He vaguely remembered having a dream about waking up on a beach… After being chased out at sea after… what had to be the worst nightmare of his life…
After a moment he became aware of the fact that he was lying on sun-warmed sand. He wondered why he was so tired… Of course, it made perfect sense to be exhausted after such a rigorous ordeal… He knew he must have tossed and turned all night to be this worn out…
Then he felt that strange sensation on his face again, tugging his senses still further into the here and now.
“What’s going on…” he muttered. He dug his fingers through the sand, finding that he still barely had enough strength to make a fist.
Experimentally, he opened his eyes.
He cried out in alarm and confusion as he looked up into the feline face staring down at him. Max rolled away with a yelp. For its part, the creature leaped away in the opposite direction.
Max pulled himself together, as quickly as one could be expected to after waking up in a place right out of a dream. He had to close his eyes for a moment to ward off the dizziness and headache that assaulted his eyes, making him see spots. After all, he was still very sore and stiff; he now knew that he was moving too quickly just yet. As he opened his eyes again and became more aware of his surroundings, it didn’t take him long to figure out their one stark implication: that had been no dream.
Max immediately focused on the creature before him, a cat of some variety. It sat over a foot tall, with short white-and-black fur of curiously symmetrical pattern, even on both sides. The cat, a cub of some feline variety that reminded him of a statue back in Layosha, sat and stared warily at Max. In those greenish-yellow eyes, disproportionately large on its young face, Max saw his own reflection for a second.
Though the cub had been startled by Max’s sudden reaction, it had already begun to recover its feline composure, and its look was now one of cautious curiosity.
Max looked back at the cub, wondering where the little guy came from. As an old piece of advice flashed through his thoughts, Max looked around sharply, to make sure they were all alone. He had been warned that mother animals seldom let their young out of sight…
But he didn’t see any angry mother whatever-it-was charging out of the bushes anywhere, still he decided to keep his guard up anyway. He had been told that cats of any stripe were creatures of stealth, and he didn’t care to find out the hard way. If this one was just a cub, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know how big its mother might be.
Max slowly reached over for his bag, which he had been clinging to for a good while when he was still unconscious, realizing once again how much his ordeal at sea had weakened him. He kept on moving slowly, making no sudden moves, and the cub began to regain its initiative, moving haltingly forward, keeping a close eye on Max as he reached into his bag and took out his father’s laser sword. There the cub hesitated just beyond arm’s reach of Max.
“What’re you lookin’ at?”
The cub cocked his head curiously at Max’s remark.
Max activated the weapon, bringing its shimmering, neon-green blade into radiant existence. Good. It still worked. He held his father’s blade before him, fascinated; he thought of all the times he had seen it, had wanted to wield it… and now it was his.
Yet his exultation was brief, for a moment later he remembered how it came to be in his possession, and his fleeting sense of triumph at this small victory, of not losing this irreplaceable family heirloom, instead soured into something bordering on shame.
He paused, seeing the cub staring into the blade, mesmerized. But not afraid.
Tiger. The word popped into his head. Though different in pattern, the cub resembled the creature the statue was named after.
Max sat there for a long moment, gathering his strength and his thoughts while letting the sun warm him. He was still wrung-out, his body ached all over. After he was back on his feet, he decided, he would have to see what else made it ashore with him.
In the meantime, his mind wandered back to the statue…
…Max stared up at the enormous cat that sat before him on an equally enormous pedestal that was almost as tall as he was.
At the age of six, there were still a lot of things that were taller than him. The grey-green statue towering over him was one of them. It was huge, even next to grownups, and Cleo had even told him Uncle Angus said it was life-size. Its regal feline countenance, its entire form, was slashed with a deep-carved relief of stripes.
Engraved on the pedestal was a single word: TYGER.
Though a few such things were supposedly waiting for them when they first arrived, the Ancestors had built many of Layosha’s most impressive monuments in time out of mind. Beyond Shipwreck Bay, in the shadow of the mountain, there was a clearing with ancient statues scattered about it. All of the statues were highly stylized depictions of various creatures, angular and simplified, but of only slightly exaggerated proportion. Legend had it that one of the original Ancestors was a master sculptor.
On Makando, there were several tall, very stylized stone heads that some said were even older than the Ancestors; there were even rumors of these statues being found on Cyexian islands, and possibly even in the Triangle State.
Guarding the entrance of the clearing on one side was a pair of lions; two turtles guarded another entrance, and a pair of very angular gargoyles guarded the third. Among others, there was an eagle perched on one block, an owl with big round eyes on another; a couple creatures labeled Coyote, forever howling at the moon, at least according to Mom; a mass of tentacles, that many sailors told tales of, marked Devilfish; a horse; carved of dark grey stone, a small biped reptile which the Ancestors called a Raptor; a strange one marked Gryphon, which no traveler had ever claimed to have seen before; a coiled-up cobra, and some other small statuary. The largest of the statues, standing nearly twenty feet tall, was a rather more intricate and imposing reptile the artist called a Dragon.
And, of course, the Tyger.
