Whispers of Mars [Chapter 10]
The shaking and rumbling of the wheeler were borderline too reminiscent to Cecil. That was one of the last strong feelings he had felt before the accident. Cecil had found sleep the previous night among the others of the day shift, and at the beginning of that new day Agrippa had sought him out.
Somehow Cecil had remembered how to dress himself in the tight uniform that went under the environmental suits and then said suit that sealed him off from the rest of the world. His breathing had grown in intensity until Agrippa had spoken to him.
“All sealed up?”
“I… think so.”
The operator from systems had allowed them to depart out the airlock and under the shelter where the minute fleet of vehicles was stored and their electric batteries charged. A larger flatbed truck had been moved out of the space, but Agrippa had assured them they would see it again.
The vastness of the crater and its looming edge far in the distance never ceased to surprise Cecil, whether it was from one of the windows of the station, or outside in the elements from behind the suit’s visor. The discovery of the lava tube was closer to the edge than the base station, leaving a climb for the rover before they would arrive.
“How do you feel?” Agrippa’s voice crackled through the radio as they climbed higher.
“Good enough. Better… than yesterday.”
“The routines we follow keep us grounded, even if it feels nonstop. That is what is required in a place like this. Your routine just had a lapse, and it threw you off. That’s what Tulia told me.”
Cecil nodded, but the gentle movement was lost in the clumsiness of the suit. “Do you know her from… before?”
“Tulia? We actually grew up in the same parts. Years apart, of course, though. But we share that connection, a few memories of different places.”
“Do you… ever wish you could go back, Agrippa?”
“Not for a minute.” He paused, sucking in a long breath through his nose. “You were concerned… whether you were going to get sent back. Was that worry voiced in a way to suggest you desired to do so?”
The silence dragged on as Cecil thought to himself. “I thought… there was something at home to return to if I did. I couldn’t remember what it was at the time, but now… there is nothing.”
Cecil watched the back of Agrippa’s helmet as he shifted back and forth, moving with the steering of the vehicle. He stared past and scanned the slope ahead for any familiar features, but saw none. Then, on the horizon, he spotted the pale dot, protruding from the ground.
“You see it?”
“This isn’t the same place as before.”
“I suppose I should have eased your mind and told you that we wouldn’t need to be heading down that long tunnel again. We’re just about there, above it in fact.”
The flatbed truck was closest to them on the slope, carrying a matching pair of slightly opaque plastic tanks, filled halfway with liquids. The metal hut was beside it, and running from the vehicle were long, flexible lines hooked up between the tanks and a fluid junction on the building.
The prefabricated metal and foam panels that Cecil had seen in storage many times before made up the simple structure. The largest section of it was the wide domed airlock, prefabricated for semi-permanent uses.
Agrippa slowed and eventually parked the rover before stepping off first. “I haven’t been here since you woke up, actually. Always making progress, it seems.”
Cecil couldn’t help but follow the older man. The airlock door was outfitted with windows to look inside and ensure that the chambers of the airlock were sealed. The exterior port was big enough for them both to enter and seal back again with a turn of the heavy door latch. The hiss of the mechanism meant to them that the meager few cubic centimeters of air had transferred successfully.
Agrippa’s visor turned Cecil’s way as they stepped into the cramped structure. The floor was a simple panel of metal with a hole cut in the center, about five feet wide holding a ladder that descended deep into the ground. A few bits of machinery and tubing and tools for lowering cargo littered the remaining bits of available ground. The older man carefully released his helmet and tested the air. He nodded, staring at Cecil’s visor to do the same.
“It seems okay,” his words traveled through the air.
The atmosphere was stale and metallic but breathable. There was a low hum audible far in the distance, radiating from the space below. Agrippa peered down and spoke up. “This ladder was here before, but it seems the seal is complete here. Care if I go down first?”
Cecil nodded and watched as the older man descended, shifting the helmet in his hands back and forth to find the most stable hand. Cramped, dizzying, and ill-smelling places were nothing strange to Cecil, but a feeling in his body, something unplaceable, held to him. Just as Agrippa’s bald head had disappeared out of sight, Cecil continued after him.
There were forty-two rungs on the ladder, heading down to a secondary platform above the shimmering reservoir of liquid. Any natural light that had entered inside before had been blocked off by the structure above, and the glassy surface glowed under the bright, pale string lights hung around the chamber. The platform allowed them to descend down the edge of it safely.
