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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)


The Karken Wakes - By JA Baker[]

The Karken Wakes
Facts
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written May 2020
Story Era Dark Age Era





I'm a structural engineer by trade, not a writer, so I hope you can forgive me if the account that follows is somewhat rough around the edges.

As in said, I'm a structural engineer, specializing in habits designed to survive in, shall we say, 'adverse environments'? Which is shorthand for anywhere a human can't survive unassisted, for one reason or another. And it's an interesting job, or at least I've always thought so: there's no end to the challenges that can face a project when someone sets their mind upon setting up shop somewhere humans were never supposed to go. And while the Star League may have had the wherewithal to terraform most places considered worth living, there are still a few that would have been beyond even their almost magical abilities.

Case in point was LV-416, or Typhonus, as it had been so dramatically named. And I can't say I blame whoever did name it: it is an evil looking world, an ice giant such a dark shade of black that looking at it felt like looking into a singularity. There were occasional streaks of crimson red, indicating storms so massive that they could have swallowed most habitable worlds whole. Arcs of lightning, long enough to cross continents and with powerful enough to vaporize cities in an instant play across the upper cloud bands. It has three near Terran sized moons, Orthrus, Cerberus and Hydra, but is was so deep within their primaries radiation belt that they're little more than lumps of radioactive rock, constantly erupting and melting due to gravitational stress on their cores.

Typhonus is as close to hell as you're likely to find in this galaxy and still be counted among the living.

What is it with survey crews anyway? Did every single one of them take a class in ancient mythology or something? Lord knows how many explored systems in the Inner Sphere, let alone beyond, and every single one of them seems to have at least one world, moon of rock named after some god or demon orbiting it.

Wait... where was I?

Oh, Typhonus, right.

So, thing is, despite the way it may look to the naked eye, a big-arse planet like that has all kinds of interesting things going on: chemical reactions under extreme heat and pressure can result in all sorts of useful end products. I remember one planet, somewhere out near the Draconis Rift, where they used to send down specially built shuttles to scoop up crystals from the upper atmosphere that could be used in weapons grade lasers. Lot of money in something like that, and the Star League was more than willing to speculate to accumulate, and that was what brought us to Typhonus in the first place.

You see, under enough pressure, gas can start to act like a liquid, even to the point where an object of the right shape can, for want of a better word, float on it. And Typhonus has gas and pressure to spare, meaning that there was a layer not too far down where it was almost like a liquid...not like a sea or anything...it's kind of hard to explain without getting too technical. Let's just say that the Star League was advanced enough that they could build a gas-mining rig that could sit quite happily in the atmosphere of a world like Typhonus, and we'd been hired to see if there was anything worth salvaging. There was no way we could recover the entire rig: we had no idea how they'd gotten it into position in the first place, but there was an untold treasure in LostTech to be found inside, provided we could get to it safely. Which is why I was brought in to make sure that they didn't accidentally cut into something they shouldn't and send the entire things down into the depths, salvage crew and all.

Now a planet like Typhonus has its own jump-points, so we were able to get in at least a little closer, even if the JumpShip was too far out to actually help with the recovery operation. So we went in with three DropShips: an old Mule Cargo Dropship called the Sacagawea that acted as a sort of mother-ship for the other two, a pair of heavily modified Condors ' Aerodynes'named Lewis and Clark. I was assigned to the Lewis, along with the bulk of the support team, while the primary task of fixing the location of the rig and ensuring it was safe to land on with given to the Clark.

And you can't just dive into the atmosphere of something that big like normal: that's an easy way to get your ship and crew crushed. No, big planet like Typhonus, you need to take it nice and slow, just slide on gently down that gravity well all smooth like. I'm sure any pilot worth their damn could probably tell you just how hard it actually is, but I'm not a pilot, but I am the one telling this story.

