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Chapter 20

FAR UP AHEAD, DISAPPEARING now and again against the distance and glare, Drinkwine spotted Jafar’s rover in its frantic, albeit slow, escape across the abyss. Drinkwine could see his vehicle was slightly slower, and now, some two hours into the ordeal, the gap between the two was growing. The battery indicator was still hovering at the midway point. It would eventually dip into the red. How long could this pursuit go on? The pace was playing with him, agonizing the lawman from Earth with where this all might end. Running his sleeve across his forehead, which was sopped with sweat, Drinkwine took a sip of water. Stay hydrated. It was essential.

The desert was deceiving with its stillness. The winds were loitering, unseen, soon to be joined in conspiracy with the sand, its insatiable friend, to undo the calm. The indicator needle of the battery gauge bounced and hovered jokingly in the red. A host of warning lights had been illumed. As Drinkwine had anticipated would happen, the vehicle was slowing. It had been slowing for some time now. The arduous pace had been reduced to just slightly faster than walking. Drinkwine had decided he would run the power out of the batteries regardless of the snail-like pace in order to conserve his own energy for the tortuous journey ahead on foot. He had already consumed a fifth of his water supply, and that was in the shade of the cab, without expending any energy. He had shut off the air conditioner some kilometers back to conserve battery power. The heat inside the cab was stifling. He blinked away each sting of perspiration that slipped into his eyes.

As the rover slowly died, treading the endless sea of sand, Drinkwine stared ahead into the desert. The heat was retreating as the day began its descent to evening. The cool would be welcome respite from the day’s baking. The setting sun raised a pleasant glow over everything, granting a surreal presence to the dunes and rocks. It was almost beautiful, Drinkwine thought to himself. The dryness of his mouth stirred him from the momentary lapse.

With the needle now pegged at the bottom of the gauge, the motor suddenly ceased its turning hum and the rover unceremoniously ground to a halt. The vehicle was now merely a heavy mass of useless steel, stuck up to its axles in drifts of red sand. Drinkwine stared at the instruments, somewhat dumbfounded. Though he had been anticipating this moment, it still came as a surprise. Now, the rolling dunes and scattered patches of rock were to be navigated on foot. He surveyed the area. The death of the rover made the desert more desolate, more remote than any of his previous excursions—if such a thing were possible.

Drinkwine readied himself for the ordeal that lay ahead. In fashioning head protection he mutilated his linen jacket, using his pocketknife to shred it to strips, wrapping them into a headpiece that draped his neck—the excess material to be drawn across his face in protection against the windstorms he was certain to encounter. It crossed his mind to simply return to Jannah, to the air conditioned suites, and wait for the Martian desert to take its toll on Jafar Barr. He would either succumb to the elements and die among the dunes, his body eventually interred in the deep swells of sand, or retreat to the city and give himself up. Even as he considered this, Drinkwine continued his preparations for taking to the desert in pursuit. It was his calling, his ingrained sense of service and duty. He was a cop, after all. It didn’t feel right to wait for nature to render punishment. This was a human situation—it demanded a human resolution.

The sun had set with a brilliant spectacle of blood red that gradually introduced the ink black of night. Drinkwine was determined to make the most of the cool temperature and rack up the kilometers before the sun would rise with its inevitable beating in the day ahead. The blackness led to a distant seam where the star field domed overhead. That seam was the horizon, and Drinkwine knew for nothing more than to walk toward it, his feet staying within the cascading, treaded grooves left behind by Jafar’s rover. Among the stunning array of stars he spotted the Earth, just cresting. The blue orb, one hundred fifty million kilometers away, shown vaguely.

He was tired. To stay awake, to avoid the seduction of the inviting red sand to lay down and sleep, Drinkwine pulled up various mental games to solve. He went through the multiplication tables rather quickly, then the alphabet, first forward, then backwards. Forwards, then backwards. Fuck this, Drinkwine thought. He resolved to let his strides be the entertaining factor here and continued to labor the soft red sand that caressed each precious step with a gentle and tiring embrace.

