Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 20

A great dutui player moves before thinking. If he thinks hard and makes the best move, his opponent might come to the same conclusion and predict his action. Thinking is a trap. However, if the player is willing to make a bad move, his opponent can never know what he’ll do next. Movement without thought creates surprise, and surprise is essential to victory.
—Laga Iogi Aduza, “Treatise on Dutui Theory”

Because the Mesdu were so isolated, they’d had nobody with whom they could go to war, and therefore didn’t really have any concept of military units or ranks.

To organize our little army, we had to explain it to them in dutui terms. We divided ninety of them into nine dutui-style teams of ten each, allowing them to self-organize by clan or other relationships. Each team had a captain (typically the most senior member of the team) and a first mate, just as in the sport. The remaining four became Kemma’s personal bodyguards. She promised all of them would be paid handsomely for their service upon our victory.

We stripped twelve black tactical uniforms off both the dead and surviving mercenaries. Jacky, Kemma, and I all put them on, and we gave the remainder to the newly appointed team captains so everyone would quickly know who to look to for orders when things started getting crazy, and also to create some resemblance to a mercenary-led insurgent unit, which might help confuse the enemy.

Most of the Mesdu looked undersized in the uniforms, being typically shorter than the beefy South African mercenaries from whom we’d taken them, but we rolled up their cuffs and sleeves and tightened their belts and made it work.

With her name cleared and everyone present acknowledging her authority as a princess representing the Queen, Kemma was clearly in charge of the army. She, in turn, made it clear to everyone that Jacky and I were her trusted advisors, and that any orders from us were the same as orders from her.

The first task assigned to the teams—partially out of necessity and partially to give them some practice working together—was to scour the village for weapons, food, and supplies. They found what they could and arranged them in large piles in the center of the village, where Kemma, Jacky, and I went through them and tried to decide what to do with everything.

We determined that we didn’t need to carry much food, since we’d most likely win or lose within the next 24 hours, so we planned to have a feast and let everyone eat their fill before we headed out. I was concerned they’d overeat and be sluggish, but Kemma assured me that the Mesdu, unlike outsiders, knew when to stop eating.

We found enough handguns and rifles to give a few out to each team. We spent a few hours giving everyone a crash course in gun safety and how to shoot. Jacky did the teaching, and I translated as best I could while having to make up firearms vocabulary on the spot.

Fortunately, the Mesdu did have some general understanding of explosives from the mining that took place on the island, so the basic concepts weren’t totally foreign to them. It goes boom, bullet shoots out, hits the target. The rest of it was just teaching them the basic mechanics of the various guns, how to use the safety, and so on.

The shooting practice showed they weren’t exactly marksmen, but they could at least generally put bullets downrange without killing each other. Jacky said it wasn’t the worst fighting force she’d ever worked with, which really said something about whoever had beat us to the bottom of that list.

“There’s something else I need your help with, by the way,” Jacky said. “We’re hearing chatter on the radios, but we need someone to translate it. I’m guessing it’s Afrikaans.”

“I can probably muddle through a little of it, but—”

She held a hand up. “Don’t worry, the mercenaries speak English. They can translate for us.”

“Okay, so what do you need me for?”

“Well, English only works for me, you, and your crazy girlfriend. I’ve still got to teach a hundred Mesdu how not to shoot their own foot off, and your girl is busy being in charge of everything else. That pretty much leaves you to work with these guys.”

I sighed. She was right.

The sun dipped toward the horizon and our army began the long process of trying to eat dinner in a halfway orderly fashion. Jacky and I walked across the village to the small stone building where our four XCG prisoners were being held. I brought along a notebook I’d found so I could take notes on what they translated from the radio transmissions. It wasn’t exactly like fieldwork but having it in my hand was reassuring all the same.

As we neared the building, Jacky stopped and turned to me with a serious expression. Between that and her black tactical outfit, she actually looked a little intimidating.

“Listen, Matt, I need to warn you in advance. Right now, these guys have every reason to feed us misinformation, just like I did to them when I was their prisoner. We just don’t have time for that. We need them to know we’re serious…so there’s a good chance I end up killing one of them to convince the others to play ball.”

I blinked a few times. “That seems a bit extreme. Can’t we just—”

“One of the guys who…did stuff to me…is in there.” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Well…I guess we can probably do without that guy, right?”

