Earthrise

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Chapter 22

ONCE AGAIN NIGHT SHROUDED the desert with cold. Drinkwine had stumbled onto a small thrashing of errant, dead bush that had once tried to grow here. He had built a fire with the brittle twigs and was warming his hands, staring into the licking flames with eyes drained of life, of spirit—drained of reason. The fire was dying down, the embers glowing orange, occasionally flaking off and drifting up into the night.

On the periphery of the fire was a powdering of ash. Drinkwine was marveling at the black and gray soot. He reached out his hand to touch it, discoloring his fingers. Raising it to his nose he sniffed at it, then rubbed it across the sunburned skin of his forearm. Running his hands through the ash he repeated the ritual on the other arm, slowly covering the white skin. Drinkwine removed his threadbare linen shirt and spread the gray and black soot over his neck and torso. He ran his fingers, thick with ash, through his thinning strands of hair, matting them black. With slow deliberation he spread the grayish, black powder over his face in some strange tribal ritual born in the recesses of a fading mind, gradually concealing him against the darkness.

The Martian night hung with a extraordinary beauty. Quiet, ominously still. The serenity belied the cruel nature of this place. A small rise of rock gave view to the expansive valley of blackness below. Clawing his way up the loose shale, Drinkwine arrived at the precipice. He was barefoot and naked save for a ripped and frayed piece of linen covering his groin. The sharp shale had cut his feet, but Drinkwine paid no attention to the blood. His body melted into the night in its covering of ash. He held the galvanized pipe in his hand. He dropped onto his haunches and peered into the chasm of blackness, eyes keenly searching out any movement, his senses peaked. All that shone in the dark were the bloodshot whites of his eyes, his body camouflaged in collusion with the night.

From his perch, crouched and rocking gently back and forth, Drinkwine spied, a good walk’s distance, the gleam of a campfire out in the sorrowful blackness. It appeared to be hovering in the vacant abyss. Silhouetted in the shimmering flame was the custodian of the fire, the very evil that Drinkwine had dedicated all of his adult life to, the fire dancing Jafar Barr’s shadow erratically against the sand.

Drinkwine absently clubbed the loose shale with the rusted length of pipe. Then, with an adept ease of animal-like prowess, Drinkwine stood, the rusted pipe gripped firmly in hand, and descended the unstable slope of sand, cooling against the night, and walked with quiet strides for the distant flame.

Jafar Barr did not look well. All the scientific pursuits and possession of a higher education were not doing him much good out here. He was dehydrated, beyond hungry, and his skin was toasted. His normally perfectly combed hair, pressed to shape with gel, was matted with red dust. His lips bled from blistering. Barr’s bloodshot, half moon eyes had given up their almond beauty and were transfixed on the weakly licking flames of his feeble campfire of broken twigs. His mind was partially gone from the battering of the desert. Even the blinking of his eyes seemed to tire him.

Something stirred the wasted specimen of a man and he tiredly gazed into the surrounding darkness. Movement had shifted the still air. The weak flames of the fire did little to illuminate the threat. Something was lurking just beyond the reach of the dull light of the fire. Jafar Barr’s tired eyes tried to find it. A presence was out there, pacing back and forth on the edge of the blackness, prowling the immaculate night with malice.

Whatever it was, it was peering back at him. He could feel it. An animal, creeping back and forth in demented strides, watching, breathing, waiting to unravel the quiet in an assault of violence. The desert had sapped all of Jafar Barr’s energy and will. All he could do was sit and wait, staring blankly into the pitch black of Mars.

