Strength

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 9]

“Cecil,” Agrippa spoke up before any other topics could arrive. “What is your role in the current project?”

The lunch service for the day shift was winding down, and the two of them had arrived to catch the scraps before composting— the caloric intake for every meal was calculated precisely for every member of the mission, in order to reduce waste.  Cecil noticed the glances from the others as he and Agrippa sat, separate from the remaining diners.

“I…” Cecil paused, looking down at the reconstituted vegetable protein, roasted and browned in that day’s form, hardly more appetizing than any other.

“I’m sorry, that’s no way to start a conversation,” the older man shook his head. “I should ask Martinez anyways.”

Cecil’s eyes darted around Agrippa’s face.  The emotion swirling across it was still too vague to pick up.  “The thermo generator,” he answered.

“Good, so you do remember,” Agrippa nodded, examining the steamed green bean on his fork.  “I was ordered to request someone from your division, you know, to come on the expedition that day.  That turned out to be you, obviously.  It was actually your division manager’s recommendation that you be the one.  Now… I hate to think it, but… if I had chosen someone else, you would have remained here safe and sound?”

Uttering the words, the older man allowed his fork to clack down on the edge of the tray.  He sighed, leaving the vegetable untouched. “Nevermind, pay my words no heed.”

“Don’t… think of it that way, Agrippa,” Cecil said pleadingly.

Agrippa covered his despair with a forced smile, his cheeks welling up. “Hindsight is twenty-twenty, is it not?”

Cecil nodded and turned his attention back to the mostly uneaten meal.  “There is… something down there…” he declared slowly.

The older man raised an eyebrow at him. “You mean some of your team?  Yes, did I mention that already?”  

“I… don’t know,” Cecil said with a blank stare at his food.  “The thermo generator… it was a place like that where it was supposed to be installed.”

Agrippa nodded. “It sounds as if your mind is clearing.  Power generation is down from the solar panels, and we need to assure that we have a more reliable source when the time comes to expand.  Geothermal has been the goal for a long time, and now we have what seems to be an optimal location.”

“Then… I am needed.”

Agrippa shrugged and sucked in a breath. “Of course, but I haven’t been able to get in contact directly with Martinez to determine in what capacity.  I’ve been told, though, that he’s been working down there.”

Cecil held his breath. “Then… I belong there.  Don’t I?”

 “Down there?” Agrippa glanced either way down the long table, and across where others were finishing their own meals. “I suppose that is the case.  At best, you would feel more at home being around the familiar members of your team.  At least, that’s what I imagine.  I don’t know.  You tell me.”

“You are… correct.”

Agrippa forced a smile. “Good.  You can escape the rest of the people here, too.  Reduce the unnecessary stimulation that’s probably overwhelming you.  But I worry too that it could bring up more memories of the accident.”

“I… want to work… to be useful… Agrippa.”

“I understand that.  But you must understand my worry… what I saw down there before.  It seemed like back then… back down there… that you were trying to escape us.  A silly notion, I know.  Although, with Markus badgering you then…”

Cecil shook his head and moved his lips as if ready to speak.

Agrippa watched him, waiting for the words, but none came.  “Well, I’ll tell you this.  They hope to fix up that place real nice down there, make it… livable.  It should be a good part there already, in fact.  A place where a team overseeing the power production could comfortably live and work.  Like I’ve said, the ground there seems fit for it.  I think it’s been Martinez and your team, as well as some folks from systems, working down there to seal off the stone and make an airtight seal down there.”

Cecil nodded. “And the water…?”

“Ah.  Of course, you would be interested in that, as am I.  Strange, it is.  It seems it welled up there over a long period of time, trickling in through a natural orifice leading to the outside.  I’ve got some weather and terrain simulations running on the server to determine how it may have formed, for how long it’s been there.  I considered it may have been a part of a secondary lava vent in the system back long ago when the area was active.  Do you know how lava tubes form, Cecil?  It begins as a simple flow, and when the exposed surface cools and the remaining flow runs out, you’re left with… no, I’m rambling.”

Cecil smiled.  “It is… interesting.”

Agrippa sniffed and stared at his tray, mostly eaten up.  “When you came in… after the accident, we did a test to see if the water was contaminated.  Just to make sure there was nothing to make you sick, as you did aspirate a good deal of it.  Apart from some trace minerals, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.  But of course, they want to run more tests.  Rightfully, though.  If it comes back good and proper, we can put it to use on the crops.  Maybe even make it potable.  Have you eaten enough?”

Cecil had managed to eat a quarter of the food, leaving the rest to go cold and shiny with its natural oils.  “Yeah…”

“That’s probably enough.  Mar— the nurse said that after a long period of the liquid IV diet, you wouldn’t have much of a regular appetite for a while.  But I’ve managed to trick you into getting your strength back, haven’t I?”

Cecil’s body felt heavy, and the words only felt like those given to a bullied child, but he nodded nonetheless and tried further to concentrate on the older man’s puzzling face.  

Agrippa’s expression turned serious. “Let me tell you one last thing.  The commander wants you back to work just as much as you want to return yourself.  I can understand his desire to have everyone pulling their weight.  If you managed to keep down the supplements, we can take you to visit Secundus and get your work order from Martinez.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

The Call

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 8]

Cecil

Cecil

Cecil

The sound of the voice awoke him. The sleeping quarters were dark apart from the LEDs on the computer terminal and the emergency lights. The hum of the station and the sound of sleeping breaths caught up to him.

Cecil

“Who’s there?” He asked out into the darkness. Some of the sleeping crew members stirred or mumbled in drowsy states.

