Beth was completely lost. She had been following the two bears for days now, with no idea where they were going. It might have helped if she had an idea where she started from. The larger bear, the one Beth thought of as 'Mother', was leading them somewhere. Beth and Sis, the smaller bear, were following behind Mother, making sure that she didn't get too far ahead. The three of them had followed the shoreline until they came across a large river. The fresh water flowed from a small hill that could be seen in the distance, mixing with the incoming tide of the bay, forming waves at least a meter high.
Beth was thankful when Mother turned her nose west and followed the river’s edge inland. She had heard stories of polar bears swimming great distances and thought they might try crossing. Beth wasn't worried about swimming in cold water, she had already been in it several times and knew it had no more effect on her than cold air did, which was none at all. The river was only a few hundred meters across and Beth felt that with an effort, she would be able to swim across it if she needed to, but was happy that they were changing direction.
They followed the river upstream as it began to narrow until it was only about a hundred meters across. Mother stopped at a small, cascading waterfall before wading into the middle of the river. She waited with her head down, as if searching for something. She hadn't been waiting long when a large fish jumped out of the water, trying to make its way upstream. In a swift, smooth motion, Mother caught the fish in her mouth in mid-air before walking out of the water to eat her prize. Sis looked at Beth before wading into the water, attempting to repeat her mother's fishing technique. Her attempt at catching the fish jumping over the waterfall in their journey upstream was less successful. After three or four attempts, though, she was finally able to get one. Sis walked over to where Mother was sitting and began eating her fish. Beth could have sworn that she was smiling while making her way to the shore.
Beth didn't think it was wise to take any food from her two companions. She suspected that this was Mother’s idea of teaching them how to get their own fish, as well as the best places to do it. She waded out into the water, watched the fish swimming below her. It took her a minute to realize that there was a pattern to their attempts to jump the small waterfall. They would line themselves up in the river before swimming as fast as possible, then jump. Beth recognized this pattern soon enough and soon saw another fish lining itself up. She moved closer to the edge of the waterfall. The fish literally fell into her hands as it cleared its watery hurdle. She was immediately surprised by the fish’s weight and strength . Holding on as tightly as possible so that it didn't get away, Beth walked back to the shore. Digging her new claws into the fish finally stopped its attempts to get free again, allowing her time to take a closer look at it. She thought the fish had been a salmon, but it was a little smaller than that. The silver colouring of its sides as well as the dark green back were something completely different from a salmon. While raw fish isn't all that unusual for some people to eat, Beth had never been one to enjoy sushi. Seeing both Sister and Mother enjoying their meal, Beth gave hers a try. She was surprised, again, by the wonderful taste of it. Since waking up from MORFS, Beth had only been eating raw meat. She wondered if she would be able to eat regular food, or if it would taste different. Once finished, Beth washed her blood stained hands and face in the cold river water. Mother and Sister were also washing their paws and face, though they didn't seem to have as much on them as Beth did. She suspected that is was from her having a smaller mouth than either of them.
Once their meal had been finished, Mother started walking further upstream. Sister seemed to be more energetic after eating, and wanted to play. They were walking a few meters behind Mother when Sister started to bump into Beth, trying to get her to play. Beth was also feeling playful after eating. It was her first meal since the seal meat when she’d first met up with them, and she was amazed that she hadn't been more hungry after going without eating for so long.
Beth noticed Sister running at her from her left just in time to avoid being tackled. She dodged, then pushed Sister on her side as she ran past, making her lose her balance. Sister rolled onto her back in a small, windblown snowdrift. Beth took that as an opportunity to jump on her, in an attempt to tickle her large friend. This didn't go so well due to her thick fur covered skin. Sister showed Beth she had also decided it was time to wrestle by rolling her over and laying on her chest. With Sister's additional weight and size, Beth was pinned to the ground, unable to move. She was even having trouble breathing until Mother roared at them. She had continued walking and was quite a distance ahead, so Sister and Beth had to run to catch up again. Beth quickly outran her, as Sister needed to slow down several times to avoid getting overheated with her exertion.
Sunset slowly painted the sky in beautiful colours again while Beth and her new friends continued to walk upstream in search of the river’s source. In the fading light, Beth could make out a long series of shallow rapids making their way down a rocky slope ahead of them. They slowly made their way to the top of the rapids to see a narrow, long lake covered with a sheet of ice while water poured from under it, forming the rapids that they had just finished climbing. After their long walk inland, Mother found a small hollow out of the blowing wind to rest in. that was . Sister soon cuddled up beside her, closed her eyes and was almost instantly asleep. Taking her cue from Mother and Sister, Beth lay down in the hollow, out of the wind and tried to get some rest as well.
