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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

And now for something completely different...

Story By JA Baker[]

Beyond the Sea
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written December 8th, 2019
Story Era Dark Age Era

There's an old saying that the future you get from Terra, the less things make sense.

I'm not sure if I agree with that on face value, but I can tell you that, the further out you go, the less important concepts like law, decency and morality seem to apply. You want to do something illegal, unethical or outright crazy, you head out into the deep, deep Periphery, where there no one to look over your shoulder. That's were you can buy a world from a local warlord for a lance of broken down BattleMechs that even the most desperate, dispossessed Inner Sphere Mercenary would turn down as walking death traps. Life is cheap out there, and at times, short and violent.

I'd like to say that it wasn't always that way, that the time of the Star League, with all its wondrous technology and massive armies dragged humanity kicking and screaming into the light of civilization.

I'd like to say a lot of things, but the universe doesn't work that way.

No, for all the rose-tinted huge of nostalgia, the Star League had its dark side, and like everyone else, the deepest of the Deep Periphery is where they hid it. Working for Interstellar Expeditions, you hear about a lot of such places, officially or unofficially, and some of the things I've heard about... well, best not to dwell on those.

The story I want to tell you today, well, it's not really as bad as most. More of an enigma than anything else, really.

We'd been based out of IE Outpost #22, on the far side of the Perseus-Cepherus Cloud, for about five years when we stumbled upon this planet orbiting six days out from a K0V type star. What got our attention was the fact that our long-range scans picked up a faint beacon from a crippled Scout class JumpShip at the L1 point between the planet and its small moon. Looked like someone had tried for a pirate-point and rolled snake-eyes, turning the ship into a twisted wreck that wasn't going anywhere ever again. So our two DropShip, the Union class Lulu Belle and the Mule class Tangerine were sent in for a closer look.

Now, thankfully I'm a VTOL pilot, not trained in EVA, so I wasn't one of the poor SOB's sent across to investigate the Scout. So I didn't have to hack my way through the frozen remains of the passengers and crew to pull what little we could from the ships computer. What they managed to find indicated that she'd been registered to a Hegemony based transtellar called the Masrani Corporation, based out of New Earth. It also indicated that they had set up a research outpost on the planet below. Well, that's exactly the kind of information we were looking for.

We deployed a mapping and communications satellite into orbit, scanning the surface for any signs of man-made structures, and on the second sweep, got a hit. An atoll near the planet's equator showed clear signs of habitation, with what looked like a Jumbo sitting half submerged in the water just off an overgrown landing pad. There were hints of habitation on other islands, but none within about a thousand kilometers of the outpost. So we put them on the back-burner for the time being: our mission was to locate lost outposts and recover anything of value, not make friends with every single lost colony that only knew about the wider universe from the history books.

Nobody liked the idea of trying to land on an overgrown pad, especially without first making sure that it hadn't been undermined by the local plant life. So instead they selected a rocky islet some twenty kilometers away that looked sturdy enough to handle the Lulu Belle, at least for a while. And let me tell you, it was a pretty intense landing. The Captain had one hand hoovering over the abort button the entire time, ready to send us all rocketing back to orbit the moment something went wrong. Like, say, the islet crumbling beneath 3,600-tons of DropShip. Fortunately, the ground held, and the environmental checks all came back green, and we set about unloading one of the Peregrine transport VTOLs.

Which in turn meant that my lazy arse had to get in gear.

I don't know if you've ever spent any time flying relatively low over open water, but it can get almost hypnotic after a while. There's something about the blue of the sea and the sky and tries to lull you to sleep. Or at least it does when you don't have some jack-off of a supervisor talking constantly about what he wants you to do when you land. Now I get it's key to make sure everyone knows their job, but it wasn't our first trip to the fair: we were all experienced, and knew exactly what was expected of us. But at least the son of a bitch kept us awake.

