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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

Off the Edge of the Map - By JA Baker[]

Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written August 2019
Story Era Civil War Era

Yeah, I'm a pirate.

What? You expect me to make some excuses?

Look, you took the time and effort to track me down here, so you know who I am and what I did. So, yeah, I'm a pirate, or at least I was before too many years in space behind inadequate and poorly maintained radiation shielding caught up with me. And judging by the way the docs keep pumping me full of the good stuff, I ain't got much time left before I'm face-to-face with Old Scratch. So it's not like you'll be putting me on trial, and believe me, killing me would be doing me a favor.

I signed up with Calico Jack Rackham about three months after he was elected leader of his crew, after old Walker D. Plank was killed on a raid. That's something that a lot of people don't understand about some pirate crews: We elect our Captain from among the members. Everyone has a vote, and everyone is free to put their name forward, no reprisals. All open and fair, like. Not every outfit operates like that, but ours did. You get five minutes to state your case, then someone neutral, usually the cook or the doc, calls a vote. Whoever gets the most votes is the new Captain, and that's the end of it. Sure, people try and 'contest the count', but that's seen as going against the will of the crew, so it's not exactly good for your health, if you catch my drift. But Calico Jack was an old-hand by that point, so nobody actually stood against him, and the crew accepted his leadership without question.

Well, almost everyone: I wasn't there when Revy Two-Hands quit, but they were still repairing the damage to the Lady Luck when I arrived.

What happened? Well, I only heard this second hand, but apparently someone back in the Combine got in touch, said they could get her a pardon. A chance to visit her husbands grave, if she'd tell them everything she knew about some corrupt officers. She took the deal, but the bounty ISF had on her couldn't be lifted until she'd testified. A couple of the less honorable members of the crew figured that if she wasn't one of them anymore, they might as well try and collect on it. Suffice to say, it ended badly for them, and Calico told her not to let the sun go down with her still on planet.

But you didn't come all this way to talk about the inner workings of a defunct pirate band. No, you want to know what happened out there. You want to know just how Calico's Cutthroats met their end, don't ya?

Well, we'd come to the conclusion that the Chaos March was getting a little too hot for our liking. I know that the old adage is 'in confusion, there is profit', but it was getting to the point where we were more likely to be caught in the crossfire of better armed opponents. So we decided to ship-out for the Deep Periphery. Calico had a lead on some kind of mining operation that the JàrnFòlk had supposedly set-up between Hamar and Alfrk. Some desolate little mud-ball that didn't even have a name, but was apparently rich in... look, all I know is that it was apparently worth spending the better part of a year getting to, assuming that we could get our hands on it and find a buyer.

And I tell ya, if you think space travel can drive you crazy, try it with a crew who's most of the way there in the first place. It was only the fact that Calico had made his wife, Pollyanna, Master-At-Arms, that kept us from killing each other. Now, there was a woman you didn't want to get one the wrong side of. Even out of that blood-red suit of Sylph battle armor she'd pulled off of a dead Diamond Shark, so it wasn't too hard for her to keep us in line.

Sylph Battle Armor (Geergutz)

Sylph Battle Armor

We were getting close to going at each other, 'Pretty Polly' be damned, when we arrived in system. It was a fairly typical F-type main-sequence star with four planets. The outer two being a gas and ice giant respectively, but it was the second planet circling on the inner edge of the habitable zone, that was our prize. Now Calico had done his homework, or, at least, paid someone to do it for him. So we had a pretty good idea what we were getting into. The planet was hot and dry with a lot of tectonic activity that brought a lot of rare elements to the surface. The JàrnFòlk had set up an open mine at the end of a steep-sided box canyon, digging into the side of the mountain for all that lovely mineral wealth. But the local geography and weather meant that they couldn't land DropShips too close to the mind, and instead had to ship out the ore to a makeshift spaceport some distance away.

That meant that there were regular convoys of ore just waiting to be scooped up!

Not that they weren't ready for trouble: each convoy had an escort, but nothing we couldn't deal with: the JàrnFòlk may fight like the devil himself hand-to-hand or in space, but in BattleMechs? Not their natural habitat. Word was they had a company of light and medium 'Mechs, but never sent more than a single lance out on escort duty. Certainly nothing a company of heavies with a couple of assaults couldn't handle.

The Lady Luck set down in a maze of canyons that were probably ranging rivers in the wet season, but it was the height of summer, so they were as dry as a nuns gusset. It was deep enough to hide a Union Dropship like the Lady, meaning that the JàrnFòlk had no way of knowing we where there unless they literally stumbled over us. Did make it a little interesting finding our way out to the ambush point, but that's all part of the life. And, again, Calico had done his homework: we knew the rout the convoy would be taking and roughly when it was due, so we had time to slip into position but didn't have to spend too long sitting there with our thumbs up our arses. Calico sent Polly off to keep an eye on the mine, then shadow the convoy, make sure there weren't any unpleasant surprises waiting for us when we sprung our unpleasant surprise.

Now looking back, that should have been our first clue that something wasn't right.

