The capital of the island of Barbados was a bustling place called Bridgetown. It was nestled into the south-west corner of the small, relatively flat island. The town itself rested on the north side of where the Constitution River widened, formed a swampy area, and then spilled itself into the Caribbean Sea, forming a small, elongated inlet just large enough to house several fishing boats.
The colonial town in the year 1675 was only large enough to support a couple of dozen streets, only the main ones cobblestone, and perhaps two hundred buildings, at most. But it didn’t need to be a dense, urban center because most of the island’s inhabitants were scattered over the many plantations that made Barbados the premier exporter of sugar in the whole of the Caribbean. Indigo, flowers that produce a dark blue dye commonly associated with blue jeans, was another important crop.
In real world history, tobacco had also been grown here, but that had been replaced in the the virtual world with fields of flowers and vegetables that served as hot spots for pollinators like bees in an attempt to promote the idea of sustainable agriculture, values and practices those working here might carry over into the real world. The vegetables did more than just sustain prisoners. One gains a greater appreciation for where food comes from when you’re the one slaving away at growing and harvesting it.
Bridgetown and the Constitution River were on the north side of Carlisle Bay, within which, the Breaker, a two-masted brig with sixteen cannon, was usually anchored. Now, however, there was only the much smaller sloop, Grace, which was tied up at the pier next to Fort James, one of two little bastions guarding the entrance to the river inlet, the other being Fort Willoughby.
Captain Fowler’s office was located in the second floor of the stone building at the rear of Fort James, next to the barracks. On one side of the wide room, he had a view of the beautiful blue sea washing up against the artificial ramparts on which they’d arranged several cannon. The other side of the office faced an important street, one heavily used for transporting goods to the main pier. The street was lined with large, boxy buildings, all in white or other bright colours.
The walls of the office were tastefully decorated with framed sea charts as well as two paintings, both of famous sea battles. There was a map table, a desk, and a sitting area with two couches, two chairs, and a tea table for guests. Some might have called the office spartan, but Fowler preferred it to the overly ornate spaces some people carved for themselves.
He was at peace that morning, diligently going through some paperwork and feeling productive.
Unfortunately, Governor Harrington swept into the room with one of Fowler’s male secretaries hot on his heels, the latter inquiring as to refreshments or snacks with calm dignity.
“A rum and ginger, Barnes,” the impatient Governor ordered as he situated his large body on the cushions of a wicker couch.
Barnes bowed his head and glanced up at his commanding officer.
Fowler, suppressing a twinge of irritation at having to deal with the governor, gave a quick shake of his head from his desk, as expected, allowing Barnes to step away to fetch the drink. The captain didn’t imbibe alcohol in the middle of the day, nor on duty. The governor, however, was rarely without a glass of something or other. Fowler unhurriedly stepped away from his desk and came to join the governor, choosing a seat on the opposite couch. “How can I he—“
“That woman. Have you caught her yet?” The governor didn’t even look the captain in the face when he asked.
Fowler’s jaw flexed at the rude interruption. “No sir.”
“And my jaguar is still missing.” He brushed some lint from his red jacket.
There was a short interruption as First Officer Dwayne Williams entered, greeted them both, and sat in a chair between the two couches. Williams was efficient, competent, and gunning for a captaincy, though he was young.
Fowler found him a very useful subordinate, though the youth and ambition of the first officer made the captain rather more aware of his age than he wanted. It’s not that Fowler was old by any means, and he was still easily the most dominant swordsman in the region.
But the presence of Williams made it clear that Fowler was no longer an up and coming force, but one who was established. And that, naturally, brought about a hint of one’s future mortality. While Fowler refused to indulge in a mid-life crisis of any significant kind, he did not enjoy the feeling of having arrived at mid-life. It implied that there was no more room to grow and that one should start looking down the other side of life’s hill. He hated that.
Barnes came in a moment later and placed the governor’s drink on the table before him.
