Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 23

Zuma orodau sia tinmo ziki karsoln somi.
This life is a small stretch of a long road.
—Mesdu proverb

“Do we shoot?” I asked.

Jacky held up her hand and closed her eyes. “Shhh, I’m trying to think. Good lies don’t just come out of thin air.”

The XCG helicopter hovered in the air in front of us, about a hundred feet off the ground, with a spotlight scanning our group. They were watching us, trying to figure out what was going on.

I couldn’t help but notice the silhouette against the moonlit clouds of a long gun barrel mounted to the side of it.

Our Mesdu soldiers stared in amazement at the noise and light and spectacle of the helicopter, having never seen anything like that before. Kemma yelled at them to get back to transporting explosives into the tunnel.

“They want to know what we’re doing,” Themba said, holding his radio. “What should I say?”

She was still quiet.

“Jacky?” I asked.

She opened her eyes. “Themba, turn off your radio. Our radio doesn’t work. That’s what we tell them.”

Themba surreptitiously twisted the knob on his radio to the off position, then then stepped forward toward the helicopter, into their spotlight. He alternated between shrugging and point toward his ear, indicating that his radio wasn’t working.

“Tell them to land,” Jacky yelled. “We need them on the ground to neutralize them, so we don’t attract more attention by crashing the helicopter.”

She turned back and moved into crowd of Mesdu soldiers near the tunnel entrance, hiding herself so the mercenaries didn’t realize she was a woman. “New story,” she continued, yelling to be heard over the helicopter. “Golo said we should tell everyone we’re destroying the explosives, but that we should actually hide them here, so we don’t waste them. This way they can keep mining for diamonds when this is over instead of waiting for another shipment.”

Themba pointed at the helicopter and then to the ground several times, trying to make the message clear. Land so we can talk. The helicopter didn’t move.

“They’re not doing it,” Themba yelled so Jacky could hear.

“They’ll land,” Jacky replied. “They have to. It’s the only way they can figure out what’s going on.” And she was right. A minute later, the rotors slowed and the helicopter descended slowly to the ground.

Themba walked forward to talk with them. I approached as well, trying to get close enough to overhear without being so close that they tried to talk to me, since my lack of knowledge of the Afrikaans language would give me away.

The helicopter touched down, and they switched the bright spotlight for a set of high-mounted lights that illuminated the area around us. The pilot kept the blades spinning slowly so they wouldn’t have to start them back up from a dead stop.

The heavyset man in the passenger seat unbuckled and jumped out, striding toward Themba. “Wat de hel doen julle?” he demanded.

To his credit, Themba spoke with a very casual, reasonable air. I understood only bits and pieces of it, but it sounded like he had said his radio battery was dead, then relayed Jacky’s story about secretly storing the explosives to get them away from the loyalists without wasting them entirely.

The man questioned him, but Themba came back with quick answers. At one point he gestured toward the tunnel and seemed to be saying something like If Golo hadn’t sent us, how would we know about this secret cave? Then he wrapped up with some righteous indignation along the lines of We were doing fine until you guys showed up and put a spotlight on us, so thanks for screwing everything up.

His straightforward confidence seemed to work. The big man couldn’t decide whether to be sheepish or defensive, but either of those meant he was buying the story. They kept talking for a few moments, but then Themba’s expression changed. He turned and looked at me, then beckoned me over. The big man wanted to talk to me.


I flipped the selector switch on my rifle from safe to semi-automatic, trying to make it look like I was just adjusting my grip on the rifle. I walked slowly toward the helicopter.

Afrikaans seemed to be their default language for operational communication, but I expected he probably spoke English as well. I’d just have to go with that and hope he went along with it.

“Howzit?” I asked, borrowing I phrase I’d heard Liam and Noah use and trying to emulate a South African accent. “What do you need?”

Wat is jou naam?” the man asked.

“Jacobs,” I said, recalling the name patch I’d seen on my stolen uniform. “Who are you?”

“I don’t remember you, Jacobs,” the man said, narrowing his eyes. At least I’d gotten him to switch to English.

“How do you not remember me, asshole?” I said, trying to put him back on the defensive. I put my hand on my heart. “I’m offended.”

“Who else is here?” the man asked.

I jerked my thumb back toward the tunnel entrance. “About a hundred of them natives.”

The big man took a step toward the tunnel entrance, straining to see through the large crowd. “No, I saw other uniforms. Which of our boys is here?”