So the Clark goes in first, and softly-softly like, with the Lewis sitting up in high orbit, trying to keep track of her through all the radiation and atmospheric interference. We knew the approximate location of the rig from the initial survey, but things as small as a city block tend to get tossed around in the atmosphere of an ice giant. So the crew of the Clark had to take these wide, sweeping passes over the area, looking for any sign on the prize. Two days we sat up there, arses clenched tight enough to crack walnuts, watching her through the clouds as best we could, before they finally gave word that they'd picked up the rig on long-range scanners.

Unfortunately, she'd drifted into a the outermost edge of a storm, so they had to move quickly to try and pull her clear. And even with the massively oversized engines on the Clark, that's no small task. They had me running all kinds of numbers, trying to work out the best places to set down so that the strain of her main engines didn't rip the rig in two. So you can bet I double, triple and quadruple checked my work, because I didn't want to be responsible for the mission going FUBAR before it had really started.

Well, thank the good lord that my maths was right, and the Clark was able to move the rig away from the storm. With that little headache taken care of, the Lewis came in on the far side of the rig, keeping it from becoming unbalanced. Given the size and mass of the rig, it's not like a few extra thousand tons of DropShip was going to do that, but why take the risk?

Now, you can't use a standard environment suit somewhere like Typhonus: between the heat, the pressure and the radiation, well, you might as well go out bare arse naked. No, you need top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art hostile environment gear, the sort of thing that costs more than a suit of battle armor. It's like walking around inside a miniature BattleMech, and about as agile, but it's not a time to worry about setting a fashion trend. No, you strap yourself into that big, ugly, bright orange son-of-a-bitch and prey they didn't skimp on the pre-mission maintenance.

Those suits, well, they're not the most comfortable thing to wear at the best of times, and struggling across the deck of a constantly moving gas-mining rig in the upper atmosphere of an ice giant isn't the best of times. The radios are effectively useless; nowhere near strong enough to punch through all the interference, so you're stuck on receive only. And that means that all you can hear is the clang of your feat on the deck, the hum of the life-support system and the rasping of your own breath. Even with the servos, you still have to really put your back into it, so you're drenched in sweat in no time. And you can't see shit in a soup-like atmosphere, so you're reliant on your HUD, which is crowded with all sorts of gauges and readouts at the best of times. Best you can do is follow the yellow arrow that points you towards a beacon some poor sod had to go plant. And thankfully, that poor sod had been on the Clark.

I don't think I've ever been so happy to see a pressure-hull in my entire life.

Those environment suits only have so much life support, and it's almost impossible to do anything too precise in one, so the first job was to patch and repressurized at least part of the rig so we could get a better look at what we had to work with. Two of the crew had dragged a micro-fusion power cell across from one of the ships, and that was enough to power most of our equipment, so we quickly set about finding the rents and tears in the habitation block. Thankfully, the designers had built it to act as an emergency refuge in the event of an emergency, so it was even more heavily built than the other pressurized sections of the rig, and it wasn't long before we were able to get it sealed off. With that done, it was mainly a case of tracking down and patching micro-leaks and keeping an eye out for any signs of stress: nobody wanted to be outside of their suit if the hull was to suddenly rupture. That was my job, and I double then triple checked everything before giving the order to repressurize.

The hull moaned and groaned like a dockside whore, but it held, a testament to the quality of the workmanship that went into building it in the first place.

With a breathable atmosphere, we could lose the environmental suits and work a lot quicker, even if it took us two whole days to make sure everything was decontaminated. We managed to set up a makeshift living area, so we could take our brakes without having to go all the way back to one of the DropShips, a couple of the crew even deciding to sleep there. I wasn't completely sold on the idea, but I did like concept of not having to make the trek back to the Lewis just to grab some bunk-time. Everyone was still keenly aware just where we were and all that could go wrong, but after a while the human mind tends to adapt pretty well.

If only we'd know what was going to happen...

I was inspecting one of the lower levels, trying to restore at least partial power to the rest of the rig, when Parker, a crewmember assigned to work with me because you don't want to be alone when shit goes sideways, started freaking out, saying she'd seen something moving outside a nearby porthole. I assured her that is was probably just ice crystals playing with her mind, or at most, some part of the rig that had come loose in the long centuries since it had been abandoned and now dangling, but she didn't seem too convinced. So I made my way over to the porthole and pressed the visor of my environment suit up against it, craning my neck to try and get a better look, but I couldn't see anything but the swirling clouds.

