The Last Tiger

by Tracie McBride  (first seen in Electric Velocipede May 2008)

Hunger has made you reckless.  You track the sound of human voices through the woods until you find a man and a woman.  They are shouting at each other.  The woman slaps the man’s face.  He presses his hand to his cheek for a moment, and then lunges at the woman, knocking her to the ground.  He squeezes his hands tight about her throat.  The noises she makes are ugly.

Your nostrils flare.  You smell food.  It is in the pack on the man’s back.  You come closer to the couple, deliberately snapping a twig underfoot.  The man whirls around, almost losing his grip on the woman.
You point at the back pack.

“Food,” you say.  You have to concentrate on forming the words correctly, your voice husky and harsh from lack of use.  “Give it.”   The man stands, releasing the woman.  She scuttles backward, sobbing and gasping in air over bruised vocal chords.  Two words enter your head, and you ponder their meaning.

Civilian.  Combatant.

The man pulls a hunting knife from his back pocket.  Stepping forward, he brandishes the knife inches from your face.

“You gonna make me, sweetheart?” he says.

Civilian.  Combatant.  His knife is like a flipping switch.  You try to remember what to do, but there is a roaring sound in your ears, and your vision clouds over in a red fog.  When it clears, it is already done.  Your muscles ache and you are breathing heavily, as if you have run a long distance.  The switchblade is dripping blood onto the man’s corpse.  You flip him over with your foot and crouch to open the back pack.  You eat quickly, alert for competitors.

The woman still sits a few feet away, hugging her knees to her chest. She speaks to you, and you ignore her, concentrating on your meal.  She is a Civilian, of no interest or threat to you.  She tilts her head to the side, inviting you to respond.  When you do not, she stands, shifting her weight from foot to foot and looking around her in agitation.  Her words become louder, more abrupt and more insistent.  You have finished eating, so you rise and turn to leave.

“Wait,” she says.  “Food.”

You stop.

“Come with me, and I can get you more food.  As much as you want.”
She beckons to you, her eyes wide and pleading like a rabbit caught in a trap just before you break its neck.  You can barely remember the last time you caught a rabbit.  She takes a few tentative steps, still beckoning, and you follow.

#

Grace, Ethan and the Prof stood at one end of the kitchen, their eyes fixed on the woman at the other end.  She was dressed in a filthy mini dress that might once have been red, a fleece-lined camouflage jacket with the sales tags still showing, and what looked and smelled like the hide of two small furry animals crudely tied fur side in to her feet.  Standing, she was nearly six feet tall, but now she was squatting on the floor, balancing a large dinner plate in one hand and shovelling rice and beans into her mouth with the other.

Her subsistence diet had stripped her body to the bare essentials, her long bones bound in ropy muscle.  Her hair and her skin were the same shade of tawny brown.  With her delicate features, expressionless face, and hair that jutted from her skull in unevenly cropped clumps, she looked like an over-sized, misused and discarded doll.

“Ethan wanted to turn her in right away,” said Grace, “but I said we should wait for you.”

“Of course I wanted to turn her in!” said Ethan.  “Do you know the penalty for harbouring one of those?”  He jerked his head in the direction of the woman.

“You don’t even know if she is ‘one of those’!” said Grace.  “What do you think, Prof—is she Enhanced?”

“Based on what you told me, I’d say she is.  No normal human being could move as fast as you said she did.  See that scar on her leg?”  He pointed out a puckered indentation the size of a baby’s fist on the woman’s right thigh.  “That was probably where her military ident chip was.  She would have dug it out herself.”

Grace winced.  “What will they do to her if we turn her in?”

“I expect they will strap her down, conduct several weeks of excruciatingly painful tests on her, and then kill her,” said the Prof.

“But we can’t let them do that!  She saved my life!”

Ethan took Grace by the shoulders, forcing her to face him.  “Grace, honey—she can’t stay here.  Even if the cops don’t get wind of it, she’s dangerous.  She could turn on us any minute.”

“Ethan’s right about one thing,” said the Prof.  “She’s about as safe and predictable as a lightly tethered tiger.”

“So what are we going to do with her?” said Ethan.

“It’s not up to us,” said the Prof.  “She’ll do what she wants to do.  My guess is she’ll fuel up, take as many provisions as she can carry and go back into hiding.  I suggest we try not to get in her way.  It’s best for all concerned,” he said, patting Grace on the shoulder. “In the meantime, there’s the small matter of a dead body in the woods.  You two had better get rid of it before someone finds it and comes asking awkward questions.  I’ll sort things out here with our guest.”

#

The one they call The Prof is right.  You did make that mark on your leg, a long long time ago, when you were smaller and weaker and more frightened of the Men With Guns then you were of the pain.  He is right about many things.

You wonder if he is right about the tiger.  You don’t know what a tiger is, but you like the sound of it.  You run the word through your head—tigertigertiger—and imagine a large, powerful animal loping, silent and invisible, through the sun-dappled undergrowth.

There is something familiar about the Prof.  You have not met him before, but you have known others like him, others who carried themselves the same way, who spoke and were obeyed in the same way.  The Designers.  Part of you wants to submit to him, to prostrate yourself at his feet and beg for his guidance, and part of you wants to snap his neck where he stands.

“I’m going to leave now,” he says, “but I will be back soon with some supplies for you to take.  Food, blankets, tools, that sort of thing.  Wait here.  You will be safe.”

You check the door after he has left.  It opens freely.  He told you to wait.  So you wait.

#

The Prof threw down a laden pack and swore.  The kitchen was empty.  With a resigned sigh, he turned to leave, when he caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye.  The woman emerged from another room.

“Computer,” she said in a flat, croaky voice.  “I find…tiger.”  She held up a printout showing a photo of a tiger bounding through long grass in pursuit of a deer.

“You remember how to read and type?” he said.

“I remember…many things.”  She advanced slowly through the kitchen towards him, brushing her hand over the walls, the table top, a coffee cup, her lips moving as she sub-vocalised the objects’ names.

“I always wanted to meet someone like you,” he said.  “Call it professional curiosity. I applied to join the military GE team, but they turned me down, despite, I must add, the fact that I was widely acknowledged to be one of the finest minds in the field.  Something about my psychological profile being unsuitable.  Then the Greenies got into power, and those stinking tree-hugging Luddites shut everyone down.  Decades of research, destroyed overnight.”

“I’ve still got it, though.  Most of my findings are right here,” he said, tapping his temple.  “There’s a good chance this government won’t last another term, and with the right stuff to give me a head start I could be implanting viable embryos inside a year.  So I wonder if I could trouble you for some of your DNA.  A few strands of hair, some skin scrapings, maybe a little blood…?”

The woman answered him only with her impassive gaze.  He shrugged.  “I suppose you haven’t understood a word I’ve said.  No matter—I’ll probably find enough shed material in this room to make do.”  He looked away, his words now only for his own ears.  “If I pull it off, they’ll be hailing me as the father of the next generation.”

The woman frowned.  She looked from the Prof to the paper in her hand and back again.

“Father?” she said.

#

Even with the heavy pack on your back, you make good time, reaching the edge of the woods just before nightfall.  The lengthening shadows cast pleasing stripes across your body.  A thick plume of smoke bisects the skyline behind you, the result of your handiwork.

There will be no shed material for the Prof to collect.  And there is no longer a Prof to collect it.  You take a printed sheet of paper from your pocket and read it for the seventeenth time.

‘Tiger fathers are a threat to the cubs and may even attempt to kill them.’

Not if you strike first.

The End