No Choice At All
by Eala Dubh
©1999 Dave Sanders -- all rights reserved
When an eroded planet decides to fight back, can a compromise be reached?
These were disturbing readings.
Professor Jonathon Gibson, kneeling in the snow with the winds howling around him, tapped the scientific instrument as one might do to a barometer. No, the measurement was definitely correct. In the last few times he had come here to check, the background level of ultraviolet radiation had increased at a faster rate each time. Similarly, the other equipment showed a minute but definite increase in temperature. The effects of the hole were getting worse. Gibson tutted and shook his head; if anything was going to be done, it would need to be very soon. Tomorrow he would conduct some tests on the structure of the ice, and monitor the local wildlife for any sign of adverse changes. For now, he went back to base to escape the bitter snowstorms.
Professor Gibson was an ecologist. Environmental issues had always held a fascination for him, it was only natural it would become his life's work. He was a joint head-of-staff for an important, government-commissioned scientific research unit, looking into possible methods of halting or slowing the damage caused to the ozone layer. The easiest available solution, legislation to curb pollution and the production of greenhouse gasses, had not had much of a discernible effect. So far, his research team's own results had hardly been any more encouraging.
Lack of money and resources were always a constant problem. Ideally, the experiments should have taken place at the North Pole itself, but thus far that was impractical, as the research council had not yet been able to secure the necessary funding for the robotic and computerized machinery that could analyze the data and monitor and repair itself independently, without outside intervention. The budget for such precision equipment would run into tens of millions of dollars and take many months to build. So instead, human power was necessary for the operation. Thus here was Gibson, on one of the outlying uninhabited islands that lay a discrete distance outside the main mass of Arctic ice, just within an acceptable distance from the Pole for the scientific data to be valid.
Even a brief expedition such as this one was terribly hazardous. The limited budget meant that this was about as far north as any feasible transportation available to the research council dared to come. No aircraft other than the most advanced and costly military hardware could land here, even assuming that a pilot daring or unhinged enough to risk the ferocious Arctic weather could be found. No regular shipping vessel would attempt to reach the island's treacherous coastline. Instead, Gibson would be dropped off in a small but reinforced motorized craft to manoeuver carefully and slowly through the ice to shore, and set up his base in a convenient cave near the ice coast. The boat was also big enough to hold plenty of tools and supplies, for a week was generally more than adequate for one stopover. Then he would signal to be picked up again, and drive the boat out to the rendezvous point. The whole voyage had to be meticulously planned and every good opportunity had to be taken, for a week's clemency from the most extreme weather conditions often occurred only once every couple of months, and that was during a time when the sky was light; for at the North Pole itself it was six months between the dawning and setting of the sun, and the phenomenon extended to quite a degree even out here.
Professor Gibson was a well-built and physically fit man, as one had to be for these excursions. However, being the wrong side of fifty years old, a lot of pressure was on him to take a less active role in his work, for his was a mind his colleagues felt they could not afford to lose. Gibson however was determined to put his forced retirement off for as long as possible, and his insistence on working alone only served to make things more difficult. But he was the foremost scientist in his field, with half a lifetime of experience under his belt, and his colleagues respected his judgement. In the end the deciding factor was that it saved the research council a great deal of money not to have to hire another person, and politically speaking that was most important of all. Even the need to save the planet held little sway over a Government in thrall to costlier social programs at home.
In the cave base, Gibson finished writing up his report on the data he had collected that day. He had been fortunate indeed to find such a perfect location to work, the first time he had come here. It was a large area and proof against the worst of the weather, thanks to being secluded by many rocks that broke the flow of the wind, and barred most of the drifting snow from being blown in. Gibson put his books away, and checked the time on his weatherproof watch. By normal time it would be approaching evening; his body worked to a twenty-four hour day, even if the sky outside did not. He was getting hungry. It looked as if the snowstorm was dying down; if he was lucky, it would be some time before it started up again. Lovely. He opened his pack and took out an icepick, a roll of nylon line and a number of short lengths of tubing, which he began to slot together. He was sick of the unsatisfying standard rations that these trips forced him to consume; there was something different he fancied this mealtime. In a minute, he held in his hands a short polycarbon fishing rod, lightweight yet strong, which he had had especially constructed for this trip.
Earlier in his travels, Gibson had watched Eskimos apply their own techniques through holes in the ice. It never ceased to amaze him how man could flourish in such a brutal, inhospitable climate. In whatever free time he managed to obtain away from his work, Gibson was a keen fisherman himself. He rubbed his hands with glee; he had always wanted to try this. Fishing under these conditions would be a challenge.
Methodically, the professor chose a spot on the ice close to the cave entrance. It would be able to support his weight, and be much safer than on the rocks overlooking the freezing sea-water, yet not so far away from the edge that it was too thick to penetrate with his pick.
After a modicum of hammering, he had made himself a hole just about big enough for his purposes. As it happened, the only challenge turned out to be how long Gibson could withstand the cold, and that was something he had conditioned himself to over the course of his many excursions here. The fish were biting and they readily gobbled the bait with which Gibson tempted them; before long, the professor had stockpiled about half a dozen good-sized specimens. He was disappointed it had been so easy.
