The massive search helicopter started to look small, no more distinct than the boulders at the far end of the canyon where it sat.
“Don’t worry about that,” Burke said. “You should hope our guy tries to hijack it. If the shock traps kill him, we won’t have to.”
Ludington stopped checking behind him and stared ahead while he walked. He left out the Yes sir, Deputy Warden. Even Burke’s name became redundant. On manhunt duty, no one else on the barren planet ever heard him. Their boots clacked too loudly anyway from the weight of their advanced riot armor, like thousands of yes sirs.
“The scat scans from satellite show nothing,” Burke said, “which means the escapee carries his wastes in a container. It makes him harder to track. It also brings him here for disposal.”
Ludington looked over the shallow river they followed. It cut through the center of the canyon floor like a rippling rug. Today, it took away an escapee’s old thirst and gave him a new one, a thirst for the river’s flowing freedom. It lured prisoners further down the foxhole, as though to simply see where the water went.
Burke stopped and nodded to the narrow passage ahead of them. “Whenever they carry enough rations from the prison, like van Vulpen does, they like to head in there. They can hide their food and themselves. The heavy metal deposits in the river take a month to really hurt them–not bad when everyone dies in two weeks.”
Ludington peered through the passage. The planet’s solid gray overcast looked barely lighter than the granite everywhere below it. He saw the same two grays every day on his four-month work placement. Here, however, the barren world funneled men closer. The cliff faces rose 16 meters, taller and infinitely thicker than any wall of the prison a few kilometers away.
“Out of the whole planet,” Burke said, “they like to run here first…and last. Ready your gun at all times, soldier.”
Ludington unshouldered his tranquilizer-39mm hybrid rifle. Burke had one too, but it stayed slung over his back for ease. Ludington followed him and could already feel the rugged ground throwing off his balance. He clambered over the boulders, his legs straining twice as hard now with both his hands full. His face strained even harder to stay composed, like on every other performance test. He fell behind Burke on purpose and hoped the wind would muffle some of his panting.
The canyon wended ahead of them, its floor a mess of endless outcrops. Sometimes it showed long patches of bare and tempting terrain–the same trail that lured in dozens of inmates annually with whatever jailhouse jelly packets they could scrounge. The river widened but still couldn’t hide its dark, wet rocks. They had a third, more miserable tier of gray. The bigger ones looked either too embedded to pry from the silt or too heavy to throw. Burke reached into his helmet and wiped the sweat off his cropped silver hair. He had the same somber expression as the inmates taking meds for seasonal affective disorder. Ludington wondered if the sky drove men to their suicidal escapes here rather than the tease of the untouched lands.
Mostly, however, he wondered why he had his rifle out. It would only scare van Vulpen further down the foxhole.
An hour into the hunt, Ludington and Burke found the first of van Vulpen’s structures. The little pile of rocks tried to resemble a man. It looked like a bent and dying man, though, and the wind hadn’t even disturbed it yet. The canyon spanned only four meters here, and the cairn stood in the middle by the river.
“He wants to lower our guard,” Burke said. “He’ll use whatever the world swept down here to get an edge. A death fox knows he can’t escape the planet. But he can still get a death match in the wild. He’ll do it just to hurt the penal system, to encourage more escape attempts.”
Burke looked like he waited for a response.
“Like a martyr,” Ludington said.
“Yes,” Burke replied.
Ludington glared at the rocks, but they still looked like toys to him. Another pile stood near the bluff, like children’s blocks stacked by a man overawed with nature.
He and Burke walked on, eyeing the riverbed and the natural alcoves in the canyon slot ahead of them. When the passage narrowed to just two meters, Ludington took the lead. Burke still hadn’t taken up his rifle. Ludington’s boot, then, found the welcoming flat rock first. It collapsed into a foot-deep pit, pitching him into a stagger.
“Go!” Burke hollered.