New Year, New Book

Happy New Year, Greasers! While I’ve been working through editing and posting Whispers of Mars for you all, I’ve also been at work finalizing my Sing Wars Prequel, Remnant. I’m proud to announce that it has finally arrived!

Prequel to the thrilling Sing Wars Trilogy

Before the events of Armor and Bone, the Kingdom of Xiandol and the Empire of Tulefore had spent many decades separate and unaware of the dealings of the other on either side of the Sing Mountain Range. When the Sing Stone, a remnant of a fallen star, descended upon the peaks, it drew the attention of magi and normal men alike.

The tunnels in search of the powerful artifact began to creep through the rock of the mountain range from either side until the fateful day when the two peoples met. The birth of the battles of the Sing Wars began with men, but the power of the magi was not far behind.

If you haven’t yet read through my first entry into the Fantasy Genre, you can read the rough first edition here on the blog. If you want to support me, you can also head over to my Kofi page. A single donation of $1 will get you an Ebook copy of the current edition of Of Armor and Bone as well as one of my other free-to-read stories turned into a more accessible digital version.

Thanks for always reading and liking!

-Sandwich Sean

Mother

Whisper of Mars [Chapter 13]

When Cecil awoke, most of the others had already departed for their tasks, including Martinez. Cecil sat up and held his breath, looking around for anyone else. A white, crinkling wrapper shot towards him and landed in his lap with a light tap.

“Breakfast,” Agrippa said, moving about between the cots.

Cecil’s hands found their way to the nutrition bar, unmarked in the simple wrapper. “Thank… you,” he said, finding the seam to tear it open from.

“Did you sleep well?” The older man asked, sitting on the makeshift bed across from Cecil.

“I… did,” he said, taking his teeth to the corner of the packaging.

Agrippa nodded before leaning down on his legs. “Well, we were supposed to be headed out today, but it seems we’re out of luck. I hope you’re fine with that,” he said with a glint in his eye.

“For what reason?” He sunk his teeth into the corner of the chewy substance.

Agrippa rolled his head back. “A storm is brewing, going to travel across here and down about the station. Command is upset with me for not looking ahead far enough at the weather conditions. But… we should be clear tomorrow, able to head back.”

Cecil took another bite of the bar and chewed it slowly, deciding to nod halfway through.

“Did… anything come to you last night? As in, with the machine back there?”

Cecil ceased his chewing. He remembered suddenly the voice, seeming to talk to him, but never answering his words directly. To distract himself, he gazed back up the tunnel where the dull metal of the machine sat, seeming to taunt him.

“If I look at it again… maybe,” he decided on the words.

Agrippa stood and looked down at him. “I understand the pressure you must feel on yourself right now. But your health and well-being is the most important thing. I’m going to go out and see if I can’t make contact over the radio while the storm isn’t so bad.”

Cecil nodded and awaited Agrippa’s exit. After his muted footsteps trailed off over the tense foam ground, there was barely a sound that remained. Somewhere in the distance was the low hiss of the sandstorm brewing somewhere above, or perhaps it was the sound of more foam being deposited on the remaining bare rock walls.

In the upper section of that tunnel was likely a seal or plug, separating the inhabitable and uninhabitable sections of their meager, stuffy sanctum down there. It was the very same tunnel that he, Markus, and Agrippa had descended those several weeks ago.

Down in the opposite direction was the wide chamber where the pool was located. He had heard the voice, not just that previous night, but when the location had first been explored by the three of them. He was then sure that it was after hearing the voice, the sound of it calling his name, was when he had felt and acted on the urge to remove his helmet.

Cecil returned to his surroundings with the remaining half of the nutrition bar crumpled in his fist. He threw it into the empty crate holding the rest of the garbage of old wrappers that was growing in the corner.

The machine spoke to him, if not in a different way. Under the panels and bolts and rivets was a framework holding the mechanism that ran off the rising gas being extruded from the ground. The drive shaft held a multitude of turbine wheels, and each wheel held innumerable blades to catch the movement of the fumes. The gearbox turned that rotary motion into something more powerful, a force to run the electrical generator, as close to indefinitely as the mechanisms would allow. Somewhere deep inside, though, was a key component to said mechanism that was destined to fail.

Once built, though, the gearbox was never meant to be disassembled. Such was the result of the compact but efficient parts built on Earth to strict specifications and tolerances so that their weight would not exceed the safety limit on the unmanned craft that took the million-mile journey to deliver it to them.

The machine was still naked as he had left it the previous day, with no other progress made. Cecil rubbed at his eyes, but the bleariness would not subside. At any other time, Cecil would have been able to tell immediately if there were stray tool markings, or what size socket was meant for any bolt, but the perception that Cecil once held was no longer within his capabilities.

Cecil didn’t know how much time passed staring at the tools, and his lap, and the countless fasteners and bearings and gear teeth protruding from the machine frame. The ache in his head began to eat away at his consciousness once again. Holding his eyes, he stood and went back to land upon the cot once more

When he awoke, there were others around. Before opening his eyes fully, he listened for the sound of the familiar voices. “There can’t be anyone else who can help him?”

