cw: war, gore, death, guns, body horror, sex, drugs, disaster, apocalypse
“They all had a thousand good economic and political reasons why they couldn’t stop. I’m not a politician or a businessman; how am I supposed to persuade them about these things. What are we supposed to do; quite likely the world will collapse and disappear under water; but at least that will happen for political and economic reasons we can all understand, at least it will happen with the help of science, technology and public opinion, with human ingenuity of all sorts! Not some cosmic catastrophe but just the same old reasons to do with the struggle for power and money and so on. There’s nothing we can do about that.”
― Karel Čapek, War with the Newts (1936)
Prologue 1: BEARS WITH HUMAN FACES
His name was Hudson Ashbrecht. He wasn’t yet a colonel though he would be. He hadn’t yet traveled the world but in time he’d fight in corporate war zones on every continent. (Yes, Antarctica too.) His status just then was another lowly mercenary, the only power he held was his rifle. That was enough. And even then he beheld the north’s sublime horizons as though they represented nothing but a palmful of dirt.
Tingles flew down Ashbrecht’s spine, like when as a child he’d heard his father preach. Fire ravaged the tundra. Insects rushed from the blaze: mosquitos and midges, bees too far north but granted entry by the past decade’s freak warmth. Birds fell on the easy meals and sang to one another. Smoke shredded on the wind.
Slaughter was general in the arctic. In board meetings it was called the Baffin War. Outside board rooms it was nameless. News didn’t cover it. Its refugees were ignored. It was at its theoretical heart a proxy war between Germany and Cascadia, but the instigators weren’t relevant any more. It had become something else, a mercenary war— yes Inuit and Canadian nationalist bloodied themselves as well, but their number was swallowed by the mercs.
Recruiters bought lean and war-beaten once-child-soldiers from Sudan and Ukraine and the States. Private militias flew in, trained by evangelicals in China, insurgents from the half-century Middle-East war, crotchety South Africans with the best gear on the market. From Madagascar and Malaysia and the Falklands, Nazis from Chile and wild American hired guns and geriatric Alberta Threepers and dogged cavalry from Pakistan— they were purchased and imported and sent to slaughter each other.
They lit the oil wells and torched stockpiled coal. In mountains they burrowed after each other with ears pressed to the stone wall for parallel tapping picks. They had bullets by the bucketload and dynamite. Cessna air fleets laden with improvised bombs and TNT circled overhead. Arsenals that long existed just to keep rust belt towns employed at last were carted north, where, after brief mobilizations, thawing sod swallowed them. Cobalt-tipped bunker-busters plunged into the ground and lit methane bubbles and reeking blazes chewed like frenzied moles through the earth. Now and then serene earth burst with a blazing belch miles from the bombs’ violations.
Putrefying mastodons churned to the surface, wooly rhinos. Sickness rose with them, fevers riding the thaw— a militia from Israel was extinguished by anthrax, a novel bubonic strain decimated a Quebecois regiment, a parasitic protozoan left ten Chechen contractors with molten faces, an incurable flesh-eating mould wiped out a Colombian brigade. Worst was the idiopathic illness that turned bodies to runny sludge in hours— no doctor could find a cause. Mercenary companies established a cordon sanitaire around the district where it rose and waited for that open lazaretto to finish its work.
Drugs flowed north. Sex slaves. Contraband cigarettes. Hooch. Californian technocrats testing out new psychological weapons. Engineers. Observers working for corporate intelligence consultants. Submarines prowled the waters, deprecated things purchased from countries long splintered to nothing. They hunted each other and dodged the jellyfish blooms, and when that failed, jelly jammed the works and the subs became sarcophagi.
Parapets and trench networks mutilated the land. Drone fleets fell to arrows and artificial lightnings smote concrete forts as the latest weather machines had their field debuts.
Fields bouldered with gas-fatted corpses that popped, splattered. Boneskippers had drifted from Europe to feed on marrow runny and glistening over rough tundra pebbles. Greenland sharks feasted on corpse flotillas.
And above all that, the sky was green. Chemicals, the shifting climate, algal blooms— precise reason fell fast to speculation: the upper sky was noxious and strange. Its fluorescent stain lasted through the sunsetless summer, hooping the sun’s outrageous eye in concentric steel rings.
It was a short war, only entering its ninth year when Ashbrecht signed his first contract. Some months his unit fought for Europetrol and some months for Exxeon and some months for the Texas United Energy Concern.
Ashbrect: He tracked down and butchered warlord bands along the tree line (crawling north further each year). Deployed to Ellesmere he’d tracked enemy generals across moraines dusted with magenta flowers. He plumbed abandoned diamond mines that pitted the land to detonate enemy stockpiles, the whole time locked in a claustrophobic diving suit against the saturated CO2. In military bars he danced as throat singers performed the rasping pop that had exploded here with the influx of soldiers and grown insanely popular back home. Within units it was normal to settle disputes with duels: hatchets or pistols. He’d done that within weeks. And some units had you sip human blood or eat people meats before they let you into the inner circle. He’d done that too, though he’d had to snort a fucktonne of gorefuck to stomach it the first time.
