Whispers of Mars [Chapter 2]
“Cecil, do you hear me?”
“I don’t think he’s fully awake.”
“Give him time.”
“Can’t you give him something?”
“Nothing that won’t have an ill effect on him.”
A weight sat on Cecil’s chest. He attempted to grab at his sternum, but the IV in his arm stopped him.
“Do you hear me, Cecil?” The soft UK accent spoke at him. “Stay put. Just speak to me if you can.”
“Who… is calling… my name?”
“Just me, Cecil. Don’t worry. You’re in a safe place.”
Cecil listened for the other voice, one he couldn’t place. The pale lights above on the ceiling were blurry as he forced his eyes open. The shadow of one, two people hovered above him.
“Agrippa,” Cecil repeated.
Agrippa was the man with the UK accent, and the bald head, and a creased forehead. Cecil attempted another deep breath. The weight was still there. He coughed.
“Don’t force yourself, Mr. Ruiz.” Another voice spoke. It was a third voice, yet another unfamiliar one.
“You’re in the command block. The medical bay. You’ve… been here for about a two weeks.”
“Mr. Ruiz,” the new, feminine voice spoke to him. “I have the duty to inform you of your condition. Do you wish to hear it?”
Cecil looked at Agrippa, before searching the edges of his site for the source of the voice. “I don’t remember.”
Agrippa smacked his lips and sat up, away and out of Cecil’s view. “How far back do you remember, exactly?”
“Remember… the tunnel… a glimmer.”
“Cecil…” The older man shook his head. “Do you remember… removing your helmet?”
“Agrippa, I would refrain,” the woman spoke.
“We came across a… phenomenon, something natural of course, and… something came over you.”
The woman cleared her throat. “Mr. Ruiz, while you are in relatively good condition now, when you came in… the prognosis then was acute hypoxia and heatstroke.”
“Markus bruised your ribs too, it seems, when trying to resuscitate you.”
“I see, you likely don’t remember him,” Agrippa concluded, tapping his arms on the edge of the bed. “I suppose we should bring him in too. Maybe hearing his voice would help you remember?”
“Mr. Agrippa,” the nurse spoke up. “I have been directed to run some further tests now that Cecil is awake. I appreciate your concern, but I recommend another visit at a later time.”
Agrippa hesitated on the words and stood. “Ah, understandable. I shall return. Thank you, Maria.”
The footsteps echoed across the floor as Agrippa exited, followed by the whoosh of the automatic door, separating the clean, neat area of the medbay from the main hallway. Cecil said the name over and over in his mind, the name that Agrippa had said.
“Yes?” The woman asked suddenly, seemingly unprovoked.
Cecil held his breath. His chest hurt once more with a dull pain. “Huh?”
“You said my name?” Maria said sweetly. The edges of Cecil’s blurry sight revealed only locks of dark hair.
“I… did?” Cecil said to himself and repeated out loud. “Maria…”
“No…” Cecil shook his head weakly. “Where have I heard that name before?”
The nurse breathed out through her nose slowly. “You know I’ve seen you here before, for the routine check-ins. Sometimes nurse Paul, but mostly me.”
“Yes… of course. Maria… but I’m sure I’ve heard the name elsewhere.”
The nurse shifted about on her hard-soled shoes and moved away from the bed to busy herself with other things out of Cecil’s view. “I’ll have you know that I am not stuck in this medbay, nor this block at all times. You’ve perhaps heard my name or seen me… in the cafeteria?”
“Is that so?” Cecil hummed. He blinked his eyes. With his free hand, he reached up and felt at his face. The skin under his touch was leathery and tender. His hair bristled all along the back of his head and neck from being cut short, like it had been in the past. “Nurse?”
“Yes, Mr. Ruiz?”
“How bad off am I?”
Maria snuffled. “As I said, your physical condition is back to normal.”
“I… see. The… the project—“ The thought returned to Cecil’s mind suddenly.
“Whatever project you were involved in, I imagine, can wait.”