“I can put him to work on something else, but who knows if he’s even going to be useful there. I really hope he comes back to his senses sooner than later.”

“His senses? That’s one thing, but I think there are other things going on here.”

“Don’t talk like you know Ruiz better than anyone here,” Martinez huffed, his words trailing off as Agrippa held his tongue in frustration.

The cot beside Cecil creaked a few short moments after. He rolled onto his side and opened his eyes. “Agrippa?”

Agrippa was the man with the shiny forehead and the smile that always found its way back upon his face “Taking a break? Which is fine, of course. Any progress so far?”

Cecil forced himself up, the headache still beating at the back of his head. “You should be able to see.”

Agrippa leaned down on his legs. “Maybe you just need to brute force it,” he seemed to joke, a grin creeping across his face, and disappearing once more. “It’s just my guess, but maybe all this time, you’ve been trying your best to analyze the thing as a whole, while instead you just need to break it down into its simplest bits. Then the part you’re looking to replace should reveal itself, right?”

“It isn’t that easy, Agrippa.”

“Is it not? Do you remember the core sample we took here, Cecil? Or at least, hoped to get when we originally arrived here?”

“Barely…”

“It’s only a small sample out of what is a greater section of the planet’s crust here, but with only that we can learn about the composition of the substrate— the ground— here. Even if this rock here seems so alien to us, it is made up of the same minerals that we have on earth. You mentioned that your machine only goes together one way? So do the minerals that make up the rocks we tread upon, no matter what planet.”

Cecil shook his head. “I… can’t make sense of what you’re saying.”

“The point is, Cecil… well, obviously, I’m just talking out my ass. But staring at something will not cause it to magically figure itself out.”

Cecil hunched his head down and held at the back of his neck. “Not… now. I have a headache.”

Agrippa nodded, slowly at first, then more quickly as he stood. “I’ll get you some water. I’ll see if there are any medical supplies with some pain killer, too. And… don’t worry about Martinez. He can wait. We all can wait.”

Cecil looked up and watched Agrippa’s back as he moved away. “We all… can wait,” he repeated to himself, only his lips moving.


The minutes and hours of the day passed, one after another like waves of pain through Cecil’s head, with no measure of how many had been experienced. The workers returned from the tunnels to eat and turn in for sleep once their energy and motivation had been drained. Agrippa offered Cecil a packet of the food but he rejected it, remaining tied to his bed. The others spoke in low voices while they were near him, and by the time the lights lowered, none of them had come close to him.

It took longer for the others, especially Agrippa, to fall asleep, drifting off to a state of regular breathing. Cecil rolled himself off the cot as quietly as possible and stood. He shuffled off to the main chamber, its lights glinting dimly.

Cecil breathed in the cold air. The metal structure above the ground creaked and crackled with the sandstorm still raging above. Cecil sat, eyes locked to the pool, surface like a mirror.

He waited for minutes, then ten, and before long he had lost track of time,

Cecil

“What… are you—“ his voice was loud at first, then quieted down.

Cecil

I feel you.

“I… feel you too.” He said, cognizant of the incorporeal sensation. It was the tenseness in his back and joints, and the heaviness in his every step. It was a warmth in his core and the coldness that seemed to pull heat away from his extremities. He had felt it, the first time, down there when he had come there with the others.

You feel me.

“I do. What… do I call you?”

You said something.

“I can’t remember.”

Mother

“Your voice… it’s… hers,” Cecil said, tears beginning to find their way into his eyes. He rocked back and forth. “I… couldn’t say goodbye.”

You are here. I feel you.

“I don’t want to let you go.”

There is no letting go.

“How… I don’t understand.”

I need you.

“What do you need? Anything.”

I am suffocating.

“How can I help you? I am… I can’t even help myself. I can’t help the people here. Agrippa… Agrippa said that they can all wait. There are people on Earth. They can’t wait. The Earth is… suffering.”

I am suffering.

“I know!” Cecil spoke up. “I don’t know how to help you.”

Listen

“I am listening.”

It is painful.

“What is painful?”

Cecil

“Cecil?”

“What?”

“Cecil, who are you talking to?”

It was Agrippa’s voice. The sandstorm pelted the structure high above with fine particles, creating a fuzz in the air. The older man came into view down the second tunnel, his head shining in the low light. “Cecil?”

Cecil held his head between his legs. “Nobody.”

“I heard your voice,” the older man said, sauntering forward carefully.

“It’s nothing.”

“There’s… nothing wrong with talking to yourself.”

Cecil continued to look down at the ground between his legs, allowing his eyes to dry. Agrippa spoke up again. “Are you not sleeping because you can’t, or because you don’t want to?”

“I don’t know…”

“When we speak to Tulia, we should determine how to get your sleep schedule back in order. She did recommend a sleep study. The polysomnography test.”

Cecil glanced up and over to Agrippa. “You should sleep,” he said with a slight hint of forcefulness in his voice.

