Hands

Salvation: Chapter 4

Gadreel was re-introduced to the constable’s yard. The other prisoners had since put down their tools and transported the slightly smaller scraps of rock to slightly different places and put away their hammers in the shed, lock replaced by the man on duty. The clouded sun had crept past its highest point, allowing the fog to creep lowly once again across the sky unfettered. The meager fire among the bunkhouses crackled with flames just big enough to radiate heat under the kindling rationed to them.

Piers and a few of the others took notice of his return. “You’ve come back. I didn’t think you would.” He stood up from his spot on an old log round, offering the seat to Gadreel.

Gadreel looked at his own feet, covered in thin leather, and found them urging him forward to the heat of the fire. “Why did you think that?”

Another prisoner, a dirty man with gray hairs, stared at him from across the fire pit. “Because they usually have a reason if they’re giving someone special attention. Especially to be taken care of so soon after arriving.”

“And to end up back here at the end of it all,” another mumbled.

Gadreel shook his head. “They wished to know more about me.”

The old man across the fire leaned in and shook his head. “And what’s there to find out? You’re not from this place, that’s obvious.”

“Let him keep his secrets,” Piers spoke up. “If he so wishes.”

“I would have preferred him gone for good,” The bread-stealing man from earlier, Arthur, stepped up to the fire, shoving the others aside. “One less ration for us to have to share.”

“They wouldn’t feed us more, even if there are fewer mouths.”

Arthur held his hands to the heat for a moment before scoffing and retreating to the exterior. Gadreel examined him before turning back to the others. “Where do people go to if they do not return?”

Piers sighed and crossed his arms. “They either serve out their sentences… as long as the constable thinks they deserve… or they head to the chopping block.”

“Chopping block?”

The old man across the fire drew a thumb across his own throat and made a hissing sound. “To lose one’s head.”

“Execution. If and when they are found deserving,” Piers slumped down. “Those kinds of folks don’t stay here for long. For that reason, I had to assume your case… well, perhaps I should not speak of such things. Does your land carry out justice in a different way?”

Gadreel shook his head. “I believe… my land is one without wrongdoing.”

The old man scoffed. “A paradise. Your land must only exist in your imagination.”

Gadreel stood carefully, eyes low, head shaking delicately, offering his hands out to the others. “I can assure you that I only speak what I know to be true. I would like nothing more but to speak to you all of the glory of God; his power and his forgiveness. If you were to hear his word and accept it, you may one day come to dwell in my land of Heaven, where all your wrongdoings will be forgiven and overwritten.”

The old man chuckled and patted his knee. “You are a storyteller, then. Did you make fun of the wrong sort on your travels here?”

Piers tapped at Gadreel’s arm and pulled it back to his side. “Save your breath. Many of us are not the sort who are deserving… even desiring any sort of forgiveness. But perhaps another time we will be open to hear of the tales of the land you call home.”

Gadreel found the eyes of the others glancing up at him, drained of energy, some replaced with discontent. He stepped back, finding the seat behind him once again. The heat of the fire danced with the cold air circulating the sitting area, and he realized how cold his skin had become.

Another day began with cold water, the lines of prisoners awaiting their tools to be handed out to them, and the gathering around the hard stones that collected in the low corner of the yard. He remembered how to hold and swing the hammer, but the feeling of the raw flesh from the split blisters made it hard to do.

Gadreel battered the same stone, little by little, until the bell and the first meal, then began again until the second notification. The break after the second meal was longer. The morning fog burned off quicker than usual that day, heating the ground and the laborers faster than previous.

Gadreel felt his skin slick and cold with sweat after some time. It dripped from the roots of his long hair and collected at his back, chafing the bare wings beneath the rough vestments afforded to him.

The second round of work began at the sound of the bell once more, but at a slackened pace. Gadreel was among the first to return to his hammer and boulder. “The constable are eating and napping this time of day,” Piers spoke over his shoulder. “As long as they hear the sound of the stones being struck, they won’t be bothered to check on us. We take turns each day. I’ll cover for you tomorrow, no need to wear yourself out any more than needed.”

