Whispers of Mars [Chapter 8]
The sound of the voice awoke him. The sleeping quarters were dark apart from the LEDs on the computer terminal and the emergency lights. The hum of the station and the sound of sleeping breaths caught up to him.
“Who’s there?” He asked out into the darkness. Some of the sleeping crew members stirred or mumbled in drowsy states.
Cecil’s mouth was dry, his head pounding, and stomach caving in on itself. He focused his mind on trying to recall the sound of the voice. It was distant but clear. Familiar. Strange. Comforting but worrying.
It was before the lights he began to come up naturally, simulating what would be a sunrise back on earth. Cecil stumbled off the bunk and felt his way around in the dark, knocking into the bedposts.
Guided by the sole status light, he found the computer interface and illuminated it with a touch of a button. Some of the nearby crewmates stirred and turned away or groaned and shuffled their pillows under their arms. He input his password. The message was still there, reading the same words.
I’m choking, Cecil.
Cecil tried to swallow, then suck in a breath. His chest was tight, and his throat narrow. Just standing made his legs feel like the ground beneath him was moving. His hair stood on end. He held to the wall, head down, staring at his feet in the dim light cast by the screen, but the floor continued downward for a distance far beyond him. His strained breathing was enough to take some of the others in the room, their bleary sights following the source of the light.
He landed on his knees. Some of the others held at his back or went to the door or the intercom panel.
Cecil’s breath returned to his chest by the time he was turned over into the medbay bed. The sheets were freshly washed. The nurse held the cold stethoscope to his chest and peered down his throat with a glaring light. The doors whooshed open.
“I came as soon as I heard. How is he?”
The dark-haired nurse leaned up and pulled herself away. “He is… normal, by all accounts— at least now. Breathing and heartbeat returning to nominal.”
The kind-faced, shiny-browed man with the accent… that was Agrippa, leaning over him. “Cecil, can you hear me? Speak? Nurse, I can tell you—“
“Agrippa…” Cecil croaked, interrupting him.
“Cecil,” He looked down seriously. “Do you know where you are?”
“The… same place as always.”
Agrippa refused to react to the words. “I should have known. You’re not okay. At least, the way you should be. I’m… I’m sorry that you had to learn about your mother the way you did.”
Cecil blinked at him and pushed himself up on shaking arms.
“I ran into Markus. He told me everything. I was going to seek you out after my shift ended, but…” The older man paused. “Nurse, may I ask how you intend to record this in the log?”
She shrugged and faced away. “A panic attack, I am most inclined to report. I’d like to keep him a little bit longer for observation though.”
Agrippa shook his head disappointedly. “Cassius isn’t going to like this.”
The nurse clicked her tongue. “That isn’t the fault of any of our own, nor Cecil’s here. I’d hope to have Tulia through here though, as she had demanded joint ownership of his file for obvious reasons.”
Agrippa nodded. “Those were hopes and thoughts as well. Not that I have any say, though. Hum, I don’t suppose you’d mind heading to her office to bring her here?”
The nurse glanced at Agrippa, then found Cecil quietly sitting back in the bed. “I’ll go and do that. Hopefully, she’s there— I won’t be long.”
Agrippa nodded and grasped his hands behind his back. The door of the medbay released the dark-haired woman. As it closed once again, the older man spoke up finally, his voice deep and solemn.
“Once again, I feel deeply for you, hearing about your mother, Cecil. Was her… passing… expected?”
Cecil stared at his lap and answered. “The last we spoke… a year and a half ago, before my departure… she was… she said… she said…”
“It was a long time ago. There’s no fault in not remembering the specifics. Let’s consider something else, shall we?”
Cecil shook his head in short bursts. “Before that message… I had forgotten about her entirely.”
“You’ve been rightfully thinking about yourself. Getting yourself better.”
“If there was any face I was able to recall, it was hers. But I can’t now. I should be able to. I can read her name in the message. I remember the retirement home where she was living, the sender of that message. But when I read those words, I realized that I wasn’t able to recall what she looked like. I couldn’t even remember her voice.”
Agrippa let out a low breath and paced about, finally finding the stool beside the nurse’s desk. “There is something I heard some time ago from a colleague back on Earth. Each time you recall a memory, you’re only referring to the last time you remembered it. Your mind plays with your memories, they are… evolving.”
“I…” Cecil paused, glancing at the door. “I heard her voice again.”
“After not remembering it? In a dream, maybe? Is that what you woke up to, having your attack?”
Cecil nodded and rotated himself to the edge of the bed. “Yes… no, actually.”
Agrippa rubbed at his rough chin, leaning across one knee. “Perhaps this is something we should discuss in Tulia’s presence.”
“No—“ Cecil said curtly. “No. Her voice… came to me. It has been… as if reaching out to me. Trying to contact me.”
Agrippa raised his brow. “Saying what?”
“My name. I couldn’t recognize the voice as hers until I came across her name on the message. But then… she spoke again… she said…”
“You’re sure it’s her voice?” The older man leaned in. “Again, in a dream maybe?”
The door opened. The nurse was first— the dark-haired woman— Maria; the name repeated in Cecil’s mind as he locked eyes upon her. The spindly woman was after. Agrippa stood and greeted them before Cecil could speak.
