The slapping sound of bare footsteps came from the stairs a couple of rooms over.
A new spike of adrenalin shot through Mei’s heart. She cast her gaze around, hardly seeing a thing in the dark of this tiny room but knowing that she was exposed. Frantically, she shuttered the lantern and plunged herself back into utter blackness. She quietly pushed Saxston’s remains inside the cage by feel, placed the manacles and leg irons near his ankles and wrists, snatched up the water skin, and then closed the cage door. Then she darted over to the wall next to the room’s only door and flattened herself against the wood.
Her heart pounded. Could she jump whoever came in? Could she, sick with heat stroke and exhaustion, actually overcome anyone in a fight? She didn’t like the odds. Overcoming Saxston had been luck and the fact that he hadn’t been that much stronger than her, being a small man. But she’d seen just how fit and muscled many of the other crew and marines were.
The footsteps came closer. Orange light from a lantern brightened the next room and stretched into hers. It reached further, further. Any farther and it would reveal the cage and the dead man inside of it.
Mei clenched her fist. They’d see it was Saxston in there for sure, and not her. She readied herself for a fight that she was probably going to lose.
The light halted just shy of the cage. Someone rustled in a crate or barrel for something. Then the light flickered and started moving away.
Mei breathed out in relief. Someone had simply come to the storage room to fetch something and was now leaving. She was safe, for the moment. And just like that, her body gave out on her. Her arms and legs trembled and she slid down until she sat with her back to the wall.
“Too much exhaustion and stress and excitement,” she whispered, quietly laughing to herself. Breathing hard, she tried to recover herself, for she couldn’t stay here for long lest she be discovered. But it was a slow process. She drank from the skin, savouring the warm water.
Mei wasn’t a trained soldier. She was no fighter. Not in the military sense, anyway. She’d graduated from university with a degree in journalism, doing half of her years overseas in Vancouver, Canada. Not from a wealthy family at all, she’d paid tuition by working part-time as a fitness coach at the university gym, where her unusual height had been an advantage instead of something people mocked her about, as they had done in grade school. Well, they’d mocked her less. Or behind her back instead of to her face.
Like most tall women, she, of course, had a complex about her height. Other women looked up at her like she was a giant. Men shorter than her often felt inferior next to her and it frequently killed off any chance of becoming romantic or sexual partners. People of both genders had a tendency to look up to her as if they were children and her an adult, even when she was the younger one.
She loved to wear heels but rarely did because it made the issue even worse. People commented on her height constantly, as if it was the most important thing about her. And until she’d started into fitness, she’d developed really bad posture from constantly trying to shrink herself down to fit in as an awkward teen.
But years of consciously trying to rise above that complex, and the positive reception that she’d gotten from many fans of her coaching work, had given her a bit of confidence with which to battle her insecurities. Slowly, she’d come to accept her height and, instead of trying to fit in with anyone who came along, she’d sought out the company of others who were more accepting, not that it was easy to find them. She’d slowly gone from a highly insecure and depressed teen to a young woman who loved herself. She’d become stronger by working at it and she was kind of proud of that.
After graduation, she’d gone into a career in the dying field of journalism, struggling hard to get any kind of work at all in a society that demanded their news for free and wanted everything online at a moment’s notice, truth and fact increasingly less important than being in an echo chamber where people just wanted to hear what they already thought. It was an era of fake news and instant righteous indignation and less and less one of academic insight and accountability.
But she’d toughed it out because that’s who she’d decided that she wanted to be: someone who could overcome her challenges. Besides, she hadn’t gone into journalism on a whim; it was something that she deeply believed in. The voices of the common people in her home country were heavily censored by the rich, the powerful, the corrupt, and the authoritarian government.
Mei and many others all wanted change. They wanted a more democratic and honest society. And they wanted to achieve it peacefully, without the bloody revolutions that had been so unfortunately common in the past. As a journalist, she’d hoped to bring her voice to the fore and to make heard the voices of others like her.
For a while, she’d been successful in that regard, both as a journalist and as an activist in the pro-democratic movement. With every rally and march and article published, they’d all felt hopeful, everyone who was fighting alongside her for a better society. Raised in an era of increasingly globalized values and ideals, they’d believed that positive change could be achieved by speaking up and working together. They’d believed in the will of the people.
