issue 6

Oil Bugs, by Gwen C. Katz

The following emails were recovered from the personal computer of Phil Hastings, CEO of Updraft PR, in connection with the Silver Bullet train incident. They document one half of a chain of correspondence between Hastings and Updraft COO Stan Wheaton. Hastings’ computer was seized from his penthouse after he fled to the Cayman Islands. His current whereabouts are unknown. Wheaton surrendered peacefully to the authorities and is currently awaiting trial.


Hi Phil,

Congratulations on hooking the big fish! I’ve been buttering up the ExxonMobil CEO for months; if he turned us down, I was ready to ask for all those bottles of Scotch back. I’ve looked over the numbers and we caught this ship at just the right time. Miles driven per capita have reached a new all-time high and are expected to keep growing for the foreseeable future. ExxonMobil stock is riding high. The merger with Disney was a stroke of genius. Did you see all those photos of kids in their “I’m an Exxon kid” T-shirts? Adorable! And the Petroleopolis theme park opening was a huge hit. We got some good viral coverage of Elsa singing “Let It Go” while the drill strikes oil. Looking forward to seeing the third quarter numbers; if they’re as strong as I hope, we’ll be all set to move to Phase II.

Stan


Hi Phil,

ExxonMobil’s CEO wants to know if you saw Congress’s new high-speed electric rail initiative.  Anyway, I told him not to worry about it. The train thing is a load of hot air. How many times has Congress announced a huge infrastructure plan before? It never pans out. But he’s worried that it will cause road trips to lose popularity. I’ll have the team brainstorm some ideas for road trip PR campaigns in their spare time, just in case (I think a nostalgic Route 66 thing would be nice).

Some moral scolds are on our case about the theme park. Something about “indoctrinating children.” But our new social media intern has a great solution. His name’s Craig; he’s my podiatrist’s son. Great kid. He makes my dentist appointments and sends my wife my shopping lists, too. Anyway, he’s proposing a “woke Twitter” campaign. He posted a sample thread about bullying and it did great numbers among the liberals. I’ve attached some of his other ideas. We should really start paying him (jk). Get in touch with ExxonMobil’s people when you have a moment; they want to talk about Petroleopolis Tokyo.

Stan


Yes, I saw the news. No, I am not concerned. It’s only a small spill.

Stan


Hi Phil,

Look, I didn’t know about the vaquitas. How am I supposed to know that ExxonMobil’s shipping line runs through the range of a critically endangered dolphin? And that it’s cute? The internet’s having a field day. People keep responding to Craig’s “End Gaslighting” tweets with memes of crying vaquitas. (Side note: We probably shouldn’t have chosen a “woke Twitter” topic named after a fossil fuel.) I hate Twitter.

I’ve rereleased some of our “ExxonMobil’s Corporate Responsibility” PSAs and we’re making a big donation to the Vaquita Cloning Fund. (Fun fact: Less than 1% of their money goes to vaquita cloning. The rest gets laundered through a shell corporation to Jeff Bezos.) I’ve scheduled a photo op for Wednesday morning for Exxon’s CEO to sign the big check.

On the bright side, gas prices haven’t risen much, so we’re not predicting much of an impact on driving. As long as gasoline keeps selling, a bad PR day like this will just be a blip on the radar.

Stan


Hi Phil,

You’re right, a few PSAs aren’t cutting it. The TV spots of ExxonMobil employees cleaning oil off birds didn’t go over well. First the figure starts going around that 99% of oiled birds die anyway, even after they’re cleaned. (I mean, how can they really know that? Have a little faith, people!) And then the news broke that Exxon’s “volunteers” were actually forced by corporate to put in unpaid hours doing beach clean-up. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

Bottom line: We’ve got to get some actual results and we’ve got to put Exxon’s name on them. First option is to actually clone a vaquita. (Jeff opposes this. But Elon Musk is interested.) But I dug up a second option that looks intriguing. They’ve found this bacterium in a garbage dump that feeds on hydrocarbons, and some labs have been testing it as a possible way to clean up crude oil. The Exxon spill could be the first large-scale roll-out. Shall I look into it?

Stan


Hi Phil,

Great seeing you at the press conference! I’m still sleeping off the afterparty. Pretty sure those cocktails would come with a warning label if we hadn’t won that safety labeling case against the FDA. Good times. Feels good to have a new win, doesn’t it?

