The message was delivered to our room the same evening I met with Miss Kallenburger. Meet her the next day at Lomar Steakhouse for lunch and to discuss my offer. What she didn’t know was that it gave us time to become her worst nightmare. The thing about two people who have known each other all their lives, and who had trained to fight alongside each other, is that we recognized each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In combat, Sarah had a tendency to stand still and swing, whereas I would move, use my terrain and everything that I could to give myself the best advantage I could. In negotiations, I would be focused on what I personally saw as a desirable outcome, and she would seek out everything she could to get us what she viewed to be the best possible outcome.
Both aspects had a certain give and take to them. Her standing still meant that she was an easier target, but could better line up her shots and use her power to its maximum potential, like she had when she’d no longer had to worry about dodging the flier’s blasts. Sometimes, my tactics meant little when a simple punch would have sufficed, and I’d just wear myself out. Sometimes, I barely counted as a decoy for her, drawing attention from her.
In negotiations, sometimes Sarah could push too hard, and we’d walk away with nothing. We’d had a few jobs that had fallen through our hands because of it. I helped to keep her focused on the goal instead of squeezing every coin that she could out of it. We made a pretty good team, really.
We’d stayed up later than we probably should have hashing everything out. I’d spent forever explaining the science behind what was being done (even if the final mechanics of what Chris was doing was beyond me) and she, in turn, had explained rather patiently how short-sighted I’d been. With that, we doubled down and prepared ourselves.
Plans within plans within plans. Our backup plans had backup plans. We’d rehearsed plans, ways to respond, and how to do what we needed to do. All of this was still so alien to me, to be honest. I was of the opinion that a person states what they’re willing to give or charge, and that was that. Haggling just didn’t make sense, and ever since we’d started working with city contracts, we couldn’t haggle very much anyway, so I didn’t have much to really base it off of.
I just hoped that I didn’t completely mess this up.
We arrived plenty early, wearing the same clothes as yesterday after a quick wash. My knife and multitool were in plain sight, though. We’d checked the place out last night, scoping out the menu and the seats. I’d never been in a set of negotiations that didn’t happen in some sort of office, so all of this was new to me. Sarah hadn’t either, but I trusted her guidance on this. Honestly, we could have been mistaken for anybody else here; even my weapons weren’t out of place.
Sarah nudged me and I looked into the restaurant itself. It was a deep place, and we were here before the lunch rush. The lighting wasn’t the best, enough to see your food and be cozy without being creepy, but still far more than enough to see Melissa waving to us. Unlike our semi-professional dress, she was in jeans and a t-shirt, her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail.
Sis had been right. To gain an advantage, one could put the party they were negotiating with outside of their comfort zone. We’d gained the reputation of being professional, of Sis taking the front seat while I played analyst for the negotiations. Melissa was pushing us by dressing and having us meet in a way that countered our professionalism. But now I understood, and I was able to roll along with it. I was nothing if not adaptable. Besides, Sarah had worn makeup and had her nails and hair done for just such an eventuality.
As we crossed the restaurant to the table, Melissa sat back down. “Thanks for meeting me here on such short notice. I’d almost expected to get a message this morning asking to reschedule.”
“That’s fine, Miss Kallenburger,” I said with a smile. “I was hungry anyway.”
“Please, just Missy.” She looked to Sarah. “And you must be his sister.”
“Yup,” she said with uncharacteristic perkiness and a slight slur to her words as she settled down. “I’m Sarah. Pleased ta meetcha, Missy!”
Her smile didn’t even flinch. Crap, were we wrong about her doing her homework on us? “Feel free and order whatever you want. My treat.”
“Do they have good salads?” Sis asked as she opened her menu.
“I think the chef’s salad is good myself, but that’s just me.”
The waiter arrived and took our orders: a half-rack of ribs for Melissa; a grilled chicken salad for Sarah; and a bison steak, medium rare, with mashed potatoes and garlic bread for me. I also made sure that they served hot tea before letting the waiter go. Given the temperature, nobody was jumping for the warmth of hot tea.
“So I take it you talked ta Tattletale?” Sarah asked, louder than she would have under other circumstances.
“Yes,” Melissa said with a nod. “You were right, Jordan, this is something that she’s interested in.”
“But she’s cautious,” I quickly ventured.
“Well, of course she is. No offense, but neither of you have offered anybody any Tinker-developed technology before.”
Sarah looked… sheepish? “Well, our brother has a long… What’s he call it?”
“Quality assurance policy,” I said helpfully.
“Right, a long quality assurance policy. He won’t sell anything unless it does exactly what he expects out of it, and can meet the orders that’ll be put out for it. So we have to do all the testing for him, instead of, you know, selling a few and then asking them for information about it.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize it was such a thorough process.”