Unsettling the darkness with slow, steady movement, a creature crept into the flickering light of the fire. The creature walked upright, emerging from the embrace of night, naked, save for a loincloth of dirtied linen. The skin had been swathed with ash. The hair was wild and matted. The face, awash in black soot, emphasized the bloodshot whites of its eyes. The creature stood there hauntingly, bathed in the flicker of the disorienting flames. Its right hand was weighted with a rusted length of pipe. The creature made several slow, animal-like strides in its bare feet, catching the light, its face a hideous mask of gray and black, streaks of perspiration augmented with painted lines of human blood, dried against the cheeks in a bizarre cast of tribal paint. The creature’s eyes—Drinkwine’s eyes—were vacant, defined now not by rational thought, but by the violent indifference of nature. They had lost their intelligence and sparkled with animal simplicity. He stood there, swaying slightly, the club gripped tightly in his hand.

Jafar Barr was mystified by the arrival of the creature. He had lost track of where he was, of who he was. He knew he was hungry, hurting, thirsty, aching—he knew that much. But he had no clear recall of why this creature had followed him into the desert. Oh, yes, he remembered. A man had been murdered. A man. Murdered. Yes, he’d murdered a man and this creature was here to make an arrest. But Jafar was more interested to know if this creature had water with him, for incarceration seemed a fair trade for a drink of water right now.

Barr slowly regained his thoughts. Oh yes, the cop. This was the detective. Bewildered, he thought that presently there were only two beings out here in the far reaches of Mars. He remembered now, he was trying to flee this man. And after all that distance, after all the effort to get away, here they were, face to face.

Jafar Barr did not attempt escape. He didn’t even seem that surprised at Drinkwine’s appearance. He absently looked the monster up and down in slow deliberation. He hung his head, breathing out a long sigh, then, resigned to it, said simply in painful surrender, “Okay.”

True and complete exhaustion had made a mockery of the encounter. There was no surprise, no attempt at violence, no defense. There would be no heroics. Drinkwine, keeping his eyes fixed on Jafar, settled onto his haunches in the sand, cradling the rusted pipe in his ashen arms. The flames danced and flickered between them, licking up occasionally in a flutter and crackle of movement.

All the possible scenarios of this encounter, which Drinkwine had conjured over the past three days in the tiring pursuit across the Martian plain, did not come to fruition. Of all the ways he’d imagined this confrontation unfolding, this wasn’t one of them. The moment existed in a pale surrealism bordering on dreams. Two men, one a murderer, the other a cop come to make an arrest, sat spent, exhausted against the elements, sharing this vapid space out here among the nothingness.

Each of the men had to struggle to find any value or reason to place on why they were here. It was all so irrelevant against the remote backdrop of Mars. There was not the energy to fight. No strength. They were simply two men, stranded out here by different ends of the same circumstance.

Finally, after a long silence punctuated by sporadic cracks of the burning twigs, Jafar Barr uttered with a dry and scratched voice, “They’re building a tank on the outskirts of Jannah to hold a killer whale. Did you know that?”

The first real words out of the killer’s mouth were not what Drinkwine expected. But they seemed strangely appropriate somehow.

“A killer whale will be swimming on Mars,” Jafar Barr mused, entertaining himself with the whimsy of it all.

“Do you know who I am?” Drinkwine broke the night in a near whisper, as if careful not to spook Barr, his voice cracked with dryness.

The question stifled Jafar, his face contorting as he searched out the bits of answer floating unconnected through his head. “Yes,” he finally said, “you’re the policeman, with the odd name.”

“That’s right, I’m the policeman with the odd name,” Drinkwine responded. “And do you know why I’m here?”

Again Jafar Barr fell into a kind of confusion as he wrestled with the question. Then, alighting on a moment of lucidity, “You’re here to arrest me.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Drinkwine said, absently stroking the rusted pipe laid across the tops of his thighs, still crouched on his haunches, ready for reaction that might erupt in surprise. “And do you remember what for?”

The flames danced up at the night, the burning twigs cracking and popping. Jafar stared blankly into the fire. “Because I killed a man,” he responded in desultory admission.

“How did you get the Roches?” Drinkwine asked.

Jafar took his eyes from the fire and looked at Drinkwine, genuinely puzzled, “The what?”

Drinkwine contemplatively rubbed a grain of sand from his eye and, unhurried, said, “The weapon. The sidearm, how did you come into possession of it?”

