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.
Ludington nearly head-butted the cliff face, but Burke grabbed him and hurled him backwards. They stumbled against the canyon walls as a cupboard-size boulder smacked the ground one foot in front of them. The crash flung more rocks into the air. One the size of a bowl hit Burke’s leg and knocked him to one knee. The boulder, however, bounced down the passage ahead and rolled into the river.
Ludington clutched his rifle closer, having nearly banged the scope twice on the crags. He hurried toward Burke who raised a palm and stood on his own. They both gazed up at the rock ledge jutting from the scarp two meters above them. The boulder left a white scrape mark where it had rolled off.
Burke knelt and picked up a longish stone with a black thread tied around its middle. The stone had scrapes as well from getting wedged under the precarious boulder. Burke yanked off the string and coiled up all four meters of it.
“Van Vulpen must have dragged those boulders over here,” Burke said. He nodded to the dark outcrops far ahead. “He must have stacked them so he could reach up there to set the trap. Then, he rolled all those other boulders back.”
Burke put the coil of thread in a metal pouch on his belt. Ludington clenched his teeth and scanned the bottleneck in the passage. Though narrow, it had enough space for maneuvers. He could have easily lunged out of the way by himself, if he didn’t have to totter around with his rifle out.
Burke mumbled a brief report to his headset and resumed the hunt. The new dent in his shin guard sped him up rather than slowing him. On file, he would look heroic from the incident, even though he had brought it about.
Ludington channeled his anger into the ground with each thudding step. Over the next two hours, his trudge became a weary stagger. It embarrassed him more than his near death from the boulder. When the canyon widened to an airy eight meters, Burke veered closer to him.
“The guards already started calling our guy the Sculptor,” Burke said. He pointed a gloved index to his headset. “How would you go about tracking this particular death fox, soldier?”
Ludington pretended to think, even though he had his plan ready to announce since they first left the helicopter.
“I would make a few flights up and down the canyon,” Ludington said. “I’d use the systems onboard to record the whole terrain along the river, and compare subsequent footage from every trip. We’d land by the most recent disturbance in the rocks, which the scans can pinpoint. Then we’d chase down and tranquilize van Vulpen. He already leaves some good markers for us.”
Ludington gestured to a small ring of pebbles on a boulder by the river.
“You have to favor strategy over speed,” Burke said in a lowered voice. “Long term, the hunt becomes all about statistics, patterns, and outcomes–not individual psychology like what you read in van Vulpen’s file. You should know that two well-equipped guards working together have a near 100 percent chance of subduing a lone inmate, even the strongest or smartest of them. But a death fox believes in himself and the adventure. A death fox puts his odds at one in three, even with rocks against rifles. You’ve got to exploit their hopes and delusions to lure them out.”
Ludington saw Burke’s game of provocation playing out in the boulders ahead. He pictured crazed and confident felons leaping in vain from every gymnastically feasible angle, throwing rocks in miraculous shapes of boomerangs.
“But catching them sooner would give them less time to strategize,” Ludington said. “Over time, they get more feral and desperate, more creative with their schemes. With a whole planet of freedom, their survival instincts flourish. Their crazy reasons for fleeing suddenly have more weight out here.”
“They had years to plan and fantasize, soldier. A few more days won’t make them any smarter. Don’t you agree?”
Ludington realized that a yes would look like a dumb retraction of his entire search plan. A no would confirm his disdain for his instructor’s plan. On this world, a no would lower his performance score and his work hours ever after.
“Well, soldier?” Burke asked.
Ludington searched the canyon before him, but his eyes kept settling on the same answer. He turned from Burke and headed for a waist-high pile of rocks. It looked a little too tall to have formed in nature. He flung off the top stone, hoping to avoid Burke’s question at worst or find a food stash at best.
Instead, he found a face grinning out at him.
Ludington stood back and nearly raised his rifle by instinct. The man entombed in the rockpile, however, had turned his fourth shade of blue some weeks ago.
Burke jogged over and looked at the big grin on the death fox.
“Faulise,” he said. “One of the other teams’ foxes from months ago. A murderer, too. Good eye, soldier.”