Packed in his belongings was some gas cooking equipment, which thus far had been used mainly to melt ice for drinking water. This time, he intended to put the utensils to better use. Taking back the rod and pick, he went back to fetch it. While there, he also carefully took the rod apart, wound up the line being sure not to entangle or knot it, and put the components away. Five minutes had gone by when he reappeared at the cave mouth, cooker in hand.
"Hey! Get away from those!"
During that time, his fish had come under threat from a plucky, headstrong seal. Previously hidden out of sight, it had decided it might be worth the effort to try and steal some of Gibson's catch. It was a daring or reckless animal indeed to brave so far to pilfer Gibson's fish, even with the man secreted in the cave with his back turned. Unfortunately for the seal, it had misjudged the distance, having been about to take its first one when the Professor caught it in the act. Startled, it stayed in one place unsure what to do next. That fish was still very inviting...
"Thieving sod! Catch your own fish -- go on, get!"
Intent on driving the seal off, Gibson without thinking grabbed the first object that came to hand and hefted it. It turned out to be the ice pick.
It was, it turned out, a staggeringly unlucky throw. For all his years Gibson was still a strong man; the pick was not a particularly cumbersome tool and it carried the distance easily. For a minute, it looked as if it would travel too far and barely miss the animal entirely, as Gibson had intended; had the seal remained still, it would have done so. But Gibson's shout had instead persuaded the seal to make a break for it, and the pick came down and struck it on the side of the head. There was a single loud yelp of pain, and the beast slumped. It did not move again.
Gibson stood there dumbly at the cave entrance for several seconds, one gloved hand pressed against his face. What had he done..? The shock dissipated leaving a palpable sense of remorse, and he ran over to the unmoving body. It had looked from where he had stood at the cave entrance like a glancing blow; the point had not embedded itself in the animal's skull. Perhaps it was only stunned. There might still be something he could do... But when he knelt down and examined the seal, he knew it was hopeless. Though the point had missed, the ice pick's full weight had landed on the seal's temple and all but destroyed one eye. A spreading crimson stain was oozing from the impact area. The seal was quite definitely dead.
Kneeling beside the corpse, Gibson suddenly became aware that the wind had been rising; the sound of it was louder and higher-pitched, increasing all the time. And yet, against his face it felt no different. That was strange. Now, a second sound could be clearly heard through it; a whistling, chiming tone, almost like a musical note. Gibson arose. It sounded like the wind was blowing through a cluster of resonating icicles. It was all around him. And something else was now happening...
An apparition was appearing before him; a faint blue shape, hanging in the air. Slowly, it solidified into what looked like a crystal, a single polyhedral crystal of ice, mathematically perfect with more faces than he could count, so many that it was almost spherical. The crystal glowed with a blue inner light that pulsed like a heartbeat. It must have been about two feet in diameter. Gibson was dumbfounded. From the pulsing light, small blue pinpoints began to break away and orbit the crystal; singularly at first, then more and more until eventually there were a whole swarm of lights buzzing around it, almost obscuring it. Like the crystal itself, their orbits were also mathematically perfect, never crossing one another. As each new light appeared, a voice accompanied it, one that seemed to manifest from all around as the whistling chime had done.
Soon a whole gaggle of voices were all speaking at once out of unison, a maddening, unintelligible cacophony that bored into Gibson's brain. Then one more, indistinguishable at first, began to rise in volume and overcome the background noise. It was a single, clear, authoritative voice, delivered in a hollow, accusing monotone, and it was fully directed at Gibson.
TRESPASSER. DEFILER. TRANSGRESSOR.
YOU HAVE BROKEN THE CYCLE.
MURDERER. MURDERER. MURDERER.
"But I --"
KILLER. KILLER. KILLER.
"I didn't mean to --"
YOU THREW THE IMPLEMENT, HENCE YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE. YOU MUST THEREFORE FACE YOUR PUNISHMENT. MURDERER. KILLER.
The background voices rose higher in intensity, clawing at Gibson's consciousness. Staggering, he clasped his hands to his ears. "Stop it!!"
Abruptly, the voices ceased and the lights froze in place. There was an eerie silence as the two parties took the opportunity to size each other up. Finally, Gibson spoke up first.
"Who... what are you?"
WE ARE GUARDIANS. WE PROTECT THE CYCLE.
THE CYCLE OF LIFE. WE STRIVE TO KEEP IT IN MOTION.
"What do you mean, 'cycle of life'?"
THE BALANCE. THE NATURAL ORDER. THE UNIVERSAL CHAIN. THE COSMIC FORCES THAT DICTATE LIFE, DEATH AND REBIRTH. PREDATORS PREY ON THE WEAK WHILE THE STRONG SURVIVE TO PRESERVE THE GENE POOL. THE OLD MAKE WAY FOR THE YOUNG. WASTE MATTER IS RECYCLED TO SUSTAIN THE PLANET SO THAT LIFE MAY BEGIN ANEW. IN THIS WAY THE CYCLE CONTINUES.
"... I see." The language was impassive and emotionless, but Gibson had no difficulty in following the ideas involved. "So by killing that seal I've broken the chain, that's what you're saying?"
"But I don't understand. If dead things are reborn, what have I done wrong?"
EVERY ELEMENT, EVERY ORGANISM, HAS ITS PREORDAINED PLACE IN THE CYCLE. BREAK THE CYCLE AND THE PLANETARY SYSTEM IS ERODED. YOU HAVE BROKEN THE CYCLE BY SLAYING AN ANIMAL NEEDLESSLY.
