I’M TRYING TO WATCH A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF SWAMP MODE: PART 2 ON NETFLIX, but it takes so long to load I start to wonder if it’s even been made yet. In my agitation, I open Hulu in another window and start watching whatever comes up first, which turns out to be a film called Bear Country.

 

It’s set in the State Park at the edge of Dodge City, “a dense, nearly primordial wilderness of rushing mountain streams, towering firs and hemlocks, and steep, craggy peaks,” according to the narrator. The protagonists are a pair of park rangers, Bob and Sylvie, both in their mid-twenties, just out of forestry school.

 

As Act I begins, they are elated to receive their first assignment, the most coveted among all the newbies: they’ll be on bear watch, tracking the movements, eating habits, and fluctuating population of the Park’s famed grizzlies, which are known to be both the fiercest and the most majestic in all of North America. It’s an annual census, they’re told, a data set updated every late June, and this year it’ll be their findings that go on file.

 

A quick montage shows them filling their camping packs, practicing with bear spray, and chatting excitedly as they prepare for their first overnight excursion into the Park’s imposing backcountry. There’s an odd romantic comedy tone here, as they banter back and forth and giggle like teenagers while deciding whether to bring one tent or two.

 

Then they set out, following first the main trail, then a secondary, then a tertiary trail before peeling off into the backcountry, where they hack vines with machetes to clear the way. I open a few other browser windows in here, checking back to see if the Netflix special’s finished loading yet (it hasn’t).

 

When I return to Bear Country, Bob and Sylvie are at the edge of a clearing and the narrator’s saying, “Here we see them approaching the place where, according to 2016’s census, the Park’s fiercest grizzlies congregate.”

 

Ominous music starts to play, like it’s a mauling we’re about to witness, and the last of the romantic comedy tone recedes. It seems Bob and Sylvie can hear it too, or else the mood in the clearing is sufficiently tense even in silence: now they’re creeping more slowly, bear spray out and ready, swiveling their heads like a pair of spooked owls.

 

Still, they press further in. On the far side of the clearing, they come to a stand of trees and look through, into another clearing on the far side. The camera cuts to their perspective, which reveals a truly wild sight:

 

Dozens of massive grizzlies are cataloguing human parts. They’ve built (or found) a complex wooden structure with numerous sections, like an open-air vault, and into this structure they’re placing human heads, humans arms, human torsos, and human legs, each in its own section, all very orderly.

 

They work mainly with their mouths, but a few grizzlies sit on stumps and gesticulate in an unmistakably human manner with their paws. This sequence goes on and on, Bob & Sylvie mute and terrified at the edge of the frame, the grizzles working on a gigantic pile of dismembered humans in the center. We watch until the whole pile’s been sorted, everything in its right place.

 

Then the bears settle onto their haunches and regard their work. Just before the screen goes black, one says to the other, “Let’s call it a day and get some rest, yeah?”

 

The other nods.

 

*****

AS PART II BEGINS, Bob & Sylvie are sitting on an outcropping over a rushing stream, drinking from their water bottles and trying to stop panicking.

 

When they’re finally able to speak, Bob says, “We gotta tell Steve.” (“That’s their boss, Director of Park Operations,” the narrator informs us.) “He has to know about this. I mean, it’s …”

 

“What we saw back there, it’s … a kind of miracle,” Sylvie says. “I mean, they were talking, right? You heard them too? Don’t you think we should … try to find out more first? See what they want, before we … ?”

 

Bob nods, but his mind’s clearly scrambled. He doesn’t have the same expression of awe that Sylvie has. It’s clear they’re about to part ways.

 

*****

AS, INDEED, THEY DO. In the next scene, Bob has run off alone to warn Steve. In the Ranger Headquarters near the Park Entrance, Steve sits across from Bob and says, “Look, word wasn’t supposed to get around, but since you saw what’s out there, I might as well explain a few things. For reasons we don’t quite understand, some of the bears are evolving human consciousness. It seems to have coincided with Pussygrab’s election. Something about Swamp Mode, a massive psychic shift in many of Dodge City’s populations, not just its human population … anyway, a delegation of these newly humanoid bears approached us one night in March, to plead for their independence. ‘Now that we can see the power structures that keep us societally disadvantaged,’ their leader said to me — I’ll always remember this moment — ‘we want an autonomous zone within the Park. A genuine Bear Country. Give us that, and we’ll leave you alone. Promise.'”

 

Steve opens a bottle of bourbon from a cabinet behind the table and fills two plastic cups almost to the brim. He pushes one in Bob’s direction and raises his in a grim toast. “Before I could respond to the bear’s request, Paul Sweetie showed up — he must have the whole Park under surveillance — pushed me aside, and started negotiating. ‘Okay,’ he told the bear, who was sitting in the same seat you’re in now. ‘How about this: you do something for us, we do something for you. Deal?’ The bear looked intrigued. It was clear, even at that early stage, that it had no business making a deal with Paul Sweetie. That bear was painfully naive when it came to the finer points of human deal-making, let me tell you. And how could it not be?”

