From Below

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 25]

The following days, the medbay was manned by both the doctor and the male nurse. Their proportions were slightly different from one another but were close enough in height for Cecil to lose the ability to tell them apart. He was attended to by them throughout the next several days but often without more than the fewest words necessary. They rarely spoke out loud in his presence, except for the short times when their shifts overlapped and the chatted mindlessly about the ongoing experiments, or the gossip of the station, or what the cafeteria was serving.

The low din of the station’s systems was all that Cecil’s mind could deal with, despite trying his best to ignore it and allow it to fade into the background like how it had existed in the past. He wanted to be elsewhere. Down there… it was quiet.

But not for long. He knew that sooner than later the geothermal systems would begin running, pressurizing and extruding the supercritical carbon dioxide, allowing it to be brought back to its gaseous state by the heat of the ground beneath Secundus. The turbine and its gearing mechanisms would begin to spin as the extruded gas flowed freely out of the pump head and collected once more to start the cycle anew.

Cecil’s hands still ached from the work he had put into those mechanisms. His hands were hard to lift up before his face, but even when he did, they were too blurry to make out the mostly healed wounds, the old cuts along his fingers and palms and wrists.

When his mind had finally exhausted itself, only then was he able to like Maria had asked. In his half-asleep state, forced upon him by the bright lights, he managed to pick up the chatter of voices held beyond the medbay door.

“He hasn’t moved at all. No strange attacks, either.”

“Perhaps his brain is sorting itself out, bit by bit,” Tulia spoke lowly. “When he’s lucid enough, give him the appropriate dose of supplements. Getting his physical condition back to normal is our number one priority.”

Cecil scanned the walls of the medbay, where there were tall cabinets and shelves and racks of medical supplies. He felt as if half of the entire selection of the pills and tablets had been administered to him some time or another. When the door whooshed and the male nurse returned inside, he feigned sleep once more until the real thing caught up with him.

Cecil

Cecil, hear me.

This… is it.

Send… me home.

There was a sudden detachment, from the sounds, the sensations, the thing that had been pulling on his mind. There was but blackness and void, and without warning, it was yanked out of him, or perhaps, him out of it.

“Cecil, wake up please.” Maria’s hands were gently upon his shoulder.

“Huh?”

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing of concern. This isn’t about you. But something’s come up.”

Cecil forced his eyes open, shielding his face with his hand from the bright glow of the lights above. “Is… everyone okay?”

Maria let out a low sigh. “I… suppose so, but… we may need use of the medbay here. For other purposes.”

Cecil forced himself up. His back ached from having laid back in the same spot for multiple days. “Nobody is hurt?”

“That’s… not what it seems to be. But we’ve heard back from Agrippa. He’s found something.”

It was silent there. Rather, the sounds of the station’s mechanisms, and the creaking of the bed, and Maria’s gentle breaths, and even the beat of his own heart were present and somehow calming, ordinary. “What does that mean? Where? What sort of thing?”

“I don’t have the details, Cecil. But command has been contacted, and they had the doctor bring some supplies over.”

Cecil felt a shiver run up his back, followed by the crawling of goosebumps across his skin. “I know… what it is.”

The nurse shook her head. “No, I highly doubt that. But I’m sure we’ll all find out soon enough.”

Cecil forced his legs around and began to prop himself at the edge of the bed. The nurse hurried around to meet him as his knees locked and wobbled back and forth. “Let me talk to Agrippa.”

“I don’t think that’s possible at the moment. Cecil, you don’t have to leave just yet.”

Cecil breathed heavily and leaned back onto the bed’s railing. “I know… what they found.”

Maria leaned close into him, holding him up with arms wrapped around his back. In the cold room, Cecil could feel the heat of her body. “Don’t go down this path. Breathe.”

Cecil allowed his arms to relax around Maria’s shoulders as his chest settled. “I’m… sorry.”

“Don’t be. Can you stand now?”

Cecil pulled his arms away and straightened his back. Maria’s dark hair and warmth pulled away from him. He attempted to look into her face. Through the blur of his eyes, he could detect a hopeful smile.

“Good, there you go,” she spoke up, stepping back. Her eyes danced around his face, and her palm reached up to feel at his cheek. “I imagine you want to be presentable when Agrippa comes back? I’ll unlock the latrines in this area here so you can get a shave and a shower in.”

Cecil felt the warmth of the fresh uniform on his body. The mirror was foggy from the condensation and blurry from the distortion of his eyes, but he managed to catch a glimpse of what seemed like himself.

His stomach was empty and legs still weak, but he couldn’t think of anything besides the discovery that Agrippa had come across down there in Secundus.

Send… me home.

Cecil marched along the catwalk from the command block to the central block where the main airlocks were located. He passed a few others on the way, some of which made double-takes at him, but he couldn’t pause to interact with them.

The wide windows of the central block gazed out upon the Martian landscape. The slope of the crater climbed up into the hazy daylight. A long tube of flexible material ran down the slope from the secondary station and to the systems there, something that had only been installed recently.

“Cecil, is that you?”

Cecil turned back to glance at the dark man. “Markus?”

“I… didn’t expect to see you out here,” he said, rubbing at the back of his head.

“What’s going on?”

“I guess if there was anything to get you out of your funk, it would be some strange news like this,” The dark man shrugged. “You heard, then, about what they found at the bottom of the pool?”

“I… feel like I should know.”

Markus shook his head. “We lent the teams up there sonar equipment to scan the reservoir. To calculate the volume of water that it may have contained. The 3D map they generated showed… something that looked like the shape of a person… an EV suit. But… everyone here is accounted for. Strange, doesn’t it sound?”

“No.”

“No?” Markus huffed and chuckled. “You’re a funnier guy than I thought.”

“What are they doing now?” Cecil asked without pause.

