Mei crashed through bushes. Tree branches tore at her as she passed. But she was in no state of mind to notice with her mind blank with fright.
She stumbled and fell, slamming into the ground and scraping her hands and getting a gash on her shin. But she barely slowed, up again in an instant, fleeing blindly through the jungle as if her life depended on it. Because it did.
By chance or perhaps by instinct, she ran in the same direction that she’d originally come from. And when she grew disoriented in the dark and tripped over some roots, it was at the base of the same fig tree that she’d sat at before. Chest heaving, lungs seared with the need for oxygen, she ducked behind the tree and shrunk into a hollow space in the dirt. Tears welled. She sat there, listening hard for pursuit.
But the jungle was eerily quiet.
No insects nor birds sang under the stars. Not even the wind rustled the leaves.
She gulped and vainly tried to control her breathing. She could barely think straight. Her hands shook.
Leaning her head back against the trunk of the tree, she continued to listen. Surely that monster was coming for her. He’d sneak up on her and then jump her. He’d hold her down and choke the life out of her. Or stab her. Or haul her back to the fire and burn her alive again.
Yet no matter how long she waited, body tense, no one came for her. Her killer did not appear. And very gradually, she began to relax. She could even think again.
New emotions swirled within her. Embarrassment for the way that she’d panicked like a little girl and ran in front of the others. Shame and self-loathing for being so afraid. Anger at the man who had done this to her. Relief that she wasn’t about to die again.
She cried for a bit, though not for long. Just in reaction to the extreme emotions she’d gone through. But they subsided quickly enough and she regained control of herself. Not so much that she could entirely relax, however. She spent the night sitting in that hollow all alone and wary and trying to deal with her emotions.
By morning, she was utterly drained, and her mind had grown fuzzy with both lack of sleep and emotional exhaustion. Her body was cramped from being tightly wound up and in the same position all night. Wincing, she quietly stretched out. Then she peeked around the tree for any sign of Tattoos.
He wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else around, as far as she could tell. It belatedly occurred to her that the others hadn’t come looking for her. She paused and wondered what that meant. Had Tattoos killed them too? Had they just not bothered because they knew that if anything bad happened and she died, she’d just respawn? Or were they still upset with her and shunning her?
Whatever the case, she didn’t feel like returning to the camp. She didn’t feel welcome, didn’t feel like she had a place there anymore. And she really didn’t want to see Tattoos. What would she even say to him if they saw each other again? What would he say to her? Or would he just do something awful to her again?
She felt miserable and down on herself. To hell with all of them. She was better off by herself. And for the moment, she was perfectly fine with never seeing any of them ever again.
She was also ravenous. Her stomach was growling and she was thirsty. It was time to look for food and water.
There was no need to return here, so she dug up her things. The money was heavy. Taking a handful of coins and spreading it between both pockets, she left the rest. She could come back for it if she had to. If she didn’t, well, pirates buried their treasure, didn’t they? She chuckled to herself at that.
Wearing her jacket once more, pistols in her pockets, she wandered through the jungle. In remarkably short order, she came across a stream and realized this might be where the other prisoners came for water. She reached a hand into the water to scoop some up and realized—it was a little warm.
Perplexed, she dipped her hand back in and let it rest in the flow of the water. Instead of being cool and refreshing, the stream was oddly room temperature. She drank some, and it tasted fine.
Why would a stream have warm water? Looking upstream, for the first time, she was getting an idea of the layout of the island of St. Vincent and, to her surprise, there was a mountain in the middle of it. Suddenly, the warm water made sense. That wasn’t just a mountain; it was a volcano. Underneath this idyllic paradise lurked bowels filled with molten lava and it was heating up the water.
Excited by the find, she hiked her way upstream, exploring. The stream was littered with large boulders, and few places were deep, so she lightened her mood by splashing around and climbing from one plateau to the next. After some time, she reached a pretty, little waterfall. And at the base of it was a pool.
“Bath!” She flung her things to the ground. With only a quick glance to see if anyone was around, she stripped and stood nude on the streambank. Carefully, Mei picked her way through a natural wall of boulders and edged into the deeper water. It was hotter and steaming now that she was closer to the source, and there was enough of a pool to retain heat for a while.
She gingerly sank into the pool. “Oh wow, that feels good.” Breathing out in soothing relief, she immersed herself in the water, sitting on the rocks and letting the heat and liquid flow over her entire, naked body.
