Whispers of Mars [Chapter 19]
Cecil sat on the edge of the group, upon his cot, while Agrippa and Martinez addressed the others. “… our long-term goal will be to make this station down here as livable conditions not too different from the main complex,” Agrippa explained. “Some of you shall remain here as semi-permanent attendants to the systems that are currently undergoing installation. Systems and Seismography will have to be running here, as well, to determine the impact upon the substrate in this area.”
Martinez nodded. “I will be considering and interviewing some of you for roles in the stations and oversight here. Come to me if you have any desire for such a post.”
Cecil perked up, looking over the gathering of others. His eyes met Agrippa’s, who squinted and seemed to shake his head.
The older man focused again on the others and cleared his throat. “All in good time, of course. Now, once the geothermal system is up and running, our estimation is that it should jump up to optimal efficiency around the three-week mark when the ground has had time to saturate in the supercritical CO2. For record’s sake, I will ask that those carrying out the well-drilling from here on out to keep track of the stone you dig out.”
The Argentinean man nodded. “I will make sure we are held to that, Agrippa. Hansen, stay back. The rest of you continue mounting the system as we have been. We should have an updated work roster put together by tomorrow.”
Cecil stayed in place while the others went off, save the man who Martinez had called on. They danced about the strewn bits of the gearbox that Cecil had left unfinished. There was much nodding and pointing, and a few disguised glanced his way. Cecil eventually laid away on his cot, tuning out the sound of the others speaking indistinctly. He started at his pained, bandaged hands for a moment before settling back.
“Cecil,” Agrippa shifted beside the bed, hands folded together. “I can have you help me.”
Cecil forced himself back up. Hansen had begun gathering up the stray parts and organizing the hardware in a way different than Cecil had done.
Agrippa’s eyes traveled between the both of them. “It will get finished. All things considered, you did a good job with it. Up, now.”
Cecil rubbed at his face with the back of his hand. It was slick with old sweat. His knees ached as he returned to his feet. “What do you want from me?”
Agrippa motioned for him to follow. “I had systems install a radio antenna up on the surface. If it needs some adjustment, I was hoping that you could be the one to help me out,” He paused. “Unless… you’re asking me why I continue to involve myself with you, despite the defensive walls you’ve built up around yourself.”
Cecil held his tongue and continued to follow, watching Agrippa’s back and marching heels. The remaining supplies had been brought down the lift by the others before the meeting. The metal crates and cases had been placed down beside the pool in the main chamber without any thought to where they might go. Agrippa shifted between them to find what he was searching for.
“Here we go,” he said, hefting out a hard-shell case with a handle. He propped it onto the nearest stack of crates and flipped it open. The device inside lit up with the flick of a rocker switch and began to hum. “Let’s see now…”
Cecil stood beside Agrippa and glanced at the piece of equipment. “Markus mentioned… that you thought it was your own fault.”
Agrippa tapped away at the touchscreen, reading the numbers and graphs that shifted about on the readout. He shrugged before answering, “Oh, you’re speaking of before. Is that so? I don’t know if I ever expressed such a thing to Markus. No, I believe what I said was… I feel bad for bringing someone so important on a mission when it could have been anyone else from his department. More so that my decision took that person out of commission for… some time.
I suppose those words could be brought of out context. But do you want to know what led me to make those decisions in the first place? When I went to Martinez to get someone with knowledge on the core drill, in the case something happened, he told me about you— hard working but independent to a fault. He said that you had entranced yourself in the work so much that you were ignoring your well-being. I figured giving you— allowing you a change of scenery would snap you out of it. Instead, I put you in a position where you… you found yourself vulnerable. To… what, I’m still not sure.”
Cecil stepped back silently, shaking his head in thought, and walked to the edge of the pool. He glanced out across its glassy stillness. Before he could speak, the radio crackled with the HF band signaling the connection to the station’s radio systems.