The sky was lit up in hundreds of shades of blue and orange as the sun slowly made its way over the horizon. Beth sat in awe of its beauty, wondering why she had never noticed it before. From Beth's vantage point, the path of their journey upstream could easily be seen, all the way from the river’s mouth to the long series of rapids before her. She just enjoyed the peaceful scene, not wanting it to end.
Unfortunately, Mother and Sister had a different agenda. Both of them seemed to be in a foul mood this morning, with an occasional roar or bite at each other. Mother quickly grew tired of Sister's behaviour and walked off, heading for the lake. When Sister attempted to follow, she was bitten on her neck. The bite didn't draw blood, but was obviously quite painful. As quickly as it happened, it was over. Mother walked off, only looking back a few times to ensure that she wasn't being followed.
As Mother walked away Beth was reminded of the day her mother had left, of her wildly mixed feelings toward her mother, and how she had started hating her father for driving her away. Beth was in tears when she finally made her way to Sister's side,. She hugged her friend hoping that Sister understood that Beth knew how it felt. Reading how polar bears were born and raised was one thing. Seeing it with her own eyes was much harder. Polar bears are solitary animals that don't hunt together or form packs like wolfs. There are very few reasons for them to stay together, and food is a major reason for them to stay apart.
After Mother had disappeared over a small, distant hill, Beth became curious. She had brought them here for a reason, but now Mother wanted them to continue on their own. Beth wanted to find out why.
“Come on, Sis” she said to her furry friend. “Let's find out what she's up to.”
Beth and Sister followed Mother's path along the lakes shoreline, making sure that they kept their distance from her. She could occasionally be seen as she made her way over one hill or another, but was getting further away as the day continued. The sun was about as high as it was going to get when they found Mother's reason for pushing them away. “Well,” Beth said to Sister while looking onto the lake’s frozen shoreline. “I think Mother was looking for a new boyfriend.”
The difference in size between male and female bears was easily seen from their hilltop lookout. Male bears were pacing across the frozen lake while females displayed themselves on shore. All together, there was likely fifty bears, most of them males. If two males came to close to each other, they would start to makes loud noises and bare their teeth. If this didn't cause one of them to back down a fight would usually start. A pecking order was being setup for all to see. Once they had determined who was 'king of the hill', a female bear would break away from the group and allow him to follow her away. Fights between male bears became more and more aggressive as the female group continued to get smaller and smaller. Fortunately, Beth and Sister were downwind, and well hidden from this lakeside ritual. Getting between a bunch of horny bears was definitely not a safe place to be.
After sunset the fighting continued, but with much less frequency. With few males and even fewer females, the noise level was low enough to get some sleep. When Beth turned to look for Sis, she was already curled into a ball asleep in a nearby snowdrift. Laying down next to Sis, Beth closed her eyes and quickly fell asleep as well.
A loud, sharp sound suddenly woke Beth from her deep sleep. She wondered for a moment if she was dreaming, until she heard it again. As she rolled over and got to her feet, she could see that Sis was already up, sniffing the air while looking over the edge of their snowdrift. A small group of men could be seen a few hundred meters away. They looked to be approaching from downwind, trying to stay hidden behind small hills and snowdrifts. Since the remaining bears were on lower ground, they couldn't see the hunters getting closer, but the shots had alerted them. They were all running in different directions, trying to get away. Unfortunately, one bear was heading directly for the hunting party. As it got closer, a man took aim and fired a fatal shot at the huge animal. Beth saw it continue toward its attacker, but fell to the ground after only a few steps. The remainder of the bears quickly ran in other directions, out of range of the hunters.
As Beth looked at the huge animal lying on the blood stained snow, she suddenly became very angry. It had simply been here looking for a mate when they showed up and started shooting. Without thinking, she climbed over the small snowdrift and stormed toward the hunters. Her heart was racing and her blood felt like it was boiling as she got closer to the group of men. Just as she was about to start yelling at them for killing the bear, one of them noticed her approach. He said something in Inuktitut before falling to his knees and started to pray. When the others heard him, they turned to look at Beth. They all seemed afraid of her and, one by one, fell to their knees. Two of them pulled necklaces from under the layers of clothing and held them in their hands as she got closer. Their actions startled Beth so much she stopped in her tracks before getting to them.