“So that you can have the space to talk to yourself in?”

“You said there was nothing wrong with it.”

Agrippa shrugged. “I did. You said you weren’t spiritual. It can’t hurt though, thinking of your mother, no matter what you believe in. But you shouldn’t be off filling your mind with ‘what ifs’ if you want to properly allow yourself to sleep and rest.”

“I slept already today.” Cecil huffed. “Too much.”

Agrippa nodded quietly. Above them, the force of the storm ebbed and flowed. “I thought this place would be better for you. The quiet, the separation from the others. Maybe it was too much to ask you to get back to work right away. Especially with something so mentally taxing as that generator thing.”

“It needs to get done. Let me stay.”

“It does need to get done. But you also need to get to a place where you’re better. Come on— even if you can’t sleep, I feel more comfortable when you’re able to be seen.”

Cecil forced himself up partway. Agrippa latched onto his arm and pulled him up the rest of the way, straining his arm.

Cecil followed the glow ahead, but the older man paused and looked out across the pool. Cecil’s eyes followed, catching the tiniest of ripples disturbing the usually glassy surface.

“Keep going,” Agrippa spoke up and continued just behind him.

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

Whispers

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 12]

Cecil tinkered with the panels and their bolts and the outer layers of the mechanism. He studied the blurry details in front of him, but no recollection of the following steps presented themselves to him.

The day dragged on but the pale, unnatural lights gave no indication of how much time had passed. Other workers came and went by the sleeping area but offered him up no words. Eventually, Cecil heard the mumblings behind his back, Agrippa’s and Martinez’s voices speaking his name between restless spurts.

“…give him time…”

“…don’t have that luxury.”

“…other things, first….?”

“Yes, but…”

Cecil tried to ignore the words, but even the few he caught were infinitely louder than the silence in his mind. He fiddled with the bolts on the mat beside him just to hear their metallic rattling.

Cecil jumped and tensed as Agrippa placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I startled you. I think… you can give it a break. Sleep on it. They’re heating up some food, you should eat with us.”

The men sat on their cots, massaging tired muscles and worn-out legs and bodies from the work of the day. Despite his comparative lack of work, Cecil felt the same strain on his body— a growing ache in his head, and a soreness in the joints of his fingers. If he looked like he was nursing them, however, it may have seemed like he was showing off for them. Few words were exchanged. Whether it was out of exhaustion or Cecil’s presence alone, he couldn’t tell. Any of his previous interactions with any of the others besides Martinez felt impossibly long ago.

The ready-to-eat food came in shiny foil packets which were heated in a pan of rippling water over an electric burner. Cecil didn’t feel hungry, but his staring at the shifting reflections of the ceiling lights must have caught the other’s attention.

“Don’t worry, Ruiz. It’s not the water from the pool there.”

Another spoke up, head rolling back and forth. “It should be, though. Running down our drinking water heat up our meals.”

Martinez stepped into the center of the area and grabbed at the tops of the packets jutting above the water. He was quick to read the labels printed in blocky black letters before choosing first.

“That isn’t the mac and cheese one, is it boss?”

“What would you do if it is?” The Argentinean man glared jokingly, shaking the packet back and forth to shed the excess water from it.

Cecil waited for the others to take their own meals before grabbing what remained. When there were only two remaining, he couldn’t help but realize that Agrippa was nowhere to be seen. The others turned off the burner to stop the water simmering, quietly urging Cecil to take up one of the two remaining packets.

Cecil couldn’t taste or identify the food inside, but he assumed that if Agrippa saw him eating that the older man would worry about him less. When he did return from the main chamber, returning the radio beside Martinez’s side, he offered a gentle smile and took up the final packet.

Lights-out was not long after eating. The unnatural illumination above was dimmed most of the way. Cecil’s cot was not far from Agrippa’s on the edge of the sleeping area, but the older man had no words to offer him before they drifted off to sleep.


Cecil

Cecil

Cecil fluttered his eyes open. Agrippa was faced away from him on his own cot, obviously not the one who called his name. The others breathed slowly and evenly, sometimes shifting and rolling over on the squeaky makeshift beds. Cecil sat up and listened for any other sounds. Deep under the ground there, where they were surrounded by only rock and dirt and hardened foam, it was silent like no other. Compared to the electrical hum and quiet crying of air being filtered and circulated inside the station, the nothingness of the old tunnels was suffocating.

Cecil blinked slowly, trying to catch his breath even though his lungs were satisfied. The string lights above seemed to strobe in their dim state as if calling him. He shifted his feet to the ground and pushed himself off the cot as quietly as possible, making sure that Agrippa did not stir.

The sprayed foam dampened the sound of his footsteps. He walked, eyes to the ceiling, as the array of lights split off into an electrical junction. The lights seemed to be even dimmer out there in the main chamber as if having more emptiness to be swallowed up by. Cecil’s eyes landed on the pool, reflecting the irregular patterns of the pale glow in its glassy stillness.

