The setting sun was as red as blood, staining the ground with its crimson light. Sand was being kicked up throughout the desert wastelands.
The patchwork vehicle was like a berserk animal that was charging straight towards the outpost. Moments before it collided with the gates, the driver furiously spun the wheel, causing the car to come to a loud, screeching halt in a horizontal ‘parked’ position. The wheels dug two deep gouges into the soft earth before the vehicle was finally stabilized, even though it shuddered and clanked as though it was about to burst with fire. A few pieces of unknown machinery actually broke off and fell to the ground.
“Ahaha!” The fat man let out a jubilant laugh, not worried about the vehicle at all as he snuffed out his cigarette on the dashboard. “We’re back!”
After suffering through this unspeakably rocky ride, Cloudhawk couldn’t help but start to puke up a storm. Alas, there was no food in his stomach at all, and so all he was able to puke up was bile. As for the surrounding mercenaries, they all started to laugh and mock their latest rookie.
“This kid is such a pussy. He’s useless!”
“If you wanna go back and be a scav, there’s still time!”
Cloudhawk felt as though his intestines were falling apart. Who the hell could endure a car ride like that?
These mercenaries drove like suicidal madmen. This was Cloudhawk’s second time riding a car. For him to be able to endure it for as long as he had was already quite impressive. Cloudhawk lifted his head up and was about to start arguing with the mercenaries, but his words died on his lips as he stared numbly towards the front.
This was a place which could actually be called a town. It was ringed with a layer of bristling steel wire fences, with many ruined tires, boulders, and sandbags stacked together to form a defensive ‘wall’, with a series of wooden watchtowers overlooking from behind. The watchtowers were roughly seven or eight meters tall, and each watchtower had numerous archer guards within them.
“Tartarus mercs. Open up!”
The ‘gate’ was really just a heavily modified jumbo truck that was parked horizontally in front of an opening. Once the guards verified their identities the truck drove off to one side, allowing them to enter. The outpost was filled with many ragged, makeshift houses that were clustered in a haphazard fashion, the vast majority of which had people within them. At the very center, there was a tall building that seemed exceptionally eye-catching.
So this was an excavator base?
Cloudhawk’s heart was filled with incredible eagerness and excitement. All his life, for as far back as he could remember, he had been a scavenger who had been trying to survive the ruins as best he could. Every day, he ate bugs and grass to stay alive while drinking highly contaminated rainwater. Becoming an excavator… this was Cloudhawk’s dream!
The outpost was now before his very eyes. Was he about to discard his former life of dining on the wind and sleeping out in the open?
Some of the guards walked over to greet them. “Y’all have been gone for several days. Must’ve made a killing this time!”
The outpost guards were dressed in bronze-colored leather armor, and they wore both wind goggles and breathing masks that covered half of their faces. Their gazes were focused on Cloudhawk, and one of them said in a rather malicious way, “Hey, a fresh face? That’s against regs!”
Regs? In this era, there were no such things as regulations!
These people were nothing more than watchdogs. Mad Dog and Slyfox didn’t hold them in any regard, but there was no point in offending them on purpose. In addition, they really had made a killing on this mission. Slyfox magnanimously offered the guards half a pack of cigarettes. “A killing? We risk our necks every day. You guys have it much better. This kid is a new recruit. Take it easy on us, arrright?”
“Slyfox, no need to be so polite. How could we make things hard for you? Hurry on in!”
Mad Dog gave the rather dazed Cloudhawk a hard push, and he immediately scurried inside alongside the mercenaries.
In an era of chaos, building up a homeland was no easy task. Everyone had to start from scratch, and everything you needed you’d have to manufacture for yourself. Blackflag Outpost was fully equipped and outfitting, making it quite a rare sight in the wastelands. It had inns, bars, warehouses, parking lots… it essentially had everything.
As a central excavator hub, it also had all sorts of things for sale. Metal instruments, strange parts, leather and cloth… all types of shops and stalls could be found here. If you were lucky enough and skilled enough, you’d be able to cobble together a suit of armor from those various parts and components, or perhaps a pistol. In fact, you might even be able to assemble your own vehicle.
This was an excavator base. A completely different world!