And then, sick of the criticism and absolutely against any change that might threaten their power and wealth, the so-called elites and the government had betrayed them all.
They’d come in suddenly with new security laws and swept aside everything the people had sacrificed to gain. Overnight, the government had become actively hostile and oppressive. Secret police had appeared everywhere.
And when she and others had dared to take to the streets to protest, sending their message to the world via their phones and cameras, the government had arrested them in droves and thrown them into long, black busses without windows. They’d hauled them away, perhaps never to be seen by their loved ones again.
Mei felt a familiar pang of frustration as she recalled the futility and injustice and loss as they’d dragged her away in handcuffs. She savagely wiped a tear away. She wouldn’t cry. Not again. She’d shed tears for weeks through her ordeal. She was done with that. She was.
Forcing herself to stand in the bowels of the ship, she wobbled on rubbery legs but steadied. She had to keep moving forward. She had given herself a chance to escape and now she needed to follow through with it, whatever it took.
“But now what?” she asked herself. Her head was killing her and her body could barely stand, but she needed to act.
She listened to the sounds of the ship. They should be nearing that island by now. Should she just run up top and jump off the main deck and hope that she could swim to shore faster than they could catch her? Sneak off and try to quietly slip into the water without notice? Or maybe she should disable the ship somehow, to stop them from following, just in case?
But what did she know about ships? Could she drop the anchor? No. She’d seen it and both it and the wheel used to drop it were far beyond her strength. Cut the sails? Too high and ineffective. She’d be caught trying to scale those crazy ropes that the sailors used to get around. Start a fire?
A spark of hope lit within her breast. Sailors were terrified of fire, these being wooden ships and all. If she could set fire to the rigging and sails, that would be—
She remembered the sight of canons lining the hull of the ship on a level above her. Nervous excitement flooded her entire body.
Gunpowder. These ships had gunpowder. When mixed with fire, gunpowder went boom.
Gunpowder was kept in a magazine. She remembered seeing paintings in history books of these old ships exploding. All that gunpowder going off at once would vaporize this boat. A sharklike grin came over her face.
If the guards had been polite or professional, or if anyone at all had shown her any kindness, she wouldn’t even have considered blowing the powder magazine and ‘killing’ them all. If this had been real life, she obviously would never mass murder everyone on board, regardless of the circumstances.
But this was a computer system, a digital world, and probably just a game to the guards in charge. And everyone had acted like an enemy towards her. Blowing them up would just cause them all to angrily respawn somewhere. More importantly, it would give her a head start in escaping and prevent them from following.
Easier said than done, however. She was alone and on a strange ship that she didn’t know at all beyond what she’d mopped today. The place was crawling with sailors and marines. If she were caught, she’d be punished. Rape might be the least of her worries. Perhaps it really did make the most sense to try and sneak above, evade anyone still awake, and try to climb down the side of the ship and into the ocean. Confrontation would be an unnecessary risk.
She might be able to just slip off the ship unnoticed. However, a growing part of her rebelled against the idea of meekly running away.
Her arrest and incarceration had been wildly unfair. After enduring a lifetime under the rule of such a corrupt, selfish government and after years uselessly campaigning for improvement, she’d been handcuffed without ethical cause and led to a secret courtroom, thrown in front of a heartless judge who would say whatever the government wanted.
Her so-called trial had taken barely five minutes before a guilty verdict of insurrection had been handed down. She’d been labelled a traitor to her country and sentenced to twenty years. And for what? For writing articles and making videos and participating in street rallies, using her words and never once raising a hand in violence or condoning it from others. Twenty years. She’d been absolutely powerless to do anything about the infuriating injustice of it all.
Anger erupted within her.
Her poor mother and father were probably tearing their hair out in worry over her. The boyfriend she’d been dating for a couple of months was probably…actually, he’d probably already found someone else. He hadn’t seemed very loyal sort and, honestly, she wasn’t in love with him. Actually, this whole thing made for a great excuse to break up with him. Besides, his penis was almost as small as Saxston’s. She could do better.
Chuckling in silence, she regained some of her composure and self-control. And self-control was important. It was crucial for survival.
Mei breathed deep. She owned her emotions; she refused to let them own her. She did not want to be miserable; she wanted to be happy and free. And if she couldn’t be free in her home country and in the real world, then she was damn well going to be free in this world.
