Whispers of Mars [Chapter 25]
The following days, the medbay was manned by both the doctor and the male nurse. Their proportions were slightly different from one another but were close enough in height for Cecil to lose the ability to tell them apart. He was attended to by them throughout the next several days but often without more than the fewest words necessary. They rarely spoke out loud in his presence, except for the short times when their shifts overlapped and the chatted mindlessly about the ongoing experiments, or the gossip of the station, or what the cafeteria was serving.
The low din of the station’s systems was all that Cecil’s mind could deal with, despite trying his best to ignore it and allow it to fade into the background like how it had existed in the past. He wanted to be elsewhere. Down there… it was quiet.
But not for long. He knew that sooner than later the geothermal systems would begin running, pressurizing and extruding the supercritical carbon dioxide, allowing it to be brought back to its gaseous state by the heat of the ground beneath Secundus. The turbine and its gearing mechanisms would begin to spin as the extruded gas flowed freely out of the pump head and collected once more to start the cycle anew.
Cecil’s hands still ached from the work he had put into those mechanisms. His hands were hard to lift up before his face, but even when he did, they were too blurry to make out the mostly healed wounds, the old cuts along his fingers and palms and wrists.
When his mind had finally exhausted itself, only then was he able to like Maria had asked. In his half-asleep state, forced upon him by the bright lights, he managed to pick up the chatter of voices held beyond the medbay door.
“He hasn’t moved at all. No strange attacks, either.”
“Perhaps his brain is sorting itself out, bit by bit,” Tulia spoke lowly. “When he’s lucid enough, give him the appropriate dose of supplements. Getting his physical condition back to normal is our number one priority.”
Cecil scanned the walls of the medbay, where there were tall cabinets and shelves and racks of medical supplies. He felt as if half of the entire selection of the pills and tablets had been administered to him some time or another. When the door whooshed and the male nurse returned inside, he feigned sleep once more until the real thing caught up with him.
Cecil, hear me.
This… is it.
Send… me home.
There was a sudden detachment, from the sounds, the sensations, the thing that had been pulling on his mind. There was but blackness and void, and without warning, it was yanked out of him, or perhaps, him out of it.
“Cecil, wake up please.” Maria’s hands were gently upon his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, there’s nothing of concern. This isn’t about you. But something’s come up.”
Cecil forced his eyes open, shielding his face with his hand from the bright glow of the lights above. “Is… everyone okay?”
Maria let out a low sigh. “I… suppose so, but… we may need use of the medbay here. For other purposes.”
Cecil forced himself up. His back ached from having laid back in the same spot for multiple days. “Nobody is hurt?”
“That’s… not what it seems to be. But we’ve heard back from Agrippa. He’s found something.”
It was silent there. Rather, the sounds of the station’s mechanisms, and the creaking of the bed, and Maria’s gentle breaths, and even the beat of his own heart were present and somehow calming, ordinary. “What does that mean? Where? What sort of thing?”
“I don’t have the details, Cecil. But command has been contacted, and they had the doctor bring some supplies over.”
Cecil felt a shiver run up his back, followed by the crawling of goosebumps across his skin. “I know… what it is.”
The nurse shook her head. “No, I highly doubt that. But I’m sure we’ll all find out soon enough.”
Cecil forced his legs around and began to prop himself at the edge of the bed. The nurse hurried around to meet him as his knees locked and wobbled back and forth. “Let me talk to Agrippa.”
“I don’t think that’s possible at the moment. Cecil, you don’t have to leave just yet.”
Cecil breathed heavily and leaned back onto the bed’s railing. “I know… what they found.”
Maria leaned close into him, holding him up with arms wrapped around his back. In the cold room, Cecil could feel the heat of her body. “Don’t go down this path. Breathe.”
Cecil allowed his arms to relax around Maria’s shoulders as his chest settled. “I’m… sorry.”
“Don’t be. Can you stand now?”
Cecil pulled his arms away and straightened his back. Maria’s dark hair and warmth pulled away from him. He attempted to look into her face. Through the blur of his eyes, he could detect a hopeful smile.
“Good, there you go,” she spoke up, stepping back. Her eyes danced around his face, and her palm reached up to feel at his cheek. “I imagine you want to be presentable when Agrippa comes back? I’ll unlock the latrines in this area here so you can get a shave and a shower in.”