The hours passed. Drinkwine had lost all awareness of time, save that the night sky had made its grandiose nocturnal turn and crossed the stars across the firmament, now introducing the slightest hint of gray. Dawn was approaching. And with it, the assault of the sun and heat would be upon him again. The only reassuring aspect was that Jafar Barr would be suffering the same abuse.

The sun was overhead. It had made the steady climb to its perch in the sky to hammer the planet with its fury. Drinkwine conjured the memory of the treated air that kept the lobbies of the buildings of Jannah cool. He thought of the cold air that chilled the building with the fake snow and the ski slope. How he wished he could be there right now, out of this torment. Drinkwine’s mind was getting drunk from the sun. He had to concentrate to keep his strides straight and true. His nose had been blistered red. The planet graciously tolerated it all.

Far to the west, against the immense sky, plump gray clouds ran on legs of rain. Drinkwine longed to be beneath them, longed to feel their drops of moisture. When he stopped to have a drink of warm water, he checked his stores. Just one liter bottle remained, and that was already half gone. The other bottle purloined from the research shed had long since been emptied and tossed into the garbage bin of the desert. The scenario gave little reassurance as Drinkwine contemplated the foreboding desert that stretched out before him. His cell phone—the battery teetering just above the red—was his compass. When the battery died, so would he. Those distant rain clouds were taunting him again, trying to lure him into a deception of relief. This is what Mars did; it played with men, coyly drawing them in with its mischief to slowly slaughter them. The planet was predisposed against man, exhibiting extreme prejudice, and rightly so. It didn’t matter that he was one of the good ones, Drinkwine thought. He was guilty by simply being human.

The desert had deceived with stillness all morning. Now, it awoke. It didn’t take long to exact its nature. It began as they all began, with but a single, harmless stir of dust whipped up by a passing breeze. Drinkwine watched to see if it would spin itself to nothing, dying among the dunes, or turn angry and vengeful. It answered immediately. The wind rose, stirring the sand into a frenzy, the funnel gaining strength, teetering one way then the other in indecision before turning and making headlong for Drinkwine. The gods were probably laughing at it all, he thought.

Drinkwine pulled the excess tail of his headpiece across his face and fastened it above his ear in anticipation of the pummeling he was about to endure. He kept on, pushing through the sand toward some strange duty. The wind seemed to understand his resolve and lured him deeper into the desert where it could pound him mercilessly.

The funnel of swirling sand engulfed the lone visitor with brute force. Drinkwine clamped down his mouth and eyelids but still the grains made their way between his lips and into his eyes. Fuck, Drinkwine thought to himself, pushing on despite the forces fighting him.

The sand and wind, in their bored play, were plotting to undo this foolish human who had dared to enter their domain. They were to exact revenge on him for the destruction the others had done to this place. This was the savage and cruel science of nature, catching up the unwitting, the innocent, in a blind indifference. What if, after all this, he was to die out here having not got his man? His body would be gradually buried in the sand, sweeping his memory into the tomb of Mars. He let out a laugh at the irony of it all. He wondered, as the heat drew the moisture from his body, why the hell was he doing this?

The banging tornado of sand, after having had its play with Drinkwine, leaped off over the desert sprawl to toil elsewhere. Drinkwine pressed on, the tracks of Jafar’s rover having been all but removed. He could scarce see the vague imprint of the tracks that the wind had smoothed to almost nothing. Was he keeping pace with Jafar Barr? Was his rover exhausting its battery? Drinkwine hoped so. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep this up.

“Nine times five is forty-five, nine times six is fifty-five… no,” he had to think, “Nine times six is fifty-four, yes, fifty-four, I’m sure it’s fifty-four,” Drinkwine said to himself. He was drifting. His mind was falling prey to the sorcery of Mars. The mathematical diversion was forgotten upon sight of something up ahead.

There, in the haze of the dunes, was something that didn’t belong. Hard, straight edges in an environment of natural slopes and curves. Metal. Plastic. As Drinkwine drew closer to the apparition, he saw it was Jafar Barr’s rover. It sat up to its axles in the sand. The driver’s side door was open. The killer’s rover had died. It had given up the ghost and condemned its occupant to a most probable death as well. Punishment for daring to take on the desert.

