THE SOFT RUMBLE OF treated air coursed the labyrinth of ventilation shafts, driven by the monotonous din of generators deep within the bowels of the mammoth spacecraft. In the darkness of the first class cabin breathing rose and fell to rhythms of sleep. The delicate chimes of a clock reached out into the darkness to gently stir the sleeper from his dreams.
In the bed, passenger Enerson Drinkwine gently stirred and, half sleeping, silenced the clock. He blinked his way to consciousness as the LED lights began their slow, programmed rise to brightness, illuminating the small cabin of brushed aluminum walls and artificial wood accents. There was just enough room to take two short strides in any direction. The single bed, declined from the wall in a retractable frame of titanium, took up the majority of the cabin. There was a writing desk, the accoutrements secured with Velcro. Drawers were fitted into all available slivers of space, making efficient use of the limited economy of room. The tiny bathroom was comprised of a combination toilet and shower, with an aluminum sink that held barely more water than what Drinkwine could hold in his large, cupped hands. The cabin was tastefully appointed with flowered wallpaper, intended to remind one of home. But this was a long way from home.
Collecting his thin wire-rimmed bifocals from the nightstand, Drinkwine brought the room into focus. He ran a hand through his thinning hair and, still in bed, reached across the small space to slide the window shade up. Beyond the two-inch thick glass of the porthole, freezing to the touch, the wild reaches of space pooled as if submerged in an ocean of ink. The sunlight that came through the porthole crawled down the wall of the cabin as the enormous craft rotated on its axis, the great, spoke wheel structure in a slow and constant spin to generate centrifugal force, mimicking gravity in the outer perimeter where the main operational area and first class cabins were situated.
Drinkwine remained in bed for a moment, tracing the patterns of sunlight that slid down the wall and bent at the floor before sweeping across the carpet and ascending the adjacent wall. Round and round, a continuing kaleidoscope of oscillating patterns of light that made play of the room. It was all the spectacle of the massive spacecraft, waltzing its way through the weightlessness of space.
Further down the giant spokes of the craft, in declining values of gravity, were the second class cabins. At the center of the hub, where centrifugal force had no influence, were the mechanical machinations of the ship. Immune to gravity the churning nuclear turbine drove the beast, the electrical main panels and computer brains navigating the endless reaches of space with infallible precision. Also down there, among the stowage, sharing the devalued space, plagued by the uncomfortable effects of weightlessness, was the steerage.
As the craft gently rotated on its axis it brought into view, in sweeping arcs outside the porthole, brief glimpses of the perimeter of Mars. The planet shone as a rust-colored orb streaked with shadows cast from tall mountain peaks across its barren plains. The six-week flight from the Moon, following the three-day layover from Earth, was coming to a close. Now only the final leg remained; the shuttle that would rush him to the surface of Mars. Drinkwine wished he could go on into the black abyss of space—continue traversing the solitude. But work was at hand.
The trip had been uneventful. Drinkwine had spent the majority of the time in here, preferring to take his meals in the privacy offered by his cabin as opposed to dining with the other first class passengers, with their condescending stares and vaguely insulting inquiries into who he was and what line of work he was in. After all, he was an oddity; a Caucasian, an American, traveling in first class. For many of them this was the closest they’d ever been to a white person.
A gentle female voice came over the intercom. It spoke in English, heavily accented with a Middle Eastern inflection. “Good morning, Mr. Drinkwine. Boarding for the Mars shuttle will commence in one hour. Please notify your valet of any personal items you require assistance with.”
Beset with morning stiffness, Drinkwine draped his legs over the side of the bed and let out a sigh. He gazed at the planet, still some four hundred kilometers off, glowing red against the gathering Martian dawn. Mars; the newest and most promising outpost of humanity. Down there, spread across the surface, fully automated terraforming stations, hundreds of them, had been spewing out a concoction of chemicals for eighty years. Rich in fluorocarbons, specifically Tetrafluoromethane—otherwise known as CF4—when congealed with the existing composition of atmosphere resulted in a breathable facsimile of oxygen. It was putrid and thin, and scratched the throat, but Mars had air. He’d read all about it over the past six weeks.
Drinkwine knew when he received his itinerary and saw the first class passage that the department was attempting to assuage his concerns for what lay ahead. Their efforts only served to heighten them. Drinkwine was a forensics detective. He dealt in homicide. He had the dubious distinction of having solved the Moon’s first murder. That was twenty years ago, when the Moon was first being colonized. It seemed so remote at the time, the notion of a murder on the Moon. The novelty had long since worn off. There had been over fourteen thousand lunar homicides since. And now, in strangely similar circumstance, here he was en route to Mars to investigate the red planet’s first murder.
