Chapter 18:

Chapter 18: Negotiations


Nyk stumbled through the muck, gasping for air. He couldn’t believe that worked! His eyes were still flashing and his head was ringing from the explosion, but he was alive! ALIVE!

“You realize there’s an oxygen regulator in your suit, Slum Boy. That won’t make it any easier to breathe.”

He didn’t even have it in him to snap at Lulu, he was just glad to be alive.

As his vision returned, he wiped the sticky dark substance off of his faceplate and looked around for Mysha and the others. “Hello?!” He shouted. “Are you still alive?!”

“Yeah,” Dorem grumbled, picking himself up off the ground. “Barely.”

“What the fuck WAS that?!” Janys demanded. “You practically blew that thing to shreds! How are you still alive?!”

Nyk didn’t have an answer to give her. He could only shrug.

Then he spotted movement in the muck and reached for his submachine guns, even though he knew they were empty. Then he sighed with relief. It wasn’t the Sentinel, it was Mysha. She’d fallen into the black goo and was busy spitting it up. She was practically covered in the stuff, he couldn’t even see her red hair.

She met his gaze and froze.

“You’re alive!” She gasped in disbelief. “How are you alive?! How did you… what did you…?” She just shook her head. “I don’t believe it!”

Nyk couldn’t believe it either.

“Blew that thing out from the inside,” Dorem said, shaking his head in disbelief. “That was really something. Wolf, you said your name was?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I’ll be keeping an eye out for ya then, Wolf,” he muttered sullenly, as he and the others started to pack up their gear.

“What’s the matter?” Nyk asked, confused. “Don’t you need to take the remains back to the Collection Office for the bounty?”

“What bounty?” Dorem snorted. “Listen, I might be an old son of a bitch, but even I’m not that greedy. As much as I hate to admit it, if it wasn’t for you, all of us here’d be snake food right now. The bounty’s yours, you earned it.”

Nyk thought his heart was going to stop in his chest. 50,000 silvs. 50,000 silvs, and it was all his. It was more money than he’d ever seen in his life.

“Well, Slum Boy, looks like you’re a rich man now. What are you going to do with all that, then?” Lulu purred in his ear.

He glanced at Mysha, and then came to a decision.

“Hey, wait a minute!”

Dorem paused, glancing up from his gear. “What is it now?”

“What about half?”

The old man blinked. “Half? What do you mean?”

“Listen. The only reason I was able to take that Sentinel out was because of the charge grenade you guys used. So the way I see it, we’re both responsible for finishing the thing off, you see? So let’s split the reward. I’ll take 25,000, and you guys take the rest. That’s fair.”

Dorem was taken aback by the offer. 25,000 was a hell of a lot more than nothing. It was downright generous in fact. Heck, with all the equipment they’d wasted on this job, if he didn’t take the offer then they’d be in some serious trouble when the creditors came knocking. He didn’t know why he would be offered something so generous, given how little his team contributed. But what he didn’t know was that Nyk, due to his overreliance on Lulu’s equipment, felt equally unworthy of collecting the entire bounty.

“…Fine, you got yourself a bargain,” he agreed. “Still, I’m a bashful guy. I can’t accept that much. So I’ll make you a deal. We’ll mark the remains for resale and split it equally between the two of us. Then you take your 25,000 silvs, and in return for our 25,000 we’ll help you haul that snake’s head back to the Collection Office, sound good?”

Nyk considered the counteroffer. It was even better than the one he’d proposed. He was surprised that such a surly guy like Dorem was being so generous.

“I’d suggest taking the deal,” Lulu whispered in his ear. “It’s not like you can mark this place yourself, and with your energy levels depleted there’s no way you’ll get that head out of here.”

She made a good point. When it came to collecting bounties, it was necessary to bring back some proof that the Bounty Sentinel had been eliminated. Often-times it was a head, or some other vital part of the Sentinel, something to verify the proof of the Scavenger’s claim. And without the means bringing it back himself, Nyk couldn’t collect much of anything at the moment.

“You’ve got yourself a deal,” he agreed, shaking Dorem’s hand. He glanced over at Rory. “…What about your man’s arm? If you need medical help…”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Rory laughed, pulling back his sleeve to reveal the crushed cybernetics. “It was an augmented arm.”

Well, that was a relief at least.

“Now, you and the little lady get to clearing our way for us, okay?” Dorem said, rolling up his sleeves to reveal enhanced cybernetics of his own. He reached into his bulky pack and took out an energy saw. “I’ve got a head to harvest. Janys, set down the marker!”

