I made sure to pack a bag assuming we wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. Katarina had me put all of the food in an ammo box, and then stash it at the bottom of my bag. It was heavy, but it would keep people from finding out about fresh food. She even threw a few clips on top of the cans to make it harder to notice.
The first step out of the front door and into the wasteland was the worst. No, scratch that, it was the second. Actually, the third didn’t feel any better. The first time I had left the relative comfort of the R&D office building and went to the wasteland, I had been knocked unconscious and dragged. The return home had been done out of necessity. Even then, I was more shocked and awed by everything. It was remarkable how far shock could take you when you were pushed into a corner.
This time, I was venturing into the wasteland of my own accord. Everywhere I looked were the signs of a city that had been seemingly abandoned overnight. That was because it likely had been. The metal was rusty, glass was broken, cars were abandoned. Even the grass was brown.
“Why isn’t there more plant life?”
The wild should have overtaken the city in these years. There should be healthy green grass coming out of every crack, moss-laden cars, and maybe even trees throwing through buildings. Instead, it all just looked dead.
“There are plants, Idiot. Can’t you see them?” She kicked a tuft of brown grass.
“I mean, the green stuff.”
“I don’t know. The virus? The radiation? Global warming? Take your pick. It’s not like we have very many scientists these days to study these things.” Katarina stated dismissively, “As far as I’ve seen, the wasteland has always looked like this. Even the plants we can cultivate are brown and shriveled. That’s why food is so scarce.”
I nodded at her words. I supposed if plant life could grow properly, no matter how bad it got, people could always grow farms. However, the plants themselves no longer could produce food at the level they did before the war, I understood some of the problems. I wondered what would happen if I brought seeds from my world here. Would they grow, or would they end up brown and shriveled like everything else?
As we walked through the eerily quiet city, the lack of noise was really difficult to handle. I hadn’t realized I had started humming just to hear a noise in my ears until Katarina shushed me. There were so many city noises that we just ignored. Now, ever crack or branch could potentially be something coming for our death.
I started examining the environment around me to stave off the growing feeling of foreboding. Death filled the streets. There were piles of skeletons stacked everywhere. It was difficult to tell if any of them included human bones, but by the size of some of the bones, I had to guess. It did mean that despite us not seeing any creatures that this area did possess a lot of life. Otherwise, what would have created all of these bones?
“Down! Quick!” She hissed.
I nearly jumped out of my shoes, but she had grabbed my arm and pulled. This time, she pulled me into a dry, brown bush. It cracked and rustled as we went in, but Katarina didn’t seem to mind. Once crouched, she turned to me and put a finger over her mouth.
It was at that point I started to notice the sound of someone approaching from the distance. There was a pattering of feet crunching on the concrete which was coming closer with each step. I could also hear raspy breathing that was followed by various gasps and grunts. Katarina reached out and grabbed my hand, but I didn’t know if she was doing it to calm me down, or to calm herself down. I finally could see the creature come out from behind a collapsed pile of rubble.
It looked like a human, but the skin appeared like it had flaked off. It was black and brown, as if the skin of the person decayed, while every other part of their body continued to live. It had the smell of death, and it moved in spastic, animal movements. It was looking around like it was looking for something. As Katarina’s hand continued to tighten, I realized that the creature must have been looking for us. I felt like our cover in the bush wasn’t nearly sufficient.
However, it was too late now. If we moved, I could already imagine it leaping at us, ready to tear us apart without a thought. Katarina had said that this world fell to the equivalent of a zombie virus. This was the first sign I had seen that this was true. Living in the city capital, I would have expected there to be a lot more of these things, but I guess after seventy years of this, most of them had scattered or died. Or perhaps, they were dormant inside all of those houses on either side of us. That thought was even more terrifying.
“Kah! Kah!” It let out something akin to a bark and then started running.
