Colonel Sean Quinn is stranded in another universe, along with two thousand people under his command. They've been hiding from the enemy long enough, now it’s time to return home. Outnumbered against a superior foe, Sean must risk everything in a daring operation, but the mysterious enemy has a few surprises of their own.
Meanwhile, a division threatens to tear the colony apart and Connor Gates is caught in the middle. Their best chance to prepare for a formidable multidimensional aggressor is to form an alliance with one of their victims, but the more they learn about New Earth's inhabitants, the more resistant to an alliance the colonial government becomes.
When a shadow group seeks to undermine the alliance, Connor must do what he swore he would never do in order to protect the colony. For Connor, the stakes have never been so high or so personal. The price will be paid by everyone if he fails.
Fracture is the eighth book in the bestselling military science fiction series, First Colony.
Release date: July 5, 2019
Publisher: Acoustical Books LLC
Print pages: 306
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Winter was officially over, but Connor could still feel it on the gust of wind that brushed past his face. He was farther north, well away from any colonial settlements. After hiking to the top of a hill, he turned to where the fragmented remnants of an ancient Ovarrow city disappeared into the glistening undergrowth. He wondered if any of the Ovarrow who'd been brought out of stasis remembered what the city had been like before the ice age. Probably not, and he supposed that could be a blessing, but he doubted it.
He didn’t have to be there. Several teams of CDF soldiers were scouting locations for Ovarrow settlements beyond what had already been discovered, but Connor enjoyed getting away. His years on New Earth had awakened a burgeoning desire to explore every inch of it. Humanity’s first interstellar colony world was a wondrous mix of mammalian life, some of which appeared familiar, while others were so strange that in light of recent events, scientists had begun to theorize whether those life-forms had evolved on this planet at all. Discovering alien technology that allowed for travel between universes tended to turn some of the mysteries of New Earth on their heads. Regardless, New Earth was humanity's only home and was as dangerous as it was awe-inspiring.
Connor activated his combat-enabled multipurpose protection suit. The MPS series twelve had recently been approved for military use as an alternative to the heavy Nexstar-powered armor. The nanosuit had several modes of operation and could double as a heavy layer of clothing. Once the nanosuit was in combat mode, the onboard AI integrated with Connor’s neural implants and could operate in a variety of modes to protect him.
The helmet extended from the ring around Connor’s neck, covering his head and seamlessly attaching to the front. The highly advanced suit of armor was capable of protecting him from everything but the heaviest ordnance—a long way from the prototype he'd used nearly two years earlier.
The helmet’s internal heads-up display showed the location of the recon drones the survey team was using to map out the area. They were particularly interested in whether there were any hidden bunkers that might contain Ovarrow in stasis pods, but Connor already knew there was very little chance of that. He and Lenora had scouted this area over a year ago. There'd been no stasis pods then, and there probably weren't any now. However, it didn’t hurt to take one last look before offering the area up as a potential Ovarrow settlement site so they could rebuild their civilization.
Connor activated the stealth field and took off at a run. Doubtless, the CDF soldier monitoring him was currently alerting his superior that General Connor Gates had suddenly disappeared from their scanners. Eventually—probably seconds from now—they'd alert Samson, who'd lead his team to track Connor down.
Connor couldn’t do anything about the impact his footprints had on the low-lying shrubs he ran through. The MPS wasn’t able to fly. What it could do was enable Connor to run as fast as a rover could cover ground at top speed. Nanorobotic actuators were specifically aligned to his body type, which allowed him to move almost effortlessly. He was required to exert minimal effort to initiate movement, but then the suit took over. The new series twelve MPSs were in short supply and were restricted to select Spec Ops platoons, but Connor planned to expand their usage.
He bolted toward a nearby grove of trees and launched himself into the air. Using his momentum to swing around near the top of the tree, he changed directions. Samson’s team would have a little bit of difficulty tracking him, but he couldn’t make it too easy for them. He kept this up until he'd left the grove behind.
