PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 56 of 62 )
: “ To Sleep, Purrchance to Dream ”
Carrier Battle Group Auriga (CVBG-A)
TCS Hades; Medical Center
19th FEB 2681/2681.050; 0930 Hours (CST)
“How is the furry bastard, Doc?” Commodore Garrison Murdoch asked the surgeon.
“Our feline friend is in a coma. He slipped into one last night shortly after landing on board. We’ve kept him in it as an aid to the recovery process.”
“And what’s fuzzy’s chances?”
“We’re not sure. We’ve amputated his shattered limb, patched up most of the other damage, external and internal, but he seems to be developing some form of skin infection, possibly a pathogen from the alien vessel.”
“He’s quarantined, of course?” Murdoch frowned.
“Of course. We’ve taken all standard biohazard precautions when dealing with exposure to possible infections.”
“Good. Inform me if his condition changes significantly, won’t you?”
“He’s being shipped back to the Shrak’har in 2 hours, now that he’s stable.”
“Fine, if the Kats want him back, he can be their problem.”
Catharx nar Vukar Tag, proud Kilrathi noble, lay in the hospital bed. Weak as a kitten, shaved from head to foot, his thick pelt and glorious mane now gone and the stubble itching furiously, but he was too feeble to even scratch at it. He had only just come off the ventilator and was just too weak even to roar with frustration.
He would not feel sorry for himself. He had survived, victorious. The indignities his body had suffered would heal and his indomitable spirit was intact. What did it really matter if they had been forced to shave away, not only portions of his fur around his wounds, to operate, but his entire body to allow the injections of broad-spectrum antibiotics to combat the alien plague? It would grow back. His mangled leg had been amputated but the prosthesis that had been fitted was an adequate replacement (and the nerve-bionic graft a complete success).
More than adequate, in fact, and enough to win any scar-bragging competition! Still, it would need certain upgrades from the armorer when he was fit enough to see him: Plate armor, spikes, and enough gold and jewels to show his caste status, but not too much - it must be a brutally martial device, not the equivalent of a gilded walking stick. Yes, he must think on exactly what he wanted for his new leg, but there were more important plans to be made. He had time, he realized ruefully, staring at the blank ceiling.
As he absently practiced moving his metal limb, he let his mind wander.
A barely audible whir of gears and a hiss of hydraulics from the mechanical leg that was almost masked by the swishing of his cloak did not affect Catharx’s ability to stride purposefully and almost silently with speed and menace. A rubber non-slip sole had replaced the former metal hobnails after less than a day - they were impractical for indoor use but could be fitted for terrestrial excursions. It had changed Catharx, though, from resembling a leopard... he now seemed more like a sabertooth, somewhat more robus. This was partly due to the added bulk of his armored, artificial leg and partly perhaps because he had added some weight over his enforced period of convalescence. Soon he would burn off the fat added during his bed rest. Still, if anything it made him seem even more imposing and deadly.
From under his scarlet cloak thrust the prosthesis, an awesome piece of lethal-looking machinery. Burnished copper-bronze metal armor was adorned with the blood-red tiger stripes he bore on his personal fighter, and decorated with gold and jewels. At the same time, the observer’s eye was drawn to the inch-long conical spikes that jutted from the thigh and shin plates (and noted in passing the spring-loaded, 18” scythes attachments) and the massive, clawed foot that it ended in. Bronze chainmail clinked; gold plates shone, jeweled body piercing glinted, yellow teeth menaced. Having surveyed the figure from foot to head your eyes at once dropped again as you reached the burning fires of those eyes. Even if you had rank enough to dare to look this Kil in the eye - and the metal limb and scars should have given you his name by now - few would have the nerve to stare into those supernova embers that burned with such intensity of driving, bitter hatred. This Kat had gone looking for death and found the Grim Reaper too terrified to take him.
