Sometimes a writer will come to me and say, “I’ve just written a book, so I need a publicist.” They plan to release the book and want someone who can go out and magically turn it into a hit.
Far more authors release a book and then plan to put it up for sale on Amazon for free and somehow hope that it will magically turn into a hit.
So where do you fit? Do you believe that other people can help you sell your books? Can a publicist do miracles? Can they take pigs’ ears and turn them into silk purses? Or do you believe that they’re all just a bunch of crooks, trying to separate you from your money?
The answers might surprise you.
First of all, publicists can help you, their services can cross a broad spectrum.
For example, let’s say that you want to get an article about your book placed in People Magazine or a popular airline magazine. Years ago, there was a publicist who specialized in just that—writing articles about authors and their books and getting them published in magazines.
Another publicist I worked with would set up tours where authors would go on television news shows and try to get author interviews set up there.
A third specialized in creating huge Twitter and Facebook followings.
A fourth created press releases so that the author could get articles published in the Entertainment sections of newspapers.
A fifth was an image consultant and trained authors in public speaking, and would then focus on getting them gigs speaking at author events.
Do you see the problem? Getting a publicist isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. If you are hoping to create an enormous splash, you might need ten publicists. There have been publicists who specialize in getting authors on specific television shows, newspapers, magazines, radio talk shows or blogs. Others set up book tours across the country. I’ve worked with publicists who specialize in online ads and getting mention of your books made to large reading groups.
Then there are publicists who really do have expertise in a wide variety of areas.
So, do you need a publicist? Probably so.
The really sad fact is though that many new authors are starting out with no capital to publicize their own work. They don’t know what kind of help they need. Even if they do know, they can’t afford it.
If you want to create a hit book, there are proven avenues that you can take. You can hire image consultants, coaches, and people to help you launch the book. But for a proper campaign you will probably need to risk somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000—along with a lot of personal time—in order to get your book on top of the bestseller lists, and it tends to work best with nonfiction titles, like self-help books. Pushing a fiction book is much more difficult.
I’ll be teaching a one-day workshop called “Steps to Becoming a Bestseller” on February 12 at Life, The Universe, and Everything.
You will need to click on register and scroll down the page to see the information.
Here is a free copy of my short story The Green Moss River. You can find more of my short stories for $0.99 on Amazon here:
The Green Moss River
Lailas switched her wispy tail as she watched the hunters leave their ship. They poured down its ramp, more of them than she could begin to count, like the baby fish expelled from their mothers in Green Moss River. Hidden under a strangleroot tree’s sheltering boughs, she flared her silver-velvet nostrils, and sucked in their scents. Too many of them to sort. So many different hunters.
But no jalwraiths this time. She shook her mane in relief, remembering creatures as tall as trees, scaly and dank and smelling of swamp, which had pursued the does last year. Claws as long as her head had flipped the does off their feet and gutted them with a single stroke.
None this time. Now the hunters lumbered across the grazing field, gathering into clumps like small herds, while the fading lights of the twin suns dimmed for the night. Only as darkness deepened to red did her questing eyes settle on a figure that separated itself from the mob. It stood alone, two-legged and upright, wearing a jointed shell like the little rock-crawlers that scuttled underfoot on bare hillsides.
The creature strode under the Gate of the Purple Moon, a stone arch that rose high over its head, and pulled out his weapons.
Human, she realized. She studied him and stamped a three-toed front foot. She had heard of humans. This one brandished a weapon and raised it ceremoniously.
Ancient memories demanded that she rise to its challenge. She crept forward to study him, heart hammering with fear, the hide twitching on her flanks.
Love had driven her here, love for a herd leader. There was only one way to win the right to mate with him, unite as one. She would have to outrace death this night.
Show no fear, she thought, and swiveled her triangular ears forward as she now raced toward her adversary, leaping over fallen trees and pools of fetid water.
Kember Hafen squinted through the reddening light at the boiling, bloated gas giant that filled most of the sky. He sniffed at the air, surprised at the lack of odor. “Atmosphere check,” he requested of his biolink, and perused the ethereal chart instantly projected before his right eye.
Ratios of methane and sulfur proved consistent with Earth’s atmospheric mix, but oxygen edged slightly higher. He quirked his remaining eyebrow under his half-helmet. That could give me an advantage.
