Pirate's Life

24 – Fireside Debate

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Juan

That evening, the four sat around the fire pit, staring into the crackling flames. Fish bones turned black and crumbled in the glowing coals. A few skins from the local fruit neatly sat in a pile; the camp was kept clean and orderly at all times. He was a bit fastidious like that and he was glad to see that others, particularly Armand, were the same. Only Cheeto needed a little prodding, too used to living a lazy life with the careless shortsightedness of a teen.

They had a refuse area in the jungle where they dumped stuff so that it didn’t rot next to camp. Sometimes skins were used as toilet paper as well. Latrines were regularly dug in a semi-distant section of the beach, a few branches used for secure footing so they could squat over the hole in the sand. They dug the holes at low tide and then covered the deposits with sand so that when the ocean returned, it slowly cleaned the waste away over time.

The mood around the fire that night was both sombre and tense. They all had a lot to think about. Because of that woman; she had brought chaos into their lives, as messy and brutal as any hurricane. 

Mei had surprised him. Women were rare in this world. Most criminals and the people who guarded them were male. And she hadn’t had the typical rough exterior most prisoners had. When she’d strolled into camp the first time, she’d been a breath of fresh reality, as if they had been regular people once more. 

And then had come that ugliness with the gangster, the blood and death taking him right back to the worst day of his life. And on Mei’s heels had followed the woman who’d been raped. Then a jaguar of all things, looking wary but for some reason not killing her or anyone else, just standing there with her looking for all the world as if it was normal for a giant hunting cat to do that.

Their peaceful island lives were no more. 

He sighed into the communal silence. “She’s like something out of a bad soap opera.”

No one had to guess who he was talking about. 

“Nah,” Cheeto contradicted him with an admiring grin. “More like the movies. She’s all Hollywood, swinging that sword, pistols blazing. Did you see those things? No cheap guard weapons, hey?” He gestured sword and guns with his hands. “I think she’s badass.”

Lance grunted. “She’s gorgeous, but crazy. And unbelievably violent. I never saw that coming.” He shook his head as if still in disbelief.

Armand nodded sagely. “She is a woman who chooses to be strong enough to fight for what she believes in. And who is willing to enact justice with her own hands. I respect that. Very much.”

“Exactly!” Cheeto crowed. Out of all of them, he was the most carefree and spirited. Then again, he was still very young. And the same things were not at stake for him as for Juan or the others. “Men, she cut that pendejo down, cold. Whoo!”

Juan agreed with the Frenchman. “I can admire her character.” Then he shared a look of solidarity with Lance, his lips curving upwards. “And admire her other features too.”

Lance smiled for the first time in a while at that. Then the humour melted back into seriousness. “You’re all crazy. That scene with the gangster? Odessa? I don’t know how you guys went through with that. Bad guy or not, that was just cruel and horrible. I can’t imagine…” He looked at Armand. “…doing what you did.”

Armand shrugged. “It was necessary. And it was right. This is a prison, yes? A place where people are punished for their crimes. And was he not guilty?”

“Fucker had it coming,” Cheeto enthusiastically agreed, kicking back and leaning on his hands. “For what he did to Mei especially. Shit, can you imagine being burned to death like that? That’s some nasty nightmare stuff right there. I can’t believe she’s still sane.”

“And you saw the woman she brought out of the jungle,” Juan added. “Women are to be treasure, protected by men. Tying her up and raping her like that? He got off lightly.” If there was something Juan was passionate about, it was that violence against women was unforgivable. After all, with his past, how could he not believe that?

“Well,” Lance continued, “he’ll come for you guys.”

Armand nodded and shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. “Tomorrow morning he will respawn, I think. But I doubt he would attack us during the day. Not one versus four, us armed and alert for him. If he comes, it will be in the night.”

“Great,” Lance muttered. 

Then Cheeto said what they’d all been thinking and not saying. “You guys think the marines are really gone show up soon?”

Juan looked over at him. “If you believe that she actually blew up a huge ship all on her own.”

Armand looked Juan in the eyes. “What reason does she have to lie about something so impressive?”

It was Juan’s turn to shrug. “We’re in prison. Everyone in here is a liar, are they not? Maybe she was just trying to impress us.”

“It seems a rather outlandish lie and Mei did not strike me as such a person as would make up such things for her benefit.” Armand took a breath and looked around. “Assuming she was telling the truth, we are faced with a question, yes? Are we going back to prison life? Or joining her to fight for our freedom?”

Lance seemed the most against the idea of going with Mei and he continued in that vein now. “Fighting would be insane,” he spoke hotly. “How could we possibly win? They’ll outnumber us and outgun us. If she blew up a ship, they’ll probably send a legion after her.”

“Maybe they won’t,” Cheeto suggested. “I mean, why bother if they’re just chasing one person? Might only send a small crew, like three or four. Cheaper sending pros to do the job than an army. You only send the army if you’re sending a message.” Spoken like someone with a lot of gang experience. 

Armand raised a hand. “Let us not debate that part yet, the whether or not fighting them is possible. In a vacuum, regardless of the odds of making it happen, would you rather be living a free life within this world, or the life of a prisoner? This is what we must each decide first.”

