The slapping sound of bare footsteps came from the next room.
A new spike of adrenalin shot through Mei’s heart. She cast her gaze around, hardly seeing a thing in the dark, but knowing that she was exposed. Frantically, she pushed Saxston’s remains inside the cage, placed the manacles and leg irons near his ankles and wrists, snatched up the water skin, and then closed the cage door. Then she darted over to the wall next to the room’s only door and flattened herself against the wood.
The footsteps came closer. Light from a lantern brightened the next room.
Mei clenched her fist. If they brought the light in here, they’d see it was Saxston in there for sure, and not her. She readied herself for a fight that she was probably going to lose.
Someone rustled in a crate for something. Then the light flickered and started moving away.
Mei breathed out in relief. Someone had simply come to the storage room to fetch something and was now leaving. She was safe for the moment. And just like that, her body gave out on her. Her arms and legs trembled and she slid down to the ground until she sat with her back to the wall.
“Too much exhaustion and stress and excitement,” she whispered, quietly laughing to herself. Breathing hard, she tried to recover herself, for she couldn’t stay here for long. But it was a slow process. She drank from the skin, savouring the warm water.
Mei wasn’t a trained soldier. She was no fighter. Not in the military sense, anyway. She’d graduated from university with a degree in journalism while working part time as a fitness model and athletic coach at the university gym, where her unusual height had been an advantage instead of mocked, as it had been in grade school. After graduation, she’d gone into a career in the dying field of journalism, struggling hard to get any kind of work at all in a society that demanded their news for free and wanted everything online at a moment’s notice.
But she’d toughed it out. She hadn’t gone into journalism on a whim; it was something she deeply believed in. The voices of the common people in her home country were heavily censored by the rich, the powerful, the corrupt, and the authoritarian government. Her and many others wanted change. And they wanted to achieve it peacefully, without the bloody revolutions that had been so unfortunately common in the past. As a journalist, she hoped to bring her voice to the fore, and to make heard the voices of others like her.
For a while, she’d been successful in that regard. They’d all felt that way, everyone fighting alongside her for a better society. Raised in an era of globalized values and ideals, they’d believed that positive change could be achieved. And then the government had betrayed them all. They’d come in with new security laws and swept aside everything the people had worked to gain. Overnight, everything had become hostile and oppressive. Secret police were everywhere. And when she and others had dared to take to the street to protest, sending their message to the world via their phones and cameras, the government had arrested them in droves, thrown them into long, black busses without windows, and hauled them away, never to be seen by their loved ones again.
Mei felt a familiar pang as she recalled the futility and injustice and loss. She savagely wiped a tear away. She wouldn’t cry. Not again. She was done with that.
Forcing herself to stand, she wobbled on rubbery legs, but steadied herself.
“Now what?” she asked herself.
They should be nearing that island by now. Should she just run up top and jump off the main deck and hope that she could swim to shore? Sneak off and try to quietly slip into the water without notice? Or maybe she should disable the ship somehow, to stop them from following?
But what did she know about ships? Could she drop the anchor? No. She’d seen it and both it and the wheel used to drop it were far beyond her strength. Cut the sails? Too high and ineffective. She’d be caught trying to scale those crazy ropes that the sailors used to get around. Start a fire?
Sailors were terrified of fire, these being wooden ships and all. If she could set fire to the rigging and sails, that would be—
She remembered the sight of canons lining the hull of the ship on a level above her.
Gunpowder. These ships had gunpowder.
And it was kept in a magazine. Right… She remembered seeing paintings in history books of these old ships exploding. All that gunpowder going off at once would vaporize this boat. A sharklike grin came over her face.
If the guards had been polite or professional, or if anyone at all had shown her any kindness, she wouldn’t even have considered blowing the powder magazine and ‘killing’ them all. If this had been real life, she obviously would never mass murder everyone on board. But this was a computer system, a game, and everyone had acted like an enemy towards her. Blowing them up would just cause them all to angrily re-spawn somewhere. More importantly, it would give her a head start in escaping and prevent them from following.
Easier said than done, however. She was alone and on a strange ship that she didn’t know at all beyond what she’d mopped today. The place was crawling with sailors and soldiers. If she were caught, she’d be punished. And rape might be the least of her worries. Perhaps it really did make the most sense to try and sneak above, evade anyone still active, and try to climb down the side of the ship and into the ocean.
Her arrest and incarceration had been wildly unfair. After enduring a lifetime under the rule of such a corrupt, selfish government and years uselessly campaigning for improvement, she’d been handcuffed and led to a secret courtroom and thrown in front of a judge who would say whatever the government wanted. Her so-called trial had taken barely five minutes before a guilty verdict of insurrection had been handed down. She’d been labeled a traitor to her country and sentenced to twenty years. And she’d been absolutely powerless to do anything about the infuriating injustice of it all.
