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Once, on holidays, there had been a little gong in front of the meeting-house that sat in the center of the village. Mounted on polished wood planks lacquered for protection against the weather, hung with fine green rope all the way from Beijing, its brass disc engraved with fanciful decorations and inscribed with simple messages of welcome, the gong had been perhaps the most valuable thing in the entire collection of houses and shops that constituted the village of Huaibo. Whenever an important official or rich stranger was spotted coming into the village, the villagers would assemble and ceremoniously hit the gong three times to welcome them in.
Now, the gong hung on the right side of the Harmonious Whale Type-90 Gatling Crawler, where with regular intervals it was struck, pealing out just like in the days of old. Only now, the one who owned it wasn't the village - they, in one way or another, were gone. Instead, the person who even now was starting to drive out of the dilapidated place was Hai Su-Bao, former vehicle driver for the People's Liberation Army, and now simply another survivor of the wasteland that was China.
He, and the Harmonious Whale had gone through the village only earlier that day, searching for any signs of life - the same goal as the last seven villages he had visited. And, just like the last seven, the search was fruitless. The buildings - more like shacks, ever since almost all usable material was taken to fuel the PLA's war machine - stood open and empty, wooden walls rotting away from the rains and tiled roofs partly caved in. There was no one left - whether they had simply died from the fallout or starvation, or had fled to try and find survivors Hai couldn't say. Still, he stuck around for an hour or so, poking around to see if he could find any of the most precious resource in post-death China - food.
There had been little. Some rice and barely enough for three canteens full of water from the local well was all there was edible and relatively safe enough to eat, but it would do. Hai Su-Bao had learned enough about hunger serving China, and there was always bound to be another village further up the road. And thus, after collecting what he could, Hai attached his new signaling device to the side of his Crawler and left the dead corpse of Huaibo behind.
In the wastelands of China, the Harmonious Whale drove on to an uncertain future.
For a while after the bombs had fallen, the dust that even now covered the skies at all times had settled, and Hai Su-Bao had deserted his military regiment (or what survived of them), he had seen people of all sorts on the roads and paths. Several of them were former soldiers, most were civilians fleeing for their lives, and some were even foreigners from beyond, but they all streamed out - usually, except for the foreigners, away from the former cities of both sides. But now, there was nobody out - all that Hai could see around him was nothing but empty wilderness. Terraced hills stood empty and abandoned, no farmers in the fields working them anymore. The fields and marshlands were empty of life, nothing around but the occasional glup of some mutated fish attempting to survive in the dank bogs or the dark shape of a waste bird attempting to pick out what food it could from the remains. Just like humanity, the wildlife was struggling to survive - and now, for China, the average person was reduced to the other animals in terms of what they sought out - not wealth, or ideals, but simply food.
For Hai, though, it was on the whole actually...peaceful. There was still a deep well of sadness and remorse in him, seeing the remains of his land, but the resignation of the future had tempered the sting, and he strived to see the good elements of life yet to keep him from just shutting down like so many of his former comrades. He had long since fled the battlefield along with several other deserts after the bombs fell - and even in post-bomb China, the countryside was more than soothing to his eyes compared to the acrid brown, red, and steel of the battlefields. Even with greying and yellowing fields, the dust cloud that perpetually blocked out the sun, the brackish pools of murky water, the occasional desolate houses that peppered the landscape, and the occasional rusting vehicle...inside the Harmonius Whale, alone with his thoughts and the constant beat of the village gong now with him, life wasn't too horrible...for now.
The Gatling Crawler treaded its way down the road and through fields for hours, the driver mostly silent, the only noise coming from the rumbling engine, the stamping of the treads, and the steady, continuous ring of the gong. Every so often, one of the many mutated animals of China would sound, or the dark shape of a bird would fly overhead, but other than that there were no signs of visible life. Hai continued on his path, the path to...well, if the directions had been correct, the path to Base Dog. It had been one of the few surviving bases in China, and there was, to be certain, safety in numbers even for former military soldiers.
When night fell, and the dusty fog of day gave way to the dusty fog of night, Hai pitched camp. The Harmonius Whale parked by a former farmestead, and an improvised cloth covering, made from several bits of clothing, towels, rags, and other materials was connected from it to the farmestead. Hai started a small fire, using parts of hte homestead and any nearby materials to fuel the blaze, and soon feasted on his small meal for the night - a cup of boiled rice, meat, and a small chunk of dusty and calcified but still edible bread. He was still somewhat hungry even with the rationed meal, and to take the edge off before sleep he took one of the bones kept in the cool, improvised freezer compartment at the back of his crawler and broke it sharply against a nearby rock. As the arm bone splintered, he started to climb up the side of the Crawler, sucking the marrow out of the cleanest section as he went. Afterwards, he lay on his back, and tried to look towards the stars - fruitless, since the fog kicked up by the bombs had long since turned day and night into perpetual haze - and remembered what life was like before.
Later, when the night had grown, and there was more potential for danger, Hai retreated to the Crawler, and fell asleep.
The next day, the Harmonius Whale was back on the road.
Under the yellow-grey haze of the mid-day dust cloud, faded red flecks of paint slowly falling behind it, the Gatling Crawler voyaged through the remnants of the Chinese countryside. Having had his breakfast (more rice and water) for the day, Hai was once more steadily beating the recently-aquired gong, unleashing a steady and repetitive ringing drone throughout the immediate area. Today, his goal was the same as every other day - find food, find tools, and find survivors - in that order. There was precious few of any of them, and that day - like most days - there was none to be found.
Under the brown haze of day, the remnants of China were, in a twisted, diseased way, oddly beautiful. Most everything was dead or fleeing, the smell of ash and smoke constantly filled the air, the landscape was wracked by burned villages or blackened glassy craters or former battlegrounds, and the wildlife that yet lived was sickenly mutated, but even in death China left a relatively beautiful corpse.
For over six hours since Hai had woken at the slow shift from blue to yellowish-brown haze, he had been traveling. At times, he would just turn the Crawler off the road, sit it in an empty field, and look around him. Other times, he would lazily read one of the few surviving books with him, driving with his knees on the steering wheel. A few times, far too few it seemed, he would take a quick drink of one of the water supplies he had left.
But otherwise, there was nothing...until at mid-day, when the haze and dust in the sky seemed brightest, he heard a scream and a cry for help.