Mei’s light footsteps made no sound. With every caution, chain dangling from her right hand and ready to lash out with it, she slowly made her way between piles of crates and around a large personal trunk.
The master gunner was a middle-aged man, with graying hair and strong arms but with some flab on his belly. Even laying in his thin hammock that was almost a cocoon, arms across his stomach, legs dangling over the sides, he was still dressed in a blue jacket and white pants, ready to jump up and get back to work at a moment’s notice. Such was life at sea.
Mei stood near his feet, growing more nervous by the second. She felt so exposed. The stairs were at her back and two, long rows of men stretched out in front of her in the darkness. One shout of alarm and she’d be back in chains. Or bent over some of these crates and gang banged.
That sort of thing might be appealing in a different context, but really wasn’t something she was interested in right now.
She thought about that for a second.
Yeah, definitely not. At the moment, she was fuelled by anger and justice, not lust, and wanted to escape more than anything else. She was going to blow the ship, not the crew.
So, returning to the task at hand — how to get the key off of the Master Gunner? She saw a leather thong and what, in the dark, looked like keys hanging from his neck. Any attempt to slip them off of him would probably rouse him.
Eyes flicking upwards to keep an eye on the others, she sidled closer and stood over him. Hefting the manacles, she thought about flailing on him. Would a good crack to the skull kill him? Or make noise and lead to screaming and the waking of the rest?
Her thumb moved up and down the rough, black metal in her hand, indecisive. And that hesitation cost her.
Feet slapped the staircase behind her.
A jolt of panic shot through her. Seeing no other options, she clutched the chains to her torso to keep them quiet and dove under the gunner’s body. She lay flat on her back, parallel to him on the floor, deep in shadow. She slitted her eyes to prevent any reflection off the whites that might give her away, despite how dark it was. Not breathing, body tense, the sound of her heart thundering in her ears seemed certain to give her away.
A sailor ambled past, yawning widely enough to tilt his head backwards. Then he was out of sight. By the sounds of things, he made his way about halfway down the long room and then climbed into his own hammock.
Mei forced herself to slowly breath out, then in again, controlling herself so she made as little noise as possible while she brought her frightened body back under her control.
Staring up at the man hanging over her, she thought back to Saxston. She’d strangled him. Could she do the same thing here? The hammock was made of a thin, light netting and probably wouldn’t get in the way. There was no time to dither. Hoping the sound of chain moving would seem normal on the ship, and that the newly-bedded down sailor was half asleep already, she acted.
She used all her arm strength to toss one weighted end of the manacle up and over the gunner while hanging onto the other end. The thrown end arced over the man and came down the other side, where Mei fought to catch it, but it slipped from her hand. The chain jerked down under the falling weight and came down on the gunner’s throat.
Seeing him startle awake, she twisted the two ends of the manacles around each other, making a braid that tightened the loop around the gunner’s throat.
He panicked and started to thrash around, trying to rise.
Mei twisted the chain one last time as she pulled down on it, feeling it bite cruelly into the man’s fleshy neck. There would be no loosening it now. But the stronger, heavier man was attempting to sit up, so Mei flipped herself over. Face down on her knees, chain over her shoulder, she pulled down will all her strength and weight, digging the chain further into his neck. Hopefully, her strength and his weight wouldn’t be enough to break the hammock and send it crashing down on her.
Wet gurgling noises and fleeting gasps of air from above seemed deafening. Despite all of his thrashing about, most of it was in the air and made very little noise in the hammock.
Sweat beaded on her forehead. Then she felt her palms start to moisten and grew fearful. Would her hands slip off the chain despite its roughness? She tightened her grip and continued to pull, hoping with all she had that nobody would notice, that nobody would discover them.
The noises from the gunner grew weak and then stopped. His body calmed, then jerked a few times and went still.
She looked back over her shoulder and saw his HP on zero and the bar fading away.
