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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

Something my twisted little mind came up with when mulling over a story I never got around to finishing

Story By JA Baker[]

Moriamur Et In Media Arma Ruamus
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written November 2020
Story Era Late Jihad Era

The Forlorn Hope.

Traditionally, they're the first soldiers through the breach in the enemy defenses. Casualties are always expected to be high, at times total, so those taking part were offered vast sums of money, promotion or the forgiveness of some crime they may have committed. It was seen as an easy way to distinguish yourself in battle, should you survive, and some idiots even recommend it to their children as the fast path to advancement.

We were the Forlorn Hope for Operation SCOUR, but we weren't given a choice in the matter.

Okay, technically we were. They gave us the choice of strapping ourselves into obsolete, poorly maintained BattleMechs that even Discount Dan would pass on, and then dropping onto Terra ahead of the main assault to try and trip any nasty surprises that the Word may have put in place, or we could face a firing squad.

See, we were technically captured enemy combatants, which is a polite way of saying prisoners of war when you don't want to have to observe the niceties of the law. Each and every one of us, in some way and at some point, had worked for the Word of Blake. And we were a pretty broad mix at that: in my company alone, we had a guy who'd driven a [[IndustrialMech|LoaderMech at a spaceport used by Word ships, two filing clerks and an artist who'd painted pictures to hang in HPG stations under Word control.

The Greenhaven Gestapo, we were not.

No, we were simply people who'd been on the wrong side of a war none of us had wanted or had any say in. I was the only actual combat veteran in the whole sorry lot, and only then because I'd been a militia pilot on a world within the Protectorate. And no, I won't tell you which world that was: I still have family these, best I know, and I'm not risking getting them in to trouble. See, they still let us watch TV in here, all be it one locked inside a wire cage so we don't smash it, so I know about all the 'trials' that are little more than mob justice with a still damp coat of paint slapped on top.

Nothing like a little telling the masses that they're not responsible for their own actions, that it was some nebulas 'them', that 'they' are the ones who committed or enabled others to commit atrocities, to speed along nation budding. Your 'Coalition' won, so everything you do is to 'bring the guilty to justice', and everything we did, even if it was just try and protect our homes, was a war crime. And, if that helps sell people on forced relocation in the name of promoting harmony, all the better.

But yeah, you wanted to know about what happened when we hit the ground, exactly what we stumbled into that let me the only survivor of an entire regiments worth of canaries sent into that particular mine?

Probably explains why they've cut back on my 'medication' these last few days, they don't like us being too lucid. Make it harder for them to either ignore us, or take too much interest. Not that I have to worry about that, as even the sick bastards they have working here turn their nose up to someone who looks like burnt pizza.

So we were told we were going in. Not where exactly, just that it was on Terra and we should expect a hostile reception ground-side. Like I said, most of us were ex-Word affiliated in some way, too far down the line to be able to trade information for a head-start, and not considered worth 'rehabilitating' back into 'civilization'. The higher-ups would happily march us into the line of fire in the hopes that the enemy might run out of ammo before the real troops arrived.

How'd that work out for you?

Only thing they did tell us, on the off chance that any of us actually survived long enough for it to make a difference, was that we were to investigate a supposed Geothermal power planet that had been originally built by the Terran Alliance, then expanded upon and modified by everyone who'd controlled Terra since. Only thing was, while it produced plenty of electricity, it wasn't anywhere near any known geothermal vents, meaning that there shouldn't have been any way for it to power so much as a single light bulb. So, something was going on, something that apparently required significant shielding from orbital scans and an impressive assortment of static and mobile defenses.

Stinger Light BattleMech (Battlefield - by Justin Kase)

Stinger Light BattleMech

They had me locked into a truly ancient Stinger that looked like it hadn't seen the inside of a repair bay since the Third Succession War. And I do mean 'locked in': our hatches were sealed from the outside and the ejector seats deactivated, less we try and make a run for it. Instead we had about a kilo of high explosives under our seats, set to detonate should we stray to far from the 'keepers' they sent to watch over us, or refused an order, or tried to go off-mission, or surrender, or switch the radio to a different frequency... or someone higher up just got board and decided to make us go boom for shits and giggles.

