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.”

<-– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

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.”

<– Previous Chapter | Next Chapter –>

The Lost

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 20]

The air was stale but breathable. The structure was dark, with the only light coming in through the set of doors Cecil had forced his way past. There seemed to be more windows about the edge of the structure, but they had since been buried by the deposition and movement of the planet’s drifts of sand.

Cecil dropped the helmet and worked to shut off the suit’s systems which still buzzed, notifying him of the empty air tank on his back. Dust danced in the light rays from the residual sand on the suit and the disturbed, decaying synthetic material inside the strange structure.

Cecil sat, exhausted, and attempted to force the suit off his lower body. He pulled his arms out and allowed the top half of the shell to hang about his waist. The air inside was cold. His eyes adjusted to the low light.

The shelter was longer than wide and continued off into the darkness for several more meters. The walls were lined with bunks and storage shelves and cabinets and at the center was a pair of long tables mounted to the ground. The ceiling above had been fitted with old lights, able to be depressed for illumination.

With his breath returned to him, Cecil stood, the suit hanging around his hips. He supported himself on the edge of the table and pressed at the first light. It clicked but remained off. With a twist, he separated it from its mount on the plastic shell of the ceiling. The battery compartment had been crusted over with old corrosion, eaten away at the old cells inside. The next light down, however, illuminated with a pale, orange glow.

Cecil took a breath and pulled it off its screws. He shined the beam about, attempting to pick up more clues about the structure.

The cups on the table had been set upside-down on neat paper towels in a rectangular pattern, seven in total. There were bunks in each corner of the structure, two beds per stack, with neatly folded and placed blankets and sheets. All of the cabinets and drawers in between were closed neatly as well. Cecil grabbed at the handles and pulled them out and open on their smooth hinges and rollers.

Inside one were old medical supplies in bottles and boxes and tear-away pouches. Further down, near what would have been used as a galley kitchen, were old foil packets of ready-to-eat meals. Cecil attempted to read the dates on them, but with his blurry vision and the dim light, he couldn’t make them out. He pulled out what he could hold in his free hand and set them across from the cabinet on the table.

The chill caught up to him. He wandered back to the medical supplies and dug through them until he found what he was looking for; a folded packet containing a shiny mylar blanket. He ripped the corner of the package away with his teeth and dug at the sealed sides until it was open. The foil material crinkled as he unfolded it and stretched it over his body.

With the blanket stretched over his shoulders, Cecil sat down at the dining seat and peered at the packets of food. He tore at the top of the nearest one and peered at the contents. Inside was a mix of dried oats and dehydrated fruit, both begging for water. Cecil tossed it down and peered at his hands, the adhesive bandages and gauze coming loose, some still soaking up blood from his wounds.

“What… am I… doing?”

Cecil

The voice was faint and distant. The light he had removed from the ceiling flickered from its spot on the table, facing up at the ceiling.

Cecil stood and fanned out the light, attempting to look for what he had missed. At the farthest bunk, a pile of something had been splayed out, a sole piece within the collection shimmering back at him.

Cecil dragged the blanket behind him, trying his best to hold onto it and the light. He rounded the end of the table and made his way to the final bunk.

Unlike the others, the bedding had not been made nor straightened. The items propped on top seemed to be of a personal nature rather than anything pertaining to the rest of the supplies there. At the base, a book; hardcover with a detailed scrawling upon its cover, then a cup, made out of what looked to be clay, and finally, a wooden charm on a long necklace of wooden beads. Before Cecil could shuffle through the items, he heard and felt the rumble of something beyond the walls.

Cecil stood and inched forward, holding the light to guide his steps. The sound had ceased. The beams of light from the outside were suddenly interrupted as a figure stepped in front of the door. He held his footing as the first of the lock doors were forced open through the drift of sand. The seal cracked loudly as the suited figure made his way inside.

The face was hidden beyond the visor, but Cecil knew who it was. He stepped up forward, but the suited man grabbed him up by the arm before removing the helmet. Cecil was pushed back forcefully, causing him to drop the light and trip back over the ends of the dangling suit about his waist.