Gadreel nodded but focused on the work regardless. After allowing his mind to escape for several long minutes, he was pulled back once more by the passing of a low voice, the speaker looking and leaning away as if the words weren’t meant for him. “There’s someone by the fence asking for you. But don’t let yourself be seen by the guards.”

Gadreel held the heavy end of the tool by his feet and scanned the long sections of fence, made up of wood and spiked wire and ornaments of metal. A tall figure stood, back to the yard, against the fence on the far opposite side away from the main building. Gadreel glanced back and began towards the man, leaving the hammer behind.

“What is this place you’re in, Gadreel?”

“This is a place of punishment, Chazaqiel.”

“I see. I sensed your pain and came this way. They are poor fools to treat you in such a way.”

“I wish to experience it.”

Chazaqiel turned back, his face and golden hair not dissimilar to Gadreel’s. “It is unwise for these greater powers to hold you back. It was understood that our words would draw unrest. But you must speak to them earnestly, speak to them of the Lord’s grace, and at that, they might understand why you must not be kept behind these walls. They would be urged to take part in their own salvation.”

Gadreel shook his head. “There are people in this very place, behind these walls, who I believe deserve to hear our words just the same.”

“That may be true, but men like these only look up to those who have power. Their Kings, in lands like these. Dwelling here will not bring you closer to spreading your influence.”

“There is ample time, is there not? Every person is deserving of salvation, Chazaqiel.”

“For us, time is not a matter. But mortals have a finite time here. We cannot speak to each and every one, for ten more will pass on while doing so. And if they do so unknowing of their possible salvation, where do they end up? Where were we told?”

Gadreel shook his head. “Not to Heaven.”

“Very good.” The other angel nodded. “Free yourself from these walls by whatever way possible. Do what you must to convince them it is necessary. I must continue my own tasks elsewhere.”

“It shall be done,” Gadreel answered, lowing his head. The other being covered his head with the well-worn clothing and began to march away on the adjacent cobble street until he could no longer be seen.

Gadreel blinked and turned back. The ringing from the pounding rocks sounded in his ears, the uneven rhythm almost blending into the ambiance of the cold afternoon. He returned back to where he had been working. The boulder he had struck was in the same spot, but the hammer missing.

Gadreel glanced about. The other workers didn’t seem to dare to look his way. He spotted the constable, the silver-toothed man, beside the main building, the hammer resting against his thigh and eyes trained on him. He smiled and flashed his gleaming front teeth as Gadreel approached.

“I’ll have that to continue working,” Gadreel glanced at the worn handle.

The silver-toothed man smiled wider, more cynically. “I’m not quite sure why it left your hands in the first place. You’d just been fed, no possibility you were tired and hungry. But we have a reminder for those who decide they’d rather not work. Step against the wall here.”

The silver-toothed man wagged a finger at Gadreel as he approached, finding himself staring at the worn and sun-beaten knots of the building’s siding. He tossed the hammer aside on the ground and unwound something from a pouch on his belt.

“Keep your eyes forward,” the silver-toothed man barked when Gadreel attempted to look back. There was a sudden snap, then a sharp strike to his back, seeming to cut through the cloth. It ran up between his shoulder blades like a cold touch that suddenly seared his skin with a burning sharpness. The bare limbs that remained from the plucking of his wings flinched and flexed with his shoulder blades.

The sharp sound made contact with his back once more, then twice, and one final long one, accompanied by the sound of a grunt from the constable. Gadreel felt the breath stuck in his chest, awaiting the next strike that didn’t come. With its release, he felt the stinging of the strikes, the skin rising from the welts, and the cold air digging its way in through the slashes caused by the end of the whip. He realized he had sunken to the ground, his legs sucked of their strength.

The silver-toothed man snapped his fingers. “Up, now. Get back to work. You have another hour.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

Stairs

Salvation: Chapter 3

After the first meal of the day came more hammering. Gadreel had begun tightening his muscles and blinking his eyes tight through the sound of each nearby hammer strike, but the feeling soon abated. It wasn’t long before the blisters on his hands grew elsewhere, bursting and leaving a cold slickness upon the raw areas left behind.