Jafar Barr just nodded, he seemed surprised that guns, like people, would have names. “Roches,” he repeated, amused, as he turned his gaze back to the fire. “The day they arrived, after being brought up from the Moon, the officers asked if they could use the lab to uncrate them. As they were unpacking them, the officers were called away to mid-day prayer. The weapons were just sitting there. They were still wrapped in shipping cloth and paper, oiled, and ready.” Jafar spoke with such ease it was as if he were speaking about someone else. “No one was around. No one. I’d always wondered what a gun must feel like. So I picked one of them up.” There was a change in his demeanor. “Do you have water?”

“You took it,” Drinkwine immediately steered Jafar back.

“What?” Jafar said, surprised, forgetting his thirst. “Yes. It was heavier than I thought it would be. It felt good—the metal, the handle, the trigger. It felt like power.” He stared into the fire. “The shipping orders hadn’t been opened. I knew they hadn’t checked it against the contents of the crate. They wouldn’t know if anything had gone missing. So I took it. I took it, and a box of shells.”

“When was this?” Drinkwine asked, never taking his eyes off Jafar.

“Weeks ago. Weeks and weeks.” The memory roused a kind of wonderment. “I kept it in my room. I’d take it out and hold it, just look at it.”

“And?” Drinkwine asked, his voice softening to a comforting tone to encourage more confession.

But Jafar Barr didn’t need much coaxing, he was so far gone from the ordeal of the desert that he continued absently. “I took it out to the research shed where I was working. I fired it at an empty diesel can. It destroyed it.” He left his thought for a moment before returning. “I wondered what it could do to flesh.”

“The flesh of Michael Byrne?” Drinkwine’s voice stirring Jafar to recall.

Jafar stared into the flames. Distant, his scabbed lips bleeding, he uttered, “I wasn’t ready for the amount of damage it would do.”

“Why did you kill Michael Byrne?” The words key to Drinkwine’s investigation lugubriously slipped from his cracked lips.

Jafar Barr barely registered any emotion. “Was that his name?”

“Yes,” Drinkwine responded with an astonished whisper. “What happened? Why did you kill him?”

“Michael,” Jafar looked to Drinkwine for help.

“Byrne,” Drinkwine offered. “Michael Byrne.”

Jafar just nodded a few times.

“How did you know Michael Byrne, Jafar? What was your relationship?”

“He was just a worker who picked up extra money under the table doing odd jobs around the research center.”

“Why did you kill him?” Drinkwine asked, still perched on his haunches, fingers massaging the rusted pipe with disturbing gentleness.

“Hmm, why? Why indeed,” Jafar Barr uttered, staring absently into the fire. “Just circumstance.”

The creature’s fingers clamped down around the club. “What do you mean?” the hideous creature asked.

“Because he worked under the table I knew there wasn’t a paper trail to link him to me. He was so proud of how he fooled the system,” Jafar said, a little laugh accompanying the windfall of confession. “When I realized no one would really know if something were to happen to him, it got me to thinking.” Jafar stared into the flames. “I told him I would pay him to move some crates out at the research station.” Amusing himself with recollection, “I told him I’d even pay him for the travel time.”

Jafar Barr’s head bobbed with exhaustion. He stared blankly into the fire.

Drinkwine had to steer him back to the conversation. “And, then?”

Jafar looked up at the creature sitting on the other side of the campfire. “Oh, yes. On the drive out in the rover, to make conversation, I told him about my record collection. He took an interest in wanting to hear the vinyl discs. That’s my hobby, collecting old vinyl records…”

“Yes, I know,” Drinkwine’s voice growing agitated. “So you said in your interview. Then what?”

“He wanted to hear the music.” Jafar looked at Drinkwine, “He wanted to hear the old vinyl discs. He’d never seen one before.” Jafar Barr tried to rouse saliva into his dry mouth as he remembered. “He was just sitting there, at the stereo, watching the turntable go round, the needle against the vinyl. He had the record jacket in his hands. The music was playing. It was all so easy—to lure him out there—to get him entertained with the records. So easy.”

