What’s in the Box?

Mei Ling Pirates Life Banner

Mei felt like everything was working against her to drag her underwater and despaired: her long hair, the manacles, her clothes. It was all so heavy in the water and her face kept falling under the surface, saltwater filling her nose and mouth, making her choke and sputter. She fought up again each time, a burst of kicking and one-armed swimming that got her to air again. Only for her to be dragged under shortly after. 

The burning ship brightened the whole area. The low, dark shape of land in front of her was still a shadow in the night, except for the beach, a glimmer of waves on sand. 

She couldn’t keep this up. So she tried changing tactics. She rolled over onto her back. Clutching the box and manacles to her chest with one hand, she kicked with both legs and tried to maintain some stability with one arm. It was slow going but somewhat easier to keep her mouth above water, though she still swallowed a fair amount. 

She kicked and kicked, her already abused body growing weaker. Her mind slowed and drifted. She stared at the fire, the ship falling to pieces, the flaming wreckage floating behind her. But she could not think. She could only kick, focusing all her energy on motion. On survival. Because if she stopped, she’d drown. 

It therefore came as some surprise when a wave lifted her up and then pushed her down and her head bumped into sand. 

Startled, she broke rhythm and sank, and her bum touched sand too. Letting the box and manacles go, she sat up, dead tired, panting. Her mouth tasted of brine. Her body was so heavy. But she was alive. She’d made it. 

A wave crashed into her, making her sputter. Grabbing her things, she dragged herself higher, up to the tide line. Then she collapsed. Her muscles and her lungs burned. The sand felt warm on her cheek. Red seaweed and seashells had piled up a few handspans from her face and stunk with the smell of decomposition that so many of us associate with the ocean. But she didn’t care. She was safe. 

For the moment. 

She gave herself bare minutes to recover. But with a deep feeling of resentment, she knew she couldn’t stay here. This island was an English base. Someone would see those flames and come running. Or sailing. Or rowing. Whatever. She needed to get into hiding. 

She put one palm on the sand and pushed, giving it everything she had to lift herself up and get in motion again. Then she was on all fours. Her sodden clothes clung to her frame. She rested, her stomach sick from swallowing seawater. Then she stood. So much effort. She wobbled in place for a few seconds. Steadying, she breathed deep and ignored the pain. Preparing to head inland where she might seek cover, she took one last look over her shoulder at the disaster she’d caused. 

And saw them in the water. Three men slowly followed the same path that she had. One was already nearing the beach. 

She cursed, long and hard. She glanced inland again. Should she just run? Hope she could lose them in the night? How big was the island? Would they hunt her down? 

To her surprise, the beach did not end in a wall of thick jungle. The land was low and there were only a few rolling hills nearby. They were covered in bushes and tall grasses, marred by the occasional rocky outcrop. Trees sporadically dotted the area, but not so much that they would qualify as a forest. There seemed to be little place to hide.

The men were closing in, nearing the shore. The one nearest her looked weary and battered. He must have taken damage in the blast.

Mei bent down and grabbed the manacles from the sand. She tightened her grip on one end and grimly marched towards the water. 

The sailor saw her coming. He wearily tried to change course, but he, too, was nearing his limits. So he was unable to avoid her as she plowed into the shallows towards him. 

She raised the manacles and brought them down on the man’s head. 

The blow made a wet thunk. The sailor’s head cracked open and plunged into the water: one down, two to go. Mei was beginning to understand just how deadly flails were and why they’d been a common weapon in ages past.

The next sailor had seen Mei take his crewmate out. He, too, tried to change course. But there was only so far that he could go and he was slower in the water than she was running on land. He tried to push himself, to make a break for it, swimming hard. 

Mei charged through the shallows. Her first swing missed completely. The second only hit the water. 

He flung himself away and scrambled away from her but found no purchase and fell forward in less than a meter of water. 

She gave him time to stand and then whipped him with the heavy chain, the weighted end pounding his back, his shoulder, then his neck. When he managed to rise a little, she smacked him right in the face. 

