Under the Cold Sun

by Tagg West

Chapter 15

Exiled like you and severed from my race
By the cold ocean of my own disdain,
Do I not freeze in such a wintry space,
Do I not travel through a storm as vast
And rise at times, victorious from the main,
To fly the sunrise at my shattered mast?
Roy Campbell, “Tristan da Cunha”

Solitude. It was the ideal I'd originally come here to find. Now it felt empty, incomplete, unsatisfying.

It felt wrong.

I limped away from the helicopter pad toward the grassy slopes of the mile-high volcano that formed the island of Tristan da Cunha, thinking about what Kemma and I had gone through over the last several days. It was safe to say that—with the possible exception of my mother, and maybe not even her—I’d shared more of my notable life experiences with Kemma than anyone else. We’d actually worked pretty well together, dealing with one trial after another, side by side. It felt like we fit together in a weird way.

I shook my head to clear my mind. No, I couldn’t go back, not after what I’d seen. It would be absurd. I’d already been shot at, nearly executed, left for dead in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, nearly executed again, and was now on the run for killing the local government and police. That was enough for one lifetime. I needed to keep myself alive now, even if that meant letting Kemma go. I was trying to survive but she was hell-bent on running headlong into a suicidal situation.

That’s the story I told myself as I limped vaguely toward a patch of low ferns on the slope. I could hide there until it was completely dark, then I’d sneak around the edge of the town and try to steal a boat to get to the Agulhas.

I wasn't a fighter. I would die if I went back. Going with her was a noble thought, but it wouldn’t have actually accomplished anything.

Yes, I regretted the situation.

Yes, Kemma’s last words would haunt me.

Yes, I wish I could be with her.

But I had to survive above all else, and that meant I couldn’t have gone back with her.

I reached the ferns and found a reasonably comfortable spot to sit. It was wet, but everything was wet all the time around these parts. I looked out at the settlement. Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. What a name. The red-and-white Agulhas sat prominently anchored in the bay on the opposite side of the town from where I was hiding. Twilight was fading, and the ship’s lights shimmered on the water between it and the shore.

I wished I had something to drink. I was still dehydrated from being lost at sea for…how long was that? Five or six days, maybe? I didn’t even know.

I sat in silence as the storm clouds slowly rolled over the island and eventually spilled out their payload of blurry gray water. I didn’t even try to stay dry. The icy drops eventually pounded me as they did the rest of the island, chilling me until I was shaking. I really couldn’t wait to get away from this horrible little part of the world.

Try as I might, though, I couldn’t shut down the part of my brain that kept insisting I had made the wrong decision. Despite the miserable circumstances we’d been through, I’d grown used to being by Kemma’s side—and to her being by mine. It felt strange not having her there next to me. Apparently, a handful of near-death experiences can do that for a new marriage.

I tried looking at the situation as Kemma would. I imagined that we were all Erku, the one soul who bounces through time and place being reincarnated into every individual lifetime. I imagined what it would be like if they were all me, and I were them. Would I sacrifice one of me to save many of me? Would this incarnation of me be willing to suffer for the sake of thousands of other incarnations of me?

Kemma’s bitter final words to me came to mind.

You’d rather study humans than be a human.

There was probably some truth to what she said. In a way, being a researcher allowed me to be around human experiences without really being directly part of them. I took notes on Mesdu musical forms but played no music myself. I wrote about games their children played, but I didn’t play with those children. I drew diagrams of family dwellings but made no effort to establish a home or family of my own.

I suddenly recalled a lecture from one of my classes at Duke, one I hadn't thought about since the day I’d heard it, but which now came back to me clearly. Professor Whitaker—one of the instructors I particularly admired for his work with indigenous cultures in Canada—had made a particular point that the practice of anthropology was a trap that caught too many people. If we weren’t careful, he said, anthropology could make us feel like we were living through real human experiences when we were actually just watching them from the outside. He said there was no substitute for the real thing, and nobody could really understand humanity without going through it firsthand. I hadn’t paid him any attention at the time, but that thought struck me hard now as I lay in the dark on the grassy slope of a volcanic mountain in the middle of the ocean, shivering in the cold rain.