And if she had the chance to strike back against the system and the people supporting it, then maybe she should take it. She had to admit, as wrong as killing had felt earlier, a part of her had thrilled in successfully ending that evil jerk. The thought of blowing the ship and sending a few dozen smug, abusive guards and unhelpful fellow prisoners back to the respawn point was very titillating.
She opened the lantern a touch to give herself some light. She glanced at the cage, then went to it and opened the door. Taking the manacles, she hefted one end and let the other dangle. Nodding to herself, she decided that it would make for a good weapon.
Words appeared in the air before her:
Weapon Acquired: Chains
Weapon Class: Other
Skill Level: None
Interesting. They must have a system in place to help guards and staff inside the prison world to learn and use skills faster and better than they might in real life. It looked like the system wasn’t just confined to guards though. That would make sense if prisoners could be elevated to guard-like positions or if they became workers or crew.
So she now had a legitimate way to cause damage within the system. And it looked like at least some random objects could be turned into weapons if that was your intent. Having no skill at all wasn’t very inspiring, but with the chain in hand, manacle on one end to act like a flail, she felt more dangerous and that gave her confidence.
She snatched up the lantern and stepped towards the door. “Let’s see if we can find that powder magazine.”
Each deck of a ship like this is essentially one long, open space from front to back, bow to stern in nautical terms. Each deck might be separated into compartments, as this bottom one, the fourth deck, was. She was in a tiny room at the bow end that was obviously designed as a brig. On the way here, she’d seen that the rooms on this lowest deck were holds for storage, filled with barrels and crates, coils of rope and chain, even a spare anchor. The second and third decks were filled with cannons. And that room at the stern of the second deck was probably the captain’s quarters.
Where would you keep all your highly flammable and highly explosive gunpowder on a ship that might get hit with cannon fire or run aground? In the very center. So it was likely that they stored it in the middle of the third deck. Unfortunately, that was also the crew deck, where many of them would be sleeping right now.
Creeping out of the brig, she cautiously made her way through the first storage hold and into the next, this one filled with barrels, probably for water and beer or rum. No one was here and she heard nothing above. Likely, the marines and most of the sailors were asleep except for a night crew.
She crept to the stairs near the middle of the ship and softly stepped up, placing her feet lightly, wincing at every little creak. Shuttering the lantern, she waited just below the third deck, listening for the sounds of others.
She heard the ever-present rush of water, wood creaking gently, and lots of snoring.
Faint light shone from a single lantern, somewhere above. The orange glow swayed with the roll of the ship. She inched up through the stair hole to the next deck and poked her head through.
The stairs reversed direction and continued up to the second deck. To her right, the bow section, stretched crew quarters. Two rows of thin, net hammocks ran down the ship, every usable space around them crammed with more cannon, cargo, and other items, leaving just enough room for each marine or sailor to swing in peace as they slept. Notably, none of the men here wore prisoner uniforms. Prisoners must be sleeping separately in the stern section, probably for security.
Mei looked left of the stairs—and found a door. In the dim light, it glinted, both the door and the surrounding wall plated with metal. From the colour, she guessed it to be copper.
She snuck over to it and tried the latch. Locked. Of course. It was probably the most secure place on the vessel. Who would have the key? The captain, most likely. He’d either be above or in his private quarters and very difficult to get to. Also…what was that title she’d heard earlier while mopping? Gunner? Master gunner.
Peeking into the crew section, she spotted the master gunner at the near end of the rows and rows of crew and marines. He probably wanted to be closest to the stairs and the magazine in case of an emergency. And the key that she needed would surely be on him even while he drifted in dreamland.
The ship gently rolled. Hammocks swayed, along with the light from the single lantern dangling from the ceiling halfway down the room. A voice calmly called out something from the rigging high above in the night and another answered in kind. All was well.
She placed her lantern out of the way on the floor. Warily and with every sense attuned to her dark environment, she eased into the crew quarters, knowing that, at any moment, someone could come down from above decks, or that someone here might not be sound asleep.
Mei’s light footsteps made no sound. With cautious movements, manacles and chain dangling from her right hand and ready to strike, she crept between piles of netted-down crates and around a large personal trunk. Unlike the second deck, which was much more open to allow room to fire the cannon, this deck felt cramped with storage and hammocks. Perhaps it wasn’t used as often as the upper deck for battle. It certainly was used for sleeping though, with dozens of men snoring in front of her. One misstep and they’d all wake up.
