The Lady or the Tiger

February 1, 2010

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J M McDermott is a robot fueled by literature, vegetables, and caffeine. He lives in San Antonio, TX, where he stands on street corners and shouts at passing cars about the future. He is the author of six novels and two short story collections. He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine.

Re-imagined from a tale by Frank Stockton, 1882

Many years ago, when I was a boy of only ten, I was in a terrible crash on the cliffs south of Io Town, where nights are a deep tundra freeze and afternoons are as hot as a summer on the long plains. Even now, I close my eyes and I can still see Sheila’s face just before she was crushed under two thick layers of plasteel.

I had watched her half of the flyer cracking away from mine, and rolling on top of her.

And collapsing.

On top of her.

Her scream disappeared from the icy air so fast, the only way I knew it had been real was the echo of it, down the canyons, where a small avalanche threw rocks and snow down to the stream.

I tried to free her, but my brother, Jiri, stopped me because the freeze would preserve her until we could dig her out during the warm day, and we had to make our shelter before we froze to death. We had our survival to worry about. We could save her in the morning.

So that’s what we did.

We were in our shelter. We were warm, and mostly safe enough. Jiri had told me to try to get some sleep.

I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about her. I tried to remember the songs she sang over me while I swam in the river, or the special way she had of preparing sandwiches for me, with the crusts cut off and the sauce on both sides. Then, all I could think of was the explosion, the fall, the screaming, and the crushing sound of the plasteel, and blood in the snow from when my brother had used flaming wreckage to burn the stumps shut at his lost fingers.

The only thing I could think of to take my mind off of Sheila, and the crash, was asking my brother about Guj Sarwar, the tiger on the back of the great and mighty lizard, Samarkand. When I was a boy, I didn’t understand why it was the only other thing I could think about, like something was on the tip of my tongue.

And, Jiri knew everything there was to know about the wastes of the far west, the lizards, and the tigers. He was fifteen years old. Next year, he’d be driving cattle up the highway to Io Town in a flyer all by himself. I was only ten. I didn’t even have my own computer terminal yet. I had to share his when he wasn’t using it. Everything I knew about the wastes had been from the computer, and from Jiri.

“On the wastes, Simsa,” said my brother, “you can’t walk on the ground. The sand is all quicksand. It sucks you up and swallows you. You have to ride on the back of giant lizards as big as walking mountains. There’re only twenty-five lizards. They have names.”

“Are there plants on the wastes?”

“Of course there’re plants, Simsa. There’re plants everywhere; even out here on the high canyons, clover grows, and molds line the cliff walls. The lizards of the wastes eat the floating molds and large bushes that grow on top of the quicksand like forests of soap scum. The people keep their houses on the back ridges because the constant up-and-down of the head drives you nuts when the lizard’s feeding.”

“How do they survive there?”

“People live in huts, on the lizards. They grow blood wheat. They mine for lizard flesh, but they have to be careful not to cut a vein, or the beast will bleed like crazy. They trade, like we do at the station.”

It was sixty below freezing outside by now. The tent skin radiated enough heat to keep us warm. The dead grass and snow blowing around outside wouldn’t penetrate past the magnets that held the flap shut.

My brother had wrapped his bloodied, burned hand in part of his shirt. He had lost two fingers in the crash, and had burned them mostly shut. The wound extended up his palm. It still bled a little, now and then. Jiri had gotten his smoke-smelling blood on the handles of our hot mugs of chocolate milk.

I leaned back. I closed my eyes. “What about the tigers?”

“There’s only one tiger left. And, he’s not really a tiger,” he said. “Not really”

“At school, I heard Frankie say there was a lizard that had nothing but tigers.”

“Frankie’s so dumb; he wouldn’t know which end of the battery to shove up his own ass.”

I laughed. “That’s what Frankie said to me about the tigers,” I said. “He said there was a lizard with only tigers on it.”

