The Commander

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 6]

Maria was there the next morning while Cecil was attempting to find his footing off the edge of the bed once more. The socks gripped the floor with their rubber nubs, and his hand grasped the cold railing behind him.

“Easy.”

“I can manage.”

“Keep a hold on the wall if you must.”

Cecil allowed his hand off the edge of the bed. “I can’t appear weak before the commander.”

“You should appear as you feel. Allow me to walk you there, it’s only a few meters.”

“What sense is it being back on my feet if I can’t do it myself?”

Maria sighed. Her hands parted from Cecil’s waist. He stepped across the floor, allowing himself to drift away from anything to support him. His knees were sore and legs weak, but he focused on carrying himself forward. The door accepted his presence and opened to usher him out into the dim hall.

Maria waited as he walked through, allowing the cold air to enter his lungs. He glanced back, catching the glimpse of her— her dark hair was tied up, unlike other days where it flowed freely. Her eyes were dark and focused, and her lips seemed to smile hopefully. Cecil stopped and looked down the hallway in either direction.

All of the individual structures of the colony were self-sufficient, be it power or oxygen production, or computing systems. The humans who lived and worked there, however, all followed the man known as the commander, who only listened to the word of the agency located back on Earth.

Cecil couldn’t remember ever meeting with or seeing the man known as the commander, but he knew his name- Cassius. The narrow and dim hallway hummed with the systems inside. The vinyl patterns on the walls gave direction to nearby blocks or vital system access panels. If such systems ever needed maintenance, someone from Cecil’s team was usually assigned to provide maintenance on them, sometimes from the inside of the structure and other times through external access. The information on said systems all linked up to the brain of the compound where said commander worked from, in the same block as the medbay.

Cecil’s ears tuned out the white noise of the station, a skill practiced since his arrival. The ships he had served on in the past drones in similar tones. Sometimes the sound would keep him awake, and others, lull him off to sleep. Beyond the inorganic noises were the sounds of voices. The lighted sign in the hall read out command in a simple geometric typeface. The voices were just on the other side of the doors, activated with a touch sensor beside them.

The doors were louder than that of the medbay, but it was possible that the sudden silencing of the voices inside only made it seem that way. The command station was the heart of the whole base. The doors opened upon the viewing platform and its wide windows, and further below were the banks of computers and screens. The information held captive there tracked power usage and oxygen consumption and temperature and computer activity and active duty shifts.

The room was several degrees warmer than the hall, and the hum of fans was louder than any location elsewhere. The smell was reminiscent of body odor, covered up with old air fresheners. Below the viewing platform, two suited workers were bathed in the glow of the screens, their heads shifting back and forth like automated targeting systems.

The man that watched over the systems and workers there, on top of his oversight of the entire station, was Cassius. Cecil only remembered the name, but it was clear that the man— sitting front-and-center against the desk, a large presence with wide shoulders and a wavy beard that reached the middle of his chest— was said commander.

“Good of you to join us, Ruiz,” He nodded, standing up.

Cecil looked around for the digits of a clock, anywhere. “I’m not late sir, am I?”

Cassius shook his head. Agrippa was beside the door, just on the edge of Cecil’s peripheral vision. Tulia was at the side of the platform, standing still enough to blend into the dim light. “No. We were just speaking of you. Come inside, you’re confusing the door sensors.”

Cecil forced himself out of the attentive stance and stepped forward, allowing the doors to close behind him. Agrippa shifted forward enough to be in Cecil’s immediate view.

Cassius looked him up and down. “It’s good to see that you’re able to be here and stand before us on your own strength. It’s clear you’re physically fit, but the question that we hope to answer today is whether you’re mentally fit to return to your regular duties. Tulia will go over her preliminary analysis that she’s taken of you.”

Agrippa leaned his head in as if to pull Cecil’s attention his way. “If you feel that anything doesn’t sound quite right, feel free to speak up, Cecil. This is about getting you better.”