“Up there, you mean? Hell if I know. But we have accepted a bunch of water into the stores. They ran the lines just a day ago, too. You can see it there. I have to assume they’ve been pumping it up to drain that pool of yours. Maybe to find out if what they found down there is… just some weird shadow or not. One of the guys just drove the doctor up there, actually. He had some strange pack with him, didn’t have the mind to inquire about it.”

Cecil felt the cold air of the central area enter his lungs. He shifted himself down, eyes locked to the view out the tall windows.

“Cecil?” Markus asked cautiously.

“I can… no,” He paused, shaking his head. “Agrippa is still out there?”

“Haven’t seen him back, so I have to assume so.”

Cecil nodded. “He will be back.”


The haze over the dull landscape slowly shifted. Even after Markus went back off to his work, Cecil stayed in place, anticipating the eventual return of the news, among other things.

The heavy rover began to crawl down the slope from Secundus and into the view of the station’s windows. It was a longer vehicle with a covered cargo area for carrying more weight or personnel, including the likes of the machines that Cecil had worked with for so long. What it carried for them, that day, was something different.

The driver maneuvered the cargo compartment of the vehicle to face the airlock outside of the main structure. Cecil caught sight of a long black package lying in the back. A couple of suited men stepped down from the back of the vehicle and went through the airlock first.

Cecil awaited them as they stepped through, holding out his hand as they removed their helmets. The first face he didn’t recognize, but the second man spoke his name as the helmet came off his head. “Cecil?” The pleasant but wary English accent entered his ears.

“Agrippa…”

“Don’t worry, Augustus,” the doctor spoke up, removing the rest of his own environmental suit. “Maria has been observing him. He’s well enough to be… excluded from the medbay. We’ll need the space anyway. Speaking of which, allow me to go ahead and get the set-up process started.”

Agrippa nodded but kept his eyes on Cecil. “Go ahead, doctor.”

Cecil hung up the two helmets in the storage room off to the side of the airlock while Agrippa finished disrobing.

“You ended up in the medbay again?” The older man asked seriously.

“It’s none of your business.”

“You’re right… for once. Cassius would throw a fit if he knew I was attempting to keep tabs on you still, while my responsibilities have been adapted so far.”

Cecil held his breath as Agrippa hung up the suit beside him. “You never had to keep tabs on me in the first place.”

Agrippa huffed loudly and tugged on Cecil’s arm. “You’re absolutely right. But if not me, then who? …No, someone would have stepped up. Perhaps it is my controlling nature. But please… tell me… have you been communicating with Tulia? Working with her?”

Cecil shook his head. “She doesn’t understand.”

“She would be the one to understand the best.”

Cecil wandered back out of the storage room and fixed himself by the tall windows once more, gazing out to the side of the rover. Agrippa followed, standing behind him in silence. “I know what you’ve brought.”

The other workers from Secundus were beginning to unload the black vinyl cargo from the rear of the vehicle, transporting it among the three of them on a rigid plank. Squeezing in the best they could, they managed to fit beyond the closing outer doors of the airlock.

Agrippa crossed his arms and watched as the air cycled. “I suppose I did tell you to do your research on the Adventum mission. To be honest, I’m both intrigued and frightened to find out what remains in there.”

“It’s… the key to… understanding what’s wrong with me.”

“That is?” Agrippa said skeptically, holding his nose as the interior doors opened for the crew. “We’ll have to see then.”

The workers remained in their suits as they walked through the corridors and catwalks of the station, destined for the medbay. A heavy, earthy smell worked its way through the air as Cecil and Agrippa trailed behind them.

The pneumatic door of the medbay opened for the workers, causing the long sheets of clear vinyl strung from the ceiling to flutter about. Most of the furniture and fixtures had been pushed or folded back against the walls of the room, leaving only a solid folding table at the center. The doctor and nurses had dressed themselves in rubbery layers of clothing across the entirety of their bodies, including masks that covered their faces. A wide fan had been mounted from the ceiling, hanging down over the work environment, and funneling the air up to the ventilation port in the ceiling.

“Get him down. Right here.”

The workers passed the vinyl sheathes and settled the cargo down before relaxing and removing their helmets. The first breaths of the outside air caught up with them, and they quickly retreated back through the door.

The dark payload was just visible through the milky plastic. Agrippa and Cecil stayed put, watching as the nurses moved the table about to best get around it.

“Gentlemen,” the doctor spoke up in a muffled tone through his mask. “Decide if you’re going to be in or out, but this room must stay sealed until we’re done… for the sake of the rest of the station.”

“The sickness… wouldn’t be airborne, would it?” Cecil postured.

“Sickness?” The doctor returned. “No, but the smell, I imagine will not be pleasant, if this is what we imagine it to be.”

Agrippa shook his head and glanced at Cecil. “I, too, must say that I am curious. Continue, doctor. We will remain.”

The body bag zipper was undone with a swift movement. The vague figure of an old space suit, something of blocky and clumsy construction, was beneath, plastered and stained by layers of sticky sediment and mud. The earthy odor spread across the room. Agrippa breathed in deep and out.

The sink in the room had been fitted with a hose and a sprayer head. The doctor carefully allowed the water to flow in glimmering streams, slowly eroding away at the caked mud that still clung to the suit.

Agrippa held at his mouth. “We found him like that,” he said lowly, enough for Cecil to hear. “Stuck, seeming to rest partially in the muck at the bottom of that reservoir. My best guess is that it was actually an old volcanic vent, all the way down, that eventually got sealed off, at least most of the way. The old opening in the ceiling allowed silt and sand from up above to erode its way on down, as well as condensation to build up there over time and gather in that pool.”

“And… him?” Cecil asked, diverting his attention from the recovery for only a brief moment.

“If… he is who we think he is, it must be that… he just joined with the moving sands, and eventually came to rest down there.”

