In this reimagining of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, the polar bear population has dwindled, and the remaining pods have been relocated to the east coast of Antarctica in an attempt to save them using a process called “assisted colonization.” The last pod of Baffin Bay bears has boarded the Precession icebreaker, captained by a man who is keenly aware that previous crews on this run have gone mad.
Are the events that unfold on this sea journey the ravings of an addled mind, the symptoms of contagious hysteria? Or have the bears chosen to rise up now to exert their own autonomy?
by Ashley Shelby
It had long been whispered that the job, which we were the latest to undertake, turned sane men into lunatics. They returned as babbling idiots who never again step foot on an ice-breaking bulker. Not that they didn’t try. The pay was commensurate with the danger of the job so they would shed identities and buy new ones in order to do the run again. Disturbed men can, of course, become synthetically sane for short periods of time; inevitably, though, the adhesive that binds the mask degrades and then the game is up. If they talked, they were visited, and if, after the visits, they continued to talk, they disappeared.
The run is straightforward: from the marshy port of Iqaluit through Frobisher Bay, we coast down the Labrador Current and shimmy through the Strait of Belle Isle before curving east through Cabot Strait, and then sail the familiar Atlantic waters off the east coast of the United States, cruise around the lesser Antilles, with a stop in Ushuaia before we cross the Drake Passage to land the cargo on the Antarctic coast. The stakes are as high as the pay: a captain who fails to complete the run is, by contract and with his full agreement, remanded to the Federal Corrective Training Settlement, a maritime reeducation camp with no publicly known address. By another name, it is banishment.
There have been many explanations for the difficulties experienced by the men who’ve been on this run: some argue that it’s the sulfate aerosol particle veil that hangs over each Pole—the particles dull brains into glue. Others claim the men must have stared into the geo-engineered albedo without their eclipse glasses. Still others assume the crews’ strange behavior is the inevitable result of the crushing stress of dealing with the Russian threat—their nuclear subs prowl the Arctic planting flags on the sea floor. Some say it is the nature of the project itself that addles men’s minds.
The project had been ongoing for two years without detection by the public. Sure, there had been rumors and warnings from conspiracy theorists who, in this profoundly changed world, were sometimes closer to the truth than even they might believe. However, there was no mistaking that the animals were disappearing even more rapidly than had been expected. When the Western Hudson Bay Group was relocated two years earlier, there had been a resurgence of panic and Impact-related angst, except among the First Nation peoples still trying to hack out a living on the spindly fringes of the Arctic. They knew—were the first to know—and were providing practical knowledge and aid, despite their misgivings. (There had been no need for NDAs—although the indigenous population had been the Paul Reveres of Impact, they had, of course, been ignored. We understood, as they did, too, that if they were to talk about the Relocation project, they would be ignored again.)
Two weeks before I was given command of the Precession, an optimally manned polar class 2 icebreaker, the Intergovernmental Assisted Colonization Program finally made its first public announcement acknowledging the existence of the relocation project. The general public, with much hand-wringing, was overwhelmingly in favor of moving the bears from the Arctic to the Antarctic—to them, the two landscapes were interchangeable. Biologists, however, were apoplectic at the idea. It was “an inversion of the accepted principles of natural biodiversity,” a rich accusation coming from individuals who had supported the creation of Styrofoam floes in the Barents Sea and air-drops of “bear chow” on Ellesmere Island. Their version of natural biodiversity resulted in large swaths of western Canada crawling with grizzly mamas nursing polar bear cubs thanks to their short-lived frozen embryo transplant project. (I quickly came to believe scientists have no useful role in post-Impact logistics.)
The pod I was charged with transporting from Iqaluit to the Weddell Sea was the last group of polar bears known to be living in the Arctic regions outside of Russia, which refused to participate in the project. These were Baffin Bay bears—the ones who had initially been the hardest to capture and who subsequently became, due to starvation and physical weakness, as docile as dogs.
As the master of the last icebreaker to leave the Arctic with ursine cargo, I underwent special firearms and large mammal training, despite the fact that we’d be traveling with several biologists, a large-animal handler, and a vet. The beasts would never leave their steel enclosures located in the hangar off the operation deck.
I also underwent counseling, during which I was told about this lunacy specific to the Iqaluit run. It manifested itself as hallucinations—even mass hysteria—featuring one common theme: the bears speak. Not in husky-like complaints, but in English, with clear diction and a slight but very strange accent. I was shown film of exit interviews, conducted in a secure facility, by the crew of the infamous Marigold immediately after they landed at Ushuaia. The men maintained that not only did the bears communicate in understandable English, several bears had acted as Able Seamen, capable of performing routine duties, such as taking on lookout shifts and anchor watch. A deck cadet claimed, with a straight face, that a seven-hundred-pound female called Nuna could execute rudder orders. It was on this trip, incidentally, taken before the social media clampdown, that one of the petty officers managed to snap a cell phone video, but when it was posted online, it was widely dismissed as a deepfake. After that, shipboard communication technology was put under lock and key. Cell phones were not permitted on board, except for officers, and the satellite phone was accessible only by the Master, the Chief Officer and the Chief Engineer, so photos no longer hit social media. It was simple for this behavior to be dismissed. Most on board the Marigold—and the Precession, for that matter—remembered pre-Impact.
We were children when things were growing strange. Though we had been protected from the worst disasters, occurring mostly in the Global South, we were habituated early to a certain constant, low-grade anxiety in adults that found its core outside, rather than within. This, we were later told, was different. Things hadn’t always been like this. Pre-Impact anxiety, we had been told during training, had been based on “imaginary fears, found mainly in people who had little to be afraid of and who therefore manufactured fear themselves.” (We accepted this definition without speaking of our own anxieties.) With the advent of “reality-based fear,” the kind that germinates in war zones, came deep—bone-deep—sorrow that even children could not misunderstand. How, for example, do you explain to a child who has never experienced the normal contours of spring why many adults preferred death to a world without it?
When the old men and women began to die off there was less fear, but more anger. Sometimes it seemed the anger would overwhelm us all. Sometimes the anger warped perceptions. Under certain conditions the human mind can, like tectonic plates under pressure, undergo cataclysmic shifts. With each slip of the plates and the brutal chafing that results, sanity begins to lose its absolute definition. It’s difficult to understand the nature of reality when you have one foot in a vanished world and the other in chaos.
Shortly after that run, the crew of the Marigold was dispatched on a classified assignment in the Southern Ocean—rumored to be where the reeducation camp was located, on a nameless island—and subsequently disappeared. No other crew spoke of talking bears after that, but no crew did the same run twice. I vowed I was not going to become one of the lunatics, the fatwood that would spark a conflagration. I was determined to complete this final run without incident. It was for this reason that I said nothing the first time Muri spoke to me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Shelby is a novelist, short story writer, and former journalist based in the Twin Cities. She is the author of South Pole Station: A Novel (Picador) and Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City (Borealis Books).
See more of her work at ashleyshelby.com.