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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

Story By JA Baker[]

Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written October 31st, 2020
Story Era Civil War Era

Dr Sarah Farkas, at your service. I am an archaeologist by profession and, well, some would say a thief by inclination.

I received my doctorate from the University of Dormuth on Marik, but I knew right away that the last thing I wanted was a lifetime in academia, so I decided that fieldwork was where my future lay. Unfortunately, upon the death of my parents, I found myself saddled with a massive debt that they had been keeping from me.

Turned out that my good-for-nothing brother, Joseph, had convinced them to mortgage their home, and co-sign massive loans, to fund the formation of his Mercenary unit. This is the same brother who was rejected by the local Militia for being too incompetent to even be relied upon to act as a meat-shield for someone else. Their very first mission, he walked his unit into an ambush, then got shot in the back when he tried to turn-tail and run. My parents managed to get the loans deferred; apparently it's a somewhat common occurrence, to the point that many banks have contingencies in place, but that meant that, as their only surviving next of kid, it was all dumped on me.

Thanks a lot, Joseph. I wished they'd recovered enough of you to bury so I at least had the opportunity to piss on your grave!

So I looked into joining Interstellar Expeditions, but they had already hired so many archaeologist that their pay and benefits package wouldn't even come close to covering the interest in what I owed, let alone the debt itself. And that was assuming that I didn't mind living in a cardboard box and eating out of a dumpster. I looked into teaching, but without any real experience, I was again met with meager pay offers from third-string colleges and school.

In desperation, I found myself agreeing to work with some salvage hunters, helping sort through some Star League era relics they'd found to see if there was anything they'd overlooked. It was the kind of work I would have looked down my nose at when I was still a student, but I kept the proverbial wolves from the door. Unfortunately, it didn't do much for my professional reputation, and I soon found myself blacklisted by pretty much everyone.

So, with nothing left to loose, I double downed, and took part in a few expeditions to abandoned colonies and outposts. Actually getting my hands dirty in the field paid more, but often required that I ignore my professional ethics. More than once, I had to bite my tongue about how some recovered artifact belonged in a museum, because a private collector was willing to pay more. But at least I didn't have to worry about debt collectors knocking on the door for a while.

Then came the day that changed everything, when someone did come knocking at my door.

My first thought was that I was having some crazy dream about being a child again, because he towered over me. I'm not the tallest of women, but I'm certainly above average, or so I've been told. But the man standing in the hallway outside my apartment was more than a good head and shoulders over me, to the point where I had to crane my neck in order to look at his face. It was rugged, with a faint scar running across his brow. He was dressed in a black jumpsuit that did nothing to hide his impressive physique, with a belt, the buckle of which took me a moment to identify.

Clan Goliath Scorpion.

Well, the obvious question of what the hell a Clanner, and obviously an Elemental at that, was doing at my door surprised me. Especially as, last time I checked, the League was still a considerable distance from Tukayyid.

"Dr Sarah Farkas, Quiaff?" his voice was deep but friendly, his accent oddly fitting for the League in general, but not for Stewart, "Star Captain Alan Shaffer. May I come in?"

I was so taken aback by his politeness that I instinctively stepped aside and waved him inside, before quickly ducking past him so I could try and hide the worst of the mess in the combination living room/kitchen. Thankfully, he seemed unconcerned, and after quickly assessing the structural integrity of my furniture, chose to remain standing.

"Sorry if I seem a little confused, but it's rather... unusual to see... one of your people here in the League." I stood across from him, switching the coffee machine on, "Especially as, and I'll admit I'm not as up-to-date on these things as some, but... You're a Goliath Scorpion, yes?"

"Aff." He nodded, seemingly unphased by my constant use of contractions.

"Right, and your Clan wasn't one of the original invaders, right?" she asked

"Neg, we were not." replied the large Star Captain

"Okay, so how, and perhaps more importantly, why are you here, exactly?" she probed

"I was able to arrange transport on a Clan Diamond Shark merchant vessel as far as Tukayyid. From there, I was able to negotiate safe passage from ComStar as a diplomatic envoy." he explained, as if he was describing his daily commute to work, "As to the why, well, that it twofold. I am what my people call a Seeker, which broadly similar to your own profession. And it is this path in life that has led me to your door. May I speak bluntly?"