The hum in the air was consistent, a generator powering the lights and air purification of the underground area. The long flexible tubing ran down from the entrance and was wrung around stakes at the edge of the pool before heading off down one of the two subterranean passageways.
The once rough walls were coated with a gray porous material in what was mostly a consistent layer. Cecil ran his hand along the gritty but soft surface and found his feet treading across the same material on the ground.
“Last time I was here, it was all just bare rock,” Agrippa said, scanning the area, his helmet dangling from his hand.
The long pair of tubes suddenly rattled off, material rushing through them and forcing the lengths hanging from the ceiling to sway back and forth. In the distance down the tunnel, the low din grew louder.
“Oxy foam,” Cecil stated. “The two parts get mixed together and expand like traditional foams, but with a second endothermic reaction that occurs during the hardening stage, breaking down the water in the first reactant to release breathable oxygen.”
“Brilliant.” Agrippa nodded.
Cecil looked at the floor and the minor indentation caused by his foot on the strange material. “I don’t know how I remember that. It was… Martinez who engineered it. I remember that…”
The rumbling and the shaking of the tubes stopped once more. “Sounds like they’re continuing working with it though,” Agrippa pointed, leading to the first tunnel, heading off straight outwards from the main chamber.
Cecil held his breath. The pale glow of the lights seemed to reflect back at him from the surface of the reservoir. The water seemed to ripple, perhaps from the movement of the equipment, or even it just being his imagination, but he couldn’t remove his eyes from it. Agrippa’s hand landed on his shoulder.
“Are you having second thoughts?”
Cecil cinched his neck down. “I… remember…”
Agrippa turned back and pulled the removed helmet from Cecil’s grasp. He found himself in Cecil’s eyes before speaking. “Tulia warned me that exposure to this place would bring up the memories of the accident, even if you yourself didn’t consciously recall them. You will tell me if this becomes too difficult for you, right?”
“I will, Agrippa.”
“Is someone there?” A voice trailed out in an echo from far in the distance down the first tunnel.
Agrippa turned his head about to find the source of the original voice. “Yes. It’s Agrippa, from geo. We’re looking for Martinez.”
The man exited the glint of the tunnel and approached them. “We weren’t expecting anyone,” he said, before finding Cecil hiding in Agrippa’s shadow. “Well, Ruiz—“ The shape of the man’s head and his stance were familiar, but Cecil couldn’t put a name to him. “Back in action?”
“Martinez hasn’t been reachable over the radio.” Agrippa declared. “Cecil… Ruiz here has been awaiting an updated duty order.”
“Radio is spotty down here,” the man said impatiently. “We’re waiting on systems to install a repeater and an antenna to get a better signal up to the surface. But hey, what better way to get in touch with Martinez. He’ll be happy to see you back to work, Ruiz. You’ll find him down there,” he pointed.
“Thank… you,” Cecil muttered, avoiding the man’s eyes.
The tunnel was coated in more of the dark foam from top to bottom, and the string of lights ran in a neat line down the center of the ceiling, hung on metal hooks. Cecil’s eyes couldn’t help but track each of the discreet LEDs glowing inside the sheath diffusing the light and into his still blurry vision. Agrippa’s call forward pulled his attention back down.
“Who’s that?” The low, accented voice returned to them. The tunnel widened. Under the sprayed foam, it was impossible to tell whether or not the open space was natural or chiseled out by tools. Around the corner was the termination of the long tubes transporting the foam’s constituents, and the mechanisms that emulsified and sprayed them. The man who answered the call was also present, along with three others.
“Take a break,” the first man said, glancing at the others. They nodded, wiping their sweaty brows and glancing at Cecil as they passed.
“Martinez,” Agrippa greeted, setting down both helmets at the corner of the wall. The Hispanic man was short and slightly round, with a dark, short beard sprouting from his face.
“Well, I’d never,” Martinez clapped his hands. “Ruiz, good to see you. Agrippa, thank you kindly for bringing him back to me in one piece.”
Agrippa planted himself at Martinez’s side and leaned close to his ear. The Hispanic man nodded while listening to the whispered words, and a frown crept across his face. “I can’t accept that. Ruiz, let’s hear it from you. You want to work? You’re a good worker, my smart cookie.”