“I believe he understands, Agrippa,” The commander sighed. “Proceed, Tulia.”

The spindly woman straightened herself up and extracted the tablet from behind her back. “Well,” she began, sniffing, “Cecil Ruiz, while upon an exploratory assignment within the crater, released the sealing mechanism of his suit, and exposed himself to the non-sustainable atmosphere of the planet. In his state of oxygen deprivation, he collapsed into a natural formation of water that had been discovered by Ruiz himself at the site of their task. Ruiz was then extracted from the water and resuscitated but left unconscious, his helmet resealed, and his suit re-oxygenated. Such is the report filed by Augustus Agrippa, senior-most personnel on the assignment.”

Cassius nodded. “Is that how you remember it, Ruiz?”

The warm air was heavy around Cecil’s body. “The water… yes…”

The Commander glanced between the two of them. “Continue, Tulia.”

“Of course. Report by medbay staff— Upon return to the compound, Cecil Ruiz was brought under emergency treatment, suffering from heatstroke, acute hypoxia, and exhaustion. Patient was stabilized but unresponsive. Intubated and put on intravenous nutrition and hydration. After two days of intubation, patient’s lungs regained enough strength to work autonomously. One week after arriving in our care, patient returned to consciousness but remained disoriented. Nearing the two-week mark, patient regained awareness of himself and his surroundings— that was three days ago, Commander.”

“Understood. Continue— your thoughts are next?”

“Yes. Upon questioning, I determined that his previous diagnosis of Prosopagnosia has not progressed any further. Therefore, his current state of… mind, I believe, is being brought upon by acute post-traumatic stress from his accident.”

“Stress…?” Cecil perked up.

Tulia glanced at him. “Yes, Cecil. Abbreviated commonly as PTSD.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Cecil,” Agrippa tugged on his shoulder. “Perhaps let her continue.”

The woman nodded. “Even in cases when you are unconscious, your body still must cope with the stresses, especially in times of trauma. Your unconscious mind will still hold on to those experiences, in essence.”

Cassius cleared his throat. His arms were crossed against his wide chest as he examined Cecil. “The big question is, is he able to return to work? Let’s talk about the attacks he experienced the previous two nights.”

The spindly woman nodded and turned the screen of the tablet down towards her stomach. “I have no record of sleepwalking incidents in the past. Ruiz?”

Cecil shook his head. “Nothing… that I can remember.”

Tulia blinked at him. “Someone from the sleeping quarters could answer, maybe?”

Agrippa looked at Cecil for a split second. “I know someone I can ask. But considering Cecil’s… your history, Cecil, we can assume it has never been a problem.”

“I have to believe that it is simply something brought on by the stress,” Tulia spoke up.

Cecil

Cecil looked down at his fingers, still bandaged from his actions the night previous. The floor in front of him felt so far away, and the heat of the room was beginning to overwhelm his senses.

“Cecil?” It was Agrippa’s voice calling him.

“Huh?”

“What do you mean, huh? You must be out of it, answering your superior like that.” Cassius’ stern eyes were trained on him. “You know I hand select every single person who comes here. The agency allows me that, even the ability to override their own decisions. They don’t know what it takes to make it here. Ruiz, you were one originally rejected by the guys down on Earth, but I decided that your abilities and know-how were needed here. Your prosopagnosia was not enough to have me turn you away from this program. Don’t make me look like the ass here.”

Cecil felt the muscles in his neck tighten for an unknown reason. “No, Sir.”

Cecil

Agrippa slumped back, leaning his arm against the wall. “Cassius, I understand that we need everyone here pulling their weight, but I believe that Cecil needs more observation.”

Cecil took in a long heavy breath, his eyes darting to Agrippa and back to the Commander.

Cassius stood up off the edge of the desk and paced. “Tulia, I’ll leave the immediate decision to you—“ Before she could answer, the Commander spoke up again, his voice louder. “Maybe dig deeper and try to give us a guess on Ruiz’s thought process before he decided to remove his helmet, first off.”