"I didn't know you Clanners knew any other way." I smiled.

"I have permission to launch an archaeological exhibition to the planet Helm, but only under the condition that I... obtain the services you a native of the Free Worlds League to act as my guide." he continued, "Through ComStar, I have attempted to engage the services of several experts, but all have refused my offers, many sighting that they do jot wish to have their professional reputation tarnished by being seen to work with..."

"A Clanner?" she completed his sentence.

"Exactly. However, one of them did at least seem interested in what I thought I may find, and gave me your name and address, stating that, and forgive me, but this is a direct quote, you would do anything if the price was right." he told her

"Obviously one of my former professors, but I won't ask you to name names." I shrugged, having long ago gotten used to some of the things I had been called behind my back, or even to my face, "I take it they also told you why my services are for hire?" she asked

"I was told that you owed a significant amount of money, through no fault of your own. Fortunately, my Clan provided me with, funding, to support my quest, and I believe that we can come to an...arrangement."

"This must be strange for you, if what little I've heard about your culture is true: having to actually ask a civilian for their help, and offer financial compensation?"

"It is... unusual, I admit. But one should always be open to new experiences.";; the Elemental nodded, thoughtfully, "Normally, I would have brought retainers, drawn from the lower casts of my own Clan, but it was felt that this might, complicate, interactions in the Inner Sphere."

"No slavery under the Cameron Star, I believe the saying was. We may have forgotten much these last three centuries, but that one has endured. For the most part, here in the League." I nodded, "So, what exactly do you expect to find on Helm? You have to know that the SLDF cache was discovered, and unfortunately destroyed, back in '28. Countless expeditions have been launched since to try and uncover anything that remains, but when an entire sea is returned to the surface..."

"I would rather not share any details until we have reached an agreement for your services. I have been informed that the trade in Star League artifacts is both lucrative and highly competitive, possibly to the point where someone may be inclined to try and reach my goal ahead of me." he carefully told her.

"You don't want anyone jumping your claim? Smart man." I reached into a cupboard and pulled out two glasses and a bottle of whisky. It was only a domestic brand, but it was still a good, solid single malt that I kept on hand for special occasions, "This is some what old fashioned, and I doubt it would hold up in court, but right now, it's the best I can do."

I poured two generous glasses, handed one to Shaffer, and we downed the contents in one go, the rich, smoky liquid burning its way down my throat to sit in my stomach like a ball of fire.

"Congratulations, Star Captain Alan Shaffer of Clan Goliath Scorpion: you just hired yourself an archaeologist." she announced to him.

That was how, a week later, I found myself on a DropShip headed for the Zenith jump-point. Despite Minoru Kurita's best efforts, Helm remains a net exporter of food and agricultural goods, including to Stewart. Meaning that there was a near constant stream of ships connecting the two worlds. Our ride was a truly ancient Jumbo class cargo hauler that had, in defiance of all logic and sense, been named the Flight Of Fancy by her owner. Well, I can assure you that there was nothing fancy about the passenger accommodation, even if we had opted for a larger 'Second Class' cabin, due to the fact that my employer wouldn't have fitted into one of the Steerage class bunks.

Having swept the cabin with a Star League vintage bug-scanner, Shaffer explained his 'quest' to me: the Clans had detailed records of SLDF bases, supply dumps and marshaling yards across the Inner Sphere and beyond. The vast majority of these had been picked clean during the war against Amaris and a preparations for the Exodus, most of those that remained in the ensuing Succession Wars, but there was some evidence that some remained. And, as the self-proclaimed inheritors of the SLDF, the Clans felt that the contents of these caches rightfully belonged to them. The Wolf's Dragoons had investigated many such locations during their grand tour of the Inner Sphere, recovering what they could from some, but all too often finding them empty.