Agrippa yanked the seal of his helmet off and huffed loudly. “Cecil, what the hell is wrong with you?”

Cecil inched back, his legs too weak to pick himself up. “I… I didn’t know…”

Agrippa stomped forward, his face obscured in the darkness. “Didn’t know what? What you were doing? Where you were going? If you were going to find your death out here? I don’t understand what went through your mind, Cecil, but it isn’t the thoughts of a stable person.”

Cecil crept back and shuffled the mylar blanket over himself to hide his face. Agrippa huffed again, catching his breath. He shifted down to his knees, rubbing down his face. A small voice whimpered out from the speaker in his helmet.

The older man held the device up to the side of his face and spoke at the microphone. “Don’t worry. I got him.”

Cecil shook his head in disbelief. “How… did you find me?”

“How?” Agrippa barked. “Your suit transmits an emergency beacon when your air is low. And not just that, we were able to track your footprints through the sand here a good portion of the way.”

He pursed his lips and glanced around the inside of the dim structure, catching his breath. “But to think… you made it all the way out here.”

Cecil peeked up. “I… don’t know… what this place is, but… I felt as if I were meant… to come here.”

Agrippa tossed down the helmet and sat back on his legs. “Welcome to the Adventum crater.”

“Why do I know that name?”

“This installation… this sole, little station is from the Adventum Mission. A little over a decade, now. Our predecessors.”

“I… remember.”

“Some better than others.” Agrippa shrugged. “Not all of the updates about the mission were heavily televised or mentioned to the public. The launch, the arrival here… but things after that were kept better under wraps. You remember Tulia’s job description?”

“To… check up on us.”

“To follow our psychological profile. To track the effects of our long-term stay here. A task born from circumstances of this first mission.”

“But… these people… came home, did they not?”

Agrippa caught his breath with one last sigh. He stood and looked around, placing his helmet on the table. “Most of them. All… but one. I have it on good authority that one member of this crew of eight… ended up sick, delusional, with some strange affliction, and eventually… disappeared.”

“Disappeared?”

“Took his spacesuit and… headed out the airlock when the others were asleep, I suppose is how it went. He was never heard from again, never found. The agency put the whole thing under wraps and had the others return… never knowing what happened to their fellow crewmate. Quaseem Saïd, I believe his name was.”

Cecil forced himself up. “I believe… his things are back here.”

Agrippa crossed his arms and followed after Cecil to the back of the structure. “Hum. It seems as if they left everything in as neat a condition as if to give him a place to return to. Symbolically, of course.”

Cecil leaned on the bunk, splaying out the things. He felt at the cover of the book, a fine layer of dust upon it. “The Quran,” Agrippa commented, his fingers finding the way to the necklace. “Something here too.”

Cecil shined the light on it. “That say something? Arabic?”

“Yes, if I remember my class in university… allah… yakhudhuk… lilmanzil… May Allah— God— bring you home?”

Cecil sat back and shook his head as Agrippa shifted the necklace around in his hands. “God… you asked me before if I was religious at all.”

“Yes. I forget your answer.”

Cecil shrugged. “Something I care to think I believe, sometimes not.”

“That’s a very non-answer,” the older man said, letting out a sole laugh. “Just like you. It is strange, allowing yourself to come all this way while holding onto your faith. Though, I suppose that is what defines faith.”

“May God bring you home,” Cecil repeated.

“He must have gotten it from someone. A good luck charm,” Agrippa concluded, setting the keepsake down gently.

“It didn’t work,” Cecil said plainly.

“If only you think of it on a physical level. Some would consider… the afterlife, heaven, whatever you want to call it— an eternal home, where you return after your stay on Earth… or elsewhere, in this case.”

A low knock sounded at the door at the opposite end of the structure. Cecil’s head shot back, but Agrippa straightened up without worry. “Oh my, I suppose I left Markus without an update.”

Cecil stared at the floor and felt at the dangling sleeves of his suit. “It’s… just like before. The both of you bringing me back from the edge.”

