Mei was given heavy leg irons in addition to the manacles on her wrists. It made it very tiring to move about, even with her high fitness level.
Percy had chortled while putting the black cast iron on her. “If you get any foolish ideas abou’ goin’ fer a swim, you’ll sink right tuh the bo’om. Then respawn here after ye drown yerself.”
English folk. Did they just sometimes forget that the alphabet included the letter T?
She’d then been handed a bucket and mop and told to spend the rest of the day swabbing the decks. Until now, the meaning of the words ‘swab the deck’ had always been a mysterious nautical term, something that evoked romantic notions of the high seas and historical settings. How disheartening it was to learn that it just meant to mop the floor on each level of the ship.
Barefoot as she worked, she discovered that her thin uniform left little to the imagination. She had on neither underwear nor bra, which left her larger-than-average girls swinging in time with her mopping and all eyes were on her as she scrubbed the deck. To make matters worse, whenever the ship drove through rollers and the waves sent cold, salty spray across the deck, it soaked her clothes and they clung to her body, eliciting a chorus of cheerful catcalls from the crew on deck and up in the rigging. Only the more dignified captain seemed to refrain, his only emotion in her direction being apparent boredom.
She spent hours grinding the mop into the wood of the deck, working it free of salt buildup and moss and tiny critters trying to build a life in the cracks. The hot sea breeze dried her clothes out quickly. Her hands ached from the strain of the work. Her long, straight black hair, without anything to tie it up with, flowed loose in the breeze. A solitary seagull soared overhead, the only break in the clear, blue sky. The sun beat down uninterrupted, and she could feel it pounding into her head, yet she was given no breaks and no water.
Earlier, when she’d first arrived, she’d been angry and defiant. Her fighting spirit had taken hold of her.
That rebellious feeling quickly evaporated in the unforgiving Caribbean sun and she soon returned to the deep sullenness that had filled her since being falsely convicted and sentenced. She had no hope of getting off this ship let alone becoming a pirate and buying her way out of here. She gave a sour laugh in her mind at the idea. What a stupid dream that would be.
The ship was surrounded by empty ocean. There was nowhere to run. Even on land, what would be the point? She’d learned her lesson: you couldn’t beat the system. It was too big. There were too many corrupt people with far more power than she had. If they could grab someone off the streets in broad daylight and throw them in prison for any made-up reason they wanted, abusing the very legal system and government that should have been there to protect her, then what hope was there for change?
She was going to waste twenty years of her life in prison and there wasn’t a damned thing she could do about it.
Bitter and frustrated, she slapped the wet mop down and pushed like she would wear a hole in the vessel and sink them all.
Looking back, she felt like a silly idiot, spending so much of her time playing at being an activist and a journalist when, in reality, what good had she ever really done? None. She’d eventually embarrassed the wrong government official with accusations of sexual harassment and bribery—that she had real evidence to back up. That was all that it had taken for her whole life to be taken from her. Because he had plenty of cronies willing to back him up and protect their corrupt way of life.
She’d been delusional for a long time, thinking that change was possible out in the real world. Well, nothing she did could possibly change anything in a prison. So why bother fighting it? The smart thing to do was to keep her head down and just try to survive. Maybe the next two decades would pass quietly. She sure as hell didn’t want to do anything that would keep her in here any longer than necessary.
The depth of her hopelessness pierced her to the core and her chest squeezed. The grief of losing so much hurt. She’d never see her friends again. Her parents might die while she rotted in here. She’d never have children or a family, never love nor be loved by a partner. It was so unfair.
Her eyes heated and prickled. A pair of tears fell to the deck and the mop swooshed over them, the movement despondent.
As the ship topped a particularly high roller in the afternoon, she caught sight of land far off in the distance. It was an island, much of it low to the water, with a few small hills and one large one. Perhaps this was Barbados, their destination. She saw little more than haze on the horizon, however, before she was sent below the main deck to scrub there as well.
It was an oven below, cramped and small. About a hundred and eighty centimetres tall, Mei was much taller than most women, especially where she came from, and barely had room to stand. Some of the taller men had to hunch over at all times.
This second deck, right below the main, was the gun deck. Everything was wood—the walls, the deck, all of it—with brass fixtures. Cannons were lined up in rigs, ready to be thrust out square portholes and fired. At the far end of the ship, at the stern, was a door to another room. Of course, there was plenty of deck to swab here, too.
