"You still have your contacts, right?" Abner asked Santa. Given that the purpose of this trip was to acquire a new core for the ship, the mechanic would likely have been along, but today his importance was double. Contacts with the black market were a powerful thing when trying to rebuild and refurbish an old, beaten up space frigate.
"Assuming that everything is the same as when I left this game," Santa answered.
"You say that like it's been a long time," Grady Sanderson said from the skiff's driver seat. He was the designated driver for today's excursion, mainly because he had nothing to do on the ship right now.
"Not a long time in normal people's lives," Santa agreed, "but the black market is changing all of the time. Who knows what will have changed after just a few months out of the game."
"I have no doubt that you'll get us where we need to go," Abner said. "You know better than anyone how much we need this new core."
"Yeah, which reminds me," Santa said. "We do have the money for the thing, right? The last thing we need to do is get there, try to buy the thing, and not have any money for it. Market men tend to be a bit vindictive of people wasting their time."
"I've got it," Abner said. "It still seems like a lot to me. I mean, it's just the ship's core."
"You just don't get it," Santa said. "The core provides power to the whole ship. It's not just the ship's core; we're buying the heart and soul of the Safe Haven. This is actually rather cheap for a core. The sellers here had been having trouble selling ship parts since the war broke out. Too many companies are producing them and driving the prices down."
"So we're actually getting a better deal by purchasing on the black market?" Grady asked.
"Yes, if better means cheaper but almost definitely stolen," Santa agreed. "Long as we can get it installed on the ship without incident, we should be okay."
"It's the 'without incident' part that worries me," Abner said. "We don't have much choice though, not if we can't afford the thing at retail value."
"Not much of a choice, no," Santa agreed. The skiff was entering the market place now, and Grady slowed the speed somewhat.
"Take the main drag all of the way down to 8th, then turn right," Santa instructed. "I'll let you know when to stop, and we'll go in on foot. It's been a while since I've dealt with Fat Fred, but I don't know what he's like now. You know what to do when we leave?"
"I'm going to find a place to park and stay with the skiff," Grady repeated his instructions. "Once you seal the sale, I'll come to your location, we'll load the core and be gone from this place."
"Correct," Santa agreed. Grady turned right onto 8th street. "You're going to drop us off just up here. Keep the communicator handy; this should go smoothly, but you never know how these black market deals will go down."
"What do you think is going to happen?" Abner asked as he stepped out of the skiff. He almost regretted agreeing to this. "I thought that you said that this guy was your friend."
"He is, as much as another dealer of the market can be," Santa said. "I mean, we've definitely had our differences on sales and such. He even tried to kill me once. But besides that, we're friends."
"Back up," Killjoy said. "He tried to kill you and you still consider yourself friends? Please tell me that 'kill' has another meaning on the market."
"No, it still means to end someone's life," Santa said. "See, he did try to kill me, but you just can't take it personally. It was all business."
"You sure have some odd ideas about friendship," Abner said.
"Yes, but it's my friends that are going to get us a new core at an affordable price," Santa countered. "We're here. Let me do the talking and everything should be fine."
The three men approached a large warehouse-looking building, and Santa led them around the side to a small, metal door. He gave a sharp knock and turned around to face the street that they had come from. There was a whisper of metal scraping metal as a window in the door opened.
"Where's your passport?" a voice asked after a moment.
"Our money is our passport," Santa replied without turning around.
The window slid shut and the door opened, admitting the three crew members.
"Come this way," instructed the burly man behind the door. He barred the entrance before leading the three customers into the bowels of the building.
"Santa, why didn't he take our weapons from us?" Killjoy asked in a low voice.
"On the market, to relieve someone of their weapon is an insult," Santa answered. "It implies that you do not trust them."
"So they let us keep our weapons to show us that they trust us?" Killjoy asked. Santa nodded. "So if they trust us, why does everyone have weapons?"
"Because no one on the market trusts each other," Santa answered.
"So let me get this straight," Killjoy said. "They let us keep our weapons to show that they don't mistrust us but are armed to the teeth because they actually don't? That seems like circular logic."
