Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 8

Baita kaluma taśudau, kuma dullidau valua.
When cleverness has run out, only foolishness remains.
—Mesdu proverb

After the empty dinner bowls and containers had been cleared, Kemma asked the Queen’s permission to speak on a personal matter, which the Queen granted with some visible annoyance.

Kemma spoke in Mesdu without translating for us. I couldn’t get all of it, but I thought I picked up the gist of it. She was basically expressing her love for the Queen and reasserting her innocence, but the Queen quickly cut her off.

“This is the wrong time and place for such a conversation,” she said, “and without new information, I’m not going to revisit a decision already well made.”

Kemma paused, visibly disappointed, then nodded her obedience.

The Queen gave a short but polite farewell, and a pair of male helpers guided us out of the room and up a ladder to the second floor. They took us to an area that had eight small guest rooms joined by a larger common room with seating cushions, snacks, and some kind of board game.

The guest rooms themselves were small, more like cubicles than bedrooms, with walls made from woven plant fibers. There were no beds, just a low chair with a slightly reclined back and an attached headrest cushion. Kemma explained that the Mesdu usually sleep sitting up because it was healthier. There was also an ornate box for storage, and the usual hanging rug in front of each entryway to keep out cold breezes.

Four female helpers walked into the room. The male helpers introduced the women to us one at a time, and said they were intended for us. One of them, introduced as Niśal, was the same woman who’d washed me earlier.

“Now we’re talking,” Liam said.

Nigel looked sheepish. “Uh, Matt, this is…part of their tradition. After official meetings, they typically invite us to, um…visit…with some of their women. They usually bring them as part of their entourage when they visit us at the base. I didn’t expect it to happen tonight. It’s considered rude to decline, though, and so…we typically participate. They see it as us repaying them for their hospitality.”

I paused. “Am I understanding this right? You guys have sex with these girls?”

He nodded.

“I don’t know about England,” I said, “but in the U.S. that violates a whole lot of diplomatic policies.”

“We’re not proud of it, you must understand. They strongly insist on it, though, and to be honest the romantic options on this island are quite limited, as you can imagine. It’s one of the difficult realities here. I understand how it looks, though. I abstained for a long time myself.”

I shook my head. “This doesn’t make sense. If the Mesdu try to avoid being corrupted by outsiders, why would they…?”

“They’re concerned about mental and spiritual purity, not physical,” Robert said. “Being Mesdu isn’t about lineage. It’s cultural.”

He looked at Kemma for confirmation, and she nodded. “All babies have a fresh mind, ready to be Mesdu.”

“Wait, have any of these girls you’ve been with gotten pregnant?” I asked.

“They don’t…they don’t really tell us what happens.”

“So, you could have Mesdu children and not even know it?”

Nobody spoke.

I looked at the pretty young women who sat on the cushions near us. Niśal smiled at me. She seemed to be the youngest one there. She couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old.

I shook my head, not sure what to say.

I looked to Robert, hoping he might be the voice of reason and maturity, but his uncharacteristically bashful expression told me he’d been playing this game as well. He sighed. “Frankly, it’s her or Nigel, and I’m just not that interested in Nigel,” he said with a bit of a hopeful chuckle. His smile disappeared when he saw I wasn’t laughing.

“It’ll make sense after you’ve been here a while,” Nigel said, attempting to sound reassuring. “It’s just how things are here.”

Liam stepped forward and took one of the girls by the hand. “Well, I won’t pretend to be a saint here. Goodnight, all.”

Kemma looked concerned and took me aside as Nigel and Robert walked over to talk to the other women. “It would be rude if you didn’t participate. You return the favor of dinner by giving your semen.”

“We don’t even know how old they are.”

“They’re old enough,” she said. “They named themselves.”

“And what about you?”

“We can’t do sex together. I’m a slave.”

“No, no, I mean…what will you be doing during all this? Are you staying here?”

“I can’t stay. They think I’m not safe, so they’ll take me to another room and tie me until morning.”

“What? They tie you up!?”

She paused, then sighed and spoke in a whisper. “They believe I tried to kill the Queen. That’s why they punished me and made me a slave. Please don’t tell the others. It’s not true.”

