Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 3

“Just arrived at Gough Island! So serene. Nobody lives here except for the few researchers at the weather station. Looking forward to trying the new camera on these cold and lonely landscapes when I get a chance between ecology projects.”
—Social media post from user “biomeghan”

“Did you actually put on cologne?” Jacky asked, stepping up next to me on the main deck and leaning against the starboard rail. The barren, godforsaken Atlantic stretched out in front of us from the ship’s hull to the horizon. The only visible landmark was the rising sun—away from which the ship was cruising at what felt like a glacial pace.

 “Good morning,” I said, a little sarcastically.

“You know we’re on a ship full of scientists and sailors, right? They’re not going to care how you smell. Hell, I might not even shower today.”

She smiled and leaned out over the rail, closing her eyes and rolling her head around in the breeze. I squinted against the bright dawn light behind her.

 “Well, I hope you didn’t put it on to impress me,” she said.

“By the way, I cracked the puzzle from your friend last night,” I said. “We can actually start learning the language now.”

“Yeah, I saw your scribbles. I was going to ask how you did it, but I was afraid you’d actually tell me.”

“It wasn’t hard. I don’t know why they didn’t just give us a book or something, though.”

“All the language resources are on the island, but someone smuggled that page out a couple years back. I guess everyone figured it was safer not to have a bunch of Mesdu documents floating around. They’re hoping you can start working on a textbook or something, though.” She turned and faced me, looking me up and down. “Don’t you speak, like, fifteen languages?”


“Shouldn’t you be a translator or something then?”

I shrugged. “I’m not really enough of a ‘people person’ for that.”

She cocked her head. “You…don’t like working with people.”

“No, not really.”

“You’re an anthropologist.”

“I like societies and cultures. Those make sense to me. Individual people…not as much.”

She smirked. “So, you’re like…a misanthropologist.”

I paused. “What?”

“You know, ‘misanthrope’? Someone who doesn’t like people. That’s a word, right? Anyway, how old are you anyway? Thirty-two? Thirty-four?”

“Twenty-nine,” I said.

“Oh, hell, you’re still in your twenties?”

“Why? How old are you?”

She raised her eyebrows. “That’s a rude question.”

 “You literally just asked me the same thing.”

“I’m old enough that it’s rude to ask. Leave it at that.”

“You don’t look that old.”

She nodded. “Good boy. Keep talking like that.”

We were quiet for a few minutes, enjoying the sea air. I couldn’t think of anything clever to say, and Jacky seemed content simply to enjoy the moment. The ship didn’t sway as much as I’d thought it might, but simply carved a straight path through the apparently infinite ocean.

“So, why’d you take this assignment?” I finally asked.

She held onto the rail and leaned backwards, looking up at the sky and inhaling deeply as she thought about her answer. “A shrink would say I’m running away from my ex-husband.”

I nodded. “Makes sense.”

“A shrink would be wrong, though. I just wanted an adventure, really. Didn’t have much else going on.”

“Oh. Well, that’s…reassuring.”

Jacky narrowed her eyes and turned toward me. “What?”

“Well, we’re walking into a culture we don’t understand, taking the place of two State Department diplomats who were just executed, and the negotiator everyone’s counting on is just here on a whim, you know?”

“Matt, the U.S. Government has put me into some of the worst situations in the worst places in the world—places you wouldn’t last five minutes—because I’m consistently effective. I know I’m not what you expected me to be, but I get the job done.”

I sighed. “Okay, fair enough.”

“You don’t like me yet, Matt, but you will. You think you’re building a mental model of me, and you’re concerned about what you’re seeing so far. I’m too erratic. I’m too open. I’m too friendly. How can I be a competent negotiator, right? You were expecting someone quiet and intense who only says clever things, right?”

I pondered that a moment and realized that actually was pretty close to what I’d been expecting. “Maybe,” I said.

She tapped the side of her head. “Think about this, though: If they’d sent someone quiet and intense and clever, a stereotypical master negotiator, someone totally slick and professional, wouldn’t you always secretly wonder if they were manipulating you just like they do everyone else?”