"But animals kill too --"
ANIMALS KILL IN ORDER TO EAT. THEY EAT IN ORDER TO SURVIVE. HUMANS ARE THE ONLY SPECIES WHO CHOOSE TO KILL.
"The seal was stealing my fish! I was catching the fish to stay alive!"
YOU DID NOT NEED TO KILL THE SEAL. YOU WERE NOT GOING TO EAT IT. THE SEAL DIED WITHOUT PURPOSE, IT WAS NOT PART OF THE CYCLE OF LIFE.
That damned cycle of life, again. The logic was, if a little twisted, irrefutable. It was like arguing with a computer. But if reasoning was futile, he could still pry for more information.
"What exactly are you? Nobody in the civilized world has ever heard of you. If you were some form of man-made ecological device or defense system -- which you aren't -- I would have known about it. Where did you come from?"
WE WERE CALLED INTO SERVICE BY THE PLANET ITSELF TO PROTECT IT. THOUSANDS OF SPECIES HAVE DIED OUT AS A RESULT OF HUMANITY'S DISREGARD FOR THE ECOSYSTEM. MANY MORE ARE UNDER THREAT OF EXTINCTION EVEN AS WE SPEAK. OUR DUTY IS TO PREVENT THIS FROM HAPPENING.
"Are you spirits?"
CALL US WHAT YOU WILL.
"But what are you doing in the Arctic, where humans are so scarce anyway? If you are serious, surely you ought to be in the rain forests or somewhere where you can really make a difference."
THE PLAN IS NOT YET SUFFICIENTLY ADVANCED TO ATTEMPT TO RECTIFY THE DAMAGE CAUSED BY MAN'S WANTON DESTRUCTION. CURRENTLY THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA TO ACCURATELY PREDICT SUCCESS. HUMANITY WOULD INVALIDATE US. OUR OWN FUNCTIONS, OPERATION AND ACCUMULATED INFORMATION MUST BE PERFECTED BEFORE MORE UNITS ARE PRODUCED TO A SUFFICIENT QUANTITY TO EFFECT THE PLAN. MORE RESEARCH MUST BE CARRIED OUT. THERE MUST BE NO MARGIN FOR ERROR.
"I see. You're a test, a prototype."
"But you see, you and I both want the same thing."
"I am an ecologist. I'm here as part of a scientific project to try and reverse the damage done to the ozone layer. Every time I come here I monitor our instruments, analyze the ice structure, measure radioactivity and so forth. It's vital research."
"Listen to me! If we don't find a way to stop the effects of ozone depletion, the polar ice caps are in danger of melting. At this rate it will be years, maybe decades before your plan is ready. By then this region may no longer exist. You may no longer exist. This 'plan' of yours might never go into effect."
INCORRECT. OTHER PROBE UNITS ARE PLACED IN SIMILARLY REMOTE LOCATIONS.
"Please, you have to let me get on with my work."
NO. YOU HAVE BROKEN THE CYCLE OF LIFE.
"It was an accident!"
YOU HAVE BROKEN THE CYCLE OF LIFE.
Gibson gave up. "Alright, alright. If I've disrupted your precious cycle, I'm sorry, I really am. What can I do to prove to you I don't mean you any harm?"
AN ATONEMENT MUST BE PAID, TO RESTORE THE BALANCE.
"Anything. Whatever I can possibly do. I'll pay anything, just name it."
A pause. "...What?"
WE HAVE THE POWER TO REMOVE YOU FROM EXISTENCE. YOU WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN BORN, AND THE EVENTS LEADING TO YOUR ARRIVAL HERE WOULD NOT HAVE TAKEN PLACE. OUR SANCTITY WILL NEVER HAVE BEEN VIOLATED.
"You're going to kill me? Just like that?"
WE HAVE DEALT WITH OTHERS IN THE SAME WAY.
"After that big speech about the cycle of life and only humans choosing to kill? How can you possibly justify that? Is that what you intend to do with mankind -- to exterminate us all?"
YOU DID NOT LET US FINISH. WE MERELY SAID THE PAYMENT WAS YOUR LIFE. WE OFFER YOU A CHOICE.
YOU MAY INSTEAD CHOOSE TO REPLACE THE ANIMAL YOU KILLED. WE WILL GIVE YOU THE BODY, INSTINCTS AND MIND OF A SEAL, AND YOU WILL LIVE OUT YOUR REMAINING LIFETIME IN THAT FORM. AGAIN, HUMAN KNOWLEDGE OF YOUR EXISTENCE WILL BE NULLIFIED AND OUR SANCTITY WILL ONCE MORE BE ASSURED. THIS IS HOW WE PROTECT THE PLANET.
Gibson could scarcely believe what he had just heard. Metamorphosis was not an uncommon occurrence in the natural world; though there was still a great deal to be understood, science was perfectly capable of rationalizing how the process could work in the examples that were available. But this... this was incredible. A caterpillar can evolve into a butterfly because it has been genetically programmed to, but slowly, over a considerable period of time. How could he, an ordinary adult human, be suddenly changed into another entirely different creature? How could it circumvent the biological incompatibilities, the difference in mass and weight, the unfeasible energies it would require? It was a concept straight out of fantasy. But Gibson had no doubt the beings before him really were capable of doing it. He knew he could not run; the spirits would instantly strike him down. He should have been terrified; instead, their intractable attitude and ruthless logic were starting to anger him.
