THE FIGHTING TIGERS OF VEDA (spelled with an “h” at the end for no particular reason) appear in my latest novel, STRAY CATS. The premise of the book is that cats do indeed have nine lives, but they live them all at once, on different worlds. One of those worlds will be familiar to long-time Jungle visitors, as will the foul aliens who attack it. I hope you enjoy this excerpt of the Fighting Tiger segment of STRAY CATS, entitled, “A Sacred World.”
- Chronology: 14.038.379
- Sector: Udaipur
- System: Bagha
- Planet: Vedah
Like many other cats on this hot summer afternoon, Pimmi is napping in a patch of sun when the Kurindans come to end the world.
A shrill keening from high above jerks her awake. The kitten cringes, head tucked, ears flat, eyes following those of the thin boy sitting next to her on the cracked stone steps of the shrine, forgotten by almost all. A silvery shimmer, spinning in spirals, streaming white smoke, screams from the empty blue sky. Then it smashes into the village in the shallow valley below, a thundering explosion as the ground shakes. Pimmi’s heart beats a single time, and then the shockwave of the strike knocks the boy atop her as the scores of other cats who live here scatter.
She wriggles to get free, to run, to hide, but the boy wraps her, covers her, ignores her claws and her frantic flailing as clods of earth, chunks of rock, shards of wood plummet over and around them. In the village, a few hundred yards away, houses, shops, barns, warehouses crumple, collapse. A cacophony of ruin and destruction, the lowing and bleating of stricken, dying livestock, and the screams. Hundreds of screams, of the boy’s people.
The rain of debris ends quick as it came. Still clutching the small black cat to himself, the boy sits up, sees. A huge dust cloud billowing hundreds of feet into the air, black smoke of newborn fires flowing up after it. Pimmi writhes, but he holds her legs together so that she can’t escape.
He staggers to his feet. “Mama….”
A rasping, mechanical voice. I WILL SAVE HER, IF I CAN.
The boy whirls; Pimmi goes still against his thin, bare chest. A giant—more than twice the boy’s height, orange armor blazoned with dozens of curving black stripes—stepping nigh silently from the underbrush of the jungle about them.
RUN AWAY, the giant says, AS FAST AND FAR AS YOU ARE ABLE. Its striped helmet dips, green eye slits settle on Pimmi for a moment before going back to the boy. TAKE THE CAT.
Impossibly quick for its size, the giant sprints down the hill, into the valley and toward the village, vanishing into the jungle again. As the boy starts running the other way, the cat squirms free, tumbling from his arms. Landing on her feet, she dashes as fast as she can after the giant.
“Pimmi, stop!” The boy hesitates. “Pimmi!” Goes after her.
People—many of them hurt, bleeding, burnt—running, panicked and screaming, into the jungle; Pimmi and the boy weave through them. “Mama!” the boy calls. “Mama!” Ahead, wood snapping, the crash of metal against metal, bestial snarls. Again and again, the sound that this once-serene world, far from the galactic center, had not known for centuries: gunfire.
The cat and the boy come to his mother’s shack, now little more than a pile of kindling. “Mama! Mama! Are you in there?”
Pimmi creeps through a hole in the splintered wall, then under the palms used for the roof, and over and around the broken beams that used to hold it up. “Mama!” the boy calls again. “Are you hurt?”
There is little light, but Pimmi’s eyes can see. There is hardly space to move, but Pimmi’s whiskers find the way in, until she comes to the boy’s mother. Crushed under a rafter, broken, bleeding, her breathing faint, fainter with each one.
“Mama!” Pimmi hears him yanking up palm branches, throwing them aside, to reach her. The cat feels something flutter weakly within the woman. Pimmi licks her hand, once, twice, and senses that she has brought the woman a moment’s comfort when there are no more moments left.
MOVE. The mechanical voice again, and suddenly, Pimmi’s eyes shrink to slits as the sun appears over her. The striped giant, pulling up an armload of house timbers as if they were no more than a sheaf of reeds. Pimmi hops aside.
The boy clambers across what’s left of the wreckage. Cradles the woman who once cradled him, holds her on his lap, presses her head against his breast. The giant turns from the boy’s wails. Pimmi waits, watches impassively. Her kind cannot know pain as deeply as his kind can.