She was now out of the direct sun but heatstroke had already claimed hold of Mei and it left her stumbling and dizzy as she slowly worked, feeling weaker with each passing hour. She was dying of thirst. Whenever any of the crew passed by her and her bucket, she held out a hand and meekly croaked, “Water! Please, may I have some water?” None was forthcoming. The crew mostly reacted to her pleas for water with indifference and the other prisoners didn’t seem to have any sympathy for one of their own. Some just laughed at her.
While the captain of the ship was surely human, as well as all of the red-uniformed marines that she saw standing about as armed guards, she wondered if some of the crew were either NPCs or fellow prisoners. The crew were dressed as ship’s crew would be, mostly in white shirts and blue pants. Prisoners were dressed in the same, striped uniform that she had on. If any crew were Artificial Intelligence, she couldn’t tell the difference between them and the humans like herself.
It wasn’t until the sun had set and the night began cooling that Percy and Saxston came for her. They dragged her down to the fourth deck, the lowest and most cramped one, with the walls sloping sharply as they curled into the bottom of the ship. They arrived in a tiny room in the bow of the ship, where they tossed her into an iron cage that went from floor to low ceiling. It was only two meters square. Dropping some white bread and a leather skin of water onto the floor next to her, they departed. Yet the lecherous looks they wore on the way out highly suggested that she’d see them again, all too soon.
Mei was exhausted from all that hard mopping in chains while trying to constantly keep her balance as the boat rolled in the waves. Plus there had been the sun and the heat and no water or food until now. It had drained her. So much so that she’d been unable to hang on to her anger. Instead, she’d gone numb. Now that she’d hit the ground, she could barely move. Her body ached and protested reaching for the water, despite her dire need.
It took an effort of will to summon the strength to uncork the water skin and drink from it. And when she did, she ended up guzzling it too fast and vomited half of it up. She worried that she’d wasted it and that she might not see more and hated herself a bit. The bread she was too sick to even consider. Which was good because, in no time at all, a huge rat appeared and made off with the entire chunk, not the slightest bit scared of the woman in the cage. Mei, not normally squeamish, still would have screamed at the sight, but couldn’t summon the energy. She just hoped that it wouldn’t come back and try to gnaw on her during the night. She had horrid flashes of waking up with the rat’s teeth chewing off her nose or its sharp little claws digging into her vulnerable eyes.
She lay alone in the dark, too tired to think or feel. The sounds of the ship at night were soothing: water sloshing against the hull, wood and nails creaking, bare feet slapping the deck. It wasn’t long before she drifted off to sleep.
The sound of the cage squeaking as it opened woke her.
She blinked sleep away, feeling sluggish, yet could make very little out. Someone was entering the cage. The tiniest flicker of light from a small lantern in their hand cast the holder in shadow. They smelled of stale sweat, enough to wrinkle her nose. Wariness shot through her, giving her a spike of adrenalin. Yet she wasn’t so foolish as to move, even if she had had the energy. She’d only partially recovered.
“Time ta have a li’le fun.” The man in the cage with her giggled.
Mei tensed. It was Saxston, the rat-faced man.
When his bony hands grabbed her and started pulling her pants off, she nearly sighed without putting up a struggle. Of course this was going to happen. And of course it would happen on her first night. While the man was being secretive by shading his light and speaking softly, she suspected that his actions would likely be ignored should she try to complain to the captain. The captain might even have an unofficial policy for this sort of thing, to reward his crew and to show the new prisoners who’s boss.
With his hands on her, doing whatever they wanted to her body, she felt creeped out and knew she should try to stop him. And yet, the darkness in her mind whispered: what’s the point? She might be athletic but he was a man, and thus stronger. And if she resisted, called for help, either nothing would happen or she’d only make things worse for herself.
She’d been a fighter once. Then she’d been knocked down and thrown in here. She’d learned her lesson: you couldn’t win; they were just too powerful. So there was no point in struggling. So she gave up and let him do whatever he wanted. Better to just get it over with and move on.
She felt herself pushed into her back. He whipped her pants down around her ankles, next to the leg irons. With one hand, he pushed her legs over her head, exposing her, and that triggered something inside of her. She felt alarmed and helpless in this position and did not like that feeling one bit. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before and she realized that she did not want it to happen now, no matter that she’d resolved to give up only moments ago. Adrenalin fought back her weariness and, despite her headache, her fear rose. She began to squirm and make things difficult, though she was weak.
He just chuckled at her attempt, as if he enjoyed the added challenge.