The splashing of the washing water prickled at the plastic sheets guarding the rest of the medbay. The dirty liquid flowing off from the suit rounded the floor before eventually running down the undersized drain. Little by little, the original pale white of the suit began to come through. The flaps of the rubberized body bag came down, allowing access to the sides and the back of the mysterious suited figure.

The visor of the wide, domed helmet shined with drops of water, but beyond the once clear material was nothing but darkness, despite the bright lights above.

The doctor stepped back and shut the water off. He glanced the suit up and down, looking for how it was sealed and secured closed. “I imagine the zipper will be inoperable. Nurse… the large scalpel, please? Perhaps the shears, too. Gentlemen, this may be the time to hold your noses.”

Cecil took one last breath and held it. His heart beat fast, and a certain pain entered his mind. The doctor took the long, shining blade and began to carve through the old layers of suit, the thick fibers fraying and splitting with a low clicking noise. The blade was operated with long sweeps in the skilled grasp as the difficult layers were pierced.

A rancid smell entered the air. The doctor’s actions slowed, and the nurses began to pry at the cut edges with forceps to open up the gap wider. They stepped in front of the body, blocking view from the doorway where Agrippa and Cecil were standing.

“Decomp is… incomplete.” The doctor mumbled. “The suit remained sealed all this time, all the oxygen depleted. Anaerobic…”

Agrippa pulled the underclothes up over his nose. Cecil shifted himself around for a better look, but the nurses and doctor blocked his vision of the body.

“Nurse, do you have the records?”

“Right here, sir,” Maria answered, shifting back for a laminated document.

“Paul, help me with the helmet. There it goes. We just need it off slightly. Maria, while I have the jaw opened, please.”

“Got it, sir. Yes, I have a clear view. I see. These sets of fillings and the crown are the same.”

“Okay, then. Release. Let’s get off the rest of the suit, piece by piece, and get him to the morgue before the decomp starts to get back to action.”

Agrippa sucked in a long breath before turning back and exiting the door. Cecil followed after, nearly bumping into the spindly woman just beyond. She engaged the door to close back down.

“Ugh, what a putrid smell.” She huffed, her hand to her face and leaning away. The doctor’s voices could be heard out in the hall from the speaker system. Cecil glanced up away from Tulia, where the commander was leaned against the wall.

“The doctor gave you instructions to remain there with the door closed,” Cassius grumbled.

“I’m sorry, I… just couldn’t take it,” Agrippa huffed.

“Guess you couldn’t help it. It could have been worse had the man turned to soup in there. The testament of American engineering in those old suits.”

Agrippa suffered through one more long breath through his nose to clear his lungs and mind. “At… long last, we solve the mystery of the thought to be forgotten Quaseem Saïd of Mars.”

Tulia shifted back and forth and nodded. “The only question is… what’s next? Commander?”

“For the poor sap in there?” The big man shrugged. “The unmanned capsule to send back samples to the agency is only a few months out. Obviously, the body should be returned to his family… finally. The only problem is finding room on the craft.”

Agrippa nodded his head and shrugged. “My department can cut down on the samples we send back. It should be plenty of room.” The older man’s eyes found his way to Cecil, who had been holding an unending stare to the ground between them. “Cecil, was this as you thought it was going to be?”

Cecil shook his head. “Tulia, will you listen to me now?”

“Listen to you about what?” The spindly woman sneered, “You managed to unlock the mystery before anyone else, if only by chance. I’ll give you that.”

“Tulia, that is unnecessary,” Agrippa leaned in.

“No, no,” Cecil groaned, falling to his knees. The others jumped back, save Agrippa who grabbed at Cecil’s arm to attempt to catch and support him. “It was… his voice… Quaseem’s that I heard… guiding me to the old station… to him, down there, waiting to be found… returned.”

Tulia held her ground. “Dead men don’t speak, Cecil. Shall I spell it out for you? Your compromised mental state has made it difficult for you to tell your dreams and waking consciousness apart. When you are awake, you’re trying to put together a view of reality that is based on the facts you’ve collected and built a bias about. It’s time you step out of yourself.”

“Cecil, in this case, I have no choice but to agree with Tulia’s assessment,” Agrippa leaned in close. “The only way to get better is to recognize the sickness within you.”

Cassius crossed his arms and snorted to clear his throat. “I have no issue putting you back in solitary until you decide to accept help. Agrippa, get him out of here so there’ll be room for them to bring the body over to the morgue.”

“Sickness…” Cecil mumbled as Cassius waddled off and back to station command.

“Let’s get you up, Cecil.” Agrippa urged. “Have you eaten?”

“The sickness…” he said again, shaking his head. “When… I contacted the water… I must have taken in the sickness… the one that Quaseem succumbed to.”

“Cecil,” Tulia huffed. “You heard what the doctor said. The suit was sealed. So tightly that the bacterium decomposing ran out of oxygen and suffocated before they could finish the job. None of the supposed sickness was able to seep into the water. Anything resembling Quaseem’s illness is psychosomatic. In your head.”

Cecil held at his eyes. His face and temples throbbed. “It… can’t… be… my head…”

Tulia yanked at Cecil’s hands, pulling his arms away from his face. She tugged on his chin, pulling it up and examining his eyes. Her own eyes narrowed. “Agrippa.”

“What is it?”

“Look at his eyes. The left socket seems swollen, or is it just the light?”

Cecil sat back and allowed his arms to be forced about. “What does that mean?”

Tulia shook her head and gazed into Cecil’s eyes. “Tell me again, Ruiz. What do you see when you look at me. Agrippa, even? The world in general?”

“There is… a haze over everything.”

“Not just our faces?”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

Surrogate

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 24]

Cecil didn’t respond to the following visits. The visitors came, opening the door, invading the room with the light from the hall, then the room’s ceiling light, then their voices calling his name. He kept his face buried into the pillow, blocking out the external stimuli.