Yes, someone had been murdered. There was little to go on. The body of a low-level white American worker had been found. The Martian winds had exhumed it from its shallow grave. The body had been there for some indiscriminant amount of time—long enough for serious decomposition to set in. The deceased went by the name of Michael Byrne and no one seemed to know much about him, except that, under deeper scrutiny, the name turned out to be invented. Perhaps to cover-up some past indiscretion with the law that would negate employment on Mars. Who knows? Well, the front of Michael Byrne’s skull was missing. Where normally there would be a face and a brain was a gaping hole. His head had been disintegrated by the blast of a Roches 4.0 service handgun against the back of the head. The Roches was a popular and rugged sidearm for police officers on the Moon. Designed primarily as a subduing weapon for riot situations it had a nasty spray of lethal shotgun-like discharge requiring minimal accuracy of aim—as was evident in the photos Drinkwine had been wired from Mars. He had studied the photos of the gaping hole of obliterated skull and hanging jaw with indifference. To have excavated the front portion of the head while leaving the back half of skull intact, save for the 40mm diameter entrance wound, irrevocably pointed to extremely close range; execution style. Other than that there was only rumor and conjecture.
The classified materials Drinkwine had been studying while en route these past weeks were now neatly filed away in his small aluminum briefcase. The hard copies of materials deemed insignificant or unnecessary had been taken to the furnace in the refuse room of the spaceship in a ritual of burning, always presided over by Drinkwine. The attending technicians resented being watched over by a white man—however, orders had been passed along by their superiors ensuring the detective’s wishes.
Having shaved and showered, Drinkwine dressed in front of the full-length mirror, smoothing the creases of his white linen suit. To offset the prejudices and uneasiness that his color and nationality provoked, Drinkwine always took measures to present himself in the best light, keeping his wardrobe of finely tailored linen suits immaculately laundered and his personal hygiene impeccable, right down to the daily splash of rose water cologne.
In anticipation of arrival Drinkwine had already packed, his travel bag and aluminum brief set by the door. On the desk sat two unopened cartons of Hollands. He allowed himself the indulgence of five of the thin, rich cigarillos per day. One carton had already been consumed. Another carton would be reserved for the return six-week trip to Earth. That left one carton, roughly a five-week supply, to cover the duration of the investigation. How Drinkwine had arrived at that estimate he had no idea. Confidence perhaps. Or perhaps the shopworn routines of this work had taught him that more often than naught—especially when large corporations had a stake in the outcome—the investigation would meet with some strange strangulation of interference and he would be conveniently relieved of duty in a questionable abortion of ethics and the law. The want of dollars would always supersede the concerns of justice. Money, greed, they were the anacondas of truth. And Mars had proliferated them in spades. There was little use in trying to fight it.
As he self-consciously combed his thinning strands of hair one last time, Drinkwine thought of the questions and suspicion he was bringing with him. The investigation was already seen as a potential stain on an otherwise beautifully embroidered tapestry of commerce by the various entities with a stake in colonizing Mars. Those entities had already made discrete inquiries into how the investigation was going to be handled. When they had learned of the nationality of the detective being assigned to the case they were, accountably, worried. They were intent on diffusing any threat to the promise of the safe and crime free planet they had been selling the past few years. His being white and an American, like the victim, would only add fuel to the fire.
Drinkwine picked up one of the ubiquitous color pamphlets from the desk with an artist’s rendition of what the future Mars colony would look like; smiling settlers, all of them dark-skinned; a metropolis of towering glass; tranquil lakes; the air a mild 26 degrees Celsius year round. Murder wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the marketing materials. 42,332 people currently populated Mars; engineers, technicians, researchers, investors, bankers. The vast majority, however, were low-level, unskilled workers hired for the backbreaking tasks of extracting the iron ore from the planet to create the new city. Thousands more crawled the skeletal framework of the high-rises, welding and riveting them ever skyward. 42,332 people in all—among them, a murderer. Drinkwine had a hunch there was only one culprit. There was nothing to substantiate that. It was just a hunch. Until he peeled back the layers of what had transpired, they all must be regarded as a possible suspect. It was the best way to work; don’t trust anyone. That’s how cops died, letting their guard down—believing people. There were 42,332 people on Mars and the only one he knew didn’t do it was himself. That’s where he was starting from.