Helm, however, was something of an anomaly. Everyone knew that it had been destroyed when the self-destruct failsafe had been activated, but a careful examination of the records indicated that there had been a secondary facility hidden beneath the first one. Somewhere within the vast chamber that had contained the Yehudan Sea. Unfortunately, the files were fragmented, much having been lost as loyal SLDF personnel sort to destroy what they could before the Amaris and his thugs could twist it towards their own ends. All Shaffer could say for sure was that Major Edwin Keeler, the officer credited with hiding the cache that had contained what would become known as the Helm Memory Core, had been hand picked by the highest levels of the SLDF to carry out the assignment. And even someone like myself, who had never even worn a uniform for Halloween, could comprehend that it wasn't common for the chiefs of staff to personally pick the commander of a seemingly minor supply depot.

Whatever else he may have been, he was no mere supply clerk, that was for sure.

So, most of the journey was spent reading up on what was known of the Helm cache site. Everything from Grayson Carlyles deposition before the Mercenary Review Board to the texts written on the subject since and even a guidebook to the area published by some local merchants trying to entice tourists to visit the otherwise unremarkable world. We even watched that documentary Duncan Fisher did during one of his rare sober periods. Shaffer added to these maps drawn up by the Star League Corps of Engineering and the Quartermaster Command, depicting the area before and after the base was built. In my travels, I have seen many wonders performed by the Star League, from the broken remains of a prototype orbital elevator to self contained terraforming machines the size of an office block. I even once got to study the remains of a seismic regulator that had held two continents together. But nothing I had seen truly matched the sheer audacity of hiding an entire sea in an artificial cave network, on the off-chance that you may want to turn it into the galaxies biggest toilet, and flush an entire base down the drain!

But it was clear that that was exactly what they had done with the Yehudan Sea, which was now a popular tourist attraction in its own right.

Our arrival on Helm proved to be... problematic. As someone who travels for a living, I always made sure that my vaccinations were up-to-date, as were their records in my travel documents. But Shaffer, despite his insistence that he was likewise in full compliance with the medical requirements for visiting Helm, had no recognized way to prove it. As such we were forced to spend three days in medical isolation while a priority HPG message was sent all the way to Tukayyid, where a representative of the Clans was able to provide the necessary information for the Star Captain to be issued temporary documents and allowed into the general population.

Unfortunately, this was three days of listening to him go on and on and on about how much better things will be once the Clans 'liberate' Terra and restore the Star League. But, you now, I'm from the Free Worlds League, and there's no shortage of people going on about how things will be different, 'come the Glorious Revolution!' and all that round here. The only thing missing from his little speech was a list of who would be first up against the wall once the firing squads were formed, although I think that the customs staff on Helm made his list.

Fortunately, once we were free to go about our business, he did seem to calm down, so I put his unfortunate little temper tantrum down to the unforeseen and completely unnecessary delay caused by a minor bureaucratic power trip.

Renting a car big and sturdy enough to handle an Elemental, we loaded up our supplies and hit the road. Nature is highly resilient, and had covered much of the deviation wrought by the events of 3028, even if there were still occasional traces where the landscape had been shaken by the titanic forces unleashed. And the further we got from possible prying ears, the more open Shaffer became about not only the expedition, but the story behind it. Sitting by a camp fire our second night on the road, he told me of the difficulties he'd had convincing his superiors that the information he'd uncovered was worth going to all the trouble of arranging travel from the distant Clan Homeworlds to Tukayyid. It had taken him even longer to arrange the finances for his journey once he left the Occupation Zone. Oh, sure, there was God only knows how much hard cash sitting in banks on conquered worlds behind the Truce Line, but systems had been put in place to make sure that every single one of their serial numbers had been declared invalid.

My eyes somewhat glazed over as he tried to explain just how his contacts within the Merchant Cast had managed to arrange sufficient usable currency, and I was somewhat relieved when he invited me to 'couple' with him.

Say what you will about the Clans and their idea of a 'perfect' society, they at least recognize that sometimes you just need to get laid with no strings attached. Given I'd not had any company in the bedroom for some time, and he was attractive in a rugged kind of way, I had no issue in joining him in his sleeping bag. I won't go into too many details, but yes, ladies, everything on an Elemental is shall we say built to scale? While he may not have been the most imaginative partner I've ever had, he made up for it in other ways.

