The Griever who called herself "Hollow Jane" grinned at the assassin, showing blue-stained teeth to match the indigo capillaries that webbed her eyes. "I think we got what you're looking for here." She pushed a small box of transparent metaplas across the crate toward the assassin. A component gleamed inside on hyperclean padding. "Imperial. Spec ops grade."
"Even the Phoenix Prime couldn't get anything better," she added with a wink.
The assassin grinned back and spat a makarind seed shell onto the floor. He had assumed the identity of a tech for this meeting: faded dungarees stained from oil and acid, a long-billed cap bearing a Forge of Hephaestus emblem, a tool belt hung with innocuous items that could double as weapons. He had altered his appearance to match his garb, lightening his skin and adding facial hair, including a thinly drooping mustache. Bulky goggles covered his eyes, and his right arm carried the tattoo of an obscure fringe tribe that hadn't appeared in wilderzone commerce for at least twenty years. He moved with a loose, bird-like gait. Such camouflage was as natural as breathing to him. Personalities and accents were garments to be worn or discarded as necessary.
He wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead. Unfortunately, the perspiration wasn't an act; the humidity was suffocating. He wished the Grievers had working air conditioning, though more for the sake of suppressing their odor than for his own physical comfort.
Two other Grievers were present in the truck's cargo bay, sipping chilled biru and eyeing him narrowly. One, who had been introduced as "Grabber," cycled a crude cybernetic hand through slow, grating spins, its thick metal fingers painted dirty yellow. The second was a hulking fellow whose face was a mass of jagged burn scars. No name had been given for him. They both carried knives, and Grabber's prosthetic arm had the look of concealing something more lethal.
The assassin ignored them. They were nothing but honorless scrof whose scavenging networks and underworld connections happened to make them perfect dealers in exotic equipment and contraband technology.
Inside the box gleamed a slender bundle of silver rods capped with the blood-hue of ruby focusing lenses. High grade indeed, thought the assassin. He examined the maker's marks and detected the unmistakable signs of Imperial manufacture. He held the component under the light carefully. The smooth, almost organic texture of the metal under his fingertips bespoke advanced entek engineering. The weapon he would craft to kill the girl would be the brush for his masterpiece, and this component would provide its heart. The greatest painters mixed their own colors; so too would the assassin in his own way. He would use the final product once and once only. The kill would be a work of art.
He had decided on a laser rifle design similar to the famous Artemis longrifle used in SCARAB warfare. Lasers were virtually untraceable (if pulse times were properly adjusted), accurate, and elegant. He had initially considered something more challenging, like a timed poison or an entek nanophage packet, but developing a dosage so the target would drop dead at the desired moment required gene samples and various precautions that overcomplicated matters. Poison was a clumsy weapon in his judgment, and though it presented a greater technical challenge, it was impractical in this case. The client had outlined a very specific time frame for the kill: Terayl was to die at the same time as the Phoenix Prime, martyred in full view of the Firetruce attendees. Thus, the laser won out over more exotic methods.
"Scans like a primary-stage laser focus, alright," he ventured at last. "You're dead on about it being Imperial."
Hollow Jane nodded. "At least forty-one to fifteen pulse cohere, mister. You ain't gonna find much that can handle that level of juice."
"How much you askin'?"
A raised eyebrow asked, "How much are you willing to spend?"
He coughed and spat another seed. "Custom smithing contract, ayiuh? Sheks up front."
She leaned back and considered. "What you think, Grabber?"
Grabber snorted. "He ain't the only one, chupash. Got some Gorks looking at our prime laze 'ware already, and they won't like it if they don't get first pick."
"The Gorks don't pay well. And they got an attitude. This guy seems like a better bet."
The assassin recognized this bargaining style. One Griever would pretend to resist selling him the component; the other would act sympathetic and friendly. It was an old, old approach, quite basic and unnecessary.
Especially since they planned to kill him.
He had perceived their intent as soon as they brought him into the back of their truck. A killer of his pedigree recognized the signals and body language of murder instantly. They weren't yet sure whether he carried enough money to make it worth their effort. When they were certain, they'd make their move, and he would see it coming. These vermin were anything but subtle in their affairs.
Very well, then. He'd make it easy.
"Looks sweet!" he breathed, placing the box carefully on the surface of a nearby crate so that he could see the shadows of Grabber and the other in the reflection. "I'll give you twelve thousand for it!"
Hollow Jane looked pained, her wide eyes like old leesha eggs with blue cracks running through them. "I thought you said you had real sheks, stranger. That's bleeding edge quality there, spec op grade, worth thirty at least!"
"You're snorting hish if you think I'm carrying that many sheks! Fifteen."
Grabber cut in with a harsh laugh and a whine of his mechanical hand. "What, for Imperial manufacture? Listen, gizz! Anything less than twenty-five would be an insult!"
"Aw, Grabber," said Hollow Jane with a blue-toothed smirk the assassin guessed was supposed to be a placating smile. "Give him a break, heya?"
The assassin drummed his fingers on his knee and pretended to think. "I can manage twenty," he said finally, putting a dejected look on his face. From a practical standpoint, he had unlimited funds, but he refused to allow this fray to best him in the negotiations. It was a matter of face, which always mattered to his kind despite their assumption of many faces.
"Twenty one," Hollow Jane countered.
"Done," he replied. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a scrip key. "You got a reader? I can dial off the authorization right now." The way their eyes lit up, he knew these scavengers had to have a good deal more than a simple reader. They very likely had access to a full decryption slicer. With it, they could crack his key and transfer his goods from the factor bank that held his collateral.
The Grievers' postures filled with electric, homicidal tension. Grabber's hand abruptly stopped spinning.
The assassin sighed, dropped the scrip key on the crate, and flowed into motion. Think of Buddha, but kill mosquitoes, as the saying went.
They were only Grievers.
Two heartbeats later, two bodies crumpled to the floor. Hollow Jane sat gape-mouthed, as if the assassin were a hulking berhka lion that had just materialized in front of her. She died before she could react further to what she'd witnessed. The only sound in the back of the truck was the electric grind of Grabber's cybernetic hand clenching and unclenching.
The assassin departed with the laser array safely in his bag. He waved at the Grievers waiting outside and sauntered into the Bazaar crowd whistling tunelessly. Once he had placed several people between himself and the Griever encampment, he began a rapid transformation. He shed his hat and rolled his sleeve over the tattoo. An ointment from a hidden belt pocket darkened his skin with a few swipes, accomplished as though he were wiping away perspiration. Within a block, other casually applied chemicals had removed the moustache and darkened the color of his hair. Streaks of darker makeup on either side of his nose made his features appear narrower, and he shifted to a purposeful military bearing. A cry rose somewhere behind him as a coif of orange firesilk replaced his grimy neckerchief. The goggles and tool belt slipped quietly into the duffel bag. Sticky patches applied to his shoulder and duffel bag proclaimed him a member of a five-year defunct mercenary unit. Within minutes, a hard looking soldier of fortune supplanted the grizzled tech, leaving only fading memories in his wake. He had accomplished the change without breaking stride.