Abner Mitchell bent his knees for the landing and tucked into a roll on impact. He was instantly back on his feet and running. Something was lodged in his left boot and was digging into his instep, but he continued forward through the pain. At least it pretty much balanced out the pain of the laser burn across his right shoulder.
Today was not a good day for him or his ship, the Safe Haven. The signs were in abundance, but he had ignored them. When he woke up and flipped on the lights only to have them flare briefly and burn out, he should have rolled over and went back to sleep. As perseverant (a.k.a. stubborn) as he was, he should have taken the signal when his breakfast burned, but he didn't. Then he ripped a giant hole in the seat of his pants when he was entering the ship's land vehicle, a standard skiff. He went to change, but found that all of his laundry was dirty. He ended up going out with dirty pants. If only he had remembered his mother saying when he was young, "Abner, you should always wear clean pants when you go out in public. Nothing good ever came of people wearing dirty pants in public." But he hadn't remembered and he had continued with the day's schedule, oblivious to the warnings the universe had tried to give him.
"How many of them are there?" Kyle Letson, the Safe Haven's Chief Mechanic called. He was a tall, skinny man with no beard who ironically bore the nickname Santa.
"If you want to know so bad, you can turn around a count!" Jacob "Killjoy" Simmons yelled back. He was the Safe Haven's Chief of Security and had come along on this expedition to relieve the monotony of working security on the ship. Now he was regretting the decision. "Oh, and tell me the number when you figure it out. I'd love to know too!"
"Now that is an acceptable use of sarcasm," Abner said as he dodged around a vendor's cart.
"It was?" Killjoy responded. "That's great. I'll have to remember that next time I'm not being shot at!"
"Well, look at the bright side," Santa said. "At least this day can't get any worse."
"Don't say that!" Killjoy shouted. "You're going to jinx us."
"Shut up, you two," Abner said. "Do you want to make it any easier for them to chase us?" Momentarily distracted as he was, he ran face first into the wooden upright support of a market stall. Killjoy and Santa hauled him to his feet, and they continued to run.
"Do you suppose that counted?" Santa asked after a short time.
"Captain face planting into that stall?" Killjoy asked. "Count as what?"
"Knocking on wood," Santa answered.
"Not sure it counts as knocking if you use your face," Abner retorted. Blood was running out of his nose, and he could feel a bruise forming under his eye. He slid around another stall, pushed through a knot of people, and headed for an alley. Killjoy and Santa followed his lead into the small avenue. Abner ducked into a doorway and waited. Surely the goons chasing them would enter the alley any moment now, and they would have to fight their way out. Killjoy already had his blaster out, ready to spill some blood, but that was not what destiny held for them. The men pursuing them ran past the alley, still looking in the main avenues for the three fugitives.
Abner gave a sigh of relief and slumped back against the door. This was all a product of his failure to wear clean pants. Everything starting with them leaving the Safe Haven until now was the fates punishing him for his blunder.
"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 handy 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.
It had been half an hour since they had first entered the ally, and the sounds of the search had faded away. Abner walked to the main street and looked both ways. Finally he motioned for Killjoy and Santa to join him.
"No one in sight," he said.
"Except for all of the vendors," Killjoy said.
"It's a figure of speech," Abner said, shaking his head. "It means that the people looking for us aren't in sight."
"Want me to get Grady on the comm?" Santa asked. "They shouldn't be able to recognize our skiff even if they are still out looking."
"Yeah, get him over here to pick us up," Abner said as he gingerly touched the still-raw wound on his shoulder. "I've had enough of this mess for one day."
Santa stepped back into the ally while Killjoy and Abner kept watch. A few minutes later, Santa rejoined them.
"Grady's on his way," the mechanic said. "He should be here in five minutes give or take for traffic."
"The sooner the better," Abner said. "I never thought that I'd say this, but I can't wait to get back to the Safe Have. I've had enough of getting shot at for one day."
"Agree to disagree," Killjoy said, checking the charge on his weapons. "I could stand for a bit more excitement."
"Which is why you are security chief and I am not," Abner said. "I'd rather be safe on deck, hiding behind our shields and big guns than out on the street with a laser pistol in my hand."
"I can get you a plasma pistol if you would prefer that, Captain," Killjoy said with a grin.