The next day saw us standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking a small and otherwise unremarkable cove on the coast of the Yehudan Sea. A careful examination of the documents Shaffer had brought with him pointed towards a small cave half way down the rock-face. That meant breaking out the climbing gear, using a winch fitted to the front of our rented car to lower the bulk of our equipment down once I had confirmed that the cave did indeed show signs of having been worked on with tools in the distant past.

You learn a lot of skills in the salvage game, and fortunately caving was one I had acquired. I'm no expert, but I'm at least proficient enough no not be a burden. But, even if I had been, I doubt Shaffer would have noticed: his genetically engineered physique more than evident as he carried what must have been close to his own bodyweight in equipment and supplies. I may be no soldier, but I got a good idea of just why Elementals are so feared and respected on the battlefield just by watching him. And it was just as well that he was happy playing pack mule, because the cave system was seemingly endless, with multiple branches, some of which ended in ferocrette walls that made it obvious that someone had done some remodeling work in the past. Fortunately, a good sense to direction and a seemingly endless supply of glow-sticks saved us from getting lost, and we chose to camp out in a large natural cavern.

One downside to field work, beyond the lack of adequate showers and toilets, is the menu. Food and water tend to be heavy, so most expeditions that have to carry everything on foot go for simple ration bricks. They have the look, texture and taste of cardboard, but they contain all the protein, vitamins and minerals you need to keep going. Some of the more expensive ones even contain immunization supplements, for when you're really off-the-grid. Fortunately, spices are light, and with a little imagination... they still taste like cardboard, only now cardboard covered in paprika.

Our second day in the cave started pretty much like the first, up until we found the remains of a twisted metal plaque. Inscribed with his insignia of the SLDF's VII Corps, 8th Army, the first real clue that we were on the right track. Going deeper, we found more examples of where the natural cave network had been turned into a more navigable network of tunnels, all be it eroded by the passage of time and the elements. Mid afternoon saw us reach a massive cavern, so big that even the powerful, 40,000 lumens military grade flashlight Shaffer had brought with him couldn't reach the other side. What was most interesting, however, was the staircase descending down into the darkness below, cut into the very rock-face itself.

We decided it was best to set up base camp at the top of the stairs, getting everything we could set up before making our decent the next day. I took the opportunity to use some of the toys Shaffer had brought with him, mainly an portable echolocation device, to try and get a reading on the size of the cavern.

"You ever read Jules Verne?" I asked as I looked over the results.

"I take it you mean Journey to the Center of the Earth?" he asked, "I was always more a fan of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, but yes, I have read it."

"Well, Star Captain Nemo, if it wasn't for an inpatient Precentor, we'd probably need the Nautilus if we wanted to go any further." I handed him the scanner, "I think we've found where Major Keeler hid the Yehudan Sea."

"By The Founder!" the hulking Elemental looked at the display, then rooted around in his pack, before drawing a flare-gun. Checking to see that it was loaded with the correct shell, he fired it off into the void.

There was a whoosh, followed by a loud crack that echoed off the cavern walls either side off us, then the star shell burst into life, so bright it temporarily blinded me.

"Maybe a warning next time?" I suggested, blinking until the spots faded from before my eyes, and then looked out, "Mother of God..."

My estimates of the caverns size must have been off by at least one order of magnitude, as even the flare, capable of illuminating an entire battlefield, failed to reach the far side. What it did reveal were massive supports, each easily fifty meters across, still holding up the unimaginable weight of the mountains above us. Into each one was carved the eight-pointed uneven Cameron Star, and the insignia of the Star League Corps of Engineers. Of all the examples of Star League mega-engineering I'd ever seen... nothing else even came close. You could have built an entire city, multiple cities!, within the cavern, and still had room to spare

I've heard it said that, since the fall of the Star League and the collective insanity that were the Succession Wars, we've lost so much knowledge, that we don't even have the names of what we don't know. It's a popular opinion amongst my profession, but it's not every day that it's made so blatantly clear.

