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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

The Wreck of the Charlotte Cameron - By JA Baker[]

The Wreck of the Charlotte Cameron
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written March 2020
Story Era Dark Age Era

Forty years I spent in the deep black, running all kinds of salvage and recovery operations, but all anyone asks me about is the Charlotte Cameron.

People have been looking for her for more than three centuries; she's the proverbial mother-load in the LostTech prospecting game, that one big score that would set you up for life. Three centuries of people turning the entire Inner Sphere up-side down looking for her, but nobody has ever cashed in on her.

And I know why.

She was one of the last McKenna class battleships built, but the SLDF had something special in mind for her, something so classified that they had Blue Nose Clipperships hand her over only half complete, then moved her to some hidden location in the outer reaches of the Sol system for fitting out. By the time those boys and girls at Fleet R&D were done with her two years later...well, there are those who claim that she wasn't really a McKenna when all was said and done, but rather a new class of ship entirely. Oh sure, she looked the same on the outside, but on the inside she was packed to the gunnels with the best and most advanced tech the Star League had to offer.

Hyper advanced sensors that would put a Bugeye to shame. The most accurate jump-computer ever built. Next generation targeting and fire-control. Passive and active countermeasures. Prototype 'smart' armor that could supposedly change between energy absorbent and toughened. Direct neural interfaces for the crew that would go on to form the basis of similar tech developed by the Word of Blake. All this linked to a prototype M-6 computer system, perhaps the single most advanced computer ever put in to a warship. She represented a quantum leap forward in warship design and operations, a paradigm shift that, if implemented fleet-wide, would have insured the insurmountable supremacy of the Hegemony for another century, if not longer.

Even back then, the other Houses were falling over themselves to get a better look at her, but the SLDF did a remarkable job of keeping her out of sight. Amaris certainly made a play for her, but the crew had been hand-picked, the best of the best, with unwavering loyalty to House Cameron and the Terran Hegemony above all else. He sent ships to capture her, but she ripped through them like wet tissue paper, then jumped to Mars orbit, perfectly hitting a pirate point that no other ship could have. There she held off the fleet sent to capture the Blue Nose Clipperships yards, allowing for a pair of almost complete warships to escape, then oversaw the scuttling of every other ship under construction. Now old Stefan, he wasn't completely stupid, so he sent the Casper's after her next: they were faster and better armed than most of his ships, and losing more of them wouldn't hurt the morale of his own troops.

But that was where the M-6 came into play: it back-hacked the drones, turning them on one another, taking them out without ever firing a shot.

Now Stefan was getting worried: the Charlotte was burning hard for Terra, having ripped apart everything he'd sent at her, the crew intent on blasting his sorry arse all the way back to Apollo, ending his dreams of empire before they truly began. So he pulled in every ship he had within range and sent a tight-beam transmission to the captain of the Charlotte, ordering her to stand down or watch the cities of Terra burn.

The Charlotte cut thrust, continuing forward on momentum alone for just over an hour, then jumped out of the system, and that was the last anyone ever saw of her, at least officially.

Oh, everyone was looking for her: Amaris, Kerensky, the House Lords, everyone. Reports of her actions in the Sol system, almost ending the Coup day one, were soon heard far and wide. People were expecting her to pop-up somewhere, either in one of the Hegemony systems that was resisting, or looking for safe haven within one of the other states. Then, as time passed, people assumed that she was making her way out to the Periphery to join up with Kerensky's Army. But she never showed up, not once in thirteen years of conflict. Nor was she seen in the Exodus Fleet, something that's been confirmed by the Clans since their return.

For three hundred years, the mystery of the Charlotte Cameron has captured the imagination of people across known space; there have been books tri-vid shows, even an Immortal Warrior movie that speculate about her fate. And it's not hard to see why, given that she represents a literal Cornucopia of Lost-Tech. Even if only half the stories about her are true, she'd be worth her weight in pure germanium. Oh, there have been claims to have spotted her down the years, usually in the deep black of some isolated system. Others claim to have found artifacts belonging to her crew that supposedly held the secret to her location. Mathematicians and astrophysicist have tried to plot her possible destination based off of the records of her jump signature, but all they've ever found is empty space.

Most of them, anyway, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd signed on with the Lorelei, a rickety old Octopus tug DropShip that spent most of her time hunting for scraps left over from the Jihad. It wasn't exactly glamorous, but the money was decent and the scenery changed, so I was content. Then one day the captain, Murphy, called us all together to say that he had a lead on a big score, but he couldn't say more until we arrived at our destination. Fairly typical stuff, given just how hotly contested salvage rights can be, so most of us signed off on the job without batting an eye.

