Stray gusts continued to whip the surface of the Caribbean sea, creating wavelets and sending fine sprays of water in their faces as they sailed the catamaran to the south side of St. Vincent. The squall, as much as it might have bothered them, seemed to do nothing to the vast column of bubbling gray smoke rising from the volcano that dominated the north end of the island.
Everyone was quite happy to be moving away from the smoke.
Dwayne, sitting with his back against one of the bolted-down trunks, wondered how imminent an eruption was. He wasn’t about to call off the hunt, but flaming lava meteors hurtling through the sky and exploding all around them would be highly inconvenient. And he could see his less stalwart men balking at being on land during the event, becoming disobedient at worst and allowing Mei Ling to escape. Best to capture the woman as fast as possible, just in case.
The squat, burly-armed sailor manning the tiller was closest to Dwayne and spoke with a deferential, though uncertain, tone. “Yer sure you wanna sail right in there, sir? Likely they’ve got a watch out and will see us coming.” An arm covered in tattoos flexed as he fought to turn the ungainly vessel up a roller.
He had to raise his voice to be heard over the wind. “In this weather? They’re probably hunkered down around a warm fire.”
One of the other marines scooted over on his knees, his hand on a lifeline. Standing and walking on the platform were difficult as the vessel pitched around uncertainly at all times. The squall was calming considerably, but they were still being safe. “Sir. What’s the plan going in?”
Dwayne nodded. He rose his voice so all could hear. “We’ll go in hard, try to surprise them. With luck, they aren’t keeping a lookout and we’ll enter the village without resistance. If you see the target, secure her immediately. You can wound, but try not to kill. I don’t want to have to search this island for her after she respawns.” Especially with the volcano active.
“They’re gonna outnumber us,” another marine added.
His voice brooked no argument. “The shock of our arrival will hopefully keep them docile. They’re not fools and they know what our guns can do. If anyone resists, shoot to kill. If it looks like widespread resistance, take hostages. Women and children. They’ll back down.”
One marine looked askance at the part about women and children, but none of the others so much as blinked.
The prisoners, each with an ankle chained to the deck by a leg iron and manacles still on their wrists, sat in helpless silence at the front of the catamaran, heads bowed in the rain and not so much as looking back at any of the marines or sailors, a melancholy group no doubt resigned to their unenviable fate. They wore only prisoner uniforms and thus had less protection from the elements than the marines and even the sailors. Yet Dwayne felt no sympathy. Criminals got what they deserved.
Besides, it’s not as if you could get sick in the virtual world. Someone had decided that infections and diseases would necessitate hospitals and too much other infrastructure and had never implemented those here. So a man could sit in the rain for days and never catch cold or fever, no matter how miserable the experience. And a wound would never grow gangrenous before it healed.
Healing was another simplified factor here. A cut that would take weeks to heal normally would take only days here. It made life a lot easier in some ways. Then again, it made life a lot more difficult for anyone being tortured.
Having been to this island before, when he’d discretely scouted the Carib section, Dwayne recognized a patch of brush sticking out into the beach, used to disguise the large, ocean-going canoes that the islanders expertly piloted.
He pointed. “Fifteen degrees to port. Just there,” he commanded the sailor on the tiller. Then he barked at the marines, though as quietly as he could lest the sound travel. “Fix bayonets. Rifles at the ready. Rockton and Moore on point. Pavel and Bloome with me. Redington with the ship. Redington, if more show up than you can handle, arm the sailors as needed. As a last resort, cripple the ship if need be. Don’t let anyone take it.”
It was the longest of long shots that they would lose the catamaran to anyone, but better to strand themselves here and wait for backup than have Mei Ling somehow take the ship, and the other prisoners, and escape. Dwayne would not allow that.
“Aye, sir.” The marine didn’t look happy at being left behind on guard duty again, but grimly saluted and would do as ordered.
Dwayne eyed the prisoners. “And don’t let that lot get you tangled up. Keep your distance. Keep them between you and any attempted boarders. The Caribs will cut them down first.”
“Will do, sir.”
Even as they talked, everyone’s eyes travelled over the shore as they approached, watching for movement within the edge of the jungle. The canopy and fringes fluttered in the hard breeze and the interior was shadowed. Likely, any scouts had freely watched them coming for some time.
