DRINKWINE WOKE WELL BEFORE the alarm went off. He dragged himself from the bed and pulled back the curtains, flooding the room with the dull light of the new Martian day just beginning. The whole of the city had been dusted with a thin veil of red. The sand, raised into the atmosphere the previous day by the winds, had fallen like a light snow during the night, blanketing the entire area. Far below, in the gray of predawn, an army of orange vested workers waded into the dusted red streets armed with large push brooms. With solemn strides, in slowly advancing line, they crept the avenue, pushing the carpet of red before them to deposit back into the desert somewhere—a never-ending ritual.
After a shower, shave and a coffee, Drinkwine pulled one of his linen suits from the closet. He’d brought five. They were almost identical save for some slight variation of color. The fine linen freshly laundered, he had hung them, evenly spaced, side-by-side.
As he dressed, Drinkwine looked down onto the street far below. The broom men were now nowhere to be seen. They’d done their task and had swept the whole of the avenue and sidewalks of the inconvenience of the ubiquitous sand. No doubt they would be back in the next morning cast, as the sands will have most assuredly returned. They will once again go about the duty of sweeping the red annoyance from view before the city awakes, before the shopkeepers and patrons arrived.
On one of the construction cranes among the skyscrapers, silhouetted against the dawn, Drinkwine watched a worker as he made the arduous climb up the steel ladder to his operating cabin. Far below, casting the long, slow shadows of morning, a parade of workers spilled out over into the city, funneling through the avenues, returning to their jobs in somber strides. They were like ghosts, without life, weighing out their days, resigned to defeat. They brought with them the metallic clamor of industry.
Emerging from the Science Center into the strange, still warmth of morning, Drinkwine raised his arm to hail the lone yellow taxi trespassing the empty avenue. The electric/hydrogen cab swerved across three lanes and slowed to the curb. As Drinkwine climbed into the back seat he was overcome by the stench of perspiration and sun-baked vinyl, instantly immersed in an orgy of HiDef screens, all flickering with a confusion of adverts. The roof, the door panels, the seat back all bellowed in a mudding cacophony of commerce. The driver craned his neck over the bench seat in welcome. He was white and the skin of his face was scored with deep wrinkles born of the stresses of life and long exposure to the unrelenting sun. A badly preserved forty-five years of age perhaps.
Drinkwine discerned the driver’s recognition of him as a fellow American and, therefore, most likely earnestly in hopes of conversation. “Science Center Transportation Depot,” Drinkwine said curtly in hopes of aborting it. “Could you turn these off, please?” referring to the bombardment of advertisements.
The driver silenced the screens then punched the meter and steered the taxi onto the barren thoroughfare.
Drinkwine made quick study of the cabbie’s I.D. card, noticing the driver was wearing the same shirt he’d worn the day the photo was taken. Beneath; Robert Haze. Drinkwine filed it away in the back of his head somewhere, a habit born from a lifetime of noticing minor, insignificant details. Robert Haze, an American. Most certainly, Drinkwine thought with a kind of dread, he would speak English. And he did.
“I don’t get many American fares,” eyes studying Drinkwine in the mirror. “In fact, none at all. Name’s Robert Haze.” The hum of electricity followed, eyes trading glances between the avenue ahead and Drinkwine in the mirror. “A lot of fares call me Hazee. You know, cause of, what I mean, well, you know. But, ‘Hazee?’ Go figure.”
Drinkwine didn’t want to encourage talk and remained quiet. The tact didn’t work.
“What line a work y’in?” Robert Haze asked.
“I’m sorry,” Drinkwine snapped, “but I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
Robert Haze’s shoulders stiffened. He bit his lip. Then, “I come up here, to Mars,” he offered, “cause there was nothin’ in the way of work on Earth. Took every cent I had, and then some, mostly from family, to get here and buy the hack, the taxi, that is.”
“I have a great deal on my mind, could we just…” but as Drinkwine searched for the appropriate word, Robert Haze continued.
“Things are okay, sure, not what I hoped, since the settlers aren’t quite comin’ in like planned yet. But you wait, you jus’ wait, when the people start comin’, everyone’s gonna say; you’s saw it, you’s was smart, you done’s good.”