Catharx nar Vukar Tag, Kilrathi Clanlord. The clanlord, they were calling him now. He had taken command of the remnants of the Kilrathi forces in the area after the destruction of the Nephilim in Nifelheim, before his fur had grown back, while he could barely stand, and had routed the surviving bugs that had escaped into the nearby Kilrathi systems.
That had been three months ago. Since then he had destroyed the forces of a neighbor’s clan that had attacked his home system while he was away fighting the bugs. His revenge for that act of cowardice was brutal. He had slain not only the clanlord and executed his family, but every officer in his forces and then their families, lair mates, concubines and cubs. Any Kilrathi that hesitated to swear fealty to him, even momentarily, had its eyes put out and any that had taken arms against him had their paws cut off as well. Other clanlords and pirate warlords had come to him and sworn allegiance and in return they were given the systems they conquered - less a tithe to Catharx, of course.
The speed with which Catharx and his generals had taken control of over ¼ of Kilrathi space was astonishing. The assembly of clans had offered him a seat on the council, hoping to halt or at least slow his rampage of conquest. Catharx had rejected their offer. He was distantly related to Prince Murragh Cakg dai Nokhtak, the last heir of the emperor, and head of the Kiranka clan, and might indeed use this as a claim to the throne, yet he had been part of Murragh’s retinue and some sense of honor prevented him from accepting the place of the Baron nar Kiranka whilst Murragh still lived.
The ruling council was divided between his allies, his enemies - those with systems closest to the borders of his space, and so most at risk, and those who wished to remain neutral, or who opposed him simply because they felt that someone trying to become a new Emperor could rip what was left of the Kilrathi empire apart. Others, though not his allies, tacitly supported his efforts to bring a unified, strong leader to their race again. And no doubt some of them felt that, once he had done the hard work of empire building, they could depose him and place themselves on the throne.
The last entreaty they had made to him, pleading that another would-be emperor would be the destruction of the Kil race had Catharx tilt his head back and laugh. He had sent their emissary back shaved and in chains - with his claws torn out. He had left him his fangs that he could more easily speak - as he explained to the messenger, before sending him back to his masters - but the message was plain: the council were toothless, clawless - powerless to resist him.
The council had debated long and hard over what to do about Catharx. He should now, because he had spies among them. Should they join him? Resist him? Wait to see if another clanlord proved strong enough to resist Catharx, and then join with him? Ask the monkeys for help? Catharx was breaking the treaty with the humans, amassing arms as well as wealth. It could not be a coincidence that he had focused his conquests on the main industrial systems. New fighters and capital ships were being built to equip his growing forces. Yet as long as his weapons and attentions were focused inwards it seemed unlikely the Terrans would be too keen to interfere with Kil killing Kil.
Those with homeworlds closer to the Vukar Tag sector were, quite understandably, more in favour of action, those with systems more distant from the threat advocating a “wait and see” approach. Nothing was agreed upon and thus the council was undermined and destabilized further, pushing the advantage still more in Catharx’s favor. Currently it seemed there was nothing to stop Catharx declaring himself Emperor in less than a standard Terran year.
But that assumed he kept winning systems. If he ceased to continue to gain ground then the support of those he commanded would disappear. He was a feudal lord now and without a war of conquest he had nothing with which to buy the allegiance of those over whom he had no blood ties of loyalty. The pirates would go first, of course. They’d be happy plundering the Border Worlds now that they were recovering from the depredations of the Nephilim onslaught. And how long would the other nobles continue to support and obey him when his ability to increase their own wealth and power evaporated? So he was in a very precarious position where he was forced to maintain a non-stop offensive. He knew, from playing chess with his Takhar Eldon, that this happened in chess. In that game of marshaled armies fighting on a checkered board you often got a choice between surrendering the initiative by consolidating your gains, perhaps castling, or by keeping the initiative and relentlessly staying on the attack. However, often, more often than not, in fact, an attack would hit a dead-end: One over-reaches oneself and leaves oneself open to a counter attack. So, you often had the choice at forcing the pace, and risking the fall, or sitting back, defending, reacting to what your opponent threw at you, waiting for the opportune moment to launch a counter-attack when he was weakest.