As she looked at the group of men, Beth couldn’t help saying, “What the hell are you doing?”
One of the men stood, looking at her with a confused expression. “You are not Nanuk? The anirniq of the white bear?”
“I don't know what that means. What's an AN-ER-NIK?” asked Beth.
All three men started to get to their feet and look at her closely. The oldest man came closer before saying, “An anirniq is a spirit or soul.”
“We feared that you were a spirit, coming to avenge the death of the bear,” said the youngest of the group. He looked like he was no more that a year or two older than Beth.
“Well, I was a pissed about you killing one of the bears,” she explained. Remembering why she was confronting the group, Beth started to get angry again. “I mean, it was only here to mate.”
“We know,” the first man replied. “We've been here for almost a week waiting for them to finish pairing up.”
“You've been killing bears for a week?” she yelled. Beth couldn't believe what she was hearing.
“No!” answer the young man just as loudly. In a slightly calmer voice he asked, “Who are you? It's clear that you don't understand our ways.”
Beth was concerned as she walked over to the bear, but doubted that it was Mother. It was too large to be her. She opened its eyes to look at their colour anyway, just to assure her that it wasn't. She sighed in relieve after seeing its dark eyes and sat down beside the fallen animal.
She absently stroked its fur as she asked, “How many have you killed then?”
“This is the first, and only bear that we'll take during this trip,” explained the old man. He walked over to them and knelt in front of the bear and started to talk to it in Inuktitut. Beth had no idea what he was saying, but the tone of his voice was odd. It sounded as if he was talking to an old friend. He took a water container out of a pocket on the inside of his thick caribou skin coat and poured a small amount into the bear’s mouth.
“Why did you do that?” asked Beth. The old man had lowered himself to the hard packed snow and looked at Beth.
“It is a tradition that we follow,” he said after finally getting comfortable on the snow. “The legends say that the white bear wanders the snow, constantly looking for water to drink, but only finds salt water or sea ice. In order to please them, in the afterlife, we give them a taste of water. To quench their lifelong thirst.”
The old man looked at her again and asked, “Now who are you, and what are you doing out here?”
It took a moment for Beth to decide what to say and how much of her story to tell these people. She finally decided to share a little bit of information at a time. She wanted answers as well, so would trade information with them. “My name's Beth. I'm lost and looking for my way home.” It was almost the truth, but they wouldn't know that.
Now she wanted more information. “So, it's just the three of you?”
A smile on the old man's face made the deep wrinkles deeper, but showed a perfect set of bright white teeth. “My name is Anilnik.” He pointed to the two remaining men before continuing, “That's my son, Aariak and grandson Rob. We all call him Ukalik, though.”
Although Beth had other questions that she would rather ask, her curiosity got the better of her. “Why do you call him that, what does it mean?”
Rob pulled the hood of his coat off of his head, revealing a head of snow white hair and two long ears that reached a centimeter or two above his head. They were also white, with black tips. “It means hare, or rabbit, in our language.”
The giggles came out of nowhere and Beth was powerless to control them. “I see why now,” she said between chuckles.
“I wouldn't be laughing so hard if I were you, Nanuk,” he said with a grin.
“Nanuk?”, Beth asked through a few more giggles.
Aariak spoke with a stern voice, “Be nice, Robert.” It wasn't a name that his father used for him too often, and usually only when he had done something wrong. “Get another water bottle from the kamotiq, for our guest,” he added, before also sitting on the snow.
Instead of replying, Rob just ran off in the direction they had approached from. In the distance she could see him stop at what she thought was a small snowdrift. Pulling back a cover showed that is was a sledge instead. After pulling out what must have been the water bottle, he covered it again and returned to their group. If she didn't know exactly where to look, Beth wouldn't have been able to see any trace of the sledge under its camouflage.
While Rob was returning with the water from the kamotiq, Aariak explained, “Nanuk means polar bear.”
“Nanuk? Well, I guess it's as accurate a description as any other,” Beth said more to herself, than anyone else. “They are beautiful animals, aren't they?”
Anilnik smiled again, “He honours us as hunters, by allowing us to kill him.” It was an odd concept for Beth, so she didn't say anything.
As Rob handed Beth the water bottle, he asked, “So, where's your home? Maybe we can help.”