Next day I was asked to go with Brett, the other structural engineer, to look at the what had been the landing control tower. Or rather, what was left of it. According to the schematics we'd found, it should have been a five story high tube with a bubble of 10cm thick transparent aluminum on the top, but it had broken off about half way, leaving a stump of twisted, jagged metal behind. Now I've seen damn near every kind of damage metal can suffer, from corrosion to battle damage to metal-eating bacteria, so I know metal that's been twisted and torn when I see it.

Few more days went by, most of which were spent replacing or repairing external lights. Which was odd, because most looked like they'd been deliberately smashed, while the main electrical board... we'll, somebody had taken a literal fire-axe to it, the broken-off head of which was still embedded within it. I was tasked with helping to repair it, even though it wasn't my field of expertise, so I was inside, away from the windows when the lights came back on, but apparently it was quite the sight to see.

Next week was pretty standard for a salvage operation: sorting out what's was worth saving and could be safely and easily removed. Computers, especially the processors, are always a good choice, given how small and light they are, and even broken or damaged ones tend to be worth a fair bit. After that it's any data storage devices, with even the smallest scrap of recoverable data often worth the cost of a DropShip. Places like N.A.I.S. just buy it all in bulk, no questions asked, so it's always at or near the top of any grab-list. Then you get, well, anything you can sell to LostTech collectors.

But that's when we discovered why the rig had been abandoned in the first place.

It started with the lights, out in the clouds. At first we thought it was just lightning, but the colors were wrong: too red/orange for lightning, even in an atmosphere like Typhonus. Then people started claiming to have seen something outside, just like Parker had. The boss accused them of drinking on the job, not something you wanted under the circumstances, but they were all sober as a judge on Sunday. Then Dallas, one of the crew chiefs, went missing while working outside. Brett and Ash, who'd been working with him, insisted that they only turned their backs for a moment, then there was a tug on the safety line, and when they looked back, he was gone.

We were all experienced salvage workers, hardly green to the dangers of the job: you don't last long in that line of work without gaining a somewhat fatalistic outlook on like, an acceptance that, when your number is up, it's up. We'd all had close calls, and known people who caught the bought the farm. But something about how Dallas was just gone set everyone on edge, and in a high-stress environment, that's not something you want happening. So Kane, the boss, decided to pull back to the Sacagawea for some down-time and a rethink, give everyone a little time to decompress. So we started to pack up everything we'd already gathered together, stealing it up in containers that could protect it from the atmosphere as we carried it back to the DropShips.

That's why I was fortunate enough to be in my environment suit when it happened.

Metal can make some funny sounds when it's under stress: some are as benign as an old house creaking in the middle of the night, but an experienced ear knows to listen out for the telltale sounds of something about to go monumentally, catastrophically wrong. Unfortunately, I only just had the time to scream out a warning before the pressure hull ruptured, bulkhead crumpling like an empty beer-can. Had the rig been in perfect, or even serviceable condition, emergency hatches would have slammed shut, but we'd had to cut through most of them, so there wasn't really anything between the rupture point and the poor bastards who weren't in their environment suits. Which was, unfortunately, about half the work crew.

They died, and not quickly or painlessly. I won't go into details, but it wasn't good, and I still sometimes see their faces in my dreams, on the nights I wake in a cold sweat.

They were dead, but those of us still alive had to get back to the DropShips in one piece. Fortunately, within the habitation block, our radios could actually work, so the order was given to bug-out, and we started to make our way towards the now pointless airlock. Entire place was shaking and rattling like it was fit to come apart at the seems, so you can bet we hauled arse as fast as we could, even in an environment suit. There was this one bit, where there was a gantry over what had been a water tank at some point, and, well, let's just say that Ash and Kane didn't make it further than that. Everyone was starting to panic by that point, and with Kane gone, there wasn't a clear chain of command, and it all went to hell in a hand-basket, with people fighting to get through hatchways.

