Whispers of Mars [Chapter 3]
The Medbay didn’t have any windows to the outside. The only light was from those above, coming on and shutting off as they desired. If it wasn’t the light keeping Cecil awake, it was the coming and going of people from beyond the privacy curtain, clinging to the sides of his bed in the already cramped space.
Those beyond spoke in low voices, some he recognized, others he didn’t, followed sometimes by the nurse’s responses. They could have been speaking of him, or of something completely different, regardless of his presence there mere feet away.
It was his thoughts sometimes that kept him awake, thinking of memories that seemed to be fragments in the web of his mind, each bit holding unknown importance. Sometimes the faded memories came to him as dreams, finding him when sleep managed to grab a hold of him.
His name came to him, awaking him as it had many times during the past days. He listened again for Agrippa’s voice, or Maria’s, but he realized that the voice belonged to neither.
The medbay was dark and silent. A gap in the curtain glinted with tiny LEDs of equipment waiting to be used, to test or diagnose or fix or dispense whatever was required.
Cecil hadn’t stood since his arrival into the medbay, but his feet knew how to find their way to the ground, even if the rest of his body hadn’t had time to rest and recover. The pattern had been drilled into him after hundreds, if not thousands of nights in the past.
The USS Tunkasila, a destroyer. The USS Havasu, a patrol ship. The USS Hawaii, a submarine. Cecil still remembered the nights of rotations, departing the tight bunks as another was awaiting their own rest in the same spot. The bedding collected their odors, and after a while, even with washing, the three inhabitant’s smells would combine together until it belonged to no single individual.
Cecil smelled the odor of unwashedness upon himself as he shifted to his feet. It was time to get back to work, he told himself. The socks on his feet gripped the cold metal ground with tiny rubber nubs. The curtain crinkled as he pushed past it. The plastic line providing him with fluids held him back, followed by the yanking of the needle at the end of it. The tape holding the device to his skin pulled away cleanly, followed by the sharp, left to dangle on the end of the tube.
The automatic door, the noisy door, with its slow whoosh which had wormed its way into his mind, was just beyond. Cecil stumbled to it, and it opened gracefully for him. The air outside was noticeably cooler. The walls beyond were illuminated with dim, orange— almost red— lights that glinted at him.
The walls held his weight as he marched forward. Beyond them were electrical conduits powering the systems, the air controllers and ducts feeding everyone oxygen and scrubbing the CO2, and the computer systems making sure that everything worked as it should. The metal shielding was marked with smooth panels and rounded rivets, interrupted by vents and grates and control panels and vinyl stickers marking directions or locations of important equipment. Everything there had been constructed on Earth, impossibly far away, and brought there for the needy few to begin their lives there anew.
Cecil’s feet found the path, one foot after another. The blocks of structures littering the tiny fraction of the face of the crater there were interconnected by long pathways of flexible material, insulated from the thin atmosphere and uncompromising weather and permeating dust of the beyond. Cecil clung the best he could to the tightly-knitted fabric, rough and somehow soft to his touch. From the blurry plastic windows dotting the catwalk, he could see that night had fallen, sucking the light from the beige sky.
In every direction, the gentle slope of the crater rose up. Somewhere on the edge of the crater was the location where Cecil, Agrippa, and Markus had descended into the ground, encountered the oppressive heat, seen the glimmer of the pool of water.
Cecil’s long fingernails found the individual threads of the canvas wall, and the tiny, slick fibers woven in to patch the long sections together. He found himself on his knees, pressing against the north-facing window, fingers tearing at the fabric. The loops of the stitching began to come loose, one by one, and the edge of the panel began to fray.
A red flashing glow permeated the halls, followed by a low buzz. Cecil held at his ears and crouched to the ground on his knees. The footsteps pounded the ground and echoed, approaching. In a flash of dark hair, Cecil felt the weight of another person upon him, attempting to pull him up and away from the wall. From the opposite direction down the hall came another, this time with louder and more rhythmic footsteps.
“I have him,” said the voice in Maria’s sweet yet worried tone.
“What is he doing out here?”
“I… I don’t know. I should have…”
“Let me help you get him up.”
The lights came back on. Cecil was back in the hospital bed, and the older bald man paced back and forth. Maria yanked on Cecil’s hand and extended his fingers. Several trails of blood had found their way across the blanket in his lap. His fingertips and nails ached. The nurse crushed his fingers against each other and began to wrap them in a tight bandage.
The door whooshed open. Agrippa turned back and faced the man in the doorway, shaking his head.
“He’s back now, is he?” The big, unknown voice asked.
Agrippa nodded. “Just fine. He didn’t resist.”
“Did you see what he did back there?”
Agrippa nodded again, slowly. “I don’t even know…”
“Figure it out. Ms. Ramirez, come see me when you’re done caring for the patient.”
The nurse looked up from her work on Cecil’s hands. “Y-yes, commander.”
Her touch was soft and caring. Cecil found himself dozing off once again.
The light was on once again. The curtain was open a slight amount. The dark-haired nurse sat across the room, back to him, hunched over the counter. “Maria?”
The woman sat up with a start. “Yes, Cecil?”
“What are you doing?”
“On… my failure to be at my post. The doctor needed help next door with his experiment last night. It was my fault.”
Cecil felt at his face without thinking and found the taut bandage around the tips of his fingers. “Your fault… for… something I did?”
Maria turned the stool back suddenly. “Don’t think too much of it. You are the patient, and I am here to care for you.”
“For me… Maria…”
“I’ve heard that name before.”
“You’ve said that before, as well.”
Maria smiled weakly and stood up, approaching. “Cecil, tell me what you remember about last night.”
Cecil blinked his eyes. The headache was sudden, pounding in his forehead. He held his hand to his face. “I have… there is…”
Maria frowned. “We haven’t had you on the Saline since early this morning. You’re probably dehydrated. Let me get you a fresh needle.”
Cecil managed to look past the bright light as the nurse filled amongst her supplies. “Nurse… how far away… is home?”
Maria paused. “You may know better than me. Millions of miles.”
Cecil shivered and nodded. “Do you think… they would send me back?”
The nurse trotted back and hung a fresh, clear full bag of saline on the nearby hangar before taking Cecil’s elbow in her grasp. “I don’t have the ability to answer that. If this mission would ever permit it… it would have to go through the agency… the commander before that, even.”
“The… commander—“ Cecil winced, a fresh pinprick to his arm as the IV line was inserted.
Maria lowered her head. “We’ll restart you on the regiment of supplements soon. You may be suffering from withdrawals. At least you have some strength still left in you, even if you haven’t gotten any solid food in your for a while.”
“What do you mean?”
“The other night…”
“What about then?”
“Never mind. Get some rest. I will remain here if you need anything else to make you feel more comfortable.”