Whispers of Mars [Chapter 20]
The air was stale but breathable. The structure was dark, with the only light coming in through the set of doors Cecil had forced his way past. There seemed to be more windows about the edge of the structure, but they had since been buried by the deposition and movement of the planet’s drifts of sand.
Cecil dropped the helmet and worked to shut off the suit’s systems which still buzzed, notifying him of the empty air tank on his back. Dust danced in the light rays from the residual sand on the suit and the disturbed, decaying synthetic material inside the strange structure.
Cecil sat, exhausted, and attempted to force the suit off his lower body. He pulled his arms out and allowed the top half of the shell to hang about his waist. The air inside was cold. His eyes adjusted to the low light.
The shelter was longer than wide and continued off into the darkness for several more meters. The walls were lined with bunks and storage shelves and cabinets and at the center was a pair of long tables mounted to the ground. The ceiling above had been fitted with old lights, able to be depressed for illumination.
With his breath returned to him, Cecil stood, the suit hanging around his hips. He supported himself on the edge of the table and pressed at the first light. It clicked but remained off. With a twist, he separated it from its mount on the plastic shell of the ceiling. The battery compartment had been crusted over with old corrosion, eaten away at the old cells inside. The next light down, however, illuminated with a pale, orange glow.
Cecil took a breath and pulled it off its screws. He shined the beam about, attempting to pick up more clues about the structure.
The cups on the table had been set upside-down on neat paper towels in a rectangular pattern, seven in total. There were bunks in each corner of the structure, two beds per stack, with neatly folded and placed blankets and sheets. All of the cabinets and drawers in between were closed neatly as well. Cecil grabbed at the handles and pulled them out and open on their smooth hinges and rollers.
Inside one were old medical supplies in bottles and boxes and tear-away pouches. Further down, near what would have been used as a galley kitchen, were old foil packets of ready-to-eat meals. Cecil attempted to read the dates on them, but with his blurry vision and the dim light, he couldn’t make them out. He pulled out what he could hold in his free hand and set them across from the cabinet on the table.
The chill caught up to him. He wandered back to the medical supplies and dug through them until he found what he was looking for; a folded packet containing a shiny mylar blanket. He ripped the corner of the package away with his teeth and dug at the sealed sides until it was open. The foil material crinkled as he unfolded it and stretched it over his body.
With the blanket stretched over his shoulders, Cecil sat down at the dining seat and peered at the packets of food. He tore at the top of the nearest one and peered at the contents. Inside was a mix of dried oats and dehydrated fruit, both begging for water. Cecil tossed it down and peered at his hands, the adhesive bandages and gauze coming loose, some still soaking up blood from his wounds.
“What… am I… doing?”
The voice was faint and distant. The light he had removed from the ceiling flickered from its spot on the table, facing up at the ceiling.
Cecil stood and fanned out the light, attempting to look for what he had missed. At the farthest bunk, a pile of something had been splayed out, a sole piece within the collection shimmering back at him.
Cecil dragged the blanket behind him, trying his best to hold onto it and the light. He rounded the end of the table and made his way to the final bunk.
Unlike the others, the bedding had not been made nor straightened. The items propped on top seemed to be of a personal nature rather than anything pertaining to the rest of the supplies there. At the base, a book; hardcover with a detailed scrawling upon its cover, then a cup, made out of what looked to be clay, and finally, a wooden charm on a long necklace of wooden beads. Before Cecil could shuffle through the items, he heard and felt the rumble of something beyond the walls.
Cecil stood and inched forward, holding the light to guide his steps. The sound had ceased. The beams of light from the outside were suddenly interrupted as a figure stepped in front of the door. He held his footing as the first of the lock doors were forced open through the drift of sand. The seal cracked loudly as the suited figure made his way inside.
The face was hidden beyond the visor, but Cecil knew who it was. He stepped up forward, but the suited man grabbed him up by the arm before removing the helmet. Cecil was pushed back forcefully, causing him to drop the light and trip back over the ends of the dangling suit about his waist.
Agrippa yanked the seal of his helmet off and huffed loudly. “Cecil, what the hell is wrong with you?”