Agrippa tilted his head but didn’t respond. He shifted back to the table and took up his helmet once again. “I’m here, Markus. Yes, he’s quite right. Somehow. Be ready with the air canister, okay? We shall be right out. Cecil—“

“Huh?”

“It is time to go now.”

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Fault

Whispers of Mars [Chapter 19]

Cecil sat on the edge of the group, upon his cot, while Agrippa and Martinez addressed the others. “… our long-term goal will be to make this station down here as livable conditions not too different from the main complex,” Agrippa explained. “Some of you shall remain here as semi-permanent attendants to the systems that are currently undergoing installation. Systems and Seismography will have to be running here, as well, to determine the impact upon the substrate in this area.”

Martinez nodded. “I will be considering and interviewing some of you for roles in the stations and oversight here. Come to me if you have any desire for such a post.”

Cecil perked up, looking over the gathering of others. His eyes met Agrippa’s, who squinted and seemed to shake his head.

The older man focused again on the others and cleared his throat. “All in good time, of course. Now, once the geothermal system is up and running, our estimation is that it should jump up to optimal efficiency around the three-week mark when the ground has had time to saturate in the supercritical CO2. For record’s sake, I will ask that those carrying out the well-drilling from here on out to keep track of the stone you dig out.”

The Argentinean man nodded. “I will make sure we are held to that, Agrippa. Hansen, stay back. The rest of you continue mounting the system as we have been. We should have an updated work roster put together by tomorrow.”

Cecil stayed in place while the others went off, save the man who Martinez had called on. They danced about the strewn bits of the gearbox that Cecil had left unfinished. There was much nodding and pointing, and a few disguised glanced his way. Cecil eventually laid away on his cot, tuning out the sound of the others speaking indistinctly. He started at his pained, bandaged hands for a moment before settling back.

“Cecil,” Agrippa shifted beside the bed, hands folded together. “I can have you help me.”

Cecil forced himself back up. Hansen had begun gathering up the stray parts and organizing the hardware in a way different than Cecil had done.

Agrippa’s eyes traveled between the both of them. “It will get finished. All things considered, you did a good job with it. Up, now.”

Cecil rubbed at his face with the back of his hand. It was slick with old sweat. His knees ached as he returned to his feet. “What do you want from me?”

Agrippa motioned for him to follow. “I had systems install a radio antenna up on the surface. If it needs some adjustment, I was hoping that you could be the one to help me out,” He paused. “Unless… you’re asking me why I continue to involve myself with you, despite the defensive walls you’ve built up around yourself.”

Cecil held his tongue and continued to follow, watching Agrippa’s back and marching heels. The remaining supplies had been brought down the lift by the others before the meeting. The metal crates and cases had been placed down beside the pool in the main chamber without any thought to where they might go. Agrippa shifted between them to find what he was searching for.

“Here we go,” he said, hefting out a hard-shell case with a handle. He propped it onto the nearest stack of crates and flipped it open. The device inside lit up with the flick of a rocker switch and began to hum. “Let’s see now…”

Cecil stood beside Agrippa and glanced at the piece of equipment. “Markus mentioned… that you thought it was your own fault.”

Agrippa tapped away at the touchscreen, reading the numbers and graphs that shifted about on the readout. He shrugged before answering, “Oh, you’re speaking of before. Is that so? I don’t know if I ever expressed such a thing to Markus. No, I believe what I said was… I feel bad for bringing someone so important on a mission when it could have been anyone else from his department. More so that my decision took that person out of commission for… some time.

I suppose those words could be brought of out context. But do you want to know what led me to make those decisions in the first place? When I went to Martinez to get someone with knowledge on the core drill, in the case something happened, he told me about you— hard working but independent to a fault. He said that you had entranced yourself in the work so much that you were ignoring your well-being. I figured giving you— allowing you a change of scenery would snap you out of it. Instead, I put you in a position where you… you found yourself vulnerable. To… what, I’m still not sure.”

