Whispers of Mars [Chapter 17]
Cecil managed to put down the entire pack of the ready-to-eat meal, once again something not quite describable. The text on the packet was too illegible with its age and the low light. He sat back on the cot, stomach full, while the others chattered.
Their words seemed to tiptoe, avoiding speaking to or of him and his task, afraid to provoke something they couldn’t decide on. He continued to listen while their own fatigue took over. When the lights dimmed, Cecil hoped to find nothing but sleep.
He turned over, seeking out the voice. It was as if no time had passed, but the others had already fallen into deep sleeps, breaths regular and arms crossed over their chests.
He breathed in slowly, then sat himself up stiffly. The springs of the cot creaked in low complaints, but not enough to wake the others from their exhausted slumber. Sweat had gathered all around his neckline. A slight tug to the zipper on his suit allowed in the slightly cooler air as it wafted down the tunnel toward the sleeping area.
The pool glimmered in the glow of the string lights. Cecil chose to sit, facing the glassy surface.
I feel you
“I… feel you too. I mean, I hear you. But I know… I’m certain that I’m awake right now, that this is not a dream.”
You have many thoughts, Cecil Ruiz.
The others have many thoughts as well.
“Is that… what I heard, then?”
The others are different, though. You are the only one I feel.
“What do I call you?”
A word you said before.
A memory you have of the word.
“Your… voice is hers.”
Your memories are full of the sound of my voice.
“Her voice. You’re wrong, it’s her voice. But you’re not her.”
You feel what I feel.
You feel the constriction, the disturbance, the upheavals, the trembling, the violation of this ground.
“I do, but I don’t understand it. What sort of thing are you?”
Tell me of Earth
“Do you know Earth?”
It is within your thoughts.
“I… suppose Earth is where… I may have returned to, if… they… had their way. But… no… there is no way back. Not for me.”
There is no way back. Why do you want to go back.
“I… I can no longer perform the tasks that I was sent here to do. If I don’t pull my weight, then there’s no sense in me being here. But… sending me back would be an even bigger burden.”
What is back there, Earth.
“Earth… does not have the means to support us anymore.”
Does it not.
“Its hospitality will have run out before the end of my lifespan. Us humans have run amok across it for too long, treated it too poorly. There are places inhospitable, some because of the heat, or too little water, or some places under it.”
And you are here.
“We are… supposed to make this place into a new home. But we are just at the beginning. So much lays before us. We are… attempting to build something from nothing. We are supposed to lead humanity into the future. But… if I cannot do the tasks that are suspected of me… It’s as if… I am holding everyone back. Everyone here, and everyone at home.”
The people at home.
“My only connection back to Earth is gone.”
“You are not her. What are you?”
What do you want me to be.
“You’re not real.”
You feel me. I feel you.
I feel everything that you are, everything inside of you.
Cecil Ruiz. I pity you.
Its voice changed, or perhaps it had always been that way, without making itself able to be noticed. Cecil’s chest raised and fell, over and over, expelling any gulps of air he attempted to take in. His head lifted off his shoulders. His back was weak. It was suddenly distant, its voice too distant to hear.
He attempted to listen for it, to stand and find the location from which it emanated, but his legs suddenly turned to jelly. He felt the same sensation of falling that had originally nearly taken him away.
Cecil toppled forward, making contact with the glassy surface, the glimmering, reflective cool surface. Instead of air expanding his lungs, it was the liquid. He thrashed, unable to find any surface within his reach. He couldn’t utter a word, let alone scream for help. The thrashing for water hardly made a sound either.
The light shined down on him from above. It was distorted, the same if he were looking down upon it and its reflection from the surface. The coldness of the water stole the heat from his body. The light grew more distant, and his arms ceased their attempts to find the edge of the ground. He relaxed his muscles and let the darkness overcome him.
Cecil’s next breath was ripe with the cloudy smell of the Oxy Foam, its acidic odor sticking to the back of his throat. His body had given up all of its strength, leaving him there at the edge of the pool. The string lights were blurry and eventually disappeared beyond his eyelids.
He was being shaken awake. The lights remained to illuminate the chamber. Martinez was knelt beside him, his hand shaking at Cecil’s shoulder.
“Sleeping out here on the ground is no good, viste. You should drag a cot out here, at least.”
Cecil sat up. His body and clothes were completely dry, save for the sweat along his neck and down around his collar.
“Hey, are you listening? Maybe you slept-walked? I know it gets hot in the tunnel there. You a warm sleeper?”
Cecil held his face in his hands. “I… I’m sorry.”
