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Fueled with high-octane testosterone and noteworthy for a kill rate more customary in computer games than in works of literature, David Gunn’s novels take no prisoners and make no apologies. Like war itself, they are raw and violent, horrifying yet mysteriously moving. These qualities also characterize Gunn’s hero and narrator, Lt. Sven Tveskoeg, a killing machine whose DNA marks him as less–or perhaps more–than human. Whatever he is, he is always as enthralling as he is lethal.
Sven has survived everything a hostile universe can throw at him. But he’d be the first to admit that it isn’t smarts that have kept him alive for so long. And it’s not luck, either. Because luck wouldn’t have seen him plucked out of obscurity to serve in the army of Emperor OctoV, a machine-human hybrid who appears to be a teenage boy but is actually immeasurably older. Maybe Sven has survived out of sheer orneriness–although his artificially intelligent, unmistakably sarcastic, and more or less sociopathic sidearm might argue otherwise–but Sven isn’t one to ponder such questions.
In Day of the Damned, Sven and his band of misfit auxiliaries have arrived at Farlight, capital of the Octavian Empire, for a little well-earned rest and relaxation. Sven visits his old friends Debro and Anton, whom he liberated from the prison planet of Paradise, and their teenage daughter Aptitude, whose husband he assassinated and who now has a major crush on him.
But what begins as a respite quickly turns into a bloodbath as civil war erupts. And behind the double crosses and Byzantine betrayals threatening to topple OctoV from the throne he has held for thousands of years are the United Free, a galaxy-spanning empire with the technology of gods and the morals of schoolchildren.
As usual, big trouble seems to be following Sven. Which is all right with him. He isn’t that fond of vacations, anyway.
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Smartly dressed, resourceful, and discreet, David Gunn has undertaken assignments in Central America, the Middle East, and Russia (among numerous other places). Coming from a service family, he is happiest when on the move and tends not to stay in one town or city for very long. The author of Death’s Head and Death’s Head: Maximum Offense, Gunn lives in the United Kingdom.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 ...
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