Cecil’s mouth was dry, his head pounding, and stomach caving in on itself. He focused his mind on trying to recall the sound of the voice. It was distant but clear. Familiar. Strange. Comforting but worrying.

It was before the lights he began to come up naturally, simulating what would be a sunrise back on earth. Cecil stumbled off the bunk and felt his way around in the dark, knocking into the bedposts.

Guided by the sole status light, he found the computer interface and illuminated it with a touch of a button. Some of the nearby crewmates stirred and turned away or groaned and shuffled their pillows under their arms. He input his password. The message was still there, reading the same words.

…Maria Ruiz…

Cecil

I’m choking, Cecil.

Cecil tried to swallow, then suck in a breath. His chest was tight, and his throat narrow. Just standing made his legs feel like the ground beneath him was moving. His hair stood on end. He held to the wall, head down, staring at his feet in the dim light cast by the screen, but the floor continued downward for a distance far beyond him. His strained breathing was enough to take some of the others in the room, their bleary sights following the source of the light.

“Ruiz?”

“Cecil—?”

Cecil

He landed on his knees. Some of the others held at his back or went to the door or the intercom panel.


Cecil’s breath returned to his chest by the time he was turned over into the medbay bed. The sheets were freshly washed. The nurse held the cold stethoscope to his chest and peered down his throat with a glaring light. The doors whooshed open.

“I came as soon as I heard. How is he?”

The dark-haired nurse leaned up and pulled herself away. “He is… normal, by all accounts— at least now. Breathing and heartbeat returning to nominal.”

The kind-faced, shiny-browed man with the accent… that was Agrippa, leaning over him. “Cecil, can you hear me? Speak? Nurse, I can tell you—“

“Agrippa…” Cecil croaked, interrupting him.

“Cecil,” He looked down seriously. “Do you know where you are?”

“The… same place as always.”

Agrippa refused to react to the words. “I should have known. You’re not okay. At least, the way you should be. I’m… I’m sorry that you had to learn about your mother the way you did.”

Cecil blinked at him and pushed himself up on shaking arms.

“I ran into Markus. He told me everything. I was going to seek you out after my shift ended, but…” The older man paused. “Nurse, may I ask how you intend to record this in the log?”

She shrugged and faced away. “A panic attack, I am most inclined to report. I’d like to keep him a little bit longer for observation though.”

Agrippa shook his head disappointedly. “Cassius isn’t going to like this.”

The nurse clicked her tongue. “That isn’t the fault of any of our own, nor Cecil’s here. I’d hope to have Tulia through here though, as she had demanded joint ownership of his file for obvious reasons.”

Agrippa nodded. “Those were hopes and thoughts as well. Not that I have any say, though. Hum, I don’t suppose you’d mind heading to her office to bring her here?”

The nurse glanced at Agrippa, then found Cecil quietly sitting back in the bed. “I’ll go and do that. Hopefully, she’s there— I won’t be long.”

Agrippa nodded and grasped his hands behind his back. The door of the medbay released the dark-haired woman. As it closed once again, the older man spoke up finally, his voice deep and solemn.

“Once again, I feel deeply for you, hearing about your mother, Cecil. Was her… passing… expected?”

Cecil stared at his lap and answered. “The last we spoke… a year and a half ago, before my departure… she was… she said… she said…”

“It was a long time ago. There’s no fault in not remembering the specifics. Let’s consider something else, shall we?”

Cecil shook his head in short bursts. “Before that message… I had forgotten about her entirely.”

“You’ve been rightfully thinking about yourself. Getting yourself better.”

“If there was any face I was able to recall, it was hers. But I can’t now. I should be able to. I can read her name in the message. I remember the retirement home where she was living, the sender of that message. But when I read those words, I realized that I wasn’t able to recall what she looked like. I couldn’t even remember her voice.”

Agrippa let out a low breath and paced about, finally finding the stool beside the nurse’s desk. “There is something I heard some time ago from a colleague back on Earth. Each time you recall a memory, you’re only referring to the last time you remembered it. Your mind plays with your memories, they are… evolving.”

“I…” Cecil paused, glancing at the door. “I heard her voice again.”

“After not remembering it? In a dream, maybe? Is that what you woke up to, having your attack?”

Cecil nodded and rotated himself to the edge of the bed. “Yes… no, actually.”

Agrippa rubbed at his rough chin, leaning across one knee. “Perhaps this is something we should discuss in Tulia’s presence.”

“No—“ Cecil said curtly. “No. Her voice… came to me. It has been… as if reaching out to me. Trying to contact me.”

Agrippa raised his brow. “Saying what?”

“My name. I couldn’t recognize the voice as hers until I came across her name on the message. But then… she spoke again… she said…”

“You’re sure it’s her voice?” The older man leaned in. “Again, in a dream maybe?”

The door opened. The nurse was first— the dark-haired woman— Maria; the name repeated in Cecil’s mind as he locked eyes upon her. The spindly woman was after. Agrippa stood and greeted them before Cecil could speak.

“Sorry for calling you out, Tulia.”

“It’s no matter. Mr. Ruiz’s case interests me.”

“I’m sure you heard about his episode, then,” Agrippa said, eyes crossing Tulia and Maria.

“Yes, a panic attack?” Tulia insisted, the tapping of her feet bringing her to the edge of the bed with a keen look. “They are not uncommon in situations of PTSD. How did you feel, Ruiz? Difficulty breathing? Heart racing? Dizziness?”

Cecil nodded.

“But it seems like it’s subsided,” Agrippa added. “Perhaps some air was simply needed. I’ve heard comments from others that the sleeping quarters get stuffy. I’m sorry for disturbing you, Tulia, over something… ordinary. Maria, I’ll take it from here.”