He fell backwards into the water, stunned. 

She moved forward and held him under by kneeling on him with one leg. It didn’t take long for the bubbles to stop coming out of his mouth. Two down. She got up off of him and turned. 

The last survivor reached the shallows about twenty meters away. From his clothing, it was easy enough to make out his identity: Captain Fowler. 

Mei groaned. No. Not him. Not after all that. Not after all she’d done. She was so close to escape and to survival. This wasn’t fair. A sob shook her. 

The captain crawled out of the waves. He turned his head and glared at her, the orange light of the burning ship illuminating the hatred on his face.

Another explosion, a small one, briefly lit the night afresh, capturing his attention. 

She wanted to give up. She wanted to collapse right there and sleep for a week. She wanted to go home, her real home in the real world. She wanted anything but this. 

No. Don’t give up, she scolded herself. That’s just your tiredness talking. Keep fighting. Because that’s what you are, a fighter. 

She put one foot forward. 

Yes. A fighter. You’ve always been a fighter. 

She put another foot forward, then another. 

Never give up. No retreat, baby. No surrender. 

She moved forward faster. She closed in on him. She swung the manacles at his head. 

He ducked and rolled out of reach.

She kept going and raised the weapon overhead. She brought the end down, wanting to hurt him, to destroy him and all that he and his kind were a part of. 

His arm moved and the manacles coiled around a blade. 

She blinked. He still had his sword! 

Captain Flower growled. He pushed her backwards and rose to his feet. The tip of the rapier lunged at her.

The manacles were still wrapped around the blade. She tugged the sword sideways and pulled him off balance. Grabbing the manacles with both hands, she fought back and they wrestled over the sword.

He had a free hand though and used it, punching her in the face, staggering her. “Just die, dammit.”

Yet she didn’t lose her grip. She couldn’t or she’d perish. Another punch snapped her head back and made her see stars that weren’t real. She couldn’t think or see clearly. So she threw her whole body forward in desperation and tripped him. They fell together into the water. She felt the sword slice into her shoulder and cried out, only to get a mouth full of salty seawater. 

He struggled beneath her, but he, too, had been hurt when the ship had exploded and exhausted by the swim. So his superior strength did little to help him. But then he let go of the sword and wrapped his arms around her head and neck and rolled sideways, bringing her under the water alongside him. 

Mei put her hands on his chest and tried to push and pull out of his grip but he was too strong. She tried to hold her breath, lungs aching, but knew that she couldn’t for more than a few seconds. She was too far gone already. 

The manacles and sword tumbled through the water between their bodies. 

Letting him have her head, she reached down and felt around the sand. The blade sliced her hand, the salt in the water stinging the open wound. She found the hilt. Grasping it, she battled to get the sword into position, then pushed the weapon into his belly. 

He lurched from the pain and squeezed her head tighter, whipping his whole body back and forth like an alligator trying to kill its prey, trying to dislodge the sword. 

But she put everything she could behind it. The blade penetrated clothing and skin and the fine, thin steel slid into his guts. 

The arms around her head loosened. 

She pushed herself out of the water and gasped for air. Shaking her head to clear the water from her eyes, she lunged forward, pushing the sword as far as she could. 

He managed to sit up and snarled at her. “I’ll hunt you down, bitch. And you will suffer.” Then his eyes hazed over. He exhaled his last breath. 

Weapon Acquired: Gilded Rapier

Weapon Class: Sword

Skill Level: None

Huffing and puffing, she stumbled up the sand and fell to her knees in a mass of slippery red seaweed. It was over. She’d done it. A few bubbles of laughter welled up and burst forth. Her against her captors. Against many. Her against an entire ship. And the system. And she’d beaten it. She grinned. 

Then her stomach heaved and she vomited all that saltwater back up. It took a while for the nausea to ease.

