HE ROVER TRAVERSED THE night, grinding along a deeply rutted service road punctuated with drifts of wind-driven sand that slithered across the tarmac like diaphanous snakes, illumed momentarily by the dull reach of headlights as they slinked off into the dark. Drinkwine squinted into the mad parade of blinding headlights that belonged to the massive Mars Movers approaching on the adjacent lane. They came upon him in the darkness at speed, rumbling the ground, announcing their presence with bullying blasts from their air horns. The big trucks didn’t flinch on the narrow road and sped past, boisterously passing within inches, the concussion of turbulence slamming the diminutive rover. He watched each vehicle in turn as it whipped past and disappeared into the blackness of the rearview mirror, headed elsewhere to some urgent task of industry in the night.
After the stampede of the metallic pachyderms had passed, Drinkwine saw an ominous green glow against the night sky. As he drew closer he saw it was the ambience of mercury vapor work lights illuminating a massive operation spread out over a wide swath of the Martian landscape.
Rising above the clamor of the rover’s treads the discordant sounds of heavy machinery and the violent clang of iron gave scope to the operation, still some distance off. A perpetual cloud of dust rose a hundred meters into the night sky like some strange dome shrouding the strip mine, illumed by the ghostly work lights, their generators starved for air, straining against the thin atmosphere.
The eternal peace and quiet of the planet had not prepared it for the arrival of the humans. Mars had stood sentinel, majestic, for millions of years. Now, industry demanded a disruption of the solitude. With great facility the humans were cutting deep into the Martian surface, displacing billions of cubic feet of ore to be smelted into buildings and cars and things. Things.
Drinkwine drove the rover up as near to the open strip mine as possible. When he emerged from the vehicle his ears were assaulted by the noise. The air wafted with a haze of granite dust and the pungent scent of overheated hydraulic fluid. As he walked for the perimeter of the great hole the ground shook with the dull jolt of a deeply planted explosive somewhere off in the blackness, set to loosen the hard rock far beneath the surface. The shockwave rippled out underfoot.
He arrived at the edge of the man-made gorge being carved out of the Martian landscape in a great caldron of hard industry. From deep within stirred a tempest of arc welding and pneumatic drills. The gaping hole was giving up the essential ore to build the distant metropolis skyward.
Down below, the workers, bound together in a brotherhood of gray rock dust, thrashed their tools against the imposing walls of blunted and jagged, blanched granite. They’d long since tired of swearing at the reluctant rock and quieted their anger with the monotonous, ceaseless work. Now, there was only the rock, the endless rock.
It was said a worker toiling away with discipline and the reward of overtime could amass a small nest egg. It was said. So they came. They came not with fanciful dreams but rather, with simple hopes of securing a livelihood. The bunkhouses where they were interred were not far off from where they toiled away the hours in The Hole, and resonated with the sound of the great hammers. It was said the workers hear the metallic clank of the hammering long after they’ve repaired to their domiciles, taking the droning pounding to their beds where it drove away any dreams that might come. The bunkhouses were erected in the vacant gouges of excavation to protect them from the ever-present, ever-blowing wind. The sun-scorched rock held the heat of day long after night had come. The whole of the area was polluted by the dreamless sleep of gift-less labor. This landscape pounded men’s hearts in a slow wearing down of dreams. These people had exhausted their capacity for sorrow, faces long since surrendered to solemnity. The soulless hammering was eating their brains away from the inside out. If you had a strong back there was medical help and a host of pharmaceuticals to keep you alive and working. So long as you could lift and strain and pull and obey they would keep you going. And so they went, on and on.
Drinkwine approached an aged worker, leaning his tired weight against a cane as he peered down longingly into The Hole. He supposed him to be a retired worker, past all usefulness, forlorn for the thankless tasks he could no longer perform. Drinkwine imagined that he came to this place each night to gaze into the pit and remember; because a man longs for purpose, however menial, however pointless.