Burke tossed aside enough rocks to reveal Faulise’s head down to his prison uniform collar. The barren world preserved him, and his rictus held stiff like leather.
“They can get prescription drugs from fellow inmates,” Burke said as he stepped back. “They can rig up a dose so the narcotic half forces them to laugh compulsively. It works better than laughing gas. The poison half kills them, and the giggly look stays.”
“What for?” Ludington asked.
“By law, we have to make their official death photos available to the public. A smile like this will cycle through the media and entice more inmates to flee. Like I said, they hurt the system however they can.”
Burke squinted at the canyon ahead while he reached behind his back. He removed a steel kit latched there and opened it.
“It looks like this death fox had a real fun time, doesn’t it?” Burke asked. “In reality, he probably trembled while piling every rock over himself–especially the last one, after he swallowed the pills.”
Ludington studied the hill-like arrangement of the tomb. It would have taken hours for Faulise to gather the right rocks and place them so well.
Burke took a thick, silver bowl from the kit. The device had five gripping holes in its underside, like those of a bowling ball. Burke’s fingertips, though gloved, slipped their way in. He pressed the inside of the bowl over Faulise’s face.
Ludington watched as blue light flickered from the rim of the bowl. A faint crackling also emerged, like millions of electric arcs too small and timid to leave a burn. When the device fell silent, Burke pulled it away from the face. Faulise now wore a frown from his darkest possible day, a moment too horrific for him to have ever lived through. The corners of his mouth sank to his jawline and froze there, not in terror, but in pure despair.
“The masker reshapes the muscle and connective tissue,” Burke said while he put the device away. “It works through dirt, hair, decay, and rigor mortis. You’ll need it often out here.”
Burke took a rugged, cylindrical camera off his belt and photographed Faulise’s face. He shot at three different angles, and the pictures would reach other planets in the same number of months.
The trek continued after Burke mumbled another report to his headset. Sixteen minutes later, he and Ludington could hear another team’s helicopter landing near the body a way behind them. They heard the smack of rocks as the medics unburied Faulise, once a snickering imp and now a miserable claustrophobe.
Ludington’s mind boiled over with words about the defilement. He panted while keeping up with Burke, and he had to bite down to keep anything sterner from getting out. The canyon, however, called for a certain boldness like it called out to bored and lonely prisoners.
“Doesn’t it seem a little shady?” Ludington asked. “By changing the face, you change the whole story of what happened to him out here.”
“Very shady,” Burke said, “the kind of shade that reduces escape attempts by 80 percent. The masker saves more lives per year than any other deterrent, soldier. Guards’ lives and foxes’.”
They walked and clambered for another hour. Burke, it seemed, had decided to punish both of them with travel since Ludington struggled more. Gripping the rifle made climbing rockpiles exhausting. Burke only stopped for camp because the river ahead widened visibly. Its noise further on would give their death fox an excuse to sneak up on them.
Ludington sat on a high boulder for his first shift at watch. Burke sat nearby with his back to the cliff.
“I only read now with a bodyguard on duty,” Burke said under the light of his little reader screen. “It makes whatever I read feel more important.”
“Rainbows and puppies, sir?” Ludington asked.
“Penology,” Burke said without looking from his screen, “crime stats, policy updates, and reports from other prisons.”
They ate their meals in pill and water form so the compressed nutrients would digest slowly. Ludington watched the canyon in both directions while Burke slept on the stones. On Ludington’s shift off, he slept by his rifle through most of the night on his own patch of stones. His armor felt like a crushing metal blanket until he forced himself not to move at all. He took in sleep in little breaths with some of them mercifully longer. When his aching body had enough of it, he checked the watch on his belt. He bolted up, having rested for nine hours total. The dismal sun moved through the day ahead of him, and likely, so did van Vulpen.
He stiffly approached Burke who sat watch atop the boulder.
“Shouldn’t we head out?” Ludington asked.
“Nothing wrong with extra sleep, soldier,” Burke said. “The fox likely underslept. We’ll have a huge advantage.”
