Mei did not have the luxury of a quick death. She lay on the ground, trapped and helpless beneath her killer’s boot, staring up into gleeful eyes. Her hair caught and glowed and curled and smoked. Her clothing burned. And then her skin, her fat, her flesh, it all turned black and roasted and turned to ash even as she lived through it, desperate and unable to stop it, her lungs able to breathe while the back of her head and body felt agony beyond belief. She screamed through it all.
The fire was not big and it took many agonizing minutes for her to die. This was the kind of trauma that sears itself into the soul, or it would if one could live through it.
Mei did. This was both a blessing and a cruelty that was part of this prison that she was in.
Everything had gone dark, darker than the night above, and then a moment later, it was bright. Daylight.
She was standing, which lasted a moment before she fell to her hands and knees and continued to scream. The scent of her burning flesh was still in her nostrils. The pain still pierced her entire upper body. In panic, she drew in deep lungfuls of air and screamed and screamed and then she saw water in front of her and she instinctively threw herself forward, crawling and then plunging into the liquid.
The shock of the waves and the wetness on her skin calmed her. She blinked, and her breathing slowed. A dim part of her brain recognized that she was no longer on fire. The pain was phantom, only in her memories. Slowly, she drifted through her trauma, pushing through it, trying to become part of her new reality.
She blinked and looked around. There was a beach. It was a little after dawn. The deep ocean was a dark blue, the sand behind her a gray cream. The sky was growing brighter.
Mei was not in chains and no guards stood around her. She was still free.
Some small measure of relief at that did help to steady her. But the horror of what she’d just been through had left her deeply shaken. She couldn’t seem to get rid of the smell. The feel of it. She twisted as her stomach heaved into her throat. She gagged and vomited. Yet her stomach was empty and little came out. Swaying on her hands and knees, she dry heaved for a while before turning away and collapsing into the surf.
Mei lay there for some time as the waves broke against her body. She was soaked, but that was fine. The water was good. She couldn’t burn here.
The fear possessed her. The pain lived within her. A primal part of her wanted to run and hide. She sobbed and almost collapsed within herself. She screamed and punched the sand in helpless fury.
She’d died. Not only had she been through the ugliest and most traumatic event of her life, but what a resounding failure she must be. Wasn’t this the ultimate proof of her weakness, that she was destined to lose over and over again to powers greater than her own?
She hated that man for killing her. And she hated herself for losing yet again. Maybe failure defined her. Maybe she was nothing more than a weak little girl.
After much time had passed, she came to herself again. It took a great deal of mental fortitude, but she told herself that the burning and death hadn’t been real. It had only been a dream, no matter how shaken it had left her.
A new fear rose within her heart: that she was letting this beat her, letting her pain and weakness win. No matter how awful the experience, she needed to survive, and giving up might be one way to do it. But is that who she wanted to be?
No. She wanted to be the determined young girl who overcame all the nasty years of alienation and humiliation in her youth. She wanted to be the woman who had fought for a better society as a journalist. She wanted to be strong. So she chose to be.
Mei clumsily forced herself to her feet. Consciously, she checked over her body, feeling her hair, her face, her back, all of it. It was restored as if nothing had happened. She proved to herself that she was okay. She was alive. She was whole.
Further standing around would only waste time and lead to more self-pity. She had no desire to dwell on her trauma lest it take root. Time to get back to living.
“I will not define myself by my failure, but by my ability to pick myself up and keep going,” she told herself aloud. Even if it was hard, it was a lesson that she would remind herself of, over and over again, as many times as was needed.
The beach was unfamiliar, the nearby jungle the same. But she saw smoke waft above the trees a few hundred meters away. No need to guess where that came from.
Free of the cannibal tribe, she could easily take off in another direction now and find her way to freedom. Or at least she could explore this island and find a place to hide. But then she thought of the boy and his mother. She stepped forward and headed towards the village. Hopefully, they’d escaped. If there was anything she could do to help, she would.
They heard her coming. There were shouts of alarm and bodies scampered into the jungle before she’d even entered the village. Or what was left of it.
Three huts were untouched by fire. The rest had been partially or completed burned. Gray smoke coiled up from black walls and collapsed roofs. In retrospect, now sick with guilt at the sight of it, setting the homes on fire as a distraction had been a selfish and foolish decision on her part. She’d hoped they’d be too busy with the burning huts to chase her, which would have allowed her to escape. All it had done was leave a bunch of grieving people homeless.
Bodies of the tribal inhabitants still lay in blood where they had been struck down. The sound of wailing heartbreak came from inside the trees.
