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art by Eleanor Bennett

The Last Tiger

Joanne Anderton lives in Sydney with her husband and too many pets. By day she is a mild-mannered marketing coordinator for an Australian book distributor. By night, weekends and lunchtimes she writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear and Bloodstones. Her debut novel, Debris, was published by Angry Robot Books in 2011, followed by Suited in 2012. Debris was shortlisted for an Aurealis award and a Ditmar. Joanne won the 2012 Ditmar for Best New Talent. Visit her online at joanneanderton.com and on Twitter @joanneanderton.

The first thing Edward noticed was the smell--like a poorly cooked protein-slab, a little delicious, a little too raw. He wasn't accustomed to animals that smelled. The room was quiet, closed-in and dark but for the low rumble of deep breathing and two burning eyes in the corner. Edward paused at the door to wait for his sight to adjust.
"Smell that?" the little circus man asked. He had led the way, and was already lost in the darkness. "That's the smell of a living tiger."
Edward frowned and, impatient, adjusted his sight manually, scrolling the small dials in his left wrist until he could see. A giant cage took up most of the room. Smooth silver bars, dirt on the floor, plastic branches arranged to imitate the long-lost forests. The tiger was lying at the very back. Crisp black stripes, dull orange stripes. Great paws stretched out in front, hind legs and rump a shadowy mountain range. It was watching him, an oddly calm look on its wide face.
"Why does the tiger smell like it's cooking?" Edward asked, stepping forward. The animal did not cower or cringe, but neither did it attack. It just watched.
"That's the native musculature interacting with the implants and secondary drive." The little man leaned on a far wall, arms crossed. He was dressed like a doll in a bright red uniform, with paint on his face. He'd removed the giant, fake windup key from his back. It rested on the wall beside him. "Don't worry, it can't feel it. The living tissue isn't in any pain."
"Implants?" Edward almost walked away right then. "You told me this was a real, living tiger. The last living tiger!"
"It is. Well, it's what's left."
"What's left?"
The little man shrugged. "Most of the original flesh and bones remain intact. Don't worry, you'll get your money's worth." He pushed himself upright and approached Edward, his stunted proportions and ridiculous outfit not so funny without the accompanying clown music. "You need to understand that the tiger's heart, viscera and brain wouldn't have survived so long without a synthetic maintenance system. Organics weren't designed to live as long as we are. They aren't able to properly process modern air or food either. So no, the tiger isn't purely natural. But it's still the most flesh and bone you'll find in this day and age, all in one spot and working. Do you want it, or not?"
Again, Edward met those burning eyes. The faintest blink, the twitch of a whisker, the flick of the tip of a slithering tail. Edward breathed deeply. Not just charred protein, no. Something he couldn't place. Like carpet fibers or dusty curtains, just... dirtier, somehow. Unique. "Of course."
"Good, good." The little man gestured to the door. "Hurry. Next show's soon, must go on. Forms to fill in and money to move." Edward watched those eyes even as he was led from the room. The tiger hardly stirred. "And I need to teach you how to look after a living thing. They require a lot more care than you'll be used to. Firstly, and most important of all, always remember to feed it."
It was the fur. Edward, careful to brush it every day, had come to know the smell by now. Tiger's fur. It gathered dust just like curtains, so much that it billowed out around his brush each morning, draping him in fine grey particles. The Tiger sneezed. What a strange sensation, the way its body tensed and exploded in a rush of sound and air. Edward watched it keenly, and wondered what it felt like.
The filters in Edward's head gathered any dust he breathed in, and added it to his body's waste to be expelled every evening before he powered down. It wasn't the same thing.
The Last Tiger certainly was a lot of work to look after. It needed feeding several days a week: massive, raw chunks of nutrient-enhanced protein-slab, complimented with a regime of secondary elements injected directly into its blood stream. "Think of it like a battery," the little man had said. "One that needs to be charged regularly." It all cost a small fortune to purchase. As well as food, it needed water. Clean, fresh water was even harder and more costly to get a hold of, but he'd been instructed to keep a large bowl full of it, to monitor and top it up as required. It seemed the creature would shut down completely if he failed to do this.
And then there was the Tiger's waste. It was indescribable, and nothing like the neat canister Edward ejected every evening.
After a few initial problems, the Last Tiger settled into its new home. It did not get along with the other animals. It'd tried to attack the hydrogen-fuelled elephant, and had left deep scratch marks in the paint down its steel legs. It'd caught the solar bird of paradise and cracked several of the panels in its wings. The less said about the silver deer, the better. So Edward reprogrammed the others to remain in the outer gardens and invested in an ionic fence to contain the Last Tiger to the inner topiary and the left wing of the house.