From behind them, glass grinding against glass as something stamps toward them. The creature is no taller than a man, and stands on two legs that bend backwards at the knees. Four arms, each with two elbow joints, ending in prehensile claws. Hide of smooth, purple scales, seemingly thick glass. A stumpy tail, spiked at the end. Two crocodilian heads on a single, squat neck. Sputtering white light dripping like tears from the five eye-nubs on the center of each head, and more white light slopping from its jaws, filled with jagged black teeth.
Pimmi’s back arches, hair rises, ears flatten and she hisses, shrinking away. As the monster springs, the giant steps between them, an armored fist shattering one of the thing’s skulls, another fist punching through its torso and out its back, spattering liquid light. The giant tosses the creature to the ground as almost a dozen more of them appear from around one of the few buildings still standing.
GO FROM HERE, the giant says, but if that was meant for her or the boy, Pimmi doesn’t know. The giant reaches behind its back, unslings a rifle as long as the boy is tall. With every bolt of searing blue-white fire, another monster explodes into sprays of light and glassy shards. Still, the boy does not leave his mother, and Pimmi does not leave him.
From elsewhere in the burning village, scores more of the creatures, swarm, screeching, to the fight, firing crude carbines whose slugs are nothing more than rain against the giant’s armor. Standing almost atop Pimmi and the boy, the giant’s gun fires again and again, but the monsters keep coming.
SKANDA, BE WITH ME, the giant prays. Slinging the rifle across its back, it crouches, claws of white plasma—so bright that Pimmi winces—crackling from each metal fingertip.
And then the monsters leap upon it, biting with obsidian fangs, slashing with thick glass talons, kicking with clawed feet. The giant impales the first, takes both heads of the second, cuts in half the third, slices off each arm of the fourth, disembowels the fifth, all in seconds, giving no ground. The giant keeps fighting until all of them lie lifeless, shattered and smashed, spattered with white quicksilver.
The claws dissipate as the giant turns to the boy and the cat. WHY DID YOU NOT RUN WHEN I TOLD YOU TO?
The boy says nothing.
“I won’t leave her.” Strokes his mother’s hair. “She’s all I have.” Pimmi nuzzles his arm, marks him as hers. Purrs.
The helmet retracts into the shoulders of the armor. A slit-eyed man, brown of skin, like the boy. Several long, black stripes tattooed down one side of his bald head. “What is your name, child?”
He looks up. “Rajeesh, sahib.”
“‘Kumar.’ Of course.” The man looks left, right, all around. Most of what’s left is burning. “It is not safe here.” Hefts the rifle again, looks up into the sky. “More of them will come.” Back to the boy. “The other villagers have left. You need to leave, too.”
“There’s nowhere else for me, sahib.”
“No family in another town?” The boy shakes his head. “No uncles, aunts?”
“I have no one, sahib.”
“Then, I will take you.” Puts out an armored hand to the boy.
The boy shakes his head, holds his mother tighter.
“There is nothing you can do for her,” the slit-eyed man says, “except live.”
Pimmi nuzzles the man’s outstretched gauntlet. Purrs.
The slit-eyed man crouches, his armor’s joints wheezing. “Your friend Pimmi says she wants you to come with me.”
The boy looks up, wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “How do you know her name?”
“She told me.”
“She can’t tell you. She’s just a cat.”
“Now, she tells me that you are being rude. Do as I say. Let me help you.”
Together, they gently lower his mother to the ruined floor of the shack. They stand, and the boy covers her with a frond that used to be part of their roof. “Can you…” he starts.
The man nods. A jet of flame from the palm of his left glove. The boy turns, steps away as the fire consumes her. Looks instead at the smashed pieces of the monsters. Picks up a shard, throws it against the ground, cracking it. Picks it up again, throws it again, and this time, it splits in three, shining white goo seeping from each bit.
“What are they?” the boy asks.
“Kurindans,” the slit-eyed man with the striped tattoos says. “They are here to kill our people.”
“What are you?”
“A Fighting Tiger of Vedah. I am here to kill them.”
To read more, get STRAY CATS on Kindle or in softcover here.
Kenton Kilgore writes killer SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young. Follow Kenton on Facebook for frequent posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. You can also catch him on Instagram.