The System

Mei Ling Pirates Life Banner

Lance gave Mei a knowing look, a twinkle in his blue eyes. “So, let me guess. The Caribs got you, didn’t they?”

She opened her mouth and hesitated, then shrugged. “Kind of. Yeah.” Would it behoove her to say more? Perhaps. Then again, she didn’t know these people and she’d sort of assumed the worst about them, whether or not they were polite. So, for now, it might be best to remain guarded. 

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he assured her. “It was the same for all of us.”

“Oh really?”

“We were all barbecued and made the main course. Which is incredibly dark, but there you have it.” He chuckled. 

Armand nodded. “I was taken from Grenada, south of here.”

“Uh, where is here, exactly?” she was quick to ask. She had no idea where the Caribs had taken her.

“St. Vincent,” he clarified. “We are west of Barbados.”

Cheeto pointed a thumb at Juan. “We were originally in Venezuela. Then some Carib tribe captured us and took us to what we think is maybe Tobago? Only for the tribe here to come in and sack their village the next day!” He laughed so hard he hugged his stomach and doubled over. 

Mei was surprised. “Wow. So the Caribs are really active then, aren’t they?”

“Oh yes,” Lance confirmed. “Especially in this region, the Lesser Antilles. All the big colonies are up north in the Greater Antilles: Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico. So there are fewer tribes there. Though I’ve heard there are some really big aboriginal tribes in the American and Canadian territories. In fact, that’s where North American aboriginal criminals are sent. They have their own prison colonies.”

“Is that where you came from?” she asked. “American colonies?”

“No. I was being held in Barbados. Caribs plucked me right off the farm.”

“Ah. Me too.” She looked around questioningly. “How long have you all been here on St. Vincent?”

Lance shrugged. “A few weeks.”

“Longer for us,” Juan added, speaking for the first time.

“Months for me,” Armand stated. 

“Well, with your arrival, we might not be long for this place.” Lance seemed carefree about it, as if he didn’t mind the idea of returning to a prison island and losing his freedom. “They send the ship around now and then to collect those of us who get captured and respawn here. I’ve seen them brought in before. Happens about two or three times a year?”

Mei paled. “Oh no. Then we need to escape before they arrive.” All four burst into laughs and her face turned red again. “What? What is it?”

“There’s no escape from here,” Armand told her kindly. His appearance was incredibly striking, the shock of white hair against the midnight of his skin almost supernatural or mystical. “St. Vincent does not have a colony as of yet, which is why we’re able to respawn here. It’s neutral territory. The only way off the island is the canoes the Caribs use.”

Cheeto snorted. “And they wiped us out when we tried. Pendejos.”

Lance shrugged, resigned. “We’re all stuck here. The Caribs are experienced seafarers. They can navigate the ocean and know how to survive long trips. None of us have any idea how to do that. Even if we stole a canoe, which way do we go? How do we survive bad weather?”

“One big wave, and we fall overboard and drown,” Armand added. “We respawn here or somewhere else, alone maybe, maybe someplace with no canoes or boats. Or we are close enough to a colony to end up back in chains. And none of us are in a hurry to do that, yes?”

The easy-going American agreed. “Better just to take it easy and enjoy our free time here before they haul us back and slap chains on us once again.” As if to drive his point home, Lance returned to the shade of the lean-to and lay down. “I’m in no rush to return to a life of slave labour. This place might be the height of boredom, but it beats getting whipped and beaten on a regular basis.”

The others all nodded in quick agreement. 

Mei, however, was not so sanguine. And she had reasons for that. Not least of which was likely a very angry captain with a vendetta. “I’d really, really rather not go back. I escaped before the Caribs took me. If they capture me, they’re going to punish me.” 

That earned her sympathetic looks and murmurs. 

Mei was puzzled by their lack of ambition. “Do all of you really want to be prisoners? I don’t know how long your sentences are, but I’ve got twenty years. And I have no desire to spend that much of my life here. I was hoping to become a pirate, get some gold and buy my way out of here, as fast as possible.” She was dead serious as she said this. 

Everyone else erupted in howls of laughter. 

“Become a pirate!” Lance exclaimed in delighted surprise. 

“That’s hilarious!” Cheeto guffawed. “Chica, I like you. You crazy.”

Mei frowned, decidedly unimpressed with their reaction to her somewhat nebulous goals. “What’s so funny?”