I’d really hoped he hadn’t noticed that. I was glad I’d memorized some of the other names on the uniforms. “Oh, there’s Govender, Smith, Pretorius, Van Zyl, Van Wyk, Steyn, Zwane, Mkhize…. Who are you looking for?”

The man looked skeptical. “What’re they doing?”

“They’re helping hide the mining explosives, obviously. Speaking of which, can you guys at least shut off those lights, so you don’t alert everyone to exactly what we’re doing here?”

I realized halfway through that that sentence was too long for me to hold onto my half-assed South African accent, and faltered toward the end.

The big man stared at me for a moment, then said, “Go get Govender. I trained with him. I want to know what he has to say about all this.”

Damn, damn, damn.

I weighed my options. I could shoot him, but that would alert the pilot, who very well could have a weapon of his own and might start shooting back. I could obviously shoot at him as well, but I didn’t want to shoot up the helicopter because we might need it to get off the island.

Not sure what else to do, Themba and I escorted the big man toward the tunnel entrance where dozens of Mesdu were organizing and lining up to enter on their hands and knees while carrying a 25-kilo bag of ANFO.

I pushed into the crowd with the big man following me, hoping to disguise our actions.

Gulunmia piaunni kusapa fadal sia,” I called out to nobody in particular.

The man turned toward me, frowning. “What the hell was that?”

A thick middle-aged Mesdu woman, one of our captains, dropped her bag of pink granules on the grass and pulled a flint-bladed hatchet from a loop at her waist. Before the man knew what was happening, she swung and buried it in the side of his neck. Another man, standing beside her, jabbed him in the ribs with a barbed fishing spear then quickly yanked it out with a tearing sound.

The big man dropped with a gurgling sound. Several of those nearby got the hint and gathered behind us, blocking the helicopter’s view.

Imme, imme,” I said, thanking them.

“Well done,” Jacky said, emerging from where she’d been hiding behind a few of the larger men. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to lie my way out of that one.”

“What about the helicopter?” Kemma asked, also emerging from behind the line of Mesdu.

“We need it, and the pilot,” Jacky said. “There are a thousand things that can go wrong with this plan, and when they do, we’ll probably need it to get off this island.”

Kemma looked distracted for a moment, then nodded to herself and said, “I’m going in the tunnel.”

“Wait, why?” I asked. “We already have enough people to transport the explosives. There are only forty bags.”

“Agafi will detonate it from inside the tunnel. We don’t have a way to detonate it from the outside. He gives his life for a plan he disagreed with. He does it because I asked.”

Jacky raised her eyebrows. “Wow.”

“I can’t protect him, but I can at least visit him and thank him first. He deserves that. I’ll carry one of the bags.”

I wanted to do anything in the world except what I was about to do, but I took a deep breath and said it anyway. “If you’re going, I’m going too.”

• • • •

Crawling about a mile through a three-foot-tall stone tunnel carrying a 55-pound bag of explosives isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone. Doing it solo would have been daunting enough, but we were trying to do it with about forty people at once, which introduced all sorts of additional problems. Whenever anyone needed to stop, for example, it held up the whole line because there was barely enough room for one person to pass another.

Then there was the ventilation issue. The tunnel hardly had any ventilation holes and there was certainly no air pump. That was probably okay when only one or two people were using it, but forty people breathing the same stale air in the same confined space made oxygen a real issue.

It also didn’t help that most of those people—myself included—hadn’t bathed anytime recently.

Those who’d been responsible for managing the tunnel in times past had, mercifully, put down a layer of soil to create some padding. At least we weren’t crawling on our hands and knees on bare rock. However, this also made the tunnel an environment where various creepy insects could thrive.

And then there was just the pure, terrifying claustrophobia of it all. I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t turn around. There were countless tons of stone pressing down from above us. If there were some kind of a cave-in—

Nope, can’t think about that. Anything but that.

We had a few flashlights with us, but there wasn’t much point in using them because we were traveling in a straight line. We left them off most of the time, leaving us in an inky blackness, listening to the echoing sounds of dozens of people’s breathing and grunting.

It took us over an hour, probably closer to an hour and a half, to reach the entry chamber underneath the Royal House. The chamber was circular, about ten feet wide and six feet tall, with the tunnel opening into it from one side and a doorway—blocked with a large stone slab—on the opposite side. It was sparsely furnished with benches and storage chests, probably for checking gear and supplies before setting out on a clandestine mission from the castle.

