They watched in silence as the gangster quickly bled to death and then went limp. Funny, it was the least gruesome thing that Lance had seen in the past couple of hours, as if that should be possible.
“Gah!” Mei shouted in frustrated fury. She hacked at the body with her sword, the blade thunking into what was now just a hunk of dead meat.
Lance shivered and backed away. This was all a lot for him. He was a businessperson. He belonged in front of a computer or in a boardroom. He worked with people; he didn’t go around killing them.
He eyed the Asian woman standing over the body. She was pretty enough. Or she would be if she hadn’t been wiping blood off her cheek and snarling at the dead man. He wasn’t entirely sure what to think of her. She was about as far from his usual experience with women as could be. Well, there was a hint of that command and confidence that you saw in the upper echelons of businesswomen, those who managed other people, executive types. She didn’t seem as coldhearted as all-too-many corporate types were, though.
He’d found Mei intriguing enough when she’d first arrived. And things had gone swimmingly at that time. Until she’d declared herself here by mistake. Or rather, here unfairly. Unlike the rest of the losers in this miserable world. Unlike him, she wasn’t guilty of breaking the law. Or of the alienation he’d experienced during his fall from grace. Of hurting others.
He resented her. And yes, he knew that might not be fair, but so what? He was very much unsettled at the moment and in no mood for fairness.
Lance shook his head and turned his back on the others, trying to center himself. He could use a hot yoga class. And a stiff drink or three. And a massage. Maybe an hour with a beautiful woman. One who wasn’t going around shooting people and then cutting them to bloody ribbons.
“He’ll be back,” Juan muttered.
Lance turned back to the group.
Mei’s head snapped up. She turned on Juan. “Where did you respawn?”
“Me? Over there. Just down the beach.” He vaguely pointed.
She swivelled to Armand. “And you?”
“Other side of the island,” the Frenchman replied. He was older than Lance by at least a decade, maybe two, always calm, always thinking. Nothing seemed to phase him. He’d been the one to volunteer for the dirty work of burning Putin’s wounds closed and he hadn’t hesitated once. Lance had to respect that, though he didn’t understand it.
Armand was as educated and classy as anyone Lance had ever met. He had an old-world, gentlemanly charm. The kind of thing Lance had always aspired to despite his obnoxious American roots. Class was something that seemed to have gone out of fashion sometime before he’d been born. How could a man discuss philosophy with such intellect one moment and then calmly burn a man alive the next?
Mei didn’t seem to like either answer given her. She cursed and gritted her teeth.
“Why?” Cheeto asked her. “What’s up?”
Mei sighed. “If we knew where he was going to respawn, we could have ambushed him there. But if it’s random, he could reappear anywhere out there. And then he’ll come for us.” A finger tapped the sword hilt in her hand as she mulled the situation over. “I think I’m going to take Winny to the Carib village.”
Lance’s eyes widened. “What? They’ll kill you.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. I think things have changed since that guy attacked them. He killed a lot of them. When I left, I spoke with an older woman. She gave me back my weapons. Pointed me to this place to meet you guys. She was really helpful.”
“You think she’d take us in too?” Cheeto asked, looking hopeful.
Mei shrugged uncertainly. “I don’t know. I think they treat women a bit differently than men. They were going to make Winny a wife-slave after all. If I go back and warn them that that gangster—“
“Putin,” Armand clarified.
She nodded in thanks. “If I warn them about Putin and ask for shelter, they might be willing to take us all. They might. Especially if the guards are coming. They could use the help fending them off.”
“If they show up, I’m not planning on fighting,” Lance announced. He hadn’t decided until the words had left his mouth, but now that they had, he knew he wanted no part in any rebellion or any more violence. Pretending like it was possible to fight off the guards and escape this place was just suicidal idiocy. Sure, maybe if a ship was sitting offshore right now and they could harmlessly sail off to some pirate town, he’d do it. Why not? But there was next to no chance of that happening.
