Though she hadn’t noticed them in the beginning, Mei had become aware of the watching soldiers during the fight. She’d heard their jeers and laughter and some of their mocking insults. Though she’d tried to resist, no one is ever entirely unaffected by such public ridicule. Along with Fowler’s treatment of her, she was powerfully reminded of the bullying she’d endured as a child.
In her society, bullying has not been taken seriously for a long time. Many suffer such evil behaviour when they are young, yet also refuse to admit it, as if being a victim means that there is something wrong with them, as if they somehow deserve the abuse when they don’t.
Victims eventually grew into adults. But despite bad memories and lingering trauma, perhaps out of the forgetfulness that comes with time passing or perhaps still in denial, they regard bullying as something small and meaningless that only happens between children. It isn’t widely taken seriously as a social issue or something to stamp out. Even when it comes to their children, while some parents react very strongly to the suffering of their children, far too many parents gloss over it or even scold their kids for being too weak to handle it.
As instant messaging and digital pictures and videos had grown commonplace, bullying had become easier to do and ever more harmful. Much of it is done ‘safely’ online and out of the eyes of adults. This makes it easier for adults to pretend that it doesn’t happen and easier to turn a blind eye rather than get involved.
Childhood suicides are increasingly common—and socially ignored, often on purpose by a government that doesn’t want to admit to having such negative things in society. If bullying was widespread, it would be indicative of some kind of failure on the part of those in charge, something the government doesn’t want to admit to any more than many parents do.
Yet the effects of so much harm done between children have led to lasting consequences of a very real and important nature. Adults who suffered as youngsters are less social, more lonely, continuing to suffer as they age. It’s one of many factors leading to lower birth rates, higher divorce rates, crime, depression, and other problems.
And yet, even today, with so many being picked on, very little is being done to raise awareness or stop the worst of us from their wicked ways. Evil festers unchecked.
Mei had been just another kid in school for most of elementary. But in junior high, she’d hit puberty a bit earlier than others and started shooting up fast. By her second year, she had been a head taller than many boys.
The boys had been the first to make fun of her, perhaps threatened or humiliated because she’d been bigger. It was almost as if that had given the girls in school permission to bully her too.
Instead of sympathy from her gender, the worst of the insults and treatment had come from fellow females, likely from those jumping on any chance to undermine potential competition: smear the reputation of other girls and lower their desirability and one gains more male attention for oneself. Pre-teen and teen girls may look cute on the outside, but they can also be vicious monsters on the inside.
Her parents had been sympathetic and tried to help. She was very grateful for that. The school and teachers had done nothing. Worse, two of her teachers had been a considerable part of the problem. Faced with a classroom full of unruly students, these teachers had picked on her in front of the rest. They’d and encouraged the bullying to get the other kids on their side to better control them. In essence, they’d made Mei a shared public enemy. These were people who were supposed to have her interests at heart, who should have been protecting her. Mei had felt deeply betrayed.
She’d occasionally sought support from others who were being bullied, hopeful of finding allies with whom she could commiserate. But rather than be empathetic and supportive, even they had turned on her, as if excited by a rare opportunity to be the strong one lording it over someone weaker.
They had ridiculed her for feeling bad just because others made fun of her height as if that wasn’t a good enough reason to get hurt.
“I’m being bullied because of my beliefs; that’s way more serious.”
“I’m bullied because of my race. That’s obviously the worst. And only others of my race can understand how bad that feels.”
“I’m bullied because of my sexual orientation; your experience is nothing because you’re not being bullied for the exact same reason that I am.”
They had made a competition out of being victims, each one acting like only their situation was worth more sympathy. As if there was only so much compassion to go around, therefore it should go to them first and only. Ultimately, selfishness had been commonplace here, too.
It had been left to Mei alone to endure the harsh words and loneliness. It had been a difficult time, and she’d often cried. However, she had chosen to do more than just endure.
Many of those bullied choose to identify as victims—and they never mature beyond that. Even when they become adults, their resentment, bitterness and distrust take permanent residence in their hearts. They internalize their experience and believe that it defines them forever. They choose to suffer forever with their trauma rather than go through the challenging process of dealing with it, no matter how much they miss out on a better life.
