Welton turned around, following the gaze of Rakkel's shocked, staring eyes to the man who'd spoken. He had to admit, this person looked intimidating.
The customer was another body modder. He had a whiskered muzzle sporting a set of hefty, carnivorous tusks, and his forehead rose to a strange crest that ran down the back of his head. His body was covered in thick, golden fur, although on top of that it was covered with an extremely well-tailored business coat. It must've been expensive, thought Welton. The man's wide-shouldered, looming frame would've required extra work and extra material.
What puzzled Welton was that he couldn't place the species. A saber-toothed tiger? Or some kind of bear, maybe? Were there bears with golden fur? Not that customization was impossible - but it took some real effort to engineer viable changes. By his understanding, nobody had yet managed to create a novel species from scratch. Even the most radically-altered morphs started from a single base species. Anyway, whatever this was, it looked like a real creature, not an invention. He wasn't sure what made him think that, but it did. Something about the way the tiny details fit together.
One benefit of being a pig, he thought, was that everyone knew what a pig was.
"I don't mean to be impolite," said the man, "but I have other things to do today. I don't mind being stared at. I take it as a compliment. You can stare while you get me my pigs."
Rakkel finally snapped out of it. "Right," xe said. "Certainly. Right away."
"It's unusual to see other body modders in this city," he said, conversationally.
"Yeah," said Rakkel. "It is." Xir tone sounded unusually flat to Welton.
"Lemurs are nocturnal, aren't they? I hope this sun isn't bothering you too much."
"My kind are diurnal," xe said. "Which numbers did you say?"
"43, 44 and 45."
"Would you like to examine them?"
"That won't be necessary. I have some associates here who will take them." He waved a hand at a pair of women who'd followed him into the lot. Welton hadn't even noticed them behind the man. They were heavily built, wore dirty overalls, and carried leads. Their hair was dreadlocked. He wondered if they were twins, given how similar even their faces appeared.
"What name should I put down?" asked Rakkel.
"Arctocyon," said the man.
"I'll need a first name, too," said Rakkel, staring him in the eye through xir visor's long and narrow lens.
"Guy. Guy Arctocyon."
Rakkel typed it in.
"That will be four hundred and seventy-five credits," xe said.
"The price has gone up."
"They're fine pigs," xe said. "Good meat on them."
Guy laughed. "I'm not buying them for the meat," he said. "But I think you might know that." He waved a hand. "Here's your payment."
"Received," said Rakkel.
Welton stared at him, puzzled. The man didn't seem to be wearing an AR device, so how had he transferred funds?
"Do me a favor," he said. "Take that visor off for a moment. When I meet new people, I like to be able to look them in the eye. Just to get a sense for who they really are."
"I'd rather not," said Rakkel.
Guy hesitated, then said, "suit yourself." Behind him, the pig handlers were already handing three leashes over to the two women.
"Excuse me," said Welton.
Guy looked over at him as if seeing him for the first time. "My goodness," he said. "Two body modders in one day. I hope you're not for sale?" he chuckled.
"You're going to treat them well?" asked Welton, indicating the three pigs.
"As well as I'm able," he said. "I prefer to avoid cruelty when possible. Of course, it's not always convenient."
To Welton's surprise, Guy suddenly reached out and poked him sharply in the side a couple of times.
"Good muscle," said Guy, "if I'm any judge of pigflesh. But nevertheless, you don't seem like the athletic sort."
"Excuse me?" said Welton.
"I beg your pardon," said Guy. "I was merely considering something." He turned back to Rakkel. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you, mister...?"
"I'm not a 'mister,'" xe said.
"Oh, my mistake. I apologize for assuming."
He waited a moment, but Rakkel said nothing more. He gave xir one last long, calculating look, then turned and walked away. The two women leading the pigs fell into step behind him.
"Give my regards to Madame Flore," he said as he stepped out of the open lot and into the nearest market tube.
"'Pigflesh'!?" said Welton.
"That was him," said Rakkel, tensely. "Even before I got his name, I recognized his voice. And I think he figured out that it was me, too."
"Huh? Who was he?"
