Plunge forward like a ship to battle hurled,
Slip the long cables of the failing light,
The level rays that moor you to the world:
Sheathed in your armour of eternal frost,
Plunge forward, in the thunder of the fight
To lose yourself as I would fain be lost.—Roy Campbell, “Tristan da Cunha”
After a few minutes of hushed huddling, we worked out a plan. Maybe not a good plan, but a plan.
We flipped the cot over and pulled at the wooden boards until they broke at the joints and snapped off in our hands. We snapped the longer boards in half, tossing aside the ones that didn’t split the way we wanted. In the end, we had a single reasonably sharp piece of wood that could serve as a weapon.
I used the tip to pierce my shirt sleeve at the elbow, then tore off the rest of the sleeve and wrapped it around the handle to give a better grip. It wasn’t the most impressive-looking weapon, but it could probably get the job done.
I pressed myself against the wall next to the door and breathed slowly, trying to calm myself. A couple of weeks ago, I would never have imagined myself capable of something like this, but after all we’d been through so far, I wasn’t going to sit here and wait to be killed. I was tired of being a pawn in someone else’s game of chess, and I wasn’t going to do it anymore.
Kemma approached and put her hand on my cheek. “It’s good to send them to their next birth, Saka. They don’t need to be in this world anymore.”
I shrugged half-heartedly. Regardless of the justification, I knew what I was about to do would haunt me forever—if I was even successful, that is.
She got into position against the far wall. Rob ducked down in front of the door. I tightened my grip on the makeshift wooden dagger, then nodded to Kemma. She let out a long, horrible scream, pausing occasionally only to take another breath and start again.
A moment later, Constable Patterson pounded his fist on the door and yelled “We h’ain’t fools, mind you. That’s the oldest trick there is.”
Kemma ignored him, her face growing red as she let out a series of ugly, screeching wails. Even Rob raised his eyebrows in surprise at her performance.
It took fifteen minutes of this cacophony before Patterson finally slid open the door panel to see what was going on. Kemma was in a far corner of the room, so he pressed his face up to the open slot to see her.
I’d been crouched by the door waiting for this exact moment.
I swung my arm around and drove the wooden stake through the slot, right into his face. It hit his cheekbone and sliced upward into his eye socket. I pushed hard, then I recoiled in disgust at the sound and sensation. The wood clattered to the floor inside the cell as the now-dead constable crumpled to the floor.
That was one down.
Kemma and I pressed ourselves up against the wall near the door again. There were quick footsteps as Administrator Winthrop darted around on the other side of the door, then the end of a double-barreled shotgun appeared through the slot. We’d planned for this. Rob’s hand popped up from underneath and grabbed the barrel, holding it firmly pointed at the back wall of the room.
Winthrop fired, and the buckshot ripped a hole in the wall behind us. The explosion was deafening. Rob released it in shock, but collected himself and grabbed it again, jerking the gun hard, banging Winthrop’s hand against the steel frame of the door slot. Rob wrested it away from him and pulled the gun through the slot, then turned it around and aimed back through the slot.
“One shot,” I reminded him, though I couldn’t hear myself over the ringing in my ears. It was a break-action shotgun that only held two rounds, and one had already been fired.
He waited a moment, awkwardly peering through the slot to find Winthrop, then fired the shotgun’s second barrel with another explosive crack. There was a loud thump on the other side of the door.
We waited a moment. Rob looked again, then stepped back from the door and nodded to us. Winthrop was down.
“People’ll be comin’ here after all that,” Rob warned.
He and I took turns kicking the doorknob until the door splintered and we were able to pull it open.
Constable Patterson lay on his back with a shredded cheek and a ruined eye.
Administrator Winthrop had tried to escape the office after Rob had grabbed the shotgun. He’d made it halfway out the door, and now lay face down there with a bloody hole in his back and a large pool of blood forming underneath him.
I tried not to look too closely at either of them. I already had enough nightmare material for the rest of my life.
Rob dropped the now-empty shotgun to the floor. “Ohhh, what’ve I done?” he mumbled to himself.
I motioned toward the door. “We need to go now.”
The three of us stepped out the front door over Winthrop’s body as curious and concerned faces emerged from windows and doorways, looking toward the little constable station trying to see what had happened. Rob took off across the street, disappearing between two houses. We heard a woman scream behind us. She’d seen Winthrop’s body bleeding out in the doorway.
We zig-zagged through the town, trying to take advantage of the diminishing light, darting through gardens, across dirt roads, and over low walls.
It wasn’t long before we came to a long, white building with a few picnic tables out front. We ran to the far end of it, where there was a door and a small sign with Albatross Bar written in plain letters above the window.
Acting as calm as we could manager under the circumstances, we caught our breath and entered the single room watering hole and found a handful of people sitting at the bar or small tables. I recognized Little Rob and Harold sitting in the corner with a few others.
“Y’all finally showed up!” Harold said, lifting his glass. “A drink for our rescues!”
