Blighted Badlands — The Only Way Is Up
James had no idea how long he had been staring out over the bleak landscape below, his cigarette long extinguished.
An endless array of heavy industrial machines ploughed the dead ground, recycling scrap metal and other unwanted parts into passably useable basic items — that was all that most denizens of the Blighted Badlands could afford with the depressed wages that came their way working blue-collar jobs.
In the distant horizon, he could see a glimpse of the fabled Sky Citadel twinkling. It was an artificial set of lands set in rarified air — and virtually inaccessible to all who remained on Dusktopia. The domain’s inhabitants made no secret of the fact that they lived unimaginably lavish lifestyles: as prime power brokers, they controlled the vast majority of business activity and kept everyone in check with allies bought and paid for in every sector of society.
For a twelve-hour shift at the junkyard, James was paid a measly 4 $DAWN. That would be enough to pay rent at a small capsule dormitory, get a pair of meal squares and have just enough left over for a pack of cigarettes.
A sloppy man in a ruffled police uniform sidled over. “Sick of this shit?” he asked.
James absent-mindedly flicked his cigarette butt into the junkyard grounds. “Pays the bills,” he replied.
“You sure? I bet I get double what you’re making here just to beat in the skulls of degen gamblers a couple hours a day,” the policeman sneered.
“Being a cop is that good?” James asked, his interest piqued.
The policeman laughed. “No way. I’ve got a side gig doing enforcement for the Chinese Mafia over at the pachinko shops; easiest money ever if you have a police uniform. You don’t, but you look like you’ve got some muscle, so I could get you in if you’re interested.”
“And what would I have to do for you guys?” James replied.
The policeman’s demeanor turned serious. “It’s not all fun and games. You have to be ready to kill — not just for money, but to survive. These gamblers will do anything to escape paying their debts; some will double down and borrow more, and some will get violent with those of us trying to collect.”
He pulled up his sleeve, revealing a deep knife scar. “Costs of the trade,” he remarked. “Anyway, if you’re squeamish, there’s a lot of other low-level shit you can do — smuggling, running interference on legit police, being an informer… just that being muscle pays pretty well and I like beating deadbeats up. Don’t have to tell me what you think today, just sleep on it and I’ll check in on you in a bit.”
James lit up another cigarette. The money sounded enticing but being arrested for Mafia related stuff carried stiff penalties — besides jail, you could forget ever getting employed in the ‘regular’ industrial sectors ever again, so this would essentially be a lifetime bond to a criminal organisation that did not hesitate to brutally punish its members for minor perceived infractions.
He took another look up into the distance at the twinkling silhouette of the Sky Citadel. There were rumours that some key Mafia bosses were funded by the banking sector up there, with some even having the privilege of maintaining small residences in the aerial metropolises. Would there be another way to make the treacherous climb up the ranks? Almost no way if he remained a lowly junkyard scrapper; getting promoted was not a concept recognised in this post-apocalyptic version of Earth, especially in the dank confines of the Blighted Badlands.
James turned around — the police officer was receding into the distance — and started running to catch up. All he needed was a chance to climb.
一望无尽的起重机和其他重型工业机器在死地里耕作，将废金属和其他不需要的零件回收成可以使用的基本生活物品 — 这是大多数荒芜之地的居民微薄的收入所能承担的极限了。
在遥远的地平线上，他可以瞥见传说中的凌空城堡轻微闪烁着。这是一组人造土地，位于稀薄的空气中 — 对于地球上的遗民而言基本上是遥不可及的地方。那里的居民从不掩饰他们过着超乎想象的奢华生活：作为主要权力掮客，他们通过收买的盟友控制着绝大多数商业活动。
警察的态度变得严肃起来， “这并不是儿戏。你得有杀人的觉悟 — 不仅仅是为了钱，而是为了生存。这些赌徒为了逃避债务会不择手段；有些人会加倍下注并借更多钱，有些人会对我们这些试图收债的人暴力相对。”
他挽起袖子，露出一道深深的刀痕。 “代价。 不管怎样，只要你足够疯狂，还有不少类似的事情你可以做 — 走私、干扰警方办案、当线人……肌肉发达总归是能赚钱的，而我喜欢殴打无赖。不需要今天给我答复，先沉淀一阵子好好考虑，到时我会找你。”
詹姆斯又点了一支烟。报酬听起来很诱人，但为了黑手党犯案被捕会受到严厉的惩罚 — 除了入狱之外，也别想在任何“常规”工业部门工作，基本上就是与为了小事能严惩成员的犯罪组织签订终身合同。
警察正在后退 — 詹姆斯猛地转身，迈开脚步往上追赶。他需要的，只是一个往上爬的机会。