Eldon had told once mentioned to him a human warlord called Hitler. After a brilliant campaign or lightning-war he had encountered a dead end in his offensive because he couldn’t manage to invade an island called Britain (this was in the days when air travel among humans had barely left its infancy, and space travel only a dream) and so he had turned on his one-time ally of Russia, and thus over-reached himself as another great warlord and self-made Emperor, Napoleon had done before him (so Eldon said). The Russians had retreated endlessly over their vast land until Hitler’s armies had out run their supply lines and then the Russians had let a shortage of petrol, ammunition and the brutal winter of their country do what tanks and guns could not. Hitler had not learned the lessons of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, Eldon told him, “Those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.” Sometimes the human quotes Vandermann had countered his own knowledge of the codices with were illuminating. He had fewer lessons of history to choose from. After all, the emperors stretched back into a past that was more myth than history, and the Terrans were the first race they had failed to defeat. The wars of conquest had stopped and the Emperor slain. How then to avoid the mistake? He had the dynastic wars to consider, of course, but these were situations where one clan had overthrown another to become pre-eminent. And of course, more recently, the attempts of the Clan Caxki to form a ninth dynasty after the destruction of Kilrah had been a special circumstance - and ended in abject failure in any case. How had the first Emperor managed to unite the savage, stubborn, warring, proud, arrogant, independent, warring clans that made up the Kilrathi? Myths, nothing more.
He heard Eldon’s voice in his head, mentioning a name with awe, “Ghenghis Khan”. He had escaped slavery to unite the Mongol hordes and created an empire that spanned the known world at the time - or at least, it did under his son. Catharx’s lip curled at the bitter memory. His own son was dead. If he created an empire, he had no son to continue after his inevitable death. No matter what the feral warriors in the ranks of his army said, he had no illusions about this - he would die one day. If he did not have a son to keep his name alive, he would create a legacy: The new empire, the Tenth Empire, would be founded by him. He would be a new Julius Caesar, a new Genghis Khan. If a civil war erupted over his corpse for control of the new empire, so be it. But there would be a new empire. If nothing else, that would be his legacy!
What would the Kilrathi he commanded think of his friendship with a human, of his learning their language, customs and history -- a waste of time? An eccentricity? A weakness? Catharx saw it differently: Knowledge was powerful. Know thy enemy. Know his history, his military history that his generals learned and would inevitably shape their thinking in future campaigns.
Learning about your enemy was never a waste of time. Enemy? Yes, the humans were his enemies, the enemies of the Kilrathi race. Anything that confined Kilrathi space, hindered their constant expansion was a threat to him and the very existence of the Kilrathi race. If their aggression was not directed outward it would have to turn inward. Endless civil war, an ever more weakened people, killing themselves and saving other races the trouble. Already he had seen what such a Kilrathi future held - smugglers, pirates, freebooters and mercenaries - the dogs of war. He growled in disgust. The clanless, lordless, landless were vagabonds, nomads, thieves, murderers. The fate of all warriors without a liege-lord: Dishonor.
How had such feeble monkeys brought the mighty Kilrathi Empire to this? Yes, of course they were his enemies. Eldon would understand the inescapable logic of it. There would be no dishonor in turning on his erstwhile allies, the Terrans. In fact, honor demanded it.
The council, at least those who remained alive (Catharx had slain one and another had mysteriously vanished, and Catharx did not know if he had been assassinated by one of his own agents or another rival, or if he had fled into exile) had voted to declare Catharx dictator, ostensibly that the Kilrathi race had a strong, unified leadership in this time of terror and uncertainty, when the Star Gods might return to destroy them at any time. The second Nephilim incursion had given him a golden opportunity to be seen as a conquering hero, a victorious defender of the Kil, not a bloodthirsty, treacherous usurper. Not that the latter wasn’t a respectable career path for a Kilrathi noble, but the fact that he was of a lesser clan was constantly a problem to Catharx. If he had been a closer relation to Murragh there would have been less opposition to his becoming emperor. The Kilrathi were such snobs when it came to the bloodlines of the great clans. They would far rather accept centuries of inbreeding than a strong leader of less “noble” blood. His lip curled in a snarl of disgust. Still, he thought, it made their eventual pleading acceptance of him even sweeter when it came. The ranks of his clan had swelled daily as more clanless Kil had come to accept him as their liege lord. And now being seen as a defender of the Kilrathi allowed him more room for maneuver, and hopefully more popular support. Better to be feared and hated than ignored, but better to be loved and adored.