“Iqaluit,” answered Beth before taking a long drink of water. After finishing the bottle she realized it was the first drink since fishing in the river, two days ago. Even though she hadn't eaten since then, she still wasn't very hungry. She definitely didn't want to eat after seeing the dead bear.
“We're from Iqaluit too,” added Aariak. “But I don't remember hearing about a bear hybrid in town. How long have you lived there?”
A sudden look of recognition came over Rob's face. “You're Beth Baker, aren't you?”
Beth nodded, but didn't answer. She had hoped that they wouldn't recognize her. There were still too many questions about what her dad had done for which she didn't have answers. Rob turned to his dad to explain, “Beth is the one that they were searching for last month.”
“Last month? How long have I been gone?” asked Beth. She had completely lost track of the days while they followed Mother to her mating ground.
“It's May 6th,” Rob answered. “You've been missing for almost three weeks. They called off the search after ten days when there was no sign of you.”
“If you like,” Aariak offered, “you can come with us. We have to meet the others, before heading home. But we should be able to get you there in two or three days.”
“I could call someone,” Rob added, pulling out his eCom. “If you'd rather get home sooner.” Anilnik shook his head at the sight of the eCom. He didn't say anything to his grandson about it, but it seemed that he didn't approve of him having it here.
The thought of going home brought mixed emotions to Beth, but she knew she needed to confront her dad. She already knew why he’d abandoned her in the cold, but she needed to hear it from him. She decided that she would take a little time before going home. There was someone she needed to say goodbye to first.
“That's okay,” answered Beth. “I'll go back with you, if you don't mind me tagging along.”
“Do you want to call anyone, tell them that you're okay?” Rob offered again.
“No!” Beth said, a little to quickly. “I ... well ... actually, yeah.” There was someone that she wanted to talk to, but calling might cause a bit of trouble at home. She took the eCom from Rob and stared at the numbers for a moment, deciding what to say.
“We have work to do,” announced Anilnik as he started to get to his feet.
“Yes we do,” agreed Aariak, “and we’d better get moving if we want to get any distance behind us today. You want to get started, Dad, while we get the gear?”
“Yes,” Anilnik answered. “I will get started.”
As Aariak and Rob left to get their gear, Anilnik tried to roll the huge animal over. Seeing that he was having a little difficulty, Beth dropped the eCom in the pocket of her shorts and walked closer.
“Can I help?” she asked Anilnik.
He smiled again, before answering. “Thank you, yes. There was a time when I could roll even the largest of bears over myself.” A far away look came over his face before he continued, “I fear those days are long gone for me.”
Most of the people that she had met in town were also students, their parents or teachers. So it was hard for Beth to judge his age. Most older people seemed to look the same to her for such a wide range of ages. Then suddenly, all their years would take their toll.
“Go onto the other side and take hold of his front leg. Pull it until he rolls onto his back.” Since Beth was expecting the bear to be heavy and hard to roll, she pulled as hard as she could. Before Anilnik could do anything, Beth had rolled the bear completely onto its back, exposing the blood stained fur and wound underneath.
“I expected that to be a lot harder,” Beth commented under her breath.
“You must be much stronger than you look,” replied Anilnik. “Even the strongest, most experienced hunters wouldn't be able to do that so easily.”
Now that the bear was on its back, the wound and blood stained fur was easily seen. Anilnik picked up a handful of snow in each hand, rubbing it in the blood soaked fur to clean it. Then he took a long, sharp knife from around his waist and start to cut into the thick fur at its neck.
“I think I'll go make my call now,” said Beth. quickly turning her back on the gruesome scene. She walked a short distance away pulling the eCom from her pocket. She held it in her hand for a moment before dialling the number.
“Hello?” came the tinny voice from after a few rings.
Beth paused for a second before saying, “Hi Annie, it's Beth.” Anilnik turned his head in Beth's direction, hearing the ear piercing squeal from more than five meters away. Annie attempted to ask four questions all at the same time, none of them making any sense at all. “Calm down, take a breath. I'm fine,” she tried to reassure her friend, until Annie's words come out right.
“Where are you? I thought you were dead!” she was finally able to get out.
“I'm ... ” Beth paused to look around for anything that she could use as a landmark. “ I'm not sure where I am! I'm near a lake that a group of polar bears use as a breeding ground. A small hunting party found me.”
“Squirt me your GPS location. I'll find someone to get me there.”
“No, I need you to do something for me.”
“Okay, but who found you?” Annie asked.
Beth paused a second, trying to remember how to pronounce each man's name, “Anilnik, Aariak and Ukalik. They're father, son and grandson.”
