Whispers of Mars [Chapter 1]
The rover crawled along the red-brown landscape, tossing up clouds of dust behind its thick wheels. The slope of the old crater was gentle and weathered, carved by centuries or more of sandstorms, and dotted with crags that split the hazy horizon.
Cecil would have been able to hear the sound of the electric motors driving the vehicle, were it not for the thin atmosphere swallowing up most of the sounds that dared speak across the bare, lifeless surface of the red planet. The sounds in Cecil’s ears were instead the flow of air from the tank, the rough scratching of the underclothes grating against the lining of the suit, the metallic joints allowing him to move freely, and the hum of radio silence.
Two others were in the seats ahead of him on the rover, the fourth and final seat occupied by the oversized equipment, buckled in like they weren’t. Cecil held tight to the bar bolted between the driver and passenger seats with the form-fitting but somehow still clumsy glove. The fingertips were reinforced with rubber for extra grip, and the rubbing of it against the white-painted metal reverberated through his body.
The rocking of the vehicle and its lenient suspension was not any more jarring than his experiences in the past. What shook him rather was the expanse of nothingness, with the Altum Crater camp now far out of sight.
“Ruiz?” The driver asked. Markus was the man with the deep voice with an accent from somewhere in the south.
“Huh?” Cecil replied, returning his gaze to the space between the two men.
“I was asking what food you miss the most from back at home.”
“Oh, sorry. I suppose… tortillas. Fresh ones.”
Markus offered a puzzled hum, while the other man clicked his tongue in agreement.
“Sometimes it’s the simple things, Markus,” he said. Agrippa sounded older and was clearly from somewhere in the UK. “Mark didn’t believe me when I said good bread. Suppose we aren’t in a position for—“
The radio crackled on, interrupting Agrippa’s final words and cutting in with the grating sound of static. “Heads up. The GPS is reading that you’re close. Eyes on your instruments, Agrippa.”
The older man extracted the tablet from under his arm and illuminated the screen. “Let’s see… start off west… twenty degrees, Markus.”
Cecil held to the seat as Markus set in the turn. The rover and its engines continued to vibrate through the seat cushion. He held his leg against the equipment case, lodged at an angle between the front and back seats.
“Feeling okay, Ruiz?” Agrippa glanced back at him. Cecil couldn’t make out the man inside, only the reflection of his own helmet in the tinted visor.
“I’m sure Markus doesn’t have to drive as fast as he is going. We still have plenty of daylight left.”
Cecil shook his head. “It’s not that.”
“Don’t baby him, Agrippa,” Markus spoke up tensely. “He can tell me himself if he’s getting carsick.”
“Fair,” the older man nodded.
“That is,” Markus said, his helmet shifting back. “Unless he feels he’s too good to speak to us.”
“Huh?” Cecil stammered, searching for the words.
“This isn’t the time for that, Mark,” Agrippa admonished.
Cecil peered down at his lap. The man in the passenger seat settled back with eyes upon his instruments, flashing with coordinates and a digital representation of the nearby topography.
“Why don’t you bunk in the general quarters, Agrippa? You can get to know a lot more people.”
“Who do you suppose I get to know better?”
“Nevermind. Some people just don’t mesh well with others. How close are we, you reckon?”
Agrippa hummed and peered down at the tablet again. “We have a few kilometers, but according to the scans, it should be in fairly plain sight. Ruiz… or Cecil, I’ve heard you prefer. I’m glad you could join us today.”
Cecil perked up at the mention of his name and the twisting of the man as he turned back once again. “I am… glad to be of service. At the very least, I am able to lend my experience of the equipment,” he said, glancing at the crate beside him.
The reverberation of the engines beneath them calmed, and Markus spoke up, hand stretched out over the front of the vehicle. “I think that’s it. What do you reckon, Agrippa?”
The landscape was interrupted by a tall outcropping that hugged the edge of the crater. Above was a set of jagged peaks, bare rock tamed and beaten by ancient storms. Scarring the face of the outcropping was a dark half-domed orifice, buried partially by a deposit of red sand.
Markus edged the rover to the edge of the drift until they were close enough that the headlights shone against the rough surface. In one touch of the controls, the vehicle cut power and locked its wheels up.
Markus was the first to step down off the vehicle, followed by Cecil and finally, stiffly, Agrippa. “There’s no way we’re getting the rover any further.”
“That was to be expected,” Agrippa said back. He held his hand to the visor and looked back over the landscape. Cecil was at the side of the vehicle, unbuckling the case from the back seat. “You and Markus will share the weight, I suppose?”
