While Ves spotted various valuable wares, a lot of cheaper junk was for sale as well!
The place had the air of a flea market for distressed businessmen and other wealthy individuals. Each stall or store offered peculiar collections of goods that made Ves suspect that the owners simply cleaned out their vaults or offices and dumped them into the black market to raise some capital.
All of the sculptures, paintings and other works of art put on display had to come from somewhere.
None of the disguised figures threw a glance at these ornaments. In times of hardship, why would anyone want to spend their dwindling capital on useless status symbols?
"Art is the first to suffer during a period of deprivation." Gavin muttered.
"I'm not so sure about that, Benny. It is during the most difficult times that symbols become all the more important. Art can help unify a scattered people or keep hope alive."
"Well, tell that to all the fancy exotic-laden statues dumped in this underground market."
Ves smiled. "These gaudy or meaningless pieces of art only serve to satisfy the vanity of their owners. They are different from other forms of art that serve a societal function. The streets outside are filled with outpourings of emotions."
"You mean the graffiti plastered all over the walls of the abandoned buildings? All I saw was urban decay and a complete and utter neglect by the city government."
The two continued to argue with each other as they neared the closest stalls.
Ves found it refreshing to argue with Gavin. Despite their huge disparity in status, their common roots as well as their familiarity with each other made it so that his assistant didn't hesitate to voice his opinions.
Although there was a time and place for compliance and presenting a unified front, Ves always encouraged his gatekeeper to speak his mind. Good communication was essential in preventing any misunderstandings that might lead to a dysfunctional relationship.
As long as Gavin freely voiced his own opinions, Ves was much less likely to lose his grip on reality or make strange decisions.
If he pushed through with his choices regardless, at least he would do so knowing that he was doing something weird. Sometimes it got harder and harder for him to determine whether he was still acting normally at all.
"Oh? You're interested in this mineral, Lucky?"
Carrying his cat around almost defeated the purpose of their disguises. While Ves held Lucky underneath the dark and flowing robe he'd been issued, it wasn't every day that a visitor came along who brought a mechanical cat.
Well, Ves figured it was no big deal. He wouldn't be staying on Vindar VII for long. He already visited the three local mech designers he intended to have an exchange with. Other than shopping for curiosities, nothing here compelled him to stay.
To Lucky's disappointment, Ves declined to purchase the exotic shaped as a pockmarked yellow egg. The vendor greedily asked him to pay the equivalent of two billion bright credits.
He hated being ripped off! Ves didn't need to employ his spiritual senses to realize that the slimy and greedy salesman thought he was an easy mark!
Ves may be a mech designer, but he also sold mechs for a living. Although he couldn't really estimate the actual value of the egg-like mineral, it emanated very little energy, which meant it was likely a low-grade exotic.
If the Vendor demanded the equivalent of 2 million bright credits, then Ves would have said yes.
"Just let it go, Lucky. We'll find better stuff elsewhere."
Though Lucky fussed and scratched underneath the robes, Ves resolutely turned away.
After passing over a few uninteresting stalls, he quickly found something of interest.
"Is that.. a shield generator?" Ves asked with some astonishment.
The bored seller perked up from his seat. "Why yes, dear sir! It is a modern, portable shield generator that is guaranteed to protect you from many threats! These devices are rarely sold outside of the heavily-regulated stores at Centerpoint!"
Ves inspected the shield generator and noted that it was not that different from his own. They shared a common origin. The same supplier likely sold a significant proportion of shield generators circulating in the Komodo Star Sector.
Since he possessed some familiarity with this type of device, he could immediately tell that it was an older model. Not only that, but its hidden charge indicator did not look very healthy.
"This shield generator is almost out of juice. There's only a five percent charge left." Ves flatly stated to the seller. "If the shield generator still comes with a decent amount of charge, then it shouldn't be languishing at your stall like a forgotten child."
The seller nervously laughed. "Hahaha, you have a sharp eye, foreigner."
Ves decided to apply his Spirituality to exert some pressure on the salesman. "This shield generator is almost worthless. It might be able to protect someone against small arms for a time, but even then its protection won't last. There are combat armors that offer much greater protection than this short-lasting gadget!"
"That's not true!" The seller dramatically protested. Evidently, the spiritual pressure exerted against the norm did not suppress his salesman instincts! "A shield generator can be an enormous life-safer in the right situations! It is much smaller and more concealable than wearing a conspicuous suit of combat armor! The utility of this shield generator is priceless in the right circumstances!"
"The key phrase here is right circumstances." Ves knocked his fist against the surface of the stall for emphasis. "What if I'm surrounded by a mob of rioters? What if a rifleman mech is aiming its humongous rifle at me? This ancient shield generator is only useful in an extremely limited set of circumstances!"
The two continued to argue over the merits of the shield generator for a few minutes. They began inserting price offers as well.
Eventually, Ves managed to negotiate the final price down to the equivalent of 553 million bright credits.