Janys set down a small device that created a field around the snake’s remains. It registered that these remains were property of Dorem and his group. They would send an extraction team from the city to haul them out later. Such devices were uncommon among most Scavengers, since in a lot of the cases it was pointless to label which Sentinel belonged to whom. There was little honor among Scavengers in this regard, and the city basically held the position of “finders, keepers.”

But this wasn’t the case with Bounty Sentinels. Because of their size, it made immediate retrieval of remains unfeasible. But at the same time, if a Scavenger left the remains and came back later only to see that someone else had taken his hard-fought prize, he might find himself discouraged from attempting such endeavors in the future. Therefore, it was in the city government’s best interest to ensure that Scavengers received proper compensation for the Bounty Sentinels they eliminated, if only because they needed Scavengers who were actually incentivized to hunt them. If another Scavenger came and bypassed the barrier before the extraction team arrived, he would find himself stripped of his license and condemned to hard labor as a wage slave until he eventually expired. That was how serious the Collection Office and the city government took enforcing the regulations of Bounty Sentinels.

Nyk watched Dorem began hacking the snake’s head off, and wondered how they would carry it out. Even with all their augmentations, the thing was bigger than a car. But seeing how easily the old man handled that massive saw, he decided there was no need to worry. He went back to helping Mysha and the others clear the rubble on the stairwell so they could return to the surface.

Even with Dorem, Janys, and Rory all helping carry the Sentinel’s head, the sun was already setting by the time they exited the Towers. Nyk was surprised, had it really taken that long?

That wasn’t the only surprise waiting for him. Lulu’s truck was parked at the entrance to the structure, and standing in front of it was a sharply dressed Aud. She carried a thick suitcase in her hand, and strangest of all was the fact that she wore a polite smile.

“Greetings,” Aud bowed her head. “My name is Aud, and I am a representative of Volstgalph Industries here to discuss the business arrangement you made with our colleague Wolf here.”

Dorem scowled. Her cast a suspicious glance over to Nyk, who tensed. He’d already promised them half of the 50,000 Silv bounty, and if Aud reneged on the deal after all the work they’d gone through taking the thing up here, things would be bad. Even if it didn’t devolve into a shoot-out, a Scavenger was only as good as his reputation, and if it got out that Nyk, or rather, Wolf, was in the habit of going back on his deals, that would make operating with other Scavengers a difficult prospect.

These were all things that an experienced Scavenger like Dorem knew well. And because of Wolf’s performance, he had incorrectly assumed that the armored Scavenger was just as experienced. Perhaps he would have been more suspicious of the woman if she’d been dressed in tattered gear like the rest of them, but the fact that Aud claimed herself a corporate representative and came to speak with them in clothes probably worth more than every silv the five of them had combined lent credence to her words. Weighing his options, he decided that discussing the matter with this woman might be worth his while.

“I see, so he’s a corporate Scavenger working for the city government, huh? I suppose that makes sense then, why he’s here with equipment like that.” Dorem set down the head and stepped forward to speak with Aud directly.

“So tell me, what’s there to negotiate? Your man here promised the three of us half of the bounty in exchange for marking the remains and helping carry that thing out of here.” Dorem smiled behind his beard. “And please don’t tell me something like ‘it was only a verbal contract so we refuse to acknowledge it’. Even a lose agreement between licensed Scavengers is binding.”

Aud’s smile did not falter even slightly. “I fully understand your position, sir. Nevertheless, I will be insisting that whatever agreement you have with my associate be voided immediately, is that understood?”

Dorem’s eye twitched, and his hand flickered over his gun. Rory scowled, and Janys looked like she was about to explode. But she kept her cool, knowing better than to interfere with a negotiation.

Nyk tensed. What was Aud doing?!

“Please do not misunderstand my intentions,” Aud replied, maintaining her diplomatic smile. “I do not mean for you to leave without proper compensation. My employer appreciates the assistance that you lent to our associate, and has granted me permission to provide sufficient remuneration for your work.”

With that, she opened the suitcase and revealed its contents.

Mysha gasped. Janys’s jaw dropped. Nyk nearly fell over in shock. The suitcase was filled with row upon row of small silver coins, so tightly pressed together they would barely moved. Even Dorem was at a loss for words momentarily.

“Is that what I think it is?” He breathed.

“Silver-pressed fulcrumite, 50,000 coins worth. I assume this will be suitable recompense for your efforts?”

