Asleep but Awake

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 15]

When Cecil came to, he was in the familiar bed of the medbay once more. The backs of the others were to him. Attempting to sit up, he felt the oxygen tube around his neck and under his nose, and an IV jabbed into his lower arm. He laid back down with a slow huff.

“Awake, now are you?” Tulia glanced back at him.

“Stay put, Cecil, please.” The nurse spoke up next. “All of his vitals are normal.”

Agrippa whispered to the others. “A panic attack, then?”

“Possibly, but the symptoms don’t usually abate this quickly.”

Cecil found his breath and leaned up the best he could. “How… long?”

“Just a couple of minutes, Cecil,” Agrippa answered dismissively, glancing his way.

“Agrippa here says he’s been missing out on sleep. Exhaustion?”

“That’s probably part of his condition, but it’s hard to tell.” Maria shrugged. “Let’s see now.”

“What’s it read?” The spindly woman asked, following the nurse to a testing device on the far counter.

“Blood sugar low. Electrolytes too.”

“You… didn’t eat last night,” Agrippa admitted. “We skipped the breakfast offering down there this morning too.”

“Not something I’d recommend.” Maria sighed. “But at least the IV should be taking care of those. Let’s see… cortisol, adrenaline too.”

“I would expect those.”

Agrippa sauntered back in front of the bed, arms crossed. He looked into Cecil’s eyes, but only for a brief time before turning back. “Cecil. We won’t question you any further, but you also can’t keep secrets like these from us.”

“Speak for yourself, Agrippa,” Tulia spoke up. “I need more answers from Ruiz. Command and the agency won’t let me clear him for work if he remains a danger to himself and others.”

Agrippa shook his head. “I want Cecil to find his sensibilities again too, but is this the way we should go about it?”

Tulia shifted her weight to one foot, her thumb tucked between her teeth in troubled focus. “We may carry out the sleep test. Nurse, can we assume that this will be a suitable place for it?”

The lights were dimmed to prepare for the procedure. The cords draped over Cecil’s body like a spider’s web. The strips of tape held down the sensors that attached to his face and forehead and connected to a hub of other wires. “This one will measure your blood oxygen,” Tulia described, grasping at his finger with a clamp. His finger glowed red with the strange light source inside the device.

The spindly woman stroked the side of his head as if to force it back into the pillow. “All you will need to do is rest, allow yourself to drift off. Don’t think of anything unnecessary. We will be in the hall, watching the monitors.”

Sleep came easily in the past, in any orientation and accommodation. It was a necessity, after training exercises or duty shifts, even after long bouts of studying for exams or putting together classwork. After his awakening there in the medbay— after the accident— sleep did not come easily. He couldn’t help but listen for any little sound or seek out the lights that shimmered or glistened or glowed within his distance. Even the light of the oxygen sensor on his finger was too much. He imagined the others, beyond the noisy door, looking at whatever strange, nonsensical readings the machines produced, confirming impatiently that he was still awake and wasting their time.

Cecil took a deep breath. His eyelids were heavy.


It was his mother’s voice, from a time long previous, back on Earth.


“Cecil, I knew it was in you. That program is meant for you. Take it.”

“Cecil, I want you to follow what you believe is right. I know… I won’t be around for much longer. But everyone has their time. That is no reason for you to give up your dreams.”

“Cecil, you are doing only what you can do.”

“Cecil. Cecil, I am suffocating. You… must come. I need you. Come… help me.”


He tried to breathe. It was his own hand on his throat, stopping him. The door whooshed open. Cecil released his windpipe from his grasp as the others stomped in.

“Cecil, breathe.” Tulia rushed to him, grasping her hands around his wrist. Agrippa was there, too, his face more tired than before.

“I… I’m… fine.”

Both Maria and the male nurse had joined them. Maria shuffled to the storage in search of another package of saline for Cecil’s IV, his arm left bare for the study.

“We’re going to run out if you keep pumping him full of those,” the other nurse chimed in.

