Once we were safely back in space, Cotter and I divided our shifts to match the new day schedule. Cotter’s came up first, so I left him to his work and went to my cabin. I had only four hours before I went on duty, but though I was exhausted from days of anxiety and the fight with the monster in the clearing, sleep was the last thing on my mind. I stripped out of my suit but kept my helmet and chest piece on. Then, sitting on my bunk, I pulled up my footage from the clearing, both the recordings from my cameras and the backup from my Final Word Lock, and started going over them frame by frame.
It was a short, frustrating process. My cameras were fine right up until a few moments after I’d set the skipper down in the clearing, and then everything went to static. After that, the next clear image I had was Caldswell leaning over me.
That was it. Between those two points I had nothing but a wall of fuzzy white noise. I went through it all again, hoping to at least calculate how long I’d been out, but with my clock stopped, the video’s time stamp was worthless. In the end, I did it manually, playing the whole thing in my helmet while I timed the static against my handset’s clock.
What I found made no sense at all. There was less than ten minutes of recorded static between where my cameras cut out and Caldswell’s waking me up. That was barely long enough to account for the fight, much less however much time I’d spent knocked out. I put down my handset and skipped the video back to the beginning.
As I watched myself hop out of the skipper yet again, my heart began to pound. Now that I thought about it, that part made no sense either. All my assumptions up to this point stemmed from the idea that the creature’s screams had scrambled my recording. Considering how many times the thing had blacked out my suit, it just seemed obvious that was what it had to be. Now, though, I was starting to doubt. After all, if the scream was responsible for destroying my recordings, then my cameras should have gone out after I shot the creature, not when I’d landed.
Maybe just being near the thing was enough to fry my feed? But I had the footage of my landing just fine. If proximity to the creature was what caused the problem, then it seemed to me that my video should have faded out as I’d gotten closer, not just cut off like it did. And none of this explained why I only had ten measly minutes of ruined footage to cover what was probably closer to an hour of lost time.
I paused my video feed, staring at the frozen wall of static. I didn’t like where this was going. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it wasn’t the creature who’d messed up my footage, at least not entirely. And now that I’d opened that can of worms, there were the other mysteries to consider.
Taking a deep breath, I shut my eyes against the static and thought back to how the fight had ended. Or, rather, I tried to. I remembered getting punched just fine, and I remembered emptying Sasha’s clip as the tentacle came down to crunch me. After that, though, things got fuzzy.
I knew something else had happened, something … strange, but I couldn’t make my brain pull it up. It was like the memory was floating just on the edge of my consciousness, but every time I reached out, it flitted away. It seemed to want to be forgotten. Gritting my teeth, I tried harder, forcing myself to go over every detail I could recall.
It wasn’t much. I vaguely remembered being pulled away, though how and by what I had no idea. And though I’d woken up by the skippers, I was almost certain I’d been in the forest when I’d blacked out. I couldn’t put my finger on how I knew that, though, and just thinking about it was giving me a pounding headache.
I rubbed my temples and moved on to other worries. The creature had been huge, but I hadn’t found so much as a stray tentacle when I’d quickly searched the clearing. Unless the invisible thing melted like snow when it died, that meant someone had disposed of its body. Someone had certainly cleaned mine. If I believed that, then was it such a stretch to believe that perhaps my dim memories were correct, and someone had pulled me to safety in the woods? Perhaps the same someone who had cleaned the slime and blood off my armor. And to clean me, this mysterious savior would have had to remove my helmet, which meant they would have access to my computer, and my footage…
My heart began to pound. My suit hadn’t been locked, so it wouldn’t have been too hard to get my helmet off, but erasing my footage was another thing altogether. A little hacking would have taken care of my main cameras, but my Final Word Lock footage was sacred.
All Paradoxian suits come with an FWL by Royal Law. The lock and all the information inside it was protected by several levels of the king’s own security. I could look at my FWL all I liked, but I couldn’t erase or change anything it recorded. No one could except crown-appointed judges, high-ranking generals, and members of the royal family. The idea that some random stranger on Mycant could somehow tamper with my FWL was absurd. Almost as absurd as being rescued from an invisible, unkillable monster whose roar blacked out my suit.
I opened my eyes again with a deep breath. I really didn’t like where this was going. As the pile of things that didn’t add up got larger and larger, I realized that the question now wasn’t if something had happened while I was out, but what, and how badly did I want the truth?
Pretty badly, came the answer. Messing with me was one thing, but messing with my suit was something else altogether. If I’d been hacked, bugged, or compromised in some way by persons or creatures unknown, I could be putting the whole crew in danger. I had to know, which meant it was time to break a few rules.
Pulling off my helmet, I stood up and hit the cabin’s door lock, arming it to the highest privacy setting so even Nova would have to knock. I was pretty sure there were no cameras in our room, but I turned all the lights to black, just in case. It made getting around hard, but bruised shins were a small price to pay to keep someone from seeing what I was about to do.
