“Is it just me, or does this whole thing clock in a Nine Point Five on the Sphincter Scale?”

Trevor laughed especially loud at Ian’s comment.  He was sure they were under surveillance, and wished it to be known that the people who were doing the surveilling were starting to really piss him off.  His laughter died as the lift slowed its ascent.

The doors parted with a soft electric whisk, exposing a long tunnel paneled in richly veined green marble.  Peripherally, he caught sight of a pencil-thin vidio qamera perched above the doors, swiveling to monitor their progress as they exited.  He looked up at it and smiled contemptuously into the lens.

At the end of the tunnel stood a solitary figure, the pale xenon lighting casting his face in dark, brooding shadows that developed into a scowl as the two approached.

Trevor grinned wider than a starving Arctangian mega-rat.  “What’s shakin’, D’Artagnon?”  Next to him, Ian chuckled.  It was an old Blade term, which they’d recently resurrected with the return of Blade to their team.

The scowl turned downright hostile as Fosfernatu correctly suspected he’d just been insulted.  After a moment, he raised a portable scanner.  Aiming the dish at Trevor, he turned a small dial next to the screen clockwise.  There was a stiff click, followed by a soft hum.  Pins and needles as the device probed him.  As the probe reached Trevor’s chest, a piercing alarm issued forth, accompanied by a glowing red outline on the screen.  Red meant a weapon.  Fosfernatu did a double-take a the device’s display, then looked up to see Trevor regarding him silently.  His left hand held open his black fashion jacket, displaying the leather shoulder holster and its contents: a custom SLX-80.

Fosfernatu snapped his fingers and held out his hand, palm up.  Trevor glanced at his companion, who smiled at him.  This made him smile.  The message was clear: I hate dealing with amateurs.  With his right hand, he daintily plucked the pistol out and held the ivory handle with two fingers.  

As the guard took the gun, Trevor told him “Take good care of that or I’ll beat you to death.”

Accepting it without comment, the Fosfernatu turned the device on Ian.  Again the alarm, but this time the screen glowed with a blue outline: the wafer-thin attaché case he held. 

Blue: high explosives.

“Deactivate it.”

Trevor and Ian laughed in a perfect fifth harmony for response.

According to the device, the charge was sizable, attached to the loq.  It was the only part of the case he could scan: the material it was made of blocked the probe.

Fosfernatu: “Deactivate it and open up.”

Ian: “Make a fist and go stroke yourself.”

Trevor leaned over to his friend with a placating hand.  “It’s okay,” he said sympathetically. “He’s probably new.”

The guard stood his ground, growling.  His tone became passably menacing.  “Disarm and open.”

Ian matched his timbre perfectly.  “In time.”


“In time.”

The staring contest that followed was broken only when Fosfernatu received orders through his eartube implant.  He nodded curtly as Ian and Trevor looked on with amusement.

He finished his sweep with the weapons detector, proclaiming them otherwise harmless.

“Clear,” he said out loud, and a moment later the door behind him opened.  A huge, shadow-laden suite lay beyond.

Pausing at the door, Trevor turned to Fosfernatu, arched his eyebrows, and pointed at his pistol.  “Remember, D’Artagnon, good care or I meat cleaver your ugly face.”

The door closed behind him before the man could think up a suitable comeback.

Ian and Trevor surveyed the suite as they entered.  Overhead track lighting had been expertly set to illuminate display cases, the occasional painting, and tables that held various objects d’art.  Ian, the more cosmopolitan of the two, recognized the majority of the curios.  He didn’t think they were particularly good, but he could tell they were authentic.  Two of the far walls were set with lengthy triple windows, offering a very poor view of the city-state’s skyline and ocean beyond.  During daylight, the view was okay, but at night—especially this late—fog always rolled in as temperatures dropped.

Against the far window-wall was a long, rectangular shadow with a bright light funneling down from a fixed lamp on it.  Just outside the small pool of illumination, something glistened.  The outline of a chair behind the dark desk moved slightly, but the lighting was such that its occupant remained hidden.

Although they were already several paces inside, a loud, deep voice came from the chair’s shadow: “Come in, gentlemen.”

Ian looked at Trevor with something like a cross between boredom, skepticism, and incredulity.  Trevor returned a secretive look that almost made Ian start to laugh.

They walked across the room, up to the desk.  No chairs were out in front for them.  Trevor shook his head to himself.  He hated amateurs.  Especially inconsiderate ones.

Up close to the desk, the glinting object turned out to be a small bronze statue of a Hanneman pony rearing on its hind legs.  The tail was bathed in faint green light from one of two vidio display terminals on the desk.  Several loose piles of paper could be seen in the dim pool of light.  The top-most of one had a two-dimensional printout of Ian’s face, plus lots of tiny type.