Now, while we may have had the civilian variant of the Peregrine, it still had the same rough-field capacity as the military model. Which was perfect given what we found that pretty every square meter of open space was covered in some kind of thick, mangrove like vegetation that was starting to burry some of the smaller buildings. Despite this, it was still possible to make out the basic outline of the base. The base had a large central control building over looking the small dock that jutted out into the lagoon. This was in turn surrounded by a number of smaller auxiliary buildings and the open reinforced expanse of the landing pad. A closer look seemed to indicate that the stricken Jumbo had been sitting quite happily until the encroaching vegetation had blocked a drainage culvert, resulting in the ground beneath it being slowly undermined by water until it gave way. The weight of the DropShip had obviously been too much for the thick ferrocreat slab to hold. It had in turn given way, toppling the abandoned craft into the lagoon.

Clearing enough of the thick intertwined foliage away for the second VTOL to bring in the equipment needed to make it safe for one of the DropShips to land was hard back-breaking work. Especially under such a hit, tropical sun, but that's what they pay us for. Or, rather, they pay the others for, as I was pretty much immediately sent back for more help and equipment. What can I say? Having a pair of wings on my uniform is a heavy burden, but one I shoulder gladly.

Two days of hard work, during which we ate field rations and slept in pop-up tents, and we had enough of the landing pad cleared that the engineer could assess it to make sure it was safe to bring in the Lulu Belle. While she wasn't in the military configuration, she did have two Rock Hound ProspectorMechs, which made clearing the rest of the encroaching jungle far easier. And I know that a lot of people, especially military Mech Jocks, look down on the Rock Hound. Calling it a "jack-of-all-trades, but master-of-none", but when you've only got limited cargo space and don't know what you're walking into, it's a very useful piece of equipment to have on hand.

Although, under the circumstances, a Rock Otter would have been handy.

Well, with the Lulu Belle in place, we could start trying to cut our way into the main building. Whatever power system the Masrani Corporation had used to power the base had evidently stopped working centuries previously, but like all sensible people, they'd installed a two-way tap that not only allowed a visiting DropShip to draw power for the main grid while planet-side. But in an emergency, could draw power from said DropShip to at least run basic systems. Say what you want about the Star League; and believe me there's a lot of evils you can lay at their feet. They knew how to build something to last. So once we'd uncovered the tap and run out a cable almost as thick around as a grown adult, all it took was a couple of flicked switches and the base started to come back to life. About half the lights fittings blew out instantly, but enough remained intact to allow us to find our way around without too much trouble. Fortunately, the building seemed to be relatively intact, with only the odd broken window to let in the elements, meaning that everything was just as it had been left... which made it clear from the mess we found that the original owners had left in something of a hurry.

I've seen more than a few abandoned colonies and outposts in my years with IE. Sometimes they look like the previous occupants just stepped out to grab a coffee and a smoke... others look like a battlefield. But I'd never before seen one that looked like a strange mix of the two. The building itself was in remarkable good shape given it had gone so long with no one looking after it, but the interior was a mess. Hard-copy files were scattered across the floor, desks and chairs were upturned, keyboards put through computer monitors, data-drives and optical disks burned to slag.

I've seen planetary invasions that left less of a mess.

Unfortunately, even under ideal conditions paper only lasts so long and the scattered files crumbled to dust as soon as we tried to pick them up. With the main computer not only erased, but every single bite of memory written over with zeros. It wasn't looking good for our chances of discovering just what they'd been up to, least not with the time and resources we had to hand. Then someone found a wall safe hidden in one of the offices; big old fashioned job, all mechanical, no computer to hack. Crazy as it sounds, they're still arguable the best option for keeping your information, well, safe.

Now Interstellar Expeditions isn't exactly the Wilderness Explorers. We're Lost-Tech hunters, and that means sometimes not asking too many questions about just how and where someone acquired certain skills or experience. With that in mind, it shouldn't be too surprising that we had an experienced safe-cracker on the crew, even if he was, technically, a gally hand. Fortunately, if there's one thing he knows better than Salisbury steak, it's how to pick just about any lock known to man.

The safe-cracking came before the cooking, which he learned in a Taurian prison serving time for the former.