“You’re…that’s what they think you did? You tried to assassinate the queen?”

“I wouldn’t do this. I love her. My brother Golo told the guards he saw someone who looked like me running away, but they couldn’t find anyone else who would have been there at that time, so they believed it was me.”

“Then why did they even let you live? And why would they let you come back here if they thought you’d tried to kill her?”

“She made me an outsider instead and gave me to all of you as a slave. I think she wanted to see me again because I’m her daughter.”

“You’re whose daughter?”

“Nadu Bos-Sioka. The Queen. She’s my mother.”

I must have said “What!?” too loudly because everyone else turned to look at us for a moment.

Kemma put her hand in front of her mouth and glared at me. “Be quiet!” she whispered through clenched teeth.

“You’re her daughter?” I asked in a strained whisper.

She looked around, waiting for the others to go back to pairing off with the girls. Then she pulled her leg up and pointed to the fiber anklet near her foot. “See, this is her hair. I made it to remember her before I left. I love her. I wouldn’t try to kill her.”

I put my hand on my forehead. “This is…what the hell is going on here!?”

“Be happy tonight, Saka. I’ll see you in the morning, and we’ll go back to the base.”

“I can’t let them just tie you up and throw you in a room somewhere.”

“I’ve done this before. I don’t mind.”

I shook my head. “This is ridiculous.”

She put her hands up to stop me, but I pushed past her and spoke to the two male helpers who’d brought us here from dinner and were waiting to take her away. I told them that Kemma was our slave, and we wanted to keep her with us. I said they could put guards outside the heavy door curtain of the common room to make sure she didn’t go anywhere.

They stepped a few feet away and conferred with each other briefly, then came back and said that would be an acceptable compromise. One of them left to find the guards, and the other waited outside the door.

Kemma and I looked at each other for what seemed like a long time, her black eyes conveying a brew of emotions I couldn’t quite decipher. “Thank you, Saka,” she finally said. “Goodnight.”

Teniimia doli,” I replied. (Sleep deeply.)

She walked over to a corner room—the farthest one from those the others had chosen—looked back at me again, then disappeared inside.

Niśal remained, silently waiting for me with a concerned look on her face. Nigel, Robert, and Liam had already chosen their women and gone back to their quarters.

I sat next to her and took a deep breath. “Not tonight,” I said, in Mesdu.

“Why not?”

“It’s…difficult to say.”

“Are you like the others?”

“What others?”

“Tom and” — she struggled with the pronunciation—“Vir…gil. Virgil. I met them during offerings at your outsider land. Are you like them? You don’t want women?”

That got my attention. She’d met them before and was apparently confirming what we’d discovered about them—and the increasingly unlikelihood that they’d actually raped and killed Kemma’s future sister-in-law, the crime for which they were executed.

“No, no…” I said, “I like women.”

“You don’t want me?”

“I feel tired,” I said. “Very tired.”

“Don’t tell anyone about Tom and Vir…Virgil. They asked me not to tell anyone. I didn’t mean to tell you. I forgot.”

I nodded. Tom and Virgil probably pretended to spend time with the girls for the sake of diplomacy and to keep their secret, but they had to reveal their situation to the girls to explain why they weren’t actually doing the deed with them.

“You want her?” she asked, pointing her chin toward Kemma’s room.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”

I felt rude sending Niśal off, especially when her peers had received the dubious honor of getting busy with the rest of our party, so I asked her to stay and talk so I could get more language practice. I was already picking it up quickly, which I’d always been able to do with languages, but there was no substitute for actual conversation to lock the language in place in my brain.

We found a quiet spot in the corner of the room, trying to move away from the small rooms where the others had retreated with their companions for the night.

I asked her about Tom and Virgil’s execution. She said she was very surprised to hear about it, and it didn’t make sense to her. She said she thought it was a mistake, because they’d always been very nice to her the few times they’d met. I also asked her about Golo, Kemma’s brother, but she said she didn’t know him well. She’d heard he was a good man but didn’t know much beyond that.

