Whispers of Mars [Chapter 9]

“Cecil,” Agrippa spoke up before any other topics could arrive. “What is your role in the current project?”

The lunch service for the day shift was winding down, and the two of them had arrived to catch the scraps before composting— the caloric intake for every meal was calculated precisely for every member of the mission, in order to reduce waste.  Cecil noticed the glances from the others as he and Agrippa sat, separate from the remaining diners.

“I…” Cecil paused, looking down at the reconstituted vegetable protein, roasted and browned in that day’s form, hardly more appetizing than any other.

“I’m sorry, that’s no way to start a conversation,” the older man shook his head. “I should ask Martinez anyways.”

Cecil’s eyes darted around Agrippa’s face.  The emotion swirling across it was still too vague to pick up.  “The thermo generator,” he answered.

“Good, so you do remember,” Agrippa nodded, examining the steamed green bean on his fork.  “I was ordered to request someone from your division, you know, to come on the expedition that day.  That turned out to be you, obviously.  It was actually your division manager’s recommendation that you be the one.  Now… I hate to think it, but… if I had chosen someone else, you would have remained here safe and sound?”

Uttering the words, the older man allowed his fork to clack down on the edge of the tray.  He sighed, leaving the vegetable untouched. “Nevermind, pay my words no heed.”

“Don’t… think of it that way, Agrippa,” Cecil said pleadingly.

Agrippa covered his despair with a forced smile, his cheeks welling up. “Hindsight is twenty-twenty, is it not?”

Cecil nodded and turned his attention back to the mostly uneaten meal.  “There is… something down there…” he declared slowly.

The older man raised an eyebrow at him. “You mean some of your team?  Yes, did I mention that already?”  

“I… don’t know,” Cecil said with a blank stare at his food.  “The thermo generator… it was a place like that where it was supposed to be installed.”

Agrippa nodded. “It sounds as if your mind is clearing.  Power generation is down from the solar panels, and we need to assure that we have a more reliable source when the time comes to expand.  Geothermal has been the goal for a long time, and now we have what seems to be an optimal location.”

“Then… I am needed.”

Agrippa shrugged and sucked in a breath. “Of course, but I haven’t been able to get in contact directly with Martinez to determine in what capacity.  I’ve been told, though, that he’s been working down there.”

Cecil held his breath. “Then… I belong there.  Don’t I?”

 “Down there?” Agrippa glanced either way down the long table, and across where others were finishing their own meals. “I suppose that is the case.  At best, you would feel more at home being around the familiar members of your team.  At least, that’s what I imagine.  I don’t know.  You tell me.”

“You are… correct.”

Agrippa forced a smile. “Good.  You can escape the rest of the people here, too.  Reduce the unnecessary stimulation that’s probably overwhelming you.  But I worry too that it could bring up more memories of the accident.”

“I… want to work… to be useful… Agrippa.”

“I understand that.  But you must understand my worry… what I saw down there before.  It seemed like back then… back down there… that you were trying to escape us.  A silly notion, I know.  Although, with Markus badgering you then…”

Cecil shook his head and moved his lips as if ready to speak.

Agrippa watched him, waiting for the words, but none came.  “Well, I’ll tell you this.  They hope to fix up that place real nice down there, make it… livable.  It should be a good part there already, in fact.  A place where a team overseeing the power production could comfortably live and work.  Like I’ve said, the ground there seems fit for it.  I think it’s been Martinez and your team, as well as some folks from systems, working down there to seal off the stone and make an airtight seal down there.”

Cecil nodded. “And the water…?”

“Ah.  Of course, you would be interested in that, as am I.  Strange, it is.  It seems it welled up there over a long period of time, trickling in through a natural orifice leading to the outside.  I’ve got some weather and terrain simulations running on the server to determine how it may have formed, for how long it’s been there.  I considered it may have been a part of a secondary lava vent in the system back long ago when the area was active.  Do you know how lava tubes form, Cecil?  It begins as a simple flow, and when the exposed surface cools and the remaining flow runs out, you’re left with… no, I’m rambling.”

Cecil smiled.  “It is… interesting.”

Agrippa sniffed and stared at his tray, mostly eaten up.  “When you came in… after the accident, we did a test to see if the water was contaminated.  Just to make sure there was nothing to make you sick, as you did aspirate a good deal of it.  Apart from some trace minerals, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.  But of course, they want to run more tests.  Rightfully, though.  If it comes back good and proper, we can put it to use on the crops.  Maybe even make it potable.  Have you eaten enough?”

Cecil had managed to eat a quarter of the food, leaving the rest to go cold and shiny with its natural oils.  “Yeah…”

“That’s probably enough.  Mar— the nurse said that after a long period of the liquid IV diet, you wouldn’t have much of a regular appetite for a while.  But I’ve managed to trick you into getting your strength back, haven’t I?”

Cecil’s body felt heavy, and the words only felt like those given to a bullied child, but he nodded nonetheless and tried further to concentrate on the older man’s puzzling face.  

Agrippa’s expression turned serious. “Let me tell you one last thing.  The commander wants you back to work just as much as you want to return yourself.  I can understand his desire to have everyone pulling their weight.  If you managed to keep down the supplements, we can take you to visit Secundus and get your work order from Martinez.”

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