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Prologue - My Vanity[]

Prologue - Part 1[]

Proof of Diffusion

DropShip Grocery Run
Boat of the Stars Trade Route
Ormstown Nadir
Lyran Periphery
15 October 3067

Seated in the bolted swivel-chair inside the tiny cubby acting as the ship's quartermaster's office, Casey Putnam looked at the missive in his chocolate brown hands. With a nod, he dismissed the crewman who delivered the letter. Knowing from the header what it would say, he read it anyway.

Come home.

In so many words.

The galaxy was starting to rip itself apart again. The fighting on Outreach was just the pebble starting the avalanche. So Casey's parents believed.

He didn't disagree.

Unwilling to lose their son a second time, they called him home. His entire family wanted to lock him up so they could be reassured of his safety. They wanted to put him in a cage, their own family miracle on display.

The promotion to corporate headquarters was just gilt gold on the bars.

He was right where he wanted to be. Out on the space lanes, he could travel the stars and visit new worlds. Usually more than one per jump.

The visions still came.

Darran was dead. Al was dead. Carl was missing. With their leader captured by the Word of Blake, the mercenaries had been forced to disband. Under duress, they were required to hand over their BattleMechs and disappear, scattering to the four winds.

The 'jump dreams' still kept them all together.

It was difficult to imagine Al was truly dead. Every week, Casey spoke with him. They went on strange adventures. But, the memory of his loss was clear and fresh. The cockpit on Al's Warhammer had been a smoking, burned out ruin.

Yet, there had been no body. No blasted, charred command couch. No sign of Al at all.

It was as if the chair were never installed. Like it never existed. Like he never existed.

That comparison worried Casey. Yet, that was the only clue which explained why Al still wandered with them among twisted alternate realities.

Leaning back in his chair as much as null gravity would allow, he took in the paper decked walls and covered desk. It had been only two weeks since his father gave him this position. Two weeks, and already it felt like a lifetime.

There-in lay the problem. Conflicting memories.

It started the day Al died. Disappeared. Casey could never really think of him as dead. In Casey's mind were two sets of memories. One was the life of a mercenary, with his colleagues Al, Logan, Jenn, Miko and the others.

The other was a life of a mercenary cut short. In a disaster that saw the band disbanded early, sometime in 3059, Casey was forced to come home and spend the rest of his days inside a bulk freighter. Actually, this exact one. In that life, he had never met Al, never tutored him in the pirated sim pods, and never seen their wild missions and adventures.

One was just as real as the other. Neither was foggy or faded. Casey was certain he had two actual lifetimes in his head, branching at that moment when he did or did not meet Al on Astrokaszy for the first time.

With the comfortable routine of the day-to-day on board the Grocery Run, he would have fancied it all as a very vivid, creative fantasy. Nearly twelve years of friendship and history, and almost nine years of service, simply dismissed and forgotten. Only the dreams kept it all real.

It was a problem.

Hope remained that his friend was alive. He had seen similar disappearances only one other place. Casey was certain the same individual responsible for them was the culprit behind this dual reality. He was the only one Casey knew who could fix it.

There was only one way to find that person. He needed a ship that had been there before. He knew of two. Both were well outside of his reach, the crews likely unwilling to go back.

He needed to try something else.

Out in the cargo bay, warning lights flashed red, casting everything in a pinkish hue. A klaxon growled once, signaling a jump. The moment Casey had been waiting for was near.

He reasoned that Blacky, who started the 'jump dreams', was in contact with each of the people who participated in them. That cast was select, composed of anyone who had ever seen the odd ship, past, present, or future. With Al gone, every time one of them jumped, the same people were part of a new adventure.

Casey hoped that Blacky would hear anyone who called for him when they left reality.

He had tried calling out twice, to no avail. Maybe he didn't have the timing right. Maybe he needed to take it to the edge of perception. Maybe he wasn't doing anything right. Or, maybe Blacky didn't want to be disturbed.

Casey might also be completely wrong. Maybe it wasn't possible. Maybe it all was in his imagination.

No matter. It was all Casey had, and he would keep trying.

The moment came. He felt reality warping. Everything slowed to a halt. For as long as he had a conscious thought, he shouted in his head, calling, not knowing if he was broadcasting loud enough, or at all.

I know you're out there! Answer me, please! Help me understand what's happening! Help me find my friend...

Excavated Pit
Abandoned Mine Site - Smith Interstellar 21
Quarantined System
Formerly LACS SIMPH 32

Casey blinked.

