Save the polar bears, they said. So I did—and now here I am, barricading myself inside an Arctic research facility like some goddamn B-movie cliché, listening for the scrape of long keratin claws on the concrete floor.
We all grew up knowing the Ursus maritimus was living on borrowed time, didn’t we? We all saw the shock-and-shame images of starving bears hauling themselves across the shrinking ice, their shoulders turned to sawblades and their hide hanging off them like an oversized costume. We all saw our own despair in their dull black eyes.
In my case, it inspired me to get while the getting was good. I used the family money well, earned a half-billion in biotech before my thirtieth birthday, and insulated myself from climate anxiety with walls of cash and high-grade hash—right up until I heard about this novel bacterium found up in the Arctic, spawned by the interplay of ancient microbes finally coming unfrozen.
It turns out that even as the thawing ice shelves were destroying ecosystems and killing bears, they were also turning a once-static environment into a swirling petri dish. And this new bacterial strain, when accidentally ingested by opportunistic feeders, had some intriguing effects on metabolism, slowing it down to a crawl.
Suddenly, I saw a way to save those starving polar bears that haunted my childhood dreams. All the bacterium needed to go from intriguing to ingenious was a little genetic tweak, which my team and I were happy to provide—though of course the scientists did their whole “we need more controlled tests with smaller organisms first” schtick.
Screw that, right? Saving the polar bears was a potential PR coup the likes of which had never been seen, so we got right to work infecting the dwindling population with our modified strain.
Early results were staggering: creatures already adapted to survive weeks or even months between meals were now doubling that time with no observable ill effects. In fact, the bacterium’s ability to supercharge ATP production on a cellular level compensated its skeletal hosts with stunning bursts of strength and quickness, ensuring their rare encounters with prey ended in success.
Excuse me while I wedge my deceased assistant’s second-favorite parka under the door, for added insulation. There we go.
So, the polar bears were saved. Not by saving their hunting grounds, but by drastically reducing their need to hunt. There were naysayers who claimed that we’d only bought them some time, or that our tinkering had turned them into a different species altogether. But most people were just happy to see the polar bears get a new lease on life, even if we had to digitally alter the footage to make them look plump and happy and Coca-Cola adjacent.
We never expected the bacterium to migrate from the gut to the nervous system, from the nervous system to the brain, stripping out every instinct but the now vestigial desire to slaughter. Worse, after millions of years as solo artists, the infected polar bears started moving in packs. It’s paradoxical: we alleviated their hunger, and they went from superpredator to ultrapredator.
And let me tell you, there is no sight quite as pants-shittingly awful as a trio of gaunt ghost-furred giants encroaching on your basecamp, their claws trailing shiny pink bits of Frank’s intestine and their deformed heads lolling left and right in perfect symbiont-directed sync as they search out their next victim.
I never should have agreed to come up here to tour the facility. But at least I made it to the lab, holed up safe and sound while the big bad bears prowl around outside killing everybody else. It’s not exactly cozy—the scientists have a couple cadavers here on ice, specimens from the earliest infection experiments—but it’s getting better now that I turned the heaters on.
I’m no scientist, but I’m probably smarter than most of the now-disemboweled chumps around here. Maybe I can use the time to take a look at the cadavers and lab notes, and try to figure out why the hell a bacterium that drops its host’s metabolism to almost zero also tells its host to go hunting. It’s not like a dead body can help it get around or reproduce, right?
I think there’s some gas escaping from these specimens. They’re starting to stink, and also kind of twitch—
Oh, shit. Zombie polar bears.
You’re welcome, world.
Spread the word!