"Not circular, Killjoy, just faulty," Santa answered. "It's a code that you have to follow
The guard led the three men through a series of halls, up two sets of stairs, and finally into a large, well lit room. A wall of windows directly opposed them, and light flooded through them silhouetting the desk and chair sitting there. The chair which was originally facing the windows slowly turned, revealing a small, balding man sitting in it. He was short and had a light complexion; his eyes gave Abner the impression of a weasel. Or possibly a ferret. Some small, disgusting creature for certain.
"It's good to see you again, Reginald," Santa said. There was silence for a few moments as the man in the chair silently sized up the three men before him. His face was inscrutable, and his body language gave away nothing.
"Santa," Reginald finally said. "So your back in the game. I knew that it wouldn't take long. Getting caught doesn't keep a good dealer down for long. Have you come with a bag full of presents for me?"
"Only if you think that a substantial sum of money qualifies as 'presents,'" Santa said. "I'm not here to get back in the game, just to make a purchase."
"So you were scared straight?" Reginald asked. "But that can't be it because you're here buying."
"I just am smart enough to realize when I should play and when I should fold," Santa answered. "It's just not in the cards for me to be a supplier right now."
"Very well," Reginald said and stood from behind his desk. "Then we best get on with the transaction. You're interested in a core for your ship if I'm not mistaken. Who are these gentlemen that you brought along?"
"My mechanic and my Chief of Security," Santa answered.
"The mechanic to check the core and the security for what?" Reginald asked. "Do you not trust me anymore?"
"You did try to kill me that one time if you'll recall," Santa said. "I thought it best to be on the safe side."
"That was when you were competition," Reginald said, "and even then I was sad to do it. I have a strict policy against killing customers if I can help it. It's bad for business."
"I could see that," Santa said. "I hate to be pushy, but we're in an incredible hurry. Do you mind if we see that core now?"
"I have the specs pulled up on my terminal," Reginald said and motioned to the monitor sitting on his desk.
"So I'm your mechanic?" Abner hissed as they crossed the room to the desk. "I suppose that makes you ship captain?"
"Reginald insists on dealing with ship captains," Santa explained. "No offense, but he would have robbed you blind if I had let you bargain with him."
"Offense taken," Abner said.
"I don't really care so long as we get a new core," Santa said. "We do have to keep the charade up, though, or he'll get offended and things will get messy."
"I thought he didn't kill customers," Abner said. "It's bad for business."
"Yes, but he doesn't like to be played for a fool either," Santa said. "That is the stronger emotion."
"Are you done with your little chat?" Reginald asked, a bit irritably. "I thought you were in a hurry."
"Just checking with my mechanic before seeing the core specs," Santa said. "Let's see what you've got."
Reginald spun the monitor and Santa looked at what was probably the most disappointing excuse for a core that he had ever seen. The power output was low, the cost was too high, the quality and condition of the unit was poor. All in all, this would be one of the worst purchases in of the century. Santa looked up from the monitor and gave a half smile to Reginald.
"Looks good, but let me talk with my mechanic first." Reginald gave a dismissive wave of his hand and turned to look out the windows.
"Okay, so here's the situation," Santa said as he huddled with Abner and Killjoy. "The core is horrible. Quite frankly, it may be worse than the one we have on the safe haven. The price is more than I was told it would be, probably more than we have to spend on a core. Basically, this would be one of the worst in the world."
"So then we tell him thanks, but no thanks and leave," Abner said. "I don't see what the big deal is."
"I told you that Reginald doesn't like people wasting his time, and anyone who doesn't buy is definitely a potential entry on that list."
"So he's going to kill us?" Killjoy asked. "That seems like a poor idea on his part."
"Not necessarily kill, but it won't be pleasant," Santa said. "We won't be leaving here with our money, one way or the other."
"Then we shoot our way out," Killjoy said, touching his blaster. "They didn't take away our weapons."
"Yes, we still have firepower, but we're in his den," Santa said. "Never for one second think that we have the upper hand in that arena."
"So then what do you suggest?" Abner asked.