"So either you kill me or you turn me into an animal forever? That's no choice at all!"
THOSE ARE YOUR OPTIONS. IT IS YOUR DECISION.
"And if I were to decide to die, that would absolve you from any responsibility. Nice and clean, so you could continue to crow about your precious cycle of life with a clear conscience. It's inhuman."
WE ARE NOT HUMAN.
WE ARE WHAT WE ARE.
"Do you hear me? You're monsters!"
Immediately Gibson regretted the outburst. The lights changed from blue to a brilliant white, and huddled together around the central crystal, whirling even faster. The whistling chime began again, rising in pitch until it became almost unbearable. Gibson, certain the spirits were about to kill him right there on the spot, shut his eyes, screwed his face and steeled himself for the inevitable. When it did not happen, he tentatively opened one eye again. The lights had resumed their normal color and orbit, and the tone had ceased.
WE HAVE CONSULTED. THOSE OTHERS WE HAVE REMOVED OR TRANSFORMED WERE MURDERERS WHO KILLED SOLELY FOR PROFIT. WE COULD NOT ALLOW FREE REIN TO SUCH DANGEROUS PEOPLE. YOU ARE DIFFERENT. WE SHALL BE LENIENT.
"You mean, you're going to release me?"
NOT IMMEDIATELY. YOU WILL REMAIN A SEAL UNTIL YOU HAVE GIVEN ANOTHER LIFE IN RETURN. YOU WILL MATE AND FATHER A PUP, AND RAISE IT UNTIL IT IS CAPABLE OF SURVIVING BY ITSELF. IN THIS WAY THE DEBT WILL HAVE BEEN PAID. YOUR HUMAN SHAPE WILL BE RESTORED, WE WILL ERASE YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF US, AND YOU WILL BE FREE TO GO. BUT SHOULD YOU TRANSGRESS THE CYCLE OF LIFE A SECOND TIME, YOU SHALL RETURN AGAIN TO AN ANIMAL FORM, AND FROM THAT SECOND TRANSFORMATION THERE WILL BE NO RELEASE.
"But... I can't become a seal! I'm an important scientist. People will come looking for me."
THEY WILL NOT. THE WORLD WILL FORGET YOU, FOR THE DURATION OF YOUR PENANCE.
"How long will that be?"
PROBABILITY SUGGESTS ONE MATING CYCLE.
Gibson pondered long and hard. To become an animal, to lose his ability to think and reason, was a fate worse than death for a man of intellect. But at least he knew it was not to be for good. In fact, he considered, since he would not know he was not a seal, living as one might not be so unpleasant... just different. And if he were to die as a seal... well, at least he would be free. But in a body designed for this environment, he would stand a better chance of survival than he currently did now. This thought raised a question.
"What about my supplies and belongings? I can't stay alive without them. What happens when I change back?"
THEY WILL BE KEPT SAFE FOR YOUR RETURN.
"I need time to think about this."
WE WILL ALLOW YOU ONE HOUR. YOU MAY USE THAT TIME TO PUT YOUR POSSESSIONS IN ORDER, AND TO PERFORM ANY OTHER NECESSARY HUMAN TASKS BEFORE YOUR SENTENCE IS CARRIED OUT.
Which presumably meant bodily functions and suchlike. A last chance to relieve himself with relative dignity. "Do I get a cigarette?" Gibson asked icily.
THE RELEVANCE OF THIS REQUEST IS NOT UNDERSTOOD.
"Never mind. That was sarcasm."
A HUMAN CHARACTERISTIC.
"Just forget it."
The hour went past, slowly. Gibson sat in his cave and mulled. His possessions had been meticulously planned and packed for the trip, so there was little work to be done there. He did, however, catalogue them on a notebook page, in case he had forgotten by the time he was human again, and placed the notebook where it was easy to find. He spent the remaining time brooding, thinking about his friends and family. They would not even know he was missing. It was hard to come to terms with. He would see them again, he assured himself over and over. He had to count on that.
IT IS TIME.
Gibson emerged from the cave and went over to where the spirit lights were waiting for him, hovering still in the same position. The seal carcass, Gibson noted, had however gone. He wondered what the spirits had done with it.
HAVE YOU MADE YOUR DECISION?
"Yes. I'll do it. I'll be a seal."
WE SHALL COMMENCE IMMEDIATELY. PLEASE DISROBE.
"What? I'll freeze to death."
YOU WILL NOT. YOU ARE UNDER OUR PROTECTION AND UNTIL YOUR DUES HAVE BEEN PAID, THE ELEMENTS CANNOT HARM YOU IN YOUR HUMAN FORM. BUT AS A SEAL YOU MUST FEND FOR YOURSELF. DISROBE.
Gibson did as he was told. He did not doubt the spirits were speaking the truth, but was still amazed at just how it was so. It felt most peculiar, standing there naked with the howling winds and snow around him, no shivers, no goose bumps. He could barely feel the snow under his feet. This must be how a seal feels, he thought to himself.
WHAT IS YOUR NAME, HUMAN?
Gibson had not realized that in all this time, the spirits had not bothered to ask. "Gibson. Jonathon Gibson."
