Ves ignored the uncertified mechs and the deadly weaponry the stall owners tried to peddle to the tourists and approached one of the stalls that sold frontier loot.
The stall in front of him sold nothing but pieces of ore. None of them shone in the light, but some of them possessed a subtle charm that somehow attracted his attention.
"Welcome, dear customer." The old man who manned the stall greeted. "Are you interested in my wares? They are genuine treasures of the frontier. Whether they are shaped by aliens hands or the natural forces of the galaxy, I am sure you can find what you seek here. Look at this white arcelyx stone for example!"
The man picked up an off-white piece of mesmerizing rock with a gloved hand. "A treasure hunter claimed to have picked this rock from a beast world. He claimed that the planet was filled with exobeasts, and if not for the fast-growing vegetation that kept the herbivores fed, the planet would have long collapsed its own ecosystem."
"What does that have to do with this rock?" Ves asked.
"The planet is sprinkled by this stuff! Hehe, the treasure hunter spent a lot of effort to find these anomalous rocks. At first, he didn't know their effects, but once he returned to Mancroft Independent Harbor, the effects of this stone finally came into being."
"And that is?"
The stall owner grinned at him with a mischievous expression. "The treasure hunter upended an entire entertainment establishment! Mere proximity to this amazing stone will give you the firepower of a water hose and the endurance of a long-range mech!"
Ves and a few other Vandals attracted to the curiosities offered by the stall looked incredulous.
"You don't believe me? Why don't you try it out for yourselves!" The stall owner dropped the hand-sized rock and retrieved some boxes from under the stall. Each of them came with a transparent cover that showed off the slivers of white rock contained within. "A full-sized arcelyx stone can be had for 57,000 marks! If you want to sample its effects, this nail-sized sample can be yours for 500 marks!"
"No thanks." Ves immediately turned away. When he saw that some of the other men looked tempted, he gently pulled them away. "Don't fall for his story. What exotic treasure, in my eyes the rock is plain ghoshaw ore. It's an uncommon but fairly abundant ore in the Komodo Star Sector. Its market price is around two-thousand bright credits per ton."
That convinced them all to drop any interest of the supposed 'arcelyx stone'.
"How did you recognize that it was ghoshaw ore?" One Vandal asked.
"I memorized a lot of ores and materials that are available in the Komodo Star Sector. It's necessary for my work."
Every mech designer worth a damn studied the full list of publicly available materials in their star sector. It could be said that each star sector invented their own unique brand of mechs. Maybe one star sector possessed a lot of exotics favorable to smaller mechs. This would certainly make the region focus their design efforts into developing lots of light mechs.
The group wandered over towards different stalls, making their way through the crowds as best they could. The underground halls offered as much space as the avenues above, but the Vandals barely had any space to move due to the abundance of tourists.
The difference in interest was obvious. Although the luxury shops on the surface sold a lot of good products, the same could be found on any major planet.
In contrast, the grey market offered goods that couldn't easily be found elsewhere. Many other grey markets restricted their access to known acquaintances.
For example, when Ves wanted something shady, he wouldn't know where to turn. He had to resort to contacting Dietrich to obtain what he wanted from the grey or black markets.
This highlighted the special and open nature of the Harkensen System. Their grey and black markets didn't care about connections at all. Neither the seller or the buyer required trust to perform their transactions.
Due to the popularity of this market, business was booming here. Ves saw many unregistered mechs exchanging hands, though calling them unregistered was a euphemism. They should actually be called counterfeits, because they were nothing different from the fake Crystal Lord. At least the sellers were more honest in the grey market, directly admitting that the mechs had been fabricated by a mech manufacturer that hadn't licensed their designs.
Since most licenses cost a lot of money, the true production cost of a legal mech was significantly higher than a counterfeit mech. Even if they used the exact same production standards, the counterfeit mechs wasn't burdened by a huge amount of overhead costs.
In general, this made counterfeit mechs around ten to fifty percent cheaper to buy. The discount was more extreme for expensive mechs, as the profit margin was the highest there. Cheaper mechs already cut a lot of corners, so the price couldn't get much lower even without considering overhead.
"Are you dissatisfied?" Tiss asked when she saw the glum face on Ves. "These counterfeit mechs are taking away your sales."
"Even if I am, what can I do about it?" Ves sighed in a tired manner. "People in need of mechs are always on the lookout for something cheaper. As long as there's demand, there's someone who is willing to meet it. Even if counterfeit mechs stop showing up here, business will only move elsewhere."
"Some of these mechs don't look very reliable either. Though I'm not a mech designer, even I can see that the workmanship on them is too rough."
Ves nodded. "Without the full design schematics, the counterfeiters can only use their own judgement to fill the gaps. A fake mech will never surpass the real deal. If any counterfeiters possess the skills to improve the original design, then they are better off becoming a legitimate mech designer. Therefore, it's virtually a rule that all counterfeit designers are failures."
