After an intense week of editing, tweaking, and formatting, I uploaded Veiled Planet to Amazon yesterday. Pressing that 'Publish Now' button is always a thrilling, yet nerve-wracking moment.
I want to let you know that the book is $.99 for its first week of release (until the 30th June), after which the price will be $2.99) or free if you're with Kindle Select.
Here's the first chapter of the book, and I hope you enjoy the start of Kara's journey.
Chapter One: An Encounter
Kara squinted, peering through the tall, thin jezebel trees. Their bare pallid trunks crowned with wide red leaves provided shade from the midday sun, but not from the heat, and she periodically wiped the sweat off her forehead before it dripped into her eyes. She could see where the upward trail led, but there wasn’t a single olive green cadet uniform in sight.
“Hey, wait for me!” Kara winced at the saw-edged whine in her voice, but they should have waited. The core element in this test was cooperative functioning as a team, and leaving someone behind broke the first rule of colony survival—you didn’t abandon anyone. If she didn’t catch up, she’d drop back to bottom ranking in her class. Not the result she wanted after she’d spent the last year clawing her way up two paltry places. Where in the universe were they?
Kara blew out a breath of frustration, ran her sweaty hands through her short hair, and put her sulk on hold. Lifting one foot at a time and putting it down while scrutinizing the ground for signs of spring-beetle occupancy took every bit of her attention. The small pyramidal mounds were thankfully absent. A bite from the insect, while not life threatening, could swell to horrible proportions. Her study of the insects last semester had given her far too much insight into the varying sizes and discomforts of post-bite swellings.
Two corco birds flew high above the canopy, cackling to each other as their heavy wings beat the air with a soft thump thump. They were herbivores, although there were still many unknown species of plant and animal on the planet awaiting detection and classification.
Kara halted for a second to observe their ungainly flight. Next year she would begin studies in her chosen subjects—botany and biology. She ignored the flush of guilt at the thought of the tiny gold speckled plants which had caught her eye. She was fully aware this wasn’t a field trip, but the urge to pop a couple into one of the specimen bags she always carried had been overwhelming. That was probably when she’d dropped behind, but one way or another, she would finish this course. If it had to be without the support of the rest of the class, so be it.
Since she’d become a student at the academy two cycles ago, she’d had plenty of experience of being the outsider. Joining the class late, because she’d remained with her father after her mother died, made her different from the rest. Friendships, cliques, and lines of allegiance were already long cemented by the time she arrived. Her shyness had been interpreted as unsociability, and her absorption in her studies seen as boring. Then there was her lack of interest in team games. She had what was called a delicate build which translated into a lack of enthusiasm for the more physical aspects of cadet training. Kara didn’t consider herself weak, she just wasn’t the least bit interested in throwing her classmates onto the practice mats and giving loud shouts every time she did so. The local flora and fauna were far more fascinating, and at least they couldn’t make nasty remarks about her within her hearing.
Her pack contained a map of the route, water, an emergency medical kit, and enough basic rations to ensure survival. Naturally, there was no comunit because calling for help defeated the point of the exercise. The original treaty with the Maruts, the planet’s indigenous hominids, prevented a true survival experience because they were forbidden to go beyond their settlement area, but now, alone—even though she was within a two-day's walk of the colony—this so-called practice was worryingly more authentic than she’d anticipated.
Fifty cycles ago, the Triumvirate gained permission from the Maruts for a colony on the planet, and the settlers’ situation was still far from permanent. Dangers from the flora and fauna, a variable climate, and the planet’s position at one end of a galaxy spiral placed it in the category of a limited outer world. But for Kara, it was home.
She mentally ran through the list of worst possible dangers as she continued up the trail. The small red-humped salamanders were dangerous when they were in heat and defending their territory, but thankfully this wasn’t the season. Kallin bears hadn’t been spotted anywhere near this location for the last ten cycles, and this area wasn’t on the seasonal migratory route of the Maruts. However, these were merely a few dangers on a long list. She shunted these thoughts aside, lumping them together with her irritation and resentment.
