It was intimidating to watch a large, athletic, and very dangerous man charge full tilt at her with a musket, one with a wicked knife on the end of it. Mei instinctively wanted to back down, to run, to beg for mercy.
But there was no mercy in those eyes. Only excitement. He grinned and moved so fast that he appeared to double in size, a giant coming after her.
The fear was nearly overwhelming. Her hand shook, and the barrel wavered from its target. She held off her shot, knowing she needed to wait until the last moment for the bullet to hit him.
The musket pointed and fired.
The bullet hit her in the side of the chest and it was like being kicked by a mule. She staggered back a step, eyes watering from the pain and shock. And then he was almost on her, so she hastily fired the pistol.
He twisted his torso and lowered his shoulder like a football player. The bullet hit him in the shoulder and bounced off, barely grazing him and not slowing him in the slightest. His grin widened, feral and full of teeth.
Her eyes widened and she tried to protect herself with her arm and the pistol. But he rammed into her with his whole body. The bayonet pierced her left bicep, the steel eerily scraping against the bone as it went in, a sensation that she wished she’d never experienced. The impact lifted her off her feet and then he slammed her to the ground. His weight and the bayonet pinned her to the ground, the blade going through her arm and into the soggy soil below. She cried out as the air was expelled from her lungs and gasped for breath.
The naval officer, who she thought might have been somewhat handsome if he hadn’t looked so happy to murder her, pressed down on her even more, glee in his eyes.
She whimpered and closed her own eyes from the pain, back trying to arch yet unable to do so with him pressing down on her. Her arm felt like it was being torn off!
“Should have given up,” he gloated.
She opened her watery eyes, his face a bit of a blur above her. “Why? So you can try to rape me again?”
He smirked. “This is a prison.”
“And that justifies doing whatever you want to the people in here?”
“If you’re in here, it means you deserve what you get.” He cruelly twisted the bayonet.
She grunted but refused to scream, though every muscle in her body tensed. Panting, she looked him in the eye. “Maybe some do. But I don’t.”
“They all say that,“ he mocked.
“Read my file, asshole!”
“Yeah yeah. Come on. It’s about time we ended this, huh?”
“You’re just as corrupt as the rest of them. I’m going to kill you too.”
“You wish.” He smiled wide and lowered his triumphant expression until it was only a handspan over hers, close enough to feel his breath on her face.
A tremor rippled through the ground, vibrating the blade in her bicep. Mei screamed, in mind-blowing pain, her vision white. In the back of her mind, she felt her attacker roll away but was helpless to do anything about it. Tears flowed down her face faster than the rain.
She eventually came back to her senses and a dim part of her brain wondered where the marine had gone. She opened her eyes and saw the old Carib woman from the village charging him with a spear. No!
The marine contemptuously batted the weapon aside. With brutal efficiency, he punched her twice in the weathered face. Her legs turned to jelly but, before she could fall, his hands grasped her skull.
“Stop!” Mei screamed. “Leave her alone!”
Hearing her, the marine turned. Making sure that she could see everything, he cruelly twisted her head.
The old woman croaked and weakly scrabbled at his arms but could not prevent her neck from twisting at an increasingly painful angle.
“She’s innocent! Stop!” Mei begged. “Please!”
He smiled. Then gave the head a sharp jerk. Bone cracked.
The kind old woman’s eyes glassed over and she crumpled to the ground, a lifeless rag doll.
Mei was too torn up by the tragedy to insult him. To think the Carib would go so far as to defend her and attack a man so much bigger and stronger. She sobbed.
That sly grin still on his lips, he ambled over, in no hurry, apparently enjoying her pain.
She felt the fight drain out of her. What was the point of resistance? It always went like this? Good people too often suffered at the hands of the worst of humanity. No matter what they did, evil kept coming back. And it was always stronger. It was so unfair.
He mocked her. “Sorry. Friend of yours? ‘Fraid she won’t be having you over for tea again anytime…ever.”
She turned her face away, giving up.
The marine lined up and kicked her in the side, making her scream again. He kicked her again and again in the torso and the legs, bruising her all over.
She couldn’t stop weeping. For the old woman, for herself, for the world. For the hopelessness of it all.
Kneeling at her side, he swept the pistol out of her hand. “Forgot you had it, did ya?” He laughed.