From where he stood, in a grassy meadow with forest and craggy mountains beyond, the gas giant’s third moon, Malebour, appeared placid.
Kember knew better. As a veteran of Earth’s Expeditionary Space Marines, he’d spent too much time on too many rocks that had seemed harmless from a distance. Up close and personal, they had chewed men up and spit out their remains. He’d lost both legs and a chunk from his face, his left eye and ear, on a world with pastoral vistas and skies as blue as Earth’s.
Still, the posting on Mercenaries InterGalactica had caught his attention. The ad had been straightforward: Hunters wanted to kill harmless aliens for Galactic Games, payment of one thousand galactic garos per head.
The hologram accompanying the ad showed an animal called a panapy. It could have passed for some kind of Earth gazelle, complete with twisting white horns, except for its size, like a small horse. Kember had noted the broad forehead like a horse’s, with surprisingly intelligent eyes, and the hindquarters, well-muscled for leaping. It had a silver-white hide with a wispy bluish-white mane and tail, and a silver-blue muzzle that ended with several finger-like lips.
Killing bugs? Hell, I’ve done plenty of that. He’d snorted. In the Corps, all aliens were called “bugs.” This looks more like a big-game hunt. But with that kind of pay, I could bag four or five and afford to retire. Wonder how they taste?
Kember had queried the universal knowledge base via his biolink. Panapies rated Level 3 on the intelligence scale, he’d learned, three slots below him. Marginally sentient and pre-technical. Barbarians with hides and horns, in other words.
Kind of tough to develop technology when you lack opposable thumbs, he’d smirked.
But they lacked more. Their prefrontal lobes were too small. Poor planners. In other words, panapies seemed to be a species with no future, but to make up for it, they had evolved an expanded progonikal cortex, a portion of their brain which stored genetic memories essential to the species’ survival. Earth’s biologists wanted panapy brains for study, in hopes of learning to create something with the same function for humans. That explains payment by the head. He wondered at that. It seemed that the panapies were doomed to repeat the same mistakes, one generation after another.
Kember swept his gaze across the landing zone. The light reflecting from the gas giant cast an odd, rusty hue over the shallow valley and his fellow hunters. A few hundred of them, he estimated, studying the crowd.
They were trundling off to their own stations. Easing away from the crowds, he spotted some h’rikathi from Dath, leggy and yellow- eyed and wearing only their own streaky, tan pelts; and trologs from Suroomo, with legs like tree trunks, two-toed feet, and hides like rhinos.
Kember scowled at a flashback—trologs racing away from battle in terror. One of those trologs blinks at me the wrong way and I’ll be hunting more than panapies. They had been unreliable allies in the war with the chewanda. With friends like that . . .
He recognized a dozen other species and spotted some he’d never seen before. But no other humans. Fine with me. I don’t have any more use for humans than I do trologs.
The rusty light darkened to a bloody twilight with the moon’s rotation. Kember checked the power charge on his plasma rifle, the canteens snapped into his plate body-armor, the extra power cells and marker beacons clipped to his tactical vest. He switched his cybernetic left eye to IR night-vision without a thought.
A few yards away, the other hunters’ voices lowered to tense, anticipating murmurs. But the sensation of being watched, too familiar after twelve years in combat zones, came from behind. Kember shifted just enough to stare over his shoulder.
The human turned. Half of his face seemed to be covered with a shell, like his body, but Lailas saw the hard, straight line of his mouth and his soulless, distant stare. Danger spilled off his bulky shoulders and roiled the air about him.
She shuddered. This killer is more deadly than a jalwraith. Trotting near, she lowered her head until her muzzle almost touched her hooves. You are Death. I bow to you.
Two more panapies joined Lailas, her sisters. She smelled their fear as they also bowed.
The human looked down at Lailas and its mouth moved oddly, a grim smile forming. It showed its teeth and spoke. A translator on its shoulder broadcast, “You’re all dead meat.”
Good, Lailas thought as her heart began to race with excitement. As a foal she had often been told that “There is no greater thrill than to be hunted,” and she needed a hunter like this to prove her worth. Merciless, seasoned, a killer.