Wanting to get some field work done while I was here, I turned to more anthropological topics. I asked about her family, and she told me about her extended clan. I came to understand that the family structure in Mesdu culture was much looser than the American-style nuclear family. Children are raised by whomever happened to be around in the clan, sometimes with little direct involvement by the parents. They sleep where they get tired, they’re fed by whomever offers them food, and they’re punished by whomever sees them misbehaving. Niśal said at one point her father left to work in another clan’s land and she didn’t realize it until he returned a month later.

As we talked, I tried to ignore the hushed grunts and moans coming from the individual quarters. Over the next thirty or so minutes, the other women eventually emerged, one at a time, back into the common room, nodded a goodbye to us, and departed through the main door. After the last of them left, Niśal said she wanted to leave as well. I appreciated that she didn’t bother to make excuses. If everyone spoke that plainly, the world would probably be a better place. We said goodnight and she left.

The torches on the wall were nearly spent, and the room was getting darker by the minute. I entered the empty room next to Kemma’s and sat on the low chair with my legs straight out on the floor. I tucked the pillow behind my neck, leaned back into it, and closed my eyes and tried to relax by listening to Kemma’s soft breathing from where she slept on the other side of the wall.

I couldn’t fall asleep myself, though.

Niśal’s comments confirmed that Virgil and Tom were apparently gay and therefore supported the possibility that they’d been framed for the rape and murder of the Kemma’s brother’s fiancée. Whoever had set it up likely wasn’t aware of their sexual orientation, and that oversight could be the clue that unraveled this situation. Maybe they figured getting Virgil and Tom out of the picture and destroying their notes would be a plausible way to disrupt the American diplomatic efforts, giving the other party an edge in the negotiations. It also gave them an opportunity to go in and bug the room before Jacky and I arrived to replace them.

I also wondered if Kemma apparently having been framed for an assassination attempt was related to any of this, or if I was just getting paranoid.

Both situations had one thing in common, though: Kemma’s brother, Golo. It was Golo’s fiancée that Virgil and Tom had been accused of killing, and it was Golo who’d pointed the finger at Kemma after the assassination attempt.

• • • •

I awoke the next morning with a sore back, my eyes stinging with exhaustion when dawn came as a shaft of light spilling into my room through a ventilation hole near the ceiling. I figured I’d probably slept an hour or two total. Not really enough rest for the journey home, but at least it would be downhill.

I walked out into the common room and saw our clothes on one of the cushions, folded strangely, obviously by someone not familiar with Western attire. I was relieved to get out of the stupid loincloth and back into something warm and familiar. The rest of our supplies were on the floor nearby, including my backpack. After I got dressed, I pulled out my notebook and wrote down as many details as I could remember from the night before.

Within the next hour, the rest of our group woke up and got dressed as well. We made a quick breakfast of some vegetables and fish that had been left for us in the common room, and Robert dictated a note of thanks for the Queen, which Kemma translated and wrote down. I watched over her shoulder, trying to understand the writing system. The lines were angular but not excessively complicated. It seemed syllabic in nature. Not as easy as an alphabet, but at least it wasn’t ideographic like Chinese. I figured I’d ask Kemma to start teaching me after we got back, so I could start reading the inscriptions on the posts that marked the border around our base. Not long afterward, two guards came and escorted us through the stone-lined corridors back to the main entrance, where four additional guards joined them, and we set off back across the island.

Heading down the mountain was far less arduous than the journey up had been, although blisters and chafing ensured it fell well short of being pleasant. I cursed myself for not breaking in my boots before this trip. The trek across the ridge passed by quickly this time, as it was a cool, clear, windless morning. By early afternoon, we could see the base down near the shoreline.

The guards turned back at the border. Now that we could talk freely as we walked back to the base, Nigel and Robert discussed the general lack of diplomatic progress that had been made. Most of Liam’s comments were about the young woman he’d spent the evening with. I didn’t say much.

We reached the front steps and climbed up, eager for that to be the last slope we had to deal with that day. It was dark inside the base compared to the cool, bright afternoon outside. I walked back to our room and dropped my gear by the bed.

Jacky wasn’t there.

I left the room and went to the kitchen, the dining hall, the lounge, the pantry, the radio room, the storage room. There was no sign of her.

