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Chapter 19

THE DRONING OF THE rover’s treads—trading between churning the deep sand and skirting the hard-packed ground—rattled Drinkwine’s mind. The GPS shone bright, indicating the long haul ahead at slow speed, teasing and provoking as to where this all might end. The creeping sand played into Drinkwine’s obsessive thoughts. Why had Barr killed a low-level worker?

With the plains holding the heat of the day, Drinkwine saw the fresh imprint of a rover’s tracks in the sand. The GPS, narrowing in on the research hut, had put Drinkwine’s rover on almost the exact course Barr had navigated. Barr was out here. The man who had pulled the trigger with cruel indifference. As he slipped his rover into the track imprints Drinkwine considered the distance he was now from the city, from help, considered how far he was from assistance. He was frustrated by the conspicuous rumble of the treads, which meant there was no hope for surprise.

Squinting into the glare of the red desert the sharp angles of a man-made structure corrupted the rolling landscape of sand and rock. Almost lost in the quivering waves of heat rising off the Martian surface, Drinkwine saw the remote research station where Jafar Barr was currently situated. The signal flag indicating the shed was active hung limp in absolute calm. Once again the wind was fucking with him, this time being nowhere in sight. The wind now could help conceal his approach. But this agonizing stillness and quiet would allow the movement of the rover to be heard well before it arrived at the shed. Barr would hear the whining motor and rattling treads well in advance.

As he crept toward the encounter with the murderer in painfully slow progress, his eyes stinging with sweat, Drinkwine saw movement about the shed, still some distance off. As he surmised, the noise of the rover had alerted Jafar Barr to his presence. The heat rising off the dunes was playing havoc. Barely discernible against the glare, Drinkwine saw Jafar Barr emerge from the shed carrying something. When he raised his hands to his face Drinkwine realized that Jafar was spying him through binoculars. He watched as Jafar retreated into the shed. Was it to retrieve the Roches? Drinkwine wondered. There was still the question of whether Barr had the weapon in his possession and, if so, had he had the good sense to recharge it? If so, there were potentially a dozen rounds in it, each one capable of taking Drinkwine’s head off and spreading his precious Harvard education over the Martian sands. The visuals planted in his mind as to what the weapon did to Byrne—and the notion that the same hot flying lead could be aimed at him—was disconcerting. Not the kind of thing a man needs to be thinking about as he treaded closer to confrontation. Drinkwine drew his service weapon from the shoulder holster. He wiped his brow of sweat with his sleeve as he studied the gun, considering its effectiveness against a Roches. Nothing like showing up with a pencil sharpener to a gunfight, he thought. The rover continued its noisy approach.

Against the blurring void and the painfully slow progress of the rover, Drinkwine saw Jafar—distorted through waves of heat—emerge from the shed. If he had retrieved the Roches, Drinkwine knew the range of the weapon would not reach him at this distance. Still, to have a weapon leveled at you is no small event, regardless of the gap. But Jafar Barr instead made fast for the rover parked alongside the corrugated steel structure. The rover leaped forward and whipped around, the inside tread throwing up a rooster tail of sand as it made a tear for the distant horizon of red.

The suspect was making a run for it. Stuck in the pitifully slow progress of the rover, all Drinkwine could do was watch the frantic activity of a desperate man from afar. The man who had killed Michael Byrne was in that rover, presently making a dash for God knows where. Where he intended to go Drinkwine had no idea, for this was the last outpost of humanity on the wild reaches of Mars. What lay beyond this was nothing but the murderous abyss of the red planet. Given time, there was only death from hunger, dehydration, and exposure to the elements. As far as Drinkwine was concerned, for a healthy person to trespass into that certain demise was merely testament to the man’s guilt.

A full twenty minutes after Jafar had bolted from the shed and taken off in the rover, Drinkwine arrived at the research shed. The wind speed indicator atop the roof was absolutely still. Not a whisper of movement in the air, not a breath of relief from the heat.

In his haste, Jafar had left the door to the shed wide open. Jumping from the rover Drinkwine barged through and made quick survey of the interior. He was determined not to make further missteps and searched out items that would be useful in the strangely measured pursuit that had just begun.