The spindly woman shifted and stared at Cecil, her eyes piercing. Agrippa stepped between them. “Cecil, come on. I imagine you’ve rested enough for now. Getting your mind off things will help you out. We should get some proper food in you. We can see about speaking to Martinez, too. Anything to distract you for the moment.”


Cecil watched Agrippa’s heels as they exited the medbay. The older man took the opposite route that led deeper into the command structure and away from the general quarters and the workshops and labs. “Agrippa, we’re…”

“I hoped to get you a shower first. You… need it. Fresh body, fresh mind, they say. Not that I know who ‘they’ are. Regardless, the senior staff’s facilities are up here. They get hot water for longer. Tulia assured me that the proper temperature will help minimize the aversion to it as well.”

Cecil nodded. The unit at the far corner of the structure carried the images of a shower and latrines. It took Agrippa’s badge hanging off his pocket to open the doors. The bathroom was not too far different from those used by the rest of the crew, if only by the more generous use of space. The showerheads were at the far end of the room, separated off by a half wall.

“Get cleaned up. I’ll be back with a fresh uniform. Hang up what you have on the wall,” Agrippa instructed calmly before clicking the door closed.

Cecil slipped off his shoes first. The floor of the facilities was cold and slightly damp. His jumpsuit and undergarments came next, leaving him bare to the world. Standing above the floor drain, Cecil depressed the shower knob, allowing the water to flow freely across the slanted metal ground.

A shiver ran up Cecil’s back. He blinked through the darkness and the movement of strange flashes. Steam began to enter his nostrils, floating up as the heated water warmed the cold floor. He took a breath and stepped under the stream.

The water was warmer than anywhere else. It didn’t matter, as a shower as a luxury was a foreign concept in any situation for him. The timed spurt of water ceased and allowed him to find the dispenser of soap on the wall. As he rubbed himself down, he felt the rough skin of his face, his bristly short hair, his bony shoulders, and cold goose-bumped skin. He punched the water on once again. It slicked his body and etched the built-up filth from him, washing it all away with the shower foam.

As he turned and allowed his back to catch the warm cascade, Cecil noticed the older man beside the door, back to him, waiting silently. Privacy was indeed an unnecessary luxury there, much like the previous positions Cecil had held before. The blasts of air from the sides of the shower stall dried Cecil before he turned his attention to finding the new garments hung on the wall by the row of lockers.

“Agrippa,” Cecil asked weakly as he stepped into the fresh jumpsuit and boots. “Why… did you choose to keep what I said… from Tulia?”

The older man shook his head, still facing the door. “I think… there is a certain truth… maybe not a truth… but a sense of reality in words… the recollections you’ve described.”

“If we were to ask that woman, she might use the word… hallucination?”

Agrippa shrugged and peeked back. “Depends on what you believe in. Are you spiritual, Cecil?”

“I attended church plenty when I was a child. My mother made sure of that. Never had time much after going off to school and the service.”

“Then you at least remember the stories, I hope. The ones of burning bushes carrying visions, or the will of God being sent to someone via the mountain tops. How would those stories sound to an outsider who had never heard those stories or the practices they created? Being told that some people believe that all of those things actually happened?”

“They might be… skeptical.” Cecil shook his head. “What are you saying?”

“What indeed. Just… making up my own stories now. Being skeptical myself. In a place like this, it would be hard to find people who could take the concept of a god seriously.”

“I used to believe that God… the Christian one… was the one making it hard for myself and my mother, especially after my father left. That he was testing us, you know?”

“I would be hard to escape from that notion if you were raised like that. Those such notions that we use to try and define the chaos that is all around us. They say that if all knowledge were to disappear from the world, humans would rediscover the sciences, the elements, mathematics, how the world works and turns… but would the same beliefs about the unknown still exist?”

“Like what happens after you die?”

“Precisely.’

Cecil shook his head and stared down at his boots, clean and standard issue, and yet to be tied. “I don’t know.”

Agrippa rolled his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I got to rambling. What I mean to say is… I believe there to be more with this planet then we know.”

Cecil stiffly knelt down and put the laces in place. “That… place down there,” he said, staring at the practiced lacing.

“What about it?”

“The pool down there.”

“Yes. A big unknown in plenty of senses. We are looking into it, as well as how the project is moving along. I’ll tell you what I know over some food. It’s… good to see you thinking about the… important things, Cecil.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

News From Home

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 7]

Data was easy to remember. Things that had structure or had patterns or that were logically simple. Cecil liked those things the best. Passwords. Schematics. Instruction banks. Force Diagrams and charts of calculations. Schedules— what time was it?

One vague memory that Cecil recalled then was of the rule barely spoken, but respected by most others. During a shift’s sleeping hours, nobody was to disturb the crew quarters. The room was self-isolating with a sealing door, a precaution in the case of a depressurization, fire, or any other emergency while the crew was asleep. If it were close enough to 1100, the lights would be off, and any intrusion would be taken as an attack on the other’s precious rest time.

Cecil considered skipping past the door, but off to where he couldn’t decide. He could rest back in the Medbay for another day, or continue on to his department where he could beg for a duty to accomplish.

A sound of low, echoing voices came down the hall towards him, down from the direction of the cafeteria. Cecil planted himself on the threshold from the catwalk to the hub building. The first of the other crew members came around the corner and spotted him. They blinked his way instead of turning, like he desired, into the center hall between the male and female quarters.

“Cecil—“ One said with forced happiness. “I did hear you were getting back on your feet today.”

“Good to see you back, Ruiz,” another spoke. Their attention turned away as quickly as it had arrived and the remaining others continued on, offering him nods as they split off into the two separate rooms. Cecil followed after the men.

