A Touch

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 18]

The section leader had stomped back to check on Cecil and had found him surrounded by the tools and parts, staring at his hands. “What the hell are you thinking? Get up.”

Cecil found that the clenching, even the slightest movement of his hands, made the pain nearly unbearable. Martinez shuffled through the haphazard collection of supplies. “Where is the damn first-aid kit. This place is a mess.”

A tub of water was heated over the electric burner— the same setup for warming their meals— until it was steaming. Martinez offered over the soap from the half-filled bottle of heavy-duty cleaner. “What were you thinking, working so reckless like that?”

The heavy, abrasive foaming liquid stung the cuts, but it also ate away quickly at the embedded grease. Martinez forced his hands down into the heated water and wrenched his fingers around.

“This is going to hurt more and take longer if you dick around,” He huffed, eyes glaring lowly in Cecil’s direction. “I understand your condition, even the trouble you’ve had the past week or so. But I don’t know what’s come over you now, like you’re… just working autopilot, you see, viste? Not a brain in your head.”

As the last bits of grease came off, the blood began to flow, dripping and seeping from the cuts, from under flaps of torn skin, and from the punctures along his wrist.

“Is this why Command wanted me to keep an eye on you? Because you want to give yourself harm?”

Cecil shook his head apathetically. “I just… thought… I wasn’t paying attention.”

Martinez let out a low grumble. “You pay attention to the machines, but not yourself. Do you want to get hurt bad? You were thinking of hurting yourself so bad that you don’t have to work anymore? That you get out of here?”

Cecil tensed up and yanked his arms out of the Hispanic man’s grasp. The water ran down his wrists, stained with the wisps of his own blood trailing in the drops. He held his arms up before his face. “I… want to do my job. Do it well.”

“You’ve always done your job well. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here.”

“I… couldn’t… feel myself… being hurt.”

“You’ve barely even had a scratch on you before,” Martinez shuffled. He sighed and leaned down to find the gauze bandages in the kit. “What are you even thinking about now?”

“I… don’t know.”

The Argentinean man stepped forward and yanked on Cecil’s wrist, pulling him to the nearby arrangement of cots. “Come here, sit,” he said, pulling his hands close enough to begin the first windings of bandages around his hands. “Don’t move. You’re out of commission, at least anything hands-on, viste. I’ll have someone help you later, putting this back together.”

Martinez wrapped the bandages tight, starting from his wrists and around his palms before being tied off. The leader was quiet and attentive while he secured the ends of the bandages and made work with the smaller nicks and cuts on Cecil’s fingers with the more delicate bandages. “We’ll have to get more,” he mumbled under his breath, eyes on his work. “I… never had kids— plenty of nieces and nephews— I imagined having kids would be like this. The nursing part, at least.”

Cecil jerked his hands away, tucking his hands in by his sides. “I don’t need you to baby me, dote on me.” He shook his head defensively.

Martinez sat back, the bandage wrappers on his lap and by his seat. He gathered and crumpled them loudly in one hand and forced himself up. “What do you say— suit yourself?” He growled. “I need to be back at work anyways. Do not touch that device anymore, viste?”

Cecil clenched his fists painfully. The tight gauze dug into his skin. Trails of dried blood ran down into his sleeves and stained his skin, as well as in dark drops across the front of his uniform. He stared down at his hands once more, sore and tingling in some places.

He stood up off the edge of the cot and began to wander the tunnel, resting his weight against the foam wall. The ground rose little by little, the way back up to the surface that he and the other two men had descended long before. He passed the last of the string lights mounted to the ceiling and shuffled into the shadowy lengths of tunnel.

The path ended not much further from there, barricaded purposefully by human materials. The rock had been carved out into a square and plumb opening, then a metal frame installed and sealed, and finally closed off entirely by metal plating, skillfully welded together to be airtight. The OxyFoam clung to the corners and edges of the installation, closing any remaining gaps that might have sabotaged the livable space down there in the tunnels.

Cecil pressed his forehead to the metal plate. It was warm to the touch of his skin, heated by the activity in the surrounding rock. He rested his body against the warmth of the material, breathing slowly while his hands throbbed by his sides.

Back in the direction of the chamber, the light was barely visible around the gentle curing of the tunnel. Cecil sucked in the warm air and returned, holding his hands under his arms.

The parts of the gearbox laid strewn about from his frantic work, seeming to taunt him. He could barely recognize the fittings and bolts and panels and gears then as if they had been grabbed up and replaced by similar but not identical parts that would have never worked in any sort of combination. Despite all his work, it would be someone else’s task to take over, take credit for.

Cecil kicked at the cots and knocked them about, flipping them and their loose bedding over and across the floor. The simple accommodations toppled harmlessly onto the foam-covered ground. Cecil crouched down, falling to his knees and pulling himself against the wall. His head pounded with a sudden pain, but the tight closing of his eyes and the clenching of his injured and bandaged fists was enough to ignore the ache.

The sound of voices awoke Cecil some time later. Someone had sheltered him under a spare blanket in his hunched position there by the wall. The cots had been rearranged back to their original positions as if nothing had happened. The lights were low. The others chatted amongst each other before eventually drifting off to sleep, peacefully unaware of Cecil and his presence.

They spoke of work and others about the station, or what improvements they might make to certain systems, or what they imagined the yields of the improvements might be. It was taboo, Cecil knew, to talk of what they had left behind at home; memories, foods, entertainment, time to themselves… people they thought about. Eventually, the chatter stopped and was replaced by the creaking of shifting bodies and their low, regular breaths and snores.