“That’s how I feel about it. Just wanted to let you know what’s going on, so it didn’t take you by surprise.”

“I appreciate that,” I said. I pointed to where I was standing. “I’m just gonna….”

She nodded. “Yeah, that’s best.”

“Are you…okay?” I asked.

She put a hand over her stomach where she’d been shot. “It still hurts a lot, and it’s hard to move around, but as long as I don’t tear anything open, I should be fine.”

“No, I mean, are you okay?”

She sighed. “Oh. That. Well, not really. I’ll have a breakdown later when nobody’s watching, but I’m holding it together well enough for now. This’ll help a little.”

She turned and continued walking while I stayed firmly put about fifteen yards from the building.

As she approached, the two Mesdu guards stationed there pulled aside the heavy crates that blocked the front doorway. She pushed past the woven door curtain and entered the building. Not five seconds later there was a gunshot and a bright flash of light from around the doorway. Lots of frantic yelling followed. Then, a few seconds later, there was another gunshot and more yelling.

Eventually, Jacky walked out, rubbing her ears. She gestured to the guards that she wanted them to take the two bodies out and throw them over the nearby cliff. They dutifully obliged and went inside, emerging a few moments later, dragging two corpses.

Jacky waved me over.

“So, how’d it go?” I asked sarcastically as I approached her.

Her voice was a little too loud. “I thought there was just one of them in there, but then I recognized the other guy. I hope the remaining two are enough for the radios, because that’s who we’ve got left.”

“Something wrong with your ears?” I asked.

“Ringing,” she said. She looked annoyed but tried to lower her volume. “Never shoot in a confined space like that if you can avoid it. I’d planned to take them outside first, but then I looked at their faces and just decided to shoot them right there. I did you a favor and shot them in the chest, though. There’s some blood, but at least there won’t be brains and skull and stuff all over. Figured that’d make for a nicer working environment.”

I nodded, wincing. “That’s very considerate of you.”

She smirked and slapped me on the shoulder. “I like to make people feel welcome.”

I followed as she passed back through the doorway. We were in a large windowless square dimly lit by a bird fat lamp. It had probably been used as a storage building before the village had been taken over.

In opposite corners of the room, two Mesdu guards stood alertly, both holding short fishing spears. I recognized one of them as someone I’d recruited earlier, and we made the jano-sauki to each other.

Two mercenaries, both now wearing only their underwear since we’d taken their uniforms, sat with their hands behind their backs, tied around a stone block support column in the center of the room. One was a grizzled white man with a scarred face and the other a younger man with dark black skin.

Jacky gestured toward them. “Matt, I’d like to introduce Caleb and Themba. They both speak English, and they’re both very eager to help us understand what’s happening on the radio. In return, we’re going to give them a rowboat and they can go off wherever they please. If they give you any trouble, just let me know and I’ll come shoot them, okay?”

“They seem like sensible guys,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”

She turned to the men and jerked a thumb back towards me. “This guy doesn’t speak Afrikaans,” she said, “but he’s a language nerd and he’ll pick up enough that he’ll know if you’re lying. So don’t lie.”

The soldiers both nodded.

“We’ll tell you everything,” the older one said. “I’m not dying for this damned job.”

• • • •

The two soldiers seemed honest enough, as far as I could tell. Caleb, the scarred white man, joked that he’d signed up for the XCG gig to get away from a loan shark who wasn’t happy about his significant horse racing debt. The other man was Themba, a soldier who’d recently started a family and had been lured by the promise of big money for what he’d thought was going to be a straightforward security job.

We spent a few hours eavesdropping on the communications from various XCG groups around the island, with Caleb and Themba interpreting what they were hearing for me. At one point I left and brought back a map of the island so we could write notes on who was where and what the situation was, and we were starting to get a pretty decent picture of what was going on out there.

Caleb explained that there had been forty-five soldiers on the mission in total. That was a larger number than was actually needed for a successful rebellion, but many of them were intended to establish order and infrastructure for XCG’s new arrangement after the initial attacks. Most of them would go home in coming weeks, with a crew of just six to eight staying behind to manage things.

Twelve of the mercenary soldiers had been here in Śu, which meant we’d miraculously already managed to take out a quarter of the whole XCG force. Something that had finally gone our way for once.