“Pardon me,” Drinkwine spoke, but the man didn’t budge. He tried again, shouting, “Excuse me!”
The man slowly turned, staring at Drinkwine through milky cataracts.
“Where is the foreman?” Drinkwine yelled over the incessant clang of steel and the thrashing of rock.
The old man took account of Drinkwine, a fellow white, curiously drawing his gaze over the fine suit, the expensive shoes. After a moment of deliberation he pointed into the gaping wound of industry to a small work shed at the center of the chaos. With the same emotionless countenance, he pointed to a ramp of dirt that descended into the massive excavation. Drinkwine left the old man to his business of pondering the machinations of the mining operation, forlorn and envious for the hard and hated work he could no longer do.
Descending the dirt ramp into the quarry, Drinkwine shone like some arrogant apparition, arriving in the depths of the dusty dig in his tailored linen suit. He was the only shimmer of color amidst the gray of the surrounding walls of stone. By the time he reached the bottom of the ramp his trouser hem and shoes were patterned with dust. Drinkwine stamped his shoes to rid them of the soot.
Silhouetted in the erratically dancing white hot light of an arc welder, immune to the crack of high amperage, a cluster of men were tasked with bracing the weight of a heavy crane arm as welding rod pooled to mend a crack in the fatigued structure. Through intermittent flashes of arc, which painted veins of hot blue that lingered on the optic nerve, Drinkwine discerned one, then another, and another huddled around the blinding arcing, turn to look at him. The ominous figures were like hulking apes around a campfire.
Searching the area, Drinkwine glanced through the oscillating machine arms that clattered and stamped against the rock, seeking a path to the corrugated steel shack. Down here, the workers—all of them American—spoke in raised voices, their ears having long since suffered varying degrees of hearing loss. They went quiet one by one as Drinkwine strode past. The laborers, these endeavoring men and women, seemed uniform in their disapproval of him, as if some scheming messenger had run ahead to alert them of a disruption to their lives. Rumor preceded him. They were wary. They had all heard that someone had arrived from Earth to piece together the murder. He would be asking questions, shining a light on them, the workers, exacerbating already strained relations with upper management. After all, this was their hard-earned opportunity of employment. They feared whatever it was this man was bringing down to them might well upset that. They didn’t know how, or why. But they wished he would go away and not disturb the frail routine of their livelihood with this thing that must be solved. Michael Byrne didn’t figure into the equation any longer. He was just some thing that was no more. No one really cared. He was merely a nuisance now. They all wished to be done with this, for the murder to be swept away along with the rock dust. They wished for this stranger to go away as well and leave them to their routines.
As he neared the work shed, ears bombarded by the clamoring of heavy machines boring into the granite, he saw a man wearing a yellow hard hat standing out front, making notations on a clipboard. The man traded glances between his writing and Drinkwine’s approach with a knowing, irritated look. Just as Drinkwine was about to yell the man interrupted with a shake of the head, pointing to his ear, indicating speech was futile and motioned for him to come inside the shed. Drinkwine followed.
The door of the shed banged closed, cutting the decibels of the laboring work outside significantly. The man was white, an American. He hung the clipboard on a hook in the wall and tossed his hard hat on the desk. The light of an overhead work lamp gave Drinkwine a clear view. The foreman looked to be late thirties, but it was hard to tell. Years of hard manual labor tire a man well before his time. He was handsome, despite his face having been put back together a few times. Possibly work accidents or, more likely, barroom brawls. Drinkwine presented his badge, “I’m Detective Drinkwine.”
Upon hearing the name the foreman smiled, with that familiar expression of disbelief. “Seriously?”
Drinkwine just nodded.
“I wondered when you would come,” he muttered. “I’m Jack Bishop,” he offered, straightforward. “I’m the foreman of the graveyard shift. I was Michael’s immediate supervisor. I assume you have questions,” scratching his head, “I’m not sure I have answers.”
“You mean you may not want to give them to me?” Drinkwine inferred.
