Whispers of Mars [Chapter 16]
Cecil suited up again to head out across the dusty slopes of the crater. The art of pulling the tight underclothing over one’s body was a series of practiced movements for many of the crew. After a night of restless sleep, broken up by vague and cryptic dreams and followed by a breakfast of reconstituted eggs, Cecil felt strong enough to go through the process himself. He had just pulled the exterior suit off the hook when he heard the voice.
“You’re here early.”
Cecil glanced back at the dark man who had entered into the suit storage with him. “Thank you for taking care of me. Hopefully I haven’t pulled you away from anything important.”
“You can always count on me, Cecil.” The man said. Cecil turned back once more and tried to examine him, blinking his eyes fruitlessly. “I should be used to this by now. It’s Markus.”
Markus was the black man with the southern accent and the gruff reactions, the one who had accompanied him and Agrippa down on the original expedition. “I’m… sorry,” Cecil muttered, shifting his focus away.
The dark man shook his head. “You do you. I can’t blame you for that. I’m actually glad you’re early. More time to get back and have the rover charging back up while there’s still sun.”
Cecil shook the worry from his head and began stepping into the legs of the environmental suit. The zipper slid effortlessly up the front and was sealed up with a thick layer of Velcro on an exterior flap. Finally, the ends of the neck brace snapped together in a perfect ring. By the time he was done, Markus was not far off from completing the same task.
The dark man also took down a helmet before Cecil could, and waved after him. “Ready?”
The airlock was next. Markus waved to another technician who double-checked the sensors nearby. The dark man affixed his own helmet and examined Cecil as he did his own. The first set of doors sealed beyond them.
Markus leaned forward and tugged at the collar of Cecil’s suit and jostled the seal around his neck. Cecil caught a flash of his smiling teeth beyond the reflective surface of the visor. The dark man pulled at his arm next, initiating the radio system inside the helmet.
“Do you copy now, Cecil?”
“Yeah— yes.” He nodded clumsily through the stiff suit.
Markus turned back and flashed a thumbs-up to the technician outside the lock. The cycle completed effortlessly, allowing them to the outside. The sand on the ground that had been deposited by the storm was yet to be blown elsewhere, or cleaned away purposefully by the workers. Their feet pressed into the loose material as they approached the vehicle shelter.
“I’ll be in good spirits once we have that power generation system down there,” Markus commented without warning.
Cecil jumped into the side seat of the rover as Markus started the engine and tapped in a rough set of coordinates to the guidance system. “I… can imagine it will do us a lot of good.”
“You don’t know the beginning of it,” Markus boasted as he began to urge the vehicle forward and up the incline. “The solar array has lost a good deal of its efficiency. I don’t know how much longer they would have been viable. With the geothermal— possibly even pumping that water about to serve as a battery— we can expand a whole lot. If we were to get hit by any more big sandstorms like we just had without the extra power, we may be in trouble.”
Cecil nodded. “There isn’t a sandstorm season here, is there?” he attempted to joke.
“Shucks, I dunno. Remember, I’ve been here as long as you. If there were such a season, Agrippa would be the one to know about it.”
Cecil huffed, loud enough to be picked on over the radio.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Cecil paused. “If there is anything I could do, it’s to keep away from him.”
Markus shook his head the best he could under the helmet. “Come to think of it, this is the first time I’ve seen you without him sticking at your side. It’s no surprise he was getting on your nerves. But I know he means well.”
“Let him put that energy into his work.”
“Cecil…” Markus spoke up, then paused, finding the words. “I don’t know if it was clear to you, but Agrippa… seems to blame himself for the accident down there.”
Cecil looked down at his feet. “Still calling it… an accident.”
“Whatever it was, Agrippa was in charge that day. He blames himself for allowing you to wander off and get yourself hurt.”
“Maybe if I wasn’t being a smart-ass, he would have been less distracted, hah,” the driver joked. “Listen, I don’t know why he decided to lean into you, but I know he meant well.”
Cecil went quiet. He found peace in watching the crags pass by and the rim of the crater seem to loom over them as they ascended the slope. The navigation panel of the rover blinked as they approached the destination. Markus fiddled with the controls and darkened the sensor screen as the meager structure above the cave system came into view.
“Here we are, Secundus. Though, you’ve seen it before, haven’t you? Maybe you’ll see me again when you guys next need your loads of supplies.”
“Maybe,” Cecil hummed, preparing for the rover to stop.
“One last thing,” Markus said, creeping to a halt. “At risk of sounding like the old man… keep a hold of yourself.”
After disrobing and storing the environment suit at the top level, Cecil descended, listening for the sounds of anyone else. The lights were illuminated the way he remembered, and any sound he made was soaked up by the dense, hardened foam deposited in irregular layers. “Martinez?” Cecil called out. His voice disappeared into the tunnel systems which led into darkness.
Cecil glared at the pool just beyond the platform and its ladders. The glassy sheen was there as always, reflecting the lights above. Also in its reflection was his form, dressed in the tight underclothing remaining on him. He couldn’t tell if it were the distortion of reflection, but his body seemed to be more fine and bony than he remembered.
The hair stood on his neck. He jerked his head up and looked for the source of the voice. One inhabitant of the tunnels was making his way through the main chamber, passing from one area to another.
Cecil nodded. “I was able to make the arrangements.”
The man nodded slowly, eyes seeming to judge him. “And the old guy from geo?”