After dropping the pamphlet into the trashcan Drinkwine gathered himself. Taking a deep breath, he pressed the button that slid the metal cabin door open on a swoosh of air. Surrendering his precious solitude, Drinkwine exited the safe confines of the first class stateroom, the door closing behind, delivering him into the soft parade of wealthy travelers making eagerly for the shuttle platform. Instantly he encountered the familiar, curious stares as he made his way along the corridor, the token white in a linen suit among a small throng of wealthy, dark-skinned Middle Easterners dressed in beautiful silk thwabs and hijabs. The only sound was the soft padding of expensive shoes against the perfectly groomed carpet.
The corridor funneled the travelers toward the shuttle platform. Through the few windows lining the passenger tunnel, travelers glimpsed with awe the impressive craft moored to the mother ship; the sleek, white fuselage of carbon fiber ribbed with rows of tiny windows. Narrow wings would provide just enough surface area to guide the craft down through the vague atmosphere of Mars in steep spirals of descent to land them in the new world that awaited.
As the procession slowed to a bottleneck at the cabin door of the shuttle, Drinkwine looked out at the gently turning Ferris wheel of the main ship, sunlight playing shadows with the giant spokes of the cathedral-like structure. Barely visible below the first class causeway, Drinkwine caught sight of a pedestrian tunnel where the second class and steerage passengers made their way onto the lower level of the shuttle. Through the few windows that lined the footway, suspended across the narrow abyss of space, he could see passengers, most of them white, bunched together like sardines in a tin. They wore weary and motion-sick faces from weeks of weightlessness, now ambling awkwardly with atrophied limbs against the effect of artificial gravity found in the outer perimeter of the main craft. For one fleeting moment, Drinkwine caught the bewildered stare of a young boy who looked back at him quizzically before being pushed along in the urgent crush of humanity.
As Drinkwine approached the main door of the shuttle he anticipated the change in demeanor that was to come to the two East Indian officers, presently welcoming the passengers warmly in various languages. An American, in the first class corridor, in possession of two cartons of cigarillos was bound to rouse suspicion. It would require explanation, patience, and answering a litany of accusing questions to put them at ease as to what a white man was doing here, for surely they would believe him to have somehow coerced his way. As if by rote, Drinkwine had already retrieved his passport, his boarding card, and his official work papers.
As expected the smiles left their faces as Drinkwine advanced to the cabin door. One of the officers spoke into a lapel microphone as they stepped into Drinkwine’s path. With trained efficiency they set their hands upon him in firm, clandestine hold, and ushered him to the side. They rifled accusatory questions in a rapid Indo-Aryan tongue, to which Drinkwine could only answer with the presentation of official papers and polite pleas of, “Pardon me, English, please, I only speak English.”
As well-to-do Middle Eastern families and businessmen continued to board the craft, regarding the altercation with curiosity, one of the officers snatched the paperwork from Drinkwine. The other, still with firm hold—as if Drinkwine might spirit off to God knows where—used his free hand to seize the passport, the seal of America only heightening their suspicions. The officer flipped the passport open to the picture, holding it up alongside Drinkwine’s face in insulting deliberation. Drinkwine was accustomed to this treatment by passport control officers, policemen, hotel clerks and maître d’. The two officers studied his boarding card with suspicion, looking for discrepancies or fraudulent alteration. They calmed slightly, exchanging questioning looks as they perused the papers with the official seal of law enforcement. Reading the notes in the official box for special circumstances, one of the officers asked harshly in broken English, “You have a badge then?”
Drinkwine nodded, producing his wallet and flipping it open to reveal the gold-plated shield. The two officers seemed disappointed. Without ceremony or apology they rudely thrust the passport, boarding pass, and papers back at him, reluctantly stepping aside to allow him to board the first class level of the shuttle.
The first class cabin was less than half full. Drinkwine reclined in one of the plush leather seats, a five-point safety harness holding him securely in place against the weightlessness that would take over the cabin once it freed itself from its nursing of the mother ship. Several rows forward, a dark-skinned child wearing a finely stitched, colorfully patterned silk coat, continually peered around the tall seat back to look at Drinkwine. Repeatedly the dark, slender, bejeweled fingers of his mother’s hand came around the boy’s head to gently pull him from his innocent curiosity.