“That’s not what I meant.” Bishop mulled things over in his head. He was tired. “Look, I’ll tell you what I know, it just may not be a lot, or helpful,” he said as he settled into the swivel chair at his desk. “By the way, the company has already spooked the hell out of the workers.”
The statement caught Drinkwine off-guard, “What do you mean?”
Bishop, relaxing his edge a bit, motioned for him to sit in the other swivel chair. Drinkwine settled into it, squeaking the dry springs.
“They said someone was coming. To ask questions,” Bishop spoke without loyalty.
Drinkwine sensed Bishop’s resentment toward the conglomerate he worked for.
“They told them they’d be docked for the time they were being interviewed.”
Drinkwine nodded. “So,” he started, “what can you tell me?”
“About the deceased?” rubbing a grain of sand from his eye he pulled back a drawer and produced a time sheet. “I went back and looked at the logs, figuring someone would eventually come and ask.” He ran his finger over the card. “Last time Byrne worked in The Hole was eight weeks ago. He went missing. No one seemed to know, or care about what happened to him.”
“Why was that?”
“Byrne wasn’t what you’d call a gifted worker, Detective.” Bishop weighed out the ramifications of what he was about to say. “And he was an idiot.” Once he said it, more poured forth. “He was lazy and incompetent. That probably makes me a suspect now, huh? So, he was useless and I wanted him gone. Doesn’t mean I wanted him dead.”
“I appreciate your candor, Mr. Bishop,” Drinkwine said sincerely. “It’s a rare commodity.”
“So, you’ve discovered that already have you?” Bishop offered, warming to Drinkwine. “I know he owed people money.”
“What for?” Drinkwine, stone-faced.
“Who knows?” Bishop answered with bewilderment. “Playing cards, bootleg skag, naked girly pictures, shit… naked boy pictures. Everyone has their perversions. Take your pick.” Bishop stared out the window. “He wasn’t liked.”
“Any idea who he owed money to?” Drinkwine waited to jot down names.
“If I’d asked a few weeks ago, maybe I could’ve learned something,” Bishop tapped a pencil against the desk. “But no one’s talking now. Ever since the company announced the docking of pay for the interviews, everyone’s gone quiet. You see, to them,” indicating the workers toiling in the pit outside, “all this murder represents is a potential loss of income. So, you’re not going to get much help.” He studied Drinkwine, the suit, the shoes. “Detective… Drinkwine, did you say?”
Bishop smiled, humored. “You may find that trying to get answers out of these people is going to be as hard as getting the ore out of this hell hole.” There was a palpable respect between the two men for some reason. “Who killed him? Who knows? Why does one person get killed and not another?” Bishop looked out the little glass window at the mining operation, the shadows of workers distorted against the rock face by the powerful work lights. “They don’t want to talk to you, Detective.”
“I’m not going to go away,” Drinkwine, resolute.
“I know,” Bishop said, swiveling the chair. “That’s what concerns me.”
Drinkwine stopped writing and looked at him, searching for deeper meaning, “Concern, for the investigation?”
“Concern for your well-being.” Bishop stopped swiveling. “You’re an oddity, Detective. Surely you know this. You’re not one of them, yet you’re not one of us, not really. You’re a white with a brown’s education and privilege. You’re an unknown entity. You bring with you an unknown circumstance. These people don’t know what to make of you. Except that, in their eyes, they fear this whole thing could blow up into something bigger. To them, you’re a threat to their jobs.”
The words caused Drinkwine to cock his head slightly.
“That’s right, Detective,” Bishop continued. “This shithole of existence, this morbid, endless digging into Mars is all they have. Most of them lied about their nationality, their past, their education, even their religious beliefs just to get the damn job. You’re shining a light on them, making them real. And a lot of them don’t want that, because if this grows, if this thing becomes a regular topic on the news and it gets out how many of them are here illegally, they’ll be deported—what other option would the government have?”
The two men regarded one another.
