Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 18

Lenkora te tolmabau dolo laur dadabau.
A word inside the mind beats a knife inside the heart.
—Mesdu proverb

We continued our clockwise journey far around the island, passing through a light storm that pelted the catamaran with thick drops while we huddled inside the cabin to stay dry, checking outside occasionally only to adjust the sails.

We passed the time by practicing more Dasa accent differences. Plosive intervocalic consonants, slight palatalization under certain conditions, the j sound being pronounced more like an English dz. Things like that. I’d heard some of these differences in my conversations with the Dasa men who’d captured me yesterday when I’d arrived back on the island. I’d been curious about it before, and now understood they’d emphasized those pronunciation differences as a statement of political affiliation now that they felt free to do so openly.

Kemma also explained that Dasa men tended to be more macho than their Sanju counterparts. The Dasa had historically held that men were superior to women, opposite to the Sanju view, and this is part of what kept the embers of rebellion warm. The Dasa knew how to act and speak properly in public so they didn’t seem treacherous enough to warrant punishment, but secretly, in the comfort of their own villages, they still muttered about being ruled by a queen because they felt men should typically be in ruling positions.

She said most Sanju viewed the Dasa as being immature and ignorant, although she admitted that many Sanju women—including herself—tended to view the company of those Dasa men as a guilty pleasure. They didn’t expect much from a woman, so it allowed her to feel more relaxed. And she said they were more assertive during sex, which could be fun at times. However, they soon became boorish and annoying, so long term relationships between the ethnic groups were less common. As for the other way around, Sanju men tended to view Dasa women as being boring and unproductive since they tended to defer to men instead of taking initiative. Kemma shared a Sanju joke that it was more fun to hump a dead seal than a Dasa woman because at least the seal’s fins would flap around while the Dasa woman would just lie there.

It surprised me that there could still be such a cultural delineation centuries after the split that had caused them. I asked Kemma about it and she said that people just liked having something to argue about, like picking sides in a dutui game. There was no physical difference between Sanju and Dasa Mesdu individuals, they simply inherited a different set of beliefs from their parents and then passed them down to their children. It was all in their heads.

I mentioned that I could understand the frustration about men never being able to hold the highest leadership positions. Kemma countered with a variety of statements about how, “They had their chance and proved themselves incapable,” or “The monarchy is too important to put in in the hands of men like Golo, who are driven by pride and anger and ambition.” It sounded like she was just repeating things she’d heard from other people, though. There wasn’t any conviction in her words. When I pressed her, she begrudgingly admitted that it might theoretically make sense for both men and women to have such opportunities. Someday. In the far future. Maybe.

I couldn’t see the sun behind the thick after-storm clouds, but it felt like early afternoon when Kemma finally declared we were far enough around the island and should head in toward a low-lying village on the southern shore. We adjusted the sails and began our approach, coasting through lapping waves toward green cliffs where seabirds spiraled lazily in the air currents.

We were at the opposite end of the insurgent-claimed portions of the island, as far behind enemy lines as we could be. I guessed we’d probably be dead within a couple of hours. I wasn’t happy about it, but I tried to find solace in having spent it in a mostly noble effort alongside a good woman. Hopefully, that counted for something in the eternities. I honestly hoped for a quick death, and that wherever and whenever I’d be born next would be a warm and dry place. A desert might be nice.

We took some time to inspect our weapons. Each of us had a three-pointed fishing spear, a long knife with an obsidian blade for cleaning fish, long wooden hooks for grabbing and pulling larger catches aboard, and a flint hand axe for butchering. Disguised as fishermen, we could carry those things with us without looking suspicious. The long hooks and spears went into a quiver-type carrier on our backs. The knives in sheaths strapped to our chests. The hand axes tucked into a waist loop.

