Mutant 59-the Plastic Eaters

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2015 by Howard Faxon

Science Fiction Story: My interpretation of a very old book I once found in a library. A bug was created in a lab that escaped. It ate plastic, and reproduced very very fast. Here's my 21st century version of it.

Tags: Science Fiction  

Many years ago I found a library book titled "Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters". It was very up-beat. It's been swimming around in my head for nigh onto forty five years now. I think that it's time for a different impression. Since so much of our society depends on plastics now compared to the 1960s. Let's just imagine what a catastrophe it would be.

The first thing that let me know something was wrong was my shoes fell off my feet. They disintegrated. Then the lights in the grocery store went out. People were shoving, running and screaming like idiots. I saw clothes fall off people's backs, then the cloth shredded as they tried to pick it up. The synthetics were disintegrating before my eyes. I left my cart where it was, then took a new one. My prorities had just shifted. I took canned beans, fruit and chicken. I took yeast in glass jars and ghee. I found big cotton bags of rice and paper bags & boxes of dehydrated potatoes, sugar and flour. Disguised by the confusion I walked behind the butcher's line and paper wrapped several steaks. I found several pork tenderloins and beef tenderloins in the display case that didn't have any slime on them from decomposing plastic. I wrapped them up in butcher's paper and paper tape. I made my way back into the produce staging area where I discovered several large waxed cardboard boxes. I packed everything up, keeping the meat separate in a big waxed bananna box. They had a cooler full of dry ice at the front of the store. I took ten pounds to keep the meat fresh.

It was a superstore with a hardware department. The paint aisle was a disaster area--the spray paint was squirting into the air like some sort of pointless LGBT parade. Nobody could get near the garden department at all--the pesticides were jetting out of their spray cans like oversized fumigators. I found their spools of wire and took it all. They had nothing but cheap socket rachet sets with plastic clutches. I found mason jars of different sizes along with their lids. I snatched all that would fit on my cart. I filled the bottom with the larger jars. Then I went back to the hardware department. I emptied all the carpenter's glue I could find into a couple pint-sized mason jars just as the plastic bottles sagged and developed holes. I found a stack of galvanized buckets that I absconded with. The tool aisle had hacksaws, hacksaw blades and files which I had no compunction against stealing. I filled the rest of my cart with bags of charcoal and cans of lighter fluid. When the tops pulled off in my hands I transferred several cans of the lighter fluid to two big Ball quart-sized canning jars with rubber seals. Note the use of rubber...

The tires on the cart turned to mush. They fell away in chunks as I rolled and then dragged the cart out the door. I had to back through the door because no power meant no power-assist to the automatic doors. My cart screeched across the lot as I dragged the thing to the car. I was about naked as I walked out the door, but I didn't care. If I could get home I'd be happy.

I'll say one thing for the bug. It sure improved the scenery! Naked women of all ages were milling around the parking lot with dead cars, trying to figure out what to do. Some were crying and squatting down, trying to be good 'christians' and cover up. Others--even young pre-teen girls!--were strutting their stuff. I saw proud little titties under big flashing smiles everywhere I looked. It made my best friend stand proud and pay attention, which got my own share of appreciative stares.

My jeep made it to the apartment, about a mile and a half. I parked next to my patio--screw the parking lot restrictions. What were they going to do? Evict me? The tires disintegrated under the load with a 'bang'. The plastic covering on the steel steering wheel fell apart in my hands. Deep down I knew that it would never start again. The door handle came off in my hand. I considered myself lucky that I didn't have to break out the window to get out of the driver's seat.

I unlocked the sliding glass door and slid it open. It was rough going--the little nylon rollers at the bottom had broken down. What a disaster! The power was out. The breakers had fallen apart. Besides, the wires in the conduit were insulated with plastic and were bound to short out as soon as whatever was destroying plastic penetrated the conduit runs. Water was squirting everywhere from the sinks and toilets. I turned off the wall valves. Their valve surfaces were metal on metal. Then I unscrewed the cold water supply hose from the kitchen sink and filled all the buckets I had with water before turning it off again. I cut up a perfectly good cotton canvas painter's tarp and used most of a ball of cotton twine to make lids for the buckets. Then I made myself a canvas poncho and tied it off with a rope for a belt.