An alert flashed on his internal heads-up display, and then a live video feed appeared from one of the reconnaissance drones that had been scouting the outlying areas northwest of his position. Several warning indicators appeared on the HUD, and a solitary screech pierced the air, carrying a deadly promise to anyone within earshot.
Answering ryklar calls sounded from farther away. There was always more than one of them. The recon drone was just under five hundred meters away, but the ryklars were much closer.
Ryklars were New Earth predators that had been genetically enhanced by the Ovarrow. Controlled with high-frequency sound waves, they'd been used as weapons of war. They were pack hunters, and a pack could reach sizes of a hundred or more.
Connor had seen them coordinate their hunting efforts before and had even been on the receiving end. Ryklars had highly acute senses, but that wasn’t what made them exemplary hunters. They were capable of running at speeds that rivaled old Earth’s cheetahs, but they could sustain it for much longer. They had spotted fur on their backs and arms, which made them difficult to detect in grassland and forested areas. They also had the ability to conceal their body heat. Colonial scientists had determined that ryklars had been genetically enhanced to give them this ability. In addition, their claws were capable of tearing through battle steel. Over the years since the colonists had lived on New Earth, they'd increased the armor capability of all their vehicles with ryklars in mind.
Connor knew the MPS specs inside out. In theory, it could resist a ryklar attack, but he didn’t want to test that; however, he was curious to see just how close he could get to the pack while avoiding detection.
He slowed his pace so he could move as quietly as possible, careful to check the area in front of him, and only the spongy crunching of dead leaves and twigs marked his passing. The closer he'd gotten to the ryklars, the louder their screeches had become. This was a big pack. He was certain he could outrun them if it came down to it, and he began to wonder what all the fuss was about. Ryklars were fairly predictable when not under Ovarrow influence, and they'd even displayed complex social structures that hinted at a species on the verge of an evolutionary leap.
Connor checked the recon drone’s scan data. There were no Ovarrow signals that would activate any of the ryklars' latent protocols, some of which included the clean-sweep protocol that forced the ryklars to kill all living creatures found in Ovarrow cities. This meant that whatever was happening with the ryklars now was a natural occurrence from within the pack.
He slowed down even more and crept his way forward, using the blooming shrubbery as cover and automatically checking the holster for his weapon. The heavy-gauge pistol carried lethal darts capable of bringing down a ryklar at close range, and he also carried a combat knife. He wasn’t equipped to fight hundreds of ryklars, but it was enough of a deterrence should the need arise.
With the MPS stealth mode enabled, Connor blended in with his surroundings. The MPS computer used images of the surrounding area and projected them in a holographic field around him. This technology wasn’t new, but it had never been used on a weapon system that had such a small footprint. The MPS was essentially wearable armor that could double as clothing.
Connor angled his approach so he could keep the high ground, giving him the best vantage point from which to observe the ryklars. He eased his way through the shrubs, resisting the urge to crawl on the ground in order to remain hidden. He didn’t have to do that, but "old habits die hard," as the saying went. Connor crouched and watched as the spotted predators gathered around a smaller group of ryklars where most of the noise was coming from.
At the center was a ryklar whose spotted golden hide showed streaks of gray and old battle scars acquired throughout its long life. It had its two front arms in front of it, and its secondary, longer, thickly muscled arms were off to the sides, but its overall countenance was as impassive as a ryklar could look. The tips of the stubby tentacles on its lower face were blood red, indicating that despite outward appearances, the ryklar was becoming agitated. Five younger ryklars were darting in toward the older one in a feigned attack and then quickly changing course at the last minute. Several others also tried to dart in.
Connor focused on the veteran, and the MPS filtered out the others. A deep growl rumbled from its chest. The gray veteran ryklar was the pack leader, and it was being challenged.