Tulia held her chin. “Understood. For the time being, I am willing to clear Ruiz for his normal duty shifts, but no special assignments until we understand that. If there was any way I could examine him further, it would be with the polysomnography equipment”

“Of course. We shall arrange to bring that out of storage.” Cassius ceased his pacing and planted himself before Cecil. “Do you understand that, Ruiz?”

Cecil nodded out of understanding, but his hands churned back and forth by his sides.

“I can talk to Martinez to get you on a schedule to keep you busy, keep your mind on other things. I believe that’s the best middle ground we can all reach.”

Cecil

“What?” Cecil shouted, his head suddenly jerking back and forth, looking for the source of the voice. The Commander’s eyes narrowed at him. He grit his teeth and stood tall, shoving himself into Cassius, who had come too close. “Don’t tell me what I can do!”

“Cecil, what are you doing?” Agrippa hissed worriedly.

Cassius reacted as soon as Cecil’s chest met his. The Commander held up his arm and shoved against Cecil’s collar bones, shoving him back into the doors. “What the hell are you trying, Ruiz?”

The air was shoved out of his lungs. Tulia grabbed at the Commander’s arm and separated both of them. Cecil glanced about, catching his breath. The loud exclamation from the Commander had called the attention of the two technicians working in the lower section of the command center. Agrippa and Tulia were at either side of him, enforcing the distance between him and Cassius.

The big man bared his teeth. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you. I should have you mopping the floors like your buddy Markus, or headed outside to wipe down the solar arrays.”

Cecil looked at the floor, the sound of his name echoing distantly in his ears. He felt again the pressure of Cassius’ arm against his chest. Tulia’s and Agrippa’s feet were beside his own. The older man touched lightly against his shoulder. “Let’s go, Cecil.”

Tulia cleared her throat. “I shall upload the care plan to your dashboard, Ruiz, and forward it to Martinez. When you sign in for your duty shift, it will show up there.”

Agrippa opened the door with a touch to the sensor. He pushed Cecil out first, then followed after into the cold hallway.

Cecil proceeded first, not caring if Agrippa followed. The passage led him to the end of the command block structure, and off to the canvas catwalk. The foggy plastic windows looked outside where the hazy, dusty daylight beginning to illuminate the vast emptiness of the crater. Cecil’s eyes found their way to the tape patch, where someone had covered over a sort of damage to the canvas and its seams. Agrippa stopped beside him.

“We’re going to find out what’s wrong with you, Cecil,” he said calmly.

Cecil grit his teeth and jerked his head to the side, but managed to hold himself back. “Agrippa… what if… whatever’s wrong with me… what if it can’t go away?”

“I think… I don’t know what to think, Cecil. But there are many people here who know many things.”

“I don’t want to go home, Agrippa.”

“No mention of that was ever made. We won’t make you go home.”

“That’s because it’s not possible. Not cost-effective. Is that right?”

Agrippa shook his head. “These are things that you shouldn’t be worrying yourself with.”

“I can’t help it. So many hours awake, just staring up at the ceiling. Nothing to think of but…”

“But the worst?” Agrippa pursed his lips. “I understand. Hopefully, now that you’re back up and cleared for work, you can put your mind to other things. That big brain full of so much knowledge.”

“I don’t need that sort of praise.” He said, tensely shaking his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“I can’t remember… Agrippa.”

“Remember what?”

“Something at home. Why I can’t… shouldn’t go back. There is something there…”

“You won’t be going back. Period. We’re out here because we have a job to do. We shall stick to it, no matter the difficulty.”

Cecil stuck his hand to the window. He looked either way, back to the command hub, and then forward to the crew quarters. Agrippa nodded in the forward direction.

“I just remembered something I need to take care of back that way. You know how to get back, right? I think the night shift is wrapping up now, you might meet up with everyone— get some food in you. And get some rest back in your own bunk. Just to make things feel as they should again.”

“That’s… I’ll do that, Agrippa.”

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