“Sorry for calling you out, Tulia.”
“It’s no matter. Mr. Ruiz’s case interests me.”
“I’m sure you heard about his episode, then,” Agrippa said, eyes crossing Tulia and Maria.
“Yes, a panic attack?” Tulia insisted, the tapping of her feet bringing her to the edge of the bed with a keen look. “They are not uncommon in situations of PTSD. How did you feel, Ruiz? Difficulty breathing? Heart racing? Dizziness?”
“But it seems like it’s subsided,” Agrippa added. “Perhaps some air was simply needed. I’ve heard comments from others that the sleeping quarters get stuffy. I’m sorry for disturbing you, Tulia, over something… ordinary. Maria, I’ll take it from here.”
The spindly woman shifted and stared at Cecil, her eyes piercing. Agrippa stepped between them. “Cecil, come on. I imagine you’ve rested enough for now. Getting your mind off things will help you out. We should get some proper food in you. We can see about speaking to Martinez, too. Anything to distract you for the moment.”
Cecil watched Agrippa’s heels as they exited the medbay. The older man took the opposite route that led deeper into the command structure and away from the general quarters and the workshops and labs. “Agrippa, we’re…”
“I hoped to get you a shower first. You… need it. Fresh body, fresh mind, they say. Not that I know who ‘they’ are. Regardless, the senior staff’s facilities are up here. They get hot water for longer. Tulia assured me that the proper temperature will help minimize the aversion to it as well.”
Cecil nodded. The unit at the far corner of the structure carried the images of a shower and latrines. It took Agrippa’s badge hanging off his pocket to open the doors. The bathroom was not too far different from those used by the rest of the crew, if only by the more generous use of space. The showerheads were at the far end of the room, separated off by a half wall.
“Get cleaned up. I’ll be back with a fresh uniform. Hang up what you have on the wall,” Agrippa instructed calmly before clicking the door closed.
Cecil slipped off his shoes first. The floor of the facilities was cold and slightly damp. His jumpsuit and undergarments came next, leaving him bare to the world. Standing above the floor drain, Cecil depressed the shower knob, allowing the water to flow freely across the slanted metal ground.
A shiver ran up Cecil’s back. He blinked through the darkness and the movement of strange flashes. Steam began to enter his nostrils, floating up as the heated water warmed the cold floor. He took a breath and stepped under the stream.
The water was warmer than anywhere else. It didn’t matter, as a shower as a luxury was a foreign concept in any situation for him. The timed spurt of water ceased and allowed him to find the dispenser of soap on the wall. As he rubbed himself down, he felt the rough skin of his face, his bristly short hair, his bony shoulders, and cold goose-bumped skin. He punched the water on once again. It slicked his body and etched the built-up filth from him, washing it all away with the shower foam.
As he turned and allowed his back to catch the warm cascade, Cecil noticed the older man beside the door, back to him, waiting silently. Privacy was indeed an unnecessary luxury there, much like the previous positions Cecil had held before. The blasts of air from the sides of the shower stall dried Cecil before he turned his attention to finding the new garments hung on the wall by the row of lockers.
“Agrippa,” Cecil asked weakly as he stepped into the fresh jumpsuit and boots. “Why… did you choose to keep what I said… from Tulia?”
The older man shook his head, still facing the door. “I think… there is a certain truth… maybe not a truth… but a sense of reality in words… the recollections you’ve described.”
“If we were to ask that woman, she might use the word… hallucination?”
Agrippa shrugged and peeked back. “Depends on what you believe in. Are you spiritual, Cecil?”
“I attended church plenty when I was a child. My mother made sure of that. Never had time much after going off to school and the service.”
“Then you at least remember the stories, I hope. The ones of burning bushes carrying visions, or the will of God being sent to someone via the mountain tops. How would those stories sound to an outsider who had never heard those stories or the practices they created? Being told that some people believe that all of those things actually happened?”
“They might be… skeptical.” Cecil shook his head. “What are you saying?”
“What indeed. Just… making up my own stories now. Being skeptical myself. In a place like this, it would be hard to find people who could take the concept of a god seriously.”
“I used to believe that God… the Christian one… was the one making it hard for myself and my mother, especially after my father left. That he was testing us, you know?”
“I would be hard to escape from that notion if you were raised like that. Those such notions that we use to try and define the chaos that is all around us. They say that if all knowledge were to disappear from the world, humans would rediscover the sciences, the elements, mathematics, how the world works and turns… but would the same beliefs about the unknown still exist?”
“Like what happens after you die?”
Cecil shook his head and stared down at his boots, clean and standard issue, and yet to be tied. “I don’t know.”
Agrippa rolled his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I got to rambling. What I mean to say is… I believe there to be more with this planet then we know.”
Cecil stiffly knelt down and put the laces in place. “That… place down there,” he said, staring at the practiced lacing.
“What about it?”
“The pool down there.”
“Yes. A big unknown in plenty of senses. We are looking into it, as well as how the project is moving along. I’ll tell you what I know over some food. It’s… good to see you thinking about the… important things, Cecil.”
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