I nodded. “Okay, I guess I would.”

“And then there’s me. Not trying to impress you. Not trying to make you like me. Not trying to make you happy. You’re thinking, ‘She can’t possibly be an effective negotiator if she’s doing everything wrong.’ But what’s the big difference between me and that powerful master negotiator?”

I sighed. I didn’t want to say it, but she had a point. “I guess I would trust you more.”

“Yep. Almost against your will. It’s a force of nature. I’m being honest and vulnerable, and you can’t help but trust me a little more because of it.”

I wasn’t so sure about that yet, but at least I now had some more confidence that her people skills were more sophisticated than I’d assumed. I waited a moment, then asked, “So, why’d you and your husband get divorced?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Testing me already? Alright, that’s fair. I’ll tell you the honest truth. I got recruited early on, while I was still a senior at the University of Iowa. In this line of work you learn to thoroughly compartmentalize your mind. It’s the only way to cope with what we do at that level of performance demanded from us. My brain is like…a house with dozens of rooms, and I can walk between them at any time depending on what I’m focused on.”

She sighed, then spoke a little more slowly. “I was an amazing wife to him when I was in the ‘amazing wife’ room. But my work also took me to…other rooms. Rooms where I completely forgot about my husband. Rooms where I wasn’t an amazing wife, and I did things wives shouldn’t do. Most people can’t handle being married to a situation like that, so I don’t really blame him for leaving me.”

I nodded, not really sure how to respond. Finally, I just said, “I appreciate your honesty.”

She smiled wistfully. “So, do you like me yet?”

I held my hands up jokingly. “I don’t know if I’d go that far.”

“Well, I’m not sure if I like you yet, either,” she said, turning to leave, “but at least you smell good. Let’s go get some breakfast.”

• • • •

After a meal of scrambled eggs and floppy bacon in the ship’s main dining saloon, Jacky headed back to our cabin while I wandered around the ship, deck by deck, walking up and down the passageways and peeking in doorways. It seemed remarkably well-equipped for such a utilitarian vessel. In addition to more than a dozen laboratories and various engineering facilities, I also found a library, two lounges, two gyms, and even a large auditorium.

The most exciting thing I found, though, was a computer with Internet access tucked away in a tiny business center room. I’d been itching to get online and read more about this island where we’d be living, so I parked myself down and booted up a computer.

The map that came up for Gough Island showed a lumpy outline in the middle of a pale blue ocean. I zoomed out. Then zoomed out again. And again. And again, and again, and again. Eventually, I saw some traces of Brazil and South Africa on the edges of the screen.

I’d assumed we’d be going to some island off the coast of Africa, but now realized we’d be literally in the dead middle of the South Atlantic, about as far from anything else as it was possible to get. I’d never even realized that there were islands out that far. My stomach churned just thinking about how remote it was. No wonder it was taking us so long to get there.

I found photo galleries from a few researchers who’d visited Gough. My brain had, without me realizing it, conjured visions of some kind of tropical island we were going to. That mirage quickly vanished, though, as I explored the photos I found online.

The island had a clear resemblance to its other Atlantic cousins, like Scotland or Iceland. It was cold and foggy, and seemed constantly on the verge of rain.

There would be no coconuts and piña coladas.

I didn’t see traces of any indigenous inhabitants in the images, though. I squinted at panoramic photos showing plains and valleys, but there was nothing to suggest that anyone actually lived there natively.

I found a blog from one of the meteorologists at the weather station on Gough. I read through it for nearly an hour, and it covered only relatively mundane topics: birds, knots, repairs, birthdays, seals, meals, more birds, fishing, weather equipment, food storage, and so on. I began to recognize individual members of the meteorological team from the photos, wondering who they were and how they fit into this puzzle. I checked the blog archive, and saw it went back nearly three years.

This wasn’t adding up. I deleted the browser history, shut down the computer, and found my way back to the cabin more than an hour longer than I’d told her I’d be.