“So, you didn’t know Byrne?” Drinkwine asked tentatively, his mind flooded with revelation.

“No.” Jafar Barr’s thoughts wandered back to remember that fateful day, and the actions that had now brought the two of them together, out here in the desert. “I got the gun and stepped up behind him.” Barr smiled slightly. “He was listening to the music. I just lifted the gun—the Roches, you said?—and leveled it against the back of his head. I pulled the trigger and the gun...” Jafar Barr’s face contorted quizzically. “I had no idea, no idea. There was so much blood, so much.” Barr drifted off. A twig cracking in the fire brought him back. “He fell forward onto the record player, the needle scratched the record. It ruined it.” Barr seemed to be more upset over the ruined record than concern for the life he’d ended.

“Your precious record,” Drinkwine eked out, getting angry, fingers tightening their wrap around the oxidized length of pipe.

“The turntable continued to turn,” Jafar, amused, “catching on his ear every revolution.” Suddenly sobered at the recall. “But the blood. That’s what I couldn’t fathom—how much blood there is in the human body. You just don’t realize,” he said, dumbfounded. “You just don’t realize.”

“So, you moved the cabinet to hide the pellet holes,” Drinkwine said with disdain, his eyes moving down to study the rusted pipe clutched in his hand.

“Yes, but when I saw how much blood was spread over the work shed I realized I could never clean it all up.” Jafar Barr said it with the enthused tone of youthful mischief.

“So, you decided to torch the shed?” Drinkwine uttered, fingers wrapped tightly around the pipe.

“Yes. But I knew that the fire would never completely get rid of all the evidence of the body, no matter how hot the flame got.” Jafar divulged this with a disturbingly matter-of-fact delivery.

Drinkwine was too far gone into seething contempt to take any reward in how exacting his reconstruction of the murder and the murderer’s actions had been.

“I realized I would have to get rid of the body some other way. That’s when I thought of the lake, the water. It would eventually cover the whole region. That’s when I thought of tying his body to the shrubs and letting the water cover it all up.”

“And hope that the lake would never give up its dead,” Drinkwine said, dumbfounded by Barr’s brazen callousness. Anger was coursing his veins, stirring with malice. Forgetting all the lengthy questions he had so carefully constructed and memorized to put to this man, abandoning all the erudite study and paths of psychology to assess the murderer’s motivation, Drinkwine found himself asking with painful simplicity, “Why?”

“Why, what?” Jafar Barr responded, staring with empty, shallow eyes at the painted warrior illumed before him in the flickering firelight.

“Why did you kill him?” Drinkwine asked in earnest.

Jafar Barr looked through the flames at Drinkwine; a strange man-beast squatted at the fire, covered in grotesque tribal paint, caressing the rusted pipe in his ashen hands. Jafar seemed genuinely surprised by the question and, after a moment, simply shrugged his shoulders obtusely and responded casually, “I just wanted to see what it felt like.”

As if the fire had taken Drinkwine’s blood to boil, his bolted reaction to those words came with a frightening urgency of blind impulse. The mind had no opportunity to intervene with reason. The animal leaped with unnerving voracity over the licking flames, the club raised overhead, coming down with a brutal smashing force squarely against Jafar Barr’s skull. There was a hideous crush of bone beneath the hammering weight of the rusted pipe. It sank into the brain and flesh with ugliness. Jafar Barr collapsed, grotesquely bent, onto the sand. Drinkwine’s mind was slow in deciphering what was happening, as if the swinging ashen arm clutching the pipe belonged to someone else. It rose and crashed again and again, each strike collapsing more of Jafar Barr’s skull, accented by the hideously crushing sound of breaking bone.

The blood followed, spurting out in pulsating beats from Jafar’s startled heart, the dark crimson hemorrhaging from the cracks in his skull. It was too late, Drinkwine was merely a spectator to this violent display of nature; a mad creature exacting a confused vengeance, the blood splattering in an alarming radius about the fire.