Armand’s gaze turned his way. It was neither judgemental nor surprised. “Are you sure?”
Lance hesitated, then nodded. “It’s not worth trying to run. I mean, we can’t. We’re not sailors. We’re not fighters. And we’re going to lose. They have hundreds of soldiers with guns. We have next to nothing to defend ourselves with.”
“Actually,” Mei broke in, “there are weapons in the village. There are a couple of muskets, bayonets, a pistol, I think.”
Lance huffed and rolled his eyes. “Great. Well, unless they’ve got machine guns, we’re outgunned.”
Cheeto looked up at Juan, conflict all over his homely face. “Maybe we should give ourselves up too, hey?” He generally put up a brave face, lots of bluster, but he was about eighteen, still a kid, and his fear was written all over him. He stuck close to Juan and seemed to really look up to the Spaniard.
Juan shrugged at Mei. “You can go if you want. I think we will stay here.”
She looked disappointed but nodded. “I understand.” She turned away and started towards the other woman. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”
He watched her help poor Winny to her feet. She guided the other woman towards the jungle, one hand on her lower back.
Winny cast a long, hard look at Putin’s body as she walked by before turning away. The pair merged with the foliage and disappeared.
The jaguar calmly padded after the two women, tail swinging as it walked.
Lance went and sat in the shade of his lean-to. He felt sick and angry and worried all at the same time. It was not a pleasant experience. Nor were the other feelings that he was trying very hard to ignore.
Armand came and sat next to him. Lance had to admit the Frenchman was a handsome man. His stark white hair and black skin gave him a distinguished air. When he spoke, it was with a cultured accent, the kind that made women sigh and swoon. “She is right, you know.”
“So?” Lance didn’t want to think about it anymore.
“We don’t get many chances to change our lives in here. In a colony, everything is controlled by someone else. Their rules. Their orders. And they are not benevolent dictators.”
“You don’t think I know that?” Lance snapped. “If you want to join her, go for it.” He waved at the spot Mei had vanished into.
But Armand shook his head. He plucked a piece of grass up and chewed on it, as was his habit. “Her and I alone, we have no chance. But if all four of us joined her…? Maybe. It depends how many marines they send after us.”
“Yeah, well.” Lance took a deep breath. “I’m pissed. I hate that…my life turned out this way. I hate that I’m here. I hate a lot of things.” He flopped onto his back and stared at the ceiling of branches overhead. “Hell, I don’t know. But I’m not really interested in suicide over it.”
“You played by their rules once and they took everything away from you, oui? Will you do the same again?”
“I only have to tough it out for three more years.”
“Hmm. Not such a long time.” The older man shrugged. “Then again, it is the only time we have. Each day only comes once. And life is short.”
Irritation crept into Lance’s voice. “You know what they’ll do to us if we try to resist. We’ll get locked in a lightless box and starved for a month. Or worse. Isn’t that an even worse way to spend our time?”
“Perhaps,” Armand allowed. “But sometimes life requires sacrifice or risk to achieve something better. You were a businessman in the other world, were you not? Did you not take risks?”
Lance had to laugh at that. “All the time. You don’t become successful by playing it safe. Not in this day and age.”
Armand nodded slowly. Though he did not turn to look at Lance, he had a thoughtful expression. “And you took a big risk, or too many, something went badly and you ended up here. So now you are too scared to take big risks again?”
Lance had no answer to that. It cut too close to the truth. Especially after he’d gambled once in here and lost everything. Maybe he deserved this place. Shitty people like him didn’t deserve happiness.
Heads quickly turned in their direction as Mei led Winny into the Carib village. Two warriors ran for spears while several women ducked into huts to hide. Others, however, just looked wary or hostile and watched as the foreigners returned. Luckily, the jaguar had elected to remain in the jungle rather than follow, or the reaction might have been worse.
The village was much changed already. The bodies were all gone now, along with any trace of blood or death. Ruined huts had been taken down, blackened sections of others removed. Already, they were rebuilding. It was impressive.