Jacky lay on the floor reading a romance novel, her legs propped up on the desk. “Where’ve you been? I was getting worried.”

I closed the door behind me. “Why are there a bunch of blogs and photo galleries online about Gough Island if it’s supposed to be secret?”

She gave me a look of mock condescension. “We can fake a blog, you know.”

“There’s too much,” I said. “They couldn’t keep a secret like this. I saw people taking trips there. They had photos and videos. The weather station crew—”

She sat up and put her book on the desk. “When I was in Jordan earlier this year, they had me posting stuff as fifteen different people. This stuff happens all the time. They probably had a couple of photo shoots, and then scheduled posts under various accounts for the last several years. That’s all pretty normal. Half of it's automated these days.”

“I didn’t see any signs of the Mesdu in the photos. No people, no shelters, no smoke, nothing.”

“Photoshop. Clever camera angles. Come on, you know better than to believe what you see online.”

“Why would they even post it? Why not just say nothing at all?”

“Saying nothing creates curiosity. Saying something creates complacency. If someone already went there and blogged about it, we’re less likely to feel the need to find out about it ourselves.”

“And you’re…just okay with all this? How does all this not make you upset?”

“Hey, lower your voice.”

“Our government’s going through all this effort to lie to the public, and we’re supposed to help them do it?”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re a little young to understand how the world really works, Matt. There are two things you really need to accept: running a government is complicated, and the public is generally clueless and reactionary. Sorry to say so, but it’s true. So yeah, some lying happens to keep things from going sideways. Right now, all around the world, parents are telling their kids that their dead pet went to heaven, or if they keep making that face it’ll stick that way, or that their father died rescuing someone instead of having run away with his hot young coworker. Sometimes, it’s best for everyone involved to stick with the simple story.”

“Yeah, well…I don’t believe that, personally.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I’m a scientist. Scientists believe in the truth.”

“Anthropology is a science? I always thought it was—”

“Are you serious!? Of course, anthropology is—”

“I’m kidding. Lighten up.”

“You don’t even—”

“You’re having an identity crisis, Matt. I get it. Scientists reveal, but governments conceal. I’ve been through this before. This is the real world, though. You have to find the balance. If you want a shot at these people, this is it. There’s no other way. The big picture is too big for you to fully understand, so you have to focus on the small picture for a minute. Do you want to study these people or not?”

“Yeah, of course I want to study them, but I—”

“That’s it, Matt. You want to study them and you’re going to do exactly that. This is the only way you can ever do it. There’s no other way. At all. Ever. You don’t play this game, you never find out who’s on that island. You have to hold onto that fact and base your whole world around it.”

I stood there trying to think about how to respond to that, and finally just shook my head. “I hate this.”

She grabbed her novel and lay back down on the floor, crossing her legs up on the desk again. “It’ll make sense in time. Trust me.”

• • • •

Gough Island was a sublime sight. After eight days at sea, almost anything would have been, but this mass of windswept grassy rock rose out of the black Atlantic with a peculiar grim majesty that took me a little by surprise. The island had a disconcertingly irregular shape, with brutal cliffs broken up by steep, deeply eroded valleys and occasional stony islets jutting up out of the water. It looked like the overgrown and unwelcoming ruins of an ancient fortress, half hidden by fog and low-hanging clouds.

It was land, though, and I hadn’t realized until just now how eager I was to plant my feet on it. I was done with being on a boat.

I stood on the main deck, gripping the rail and waiting for the crew to prepare the helicopter that would take us over to the island. My satchel and duffel bag sat on the deck beside me, wrapped in plastic. Last night, we’d finished the decontamination process in which they’d supervised us laundering all our clothes and disinfecting all our possessions to minimize the chances of carrying over microscopic seeds or organisms that could disrupt the island’s ecosystem.

As I watched the crew checking whether the helicopter’s rotor blades had unfolded correctly, a particular thought I’d been avoiding for days finally broke loose and crossed my mind.

I shouldn’t be here.

I tried to convince myself that I’d made a bold but logical career move, but deep down I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was yet another wrong turn in a long sequence of wrong turns I’d made over the course of my life.

