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August 27:
The sky was iron-gray and overcast, the Lincoln Sea a much darker gray. Even here, twenty miles north of the Greenland coast, the katabatic winds that blew from the ice sheet scoured the surface of the ocean. As the cold, dry air whipped over the warmer water, it cooled the moisture of the air into tendrils of mist that blew due north in hundreds of ruler-straight lines. On the horizon, the lines of fog blurred into a gray haze that melted the edges of sea and sky.

It was an alien, monochrome seascape. The only assurances that Isabel hadn’t gone color-blind were the absurdly bright yellow of the weather buoy she was perched on and the light brown of her own hair, a few strands of which had escaped the O-ring and were being whipped into her own face by the wind. Even her wetsuit was black and gray. It could not be said that she was blissfully unaware of the danger she was in, unless repairing a broken salinometer while crouched down on a violently swaying platform is your idea of bliss, but it had been a while since she’d looked behind her.

The weather buoy was about six feet wide, with a tripod frame above it that held the transmitter. The legs of the frame were connected by crossbars. Isabel was down on her hands and knees, with her shoulders pressed against one of the crossbars to help hold her in place.

Between ten and fifteen yards away, the S.S. Kotick floated. Before Isabel had joined this mission, the only boat she’d ever operated was the Mary Lynn, her father’s old skipjack. The Kotick was as different from the Mary Lynn as it could possibly be and still float. It was over a hundred feet long, visibly brand new and — apart from the solar panels — gleaming white. Its hull was wide, but tapered to a narrow wedge just before it reached the water. Its cockpit stuck out above a broad, flat expanse of solar panels like the deck of a miniature aircraft carrier. Its engines were housed in wing-like nacelles under the lip of the hull on either side. On the whole, the Kotick looked more like a spaceship than anything intended for sea travel… which was appropriate, considering how much Isabel’s surroundings looked like an ocean on some other planet.

Over three hundred weather buoys, both moored and drifting, had been deployed in the Arctic Ocean over the past two years. The buoys themselves were all still in excellent condition — and well they might be, since they had originally been built to withstand almost anything the ocean could throw at them. But the salinometers hadn’t been part of the original structure. They were mounted on the buoys for this particular job, and in any kind of rough weather they had a tendency to break or fall off. In addition to just trying to figure out what the hell was going on in the Arctic, part of the Kotick’s mission was to repair or replace these where necessary.

Strictly speaking, three different rules were being broken here. Isabel should not have been out here by herself, the Kotick should not have been out of arm’s reach, and someone on deck should have been keeping an eye on her (or an eye on them, if the first rule were being followed). But two days ago her co-worker, Brad, had gotten his hand in between the side of the buoy and one of the Kotick’s nacelles, and three of his fingers had been badly broken. They’d had to send in a helicopter to fly him to the nearest hospital… which luckily for him was only fifty miles away, in a town called “Alert,” as in “What You Should Have Been, Brad.”

The other two-person team was asleep right now. (One of the perks of working in the Arctic in the summer was that there was no need for everyone to wake up and go to sleep at the same time. It was much more efficient to do everything in shifts, taking full advantage of the 24-hour daylight.)

Isabel had assured everyone that she was perfectly capable of doing the job on her own. What she didn’t say was that she liked it better that way, because (a) the buoy was only barely large enough for one, and (b) Brad seemed to be incapable of being within ten feet of a woman and not trying to hit on her. (That was an odd phrase for it — “hit on” — but at moments like those, when you were close enough to smell a guy’s breath and he just wouldn’t let up and wouldn’t take a hint and his eyes kept drifting all over your erogenous zones, it did start to feel like a kind of violence. Especially when you, unlike him, were trying to concentrate on your work and not let your hands get anywhere they could be damaged.)

Isabel was a good swimmer, and the water right here was over fifty degrees Fahrenheit, nothing her wetsuit couldn’t handle. (And not what anyone thought of as normal for the Arctic, which was part of the reason they were here. Further north it was actually much warmer.) So the Kotick’s pilot had agreed to keep the ship a few yards away so as not to risk any other accidents. Since then the constant wind had pushed the boat a little farther away than they’d intended, but she could still swim it easily.

Nikki Erhardt, the videographer for this little expedition, was supposed to be out on the deck watching Isabel work. But when last seen, she had been going back inside. Possibly she was bored, or had work to do, or unlike Brad took no great pleasure in staring endlessly at Isabel’s neoprene-wrapped body. Or perhaps, like most people, she just trusted Isabel to look after herself.

The salinometer looked like a large syringe on the end of a robot arm. It had to take a small sample of the water in order to test it. The arm was all right, and the connection to the solar panel was intact, but the salinometer hadn’t sent any data in two weeks. So Isabel had taken it apart and was squatting on her hands and knees, with her back turned to the south so as to keep the wind out of her face, trying to work out what the problem was without letting any of the important parts fall overboard.

