Garson Thayer didn't like driving at night, but since his internal clock, an expensive Swiss gadget, sent signals to the effect that it wasn't officially night yet, he kept going.
He was on his way to do a job for Strategic Air Command. He worked for them fairly often, couldn't help wondering why they paid stratospheric consultation fees yet refused to spring for drivers. The US Military had a near-infinite pool of uniformed serfs with valid military licenses and civilian hot rod/speedway experience. He could've used expensive travel time to review classified documents and equipment diagrams in the back seat, in a cone of light from some highly engineered inner-automobile reading apparatus.
He also wondered why SAC never sent him to Hawaii.
The answer was obvious. The missiles were aimed the other way. So he was driving to an officially uncharted location near Barrow, in the upper reaches of the USA's freezer cabinet, at three in the afternoon, according to the aforementioned internal timepiece. The dashboard clock and radio announcer expressed agreement, but the charcoal-gray outer darkness said the timely information was a lie. Night was coming. Night was already there. Night was outrageously cold.
The bulky extreme low-temperature Olive Drab snorkle coat, Gov't Issue, which he'd found neatly folded on the webbing seat next to his on the transport airplane, sat humped in the back seat of the car. Its coyote-fur ruff shimmered in warm breezes from the auto heater. The minimal movement caught Garson's eye in the rearview mirror. He reached back and scrunched the parka down. Didn't want a spectral, vaguely human-shaped presence looming behind him.
He turned up the radio. Faraway civilization sent weak music signals. 'Try to see something grand or majestic in these bleak surroundings,' he thought. 'Think where you are. Top of the world. Maybe they'll take you up in a spy plane again, to allegedly survey the Brooks Range.'
Most military outpost honchos had a decent sense of humor about squandering taxpayer dough on senseless, even ridiculous outings that sounded good on official reports, on the off-chance such reports were ever demanded or, when delivered, scrutinized. Military types had exceptionally low regard for taxpayers in general. Even though military personnel and high-end experts occasionally on the payroll had to pay taxes without fail, too.
The gray-lit spaces in the car's beaming eyesight were punctuated with grim, straight, black trees. Garson tried to picture the forest he was traversing in godly overview. Best fringe-benefit of the SAC gig was streaking over topography at near-light speed in flying machines the tax-paying general public wasn't allowed to see yet. A forest on the Earth was like fur on an animal. Maybe the trees were firs. In any case, no shortage of trees, in Alaska. But the military-industrial complex would take care of the unregulated abundance soon enough. Plenty oil underground, beneath ungodly snow, ice, frost and white.
The radio frazzed out. No use jiggling the dials. No more signal. Didn't make sense. Air base management took the trouble to disguise the vehicle as non-GI for civilian consultants to transport themselves, but couldn't, or didn't bother to, equip said vehicle with a military-spec radio.
Approximately 200 dismal miles stretched between his current position and the cryogenic void of Barrow, which was either an Eskimo whaling port, a desolate polar bear scavenging grounds or paradise vacation spot for penguins. Garson had never visited the place, probably wouldn't get a chance, this time around. He pictured an Eskimo brothel in an off-limits igloo. Inuit croupiers at a high-stakes roulette game paid off stacks of snowflake-shaped chips while Inuit maidens in leopard seal-fur bikinis served frosty drinks in an under-the-Tundra casino. Eskimo rockers in glitter parkas churned out bland covers of the Stones, Cream, Hendrix.
Arctic Circle daydreams blossomed brighter as the surrounding forest and roiling sky darkened.
Alaska's undeniable beauty involved the silence wrought by cold. Garson slowed down. Maybe the car he was driving could sustain a cruising speed of 100 mph, but it didn't make sense to risk engine trouble in the middle of frozen nowheresville. Maybe stateside speed limits worked on the same physical principles as internal clocks.
Something moved in the rearview mirror again. Garson thought the snorkle coat must've filled with warm air and returned to blimp-like life, reached behind to scrunch it down again, felt nothing. The coat had fallen to the car floor. He checked the mirror again and saw a dark shape in motion.
Not car-shaped. And cars move forward without any appearance of motion. The wheels roll while the body of the vehicle bobs with the occasional road-contour. Animal organisms are transformed by motion. Their shapes change in obedience to a dynamic law, move or die.
The rearview mirror took on the fascination of a movie screen. What is this shadowy bolus behind me? Garson slowed down further, instead of turning to look out the back window. His eyes twitched and darted to keep tabs on the road ahead.
