Chapter 16: Silent Killer

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 001, Sur Two, Friday, Sol 30 (001.2.30)  19:38 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 4 April 2016  2:00 PM PDT 
  • Distance traveled:  137,887,272 kilometers   Time Delay:  4 mins 06 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  254,522,480 kilometers

Wendy, like many other ESEP employees, was in shock. She was a professional. She had a doctorate in Psychology. She always felt confident she could read people. Now she discovered that the person who she reported to in ESEP, the Director of Counseling and Evaluation, was a Russian FSB agent.

She never questioned his requirement to report all significant issues to him immediately. She felt he respected her when she challenged his assessment of a situation. Even when he stood with the engineers behind the management coup, she believed he had the best interest of ESEP in mind.

But he didn’t. He was just manipulating her, and she didn’t see it. It didn’t help that it was Jenna that caught it. When they learned that ESEP had been infiltrated with FSB agents, Jenna had told her and Ken to keep it between them.

But the first thing Wendy did was send a text to her boss. Had he received that text, he would have warned all the other FSB agents in ESEP, and they would have all disappeared, taking vital information about the infiltration with them. Wendy could never be sure of her ability to read other people again.

It was about 7:30 in the evening, and Jenna came to Wendy’s door. Wendy invited her in, and Jenna could see the cloud hanging over her. Jenna said, “You remember when I was feeling self-pity about losing Nick?” Wendy replied, “When I told you that was a side of you that I didn’t need to see?” Jenna said, “Exactly. Everyone  has a blind spot. Your’s was your boss. He couldn’t be using you, because he was a professional. Well, he was a professional, but not the one you thought. He was good, and he knew how to play you, and everyone else around him. Accept the fact that a professional spy is an expert in deception….and then get over it. We need you back, especially now. You can relate to what many of our people are going through because it happened to you. If I need to make this an order, I will.”

Wendy smiled, “Don’t sugarcoat it.” Jenna smiled, “Seriously. I’m amazed at how easy we were all sucked in by it….and even now, even when it is completely exposed, I still have some jackass in the brig that thinks he’s still in the game.”

Wendy said, “What are you going to do with him?” Jenna said, “I don’t know. I’m hoping he gets off this, ‘I’m-doing-it-for-my-country’ bit. He was suckered by sex and now he thinks he a born again Russian patriot. What do you think? Will he come back to reality?” Wendy started regaining her professional composure. She knew his type, and had too many strikes against him. Wendy replied, “It was the girlfriend who restored his dignity, and now he finds that was a lie. If he gives up on her, he returns to his failure as a person. I think he has to stick with the lie and pretend he’s a Russian patriot. He actually is more dangerous than a Russian agent, because he needs to prove himself. He is the perfect model of a terrorist.”

Jenna said, “Tomorrow, would you talk to him, and try to confirm your prognosis. I need to decide his fate, and if we can’t reach him, then my options are limited.”

They continued to chat for a while, then Jenna headed back to her quarters. Jenna dealt with some texts and emails, checked in with the Command deck, and then sent a message to Paige. Tonight she just needed someone close and her relationship with Paige was moving to a place where they didn’t have to have sex every time they were together.

In the morning, Jenna woke up first and quietly worked while Paige slept. Jenna decided she would shower and then wake up Paige. Jenna was almost finished when Paige came in and said, “Jenna, there is an urgent message from Ian.” Jenna rinsed off and grabbed a towel, then used her tablet to call him. Jenna said, “Ian, what’s wrong?” Ian said, “Director, Joseph is dead. I called Dr. Summers and she just got here.” Jenna said, “Dammit, I thought we had him on suicide protocols!” Kayla broke in, “Director, this isn’t suicide. He was murdered.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 001, Sur Two, Saturday, Sol 31(001.2.31)  19:00 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Tuesday, 5 April 2016  2:00 PM PDT 
  • Distance traveled:  141,492,168 kilometers   Time Delay:  4 mins 12 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  250,917,584 kilometers

Dr. Kayla Summers had experience in an investigative criminal lab as part of her preparation for the Mars mission. It was assumed that some of the crew might die, and that sometimes their deaths would be undetermined. Her training was to pay attention to small details that might tell the story of the cause of death.

In the case of Joseph Volkov, his death was not obvious. He was found lying on his bed in the brig, not breathing. The first person to find him was Ian who was his guard. He had assumed that Joseph found a way to kill himself, but there were no visible signs. He called Dr. Summers immediately.