“Fine,” Markus grumbled, looking back down the dark crevice. “How deep do you suppose it goes?”
“The heat signatures were pretty strong according to the satellite readings. We’re supposing it’s an old lava tube— they travel vertically in most situations, but depending on its age and how active this area has been in years past, it could have settled some.”
“So what you’re saying is that the hard part is going to be coming back out,” Markus asked, glancing back at the crate which Cecil had brought to the ground. “We can’t just… leave it down there when we’re done?”
“No. And we’ll have the core samples too. If those don’t give us sufficient readings, we will certainly need the drill once more in a different location. The faster we get going, the faster we’ll get back.”
Markus slumped his shoulders and marched back down to the side of the rover where the equipment compartment was located. Agrippa fiddled with the suit controls on his wrist, illuminating the head-mounted lamp and tuning his radio to the long-distance channel.
“Station Command, this is Agrippa, over.”
“We’re receiving you, Agrippa, over.”
“We’re at the location. Record current coordinates. We’ll likely be going dark for the time being. Over.”
“Understood. Over and Out.”
Agrippa looked up at the sky one last time before adjusting his gloves. Markus was leading the crate up the incline by its first handle, while Cecil trailed behind. Their lights danced around the mouth of the tunnel as they hefted the weight of the case over the mound.
The flow of rubble and sand deposited at the base of the strange tunnel’s entrance casted long shadows across the ground as their lights found purchase on the tunnels. Agrippa made his way first, holding to the rounded wall as he made his way down, illuminating a secondary flashlight in his hand.
Cecil could hear his breathing in his own ears as the work of hefting the case caught up to him. Markus pulled the both of them along, holding one of the side handles of the crate as he shifted down the loose ground sideways. The opposite side of the luggage dangled from Cecil’s taught arms. He breathed out slowly as they found the solid ground.
“Alright back there?” Agrippa’s radio chipped in.
“It’s not too much,” Markus huffed. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, Cecil. I’m just going to assume you’re a quiet guy.”
“Enough.” Agrippa paused. “This isn’t the time or place.”
“What puzzles me is how he ever made it this far, speaking only ever in single sentences every few minutes. Only when he’s spoken to.”
“Save your breath, please.”
“I know exactly how much breath I have left to expend. These suits are my job. We have plenty, including the backup I brought out of protocol.”
Agrippa jerked back, shining the hand-held light back, flashing the beam through Markus’ visor. “I will be speaking to your division head. You’ve known the man for a half-hour, and yet you’ve managed to profile him.”
Markus held his hand in front of his visor. “Actually, we went through training together. Back on Earth. Came over frozen nearly side-by-side. Now he won’t even acknowledge me.”
“I’m sorry.” Agrippa seemed to stare back past Markus to Cecil as he managed to speak up for himself. “I don’t do well with faces. It’s been that way all my life. It’s nothing personal, I simply can’t attach a name or voice to what someone looks like.”
“And you’re afraid that you’ll end up speaking to someone you don’t intend to?” Agrippa added.
Markus glanced back and forth between the two others. “That so?”
Agrippa turned back to the deeper end of the tunnel. “Don’t be sorry, Cecil. The agency decided that your knowledge and technical prowess was greater than any little downfall you might have.”
Cecil listened to the words and nodded, even though both of the others weren’t looking. In the suits, everyone looked the same, with no face to have to hope to find a feature in. All he needed to pick up on were their voices for that day only.
The tunnel evened out, both in elevation and smoothness. The stone was hard and smooth, but the boots gripped well enough, despite their hard plodding. The others were silent as their flashlights danced around above at the slight rippling of the ceiling, and the distant inky darkness of the beyond. Markus grunted every once in a while, mostly while switching hands. Agrippa cleared his throat from time to time. The screen of his tablet glowed as it mapped the naturally formed passageway with radar-like signals.
A small drop of liquid fell from Cecil’s brow and onto the inside of the visor. He heard his own breath suddenly, heavy. “Is it hot for anyone else?”
Markus rolled his shoulder, shifting the crate and allowing him to check the readout on the wrist of his suit. “It’s… above 50 centigrade… damn. But I made sure the heat exchangers were in working order. Quit complaining, we’re in the same boat.”
The system inside the suits pumped liquid through tiny tubes in a big circuit, concentrated about the vital areas, and expelled the heat through fins at the back of the suit. Cecil could almost feel it, surging about his body like a second heartbeat.
