Get up, Mei…
“Get up, Mei!” her mother shouted.
Mei blinked and realized that she’d blacked out for a moment. She was numb to the pain, aware that it was everywhere but feeling adrift in it.
The first real sensation to return was the gritty texture of the cobblestone under her fingertips, then her palm. The world came into focus, and a pair of black leather boots with silver buckles stood nearby.
Breathing hurt. That was odd. It shouldn’t do that.
She could probably just lay there, and that pain would go away. But that felt wrong too.
She pressed down with her hand, feeling tiny pebbles in the street dent her skin. An effort of will was required to get her muscles to work. She channelled more and more into that task, and she rolled sideways. Somehow, she was on her hands and knees.
Her vision spun for a bit, taking her stomach for the ride, but settled. She took a risk and pushed, or something, and discovered she was standing.
Just a little more. You can do it, she told herself.
She straightened and felt liquid trickle down the side of her face.
Was someone cheering?
And there was music playing? Yes. Thunderous music.
She turned and saw the face of the owner of the leather boots. Tiredly, she raised her fists.
Captain Fowler backed up a step and lowered his arms with a laugh of incredulity. Even his posture relaxed. He sighed, and for the first time, his smile was kind, not mocking or superior in any way. “Ok, Miss Ling. I relent. You’ve put up an admirable fight. Far more than I expected. And I’m not…entirely unsympathetic to your plight here. Honestly, losing my ship and then dying at your hands did send me over the edge. I was angrier than I’ve ever been. You’re probably right: I’m prideful. And when you wounded that pride, I sought to take it out on you. But I can respect an opponent who’s put up the battle you have.”
Though most of her senses were still slow to return to full function, she felt surprise stir in her. What was he saying?
“You may not have the skills or the physique to compete against me, but your spirit is worthy.” He studied her and came to some conclusion, even going so far as to pull a handkerchief out, clean and then sheath his sword. “Let’s end this. Give yourself up. I promise you will not be punished for anything you’ve done since arriving here. Neither will any co-conspirators. I’ll make sure the governor doesn’t get his hands on you. I’ll even go so far as to keep you out of a cell.”
He bowed his head. “Yes. You win, Miss Ling. We’ll give you a regular job in town, a wage, a place to live. You’ll still be a prisoner and have to reside in the prison system. But you can have a normal life here. You won’t suffer at my hand or those who work under me. That I promise you. On my word as a gentleman. And believe it or not, but that does mean something to me.”
Mentally, she was staggered. This was a complete about-face. Without a doubt, she’d fought back and achieved a real victory here. Likely, few prisoners had ever been accorded such an offer. With grit and determination and a hell of a lot of endurance, Mei had managed to earn the man’s respect.
And she’d done it on the battlefield of all things. Her. A woman. An office worker. A child of the modern era transported back to the pre-industrial world. It was something to be proud of, and she took a few moments to savour the achievement.
But then she critically examined the offer. Is this what she wanted? To accept that living the life that other people had forced on her was her fate and that she was powerless to change it? There was an appeal in the idea of a safe, predictable life, true. And for some people, maybe that was a happy or at least content existence, even if it meant a lot of sacrifices.
Accepting his offer meant staying her full prison term: twenty years. It would be doing so in relative peace, living what many would consider an acceptable life. She would have a job and a home. And after twenty years of dull routine, she would return to her world, the real world. In that regard, it was similar to having a regular career and then retiring.
Of course, in the other world, at the time of her release, she’d be in late middle age. She’d have missed any chance at having kids and perhaps even love and partnership. She’d never be able to return to the career she was passionate about or get any well-paying job, which meant living a low-income lifestyle without any pension or retirement to look forward to.
What other options did she have at this point?
Even if some miracle fell from the sky right now and took Captain Fowler out of the picture so that she could sail away to the life of a pirate, was that was she really wanted? There was no guarantee that she’d survive long. There was no guarantee that she would ever be successful or earn the absurd sum needed to escape faster than her regular sentence.
A pirate’s life would be a hard one, a painful and sometimes brutal gamble against very long odds. She’d often go without sleep, bunk down on a hard deck, weather storms and hurricanes, eat poor food or go without. She might get stabbed or shot, might drown or burn alive again.