Annie seemed relieved as she said, “I know them. I heard that they usually hunt south of here or at Long Lake.”
“They said that we will be home in two of three days.”
“Okay,” Annie seemed satisfied with the news, if not with the delay in seeing her friend. “What did you need me to do?”
“It's my dad,” Beth started. “He's the reason that I'm out here.”
“What, you ran away from him?” asked Annie. That's what Beth father had been saying to everyone in town. That his daughter was ashamed of what she had become and couldn't deal with it.
“No!” snapped Beth. The anger in her voice surprised even herself. “He drove me out here, while I was still out of it. He left me to die, Annie. Like I didn't mean anything to him anymore. Like I was something to get rid of!”
The tears flowed down her face as she told as much as she could remember of those few days after coming down with MORFS. How she woke up each day, alone. How she made her way into her bathroom to see the changes, and finally, when her dad had told she needed to go to the hospital, but left her at the side of an ice covered lake instead.
“So how can I help?” asked Annie when Beth had finished her tale.
“I want you to tell my dad that I'm coming home,” she said calmly. Beth didn't want to call her dad herself, but still wanted him to think about her return in a few days. He could think about that for a while and decide what he would do about having a MORFed hybrid daughter that he tried to kill.
After the phone call with Annie, Beth wanted to be alone for a little while. She also didn't want to face what the three men were doing to the bear. Instead, she dropped the eCom into the pocket of her shorts again and started to search for Sister. Beth hoped that she would be able to find her again, that the hunters hadn't scared her away. After walking for a few minutes she heard the sound of her furry sister, calling to her. Beth smiled in relief as she headed in the direction of the sound. Sister had made her way down to the frozen surface of the lake to search for Mother. As Beth got closer, she could also smell the scent of all the bears who had been there. If Mother had been here, it was impossible to tell. There were too many hiding her scent, there was no way to be able to find her now.
“I'm sorry Sis, I can't tell which way she went, either.” Sister came closer to Beth and started to sniff her. It reminded Beth of a dog, meeting someone new. Since Beth knew that Sister was just interested in the people that she had been talking to, she didn't try to stop her. The two played in the snow like they had during their long walk to this special place. It was as though Sister knew that this would be their last day together. The two were wrestling with each other when Beth knocked Sister over and started running away for a short break.
“Beth, watch out!” yelled Rob from a short distance away. Beth looked at him, only to see him aiming his rifle at Sister.
“NO!!” yelled Beth loudly, raising her hand for him to stop. Sister didn't notice Rob taking aim at her and was still running at Beth when suddenly the air started to shimmer in front of Rob. It was too late as he had already pulled the trigger. The bullet was too fast to be seen, but the fire ball it created as it hit the shimmering wall of air was noticed by all of them. Sister was startled and jumped to her side, away from the sudden flash. Beth was furious, he had just attempted to kill another bear. This time it would have been Sister.
Storming to the place that Rob stood, Beth passed through the simmering wall of air without even noticing it. Once she was close enough, she grabbed the barrel of his rifle and pulled it out of his hands. “What the hell do you think you're doing?” she yelled at him. When he didn't reply she yelled even louder, “Why were you trying to kill Sis?”
Rob was staring at the rifle in Beth's hand when he said, “What did you do to my rifle?”
“What?” she asked, then looked at his rifle she had pulled away from him. The barrel was glowing red hot and bending from the weight. The plastic and carbon fibre stock was also smoking where it touched the barrel.
“Throw it!” yelled Rob.
“What?” Beth asked. She didn't understand what he was talking about. Why should she throw the rifle away, even if it was of no use anymore?
“It still has three live rounds in it. The heat will set them off!” he said quickly, trying to explain. “Throw it as far as you can!”
Holding the rifle by the barrel like a tennis racket, Beth swung and threw it as far as she could. As it flew through the air, one of the rounds in it was set off by the heat, ripping it apart. Its shattered remains landed on a rock outcrop several meters away, setting off another round.
Sister roared from the other side of the shimmering wall of air, but wouldn't get close to it. Her roar got Beth's attention and she walked closer to see if she was alright, passing through the shimmering air again. Rob tried to follow, but couldn't. The heat was too high for him to get closer than a few meters from it.
From a safe distance, Rob yelled, “We're ready to go. I'll meet you back at the ATV's, okay?” Instead of answering, Beth nodded to indicate that she would be there shortly.