“I understand you have a job to do,” Bishop continued, “but these people, they just want to be left alone, to remain in the shadows.” He looked intently at Drinkwine. “And just think, these are the lucky ones. Do you realize what these people went through to get here?”
Drinkwine looked up from his notepad.
“Yes, Detective, to get here, to get to this,” as he swept his arm to suggest the great nothingness. “How bad were their lives on Earth, and the Moon, that this, this,” he emphasized with disgust, “was worth it? And as pitiful as it may seem, they fear losing it. They would be happy if this whole thing just went away, so that that spotlight of a badge and the righteousness of the law would stop shining on them and just let them dig the rock out of this fucking place.”
“Whether they want to talk to me or not doesn’t really matter,” Drinkwine sighed. “They will talk to me. They have to. It’s the law.”
“On Earth, Detective,” Bishop reminded with more sympathy than malice, “on Earth.”
The two men sat quietly for a moment, Bishop subconsciously tapping his pencil against the desk in time to a pneumatic jackhammer chipping into rock somewhere out there among the mining operation.
“Right now,” the life-tired foreman continued, “all they see is some needless toiling that threatens them.”
“’Needless toiling,”’ Drinkwine repeated, “a man was killed.”
“Yes, someone was killed,” Bishop responded, exhausted. “Maybe they had it coming. You ever think of that? What if all your questions and righteousness just turns up some sordid behavior that resulted in exactly what the man deserved? Either way, do you really think any of them give a high fuck about someone who had the good fortune to get murdered?”
A distant siren bellowed through the night above the churning noise of the mine. A moment later another of the underground concussions of a distant charge of dynamite passed beneath the work shed in a tremulous wave.
“You may think I’m being an ass,” Bishop offered. “Actually, I kinda’ like you for some reason. I don’t know, maybe it’s the name,” eyeing the fine linen, “or the suit.” He rubbed his eyes, tired, “Maybe it’s because we’re not that far apart.”
Drinkwine stopped writing. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t be so shocked. You and I are resented for our position,” he said, staring at Drinkwine. “I’m a foreman, you’re a man of the law. We have educations, we represent authority. We have to walk the line between all these things we’ve been handed, our stations in life, if you will.”
Drinkwine closed his notepad, experience telling him the conversation having turned to philosophy that the useful information to be had was at an end. He nodded slightly in agreement as to the sad reality of what Bishop had said. He gathered himself and rose out of the chair. Bishop followed suit, rising to show him to the door.
Before he opened the door, Bishop tilted his head toward Drinkwine’s chest. “That badge under your jacket, the questions you bring, your arrival, it’s everything they feared was coming.” Bishop continued, “But I’m afraid all you’ve done here tonight is put a face to that fear.”
Bishop opened the door, letting the noise from the ceaseless grind of work fill the work shed. “Don’t be ruinous, Detective,” he advised in parting with an unintentional foreboding as to what may lay ahead for him.
As Drinkwine emerged from the shed into the noise of the mining operation he could feel the fall of eyes on him. As he crossed the frenetic work area, seeking out anyone who might give him a moment, Drinkwine became aware of the precarious ballet of creaking cranes overhead; a confusion of industry without any oversight for safety, the danger heightened by the turmoil of shadows struck by blinding work lights in the blackness. He felt the thinness of the atmosphere exerting its strangling effect on him and had to slow his stride in order to appear stolid.
Each attempt to approach groups of workers was met with a scattering. They disappeared like scared rats into hidden coves and behind racks of piping, slithered behind wheels of cable and scrambled over mounds of rock. The thin air prevented Drinkwine from giving chase. He understood their reaction, knew it was futile to try and garner any useful information from them. They wouldn’t speak to him. He decided this was enough for now, let them see the stranger that had come. Perhaps it would diffuse their preconceived animosities. Besides, they would all be summoned to an interview, for which they must attend. Fuck them and their concern over their docked pay. Fuck them, Drinkwine said to himself. Nothing more of the night could be done, so he retraced his path to the dirt ramp that led out of this.