We lit an oil lamp mounted to the wall near the door. I asked if that was safe, given the thousand kilograms of explosives we were bringing into the room, but nobody seemed to mind.

Kemma explained that this underground chamber was unknown to most of the Queen’s staff. The slab blocking the door looked like a wall panel from the outside, and only those trusted personally by the Queen knew of its existence. Kemma herself had only seen it once before, on the day she was smugged out of the building as a teenager so she could travel to the United States to continue her education.

It quickly crowded as our people emerged into it from the tunnel, since they had to wait for everyone else to come out before they could re-enter it to leave. I saw Agafi near one side of the chamber, emptying a bag of powdered aluminum into one of the big storage chests, where a couple of bags of explosive granules had already been emptied, then mixing them together with his hands.

After each person emerged from the cave and put down their bag in a large pile that was forming near Agafi, they then placed their hand on his shoulder for a moment, silently thanking him for what he was about to do. Then they shuffled out of the way so more people could emerge from the tunnel.

Agafi was intently focused on his work and pretended not to notice the tributes, though occasionally someone said something to him and he nodded curtly in acknowledgment. Kemma approached him and held her hand up, indicating that he should stop what he was doing for a moment. He stood, and she embraced him and held him tightly, whispering in his ear. He nodded a few more times, then tears welled in his eyes. He kept his composure, though. When Kemma finally broke the embrace, he wiped his tears away and put his serious face back on.

“I’m concerned about this room holding the pressing,” he said in Mesdu. I assumed he was talking about the pressure containment required for a catastrophic explosion.

“What can we do?” Kemma asked.

“We must move these chests to block the doorway. The door stone will blow outward, so it doesn’t help. We need to block it in here. Also, we need to remove the clay bricks from the walls and use them to block the tunnel after you leave. That will help a little, so the explosion goes up instead of out through the tunnel.”

“Will this be enough to destroy the building?” Kemma asked.

Agafi looked around the room, analyzing how the explosive pressures might play out. He inhaled deeply, then sighed. “It’s not the right way to do this. The room is too big. The explosion won’t be as powerful as we want.”

Kemma nodded. “I know you’ll do your best.”

Agafi gave a hollow smile. “It’s not my problem anyway. After I fire the primer, I’ll be a baby looking for a nipple and won’t care about any of you.”

Kemma patted him on the shoulder and smiled at him. Then she turned and ordered us to start blocking the door with the chests and pulling smaller stone blocks from the walls so we could use them to block off the tunnel. She ordered the rest of our people to start crawling back through the tunnel toward the far entrance, so they’d be clear in case something went wrong with the explosion.

By the time the hidden door was braced from the inside and we’d assembled a large pile of bricks scrounged from various spots on the wall, only Kemma and I and Agafi remained. Agafi had grumpily told us to leave and stop wasting his air, but Kemma insisted on being the last one to leave him.

Finally, Agafi said, “Go now. I need to finish working here. I’ll try to give you enough time to escape, but I may get bored and just ignite it. Or I may run out of air first. I don’t know. But go fast.”

She embraced him one last time, and then she and I entered the tunnel for the long crawl back. The entrance was narrower than before, with many of the bricks having already been stacked inside to start the process of blocking it off to help increase the pressure in the room when the explosives went off. We crawled past the opening that remained, then turned around—more possible since we weren’t carrying the unwieldy bags now—and began blocking it off entirely with the remaining bricks.

“A leader needs to see what she does,” Kemma said quietly. “I’m killing Agafi, so I should put the last bricks in his tomb, so I won’t forget what I’ve done.”

It was a solemn ceremony, with the lamp light from inside the chamber getting darker with each brick we added. I turned on a flashlight as the new barrier neared completion. Kemma placed the last brick that would fit, then pulled up soil from the tunnel floor and jammed it into the remaining cracks to try to seal it more.

It wasn’t going to do much. An explosion of that size would probably pulverize those bricks instantly, releasing the pressure into the tunnel instead of upward through the Royal House. I wondered if those inside would simply hear a big boom and be confused.

Still, we had to try. This was the last big idea we had. If it didn’t work, I didn’t know what we’d do.

• • • •

Knowing that Agafi didn’t have any kind of timekeeping devices with him to accurately judge how long he should wait before triggering the explosives, Kemma and I scrambled the mile through the tunnel as quickly as we could on our hands on knees. No talking, no pausing, no resting, just getting the hell out of there. We knew that if Agafi succeeded in igniting the primer and setting off the explosives, the tunnel would instantly turn into a giant shotgun barrel with bricks rocketing through it at an insane speed. We didn’t want to be caught inside when that happened.

