Chapter 03: Family Crisis

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Tuesday, Sol 38 (1.1.38)  7:17 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 10 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

Each crew member on the ESS Queen Elizabeth II carries a personal tablet or pad that connects them to the ship and the onboard communications system. It can be used for video calls between crew members or to any department of Earth Space Exploration Program (ESEP) Command.

However, normally tablet communication is audio only and off-ship communication is channelled through the Comm Center on the ship or through workstations around the ship. This protocol can be bypassed under certain circumstances, so when Rear Admiral Jenna Wade pad indicated she had an incoming call on her tablet from ESEP Actual, she knew it was important.

“This is Mars Mission Actual,” she said. The Director of ESEP, Nick Castillo was not usually somber, but his voice had a very serious tone as he skipped all pleasantries and said, “Jenna, I need you in your quarters for a video call. I also need Ken and Wendy there.” Jenn knew there was no point in asking why. Nick clearly needed to discuss something without anyone else hearing the conversation. Jenna said, “On my way.” Jenna was about to end the call when Nick added, “Jenna, I also need Dane to go to his quarters and wait for a call.” Jenna simply said, “Acknowledged.”

From Nick’s tone and instructions Jenna knew there was some type of emergency and everything else would have to wait. Jenna called Commodore Ken Hart and Counselor Wendy Stevens and told them to report to her quarters immediately. She then decided to have Paige Flores, the Comm Officer, contact Dane Paris. The Comm Center contacting Dane for a private video call would not be unusual, but coming from her it would indicate something ominous.

Jenna had surmised that this must be a personal issue for Dane as the ship’s Counselor would not be needed if the emergency involved the ship or the mission. As she arrived at her quarters Wendy was waiting outside. Wendy said, “What’s up?” Jenna said, “Nick wants to talk to us, but it must be something about Dane.” As they were going in Ken arrived and asked the same question. Jenna said to both of them, “Nick has something for us and Dane has been asked to go to his quarters for a call, my best guess is a major personal issue.”

Jenna crossed to her office and touched a flashing icon. Immediately Castillo was on the bigger video monitor over Jenna’s desk. He was standing in his office talking to his assistant who was a younger woman whose focus was solely on her boss. He turned to them and said, “My apologies, give me a moment.” He then turned back to her and said, “Tell the pilot to hold station until further notice. Let him know the Tortuga may have to go back.”

At that point she turned to a console behind them and a man sitting at a Command station on a shuttle appeared. She was talking to him she was on a headset and was obviously trying not to disturb her boss’s conversation with them. Nick came closer to the camera and said, “Jenna, Ken, Wendy, we have a problem that is going to affect your team. About seven hours ago Dane’s father-in-law had a severe heart attack and was picked up by ambulance.”

Jenna’s heart sank, and Nick continued, “For whatever reason his mother-in-law stayed behind until Dane’s wife, Trice, arrived. The two of them were driving to the hospital, and I don’t have all the details yet, but apparently they arrived at a light that had just turned green and the went through when another car was racing through the intersection trying to beat the red light. They were hit square on the driver’s side and both Trice and mother-in-law were killed.”

Wendy spoke immediately. “Does Dane’s daughter know?” Nick said, “Not yet. She gets out of school in about 45 minutes and we’ve asked the police and the school to let us handle it. Dane’s mother and sister live in Denmark and his wife’s sister lives on the East Coast. There is no family near his daughter…uhm…,” Castillo glanced at his pad, then continued, “Abigail, to pick her up or stay with her.”

Two minutes ago, Dane Paris was preparing for a trip to Mars. Everything in his world was about to change.

Castillo continued, “I asked you to order Dane to his quarters so he would be occupied while we talked. Dane has checked in with us and is standing by. Before we talk to him I need your decision Jenna.” 

