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

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?”

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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.

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