After Rob left, Beth turned to Sister, “I have to go now.” Sister moved her head from side to side, indicating that she still wanted to play. Beth didn't want to leave her, she wanted to stay with Sister and just ignore her dad, but also realized that was just hiding from him. She knew she had to confront him. “I can't play anymore. I'm sorry.” She hugged her new sister before getting to her feet and walking to where the men were packing away all their gear. The wall was gone by this time and she was a little surprised that Sister didn't try to follow her, but was thankful she didn't.
After Beth made her way back to the others, Rob stopped his work to talk to her. “What happened back there?” he asked Beth, hoping that she had an explanation of the strange shimmering air.
“I don't know,” she answered with a shrug. “I saw you aiming at Sis and had to stop you.”
“Sis? You call the bear your sister?” Rob asked her. The tone of his voice made it clear that he doubted her.
“Well ... yeah,” she explained. “She and her mother sort of adopted me after I found them. They both have the same colour eyes that I have now.”
“But what was with the air? All shimmering and distorted like that?”
“And glowing! Didn't you see the bright red glow coming from it too?” she asked him.
He raised an eyebrow in confusion, before answering. “No, it didn't glow, but it was as hot as hell! All I saw was it shimmering, like the air over a fire. But what was it?” asked Rob again.
“I'm not sure, but I think it might have been me,” she said a little unsure of herself. “When I saw you about to shot her, I wanted a wall to protect her. That's when the air started to glow.”
“Maybe it's something from MORFS. You'll have to have a doctor check you out when we get home,” he said with a smile. “Speaking of which, we better get moving if we ever want to get there.”
Rob's father and grandfather had finished the packing while they had been talking. Their ATV's had their kamotiq attached and each man climbed onto and started the engines. It seemed odd that the ATV wasn't electric, until Beth remembered being told that batteries didn't survive to long in the cold weather. They didn't use petroleum fuels anymore, like they had in the past, but most places, ethanol wasn't as common as it was here in the north.
Their journey over the rock and ice was a rough one. After only an hour, they needed a rest from the bumpy ride . Since the sun was low in the sky, they decided to make camp while there was still light. It was the first time that Beth had seen anyone set up camp in the cold, she noted the care that they took with all the details of it. The most unusual aspect of their preparations was when Rob pulled his kamotiq about fifty meters away from camp and left it there.
When he returned, Beth asked, “Why are you leaving your sledge over there, instead of with the others here?”
“That's the one with the bear meat,” he explained. When Beth still had a confused look, he added, “If any bears are attracted to the raw meat, we don't want them to come near the camp.”
“Oh,” replied Beth, “I never would have thought of that.”
“Beth, Ukalik, the tea's ready,” announced Aariak from the opening of one tent. He handed one of the mugs of tea to Anilnik, who was standing nearby looking at the horizon.
Rob looked at Beth before saying, “I hope you like your tea black, we didn't pack any milk.”
“That's fine,” replied Beth as they made their way into one of the two tents that they setup. The tea pot was sitting on the small camp stove sitting on top of a few stones. Rob pulled out two old, chipped enamel mugs from a backpack and handed one to Beth. Once his hand was free, Rob picked up the tea pot with his gloved hand and poured tea into each cup.
“Thanks,” said Beth just before taking a sip of her tea. She was a little surprised that it wasn't as hot as she had expected, but didn't say anything that might offend her host. After noticing that Rob thought it was quite hot when he took a sip of his tea, Beth was glad she hadn't said anything.
As the setting sun painted the clear sky red and orange, Beth sat in a snowdrift and sipped her tea. Rob didn't sit in the snow, but choose to kneel instead. The thick caribou pants would have kept his backside warm for a while, but would have soon cooled on the frozen ground. From a kneeling position he could also look at Beth eye to eye, instead of having to look up. A gentle breeze blow into their faces as they sat and watched the setting sun. It brought with it a salty smell that Beth found pleasant.
“Are we near the ocean?” she asked while sniffing the air.
Rob grinned, “You must have a good sense of smell. It's about a two or three hour ride to the coast that way.” he pointed to the setting sun with his mug of tea. “We should be there before noon tomorrow. Then we head north, following to shore back to Iqaluit.”
Taking another sip of his tea, Rob winced slightly, “My tea's gone cold already. I hate cold tea.”