“Oh, it is!” She snickered a little, adjusting herself in her seat. Really, it was so our boots could lightly touch. “Remember when he tried that kinetic enhancement armor? Oh, wow. It was supposed to absorb and connect any kinetic energy above a certain threshold and then allow you to release it by your own movements, but it worked a little too well, if you can believe it! Jordan took a sawed-off shotgun to the chest and jumped into the fucker hard enough that he caved the guy’s chest in! The blood-”
I closed my eyes and let a breath out through my nose. “Sarah. Before eating, remember?”
She blinked, then smiled bashfully at Melissa. “Sorry.”
“Anyway,” I added quickly, “Miss Kallenburger, I can appreciate Miss Wilbourn’s hesitation on this. After all, while the benefits are immense, it would be quite the undertaking.”
She had the smallest twitch when I still addressed her formally. Sarah was making good today. “Yes, there is that. But we do have questions as to what would be left over after extracting the oil.”
“Oh!” Sarah was extra perky now. “Well, after the initial extraction, you gotta process it again with another filter. See, a lot, and I mean a lot, of water has ta be added, ta make sure that the organic matter is all either diffused or particulated. That way, maximum extraction can be attained.” I looked at my sister, a dour expression on my face. “But that leaves a lot of water with gunk left over in it, so you gotta process it a second time. But that one is already ready. See, we have-”
“Sarah,” I said firmly. We all remained silent for a moment, a moment that increased as our food arrived.
Now it was my turn to act. “We have a secondary filtration system that would allow the water to be completely purified. It does have the advantage of being able to turn water directly from the sea into potable water, eliminating all pollutants, saline, bacteria, viruses, or anything else that may be in the water. Though, to be fair, it does leave you with a type of… sludge that would need to be disposed of.”
Melissa nodded slowly. “And that’s one thing which she’s worried about. I’m guessing that sludge would be toxic?”
“Most likely,” I said with a nod. “It would contain anything not directly related to the hydrocarbons used for the crude, and that would depend on the exact biomatter used in production. That said, we would be willing to dispose of this waste in a safe, eco-friendly manner for you. At a nominal fee, of course.”
“And how nominal is this fee exactly?”
“A hundred dollars per barrel, though the delivery of the barrels would be your expense, not ours.”
Sarah looked at me, her jaw open. “But we can neutralize it for just twenty-five per-”
“Sarah!” I snapped. She cowered in her seat. She actually cowered. Despite the twisting of my gut, I wished I could get a video of this, I really did. It would be hilarious to watch later. After a moment, I turned back to Melissa. “The price is higher due to volume and the extra manpower that we’d need.”
“Oh, right.” Sarah nodded eagerly. “We work for our brother for free, but we don’t wanna be lab techs for the rest of our lives.” She made a disgusted face. It was actually rather cute.
“That…” Melissa trailed off for a moment, looking oddly distant. It didn’t last long, however, before she shook her head and looked thoughtful again. “That seems a little high.”
I sighed softly, acting irritated. “Twenty-five dollars minimum for the materials to neutralize the toxins alone. Another twenty-eight dollars per day for the two able-bodied assistants it would require. As well, the materials have to be made, and that costs more than the filtration screens themselves, and the equipment built to handle the waste needs to be maintained. Factoring in the costs of that over a long-term does lower it down to seventy-five per barrel, however we need to adjust slightly for profit to fund the development of future materials. So, no, a hundred is not a little high.”
She was taken back by my tone. I felt a pang of guilt, but this was the kind of talk that Sarah would normally say for me. She paused a moment before nodding. “That’s something that we can discuss later, I suppose.”
Really, we had no idea what it would cost. Between my understanding of what the process could be and Sarah’s business skills, though, we’d hashed that out. We both knew and understood, however, that Chris didn’t see anything as waste. Everything could be turned into something useful with enough knowledge and effort. And materials. Most likely, he’d use the waste to produce something else in much the same way. Now that I had him thinking along these lines, he was already coming up with new ideas for materials.
“Later?” Sarah asked, tilting her head. Underneath the table, her foot stroked mine. A warning, get ready for the next act in the play.
Melissa nodded slowly. “Lisa, Miss Wilbourn, needs proof that this will work before she’s willing to commit to a full project. We’d need a demonstration.”
Sarah’s foot tapped mine twice. Negative. Right. I drew my eyebrows together. “I explained to you before the problems that it would cause, creating a sample.”
“It didn’t quite make perfect sense to me, but we do actually understand.” She smiled a little at me, but it looked odd. I couldn’t quite place how. “If you provide us with a demonstration of the capabilities of this material, and we decide to accept the offer, we will help you to locate whatever these materials are that you’d need to make more.”