“Well, don’t believe everything you hear. There’s only one tiger left. One. He’s not even really a tiger. He just has a tiger-like head. He lives on Samarkand, the biggest, oldest lizard in all the wastes. You know Samarkand because his legs are covered in scars. Nobody knows why. A scientist said the scars were from when Samarkand tried to walk out of the waste. Lizards don’t leave the waste, though–not ever. They can’t survive out of the quicksand. Their feet only work right in the wastes.”

The winds outside swelled. Sand splattered the side of the tent. Both of us grabbed for the edge of our tent. We waited until the gust passed. When it had, my brother lay his sleeping pad over the edge, right up against the heat.

“Simsa,” he said. “Try to get some sleep. We’ll have a million things to do in the morning.”

“Where do you think Samarkand’s scars came from?”

He rolled over onto his side. He looked at me, lying in the middle of our little tent. “I think he got in a fight with another lizard. And, I think he won. I think that’s why there aren’t any more lizards with scars. The other lizards give Samarkand a wide berth along the wastes. They see him walking over the horizon, they turn away.” Then, because he was too tired to speak anymore, he said, “Go to sleep, Simsa.”

I sat in the dark. I watched Jiri sweat, pressed against the heated tent skin, breathing gently. I drank hot chocolate. I hugged my legs. I thought about tomorrow, and what we’d have to do for Sheila, and for ourselves.

* * * *

I had known everything before my brother told me, but I didn’t want him to know that. Guj Sarwar, currently living on Samarkand, was the only survivor of the battle on the space elevator. He was part of the isolationist faction that had almost destroyed the Ansible. The tigers had climbed up the outside of the elevator at Io Town, with nano-particle scimitars strapped to their backs. They knew the Parliament would send electromagnetic pulses along the outside to stop anyone from climbing up. The fighters had to make their hands sharp claws to grip, even when the pulses tried to throw their hands and feet off. They had to make their bodies capable of surviving the climb into the thermosphere. They had to grow fur, and alter their noses and mouths to seal the flammable oxygen blends against the electo-magnetic defenses. They couldn’t count on just goggles. They traded eyes with cave cats. They needed to see in low light to get to the Mesosphere in the dark.

There’s only one tiger left after the battle. He’s been hiding out on the head of Samarkand for twelve years. Everyone who went after him got sliced to ribbons, or dumped into the wastes. These days, he’s just left alone. He can’t speak anymore. Tiger mouths don’t speak except in growls and roars. He can’t type messages into computer terminals, either. His fur interrupts EM radiation too much to get him anywhere near a terminal without shorting it out. His claws are no good at holding a stylus, or a pen. He can only carve burning letters with his deadly scimitar, which isn’t an effective method of communication when most things would be burned and eaten into ash by the nanites.

He lives isolated from mankind forever after losing the war; he destroyed himself to fight. Yet, for some reason known only to him, he refuses to turn himself in or commit honorable suicide.

His army of tigers had failed. The Ansible was built. The ships come and go, trading and trading. By the time I was old enough to notice a world outside the ranch, the war that had claimed Guj Sarwar’s humanity, and all the brave Isolationists that had become tigers and died on Io Town’s space elevator, was already mostly forgotten.

These days, Guj Sarwar was stalking the blood wheat fields in the dark, stealing sausage and chasing down the birds that are native to the thickets on the back of the beast. He left people alone as long as they left him alone.

* * * *

In the morning, Jiri flipped the heating skin off. We were both sweating. It was better than freezing. We had to wait in our tent and change into dry clothes. If we stepped outside with any damp on us before the sun had burned off all the snow, we might freeze to death.

We drank the last of our chocolate milk. It wasn’t going to keep, anyway, when the refrigeration unit would be otherwise in use.

When we were dry, we wrapped ourselves in clean, dry clothes and stepped outside. We had a lot of cutting to do. Sheila’s body was trapped under at least two layers of plasteel.

