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The Dust of Mars
Despite his lack of character Jason Rapp did not deserve a death sentence. I had enjoyed a pleasant shuttle flight from Orbitus to Mars until Rapp's call rattled my zip connection. The wind howled and sand grains pattered against his rover's bubble top, suggesting a severe dust storm. He said someone in a silver terrain suit, brandishing a pinpoint pulser, had hiked through the Martian ridge shadows. Rapp sensed murderous intent.
At first I wanted to chide him for not meeting me for breakfast on Orbitus. Just ten hours ago he slipped me important information, coinciding with my trip to Mars, about a cover-up in the Turcotte ore refining operation on the planet. The security chief for the Turcotte operation told me the same thing, but my attention now swung toward Rapp's pleas for help.
As the pinpoint was aimed at the bubble he frantically described the tinted face shield of his potential killer. Twenty-five years at the Space Investigative Bureau alerted me to the shrill crescendo of a pinpoint pulser's thin red beam. I heard the bubble rip as Rapp cried out for mercy. The outward gush of air into the cold, diminished Martian atmosphere was soon replaced by his mournful whimper. He pushed out my name in his last remaining gasps. " Cobb ..."
" Rapp, Rapp can you hear me?" I sat up fully in the recliner and gripped my perforated zip. The signal went out. " Rapp!"
The pulverizing sand and wind gusts were louder now. I leaned toward the shuttle's oval portal. Behind the backdrop of stars, Mars cast a rusty glow beyond the shuttle's gray wing. Thousands of kilometers away Rapp lay dead somewhere on the planet's surface.
I flipped up the recliner tray as images of Rapp in his dark tuxedo at Orbitus's black jack tables shot through my brain like bursts from the pinpoint. My shoes connected to the floor force and I started down the aisle. The forward hatch looked sealed.
One of the attendants, an affable young woman with bouncy blonde hair, stared from the adjacent alcove and flashed her white teeth before she spoke. " Mr. Cobb, if you're looking for the bathroom, it's to the rear of this section."
" I need to speak with the navigator," I said brusquely.
" The navigator?" she asked as if the question had transcended her usual answers about food, drink or rester pillows. " I don't understand."
" Miss, I'm a private investigator, former SIB agent. One of my clients is in trouble on the planet. I need the navigator's assistance."
" Yes, of course."
I removed my license and retired bureau disks and placed them in her smooth palm. " Let the pilot check these."
She squinted, seemed confused, but complied with my request. Her long red fingernails tapped out a code on the side panel. The hatch slid open and remained open as she walked down a narrow corridor. Silhouetted cabin figures were positioned in front of glowing console panel lights and the encroaching, brown Martian sphere. I glanced briefly at the hint of upper ice caps as I exhaled.
The attendant leaned over a man seated at a darkened alcove containing numerous window monitors. She held out her hand and pointed toward me as she spoke. The man glanced at me and took both disks from her hand. I could see him lean over one of the window screens. Then he nodded and waved me up front. I checked my zip window, now set to standard time at the Livingston Dome. It was 1:44 PM.
I squeezed my large frame through the hatch and moved sideways down the connector corridor. The young man stood in his light blue neck liner and dark pants. He extended his hand quickly and I wondered if he approved of my long bureau record. " Mr. Cobb, what can I do for you?"
I studied his black name badge embroidered into his neck liner at the shoulder. " Moss ... I need an enhanced scan of the planet's surface. I just received a distress call from a potential informant and think he's been murdered." I handed him my zip.
" Last call coordinates are locked in my zip memory."
Moss nodded once and positioned my zip on his station counter. He immediately hooked in a relay, punched a few buttons on the panel, and a Mercator map of Mars appeared on his window monitor. A green dot flashed in the northern hemisphere, center of the Elysium Planitia. I recognized the area because it was my destination. Moss looked up. " He's eighteen kilometers out from the Livingston Dome. On Turcotte land ... Looks like there is an industrial plant five kilometers back and another twelve kilometers ahead. Actual heading is: thirty-five point two north and one hundred and eight west longitude."
" I was afraid of that."
" What do you mean?" asked Moss.
" Ongoing investigation, son. Can you bring me an image from the signal's center?"
" That will not be a problem, sir."
" Excellent." As he worked the panels under the huge window monitor, I unclipped my zip and placed a call to Jahn Patenaude in Livingston's security office.
Moss now had a full picture of Mars and adjusted the complete clarity as my zip buzzed. After a brief rustling on the other end, Patenaude's raspy voice came over my zip speaker. " Jahn Patenaude."
" Jahn, this is Harry."
" Harry, my boy ... Calling to put in your dinner menu at the Excelsior?"
" They know what I like. Jahn, we have a problem the other side of IP-5. Twelve kilometers toward IP-7."
Patenaude cleared his throat and his voice assumed its professional, authoritative tone. " What happened?"
" Guy named Jason Rapp. He has info on problems at IP-5. Somebody just shot a pinpoint at him through his rover bubble."
" I'm not kidding, Jahn. You need to get somebody out there."
" Really ..."
" The navigator has the area on screen. Bad dust storm."
Moss reduced the screen to a current six hundred square kilometer resolution. The Livingston Dome and smaller surrounding support domes were clear, but across the brown, rock strewn, crater punched desert, a wispy gray dust cloud, measuring several hundred kilometers back, swirled toward IP-5 and support domes. Tracking a potential killer was now impossible.
I heard Patenaude calling troopers on another zip. Then he came back on my zip connection. " Harry, I can visibly see that storm?"
" The rover site is in the thick of it."
" Listen, I'll request Kranz and some troopers head into that storm."
" Kranz?" I grit my teeth. Kranz was an obnoxious, power hungry puppet of Norman Burkhart. As Livingston's security chief Burkhart was bought and paid for by the Turcottes. " Does it have to be Kranz?"
" He's the only one crazy enough to fly out there in a dust storm ... Besides you and me."
I thought back to the numerous times Kranz had interfered with my investigations both with the bureau and after I retired. " Whatever. You'd better call Ed Stanton, too. He's the Turcotte security chief. Let him know what's going on."
" I'll call him. Look, you and I will trace the IP-7-Livingston Road."
" What, from thirty-thousand feet.?" I asked as Moss scanned the storm edges. Readings showed the dust had advanced another kilometer toward Livingston.
" This is a bad storm," said Moss.
Patenaude cleared his throat. " Harry, I'll meet you at the port. What is your ETA?"
" Four twenty-five," said Moss.
" I heard him," said Patenaude. " I'm also going to try and get a security satellite image. Maybe we can get scans through that storm."
" Brief me, I'm not going anywhere." I shut off the zip and turned to Moss. " Thanks for your help, Captain."
" Anytime, sir. We'll let you know if the storm clears."
After thanking both Moss and the attendant and I retreated down the corridor. I glanced at the packed shuttle, sat in the recliner and folded my arms across my chest. Last night was a night of hope and promise. When I wandered from my hotel room into the Orbitus casinos, I saw Ariana Cervantes' fluffy dark hair and deep eyes. She sipped the contents of a thin glass in the restaurant overlooking the gambling floor. My stomach tingled and I stalled above the gambling hall. No friend or foe could thrill me so quickly and so fully.
I leaned on the brass railing, amidst a plethora of conversation, crashing slot machine levers, black jack callers, and music. She tilted her head back slightly and with a gracious smile, seemed amused by her young dinner companion. Even from across the floor, her skin was luminous, and gold rings, gaping with colorful gems, adorned her fingers. Ten years had passed since we spent four days alone in the Barsoom Dome along the Valles Marineris canyons.
Copyright c 2000
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