And if that weren’t bad enough, I’d an even worse decision last night when I couldn’t sleep: I’d decided to handle this as a proper academic research project and write a full ethnography of the Mesdu people. I’d submit it to all the academic journals and publish it online so it couldn’t disappear. It’d would be out there for everyone to see. It was going to land me in a giant legal mess for revealing supposedly top-secret information, but the benefits outweighed the risks according to my math.

The worst-case scenario was that I’d have to do some jail time if things went really badly, but writing up an entirely unknown culture and publishing it as a whistleblower ought to earn me some credibility and respect in the anthropology community.

I was willing to make that trade.

I was going to publish.

“Good morning!” Jacky chirped as she propped her own sanitized and plastic-wrapped luggage against the rail. She nodded toward the island. “It’s a hell of a cheerful-looking place, isn’t it? Feels like Portland weather. Do you suppose they have hot coffee over there?”

I shrugged.

She pointed out across the bow toward the island where a plain-looking single-story white building sat atop the shore cliffs, a green mountain rising into the clouds behind it.

It was the so-called “weather station.” The embassy. The base. Gough House. That’s where we would live for the next year, along with four other diplomats, two each from the other proxy corporations.

“Home sweet home,” she said. “It’s not much to look at, but it’s definitely not the worst place I’ve been stationed.”

One of the ship’s crew members, dressed in bright orange outerwear and a white helmet, yelled and waved us over. We grabbed our bags and went down to the landing pad. The helicopter was filled with boxes and crates of varying sizes. Supplies for the base, I guessed. The crewman grabbed our bags and stuffed them in an open corner, then motioned for us to climb in.

There was a small row of seats in the back. I slid over to a narrow open spot between boxes on the bench. Jacky climbed in and squeezed into the seat next to me, and we fumbled around for a few moments, trying to buckle our seat belts without touching each other. Or I tried not to touch her, anyway. She didn't seem to care either way.

The pilot started the engines and the rotor blades eased into motion. The copilot turned and tossed us two headsets, motioning for us to put them on.

“It’s not too late to change your mind,” Jacky said.

I took a deep breath. “Really?”

She laughed and put her headset on. “No, it’s totally too late. Come on, just go with it. We’ll have fun, I promise.”

On the flight over to the island, she tried to polish up our cover story by making comments about some barometric functions we’d supposedly be performing, asking what I thought of the dark clouds above us, and other topics for which I really had no response.

The copilot eventually turned back to face us. “You don’t have to keep your cover here,” he said over the headset. “We play for the same team.”

Jacky raised an eyebrow. “Oh, well, that’s good. I’m pretty sure what I just said didn’t make any actual sense anyway.”

The pilot chuckled. “They arrange to have the ship stay far enough away that the crew can’t really see anything, but since we’re actually going to the island itself, we have to be in the loop.”

“What do you know about the people there?” I asked.

The pilot shook his head. “They don’t tell us much. I only know what I’ve seen from flying back and forth a few times. Some people, some buildings. The rest is above my pay grade.”

A few minutes later, he pointed down at the island, and I saw that there were indeed clear signs of civilization that had been totally missing from the photos I’d seen online. Circular stone buildings, most of them covered in sod, some with gardens. Deep dirt roads. Bridges across eroded valleys. Smoke wafting up from fires. All the things I hadn’t seen in the photos I found online. As we got closer to the base’s landing pad, I could see some dark-skinned figures moving in the distance. The light drizzle falling on the cockpit windshield made it difficult to make out any details.

The wind picked up as we descended, and the helicopter lurched awkwardly a few times. We came down hard on the landing pad, my head banging against the boxes stacked beside me. The engines moaned as they slowed.

The crew both jumped out, slid the doors open, and began unloading the boxes onto the pad. “You’ll want to move these pretty quickly,” he said. “Looks like the rain’s going to pick up.”

We climbed down out of the helicopter, and icy droplets stung our skin as the wind whipped them against us.