As best Isabel could tell, looking at it under these awkward conditions, the problem was the seal between the pipette and the pump. When the arm stuck the end of the pipette in the water, the pump was supposed to suck the water up the length of the pipette to the electrodes. Then the arm would lift the pipette out of the water, the electrodes would measure the water’s conductivity, and the pump would use a stream of air to squirt the water out so as not to contaminate the next sample. But if the rubber gasket that connected the pipette to the pump was damaged or misaligned, it would be like trying to drink through a straw that had holes poked in the sides. Nothing would happen.

Isabel had to examine it with a penlight to be sure, but she finally spotted some corrosion on the inside of the gasket. Fortunately, she had a spare in her kit. She took it out, then turned around to reach for the pipette, which had rolled somewhere behind her.

That was when she saw the polar bear. It was a streamlined white shape just under the surface, water rippling over its back and head as it swam towards her, its path straight as the wake of a torpedo. Isabel had no idea what had driven it to swim out this far in the first place, but while she had been concentrating on fixing the salinometer, the bear had been dog-paddling in her direction while staring at her hindquarters with a fixation that even Brad would have said was a little too low-class.

Over the course of the past three years, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the polar bear (like Isabel herself at this particular moment) had gone from “vulnerable” to “endangered.” The northern population in particular, which had grown accustomed to having good solid platforms of ice to hunt seals and beluga whales from, was in a bad way. Many of them had lost whatever fear of humans they’d had — in Barrow, on her way to the dock to join the crew of the Kotick, someone had gotten way too much enjoyment out of telling Isabel the story of a local man who had been cornered in his truck, killed and partly eaten by a polar bear three days earlier. “If the strap from the rifle hadn’t got caught on the gearshift, he’d still be alive today.”

For a long moment, Isabel froze in place, staring, unable to move or turn away. Then the bear’s head emerged from the water. It reminded her, strangely, of a gigantic white retriever — almost like Major, paddling back to Pop with a fat duck or goose in its jaws. It was looking right at her. There was a tag in its ear — it must have encountered humans before. There was no primal hunger or malevolent intent its expression… or none that Isabel could read, anyway. Nothing but a simple, happy eagerness. (According to Isabel’s friend in Barrow, a polar bear could put away up to a hundred and fifty pounds at one sitting. Coincidentally, that was just about how much Isabel weighed minus the bigger chunks of bone.)

Isabel had already dropped everything, launched herself into the water and started doing the front crawl back to the boat by the time she thought to ask herself if this was the best way to escape. Then she decided that it was. Better than calling the pilot and hoping he could get the boat started in time to come back and get her. Especially since she could swim two and a half knots, which was already half the Kotick’s cruising speed. No doubt the bear could swim faster, but she had a head start and it wasn’t that far to the boat.

She didn’t look back. She was already swimming as fast as she knew how, and looking back would have slowed her down. If the bear caught up with her before she reached it, she’d know right away without having to see it.

There was a rope ladder from the deck to the surface. Isabel grabbed the lowest rung and scrambled up it. Once she had her feet on the deck, she turned and started pulling up the ladder.

And then it got yanked down hard, so violently that if Isabel hadn’t let go right away, she would have been pulled over the side. The boat tilted, slightly but suddenly.

Isabel turned and ran for the door to the cockpit. She wasn’t a natural sprinter, but she was feeling highly motivated right now. She didn’t know if the bear could climb the ladder, but if it could, she had even less chance of outrunning it than outswimming it.

She almost tripped over her own feet going down the half-dozen stairs to the cockpit door. Just as she reached the door, it opened and Nikki stepped out. Isabel shoved her back through and slammed the door behind them. She locked it just in time to hear the crash of the bear’s shoulder against the door.

Dr. Vohringer, the head of the expedition, was in the cockpit along with Estebán Basco, the pilot. All of them had gotten up and were staring, paralyzed with fear, at the bear.

Isabel elbowed her way past them. There was a tranquilizer gun stored under the dashboard for just such an emergency. She distinctly remembered putting it there when she’d helped load the boat. She didn’t remember everything she’d brought on board, but weapons had a way of sticking in your mind.

Isabel pulled out the gun. She’d gone hunting with Dad a few times, but she’d never actually fired a rifle at a living thing. This wasn’t exactly like a hunting rifle, but it was close enough that she could load it. Dr. Vohringer was already opening the trapdoor. Estebán was right behind him. Nikki was just standing there filming everything like a character in a found-footage horror movie. The bear was examining the windows.

With a swipe of its paw, it smashed the window next to the door. Grains of toughened glass flew in all directions. It rested its paws on the windowsill, pushed its head through and tried to get its shoulders in. At this point, Nikki headed for the trapdoor.

There was a moment when the bear was pressing its head against the ceiling. Now, thought Isabel, and opened fire. With two pops of compressed air, darts embedded themselves into the bear’s neck just under the jaw.

And nothing happened. The bear was still trying to get through the window. Isabel looked at the rifle in bewilderment. That was supposed to have worked. They had specifically said two darts was enough for a polar bear.

“I don’t think it kicks in right away,” said Nikki, staring up at her through the trapdoor, holding up her camera.

Oh. That would have been a useful thing to mention when they gave us this. The bear’s shoulders squeezed through the window. Nikki stood aside just in time for Isabel to head down the ladder and slam the door over her head.