At least, as long as it served his purpose.
The surviving council members had met with an appalling run of bad luck: a suicide, one murdered by his youngest son, another by one of his concubines, a mysterious shuttle “accident”, a pirate attack claiming one victim and most amazingly of all (and undeniably nothing to do with Catharx) a direct hit from a nickel-iron meteorite the size of a clenched paw while the councilor was out hunting. When told of this amazing incident Catharx let out a huge coughing, spluttering belly laugh. What were the odds of it? Surely astronomical. The gods really must be on his side!
Catharx smiled as the technician bowed low before him and simultaneously a dozen slaves pulled the curtains aside. The new fighter was impressively large but its sleek lines spoke of deadly agility to go with the power the size implied. The customary asymmetry in Kilrathi fighter design had caused a few problems for the designers. The vectored thrust pods it incorporated (based on those of a reverse-engineered Vampire fighter salvaged by the Shrak’har earlier into the Nifelheim campaign) needed not only to align their main line of thrust through the centre of gravity but also needed to be evenly spaced along the centre of mass in the horizontal axis.
“How are the test flights progressing?” rumbled Catharx.
“A few minor teething problems, my lord,” grovelled the technician, “no more than expected, easily solved.”
“Good, good,” Catharx’s eyes gleamed with anticipation, “And full scale production?”
“Will commence shortly, sire,” fawned the tech, “however we have enough prototypes and pre-production models to form a training squadron already.”
“Excellent work!” Catharx’s massive paw slapped the diminutive, hunched technician so hard on the back the wind was knocked from his lungs.
“My Lord, we are happy to be of service.”
“It will not be forgotten,” Catharx replied
sincerely, “your reward will be
Now I must inspect my throne,” he announced. The technician’s scrawny mane
brushed the floor as he bowed again, but Catharx didn’t spare him a backward
glance. His fangs were bared in a wicked grin as he envisaged a dozen of these
new fighters flying as his honor guard for his triumphant enthroning.
The throne itself was understated, at least in outward appearance - a lump of granite, roughly finished. Yet there were numerous veins of quartz in it, and if cut and polished, it would be magnificent - but Catharx had vetoed that idea. The hard rock would be polished by the touch of himself and his descendants over the generations. It looked dark and lifeless, chained to the floor of the cargo bay, but as Catharx ran a clawed digit over it, he could almost feel an energy radiating from it. This fragment of Kilrah itself had been salvaged from the rubble of the destroyed planet, at some cost - and not merely financial. There had been an accident when a tractor-beam failed, damaging the recovery vessel, and another when a cable had snapped in the cargo bay and one of the loaders had been crushed. Another accident had occurred when a las-cutter exploded as they were carving the rock into the shape of a throne. Murmurs were going around that this block of rock was cursed, that it carried Kilrah’s bad luck within it, and that the curse would pass to whoever sat upon it. Catharx growled in disapproval of such a notion.
Such superstition among a race that travelled the stars! And yet there was the prophecy, and the Nephilim. But the Nephilim had been defeated, had they not, and Kn’thrak averted? So the prophecy was false, was it not? By that reasoning there was nothing to fear in such primitive superstitions. If he was to be Emperor, he must sit enthroned on Kilrah. If not this chunk of the vanished planet, then what? He was Catharx: He made his own destiny. Besides, he’d seen enough bad luck for one lifetime. Now his favorite concubine was nearing her littering of the twin male cubs the medics assured him she carried in her swollen abdomen. The omens were good, he decided.