Cheeto screwed his face up. “I don’t know. I’m in here for life. I ain’t ever getting out. So a free life would be nice. I could laze around like this for the next fifty years. But turning pirate? Landing in a cage and going nuts? Hell no, chico. Es loco.”

Lance adamantly shook his head and spoke firmly. “I’ve only got about three and a half years left. And I’m not about to do anything that adds onto that. I want out of here and back to the real world.”

Armand gave him a challenging stare. “You were rich and famous. Big name in tech, on the cover of magazines. Probably very easy just to go back to your old life, oui? You corporate types only care about money, I think. When you get out of here, you have your own fortune stashed away, so you can live like a king. Or go back into business. Even with years in here, someone will invest in you again. Life is easy for you.”

“Fuck you,” Lance spat, defensive.

Juan’s brows rose. The American and Frenchman generally got along as well as Cheeto and Juan did. So it was somewhat surprising to see a rift open between them. Yet the violence and the possibility of escape and freedom had really seemed to change Lance’s disposition. He was normally laid back and very friendly. Now he felt on edge and angry in a way Juan had yet to see. 

Lance stood and threw angry glances at the rest of them. “Fuck whatever you guys think of me. You think I can just go back to my old life after what happened to me? I’m fucking tainted. You know it too, all of you. You saw it when you got arrested, when you went through trial. The way nobody looks at you the same way anymore. As if they never knew who you really were. As if you can’t be trusted. As if you’re scum and everything out of your mouth is a lie now.” His eyes had gone red rimmed and he kicked the dirt and turned his back to the light. 

Armand, ever the calm and dignified one, went on as smoothly as ever, speaking softly. “I’ve got more than eight years on my sentence. I’d prefer not to spend them all on a sugar plantation, slaving away. Or cleaning toilets. Yes, there are risks to escape, but I am not a young man anymore who is always looking ahead to an endless future that is full of potential. I’m over the hill. The second half of my life lies before me, the end in sight, and it is terrifying.” He paused. “I don’t want to waste what time I have left when there’s a chance that I could make something decent of it. Even in this place.”

“Then why were you doing whatever criminal shit landed you here in the first place?” Lance snapped, frowning and verbally lashing out.

But Armand just smiled. “In point of fact, I was trying to quit. Only instead of quitting, I got greedy on the way out. And incautious. That stupidity cost me.” He looked down at the dirt between his feet, humble. “When I first got taken to this island by the Caribs, I thought it would be a temporary respite and I’d be back in chains soon enough. So I didn’t give it much thought. I just enjoyed my free time while I had it. I enjoyed it even more when you all began appearing. And still, I assumed I was destined to return to Grenada and carry on as I had the past few years.” He looked up again and this time his eyes shone, and not just from the firelight. “But now there’s a chance for more. A chance to spend the rest of my sentence living right.”

Lance shook his head, annoyed, but finally sit back down. 

“What do you mean, living right?” Juan asked, curious.

“I have lived much of my life the wrong way. I’ve done bad things. I regret this, very much. It took me a long time to figure out that I did not want to be such a person. But I messed up again instead of going after that future the right way. Because I hadn’t truly learned. So now, I want to prove to myself that I can live a good life. And to truly do that, I must have some semblance of freedom. It must be my choice to do the right thing when given the chance.”

“You can do that on a colony,” Juan argued. “That’s the whole point of them. Rehabilitation.”

Armand dismissed that idea with a wave. “No. There you are an indentured worker, a slave. You live according to someone else’s will. There is no freedom of choice. And there is no reward for being a good person. Merely less pain. Perhaps, if this place had been operated as intended, as Mei spoke of the theory behind it, then maybe it would pay to play along within the system and I would be happy to do so. But this place has become corrupted. Those meant to show us a better path instead bully and torture us so that they can feel powerful. If I have no choice but to live in this virtual world, then I would prefer it to be in a way where I can make my own choices, where I can live my own life, and where I can find happiness, both for myself and for others.”

“It’s a nice dream,” Juan admitted. “But I don’t think it’s very realistic in here.”

Lance was also not at all convinced. “If you turn pirate, you’ll spend your days looting and killing. That’s not a better life, that’s thuggery,” he pointed out. “It’s what half the people in here are being punished for. And what you wanted to run from.”

“Ah, but piracy is not the only option,” Armand argued with a waggle of a finger. “I could get a job as a regular citizen in St. Mary’s, a free haven protected by pirates. Or open a restaurant in Port Royal, where they let pirates roam free and do as they like because the English so desperately need them to hold off the Spanish armanda from taking their prized island of Jamaica.” 

“How’s living like that that any different than being in a colony?” Cheeto questioned.

Armand nodded towards Lance. “You worked in a colony, didn’t you? You played by their rules and earned a better job, better life. And they took your achievements away from you. Put you back on the bottom, robbing you of all your hard work, for no good reason.” 

“Yeah.”