Connor spotted a large shape out of the corners of his eyes, and he went still. The breath caught in his throat, but he didn’t want to risk turning his head toward it. Instead, he used the MPS cameras to show him a video feed of the area next to him and caught the faint outline of something brushing against the shrubs.
“I didn’t want to startle you, General,” Samson said quietly, his voice coming through the speakers in Connor’s helmet.
“I have to say, you found me a lot faster than I thought you would.”
“It would’ve taken longer if it were someone else,” Samson replied without offering any further explanation.
Samson was a former Ghost, an elite special forces platoon from the old NA Alliance Military. They’d known each other for a long time and were friends, despite the falling out they’d had since they were both shanghaied to join the colony.
“Keep the rest of the team back. I want to watch this,” Connor said.
Samson went quiet for a moment, and Connor knew he'd muted the comlink so he could send a broadcast to the other soldiers.
“You know what this is, right?” Samson asked.
“Looks like the pack leader is being challenged.”
“So, what are you watching for? Either those younglings will work themselves up and give that veteran a real challenge, or they’ll scamper out of here.”
“That’s not always how it happens. It’s not a simple one-against-one type of fight. I would’ve thought you’d have seen that, given how remote you used to live.”
Samson was quiet for a few moments, considering. “I didn’t spend my time studying ryklars. They left me alone, and I left them alone. It was a good arrangement.”
Connor watched as the five younglings, large enough and deadly enough to be considered adults, stalked closer to the pack leader. The other ryklars rocked from side to side, showing a bit of anxiousness at the display. Despite the viciousness of a ryklar attack, they were actually quite disciplined. They preferred a rigid hierarchy, and it was in times like these that the hierarchy was challenged. It wasn’t simply a fight to determine who became leader, but a fight to determine the future of the pack down to its youngest member.
Two ryklars darted in toward the veteran but didn’t stop this time. They collided in a furious battle—a raging inferno of vicious snarls and claws. The aged veteran hadn’t attained his position and held it for so long without being among the deadliest of the pack’s fighters.
Connor watched the ryklars engage. It wasn’t simple, mindless fury but a delicate dance between seasoned combatants. It had taken him years to notice the subtleties of ryklar combat. There was posturing, but a veteran wouldn’t seek to kill its challengers, at least not initially. The veteran would seek to disable them. When challenges for pack supremacy ended in death, it could be disastrous for the entire pack.
The two ryklars that attacked had been seriously wounded and now had dark, blood-soaked slashes in their hides. The remaining three challengers moved in closer, circling the veteran. When other ryklars started to come closer, the veteran hissed at them and they stopped. They were its loyal lieutenants, but the veteran wouldn't allow them to interfere. This was its fight, despite the five-to-one odds.
The wounded ryklars joined the others, and the five of them attacked the veteran all at once, overwhelming whatever defense it could muster. They pulled him off balance, and he went down. Screeches and snarls sounded. The grizzled veteran scrambled, throwing off some of his attackers, and Connor saw that its bearded tentacles had become even redder as it gave in to its fury. One of the ryklars went down, clutching its middle in a futile attempt to keep its life from bleeding out. Another ryklar darted in. The veteran scrambled around it, using it as a shield to block the follow-up attack by the other three. Unable to stop themselves, they collided with their ally's claws, rending through flesh. The ryklar screeched in pain as it went through its death throes.
This is it. There's no stopping it now, Connor thought grimly.
The three ryklars backed away, and the veteran pursued them. They’d crossed the line, and now the pack would pay the price. The veteran had already proven to be their better. The challengers would die.
When the battle was over, the veteran ryklar had a few new battle scars, and five attackers lay dead or dying in a quivering mess on the ground.
Connor glanced at the rest of the pack. The forest was suddenly awash in red, showing the ryklars' agitation. Scuffles broke out among them, and the pack leader roared. The nearest ryklars immediately snapped to attention, but there were others farther away that scattered, leaving the pack.
“What’s the matter with them?” Samson asked.