The governor waved a chubby hand to shoo Barnes away and, with the other, picked up the glass of dark rum and ginger beer. There was no ice, of course, as that technology didn’t exist in this time period, something which just about everyone lamented at one time or another in this climate. Harrington finally lifted his gaze and speared Fowler with it. “You’d think, after such an embarrassing fiasco, you’d have wanted to clear things up a little faster, hmm? Bring the perpetrator to justice?” He took a sip.
Fowler replied, somewhat stiffly. “We’ve extensively searched the island, Governor. There’s no sign of her. And no one has reported seeing the cat either.”
“Then where is she?” Harrington demanded. “And the beast for that matter. I highly doubt either of them went for a swim and never came back.”
Williams cleared his throat. “A carib attack was reported recently. They struck a small plantation up north. There’s a chance they may have abducted her along with two prisoners and two residents. We are investigating.”
“Perhaps the cat went with them,” Fowler muttered. He had far more important things to do than chase down escaped pets. Even if they were a public danger.
The governor tsked. “Damn indians. They’re such a nuisance.” He eyed the window with obvious intent. “There’s a merchant vessel in the bay.”
A sinking feeling plunged through Fowlers gut. “The Occlutus, yes.”
Harrington’s eyes narrowed at Fowler. “You weren’t thinking of commandeering that in order to raid the Carib village, were you?”
Fowler paused. “It would only take two or three days—“
“You will not!” the governor snapped, shaking his jowls. “You know damn well that our request for a new warship — to replace the one that you lost — has to be processed in the virtual world before they can build and send us a new vessel. We need a new ship as fast as possible and I’ll not waste a single day.”
“Surely, sir,” Williams put in, “a few days wouldn’t be a bother?”
The governor glared and spoke with mild outrage. “A few days? And what new fuck up might you cause then? A storm comes by and sinks it and then we have no way to order our new ship. We’d have to wait, what, two weeks for the next merchant due?”
“Three,” Williams admitted.
Harrington threw a hand in the air. “A month wasted! That’s the same reason you will not send the sloop. Imagine if you lost that one too and we had nothing at all on the water. You have, at least, put cannon on the blasted thing, as I ordered?”
The captain nodded. “Yes. A single 9-pound bow chaser in the front and two swivel guns on the bow.”
The governor frowned. “That’s it? That’s rather pathetic, isn’t it?”
Williams answered. “Respectfully, sir, the sloop is simply too small to hold more. It’s not build for it. It’s just a work sloop, not a sloop of war. It’s closer to a fishing vessel than a military one. More than a single cannon and it would shake itself apart from the firing.”
Harrington harrumphed. “Well, we need the sloop for defence and the merchant to carry our request. What else can we send after the Caribs and that escaped prisoner?”
Fowler pondered. “It’s only 200 kilometres to St. Vincent, which is where they have their village. We could send fishing vessels, but they’re all small rowboats, specifically so that they’re not used to escape.”
Harrington made an impatient wave. “Build a raft with a sail then.”
The first officer cleared his throat. “Too slow. Too hard to control. I’m afraid that wouldn’t work very well.”
But the raft idea had Fowler thinking. “How about a catamaran?” he suggested to Williams more than the governor, as the latter was useless. “How many longboats do we have? We take two and put boards between them. Outfit it with a sail. Hell, we might even be able to paddle as well depending on how it’s built.”
Williams’s brows rose. He had something of an interest in the craftsmanship behind sailing ships. “Interesting idea. Might be that we could get up to 8 kilometres per hour? That’s a…twenty five hour trip. A day, give or take.”
Fowler nodded, taking to the idea even more. “Worst case scenario, we load it with extra weight from more prisoners than expected and the sea is rough, so it takes two days each way. I can live with that.”
But the governor frowned. “Two long boats means we’re less able to attack any ships that invade the bay and start taking shots at us. We’ll only have the sloop for boarding or fending anyone off.”
Fowler shrugged. “A risk I’m willing to take. Longboats would only be useful at night as a sneak attack and even then it would be a long shot with very little chance of success. We can use them for the catamaran. It won’t be a long trip and the longboats will be back in a few days. We should be able to fashion something that can carry, what, ten marines? And still be able to transport a half dozen prisoners, including Ling. We haven’t raided St. Vincent in almost six months, so there might be a few living in the jungle.”