The photo op went perfect. Having the crew of the tanker that sank there was a nice touch. And those little bugs performed like champs. You could actually see the oil disappearing from the water in real time! Granted, that was the oil we poured into the ocean for the sake of the demonstration (the real spill is full of dead fish, total buzzkill), but it’s working a treat on the real spill too. Spill volume is currently down by 28% and dropping. If those things were on payroll, they’d be Employee of the Month.

We’re launching a new campaign positioning ExxonMobil as #1 in oil spill cleanup. (Still thinking of a snappy slogan. Ideas?) Craig’s doing overtime making sockpuppet accounts praising Exxon for its cleanup work. He’s got a great trick: If you target a different oil company (eg, “Hey BP, how come you don’t clean up your spills like Exxon does?”), you can make praising our client look like corporate accountability!

The CEO says this spill could be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Stan


Hi Phil,

How’s the weather up in Alberta? You must have frozen your tushie off at the Montney shale field opening, but the posters for “A Stronger Canada Together” look perfect! I’ve had the team put together some infographics about the benefits of shale oil to head off the environmentalists. We’re considering rebranding the extraction process as “oil liberation” to avoid the word “fracking.” What do you think? If you give me the okay, I’ll update our style sheet.

It’s a banner year down here! ExxonMobil’s stock has bounced back all the way. Their CEO loved the idea of turning their logo green. And opening Petroleopolis Tokyo on Earth Day was brilliant! You don’t get better timing than that. They managed to squeeze in a last-minute attraction about the oil-eating bacteria. They’re calling them the Oil Bugs. The little cartoon bacteria are too precious! Disney’s already optioned them for film. We’re in talks to make sure the villains aren’t oil executives. We’re thinking overzealous environmentalists. It worked for Aquaman.

Stan


Hi Phil,

Look, he just needed to let off some steam, okay? It’s not your fault if he made a bad investment. You did your job. You smiled, did the photo shoot, got the reporters to throw him some great softball questions during the press conference. (It’s nice having ABC as a subsidiary of ExxonMobil.) If he wanted to be sure his shale oil contained actual oil, he should have consulted with his geologists or whatever.

Gonna discuss whether to donate the oilfield as a nature preserve at our weekly strategy meeting. Might as well get some good PR out of the whole thing, right? We could put together some ads with pictures of…elk? caribou? Are elk the same as caribou? If we spin it as part of Exxon’s commitment to corporate responsibility, the press might never find out that there’s no oil.

Stan


Hi Phil,

Quick update on the high-speed train situation. Still plenty of time for it to all fall apart (remember the Big Dig?), but surprisingly, they’re actually making progress. They’ve secured the land from the defunct Amtrak route for their flagship line from Chicago to San Francisco. They’re calling it the Silver Bullet. I wonder if we could convince Coors to sue.

Over here, the new “woke Twitter” campaign about identifying fake news is doing great numbers—half a million retweets and counting. You should see his office (well, his corner of the breakroom; he doesn’t have an office, obviously.) The kid’s got three computers and eight phones, each logged into a different account. I’m surprised his hands don’t fall off. Exxon’s CEO loved it!

Stan


Thanks for the heads-up. Looking into the empty tanker now.


Well, some good news: It wasn’t a spill, so no crying dolphins. (Did you hear they actually cloned them? Some people’s priorities, I swear.) According to the manifest, the tanker was full when it left. How does a tanker lose its oil in the middle of the ocean without spilling? I’ll get to the bottom of it.

Stan


Hi Phil,

You ready for this? $1.5 billion. Disney’s biggest opening weekend ever. You were right to lean on them to pull that Latina princess movie to make room for Oil Bugs. (Latinx? Whatever they’re calling it these days.) It would never have done numbers like that. Give the people what they want, right?

Oil Bugs merch is flying off the shelves, and Petroleopolis and Petroleopolis Tokyo are set to have their best quarter so far. Need to discuss whether our next expansion should be Euro Petroleopolis or another US location. Disney execs already have plans for the followup. First there’s the live-action remake, and then the Marvel crossover where the Oil Bugs and the Avengers fight crime together. I’m sending a memo to the press to remind them that the correct name is “Disney, an ExxonMobil company.”

Getting a little buzz about antitrust violations, like we do at every big opening. Craig’s sockpuppets are gonna remind everyone that 98.2% of the market is not 100%. Fringe benefit: the opening has pretty well knocked the empty oil tanker out of the news. Still looking into that, by the way.

