“Love the sea, don’t you? All that bracing, fresh air.”
Mei came to a groggy awareness.
“That tell-tale salt of the ocean spray…”
A heavy splash of cold water hit her in the face, shocking her fully awake. She looked up, salt water stinging her eyes.
“Wake up, loves. Welcome to yer new home.”
She took a moment to focus. She was on the deck of a sailing ship, European, maybe fifteenth or seventeenth century, something like that. The age of sail. Said sails flapped overhead in an utterly blue sky, with a harsh, yellow sun glaring down on their heads. It was hot; damned hot.
She registered the sailor who’d thrown a bucket of sea water at her. He was gangly and in a blue uniform jacket and white pants. His name floated above his head in white letters: Percival.
A foot came at her from the side and kicked her hard in the ribs. All the air left her lungs and she fell sideways with a groan. In doing so, she registered the heavy, iron manacles on her wrists and the thick chains between them.
“Yer awake then now, eh?” The kicker laughed. The name floating over his head was Saxston.
It belatedly occurred to Mei that they were speaking English. Interesting. She must have been sent to one of the European prison servers. Not entirely a surprise with how many political prisoners were filling up servers in Asia with each cultural and anti-democratic crackdown. She didn’t mind the idea of not being under the thumb of the very people she’d fought against to land herself in this situation. However, the European servers were populated with far, far fewer political prisoners and a hell of a lot more real criminals. That would make it just as dangerous here, but in different ways.
Percival grabbed her long, black hair and painfully hauled her up to her knees. He spoke with a thick, olden English accent. “‘Nother Asian castoff. Yer government sure does like to lock up its own. Don’t ya worry though, lass. We’ll find a nice, sometimes uncomfortable, way for you to pass yer time in here.” He barked a cruel laugh.
Her heart sagged. Great, it looked like the prison guards in this part of the world weren’t going to be any kinder or more professional than the ones back home. There would be no tolerance for her unfair imprisonment. And it looked like they could act in any way they wanted within the system, which likely brought out the worst in many of the employees. So this experience was still going to be hell after all. On the upside, all those English lessons she’d been forced through as a child were now paying off. First day, first win. Her lips curved in a small smile.
Saxston guffawed. “Lookit that, Perc! Bitch likes the idea of sucking our cocks. She must be a smart one.” Another English accent. Natural or part of the game?
Mei turned her eyes towards Saxston, smile still on her lips. “I’m gonna kill both of you before I get off this ship.”
They both looked at her with wide eyes, then threw back their heads and howled with laughter.
“Get off this ship!”
Percival slammed his fist into her gut.
Saxston punched her in the face.
Her green HP bar appeared in the bottom, center of her vision and went down slightly. The next punch rocked her brain and the HP went down some more. She felt blood on her lips. Well, apparently pain was very, very real in this game world too. Sad, but to be expected. They were prisoners, after all. The powers in charge wanted them to suffer, and suffer they would.
Percival let go of her hair and dropped her to the wooden deck of the ship. “Lass, I like the balls on you— Wait, you ain’t one of those chicks with balls, are ya? Bah, never mind. Either way, that spirit you got is gonna be fun t’ break. And break it will. But do us here a favour and make it last, will you? Female prisoners are a lot rarer than males and we do enjoy our playtime.”
A man in crisp uniform and naval hat tromped up to them in shiny, black boots.
Both sailors backed off.
“She’s awake, Cap’n,” Percival said with a measure of respect in his voice.
“So I see.” The officer looked down at her with a mixture of bland contempt and disinterest. He swiped his hand and brought up a floating menu, then a document, which he scanned as he spoke. “I’m Captain Fowler. As per the terms of your incarceration, you are to serve the next twenty years in forced labour here within this Penal MMORPG. As you can see, you’ve been installed in the Colonial Realm, circa an eternal 1675. Due to overcapacity on your home country’s servers, your penal contract was purchased by the United Kingdom and thus you will be serving your time with us.”
Mei’s head still swum from the punches that had shaken her skull and her ribs ached from the kick. But she managed to hear and understand everything. That was good. Didn’t want to miss something important in the tutorial, right?
The captain droned on. “Your sentence will be served in full in the colony of Barbados, which we’ll be making landfall at tomorrow morning. You will devote yourself to whatever labour you are given, and subject yourself to whatever demands you are given. You will be obedient and harmless at all times or you will be punished, ruthlessly. And because your real body doesn’t undergo any real damage, and because you will simply re-spawn with each torturous death, we can really get away with causing all kinds of trauma which can have quite the scarring impact on your mind, so I’d strongly recommend avoiding that route.”