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Tuesday, Sol 38 (1.1.38)  7:47 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 10 February 2016  2:30 PM PST

Jenna, Ken, and Wendy had all just been informed by Nick, that their pilot, Dane Paris had just lost his wife and mother-in-law in a car accident after his father-in-law had been taken to a hospital following a severe heart attack. Nick had said he couldn’t inform Dane of the tragedy until Jenna had made a decision, but he didn’t say what that decision was about.

Jenna, Ken, and Wendy knew what he meant. After the commissioning of the ship and crew, ESEP had to let the Mission Commander make any decisions that impacted the ship or mission. Jenna turned to Ken and said, “I’m willing to hear Dane out if he wants to stay, but I think he has to go to his daughter. What’s your view?” Ken didn’t hesitate, “If he wants to stay I will try to talk him out of it. For his sake and for his daughter’s sake.” Nick jumped in, “Wendy, do you concur?” “If he doesn’t want to go, it will likely be because he is too confused to make a good decision. Regardless, he will become a liability for the ship. He has to leave. How soon can we get him down?” she asked. Nick glanced back and said, “We have a shuttle that just left thirty minutes ago. I’m calling it back and we can have him with his daughter sometime tomorrow.”

Nick was about to say more when his assistant came up to him and whispered to him. Nick turned angry and exclaimed, “What the hell?” and then he looked at them and said, “Standby, I still need to talk to you.”

With that he turned and went to his assistant’s station and put the conversation on speaker. Nick said, “What’s the problem, Jake?” Jake was one of the pilots running shuttles and equipment from the surface to the orbiting spaceport, Earth Prime, where the Queen Elizabeth II and the Carl Sagan were currently docked. Jenna and Ken recognized him from past trips and when he interviewed with them to be on their crew. Jake answered, “No problem, it’s just that Captain Williams is asking me for further information and has ordered me to continue to de-orbit.”

Jenna knew Captain Richard Williams. She had also interviewed him for the position on her crew. Richard was a former naval fighter pilot who had close friends in high positions in the U.S. Navy. He was arrogant and self-confident to the point that you couldn’t trust him to be realistic or honest about his crew or ship. Jenna had no problem rejecting his application.

Nick went into a low, measured tone in his voice. It was as if he was about to kill someone or something. Nick slowly said, “Let me speak to Richard.” Jake looked over his shoulder and said, “Captain, Director Castillo wants to speak to you.” Behind Jake a man with short blonde hair that had receded far back on his head floated up behind Jake. He told Jake, “Put me on speaker, please,” and then said, “Good morning Nick, look we’re already on our way down and we’re at our maximum weight. There’s another shuttle leaving tonight, so we’re just going to stay on schedule and de-orbit.”

Jenna hadn’t seen this in a long time. During her first years in the Royal Navy she would run into some arrogant Commander that would attempt to counter her decisions. What they didn’t know is that she always made sure that her superiors were well-informed and in complete agreement with the plan she had initiated. Typically, she would watch a Commander self-destruct in front of her when they tried to slap her down and humiliate her in front of her boss. She knew that Richard had no clue of what he had just done. It was uncomfortable to watch and she had a good idea of what was coming next.

Nick became eerily calm when he said, “Richard Williams, you are relieved of Command effective immediately. You are to leave the Command deck and you are not authorized to make any further communications. You are to report back to Earth Prime where you will take the tonight’s shuttle back to Earth. Jake, I am temporarily promoting you to Captain. Just a minute.” Nick could see Richard still floating behind Jake with a look of confusion on his face. Nick continued, “Dick! Get off the Command deck!” Richard blinked, then turned and floated away.

Nick said, “Jake, can you get the ship back to Earth Prime immediately.” Jake smiled and said, “Yes sir, I’ll have her docked within the hour.” It was pretty obvious that Jake wasn’t smiling at the promotion, but at Richard’s visit with karma. Jake obviously disliked being under his command. Nick continued, “Do you have anyone from Security on board?” Jake replied, “Mr. Soon is on board.” Nick instructed, “Have him contact my assistant immediately and once you are back at Earth Prime contact my assistant for further instructions. You can plan departing within the hour after you return. Thank you, Jake” 

Nick touched an icon on his pad and a voice said, “Security Actual.” Nick quickly said, “Mr. Duncan, Richard Williams is no longer employed. I am asking Mr. Soon to take charge of him on the Tortuga, at Earth Prime, and then on the shuttle tonight. Would you deactivate his authorization and have a detail meet him with his belongings when he lands tomorrow and then escort him home and collect any ESEP material.” The voice replied, “Done.”

