Fall hold 3, p.1
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       Fall (Hold #3), p.1

           Claire Kent
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Fall (Hold #3)


  Claire Kent

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  Copyright © 2016 by Claire Kent. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means.












  About the Author


  A wolf chased Lenna into a tree. The irony would have been hilarious had she not been running for her life.

  She’d lived most of her life on spacecraft, and the remainder had been spent on civilized planets where she could find good food, decent drink, and worthwhile entertainment. A couple of years ago, she’d gone on a lunar safari, but only because the guy she’d been sleeping with at the time had insisted. Otherwise, the only wild she liked in her life was flying under Coalition radar in her smuggling missions.

  She’d certainly never expected to startle a sabretooth wolf and be forced to flee through the tangled undergrowth of an alien forest to get away from it.

  She didn’t actually know what kind of animal was chasing her. But it was shaped like a wolf—with slightly longer ears and with enormous, curled fangs like the sabretooth cats from Earth’s prehistory.

  Whatever the animal was, she’d clumsily stumbled across its path a minute ago. Unlike the other large mammals she’d encountered in the forest, this one didn’t let her slip away undisturbed.

  With a menacing growl, the wolf had lunged at her, snapping. So Lenna had done what any reasonable person would have done in such a situation.

  She’d run away as fast as she could.

  She was in decent shape from years of making quick escapes in her less-than-legal activities, but she didn’t have a chance of outrunning the wolf. After fewer than twenty steps, it closed in on her—so quickly she could feel it snarling and panting at the back of her legs.

  In desperation, she grabbed a low branch with both of her hands and swung herself up into the tree like a gymnast.

  That had been the plan, anyway.

  She was neither as strong nor as coordinated as a gymnast, but she did manage to get her upper body above the branch and haul her legs up, just as the wolf lunged for them. The effort felt like it would rip her biceps in two, and the forward momentum almost forced her into a face-first fall over the other side of the heavy branch.

  She didn’t have time to orient herself. The wolf took another leap for her, catching a piece of her pants in its mouth and grazing her shin with one of its fangs. Almost choking in panic, Lenna lurched sideways toward the tree trunk as she groped for more stability. She reached for a higher branch, scrabbling up in such a frantic climb that she scraped the skin of her hands and shredded the other leg of her pants.

  She managed to pull herself higher up the tree, just out of range of the wolf’s jaws.

  It was ridiculous. Lenna—twenty-nine-year-old pilot and smuggler—treed by an enraged sabretooth wolf.

  Oh, how far she’d fallen.

  After a planet dump, however, anything could happen.

  Lenna had been wandering through this miserable forest for more than two days, ever since a criminal enforcement unit had dropped her alone on this planet in an disposal pod—in what was quickly becoming the Coalition’s most common form of criminal punishment. The death sentence was forbidden—mostly for PR reasons—so criminals were sentenced to a planet dump like her or a lifetime on a prison planet.

  Either one usually ended up being a death sentence anyway. The Coalition could just pretend they hadn’t actually pulled the trigger.

  In some ways, she knew she was more fortunate than other victims of planet dumps. At least this planet was genuinely habitable to humans. The climate here was temperate, and the vegetation—even in this damned, endless forest—wasn’t as foreign as she’d been expecting.

  So far the only violent predator she’d encountered was the wolf who was still snarling at her feet.

  But that didn’t mean her punishment was an easy one.

  Only a few criminals had ever made it back from planet dumps. Being dropped on an unknown planet in an unknown solar system with no provisions, weapons, or transportation—with only a disposal pod manufactured to be cheap, biodegradable, and impossible to hotwire for flight—didn’t allow for many survivors.

  Lenna still didn’t know how long she could survive.

  All she’d eaten since she’d gotten here were some root vegetables she’d scavenged. They were sort of like turnips, and they tasted like shit. She’d seen some docile animals that looked like small bears eating them so she’d figured they wouldn’t kill her. She had some trouble forcing them down raw, but at least they might keep her alive.

  Her pod had landed not far from a fresh-water stream, and she’d been following it south when she’d run into the wolf. She was hoping to discover new plants as she traveled and maybe something tastier to eat.

  At the moment, however, eating was the least of her worries. The wolf had stopped lunging up at her, but it was still stalking around the base of the tree.

  Feeling nervous and insecure, she pulled herself up to a higher branch, stabilizing herself with her back to the trunk and with both of her hands on nearby branches.

  She then noticed a snake coiled up a couple of branches away—it was brownish, with subtle diamond-shaped shadings running down its back.

  Lenna jerked instinctively as she saw it. The snake was just sleeping, however, so she talked herself out of her concern.

  Snakes were easy. On Earth, they didn’t attack unless you threatened them, and they seemed to have the same personalities here. But that didn’t mean Lenna wasn’t paralyzed as she darted her eyes between the coiled reptile and the pacing wolf. She almost felt like laughing, in bitter irony rather than humor.