“Command, this is Agrippa, signaling from Secundus station, over”
“We read you, Agrippa, over.”
“Excellent. The transceiver is picking you up loud and clear. Standing by for status updates and orders, over.”
“Current orders are withstanding, Agrippa. We shall contact you again at 0800 tomorrow should they change. Over and out.”
Agrippa stood up, straightening his back. “Wonderful. I know Cassius will like being able to micromanage us some more. Doubt he’ll ever make his way over here, though. Now, as I was saying, Cecil…”
Cecil had dropped to one knee before the pool. He couldn’t tell if it was his eyes playing tricks on him, but he could detect the faintest ripples across its surface. Agrippa approached him and tugged on his shoulder.
“You’re listening to me, I hope?”
Cecil forced himself up, nodding his head. “Yes, but… why do you care, Agrippa? If you don’t consider it your fault?”
Agrippa crossed his arms. “Do you wish to settle the record, here and now? Is that something that has been weighing you down? Wondering if what happened… down here… was an accident? And if someone was at fault?”
Cecil tucked his hands in by his sides. “You… seem to know better than me.”
“Well, that’s the first time you’ve given consideration to my point of view. Let’s say, perhaps, in a certain way, it was my fault… but only from the luck of the draw. If Hanson or someone else came down here with Markus and me, would they have taken notice of the things you did? Would they have taken the same malfunctioning suit? Would you wish your state of being on someone else?”
Cecil shook his head. “No.”
Agrippa hung his head and nodded. He glanced back at the wall, judging a good spot to sit down upon the wavy surface of the foam. He shifted himself down stiffly and motioned for Cecil to sit as well. “Do you need any antiseptic? Pain killers?”
Cecil sat, trying his best to not lean on his bandaged hands. “It’s… not that bad. No. But… I feel as if… I am constantly in pain. My throat, my head, my stomach.”
Agrippa nodded. “I feel the same way, sometimes. Like the planet is fighting back against us being here. But sometimes… pain reminds us that we are human.”
Agrippa shifted his eyes to Cecil. “Do you… still hear that voice?”
“What… would you so if I said… yes?”
“I would believe— and be chuffed— that you are sleeping well, albeit with overactive dreams.”
“It doesn’t come when I’m asleep.”
“When you’re awake? Fully? And can you respond?” The older man filtered the skepticism from his voice.
“Back and forth.”
“Interesting. And on what sort of topics?”
Cecil rolled his head back and forth. “On… the things I remember… my thoughts on things.”
“Hum. I may report to Tulia that good portions of your memories are still there, then.”
Agrippa chuckled lowly. “With no urgency. Sometimes… you have to work through things on your own. Get rest. Distract yourself with other things. Being out of work… maybe… has likely given you plenty of time to reflect on… well, on yourself. Sometimes people can’t stand the silence in their own heads, so they dive into various activities to distract them. Things that they don’t even love, only things to take up time. But… maybe I’m thinking of how things were back on Earth. To be honest, I just want things to be simpler. Do you remember what Markus asked you?”
Cecil shook his head. “When?”
“You said… fresh tortillas. Something you missed back on Earth. For me, it was fresh-baked bread. Sometimes its just the simple things.”
“Everything here is endlessly complex.”
Agrippa nodded enthusiastically. “You understand how I feel, then. There’s another lost ideal, the weekend. Sleeping in. Never paused to really enjoy those things in the past, myself, though.”
Cecil hunched down, bringing his knees to his chest. Far off in the deep reaches of the tunnels was the sound of pounding and whirring tools. Agrippa began to nod off, his arms crossed peacefully across his chest and eyes flickering just slightly.
The feeling of sleep had almost found him as well, but he was suddenly wide awake. Agrippa breathed in long, low breaths. Cecil stood as silently as possible and stared at the pool, then the ladder up.