Staring out at the passing city, Drinkwine was becoming irritated by the ignorant babble, wanting to deny he shared a nationality with Robert Haze. This was his fellow American, his body odor the crowning achievement to his class. Drinkwine suddenly blurted out, “Could you just be quiet? Please?”
The warm Martian morning swirled the awkward quiet of the cab. Eyes loomed in the mirror. There was only the hum of the electric motor and the peal of tires against the pristine pavement to fill the silence.
After a moment the cabbie revealed his hurt. “I ain’t mean nothin’ by it, jus’ tryin’ ta make conversation.”
After what seemed an eternity Drinkwne felt the cab slowing. It stopped at a non-descript building at the edge of the city, perched on the edge of the desert. The meter blinked 183.1. Drinkwine fished 200 Dirham from his pocket and set it on the pay tray that separated the front from the back of the cab, reaching for the door, not waiting for change.
The driver’s words followed him, “I don’t mean nothin’ by it, it’s jus’ you bein’ white and a American and all, like me, I thought, maybe we could’a talked…”
Drinkwine sprang for the sidewalk, eager to distance himself from the yellow taxi, from those insulted eyes, from the ignorance, but mostly from the guilt of shame for sharing a race and nationality with Robert Haze. He felt his lungs starved for air. He remembered the warnings. As the Ambassador had said; the atmosphere on Mars was as thin as the air on Earth at 3500 meters. He calmed and took measured breaths. The cab had already taken a wide arc of turn and was headed back into the city in search of fares that were not there. Soon, the streets would be flooded with fares. That’s what everyone that had relocated to Mars was hoping for, especially since the newness and adventure of Mars had begun to wear on them. Soon. Everyone was hanging on that; soon.
Drinkwine was ushered through the small facility where Martian rovers were serviced and recharged. The shop was awash with vehicles in various stages of disassembly. The area reeked of hydraulic fluid and burnt motor oil.
Parked behind the building, which led directly onto the red sands of Mars, four well-used tractor tread rovers were plugged into recharging stations, trickling their way to full charge.
Kurian was there, wearing what looked to be his attempt at outdoor attire; white long-sleeved shirt and pants and a wide-brimmed sun hat. He was placing a bottle of water in the cab of one of the rovers. When he saw Drinkwine he greeted him eagerly, “Ah, find it alright?”
“Pardon me,” Drinkwine said as he approached, seeing Kurian had already placed several personal items in the cab. “But I prefer to work on my own.”
Kurian was stopped in his actions, turning to Drinkwine. “But,” he seemed stunned, the idea of not accompanying the detective was a complete surprise. “Detective, the deserts of Mars… it is not only unwise, but I would be remiss as Ambassador, if a visiting official were to encounter any difficulty while in my charge.”
“It was all in the letter,” Drinkwine came back, avoiding eye contact. “You and your office are relieved of all responsibility. The department saw to that in the legal document that was forwarded on my account.”
“Do you even know how to operate a rover?” Kurian asked with an assertion of self worth.
“I’m sure it can’t be that difficult,” as he looked into the cab at the dashboard. “Besides, there isn’t too much to run into out there, is there?”
“Detective, you put me in a tight spot.”
“It’s the way I prefer to do things,” Drinkwine said as politely as he could.
“But?” the Ambassador began.
“I prefer to work alone,” Drinkwine stated flatly. “My methods require a great deal of patience and solitude. I’m afraid you’d be terribly bored.” Drinkwine put a period on his last comment by taking Kurian’s water bottle out of the cab and handing it to him.
“You’d best take that with you. The desert can be most unforgiving.” Kurian was staring out at the desert as he said it. “Also, you need to be aware of the mid-day sunstrike.”
At that moment Drinkwine slowed in his movements. His head went light. He reached out to brace himself against the rover.
“Are you alright?” Kurian studied Drinkwine. “It’s the air, Detective. It takes some getting used to. You need to be more conservative in your actions.”
Drinkwine took several deep breaths and stood erect. His mind returned to the last point of conversation. “Sunstrike?”
“Yes, the Myoko mirror,” Kurian responded. “There is a flaw in its operation; a transitional period each day when the mirrors are readjusting for optimum efficiency. For a brief period the full intensity of the beam crosses the plains. You’ll be out of range of the warning siren, so be aware.”
“I’ll consider myself warned,” Drinkwine said, somewhat distracted as he went about preparations for the trek.