Everything that mattered to me suddenly felt fake and insubstantial. Everything I’d done on this island would amount to…what? An academic paper published in a journal hardly anyone would ever read? Maybe a job with a university? Then I could spend the rest of my days talking to students about how I was introduced to the remarkable Mesdu people, and how I did nothing worthwhile while I was with them. The average student in that class, with their various friends and romantic partners, might actually have more real-world perspective on human relationships than I would with all my “research.”

What the hell was I doing?

Before I took this mission, I’d been working on a unified theory of human social behavior. It now seemed cruelly ironic that I, of all people, would try to tackle that project. It was like studying the biology of sea creatures from the middle of the desert.

The storm gradually lightened into an unpleasant drizzle. A bit of moonlight peeked through the clouds from time to time, giving me enough light to slog through the mud toward the town without easily being seen. It took me a cold, wet half an hour to make it to the first building. It wasn’t that far, but it was slow going in the dark over rough and slippery terrain.

The streets were empty due to the weather, and I walked along the edge of the town to minimize my chances of running into anyone. I passed the hospital, a dozen houses, the constable’s office (where I noticed the bodies had been removed), and the lobster cannery. I eventually found myself standing at the water’s edge, near the docks.

The S.A. Agulhas II was anchored just a hundred yards offshore, slowly brightening and darkening as patchy clouds passed lazily in front of the moon. The only sound in the air was the persistent white noise of drizzling rain on metal rooftops.

I went to a nearby rowboat, untied it, and pushed it down a ramp into the water. My mind involuntarily recoiled at the idea of being in the water again, but I had to get aboard the ship and make sure the U.S. government was sending someone to help fight off the mercenaries. It was the only viable way I could still help.

I climbed in, grabbed the oars, and was about to push off when I heard something over the rain and lapping of the water. It was a helicopter, but it sounded different than the one Kemma and the fisherman had taken. It had a lower, more regular rhythm. I wondered if there happened to have been a Navy ship in the area already, and they were responding to our earlier call from the helicopter. Could reinforcements already be arriving?

Then a bright light flared in the distant sky and sped through the darkness toward the Agulhas like a shooting star.

The superstructure of the large metal ship erupted upon impact. I didn’t understand what I was seeing until the sound hit me a few moments later.

The helicopter launched another rocket, striking the hull toward the rear.

Lights flickered on across the ship, and an emergency siren blared across the water. I sat in the rowboat, rocking gently, dumb with horror, shivering and staring slack-jawed at the chaos unfolding in front of me.

The helicopter circled around the island for the next several minutes, methodically knocking out various targets with a combination of machine gun and rocket fire.

It had to be the mercenaries working for XCG. They were taking out the communications infrastructure so nobody could report what was happening. They were containing the leak that Winthrop and Patterson had failed to handle.

They were containing me.

I looked back over at the ship, which listed sickeningly to one side. A loudspeaker on the ship was issuing emergency orders while crew members lowered lifeboats into the water. Some were jumping overboard.

Focus, Matt.

Lights came on all around the town. There was yelling. Screaming. Men climbed into boats and set out to help the crew and passengers on the ship.


I took a deep breath and paddled toward the now-sinking ship, knowing full well that any hope I had of getting back to the mainland was sinking with it.

• • • •

Three hours later, we gave up trying to find survivors. The ship itself, almost entirely submerged by this point, was eerily silent as it slipped further into the dark water. I’d already made a dozen trips back to shore carrying anyone I could find, and countless other boats had done the same. Shane had told the truth when he said the Tristanians didn’t hesitate about helping someone in danger on the sea. Luckily, they all assumed I was one of the passengers, and nobody seemed to realize I’d been involved in the earlier jailbreak.