He wasn't on the dropper. He wasn't on any dropper. Not the Queen of Aces, like he expected. Not the Grocery Run, where he had been only a millisecond earlier.

Casey's feet bore the weight of his body on arid, broken ground. In front of him was a pit of smooth glass. The bottom was broken up, looking like someone had punched it hard enough to cause a second, cracked pit. Above all that, suspended in the periwinkle sky and reflecting the red sun, was a giant, smooth, silver orb.

Blacky’s ship.

It had worked.

Casey whooped with elation.

Next to him stood a man. Even though appearing out of nowhere, he stood looking at Casey as if he were always there, and Casey had just now noticed. This man wore a black robe with long, billowing sleeves. His coppery skinned head was completely devoid of hair. His eyes reflected no light in their extremely large, overly dilated pupils. The only thing to indicate the man wasn't blind was a single dot of light, like a star, at the center of each lidded well.

Casey had seen this man only three other times in his life. He was hard to forget, even though nearly eight years had passed since their last encounter. This was to be the fourth time.

Al had called him Blacky.

"You want to know where Al is?" Blacky asked, his baritone carrying easily in the still air.

"Y... yeah," Casey stammered, still on a blissful high and caught off-guard by the direct query. "Where is he?"

"Right now? At this moment outside of time, he is currently engaged as a pawn in a series of melees, combats initiated by five individuals similar to myself. They've been drawn to him, like I was, but don't realize they have him. They sport among themselves to while the time with your people and other beings they can summon to their contests."

Blacky turned to look off in the distance. “A set of duels involving Al is starting right now.”

Casey followed Blacky’s gaze, but all he saw was distant sky and rocky landscape. “What’s happening?”

Blacky turned to observe Casey momentarily. “That’s right. Let me show you.”

Prologue - Part 2[]

Alius Cad’ver ran his hands over the controls in the Warhammer cockpit. It was almost a perfect recreation of his older machine, though there had been some upgrades. While he donned the neurohelmet and fired up the seventy-ton war titan, the words of his benefactor played through his mind.

The thing that had found him when Al awoke from his transition between realities was a strange machine creature. All chrome, it had six bug-like appendages sprouting from a solid metal shell of overlapping plates. Two segmented tentacles ending in three-fingered claws would extend or recede from under its face in the front. At least, that was what Al figured was its face. When the thing spoke to him, a liquid metal pool that defied gravity morphed into the facsimile of a human face. The strange orbs that haloed that pool glowed like jewels lit from behind. The hue of each gem would change over time, sometimes quickly and sometimes very slowly. Al couldn’t discern any particular pattern in the way they glowed.

“I had a chance to observe your original machine from your first sortie,” the thing said in a strangely metallic, hollow rasp, indicating the Warhammer from near the ’Mech’s right foot. “I then found other technologies and extrapolated an ideal upgrade that is appropriate for the fight into which you are about to be entered.”

As the HUD started painting a picture of the pseudo-alien landscape around him, he saw an indicator of some of those changes. The weapons indicator in the upper right-hand corner showed some new tertiary weapons.

“Mi. P. Lasers?” he voiced aloud.

There were five of them. Two in either side torso near a corresponding ‘M. P.’ Laser, or medium pulse. One was in the head. Before donning his helmet, Al had noted the tandem housing rig overhead with barrels jutting out above the viewport. They were in place of the old small lasers, though there had only been four of those, down in the side torsos. From what he’d learned of advanced Inner Sphere tech from his mechanic, Al suspected these were something other than small pulse lasers.

The world outside his ’Mech was compressed into a picture directly in front of his face. A long thin line with a rectangle highlighting his direct forward view stretched out to the edges of his peripheral vision. And, it was painted in vivid colors. The swells were shallow, no more than a meter or two tops. Trees with the ever-common mix of green foliage grouped in small copses as far as the eye could see. Signs of prior habitation stood tall in the forms of two large grain silos of corrugated steel. They showed signs of age with large rust spots.

Out among all that, the computer painted the outlines of two enemies. Normally, the coloration of the outlines and cartoon depictions of the unseen elements were red for enemies, and green for friendlies. In this instance, the one on Al’s left was a light blue, while the one on his right was white and light gray. At least, this time, they were designs he was familiar with. Not that he had faced a Dire Wolf in Battle, he was familiar with them from his childhood and the board game he played in high-school. Before that fateful day in 2001. Both were Daishis, but the weapon configuration on each was unrecognized by his warbook.