And you’d get strange looks if you weren’t taking trophies. Whites who found the practice distasteful blamed black Africans, but it had started with white American mercs mailing skulls home to their loved ones. Bone earrings and tooth necklaces and stolen fillings and helicopters decorated in femurs. Striding through corrosive haze and carbon dioxide sinks where all other life was silenced, necklaces clattered with scrimshawed human bones.
He roved by infrared through bottomless nights with no mandate beyond killing whoever he found, a task he executed to perfection. War-smoke veiled the dancing auroras. His unit was issued experimental dope and he was entranced by the swirl a lichen made as it grew by centuries on rough red stones, blissful despite the glacier rubble knuckling his belly, sheltering from overhead fire. He lost a finger, an ear. His face was wretchedly fucked up when buckshot imploded his cheek. The emaciated UN sent observers, who he guided to their vanishing. He waded through lakes that went no higher than his knees, blood-starched-fatigues nibbled by translucent minnows whose pink insides were visible through their backs.
Ashbrecht’s fifth year at the front a solar flare set fire to half earth’s telecommunications infrastructure. Wires melted, hard drives blazed, server farms oozed for weeks and congealed to a heterogenous slag. That day the flare struck went by Sunny Sunday in the English world. While across the northern hemisphere businesses struggled to import new computers and governments tightened fists on their serfs to resolve the economic crisis, the war’s golden age began. It had never been busier. Programmers and IT specialists and all the small economies who depended on them (until their jobs broiled) streamed to the Arctic. Companies and governments fired budgetary cannons at battlefields to jumpstart shattered manufacturing centers.
In this charnel mire the animals, having long teetered over oblivion, and despite chemical sores and esoteric cancers, thrived. Corpse-fertilized fields became grazing-grounds, muskox and caribou nosing between hipbones and tibias, crunching fingers. Lakes thrashed with arctic char fattened on bodies. Foxes scavenged and preyed on other scavengers. In the silence between the guns, amid trench and crater and grave, tundra life enjoyed a a defiled renaissance.
The polar bear had long scrabbled on extinction’s slope and was close to falling, but the war’s carrion-glutted seasons gave it purchase. The bear clawed its way back. After a decade, they thrived again, ragged and rugged and rotting things. Polar bears by genetics and taxonomy but hard to recognize as such. By any comprehensive definition, something hardly a bear any more. Pelts the unhealthy yellow-gray of tobacco-stained teeth, shedding oily mite-colonized clots. Tumours decorated their faces and sores wept from their flanks and many were milk-eyed and blind, sniffing after meat. They moved in groups, ears cocked for gunfire that declared where carrion might be.
At first the mercs shot them but whatever esoteric gangrene thrived in the bears’ bodies meant you could shoot one in the brain and most times it would snort, indifferent, as though it had been shot by nothing more than a hailstone. Bullets thumped into their bodies and they loped leisurely away, blood oozing thick as syrup from the wounds. About one in five times the bears took these attacks as provocations and tottering through outrageous bodily damage mauled whoever shot them and the poor bitch’s whole unit.
The soldiers stopped trying to kill them after the war’s eighth year. Except among new recruits, all knew it was bad to fire on bears. Gunning them down brought shit luck and bear-wrath. Feeding them, victory and good trophies.
Surplus prisoners were staked to the ground for the bears. Mercs regarded these offerings with bent reverence. (The prisoners not offered to the bears were beaten for a while, then issued contracts by their captors.)
And the new polar bears gathered the offered meat as if it was birthed by the land, wagging limp-limbed torsos like over-boned placentas in their jaws.
She was born Emmet and was trying out Amelia, a name she’d adopt in time. She hadn’t understood herself and welcomed the Baffin War’s violent democracy. She had wanted to be a biologist but the biology she was invested in had imploded into something almost as niche as phenomenology— the only jobs available either in genomics or assisting those in genomics. She’d wanted to be a myrmecologist. She was transfixed by living things and their systems and how their ancestral histories welded them to rails they’d follow from zygote to the moment decay made their corpses synonymous with dirt. A millionaire t-shirt drop-shipper was shrieking at her over a headset about the kerning on his store’s about us page when the line dropped. The sun had smitten every drone in every fulfillment center in the northern hemisphere, every server, and every phone line. Her computer screen fizzled briefly and oily smoke coiled from gaps in its plastic shell. Her laptop sparked and she threw it in the sink, ran water over it where it continued to bubble.