Cecil…

Cecil glanced about, his breath caught in his chest. The voice, if it could be called that, seemed to come from every pocket of the area. He looked upon the pool and attempted to catch a glance at his own reflection.

The old sprayed material had been messily laid around the edge of the pool, perhaps in an attempt to keep from contaminating the water with it. The deep red-brown rock was still visible around the bank. The still liquid itself seemed to swallow up all light, veiling that which laid beyond the surface. Cecil held his breath and crept close to the edge, arm stretching outward. The pads of his fingers, dry and cracked and weathered, made contact.

The cool touch made him recall the previous time he had mated with it. He felt the calmness, the coolness within himself. The ripples formed and danced in concentric circles away from him and in wide arcs that reached the opposite edge of the pool and stopped.

I feel you. Cecil.

The pool swallowed up the vibrations and went still once more.

Cecil scrambled back and rose to his feet once more. “Who’s there?” He said just above a whisper, glancing about the tunnels.

I feel you again. Cecil.

“Who are you?”

You know who I am.

Cecil knew the feeling. The voice swallowed him like the water, enveloping him in a cool calmness that stole the sensation from his body. “I’ve… heard you… felt you before.”

I feel you.

“I feel you too.”

You’ve returned.

“I know your voice.”

I know everything about you.

Cecil expelled the breath from his lungs out his nose. He stepped forward again, glancing at what seemed to be his own reflection. “How can that be?”

I feel you.

“How do I know you’re real?”

You know what you hear. Only you can know.

“Mother…?”

Cecil

“Cecil?”

Cecil jerked back, the hair on his neck standing up. He turned his head back, searching for the sound of the second voice.

Agrippa had descended from the second tunnel, hands rubbing at each other as his eyes focus through the dim lights. “What are you doing out here?”

Cecil glanced back at the pool, unmoving. “I… couldn’t sleep.”

“The lights too bright?” Agrippa continued to approach, head nodding up and down rhythmically.

He pulled himself back. “Something like that.”

Agrippa rubbed at the back of his head and scratched at his ear. “It certainly feels… strange down here. The combination of the eerie quiet, and the rhythms of everyone else breathing loudly. I’ve been cooped up in my private quarters for too long, it seems.”

Cecil nodded and looked back out over the pool.

Agrippa placed himself beside Cecil and interlaced his fingers. “No bad dreams? If… I were in your position, this place would put me in a strange mood.”

“No… nightmares.”

Agrippa nodded. “Maybe because it looks and feels so vastly different than when we came down here on our own. It’s strange, though. I don’t think I’ve told you this before…”

“What’s that?”

“During the accident… you might not remember. You allowed yourself to collapse into the pool here, of course. The residual air inside your suit allowed you to float on top, but you had already aspirated some of the water. When we… Markus and I… we pulled you out of there, though, you seemed to be… at peace. As if you had forgotten that you were drowning. Maybe some sort of training you had during your time in the service.”

“I see…” Cecil mumbled, head nodding. “I don’t remember… the accident.”

“It figures.” Agrippa breathed in a long sigh. “It’s funny, we keep calling it that… an accident.”

“Would you… call it something else?”

Agrippa shook his head, clearing his mind. “Nothing that makes it seem like the event took place by choice. Which is not the case, I’m sure… even if you don’t remember it yourself.”

The older man looked to Cecil as if expecting a response, but he couldn’t find the words.

“Let’s get back to bed, shall we? Sleep is for giving our brains the time to take in all the information from the day, you know? Imagine how you might see that device after you wake up.”

Cecil forced a pursed-lip smile and waited for Agrippa to lead the way back to the sleeping area. The strange voice echoed in his mind as he laid his head back, allowing sleep to take him over.

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

Memories

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 11]

“Tsuchida? How are the simulations running?” Agrippa had borrowed the radio to contact his department back inside the main base. At the central chamber, the radio waves were just barely able to escape the confines of the thick rock. The other man’s voice was quiet and fuzzy coming through the speaker.

“Still running. We have one set of data to look at so far. Not much, to be honest. Over.”

“Understood. I’m… surveying the Secundus area directly. Likely won’t be back until late tomorrow. Keep up the good work. Over.”

Cecil was standing, watching Agrippa’s back when Martinez stepped up behind him from the second tunnel and the sleeping arrangements. “It’s not often I’ve seen you interacting with people from other departments.”

The hair on Cecil’s neck stood up and he jerked back before being able to answer. “Agrippa… has decided that.”

Martinez nodded slowly. “That’s right, it was this old guy who sought you out to come down here originally.”

“I think… he feels guilty… for that.”

“He seems to be caring, if not to a fault. I read the report filed by him after the accident. It doesn’t add up. At least from a perspective where he is the guilty party. You’ve followed plenty of commands and orders before, Ruiz.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you wouldn’t follow one that would unnecessarily put you or someone else in danger?”

“No, sir.”

Martinez crossed his arms. “Before we sealed up the rock here with the oyxfoam, it was dastardly hot here. I can understand the urge to remove your helmet, especially if there was a malfunction in your suit making it worse. If you were distracted by that, and the fact of seeing this place, I can understand why you might have felt like just… taking it off.”