As he was about to dump it out, Beth asked, “Can I try something first?” Rob was confused for a moment, but handed her his mug with the remaining cold tea. Beth held the mug in her free hand and concentrated. Slowly the tea started to boil again in the mug, when suddenly the entire contents of the mug exploded out in a burst of steam. It's sudden flash boiling startled Beth, causing her to drop the mug into the snow. The steam from the melting snow and ice looked like a small fire, but quickly stopped as the mug cooled.
“Sorry,” said Beth quietly. She was thankful for her fur and dark skin, it hid the fact that she was blushing from Rob. Unfortunately her voice gave it away. Reaching into the small hole in the snow that the mug had made as it melted through it, Beth pulled it out and handed it back to Rob.
After looking at the mug for any damage, Rob said, “That's not what you were trying to do, I hope?”
“I was trying to heat it up for you,” explained Beth. “I guess it got a little to hot.”
He smiled at her attempt to help. Looking into her green and blue eyes, Rob realized how beautiful Beth was. MORFS had changed every aspect of her body. The hairs of her fur weren't as long as a bear’s and were quite smooth, giving her the appearance of white skin or a form fitting bodysuit. The palms of her hands and soles of her feet were thick, black pads. She would have a hard time finding shoes to fit, if she ever needed any. Beth would easily tower over Rob as well as every person he had ever met in his life, with the exception of their high school biology teacher, Mr. Lewis. That really didn't count though, most of his height was because of his antlers. Even though she was almost twenty centimeters taller that he was, she was in perfect proportions. Long, muscular legs led to shapely hips that accounted for more than half of her height. Her incredibly good muscle tone was hidden under a layer of fat that gave her all the curves that a teenage girl should have. The only thing that identified her as a polar bear hybrid, other than the white fur, were her head and face. Even there it was subtle. Beth's nose was large and wide, and made more noticeable from its black colour at the end. Her chin and upper lip protruded slightly and gave her the hint of a bear’s muzzle. It also gave her an almost perpetual smile, though the enlarged canine teeth were a bit threatening. Her ears had moved as well, as would be expected. They didn’t reach quite to the top of her head, but far enough that their tops were at the same level as her short cropped, curly white hair. The two semi-circles of her ears now pointed more forward than to the side.
Rob's stare made Beth, feel a little uncomfortable. “What?”
“I'm sorry,” he answered quickly. “I didn't mean to stare like that. It's just that I've never seen anyone like you before.”
Her quick reaction showed more anger than she intended. “I know! I'm a monster, you don't have to remind me!”
His reply was quiet, . “I think you're beautiful.”
She reacted as if he yelled it at the top of his lungs. Twice she attempted to say something, anything, but the words just wouldn't come out. Instead, she ran to a nearby ridge of snow and ice, disappearing over its top.
Rob stood to go after her, before she got too far to be able to find her way back to camp. He had just stood, got his bearings and was about to start looking for Beth when a hand on his shoulder held him in place. Rob had to turn around entirely to see its owner.
“Grandfather, I have to go find Beth,” he explained. “She'll get herself lost out there.”
“Head back to camp, Ukalik. I'll look for our new friend.”
“But, …” Rob started to say, but was cut short by the look on his grandfather’s face. He knew that look meant there was no arguing with him. “Okay, Grandfather.”
After the sun had finished its slow journey through the sky and darkness started to replace the twilight, the northern lights could be seen moving in random, rhythmic patterns. Beth looked up at them through tear filled eyes and tried to make sense of her emotions. She wasn't sure if Rob was trying to make fun of her, or if he was being serious. Perhaps he was trying to be kind, but it came out wrong. She knew she wasn't beautiful. If her father was any indication how people would react to her, she'd rather stay with Mother and Sister.
In the middle of her thoughts a familiar voice quietly said, “My ancestors are dancing well tonight. They must be happy.”
Turning to see where Anilnik was, Beth was surprised at how close the old man was. He stood no more than a meter behind her, looking up into the night sky and the lights. When he turned his head to face her, his wide smile was infectious. Taking his time to gently sit on the snow beside her, he pulled a package out of a pocket in his caribou coat and offer a piece of some unknown brown brick.
“Dried seal meat,” he explained. “It's a bit tough to chew, but very tasty.” Taking one of the smaller pieces of dried meat, Beth bit through it with surprising ease. It was delicious, and tasted like the seal meat Mother had offered her when they first met, but much stronger. She noticed that Anilnik was pulling at the piece he had bitten into, trying to break off part of it. If he had noticed her bite right through her piece, he didn't seem surprised by it.