It tried to climb trees, but the plaster and thin mesh frames crumbled beneath its weight. It scratched in the grass, tearing up great strips of plastic lawn. Edward replaced the trees with holograms. He couldn't do much about the grass.
It seemed to like Edward, at least. Thanks to the electric shock it received the first time it tried to bite his hand, it'd learned that Edward wasn't for eating. So instead, it followed him around like a great, rippling shadow. A play of light and dark in perfect, sleek form. He grew accustomed to its smell, and missed it when the Last Tiger was not near him.
He'd introduced the brushing to get closer to that scent, to feel fur and warmth and life against the sensors in the palms of his hands, not out of necessity.
Ambrosia, however, did not approve of the Last Tiger.
She tolerated it at first, as she did all his eccentricities. This was not simply because of the financial and lifestyle benefits their arrangement brought her. Edward held a controlling share in the greatest syntha-skin factory in the hemisphere, but Ambrosia had no need of his money. She had wealth and standing enough of her own. It was her research into hydrothermal volcanoes and the bacteria in the soil around them--recently discovered to have survived the great oceanic poisonings a century earlier--that led to innovative cures for diseases of the biomechanical brain.
Edward was thankful for the glitch in her programming that drove her to love him, and the patience it fostered. Even when he sent the animals away, and barred her from entering half of her own house, and ignored her for days on end, she endured.
She was pleased when the very highest of Eden society began to visit for copper tea, fabricakes, and a chance to see the Last Tiger.
"Life has a distinct odor to it, doesn't it?" said Lady Frey. The handkerchief to her nose was just for show; she'd turned off her own sense of smell upon entering the house.
"It does indeed." Ambrosia mimicked the motion. "I've had to upgrade my own olfactory devices, so I can filter out the fumes. Imagine! In my own house!"
Only Edward could hear the falsity in her voice, and feel the strain on her signal.
"Sometimes I think Edward wishes he were a tiger himself," she'd said to Lord Frey, who had quite an interest in the creature, and thus he and his wife visited often. "He spends more time with it than he does with me."
Soon, the Lord began to turn away their invitations, unopened. The noise on the gossip channels said that Ambrosia had whispered warnings in the Lady's ear, about the negative influence the Last Tiger was having on her husband. Edward knew that was a message directed at him. Ambrosia was far too subtle to be overheard, unless she wanted to be.
As general interest waned, she'd taken to inviting a very particular class of guest. Lord Serket, renowned for his work with faulty AIs and antivirus programming, barely even acknowledged the Last Tiger. Instead, he peppered Edward with questions, from "How does the Tiger make you feel?" to "Have you been experiencing any visual problems? Lights at the corner of your eye? Hallucinations?" When he requested access to Edward's internal processors, Edward sent him away.
"Serket is an expert," Ambrosia had snapped, spiteful and desperate, fearful and angry, a violent code of scrambled emotion. "You should have listened to him."
Edward withdrew all invitations and closed the house to visitors the next day.
Edward took to halting his power-down protocol so he could watch the Last Tiger at night. This drained his batteries and set off alarms in his head, until he rerouted to auxiliary and promised himself that tomorrow night, he would sleep. Tomorrow, he would let his body process waste and stabilize itself. Tomorrow. Each night he told himself--tomorrow.
Ambrosia watched it all in growing horror and despondency. She powered down alone in the room they once shared. She took solitary walks through the gardens to pat the other animals. "I'm just like one of them to you," she said, remotely, her voice a whisper on the private wireless. "An unusual pet you can ignore when it suits you."
Edward pumped static onto the channel and drowned her out.
The Last Tiger stalked around the antechamber in the left wing, apparently unconcerned by Edward's presence in the corner. It pounced on the reflections made by carriage lights glancing in through the grand windows, and any hapless cleaner bots foolish enough to venture into sight.
It even deposited one at Edward's feet, like a gift. Circuitry shattered, wiring gutted, basic tin frame torn. Edward bent, stiff, and brought it to his face. It smelled like oil and electricity, and like the tiger, always burning. It tasted sharp, prickling. It tested the acids in his stomach.
Each night, Edward watched, as each night, the Last Tiger hunted.
Ambrosia left him when Edward's third battery finally died.
"I will not sit idly as you fall to pieces," she said. She ran a repair program targeted to fix the glitch that caused her attachment to him, and rid herself of the pain of being usurped by the Last Tiger. Unskinned servants, all smooth silver and underdeveloped AIs, carried her luggage to a platoon of grand carriages. She was making a show of her leaving, choosing sunset, when all of the metal city was cast in glowing purple, and terrible, dramatic shadows lay heavily across the driveway. Pedestrians paused at the gates to watch her procession. The buzz lived on the gossip channels for days.
Edward decided that was only fair. Let her salvage what she could.
She took his peacock, with its brilliant plumage of cerulean wiring, multicolored bulbs, and exquisite behavioral programming. He could not have stopped her even if he'd wanted to and anyway, she deserved some kind of reward for the changes the Last Tiger had wrought on their lives.