The old woman who had helped Mei before was squatting in the dirt, her gnarled hands putting together bundles of roofing thatch. When she saw Mei and Winny, she slowly straightened and frowned. Then she took a closer look at Winny and her features softened. She said something they didn’t understand and came forward.
The two warriors ran over, pointed their spears at Mei, and shouted at her. Both were young, in their twenties perhaps, and angry, maybe a little afraid.
Winny froze and her eyes widened, but Mei gently propelled her forward. She held up a hand. “Peace. We’re not here to fight.” She looked at the old woman and bowed politely.
One of the warriors tried to stop the old woman from going forward, but she just pushed past them. She approached Winny and examined her, nodding and speaking in their language. She took Winny by the shoulder and made to lead her towards one of the huts.
The warrior who’d tried to stop her shouted and threatened to stab Mei.
Mei frowned at him. “Back off!” She shooed him away with her sword.
The warrior looked affronted by that. He made to lunge.
Mei slapped the thrust of his spear aside with her sword and pulled her pistol and levelled it at his face.
Everyone froze. She spoke calmly. “Go away.”
The warrior’s eyes glared daggers. He knew what a gun was. He slowly backed up.
The old woman sighed melodramatically and authoritatively snapped at the two men. She, too, waved them off, dismissing them. Then she called out to others and more females hurried over to help.
The males were taken aback. They argued and said many things, but none of the women heeded them in the slightest as they passed by. They helped Winny along, some grabbing water and clothes and food. One shouldered the more vocal warrior hard as she passed and he gave her a very startled look that she completely ignored.
Mei couldn’t help but grin at that. She put the gun back in the waist of her pants. Looking around, she noticed that the population of the village had shrunk considerably, though some might be out working or hunting or something. Also, the gender spread had become unbalanced. Besides the two young bucks, she saw one middle-aged warrior who hadn’t bothered to get up from where he worked with some fishing gear and an old man. The rest of the villagers were women, who now seemed to outnumber the men at least three to one. When the warriors had fought Putin, they must have lost a lot of their number before driving him off.
Would this new gender imbalance affect the tribe’s culture in the future? Would the women now feel more confident, more able to assert themselves, as they just had? If it led to a little more mutual respect and equal voices in the leadership of the community, then Mei was all for it. When either gender gained too much power, everyone suffered. Equality and cooperation worked best.
In fact, to support just that, she specifically sought out the old woman as she tried to explain the threat of Putin and the marines that would surely be sent from Barbados soon, if they weren’t already on their way. Without a common tongue, the conversation required a lot of sign language. Things picked up as Mei took to drawing pictures in the dirt. The old woman was delighted with that innovation and clapped her hands and laughed before drawing her own stick figures and such.
The warriors did not look happy about being excluded from the discussion, so Mei relented and allowed them to join in without objecting. However, any time either of the young men rudely tried to dominate the group, she would silently give them a flat stare until they backed down. Or one of the women would gain a bit of confidence and shout them down. When the ruder of the young men tried to mess up one of the drawings in the dirt, the old woman slapped his hand away as if he were a child. And perhaps she’d done just that when he’d been a boy because he looked angry but abashed and didn’t retaliate.
The end result was that Winny and Mei were accepted into the village. Winny was taken care of and both were fed. The Caribs were frightened by the thought of the marines attacking, however, and that was the only reason why Mei and the villagers continued to debate into the evening about whether or not the male prisoners on the other side of the island should be allowed to come here as well. Some were obviously scared. Others seemed to want help to protect the village, their home. Others wanted to pack up and escape by canoe.
Unfortunately, the more they debated, the more it looked like the villagers would take that last option. With so many experienced warriors now dead, they stood little chance against marines with muskets and grenades.
Mei was frustrated but understood. As with the prisoners, Armand and the others, there was little reason for anyone to fight. Mei was an outsider in wanting to defy the colonial powers and flee to some other life. Everyone else had too much to lose. Or was too afraid given the disparity in power.