She swallowed with nervousness and felt sweat beading in the middle of her back that wasn’t entirely from the heat.
The master gunner was a middle-aged man, with graying hair and thick arms blackened by multiple tattoos and with more than a little flab on his belly. Even laying in his thin hammock that was almost a cocoon, arms across his stomach, legs dangling over the sides, he was still dressed in a short, blue jacket and white capri pants, ready to jump up and get back to work at a moment’s notice. Such was the unpredictable life at sea.
Mei stood near his feet, growing more skittish by the second. She felt so exposed. The stairs were at her back and two, long rows of men stretched out in front of her in the darkness. One shout of alarm and she’d be back in chains. Or bent over some of these crates and gang banged.
That sort of thing might be appealing in a different context, but really wasn’t something she was interested in right now.
She thought about that for a second.
Yeah, definitely not. At the moment, she was fuelled by anger and justice, not lust, and wanted to escape more than anything else. She was going to blow the ship, not the crew.
So, returning to the task at hand — how to get the key off of the Master Gunner? She saw a leather thong and what, in the dark, looked like keys hanging from his neck. Any attempt to slip them off of him would probably rouse him.
Eyes flicking upwards to keep an eye on the others, she sidled closer and stood over him. Hefting the manacles, she thought about flailing on him. Would a good crack to the skull kill him? Or make too much noise and lead to screaming and the waking of the rest?
Her thumb moved up and down the rough, black metal in her hand, indecisive. And that hesitation cost her.
Quick feet slapped the staircase behind her.
A jolt of panic shot through her. Seeing no other options, she clutched the chains to her torso to keep them quiet and dove under the gunner’s body. She lay flat on her back, parallel to him on the floor, deep in shadow. She slitted her eyes to prevent any reflection off of the whites that might give her away, despite how dark it was. Not breathing, body tense, the sound of her heart thundered in her ears and seemed certain to give her away.
A sailor ambled past, yawning widely enough to tilt his head backwards. Then he was out of sight. By the sounds of things, he got about halfway down the long room and then climbed into his own hammock.
Mei forced herself to slowly breathe out, then in again, controlling herself so that she made as little noise as possible while she brought her frightened body back under her control.
Staring up at the man hanging over her, she thought back to Saxston. She’d strangled him. Could she do the same thing here? The hammock was made of thin, light netting and probably wouldn’t get in the way. There was no time to dither. Hoping the sound of the chain moving would seem normal on the ship, and that the newly-bedded down sailor was half asleep already, she acted.
She used all her arm strength to toss one weighted end of the manacle up and over the gunner while hanging onto the other end. The thrown end arced over the man and came down the other side, where Mei fought to catch it, but it fumbled from her hand. The chain fell fast under the falling weight and came down hard on the gunner’s throat.
Seeing him startle awake, she twisted the two ends of the manacles around each other, making a braid that tightened the loop around the gunner’s throat.
He panicked and started to flail around, trying to rise.
Mei twisted the chain one last time as she pulled down on it, feeling it bite cruelly into the man’s fleshy neck. There would be no loosening it now. But the stronger, heavier man was attempting to sit up, so Mei flipped herself over. Facedown on her knees, chain over her shoulder, she pulled down with all her strength and weight, digging the chain further into his neck. Hopefully, her strength and his weight wouldn’t be enough to break the hammock and send it crashing down on top of her.
Wet gurgling noises and fleeting gasps of air from above seemed deafening. Despite all of his thrashing about, most of it was in the air and made very little noise in the hammock.
Sweat beaded on her forehead. Then she felt her palms start to moisten and grew fearful. Would her hands slip off the chain despite its roughness? She tightened her grip and continued to pull, hoping with all that she had that nobody would notice, that nobody would discover them. She was so close to freaking out from the prospect of discovery that she worried she might pee herself.
The noises from the gunner grew weak and then stopped. His body calmed, then jerked a few times and went still.
She looked back over her shoulder.
His arms drooped on either side of the hammock, lifeless.
