Katama Ao su ras a bansa mo su a.Ao hurts you because she loves you.—Mesdu proverb
I didn’t know much about diamond mining, so in the back of my head I was picturing something resembling a stereotypical gold mine I’d seen in western movies and TV shows: a little tunnel braced by big wooden beams running into the side of a hill with rails and little carts full of ore.
Instead, it was a huge pit that went a couple hundred feet straight down into the ground, wider at the top than the bottom. It was the only area on the island besides Gough House where I’d seen any modern equipment. The shaft was lit with electric lights and had a metal rigging structure perched on top of it with a crane-like mechanism for raising or lowering people, supplies, and diamond ore. Surrounding the pit were several stone buildings, which I guessed were for processing the ore or storing supplies. A large generator hummed steadily, creating an eerily modern sound that reminded me how much I’d grown accustomed to hearing the wind, the ocean, and bird calls all day.
There were also about a dozen men and women armed with spears or clubs who had taken a significant interest in our approach. I assumed they were Dasa insurgents ordered to guard the mine.
We had shuffled our positions during our march so that Agafi, who’d been in charge of the mines, and Themba took the front positions to talk to whomever might approach us. I stayed near them for support, while Kemma and Jacky fell back to avoid making anyone suspicious. Kemma might be recognizable as the Queen’s daughter, while Jacky wouldn’t be able to hide that she was a woman to anyone seeing her up close.
“Agafi?” the nearest man said, squinting as we approached. “Lirama tai Agafi?”
Agafi spoke loudly and cheerfully. “Nemi, Alba, lirama su tai!”
They embraced and greeted each other with a full jano-sauki gesture, then chatted excitedly. Apparently, they knew each other, perhaps having worked together at the mines. From what I could tell, the other man, Alba, was surprised to see Agafi because he thought he was from a Sanju family. Agafi brushed it off, saying he had many Dasa family members and that he secretly preferred Dasa culture anyway, trying to convince him they were on the same side. The presence of the rest of us, looking like an XCG unit with a small Dasa army attached, must have been very convincing as well, because the man readily believed him.
“So, why are you here, then?” Alba asked in Mesdu.
“Some of the Sanju miners we captured were heard speaking about a plan to use the explosives to destroy the Royal House,” Agafi explained. “They ordered us here to remove the explosives and dump them in Kipi pond to destroy them. They can’t blow up the Royal House without explosives, obviously.”
Alba nodded but turned his hands up helplessly. “You put me in a difficult position, Agafi. I was told not to let anyone near the mine for any reason.”
Agafi fidgeted. “We are here with new orders for you, Alba. Don’t you think this large group of soldiers is enough evidence of that?”
Alba bobbed his head from side to side, considering. “I would need to hear from Zaska. He’s our team leader.”
“Zaska is dead, child. Have you not heard?”
This was starting to fall apart. Agafi must have been a very honest man because he was a pretty bad liar. His delivery of that last line was shaky, and I could see from Alba’s expression that he was starting to get skeptical.
I turned to Themba. “Can they see us from up there? We might have to do something in a moment.”
Themba glanced back toward the peak. “Hard to say. If they were really looking, they could probably see us with binoculars. A sniper, definitely. We don’t know if they’re actually watching right now, though. There’s a lot else going on right now as well.”
“Well, just be ready. We might have to be fast.”
I turned back to hear what Agafi and Alba were discussing. The other Dasa guards approached to listen in and find out what was going on.
Agafi began arguing with Alba, demanding that he stop being foolish and let us accomplish the thing we’d been ordered to do. Alba raised his voice as well, and a minute later they were trading insults.
“What the hell is going on up there?” Jacky asked from behind me, still trying to keep her face hidden.
“This guy doesn’t want to let us in, and Agafi apparently has anger management issues,” I said.
“Well, there are twelve of them and like a hundred of us, and I don’t see any of them with radios, so what are they going to do if we just walk right in and do what-the-hell-ever we want?”
“Good point,” I said. “Should we say something to Agafi?”
“Nah, just let him keep arguing. It’ll split their attention. Just start marching for those storage structures. Let’s just find the stuff and get out of here.”
I looked back at Kemma for the okay. She nodded.
I whispered the plan to Themba, and he smiled, then nodded. With that, we just moved past the two arguing men and walked around the edge of the mine toward the storage structures.