The strange feeling crept its way into his body. It was a thousand tendrils creeping across his skin, then underneath it. His head was filled with fuzz, something between the dissonance from the outside world and a pain creeping into the folds of his gray matter.

The next invasion was the hands on his shoulders and the sharp voices.

Cecil

“Cecil, you’re going to waste away here.”

“We should move him to the medbay.”

“He’s unpredictable and we don’t have the extra bodies to keep someone around in there with you.”

“He should at least be getting fluids.”

Cecil

“The man will just injure himself if we give him something sharp. He’s responsive, he just doesn’t want to move.”

Cecil

“I don’t believe he’s capable of that. I can manage him. The medbay will be a proper safe space for him.”

“But for you?”

“Just be patient, Tulia. Cecil. You know the sound of my voice.”

“Maria…” He said, voice muffled into the pillow.

“You can’t do this to yourself.”

Cecil, I am fading.

Cecil shoved his hands into the mattress to try and force himself up. When he attempted to suck in the cold air of the room, the breath stuck in his chest. His back arched, and the two women jerked back. The nurse returned her grasp to his shoulder and attempted to flip him over.

Cecil’s throat closed up. His fingernails dragged across his chest. The front of his coveralls had been opened, and the undershirt had been torn and stretched and bloodied by the raking of his fingers.

Tulia felt at his throat for his pulse, racing, while the nurse restrained his hands from doing any more damage. Tulia jumped back and pressed on the communications terminal of the room. “I need someone here now, we need to carry Ruiz to medbay.”

Cecil’s breath had returned to normal by the time he had found himself back in the hospital bed. The loud door sounded in his ears.

“He’s breathing now, Commander.” It was Maria’s voice speaking across the room.

“Intubation?” The deep voice asked.

“No, he just suddenly regained his breath.”

“And he started having this issue as it was just you and Tulia in there?”

“Just about, yes.”

The Commander grunted and sneered. “He’s playing around. Trying to get himself out of that room.”

Cecil felt his undershirt being shifted up, revealing the sore, torn, and bleeding skin underneath. “Does this looks like attention-seeking to you?” The nurse asked bitterly.

Cassius’ feet caused the floor to creak as he stepped forward, grumbling. “You’d be surprised to see what a desperate person, especially one not right in the head, will do to themselves for attention. I was just communicating with Secundus, I need to get back to it. Get him patched up and back off to isolation.”

Maria huffed as the door sounded again. She hovered over the bed, hands grasped hard on the railing.

“Maria…” Cecil managed to mutter.

The dark-haired woman shook her head. “Why, Cecil?”

“I… promise…”

“Tulia would say it’s psychosomatic. You’re reacting to something in your head. I can’t argue with her because I haven’t been able to find anything else wrong with you. You should tell me now if you’re just faking it or not. You know… you know you can trust me, Cecil.”

“It is… fading.”

“What’s fading?”

“It.”

“I don’t know what it is, Cecil.”

“The feeling I’ve felt all this time. The voice, the presence. It is… being… dislodged.”

Maria shook her head. “You’re speaking like you did when you originally came in here after the accident. Just… rest for now.”

Cecil forced himself up slightly, his chest sore, and IV shifting sharply in his arm. “You have to… believe me… that I’m sick.”

The nurse stopped at the edge of the bed and held her hands in her pockets. “Tulia told me you’ve said the same thing before. All of the tests we’ve done on you tell me you’re in good enough health. What sort of sickness do you think you’ve caught, Cecil?”

“Quaseem… Saïd…”

The nurse sighed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that name. You’ve done your research, then? I can’t, Cecil. His situation has no connection to your own.”

“What… happened to him?”

“Before disappearing? The general consensus of the agency’s medical board is that he was infected with staph. It’s quite common to reside on human skin. Escaping the disinfecting and hygiene procedures that are undergone for coming to the planet here would not be unthinkable. What they say, and what I choose to believe as well, is that the strain he had grew resistant to treatment because of all the stuff pumped into us to begin with. When Saïd cut himself, it had a way to enter his bloodstream. Likely it developed into meningitis, which attached itself to the base of his brain. At that point, it’s inoperable. The infection causes a rapid decline in mental facilities. But I suppose that’s why you landed on that theory.”

“Maria…”

“Cecil, we’ve done the blood tests. You would have shown other symptoms too. In your case… we have to continue with Tulia’s care plan. You must focus on keeping yourself physically sound as well. Sound body, sound mind. That’s how you will have a fighting chance to take on the trauma that is clouding your mind.”

“Maria…”

“Quit saying my name like that,” She said, turning back. “You wouldn’t remember my name if it weren’t the same as your mother’s.”

Cecil laid his head back heavily, pursing his lips.

“No, I shouldn’t be saying that. I’m sorry. I… I can’t be a surrogate for her. Tulia said that might be the case. You’re a wonderful man, Cecil, but… it isn’t the proper way to cope.

At the very least, I won’t let you go back to that room. That dark place where you can just allow yourself to wither away in shame and sadness… it isn’t right. Just rest, Cecil. Just rest.”

Cecil relaxed the tension on his neck and allowed his head to drop further. He heard a low whimpering from the nurse before she exited the loud door.

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

Solitude

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 23]

Locked away in Agrippa’s quarters, there was only the low hum of the station’s systems to keep him company. They were once the sounds that carried him off to sleep, a sign that everything was working as it should. In the otherwise silence and solitude of the room, those sounds were deafening.

The sounds kept him awake, even if the darkness wanted to drown him. The occasional passing of voices beyond the door shook him into a state he couldn’t recognize, a stimulus that had escaped him. The passing commotion was never there for long enough.