Armand laughed so hard he had to wipe tears from his eyes. 

Even Juan pointed at her like she was a fool and shook his head. 

“What?” she growled. She did not enjoy being made fun of, nor feeling like she was being stupid for some reason that she didn’t understand. “Why are you laughing?”

Lancelot took a few moments to collect himself but was unable to keep the amusement off his face. “Oh wow. It’s so funny because you actually believe you could do it.”

Armand, more of a gentleman, raised a hand in apology. “Pardon. It’s just that, being a pirate is more like a dream. Very few prisoners ever escape. Only the craziest even try. The life they lead is extreme. The punishments are too harsh for those who are caught.”

“And take it from me,” Lance added, “making enough money to get out of this place? That’s a fool’s dream. I should know.”

Mei raised her brows. “Oh?”

Juan nodded. “He has been here for years. He was a merchant on Barbados.”

“Yep. The best,” the American agreed, flopping onto his back and putting his arms under his head. He spoke up at the ceiling of the lean-to. “Started out on the plantations same as anyone else. But I followed the rules and I worked hard. Earned myself a new job after a year; started working in a shop in town. Owner got paroled and they let me take over. Ha! They had no idea what I was capable of.”

“You did well?” she asked. 

“Very well. Sure, I knew I’d never get wealthy, not enough that I could buy my way out. But I was playing the game and doing it well enough to live comfortably. Not like the governor or the captain in their grand mansions, but far better than any of the regular guards were. Then one day, they decided I’d done too well for myself. They didn’t like that. Prisoners getting too uppity, too successful. How dare they? They came around the business one day and ‘Hey. Looks like you’ve been smuggling goods. That’s breaking the law. Back in chains you go. And we’re taking all your money.’”

“They framed you?” Mei asked. 

Lancelot shook his head. Some bitterness crept into his tone. “No. I was smuggling goods. But they didn’t know that when they came knocking on my door to arrest me. They only found out the truth later. Three years of hard work, all down the drain.”

Mei felt bad for him. “I’m sorry.” She paused. “But they wouldn’t be able to do that to a pirate, right? What you get, you keep, don’t you?”

Armand, tired of standing, took a seat on the ground and the others followed suit. “I have been here for five years now. I have met those who were pirates. Heard many stories. It’s true that you can enjoy some success. There are those living free lives in places like Port Royal and Nassau. They get together and attack a ship every few months, then just laze around and drink the cheapest rum. They eat; they spend most of their coin on whores. Most are content to just live without chains and enjoy an easy time until they are released, even if it is not a lavish life. Those who try too hard to make a great fortune, those who dream of escaping this world, inevitably bring down the wrath of navies.”

Juan was in agreement. He seemed the quiet, serious type, which seemed somehow contrary to his striking looks. “You go around in a little ship and steal a little here or raid a bit there, and they won’t get too upset. They’ll still hunt you down eventually, but nothing like they do the big pirates—the legends. You start taking down big ships and sacking towns and then countries send fleets after you. Ships filled with canons and marines. They chase you to the ends of the ocean until they kill you. And then they take everything from you.”

“And they put you in a cage,” Cheeto quietly added. There was something haunted in the way he stared at the ground in front of him as he spoke. “They put you in a tiny cage and hang it up in the harbour as an example to everyone. A warning not to do what they did, not to rebel.” He looked up at last. But the youthful exuberance had gone out of him, replaced by sadness. “You die slowly, and in pain, from the heat and lack of water and food. Crows eat you. Your body rots and you waste away. And when you die, you respawn in their hands again. And they drag you back into that cage and lock you up. Again and again, you die up there. Until you start going mad. They break you.” From his tone, it must have been something the young man had personally seen.

Mei was horrified. “You can’t be serious! That’s not humane at all!”

Armand snorted. “Humane. Where do you think you are? This is prison.”

“Yes, but there are supposed to be…” She trailed off, remembering her own first experiences on the ship. “Ugh. This place is worse than I thought it would be. I understand the theory behind creating it, and I can even agree with some of those ideals, in principle. I know theory and reality don’t always line up; that’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see the system has become corrupt so quickly. I mean, prison worlds are only what, ten or twelve years old now?”

Juan’s eyes narrowed. “You know the theory of this place?”

She looked at him. “Well, somewhat. I did research as part of my job. I used to be a journalist.” She gazed around in confusion. “You guys aren’t familiar with it?”