Cecil attempted to get his eyes to focus on the bright lights glowing on the ceiling above. He couldn’t remember the details of the project, but only that it was important. “Nurse…”
“Cecil, I’ll ask you to continue to rest. You need time for the medication to exit your system.”
“Am I… out of commission?”
Maria let out a low, sorrowful sigh, and clacked her shoes back to the side of the hospital bed. “No. And if it were my decision, I would say that you will be clear shortly, but… you’ve yet be evaluated by the others.”
“I will speak no more, Mr. Ruiz. I… I’m sorry. Rest, please.”
Cecil bit at his lip. The skin was tight and dry. In his peripheral vision was a tube dangling down from an elevated sack of saline. The individual drips seemed to gleam in the bright light as they descended the clear line and into his body. He began to drift off again, while the nurse felt at his arms and pulled on his legs and listened to the sounds of his insides still seeming to work as they should deep inside his chest. Some minutes later, the lights dimmed to their lowest setting, and the nurse’s footsteps trailed off.
The whoosh of the medbay doors came to his ears. It was the sound of them closing. The light was at a level slightly higher than halfway.
The sound of his name wasn’t them calling for him, but rather discussing him, his condition. There was the UK accent, from Agrippa, and the low southern drawl from Markus, and a third voice. The voice was from a large man on the edge of his vision. Cecil had heard the voice before, but the stout body of the man it belonged to was nothing he could recall in any form.
“You just tell me what you think. I trust your opinion.” the large voice spoke, then trailed off out the loud doors.
The footsteps of the other two closed in on the bedside. Cecil feigned sleep. “Cecil,” Agrippa called his name.
“Yes?” He mumbled.
“Did we wake you? If you’re up to it, there are some things we want to ask you about.”
The IV in Cecil’s arm lodged itself deeper as he attempted to sit up, his eyes flickering open. “I… want to know… too.”
The creak of the stool being pulled up to the edge of the bed echoed about the compact room. “Here. Have a seat, Agrippa.”
Cecil focused on the dark man behind Agrippa, the drawl belonging to Markus.
“Thanks. Cecil— maybe you can tell us better now what you remember from… the time down there. Now that the drugs have worn off.”
“In the old lava tube.”
“The drill… it was heavy.”
“You took off your helmet,” Markus spoke up, a wariness in his voice.
“I took it off? Outside… the station?”
Agrippa cleared his throat. “Do you have any idea of why you did that, Cecil?”
“It was… hot.”
Agrippa hummed and glanced back at Markus. The dark man shook his head, arms folded to his chest. “Cecil, your… suit was compromised. It was my fault… a seal along the base of the helmet. Your O2 recycler began to take in heat from the outside. Let the heat inside your suit. In any other situation…”
“That’s enough, Mark. This wasn’t any other situation. Has the nurse spoken to you further yet, Cecil?”
“Your suit depressurized when you removed your helmet. Luckily we had the spare tank to get it back to normal. Markus managed to get the water out of your lungs, too.”
Cecil blinked his eyes and sat up further. The cold air met with his bare shoulders as the blanket slid down his front. “Water? Water…”
The older man leaned forward on the stool. “Do you remember?”
“You were the first to notice it, shining off the light of your lamp. I don’t know what you were thinking then, but… you fell into it. To say we were surprised is an understatement.”
“Of all places to drown, a planet with no surface water,” Markus huffed.
Cecil glanced at the dark man and held his breath. He averted his eyes to the blanket before him.
“Long story short, Cecil,” Agrippa paused, pulling his attention back, “even though we got you breathing again, you were out for a long time. We had no idea we would get… the same person back to us. But the fact that you’re here and speaking with us now means a lot.”
The nurse’s loud shoes clacked across the floor. Her blurry silhouette in the white uniform had been leaned against the far counter, but Cecil hadn’t noticed until then. “In case you don’t remember… we treated you for heatstroke, mild facial burns, acute hypoxia, and… bruised ribs. Agrippa is right, though. The fact that you’re speaking to us now means a great deal.”
“Long term, though…” Agrippa shook his head.
“Long term, yes.” Maria nodded. “Only time will tell. And your own words and actions, Mr. Ruiz.”
