Twas a dark and stormy night. For the first time in weeks, the serene warmth and sunshine of the Lesser Antilles had been spoiled by steely clouds and torrents of rain. But only after the makeshift catamaran had set out from Barbados and begun the crossing to St. Vincent.
They’d embarked with good cheer and expectations of this being a relatively easy mission. Those chosen to go would acquire praise for recapturing the now-infamous Mei Ling, the escaped prisoner who had destroyed a brig.
First Officer Dwayne Williams, who had his heart decidedly set on achieving captaincy before the age of thirty, had insisted on leading the mission as yet another step towards that end. He was one of the hottest up-and-coming officers in the English ranks, and that was as much from being aggressively proactive on his own behalf as it was from natural talent. He spent less of his time carousing the way many other guards did and more at training and working his butt off, the way his captain did. He couldn’t have asked for a better example to follow than Captain Fowler and was determined to make the most of it—and then surpass him.
The mood on the catamaran had taken a turn for the worse only two hours out to sea when the weather had decided to become uncooperative. And that was putting it politely.
The chilly wind whipped hard. Stinging pellets of rain came at them from one side one moment, then swirled around to come at them from another direction the next, so that it made covering up and hiding from the onslaught next to impossible. All were soaked to the bone and could do absolutely nothing about it. The catamaran was nothing more than a wooden platform constructed above two very large rowboats, called longboats. There were no sides and no housing from which to garner protection from the elements as that had been seen as unnecessary for the short trip and because it would provide wind resistance in an already slow and clumsy craft.
The catamaran had a single, rectangular sail on the mast sprouting from the middle of the platform. A barrel of water and two watertight chests of supplies had been bolted to the deck. Dwayne worried they’d be torn away by one of the large waves that periodically crashed over them. Those waves had washed four marines away to their drowning deaths before the others had used what rope they had to secure themselves to the mast. Even the two sailors brought to handle sail and tiller had lifelines on. Despite being experienced seamen, both had hard, set faces and devoted all their attention to keeping the catamaran afloat in the squall and on course.
Dwayne shivered, his body cold and wrinkled from the wet, wearing his iconic red jacket and white pants, both of which clung to his athletic body. Two muskets hung across his back, their bayonets sheathed at his waist, alongside a grenade. Only the chin strap kept his cylindrical hat in place in the wind. He was miserable and had been for more than a day out here as the squall refused to let up. The crossing was taking much longer than it would have in calmer seas.
The others had mutinous looks on their faces, and when anyone did speak, it was with anger and frustration. When they’d set out, each had been excited for an adventure outside of regular duties, but now they all cursed their ill luck. Sleeping was next to impossible in the rain, especially when waves kept pouring over your face, filling your airways with saltwater. So everyone was not just cold and wet but short on sleep as well.
Spirits lifted as land came in sight at long last, St. Vincent’s volcano sticking up over the waves. For the first time in a long time, lips creased into smiles and men began to think less of their suffering and more about the mission ahead again. The exhausted sailors were on their last legs from fighting the sea for so long without reprieve. Now they grinned as the winds lessened, as if it was giving up on the idea of sinking them now that they were within sight of their destination. The rain, however, continued down unabated.
Dwayne reflexively checked his muskets and other equipment, ensuring that it was secure. He wouldn’t dare pull it out until they’d landed lest he drop any of it overboard. And there was no use checking the gunpowder mechanisms in the wet. Once any became soaked, a drying timer kicked in before they could fire again. That was why special covers had been developed and attached to keep the powder pans dry. These weren’t strictly historically accurate, but some innovation was permitted within the prison system. Especially when it allowed the guards to use their weapons even in the rain, as long as they kept the barrels pointed down so that they weren’t collecting water.
They aimed the catamaran for the north side of the island. It was well known that prisoners who became trapped on St. Vincent had long ago made a camp there, opposite to the Caribs on the south side of the volcanic landmass. Eventually, they all made their way there. The plan was to land, surround the camp, and capture anyone inside.
In that regard, the cruel weather would be a blessing. It was very likely that the prisoners would all be huddled in camp for shelter rather than out and about collecting food or exploring. That would make them easy pickings. And Dwayne very much appreciated efficiency in his tasks. It also meant they wouldn’t have to tangle with the Caribs. He did not share the governor’s determination to have them wiped out, nor did he relish tangling with the tribe whilst down to only himself and five other marines and doing battle in their home territory.