I'd been a reenactor for a long time before diabetes screwed me up. I'd always hung onto my gear in the fond hopes that one day I'd be able to go out on a rendezvous again. My packrat tendencies just paid off, in spades!

I had balls of cotton string, hundred foot spools of quarter inch sisal rope, blacksmith-made tent stakes and plenty of canvas tarps, not to mention period clothing--and--shoes!

Getting upstairs with bare feet was chancy. The nylon carpeting over the stairs and second floor was a gummy mess. There were sharp bars of cleats hiding under that goo as well. Two doubled-over pieces of that canvas tarp went to make quick booties with cotton cord wrapped around my ankles before I attacked the stairs. I cleared out my camping gear and lowered it over the railing to the first floor. I also secured my cotton sheets, pillow cases, bar soap and towels. The shampoo had made it down the shower drain after the bottles melted.

I had a few camping and work knives that had wood scales riveted to the tangs, with leather sheaths. I had an old canvas musette bag, an over-the-shoulder 'possibles' bag and an army surplus canvas Alice pack with a frame. They all held up well except for the waist belt on the Alice pack. I had to split the waist on a pair of knee-length shorts to get my fat butt into them but it sufficed to get me dressed. No underwear, of course. Elastic was nothing but a memory. I had wool socks and brogans, otherwise known as Jefferson booties, made with leather uppers, leather soles and stitched together with waxed cotton thread. I'd paid good money for authentic stitching and heel work. The leather heels were attached with pegs and had metal plates to keep them from quickly wearing away. I used cotton strapping to tie my socks to my calves. Did you know that "Jeffersons" are the name for linen or cotton underwear that ties around the waist with cloth tapes? The man was a frigging genius.

My bed collapsed. The futon and cover were cotton but the old busted up frame had been supported by--you guessed it--plastic--six-pack coolers. My pillow had been synthetic as well. I packed a pillow case full of T-shirts and towels for a pillow. I fired up the grill, pulled some meat out of the freezer and gorged on chicken breasts and pork tenderloin. I drank a couple of what I figured were the last cold beers I'd ever have. Thank God that the toilet paper didn't disintegrate. I'd be needing some soon.

It stormed that night. That's bullshit. A killing winter storm blew in from Canada that night with forty to fifty mile an hour winds and thirty below temperatures.

The snow blew sideways and beat pieces off of the tree limbs. I realized that I was about to get a lot more up front and personal with mother nature the next day. My usual blankets were synthetic and had decomposed. I slept under a linen sheet and two heavy wool blankets from my stash. I covered my bed with two layers of canvas painters tarps. It got damned cold in that apartment overnight. I could see my breath even before I went to bed.

I didn't know it, but an oil company had hired a bio-synthesis lab to work on a culture that could be released after a catastrophic oil spill and decompose the bio-hazardous waste down to relatively harmless byproducts. Regrettably their culture mutated. Now, consider this. How are you going to confine a culture hell-bent on decomposing any oil-based long chain polymers when you're using lexan test tubes with plastic lids? The stuff got into the door seals and was tracked out into the hallway. What happened afterwards was like watching a landslide. One little rock moves, then everything seems so horrifyingly inevitable, like watching a bridge support pier get larger and larger in your windshield...

The next morning I couldn't even brush my teeth. My toothbrushes had disintegrated. The apartment was FUCKING cold. The fiberglass insulation around my fancy new windows and sliding glass door had fallen away as the plastic trim turned into gunk. Snow had swirled across the floor. It made little drifts inside the door and window, driven by the storm's wind. The tile floor was covered with ice where the water which escaped from the toilet and sinks had frozen. I wondered how many people had died that night.

I had to find someplace to keep warm. I would also need to move all the food that I'd accumulated to wherever I was going to live.