Lance shrugged. “Yeah. Some.”

But Juan shook his head.

Cheeto frowned. “I don’t get this place at all.” The Mexican scowled. “What kind of prison is this? Why is it like the real world? Why is it like real life? Don’t make any sense.”

“Well…” Mei took a moment to think about it. “In the old days, prisons were just big buildings where they threw all the criminals. Locked them up for so many years, right? But the bigger the global population got, the more room that took and the more expensive it became. And there were problems.”

“Like what?” Cheeto asked. He seemed honestly interested to learn.

Mei was happy to discuss. Maybe it would help them connect. “Well, we were taking people out of society and hiding them away in a locked room as a consequence of the crimes they committed. That protected regular people from the criminals, which was good. But it wasn’t doing anything to reform criminals while they were isolated. They tried things like teaching them to read or crafts classes or something, but punishment and reform attempts rarely led to true rehabilitation.”

“Most criminals just go back to being criminals,” Armand stated knowingly. “If anything, going to prison often just makes them worse.”

She bowed her head in acknowledgement. “Right. So the basic theory behind putting them in a virtual world was twofold. First, it’s way more efficient and cost-effective to put someone in a coma hooked up to a life support machine. There’s no chance of breakouts or violence, you need far fewer staff, there’s no need to build massive bunkers with tons of security. Second, and this is really the idea that allowed the system to be approved by governments, the virtual world was supposed to be more humane, and it would be a far better vehicle for rehabilitation.”

“How?” Cheeto asked, leaning forward. 

She had to take a moment to compose her thoughts. “People theorized that not all criminals are inherently bad people. Some are born evil and beyond redemption. But many of them are people who became bad due to environmental factors.”

“Bad family, bad school, trauma, et cetera,” Armand elaborated.

 She nodded. “Right. So they figured you could turn bad people back into good people by teaching them the right life lessons and then giving them the opportunity to change. That way, when you reintroduced them into society after their sentence was complete, they’d be better citizens instead of becoming repeat offenders.” This was something she agreed with. She wasn’t sure what percentage of people could be reformed, but she believed that every effort should be made to help people do so. To her, the classic prison system was just a waste of time and money. 

Juan looked confused. “Why do we need a virtual world for that? And why, like, back in time?” He gestured at the world around them.

“Why transport us to 1675?” This is where things became more complex and harder to understand. “It comes down to understanding what’s pushing people to become criminals. What’s driving them to be more selfish? It seems counter-intuitive but modern life has become too easy and too rich for everyone.”

“Too rich.” Cheeto cackled. “You never been to Mexico, have you?”

Mei countered. “There are few wars, diseases are constantly being cured or prevented, there’s as much food as you need right at the grocery store down the street so that you don’t have to go and hunt and gather your own. Everyone has a house and a car and a TV. Even the poorest people in society can live pretty well. What we consider poverty today, people prior to World War 2 would consider luxury.”

Cheeto’s head bounced back and forth as he grudgingly agreed to that.

“Because there’s not enough struggle in our daily lives, people become lazier, greedier, and more selfish. We stop valuing each other and look out for ourselves instead.”

Cheeto blinked, lost. “I don’t get it.”

She took a deep breath. “Think of it this way. Ten thousand years ago, we were all hunters and gatherers living in the wild, right?”


“So life was hard, especially on your own. You spent every day just looking for food and water. If you didn’t find it, you died. If a lion attacked, you died. But we had a way to combat all that. The foundation of our survival became rooted in cooperation with other people. If one person goes wandering through the forest looking for food, maybe they find some and maybe they don’t. But if two people split up the search, the odds of them finding food are double.”

“Right.” Cheeto readily agreed with that.

“Maybe today, you’re the one who found food. You bring it back and share it. The next day, you don’t find any, so you think you’ll starve. Except that the other person found some that day and brought it back, and you get to eat. If you break your leg and can’t go hunting for a month, the others in the tribe will hunt and share their food with you until you get better. So you survive. And when someone else gets hurt, you’re there to help them.”

You cover for each other.” He was getting it and smiled. “Everyone is relying on each other every day.”

“Exactly. Cooperation is more successful. And we external threats back then that did a lot to make us come together. If a lion attacks, everyone in the tribe picks up a spear and fends it off so that we all live another day. ”

“And most people in the world don’t have external threats anymore,” Armand interjected. “There’s nothing forcing us to cooperate to survive.”