But Mei had hated feeling bad all the time and had wanted to move on and grow strong. It had been hard, but she’d done it, identifying as someone capable of becoming stronger despite the challenges faced. She was not a victim; she was someone who overcame.
Still, it wasn’t as if being bullied again didn’t hurt. It did. Her government had had her falsely arrested. The men on the ship had spoken down to her and beaten her. Fowler looked down on her and had poked her full of holes with his sword. Men watching from the sidelines called out for her to lose. It took conscious effort to withstand it all and not let it undermine her self-confidence.
It felt so good when she’d noticed, in the back of her mind, the laughter becoming less frequent, the jeers dying out, and the watchers becoming silent as she’d fought Fowler. She’d taken a bit of pride from that. She’d felt even better when she’d forced the skilled captain to take her more seriously as a threat. She was not the fragile little thing they all assumed she was, and here was her proof.
Staring up at Fowler as he aimed the pistol between her eyes, it wasn’t the first time that a bully and his friends had had the better of her. She knew from bitter experience that giving up only made things worse. So she chose not to do so now.
The hammer clicked down, and the pan’s powder lit with a spark. But there was always that slight delay with flintlocks.
Mei lashed out with a kick and aimed between the man’s legs.
Reacting instinctively to being attacked in that very vulnerable spot, even the cool-headed, expert fighter, Captain Fowler, dodged. And his bullet pinged off the cobbles next to her ear and spun harmlessly away.
She crawled away, slashing back and forth to keep him away from her until she could get back onto her feet. She was slower than ever to do so. She was drained, and her many injuries meant she couldn’t move at all without wanting to give up. As she got her feet under her, she heard someone cheer from the sidelines and reflexively smiled, excited that she’d survived yet again and that someone had recognized her strength for once.
Even Fowler nearly smiled. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Got the devil’s own luck, you do.” Looking up again, he twirled the pistol like a Western gunfighter would. “Shame you’re alone, or maybe you’d actually have a chance against me. With three or four others to back you up, that is.”
She panted, the adrenalin shooting through her at that moment causing her hands to shake. “I’m not alone,” she replied. Out of the corner of her eye, Mei saw Lia appear from the boat behind Fowler and involuntarily glanced that way, only for Armand to tackle Lia from behind and drag the young woman back down out of sight.
Fowler curiously followed her gaze and looked around, but no one was visible now. He waved a hand to the empty street. “You speak so highly of others. From all the ruckus you caused last night, I assume you’re not on this escape crusade on your own. Yet I don’t see anyone coming to help you. I hope you’re not expecting any miracles. If no one’s shown up to help you by now, they’re not going to.”
Her jaw flexed, and she spoke with defiance. “They might.”
“Who? Other prisoners, I assume?” He laughed at her as one laughs at a naive child. “Were you stupid enough to put your faith in any of them? Well, where are they now? Why don’t they come to save you?” He grinned at her, his cockiness back. “You know why. Because they’re not good people. Prison is just a garbage can full of human refuse. Give up, Mei Ling. Surrender.”
“Let me go!”
“Let me go!”
“No.” Juan easily held much smaller Cheeto with one arm around his neck as the little guy vainly tried to escape, which was difficult because he was hanging up in the air due to Juan’s greater height. Luckily, a thick bearded fig tree hid them from the activities in the street.
“She needs our help,” Cheeto stubbornly insisted.
Juan agreed, but he was not foolish enough to give in to that emotion. “She is helping us. By giving us a chance to escape.”
“Look what that guy is doing to her!” Cheeto kicked his feet like a kid.
Juan softly bopped him on the head with a fist. “You want him to do the same to you? We have no way to help them. You’ll get us both killed. And then locked up again. Is that what you want?”
Juan lowered the young man to his feet again. “We have two more cannons to break. Then we’ll get back to the ship and get out of here.”
“And Mei?” Cheeto whispered.
“Don’t let her sacrifice be for nothing.”
Cheeto relented, and Juan let him go.