After the perfunctory pre-flight emergency brief the cabin went dark and was immediately filled with the red illumination of warning lights that signaled detachment was imminent. With a whisper of vibration that traveled the length of the shuttle, accompanied by a distant thump of mechanized movement, the craft jettisoned away, instantly confusing the cabin with weightlessness once un-tethered from the centrifugal influence of the main ship. After a brief thrust of propulsion the shuttle dropped without sensation toward the planet below, banking around to align itself with a runway that awaited down there, somewhere, on the red surface.
Craning his head, Drinkwine looked back at the giant spoke wheel of the main craft that had been his home for six weeks, its carnivalesque movement framed in the small porthole, drawing small against the increasing distance. It was so strangely beautiful, the soundless turn of the massive Ferris wheel in tireless, eternal movement, serenely adrift in the infinity of space.
The seats around Drinkwine were empty. His closest traveling companion was an Asian businessman who had already fallen asleep due the strains of motion sickness. He had the appearance of a heavily funded businessman; on his way to Mars to ink deals that would net his company billions. Machinery. Hotels. Tooling. Who knows? Drinkwine thought of the business that had brought him across space. The business of murder. Mars loomed. Down there, beneath the new phenomenon of clouds, was this “thing” that had happened.
The shuttle appeared to be sitting still in silent orbit, betraying nothing of its actual velocity as final preparations were made by the pilots to pierce the flimsy atmosphere of Mars. Drinkwine used the time to listen through an earpiece to what he’d spoken into his personal recorder the previous day. The pocket device streamed somewhat trite mention of the trip along with sparse facts about the impending case that was drawing him in to arrival on Mars. “On the final leg of the trip to Mars from Earth. A homicide, uncovered over seven weeks ago. There’s little to go on. A standard-issue Roches riot police sidearm was the murder weapon. It had gone missing just prior, with no traceable paper trail to link to it. The victim was a low-level worker, name; Michael Byrne. Fake name - Caucasian - roughly 35 years of age - no family of record. The body was discovered by scientists monitoring the ancient riverbeds. Most likely the murder was committed elsewhere, the corpse taken to an area that will eventually be flooded with water thawed from the ice caps to form one of Mars’ lakes, then chained to dead roots in the hope it would remain forever at the bottom. I’m here to investigate the first murder on Mars.”
The digital recording presented a moment of pause, broken by a long, drawn out sigh. Drinkwine’s recorded voice resumed in a more contemplative tone. “Perhaps the workload will provide distraction, preventing me any time to think about Celeste. Seventeen years… ended… gone, with only the vague and unsatisfactory words that are offered in the turmoil of waning emotions and the end of devotion.”
Drinkwine was pulled from his musing out the window at the retreating spectacle of science in the distance. He reached into his breast pocket to retrieve the small recorder and paused it. He stared at the mother craft drawing smaller and smaller against the ocean of black; a ballerina in white, engaged in a never-ending pirouette. Celeste’s forlorn gaze came back to him, stirring the blackness with frightful clarity. So often had she taken that look over their penultimate year together it had invaded his dreams with haunting detail. How often had he caught her in that distant, sad mood? He had given up trying to coax any explanation from her and let her be, soaking up whatever melancholy was about in the feminine pastures of her mind in the hope it would abate and she would return to him. Which she did, but each time with diminishing value. They were now merely man and wife in name only. And that was on the verge of evaporating as well. The paperwork was noted and filed. They would be divorced by the time he returned to Earth.
For the past six weeks his mind had cruelly conjured portraits of her against the blank canvas of space. His mind was stubbornly immune to reason and continued to taunt him with all that had unfolded those oh so few weeks ago on Earth. In the intervening time not a single message had been received in response to his initial communications to her. She had said, in that last evening together, that his years of handling death had seeped a callousness into her being, and that she was afraid of becoming like one of his lifeless corpses. Yet, despite all that was at stake, he had accepted the assignment, understanding full well it would be the last nail in the coffin of their marriage. Awkwardly fumbling with the small device in his large hands, Drinkwine retraced the previous comments, listening intently. He pressed delete, erasing mention of her.
His moment of reflection was broken by the intercom coming to life with a pleasant female voice speaking Urdu. Drinkwine donned the seat’s headphones and found the English icon for translation; the words were translated by computer into perfectly enunciated English, replete with charming British accent.