Looking down at her hand, she took stock of her new weapon. A gilded rapier, hmm? It looked pretty fine. The blade was longer than her arm and made of thin, polished steel. The hilt and handguard were gold. The handguard was stylishly shaped like rope frozen in place, thematically appropriate for a naval owner. A weighted pommel balanced the blade and looked like it could be used to bludgeon as well. She knew nothing about swords, but it seemed exquisite and it had belonged to a captain. And it had the name gilded before the rapier. So it might be something of a treasure, though gilded in this case likely only referred to the colour; she highly doubted it had any real gold. But definitely worth holding onto. She might even be able to sell it for a good sum later.  

She glanced back at the captain’s corpse, then up at the ship. Looking down the beach, she saw that she was at one end of the island. It looked like the ship had been about to go around that point. Their destination was probably around the bend somewhere. That’s where help would come from. Or these guys would respawn and come back. How long would that take? Minutes? Hours? She had no idea. But the captain might have already revived and could be sending troops towards her even now. 

She had to keep going. And she had to be smart. Returning to the body, she felt through Captain Fowler’s pockets but came up with nothing. Looking down at his clothes, then at herself, she figured a change of attire might be a good idea. She began unbuttoning his jacket. 

The jacket was navy blue (of course) with gold thread and gold buttons. It was the kind that hung open in the front, revealing the vest and pants beneath, both white and of much finer quality than the cheap uniform that Mei was wearing. It all looked uncomfortably warm for this climate but it would surely be more durable. There were holes where the sword had gone in, and blood around the holes, but the latter mostly washed out in the seawater. 

Mei shook her head. She was looting a corpse. Not just that, but stripping it of its clothes. Well, not the underwear. That was gross. She’d continue to go without. But this was just one more shock. How could she be going through all of this right now? She was just a journalist, not a soldier. It was surreal. 

Dressing in the captain’s pants, vest and jacket, she left him with his shirt and underthings. Unfortunately, he hadn’t carried the scabbard with him, so the sword was on its own. She took it. On second thought, she scrounged under the water for the manacles as well. They’d been very handy and might be again. The box she’d brought ashore was where she’d left it. She tucked it under her arm. Weapon in each hand, she wearily trudged through the firm, wet sand at the edge of the waves, away from the ship and away from where she thought reinforcements would arrive. 

The ship continued to burn away behind her. The farther she went, the darker the night became. Not that it was as dark as she would have imagined. She was an urban girl, born and raised in a mega-city with many millions of people. She’d spent very little time in the country. So it was with no small wonder that she gazed up above her and saw the moon bright in the sky. And around the horizon: stars. So many sparkling stars. The beach and the breaking waves glowed with silver light. It was soothing and beautiful. 

It was a pity that humanity had built cities with so much artificial light and that we rarely ventured out of them. Because nature was humbling and awe-inspiring. 

Looking ahead, the beach went on for what must be several kilometres or more. As far as she could recall, Barbados wasn’t a very big island. The soldiers would likely search the beach for her first. She’d need to hide. But this island was not made for such things. Where was the jungle? Why was there so much open scrubland here? After walking for a half-hour or more, despairing of finding any thick forest, she turned inland anyways and found a slight depression full of long grass. Her foot sank into dry sandy dirt and she stopped. 

She looked back. Her footprints along the beach were rather obvious. They stretched all the way as far back as she could see. Because the tide was going out, not coming in. Damn. 

There wasn’t much she could do with the long trail of footprints in the wet sand. But the beach itself was heavily littered with that red seaweed and other ocean castoff, which did obscure some of it. Going back down to the beach, she used her feet to sweep some of her footprints away and walked backwards off the sand so they couldn’t see exactly where she’d left the beach to go inland. It probably wouldn’t fool anyone, but it was something. Once she was back inside the tall grasses and onto firmer ground, she knew she’d be able to hide her path better. 

The thing about walking inland though? In bare feet? Ouch. Sharp grass, thorns, twigs, rocks. Lots of ouch. 

