The Year's Best Science Fiction 10

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10th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F

Edited by Judith Merril


Kit Reed

He got the toy for his second cousin, Randolph, a knobby-kneed boy so rich he was still in short trousers at thirteen. Born poor, Benedict had no hope of inheriting his Uncle James’s money, but he spent too much for the toy anyway. He had shriveled under his uncle’s watery diamond eyes on two other weekend visits, shrinking in oppressive, dark-paneled rooms, and he wasn’t going back to Syosset unarmed. The expensive gift for Randolph, the old man’s grandson, should assure him at least some measure of respect. But there was more to it than that. He had felt a strange, almost feted feeling growing in him from the moment he first spotted the box, solitary and proud, in the dim window of a toy store not far from the river.

It came in a medium-sized box with an orange-and-black, illustration and the Words “ROYAL BENGAL TIGER” in orange lettering across the top. According to the description on the package, it responded to commands which the child barked into a small microphone. Benedict had seen robots and monsters something like it on television that year. “Own It With Pride,” the box commanded. Edward Benedict, removed from toys more by income than by inclination, had no idea that the tiger cost ten times as much as any of its mechanical counterparts. Had he known, he probably wouldn’t have cared. It would impress the boy, and something about the baleful eyes on the box attracted him. It cost him a month’s salary and seemed cheap at the price. After all, he told himself, it had real fur.

He wanted more than anything to open the box and touch the fur but the clerk was watching him icily so he fell back and let the man attack it with brown paper and twine. The clerk pushed the box into his arms before he could ask to have it delivered and he took it without question, because he hated scenes. He thought about the tiger all the way home on the bus. Like any man with a toy, he knew he wouldn’t be able to resist opening it to try it out.

His hands were trembling as he set it in a corner of his living room.

“Just to see if it works,” he muttered. “Then I’ll wrap it for Randolph.” He removed the brown paper and turned the box so the picture of the tiger was on top. Not wanting to rush things, he fixed his dinner and ate it facing the box. After he had cleared the table he sat at a distance, studying the tiger. As shadows gathered in the room something about the drawing seemed to compel him, to draw him to the verge of something important and hold him there, suspended, and he couldn’t help feeling that he and this tiger were something more than man and toy, gift and giver, and as the picture tiger regarded him, its look grew more and more imperative, so that he got up finally and went over to the box and cut the string.

As the sides fell away he dropped his hands, disappointed at first by the empty-looking heap of fur. The fur had a ruggy look, and for a minute he wondered if the packers at the factory had made a mistake. Then, as he poked it with his toe he heard a click and the steel frame inside the fur sprang into place and he fell back, breathless, as the creature took shape.

It was a full-sized tiger, made from a real tiger-skin skillfully fitted to a superstructure of tempered metal so carefully made that the beast looked no less real than the steely-limbed animals Benedict had seen at the city zoo. Its eyes were of amber, ingeniously lit from behind by small electric bulbs, and Benedict noted hysterically that its whiskers were made of stiff nylon filament. It stood motionless in an aura of jungle-bottom and power, waiting for him to find the microphone and issue a command. An independent mechanism inside it lashed the long, gold-and-black striped tail. It filled half the room.

Awed, Benedict retreated to his couch and sat watching the tiger. Shadows deepened and soon the only light in the room came from the creature’s fierce amber eyes. It stood rooted in the corner of the room, tail lashing, looking at him yellowly. As he watched it his hands worked on the couch, flexing and relaxing, and he thought of himself on the couch, the microphone that would conduct his orders, the tiger in the corner waiting, the leashed potential that charged the room. He moved ever so slightly and his foot collided with something on the floor. He picked it up and inspected it. It was the microphone. Still he sat, watching the gorgeous beast in the light cast by its. own golden eyes. At last, in the dead stillness of late night or early morning, strangely happy, he brought the microphone to his lips and breathed into it tremulously.

The tiger stirred.

Slowly, Edward Benedict got to his feet. Then, calling on all his resources, he brought his voice into his throat.

“Heel,” he said.

And hugely, magnificently, the tiger moved into place.

“Sit,” he said, leaning shakily against the door, not quite ready to believe.

The tiger sat. Even sitting it was as tall as he, and even now, in repose, with glossy fur lying smooth and soft against the body, every line spoke of the coiled steel within.

He breathed into the microphone again, marveling as the tiger lifted one paw. It held the paw to its chest, looking at him, and it was so immense, so strong, so responsive that Benedict, in a burst of confidence, said, “Let’s go for a walk” and opened the door. Avoiding the elevator he opened the fire door at the end of the corridor and started down the stairs, exulting as the tiger followed him silently, flowing like water over the dingy steps.

“Shhhhhh.” Benedict paused at the door to the street and behind him the tiger stopped. He peered out. The street was so still, so unreal that he knew it must be three or four in the morning. “Follow me,” he whispered to the tiger, and stepped out into the darkness. They walked the dark sides of the streets, with the tiger ranging behind Benedict, disappearing into the shadows when it looked as if a car might pass too close. Finally they came to the park, and once they had traveled a few yards down one of the asphalt paths, the tiger began to stretch its legs like a horse in slow motion, moving restlessly at Benedict’s heels. He looked at it and in a rush of sorrow realized that a part of it still belonged to the jungle, that it had been in its box too long and it wanted to run.

“Go ahead,” he said congestedly, half-convinced he would never see it again.

With a bound the cat was off, running so fast that it came upon the park’s small artificial lake before it realized it, spanned the water in a tremendous leap and disappeared into the bushes at the far side.

Alone, Benedict slumped on a bench, fingering the flat metal microphone. It was useless now, he was sure. He thought about the coming weekend, when he would have to appear at his uncle’s door empty-handed (“I had a toy for Randolph, Uncle James, but it got away. . . .”), about the money he had wasted (then, reflecting on the tiger, the moments they had spent together in his apartment, the vitality that had surged in the room just once for a change, he knew the money hadn’t been wasted). The tiger . . . Already burning to see it again, he picked up the microphone. Why should it come back when it was free again, and it had the whole park, the whole world to roam? Even now, despairing, he couldn’t keep himself from whispering the command.

“Come back,” he said fervently. “Come back.” And then, “Please.”

For a few seconds, there was nothing. Benedict strained at the darkness, trying to catch some rustle, some faint sound, but there was nothing until the great shadow was almost upon him, clearing the bench across the way in a low, flat leap and stopping, huge and silent, at his feet.

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