The night of that first day, one of the other crewmates came to bring him a tray of food and escort him to the facilities and back. He didn’t dare engage the man, someone who he likely had interacted with before but because of his condition, he would never recognize. Someone who had likely been given the solemn task of dealing with the system’s weak link, before putting him back into quiet isolation.

The morning of the second day, Cecil was brought yet another tray of food and allowed to use the facilities once more. After his return, the tray sat like the one delivered the night before, uneaten, before turning cold and foul-smelling.

The second visit and delivery came later that day by the medbay’s male nurse and a second crew member. Cecil sat passively facing the wall while the nurse took his vitals and the crew member watched as if he were expecting Cecil to lash out.

“You’re as stable as one might expect, but you should be keeping your strength up, Ruiz,” The nurse said, glancing at the old trays of food. “We’re going now.”

The second visit on the third day to relieve Cecil was made by the black man with the familiar southern drawl. “I’m coming in, Cecil.”

“Markus?” He said, turning back.

The visitor flicked on the light, causing Cecil’s eyes to flutter and adjust to the brightness. “Were you sleeping?” He asked, glancing around the room and to the unevenly stacked trays. “I was told not to bring you anything. Guess I see why. You know you shouldn’t be wasting food like that.” He paused, hands to his sides. “Come on, up, though. Stretch your legs and use the latrines.”

Cecil followed the direction, but he didn’t know why. His legs were weak, but he was just able to carry himself forward. He shuffled out past the open door and into the dim hallway, where Markus began to follow after him.

“If I could trade places with you, I would,” The dark man started what he thought would be a one-sided conversation. “I imagine what some people would say is… this is for your own good. But hey, you remembered my name.”

Cecil shook his head. “I… remembered your voice.”

“That’s better than nothing.”

“When… it first started speaking to me… I couldn’t help but pay attention to the sound of its voice. I started picking up on the way other people sounded, too.”

“So what you’re saying is that you’ve been trying to improve yourself?”

Cecil stopped before the latrines and leaned on the door. He shook his head and glanced back slightly. “It used to be… that people would leave me to do my own thing. To let me work on my own undisturbed. I… don’t like being doted on.”

“You’re an independent person.”

“When it was just me and my mother… she was usually busy working, or dead tired when she was at home. I had to be.”

“I see. Go ahead, I’ll be here.”

Cecil felt empty already. Behind the closed door of the latrines there in the command block, he could only stop to look at himself in the mirror. His reflection was blurry, and the features he could pick out were strange, sloppy, distorted, and unfamiliar. He wiped water from the tap up and down across his cheeks and brow and smeared his moist palm across the mirror. Nothing seemed to change. He had noticed that even the sound of his own voice seemed distant.

Markus awaited him beyond the door, back against the walls and arms crossed over his chest. “All done?”

“Sorry…”

“Sorry for what? Taking too long? No, I needed the break.”

Cecil began walking back before being directed. Markus spoke up again.

“Things are picking up over there at Secundus. Hopefully, it doesn’t seem like I’m prodding you. But maybe… the faster you take to getting yourself back to normal… the more you’ll get to see of the process.”

“I’ve… done my part.”

“That you have. I mean that, by the way. Maybe you would mind too much the frenetic pace down there right about now. Lots of people being transferred for running the different systems down there. I hear they should start pumping soon for the geo system. Meanwhile, we’re setting up to accept the water from that strange reservoir up there. Got a whole pipe system being run from up there to here.”

Cecil paused at his own door, waiting for Markus to unseal it for him. “The… pool?”

Markus nodded. “Yeah. We’re going to put it in the gray water storage for processing and filtering. It’s going to be used as a hydroelectric energy source in the future, too. I’m sure you know how a system like that works.”

“The water…”

“Strange to think of it, huh? I suppose it’s been cleared for general uses. Maybe not for drinking. I think they want to seal off the reservoir once it’s empty to keep it from eroding and putting silt into the filtered water.”

Cecil felt his temples throb. Markus’ eyes pierced his skin before he eventually opened the door and ushered Cecil inside. He stood beside the door while thinking of his final words. “I hope to see you up and active around here sooner than later. Even if you end up not recognizing me.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

History

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 22]

Cecil didn’t dare go to the door, or even try to open it— the energy to do so wasn’t there to begin. Agrippa’s old bedding didn’t smell like anything in particular, but it was comforting nonetheless. With the light off, it was much darker than the shared quarters and the space down in Secundus. The troublesome old man was likely down there, taking care of the problems Cecil had caused, or the tasks he had stalled.

In the pitch blackness, Cecil couldn’t tell if he were awake or asleep. The bed platform was wider than anything he had grown used to, feeling as if it extended far off into the darkness.

Cecil imagined himself walking, climbing, forcing his tried legs to work. Neither the origin nor the destination was apparent, but he knew he had to continue. Each step seemed to take more energy, sapping what little his body had left. Before his muscles failed him, it was instead the lack of oxygen that brought him down. Each gasp of air fell short, just the passing of carbon dioxide in the closed space.

Cecil awoke gasping, covered in sweat. His eyes could penetrate the darkness just barely then. The sole light was the glow of the LED on the front of the computer terminal, waiting to be powered on. Cecil pushed himself up and dragged his fingers across the front of it, beneath the screen, to find the power button. It illuminated, displaying the hardware crawling through its boot-up sequence.

Augustus Agrippa read the name in the system, remains of the last time the terminal had been accessed. Cecil touched at the keyboard interface on the desk to erase the letters one by one to make room for his own credentials. The station’s computer accepted them and allowed him in.

The systems there on the station operated like those back on Earth but only carried the necessary information. Anything outside the local drives had to be requested from the agency and sent over radio waves at a snail’s pace, communication bandwidth and priority allowing.