Giving the old man a brief smile, she said, “Thanks, it tastes wonderful.” Beth gestured to the northern lights and raised an eyebrow. Raising a white eyebrow on white fur doesn't really have the same effect, but habits are hard to change. “Ancestors?” she asked.
A wide smile appeared on the old man's face. Partly at the question, and partly at the opportunity to tell a tale. “It's a story that has been handed down from one generation to another for a longer time than anyone can remember,” he started to explain. “It is said that when the spirits are playful, they dance or play in the sky. Because they are spirits and we cannot truly see them, we can only glimpse them as dancing lights in the night sky.” As Anilnik explained the old tale, Beth watched the lights dance across the sky. It was easy to see how people, long ago, would look at the coloured lights in the sky and believe they were the souls of people in the afterlife.
After watching the sky for a while, Anilnik said, “Please forgive my grandson. He sometimes says things without thinking first.”
“It's okay,” Beth replied. “I think he was just trying to be kind. He can't really think I'm beautiful.”
“My grandson doesn't lie.” He wasn't defending him, it was just a simple statement. A statement that made Beth think about Rob again.
It was impossible for Beth to think of herself as beautiful and she hoped that Anilnik could explain. “I don't understand, why ... ”
“I've met your father,” interrupted Anilnik. “So has Ukalik. He should have known how you would react to the change.”
“I'm not like my father!” Being compared to her father was almost as bad as being lied to.
“I didn't say you were.” The smile on the old man’s face confused Beth almost as much as the statement. He wasn't trying to be mean or to get her upset, but it didn't make any sense to her.
“What do you mean then?” she asked. “How would you expect me to react to MORFS?”
Looking at the dancing lights again, Anilnik started to explain, “My ancestors have lived on this land for thousands of years. Over all this time, we have been taught one thing that is more important than anything else. All things change. The seasons change, the ice changes, hunting grounds change ... and people change too. We accept it. We need change, because without it we will not be able to survive the changes that happen around us. Your father doesn't like change. He moved here in hopes of finding a world like he remembers from his childhood. He wants to go back, not to change and move forward.”
“But what has that got to do with me?” asked Beth. “I didn't want to come here.”
“Parents teach many things to their children,” he added. “Some that are good and some that are not. You refer to yourself as a monster, but none of us see you that way. What you call MORFS is changing everything, faster than some people can adapt or accept them. Even the people that it changes the most ... even you.”
When Beth saw the old man struggle to get to his feet, she stood and offered her hand to him. He smiled and accepted without any comment. As he stood, he held onto her hand with surprising strength. “Enough talking. It's getting late and we have a long, hard journey tomorrow. Let's go back to camp and get some sleep.”
As Beth and Anilnik started to walk back to the camp, Beth started to sniff the air. “You better go on ahead. There's someone here I need to talk to.”
“Here, who?” Anilnik asked.
“Did Rob tell you about my sister?” she didn't want to alarm him if she didn't need to.
“Oh, your new sister,” he answered. “Yes he did. She's here?”
Pointing to her right with her nose, Beth answered, “Yeah, about a hundred meters that way.” Anilnik pulled the remains of the dried seal meat from his pocket, handed it to Beth and headed to camp without any comment or even looking in Sister’s direction. As Beth watched him make his way back to the camp, she noticed a faint glow coming from him, the others in the camp and the bright light of the camp stove. It was the first time that she had seen anything that was warmer that the surrounding air, ice or snow. She suddenly realized why the shimmering wall of air glowed red for her and not Rob, infrared light. She could see the heat. It would make finding the camp a lot easier.
The wind shifted again, giving Beth another whiff of Sister. She turned toward the wind and searched for her. Suddenly, a huge white mass tackled her, knocking her to the ground. Being only ten centimeters from a polar bears face, Beth noticed that the only things that was warm was her breath. Her thick fur and thicker skin made an excellent insulator.
Reaching up, Beth hugged Sister. “I'm glad you followed us.” Sister rubbed her face on Beth, returning the hug, before sniffing the air and walking a short distance away. She found the package of dried seal meat that had been knocked from Beth's hand during the tackle. “Go ahead. It's a present from Anilnik.”
They played in the snow, under the blue and green lights in the sky for a few minutes before finding a deep patch of wind blown snow and curled up together. Beth didn't intend to fall asleep, but the day had been a long one, filled with a lot of new discoveries, both about herself, and the three people she travelled with.
The entire MORFS Universe can be found at http://morfs.nowhere2go.org/