She reared on her hind feet, pawed the air, and uttered her own challenge, “Come for me, Lord Death. Prove my worth.”
In night-vision mode, the panapies’ body heat glowed pale gold, apparitions upon the fields. The leader pivoted and leapt away toward the tangled black roots of trees, bounding high, then landing, seeming almost to fly.
Damn, they’re fast. Its two fellows whirled and followed in formation—ghostly specters. Their beauty smote Kember. They floated over the land silently, leaping and falling like his childhood dreams of unicorns.
Idiot creatures must have a death wish. I’ve got my first targets of the night. He raised his plasma rifle to fire, and the creatures suddenly veered, as if some sixth sense warned of the danger—instantly they swept under the trees.
Kember gave chase, racing over plains covered in lush alien grasses, leaping a brook, sidestepping some rocks. A small mink-like creature ducked into the grass.
With the tech in his legs, he covered 600 yards in twelve seconds, until he stood at the edge of the trees, black boles rising up from tangles of raised roots, creating a bizarre serpentine jungle.
Like common willows with their drooping boughs, but with broader, feathery leaves of palest red. It could pass for a gazebo in some tropical garden.
Eyeing the spot where the gazelle-creatures had entered, Kember resisted the urge to curl his finger into the rifle’s trigger well.
Behind him, a wedge-shaped aircar slid in above the muttering mob of hunters and came to a hover with a steady thrum of engines. Kember couldn’t see its occupants, but the voice that emanated from unseen speakers clearly wasn’t human.
“Welcome, sportsmen, to the annual Wild Hunt,” the voice reverberated. “You may utilize the hours of darkness to kill as many panapies as you can. By doing so, you do them the favor of culling their herds. Only the females that survive this hunt will be allowed to mate, and they are eager to start.
“Your hunt starts here, and it is a thirty-mile course. You may fell them anywhere along the route until they enter the Green Moss River.
You may not pursue them or launch weapons of any kind across the water. Fly-eyes will be deployed to guarantee your adherence to this rule and beam images to sports fans across the galaxy.
“You must plant your beacon on the carcass of any panapy you kill in order to locate it once the hunt has ended. You may not set off until the starting gun fires. Good luck to all!”
That’s all? No regulations against hunting other hunters? Kember’s scarred lip curled. Just give me an excuse, trologs. Any excuse will be sufficient . . .
Lailas and her sisters rounded up in the glade with the rest of the does that would race. She saw nervousness in flicking ears and switching tails. Felt tension quiver through her own body.
Fathe, her fleet-footed sister, and Tevethal the clever drew up to her. Lailas gave them her impression of the human with the hard eyes and empty stare, and the mass of other hunters.
“They will have to chase us through the strangleroot trees,” Tevethal said slyly. “That will stop many of them and give us more time.” Lailas shivered. It will take more than strangleroots to stop the one with hard eyes. And if he falls, he’s only one of . . . countless.
“We should stay with the herd,” Tevethal counseled. “In the middle of it, where our coats will mix with the others and make us harder to pick out. Fathe, you must not run out in front, and Lailas, you must not fall behind. That’s where it’s easiest to catch you.”
Lailas hoped Tevethal was right. Tevethal has always been the smart one, the one who figures things out. And Fathe is perhaps the fastest in the herd. She will be able to outrun hunters when she needs to. But I’m small, I’m the runt of our litter. What can I do? How can I help us survive this night?
By the time they reached mating age, panapy does far outnumbered bucks. So to strengthen the herd, before mating season, females who had come of age had to race. They had to run from Grass Valley to Green Moss River, the whole way in one night.
In the time long ago, does only faced local terrors along the route. Packs of screaming biters, hump-shouldered and hairy, that leaped on them from cliffs and tore out their throats. Mud-wallowers in the swamps, that caught slender legs in crushing jaws and pulled them down to drown. Swaying fire fronds at the edges of creeks that stung if one brushed against them, causing paralysis and a slow death. Now hunters from other worlds had joined the slaughter. The does who survived, who crossed the river before dawn, earned the right to mate.