As we neared the shore, the man-made structures there became clearer. It was a fishing village with many small docks jutting into the water. Storage areas holding containers of various sizes had been carved into the cliff walls. Stone buildings had been built short and windowless to withstand the pummeling of waves during storms. A winding stairway meandered up a ravine toward the plateau at the top of the cliffs. Kemma said this was Lower Śu, and at the top of the stairs was the rest of the village, Upper Śu.

We eventually reached one of the docks, and I hopped out to secure the catamaran to a pole with a long fiber rope. Two villagers about a hundred yards away stopped what they were doing to watch us. Kemma climbed out with a basket she’d loaded with various supplies from the boat to load it down to look as though it were full of fish. Anyone in a fishing village, she’d explained, could tell the size of a catch by how the boat sat in the water, so we’d added some random things we’d found to weight it down.

The two individuals who’d been watching us left their work and headed into the village, leaving me with the uneasy feeling that we’d already been made. Maybe my estimate of surviving at least a couple more hours was overly optimistic.

I pulled another laden basket from the boat, and we made our way up the dock toward the village, feigning exhaustion from a busy fishing trip.

“Are you ready to kill?” Kemma asked.

“Not really,” I admitted, “but I’ll do what I have to do.”

“Open your eyes. Breathe deeply. Warm your blood. This is the killfight.”

Sure enough, the two villagers returned with a third man, a large fighter carrying a shark-toothed club and a very serious expression. They walked right toward us, with curious villagers staying a few steps behind to find out what was going on.

“Who are you?” the guard yelled as he approached.

“Fishermen from Araku,” I called back with feigned calmness, trying to emphasize the particulars of the Dasa accent. “This is Kozo Śu, right? We got lost in the storm. We want to rest here and eat before we go home.”

His expression softened a bit at hearing the Dasa pronunciations, but then he looked puzzled. He kept his aggressive pace toward us. “Why does your speech sound like an outsider?” he asked.

Kemma walked demurely behind me, but I felt the tension in her footsteps, as if she were a compressed trap ready to spring.

I went back to my previous cover story, hoping it would work. “I was born away from the island, but my mother brought me back when she heard the Dasa were rising again.” I strode confidently toward him, matching his pace. I took a challenging tone. “Are you Dasa, too, brother?”

He pointed to the purple-dyed strip of woven fiber around his neck. The villagers wore the same neckbands. And we didn’t.

The man stopped about ten feet away from us and motioned for us to do the same. Kemma and I put our baskets down on the ground, freeing our hands for whatever happened next.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“Where is your neckband?”

“We lost them in the storm.”

“I need to see your baskets.”

“Of course.”

“Step back.”

We took a few steps backward, and he warily approached the baskets. My heart pounded so violently I was sure he could hear it.

He bent to open the first basket, taking his eyes off us. I popped my hand axe out of its loop on my waist and gripped it tightly. The man’s expression changed as he saw the random collection of odds and ends in the basket where he expected caught fish to be. In the extra moment he spent trying to understand what he was looking at, I rushed toward him and dropped the hand axe down hard on the back of his thick neck. The flint blade landed between vertebrae and sank inches deep into the meat. He instantly went limp and dropped. He landed with his throat on the edge of the basket, tearing the wound open further and partially decapitating him. Blood surged out. I reached to pull back my axe, cringing as I rocked it back and forth to loosen it. The sound was repulsive, and I almost couldn’t bring myself to do it. Luckily, it came loose just before I gave up.

Kemma’s fishing spear sailed over my head and landed in the chest of one of the villagers who’d stood nearby watching the encounter. The woman dropped, moaning horribly but apparently unable to scream. The man she was with turned in shock to watch her struggle.

Necessity trumped disgust, and I ran at him, bringing the axe down on the side of his head. It sliced a thick flap of flesh, including his ear, but it wasn’t enough. He inhaled to scream, and I brought the axe down again, this time more squarely, and it cracked his skull. He collapsed to the ground, silent and motionless.