It took Kayla about a minute to rule out suicide. She noted he looked too relaxed for normal sleep and that meant he was probably drugged before he died. She then searched his body for an injection site. She found it in his chest. Whoever killed him was not hiding the location of the fatal injection.

When Jenna arrived she asked the obvious question, “How was he killed.” Kayla replied, “He was drugged…I’m guessing orally, then they injected something directly into his heart. I won’t know more until I do the autopsy.”

Later Jenna got Kayla’s report. It said he had been tranquilized with the drug mixed in Vodka. After he became immobile, he was injected with a polymer substance that filled the heart and flowed to the lungs. The polymer took a few minutes to harden, but death probably occurred within a minute. Once the polymer was injected, he could not have been saved. The method was meant to leave nothing to chance.

When Jenna met with her Command team for the morning briefing she was looking for answers. Jenna asked, “We know Joseph was murdered, and we know how he was killed, but how did anyone get to him without being caught on camera? He was under constant video surveillance and was checked on every half hour.” Ken replied,

“He met with Wendy from 16:10 to 17:18. We know that he was given a meal at 18:12. Peyton said one of the Charlie One crew delivered the meal to him, we know he ate the meal and Peyton collected the food container and returned it to the mess at 18:28. According to the video he must have been given a workpad with the food container. He turned his back to the camera holding the food container and put it under his pillow.

He was checked on every half hour until he went to bed at 22:12. At 11:46 he put the workpad in front of the camera with a device similar to what Zeke used. The tablet was playing a loop of him sleeping in the dark. At 04:23 someone removed the tablet and left the brig.”

Naomi asked, “What about all the other cameras on the ship. Anyone moving in that Quill had to be seen.” Ken shook his head and said, “That’s what is strange. We see someone move down and then back up, but they have some type of cloth or bag over them. The fabric completely covered them. We can’t even tell their height or weight. When they got to the core they disappeared.”

Roman said, “What do you mean, they disappeared?” Ken replied, they covered the cameras in the core section at the end of that Quill, and we don’t see them come out that core section. It wasn’t until after we found Joseph dead, that anyone noticed the cameras were covered. We have people moving into that core section, but we can account for everyone that went in or out of that section. There was no one who left that section without already entering it.

Jenna said, “We have a murderer on board, and they are likely a Russian agent. Their job isn’t over. I think we can assume they were Plan B for the Russians. No one is safe until we find them.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 001, Sur Two, Sunday, Sol 32 (001.2.32)  18:21 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 6 April 2016  2:00 PM PDT 
  • Distance traveled:  145,097,064 kilometers   Time Delay:  4 mins 12 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  247,312,688 kilometers

“Jenna, they found the mystery woman,” Ken said as he joined the Director’s Mess, “Unfortunately, she was killed and put in a convenience store dumpster in Reno, Nevada. Two men were seen dumping the body and attempting to pour gasoline and light it, but the clerk on duty chased them away. He got the license plate, but the car was stolen.”

Roman said, “She had to know she was expendable when we discovered the breach.” Ken added, “I suspect she didn’t even try to get out of the country. They’re trying to find out who she was, but it’s likely everything about her was fiction.”

“What Putin saying about all this?, asked Lanny. Jenna replied, “He denies everything, and says it is ESEP propaganda; however, the reality is that Russia is feeling the heat from the rest of the world. the FSB had agents implicated in every member country, but China.” Ken added, “The links from the FSB agents embedded in ESEP led to exposure of their network worldwide. It was a massive blow to their spy network and they are still uncovering more Russian rats.”

“What about our people on board?” Anna asked. Ken answered, “We’re still interrogating people, but everyone seems to have an alibi and we can verify their stories. We have a few people who were alone in their quarters and we are focusing on them, but whoever murdered Joseph was a pro and he knows our ship.”

Anna asked, “But what about emails and text messages? Don’t we have leads there?” Jenna said, “Megan is looking into that, but other than a few attempts to influence people, the crew appears clean. They are focusing on the Charlie One crew now. That would have been the easiest route to put an agent on board.”

Jenna then sighed, and said,

“We have to face the reality that whoever we are dealing with is not going to be caught easily, and every moment is an opportunity to sabotage us. For that reason I’m going to establish new security protocols. Tonight, I am going to establish a curfew at eight PM. All off duty staff are to be in their quarters or in the company of another person. Tomorrow, at six AM, all crew members will be restricted to their area of operation and anyone needing to move through the ship must follow the twin protocol….yes, all movement throughout the ship must be in groups of at least two people or more. I already have added one person at the monitor bay watching the whole ship, but their job will be easier if we don’t have lone wolves going through the ship. Engineering has worked out additional safeguard to the ICP drive, power, and life support.”