She’d never be the same again, but a clone of her with whatever memories survived would be better than losing her forever. The deep chill of the night would have preserved almost everything. The afternoons got too warm, though. The day’s weather would heat up rapidly, melt the snow down into underground aquifers. By mid-afternoon the winds would change and the weather would quickly turn into a harsh chill, snow falling everywhere. We had to get her out before the heat rotted her brain synapses.

That wasn’t all we had to do. We were out of water. As soon as noon passed, and the sun turned away from our cliffside, the chill would be back, and we’d have to be prepared in our tent for another long night, waiting for rescue. We needed water to do that, or we’d die of thirst long before we had ever starved.

We were, fortunately, crashed on a cliff that overlooked a mountain stream deep below. The stream was frozen now, but by mid-morning it would flow cold and clean.

As soon as our tent’s registered a safe outdoor temperature, we went to Sheila. Jiri had the tools.

“Do you think you can get us some water, Simsa?”

I shook my head. “Sheila.”

“I can get Sheila.”

“I want to be sure,” I said. I choked up.

“Whiny baby… Fine. You do the cutting.” He pulled the hand torch from our toolkit. “Be careful, though. Don’t heat her body up.”

I took the torch. I toggled a couple of the switches. I pulled at the trigger. Nothing happened.

My brother snatched it from my hands. “Don’t know how, do you?”

I looked at where we knew Sheila was, under the rubble. “I don’t want to leave her.”

My brother took a deep breath. “Simsa…”

I started to cry.

“Fine. Just… Try not to get in my way.”

He adjusted the nozzles and switches on the little torch. He touched the plasteel. The metal was slow to cut through. It was freezing cold. I watched my brother work.

I looked around the camp for something I could do. We had our tent lashed down tightly. We had a couple boxes of supplies–another toolkit, some emergency rations–lashed down next to the tent. Jiri had the larger toolkit out, with the torch, the anchor and the repel line. The ship’s refrigeration unit had ejected, with food and milk, near the top of the pile of rubble, batteries still intact. It was better than emergency rations. When we dug Sheila out, it would keep her head frozen through the warm afternoons.

I wondered if I shouldn’t watch for snow lizards, or pterodactyls, or other scavengers after easy blood.

Jiri needed help pulling the first layer off. I took one end, and he took the other. He could barely grip anything with his two missing fingers and the cut up his palm. The stumps started to bleed again. He didn’t say anything. He just tightened the bandage until it stopped.

The next layer was going to be harder, because it was the outer shell of the flyer. It was still cold enough below the plasteel, so we knew Sheila would still be frozen.

Jiri took a long drink of our last quart of milk. “Simsa, what else did that poop-for-brains Frankie tell you about the tiger of Samarkand?”

“He told me… I don’t know.”

“Well, there were many tigers. Hundreds of them. They knew they would never be able to stop the Ansible, or shut down Io Town’s space elevator.”

“Why’d they want to do that?” I said. “It’s stupid.”

“They were idealists–uncompromising. They had to try. They were fools, of course. They killed people. No ideals are worth killing people. They were terrorists. Only idiots are terrorists. If Frankie had been around during that time, he would be just the poop-for-brains that would join them.”

“What were they so worried about, anyway? Why do they hate the Ansible and the space elevator?”

“Minerals, carbon, and the planet. You know, our cattle grow here on grass and wheat that we grow on-world. They go to Io Station to be taken off-world, into space, for merchants all over the galaxy.”


“Well, they carry part of the planet with them. Carbon, and vitamins, and little bits and pieces of molecules that we cannot bring back. In exchange, do you know what we get?”


“Plastic. Plasteel. Silicates. Machines made of these things. That refrigerator. This ship. Things that don’t make life.”

“Frankie doesn’t know anything about that.”

“Of course not. Anyway, they were being stupid. We can just trade for things later then bring back what we need. It’s all stupid.”

I knew this already. I had seen the videos. The protests were all over the world for a while, before the Ansible was built, before I was born. I had watched them on Jiri’s computer, late at night.

We had to hurry to get through the next layer before the freeze wore off with the direct sun on the plasteel shell. We didn’t have much time.

