Shark Fighter, by Michael Tierney

An underwater photographer finds himself alone in the water, dazed and bereft of his memories, after a trip to a tiger shark breeding ground with a mysterious native guide! Can he survive the fierce predator and mystic forces pitted against him?!

Old Caribe’s weathered face was made even darker when silhouetted by the rising sun at his back. His lips twisted in an eerie smile.

“Men today have forgotten the many gods. These gods have not forgotten men. Disrespecting them still brings a price to pay.”

“When trouble comes around, I’m the stink that brings the shovel.” Despite his confident words, the diver knew he was lying to himself, lost in a jumbled daze of semiconscious dreams where the world tilted at impossible angles. He tried to grip the ground for stability, but the soil sifted through his fingers like water.

A sudden jolt roused him to reality.

Salt stung in his eyes and the taste of ocean permeated his mouth as he gulped a single breath in the abrupt instant before being dragged under water. Instinctively, one hand reached for the dive mask around his neck, while the other…

Hard, slimy sandpaper greeted his touch just before his body collided with something massive. Pulled sideways through the ocean with disconcerting speed that banged his tethered underwater camera against his jaw, he glimpsed the blurred image of muscular shark skin mottled by lines of fading yellow spots.

The nylon tether that was pulling him shredded, and he snapped free, tumbling through the water like a loose gear on a gyroscope. Clenching his eyes from the sting of the salt water in his mask, he kicked his flippers until his hamstrings ached and regained his balance, reminding himself to relax while he methodically found the emergency regulator on his vest. After several desperate breaths, he exhaled through his nose to clear the water out of his mask.

The diver was shocked to discover himself drifting inside a crimson cloud.

“Damn! I’m all over the place!” He thought in a panic, certain that shock kept him from feeling the pain. When he felt about for injuries, there were none.

The cloud of blood parted directly in front of him as a thick-bodied fifteen-foot tiger shark sailed past. The shark made one deliberate move in his direction and then abruptly turned to disappear into the deep blue, wagging its head in a shower of red particles.

His scream spit the regulator out of his mouth.

Carried by his buoyancy control vest, he bobbed back to the surface. He could not remember when he relocated his regulator, only the taste of salt in the back of his throat.

Time, reality, and the universe itself—all stopped as if the world had been reduced to only the sun burning painfully on the nape of his neck and the pounding of his heart, echoing like thunder in his ears. Focusing his eyes below, he breathed slow mechanical breaths until he remembered that his air tank was nearing empty and switched over to the snorkel.

The diver’s mind stumbled with all other comprehension. He thought of watching his childhood home on fire and burning in shimmering embers. At the same moment, he accepted the knowledge that this memory never happened. He had forgotten his own identity.

Overwhelmed by terror, the diver expected to be crushed in a viselike grip of razor-sharp teeth at any moment, recalling stories of how tiger sharks terrorized the survivors of capsized boats by taking them one at a time over many days.

Leaking water into his mask to wash the creeping fog from the glass, the man diligently searched the illuminated periphery of his vision, watching for any movement in the shadows.

Eventually, he began having trouble concentrating and his mind wandered. The question of how he happened to be in his present predicament slowly creeped into focus.

Just the day before he’d been safely aboard a catamaran dive boat and showing raw footage from his underwater documentary to the crew. That was when the local guide had arrived.

Old Caribe was a native with a small motor boat and a remarkable story about shark hole in the Gingerbread corals, where Tiger Sharks came to breed—an event never before caught on film. He had sun-blackened skin that looked tougher than a hundred-year-old leather coat, and his facial features were completely unrecognizable. Several crew members claimed that Old Caribe was the only living descendent of the ancient cannibal tribes from which the Caribbean originally drew its name.

Old Caribe had arrived right as the diver was showing footage of a crippled turtle being brought on deck to examine its missing right rear flipper. The next sequence had been back underwater and drew many vocal reactions when a tiger shark savagely attacked the turtle at the missing flipper and repeatedly bit deep inside the shell. The shark had darted away with a mouthful of intestines that continued to pull out like a long thread unraveling from a garment.

Old Caribe probably never saw any of the videos. The diver had been introduced to the old man as he had stood with one hand on the railing and the other holding back his shell necklace while vomiting into the sea. Old Caribe cracked a crude smile and complained about bad shellfish, assuring that he would be fine for their early morning excursion to the legendary tiger shark hole.

That was how the day of fear had started. By now, fear had been replaced by apathy.

Desperately fighting the ache in his brain, the diver was confused by a deeply felt instinct that suggested he abandon his fate to the flow of the ocean currents. In contrast to the weightlessness of the water, he felt simultaneously crushed by a burgeoning, ever-increasing mass. He imagined that he could see himself through other eyes that looked down from ever higher above, watching his body become a tiny speck growing smaller and smaller in a vastness of the turquoise blue seas.

