Yes I know its been forever since ALICE 4 was released, so in the spirit of full disclosure and proof I am really working on Book 5, here is Chapter 1.
Disclaimer: this is draft and may change before the final version is released.
General Jake Thomas sat astride his hovercycle as he scanned the valley below, his all encasing combat suit doing its best to dispel the beginnings of the desert heat. Stopped on a hilltop high above the surrounding countryside, he had a commanding view of the Nevada desert landscape. As he scanned the horizon, the clarity of the dry desert air never ceased to amaze him.
He could see for a hundred miles in all directions, the occasional dust trail against the clear blue sky betraying the moments of some remote person or persons. With horseback still the prevalent mode of transportation for a significant portion of the population, the sight before him was not unusual at all.
“What do you think?” Jake asked his companion, a smaller version of himself astride his own hovercycle.
“They don’t look very friendly,” was the short reply.
“That was my thought as well,” Jake responded with a nod and a smile.
Just a few miles away from where the pair had landed were almost a dozen armed men, all on horseback and moving at a relaxed pace. Jake noted there were two stragglers a bit behind the main group and he suspected they were acting as some form of a rear guard. He dialed up the magnification in his helmet and did a quick assessment of the entire group before deciding on a course of action.
When he was out riding like this, it was a regular occurrence for him to run across various small groups traveling from place to place. In most cases, it was families or groups of such likeminded people just looking for a better life. The men in this gaggle were not to be even remotely confused with that.
By now the group had spotted the two figures on the hilltop and halted their progress as they talked amongst themselves. Jake observed a pair of binoculars being passed from man to man and noted they didn’t seem too concerned as they sat there talking. After watching the group for a few minutes more to see if they gave him any indications of their intentions, he made up his mind on his own.
“Stay here and watch for trouble,” Jake said as he adjusted several settings on his hovercycle and then slowly rose into the air.
“Yes sir,” came the soft reply.
Both Jake and his companion were in their standard issue protective suits, so Jake had little concern over either of them being shot with a conventional weapon. That was part of his survey of this party, assessing the threat level of the visible weaponry. His conclusion was unless someone had a missile strapped to the underside of their horse, the two were relatively safe.
Moving at an easy pace himself, Jake slowly maneuvered his hovercycle into a position about twenty feet in front of the riders and set softly down. He had done his best not to spook the riders’ horses, however a couple of the mounts shuffled nervously on their feet as the riders worked to keep them calm. Climbing off his ride and taking great care to telegraph his moves so as not to provoke the men, he stopped a few feet from the group.
“Morning,” Jake offered.
“Morning,” one of the men replied in return.
“Nice ride you got there,” another commented as all studied the hovercycle behind Jake.
“Thanks. Where you boys headed?” Jake asked casually, trying not to sound confrontational.
“Not sure that’s any of your business?” the one Jake took to be the leader replied.
“Fair enough, just trying to help.”
“You some kinda local authority around here?” another man next to the leader asked Jake.
Jake considered the question for a moment. Between his combat suit and the hovercycle, it was more than obvious he wasn’t your typical drifter.
“Not really, but I do know those that are. Only stopped by to let you know there are reports of a group making trouble in the area. You see anyone on your ride in?” Jake asked innocently.
“What kinda trouble?’ came the reply.
“Oh, you know, shaking down the locals, raiding, pillaging and such. Haven’t killed anyone yet so they haven’t crossed the point of no return. Well, all but one anyway.”
By now the entire group had formed a semicircle around where Jake stood. He noted the two stragglers had not joined up with the others, forcing a quick survey of the area on his heads-up display. Satisfied with what he saw, he returned his attention back to the riders.
“Point of no return?’ one asked before a dirty look from the leader shut him up.
“Oh, you know, it’s the difference between a bully and a murderer. One gets a second chance.”
Before another word was spoken, the one Jake pinned as the leader pulled a handgun from his belt and fired several rounds at Jake. All found their mark but failed to deliver the expected results. That wasn’t to say Jake didn’t feel the effects of the rounds, he was sure there would be a bruise there by tonight.
“So, you would be the one that killed the Tonopah man?” Jake asked unphased by the action as he focused on the shooter.
Tonopah was nothing more than a water stop for travelers headed east-west to and from California and Utah. This group had wandered into the small town and quickly departed after taking supplies and shooting the proprietor when he objected. The killing had been an act of unnecessary violence.
“Get him!” The man shouted as he suddenly spurred his horse toward Jake, attempting to run him down.
The horse’s lunge surprised Jake, but he was still able to spin as the animal closed the short distance to his position. Rolling along the side of the horse as it passed, Jake grabbed the rider’s leg, pulling the boot from its stirrup and yanking hard, unseating the rider in the process. It was then an alarm sounded in Jake’s helmet, a proximity alert he had set before leaving his companion alone on the hilltop.
“Tim, can you hear me?” he asked as he watched two nearby men leap at him from horseback.
“Yes, dad,” was the cautious response.
Tossing one man as he flew through the air, Jake turned to find the other swinging at him with a rifle. Holding it by the barrel, the man was using it like a club.