His hands cried out in pain as he pulled himself up rung after rung, only able to pause at the platform over the water. The light of the day glowed through the airlock doors. As expected, the suit that Agrippa had worn to come there to Secundus was removed and hung up there in the surface structure. Cecil pulled off the grease-ordained coveralls and slipped into the underclothes, followed finally by the environmental suit. Before sealing the helmet around his head, he glanced down the tube in case anyone had noticed him departing.
The change in pressure made his ears pop as he exited the airlock. From the position of the sole structure there up on the side of the crater, he couldn’t see any other sign of life, but he knew that there was something beyond what he knew. The sandy slope that led to the upper ridge of the crater was the correct way to go, even if the climb would be arduous.
The slope climbed up higher over rocky crags and settled drifts of sand. Cecil kept moving, step after step, finding his footing. His knees and arms ached as he tried to keep himself upright, struggling as his feet either sunk into the sand or arched over the uneven stones. It wasn’t long before the surface station of Secundus had disappeared out of sight.
By the time he reached the top of the ridge, his breath was heavy, forming a cloud of condensation on the visor in front of him. The sound of his lungs filling up echoed about in the enclosed space of the suit. The last few long pushes and grasps through the loose material brought him to a stable shelf above most other formations.
The sky was a hazy brown like most other times, growing dimmer little by little. In catching his breath, he attempted to look back at where he had come from, perhaps the station down in the lower reaches of the Antrum crater. Only more of the seemingly repeating landscape could be seen.
His breathing quieted. The only way logical way to continue was forward.
The ridge was narrow, on one side the slope he had mounted, and on the other, a more gentle descent into the adjacent depression. The rock beneath his feet was kind and weathered, at least for the earliest of his strides.
A sole beep sounded out, radiating about his helmet. He ignored the sound, guided only by the rough shifting of sand beneath the thick soles of the suit. The ground evened out, but the shifting silt held to his feet, holding him back.
Each step became more difficult until he was simply dragging his feet through the ever-changing granules. The beep sounded again, sharper and more urgent than the last. Cecil’s knees ached. The beep sounded again. The air in his helmet was becoming more humid.
The glint in the distance caught his eye. It resided in a mound protruding from the otherwise flat landscape. He pushed on, knowing that whatever it was had to be the thing that was calling to him. The beep came once more. In the glare of his helmet visor, he saw the red light flashing upon his wrist. It was the oxygen sensor, yet another thing vying for his attention, signaling that he would soon be out. His legs continued to move, they had to. His brain teased the idea of looking back, imagining, hoping, that he would see Secundus or the main station in his view. No, the only thing that lay before him was the sharp, geometric, purposefully designed debris.
Cecil fell forward onto his knees within reach of it. The old chrome plating of the metal had been worn down and chipped away by countless passing sandstorms. The siding of the structure continued deeper into the sand, something made out of a transparent material.
The beep sounded a third time as Cecil began to push away at the sand around the area, attempting to work his way deeper. It flowed like water back into the depression as he pushed away at it. The clumsy gloves worked to make progress. The beep sounded again, and the light flashed more quickly.
Cecil’s breath rose and fell more quickly as he worked away at the side of the structure. Beyond a handful of the loose material was a handle. Not much further was the bottom of the door, which would open for him and allow him inside. He could reach the base of the structure and prop it open enough to slide inside.
Cecil’s mouth was dry, and he tasted copper. The beep sounded again, then again, countless times after. He kicked away at the sand with the bottoms of his feet, attempting to force enough room beneath him. His fingers tugged at the handle and forced it open, hoping that the fixture would allow him to push more of the loose material back.
Cecil shoved himself inside, scraping the seams of the suit against the weathered edges of the entrance. The old airlock was little more than a double set of doors to prevent the loss of pressure as someone passed through, but it was just enough. Trickles of sand forced themselves in as he pulled the exterior door closed, followed by the interior.
The beep had become a solid tone. Cecil unlatched the helmet and attempted a breath of whatever laid within. The tone was just a low buzz as the speaker departed his ear.