Considering everything that had happened today, I’d thought I was past the point of being surprised, but what I saw on the tiny screen of my handset stopped me cold. Ren was standing between the spindly trees. Her dark eyes were spacey and unfocused as ever, but her arm was thrust out in front of her with her hand balled into a fist like she was holding something very tightly. Weird as it was to see Ren, though, she was nothing compared to the thing that stood behind her.
“Thing” was the only word for it. The creature behind Ren was a good two feet taller than she was and covered head to toe in black. I couldn’t see what the covering was exactly through the white lines that were still falling over the camera like streamers, but I could tell it was glossy and segmented, almost like scales.
The tall body had a humanoid shape with a long torso, arms, legs, and a head all in human proportion. After that, though, the similarities stopped. It had no hair or flesh, nothing but the scales. Its head was ridged along the temples, the scales rising in sharp, aggressive lines. It had ridges on its elbows, knees, and shoulders as well, all of which looked functional as fighting spikes. Its hands and feet had long black claws sharper than a xith’cal’s, and its face was a flat mask with two glittering black eyes, a protrusion in the vague shape of a nose, and no mouth at all.
The alien reached up to lay its clawed hand on Ren’s shoulder, and even though I’d seen the girl not an hour ago, I sucked in my breath. But the claws didn’t slice into her as it seemed they should, only squeezed her softly. This must have been a signal, because Ren uncurled her fist immediately. The moment her palm was open, the camera swirled wildly as my unconscious body fell face-first on the ground at her feet.
Dirt was all I saw for about five minutes. The white lines that had been falling over my cameras constantly since just before the creature had first punched me disappeared around minute three, and then the world came back as someone rolled me over. The flat wall of Mycant’s cloudy sky filled my screen, edged with treetops, and then the trees began to move as someone started to drag my body backward.
If I’d had my actual six-camera feed, I could have easily seen who or what was dragging me, as well as where they were dragging me to, but the FWL, and thus the Bargain, only recorded my forward camera, so I could do nothing but sit and watch the trees slide by until, at last, they vanished, leaving only open sky.
The clearing, I realized. This was where the alien had dragged me back to the clearing. We kept going for several more feet, and then the movement stopped as it let me go. My head must have fallen to the side when it released me, because suddenly the camera was looking sideways out over the scrubby grass of the clearing. I was beside the skippers, right where I’d woken up. Across the field, I saw Ren again. She was standing in the crater of my grenade blast where I’d fought the invisible creature, and someone was kneeling down beside her.
The video quality was so bad I almost thought it was the black alien from before, but when the figure straightened up, I saw it was Caldswell. The captain turned and yelled something over his shoulder. There was no sound, but I didn’t need any now. I knew who I’d see next.
A second later, a familiar pair of dress shoes stepped into the shot, and then Rupert knelt down in front of me. His face was detached and cold as he reached down and turned my helmet slightly so that I was looking directly at him. He yelled something back to the captain, but his eyes never left me.
With Rupert in the way, I couldn’t see what the captain was doing, but I could see Ren clearly. She was looking up at her father like she was listening. After about a minute, she turned and held out her hand with her fingers up and palm flat, almost like she was pressing it against something I couldn’t see.
The creature. I realized the truth with a shock as cold as the monster’s icy blood. Ren was touching the invisible creature’s body.
I was still coming to terms with that when a flash of light whited out the screen. It was so sudden I jumped, nearly slamming my head into Nova’s bunk. When the white didn’t go away at once, I started to worry that the Bargain’s feed was ruined, but eventually the glare faded, and I saw Caldswell turning Ren away. I wanted to see more, but at that point something wiped over my camera.
It happened a few more times before I realized what was going on. Rupert was wiping down my helmet with one of the shop cloths from the skipper. He cleaned the creature’s blood off my armor, and then the camera lurched as he pulled off my helmet and set it aside.
On a cheap suit, removing the helmet would have killed the camera feed, but my Lady is well made, and her camera kept running. As a result, I found myself looking at my own body as Rupert wiped down my face with a gauze pad from the same damn first aid box he’d used on me when we’d flown back.
His movements were quick and efficient as he wiped the blood, mine and the creature’s, from my skin. His face was blank as he worked, but there was something gentle in the way his hands brushed my forehead or cupped my cheek to push my head aside so he could clean my neck. He paused when he reached my wounded eye, and then, very, very carefully, he started cleaning the cut.
Behind him, I caught glimpses of Caldswell walking around the clearing, stopping occasionally to reach down and grab something. Ren followed him like a puppy, eyes wide and vacant as she strolled through the grass in his wake. When they passed out of the shot, I returned to watching the only thing left, Rupert.
He was worth watching. When I’d first seen him on the camera, he’d looked cold and collected, the man from the bridge. But while he’d been cleaning my cut, his expression had changed. His brows had dropped into a scowl, his mouth pressed into a thin line that was at odds with the gentleness of his hands as he worked. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have said he looked almost possessive as he hunched over my prone body, his long fingers lingering on my face even after he’d wiped the last of the blood away.