The waves ceased coming over the craft and they only had to deal with the rollers as the catamaran sailed towards shore. They pushed right up onto the beach. Three marines dropped down and hauled a heavy anchor up onto the sand as far as the chain could go. A second anchor followed as the sail was lowered. There wasn’t a lot of difference between high tide and low tide out here in the middle of the ocean, so they wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck here.
They left the sailors and one marine with the catamaran to guard it against anyone coming to steal their only way back off the island.
Dwayne assembled himself and the remaining four marines at the jungle’s edge, the trees and their leaves giving slight shelter from the weather. “Fix bayonets,” he ordered the others, “Dry your barrels. Sling your spare over your shoulder, point down to keep it dry.” This was, of course, standard practice, but it didn’t hurt to remind them. Military folk were all about routine. It helped to prevent errors.
They readied themselves. The flintlock muskets were excellent weapons. They fired surprisingly accurately over a long distance, at least if you had the musket Skill raised like he did. The stocks were sturdy enough and were often used as a bludgeoning weapon. The bayonets were thirty centimetres of wickedly-sharp steel that could either be affixed to the barrel like a spear point or detached and the short handle used to wield them as long knives. With one weapon, you could beat, stab, spear or shoot opponents as desired, effective at both long and short range.
Dwayne rather admired the weapons. If only they fired faster. A new soldier without Skills could fire about one to two shots per minute. A good solder two to three. The fastest he’d ever heard about was six shots per minute with someone with both real skill and maxed-out Skill. Dwayne himself could fire three reliably and was working to get to four. He was proud of being able to shoot three, which was better than anyone else in this squad. Still, those precious seconds between shots could mean life or death in a close-quarters situation. So you had to be careful.
Assembled and ready, the five men set out with focused determination through the jungle, the afternoon light dimmed by the thick cloud cover and the footing treacherous in the rain. muskets were held at the ready, eyes forward, actively scanning the foliage for movement. Fatigue and sore muscles from the trip were forced to the back of their minds. They had a window of opportunity to attack before being discovered, which they wanted to take advantage of.
Dwayne felt the rain dripping down his face and grinned at the thought of having Mei Ling in hand at last. He’d been one of many blown to smithereens when she’d lit the gunpowder magazine. While his need for vengeance wasn’t as strong nor as personal as the captain’s, Dwayne desired the prize of her capture and the positive boost it would add to his personnel record.
Black leather boots moved swiftly and, in the remains of the squall still banging its way through the jungle, the marines marched almost silently. They went in single file, Dwayne in the lead. He had been here twice before on capture raids and knew where they were going.
Once in sight of the camp, he stopped and waved the others to circle to the left and right. The other four darted off, disappearing after a dozen steps.
Dwayne waited to a count of one hundred, then he moved forward, finger on the trigger. He hesitated at the edge of the clearing. Multiple prisoners were in the two lean-tos. He noticed a flicker of movement as other marines appeared at other points in the ring. Bursting forwards, gun raised, he charged the lean-tos and the others followed his lead. A circle of steel and death charged the prisoners.
The men being hunted lay or sat in the rear-most sections of the lean-tos to avoid the rain, though that was impossible to do completely, and they looked cold and uncomfortable. When they saw the marines rushing towards them, they looked only mildly surprised. They did not jump up to fight, nor did they attempt to take flight. They slowly raised their empty hands and looked resigned or bitter.
The marines hauled them from the meagre cover afforded by the lean-tos and tossed them out into the rain. They kneeled in the mud near the remains of a campfire that was now a puddle of black and gray.
Dwayne aimed his bayonetted musket at a white male with blond hair, about his own age. “Are there more prisoners?” he demanded.
The man just shrugged unhelpfully.
The butt of the musket slammed into the man’s temple and sent him crashing to the ground, blood seeping from broken skin. He turned to a huge latin male instead. “Are there more prisoners? Answer me!” he shouted.
The prisoner sullenly looked up. When he didn’t reply fast enough, someone kicked him in the back hard enough to make him grunt. “Yes. Two more,” he growled.
Dwayne’s eyes narrowed. “A woman? Asian?”
More hesitation and another kick to the back produced a sour expression before the man relented. “Yes. And another. Gang type. Male.”
Dwayne suppressed a smile. She was here! “Where are they?”
This time the prisoner just shrugged. More kicks did not gain more information. So the guard doing the kicking clubbed the uncooperative prisoner with the stock of his musket, right in the back of the latin’s head.
The youngest of the four prisoners, a lanky, disreputable-looking piece of trash, scowled at the marines. “Leave him alone!”