Logically, perhaps, it made the most sense to take the safer, certain victory being offered, even if the prize was smaller than the pie-in-the-sky dream of buying her way out.
Was it even a victory? It was more like she’d thrown a tantrum on arriving here, caused a lot of trouble, and now was being let off the hook if she agreed to become compliant on her own. When you put it like that, it did sound kind of pathetic, childish even.
Why was she even debating this? It wasn’t as if she really had a choice, did she? After all, if she turned his rather generous offer down, spurned him, wouldn’t he just slay her anyways? She would probably lose his momentary goodwill and end up living her worst nightmares, tortured and molested and raped. So it made the most sense to give up and become a willing prisoner of this prison world and live according to their rules, even if it was completely unfair to her. Right?
She stared past Fowler at the ship, only a stone’s throw away, and mentally groaned. Ahh, she’d been so close to freedom. Closer than she’d expected to reach. She’d pushed herself harder, fought harder, and endured more than she ever had in her whole life. She would become stronger because of that. That was something to take pride in.
Her fists wavered. Then, as if they suddenly weighed more than she could hold, they lowered to her sides.
Mei closed her eyes, swaying on her feet. Was it over then? She was so tired. It was hard to maintain the will to rebel, especially when she was being offered the safe, simple life that so many of us seem content with.
Shouldn’t she stop fighting and be content as well?
Cheeto saw Mei rise and pumped his fist in excitement. “She did it!”
Juan stirred, feeling something move deep inside of him. Words spilled forth before he could catch himself. “We should help.”
“Hell, yeah, we should!” Cheeto cackled. He ran to the last cannon and started wrestling with it. Unfortunately, the massive weapon was far heavier than he.
“What are you doing?” Juan asked.
“Saving her. You gonna stand there being stupid or help?” The cannon was pointed out to sea, but he seemed to want to turn it around.
A wide grin spread over Juan’s lips, and a sense of freedom washed away his anxiousness. Like an American footballer, he put his shoulder to the barrel and with all his muscles, he heaved.
Mei, eyes closed, imagined herself accepting Fowler’s offer, accepting the injustice of what had happened to her, accepting that she was powerless. She could be one of the many sheeple willingly giving in to the selfish villains who strive for power over the rest of us.
She gritted her teeth in frustration. The spark of righteous justice that had been with her since her first days of protest and journalism was still there inside of her.
She sighed. Her eyes opened.
That damned, confident smile was already on Fowler’s lips and in his eyes. “Shall I take that as your consent then?” he asked with a trace of mockery and expectance.
She gathered herself to speak, rigidly controlling her breath and nearly whispering. “You know one of the things I’ve always admired in certain people? Something that I’ve always thought was the ultimate hallmark of good character? Self-sacrifice.”
His brows rose. “What?”
“Not just all for one, but one for all. You know?”
“What are you talking about?”
In response, she tilted her head back and saw how the sky was turning blue at last. Her mouth opened wide, and she shouted at the top of her one remaining lung as she raised her right fist high. “Set sail!” Then she convulsed in a fit of coughing.
He frowned, confused. “What are you—?” Then he caught on and looked sharply over his shoulder.
Behind Fowler, on the deck of the ship, Armand and Lia stood in full view for the first time. Together, they hauled with all their strength on a rope, and the sloop’s mainsail rose into the air.
Mei clumsily threw herself at him, trying to keep him busy and distracted. “I’ll never give up,” she stated, breathing blood all over his chest.
Fowler easily held her off. He pointed towards the other prisoners. “Seize that ship!” he commanded at a bellow.
The soldiers marching down the river road saw Armand and Lia trying to escape and kicked into a run just outside of a very large factory emblazoned with a sign made of letters burned into wood: DARK TEMPEST RUM DISTILLERY.
The soldiers watching Mei from headquarters also ran towards the ship, though they did so unarmed.
Lance popped up and started shooting, dropping one and sending the other two to seek shelter.
Armand shouted at Mei and waved to her. “Come on!”
Lia leapt up onto the dock, brandishing her knife, and stalked towards Fowler from behind.