Nick then touched his pad again and another voice with a French accent said, “Earth Prime Actual, how may I help you Director?” Jenna and Ken recognized it to be the voice of Claude Dubois, the Commodore of Earth Prime. Nick said, “Claude, the Tortuga is returning to you under my orders. We have a crew member on the QE II that has had a family tragedy and he needs to get back on Earth ASAP.” Claude somberly replied, “Very well, we will take care of it.” Nick continued, “Claude, I have also fired Richard Williams. Would you confine him to quarters and then send him back on tonight’s shuttle. Mr. Soon will be in charge of him.” Claude’s voice betrayed his glee, “But, of course.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Tuesday, Sol 38 (1.1.38)  8:17 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 10 February 2016  3:00 PM PST

The three of them in orbit watched helplessly on Jenna’s monitor as Nick had been sidetracked by an uncooperative, and now former, Captain. Nick handled the problem efficiently, but onboard the ESS Queen Elizabeth II a personal crisis was unfolding as their pilot, Dane Paris, was about to learn of a tragedy in his immediate family.

Jenna was startled by a call to her pad from Dane. She hesitated, but then responded, “This is Jenna.” Dane’s voice was unsure, “Admiral, I was called to my quarters for a call from the Director of ESEP and I’ve been on standby for over thirty minutes. Do you know what is going on?” She knew she couldn’t seem evasive, but she also couldn’t tell him two close family members had been killed and another one was in the hospital over the COMM link. She said, “I’m talking to the Director now, and he’s been dealing with a personnel issue while we’ve been on standby. Why don’t you come to my quarters and you can talk with him as soon as he’s available.” Dane replied, “Okay, thanks.” 

When she looked up she saw Nick on her video screen listening to her conversation. Nick said, “Jenna, I know you can handle this, but I’ll be happy to tell him, or I can let you do it and I’ll standby if he needs to talk to me.” Jenna replied, “I think it’s good for him to understand your investment in the situation. When he gets here I’ll tell him, but I think it would be best if Wendy, Ken and you were visible to him.” All nodded in agreement.

Wendy quickly jumped in, “Director, do we know the condition of his father-in-law?” Nick glanced back at his assistant who was on a video call to someone at her workstation. Despite her focus on the call she seemed to sense her boss was looking at her. She looked back while still talking to the other person. Nick said, “I’ll have Megan get an update, but our last report said he was critical, on life support, and possibly brain-dead.” His assistant waved her acknowledgment without breaking her focus on the video call.

Wendy jumped in again, “Director, if you don’t mind I’d like to send Earth Prime’s Counselor down with Dane. This is going to hit Dane in stages and he will need someone with him at all times.” Nick responded, “Of course. We can get Nirav back up in a few days, or they can reassign someone to replace him.” Wendy added, “I’m recommending a Type I Recovery authorization because of the circumstances.” Nick responded, “Send me the request and I’ll sign off on it and put it in place today.”

A Type I Recovery was the highest level of ESEP family support. It was a support plan for a person or family dealing with the loss of a high-profile employee under public circumstances. It involved Security for the family as well as constant in-home assistance by ESEP Counselors who could authorize almost any expenditure for the comfort and support of the survivors. It normally wasn’t meant for the death of family members, but in this case the media attention would likely be overwhelming once word got out.

Wendy then said to Jenna, “We should bring Paige in.” Jenna looked confused and Wendy continued, “Paige and Dane have been spending a lot of time together.” Jenna said, “I didn’t know that,” and then she touched the icon for her COMM Officer and said, “Paige, please report to my quarters.”