I felt something grab my arm, and I looked round to see Parker, gesturing as best she could towards a side-door. The two of us had become reasonably close, all things considered, and she seemed to be holding it together a little better than most of the others, so I decided to trust her. The corridor she led me down was narrow, almost too tight in places, but it allowed us to bypass some of the chock-points, and the fights to get through them. I never found out who got to the airlock first, or who they had to climb over to do so, but both the inner and outer hatches had been jammed open, allowing us to get outside quickly.

Parker was busy attaching a safety line between our suits, so I was the first to see it.

Bioluminescence is a crazy thing: it can make something from your worst nightmare seem like the most beautiful thing you can imagine. I don't know what it was, or if there was more than one, but it seemed almost as big as the rig and made of tentacles the size of a BattleMech and pulsating lights the same color as the running lights on the rig. At least three of those tentacles had been wrapped around the habitation block, which had been been the most brightly illuminated part of the rig, and were busy tearing it apart. Others were gripping various parts of the rig, pushing and pulling at it.

There was a bright flash as the Clark switched on all its external lights, including the massive floodlights built into its wings. They were no doubt hoping to guide survivors to safety, but it got the attention of whatever it was that was destroying the rig. Parker went ridged with shock as a brightly flashing tentacle, so thick we could have stood on each others shoulders and still not been able to see over the top, snaked passed us so close it felt like we could have reached out and touched it. It was pulsing bright, vibrant colors, and it whipped round like a rattlesnake, almost flipping the Clark before enveloping the DropShip. The pilot must have panicked, because even through the soup of an atmosphere, I could see the main engine flair, but the creature had it, and started to squeeze.

I looked away, almost dragging Parker behind me: I didn't need to see what was going to happen. I'd seen enough death that day.

The Lewis had been landed a hundred meters away from the habitation block, but under the circumstances, it felt like a hundred kilometers. Every step I took, I could feel the deck bucking and twisting beneath my feet. I stumbled more than once, but thankfully Parker was always there to help. Every step, I expected to be squashed like an ant by one of those tentacles as they swayed around about us, filling the sky with strange, otherworldly patterns of light and shadow. We had no idea of knowing if the Lewis was still there, or if it had taken off, or suffered the same fate as the Clark. But we had no other choice but to keep going.

Eventually, the reassuring bulk of the Lewis came into sight: all of her external lights, save one marking her port airlock, had been switched off, and we staggered towards it. Maybe I should have looked around, seen if any of the others were following behind us, but I was running on pure adrenaline and primal terror at that point. So instead I summoned up what reserves of strength I had left and pulled myself through the hatch. Soon as I had a grip on the first handhold, I turned and grabbed Parker, pulling her in behind me ever as the untired universe seemed to start spinning around me.

It wasn't until later that I was told that the rig had finally given up and started to come apart entirely, sending the Lewis tumbling over the side. All I knew was that Parker was dangling, her legs out of the airlock as the hatch started to close. Even the thick metal of her environment suit wouldn't have protected her from being crushed, but I had seen too much death already that day. I don't know how I did it, because even the servos in the suit shouldn't have been able to, but somehow I lifted Parker up until her feet were just inside the airlock. And not a moment too soon, as it snapped shit beneath her.

Next thing we knew, we were being flung against the bulkhead s the main drive kicked in, the ships spinning around until her nose was pointed star-side, then that massive kick in the pants as the pilot pushed though the gate, engaging maximum power, sending us rocketing away from the rig like a bat out of hell.

It was a while before anyone decided to check on us: they had more questions than answers, and if it wasn't for the mission recorders built into our suits, I don't think they would have believed a word we said. As it was, we were the only two survivors from the habitation block, and with the Clark gone... well, the mission was a damn near total failure. We joined back up with the Sacagawea then boosted for the jump-point and the waiting JumpShip, the rest of the crew looking at us like we were cursed or something.

Been almost ten years since that day, and while I'm still a structural engineer, I keep my feet firmly on solid ground these days.


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