Naomi said, “Eventually, this guy’s luck is going to run out.” Jenna replied, “On the contrary, time is on his side.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 001, Sur Two, Monday, Sol 33 (001.2.33)  17:43 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Thursday, 7 April 2016  2:00 PM PDT 
  • Distance traveled:  148,701,960 kilometers   Time Delay:  4 mins 12 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  243,707,251 kilometers

Two days had past and they still didn’t know who killed Joseph Volkov in the brig. Knowing there was a murderer on board was bad, but knowing that the murderer was probably tasked with sabotaging the mission meant that at any moment a catastrophe could take place.

The Director’s Mess was just about to start when Jenna, Ken, Naomi, Anna, and Wendy received a Priority call from Earthside. They all went up the Command deck to take it at Jenna’s workstation. Most of the message had been received, but because of the four-minute delay, the message was still downloading. Naomi started the message, which was a split screen image of Megan transmitting from ESEP in France, and Claude transmitting from Earth Prime in orbit around Earth.

Megan started to talk, “Director, Commodore Dubois has new information about who might be your murderer. Claude, go ahead.” Claude said,

“First, let me apologize. We should have caught this earlier, but this person is obviously good at deception. We had a worker, by the name of Lars Wilson…at least that is the name we have for him. When we lost contact with you, he received news of a family issue that required him to return to Earth. We thought he left on a shuttle and was on Earth. After we discovered the breach, we found several emails that indicated that he was either being influenced by a FSB agent, or he was a FSB agent. When we tried to track him down, we were told that he was camping in a remote area in Wyoming.

While we were trying to reach him, we also backtracked his movements and discovered that he did not arrive with the Earth bound shuttle. We interviewed the captain and he said that they had received word, before they left Earth Prime, that Mr. Wilson would be on a later shuttle. We now know that message to be fabricated.

We have done an extensive search of Earth Prime and he is not on the station. We can only conclude that he snuck aboard Charlie One and is now on your ship. Again, my apologies.”

All four were dumbstruck. They had thought the FSB agent was one of the known crew members, but now they learned that the murderer was a person hiding on the ship. Jenna tapped her pad and in a second a voice said, “Good evening, Director.” Jenna said, “Zeke, I need you on the Command deck now.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 001, Sur Two, Tuesday, Sol 34 (001.2.34)  17:04 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Friday, 8 April 2016  2:00 PM PDT 
  • Distance traveled:  152,306,856 kilometers   Time Delay:  4 mins 12 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  240,102,896 kilometers

Because Zeke was an expert on stowing away on a ship, Jenna used him as a resource to develop a plan to catch the alleged stowaway that came with the Charlie One ship. Zeke knew that it was too risky to hide in one of the Hab Quills. The combination of people and cameras in those areas would make it an unlikely hiding place.

Unfortunately, those are the areas that were under surveillance, in the belief that the FSB agent was one of the crew. Most of the cargo Quills were also poor places to stay for an extended period because they were areas of severely restricted life support. Some Quills had been sealed and had no life support. Others were under conditions that would be unbearable for extended periods.

One of Zeke’s first questions was whether or not a construction pod was missing from Earth Prime. Claude confirmed that one was missing. Once he knew that, he guessed that Lars Wilson used the construction pod to access Charlie One. This was how Zeke was able to avoid security and cameras to board the ESS Queen Elizabeth II.

New protocols had been put in place to avoid someone to repeat Zeke’s trick, but those protocols had been suspended because of the emergency. It was the next day after Charlie One undocked that a post-launch inventory discovered the missing pod, but since all personnel were accounted for on Earth Prime, the issue was put aside.

Zeke believed that Lars was using the construction pod to live in, and resupplying it from a cargo area. Using the cameras on the exterior of the ship, they determined that the missing construction pod was, in fact, attached to a cargo section that had been part of Charlie One.

When Zeke told the Command team he added, “This is the bad news. A construction pod can do a lot of damage. Just using it to ram a ship could create enough structural damage that the ship might not be able to fire up the ICP drive for fear of tearing the it apart. If Lars knows we’re on to him, and he’s on the pod, he has a weapon we can’t defend against.”

Ken said, “We could wait until he’s out of the pod, but he’s a threat every moment until we grab him.” Zeke said, “I have an idea, but it’s risky. I know Lars, and I’m a better pod driver than he is, so if I can come up on his blind side, and if someone is there to hook up a tow line, I can pull him off and keep him away from the ship.”