Walking forwards, she could see each brown corpse marked by red gashes or holes. The killer, Tattoos, had spared none, seeking to slay everyone he’d come into contact with. And he’d been very skilled at that. But she did not linger on the others. Her head turned this way and that, searching while her feet carried her to the place of her death: the central fire pit. And the hut beyond.
The mother lay on her side. The boy was in her arms. They were riddled with stab wounds. Even though he’d already killed Mei, he’d been brutal towards them anyways, as if to spite her. Had he known that she would return? Had he done this hoping that she would see it?
The little flower boy just lay there. Still. Staring at nothing. She’d never get to play with him again. He would never laugh. He would never have the chance to grow up and become anyone.
Hot tears welled in her eyes, and her chest tightened. Two tears fell down her cheeks.
The sound of someone approaching caused her to look up with watery vision. She brushed her eyes and blinked.
An old woman approached. Her eyes were red and her cheeks stained with tears of her own. She was ancient, wrinkled, her arms and legs bony and thin. But her gaze was sharp. She stopped a couple of paces away and stared at Mei. There was judgement there. A hint of hostility? Anger, yes, certainly. And grief.
The two looked at each other in silence. Two more tears trickled down Mei’s face.
The old woman finally broke contact. She looked down at the bodies at Mei’s feet. She sobbed hard, but only once before she caught herself. She seemed unsteady for a moment before she reasserted control. Then she looked up at Mei again. This time there was only grief in her eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Mei wished she could have said it in their language. “I’m so sorry.” She felt stupid and helpless and guilty. As if this were all her fault. As if she’d killed them. It wasn’t; she logically knew that. But she never should have let that monster out of his cage. She pointed at the boy. “Arau.”
The old woman looked up sharply and a sob caught in her throat. Searching Mei’s eyes for truth, a communal bond formed, and she nodded. She spoke in her own tongue.
Mei shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
Gnarled fingers pointed at Mei, then the cages and then beyond. Then they gestured to the ruins of the village. Weeping openly, the old woman patted her chest, motioned to the dead and then patted her chest again. As if to say, It’s my fault too. If we hadn’t kidnapped you, this would never have happened.
Perhaps Mei was inferring the wrong thing. Perhaps it was just Mei wishing that they understood each other, that they both saw responsibility in the tragedy. She didn’t know. She wished they shared a verbal language.
The old woman brushed her eyes clear of tears and motioned for Mei to follow.
They came to the furthest hut, the one closest to the cages. It stood unharmed. The old woman entered and pointed to a back corner. She said something.
A bit wary, Mei came to the entrance. She looked around. No angry warriors came out of the jungle to spear her. And a quick look into the shadows revealed no one in wait either.
The old woman pointed to the corner again. Then she made a digging motion with her hands.
Stepping inside, still cautious, Mei saw that this was more of a storage hut rather than one lived in. Spears and fishing gear were stacked against one wall, and blankets and leather stood on a bench or low table. Black, iron manacles were piled into a corner, along with metal tools and other looted items. She pointed at the corner indicated and the old woman nodded. So Mei dragged the pile of manacles out of the way.
On her knees, she dug into the sandy dirt. Only a few centimetres down, she hit wood. Sweeping the light soil away, she uncovered a crude wooden plank made of rough branches, much like the other native architecture. Pulling the plank up, she realized that it was a cover and that there was a space below.
Inside lay her sword and pistols, many other weapons, and a few leather pouches, which she guessed were full of money.
She looked up.
The old woman bowed her head and gestured. Take.
Choked up but also intensely relieved, she reached in and retrieved her weapons. There were soldier muskets and other blades, but hers were easily the finest and she had no use for more, so she left the rest. Then, at a thought, she reached into the hole and grabbed a heavy bag of what were, yes, coins. She held it up, questioningly.
The old woman nodded and impatiently waved again.
Mei covered the hole back up and swept the dirt back into place. Stepping outside of the hut, she saw some of the villagers standing uneasily just inside the trees all around. Almost all were grieving. Some weren’t looking at her at all. Some faces were stony as they watched her, while others were twisted with hate. But even the few remaining warriors seemed to have had the fight taken out of them, and none moved towards her.
Guilt and defiance mixed within her. Guilt because she had been educated about foreign invaders and all the harm that had happened throughout history when one civilization encounters another, especially with a substantial technological difference. And defiance because they might hate her, but they’d also kidnapped her, eaten a person, and been prepared to force at least one woman into being a slave member of their tribe. She hoped Winny had made it to safety somehow.