Mei loved hot baths. She regularly went to public baths, both in her home city and when travelling around Asia. There was something both spiritual and physical about the experience. She felt tensions easing, dirt and grime washing away, and the anxiousness of the previous night melted in the face of this heavenly spring.
For a long time, she relaxed there, leaning back, head on the rocks, drifting in the warmth and not thinking much. She was drowsy and, in moments, fell asleep.
Some kind of tropical bird woke her sometime later. The sun above was bright and it was probably afternoon. The soothing backdrop of birdsong played in harmony with the rush of water over the falls.
Yawning and brushing sleep from her eyes, she sat up. Almost unconsciously, she checked in all directions for predators. Luckily, she was alone.
Or was that lucky? Mei didn’t want to be alone. She couldn’t survive on her own. She couldn’t escape this island on her own. And she wasn’t going to be able to fend off villains like Tattoos on her own.
Body slightly wrinkled and feeling so much more relaxed, she eased out of the water at last. Taking advantage of the opportunity, she washed her vest and pants in the pool. It meant wearing wet clothes afterwards, but that was better than filthy ones.
Leaving them to dry for a little while, she threw her captain’s jacket on. It covered only her backside and left her front entirely exposed. Then she climbed up the side of the waterfall, looking for something to eat. Flashes of colour in the leaves above indicated fruit. Sure enough, she found some guavas. Unfortunately, most were unripe. She picked the best of the bunch and made do with that. What wouldn’t she give for some meat? A steak. Or Korean barbecue. Or even a dozen plates of smoked salmon sushi. Thankful she’d found anything edible at all, she retrieved her things and dressed.
Leaving the hot spring behind, she wandered back down the volcanic mountain. Perhaps she’d be able to catch another fish. If she, too, could make fire… Her stomach growled at the idea. It took much less time to go downhill than it had up, and she approached the shoreline. Keeping an eye out for trouble, she maneuvered to the edge of the trees overlooking the rocky shore and the Caribbean Sea beyond.
The regular sound of the waves was broken by a splash. Curious, she looked around. There was nothing in the surf that she could see. What had made that sound? Or had she just imagined it?
Shrugging and yawning, her body still drained, she decided to forgo all the effort of fishing for a while and sit down in the shade, figuring a second nap was in order. It had been a long, hard night. The trip down the mountain had been tiring. So she curled up in a patch of grass next to a tree.
Frowning, she stood up and searched the ocean. What…?
A feline head bobbed up in the sea about three meters from shore. It turned around, and the jaguar paddled back to the rocks.
She crouched and watched. Her old friend had appeared again.
The great cat climbed back up onto the rocks and then turned and studied the water. It stalked back and forth along the edge, watching and waiting. Then it stopped and tensed. Back legs flexed, and the cat plunged into the water. This time, it came up with a fat fish wriggling in its mouth. Happily, the jaguar returned to shore. It dropped the fish on a flat section of rock and watched it.
The fish, bleeding, flopped around.
The cat batted it a few times. It was ‘playing’ with its food: torturing the poor prey and establishing dominance as the cat proved to itself what a mighty hunter and superior being it was. After a minute, it lay down and took the helpless fish in its paws and bit down, ending the creature’s suffering.
Mei sat down and watched in silence, fascinated and admiring. The jaguar was so beautiful. She was glad that she’d freed it from the Carib cage. Maybe it would be free to live on this island without being hunted.
Having finished its meal, the cat lay there, calmly surveying its domain. When its handsome head eventually turned her way, it froze, spotting her.
She didn’t move.
The cat stared at her for a minute. Then it smoothly rose to all fours and turned towards her, padding over.
Mei thought about running away, but the jaguar looked relaxed, not hostile. Was it simply curious again? Was this going to be another test?
The great cat approached her head-on, then turned slightly once it got close and angled its walk so that it came to stand next to her. There it stopped and turned its face towards her.
Very slowly, she raised her hand and offered her wrist so that the cat might smell it.
The cat did so. Seemingly satisfied, it looked away. Then it flopped down next to her and lay on its side, back facing her.
Mei blinked, a little nervous. What the heck? Seriously? It was going to take a nap here?
The jaguar’s head shifted on the ground, and it looked back at her.
Ok, was it—? No, it couldn’t actually be… She shook her head. Was it asking to be petted? Because that was ridiculous. It was a killing machine, a wild animal. And yet, that was the exact same pose a house cat might give her when it wanted its head rubbed. But a jaguar wanting the same?
The cat blinked at her. Maybe it remembered the way she’d petted it in the cage?