A grizzled fisherman, an apparent friend of theirs, still in his green waders, turned to us and grinned. “The boys here say you're the luckiest catch they ever done had.”
Rob was still panting from our run. “‘Uncle Shane, we're needing your help. All of you. Right now.”
The smiles disappeared as they recognized the seriousness of his tone. “What's wrong?” the old fisherman asked.
“I never done told you no lie, Uncle. Not even one. Never in my life.”
“Tell me the matter, Rob.”
“I was right about Gough,” Rob whispered. “This girl was born there. She's one of them.”
The man looked Kemma up and down, eyes wide. She nodded, confirming what Rob had said.
“Well, I'll be double damned,” Shane said.
“You’re tellin’ me there been women down there all this time?” Little Rob asked, earning an elbow from Harold.
Rob wringed his hands together. “They're being in a heap of trouble, Uncle Shane,” he whispered, “and now I'm in it, too.”
I looked around the room, worried that news of our jailbreak might walk in the door any minute. Everyone's eyes were on us, and they were completely silent, straining to eavesdrop on Rob's whispering.
I noticed a man in a familiar orange jumpsuit sitting alone in the far corner, sitting by himself. I stepped away from the conversation with Rob's family and approached him.
“Hey, I thought that was you,” the man said. “How’d you wind up here on Tristan?”
“You're the pilot,” I said. “The helicopter pilot.”
He nodded. “Carter,” he said. “And you’re, what was it…? Matt, right?”
“What are you doing here?”
“The Agulhas usually stays at Tristan for a bit before heading on. Thought I'd have a final night out before we leave tomorrow. Everything okay? You look pretty rough.”
“The helicopter’s here on the island right now?”
“Is it fueled?”
“Yeah, we keep it filled in case of emergency rescues. Why, what's going on?”
I lowered my voice to a whisper. “We have to leave this island right now.”
He laughed. “Man, I can't fly tonight. I already started drinking.”
“Where's the other pilot?”
“He's over in our guest house, sleeping off a hangover.”
“You don't have a choice then,” I said. “The mission was compromised. All hell's breaking loose. We have to get out of here now. A lot of people are going to die.”
Kemma tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned to see Rob, Little Rob, Harold, and Shane walking out the door. Curious faces around the bar turned to look at us.
I pointed at Carter. “Go get it ready to fly, right now.”
He picked up on my tone and expression, and his demeanor shifted. “Well, hell, I guess we’d better get going then.”
Carter left the Albatross Bar with us, then headed toward the helicopter while the rest of us jogged to Shane’s house, about a hundred yards from the Albatross Bar.
On the way there I heard yelling from the direction of the constable’s office. They were already looking for us. I couldn't blame them, since we’d just killed the head of the local government and the island’s only cop. All hell would break loose here in a few minutes as word got around the small town.
Fortunately, Rob’s family had never liked the Administrator and had no trouble believing he’d been looped into a greedy conspiracy. “The Devil can have him,” Shane declared.
Once we got to Shane’s house, he opened a cabinet in the living room and pulled out several antique but well-maintained rifles and shotguns, handing one to each of us. He also pulled out boxes of ammunition. Apparently, Shane was an avid bird hunter and gun collector, and his family all knew Shane’s house was the place to go if there was ever trouble.
Kemma walked by each of the men there one by one, placing a hand on their chest and saying, “Thank you.”
Shane nodded. “We Tristanians are known for helping h’anyone in trouble on the sea. We don’t waste time thinking, we just go. If Rob says we need to go, I believe him. I trust you done been wronged and you don’t got no time to get stuck here explaining. Plus, I want to see these Gough h’Island rumors myself.”
I hefted the bolt-action, World War I-era rifle in my hands. “These won’t stop them,” I said. “They’re sending professional soldiers with modern weapons.”
“Well, son, this is what we got,” Shane said. “Make it count.”
• • • •
The seven of us piled into the helicopter, which sat beyond some potato patches on the outskirts of the town. Carter took the pilot’s seat and Shane sat up front with him. The rest of us got into the back.
Carter spent a few minutes on the radio, getting patched through to an appropriate contact at the CIA. He started explaining what had happened. As the questions came back to Carter, I answered them as best I could.
After about ten minutes, the official response came back: “Do not return to Gough Island. Do not engage. Relocate to the Agulhas and await further orders.”
Those were the most beautiful words I’d ever heard. Relief washed through my body. I’d done the job I came to accomplish. Against all odds, we’d made it to Tristan. I’d successfully notified my government about what was happening, and they’d released me from responsibility for it.
With the Mesdu civilization in jeopardy, and with me being one of the few living outsiders with any firsthand knowledge of them, I knew I had a moral responsibility to return home and document my findings before the knowledge was lost entirely—especially because it seemed they were about to undergo a genocidal civil war that would eradicate some significant portion of that culture. I was literally the only human being in the world with an anthropological perspective on the Mesdu at this stage in their society. That came with responsibilities. I had to survive. I had to share what I’d learned, not to the damned U.S. Government anymore, but to the world. I was going to publish this no matter what the consequences might be for me.