Ludington said nothing, and he didn’t grunt another question for the rest of the day. He walked alongside Burke for hours, his rifle out again. Burke only unslung his to shoot down a tower of flattish stones van Vulpen had stacked like a totem pole. The highest ones, some two meters above the ground, leaned on the cliff for support. Half the tower crashed down after the loud crack of one gunshot. Burke used the rifle’s 39mm mode, and the echo roared up and down the canyon.
Ludington gazed downstream. He pictured the Sculptor kilometers ahead, perking his ears and sprinting even further.
“It might have fallen on someone,” Burke said, as though he could read minds. He shouldered his rifle and hurried on before Ludington could shift his weight.
Ludington’s adrenaline stayed up that day, as it had when the boulder nearly hit him. He knew now that Burke, his de facto instructor, had lied about van Vulpen setting the trap. Faulise used the bigger rocks. The Sculptor wanted his hunters alive, someone to witness his artworks.
A little rock fort awaited Burke and Ludington on the third day of the hunt. It looked small, toylike even, and too low to hide the head of a man. Burke demanded an eight-minute approach anyway. He left the structure intact, muttering something about the importance of red flags.
Burke started ordering with gestures and flicks of his stubbly face. Ludington became a lumbering statue who followed him, just another unit on a planet named with a string of numbers. He suppressed his groans like a perfect yes-man. His spent legs spread out as though to look proud of it. His rifle poked around at nothing but the passage ahead, the trail of the inmates who wanted to die the hungriest for all their mad reasons. Burke mumbled in his headset for a helicopter to come by, and one did. It airdropped a bundle of full water canteens and rations into the canyon. Burke ate slowly on a break every hour afterward–for a mental advantage, he claimed. He balled up and burned the parachute like a campfire until nothing remained.
Ludington sat when he could. He stared ahead and pictured the death fox staring back at him, more desperate, cunning, and creative with each wasted hour. His sculptures grew smaller and more childlike, just inuksuit that wobbled in the wind and pictures of donkeys made with pebbles. Some designs amounted to small circles of rock chips, any art at all that could outlast a wretched life in the barrens.
The river seemed to age with the men stuck beside it. The water deepened and became choppy, just enough to add sprays of silver like Burke’s week-long stubble. Ludington still obeyed his every nod. He believed their disputes from days ago may have already faded into the journey of silence. To question anything now would bring back all the animosity, crushing his evaluation score. The river, at least, did all the grumbling he wanted to do and more.
On the eighth day, Ludington gazed at the rock-cluttered passage ahead. It had more rushing water than space along the riverbank.
“They don’t make it much further,” Burke said.
He and Ludington only had to clamber along the river for two hours when they spotted the body. The death fox, a long-dead fox, lay facedown with his entire head in the river. His skull bobbed and splashed in the current, still laughing days after death. His body, lean but undecayed, looked almost alive in the prison uniform, as though van Vulpen merely drank forever. He lay flat and straight for all the heavens to see, or any helicopter willing to go by.
Burke scrambled forward. Ludington finally slung his rifle over his back and walked more upright. The new posture agonized him more than the rest of the “hunt.” He knew Burke had marched him here instead of flying just to cause that mountain-climber pain. The trainees’ suffering had to distract them from the suffering of the death fox.
Ludington and Burke each grabbed a leg and hauled van Vulpen fully onto the riverbank. They turned the body supine. When Burke knelt to set down the leg, he stayed down beside it. He stared at the hollowed-out skull smiling up at him.
“How?” Burke asked.
Ludington knelt by the body and picked up a plastic bag that had snagged on a rock. He pinched a sample of the gray sand remaining in one corner.
“He collected this sediment all along the canyon,” Ludington said. “He put his pile of sand in the river, like a pillow. He took his suicide pill, laid himself down, and let the current wash away the sand post mortem.”
A puddle spread under the skull like tears of eternal laughter. The river had eroded even the brain. Burke glared at the black orbits and the gleaming white enamel.
“His smile will spread.” Burke became wide-eyed yet dead-eyed at the same time. “That face of his will go more viral than a movie star’s. We’ll get a sharp rise in escape attempts and dozens of deaths.”
Ludington walked away. His legs could hardly stand anymore, but he managed a final turn.