I wondered what the hell I'd do for transportation. With no water, no heat and no power my apartment was soon going to be a death trap. It was only March 8 and there was still plenty of snow on the ground. Think northern Illinois.

I remembered meeting an old guy named Karl Heinz at a local car show. He had a truck that was so ugly that it was magnificent. It was a repatriated 1947 GM truck that had been sent to Russia and rebuilt with locally available components, then run until it died. He'd somehow gotten the thing re-imported and rebuilt it once again. I remembered how he bragged on it. There were no plastics on the thing except bakelite! I knew that Bakelite wasn't a petrocarbon, so chances were that the thing wouldn't be sitting in a dissolved pool of critical parts. Hell, even the tires he used were solid rubber. Seeing as how it had a diesel type 71 engine in it, there were no high voltage components that would need modern insulation. Hell, even the steering wheel and battery shell were made of bakelite. I looked him up in the phone book. He lived about twenty blocks away--a mile and a bit. I could hoof that.

I bundled up in a blanket coat then looked through my firearms. Boy, I pitied anyone that had put their faith in Glocks. They were half plastic. My old Smith & Wesson revolver had rubber grips and brushed nickel-steel everything else. I pocketed a handfull of rounds, checked my socks and started walking. (reeenactors aren't stupid. We put pockets in our vests big enough to hold a can of beer.)

I knocked on Karl's door, startling the hell out of him. He was wrapped in a blanket and obviously cold as hell. He had big arthritic knuckles so he must have been hurting like hell and half frozen to boot. We got him into a tee shirt and a thick wool poncho made of a big doubled-up blanket which we tied off around his middle. He had enough cotton line and sisal rope in the garage to stock his own store. We got his feet and legs covered in sort-of-puttees made out another wool blanket that we sliced into strips. His boots had fallen apart but the leather uppers sufficed to be doubled over and tied on for 'shoe' soles using cotton webbing strap. He had some old ragg wool socks in his bedroom bottom drawer that made for serviceable mittens. A barbecue grill out back with all the fixin's got some water boiled for coffee and oat meal for breakfast.

[Most tee shirts are made in a continuous process, except for the sleeves, neck and hem. Cotton webbing strap is sold from big 18-to-36 inch spools in some hardware stores and sewing supply stores It can be used for lamp wick as well as for sewing.]

I let him know about my plans. He grinned. "Off and on I've donated time to Garfield Farm Museum. They've got horses, chickens and cattle out there. The only building newer that 1849 is a pole barn that they use as a machine shop."

I looked at him in awe. "Brilliant. No doubt we'll have to dig an outhouse and pull the electric pump out of the well casing, but cylinder well buckets have been used for ages." He replied, "There's an old cast iron hand pump on a well out there already. It's used for the stock." One more bullet dodged.

We sat thinking about what was ahead of us while finishing our coffee.

He said, "Let's go see if that old bastard truck wants to start."

The battery had been pulled and set on a trickle charger. It was but the work of ten minutes or so to get it mounted. We checked the oil and radiator then buttoned it up and said a prayer. After hitting the glow plugs for about a minute he turned the key. It moaned, groaned and turned over. I thought we'd had it before it finally caught and started firing. It was pretty rough at first, then evened out to fire on all four cylinders. We grinned like a couple of fools, standing there in his dark garage listening to that thing roar. We quickly had to open the doors to keep from killing ourselves from the exhaust gasses!

First, we had to insure that we'd have fuel. We made a quick trip across town where we broke into a science/military surplus place. They had been advertising five gallon steel military jerry cans. I was damned glad that they hadn't sold. We half-filled the bed of the truck with twenty-four of them. Their seals had rotted away. Being an old mechanic, Karl hit on raiding a car supply store for sheets of cork that were stocked for u-make-it gaskets. Then we went looking for a gas station. The mouth of the diesel ground tank was four inches wide. That meant we needed a four inch bucket. Damn! That sounded like work! I got the idea of screwing a steel pipe to the inlet of a manual brass marine bilge pump and screwing a much shorter pipe to the output port so we could fill those jerry cans. It was messy as hell but it got the job done. We filled the truck's tanks while we were at it, walking away with almost two hundred gallons of fuel. I hung the pump and pipe assembly on the side of the gas station's little building for use next time.

