The cage opens at the front, a double loop of chain hinging its door at the bottom. At the top a thicker chain and a fist-sized padlock keep the cage safely shut.
It sits against a dirt-colored wall, a position chosen so the desert sun can broil its occupant. Occasionally a trooper will give the cage a quick glance as he marches across the parade ground, but most men are careful to look away.
Bad luck is catching.
“Drag him out then.” The sergeant’s voice is raw, almost triumphant. Nodding to his corporals, he points at the cage. As if there can be any doubt about what Sergeant Fitz means.
He tosses the larger of two corporals his key.
Behind Sergeant Fitz stands a blond boy in a neat uniform. He’s our new lieutenant, fresh off a troop carrier and quite obviously terrified by what is about to happen.
As the smaller corporal jacks his rifle, the larger one fumbles catching the key. Close up, I can see that he’s sweating, his fingers trembling as he reaches for the lock on my cage.
Everyone holds their breath.
Yanking at the door, he jumps to one side as the door hits dirt, raising dust. I could make them wait, but why bother? Instead I erupt from the cage with my good hand already lunging for his throat.
The man steps back, instinct kicking in.
He’s too late.
I have his larynx between my thumb and curled first finger, and it’s the work of a moment to crush his windpipe. For good measure, I slam my forehead into his face, breaking his nose. The corporal’s already dead, he’s just too stupid to realize that fact. “Shoot the man . . .”
That’s our new lieutenant. As expected, everyone ignores him. Does he really think Sergeant Fitz will allow me that easy an exit from life?
“Take him down,” says Sergeant Fitz.
Reversing his rifle, to use as a club, the other corporal advances toward me. I’m naked, I’ve been in the cage for fifteen days, and Fitz severed half the wires on my prosthetic arm before locking me away. I’m so thirsty, I’d probably drink this man’s blood if I could get him close enough . . .
He thinks he can take me.
And that’s enough to make him falter. Dropping to a squat, I kick out the corporal’s leg, roll myself up his falling body, and reach his throat as his skull hits the dirt. My elbow does for this one what my thumb and first finger did for the other. He dies gasping, and I’m back on my feet and smiling at Sergeant Fitz before the lieutenant can get his pistol from its holster.
“No, sir . . . Let me.”
The words are a hairbreadth away from being a direct order.
The lieutenant takes his hand from his side.
For a glorious second it looks as if Sergeant Fitz is going to challenge me himself. Unfortunately that’s too much of a dream to be true, and he signals to a couple of recent recruits instead, then a couple more.
Can I take all four?
It’s barely worth asking the question. They’re children in uniform, cropped hair doing little to hide the softness of their faces and the fear in their eyes. Is the sergeant that clever? I ask myself as I watch the recruits ready themselves for an attack. One of them has wet his pants, the stain a dark shame on his sand-colored trousers.
“Get on with it,” the sergeant growls.
The boys glance at one another.
As they advance, I let the anger drain from my body. It’s one thing to kill NCOs, and I know enough about those two corporals to see them hanged. It’s quite another thing to kill children and I don’t intend to start now.
A bullhide whip tears skin on its first blow, rips muscle within five, and opens a victim’s back to the bone before reaching double figures. Men begin to die when the number rises above fifteen, and no man has lived beyond fifty.
This is a fact.
In the legion fifty lashes is a sentence of death, and any decent officer will give permission for the victim to kill himself before whipping begins. But Sergeant Fitz is not a decent officer. Mind you, he’s not an officer at all. He is an NCO and they’re the worst. I should know, I used to be one.
Being broiled in the cage is a bad way to die. I’m fifteen lashes into a far worse one, tied naked to a whipping post, with the flesh on my back peeling away like torn paper, and the man who put me here has just given his whip master a water break.
"Want some?” asks Fitz, holding the flask in front of my face. Of course I do. Not that I’m going to tell him that
I’m a big man, built with physical exertion and kept lean by the demands of frontier life. Like all the soldiers in the forts south of Karbonne, I’ve burned away my body hair with quick swipes of a firebrand. We are not ferox. We will not share even secondary characteristics with them.
Above me, on top of the whipping post, is a trophy; it’s probably going to be the last thing I ever see. It has fangs and narrow eye sockets, because ferox need to shield their eyes from the harsh light of the desert, and few stretches of desert come harsher or brighter than the dunes around Fort Libidad.
The skull is taken from an adult male.
If the heavy jaw does not tell you this, the bony ridge running like a helmet crest from its forehead to the back of its neck undoubtedly will.
A dozen stories revolve around this skull. Apparently I killed its owner in hand-to-hand combat and dragged his head back to Fort Libidad as proof. This is bullshit; what’s more, it is dangerous bullshit. No one goes hand-to-hand with a ferox and lives. I found the skull eighteen miles away. This was how far I tracked a deserter on the old lieutenant’s orders.
“Track him for a day,” he told me. “After that, return.”
We both knew what went unspoken. If a man is not found inside a day, then he is dead anyway, killed by the temperature drop that hits this planet in the hours before dawn . . .
Out of my sight, the whip master picks up his whip. I know this from the crack it makes as dried blood is flicked from the lash. “And again,” says Sergeant Fitz, and I tense myself against the next fifteen blows. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen
I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. And then the skull grins. Bone twists like flesh, rotten teeth bare, and the slitted eyes narrow further, in obvious amusement. I’m going to die . . .
My thought comes as a shock. Aren’t I?
The ferox grins some more. Jaws curve upward in a way that defies physics and all logic. Not yet
, it says. And not here. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Death's Head by David Gunn. Copyright © 2007 by David Gunn. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.