Cecil stood, taking the blanket with him. The central room was several degrees colder than the tunnel there. By the time Cecil realized where his sore feet were taking him, the glimmer of the lights across the pool had entranced him. He clenched his fists and felt the fresh pain of the wounds attempting to heal themselves beneath the gauze. He suddenly knew he wanted to hear the voice again, regardless of who or what it belonged to.

“Mother?” He spoke, his voice disappearing into the stretches of tunnels.

The voice did not return but instead forced him to wait. He sat, expecting, hoping, that it would respond. He relaxed his hands, having unconsciously wound themselves into a tight grasp, leaving behind only a dull tingling.

I feel you.

Cecil shook his head indignantly, forcing the tiredness out of his eyes. “Do you feel what I feel? The pain? My hands, my body, my head?”

You reawoke to your purpose.

Cecil held his head in his hands, the rough gauze scratching at his skin. “This the cost of being useful, I suppose. We beat ourselves up here, every day.”

You sacrifice.

“It is a sacrifice. We work long hours because, without them, we would have time to contemplate our future here, doing only the same thing over and over without cease. In order to help our fellow humans, we’ve severed ourselves from humanity, and… all the things that make us human.”

I see.

“I can’t help but think… that this place is not meant for us. It never has been.”

The Earth.

“The Earth is perfect for us. It was. It had clean air, perfect for our breathing. Perfect land, for bringing food to us, all of nature working in perfect harmony, with us a part of it. The perfect temperature to keep us and nature alive. We’ve ruined that, us humans. We think we can come here and remake Earth-like snapshots in little domes here. Will we be eventually doomed to do the same here?”

Humans are peculiar.

Cecil sat up, stretching his back painfully. “You say that… like… no, you’re not like us.”

Am I not?

“Are you? You… feel me, but you… are… an enigma. Agrippa asked me… no. So long ago, people used to look up to the sky, see the stars, and imagine that all the little lights were… gods, greater powers. Up there was… heaven, they would say… a place to go after you died. Then humans began to understand that the lights in the night sky were stars, countless spheres like our own sun here, hosting systems of planets. Humans had to wonder… if we were alone in the grand expanse of the galaxy, the universe. Is… that question answered now?”

Is it?

“What are you, then?”

“I can’t help but think… imagine that… you are just my own thoughts, my own perverted mind, just repeating my own thoughts to me.”

Your thoughts are intriguing.

“You say you feel me. Feeling my thoughts. Why me alone? Was it because I discovered you first? Came across you, down here in this place? Because of my falling into this pool here? Did I… awake you? Disturb you? Form some sort of bond with you?”

“Why only me? Why can only you speak to me? Why only when I am alone?”

You are not alone.

Cecil jumped at the sound of the sudden rumbling, far above. When he glanced up, beyond the glow of the string lights, he saw the refraction of daylight descending through the void leading to the surface. Someone was above, entering through the airlock, bringing something with them.

Next came the person, carefully stepping down the ladder one rung at a time, head darting back and forth to judge the next step and their proximity to the scaffolded platform below.

“That isn’t you, Cecil?” It was Agrippa’s voice.

Cecil stood, catching the blanket before it fell to the ground.

“Why are you here?”

Agrippa descended the next ladder, shorter, to meet with the ground. “Please, I know it’s early for you. Let me speak to Martinez first, before he starts handing out orders to the others. Unless they’ve already set off to work?”

Cecil shook his head. “No— what time is it?”

“0930 hours.”

“I don’t know. I’ve… been out here.”

Agrippa rolled his head. “I understand. Hold tight.”

The bald man patted Cecil on the shoulder and continued off down the first tunnel to the sleeping quarters. Cecil followed after from a distance and watched as he pulled the Argentinean man away and engaged him. Slightly down the tunnel from them, he was able to catch the louder parts of their conversation.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Martinez seemed upset.

“I know. But I will stay out of your way. I just need some of your men before systems gets here.”

“You know—“ his voice went lower, glancing about.

“I know. But we’re making good progress.”

Martinez concluded with his arms held high against his chest. “It will have to do.”

Cecil leaned against the wall, attempting to stay out of sight while his boss offered new directions to the others. Agrippa eventually returned, leading two of the others. He jutted a finger up the ladder to direct them but stopped as they went ahead. As their voices trailed off, the older man planted himself before Cecil.

“Let’s see those hands.”

Cecil stared at his feet.

Agrippa sighed. “I’m sorry, that sounded too forceful. How bad is it?”

“How do you know about all that?”

“Martinez sent a message our way yesterday afternoon. After you cut yourself up. I was able to arrange my responsibilities so that I can carry out my duties here, and help to prepare for the next stage of this area’s installations.”


“You know why.” Agrippa crossed his arms.

The compact winch in the structure above began to lower its cargo downwards inside the attached cage. Among the crates were tall, round gas canisters, carefully balanced in the corner.

“There we go. There’s some CO2 to seed the systems down here,” Agrippa explained. “Some more supplies too, including medical supplies.”

Cecil glanced up to the descending platform, making its way to the chamber floor. “I can help. Unloading things.”

Agrippa shook his head and glanced at Cecil’s bandaged and bound hands. “Don’t worry yourself. I’ll be working with Martinez to get a revised duty roster put together. It may slow down the current task, but it will help us out in the long run.”

“The duty roster… you’ll put me on it, right?”

Agrippa shrugged. “I would hope so. But we… should talk first.”

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