“Too bad he wasn’t wearing boots,” she grumbled, wincing at another sharp prick in the sole of her foot.

Her pace dramatically slowed. She had to pick her way very carefully. The area grew bushier, much of it high enough to hide her now.

How far should she go? If they did send soldiers after her, and they turned inland at the end of her footprints, they’d search the area for her. So she couldn’t stop too soon. But she had very little energy left to go on. 

So little, in fact, that her rubbery legs gave out and she pitched forward, cracking her head on a fallen palm trunk. She lay on the ground, unable to care or think about anything anymore. Sleep overtook her. 


Mei Ling!

Mei Ling!

Get up, Mei!

She startled herself awake, still hearing her mother’s barking voice from her dreams. She loved her mother. Really, she did. In a complicated fashion. It’s just that the older woman was rather…overbearing. One of the few upsides to being in prison was not being nagged on the phone every other day about her job, her love life, or her activism. And not having the older woman barge into Mei’s apartment every second Sunday, complaining about how messy it was and going through her bathroom cabinet and doing other invasive things. 

A degree of separation from her traditional, over-active mother wasn’t a bad thing. She experienced a tiny bit of guilty thinking that, but the feeling quickly vanished, replaced by the relief that came with the realization that her mother had only been in her dreams and was not on the island with her. Because if she had been, the woman would probably have nine different things to criticize already.

Mei’s nose twitched and she brushed it, knocking a small, black ant off. That made her realize that she was probably covered in creepy crawlies after spending the rest of the night and however many hours of the morning on the ground. 

She groggily pushed herself up and winced. Everything hurt. Especially the wound on her shoulder where the sword had gotten her. She only rose into a sitting position before needing a break. She squinted at the world around her. 

Sunlight bore down. This being the Caribbean, it was likely going to be doing that a lot. The single palm tree nearby did nothing to provide shade. It was already hot out. Was it mid-morning?

Her stomach rumbled. Loudly. How ungrateful and demanding. Didn’t it realize how much effort had gone into escaping last night? 

Escape. She’d done it. At least for now. She couldn’t help but smile and feel a little proud of herself for that.

Mei pulled herself up until she regained her feet and did so quietly. There could be soldiers out searching for her. Ears focused and eyes roaming, she studied the land around her through the tall grass. With all revealed in daylight, she was shocked by the vegetation, or the lack thereof. She’d always associated the Caribbean with jungle, not bushes and grasses. But this felt more like a green savannah. She paused and squinted at something in the distance. Was that a cactus? 

She’d have to keep to the thicker bushes and trees just in case the captain’s men had returned to the area. All seemed quiet. So she grabbed her gear before moving along. 

Food. And water. She desperately needed water. Ugh. Now that she’d thought of it, she was growing thirstier by the moment. But where to find something to drink? Well, water flowed downhill. How about finding valleys and low spots?

Mei normally liked to believe that she was somewhat graceful, even if that was hopeful thinking on her part. But now, at her worst, her movement through the Barbadian countryside was more akin to slogging or plodding, something that conveyed the idea of lumbering along in a most ungraceful manner. Because she’d never been this tired and sore and in outright pain in her life, and she had been in the world of fitness for years. 

Her mind couldn’t stay on task. It wandered, as did she, in random directions.

She was free for the moment. Against all odds, she’d managed to escape the prison system. Well, sort of. She was still on one of their islands. But she’d fought back and won a brief battle. Now, what about the war?

What should she do next? Should she try to find a way off the island? Could she survive here? That seemed unlikely. She wasn’t seeing bananas and coconuts and other easy food just growing all over. If she wanted to eat, she’d probably have to steal it from whatever farms and towns they had here. That meant possibly coming into contact with people. And that meant getting caught sooner rather than later. 

Was escaping the island a realistic possibility? If she stole a rowboat, how far could she get with it? That was the Caribbean Sea out there and the Atlantic Ocean beyond it. Weren’t there hurricanes in this part of the world? Lots of them? 