The light of the day had nearly pierced the clouds above. The door of the constable’s shack that guarded the edge of the yard opened. The silver-toothed man and his accompanying brutes, the ones that had brought Gadreel amongst the others, stepped out. Some of the prisoners stopped the movement of their arms to look upon them, while others knew better.

“Back to work! Those not working obviously don’t need the food, am I right?” He sneered, eying the prisoners. “Except you, feathered one.”

Piers glanced at Gadreel as he set down the tool and marched across the yard. “I knew it wouldn’t be long for you.”

Gadreel followed obediently, being led back to the main building where it seemed the constable lived and worked. The big men shut the door behind him and stood in his way. The silver-toothed man examined him up and down, pulling on the shawl down his back covering up the bulk of his naked wings. “Still no flight for you.”

“Have you now decided to hear the words I am dutied to speak?”

The sliver-toothed man came back around and examined Gadreel with squinted eyes before arching his hand back and replying with a slap across the face. “Your words are nothing but nonsense. Your body… those wings at your back, too, are inhuman. What else do you have hiding on your body? Talons? A fish’s gills, teeth of venom?”

Gadreel clenched his jaw as the sting of the slap abated. “My presence here is decreed a mission of peace… of salvation.”

The silver-toothed man folded his arms. “Keep your nonsense to yourself. The scholars and apothecaries that live in the castle desire to lay eyes on your body. So that they might determine what you are.”

“If that shall ease your qualms,” Gadreel declared, lowering his head.

The silver-tooth man growled and snapped, allowing the brute behind to take up Gadreel’s neck in his grasp. Before departing the building, they slung his shawl back over his head and back, blocking out his site of all but the movement of his feet.

The road through town climbed upwards. The cobbled that paved the ground resembled the stones that Gadreel and the others had been working towards busting apart in the work yard. Further along, the path turned to square bricks, growing moss, and climbing up one step at a time to someplace higher.

At the top of the stairs, the constable spoke to the guards at the gate. “We have the stranger.”

“Go inside.”

The interior beyond the doors was warmer and lit by candles and fireplaces. The orange light flickered and glowed against the walls which were made out of stone and not wood like the shacks the town’s prisoners were moored. Gadreel followed without complaint through the halls until they were met with those to whom the meeting had been promised.

“Well, well.” They were met behind a set of doors.

“Just like I said,” the constable boasted.

Three men, older, with wrinkles and thin hair, leaned, backs-bent forward, before Gadreel. “Do what you like. He’s not a delicate one,” the silver-toothed man added, shoving him forward and yanking off the shawl.

“Let’s have a look,” the first man mumbled.

“Have him undress,” said the second.

The already torn and loose clothes were pulled off Gadreel and left to settle at his ankles. His skin grew goosebumps, but he knew offering any reaction would gain him no favor.

“Fine skin, hair, and build,” noted the third man, pulling on and examining Gadreel’s fingernails and further below. “He’s intact, uncut, as well.”

“Disgusting,” the silver-haired man as well.

“Perhaps a sign of nobility,” The second man asked. “You found him where, again?”

“The town square. Showing off those spare limbs of his. Back before they were plucked of plumes. People came to us, though, speaking of a winged man.”

The older men trounced around Gadreel, eyes scanning his arms and shoulders and finally his back, the bare wing-like appendages hanging in the vicinity of his shoulder blades.

“There were once feathers here upon these… appendages?” the second man stroked the coarse, scaly skin with a single finger.

“They were bulky. Likely rife with nits and bugs.”

“Can you fly, sir?” The third man asked, finally returning to Gadreel’s view.

“I feel as if… it was possible at one point. But not with this body.”

The first man caught up to the third. “You have other bodies?”

“Where I was… before.”

The third man nodded, “Tell us about how you got here. Where you called home before.”

“Before…” Gadreel’s mind filled with clouds, any memory of a time before his arrival outside of the town absent. “I do not remember. But it is a place called… Heaven.”

“Heaven?” The second man asked. “I’ve never heard of such a land. Have you?”

“I haven’t.”

“No.”