"There it is!" Shaffer shouted excitedly, pointing towards a large, dome-like structure built into the floor of the cavern, a massive Cameron Star and the insignias of the Nirasaki Computers Collective and Ulsop Robotics clearly visible, even from well over a kilometer away, "PROSPERO."

What followed was me asking a lot of questions and trying to hold back the need to push him over the edge and into the cavern below when it became clear that he'd been holding out on me.

It all started with Admiral Noriko Murakami, one of the brains behind the final evolution of the Space Defense System into the weapon that would cause so much death and destruction during the Amaris Uprising. Her grand plan had been to completely remove the human element from the network, to create a system that would function comfortably automatically. Project PROSPERO had intended to forge the perfect defense. One that did not get tired, nor detracted, or have a bad day. It was one that could not be bribed or blackmailed or otherwise subverted. Such a project had been undertaken amidst the upmost security, on a strict need-to-know basis, and tested in locations where security was 100% guaranteed. Helm, with its super-secret, not even known to the High Council weapons cache, was the perfect place, and a massive bunker complex had been built under the hidden bunker complex.

I swear, I'm not sure what was more impressive; That they'd managed to build such a complex or that they'd managed to do so twice without anyone noticing.

The records held by the Clans, that Shaffer had made it his life's work to delve into. It had been incomplete, so he'd had no idea if PROSPERO had gotten off the design board, let alone gotten as far as the prototype stage. Oh, sure, there had been a few side projects, the SLS Charlotte Cameron arguably being the most infamous. However for centuries, it had been believed that the final iteration had been stillborn. There was still the very real possibility that we were looking at an empty shell, still patiently awaiting the arrival of the teams of engineers and scientists who had died centuries past. Not that Shaffer seemed to be concerned by the possibility: apparently, proving that PROSPERO had been ore than just a thought exercise was more than a enough for him to be able to return to his people in triumph.

It was hard to sleep that night, and not just because I yet again shared Shaffer's sleeping bag. No, even after he'd drifted of to sleep, I couldn't help but think about what we might find the next day. Even if it was just an empty shell, the simple fact that I'd helped find it would go a long way towards repairing my professional reputation. Coupled with finally being able to clear my debts, it might be just enough to get me back on to my original career path. Who knew, maybe a college or university somewhere might like the idea of hiring someone with a dark and sordid past? Everyone knows that there's no substitute for actual field work, after all, and I'd at least have a few colorful stories to keep the students from nodding off in class.

Next Day

Somehow, I managed to get at least some sleep, which coupled with several cups of strong coffee and a military grade prep-pill, got me somewhat functional the next morning.

Setting secure anchors, we secured ourselves and our equipment with myomer ropes that had the duel advantage of being both incredibly strong and very light for their size, and started down the stairs to the cavern floor below. Shaffer fired off another star shell, this time giving me ample warning, proving us with ample lighting. Which was for the best, as it was soon obvious that no one had been that way for a very, very long time. The steps, once cut as smooth as polished marble, had been pitted and worn by centuries of submerged in sea water, requiring our full attention to navigate safely in places.

Upon reaching the bottom, I checked the marker on the cables, and was shocked to discover that we'd descended almost a kilometer, and I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach at the thought of having to climb back up again. It was clear that we'd found some kind of emergency exit, but with the destruction of the main complex, the chances of finding a less taxing route back to the surface were as close to zero as to be none existent.

Another two kilometers, this time thankfully on mostly level ground, saw us to the edge of the dome, although mushroom might have been a more acute description, up close. It towered up above our heads at least five stories, before jutting out a good ten meters, then curving back over. And, standing in what you could call its shadow, it became obvious just how massive a structure it truly was. It was, unfortunately, also completely devoid of features, which given it had been intended to sit under a kilometer of water, was at least somewhat understandable. We had blasting charges with us, sure, but nobody with two braincells to rub together would try using them without first knowing just how thick the walls were, and perhaps more importantly, what was on the other side.

"So...left or right?" I asked, looking up at Shaffer.