Her heart sank. Idiot. It must have recharged by now. She could have used it on him. But it was over. Why bother? She’d just fail if she tried.
He yanked the bayonet out of her arm without warning, taking no care as he did so.
Mei’s whole body tensed with the pain, then she fell back, gasping for breath. There was no time to recover though, for he was then hauling her up onto her feet.
“Stand, bitch,” he commanded her. When she couldn’t comply fast enough, he shook her, snapping her head back and forth. “I said stand, prisoner!”
Anger, hot and burning inside of her, rose up and took hold. She hated him so much. And she realized that she didn’t want to give up. She didn’t want people like him to win. She thought about all the people in her past who had given up on themselves and others, who had refused to even try to fight for their future. This was not the person she wanted to be. These people couldn’t be allowed to keep getting away with their corruption and abuse and selfishness.
And she refused to give up on herself. Her legs steadied though she swayed in place.
The marine chuckled as he turned and picked her gun up. “Not a bad run for a girl. I saw the sword. Didn’t think you’d have a pistol on you, too.”
Grimly determined, she stared back into his blue-green irises and forced a semblance of a smile. “Your mistake was thinking I only had one.”
His eyes narrowed in puzzlement, then widened and he looked down.
While he’d been distracted, she’d drawn the second pistol from the small of her back and raised it. She pulled the trigger before he could react.
The gun went off with a bang. His eyes flew open, mouth widening in what was probably the worst shock of his life. His jaw worked for a couple of seconds. Then he toppled sideways, hands going to his crotch, where the white pants were flooded by a bright red stain. He screamed in unholy torment.
Mei took a few moments to catch her breath, which was harder than it should have been. Probably had something to do with having been shot in the chest. Each time she took in air, she felt the pain in her arm. She dropped the spent pistol and picked the other one up from where the marine had dropped it. Then she went and stood over him.
He glared up at her, slowly bleeding to death in a very unfortunate way.
“Sorry,” she half-apologized. “Didn’t have much choice in where to aim. I’m too beat up, thanks to you.”
“You’re a dead woman,” he snarled, voice guttural.
She sighed. “You want me to put you out of your misery or not? I could just leave you here for the next hour or so until you die on your own. But I’ll bet that hurts pretty badly, doesn’t it?”
Daggers shot from his eyes.
She pointed the pistol at his head. “Remember this. Because I’ll bet that mercy isn’t something you guards are all that familiar with.” She pulled the trigger.
Weapon Class: Pistol
Skill Level: Novice
His body slumped, the life gone out of it.
She stared at the corpse—one of so many. The gun fell from her hand as a wave of despair washed through her. Wavering on her feet, she sincerely wished that she’d never come to this place. That she’d never had to experience being burned or stabbed or shot. That she’d never, ever had to kill anyone.
She’d even levelled up from it just as she had when she’d slain the other guard with the sword earlier. What kind of a world would make it so beneficial to take lives?
Mei pictured the corrupt judge who’d taken her from the life she’d lived and buried her in this prison. She raised her head and screamed at the heavens, wishing the judge and all the political garbage on top of him could hear her rage. “Cào nǐ mā! Cào nǐ zǔzōng shíbā dài!” Motherfuckers! Fuck eighteen generations of your ancestors!
Well, that might have been a stupid thing to do because the pain in her chest redoubled from the effort. She gasped and looked down. On her right side, just below her breast, the bullet had left a gash. However, gingerly probing with her fingers, it seemed that she’d been fortunate. The bullet had hit a rib. And while the rib was cracked and broken, the bullet had ricocheted away rather than enter her body. Lucky. Though it was not as fortunate as not being shot at all.
Was it too late to be reassigned to a prison where she just sat in a nice, safe cell somewhere instead? Solitary confinement somewhere might be preferable, as long as she had a supply of good books.
The body of the Carib elder caught her eye. Pushing her own pain aside, she took the time to lay the woman out in repose and closed her eyes. An ache in her chest had nothing to do with her physical injuries. She’d have to tell the other villagers where to find her if any were still alive.
Weary and hurting, she looted the marine’s corpse. If there was one thing she’d learned from playing Dungeons and Dragons and other table-top RPGs, it was that you always loot the corpse. Guns, bloody pants, a grenade; it all got dumped into a pile. Perhaps the most important thing she took? His boots and socks.