Puffs of steam floated from a snout slightly less dark than what was around and behind it. A mouth opened to take in more air, eject more steam. Flash of indecently huge yellow fangs. A bear, galloping like a horse.
Without thinking, for no reason, Garson Thayer groped the dashboard and turned the car's faintly whirring heater off. He didn't want distraction, thought he might be able to hear the drumbeat of the bear's paws on the asphalt, hear the animal pant as it galumphed and loped, with surprising grace, astonishing speed and power, down the black band that vanished into the vertical lines of the forest. A bear in motion is practically round, a rolling ball of disembowelment.
Instinct said, speed the fuck up, get us out of here, bears mean business and we're on this monster's turf. But Garson backed his engineer boot off the accelerator. He wanted to watch the bear grow in the rearview mirror's glass TV screen, wanted to see its face.
Undersized murderous black holes over a maw packed with yellow knives. There was some dog-dick town in Alaska called Yellow Knife...or maybe that was Canada, somewhere to the right of here, and slightly south. Maybe some motorist was being stalked by a bear in Yellow Knife, too. Happens all the time, here in the Yukon, stranger. The bear's little round eyes spoke of hard times, hunger and something darker, deeper.
Garson's brown eyes slipped to the glowing gas gauge. Reassuring needles and dials said 3/4 tank left and only 180 miles to go before the air base. Barely a calibrated microsquare on the Alaskan radar screen. Continent-sized mass of ice, forest and buried oil glowed green in oscilloscope-shaped instruments in a darkened war room under the tundra.
So he wasn't really in any danger.
'What's this dumb bear going to do, even if he catches up?' Garson thought. 'Pop a claw like a switchblade and use it like a can-opener on unrecycled Detroit steel?'
He slowed to just over 40 mph, wanted to figure out how fast an adult male grizzly could lope, rumble or charge or whatever it is bears do when intent on murder and dinner. He was fairly sure the bear was male. Females would be busy nursing cubs or telling them bearish bedtime stories.
TV documentary-style slo-mo sequences played in his head. Colossal, practically prehistoric mammals slapped salmon onto dry land as they struggled up waterfalls, enslaved by senseless, suicidal biological imperatives. A bear attacked a wild-eyed moose, felled the ungainly elk like a four-legged tree. Bear locked in life-or-death struggle with a snarling, spitting, raised-fur indignant puma, the animal equivalent of Mexican wrestling. Garson looked in the rearview mirror again. Obviously, everything he thought he knew about bears was strictly show biz. Just wasn't logical that a bear would chase an automobile with anything like food in mind.
The bear, according to the car's odometer, maintained a steady 38 mph.
Garson wondered if Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds could gallop that fast. Engineer's curiosity overcame him. How long could the bear maintain this insane pace? How much did the critter weigh? Running style better suited to the open plain than extreme low-temperature tarmac. Claws grab the dirt like linebackers' cleats, sprinters' spikes.
If moose, salmon and mountain goats could only learn to drive, their populations would increase, and all the world's bears would starve to death.
A world without bears wouldn't be much fun, he thought. Playboy bunny stretched out pale, pink and wiggling in print, sprawled on a snarling bearskin rug. Snobbish guardsmen in preposterous towering headgear. Northwest Indian shaman dancing a slow frug at the prow of an aircraft-carrierly war canoe, decked out in a bear costume with cartoonish wooden eyes and claws. Garson could practically hear the roar and growl of the Bear Dance chant.
The GI consultant transport vehicle wasn't equipped with an external temperature gauge. Freeze-ass cold was as precise an estimate as Garson Thayer could figure. The car wasn't quite a refrigerator on the inside yet. That could be fixed. On an impulse, steadying the steering wheel with his knees, he reached back and grabbed the dorky green snorkle-coat parka from the car floor.
A parka next to every seat, but no stewardesses on the plane out. No pretty, chatty women handing out joke-sized exact miniature replicas of popular brand booze-bottles. Near-empty C-5A cargo plane contained bleary faces going over blueprints, or dozing, snoring. Ocean of white rolling by below. The occasional snowed-over farms had given way to agriculturally inappropriate prairie, then a jagged mountain range.
He shimmied into the ugly Army-Navy Store wrap, then rolled down the windows. The fur in his nostrils froze instantly. A lightning-charged oil slick of cold and blackness barged into the car's cockpit. He leaned into the mirror's viewpoint, saw a gray-furred greenish oaf-thing, its facial features obscured. He checked the coat's pockets to see if GI extreme cold weather gear included complimentary OD mittens. Negative mittens. Negative mukluks.
