Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 9

Oromia orodau, gulumia gulu.
Live your life, die your death.
—Mesdu proverb

We burst out of the front door and jumped over the steps to the ground below, running toward the storage buildings and the sea cliffs. I didn’t know if Noah was in any condition to give chase, but if he was, we wanted to get as much ground between us as possible.

My legs weren’t working the way I wanted them to. The surge of adrenaline pumping through me wasn’t enough to counteract two days of difficult hiking. All I could do was keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope for the best.

We neared the stone cylinders that marked the perimeter of our land, the border we weren’t allowed to cross without approval. I called out, “They said they’d kill us if we—”

“They might kill us,” Kemma said. “Noah will kill us.”

I paused to consider that and realized things had actually unraveled to the point that risking the death penalty was actually looking like the best option we had left.

As we drew near the edge of the cliff, I heard a midair snap. A patch of dirt and grass jumped up into the air several yards in front of us. The crack of a gunshot erupted from behind us and echoed off the nearby mountain slopes.

I looked over my shoulder. Noah stood at the corner of the building, now about 100 yards back. His shirt was splattered in blood, and he pointed a scoped automatic rifle at us.

“That way!” I yelled, pointing west. We’d be harder to hit running at an angle instead of straight away from him.

He took several more shots at us, accompanied by snaps, whizzing, ricochets, and puffs of dirt, grass, and rock fragments where the bullets struck.

We tried to find a balance between zigzagging and running flat out. The shots landing around us didn’t worry me as much as the quiet between them, because that's when I knew he was zeroing in on us.

“There!” Kemma called.

We scurried over to a nearby gully and slid down the grassy slope several feet until our feet splashed into running water at the bottom. Apart from the trickling of that little stream, there was silence.

“You okay?” I asked. She nodded. I leaned back against the slope and tried to catch my breath.

“He stopped shooting,” Kemma said.

“He’s waiting for us to stick our heads out.”

“He could be coming to us.”

“Okay, let’s go down. Maybe this goes somewhere.”

We followed the deep, winding gully downward in the direction of the shore, pressing our hands and feet into the muddy grass walls to support ourselves.

The crashing waves grew louder as we descended, and the gully went deeper into the earth until it turned into a small cave. It was a tight squeeze, but I could see light coming from inside it, so I knew it opened up on the other end. We climbed down into it. Within a few minutes we came around a snug corner and found ourselves looking out at the ocean from the middle of a cliff face, with a 20-foot drop to the water below.

“Can we climb down?” I asked.

Kemma got down on her knees and peered over the edge. “No,” she said. “It’s flat.”

“Can you swim?”

“The water will be cold.”

“Yeah, I figured.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “It will be very cold.”

“Do we have a choice?”

She was quiet for a long time. “Okay.”

“Is it deep enough?”

“I think so. It’s dark water.”

I peered over the edge. There was a rocky beach about twenty feet from where we’d land, and it extended further south, away from the base. I pointed to it, and Kemma nodded. If we could make it there, we’d be wet and cold, but at least we’d have an escape route.

I took several deep breaths and visualized myself jumping off the edge. I intentionally avoided thinking about what it might feel like to hit the water.

“Okay, I’ll go first,” I said. “Three, two…”

“Wait, stupid,” she said. “Take off the clothes.”

I turned back to see that she’d already removed her sealskin vest and was in the process of loosening the belt that held up the broad green leaves of her skirt, which fell to her feet. Now nude, she gathered up her outfit and rolled it all neatly together.

I knew she was right, but I was really starting to resent how often I’d had to drop my pants lately. I stripped down to my briefs and rolled up my clothes with hers, then cinched them with my belt. Bracing myself in the mouth of the cave so I didn’t fall over the side, I swung the bundle back and forth, then gave it a heave and sent it sailing down sideways along the cliffside. It bounced off a boulder and landed on the rocks of the nearby beach, safely clear of the water. If we survived the jump, at least we’d have dry clothes.