Detaching the bayonet from the musket, she cut strips of cloth from the dead man’s pant legs. With some effort, she tied off her injured bicep and even managed to do the same for her chest, though the field dressing did take some time.
The rain had stopped as she worked. The light dimmed even further as evening approached quickly in the overcast sky.
Mei slung the musket over her shoulder, put one pistol and the grenade in her pockets while carrying the other handgun, and felt like she could barely walk from the weight. The boots were loose on her, but it was better than being barefoot. Her bruised and cut-up feet thanked her profusely. She needed to remember to loot another pair of socks so that she could double up and make the boots fit better. Men and their stupid, big feet.
The trudge through the jungle was slow and unfun. Her thoughts kept wandering on their own and she repeatedly had to drag herself back to keep a watchful eye around her. More marines could be out there.
A rustle to the side caught her attention. But before she could react, the jaguar strolled into the open, almost within reach. It looked up at her, someone else’s blood all over its mouth.
She snorted in amusement. “Well, I hope you aren’t getting a taste for human blood.” She cautiously lifted her hand so the cat could sniff it, which it did. She petted it on the head and it joined her trek.
The pair soon returned to the location of the earlier ambush. There was blood in the mud and tracks everywhere. The Caribs had gone. Her sword still stuck out of the assassinated marine. She pocketed her pistol and took the sword up instead. As if she needed to carry even more. But she’d be a fool to give up a free arsenal. What she really needed was a magical bag of holding.
Ok, she might have a bit of a geeky side.
In the village, she found that most of the Caribs still alive had returned. Wounded were being treated. One woman had lost an ear. Another had a gash on her chest. Most people were packing up. A small band of seniors herded frightened children back into the ring of huts from where they’d been hiding in the jungle. A baby cried, refusing attempts to calm it.
The previous evening and this morning, Mei had discussed the future with three women and one man who had become a kind of council since the loss of their warriors. Many in the tribe had been eager to flee, and now they knew that they had no choice. Preparations were well underway. But they were not yet hauling anything down to the canoes.
One of the new village leaders came up to Mei and gestured towards the beach, then spoke in her own language. Mei didn’t understand but got the impression that the ship the marines had come in was out there and that there was still a guard.
Giving the woman a tight smile, she bowed. She’d take care of it. Then she explained about the old woman and broke this younger woman’s heart before giving her directions to the body.
One of the male warriors approached and the look in his eyes said he was there to help, for which she was grateful. He carried a spear and a bow.
They stepped quietly through the trees and paused within the foliage to study the landing site. To her surprise, a rough catamaran was anchored to the beach. And an all-too-familiar figure stood over four helpless men in manacles.
Putin grinned down at them, malice in his eyes. “Is like Christmas. Many presents for me.” Knife and broken bayonet blade glinted in his grasp. He had been shot in the chest, but not severely enough to stop him. Perhaps the bullet had lodged in his thick pectoral muscles and failed to penetrate farther.
Lance, like the others, looked up at the monster, forlornly wishing they were not chained to the deck. They couldn’t fight back and couldn’t run. He found his voice. “Forget revenge. Don’t you want to escape this place? Go ahead. Release us and take the ship.”
The bigger man laughed. “Release you? Why? I can just kill you. Like him.” He nodded towards the spot where the stabbed marine lay in death. Putin hadn’t bothered with taking the other man’s guns. Seems he preferred blade work. Maybe because it was more personal.
Swallowing hard, Lance glanced at the others for help, but all were silent. He raised his hands in defence to Putin. “Look, I had nothing to do with what they did to you.”
A brow rose over one brown, uncaring eye. “So?”
He sagged at that. This was clearly a man who enjoyed violence and causing pain. And there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
A flicker from the side caught his attention. But before he could look, an arrow thunked into Putin’s back.
The gangster cried out and fell to one knee. He dropped the bayonet and tried to reach back for the offending object, but the arrow was in a place difficult to get to. Growling, he rose and sought to take cover by going over the side of the catamaran. But he’d only gone two steps when one of his legs buckled and gave out, sending him to his hands and knees. A puzzled expression slowly turned to one of horrified recollection. Then he collapsed on the wooden planks.
Curare? Lance wondered. He’d gone through the experience once.
All heads turned towards the beach.
There she stood, alive and well, for the most part, a musket in her hands, a Carib man a step behind her, carrying a bow.