After a few minutes, Garson couldn't feel his fingers or toes. Goddamn engineer boots may look tough and hold up on oily gas station surfaces, but separated from motorcycle engines, they insulate not.
He didn't want to roll up the windows. That'd be cheating. The bear got warmer as he ran. Hot bear-blood coursed full-speed through veins and arteries the diameter of a man's legs. Blood launched in the search for bloody fuel in the battle for life earned through death. Windows open and frozen foot on accelerator seemed fair enough. Give the bear a chance to prove his primitive point. Garson wasn't about to stop the car, get out and run for it, though. Wouldn't be fair to himself. Just hope the engine doesn't overheat and seize up right now.
'Scuse me, Mister Bear, sir, but would you mind waiting while I fix this flat tire? Maybe give the tire-iron a swat to loosen up them lug-nuts, all frozen stiff? Then we can resume the chase on an equal footing.
Flat tire would be a serious problem. I'd definitely roll up the windows, then. Maybe turn the heater back on. Be OK till the gas runs out. Why can't the motherfucking US Gov't put some CB radio or even a goddamn walkie-talkie in their stupid courtesy cars for non-military consultants? And why don't non-military personnel snorkle-coats contain complimentary .45 automatic ordnance?
Garson Thayer had the knowledge and skills to re-wire a car radio into a crude communication device with his eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back. But engineering parlor-tricks would be hard to perform with frozen hands and no soldering iron. The car's dashboard cigarette lighter was AWOL. Pocketed as a souvenir, perhaps. Maybe the thing was embossed with cool regimental colors, or a plastic screaming war-eagle.
"Help," he said, as though there were someone around to listen. "Help. I'm being chased by a bear."
Sounded like a joke.
Incompletely remembered smutty story about a bear who sodomizes an incompetent hunter in retaliation for getting part of his left ear shot off. "You don't really come here to hunt, do you?"
The bear's face was reduced to a gleam from undersized black beady eyes. Evil marbles, midget demonic eightballs, reflecting lunatic lunar glint.
Wasn't physically possible for a bear to run that fast, that long. Not a human bear. Not, that is, a regular mammalian super-predator that belonged to planet Earth. 'So maybe I'm seeing things.'
The radars at the air base had been seeing things too. The job he was on involved uninvited blips that came a bit too close to the missile silos, invisible to the naked eye or regular-spec binoculars. The mystery-blips plainly were not where the high-taxpayer-dollar radar-scopes reported them to be.
Gov't defense contractors routinely deliver faulty top-secret product at inflationary rates. Which meant there had to be a separate high-clearance budget for non-military consultants with no known conflicts of interest. No radar in the car. No blip on non-radar would mean the bear wasn't real and he, Garson Thayer, had gone foaming, snow-blind nuts.
Slow down a bit more and you'll find out just how real this grizzly is, all over you. Bears tend to gnaw faces off first.
He heard the bear's near-subsonic pant/roar/woof. Accelerated to stay slightly ahead. Checked the mirror. 'Real enough for me.'
Dogs bark, chickens cluck, elephants trumpet, lions roar. Maybe bears roar too. He tried to remember if he'd ever heard bear recordings, like whale songs, birdcalls. As far as he knew, bears snuffled and grunted like pigs, moaned like disappointed hillbillies. He tried impressions of bear-noises. Became, in his shaggy snorkle-coat, a bear impersonator.
Garson had to check himself out in the mirror. Raised his right hand from the steering wheel, adjusted the angle, kept it so he could keep an eye on the bear still running inexhaustibly behind.
"Wwwoooorg!" he roared. "Rawwww!"
No spark of recognition in the furrily inscrutable murder-face outside, or in the less furry one reflected in the mirror. Garson was obviously a failure at incorporating bear-spirit. He wasn't the reincarnation of the Haida tribe bear-clan shaman in the Natural History Museum. Maybe the mirror was the problem. He wasn't facing the lumbering monster correctly. He could only bear to gaze at the horror in reflection. He was a coward who showed fear. Big mistake, in the wild kingdom.
Took great delicacy of touch and balance to keep his right foot on the accelerator while steering with his left butt-cheek. Garson Thayer leaned out the driver's side window as far as he could go, yelled bear-like incantations, flapped his arms.