Agrippa paused and glanced back, blocking most of the way. “There’s no harm in asking to take a break. After all, Markus says that we have plenty of air.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“How far do we need to go?” Markus asked, his breath elevated.
“We’re still reading a descent, even if it doesn’t seem like it.”
“It will seem like it when we’re heading the opposite direction.”
“Of course.” Agrippa replied, “But the lower we go, the more likely we are able to extract a good core sample. You two managing with that?”
Agrippa offered a short nod, the light of his helmet moving along with his head. The march began once again, creeping slowly deeper. The sweat continued to pool around Cecil’s hairline, and he could only focus on the movement of the crate between him and Markus, his fingers wrapped numbly around the handle. The perspiration dripped down his temples and stung the corners of his eyes, and continued down to the rigid but padded collar of the suit where the helmet connected to it.
Still leading the group, Agrippa stopped suddenly and held his hand to the air. “We’re heading back up now, just slightly. This may be the lowest point we’ll be able to reach safely.”
Markus groaned and tossed down his end of the crate. Cecil stained against the sudden shift of weight and dropped the load suddenly. It was nearly silent in the thin atmosphere but created a sole, solid vibration through the ground. Markus glanced back, but the visor gave no indication of his intention.
“Breathe for a moment,” Agrippa directed. “Then let’s get this set up. How’s the air over there, you two?”
Markus glanced at his own wrist, then reached across and grabbed at Cecil’s wrist readout. “Good here. Ruiz is a little low. I guess that goes with not getting out much. But it should last.”
“Monitor that for me.”
Cecil shook his head, sending more droplets of sweat about the skin of his face. Before Markus could move, he knelt to the ground and turned the case towards him, flicking open the latches.
Inside was the core drill for their task that day. Once set up on its frame, the computer system would take control of the mechanism that would drill out the pen-sized hole down into the ground to pull a sample and to determine its density and makeup. Cecil’s department had been holding onto it for that very day and mission. He began to assemble the finely engineered pieces of the stand that the mechanism would rest on while it did its work.
Agrippa shined the light on a flat area of the old tunnel. Markus worked quietly with Cecil to heft the framing in place, followed by the more delicate controller and the spool of flexible boring line.
The old man interfaced with the device from his tablet and started the process. The drill guided itself down and began its attack against the hard surface. Cecil took a long breath in the moment of rest and shined his light about the unseen reaches of the tunnel.
“Looks good,” Agrippa commented before glancing at Cecil. “I wonder how far it goes.”
Cecil shifted about the other two and shined his light further. In the inky depths, the beam of his light caught the flash of something reflective against the ground. His feet moved on their own, attempting to seek out the glimmer once more.
Agrippa spoke up as he began to exit the ambient light and low din of the drill working away. “Don’t go too far.”
“There are only two ways out from here, Agrippa. He won’t get lost.”
Cecil didn’t hear the words, despite the radio resting next to his ear. The walls of the natural tunnel were dull with a glassy sheen, but the glimmer was not from the hard surfaces. The reflecting light beyond was not entirely from Cecil’s suit, either. He couldn’t look back to the others. The tunnel opened up, the walls crumbled and etched by erosive forces, and the ground was covered by sandy rubble. At the center of the strange room was a wide pool, seeming to be of water, glassy, and reflecting a natural light above. The orifice in the ceiling continued upward, emitting what seemed to be the light of day from the surface.
“Cecil, head back this way.” Agrippa spoke to him over the radio, “The drill is starting to reach its mark. We’ll need to you monitor its performance to make sure it’s within operating temperatures, though. Markus, go after him.”
Cecil shook the words from his head. They didn’t mean anything to him. If anything, they were like the chirping of birds, or the sound of wind rippling long grass, or the sound of honking cars on a busy road. Cecil reached for the seal and the latch at his neckline, holding the helmet to the rest of the suit.
He didn’t need it anymore. He took his last breath. Markus appeared, light shining at him as he removed the unnecessary device. The other man’s helmet shook at him, and the sound of his voice was frantic and distant in the speaker, now at Cecil’s waist. He set it down before Markus could react.
Cecil looked down upon the pool. The air was cool, and it dried his sweat. Markus grabbed at his arm. He sucked in a breath. His lungs burned. His legs felt weak. The hold on his shoulder was weak too. He met with the water as his body failed. The water was cool and replaced the void in his lungs that called for oxygen. There was a sound of loud footsteps on the hard ground. The sound was drowned out by the splashes of water and loud abrading of bubbles against his skin and body. He was at peace.