"I honestly could not say." he shrugged, "We could walk around the entire circumference in one direction, only to discover the only opening is just out of sight the other way."

"I don't think any of our sounding equipment will be of much use. If it was built to survive, what, a hundred atmospheres of water? Maybe more? I doubt anything we'd be able to carry down here without help would be able to see through all that."

"True." The Elemental looked from side to side, then at the ground beneath our feet, "Left, there is more evidence of ware that way."

We walked in silence, every twenty meters, like clockwork, Shaffer would crack, shake and drop another glow-stick to mark our passing. With the star she'll having long burnt out, the warm chemical glow cast erie shadows across the stalagmites. I looked around for any further sign of, well, anything, but were it not for the massive structure to our right, it would have been easy to image that no human had ever set foot in the cave. Shaffer was just dropping a fourth glow-stick when a massive hatch, built into the side of the dome, came into view.

We hurried over to it, shocked to discover that the control panel still had power.

"How can it still be operational?" I asked, "The base above is gravel..."

"The Star League built this place to survive direct orbital bombardment." my companion explained, pulling a small, leather bound notebook from inside his jacket, "Now, let us see about opening it."

It took some time. Shaffer's research had uncovered a number of high-level access codes, including some apparently belonging to Alexander Kerensky himself. But, apparently even the Commanding General of the entire Star League Defence Force himself wasn't allowed to just stroll into Project PROSPERO on a whim, Lord Protector of the Star League or not. It took no less than six access codes, each belonging to members of the highest levels of the Hegemony military and civilian government, before the computer even offered to unlock the hatch.

Now, as you can probably imagine, it was a big door. And I don't mean just in height and width. It must have been a good five meters thick, maybe more, made out of a solid piece of metal that, according to Shaffer, resemble the same Ferro-Aluminum Armor used on warships. But, given that it needed to withstand the crushing pressure of a kilometer of water for an indefinite amount of time, I guess they didn't want to skimp on the budget. And it didn't swing open or anything like that. No, it gave out a groan like a god with a hangover, shuddered so hard I almost fell over, and then with an ear piercing screech, it slowly moved outward on four massive screws, each on easily a meter in diameter. Oddly enough, once it had actually started moving, most of the noise and shaking stopped, the ancient system running almost smoothly.

Beyond the hatch was what could only be described as a massive airlock, complete with a second massive door at the far end. The chamber was massive, easily big enough for a good sized flatbed truck to drive into with room to spare, but aside from a second computer terminal built into the far wall, it was completely empty. Oh, sure, there were warning signs and hash markings where the door would sit when retracted, but other than that, it was just a big, empty void.

Shaffer seemed giddy as a kid on Christmas morning as we jogged to the Inner door. Or, rather, I jogged to keep up with his long strides that just ate up the distance. He carefully entered the same six security codes, and a number of bright warning lights started to flash, a recorded vice warning everyone to stand clear of the door. The Inner hatch slowly closed behind us, but I certainly gave no thought of trying to stop it, or running back outside. Much like Shaffer, I wanted, no, I needed, to see what was on the other side of the inner door.

Oddly enough, the hallway beyond the door wouldn't have looked out of place in any large government building. The walls were painted the same dull grey/white, the floors covered in a layer of textured plastic that's hard wearing but offers just enough traction to make walking comfortable. The recessed lighting was on, but we had no way of knowing if it was on before we entered, or if we triggered it by opening the lock. A small, fortified security station stood directly opposite the airlock, everything perfectly squared away in accordance with SLDF regulations, right down to the impressive number of weapons still in their racks. A pair of electric carts sat in an alcove, and a quick check showed that, not only were they fully charged, but apparently in perfect working order. We chose the larger of the two, a six-wheeled model that looked better suited to handling someone of Shaffer's size. A sign on the wall, written in clear Star League Standard English, gave directions from a number of locations within the dome, and we decided that the central control room was probably our best bet.

