It was this little speck of a planet out in the deep, deep Periphery, the kind of barely habitable rock you hope they never send you to. Only thing out there of any interest to anyone was some kind of algae that was going to feed the starving or cure baldness or whatever it was.
You honestly telling me you pay attention to those briefings beyond who or what might try and kill you?
Anyways, this rock, arsecrack of nowhere, has a small scientific outpost on it set up by some subsidiary of a subsidiary of some big multi-planetary conglomerate or another who was sending some executive or another out to look the place over, and they felt the need to hire my unit to play babysitter. Not a bad gig, all in all: miniscule chance of combat, all kinds of bonuses due to how long it would take us to get there and back, and they'd keep us in mind if anything more lucrative came up. So we ship out and spend a couple of months going stir-crazy while we jump from uninhabited system to uninhabited system, and trust me, once you've seen one, you've seen them all.
Everything seems to be going according to the plan until we arrive in system, and find the relay buoy at the jump-point's missing. Not a big deal in and of it self, because there are a couple of dozen reasons why one of those could go missing. So our DropShip detaches and starts to burn in-system at a steady 1G, all the while trying to raise the outpost over the radio. But they get nothing; not even a carrier wave. Not jamming or interference, which would have raised all kinds of red flags, but nothing.
Now there are perfectly justifiable reasons for that, but coupled with the missing relay, and, well, you don't survive long in this game without developing good instincts, so we started double and triple checking our weapons and gear. We get closer, to the point where we should have been able to pick up short-wave signals, the kind even a hand-held radio gives out, but still nothing. Still no signs of interference, but no sign of life either. DropShip captain starts to get a little spooked by this, says he's not risking his ship without a landing beacon of some kind of another, so my team gets loaded up into our shuttle and went down with orders to find out what's happening below.
Like I said, you develop instincts, so we came in from behind a mountain range, hugging the ground as best we could. Pilot touched down in a small forest clearing about thirty kilometres from the outpost and immediately shut everything down: there was all kinds of luck in the atmosphere that could play merry-hell with passive sensors, and with the reactor just ticking over, the shuttle was just another big rock in the forest.
It wasn't exactly a pleasant stroll in the park: ground was broken and a cast-iron bitch to move quickly over if you wanted to remain unseen. It was dark by the time we got close enough to actually see the place, and, well, it's not something I'm likely to forget any time soon. The outpost was almost a small village: that far out, they let you take your families with you if you want, and that requires a bigger support team to keep the scientists sciencing. Place should have been lit-up like a Christmas tree, with people moving around, even at night. But instead there was nothing: no lights, no signs of movement, not even a dog barking. Our communications expert tried a remote back into their computer networking using the access codes our employer had given us, but she got nowhere fast.
We had two choices: try and get closer under the cover of night, or wait until dawn and just go knock on the front door.
Captain was still making up his mind when we heard the DropShips coming in: big buggers that looked kind if like an Overlord that had hit the gym. We all watched them come in and land right in the middle of the outpost, real textbook like, despite the dark and the lack of a beacon. No running lights and no markings, by which I mean no paintwork of any kind; just bare, unpolished metal. And they were absolutely pristine, like they'd just come off of the production line or something. They land and doors open to deploy two Lance's of identical BattleMechs or no design I've ever seen. They looked like a cross between a Hunchback and a Phoenix Hawk, and they took up positions around the DropShips like they were on guard duty or something.
No sooner were they in place than this loud horn that seemed to shake the very ground under your feet sounded, and all of a sudden it seemed like every door in the outpost opened at once and people started walking towards the DropShips. But it wasn't your usual walk; it was almost robotic, like their bodies were just going through the motions. I used the scope on my rifle to get a better look, and every last one of them had the same vacant expression on their face, almost like they were hypnotized. And none of them said a single word or made even the slightest sound as the calmly lines up and started to make their way, one-by-one up into the waiting DropShips.
It was all we could do to just sit there and watch them: all our heaven weapons were back up on the DropShips, and nothing we had on us would put a dent in a BattleMech without god's own luck. And I don't know how, but I could just tell that those strange looking 'Mechs could see us, their pilots watching us huddling between by the rocks from behind their jet-black cockpit canopies. But for whatever reason, they seemed content to let us watch as every man, woman and child in the outpost slowly and mechanically made their way up the ramps into the DropShips and vanished. Once the last of them was inside, the 'Mechs simply turned round and followed them, the hatches snapping shut behind them. Less than a minute later, both DropShips took off and boosted for orbit, again without a single running light on.
It wasn't until they were gone and the captain called for a headcount that we realized that Guinsburg, our forward scout, was missing. Two of us rushed forward to his last known position and found his weapons and kit laying neatly on the ground, tracks leading off towards where the DropShips had been. The captain gave the order to fan out and search the outpost, looking not only for Guinsburg, but any clues as to what we had just watched. And I have to admit, there's a part of me that wishes to this day that he hadn't.
The entire place was abandoned, not a single living soul left. We checked every room, crawlspace and cupboard for anyone who might have stayed behind and found nothing. What we did find was all their personal effects just sitting there like they'd just stepped out of the room and would be back any second now. Books sat half read next to beds, reports unfinished on desks, half-drunk cups of coffee still warm. Whatever it was that had compelled them to board those strange DropShips, it had happened suddenly but without any signs of violence or haste. And nobody had taken any personal effects with them; no clothes, no family photos or other keepsakes. They had simply walked off in just the clothes on their backs like it was the most natural thing in the world.
I'll admit it, it freaked me out. Freaked all of us out, and we'd all seen combat during the Jihad, but that...that was something different.
We powered the outposts systems back up and tried to contact the DropShip, but all we got was silence, something that made our blood run cold. The only thing that kept me from eating a bullet there and then was when the long-range communications system picked up a signal from the JumpShip, and the captain sent them a burst transmission, filling them in on what we had seen, complete with everything we'd recorded on our headcams. Sitting there, waiting for the reply to come back was the longest twenty minutes of my life, but we finally got the order to scrub the mission. The captain gave the order to download the entire contents of the main computer into a portable memory core while we went round the outpost grabbing every data-pad and personal computer we could find.
The march back to the shuttle was silent, all of us watching the sky and horizon for any sign of trouble. I've never been happier to leave a planet behind, even if the trip out to meet up with the inbound DropShip was going to be cramped. No one wanted to talk about what we'd seen, but the captain insisted we record personal accounts of the incident for the inevitable inquiry: you can't just lose an email entire scientific outpost and a DropShip carrying a corporate executive without having to explain it to someone.
If the journey out had been boring, then the return trip was tense: everyone was on a knife edge, worried that we were somehow being followed. The JumpShip crew kept their distance from us, almost like we'd been tainted somehow. Didn't help that the captain had me pack up Guinsburg's personal effects to ship back to his family; god only knows what he was going to tell them happened.
But we got back to the Inner Sphere without further incident and were quickly carted off to a secure location by our corporate overlords for a full debriefing. They asked us no end of questions, and I couldn't shake the feeling that they knew more about what happened then we didn't, but they never once answered any of our questions. After a couple of weeks of that, we were given confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements to sign, and, well, I guess this goes to show what I think of those. But we all signed on the dotted line at they turned is loose with full pay for the mission. The team just kind of fell apart right then and there; none of us could really look the others in the eyes, so the captain shared out the money and we all went our separate ways. Haven't seen or spoken to any of them since.
I'm still a mercenary; only life I've ever known, but these days I make sure that there's a clause in my contact that states that I will not go out into the Periphery, not ever again. I'll face any enemy that wants to shoot me, but a woman has her limits.