Cecil navigated to the main database page, a sole search bar on a colorless page. Quaseem Saïd, he typed and allowed the keyword to worm its way out from the many documents and pages within the records.

Adventum Mission Crew Compliment and Manifest, was the first result. The words on the pages were blurry through Cecil’s eyes, but he leaned closed to focus the best he could, attempting to force the information into his brain.

Crew Captain, Niyas Cirillo.

Systems oversight, Quaseem Saïd.

Cecil scanned the page, but only found simple names and details of the ship and the cargo. He clicked back and searched further.

Mission Director’s Log [declassified]: Adventum Mission: Early Departure of The L’Espoire.

The Adventum Mission, after having descended to the surface of the planet on the lander L’Espoire, returned to the orbiter two months early under guidance of mission control.

Re: Summary of previous reports. Link to full reports below. Two weeks before current date, it was reported to mission control that the team’s systems overseer, Quaseem Saïd, became sick with a condition unable to be identified by the crew’s medical professional. The patient was quarantined to minimize possible transmission to other crew members. Saïd was said to already have been unstable and uncooperative.

One week before current date, during the crew’s sleeping hours, Saïd was said to have disappeared from the station with no word to the other members of the crew. Upon noticing his disappearance, the members of the crew attempted to track him down, but to no success. With the suits and external tanks carrying an amount of air able to sustain the average person for around six hours, it is safe to assume that Quaseem Saïd is permanently lost.

Current date, mission control has just given the go-ahead to allow the remaining crew to depart in the L’Espoir in the case that the unknown source of the sickness that caused Said to act irrationally is still active.

The unanticipated early departure and current orbit of our two planets will cause a delay in their return to us, but with the unused supplies from the surface, we expect that the crew will be able to be sustained.

The Board is currently considering how to report this sequence of events to the public, if at all. The final conundrum lies in introducing this unfortunate information to Mr. Saïd’s immediate family.

[End]

Cecil rubbed at his brow and blinked his strained eyes. His fingers dragged across the keyboard, attempting to decide how to dig deeper.

Niyas Cirillo, he typed next. A collection of log entries from the captain of the mission were on file, continuing for what seemed to be the extent of the time on the surface of the planet. Cecil sought through them to find those with the latest dates.

Crew Log 25,

We mapped the south rim of the crater today. The neighboring crater, the Altum, is said to be much younger, much less beaten down by the weather. From the rover, the view across it is quite magnificent.

Saïd cut himself shaving a couple of days ago, reported that he had a pimple that he didn’t feel. It was only a simple spot on his neck which required barely a bandage, but it has yet to heal. It still seems to seep and bleed. He believes he is good at hiding it. Diana has tried urging Saïd to let her look at it closer, but he is adamant. I shall talk to him.

Crew Log 26,

The shaving injury on Saïd’s neck seems to be getting worse. It had swollen, and it is only today that Diana has been allowed to look at it. Saïd seems frustrated with the whole situation. The doctor disinfected it and started him on a treatment of antibiotics.

Crew Log 27,

Saïd awoke complaining of a headache. Diana reports a fever as well, but he doesn’t seem concerned with it. I had him rest while we worked, despite his protests.

Crew Log 28

Saïd’s condition seems to be getting worse, but Diana hasn’t truly had a chance to examine him for worsening fever or neighboring symptoms of infection. He is very uncooperative. I have contacted mission control back at home for guidance. They have given me the allowance to do anything in my power to keep Saïd and the rest of us safe.

Crew Log 29,

Saïd is quiet, but clearly suffering. He seems to shiver and sweat endlessly. He won’t speak to us, but instead takes up his position of prayer the five requisite times a day. Is he praying for himself to be healed? I know he is a reasonable man, or at least was. If he were in his right mind, he would accept Diana’s aid. I can hear some mumbled words from him— are they prayers, or words of self-pity? He isn’t eating or drinking. I don’t know how long he can keep this us.

At the very least, Diana assures us we are not at risk for aerial transmission of whatever is plaguing him.

Crew Log 30,

Saïd collapsed today during one of his prayer sessions. He seems upset and anguished. but won’t voice any words. When he has his rare bursts of energy, he is very combative. While failing to medicate or sustain him, all we can currently attempt is to keep him comfortable in his bunk. Diana is taking it the worst, feeling unable to help him.

A couple of times he has spoken up clearly, asking to be let go. If we can help it, we won’t let it happen. I’m in contact once again with Mission Control to consider our options.

Crew Log 31,

Saïd is gone, as is one of our suits. Somehow none of us awoke to his departing last night through the airlock. The suits are not easily put on and sealed by one’s self, certainly not by someone in his condition. If I had to guess, one of the others aided him. Nobody is coming clean. I have my suspicions, but I shouldn’t, or rather, can’t say it. They were clearly acting in what they imagined to be everyone’s best interests.

The others have been out, attempting to track his footsteps. There are so many of our own around the site, it is nearly impossible to tell where he may have gone off to. As I write this, I imagine the air in his tank has already expired. Perhaps this is what he wanted, to allow us an escape for him and his end.

Crew log 35

Mission control is granting us return. They say they can’t risk one of us falling sick to the same thing that afflicted Saïd. It also stands to reason that if anything of his expertise needed fixing, we would find ourselves in our own pool of trouble.

Crew log 37,

My final report on the surface. It has been fascinating, educational, challenging, and above all, like no other experience. We cleaned up and left Saïd’s things on his bunk. I hope he found peace.

We are departing in the L’Espoir in just over two hours. Goodbye, Mars.

Cecil’s eyes burned in the glow of the screen. He sat back and rubbed at his face. “Saïd…”

His shoulders tensed. His stomach held the weight of the words of the previous mission’s captain. He stood and leaned into the door, pushing all his weight against it, even knowing it wouldn’t budge. He rolled back and pushed himself face-down into the covers of the bed and squeezed the back of his head, hoping to quiet the thoughts that refused to stop crawling about his mind like thousands of tiny ants.