Percival sniggered. “Or don’t. Man’s go’a enjoy his job, right?”
Mei eyed him. Yeah, he definitely looked like the type who enjoyed bullying and hurting others. Which was probably exactly why he’d taken this job.
“Of course, as per regulations,” Captain Fowler continued, “if you are a model prisoner, you may reduce your sentence for good beha—“ He squinted and scanned the document in front of him. “Actually, no, I’m sorry. Your country has stipulated that the sentence will not be shortened for any reason. Well, how unfortunate for you. They do love to bludgeon their own people for daring to speak out against the government over there, don’t they? However, as the United Kingdom is a far more forward-thinking country, good behaviour here may result in a reconsideration of labour type and location.”
“That means,” Saxston clarified, “if ya take yer beatin’s quietly and be a good little wench, ya might end up serving in some governor’s mansion instead of slaving away in the cotton fields. Foldin’ laundry and getting bent over the dining table by yer master every other day is far preferable to losing fingers and arms in the fields and sweating yerself to death in the sun every other week.”
Mei slowly looked up at the Captain and caught his eyes with hers. “What’s the price of freedom?”
The captain raised a brow. “Excuse me?”
“Freedom. How much?”
He snorted with genuine amusement. “Quite right, how could I forget? As per the UK’s execrable Humanitarian Act, all prisoners, regardless of sentence and origin, do technically have the ability to purchase their freedom from the Penal MMORPG at any time. It’s considered proof of rehabilitation. The price for doing so is one million doubloons.”
Percival sneered. “To put that into perspective, a good, middle class urban family living in London in the game lives on about 50 gold doubloons a year. A poor London family on about 10 to 15. A family out in the colonies, where you’ll be workin’ lives on about 3 to 6 doubloons annually.”
“And how much do I earn for my labour?” she asked, knowing the answer would be pitiful.
Saxston grinned, his teeth twisted and yellowed. “About 1 doubloon per year.”
The captain continued in an amused tone. “All you have to do is work a million years in here and you can buy your way out. Enjoy the rest of your…oh, that’s right, you’d have died in here long before that. Or finished your official sentence and been released.”
“That’s not the only way to make money though, is it?” she challenged him.
He bowed his head. “Technically, no. Some prisoners are granted freedom within their colony for good behaviour, allowing them to take up jobs that pay more or even to set up as merchants for the player-driven and NPC economy. To the very best of my knowledge, however,” he added wryly, “no prisoner has ever amassed anything even close to a million doubloons.”
Mei grinned. “How about pirates. How much do they earn?”
The captain’s amusement faded quickly and he frowned. “Pirates,” he spat. “Another allowance of the damnable Humanitarian Act. Yes, the system does allow for it. But I shall tell you right now that pirates generally live short, ugly, miserable lives. Most prisoners do not stay in that line of work very long, and most soon come crawling back to one port or another and are locked up or chained up in the fields, or put to work on our ships. It’s far better to do as your told and eventually work your way up to farmer or servant or something far more mundane and pleasant than having canon balls tear off your limbs, wooden splinters cover your body like a porcupine, or undergoing one drowning too many. It does tend to drive more than a few mad, eventually, seeing how realistic this system is.”
Percival jumped in. “There’s also the matter of dying and its penalties.”
Captain Fowler nodded. “Quite. In order to buy your way out of the Penal MMO, you will need to amass coin. But with each death, you will lose a portion of the wealth that you have accumulated. Die too often in the violent throws of piracy and you’ll find yourself dying of starvation more often than not, without the coin to buy food. And that’s not even counting the fact that the thousands of fellow, bloodthirsty, selfish criminals all around you can murder you at any time and steal everything you have, just as easily as they could in the real world.” He gave her a cold smile. “To make matters much worse for you, even if, by some miracle, you were to escape this ship and become a pirate, if you are killed by one of the prison guards anywhere in the system, you will simply re-spawn in our possession once more, in those very chains you’re wearing now. If you die by any means at all within any of the prison administered colonies, you will respawn in our possession. So, one way or another, we’ll get our hands on you again sooner rather than later.”
“And if I die in free territory?” she boldly asked.
He gave her a dangerous look. “You’ll re-spawn within free territory, with a little less gold in your pocket.”
She grinned. “Then I guess it’s a pirate’s life for Mei.”