Cecil shook his head. “He didn’t need to come this time.”
“Ah… At least Martinez will be happy to see you back. You should check in with him,” the man said, jutting his head in the direction of the deeper tunnel.
The tubes for transporting the Oxy Foam still ran down the path, silent and still on their hooks that hung them above the pathway. Bits of old component had dried within them, weighing down the sections and causing them to sag in their long, corrugated sections.
There was a mumbling and huffing of workers deeper inside. The additional work lights made the tunnels glow in a blinding paleness. Some sections of the wall had been outfitted with pipes and valves and dials and mounting plates to hold them down and parallel to one another.
Cecil eventually reached the congregation of workers, about six men. The section in which they were working was surrounded by bare rock, seeming to be roughly carved out of the side of the tunnel. The work was at a pause, and his arrival there was immediately apparent to all of them.
“Ruiz—“ The division lead spoke up to him first. “Strangely good timing.” Martinez separated himself from the group, glancing back at the others. “Give us five minutes.”
Cecil studied the Argentinean man’s face. “I’m reporting for duty, sir.”
“Walk with me,” Martinez took Cecil by the shoulder and turned him back to begin down the tunnel. “I’m glad you’re feeling better. Agrippa is somewhere?”
Cecil shook his head. “No. He had… other duties. He isn’t needed here, anyways.”
“Yes, that’s right. You’re a capable person, Ruiz. No sense in having someone to babysit you. That Tulia woman got a message to me through command, though. She said they wanted me to keep an eye on you. Obviously, I can’t do that, viste. But I know you will stick to your work, yes?”
Cecil stopped in place, just before entering the main chamber. “I want to put my all into it. But…”
Martinez rolled his head. “But, it seems you made no progress on it before. You were taken away from it for a long time— maybe you forgot?”
“Forgot…” Cecil repeated.
Martinez stepped out in front of Cecil. “Its completion has been your duty alone from the beginning. But I am not afraid to pass it off to someone else. I need progress on it, viste. Else… we’re close to hitting a bottleneck on our work. I’m sure you understand where we stand energy-wise?”
Martinez patted Cecil heavily on the shoulder. “The necessary tools are all up that way, same as you left them. And maybe change into the proper uniform. Systems would be upset if you ruined the underdressings. Look around some of the bigger crates, we likely have one your size.”
The man from earlier made his way their direction, nodding to Martinez. “Kobe, all set?”
“Good. Ruiz, I wish you luck.”
After changing and carefully hanging up the under-clothes in the corner with the others, Cecil planted himself before the gearbox. It was draped in a stained work cloth, but its form was clear. Cecil felt his hands across the rough material and caressed the edges of the machine below. Finding the hem of the material, he pulled the covering away, revealing the still unfinished mechanism with the removed housing panels left in the same place Cecil had set them before.
In the cold, polished metal of the housing, he could see his own blurry reflection, gnarled by the swirling of the polished finish under the pale string lights ahead. Cecil closed his eyes.
He remembered the aftermath of the injury, the one suffered way back when he was just a child. His father had been drinking that night. His mother was complaining about that fact. Cecil was never able to escape back then, stuck in the cramped little apartment that only had enough room for the three of them to squeeze into. The voices got heated that night, much like many other nights, but the brown, foamy bottles ran low quicker than normal. The last of which ended up making contact with the back of Cecil’s head.
Cecil stayed conscious, feeling the throbbing and cold blood at the back of his head. The clinic doctor’s face was blurry, but Cecil could only focus on the pain at the back of his head. Then came the piercing strain of the stitches pulling at the edges of his scalp.
His father didn’t yell anymore that night. The next day, his classmates asked about the bandages around his head openly. The teacher asked about them in private. Cecil hadn’t been able to answer, as the faceless woman stared him down, hoping to seek out the answer that wouldn’t come.
Late at night when his father came home — face equally distorted— Cecil wouldn’t… or couldn’t… answer when asked about his day at school. Over the next few days the same pattern of question and answer played out, his father growing more upset each time, more distorted and distant each time. Eventually, his father stopped asking, then stopped coming home altogether. Just like Cecil, his mother was also void of answers.
His mother’s face was never as blurry, distorted as anyone else’s, even when she began to come home in the evening after working late into the evenings.
Cecil remembered suddenly his mother’s face. She had olive skin, dark hair with a slight wave, brown eyes, thin lips, crooked and ground-down teeth, and an old straight scar beside her left eye. It was not far from his own visage he caught in certain reflections.
Cecil had been in the same spot for so long that the foam underneath him had been matted slightly. He held the reflective piece of detached housing in his hands, the image of himself still shining back at him. He heard the voices, loud at first, then quieting as they came within sight range.
He hasn’t touched it.
If he doesn’t get on that, I’ll work on it myself.
Let him take his time.
Is he alright?
I’m too tired to worry about it.
What has he been doing here all this time?
Cecil glanced back and met eyes with the others. Their mouths were shut, nodding at him as they passed.
Martinez waddled his way. “Ruiz, let’s call it a day. Tomorrow we’ll have a huddle before we get to work. Maybe switch around the task list a bit. Come and pick out a ration before all the good ones get snatched up.”
The others joked openly about the food. “Why not just open all the crates? Nobody likes the vomlet anyways.”
Martinez returned back among the others. “Gotta finish one before opening the others, that’s regulation, viste. No waste. Ro-Sham-Bo for it again.”