JONATHON GIBSON, YOU ARE HEREBY JUDGED GUILTY OF BREAKING THE CYCLE OF LIFE AND DISTURBING THE NATURAL ORDER. HAVE YOU ANYTHING TO SAY BEFORE SENTENCE IS PASSED?
"I do. It won't work, you know. This plan of yours. You can't subjugate the human race into saving the environment, because we don't act on instinct. People won't let you do that. They'll just turn their military power on you instead of each other and eradicate you from the face of the earth, doing incalculable harm in the process. The planet could make ten of you, or ten thousand; it doesn't matter, you'll all be wiped out eventually. I sympathize with your cause, I really do. But you're going to have work with us instead of trying to dominate or transform us all. We're often a selfish, uncaring, vicious lot, I grant you; but sometimes human beings do things for other perfectly valid reasons that you don't seem to understand. Maybe we can all compromise, I don't know... but that's the only way."
IGNORANCE IS THE CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM. THE HUMAN RACE MUST BE SHOWN THE CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR ACTIONS. THEY MUST BE EDUCATED TO ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY. THEY WILL LEARN.
"I hoped you were going to listen to me," sighed Gibson. There was nothing more he could say or do.
ARE YOU READY TO RECEIVE YOUR SENTENCE?
Gibson nodded. "Yes."
At first, nothing happened. Then the spirit lights began to whirl again, faster even than before. Their orbits became erratic, darting in and out of the cluster, a dazzling display of different colors. A whistling tone began to rise again, but it was a different sound, more piercing and metallic. A sudden weakness struck Gibson, knocking him to the ground. He turned his head and saw that his skin had started to darken. It was really happening. A furious itching began to affect him, and a pelt of fine fur quickly spread across his body, becoming thick and luxurious, the same pattern as the seal he had killed. He watched in a mute mix of horror and wonder as his hair fell out, shriveling and burning away as it touched the ground, as it would in a candle flame. He felt the fur replace it, and knew that he was completely coated.
The spirits whirled even faster, willing the transformation to progress further. Gibson could now feel his whole body begin to change shape, bulging in places, shrinking in others. He could not move his limbs. His legs were pressing together, merging into a single unit, the bones in each limb fusing with his spine, assuming a new design. The same force gripped his upper arms and pushed them into his sides. Gibson's shoulders were similarly absorbed, and his forearms bent of their own accord into an awkward angle to his body and likewise receded. His neck inflated, streamlining his upper body, while his torso expanded, hungrily cannibalizing the spare flesh from what had been his arms and legs, to manufacture a thick layer of fat. The spirits continued to pour their magical energy into him, and his changing form gratefully accepted, converting this too into additional mass as Gibson grew larger and longer. His lower half rounded out, filling in the join between his former legs and smoothing out his backside. His hands and feet elongated, taking on a paddle shape; the feet flattened, the hands became webbed and the fingers soon disappeared, leaving only vestigial clawed digits. They were now flippers, adorning a sleek, tapering flank devoid of all trace of his previous bipedal shape.
Finally the transformation set to work his head. It was agonizing. His face stretched, pushing away his nose and chin and moulding them into a muzzle. His forehead sloped back as his skull matched itself to the shapely curve of his animal body. His teeth became sharp, specially made for a diet of fish. Nostrils enlarged, and a comical moustache of sensitive hairs thrust itself from his cheeks. The ears disappeared leaving only small holes, and the eyes became round and black. In all appearances, Gibson was now no more and no less than a seal; a mature young bull, quite in contrast to his previous age as a human. But the change had not quite finished with him...
The pain increased, stabbing into his dwindling brain, eroding the human intelligence within. Though he had tried to ready himself, fear buffeted him as his memories started to fade. Desperately he tried to hang on, reciting in his head all the scientific theories he could muster, only for them to dissolve into meaningless gobbledygook. The brainwash continued relentlessly; work, home life, childhood, all were swept away. To fill the vacuum came the thoughts and memories of the animal whose place he had taken, vague impressions of fish, swimming, sea spray and rookery kinfolk. His own name succumbed as the light of self-awareness dimmed, and just before human consciousness faded entirely he opened his mouth to say something, anything, but a bark was all that emerged from the bewhiskered snout. Professor Jonathon Gibson had ceased to be.
SENTENCING IS COMPLETE.
With a whistling chime noise, the spirit lights and their crystal faded away, leaving the new seal alone in the tundra. It looked around for a minute, perhaps wondering what it was doing there, so far from the water's edge. Instincts quickly took control, as did its nose as a welcoming scent aroused it. Something edible and delicious was nearby, still fresh; sure enough, it was the fish caught by Gibson-the-human such a short time before, lying there still. Nobody was around who could appreciate the note of savage irony. Without hesitating, the seal reclaimed its prize; the transformation had left it ravenous, and it consumed the fish with gusto. Satisfied, it sunned itself for a while as the meal was digested, then it headed for the sanctity of the ocean.
During the following months, the instincts and body of the beast that had been Gibson were to serve him well. On the land, he felt no discomfort from the harshness of the Arctic weather; his fur and his blubber took care of that. In the water, catching fish was easy; food was plentiful, and predators were few, he wanted for nothing and never became bored. Had he been aware of the concept, it would indeed have seemed a joyous time.