Cecil nodded, but he couldn’t understand the words. “Yes, sir.”

Agrippa had finished with his transmission and was beginning to return to them, radio danging in his grasp. Martinez lowered his mouth beside Cecil’s ear. “Try to keep your head about you, viste? I need my brilliant man in good form.”

Agrippa returned to earshot, the radio stretched out in his hand. “Thank you, Martinez. Cecil, I’ve cleared it with command, being able to stay here for the night. But tomorrow afternoon, I must return to my duties and you have to continue your evaluations with Tulia.”

Cecil nodded. Martinez grabbed at the radio and strapped it to his belt. “Then you best out in your best work while you can, Ruiz.”

“If he’s feeling up to it,” Agrippa spoke up.

Martinez shifted back and tapped his foot. “If you knew Ruiz like we do, you would know he’s always up to doing work. You could say it feeds him. Speaking of which, you’re free to use any of the supplies, or ask for the tools you need.”

“Thank you, sir.” Cecil nodded, his eyes drawing a line up the tunnel and down to the pile of equipment waiting to be serviced or installed.

“We’re setting up the footprint where it should all end up,” The Argentinean nodded, waving his arm down the second tunnel. “In the coming days, we might even have some blasting. Fun times, shame you can’t be down here to set it off with us. It’s like your… what— Forth of July— back at home.”

Agrippa forced a smile. “It seems like we won’t be able to stick around, as you heard. But… as long as I’m here as well, feel free to ask for my help… on anything.”

Martinez shrugged. “We have all of the necessary readings and calculations from your team already, Agrippa. But thank you.”

Agrippa nodded. He caught Cecil staring out into the chamber. His eyes gleamed in the reflection from the pool, but the old man’s touch upon his shoulder pulled him out of the daze. “Cecil?”

“The turbine gears… right.”

Cecil’s eyes focused, and he turned back up the tunnel. The task assigned by Martinez earlier awaited him. Just smaller than one of the rovers that transported them around the surface of the planet, the piece of engineering had to have been transported down the long lava tube some time recently. The mechanism on the metal pallet was housed in a boxy casing, fitted with valves that transported gasses in and out of the turbine inside, beyond the countless bolts and panels holding everything together.

Cecil’s fingers traced the lines of the cold metal, vaguely reminiscent. The basic tools to work on it had been left by one of the engineers in a folding pouch. Cecil found a comfortable position on his knees before picking up the appropriate tool and working to undo the first of the covers.

He noticed Agrippa, arms held behind his back, standing to his rear. A quick glance back revealed his staring. “I’m not a bother to be here, am I?”

Cecil quietly shook his head and returned to work. “I… remember. I’ve worked on this before. Had it open. There is… something not right we found. One of the gears inside… it was from the manufacturing sample, but not the one with the material to spec. The company back on Earth confirmed it… found the appropriate piece they had lost and simply replaced.”

“Only millions of miles away, though. A piece like this must be special order.”

“One of a kind…” Cecil mumbled, separating the first painted panel from the body of the machine. As the inner mechanisms revealed themselves, Cecil couldn’t help but sit back on his legs. “There are… no directions… but only one way… they fit together. By design.”

“Of course. But you have the tools and materials for machining what you need for it, right?”

“We… did. We… have it. But to… take it apart… reassemble it…” Cecil breathed hollowly, looking down at the panel in his hands.

“If there is anyone who can do it, it is you, Cecil.”

Cecil tapped the tool against the frame in frustration. “It is… possible. But… I don’t know it. I… did know it. In the past. No, I should know this. This task was mine and mine alone. It… should have been completed.”

Agrippa shifted, his feet scraping against the hardened foam. “We all have to know a lot of things. But even I can’t just survive on my knowledge alone. It’s the charts and databases and the updates from the agency and their people… even the others in my department. Is there no schematic, Cecil?”

He shook his head. “A schematic is… only theoretical. There is nothing practical about a schematic—“ his voice rose. “Engineers don’t understand what it is like to have your hands on something real. I knew… at one point I knew what I needed to do here. To get this apart, to fix it and get it back together.

“It will come back to you,” Agrippa replied slowly, reaching down for Cecil’s back.

The hair on Cecil’s neck bristled. “You don’t understand, Agrippa. Nothing has been the same… since the accident.”

“Your memory, that is? In what way?”

Cecil sat back and rested his arms on his thighs. “It began with… my mother.”

“Yes.” Agrippa insisted. “Tell me about your mother.”

“There is nothing to say. I… can’t remember her. It was only when I heard… about her passing… that only the smallest fragments of her returned to me.”

“Maria. That’s what her name was, isn’t that right?”

Cecil’s head perked up. “How do you know that?”

“Just listen. I’m trying to help. The mind isn’t… it isn’t just made up of independent thoughts. Everything is interconnected. Let’s rebuild those connections.”

“Maria—“ Cecil repeated shortly, his lips impacting on each other. “The… her name… as well. The same as my mother’s. Who told you her name?”