Weapon Class: Other
Skill Level: Novice
Relieved, she slowly relaxed her grip on the chain, keeping the corpse in his hammock, as if he were still asleep. She didn’t want to screw up now and send the body tumbling out, to thud loudly on the deck. She untwisted the manacles and retrieved them. Apparently, her first kill had been enough to level up with this weapon. Or maybe it included Saxston as well. Oddly fast, but maybe because the gunner was a kind of officer?
She shrugged and looted his keys, trying to ignore the unwelcome sensation of having murdered someone. She was just trying to survive. And these were people who had chosen to try and hurt her, who had chosen to be her captors and participate in an unfair system that had taken her real life away from her.
Fuck those bastards.
Returning to the magazine door, she quietly fitted each of the four keys into the lock until one fit. Then she opened the door and let herself inside. She could see absolutely nothing but a black hole.
Right; there were no portholes in here.
In the gunner’s area of the crew quarters, she found a shielded lantern hanging up, along with flint and steel, something she’d only ever seen mentioned in books. It took some experimentation to figure things out, but she eventually lit the wick in the lantern by pouring some oil onto the deck, lighting it, then lighting the wick from the oil fire and sticking it back in the lantern. Then she stamped out the oil fire before it could spread. Only because she didn’t want to be discovered yet.
Re-entering the powder magazine, lantern door open just enough to cast a sliver of light, she closed the magazine door behind her.
The room had copper-shielded walls, ceiling, and floor. Kegs of gunpowder sat very tightly in racks with only enough room to stand in the entrance.
Mei’s breath caught in her throat. She was literally standing in the middle of a giant bomb. Feeling sweaty again, she cast about and found one of the kegs near the door was only partially sealed. Taking the top off of the keg, she found many pre-filled bags of gunpowder inside. Likely, these were pre-made charges for the canons that were already ready for use in the event of an emergency. In a box, she found the type of burning cord used for delayed charges, perhaps for making grenades or something.
Simple; she’d seen this often enough in cartoons, after all, right? And didn’t art imitate life? She twisted a fairly long piece of cord together. Then she opened a bag of gunpowder and spilled it onto the floor in a small pile and stuck the cord into it. Standing up, she looked at the small pile. Would it be enough of a starter charge to ignite the rest?
She poured four more bags out, just in case. Then, whole body tingling with nervous energy, she bent and lit the end of the fuse. There was no going back after this.
It burst into life, then smouldered bright orange. The glow slowly moved down the fuse. Well, not that slowly. Actually…
She was only going to have a minute or so. Perhaps she should make a longer fuse. But it was already— Oh fuck it. She hurled out of the magazine and closed the door behind her, leaving the lantern inside. Then she locked the door, just in case. Turning, she put her foot on the first stair and looked up.
Percival stood near the top, staring down at her in bewilderment. “What are you—? How—?”
Not pausing to think, knowing the only way out was up, she charged him and pushed him.
He tripped over the top stair and fell backwards.
She drove past him but felt a hand on her ankle and fell hard onto her face. That hurt. Grunting in pain, she turned and saw him snarling at her. She yanked her ankle free and jumped to her feet.
“Alarm! Prisoner on the loose!” he shouted, getting to his feet. Then he grinned at her. “Bitch, you just—“
She whirled the manacles around once in the air, then whipped the heavy end around, smacking it into his temple with brutal force.
His head spun sideways and there was a sharp crack as his neck snapped like a twig. He dropped like wet potatoes.
Mei stared at him in surprise, then at the weapon in her hand. Wow. Centripetal force was dangerous. She looked down at the third man she’d killed in less than an hour. Before today, she’d never have known how dangerous, how murderous she could really be. It was…extremely odd. It was nothing like the peaceful, normal life she’d led until now. She’d never, ever have thought it in her to do anything like this.
Coming to her senses, she ran for the stairs up to the main deck only to hear voices coming towards her from above. She backed away.
Two very large sailors came down with frowns on their faces.
These were not good odds. With the way out blocked, she searched for another exit. Portholes were too small. The door at the end? She raced towards it. “Captain! Captain! Fire!” she shouted at the door, taking a guess.