Fowler, annoyed, turned his full attention back to Mei. “You fool. Sacrificing yourself for the likes of—“
“Oi!” Cheeto’s young voice cut through the morning air. “El capitan.”
Definitely angry now, Fowler shoved Mei backwards and then slowly turned his head towards the shore batteries.
Mei barely kept herself from falling, looked over and gasped. She saw Juan standing over bodies. And Cheeto stood next to a cannon with a lit taper in his hand. And somehow, the cannon had been turned around. It faced her and the captain!
Cheeto looked very proud of himself, his grin cocky and defiant. “Haha! Say hello to my not-so-little friend!” he shouted. Then he shoved the taper into the touchhole of the cannon.
She was too stunned to move. She watched in horror as the cannon fired.
The captain, quicker to react, tried to spin away and draw his sword again.
The twenty-four-pound iron ball shot through the clear air with enough power to cut a man clean in half. It could normally blow through a stone wall or a ship’s hull with ease. It passed so close to Captain Fowler that he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, and the ball clipped the blade of the sword with a twang and ripped it right out of his hand as he fell to the street.
Aimed low, the cannonball didn’t hang in the air long. It sailed down the riverside road and bounced off the cobblestones like a rock skipping over water. It plowed through the approaching soldiers in an explosive line of pulverized flesh and bone before any could react, smearing the street with their blood and entrails.
The ball skipped once more and then crashed through the front windows of the rum distillery. She heard a terrible clang and the sound of metal ripping as the ball smashed into a tank of alcohol.
The distillery’s front windows and double doors blew outwards, and a black-and-orange fireball bloomed outwards, washing over the soldiers.
Mei could do no more than blink in shock as the men were first cut down by cannon and then again by the blast. They began screaming, their bodies ruined and in pieces or on fire.
Captain Fowler let out an agonized groan and tried to get up onto his knees while cradling his arm. His hand and fingers were a mangled mess, and blood dripped freely.
Reality kicked back in. Mei rushed forward, taking a frustrating moment to reclaim her sword and put its tip to the front of his neck.
He looked at the sharp steel and froze.
It took a second to find her voice. “Your word as a gentleman…that you’ll let us sail out of here.”
“You know I can’t do that,” he growled.
“You want me to kill you a second time?”
Surprising her, he lashed out with his good arm, slapping the sword away, for she was too slow to strike, having wanted to show mercy instead. He took advantage of that, rising to his feet and grappling with her, capturing her arm with his and kneeing her in the stomach.
Panicking, she weakly fought back, heaving on her arm, trying to get away.
A gun fired.
Captain Fowler jerked. His eyes closed, and his face screwed up in pain, but his grip on her arm slackened, allowing her to pull free and back up a step. When he reopened his eyes, the icy blue irises bore into her. “Wherever you go, I’ll find you. I’ll hunt you to the end of the seas. I promise you.”
“We don’t have to be enemies!” she insisted.
“After everything? After I gave you a chance? Of course we do. Besides, it’s my job.”
She begged him. “You’re a smart man; think and judge for yourself. Not everyone in here is as bad as you think they are. I don’t want to be your enemy!” She coughed hard.
A quick shake of his head in denial. “Too late for that.”
She sagged, disappointed. But then she straightened and tried to speak with a bit of iron in her tone. “Then I promise I’ll give you a better fight next time.”
A half-smile. “I look forward to it.”
Another shot fired.
Fowler’s face blanked, and he collapsed to the cobblestones.
Lance stood there, leaning more on one leg, a musket in his hands, his face pale and haggard, his breathing hard. “Had to get close or risked shooting you by mistake.”
She looked at him a long moment, the way he stood unsteadily on his feet, looking half-dead already. She’d never have thought he’d be the one to come to her rescue. She smiled at him. “Thank you, Lance.”
“Sure.” His arms fell, and he nearly dropped the musket. “We should go.” He sank to one knee.
Lia and her knife held off two wary soldiers in the doorway of naval headquarters. Seeing themselves outnumbered and the captain down, they seem disinclined to risk themselves. Yet only Lia was armed, and it looked like they were going to force the issue anyway.
Cheeto and Juan came running up, armed with stolen muskets and the remaining soldiers stood down.