Jacky turned her face away from the wind. “Ugh. Can we get inside?”

I looked over at the single-story white building a few hundred feet from the landing pad and noticed two figures in dark windbreakers jogging toward us.

“Hello! Good morning!” one of them called out. He was an older gentleman with gray hair and a patrician British accent.

The other man—younger, with red hair and bright blue eyes—reached us first and extended his hand as he tried to catch his breath. “I’m Nigel,” he said.

“And I’m Robert,” the older man said. “Welcome to the strangest place you’ll ever live.”

• • • •

There were three proxy corporations represented at Gough House.

Jacky and I were now technically here as employees of the South Atlantic Interest Corporation, a company theoretically headquartered in Manhattan that represented the combined interests of the two dozen or so involved parties in North and South America, including various groups inside the U.S. Government. Our job was simply to make sure we got our fair share—and more, if possible—of Gough Island’s diamonds. Just knowing the name of the corporation pulling our strings gave me a chill, though Jacky told me we’d have little direct communication with them since everything would go through her handlers at the CIA—oops, I mean State Department.

The two friendly Brits served on behalf of Golden Square Ltd, the London-based proxy corporation that represented most of the European parties. They both claimed to be diplomats with the British Foreign Office, although I had a hunch that Nigel was attached to the British Secret Intelligence Service.

The base’s other two residents, Liam and Noah—whom we hadn’t met yet—worked for the Johannesburg-based Executive Consulting Group Pty Ltd, or XCG for short, which represented major mining companies in South Africa, the Netherlands, and China.

The six of us, representing those three companies locked in financial competition with each other, all bunked together at Gough House. We’d eat together, sleep together, and use the same bathroom.

This was definitely going to be interesting.

The base was smaller than I’d imagined. The front stairs were worn wooden planks with metal grates over them for traction, and the rails alongside the building fashioned from rusty pipes. The roof was cheap corrugated metal, and the entryway was nothing more than a pair of plain white doors with the words HUIS GOUGH HOUSE carved on a plank of wood above them, a blending of the Afrikaans Huis Gough and the English Gough House.

Despite knowing better, I realized I’d let the word “embassy” conjure images of comfort in my mind. This was really just a tough little outpost on a mossy rock in the middle of the ocean. There was a kitchen, dining hall, recreation room, a shared bathroom, a few small offices, and various bedrooms and storage rooms. It was acutely utilitarian, but I reminded myself that most of the anthropologists I admired had been through a lot worse for their research.

We set down the crates we were carrying in the hallway near the door of the storage pantry, then continued to a dim corridor where the bedrooms were located.

“I’m surprised we haven’t seen Liam and Noah yet,” Nigel said. “He approached one of the doors and knocked. “Hey boys, you in there? Our new flatmates are here.”

There was a muffled reply from inside.

“Come help us unload the helicopter before the rain picks up.”

No answer.

Nigel paused. “Are you okay in there?”

A grunt.

He reached down and tried the door. Unlocked. He opened it.

Inside the small, white-walled bedroom, a well-built young man with a buzz cut and a tight black t-shirt sat hunched over a small wooden desk. He looked back over his shoulder and threw his hand up in the air. “Loop naai jou ma!” he yelled. There were lines of white powder on the desk in front of him, and residue under his nose. Nigel quickly shut the door.

“You’re going to get an earful about that later,” Robert said.

Nigel snorted. “Worth it, I figure. That was Liam Rhodes. His father owns one of the world’s largest diamond mining companies, which also happens to be a major shareholding party in XCG.”

“What’s that about Liam?” asked a deep South-African-accented voice from down the corridor. A man with a worn, tight-skinned face and crooked nose approached.

Robert nodded a greeting to him. “Hey, Noah, this is Matt Moro and Jacqueline Fox, the new American team to replace Virgil and Tom. They’ve just arrived.”

Noah gave a polite smile, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. “Sorry I missed when you landed,” he said. “Out for a little walk.”