As it disappeared, I started to stand, but Katarina yanked on my arm again. When I glanced over, she shook her hand and put a finger over her mouth. A minute later, I could hear the sounds of more of those things. Unlike the first, this group didn’t stop. There were nearly twenty of the creatures, and they just kept running, like a herd at full stampede. They didn’t pay us any mind as they followed the first one. One of them even passed close enough to bump the bush we were in, but he didn’t look twice in our direction.
Was that first one a scout? A leader? Some kind of alpha that the others followed? I didn’t know, and I wasn’t certain I wanted to know. After what felt like forever, Katarina finally left the brush. She stopped as her hand tugged me. It was like she had only just realized she was holding my hand. She immediately let go, wiping her hand on her pants.
“Ferals.” She said with a bitter expression. “We’re lucky. None of them were radioactive.”
“Is that like the mutants?”
“Not exactly…” She shook her head. “The mutants that most closely resemble the ferals are called fiends. They look mostly the same as ferals, but they have functional minds, and even remember being human. Believe it or not, fiends are the mutation that is friendliest with humans. They’re also immune to radiation, and immortal.”
“Well, I haven’t seen one die from old age yet. I supposed they could just live a thousand years or so.”
Living forever with a dead, decayed body like that, it had to be pretty horrifying. Then again, you could get used to anything. Would a feral end up attacking a fiend? I considered asking, but Katarina had already started walking in the opposite direction that the ferals went and I had a feeling she was not in the mood for some chitchat now.
The walk took nearly four hours, and my feet were quite sore. We had stopped no less than six times to hide, each one taking nearly fifteen minutes before she’d move again. I didn’t see anything those other times, so I was just taking her word that something was there. We moved in complete silence, which only added to the heavy atmosphere of the decaying city. I was feeling myself grow more anxious and panicked the farther we got from the mirror. I started to regret not taking it with me. It would have been cumbersome and stupid, but at least I could flee whenever I wanted to. There was a good chance if I fled, I’d never be able to return, but that was a different problem entirely.
In truth, I didn’t even know if the mirror would connect properly if it was in a different location. For all I knew, there were infinite mirrors in infinite universes, and it always connected to the one closest to it in space. So, if I moved it, I’d end up jumping into another world entirely. It was possible it’d be a world worse than this one. Just the thought of never being able to return home left me shaking.
Just as I felt like I was reaching my limit, Katarina spun around. “We’re here.”
Her words were both relieving and confusing. Confusing because there was nothing around us that looked like a location of safety. I didn’t see people, a wall, or a settlement.
“Welcome to The Rink.” She gestured to the building next to us, and I blinked when I realized what it was.
There was a faded sign out front, just barely legible. Max’s Iceskate Rink. The Rink was a skating rink. I thought she was joking with me, but she suddenly dropped her gun to the floor and raised her hands. When she saw me standing there, she gave me an elbow in the ribs.
“Hands up, Idiot!”
I raised my hands as well. A few moments later, a door to the skating rink burst open and four men came out. They were each holding a rifle and were wearing scraps of armor. At first, I thought they were more raiders, but I realized they were dressed slightly better than that.
“Just Wastelanders looking to trade,” Katarina called out in a clear voice.
While two of the men kept guns on us, the other two walked out and started patting us and our bags down. Katarina wore a grim expression as the man patted her from top to bottom. When I saw him using the opportunity to grope her bottom, I felt a burst of anger. However, the expression on Katarina’s face was that this was expected. When he finally had used up excuses to touch Katarina, and had also emptied all the weapons from her pockets and piled them up, he gave a nod.
“They’re clean.” The guard shouted to the others.
The two guards stepped to the side, while the guards that had patted us down picked up our stuff and gestured for us to go into the Rink. It looked like they were going to keep the weapons. I wondered if we were going to get them back. At least, they didn’t touch the ammo box, and the food within, just as Katarina had predicted. I guess bullets in this world were so common, that no one would think you’d waste the space/weight on anything else.
Like that, I entered my first apocalyptic settlement.