Kara ignored the mid-day heat as the hot Hamarkhian sun beat down on the forest, and wiped away the sweat trickling into her eyes with the back of her hand. She listened for indications that her companions were up ahead. Nothing. Her heart started to pound and she sucked in small puffs of warm air as she heard her father’s instructions in her mind. If you’re out there alone, be alert and don’t think about anything else except for what’s around you. Focus on the next step that’ll get you back to safety. Survival is a matter of breaking down the major objective of staying alive into smaller, achievable tasks.She closed her eyes for a minute breathing slow and deep till her pulse slowed and her flight impulse subsided.
If she didn't complete the exercise but retraced her steps to the starting point by going back down the hill, the entire unit would fail the exercise, drop their group rating, and have to repeat it after the term ended. This would give the other cadets more reason to resent her than they already did. If she finished the course, they wouldn’t achieve top ranking, but at least the assignment would be complete. Memorizing the route had been part of the preparation, and all she had to do was continue up the mountain to the summit, turn left and follow the trail till she arrived back at the spot where they’d camped last night. Easy.
Ignoring the burning ache in her calves, she pushed herself and walked faster, clinging to the small hope that maybe a couple of cadets had been instructed to wait for her at the top of the hill. Yet a knot of anxiety remained, no matter how frequently she told herself everything was going to be fine. After another spell of steep climbing, the thinning trees warned her she was approaching the edge of the forest. She’d catch up with them soon. The trouble with fear is it doesn’t stay boxed away.
Abruptly the forest ended, and a stretch of bare red rock led up to the summit. Here and there, the hardy brownish native moss had secured a grip, giving the landscape a burned mottled appearance and the slight breeze lifted small curls of dust. But there was no sign of any cadets.
Thank the stars this wasn't the storm season, although on Hamarkhis no season was without irregularities as weather patterns were notoriously unstable and hard to predict. If a storm had unexpectedly blown in from the desert, the group leader, Nina, would have received notification as she had a comunit for emergencies—which was no help to Kara.
She would have loved to collect more specimens but was far too aware of the price she was paying for her last stop. She listened and checked ahead before leaving the shelter of the trees. The low drone of the forest’s inhabitants rose and fell behind her.
Where in the universe had they gone? Sixteen trainee cadets on a routine survival exercise couldn’t disappear. Practical jokes were the warp and weft of dorm life but this wasn’t funny. Anything might happen. Kara’s anger skyrocketed, and she stormed ahead with her eyes fixed on her goal as outrage fueled the last half klick to the summit. Well, no one was going to be laughing when she reported this to Commander Trench.
As she mounted the final slope, she forgot her predicament and gasped in pleasure at the view. Row after row of red jagged peaks, crowned with snow, marched to the horizon. These mountains were the start of the Founders Range and covered the northern third of the continent.
Pre-settlement surveillance had discovered the Maruts pastured their herds of satyrs in valleys peppered throughout this range. An anthropologist among the first colonists had nicknamed the herbivores satyrs, a creature out of an ancient fable, as a joke, and the name had stuck. However, the Maruts didn’t keep satyr herds for their meat, but for their coats which molted seasonally; they used the thick satyr wool and satyr hides for clothing, housing, carpets, tents. They milked the satyrs as well, which produced at least half a dozen food products. The satyrs were the basis for their way of life, and without them the Maruts could face extinction.
Kara searched the slope below. No sign of her team-mates. How had she dropped this far behind? She hadn’t been that slow, had she? She started walking, but half-way to the summit, her stomach started making loud noises, and she figured she ought to eat. Basic survival training began early. The necessity of staying hydrated and fed was drummed into children living in a world of hidden hazards.
She didn’t bother about the spring-beetles―the forest was their habitat―but sat on a handy outcrop of rock and stuffed the bland emergency rations into her mouth, glugging the tepid liquid from her water bulb. The concentrated bars of essential vitamins and minerals were light to carry and quick to digest, and she brushed the final crumbs off her hands ready to face the downward trail. She would have to get moving if she wanted to reach camp before darkness fell.
Then she heard it.
A low growling, some distance away, behind and below her. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she recognized the sound. It was one every colonist was familiar with, but only through educational holovids. She turned, and froze as a huge red and green kallin bear emerged from the forest. Kara stared, stunned, then pinched her arm hard. No, she wasn’t hallucinating.
The beast raised its giant snout and sniffed the air. Catching her scent, the animal paced toward her, paw by gigantic razor tipped paw.