Mei looked down at the lovely animal. She should be afraid right now. But she wasn’t. Maybe she was all out of being afraid for the moment, too exhausted from experiencing so much fear recently. Thinking about it, she was sick of that fear. It had been inside her from the moment she’d gotten knocked down into that fire and it had only gotten worse since. She was fed up and angry. So she decided to prove to herself that she could still be brave.
Reaching her hand out, ever so slowly, she let it hover above the jaguar’s forehead.
The cat tilted its head back and sniffed her a moment, then resumed laying where it had been.
She lowered her hand until it just barely touched the cat’s fur.
The jaguar didn’t move.
Very gently, she ran her hand along its head, petting it. And by whatever miracle, the cat allowed it. In fact, after a few strokes, it closed its eyes.
She almost laughed. How was this possible? Had the cat been raised by humans, perhaps? It seemed capable enough living in the wilds, fully able to fish on its own. And yet, it was curiously unafraid of human contact. It even had some mannerisms reminiscent of a house cat. She wondered whether that was universal for felines or if it had been raised amongst house cats and learned from them.
Petting the jaguar was quite a thrill, and it rapidly boosted her mood. She smiled and almost giggled. They carried on like that for a long time. The cat seemed disinclined to stop her. She even worked herself up to scratching behind the ears and it leaned into it. She did giggle at that point—animal therapy at its best and most dangerous.
Her arm eventually grew tired and a bit sore, so she had to pull it back. But not after a very long session of spoiling the big kitty. The jaguar was content to continue laying there. Satisfied that the cat had no hostile intentions and that it wouldn’t as long as she didn’t do anything to startle or hurt it, she let herself relax and just be.
Almost inevitably, her mind drifted back to the other prisoners. This time, however, she was much calmer and more herself. She felt like she could go over the problem and even think about Tattoos without freaking out.
The other four were upset with her. Why? When they’d first met, she’d introduced herself as a fellow prisoner. Things had gone well. They’d talked about life in this world and the system. Everyone had been happy enough to talk to her and treat her like an equal. What had changed that?
She’d told them that she wasn’t a criminal. And suddenly, a barrier had gone up. They’d looked at her differently.
But why had that made them so…hostile? No, not entirely. More like…defensive. But why defensive?
They’d talked about her looking down on them. Assumed that she saw herself as better than they were, in a moral way. And they’d hated that. Hated? Or something else? She pondered.
Maybe they felt guilty? That wasn’t quite right. Ashamed?
They’d been happy enough when they’d thought that they were all guilty of something, regardless of the actual crimes. She’d been one of them. Maybe…they didn’t like how they might look in her eyes?
Mei, like most people, assumed that most criminals were bad people. After all, they’d done something horrible enough to hurt others and landed in prison for it. Good people didn’t usually go to prison. But if you were a criminal, how did you see yourself? No doubt there were some, like Tattoos, that either enjoyed being a villain or didn’t see what they did as wrong and thus were incapable of seeing themselves as bad people.
But that wasn’t likely the case for everyone, was it? Some people probably saw themselves as criminals under duress, as if they’d done something wrong but had been driven to it or had had no other choice. Or maybe they’d made a mistake they normally didn’t think they would have made. Or they had screwed up in a moment of weakness or foolishness. In those cases, such people wouldn’t want to see themselves as bad people. They might see themselves as decent folk but flawed. Or, in some way, they might believe that they were a victim, the same way that Mei saw herself. Though they might not be being entirely honest with themselves.
Maybe when they were on their own it was easy to pretend that they were all good people and didn’t deserve to be here. But when she’d arrived, and actually didn’t deserve to be here, they’d felt defensive about themselves in comparison.
Or maybe it was as simple as meeting someone for the first time and wanting to impress them and not be seen as losers. We always want to make a good impression, right? Nobody wants to be stereotyped in a bad way before they get a chance to show you who they really are.
Maybe what they wanted was respect. To be liked for the good parts that they saw in themselves and not judged only for the bad stuff that had landed them in prison.
Of course, she had no idea if any of this applied to Lance, Juan, Armand, or Cheeto because she didn’t really know them. She was pretty sure Tattoos was just a rotten piece of garbage though.
Breathing deep, she considered her next move. Obviously, she hadn’t made a good impression. Part of that might have been her ignorance. But even from the beginning, she hadn’t been herself. She hadn’t been that crazy woman who’d fought off a rapist and blown up a ship, fearless in her rebellion. Or at least someone trying to act fearlessly.