I shook my arms and head to loosen them up, trying to manage my nervousness. I knew shock would be an issue when I hit the water, so I—


Part of the cliff face next to me shattered, sending shrapnel against my arm and face. I glanced down and saw a thin rock shard sticking half an inch out of my arm. A moment later, we heard the gunshot and looked up toward the northeast. Noah had traveled along the edge of the cliff that encircled the little bay into which we were about to jump, and now had a clear shot at us.

I pulled the rock shard out of my arm and tried to step backward into the safety of the cave, but Kemma disagreed with my defensive strategy. She pushed me hard, and I tumbled forward off the edge. On the way down, I inhaled sharply and locked my hands across my mouth and nose. I hit the surface wrong, and my right knee came up and popped me in the face.

The frigid water burned my skin as I sank down into it. I tried to gasp, gagging against my hands, which I kept clutched against my face. I knew if I let go, I couldn’t stop myself from trying to breathe the water.

My heart suddenly went crazy, galloping in my chest in a way that was clearly wrong. I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I opened my eyes. It was dark. I couldn’t tell which way was up. I spun around, looking for light. I had to get out.

Something slammed into my head. It was Kemma, falling past me after jumping in. I couldn’t grab her but could at least tell which way she was moving. I turned myself around and started swimming in the direction from which she’d come.

My muscles were failing, though. I couldn’t tell if I was swimming or sinking. My lungs begged for air.

A hand grabbed my leg, then released it. She swam up past me, running her hand along my body to keep track of me until she grabbed my wrist. I grabbed hers back, and kept kicking as best I could, hoping she knew where she was going.

The water ahead of us eventually brightened. I had no concept of time anymore. I couldn’t tell if we were under the water for ten seconds or ten minutes. All I cared about was air. My lungs were pulling so hard it felt like they were going to rip my throat apart.

We finally broke through to the surface, and I gasped the air greedily. I couldn’t keep my head above the surface, though. Within seconds, I was back under. I kicked hard to get back up, took another shallow breath, then went under again.


Kemma yanked on my arm. My body was giving out.


I dug deep and kicked with everything I had. I got my head above the surface again, let go of Kemma, and swam toward the beach.

Gunshots rang out from behind us and echoed against the curved cliffs of the cove. When my head was below the surface, I heard the zoop, zoop of the bullets piercing the nearby water.

Kemma climbed onto the shore first, then reached out to bring me in as well.

The gunshots stopped. Noah was either reloading or lining us up.

 I got to my feet, stumbled over to where we’d tossed our clothes and grabbed the bundle. I was shivering uncontrollably, and my heart still pounded like crazy.

“Go, go!” Kemma yelled. She took off down the beach, taking a winding path among the rocks.

I wanted to yell at her for pushing me, but there was no time for that.

I heard the snap-pting! of a bullet passing me and ricocheting off a nearby rock, followed by the echoing gunshot from the cliff top behind us. It reminded me about the shard of rock sticking out of my arm, which I reached down and yanked out. A thin trickle of blood flowed out of the hole and down my arm. Hopefully nothing important had been pierced.

I glanced up at the cliff top in the distance and could barely make out Noah’s form silhouetted against the sky. Then, completely naked, I took off stumbling after Kemma.

• • • •

Jacky was dead. Nigel and Robert were dead. We’d be killed by the Mesdu if we were caught outside our own land. We’d be killed by Noah if we went back. I had to keep reminding myself of these facts, because I could already feel parts of my brain trying to deny them, even though I’d watched it all take place not half an hour earlier.

I had zero ideas about what to do next. For all the trouble Jacky and I had given each other, we’d actually built up some kind of relationship over the past few weeks. I wanted to tell her what was happening and ask her advice about what to do, but she was gone now.

We heard several more gunshots in the distance, apparently not directed at us. I wondered if Noah was calibrating the scope. We were probably alive only because he hadn’t had an opportunity to zero it in previously, since the weapon had been hidden and he couldn’t exactly take it out for target practice. Next time he had a shot at us, he wouldn’t miss.

Once we were safe, we paused to get dressed again. My heart eventually settled back into a normal rhythm, much to my relief, and we continued forward.