Cecil felt the warmth of the fresh uniform on his body. The mirror was foggy from the condensation and blurry from the distortion of his eyes, but he managed to catch a glimpse of what seemed like himself.
His stomach was empty and legs still weak, but he couldn’t think of anything besides the discovery that Agrippa had come across down there in Secundus.
Send… me home.
Cecil marched along the catwalk from the command block to the central block where the main airlocks were located. He passed a few others on the way, some of which made double-takes at him, but he couldn’t pause to interact with them.
The wide windows of the central block gazed out upon the Martian landscape. The slope of the crater climbed up into the hazy daylight. A long tube of flexible material ran down the slope from the secondary station and to the systems there, something that had only been installed recently.
“Cecil, is that you?”
Cecil turned back to glance at the dark man. “Markus?”
“I… didn’t expect to see you out here,” he said, rubbing at the back of his head.
“What’s going on?”
“I guess if there was anything to get you out of your funk, it would be some strange news like this,” The dark man shrugged. “You heard, then, about what they found at the bottom of the pool?”
“I… feel like I should know.”
Markus shook his head. “We lent the teams up there sonar equipment to scan the reservoir. To calculate the volume of water that it may have contained. The 3D map they generated showed… something that looked like the shape of a person… an EV suit. But… everyone here is accounted for. Strange, doesn’t it sound?”
“No?” Markus huffed and chuckled. “You’re a funnier guy than I thought.”
“What are they doing now?” Cecil asked without pause.
“Up there, you mean? Hell if I know. But we have accepted a bunch of water into the stores. They ran the lines just a day ago, too. You can see it there. I have to assume they’ve been pumping it up to drain that pool of yours. Maybe to find out if what they found down there is… just some weird shadow or not. One of the guys just drove the doctor up there, actually. He had some strange pack with him, didn’t have the mind to inquire about it.”
Cecil felt the cold air of the central area enter his lungs. He shifted himself down, eyes locked to the view out the tall windows.
“Cecil?” Markus asked cautiously.
“I can… no,” He paused, shaking his head. “Agrippa is still out there?”
“Haven’t seen him back, so I have to assume so.”
Cecil nodded. “He will be back.”
The haze over the dull landscape slowly shifted. Even after Markus went back off to his work, Cecil stayed in place, anticipating the eventual return of the news, among other things.
The heavy rover began to crawl down the slope from Secundus and into the view of the station’s windows. It was a longer vehicle with a covered cargo area for carrying more weight or personnel, including the likes of the machines that Cecil had worked with for so long. What it carried for them, that day, was something different.
The driver maneuvered the cargo compartment of the vehicle to face the airlock outside of the main structure. Cecil caught sight of a long black package lying in the back. A couple of suited men stepped down from the back of the vehicle and went through the airlock first.
Cecil awaited them as they stepped through, holding out his hand as they removed their helmets. The first face he didn’t recognize, but the second man spoke his name as the helmet came off his head. “Cecil?” The pleasant but wary English accent entered his ears.
“Don’t worry, Augustus,” the doctor spoke up, removing the rest of his own environmental suit. “Maria has been observing him. He’s well enough to be… excluded from the medbay. We’ll need the space anyway. Speaking of which, allow me to go ahead and get the set-up process started.”
Agrippa nodded but kept his eyes on Cecil. “Go ahead, doctor.”
Cecil hung up the two helmets in the storage room off to the side of the airlock while Agrippa finished disrobing.
“You ended up in the medbay again?” The older man asked seriously.
“It’s none of your business.”
“You’re right… for once. Cassius would throw a fit if he knew I was attempting to keep tabs on you still, while my responsibilities have been adapted so far.”
Cecil held his breath as Agrippa hung up the suit beside him. “You never had to keep tabs on me in the first place.”
Agrippa huffed loudly and tugged on Cecil’s arm. “You’re absolutely right. But if not me, then who? …No, someone would have stepped up. Perhaps it is my controlling nature. But please… tell me… have you been communicating with Tulia? Working with her?”
Cecil shook his head. “She doesn’t understand.”
“She would be the one to understand the best.”
Cecil wandered back out of the storage room and fixed himself by the tall windows once more, gazing out to the side of the rover. Agrippa followed, standing behind him in silence. “I know what you’ve brought.”