"That's not what I mean," Abner shot back.
"Here's Grady with the skiff," Santa said, stopping the argument in its tracks. Though it would have been fun to see, they didn't have the time right now.
Abner and Killjoy stopped to watch the skiff approach. It was three blocks away, then two, then only one. It stopped at a traffic signal and suddenly six men detached themselves from the crowd and surrounded the motionless vehicle. There was an exchange of words, then suddenly the six men drew weapons.
"Are they Reginald's men or just some thieves?" Killjoy asked. "I thought they hadn't seen our skiff before."
"I can't tell," Santa answered. "Reginald had a lot of people working for him, particularly of the thuggish variety. I wouldn't be able to recognize them all."
"Frankly, I don't care what their reason for holding Grady up is," Abner said. There was the distinct sound of a blaster warming up. "One way or another, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"There's only six of them and three of us," Killjoy said as he drew his weapons and flipped off the safeties. "That makes two apiece."
"Not sure I can take two," Santa said as he handled his pistol.
"Then I'll take care of it for you," Abner said. "I'm ready to be finished with this mess."
The three men started down the sidewalk, keeping their blasters low so that they were not obvious but still ready for use. The skiff's signal had turned green, and vehicles were starting to pile up behind it, but still the armed men kept it stationary. Clearly they carried some weight in this area because there was not even the horns of irate drivers.
"I've got the ones on the far right," Killjoy said in a low voice.
"I've got the ones on the left," Abner said. "Santa, take the middle ones and drop as many as you can."
"Will do, Captain," Santa said. His voice gave away the fact that he was nervous, but his hands were steady.
"Coming within effective range," Killjoy muttered. One of the hijackers discharged his weapon at the ground to make a point, and Killjoy twitched.
"Steady," Abner said. "Wait until we're right up on them. We can't afford to miss."
They continued forward until they had cut the distance to fifteen feet, then to ten. Finally, one of the hijackers noticed their unabated approach and turned to confront them. In unspoken agreement, the three crew mates brought their blasters up and fired as they continued to move forward. In less than a second, all six of the hijackers were laid dead on the street.
"Mount up," Abner said as he holstered his weapon and climbed into the skiff. "Grady, get us out of here."
Wide-eyed and still trying to comprehend what had just happened, Grady engaged the skiff's engines and navigated the streets of the market. As they broke out of the buildings there and onto the open road, he eased the throttle forward and picked up speed as they flew toward the Safe Haven.
Jessica Jenson (a.k.a. Saber) was standing on a cat walk welding as the skiff pulled into the Safe Haven's cargo bay. Welding was something that she was good at, despite her background in security. It was a skill that had come in handy when she had been assigned to the Safe Haven as its Loading and Cargo Master. Though it had taken here a while to learn the ropes of the new job, she was now comfortable in the position and was fixing up the cargo bay more to her liking. And that meant a lot of welding.
As the ship's skiff entered the bay, Jessica turned off her welding torch and flipped up her mask. She waited for the skiff to come to a stop and the passengers to disembark before asking any questions. She would have to yell at them anyway as she was most of the way across the cargo bay.
"How did it go?" she called. The Captain, Santa, and Killjoy ignored her completely and made a beeline for the door into the rest of the ship. Grady was the only one who paid her question any heed.
"I don't know exactly," he called from the ground, looking up to where Jessica was perched. "I do know that we don't have a new core, so it couldn't have gone too well. Also, they wouldn't say anything on the way back, so I think they must have screwed up big time."
"What do you mean screwed up?" Jessica asked as she took off her mask and dropped it on the cat walk. She walked to a ladder and slid down it the twenty five or so feet to the bay floor. Grady didn't even blink anymore when Jessica showed off; he was getting used to stuff like that from this woman.
"Well, when I was coming to pick them up after the deal went down, however that happened, I got stopped at a traffic signal by a half dozen armed men," Grady said.
"Half a dozen?" Jessica asked. Though she tried to mask it, the worry still showed in her voice. She had become friends with the rest of the crew in their short time aboard the Safe Haven, but Grady was somewhat more than that. She didn't know exactly what, but the whole thing was very confusing to her, and so she tried her best not to show any of it. Luckily for her, Grady was oblivious to the whole thing.