Not everyone I’d transported in the rowboat was still alive. A few were simply floating bodies we were trying to get to shore before the sharks got them. I recognized one of them as the lady who had served us in the ship’s cafeteria on the way over. By the end of the night, I found myself feeling more comfortable with corpses—or numb toward them, anyway—than I ever thought I would be.

After the initial pass with rockets and machine gun fire, the helicopter landed just outside the settlement and a handful of soldiers in black tactical gear swept through the town on foot. I heard occasional gunfire from the town while we were rescuing crew and passengers from the ship, and I overheard bits of conversations from other boats saying the attackers were destroying radios and phones, cutting the island off from the outside world. After an hour or so, they got back into the helicopter and left. A report came from the shore that at least a dozen Tristanians had been killed. Nobody but me knew who the armed men were or understood why they were there. Even if they did know, there was nobody they could tell. Someone would have to get in a fishing boat and somehow make the 1,750-mile journey to Cape Town to explain what had happened, and that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Eventually, one of the Tristanian rescuers announced over a loudspeaker that there wouldn’t be any more survivors in the water, and the flock of boats began moving slowly back to shore. As we climbed out, someone put a blanket around me and gave me a cup of tea. I asked if there was any food, and she pointed to a crowd of survivors gathered around a nearby bonfire. There I found crates of canned goods someone had contributed from the village’s stores. I couldn’t find any water, but the canned food would have enough liquid in it to keep me alive.

All I wanted in the world was to sleep, but it wasn’t time to rest.

Not yet.

Camouflaged by the flickering shadows dancing around the bonfire, I stole a can opener and a half-full crate of food and walked over to one of the larger fishing boats. It had an enclosed cabin and a GPS navigation unit, which was a big step up from the one that had got Kemma and me from Gough Island to Tristan da Cunha in the first place. I’d seen the owner refuel it earlier in the evening during the rescue operation, and I figured it would still have a mostly full tank. I boarded, unleashed it from where it had been docked, and pushed myself off with a pole. I tried to look natural, as if it were my own boat. I held my breath, waiting for someone to notice and start yelling at me, but it didn’t happen.

If I’d stayed, the Tristanians would have taken care of me along with the other survivors until someone repaired a radio so we could call for help. It could take a month, but I’d be warm and safe and comfortable in the meantime.

But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Not anymore. After spending three hours pulling people out of the cold ocean, the concept of Erku had finally locked into place in my mind. The survivors were me. The dead were me. The mercenaries were me. The Tristanians were me. The Sanju were me. The Dasa were me. I was the attacker and the attacked. I was the guilty and the innocent. I was the problem and the solution.

• • • •

There was no instruction manual for the GPS system on the boat, and it took me over an hour of fiddling around to finally get myself pointed toward Gough Island. It turned out I’d been going almost ninety degrees in the wrong direction until I sorted it out. Once I had the right heading, though, I pushed the throttles forward and piloted the boat into the black night. The only sounds came from the boat engines and splashing water passing underneath me. With the moon behind me, I couldn’t see anything except stars. I’d found a light switch in the cabin but left it off because there was nothing to see. I just stood and steered.

I was afraid to sit down because I knew I’d immediately fall asleep. If I kept standing, at least I’d catch myself when I started to nod off.

The 24-hour clock on the GPS unit rolled over to 00:00. I’d been traveling for about two hours since I got myself oriented and had already gone almost sixty miles. It was only 196 miles left to Gough. This was a hell of a lot better than drifting aimlessly on the ocean. I might actually make it there this time.

Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw occasional flashes of light that eventually turned into hallucinatory visions. Bloody bodies. Drowned bodies. Screaming. Killing. Boats. Helicopters. Guns. Water. Rain. Cold. Kemma.

At one point I snapped awake and realized I’d turned the steering wheel hard to the right, sending the boat off course in a wide circle.