“We have plenty, and can make homemade ones in a pinch. That’s what the agency would have us do.”

“As long as you’re the one documenting this over-administration.”

The light was turned brighter before the nurse could pierce his skin once more with the needle. Cecil’s eyes adjusted while Tulia worked at unsticking the sensors from Cecil’s face and legs. “I’m… sorry.”

“What for?” Tulia asked, head tilting.

“Not… being able to sleep.”

Tulia shook her head. “We had you down for… six hours, Ruiz. Agrippa, roll the computer in here, will you?”

“I’ve got it.”

The extra chairs and stools were arranged to look upon the squiggles of readings on the screen that had been captured from Cecil himself. “You entered three stages of REM sleep. Normal for the amount of time you slept… if you were back on Earth.”

“There’s… something different here?” Cecil asked.

“Yes. What I’ve noticed is that others who have had undergone this same test here— people who have been here the longest I’m most interested in— have shorter REM cycles, and fewer overall. Those cycles are where your brain is the most active, and you dream the most.”

“I don’t… understand.”

Tulia shrugged. “Neither do I— why? The days here are a mere 37 minutes longer. We enforce such rigorous sleeping schedules to keep the effects of the un-earthlike timing to a minimum, but at the end of the… day, you might say, our methods are only acting upon hypotheses. Your brain seems to be the exception, though.”

Tulia sat back and adjusted the view of the waveforms. “These ones here are from your brain activity. Here— here— and here— are your REM cycles. Perhaps… why not tell us about your dreams, if you happen to remember any of them.”

Cecil shifted up and nodded. “I… dreamed about my mother.”

Agrippa sat up, his eyes focused. “Your… actual mother, Cecil?”

He nodded. “There was… a time before I left Earth… when… I couldn’t decide whether this was the path for me.”

“You were worried about leaving her behind, I assume?”

“That’s right.”

“But… you came across the answer, evidently,” Agrippa added. “What did it… if you remember?”

“That… was my dream… my mother speaking to me, telling me to accept this mission. I… remember that now.”

Tulia glanced at the computer’s readings for a moment. “Then that was the context of your dreams— some memory… or memories from your past. Have you dreamt anything of that sort before? Before or after the accident?”

Cecil shook his head. “I have… barely slept since then. But just now… I… didn’t believe I was sleeping. I just… felt them, heard them.”

“Interesting. At the very least, the dreams were vivid enough for you to remember them seemingly clearly.”

“The voice…” Agrippa stood and began to pace. “The voice… you think you’re hearing… your mother… is just a dream, then. Even just a half-asleep one. You’re just talking back to it in your sleep.”

“No.” Cecil’s response attracted the eyes of the others. “The words I felt before… waking up. They belonged to her… my mother, but… they weren’t from my memory. It was something else. The thing that has been trying to reach me. The one I have spoken to. I… feel it. As more than a dream.”

Agrippa sighed. “Only down there? Down at Secundus?”

Cecil shook his head. “Here, too. More… distant. There was… something I felt… back in your room… when I couldn’t breathe.”

The bald man snuffled loudly, nodding slowly at Cecil’s words. “Tulia…”

“You are a believer of science, as I am, Agrippa,” Tulia rebutted. “There shouldn’t be talk of things like that.”

“Like what?” Cecil asked.

Agrippa skipped over his words. “Just as you don’t understand the REM troubles of our crew, this is something waiting as well to be understood.”

“What do you mean?”

“Cecil,” the bald man finally answered his plea. “The engineering team was blasting some more space down there. Just about the time you had your attack.”

Cecil closed his eyes and felt at his heart. “I… felt it. Like something tearing at me.”

“That’s confirmation bias.” Tulia clicked her tongue. “You can recognize that too, Agrippa.”

“Cecil,” Agrippa said, ignoring the woman’s words. “What did you last feel? Just before you woke up?”

“It was… calling out to me. It said it was… suffocating. I felt it too.”

Agrippa and Tulia made eye contact. “Just when his oxygen was dipping,” the older man said.