Kemma took the knife out of her chest sheath and finished the woman by cutting her throat. Blood coated her fingers as she held the woman down.

We looked around for a moment but didn’t see anyone else who might have witnessed the incident. Then I grabbed the man by his leg and pulled him behind a storage box on the dock. Kemma did the same with the woman.

I approached the large man with his head dangling in the basket. I couldn’t look at it. I focused on his feet. I strained to pull him toward the edge of the dock, then rolled him over a few times with my foot until he flopped over the edge into the shallow water. His body went first, then jerked down his now-backwards head after it.

I turned toward Kemma, who was removing the purple neckbands from the two villagers.

“I can’t do this,” I said.

“You already did this,” she said, tying one of the bands around my neck. “You fought well. I liked watching you.”

I fell to my knees and vomited over the edge of the dock. Then again. And again, until I was only heaving, and nothing would come out.

“Death is a stranger because you’re an outsider. You don’t know it like we do. It will become a friend in time. You won’t fear it anymore.”

“I can’t do this,” I muttered, spitting out bile. “I can’t kill people.”

“There aren’t other people, Saka. There’s only Erku. There’s only you. They were you. I am you. Now you are babies being born again, ready for a new life in a different place at a different time. You will come into families and experience more of this world. You will be happy and comfortable and peaceful. You did nothing bad to yourself, you just moved yourself forward into other lives. This was a gift to yourself.”

I wiped my face. I didn’t know if I really believed all that stuff, but it was all I had to keep me sane right now, so I held onto it. “Fine,” I said. “Let’s keep moving.”

We rinsed off our tools quickly, composed ourselves, and entered the little village. We only saw a few people around, mostly the elderly or very young tending to daily responsibilities. Most of the adults and older children were probably closer to the battle lines. It didn’t seem like there was much strategic advantage to be gained by sticking around here, so we headed for the stairs that went up the long ravine. Kemma explained that this was just the fishing outpost for a much larger village at the top of the cliffs, and that we might find something there. Either way, we had to keep moving because the heavily lopsided battle was still happening further north, and the loyalists wouldn’t be able to hold off the insurgents for long.

We climbed the slippery, narrow stone steps for hundreds of yards. My legs were in agony from the various minor injuries sustained in recent days, but I was getting accustomed enough to the pain that I just let it hurt and didn’t think much about it. This body wasn’t going to be good for much longer, so I might as well use it up.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I’d just killed two more people. Not politely, not from a distance, not by pulling a trigger. I had cut into the meat and bones of their bodies. I didn’t even know who they were. All I knew was that they stood between me and what I was trying to accomplish. Did that make me any better than a simple murderer? Was I even on the right side of this thing? I thought I was trying to defend the Mesdu way of life from an unnecessary rebellion provoked by a corporation thousands of miles away, but how could I be sure they were actually the bad guys? Maybe the Dasa had a righteous desire for independence after being under the thumb of the Sanju for centuries. Maybe they found the only opportunity to get enough support to have a fighting chance. Maybe I was just defending the established hegemony for no other reason than that I happened to have accidentally married the Queen’s daughter.

Jacky would have known how to handle this. She would have had complete clarity about which side she was on and no hesitations about which team she was playing for. I wished she were here to talk me through it. I tried to imagine what she would have told me, but I couldn’t think the way she did. I was wired to ask questions instead of presuming to have the answers.

My brain was on autopilot as we ascended the stairs. I just kept climbing one painful step after another. I didn’t really know what I was doing or why I was doing it, but I knew I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t turn around, so I just kept taking one more step until I had a better answer.

From a corner where the stairs turned around an outcropping of rock, a white man emerged descending the stairs. He wore a black top with a military green tactical chest harness and camo cargo pants. He held a short automatic rifle with one hand, using the other to balance himself on the slippery steps.


We paused, startled, but he kept moving toward us. He glanced at our purple neckbands, then nodded and made the jano-sauki greeting with a cupped hand in front of his face. We moved to the side so he could get by us. He stepped carefully around us and said, “Lala,” quietly, then kept on going.

