The March…Of Science?
It was the third week into the study when Richard began to think that volunteering had been one of the stupidest things he'd ever done.
Oh sure, the idea was brilliant a month ago and a few thousand miles away. Really, they'd meant it as a joke. Nobody had seriously thought the government would be stupid enough to fork over a grant for studying the effects of nicotine addiction on wild penguins, or agree to have them shipped to the Arctic from Antarctica; but by God, the government had really come through. After that, there was no choice. As scientists, it was their duty to whiz away every last cent given to them. All of that seemed distant and superficial now.
Richard leaned against the poor excuse for a shed and stared out the long white nothing that froze into a greater nothing far beyond what he could see from the base camp hill. He shivered. It was just so damn cold and relief so hard to come by. He had never smoked a day in his life before coming here, but now he couldn't go a day without wheedling his colleagues into giving him a few of the cigarettes reserved exclusively for the penguins. Those went a long way towards staving off the cold; being packed with triple the nicotine and five times the carcinogens of an ordinary coffin nail. God Himself could get emphysema from sucking down on these things long enough, Richard had often joked when he first arrived. Now, of course, they weren't a joking matter. Now they were a lifeline.
Just the thought of them was making his mouth itch. He reached into his pocket to reassure himself that the death sticks were still there, ready to puff when he was. So absorbed was he that he didn't notice the clanging of dog tags until their owner ran into his shin. The impact yanked Richard's dulled mind into the here and now, and what he saw staggering back from the hit threw it into overdrive.
He'd just been front-ended by a penguin, and it was definitely Puttfark; the dog-tags were a dead giveaway, since he always wore like a war trophy and raised all kinds of hell if someone tried to lift them. His beady eyes focused on Richard, and at first it seemed he wasn't quite sure what he was seeing. How that little junkie had managed to escape, Richard wasn't sure, but that didn't matter much now. More important was the hungry stare he was suddenly getting.
Puttfark edged forward, a steady growl building in his throat with each wobble. Richard looked down and wanted to kick himself. His hand was still clenched firmly on the cigarette case, but that hand was now out of his pocket and commanding Puttfark's full attention.
Puttfark was in the control group, wasn't he? That meant he'd been going cold turkey for a week now. Richard knew the look he was getting all too well. It was the same one he saw almost every morning in the mirror. There was a moment where he almost felt pity for the poor beast, before he reminded himself that the upstart was after the one little comfort he had in this frozen hell, and that clinched it.
Puttfark was not going to get his cigarettes.
Richard kicked snow into Puttfark's face and took off. The penguin yelped, but easily shook off the biting ice and gave chase. Richard heard the sound of dogtags clanging furiously behind him and looked back to see Puttfark losing ground. Then the world spun as he fell flat on his face and tumbled head over heels down the hill the steeper side of the hill that the base camp had been set up on. He hit the bottom with a weighty thud and had just enough time to stand when Puttfark zipped by on his belly, knocking Richard's legs out from under him and sending him back down with another thud.
Richard lay on his back, looking up at the sky. The jingle-jangle of dog-tags betrayed the Puttfark's waddling approach, and Richard pushed himself up to a sitting position with a pained grunt. He wiped a gloved hand across his mouth to clean off a trickle of blood; then turned to face his attacker. That bastard was not getting his cigarettes.
"Stop!" Richard yelled and, to his great surprise, Puttfark skidded to a dead halt. Richard nodded in satisfaction. "Better," he said. "Now, if you'll just—"
Puttfark let out an awful squall, stamping and kicking as if someone had just shoved a soldering gun into his rear end. Richard brought out the cigarettes, and the sight of them was enough to buy some quiet.
"Now look," Richard said, "I know you must be really hurting for one of these right now. It's got to be driving you insane, having had to go cold…penguin like you have."
Puttfark growled again and fidgeted from side to side like an impatient child.
"Don't you get cross with me!" Richard said. "Can't you see what this stuff is doing to you? You've become a slave to a bundle of dried weeds wrapped in paper. Puttfark, I'm trying to help!"
The penguin began to creep forward again, but without the same madness in his eyes. He almost looked…hesitant.
"Don't give in to it Puttfark," Richard said. "You're stronger than that. I'm sure you come from a long line of proud, upright penguin nobles. What would they say if they saw what you'd been reduced to?"
It seemed to be working. Puttfark was stopped again, and this time there wasn't any trace of nicotine induced madness in his actions. He was lost in a foreign land, grappling with a dependence he couldn't possibly comprehend. After all, there wasn't a patch on the market for penguins, and they can't chew the nicotine gum. Richard looked into the face of his adversary and saw there what could only be a pained understanding.
Without another sound, Puttfark turned and left.
He pulled out and lit a death stick, savoring the feel of the acrid smoke moving in and around him. Soon he'd have to go out after Puttfark with the rest of the team to get him back into his cage and especially find out how he'd escaped in the first place.
Richard took a long drag off the death stick and laughed quietly to himself. Puttfark had seemed like a reasonable animal. If he could be talked out of a nicotine rage, maybe he could be convinced to be prison guard or something.
That's when Richard noticed the polar bear standing behind him.