We showed Max the safe, and he looked like he'd just met an old friend for the first time in years, before opening a bag containing what. To the rest of us looked like completely random bits and pieces. I won't go into the details of what he did, but half an hour later the safe was open and Max had earned himself a nice little bonus. What we found inside the safe wasn't of any immediate help: along with a few holographs of some long-dead family and a decent looking watch. It held a solid-state memory core, the Lost-Tech kind that's supposedly readable up to a thousand years or so they claim, but can still fit into your pocket. Even on its own, it was probably worth the cost of our little detour, but a quick check showed that it was encrypted. We didn't have a cryptographer with us, but they did have someone back at Outpost #22, so it was locked away in the Lulu Bells safe for the time being.

Unfortunately, this didn't help us discover just what a big transtellar had been up to out there. With all the records useless, we had to do it the hard way. Which it why I found myself assigned to a team tasked with going room-to-room in the basement, looking for any clues as to just what had going on, and why it had been abandoned in such a hurry. Now, as I've made clear, I'm a rotor-head, not a scientist, and one room full of damaged lab equipment looks pretty much the same as any other to my untrained eyes, and it was clear that I was mainly there to help keep the actual scientists out of trouble. Indeed, more than once I had to stop them from tripping over debris or electrocuting themselves on a damaged but live light switch. For all the brains they have, they certainly lack field experience.

Take Angus Broomly, one of my bunk-mates on the Lulu Belle. Probably the best computer techs working out of Outpost #22, but prone to getting lost, even on a DropShip. I'd asked him once why he'd signed up for the Expedition, and he explained that he needed at least six months of field experience before he was considered eligible for a promotion he wanted. Man was a wizard in the lab, but a gold brick in the field, and I have to wonder just what Head Office was thinking. But, between Angus and an equally scatter-brained botanist from somewhere in Lyran space named Linda Ngo, they managed to work out that the Masrani team had been studying the local sea-life to see if there was anything of value to be found.

Only, that didn't sit right. The base was too big, to lavish, for a simple biological survey, especially as the Star League built dedicated DropShips that could do the job just as well and for a fraction of the cost. No, you didn't built an obviously permanent base so far out into the outer darkness unless you'd already found something of value, or you were hiding something. Something you didn't want any visitors to stumble upon.

Two days into the search, one of the teams found a hard-copy map of the facility that had, thankfully, it had been laminated. It indicated that the atoll was actually the top of a long extinct volcano that had blown its wad some time long before humans first came this way. This leaving a deceptively deep abyss in the center. And, for whatever reason, the Masrani expedition had built a underwater facility a couple of hundred meters down, which was connect to the surface by way of a pressurized elevator shaft. It took us another day to find the hidden door that lead to the surface entrance hidden below the jetty that jutted out into the lagoon, and we were disappointed to discover that the cables had been severed. An examination of the remains indicated that someone had used what looked like mining charges to completely wreck the system. Which left the two big, freight elevators to drop. There was an emergency stairwell wrapping around the outside of the central shaft, but it showed signs of damage, not all of it due to lack of maintenance.

Someone evidently really wanted to keep what was down there, well, down there.

Given I have a natural head for heights, I was given the job of abseiling down the shaft, along with Trinny, one of the Lulu Belle's bridge crew who liked to go rock-climbing in her free time. Now, some people might baulk at the idea of being suspended over a couple of hundred meters of darkness by a cable no thicker than their thumb, but those people have never seen myomer ropes used to tie down a BattleMech on the back of a Prime Mover. And while the cables we had weren't nearly that strong, they were tested to half a ton, certainly more than enough for a single person and anything they might be able to salvage on their own.

We lowered ourselves slowly, checking out the stairwell for any serious damage as we went, the hope being that it would prove to be passable, allowing for much easier access to the underwater section of the base. Fortunately, while several sections showed signs of fire damage, it had been built as an emergency escape route, so was designed to take that kind of punishment and remain serviceable. Unfortunately, about 50-meters down, we came to a section that had been blown apart, probably by another mining charge, leaving a gap of about ten meters with no stairs, the a large area fouled with wreckage.