By their stances, Cecil could tell that they had just finished eating, and were preparing to sleep. The night crew was smaller than the group that worked during the day, but still vital in watching over systems or experiments or maintenance or the growth of the station’s infrastructure. The vague faces and forms of the people there were known only through the moments of brief passing between shifts. Still, Cecil motivated himself to follow Agrippa’s words and join them in resting.

Cecil had been dressed in a borrowed uniform for the previous few days. His tight locker on the wall of the men’s quarters was in the same place and untouched, a somehow comforting notion. Inside was a sole set of coveralls, worn out, especially around the wrist cuffs. The second set was… the one he had been wearing on the day of the assignment. It had been removed before changing into the tight underclothes to fit into the environmental suit. It was likely still hanging there in the storage room, or trying to find its way through someone else and back to him. At the very least, the one in the locker seemed to be clean.

The others were amid stripping down out of their work clothes or already settling down before the call for lights out. Hands of cards were played between the tight collections of bunks, or books read on the communal tablets, or low chatter produced from the corners. The computer terminal at the corner of the room was in use too, purposed for checking schedules, or communicating with superiors, or even for receiving messages from home… far, far away.

The messages were collected by the agency from their senders, then sent via massive skyward-pointing dishes to space, then millions of miles on radio waves to the satellites orbiting the planet, and then doled out about the station’s computer systems.

If there was anything to expect, it would be a schedule from Martinez, the head of his department. Perhaps the man had heard of the meeting earlier that morning, and the commander’s allowance of Cecil returning to work and had already doled out some sort of meager responsibilities to keep him busy while he regained his strength.

Cecil finished changing and waiting for the line of two to complete their use of the terminal. He inched up to it next after the last person had made it through. 10:37 the corner clock read. Entering his pin on the touchscreen was muscle memory at that point. No schedule had been input for him, but there was a sole message, the likes of which he had no recollection of ever seeing.

Message intended for Mr. Cecil Ruiz, Antrum Crater employee ID #135

Date: December 19, 2037

From: Southlake Veteran’s Retirement Home

Re: Your mother.

Dear Mr. Ruiz.

We regret to inform you of the passing of your mother, a Mrs. Maria Ruiz. As previously requested by yourself, we will carry out the burial services, with invitations extending to residents and friends of Southlake Veteran’s. If you should wish to have something read out before said attendees, please reply to this message by the 28th of this month.

Cecil’s eyes found the clock at the corner, beside it the date: December 29th. He reread the message, his eyes darting to the words to make sure he had read them correctly. His eyes were blurry, even more so than usual in those days. There was another presence behind him, as if urging him to hurry.

“All good there, Ruiz? I’d like to check-in before lights out.”

Cecil nodded and stepped out of the way, not saying a word. He exited the door of the sleeping quarters, double-checking that the zipper of his jumpsuit was fully zipped.

Cecil

His name was called several times while exiting, but the words eventually faded into the haze of his mind. Cecil turned aimlessly at the intersections of the dim passages, then out to one of the catwalks. Before he got much further, though, someone stepped deliberately in his path.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the dark man asked, shaking his head.

The march of feet in the catwalk behind Cecil stopped suddenly. A few from the sleeping quarters had followed after him. Cecil glanced back at them and back forward to the dark man.

“Ruiz, I’m… sorry,” one of the others spoke behind his back.

“You all should head back and rest. I’ll work with him.” Cecil blinked at the man as the others slinked away. The dark man finally directed his eyes down again. “I understand that you won’t recognize me or remember my name, but I can’t have you going off on your own again.”

“Markus…?”

“So you do remember,” he sneered.

“Why…?”

“Why am I here? Agrippa asked that while I’m on duty that I keep an eye out for you. Noticed you pass through here, aimlessly, and I’m certain you don’t have a duty schedule yet. As for me, I’m on administrative punishment because of… never mind. But I’ve not got shit going on important, so here I am.”

“Agrippa.”

“He’s unveiled himself as a worrywart, but it seems like its with good reason.”

Cecil shook his head and turned back. Before he could start walking, Markus yanked on his shoulder. “What is your deal, man?” He whined.

Cecil turned back coldly. “Do you… have anyone at home?”

“No. Do you think some of us do? This is home, Cecil. What are you on?”

“My mother… passed away…”

Markus lowered his head. “That kind of person at home, yeah. My condolences. My folks are still alive, but they won’t be around forever. That’s just how things go.”

“I forgot about her,” Cecil said plainly, allowing his legs to take him forward little by little.

“We’re a long way away,” Markus followed, keeping his distance. “Doing our own thing, too.”

“No. It was as if I had forgotten about her completely. Her name. Her voice. It was long ago that I forgot her face, of course. The fact that she ever existed.”

“Does that have to do with your prospag— whatever, nonsense?”

“I… don’t know. That’s not how it should be, though? Forgetting about someone so close.”

Markus shrugged. “I don’t know how close you were to her. Everyone’s family is different. I think… most people here expect and know that the people we left behind on Earth will die, never seeing us again. But this is what we signed up for.”

Cecil made his way down the catwalk, to its sole plastic window looking out across the empty vastness of sand and rock. “She passed the day before the accident, it seems.”

“Strange how that works out. You got a pa, any brothers or sisters that were there for her?”

Cecil shook his head. “Only child. Dad left us a long time ago, too. But with my military benefits, she was probably well taken care of.”

“That’s probably the best any of us could hope for.”

“She was the one who encouraged me to accept the agency’s invitation to come here. Even knowing that she didn’t have many good years left and that the decision would leave her alone.”

“You’re going to worry yourself sick if you think about every aspect of her life.”

