Whisper of Mars [Chapter 13]
When Cecil awoke, most of the others had already departed for their tasks, including Martinez. Cecil sat up and held his breath, looking around for anyone else. A white, crinkling wrapper shot towards him and landed in his lap with a light tap.
“Breakfast,” Agrippa said, moving about between the cots.
Cecil’s hands found their way to the nutrition bar, unmarked in the simple wrapper. “Thank… you,” he said, finding the seam to tear it open from.
“Did you sleep well?” The older man asked, sitting on the makeshift bed across from Cecil.
“I… did,” he said, taking his teeth to the corner of the packaging.
Agrippa nodded before leaning down on his legs. “Well, we were supposed to be headed out today, but it seems we’re out of luck. I hope you’re fine with that,” he said with a glint in his eye.
“For what reason?” He sunk his teeth into the corner of the chewy substance.
Agrippa rolled his head back. “A storm is brewing, going to travel across here and down about the station. Command is upset with me for not looking ahead far enough at the weather conditions. But… we should be clear tomorrow, able to head back.”
Cecil took another bite of the bar and chewed it slowly, deciding to nod halfway through.
“Did… anything come to you last night? As in, with the machine back there?”
Cecil ceased his chewing. He remembered suddenly the voice, seeming to talk to him, but never answering his words directly. To distract himself, he gazed back up the tunnel where the dull metal of the machine sat, seeming to taunt him.
“If I look at it again… maybe,” he decided on the words.
Agrippa stood and looked down at him. “I understand the pressure you must feel on yourself right now. But your health and well-being is the most important thing. I’m going to go out and see if I can’t make contact over the radio while the storm isn’t so bad.”
Cecil nodded and awaited Agrippa’s exit. After his muted footsteps trailed off over the tense foam ground, there was barely a sound that remained. Somewhere in the distance was the low hiss of the sandstorm brewing somewhere above, or perhaps it was the sound of more foam being deposited on the remaining bare rock walls.
In the upper section of that tunnel was likely a seal or plug, separating the inhabitable and uninhabitable sections of their meager, stuffy sanctum down there. It was the very same tunnel that he, Markus, and Agrippa had descended those several weeks ago.
Down in the opposite direction was the wide chamber where the pool was located. He had heard the voice, not just that previous night, but when the location had first been explored by the three of them. He was then sure that it was after hearing the voice, the sound of it calling his name, was when he had felt and acted on the urge to remove his helmet.
Cecil returned to his surroundings with the remaining half of the nutrition bar crumpled in his fist. He threw it into the empty crate holding the rest of the garbage of old wrappers that was growing in the corner.
The machine spoke to him, if not in a different way. Under the panels and bolts and rivets was a framework holding the mechanism that ran off the rising gas being extruded from the ground. The drive shaft held a multitude of turbine wheels, and each wheel held innumerable blades to catch the movement of the fumes. The gearbox turned that rotary motion into something more powerful, a force to run the electrical generator, as close to indefinitely as the mechanisms would allow. Somewhere deep inside, though, was a key component to said mechanism that was destined to fail.
Once built, though, the gearbox was never meant to be disassembled. Such was the result of the compact but efficient parts built on Earth to strict specifications and tolerances so that their weight would not exceed the safety limit on the unmanned craft that took the million-mile journey to deliver it to them.
The machine was still naked as he had left it the previous day, with no other progress made. Cecil rubbed at his eyes, but the bleariness would not subside. At any other time, Cecil would have been able to tell immediately if there were stray tool markings, or what size socket was meant for any bolt, but the perception that Cecil once held was no longer within his capabilities.
Cecil didn’t know how much time passed staring at the tools, and his lap, and the countless fasteners and bearings and gear teeth protruding from the machine frame. The ache in his head began to eat away at his consciousness once again. Holding his eyes, he stood and went back to land upon the cot once more
When he awoke, there were others around. Before opening his eyes fully, he listened for the sound of the familiar voices. “There can’t be anyone else who can help him?”
“I can put him to work on something else, but who knows if he’s even going to be useful there. I really hope he comes back to his senses sooner than later.”
“His senses? That’s one thing, but I think there are other things going on here.”
“Don’t talk like you know Ruiz better than anyone here,” Martinez huffed, his words trailing off as Agrippa held his tongue in frustration.
The cot beside Cecil creaked a few short moments after. He rolled onto his side and opened his eyes. “Agrippa?”
Agrippa was the man with the shiny forehead and the smile that always found its way back upon his face “Taking a break? Which is fine, of course. Any progress so far?”
Cecil forced himself up, the headache still beating at the back of his head. “You should be able to see.”
Agrippa leaned down on his legs. “Maybe you just need to brute force it,” he seemed to joke, a grin creeping across his face, and disappearing once more. “It’s just my guess, but maybe all this time, you’ve been trying your best to analyze the thing as a whole, while instead you just need to break it down into its simplest bits. Then the part you’re looking to replace should reveal itself, right?”