"Your speech about ending the fighting in your last sortie was inspiring,” the creature had said to him after his enquiry about the situation, at the foot of the Warhammer. “I saw the potential in you and the machine you rode. It is why I brought you back. These other beings wage a set of games with the lives of people and machines as if their mere pets, or pawns. With your help, I can stop them. But, first, we need to gain standing in their silly duels before I can enact my plan. Will you help me?”

Al still had his doubts. It was obvious that refusing to fight would not free him to travel between universes as he was supposed to. Already he had the jump dreams to deal with. Dropping from one adventure back into the life he’d left from his first BattleTech universe was already disorienting. Dredging up the memories of that life after anywhere from days to months, or years, have passed in a completely different setting was tricky enough. Now, even those transitions were interrupted by this ongoing series of duels between magical creatures?

The small voice at the back of his mind reassured him that Al was meant to be here. If nothing else, his curiosity was piqued. Right now, he was in this duel - more of a three-way free-for-all. This time, he might as well win it.

Hovering his reticle over the white Daishi on the right, Al selected one of the Mi Pulse Lasers. It had the same range characteristics of a small laser. What kind of heat output would it require? He would have to learn on the fly.

Shoving the throttle forward to its stop kicked the Warhammer into a run. If this was like his old Mech, it would have Triple Strength Myomer bundles which required heating up. Al was quickly caught by surprise. The Warhammer moved with a speed that he was used to only when the TSM was heated. Except when he had upgraded it with the salvaged Thor engine. He grinned. A logical upgrade, indeed. Clan engine and heat sinks, as well as weaponry. Had to be. The range profile of the Medium Pulse Lasers confirmed it.

But, how was the heat output?

While weaving his ’Mech between copses of trees, Al lined up a firing solution on the white Daishi. Both enemies were moving now. He heard sensor pings as they got a readout on him. There were too many trees in the way, so his shots weren’t going to do a damn bit of good, only burning away at leaves and branches to hit impotently against the target’s advanced composite hide. They would also heat up his machine. He triggered a full barrage.

Not surprisingly, the two Daishis turned on one another. When they opened up, Al got to see what they were packing. One was loaded out with Particle Cannons, and the other a mixed array of Pulse Lasers and Gauss Rifles.

Surprisingly, the fight was over as soon as it began. A PPC beam burned into the cockpit on the white Daishi. The head section on the holoprojection went dark, meaning location destruction. A half-second later, a Gauss slug smashed through the viewport on the blue Daishi, and its head section also went dark.

Al had won by simply being the last one standing before he’d even fired a shot. But, he didn’t have time to reflect. In fact, he could feel time slowing down. It was an odd sensation. In that moment, he heard a psychic scream. He didn’t hear it through his ears. Instead, a woman’s scream of denial and outrage rang through his mind. Before his eyes, events rewound up to the moment just before the two Daishis fired on one another.

One of the benefactors had just rewound time, and Al was fully aware of it. Apparently, so, too was everyone else. This time, the Daishis both took better defensive actions, turning lethal head hits into heavy damage elsewhere with a simple duck or weave.

Al’s skin crawled. Instinct wanted him to activate the magic barrier built in at the base of his neck. The Neurohelmet kept him from doing that in many ways. The dampening effect would keep it from reading his mental impulses. The way the helmet fully encapsulated his head and rested on his shoulders, attached firmly to the coolant vest kept him from physically popping his neck.

Then his weapons fired. He could feel faint pulses of heat from the overhead pulse laser. He eyed the heat gauge as the coolant system kicked in, dissipating and redistributing the internal heat build-up from high-powered energy discharges.

The cockpit remained comfortably temperate. But the effect on the rest of the Warhammer was almost immediate. The Warhammer’s gait gained a sudden boost in strength, while the targeting reticule showed a slight drop in accuracy on all his weapons. The heat gauge showed the internal levels right at the TSMs ‘sweet spot’.

Smiling, Al turned his attention back to the fight at hand

To his left, the blue Daishi angled in his direction.

“Boy, are you in for a surprise,” Al muttered through clenched teeth.

Prologue - Part 3[]

Casey watched the vision from an outside perspective, a spectator on the side, high above the battlefield. It was like watching a Solaris 7 match. While Al’s Warhammer, Casey took in the surroundings, and noticed the visages of the other two patrons hovering like large holograms over their respective combatants.