She leaned back in her kitchen chair in her narrow room in a Montreal habitation block. The block opposite filled her window with many hundreds of identical kitchens where stunted succulents tilted towards the light. She’d heard about sun activity on the news and anticipated power outages, but she knew enough about the world to realize this power outage wouldn’t end any time soon, and that she’d need to eat. A recruiter had spoken to her in the neighbourhood when she’d been smoking on the curb, about work up north. She’d also heard that ants had been discovered forming bizarre new life systems in the melting permafrost.
At the recruitment center they’d been ready for the sun— the recruiter had a candle and typewriter, paper forms fanned on the desk.
Amelia learned to shoot, and fight with a hatchet. It was fun and she didn’t understand why she’d thought she’d have compunctions around killing. Nobody cared about her junk or her body hair and they all called her Amelia without problems. She brought nothing but her gear and notebooks with her, between fights or even in them she illustrated the life she found. Ants had been introduced, queens riding the mercenaries— Argentine ants had founded a new supercolony, parasitized by an undiscovered species of slaver ant. Trap-jaws were feasting on springtails that thrived among skeletons, and marauder ants had developed a remarkable toehold. She ordered more notebooks, and if they were full, pilfered paperwork from the company office and wrote her developing monograph on the backs of type-written memorandums and invoices.
She and Ashbrecht were assigned to the same unit. He smiled a lot and they got along over beers and campfires and sucked each other’s dicks a couple times. He liked narcotics and had been there for a while and she knew staying by him meant living to finish her work. He regarded her as sharks might regard remoras. And like sharks and remoras the two were difficult to separate.
And they were deep in the post Sunny Sunday years— when directives were rare and what public sliver took interest in the conflict were preoccupied with reassembling their lives from the technological collapse— that Amelia and Ashbrecht saw the comet arrive.
What records exist from that war are financial, and nobody, not even Amelia, recorded its passing. But to those bought souls that warred in the arctic the conflict was bisected into two eras: before and after the comet.
It was winter’s core. The sun surrendered to unbroken night. They gnawed the cheap walrus pemmican their employers issued and moved south on the town. The wars’ fronts, its rhythms and tides and eddies had consolidated on Naujaat. Though an objective strategist would have said it was worthless— it was a way station, a minor military base, another puny Inuit community to be press-ganged into labour work— it would soon be site to the most grueling battle of the Baffin War. That night for the two mercs it was another job and another opportunity for trophies.
Shivering auroras dragged their eyesight skyward, electric colours warped by the stained air, dancing as if performing for an interstellar messiah. It bowed huge and low, the comet, silhouetting Cesnas wandering beneath its lurid tails. Chalky snows dusted the ground and hissed with the relentless desert winds, reflecting its hideous fire. All the tundra turned corrupted glowing green that twitched as though it was skin on vast gelatinous musculature. When he blinked, the scars from comet lights etched in his eyes and the scars on the arctic night became one.
By that light Amelia and Ashbrecht fell on a camp, by comet glow Ashbrecht shot three soldiers as his commander’s battle mix throttled his ears. By soaring colours he dug up a sharp pebble from under the snow, a stone that hadn’t moved since the year the first caucasian plague-men brought rats to Mauritius, and etched three notches on his gun. He was among the last in his unit to retreat to the plains and so saw the bears loping and saw what he thought were wounds on their faces— strange, nude, and pink— maybe burned by something— maybe all put their noses in the same chemical sink— but he didn’t have time to make sure before his unit needed to move.
He fingered the notches on his rifle.
“What are those for?” Amelia said, pointing.
“Kills,” he answered, and grinned. He pointed at her gun.
“You did it too.”
She squinted at her rifle, confused. She was holding a pocket-knife. She’d blunted the tip adding four slashes to the butt.
They hadn’t been the only ones to notch. Winter lurched to spring. With sunlight Naujaat became the Baffin War’s vortex. The army base was pulverized and the town was abandoned, but mercs fought for the land because people were fighting for it and nobody had ordered them to stop. Markets had found their footing on the war. They were pulsing to the front’s appetite, feeding it to feed themselves. As Naujaat’s war accelerated, the comet appeared in stickers and badges, a skull with the comet’s flowing green tails decorated gear and vehicles. Comet-chan proliferated in stickers on base computers, and pin-ups painted on vehicle snouts, split peace fingers pointing to tallies. A frenzy for counting had seized the belligerents. Guns and armor became cave walls for notches. Uniforms and hatches and gear. They used awls and improvised shanks to make their marks. When they starved they ate the dead. The land drank blood, grew swampy. Arctic wolves tottered through the mire so soaked in human ruin they looked like roving scabs.
And when Ashbrecht saw the creatures, he first assumed were ordinary wounded bears. Something had denuded and warped their faces, but from a distance he couldn’t tell what had happened or articulate the nature of the wound.
“What are you looking at?”
“Something funny about those bears.”
Amelia squinted. “It looks like their snouts are missing.”
But the pair couldn’t stare much longer, they had to leave their foxholes. Artillery strikes were coming.