The rocky beach came to an end, and Kemma led us up a slippery incline between two facets of the cliff face. It was a difficult climb after all we’d been through that day. For every foot we climbed in the gravel and wet sand, we slid back down six inches.

Kemma turned to me and pointed to her face. “Close your eye for later.”


“For seeing in the dark. Close one eye.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I closed my left eye and kept climbing.

We came to a ledge that extended out onto the face of the cliff about thirty feet above the shore. Kemma side-stepped onto it. I followed her, leaning against the cliff wall as I walked.

She stopped in front of a stone slab, roughly the size and shape of a pizza box, that leaned against the wall of the cliff. We worked together to tip the slab down onto the ground between us, lowering it slowly to avoid shattering it.

Where the slab had been, there was a rectangular hole in the cliff wall.

“So, what’s this?” I asked.


“Cave…something. What’s śurko?”

“Story,” she said. “It’s a story cave.”

I bent down and looked inside. “I don’t see anything.”

“We go inside,” she said, lying down on the ledge and approaching the hole.

I pointed at the hole and laughed. “I’m not going in there.”

“You will.” Her voice echoed as she entered the hole headfirst.

I got down on my belly and watched her wiggle through the narrow passage. “How far does it go?”

She disappeared for a moment, then turned around and faced me. I could barely see her face. “It goes this far,” she said.

It seemed like about eight feet. I’d always hated tight spaces, but by this point I hated everything about being here, so I wasn’t about to let a little claustrophobia stop me.

The entry tunnel angled slightly upward to prevent rain from getting inside. I shimmied up through it and emerged into a round chamber about 15 feet across. The walls were rough and looked as though they’d been chipped away by hand. I got to my feet and the ceiling brushed against the top of my head. A dim glow of indirect sunlight came through an angled ventilation hole on one side of the chamber, near the top of the wall.

I opened my left eye and was surprised to find Kemma’s trick actually worked. It had adjusted to the darkness of a closed eyelid, and I was immediately able to see more clearly.

The center of the round room was occupied by a pile of clay tablets. Each was around ten inches square and about an inch thick, arranged into stacks of varying heights averaging around four feet. There were seven stacks one way and twelve the other. I estimated maybe four thousand tablets in all. There were also some sleeping pads and other basic supplies along the wall.

I bent down and looked more closely at the tablets. Each had rows of angular Mesdu writing, and two-dimensional images resembling those on the cylinders that separated the various clan regions. I had trouble understanding the abstract style, but it was obvious from the intricate detail that a lot of craftsmanship had been put into each one.

“This is…your history,” I said.

“There are four caves like this. All have the same stories.”

“And this has been going on for thousands of years?”

“Maybe from…six hundred fifty years. Nadu Kai had the idea to write it down. Before that, we only spoke the stories. The years before we wrote from stories told by the elders.”

I picked up one of the tablets and ran my finger across a row of letters. “So, there was no written history before Nadu Kai?”

“She started all writing. She made the letters.”

“Wait, she invented the actual writing system?”

Kemma nodded. “Yes. She wanted to record information so it couldn’t be forgotten or changed, so she made shapes for every sound in the language and said any of her royal advisors who didn’t start using them would be executed.”

I was amazed. There were very few examples of language scripts being invented completely from scratch by individuals. The most notable examples were King Sejong, who invented the Korean alphabet—though he probably had some help—and Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee syllabary. I was dying to ask her more about it, since that was linguistically fascinating, but I realized my brain was doing it again: denying what had just happened and trying to get back into its routine of research and note taking.

No. Not now.

We had to focus.

“The Mesdu will help us, right?” I asked. “If we tell them what happened, they’ll help us.”

She bobbed her head lightly from side to side. “I don’t know. The Queen told the Laga clan to enforce the laws for the outsiders. They enjoy the power.”

“We have to try, though. I don’t think we have another choice.”

“Maybe. We have to rest first, though.”

She was right. I could hardly move anymore.

“Are we going to get in trouble for being here, in this cave?” I asked.

“Few people come here. Wise people, to study. When I was a child, my mother told me if I was ever in trouble, I should hide in one of these caves.”