And he was not alone for long. His animal instincts commanded him to seek out others of his new species, and he made his way to one of the great seal rookeries to take his place in the colony there. For a time, his world was a blossom of pleasure and comfort as he swam, sunned and played with a multitude of new friends. But a natural curiosity and desire to explore kept him moving, an impulse left over from his former life. Before long, he had left the rookery in search of new waters. However, solitude was not part of the seal way, and he was driven once more to find another colony of brethren, with a host of fresh companions.
Again and again this was repeated, as he migrated around the Arctic waters; sometimes called by a distant beacon, other times content to float with the tides and currents. Once, when he drifted further south, he had a close escape when surfacing to a hole in the ice to breathe; another seal reached the hole first, and the waiting Eskimos' spears found it instead of him. The Eskimos would have had nothing to fear from the Arctic spirits, had they known of them; for they too were part of the cycle of life, and only hunted what they needed.
When the time came at last to mate, Gibson-the-seal was drawn back to the very place where the spirits had offered him to the sea, for this too was woven into their spell. His wanderings meant that he was late in arriving and the breeding season had already started, but he was truly a seal and intuitively knew what to look for, governed as he was by a purity of purpose unsullied by human thought. It was here that he found his mate-to-be, a prime and healthy female with a pelt pattern so close to his own that she could almost have been his twin.
Several other males had tried to woo her already, and were busily battling to determine which of them deserved such a wondrous prize; in truth there was plenty to go around, but all had been compelled to seek out the very best, as Gibson-the-seal was himself. The two were destined to be together, and he had an inner strength to keep himself fighting that the other male seals lacked, and they relinquished their claim. Gibson-the-seal had finally found his place; he would travel no more.
Further time passed, and other changes took place. His paternal instincts had taken hold, as other things demanded his attention. His formerly placid, outgoing spirit instead became fiercely territorial. He was aloof again, himself and his mate, and he defended his turf with great vigor. No other seal dared to challenge him more than once. The spirits' predictions were coming true; his cow was growing wider in girth, heavy with child, and a point came when she could swim no longer or hunt for herself. Gibson-the-seal attended his duties, as he was ordered to, and the eventual birth, with himself present to witness the miracle of new life, was a smooth an event as any parent could wish for. The pup was a robust little creature, the genes had been passed along well. Even in this form there was fatherly pride within his breast, though its true significance would not be known until much later.
So life continued, for an indeterminable period. Time to meaningless to him, and even as a human would have been impossible to judge, since the days and nights were so long this far north. He rose when his body was rested, he ate when his stomach demanded it, and slept when he needed revitalizing. In between, he kept watch over his cow and his growing pup. It was what he was there to do. And when at last his job was done, and the young seal caught his first fish by himself, his brain told him no differently. As ever, he swam, he ate and he played with his pup, until he hauled himself onto the ice to sleep, belly sated.
When next he awoke, something was different, he knew. He could feel it. No, not feel exactly; it was something in his head trying to alert him, telling him this was so. Unfamiliar and conflicting thoughts were stirring, flowing down neural pathways long since unused. The confusion was overwhelming. By chance he rolled over, and discovered what the matter was. His skin was pink and virtually hairless.
Shock jolted his fogged brain into a higher gear. Disjointed thoughts coalesced into an understandable language. Realization of who and what he was came flooding back to him. Gibson, he remembered. I'm Professor Jonathon Gibson. I'm a scientist, and I came here to monitor the effects of the hole in the ozone layer.
His attention was also drawn to one stark and terribly obvious fact.
And I'm lying here naked in the middle of the Arctic wastes.
The last thought made no sense whatsoever. Equally so was that he did not seem to feel the cold. He knew there was an explanation for this but could not quite place it; he racked his restored mind, willing the reason to come to the surface, and finally it came to him.
The spirits, he thought. I remember now. They turned me into a seal, as punishment for accidentally killing one. And now I'm human again.
He stood carefully, expecting to fall to the ground again, but the mental processes that controlled his locomotion had reaffirmed themselves early, and his stance was steady. He looked up at the sky, darker than he remembered it, but still light enough to see by. It had been fully bright when he had first arrived here; now, it was almost twilight or early morning. How long had he been an animal? From what he knew about marine biology, it must have been more than a year. Despite his immunity to the weather, he shuddered. Suddenly he felt acutely lonely.
What had the spirits said to him..? Something about being under their protection until his penance was paid; which meant, now. There were other details too. He imagined they would have been there to greet and formally release him. They probably would not let him die of hypothermia, but he did not feel like taking any chances. He had better go and get dressed.
A movement on the ice caught his eye, and he turned. Two seals, a female and her young, had clambered out of the water and were staring at him, unafraid. They recognized him. The pair had never seen Gibson in his natural shape, yet they knew who he was. They were glad to see him, yet sad at what he had become. Something in their eyes told him so. It was not possible, his logical side argued, a seal simply was not capable of any such expression. His intuition, however, knew the truth; they were his and he was theirs, and they could see right through their difference in species. He and they had lived so closely and sent so much time together, and the bond between them was undiminished. It tugged at him; feelings washed over Gibson that no human had ever felt before. More memories were recalled, this time of his other life, though they were not memories exactly, since his animal brain had not been constructed to store them that way; more hazy recollections of what it had been like to be a seal. Contentment, freedom and boundless, playful energy. Particular events however, did stand out in his mind; the marvelous feeling of buoyancy that first time he had entered the water, the bonding of himself and his mate that he had fought for and won, the birth of his pup, his son. And there he was, sleek, strong and beautiful. He wanted to be with them.