Cecil stepped back silently, shaking his head in thought, and walked to the edge of the pool. He glanced out across its glassy stillness. Before he could speak, the radio crackled with the HF band signaling the connection to the station’s radio systems.

“Command, this is Agrippa, signaling from Secundus station, over”

“We read you, Agrippa, over.”

“Excellent. The transceiver is picking you up loud and clear. Standing by for status updates and orders, over.”

“Current orders are withstanding, Agrippa. We shall contact you again at 0800 tomorrow should they change. Over and out.”

Agrippa stood up, straightening his back. “Wonderful. I know Cassius will like being able to micromanage us some more. Doubt he’ll ever make his way over here, though. Now, as I was saying, Cecil…”

Cecil had dropped to one knee before the pool. He couldn’t tell if it was his eyes playing tricks on him, but he could detect the faintest ripples across its surface. Agrippa approached him and tugged on his shoulder.

“You’re listening to me, I hope?”

Cecil forced himself up, nodding his head. “Yes, but… why do you care, Agrippa? If you don’t consider it your fault?”

Agrippa crossed his arms. “Do you wish to settle the record, here and now? Is that something that has been weighing you down? Wondering if what happened… down here… was an accident? And if someone was at fault?”

Cecil tucked his hands in by his sides. “You… seem to know better than me.”

“Well, that’s the first time you’ve given consideration to my point of view. Let’s say, perhaps, in a certain way, it was my fault… but only from the luck of the draw. If Hanson or someone else came down here with Markus and me, would they have taken notice of the things you did? Would they have taken the same malfunctioning suit? Would you wish your state of being on someone else?”

Cecil shook his head. “No.”

Agrippa hung his head and nodded. He glanced back at the wall, judging a good spot to sit down upon the wavy surface of the foam. He shifted himself down stiffly and motioned for Cecil to sit as well. “Do you need any antiseptic? Pain killers?”

Cecil sat, trying his best to not lean on his bandaged hands. “It’s… not that bad. No. But… I feel as if… I am constantly in pain. My throat, my head, my stomach.”

Agrippa nodded. “I feel the same way, sometimes. Like the planet is fighting back against us being here. But sometimes… pain reminds us that we are human.”

“The planet…”

Agrippa shifted his eyes to Cecil. “Do you… still hear that voice?”

“What… would you so if I said… yes?”

“I would believe— and be chuffed— that you are sleeping well, albeit with overactive dreams.”

“It doesn’t come when I’m asleep.”

“When you’re awake? Fully? And can you respond?” The older man filtered the skepticism from his voice.

“Back and forth.”

“Interesting. And on what sort of topics?”

Cecil rolled his head back and forth. “On… the things I remember… my thoughts on things.”

“Hum. I may report to Tulia that good portions of your memories are still there, then.”

“To Tulia—“

Agrippa chuckled lowly. “With no urgency. Sometimes… you have to work through things on your own. Get rest. Distract yourself with other things. Being out of work… maybe… has likely given you plenty of time to reflect on… well, on yourself. Sometimes people can’t stand the silence in their own heads, so they dive into various activities to distract them. Things that they don’t even love, only things to take up time. But… maybe I’m thinking of how things were back on Earth. To be honest, I just want things to be simpler. Do you remember what Markus asked you?”

Cecil shook his head. “When?”

“You said… fresh tortillas. Something you missed back on Earth. For me, it was fresh-baked bread. Sometimes its just the simple things.”

“Everything here is endlessly complex.”

Agrippa nodded enthusiastically. “You understand how I feel, then. There’s another lost ideal, the weekend. Sleeping in. Never paused to really enjoy those things in the past, myself, though.”

Cecil hunched down, bringing his knees to his chest. Far off in the deep reaches of the tunnels was the sound of pounding and whirring tools. Agrippa began to nod off, his arms crossed peacefully across his chest and eyes flickering just slightly.

Cecil

The feeling of sleep had almost found him as well, but he was suddenly wide awake. Agrippa breathed in long, low breaths. Cecil stood as silently as possible and stared at the pool, then the ladder up.