There were things that were understandable about the situation, about the Europeans coming here and the natives already here, understandable and forgivable. But both sides were also at fault for things as well, and both were guilty of some form of villainy. She could easily recall how the cannibals had drugged her and happily danced about with their spears, boasting in triumph, praising themselves and each other for being great warriors, while she and the others had sat in cages.
So Mei was infinitely sorry for what had happened here, for how that little boy, especially, had died. But she refused to take all the blame for it.
The old woman was motioning her, waving her to follow. Not to the beach, though, but to the jungle.
Mei frowned. “I should… A canoe?” She made a paddling motion with the sword and pointed towards the beach. “Can I take a canoe?”
The old woman shook her head and impatiently motioned harder, stepping towards the forest.
Well, Mei had no real plan. The canoes were too big for one person anyway. So she followed.
At the jungle’s edge, the old woman pointed and pushed Mei in a specific direction.
“Go that way?” Mei asked, pointing.
The old woman nodded, pointed and pushed some more.
With one last look at the dead, Mei bowed in thanks to the old woman. Then she turned and walked into the jungle.
She walked with a heavy heart. She had her freedom at last, but not without loss. She’d tried to fight Tattoos, even at the cost of her own life. It hadn’t been enough. But she’d gotten lucky and respawned in neutral territory, and that meant that she wasn’t finished yet. And it made one thing very clear: if she was going to survive and triumph in this world, then she would need to become stronger.
Barefoot in the light jungle, she tried to smile and focus on the positive: she was finally free to make her own way. Well, sort of. She had no idea where she was. What island was this? If there were Caribs here, then there likely weren’t other towns or cities here. Then again, she’d been pointed in this direction. With luck, she’d find someone ahead. And a way to safe harbour.
What would she do now that she was free? The whole ‘I’m gonna be a pirate’ idea was sort of a vague plan; she was humble enough to admit that. She’d done her research on prison systems in general as part of her career, but she didn’t know all that much about this one, nor was she an expert on the real-world history of the Caribbean. But she did figure that she was going to need a ship and a crew of her own at some point. If she wanted to buy her way out of here, she’d probably only be able to do that as a captain. Although, while that was all well and good in theory, it was rather daunting and overwhelming to believe that she could do it now that she was actually faced with the prospect.
How would that even work? Well, first, she’d have to make her way to some kind of pirate haven and join up with a crew to start out with and learn the ropes. Ok, even before that, she would have to find a way off yet another island to get to said pirate haven. So many islands! No wonder they were using the Caribbean for a prison world. The only way to get around was by ship, and that wasn’t easy to do. Even if she had one of the Carib canoes, there’s no way she could paddle and navigate one herself. Somehow making it across hundreds of kilometres to another island alone? She believed in herself, but not that much. She would need help.
A whiff of wood smoke floated in the air.
Mei caught the scent, and a wave of nausea went through her. She put a hand out and leaned against a nearby tree as she tried to force away memories of the previous night. Breath in. Breath out. Don’t vomit again.
Like a bad head rush, the feeling gradually faded, and she recovered. She tentatively sniffed but couldn’t smell smoke anymore. Had it just been her imagination? Shuddering, she carried on.
Trees forced her to weave back and forth, refusing to allow her to travel in a straight line. Stepping over ferns and undergrowth, the air was warm, but not too much so here in the shade with the canopy overhead. The walk was quite pleasant. She looked over her shoulder now and then but was resigned to the fact that she was probably not heading in the same direction as she’d started.
Thus it was sometime in the afternoon before she wandered close to the destination that the old Carib woman had likely had in mind. By then, she was tired, sweaty, and starving. Her bare feet were sore and the hilt of the sword was damp in her palm. That’s when she heard voices.
They were faint, at first, and male. Perhaps that was laughter?
She froze in place, listening.
It took several moments, but more voices soon carried to her.
Her heart beat faster. Who were they? More Carib warriors? Perhaps guards come to search for her? She bit her lip. She had to find out, even if it was dangerous. Gripping the sword more tightly, she stepped slowly and purposefully now. She edged around the foliage and gently pushed leaves out of the way, trying not to show her movement or make a sound. Creeping slowly, she heard the voices growing louder.
Yes, they were definitely male. And there were a few. Two? Three? More?
She saw the jungle thin ahead and blue sky appeared. Was that a clearing in front of her?
Not wanting to be discovered, she crouched low. Her head swivelled side to side, taking everything around her in. Was anyone standing in the undergrowth taking a leak? Were they hunting or gathering? She did not want to be caught unawares.