Radioactive materiel festered in the land around Naujaat. Temperatures climbed to the twenties by March and where the ground wasn’t rocky it was swamps that stank with burbling methane.
Ashbrecht’s unit was assigned to claim the cliffs. A single surface-to-air missile battery kept their employer’s supply drops at bay. It was staffed by leathery fighters from Peru and Australia, who’d festooned their barricades with barbed wire, and festooned their barbed wire with guts.
And the birds were coming, migrating north. By millions, gulls and loons and geese and eiders and stray albatross and pelicans, kestrels and hawks and falcons that fell on them. Air a squawking riot sharpened with razor wire— sight blocked by an avian squall, flocks rising, golden-eyed, white-and-gray feathered, signaling to the sharpshooters whenever anyone attempted approach, until the mercs learned to use bird-clouds for camouflage.
And then the birds laid their eggs.
Rocks slick with shit and yolks, the birds became a third belligerent, dive bombing anyone too near their nests. With mortar falls carcasses trailed feathers. Ashbrecht and Amelia fought amid stone and feces, their skins and clothes shit-painted white and purple-brown, textured with fish scales and tiny bones. They added more cuts to their tallies. It was a long fight. The eggs hatched and downy larva screeched for their mother’s mercury-tainted vomit and they were plucked away by hawks and trampled under mercenary boots.
The sun stilled at its height. Through a fluorescent green dome, it watched. It warmed the land to a freakish 42 degrees centigrade and the mercenaries thirsted and sweated. An algal bloom flourished in the sea. Birds died, fledglings hardly discarding their down before pollutants archived in their bodies stopped their hearts. Gulls shrieked mournful over the gunshots, guarding the inert chicks in their nests. Many birds had gone blind and floundered. Loons turned to cannibalism. Cliffs roared with flies. Sharks who’d sniffed their way up from the deeps feasted on feathered bodies shredded by the surf.
Ashbrecht and Amelia were together at the spear-tip when they took the compound. Its mercs were ribby and exhausted and drugged, eyes scrutinizing astral depths of beige concrete and bullet-holes. Some had fallen to dementia after eating bloom-tainted gulls. The one still staffing the surface to air missile site was asleep, and gunshots hadn’t been enough to wake him.
They had the prisoners draw lots to see who’d be given to the bears. As they’d tied the offering to the perimeter fences one man had muttered to Jesus and an Australian woman called Amelia a cunt. She nodded. It was normal for the offerings to act like that, forgivable. Their sweat sparked in the sun and stink thickened the air to spoiled aspic.
Ashbrecht relaxed on a couch for the first time since winter in the heat and looked out to the water— brown-red where algae thickened it to pudding— through a window spider-webbed with cracks made by stray flechettes. Amelia leaned on his shoulder. They slept.
He woke up to screaming and laughter and assumed at first they were one sound he’d just mixed up. Then it swelled. It was laughter. Maniacal. Off. He checked outside (Amelia slumping on the couch) and saw the offerings. They were cackling and crying. The perimeter fence beside them had been torn down. Something growled and snorted outside. Machine gun fire popped. Air sang. Flies thronged and the offerings’ laughter frolicked with guffaws gulls hurled from their curdled throats. Gunshots fell silent.
“Amelia!” he shouted, and she sprang from her rest and grabbed her gun and was with him.
Two mauled carcasses dotted the ground like crushed crabapples, red ribs bare and offal freed from its membrane.
He wasn’t sure when he’d prepped his gun and armoured up. He rushed out into the arctic’s stinking fever, thinking the heat was the same colour as the comet’s tails.
The offerings laughed.
He and Amelia, covered in notches, painted in dried gull shit that made them look like they’d crawled up from the land under the dying colony. Together they’d shot a woman from Tunisia and four Nigerians and eight Saskatchewan cavalry corps and their horses and four Russians and half a dozen Peruvians and three Texans and two guys from Montreal and two Colombians who’d cut their teeth in Iraq and four Iraqis and two Sikhs and four Mongolians and seven Ugandans—
They’d crossed the world. War was what they knew—
—and two Australians and fourteen South Africans and a shocking sixteen Germans— each who put up a real fight before they bit it. Ten French—
—and where their rays intersected, courses stopped.
—fourteen Chinese, one Korean, an Italian prince, eighteen Dutch, ten Swedes, four Chechens, eight Texans, thirteen Cascadian technocrats—
The barracks were appropriated school portables. He spotted with his rifle, sweeping, moving along, Amelia watching his back. A bear, haunches the unhealthy gray-yellow of tobacco-stained teeth, studied in the blood. Skin sagged from its ribs. Mottled sores leaked a clear resin that stained the fur around it amber. Its claws were huge and blunt. Its bones pressed against its pelt though its gut was bloated.
And it lifted its head to see them.
He thought it was the combat drugs.
It had to be the combat drugs.
The bear was bloody. Maybe it was confusion.
It had his face.