Trying to live alone on this island would probably only last a few days until they tracked her down. Or she died of thirst or starvation. She could turn herself in and spare herself that pain. Take whatever torture and punishment they dolled out and try to endure until they got bored and put her in a sugarcane field at some point. It would be difficult but also much easier than trying to survive on her own. At least she’d have food and water. 

Feeling the sun on her head and the heat of the day, heatstroke was probably inevitable yet again. If she died of dehydration, she’d just end up in chains anyway. Maybe she should spare herself a few miserable days?

Bah! She kicked a dead palm leaf in sudden frustration. She didn’t want to be chained. She wanted freedom. She wanted to decide her own fate. Why did that have to be so difficult? 

The ground tilted as she walked and she found herself stumbling downhill into a patch of darker vegetation and trees. She careened through this dangerously, without really thinking. Then the bushes parted, her feet splashed into water and she fell on her face in the muck. 

Fresh water!

Ignoring how dirty it was, she drank. Then she spit mud out and crawled forward to a cleaner patch and drank again. Only when she’d had her fill did she relax and drop into the water, laying on her belly, enjoying the coolness.

She was at the edge of a tiny lake, more of a pond, really. Thick bush and forest hemmed it in from all sides, forming a cool ring of shade. For the moment, she felt safe. Laughing, she rolled over onto her back to soak that side of her as well. Staring up into the branches overhead, she wondered if there were any monkeys or parrots or something. That would be fun to see. 

Something glinted in the shadows. No, two somethings. They blinked. 

Mei frowned and sat up. She rubbed her eyes and peered harder into the light shadows. 

The face of a spotted jaguar looked down at her. 

She froze. 

It seemed quietly relaxed, laid out like a house cat along a thick branch that was draped with vines, the animal’s mottled fur blending in very nicely with the dappled shade from the leaves of the bearded fig tree it was in. It watched her, very much at ease. 

A jaguar. 

She tightened her hand on the hilt of the rapier. 

White fur covered its belly, with yellow-orange on its sides and back, and black spots everywhere. Golden eyes watched her and then it yawned, revealing large, yellow teeth as big as her fingers. It didn’t look like an adult. At least, she didn’t think it was. She’d seen a jaguar in a zoo once and she was pretty sure that it had been larger. Still, this one definitely looked large enough to hurt her. 

It made no move, only watched her. Yet it was likely up in that tree because it was waiting for stupid prey, like her, to come down to the edge of the water and drink, as she’d just done, before pouncing. She pictured it hitting her from behind, the front claws latching onto the top of her head, digging into her eyes. The back claws would rake down the length of her back, stripping skin and flesh from her bones. The powerful jaws would clamp down on her skull and crush it, killing her. 

Breathing faster, pulse racing, she swallowed. She picked up the box and manacles and inched backwards, deeper into the water. 

The jaguar watched her go. It made no move to stop her. Probably because it could just track her down whenever it wanted to. Whenever it was hungry. 

Please don’t be hungry right now…

She backed up into the pond until the water was too deep to stand in. Then, just like she had in the ocean, she swam on her back all the way to the opposite shore. 

The jaguar relaxed where it was, seemingly uninterested. Hopefully, it would remain there for a good long while. Like forever. Forever would be a good amount of time. Or until she got off the island. Then it could eat all the soldiers it wanted and she’d cheer it on. From afar. 

Mei got out of the water and pushed through the bush. She kept an eye out behind herself but spotted nothing as she quickly made her way far away from the beast. 

Trouble was, she was going to need water on a regular basis. If she came back, if she remained in the big cat’s territory, she was never going to be safe. 

A problem for tomorrow. Right now, she needed food. She roamed far and wide, covering a couple of kilometres. The lay of the land naturally led her back towards the ocean again, without her realizing this until she saw the water. She discovered a very small bay. Just off the beach stood the remains of human habitation, now overgrown and falling apart, likely years old. There were a half dozen shacks that were probably former houses and some fencing, several fruit trees. She recognized guava, sugar apple, and sapodilla. They were in orderly rows that told her they’d been planted for cultivation. 