The bear took this as an invitation to bare fangs and blare like an Allosaurus. The sonic shock-waves nearly tumbled Garson from his precarious lean on the car door. The bear said, don't get cute. I'm going to tear you apart and eat you when I catch you. Chomp your hands and feet off with my bear-trap jaws...after I devour your ugly face, that is. That's so you won't bleed out too fast. Want you alive when I rip your abdomen for vitamin-saturated liver.
Garson was rattled as he read the rampaging relentless bear's innermost vital thoughts. The stronger animal needed food to stay strong. The weaker animal was weaker, and he was there.
'So alls I got to do,' Garson thought, 'is give up this dumb game, forget the dumb rules I made up, take this V8 beast up to a perfectly sane 60 mph and that's all she wrote. What's the dividend in giving ravening carnivores a fighting chance?'
He watched a mental car disappear into due-north darkness, heard imaginary tires screech with sudden pick-up. Thwarted predator groans, slows, drops to its drogue hindquarters to lick seriously sore, badly scraped footpads and, as a consolational afterthought, its genitals. Fantasy bear abandons the asphalt to which its paws are evolutionarily unsuited, stumble-rolls into the woods and dematerializes, a ghostly animal spirit. Real-life bears, resigned to the loss of a protein-intensive, vitamin A-rich gorefeast, settle for substitute dinner of foraged dried blueberries scraped up from under a crust of snow.
'Or else,' Garson thought further, 'speed up drastically, pull a you-turn and charge the goddamn bear. Flip the game around. See how he likes them eggs.'
Cartoon bear gapes, stretches beady eyes in goofy, wide-eyed night-vision surprise. Scene explodes into a swirling smoke-ring mandala. Dazed bear, crumpled car, driver thrown into a nearby tree, one of the smoking wreck's tires still crookedly spinning. The end. Near-forgotten rifle game in the penny arcade of a dingy Luna Park pier on a shore across the continent. Toy shotgun chained to the sad fun-machine's chassis to prevent theft and subsequent no-fun-at-all armed robbery scenarios with the purloined adult toy. Mechanical hillbilly chased by a clockwork black bear. Hit the mirror on the bear's ribcage and the tables turn. "Why you honey-suckin' varmint! I'll learn ya to eat my sister's panties hangin' on the laundry line."
Quick engineer-style mental calculation of how the turnaround-is-fair-play tactic would play out in real life. Several tons of cold-rolled steel at 65 mph slam headlong into a ton of hot-blooded flesh and bone charging at 38 mph equals dead or badly injured human when ribcage explodes forward into steering column. Massive collateral damage to Gov't Property vehicle and maybe a dead bear, if the monster bruin is in fact made of mortal flesh.
Bears eat carrion. This bear would lick blood, brain tissue and bone marrow off the twisted metal wreckage. Change-of-direction sneak attack wasn't a viable plan.
'The bear's reached his terminal velocity,' Garson thought. 'He can't seem to go any faster. I can, whenever I feel like it. Probably won't run out of gas or overheat or blow a tire. Road surface is level, well-maintained and was built expressly to lead to the top-secret air base. I can't get lost. All I have to do is stay on the road.'
Stay on the road. Don't go haywire in response to danger-hallucinations. Don't skid off into the trees and crash into a hidden terminal moraine of glacier-shoved boulders. Panting hard, steaming, the bear approaches to investigate. Agony sound-effects issue from the ruined broken glass-strewn cockpit. Broken teeth, mouth full to overflowing with blood. Blood from deep gash in scalp floods eyes to stain the hideous scene red as a martyrdom-themed rose window in a Gothic cathedral.
'Just keep going. Keep steady. Maybe speed up a smidge.'
Garson Thayer flicked the high-beams lever, thought he perceived smudgy brown sky-glow ahead. Wondered if they'd built the air base in a pre-existent clearing, or if they'd eradicated primordial forest to build the air base. Defoliants, napalm, atomic bulldozers...the US Gov't was invasive on an inhuman scale, even in extreme environments.
The car was hit by and flooded with light. A search-beam.
Dazzled, Garson fought the instinctual urge to swerve, evade. Light canceled his view of road, rearview mirror and the lumbering death machine that chased him. Darkness and safety were left or right, even if there was no road in those directions. No road means you take your chances, even at moderate speed. The light suffused the snorkle coat with cold-sweat heat. The light showed people bathed in light. Garson had heard about this sort of thing. The light meant you were enjoying a near-death experience. The stories were true.