Many failed mech designers that tried to operate a workshop would be saddled with debt by the time they folded their businesses. Sometimes, a bankruptcy allowed them to begin anew, but other times their creditors insisted on getting back their money.
Fabricating counterfeit mechs was a good way to earn money quickly, especially if they picked a popular mech model. The counterfeiters basically leeched off the achievements of their more successful peers.
It was a dishonest but profitable way to do business.
"If you look at some of the buyers, they don't look like the sort that can make a legal transaction." Ves gestured at someone with a wild air. The man looked like a pirate commander who was trying his best to restrain his savage urges. "Where do you think pirates get their mechs?"
"Ah. But pirates never pilot any good mechs, right?"
"That's because there's no form of regulation in the underground markets. Anyone could sell a mech that is supposed to last for a decade but breaks down after a single year. Buyers have to judge the seller's reputation. If they can't, they should at least have a good mech appraiser by their side."
Ves spotted several men and women guiding big spenders around. They waved at the mechs on display and presumably provided a more accurate assessment of their worth.
Still, nothing could beat the MTA in terms of reputation. Their trustworthiness and reliability trumped every other mech appraiser. Their certification process was almost flawless.
Only the most obscure features defeated their comprehensive certification and validation tests. Ves was very certain that they couldn't pick up the X-Factor.
The grey market offered more than mechs and rocks. Further ahead, they entered some kind of bestiary where a large amount of exobeasts resided inside climate-controlled cages.
Various alien beasts of all shapes and sizes could all be bought with minimal fuss, very much opposite to the strict controls that most governments set on alien creatures. After all, if specimens ever got loose, they might lead to a very troublesome cascade of failures in the local ecosystem. Remedying the problem was possible, but only at great cost.
Ves hadn't spotted anything familiar like the hexapods of Groening IV. After witnessing those majestic beasts up close, the boring and mundane exobeasts in the grey market failed to rouse his interests. Most of them appeared to be bred and tamed by humans in some farm for generations, making them good pets for families.
"This entire grey market feels a little phony somehow." Ves remarked to Tiss. "The stuff that's on sale here isn't as exciting as I thought."
"Oh? All of the things that are on sale here is illegal, right?"
"That's a matter for interpretation." He said. "There's no way that the government doesn't know what's going on here. By turning a very obvious blind eye, they've tacitly consented to the trade that goes on in these markets."
"So it's sort of legal, then."
Ves bet that the cartels that operated the underground markets passed some of their profits to the Reinaldan government. Everything that happened here was fully within their range of control. The giant game of pretend didn't fool anyone.
"The thing is, I can't figure out the MTA's stance. On one hand, they can be very tyrannical in enforcing their taboos. On the other hand, they aren't as diligent when it comes to smaller offenses such as selling counterfeits."
"Maybe they aren't as powerful as you think they are." Tiss ventured out a guess. "If they're short on manpower or resources for some reason, it makes sense if they don't bother with the small stuff."
Ves didn't believe this to be true. The MTA was unimaginably powerful and employed trillions of people across the galaxy. Even if they were spread a little thin in the galactic rim, they could always hire more people.
"Well, it's difficult to determine what the MTA wants. Since they left this market alone, it probably won't go away anytime soon."
After the group of Vandals had their fill of the exobeasts, they exited the bestiary and entered into an entirely different hall.
A massive circular pit formed a single large arena space where two melee mechs went at each other with brutality unbecoming of a proper duelist. Shards of armor plating sheared away while the mechs went on the offensive with little guard for defense.
A large audience cheered and hooted at the spectacle happening in front of them. They all sat on the benches that went lower and lower until they reached the dueling ground.
The group quickly bumped into rough people that looked like cartel members. "We only sell all-day tickets here. Four-hundred marks per ticket. Ten-thousand marks if you want a VIP ticket. If you want to reserve a private theater box, I can take you up to the manager."
"Regular tickets please. We'll all pay for ourselves."
Four-hundred marks amounted to two-hundred bright credits, which was barely within the range they could withstand. A regular arena ticket cost only half as much, but the sanctioned duels were never as exciting as the underground ones.
The melee mechs currently in the arena sustained more damage every second, but neither of them gave up. Ves could tell that these mechs cost quite a bit, because their armor amazingly held up for a long time.
When he looked at the size of the crowd and how many seats the arena accommodated, he knew how the arena turned a profit despite the immense damage being dealt to the competing mechs.
"Even an underground arena can host more than a hundred-thousand people!"
While the main arenas in Bentheim could host up to half a million spectators, that was in the light. Despite its dubious legality, this underground arena still managed to draw a consistent crowd of tens of thousands of people!
Ves had never thought that the underground dueling scene was so popular!
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