Cecil nodded. “If only… I could remember the sound of her voice again.”

“You know, you’re not a bad guy, Cecil.” Markus shrugged. “It’s just about lights out. You know the deal, especially with the night shift guys.”

“You’re right. Thank you. I will… be off.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

The Commander

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 6]

Maria was there the next morning while Cecil was attempting to find his footing off the edge of the bed once more. The socks gripped the floor with their rubber nubs, and his hand grasped the cold railing behind him.

“Easy.”

“I can manage.”

“Keep a hold on the wall if you must.”

Cecil allowed his hand off the edge of the bed. “I can’t appear weak before the commander.”

“You should appear as you feel. Allow me to walk you there, it’s only a few meters.”

“What sense is it being back on my feet if I can’t do it myself?”

Maria sighed. Her hands parted from Cecil’s waist. He stepped across the floor, allowing himself to drift away from anything to support him. His knees were sore and legs weak, but he focused on carrying himself forward. The door accepted his presence and opened to usher him out into the dim hall.

Maria waited as he walked through, allowing the cold air to enter his lungs. He glanced back, catching the glimpse of her— her dark hair was tied up, unlike other days where it flowed freely. Her eyes were dark and focused, and her lips seemed to smile hopefully. Cecil stopped and looked down the hallway in either direction.

All of the individual structures of the colony were self-sufficient, be it power or oxygen production, or computing systems. The humans who lived and worked there, however, all followed the man known as the commander, who only listened to the word of the agency located back on Earth.

Cecil couldn’t remember ever meeting with or seeing the man known as the commander, but he knew his name- Cassius. The narrow and dim hallway hummed with the systems inside. The vinyl patterns on the walls gave direction to nearby blocks or vital system access panels. If such systems ever needed maintenance, someone from Cecil’s team was usually assigned to provide maintenance on them, sometimes from the inside of the structure and other times through external access. The information on said systems all linked up to the brain of the compound where said commander worked from, in the same block as the medbay.

Cecil’s ears tuned out the white noise of the station, a skill practiced since his arrival. The ships he had served on in the past drones in similar tones. Sometimes the sound would keep him awake, and others, lull him off to sleep. Beyond the inorganic noises were the sounds of voices. The lighted sign in the hall read out command in a simple geometric typeface. The voices were just on the other side of the doors, activated with a touch sensor beside them.

The doors were louder than that of the medbay, but it was possible that the sudden silencing of the voices inside only made it seem that way. The command station was the heart of the whole base. The doors opened upon the viewing platform and its wide windows, and further below were the banks of computers and screens. The information held captive there tracked power usage and oxygen consumption and temperature and computer activity and active duty shifts.

The room was several degrees warmer than the hall, and the hum of fans was louder than any location elsewhere. The smell was reminiscent of body odor, covered up with old air fresheners. Below the viewing platform, two suited workers were bathed in the glow of the screens, their heads shifting back and forth like automated targeting systems.

The man that watched over the systems and workers there, on top of his oversight of the entire station, was Cassius. Cecil only remembered the name, but it was clear that the man— sitting front-and-center against the desk, a large presence with wide shoulders and a wavy beard that reached the middle of his chest— was said commander.

“Good of you to join us, Ruiz,” He nodded, standing up.

Cecil looked around for the digits of a clock, anywhere. “I’m not late sir, am I?”

Cassius shook his head. Agrippa was beside the door, just on the edge of Cecil’s peripheral vision. Tulia was at the side of the platform, standing still enough to blend into the dim light. “No. We were just speaking of you. Come inside, you’re confusing the door sensors.”

Cecil forced himself out of the attentive stance and stepped forward, allowing the doors to close behind him. Agrippa shifted forward enough to be in Cecil’s immediate view.

Cassius looked him up and down. “It’s good to see that you’re able to be here and stand before us on your own strength. It’s clear you’re physically fit, but the question that we hope to answer today is whether you’re mentally fit to return to your regular duties. Tulia will go over her preliminary analysis that she’s taken of you.”

Agrippa leaned his head in as if to pull Cecil’s attention his way. “If you feel that anything doesn’t sound quite right, feel free to speak up, Cecil. This is about getting you better.”

“I believe he understands, Agrippa,” The commander sighed. “Proceed, Tulia.”

The spindly woman straightened herself up and extracted the tablet from behind her back. “Well,” she began, sniffing, “Cecil Ruiz, while upon an exploratory assignment within the crater, released the sealing mechanism of his suit, and exposed himself to the non-sustainable atmosphere of the planet. In his state of oxygen deprivation, he collapsed into a natural formation of water that had been discovered by Ruiz himself at the site of their task. Ruiz was then extracted from the water and resuscitated but left unconscious, his helmet resealed, and his suit re-oxygenated. Such is the report filed by Augustus Agrippa, senior-most personnel on the assignment.”

Cassius nodded. “Is that how you remember it, Ruiz?”

The warm air was heavy around Cecil’s body. “The water… yes…”

The Commander glanced between the two of them. “Continue, Tulia.”

“Of course. Report by medbay staff— Upon return to the compound, Cecil Ruiz was brought under emergency treatment, suffering from heatstroke, acute hypoxia, and exhaustion. Patient was stabilized but unresponsive. Intubated and put on intravenous nutrition and hydration. After two days of intubation, patient’s lungs regained enough strength to work autonomously. One week after arriving in our care, patient returned to consciousness but remained disoriented. Nearing the two-week mark, patient regained awareness of himself and his surroundings— that was three days ago, Commander.”

“Understood. Continue— your thoughts are next?”

“Yes. Upon questioning, I determined that his previous diagnosis of Prosopagnosia has not progressed any further. Therefore, his current state of… mind, I believe, is being brought upon by acute post-traumatic stress from his accident.”