Anger flared within her.
Her poor mother and father were probably tearing their hair out in worry over her. The boyfriend she’d been dating for a couple of months was probably…actually, he’d probably already found someone else. He hadn’t seemed to be a very loyal sort. Actually, this whole thing made for a great excuse to break up with him. Besides, his penis was almost as small as Saxston’s. She could do better.
Chuckling in silence, she regained some of her composure and determination.
She breathed deep. She owned her emotions; she refused to let them own her. She did not want to be miserable, she wanted to be happy and free. And if she couldn’t be free in her home country and in the real world, then she was damn well going to be free in this world.
And if she had the chance to strike back against the system and the people supporting it, then maybe she should take it. She had to admit, as wrong as killing had felt earlier, a part of her had thrilled in successfully ending that evil prick. The thought of blowing the ship and sending a couple of dozen smug, abusive guards back to the respawn point was very titillating.
She glanced at the cage, then went to it and opened the door. Taking the manacles, she hefted one end and let the other dangle. Nodding to herself, she decided it would make a good weapon.
Words appeared before her:
Weapon Acquired: Chains
Weapon Class: Other
Skill Level: None
Interesting. So she now had a legitimate way to cause damage within the system. And it looked like at least some random objects could be turned into weapons if that was your intent. Having no skill at all wasn’t very inspiring, but with the chain in hand, manacle on the other end to act like a flail, she felt more dangerous and that gave her confidence.
She stepped towards the door. “Let’s see if we can find that powder magazine.”
Each deck of a ship like this is essentially one long, open space from bow to stern (front to back). Each deck might be separated into compartments, as this bottom one was. She was in a tiny room at the bow end that was obviously designed as a brig. On the way here, she’d seen that the rooms after this had been holds for storage, filled with barrels and crates, coils of rope and chain, even a spare anchor. And as she’d seen first hand, the second deck was the canon deck. And that room at the end might be the captain’s quarters.
Where would you keep all your highly flammable and highly explosive gunpowder on a ship that might get hit with canon fire or run aground? In the very center. So it was likely that they stored it in the middle of the third deck. Unfortunately, that was also the crew deck.
But perhaps she wouldn’t have to use the third deck. Could she somehow go through the roof of this one?
Creeping out of the brig, she cautiously made her way through the storage room and into the next, this one filled with barrels. No one was here and she heard nothing above. Likely, the soldiers and most of the sailors were asleep except for the night crew.
Judging herself to be in about the middle of the ship, she reached up above some barrels and felt around the roof. To her surprise, she felt not warm wood but the coolness of metal. She stretched her hand out in all directions, yet the metal extended quite far before she found the edge.
“Strange,” she muttered. Why would they have lined the— Ah. They’d probably encased the magazine in metal to prevent fire from getting in. Damn. That meant she’d have to go through the actual door to it.
She crept to the stairs and gingerly stepped up, placing her feet lightly, wincing at every little creak. She waited just below the third deck, listening for the sounds of others.
She heard the ever-present rush of water, wood creaking gently, and lots of snoring.
Seeing no light but that from the portholes, she inched up through the hole to the next deck and poked her head through.
The stairs reversed direction and continued up to the second deck. To her right stretched the crew quarters. Two rows of gray hammocks ran down the ship, every usable space around them crammed with more canon, cargo, and other items, leaving just enough room for each soldier or sailor to swing in peace as the slept.
Whoa. That was a lot of S sounds in one sentence; this one too.
Mei looked left of the stairs — and found a door. In the faint moonlight, it glinted, both door and surrounding wall made of metal. From the colour, it looked to be copper, she guessed.
She snuck over to it and tried the latch. Locked. Of course. It was probably the most secure place on the vessel. Who would have the key? The captain, most likely. He’d either be above or in his private quarters and very difficult to get to. Also…what was that title she’d heard earlier, while mopping? Gunner? Master gunner.
Peeking into the crew section, she spotted the master gunner at the near end of the rows and rows of crew and soldiers. He probably wanted to be closest to the stairs and magazine in case of emergency. And the key that she needed would surely be on him even while he drifted in dreamland.
The ship gently rolled. Hammocks gently swayed. A voice calmly called out something from the rigging high above in the night and another answered in kind. All was well.
Warily and with every sense attuned to her dark environment, she eased into the crew quarters, knowing that, at any moment, someone could come down from above decks, or that someone here might not be sound asleep.