The sliver-toothed man grunted. “He said he came here to spread word.”

“Who’s word?” The first man shook his head with a hiss. “The leader of your land, Heaven? A King? Or an Emperor perhaps?”

Gadreel perked up. “The Lord. He is the creator and leader of all things living, all things that have lived, and will live.”

The silver-toothed man smacked Gadreel in the back of the head. “You will speak no such words! The only lord recognized upon these lands here is the good King who sits upon the throne of this castle; for it has been his family line that has taken care of this land and our people for centuries. It has been his own blood that hath sewn this soil to allow us to prosper.”

“Calm yourself, constable,” the second man said. “Dress yourself, man of heaven.”

Gadreel crouched to bring the clothes up back around him, fastening the trousers and hiding the bare wings once more.

“This man speaks in riddles, it seems,” the first man glared at him with studious eyes. “He comes from a land called heaven, speaking of a man whom he calls his Lord.”

“A powerful man,” the third man added.

“He has said he is a messenger.”

The silver-toothed man shook his head. “A message of war, then? Invasion?”

The second man adjusted Gadreel’s rough collar and looked into his eyes. “What does your Lord desire for us?”

“Salvation,” Gadreel said slowly.

“That means nothing.”

“To be saved.”

“By what means?”

“I doubt the man knows every detail.”

“But it is a threat.”

“To save us from ourselves?”

“From what he seems to think our Kingdom is doing to us.”

“And from what point of reference?”

“Enough!” The silver-toothed man interrupted the exchange of words. The three old men stared at him, then Gadreel, who had barely moved from the spot. “When does your salvation come?”

Gadreel shook his head. “It is something you must accept on your own.”

“Are there more of you?”

“More, yes, I believe. I… feel them. But I have been placed here, solely.”

The silver-toothed man shook his head. “Your insight has been… productive, gents,” he said with contempt. “This matter now, I assume, must go to the king. His court, the guards, the scouts on the borders who might have seen something.”

“Aye.”

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Well, I won’t have him going anywhere, then. Good day.” The silver-toothed man grabbed up Gadreel by the hand behind his back and turned him about. “Until we hear from the King, you will return to the others where you can’t spread more of your rumors and threats. Move, now.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

Stones

Salvation: Chapter 2

Gadreel awoke, curled up on the hard wooden surface. Someone had placed spare clothes over in him the cold of the night. His body shook nonetheless.

When he had arrived, he was without any covering. The people of this land, he spied from far away, covered themselves at all times. On the edge of that town, near a sole dwelling, were clothes hung up for him, devoid of an owner. He took them as his own before attempting to fit in and speak the words he had been ordained to share.

The young but weathered stranger from the night previous shook him to attention. “Best get up before the constable decide that you’re late.”

Gadreel rolled over and sat up. It was daylight. His fatigue had taken him and transported him to morning once more. He was able to stand and readjust his clothing to a state similar to the others.

He blinked at the man, awaiting him by the door of the shared dwelling. The others had departed. “We work first. Then we get food.”

“Food.”

The man nodded. “It will get your appetite going, at least. Warm you up, too. I’m Piers, by the way.”

“Piers.”

“Like I said, before they decide to punish you for being late.”

Gadreel nodded, standing, unaware of what he was going to work for. The clinking of metal tools broke the silence of the morning. The walled yard contained the men he had seen the night before. They worked with heavy tools, taking large rocks and pounding away at them to turn them into slightly smaller ones.

Piers made several glances back to assure Gadreel was following. The tiny building built off the larger one held tools for them. “You know how to swing one of these, Gad?”

“Gad?” He asked, taking the shaft of the heavy hammer passed his way.

“It’s easier to say.”

Gadreel glanced back at the other workers. “It is not a hard task, I can see. Why do we do it?”

“Because it’s what they want us to do,” Piers shrugged, dragging the long-handled hammer behind him. “Sometimes some people go out and replace the missing cobbles from the road with these. Most times they just get piled up elsewhere. We do that too.”

“Why?” Gadreel asked, following.

“Because if we didn’t… I suppose we would be doing nothing. And they don’t want that. Us criminals to be able to relax.”