Dwayne pressed the tip of his bayonet to the youngster’s bony chest. “Where. Are. They?”
The prisoner looked like he was about to spit.
Dwayne prepared to drive the blade through the defiant, but idiotic, boy’s shoulder.
The black man spoke up. “They are not here. The man respawned this morning. We do not know his whereabouts.”
Dwayne rounded on him, eager for information. “And the woman?”
The black man lazily shrugged. Unlike the others, he did not seem intimidated by the guns and violence of the marines surrounding the prisoners. “South, maybe.”
Studying the casual confidence in the man’s eyes, Dwayne realized that threats and violence wouldn’t likely work directly on this person. He spun back to the youngster and drove the bayonet a couple of centimetres into his leg.
The young man screamed.
The big latin male rose, angry and defiant, and protectively tried to cover the youngster. “Stop! She’s in the Carib village!”
Nodding with satisfaction, Dwayne motioned to the others.
Two of the marines were carrying padded sacks at their waists, the padding there to prevent the chains inside from rattling as they moved. From out of the sacks, they pulled iron manacles and clapped these onto the wrists of the four miserable prisoners.
He smiled to himself. Not only was he going to collect Mei Ling, but four more prisoners, at least three of which appeared to be new sources of revenue, and the other a possible reclamation. That would look good on the books.
He turned southwards. If she was with the Caribs, that gave him license to destroy the tribe to get to her. That would please the governor and raise Dwayne’s name in his eyes. On the other hand, if his Captain were here, he’d no doubt advise extreme caution about trying to attack the entire village with only himself and four other marines.
One of the other guards turned to him, having finished with the prisoners. “What do you want to do about the one at large?”
He shrugged, wiping water away from his eyes. Cursed rain. It had done its job in keeping the prisoners in camp. It could helpfully go away now. “We don’t have enough men, nor the time, to comb the island or to try to flush him out. And he’s not our primary target. The governor wants the woman.”
The marine looked at the jungle. “You want to go by land and surprise them from behind?”
It was the logical course. They might even flush the other prisoner out on the way there. But what was it, ten or twelve kilometres to the other end of the island, through wet jungle? That was probably a two or three-hour trek. They were all in rough shape after that voyage and could be facing a dozen rested warriors or more. They needed their strength. “We’ll sail south,” he decided.
“They might see us coming.”
“With luck, they’ll be huddled in their huts, same as this sorry lot.” He turned and nodded for the others to follow. “Back to the boat.”
The other marines each took a prisoner. They yanked them to their feet and prodded them forward with shoves and pokes from the razor-sharp tips of their bayonets. Their charges plodded forward willingly enough. The youngster limped from his shallow wound and shot dark looks at his captors. The big latin and the white male both appeared sullen but resigned. The black, older man watched the marines with eyes that seemed to see too much. And unlike with the others, there was still no fear there.
Dwayne felt a prickle on his back that he knew was the older man’s gaze and tried not to flinch. He derided himself for weakness. Being intimidated by a prisoner’s gaze? One who was chained up and twice his age? Ridiculous.
A rumble shook the land and everyone abruptly halted as they tried to keep on their feet through the earthquake.
When the ground stopped moving, a marine, pale faced, looked around. “What the hell was that?”
Another wave moved through the ground, this time hard enough to send half the group to their hands and knees. A deafening crack split the air and everyone clapped their hands over their ears and winced.
Dwayne uncovered his ears after the ground returned to solid normal. Seeing how many had fallen, he was proud to still be on his feet. Motion above caught his eye, and he raised his head.
A column of gray smoke and ash rose above the treetops and mixed with the clouds in the rainy sky.
“Volcano’s active,” he announced, perhaps unnecessarily. “Everyone up. Double-time!” he ordered.
Single file, they quickly marched through the wet jungle, away from the growing natural disaster, everyone dripping wet, clothing sodden from the unrelenting rain. When they reached the beach, the prisoners were made to heave the anchors across the sand and place them in the longboats. Then they shoved the catamaran deeper into the water so that it floated again. The prisoners were walked up onto the deck and more chains were fetched from one of the two lockers. Securing the prisoners to loops of iron already bolted to the deck made them helpless and left them as exposed to the elements as the others.
Feeling quite satisfied with four extra pieces of human loot acquired, Dwayne turned his gaze south as they sailed, anticipation rising, the countdown to volcanic activity raising the pressure. The hunt for the real prize began now.
Mei Ling, I’m coming for you.