Whispers of Mars [Chapter 12]
Cecil tinkered with the panels and their bolts and the outer layers of the mechanism. He studied the blurry details in front of him, but no recollection of the following steps presented themselves to him.
The day dragged on but the pale, unnatural lights gave no indication of how much time had passed. Other workers came and went by the sleeping area but offered him up no words. Eventually, Cecil heard the mumblings behind his back, Agrippa’s and Martinez’s voices speaking his name between restless spurts.
“…give him time…”
“…don’t have that luxury.”
“…other things, first….?”
Cecil tried to ignore the words, but even the few he caught were infinitely louder than the silence in his mind. He fiddled with the bolts on the mat beside him just to hear their metallic rattling.
Cecil jumped and tensed as Agrippa placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I startled you. I think… you can give it a break. Sleep on it. They’re heating up some food, you should eat with us.”
The men sat on their cots, massaging tired muscles and worn-out legs and bodies from the work of the day. Despite his comparative lack of work, Cecil felt the same strain on his body— a growing ache in his head, and a soreness in the joints of his fingers. If he looked like he was nursing them, however, it may have seemed like he was showing off for them. Few words were exchanged. Whether it was out of exhaustion or Cecil’s presence alone, he couldn’t tell. Any of his previous interactions with any of the others besides Martinez felt impossibly long ago.
The ready-to-eat food came in shiny foil packets which were heated in a pan of rippling water over an electric burner. Cecil didn’t feel hungry, but his staring at the shifting reflections of the ceiling lights must have caught the other’s attention.
“Don’t worry, Ruiz. It’s not the water from the pool there.”
Another spoke up, head rolling back and forth. “It should be, though. Running down our drinking water heat up our meals.”
Martinez stepped into the center of the area and grabbed at the tops of the packets jutting above the water. He was quick to read the labels printed in blocky black letters before choosing first.
“That isn’t the mac and cheese one, is it boss?”
“What would you do if it is?” The Argentinean man glared jokingly, shaking the packet back and forth to shed the excess water from it.
Cecil waited for the others to take their own meals before grabbing what remained. When there were only two remaining, he couldn’t help but realize that Agrippa was nowhere to be seen. The others turned off the burner to stop the water simmering, quietly urging Cecil to take up one of the two remaining packets.
Cecil couldn’t taste or identify the food inside, but he assumed that if Agrippa saw him eating that the older man would worry about him less. When he did return from the main chamber, returning the radio beside Martinez’s side, he offered a gentle smile and took up the final packet.
Lights-out was not long after eating. The unnatural illumination above was dimmed most of the way. Cecil’s cot was not far from Agrippa’s on the edge of the sleeping area, but the older man had no words to offer him before they drifted off to sleep.
Cecil fluttered his eyes open. Agrippa was faced away from him on his own cot, obviously not the one who called his name. The others breathed slowly and evenly, sometimes shifting and rolling over on the squeaky makeshift beds. Cecil sat up and listened for any other sounds. Deep under the ground there, where they were surrounded by only rock and dirt and hardened foam, it was silent like no other. Compared to the electrical hum and quiet crying of air being filtered and circulated inside the station, the nothingness of the old tunnels was suffocating.
Cecil blinked slowly, trying to catch his breath even though his lungs were satisfied. The string lights above seemed to strobe in their dim state as if calling him. He shifted his feet to the ground and pushed himself off the cot as quietly as possible, making sure that Agrippa did not stir.
The sprayed foam dampened the sound of his footsteps. He walked, eyes to the ceiling, as the array of lights split off into an electrical junction. The lights seemed to be even dimmer out there in the main chamber as if having more emptiness to be swallowed up by. Cecil’s eyes landed on the pool, reflecting the irregular patterns of the pale glow in its glassy stillness.
Cecil glanced about, his breath caught in his chest. The voice, if it could be called that, seemed to come from every pocket of the area. He looked upon the pool and attempted to catch a glance at his own reflection.
The old sprayed material had been messily laid around the edge of the pool, perhaps in an attempt to keep from contaminating the water with it. The deep red-brown rock was still visible around the bank. The still liquid itself seemed to swallow up all light, veiling that which laid beyond the surface. Cecil held his breath and crept close to the edge, arm stretching outward. The pads of his fingers, dry and cracked and weathered, made contact.
The cool touch made him recall the previous time he had mated with it. He felt the calmness, the coolness within himself. The ripples formed and danced in concentric circles away from him and in wide arcs that reached the opposite edge of the pool and stopped.
I feel you. Cecil.
The pool swallowed up the vibrations and went still once more.
Cecil scrambled back and rose to his feet once more. “Who’s there?” He said just above a whisper, glancing about the tunnels.
I feel you again. Cecil.
“Who are you?”
You know who I am.
Cecil knew the feeling. The voice swallowed him like the water, enveloping him in a cool calmness that stole the sensation from his body. “I’ve… heard you… felt you before.”
I feel you.
“I feel you too.”
“I know your voice.”
I know everything about you.
Cecil expelled the breath from his lungs out his nose. He stepped forward again, glancing at what seemed to be his own reflection. “How can that be?”
I feel you.
“How do I know you’re real?”
You know what you hear. Only you can know.
Cecil jerked back, the hair on his neck standing up. He turned his head back, searching for the sound of the second voice.
Agrippa had descended from the second tunnel, hands rubbing at each other as his eyes focus through the dim lights. “What are you doing out here?”
Cecil glanced back at the pool, unmoving. “I… couldn’t sleep.”
“The lights too bright?” Agrippa continued to approach, head nodding up and down rhythmically.
He pulled himself back. “Something like that.”
Agrippa rubbed at the back of his head and scratched at his ear. “It certainly feels… strange down here. The combination of the eerie quiet, and the rhythms of everyone else breathing loudly. I’ve been cooped up in my private quarters for too long, it seems.”
Cecil nodded and looked back out over the pool.
Agrippa placed himself beside Cecil and interlaced his fingers. “No bad dreams? If… I were in your position, this place would put me in a strange mood.”
Agrippa nodded. “Maybe because it looks and feels so vastly different than when we came down here on our own. It’s strange, though. I don’t think I’ve told you this before…”
“During the accident… you might not remember. You allowed yourself to collapse into the pool here, of course. The residual air inside your suit allowed you to float on top, but you had already aspirated some of the water. When we… Markus and I… we pulled you out of there, though, you seemed to be… at peace. As if you had forgotten that you were drowning. Maybe some sort of training you had during your time in the service.”
“I see…” Cecil mumbled, head nodding. “I don’t remember… the accident.”
“It figures.” Agrippa breathed in a long sigh. “It’s funny, we keep calling it that… an accident.”
“Would you… call it something else?”
Agrippa shook his head, clearing his mind. “Nothing that makes it seem like the event took place by choice. Which is not the case, I’m sure… even if you don’t remember it yourself.”
The older man looked to Cecil as if expecting a response, but he couldn’t find the words.
“Let’s get back to bed, shall we? Sleep is for giving our brains the time to take in all the information from the day, you know? Imagine how you might see that device after you wake up.”
Cecil forced a pursed-lip smile and waited for Agrippa to lead the way back to the sleeping area. The strange voice echoed in his mind as he laid his head back, allowing sleep to take him over.