The weak, the stupid, the slow—they earned death. Lailas trembled, dreading the race. Then she thought of the buck with whom she had bonded. Strong Haloro, with his flowing mane and horns like spears. Haloro, who had chosen her over her sisters, so that they had bonded with other males. I’m not strong and smart, she thought, but I will do this for you, Haloro. You will not be left waiting on the bank, like last year, when jalwraiths killed too many does. A sharp crack boomed through the snarled forest, like a bolt of lightning, shattering the taut stillness. Lailas jumped. Heads and ears went up, and someone uttered a cry.
“The hunt begins!” said Tevethal. “Stay in the herd, stay close to me, Lailas, and run straight to the east.”
With a leap, Lailas and her sisters began to flee.
A canister launched from the game master’s aircar with a boom. It burst in the air, shooting fly-eyes in all directions. NE 4923 whizzed free of the cluster and arced wide. Swift movement below caught its sensors, and it followed.
A split-second scan confirmed the identity of its subject. “Kember Hafen from Earth,” the internal recorder began. “First human ever to join the hunt. As the starting gun fires, Hafen appears to have spotted his prey. . .”
At the bang of the starting gun, Kember whirled, rifle in the ready position. Thunder rumbled underfoot as the mob of hunters behind him charged. Closest to the trees, he used his rifle’s barrel to prod aside sagging branches.
On his second step, something whipped around his titanium right leg, ankle to groin. Its tug dragged him to the ground. Another whistling cord lashed his torso, pinning his arms to his body. He cursed.
Around him, bellows, screams, and roars from hunters split the night. He heard thrashing, grunts, strangled gasps. Kember laughed aloud, a “Huh!” of bitter recognition, not mirth. Sounds like my fellow hunters are being culled, too.
“Activate arm saws!” he panted. Slender double blades rose, humming, from sheath ridges in his armor, down the outsides of his arms. He felt their buzz, smelled scorching wood. The squeezing bonds slackened, twitched, and fell away. He drew a deep breath and leapt to his feet. “Retract arm saws, activate right thigh and calf saws.”
Armor saws had saved him a few times during his career, from trapping nets, cables, and once a tentacle thicker than his arm. The remembered odor of it burning almost made him gag again. He’d insisted on the same tools for his prosthetics.
Resisting the reflex to scramble up, which would probably trigger another attack, he searched the ground for snares. What the hell grabbed me?
His cybernetic eye picked out a root network, reaching across the topsoil like a woody spider’s web. Two sawn-off tendrils, oozing sap- like blood, confirmed his suspicion. Setting the plasma rifle on low, he pulled the trigger.
Fire erupted in a stream some sixty feet long. He upped the power a notch and seared the whole root mass to stinking, steaming ash.
He continued to sweep the ground with plasma bursts as he advanced, leaving behind the gurgles and thrashing of dying hunters, and sending up billows of vapor. The wet heat made him sweat; and the sweat ran itching down his sides. His own smell mingled with the scent of rotting vegetation, so thick he could almost taste it.
Clouds of tiny black butterflies began to flee the heat, swarming like starlings on Earth, taking strange paths among the trees.
His prosthetic legs carried him with longer, swifter strides than his real legs could have. His enhanced lungs pulled in oxygen without effort. But he didn’t have the forest to himself.
Shapes of other hunters who’d escaped the roots lurked around him, glowing as brightly as their game. Some crashed heedless through branches and undergrowth, some cleared their way with vibro-blades or machetes.
In minutes his IR vision glimpsed pale shapes bounding ahead between the trees. A mass of them, brighter with their combined heat than the creatures he’d seen at the landing zone. Kember charged forward.
Lailas glanced back. Herd mates surged all around her, necks outstretched, eyes white-rimmed, some with mouths open. They pressed her from behind and on both sides. She leaned into Tevethal a little as she ran.
Behind them, the crushing and snapping sounds of breaking trees grew louder, closer. Spouts of blue-white flame flowed along the earth like lightning turned to water. Lailas’s heart clenched in panic at the thought of fire nipping at her tail.
A herd mate’s cry from behind, then another and another, flicked her ears around. She gasped, a cry waiting in her own throat. They’ve been killed.
“Don’t look back!” Tevethal urged. “Focus ahead. Look at me, look at me, and think of Haloro waiting for you.”
Lailas swallowed, and pressed once more into her sister’s side. “Don’t leave me, Tevethal!”