“The pack is dead, or at least weakened,” Connor said and began backing away through the shrubs.
Samson followed him, waiting a few moments for them to be well away from the area. “I don’t understand. Why did the pack break apart because of a simple challenge to the pack leader?”
“The ryklars are predators, but they’re more than that. They’re good at killing, but when it comes to pack hierarchy, they don’t handle transition of power very well. They do fight among themselves, but despite their ferociousness toward other species, a challenge to the pack leader rarely ends in death because of the risk of the pack splintering. Given the overwhelming odds, the pack leader could have abdicated his position.”
“Do they do that? Stop being the pack leader so the pack stays together?”
Connor's eyebrows raised and he shrugged. “Sometimes. Depends on the leader, I guess.”
Samson glanced behind them. They could still hear the ryklars screeching, though they were farther away. The once powerful pack had fragmented. “I’ll never understand this planet. There are some things that remind me of Earth, but sometimes it’s just so alien.”
They walked in silence until they met up with several other CDF soldiers under Samson’s command.
“I still don’t understand why the pack split apart. If anything, wouldn’t the fact that the pack leader won have solidified his hold over the pack, given that he'd been challenged and it failed?”
“You're still thinking of the ryklars as simple animals. Remember, they're genetically enhanced, which includes their brains. Look at it this way. Even though the pack leader was challenged, he allowed himself to be put in a position where he killed members of the pack. A large portion of the ryklars will likely remain, but a sizable chunk will choose to leave, having lost faith in him. This will make the pack weaker overall.”
Samson eyed Connor for a minute. “You know an awful lot about these things.”
“Studying them has been a hobby of mine for a while—at least until I rejoined the CDF. I’ve even seen the smaller factions join other packs and then exact revenge upon their old packs. Who does that remind you of?” Connor asked.
Samson thought about it for a minute. He was a soldier through and through, and one of the things he was good at was measuring the capacity of an enemy’s willingness to fight. “So, we have something in common with the ryklars. Would you rather they sit down around a conference table and come to a peaceful resolution for their differences?” He paused for a moment. “Sometimes you have to be ruthless. I know you know that. Do you think the Krake will be civilized when they come here?”
“I’ll be sure to share your philosophy of shooting first and asking questions later with the defense committee,” Connor said.
“It does simplify things. Seriously, the committee can’t really be considering how they could work with the Krake if they found a way to communicate with them. Given what they’ve done to the Ovarrow and the data you retrieved, I seriously doubt they're open to peace.”
Connor didn’t need to be reminded. He’d gone over that data many times. “It’s not that simple,” he said, snorting in disbelief. “Okay, from your perspective it’s simple. I give you a weapon, I tell you to achieve an objective, and it’s done. But dealing with civilians can be complicated.”
Samson arched a thick eyebrow and smiled a little, but it didn’t make his face look friendly. "Complicated,” he repeated. “Is that what we’re calling it now?”
Since Connor had invited Samson back into the CDF, he’d gotten used to some of his old friend’s moods. Sometimes Samson had a simplified way of reading into a situation that was useful. This wasn’t one of those times.
“I don’t mean to be a hard-ass about this,” Samson continued. “And I know I’m not telling you anything new.”
Connor looked at him for a moment and then nodded. “I thought after the Vemus War we could leave all that behind us. I want there to be a better way, but . . .” He let the thought go unfinished.
There were a few times in a soldier’s life when events would shape the kind of soldier they'd become. For Connor, the first time was when he killed an enemy combatant. He’d never forget his first kill. He'd felt numb in the beginning, and then he tried to rationalize it when he could think clearly again. He'd thought he was supposed to feel conflicted about it, but he didn’t. He never did. It was then that he had to accept that fighting was something he was exceptionally good at, and possibly the only thing he was really good at. It didn’t make him a monster, although there were some people who probably thought of him that way. He was a protector, and he would protect this colony until his dying breath.
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