As we approached the mall, the crowds of people grew. This was the most people I had seen nearby in the Wasteland since the Ascension gathering of the raiders. The crowds were bunching up at the entrance, where there seemed to be some kind o check before you were allowed into the mall. I wondered if the slavers would confiscate guns, but it turned out this was just a means of collecting an entry fee.
The lines were formed leading up to glass tubes with a small service desk at the front. Within each tube was a humanoid robot. The neck, head, and shoulders were all part of the main body, while the hands were three claws. They spoke in a mechanical voice that one might expect. It sounded chipper and soothing for customer service, but it contrasted badly against the gruff and somewhat irate crowd.
“Seriously? You’re going to charge us to see the slaves?” Someone shouted when they reached the front. “This is bullshit!”
“You don’t have to enter the mall if you do not wish to.” The robot responded.
“No! I’m entering. I didn’t come all this way so I could not see the selection, but I’m not paying these stupid fees!”
“Sir, do not push your luck.”
“Hey! Fuck you!” He flipped the robot off behind a glass counter and then ran around the tube.
He started to walk into the mall, shoving several people out of his way. The robot didn’t turn to look at him, but he did seem to press a button. A turret dropped out of the ceiling and immediately locked on the guy. When he saw it, he barely had time to let out a cry as it started shooting. There was a crowd of people around him, and when the turret went off, the area exploded into pandemonium. The man was pelted with a hundred bullets, but as the people nearby tried to run, a few of them were hit too.
When it was all done, there were three bodies on the floor, but the one who had received the most was the guilty man. The others were only guilty of being too close to him when the guns went off. A robot with a lighted siren came out. It looked like a small truck with two arms on the front. It stopped in front of each body, grabbed the person, and then chucked them into the back. Once all three bodies were picked up, it drove over the spot, and I realized there was a floor cleaner at its feet in front. It did only a quick, sloppy run over the bloodstains before taking off. The entire process took about a minute, and soon everything was back to business again.
“Idiot, it was just a few crystals.” The guy in front of us snorted. “If you can’t pay that much, how do you think you can afford a slave?”
“Those…” I tried to work the moisture back into my mouth. “Those defenses are part of the mall?”
“Modified by the slavers.” Katarina shrugged.
“They have the money to do flashy things like that. What a raider wouldn’t give to have that kind of income, right?” Red added.
“I thought turrets and robots were rare.”
“Slavers cast a wide net,” Katarina explained. “They can get their hands on things that none of us can.”
“There are some pretty well-equipped groups outside of Argos city, although they are too busy being at war with each other to give Argos City much mind.” Red nodded.
I thought about their words and once again reminded myself just how small my exposure to this world had been. A few weeks and a few blocks did not make up this entire world. Although the city looked to be desolate and abandoned, there seemed to be a fair amount hiding just out of sight.
“Welcome to the Trade Show. Two small crystals per person please.”
“Are we going to be able to trade with other stuff inside?” I asked the robot.
“Currency accepted is agreed upon before trade. Currency exchange stations may also be used. If you do not have the required payment, please see the currency exchange station outside of the mall and to your right.”
The machine turned and gestured without pointing to another kiosk that was a distance away. The line was nearly three times as long.
“That won’t be necessary,” Katarina spoke up quickly before whispering to me. “It’ll be three times as expensive out here.”
I nodded in agreement and then I brought the money out of my inventory. I didn’t have a lot of money in crystals left, which was why I wanted to check that other supplies could be exchanged. The robot took the crystals and then a beam of light shot out. The line ran down my face before I could react and then went on to Katarina and Red’s faces.
“Your appearance has been logged. Make sure to follow all rules, or expect swift termination.” It stated, still in that chipper voice.
Being threatened by this robot in such a carefree manner caused my spine to tingle, but there were Wastelanders behind me in line still waiting and I didn’t want to piss them off by dragging things out. I immediately left the desk and started heading for the doors. I made sure to avoid the entrance where the three people had been shot. All that was left was a little bit of blood splatter on the doorway.
This was not a place to be carefree. I just had to follow the rules. I didn’t know what the rules were until we entered through the entrance, and right in front of us was a large wall that had once been a two-story water feature. It was dry now, and text had been written on the wall like it was the commandments.
- All trades must involve a slaver’s guild certified moderator.
- All slaves must be registered with the slaver’s guild.
- All offers must be met with immediate payment.
- Theft is prohibited.
- Violence is prohibited.
Although the lettering said very clearly that violence was prohibited, I only felt increasingly in danger. Several ranger-type robots were floating overhead, and there was even a destroyer at the entrance. I could count numerous turrets as well, and those were the ones that were out in the open. How many were hidden in the ceiling like the one that killed that guy?
As I was eyeing the security, I was also getting a feel for how this place was built. It was a two-story mall, but there was no roof over the hallways. It was an outdoor mall where only the shops were indoor. The place wasn’t completely dedicated to the slaves. I immediately saw one store that had seemingly been rented out to sell guns. There was another store that had common goods. A third store had a naked woman dancing in front of the glass. I immediately looked away from that direction.
“Guns, alcohol, and sex… no better combination.” Red took in a deep breath, chuckling to herself.
“Not quite what I expected,” I spoke weakly. “It’s kind of like a fair.”
In some ways, they had achieved the very bazaar I had wanted to create. It gave me a very complicated feeling seeing a place that had done what I wanted to do but had already done it better. Of course, I wasn’t going to sell some of the less savory things they had for sale, but this reflected my dream to me. Part of me wanted to open up my shop here, although I had to remind myself this setup was only temporary and I wasn’t here to make money.
“The slavers create a safe place, rent it out, and people come to make money. Such a meeting doesn’t happen every day, especially near Argos.” Red declared, seemingly somewhat excited by the lively atmosphere.
“You’re in charge, what do we do next?” Katarina asked, seemingly intentionally taking some steam out of Red’s excitement.
“It’d be better if we got more crystals,” I explained.
I had failed to earn crystals at my bazaar, so my best shot was to trade for them here. I couldn’t depend on everyone being willing to take food for the money. Furthermore, I was low on crystals, and they were ultimately what powered my ability to jump back and forth. Running out of crystals and being stuck in this world would truly suck.
The group of us went to the Currency Exchange. They had several different options. Bullets, tech, scrap… ah… food. I looked at the prices, and Katarina nearly broke into a coughing fit.
“That’s the exchange rate!” Katarina said. “This is criminal.
The rate was one pound of food for one small crystal. Even I could see that this was an extremely bad rate. A pound of food was about a week of food for someone in the wasteland. That had a value closer to a large crystal. If that was all of it, that was one thing, but they also had a 15% transaction fee. In other words, you needed 1.15 pounds of food to claim a single small crystal, and 11.50 lbs for a large crystal.
“How many crystals would a single slave cost?” I asked numbly.
“The cheapest… 50 large crystals. You’ll need at least a great crystal for anything good.
That was a lot of food.