"Or at least he suspects." Xe shook xir head. "Someday, I'll learn not to poke my snout where it doesn't belong."
"What are you talking about?"
"I have to finish up here," xe said. "But let's meet this evening. I'll tell you about it."
"You don't, though," he said. "Have to finish up here, I mean."
"I have an agreement with Mme. Flore," xe said.
"So? Just walk away. Doesn't seem to me like you're doing all that much here anyway. Those guys are doing all the real work." He pointed at the handlers.
"Look, the pigs will be fine," xe said. "You heard Guy. He's not using them for meat."
"That's part of what he said," agreed Welton.
"Do they look to you like they've been mistreated so far?" xe asked.
"Not as such." He'd been watching them carefully, looking for bruises or signs of malnutrition or the like.
"There you go, then."
"Fine," said Welton. "If I can't change your mind, I can't change your mind."
"Sorry," xe said, "it's just that I need some way in. I don't really trust Mme. Flore. But this opportunity fell into my lap, so..."
"Into, you know, the market. I want to learn this game. In order to learn it, I have to play it."
"I don't have any idea what you're talking about," he said. "Whatever, I don't care. Do what you like."
"Where should we meet after?"
"Are we going to meet after?"
Rakkel looked so hurt that he immediately felt sorry. "There's a restaurant near here I've been meaning to try," he amended. "Damien's Delight. They're supposed to do an excellent stir fry."
"Alright," said Rakkel. "I'll see you there, then."
"Seven-ish," suggested Welton.
"Seven-ish," agreed Rakkel. "Er, is there a clock around here?"
"Look up there through your AR device." He pointed into the sky. "You might have to register the market's base scene if you haven't already."
Rakkel looked where he was pointing. "It's asking for permission," xe said.
"Yeah. Grant it."
"Okay. Now I see a giant clock floating in the sky. Woah."
"There you go," said Welton. "Should be a menu somewhere where you can tap into the market registries to get directions to the registered stalls and things, too. Damien's is on there. I checked."
"Got it," said Rakkel. "Huh. I need to use this thing more. I still barely know what I'm doing with it."
"Something else to talk about at dinner," Welton agreed. "Okay. I still think you're making a mistake here, but I'll drop it for now. See you later." He walked away.
"Hey," called out Rakkel, "are you sure you don't want to stay and keep me company?"
"I don't want anything to do with this," he said, and turned the corner.
Before he'd heard the pigs and found Rakkel, Welton had been on his way to a lounge Salmidon had recommended to him. Apparently, it was a popular hangout spot for various tech enthusiasts, and - so Welton hoped - a good place for him to work on the lighthouse project: The right vibes, the strong kind of coffee, an opportunity to meet other local holo-scribes.
But now he felt soured on that. Seeing all those pigs crammed into those pens, and arguing with Rakkel - of all people! - about them had drained him. He decided to go back to his hotel room.
He'd found the least snobby of the hotels, or so he supposed. It called itself The Menagerie, and it had an animal theme. Maybe that was why they hadn't given him the same crap that he'd gotten at the other hotels. He kind of hoped it wasn't. Frankly, he didn't care for the "theme hotel" ambiance, which struck him as cheesy and tasteless.
Nevertheless, he'd gotten himself a fancy suite. He could afford it easily with the money he'd borrowed. And once he finished his project, he'd be able to pay off the loan - and then take out another one, if he needed to at that point. He hoped he wouldn't need to. But it was all temporary, after all.
The hotel suite had been done up in a forest theme. The bed was a huge bird's nest, the hot tub made to look like a natural hot spring, the bar area took the form of a fallen log conveniently full of liquor bottles next to a row of toadstool bar stools, and so on. During the night he'd kept feeling like something was peeking out at him from behind the trees printed on the wallpaper, and hadn't slept well as a result. As of this morning, he was seriously considering downgrading to a regular room.
But he hadn't even tried the hot tub yet.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of oinking. More oinking? He'd left the pig lot far behind.