I nodded but wasn’t really listening. Exhaustion was setting in. I took one of the thick woven sleeping pads and laid it down on the stone floor. It was shorter than I’d hoped.

“Don’t sleep lying down,” Kemma said. “You could die.”

“We always sleep lying down.”

“It’s bad for you.”

“Are there any blankets?” I asked.

“You have a shirt on.”

“It’s going to get cold tonight.”

She looked annoyed. “The cold makes us stronger.”

I got as comfortable as I could—which is to say, not comfortable at all—lying on the hard stone floor and using my arm for a pillow.

I tried to sleep but spent the night shivering and drifting in and out of consciousness. I was haunted by visions of what had happened back at the base. The look in Jacky’s eyes when I found her naked and bound under Noah and Liam’s bed. The red mist that exploded with the gunshot that killed her. Kemma sawing through Liam’s throat with a chef’s knife. The limp bodies. The pools of blood. The massacre had lasted only seconds, and I was still struggling to understand what had even happened.

Kemma sat leaning against the wall nearby, her eyes closed. I resented how quickly she’d fallen asleep. She was also the only anchor I had now, so I focused on her steady, deep breathing and tried to make it my own.

• • • •

I was on a rowboat out on the sea, rocking in the choppy waves. The sky was cloudy and dark, and the water was darker still. The air chilled my throat as I inhaled and condensed into a foggy cloud as I breathed it back out. Seals floated on chunks of ice in the distance, barking at each other.

I looked around. There was still no land in sight.

I’d been rowing for…days? Weeks? I had no idea which way to go. My anxiety increased as I considered the possibility of dying in that rowboat.

Jacky was there. I didn’t remember her being there before, but now she sat near the front of the boat, her arms wrapped around her knees, staring out toward the horizon in front of us.

E tolom okoma iriama?” I asked. (Where are we trying-but-failing to go?)

Em?” she responded. (Huh?)

Apparently, she didn’t know either.

I kept rowing, but ice congealed on the surface of the water around us. It was difficult to row, and I struggled to keep pushing us forward. Within moments, the oars had become lodged in the ice, and we were no longer moving forward through the water. We were stuck.

Then the ice began creeping up the oars themselves, toward my hands. I let go.

I crawled toward Jacky. The cold made it hard to move.

Uan koli,” I said, putting my arms around her. (It’s too cold.)

Teniimia.” (Go back to sleep.)

When had Jacky learned to speak Mesdu? And why was she speaking it better than I was?

I thought for a moment. “E iana oa jas?” I asked. (Why are you here?)

Iana oa nuita.” (I’m always here.)

I lay next to her on the hard, cold wooden floor of the boat and looked up at her. Her sarcastic, mischievous expressions had gained an endearing familiarity in the short but intense time we’d been together. I found her very pretty. She seemed brighter than the gray world surrounding us. Why hadn’t I told her before how much I liked her?

I wanted to kiss her.

Could I? Were we…together? I couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t I think straight?

Maybe it didn’t matter now. It seemed like we were going to die together in this boat, stuck in the middle of a frozen ocean. Didn’t waiting to die together count as an intimate relationship?

I reached out and pulled her toward me.

She pushed my hands away. “E oroma ja?” (What are you doing?)

Lounamia sanii uan gis.” (Let’s lie together for heat.)

She sighed and waited a moment. Finally, she got down in front of me in the boat, wiggling around a bit to figure out where I was, then pressing her back against my chest. Her warmth felt glorious against the frosty air, and I pulled her closer. She rubbed her feet against the tops of my feet, then grabbed my arm and wrapped it around her, placing my wrist between her breasts.

E puidma tikam?” I asked quietly. (Can we kiss?)

She was silent for a long time, then rolled over to face me.

She reached out and felt along my arm, then shoulder, then neck. Her fingers were frigid, but I welcomed the touch. Once she found my face, she moved her face toward mine, and we kissed.

She tasted strange. She tasted almost how Kemma had smelled when we’d shared the jano-sauki breathing gesture.


The vision cracked apart, piece by piece.

It was dark. The boat was gone.

A cave. We were in a cave.

