The lizard’s mistake is to move. The moment it swaps granite for red dirt and the temptation of food, it’s dead. Because my blade hisses through the air to open its spine from skull to tail.
It’s a small lizard.
All the big ones are eaten.
Picking it up with metal fingers, I hold it over the fire until its flesh crisps and the skin peels. The man I offer to share with doesn’t want to. So I bite off its head, chewing happily.
“Sven,” Anton says. “That’s disgusting.”
It’s not disgusting at all. It’s hot and salty from the grass and the saline bugs filling its stomach. Believe me, I’ve tasted worse.
“He only does it to annoy you,” says a voice.
My sidearm has been sulking since we landed yesterday. It wants battle. It wants slaughter. It wants glory and another chip upgrade. The SIG’s got a wolf hunt instead. Pulling the gun from my holster, I toggle it into silence.
“Can I look?” Anton asks.
He takes the SIG-37 carefully. The piece has that effect on people. Full-AI sidearms are rare. Not to mention illegal. “Pretty,” he says, handing it back. Not sure that’s the word I’d use . . .
“yeah, i know,” Anton says. “Never ask a man if he’s legion. He’ll tell you if he is. If not, there’s no need to embarrass him.”
In my case telling people is compulsory. That’s because I was once busted back from sergeant, and the law wants troublemakers identified early, particularly dangerous ones.
We’re near the edge of the rift, hidden in scrub.
A fire burns behind us. Dry kindling and dry wood so it makes no smoke. A freshly killed rabbit roasts above it. The spit is made from thorn, and I trapped the animal two minutes ago. Anton’s hungry and still refusing to eat lizard.
“You know,” he says. “It’s good to see you.”
I’m waiting for the but.
“But we thought . . .”
“OctoV suggested it,” I say, cutting him short. “And a suggestion from our glorious leader . . .”
“So the general had no option?”
Anton is shocked. As well he might be. I’m here on leave at OctoV’s suggestion. The idea that our glorious leader should bother with the welfare of a junior lieutenant, even a useful one, is so absurd I’m wondering about his real reasons. So is Anton, from the look of things.
“It’s strange,” he says. “How little Debro and I know about you.”
“What’s to know? I’m a Death’s Head lieutenant.”
“Before that, a prisoner on Paradise.”
“And before that,” he says. “The Legion Etranger . . . Sven. That’s not really an answer.”
Sounds like one to me.
He tells me most people, if you ask them who they are, they tell you about their family or their childhood, where they grew up, what they wanted to be. “Come on,” he says. “What is your earliest memory?” Debro was wondering.
Killing a dog. I’m five, maybe six. The dog is bigger than me. But old and toothless. The dog has only one canine. I have a brick.
Before I can drag the dog into hiding, older boys take it.
One of them uses the brick I used on the dog. When I wake, they’re gone and so is my food for the week. The smell of meat leads me to their fire. From their surprise, they don’t expect me to get up again. But I mend fast. How much faster than others I don’t know back then.
And I fight dirty.
Kicking embers at one, I knee another between his legs. He’s old enough for it to matter. A third turns to run and I kill him with my brick. They should have taken it with them.
No one argues when I go through the dead boy’s pack and take his blade.
The dog is too hot to carry. So I use my new knife to cut free a half- cooked leg and spend the next two days throwing my guts up.
Anton wishes he hadn’t asked. “You know,” he says. “Maybe you shouldn’t tell Debro after all . . .”
Three hours to darkness. To be honest, I’d rather be here on my own. But it’s his hunt. I’m only here because Debro, his ex-wife, thinks I’ll keep him safe. Although the sour smile on their daughter’s face when we leave says she believes the opposite.
Anton glances at me. He’s been doing that lately. Mostly when he thinks I’m not looking. “You’re grinding your teeth.”
“Thinking about Apt.”
That’s Lady Aptitude Tezuka Wildeside, all of sixteen.
He decides teeth grinding makes sense.
people keep to themselves in the high plains. Few families live here by choice. Most have fled debts or are running from conscription in the army of our glorious emperor. A few like Anton are in exile.
Some are in hiding . . .
I’m on extended leave. It’s the same thing.
The ground is hard, the grass sparse. Water is rare as hen’s teeth. Sixty miles from where we sit it pisses oil instead of rain. A pall of smoke hangs to our north and drifts from the roiling flames that rise from the rift floor. A hundred fires, a thousand fires. No one knows or cares. The rift is just somewhere to avoid if you have sense.
