breakdown, it’s murder.

“There’s a leak.” A warning signal erupted his idle thoughts.

“Not again,” he whispered to himself in dismay. “It’s the damned Lubricant, and it was Supa FoolProof this time”. He hated his car, everything he poured into it, everything that seeped out of it. He couldn’t even call it a car, but the nostalgic word took the edge off his fury. The capsule was due for composting last year, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not after the months he’d spent customising it, trying to remediate the mess under the hood. 

So much for a well-oiled machine… Things were just going from bad to worse. He would have to retrace his tracks along the dusty cyano-freeway and collect every drop that had leaked; otherwise they’d get him for littering. “It is the duty of every citizen to maintain his or her belongings,” the new government policy rang in his ears. “Libertarians,” he thought to himself, “they won the environmental war, only to mess things up even more”.

As the Lubricant Rights Movement became more sophisticated, no one could afford to avoid the truth any longer. “Not even FoolProof products are going to solve the problems this time,” he spat.  

“It’s between you and them now.” He rammed the capsule into reverse and started to head back to clean as much as he could, only to remember that he was clean out of FoolProof Leak Hunters. “Shit!” There was no supplier for the next who-knows-how-many clicks. It was no manual job; he needed to call someone, fast.

They said it was an accident that Lubricants evolved from Leak Hunters. He remembered when it started, way back. He was just a kid, fiddling about, hacking bacteria in his bedroom in the suburbs with big dreams of being the first at school to synthesise a perpetual motion synlife machine in his bedroom.

Leak Hunters were designed to consume oil spills, to clean up the waste of a dying energy source, at the same time saving dainty newspaper readers from greasy albatrosses staring back at them over their cornflakes. But then they didn’t just digest the spills. On a rig far out in the North Sea, some found their way into the platforms and down the pipes, depleting whatever remaining oil supplies in the blink of an eye. “So much for altruism. The bloody things wouldn’t even exist without us.”

The infection spread and was hushed for three years. Multinationals and government defence agencies raced to find an antibiotic. Fuel reserves collapsed, fear pumped up the biotech market as if nothing unnatural had happened. “Up with the Biotech Revolution!” Then it emerged that the tech had bitten the hand that fed it, a tanker feed pipe spreading biological machines from rig to rig. He still remembered where he was that day, his parents’ ashen faces as they realised they’d lost everything in the biotech crash.

And then there was no more oil.

He stepped out of the capsule into the burning heat. Kneeling onto the scorched, dying algaesphalt, he peered up the outlet pipe. “Shit!” The filter-stop had been partially digested. He turned to look at the trail back down the freeway. Pointless. It was invisible anyway.

Climbing back in, he flipped the capsule’s screen and made a call out to the FoolProof Kleaners. “It’ll be two hours at least, sir. We had an overturned Recycler at Junction 453 this afternoon. Boy, it was juicy. Synlife crap all over the shop.” The voice dulled, returning to the call centre script. “Global BioHazard Regulation 7845c1 states that you must not leave the spill site. We can trace the lubricant’s source to the mitochondria of your vehicle’s last fuel cell - we’ll find you and you will pay!” He couldn’t afford another fine. Once again, FoolProof was making him late for the night shift. 

Slumped against the door, he took a bite of a crumbling Victimless cheese sandwich he’d found wedged under the front seat. “Jesus Christ!” He gagged, wondering why anyone had ever agreed to suffer artificial cheese for the sake of bacterial rights. No one cared about microbes until the oil digestion catastrophe came to light. “Slimy little buggers,” he muttered to himself. “Who gives a shit if they’re giving a shit.”

It was the Lubricant Rights Movement who’d turned everything upside down. They’d shouted the loudest, shifting the debate from corporate malpractice so hard and fast that everyone forgot where they were. “Free Will! Free Synthetics!” they’d yelled, “Engineered Life Lives! Living Machines Species not Products! Emergent Properties are Only Natural!” FoolProof’s CEO escaped jail while everyone was busy debating whether bacterial machines were evolving free will and should be left alone. “Rather than how the hell they’d evolved so smartly,” he grunted.

“’Cause, while everyone was up in arms, FoolProof was making a fortune out of the chaos, engineering a nice little money-spinner.” Their Lubricants were the only fuel available after the crash, despite the creatures’ unfortunate jailbreaking tendencies. And only FoolProof Leak Hunters contained the CounterLife system to tame the Lubricants. Slick. But he knew FoolProof couldn’t control anything even if they’d wanted to. He’d been at school with the corporation’s Chief Science Officer. “He’s proved he’s a genius at marketing, not at designing life.”