I've seen pretty much every kind of active and passive defense known to man, torn through or bypassed most of 'um, one time or another, but what those JàrnFòlk had set up was something different. Most obvious was the wall: big enough to bide a small DropShip behind, and made out of what passed for trees on that god forsaken rock. Big ones they were, too, thick and hard enough to stop even a medium laser, but they'd collected enough to completely enclose the end of the canyon with a big gate in the middle. They had weapons emplacements along the top: not true turrets, but enough to protect the crews from a fair bit. Then there were massive wooden stakes, effectively entire trees, buried at a 45-degree angle and the exposed ends sharpened to a point that looked like they could impale a BattleMech. Certainly not the kind of defenses you'd normally expect, even that far out into the outer darkness. The wall was topped by a geometric dome made of wood, cable and netting, each joint crowned by another spike. It wasn't camouflaged, but it was obviously intended to keep someone, or something, out.

Well, the convoy moved out on time, but at a far slower pace than we expected. They seemed to be hugging a low ridge line that would eventually bring them to where we were waiting, but it wasn't the fastest or the most direct rout, not by a long shot. And they were putting out enough active sensors to spot an honest man in government and chatting away on unencrypted radios, but it was clear from what little we could translate that they weren't looking for us, or pirates in general, just... there was this word they kept using, something in Japanese, but with Two-Hands gone, none of us spoke it well enough to translate it.

Anyway, we got ready as they got closer: soon as they passed a predetermined point, we'd burst out on them, guns blazing... which actually worked better than expected, because they straight up surrendered immediately. As in, didn't fire a single shot in defense. Instead, they laid down their weapons and begged us not to shoot.

Well, that's not exactly true: They pleaded with us not to make so much noise.

Now, while we were happy to have gotten the prize without so much as a paper-cut, something about just how easily we'd one had their hairs on the back of my neck standing on end, and I could tell that Calico felt the same, because he ordered us to keep our guns trained on the JàrnFòlk while Polly inspected the bootie. And sure enough, it was exactly what we'd been expecting. More of it, in fact. Enough to keep the Cutthroats going for at least a year, even after giving everyone their cut. And the JàrnFòlk, well, they just wanted us to take it and go, quietly.

Orion (MW3 PC Game version)

Orion Class Heavy 'Mech

The way they kept asking us to keep the noise down was getting to some of the others, and one, a real nasty piece of work who went by Reinhardt, he decided to 'show them who was in charge', so he raised the arms on his JagerMech and let rip a long burst with all four autocannons. Couple of the others followed suit, taking the opportunity to blow off a little steam by shooting at the sky. Spent she'll casings clattered to the ground in heaps while the air boiled with the heat of discharging lasers. Me? I was watching the JàrnFòlk, and they were watching the skies, but not out of fear of the display my companions were putting on. Backing up my Orion, I looked over to Calico: his BattleMaster hadn't moved, and I didn't know him well enough to work out what was going on in his head.

That's when the first red blip appeared on my radar plot: High up but diving down fast. I tried to get a better lock, but my tracking system just wasn't up to the task. I shouted a warning over the company wide frequency, but nobody was listening, even as I moved into a defensive stance, and more red blips started to appear, converging on our location. But the JàrnFòlk were paying attention, and had started to scatter, looking for what cover they could find, even as the first distant roar echoed over the sound of weapons fire. I looked up to see something approaching, and snapped off a quick shot from my large laser, missing by a country mile.

It, however, didn't miss.

Flame enveloped Reinhardts JagerMech from head to toe, the shock staggering him back even as he was hit by the downdraft of his attacker passing overhead. I got a glimpse of green and black, and then it was gone. Panic and confusion exploded among the Cutthroats, Calico screaming over the radio, trying to issue orders amid the chaos. Then something swooped down, knocking over a JàrnFòlk Commando, sending it crashing to the ground with massive rents in its rear armor.

JagerMech (by tplambert)

JagerMech Heavy 'Mech

They call it the 'Mad Minute', but there's no real hard rules about how long it can last, even if the mad part is selling it lightly. It happens when a group of soldiers find themselves surrounded and under attack. Training goes out the window as adrenaline and instinct kick in, and you fill the air with as much firepower as you can in a desperate bid to kill the enemy before they kill you. Even elite House troops can fall victim to it, so you can imagine how easy it was for a bunch of strung-out pirates to loose any sense of cohesion and just go nuts. Nobody was really looking who or what they were shooting at, and there was a fair bit of not-so-friendly fire, my own 'Mech taking a couple of hits. I saw a Warhammer rip itself apart as a burst of flame enveloped it and set of the ammo for its SRM Launcher, and a Crusader stagger around, writhed in flames, obviously on the point of shut-down due to excessive heat.

Then one of them landed, and I suddenly realized what the JàrnFòlk had been squawking about, that word in Japanese that none of us understood.


Or, if you prefer, dragon.