His temples buzzed and he could see each molecular pixel moving in the air a between them. A mole stood out on the left cheek, a nevus vein spidering on the right nostril. Like his. The teeth were gappy and an eyebrow split and the heterochromia that affected a third of one blue iris matched his. And the little scars from when he had snakebites before enlisting. And the precise acne down cheeks where his thin beard grew (that flowed into where the beard phased into the first wiry hairs of the polar bear’s pelt).
It had to be the Sack-23 or the gorefuck or the snarl or the daisy rain or the snowdrops or the guts or the—
Amelia said, “Why the fuck does it have your face?”
He shot. Blood spots in the cheek, shoulder, eye burst (his, its) and it didn’t roar. It grumbled. It stood. It looked down at him, confused, with his own cratered face. A tower, monument in emaciated muscle and filthy hair. He fired again and wounds scalded its gangrenous flanks and again as it fell to its paws and charged. Hair-clots shaking. Claws scrabbling the gravel. He emptied the mag as it roared and swatted him.
He hit a wall. Amelia fired. Stopped. She, the bear, they were both out of sight. He couldn’t see what happened out his left eye. Mouth filled with a taste like copper. Thought he’d die. The bear would grab him and shake his bones to breaking.
With each shallow breath and ragged heartbeat he expected the thing to clamp his neck in its tusks (teeth? his?) but it didn’t.
He mustered enough strength to tilt his head.
Amelia shuddered against a portable wall, watching the bear. As it breathed blood bubbles like pulsing berries popped and fizzled where its sides leaked gore on the gravel. She’d shot it through the heart. Lucky.
They had to leave but he couldn’t let it escape with his face. He had to have the face so even when the drugs wore off he could see.
And the offerings laughed. Tears flowed from their faces. Ribs cracked with guffaws. Their wrists bled where they pulled against their binds. He tore his hatchet from its holster with a velcro rip. With full body bent like a bow he brought the edge down on the bear’s skull. With determined swings he cracked the bone and cut away the face from the top lips to the brow. Bear brains wetted gray gravel. The wind rose and brought rot with it. Flies were already settling the new hairy moon their offspring would strip-mine. He tossed away a mummified Swedish hand— didn’t bother with the wedding ring— and hooked the bear face to his carabiner by puncturing the skin with his hatchet.
“Come on,” he barked. Amelia didn’t move, save for the trembling spreading from her hands. She rose unsteady, reloaded her carbine.
“What the fuck,” she muttered. “What the fucking actual fuck.”
She steadied herself at feral look Ashbrecht shot her from the pits in his face, half-veiled by blood from the slashes on his temple. His pupils were huge. She felt she could have lowered a pail into them on kilometers of rope and never touched bottom. His incisor was cutting a lip til it bled.
They pressed on, following bear-grunts over the portables. Walking careful, sweeping, checking behind themselves.
Their unit had been opened like pomegranates deseeded by every method every innovative mother ever faced with the task had devised to deseed a pomegranate. Their rubies glistened, pith, peel, arils. Sweet molasses drizzled on tarmac.
Bears feasted. They looked up when the pair got close. Slav’s face sagged on the end of a pasty bear’s neck. Cheeseman from Sudbury’s dirty blonde beard caught blood and walleyes regarded them. On bear bodies he saw Soda from Winnipeg, and Turtle whose English was shit, Crosshairs and Shitstain and Forrest and Charmander and Funk. Flesh dribbled from duplicated lips. They chewed with human teeth, unfit for raw meat, like cows working cud. He stood with his gun and his ax. Blood from the severed face hotly wetted his right pant leg. And one bear lifted its head, one eye dangling on a pink thread between two teeth: Amelia’s face.
The bears seemed to scrutinize the drooping face-flap he’d severed from one of their number. The one with Amelia’s face sucked up the eye like a noodle, groaned, loped away. As the other bears followed he howled. He tried to fire but his gun was empty. Amelia’s hands shook. She couldn’t move.
“Why the fuck does it have my face?” she muttered. “Why the fuck-” And he reached for her gun and she sprang back as if bit by a snake, “No!” and pointed the carbine at him. “There’s something here. I need to understand.”
In silence they stood, tethered by gun sight. Rotting birds flopped out of the new bears’ way.
He stood panting. Amelia lowered her gun.
The new bears were gone.
The hole he’d gnawed in his own lips was swollen. Howling meandered on the dead air from the offerings. He turned and finished each lunatic with a single whack from his ax. At its deepest— the place just over the horizon where dusk had been absent for a while— the sky was green like the first April leaves.
Gulls tore the bodies. Loons and geese joined soon after with their ill-equipped beaks. But they didn’t touch the decapitated bear. It added its spoiled scent so like rotting dog hair to the other stenches. Some far-off memory let Ashbrecht know the sea smelled like decay because it was full of life and he wasn’t quite sure how that pertained, but the thought obsessed him for hours. His pantleg had stiffened. He found a black stone spotted with seafoam and rust-speck lichens and laid the face out to bake. The sun dried the skin from above and the stone dried the bone from below.