I glanced at Kemma, and we both exhaled with relief.

It took us another twenty minutes to reach the top of the ravine, which opened up into a large village. I couldn’t tell how big it was from that location, but the wide streets and larger buildings made me think it was one of the more substantial ones on the island, at least compared to the others I’d seen.

There were Dasa fighters and tactically dressed mercenaries all around. There was zero chance of us having a successful fight here. All we could do was watch and learn and try not to get caught. This was like extreme anthropology.

We walked purposefully, as if we were on an important errand. Nobody questioned us. We went up and down the compacted dirt streets, trying to assess the situation. It looked like there were somewhere around a dozen mercenaries with automatic rifles in the area, along with several dozen more Dasa fighters, many of whom were also now armed with modern weapons.

We noticed that many doors were guarded. Occasionally, someone injured or bound would be brought into one of the buildings. We didn’t see people coming out. From their demeanor and behavior, it seemed they were prisoners of war.

I also started to see a pecking order emerge. The mercenary soldiers didn’t listen to anyone except their radios. They would occasionally give orders to the Dasa insurgents, who would immediately jump into service. The fighters would also take orders from other Dasa individuals dressed in purple robes or skirts, apparently their senior officers. Those officers collaborated with whom I assumed to be mercenary officers based on the way they acted and how others responded to them.

There were none of the normal activities I would have expected to see in a village. No merchants. No children playing. No bickering couples. No laborers. No weaving. No cleaning fish. The entire village of Upper Śu had been converted into some kind of paramilitary operations base.

Or, more accurately, a prison camp. This was where they stashed prisoners taken from the front lines, probably for use as bargaining chips for later negotiations. Some of the prisoners had been pressed into labor teams, erecting stone walls around the perimeter to help keep people in. Others were gathered around the village cooking pits, preparing meals for the soldiers. They were all watched closely by armed guards.

“How many prisoners would you guess are here?” I whispered as we walked down a quiet alley between two stone block buildings.

Kemma considered for a moment. “Maybe…one or two hundred? It’s difficult to count them because we can’t see much inside the buildings.

“But more prisoners than guards, right?”

“Yes, many more.”

“Good,” I said. “The thing about prisons is that they only work because the many prisoners are afraid of the few guards. The prisoners could easily overcome all the guards if they worked together, but they don’t because they’re afraid of being hurt individually. None of them wants to move first.”

Kemma nodded. “They’re like children.”

“What do you mean?”

“One adult can control many children because the children don’t work together. Each child is afraid the adult will beat them, so they don’t fight back. But five big children could beat one adult.”

“Yeah, exactly. If we could get these prisoners to fight at the same time, they could easily overcome all these guards. It would be like when the Queen’s guards assaulted the base and took out Noah even though he had better weapons. There were just too many of them. Some died, but they succeeded in the end.”

Kemma rolled her head from side to side as she considered the idea. “Everyone will be afraid because they don’t understand what’s happening here. That will make them nervous to fight. And how can we talk to them when they’re being guarded?”

“Maybe we volunteer to do something with the prisoners. Then we could talk to the prisoners and convince them to join when the fighting starts.”

“It will take a long time.”

“We’ll have to split up, then. Stash our weapons. It’ll be dangerous, but that’s nothing new.”

“How will they know when to fight?”

I thought about it for a moment. “We can use a code word. When they hear it, they’ll know it’s time to attack. All at the same time. When they see each other start fighting, it’ll give them confidence to do it themselves.”

Polomia,” Kemma said.

“I thought that meant, you know.” I made an illustrative sexual gesture with my hands.

“It really means ‘push,’ but it can mean other things. Dutui players say it to tell their team to attack. Everyone will understand. And if it also means other things, I think that also makes sense.”

I nodded. “Alright, then. Polomia it is.”

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