She sighed as she ate some kind of roasted bird and listened to the men and women of the village argue about leaving for a new island. She wanted to urge them all to fight alongside her, but there was only so much passion that she could put into her argument. She didn’t want to manipulate people into risking their lives just for her own cause. She refused to be so selfish.
Sitting alone in the village, the only prisoner here, there was little that she could do to fend off despair. Maybe there was nothing she could do to save herself. Maybe a pirate’s life was beyond her after all.
That evening, the four prisoners sat around the fire pit, staring into the crackling flames. Fish bones turned black and crumbled in the glowing coals. A few skins from the local fruit neatly sat in a pile; the camp was kept clean and orderly at all times. He was a bit fastidious like that and he was glad to see that others, particularly Armand, were the same. Only Cheeto needed a little prodding, too used to living a lazy life with the careless shortsightedness of a teen.
They had a refuse area in the jungle where they dumped stuff so that it didn’t rot next to camp. Sometimes skins were used as toilet paper as well. Latrines were regularly dug in a semi-distant section of the beach, a few branches used for secure footing so they could squat over the hole in the sand. They dug the holes at low tide and then covered the deposits with sand so that when the ocean returned, it slowly cleaned the waste away over time.
Putin’s body had been dragged into the jungle and left. It would turn into a clean skeleton when he respawned.
The mood around the fire that night was both sombre and tense. They all had a lot to think about because of that woman. She had brought chaos into their lives, as messy and brutal as any hurricane.
Mei had surprised him. Women were rare in this world. Most criminals and the people who guarded them were male. And she hadn’t had the typical rough exterior that many prisoners had. When she’d strolled into camp the first time, she’d been a breath of fresh reality, a reminder that they had been regular people once.
And then had come that ugliness with the gangster, the blood and death taking Juan right back to the worst day of his life. And on Mei’s heels had followed the woman who’d been raped. Then a jaguar of all things, looking wary but for some reason not killing her or anyone else, just standing there with her looking for all the world as if it was normal for a giant hunting cat to do that.
Their peaceful island lives were no more.
He sighed into the communal silence. “She’s like something out of a bad soap opera.”
No one had to guess who he was talking about.
“Nah,” Cheeto contradicted him with an admiring grin. “More like the movies. She’s all Hollywood, swinging that sword, pistols blazing. Did you see those things? No cheap guard weapons, hey?” He gestured as if holding a sword and gun with his hands. “I think she’s badass.”
Lance grunted. “She’s crazy. And unbelievably violent. I never saw that coming.” He shook his head as if still in disbelief.
Armand nodded sagely. “She is a woman who chooses to be strong enough to fight for what she believes in. And who is willing to enact justice with her own hands. I respect that. Very much.”
“Exactly!” Cheeto crowed. “Man, she cut that guy down, cold. Whoo!” Out of all of them, he was the most carefree and spirited. Then again, he was still very young. And the same things were not at stake for him as for Juan or the others.
Juan agreed with the Frenchman. “I can admire her character.”
Lance’s face was serious. “You’re all crazy. That scene with the gangster? Putin? I don’t know how you guys went through with that. Bad guy or not, that was just cruel and horrible. I can’t imagine…,” he looked at Armand, “…doing what you did.”
Armand shrugged. “It was necessary. And it was right. This is a prison, yes? A place where people are punished for their crimes. And was he not guilty?”
“He had it coming,” Cheeto enthusiastically agreed, kicking back and leaning on his hands. “For what he did to Mei especially. Man, can you imagine being burned to death like that? That’s some nasty nightmare stuff right there. I can’t believe she’s still sane.”
“And you saw the woman she brought out of the jungle,” Juan added. “Women are to be treasured, protected by men. Tying her up and raping her like that? He got off lightly.” If there was something Juan was passionate about, it was that violence against women was unforgivable. And with his past…
“Well,” Lance continued, “he’ll come for you guys.”