 “Is free will really just evolving into Lubricant? If only I could slide out of this mess so easily,” he grimaced. “Why the hell am I left to suffer for some invisible unfeeling mass?” He was an hour late for his shift, and the Kleaners still hadn’t turned up.

Dusk was falling now. At this rate, he had one hope if he was ever going to get to work tonight. “Let a luminescent trait have crossed into the lube’s DNA”, he prayed to the empty road. The miles of deposited bacteria might then glow against the peeling photosynthetic hardtop. “I’d get a head start on the clean up.” It had happened once before. “Did I sterilise my hands between fixing the indicator and topping up the lube?” He racked his brains, trying to focus through a fog of night shifts.

Maybe he could hack something together from his toolbox? “There’s no time to get any useful culture growing,” he relented. FoolProof Leak Hunters were the only way to clean up the mess. “They’re going to cost me whichever way this goes.”

Scuffing at the capsule’s mouldy door while he waited for any sign of bioluminescence, he remembered something from school. Loeb, was it? “Man is a megalomaniac among animals—if he sees mountains he will try to imitate them by pyramids, and if he sees some grand process like evolution, and thinks it would be at all possible for him to be in on that game, he would irreverently have to have his whack at that too.”

He grunted at the truth of it. It was no matter of luck that had given FoolProof the ultimate system of Leak Hunters and Lubricants. “Leak Hunters went wrong, then they evolved into Lubricants. FoolProof still has a product, even after eliminating the world’s oil reserves. And Lubricants are neatly cleaned up by first gen Leak Hunters enhanced with CounterLife!” The evening air was finally cooling. He took in a sharp, calming intake ignoring the tang of dust.

“It’s not chance horizontal gene transfer, a freak of nature, bacterial free will or any of those dog-eared biological excuses,” he grimaced through clenched teeth. “This is one hundred percent, classic, human-designed, built-in obsolescence. FoolProof Leak Hunters were primed to evolve into Lubricants who’d always be their ready prey.”

He knew this because he was late for his shift at the FoolProof plant – even so, he should have known better.

His job was to manage the “orgies”. He received the engineered systems from upstream, and watched and waited for anything interesting to evolve while the microbes got to have a good time flipping out their conjugal bridges. He knew the score. "Generation after generation, something good is bound to appear.” His supervisor used to bet on it.

It was on that same production line that the Leak Hunters first evolved into Lubricants. From eating oil, to spitting it out. It was a simple genetic defect, a mutant colony, a bit of DNA cross-wiring that had reversed the system. But that’s what FoolProof  liked. “Expected Change.”

“That’s the aim, 99% standardisation, 1% change.” There was even a big glowing luciferase sign above his station in the culture shop shouting “99%!” Biology offered the best obsolescence of any system, inbuilt. The tech was so advanced now that you didn’t have to bother designing anything; just let the machines evolve themselves. “So many mutants, so many potential products.”

FoolProof had been savvy, they’d built change into the business—most of its employees were Observers, like him, paid to watch. “But the key to Expected Change? Out-design the safeguards for ‘system optimisation’. Then just quietly releases the next generation onto the market and have a family of products sprouting—the Tree of Life meets the NASDAQ.”

Every night he sat at his station, watching nocturnal growths gorge on agar. “Those designers upstream, they just dream up new products, print them straight onto culture trays.” The DNA penetrated straight into some pre-selected fatty chassis and then the oily machines would glide slowly down the jelly ramps towards him. 

But these days the designers didn’t bother creating anything new. They still worked off the old stock, spreading it onto fresh growth medium. “That’s how effective the obsolescence is. Not like with the old electronic goods, outdated in months by new designs.” These products outdate themselves, mutating, slimming down, becoming more efficient in the nutrient-rich plates of FoolProof production line. “Maybe the Lubricant Rights Movement had a point. Maybe these machines do have free will.”

Night after night, wearing his micro-loops, he and the hundreds of other Observers watched for unusual growth rates as new colonies, pumped up on super-nutrients, appeared in minutes. Staring at the spreading blots, sprawling proof of the emergent properties of free will, he liked to wonder how they organised themselves. He’d whispered to his station buddy. “Do you think they’re just like us, helpless individuals put to work?” But now he was beginning to think that the bacteria formed one amorphous entity in collusion…. a FoolProof corporate organism. A programmable product evolving before the rest could catch up.

“Obsolescence, the new designed evolution.”

He had to get out; even the backward Quarantine colonies out in the Indian Ocean had to be better than this version of life. He leant back against the capsule, staring up at the dark red sky. Against the horizon, the soft blue-green glow of the Kleaner’s capsule flickered as it hummed towards him.

Reproduced with permission.