Unfortunately, the situation elsewhere on the island was bleak. Three other units were steadily moving toward the Royal House from different angles. Many of the loyalist forces were concentrated around it, trying to keep it from falling into their hands. The battle at Lenśa Birzo where I’d met up with Kemma again had been one of those three fronts.

The building itself wasn’t worth much from a practical perspective. It hadn’t been built to hold off an army, since there historically weren’t any on the island, so it wasn’t a particularly defensible outpost. However, the symbolism of the Royal House was what really mattered. If they took it by force and had a figurehead walk out and declare himself the new king—it wouldn’t be Golo anymore, of course, but they’d come up with someone—it wouldn’t take long for the rest of the Mesdu to get in line. It was a psychological victory that would secure the actual victory. Loyalist morale and enthusiasm would crumble and the Dasa would secure their place as the new rulers of the island—with the XCG corporation ruling the Dasa behind the scenes.

Caleb and Themba explained that the units were taking it slow. They had superior firepower, so they didn’t need to risk their own lives blitzing unnecessarily. They just moved steadily toward the Royal House, gradually wearing down the resistance until they crumbled.

Once they reached the building itself, they’d surround it, cut off supply lines, and kill anyone foolish enough to poke their head out. The Queen and her people would hold out for a little while and then surrender voluntarily once they saw it was hopeless. Some tear gas and hostage shooting would speed it up if needed.

“They’ll give up quick enough,” Caleb said. “They always do.”

Themba, however, seemed a dismayed at what he was hearing. The look on his face made it clear that he was in over his head.

The soldiers’ orders were to take the Queen alive if possible, so they could arrange a ceremonial execution as part of the transition, as was traditional. The new king would publicly cut the Queen’s throat to symbolize the transition. The outgoing Queen was supposed to do it willingly to show solidarity for the new leader. Caleb said they had ways to pressure Nadu to sacrifice herself for the benefit of her people.

They talked about taking the Royal House with such inevitability that it felt like it had already happened. I was already trying to work out how Kemma, Jacky, and I might escape the island. Kemma was one of Queen Nadu’s daughters, so she’d certainly be killed as soon as they could find her. I wondered if we could steal the mercenaries’ ship somehow.

“Hey,” Caleb said, interrupting my thoughts. “They’re still asking for a status update. They’re want to know if they need to send people back to check on us. We’re going to have to say something.”

I sighed. I’d been putting this off as long as possible because I didn’t understand enough Afrikaans—the derivative of Dutch that these South African mercenaries were using as their operational language—to know if he was going to slip them a message about what had happened here so they’d send reinforcements. I’d sent one of the Mesdu guards, the skinny one named Piki, to try to find Jacky so I could get her opinion, but he returned later unable to find her.

“Fine,” I said. “You’re both going to talk to them. Tell them you had to go for a walk to get the radios to work because there’s some kind of interference around the village. Caleb, you tell them everything’s good here, but Golo demands an update on the situation because he’s eager to make the transition to power. Themba, you tell them that one of the injured prisoners died but the rest are doing okay.”

I figured that should all sound plausible enough. I recalled Jacky’s words when I’d first learned about the fake blogs and social media posts intended to distract people away from Gough Island. “Saying nothing creates curiosity,” she had said. “Saying something creates complacency.”

Caleb and Themba nodded. Caleb reached for the radio, but I held up a hand.

“Hold on,” I said. “You guys already know I can understand at least a little Afrikaans. If it seems to me like either of you is lying or trying to slip them a message, I’m going to walk out of this building and Piki and Nuomus here are going to take their fishing spears and give you whatever they think you deserve.”

I let that sit for a moment.

“And if one of you reports that the other one is lying, he’ll get a proper sailboat, a week’s worth of food, and a gun. You can sail around and find the ship you came in on, or you can try your luck with the ocean. Whatever you want. It’s up to you. Understand?”

Themba frowned. “What if we both do what you want and tell the truth?”

“You just get the rowboat we promised before.”

He shook his head. “That ain’t right. We should get the biggest reward for doing what you want.”

I shrugged, hoping this gambit might tempt them. “Sorry, that’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“Let’s just make the call,” Caleb said, grabbing the radio.

What followed was about five minutes of rapid chatter in Afrikaans, with me closing my eyes in concentration and trying to follow what they were saying. Some of the words were easy enough—kasteel for castle, pasiënte for patients, and so on—but most of the time I had no idea what they were saying. I leaned in and listened hard, as if I could make myself understand them through willpower alone, but it just wasn’t happening.