“It isn’t that easy, Agrippa.”
“Is it not? Do you remember the core sample we took here, Cecil? Or at least, hoped to get when we originally arrived here?”
“It’s only a small sample out of what is a greater section of the planet’s crust here, but with only that we can learn about the composition of the substrate— the ground— here. Even if this rock here seems so alien to us, it is made up of the same minerals that we have on earth. You mentioned that your machine only goes together one way? So do the minerals that make up the rocks we tread upon, no matter what planet.”
Cecil shook his head. “I… can’t make sense of what you’re saying.”
“The point is, Cecil… well, obviously, I’m just talking out my ass. But staring at something will not cause it to magically figure itself out.”
Cecil hunched his head down and held at the back of his neck. “Not… now. I have a headache.”
Agrippa nodded, slowly at first, then more quickly as he stood. “I’ll get you some water. I’ll see if there are any medical supplies with some pain killer, too. And… don’t worry about Martinez. He can wait. We all can wait.”
Cecil looked up and watched Agrippa’s back as he moved away. “We all… can wait,” he repeated to himself, only his lips moving.
The minutes and hours of the day passed, one after another like waves of pain through Cecil’s head, with no measure of how many had been experienced. The workers returned from the tunnels to eat and turn in for sleep once their energy and motivation had been drained. Agrippa offered Cecil a packet of the food but he rejected it, remaining tied to his bed. The others spoke in low voices while they were near him, and by the time the lights lowered, none of them had come close to him.
It took longer for the others, especially Agrippa, to fall asleep, drifting off to a state of regular breathing. Cecil rolled himself off the cot as quietly as possible and stood. He shuffled off to the main chamber, its lights glinting dimly.
Cecil breathed in the cold air. The metal structure above the ground creaked and crackled with the sandstorm still raging above. Cecil sat, eyes locked to the pool, surface like a mirror.
He waited for minutes, then ten, and before long he had lost track of time,
“What… are you—“ his voice was loud at first, then quieted down.
I feel you.
“I… feel you too.” He said, cognizant of the incorporeal sensation. It was the tenseness in his back and joints, and the heaviness in his every step. It was a warmth in his core and the coldness that seemed to pull heat away from his extremities. He had felt it, the first time, down there when he had come there with the others.
You feel me.
“I do. What… do I call you?”
You said something.
“I can’t remember.”
“Your voice… it’s… hers,” Cecil said, tears beginning to find their way into his eyes. He rocked back and forth. “I… couldn’t say goodbye.”
You are here. I feel you.
“I don’t want to let you go.”
There is no letting go.
“How… I don’t understand.”
I need you.
“What do you need? Anything.”
I am suffocating.
“How can I help you? I am… I can’t even help myself. I can’t help the people here. Agrippa… Agrippa said that they can all wait. There are people on Earth. They can’t wait. The Earth is… suffering.”
I am suffering.
“I know!” Cecil spoke up. “I don’t know how to help you.”
“I am listening.”
It is painful.
“What is painful?”
“Cecil, who are you talking to?”
It was Agrippa’s voice. The sandstorm pelted the structure high above with fine particles, creating a fuzz in the air. The older man came into view down the second tunnel, his head shining in the low light. “Cecil?”
Cecil held his head between his legs. “Nobody.”
“I heard your voice,” the older man said, sauntering forward carefully.
“There’s… nothing wrong with talking to yourself.”
Cecil continued to look down at the ground between his legs, allowing his eyes to dry. Agrippa spoke up again. “Are you not sleeping because you can’t, or because you don’t want to?”
“I don’t know…”
“When we speak to Tulia, we should determine how to get your sleep schedule back in order. She did recommend a sleep study. The polysomnography test.”
Cecil glanced up and over to Agrippa. “You should sleep,” he said with a slight hint of forcefulness in his voice.
“So that you can have the space to talk to yourself in?”
“You said there was nothing wrong with it.”
Agrippa shrugged. “I did. You said you weren’t spiritual. It can’t hurt though, thinking of your mother, no matter what you believe in. But you shouldn’t be off filling your mind with ‘what ifs’ if you want to properly allow yourself to sleep and rest.”
“I slept already today.” Cecil huffed. “Too much.”
Agrippa nodded quietly. Above them, the force of the storm ebbed and flowed. “I thought this place would be better for you. The quiet, the separation from the others. Maybe it was too much to ask you to get back to work right away. Especially with something so mentally taxing as that generator thing.”
“It needs to get done. Let me stay.”
“It does need to get done. But you also need to get to a place where you’re better. Come on— even if you can’t sleep, I feel more comfortable when you’re able to be seen.”
Cecil forced himself up partway. Agrippa latched onto his arm and pulled him up the rest of the way, straining his arm.
Cecil followed the glow ahead, but the older man paused and looked out across the pool. Cecil’s eyes followed, catching the tiniest of ripples disturbing the usually glassy surface.
“Keep going,” Agrippa spoke up and continued just behind him.