Despite his desire to be practical, Juan did feel bad for Mei. He wasn’t heartless. In fact, they’d spent far too much time watching Mei’s battle against the captain instead of sabotaging the cannons. It was difficult to look away. There was something brave about her struggle, the way that she would get knocked down but kept getting back up. The way that she bled but kept going. He was impressed.
It was a damn shame they’d have to leave her behind.
He turned back to the second last cannon and looked around for something he could jam into the touch hole to take it out of commission.
Cheeto continued to watch the battle.
Mei knew she didn’t have much in her left to give. She was blinking blood and sweat out of her eyes. Her hands felt numb and shook. She burned from a dozen cuts and scrapes and holes and other wounds. Her mind was fuzzy with exhaustion and lack of sleep. Breathing hard, it took a great deal of willpower to continue facing Fowler.
She had to end this before her body gave out on her. Her only hope of personal salvation was to beat the man and run to the ship, where they could fight the others off and try to sail away.
She saw Armand surreptitiously untying the ropes that moored the vessel and understood that the others were fast making to depart. And if she wasn’t aboard, then too bad for her. She couldn’t fault them for that. She never should have come down this street and cursed herself for not thinking better earlier.
A crazy idea came to her, a mad gamble. Focusing her mind as much as she could and willing her body to obey, she attacked. A slash, and he blocked. A lunge, no—a feint—and she again cut upward towards his face, forcing himself to dodge.
They crossed blades a few times. He jabbed her in the shoulder, deep. Thankfully, it was the left arm, not the one holding the sword.
She threw herself forwards, wildly flailing—but on purpose.
His eyes flickering from confidence to annoyance, he slapped her sword away, stepped close, and sank half of his blade into her left arm.
Which had been exactly her intention when she’d turned away from the expected strike and put her arm in the way on purpose. Fresh tears burst forth and cascaded down her cheeks. But she only grunted and went on the offensive.
Mei chopped down hard on Fowler’s wrist, and he released the gun with a harsh gasp. Not letting up, she pushed herself forward, hammering at his head and face with the hilt and base of the blade, scoring multiple cuts.
He scowled and tried to duck away, yet wouldn’t give up his grip on his sword. As he backed up, Mei pummelled him, landing multiple blows and bloodying the side of his head and cheek.
She felt a rush of elation. She was turning the tables. She was dominating him.
His heel caught in the cobblestones, and he tripped backwards, windmilling to stay on his feet. At last, he let go of his remaining weapon.
Mei pressed her advantage with a shriek. She cut him across the chin and then stabbed him in the thigh. She could win!
Fowler did the unthinkable. Instead of retaliating against the supposedly weak opponent—he dove out of the way.
She took a second to wipe liquids out of her eye but hurried forwards, not wanting to lose her chance to defeat him. Words appeared in her vision.
Weapon Class: Sword
Skill Level: Competent
She staggered in surprise.
He seemed to notice her blank look and was on his feet before she could continue. “Got a system notification did you?”
Mei tried to attack, but the sword in her arm loosened and fell free, and she whimpered and fell to one knee.
Unhurried, he sauntered forwards and swept his weapon back up.
“C-competent,” she panted.
“Impressive!” He stood over her. “Most of my men never go beyond that level. To think you’d reach it so quickly. And without training, I presume?” He, too, went down on one knee. “Myself, I’m two ranks higher: Expert. One of only two in the system, as far as I’m aware.”
“Good for y—“
He drove the sword into her chest, puncturing her skin above the breast, then her lung, then her back. He left the steel inside her for a moment, then swiftly pulled it out.
And Mei had the unfortunate experience of having one of her lungs deflate. She coughed, and up came blood.
The lesser clerk cackled. “Oh! She’s done for now!” He couldn’t take his eyes off the sword going through the woman’s torso.
But Gerald was quiet. Partly, he was stunned. It was almost incomprehensible to see Captain Fowler get bloodied once in a duel, let alone receive a battering like that. It hadn’t happened in many years, not since the captain had been a few ranks lower in both position and skill level.
And yet, this prisoner, a female, one half-dead on her feet, had somehow managed to inflict all those wounds?
“See? I knew he’d win easily.” The clerk was smug. “Wench got super lucky again. But good luck trying to breathe with a hole in your lung.” He barked a mean laugh.