Cheeto loaned Mei a shoulder that she gratefully accepted. “Let’s go!” he urged, pulling her towards the dock.
But she dragged her feet. “Wait. Jie. She’s hurt.” Mei moved towards the injured feline.
Juan put a heavy hand on her shoulder and shoved her in the ship’s direction. “You go. I’ll carry her.”
“Go!” He jogged over to Jie’s side. Hesitating, he shook his head and muttered. “Estoy loco.” I’m crazy. He squatted at the jaguar’s rear, next to her back, well away from claws and jaws. When he touched the cat, it barely twitched. With another shake of his head, he scooped the large animal into his muscular arms and fast-walked towards the ship. When he saw that Mei hadn’t moved, he scolded her. “Apurarse!” Hurry!
Her breath caught at the sight of how weak the cat was. Limping after them while leaning heavily on Cheeto and recovering her pistols along the way, she dearly hoped the jaguar would recover. It had been a brave and wonderful friend, as impossible as that should be. Jie deserved better than to die here.
Lance joined Lia, who then backed away from the doorway, and the two soldiers remained where they were. She and Lance warily walked beside Mei, their eyes not leaving the soldiers.
Voices called from behind. “Wait. Wait!”
Mei turned and Cheeto impatiently halted.
Lia looked behind them.
The two cellists rushed over, their instruments back in cases and in hand. Both men were tall, dark-haired, and handsome with that confident, mocking air one associates with playboys of the Mediterranean and successful musicians of a particular type. They were also twins.
The one on the left looked at Mei. His face was as eager and excited as a little boy’s. “Got room for two more?”
Juan just shrugged and kept going towards the boat.
Mei gave them a bloody smile. “Sure. The more, the merrier.”
The cellists high-fived with a shout of triumph.
Armand stood on the sloop’s deck, arms straining to hold onto the last rope keeping the ship at the dock. But it was slipping from his hands as a growing wind pushed on the raised sail. “Faster!” he shouted. “They’re coming!” He nodded up the river road.
A few of the soldiers who’d survived and who weren’t helping their fellows were racing towards them.
Cheeto lowered Mei into the sloop and then turned to give Juan a hand with Jie. Lance and Lia covered them, entering last.
Armand let go of the rope with a relieved gasp, and the vessel got underway.
They ducked as the soldiers stopped to shoot at them, bullets whizzing overhead. One pierced the sail. Another splintered a piece of wood from the mainmast. Armand and Lance returned fire, discouraging an aggressive attack.
Juan grabbed the tiller and steered them out of the river mouth and into the ocean.
Quickly enough, the ship was far enough from the dock that no one would be able to jump aboard.
“To the cannons!” one of the soldiers shouted to his fellows. “Sink them!”
A half dozen men ran for the batteries overlooking the harbour. They arrived to find most of them useless, throwing their arms up in helplessness as they found the ruined touch holes.
However, they saw that the cannon that Cheeto had fired had not been spiked. Teaming up, they heaved and pulled and swung the cannon around to face the sea.
Mei gave it a worried look from where she lay at the bottom of the boat, leaning against the side. The ship wasn’t moving very quickly, and they would be in range for a long time. “Uh, guys…?” If they died, they’d respawn in chains, and all of this would be for nought.
Frantic soldiers shoved a bag of powder and a ball down the shaft of the cannon. A taper was lit.
“Down!” Mei tried to shout, falling to the deck and shielding her head.
Armand and Lia did the same.
Juan and Cheeto just leaned on the rail and watched.
She looked up and frowned. Why weren’t they worried?
The cannon fired. And exploded. A ball fell into the surf a couple of paces away. Another dropped into the water a few paces further. As the smoke cleared, the cannon was revealed, warped and torn open. The soldiers were corpses riddled with shrapnel.
Cheeto rubbed his chin in mock seriousness. “Ah. So that’s what happens when you put an extra ball and charge inside. And wedge a bunch of gravel around it.”
Laughter bubbled up from Mei’s chest and spilled from her lips, making her cough and hack. Stupid pierced lung. She reached for Cheeto from behind. “Well done! You saved us!”
He blushed and shrugged. “Whatever. ‘Course I did.” But he couldn’t stop smiling, especially when Juan laughed too and clapped him on the back.