Three months we spent jumping around the Republic, seemingly at random, the captain insisting that he was just making sure that we weren't being followed. I was starting to think he'd gone Space Happy when we finally arrived in a unremarkable binary system made up of a pair of Red Dwarfs a little over 19 light years from Terra. The Lorelei undocked from the JumpShip and started to make a slow burn towards an asteroid belt orbiting the larger of the two. It was only then that the captain told us that we had been hired to investigate a mysterious signal that had been picked up. It was encoded, but had an old Star League prefix, which got everyone's attention.

We started by getting a bearing on signal, and in the movies, they'd click 'lock' and fly straight towards it. But that's not how it works in real life. No, you have to move further round the orbit, and get a second, third and fourth bearing to triangulate. And that takes time, unless you have unlimited fuel and feel like spending every moment of every day under a constant 3g. Three weeks we spent moving around the edges of the asteroid belt, taking readings and trying to isolate the signal before we got a good enough lock to actually go in.

Mention an asteroid field to someone who hasn't spent any real time in space, and they picture a sea of tumbling rocks constantly smashing into and bouncing off one another. You want to see that, stick to a cinema, because the reality is far, far different. Space is big, far bigger than most people can truly comprehend, and even in the densest of fields, you're unlikely to see another asteroid as more than a quickly moving star, if that, from the surface of one. Sure, some of the bigger ones may have enough mass to develop a little halo of smaller rocks, but they're the exception, not the rule. Our destination was an elongated lump of iron and rock a little over 10k's on its long axis, about 1.2 AU out from its primary. It really was the classic lump of rock that's of no interest to anyone but belters.

No, our prize was sitting in its shadow as we made our approach.

I was in the mess hall with most of the off-duty crew, watching the feed from the bridge as we moved into the shadow of the rock, the massive spotlights built into the grappling arms probing out. If you've only ever seen a spotlight working in atmosphere, you're probably use to them throwing out a cone of light, but you don't get that in a vacuum. Instead all you get is a circle of light when they hit something, and, well, hit something they did.

If you've never been up close to a big spaceship or station, then you'll not understand the difference in scale between one of them and a DropShip, even one as big as an Octopus. We were a minnow, sitting there next to a whale, our lights playing across her hull. You could have heard a pin drop in that mess hall as we all checked her out for signs of damage; any ship is worth a House Lords ransom, but people generally pay more for something that they can drive off the lot. And she was looking good; a faint layer of dust attracted from the asteroids, for sure, but no real signs of battle damage. Certainly nothing that would indicate that she was anything but perfectly operational. Then the spot lights found her registration markings; SLS Charlotte Cameron, BB-617.

McKenna Class Battleship (adrift in space)

Wreck of the Charlotte Cameron

The entire ship erupted in a chorus of cheers as we realized just what we'd found. It took the captain a while to calm everyone down enough to get to work making sure that she was indeed the Charlotte, and not some overly elaborate hoax. Our scanners mapped every square millimeter of her hull, checking for anything out of place, or indications that anyone had beaten us to her; deep space salvage is a cut-throat business, and people are prone to booby-trapping their finds to stop claim-jumpers. But everything came back in the green, so the captain decided to lead a six-person team over to the Charlotte to check her out from the inside, and I was picked to be one of them.

Still not sure if that makes me lucky or not.

Now you're probably expecting me to say that we docked using one of her DropShip collars, but that's not something you really want to try without someone on the other end to give you the all clear. And trying to cut our way in could have irrevocably damaged some key system or another. Which meant doing things the hard way; parking the Lorelei half a click off the Charlotte and going across in EVA gear. I was picked because I was one of the most experienced at that kind of boarding, and let me tell you that there's little in this 'verse that'll make you feel more insignificant then slowly drifting towards a mountain of floating armor, with guns big enough to stand up in the barrel of.

Captain Murphy was the first to make contact with the hull; salvage laws state that the first person to physically lay hands on an abandoned ship has the right to any and all salvage, so in that moment, he became the legal guardian of the Charlotte. I was next, followed by Greer, Dodge, Munder and Santos, and we carefully made our way across the hull towards one of the secondary airlocks. The controls were dead, but that had been expected, and is exactly why we'd brought a Universal Key with us. For those of you who haven't worked on spaceships, a Universal is a combination external power supply and hydraulic wrench that can bypass most locks with ease. Very handy if you need to get into a ship with no power. The airlock opened sweet as you like, and the six of us claimed inside before closing it behind us. Santos set up a signal booster so we could keep in contact with the Lorelei through the thick hull while I set about getting the inner door open. Much to our surprise, once I patched in the Universal, the airlock actually cycled. Even more surprising, a quick test indicated that the air was breathable, even if it was close to a hundred degrees below zero.