Mei smiled. “Exactly. So for two million years, humans survived on the basis of intense cooperation all the time. We’re social animals and so much of our biology evolved based on that methodology. But then we started farming and developing advanced technology. We made life a lot safer and easier in many ways. And that snowballed until we developed a modern society in which you have your own job and money, your own house, your own TV, as much food as you want.”

“These are good things,” Juan pointed out. 

“They are—some of them. I might debate just how good TV and the internet are for us,” she joked. “Have you ever used a forum and seen the trolls? Read people’s comments on social media?”

Lancelot and Armand both laughed at that.

She continued. “Technically, we’re constantly relying on other people for everything, so we’re still a very cooperative society. We’ve never been more connected. But not in a direct way. Ten thousand years ago, you knew that you explicitly had to rely on others. As hunter-gatherers, if you mistreated someone, then they might not have your back the next time that lion attacks. And you die. So you make an effort to treat them well and to appreciate them. But in the modern world, life feels completely centred around ourselves. There are few external threats, few reasons to cooperate. We can just do our own thing all the time; we don’t have to rely on anyone else. We make our own money and buy our own stuff. It doesn’t feel like we’re relying on anyone else for what we have, despite working in a company with thousands of other people and in an economy of billions.”

“People are becoming more selfish,” Juan reasoned. “Because cooperation is indirect, not direct.”

“It used to be smarter to cooperate,” Lance stated in a knowing, bitter tone, not looking directly at anyone else. “Now it’s smarter to compete with each other. You don’t get rich anymore by working hard. You get rich by profiting off of others. And everybody wants to be rich. We see people as cows to be milked, tools to be used, instead of family and friends and teammates.”

Armand was thoughtful. “We are victims of our success. And without enemies from the outside, we have turned on each other instead.”

“And there are so few consequences to keep us in line,” she pointed out. “In a hunter-gatherer tribe, if you hoarded food or hurt someone, they’d kick you out, and you’d probably end up dying because you were alone. But what happens now? Act selfishly in the modern world and you can become a billionaire. If you get in a fight with a friend, you just toss them aside and get another. Because there are millions more in the city where that came from, right? So there’s no need to work things out or appreciate anyone.”

Lancelot barked a dark laugh. “We used to worship philosophers and warriors as our heroes. Now we have celebrity business people.” 

“I’m lost,” Cheeto said. He seemed to be thinking hard, but it was a challenge. “So…ok. People are doing better, right? But that means we’re greedier now. And more selfish. And crime goes up? I thought crime had gone down. What’s this got to do with a virtual world?”

She waved her hands. “Ok, sorry, I’m not an expert and I’m probably not explaining well. The basic theory is that the modern world is easier to live in, so people don’t appreciate what they have. Like, when kids get too many toys and everything they want all the time, they get spoiled.”

Juan snorted. “That is all my nieces and nephews.”

She grinned. “So if daily life is more of a struggle and you have to work harder to get what you want, it should teach people to appreciate what they earn. If you have to work together to be safe and happy, then it should teach people the benefits of getting along. Basically, the prison world is a way to show people what a hard life is like, so when they return to the real world, they have a new perspective that gives them better values and appreciation for what we’ve built. Again, that’s the idea behind it; I don’t know how effective it is.”

“Why not make us all hunter-gatherers then?” Juan asked. 

Armand had a theory for him. “Probably because it would be too hard. You’d need all kinds of knowledge to live in the wild that modern people don’t have. What plants you can eat, how to make a bow and hunt, that kind of thing, yes?”

“And this world has parallels to our world,” Lancelot chipped in. “Whether you’re a farmer or a servant or a waiter or one of the many jobs here, you can learn things that are also useful in our world. Whereas knowing what berries are safe to eat isn’t very helpful in the modern world. They can give us the chance to work and learn skills without hurting the economy out there.”

“This is all really complicated,” Cheeto muttered. “How come they don’t teach us this stuff?”

Mei frowned. “When prisoners arrive, they’re supposed to teach them why they’re here and what they want prisoners to learn. That’s the thing; it’s—in theory—a giant learning facility, in addition to being a prison. We’re supposed to have guidance and opportunities to grow and become better people so that we can earn our way back into regular society and not end up back in here. It’s supposed to be a rehab machine, not a simple time out.”