Jafar Barr’s body crumpled under the violent fusillade of hits, drawing protectively into a fetal position. He absently raised his hand up, out of instinct, to shield his face, but the swinging pipe smashed it out of the way with a breaking of fingers to strike the head again and again. Strange, inhuman noises were emitted by the bloodied mass of face, each utterance cut short by another blow of the pipe. A wheezing sound corrupted the gurgling of blood erupting in the windpipe, strangling the attempts of screams into nothingness.

The body of Jafar Barr convulsed and twisted hideously out of control in the flickering firelight as the life drained from him. There were sounds that struggled to escape into the Martian night but which were trapped inside the body as it succumbed.

The man-beast stood over the painfully writhing body, its chest heaving with excited breathing. Jafar Barr was motionless, save for a strangely odd and detached movement of his left arm. It rose up, the broken and dislocated fingers opening and closing as if trying to grasp the thin Martian air. Drinkwine stood, enthralled at sight of a dying body reacting to mindless impulses in lieu of lost command from a rapidly fading consciousness. Jafar Barr’s heart was still beating, but weakening, with each throb sending a diminishing gush of blood out the many fissures that had been opened up in his skull.

Settled again on his haunches, the beast watched with fascination as Jafar Barr slowly left this planet. His eyes were wide open and he stared at Drinkwine with unnerving horror. Then, in a graceful, synchronized movement, the raised arm slowly came down as the eyelids closed, and Jafar Barr was dead.

Blinking away the rage, Drinkwine felt the heat from the flame of the campfire as he came back into his senses. He became aware of the bloodied rusted pipe weighing down his arm. He stared at the body of Jafar Barr. It was motionless. The skull was misshapen, oblong and hideous. Blood pooled the indentions in the soft red sand created by their scuffle, absorbing the slosh of thick crimson.

Drinkwine sunk to the ground with bewilderment. The only movement was the weak flicker of flames… the only sound his heightened breathing, gradually settling after the burst of violence. He was suddenly acutely aware of the sand, the chill of the night air against his nakedness, and the quiet, the absolute quiet that stretched out in all directions, isolating him in the blackness.

It took a few minutes for his heart rate to return to normal, Drinkwine drawing steady, uneven breaths of the thin air, his thoughts slowly coming to harsh awareness of what had just happened. A moment earlier there had been two breathing, thinking men around the campfire. Now there was only one.

Drinkwine tried to find focus on the depths of blackness he was suspended in out here in the great elsewhere. There was nothing. No movement, no sound, save the licking of flames that danced erratic shadows about the area. The only other human for a hundred kilometers was dead. He was alone, completely alone now. Not an animal, not a single insect. Just sand, and the gathering cold of the Martian night.

Mesmerized, Drinkwine stared at the rusted pipe, bathed in blood, glistening in the light of the flames. He touched it, felt the sticky thickness of the substance on his fingers. Raising his arm, Drinkwine studied the streams of Jafar Barr’s blood that ran down his forearm. He opened and closed his fist, captivated by the way the blood pooled into the divots between his fingers.

Transfixed on his bloodied hands, Drinkwine became aware of the distant horizon beyond. The Earth had just peaked above the black rim of Mars to join the dazzling star field, beginning its arduous trek across the firmament. Earthrise. The pale blue orb, small against the canvas of stars, ascended peacefully and without a thread of sound into the Martian night.

The Myoko mirror continued its motionless waltz four hundred kilometers above the surface of Mars, silently stirring the cold vacuum of space. The mirror, blemished severely over the years by the constant barrage of meteors that had passed through its hectares of Mylar panels, was unaware of the strange thing that had just unfolded on the remote reaches of Mars. It maintained its majestic and proud stance, despite its crippling of punctures, serenely adrift in its perpetual orbit. Far below, somewhere among the vast reaches of the red planet, a man sat at a fire, clutching a length of rusted pipe.

The End


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