But why would a bunch of half-naked primitives be sitting out in the wind and the rain with an eye for trouble? England only sent a ship to collect prisoners maybe twice a year and never bothered with disturbing the village. France and Spain no doubt behaved the same.
The catamaran turned towards shore and then ground into the beach. Dwayne and the other four marines in the attack squad jumped into the surf and splashed up onto dry land, leaving Redington and the sailors to anchor and secure the vessel.
Finger itching with anticipation over the trigger, Dwayne held the rifle to his shoulder, ready to fire as he and the other charged up the sand and entered the foliage. Like a big game hunter on the prowl, he was eager to bag his prize.
They paused just within the jungle, eyes searching, ears waiting for any sound. There was only the squall running through the trees. They could see the trail and the entrance to the village ahead.
Dwayne motioned the two on point to take the lead, then followed behind them about five paces, Pavel and Bloome on either side of him.
Rockton and Moore halted within cover at the edge of the village, behind a series of cages meant to contain human livestock. All were empty. The cannibals must have eaten whomever they’d taken from their last raid already. At an all clear sign, Dwayne and the others joined the first two at the village edge.
The atmosphere was ghostly. The place seemed abandoned. Fire pits were muddy black and dead, and nothing covered the doors of the huts, some of which looked burned. An attempt had been made to patch up the damage done, but much of the work looked unfinished. Several huts completely lacked roofs and the interior must have been soaked from the storm.
Dwayne frowned. Had the Caribs left for a new home? If so, that would be disastrous. There were a great many islands in the Lesser Antilles alone and the natives, for all their lack of culture and science, were quite capable of travelling great distances. If they’d taken Mei Ling and sailed off, there’d be no finding her again. He hissed at Pavel. “Double check the canoes. See if they’re gone.”
Pavel nodded and scuttled off. He returned only a minute later, moving at a crouch. “Still here.”
Dwayne relaxed. “Must be in hiding.” Perhaps the marines had been spotted en route after all. “Rockton. Scout the village. Any sign of life in those huts?”
Rockton rose quietly. Rifle shouldered, he stalked forwards, weaving his way between the grasses and trees, angling around the cages. He paused just outside the jungle, then sprinted towards the nearest hut. Pausing only a second beside the door, he whirled through the opening and into the interior, disappearing from view.
They waited, water dripping off the leaves overhead and getting down the back of their necks, regularly having to wipe it off their faces. Seconds passed. Then a full minute.
The first officer frowned. Something was wrong. He waved Moore forward.
Moore took off, faster than Rockton had. He sidled up to the door and peered inside without entering the hut. Once, then twice, longer the second time. Then he turned to the others and made a cutting sound across his neck.
Dwayne cursed. “Pavel, Bloome. Scout in tandem. Check the other huts.”
They nodded and moved off in crouched runs.
Dwayne ran over to where Moore waited. He glanced into the hut, then entered.
The dead marine lay on his side, blood pooling under him and slowly being absorbed by the dry dirt. Eyes stared without seeing.
He rolled the body over onto its back, exposing spear holes in the chest and gut. And a bag of coins half spilled next to the wall. Gritting his teeth at the man’s stupidity, he almost admired the trap. The marine had seen the money and gone for it, despite the situation. And someone hiding on the other side of the wall, multiple someones, had thrust their spears through the wall as he’d gone for the treasure, killing Rockton.
Motioning with his head for Moore to join him, they slid out of the hut and circled around back, ready to stab or shoot. But there was no one behind the hut anymore. And the nearby jungle was empty.
Lowering his rifle a fraction in disappointment, Dwayne walked back into the village, Moore on his heels, studiously watching their rear.
The other pair were walking back across the center of the village to rejoin their comrades. Pavel warily eyed the surroundings, but Bloome looked relaxed and disappointed.
The latter saw his commanding officer and shook his head. “All the huts are empty. Looks like—“
His words were cut off as two arrows thudded into his back and sent him tumbling to the ground.
“Get cover!” Dwayne shouted, dodging into the hut he’d just examined and hiding behind the edge of the door.
Moore ran for Bloome. He and Pavel each grabbed the man by a wrist and hauled him on his belly towards Dwayne, dragging him towards the hut, their faces tense as they watched over their shoulders for more arrows.
Another shot just missed Pavel’s head, making him duck.
An arrow thudded into the mud at Bloome’s feet and Moore swore, dragging Bloome faster.