It was well known that the Carib tribes liked to capture prisoners of war, some of whom were eaten. Others were simply tortured for fun and females used as wife-slaves. Colonies regularly harvested respawned prisoners now and then from spawning points in neutral territories.
Harrington gave a sharp nod. “Good. Hopefully there are a lot more prisoners over there as well. We need to start making up for our losses.” He finished his drink and bellowed at the door for a refill. Then he looked thoughtful as he put down his empty glass. “What about the Caribs? Maybe we should take the opportunity to just wipe the buggers out.”
Williams looked almost apologetic. “We are technically prohibited from such things. Only defensive violence is allowed against indigenous peoples.”
“One of the humanitarian changes to this world,” Fowler added, “Same as slavery being outlawed.”
The governor made a sour sneer. “Yes. Unfortunate.” Then he snorted with genuine amusement. “Although, really, what’s the difference? The prisoners may be classified as indentured workers but they’re still slaves in all but name.”
The captain was not interested in philosophical debates with the governor, a man he did not respect as either intelligent or competent. He turned to Williams. “The Caribs haven’t been hit in a while, as far as I recall. Let’s plan for ten marines. The catamaran should have no problem with that number.”
“Of course not,” Williams agreed. “Each longboat alone could support that. We’ll have plenty of allowance to build a mast and sail, carry a week’s provisions, and likely support as many prisoners as we need to haul.”
Barnes entered with a second drink and Harrington took it out of his hands.
“Damned cannibals are such a pain.” The governor gave the two officers a crafty look. “We could, of course, never officially sanction targeting the Caribs. But if, for example, we were performing a prisoner rescue mission and they became violent, and all the male warriors happened to die. Well, I wouldn’t be upset. And that would preclude any future raids from that island for quite some time, wouldn’t it?” He sipped from his glass.
The first officer looked uneasy. He was relatively new to his position and to the virtual world in general. “Doesn’t the oversight committee monitor the various tribes?”
Harrington snorted with amusement once again. “No one monitors this world with any real zeal. Just make sure the primitives draw first blood. As long as you spare the women and brats, and return with real prisoners, I can deal with any complaints.”
Williams looked puzzled. “Why do they even care if the Carib tribes are killed? Aren’t they all NPCs? Artificial intelligence?”
The governor shrugged, uncaring. “Most are AI. There are some tribes though that house indigenous prisoners. Mostly, however, it’s just the optics of it. They don’t want a world in which that sort of thing happens, even digitally. Makes us look bad to the public. And that hurts share prices.”
“But the public can’t see in here,” Williams countered. “They have no idea what goes on.”
Fowler nodded. “Which is why it’s generally easy to cover it up when they die. And everything else that goes on here. But committee members do change and every now and then you’ll get some new bleeding heart on the oversight committee who is full of righteousness and who can’t be bought off. Or, at least, not in regards to this. Most of them don’t give a damn what we do to prisoners. They turn a blind eye to everything else that goes on, but specifically check to see how the Caribs are faring. They say they worry that allowing violence against indigenous people’s in here will translate to violence in the real world when prisoners and guards leave this place. They don’t want this place to become a breeding ground for racism.”
The governor barked a laugh at the absurdity of that. Racism, nationalism and all kinds of prejudices were rampant within the virtual world.
“They why have the Caribs and others at all?” Williams wondered.
Fowler sat back in his chair. He was more comfortable discussing such things with Williams than the fat man across from him. “Cultural preservation. Or cultural promotion, more likely. This is the digital age and everyone wants attention. I guess it also helps encourage prisoners to stay in their colonies. Provides an outside threat which encourages them to stick together as well as value the protection that we provide. It’s part of why this world is set in 1675 and not the modern era, where we’ve wiped out hostile tribes and deadly animals. This world is meant to be more dangerous to encourage cooperation.”
“It also provides a challenge to the competition between national corporations,” Harrington explained. “Sort of like random barbarians in a civilization-building game.”