Fortunately, the tunnel ran downhill this direction, and we weren’t hindered by carrying the heavy bags, so it went faster this time. We emerged from the mouth of the tunnel about forty-five minutes later and quickly cleared the entrance, flopping down onto the damp grass nearby and panting, trying to catch our breath.

Some of the clouds had parted, revealing the clear, starry sky behind them, and the landscape around us was crisply illuminated by a bright moon. We could clearly see the Royal House in the distance at the top of the peak.

Our army lay scattered around us on the ground. For a moment I worried they’d all been killed, but then realized most of them were resting or asleep. When they realized Kemma had emerged, they started sitting up and approaching to find out what was going on.

“Thank God you guys made it out,” Jacky said, approaching us from where she’d been sitting. She flopped down on the grass next to us. “How’d it go? Are we looking good?”

I shrugged. “Everything’s in the hands of a grumpy old man who’s running out of oxygen in there. The room where we put the explosives wasn’t really sealed enough to create the explosive power we wanted. And we won’t know if the setup actually worked until we either hear a boom or don’t.”

Jacky smirked. “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

I smiled. “Not much of one, unfortunately. I guess we just wait and find out.”

“The XCG guys are getting antsy. Themba told them we needed to rest before heading back to Śu, but they’re getting pissed and want us to get moving. Now that you’re here, we should probably send them off soon, so they don’t send someone out here to find out why we’re slacking off.”

“I see the helicopter’s still here. What happened with the pilot?”

Jacky’s face lit up. “Oh, funny story!”

“Good, I could use a funny story.”

“We forced him to call back and say it was overheating, so he had to wait for it to cool off so he could fly it back to their ship for repairs. Anyway, the guy made trouble and we had to kill him.”

“That’s not a funny story, Jacky.”

“I’m not done! Anyway, you’re never going to believe who popped out of the bushes about an hour ago.”

“Our pilot from the Agulhas?”

“It was our pilot! From the Agulhas! Apparently Kemma and a bunch of fishermen had forced him to fly out here from Tristan. XCG stole his helicopter, obviously, but he’s been sneaking around ever since trying to steal their helicopter in return. Since we had it just sitting here, it was too juicy for him to resist. Then he recognized me and came out of hiding. And do you know what he was wearing?”

“I’m guessing he was naked.”

“He was completely naked. I laughed so hard my wound started bleeding again. Apparently, he’d still been in that orange jumpsuit he wore when we first came over, and he obviously couldn’t hide in that, so he ditched it. It turned out the dumbass had been going commando, so he’d just been stealthing around the island with his dong out ever since. Can you believe that? I kind of hope he’s single, but I feel awkward asking.”

Kemma sat up. “I don’t hear guns,” she said.

She was right. I hadn’t noticed because we’d been in the tunnel for so long, but I hadn’t heard a single gunshot since we got out.

Jacky sighed and looked down. “Yeah, the resistance has pretty much scattered at this point. Once the insurgents took the Royal House and the mercenaries could just sit up there and snipe at people, there wasn’t much else they could do. It was time for them to cut their losses and disappear back into the population so they could pretend to be on board with the new regime. The open warfare’s over now. The Dasa insurgents won.”

Kemma motioned toward our army of a hundred soldiers, many of whom were now gathering around us, wanting to know what was next for us.

“What about us?” she asked. “We can still fight.”

Jacky shook her head. “They’ve got the high ground, a fortified position, a lot more manpower, and a hell of a lot more firepower. Don’t get into battles you can’t win. The resistance has to go underground how. It’s the only option.”

Kemma sighed. “I need to talk to the captains. What do I tell them?”

“If I were you,” Jacky said, “I’d tell them to start marching back to Śu and then disappear along the way. Try to reconnect with their families. Pretend to support the new Dasa regime so they don’t get themselves killed. Meet in secret with the people they know were loyal to the Queen. Resist in secret. Steal their equipment, kill their leaders, and generally make their lives hell. Make XCG not want to be here. Make them cut their losses and leave. That’s all you can do now.”

Kemma motioned toward the peak. “This could still work?”

Jacky shrugged. Kemma turned to me, and I shrugged, too.

“A lot of things could have gone wrong in there,” I said. “We should probably figure out what we do if Agafi couldn’t make it work.”