"Yeah, six guys, all with laser pistols," Grady said. Any other guy would have tried to play it off like it was no big deal, but not Grady. "It was probably the scariest thing that I've experienced in my whole life. I think I just about wet my pants." He said it in such a way as to admit that he was scared but not a big deal out of it.
"Actually now that I think about it, I had a blaster on my hip the whole time and didn't even think about it," he said with a laugh. "A lot of good I'd be in a fight."
"That's because you're not a fighter," Jessica said, insulting Grady somewhat without realizing it. He knew he wasn't a fighter but to hear someone else say it was still emasculating, particularly so because it was Jessica. He thought he might like her a bit more than just as a friend, but he wasn't sure. Then there was the fact that she was a warrior to the bone and he was just a medic. It was all very confusing to him, and he tried not to show any of it. Luckily for him, Jessica was oblivious to the whole thing.
"They had no business putting you in that situation." Jessica was still talking, continuing her insults without realizing it. "You could have been killed."
"I'm part of this crew and have to do my job," Grady said, trying to ignore the insults. "Besides, I can handle it."
"You could have gotten killed," Jessica said, her emotions clearly showing now.
"But I didn't," Grady responded. "Look, I can handle myself. Just don't worry about it." He spun on his heel and practically raced out of the cargo bay. Though he had a better poker face than Jessica, he still felt as much as she did, and right now what he felt was anger. Anger at her for worrying about it, anger at the Captain for taking him on the mission, but mostly anger at himself for his performance earlier. How did he expect to win a girl like Jessica if he couldn't even take care of himself? The door slid shut after he stepped through, and he leaned against the wall taking a few deep breaths. These arguments were becoming more and more common and he did not like them, not one bit.
"Well, I hate to be the one to say it, but that was a miserable failure," Killjoy said as the three compatriots stepped into the crew room. It was completely deserted except for themselves.
"Then you shouldn't have said it," Abner retorted. It was clear that he was very upset with the results of the morning. "This is your fault," he said, turning on Santa.
"This was your idea," the mechanic reminded him. "I told you about the dangers of dealing on the black market and you decided to go ahead with it anyway."
"That's because you talked about how you could get great deals on the market," Abner said. "'We can get a new core for a song' were your exact words."
"Yes, if you are willing to put up with some acceptable losses," Santa said. "I told you that winning on the market was a rich man's game."
"Let's not lose our minds over this," Killjoy said. Santa and Abner looked at him in surprise. Killjoy wasn't exactly the person that you would expect to keep tempers down in a room. "At least we still have the money that we went there with so we're no worse off than we were this morning."
"Except that we're wanted by a cartel of the black market," Abner shot back.
"Actually, that's probably not true," Santa said. "Whoever is going to take over Reginald's operations is probably super happy with us right now. That's the way things tend to work on the market. I wouldn't expect retribution for our actions today."
"So you mean that we could go back to the same place in a week and try to buy a core again?" Abner asked.
"Yes, though I wouldn't recommend it," Santa said. "Some of those people we killed on the way out are bound to be someone's friends and personal grudges can be worse than professional ones."
"That doesn't matter, though since I think I have a way to get another core," Killjoy said.
"I already told you that we aren't straight up stealing anything," Abner said.
"It isn't stealing," Killjoy answered.
"All that you know how to do is kill things by shooting your guns," Santa snorted. "What are you going to do, win a core in a shooting contest?"
Killjoy looked at the two men who were glaring back at him. Could he actually get the core like he had said? Maybe, but seeing how Santa had been put on the spot when his plan hadn't worked made him not want all of that pressure.
"You're right, it was a stupid idea," Killjoy said. "I'm going back to the armory if you need me."
He stepped through the door, surprised at the way things had turned out. A week ago, he would have torn the heads off of those two for mocking him as they had done, but today it was easy to let their insults roll off his back. A week ago, he wouldn't have thought of a way to get a new core. A week ago, he wouldn't have been able to perform like he had today. But that was a week ago, and this was now. It was time to produce or shut up. He would show the Captain that he was more than just a pile of muscle. He would get that core his way but he would need help. Smiling, he walked toward the armory and his best friend on the Safe Haven. Together they could do what the Captain and Santa had failed to do today.