Alba sputtered and demanded that we stop, but Agafi kept barking at him, so they kept up their debate about whether we could or couldn’t do the very thing we were doing.
It worked for about thirty seconds, but then I heard someone yelling “Sanjukac! Sanjukac!” and looked back to see one of the guards, an older woman, pointing at our people. Apparently she’d recognized some Sanju individuals in our ranks, tipping them off that this was a scam.
Despite being massively outnumbered, the Dasa guards plunged toward our group, weapons raised. Our soldiers were surprised but responded quickly, blocking the blows with their own weapons and then attacking back. With at least a few of our people responding to each one of theirs, it didn’t take long for the guards to be subdued. Some were obviously dead while others were injured or unconscious.
My biggest fear, though, was that the people up at the Royal House had seen what had happened. And it only took a moment for that fear to be confirmed.
“Eenheid vier, wat de hel gaan aan daar onder?” the voice barked on the radio. “Rapporteer jou status.”
Themba turned quickly to Jacky, eyebrows raised, wanting to know what he should stay.
She pondered for a brief moment, then said, “Tell them the guards they’d left here were the ones who were going to steal the explosives. When they saw us coming and decided to try to blow up the rigging over the mine shaft so it couldn’t be used. We were barely able to stop them in time.”
Themba relayed that in Afrikaans back to the lead unit, and they discussed it back and forth for a bit. Jacky’s idea gave him enough of a story to improvise the rest of the answers to their questions.
In the meantime, Agafi and Kemma went to the storage building and opened it to find the explosives. I went with them.
The ANFO was a lot cuter than I’d imagined, taking the form of little pink beads that could easily be mistaken for candy. It came in big 25-kilo bags, meaning we’d need to carry forty of them, one per person except for a few ambitious ones who decided to carry two at a time.
Agafi also collected a variety of detonation materials, including a couple of sticks of dynamite. He put these into a woven bag and slung it around his shoulder. He also directed some of our soldiers to pick up bags of powdered aluminum that would help the explosion.
As we prepared to leave, Themba approached with a grave look on his face. “They want us to kill the guards,” he said, addressing Kemma. “They want to completely eliminate them as a threat.”
Kemma nodded, pausing for a moment to think. “Okay, do it.”
“We’ve already stopped them. They can’t do any harm now.”
“They can tell others who we are.”
“I know, but—”
“We have to do it, Themba,” she said firmly. “If you don’t want to do it, someone else can do it, but it must be done. If we traded positions, they would kill us in a second. And remember that we’re being watched. We have to make a hard choice for the greater good.”
Themba nodded slowly, looking grim. “You’re right.”
“Do you want someone else to do it?”
“No, ma’am, I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself. I’ll take care of it.”
And with that, Themba drew a pistol from its holster at his side and walked toward each of the surviving Dasa guards, executing them one by one.
• • • •
By the time we’d backtracked through the town of Tepa with our army on our way to Kipi pond, it was already getting dark. That was bad news for us because it made our job that much more difficult, but also great news because it was harder for XCG’s reconnaissance spotters to keep track of us. They probably had thermal and night vision equipment, but they’d be dealing with a lower-quality signal with less detail, so we might be able to get away with a little more than we could during the day.
And that mattered because we needed to get into the secret tunnel that Kemma had told us about, the one the Queen and her people had used to smuggle people and things in and out of the Royal House. Its entrance was located deep at a ridge between glens toward the northwestern part of the island, about three quarters of a mile from Kipi pond (where we were supposed to be), so we definitely had some sneaking to do.
We stumbled through the dark using the half dozen flashlights we had on us until we reached the pond, which wasn’t far past Tepa. The pond itself wasn’t large, maybe 150 feet across, but there weren’t many ponds on the island so it was something of a landmark and our soldiers could collectively find their way there even in the darkness.
When we arrived, we started a charade of passing the ANFO bags from one person to another toward and then rotating them back. We had people moving around, coming in and out of our bucket brigade style setup, generally trying to look busy. Several of them messed around with the bags near the edge of the pond, but didn’t actually dump them in. Many of the others just took the opportunity to rest, though we reminded them frequently to move around and change position, creating as much confusion as possible.