Stan


Hi Phil,

Well, I got to the bottom of it. Turns out it was the oil bugs. The real ones, not the Disney ones. Remember how the tanker crew was there when we released the bugs? Apparently they must have been carrying the bugs on their clothes. The little guys ate the whole cargo and then died when they ran out of food. We’ve had the tanker and the crew decontaminated. Disaster averted.

Stan

PS Took my niece to see Oil Bugs. She loved it! My sister says she won’t stop singing that “Oil, Oil, Glorious Oil” song around the house.


I have some news, but you gotta promise not to shoot the messenger.


Remember how you flew from the cleanup directly to the Montney shale operation?


Yeeeeah. The good news is Exxon doesn’t know yet. We’ll keep this just between us two. Exxon will figure out that there are oil bugs in the shale sooner or later, so I’m setting up a plausible paper trail to make it look like they were accidentally released from a lab. They can’t prove where the oil bugs came from, can they?


Hi Phil,

Just chilling on the beach at Tijuana, enjoying my brand-new fire-engine-red Chevrolet Corvette! Awfully nice of them to give us all a little perk, but after those second-quarter numbers came in, we’ve earned it. Exxon’s CEO is a mensch. And he even remembered Craig! So thoughtful. He says he really enjoyed his coffee.

Oh hey, did you notice that the Oil Bugs soundtrack was the top-selling album of the year? Multiplatinum! It beat out the live-action Oliver and Company soundtrack and Disney’s Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: The Broadway Musical: The Movie: The Original Soundtrack.

You’re not gonna recognize me with this tan. I look like one of the locals. And the piña coladas are great. Only downside is this thing guzzles gas like a mofo. I’ve stopped at two different gas stations that told me they were out. Mexican infrastructure, am I right? We’ve got to have Exxon look into that.

Stan


Hi Phil,

Keep your shirt on. Okay, so maybe releasing the oil bugs directly into the ocean was a bad idea. They were supposed to die off as soon as they finished the oil, but it turns out there’s so much petroleum-based debris in the ocean that they can stay alive indefinitely. When they wash up on the beach, people track them back to town, and, well, you get why there was no gas in Tijuana. I’ve been staring at charts of the currents all day trying to figure out how far they might have spread. This is not what I was hired for!

Yes, it’s bad that the press found out about this before we did, and yes, I saw what happened to Exxon’s stock, but I have to emphasize: It’s only been found in coastal California and Baja. People are panicking because people are stupid. Craig’s made some new Facebook ads claiming that oil bugs are a hoax; Zuckerberg is allowing them to bypass the fact-checkers because they’re opinion pieces. 2 million views so far.

We’ll get it contained, the panic will die down, and everything will go back to normal. Antibiotics are a no-go—they’re resistant to everything—but there has to be something that eats oil bugs, right?

Stan


Hi Phil,

Yeah, I’m pretty pissed off too. Breaking the story that Exxon has spent more trying to get rid of the oil bugs than they did cleaning up the original spill? That’s low. And bringing up the Exxon Valdez was completely uncalled for. That was 40 years ago! Get over it! What do they want us to do, leave the bugs there? They drive cars too! I mean, hello!

No luck on the cleanup so far. It turns out plenty of things like eating oil bugs. Amoebas, worms, snails, you name it. But the buggers multiply so fast that the predators can’t make a dent. Wherever they spread the ocean turns into a sea life buffet, which is great for the Save the Whales types, but doesn’t help us at all, because no matter how fat the whales get, the bugs keep multiplying.

Disney pulled the plug on the Oil Bugs live-action remake. They’re also closing the Oil Bugs attraction at Petroleopolis Tokyo. It’s probably for the best—the more we can do to keep this out of everyone’s minds, the better. Should we ask them to pull the Oil Bugs movie from Disney+ too?

Stan


Hi Phil,

So the little things are more virulent than we thought. We’ve now learned that every time someone fills up their tank from a contaminated gas pump and then fills up at another station, they contaminate that station. And given the fact that ground zero was Tijuana during the summer…well, you can put two and two together.

The good news is that not too many drivers got stranded when the oil bugs ate the fuel out of their tanks, and only a few of them caused accidents. We’ve commissioned a new study to show that deteriorating roads have caused half the trouble. Gonna ask Craig to launch a new grassroots social media campaign calling out local governments for their poor infrastructure upkeep and raising awareness of how it’s contributed to the car stranding problem.