At last, she approached the edge of the jungle. Walking all the way to the border might be dangerous though. Instead, Mei got down onto her stomach and crawled forward under the ferns like a snake.
She paused. Were there snakes here? She looked around at the ground, covered in leaves and new plants. This would be prime snake country, right? Were any slithering around? Or what about scorpions? Did they have those here? They had them in Mexico, didn’t they? Or giant, hairy tarantulas? Army ants?
Ugh! Why was she thinking about this kind of thing now?
She shook her head. These were just anxious thoughts. Ignore them. Crawling forward a little further, she peeked beyond a cluster of ferns.
The jungle opened up into a small clearing, likely manmade. There were two lean-tos, one on either side of the space, made of broken branches and palm leaves and the like. They were very crudely constructed, far rougher than anything the Caribs had crafted. A small fire pit sat in the center alongside a large stack of firewood. On the far side of the area, she could just see the ocean through the jungle, though she couldn’t see any beach.
Four men inhabited the clearing. From their striped uniforms, all were prisoners.
Mei swallowed. Not guards. Not navy, nor were they cannibals. Just a bunch of criminals, hanging out and looking bored. Criminals. Possibly rapists and murderers, just like Tattoos. She should stand up. Go out there. Talk to them.
She very, very quietly backed away. Each hand and foot was placed ever so gently so as not to make a single sound until she was far enough back in the jungle that she warily stood, cast about for anyone else in the area, and then ran away.
She didn’t go far. Just far enough that she thought she wouldn’t be casually discovered. Then she sat down and leaned against a thick fig tree, under vines hanging from branches above.
Why had she run away?
Because she wasn’t ready. It was too soon. No, it wasn’t. But she was nervous. Her first contact with other people in this world had been the guards ready to imprison and rape her. The second had been with cannibals who were either going to eat her or induct her into their tribe as a wife-slave.
Now, she’d finally met a third group: prisoners. And while this was a group she technically belonged to, she couldn’t help but remember that most prisoners in here were not going to be good people. If they were, they’d likely be out in the real world doing good things. A prison world was home to wife-beaters and serial killers and thieves and that sort of thing. Like the cowardly thief she’d shared the cages with. Or the tattooed murderer who’d killed a farmer, her, and slaughtered half a village.
Still, she needed to approach them. She wasn’t going to be able to survive this world by herself, let alone buy her way out of it. She needed to meet other people. She needed to network, maybe make friends, even if it was with untrustworthy, selfish, and possibly violent people.
A lone woman with no law on her side, no social protection at all. She could walk into that clearing and they could do anything they wanted to her. They could—
She violently shook her head.
Why was she so nervous? Why was she thinking such negative thoughts?
Probably because she’d seen so many people die and then had died herself. Because she felt weak. She was still shaken from her experience.
Mei tried to calm herself.
Ok, time to be a professional. She was a journalist, wasn’t she? She’d met unsavoury people often in the course of her career. She’d walked in terrible neighbourhoods, interviewed gangsters and terrorists. She was no stranger to these kinds of people. She just had to act strong, treat it like part of the job. Be friendly. Network.
She took a deep breath. She could do this. Standing up, she looked down at herself. Hmm. It might give them the wrong impression if she showed up wearing a captain’s coat. Weapons too. Actually, there was a good chance they’d just steal those from her, right? Right. Better to just hide all this stuff for now. She could always come back for it.
Looking about, she found a patch of bare dirt not far from the fat fig tree. The loose soil was easy to dig up with a stick and her hands. After creating a small hole, she put her rapier inside, then wrapped the jacket around the pistols and put that inside as well. A few fluffy fern leaves followed to keep the dirt off the fabric; then she filled in the hole.
Of course, the area was now disturbed, and it totally looked like someone had buried treasure here. Great. She paused and thought. Then she tore another leaf off of a fern and used it to sweep the area so that it looked natural. A few dried leaves and a dead branch made for camouflage.
She stood back. It would easily fool a casual glance.
Ok, time to meet those prisoners.
Mei strode towards the clearing. This time she didn’t keep quiet. In fact, she purposely stomped along and swished the undergrowth.
The voices cut off. Had they heard her coming?
Still cautious, she approached from behind a thicker tree and stopped with it between her and the clearing. She peeked around it.
Four heads were turned her way, waiting.
She swallowed and then cleared her throat. “Hey there!”
No reply. But someone moved.
“I’m a prisoner too!” she called.