“Now, Mr. Malcalypse and Mr. Danzig,” came the thick, throaty voice from the shadow, “I understand that you have some type of business proposition that you wish to bring to my attention.”

Trevor looked around the room a bit more.  Far to the side, one of the shadows changed density.  Security guard, most likely.  He waved at it, to its obvious consternation, then turned his attention back to the form behind the desk.  Up close, the man was slightly more visible, but only slightly.  The outline was characteristic of someone short and at the dense end of the weight spectrum.  Dual odours wafted up from that form: a cologne he couldn’t identify (and didn’t care for) masking faint, greasy perspiration.

“Mr. Malcalypse?” the figure prompted.  His tone clearly indicated that he thought his time was precious.

Out of sight, ice cubes shifted position inside a container.

Trevor started. “Well, Mr. Whitlock, or may I call you Leonard?”  No response.  He slapped his hands together, rubbed them with false vigour.  “My associate...”

“That’s me, by the way,” Ian added.

“...and I represent a group of friends who are planning a small holiday excursion, and they are very interested...”

Ian: “Keen, you might even say,,,”

“...to have you provide some of the, shall we say, difficult...”

Exotic,” suggested Ian.

“Thank you, Ian, some of the more exotic items that we will be needing.”  He paused, smiling broadly.

Encased in shadow, Whitlock only stared back.

“Specifically,” Ian began, after deciding the pause had gone on long enough, “we would like twenty class-M assault rifles, two thousand rounds of oxygenated high-explosive ammunition, five Warteq Striker 400-series rocket tubes, twenty-five oxygenated rockets,”

“Preferably compatible with the launch tubes,” Trevor prompted.

“Fifty oxygenated fragmentation grenades, ten VSL Model II Hunter Probes with programmable chips,”

We’ll handle the programming,” added Trevor in a reassuring tone.

“And twenty armoured atmosphere suits.”  Finishing the list, he smiled at the shadow.

After a short pause, Trevor leaned over and loudly whispered “Transportation.”

“Ah, yes: I almost forgot,” Ian fibbed.  “We would also like two light assault scouts, with standard arsenal complements.  Also, modifications for high gravity and a heavy, turbulent atmosphere with five percent acidic trace elements.”

The portly shadow remained silent.

“Give him the list,” Trevor suggested to Ian.

“Oh, yes, of course.  How careless of me.”  Out of nowhere, Ian produced a printout with a complete inventory, including preferred brand names.  He held it over the desk, let go.  It floated down into the oval of light.  After a moment, a thick hand with bloated, stubby fingers reached out.  A gaudily oversized diamond ring glistened on the pinkie.  It scooped up the paper, and retracted into the dusk behind the desk.

After several moments, “Tall order.”

Trevor added, in a slightly subdued voice, “Our friends are planning their excursion on or about next Freyday.”

Ian: “It would thus be rather helpful if you could have everything by then.”

Another long pause.  “Tricky.”

Ian smiled at Trevor, who nodded back with an “A-Okay” hand signal.

With a glint from the oversized ring, the paper landed back on the desk.

“Tell me,” the thick voice of Leonard Whitlock inquired, “just where are your associates planning on taking this... vacation?”

“Oh,” Ian said quickly, “Well, it’s, uh...”

Trevor jumped in  “Actually, Ian, now that he brings it up, I’m not sure it has a name.”

Ian put the hand unencumbered by the case up to his mouth in a gesture of ponderance.

“You know, I think you’re right!

Whitlock, un-amused: “No name?”

“Yeah, it does need a name, doesn’t it.”

Trevor looked suddenly insightful.  Snapping his fingers and pointing upward, he exclaimed “How about ‘Whitlock’s Rock’?”

Ian masterfully feigned surprised enthusiasm.  “I like it!”  He turned to the man in the shadow.  “They’re going to Whitlock’s Rock.”

“...’locks Rock,” echoed Trevor, nodding with a straight face.

No name,” repeated Whitlock.  In the shadows, enough movement was hinted at to indicate he was steepling his fingers.

Ian shrugged for effect.  “Well, it does have a serial number of sorts.”

A tired exhale sounded from somewhere in the outline of the chair.

“Big long catalogue number,” Ian went on.  Beside him, Trevor held his hands half a meter apart and nodded solemnly.

“Off-hand, I can’t remember it.  Trevor, can you remember it?”

Trevor’s spread hands turned into a shrug.  “Are you kidding?  I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.”

“I don’t suppose,” Whitlock began with forced patience, “that you remember where it is, do you?”