“Does that matter?” The older man pressed on calmly. “Maybe it was you, have you forgotten?”

“I… remember… the message I received, and then… I told Markus. But not you.”

“Yes, so Markus told me then.” Agrippa nodded.

“No, no, no!” Cecil rattled his fist on the floor, the opposite hand on the back of his neck. “The nurse… I heard her name… the same name. I knew it then. I remember the name belonged to someone else… Maria. Maria. I asked… that woman in medbay about it. She ignored it, pushed it off. She knew.”

“A coincidence.”

“Why are you lying to me, Agrippa?”

The older man snuffled. “Fine. When I looked into your file, to find out more about your Prosopagnosia, I found the message waiting for you as well, the one about her passing. But I knew it wasn’t a good time to tell you directly. I hoped you would be distracted enough to ignore accessing your files, but…”

Cecil pulled the ratchet off the ground and tossed it into the edge of the opened machine. “Why must you try to yank at me like I’m a puppet on your strings?”

“Like I’ve said, Cecil, to help you,” Agrippa answered, his voice rising slightly.

Cecil jerked up and went to the nearest wall, placing his arm and head against it, taking sharp breaths. “What’s… wrong with me… Agrippa?”

“Not something that is going to be solved in one swift motion. It’s not just your prosopagnosia as we thought.”

Cecil shook his head, face still hidden.

“Your memory failing isn’t something to take lightly. Do you remember what I said before?”

“You’ve said… a lot of things.”

Agrippa marched towards Cecil and planted his back to the rock wall. “You’re not wrong. I believe it was… any time you remember something, you’re simply recalling the last time you remembered it. Memory is strange like that. At what point were your recollections stolen from you? When your mind convinced you to remove your helmet down here? Perhaps during the trauma of the accident, or when you were sedated and put into the coma when we got you back to the station?”

“I couldn’t… answer that.”

“No, and neither could I. Perhaps that is something that Tulia could answer better. Or help to get out of you.” The older man crossed his arms and stood. “You will promise me that you try your best to open up to her when we meet with her next?”

“I will… try.”

“Good. I will leave you to this and see if I can’t get to Martinez.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

The Depths

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 10]

The shaking and rumbling of the wheeler were borderline too reminiscent to Cecil. That was one of the last strong feelings he had felt before the accident. Cecil had found sleep the previous night among the others of the day shift, and at the beginning of that new day Agrippa had sought him out.

Somehow Cecil had remembered how to dress himself in the tight uniform that went under the environmental suits and then said suit that sealed him off from the rest of the world. His breathing had grown in intensity until Agrippa had spoken to him.

“All sealed up?”

“I… think so.”

The operator from systems had allowed them to depart out the airlock and under the shelter where the minute fleet of vehicles was stored and their electric batteries charged. A larger flatbed truck had been moved out of the space, but Agrippa had assured them they would see it again.

The vastness of the crater and its looming edge far in the distance never ceased to surprise Cecil, whether it was from one of the windows of the station, or outside in the elements from behind the suit’s visor. The discovery of the lava tube was closer to the edge than the base station, leaving a climb for the rover before they would arrive.

“How do you feel?” Agrippa’s voice crackled through the radio as they climbed higher.

“Good enough. Better… than yesterday.”

“The routines we follow keep us grounded, even if it feels nonstop. That is what is required in a place like this. Your routine just had a lapse, and it threw you off. That’s what Tulia told me.”

Cecil nodded, but the gentle movement was lost in the clumsiness of the suit. “Do you know her from… before?”

“Tulia? We actually grew up in the same parts. Years apart, of course, though. But we share that connection, a few memories of different places.”

“Do you… ever wish you could go back, Agrippa?”

“Not for a minute.” He paused, sucking in a long breath through his nose. “You were concerned… whether you were going to get sent back. Was that worry voiced in a way to suggest you desired to do so?”

The silence dragged on as Cecil thought to himself. “I thought… there was something at home to return to if I did. I couldn’t remember what it was at the time, but now… there is nothing.”

“I see.”

Cecil watched the back of Agrippa’s helmet as he shifted back and forth, moving with the steering of the vehicle. He stared past and scanned the slope ahead for any familiar features, but saw none. Then, on the horizon, he spotted the pale dot, protruding from the ground.

“Agrippa?”

“You see it?”

“This isn’t the same place as before.”

“I suppose I should have eased your mind and told you that we wouldn’t need to be heading down that long tunnel again. We’re just about there, above it in fact.”

The flatbed truck was closest to them on the slope, carrying a matching pair of slightly opaque plastic tanks, filled halfway with liquids. The metal hut was beside it, and running from the vehicle were long, flexible lines hooked up between the tanks and a fluid junction on the building.

The prefabricated metal and foam panels that Cecil had seen in storage many times before made up the simple structure. The largest section of it was the wide domed airlock, prefabricated for semi-permanent uses.

Agrippa slowed and eventually parked the rover before stepping off first. “I haven’t been here since you woke up, actually. Always making progress, it seems.”