Not long after that, we found the first of the two elevator cars... or rather, what was left of it. The room was almost completely missing, and the walls were warped and buckled. Which was the only thing keeping it from dropping lower, as someone had wrecked the emergency breaks. Thats something that's not easy to do, even deliberately. At first glance, it looked like someone had used it to deliver the charge that wrecked the stairwell. The remains dropping until they jammed in place. To my untrained eye, I'd say that the plan had been to breach the shaft wall and flood it with sea water, only either they hadn't enough explosives to hand, or it had been stronger than they expected, the force of the blast being directed up and down rather than out.

We reported in what we found, then carefully made our way around the wrecked elevator and further down. While there was still signs of damage further down, there was nothing that looked impassable, and we were soon so far down that even the powerful lights that had been set up at the top of the shaft were little more than a faint glow directly above. Fortunately, we'd come prepared with bags of chemical glow sticks, each one rated for a full 24-hours, and we started cracking and tossing them onto the regular landings as a easy way to keep track of how far down we were. Trinny took a dozen or so and just dropped them down, confirming that the bottom of the shaft was at least relatively dry.

Try and remember that we were well over a hundred meters below sea level, and while the fact that the shaft wasn't completely flooded seemed to indicate that at least part of the submerged section was still pressurized. It was still nice to have it confirmed. After a short debate, Trinny won the honor of being the first to touch down. While I hung a few meters up, my hand holding the remote emergency recall device that could send us rocketing right back to the top of the shaft if pressed. Fortunately, there was no indication that it was needed, and we were given permission to try and open the doors.

Once, before whatever the hell had happened happened, they'd been pressure doors. A last line of defense against the ocean should the area beyond become compromised, but by the looks like the second elevator had hit the bottom of the shaft at some speed, blowing at least one door partly off its hinges. We tossed a couple of glow-sticks through the opening, then crawled through after.

The corridor beyond showed the same signs of damage as we'd seen on the surface, all be it without the scattered papers all over the place. More labs, some in slightly better shape, but it almost looked like someone had beaten us to the prize. As a lot of the smaller, more easily transported gear was gone. Oh, sure, the big equipment was sitting there, but anything that one or two people could move on their own was gone. We found what looked like a break room or galley, and all of the crockery and cutlery was gone, down to the very last spoon. A maintenance room had likewise been picked clean of tools and supplies, even some of the shelving, by the look of the indentation in the floor.

Then we found the remains of a security room... I've never been in the military, but I known the signs of weapons fire when I see it. Someone or something had put up a hell of a fight, judging by the scorch marks and bullet holes we found. Just like the other rooms, all of the weapons, ammo, and chargers were missing. Far too systematic to have been done in a hurry, but at the same time, all of the heavy lab equipment, every last piece a potential cornucopia of Lost Tech was left. Which was crazy, because I've seen people fight and even kill over a Star League vintage calculator on the off chance that it may contain a single microchip that could be used to repair some damaged piece of equipment. Even if they were completely non-functional, they'd be worth a small fortune to collectors and companies trying to recreate Lost Tech.

I was still trying to wrap my head around the situation when Trinny tugged on my shoulder, drawing my attention to where her flashlight was pointed at the deck: a small puddle of water, no bigger than a foot, sat there. A second, maybe thirty centimeters behind, and slightly to one side. Another beyond that, then another and another.

Neither of us had any real weapons on us: with no signs of habitation or dangerous, hostile wildlife, it had been deemed actually safer to leave weapons locked up back on the ship, less someone doing something stupid and get themselves or someone else hurt. I did, however, have a small pry-bar hanging from my belt, and it quickly found its way into my hand, its cold weight somewhat reassuring. Without a word, we followed the apparent footprints until they stopped outside a locked hatch. The sign indicated that it was a moon-pool, pressurised to keep the water out. A side hatch led to an observation bay, and I stepped through just in time to see something vanish into the water, but there was too little light to make anything out. I turned to ask Trinny if she'd seen it, but she was busy trying to get the compression chamber open, and I felt it prudent to keep my mouth shut.

Last thing I wanted was a reputation as a man who sees things.

