The Distance

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 14]

The rover Agrippa had parked at the surface entrance of Secundus two days previous was in the same place, but the shifting sands from the storm had rendered the area different enough for Cecil to notice. The fine red-orange powder had gathered up along one side of the outpost, on the side that faced the rim of the crater. The seats and frame and instruments of the vehicle had been covered in a dusting as well, but luckily the rigorous design made them impervious to such elements.

Agrippa wiped down the driver seat and dials while Cecil looked on, tracing the old ridge of the crater hanging above them. The older man settled into the seat and spoke up over the radio while Cecil found his way to the seat.

“By planetary standards, the Altum Crater here is quite young. It, and the rest of the landscape around here, is still being shaped constantly by the winds and other erosive forces. The simulation I’ve been running will likely show us what this part of the land may have looked like before the decades, centuries even, of storms. There is evidence that a big enough meteor strike can deform the land that it causes a surge in volcanic activity in the area.”

Cecil climbed into the back seat of the rover, shifting the sand underneath his feet. He held his arms taught to the handrails, nodding his head.

“I’m sorry, I’m rambling again,” Agrippa said, engaging the starter. The engines hummed and took to life, allowing them forward.

The ride down into the deeper stretches of the crater was easier than the way up. The main sections of the station were built slightly up on the side of the crater where there remained an old shelf of stable, hearty stone.

In total there were five permanent structures; the command center, the crew quarters and storage, the cafeteria and growing area, the power and engineering bay, and the processing outbuilding. All were connected with each other by the long flexible catwalks and various conduits and ducts. The shine of the old photovoltaic cells caught Cecil’s eye as they descended within visual range of the area. The systems workers were out in pairs, wiping the sand deposits off the panels.

If the sandstorm had gone on much longer, he imagined, the batteries would have dwindled down to emergency power levels, when the biogenerators were needed to run. It had happened only one time in the months he had been there— the sound and vibration from them were obnoxious, and the recycling of their fumes turned the air a certain unplaceable yet intrusive smell, despite all attempts to filter out the undesirable particulates.

If it weren’t for the generators running at times like those, though, it would be the batteries losing their effectiveness for each hour that they drew power below a certain level of their capacity. Something like that meant eventually more would have to be sent their way, to the tune of somewhere between one-hundred-thousand and several million dollars.

Agrippa parked the rover under the shelter and waived at Cecil to pay attention. The airlock on the processing outbuilding was one of two active on the station, the other being at the rear of the engineering bay. Stepping inside of the chamber, a glassed-in area big enough for five people, they were exposed to the jets of air to clear any stray sand off them, followed by repressurization, allowing them to remove their helmets.

Agrippa’s eyes were locked on Cecil as he removed his visor, a slight look of distaste in his eyes. “You weren’t just choosing not to listen to me, I assume?”

Cecil looked at the ground and shook his head. “I… disabled the comms on the way here. The radio hum was… too much for me.”

“I hope that is the only case,” Agrippa nodded, glancing back as the main door opened for them.

Cecil held tight to the edge of the helmet. He noticed the black man, one wearing the tan systems uniform, walking towards them. “Taking it easy?” he recognized the voice as Markus’.

Agrippa worked at the flaps at the front of the environment suit, digging to find the zipper and its teeth underneath. “We’re… making progress. Isn’t that right, Cecil?”

Cecil gazed at his feet. “If you say so.”

Markus tapped the edges of his fists together. “Nothing worth doing is done easily. I’ll help you get these suits stowed.”

The older man undressed first, leaving him standing in the tight suit that was worn underneath. Cecil undressed more slowly, the weight of the material on his shoulders more than he expected. The action was practiced from tasks in the past that had taken him to the exterior of the station before. The specific jobs undertaken, though, were absent in his mind.

Agrippa helped him to step out of the suit after it had made its way down to his shins. “Cecil, you should go get changed. Maybe get a shower in.”

Markus spoke from the storage room where the suits were hung. “Still hot down there in the tunnels?”

“Certainly more than here, even with the foam they’ve sprayed down there. It isn’t unmanageable, though,” Agrippa answered. Cecil noticed him wiping his brow with the back of his hand, the skin shiny with sweat. Cecil confirmed that his own scalp had perspired, despite the sensation of heat not being something he could recall.

“I’ll go and take that shower, I guess,” Cecil murmured.

“I need to see you after, as well. You know where my quarters are? End of the command block, by the catwalk.”

“I know,” Cecil spoke curtly, setting off for the neighboring unit of the station.

The cold water chilled Cecil to the bone. He glanced at the knob to turn it hot, but his hands told him no. The shampoo was fine and slick between his hands. He scrubbed at his face and scalp to bring feeling back to it. The suds washed down his back and dribbled on the floor to be soaked down the drain. By the time the water shut off, Cecil’s skin was covered in goosebumps.

He desired to hear the voice again, the words that were distant and yet so familiar. The cold water of the shower wasn’t enough to bring back the feeling of the words in his ears, in his brain. It was only down there he was able to clearly hear them, besides the pool. He had heard it back then as well, during his first contact with it. The final drops fell loudly from the head of the shower, splashing in the remaining water on the floor as it drained away.