Gibson ran to the pair, bent down and hugged his ex-mate. She did not try to break free, content as she was to be cuddled and stroked; she nuzzled Gibson in return. The pup crowded him too, demanding equal attention; Gibson draped an arm around his son, his salvation. Intense pride consumed him, tainted with sadness; now, when he could truly appreciate the cycle of life, it was almost heartbreaking for him to have to leave this small corner of it. He could tell also that the seals felt the same way. Determined to delay his inevitable return to civilization for as long as possible, he lay there, the three locked in loving embrace. The warmth and comfort of his sea-family's pelts, he most certainly did feel. He could have remained that way for ever.
"I'm almost sorry I have to go," he told them, not caring whether they understood him or not. "But I don't belong here any more. I'd say I'll miss you, but I know the spirits will erase my memory when I've gone." He sighed. "I wish I didn't have to forget."
And yet, thinking about it, was it even plausible that Gibson could return to the human world? The spirits had admitted that their knowledge of the intricacies of human life was currently sketchy, though they were determined to press ahead and carry out their orders as soon as it was credible to do so. Though they had made the world oblivious to him, they would not have foreseen every eventuality. There would be records of his work and his trip; the research foundation's last point of reference would be the time at which they had left him here. To any observer he would appear out of the blue after more than twelve months, unable to explain how he had vanished from all human contact. There would be questions; they would demand to know how he could have survived for so long in the Arctic, and he would have no answers to give them. What they might do to him, the tests they would perform to gain that knowledge, could be unbearable. Others would come here seeking the truth, and some would no doubt fall victim to the spirits' self-righteous sense of justice. There would be a confrontation, long before either side was ready for it. Gibson could not let that happen.
It would be better if the world believed him to have died here, but for him, that again was no choice at all.
This time however, there was perhaps a third way; a risky option, but the only one he had. He could ally himself with the spirits, offer to be their spokesman; since sooner or later human and spirit would clash, the right middleman could bring about an easier encounter. There might not be any need for conflict at all. Furthermore, he could give the spirits something vital which they currently had limited access to; accurate information about human society, enabling them to remove the flaws in their plan. In return, he hoped he could bargain with them into seeing sense, into recognizing their own shortcomings and softening their stance somewhat, though it would be hellishly difficult to penetrate their regard for their own judgement as infallible. In this way, it might just be possible to convince the spirits that mankind was not so bad, after all. He would change his life and goals, not just for himself, or his fellow humans, but for the spirits as well, for they too had to learn to be flexible. Wars, after all, were born from opposing, unyielding-ideologies. With the fresh insight he had gained from his time as a seal, perhaps the spirits would listen to him now. The only problem was how to contact them.
Gibson remembered too that he was still naked. The spirits may not have had any sense of shame, but he hardly intended to converse with them again in such an undignified manner. He trusted that the spirits' promise to look after his possessions included his discarded clothing. It should have been in the cave with everything else.
"Wait here. I'll be right back," he told the seals.
In the cave his backpack lay, untouched since his relocation into the sea. The whole cave appeared to have been frozen in time; not a snowflake had entered since to disturb it. Even Gibson's footprints were still the same. The only difference was the one he had expected; his clothes, neatly piled. He put them on. Inside his pack he found the notepad, and proceeded to check off everything against the list, laying them out tidily in an organized manner. One thing he had brought with him was a compact weatherproof camera, though he doubted very much that the spirits would show up on a developed film. He would also need proof of the spirits' existence, which he assumed the spirits themselves would have no trouble in providing him with. He checked the radio, with which he would signal to be picked up. The batteries still worked.
As Gibson toiled, he mused, and the more he thought about it, the more convinced he became of what he had to do. The human world had to be made aware of the real dangers it faced, before it could asphyxiate itself or its decisions were forcibly taken away. However harsh the spirits' methods were, there was a lot of merit to their plan. It could indeed be that the threat of such a tyrannical measure was necessary to affect any real major change; perhaps there was also enough time to make it happen. Cause and effect were beyond the scale of comprehension; the whole of life on the planet as humanity knew it could ultimately be at stake.
There was a grave chance it would not work, of course. It might not even be possible. To educate the world would be a Herculean task, much more so to do it in such a way as not to cause outrage or hysteria, or even plain and simple apathy. Mankind could so easily stifle his message; lock him away, assassinate him, discredit him with accusations, lies and ridicule. The scientific community, even his former colleagues, would no doubt try to do so. It would have to be a painfully slow and subtle process, but for the sake of what truly were his sea relations, he had to attempt it. Anything to avert a catastrophe.
A growl outside brought him out of his internal soliloquy. What he saw outside froze his blood in horror. A huge polar bear that had come down from the ice crags and was searching about for nourishment, had just discovered itself an easy prey. It was the female seal and her pup. Still bonded with Gibson, they had foolishly tried to follow him to the cave, only to reach about halfway before the danger descended. Now they were dragging themselves away as fast as their awkward weight would allow, but there was no way they could reach the water before the bear would catch and devour them. Gibson had to save them.