Drinkwine laboriously ascended from The Hole, leaving behind the monotonous clamor of the machines. As he approached his rover he saw that the windshield had been smashed—a spider web of fractures spreading across the width of the glass.
Nearby, huddled together, a group of dust-covered workers smiled with twisted pride and bold challenge at their malevolence. Drinkwine looked into the threatening faces—all of them American. They had the ignorant, violent indifference of wild animals in their eyes. These were his fellow Americans, he thought to himself. He resented them their ignorance. Yeah, fuck them, he declared in unspoken consultation with himself.
Helpless against them in their numbers, Drinkwine climbed into the rover. When he shut the door behind him to lock out their stares the force shuddered through the fractured glass in a rippling, crunching wave. As the rover pulled away in a rattling of tread an empty bottle sailed through the Martian night and smashed against the roof. A rise and fall of laughter pierced the night, acquainted with some profanities thrown out in English that chased after the rover. How ironic, the first people he’d encountered here who had English as their first language had used it in such viciousness. Drinkwine pushed the rover to speed, repeatedly looking in the rearview mirror at the receding threat, the insidious laughter sliding further and further into the darkness behind.
Drinkwine had stopped the rover on a crest of dune. It was quiet and still and dark here under the perfect black canopy of night. He was loitering, enjoying another one of his Hollands. Yes, he was devouring them at an alarming rate, but he justified it against the stresses of threat and the ugliness he’d just encountered. Surrounded by blackness he felt suspended in space. The only thing corrupting the perfectly inked landscape was the sparkling city of Jannah, far off in the distance. Through the cracked webbing of the smashed windshield the city was an island adrift, sparkling jewel-like against the Martian night, appearing like a child’s play toy.
To the east, he saw the tiny blue orb of Earth beginning its slow rise into the night sky. Before him was the city. Behind, the malice of dangerous men. And out there, far away, was home.
Eventually the Holland had been smoked down as far as it could go. Drinkwine crushed it out, then reluctantly turned the rover toward the sparkling gold and blue lights of the city and made his way, without great purpose, toward the remote outpost of life.
As the rover descended the dune, headlights illuminating the sand and rock ahead, Drinkwine thought of the covering of night, the anonymous black, where lay the germ of ill thought among men. Night gave measure to their disturbing contemplations, their obscene desires, their animal brutality. Night was the time for crimes, where cruel notions festered.
Drinkwine recalled a beautiful spring day at university when they were studying the inordinate percentage of crimes carried out at night as opposed to the number that unfolded during daylight hours. He remembered being seated next to a row of windows opened to the warm blossoming of nature and thought how the somber theme of that lecture unfolded with odd contradiction against the smells of spring. Blackness. Mars had it in abundance.
Tiredly making his way to his room, Drinkwine brushed the irritating sand from his scalp, wiped the grains of sand from his eyes. It was late. The day, and the night had been trying. He wiped the dusted lens of his glasses against the sleeve of his linen suit, leaving a faint residue of red. Running his palm over the I.D. sensor the bolt slid back.
As he opened the door the light of the hall spilled into the room, the narrow slash falling across the bed. Drinkwine stopped. The covers were drawn up over a body. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw it was Atefeh, asleep in the bed. Her clothes were draped neatly over a chair. In her sleep she wheezed slightly. Her mouth was open and a small trail of saliva streaked her chin. Her hopeful intent of a romantic liaison had been dashed by the lateness of his arrival.
Careful not to make a sound, Drinkwine backed out of the room, quietly closing the door behind without disturbing her uneven breaths. Standing in the hall, Drinkwine longed deeply and tiredly for the comfort of the bed, where, presently lay an unwanted seduction. Uncertain what to do, Drinkwine reclined on the sad couch in the corridor. Head falling back in exhaustion, he let out a sigh. He closed his eyes and easily drifted off to sleep.