Cecil was dressed properly in the coveralls when he arrived before Agrippa’s door. The cold still clung to him beneath the clothes, but he held his teeth to stop them from rattling. He tempted a knock on the door, the one with the older man’s name tag.

“Cecil, you’re here.” The voice was from behind him. “Good, fast as usual. I guess a quick shower is to be expected from someone with your background, though, huh?”

Agrippa made his way down the hall, and behind him the spindly woman.

“Go ahead inside. Tulia… and I… wish to follow up on your previous evaluation.”

Cecil looked away, his face nearly against the wall. Agrippa leaned past him and tugged on the handle to the private room.

The room illuminated automatically. Inside was a single bed with boxes for storage underneath, a computer terminal on a desk with a chair, and a small rack and shelf for clothes and spare boots. Agrippa leaned in close behind his back as if urging him to enter.

Cecil took a seat on the bed, made nicely but not perfectly. Tulia squeezed in last, and Agrippa closed the door with a click. “Mr. Ruiz, I hope I find you well, especially after enjoying some breathing room. Tell me about the things you’ve experienced. Down in Secundus, specifically.”

The hair stood on Cecil’s neck. “It’s… quiet down there. It’s preferable to this place.”

Agrippa pulled the stool out from under the desk and sat, knees nearly against Cecil’s. “Despite his continued challenges with his memory, especially regarding the machinery assigned to him and his expertise, I can attest that there is a certain calmness about him. But, as I said, there’s more to that. Cecil, let us in on the things you’re not telling us. There is no need to be wary of us or our questions.”

Tulia clicked her tongue. “If I had to guess, it is a result of his prosopagnosia. To trust, he requires a familiarity, but such a thing is not so easily formed in his case.”

Agrippa nodded, eyes traveling back to Cecil. “I see. Do you trust me, Cecil?’

Cecil’s hands grasped the blankets, disturbing their neat tuck along the edge of the mattress. “I don’t know!” he growled suddenly, his voice echoing about the cramped room.

Tulia leaned back and folded her arms. “Trust in our power to help you, then.”

Cecil placed his face in his hand, fingernails dragging across his hairline. “If I could…”

“You would,” Agrippa finished.

Tulia nodded her head thoughtfully. “Let us ask you some simple questions, then. Cecil, Agrippa spoke to me about your lack of sleep. Perhaps it has been sleepwalking, likely restlessness. You find yourself beside the reservoir of water down there. If my original diagnosis of PTSD were correct, I would believe your desire to approach the original source of the trauma would be… uncharacteristic.”

“It’s called to you… before,” Agrippa added.

Cecil’s neck tensed. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The older man shook his head. “It took a hold of you, captivated you. Isn’t that what happened? Markus was there, he can explain the same strange reaction we saw out of you that day. You went to it, as if… in a trance. You weren’t thinking straight, else the thought of removing your helmet never would have come to you.”

Cecil’s lips twitched. “I can’t explain it.”

Agrippa leaned on his knees. “Would it be… something you hear, rather? Something… in your mind, calling out to you?”

Cecil shot up, catching the older man’s narrow glare in his direction. “What—“

“A hallucination, perhaps?” Tulia asked.

“You told me that you weren’t spiritual, Cecil. But the sound of your voice, sucked up into the cracks of the foam, its hard to ignore that. Who— or what— are you speaking to? What do you imagine when you speak those words, late at night when you believe that it’s only you?”

Cecil shook his head. “Nothing that would make sense to you.”

“Help us make sense of it,” Agrippa said sternly.

Tulia held an arm against the older man’s chest. “Hold it, Agrippa. Ruiz, sleeplessness for long periods of time is prone to cause hallucinations like you seem to be experiencing. What about before the expedition, before the accident? How were you sleeping then?”

Cecil folded his arms and shook his head. “This… is real.”

“The danger of hallucinations and the like is that they do seem real.” The spindly woman spoke slowly.

“I know what I’m hearing!” Cecil battered his knees.

Agrippa sat back. “And what exactly is that? A voice? A sound? Some old music?”

Tulia nodded. “Something that seems to pronounce itself down there better, in the deeper silence?”

Cecil nodded, choosing whether to speak or not. “My… mother. I hear her voice.”

Tulia and Agrippa exchanged glances. “Cecil… from what I heard from Markus, you said to him that… you couldn’t recall anything about your mother. Not her voice, and certainly not her face. What makes you believe now that it is… was her?”

Cecil shook his head.

Tulia huffed slowly. “Ruiz, listen to what I’m about to say. Whether you believe so or not, what is going on may be your… grieving for her. You are now going through the process of coming to terms of her… being passed on.”

Cecil breathed in sharply. “No… no, no.” He hissed, his breath heavy. The air exited his lungs, but would not enter. He felt a weight upon his body, pulling him down. Leaning on his knees, it was as if he had been punched in the gut. Agrippa held onto his arm and back.

Tulia leaned forward and felt at Cecil’s wrist, seeking out his racing pulse. Cecil attempted to breathe in once more, but he was met with blackness instead.

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