“We were just giving them the tour,” Nigel said. “Liam’s occupied at the moment, but I’m sure we’ll all have an opportunity to get to know each other better at lunch. Would you mind terribly helping us unload the helicopter so these two can get settled into their room?”

“We’re busy right now. Very sorry. Good to meet you, though.” He gave a perfunctory smile and strode past us toward the door of the bedroom he and Liam shared. He opened the door just enough to slip through then closed it quickly behind him.

“Interesting fellows, them,” Nigel said. “I’ve known them for months but still haven’t figured them out.” He turned and pointed at the door on the opposite side of the hall. “And this is your new home right here. We’ll give you some time to settle in, and we can talk more at lunch.”

We thanked them, and Robert and Nigel left. I appreciated them giving us some space. I didn’t feel like talking just then.

Jacky opened our bedroom door and started to enter, then stopped cold.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

She nodded toward the open doorway, then stepped back so I could enter.

I’d been expecting an empty room, like checking into a hotel. Instead, it looked like we’d broken into someone’s house. The closets were full of clothes, one of the beds was unmade, and there were personal items on the desks and walls. It must have been a snapshot of how Tom and Virgil had left it the day they were taken by the Mesdu.

I’d assumed—foolishly, I now realized—that someone would have cleaned everything out to prepare for our arrival. There was simply nobody out here to do it. The only other people on this island besides the Mesdu were the guys from Golden Square and XCG, and they were our competitors. They shouldn’t even enter the room, let alone clean up after Tom and Virgil.

Jacky stepped into the room after me, glancing around and assessing the situation. “Oh, I forgot,” she said. “I always hate this part.”

“So, you’ve done this before? Clean up after dead predecessors?”

She shrugged. “They usually bring me in after something goes wrong, so I get to clean up a lot. Anyway, let’s grab some trash bags and get to work.”

• • • •

I’d long considered my computer back at the office to be an antique, but the beige box and heavy monitor on the desk in our bedroom here at the base was easily its senior. It ran a version of Windows I hadn’t seen since puberty.

While I searched the computer, Jacky wandered around the room sorting through the items left by our predecessors. She occasionally stopped to inspect something, but mostly threw things into large black garbage bags.

“Finding anything on there?” she asked.

I shook my head. “It’s weird. It’s like they never touched the computer. Everything looks default. I don’t see documents or spreadsheets or anything.”

“Well, keep looking. Maybe they hid the files because they didn’t want people snooping around. They must have used it for something.”

“Yeah, the letters on the keyboard are worn.”

“Whose do you think? Virgil or Tom?”


She twirled a pair of red Calvin Klein briefs around on her finger. “Virgil or Tom?”

I turned back to the computer. “Which one was which, again?”

“Virgil was the old white guy, and Tom was the young black guy.” She paused. “Can I say ‘black’? I forget what’s politically correct these days.”

“I’m guessing Virgil. Definitely Vir…uhhh…”


“Hang on.”

She dropped the briefs and stepped over to the desk, looking over my shoulder at the monitor. “What’s all this?”

“I don’t know. Configuration files, maybe? What was the date those guys were killed? It was the 17th of last month, right?”

“Yeah, why?”

I pointed at the screen.

Her face went a little pale. “Oh, hell no.”

I scrolled down and saw even more files timestamped three days after Virgil and Tom had been killed. “You think someone’s been on here?”

Jacky put her finger to lips, shushing me. She leaned into my shoulder, whispering into my ear. “We have to be careful. If someone’s screwing with us, they could be listening, too. They might have deleted everything. Is there any way you can recover the old files?” She turned her ear to me so I could respond.

“I’m not a computer guy,” I whispered back. “I barely know what I’m doing here.”

Her frustrated sigh felt warm against my neck. “Okay, don’t say anything to the others. We have to figure out who did this first.”

“I did not come here to deal with this kind of crap.”

“Are you kidding? This is just getting interesting.”

“I don’t—”

She held up her hand. “Matt, we’re here now. We’re as far from the rest of the world as it’s possible to get, so don’t waste mental energy wishing for anything else. There’s nothing else. There’s only this.”

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