“Dad, what’s that thing?” he asked.
“Well, Max,” said Robert, smiling as he looked the statue over, perhaps the only person in all the Islands (aside from his wife and possibly his brother) who had ever seen a real one before, “that’s a tiger. But whoever carved this spelled it strangely. That should be an i instead of a y.”
“Oh.” Max was still learning his letters. And pushing really hard to be able to read Layosha’s small treasury of books for himself. “Have you ever seen one before?”
“Well, of course, son,” Robert laughed, still amazed at times by his son’s insatiable curiosity. He paused for a moment, remembering. “…I was in this place, a sanctuary, where these people were keeping a whole bunch of animals. If I remember right, they were protecting them from hunters. They had tigers there, and other really big cats.”
Then the important question. “Dad, how big is a tiger?”
“They’re… well, they’re about as big as that statue.” Though he was fairly sure that not all of the statues here were as proportionately scaled. For a moment, he had been taken aback by Max’s abrupt change of subject. Then again, he was glad to get away from where he now realized his last line of conversation was heading. Though Robert was very honest with his son, he also believed that children should let go of their innocence slowly, reluctantly. After all, it was not something that could be returned. He had seen for himself what growing up too fast had done to others.
“Why aren’t there any tigers here?”
“I don’t know.” Robert had no real explanation for that. “They probably wouldn’t like it here. We don’t have anything for them to eat, and I’m told they need lots of room to roam…”
…To roam. How far had he drifted?
Where am I? How big is this place?
Just when Max thought he couldn’t possibly feel any more alone, with that last thought he did. Completely alone. Wishing for his father only made it worse. Because he wasn’t there.
Between loneliness, pain and fatigue, it was all he could do to fight back the tears. As he sat there, trying hard to pull himself together, the cub slowly approached him. Max looked down at the feline face peering up at him, and he understood somehow that he had found a kindred spirit.
Or rather, one had somehow found him.
He tentatively reached out and patted the big cat on the head. And was surprised, yet somehow not surprised— as if he had done this before in a dream or something— when the cub walked up and brushed past his leg. As the cat sat down next to him, Max openly petted him.
Somehow he knew— once again, he was surprised yet somehow knew better— that petting the cat would make him feel better. At least now he no longer felt so alone. The cat started purring, and in that carefree, contented sound, he rediscovered the bliss of living in the moment.
He sat on the beach for a while, petting the big kitten, before he got up again. This time he was a little steadier on his feet than he had been last time. But he hadn’t eaten in nearly a day and was weak with hunger.
The past day was a bleary dream of sun and sea and exposure. Had slept briefly at some unrecalled point after the storm subsided. But of The Edge, or even Damn the Torpedoes or U-553, there was no sign. Not even his other pursuers were to be seen. Only miles and miles of Ocean in all directions making a mockery of every speck of dry land he had ever set foot on. Fearing he might very well die out there without ever seeing even a passing ship, he already started rationing out the small vessel’s limited food and water against the ravages of the elements.
So now, as he staggered across the sand, cub tagging along behind him, he reached into his bag and opened a waterproof ration pack. Remembering his survival training, he decided, in spite of his overwhelming hunger, to eat only half. During his fun little sea adventure, bookended between storms, he had learned that Triangle State military survival rations were not very appetizing. If nothing else, he had no idea if there was any more food to be found here.
Wherever he was.
As Max sat down and munched thoughtfully, he looked down and noticed that he had the little creature’s undivided attention. The cub just sat there, staring up at him with big, round pleading eyes, somehow managing to look so innocent and dejected that Max nearly laughed in spite of himself.
“You hungry, little guy?” Max found himself wondering when last the cub had eaten. He looked pretty scrawny. Hoping he wasn’t making a grave mistake, he gave the cub the other half of his ration bar. And the cub wolfed it right down, then looked back up at Max with an expression that was unmistakable: More?
This time Max did laugh, patting the cub, and said, “Nope. That’s all. We’ve gotta save the rest for later.”
The cub just looked up at him with this laughably quizzical expression that made Max bust out again.
So, Uncle Angus was right. A person (or cat) that was hungry enough would eat anything. That thought made him wonder for a moment how the sinister Triangle State Authority’s supplies had fallen into Cyexian hands. Then again, the Cyexians were pirates. Of course, he had heard even worse things about the Authority.
Even about slavery.
Yet little was known about the Triangle State. Because it held all the surrounding islands under military occupation, Layosha, though distant, beyond Cyexian waters, kept a low profile. With nothing of interest to them, it was doubtful the TSA would ever take an interest in the Islands, but Max’s people had no desire to fight a war without dire cause. Though the Layoshans would fight to the last defending their home and go to their graves, rather than live as anyone’s slaves, as they had held their ground against the Cyexians for countless generations. All the same, all the Islanders really wanted was to go about their lives in peace, and they already had enough trouble with the Cyexians. So Layosha chose to be little more than seafaring legend. A destination scoffed at by most and considered to be a myth.
Another of the Ocean’s phantom ports of call.