Gadreel dragged his palms across the rough fibers of the handle, finding the most natural place to rest his hands. He hefted it like the others, found a rock that had yet to be bludgeoned, and swung. His body shook as it made contact. The handle splintered and tore at his skin. He glanced at his palms but found no immediate sign of injury. The others swung apathetically, allowing the weight of the metal head to create the force needed to make the sounds to appease the guards. Then it was time for the re-centering of their breaths before another swing was attempted.

Gadreel swung again, allowing the hammer to do the work. His hands hurt again. The face of the rock was marred with white marks, but it remained intact. The soggy dirt and moss of the ground had deformed under the force. He went again, this time feeling less than before.

The chosen rock had shed a sharp fragment of its skin, leaving behind a rough surface beneath, but no more cracks had been divulged from the remaining mass. The bell rang from the corner of the yard, near the building where Gadreel had been inducted. The workers straightened their backs up, setting down hammers and rubbing hands against their clothing. As if they had been trained to do so, they began to march away from the field of work and towards the sound of the ringing.

In two lines, the men washed their hands and faces in a long basin of frigid water, two at a time. Then they wandered to the window to pick up the rations. At the end of the line, Gadreel found his chance to clean himself. He found upon his palm a bubble of flesh, swelling with liquid.

There was yet another below the finger of his other hand, he noticed while in the second line. “Your hands will grow accustomed to it,” Piers said, glancing back at him. He held out his own hands, showing off the thickened skin and circular calluses, ridges stained with dirt despite the recent watching. “Your skin is yet too pure and soft. What exactly have you been doing before this?”

“Move forward,” the gruff voice from the window called their way. “Get your food now or you won’t eat.”

The rations were old bread, a bowl of soggy porridge with a handful of mysterious additions for flavoring, and a mug of sour ale that had been just slightly warmed. They ate sitting on the ground at the edge of the building. Gadreel forced his teeth around the crusty bread, working his jaw to separate the dry mouthful from the rest of the loaf.

“Dip it in the ale,” Piers nodded, chewing down a softened piece of his own portion. “They give us whatever didn’t sell at the market yesterday. Probably because it’s loaded down with chalk. But it’s better than nothing.”

Before Gadreel could do so, the bread was yanked from his hand by a large man standing over him. “And why does he need any at’ll?” said the man, tossing the loaf around in his wide hand. “The man wouldn’t care for it, can’t ya see? He has the head and the hands of someone who eats cake, not bread.”

“He’s here with us now, so what’s the difference, Arthur?” Piers said with a shake of his head.

Gadreel stood and offered the bowl of porridge to the man as well. “No, this man is of a larger stature, he must need more food. Take it, with my blessing.”

Arther squinted at the new member before knocking the bowl to the ground with a wide swipe of the back of his hand. “Don’t pity me, straw-hair.”

A few of the others snickered as the big man retreated. Piers shuffled and attempted to save the remaining food in the bowl from dribbling into the mud. “Don’t pay attention to him, Gad. You need to eat. To keep your strength up. It’ll be worse if you aren’t able to work.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

Feathers

Salvation: Chapter 1

“There’s a strange man speaking nonsense,” was one of many reports that day. It took little time for the constable to come across him, then to bind his arms and cover him and finally drag him back. They held tight to his shoulders despite his lack of resistance. “In here,” the boss directed to the side door.

The room was equipped for making food, with a fireplace and cauldron, shelves and cabinets on the opposite wall, and a wide wooden table in the middle. “Get him on there,” another direction was spat.

He was forced against the edge as the top was cleared, then yanked up by the two men on either side of him until his feet no longer touched the ground. He attempted to raise his head, but the brutes held his shoulders down tight. “Your actions reek of blasphemy,” he muttered, barely able to lift his head off the rough surface.

“Blasphemy? Don’t try to scare us with made-up words,” the boss grunted to the sound of the two thugs snickering. “Tell us, what does blas-fe-my smell of? Is it of fowl? Because that’s the odor I smell upon you. Strip him down.”