She felt the coldness of a liquid hitting her between the legs and a powerful, fishy odour came at her. She flinched; it was foul. The liquid was viscous. Given the year and location, it was probably whale oil: gross. She had no further time to think about that before he was clumsily trying to push his stubby little thing inside of her pussy, but having trouble as she struggled against him.
She had to consciously remind herself—this was not real. She was in a digital system. She could not get pregnant here and, as far as she knew, there were no sexually transmitted diseases. It might be incredibly unpleasant, but this bastard couldn’t actually hurt her as long as she refused to allow it in her mind. She clung to that and chose to be strong, no matter the outcome.
It wasn’t easy; few people would be entirely calm in this situation and she wasn’t either. She was tired and a little scared. But she tried to push him off of her. Her anger returned, slowly overwhelming some of her fear.
An idea came to her.
She stopped fighting back and went limp. She let him think that she was going to let him use her body just the way that he wanted. Let him get confident.
He seemed to register her lack of resistance. Perhaps assuming her compliance, he focused on fulfilling his lust rather than on controlling her. The head of his cock began to split her lower lips.
She felt the grip on her legs slacken so that he could try harder to get what he wanted. Thankfully, he hadn’t done so yet.
He made a creepy little chuckle as he pushed to enter her.
She curled her hips towards her like a crunch exercise, then pushed her legs up and over his head. The pants and chains went around the back of his neck. She pulled hard, yanking him forward and off balance and making him yelp in surprise. Her strong, toned legs held him in place. Feeling her way across his face, she cruelly jammed stiffened fingers into one eye and then the other.
He shouted in pain, or tried to, with her calves pressing into his face, muffling him.
Bastard. She wanted to blind him. To make him hurt as much as he’d been trying to hurt her. She poked him again, wishing that she had longer nails.
He tried to scream and clawed at her thighs.
Would someone hear? Would they come to rescue him? She pushed his head back and jabbed her fingers repeatedly into his throat, cutting the sound off.
He wildly flailed about, turned around and tried to extricate himself from between her legs.
That allowed her to get the leg irons around the front of his neck. She dragged him down with her legs again, pushed on the back of his head and started strangling him.
Part of her couldn’t believe that she was doing something so violent, yet the instinct for self-preservation was stronger. So she put everything she had into choking the life out of him.
He kicked and fought, but he was not a big man, nor a strong one. She was tall and athletic for a woman and he was in pain and already struggling to breathe. His movements slowed. He shuddered repeatedly. Then he went still.
She released him, letting the lifeless head thump to the deck. Huffing and puffing and shaken, she pushed away, putting her back to the wall of the cage. She felt her pulse racing.
It was the first time that she’d ever killed anyone. And while this was just, technically, a digital world in their shared minds, it had not been a pleasant experience. It felt unnatural and deeply wrong.
And yet, she’d already tried to harden herself to expect this sort of thing before arriving in the prison system. She’d known back then what she’d be heading into and had tried to mentally prepare. She might be rattled at the moment, but she refused to let it get the best of her now that it was happening to her. She wouldn’t let herself down like that.
“Told you I’d kill you before I got off this ship,” she said to the corpse. She kicked it for good measure. But then reality sunk in and she grew alarmed. She’d just fought back—and killed someone. What was going to happen to her now? Surely she’d be punished, regardless of the fact that she’d been defending herself. Would they beat her? Starve her? Keel haul her?
She despaired. So much for her plan to just go along with things and quietly endure her time and abuse. Maybe it wasn’t too late? Maybe she should just call for help anyway; explain the situation and hope for mercy.
Mercy. She bitterly laughed. As if she could hope for that.
Staring at the corpse, she tried to imagine what would happen when they found her. Her eyes rose to the open door. She could walk right out of her cell. Did she want to? That, too, scared her. The spark of defiance that had fought back against Saxston was still in her. And she decided she wasn’t ready to give up quite yet.
After all, they were approaching an island, weren’t they? Barbados? Surely, by now, they would be close? Close enough to jump ship?
She pulled off the dead man’s shirt and used it to clean the smelly oil off of herself. Pulling her pants back on, she looted the body. Or, she tried to. No keys. Wait, hadn’t they hung them up outside the cage somewhere?
Sneaking as quietly as she could over the corpse, she exited the cell and felt along the walls in the dark for the keys. To her joy, she found the iron ring hanging from a hook. Removing it with a slight jangle, every sound of her movements freaking her out, she sat down on the floor and worked to silently unlock the chains. After a few minutes of fumbling around with shaky hands, she was free.
She stood up and smiled. Now, how to go about escaping?