There was silence for a few moments and Jenna was feeling for Dane’s loss. She said, “Dane’s daughter is twelve.” Wendy corrected her, “No, she’s thirteen. She had a birthday last week.” At that moment a crisp chime sounded. It was the door chime.

Jenna opened the door and saw Dane and Paige standing there. Jenna waved them in and asked Dane to come over to her workstation. Wendy moved in next to Paige and put her arm around her. Dane saw his boss and looked quizzically at Ken and Paige looked quizzically at Wendy. Dane saw Nick standing in his office on Jenna’s monitor.

Jenna didn’t wait for Dane to ask any questions, she just started by saying, “Dane, the Director has just informed us about some tragic news in your family. Your father-in-law had a severe heart attack this morning and was taken to the hospital. Trice went over to take her mother to the hospital and they were in a car accident. Trice and her mother were killed.”

Jenna knew to let this set in for a moment, but she also knew that Dane’s mind would be racing as soon as the reality of the news hit him and so she tried to talk before his emotions exploded and he stopped listening.

Jenna continued, “We’re trying to get an update on your father-in-law’s condition, but at last report it was extremely serious.” Jenna paused, then continued. “We’re sending our staff to pick up Abigail from school and they will take care of her until you can get to her.”

Jenna paused, then continued again, “The Director has ordered a shuttle to take you back to the surface. It will be ready to leave Earth Prime in a little over an hour.”

Dane asked the most important question on his mind. “Does Abby know?” Now Nick spoke up, “No. Not yet. We wanted you to tell us what to do. She is getting out of school about now and we can arrange for you to video her there, or we can take her home. We can also tell her if you would like.”

By this time Paige had moved over and put her arm around Dane. She now understood why she was there. Dane said, “I’d like to tell her…as soon as possible…she’ll be scared if she doesn’t understand what is going on….I need to pack…”

Jenna had seen this before. It was all starting to hit him. Dane would have a blur of thoughts looming in his mind and then fading away as the next thought consumed the first. He would effectively be non-functional for several hours. 

Jenna began mapping out the next steps for everyone, especially Dane. “Paige, you and Wendy take Dane back to his quarters to call Abby and pack. Ken and I will join you there in a few minutes. Paige, only pack what he needs for the next few days. I’m going to ask you to pack up the rest of his stuff after he is on the shuttle.” Jenna knew that Paige would likely need to have a schedule of tasks in order to deal with Dane’s tragedy. She also suspected that it hadn’t set in with her that her friend would not be going to Mars with her. Wendy was going to have an intense few days as Paige and the rest of the crew absorbed the ramifications.

Dealing with people in crisis was familiar territory for Jenna. She started repeating information to Dane multiple times to keep him from shutting down. Jenna took Dane by the shoulders and said, “Dane, you need to get over to the shuttle after you talk to Abby and pack. Nirav, the Counselor on Earth Prime, is going to join you. Dane, we will arrange  to have someone with you all the way back home and you will have ESEP staff at your home to assist in any way needed.”

Jenna avoided the issue of Dane being removed from the first Mars mission. It was too complicated to discuss now and it was just one more tragedy to pile on everything else he had to deal with today.

Wendy stepped in and shepherded Dane and Paige to the door. Paige suddenly realized she had left her post temporarily and needed to let someone know she was not returning immediately. She turned to the Admiral and said, “My post…” Wade replied, “I’ll inform Naomi of the situation. For the rest of the day you are temporarily assigned to Wendy.”

The three of them left. Jenna looked at Ken. For a moment they both felt the magnitude of what had happened, but both of them knew that they would have to stay on task until all the pieces had been put back together.

Jenna asked, “Ready?” Ken nodded that he was, and both of them turned their attention to Nick who had watched the drama unfold as he stood in his office 2,500 kilometers below. Nick broke the silence, “Do you want to do this top, down?” Jenna answered, “Crew announcement first, then top, down.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Tuesday, Sol 38 (1.1.38)  8:29 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 10 February 2016  3:12 PM PST

CODE ALERT! Text in three parts to follow.