“Didn’t you want this?” he asked. “For him to starve until he can’t run anymore? I’d say he looks the part quite well.”
“I’d say nothing, soldier.”
“Nothing?” Ludington called to sky. “Most of them don’t fight at all, do they? They just keep running as far as the river will feed them. You stretched out the chase to exhaust him. You could have found him here a week ago with some flesh on his face. The bloating and rot would have deterred everyone, even without the masker.”
“You almost got killed by this face, soldier.”
“By some nature boy!” Ludington yelled. “Did you even read his file? He came here for tax evasion. Maybe he carried his wastes here and dumped them in the river so we wouldn’t go sniffing it like animals. I thought we had all this so we didn’t have to abuse them.”
Ludington slapped his ballistic vest. Burke rose and scowled at him. They stood meters apart, as though another river raged between them.
“I have to lie to the guards out here because persistence hunting works better than everything.” Burke pointed at Ludington, and his voice boomed over the thrum of an approaching helicopter. “Do you want death foxes running at you or away, soldier? You have to play their cat-and-mouse game. We have to use every tactic we can, like they do, to keep our own fatalities down. You can’t back away from a system this safe and refined. I’ll have to use even crueler, harsher tactics now to capture all the death foxes inspired by this one smiling face. I have to find any edge possible to stop those deaths.”
Burke knelt again and took out the masker. He stared at van Vulpen, and Ludington couldn’t tell who had the stiller expression.
“It might still work, even on bone,” Burke said.
“The first frowning skull in the cosmos, sir?” Ludington asked. “Only you could pull that one off.”
Burke never looked up. The helicopter engine quit somewhere downstream over a hill of rocks. Ludington tramped toward it, abandoning the body. He climbed the final hill, however, and saw the final deception: the same helicopter he and Burke had taken into the canyon. Its navigation lights blinked green instead of red now which, Ludington presumed, indicated autopilot mode. Burke could have signaled for the ride at any time to find van Vulpen.
Ludington traipsed to the tail section and opened the body compartment. He took out a folded body bag and crawled over the rocks again like a rusted-out automaton. Burke still crouched by the corpse, his gaze more rigid than the rocks around him. Van Vulpen’s skull looked almost alive, still awash and with a smile fit for the dentist shelves. The masker, if Burke had even applied it, left no effect on the bone.
Burke took out his camera and snapped the three pictures. He moved in stiff, robotic steps, like Ludington, as they placed van Vulpen into the body bag. They carried him over the hill and slid their death fox into the helicopter’s special compartment.
In the cockpit, Burke never once turned his grim and tired face to Ludington on the co-pilot side. Ludington couldn’t even look at his own bearded face in the side mirror.
“You get a perfect score,” Burke said, “for finding Faulise.”
His voice droned like the starting engine. Ludington felt his aching bones rise with the helicopter. He felt them trying to rip free from his body to keep walking. He let his mind fly away instead. He thought about earning more high scores and advancing to a rank where getting mouthy would matter. He thought about trying to reinstitute the controversial ankle bracelets and how relaxed his legs felt while sitting on foam.
Burke flew them over a vast prison yard which leveraged the planet’s enormous terrain. Ludington looked over the plains of bedrock checkered with painted lines. Prisoners moped, played soccer, or jogged laps in their zones, content with the acres assigned to each man. Some of them, for sure, stared at the distant mountains and dreamed.
Ludington could almost feel the reported morale boost from all the free space. He knew now, though, that it only reduced violent thoughts among felons and not guards.
The yard ended with a giant wall that called everyone back before suppertime. The helicopter flew low over the turrets and guard towers of the sprawling penitentiary. Ludington felt the landing skids finally settle on the helipad, and he looked out at the guards posted around it. They all frowned back, their faces unmoved by the daily reminder of their own manhunt days. They wore the sullen faces of bulldogs, their jowls embittered and locked in for life.
Ludington wondered how many of them, like Burke, had used the masker on themselves.
Nicholas Stillman writes science fiction with medical themes. His work has appeared in The Colored Lens, Helios Quarterly Magazine, Liquid Imagination, The Martian Wave, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and Not One of Us.