  What the hell was she doing here?

  A noise beneath the tree distracted her, and she saw a small mammal—it looked like a large rodent of some kind—darting into the clearing at the base of the tree. When it saw the wolf, it turned quickly and sprinted away. But the wolf had seen it, and—evidently preferring easier prey—took off after the new arrival.

  Lenna waited several minutes before she was brave enough to climb down again.

  The whole thing was surreal. She wasn’t a survivalist. She’d been in dangerous situations before, but they’d always been threats from other people and not from wildlife.

  And she’d always had a gun and a ship to get her out of trouble.

  Yet here she was, rooting around in an alien wilderness for food and barely escaping wild animals.

  Lenna had always considered herself confident and cynical. She’d been orphaned at fifteen and living on her own ever since. She was more than capable of making her way through a complex, sophisticated world on her own. She’d used her wits and her skills to handle boorish men, hostile customers, and a totalitarian government.

  This wasn’t the world she knew, however, and she was realistic enough to admit that she wasn’t going to make it here for long.

  Shaking herself off, she reoriented her sense of direction and then retraced her steps. All she could do was find the stream again and keep walking, since she couldn’t risk losing her one source of water. Her feet were aching, and the cuts on her hands and shins were stinging, even after she’d washed them as best she could. Every muscle in her body was hurting, particularly the biceps she’d pulled so brutally in her attempt to haul herself up i
nto the tree.

  Lenna was as miserable as she’d ever been, but she forced herself to keep moving forward.

  If she didn’t, she would die for sure.

  It was late on the third day—she didn’t have a time-keeper, but she suspected that the days here were longer than twenty-four hours—when she noticed the vegetation was starting to change.

  Feeling a new hope, she summoned the remains of her energy and sped up her trudging. The foliage above her was finally starting to clear, and she saw some plants that looked like they needed more sunlight than could be found in the depths of the woods.

  Maybe she was finally going to clear the forest.

  She was so intent on getting out of the trees that she almost missed something very promising just at her feet. She might not have noticed it at all had she not stubbed her toe on a tree root.

  Swearing under her breath, she stopped and looked down at her aching foot, noticing that her shoes were getting worn.

  That was when she saw the green leaves—green leaves that looked a lot like leaves she knew from Earth. Panting, she crouched down and pushed aside the leaves to discover little red berries. They looked a lot like raspberries, and the broad leaves would have hidden the berries completely had she not been intentionally looking for them.

  She picked one and nibbled it carefully.

  It was sweet and berry-ish. So she picked some more, stuffing them into her mouth ravenously.

  If they were poisonous, she’d be in big trouble. But at this point she couldn’t make herself care.

  When she’d eaten all of the berries in sight, she got up again and kept walking, keeping her eyes near the ground.

  Several minutes later, she found some more berries.

  She picked all of those too, but this time she collected them in the loose pockets of her trousers.

  She didn’t know how widespread the berries would be, and it would be a shame to eat them all at once if there weren’t going to be anymore.

  Keeping the berries safe, she kept walking as fast as she could. It was starting to get darker, and she didn’t want to spend another terrified night alone in this forest.

  Maybe, if she could ever break out of it, she could find civilization. And, if she found civilization, maybe she could find a way off this horrible planet. At this point, it was her only hope.

  A bird fluttered to her right, making her choke out a startled sound. But, when she saw it wasn’t dangerous, she leaned down and picked up a rock—trying to aim well enough to knock it unconscious.

  The rock she’d thrown barely grazed the bird, and it flew away before she could try again.

  She’d tried to kill a small mammal yesterday with similar lack of success. She wasn’t a hunter. The closest she’d come to killing animals was swatting at bugs.

  It was pretty dumb to think she could kill an animal with her bare hands and eat it.

  She wasn’t even sure she could make a fire.

  With a sigh, she started munching on a few more of her berries—feeling better, even with the small sustenance they provided.

  Less than an hour later, she finally cleared the forest and saw a huge grassy plain stretched out before her.

  It was almost dark now, and it would be crazy to explore any further when she was dead tired and couldn’t see anything. So she looked around on the edge of the forest until she found a large rock that provided some shelter.

  Then she curled up as comfortably as she could—it wasn’t very comfortable—and tried to rest.

  It got cool at night, but not cold enough to require a blanket. And so far, none of the wild animals had troubled her. But it was nearly impossible to sleep well when you were starving, exhausted, and on edge, so she dozed as much as she could and waited until morning.

  After several hours, she must have fallen asleep after all. Because, when she woke up, it was daylight.

  Something felt immediately weird, even before she opened her eyes. She couldn’t really figure out why, other than the fact that she hadn’t expected to fall asleep. She was disoriented, and every muscle in her body hurt. Plus, there was a painful vacancy in her stomach from the lack of food.

  But all of that was to be expected. She’d been stranded on a primitive planet with no possessions except the clothes on her back.