He sat in a shaded cup under a portable awning. And watched. He chewed protein bars and pemmican with sore, loose teeth and took fitful naps and watched his face desiccate and swatted flies away when they tried to land. The cycloptic sun watched him sober up.
First the incandescence wore off and deracinated his ability to sublimate his gag reflex and he spent hours throwing up mucus. The moondrops after, plump imps frolicking around him, hallucinations pawing his face and tugging his ears and burrowing into the lipid sheath between skin and muscle to lay eggs. Though it had soared to 45 degrees centigrade, when the crimson pills faded he shivered as though he’d been fished from an ice-locked lake. His capability to manage horrors wavered. He screeched. Amelia brought him water and snacks from the canteen and urged him to come inside and sleep but he wouldn’t. He peeked through fingers clamped to his face at the strange trophy and when he could bear to look at it, gnawed his own nails. Amelia rubbed his back and held him and tried to get him to eat. The birds ate what chicks survived and feasted on each other. Wings weak or plucked to nothing they tottered on webbed feet, chasing one another like leprous dinosaurs. Feathers and down roved in whirling clouds until the stale breeze brushed them out to sea. He stopped drinking. The water tasted like bitter piss. He became one of death’s gray soldiers from an old Dutch masterpiece, skin shrink-wrapped to rib, joint, and vertebra. The bird colony was extinct. Bones threaded together with dry tendons. Flies had dispersed to find nests elsewhere and calm soared over the arctic plain. Amelia watched the ocean and waited for orders— but the radio had been dead since the new bears attacked. The water was algae-smothered, dead sharks’ bobbing mottled bellies the only break in the runny shit-brown surf.
And the new bear’s face was still his face.
Though broken by a bullet-wound, it had his freckles. His scars and his moles. Had he looked in a mirror and had endless time he might have correlated each follicle on the mask to his own.
He was sober.
Sober, he roved through the outpost’s supplies.
“Are you going to eat now?” said Amelia. She’d been saving rations for when he decided to rise.
But Ashbrecht was silent. He punctured the leather-and-bone thing with a kitchen knife. With the same knife he chipped out space for his nose. With bootlaces he knotted it to his face.
He turned to her. Through eye-holes that were copies of his own, browned and taut and dry, he watched her.
“We have to kill them,” he said.
“The fucking goddamned bears,” he said. “Your face.” He grabbed her chin. “We need to get your face back.”
“We need to understand what’s going on. Maybe it’s GMO shit—”
He shook his head, outraged and quick in a way familiar to her from when she’d told customers they wouldn’t get what they wanted. “No, no. Nothing like that.
How could they even do that? That was your face. It had your scars. Exact scars, look.” He pointed to the wizened face that sat over his own, lifted it like a visor, put it down again. “See? The same. It’s the same. They copied our fucking faces.”
“You need to chill. We don’t know what’s going on.”
“The comet,” he said. He heard himself a second later and realized he’d shouted what he’d felt as a mutter. Amelia was standing still. Haggard and lean.
Thoughts roved behind her eyes. “Don’t you want your face back?” He said, softly. She looked at him in confusion.
“No?” she said. “That’s not my face. And I want to get out of here.”
He sighed. “Fine. Come on. I’ll drop you off the next base.”
But she didn’t leave him. They passed bases where company flags sagged in windless air and didn’t part ways. Ashbrecht was disconnected and Amelia disconnected with him. Wherever he went he asked in his potsherds of foreign language after the bears, Amelia with her knack for tongues clarified.
Rumour flew from all directions. Ursine massacres became common. Mercs would flee entrenched positions they’d held for months if they saw the new bears were coming. His second face— human, fringed with new bear fur, was to all who saw it a fascinating artifact from a rare survivor. Soldiers asked about it and pressed food and good luck charms— withered thumbs or stolen buttons or tiny holy books— into his calloused palms. He discarded everything he couldn’t eat, but Amelia saved so many mementos that when she jumped she jangled like a jester. Questions vanished after it became known they hunted the bears. Word spread when the pair was coming. They were given alms in hollow-tipped bullets and protein bars and bumfodder. Followed spool Ashbrecht called shitgriffins because their traits were as incongruous together as those of birds spliced with lions.
And soon found other survivors. Like Ashbrecht they’d reclaimed their faces and like him they wore them and like him they alone had walked away from their polar manticores. Only one spoke English but conversation was redundant. They wore the story on their face and understanding animated them.
Amelia dragged behind them, watching their scabbed double-faces from the fire-edge for signs as to what phantom drove them. Why they didn’t seek answers. Sapropel reek blew inland from the sea. At last the sun threatened to fall past the horizon. Strange stains blotted the sky— clouds perhaps, but too like gelatinous medusas that pulsed and quivered. Where they cruised any self-sustained comfort left her.
