Like all too many people, Captain Kenneth Fowler had an insufferable boss: Governor Rudigus Harrington. And right now, the morning after unprecedented disaster, having not had a moment’s respite or sleep, Fowler was standing in the governor’s office, getting quite an earful, silently wishing he could pull out a pistol and shoot the arrogant, fleshy bugger right in the face.
But he couldn’t do that. Because Prisoner 5-9-1988, Mei Ling, had her grubby, stupid…infuriating hands on his custom-made, one-of-a-kind flintlock pistols!
How he despised that woman. He’d never been so furious in all his forty-two years. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on her again. And when he did, he’d strangle her. He’d drown her. He’d stake her to the sand on the beach and let the sun cook her as the ants ate her. He’d torture her in all the most brutal and painful ways that he could think of—a hundred times over. Because she had not only stolen his beautiful sword and his two prize pistols, but she was responsible for the incredibly humiliating position that he now found himself in. It was all he could do to maintain his usual calm and dignified pose while his boss’s spittle flew all over him in the other man’s uncontrolled rage.
Governor Harrington was fat and quite ugly, an English toad of a man. He dressed the part he played to perfection in a long, blood-red coat that went below the knees, his oddly thin legs in black tights and his shoes made of black leather. The coat was very heavily embroidered with gold thread and a snow-white cravat poured from his neck like a winter waterfall. A thick, dark-haired wig, curly and hanging past his shoulders, covered his mostly bald head. A wart had taken up residence on his chin and decided to expand, apparently unchecked, with long, dark hairs sprouting from it. His vein-riddled nose was evidence of his over-fondness for the bottle.
While he wasn’t known for being overly capable, he was known for being quite the political animal, which is why he was a governor in the prison system, in charge of a small but very profitable colony. He was the kind of man that took credit for the good work done by those under him, such as the work generally performed by Fowler. And Harrington routinely sought every opportunity to pass any blame onto others as well. He was not overly intelligent, but he could be cunning when it came to self-serving behaviour. And everything he did was self-serving.
Harrington, at the moment, was red faced and fuming. “You buffoon! You simpleton!” he shouted, jowls shaking. “How could you lose an entire ship—a brig—to one lowly wench? The entire administrative staff is laughing at me and the board is threatening to remove me from my position. All because of your bloody incompetence!” He slammed a meaty fist onto his oak-wood desk.
The office was immaculate, an artist’s rendering of luxurious colonial surroundings. One wall was floor-to-ceiling glass doors that looked out over the small colony and the aquamarine bay beyond. The walls of the room were milk white and the shiny, satin drapes around the windows shimmered a deep, royal blue. The floor was black marble veined with more white. The desk took up a third of the space, and a pair of deep, green-leather couches filled the rest.
A beautiful NPC slave girl of Spanish blood, dressed only in pink, modern lingerie, lounged on one of the couches reading an erotic romance novel, waiting to be played with. The governor heartily enjoyed his digital playthings and had a dozen laying about the large mansion in various states of undress.
Harrington’s wife lived outside the prison system, in the real world. While she undoubtedly suspected his activities inside the prison, rumour had it that she preferred it to suffering his attentions herself. Who could blame her? Besides, with him in here, she got to spend his entire corporate executive salary on herself.
A black NPC butler stood in the corner of the office, gray head always bowed, awaiting whatever orders or abuse the governor cared to throw at him. He was a favourite toy, secretly reprogrammed to be wholly subservient and utterly unaware of racism or affirmative action or anything of the kind. Unlike the NPCs living outside the mansion, he was incapable of rebellion.
Fowler forced himself not to react to the other man’s insults. “My humb—“
“Shut it, fool!” the governor snapped, cutting him off. “One girl. One weak little woman and you not only let her get the better of your men, but she bested you as well. In combat of all things! You fought a girl and lost, Fowler!”
Stay calm, he commanded himself. He was normally the type of person in rigid control at all times, known for his icy demeanour and flawless skills. Nothing ever ruffled him. But today, his blood boiled and threatened to take over him completely. He’d never before suffered such a setback or such embarrassment.
The governor sneered in contempt. “So much for being the elite soldier, eh? Best shot in the Caribbean? Expert fencer?” He snorted, the air blowing the long hairs out of his nose. “And one little girl bested you?”