Trevor himself was forcing patience.  Only rank amateurs asked this many questions.  Guido here must think he’s dealing with people even less-experienced than he was.  Beside him, Ian made a fist with the pinkie extended.  When he began circling the pinkie, Trevor struggled to suppress laughter.  It was an old hand signal joke between the two: “What a whittler!”

Shaking his head, Trevor asked “Do you know where it is, Ian?”

Vaguely.  It’s somewhere in the D’Artagnon System, I think.”

Trevor bit his lip to insure he didn’t laugh.

Whitlock sounded mildly interested.  “Never heard of it.  New discovery?”

Ian (solemnly): “No, it’s been around for a while.”

Beside him, Trevor coughed violently and began an in-depth inspection of his shoes.

“Excuse me,” he said at last, finally recovering a straight face.

Ian indicated the sheet indexing their request.  “But enough of astronomical arcana.  Can you supply us with what we need when we need it?”

Pregnant pause from behind the desk.  “It’ll cost.”

Ian shifted the attaché case in such a way to insure Whitlock’s attention was drawn to it.

A porky fist came out and tapped the list with one of its five sausage links.  “The two scout ships are what’s weighing down the price.”

Both Ian and Trevor wished he would stop wasting time and ask his figure.  They both knew Whitlock had the ships.  Had just acquired them in a raid on the Fomada smuggling clan, as a matter of fact.  That was the only reason they were dealing with this amateur whittler.

Finally, “I might be able to scrape something up, and I’ll give you a package deal on it.  One hundred million even.”

Without even a moment’s hesitation, Trevor began taking his clothes off.  In a boisterous voice, “Hey, why not just ask for the shirt off my back!  In fact, why stop there?”  He reached his belt.  “Wanna phuq me up the ass, too?”

Trevor reached out to calm his friend.  “I’m sorry,” he said to him, his tone indicating imminent tears.  “It’s all my fault.  I thought we were dealing with professionals.

Whitlock leaned forward.  Enough light reached him to reveal him to be grossly huge.  “Should I infer,” he said in a calm voice, “that there is a problem with the price?”

Ian put both hands on the desk, bent forward.

“It’s kind of on the expensive side there, Len.”

Whitlock reclined back into the shadows.  “Take it or leave it.”

Ian was quick: “Door’s back there, right?”

Trevor had already redressed, and put his hands up in a calming gesture for all.

“Gentlemen, please.  I think that we have to come to here is a meeting of the minds.”

Ian was instantly composed.  “Absolutely.   It’s a matter of value-conscious economics.”

“Value-conscious economics,” announced Trevor, genuinely excited.  “An excellent way to put it, Ian.”

“Why thank you, Trevor.”

“Not at all, Ian” Trevor continued, gesticulating extravagantly.  “The way I see it, the main problem is that we are dealing with attempts to price several items that have no value.”

“Actually, that have almost incalculable value,” corrected Ian.

“Point well conceded.  Now one would point out that for one hundred million bytes, we could conceivably go to a military qorporation of our choice and have them build three or four of them to our specifications.  But obviously that is impossible.”

“We know,” added Ian, “because we’ve tried.

“And since our only option left is to purchase such craft from gentlemen such as yourself, we would seen to be at a disadvantage, because conceivably, you can name your own price.”

“I am,” came the smug response in the shadows.

“And while that price has a number larger than the catalogue number we’d been discussing earlier, it is not beyond reason.”

Shadows changed density, suggesting that Leonard Whitlock was smiling.

“Of course,” Ian picked up, “my companion and I feel that it is twice the reasonable value of the items we have requested.”

Exactly twice, now that you mention it.”

“That does not, however, mean that we will not pay it.”

“But there remains the matter of our collecting the rest of the money to make that sum.”

Ian placed his attaché case on the desk.  “You see, we only brought twenty-five million bytes with us, in expectation of paying half now and the rest on delivery.  But Trevor has brought up the point of raising the rest of the money.  Trevor?”

“Yes, Ian?”

“Do you have any idea where we can raise the additional fifty million?”

A look of deep ponderance came over his visage.  “Hmmm.  That’s a toughie.”


“But you know what, Ian, I have an idea.  I have some information that I could sell to Lord Fomada for probably that sum.”

“Information?” Ian sounded surprised.

“Why yes!  I think that I know something he would be very interested in learning about logistical disruptions in his trade.”

“You don’t say!”

“But it would be a pity to have to travel all the way out there to make that transaction, and then return here to complete this one.”

Ian nodded solemnly.  “A very serious inefficiency in time management, yes.”

“Not to mention awkward, if Lord Fomada came to thank us and found us flying his ships.”

“It’s a pity that Mr. Whitlock here can’t be persuaded to reduce his price.”

Trevor looked ponderingly into the shad


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