“How close were you planning on letting those two behind you get?”
Not waiting for the response, Jake intercepted the butt stock with both hands, jerking the weapon free from its wielder and sending it flying at two more men still on horseback. The impact knocked them both from their saddles while the reminder of the group backed their mounts away from the fighting to watch. Pulling his handgun from its holster, Jake fired off several rounds, hitting the ground next to the prone figures struggling to get up.
“Enough! Unless you all want to die, cut the crap.”
Emphasizing the point, he executed the program he had present in the hovercycle. One of several he had worked out over the years, the craft quickly rose into the air at no more than twice his height and low enough to knock a man off his horse if he wasn’t careful. Nose down, the hovercraft quickly moved to a position just outside the farthest rider and began circling the group. Suddenly, both machine guns in the nose let loose a burst that dug into the earth and startled the horses, causing one rider to fall.
“OK!” Jake heard one man say as the all began dropping their weapons.
Motioning for everyone to dismount, Jake began to check the men still lying motionless on the ground. Satisfied none were dead, he stepped away from the group.
“Alice, please send in the pickup squad.”
“Already on their way,” came the simple reply.
LiMak was reviewing the duty logs of all Neutral Zone patrol ships from the last few kilocycles, trying to determine the source of the discrepancy in their data. Several of the sensors the NeHaw had placed all along the Neutral Zone, established with the Humans megacycles ago, kept alerting for trespass violations. However, when the NeHaw ships arrived at the location of the violations, there were no violators to be found, just empty space.
The boundary created after the treaty was established and had been mined on the NeHaw side with inhibitors that prevented the use of FTL drives. Once activated by the offending vessels drive signatures, they would continue to operate until reset. With the inhibitors triggered, the offender would be required to travel a good distance on repulser power, taking several cycles to do so, before they were outside the influence of the devices.
Once triggered, an all system alert would be sounded and the nearest patrol ship would be dispatched to confront the offender. While there had historically been very few incidents, and most of those identified as smugglers and not human combat vessels, each was treated with top priority.
Any NeHaw vessel could reset the devices, thus removing the hold it placed on the offenders, however that was the problem of late. With each recent alert, the responding NeHaw patrol craft arrived to find no vessel trapped in the field. In every instance, there were no sensor readings revealing any non-NeHaw ship, just empty space.
This is what had drawn them to their current position in this sector. Upon their arrival, they became ensnared in the same trap expecting to confront a Neutral Zone violator. Instead, they found the same empty space reported by other ship Captains. LiMak was just about to order the inhibitors to be reset when his ship’s pilot made an announcement.
“Sir, I see……. something,” the man announced.
“Can you be more specific?” LiMak replied, surprised at the man’s lack of specificity.
In the megacycles since General KaLob’s ascending to power, the NeHaw military had undergone a significant restructuring. Field Commanders were now allowed far more discretion on both their decisions and actions with much less concern about the repercussions of those choices back home. The changes had proven remarkably successful, but the increased moral was offset with a drop in the severe discipline of the old order. LiMak wasn’t sure it was missed by many.
“There, Sir. Something is masking the visible starlight,” the man said as he pointed out the bridge windows. As he spoke, he highlighted a particular part of space in the window using the optical overlay system.
Shifting his attention from the pilot and onto the space outside the ship, he concentrated on the area of space the man had outlined. After staring out the bridge window for a few microcycles, he suddenly noted a portion of the star field he had been watching blank out completely.
“There!” he heard the pilot exclaim as the man had apparently seen what he had.
“What do you see on the sensor displays?” LiMak asked his tactical officer as he continued to watch stars slowly blink off and then on again as something passed between them and LiMak’s ship.
“The sensors do not indicate anything is there sir,” the tactical officer replied.
“Is it a new form of cloaking? Have the Humans created a new ship?” LiMak asked.
“Possibly sir, but I don’t think it’s human. I am getting no readings at all, not even the trace emissions of repulser drives,” the tactical office replied.
“Perform a wide spectrum scan of the area, include the nonvisible wavelengths. See if there is anything reflecting off that ship?” LiMak asked his navigation’s officer.
“Yes sir,” was the reply.
“I have something…” the man replied hesitantly, after a brief pause.
“Explain,” he asked.
“I am not getting any reflections for the ship ahead, but what I can detect is a void in the area around it,” the man replied with pride.
“Can you get us any closer?” LiMak asked the ship’s pilot.
“I can try sir, but at this distance it might take some time,” the man replied as he began working to get the ship moving.
“Reset the inhibitors,” LiMak commanded, removing the impediment to their jumping to close the distance.
As he watched, LiMak could see the disturbance in space grow, measured by the number of background stars disappearing from view, as if the ship was closing on them. Suddenly, there was a field of stars where there had once only been blackness.
“What just happened?” he asked aloud.
“It is gone sir,” the navigation officer reported as he continued to check his readings.
“What on Earth was that?” LiMak asked, using the latest NeHaw slang for a place no one would ever want to go.
