As Customers

“SHELL?”

“Tee Em,” he growls back.

“Pardon?”

“It’s SHELL™.”

“Does that matter?”

“When you’ve worked your entire life and entire arse off to make something good enough to be trademarked, yes, it bloody well matters.”

Well that’s me told. Trust someone in sales to make you regret speaking, if not existing in general. “Synthetic Harmonious Exchangeable Lasting Lifeform?……Tee Em.”

“That’s what the sign says. And the poster. And the leaflet.”

“The leaflet, yes.  ‘A blank database interface, ready to accept any form of personality, memory and thought’?”

“Are you going to actually buy anything or just deliver more exposition?”

Sarky bastard. You think salespeople are bad, you haven’t met inventors/providers/salespeople all in the same (literally)governing body. I’d love to make some kind of comment along the route of “well if you’re going to be like that I’ll take my business elsewhere” like every other serial complainer in existence. But therein lies the thorny problem. This guy is the utmost best in this seedy business, so I’m told. Everyone else just works in cloning or robots, all terribly non-ethical and incredibly cool. But I need something more than that. Well, not me per se. The other me.

It’s no good taking names, demanding to speak to a manager or threatening to take it higher. For once, the supplier-and-consumer victory can only go one way.

Which, let’s be honest, must be highly satisfying for him.

“Maybe. I just need to check a few things before I do. For one, is a SHELL™ strong enough to withstand the mind of a Timelord?”

He pauses then, rubbing one of six reptilian hands against an equally scaly skin. Three yellow eyes with vertical pupils scrutinise me in full. “Only one other person ever asked me that.”

“And their answer?”

“They never came back for a refund, put it that way.” He grins, showing off a set of teeth that could put any manner of shark to shame. “What kind of Link have you got?”

“TARDIS type 42 and Gallifrey class mind-manipulation.”

He emits a low whistle. “Strong stuff. You could transfer about one hundred humans at once with that kind of kit.”

“Perhaps another time. For now, I need a straight forward answer.” I put on the Serious Voice. I don’t even wince when he snarls back at the directness. The black market is not my usual choice of destination, let alone a Galactic one – I’m currently more out of place than Arthur Dent at a Slipknot show. Several people in this bizarre bazaar have already asked me for regeneration donations and one squad of drones went for my top hat earlier. The sooner I’m gone, back in my personal safety net of tea and chill out music, the better.

“My SHELLS™ can take it. Whether or not you can is a different issue.” Three clawed fingers point at me, beneath another dangerous smile.

I don’t bother regaling him with stories of my mental capacity, nor examples of when it’s been stolen. As it happens, I’m here today to put an end to exactly that. “Sold. I’ll take your weakest male frame available.” I’ll give Guardian his own life and his own body but not much else besides. He has several centuries of conflict training and experience over me, bollocks if I’m not going to have a level playing field. I’m going head to head with the anatomical equivalent of Jack Skellington.

The vendor* lays all six clawed palms upon his worktop. “Payment upfront. I’ll make it an Open Minder but it’ll cost you.”

Without blinking or breaking his line of sight, I reach into my coat pocket and bring out my barter material. He breaks the steady gaze first, turning to the object dangling on a thin, golden chain and swinging freely from my fingers. He looks suspiciously close to crying; his hyper-masculinity suddenly shattered.

“That’s not possible,” he tells me. It’s so cute when people do that.

“To you non-time-travelling folk, perhaps.” Bitchy I know, but it gets the point across. These aren’t the sort of people you need to pussy-foot around; they like conversations to be as short and as blunt as their IQs, especially if it ends with money. This time though, it’s infinitely more valuable than that. “Scavenging and hoarding is much more of a ball-ache when you avoid using the fourth dimension.” Dare to deny me that – why wait millions of years to dig up something broken and expensive, when you can steal it at the moment of creation to make it perfect and priceless? “In any case, it’s the last one you’ll find. Trust me on that. Is the payment acceptable?”

He swipes at it, but it’s already behind my back before he gets even close. The greatest gift against these people is quick reflexes.

“Is. The. Payment. Acceptable?”

Asking it is more than pointless, I can see the unhidden glee and greed in his eyes confirming that it is before he nods. I hand it back – the fraction of time between it being in my hand and his was so fast, it can hardly be said to have existed at all.

“Your SHELL™ will need twenty minutes to be ready,” he tells me. Clearly my Look of irritation appears, to which he smiles and pockets his newest, rarest trinket. “Don’t get offended. I usually say twenty hours.”

“What brought on your first ever bought of helpfulness?”

One scaly hand pats the new lump in his pocket. “It’s not often I see stuff from home.”

Hmm.  I know the feeling.

HH

*I’d refer to him by name but most members of this particular cold-blooded race are differentiated by Life’s crunchier consonants. Imagine pouring all the highest scoring Scrabble letters into a blender and then trying to speak the result.

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