“This is the cabin steward speaking. As we prepare for descent to Mars we wish to draw your attention out the port side windows, where visible against the backdrop of space, the Myoko orbiting mirror can be seen. Though appearing to be rather close, the Myoko mirror is actually one thousand kilometers distance. This is due the Myoko’s enormous size, measuring one-hundred kilometers in diameter, the face of which is comprised of over one hundred million square meters of reflective Mylar panels. Set in a gyro-synchronous orbit four hundred kilometers above the surface of Mars, the Myoko is positioned to redirect the sun’s rays at Mars’ north pole to melt the ice caps, which, in time, will create the Great Lakes of Mars. The satellite was designed to accommodate a working crew of two hundred.”
Yes, all very impressive, Drinkwine thought to himself. The huge mirror had been pounding the polar region for sixty years with an intensely focused beam of reflected sunlight, coaxing the reluctant water out of the ice caps, freeing it from a million years of imprisonment. The water was tediously flowing down the ancient mountains into the expansive basins of the Martian plains to form the essential life-giving lakes, breaking down latent peroxides and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. It was taking its own good time. The projections had been horribly wrong; the lakes were some twenty years behind scheduled flooding. Sun glinted off the distant orbiting structure, a gargantuan framework supporting the mirrored face, suspended in a motionless swim in the ocean of space high above the red planet.
What the steward left out of her eloquent discourse was the fact that the scientific marvel was abandoned. The company that had deployed the trillion-dollar satellite had long since gone bankrupt. The crews that lived aboard her had been pulled off and flown home. Over time, talks had broken down as to whom the responsibility fell to maintain the great debacle. No one came forward. Through it all, with the operation buried in an increasing avalanche of red tape and lawsuits, the orbiting mirror continued its dalliances with the sun, redirecting the unnatural course of its rays at Mars.
Eventually the science community declared that since the unmanned mirror was carrying out its purpose with impressive efficiency and no apparent threat, it was decided to simply leave it be—leave the lumbering giant of abandoned technology be in its solitary, motionless waltz of quiet purpose. Adrift for two decades, its creaking moans had been rendered mute against the vacuum of space, undertaking its task without the troubling, bothersome influence of humans.
The work of the mirror would continue until the lakes had formed and someone deemed it necessary to put it out of commission. That was the parlance of the manufacturer. It translated to blasting the satellite out of its orbit and sending it into the trash bin of the universe, where it would float untroubled for a thousand years until chance put it in the path of an asteroid. The resulting impact would create ten thousand fragments that would jettison off in independent trajectories—on and on, and so forth and so forth.
The arduous endeavor of settling Mars, as was evident with the Myoko mirror—with its vast requirements of time—had created new corporate strategies with projections charted not in years, but generations; business deals with latent maturity to be overseen by the executives’ offspring many years hence. The decision-makers who had green-lit the major projects would not live long enough to see the fruits of their labors. Like the work of the pharaohs in the building of pyramids, understanding they would not see the end purpose of their commissions. They were to be but cogs in the noble enterprise that would be enjoyed by future generations. There was, however, as it turned out, enough profit to be made in the interim steps to Martian utopia to satisfy the coffers of many companies. No one was about to go broke, or volunteer financial martyrdom simply for the sake of the future.
Drinkwine noticed that the craters of Mars were becoming more defined. The shuttle was quietly and seamlessly descending toward the red planet, aligning itself for piercing of the thin veil of atmosphere that had blossomed on the remote outpost. With but a trifle of vibration the shuttle broke through, introducing the organic weight of gravity to the craft as it dove toward the Martian surface, bringing the landscape into view amidst a murmur of enthusiasm from the other travelers.
Drinkwine allowed himself one last boyish pleasure of wonder before the demands of maturity required in dealing with murder consumed him. Staring out the small porthole the jagged mountains and reaches of red plain came more sharply into focus with each hundred meters of descent. Drinkwine saw the shadow of the shuttle skirting the mountains in the distance race across the barren flats to meet the descending craft. An infant cried out in confusion against the build of pressure in its tiny ears.
The whir of the landing gear locking into place and the hydraulic hum of flaps lowering was met with a soft alighting upon the perfectly groomed landing strip that stretched for five kilometers. The G-forces of deceleration pressed reassuringly against the travelers. The shuttle’s vortices unspooled spiraling pyres of red dust behind that spun off into the barrenness to die. The craft slowed to taxiing speed and steered toward a small terminal, the only structure in sight on the plain. Detective Drinkwine had arrived on Mars.