There was a thump and then the door opened. “What’s going—“
Mei crashed into him at full speed, shoulder first, sending him flying. She herself went tumbling. But even as she leaped her her feet, she saw the captain regaining his, and snatching a sword that hung next to the door.
The captain looked very unimpressed with her. With skill, he jerked the sword from its sheath and pointed the tip at her, a living embodiment of hostility and danger. He lunged.
Reacting instinctively, she battered the sword aside with her chain.
He advanced, lunging again.
She dodged backwards and lashed out with the chain, but missed.
The two sailors that had followed her came to stand in the doorway, silently watching until called upon.
Captain Fowler said nothing, movements smooth and precise. Another jab, so fast she barely saw it.
She backed away. The room was large, for a ship. The captain’s bed was bolted to one wall, and it was a bed, not a hammock. There was a floor-to-ceiling cabinet on the other wall, with bolted doors. The rear wall had two large windows made of small, square panes of glass. In the center of the room was a large map table, with charts tacked down on top of it, and a nice box made out of dark wood, polished to a shine.
The captain charged, swinging.
Mei threw herself to the side, fell on her knees, then scrambled up, putting the table between them. She glared at him. “Sending your men to rape me in the night? Some captain.”
“You’ll get far worse after this little fiasco.”
“And for killing Saxston?”
The captain sighed. “Is that what happened?”
“And for killing Percival?”
His brows rose. “My, haven’t you been a busy little criminal?”
“I’m no criminal!” she shouted at him, anger flaring so hard it overcame her fear. “I was an activist. A fighter for democracy. A voice of the people!”
“I don’t care what laws you broke. You’re in here, you’re a criminal.”
“Not from a fair trial or a just government!”
He snorted and waved his free hand. “You all have your pathetic excuses. As far as I’m concerned, scum is scum. And you’ll get what you deserve: punishment.”
She got hold of her anger and a smile inched over her lips. She held up the keys. “I also got to the master gunner.”
He blinked at the keys, then straightened slowly in shock. Shaking himself back to his senses, he ran for the door, shouting at the top of his lungs. “The magazine! Check the—“
The two sailors turned and bolted towards the stairs.
Mei spun and went to the window. A quick search revealed latches, which she then flicked before throwing open the windows. Fresh air swirled into the room. Casting one last look into the captain’s chambers, her eyes fell on the dark wood box. It looked valuable. Or like there was something valuable inside. Impulsively, she grabbed it with her free hand and jumped onto the window ledge.
The captain saw her and the box in her hands. His eyes widened. “No! Don’t you dare!” he raced for her.
She grinned at him. “Like I said, it’s a pirate’s life for Mei.” Then she threw herself overboard.
She fell through the warm, night air for only a moment. Then her body slapped into the ocean below; a shock of coldness. She sunk under the surface and all sound cut out.
The gunpowder magazine exploded with incredible violence, turning the entire sky above her white and orange and black. The shock wave belted Mei and hurt, but the water shielded her enough to keep her alive.
Disoriented, she kicked herself away from the burning ship and towards the surface. Her head broke from the water and she gasped suddenly-heated air that seared her lungs, making her hack and cough. Flaming wreckage fell out of the sky, splashing around her.
Looking about while desperately treading water, Mei was very relieved to see land close by. She kicked towards it, hoping the flaming wood and debris raining down around her wouldn’t catch her.
A ball splashed into the water in front of her and then bobbed up. It was a human head. She batted it aside.
The going was hard. The box in her arms was light and wanted to float. The manacles on the other hand were very heavy and awkward. She was extremely tempted to drop them, as exhausted as she was, but they were her only weapon. And in this world, something told her that weapons were going to be crucial.
Still, every meter she swam in the water was agony: her lungs on fire from breathing hot air, her head aching from heat stroke, her muscles rubbery and near useless. She could see the shore in front of her, but each murderous second in the water made it seem less and less likely that she was ever going to make it there.