Two lengths in front, Fathe and the herd leaders darted left and right through the trees, weaving and springing. Lailas panted, mouth open, as she followed. The forest floor slanted up and her lunges came with greater effort. Her chest had already begun to burn.
“It’s the crest!” someone ahead called over her shoulder. Lailas didn’t know who, she saw only flying tails through the misty gloom.
“Burrowers’ mounds!” warned someone else. Fewer trees, mostly wind-wrenched, leafless ones, grew on the other side of the ridge. The great, orange face of the giant planet cast just enough light to distinguish lumpy, scattered heaps of soil between them. Coming upon the first hillock, Lailas sucked in a breath and gathered herself. Let me leap far enough! Don’t let me fall through! Breath caught, she launched herself after Tevethal, straining to reach out with her forelegs.
Front hooves met solid ground. She released a whoof of relief and collected herself for the next leap.
New death cries rose on the breeze behind her. Through the tail of one eye she glimpsed blue-white fire arc across the sky, saw a silhouetted herd mate crumple as the fire struck. Fear made her breath ragged, left her legs weak. “Tevethal!” she called. “I keep hearing the cries. My legs are too weak to keep jumping. I’m so scared. Don’t leave me!”
“I’m here,” Tevethal said. “Turn your ears forward and listen to me. Go around the burrows if you can’t jump them. I won’t leave you.”
NE 4923 cruised after its target, a couple of yards behind and somewhat higher than the man’s head. “The human Hafen is burning his way through the strangleroot trees,” it recorded. “He is skilled at firing on the move and has already made two kills. He raises his plasma rifle again . . .”
Kember swung the rifle to lead one of the bounding gazelle-things. The plasma burst caught it in the air, struck its midsection, and reduced it to a momentary fireball. He followed the trail of smoke, white against the night, to the crumpled heap of charred flesh and bones.
A thudding footfall wrenched him around. Something bulky and smelly loomed over him. “Mine!” Kember yelled, leveling his rifle. The hulking shape lurched away, giving him a wide berth. Trolog, or something else?
It didn’t matter. He yanked a beacon off his vest, and wrinkled his nose at the burned odor as he crouched. Not much left. But as long as the brain’s still intact. . . . He drove the beacon’s spike through the carcass’s blackened ribcage.
Ahead of him, the trees thinned, revealing a hill’s crest. He raced to it. From the top he viewed a long, gradual slope down to an expanse of shallow water. The herd had spread out, and stragglers cast hot, bright blots on the cool turf. Two or three more easy shots before I make it down to the water.
Before him, the planet-lit hillside appeared broken, as if enormous moles had burrowed and kicked up mounds around their holes. Kember watched the trailing panapies, almost in range, leap over hummocks with increasing effort. Watched two buckle at the ends of other hunters’ crimson tracers. Thin wails reached him a few seconds later. Their death cries were strange, he thought. They were long ululating wails, a trumpeting animal noise, but similar to the cries of Arabic women when they mourned.
Hurdling a mound in his path, he lined up his next shot. As he squeezed the trigger, the earth opened beneath him. He pitched forward, tucked his head to take the fall as a roll, but found himself falling much further than imagined. He landed hard on his back, half winded, as a shower of moist soil and pebbles swelled to a torrent. Must have fallen forty feet.
Kember Hafen found himself at the bottom of a shaft, something like a well. Without his armor, the fall alone would have killed him.
Seizing his rifle and spitting out mud, he shoved himself to his feet. Ducked clear of the landslide and peered up. Damn, I could’ve been buried! But there’s more than one way to get out of a hole.
Slinging his rifle onto his back, he began to climb, slipping and falling, sliding soil under his feet.
“Earthling Kember Hafen has encountered another obstacle on his hunt,” recorded NE 4923 as it circled the pit. Its multi-mode lens zoomed in for images of the human working his way out. Its tiny go- lights caught him in an insubstantial beam of white. The whine of its miniature propulsion system cut through the clack and buzz of nocturnal insects. “While he does not appear to be injured, this surely will delay his making another kill.”
The steady whine caught Kember’s attention. No biologic sounds like that; they all have some kind of variation or pulse. That’s a techy bug. He paused at his task, scanned the orange-tinted dark.
His IR vision lit up the fly-eye, a bright orb the size of an eyeball with faint running lights.