Okay, maybe I did need some actual sleep.

I looked for some kind of autopilot function but couldn’t find one. I killed the engines and let the boat slow until it was drifting with the current. I watched it for a while on the GPS, and the course didn’t look too bad. As long as I didn’t sleep for too long, I could get back on track quickly enough.

I sat down on the cabin’s bench seat and leaned over onto my side, curling my legs up and using my arm for a pillow. Under any other circumstances it might have been uncomfortable, but at that moment it felt exquisite.

I took a deep breath and let the nightmares take over.

• • • •

I awoke with a start, my arms instinctively reaching out for something to hold.

I was falling. Then, a moment later, I was rising again.

Waves. Big ones.

I got to my feet and looked out the window, watching the surface churn in the heavy wind. I could barely make out the outlines of the waves in the early morning light.

 I looked at the GPS. It was almost six in the morning, and I’d drifted roughly sideways about fifty miles from where I was when I’d fallen asleep. I was now 220 miles from Gough Island. That was the price of sleeping. I realized now that I should have dropped an anchor before falling asleep.

The worse news, though, was that it looked like I’d be pushing against the wind to get to the island, which would burn up even more fuel. I had no idea if I even had enough to make it there under ideal circumstances, let alone to do it against the wind.

I pushed the throttle forward and stood at the helm with both hands on the wheel, trying to keep the boat pointed roughly in the appropriate direction while attempting to dodge the larger waves.

The sun eventually broke the horizon, periodically blinding me as I rose and fell with the ocean’s surface. I was making slow progress, trying to navigate the Atlantic Ocean at the same speed one might drive through a school zone.

Hours passed, and the waves grew higher, reaching fifteen or twenty feet, frequently splashing onto the deck. I found a large tackle box in one of the compartments and emptied it out, using it to scoop water overboard. I figured the boat could handle a certain amount of water without trouble, but my luck was bad enough that I didn’t want to take any chances.

By late morning, I was within 140 miles of Gough Island. I sat back and steered with my foot while I opened a can of green beans, greedily drinking the green water from the can. I’d always hated green beans, but desperation added a little something to the flavor. I propped the can up on the helm and snacked on them as I piloted the boat forward into the rough water.

By the middle of the afternoon, I was within fifty miles of the island, but the waves remained rough and menacing clouds were forming in the distance. If things went my way, I might make it to shore within three hours before the storm hit.

Then the boat lurched sideways into a trough and the following wave crashed on top of it, filling the cabin with cold seawater and knocking me down into a metal rail. I struggled to keep my head above the water as the boat righted itself, sliding me across the cabin and slamming me into the other wall.

I pulled myself up and pressed my hand to the side of my head. Watery blood ran down my fingers. My ears rang insistently, and I wondered if I’d cracked my skull.

The next wave was worse, knocking the boat on its side and tearing part of the cabin open. The engines squealed as they came up out of the water. I lay crumpled against the cabin wall, submerged and holding my breath until I figured out which way was up.

After a few moments, the boat came over another crest and into a trough, and somehow righted itself again. I pulled myself to my feet, gasped for air, and checked the GPS screen.

It was blank.

I tapped it.

Nothing. It was gone.

All I had left was the baseball-sized spherical compass mounted to the helm, which rocked wildly as the boat rose and fell on the waves. I knew the heading I wanted, I just didn’t know how to keep the boat on it.

Another hour passed.

Still no Gough Island.

I should have been there by now.

It could still be in front of me. Or it could be behind me. Or I might have missed it, and it could be dozens of miles to either side of me. I had no idea how far off course I’d been blown.

The boat rose and fell like a seesaw as I leaned out of the cabin and scanned the horizon, inch by inch, squinting to see any shape at all.

There was nothing except a rippling horizon all the way around.

I went back in and killed the engines. The large waves churned underneath me with an eerie quietness, crashing only occasionally against the hull.