His hands cried out in pain as he pulled himself up rung after rung, only able to pause at the platform over the water. The light of the day glowed through the airlock doors. As expected, the suit that Agrippa had worn to come there to Secundus was removed and hung up there in the surface structure. Cecil pulled off the grease-ordained coveralls and slipped into the underclothes, followed finally by the environmental suit. Before sealing the helmet around his head, he glanced down the tube in case anyone had noticed him departing.

The change in pressure made his ears pop as he exited the airlock. From the position of the sole structure there up on the side of the crater, he couldn’t see any other sign of life, but he knew that there was something beyond what he knew. The sandy slope that led to the upper ridge of the crater was the correct way to go, even if the climb would be arduous.

The slope climbed up higher over rocky crags and settled drifts of sand. Cecil kept moving, step after step, finding his footing. His knees and arms ached as he tried to keep himself upright, struggling as his feet either sunk into the sand or arched over the uneven stones. It wasn’t long before the surface station of Secundus had disappeared out of sight.

By the time he reached the top of the ridge, his breath was heavy, forming a cloud of condensation on the visor in front of him. The sound of his lungs filling up echoed about in the enclosed space of the suit. The last few long pushes and grasps through the loose material brought him to a stable shelf above most other formations.

The sky was a hazy brown like most other times, growing dimmer little by little. In catching his breath, he attempted to look back at where he had come from, perhaps the station down in the lower reaches of the Antrum crater. Only more of the seemingly repeating landscape could be seen.

Cecil

Keep going.

His breathing quieted. The only way logical way to continue was forward.

The ridge was narrow, on one side the slope he had mounted, and on the other, a more gentle descent into the adjacent depression. The rock beneath his feet was kind and weathered, at least for the earliest of his strides.

A sole beep sounded out, radiating about his helmet. He ignored the sound, guided only by the rough shifting of sand beneath the thick soles of the suit. The ground evened out, but the shifting silt held to his feet, holding him back.

Each step became more difficult until he was simply dragging his feet through the ever-changing granules. The beep sounded again, sharper and more urgent than the last. Cecil’s knees ached. The beep sounded again. The air in his helmet was becoming more humid.

The glint in the distance caught his eye. It resided in a mound protruding from the otherwise flat landscape. He pushed on, knowing that whatever it was had to be the thing that was calling to him. The beep came once more. In the glare of his helmet visor, he saw the red light flashing upon his wrist. It was the oxygen sensor, yet another thing vying for his attention, signaling that he would soon be out. His legs continued to move, they had to. His brain teased the idea of looking back, imagining, hoping, that he would see Secundus or the main station in his view. No, the only thing that lay before him was the sharp, geometric, purposefully designed debris.

Cecil fell forward onto his knees within reach of it. The old chrome plating of the metal had been worn down and chipped away by countless passing sandstorms. The siding of the structure continued deeper into the sand, something made out of a transparent material.

The beep sounded a third time as Cecil began to push away at the sand around the area, attempting to work his way deeper. It flowed like water back into the depression as he pushed away at it. The clumsy gloves worked to make progress. The beep sounded again, and the light flashed more quickly.

Cecil’s breath rose and fell more quickly as he worked away at the side of the structure. Beyond a handful of the loose material was a handle. Not much further was the bottom of the door, which would open for him and allow him inside. He could reach the base of the structure and prop it open enough to slide inside.

Cecil’s mouth was dry, and he tasted copper. The beep sounded again, then again, countless times after. He kicked away at the sand with the bottoms of his feet, attempting to force enough room beneath him. His fingers tugged at the handle and forced it open, hoping that the fixture would allow him to push more of the loose material back.

Cecil shoved himself inside, scraping the seams of the suit against the weathered edges of the entrance. The old airlock was little more than a double set of doors to prevent the loss of pressure as someone passed through, but it was just enough. Trickles of sand forced themselves in as he pulled the exterior door closed, followed by the interior.

The beep had become a solid tone. Cecil unlatched the helmet and attempted a breath of whatever laid within. The tone was just a low buzz as the speaker departed his ear.

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