  What she didn’t expect, and what immediately put her on alert, was the feeling that something—or someone—was hovering above her.

  The sensation made her skin prickle on her neck and her forearms.

  So, instead of opening her eyes all the way, she peeked out through her slitted eyelids.

  She was on her side with her back to the big rock, and the first thing she saw was a long expanse of grass.

  Since it looked normal, with nothing dangerous or unusual visible, she opened her eyes all the way. It was still early morning but already bright.

  With a long inhale, she rolled over onto her back.

  That was when she saw it. Or him. It was hard to tell what it was.

  Her first thought was a blond gorilla, although the climate and environment was all wrong for that kind of primate. The creature was looming over her, big and hairy, and Lenna was so shocked that she momentarily froze in stunned paralysis.

  Her mouth completely dry, she could barely take a breath. The beast was too big for a gorilla, she realized now, and it didn’t really look like one anyway.

  Her next thought was Big Foot, like the ancient legends they used to tell on Earth. It was standing upright like a man, but its face was in shadow. And there seemed to her glazed eyes to be thick, dark hair all over its body.

  Then it made a noise—a rough kind of grunt.

  Lenna was slammed with a fear so intense that she was afraid she might be sick.

  It moved, stepping back slightly out of the shadow.

  With the change in position, Lenna could see the features on its face more clearly, and she realized it wasn’t an animal after all.

  It was humanoid. Maybe even human.

  Its body wasn’t covered in hair as she’d originally thought. Instead, it was wearing some kind of tunic made of dirty animal skins.

  At first, this recognition relieved Lenna. It wasn’t a wild animal looking for an easy meal. “Hi,” she croaked, forcing the words out through her parched throat.

  She spoke the common tongue of Coalition space—the one language nearly everyone in the civilized world could speak. There was no reason to believe this Neanderthal would understand her, but she wanted to show it she could speak.

  At the sound of her voice, the Neanderthal jerked back with another grunt. Then its features transformed with an emotion that was unmistakably rage, even on such an animalistic face.

  It raised the long spear she hadn’t even noticed it was carrying.

  Lenna was still lying on her back on the ground, completely helpless, completely disoriented.

  She was a normal woman—a pilot and a mercenary but mostly civilized. She should not be here, lost and starving on the edge of a primitive forest, about to be killed by an angry Neanderthal.

  Her vision tunneled into precise focus, staring at the raised spear.

  Then, as the Neanderthal made a sound like a roar, her instincts suddenly kicked in. Lenna pushed her body into a clumsy roll, just as the spear descended toward her chest.

  The spear connected with force, driving into the dirt she’d just been lying on. Her blood pounding in her veins, Lenna tried to focus enough to scramble to her feet.

  Before she could stand up, however, the creature pulled up its spear and thrust it at her again. She rolled once again, desperation guiding her movements more than strategy.

  She avoided the sharp point—which looked to be made out of some sort of stone—but it snagged the side of her shirt, pinning her to the ground.

  She pulled on her shirt as hard as she could, hearing the fabric rip as she did so.

  It was tearing, but not fast enough

  The Neanderthal was snarling now, and i
t raised a fist to strike her.

  Lenna tried to prepare for the blow, her mind whirling with both panic and survival instincts.

  But before she felt the blow, something streaked out of the air and slammed into the Neanderthal’s back.

  The creature froze momentarily with the same violent grimace on its hairy face. Then it fell forward, landing just beside Lenna with a spear in its back, one that looked a lot like the one the Neanderthal had been using.

  She whimpered as she tried to pull herself away, but she was still trapped by her damned shirt.

  Something had killed the Neanderthal before it could kill her, and she didn’t know whether to be relieved or even more terrified.

  Whoever or whatever had thrown the spear was approaching. Lenna could hear it moving through the grass.

  Then it too was looming over her.

  This one looked more human, although, like the Neanderthal, it had such long hair and thick beard that his face was barely distinguishable. The dark eyes looked more conscious, more intelligent.

  Of course, that could be Lenna’s imagination or a trick of the light, but it was reassuring nonetheless.

  Getting tired of lying at the feet of various cavemen, Lenna yanked as hard as she could on her shirt.

  It ripped, leaving a gaping tear from the hem to her right armpit, but at least she was free from the Neanderthal’s spear.

  She stumbled to her feet and stared at the hairy man. He, like the Neanderthal, was dressed in an animal skin tunic, although his was less coarse and looked better crafted. He was taller than the Neanderthal, but he was just as dirty, sweaty, and primitive.

  Plus, he didn’t smell very good.

  Lenna held her torn shirt in place and demanded, “Who are you?”

  He turned to look at her, as if he’d just noticed she was there. Then what she could see of his forehead wrinkled and he took a step closer to her.

  Lenna tensed, preparing to flee. But he didn’t have a weapon in his hands, and when he reached out it wasn’t in violence.

  He held her by shoulder and peered at her, obviously as curious about her as she was about him.

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