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All the Rarest Beasts on Earth

Rachael K. Jones is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Athens, GA. Her work has appeared in dozens of venues, including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and PodCastle. She is a SFWA member, an editor, and a secret android. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

The hungry tiger slinks round and round the space shuttle walls, stuck to its centrifugal treadmill. Perhaps it knows I am trying to help, but I doubt it. I've lacked the courage to leave the cockpit since we left Earth, but that is all about to end, because our destination is still two weeks out, and the tiger has got nothing left to eat. I've got to feed it something. Otherwise this will be one long exercise in futility.
At 82 kilograms, the tiger is just an adolescent. Its pelt alternates spotted burnt orange with black stripes, like the tiger tried out being a cheetah before settling on this nature. It's a Bali tiger, a rare creature, so rare nobody has seen one alive since 1963. I am the only one on Earth who knows it yet lives.
People form search parties when animals go extinct. Scientists and amateurs take to the woods and hunt for the pattern of claws, the ghost of silenced birdsong. But that isn't how I found my tiger. It was by accident, after my 12-year-old son's death called me back to Sydney from the Lamed-Ayin Colony of Tau Ceti months and months too late. He'd vanished one day into the wilderness when his nanny's back was turned, and they never found him.
I try not to think about how he went. I hope it was fast and clean. That he wasn't afraid at the end.
Some nights, the riddle of his missing body sends my dreams peering beneath every tilted rock and brambled black bush for signs of survival, for the slightest hint of a young runaway spying on me unawares. Stranger things have happened. In 1938, a South African fisherman resurrected the eight-finned Coelacanth from its 66 million-year extinction. Small things often escape our notice like that.
You get a whole two weeks planetside when your child dies, but with the memorial over, I lacked anything to keep me from the keen edge of grief. So I took my shuttle to Bali and camped in the mountains with a handle of vodka. From the grounded cockpit, I toasted Lamed-Ayin, its tiny colony, its leagues of terraformed jungle. I swallowed straight from the bottle, the burning drink clawing down my throat and shredding my stomach, and I finally found a measure of peace.
The next morning, the tiger found me hung over and all out of tears. It had crept into the open shuttle hold while I slept, helped itself to the piled rations leftover from the inbound trip, then curled like a tomcat against the fiberglass wall that divided the hold and the cockpit, fast asleep in the shade.
What do you do when facing something so rare, the last known photograph is a murdered body strung up on poles? At least my son is smiling in his last picture, striped by sunlight through tree branches.
Endangered creatures need to be noticed. Otherwise their numbers dwindle away. You turn your back on them--you take them for granted just once--and you'll lose them forever. Maybe that explains why I trapped the tiger in the shuttle hold. Or maybe it was panic, because the tiger had hemmed me in, and I was afraid to open the door. I set a course for the colonies, shut down all incoming signals, and took the beast with me into space. It would never breed alone, of course--but that isn't the point.
Trouble is, I have almost nothing a tiger could eat for the weeks-long trip, not with the rations low already. There is meat on this shuttle, but unfortunately I'm it. We stare each other down through glass, standing perpendicular, weighing each other's lives on philosophical scales, and I wonder all over again what my son felt in his last moments. I long to cast a fishing line far enough to bring him back again.
That is when I open the door.
Because the terraformed wilderness on Lamed-Ayin is vast and uncharted, lush with life, full of places to hide. A tiger or a young boy might get lost there and come to no harm at all, because you simply couldn't search everywhere. In a place like that, maybe you would see him again someday, spotted and striped, precious, priceless, irreplaceable, watching you from the bushes. At the very least, you could spend your life looking.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 6th, 2017

Author Comments

A Lazarus taxon is a species that has been declared extinct for a number of years after disappearing from the fossil record, only to turn up again alive and well. While this isn't the fate of most endangered species--after their numbers drop too low to recover, most of them are gone forever--on their way into extinction, there's always this period of ambiguity between the last known sighting and declaring the creature well and truly dead. Inside this ambiguity, we find a lot of hope. It might ultimately be foolish hope, but I for one like to hope that somewhere on some undiscovered island in the ocean, there's a flock of dodos clinging to the rocks, waiting to be rediscovered and treasured as something irreplaceable--which, of course, was true all along, even when they numbered in the millions.

- Rachael K. Jones
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