“Stress…?” Cecil perked up.

Tulia glanced at him. “Yes, Cecil. Abbreviated commonly as PTSD.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Cecil,” Agrippa tugged on his shoulder. “Perhaps let her continue.”

The woman nodded. “Even in cases when you are unconscious, your body still must cope with the stresses, especially in times of trauma. Your unconscious mind will still hold on to those experiences, in essence.”

Cassius cleared his throat. His arms were crossed against his wide chest as he examined Cecil. “The big question is, is he able to return to work? Let’s talk about the attacks he experienced the previous two nights.”

The spindly woman nodded and turned the screen of the tablet down towards her stomach. “I have no record of sleepwalking incidents in the past. Ruiz?”

Cecil shook his head. “Nothing… that I can remember.”

Tulia blinked at him. “Someone from the sleeping quarters could answer, maybe?”

Agrippa looked at Cecil for a split second. “I know someone I can ask. But considering Cecil’s… your history, Cecil, we can assume it has never been a problem.”

“I have to believe that it is simply something brought on by the stress,” Tulia spoke up.

Cecil

Cecil looked down at his fingers, still bandaged from his actions the night previous. The floor in front of him felt so far away, and the heat of the room was beginning to overwhelm his senses.

“Cecil?” It was Agrippa’s voice calling him.

“Huh?”

“What do you mean, huh? You must be out of it, answering your superior like that.” Cassius’ stern eyes were trained on him. “You know I hand select every single person who comes here. The agency allows me that, even the ability to override their own decisions. They don’t know what it takes to make it here. Ruiz, you were one originally rejected by the guys down on Earth, but I decided that your abilities and know-how were needed here. Your prosopagnosia was not enough to have me turn you away from this program. Don’t make me look like the ass here.”

Cecil felt the muscles in his neck tighten for an unknown reason. “No, Sir.”

Cecil

Agrippa slumped back, leaning his arm against the wall. “Cassius, I understand that we need everyone here pulling their weight, but I believe that Cecil needs more observation.”

Cecil took in a long heavy breath, his eyes darting to Agrippa and back to the Commander.

Cassius stood up off the edge of the desk and paced. “Tulia, I’ll leave the immediate decision to you—“ Before she could answer, the Commander spoke up again, his voice louder. “Maybe dig deeper and try to give us a guess on Ruiz’s thought process before he decided to remove his helmet, first off.”

Tulia held her chin. “Understood. For the time being, I am willing to clear Ruiz for his normal duty shifts, but no special assignments until we understand that. If there was any way I could examine him further, it would be with the polysomnography equipment”

“Of course. We shall arrange to bring that out of storage.” Cassius ceased his pacing and planted himself before Cecil. “Do you understand that, Ruiz?”

Cecil nodded out of understanding, but his hands churned back and forth by his sides.

“I can talk to Martinez to get you on a schedule to keep you busy, keep your mind on other things. I believe that’s the best middle ground we can all reach.”

Cecil

“What?” Cecil shouted, his head suddenly jerking back and forth, looking for the source of the voice. The Commander’s eyes narrowed at him. He grit his teeth and stood tall, shoving himself into Cassius, who had come too close. “Don’t tell me what I can do!”

“Cecil, what are you doing?” Agrippa hissed worriedly.

Cassius reacted as soon as Cecil’s chest met his. The Commander held up his arm and shoved against Cecil’s collar bones, shoving him back into the doors. “What the hell are you trying, Ruiz?”

The air was shoved out of his lungs. Tulia grabbed at the Commander’s arm and separated both of them. Cecil glanced about, catching his breath. The loud exclamation from the Commander had called the attention of the two technicians working in the lower section of the command center. Agrippa and Tulia were at either side of him, enforcing the distance between him and Cassius.

The big man bared his teeth. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you. I should have you mopping the floors like your buddy Markus, or headed outside to wipe down the solar arrays.”

Cecil looked at the floor, the sound of his name echoing distantly in his ears. He felt again the pressure of Cassius’ arm against his chest. Tulia’s and Agrippa’s feet were beside his own. The older man touched lightly against his shoulder. “Let’s go, Cecil.”

Tulia cleared her throat. “I shall upload the care plan to your dashboard, Ruiz, and forward it to Martinez. When you sign in for your duty shift, it will show up there.”

Agrippa opened the door with a touch to the sensor. He pushed Cecil out first, then followed after into the cold hallway.

Cecil proceeded first, not caring if Agrippa followed. The passage led him to the end of the command block structure, and off to the canvas catwalk. The foggy plastic windows looked outside where the hazy, dusty daylight beginning to illuminate the vast emptiness of the crater. Cecil’s eyes found their way to the tape patch, where someone had covered over a sort of damage to the canvas and its seams. Agrippa stopped beside him.

“We’re going to find out what’s wrong with you, Cecil,” he said calmly.

Cecil grit his teeth and jerked his head to the side, but managed to hold himself back. “Agrippa… what if… whatever’s wrong with me… what if it can’t go away?”

“I think… I don’t know what to think, Cecil. But there are many people here who know many things.”

“I don’t want to go home, Agrippa.”

“No mention of that was ever made. We won’t make you go home.”

“That’s because it’s not possible. Not cost-effective. Is that right?”

Agrippa shook his head. “These are things that you shouldn’t be worrying yourself with.”

“I can’t help it. So many hours awake, just staring up at the ceiling. Nothing to think of but…”

“But the worst?” Agrippa pursed his lips. “I understand. Hopefully, now that you’re back up and cleared for work, you can put your mind to other things. That big brain full of so much knowledge.”