There was no time to lose. Gibson grabbed the only item that could help him now; one that thus far he had never had cause to use. A loaded pistol. He prayed it was enough to stop a bear, and dashed out, waving and shouting. "HEY!!"
The bear turned momentarily in the direction of the commotion, but only for a second before it returned its attention to the easier target. Gibson raised the gun; his first shot missed, the second hit it in the shoulder. It roared with pain; now it was focused completely on the immediate threat. It charged at him. Terrified, Gibson fired again, pouring shot after shot into the animal until the gun was empty, two bullets entering its head. Though mortally wounded, the bear's awesome strength and willpower carried it for a further five steps until its expiring brain could sustain itself no longer. Noisily it collapsed, groaning. Its hind legs still thrashed; momentum slid it forward almost to Gibson's feet. The bear twitched a couple of times, then finally lay still.
Gibson dropped the gun, sank to his knees, and sighed with abject relief. He had done it. The female seal, and the pup for which he had sacrificed himself for so long to bring into the world, were safe. He turned to look for them.
But they had gone. The sound of the gunshots had reawakened the natural primeval fear of proximity to man, and the pair had fled. The bond was broken; they recognized him no more.
And then the pain began. Suddenly, the Professor's thick coat and clothing became far too tight for him. His limbs were starting to go numb, the blood circulation was being cut off. The coat was threatening to strangle him. With no thought for the cold, he brought up his hands to undo the fastenings, but could not get a grip; the fingers refused to work properly. He looked at his hands. They were covered in white hair.
No! It can't be -- not for this!
Behind him there came a familiar sound, a whistling chime, like the wind blowing through a cluster of resonating icicles. He whirled, as fast as his swelling body would allow, to be greeted by a swarm of blue lights, orbiting a single floating polyhedral crystal of ice.
WE WARNED YOU.
"B-But... you must have known what was going to happen. The bear was going to kill them."
THE BEAR WAS MERELY HUNTING FOR FOOD. THE SEALS WERE TO HAVE BEEN ITS NEXT MEAL. SUCH IS THE CYCLE OF LIFE.
"But I saved them! I saved two lives!"
YOU BROKE THE CYCLE.
"I had no choice!"
It was a protest in vain. The metamorphosis was inexorable; nothing was going to stop it now, least of all his restricting clothes. Noisily they gave, tearing at the seams. The furry skin beneath was completely snow white.
THERE IS ALWAYS A CHOICE. HUMANS ARE THE ONLY SPECIES WHO CHOOSE TO KILL.
"It was my family! I had to protect my family!"
THEY WERE NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY ANY MORE.
"Damn you to hell, you unfeeling, soulless automatons! I loved them! I couldn't sit back and watch them die -- my time as a seal would have been for nothing!"
SUCH IS THE CYCLE OF LIFE.
"This isn't fair!"
By now Professor Gibson had been forced onto all fours, his lumbering bulk too heavy for two limbs to support. His wrists and clawed hands ached as they reformed into hocks and paws.
LIFE IS NEITHER FAIR NOR UNFAIR. IT DOES NOT HAVE TO JUSTIFY ITSELF. IT SIMPLY IS.
"I was on your side! Without me, your plan is doomed to failure -- humanity will destroy you! You can't do this to me!"
WE WARNED YOU.
"You barstarrds!" His speech had begun to deteriorate. "You cold, hearrtrress, carrous barrtarr -- aarrr -- RRAAAAAARRRRRRRRR!!!"
The whistling chime rose again and the spirits dematerialized, leaving the fast-emerging polar bear to roar and growl in protest at his fate. In those last precious seconds before his second new shape and drives overtook him entirely, he wept bitterly; for himself, for the companionship which had been cruelly taken away from him, for the seals' final rejection and fear of him, and for the countless thousands of lives that would ultimately cease to exist at some unknown, yet very definite point in the future. Gibson had failed before he had even begun. He could have stopped it, and now nobody would ever know.
In the end, he'd had no choice at all.
About the Author
Dave Sanders is the 30-year-old writer and cartoonist who masquerades online as the swan-Sidhe Eala Dubh. He hails from a relatively Troubles-free area of Northern Ireland, has no religious persuasions and whatever happens chooses not to take sides, touching as he does all bases. He is of English descent, and was born and raised in a mainly Protestant area, but went to a Catholic school. He reconciles his neutral stance with his choice of Internet persona by the fact that Irish Mythology has little to do with any religion, that Eala Dubh is also a neutral observer, and that as a Sidhe, isn't human in any case.
Currently Dave is an art student; indeed it's difficult to confuse him for anything else, looking as he does like he just stepped out of a Gilbert Shelton cartoon. A fan of the independent comic circuit, various artistic favourites of his include Donna Barr, Phil Foglio, Mike Kazaleh and Hunt Emerson. His own art style is strongly influenced by various forms of American animation, with strong Foglio overtones. In addition, he is the current publisher/editor of Role Call, a UK fanzine devoted to RPG console gaming -- another subject that's no stranger to transformations -- with a strong Japanese slant.
Dave describes himself as 'a professional cynic.' Other confessed character flaws include being incredibly opinionated, a weakness for feed-lines, a propensity towards convoluted puns, and an addiction to coffee while working. As well as shapeshifters, he has a passion for centaurs, Doctor Who, solo-adventure gamebooks and roleplaying, and antiquated arcade games.
...and don't forget to check out Eala's website.