“Blackflag Outpost aint a charity operation. Every single person who lives here has to pay a price for it. Wanna enjoy the resources this place has to offer? Then use your life to fight for it!” The fat man summarized it thusly: “This place is Heaven for the strong, but Hell for the weak.”
After speaking, he reached down subconsciously to grab a cigarette, only to remember that he had already given away that half-pack. He let out a few curses towards the gate guards, then continued to speak to Cloudhawk. “Remember. If you aint strong enough, then this place won’t be much better than the wastelands. In fact, it could be worse!”
Right at this moment, Cloudhawk noticed a number of skeletally thin women dressed in tattered rags who were standing by the roadside. Ignoring the piercing cold, they put on all sorts of alluring poses as they tried to seduce the men passing by, their faces filled with looks of entreaty.
“What are they doing?”
“In this day and age, men trade their lives while women trade their flesh. That’s how the world works!”
Cloudhawk was slightly stunned.
“You’ll see people like them everywhere. Give’m a piece of bread and you can play with their bodies however you like. The tents, the back rooms, the alleyways, the intersections… they really are everywhere.” Slyfox was an experienced old hand in this regard, and he put his knowledge on full display, not really caring about whether Cloudhawk understood or not. “Problem is, the streetwalkers are no good. Most of them have some mutations, and if you screw’m enough you’ll catch something from’m. The better ones are generally in the bars or are part of someone’s private collection. Those’ll be a bit more expensive.”
Slyfox continued to impart his wisdom, but Cloudhawk didn’t listen to a single thing the fat man said. His attention was completely focused upon a woman who was sitting on the ground. She was so gaunt that she seemed to have no flesh on her bones at all; she really was nothing more than skin and bones. A festering sarcoma covered half of her face, and most of her hair had fallen out, revealing a large number of pus-filled pimples. In her arms, she held an infant wrapped in tattered rags.
The foul stench of rot and decay emanated from the rags. Clearly, the infant had died many days ago.
The look in the woman’s eyes stirred something in Cloudhawk’s heart. He had seen this look on far, far too many occasions, a look of despair, pain, and complete numbness, almost as if she had fallen into a hell of endless darkness, never to see a sliver of light again. Her ruined body was still struggling at death’s door, but she herself was mentally dead.
“The fuck you looking at?” Slyfox irritably slapped Cloudhawk upside the head. “I’m warning you. From the looks of her, she’s probably filled with all kinds of mutations. If you screw her, your dick will probably rot off inside!”
Cloudhawk was dragged away by the mercenaries. As for the woman, she just sat there with her rotting baby in her arms, not moving at all. It was as though she herself was nothing more than a corpse waiting to rot away. As for the passing travelers, few of them spared her a glance. Most of them had long since grown accustomed to such sights.
Cloudhawk began to grow confused. Weren’t all excavators supposed to be able to dress in warm clothes, eat warm bread, and drink clean water? Why was this completely different from what he had imagined?!
It was like a pail of icy water had been thrown over his excitement and anticipation. It was like a child eagerly unwrapping a present, only to find a pile of shit inside.
The outpost had quite a few crude shop stalls. However, there was no money here; the system was purely operated on the basis of bartering, with food, bullets, and fuel being the most commonly used instruments of trade.
Next to them was a small inn, not quite thirty square meters in size, which was filled with murky smoke. A young, lithe, and completely nude woman was standing atop a stage, writhing about undulously under the dim lighting. Her rear was so perky, quite a few of the men nearby wanted to step up and give it a hard squeeze.
“Slaaaaves! Slaves for sale!”
Up ahead was a fierce-faced slave trader standing atop a dais, spittle flying from his mouth as he extolled his products… three women and two men.
“They are absolutely clean, guaranteed. No sicknesses, no mutations. You can bring the women and keep them in your private collection. They have firm tits and perky asses. I guarantee they are worth the money!
“The men are strong and muscular. They’ll be good workers. If you spend a bit of time and effort on them, they’ll be strong gladiators as well. They might even win you some money in the gladiator pits. Don’t miss out!”
The three women and two men allowed others to touch and squeeze them as they pleased. They didn’t have looks of despair or pain on their faces; instead, they smiled in a pandering fashion, hoping that they would find a good master who would treat them well.
A wind blew through a nearby alleyway, bringing with it the stench of rotting corpses. Every day, one or two people would die within these side alleys and hidden corners. There was nothing strange about this.