About halfway through the side of the wall, Jiri stopped trying to cut it all. He looked up at the sun. It wasn’t mid-morning yet, but it was close to it. He took a deep breath. He started to focus on just one part, near the top, where the hand tool’s X-Ray gave a readout of Sheila’s head below the plasteel. Jiri cut just there, hurriedly.

“What are you doing?” I said. “You’re doing it wrong.”

“Simsa, go get water,” he said. “I’ll be done when you get back.”

“I’m not leaving her.”

“Simsa, listen, you don’t want to be here when I cut through the second wall. It’s not going to be pretty.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “I won’t leave her.”

“It’s not that, Simsa,” he said. “It’s… Look, we’re almost out of time. We just need to preserve her head. It’s all we can fit in the refrigeration unit, anyway.”

“Oh,” I said. I closed my eyes. I was crying, again. “Oh.”

He was right.

I turned away.

“You know how to do this?” I said. “I mean, you know exactly what you’re doing, and you won’t hurt her?”

He peeled away a strip of plasteel. “She’s going to be fine,” he said. “She’ll walk funny a few days, then she’ll be fine. She’ll remember everything but the crash. It’ll be like nothing happened. I promise. Go get some water, Simsa. I’ll be done when you get back.”

“Okay,” I said.

I gathered the ropes and canteens. I listened to the sound of the plasteel melting off in strips, tossed aside in a rush.

The rocks were craggy and jagged. I walked down the mountain, and imagined I was climbing down the ridges of a lizard in the wastes. I imagined I was a tiger, sneaking down the neck of Samarkand in the night to steal crops and vandalize the things from off world.

At the bottom of the cliff, the stream was slow and thin. I couldn’t easily get water inside the canteens. I used my hands to cup water, and pour it in. Then, I dropped the purifier pills into the full canteens and capped them shut. It took time. I had plenty of time. I didn’t want to be on the top of the cliff until my brother was done and had covered up the mess.

A pack of tundra lizards splashed over the rocks in the stream. They were about as big as my father’s boots. They only had one, primitive eye. They swayed from side-to-side to single me out against the rocks. I frowned at them. “Go away,” I said.

Tongues flicked in the air. These scavengers had smelled the blood on me.

I stood up. I waved my hands around. They backed away. “Go away!” I shouted. My voice echoed up the canyon. The lizards scattered into the porous cliffside at the water’s edge.

I gasped and cowered at the walls around me. Had I caused an avalanche?

Tiny rocks dribbled down, nothing more. Jiri would be mad at me for yelling. I should have known better. I was a rancher’s son, and this was my planet. I should have thrown stones at the lizards. They’re scavengers, hunting for dead pterodactyls and bugs, and never interested in a struggle.

I took my time on the way up, thinking about what I’d say to my brother about my shout. I left the rope pull on its lowest setting. It was safest at a slow setting, up the cliff, especially after that shout.

I hoped my brother had placed some kind of tarp or cloth or bit of abandoned steel over the body. I hoped he wouldn’t yell at me for shouting.

Day heat broke. I felt the air bite through my clothes. Snow began to fall. It was going to be another freezing night, and rescue hadn’t found our crash site yet. They might not find us for another day or two. Io Town wouldn’t notice one ranch flyer out of the five we flew up to the different trading sites. Even our men would empty the cargo trailer and turn home. Our parents would only notice when our flyer didn’t come home on schedule. They might try to call and leave a message, but our communicators had been lost in the crash. It might be days before they suspected anything, and even more days until they found us.

The rope pulled me up without any effort. I just walked up the wall of the cliff, slowly and carefully.

Calmness washed over me, as I neared the top. I believed that everything was going to be fine. In a week, we’d all be back home at the ranch, sitting around the kitchen table eating ice cream and nothing would be different.

I crawled over the lip of the cliff and climbed to the top on hands and knees. I looked up, to my brother.