I wondered about heat and light out at the farm. Karl said that they'd put in LP gas for heat and cooking. That left lighting. Since it was plenty cold out to freeze meat I wanted to pillage all the local grocery stores. Next on my list after that was to hit a home building store for oil lanterns and fuel. Then I figured we should take a trip out to the farm to see what sort of condition it was in.

Old Jerry, the previous farm manager, had died a few years before. The new manager changed prices for events downwards and there were a lot more events on the calendar. That brought in scads of paying visitors. The added revenue went for new paint jobs, a gravel parking lot and the hiring of more period actors. I didn't think about that before we headed to the farm. I was surprised to see smoke coming out of a chimney when we pulled up. I grinned and said to Karl, "Hit the horn, eh?" He beeped it a couple times. Two very surprised faces showed up at a window. Anne and Debbie knew Karl from his working there previously. This earned us a warm welcome with some heart-felt kisses and very nice hugs. They were overjoyed to not only have someone else there, but also we provided working transportation that didn't require four hooves. They were wearing light weight period frock dresses and leather sandals that they'd found in the closets, not the best cold weather clothing.

We unloaded the truck, setting aside a cold room for the meat, then Karl went back with Anne on a shopping trip while I stayed with Debbie to find out how the place was laid out and what needed doing.

I was correct in one guess--we needed an outhouse. The machine shop had an old International tractor, but the tires were nearly gone, the battery had ruptured and the hydraulic hoses were in shreds. So much for doing it the easy way! We decided on a place for the outhouse where I lit a little fire from found scrap lumber to thaw the soil. I wasn't about to try and dig through icy frozen dirt.

Over the next day I sure earned my bed and bread. I dug a pit six feet deep by eight feet long by six feet wide. We had to go to a lumber yard for the wood, hinges, hasps and wood toilet seats. I had trouble finding paint to cover it with that didn't disintegrate before it dried. I found that a good oil-based paint would still work. I also had trouble finding intact paint brushes. There wasn't a useable paint roller to be had.

We also laid our hands on big sheets of plywood to cover the holes in the pole barn where the green plastic sheets used to be in the roof, for illumination. They just let in the weather now.

I decided to attack the tool shed next. The wheel barrows had no tires left. I fixed that by filling the rims with wraps of rope until the packed sisal stood as proud as I could get it. Then I used a big canvas needle and waxed cordage to sew in place the rope that sat proud of the rim. Last, the whole thing got a good soaking in wood glue. It worked pretty good, too! It wouldn't last a season, but it worked.

We had six horses, two oxen, three cows, one uncut bull and a flock of chickens with a rooster. Even with all the horse-drawn or ox-drawn farm implements that the place was famous for I didn't know if we'd be able to put away enough feed for all those big bellies. We soon were taking hay from local abandoned farms and grain from an ag co-op about twelve miles away.

I figured that it was time to go back to my apartment and clear out what I wanted. Then I went looking a few good quality brace and bit sets that didn't have any plastic in the chucks and used a universal three-jawed chuck. Brace and bits originally used spade bits. Spade bits had a flat diamond shaped connection that fit into a simple two-jaw chuck to hold it in place. A modern screw-chuck would take round-shank bits. With wood chisels, saws, brace and bits, a few surface planes along with pegs and glue I could do a lot more wood work than you'd expect. A brace and bit could hold a Phillips screwdriver head too, which meant driving in huge three or four inch drywall screws was much easier than using a screwdriver.