I went outside and walked around the building, checked the storage buildings, and looked around the long row of diesel tanks. Nothing.

I went back inside and knocked on Liam and Noah’s bedroom door.


“Hey, have you guys seen Jacky?”

There was a pause. “She went outside for a walk a couple of hours ago,” Noah said through the door.

“She’s not out there,” I said.

“Sorry. Don’t know where she is.”

I took a deep breath and let it out, trying to stay calm. A small building complex on a twenty-acre plot of grass and rock didn’t afford many places for someone to get lost.

I went to the kitchen, where Kemma had begun peeling potatoes for dinner, and asked her to help me search. Together, we did a thorough walkthrough of the base, going in opposite directions in case Jacky and I had just been circling each other before. Then we walked outside, and circled the base in opposite directions again, checking the various storage containers as well. There was no sign of her, inside or out.

I looked toward the cliffs at the edge of our land. “Do you think maybe…?”

We walked over there together. Kemma leaned over the cliff and looked downward. That scared the crap out of me, though, so I lay down on the ground, face first, and peered over the edge. We scanned the rocky shore below but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

“Where the hell is she?” I asked.

There were only two places left we hadn’t looked.

We went back inside, and I knocked on one of the bedroom doors. Nigel answered.

“Hey, I know this is weird,” I said, “but we can’t find Jacky. For my peace of mind, could I look around your room for just a second?”

Nigel turned and got Robert’s reluctant consent, then opened the door. “Sorry for the mess,” he said. “We weren’t expecting company.”

Kemma and I entered and looked around briefly. Nothing strange in the closet or under the bunk bed, the only places someone could really hide. Or be hidden.

“Sorry, guys,” I said. “Thanks.”

Robert looked concerned. “You still haven’t found her?”

“We’ve looked everywhere else we can think of,” I said, “except for one place.”

Robert and Nigel looked at each other gravely, suddenly realizing the severity of what I was saying.

“We’ll go with you,” Nigel said.

Together, we walked down the hall to Liam and Noah’s room, and I knocked again.

“What is it?” Liam said. “Trying to get some rest here.”

“We can’t find Jacky anywhere,” I said. “We’d like to take a quick look in your room, just to be sure.”

There was silence.

I knocked again.

“No,” Liam called back. “She’s obviously not in here, or we’d see her.”

“Your room is the only place we haven’t looked. I just need to see with my own eyes so I can check it off the list.”

Liam’s voice was firm and calm. “Go look again somewhere else. She’s not here.”

Robert sighed. “I don’t imagine this ends well,” he whispered.

We backed off from the door to get out of earshot.

“We were concerned about something like this,” Nigel said in a hushed voice. “Noah’s file didn’t say anything about medications. He made up that excuse to come back here.”

“They, um…they apparently bugged our room,” I said.

Robert’s face turned pale. “They what?”

“Jacky found listening devices in our room. Three of them.”

“Why didn’t you say something? This is outrageous.”

“We didn’t know who put them there. It could have been you guys for all we knew. I’m now assuming it’s those guys, though.”

“Well, now I’m wondering if they’ve got into our room too. Who knows what we might have said?”

“I think we need to go in there,” Nigel said, “whether they like it or not.”

“Hang on,” I said, “I want to try something first.”

The bedroom Jacky and I shared was right next to Liam and Noah’s, and if they were holding someone in there, it would probably be in the closet or under the bunk, both of which were on our shared wall.

I went back to the room, and they followed. Nobody spoke as I pulled some things out from under the bunk. Nigel shimmied into the space on his belly and got into position with his head and right hand near the wall. He was the only one of us who knew Morse code. If she was actually in there, I really hoped she knew it too. That seemed like something a CIA officer with covert operations training might know. If we tapped softly enough, we might be able to communicate with her to confirm whether she was in there, and if so, what the hell was going on.

Nigel gave a few soft taps, then waited a few moments and tapped again. We held our breath, staying as silent as possible.

A faint reply came through the wall. Three short taps. Three taps with longer pauses. Three short taps.

It took me a minute to understand and accept what I’d just heard. I wanted to yell in frustration.

“She’s in there,” I said finally, not wanting to admit it out loud. “They’ve got her under the bed.”