He knew that this was a race, that the panapies that he hunted had wanted this in order to cull the herd, but he suddenly felt outraged.
He remembered Dev, a friend of his youth, bleeding out on some godforsaken rock whose name he had forgotten, eyes and ears and nose flowing red after a chewnadan’s sonic missile took him out.
“Don’t leave me,” Dev had cried, his voice hollow. Dev was reaching up, blindly trying to grasp Kember’s hand, his whole body wracked by spasms.
But the enemy had been advancing, and there wasn’t any saving a man whose guts had been ground to sausage.
“Sorry, bud,” Kember had had to say as he stood and ran away, dodging the incoming.
Dev had died that day, but something inside of Kember had died a little, too. After twelve years of that shit, he’d died a lot.
Killing isn’t a game, he thought. Bracing himself on his settling ramp, he pulled his rifle around, took careful aim. A brilliant burst left the scent of fried electronics on the humid air.
As he emerged from the pit, he studied the hillside below for more tell-tale upheavals. “Terrain survey,” he requested of his cybernetic eye. Dark patches showed cool gaps beneath the thin surface.
The herd of panapies, noticeably thinner now, still bounded down the gradual decline. Two miles ahead, he gauged. Dimming patches of IR return marked dead ones scattered and cooling on the slope. Many of the remaining hunters had passed him by, too, driving the herd toward the water.
He grimaced at the scent rising from it. The last remnant of an ancient lake. It smells like swamp. He recalled the giant leeches on Pergoth III, large enough to suck the blood from a man in three seconds. God, I hate swamps.
Kember took a long pull from his canteen, ejected his rifle’s spent power cell and slapped in a fresh one, before he started again. He glanced at the readout on his GPS. Twenty-three miles lay behind him, but he suspected that the toughest leg of the hunt remained.
Lailas had never feared water. The scent of it, lifting on a listless breeze, eased her distress. She saw Fathe still loping ahead, pushing forward as weariness began to weigh on the leaders, and Lailas felt an urge to join her.
As if sensing her mood, Tevethal said, “Stay close,” and then called, “Fathe, drop back! Stay with us.”
Fathe’s playful eye glittered as she glanced at her sisters over her flying tail. “We’re almost there!”
Hours had passed. Death was on the wind. The great planet’s orange light glinted on the water’s rippled surface. Lailas’s nose twitched at its sour scent. This is mucky water. I’m so thirsty, but it’s no good for drinking. She sagged against Tevethal’s flank. I want to stop, I’m so tired, but I can still hear the cries, and the herd is so much smaller now. If I stop, the hunters will shoot me, too.
Reeds and grasses poked through mud and lapping water in swaying tufts. They rattled on lazy breaths of heavy air as if calling to the racing does.
“Don’t slow down when we reach the water,” Tevethal said. “Leap out as far as you can. There are mud-wallowers at the water’s edge, with big teeth.”
“I can’t leap anymore!” Lailas cried. “I’m too tired, I’m too weak.” Her muscles had turned to pain, and she could move them no more. She felt exhausted, her mind whirling. She was ready to die.
“Do it,” Tevethal said. “Do it for Haloro.” Below, a few of the leaders hesitated at the lapping shore, paced back and forth. As they watched, something huge and mud-colored erupted in a burst of spray, seized the nearest doe in its gaping maw, and vanished with a towering splash. In the next heartbeat, red tracers arced out of the woods and crumpled two more of the herd.
“No!” Lailas cried and stopped. “Hurry! We must run!” Tevethal urged. “I can’t. I’m too scared. Tevethal, don’t leave me!” “Run!” Tevethal replied. She seized Lailas’s mane in her finger-lips and pulled.
All my strength, all I have left, Lailas thought as her feet touched the gravelly shore. She bunched her muscles and thrust herself off the bank.
Ambling down the slope, Kember watched the hunters ahead of him racing to the swamp’s bank. Waiting. None of them, even the pair of trologs slouching at the water’s edge, seemed inclined to shoot panapies as they half swam, half slogged through algae-slimed mud. They were sitting ducks, but Kember had no desire to shoot one; he’d have to haul it to shore to claim it.