Finally, he let me go and leaned back on his heels, looking me over like he was checking to make sure he’d gotten everything, and then his cold detachment was back as he balled up the bloody gauze and shoved it in his pocket. He’d just put my helmet back on my head when Caldswell came up and dropped my guns and thermite blade on the ground beside the skipper.
I winced when they hit. Didn’t that idiot captain know how expensive my babies were? Caldswell stepped over my weapons as Rupert stood up, and they talked for a while. Or I guessed that was what they did. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and from the way my head was lying I couldn’t see anything but their feet.
Finally, they broke apart, and Caldswell came to stand over me. The camera spun as he turned my head so that I was facing him, and then he took something out of his pocket. It was a flat square of folded leather, almost like a wallet. When he flipped it open, I saw it was a scan code badge, a palm-sized metal plate carved with blocks and bars meant to convey information to computers through cameras. My officers had used them to identify themselves to other units in the army, flashing their code at any camera for instant access. But the crest above the metal etched code block wasn’t the usual officer’s mark, or even some Terran nonsense. It was the royal seal of Paradox, and the moment my camera recognized it, my feed cut out.
I stopped the footage and skipped back, pausing a second after Caldswell flicked open his code badge. I hadn’t been seeing things. The royal seal stood in proud relief above the scan code. It was the same seal that appeared on Devastators’ armor, the mark of the king’s trust. I was so busy staring at it, I almost missed the other crest beside it.
Next to the king’s seal was a mark I didn’t recognize, a black four-pointed star with a large stylized white eye at the center. Other than those two marks and the etched blocks and bars of the metal scan code below, there was nothing. No text, no name, no identifying number, nothing.
I restarted the video with trembling fingers. The interruption lasted only a second, but there must have been some time lost, because when my camera came back on, Caldswell was fitting my helmet back onto my head. Off to the right, I could see my clock had been reset during the gap. My vitals and my ammo counters were back to baseline as well, just as they’d been when I’d woken.
Once my helmet was back in place, Caldswell looked at me a moment, tugging his shirt collar into place like he was using my raised visor as a mirror. When he finished, he took a deep breath and said something that looked like Ready? Rupert must have said yes, because a second later Caldswell’s whole face changed, contorting into rage. On the side of my camera feed, I saw my vitals spike as I woke up in a panic.
Hands shaking, I paused the recording on the image of Caldswell’s angry face. I placed the handset gently on my knee and put my head in my hands. Closing my eyes, I took five deep breaths, and then, when I was as calm as I could expect to be, I set myself to the seemingly impossible task of figuring out what the hell I was going to do.
Three hours later, I’d watched the Bargain’s recording a dozen more times, and I’d boiled things down to six absolute certainties:
The unkillable invisible monster had not been a figment of my imagination (I’d never believed otherwise, but it was nice to have proof).
Ren and the unknown black alien had saved me from the unkillable invisible monster.
Ren had something that could actually kill the unkillable invisible monster, unlike my bullets, plasma, or thermite blade.
Caldswell had a badge with the king’s royal seal that could shut down my suit on sight.
Ren, Caldswell, and Rupert were part of a larger operation that went all the way to the very top levels of the Paradoxian government.
I was not supposed to know any of this.
I pried my fingers off my handset and leaned back, closing my eyes to think this through. It was clear from the way I’d seen Caldswell putting my helmet back on me that he’d meddled with my suit during the blackout, just as it was clear he’d lied to me when I woke up. But though I’d seen the truth of what had really happened in that clearing with my own eyes, I still didn’t understand a bit of it, and I sure as hell didn’t know what to do.
I knew what I wanted to do, of course. Mercs, the ones who survive their first year anyway, are creatures of instinct. Mine have always been good, and right now they didn’t care about understanding. Right now, my gut impulse was to run. I didn’t know what that black alien with Ren was, or why it seemed to be working with Caldswell, or where it had gone after saving me. I didn’t know what kind of powers Ren had or if she was really Caldswell’s daughter either. The only thing I did know was that what had happened in that clearing was big. Really big, the tip of an iceberg that could grind a disposable hired gun like myself into pulp if I let it.
The instinct to escape was so strong I actually had to ball my fists to not start packing. Looking back, I should have rolled with it. Every time I’ve ignored my instincts, I’ve regretted it. But loud as my need to run was at that moment, my ambition was yelling even louder.
Despite my confusion on pretty much everything else, one fact from this whole shitstorm had come through perfectly clear: Caldswell wasn’t a trader. He wasn’t a smuggler, either. I didn’t know what he was, but the king’s seal he’d flashed proved for sure that he was big. I’d never seen one in action before, but after watching my footage a few more times, I was now sure that the badge he’d used to shut down my suit was a Royal Warrant.
Though usually only given out to the most loyal and worthy of the king’s servants like royal knights and Devastators, Royal Warrants could technically be given to anyone, even a Terran like Caldswell if the king thought he should have one. A Warrant gave the bearer the power to act in the king’s name. On Paradox, a Royal Warrant would get you anything you wanted without question, and even in Terran space it was pretty much a free pass. I knew from Anthony that Warrants were carefully monitored. They weren’t the sort of thing you could steal or fake, not without having a crash team of Devastators coming after you, anyway.