There was some back and forth between them and whomever was on the radio. It sounded pretty neutral in tone, as if they were just exchanging information. Caleb scribbled notes on the back of some pages. I didn’t pick up any real emotion or concern. I didn’t notice any knowing looks between Caleb and Themba, trying to mutually decide what tactic to use. I really hoped they weren’t just inviting their fellow soldiers to come rescue them and kill us all. It didn’t sound like it, but they could also just be faking really well.

Eventually, they wrapped up and signed off. Themba explained that the battle at Lenśa Birzo—or “The Glen,” as it was called on their maps—was still going in their favor. The weather had recently cleared and the snipers were able to pin the loyalists down long enough to get a unit of men around on the plain and flank them. The line was still holding but would break soon. Another squad was camped behind “Barren Dome,” or Tariu-Lalsi, a large round hill three quarters of a mile northwest of where the Royal House was located on Edinburgh Peak (or Fizal Faśanuba). That squad wasn't facing any resistance there, just awaiting orders. And a third squad was clearing out a village southwest of the peak, where they planned to hold until word came to advance on the peak.

Basically, things were looking really bad.

As Themba was distracted listening to an incoming message on the radio and writing notes, Caleb surreptitiously tossed a wad of paper under the table near my feet. I reached down to pick it up and opened it.

The words He told them were scratched in rough handwriting.

I glanced up at him, and he nodded, a serious look on his face.

I looked over at Themba, who was comparing his notes from the recent message against the map spread out on the table.

After thinking about it for a moment, I turned and exchanged a few words with Nuomus, the larger of the two Mesdu guards in the room with us. He stood up and moved toward Caleb.

“Caleb, Nuomus here is going to take you to your boat and supplies.”

Caleb flashed a quick smile, then went sad-faced and glanced sideways at Themba.

“Wait, what’s going on?” Themba asked.

Caleb quickly stood to move away from Themba and toward the doorway with Nuomus. “I’m sorry, Themba, I had to tell them the truth.”

Themba went wide-eyed. “Jou bliksem! Jou foken poes! I didn’t tell them anything!”

Piki jumped up and moved to block Themba from moving toward me or Caleb. He was skinny for a Mesdu, but still had plenty of island strength and I didn’t doubt he could stop the larger Themba.

Nuomus quickly ushered Caleb outside through the doorway. Warm light from the setting sun peeked into the room momentarily when they pushed the door hanging aside.

“You have to believe me!” Themba said, his face curled in anger. “I did exactly what you said.”

“I know, I know,” I said, gesturing for him to calm down. “I had to test you guys to figure out if one of you would double-cross us. I could tell he was throwing you under the bus to benefit himself, so Nuomus is going to get rid of him. And you’re coming with us.”

• • • •

The sky grew dark, and the temperature dropped to an uncomfortably chilly level. We got our teams assembled for the night and tried to restore the camp to an approximation of its previous appearance just in case someone saw us and reported the prison break back to the other mercenaries. Each team went back to one of the buildings that had previously been the jails. They carried as much food as they could, both from the stores of Mesdu food found in the village as well as the soldiers’ rations. We needed to move fast in the morning, so we’d only bring what we could carry. Anyone who wanted a meal needed to eat it tonight.

Those of us who had uniforms took turns keeping watch outside, helping contribute to the appearance of normalcy. I was still hopped up on adrenaline from the day, so I volunteered for the first shift.

I sat on a stool just outside the last building in Upper Śu, where the road enters the village. I was told that was the main guard station for the camp, so I should be the first to see anything. There wasn’t much to see, though, except for the gentle slopes of the southeastern part of the island and the faint silhouettes of peaks in the distance against the barely moonlit clouds.

I heard movement from behind me and turned to see a shadowy figure with a mechanical face approaching quickly. I’d leaped to my feet before I realized who it was.

“These things are so cool,” Jacky said, flipping up the helmet-mounted night vision goggles to reveal her face. “Sorry for the jump scare. Just wanted to bring you some dinner.”

I laughed, more out of relief than amusement, and took the woven basket she offered me. “Thanks.”

She squatted on the ground next to me and removed the automatic rifle she’d slung over her shoulder, laying it on the ground. “Thought I’d come keep you company for a while. I’ve been pushing a little harder than I should with this gunshot wound. I need a break.”