The knock came to the door, then opened without waiting for Cecil’s answer. “Are you awake, Ruiz?”

The light from the hall, albeit dim, burned his eyes. The thin silhouette and the voice belonged to Tulia. The woman flicked on the light of the room. “Up with you, I’ve put aside up this time for your evaluation, and I know you have nothing better to do.”

Cecil rubbed at his face, rife with lines from the wrinkled pillow. He faced the light and the piercing gaze of the spindly woman. The reading from the night before returned to him. “I… know what’s going on.”

Tulia pulled the chair from the computer terminal around in front of the door. “Please, if you knew that, we wouldn’t have to be at this impasse. I’d like to start building a profile on your current condition. In that way, we can determine what sort of spectrum you’re on and if there is a pattern to… the things you’re experiencing.”

Cecil leaned down on the edge of the bed, holding his face in his hands. “No. No, no, no. I know what’s affecting me. I read about it— look here, at the screen. Let me get it on for you.”

“Cecil,” Tulia spoke lowly.

“I’m… I’m sick… with something.”

“Cecil,” She said again, this time with more force.

“This has happened to someone else, I can tell you—“

“No,” The spindly woman stomped her foot, bringing Cecil’s eyes up to her level. “What we don’t need right now is your self-diagnosis, stirring up your confirmation biases. I have orders from the agency to collect as much information on your condition and seek a rehabilitation process. Do you understand that?”

“But—“ he said weakly.

“Do. You. Understand?”

“Yes.”

Tulia pursed her lips in a pleased manner and sat back, sitting her tablet on her lap. She readied her fingers to begin typing on the screen. “Good. Let’s start from the top. How long have you been hallucinating… hearing a voice that is not your normal internal dialogue?”

Cecil sat forward, his hand grasped tight, and his eyes trying to focus on anything but her face. “Since… the accident.”

“Two weeks and… a few days, then,” She typed a few words with intermittent pauses. “Since the trauma of it, then, I must assume. And… what do you think of the voices? How do you perceive them?”

“Just… a voice. Mostly calling my name. But—“

“A voice you know?”

“I’ve explained this before.”

“It’s for the record. Answer the question.”

“My… mother’s voice. But not always. No, not hers.”

“Someone else’s, then?”

“It doesn’t belong to anyone I believe I’ve met before. There was a time… when I swore it belonged to her, but… I don’t remember her voice in the first place.”

“A result of your prosopagnosia, perhaps? Not recognizing a once familiar voice?”

“I was always told… always saw it as just for people’s faces.”

Tulia nodded, slowing her note-taking for a moment. “Yes, but we must recognize the possibility of your mental state declining for a multitude of reasons. The trauma being one of them, of course. Now, when you experience the voice… calling you to do… something out of the ordinary, something that may put you in danger, are you able to experience yourself doing so? Does your ego… your conscious mind… remain intact then?”

Cecil grasped hard at his knees and shot up straight. “No more!” He grumbled, holding his head. “I’ve answered enough of your questions. I have the answer. It’s in there— the computer.”

“I’m not done, Mr. Ruiz,” Tulia glared.

“Quaseem Saïd,” Cecil shouted, slapping his hand on the edge of the desk. “The man that disappeared from the Adventum mission.”

“Calm yourself, Mr. Ruiz. Anyone with a medical or administrative role knows of what happened back then. What you’re trying to do is find connections where they do not exist. You have been thoroughly looked over by our medical staff.”

Cecil forced himself up and tried to shove the mounted screen of the workstation around. “No, the captain’s logs. The ones where he told about the change in Saïd’s condition, his temperament.”

“Ruiz, please have a seat.”

Cecil jerked back and leaned forward heavily, resting one arm on Tulia’s shoulder. “You are not listening, and refusing to help me.”

The spindly woman forced herself up, kicking at Cecil’s shin. “You will release me. I will remind you that you are to be confined here until you can prove yourself to be in a stable state. We shall attempt this again, Mr. Ruiz. Good day.”

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Isolation

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 21]

The ride to the neighboring crater and the main station was a long one, silent as well. Cecil could hear the others breathing through the low hum of the radio signals. He couldn’t help but glance back at their trail in the sand, feeling something in his mind unexplainable, like the sound of the strange voice, but finer than a whisper.

Markus interrupted the radio silence as they came into view of the station and its complex of buildings. “Command, come in. This is rover 02, returning to shelter. Over.”

Agrippa sat up and uncrossed his arms before station command could respond. “And we have Ruiz with us. Over.”

“Understood, Rover crew.” The voice was of one of the technicians, but not Cassius. “Airlock is standing by. We desire to have Ruiz at station command as soon as possible. Over and out.”

Cecil hunched down in the seat, his hands held loosely on the bar in front of him. He caught Agrippa’s helmet turning his way. “What’s on your mind going into this?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t know.” The older man shook his head. “But I can imagine what Cassius is going to say.”

Markus cleared his throat. “I want to say it won’t be as bad as my tongue-lashing after the accident, but…”

Cecil gripped his hands tight and rattled the gloves back and forth. “Let him say what he wants to.”

Agrippa hummed defeatedly. “Let’s be clear that Cassius has the crew’s best interests in mind and not just senseless punishments.”

Markus slowed the rover and pulled it under the shelter. He was the last to hop out to attach the charging lead from the wall of the structure as Cecil and Agrippa walked to the airlock. After unsuiting inside, Agrippa urged Cecil on ahead to report as ordered.

The entrance to Station Command opened wide enough for the both of them, but Agrippa stayed back. Cassius was leaned back in his chair, eyes facing his monitors and controls. He pushed himself up as the doors shifted open. “Everyone out,” he huffed to the technicians working and watching the readings on the lower level. They shuffled their feet and chairs and removed headphones to file out around Agrippa and Cecil.