"I may be able to talk our way out of here," Santa said. "Keep your blasters hand just in case it doesn't work."
"Will do," Killjoy said.
"Wait for my signal," Santa said. "The last thing that we need is to start a firefight that isn't necessary."
"That's any awful long discussion," Reginald said. "What is it that you're talking about?"
"My mechanic was worried about the attachment couplings," Santa said, turning to look at Reginald. "He says that they are notorious on this model. Things like to let loose in the middle of flight."
"Nothing wrong with the attachment couplings," Reginald said. It was clear that he didn't know what an attachment coupling was. "My mechanics checked over the whole thing and said that it was ready for use."
"Well, if we could just speak with your mechanics and check..." Santa started but was cut off.
"You won't take my word on this?" Reginald boomed. "That is an insult to my integrity, and insult of the highest degree."
"An insult to your integrity?" Santa snorted. He knew that he shouldn't say it, but the words wouldn't stop. "Your integrity isn't even still intact with all of the promises that you've broken and lies that you've told. This core is so old and beat up that it isn't even worth the silicone that its circuits are printed on. Then there's the price; if it were in perfect condition, I might pay 75% of what you're asking but not a penny more."
"So that was supposed to talk us out of this place?" Abner hissed. "Good going."
"Yeah, well it had to be said," Santa responded. "Be prepared to fight this one out."
"Hell yeah!" Killjoy yelled and yanked the two side arms from their holsters. Almost instantly his body was covered with a dozen small, red dots.
"Killjoy, don't move a muscle," Santa warned, edging away from his crew mate. "You jump the gun and look what happens."
"You have drawn weapons in my home!" Reginald boomed. "You have insulted me for the second time. What am I to do with you? If I let you get away with this, I will become a mockery."
"No offense, but you were a mockery even back when I was still in the game," Santa said. He was just trying to rile up the other man now. "The only reason that I sold to you was because your money spent just as well as anyone else's."
"Aggravating me isn't exactly the best move in the world right now," Reginald said. "Especially given that I have you outnumbered and outgunned."
"I count two of you," Santa said nodding to Reginald and the guard that had escorted them here. "We have three so I think the odds are in our favor."
"And my sharp shooters?" Reginald asked, motioning to the red dots on Killjoy. "What of them?"
"They need a line of sight to fire," Santa said. "Deprive them of that and we have the upper hand."
"And what brilliant plan do have to do that?" Reginald asked snidely.
"Now!" Santa yelled to his friends. Working as a mechanic apparently produced some descent sized muscles because he grabbed the edge of Reginald's desk and flipped it on its side like it was a cardboard box. At the same time, Killjoy ducked, putting the table between himself and the snipers, and Abner pulled his pistol and dropped the guard by the door. Reginald reached for his weapon, but Santa drew his faster.
"I wouldn't do that, old friend," the mechanic said. "You tried to kill me once and failed. Make me do this, and I will not make the same mistake."
"Are you wearing clean pants?" Abner asked Reginald suddenly.
"Clean pants? What does that matter?" Reginald raged. He was really ticked off now.
"Well, Hitler vowed to not wash his pants until his troops conquered Russia, Napoleon didn't have a clean pair for the battle of Waterloo, and Alexander the Great, well..." Abner trailed off. "Point is, if you don't have clean pants on, I wouldn't test your luck."
"Clean pants has nothing to do with luck!" Reginald said as he moved around in front of the overturned desk. "That is the most ridiculous thing that I have ever heard."
"You just called my mother ridiculous," Abner said. "Also from your comment, I gather that you don't have clean pants on. God help your soul."
On an unspoken command, the three crew mates behind the desk lifted it and rushed toward Reginald. Computer cables snapped free as they picked up speed; they hit the black market dealer near the windows and smashed through them a moment later. Then it was just a two story fall, a painful stop, some fancy dodging of laser bolts, and they were safely out of range of the snipers.
"Nothing good ever comes of wearing dirty pants in public," Abner said as he looked at the broken body of Reginald half buried beneath the broken desk. Then he turned and ran after his friends.