It amused him, watching the gazelle-things struggle. What drove them? Did they know the hunt hadn’t ended? That all but maybe the fastest would be picked off as they dragged themselves out of the swamp?
If they weren’t swallowed by its denizens first. A query to the universal knowledge base via his biolink called the swamp-dwellers wahkameks, primitive reptilians that apparently had never finished evolving from eels to alligators.
Chuckling in his throat, Kember toggled the translator button in his half-helmet, said, “Panapy,” and nudged the projection volume to maximum.
The voice seemed to boom from the sky, as if from the baleful gas giant itself. Lailas froze, ears high on alert, her wide eyes searching the sky. “Why do you run?” the voice demanded. “Most of your herd has been killed. The rest of you will die when you come out of the water. What’s the purpose of it? Do none of you have a will to survive? Do your lives have no value to you?”
I want to survive! Lailas thought. I want to meet Haloro at Green Moss River. I want to live with my sisters and raise our young together. “Death waits for you to come out of the water,” said the voice. “We are prepared to finish this. We are Death.”
For the first time since the boom of the starting gun, Lailas felt angry, a surge of defiance and determination. I bowed to you last evening, Death, she thought, but I was wrong to do it. You are not what I thought. You only mock our ways.
She pushed forward, hooves sinking into mud, and almost passed Tevethal.
Sure enough, a shot flared across the swamp as the first panapy jumped onto the far bank, slime streaming down its legs. It dropped, and splashed into the water, legs flailing.
Kember quickened his pace. Rifle aimed at the water, alert for stirrings beneath the surface, he strode in. The hunters who remained followed.
The bowl that had sloped so gradually behind them rose in a steep wall before them, with only a narrow pass to the river valley beyond. Once he reached the pass, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. It was a perfect spot to take down the rest of the herd.
If I push it, Kember thought, I can get a dozen more kills before the last of the herd makes it to the boundary river.
“Terrain map,” he requested of his cybernetic eye, and saw through the billowing silt where rocks and tangled weeds and other debris lay.
More tracers lit the night, more panapies crumpled on the far bank. A thrashing began, water flying and spraying, when a hunter Kember hadn’t paid much attention to before crouched to drag his kill clear, only to be seized along with it by the largest wahkamek he’d seen yet.
“Dumbass,” he muttered, and took aim as another panapy sprang lightly onto the bank.
The blue-white flash struck Fathe broadside with a force that blew her off her feet before it slammed her to the soil. Smoke twisted from the blackened crater that had been her ribcage.
“No!” Lailas screamed. “Fathe, no!” For the first time, Tevethal’s firm voice lost its composure. “Don’t look, Lailas. You’ve got to run.” And she shoved herself between Lailas and the sprawled body. “Go. Just keep going.”
Crimson tracers lanced between their horns. Lailas ducked her head, leaned against Tevethal, and ran.
Kember squinted up the slope ahead as he slogged through hip- deep slime. Not as high and not as sheer as he’d thought at a distance. The gas giant’s dull glow cast the pass into brown shadow.
It’s only two miles. It was what they’d called a “kill box” back in combat, but if the bugs get through, they’re home free.
The image Kember had summoned from the knowledge base stood clearly in his mind. The pass opened onto a broad riverbank, sufficiently forested to provide cover.
I’ve got to cut the bugs off somehow so we can finish this. They’re fair game until they hit the river.
He could climb over the hill, he realized. He’d scaled steeper cliffs on Dadaqir, without lines. He’d do some quick reconnaissance from the top, figure out a course of action.
Clambering onto the bank, he paused only long enough to plant his beacon on the panapy with the smoking chest cavity. He had one beacon left. Considering how well he could retire with the pay from eight kills, he slung his rifle onto his back and started up the cliff’s face. The noise of hooves clattering into the narrow canyon below echoed up to him as he climbed. He gritted his teeth, seized the next handhold, hauled himself higher. Really smart, Kember, taking the long way when you’re in a hurry.
His prosthetic legs, pistons and gears, never tired. He clawed, pulled, and pushed himself up faster than should have been possible. Bellying onto the ragged crest, he didn’t waste time catching his breath. He scrambled across deep-shadowed rock, half jogging, until he peered down into the canyon.