One was the classic epitome of an angel, a woman decked in flashy ornamental armor with giant, white feathery wings sticking out back. Instead of a blond, she was a brunette. The other patron was a mermaid of sorts. Her slender frame had the bumps of breasts suggesting she was female under her flowing silken robes. Where her skin was exposed, Casey caught the glint of scales and oddly placed fins. She had no hair, her head sporting strange bony bumps in places. She even had webbing between her fingers. One long, single fish tail dangled out below her robes, instead of two legs.

When the two Daishi BattleMechs KO’d each other, it was the mermaid that screamed out in rage, making some strange hand gesture to rewind time. Then, Al proceeded to flank the mermaid’s champion. The increased speed and agility was used to full advantage, allowing the Warhammer to deflect a lot of incoming fire from the Clan behemoth, while dishing out telling hits of its own from the wave of laser pulses as well as two powerful azure PPC beams. The armor on the Daishi was able to take a lot of punishment.

However, Al had worked around to the Daishi’s right side, and angled in to plant a heat-enhanced kick on the bird-legged right knee. The damage caved in armor, leaving a noticeable dent while spider-webbed cracks grew up and down the thigh and shin. The impact knocked the Daishi over.

The Blue pilot ejected once his machine came to an unsteady rest.

“What?!” The mermaid looked annoyed and surprised. She huffed after a short pause, then turned and vanished.

The Angel’s champion didn’t suffer quite the same fate as the other Daishi, but Casey watched Al’s luck play out. The same luck that had enticed Casey to take Al under his wing when they first met. The two Mechs were at range, and Al was only able to put his particle cannons and the two Clan Medium Pulse Lasers on target, though a bevy of micros were added to the barrage. Harmless at those ranges, Casey knew Al’s combat tricks.

The Warhammer swung wide, angling around woods and low slopes to close in on the wounded Daishi. Its shots were moderately effective, Al’s armor absorbing the hits. But, it was the return fire that did the job. Both PPCs found a spot weakened by the Blue Daishi’s earlier barrage. Smoke belched from a hole that sparked with electrical discharge on the left arm before it exploded. Seeing a Gauss Rifle explode was interesting, as giant metal pieces simple ripped the fore-arm to shreds. The forces carried up the shoulder. Safeties cut-in and what was left of the limb went dead.

The wound was survivable, since the Clan ’Mech had a CASE system, from what Casey recalled. The discharge would have hurt the pilot, making him woozy, but he could still fight once he got past the symptoms. However, the auto-eject feature was active on the white Daishi, and the pilot was force-ejected from his BattleMech by other safety features at about the same moment that the fore-arm casing started to warp and split.

The scene dissolved about the same time that the Angel turned away to vanish.

“He won,” Casey stated when the vision ended.

“Twice,” Blacky added, gaze momentarily distant for a few seconds longer.

“Were you really surprised?” Casey asked, deadpan. “He’s clocked more time in that cockpit than the oldest pilot known to man.”

“Except Logan,” Blacky corrected.

Casey paused in his reply before ceding the point with a nod. He quickly brought the subject back on track. “Those ‘beings’ aren’t necessarily human, are they? I imagine your showing them above the fight was for my benefit? One looked like a mermaid, another an angel, and then that mechanical thing that Al fought for.”

“That is correct,” Blacky said.

"Yeah. I think you'd tried to warn us last time. About them," Casey said. "They’re drawn to him? You mean by that light you see in Al?"

Blacky looked away from Casey, distracted. "That's not how I discovered you the first time. How I discovered all of you." He smiled. "Let me show you what I saw, what I see."

Up in the sky, lights, stars, winked in and out of existence. Each one shined briefly, brightly, then vanished. There were hundreds.

"What are those?" Casey asked.

"The vessels your people use to pierce the void and travel vast distances instantaneously."

"JumpShips,” Casey said.

"Your arrival in my universe was what drew me. I didn't see the light of your friend until I had caught up with you. But, because of that light, I decided to follow you here when you exited my world."

"Yeah. I remember that," Casey said. "Al tried to stop the ship from jumping when you appeared in front of us, but, was too late. Didn't work. And, because of Al, you followed us and you're stuck here."