“I don’t need that sort of praise.” He said, tensely shaking his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“I can’t remember… Agrippa.”

“Remember what?”

“Something at home. Why I can’t… shouldn’t go back. There is something there…”

“You won’t be going back. Period. We’re out here because we have a job to do. We shall stick to it, no matter the difficulty.”

Cecil stuck his hand to the window. He looked either way, back to the command hub, and then forward to the crew quarters. Agrippa nodded in the forward direction.

“I just remembered something I need to take care of back that way. You know how to get back, right? I think the night shift is wrapping up now, you might meet up with everyone— get some food in you. And get some rest back in your own bunk. Just to make things feel as they should again.”

“That’s… I’ll do that, Agrippa.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

Inside His Mind

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 5]

Cecil’s body was sore when he awoke, but the only thing he remembered from that night was the distant sound of his own name being called—

Cecil

“Cecil. Are you awake?”

He was sure he had heard the door, but that was before he had been forced awake by the strange call. His eyes flickered open. The woman hovering over his bed was thin, with a messy bun of hair.

“Maria?” He uttered.

The woman looked up and across the room with a distant look. Cecil’s eyes followed. He caught a glimpse of the dark-haired woman to whom that name belonged. Then it was the pull of the first person’s hand.

“Cecil, I need your attention right now,” she said sternly. Her accent was similar to that of Agrippa’s but somewhat distant. “I’ve been asked to put a few others on hold. To come here to see you.”

Cecil blinked at the thin woman.

“Perhaps you don’t remember. You may have heard me referred to as Doctor Tulia. We’ve… seen each other bi-weekly for the past seven months.”

Cecil nodded blankly. He sat up the best he could, his back and arm sore. “The doctor… is a man, though?”

Tulia yanked a stool up close to the edge of the bed and rested a tablet on the guard rail. “I’m a doctor of psychology, Cecil. Perhaps you’ve heard speak of an evaluation?”

Cecil glanced at Maria. Tulia nodded her head in the corner of his eye, and he turned back.

“Let me remind you, as your forgetting seems to be a part of a bigger picture of your mental state. My job here, personally, is to communicate with all members of the station to attempt to build a profile of the psychological effects of the long-term occupation of a place like this. Our findings are shared with the agency back on Earth. Does any of that ring a bell?”

Cecil nodded, but out of obligation rather than understanding.

Tulia frowned. “Okay then. Cecil, let’s first go over your Prosopagnosia. You’re familiar with what I speak of, right?”

Cecil nodded again, finally catching onto something familiar.

“Good. To date, it hasn’t affected your work, but we’re…. I’m concerned about its possible progression. For reference, can you describe when you first remember experiencing it?”

“I remember it when… after… after I was in the hospital as a child for head trauma.”

“Good. That is according to your record,” Tulia said, scrolling along the screen of her tablet.

“It was when… I couldn’t… recognize… my mother’s face. My mother… Maria.”

Tulia let out a short sigh. “She’s not going anywhere.”

“No… my mother…” Cecil murmured, rubbing his forehead, attempting to seek the connection somewhere in his mind.

“I’d like you to focus on what I’m asking you, Cecil. Next, wow would you describe… the way that someone appears to you?”

Cecil blinked and faced Tulia. “It is… a blur, yours is just… no different from anybody else. The same five things, the same places.”

Tulia nodded. “That is also consistent. Do you remember who you were with during the accident?”

“Agrippa and… Markus.”

“All good readings.” Tulia rested her tablet down in her lap. “Let’s continue with a few more questions. You sleepwalked two nights ago, I heard. Do you remember any of that?”

Cecil almost answered, then remembered the bandages, since removed from his healing fingers. “I remember… the outside.”

Tulia nodded hurriedly. “And last night. The… attack. When you fell out of bed… gasping, it was recorded. Was it a nightmare? And if you remember it, perhaps you can recall it for us?”

Cecil looked at the blanket in front of him. “I remember… not being able to breathe. No more than that…”

“A recollection of the accident perhaps?” Tulia leaned back and rested her elbows on her thighs. “One last thing. Something that Agrippa mentioned— an aversion to water. Something connected, as well, to the accident?”

Cecil blinked in confusion. Tulia studied his face before glancing to the nurse. Maria nodded and stood before taking down a plastic cup out of the cabinet, then filling it with water from the faucet. Cecil pursed his lips tight.

Tulia took the water cup from the nurse and poised it on the edge of the bed. “You’ve been on intravenous fluids, so you don’t really need to take anything orally, but perhaps your throat is dry?”

Cecil shuddered. He held his hand to take it. He steadied himself the best he could and pulled the cup up before his face. Without looking, he threw it back, attempting to swallow without having to feel it. One gulp through, he sputtered and coughed but managed to down the rest.

Tulia nodded and scribbled on her tablet. “I see. Nurse, keep him on IV for the time being, but make sure he is able to take some oral hydration as well.”

“Got it.”

The door whooshed open. The person who stepped through was obscured by Tulia. The thin woman glanced back, then returned her attention to Cecil. “Cecil, I can see that you’re getting better, at least by some measurements. If we don’t solve the root of these remaining… issues, though, getting you back to work may have to wait. That’s not what you desire, I’d hope?”

The man who entered through the door stepped up beside the bed. He was older, with a bald head, but he made no move to speak. Cecil studied him, but Tulia’s presence was overwhelming.

“Well, Cecil…” The woman sighed and sat back finally. “Agrippa, were you able to speak to the commander?”

Agrippa looked down at the floor. “Yes. Cecil’s department leader as well. Cecil, getting you back to work is our main focus, but not if you’re unable to— physically or mentally… well, please, work with us.”