Armand nodded and shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. “Tomorrow morning, he will respawn, I think. But I doubt he would attack us during the day. Not one versus four, us armed and alert for him. If he comes, it will be in the night.”
“Great,” Lance muttered.
Then Cheeto said what they’d all been thinking and not saying. “You guys think the marines are really gonna show up soon?”
Juan looked over at him. “If you believe that she actually blew up a huge ship all on her own.”
Armand looked Juan in the eyes. “What reason does she have to lie about something so impressive?”
It was Juan’s turn to shrug. “We’re in prison. Everyone in here is a liar, are they not? Maybe she was just trying to impress us.”
“It seems a rather outlandish lie, and Mei did not strike me as such a person as would make up such things for her benefit.” Armand took a breath and looked around. “Assuming she was telling the truth, we are faced with a question, yes? Are we going back to prison life? Or joining her to fight for our freedom?”
Lance seemed the most against the idea of going with Mei and he continued in that vein now. “Fighting would be insane,” he spoke hotly. “How could we possibly win? They’ll outnumber us and outgun us. If she blew up a ship, they’ll probably send a legion after her.”
“Maybe they won’t,” Cheeto suggested. “I mean, why bother if they’re just chasing one person? Might only send a small crew, like three or four. Cheaper sending pros to do the job than an army. You only send the army if you’re sending a message.” Spoken like someone with a lot of gang experience.
Armand raised a hand. “Let us not debate that part yet, the whether or not fighting them is possible. In a vacuum, regardless of the odds of making it happen, would you rather be living a free life within this world, or the life of a prisoner? This is what we must each decide first.”
Cheeto screwed his face up. “I don’t know. I’m in here for life. I ain’t ever getting out. So a free life would be nice. I could laze around like this for the next fifty years. But turning pirate? Landing in a cage and going nuts? Hell no, chico. Es loco.”
Lance adamantly shook his head and spoke firmly. “I’ve only got about three and a half years left. And I’m not about to do anything that adds to that. I want out of here and back in the real world.”
Armand gave him a challenging stare. “You were rich and famous. Big name in tech, on the cover of magazines. Probably very easy just to go back to your old life, oui? You corporate types only care about money, I think. When you get out of here, you have your fortune stashed away so that you can live like a king. Or go back into business. Even with years in here, someone will invest in you again. Life is easy for you.”
“Screw you,” Lance spat, defensive.
Juan’s brows rose. The American and Frenchman generally got along as well as Cheeto and Juan did. So it was somewhat surprising to see a rift open between them. Yet the violence and the possibility of escape and freedom had seemed to change Lance’s disposition. He was usually laid back and very friendly. Now he felt on edge and angry in a way Juan had yet to see.
Lance stood and threw angry glances at the rest of them. “To hell with whatever you guys think of me. You think I can just go back to my old life after what happened to me? I’m tainted. It’s the same for you, too, all of you. You saw it when you got arrested, when you went through trial. The way nobody looks at you the same way anymore. As if they never knew who you really were. As if you can’t be trusted. As if you’re scum and everything out of your mouth is a lie now.” His eyes had gone red-rimmed, and he kicked the dirt and turned his back to the light.
Armand, ever the calm and dignified one, went on as smoothly as ever, speaking softly. “I’ve got more than eight years on my sentence. I’d prefer not to spend them all on a sugar plantation, slaving away. Or cleaning toilets. Yes, there are risks to escape, but I am not a young man anymore who is always looking ahead to an endless future that is full of potential. I’m over the hill. The second half of my life lies before me, the end in sight, and it is terrifying.” He paused. “I don’t want to waste what time I have left when there’s a chance that I could make something decent of it. Even in this place.”
“Then why were you doing whatever criminal stuff landed you here in the first place?” Lance snapped, frowning and verbally lashing out.