Gerald suppressed an urge to slap the idiot man in the back of the head. “Show some respect.”
The clerk frowned with incredulity, reacting as if he had been slapped. “Respect? For what? She lost.”
“She was a worthy foe,” he answered seriously.
“Psh. The only thing that matters is winning.”
He openly scolded the clerk, annoyed by the younger man. “Disrespecting your opponent puts one on a quick path to arrogance and complacency, which can bite you from behind later. It also devalues your own achievements. There is nothing special or admirable in an adult beating up a helpless child or a team of professionals destroying amateurs. One’s worth is measured not by how overpowering the win, but by how strong the opponent is, and the scope of the struggle.”
The clerk seemed to realize he was conversing with a superior and calmed down. He shrugged. “I don’t get it. If I had the captain’s skills, I’d love destroying people. And I’d enjoy easy victories. It just means I’m that much better.”
Gerald shook his head. “The perspective of a bully.“
Irritation appeared in the young man’s eyes. “But you were totally excited to see him hurt her earlier. Isn’t that hypocritical?” he accused.
“I was excited to see justice done. And for my captain to regain his honour. I’d assumed that Mei Ling was nothing more than an upstart criminal who got lucky. But only a fool would fail to see how much heart she’s put on display today. It was a performance to be proud of. To respect.”
But the lesser clerk, and the lesser man, just didn’t understand. He turned back to the window. “Whatever. She’s gonna lose.”
Gerald mentally demoted the other man and decided that shuffling him off to some other post would be preferable. Perhaps northern Canada. Where indoor heating hadn’t been invented yet, and fruits and vegetables were a luxury. Let the idiot get scurvy and then freeze to death.
As for Mei, he almost wished that she wasn’t going to be ruthlessly tortured and abused and punished after today’s fight. Hell, a tiny little voice in the back of his head almost wished she’d find a way out of this.
Well, not at the expense of Captain Fowler once again. Certainly not. Anything but that. Still…
Mei ignored the bastard in front of her and tried, yet again, to get to her feet. It took three tries. All the while, an odd, wet hissing came from her chest with each trembling breath.
She had a hole in her lung. Two holes. That was not right.
For some reason, he wasn’t attacking her anymore. Was it over?
She tried to take a swipe at him with her sword.
He lazily blocked it. “Give up, Mei. You’re done. Or are you going to keep going for a bit like a chicken with its head cut off? Or a cockroach?”
“Why are you like this?” She blinked and held a hand to the hole in her chest. Talking was rather challenging at the moment. Blood bubbled out of her mouth. “It’s hard to believe people can take this much enjoyment out of hurting others. Are you a sadist? Is that why you took this job? To get away with violence and torture for pleasure?”
He sighed, arms falling to his sides. “I’m a guard. My job is to protect society from criminals like you.”
She looked at him with imploring eyes, wishing he could see reason. “Do you have any idea why this place was built? You’re not supposed to be the hammer of punishment. You’re supposed to be a conveyer of enlightenment, a guide that assists those who are incarcerated in becoming better people. Your job was never to hurt prisoners; it was to help them!” She coughed deeply and felt even weaker than before.
“You speak like no one here is evil, that no one deserves punishment. When the truth is, evil lurks in the hearts of all people and in some a lot more than others. Those in here deserve to suffer for what they’ve done.”
“But you never stop to differentiate between those who deserve it and those who might take a better path if given the chance.”
“They had a chance. It’s called life. And I don’t have to differentiate. That’s what the legal system out there is for. They had all the time in the world to be good people out there. If they’ve come here, it’s because they deserve to be in hell. And I will deliver justice upon them.”
“And if the world out there is wrong sometimes? If there are people in here because we failed them up there?
“Then your fight isn’t in here, is it? It’s out there. So don’t turn your anger on me. Turn it on the ones who failed before these criminals ever had anything to do with me.”
“Black and white thinking. Absolving yourself of all responsibility. Telling yourself you don’t have to think about anything because it’s someone else’s job. Aren’t these just excuses for giving up on people and getting away with whatever you want? A way to justify the desire to hurt others with impunity? You’re just a bully on a power trip.”