 

Steve refills his cup and continues. “So Paul Sweetie tells the bear, ‘look, I represent a new Regime in Dodge City and we’re trying to get a new Genocide started. A Second Dodge City Genocide, if you will, though by the time we’re done it’ll be the only one people remember. Anyway, what would you say if we were to send some of our undesirables your way, and ask you to dispose of them for us? Say, I don’t know, 5,000 heads?’ Paul Sweetie grins and leans into the bear’s face, completely fearless in his white wedding dress. ‘What if you were to present us with 5,000 human heads, as well as the rest of their bodies — torsos, arms, legs, all nicely sorted — so we can kick this Genocide off in style? If you were to do this for us, we could see our way clear to granting you independence. Just let us know when you’ve got the 5,000, and we’ll draw up the paperwork to make your Bear Country official. You’ll never hear from us again after that. Deal?'”

 

Steve’s eyes mist over as he recalls the decisive moment. Clearly, at heart, he’s as much of an animal lover as Bob is. “And with that, Paul Sweetie holds out his hand until the bear, who’s never seen this ritual before, extends its paw and grasps onto Sweetie until Sweetie lets go. And thus the deal is signed.”

 

Ranger Bob looks around the office, stunned and a little drunk. “But if you knew that was going on out there … why did you send Sylvie and me in anyway?”

 

Steve wipes his eyes and says, “Because we needed someone who didn’t know to find it. Otherwise, it would seem like an inside job.”

 

“An inside job?”

 

But Steve’s already on the phone with The Dodge City Free Press, drunkenly reporting what his junior ranger has just discovered.

 

*****

IN THE NEXT SCENE, a crew of photographers descends on the bear stronghold, snapping photo and video from helicopters hovering just above the sorted bodies. One brave reporter jumps out to interview a bear, who says, “Well, we did kill these people, but only because …” The rest of the quote is cut off.

 

Images of mutilated corpses and blood-stained bears fill the front pages and TV screens of Dodge City for an entire Tuesday, hammering home the atrocity as vividly as possible.

 

That night, Pussygrab makes an emergency announcement from his Throne Room. “This is a deeply sad moment for me, as an animal lover,” he begins, swigging from a bottle of champagne and chewing a greasy hock of mutton. “But, with the news that the State Park’s bears have grown uncontrollably vicious, totally above and beyond what’s reasonable for grizzlies in the wild, I’m left with no option other than to go nuclear. It’s truly a shame, but something must be done to keep the people of Dodge City safe. So, with a heavy heart I hereby announce that at 5am tomorrow, warheads will fall on the bears’ horrific stronghold, and this depraved episode will reach its necessary conclusion.”

 

Canned applause erupts offscreen and I gag, unsure now whether I’m still watching the Hulu movie or the actual Dodge City News.

 

*****

SYLVIE, MEANWHILE, HAS GONE NATIVE. We cut to her living among the bears, transcribing their folklore, helping them sort their heads, and trying to represent humanity as well as she can to them, though she doesn’t shy away from discussing the depths that Pussygrab has already reduced Dodge City to in his short term as Mayor.

 

“Murdering people, in principle, is wrong,” she tells them, “but if they’re Pussygrab goons, have at it.” The bears don’t seem to understand where she’s coming from, and the bodies are too mutilated to be identified, but a viewer like me understands the point she’s making and is inclined to agree. “Humanity,” she says, “is a negotiable quantity. It’s always in flux.”

 

I hate to picture what’s coming, but I can’t help it.

 

“Why did you start doing this?” she asks one of the bears, while they’re taking a break. “Is there some point you’re making?”

 

The bear shakes its head, but it’s too late: the sky is already massing with missiles.

 

“No,” the bear says, its voice marked by an accent I can’t quite place. “We were … there was a man, a man in a white wedding dress, who came to speak with our leader. He said that if we …”

 

Sylvie leans in to hear better as the surrounding trees spark into flames and all the neatly sorted bodies are liquified, heat rippling over the entire clearing. The camera zooms in on Sylvie’s face as a gust of burning ash reduces it to putty.

 

Then it zooms out to reveal the bears running in confused zigzags as more and more blasts erupt around them, making it clear that none will escape.

 

*****

THE FINAL IMAGE IS OF A FLEET OF BACKHOES AND TRACTORS descending on the wreckage, driving right through it, as they begin to harvest the rare earth metals buried in the heart of Bear Country. “Uranium, plutonium, rubidium,” says one of the drivers through her elaborate hazmat suit. “Buried here all along, but out of reach because the land was protected. Endangered species and all. Whoever invested in this dig’s gonna make a fortune!”

 

I close my laptop just as Bear Country 2: A Special Investigation Into The 5,000 Victims starts loading. Sitting in the fresh silence, I’m overcome by a coughing fit. Though the room I’m sitting in has no windows, I can taste the fallout seeping through the walls.