Cecil inched back, his legs too weak to pick himself up. “I… I didn’t know…”
Agrippa stomped forward, his face obscured in the darkness. “Didn’t know what? What you were doing? Where you were going? If you were going to find your death out here? I don’t understand what went through your mind, Cecil, but it isn’t the thoughts of a stable person.”
Cecil crept back and shuffled the mylar blanket over himself to hide his face. Agrippa huffed again, catching his breath. He shifted down to his knees, rubbing down his face. A small voice whimpered out from the speaker in his helmet.
The older man held the device up to the side of his face and spoke at the microphone. “Don’t worry. I got him.”
Cecil shook his head in disbelief. “How… did you find me?”
“How?” Agrippa barked. “Your suit transmits an emergency beacon when your air is low. And not just that, we were able to track your footprints through the sand here a good portion of the way.”
He pursed his lips and glanced around the inside of the dim structure, catching his breath. “But to think… you made it all the way out here.”
Cecil peeked up. “I… don’t know… what this place is, but… I felt as if I were meant… to come here.”
Agrippa tossed down the helmet and sat back on his legs. “Welcome to the Adventum crater.”
“Why do I know that name?”
“This installation… this sole, little station is from the Adventum Mission. A little over a decade, now. Our predecessors.”
“Some better than others.” Agrippa shrugged. “Not all of the updates about the mission were heavily televised or mentioned to the public. The launch, the arrival here… but things after that were kept better under wraps. You remember Tulia’s job description?”
“To… check up on us.”
“To follow our psychological profile. To track the effects of our long-term stay here. A task born from circumstances of this first mission.”
“But… these people… came home, did they not?”
Agrippa caught his breath with one last sigh. He stood and looked around, placing his helmet on the table. “Most of them. All… but one. I have it on good authority that one member of this crew of eight… ended up sick, delusional, with some strange affliction, and eventually… disappeared.”
“Took his spacesuit and… headed out the airlock when the others were asleep, I suppose is how it went. He was never heard from again, never found. The agency put the whole thing under wraps and had the others return… never knowing what happened to their fellow crewmate. Quaseem Saïd, I believe his name was.”
Cecil forced himself up. “I believe… his things are back here.”
Agrippa crossed his arms and followed after Cecil to the back of the structure. “Hum. It seems as if they left everything in as neat a condition as if to give him a place to return to. Symbolically, of course.”
Cecil leaned on the bunk, splaying out the things. He felt at the cover of the book, a fine layer of dust upon it. “The Quran,” Agrippa commented, his fingers finding the way to the necklace. “Something here too.”
Cecil shined the light on it. “That say something? Arabic?”
“Yes, if I remember my class in university… allah… yakhudhuk… lilmanzil… May Allah— God— bring you home?”
Cecil sat back and shook his head as Agrippa shifted the necklace around in his hands. “God… you asked me before if I was religious at all.”
“Yes. I forget your answer.”
Cecil shrugged. “Something I care to think I believe, sometimes not.”
“That’s a very non-answer,” the older man said, letting out a sole laugh. “Just like you. It is strange, allowing yourself to come all this way while holding onto your faith. Though, I suppose that is what defines faith.”
“May God bring you home,” Cecil repeated.
“He must have gotten it from someone. A good luck charm,” Agrippa concluded, setting the keepsake down gently.
“It didn’t work,” Cecil said plainly.
“If only you think of it on a physical level. Some would consider… the afterlife, heaven, whatever you want to call it— an eternal home, where you return after your stay on Earth… or elsewhere, in this case.”
A low knock sounded at the door at the opposite end of the structure. Cecil’s head shot back, but Agrippa straightened up without worry. “Oh my, I suppose I left Markus without an update.”
Cecil stared at the floor and felt at the dangling sleeves of his suit. “It’s… just like before. The both of you bringing me back from the edge.”
Agrippa tilted his head but didn’t respond. He shifted back to the table and took up his helmet once again. “I’m here, Markus. Yes, he’s quite right. Somehow. Be ready with the air canister, okay? We shall be right out. Cecil—“
“It is time to go now.”