Relieved, Mei slowly relaxed her grip on the chain, keeping the corpse in the hammock, as if he were still asleep. She didn’t want to screw up now and send the body tumbling out, to thud loudly on the deck.
Weapon Class: Other
Skill Level: Novice
She untwisted the manacles and retrieved them. Apparently, her first kill had been enough to level up her skill with this weapon. Or maybe that included Saxston as well. Oddly fast, but perhaps it was because the gunner was a kind of officer? Or maybe the first level up was just really easy.
She shrugged and looted his keys, trying to ignore the unwelcome sensation of having murdered someone. You couldn’t directly excuse this one as self-defence. But she was just trying to survive. These were people had chosen to try and hurt her, had chosen to be her captors and participate in an unfair system that had taken her real life away from her.
Fuck those bastards. It wasn’t murder. It was fighting back.
She retrieved her lantern and gave herself enough light to make out her surroundings, though she warily shielded the light with her body. Returning to the magazine door, she quietly fitted each of the four keys into the lock until one slid in. She opened the door and let herself inside and then closed the magazine door behind her.
Mei’s breath caught in her throat.
The room had copper-shielded walls, ceiling, and floor. Kegs of gunpowder sat very tightly in racks padded with leather with only enough room to stand in the entrance.
She was literally standing in the middle of a giant bomb. A bomb that would explode when touched with flames. Like from the fire hanging in her hand.
Nervously sweaty again, she swallowed hard and cast about. One of the kegs near the door was only partially sealed. She gently placed the lantern on the very cleanly-swept floor. Taking the top off of the keg with shaky hands, she discovered many pre-filled bags of gunpowder inside. Likely, these were pre-made charges for the cannons that were already ready for use in the event of an emergency. In a box, she found the type of burning cord used for delayed charges, perhaps for making grenades or something.
Simple; she’d seen this often enough in cartoons, after all, right? And didn’t art imitate life? She twisted a fairly long piece of cord together. Then she opened a bag of gunpowder and spilled it onto the floor in a small pile and stuck the cord into it. Standing up, she looked at the small pile. Would it be enough of a starter charge to ignite the rest?
She poured four more bags out, just in case. Then, whole body tingling with nervous energy, she bent and lit the end of the fuse with the lantern. There was no going back after this.
It burst into life, then smouldered bright orange. The glow slowly moved down the fuse. Well, not that slowly. Actually…
She was only going to have a minute or so. Perhaps she should make a longer fuse. But it was already— Ok, no time to think about it! She hurtled out of the magazine and shouldered the door closed behind her, leaving the lantern inside. Then she locked the door, just in case. Turning, she put her foot on the first stair and looked up.
Percy stood near the top, staring down at her in bewilderment. “What are you—? How—?”
Not pausing to think, and knowing the only way out was up, she charged him and pushed him as hard as she could.
He tripped backwards over the top stair and fell onto his backside.
She drove past him but felt a hand on her ankle and fell hard onto her face. That hurt. Grunting in pain, she turned and saw him snarling at her. She yanked her ankle free and jumped to her feet.
“Alarm! Prisoner on the loose!” he shouted, getting up. Then he grinned at her. “Bitch, you just—“
She whirled the manacles around once in the air, then whipped the heavy end around, smacking it into his temple with brutal force.
His head spun sideways and there was a sharp crack as his neck snapped like a twig. He dropped like wet potatoes.
Mei stared at his body in surprise, then at the weapon in her hand. Wow. Centripetal force could be dangerous. She looked down at the third man she’d killed in less than an hour, stunned by how quickly it had happened, how fast her reflexes had been. She hadn’t hesitated at all. Before today, she’d never have known how dangerous, how murderous she could really be. It was…extremely odd. It was nothing like the peaceful, normal life she’d led until now. She’d never, ever have thought it in her to do anything like this.
What did that mean? Was she not really the good person she’d thought she was? Was her true nature that of a killer? The idea was demoralizing. A murderer was not someone she wanted to—
Oh right. The lit fuse.
Coming to her senses, she ran for the stairs up to the main deck only to hear voices coming towards her from above. She slid to a halt and backed away.
Two very large sailors came down with frowns on their faces.
These were not good odds. With the way out blocked, she searched for another exit. Portholes would be too small to crawl through in time. The door at the end? She raced towards it. “Captain! Captain! Fire!” she shouted at the door, taking a guess. As she ran, she tossed the gunner’s keys at a porthole and watched them disappear into the night.