“Get me the fire extinguisher,” she said to Ian Jacob and Chris Yuan. She had already dropped the gun. Isabel had no further interest in a weapon that was guaranteed to make a dangerous animal fall asleep ten minutes after it killed her.

Isabel looked up at the trapdoor. It was fiberglass. So was the deck. Against a bear’s claws, she wouldn’t bet on it.

Chris handed her the fire extinguisher. It was the kind that sprayed liquid CO2. Even for a polar bear, cold like that would have to be uncomfortable. She hoped.

Sure enough, there was a cracking sound as the hinges gave way. The trapdoor had been torn aside. Isabel aimed the extinguisher up in the direction of the hole, waiting for the bear to stick its face in. She wished hopelessly for a gun. Or a bow and arrow. Or, hell, a really sharp pair of toenail clippers. Just something she could hold in her hands that would make her feel less like a walking sirloin.

And then… nothing happened.

And then more nothing.

And more nothing. Had the tranq darts taken effect? Wouldn’t they have heard it falling down? Isabel almost went up the ladder to see.

Then she had another thought. It’s not unconscious yet. It’s in a place it can’t understand, so it’s doing what it knows how to do — waiting by the hole for the seal to come up. It thinks time is on its side. It’s wrong. Unless of course you stick your head up through the hole like an idiot. Which you were almost about to do.

She looked around the lower deck, where her fellow scientists and engineers were huddled together, staring at her. The front half of it was crowded with the galley, the head and half a dozen workstations where samples of seawater were under microscopes and fresh-caught fish were being examined against databases of marine life.

“I’ve called for help,” said Dr. Vohringer. “An animal control team is on its way.”

From where exactly? How long will it take them to get here? thought Isabel. But since the bear didn’t seem to be in any great hurry to succumb to the tranquilizers, there wasn’t much point dwelling on the question.

“You know what?” said Chris.

“What?” said Isabel.

“It’s a good thing the bathroom is down here.”

Nervous laughter ran through the group. Isabel thought she could hear the bear lie down on the floor above, but she wasn’t sure.

After about twenty minutes, Isabel decided she was done waiting. She taped her cell phone to the end of a broom handle, set the camera to record, stuck it up through the trapdoor and slowly rotated it 360 degrees. Nothing took a swipe at it.

Looking at the recording, the bear was lying unconscious in front of the trapdoor. Or possibly just playing possum. (Did bears do that while waiting for seals?) Isabel wasn’t about to go upstairs, but at least the animal control team would be reasonably safe when they came to save the day.

Eventually, of course, the animal control team did show up. They were Greenlanders, but spoke English reasonably well. They put plastic cuffs on the bear’s paws and got a muzzle on it. Then Nikki got a few shots of Isabel next to the bear in something that was as close to a mighty-hunter pose as Isabel was willing to get. (In the words of the old meme, you had one job, Nikki, one job — keep an eye out for anything dangerous. Like, say, a polar bear trying to swim up and grab me. Seriously, if I had looked up from my work ten seconds later… on second thought, I think I’m going to try not to think about that. Isabel somehow kept smiling while this was going through her head.)

As bears went, it wasn’t even that big. Bigger than a black bear, but not much. They said it was female. Isabel could just barely make out its ribs and hipbones… under a heavy layer of wet fur. That was kind of horrifying. No wonder it came after me. No wonder it wouldn’t stop. It was just about at the end of its tether. From the tag, the bear had been caught two years ago while chasing a dog in an Inuit village in Quebec, and had been transported here… to what they had thought was the last place on Earth where it could live the way polar bears were meant to live, without interference from Homo sapiens.

The fact that the bear weighed less than four hundred pounds made it a lot easier for the animal control team to load it into their net. Someone said something about trying to find a zoo that would take it. Isabel watched as they flew off to the south with the net hanging under the helicopter. (A good twenty feet under. Just in case.) Nothing personal, she thought.

Up until now, the trip had been informative, but not that exciting. Temperatures in Alaska had been in the high seventies, and hadn’t gotten below fifty until they passed within range of the winds off the Greenland icecap. That was just wrong. The first thing they’d seen at sea was the surface of the ocean bubbling off the coast of Barrow as bits of undersea clathrate dissolved into methane. (Ian and Chris had turned into regular comedians at this point. “Bubble bubble toil and trouble, something something something bubble.” “Ee-ah, ee-ah, Cthulhu is fartin’.” “Anybody else have the urge to light up a smoke?”)

The most important thing they’d learned was that the Arctic biome was changing as fast as the climate. They’d gone through clouds of plankton thicker and greener than a sick man’s phlegm, and had caught Atlantic herring at the North Pole. (Isabel had personally gutted and fried some of them for the crew, and had felt no compunction about doing so. Technically, herring was an invasive species here… if that even meant anything any more.) They’d seen a pod of killer whales further north than the species had ever been seen before. It really was too bad that the first time they encountered an animal that was exactly where it was supposed to be was what happened today.

Before the Kotick left, Isabel went back and finished fixing the salinometer.
Okay, not that enormous, but any bear looks big when you're out in the middle of nowhere with it. A passage from the upcoming "Altered Seasons."
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Submitted on
November 19, 2014


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