She turned to the warrior and used her hands to gesture breathing with a bag. The man nodded and jogged off.
A mix of feelings welled up within Lance: anger and frustration, but also relief, though he didn’t want to admit the last part.
She tiredly strode down the beach towards them. “Hey guys,” she greeted them once she got close and climbed up onto the catamaran.
“You’re alive!” Cheeto exclaimed.
“But not unscathed.” Juan’s eyes were on her bandages.
She beamed at them. “Something like that.” Spotting the keys, she scooped them up. “Let’s get you out of those.”
They allowed her to undo the manacles and leg irons. Yet no one returned her enthusiasm. And only Armand thanked her, his charming manner unphased.
She sensed their ill mood and gave them a puzzled look. “What’s wrong?”
Something snapped in Lance. “You killed them, didn’t you? All of them?”
She frowned first in response to his tone but then looked guilty. “The marines. Yes. They’re all dead.”
“You fucked us!” he shouted at her.
The guilty expression deepened and she glanced away. “I’m sorry.”
Juan, normally stoic and quiet, was also very upset. “We gave ourselves up. Everything would have been fine. Even if he’d killed us,” the Spaniard pointed at Putin’s unmoving body. “We would have respawned and they would have taken us into custody again. But because of you,” he turned his finger on her, “they’re probably going to punish us! They might even think we’re in on it with you!”
“And I’ll just bet you think you’re going to waltz out of here on this boat, too, don’t you?” Lance accused her. “Leave us all stranded with a bunch of pissed-off guards for a few weeks if we don’t want to risk our necks playing pirate with you. Let them take their frustration out on us and make everything even worse.” He snarled. “You selfish bitch!” He was afraid and worried and he absolutely hated her right now. Because it was all her fault they were in this quandary.
Caribs began coming out from the village. They gave the people on the catamaran wary and dirty looks but dedicated themselves to putting their big canoes in the water and loading them up, working fast.
Armand tried to put a hand on Lance’s shoulder, only for Lance to slap it away.
Cheeto’s face screwed up in uncertainty. He looked back and forth between Lance and Juan and Armand as if unsure how to feel.
“I’m sorry,” Mei told them, raising her head. “I am.”
“Go to hell!” Juan spat at her.
At that moment, another colossal explosion boomed across the sky, and a ball of gray and black smoke rose up from the volcano’s peak, laced with dark ash and glowing orange sparks. For a few moments, it held everyone’s attention.
The warrior who had shot Putin returned. He stopped at the edge of the surf and tossed an air bladder up onto the catamaran’s deck, getting a bow of thanks from Mei in return.
Mei looked guilty again but firmed her resolve and squared her body to their group. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that there had to be a choice between us. But I’m not sorry that I stood up for myself and fought for my survival.”
“You think you’re such a good person, as if you’re better than the likes of us,” Lance leered. “But when it came down to it, you only thought of yourself. And you’ve damned the rest of us.”
“I wish there had been another way.” Mei glanced down only for a second and then met their eyes without looking away. “But all is not lost.”
“Oh really?” Juan threw up his hands. “You’re going to wait until they come back and apologize? Give yourself up nicely?”
“No,” she replied evenly. “But we have a ship now. And that gives us all a choice that you didn’t even want to think about before. You thought we’d have no chance against the marines when they came. Well, they came. And they failed. Doesn’t that change how you feel at all?”
He spun away in disgust. She just didn’t get it.
“This is true,” Armand added in his infuriatingly calm manner. “Although, as I’ve said, we have no way to navigate. We are not sailors.” He eyed the catamaran under their feet. “I’m not even sure how seaworthy this is. They must have barely made it here in that storm.”
Lance waved at the boat. “And if anyone sees us sailing along in this thing, they’re going to immediately chase us down and pick us up, knowing we’re not a legitimate vessel.”
“Which is good reason to sail to Barbados and take the sloop,” she argued. “I’ve struck a bargain with the Caribs. They’ll get us there in exchange for the ship and whatever they can raid from the colony.”
He growled and stamped a foot. “What is wrong with you? Why the hell do you want the impossible? And why are you trying to force it on us?”
She shrugged and spoke reasonably. “Escape is impossible, but I did that. Blowing up a ship is impossible, but I did that. Surviving their attempt to recapture me should have been impossible, but we did that, the Caribs and I, together. Sure, it may be difficult to sail off or to steal the sloop in Barbados, but who’s to say we can’t?”