The first officer snapped at them as they burst by him into the same building he was in. “Idiots! You don’t all clump up in the same place. We’re sitting ducks now!”
Bloome groaned and whimpered but refused to cry out as they dropped him face down on the floor. Moore took up position on the opposite side of the door, face looking a bit pale. It was the first time that he’d seen real action rather than easy prison guard duty.
Pavel dropped to one knee and extracted an arrow from just below the man’s shoulder blade. He eyed the tip and even tried to smell it. Tilting his head in uncertainty he looked up. “Curare maybe.”
“Oh hell.” Dwayne couldn’t help but say something out loud this time despite believing that a commanding officer should not do such things lightly.
Sure enough, Bloome’s breathing quickened, then became shallow as his body froze up. He’d die soon enough and there was nothing they could do about it.
Losing two men so quickly was infuriating. Yet Dwayne forcibly suppressed the irritation. He was well trained, skilled, and still in the fight. And he had two more human shields before he was left on his own.
Two arrows hissed through the doorway, barely missing their targets and forcing the men standing there to back up.
A rumble filled the air. Then the ground shook and all had to catch themselves to stop from falling. The shaking lasted a few moments, then stopped. Apparently the volcano was growing more active by the second.
“Do we retreat, sir?” Moore questioned, looking nervous as he eyed what the curare had done to his comrade.
A sharp frown made it clear how foolish an idea that was. He stared the other marine right in the eye. “No. We find the girl. Kill anything that moves. Men, women, children, I don’t care. Just don’t leave yourselves vulnerable while recharging.”
Moore swallowed. “Aye, sir.”
“The village is too open and they’re firing from cover. We’ll circle around the back of the huts, stay inside the jungle.” He put a hand on the grenade on his belt. Each marine had one. They were thin, iron spheres filled with caltrops and gunpowder. Heavy, they were hard to toss far and somewhat unreliable, but when they went off, they could do serious damage. Unfortunately, they had a slow match fuse, which was somewhat useless in the rain, though it was tempting to try. He’d like to use the grenades to flush the Caribs out of hiding. But the more he thought about it, the more unlikely it seemed that that would work.
Leading the two others, all that remained of his squad, they quick-stepped out, rifles shouldered, and they snaked behind the hut and into the trees, moving single file, only slowing down once they were no longer exposed.
The wind had really died down now and even the rain was tapering to a light drizzle. They crept through the jungle, guns swivelling in all four cardinal directions to cover every angle.
They worked their way to the back of the village. Suddenly, a Carib warrior stepped into view from behind the hanging vines of a tall and fat fig tree. He aimed with a bow, his stone-tipped arrow knocked.
Dwayne saw him, paused for a split second, then smoothly slid to his left while aiming for the Carib, pulling the trigger as he did moved. Flintlocks had a delay when firing and he knew that bows were actually faster to fire in situations like this. By hesitating, he’d drawn the man’s fire, then stepped out of the way of the projectile while shooting his own weapon.
The arrow harmlessly flew past. The rifle fired.
The lead bullet hit the warrior in the side of the head and dropped him, having cracked the skull like a wet melon.
Dwayne let his rifle swing down and grabbed the second hanging from his shoulder, quickly ready to shoot again. “Charge!” he shouted.
The three marines crashed across the intervening distance, focused on the spot where the warrior had gone down and where his fellows were sure to be hiding within the vines or behind the tree.
Multiple brown bodies took off into the jungle, casting frightened glances over their shoulders. Most appeared female.
Dwayne raced by the tree, with Moore on his heel, getting a bead on a runner. It appeared to be a teen girl. He pulled the trigger and fired, then ran through the smoke, still giving chase, unsure if he’d hit his target.
A cry came from behind.
Dwayne slowed and looked back. His jaw fell open in shock.
A woman, who must have been Mei Ling, dressed in Captain Fowler’s jacket, appeared to have dropped down from out of the fig tree’s branches. She’d driven the captain’s sword into the base of Pavel’s neck, plunging the long steel into his torso as she’d fallen.
Pavel toppled to the ground, falling over as Mei landed on him, and taking the sword with him.
Mei picked herself up from the jungle floor, looked up at Dwayne and Moore with wide eyes and took one step towards the trapped sword.
