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The next morning, I woke up with a soreness in my back and a throbbing headache. I hadn’t even stayed up to watch guard. The two girls had shared the shift between themselves. I hadn’t asked them to, but when I woke up to sunlight, I knew it was the case. Neither girl looked at me or mentioned it. Maybe they thought I was already near the breaking point and needed the rest. I didn’t know, and since I was filled with worry, it wasn’t something I spent too much time thinking about.

I pulled water and a small breakfast out of my digitizer. Since coming to this world, I didn’t dare eat anything from it. Nothing looked particularly appetizing. They were mutated roots grown from brown, desiccated plants, fried parts from oversized rats, and cockroaches. Most of it had a base level of radiation, and while it wasn’t enough to hurt you if you ate it sparingly, over years you’d build up enough radiation to become irradiated.

This was often the major difference between a colonist and a Wastelander. Colonists remained in a closed-off facility where everything was endlessly recycled and no radiation was allowed to enter. Thus, even after being expelled, like Katarina, they still had bodies that were essentially radiation-free. In time, that would no longer be the case, and Katarina would be as exposed as every other Wastelander. I understood that I held that same risk, which was why I didn’t ingest anything from this world. I also avoided wearing anything from this world, and everything I did bring back got a treatment of Rad-B-Gone.

Of course, I didn’t want Red or Katarina to be continually exposed to radiation either, so I offered them food. Considering the taste was much better than the spoiled, spice-less, tasteless crap that they usually ate in this world, they gladly consumed what I gave them. They probably didn’t even care about the radiation at this point. It was just a necessary consequence of eating in this world. In time, I hoped to make larger quantities of Rad-Z and start decontaminating everyone who worked under me, but unfortunately, that was a problem for the future. At the very least, we could get them anti-cancer drugs.

As we left the inn, the innkeeper gave me a crude look, suddenly reminding me how he had left me a single bed for which he had charged an arm and a leg. Remembering the previous night, I wondered if he had thought I had spent the night playing with my companions. I decided to ignore him and quickly left the inn, only to find the city much busier now. All of the people who slept outside of the city to save money had come in for breakfast and news. It was extremely colorful, although I didn’t see any mutants among the groups inside Route 67.

If I was being honest, there was very little difference I could see from those that called themselves Wastelanders compared to the raiders in the tents during Ascension’s gathering. Perhaps, they wore a bit more clothing and showed less skin. They might have fewer piercings and less strange hairdos, and generally wearing more utilitarian clothing. However, whether it was how they held a weapon, the dangerous and untrusting look they provided others, or the grizzled appearances, they lived just as difficult a life.

It caused me to wonder just how girls like Red, Feather, and Kiera were able to make it. Raven had gotten by hiding her sex, but the others managed alright without. That reminded me that they probably hadn’t managed too well. Feather and Kiera had both faced trauma I would never understand. Red, on the other hand, likely had her history and secrets that she hid behind her sex appeal and flippant behavior.

Thoughts like these only caused me to reinforce my goals. I would not allow Hazel to fall down that same path. Today, I’d buy a small army of slaves, enough that no one would dare toy with me, and then we’d storm that old Allco R&D and I’d take my sister back. Marsh would pay for every hair on her head, whether he harmed them or not!

“The looks not bad, but there is such a thing as remaining low key.” Red suddenly offered, breaking me out of my thoughts. “You’re going to get into a fight.”

I realized I had been scowling at everyone as we walked through town. A few had seemingly taken it as a challenge and scowled back. Others were giving Red and Katarina interested looks like they thought they might come over to talk to them. I quickly schooled my face.

“No, you went too far in the other direction.” Red cleared her throat. “That look tells people you’re a pushover. Try something in the middle.”

I didn’t care about any of this, but after thinking a bit more about it, I realized I didn’t want to end up fighting people who weren’t my enemy just because I was being stubborn and looked at someone the wrong way. I tried to do what she asked, giving something tense, without looking like a pushover. Red looked at me, and then suddenly let out a snort, covering her mouth. Did I do it wrong?”

“Just look like yourself,” Katarina whispered, pinching my arm. “You want to avoid getting into a fight, look like you have somewhere to be. The person passing by is the one seen the least. Let’s get a move on. People are heading to the auction now.”

I nodded, and the three of us started heading out of the town. The armed guards didn’t even look twice at people leaving. It wasn’t like the Rink. I supposed that there was a tradeoff between freedom and safety. The Rink was on the more authoritarian side, the raiders were on the freedom side, and then you had something in the middle like this place.

Katarina had been right. As soon as we were on our way, the ones eyeing on had found something else to do. We were soon back to walking, although we didn’t take as many precautions this time as we had the day before on the stretch here. That was because we could see several groups of Wastelanders moving on ahead of us. We were also under the shade of the elevated highway, which gave a fair amount of close cover.

“Welcome. Safety is our number 1.” A loud mechanical voice said, causing me to nearly jump.

I looked to see a large disk floating down the path. It looked a bit like the scout droids from the hospital, although it wasn’t low down to the ground, and it seemingly had more armor and weapons.

“It’s a Ranger class droid. They patrol up and down Route 67. No one knows why. I heard they were let out a droid factory somewhere.  It’s the other reason this path is secure.” Katarina explained.

“Some say the factory is still making droids, which is why even when one is destroyed, they don’t seem to have any less,” Red added.

“Just don’t shoot it or anyone else while it’s around. It’s set to peacekeeper settings.” Katarina warned. “It doesn’t take sides. If there is a shootout, it’ll kill both parties until the fighting is stopped. Also, if we run into a mutant or a feral, it’s best just to run and let it take care of them. Yelling ‘help’ triggers it to come, or so I’ve been told.”

“I see…” I watched the Ranger droid carefully and then typed some stuff into my Perco.

Any chance we can send the Master code?

“No,” Cecelia responded out loud. “It doesn’t work like that. That requires a direct connection.”

The thing was floating twenty feet in the air, so the idea of getting a direct connection on one of those already felt impossible. Katarina looked at my Perco curiously.

“You were thinking she might be able to hack one?” She asked.

I had chosen to be honest with Katarina, but even then, I still kept some things from her. She knew that I could travel to another world, but she still didn’t know about the Master code. She just knew I had the hacking ability. Even though I had exhibited this ability long before getting Cecelia, she now treated them synonymously. The only reason I hadn’t explained it is that it didn’t seem necessary. Katarina already understood enough of the situation.

Still, I didn’t like Red eyeballing us from the side. If anyone didn’t need to know my full capabilities, it was her. As soon as I got back, I reminded myself to get a Bluetooth earpiece so that I could talk with Cecelia without anyone else hearing what she said.

“It seems I’d need a direct connection if I wanted any hope. Getting a few security droids for ourselves won’t be easy. A central hub like we found in the hospital isn’t a common setup. I suppose the hospital wanted the ability to shut down droids instantly if they malfunctioned, while these guys…” I decided I didn’t need to finish that thought.

“Up there…” Katarina gestured suddenly. “You see how the highway curves to the right, and then you see the offramp?”

I squinted into the distance, realizing Katarina had much better eyes than me. Which part of her 6S was sight? I did vaguely make out something reflecting the sun brightly. Was that glass panels.

“That’s the Brunstein mall. That’s where the slavers are.”

We were almost there.

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