He had the impulse to strike out in defiance, but the resistance of the water made his fists useless. That thought gave him an inspiration. He could pack his fists with the squares of lead weights threaded onto his belt.

The touch of emptiness around his waist reminded him that he was diving with his own personal, complete outfit of gear. He had always traveled with his own regulator assembly and dive computer, plus a bulky buoyancy control vest with an integrated weight system that he usually left behind whenever doing chartered dives. Most tour guides preferred keeping the buoyancy control vests, already heavy with tanks and regulator assembly, separate from the weight belts. They balked at lifting the added weight from integrated bean bags when helping a diver gear up.

However, Old Caribe had encouraged him to bring all his gear along, promising, “Don’t worry, Mon. I won’t put any fish heads in your vest.”

Then the diver remembered what was strapped on the inside of his left ankle and shook his head as he drew the knife, wondering how he could have forgotten. Although keenly sharpened, the six-inch blade was little defense against a tiger shark. But, in terms of confidence, it was a great trade up from a fist full of lead weights.

Other memories stirred. A gravity-like pulse pulled on the blood vessels inside his brain and created the sensation of walking on land, of airport hallways beneath his feet and the sound of footsteps echoing next to his.

Without warning, he almost recalled his name. Then memory failed again.

The pounding in the back of his brain and the beat of his heart synchronized, followed by an anger that roared within his blood like long strands of barbed wires being dragged through the insides of his veins. The diver instinctively knew that there was more stoking his growing rage than just the whole of the universe being against him. He embraced the heated emotion, sawing his teeth across the snorkel mouthpiece and realizing for the first time that he was suffering from starvation and thirst. Anger made his pulse stronger when it should have weakened. Every breath burned in his throat.

Impatient to be attacked, the diver began to splash his arms and legs and then clamped his legs together, inverting himself to dive down into the sea. Returning to the surface with a furious exhale to clear his snorkel, he repeated the move of a diving dolphin, again and again.

Knowing his strength would soon fail completely, the diver considered more drastic options that might attract an ocean predator. When he positioned the knife to cut his wrist near to the bone, a cold shiver ran down his spine. In the reflection on the flat of the blade, he glimpsed a flash of gray behind him and turned as a specter of doom rose out of the deep blue, slicing through the undulating shafts of sunlight.

The sight of the tiger shark, with its pectoral fins down, back arched and jaws agape, sent a shiver of fear down his back. For some strange reason, he again noticed the hot sun on the back of his neck.

Drawing a deep breath and purging air from his buoyancy control vest, the diver spit the snorkel out and gritted the regulator between his teeth, committing himself to a bizarre dance of nightmare. Rolling backwards, he inverted himself in the water and swam directly towards the shark’s teeth, feeling surprisingly calm in the certainty that this would be his last act in life but determined to duel with his killer to the very end. Confused by this aggressive behavior, the tiger shark darted away to circle at a distance.

If he could have spared the breath, he would have laughed. He tightened his grip on the knife and waved it at the shark. With the point of the blade he traced the beast’s erratic movements through the water, occasionally motioning for it to come closer.

The shark cruised farther away.

This sight sparked other memories, recollections of other dive encounters with sharks. He recalled once chasing a group of six Caribbean reef sharks, trying for a head-on photo opportunity. Like wild dogs, the sharks scattered whenever he moved toward them. He eventually took his best close-up shots after learning to hang passively in the water.

Tucking his fins with knees bent, the diver tethered his underwater camera to his left wrist, held the knife close to his chest, and began to passively drift with the current. With a quick flip of its caudal fin, the ancient predator broke from circling and changed directions several quick times before accelerating straight at him.

The diver confidently thought fatherless obscenities in the shark’s name as he raised the camera and flashed the strobe light into the beast’s eyes. The tiger shark veered away no more than an arm’s length away, its massive body dwarfing his own. He had been lucky. Sharks either really liked electrical impulses, or they really hated them.

With negative buoyancy, the diver was continually dropping deeper as each breath of pressurized air became increasingly harder to draw. The tiger shark was a silhouette blocking the surface, intermittent light from the camera’s strobe flashing on the carnivore’s pale underside.

The beast was right where he wanted it as the air tank rattled dry. Letting the camera dangle, he pulled the emergency cord that unraveled the bottom lining of his vest and released all the weights at once. Suddenly buoyant, he thrust the knife above his head with a double-handed grip and kicked his fins like pistons, launching himself like a missile. He broke both his fin straps and the cardinal rule about exhaling when rising, holding that last gasp of expanding air inside his lungs for extra buoyancy.

His efforts had spectacular results as the knifepoint punched full to the hilt into the soft belly of the shark. Despite his double-handed grip, the startled reaction of the giant predator tore the blade out of his hands, but not until after the resulting cut ripped the belly of the beast open from gill to tail.