And those Keepers really were beyond insane. Some were dying of something nasty and incurable, or had lost everything during the Jihad, or just wanted to burn out rather than fade away. Whatever their reasons, they agreed to go with us, keeping us on-mission, each capable or blowing us to hell if they felt the need.

So, the mission, if you can call it that...

Well, they decided to go with an orbital drop, which is utterly hilarious because even seasoned troops manage to ****** those up, let alone people with less than a hundred hours on simulators, an no experience actually piloting a real BattleMech. We lost God only know how many people because they popped their canopies too soon or too late, accidentally jettisoned their parachute. Not that you'd care: only good Blakist is a dead Blakist, right?

But I at lest had some idea what I was doing, and managed to not kill myself. As such I got to look at the facility as we made our way down through the almost painfully bright, clear blue sky. I have no idea exactly where on Terra we were, just that there was nothing but snow and mountains as far as the eye could see in every direction. No trees, bushes or other signs of life besides this big, grey building and a line of pylons snaking off into the distance.

They'd obviously seen us coming, because the Triple-A opened up as soon as we were in range, followed by the lasers and PPC's, trying to swat us out of the sky. I felt my Stinger shake and jerk around as I was buffeted by near misses, but no direct hits. Did see an old Vindicator that still had its CCAF markings viable get blow apart by what must have been an air-defense Arrow IV missile. The words of the training manual they'd been gracious enough to let me read flashed through my head, and I cut my 'chute free and dropped like, well, twenty tons of metal towards the rapidly approaching ground.

I hit my jump jets at the last possible moment, the sudden deceleration making my vision go grey around the edges as my spine compressed. I did everything I could to loosen up before impact, but, shit, there's only so much you can do, and I still felt several of my teeth break on impact. Fortunately, from a given point of view, they'd given each of us a shot of some crazy cocktail of painkillers, stimulates and god ony knows what else before the drop, so I didn't feel too much pain.

Standing back up, I found myself knee deep in snow, maybe two kilometers from the objective.

We didn't have any grand strategy: anyone who survived the drop was supposed to make their way to the target as best they could. So I started moving, the thick snow slowing me down. I watched a Panther having the same problem try to use their jump-jets, only to gain the attention of, well, it looked like all the turrets, and it landed as a collection of burning scrap. But, being in a smaller 'Mech, quarter buried in snow, I guess I seemed like less of a target, so I only had to trade laser fire with a couple of turrets before I reached the cleared area at the perimeter of the compound.

First thing I noticed was the sudden rise in temperature: before, it had been so cold that I hadn't had to worry about my heat levels. But soon as I crossed that boundary, the gauges all spiked, the massive reinforced ferrocrete building at the center of the complex glowing amber on my thermal scope.

I don't know if the defenses were taken out or we just got into a blind-spot or what, but they stopped shooting at us as we made our way across a large, open area to the building proper. Up close, it looked just the same as it had from a distance: a massive box made out of ferrocrete, easily two kilometers across and half a kilometer high. There were no windows, and the only obvious door looked like some kind of loading dock. I watched as a limping, one-armed Charger punched its remaining hand through the door and lifted it up. The gap was far too small for the bigger 'Mechs, but smaller scouts like my Stinger could just abut fit through. I thought it had been warm outside, but it was damn near tropical inside the building, my heat gages going from green to yellow the moment I stepped through the door. From what I could tell, the entire structure was one big chamber, filled with a network of water and steam pipes running off seemingly at random. And, according to my thermals, somewhere in the very middle of the mess was some thing, roughly two meters cubes, glowing red hot.