I acted thoughtful, waiting for a signal from Sarah. It didn’t come, which meant that I had to either continue on with the role I was playing, or go with whatever I felt was the most appropriate. I decided to go with ahead like I already was. Which came down to money. “I hope that you’re not suggesting that we do this for free.”
“Oh, no,” she said with a forced smile. “We’re willing to pay a hundred and fifty dollars for you to show us how this works. We also get to keep the apparatus so that we can show it to the city council.”
Two taps against my foot, with the second tap pressing. That meant negative and to check for further guidance. I looked to Sarah with a flat expression, who was looking to me with a hopeful expression on her face, nodding encouragingly. That wasn’t what I was looking for, though. The ear that wasn’t pointing towards Melissa was wiggling. That meant horse or travel. The fork had a piece of chicken that had been cut in half. The napkin was twisted up between the ring and pinky fingers on her other hand. At least twice that much, and the napkin meant time. We’d practiced this last night.
Really, it wasn’t too different from our hand signals in a way.
I looked back to Melissa, speaking coldly. “I’m a mercenary, you know. I’m used to putting my life on the line. I really don’t mind if people screw me over, put me in harm’s way, so long as I can save a life or two, maybe save a business. The pay is just gravy. But a hundred and fifty? It costs us ten dollars a piece to take a coach home, one way, and I’m not leaving my sister home for that. At least a week of us working, and yes, I’m willing to factor in how much we’d get paid. I’m not sure how much of the material he has done, but the stuff we’d need to build this little demonstration would cost at least sixty dollars. And that’s before what my brother deserves for putting it all together, getting the machinery to make the fabric made, and his design work.
“I’m meat, and I know it, but I will not let anyone, not a single soul, screw over my siblings.”
I made my way to my feet, inserting venom into my voice. “Good day, Miss Kallenburger.”
With that, I turned around and began stalking off. I felt bad for the other patrons. Who knew how much of the conversation they’d caught, or what it looked like? I hated to make an awkward scene, especially in public. Even worse, I felt like my little outburst, no matter how planned it was, would only end up with us losing this opportunity.
I heard Sarah call out “Jordan!” in a worried tone behind me. Dang, she was good at this. Still, we’d discussed this. She stressed that if the situation demanded that I stand and start to walk away, that I don’t stop until I was at the hotel or she added “please” to it. I was almost to the door when I felt a hand grab my arm.
“Jordan,” Melissa said, a placating tone to her voice. “I’m sorry. You’re right, I wasn’t thinking about everything that goes into this. It’s an emergent technology, and it requires a lot of work by a lot of people. I understand that now. Please, let’s talk this over and see if we can’t come to an agreement.”
I turned slowly to look at her, doing my best to glare fire at her. After a moment, though, I nodded. “Yeah, okay. I hate to waste food, anyway.”
We made our way back slowly, and I noted that most everybody was making a point not to look in our direction. Trying to show what little bit of politeness and privacy they could, as dictated by sacred hospitality.
As I settled down, Sarah put her hand on my arm. “Deep breaths, Bro. Drink your tea. Relax.”
That meant everything but relax. It meant tone down. The tea reference was a reminder about water. Why? It took me a moment to realize that she was giving me a heads up. I tapped her foot with mine once to let her know that I understood.
“Alright,” Melissa said in a calming tone. “Now, I understand that even making such a device under short notice is a costly operation. So let me ask you this: how much will you have to transport?”
“I’m not sure,” I said with a shrug. “I’ll be frank with you — the larger we make it, the more accurate the demonstration will be. It could fit in a trunk, we might have to put it in a wagon. It depends on how much material our Tinker can make with what he has.”
“Good to know. And how far away is it again?”
“About fifty miles,” Sarah added, cheerful once again.
That made Melissa smile a little. “Burlington Gimmel?”
“Alright, that’s a day by coach. I can probably arrange for private transport for the two of you, then. That way, you don’t have to worry about the coach making any stops along the way.” She was officially buttering us up. “I can arrange a wagon to be sent at the same time, if that’s alright? Then, if you’re done when they arrive, you can leave the next day. If not, they can stay at a hotel while you wait.”
A two day trip. I shook my head a little. “You’re better off waiting for a few days, then sending it. It’ll take at least three days for us to put it together, though probably a deal more.”
“Good,” she said with a nod. There was something about her tone that I didn’t like. “So, with getting you back home and it back here, how are we looking?”
In the back of my head I could hear Sarah, still in her bubbly persona, cheerfully exclaiming “Like a pretentious bitch!” I was never sure if I should love or hate that part of my brain, especially with how infrequently it spoke up, but I did know that it gave me a pang of guilt.
Instead, I waited, screwing up my face as if I was mulling it over. One tap, two, three, four, and five. I was a little surprised, but I knew to trust Sarah. “Five hundred,” I said with a nod.