Among the light-angels was Rebecca Raven, a girl he liked in High School. Leukemia took her young and heartbreakingly beautiful, but spared her virginity. There were many glamorous dazzling faces he didn't recognize, people in the light, like him. They were happy and they were dead, staring at the sun, even though staring at the sun's against the rules, as any kid knows. The rules were wrong. It's wonderful and miraculous to stare into the sun. Got to remember that. Remember to forget the rules. The rule of the sun is, there are no other rules. I alone am the rule and the way into the light.
The blinding sun suddenly developed a deafening voice. "Attention! Halt! Stop your vehicle! Prepare to be identified!"
"Vehicle," Garson said, or thought he said. "Can't stop the vehicle. If I stop the vehicle, the bear will catch, tear and eat me."
"Repeat!" the light's voice said. "Stop your vehicle! You must be recognized! If you do not halt immediately, we will open fire. Flash your lights if you are unable to stop your vehicle. We'll shoot out your tires."
The voice sure had a lot to say. If only the voice wouldn't bark quite so metallically. Orders are easier to obey when spoken soothingly. The sun spoke silently, radiated its message of universal love. Rebecca Raven looked so beautiful and not dead, in solar heaven.
The windshield exploded into a galaxy-shaped spiderweb without a sound. Then the sound hit, ear-, night- and light-splittingly.
"Holy shit!" Garson Thayer realized the situation. US Gov't Air Base, missiles, strategic bombers, buzzcut maniacs with automatic weapons, seriously bored and eager for action in their enforced isolated hibernation. He stomped the brakes to stop the vehicle, as directed. Absurdly heavy car screeched and fishtailed on the frosted arctic highway, but eventually obeyed the voice and halted.
But, the bear. Garson frantically tried to roll up the windows on either side, windmilling like a panic-stricken spastic.
"Please leave your windows in the 'down' position, sir. And we need you to please keep your hands where we can see them."
He saw the bear snap off his hands, saw the blood spray. Trapped in the vehicle, he could only slap at the bear's snout with slender spurting wrist-stumps. Fear and horror stole his voice. He muttered please please don't eat me as he died.
The MPs took in a shuddering 3D snorkle-coat that moaned, "...Eat me...eat me."
They kept their M16s trained. "Been drinking, sir?" Booze would've lent the scene a certain logic. The Alaskan landscape encouraged heavy drinking, in undisciplined souls.
Garson Thayer wanted a drink, badly. Water, of the clear, unfrozen kind. He was suddenly flooded with the all right feeling, even though uniformed men had their rifles pointed at his hood. Assault rifles potentially as deadly, though considerably quicker, less painful and gruesome, than a grizzly assault.
"Grizzly bear chase me," he said. "Bad part is...I let him. To see what he could do, see? Wanted to see if he'd give up and go away. Only he never did."
"Bears have been reported in the area, sir. Like coyotes, stateside. Or dogs. They tend to chase cars. Don't know what to do once they've caught them, though. Ain't it always that way?" But the MP didn't lower his machine gun.
The other MP said, "We need to see your ID and orders, please, sir. Locate and deliver them slowly."
Garson returned to the world, its rarefied military dimension, and complied. "I haven't been drinking, by the way. There was a bear."
The MP lowered his rifle, accepted the non-military personnel ID card. Garson had let his hair grow quite a bit since the picture was taken. Might be a problem. He hadn't thought that far ahead.
"Please pull down your hood...sir. Nice and slow, that's right."
Garson Thayer let himself be recognized. One of the MPs returned to the guard cabin and ticked off his name and serial number on an aluminum clipboard in the greenish light of the base.
The other MP lowered his M16, stood erect, saluted limply. "Got to watch out in these parts, sir. Nobody's ever more than about, uh...200 miles from a bear, in Alaska." He raised his hands like claws, bared his teeth and growled. "But we're on the job, sir. Making the world safe for democracy."
Garson Thayer returned the salute, resisted the urge to twist the guy some fuck-you hand-jive. The world was a place where men had jobs to do. The guard was only doing his job. Garson's job was to inspect highly classified radar equipment that showed objects moving through forbidden airspace that obviously weren't there. On his way to work, he'd been chased by a bear. Armed military police had shot out his windshield. So now he had to stick his head out the window to steer the car, which wasn't his, towards the non-military personnel barracks indicated by yellow-black reflective signs. He looked into the sideview mirror and watched the air base's main gate roll closed.