They chased new bears. They ambushed them and were ambushed and pursued them in running fights and wove through mountain passes. In the dark, in the daylight, through years. The new bears shared rot and ruin with the land, after all, and they knew it. But the new bears lacked mercenary ingenuity and the hunters, with bullets and hatchets and clubs, hunted. And killed them. And with each bear they added a tally to their masks, a cut in the leather, a scratch on a gun.
“I don’t understand what this is about.”
“We’re getting our faces back.”
“But I have my face already.”
If they didn’t know whose face the new bear copied, they burned the head and if they knew they found them and gave the cured mask to its owner. Recipients always joined the hunters.
The war’s fifteenth year ended.
It sank into arctic night, which never fell below -26 degrees centigrade that year, even with the windchill. The ursine legionnaires continued their hunt. The few who wouldn’t aid them were pillaged. They robbed stores from coal mines and natural gas deposits. Bear claw necklaces swung from their necks, wore pelts for winter coats.
In universities some distant ecologists declared the polar bear’s extinction, but Ashbrecht knew that polar bears had been extinct for a very long time. He didn’t have a rank jotted in any document, but he was the Colonel now. His primacy determined by that band’s silent democracy. He lead them to loot the trash-heaps where the new polar bears sheltered, landfills where they made their dens. And by the war’s sixteenth year the human-faced new bears were fleeing north, to die when the ice floes melted and they become one with the gray slush on the acrid sea. For the hunters this was blasphemous injustice. They pursued. High above the meridian, at a shore by a stretch of sea that at one time may have become ice but now was just slush reaching out to the horizon, the last new polar bear turned and met their predatory gazes. Ashbrecht half-expected an eye to dangle from between its teeth. It turn and began to bolt for the water but they were on it already.
“Amelia,” he shouted over the steaming corpse. “Amelia! Where’s Amelia? I’ve found her face. Amelia!”
He waited to hear back, the regiment gazed at him impassive, ready for the completion of the final ritual, taking back what the animal had taken from them.
Ashbrecht returned to regular contract work.
His services and the services of his ragged army were in demand, and with their reputation he commanded ludicrous fees. He still roved the tundra’s corpse. The war roared on. After a while he discovered he was interested in other wars than this.
He left. Started his own corporation. He had an office in Toronto with a frosted glass door and he spent a lot of time typing and clicking, feeling numb, like his father had died only the previous week and not many years before. Despite the scars, or perhaps because of them, he cleaned up fine. An orthodontist fixed the gaps in his teeth, dentures replaced those scurvy took. He was known in the contracting business for leading from the front and took assignments far away, coming back wealthier, more experienced, with trophies from animals he’d killed between bouts of killing the nude, forked, standing ones. He was summoned to dinners at huge houses and chateaus in the countryside outside Ottawa. He shook ministers’ hands and met generals who asked his opinions on serious matters and rival contractors who knew about his time in the tundra and avoided him. Champaign pearls bubbled silver in his cup. He dined on abalone and squab and crinkled geoduck sashimi and langoustines and finger lime and yartsa gunbu and uni and sea bream and wagyu beef and beluga caviar and Iberian jamon and saffron and aged modena balsamic and real wasabi from the Izu peninsula which was in a place called Shizuoka and la bonnotte potatoes and—
She was a portly woman. Chuckles shook in some ditch north of her lungs. Keen eyes met his and she laughed at his jokes and he laughed at hers though he wasn’t sure who she was.
“Is it true, about the bears?” she asked.
He said it was.
Yes, he said, and if she stopped by his office he could show her samples. (His face. His true face. The one he—)
“No need,” she said. She pulled out a little silvery case and clicked it open. Passed him a card. “If you’d ever like a career change, just call my office.”
She was the environment minister, it turned out. She had an opening under the subdepartment of Wildlife Management. He called her office two days later.
He recalled his bear hunters a month after that.
The government was founding a new office: the Department of Animal Control.
Nature’s dysfunction, it appeared, was no longer restricted to the arctic circle.
Prologue 2: GRADUATION
Essin was shocked that, after fifteen years being hammered roughly into shape by the education system, the hammering was done. The future loomed. They had never articulated the thought, but if pressed they might have said that since a young age they’d lived with the sense that the future was short and so there wasn’t much sense thinking about it. Droughts were coming. Crops would fail. The earth would bake into oblivion and oligarchs would prance through the ruins headshotting refugees because they couldn’t get their emotional shit together. Sunny Sunday, and the life it brought, hadn’t done much to quash the impression.
Through high school the sense had gathered flattening weight. That June when they were due to graduate they spent a while on the library’s computers watching the old interviews their mother did back when before Information Control was founded. In at least three interviews she described her job as “chronicling the apocalypse.”