The large man shoved the chair about and sat back against the desk. He looked Cecil up and down but refused to speak. Cecil glanced at Agrippa for support, but the older man could only muster a shake of his head in what seemed to be a plea to pay attention.

The long, tense silence was interrupted by the movement of the door behind them. The spindly woman shifted in past Agrippa, who jerked to the side to provide her room. “Forgive my lateness.”

“No,” Cassius spoke up, “It was short notice. Personally, I didn’t think we would see Ruiz here again. At least, in any conscious or breathing form.”

Tulia stepped back to examine Cecil in full form, then leaned in to pull down on his bottom eyelid, then down to his wrist to feel for his pulse. “Are you lucid Mr. Ruiz? Do you know where you are? How you got here?”

Cecil pulled his arm back out of the woman’s grasp. “Perfectly, ma’am,” he said, a knot forming in his chest.

“As he was when we tracked him— found him,” Agrippa spoke up.

Cassius returned to his feet and shifted the chair to the side, showing the images on his middlemost computer screen. “The rover systems tracked you all the way out to the Adventum crater. The fully opposite direction of the compound here from Secundus. Trying to go off and die all alone, Ruiz?”

The hairs on his neck stood up. “No, sir. There was… is something out there.”

“I know what’s out there,” Cassius sneered.

“He had been hiding out in the old station,” Agrippa added.

“And how does one find a place like that on your own? No GPS or maps on you when you snuck out under Agrippa’s nose. It was luck that you ended up there. Unless that voice in your head told you how to get there.”

“Is it your mother’s voice?” Tulia asked. “Like you said before?”

Cecil looked at the floor. “I… just knew. As if… I was guided there.”

Agrippa stepped loudly. “Commander, sir. Surely you’re aware of the situation of Quaseem Saïd, the man who disappeared during the Adventum mission.”

“Of course. Maybe Ruiz here had heard of it too, and was trying to act out a similar drama?”

Agrippa shook his head. “I’m sure he hadn’t… and wasn’t. You know, Said’s personal belongings are still there. As if… because he never left the planet, his things never needed to either. His crewmates were thinking about him.”

“That’s a nice feel-good ending to a tragic story, but let’s focus on Ruiz here.” Cassius tapped his foot. “It seems that our evaluation of Ruiz and his unstable tendencies are not complete.”

“Sir, I believe—“ Agrippa tried to speak.

“Believe what you will, Agrippa, but you’re not the one who has a say in the mental condition of their crew. I placed you down there to watch over him, and report back to myself and Tulia if he displayed any… uncooperative impulses. It unfortunate that that proved too difficult, albeit not entirely because of your own actions. Regardless, Ruiz will now be in our custody.”

Cecil grit his teeth but didn’t respond or dare to look in the direction of any of the others. “Then… what?”

“What to do with you, you mean?” Cassius leaned in, arms crossed. “I intend to hold you here while we figure out what’s making you tick. Agrippa, while your administrative tasks keep you busy down there at Secundus, I’d hope to be able to house Ruiz in your quarters.”

Agrippa nodded. “I have no issue with that.”

Cassius clapped his hands. “Good, then it’s decided. Ruiz, Agrippa here will lead you to gather what you need among your personal items. You shall be confined to those quarters and will have to ask permission to leave to use the facilities when needed. Food will be brought to you, and there will be routine visits to check on your well-being and mental state. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re excused, then. Tulia, let’s discuss the schedule of when Ruiz should be seen.”


Agrippa walked ahead. Cecil concentrated on the movement of his heels down the dim corridor. “You’re okay with this?” He said in a low voice when they were sufficiently down the hall away from station command.

Agrippa shrugged. “I’ll be down there at Secundus. My quarters would be empty anyway. Some people could consider it a waste.”

Cecil stopped in place. “You know that’s not what I mean,” He said, his voice echoing slightly. Agrippa stopped for a moment only to continue again after a split second.

Cecil followed after the older man around the corner. The door latch clicked under Agrippa’s tug. He waved Cecil in first.

When the door had closed behind them, Agrippa stood in the path and addressed Cecil. “Do you know what’s making you act like this?”

“—“

“Not the voice, either. Cecil, you must know that… hearing things is not normal. Listening to them… doing as they say… is not something a stable person would do.”

Cecil sat back on the bed, hands on his legs. “The voice… no, it was just a feeling… but it led me there. To that old place. It… knows things, understands things.”

“It.” Agrippa huffed. “At first it was your mother’s voice, then it’s some omnipotent voice of reason telling you to head off on your own to some far-off place on foot. At what point will it… will you end up doing something that is going to get you really, seriously hurt? Get yourself killed?”

Cecil grasped hard onto the edges of the well-used mattress. “Saïd…”

“What about him?”

“Qaseem Saïd. You said… he disappeared one day.”

“And the very same thing may… no, it almost did happen to you.”

Cecil leaned in, shaking his head as the plot in his mind thickened. “What if… what if he felt… heard the same things that I did. That’s why he went off… disappeared.”

Agrippa sighed and drifted away from the door. He opened the locker beside the bed, pulling down some folded underclothes and an extra uniform. With the clothes folded over his forearm, he squeezed past Cecil and dug through the desk in search of a portable hard drive and a key card. “I need to go. This room is all yours for the time being. I can’t entertain these… fantasies anymore.”

“Agrippa.”

Agrippa planted himself before the door, facing the hall. “You’re free to log into the terminal here. It has access to the local database. You might be able to find out something about the Adventum mission, I don’t know. Seeing as how you have the time, you could even request a download from Earth. You can get old text files of old reports downloaded in a few hours. In the meantime, please cooperate with Tulia… and focus on getting better.”

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