Cecil nodded and rubbed at his face. The skin was still dry and taught and tender. No matter who he looked at, or how long he focused, none of the other’s features would come into focus. The faces, though, only seemed to look down at him.
“Perhaps we can clear up one last thing, Cecil,” Agrippa paused, “Can you tell us about your Prosopagnosia? If you are comfortable with speaking of it.”
“Such a word.” Markus fussed, “The one way to say that you’re the smartest one in the room.”
“I don’t mind.” Cecil complied.
Agrippa leaned on his knees and stared at the floor. “I’m intrigued, to be honest, if that is the right feeling. Before asking to take you with us, Martinez said that you were peculiar… shy he might have described you. After… the incident, I couldn’t help but wonder. I didn’t mean to pry into your file. It also helped me to explain it to Markus here.”
“You said… face blindness,” Markus spoke up, head shaking.
“Ever since I was young.” Cecil nodded. “I’ve never been able to… see people’s faces as they are. Nothing but a blur for me.”
“And Markus believed that you were snubbing him.”
“I was never able to make friends as a kid. I couldn’t tell anybody apart.”
“I’m sorry for what I said. But the fact that you made it to the Navy, too.” Markus spoke up. “How did you manage that, making sure you’re following rank?”
Cecil shook his head. “Honestly… it’s easier to look at insignia and decide who to salute. Commanding officers don’t care if you know their name or face, as long as you follow rank and orders and don’t make any mistakes. If anyone complained… my disability was on file.”
“You’ve outdone yourself, Cecil,” Agrippa praised.
Cecil stared at his hands, barely in focus in his eyes. “The project… we were getting… core samples.”
Agrippa straightened up. “That’s right, Cecil. I’m glad you remember. Because… Markus and I had to carry you back out, we didn’t get the one we came for. But I promise you, we’ve been busy since then. We went back with another person from systems and extracted another sample, got it and the drill back. The area is a prime location.”
“A prime location…”
Markus leaned on the edge of the bed by Cecil’s legs, hands on the metallic guard rail. “The only question is of that… aquifer down there.”
“Still running tests,” Agrippa assured them.
Cecil tried to examine the older man’s face. “The water…?”
“Another peculiarity.” The older man shrugged. “It’s not my field of expertise, but I suspect we will have the science department testing it to let us know if it is usable… even drinkable, maybe. At the very least, from your exposure… we know there is nothing plainly toxic about it.”
The nurse cleared her throat. Agrippa caught sight of her frown and changed the subject. “My department intends to take scans and put together a simulation of how may have formed. The lava tube system down there is quite the natural marvel, but the pool— or aquifer or whatever— is something unique on its own. There is also talk of having a station down there.”
The sight of the tunnel and the shimmering pool and the feeling of the cold water washing over him returned to Cecil in a sudden wave. The air caught in his chest, and the pain in his sternum forced him to hold it for longer than was comfortable. When reality caught back up to him, he noticed the gazes centered on him.
“Are you okay, Cecil?” Markus asked.
“Tired… just tired.”
Maria clapped her hands. “We should put any further talk on hold for today, then.”
Agrippa nodded slowly and picked himself up from the stool, passing it in front of him back to where it had originated. “Understood. Cecil…?”
“You focus on getting your strength back.”
“I… will do that.”
Markus exited first through the noisy door without another word, and Agrippa followed after. Cecil settled back and pulled the blanket back up over his shoulders. The nurse was at the opposite side of the room, fiddling inside an open cabinet. When she turned back around, a square sealed pouch was held in her grasp.
“I need to apply this to your skin, Mr. Ruiz,” she said, beginning without waiting for his response.
Her cool fingers and the cold cream made contact with his skin “Maria.”
“Do you intend to wear out my name, Mr. Ruiz?” She said jokingly.
“You spoke of my evaluation.”
“What if I don’t pass?”
“What if you do?” She said back.
Cecil shut his eyes as her dainty fingers danced over his brow. “What do you mean?”
“Never mind. Pay no attention to my words. The evaluation is not something worth worrying about, at least for this moment.”