Nobody used paper or brass shotgun shells anymore. The plastic ones were useless. I had my pistol and a few rifles, but nothing fancy. I convinced Karl (granted, it didn't take much convincing!) to help me patronize a couple big gun shops in the area. I knew of two rifles that had no plastics in their construction and had commonly available ammunition. One was the original Kalashnikov AK-47 along with its brother the SKS and the other was the Garand-M1. We picked up what we could find of each along with all the ammunition for them that we could scrounge. Next we needed critter gitters. Smaller rifles for small scavengers like rabbits, squirrels and other hungry little beasties that liked to eat the sweet stuff that grows in a vegetable garden.

We found a few vintage Stevens and Savage .22 LR rifles that would do the trick. They and their ammunition also found its way to the truck.

We needed grease cartridges and a grease gun or two to lube up the truck and the farm implements. The modern grease guns had depended on a rubber flexible hose to get the grease from the cartridge to the Zerk fitting, or nipple. That's when we discovered that rubber wasn't affected by the wee small beasties that had caused so much havoc. It gave us a lot of hope because we could replace water valves with an older style that used a screw-in cap over a round rubber washer, and those washers were readily available. We should have caught a hint when the old-style rubber wipers on the truck didn't melt.

We started plans for a water pumping windmill and a tank on the second floor of the house. Now, what we were going to make it out of, and how we were going to waterproof it with were the questions of the day. All we knew was if we provided the ladies with running water we'd be their heroes.

We finished off our trip by salvaging more fuel. We found a supply of clean fifty-gallon drums with threaded tops, which didn't need gaskets. We managed to get a 90-degree elbow and a short pipe added to the output of our fuel pump which would hook over the mouth of a barrel, even up in the truck bed. The underground tank was full enough that we didn't have to add any pipe to the intake side. It was almost a clean operation!

Karl was tired of running around with his dick swinging in the breeze, so we made a trek to a place that had Carhartt clothes and heavy cotton canvas bib overalls. Even if they were sewn with synthetic thread we could fix that. We made a run on a sewing center for heavy cotton thread and hand needles. We got the bright idea to get the women there as well. They'd want to sew up some warm clothing too.

I had my wool blanket coat. I'd just bet that the others were envious of it. We needed to find a supply of tightly woven 100 percent wool blankets. If they were 60/40, then that 40 percent would probably be synthetic and mysteriously disintegrate, leaving the blanket in shreds. There was an old loom at the farm but nobody had used it in half a century, and we didn't have a source of wool thread, or at least I couldn't think of any.

The army surplus store about eighteen miles away had heavy cotton BDU pants and blouses in various sizes. We cleaned 'em out and made sure to keep the sleeves which had fallen off. I was surprised to find that the old, Korean War vintage M65 field jackets were made with cotton thread as they were sitting there pretty as could be, on their hangars. Karl swapped into most of a BDU blouse, a pair of BDU pants and a field jacket as fast as he could. Regrettably all the boot soles had come away from their uppers. This was something that I couldn't fix and Karl had no idea either. I had no idea what to use for glue, either. I was surprised to find a good supply of ragg wool caps, fingerless gloves and socks there. I filled a paper bag full of them.

When we made it back to the farm the ladies were ecstatic. They got busy sewing together military BDUs in a hurry. Anne told me later that day that it was the first time she felt warm since everything went to hell. We relaxed around a nice warm fire drinking steaming hot tea that evening. It had been a week since we'd moved to the farm. The weather had turned and a lot of the snow had melted, but everything still froze solid at night. It didn't thaw until after noon.

"Karl? I'm stumped. Where do you figure we can lay our hands on leather? We need to make moccaisins for everyone and shoe pacs for wet weather and next winter."

We got the ladies involved. We came up with cobblers for heavy leather and maybe a motorcycle shop for leather from vests and such. That led us to leather vests in stores like J.C. Penney's and Leathermaker's in a couple of the big malls around the area. I wanted leather belts for everyone and a trip back to a big gun store for pistols and leather holsters for everyone. If we were going to go scavenging through malls, I wanted everyone to have a firearm. Malls were an 'attractive nuisance' where others might lay in wait for others to rob or kill.

