News From Home

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 7]

Data was easy to remember. Things that had structure or had patterns or that were logically simple. Cecil liked those things the best. Passwords. Schematics. Instruction banks. Force Diagrams and charts of calculations. Schedules— what time was it?

One vague memory that Cecil recalled then was of the rule barely spoken, but respected by most others. During a shift’s sleeping hours, nobody was to disturb the crew quarters. The room was self-isolating with a sealing door, a precaution in the case of a depressurization, fire, or any other emergency while the crew was asleep. If it were close enough to 1100, the lights would be off, and any intrusion would be taken as an attack on the other’s precious rest time.

Cecil considered skipping past the door, but off to where he couldn’t decide. He could rest back in the Medbay for another day, or continue on to his department where he could beg for a duty to accomplish.

A sound of low, echoing voices came down the hall towards him, down from the direction of the cafeteria. Cecil planted himself on the threshold from the catwalk to the hub building. The first of the other crew members came around the corner and spotted him. They blinked his way instead of turning, like he desired, into the center hall between the male and female quarters.

“Cecil—“ One said with forced happiness. “I did hear you were getting back on your feet today.”

“Good to see you back, Ruiz,” another spoke. Their attention turned away as quickly as it had arrived and the remaining others continued on, offering him nods as they split off into the two separate rooms. Cecil followed after the men.

By their stances, Cecil could tell that they had just finished eating, and were preparing to sleep. The night crew was smaller than the group that worked during the day, but still vital in watching over systems or experiments or maintenance or the growth of the station’s infrastructure. The vague faces and forms of the people there were known only through the moments of brief passing between shifts. Still, Cecil motivated himself to follow Agrippa’s words and join them in resting.

Cecil had been dressed in a borrowed uniform for the previous few days. His tight locker on the wall of the men’s quarters was in the same place and untouched, a somehow comforting notion. Inside was a sole set of coveralls, worn out, especially around the wrist cuffs. The second set was… the one he had been wearing on the day of the assignment. It had been removed before changing into the tight underclothes to fit into the environmental suit. It was likely still hanging there in the storage room, or trying to find its way through someone else and back to him. At the very least, the one in the locker seemed to be clean.

The others were amid stripping down out of their work clothes or already settling down before the call for lights out. Hands of cards were played between the tight collections of bunks, or books read on the communal tablets, or low chatter produced from the corners. The computer terminal at the corner of the room was in use too, purposed for checking schedules, or communicating with superiors, or even for receiving messages from home… far, far away.

The messages were collected by the agency from their senders, then sent via massive skyward-pointing dishes to space, then millions of miles on radio waves to the satellites orbiting the planet, and then doled out about the station’s computer systems.

If there was anything to expect, it would be a schedule from Martinez, the head of his department. Perhaps the man had heard of the meeting earlier that morning, and the commander’s allowance of Cecil returning to work and had already doled out some sort of meager responsibilities to keep him busy while he regained his strength.

Cecil finished changing and waiting for the line of two to complete their use of the terminal. He inched up to it next after the last person had made it through. 10:37 the corner clock read. Entering his pin on the touchscreen was muscle memory at that point. No schedule had been input for him, but there was a sole message, the likes of which he had no recollection of ever seeing.

Message intended for Mr. Cecil Ruiz, Antrum Crater employee ID #135

Date: December 19, 2037

From: Southlake Veteran’s Retirement Home

Re: Your mother.

Dear Mr. Ruiz.

We regret to inform you of the passing of your mother, a Mrs. Maria Ruiz. As previously requested by yourself, we will carry out the burial services, with invitations extending to residents and friends of Southlake Veteran’s. If you should wish to have something read out before said attendees, please reply to this message by the 28th of this month.

Cecil’s eyes found the clock at the corner, beside it the date: December 29th. He reread the message, his eyes darting to the words to make sure he had read them correctly. His eyes were blurry, even more so than usual in those days. There was another presence behind him, as if urging him to hurry.

“All good there, Ruiz? I’d like to check-in before lights out.”

Cecil nodded and stepped out of the way, not saying a word. He exited the door of the sleeping quarters, double-checking that the zipper of his jumpsuit was fully zipped.

Cecil

His name was called several times while exiting, but the words eventually faded into the haze of his mind. Cecil turned aimlessly at the intersections of the dim passages, then out to one of the catwalks. Before he got much further, though, someone stepped deliberately in his path.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the dark man asked, shaking his head.

The march of feet in the catwalk behind Cecil stopped suddenly. A few from the sleeping quarters had followed after him. Cecil glanced back at them and back forward to the dark man.

“Ruiz, I’m… sorry,” one of the others spoke behind his back.

“You all should head back and rest. I’ll work with him.” Cecil blinked at the man as the others slinked away. The dark man finally directed his eyes down again. “I understand that you won’t recognize me or remember my name, but I can’t have you going off on your own again.”

“Markus…?”

“So you do remember,” he sneered.

“Why…?”

“Why am I here? Agrippa asked that while I’m on duty that I keep an eye out for you. Noticed you pass through here, aimlessly, and I’m certain you don’t have a duty schedule yet. As for me, I’m on administrative punishment because of… never mind. But I’ve not got shit going on important, so here I am.”

“Agrippa.”

“He’s unveiled himself as a worrywart, but it seems like its with good reason.”

Cecil shook his head and turned back. Before he could start walking, Markus yanked on his shoulder. “What is your deal, man?” He whined.

Cecil turned back coldly. “Do you… have anyone at home?”

“No. Do you think some of us do? This is home, Cecil. What are you on?”

“My mother… passed away…”

Markus lowered his head. “That kind of person at home, yeah. My condolences. My folks are still alive, but they won’t be around forever. That’s just how things go.”

“I forgot about her,” Cecil said plainly, allowing his legs to take him forward little by little.

“We’re a long way away,” Markus followed, keeping his distance. “Doing our own thing, too.”

“No. It was as if I had forgotten about her completely. Her name. Her voice. It was long ago that I forgot her face, of course. The fact that she ever existed.”

“Does that have to do with your prospag— whatever, nonsense?”

“I… don’t know. That’s not how it should be, though? Forgetting about someone so close.”

Markus shrugged. “I don’t know how close you were to her. Everyone’s family is different. I think… most people here expect and know that the people we left behind on Earth will die, never seeing us again. But this is what we signed up for.”

Cecil made his way down the catwalk, to its sole plastic window looking out across the empty vastness of sand and rock. “She passed the day before the accident, it seems.”

“Strange how that works out. You got a pa, any brothers or sisters that were there for her?”

Cecil shook his head. “Only child. Dad left us a long time ago, too. But with my military benefits, she was probably well taken care of.”

“That’s probably the best any of us could hope for.”

“She was the one who encouraged me to accept the agency’s invitation to come here. Even knowing that she didn’t have many good years left and that the decision would leave her alone.”

“You’re going to worry yourself sick if you think about every aspect of her life.”

Cecil nodded. “If only… I could remember the sound of her voice again.”

“You know, you’re not a bad guy, Cecil.” Markus shrugged. “It’s just about lights out. You know the deal, especially with the night shift guys.”

“You’re right. Thank you. I will… be off.”

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