Ahead of him, he saw a heavyset figure hunched over a table, examining some of the tobacco pipes on display there. Beside the figure stood a pig on a leash. The pig looked uncomfortable and kept trying to hide under the table, though the leash was so short, she couldn't make it all the way.
Welton sighed and shook his head. "Poor little gal," he said to himself. She looked smaller and daintier than the ones Rakkel had been selling. Or maybe it was just his imagination? He couldn't tell for sure.
The figure holding the leash stood up, and Welton did a double take.
"Havid!" he shouted.
Havid spun around. "You!" he shouted back. "Do you know what you've done? I'm in big trouble at work over what happened to that truck. I'd be out of a job if Doople hadn't given me money."
"Good," said Welton. "I wish he hadn't."
Around them, people began to stare, but Welton ignored them.
"What are you doing with her?" Welton asked, pointing at the pig on the leash, who was now hiding behind Havid, wrapping the leash around his ankles.
"Her name's Daisy," said Havid, with what Welton thought was a leer, "and she's going to be my pet."
"That's grotesque," said Welton.
"Why, are you jealous? Do you wish you could be my pet?" If that hadn't been a leer, this definitely was.
"You're sick! I should hire an enforcement team on you. I'm sure someone around here specializes in animal abuse."
"Animal abuse?" Havid went from leering to shouting. "I ought to abuse you! Don't you dare threaten to take Daisy away from me! She's mine!" He walked towards Welton, fists raised.
By now, a crowd had formed around them. "Pig fight! Pig fight!" shouted someone.
"She's a living creature!" said Welton.
"Yeah, and what's your point? You're about to not be one!" said Havid.
"Pig fight! Pig fight!" More people took up the chant as the crowd thickened. If anyone in the crowd did not think a pig fight was a good idea, they'd already wandered away to make room for someone who did.
"I don't want to fight," said Welton, hurriedly. Havid had almost made it within striking range.
"Why? You scared?"
Yes. Yes he was scared. He'd never been in any sort of actual fight before, and whether or not Havid knew how to fight, the man's sheer extra mass would probably decide the fight all by itself.
He stumbled backward and collided with the crowd around them. Someone pushed him back towards Havid. "Pig fight! Pig fight!" they shouted.
Welton, seeing no other choice, put his fists up.
"You know, Doople told me something very interesting," said Havid as they circled each other. "He says I get to decide whether or not you get to keep living in his apartment or not."
"Don't worry about it," said Welton. "I already moved out. However you were planning on lording that over me, you can forget it."
"Oh? Disappointing," said Havid, throwing a punch along with the second 'p'.
Welton dodged it. The crowd cheered, though he doubted they were cheering for him, as such. They just wanted action.
"Someone forgot to secure the leash they were holding," he said, looking at the table behind Havid.
"Don't be an idiot. I looped it around the table leg. She won't get free of that."
"Won't she? Pigs are smart animals," said Welton. "Unlike you."
"Yeah? I'd be stupid indeed if I fell for this obvious trick."
"Suit yourself. Your new toy's gone two and a half times around the table leg already, and she'll be booking it down the tube in a couple of seconds."
"Ugh," said Havid. He took a step back and risked a quick look behind himself, fists held ready to defend against any surprise attack.
It wasn't an opening. But it wasn't supposed to be. Welton wasn't trying to distract Havid, he was trying to distract his real enemy: The crowd.
As they craned their necks trying to see if there really was a pig on a leash about to escape, or stared at Havid's fists, wondering if he'd be able to react in time to stop Welton's inevitable attack, Welton plunged through the thinnest part of the wall of people and high-tailed it away.
As the crowd started yelling, he heard a mighty porcine squeal, and then Havid's voice shouting "Hey! Come back!"
But not to him.
He'd exaggerated how close Daisy had come to freeing herself from the table leg. But fundamentally, it hadn't been a bluff.
He pumped his fist in the air as he ran, congratulating Daisy on her escape. Though he had to admit, whatever Havid intended for her, it probably wasn't all that much worse than life on the streets of Forash as a feral pig.
Maybe she'd make it out of the city and into the nearby forests. Or maybe he could track her down later and find a better home for her. Though Havid was just as likely to find her as he was.