Enveloped by another crimson cloud, the sight of the gutted monster pleased him—at first. Then he saw flashes of colorful light bouncing in all directions off a single, multifaceted stone on a ring that spilled from the grisly mass pouring out of the animal’s gut. He watched the sparkling lights as the jeweled ring spiraled downward, racing to land near his bean bags weights lying on a coral outcropping, right next to several severed fish heads.

He bobbed to the ocean surface. Without weights, the little air left in his vest was just enough to float him.

This time, his numb brain only noticed the heat on his neck when it was eased by nightfall that slowly engulfed him in total darkness.

 

“We’re going down! We’re going down! Please! Somebody help!”

The man heard the panicked cries and recognized the emergency radio broadcast as an experience from his past. He knew what would happen next. On cue, the desperate pilot shouted that his ship was valued at a quarter-of-a-million dollars, as if that information would somehow bring impossible rescue from tricky reefs at low tide.

“Someone’s going to need to do a cleanup on Isle Nine,” joked one crew member of the dive boat.

“Two-Hundred and Fifty-Thousand Dollars is a really cheap boat compared to most luxury ships,” said the captain.

Knowing his wife would be upset by these callous remarks, the man turned to see her suddenly whisked away by an invisible whirlwind force, her outstretched arms imploring for help.

A sudden jolt roused the diver from the daze of semiconscious dreams and nightmares, as a strange sensation of sand dragging across the soles of his bare feet started his faculties turning again. His muscles still flexing from mentally chasing after his wife, the diver’s bleary eyes were confused by the thick fog that covered his face mask. Through streaks cleared by drops of condensation, he could barely discern the dancing rays of sunlight diffused through water.

A surging wave lifted him backwards and landed him sitting groggily in rapidly shifting sand and shallow water. Facing the ocean, he sat for a long while before finally turning around to discover that he was on a beach.

Spitting the snorkel out of a raw mouth, he winced in pain as sea water poured from swollen ear canals. He thought he was ripping flesh from bone while prying the scuba mask loose from the indentations in his skin.

There was a brief reward when a gentle breeze soothed his eyes, which quickly turned into his moment of greatest horror when he remembered— everything.

The dive at the tiger shark hole had been a complete bust. He and his wife had been unable to find the boat anchor afterwards and surfaced to discover all of their possessions floating away with the currents. Having heard no motor and seeing no sign of Old Caribe, they had assumed his boat must have sunk.

Even though they were tragically lost at sea, his wife had never lost faith in him or his confidence of rescue. Believing his promise to keep her safe, she had tethered herself to his side and was subsequently eaten alive.

The enormity of the entire universe fell on his head like a hammer pounding rail spikes into the back of his brain. As swiftly as the spikes had arrived, they were numbed by the thought of her parents. The memory of light reflecting off her wedding ring as it sank to the ocean floor was a pain too great for tears.

The diver gathered his feet and tried to escape the grip of the deep when a wave crashed against his back, and his world once again became small. There was only the shifting sand and ebbing tide that pulled at his legs. Gravity abandoned him when another rolling wave seized his body in a suffocating embrace. He thought of surrendering himself to the sea.

He thought heavenly angels had descended to collect him when avian wings suddenly fluttered above his head. With what felt like the weakest of efforts, his fingers clutched like claws at the foaming, slippery sand, and he slowly crawled free of the sea. Through gritted teeth he gasped what he would remember as the first breath of a new life.

“God!” He shouted so loudly that he thought his vocal cords would break. His tears felt saltier than the water.

“You have evolved,” said a weary but familiar voice. Next to his beached motor boat, Old Caribe sat on a sand dune covered with broken egg shells. Around his feet a final clutch of tiny turtle hatchlings erupted from the sand and raced for the sea. He held up his turtle shell necklace. “Your fate was decided by the shark gods.”

Even though it had been right in front of him the whole time, the realization that Old Caribe had intentionally stranded them at the shark hole hit as though the universe had turned upside down and the weight of the whole planet now pivoted on top of him. The diver’s sudden, pulsing rage doubled with the realization that he had not even strength enough to stand.

The diver’s initial instinct was to reply with cocky banter—“Your shark god is dead, and now it’s time for me to do a little cleanup on Isle Nine.” But he no longer felt the need or the desire for such ostentatiousness. He could not have formed the words even if he wanted to. The only sound he could articulate was a question.

“Why?”

“That turtle you led to slaughter was more than just their mother.” Old Caribe began pushing his boat along behind the hatchlings as they swarmed into the frothing waves, hopping aboard the moment it was seized by the outgoing surf. He turned with a stare as flat and firm as the tone of his voice.

“You killed my God!”

Waving an oar at the hungry seagulls, the grizzled old Caribbean floated away into the distance. The flocking birds were visible for a longer time, but eventually they too faded from sight.

A Master certified scuba diver and amateur underwater photographer, Michael Tierney is best known for his science fiction series of Wild Stars comics and novels.