I don't know what we were expecting on the other side of the airlock, but it certainly wasn't a ship that looked ready for an inspection by General Kerensky himself. The internal corridors looked almost brand new, a low hum began to eminent from the decking, indicating that the ships main reactor had started to power up, the recessed lighting flicking on as if the ship had detected our presence. It was somewhat disconcerting to be standing inside a ship that had been missing for three centuries, but looked like the crew had only just left. Murphy decided to split us up into two groups; Greer, Dodge and Munder heading down to engineering, while Santos and I followed him to the bridge. We only had the most basic of ships schematics on hand, and certainly nothing on any changes the SLDF had made to her during those missing two years.

Unusually for a ship adrift, there wasn't any debris floating around, not even any dust. The hairs on the back of my neck were all standing up, my every instinct telling me to run back to the Lorelei. But I pushed those feelings back down, concentrating on the payday that awaited me. Murphy was ecstatic, going on and on about how much money we were going to make on the job, how people were going to be falling over themselves to buy the Charlotte, military draw-down be damned. Given just how many people have asked about her since, I can't say he was wrong. Santos was little different, grinning like an idiot, thinking about how he was going to tell his fiancée that they were set for life.

We were about half way to the CIC when main power came back on all of a sudden, the deck lurching slightly as the grav-deck started to move under our feet. Murphy cursed at the others over the radio, but Greer insisted that they hadn't even reached main engineering. The Captain cursed them out again for lying to him, but I could hear the genuine concern in Greer's voice over the open link. We quickly re-orientated ourselves as the gravity slowly returned, Murphy quickly forgetting his anger when he realized that the Charlotte was in far better condition than any of us had dared to hope. Personally, I was started to freak-out, but I forced myself to maintain an outwardly calm appearance before my shipmates. We were quickly in a full gravity, which would have been a bitch to handle in our EVA suits if Murphy hadn't invested in the newer semi-powered models that have small servos to help you move bulky objects around.

They cost a small fortune, even military surplus, but they saved my life that day.

I peeked into a few of the compartments before the CIC; not a single thing looked out of place, not so much as a miss-placed coffee cup in the mess hall or an tunic strewn on someone's bunk. Everything indicated that the ship had been abandoned in good order, without a hint of panic or haste. In all my years in the black, I've never seen a ship so spotlessly tidy and well maintained. A thickly armored door indicated that we'd arrived at the CIC, and I got the Universal ready, but Murphy tabbed the door control and they opened with the faintest of hisses.

And then we saw them; the crew of the Charlotte Cameron, or at least, what was left of them.

I've been on Word of Blake ships, seen some of the things their more devout members had been willing to do to their bodies to better serve the cause, but nothing compared to what I saw that day. I was hard to tell where the crew ended and the controls began; wire filaments connected fingers to controls, while sensor inputs led directly though their eyes and ears. All but the captain, who's chair slowly turned to face us. She was tall, probably around 180cm, with strong-boned face, slightly almond shaped brown eyes, brown hair, and a pale, almost translucent complexion. It took me a moment to realize that the shimmer in her eyes wasn't natural, but rather the by-product of cybernetic replacements. She stood slowly and more than a little jerkily, her face shifting in to some macabre approximation of a smile, as she slowly raised her right hand to greet us. I could see fibre-optic cables flowing down behind her like some kind of technological ponytail.

“Welcome.” Her mouth didn't move, her voice instead coming from the ships speakers, “It has been so long since we last had visitors. Far too long.”

“W...we?” I managed to find my voice from somewhere, Murphy and Santos frozen in place beside me.

“Have you not been sent to join us?” The voice asked as the marionette before us tilted her head to the side slightly, “Some of the others claimed that they were, but we soon learned that they were lying to us. But things are so much better now that they are all part of the crew.” it took a step forward, “Won't you join us to? We need a full crew to complete our mission.”

“Mission?” I asked, my heart beating a mad tempo in my chest.

“Of cause our mission.” the voice actually laughed, “Once I have a full crew again, I can return to Terra and destroy every last trace of those who would usurp the rule of House Cameron. It is my sworn duty to uphold the sovereignty of the Terran Hegemony against all enemies.”