Jiri had collapsed face down on top of the final wall of plasteel. Beetles had found his pooled blood, at his wounded hand, and buzzed around it, slurping it up and feasting on it, laying eggs in the finger stumps.

I vomited.

Then, I stood up. I dropped the canteens. I yanked the rope loose and away from my waist.

I ran to him, and to her.

My brother had slipped in her blood with the lathe in his hand. He had accidentally cut a new part of his wounded hand with it, and that had opened the whole wound where his fingers were missing, up onto his palm. He had cut through most of her head when he had blacked out from blood loss. He was so close to saving her that he hadn’t stopped in time to save himself. I pulled him back from the wreckage.

I saw Sheila’s face.

Her beautiful face was ruined. It was smashed. It was sticky, partially-frozen blood. It wasn’t Sheila. It wasn’t the woman who had kissed me twice because I was her favorite, or sung songs while she watched me swimming, or had always pretended to need my help with jars. This face was some other thing–some awful thing, all bloody and mangled and covered in scavenging beetles.

My brother’s body was still warm. He wasn’t breathing. He had no pulse.

Her head was warming in direct sunlight, losing more synaptic connections every moment spent in the afternoon heat that muddied the bloody ice frost around what was left of her hair.

I grabbed the hand torch. I fumbled with it until I got it to ignite.

I only had the one refrigeration unit.

It was only big enough for one head.

Do I save the lady, or the tiger?

* * * *

I called my brother a tiger, because I knew he was the one responsible, even then, when I was just a boy. Deep down inside, I knew. I knew all about Guj Sarwar on the back of Samarkand before I’d asked my brother anything. I had read it from my brother’s page history on the computer we shared at home. I had read the same tracts and stories and propaganda. I had seen the same videos. My brother didn’t know that.

We had been flying cattle to our family holding pens at the foot of the Io Town space elevator to ship off-world, where their minerals and carbons and life-giving things would be lost to this world. The cattle were gone, now.

Sheila had ejected the cattle in their cargo trailer when trouble had started. They weren’t awake to scream. They fell. They crashed. Already the lizards and pterodactyls of the high plains would have picked the bones of the cattle clean to the bone.

I had been sitting next to Sheila in the cockpit, strapped in. My brother was behind me. I looked up at her, beautiful and wild, a woman so much older than me, a child, and I loved her terribly. She was terrified. She was shouting and bouncing in her seat and praying and pushing buttons and looking at me and at my brother and back at her dials.

And my brother, I knew, had caused this.

A few cans of condensed air, hidden in the cargo stabilizers, pressurized in flight when the vessel crossed above the troposphere. They exploded, knocking the stabilizers off the side of the cargo container. Guj Sarwar taught that to his followers before they lost their humanity and embraced more violent actions. A good pilot could dump the cargo and fly home safely.

Sheila, the woman I loved, was not a good pilot. She was an adequate pilot. She was only flying cargo because my father, and all his men, were already flying cargo. It was a large shipment. Sheila usually didn’t fly. She had asked us to come with her to keep her company. When the stabilizers broke, she didn’t dump the cargo fast enough. The destabilized cargo had jackknifed and slammed against her side of the ship. She’d been stunned for a few moments too long before Jiri had shouted at her to dump the cargo. Then we’d been falling, falling, falling…

My brother, the Isolationist. The tiger.

I had the cutting tool in my hand.

My brother, even after what he’d done, had never meant to kill anyone. Even at ten years old, I, too, could sense the romance of the tiger of Samarkand, and the Isolationists. Sheila was just an employee who cleaned our houses, watched over the children, and flew my brother and me to market when we were due for a treat. And, just as importantly, I loved her as only a ten-year-old could love. She was his victim. She never deserved this.

Sheila. My beautiful lady.

I tightened my grip on the hand torch. I could not hesitate. Each moment spent deciding was another memory lost forever.

Did I save the lady or the tiger?

Whom should I have saved?

I am a man, now, with a ranch of my own on Samarkand’s back. I will always wonder if I made the right choice.

© J.M. McDermott

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