The inside of the ice rink was lit with artificial lighting that gave everything a yellow tinge. The place had been turned into a small settlement. Off to the side, where people once would have put on their skates, there were various tents. Meanwhile, the concession stand had been turned into a mess hall and seemed to be selling food. The bleachers had been gutted out, and small makeshift homes had been built surrounding the middle arena. Within the skating rink itself, there were rows of canvas tents, but it was clear at a look that these weren’t places where people were sleeping, but a marketplace.
There was an upper VIP box above the bleachers, and standing in the window was a man. It was difficult to make him out, but he appeared to be in a suit. He stood there, overlooking the arena, with his hands held behind his back.
“You can walk around freely through the marketplace,” one of the men with guns said. “If you go into the residential, we’ll kill ya.”
He said it extremely casually. While it gave me pause, Katarina only nodded. When she noticed me looking around with a slacked jaw, she grabbed my hand and pulled. She dragged me close and leaned in, her chest pushing against my shoulder.
“Stay close to me and stay silent. I’ll negotiate, got it?”
“Yes,” I responded without arguing.
The men here truly didn’t seem to value life at all. It seemed all too easy for me to get shot and end up dead. I was completely at Katarina’s mercy at the moment. She walked around casually for a bit, seemingly disinterested. Many of the people in the marketplace were eyeing her eagerly. She was a visitor, so that meant she had the potential to bring the supplies they needed. The Rink didn’t look like it got too many visitors, so they took whatever they could get.
Every man and woman there looked a bit grungy. They had a slightly emaciated look. Some of them coughed quite frequently. Others just looked like homeless people. Katarina’s healthy body and beauty stood out in the crowd. I probably stood out too, but because I was so short, it was easy to see that as malnourishment. I did wonder why Katarina seemed to be cut from a different cloth than the rest of these wastelanders.
I realized as we went that Katarina’s movements weren’t aimless, but calculated. If she rushed to a certain area, she’d be telling everyone there she was desperate. Instead, she went to each location, even passing the person I had figured was the chemist as to not seem too eager. She didn’t give any location more or less time, except for one. Someone who appeared to make clothing had caught her eye. She had spent the most time looking at a certain dress.
I was caught off guard because I never would have imagined Katarina in a dress, let alone wanting one. This dress wasn’t even particularly nice. The materials had no dyes, so it had an ugly brown color and looked a bit scratchy.
After going through every shop twice, she slowed when she reached a guy that seemed to be selling preserved foods. A few were rusty cans that looked like he had picked them up off the street. The rest contained various unrecognizable things that I didn’t even want to guess about.
“Are you looking to buy?” Katarina said the first words she had spoken in nearly twenty minutes.
The guy gave a grin, revealing a mouth empty of all but one tooth. “If the price is right.”
“I need crystals.” She responded simply.
“I have a few…”
It seems like her plan was to trade the food with him first and then use the crystals to get the medicine. For some reason, I had it in my head that we would trade the food directly for the medicine, so I just had to trust that Katarina knew what she was doing.
“Then, I have food and water for you,” Katarina announced, gesturing to me.
I started to go into my backpack, although I was hesitant to open the ammo box in front of this guy. Didn’t it defeat the purpose of hiding stuff in an ammo box if we revealed we did it? However, when I hesitated, Katarina shot me an irritated look, and I just did my best to open the box in my bag so no one could see what I was doing.
“The Rink has a water filtration system. We also have a fusion generator, an air conditioner, and a metallic compositor. It’s a comfortable place to live in the wasteland.”
“And you’re only ten blocks away from a colony of grunts.”
“Eh… well, no settlement is perfect. The grunts have more or less ignored us. As long as we don’t spread north of here.”
“You…” He furrowed his brow. “Mayor says he’s got a lead on a security drone and a man who can hack it. We also have no want for weapons or bullets. If the grunts want to try to take our land, they’ll have to pay with rivers of blood!”
“I get it, I get it…” She held up her hands defensively. “I’m just saying, it’s always important to think of the future. You never can get too comfortable in one place. Settlements rise and fall like weeds.”
“That’s rich coming from a colonist!” He spat.