“Get her!” he shouted, fire rising in his chest. Here she was, in the flesh. He forgot about the Caribs he’d been chasing and bolted at her, passing by Moore while he grabbed for his other rifle, the one that would have recharged already.
She whirled and fled the other way, curving behind the huge fig tree.
He scrambled through the vines and tripped over wet roots, crashing to his knees. The two rifles on his shoulder tangled. Heart racing and desperate to catch his quarry, he shrugged both rifles off and grabbed for only one, leaving the other behind as he raced in pursuit.
Branches and leaves whipped as his body. He could hear them doing the same to her as they pounded through the underbrush. A back glance told him that Moore wasn’t following for some reason, but that amounted to only mild annoyance before being replaced with eagerness. It would look better if he brought her down himself.
He leapt an overflowing creek, coming down hard on the other bank, his boots sticking deep in the mud. It took precious seconds to pull himself free and continue.
She was only a dozen meters in front of him, weaving between trees, likely to keep from getting shot in the back. Smart girl.
He was surprised by her, and impressed. He’d figured her for easy prey. There’d been no mention of her having military training or anything. By all accounts, blowing up the brig had been a mixture of boldness, luck, shitty security, and lax personnel. Yet the way she and the Caribs had taken out his men so far, and the stunning way in which she’d assassinated Pavel, even the way she kept ahead of him now in the jungle when he knew by rights as a man he should be catching up far more quickly, he was shocked at her aggressiveness and athletic ability.
It couldn’t last though. Even as worn and tired as he was from sailing in the storm and going without sleep, he was an incredibly athletic person. Few men on Barbados could outrun or outfight him, by fist or by weapon, Captain Fowler being one of those few who could still best him with blade or pistol, but not at more physical activities. Dwayne had too many years on him and the energy of a man in his prime.
Grinning like a wolf after a rabbit, he smashed right through a curtain of hanging vines and fired a shot that whizzed by Mei’s ear.
Instead of ducking away, she only slowed enough to point a pistol at him and fired.
He dove to the side in surprise, the shot going over his head. A pistol! Where’d she gotten that? He’d thought the stolen sword her only weapon. Embarrassed at having dived out of the way, and even more impressed with her, he jumped to his feet from the wet jungle floor and continued to run, only to pull up short.
She was gone.
He slid to a halt and went still. Then he slowly rotated back and forth, looking for her. If she’d continued to run, he’d have been able to see and hear her. She must have tried to hide. He called out. “Mei Ling. I am First Officer Dwayne Williams, English Navy. You are a prisoner of the Barbadian Colony. Surrender yourself at once or face punishment for your actions.” Ha. As if she wasn’t going to face all kinds of punishment already.
He waited, but there was no response. Seems she wasn’t stupid enough to give herself away. Cautiously, aware of her weapon, he stepped forwards, searching the area. It felt a little silly, being so wary of a woman, a prisoner, like this. But he was now alone and she’d killed at least one man already. And she was armed with a gun.
If she could take him out, she’d no doubt have little trouble with Redington. There was good reason why Dwayne had left him behind. So, if he made a fatal mistake here, as unlikely as it was, she’d be almost free to make her way to the catamaran and escape the island.
And there was no way he could afford that kind of stupid mistake. This raid was enough of a fiasco as it was. Four men overboard. Others dead to arrows and traps. He was going to catch hell for such sloppiness. They were trained marines against mostly unarmed prisoners and primitives. The only thing that could save him from looking like a buffoon now was bringing Mei Ling back in chains.
“Mei Ling, this is your last warning,” he shouted. “Turn yourself in and come quietly and I will be lenient.” A lie. Silly girl, it would be years before she experienced leniency after the things she’d done.
He saw her pop up from behind an overgrown log and try to run, only to have her feet slip out from under her and fall. Instinctively, he twisted in her direction and fired.
She was scrambling to get to her feet again. The bullet missed.
Without waiting a beat, he charged. Twenty meters and a fallen tree separated them. The countdown timer on his rifle ticked down.
The pretty Asian woman saw him coming and her expression turned hard. Standing, she planted herself and raised her left arm, pointing the pistol at him.
He didn’t try to avoid the shot. He knew he couldn’t afford to. If he dodged or dove again, she’d be off and running again. Chances are, she’d miss. There was no way she knew how to properly use that thing, nor had she been in the system long enough to pick up any skills. And her hand shook. He saw that and grinned and closed the distance, fast.