“Stop making me out to be the villain. Look around. See what they’ve done. They’re the villains here.”
“I have no idea what you’ve done.”
“Yes, you do. Y…you saw my file,” she wheezed. It was difficult to speak now. “You know I’ve never committed an immoral act. That’s not why I got sent here.” She coughed, and blood bubbled on her lips. “I got sent here for trying to fight the wrongs out there, just like you said I should.” She coughed and spat up a glob of blood and saliva that hit the cobbles with a splat. Gross.
“You’re done for. Further prattling is only going to hurt, you fool.”
Her voice rasped. “You keep acting like there’s a distinction between in here and out there. But you’re lying to yourself. There are villains everywhere. We need to take the fight wherever it needs to be.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“I’m not here…to defend murderers and rapists…and those unrepentant for their crimes. But some…don’t deserve the brutality you inflict on them every day. We need to…stand up for a better system.”
He shook his head as if disappointed in her. “You’re just one person. You can’t possibly hope to change the world.”
She gave a weak smile. “Maybe, maybe not. But we could.”
He looked up sharply, raising his eyebrows. “You think I’d join you?”
“If there’s any good left in that cold heart of yours, then some part of you knows what I’m saying is true. You’re in a position to do more good than I could.” She took a moment to try and gather her breath, in vain. “You have a voice. You have power and influence. You could make things better!” The effort of speaking was too much, and she went into a fit of wet coughing.
He pressed his lips together and stared at her before replying. “Maybe I like the world the way it is. After all, I’m a ship’s captain, one of the best. I am respected. I live in a grand mansion, and I have a beautiful and happy wife. The world seems pretty good to me.”
Wiping the blood off her mouth left a red streak on her arm. “Well, if you can only see the world from your own perspective, maybe prison is where you belong after all.”
“Ok. I’ve had just about enough of you.” With a nasty cut, he knocked the sword from her hands, and it fell to the street with a metallic clatter. Not that she had the strength to even hold on to it anymore. He grabbed her with one hand, and with the other, he did to her what she’d done to him moments earlier: beat her face to a pulp with the hilt of his weapon.
Mei felt each blow smash into her face, then felt nothing as her mind spun into a daze. At some point, she vaguely realized that she was falling and dimly felt herself land on the ground with a thump, cracking her head yet again.
Her eyes closed.
Cheeto jumped up from the crouch he’d been in. His breath caught in his chest before he breathed one word: “No…”
Beside him, Juan softly cursed in Spanish. “She’s done for now.”
But Cheeto didn’t move. “You don’t know that.”
“She’s gotten up again before.”
“She won’t. Not after that.” Juan turned away. “Come on.”
He didn’t move. He balled his fists and wished with all his heart that she’d get up just one more time and show that motherless whore what was what. “Get up, Mei. Get up,” he whispered.
The cellists had played in tune with the epic conflict waged between the famed captain and the woman. Underscored with optimism and hope, they had cheered the woman’s every move on.
But as she fell silent, so too did they.
Both held their breath, waiting.
For a crescendo.
Lia itched to run to Mei’s side and pull her to safety. She turned to the black man.
He stood next to the untied rope in the front of the ship, looking helpless. He stared at his hands. Then he bunched them into fists. Bending down, he picked up his gun.
A quick word from the other man stopped him.
She looked back at Mei.
Mei didn’t move. She just lay there, on her back, bleeding.
“Get up. Please get up,” she softly begged. It couldn’t be over yet.
Gerald stared down from the second-floor window. The words seemed to come out on their own. “Get up. One more time.”
The other man stood in silence for the first time.
Simon took a step forward, separating himself from the other two soldiers. He cupped his mouth. “Get up, woman! Yer not done yet!”
Captain Fowler glanced up and smirked but didn’t discourage the sentiment.
One of the other soldiers stepped up next to Simon. “Come on then! Show us what ya got! Get up!”
The third man looked sour. “She’d dead. You two are idiots.”
Simon feared that the other man was right, which was a damn shame. Because how cool would it be if she defied all odds and managed to get up one last time?
Her hand twitched, and everyone went silent.
He held his breath.