Williams gave a small smile at the comparison. “Kind of strange they left them as cannibals though. You’d think they would have edited that part of their history out. Isn’t that what all cultures do when it comes to recording the parts of their history that make them look bad?”
The captain smiled as well. “Makes them scarier, I guess. And historical accuracy and all that.” Then he grew more serious. He had better things to do than sit around chatting all day. “Regardless. Start building that catamaran. I want something seaworthy as soon as possible.”
First Officer Williams immediately stood. “Aye, Captain.” He nodded to the other guest, “Governor,” he said and departed, returning to his duties.
Governor Harrington gave Fowler a shrewd look. “You won’t be joining the mission to St. Vincent, Captain.”
He frowned. “But—“
“No.” Harrington leaned forward and pointed a finger in the captain’s face. “The senior officer is not going to abandon this fort when we’re already down an entire ship. What happens if you die over there? That’s where you’ll respawn. Which means we’ll have nobody in command over here.”
“First Officer Williams—“
“Your first officer might be champing at the bit to take charge, but he doesn’t have your experience and we’ll need it if the French or Spanish show up with nothing but our cannons to hold them off. Spain was sniffing around only days ago, were they not? They saw the wreck in the water, didn’t they? No doubt they’re racing back home to deliver the news. I want you here and ready for them if they decide to raid us. Or worse, decide we’re ripe for the taking.”
Most colonies lived in perpetual fear of being taken over by other nations. It could be done and it would mean a massive lost of revenue and prestige for the nation losing a colony, and just as much to gain for the other. It didn’t happen often as it led to large-scale retaliation, but if Spain suddenly decided they wanted to go to war with England, sacking or capturing Barbados would be a very profitable way to announce it.
Captain Fowler internally sighed, but he understood. He would remain in Bridgetown, that was fine. He’d have his revenge once that bitch was back here and in chains. And then he’d make the most of it.
Governor Harrington drained his glass and stood. “Oh. And when you have this Mei Ling back in custody, bring her to my manor before you get any ideas.”
Fowler looked up, startled. It was as if the other man had read his mind. “She will be punished,” he insisted. He was not going to lose his chance at that just because the fat bastard in charge of this place wanted another whore for his harem.
The governor sighed and waved at his concern. “Yes yes, you’ll get her back. But I’d like to enjoy her company for a while before it gets to that point. Unsullied and unmarked.” A sly smile crept over his lips, likely inspired by his thoughts over what he’d do to Ling on her return.
“She will be fully restored each time she dies,” Fowler argued. He did not want to have to wait days or weeks for justice while Ling was in the governor’s hands. As horrid as that might be for her, she’d bested Fowler, and so Fowler’s revenge was personal and impatient.
Harrington raised a single brow. “The system does make mistakes and occasionally allow injuries to remain, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” the captain reluctantly admitted.
“Besides, re-spawning doesn’t affect the mind. And I’d like her before you torture her eight different ways from Sunday and turn her into a raving lunatic.” He looked over in curiosity. “Is she pretty by chance?”
Fowler grudgingly allowed that, “She’s not ugly. Perhaps not even plain.”
Harrington smiled, pleased and headed for the door. “Good good. I do hope she’s one of those spoiled types with an over-inflated ego from having men grovel at her feet all her life. Always enjoyable teaching a modern woman some much-needed humility.” This time his sly smile was twice as creepy.
The captain very deliberately didn’t ask what the governor was planning on doing with Ling. Fowler had no interest in such cruel fetishes. He and his wife, Emma, were perfectly happy with a more, what did you call it, vanilla lifestyle? Well, with the occasional second flavour added to the mix. Which was very nice because it meant that he had no need to visit one of the local whore houses to fulfill any desire for variety. One of the many reasons he valued his wife so much.
He watched the governor depart and then strolled over to the window overlooking the sea. Anticipation filled his veins. The search for Mei Ling had frustrated him as it had dragged on without results. While they could only guess that she’d been taken to St. Vincent, it felt good to be going in a new direction. He was a man of action and far preferred to act than to sit around waiting.