Themba approached with the radio in his hand. “We have orders to leave for Śu immediately. I told them we were going now.”

Kemma nodded, then yelled “Muaduc!” (Captains!)

Our team leaders rose and approached Kemma, and she began explaining the situation. As she spoke, their faces evolved from optimistic to downcast, then to resolved. She explained that the time for open fighting was over, and that they had to operate in secret now, as the Dasa followers of Volo had for so many years. They would be the leaders of an underground resistance. The captains nodded, then left to prepare their teams to march in the direction of Śu, and then disperse to find their way back into the rest of the population.

“And what about us?” Themba asked.

Jacky motioned toward the helicopter. “We have to get out of here. I’m sure they’ll hold mock trials in a couple days and execute anyone who could be a serious threat. As outsiders, we’d fall into that category.”

Kemma looked at me, suddenly realizing we were again in the position of figuring out if I was going to leave her or not.

Jacky noticed the look and pointed at her. “Actually, girlfriend, you have to leave most of all. The Queen’s daughter is an heir to the throne, and heirs to the throne always get killed first so there’s no confusion about who’s in charge. Someone’s going to turn you in for a fat bounty and you’ll be executed immediately. If you stay on this island, you’ll be dead by tomorrow.”

“Kemma,” I said, “I promise we’ll do something to help. We won’t be abandoning your people. We just have to keep ourselves alive long enough to come up with a plan, and we can’t do that here. We have to go to Tristan. To Mialluim.”

She stared at me for a long time, then looked back toward the Royal House. “It could still work.” she said. “Let’s wait a little longer.”

So, we waited. The captains began marching their teams out back in the direction of Tepa, the town at the base of the peak, from which they’d take the Spine Road back in the direction of Śu. Themba radioed back that we were starting the return march, but instead of going with them he came and sat cross-legged on the ground next to us.

Kemma sidled up next to me, putting her arm through mine and resting her head on my shoulder. She looked exhausted.

Carter, the CIA pilot who’d been over examining the helicopter we’d just stolen from XCG, joined us as well. Jacky shifted her position in a way that communicated subtly that he could sit next to her, and he took the hint and did so. Mercifully, someone had given him a loin cloth, so at least he wasn’t entirely naked now.

“Hey, man,” he said, nodding upward in greeting to me. “You going to jump on the helicopter this time?”

“Very funny,” I said.  “It’s good to see you, though. I’m glad you survived.”

“I always survive,” he said. “How are those guys from Tristan, by the way? What ever happened to them?”

“They were helping with the resistance, last I saw. Hopefully they’re still alive and someone’s taken them in. We’ll probably have to come back and find them so we can take them back home to Tristan.”

“Well, about that,” Carter said. “There’s a little issue. We flew here from Tristan on a Bell 412, which has a max range of about 980 kilometers. Put a bunch of chubby fishermen on it, and still had enough range to make it the 410 or so kilometers between Tristan and here.” He pointed to the helicopter. “However, that right there is an Aérospatiale Gazelle 342, with a range of about 360 kilometers, and even less than that with your asses in it. It’ll probably drop us in the ocean about two-thirds of the way there.”

“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Jacky said. “What do we do?”

Carter leaned back. “Way I see it, we’ve got two options. The first is that we go try to steal back the Bell. I don’t know where on the island they’ve stashed it, though, and I doubt they’ve refueled it yet. They keep their fuel on their ship, so we’d actually have to drop down on the ship itself and hope the XCG goons don’t mind gassing us up. Maybe they’ll even clean the windshield while they’re at it.”

Jacky sighed. “I can already tell I’m not going to like what’s behind door number two.”

Carter continued. “The second option is that we skip the helicopter and just steal their ship. The good news is that then we’d have room for our delightful fisherman friends who forced me to come here at gunpoint. Maybe they’ll know how to steer it because I sure don’t. The only problem there is that we don’t know where those guys are, either.”

“This night’s never going to end, is it?” I asked.

Carter shook his head. “We’re just getting started.”

“Let’s wait,” Kemma said slowly, her head still resting on my shoulder, eyes closed.

Themba had a watch, so he tracked the time. It had been about thirty-two minutes since we’d come out of the tunnel, which should have been more than enough time for Agafi to set everything up. I worried that he’d run out of oxygen or hurt himself somehow, or that the detonation equipment just hadn’t worked. Or if XCG knew about the tunnel, maybe they’d pushed their way into the chamber and stopped him. So many things could have gone wrong, and we had no way to find out.