A geoforming malfunction, Debro says.
No idea what that means.
There is a deadly beauty to the hills around us. The heat will bake you, and the cloudless nights freeze your flesh to your bones. False paths wait to tip you down ravines. Sour water poisons those who drink unwisely. And that’s before the snakes, wild dogs, and mountain cats. And wolves.
Anton is an ex-captain of the palace guard, ex-husband to Senator Debro Wildeside, one of the richest women in the empire, and an ex- inmate on Paradise, a prison planet on the other edge of the spiral arm.
Me, I’m ex-legion.
Think I might have mentioned that.
He’s told Debro we’re here to shoot a rogue wolf.
I know better. Anton wants to talk. You’d think, out in the desert, that he was trying to avoid the spies of our glorious leader. But because our glorious leader hears everything, I assume he wants to avoid being heard by Debro.
Anton grins when I say this. “You’ve changed.”
“Adaptive,” I tell him. “That’s me.”
His eyes widen. Adaptive isn’t a word I use.
“Said so in my last psyche report.”
“The one they shredded?”
Yeah, that one.
“So,” I ask, “what’s this about?”
The last time Anton and I talked was Paradise. I was keeping him and Debro alive. Times change. I get the feeling he’s trying to repay his debt.
“Sven,” he says. “If you need money . . .”
Anton sighs. “We know you’re in trouble.”
That is one way of putting it. Dig two friends out of prison. Blow up an enemy mother ship. Protect some snot-nosed colonel from his own stupidity. Get my general promoted. Win praises from our glorious leader. And end up with a list of enemies longer than I can count, starting with General Jaxx himself.
Welcome to the Octovian Empire.
Anton won’t let me shake off his thanks.
That tells me how things have changed. In prison I’d simply punch him into silence. Now we’re on his ex-wife’s land, with his buggy parked behind us, and he owns the hunting rifle I’m using. It’s a beauty, too. Perfect balance, a custom stock and a telescopic sight so perfect that looking through it feels like being there. The round is 7.62, full metal jacket. Anton’s old-fashioned like that.
“We couldn’t believe it,” he says.
“No,” the man corrects himself. “I couldn’t believe it. Debro always said you’d come through. But when the guards arrived . . .”
Memory chokes his voice.
Being freed isn’t the first thing on anybody’s mind when the guards turn up. Being taken for questioning. Being shot. But freed?
Time to change the conversation.
“You really think a wolf’s out there?”
Anton squints toward the goat we’ve tethered to a post. The animal has sunk into an exhausted silence. Its tugs against the rope are weaker than they were an hour ago.
“Yes,” he says.
“Then we’ll give it another five minutes.”
“We go looking.”
His laugh is a bark. “Believe you would.”
What’s to believe? Temperature’s dropping and night’s coming in. There are tacos and cold beers waiting for us at Wildeside. The sooner the wolf is dead, the sooner I get a drink.
“Sven . . .”
Seems I won’t have to go looking after all.
The wolf is huge. Grizzled and gray around its muzzle. It’s also limping and has a gash on its haunches that looks fresh. As it crests a boulder, the beast stops to look back. Neck out, head held awkwardly.
“Clear shot,” Anton says.
I can see that. Hell, I’ve rarely had an easier target. The animal’s backlit by twilight. My line of sight is clear. And the animal so close the scope is a luxury.
So what stops me?
That gut feeling I get before shit goes bad.
“Sven . . .”
Anton scowls, but he waits in silence. So does the wolf. The goat, however, goes berserk. All the more so because the wolf is ignoring it. When the SIG-37 shivers out of standby, I know we’re in trouble.
“Arid wastes,” it says. “Pitiless sun. Poisonous water. A million miles from the nearest decent bar. Remember how you said we’d be safe here?”
Not sure I put it like that.
“Guess what? You were wrong.”
Very slowly, I hand Anton back his rifle.
“Go,” I tell him. “Get back to the buggy.”
The idiot shakes his head.
“Listen,” I say. “I didn’t bring you back to get you killed. Leave, I’ll keep you covered.”
“Sven,” he says. “I can’t . . .”
“Just do it.”
“Guys,” my gun says. “Focus on what’s out there.”
I can put a name to the danger. Sergeant Horse Hito, killer by appointment to Indigo Jaxx, general of the Death’s Head. Now, Hito is a man I regard with respect; I just ?didn’t expect him to find me so fast.