“Yeah?” a voice replied.
She glanced down at herself. “Yeah! I’m not wearing a uniform though. Stolen clothes.”
“You gonna show yourself?”
“As long as everyone’s calm. I don’t want to cause trouble.”
“Come on then.”
She snuck a look around the tree. All four men were standing. Two had branches in their hands, like clubs. Even more nervous now, she raised her hands to show that they were empty and stepped out from behind the tree. “I’m not armed.”
The smallest of the four males sat next to the fire pit, where he’d been tossing twigs into the flames. He exclaimed first, in a thick Mexican accent, the kind you hear on poorer streets. “Guau! Es una chica! I don’t believe it.” He was small and wiry, with very short black hair. He sported an unfortunate example of what was supposed to be a moustache, but which he evidently didn’t have the genes for. Or the age. He might have been eighteen or nineteen at most.
And…there was no other way to put this: he was ugly. As in, so ugly you couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. One look and Mei’s heart went out to him. Kind of like the way it does when you see a really pitiful puppy that no one wants.
One of the men with clubs narrowed his eyes at her. He was older, quite good-looking, lanky, and stood with good posture. His dense, coiled hair was a few centimetres long and bone white, which matched the tastefully groomed goatee of the same stark colour. Both were in strong contrast to his very dark skin. “Are you alone?” he asked, his eyes flickering past her to the jungle beyond. Was that a French accent?
“I am,” she replied, continuing to take their measure. It was a diverse group.
The guy standing next to the black man only grunted, but his smouldering eyes were full of suspicion. He looked Mediterranean and was the definition of swarthy: tall, dark, and exceedingly handsome, the type of guy who appears on the covers of magazines and erotic romance novels. He was muscular. Arms and shoulders filled out his uniform, and he undoubtedly came with lots of visible abs.
Mei wasn’t into guys like him. Her first impression of him was arrogant and narcissistic, the type who came up to you in the club and touched you all over without asking, insisting on being the alpha male and assuming you would do anything for them. Gross.
The fourth guy, who was white, had been laying in one of the lean-tos, relaxing in the shade. He smiled easily, his blue eyes bright. “My my, isn’t this a welcome surprise? Gentlemen, there is a lady in our midst.” The accent was American, or perhaps Canadian. He stood up with a fresh and friendly smile, and though he was no pretty boy, he was not bad looking. Perhaps just…average. “Welcome. Won’t you join us? Assuming you’re not currently being chased by armed folk and are about to get us all captured, of course.”
Mei cracked a smile at his easy charm. She lowered her hands. “No, it’s just me. And I’m harmless.”
The fourth guy laughed. “Women are never harmless. Please, join our humble camp.” He waved her forward.
She hesitated, body jittery. It felt like it was the first day of school and she was meeting a bunch of new people for the first time, knowing that she wanted to make friends but was afraid that nobody would like her, which was ridiculous. She was not young and had plenty of experience meeting and befriending new people. What was wrong with her? She walked forward.
The little Mexican jumped to his feet and leered at her. He looked over her body, appraising it.
The fourth guy came forward and offered a hand, his eyes on hers. “Lancelot Kinsley. American. Lance is fine though.”
His politeness and good manners were something of a surprise. And it must have shown on her face because she hesitated before taking his hand.
He laughed. “Is something wrong?”
“I just wasn’t—“ She grew flustered.
He grinned. “Weren’t expecting someone like me in prison?”
She felt her cheeks warm. What was wrong with her? Why was she so off-balance all of a sudden? “No!” she protested. “Of course not. Um…”
The black man tossed his club away and stepped forward with lips twisted in a wry smile. “It’s ok. We are all criminals here, true. But that does not mean that all of us lack class. Only most of us.”
She couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Is that a French accent?”
The way he spoke and the way his eyes pierced her own, he seemed like the serious, intelligent type, yet not unfriendly. “Oui. I was born and lived for a long time in Marseille and then Paris. Armand Blanchet.” He gestured to the muscular man on his left. “Juan here is from Madrid.” He pointed to the final member of the group. “And Cheeto is from Tijuana.”
“And Mexico City,” Cheeto added. “That’s where I got arrested, actually.” He had tattoos on his forearms and two inked teardrops below his right eye. His lazy manner seemed insolent, full of youthful bravado, but not yet rude. Probably because he was, without question, the runt of the litter here and likely knew it.
Juan didn’t speak. He just studied her.
Mei took heart. This was going much better than she’d feared it might. She put on her best smile. “I’m Mei.”