There was a thump and then the door opened. “What’s going—?“
Mei crashed into him at full speed, shoulder first, sending him flying backwards. She herself went tumbling sideways from the collision. Even as she leaped to her feet, she saw the captain regaining his and snatch a sword that hung next to the door.
The captain looked very unimpressed with her. With skill, he jerked the sword from its sheath and pointed the tip at her, a living embodiment of hostility and danger. He lunged.
Reacting instinctively, she battered the sword aside with her chain.
He advanced, lunging again.
She dodged backwards and lashed out with the chain again, but missed.
The two sailors that had followed her came to stand in the doorway, silently watching until called upon. There’d be no escape that way.
Captain Fowler said nothing, his movements smooth and precise. Another jab, so fast she barely saw it.
She backed away. The room was large for a ship. The captain’s bed was bolted to one wall, and it was a proper bed, not a hammock. There was a floor-to-ceiling cabinet attached to the other wall, with bolted doors. The rear wall had two large windows made of small, square panes of glass. In the center of the room stood a large map table attached to the deck, with charts tacked down on top of it, and a nice box made out of dark wood, polished to a shine sat there.
The captain charged, swinging.
Mei threw herself to the side, fell on her knees and then scrambled up, putting the table between them. She glared at him. “Sending your men to rape me in the night? Some captain.”
He betrayed no emotion on his face. “You’ll get far worse after this little fiasco.”
“And for killing Saxston?”
The captain sighed. “Is that what happened?”
“And for killing Percy?”
His brows rose for the first time. “My, haven’t you been a busy little criminal?”
“I’m no criminal!” she shouted at him, anger rising so fast it overcame her fear. “I was an activist. A fighter for democracy. A voice of the people!”
“I don’t care what laws you broke. You’re in here; you’re a criminal,” he stated in no uncertain terms.
That only upset her more. “I never had a fair trial. The government is corrupt!”
He snorted and waved his free hand. “You all have your pathetic excuses. As far as I’m concerned, scum is scum. And you’ll get what you deserve: punishment.”
She got hold of her anger and a smile inched over her lips. “I also got to the master gunner. And his keys.”
He blinked and then straightened slowly in shock. Shaking himself back to his senses, he turned to the door, shouting at the top of his lungs. “The magazine! Check the—!“
The two sailors turned and bolted towards the stairs.
Mei spun and went for the stern window. A quick search revealed latches, which she flicked before throwing open the windows adn revealing the ocean behind the ship. Fresh, salty air swirled into the room. Casting one last look into the captain’s chambers, her eyes fell on the dark wooden box. It looked valuable. Or like there was something valuable inside. Impulsively, she grabbed it with her free hand and jumped up onto the window ledge.
The captain saw her and the box in her hands. His eyes widened. “No! Don’t you dare!” he raced for her.
She grinned at him. “Like I said, it’s a pirate’s life for Mei.” She threw herself overboard.
Mei fell through the warm, night air for only a moment. Then her body crashed into the ocean below; a shock of coldness. She sunk under the surface and all sound cut out.
The gunpowder magazine exploded with incredible violence, turning the entire sky above her white and orange amidst the black. Luckily, most of the force of the explosion was above the water line and reflected off the surface instead of crushing her.
She kicked herself away from the burning ship and towards the surface. Her head broke from the water and she gasped in suddenly-heated air that seared her lungs, making her hack and cough. Flaming wreckage fell out of the sky, splashing around her.
Looking about while desperately treading water, Mei was very relieved to see land close by. She kicked towards it, hoping that the flaming wood and debris raining down around her wouldn’t catch her.
A ball splashed into the water in front of her and then bobbed up. Not a ball. It was a human head. She instinctively batted it aside, grossed out.
The going was hard. The box in her arms was light and wanted to float. The manacles on the other hand were very heavy and awkward. She was extremely tempted to drop them, as exhausted as she was, but they were her only weapon. And in this world, something told her that weapons were going to be crucial.
Still, every meter she swam in the water was agony: her lungs on fire from breathing hot air, her head aching from heatstroke, her muscles rubbery and near useless. She could see the shore in front of her, but each murderous second in the water made it seem less and less likely that she was ever going to make it there.