She looked at me as if I was a country bumpkin who hadn’t bathed in a year and just asked her to the prom. It only lasted for a brief second, but it was nice to see her true colors. “I can’t realistically even begin to approach that. Especially if it might be a month before you come back.”
The taps on my foot were coming quickly. “I can actually respect that, since you’d be paying the hotel and food costs for the wagon driver. At the same time, though, my brother’s time is exceptionally valuable, and the chemical compounds expensive. It also means utilizing a glass blower and specialized equipment to ensure that you can see what’s happening. Four fifty?”
She shook her head slowly. “Three hundred.”
Sarah’s heel pressed down on my foot. Hardball. “Cut the crap. This is demeaning to both of us. I’ll go a little lower, you’ll go a little higher, until either we meet in the middle or one person seriously slows down on how far they offer. Look, I know your boss is generous to those who do right by her, and I know all too well and good that she’s ready to jump on this like a pair of drunken teens after a dance where their parents aren’t there. And she knows that this wouldn’t only help her friend, but this would also strengthen her position not only here, but with any city that came groveling for gas. She could virtually set the price with this and we both know it. For crying out loud, she probably didn’t even give you a price range, but because you see a couple of dumb brutish mercenaries, you thought that you could make yourself look good in her eyes by playing us for idiots.”
I didn’t let her get anything else out, not even with the churning my gut was doing. “Any city with the population base to handle this would be screaming over it. Dying to get their hands on it. But because this city has always treated us well, we’re willing to put up with your complete lack of respect towards us to keep up the offer. We aren’t the ones looking to get in good with her, we’re the ones who are trying to help, you stupid ninny. And if you want to play games with us instead of being upfront and honest, then you can go stuff yourself and we’ll get in contact with her the hard way.”
I waved towards the waiter. “Can I get a to-go box, please?”
Melissa looked around quickly, visibly nervous. I’d made a lot of noise with that rant, and I’d done it on purpose. Sarah and I had discussed exactly how loud I should get during that rant, and she’d made me do it four times before we got the right balance.
“Listen, Jordan. Three seventy-five. Plus travel expenses. And we’re still willing to find whatever materials you need. If this device of yours works, we’ll help you get whatever you need.”
“We keep it,” I said quickly. “I’m not handing it over, not for one minute. If she needs us to show it working twenty times, we’ll gladly do that, but we aren’t giving you something that can desalinize that much water for that pittance.” I hoped I pulled that off right, but Sarah wasn’t giving me the warning sign. Her tea signal was to make sure that I demonstrated that we knew the value of massive water purification.
The waiter appeared with my box. I offered him an apologetic smile before setting about transferring my barely touched meal to it.
Melissa was silent for a moment before nodding. “I… can accept that.”
It took every ounce of effort that I had to keep looking angry. I wanted to jump up onto the table and cheer, shout out to the world that I’d just come out the victor in a negotiation war, to pay for everybody’s meal. Instead, I glared up at her.
“You know where we’re staying. I want all that in writing by 8 AM tomorrow. Assuming that we, and our legal council, don’t find anything in there that doesn’t piss us off, we’ll be in your office to get your signature on our copy by two, and then will be ready to leave by the next day.” I closed the lid and lifted the box by the handles as I rose from my seat. “And for the love of Mike, I do not want to see your face when we show it off.” I looked to Sarah, noting that she’d almost finished her salad. “Let’s go.”
As I stalked off, I thought I heard her say a quiet “I’m sorry” to Melissa before joining me. We walked in silence from the restaurant, all eight blocks back to the hotel, my body churning each step of the way. We barely made it through the doors when my angry façade gave out and I staggered, the to-go box nearly falling from my hand. Sarah was quick to wrap her arm around me for support.
“Ha! That was fuckin’ awesome! I wish someone would have gotten that on camera or recorded it! I know people who’d give their left nut to have seen that!”
“I think I’m gonna be sick,” I croaked, fighting back a violent shudder.
“Shit!” She lead me to a chair to settle myself into before hurrying off. When she returned, she forced me to hold out my palm, pouring salt into it. “Seriously, Bro, I’m so proud of you. You have no fucking idea how very, very proud I am. You pulled that off like a pro.”
I tossed the salt into the back of my mouth, and immediately felt the vomit bubble that had been forming back there break up. I didn’t even know it had been there. It didn’t cure my nausea, but it did help. “I never want to do that again.”
Her arm was immediately around me, her voice low and soothing. “Hey. Hey. All that we have to do is show them this demonstration thingie, convince them to buy the full deal, and then? We should never have to negotiate again. And I’ll actually take the lead next time, alright?” She rubbed my back gently, trying to soothe me. “We’re in, Bro. We’ve got this. And you’re going to get all the money you need. No more mercenary work for us.”
No more mercenary work? I couldn’t help but smile at that. Finally, things were going right for once.