Jenna said, “You’re right, that’s very risky. If he got lucky, he could ram you.” Zeke replied, “I’m confident he doesn’t have the skill, and if we could cause a small breach on his pod he would only have seconds before he would be unconscious.”

Jenna said, “Any other ideas?….Okay, let’s see if we can catch him outside of the pod, first. Let’s not be too aggressive. Station people away from the cargo area, but close enough to move in behind him if he leaves. We’ll keep an eye on the area with our cameras. He he moves, we’ll grab him. Then if he doesn’t do anything, we’ll go with Zeke’s plan in twenty-four hours. Zeke, work out a detailed plan with Anna and Ken. Let’s keep this quiet until we’ve got him. I don’t think we have another FSB agent aboard, but let’s assume there is, and that he can contact Lars.” 

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 001, Sur Two, Wednesday, Sol 35 (001.2.35)  16:26 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 9 April 2016  2:00 PM PDT 
  • Distance traveled:  155,911,752 kilometers   Time Delay:  4 mins 12 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  236,498,00 kilometers

There had been no movement in the cargo area, nor any sign of life in the construction pod where Zeke believed Lars Wilson, the FSB agent, was hiding. It had been almost twenty-four hours and Jenna’s Plan A, to nab Lars outside the pod, had failed. It was time to put Plan B into action.

There were several steps to the plan. First, two crew members, Ian and Peyton, were to approach the hatch to the construction pod from inside the cargo area. They would listen and try to confirm that someone was in the pod. Regardless, the second step would involve Jeramy, who was already in a space suit and waiting outside the Quill, near the pod, to attach a tow line.

Zeke was in another pod hiding near Jeramy, holding position with the other end of the tow line attached. As soon as the tow line was hooked up, Zeke will move away from the ship. At the same time, Ian and Peyton will release the docking clamps holding Lars’ pod to the ship, and Zeke will pull it away from the Sagan. Jeramy is also prepared to drill a hole in the pod to breach it, rendering Lars unconscious within a few minutes. This will likely require him to stay with the pod after it detaches. It will all take place in seconds.

Ian and Peyton quietly moved into the cargo area and to the hatch where the pod was docked. The inner hatch was closed and sealed, but they couldn’t tell from the camera view if the pod hatch was closed. If it wasn’t, the plan wouldn’t work because the docking clamps couldn’t be released without both hatches closed.

As they approached they realized that the pod hatch was open. Peyton backed out of the area and let the team know the situation by using a coded message. She said, “Zeke, I can’t meet you for dinner. If you’re willing to wait, I can meet you later.”

Plan C was trickier. It meant that Ian and Peyton would open the hatch and try to grab Lars. Two other crew members joined them for the assault. Ian and one of the Charlie One crew members, Diego, stood ready to move into the pod, while Peyton stood behind them with holding a taser over their shoulders. She would shoot Lars and paralyze him, while Ian and Diego leapt into the pod and grabbed him. The fourth person, another of the Charlie crew, Sam, would open the hatch. Once they had the hatch open, the docking clamps could not be released, even if he managed to get the pod hatch closed.

Sam held up five fingers to give them a silent countdown from five. Sam folded in her thumb, then one finger at a time. When she made a fist, she pressed the button and the hatch began softly clicking, then the hatch began to open…and then it stopped. Sam saw it first, a small wire was keeping the hatch from opening. She grabbed the hatch and took the pressure off the wire. She said, “It’s a booby trap!” They all froze.

Ian made a quick survey of the interior through the partially opened hatch. Lars was not in the pod, but there was a device wired to a small fuel pellet. It was luck and fast action that prevented the wire from pulling out and triggering the device. It looked to be a simple trigger. The wire was hooked on the hatch and it was just a matter of unhooking it. It was a trap in case someone got too curious about the pod, and it almost killed at least four people.

Peyton called again, this time her voice was less convincing. She said, “Uhm, Zeke, I’m not sure if we can meet later. I have a new problem to deal with and I need to call Jeramy for advice. I’ll call you when I’m done.” Sam immediately called on her tablet, “Zeke and Jeramy, I’m with Peyton. Just stay there and we’ll come to you.”

Sam immediately began typing a message to the entire team. It said,

“Lars not on pod. Booby trap w fuel pellet. Unhooked trigger wire. Close hatches & release pod? Z pull pod away? J ride pod out & open pod & dispose of bomb?”