Boy was it. Fulcrumite was a rare hyperconductive element that could only be found in liquid form. It was a necessary component found in nearly all cybernetics and mechanical devices produced in the city, and because of that, trade was significantly regulated. When the city had developed its currency, it initially used the valuable material by pressing a single drop within a silver coin. This was where the currency “silvs” originated. So, in a manner of speaking, Aud was offering 50,000 silvs to Dorem and his team as compensation for their work. But it wasn’t as simple as that.

Because of the rarity of fulcrumite, it was no longer commonly used in circulation. In the present, many people completed transactions through scanning cards containing a digital balance that said that the amount of funds they had available was the equivalent of that amount of fulcrumite, even if it was a total that they would never feasibly be able to get their hands on due to the regulation of its sale. As for physical currency, most of it nowadays were pure silver with no fulcrumite circulated by the city government. So the 50,000 silvs that Aud was offering was in fact worth a lot more than that. If Dorem wished, he could take the loss and extract the fulcrumite from his payment, which, if he knew the right people, would be worth twice or even three times the price given how strictly regulated the substance was. Even as shrewd as he was, he couldn’t see any apparent downside in taking the money.

“That’s quite a generous offer you’re making to me,” he said. “Can I ask what you’d be asking for in return? Wolf and I agreed on 25,000 silvs, so accepting 50,000 instead, well… it makes me feel mighty bashful.”

It didn’t occur to him for even an instant that the silver-pressed fulcrumite could be fake. Because Aud worked for Volstgalph Industries. No corporation could afford to be seen as outright cheating a Scavenger. What Dorem was doing was testing the waters to see if his suspicion about her motivation was correct.

But Aud wouldn’t fall for something so obvious. She said simply, “if it is for this sum, a Scavenger of your caliber must already be aware, isn’t that so?”

Dorem reached in and took a handful of silvs, running them through his fingers. The sensors of his artificial hands were more sensitive than even a human’s.

He could keep playing dumb in the hopes of working out a better deal, but this was already significantly more than he’d expected in the first place. If Aud was willing to offer him the entire bounty as payment, there was only one thing she could be after. “Payment for services rendered, transferring ownership of the remains, and purchasing our silence on the matter, isn’t that right?”

Aud nodded with a smile. “I’m glad you understand so well. Then it will be as if ‘Wolf’ defeated the Sentinel, correct?”

What Aud was doing was, to put it bluntly, spending that extra 25,000 silvs to buy the silence of Dorem and his team. In the slums, a Scavenger’s reputation was everything. If it became known that the hunter named “Wolf” had worked together with a team of veterans to take out a Bounty Sentinel worth 50,000 silvs, then Nyk’s reputation, and therefore the reputation of the Synchro Suit, would rise considerably. But now the story would be that Wolf singlehandedly took out the Bounty Sentinel without any help whatsoever, an achievement that would normally be unheard of.

For someone like Lulu who could doll out such sums like tossing scraps to a dog, acquiring such an achievement for a paltry 50,000 silvs didn’t even merit a second thought. But if Dorem was the kind of man who cared more about amassing achievements and status than he did about money, such an offer would be pointless. But such concerns were unwarranted.

“You’ve got yourself a deal,” Dorem said with a nod, taking the briefcase. “Pleasure doing business with you, ma’am.”

“Likewise. However, I will note that while I am paying you our end of the bargain now as a sign of good faith, you have not yet finished your part of the agreement. If you would please load the remains onto our truck and escort us back to the slums, we will consider this matter concluded, is that acceptable?”

Dorem glanced over at the truck. He was skeptical that the head would fit inside it, but he didn’t comment. “Gonna be awful crowded in there, you sure there’s enough room?”

“Indeed, that would be a concern. If possible, I would like to extend the terms of our agreement to include granting our associate a ride to the edge of the slums, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Dorem raised his eyebrow. “Well, now that’s certainly something. I’m honored you have such faith in me, to entrust me with such valuable cargo.” The unspoken insinuation behind his words suggested that, if he were a less trustworthy man, he might see fit to kill Nyk, and then flee with the money and the stolen Synchro Suit.

“Why of course, Dorem,” Aud said, her smile taking on a dark edge, “you, Rory, and Janys are quite well-known by my employer to be Scavengers of high repute. I can say with utmost confidence that you would never take any such action that might harm your relationship with Volstgalph Industries.”

Dorem chuckled, stroking his beard. He wasn’t proud of it, but he had a thing for women with such sharp business sense, especially ones as handsome as Aud. Part of him wished they’d met under less professional circumstances, but he decided to chalk it up as a bit of misfortune, and wished her good day.