It was a quiet drive, the silence only broken by the humming of the carts electric motor. We passed a number of side corridors, but few doors, indicating that much of the complex was hidden away from easy access. Which, if Shaffer was right, made perfect sense: you didn't want some lost janitor taking a wrong turn and spilling a bucket of water all over your nice, new supercomputer, now would you? But, everywhere we looked, that was no sign that anyone else had visited since construction was completed. Indeed, it felt eerily like being on the set of a play or movie: that almost antiseptic feel, without the faintest of human touches, made it feel somehow unreal. Everywhere we looked, it was clear that the facility had been built with a sizable staff in mind, all be it with considerable automation in several areas. We passed signs indicating accommodation blocks, mess halls and offices, you nowhere was there any sign that any of them had ever been used.

"I don't get it, this place looks intact." I voiced my confusion, "Why did Keeler let Minoru Kurita bombard the planet if he had this place to defend it with?"

"Maybe this facility was completed, but the rest of the Space Defense System was not?" Shaffer suggested, "There is no evidence that any ground-based weapons were ever built, and the only space-based defenses were some fighters in the outer asteroid belt."

Eventually we reached a turning, and I stopped the cart suddenly as I saw what was awaiting us: what I had taken to be just another corridor was actually a raised walkway, fully enclosed, and suspended a good hundred meters above what had to be the largest collection of computing power in the entire Free Worlds League. Even the main server farm back at the University of Dormuth had only been a fraction of the size of the chamber below us, which must have been at least a kilometer across. Years of experience had me automatically calculating the cash value of the massive collection of LosTech, and quickly ran out of numbers. In the very middle of the chamber was a tall, tower like structure, which the walkway seemed to be connected to the top of.

Grinning like an idiot, I spurred the cart on, already thinking about how gracious I'd be while accepting the apologies and adoration of all those people who called me little better than a tomb raider!

Eventually we reached the end of the walkway: another airlock like chamber, leading into what was again marked as the central control room. I don't know what I'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't a nearly featureless circular room, with a raised central area, upon which was set a pedestal. The top of the pedestal was completely empty, except for a single switch, controlled by a removable key on a chain. Hanging from the other end of the chain were a set of SLDF issue dog-tags, with the name Major Edwin Keeler printed upon them. The switch itself only had two settings, a simple standby and active, the key turned to the standby mode.

Without saying a word, Shaffer reached out and turned the key to the active position.

The alarm that sounded was so loud that I clamped my hands over my ears and ducked down in an instinctive attempt to get away from it. Shaffer remained unmoving, as if the ear piercing shrieking was having no effect on him. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the alarm stopped, replaced by a low hum that seemed to come up out of the floor, almost more of a physical sensation than a sound. There was a loud series of snaps all around us, as long dormant systems powers up for the first time in centuries, power finally running through the vast array of servers and memory banks, bringing the full might of Project PROSPERO to life.

Quite literally to life, as a series of hidden holographic emitters powered up, a massive Cameron Star, easily two meters high, appearing in the air before us, only to be replaced by a human face.

It was a fancy anyone who's studied history would recognize, from the big, impressive beard to the receding hairline, 8t was the face of a statesman. Arguably the Statesman: Simon Michael Cameron, 18th Director-General of the Terran Hegemony and 5th First Lord of the Star League.

"By Kerensky's Bones, they actually did it?" Shaffer looked genuinely surprised for the first time since we had arrived on Helm.

"Did what?" I asked, more than a little overwhelmed by the whole things.

"Project PROSPERO, Admiral Noriko Murakami, this was the question she sort to answer. How do you program an AI to be completely loyal, but also able to think and react like a human?" He explained, his eyes wide, "They did the only thing they could: they used a modified Neurohelmet to map the brainwaves of the then First Lord, and used the data provided to form the basis of the AI's personality matrix. It concept was that the resulting AI would be completely loyal to Star League because it would see itself as a member of House Cameron..."

The hologram shifted, almost as if it was waking up, opened it eyes, and screamed.