But Armand just smiled. “In point of fact, I was trying to quit. Only instead of quitting, I got greedy on the way out. And incautious. That stupidity cost me.” He looked down at the dirt between his feet, humble. “When I first got taken to this island by the Caribs, I thought it would be a temporary respite and I’d be back in chains soon enough. So I didn’t give it much thought. I just enjoyed my free time while I had it. I enjoyed it even more when you all began appearing. And still, I assumed I was destined to return to Grenada and carry on as I had the past few years.” He looked up again, and this time his eyes shone, and not just from the firelight. “But now there’s a chance for more. A chance to spend the rest of my sentence living right.”
Lance shook his head, annoyed, but finally sat back down.
“What do you mean, living right?” Juan asked, curious.
“I have lived much of my life the wrong way. I’ve done evil things. I regret this, with all my heart. It took me a long time to figure out that I did not want to be such a person. But I messed up again instead of going after that future the right way. Because I hadn’t truly learned. So now, I want to prove to myself that I can live a good life. And to truly do that, I must have some semblance of freedom. It must be my choice to do the right thing when given the chance.”
“You can do that on a colony,” Juan argued. “That’s the whole point of them. Rehabilitation.”
Armand dismissed that idea with a wave. “No. There you are an indentured worker, a slave. You live according to someone else’s will. There is no freedom of choice. And there is no reward for being a good person. Merely less pain. Perhaps, if this place had been operated as intended, as Mei spoke of the theory behind it, then maybe it would pay to play along within the system and I would be happy to do so. But this place has become corrupted. Those meant to show us a better path instead bully and torture us so that they can feel powerful. If I have no choice but to live in this virtual world, then I would prefer it to be in a way where I can make my own choices, where I can live my own life, and where I can find happiness, both for myself and for others.”
“It’s a nice dream,” Juan admitted. “But I don’t think it’s very realistic in here.”
Lance was also not at all convinced. “If you turn pirate, you’ll spend your days looting and killing. That’s not a better life; that’s thuggery,” he pointed out. “It’s what half the people in here are being punished for. And what you wanted to run from.”
“Ah, but piracy is not the only option,” Armand argued with a waggle of a finger. “I could get a job as a regular citizen in St. Mary’s, a free haven protected by pirates. Or open a restaurant in Port Royal, where they let pirates roam free and do as they like because the English so desperately need them to hold off the Spanish armada from taking their prized island of Jamaica.”
“How’s living like that any different than being in a colony?” Cheeto questioned.
Armand nodded towards Lance. “You worked in a colony, didn’t you? You played by their rules and earned a better job, better life. And they took your achievements away from you. Put you back on the bottom, robbing you of all your hard work for no good reason.”
“Every day in the colony, we all step lightly lest we catch someone’s eye and get beaten. Or killed for fun just so we can respawn and then someone can do it to us again and again. If we lived in one of the free ports, we could live normal lives.” His gaze rose up to the stars and his voice took on a more dreamy quality. “If I get that chance, I can live the life I should have lived before. I can be an honest person. I can do good instead of evil.”
The hope that Armand instilled in Juan’s chest, in turn, also inspired self-loathing. He gritted his teeth. “I don’t deserve that kind of life.”
Armand lowered his gaze, and his eyes narrowed as he studied Juan. “You want to be punished. You think you deserve to spend all your time here in misery.” It was not a question, but a statement of Juan’s feelings.
Unfortunately, it was also the truth, or close to it, and Juan flinched inside at the accuracy. As if he wasn’t already reliving the past often enough. Horrid memories forever burned into his mind now pierced him all over again. When he spoke, his voice was rough with emotion. “The one I hurt will spend far longer than my sentence suffering for what I did. They’ll spend the rest of their life living with what I did to them. And so much of what should have been possible for them will never be.” His voice hardened with his conviction. “That’s my responsibility. It’s only fitting that the rest of my life should be paid in kind. And that good things shouldn’t be possible for me either.”
“You regret what you did?” Armand asked.
