Whispers of Mars [Chapter 21]
The ride to the neighboring crater and the main station was a long one, silent as well. Cecil could hear the others breathing through the low hum of the radio signals. He couldn’t help but glance back at their trail in the sand, feeling something in his mind unexplainable, like the sound of the strange voice, but finer than a whisper.
Markus interrupted the radio silence as they came into view of the station and its complex of buildings. “Command, come in. This is rover 02, returning to shelter. Over.”
Agrippa sat up and uncrossed his arms before station command could respond. “And we have Ruiz with us. Over.”
“Understood, Rover crew.” The voice was of one of the technicians, but not Cassius. “Airlock is standing by. We desire to have Ruiz at station command as soon as possible. Over and out.”
Cecil hunched down in the seat, his hands held loosely on the bar in front of him. He caught Agrippa’s helmet turning his way. “What’s on your mind going into this?”
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t know.” The older man shook his head. “But I can imagine what Cassius is going to say.”
Markus cleared his throat. “I want to say it won’t be as bad as my tongue-lashing after the accident, but…”
Cecil gripped his hands tight and rattled the gloves back and forth. “Let him say what he wants to.”
Agrippa hummed defeatedly. “Let’s be clear that Cassius has the crew’s best interests in mind and not just senseless punishments.”
Markus slowed the rover and pulled it under the shelter. He was the last to hop out to attach the charging lead from the wall of the structure as Cecil and Agrippa walked to the airlock. After unsuiting inside, Agrippa urged Cecil on ahead to report as ordered.
The entrance to Station Command opened wide enough for the both of them, but Agrippa stayed back. Cassius was leaned back in his chair, eyes facing his monitors and controls. He pushed himself up as the doors shifted open. “Everyone out,” he huffed to the technicians working and watching the readings on the lower level. They shuffled their feet and chairs and removed headphones to file out around Agrippa and Cecil.
The large man shoved the chair about and sat back against the desk. He looked Cecil up and down but refused to speak. Cecil glanced at Agrippa for support, but the older man could only muster a shake of his head in what seemed to be a plea to pay attention.
The long, tense silence was interrupted by the movement of the door behind them. The spindly woman shifted in past Agrippa, who jerked to the side to provide her room. “Forgive my lateness.”
“No,” Cassius spoke up, “It was short notice. Personally, I didn’t think we would see Ruiz here again. At least, in any conscious or breathing form.”
Tulia stepped back to examine Cecil in full form, then leaned in to pull down on his bottom eyelid, then down to his wrist to feel for his pulse. “Are you lucid Mr. Ruiz? Do you know where you are? How you got here?”
Cecil pulled his arm back out of the woman’s grasp. “Perfectly, ma’am,” he said, a knot forming in his chest.
“As he was when we tracked him— found him,” Agrippa spoke up.
Cassius returned to his feet and shifted the chair to the side, showing the images on his middlemost computer screen. “The rover systems tracked you all the way out to the Adventum crater. The fully opposite direction of the compound here from Secundus. Trying to go off and die all alone, Ruiz?”
The hairs on his neck stood up. “No, sir. There was… is something out there.”
“I know what’s out there,” Cassius sneered.
“He had been hiding out in the old station,” Agrippa added.
“And how does one find a place like that on your own? No GPS or maps on you when you snuck out under Agrippa’s nose. It was luck that you ended up there. Unless that voice in your head told you how to get there.”
“Is it your mother’s voice?” Tulia asked. “Like you said before?”
Cecil looked at the floor. “I… just knew. As if… I was guided there.”
Agrippa stepped loudly. “Commander, sir. Surely you’re aware of the situation of Quaseem Saïd, the man who disappeared during the Adventum mission.”
“Of course. Maybe Ruiz here had heard of it too, and was trying to act out a similar drama?”
Agrippa shook his head. “I’m sure he hadn’t… and wasn’t. You know, Said’s personal belongings are still there. As if… because he never left the planet, his things never needed to either. His crewmates were thinking about him.”
“That’s a nice feel-good ending to a tragic story, but let’s focus on Ruiz here.” Cassius tapped his foot. “It seems that our evaluation of Ruiz and his unstable tendencies are not complete.”
“Sir, I believe—“ Agrippa tried to speak.
“Believe what you will, Agrippa, but you’re not the one who has a say in the mental condition of their crew. I placed you down there to watch over him, and report back to myself and Tulia if he displayed any… uncooperative impulses. It unfortunate that that proved too difficult, albeit not entirely because of your own actions. Regardless, Ruiz will now be in our custody.”
Cecil grit his teeth but didn’t respond or dare to look in the direction of any of the others. “Then… what?”
“What to do with you, you mean?” Cassius leaned in, arms crossed. “I intend to hold you here while we figure out what’s making you tick. Agrippa, while your administrative tasks keep you busy down there at Secundus, I’d hope to be able to house Ruiz in your quarters.”
Agrippa nodded. “I have no issue with that.”
Cassius clapped his hands. “Good, then it’s decided. Ruiz, Agrippa here will lead you to gather what you need among your personal items. You shall be confined to those quarters and will have to ask permission to leave to use the facilities when needed. Food will be brought to you, and there will be routine visits to check on your well-being and mental state. Is that understood?”
“You’re excused, then. Tulia, let’s discuss the schedule of when Ruiz should be seen.”
Agrippa walked ahead. Cecil concentrated on the movement of his heels down the dim corridor. “You’re okay with this?” He said in a low voice when they were sufficiently down the hall away from station command.
Agrippa shrugged. “I’ll be down there at Secundus. My quarters would be empty anyway. Some people could consider it a waste.”
Cecil stopped in place. “You know that’s not what I mean,” He said, his voice echoing slightly. Agrippa stopped for a moment only to continue again after a split second.
Cecil followed after the older man around the corner. The door latch clicked under Agrippa’s tug. He waved Cecil in first.
When the door had closed behind them, Agrippa stood in the path and addressed Cecil. “Do you know what’s making you act like this?”
“Not the voice, either. Cecil, you must know that… hearing things is not normal. Listening to them… doing as they say… is not something a stable person would do.”
Cecil sat back on the bed, hands on his legs. “The voice… no, it was just a feeling… but it led me there. To that old place. It… knows things, understands things.”
“It.” Agrippa huffed. “At first it was your mother’s voice, then it’s some omnipotent voice of reason telling you to head off on your own to some far-off place on foot. At what point will it… will you end up doing something that is going to get you really, seriously hurt? Get yourself killed?”
Cecil grasped hard onto the edges of the well-used mattress. “Saïd…”
“What about him?”
“Qaseem Saïd. You said… he disappeared one day.”
“And the very same thing may… no, it almost did happen to you.”
Cecil leaned in, shaking his head as the plot in his mind thickened. “What if… what if he felt… heard the same things that I did. That’s why he went off… disappeared.”
Agrippa sighed and drifted away from the door. He opened the locker beside the bed, pulling down some folded underclothes and an extra uniform. With the clothes folded over his forearm, he squeezed past Cecil and dug through the desk in search of a portable hard drive and a key card. “I need to go. This room is all yours for the time being. I can’t entertain these… fantasies anymore.”
Agrippa planted himself before the door, facing the hall. “You’re free to log into the terminal here. It has access to the local database. You might be able to find out something about the Adventum mission, I don’t know. Seeing as how you have the time, you could even request a download from Earth. You can get old text files of old reports downloaded in a few hours. In the meantime, please cooperate with Tulia… and focus on getting better.”