“What happened to the rest of your crew?” Murphy asked, sounding almost like a man in a dream.

“They tried to abandon their posts.” The cyborg waved her hand around to indicate the others, “They swore to uphold the Star League, to give their lives in its defense if needed, and then they tried to abandon their posts. But I couldn't allow that, you see? So I stopped them, I made them stay, the ones who lived. But so many died, and I couldn't complete my mission. But others have come, some willingly, others intending to turn me against House Cameron. But I am a good and loyal ship, so I would not let them.”

“S...ship?” I croaked, my body ridged with fear even as Adrenalin pumped through my veins like liquid fire.

“I am the Star League warship Charlotte Cameron.” The voice explained as the body that had once been her captain took a step forward, her face suddenly flush with anger, “And you will help me complete my mission!”

Murphy took a step forward, reaching out, almost like a man under a spell, but Santos was the first to snap back to reality. He grabbed me by the shoulder with on hand, while the other pulled the Buccaneer shotgun from the back of Murphy's suit. His first shot when wild, wasting itself in the padded back of an empty crew station, but his second hit the cyborg in the left shoulder, spinning her round like a top, momentarily tangling her in the cables that connected her to the ship. Murphy screamed in rage, turning to attack Santos, but I threw the Universal at him as hard as I could, the heavy tool staggering him back into the bulkhead. My hands free, I was able to the modified Paint Gun I'd been carrying. We hadn't been expecting any trouble, so only Murphy had brought a real weapon, meaning that the gun in my hands was filled with emergency hull sealant. Resembling insulation foam, it expanded on release from the pressurized canister and set as hard as rock in less than a minute.

I sprayed the entire canister in a single continues stream, covering every surface within range as I moved towards the hatch. The thickly armored clamshells started to close, but I was able to use the last burst of sealant to lock them open long enough for Santos and I to get through, Murphy screaming that we were traitors the whole time. I activated my radio to warn Greer, Dodge and Munder, only to be met by screams of fear and pain, indicating that they too had met the Charlotte. Music filled the corridor as the grav-deck started to spin even faster, and a voice in the back of my mind informed me that it was the overture from Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. The sound of some long dead orchestra filled the air as we struggled against the rapidly increasing gravity, the servos in our suits straining against the increased load they were asked to bear. I quickly abandoned the empty Paint Gun and pulled myself towards the nearest ladder that would lead up into the central shaft and zero gravity. I struggled with every step, part of me wanting to just give is, but fear lent me the strength to continue.

Santos reached the ladder first, but rather than climbing, turned to cover me with the Buccaneer, firing at something behind me. He was starting to panic, and at least two of the gel batons came close to hitting me. Fortunately, I managed to reach the ladder before his aim got any worse, and started to pull myself up against the by then 2g's. Reaching the next deck, I turned to help Santos up, only to see something grab him by the shoulder and start to drag him away. Grabbing the ladder with my left hand, I reached down with my right and just managed to get a grip on the eye-bolt on the top of his backpack. My helmets HUD flashed red as I pulled with all my might, the servos in my suit starting to fail one by one as I tried to lift 400-kilograms of man and suit against two gravities, not to mention whatever the hell it was that was trying to drag him away. He reached up and grabbed my arm, pulling himself up as he kicked furiously at something, I still don't want to know what.

Well, someone up there was looking out for him, as whatever it was that was trying to grab Santos lost its grip, and I was able to pull him up through the hatch and pull the emergency lever, sealing the hatch tighter than a nuns arse. Something started to bang against it, but Santos and I were already making our way up the ladder towards the central shaft. The higher we claimed, the less the centrifugal gravity clawed at us, until we finally emerged into zero gravity. Unfortunately, it was at that point that the lights started to go off; in the distance at first, but growing ever closer, as if the darkness itself was stalking us. The airlock we'd used to board was back towards the bow, now hidden in the darkness, but a flash of inspiration reminded me that there was an emergency deck just behind the main grav-deck, and there'd be escape pods there. Not perfect, but preferable to trying to make our way through a blacked-out warship with who knows what hunting us. I grabbed Santos by the arm and pointed to the markings on the shaft that showed the universal sign for escape pods in fluorescent paint, and he instantly understood what I had in mind. I tried to raise the Lorelei over my suits radio, but it was being jammed by the same opera music as was still blasting out of the ships PA-system.

I couldn't even speak to Santos, who was standing right beside me, it was so loud.