Working on only the most basic power, Edward's body had sunk into emergency mode. It'd ceased everything but the most fundamental protocols. He could no longer walk. His face had become an expressionless mask, his fingers immobile. Without continuous oxygenation his syntha-skin had started to rot away, and was falling in great strips from his legs and back. The silver underneath was unpolished and dull. He could not speak.
Ambrosia had tried until the very end. She'd pleaded with him to power down and check himself in for repair. Each morning, he'd promised her he would. Each evening, he watched the Last Tiger hunt instead.
Her requests turned to threats, and then into silence, and then she was gone.
Edward hardly noticed her absence. He slumped in an antique chair of real, preserved wood and watched the Last Tiger hunt. When it roamed out of his direct line of sight, he utilized his emergency wireless to engage an Unskinned to carry him so he could follow.
He ate whatever the Last Tiger brought him, with the Unskinned's help. His stomach no longer worked, so the carrion just sat there, filling up every empty space within him, his body thick with broken parts.
He held the Last Tiger's burning gaze, and monitored his auxiliary power supply as it, too, began to fail.
The Unskinned collapsed into thoughtless metal when Edward's signal failed.
The Last Tiger tore it to pieces and fed it to him, as best it could.
Without a power source, Edward should have faded into nothingness. He had resigned himself to that, embraced it even, and had determined to watch the Last Tiger until the very end.
But as the auxiliary failed, and the electrical pulses in his biomechanical brain sizzled and died, he was not permitted to fade with them. Motionless, unfeeling, he lay on the floor where he had fallen, as the Last Tiger stood over him.
Its eyes burned into his. Steam rose from the mechanics at work beneath its organic muscles. It opened its mouth, rolled out a great pink tongue, and Edward saw lights flickering deep inside its throat. It shook itself, and dust fell. Dozens of lightning-strike electrical pulses arced from its fur to trace Edward's body. He jerked, but didn't feel it. He was aware, instead, of all the parts he had consumed, the circuits and wires and memory boards, jumpstarting into life.
The Last Tiger needed a brush, Edward thought, as it dipped its head to feast on him. Its fur was dusty. And its smell was so much stronger, on the inside.
The Last Tiger was warm, and she was not alone.
Edward, secure within her, gladly went about the tasks she assigned him. He and half a dozen others monitored the core integrity of her tiny reactor, a second heart that kept her mechanical frame alive. He followed the fine wires spread throughout her nervous system and musculature to her stomach. There, he drew the pieces of machinery she had ingested--broken down into easier size and consistency by his old body--into her system, enabling repair and rebuild.
There were so many others here, and they all loved her as dearly as he did. Men, women, even children--all her past carers, some modern like him, some truly ancient. There was one boy, his voice faint and vocabulary limited, who remembered the sky when it was blue. They welcomed him and taught him how to use her mechanics to maintain her organic aspects. What pulses were necessary for healthy muscles, what compounds were needed to regrow bronchioles, how to keep her ancient, tired heart beating and alive.
She loved them all right back.
The Last Tiger gave Edward her skin and fur. Him, and him alone. He brushed it, in his own internal way, until she shone.
Cicero waited at the edge of the circus for the Last Tiger to come home. He'd wiped the paint from his face, stored his key, and dressed in plain black. For almost three months he'd maintained this solitary vigil. The shows were long over, the tent folded, all other animals powered down and padded for storage, but they couldn't leave without her. He'd even switched off his higher cognitive processes to stave off boredom.
When the Last Tiger finally emerged from the stale city streets, she looked fresher, healthier, than he had seen in many long years.
He powered up, and offered her a stiff bow. "You were gone a while, Lady," he said. "You must have liked this one a lot."
Of course she did not answer. Just slipped into her cage and curled among the artificial leaves.
Cicero alerted the ringmaster and hurried to take up his seat. Their silver train rose gleaming and roaring into the sky. The Last Tiger gifted him with one long look from her burning eyes, before sinking into the sleep of a satiated predator. Deep and content.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 17th, 2013

Author Comments

"The Last Tiger" was inspired by a children's book of the same name. In the book, the world is polluted and lifeless, until a young boy meets the last tiger, who is guarding a precious secret. As soon as I read it, I knew I needed to write my own Last Tiger. She's a darker version of that guardian creature. Her world is also lifeless, and she has her own precious secret, but she demands a sacrifice for her services. Maybe that makes me a cynic? I hope not, because I still think there's some room for optimism in this version of The Last Tiger. She canít restore life to the world in one miraculous gesture. Instead, she cares for a whole world inside of her. But maybe that's just the magic of tigers, sinking its claws into me.

- Joanne Anderton
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