Within seconds came the response from Jenna, “Go.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 001, Sur Two, Wednesday, Sol 35 (001.2.35)  16:38 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 9 April 2016  2:12 PM PDT 

Jenna then turned to Ken and said, “We’ve really screwed up. We may only have minutes.” Ken responded, “We would have seen Lars go to the Engineering and ICP sections.” Jenna said, “He’s been moving outside the ship and we have three ICP drives.

Suddenly, what Jenna said sank in for the Command team. The ICP drives for the QE II and Charlie One were attached along the core of the ship, and they were in ‘cold’ condition,’ meaning a person would need to be in a spacesuit to enter, unless they were powered up.

Jenna looked at her Engineering Director and said, “Roman, use the cameras at look for Lars on both of the stowed ICP drives.” Roman moved quickly to a workstation and began scanning the drives. Then Jenna said, “Anna, prepare to release both ICP drives, and Ken, as soon as Zeke and Jeramy are done with the booby trap, have them move to the spare ICP drives and prepare to tow them away from the ship.”

Roman came back and said, “I don’t see Lars on either drive, but both sections have wires running where they shouldn’t be. I think both are rigged.” Jenna said, “Damn! Roman, prepare to move the ship away from the ICP drives as soon as they’re clear.” Ken said, “What about Zeke and Jeramy?” Jenna replied, “As soon as they have cleared the drives from the ship, they can move to safety. Assuming we’re still alive, we will send a ship back for them.”

In the next few minutes everything went as planned. After Jeramy dispensed with the bomb on the pod, he and Zeke attached to the spare ICP drives and moved them away from the ship. Anna and Roman used the thrusters to move the Sagan away from the rigged ICP sections.

And then they waited. If Lars wasn’t aware of the earlier activities, he would know something was up when the ship engaged the thrusters. He had to know the game was up and they knew he was on the ship. Five minutes passed and nothing happened. Then Anna exclaimed, “Charlie One Command section has just released.”

They looked on the monitor and saw the Command section slowly moving away from the ship. Anna regained her composure and said, “Close all hatches.” Then made a crew announcement, “All hands, all decks, prepared for impact and depressurization.”

Jenna was momentarily pleased that Anna was not waiting for orders, but using her own judgement to anticipate what was coming. Then Jenna realized that within a few moments of proving her skills as a Captain, Anna might be dead.

The Command section of Charlie One had no main drive, but the thrusters on it could give it enough ramming speed to severely damage the Sagan. Ramming it into the rotating Hab sections would send out debris that would compromise most, if not all, pressurized areas. The ICP drive on the Sagan could put the ship far away from Lars, but it would take hours to prepare the drive for ignition. The Sagan was an easy target for Lars.

Anna then said, “Full reverse thrusters.” Jenna thought that Anna’s plan would be a desperate act, but it was better to force Lars to hit a moving target. They watched the Sagan begin to slowly back away from the receding Command ship, but Lars responded and rotated the section then began accelerating at the Sagan. He was aiming for the Hab Quills. It seemed like it was all in slow motion, but Jenna knew that by the time of impact the Command Section would be going at over a hundred kilometers per hour.

The mass of the Sagan made it sluggish, compared to the mass of the single core Command section that Lars was piloting. Lars was rapidly approaching and in seconds the Mars mission would be over.

Two pods suddenly flew into view and were aimed at Lars and the Command section. The first pod rammed into the Command section with explosive force. The gash was at least three times longer than the pod and atmosphere, debris, and a person were ejected into space. The pod was embedded in the section, and Jenna couldn’t determine how badly it was damaged. 

The other pod expertly grabbed onto the front of the section and began rotating it away from the Sagan. The thrusters were still active and the section began moving away. Anna commanded, “Forward thruster! Match previous speed.” Slowly the Sagan began slowing its relative reverse motion, then the ship began to move forward.

At the same time, Jenna and the rest of the Command team watched the wreckage of the other ship move off. The second pod released from the front of the Command section and moved down to the embedded pod. It grabbed the pod and reversed it out of the wreckage, then the second pod began towing it back toward the Sagan as Charlie One’s Command section became smaller and smaller on the monitor.

Jenna knew that Zeke was in the second pod. Few, if any, pod drivers could have grabbed a ship moving at a different relative speed and rotated it. They zoomed in on Jeramy’s pod and could see it was severely damaged. Jeramy would have still been in his space suit, but the collision was so violent that shrapnel would have blown through the cockpit.

As the pods got closer the camera was focused in on a gap in Jeramy’s pod and they were able to see the upper part of his space suit. The face plate was partly torn away, and Jeramy’s bloody face was briefly visible. He was dead.