“I… want to be useful.”
Martinez nodded emphatically. “Agrippa here thinks he knows you and your big old brain better than you know yourself— viste— you know?”
“As I said,” Agrippa cleared his throat, “Tulia has requested that he still be under observation and keep up with his evaluations.”
“Then the chica can come down here and visit us.”
Agrippa folded his arms across his chest. “You’ve been living down here, then?”
“For the past week.” Martinez nodded. “Cassius concluded that taking the time to commute back and forth every day was counterproductive. Since we put the airlock up above, and we sealed the two tunnels off down both of the offshoots, we’ve been living here much more comfortably. The Oxyfoam is going to continue to off-gas a probably long enough time until we can get a recycler and scrubber down here. By then, I can see the geothermal system up and running. That is, of course, you let Ruiz off his leash, viste?”
Cecil felt Martinez’s eyes on him. He looked at the ground.
“Ruiz, you are my good boy.” Martinez spoke up again. “We need you, viste. Come, come. I will show you something to lift your spirits.”
The Hispanic man led them back to the main chamber with the pool, and then down the second tunnel that climbed in a slight slope. A similar band of lights illuminated the path and the walls were coated in the gritty layers of foam. Cecil heard the sound of the others speaking, their voices halting as they came into view.
The widest spot of the tunnel was lined with several sets of cots and their blankets, as well as aluminum crates of supplies; ready to eat rations, cans of water, and spare clothes and blankets. Further up were more crates and bundles of building supplies in all forms.
Martinez stopped and held his arms to his hips. “Agrippa, you know the brilliant mind you are keeping away from his work that will help us all?”
“I’m perfectly aware, Martinez. What are you showing us?”
The Hispanic man glanced back. “Let me see if you know your stuff.”
“The turbine system.”
Agrippa sighed and shifted his shoulder. “From the top? The system pressurizes CO2 into its supercritical state and a set of pumps saturates the igneous substrate. When it expands back to about one atmosphere and gets heated by the geothermal energy, it rushes back to the surface and runs the turbine, generating power for us.”
“I’ve only read the documentation and looked at rock samples. Putting it together and getting it to work is your area of expertise, setting this up.”
“The turbine.” Martinez sneered, directing them to the metal pallets holding blocks of machinery. “Do you remember the nonsense they set us up with, Ruiz?”
Cecil pursed his lips and shook his head.
“No?” The Hispanic man glared at him. “So bad that you had to push it out of your memory, yes? Once your hands return to it, you will remember.”
“What nonsense do you speak of?”
“The turbines parts that were shipped to us were out of spec. The design they followed on Earth was proper, but the one we got was not quite right. The gearing, all a mess. Wrong materials. It would have ground itself to nothing after only a few hundred hours of running. The result of going for the lowest bidder in manufacturing.”
“How did you notice?” Agrippa asked.
“It was Ruiz here. You remember? Look.” Martinez hummed, voiding the way for a large machine casing sitting on a metal pallet.
Cecil stepped forward and planted his still gloved hands on the machine. The gearbox in his grasp would connect to the rotors that would spin under the power of gas escaping from deep boreholes in the earth. Cecil attempted to remember the mess of gears within the mechanism but any recollection of where the described problem lied wouldn’t reveal itself. “I remember, but… I do not.”
“What are you saying? Well, you have been away for a while. Once your eyes lay upon the problem once more, it will return to you. The replacement pieces we milled are here and ready to be replaced by you soon. Agrippa, that is why we need him down here. No Ruiz, no power.”
“I understand your situation, but—“
“No buts, viste.”
“I hope to stay here as well. I can not, in good conscience, allow Cecil out of my sight while his mental condition is still unclear.”
Martinez slumped down and paced. “You will be sleeping on a cot and eating foil packets of food. But suit yourself.”
Agrippa glanced at Cecil, who had missed the words during his examination of the strange bit of machinery sitting on the ground.
Cecil perked up suddenly. “Huh?”
“How are you feeling about this?”
“I think… I can manage.”
Agrippa nodded. “Well, that’s at least good to hear. Perhaps being here in your element will be good for you. But I intend to stay here tonight to make sure. Martinez, where is your radio? I must contact a colleague in my department.”