Weapons at the ready, we started to carefully pick our way forward, something easier said than done, given just how many pipes, valves and controls littered the place. There was so much humidity that sensors were less than useless due to all the interference, and we were reduced to our Mk.1 Eyeballs. I moved slightly to the left, covering a Commando as it moved forward to investigate. As such, I was in position to see the flash as a hidden suit of Asura Battle Armor fired its load of rockets, blasting the left arm off of the Commando.

Commando (in Swamp by meltdonw14)

Commando Light BattleMech

...I don't care what you pump into me, or what you threaten to do to me, or even what you actually do do to me, nothing is going to help me remember exactly what happened next.

My instructor at basic called it the "Mad Minute", something that can happen to the most experienced troops when things get FUBAR. You lose all fire discipline and just go full spray-and-pray with everything at your disposal. You're not really trying to hit any specific target, but rather fill the air with as much weapons fire as possible in the hopes of hitting something, anything, that lets you live just a few seconds longer. Well, we certainly lived up to the Mad part, because we shot at everything in sight, including each other. Like I said, we weren't exactly the Northwind Highlanders, and we were already on edge, so it didn't take much for us to go straight to full blown panic the moment things went off the rails. Something hit my right shoulder, almost severing the arm and cracking my cockpit open. I stumbled backwards, stunned, falling on my ass in a way that would have been comedic in any other circumstances.

I do remember, with odd clarity, seeing a missile flying across the room, almost as if it was in slow motion. It was obviously old and poorly maintained, given how it corkscrewed through the air, smoking like crazy, right up until it hit the metal box in the middle of the chamber. It hit, and there was a dull thump, as maybe only half the explosive in the warhead was still any good. It should have been enough to shred the box, but instead it just buckled one side, opening it up along the edge.

There was a flash of light from inside the box. That was the first sign that something was about to happen. Then came a jet of flame, hot enough to melt a Wasp that was in the wrong place at the wrong time: I watched as it just... vanished, like someone had taken a blowtorch to a kids toy. Alarms were going off, but I think by then, everyone knew that something very bad was about to happen.

I know the official report says that the Word tried to blow the power planet to stop the Coalition from capturing it intact. I know that, officially, everyone else was killed in a massive explosion caused by the main heat exchanger being overloaded. I know that, and I'm sure you know that that report is a work of fiction, otherwise you wouldn't be here, talking to me.

No. You want to know what really happened. What I saw come out of that box. What did this to me, and the reason why they keep me so full of drugs that I spend most of my days drooling onto my pillow.

Well, okay then.

Like I said, the metal box had burst open along one side, and something started to force its way out, half melting the metal as it did so. I was still trying to stop my ears from ringing like a church bell, but I saw it step out into the open. And yes, I do mean step: it was vaguely human shaped, maybe two meters tall, and made entirely out of fire. And no, I don't mean it was on fire, it was fire. It was like some insane artist had discovered how to sculpt out of flames. I was a good twenty meters away, and the alarms in my 'Mech started going mad as the needles on the heat gauges buried themselves in the red, forcing an automatic shutdown. And even then, the remaining ammo for my machine guns started cooking off, only the rents in my armor saving me from a catastrophic internal ammunition explosion.

It looked around, with eyes like two blazing white stars... and then everything was fire.

I woke a week later in a hospital, handcuffed to the bed, as if I was in any condition to try and run. The doctor told me that a S&R team had pulled me out of the rubble of the power station, my 'Mech a half melted, twisted wreck that had offered just enough protection to keep me alive, even if I' d suffered second and third degree burns to most of my body. Two men in uniforms devoid of any unit or rank insignia listened to my account of what had happened, then told me the official story, and recommended that I kept to it. And even then, they sent me to this hellhole, on indefinite medical detention due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Emotional Distress. Which is a nice way of saying that I'm completely insane and you shouldn't believe a word I say, because I suffer from delusions, hallucinations and rampant paranoia.

It's all there in my file, you can't trust a word I say.

The End

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