The first thing that caught his attention was the Roches firearm. It was sitting on the workbench in partial disassembly. It appeared Jafar had tried to repair the weapon, sand having corrupted its workings, rendering it useless. This was good. Drinkwine now knew his killer was no longer armed with a lethal weapon.

Infused with relief, Drinkwine tore through the shed looking for provisions. He found several bottles of water in the refrigerator, scooping them up in anticipation of entering the sweltering desert. He would not make that mistake again. He wondered if Jafar had had the presence of mind to grab any water or take any provisions with him. Hopefully the crush of capture had ruptured any logic and the murderer was headed out into the unforgiving desert unprepared. Oddly, what stroked Drinkwine’s mind for a fleeting second was the hope that Jafar would not die before he could learn of the motive for the killing of Byrne. What was the agenda, the motivation behind the brutal homicide?

With the guilt of Barr confirmed, Drinkwine switched to a mode of police protocol in the apprehension of a suspect. He maintained the same calculated approach that accompanied his research, thinking through the probable events. This shift in mindset happened quite effortlessly as Drinkwine put the droning rover onto a course across the plain in pursuit of Jafar Barr. The two vehicles, identical in performance, would gain and lose nothing on one another in the laborious crawl across the nothingness, taking them into more of the nothingness.

Drinkwine calculated how long the two vehicles could run at this clip before they drained their batteries and came to an excruciatingly frustrating halt, far from anything. He wondered how much battery life the two vehicles had already exhausted in the trek to these far reaches. Certainly, one of the vehicles had more in reserve than the other. Drinkwine hoped it was his.

As the slow pursuit unfolded across the endless expanse of desert, the sweltering heat cruelly played on Drinkwine’s thoughts. The tracks of Barr’s rover screamed of desperation. They strode the flattish red desert divulging unretractable confession. There was no longer any question of who had murdered Byrne. The murderer was up ahead, just out of sight, making some mad play for escape. Escape? How did he expect to escape? He was trapped here on Mars. There was nowhere to run. What did he hope to achieve in this desperate act? Perhaps it was merely to avoid capture and extend his freedom by just a few precious days, a few precious hours.

The insufferable distance conjured a host of possible outcomes. Drinkwine considered that even if Jafar Barr wasn’t in possession of the Roches that didn’t negate the possibility of violence. Men driven to extremes, given over to the base primal instinct of survival, were capable of anything.

Staring into the deceiving plains, Drinkwine hoped the winds would remain benevolent for now, so that the tracks Barr’s rover was leaving in the Martian surface could be followed. If one of the planet’s notorious windstorms blew up it would remove the one trace of the killer and his intent. He eased the rover’s treads directly into the tracks Barr had laid and settled back in the seat, ruminating on what the outcome of this situation was going to be. If it came down to having to use his weapon Drinkwine assured himself he wouldn’t hesitate. Once he had confronted the suspect, he would keep a safe distance. He would toss his handcuffs out to him and have the suspect cuff himself to avoid the unnecessary risk of getting too close and unintentionally granting an upper hand to the suspect. It had all been covered in basic training all those years ago; how to apprehend a suspect when you are unaccompanied. And Drinkwine was unaccompanied, completely and entirely unaccompanied.

All that might happen played on Drinkwine’s mind; not enough water; not enough power in the rover batteries to get them back to the settlement. The cell phones, what about the cell phones? Drinkwine checked the signal. It was fading, fast, weakly bouncing between one bar and zero. No way to communicate. He thought to himself that he would get Barr back to the research station and use the radio there to call for assistance. If he called, they would have to send someone. They would have to. Unless those in power decided to take measures to keep this thing under wraps. Jafar was a killer, so what loss if he were to die? And himself? How much was his life worth at this moment to these people? Surely there were those who would just as soon see him expire out here in the quieting desert, leaving the winds to bury him and his trouble where no one would ever find him. The artists’ renderings of the city of Jannah could resume their promise; Crime Free Living On Far Away Mars.

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