Kurian, sensing the detective wasn’t appreciating the severity of the situation, said, “Detective, this is not a matter to be trifled with. It is quite dangerous. You will need to find cover.”
Without looking at Kurian, “Were the coordinates put into the GPS?”
“Yes,” he answered, slightly annoyed, “the trip will take you approximately two hours out and two hours back, pending any dust storms.”
“What’s the forecast for storms?”
“The dust storms, I’m afraid, are at the whim of the desert, Detective.” Kurian, somewhat insulted at Drinkwine’s resistance to letting him go along, then gestured to the desert, as if to say good luck. He turned and started off, calling back, “The sunstrike comes each day at approximately thirteen hundred hours.”
After a quick study of the coupling for the charging line, Drinkwine detached it from the rover and got into the small, dual track vehicle. The dashboard was a simple array of instruments; land speed indicator; exterior temperature; battery charge. He took note of the hand throttle with settings for Slow, Medium, and Fast. Two levers controlled the tracks by means of steering brakes. The push button gearbox was comprised of merely Drive, Low, and Reverse. He dumped the rover into gear and gently throttled it forward. The treads chattered noisily over the small slab of concrete before dropping the vehicle off the edge and into the desert sprawl, the tracks churning up the soft red sand behind. Drinkwine steered for the horizon, reckoning by the GPS.
The first stop was the sprawl of semi-underground dorms where Michael Byrne resided when he wasn’t working. A low-level grunt with no specific title, he had been relegated to the remote outpost where the workers were interred, far from view of the majestic towers they were building into the Martian skyline. As he approached, Drinkwine saw a chain link fence topped with razor wire, quartered by watchtowers. It looked like a prison. The flat roof of the listless dormitory was flush with the sand, the cells situated below ground to protect them from the howling winds and unrelenting sun. As he approached the gate, Drinkwine slowed the rover to a stop, lowering the window and presenting his badge. He was waved through the gate by the dark-skinned guard.
Feet clomping the metal stairs that descended into the dimly lit labyrinth of narrow, submarine-like corridors lined with bunks, Drinkwine followed a guard as he weaved his way through the cramped space, ducking under a makeshift clothesline and around the protruding foot of a sleeping worker from the graveyard shift. The space was woefully depressing and smelled of a thousand perspirations, the air punctuated with a distant, unseen conversation and the irritatingly bad reception of a radio, the music distorted beyond recognition.
The guard stopped at a three-level bunk recessed into the wall, drawing back the top curtain to reveal a narrow bed, the sheets rumpled. He was uninterested in the detective’s work. “This was Byrne’s bunk. He hot-bedded with another worker.”
Drinkwine knew the term. It described the practice of two people sharing one bunk according to their hours; while one is working, the other is sleeping—and vice versa. The detective took note of the sparse personal items that filled a tiny shelf built into the backside of the bunk wall; a toothbrush with frayed bristles; a squashed, near empty tube of toothpaste; a favorite coffee mug with a chip in it; a flashlight; and a faded, dog-eared comic book, the type without words for those who can’t read. Drinkwine fanned the pages; muscular Middle Eastern super heroes in leotards and capes fighting dangerous villains, all of them ugly whites.
Removing a padlock, the guard opened a small metal locker that separated one bunk from the next. Inside were sloppily folded tee shirts, some trousers, worn socks, a thin jacket and a cap. Piled at the bottom were work clothes soiled with granite dust.
Drinkwine lifted a corner of the thin mattress. Wedged between the foam and the perforated steel baseboard was a pornographic magazine, as well thumbed as the comic book. He flipped the pages. The photos were mostly of Middle Eastern men having abusive sex with white American women. In some photos three men took one woman, a penis in every orifice. The photo spreads all ended with the same scenario; subjugating ejaculation onto the woman’s face. Drinkwine was unmoved. He’d seen everything… twice. He tossed the disturbing material back onto the steel frame and dropped the mattress over it. There was nothing of value here—in any sense of the word—that would suggest why Michael Byrne’s head had been blown away. Drinkwine nodded and the guard let the curtain fall back to cover the pathetic enclave.