Fowler spoke through a clenched jaw. “Someone made a mistake.”
Harrington’s eyes widened. They were bloodshot. Whether that was from how upset he was or yet another late night carousing with the island’s whores, or with his servants, or with his own prostitutes, or from drinking himself into yet another stupor, Fowler didn’t know. Harrington slapped his meaty palms on the dark-wood desk. “Mistake? Is that all you have to say for yourself? Do you realize what your mistake has cost us? Six months!” he roared so hard it looked like his red face might explode.
Fowler sagged. It was only a fraction of a centimetre, barely perceptible to any but himself. But even he couldn’t maintain his composure entirely in the face of that very unwelcome truth.
The governor was not one to let the obvious go unstated, however. “Six months for us to get another ship from England. You and your ineffectual men might respawn after a few hours, but our ships do not. The system is designed to emulate reality in that sense. It’ll take five months to build a new one in Portsmouth and then another month to outfit it and sail it down here. So your mistake just left us defenceless and completely unable to protect ourselves in this section of the Caribbean—for half a year.”
“Perhaps another colony could send us a ship in the interim—“
“Anoth— Even if they had a spare ship, which the company doesn’t, by the way, you know how competitive the other divisions are! None of the other governors are going to willingly help us unless ordered to by the board. And the board is currently disgusted with me. And with you!” Overcome with emotion, Harrington grabbed a marble statue of Venus from his desk and hurled it at the door. The door happened to be directly behind Fowler.
He flinched, smoothly moving his head just enough for the object to pass by and shatter on the door behind. He understood. He truly understood the magnitude of what had happened. He was horribly ashamed.
Harrington raved on. “We’ve nothing but a tiny work sloop in our harbour now. How do you expect to chase down pirates with that, hmm? It has no cannon! How do you expect to scare off the Carib natives who raid us every now and then? And what if the French or Spanish come along? Even the Dutch or the Danes could bury us right now.”
Fowler grimaced. His ship had been his pride and joy. Without it, he’d be unable to recover escaped convicts within the system, those playing pirate or just in hiding. Being unable to recover those assets on behalf of the company meant lost profits as long as they were free. The company only earned revenue on prisoners actively being ‘rehabilitated’ in controlled colonies. He also wouldn’t be able to defend the island against the cannibals when they came calling, except with his marines. If it had been that alone, they might have lived with it. After all, the vast majority of prisoners assigned to them were currently in the colony and hard at work, generating revenue.
But without a proper ship, the colony itself was largely defenceless from naval attack.
The prison system was shared between several nations. More accurately, it was shared with other corporations in charge of prison management for their respective nations. All those corporations competed within the system for profits. Without a ship to protect the port and island colony of Barbados, a raid from another nation’s corporation could result in heavy losses. Rivals could make off with prisoners and goods or cripple a colony’s production facilities, meaning the colony would produce less revenue. This could take months or years to recover from. But far, far worse—conquest by a rival could lose them the entire colony itself. That meant heavy financial losses, perhaps permanently. Expensive future investment would be required to retake it. The English company’s board would not be happy about that.
“You know as well as I do how the prison system works,” Harrington said, pointing his finger at Fowler. “The more prisoners we’re in control of, the more money we make. The more territory and colonies we control, the more power we have within the system, allowing us to gain control of even more prisoners, and therefore make more profits. The more profitable each colony is, the more money we make because it proves that we’re successfully rehabilitating our prisoners, or at least making good workers of them, training them to re-enter the real-world economy. Losing prisoners means losing profits. Losing an entire colony would hit our bottom line so hard that the board would string you up in the real world. Or throw you in chains in this one for the rest of your miserable life.”
As much as Fowler wanted to take his humiliation and anger out on this fat man standing in front of him, he did not want to get himself fired and then blacklisted forever within the prison industry. One misstep and he might become a rent-a-cop somewhere, or a minimum-wage security guard, out in the real world.
He highly doubted that his lovely wife, Emma, would be happy with such a dramatic change in income and status. Nor would she enjoy losing the incredibly luxurious home that they enjoyed here in the system. She would hate going back to a crummy flat in some low-income neighbourhood in London. This world might be digital, but for all intents and purposes it felt authentic in every way and the daily luxury that they lived in here would be entirely out of reach in the real world.
No, Emma would not like going back. She’d made it quite clear that she preferred it here.