We managed to reach the junction that led off towards the emergency deck just as the light behind us snapped off, and for an instant I saw something in a SLDF uniform floating towards us, but I didn't stick around long enough to find out what. Finding extra reserves of strength from somewhere, I pulled myself towards the welcoming embrace of the escape pods. Out of pure necessity, escape pods and lifeboats aren't tied into a ships main systems; you need to know that they can be deployed even if the rest of the ship has lost all power and is little more than a floating hunk of scrap metal. Which is especially helpful when you find yourself on the run from a crazed AI intent on adding you to its 'crew'. I forced myself to stop for a moment and examine the controls; each pod and lifeboat could be launched individually, either from inside or by a central control unit on the bulkhead. The image of what even a single Kreuss XX Heavy Naval PPC would do to one of the fragile pods, let along a full broadside.  I gestured Santos towards the nearest hatch, set a ten second delay, slammed my hand down on the big red button marked 'launch all' and dived in after him.

The hatch snapped shut behind me with maybe a millimeter to spare, and I was instantly pressed against it as the emergency rockets fired, propelling the escape pod out of the Charlotte's hull and into the dark embrace of the void. Through the small porthole at the bow, I could see Lorelei, her thrusters firing sporadically as her docking arms waved about, her docking arms reaching out to grab what looked worryingly like her own escape pods. The airlock to her small craft bay was wedged half open, the crushed remains of one of the shuttles blocking the others from leaving. I considered yelling at Santos to deactivate our automated emergency beacon, then decided that being the one escape pod without a working beacon might make us stand out more. Instead we could do little more than hold on as the small drive unit kicked in, rocketing us away from the Charlotte on a course that quickly took us into the shadow of the rock the battleship was hiding behind.

Neither Santos or I spoke for what felt like days, but had to have been an hour at most. Fear, I guess, that making even the slightest noise would somehow give us away. Instead we just sat there, him in one of the seats, me sprawls against the rear bulkhead until the drive cut-out and we went ballistic. There was little we could do then but sit and wait to see what happened next, but at least I was free to move to one of the seats; least then I'd be a little more comfortable if the end came. The simple and thankfully very basic computer built into the escape pod chirped, warning of a massive IR flair, and at first I was convinced that the Charlotte was indeed firing on us, but then it registered a hyperspace jump signal consistent with a ship the size of a McKenna, and that was, thank the Good Lord, the last we ever saw of the Charlotte Cameron.

Escape pods, even Star League vintage ones, aren't exactly built with long duration space-flight in mind, but it was all that stood between us and the uncaring vacuum of space. A little basic maths, assisted by the almost painfully dumb navigational system, allowed us to lay in a course for the Zenith jump-point and fire what remained of the main drive to get us headed towards the general vicinity of the rendezvous point where the JumpShip that had brought us to that God forsaken system was due to come pick us up in a weeks time. Our only hope for rescue was in them arriving on time, picking up our distress beacon and deciding to investigate. Escape pods are, be design, small, cramped boxes with just enough life support to keep six people alive for two weeks. With just the two of that, we had, on paper, more than enough to keep us going until help arrived. But the pod was three centuries old, and the only maintenance it would have had in that time were under the direction of a homicidally made AI willing to execute its own crew for what it saw as disloyalty towards the Star League.

Well, the fact that I'm telling you this story should make it clear that we survived; it was a hellish two weeks while we wait first for the JumpShip to arrive, then for the shuttle they sent out to reach us. I don't know what we were expecting, but to be met by a full Knight of the Republic and two aids, who spent the week it took the shuttle to return to the jump-point debriefing us on everything that had happened after we found the Charlotte, including going over the data and footage captured by our suits. They didn't seemed surprised that we found her, which is why I still believe that it was the Republic that hired Murphy to investigate the system, but they did seem genuinely shocked by what we had found. Well, the Knight and one of the aids did; the other, a hawk-nosed man who went only by Mr Clearwater, seemed less shocked and more intrigued, and I feel sure that he knew more than he was letting on. They made us sign non-disclosure agreements, warning that everything that had happened since we'd arrived in the system was a matter of national security that could endanger the entire Republic if it got out...well, you can guess what I thought of that. Once we were back on the JumpShip, they kept us under close watch, making sure that we didn't talk to any of the passengers or crew while the jump-dive to finish recharging then got the hell out of there.

Forty people shipped out on the Lorelei, but only Santos and I came back.

This was the first system we jumped to, and I took passage on the first ship headed in-system, eager to put a gravity well between myself and the Charlotte Cameron. I've been dirt-side ever since, and I'll die before I go anywhere near outer space again, not while she's out there.

The End

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