“Paper,” Nigel whispered.

I grabbed my notebook and opened it to a blank page, then grabbed a pen and lay down on the floor and moved close enough that he could whisper the letters to me as I wrote them down. She wasn’t very good at Morse and had to be quiet anyway, so the letters came slowly over the course of several tense minutes.


“My god,” Robert whispered when we shared the words.

“Ask if she’s okay,” I whispered.

Nigel tapped out a message to her, then I wrote the letters down one at a time as he translated them for me.


He quickly scooted himself out from underneath the bed, stood, and pulled a concealed pistol from his belt. He nodded toward it then gave me an inquiring look, asking if I had a gun. I shook my head.

Kemma sprinted quietly out of the room down the hall toward the kitchen. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the folding knife I’d found earlier in our room. Nigel looked at it and gave a resigned head-shrug. We didn’t have much else to work with. Robert looked around the room and finally unplugged the keyboard from our computer and hefted it in his hands. It was better than nothing. A moment later, Kemma returned with a chef’s knife.

“This is crazy,” I said. “Are we really going to do this?”

Nigel leaned in close and whispered, “She can see what’s going on, and she’s asking us to do this now. That’s the only intel we’ve got.”

My heart thumped in my chest. I could barely think straight. We stepped out into the hallway and lined up at Noah and Liam’s door, two on each side. Nigel pointed to us in the order we’d enter the room: him, then me, then Kemma, then Robert.

He stood back from the door, inhaled sharply, nodded a countdown, then threw his weight into a powerful front kick that landed right next to the knob.

The lightweight door splintered but didn’t open.

Noah yelled, “Hey!”

Nigel gave it another solid kick and the door snapped open, scattering parts of the lock mechanism onto the floor.

Nigel moved into the room, and I followed. Kemma came in low behind me.

There was an ear-splitting gunshot, then another. Blood splattered against the wall.

Noah lunged at me, and I instinctively swung my pocketknife toward him. His arm went up to block, and the blade passed through his flesh and stopped against his bone. I lost my grip as he jerked away, and the knife dropped to the floor.

There was another gunshot.

I bent down to grab the knife and a fist came at me sideways. There was a flashbulb of light, then darkness.

When I opened my eyes again, I was on the floor. I heard yelling, grunting, swearing, fighting.

I looked over and saw Jacky laying under the bed, staring at me with wide, insistent eyes. She was naked and badly bruised. Her hands and feet were bound, and she was gagged with a cloth held in place by a cord tied at the back of her head.

Liam fell to the floor in front of me. Behind him, Robert’s body was slumped face-down in a corner.

This was going badly.

I froze, hoping nobody would notice me while I tried to work out what to do next. I glanced toward the door and saw Nigel lying on the floor face down, blood pooling underneath him.

Noah reached under the bunk and grabbed Jacky by the hair, pulling her out. Her screams were muffled by the gag in her mouth. He pried a handgun out of Liam’s limp hand and pointed it at her.

Kemma came at him sideways with the chef’s knife, slashing the back of his hand open. The gun went off and a cloud of pink mist puffed into the air as Jacky fell limp.

Nothing felt real anymore. I couldn’t process it all.

The gun fell from Noah’s hand, and Kemma knocked it under the bed. Then she took another slash at his face, gashing his cheek and forehead.

Liam regained consciousness and tried to kick Kemma from the floor where he lay, but it was a weak blow that only knocked her off balance. Not knowing what else to do, I brought my foot up and brought it down onto his head. It was a weak blow due to my poor angle of attack, but it was enough to stun him for a few moments.

I got up on my hands and knees and moved toward the door. As I crawled over Liam’s body, Kemma reached between his arms and pressed her knife into his throat with a brutal sawing motion. His hands slapped around frantically trying to stop her, but she kept going with calm focus. Blood spurted onto her hands and face as she pushed the knife further into him.

Noah, bleeding profusely from his arm, got down on his knees and reached for the gun under the bed.

Kemma left the knife midway through Liam’s gurgling decapitation, grabbed me by the shirt, and pulled me to my feet. “Go!”

I didn’t argue with her.

© 2023 Tagg West - All Rights Reserved