For that matter, so did he. He imagined giving up their sprawling mansion and estate in paradise, their servants and fine meals. Imagined returning to dreary, gray London, to traffic and smog, to overcrowded streets and subways, to taxes and monthly bills. To the occasional wet snowfall that filled the streets with slush. He mentally shuddered.
No. This job was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He’d been working here for more than fifteen years now. He’d honed his body and mind, developing elite martial abilities that were no longer part of the modern world but which felt so deeply right to him, so masculine. Out there, he was another nameless and disposable cog in an uncaring economy. Here he was a warrior and a leader of men. Here, he excelled and he mattered.
And all that was in jeopardy now, thanks to Mei Ling.
He subtly breathed deep and centred himself. “Our defences are strong. I will immediately review them in detail. But I believe that we have more than enough cannon and soldiers to fend off any average raid. The fort is well stocked. And I will do everything I can to outfit the sloop for action as well.”
“We shouldn’t have to, you idiot!”
Fowler bowed. It kept the involuntary disgust on his face from showing. Bloody hell, this man irritated him with his stupidity and outrageous outbursts. Then again, this was one mistake he couldn’t blame anyone for except himself. Well, except for the soon-to-be unemployed moron who’d let Mei out of her cell. He had plans for Saxston. Painful ones. That is, if Harrington or the board didn’t get to him first, which they probably would. Fowler spoke. “Again, my deepest apologies, Governor Harrington. I will see to it that the colony’s forces remain strong until we are once more back up to full strength.”
The other man harrumphed. But he seemed to have worked much of his anger out by this point. Fowler’s pretence of calm humility seemed to be working. Harrington turned to look out the glass doors. “Yes, well. Rest assured that your position here, Fowler, is under the most intense of reviews. And you will continue to be for the foreseeable future. If I were you, I’d pray nightly that no one applies for your position during the next few months or you may be applying for unemployment.”
“Understandable, sir.” Actually, it would be a foolish move. Fowler was one of the best, if not the best, captains in all the English colonies. He was highly profitable. They’d be short-sighted to let him go in anger. Then again, Harrington was a fool, and Fowler didn’t think much of the corporate suits running the board either.
Harrington looked over his shoulder and arched a brow. “You have re-acquired her, I assume?” he asked. “She’s back in chains?”
They both knew full well that she wasn’t. “Not yet, sir. But with the extra crew and marines on hand, we will conduct a systematic sweep of the island. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Ha! With your level of incompetence, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she managed to find her way off this rock somehow.” His voice became mocking. “Maybe you admire the wench? Is that how she got away in the first place, Captain? Is that why you haven’t caught her yet? Do you like her? Do you admire the way she humiliated you and blew up your ship? Some men like that sort of thing, being stepped on by more powerful women. Being dominated.”
Harrington saw that he’d wounded his subordinate and grinned. “It was something, wasn’t it? Perhaps we should applaud her efforts. Maybe we should just give her the sloop, too, while we’re at it. Pat her on the back and wish her a merry bon voyage. And you can kiss her feet as she leaves. Let her spank you a few times on the way out. Is that what you really want?”
He ground his teeth. “No, sir.”
“Sorry. What was that?”
The governor’s amusement vanished. “Then I suggest you get off your arse and find her. Now!” Harrington grabbed a swath of papers from his desk and hurled them at Fowler.
He bowed again, allowing the papers to hit his head and fall to the floor. He would not react. He would accept this added humiliation because he deserved it. Him, losing to that woman, and in armed combat no less. He would take this abuse, for now. And he would recover his dignity by immediately taking Mei Ling back into his possession. Along with his weapons.
Straightening, he turned and marched out the door, stepping over the remains of the marble Venus as he went.
“And find the cat while you’re at it! It’s been weeks!”
Fowler let the door close behind him and rolled his eyes. Cat? Like he should be out chasing down some little house pet? Not that it was your average house pet. It’s not like you could just walk over to it and scoop it up into your arms. It was a bloody jaguar!
He grumbled under his breath. Who the hell kept a jaguar as a pet? The thing was better off out in the wild than caged up and abused by that overweight twit.
Outside the governor’s mansion, he stopped and took a few moments to breathe. Then he put on his bicorn hat and, with sure and measured steps, strode down the street towards the fort. He had a prisoner to capture.