The rover churned up the soft sand in a disturbance of tracks, like a small craft adrift in an interminable expanse of undulating waves frozen in time. The stretches of smooth sand were broken by patches of hard-packed ground, covered with jagged rocks that battered the rover. With throttle fixed and course set, Drinkwine had resigned himself to the pitiful pace, frustrated by the almost imperceptible movement that, at times, had him believing the rover was standing still. In actuality it was the immensity of the dunes and the towering mountains in the distance, crowned with cliffs, that was distorting the progress. The speed indicator had held a constant thirty kilometers per hour since departing the depot. The monotonous rattle of the steel treads running over dry rollers drove Drinkwine’s thoughts. They were concentrated on the sand; a serene, waterless ocean, the tranquility cleverly assuaging an ever-present threat of drowning. A drowning on dry land, he thought.
The GPS showed eight kilometers remained. With the rover set on its own whim, Drinkwine fished one of his precious Hollands from its pack. He lit it and let the sweet smoke flush the dryness of his mouth.
It was a relief to be out here, to be alone, despite the harshness and nothingness of it. Back there was the city, Jannah, the great experiment of colonizing Mars. Man was coaxing the first metropolis out of the sand. It was rising up in all its false promise.
The only disruption in the ceaseless desert was an occasional terraforming station, the towering smokestacks lording their presence over the barrenness. The unmanned factories spewed a concoction of chemicals in brackish plumes into the azure sky twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, altering the makeup of the planet, bending nature with divine purpose.
The changes man had brought with their science and wisdom had wreaked havoc. The terraforming project—atmosphering, as it was called—was grossly behind schedule and horrifically over budget. Eighty years of imported science had dramatically altered the planet’s weather patterns. The predictions of a mild year-round climate had proven horribly wrong. Over the decades the freezing cold had gradually been supplanted by livable warmth. However, the temperatures had continued to rise—and were still rising—due the unexpected proliferation of greenhouse gases, giving way to oppressive heat, broken occasionally by sudden, unpredictable cold spells. Off the tongues of those who had been here long enough the Mars year was described as, ‘Sixteen months of wind, and eight months of hell.’
Regardless, man had come. And he showed no signs of leaving. The intruders, the conquerors had come from far away and were taking the planet by a slow and steady force. They dared to break a billion years of solitude and spoil the lifeless serenity with an explosion of industry. Man had arrived. They had turned their attention to exploiting everything the planet had to offer—and then some. Minerals, buried for an eternity, were being exhumed and used to conjure a new world.
The real estate brokers had arrived in earnest over the previous decade and were hard at work carving up the nothingness into plots to be sold. The heavy hitters had arrived with checkbooks to invest in the skyscrapers that would form the first Martian metropolis; Jannah. Drinkwine harbored disdain for the provocateurs that were slicing up the planet. Nothing was immune, and everything with a price. Where next, after Mars? What planet would succumb to man’s bewildering appetite for avarice? How much wealth had been generated on Earth? On the Moon? They’d found inventive ways to put a price on the use of the oceans, on the air. In time they’d figure out a way to put a price on the sand, Drinkwine thought, as the gracefully undulating waves of red rose and fell beyond the windows of the steadily advancing rover.
Jannah. For years the marketing materials had been trumpeting the Carefree Life on Crime Free Mars. The campaigns were tantalizing, encouraging vast numbers of bewildered Earthlings to place deposits. Carefree life on crime free Mars. Then someone had gone and gotten himself murdered. Drinkwine surmised that the powerbrokers that were pouring billions into development were concerned about the negative press a homicide might have, threatening the outcome of the investments they’d undertaken. He could imagine the ad agencies, on high retainers, all waiting to see what impact this would have. All ready to reshape their campaigns and diffuse the controversy to keep the money flowing. That’s really what this was all about. Money. Merely hiding itself behind the façade of a better life. In that scenario was the reality that people were watching him—the invisible personages behind the convoluted amalgamations of corporate entities. He knew that the outcome didn’t matter to them, whether he found the killer or not. All that would matter in the end was if the unfortunate inconvenience of murder might taint Mars in the minds of potential settlers.
Drinkwine cynically surmised that somewhere an accountant was figuring the rate of depreciation that an unseemly homicide might have on the price tag of the luxury apartments eagerly awaiting residents. The paint wasn’t even dry yet. The apartments smelled of new carpet and the large plate glass picture windows still had the decals on them. Drinkwine wondered, how much might a murder reduce the asking price?