Though he understood a lot, there were still things Lance seemed to be unclear on. “Why allow pirates though? Why allow us to sit here on this island for weeks on end instead of teleporting us back to our leg irons and sugar cane fields?” he asked. “Why not force people to stay in towns, make it so they can’t leave their jobs or do anything wrong?”

Armand spoke with insight. “I think having a choice is important. We don’t learn well if we are forced into something. If we choose, on our own, to become better people, then we’re more likely to stay that way when we get out.”

“Why allow pirates though?” Cheeto asked. “I mean, they’re criminals too, aren’t they?”

Juan spoke up. “Actually, the origin of pirates is only part criminal. They came about largely because the naval systems and societies of the time were so abusive and corrupt that some people decided they’d just had enough and tried to fight back. And they weren’t all bad. Sometimes they brought food and goods to starving colonies that weren’t allowed to trade with each other.” 

“Perhaps,” Mei speculated, “it’s the same thing here. If the prison administrators were doing a good job of running this place and rehabilitating prisoners, there probably wouldn’t be too many pirates. So the presence of pirates is a symptom of poor management. Maybe it’s a way to try and encourage administrators to do their job better. It’s tied into how the financial side of things operates.”

“How so?” Juan asked.

“You know that the prison world is shared between nations, right?”

“Of course.”

“Each nation competes with the others to house and rehabilitate prisoners. The better you do your job, the larger your share of the prison system’s income. The more prisoners you house, the more money you make.”

Juan got it on his own. “So by allowing prisoners the ability to escape, it hits the company’s bottom line.”

“Which encourages them to do better,” Cheeto continued, looking proud of himself for understanding.

Mei gave them a rueful smile. “Sorry. This is all super complicated. And I’m not sure how well any of all this works in practice. Though I do know there are questions and criticisms. Actually, that’s not true. I saw corruption first hand when I first got here. That’s why I ran away.”

“What about the ability to buy your way out of prison?” Cheeto asked. “That doesn’t make sense. I mean, how can a prisoner shorten their sentence?”

Lance answered. “It’s intended as a way to prove you’ve rehabilitated and can work hard like a regular citizen.”

The little Mexican scoffed. “Who could possibly earn enough at a regular job to buy their freedom?”

“I’ll bet when the feature was introduced,” Armand reasoned, “you probably didn’t need as much to buy your way out. Enough so that you could cut a quarter of your time off or something, maybe. And then, the prison companies realized that if prisoners were buying their freedom and leaving, it would lower profits. So they raised that figure so high that no one could ever afford it.”

“This world is so messed up.” Juan shook his head. “No, actually, both this world and the real world are so messed up.”

“Probably,” Mei agreed. “But we wouldn’t need this virtual world at all if people just stopped doing bad things in the real world, right?”

Lance laughed. “You say that like you’re not a criminal.”

“I’m not!” she replied before she could catch herself.

Cheeto smirked. “Yeah, right. Everyone says they’re innocent.”

She frowned, feeling defensive. The anger at the injustice of her situation was still hot within her, and the words poured out before she could stop herself. “I’m not a bad person. I’ve never done anything wrong. I’m a political prisoner. I was unjustly arrested for supporting democracy and government reform. My trial was a sham. I’m here because my corrupt government wanted me and others like me out of the way. They’re the ones who should be locked up, not me.”

Nobody responded to that right away. They watched her in silence, expressions turning stony. 

Mei bit the inside of her cheek, realizing she’d just made a terrible mistake. She was alienating herself by making her out to be better than them. Idiot. She hurriedly tried to reassure them. “I’m not judging anyone else. I’m just saying my situation is a little different.”

Unfortunately, she seemed to have killed the conversation. 

Lance looked up at the sky. “Getting close to dinner time. Armand, let’s see if we can find some fruit.”

Armand nodded and rose. 

Juan looked at Cheeto and pointed a thumb at the ocean. “Let’s fish.”

Cheeto jumped up and quickly made off towards a couple of crude fishing spears.

She could see that she’d offended them and felt guilty and foolish. Mei scrambled to her feet. “Guys! I can help.”

Armand just shook his head as he and Lancelot strode off into the jungle.

Juan and Cheeto ignored her entirely as they aimed for the ocean. 

She watched them go and felt pathetic. Things had been going so well. Why did her big fat mouth have to get her in trouble like that all the time?