Kara’s training kicked in, and she pressed the adrenaline patch on the underside of her arm, releasing its one dose. As the hormone mixture flooded her bloodstream, enhancing her responses and donating an artificial mental clarity, she recognized she had no way of escape, and was unlikely to survive this encounter. A rapid stream of thoughts flashed through her mind. If only those in charge of such matters had anticipated needing more than one adrenaline boost. If only the others had waited, together their prospects would have been better, and what a story that would have been to tell her father. Rage at her classmates’ carelessness swept through her, and she cursed them a second time.
Tracking the giant predator’s progress, Kara removed the stunner from her belt with careful slow movements.
The animal began to charge, gaining momentum as it grew closer.
Logic and reason informed her there was no way she could outrun the beast, even if she’d been in the forest, as its formidable sense of smell would allow it to track her scent as easily as following a lit pathway. She remembered the kallin bear’s swiftness and natural weaponry made it one of the dominant mammals on this planet. She very nearly smiled; her last moments and all she could summon up were facts from a biology lesson.
She raised the pistol, it had a range of approximately a quarter of a klick, but she was a lousy shot. Martial arts, self-defense, in fact, any of the physical skills that helped the colonists survive fell into the category of no ability and even less interest. But while Kara intellectually understood the longer she delayed the more she increased her chances of hitting the creature, her hands shook as she observed the slavering mouth and sharp canines as the bear increased its speed.
The bear’s fast rolling gait made it hard to get a fix on a vulnerable spot, but she zeroed in on the left eye. She aimed, fired, and hit the animal in the shoulder. Damn. She fired another shot. The stunner had ten more shots before it needed recharging, but the rabid predator closing in on her clearly had a quick lunch on its mind. Her next shot hit the upper chest and made not a whit of difference to its approach. She fired again, and the stun charge struck close to her first shot. The animal’s pelt shivered, but it came on relentlessly. An irrational urge to flee seized her, but the bear would outpace her in minutes, if not seconds. No, she’d stand and face her death. She fired repeatedly. With each hit the creature keened, an eerie high-pitched moan, began to slow but didn’t stop.
She kept count in her head. Three shots left. Nothing worse than thinking you have ammunition you haven’t, their instructor had joked at every session as he hammered the necessity of this procedure over and over into their brains.
The bear finally slowed and part of her mind continued analyzing the animal even as the gap between them narrowed. She noted the unkempt fur, emaciated hide, and the prominence of its ribcage. The beast must be far from its home territory, making it more dangerous as its need for her warm-blooded flesh was greater.
At this distance, she couldn’t miss, and, as the bear closed, she could see its red pupils and smell its rank fetid breath. She pumped out the last shots, clinically observing the bear’s pelt shimmer and quiver, as each shot hit home, yet she still managed to miss its vital organs. After the last shot, and impelled by an undeniable primal compulsion, she turned and fled—her last chance as the adrenaline boost would only last for another few minutes.
After inhaling the delicate flavor of a prospective meal, the bear, galvanized by the sight of its prey escaping, intensified its pursuit.
Kara scrambled and slithered down the escarpment, trying to avoid the small boulders and stones littering the surface. She hit a patch of shale and lost her balance. Sharp stones scraped the skin off her arm as she slid. Stumbling to her feet, she threw a backward glance at her pursuer and noticed the bear had slowed. The stun shots had finally had some effect, and she’d gained a tiny lead. She sucked in a deep breath and took off running.
Then it happened. Her foot landed on a small rock, and as her ankle turned, she lost her balance and toppled sideways. A fierce stabbing pain shot up her leg as her full weight bore down on the twisted ankle.
The bear stalked toward her, its massive claw-tipped paws moving softly on the slope. She tried to get up but arrows of agony shot up her leg. She hadn’t panicked, and had given her best, but she was going to die. If her father could have seen her, he would be proud of her. Shortly she would join her mother.
The last of the adrenaline drained out of her body and she shut her eyes as the backlash of fatigue hit. Shaking and terrified, she curled into a fetal position, and squeezed her eyes tight as she attempted to block out the awful sight and sound of her approaching death. She lay paralyzed, expecting to feel the kallin bear’s teeth and claws rip and shred her skin and muscles at any second as it prepared to feed. Please let it be quick, she begged.
Thank you so much, because writers need readers!
Stay well, keep reading, and best wishes,
Thank you so much, because writers need readers!
Stay well, keep reading, and best wishes,
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