IR vision highlighted cold, racing water, a warm belt of trees, and dozens of bright, hot gazelle-creatures gathering along the far bank. With the canyon walls as a sound chamber, his cybernetic ear picked out eager snorts and brays through the river’s tumbling roar. The welcoming committee. Not much left to welcome. Not by the time we’re done. The first racing panapies crested the pass. As if endowed with new strength, their weary gallops burst into dead runs, bounding and floating like a waterfall. They charged down toward the river.
Kember pointed the plasma rifle down and waited for one second more.
With Green Moss River’s scent filling their extended nostrils, Lailas and Tevethal plunged forward. For the first time in their journey, Tevethal left Lailas behind. But it didn’t matter now.
Tevethal was drawing ahead, full stride toward the grove’s protective cover, when the monstrous voice boomed from above once more.
“And so it ends, victory for the chosen few.” The human’s voice carried mockery, cold as the eyes of the human to whom Lailas had bowed. “The fastest, the smartest, the bravest are left. The weak have been culled.
“The best live to breed and produce more young,” it roared, “which will one day race to their deaths. Your cycle of life. Your cycle of death. It ends now. I am Death!”
The trees, dried by the constant canyon winds, suddenly exploded around them into flame.
The human was shooting into the trees—blocking their path! For a heartbeat, Lailas glimpsed her sister wreathed in blinding fire. And then she heard her scream.
Nothing terrified Lailas more than fire. Not mud-wallowers, not even the human with soulless eyes. She froze before the towers of flame. “Tevethal! Tevethal, come out!”
The translator worked both ways. Kember hadn’t known that. Shrill voices that he knew belonged to the gazelle-creatures filled his helmet’s earphones. He stared into the canyon, lit by a couple hundred torches of blazing oak-like trees.
“Tevethal!” he heard. “Come back to me!” “I can’t! I’m too scared! Lailas, don’t leave me!” He could see one panapy in the midst of the blackening trees, not pinned, not trapped, but petrified. Glowing debris rained down on it. The smaller one called Lailas paced just outside, apparently terrified, too. “This way, Tevethal!” it called. “I can see you. Turn around and come to me.”
“I can’t, I can’t! I’m too scared!” Tevethal’s mane caught fire, then its tail. It reared and plunged and screamed but seemed unable to move forward or back.
Then the one called Lailas lowered its head and lunged in. “Idiot!” Kember said through clenched teeth. “Do you want to burn, too?”
“I’m coming, Tevethal!” cried Lailas. “Close your eyes, don’t look at it. I won’t leave you.” The smaller animal pressed close to its paralyzed companion, took the other’s smoldering mane in its finger-lips, and pulled.
Tevethal followed, staggering, swaying, nearly dead on her feet. Once clear of the conflagration, she collapsed, falling onto her side. Even from his perch on the clifftop Kember knew that she was burned badly, knew she was dying.
Easy money. He raised his plasma rifle, thinking to finish it, but didn’t pull the trigger . . . yet. He didn’t have a clear shot. Lailas was in the way.
“Go!” he spat at the small one. “Get to the river!” If she heard his bellow over the roar of the fire, she gave no sign.
She planted herself in front of her fallen companion, and through her snorting and head-tossing he heard, “Stay away! Stay back! I won’t leave my sister.”
Stupid bug. There was still a path ahead for her, if she hurried. Kember shifted his gaze. The last hunters were cresting the hill. Most froze in shock before the blazing conflagration. Smoke trailed up the hill like a black serpent, winding through the canyon, flames leapt from trees, an inferno.
But one trolog raised its long gun. “You just gave me an excuse,” Kember growled, swinging his plasma rile. He aimed and squeezed the trigger. “That’s for her, and this,” he nailed a second trolog too, “is for me.”
He hesitated for a moment, thinking of the panapies. This isn’t a dead-end species, he told himself, astonished by the realization. The herd instinct was strong in them—the desire to help others above self, to give in to compassion instead of fear. None of that “Every man for himself ” bullshit.
Kember stood slowly and shouted through the storm of rising smoke and ash, “Life is not just for the strongest or smartest. I am Death, but you, Lailas, have proven yourself most worthy to live.”
The panapy whirled and looked toward him, then used her muzzle to push her sister to her feet.
Together they limped through the flames into Green Moss River.