Thirteen-year-old Tim Thomas sat astride his hovercycle, parked on a hill, as he watched the scene below him unfold. Suited up in his riding gear, a derivative of the adult combat Battle Dress Uniform or BDU, he could clearly make out the exchange between his father and a group of locals they had happened upon. His riding gear, helmet and all, were configured for the younger, leaner wearer, without the militaristic appearance the adult version had.
He had his helmet magnification turned up so he could see the exchange involving his father and about a dozen armed men. While everything appeared calm, Tim had seen these interactions escalate quickly in the past. It was for that reason that his dad had insisted he wait here, well out of reach of their weapons, while he checked things out.
The decision had frustrated Tim, as he knew he had the same protection in his suit his father had, as well as the strength of several men. As it was with his other half brothers and sisters, Tim had inherited some of his father’s unusual abilities. In his case, he was exceptionally fast and strong, but with limited telepathic abilities. He had discovered his advantages over the other kids his age early on and paid a stiff penalty for the one time he had used it on another boy.
After a scuffle had broken out between himself and another boy, Tim had lost his temper and tossed the kid across the recreation room, breaking the boy’s arm in the process. The event was burned into his memory, although his father had not yelled or lectured him about his actions.
“Follow me,” he had instructed as he led Tim into the workout room three levels down.
Once inside, he had cleared out the occupants and then stared at him before finally commanding him.
“Hit me,” he said as he waved him forward.
Tim was sure it was a trick but did as he was told. For the next twenty minutes, his dad blocked his every attempt, sparing with him aggressively without actually striking him, and giving him a bruising that lasted for days.
“The next time you get angry, I had better find you in here taking it out on this equipment,” he had said before leaving him lying on his back in the center of the exercise mat, battered and exhausted. Tim could only nod in reply as he worked to catch his breath.
Only later did he learn that his mother and ALICE had been watching the whole episode, making sure he never got really hurt. He wasn’t sure if that made him feel any better, but he never again lost his temper with the other kids.
“Tim, can you hear me?” he heard over his headset, bringing him back to the present.
“Yes, dad,” he replied as he noted the tone in his dad’s voice. Tim knew he was about to be schooled.
“How close were you planning on letting those two behind you get?” he heard on his helmet audio.
Not pausing to check his instruments, Tim slammed the hovercycle into hover mode and braced himself for the violent ride straight up to five hundred feet AG, or above ground. Once he leveled off, he checked his displays, noting the two men with rifles, standing no more than a foot away from his previous position. From his current location, he now had a grand view of his father as he pummeled the last of the strangers that had thought to jump him, while the two below him could only stare up in wonder.
This wasn’t the first time Tim had watched a wandering group of drifters take on his dad, but it was the first time he had been this close to danger himself. In his mind, he might have been more than a match for the two below, given the opportunity, but he should have detected their approach long before and he knew it.
He watched as his father checked each of the fallen men, asking ALICE to verify they were still alive. Once finished he requested a pickup for the entire group, including the two who had been stalking Tim. It was standard practice to dispatch a combat team to collect the raiders and bandits after such an encounter and process them.
Each would be evaluated for retention or relocation based on the ALICE’s opinion of their value to the community. Ever since the truce with the NeHaw, an event Tim couldn’t even remember as it was so long ago, his dad and the other grownups had been working harder than ever to restore civilization on earth. Woefully understaffed, no one was dismissed out of hand as useless. It was a rare few that were relocated to places unknown.
Impatient to land, Tim knew better than to come down from his hover before his father told him too. Should he disobey the carefully explained instructions he had received years before, he would lose his exploration privileges. In this case it would be his mother who enforced that rule, not his dad.
After what seemed like forever, a helicopter arrived and Tim watched as it stopped a short distance away. He heard a few gunshots before everything went quiet. Confused at first, he realized they were picking up the two men who had been creeping up on him. He then watched as the helicopter rose once more and quickly landed near his father.
He had watched earlier as his dad had secured the unconscious men and then gathered all the weapons the men had been carrying. As the helicopter landed, several troops exited the rear ramp, jumping clear of the ramp before it had even fully opened.
“OK Tim, you can come on down,” he heard his father say as he watched the troops start loading the men into the helicopter.
Doing as he was told; Tim slowly lowered his hovercycle into position next to his father’s before dismounting and approaching the activity before him. Standing next to his dad, he could see into the helicopter bay, where the security troops, responsible for the policing of the areas around each ALICE facility, were seating each of the prisoners.
Tim had asked one time why they had a separate force for keeping the peace and one for fighting the battles that erupted from time to time as they worked to stabilize the planet. To his eye they all seemed to be equipped and act the same. His father had explained to him that combat troops made a very poor police force as they were trained to kill and destroy. Police on the other hand were trained to subdue and control.
He wasn’t sure he understood the difference, but his father made it sound important so he just went with it.
“That was a good move, jumping to hover until you understood the situation,” his dad commented as the two watched the helicopter being loaded.
“I didn’t know they were there,” Tim admitted slowly.
“I know. I wanted to see how you would react and you did the right thing,” he heard his father say with pride.
“Thanks,” Tim said without looking up at his dad.
“Sometimes, I just want to go for a ride without everything being a test,” he thought silently to himself.