“Every day,” he instantly replied. And he did. He hated himself for his mistake, for his temper, for his weakness and failings that had led to that one, awful moment.
“Kind of difficult to make up for it in here, isn’t it?”
Juan nodded. “I’ll get out in about eleven years. And then I will do something to make amends for my mistake. How can I justify living a happy life in here until then?”
Silence fell around the fire. A shooting star flashed overhead. Around them, the jungle was mostly quiet. Shadows and pointed leaves made it feel like they were ringed by a circle of thorns and the fire a window into the dark horrors of hell. Or maybe Juan was simply feeling melodramatic about his past.
Armand let out a long sigh. “Guilt is a great and terrible thing. If only it kicked in before we did wrong, so much might be prevented. So many people would not have suffered, or died, because of us.”
“This place is what I deserve,” Juan asserted, as much to himself as the others. “No more, no less. I should be on a colony, living like a real prisoner.”
Armand seemed unwilling to give up his argument. Then again, he did have a philosophical bent and it regularly came up in their conversations. “Personally, I would like a chance at redemption. We will not find such living in chains. But out there,” he pointed away from them, “living a free life, we can practice being better people, practice making amends. So that when we do get out of here, we don’t waste even more of our time failing at being better versions of ourselves when it matters even more than it does now. So that when we become citizens once again, we will have already focused enough on ourselves that we can then spend our time focused on others. We grow in here so that, out there, we spend all our time making up for the wrongs of our past.” He turned a challenging gaze on Juan. “Would you rather spend your years here in self-pity or in practicing to be who you wish you were?”
Cheeto jumped in for the first time in a while. He’d spent most of the conversation just listening. “Isn’t that why they designed this world in the first place? I mean, the guards messed everything up and made life real difficult in the colonies. But I guess you could do it on your own if you took the initiative. Right?” He looked around as if uncertain of his perspective.
Juan looked at him. “Does that mean you want to try to escape with Mei?”
Cheeto looked back at Juan and shrugged lazily, trying to cover up his uncertainty. “I’ll do whatever you do.”
The idea scared him and he frowned and cut the idea off. “No,” he stated, slashing his hand through the air. “It’s your life. You need to decide for yourself. I don’t want that kind of pressure or responsibility over someone else.”
The young man hunched over and looked away, embarrassed. “‘K. Lo siento.”
Lance growled and massaged his face. “Let’s just go to bed. I’m sick of talking about it. And whether or not the marines show up, that Putin guy will. Which means this might be the last night of proper sleep we get for a while.”
“Least we got his knife now.” Cheeto cackled, holding the blade up. It had made cleaning fish about a thousand times easier.
“Maybe we should fashion a few spears instead of using branches as clubs,” Juan suggested.
Cheeto stood. “Anyone know how to harden spearheads in a fire? I saw that in a comic once. But every time I try, I just burn it.”
Armand stood and bowed his head. “I believe that most of the process is just drying the wood out so that it isn’t soft. We could do that. Leave a few spears over the edge of the fire for the night. Whoever is on watch and make sure they don’t burn.”
“How many should we make?” Lance asked. His negative feelings seemed to be falling away, and his politeness returned now that the subject of Mei and leaving were no longer at hand. Or no longer made him feel threatened with having to make a decision.
Juan answered. “At least one for each of us. Spears have range. And there’s only one knife.”
“Who gets the knife?” Cheeto asked them.
“Respectfully,” Armand half smiled, “I think it’s likely that I’m the only one with experience fighting with a blade.”
Cheeto shrugged at that. “Well, I’ve stuck people before. I’m no expert though.” He handed it over.
Lance stood up too, all business now that they had a job to focus on. “Let’s find some wood we can make spears out of them.”
They split up to search the immediate jungle. It would be difficult in the dark, but there was little choice. Putin could come for them as early as breakfast time.
Juan wondered if he’d dream of a free life tonight. A part of him wished he could believe in what Armand had been arguing. But then he’d think of her, of his past, and hate himself.