Enter Jim and Larry. They were married folk and showed up with their spouses, Mary and Lisa out at the farm. They'd worked there as well. I was glad to see more people. We'd need more hands to help once we started putting in crops. The old house had plenty of bedrooms--twelve in all.

With warmer weather coming on the ground was going to thaw soon, and that meant mud. Mud rules. Everybody's shoes had to get waterproofed, and we'd need hooded ponchos to be out in the cold spring rains. The only traditional waterproofing agents I knew of were linseed oil and beeswax. I suppose Canvak would do the trick as well, but I didn't know if it used any petrocarbons in its formula.

I thought more about the kind of culture we were falling into. What about medications? We really should find vitamins and antibiotics, and learn how to use them before we had a need. What if someone stepped on a rusty nail? Lockjaw, or more formally Tetanus was a real possibility. We should all do the best we could to get immunized while the media was still fresh--viable. Most, I knew, needed refrigeration. Thankfully the buildings everywhere, even those with backup generators, had all gone without power so the indoor temperatures had fallen. What with the cold spring nothing had warmed up that had been refrigerated. It was time to hit up every pharmacy and health clinic around. I hoped that we could find a nurse, doctor or Physician's Assistant to join us. Hopefully, one that wasn't a prima-donna. We'd all have to get our hands dirty.

We couldn't raid a military base for immunization media. Bugs were geographically specific. Cholera in the Middle East was a different enough bug that our local bugs wouldn't be killed by any immunization give by shots for troops deploying half way around the world. I resolved to find a pharmacy distribution center for, say, Walgreens, Meijer or CVS.

Hmm. Dirt. Washing. Washing machine. Hot water. Soap! If we could manage cold water to the tap with a windmill, then we could manage hot water with a gas water heater. Defeating all the safety stuff would be a challenge, but I thought that it would be worth it. We'd just have to fire it up a half hour before we wanted hot water, and someone would have to stick around and watch the temperature so that it didn't blow the automatic pressure relief valve.

What the hell were we going to use for a cold water tank? Galvanized steel? Maybe stainless ... I thought about a small milk tank from a dairy operation. Granted, getting a tank like that up to the farm house's top floor would be a 'challenge', but with enough hands and a wood saw I could accomplish miracles. Patching up the hole afterwards might be messy though. Hmm. Then the plumbing job would rear its ugly head. I'd have to run cold water pipe, hot water pipe and a gas line up to the top floor. I'd have to make a measured drawing of the house to figure out where the current plumbing stack went and go from there.

Before washing machines had electric motors, a big lever stuck up that the person washing clothes would swing back and forth to move the agitator around in the tank. If we couldn't find one, I'd make one. I had a drill and wasn't afraid to use it.

One of the cows came into heat and the bull covered her. Hoo boy. How long did a calf take to gestate? Urr, time to visit the library. Maybe we should start a little sub-branch in the living room ... That truck wouldn't last forever and every trip brought it incrementally closer to the end. I brought up the subject at dinner which caused a few glum faces at first. Then Jim said, "We just have to be like any other farm. Make a list of what's needed. When we run up against a "need it right now" item we try to cover the list." That brought a degree of satisfaction back to the group. We were just another farm, really. We had to think of it that way. Our calendar became much more important to us. We had to build up supplies for the big tasks that had to be done at certain times, such as planting and harvesting. Maintenance and upgrade projects had to be shoehorned in around the biggies. Still, we had a few things to do that were unusual, such as finding a stallion to cover the mares if we wanted horses in ten years. We had to find museums for clothes washing, blacksmithing and food preservation equipment. The truck would tow a hay wagon if we didn't overload it. That would help a lot in foraging feed.

I woke up in the middle of one night wondering how the hell we were going to refill our big propane tank. I'd have to wait for morning to find out where the master valve was and where the regulator was. I'd have to add a "T" fitting, another valve, a vertical riser and a matching brass fitting to hold a twenty pound propane tank upside-down higher than the top of the bulk tank. I'd want a ramp to carry the tanks up and a brace to hold them inverted while they drained as well.

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