Yeah, roll your eyes as much as you like: just another crazy old spacer high off his tits on pain medication to combat the cancer eating his body from the inside out, spinning a yarn for gullible dirt-siders. But think on this; someone a lot higher up the chain of command for whoever you work for sent you all the way out here to the arse-crack of the universe to talk to me. Someone knows, or at least suspects, what I saw out there and wanted to hear my side straight from the Archon's mouth, before it's too late. That someone believes in dragons.

So yeah, it was a dragon. Or at least as close to one as I've ever heard of. It must have been a good twenty meters long, end to end, and about half of that was tail. It was hunched over slightly, wings folded back. God, it was an ugly beastie, no denying it: All green and grey scales, head topped with a spiked crest. But the yes, ye gods, the eyes on it! Ever look at a bird or prey? Or a big predator of any kind? They got a way of looking at you, like they're already planning on how they're going to cut you open to get to the good bits inside? That's how that demon looked at me: like it was ready to rip my 'Mech apart and eat me alive.

So, perhaps you can understand why I gave it a long blast from my autocannon: the KaliYama may be an older design, but they're almost legendary for their reliability, and 150mm HE rounds can still ruin anyone's day if your aim is good. Well, that close my aim didn't have to be good, and I traced a line of hits from its gut to left shoulder. But sure as I'm sitting here before you now, I may as well have fired a kids BB gun at it. The Good Lord himself only knows what that bastards scales were made of, but they shrugged off most of the hits with no apparent damage. It was only the last one from the burst, the only one that actually hit the shoulder, that seemed to do any real damage. And even then, I only seemed to piss it off.

It clocked its head back, opened wide and belched forth a fireball that struck my Orion just below the cockpit, sending all the heat gauges instantly into the red. Don't ask me how it did it, but it did and it damn near killed me: only the CASE system I'd used my cut from the last job I pulled to pay for saved me, but at the cost of turning my LRM launcher to so much molten slag and terminally jamming the autocannons feed, leaving me with just a twitchy SRM-4 and my lasers, none of which I dared use with the heat gauges all buried in the deep red. I was one dead pirate.

It was Calico Jack himself who saved me: back when he'd founded the band, old Captain Plank had come across this infamously crazy Capellan arms dealer named Boris "the Blade" Yurinov selling knock-off 'Mech scale swords on the black market. While far from Snake build quality, they were functional, and Plank insisted that every 'Mech under his command capable of doing so carried one. That were real pig-stickers to be sure, but they scared the shit out of most people, especially when you had someone like Two-Hands living up to her name and dual wielding them. The practice had somewhat fallen out of favor since Planks death, but Calico's BattleMaster still had its sword.

The dragon, and I'm going to keep calling it that, no matter how many times you roll your eyes, the dragon must have heard him coming, because it started to turn towards him. That meant that his first swing only grazed its arm, but the follow up blast from his lasers and machine-guns made it ****** its head to the right, opening up its neck. The angle was wrong for another sword swipe, so Calico decided to pistol whip it with his PPC, and several tons of blunt force trauma is still seven tons of blunt force trauma. That the dragon definitely felt, and it went down, letting out an ear piercing roar on pain. Calico looked ready to finish the job with the sword when, well...

The creatures we'd been fighting, if you can call flailing about like a bunch of drunks fighting, we about as big as a Zeus, but what turned up next? Well, I'd bet anything you'd care to mention that it was their mother, come to see what her kids were up to.

It was big; so big the ground shook when it landed. I had to fight to keep my 'Mech upright, but I could see the broken remains of a blood-red suit of Sylph battle armor clutched in one hand, the evil looking talons punched right through it. Calico only just had time to look up in surprise before it let him have it right in the face. This flame was white hot, almost like a blowtorch, and it melted the head right off his BattleMaster, quick as you like. Then the ready ammo in the SRM launcher went up, blowing the entire left arm, sword and all, clean off as the rest of the 'Masters ammo started to cook-off. The engine must have gone into emergency shut down, as it toppled over backwards and lay still on the ground.

And that was the end of James "Calico Jack" Rackham.

I hit the chicken switch and rode my command couch out of there, managing to angle myself away from the action, putting as much distance as possible between myself and the last stand of Calico's Cutthroats. Parafoil deployed clean, and I was able to coax another kilometer out if it before I touched down, but evidently the dragons were more interested in playing with the still firing 'Mechs, because they didn't seem to notice me at all. I grabbed my survival kit and started back towards the Lady Luck, only to encounter a JàrnFòlk scout on a hover bike heading back the other way. Probably not realizing I was a pirate, they stopped, no doubt to ask what had happened. What they got was two center of mass and another through the head before they'd even had a chance to say a word. I grabbed their goggles and dust mask before hightailing it out of there.

Pitty, really: She was a bit of a looker.

I managed to find my way back to the Lady just before dusk, a couple of the others trailing in later, mostly like me in vehicles they'd taken from the JàrnFòlk. Not one of our 'Mechs made it back. With Calico and Polly dead, that put the DropShip's captain in charge, and he gave the order to burn hard for orbit, turning our fusion drive on that god forsaken rock and never looking back.

That was fifteen years ago, and the devil take my soul, I'm thankful for every day that puts it further in the past.

The End

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