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“Why are you taking the lead?” Red whispered, glaring at Katarina as we finally made it behind the cover of the tall grass. “I’m the one who got the information on the location of the slavers.”

Katarina glanced over at Red, her face expressionless. “I’ve been this way before.”

“Seriously?” Red frowned. “Why would you be out here?”

“The slave camp… is close to the colony I grew up in.”

Red’s eyes widened. “Wait, we’re going toward the dome?”

I frowned. “Is this the dome that is currently sending out a distress call?” I asked cautiously.

“It is…”

“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”

“I don’t know the coordinates of the colony by heart.” She snapped. “I wasn’t certain until we reached the edge of town.”

I bit my lip, immediately feeling foolish for grilling her like that. It had just come as a bit of a surprise. Why were the slavers making up camp right near a colony dome? One answer stood out, but it was a bad one. Either they were the ones trying to smoke the colony out, or they were the scavengers there to buy up anyone that was captured. Either option spoke badly for Katarina’s former home.

“Katarina… will there be a problem?”

“It’s fine.” She responded shortly, shooting us both a cold stare. “Just keep up with me and remain quiet.”

She didn’t say anything else before turning and moving off into the grass. With a breath, I followed after her. The three of us kept quiet as we moved through the brush, remaining low. This reminded me of the first time I had followed Katarina to the Rink. I was in an environment I was unfamiliar with. There were enemies potentially everywhere. All I could do was trust in her. When she lifted her hand, I stopped. When she gestured down, I lowered myself and hid.

Off in the distance, I could hear grass stalks shaking as unimaginable horrors trampled by. We’d wait quietly, praying we weren’t seen, and only once they left did we continue again. It seemed unbelievable that anyone could make this journey on their own, except that Katarina had once done that. When she was kicked from her colony, she would have made this trek, and she wouldn’t have had a clue about the Wasteland. It would have been like me when I first teleported to this world.

I had no clue how much the colony was in tune with the world outside, so this was all my fanciful imagination, but I couldn’t help but think about such things. As for Katarina, her back was to me and it didn’t seem like she was open to discussion. We walked on silently and I couldn’t only consider things while keeping my mouth shut.

Much like when we had traveled in the city, our movements were slow and methodic, and many hours passed by. However, unlike the city where every corner brought new buildings and new piles of demolition, the desolate area out here truly earned the name wasteland. There was nothing but gnarled blackened trees and long brown grass. Mind you, I didn’t dare to get a peek from a higher vantage point because there were shadows that occasionally flew overhead from seemingly enormous birds. I never got a good look at them as they had passed by before I could look up, but by my guess, they were large enough to eat a man whole, and I’d rather not signal my presence to them.

“We’re getting close,” Katarina announced after we moved for what felt like forever.

The sun had passed the zenith, and Katarina pointed to a monument that even I could see through the tall grass. However, a second look showed that it wasn’t a monument, but a highway. The highway had risen off the ground in large pillars. Some of it had collapsed, but a lot of it was still up. I supposed it made a lot of sense. If you wanted shelter out here from the sky, what better place than massive concrete structures overhead? As for a Dome designed to save people in the event of an emergency, where would be a better place to put it than off a highway exit?

“I see… so we’re going to Route 67 first?” Red asked, and when Katarina glanced at her, she shrugged. “You’re not the only one who’s left Argos.”

“Well, let’s assume I haven’t,” I spoke up. “What’s Route 67?”

“It’s just a small Wastelander outpost.” Red seemed eager to show her knowledge. “Anyone coming to Argos from the north goes through it.”

“The highway is a rather safe method to travel north to other cities, relatively speaking. There are a lot of places scattered along it. The dome is up about a mile, and if my guess is right, the slavers have made camp in the old Brunstein Mall which is across the way.” Katarina explained.

“If there are up along the path, why are we stopping here?” I asked.

“Did you never hear the quote?” Red asked. “The cheapest things in the Wasteland are-”

“People and bullets, yes, I’ve heard.”

“Well, there is a second part. The most expensive thing is information. If we’re going to approach the slavers, then it’s best if we know more. What slaver camp is it, for example. Ah… I bet you didn’t know there are several.” Red smirked.

“I-” I closed my mouth.

I didn’t know anything about this world. As soon as I thought I knew something, something else seemed to come up and surprise me. I didn’t even know Argos city yet, and there was an entire world out there equal to my world.

“Some slavers are better than others.”

“I thought they lived by a code.” I frowned.

She chuckled. “ A code… in the Wasteland? Sure, they sort of have rules. If they didn’t, who would work with them? However, see how quickly codes and rules are thrown out when you’re desperate or starving. At least knowing which slaver group it is can help us at the negotiation table.”

I nodded, keeping my mouth shut from then on. There was no point in talking about things that I didn’t know much about. I could only follow on as we settled. There was a massive pile of concrete rubble. A piece of the bridge had seemingly collapsed near one of the piles, making a sort of half teepee. Within that crack of space, a small town had seemingly been erected. Other than the Rink, this was the second town I had ever encountered. The first was completely indoors as part of a former ice rink. This one was outdoors, with shabby structures assembled by sheet metal, concrete slabs, and rock. It looked a derelict as everything else.

“After all these years, can’t they build better shelters?” I asked myself as we approached the front.

“Many of these people would ask why bother?” Red answered, causing me to realize I had spoken out loud. “Few settlements last more than a few years. Once one looks nice enough, it becomes the target of mutants and humans alike and is inevitably ransacked. They want to steal what you have. Most Wastelanders have long come to realize this, and thus they don’t bother to make anything look too nice. It’s better to be mobile and able to abandon everything in a heartbeat than try to build something long-lasting and memorable.”

“That seems like a really sad way to live…” I responded wistfully.

“If you want to build something nice, you need to have the power to back it up. You should already understand this. You’ve merely announced your intent to build something nice, and raiders are tripping over each other to knock you down. The entire reason we’re out here is that they seek to take from you… It’s not just you. The colonies have managed to protect themselves too, but just barely. Now, one of those colonies is being wrung dry for the same reason…” Red glanced over at Katarina as if she just remembering she came from such a colony. “Oh, sorry.”

Katarina didn’t respond, instead, leading the rest of the way in. Three men with rifles appeared as we approached. This wasn’t much different from when I had come to the Rink, at least. Katarina put up her smart rifle and held up her hands. Then I followed after her, as did Red. The men approached us, but after getting a good look at us, they waved and then backed away. They didn’t ask any questions and they didn’t confiscate our weapons.

I glanced at Katarina, who shrugged. “This place isn’t as protected at the Rink. It’s every person for themselves out here.”

I gulped, suddenly wishing they did take our weapons. All this meant was that everyone on the inside was armed. Although Argos city had its list of dangers, the area outside of it had its dangers that were just as alarming. The group of us didn’t speak as we headed into the small settlement known as Route 67.

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