No energy or ballistic weapons would be allowed in the throne room. He had personally overseen the installation of the scanning equipment and carried a personal scanner and poison sniffer.
His ceremonial armor was fully functional and he wore his sword. No others would be allowed anything larger than a dueling blade. It would offend the sense of honor of his subordinates if he were to entirely deprive them of weapons, but realistically, a Kilrathi warrior was just as deadly with tooth and claw as with a Vorshaki blade. Still, at least the threat to him would be diminished.
He had never realized just how vulnerable and alone he felt sitting in that throne until he settled into the stone seat himself. The liege-lord system that the Kilrathi had should mean that he was without fear of attack, but this was far from true, as many of those that obeyed him now were merely allies, and not sworn to him, let alone blood-tied. Not only that, but although in theory every single Kilrathi that was sworn to him should take his orders directly from him, as Emperor he had to rely on delegating through subordinates -- it was impossible not to. Save for the one called S'pulchr, there had been surprisingly little opposition to him becoming Emperor. After all, the council had declared him “Dictator” and once they had been removed, there was nobody to stop him. Perhaps, Catharx mused, many of the other surviving nobles of the eight great clans felt it was wiser to lie low until they were ready to strike. How much easier to take the power from an already enthroned emperor than attempt to become one themselves?
And even his own kin, of the Clan Nar Vukar Tag? Well, who better to succeed him than one who shared his blood? The lure of power was strong, as he himself was acutely aware. The threat of a coup was ever-present until his new sons were old enough to fight over the throne themselves.
Catharx lip curled. Danger had previously always been liberating to him. Death held no fear while his clan, his blood, was strong to succeed him. Now there was doubt. Not fear - Catharx would never admit to such a thing as fear - and certainly not for his own safety. He was mortal, and death (in battle) was inevitable and to be welcomed, rather than wasting away, enfeebled in body and mind, dribbling and soiling his bed.
The big Cat shuddered at the thought. Never would he die like that. No, fear not death (why waste your energy fearing something you cannot hope to avoid?), he was mortal, and it was inevitable, but perhaps a fear, nay, a worry, that his grand plan would die with him if he were slain too soon. If he died, his young sons and their concubine mother would have to flee into exile (should they survive his death) and if this happened before he had ensured their future, what then? Would they survive to avenge him, or would assassins murder the cubs and remove the threat of them ever looking to take power? He knew the probable answer, what he himself would do: They would be slaughtered ruthlessly, the loyal members of his hrai slain or scattered, turned into the very vagabonds he feared the Kilrathi race was becoming before he seized the throne.
Momentarily, Catharx regretted his greed for power now that it threatened his offspring. When his bloodline, his name, had seemed dead, becoming emperor had seemed the only way to preserve his name in perpetuity.
Once again, Catharx’s mind went to human history, not Kilrathi - for a parallel: Julius Caesar. He had become emperor in all but name, and yet was murdered (his oldest friend among the murderers) to “restore the republic." Eldon had told him that this was a lie perpetrated by those jealous of his power, and that in reality the republic of Rome had died before Caesar came to power.
History was written by the victors - but of course, it hadn’t worked. The name, “Caesar”, had become synonymous with “Emperor” for over two thousand years after his death. A growl of displeasure again issued from Catharx’s massive frame as he recalled something else Eldon had told him about Caesar: The civil war after his death had resulted in the death of his son, Caesarion, borne to him by Cleopatra. Would his own offspring share the same fate as Kil fought Kil to stand atop Catharx’s corpse and proclaim themselves Emperor?
Catharx twitched his mane angrily. The damn
monkeys intrigued and abhorred him
in equal measure. So alike the Kilrathi at times, yet at others so different.
He was a Kilrathi noble, not a hairless ape that, at that time, hadn’t even
learned to break the bonds of gravity that held him to his existence in the
dirt of a backwater planet! He was no Caesar, he was Catharx, and he made his