“Every day in the colony, we all step lightly lest we catch someone’s eye and get beaten. Or killed for fun just so we can respawn and then someone can do it to us again and again. If we lived in one of the free ports, we could live normal lives.” His gaze rose up to the stars and his voice took on a more dreamy quality. “If I get that chance, I can live the life I should have lived before. I can be an honest person. I can do good instead of evil.”

The hope that Armand instilled in Juan’s chest in turn also inspired self loathing. He gritted his teeth. “I don’t deserve that kind of life.”

Armand lowered his gaze and his eyes narrowed as he studied Juan. “You want to be punished. You deserve to spend all your time here in misery.” It was not a question, but a statement of Juan’s feelings.

Unfortunately, it was also the truth or close to it and Juan flinched inside at the accuracy. As if he wasn’t already reliving the past often enough, memories, forever burned into his mind, now pierced him all over again. When he spoke, his voice was rough with emotion. “The one I hurt will spend far longer than my sentence suffering for what I did. They’ll spend the rest of their life living with what I did to them. And so much of what should have been possible for them, never will be.” His voice hardened with his conviction. “That’s my responsibility. It’s only fitting that the rest of my life should be paid in kind. And that good things shouldn’t be possible for me either.”

“You regret what you did?” Armand asked.

“Every day,” he instantly replied. And he did. He hated himself for his mistake, for his temper, for his weakness and failings that had led to that one, awful moment.

“Kind of difficult to make up for it in here, isn’t it?”

Juan nodded. “I’ll get out in about eleven years. And then I will do something to make amends for my mistake. How can I justify living a happy life in here until then?” 

Silence fell around the fire. A shooting star flashed by overhead. Around them, the jungle was mostly quiet. Shadows and pointed leaves made if feel a bit like they were ringed by a circle of thorns, and the fire a window into hell. Or maybe Juan was simply feeling melodramatic about his past. 

Armand let out a long sigh. “Guilt is a great and terrible thing. If only it kicked in before we did wrong, so much might be prevented. So many people would not have suffered, or died, because of us.”

“This place is what I deserve,” Juan asserted, as much to himself as the others. “No more, no less. I should be on a colony, living like a real prisoner.”

Armand seemed unwilling to give up his argument. Then again, he did have a philosophical bent and it regularly came up in their conversations. “Personally, I would like a chance at redemption. We will not find such living in chains. But out there,” he pointed away from them, “living a free life, we can practice being better people, practice making amends. So that we when we do get out of here, we don’t waste even more of our time failing at being better versions of ourselves when it matters even more than now. So that when we become citizens once again, we will have already focused enough on ourselves that we can then spend our time focused on others. We grow in here so that, out there, we spend all our time making amends.” He turned a challenging gaze on Juan. “Would you rather spend your years here in self pity, or in practicing to be who you wish you were?”

Cheeto jumped in for the first time in a while. He’d spent most of the conversation just listening. “Isn’t that why they designed this world in the first place? I mean, the guards fucked everything up and made it real difficult on the the colonies. But I guess you could do it on your own, if you took the initiative. Right?” He looked around, as if uncertain of his perspective.

Juan looked at him. “Does that mean you want to try to escape with Mei?”

Cheeto looked back at Juan and shrugged lazily, trying to cover up his uncertainty. “I’ll do whatever you do.”

The idea scared him and he frowned and cut the idea off. “No.” He slashed his hand through the air. “It’s your life. You need to decide for yourself. I don’t want that kind of pressure or responsibility for another’s life.”

The young man hunched over and looked away, embarrassed. “‘K. Lo siento.”

Lance growled and massaged his face. “Let’s just go to bed. I’m sick of talking about it. And whether or not the marines show up, that Odessa guy will. Which means this might be the last night of proper sleep we get for a while.”

“Least we got his knife now.” Cheeto cackled, holding the blade up. It had made cleaning fish about a thousand times easier.

“Maybe we should fashion a few spears instead of using just branches as clubs.” Juan suggested.

Cheeto stood. “Anyone know how to harden spearheads in a fire? I saw that in a comic once. But every time I try, I just burn it.”

Armand stood and bowed his head. “I believe that most of the process is just drying the wood out so that it isn’t soft. We could do that. Leave a few spears over the edge of the fire for the night. Whoever is on watch and make sure they don’t burn.”

“How many should we make?” Lance asked. His negative feelings seemed to be falling away and his politeness returned now that the subject of Mei and leaving were no longer at hand. Or no longer made him feel threatened with having to make a decision.

Juan answered. “At least one for each of us. Spears have range. And there’s only one knife.”

“Who gets the knife?” Cheeto asked them.

“Respectfully,” Armand half smiled, “I think it’s likely that I’m the only one with experience fighting with a blade.”

Cheeto shrugged at that. “Well, I’ve stuck people before. I’m no expert though.” He handed it over. 

Lance stood up too, all business now that they had a job to focus on. “Let’s find some wood we can make spears out of them.”

They split up to search the immediate jungle. It would be difficult in the dark, but there was little choice. Odessa could come for them as early as breakfast time. 

Juan wondered if he’d dream of a free life tonight. A part of him wished he could believe in what Armand had been arguing. But then he’d think of her, of his past, and hate himself. 

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