Cecil couldn’t help but follow the older man. The airlock door was outfitted with windows to look inside and ensure that the chambers of the airlock were sealed. The exterior port was big enough for them both to enter and seal back again with a turn of the heavy door latch. The hiss of the mechanism meant to them that the meager few cubic centimeters of air had transferred successfully.

Agrippa’s visor turned Cecil’s way as they stepped into the cramped structure. The floor was a simple panel of metal with a hole cut in the center, about five feet wide holding a ladder that descended deep into the ground. A few bits of machinery and tubing and tools for lowering cargo littered the remaining bits of available ground. The older man carefully released his helmet and tested the air. He nodded, staring at Cecil’s visor to do the same.

“It seems okay,” his words traveled through the air.

The atmosphere was stale and metallic but breathable. There was a low hum audible far in the distance, radiating from the space below. Agrippa peered down and spoke up. “This ladder was here before, but it seems the seal is complete here. Care if I go down first?”

Cecil nodded and watched as the older man descended, shifting the helmet in his hands back and forth to find the most stable hand. Cramped, dizzying, and ill-smelling places were nothing strange to Cecil, but a feeling in his body, something unplaceable, held to him. Just as Agrippa’s bald head had disappeared out of sight, Cecil continued after him.

There were forty-two rungs on the ladder, heading down to a secondary platform above the shimmering reservoir of liquid. Any natural light that had entered inside before had been blocked off by the structure above, and the glassy surface glowed under the bright, pale string lights hung around the chamber. The platform allowed them to descend down the edge of it safely.

The hum in the air was consistent, a generator powering the lights and air purification of the underground area. The long flexible tubing ran down from the entrance and was wrung around stakes at the edge of the pool before heading off down one of the two subterranean passageways.

The once rough walls were coated with a gray porous material in what was mostly a consistent layer. Cecil ran his hand along the gritty but soft surface and found his feet treading across the same material on the ground.

“Last time I was here, it was all just bare rock,” Agrippa said, scanning the area, his helmet dangling from his hand.

The long pair of tubes suddenly rattled off, material rushing through them and forcing the lengths hanging from the ceiling to sway back and forth. In the distance down the tunnel, the low din grew louder.

“Oxy foam,” Cecil stated. “The two parts get mixed together and expand like traditional foams, but with a second endothermic reaction that occurs during the hardening stage, breaking down the water in the first reactant to release breathable oxygen.”

“Brilliant.” Agrippa nodded.

Cecil looked at the floor and the minor indentation caused by his foot on the strange material. “I don’t know how I remember that. It was… Martinez who engineered it. I remember that…”

The rumbling and the shaking of the tubes stopped once more. “Sounds like they’re continuing working with it though,” Agrippa pointed, leading to the first tunnel, heading off straight outwards from the main chamber.

Cecil held his breath. The pale glow of the lights seemed to reflect back at him from the surface of the reservoir. The water seemed to ripple, perhaps from the movement of the equipment, or even it just being his imagination, but he couldn’t remove his eyes from it. Agrippa’s hand landed on his shoulder.

“Are you having second thoughts?”

Cecil cinched his neck down. “I… remember…”

Agrippa turned back and pulled the removed helmet from Cecil’s grasp. He found himself in Cecil’s eyes before speaking. “Tulia warned me that exposure to this place would bring up the memories of the accident, even if you yourself didn’t consciously recall them. You will tell me if this becomes too difficult for you, right?”

“I will, Agrippa.”

“Is someone there?” A voice trailed out in an echo from far in the distance down the first tunnel.

Agrippa turned his head about to find the source of the original voice. “Yes. It’s Agrippa, from geo. We’re looking for Martinez.”

The man exited the glint of the tunnel and approached them. “We weren’t expecting anyone,” he said, before finding Cecil hiding in Agrippa’s shadow. “Well, Ruiz—“ The shape of the man’s head and his stance were familiar, but Cecil couldn’t put a name to him. “Back in action?”

“Martinez hasn’t been reachable over the radio.” Agrippa declared. “Cecil… Ruiz here has been awaiting an updated duty order.”

“Radio is spotty down here,” the man said impatiently. “We’re waiting on systems to install a repeater and an antenna to get a better signal up to the surface. But hey, what better way to get in touch with Martinez. He’ll be happy to see you back to work, Ruiz. You’ll find him down there,” he pointed.

“Thank… you,” Cecil muttered, avoiding the man’s eyes.

The tunnel was coated in more of the dark foam from top to bottom, and the string of lights ran in a neat line down the center of the ceiling, hung on metal hooks. Cecil’s eyes couldn’t help but track each of the discreet LEDs glowing inside the sheath diffusing the light and into his still blurry vision. Agrippa’s call forward pulled his attention back down.

“Martinez?”

“Who’s that?” The low, accented voice returned to them. The tunnel widened. Under the sprayed foam, it was impossible to tell whether or not the open space was natural or chiseled out by tools. Around the corner was the termination of the long tubes transporting the foam’s constituents, and the mechanisms that emulsified and sprayed them. The man who answered the call was also present, along with three others.