Blacky let his head slowly wobble in a non-committal gesture while contemplating. "Things would be very messy if he had succeeded. But, I can't blame him. My current predicament is my own doing. In my own cleverness, I hoped to use you to find my world and leave a warning to my earlier self. In my realm, I give our ships special patterns that I recognize. That way I can identify friend from foe. I had done the same to your ship when I first launched you across the void into another universe. What you call a Jump Dream, I believe. It was unique enough to be recognizable, but still a pattern. Because of that, my earlier self was more inclined to try to contact you.”

Blacky turned to look on Casey directly.

"But, it wouldn't have mattered. I'm certain, now, that I would have followed you, pattern or no. As a threat to my people, I had to make sure I could find you."

He paused, looking down at his own hands while he raised them. The winking stars vanished. Blacky clenched his fists, then dropped them to his sides.

"I've also learned that my long exile is also my doing. I didn't have to wait so long to return home. I could have gone the first time you met me, here." He waved his hands around to indicate the world on which they stood. A sad, amused smile curled his lips. "You see, I'm worshiped as a demigod where I'm from. I’m used to people acting at my command. I am also not used to having to explain myself.

"I know now that if I had been open, honest, I would be home now, and it would be safe from them." He turned to look off in the distance. "But, only if I overcame my own self-importance and impatience. I'd been trapped here a long, long time. If I hadn't been hasty-."

"You'd be home," Casey finished in the slight pause. “How long were you trapped before the miners found you?”

“Somewhere around a thousand jump intervals, which comes out to around nineteen Earth years.”

Casey harrumphed. “You look good for 50.”

“I’m actually ten times that age,” Blacky said.

“Still, nineteen years is a long wait in the dark. I can’t fault you for your impatience. And, now, add another eight or nine years to the wait.”

Blacky looked at Casey, his face still contorted slightly with sadness. "If I had gone home then, you adventure would have been cut short."

"Would Al have survived? I remember him saying something about dying."

"We would have been fine. Both of us would have departed together."

"Then, I don’t think missing out would have mattered. So, he's alive now?"

"Alive?" Blacky looked momentarily surprised. "No. He is very much dead."

"What?" Casey was confused. "But, you just showed me he’s out there right now, fighting in some strange tournament. You rescued him, didn't you? Teleported him out at the last minute like you did the other pilots years ago."

Blacky looked thoughtful. "Teleported? Them? Yes. Him? I had no hand in that. Al’s talent, his fate, is at work."

"If he's fighting and winning, that means he's alive somewhere."

Blacky's eyeless gaze fell on Casey again. The look of sadness returned.

"I see. He never explained what he is to you, did he?”

DropShip Grocery Run
Boat of the Stars Trade Route
Langhorne Zenith
Lyran Periphery
15 October 3067

On the desk in his cubby, Casey plopped down his little personal affects chest. Only half a meter wide by a quarter meter deep and tall, it barely fit on top of all the paper. He opened it and fished out what he needed. He fished around for a couple other items that he wanted on hand. It would be about a week before the Grocery Run jumped again. A little longer, actually. Langhorne was almost Terra-like in its star and planetary lay-out. So, it would take a little over a weak for the ship to recharge its jump drive.

However, in that time, there were a couple things Casey wanted to have on his person.

His talk with Blacky - Diaprepes - had given him the answers he needed, and the last Jump Dream adventure had given him three weeks to process what he had learned. Casey now had hope, and a direction. “You need to keep the dreams alive,” Diaprepes had said. Al was still alive, in a weird way, and he would be back at some point in the future. The Jump Dreams were somehow important.

He needed to keep the Jump Dreams alive. He couldn’t do that by going home and being cooped up in a manshion for the duration of the coming conflict. He had to keep aboard a JumpShip, any JumpShip, and keep bouncing through the void.

Casey had a purpose, now, and with Diaprepes’s help, he could make it happen. Diaprepes was a man, a being, with powers, who could not only travel the void between universes, but he could put people wherever he wanted. His exact words still burned in Casey’s memory.

“I am a master of the void. My specialty is putting people and things in new places through the medium outside reality. You don't have to arrive on the same ship you left in."

It was a big chance Casey was taking. He was about to live a life that only Al would be familiar with, waking up after an adventure in an unfamiliar environment. The thought having to come up with an explanation on how he got there if he were discovered gave him pause. To think that Al did that on a very frequent basis. And, then there was having to find a way to survive if he managed to remain hidden.

But, Casey had bigger hope. There were larger forces working here beyond Diaprepes and his powers. If the dreams were that important, then those higher powers would come to Casey’s aid, or grant him divine providence along the way.

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