CODE ALERT:  PART ONEEffective immediately all non-critical functions are to be suspended. The evening and night shifts are suspended for at least on day. Crew will go to minimal schedule for the remainder of the day and a team from Earth Prime will come onboard to assume routine duties for at least 24 hours. These team members will be on temporary orders and report to the Command team of the QE II.

CODE ALERT:  PART TWOEffective immediately, Dane Paris has been reassigned to temporary duty at the San Jose Space Center in California and will report to Nick Castillo, ESEP Director.

CODE ALERT:  PART THREEDane Paris lost his wife and mother-in-law in a traffic accident this morning. His father-in-law is also in very critical condition from a heart attack that occurred prior to the traffic accident. Dane will be leaving on a shuttle in the next hour to be with his thirteen year-old daughter.

Jenna looked up from her pad and looked at Nick on her monitor and said, “Does Claude know yet?” Nick weakly smiled and said, “Megan just wrote this, I didn’t know until now.” Then the smile disappeared, “No. No one has been contacted. This needs your approval before we can act.” Jenna knew that Nick’s assistant, Megan, was good at her job, but the Crew Alert message she put together was perfect. She anticipated the steps needed to respond to the crisis and worded the message in a way that put the action first and the reasoning last. People would stop reading after they learned of the tragedy.

Jenna said, “Send it out and tell Megan she’s brilliant.” Nick’s smile returned and said, “Now you know runs the show around here.” Jenna and Ken smiled, then Jenna said, “Tell Claude to send over four people if he can spare them, and if we need more we’ll work it out with him. Also, his medical team should be on standby. Our medical team is going to be working with the Counselor for the next 24 hours.”

Nick said, “Good. Now from the top. Mission? Jenna looked at Ken and both nodded. Wade said, “We’re still go.” Nick continued, “Orbital transfer date?” Ken asked, “How long until we have a replacement?” Nick said, “Megan’s putting together a list of six candidates now. I’ll rank them and send you the list within an hour. All six candidates are receiving orders to immediately go to Peru. If needed, we’ll put all six on a shuttle and have them at Earth Prime within 48 hours.”

Jenna interrupted, “Nick, we will choose someone by the end of the day. I already have someone in mind that Ken and I need to talk about. If he agrees, we will offer him the job later today.” Nick replied, “We’ll continue to move the six to Peru until we have a confirmed replacement.”

Jenna turned to Ken and said, “What do you think?” Ken said, “I can think of at least three people who could sit in the pilot’s seat in two days and be ready to leave on the 24th. I say go.” Jenna turned to Nick and said, “We’re go on the date. Countdown to begin on Sunday as planned.”

Nick then said, “Crew recovery?” ESEP had protocol for how to deal with a crisis and then return back to a normal schedule. It was flexible based on the nature of the crisis. It required an assessment of ability of the team to focus on their job responsibilities. Jenna thought and then said, “The Command team will discuss it, but right now I’d say the crew will be at fifty percent tomorrow, 75% on Thursday, 85% on Friday, and 95% by Sunday. I think we can resume light duty tomorrow, and a full schedule by Saturday. Nick was always impressed by Jenna’s ability to realistically analyze a situation. 

Nick said, “Question Marks?” Jenna thought for a moment and said, “Paige. I didn’t know about her friendship with Dane, so I don’t know the impact. I’ll know in a couple of days.” Nick frowned and then added, “Okay, I’m sending up a list of Comm Officers. Choose one of them and we will reassign that person to Earth Prime. If you need to make that change I want to have them within walking distance.” Nick paused and then said, “Great job today.”

Jenn replied, “It’s not over yet.” At that moment Megan approached Castillo and gave him a piece of paper. He read it and then looked up at the camera and said, “Dane’s father-in-law was just died.”