“We don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect. Correlation is not causation either.”

Agrippa shrugged. “Give us your best idea, then, Tulia,” he said hopefully.

The spindly woman leaned to the side, one foot propped sideways with toes against the floor. “It seems to me like a form of maladaptive daydreaming.”

“Daydreaming? Even though his vitals read that he was passing through deep and REM sleep cycles?”

“It is possible.”

Maria spoke up, seated at the edge of her desk further back. “Many patients who have been been in a comatose state for long periods of time experience interruptions in their normal sleep cycle.”

Tulia nodded. “That’s right. What… Ruiz… what you seem to be experiencing right now, Cecil, is a drifting between sleep and waking states, and your brain is having a hard time determining what is reality and what is not.”

“And his dreams?” Agrippa butted in.

“The grief of his mother’s passing is forcing his brain to bring forth old memories, ones he hasn’t thought about for a long time perhaps. Everything else is… psychosomatic.”

“Psychosomatic?” Agrippa fussed.

“Or his body having to deal with the withdrawal symptoms of being off the supplements,” the nurse spoke up.

“Yes, of course.”

Agrippa folded his arms across his chest. “Fine. Cecil, I’m sorry that we’re doing all the talking here. How does all of this talk make you feel?”

Cecil had been listening to the words, but none of them had processed for him. “Tulia… I… trust her.”

“As do I, but I can’t help but wonder if there is something more.”

“He’s only saying that, Ruiz, because the Commander is upset that you’re here again.” Tulia noted, “Martinez, too, made contact back here because he wants you to be working again. Something important needing to be done?’

“I… want to work again. Its my job to be useful.”

Agrippa held firm and shook his head. “They’ve been saying that all you need is to be back on your regiment of sleep and pills, Cecil. But I know that’s not all to getting yourself back to normal.”

“Ruiz’s bill of health is ultimately none of your concern, Agrippa, I must remind you.” Tulia butted in. “I am sticking to my assessment, though. If Martinez is requesting him back, and the commander clears it, he shall be returning to work..”

“I don’t trust him.”

Tulia shuffled about the room with a long sigh. “Look at Ruiz here and say that to his face. In my opinion, he’s been plenty lucid, especially when confronted with the reality of his situation. At the very least, he should be keeping his mind and body active to get a sense of normalcy back.”

Agrippa glanced at Cecil to find his eyes for the brief moment before going back on the defensive. “You’re just doing this to get Cassius off your back.”

Tulia shook her head in wide movements. “I’m not saying to release Ruiz with no strings attached. I will ask Martinez to send me updates on his condition. I have other tasks that need taking care of, that can’t wait any longer. I’m sure you have similar tasks at hand. Help me with this equipment.”

The bundles and long stretches of wires from the sleep test were swept up into the respective piles. Agrippa made several glances at Cecil while the job was underway. Cecil sat up and adjusted his clothes and made an attempt to reach his feet down to the floor. Just before Agrippa finished, he crept up in front of Cecil.

“You’re really okay with this?”

Cecil propped himself up on the edge of the bed. “Okay with the results? Okay with returning to work? Okay with you ceasing to dote on me?”

Agrippa pursed his lips and gave himself distance from Cecil. “I suppose you’re right. I have been doting. But only because I care. I wish you luck with your work down there, Cecil.”

Maria stood as Tulia and Agrippa shuffled out the noisy automatic door with their equipment. Cecil’s eyes followed the leading edge of the door as it closed back down. The nurse’s footsteps dragged across the cold, hard floor of the medbay.

“Without sounding doting—“

Cecil’s eye turned up at her suddenly. “Huh? No, please. If I were to be ordered by anyone, it should be… someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

“Of course. I know you’ve been cooped up in bed plenty today, but I must ask you to stay at least another night here. To make sure your hydration and nutrients come back into balance. That’s the last thing we need to clear you with command. Then I can reach out to systems to have someone bring you back out there tomorrow at the soonest.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

2 thoughts on “Asleep but Awake

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: