Friday, September 7, 2012

Time to go to Market

They journeyed through the gloomy streets in silence until noises of life echoing in the husks of buildings cut through their awkward aura. The Marketplace made itself known, welcoming them with a nice change from the dull and dreary environment the underground was infamous for. Colors, sounds, and smells all melded together, overloading the senses. Makeshift stands lined the area, filled with goods from all over the galaxy. The market grounds were teaming with people from all manner of profession and species. Hawkers crying their wares could be heard from every direction, as well as raucous buyers zealously haggling over merchandise.  Creatures of every identifiable animal genus, and some not so identifiable, called out their distress from their cages.  It was as if all the noise and commotion of the underground was concentrated at this one spot, justifying the deathly quiet of the outside streets.
Anything you could ever want from weapons and exotic foods, to priceless artifacts and religious icons could be found here, if the price was right. Intergalactic visitors could find the comforts of home only a stall away. But the virgin buyer should be wary of any business transactions, as goods were not always as advertised. It was also best not to ask where the goods originated, as it is considered tremendously impolite, not to mention unwise, else one might end up on the stands as the special of the day, in separate pieces.
Garrett was smart enough not to look around and stare at the people found mingling. He could even boast that he had studied some of the etiquette that was involved with interacting with many of the intergalactic races. He once saved a new tourist from an extremely painful encounter, all by simply putting the traveler’s money in his opposite hand.
Everyone here moved quickly, as if they had other places to be. The markets constantly shifted locations, mainly for self-preservation: no one wanted to be caught if the Enforcers decided to conduct a surprise raid. No one would expect mercy from them, and no one wanted to find out what leered at them from behind the ominous black robes that constantly searched for acts of lawlessness.
 Vendors had taken to the practice of building their stands to be quickly broken down and packed up at a moment’s warning. After all, a merchant’s goods were his lifeblood, and most would risk their own flesh in order to spare their wares. But a few bold traders with stands of more sturdy construction could be found scattered around the market, though one could assume they would rather take the hit to their wallet.
Nara led Garrett through a series of stands, occasionally glancing at the merchandise.  He caught glimpses of statues and jewelry as the two traversed the market, taking mental note of their location for further investigation, even though he knew the stalls would move throughout the day.  He had seen a few markets before on his trips to the Undercity, but he was always impressed by the scale of this one, here on Verner’s Row.
Just when Garrett was starting to wonder if she was lost, Nara stopped at a stall that contained a variety of armaments. It also housed a curious display of small, circular badges, each giving off a faint electronic glow of every color of the rainbow. She brushed her hand over the pieces delicately, before singling out a bright blue one. She picked it up and examined it carefully, feeling the serial number engraved on the back. The vendor, a short, stumpy, and rather hairy individual, watched her closely as she studied the piece.
She rolled up her sleeve, revealing a remarkably intricate tattoo adorning her flesh:  the image of a venomous serpent coiled over and around her entire forearm. Garrett marveled at the artistry involved with the art form. Where there was soft flesh, it was drawn in red ink, darker in hue than the blood red of her skin. But where the bonelike plating covered Nara’s muscle, the pattern of the beast continued, etched about a quarter of an inch deep, and gilt with rose gold fused to her plating. Its head ended at her wrist, its expression of malicious intent, with two cerulean blue gems set into the eye sockets of the snake.
Ignoring his ogling face, she pressed a series of buttons on the badge. The piece snapped on to her arm, forming a thin bracelet around her wrist, still glowing blue. From there, it quickly grew into several metallic plates that enveloped her forearm. When it finished, she flicked her finger on the metal to feel the material. She hummed a noise of approval and brought out a dagger from her other sleeve. The vendor suddenly looked at her nervously. Unsure of her intentions, Garrett decided to intervene.
“Hey, what are you doing?” He asked softly. Nara looked at him funny.
“Haven’t you ever heard of ‘try before you buy’?” She said before slamming the dagger into the armor plating, driving with enough force to cause vital damage. The dagger penetrated the bracer with a screech of rending metal, and she stopped the blade before it touched the natural plating of her skin. The badge sputtered and fizzled as the armor shattered to pieces, disintegrating into a pile of dust. Nara glared at the vendor.
What the hell are you trying to pull here?” Nara growled. She was speaking Darktrade to him, the common tongue among merchants in the Undercity. Garrett only knew enough to survive, but sometimes he got lucky and was able to find someone who also spoke Hightrade, from Upper City. Darktrade was originally created for keeping secrets from the Upworlders. It was often used as a tactic against the rich, conning more money in a trade or intentionally misinterpreting the rules to a gambling match, taking advantage of the victim's sense of discomfort in foreign social situations.
It’s my supplier, not me! He must have given me a faulty batch! No one has ever complained before!” The vendor stammered, visibly sweating.
I bet, because your other customers don’t make it back to complain. What the fuck is wrong with you?” Nara glowered.
Let me make it up to you! Here, take this piece, no charge,” The vendor said, shakily holding out another badge for her to take.
No thanks, you’ve done quite enough here. Next time you better make sure your goods meet the standards you are trying pulling off. Good day.” Nara stormed off, leaving the vendor quaking. Garrett hurried after her.
“So what just happened?” Garrett inquired cautiously.
“He was pushing fakes.” She commented.
“So why didn’t you take the free one?”
“Because it was more than likely a bomb. Or something worse.”  What’s worse than a bomb, Garrett thought quietly, but ultimately decided not to press the issue.
They made their way deeper into the market, stopping to examine the wares of a similar vendor. She found the exact same badge on the table, and went through the same set of tests as before. This time when she rammed the dagger into her arm, it made only a small screech as it scraped harmlessly over the surface of the metal, leaving only a small scratch. Moments later the metal came alive again, flowing over the mark her weapon made, repairing the damage. Nara smiled, satisfied with the results.
How much?” She addressed the vendor of this stall.
Twenty thousand.” The gaunt figure replied, gliding over and regarding her warmly. Nara tilted her head, contemplating the merchant’s opening offer.
Would you take fifteen?” She haggled.
Not for the Nexuz series, I’m afraid. But I can part with it for eighteen and a half.” The vendor folded his hands, waiting for her response. Nara nodded in approval.
That’s fair enough. I’ll take it.” She looked at Garrett expectantly. “Time for you to make good on your part. Give the man eighteen and a half.”
“Hundred?” He asked, puzzled.        
“Thousand.” She corrected, and pressed the release button on her wrist. The metal plates slid back into the badge, and the bracelet unlatched itself from her wrist. His eyes popped out for a brief moment upon hearing the price. Not wanting to cause a scene, he fulfilled her request. He pulled a small, two inch tab of translucent plastic from his pocket, known as a “slice” in the common trade, and inserted it into a slot in his watch. It was the perfect medium for an anonymous transaction. He made a withdrawal from his account and handed it to the vendor, who graciously accepted the offering.
A pleasure doing business with you.”  Nara nodded and walked away from the stands with her prize, Garrett trailing behind once again.
“You know, I could easily have bought a condo for that much.” Garrett remarked.
“I already have one, but thanks for the offer,” Nara retorted. She regarded him and smirked. “You said yourself you were willing to fund this expedition.”
“You could have at least warned me.” He argued. She shrugged at him.
“You never asked about my prices. You had the misfortune of choosing one of the highest priced mercenaries in the underground. Congratulations.” Garrett frowned at the gesture.
“So what now?” He inquired, trying hard to hide his disapproval.
“Lunch,” She said as they headed to another branch in the market.
They meandered towards the food vendor district, and exotic scents wafted through the air, growing stronger as they drew closer to the stalls. Mounds of brightly colored spices in a rainbow of colors were on display, as well as foreign fruits and vegetables in some of the most bizarre shapes were littered amongst the stands. Live game from other worlds could be bought and butchered right at the stands. Bits of grilled or barbecued meat lay about as smoke arose from huge pits, sizzling as delectable delicacies, both foreign and local, were cooked fresh for customers. Cauldrons and kettles bubbled and simmered over open flames, while diners, absorbed in their meals, ignored the world around them. An entire universe of culinary knowledge could be sampled in this single alleyway, with the added bonus of limited legal enforcement, should a customer’s preferences be considered illicit on certain planets.
Garrett loved coming to the food sections of the markets he found in his many escapades into the underground, and this one had the most exotic selection he had ever seen. He could spend hours lost in the pictorial menus flickering in front of displays, deciding what he wanted to try first. As a general rule, he stuck to vegetarian dishes, since he was never quite sure what meats were used by some places. But many vendors catered to human tastes, and used synthetic meats. Once in a while, Garrett could find places selling real chicken or beef, but at a considerably higher cost, not that he would ever trust a place that would sell it for cheap.
Nara approached a merchant that specialized in soups and noodles and placed an order. The vendor promptly disappeared into the back of the stall to prepare it. A wonderful spicy aroma emerged from the pot as the cook lifted the lid. He ladled out a dark red broth over two bowls full of thin, white noodles. He placed a variety of meats, roots, and vegetables on top, before finishing with a garnish of an odd blue spice Garrett was unfamiliar with.  He placed the order on a tray and handed it over to Nara. She thanked him before bring the tray over to a nearby table.
The aroma overwhelmed Garrett as he sat down. A pleasant smoky, meaty scent, almost as if from perfectly cooked and seasoned fish, welcomed him to enjoy. For once he had a guide show him what was good to eat, without having to worry about whether it was safe for his biology. Nara handed him his bowl before sitting down and diving in. Garrett prodded at the tantalizing broth, which was still bubbling happily, before giving Nara a strange look.
“You know, for someone who boasts an incredible income, I find it odd that you would be eating street food,” Garrett remarked.
“Because street food is fucking delicious. Now shut up and eat.” She retorted, slurping up a noodle. Garrett could not to argue with that kind of logic. 
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