The coarse-woven tunic was yanked up his back and stretched up around his neck, revealing the wings beneath, lined with pale white feathers in delicate shapes. The boss’ hands grabbed at their ends and contorted them until the captive man’s back arched up. “Strange. They’re attached. Pluck the man clean. I could use a new mattress.”

The tearing of his follicles made his body wrench back and forth as his hands found the edge of the table. The boss held him down by his neck as the job was undertaken, the plumes being plucked by handfuls and spread across the table and dirt ground.

The boss leaned down, grabbing up a fistful of golden hair and yanking the captive’s head up with it. “When I heard of a feathered man, I imagined one plastered with tar first. Someone who had already decided to make trouble elsewhere,” he smirked, revealing silver-capped teeth. He took a feather from the floor and twirled its end between his fingertips. “These are yours alone, though, it seems? Your bones aren’t hollow like a bird’s, are they?”

The captive’s head slumped back down as the silver-toothed man dropped it to examine the bare appendages leftover, bloodied and left to twitch in the cold air. “Well, at least now we won’t have you flying away on us,” he said, running a rough finger on the fresh, raw skin.

No force held the man down beside the lingering pain and shock from the assault. The sensation was new to him. Cold, hunger, fatigue, those all he had gotten tastes of, but this was different.

“Get a move on,” one of the brutes huffed. The captive was just able to push himself up when the forceful grasp lifted him the rest of the way. The old torn clothes were shoved back at him.

The rear door opened up to the cold air, the warmth of the day already replaced by the settling clouds. The captive fell to his hands and knees, attempting to catch his breath. The thin grass and dirt were wet with dew. Turning back, he could see the silver-toothed man jutting his finger across the yard to someone else.

Another prisoner approached, glancing down, then at the boss. “Yes?”

“We need this place cleaned,” the boss growled.

“A chicken? Or did you happen upon something bigger?”

“None of your business. Get it done.”

The door was shut and latched behind them. The captive finally found his breath and was able to push himself up. The cold had already spread goosebumps across his skin. The day had been warm enough to go without a covering over his top and allow his wings freedom, but the cold against the raw bare skin was too much. He pulled the stretched-out garments over his head and down his back once more.

The orange glow of a fire licked the walls of a wooden building across the yard, a wide space keeping him in by the use of tall fences of pointed timbers and rope. A few tired eyes fell upon him as he reached the source of the warmth, faces stained with dirt and exhaustion and age, all of them smelling of some measure of blasphemy. “A new body,” one said, shaking his head.

“Huh?” The captive answered.

“Not from these parts?”

“No.”

“You got a name?”

“Gadreel.”

Some nodded their heads in acknowledgment, others stared into the fire, imagining things more pleasant.

“This is not my place,” Gadreel said, finding a shiver work up from his back.

“The constable thought otherwise,” Some of the other strangers shook their heads, rolled their eyes, or stood and turned to retreat into the shacks surrounding the fire pit. “What did they decide for you?”

“Decide?” Gadreel shook his head. “It was decided that I come here and speak the word of his holiness. I am an angel of God.”

“God? You must have come a long way. I’ve never heard of anyone with that name. If you’re tired, you might sleep now. They put us to work at the first light of every morning.”

Next Chapter –>

Pressure

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 26- Final]

The odor of the washed silt and the partially decomposed body hung to the medbay and the hallway even after the resealed corpse had been wheeled out and down the hall to the morgue. The vinyl sheathes protected the walls of the room were noisily yanked down and smashed into a compactor bag to rid the room of most of the remaining miasma.

The doctor was washing his hands at the sink as Agrippa led Cecil back inside. “Still here, Agrippa? I must thank you for calling me to examine the find. Well, I would have seen it anyways, but the way the body was preserved under the layers of silt and within the confines of an environmental suit is quite the… curiosity. I could, and may, write a study on it. Mr. Ruiz is here too?” he finally looked back, drying his hands in the low hum of the air dryer.

Agrippa stood behind and pushed Cecil forward. “Tulia wanted a second opinion.”

“Still unwell, Mr. Ruiz? And not just from the toxic air, I hope.”

