His lungs burned with the need for air as he sank beneath the waves. The last thing he saw was that woman’s face before the darkness of the ocean at night swallowed him.
He tried to hold out for as long as he could as he descended into that watery tomb, but his chest grew tight and pained, and the need for air became desperate. Against his conscious will, his mouth opened, and he breathed. But instead of air, he inhaled saltwater, filling his lungs.
It was a surprisingly fearful and slow, and painful way to die.
The lights went out entirely, and there was nothingness.
He woke. He had no idea how much time had passed, but he had respawned on land and in prison.
He knelt on a damp stone floor, wrists and ankles bound in heavy manacles with thick chains. He was alive, obviously, and unharmed. Previous wounds were gone, and his body had been restored to complete health.
Looking up, he saw that he was in a cell with stone walls with rough iron bars in front. Beyond was another cell facing his own. Three prisoners rotted inside, their appearance gaunt, their striped uniforms stained and threadbare. They paid no attention to him, just sitting against the walls inside their confines, unshackled, staring at the floor in silence. They were men without hope, starved and beaten, doing nothing more than existing.
Putin, whose real name he’d long ago buried, felt his gorge rise at the pathetic sight. Losers. Weaklings. They deserved their fate.
He tested the strength of the manacles, chain clinking as he did so, and found no give. He did not expect any. That was fine. He was in no hurry. And he was a patient man. But he would find a way out. He would escape. No prison could hold him long, not even this one.
Then he would find her. A malicious grin curled his lips, and when one of the men across from him glanced up, they hurriedly looked away.
Yes, he’d find that woman. And he’d hurt her. Slowly.
If there was something he was good at besides killing, it was hurting people. And he really enjoyed it. You might even say he lived for it. It was all a kind of game to him.
One might think that Putin would be angry at having been taken out of the real world and sentenced to this digital one. He wasn’t. In a world where the dead came back to life, again and again, he would never run out of victims, and he would be able to take his pleasure to new heights. They couldn’t even rob him of his fun by killing him, only trap him in cells like this for a time until they found a way to break free and continue. And the authorities in this time period were a joke.
This world wasn’t a prison; it was his own personal playground.
Laughter boomed from his chest and sent all the other dungeon residents scurrying in fear for darker corners.
The small ship bobbed in the water. Barbados was still in sight several kilometres away, but that was fine. The navy there no longer had a ship with which to chase them. If they tried sailing out in their fishing boats, Mei and the others would simply use the swivel guns mounted port and starboard to fend them off. They’d discovered little bags of grapeshot that could be loaded into the miniature cannon that would completely shred any crew foolish enough to try to board them.
She took a moment to take in the ship for the first time now that they weren’t being shot at or pursued.
The sloop was about fifteen meters long, with a single mast sporting a tall, triangular sail. There was no cabin or below decks. The main deck was open, and the hull curved up until the top was only about a meter above the water. A single, thin cannon pointed forwards in the bow, and a swivel gun was mounted on each side near the stern.
The Caribbean sky was bright and clear, the sun a yellow ball of heat and light rising in the east. Unfortunately, the sloop only had a single deck, open to the elements, so they weren’t able to shade themselves.
Sitting in the bow and facing the stern, Juan squinted at the sun. “It’s going to be very hot soon.”
“Let’s check…those lockers,” Mei painfully suggested, breathing a challenge, pointing to doors in the deck itself that likely led to storage underneath. “Maybe there’s a spare sail we can rig for shade.” She was sitting with her back up against the inside of the hull and rested her head against it. She coughed again. “But later. I think I need to sleep. For a week.” She tiredly chuckled and closed her eyes. But a whimper made her open them again and look over at Lia. Gratefulness washed over her.
The Carib girl was tending to Jie, who had been laid next to the mast. With care, the young woman gently washed the jaguar’s wounds with salt water, which was what had disturbed the cat. Fortunately, the feline was in no condition to bite or claw. She was very weak.
Mei sincerely hoped that Jie would recover. Also that there was food on board somewhere to feed to Jie, or things would get dicey, fast.
Armand stood in the bow, fiddling with the sail and looking confused with the lines and how things worked. Then he suddenly straightened, surprise on his face. “I just received the [Pirate] class.”
The others paused and blinked as they, too, acquired the same.
Mei heard the words in her mind:
Class Acquired: Pirate
“Wow.” She shook her head. “Why would the system officially give us that class?”
Juan shrugged. “Maybe it’s a label for troublesome prisoners.”
“Probably means we’re wanted and in for an extended sentence if they catch us,” Lance guessed. He snorted with dismissal from where he lay on the bottom of the boat. “Whatever. We made our choice. We’ll just have to live with it.”
“Or not get caught,” Mei wryly suggested.
One of the cellists, who’d introduced himself as Stasio, innocently looked around at the group. He still seemed very excited to be embarking on this adventure. “So? Who is the captain of this crazy ship?”
Juan joked, “Probably Jie.” That got some amused nods.
Lance spoke up. “Pirates were democratic, right? We should vote on it.”
“Democracy is almost always a good idea,” Mei agreed, impressed.
Cheeto seemed nervous. “Uh, who’s putting their name forward? Not me. I don’t wanna do it.”
“Mei,” Lance instantly volunteered.
“Wait—“ she objected.
“Guys, hold on!” She laughed, surprised by how matter-of-fact they were all being. “Doesn’t anyone else want to put their name forward?”
Everyone remained silent.
Andon cautiously raised his hand.
Stasio slapped it down.
When no one else responded, she felt a bit guilty and embarrassed. After all, this was exactly what she’d wanted. She just hadn’t expected it to happen like this.
The system voice spoke, and words appeared in her vision:
Class Acquired: Captain
Skill (Passive): Commanding Presence
Skill: Basic Navigation [by Sun and Stars]
Class Consolidation: Pirate Captain
Skill [Show Me The Money]: Appraise the commercial value of captured goods
Ship Acquired: Work Sloop – 1 Gun
Mei threw back her head and laughed. Which turned out to be a stupid thing to do as a bunch of bubbly blood came up in a horrendous coughing fit. They gave her some water from a canteen from storage.
“Why the laughter?” Armand asked.
This time she spoke more softly. “I just acquired the Pirate Captain class. And skills!”
The others all looked at her, astonished, jaws hanging open.
“Skills?” Cheeto eagerly asked.
“Yep. Like…” She glanced up at the sun and then searched the sea. A tingle in the back of her brain that she couldn’t explain strengthened in a particular direction. She raised her arm and pointed. “That way to St. Mary’s. I think.”
“How are you doing that?” Lance gasped.
“I have no idea!” She laughed again. “I guess the guards aren’t the only ones with shortcuts built into the system. Anyone can gain them if they get the right class.”
“It’s true,” Armand agreed. “I have gained some kind of official skill level with a weapon. Though I suspect it is more a recognition of my actual skills rather than an assist of some kind, as I was already proficient with a gun.”
The others grew excited and chattered about the possibilities.
“That means we’re not entirely helpless, right?” Cheeto said, looking around and practically bouncing in his seat. “We can get stronger. Just like the guards.”
Mei’s eyes danced. “You know what this means?”
They all looked at her.
“We have a ship and a crew.” Moving awkwardly but doing her best to ignore the pain, she stood and put her hands on her hips. Grinning, she stood under the sun, the wind in her hair as the ship rocked beneath her feet. “It’s a pirate’s life for us.”