With some difficulty, she dumped her gear on the ground and climbed up into the branches of the closest sapodilla. Then she remembered that the jaguar had been hiding in a tree and panicked, looking in all directions until she was sure that she was alone. The fruits hanging around her were light brown and growing in clusters. Each was bigger than her fist. Grabbing one, she twisted and tore it from the branch. 

The skin was brown. Inside, the flesh was yellowish orange and large black seeds starred the center. With her fingers, she tore the skin away and then dug in with her teeth. A grainy texture similar to pear crept over her tongue and the taste was exceptionally sweet and malty. So good! She devoured the fruit and had another before picking a juicy guava from another tree that finally sated her. 

Refreshed, she decided that it was time for a break. She was still extremely weak from the previous day. Still keeping an eye out for the jaguar, she sat with her back to the tree, facing the brilliant blue ocean, and rested. She let out a big sigh and closed her eyes for a moment. 

The next thing she knew, she was waking up. And it was now afternoon. Feeling a bit slow in the head, she gradually roused herself. Then she recalled the jaguar and marines and snapped to attention. She checked in all directions, then in the tree overhead. She was still alone. No jaguar and no one coming to capture her. She chided herself for being sloppy, though she knew she was just worn out and couldn’t help herself. Besides, the rest had done her some good. 

Her gaze wandered and came across the dark, wooden box that she’d taken from the captain’s quarters. She huffed a short laugh. Here she was, dragging that thing around and she hadn’t the faintest idea of what was even inside. She brought it onto her lap. A pair of silver clasps held the box shut tight. She slid them open and lifted the lid. 

Inside, on a bed of deep blue velvet, rested two beautiful flintlock pistols. 

Mei gasped. They were definitely not something you’d give to any old soldier. Come to think of it, the marines on the ship had all carried muskets. These pistols were probably custom made. They were as long as her forearm. The wood was pale, with gray veins. The butt was capped with black iron in the shape of a lion’s head. It looked heavy and solid enough to be used as a club and do serious damage. The barrel was smooth, silvery steel and there was a flintlock, an old firing mechanism that meant that the pistol could fire only one shot before it needed to be reloaded with ball and powder. 

She gently picked one of the pistols up. 

Weapon Acquired: Lionhead Flintlock Pistol (2) [unique]

Weapon Class: Pistol

Skill Level: None

She grinned from ear to ear. Well well. Wasn’t this a glorious surprise? She pointed it at herself so that she could look down the barrel and see if it was loaded—

And then promptly turned it in the other direction when she realized just how stupid that was. What if it actually was loaded? She laughed at her ignorance, pointed it at the ocean and fired. 

Bang! A cloud of white smoke enveloped the gun.

Mei was so startled that she almost dropped it. Shaking her head from the noise, she blinked and looked at the weapon. A countdown timer had appeared in the air over the flintlock device. It started at two minutes. She thought about that. Checking the box, she saw no sign of bullets or wadding or gunpowder. Perhaps, in the prison system, none of that was necessary. Guns simply had a timer instead? That would save work and it probably made things much easier for the guards, rather than training them to be real experts in loading these old guns. 

She waited for the timer to count down and fade away. When it had, she pointed and fired again. Another sharp blast and a puff of white gunsmoke filled the air. 

She nodded, happy. That would make things much more manageable. Learning how to load these old weapons and finding ammo would have been challenging to say the least. But now, she was well armed. Although, with a two-minute timer on each, she probably shouldn’t get into too many shootouts. And she’d better learn to use that rapier. 

Speaking of which… She picked the beautiful, gilded sword up too. Holding gun and sword in hand, and wearing the captain’s fine, blue jacket, she stood. The ocean breakers crashed before her. The Caribbean sun beat down. The breeze rustled the leaves of the fruit tree overhead. 

She was free. She was armed. She was filled with hope.