Fifteen more minutes passed. Then thirty. Then an hour.  

“I think we need to call it,” Jacky said.

I nudged Kemma gently to wake her up. She turned and looked at me optimistically, but I shook my head.

“It’s been too long,” I said. “Something went wrong in there.”

She looked down at the ground. “I wanted it to work.”

I squeezed her hand. “It was worth trying. It was a good plan.”

She took a deep breath and released it. “Maybe this is a gift from Nadu Kai. My mother will still be alive. Maybe we can save her before the execution.”

There was silence for a few moments, then Jacky spoke up. “Kem, nobody wants to say this, but I’m going to be real with you,” she said. “Considering what we have to do to get off this island, it’ll be a miracle if any of us survives. The Queen is probably the most-guarded person on this island right now, and we just don’t have anything we’d need to be able to extract her.”

Kemma swallowed, then nodded solemnly. “I know. You’re right.”

“What’s our plan?” Themba asked. “Do we take the ship or the helicopter?”

“Both, I think, unfortunately,” Jacky said. “We need the ship to fuel the helicopter. So, we need to split up and one group needs to take the ship over while the other group finds and steals the helicopter. Then we land it on the ship and—”

The ground lurched beneath us, knocking a few of us over, and a disturbingly large bang sounded from the peak, followed by a smaller bang from the mouth of the tunnel as it ejected rocky debris into the large boulders opposite the opening. Dirt and shattered rocks rained down on the area around us.

Agafi had done it after all.

We all looked up toward the Royal House. It still stood proudly atop the peak, its outline clear in the moonlight. There was no fire, no smoke, no rocks flying. There was some dust and debris in the air, but not much else.

“Damn,” Jacky said. “I really wanted that to work.”

Kemma sighed softly. I looked at her face and felt her profound weariness and regret.

Themba pointed. “Wait, look!”

Something was wrong.

The building was….

…it was shifting.

The center tower was the most obvious. It seemed to gradually slide down and to the side, almost as if it were going down a slow escalator.

It was crumbling from the bottom.

It was going down.

The roar of grinding stones hit us a moment later and grew progressively louder. The oval main walls of the Royal House gave way next, peeling away from themselves in what felt like slow motion. Some parts fell inward, others outward. Some just went straight down. The ground rumbled steadily beneath us, driving home the magnitude of what we’d done.

My stomach churned. This wasn’t a moment for celebration. This was the destruction of a centuries-old cultural monument, as well as the death of Kemma’s mother. She reached out and took my hand, and I squeezed hers back.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

She nodded. “She would have told me to do this.”

It seemed to take forever for the rumbling to stop, but it eventually did. Moments later, we realized we were hearing distant cheering from the direction of Tepa, where our soldiers had gone on their way back toward Śu. Then, it seemed as if they were moving, and I realized they were climbing the steps of Fizal Faśanuba to attack anyone who remained at the peak.

That was it. We’d actually done it.

The majority of the XCG mercenaries were in that building, as well as many of the Dasa insurgents. The remaining leadership of this rebellion—those who hadn’t be killed in the battle at Śu—would have been in there. This had to mean the end of the Dasa overthrow of the island. They wouldn’t be able to continue after this. And we’d stopped a shadowy proxy corporation from taking over the island’s diamond mines and exploiting the Mesdu people for generations into the future.

Most of all, we’d survived.

After everything we’d been through, it felt surreal to me that Kemma and I could still be sitting there holding hands. There were countless times when we should have died, but through nothing more than the force of will we somehow hadn’t.

I glanced over at Jacky, who smirked and brushed her hands together to knock off the dust, as if she were saying, Just another day at the office, kid. I smiled. With a career like hers, that was probably an accurate sentiment.

Themba hung his head. He knew XCG was in the wrong and he was disappointed that he’d gotten roped into coming here, but for him and most of the other mercenaries it had just been a job. Jacky had made a good case about why we all needed to be on the right side of this battle, but there was no way that wouldn’t tear him up inside. The guys buried in the rubble up there weren’t much different from him, except he happened to get captured by us instead of killed.

Kemma stood. “Remember Agafi.”

“Agafi,” I said, and the others repeated his name. I knew Kemma wouldn’t allow him to be forgotten. There was a long silence as the debris floating around the peak gradually drifted back to the ground.

Finally, Jacky spoke up. “Well then, let’s go take a look and see what we did, shall we?”

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