I'd thought the alarm had been loud, but the scream, equal parts surprise, pain and anguish, hit like a speeding bus, knocking me back off my feat even as the windows in the hatches behind us, fashioned from toughened glass, shattered. Even Shaffer staggered backwards as fresh alarms sounded... or, at least, I assume they did, given all the flashing yellow lights. My ears were still ringing at the time. Red and amber lights flashed out their warning, even as a sound like distant thunder heralded the overload and destruction of utterly priceless and completely irreplaceable computers.

Shaffer grabbed my by the collar of my jacket and dragged me out of the control room, out onto the walkway. The windows, which had previously been clear, now filled with smoke and flame as the very heart of Project PROSPERO ripped itself apart. Ignoring the electric cart, Shaffer lifted me almost effortlessly over one shoulder and started to run about as fast as I drive, back the way we came. Alarms and prerecorded messages warned of fire, instructing everyone to make for the nearest emergency exit. Further alarms warned of failure in the fire containment system, then, most worryingly of all, damage to the main thermoelectric generators.

I'd been wondering just how the complex still had power after all those years, and suddenly it made sense: the mountains above our heads were volcanic in origin, all be it extinct for thousands of years. But, there was still a thin patch in the tectonic plate, and the Star League must have tapped into it to create a geothermal power supply for Project PROSPERO. It was pure genius, really: constant, reliable and completely isolated from the rest of the planet. No wonder it had survived three centuries, and the destruction of the supply cache above it, intact. The downside is that a geothermal plant is essentially a volcano waiting to happen, and with the AI clone of Simon Cameron apparently having the single worst morning in all of human history... the shit had hit the fan and was flying everywhere.

Not that Shaffer seemed to care, or even notice that he was carrying a confused and struggling archaeologist over one shoulder. Instead he continued to run, flat-out, down corridors and through junctions, ignoring the sound of distant explosions and the occasional ground-shaking rumble as the complex started to tear itself apart from the inside out. We reached the airlock far faster than I thought possible, and thank the Unfinished Book, it had apparently been tied into the emergency system, as both the inner and outer hatch were open. Shaffer finally let me down once we were outside, dust and rock already starting to fall from the roof of the cave.

"GET TO DA STAIRS!" he yelled, pushing me forward.

Adrenaline is a hell of a drug, as fear lent my legs speed I didn't know I was capable of. Focusing only on the trail of glow-sticks, I ran faster than I ever have before or since. I pride myself on being in pretty good shape, all things considered, but I ran until my lungs burned and my vision became dim... then I ran some more. Somehow we reached the bottom of the stairs without tripping or stumbling, but that still left us with a near kilometer climb ahead of us, or at least that was what I'd assumed, before Shaffer dragged the ropes to one side, clipped one to the field webbing I worse, and pressed a button on a remote. I suddenly found myself hauled off my feet and dragged up the cliff face, struggling to get myself into a position where I could at least get my legs between myself and the rock, better controlling my unexpected ascent.

Turned out, Shaffer had rigged up portable winch to aid in the recovery of our equipment. Equipment, it so happened, that actually weighed more than me, so the compact electric motor had no trouble dragging my sorry arse up to the ledge while he used a more traditional rapid ascender kit.

In turn, this meant that I reached the top in time to see massive dome that had housed Project PROSPERO start to glow, as if lit by an internal light, then crumple in upon itself. As I watched a wellspring of red-hot magma bubbled up in the middle, the outer edges of the dome collapsing into the center, until nothing was left, I couldn't help but wonder what the hell had happened?

Was the system incomplete? Had the AI been driven mad when, upon activation, it realized that it wasn't the 'real' Simon Cameron, and been driven to suicide? Had it somehow known what had happened to the nation, the family, it had been created to serve and protect? Had the system needed the presence of the Yehudan Sea to act as a massive heat sink, and shorted out? Or had it been a continuation of the failsafe Keeler had built into the weapons cache, triggered when the system activated?

            • , it wasn't like we were ever going to know for sure, one way it another!

"I hate to sound like a materialistic weasel, especially at a time like this," I offered Shaffer a hand up over the lip of the edge, "but I still get paid, right?"

The End

  • Note from Author: Yet again, thanks to Cannonshop and Giovanni Blasini
    Happy Halloween

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