I sat down in the water pooled on the floor and opened a can of minced beef and onions, which I ate with my fingers. I still had plenty of cans of food left, but I wasn’t sure how long I’d be drifting out here.

The clouds were starting to break up and some sun was peeking through, at least. I couldn’t say it was warm, but it was at least pleasantly less cold. I closed my eyes for a moment, chunks of wet meat cradled in my fingers, and considered the mathematics of my situation.

In the Pacific, at least there are plenty of islands a lost ship might find: Pitcairn, Hawaii, New Zealand, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, and countless smaller islands. In the South Atlantic, though, the options were far more limited: Tristan da Cunha (which I’d left), Gough Island (which I couldn’t find), Bouvet Island (an uninhabited volcano about half the size of Gough), and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Short of finding those particular needles in the wet, salty haystack of the Atlantic Ocean, my best hopes were to head west and try to hit the coast of Argentina or go northeast and hope for South Africa or Namibia.

I ate the beef out of my hand, stood up, and went outside the cabin to figure out the wind. Whether it was blowing east or west, that’s the way I’d have to go. I couldn’t spend any more time trying to find these islands. I’d go as far as I could with the fuel on board and then hope to drift the rest of the way.

I felt the wind with my hand, then looked back inside at the compass.

Then I tested the wind again.

And then I looked at the compass again.

It was blowing me south.

It was blowing me toward Antarctica.

I slumped down to the wet floor again. I had no idea what I was supposed to feel anymore. It was too ridiculous to cry, too tragic to laugh, and too obvious to feel angry about. Of course it would end like this. I took the mission to Gough Island because I’d wanted the solitude, and now I had it. I was as alone as someone can possibly get, lost at sea, and being pushed toward Antarctica.

I screamed. I screamed and punched and kicked. My foot went through some of the cabin wall paneling. I screamed more, and more after that, but eventually gave up. The outburst felt good, but it was too much work. I was tired. I was sore. I hurt. I just wanted it to be over.

I wanted to see my mother again. I wanted to let her know what had happened to me. Why hadn’t I thought to leave some kind of message back on Tristan? It might have gotten back to her eventually, so at least she’d know something.

Most of all, I wanted to talk to Kemma again. We shouldn’t have ended the way we did. I wished she knew I was trying to return to her, trying to help her, trying to help the Mesdu keep their civilization together. I didn’t want her spending whatever time she had left in this life thinking of me as a coward. She wasn’t wrong for thinking it, but I wanted her to know there was at least a little more to me than that. I wasn't entirely sure if I believed it myself, but if she believed it maybe that counted for something.

“Nadu Kai….” I whispered. I wasn’t the religious type, and doubted I’d done much to earn the regard of Nadu Kai, but at this point she was probably the deity I knew best and the one most likely to have jurisdiction here, so I took my shot. “Dira nuatenn, ita murti Erkun, aul rasasn ambozin….” (Queen of the Universe, final incarnation of Erku, rider of the sky’s fire….)

I stopped, remembering I was supposed to pray where I could see the sun that Nadu Kai rides from horizon to horizon while watching over her dominion. I crawled out of the cabin on my hands and knees and stood out on the deck in the early morning light, bracing myself as the boat climbed up and down the waves. Now she could see me plainly. I spoke louder now.

E kaia ja? Are you going to kill me? Is it because I didn’t go with her? Did I piss you off? Because I’m trying to go to your stupid island right now. I’m trying to go to Gough…to Ao. I’m trying to help the Mesdu stay together. I’m trying to help the Queen. I’m trying to help Kemma. I don’t know what I can do there, but it would be more than I can do here on this damned boat. Whatever your plan is, if you could just….”

Then I saw it.

I stood up and squinted hard. It was just barely peeking out over the horizon, a fixed point against the constant motion of the sea.

It was the tip of a tiny green mountain.

“Never mind!” I yelled. “I found it myself!”

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