I reached into the basket and pulled out the first thing I got my hands on. I felt the wrapper and almost couldn’t believe it, so I popped the flashlight on for a moment to confirm what my fingers were telling me.

It was an actual chocolate bar.

“Oh, Jacky, you have no idea how much this means to me,” I said as I tore it open.

Jacky smiled. “Saved it just for you. Figured the rest of these folks wouldn’t appreciate it like you would.”

I chomped a bite off the end and almost sobbed as a wave of pleasure and familiarity hit my tongue and surged through the rest of my body. Somehow that crappy little candy bar was the greatest thing I’d ever put in my mouth.

“Are there any more of these?” I asked.

“I ate the rest of them,” Jacky said. “Almost ate that one too, actually, but I figured I owed you for trying to rescue me.”

I swallowed. “This might make us even,” I said.

“You ready for tomorrow?” Jacky asked, nodding toward the slopes. About four miles away in that direction was the Royal House, and the only thing between it and us was a professionally trained paramilitary organization.

“Sure,” I said unconvincingly. “Let’s do it.”

She laughed. “Even fake hope is better than nothing. I’ve been coasting on that since Noah caught me. I should be dead by now, but here I am, just because I was never willing to admit that they’d defeated me.”

I took another bite of the chocolate. “Well, stay close to me, then. You can be my good luck charm.”

She leaned back against the stone wall of the building we sat next to. “So, what are you going to do after all this?” she asked.

I paused to consider that question, then shook my head. “I don’t know. I’m a little lost.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Honestly, I don’t even know if I want to be an anthropologist anymore,” I said. “I don’t want to sit back and watch other people live. I want to do some living myself.”

She considered me for a moment. “So, a career change, then?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I have some stuff to figure out with Kemma, too.”

Jacky looked down at the ground where she was pushing a rock back and forth with her black-booted foot. “So, I guess the two of you are getting serious?”

I laughed, and ran my fingers across my shirt, feeling the raised scabs of the diagonal cuts underneath. “Well, Jacky, I’ve got a funny story to tell you.”

• • • •

Haai, word wakker!

Someone kicked me in the shin, waking me up.

I looked around, trying to understand what was happening. There were people and bright lights. Flashlights.

I was still at the edge of the village. I’d fallen asleep on the ground.

I looked around for Jacky. She lay on the ground next to the wall of the building behind us, still asleep.

U gaan nie betaal word as u weer so aan die slaap raak nie,” someone else said. They were shining a flashlight in my face.

They were speaking Afrikaans. There were two of them, from what I could see, wearing the same black uniforms Jacky and I wore. There were three Mesdu nearby as well, two men and a woman. Their hands were zip-tied behind their backs, and they were lashed together with rope.


These were XCG mercenaries bringing prisoners to the camp.

Ja, goed,” I said, struggling to remember the word for prisoners I’d heard Caleb and Themba using. “Gevangenes?

The first man spoke up again. “Ja, gaan u dit neem?

I was just guessing, but Afrikaans had enough in common with English that I thought he was saying, Yeah, are you going to take them?

Ja, ja,” I said, nodding vigorously and moving toward the prisoners.

Fokken idioot,” the other man said. I understood that one easily enough.

I motioned for the Mesdu prisoners to approach, and they shuffled toward me on the road into the village.

The two mercenaries shook their heads at my incompetent military performance. The first man started talking into his radio, hopefully indicating that they’d handed off the prisoners, and probably including some colorful commentary on how they’d found the camp guards sleeping.

Gaan jy jou vriend wakker maak?” the other man asked, motioning toward Jacky, who was still asleep on the ground. I didn’t know what he was saying, so I ignored him and nudged her with my foot to wake her up.

“Cover your ears,” she whispered.

I knew her well enough by now to listen when she said things like that. I immediately pressed my palms against my ears.

She grabbed her rifle and fired two shots into one of them, then immediately adjusted her aim and put two into the other one as well. The muzzle flashes lit up the night and I felt the rapid air compression in my guts, like standing next to big speakers at a loud concert.

The Mesdu prisoners yelped. One of them dove to the ground, pulling the others down into a heap with him. The two mercenaries were dead before the prisoners even finished falling over.

Jacky got to her feet and rubbed one ear with her free hand. “Damn it, I swear I’m going to be deaf before we get off this island.”

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