But for now, all I had to do now was go back to a comfortable room on the ship and get some sleep. It was someone else’s job to clean up this mess now. From the Agulhas, I could get back to South Africa, and from there back home to the States.
“No,” Kemma said flatly, disrupting my contemplation. “We’re going to Gough Island.”
Carter turned around and shrugged. “Listen, I just got orders to take the two of you back to the Agulhas, so that’s what we’re doing.” He glanced at the fishermen. “Gentleman, you may just want to get off this ride here. This isn’t something you want to get involved in.”
“We’re not getting off,” Shane said. “And we are going to Gough.”
Rob leveled his shotgun at Carter. “You say the other fella is sleeping off a hangover? I bet if we show him your body, he’ll get over it quick.”
“Threatening me is a really bad idea,” Carter said.
“Start those engines now,” Shane said with an authoritative voice.
“Stop it,” I said. “This is ridiculous. We need to just get to the ship and wait this out. I'm sure they’re going to send the Navy or something. It’s ridiculous for us to go back to Gough just to get ourselves killed.”
Kemma growled with frustration. “Even if your people come, my people will already be dead. We need to go now.”
“No!” Carter snapped. “It’s more than 400 kilometers to Gough. I won’t have enough fuel to make it back. Hell, we might not even have enough to make it all the way there.”
“We can find a way back later,” Shane said. “Start the engine.”
I shook my head. “No. I’m not going back there.”
Kemma placed her hand on my chest, feeling the cuts on my chest through my shirt. They stung as she brushed her fingers lightly across them. “Blood can’t be unmixed, Saka. Stay with me. Stay with your wife.”
“We could have died, Kemma,” I said. “Multiple times over. I can’t do this anymore. I’m done. I have to go home.”
She stared at me for a long moment, then turned toward me, brought her knees up to her chest, and kicked me hard with both feet, knocking me out of the helicopter and down onto the muddy grass.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shouted. “I can't stay here. They’re going to kill me before I can explain.”
The helicopter’s rotor blades eased into motion. I tried to climb back on board but found only shotgun and rifle barrels greeting me.
“You’re done with this life,” Kemma said. “You don’t deserve to be here.”
I couldn't think straight. Staying here on Tristan here would likely be suicide, since I’d be the only remaining suspect in the killing of two locals and I figured they’d have some strong feelings about that. If they didn’t shoot me, they’d at least beat the crap out of me. This was going to be bad.
I glanced around and set my eyes on the massive, grassy volcano cone that defined the island. Maybe I could hide out somewhere on the slope until things quieted down. With any luck, they’d assume I left on the helicopter with the others and eventually give up the search.
Kemma squatted in the helicopter, holding the antique rifle Shane had given her. Her face was twisted in a mask of resentment. I couldn’t blame her. She yelled something, but it was lost in the low whine of the accelerating engine.
“What?” I yelled back, cupping my hand to my ear.
She jumped down from the helicopter into the grass, wincing momentarily from the broken rib I’d given her earlier. She marched toward me. Even after all the insane things we’d been through together, I was still fascinated by the simple, practiced elegance with which she crossed the terrain in her bare feet.
She stopped in front of me, her hair whipping in the chilly downwash of the helicopter blades. The last rays of late afternoon light peeked underneath the approaching black storm clouds, glowing orange against her skin.
“Do you even know how to use that?” I asked, pointing at the rifle.
“Lijima somam sapac zua zuma sapa,” she hissed back at me.
It took me a moment to process what she’d said. When I understood it, I sighed and looked down at the ground.
You’d rather study humans than be a human.
She had a valid point, and I didn’t like that.
She stormed to the helicopter, and the weary fishermen on board glared at me as they helped her back in. They were willing to drop what they were doing and risk their lives to help her and her people—complete strangers they hadn’t realized even existed until just minutes ago—but I apparently couldn’t be bothered.
My eyes locked with Kemma’s again as they lifted off the pad. I couldn’t stop looking, despite her visible disgust toward me. She was a fatigued mess after the ordeals we’d experienced together, but watching her leave still felt like watching the sun going down and somehow realizing it would never come up again. They were going with just enough fuel for a one-way voyage—if that much—to fight a war that couldn’t be won. She’d probably be dead by the end of the day.
The world around me grew quiet as the helicopter shrank southward into the fog, the engine roar descending into a low thup-thup-thup of rotor blades and then gradually fading into the sound of the ocean waves and seabird calls.
That was it.
She was gone.
I’d cheated death a few times already and would probably be the only person left who could tell the true story of what had really happened on Gough Island. If I’d gone with her, I’d end up a corpse on the ocean floor with thousands of others. The information in my head was objectively too important to let that happen. It was my duty to tell their story—and her story—before it was lost entirely.
But the woman I was starting to love had just left me to fight a hopeless war, and I realized a few minutes too late that I probably should have gone with her.
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