Eventually, Themba radioed in and told the lead unit that the pond wasn’t absorbing the ANFO properly, so we’d have to take the rest down to the shore to get rid of it properly.
This got some pushback, because they were still waiting for us to go back and get Golo from Śu, and it would take a long time to make that round trip to the shore we were proposing. We countered that Golo would probably be sleeping by the time we got there, and that nobody wanted to do a coronation ceremony at three in the morning, so we could get rid of the ANFO at the shore and then immediately head back to Śu to collect Golo and bring him back. We offered to send a dozen of our troops to get him sooner, but they wanted the entire unit to go to make sure nothing happened to him on the way back. I imagined they going to be pretty upset when they eventually discovered we’d already killed him.
After a few minutes of silence while the XCG leadership deliberated, Themba got a call back with their response. “They want us to hold position,” he said. “They’re going to send out a party to talk with us and verify what’s going on.”
“Well, hell,” Jacky said. “That’s not going to work.”
Kemma didn’t like the options in front of her. Slipping under their radar until now had been an amazing strategic advantage, but all good things come to an end. One way or another, we were going to be revealing ourselves shortly.
“We have to go now,” she said. “We don’t have a choice.”
She gave the order to the captains, who passed it along to their people. We picked up the bags again and began hustling our way across the edge of the plateau, then down over the edge into the highest parts of a nearby glen. From what I could see in the moonlight, the stream-chiseled glen looked to be almost a mile across, similar to others on this side of the island.
Instead of going all the way down to the shore, though, we turned back up and came to a large rocky patch that jutted from the earth. It was tricky to scramble up into that area, but once we were in, we could see why it was chosen as a location for a secret tunnel entrance. It was a straight shot up the glen from the port town of Jarma, it was bleak and rough enough that nobody would have any particular need or desire to explore that area, and it was rocky enough to easily hide an entrance.
The entrance itself was a three-foot-by-three-foot hole carved between two massive rocky outcroppings. There were a variety of large rocks scattered in front of it.
Kemma looked concerned. “These rocks should have been blocking the entrance.”
“Do you think someone else went in there?” I asked.
“Or maybe they found the tunnel from the inside and followed it out,” Jacky added.
“I don’t know,” Kemma said, ducking down and crawling into the entrance. “This is bad news, but we can’t stop now. We have no choice but to keep going.”
The tunnel would have to have been about a mile long to reach the Royal House. I’d been concerned that we’d have to walk a mile through the tunnel to reach the other side, but it turned out that my concern was misguided. The tunnel wasn’t actually big enough to walk a mile. We had to crawl it—while carrying a 25-kilo bag of explosive ANFO granules.
Kemma ordered the captains to have the strongest half of their people enter the mine shaft on their hands and knees, each holding a bag to their chest with one hand. Word spread quickly, and they began ducking down and entering the tunnel one at a time. Agafi was among the first to enter so he could begin preparing the explosives as soon as they started arriving underneath the Royal House.
This was going to take a while.
“What do we do about the fact that they’re searching for us right now?” I asked.
Themba spoke up. “I’ll have to distract them. I’m the only one who speaks Afrikaans here, and they know me. I’ll take anyone who’s not carrying bags and we’ll move away from here. Hopefully they won’t realize that we know about the tunnel. I’ll tell them we just got confused and misunderstood what they wanted. We’ll buy you as much time as we can.”
“They’ll want to know why only half of us are with you,” Jacky said.
“I’ll say the other half left to Śu to get Golo read to come with us.”
Jacky nodded. “It’s not great, but it might be good enough. And what do we say about the explosives?”
Themba thought for a minute. “We dumped them in the stream down there. We realized the stream would take them to the ocean, so we didn’t have to go all the way ourselves.”
Jacky raised her eyebrows. “Not bad. Okay, that’s the story. I hope you can sell it.”
“What about you, Jacky?” Kemma asked. “Are you going in the tunnel or staying with Themba?”
“After what I’ve been through, I’m not going to do well in tight spaces for a while,” Jacky said, “Plus I’m still healing from a gunshot wound. I know I don’t make the most convincing mercenary, but I’ll do more good out here with Themba than I would in there.”
I stepped forward and gave Jacky a hug. “Don’t die again, okay? I like you better alive.”
She laughed. “I’ll do my best.”
That’s when we heard the helicopter approaching.
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