The other workers from Secundus were beginning to unload the black vinyl cargo from the rear of the vehicle, transporting it among the three of them on a rigid plank. Squeezing in the best they could, they managed to fit beyond the closing outer doors of the airlock.
Agrippa crossed his arms and watched as the air cycled. “I suppose I did tell you to do your research on the Adventum mission. To be honest, I’m both intrigued and frightened to find out what remains in there.”
“It’s… the key to… understanding what’s wrong with me.”
“That is?” Agrippa said skeptically, holding his nose as the interior doors opened for the crew. “We’ll have to see then.”
The workers remained in their suits as they walked through the corridors and catwalks of the station, destined for the medbay. A heavy, earthy smell worked its way through the air as Cecil and Agrippa trailed behind them.
The pneumatic door of the medbay opened for the workers, causing the long sheets of clear vinyl strung from the ceiling to flutter about. Most of the furniture and fixtures had been pushed or folded back against the walls of the room, leaving only a solid folding table at the center. The doctor and nurses had dressed themselves in rubbery layers of clothing across the entirety of their bodies, including masks that covered their faces. A wide fan had been mounted from the ceiling, hanging down over the work environment, and funneling the air up to the ventilation port in the ceiling.
“Get him down. Right here.”
The workers passed the vinyl sheathes and settled the cargo down before relaxing and removing their helmets. The first breaths of the outside air caught up with them, and they quickly retreated back through the door.
The dark payload was just visible through the milky plastic. Agrippa and Cecil stayed put, watching as the nurses moved the table about to best get around it.
“Gentlemen,” the doctor spoke up in a muffled tone through his mask. “Decide if you’re going to be in or out, but this room must stay sealed until we’re done… for the sake of the rest of the station.”
“The sickness… wouldn’t be airborne, would it?” Cecil postured.
“Sickness?” The doctor returned. “No, but the smell, I imagine will not be pleasant, if this is what we imagine it to be.”
Agrippa shook his head and glanced at Cecil. “I, too, must say that I am curious. Continue, doctor. We will remain.”
The body bag zipper was undone with a swift movement. The vague figure of an old space suit, something of blocky and clumsy construction, was beneath, plastered and stained by layers of sticky sediment and mud. The earthy odor spread across the room. Agrippa breathed in deep and out.
The sink in the room had been fitted with a hose and a sprayer head. The doctor carefully allowed the water to flow in glimmering streams, slowly eroding away at the caked mud that still clung to the suit.
Agrippa held at his mouth. “We found him like that,” he said lowly, enough for Cecil to hear. “Stuck, seeming to rest partially in the muck at the bottom of that reservoir. My best guess is that it was actually an old volcanic vent, all the way down, that eventually got sealed off, at least most of the way. The old opening in the ceiling allowed silt and sand from up above to erode its way on down, as well as condensation to build up there over time and gather in that pool.”
“And… him?” Cecil asked, diverting his attention from the recovery for only a brief moment.
“If… he is who we think he is, it must be that… he just joined with the moving sands, and eventually came to rest down there.”
The splashing of the washing water prickled at the plastic sheets guarding the rest of the medbay. The dirty liquid flowing off from the suit rounded the floor before eventually running down the undersized drain. Little by little, the original pale white of the suit began to come through. The flaps of the rubberized body bag came down, allowing access to the sides and the back of the mysterious suited figure.
The visor of the wide, domed helmet shined with drops of water, but beyond the once clear material was nothing but darkness, despite the bright lights above.
The doctor stepped back and shut the water off. He glanced the suit up and down, looking for how it was sealed and secured closed. “I imagine the zipper will be inoperable. Nurse… the large scalpel, please? Perhaps the shears, too. Gentlemen, this may be the time to hold your noses.”
Cecil took one last breath and held it. His heart beat fast, and a certain pain entered his mind. The doctor took the long, shining blade and began to carve through the old layers of suit, the thick fibers fraying and splitting with a low clicking noise. The blade was operated with long sweeps in the skilled grasp as the difficult layers were pierced.
A rancid smell entered the air. The doctor’s actions slowed, and the nurses began to pry at the cut edges with forceps to open up the gap wider. They stepped in front of the body, blocking view from the doorway where Agrippa and Cecil were standing.
“Decomp is… incomplete.” The doctor mumbled. “The suit remained sealed all this time, all the oxygen depleted. Anaerobic…”
Agrippa pulled the underclothes up over his nose. Cecil shifted himself around for a better look, but the nurses and doctor blocked his vision of the body.