I made it to my armor case with minimal stumbling and put away my helmet by touch. Once I was sure it was locked and deactivated, all cameras off, I took off the Lady’s chest piece. If I hadn’t been so familiar with every inch of my suit, this next bit would have been tricky. I sat on the floor and placed the back half of the Lady’s chest piece in my lap. Finding her spine with my fingers, I ran my hand down to the small plate that covered the small of my back, just above the knot of the FWL. Curling my pinky finger under the plate’s lip, I squeezed into the gap and felt around until something stabbed my finger.
Even expecting it, the pain still made me jump. I snatched my finger back and sucked at the tiny bead of blood welling on its surface while I waited for the biolock to verify my DNA. I didn’t have to wait long. A second later, the small plate popped open with a click, and a black silicone chip no bigger than my thumbnail slid out.
Gentle as a surgeon, I pinched the chip between my fingers and pulled it free. I couldn’t see it in the dark, but I knew it was glossy as black water. It certainly felt slick against my skin, slick and ice-cold, but then, the Mercenary’s Bargain was an icy sort of deal.
The point of the FWL was to record your final moments so your officers could see how you died, but that wasn’t always how it worked. Sometimes, soldiers died in a way that made their officers look bad, especially in a mercenary company like the Blackbirds whose operations weren’t always on the sunny side of interstellar law. When that happened, FWL footage tended to get “accidentally” erased. That was fine if you were dead, but if you were unlucky enough to actually survive the kind of incident that required the loss of your FWL, then you needed some serious leverage to keep yourself from getting erased as well. That was where the Mercenary’s Bargain came in.
It went like this: the Mercenary’s Bargain was an aftermarket armor modification that recorded the video track that fed into a suit’s FWL onto a second backup completely separate from the suit’s main computer. Even if the FWL was physically removed, the Bargain would stay in place, preserving the truth of what had actually happened just in case you needed it. This way, even if your FWL footage was destroyed, you always had your own copy.
The Bargain was a merc’s final line of defense against anyone who wanted to screw us over, and, obviously, it was about as illegal as you could get. Footage recorded by the FWL was considered sacred under Paradoxian law, as good as the king’s own witness. By creating a second Final Word, the Bargain undermined the FWL’s absolute authority, and the king did not tolerate anything that undermined his authority. Admitting you had a Bargain going, even as a private mercenary, was as good as putting your neck in the noose, though I’d always thought I’d count it as worth my life. After all, if things got bad enough that I’d actually have to use my secret footage, I was probably dead anyway, and I saw no point in not taking the bastards down with me.
Fortunately, things weren’t that bad yet, but thanks to my mercenary’s paranoia I had a resource no one expected. If the static on my records really was from the monster, then the footage recorded by my Bargain would be just as snowy and short as my FWL’s. But if my mysterious rescuer had somehow erased my FWL, the Bargain would show the truth, which was exactly why I’d risked the king’s wrath to install it in the first place.
I took out my handset and flipped it open, using the glowing screen as a flashlight as I made my way back to the bed while balancing the Bargain delicately on the palm of my free hand. I sat down on my mattress and scooted into the corner until my back was against two walls. Only then did I flip my handset over and open the side, sliding the tiny black chip into the handset’s feed port.
The screen went black as soon as the chip was in, and then a password request popped up. I keyed in the sequence, speaking a completely different code out loud at the same time. My handset screen flickered as the Bargain chip’s double security unlocked, and I hunched over, curling myself into a ball around the screen to watch the truth come out.
In the years I’ve had it, I’d never actually had to use my Bargain other than my annual check to make sure it still worked. Its interface was minimal, and it took me a bit of fiddling to find the footage I was looking for, especially since I had to use my fingers instead of just scanning through clips with my mind via my neural net. Fortunately, Mycant hadn’t happened too long ago, and I found the spot quickly, starting the footage at the point where I landed the skipper, fifteen seconds before my FWL’s feed cut off.
The Bargain’s video quality wasn’t quite as good as my FWL. There was no sound either, a sacrifice to the size of the chip, but I could clearly see my main camera and my primary display just as they’d been at the time. Silently, the footage rolled on as I watched myself hop out of the skipper and take the step that, every other time, had ended in static. But there was no static now, and I barely dared to breathe as the Devi in the footage moved out to start scouting the clearing.
After that, everything happened just as I remembered. The feed cut out in several places from all the times my suit had blacked out, but the footage never went to static as it had on my FWL. I saw everything, lines and all, right up to the bitter end when I’d sat defeated, waiting for the tentacle to come down. And then, just like in my fuzzy memories, the camera spun wildly as my body was flung backward.
By this point I was hunched over so far that my nose was nearly touching my handset’s screen. The trees raced by as my body flew into the forest, and I held my breath, waiting for the crash. But it never came.
Quickly as I’d been thrown, my body stopped. Up in the right corner of the screen, I saw my vital signs go from jagged panic to calm sleep like someone had switched me off. For one long second, I hung there like a puppet, floating impossibly in midair with my camera running while my body slept soundly inside my suit. It was so unbelievable, I was about to go back and watch that part again when the screen spun like I was doing a pirouette, and two figures whirled my camera’s vision.