Tulia blinked and nodded. She shuffled herself back and stood. “Like I said, I’ll be putting in more research, as busy as I already am. Agrippa, I’m at least happy to say that his Prosopagnosia— the face blindness— is at the same condition as it likely was before. There are other aspects we should keep an eye on, I’m afraid of, though. Maria, you have your instructions.”

Agrippa shifted around, hands behind his back, as Tulia sped out, exiting the loud door. He made a few cursory glances as the door closed behind her.

Cecil stared at the shapes of his legs under the length of the blanket.

“She really knows how to make you feel vulnerable, doesn’t she?” Agrippa spoke up.

Cecil nodded. “I need… a mirror.”

Agrippa pulled his attention up. “A mirror. For yourself?”

Cecil nodded. Maria shuffled about at the edge of the room. “I think I have a small one here…”

“I’ll remind you… you’ve been through a lot, Cecil.”

“I want to… make sure that… I’m still myself.”

The nurse stepped across the room, carrying the hand mirror, reflecting a bright spot of light across the surfaces of the room.

“Well, you are the same Cecil that I recruited to join us there that day…”

Cecil pursed his lips and nodded before taking the mirror. “There’s… something. Something I’ve never told to anyone. Even that woman.”

“Something that you haven’t told Tulia? You’re sure of that?” The older man tilted his head. “That’s something you remember?”

Cecil nodded. “Else she would have asked me about it just now. When I first started noticing the faces of people around me… blurring into obscurity… I could still always recognize myself in the mirror.”

Agrippa nodded. Cecil held the reflective surface up in his lap and gazed into it for a long moment. Just as everything else appeared to him, the tanned face in the mirror was blurry and distorted. The skin upon the man’s cheeks was dry and flaking and taut, his hair cut close to his scalp, and eyes rounded out by dark circles.

“That’s me,” Cecil lied.

’Good, good,” Agrippa mumbled, taking the mirror from Cecil’s hands with a slight resistance. He sauntered across the medbay and offered the mirror back to the nurse. “The first part to getting better is knowing how and where we hurt. Keep this in a proper place, Maria. In the case it needs to be used again.”

Maria nodded. Agrippa leaned in close for a moment to her ear, his lips moving. “I see. Okay. Okay.”

Agrippa pulled back and smiled at Cecil. “One last thing… what I came here for actually. Tomorrow, Cecil— the commander wants you to come by. Tulia and I shall be there too, to discuss with him our desire to get you more time to recuperate. I imagine that sounds alright with you?”

Cecil mulled the words and nodded. “Yes. I… don’t mind.”

Agrippa clapped his hands together. “Good. Then, we shall see you at 09:00 hours.”

The door whooshed as the older man took his leave. Maria was left, finding her way back to the desk at the corner of the room. “Are you anxious to get back to work?”

Cecil stared at his hands, the thought of the projects back in his department waiting to be assembled, disassembled, cleaned or maintained. The gears in his mind ticked like the mechanisms he studied and fixed and improved. He couldn’t remember what task he had left behind before going on the expedition with Agrippa. “I… like the feeling of getting things to work. Seeing how they work. If only… my body was the same way.”

“You may leave that to us medical professionals,” Maria attempted to joke. “Even Tulia. Though, compared to your tools and machines, the human body still has its mysteries. You said… that your condition came about after a head injury, right? I don’t mean to pry, but I didn’t see anything like that in your medical records. You do have a scar, though— I saw it when I shaved your hair.”

Cecil felt at the spot just above his neck, where the streak of skin remained, unable to grow hair like the rest of his head. “Yeah…”

“I’m sorry, I was just thinking of the record-keeping. If it were so important, it would be there. The administration is very thorough, after all.”

“My father threw a bottle at the back of my head when I was a child. Six years old.”

Maria shuffled quietly.

“She told me… after I was older… the whole situation. My mother, that is. She didn’t want to have the police involved, plus we probably didn’t have insurance. My mother took me to some little place where they were probably just playing doctor. Someone unlicensed. I got stitches, and that was that.”

“I’m sorry, Cecil.”

“My father worked long hours, two jobs probably. Got drunk when he wasn’t working. He probably felt bad after hitting me like that, but… it wasn’t long before I couldn’t remember who he was. When he was home those couple of hours at night before going to bed, it was like he was just a stranger to me, someone with a face I couldn’t remember. It was the same for my classmates at school, then my teachers. The only face I could remember with any accuracy was my mother’s.

“My father… got fed up… with being treated like a stranger, both by me and my mother… and he just left. Those times were tough, but the people at the church my mother attended helped us out a lot. By the time I had gotten into high school, we had lived with a few other families and in shelters and little dingy apartments.

“It didn’t matter to me, all the different people we dealt with back then… because there was no remembering all of them… any of them. But I could always see the pain in my mother’s face, from having to move us around, to borrow things, sell things… steal things. Maybe she didn’t think I could recognize it. But I told myself that I didn’t want to see her like that forever.

“Since other people didn’t seem to care for me, the person who never knew their name or spoke back to them, I could just focus on studying and working. When I graduated, I got into the Navy and tried out for the engineering division as soon as I could. From there… well, that’s all history. Well, that’s actually where I was finally diagnosed with the Prosopagnosia. Though, you probably know that part already.”

“That’s a lot to go through, Cecil,” Maria said, her face turned away from him. “It warms my heart to know that you’re still thinking of your mother, even now.”

Cecil nodded. “I… I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. For some reason… I can’t stop thinking about her. My mother. She was… I don’t know.”

The nurse finally turned back and forced a smile at him. “For the time being… focus on yourself. Your rest is the most important, Cecil.”

“Yes, of course.”

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