As he trudged through the deep sand in approach to the rover, Drinkwine pulled his gun from the holster, taking note of the battery charge. It was dipping well into the red. He wondered if he could even get one shot off before it died too. Everything was dying out here. Yes, the gods surely must be rolling with laughter now.

Drinkwine surveyed the area. There was nowhere to hide, just endless, sweeping dunes of red, quiet and motionless. No ambush here. As he approached the abandoned rover Drinkwine saw the sand around it had been disturbed by a flurry of movement—result of the killer preparing to advance on foot, gathering up what he could before beginning his trek into the great outback of Mars. He looked at where the footprints meandered the dunes and disappeared into the horizon. Fool, he thought. Then bent to the chase.

How long would the winds allow the footprints to remain before deciding to erase the only measure of tracking the killer? Would the wind rudely wipe them away in the cruelest of jokes? Perhaps Jafar Barr had found an accomplice in the sand and wind. Drinkwine could only guess that Jafar, having spent long periods isolated out here in this patent hell, was potentially more adept than himself at dealing with the harsh tendencies of the Martian desert. No creature derives joy from this stretch of nothingness, it is the sole domain of play among the gods, or perhaps evil.

Even more disturbing, what if the two of them should find their end against the harshness of this place having never met up? Two men dying alone, out here, like ignorant animals—one man’s fate born of obsessive duty, the other in a desperate attempt to escape apprehension for a hideous crime, a crime no one else seemed to care about.

Drinkwine suddenly felt horribly alone in his principled efforts to bring justice to a crime that had the two of them potentially squandering their lives to the elements. Was it worth his own life? How many times had he been told that the victim was a lowly worker, an unliked, insignificant man. It was in the bringing of justice to the crime against this person that Drinkwine now found himself in the gathering grip of death. But he pressed on. All these thoughts did nothing to slow or detour his stride, pressing on to some irrelevant duty, some ambiguous end.

Staying the course, Drinkwine put his feet directly into the indentions left in the sand by Barr. He studied the increasingly wavering imprints, suggesting that Barr was succumbing to the elements, the heat, thirst. Then, acquainting the calm and quiet, an incongruous chime. It took Drinkwine a moment to realize it was his service weapon. He drew it from the holster to see the warning indicator was blinking. The battery charge was almost dead. The gun was useless. He stared at it, as if it had let him down. The lethal weapon had lost its purpose. It was now just a chunk of metal. He contemplated ridding himself of the additional weight but thought better of it.

Trudging the sand, Drinkwine stared at the footprints that led to nowhere. What was Jafar Barr thinking? What did he hope to achieve by making for the distance? He would die, surely he knew this. He was taking himself, steadfast, into the barren, untouched expanse of Mars. There was nothing out there. Only heat and sand. Did he prefer to die in the wasteland of the planet rather than give himself up to incarceration? Drinkwine didn’t want him to die. He wanted to confront Barr to learn from the murderer himself, why he had done it, why he had killed Byrne. The beautiful mystery of killers is that often, once caught, they are strangely quick to divulge their secrets, to purge themselves of the welts of guilt. The more the elements tried to dissuade Drinkwine from his endeavor, the more he was resigned to it.

Detouring from the staggering tracks, Drinkwine investigated the rusted remains of a small weigh station. The makeshift structure had succumbed to the beatings of the winds and was now merely a skeleton of sandblasted siding and oxidized metal. Yet another forgotten outpost of industry laid to waste. As Drinkwine rummaged through the sparse remains, something caught his attention.

There, on the floor, was a length of heavily corroded galvanized pipe. It was perhaps 600mm long, and 40mm in diameter, deeply oxidized and peeling rust-colored flakes. One end was tapped with sharp, chipped threads. Drinkwine reached down and wrapped his hand around it, pulling the length of pipe from its soft bed of sand and pulverized drywall. It had some weight to it. A lethal weight. This, he thought to himself, this could be useful. He wondered of the damage it could do to a skull. It was nature, clawing its way up through his brilliant reason.

As Drinkwine marveled at the galvanized pipe, he stripped the leather holster off his shoulders. Weighted with the dead sidearm it fell to the cement floor with a heavy thud. Draped in his desert rags, the pipe clasped firmly in hand, Drinkwine exited the forgotten outpost and labored off in diligence across the desert.

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