The older man shook his head. “Tulia went off to pull his medical and family history. In the case of tumorous growths running in it.”

Cecil couldn’t make eye contact as the Doctor shuffled toward him, the last few drops of washing water collecting in the ends of his rolled-up coat sleeves. “Hmm, I trust that woman’s intuition. What symptoms, beyond what we’ve already seen?”

“Headaches, blurred vision. Both of which he’s never mentioned, it seems to anyone.”

The doctor crossed his arms. “I should hope he could speak for himself. That true, Ruiz? I see it, eh? The swelling behind the optic nerve?”

“That’s what Tulia noticed, too.”

The doctor brushed his hands together and let out a long breath. “And I just relieved Maria and Paul for the rest of their shifts. I’ll get one of them back in to help me out, I guess.”

Cecil couldn’t concentrate on anyone’s words, nor their coming or going, only the throbbing of his temples and face. He held his head up with his hands, perched on the edge of the chair. What pulled his attention up was the touch of the cold, soft hand to the back of his own.

“The very person I imagined to see back here. You must really love me.”

The soft voice belonged to Maria, but when he looked up to find her face, the only thing he could see was the cloud of her dark hair and olive skin.

The nurse spoke up again. “The doctor told me about the situation, Cecil. I’m surprised I didn’t see it earlier. The… best way, at least among the things we have… is to scan your head with the ultrasound. I have to get the clippers again, shave your head once more.”

Cecil smiled and attempted to joke, allowing his eyes to dance around the shadow of her face. “If I were back… in the service… I’d be needing a cut anyways, for regulation.”

Maria’s hands traveled along with the buzzing of the hair trimmers, but even her light touch caused shooting pain across his scalp. Cecil bit tight upon his lip until he tasted blood. The noisy door opened as the doctor pushed the ultrasound cart into the medbay. “Is he prepped?”

“Yes, doctor.”

The cold gel after the shaving of his scalp was a slight relief from the pain, but the movement of the wand caused ripples of tension up and down along with its movement. The passage of the device eventually landed on a sole area.

“Is that correct, doctor?”

“That’s it. And what I’m afraid it is, too.”

The cart was pulled away, and the nurse worked tensely to wipe down Cecil’s scalp. The stool crept up close to the side of the bed, where the doctor and his white coat settled. “Mr. Ruiz. Let’s make sure we’re on the same page. I will send these particular images off to my colleagues back on Earth to confirm, but what I am seeing is a tumor resting between your left optical nerve and your frontal lobe. The method for extracting something like that is through the nasal cavity, an operation which I have not been specifically trained in, but am perfectly certain that I can perform. It is in our ability here. The risks, though, of such an invasive procedure range from you losing your sight, to your frontal lobe function being permanently impaired.”

“There is… another option?”

“There is, at least one that has been discussed in a purely hypothetical sense. The agency has contemplated various options in the case of one of us becoming injured or falling sick in a measure that cannot be treated by our hands alone.”

“Which… is…?”

The doctor lowered his head in thought. “You are to be put in cryo-sleep until your treatment is viable here, or a ship has the means to bring you back. Considering your outlook, returning home and having access to MRI imaging, or a more skilled surgeon, or more precise tools would improve your outlook vastly. But you would also be forever excluded from returning here. I recall your desire to remain here, Mr. Ruiz.”

Cecil held his hands to his face and shook his head. “I… have nothing to return to at home, on Earth. Nothing… nobody. If… I am to die here, as did Quaseem Saïd, then let it be so.”

“I understand. Alas, much of the decision lies with the agency. I will take it, then, that you consent to be operated on here, by my hands?”

“If… it will stop it. Stop everything. Fix… me.”

“I see,” The doctor sighed, grasping at his knees. “I shall proceed, then. I will need to gather my information and consent from the agency. Maria will try to make you as comfortable as possible for the time being while we work through getting the tools and permission we need. The sooner the better… for all of us, eh?”

“Thank… you,” Cecil said, shaking his head to better his concentration.

The doctor stood and took his leave. Maria wandered about the counter on the opposite side of the room. “You… answered quickly.”

“What?”