“No, no.” Martinez shrugged and sat back beside Cecil. “What are you apologizing for? The only thing I want from you is your good work. Are you ready to get on it today?”
“Get on… the gearbox.”
Martinez pushed himself to his feet and offered a hand down to Cecil. “Si. We are eating up now before the shift starts. Doesn’t matter if you want to talk and eat with us, I know you. But I figured command would like to see you following the proper schedule.”
Cecil took the Argentinean man’s hand and returned to his feet. He glanced back at the pool, placid and still like many other times. “I… thank you for your consideration.”
Martinez wiped his hand on the sides of his work clothes and shrugged. “Don’t mention it. I know it’s in you, Ruiz, to get that part up to spec.”
After the others had finished eating and relieving themselves and chatting amongst each other, they followed Martinez back to the worksite in the other tunnel. Some carried their tools with them, or sections of pipe, or baskets of valves and fittings. Once they were all gone, Cecil faced the gearbox once more.
His hands grasped at the cool metal of the tools and their worn-down and well-used grips, sitting in a neat row in the roll-up carrier. The bearings that held the gear shaft were mounted to the machine frame from underneath, by a pair of bolts that were screwed in from the bottom side. Cecil stood and looked for anything to lift the weight of the device.
The pallet jack and its hydraulic lift point far at the edge of the collection of building materials and supplies would do. The device was able to heft up the section of the machine enough to get underneath. Getting the bottom section of panel off was likely a two-man job, but Cecil recognized he didn’t have such a luxury. The jack would have to do as the second set of hands.
With the great weight lifted, Cecil used the emptied nearby crates to create a safety cushion in the case of the lift failing. With those secure, he laid back and shifted himself underneath, the proper tools resting on his chest.
With all eight of the fasteners loosened, Cecil gave the panel a shove and allowed it to fall. The breath exited his body as its weight landed and pressed against his chest. With what remained of his strength, he shifted it off to the side, allowing him access to the entirety of the gear shaft underneath. The mounts holding the shaft and its bearing in place were visible and workable.
The feeling of the metal against Cecil’s fingers was refreshing. The hard edges were sufficiently rough but free of the burrs and tool marks that would have been the sign of poor workmanship. The blue residue of rubbery thread-locking fluid held the hardware in place, but not against the shifting and cranking of his tools.
When the engine on the Havasu, the patrol ship back on Earth, had made a sound akin to the cracking of a piston arm and killing their power, it was Cecil who had been given priority access to the job. Under the cylinder cover of the one side of the engine was the culprit, the part somewhere in the range of thirty pounds, sheared in half as assumed. Cecil had needed to fit himself nearly inside the crankcase to replace it, but the ship was only out of commission for a single day.
After working his way through the maze of steps, the gear shaft came free from the casing and was dragged out, held across Cecil’s shoulder. The improper fitting was the third gear along the shaft. The gear puller was nowhere to be found, and the proper tool for something of that size and weight was certainly back at the main station, but the replacement part located down there meant that they expected him to complete the job onsite.
The gears were coated in a thick, viscous grease, meant to meet the extreme temperature demands of the task down there. He began to scrape down what bits he could, freeing the necessary parts from their slippery prison. The excess lubrication found itself along the edges of yet another spare crate. With the parts clean enough to be handled, Cecil took to it with the rubber mallet and began to remove the first sets of gears keeping the desired one captive. The sweat gathered on Cecil’s brow as he worked away, hands growing more tired and slippery as the work dragged on.
It was finally time for the proper part to be fitted. It gleamed with unblemished masterwork, but it was destined to be dirtied and put to its long-awaited duty. Placing it on the gear shaft was as tough as unseating the others, but when it was done, it would be there for years, decades perhaps. It, the whole system, was the first step towards a permanent installation down there, and perhaps on the whole planet itself.
His eyes darted up, passing the discarded tarp, the fold of tools, and the magnetic tray of parts. One of the other workers was standing in the tunnel, just beside the collection of beds.
“Yes?” He asked, taken aback.
“You know your face is bleeding?”
Cecil brought his hand to his face, dragging across the spot he had assumed was sweat. The grease was stained with both dried and fresh blood. His wrists, fingers, too were coated in the grease but also wracked with fresh cuts, some bleeding while others had been inundated with the thick lubrication.
Cecil glanced back at the parts, half unassembled. The edges of the panels and the teeth of the gears, while finely machined and finished, were still both sharp and heavy. His breath was heavy, arms weak, and face cold. The legs of his coveralls were stained as well, scuffed with grease and his own blood.
“Cecil, were you not paying attention? I should call someone,” the man said, turning back. “Martinez!”