Looking back, she was proud of that version of her. But dying had changed something. Scared her deep inside. She’d stopped being as brave, as aggressive. She had lost confidence in herself. No, it went deeper than that. She’d been losing confidence in herself since her arrest. And she’d been giving up on hope for a better future.
She wasn’t sure if those four back there were good people. They were in prison. They could have committed horrible crimes. It wasn’t that hard to imagine big, muscular Juan beating someone to death in a rage. And she was pretty sure Cheeto was a small-time gangbanger who’d dealt drugs and maybe even knifed someone to get in here.
Still, they might have more to them, and if this was going to be her life, if she was going to have to rely on them and on people like that, then maybe she needed to be a bit more conscious about giving others a chance. Not just pretending that what they’d done didn’t matter, but acknowledging that people are complicated and that sometimes you have to take the good with the bad and see them as a whole person, not just the parts you didn’t like or agree with. Give them a chance to prove that they can be who they want to be, that there is more good than bad in them. After all, none of us are perfect.
She needed to let them know that that was how she thought. She was going to see them as fellow human beings, not in terms of me versus them or good versus evil. That might allay their fears, especially if she did try to find the good in them and praised it so that they knew she was looking at them in a better light. It wasn’t all that different from any other relationship building, was it?
She was also going to have to be more of a leader if she was going to convince anyone to leave the island with her. Sitting around having an intellectual debate over the issue probably wouldn’t solve anything.
Mei had never been a leader before. She’d never managed anyone in her job nor anywhere else. She wasn’t entirely sure how to go about it. She pondered that. Perhaps she had to come up with an emotional appeal as much as an intellectual one.
Of course, she didn’t want to manipulate them into doing anything bad for themselves. Maybe they had good reasons for going back to the colony. That thief she’d met earlier hadn’t had much time left on his sentence. Making things worse for himself wouldn’t have been worth it. So if any of the others had similar reasons for going back, that was understandable. Maybe life in the colony wasn’t as bad as she’d assumed it was either. Hadn’t Lance done well for himself?
But she still wanted to try to recruit them. If there was a shot at a free life within these digital walls, she wanted that, not just for herself but also for them. Because they might be criminals, but she thought that she could see more than that in them. And she wanted to be the kind of person who could believe in others, even in those who were flawed. Because aren’t we all flawed in one way or another?
She would go back. Today. And this time, she’d take her weapons so that she could deal with Tattoos properly. She wasn’t going to let that murderer hurt her ever again.
Having decided, she felt good about it. There was just one thing. She looked down.
The jaguar snoozed.
“Are you going to get upset if I move?” she wondered aloud, amused.
The cat opened its eyes. It glanced at her but didn’t rise.
“Please don’t eat me, ok? If you bite me, I’m not rubbing your ears anymore.”
The jaguar had no reply to that. It was a cat of few words.
Getting her feet under her, she slowly stood up.
The jaguar sat up and watched her. And when she started walking towards the beach, it rose and followed.
She looked back at it. “Um. Good kitty. Stay. Stay…”
The jaguar completely ignored her and continued, walking just to the side and slightly behind, almost close enough to touch.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll get bored and wander off on your own. Right?” She shrugged. Then she laughed. She was more at peace with the animal now than when they’d first met. Not that she was fool enough to think that the cat wasn’t still dangerous. Of course it was. But right now, it wasn’t hostile. And it felt pretty damn cool walking along with a jaguar by her side.
They hiked the coast for a ways as this was easier than going through the jungle. She figured she might hear the others or see them on their section of the beach when they got close.
At some point, Mei realized that she needed to relieve herself and while there might be absolutely nobody around other than the huge cat by her side, peeing in ‘public’ felt embarrassing. So she turned into the jungle and found a spot to do her business.
The cat, of course, came forward to investigate.
“Shoo!” she scolded it. “No, don’t sniff that. Ew.” She tried to hurry herself up. This was why she never let pets in the bathroom. Because even peeing in front of a pet felt weird. Then a sound caught her attention.
She lifted her head and focused as she cleaned herself up with a few leaves and pulled her pants back up. Tilting her head and concentrating, she heard…weeping? She frowned. That couldn’t be right.
With the jaguar at her side, Mei pushed further into the foliage, moving quietly as she listened. When she thought she was going in the right direction, she moved faster.
And that’s when she found Winny.
Mei came to a halt and gasped. “Oh my gosh!”