Maria stepped back, leaning against the cabinets behind her. “I guess there is only one answer, though.”

“You’re not going to ask Tulia? As if I were somehow not yet stable enough… lucid enough… to judge for myself?”

“Would you rather me to? Ask Tulia, that is?”

Cecil shook his head and stopped, allowing the smear of the nurse’s true image to settle in his mind. “I lied back then. When I said… I could recognize myself.”

“In the mirror, you mean?”

“Yes. But… what I really think I realized… was that I was simply so engaged in my work here that I disconnected myself from my own body. I was just a working drone. Do you feel the disconnect, too? As if the Earth is a completely different world, a different reality?”

“Sometimes, yes.” The nurse nodded. “The lack of communication… makes it feel like that, sometimes.”

“People accept you’re gone forever, so they stop trying to contact you all together. When… I received… the message about my mother… it all rushed back to me, in one sudden movement.”

Maria shook her head and shuffled to the edge of the bed. “Then why not go back? Better your chances of coming out of the operation with everything intact?”

Cecil looked down at his knees, barely sticking out of the blankets of the medical bed. “Because… then I would never get to see your face properly. To remember it.”

Cecil wanted to capture the movement of her face, of her eyes, and her brushing back of her hair in that very moment, but the sudden whoosh of the door interrupted the formation of the memory.

“Cecil?” Agrippa spoke up, marching to the edge of the bed. “Thank god you’re not under yet. I passed the doctor coming here from Command. You’re… truly going to go with the operation here?”

Maria shuffled back. “I suppose that is the case, at least according to him. Cecil, how is your head feeling?”

Cecil felt the pressure behind his eyes and the throbbing of his temples. “I… need it gone.”

“We should get you sedated, Cecil. Either way, he’s going under, Agrippa.”

Agrippa crossed his arms and stood back. “I understand that. I’m surprised that Tulia… I don’t know, didn’t think of this possibility first. A tumor. I suppose she would say how it could explain your reckless decisions, your bullheadedness, your lack of attention, your mood swings, your… everything. I did once feel like I could have figured you out, Cecil, but I guess that was impossible all along. Did I really get to know the real you? The careful, thoughtful, attentive Cecil?”

“I’m… sorry, Agrippa.”

The older man smirked. “I don’t need those to be what may be the last words I hear from you.”

“What, then?”

“What words?” Agrippa rubbed his face and shrugged. “I don’t know if words suffice. Just think about… what you’re doing. I might sound cruel here, but I would hope you end up back on Earth to get the operation done. To have the best chance at remaining yourself, your true self. Even if you aren’t here, you can still do so much more. Alas, this is just me doting again.”

“You… never had to dote on me, Agrippa,” Cecil said weakly.

“No, but if I were in your position, I would want someone to be a pain in my ass so I could get myself back in order. Ignore what I said, you understand the risks. I suppose I have no say in it. Never did. But it stands that I wish you the best.”

Cecil laid his head back and squeezed his eyes shut. “Thank you for… keeping up with me.”

“Never mention it.”

The nurse approached with the needle and alcohol wipe in her hand. “Cecil, this will help you relax. Let you sleep. Depending on how things go… when you wake back up, you… may be in a completely different place. But either way, I hope nothing but the best from your recovery.”

Cecil nodded as he felt the needle pierce the skin of his upper arm. Blinking a few last times, the blurry figures of Agrippa and Maria faded out into the bright lights above.


Cecil…

Cecil…….

Cecil……………

His body was heavy. The room smelled different at first. The lights above only existed to blind him and cause his eyes to burn.

“Cecil, can you hear me?”

[End]

<– Previous Chapter


Hey Greasers,

Thank you to those of you who continued to work your way through this book as I kept putting it up at a snail’s pace even a good three months after the writing was completed! It was quite a long one as well. Perchance my next book up here will be a more manageable short story.

Did you really enjoy this book and want to support me? Along with this post, I complied an ebook edition that you can get from my kofi page for only $1! Supporting me there helps me run the site, advertise my books on Amazon, and have people create awesome covers for me. Anyways, thanks for reading.

-Sandwich Sean