I heard the constant noise from the shore through the entrance hole—barking seals, moaning sea cows, night birds whistling and cooing, and steadily crashing waves.

I’d been dreaming.

But we were still kissing.

I couldn’t see anything in the dark, but my other senses quickly came back. I recognized the fabric, the breathing, the smell.

It wasn’t Jacky. It was Kemma.

In my sleep, I’d crawled off the sleeping pad and toward her. I was now in a brutally uncomfortable position, with one of my arms pinned under me against the cold stone floor and the other wrapped awkwardly around her waist. My neck ached because of the unfortunate angle at which my head was pressed against the wall. I was going to have a full-on headache shortly.

Kemma broke our kiss to catch her breath. “What are we doing?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but don’t stop.”

• • • •


I’d stuck the note in my pocket after we’d transcribed Jacky’s morse code message. I’d found it when inventorying our possessions the next morning to figure out what resources we had available. Unfortunately, the note was pretty much the only thing we’d brought with us. Unless we could fold it into a paper airplane and fly off the island, we were screwed.

I read through the last words Jacky had given us, trying to piece together what she’d learned.

XCG DEAL W DASA FOR OUTPUT. So, the company Liam and Noah represented had bypassed the Sanju Mesdu hegemony and were cutting a deal with the Dasa Mesdu. The Dasa didn’t have any authority over the diamond mines, but they would if they overthrew the Queen and took over. Kemma explained that this was the unspoken hope of every Dasa. While they never explicitly talked about rebellion—since that kind of talk was punishable by death—the threads of hatred for the Sanju and the promise of an eventual rebellion were woven throughout their everyday lives.

COUP MOVED UP NOW BC FOUND OUT. XCG was going to help the Dasa come to power, and in return they would cut the other companies out of the deal and take our shares for themselves. They’d probably had a more reasonable timetable planned for it—with Liam and Noah sent to prepare the way—but since Jacky had found out and they didn’t know what she might have said or relayed back somehow, they were accelerating their plans before anyone else could respond.

MERCS COMING SOON. XCG had private military contractors—the polite modern term for mercenaries—to support the Dasa overthrow of the Sanju, who wouldn’t stand a chance against modern firepower.

ARMING DASA. So, they were not only going to bring armed paramilitary soldiers, but they were also bringing additional weapons to help the Dasa gain and maintain control over the island. In a way, this was fulfilling the legends of Anthony de la Roché returning with the promised weapons.

SHIT HIT FAN. Yeah, no kidding.

NOTIFY US UK. I wondered if this is where I’d screwed up. Maybe I should have sent some kind of message back to our people before we tried to rescue Jacky.

On the other hand, her final words were HELP NOW, and that’s what we did.

Or tried to do, anyway.

“How much time?” Kemma asked.

“A week, maybe? I don’t know how soon they can assemble or how fast they’ll move. Mercenaries can assemble faster than a traditional military force.”

She looked up at me. The fear in her eyes was obvious at first, but over the course of a few seconds it shifted into resolve. “We’ll kill them,” she said. “We’ll make a mountain of their skulls.”

“I should have sent a message explaining what had happened before we tried to save Jacky. At least then someone would know what was happening and could send help.”

“Yes, that would’ve been smart.”

I paused. “How is your—”

“We have to kill Noah,” she said. “We have to go back.”

“I know. Listen, how is your English so good?”

She hesitated. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s good. It’s idiomatic. You never worked with the outsiders at the base before a few weeks ago, so how did you learn to say things like ‘that would’ve been smart’?”

“All the Queen’s children study both English and Afrikaans.”

“Okay, so say that in Afrikaans.”

Va…Al die…konings kinders…Engels and Afrikaans studie.

“That sucked. I don’t even speak Afrikaans and I know that was terrible. You’re lying to me, but I don’t understand why.”


“Okay, what?”

“You’re right.”

“So…why is your English so good?”

“I…I don’t….”

I sighed and gave her a serious look. “Just tell me the truth.”

She pursed her lips and exhaled slowly. “Okay. The truth.”

I waited.

She looked down for a long moment, then back up at me. “Saka, I went to high school and college in California.”

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