“I do!” Juan pounded his chest, his face red. “They’re going to punish us bad enough for this. Because of you! We’re not running away and trying to steal a ship out from under them too!”
Lance slowly nodded, an idea coming to him. He walked over and grabbed her by the lapels and snarled, his face only a handspan from her own. “You know what? Fuck her. We should hand her over ourselves and buy us some goodwill. All the trouble they went to capture you, maybe we’ll even get rewarded. It certainly can’t hurt.”
Her eyes widened a bit in surprise, then drooped. Sighing, she gave him a flat look. “I just killed two marines. Do you really want a shot at me too?”
He didn’t answer that. He looked down and saw the barrel of the pistol she’d pressed into his stomach. Carefully, he disengaged and backed up a couple of steps.
“I’d much rather be friends,” she told him and seemed sincere. She addressed them all. “I get it, the idea of leaving and defying the system is scary, and part of you wants to stay. There have been times when I wanted to give up too. If that’s what you all really want, then I won’t stop you. You can all stay here until the marines come back. I’ll hitch a ride with the Caribs when they leave.” She plucked the air bladder from the deck and pointed at Putin. “That guy will die from the curare if we don’t help him breathe.”
“Why would we save him?” Cheeto asked, bewildered.
“Because,” she pointed out, “if you want someone to hand over to buy goodwill, he works too, right? But if he dies, who knows where he’ll respawn?”
Cheeto’s head bobbed in understanding. He grabbed the bladder from her and went over to the body. Kicking Putin over onto his back, Cheeto used the air bladder to keep him breathing.
Lance felt fixated on the idea of handing Mei over to the guards. “Nah. We don’t let her leave.” He looked at Juan. “We hand her over and they might forgive all of this. Blame her for it instead of us. Take it easy on us when we get back to Barbados.”
Juan hesitated and then nodded in agreement.
Mei looked exasperated for the first time. But she wasn’t pointing her gun at anyone. “Guys! Don’t do this. This is an opportunity, one you’ve never had before.”
“What’s your solution?” Armand politely asked.
She excitedly jumped on his question. “Don’t make a decision yet. We all take this ship and we sail to Barbados. The Caribs will help. Once we get there, then you can choose. Either turn yourselves and the gangster in and hope to buy leniency, or help me steal the sloop and sail away to a better life—for all of us. Whatever you choose, take the crossing to think about it. Because you may never get a chance like this again.” She looked pleading. “Are you all really so eager to go back to being prisoners in a system that outright abuses you?”
None answered that.
Lance ran a hand through his hair. A voice in the back of his head was urging him to caution. He knew he was emotionally volatile. What was he scared of? Of being punished by the guards? Of being free and having to make his own decisions again? And to be responsible for the consequences? Of failure? Of getting his sentence extended? All of it? Something else?
A deep rumbling took over the island. The Caribs stumbled and fell as they filled the canoes. The catamaran lurched. All eyes turned to the north.
The final, full eruption blew off the top of the volcano and sent ash and fire into the late-evening sky. Streamers of lava and molten rock flew in all directions in great arcs, a brilliant light show in the darkness, a primordial display of power and danger.
The natives shouted and cried out in fear and rushed twice as fast to pack their entire lives into the canoes. A pair of women turned anxious gazes on Mei and gestured about leaving.
Mei looked at the four men, challenge in her brown eyes. “Do or die time. It’ll take a day or two to get to Barbados. Use it to think. Make your decision there, not here.”
Armand spoke. “It is a good idea. I agree.”
“They’ll be pissed that we took the ship,” Juan argued, though not as hotly as before.
Armand laughed, tension easing from the conversation. “Oui. But we can argue that we fled the Caribs, perhaps. And the volcano. If we turn ourselves in and give them the gangster, then it should be enough to lessen their anger. But I, too, think this opportunity is one to consider at greater length if we have the chance to do so, no?” He looked at both Lance and Juan, mildly expectant.
It was hard to be angry in the face of the man’s calm self-assuredness. Lance gave an angry shrug.
Juan took a deep breath and was thoughtful. Finally, he gave in. “Fine. We decide in Barbados.”
Mei’s smile brightened the night almost as much as the falling rain of lava did.