“Take a break,” the first man said, glancing at the others. They nodded, wiping their sweaty brows and glancing at Cecil as they passed.

“Martinez,” Agrippa greeted, setting down both helmets at the corner of the wall. The Hispanic man was short and slightly round, with a dark, short beard sprouting from his face.

“Well, I’d never,” Martinez clapped his hands. “Ruiz, good to see you. Agrippa, thank you kindly for bringing him back to me in one piece.”

Agrippa planted himself at Martinez’s side and leaned close to his ear. The Hispanic man nodded while listening to the whispered words, and a frown crept across his face. “I can’t accept that. Ruiz, let’s hear it from you. You want to work? You’re a good worker, my smart cookie.”

“I… want to be useful.”

Martinez nodded emphatically. “Agrippa here thinks he knows you and your big old brain better than you know yourself— viste— you know?”

“As I said,” Agrippa cleared his throat, “Tulia has requested that he still be under observation and keep up with his evaluations.”

“Then the chica can come down here and visit us.”

Agrippa folded his arms across his chest. “You’ve been living down here, then?”

“For the past week.” Martinez nodded. “Cassius concluded that taking the time to commute back and forth every day was counterproductive. Since we put the airlock up above, and we sealed the two tunnels off down both of the offshoots, we’ve been living here much more comfortably. The Oxyfoam is going to continue to off-gas a probably long enough time until we can get a recycler and scrubber down here. By then, I can see the geothermal system up and running. That is, of course, you let Ruiz off his leash, viste?”

Cecil felt Martinez’s eyes on him. He looked at the ground.

“Ruiz, you are my good boy.” Martinez spoke up again. “We need you, viste. Come, come. I will show you something to lift your spirits.”

The Hispanic man led them back to the main chamber with the pool, and then down the second tunnel that climbed in a slight slope. A similar band of lights illuminated the path and the walls were coated in the gritty layers of foam. Cecil heard the sound of the others speaking, their voices halting as they came into view.

The widest spot of the tunnel was lined with several sets of cots and their blankets, as well as aluminum crates of supplies; ready to eat rations, cans of water, and spare clothes and blankets. Further up were more crates and bundles of building supplies in all forms.

Martinez stopped and held his arms to his hips. “Agrippa, you know the brilliant mind you are keeping away from his work that will help us all?”

“I’m perfectly aware, Martinez. What are you showing us?”

The Hispanic man glanced back. “Let me see if you know your stuff.”

“About what?”

“The turbine system.”

Agrippa sighed and shifted his shoulder. “From the top? The system pressurizes CO2 into its supercritical state and a set of pumps saturates the igneous substrate. When it expands back to about one atmosphere and gets heated by the geothermal energy, it rushes back to the surface and runs the turbine, generating power for us.”

“Very good.”

“I’ve only read the documentation and looked at rock samples. Putting it together and getting it to work is your area of expertise, setting this up.”

“The turbine.” Martinez sneered, directing them to the metal pallets holding blocks of machinery. “Do you remember the nonsense they set us up with, Ruiz?”

Cecil pursed his lips and shook his head.

“No?” The Hispanic man glared at him. “So bad that you had to push it out of your memory, yes? Once your hands return to it, you will remember.”

“What nonsense do you speak of?”

“The turbines parts that were shipped to us were out of spec. The design they followed on Earth was proper, but the one we got was not quite right. The gearing, all a mess. Wrong materials. It would have ground itself to nothing after only a few hundred hours of running. The result of going for the lowest bidder in manufacturing.”

“How did you notice?” Agrippa asked.

“It was Ruiz here. You remember? Look.” Martinez hummed, voiding the way for a large machine casing sitting on a metal pallet.

Cecil stepped forward and planted his still gloved hands on the machine. The gearbox in his grasp would connect to the rotors that would spin under the power of gas escaping from deep boreholes in the earth. Cecil attempted to remember the mess of gears within the mechanism but any recollection of where the described problem lied wouldn’t reveal itself. “I remember, but… I do not.”

“What are you saying? Well, you have been away for a while. Once your eyes lay upon the problem once more, it will return to you. The replacement pieces we milled are here and ready to be replaced by you soon. Agrippa, that is why we need him down here. No Ruiz, no power.”

“I understand your situation, but—“

“No buts, viste.”

“I hope to stay here as well. I can not, in good conscience, allow Cecil out of my sight while his mental condition is still unclear.”

Martinez slumped down and paced. “You will be sleeping on a cot and eating foil packets of food. But suit yourself.”

Agrippa glanced at Cecil, who had missed the words during his examination of the strange bit of machinery sitting on the ground.

Cecil

“Cecil?”

Cecil perked up suddenly. “Huh?”

“How are you feeling about this?”

“I think… I can manage.”

Agrippa nodded. “Well, that’s at least good to hear. Perhaps being here in your element will be good for you. But I intend to stay here tonight to make sure. Martinez, where is your radio? I must contact a colleague in my department.”

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