Torn between its prey and the person coming up behind, the wolf hesitates. Probably thinks Sergeant Hito want its supper.
“Just Hito?” I ask.
My SIG does that whirring thing. “No,” it says. “Two . . .” It hesitates, flicks a few diodes. “Three . . . four,” it confirms finally. “The first has broken away. He’s heading toward us.”
Doesn’t sound right to me. “Stealth camouflage?”
“No . . . yes.” The SIG sounds puzzled. “Maybe.”
“Not my fault,” it says. “It’s . . .” I ignore whatever else my gun wants to say. Because the trouble is here.
“Sven,” Anton says.
Yeah. Seen it.
Fuck knows what it is. But it’s not General Jaxx’s assassin. Even Horse Hito at his ugliest doesn’t look this rough.
Triangular face, sunken red eyes, needle-like teeth. When the wind changes direction we smell its stink. Like vinegar. The weirdest thing is its skin. Silver and leathery.
Picking itself up, the creature gazes toward us and then turns to the wolf, which finally breaks its silence with a long low growl.
“It’s a fury,” Anton says.
I’ll take his word for it. “Hollow point,” I tell my gun.
Flechette’s too specialized and I don’t plan to light the night sky with incendiary, which would simply advertise my position to anyone else out there. Like the real Horse Hito.
Hollow points spread. That’s why I use them. These slugs keep 99.8 percent of their mass and achieve a 300 percent spread on a typical torso shot, and I fire three in quick succession. Turns out to be as pointless as shooting holes in a paper bag.
“Wait,” Anton shouts.
So I hold off going after it with a knife.
As the fury advances, the wolf tips back on its haunches. And then it springs. That’s when something strange happens. Instead of dodging, the fury slams its fist into the wolf’s ribs.
We hear bones break.
Gripping the wolf’s scruff with one hand, the creature rams the fingers of its other hand into the animal’s chest. The wolf howls. Obviously. Blood runs down the fury’s wrist, but it also drips from the wounds we punched in its gut.
“Fuck,” I say.
Anton nods. “Drinks through its fingers.”
I can see why he’s worried.
Now the wolf’s dead there’s no prize for guessing the next target. Unless we were the target all along. Mind you, there’s always the goat. Ripping free my knife, I flip it around and throw.
Bleating turns to a scream of pain.
And the fury racing toward Anton hesitates. Twitching sideways,
it heads for the goat instead. Grabbing the animal, the fury sinks its fingers through muscle, and fresh blood begins to trickle from its
The bastard has skeletal arms and legs, a sack-like gut, and a focus so tight it can’t do more than one thing at once. Fight or feed, not both.
That’s its weakness.
Maybe it’s used to people backing away. Or maybe I just imagine something flicker behind those eyes.
“Sven,” Anton says.
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Hey,” says my gun. “Always a first time.”
We’re circling, the fury and I.
It lunges and I block its wrist. Like being hit with a steel bar. Next time I’m going to use my combat arm. I step sideways and it steps sideways. Not sure this thing is alive in a sense I understand. But it mimics my steps perfectly.
And it’s going to be a bastard to kill.
It lunges, I block.
When it makes its fifth or sixth lunge, I step into it. And feel the creature’s fist crack open my chest. Bones break and ribs are forced apart as it reaches inside.
Hurts like hell.
That is where the fury comes unstuck. Its skeleton might be metal. But so is my combat arm, which is piston-driven and twisted with braided hose. Plus I kill on instinct. Now, I might have learned to keep that under control . . .
But everyone’s allowed a day off.
Gripping its wrist, to stop it from reaching my heart, makes the fury raise its head and hiss at me. So I tighten my own fingers and twist. Bones break somewhere under that leathery skin.
“Earth to Anton,” the SIG says.
I’m getting there.
Ramming my gun against the creature’s throat, I pull the trigger and watch bits of steel spine, wire, and withered flesh exit through the back of its neck. Hollow point, got to love it.
“Throat?” Anton says.
Obviously. I doubt if it has a brain worth shooting.
man down. Anton kneels at my side as blood pools in a fuzzy-edged circle around me. Darkness is here and the night goggles he’s slipped over my eyes make my blood look almost fluorescent.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Death's Head: Day of the Damned by David Gunn. Copyright © 2009 by David Gunn. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.