The class-action lawsuit from the gas station owners got thrown out. Exxon is countersuing them for destroying valuable Exxon assets with their sloppy behavior. Their legal team are geniuses. We’re launching a new consumer-responsibility campaign while we look at ways to sterilize gas pumps. Craig’s bots are posting memes about the people who got stranded. Make sure everyone understands that running out of gas due to an oil bug infestation is the driver’s fault. Hopefully it’ll cut down on the number of people who report stranding.

One bright spot: Since gas stations are getting emptied faster than demand is dropping, oil prices are holding steady. The lab’s looking into lacing gasoline with poisons that kill the oil bugs. If Exxon is the first to develop bug-proof gasoline, all the gas stations in the world will have no choice but to buy from them. Maybe oil bugs will be the thing that wipes out the competition!

Stan


Hi Phil,

No dice on poisoning the oil bugs. So far as the lab can tell, the little buggers are immune to everything. Benzene, mercury, formaldehyde: It’s all in crude oil already. Whatever the lab feeds them, they either break it down or bind it and render it inert.

We’ve now got reports of contaminated gas stations from 82 countries and 49 states (it’s only a matter of time, Wyoming). Overall miles driven in the US were down 48% over the last month. And yet urban traffic has actually increased, because all those stranded cars are causing jams, which in turn makes people not want to drive, and yadda yadda. Air traffic is down 40% too, even though they haven’t had any problems yet—the airports were real aggressive about locking down their refueling operations early on, thankfully.

Exxon has picked up a little business with bus and train fuel contracts; public transportation is experiencing extra-high ridership now that everyone’s terrified of getting stranded if they drive. But they’re still worried about that all-electric Silver Bullet train. Did you hear those vultures in Congress appropriated another $100 billion to expand the project? They’ll politicize anything to advance their agenda.

And then in the middle of all that some SOB launches a new “Bike to Work” campaign! They’ve got this co-op bike share program in 40 cities and it’s really taking off. I swear, it’s like they’re enjoying kicking us while we’re down.

Stan


Flew into Orlando for the Petroleopolis Orlando opening and the whole city is blacked out. What’s going on?


Hi Phil,

Found a hotel with a backup generator. Who knew that Orlando got so much of its electricity from oil power? Spent all afternoon expounding on the benefits of natural gas as a replacement to the city council, but the word “gas” is toxic now. They’re leaning towards an offshore wind farm. I guess someone noticed that Florida has a whole lot of free coastline. I’ve attached some preliminary designs for billboards for the “Save Our Ocean View” campaign. Let me know what you think.

Sorry I wasn’t the one to tell you about the roads—I was AFK when the story broke. I had no idea the bugs could mutate to eat asphalt. Those photos out of LA are something else! Exxon’s dispatched technicians (properly disinfected) to the Athabasca oil sands to make sure the asphalt mines aren’t contaminated at the source.

I’ve been in talks with Exxon and we’ve worked out a plan: They’re pivoting to petrochemicals. After all, even if every car disappears from the face of the earth, people will still buy stuff made of plastic, right? And it’s much easier to prevent contamination at a few big petrochemical plants instead of every gas station on the face of the earth. We’re working with manufacturers to speed up planned obsolescence to increase demand. Think disposable everything. Disposable shoes. Disposable garden tools. Disposable appliances. It’s a new world!

Stan


Hi Phil,

Just got back from the Athabasca oil sands and can confirm: They are now just the Athabasca sands. Tried to see if there was a niche Exxon could exploit selling construction materials for all the new light rail lines, but now that the roads in every major American city have turned to gravel, there’s a bit of a glut on the market.

Yes, I saw the baby carriage video. How could I miss it? It’s all over Facebook. The good news is no one has tied it to Exxon. The manufacturer is taking all the flak. And Craig’s doing some good work casting doubt on the parents. I mean, they should take some responsibility for putting their kid in a defective baby carriage, right? But the lab’s had a look and they’ve verified that the oil bugs have mutated to eat polyethylene, and if there aren’t existing strains that can eat other plastics, it’s just a matter of time. This is bad. This is very bad.

There’s one ray of light: Now that the roads are gone, air travel has ticked back up. People are still complaining about safety, but there are no alternatives for city-to-city travel since Amtrak shuttered. Reaching out to all the airlines to see who wants to partner with ExxonMobil on our new campaign about the benefits of flying. American is interested.