“I’m not a colonist, you idiot!” She frowned.
This conversation seemed to be going south as the two descended into an argument. It came to my realization that the same abrasive attitude she had shown me was also how she spoke to everyone else. At first, given her confidence, I had assumed that her abrasive attitude was what was expected of a wastelander and that if I spoke, I’d cause people to look down on me. Now, I was realizing the truth. Katarina was really bad at talking to people!
“Why, you little-“
“The thing about our water, my good friend, is that it has special medicinal qualities.” I cried out in a loud voice as I pulled the bottle free along with a cup from my camping set.
Their argument had caught several eyes, and even a guard was starting to notice, stroking his semi-automatic rifle. If I didn’t do something, at best, we’d be kicked out, and at worst, we’d die a horrible death. As I stepped forward, Katarina made a face, but she thankfully didn’t try to talk over me.
“Medicine? Bleh!” He made an unimpressed face.
“Haha… well, medicine comes in many forms.” I said as I removed the cap and poured it into the cup. “This water happens to be bottled in an underground spring, mined so deep that even the radiation doesn’t touch. It’s full of healthy minerals and vitamins. It isn’t just good for your body, it’s good for your spirit and your mind.”
When I finished, I handed the cup to him with both hands and a smile. I had never done sales before, but I had seen enough on television that I could at least act that way. The man eyed my cup suspiciously, but he still reached out a grabbed it.
“Spirit, eh?” He took a sip, and then nearly spit it out in surprise before swallow. “Mm… it’s good!”
“Of course! It’s only the finest!” I put the cap on the bottle and then similarly held it out for him. “A gift. Save it well and take a sip whenever your feeling blue. It will improve your mood, guaranteed!”
He took the bottle, and then slowly started nodding. “Yeah… I do feel in a better mood.”
His words had caught the interest of all of the nearby people in their stalls. A small crowd was starting to form around us.
“You mentioned food as well?” The man asked hesitantly, his eyes now flashing with a bit of interest.
“Ah, yes! You see, we followed those springs deep underground, and found they led to an underground lake, equally untouched by radiation. There, the local fish population was allowed to grow unchecked. We ended up with more fish than we know what to do with! So, we canned it, and brought it to the surface to trade with you.”
Since the tuna I had bought was cheap, I needed a can opener to open it. Fortunately, I had remembered to take moms. I hastily opened up the can. As soon as the rich smell of tuna sprang from the can, everyone in the room seemed to inhale at once. The merchant in front of me gulped. Once again, I handed the can to him.
“A gift, as well, but I warn that this one you should eat, as it will otherwise spoil.”
Everyone, even Katarina, watched the merchant look down at the can with reverence. He reached down with his dirty fingers and pinched a few chunks of the chicken of the sea and then brought it to his mouth. It took the eyes of everyone there. He slid the food into his mouth.
“Mmm—wow!” He cried out. “That’s so clean and refreshing!”
“Now, I wouldn’t dare put a price on this myself, old chum.” I saw Katarina mouthing the word ‘old chum’ as a question, but I decided to ignore her since I was on a roll. “Rather, I’d like to let the market decide! What do you think a can of fish is worth?”
“Wh-where are these underground springs?” One man asked.
“That’s a trade secret.” I scratched my nose. “However, I can guarantee you, as long as you make the journey worth the cost, I can continue to bring such food. I might even… ahem… let’s just say, I hope a relationship can be worked out.”
I was about to say that I could give them other foods as well, but it didn’t fit with the underground water source story. At the moment, it was best if I just stuck to tuna and water.
“I’ll give you 2 crystals for a can!’
“You cheapskate, I’d give him 5 crystals!”
“I meant large crystals!”
“Like you have that much, I do, and I’ll give you three large crystals!”
The crowd was starting to grow excited as more and more offers were tossed out. Just as it was starting to get a bit much, a gunshot sounded out. For a brief moment, I thought that people had started shooting. Then I saw a woman standing there holding a pistol in the air. Five other men with guns appeared as well. The crowd split while grumbling as the one who shot the pistol walked up to us.
“The mayor would like to have a word with you.” She said.
I felt a sinking feeling. Perhaps my pitch had been a bit too good?