“Nurse, do you have the records?”
“Right here, sir,” Maria answered, shifting back for a laminated document.
“Paul, help me with the helmet. There it goes. We just need it off slightly. Maria, while I have the jaw opened, please.”
“Got it, sir. Yes, I have a clear view. I see. These sets of fillings and the crown are the same.”
“Okay, then. Release. Let’s get off the rest of the suit, piece by piece, and get him to the morgue before the decomp starts to get back to action.”
Agrippa sucked in a long breath before turning back and exiting the door. Cecil followed after, nearly bumping into the spindly woman just beyond. She engaged the door to close back down.
“Ugh, what a putrid smell.” She huffed, her hand to her face and leaning away. The doctor’s voices could be heard out in the hall from the speaker system. Cecil glanced up away from Tulia, where the commander was leaned against the wall.
“The doctor gave you instructions to remain there with the door closed,” Cassius grumbled.
“I’m sorry, I… just couldn’t take it,” Agrippa huffed.
“Guess you couldn’t help it. It could have been worse had the man turned to soup in there. The testament of American engineering in those old suits.”
Agrippa suffered through one more long breath through his nose to clear his lungs and mind. “At… long last, we solve the mystery of the thought to be forgotten Quaseem Saïd of Mars.”
Tulia shifted back and forth and nodded. “The only question is… what’s next? Commander?”
“For the poor sap in there?” The big man shrugged. “The unmanned capsule to send back samples to the agency is only a few months out. Obviously, the body should be returned to his family… finally. The only problem is finding room on the craft.”
Agrippa nodded his head and shrugged. “My department can cut down on the samples we send back. It should be plenty of room.” The older man’s eyes found his way to Cecil, who had been holding an unending stare to the ground between them. “Cecil, was this as you thought it was going to be?”
Cecil shook his head. “Tulia, will you listen to me now?”
“Listen to you about what?” The spindly woman sneered, “You managed to unlock the mystery before anyone else, if only by chance. I’ll give you that.”
“Tulia, that is unnecessary,” Agrippa leaned in.
“No, no,” Cecil groaned, falling to his knees. The others jumped back, save Agrippa who grabbed at Cecil’s arm to attempt to catch and support him. “It was… his voice… Quaseem’s that I heard… guiding me to the old station… to him, down there, waiting to be found… returned.”
Tulia held her ground. “Dead men don’t speak, Cecil. Shall I spell it out for you? Your compromised mental state has made it difficult for you to tell your dreams and waking consciousness apart. When you are awake, you’re trying to put together a view of reality that is based on the facts you’ve collected and built a bias about. It’s time you step out of yourself.”
“Cecil, in this case, I have no choice but to agree with Tulia’s assessment,” Agrippa leaned in close. “The only way to get better is to recognize the sickness within you.”
Cassius crossed his arms and snorted to clear his throat. “I have no issue putting you back in solitary until you decide to accept help. Agrippa, get him out of here so there’ll be room for them to bring the body over to the morgue.”
“Sickness…” Cecil mumbled as Cassius waddled off and back to station command.
“Let’s get you up, Cecil.” Agrippa urged. “Have you eaten?”
“The sickness…” he said again, shaking his head. “When… I contacted the water… I must have taken in the sickness… the one that Quaseem succumbed to.”
“Cecil,” Tulia huffed. “You heard what the doctor said. The suit was sealed. So tightly that the bacterium decomposing ran out of oxygen and suffocated before they could finish the job. None of the supposed sickness was able to seep into the water. Anything resembling Quaseem’s illness is psychosomatic. In your head.”
Cecil held at his eyes. His face and temples throbbed. “It… can’t… be… my head…”
Tulia yanked at Cecil’s hands, pulling his arms away from his face. She tugged on his chin, pulling it up and examining his eyes. Her own eyes narrowed. “Agrippa.”
“What is it?”
“Look at his eyes. The left socket seems swollen, or is it just the light?”
Cecil sat back and allowed his arms to be forced about. “What does that mean?”
Tulia shook her head and gazed into Cecil’s eyes. “Tell me again, Ruiz. What do you see when you look at me. Agrippa, even? The world in general?”
“There is… a haze over everything.”
“Not just our faces?”