Smokes, wine, women… lust, violence, corruption… these were the main themes of this place, and the smell of decadence and moral decay filled every inch of it.
Men traded their lives. Women traded their flesh.
Heaven for the strong. Hell for the weak.
Cloudhawk was beginning to understand what Slyfox had said to him.
In the center of the outpost there was an erect stone stele, as well as a few rules that seemed to have been written with blood. The stone stele only described what the rules were, not what the punishments were… but the burnt and blackened stakes next to them quietly explained it all! Every single stake had badly burnt corpses that were tied to them using steel chains. In the outpost, there was just one type of punishment – execution by fire!
“See that?” Slyfox pointed as he spoke. “That place up ahead is the private residence of the outpost commander. I’m warning you right now – stay the hell away from that place. They’ll crush you as easily as a cockroach, and would care less!”
The towering building Slyfox was pointing to could be seen from the outpost gates, as prominent as a crane within a flock of chickens. Electric lights could be seen illuminating the rooms within the building. Electricity… this was an extremely precious and rare commodity. There were very few scavengers in the wastelands who were lucky enough to excavate a power generator of the Old Times or who had the skills to create one. Only a very, very elite few were able to make use of this precious resource.
So this was the commander’s residence?
Cloudhawk couldn’t help but fantasize about what was inside. What sort of three-headed, six-armed freak could possibly be so powerful as to control and command an outpost like this? Be so mighty as to ensure that even fierce fellows like Slyfox and Mad Dog would have no choice but to comply, not daring to revolt?
“You came at just the right time.” Slyfox stared at the words on the stone stele, then sighed. “A year ago, Blackflag Outpost was ten times as chaotic as it is now. You’d see rape and murder out in the open, and both the slave traders and ‘meat merchants’ hunted and grabbed people with impunity. Ever since the new commander arrived, things have taken a turn for the better. She personally wrote all the words on this stone stele.”
“New commander? What happened to the old one?”
“Whaddya think?” Slyfox looked at Cloudhawk as if he were an idiot. “Killed, of course! There’s no such thing as a permanent commander. Every so often, an old commander will be killed, and the killer will become the new commander. Eventually, he’ll be killed and replaced as well. People always follow the strong. If you think you are tough enough, you can go and challenge the commander as well!”
Slyfox and Mad Dog were tough, but they were still nothing more than mercenaries. They relied on the outpost to provide them with the information and missions they needed to earn their commissions and feed themselves. They would never dare to disobey the commander or to try to take that position for themselves. As for Cloudhawk, he wouldn’t even dare to imagine such a thing!
A raucous commotion could be heard coming from up ahead. More than ten men who were dressed like outpost guards and who wore breathing masks were working together to drag an enormous corpse forwards.
Amazingly enough, they were actually dragging a long, strange beast that was roughly half a meter thick. Its sticky skin was emanating a mucous-like fluid that instantly drenched the ground beneath it, causing a series of corrosive sizzling sounds that caused Cloudhawk’s blood to run cold.
Although the beast was only half a meter thick, it was roughly ten meters long. Not too far away from the soldiers was an area where the ground seemed to have been churned. There was also an opening in the ground which was roughly half a meter in diameter. The surrounding area was covered with that mucous-like fluid, and there were a number of corpses on the ground as well. Those corpses had all been heavily corroded to the point where they looked as though they were made of melting wax.
“Oh, fuck, another giant earthworm? For fuck’s sake, that’s the second one this month!”
Cloudhawk had never seen such a terrifying creature before. “W-what is that?!”
Slyfox shook his head. “When you have this many people gathered together in an outpost… if I was a mutabeast, I’d choose this place as my hunting grounds as well. Still, for a few to appear every so often is nothing. The real thing you have to worry about is mutabeasts waves. That’s what ends up wrecking most outposts.”
“Hah. Relaaaax. Nothing to be scared of.” One of the veteran mercenaries patted Cloudhawk on the shoulders. “You’ll get used to it, if you live long enough.”
When the outpost soldiers dragged the terrifying corpse through the streets, the nearby passersby all parted ways without even glancing at them. Were they really able to get used to such things?
Cloudhawk suddenly felt as though he was walking on thorns. Every single step he took made him feel extremely uncomfortable.