Ves did not even bother to pay attention to the local currency. He simply ordered Gavin take care of converting and transacting the money.
Once they concluded the trade, Ves walked away with a new shield generator in his pocket.
"Is that gadget truly worth paying the price of nine premium mechs?" Gavin asked with obvious skepticism. "I know enough about shield generators that they're a lot more valuable than the sum you paid, but its almost at the end of its life."
Ves only chuckled at that. "Hehe. This shield generator might be almost spent, but I might be able to breathe new life into this gadget."
The shield generator was an absolute steal! The seller should have obtained the device through irregular means, otherwise he wouldn't have sold it for such a cheap price!
During the bargaining, Ves quickly realized that the seller only possessed superficial information about shield generators. The man treated it as a finite, disposable protective device.
Once a shield generator ran out of energy, the device lost its value. The price that Ves had paid was close to what he might earn if he recycled the spent shield generator!
That was an enormous waste! If Ves proceeded to pull the shield generator apart and broke it down by material, a lot of active exotics incorporated in the device degraded enormously.
However, if Ves kept the shield generator intact and instead replaced its spent ultracompact battery with a new one, then much of the value of the device would be retained!
He could subsequently sell the shield generator for a fortune, but Ves wasn't stupid enough to do so. This was a shield generator! Aside from the one he received from Master Olson, Ves never managed to get his hands on a second one!
"One man's trash is another man's treasure." Ves satisfyingly gushed.
As long as he scrounged up the materials to cobble up an ultracompact battery, he had an extra means of possession.
The only issue that weighed on his mind was who he should lend the shield generator to if he managed to replace its charge.
Lucky didn't need it. The shield generator would completely ruin Lucky's adorable shape. This alone was a reason to rule out his cat!
What about Gavin? The man would surely appreciate the gift. Out of every person on his staff, Gavin was by far the most vulnerable because of his civilian background.
Yet Ves decisively crossed him off the list as well. As much as Ves appreciated Gavin's advice and friendship, his executive assistant was ultimately expendable.
If the worst ever happened, Ves might shed a tear at Gavin's funeral. However, as callous as it sounded, he would easily move on from the loss.
Obtaining another executive assistant to replace Gavin's job shouldn't be too difficult. Ves just had to find a trustworthy person among the crowd.
So if Lucky and Gavin fell out of consideration, who should he give it to instead?
Ketis emerged at the forefront of his thought. Unlike Gavin, Ves really didn't want her to die. He cared a lot about her and he wanted her to be safe.
Right now, she was far away from him. In addition, she wouldn't stick around forever. Ves felt very conflicted at the thought of gifting her a fully-working shield generator!
It was far more reasonable to issue the shield generator to Nitaa. As his loyal Kinner bondswoman, keeping his bodyguard alive effectively meant keeping himself alive as well.
Yet... why give away the shield generator at all? Why not make use of it himself? As far as he knew, nothing prevented him from wearing two shield generators under his clothes at a time!
Though the shield generators wouldn't work at the same time, using one after another effectively doubled his window of protection!
"Brilliant!" Ves lit up his eyes.
He could never protect himself too much! With all of the danger lurking in the shadows, Ves shouldn't let this opportunity pass him by. As much as he cared about the others, he was under no illusion that he would always be the primary target!
After obtaining this fantastic bargain, Ves eagerly browsed the wares for additional hidden gems.
Sadly, his hopes quickly dashed as he encountered an unending selection of artwork, useless trinkets and other knick knacks of little practical value.
Perhaps poignantly to Ves, he came face to face with a lot of trinkets celebrating the past glories of mech designers. Commemorative mech miniatures, old trophies and other awards all alluded to Vindar's once-lively mech industry.
Now, most of those mech designers went bankrupt, got fired or still presided over a husk of their mech companies. A golden trophy for winning a past mech design competition no longer held as much value as insuring one's basic needs.
"Mech designers are in a pretty bad shape in the Chuko Republic." Gavin remarked. "When money is easy to come by, a lot of mechs get sold. Now that hardly anyone can afford to buy a new mech, what's the point? Only those who are lucky to work for the government or military are still secure."
"That's the nature of doing business. It's inherently intertwined with risk." Ves sagely replied. "Mech designers are better off in this regard. They might lose all of their assets, but they can never be robbed of their knowledge. As long as they moved elsewhere, it's not impossible for them to start anew."
This was easier said than done. Foreign mech designers were hardly welcome in many states. Most Novices and Apprentices would never be able to make it as independent entrepreneurs.
Only Journeymen and higher enjoyed better opportunities. Regardless where they went, a high-ranking mech designer always had a use. Even Ves harbored some ambitions of hiring one, though keeping them loyal and subordinate to him was another problem entirely.
Of course, even if he gained the employment of a valuable Chukan mech designer, he still had to smuggle them out! With all surface-to-orbit traffic under the complete control of the local authorities, he could forget about sneaking a couple of mech designers out of Vindar VII!