I did my best to put the whole incident out of my mind over the next couple of days. Convincing myself that it was just my imagination running wild. Certainly helped that I had to spend most of my time helping to move lab equipment from the submerged part of the base up the elevator shaft. I had no idea just what most of it was; I can tell you what every component of a VTOL is and what it does, but my eyes start to glaze over when I hear words like DNA Sequencer, Gene Splicer or Retroviruses Programmer. All I knew was that it was all Lost Tech, and had been expensive and rear even when it was new, meaning it was probably worth more than a JumpShip these days. It was clear that, whatever Masrani had been up to out here, it was on the bleeding edge of what even the Star League had been capable of. We still had no idea just what that was, and probably wouldn't until we could get the recovered data core decrypted, but we were already healthily in the black as far as the expedition was concerned. Certainly enough that everyone could expect a bonus when we reported back.

Eventually, the boss decided that we deserved a day off, and told everyone to stand down. Most of the equipment had been recovered, and there was talk of trying to get through the airlock to see what lay beyond. But it was securely locked from the inside, and just cutting our way through risked depressurizing the entire complex and having the ocean come rushing in. Which, I presume, would have been a Very Bad Thing.

So it was that I found myself dozing under something akin to a palm-tree on a sheltered bit of sand overlooking the lagoon. I'm not sure if anyone had worked out what the local season was. We didn't have a climatologist on the expedition, but the weather was pleasantly warm. A soft ocean breeze taking the edge of the stars soft orange light. That's one thing I love about space travel. How every star seems to give off a unique light, almost like a fingerprint. I know some people say that the human eye is incapable of telling the difference between two stars of broadly the same type, but I know for a fact that I can.

So I'm there, just lazily looking out over the water, when I noticed something odd about one of the rocks in the water just off the shore. For one thing, the silvery-white seaweed covering its top looked wrong, and second, it had eyes. Eyes that were watching me intently from just above the waterline.

Now I've been to more worlds than most since starting with Interstellar Expeditions, and I've seen more than a few life forms that you've probably never heard of. Some that are considered sentient if not sapient, and believe me, you can tell when you're being looked at by thinking, reasoning eyes.

I scrambled for my data-pad. Desperate to get a picture. By the time I turned back, the strange head was gone. Leaving not even a ripple.

Not sure exactly what I had seen, I tracked down one of the biologists and asked him if they'd found anything on the planets native sea-life, but nothing he mentioned seemed to match what I thought I had seen. Putting it down to the heat, I went back to work the next day, helping to explore more of the underwater facility. And, if I'm being honest, I kind of wish I hadn't, as the next chamber we found was some kind of medical lab, an unpleasant cross between an operating theatre and a morgue. It was painfully clear that, whatever the long dead scientists had been working on, it involved something roughly human size and shape.

Like I said at the beginning, the further you get from Terra, the further you get from morality. I had some very bad ideas about just what they'd been up to. Thankfully, all of the records were beyond recovery, and little of the surviving equipment was worth the fuel to take it back to base. And, much like in the rest of the complex, a lot of the smaller equipment was simply missing, including most of the surgical tools.

I was really starting to get a bad feeling about the entire place, and looking around. I could tell I wasn't the only one. We'd seen planets wracked by war, natural disaster and just straight up apathy, but something about that place...something bad had happened there. Something not right. You could feel it hanging in the air like a fart in a spacesuit, something that you just know was going to cling to you long after you left. Not everyone felt that way, some were just thinking about the money, but it was clear that we weren't going to spend any longer there than we had to.

Let someone else come back, if it was deemed worth it.

Few days later, I found myself sitting on the same patch of sand, looking out over the lagoon. I had the distinct feeling that someone was watching me. Shielding my eye from the sun with my hands, I scanned the water, looking for the same strange head that I had seen the previous week, but there was no sign of anything. Turning round, I almost fell backwards into the water when I saw a small data-pad propped up against the tree next to my jacket. It certainly wasn't mine, and by the look of it, it was old, possibly Star League vintage. Certainly not something a member of our expedition would just leave laying around.