They spent long hours after wandering the neighbourhood trying to tire themself out, fishing through memories. They thought perhaps it was impossible to do the kind of work she did and not have it filter somehow into your life, not pass it on to your kids like some epigenetic sadness. But the thoughts resisted form— epiphanies were shredded like jellying on rocky surf.
Graduation day was sunny, a freakish brightness that summoned all details from June trees and dandelions and their graduating classmates in formal clothes, gowns and hats, shiny fine black shoes. People clutched umbrellas brought for the forecasted rain, and yet not one cloud intruded on the blue. To Essin the intricacy that light bestowed on everything was something to take shelter from, details saline structures in a solution saturated enough to burn.
The school linoleum was shiny. It reflected their shoes. And its windows reflected the pale afternoon. Dicks and rumors and sophomoric dialogues about anarchy and weed in the bathroom stalls were only legible if you squinted at the roughness under the fresh paint. They sweated in the gymnasium as teachers organized the student body and then sweated in the auditorium as they sat and their names were called by rote and they briefly shook the limp hands of administrators who’d only spoken more than twice in the last four years to perverted children groomed to have political aspirations.
They were given a prop roll of blank paper tied with a pale green ribbon. Their actual diploma waited in the gym. Awards were given. There was a new one, named after two kids who committed suicide late last year. Brief moment of remembering (most students had forgotten), applause for the student who’d won the award, and then Essin was back in the gym to return their gown.
The school had done everything to make sure it looked immaculate for the graduation ceremony except hire landscapers to trim the weeds. In Essin’s first minute as an official high-school graduate, the only thing they noticed were the dandelions: in the school’s ratty, litter-filled gardens, along the lines of the school foundation, spreading like prickly suns from each asphalt crack and crevice. They imagined them splitting through the walls and the roof, given time. Even in the parking lot, they sprang three triumphant feet from potholes.
Grown-ups filed out the front entrance. Essin put their diploma in one hand and stuck the other one in their pocket, picked a direction, and walked for a while, under big maples and cedars. They walked as fast as they could for a quarter hour in the shaded calm. They stood, stunned, and trembles crept over them. First in their hands and lips and then in their crotch and legs and it seemed as though their eyes were whirling in their sockets and their head was full of bright far-flung points of light streaming like strange comets and something was bottoming out and something else had made them weightless and there were beings, things, anti-voices, booming from the space between the stars.
It wasn’t just that they weren’t going to uni, or that they didn’t have plans for college. They felt a strange alrightness with their planlessness at a time when everybody seemed to have memorized a blueprint for living. It wasn’t like they were bad at school or anything— they’d gotten subject awards in biology and philosophy. It just seemed like something someone else had made and they couldn’t see how it connected to them. The whole ordeal of applying to a university, then going to a university and learning about a subject until it became abstract beyond reckoning. And anyway basic degrees and certifications weren’t worth shit anymore. Nothing functional really made sense. Like— why plan vacations or write manuals or build tables or organize libraries or diddle with the tax returns of people who were too lazy to sit down and hash that shit out for themselves?
Why go anywhere?
Standing on the empty street, clutching their diploma in its cardboard tube and mortarboard and the little silvery medals from the subject awards, difference boomed over them. Like the sky’s ceiling had suddenly risen and the whole neighbourhood was caught in a blooming bubble of rarified air.
It seemed as though the whole world was there, in that neighbourhood. Earth beyond its peripheries had been demolished, turned to thickets of tangled criss-crossed power lines, rooftops with weeds blooming out of them, windows filmed with pollen and dust thrown up by distant construction, ratty overgrown lawns, gardens obscene with over-ripe peonies. Beyond this place were farmer’s fields, more suburbs, then the city, the hills that caged it in its valley.
But past that?
They turned, walked back.
Something noiseless and measureless was unfolding on the school lawn, merging into the rhythm of a special event. Groups gathered for pictures, kneeling, arms laid across each-other’s shoulders. Essin was roped into a couple groups for pictures with people they’d spoken to a couple times. They hadn’t been one for friends and they weren’t sure if that was by choice or ineptitude. Cicadas drilled the air above the chatter. Their eyes caught motion: white butterflies moved in a triad, somersaulting over each other in the air. Parents chatted with each other in little packs while students took selfies. Some dads were passing out cheap cigarillos and grape and cherry and vanilla tobacco sweetened the leaves and asphalt.
They threw their mortarboard up with everyone else. The next day they went to the dinner the prom committee had booked at the Museum of Natural history. They sawed through tough and overpriced chicken bedded on parboiled rice. A girl at their table had smuggled in a mickey of vodka by duct-taping it to her inner thigh and passed it around under the tablecloth. Music played so loud that they had to shout. And then it was off to the buses, for everyone to sweat and drink in a cabin in the hills. Essin spent the whole time thinking about how tired they were, sat outside, watched the city lights while people fucked among the trees.
That was graduation. Essin went out with their resume two days later, and landed a job at a Starbucks.