It would be the perfect solution, except for one thing: that damn Silver Bullet train. Those smug jackoffs had the brains to build it entirely out of advanced ceramics. Not a speck of plastic on the thing. They’re expecting it to cut Chicago-San Francisco air ridership in half, so we really need to find a way to neutralize the threat. Craig’s sockpuppets are posting a bunch of photos of gruesome train accidents, but we need something more. I’ll keep you posted.

Stan


Hi Phil,

Well, Petroleopolis Orlando melted. Oil bugs ate the castle. Less than an hour and it was a puddle of goo. No casualties, but Elsa came out looking like the Swamp Thing. Screaming children everywhere. Plus of course like a hundred people were filming it. Security caught as many of them as they could, but it was already all over social media. We’ve closed the other parks as a precaution; officially it’s temporary, but other than rebuilding the parks from the ground up without plastic, what are we supposed to do?

The really insulting thing is how fast everyone has adapted. All of a sudden everything is made of bamboo or sorghum or potato starch. I went to Panda Express, and what did I get with my food? A fork made of prawn shells! And the wrapper was bragging about it! Exxon’s losing contracts right and left. It’s like our customers have no loyalty whatsoever to the many affordable premium products the plastics industry has brought them. It’s hurtful. Just hurtful.

Stan


Okay, I’m gonna say it: We’re screwed.


Hi Phil,

We’ve got to talk. Exxon’s on the brink of bankruptcy. Oil prices are in the negative. The lab’s predicting a 70% chance that the bugs will mutate to eat methane by the end of the year and that’ll be the end of natural gas. Investors can’t divest fast enough. Renewables are through the roof. There’s no market for plastics, gasoline, natural gas, anything. Air travel is all we have left. And the Silver Bullet is about to shoot that in the back. We need to stop it. I called an “all hands on deck” meeting to brainstorm, but we didn’t come up with anything. I know we say this a lot around here, but it’s time to think outside the box.

Stan


You can’t be serious.


You don’t have to tell me the gravity of the situation. I am aware of the gravity of the situation. But your solution is, to put it mildly, drastic.


I can get you the specs for the train. The ribbon cutting is September 1st. I’m still stuck in Orlando—oil bugs ate the airport runways—but I’ll find a way to make it, even if I have to off-road all the way in my Corvette.


That, at least, won’t be a problem. Exxon has tons of explosives sitting around from their defunct oil projects. I imagine it won’t be hard to convince them to offload a few without asking too many questions. God knows we’ve done enough for them.


Hi Phil,

They finally got the runway repaired and I’m out of Orlando. Picked up the goods with no problem. See you in an hour. They did say there would be fireworks at the ribbon cutting ceremony…


I don’t know, okay? I. Don’t. Know. Everything was going to plan, and then we showed up and suddenly there were a thousand people standing around going “Look, it’s them!” I tried to hang onto the briefcase. Really! Do you think I’d let it go without a fight? But this little Asian chick in a unicorn T-shirt straight-up threw a haymaker at me and someone grabbed it while I was off balance. You’d better bet I’m pressing charges when I figure out who it was. There were so many phones out—someone must have caught their face on video.

I do think it would have been nice if you’d waited for me instead of driving off without me after I got punched in the face. Luckily the new light rail runs every two minutes and I got out of there okay, but when they figure out the combination to that briefcase we’re going to have to answer some pretty awkward questions. Delete this conversation. Purge the whole paper trail.


Hi Phil,

Turns out it was Craig. Craig, the intern! I forgot I’d given the little punk all my passwords so he could answer my emails. He found out what we were planning and posted a photo of the two of us to all Exxon’s social media pages with the caption “These guys are going to blow up the train!” I’m gonna wring the little twerp’s neck. And I’m finding a new podiatrist.

Heard you took the jet to the Cayman Islands. Smart. I’ll be right behind you, but first I need to clean a few things up at the office. I’ve got to make sure there’s nothing incriminating left on the servers. I figure I’ve got a few hours before the police show up.

Stan


Hi Phil,

Gotta make this quick—I hear sirens outside—but I just saw on the news that a private jet went down over the Caribbean. Oil bugs ate all the avgas. And then they ate the plane. Are you all right?


Phil?


Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist who lives in Altadena, California with her husband and a revolving door of transient animals. Her novel Among the Red Stars follows the adventures of the all-female WWII bomber regiment known as the Night Witches.

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