Tentatively picking it up, I was shocked to discover that, not only was it functional, but that it contained two files. The first seemed to be a schematic of the underwater lab complex with a number of red icons highlighted...the second a simple text file documenting the bases "scuttling charges". Intended to destroy the entire facility in the event of an security breach. The little pad bleeped, and a timer appeared on the screen, counting down from 15 minutes, the numbers glowing red.

Dropping the pad, I grabbed my radio and yelled out a warning to evacuate the lab.

I bet that, right now, a lot of you reading this are expecting me to say that I had to come up with some clever story to explain just when everyone should suddenly drop tools and run like hell. Then you've probably never been on an expedition like that. Because, when you're off the edge of the map, dealing with equipment and buildings that haven't been used or maintained in hundreds of years, if someone tells you that there's something wrong, you run like the devil himself is on your tail. Far better to treat every false alarm like it's the real deal and go back later to finish what you'd been working on, then to die because some long abandoned wall collapsed on top of you.

Sure, Lost Tech hunting can be a profitable line of work, but you got to be alive to spend it.

And, sure, if I sent everyone running for the surface and nothing happened. The boss would chew my arse until Max could use it to make hamburgers, but that was a risk I was willing to take. Other voices filled the radio, ordering everyone to drop whatever they were doing and get top-side, and I loomed down for the data-pad, only it was gone. Taking with it the only hard evidence I had for just why I called the alert in. There was a splash behind me, and I spun around in time to see ripples expanding out from where someone, or something, had jumped into the lagoon.

Well, with no other option, I ran as fast as I could back to the surface complex. I found a certain amount of confusion as people ran about, unsure just what was happening. Fortunately, my warning had been heeded, and I could see a hive of activity around the small, nondescript building that housed the elevator shaft leading to the lab far below. Forcing my way through the confusion, I made my way to the top of the shaft just in time to see the last of the salvage crew being winched up. The expedition commander stood to one side, overseeing the operation, and upon seeing I had arrived, he turned to me as if to ask just what the hell I was talking about.

His question died on his lips. However, as a deep rumbling sound came from the bottom of the shaft. The very ground beneath our feet shaking and bucking like a DropShip boosting for orbit. I grabbed the hand rail and wrapped one arm around it, the other taking hold of a crewman who'd been in danger of falling back down the shaft. People started screaming. They were struggling towards the exit even as the shaking stopped, the rumbling having been replaced with a deep roaring sound.

I risked a glance over the side of the shaft. My eyes going wide with terror as I saw a boiling cauldron of water rushing up towards me as the ocean sort to finally reclaim its lost territory. I found myself gripped with the sudden and overwhelming desire to be elsewhere, and pushed the man I had saved towards the door. Following the others to the hoped for safety of the outside.

The roaring only grew louder. Until it became almost deafening and a massive spout of water erupted within the squat building, ripping its roof of and sending it tumbling through the air to land on the shore of the lagoon. Saltwater spray drenched those of us unfortunate enough to be closest, and after a few minutes to ensure everyone was accounted for and there had been no serious injuries, we slowly ventured back towards the ruined building.

Probably not surprising to hear that the elevator shaft was filled. Almost all the way up, with water from the lagoon, the lab below cut off without access to specialist equipment we simply didn't have. The boss was furious, convinced that there had still been some hidden trove of invaluable Lost Tech hidden below, but his anger was tempered by the knowledge that nobody had been hurt or killed. I certainly had some explaining to do, but without the data-pad to back me up, it was a hard sell. Fortunately, I did have the irrefutable evidence that something had suddenly and completely destroyed the hidden lab. In the end he had no choice but to accept me at my word, mumbling something about how HQ was going to think we were both going space crazy when they read his report.

With everything of value stripped from the surface complex and the wrecked Jumbo, we boosted back for orbit. We didn't have the necessary staff on hand to try contacting any of the other settlements we'd seen. As none showed any signs of advanced technology or even the most basic of technology that anyone in the Inner Sphere or ever near Periphery would take for granted. Instead we simply logged the system for possible future investigation be a specialist team, then moved on. Space is big, and there are plenty more secrets to uncover.

Oh, and the data-core we found in the safe? Some long-dead executives porn stash. Turned out to be worth a fair bit on its own...

The End

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