Chapter 04: Valentine’s Night

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Saturday, Sol 42 (1.1.42)  4:43 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Sunday, 14 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

Jenna couldn’t sleep. It was almost 5:00 AM and she had been awake for two hours. This week was not the week she had anticipated and later this morning the ten day countdown would begin to send them off to Mars.

The replacement pilot came on board two days ago, but the crew, including Jenna, was still dealing with the emotional circumstances of the loss of their former pilot, Dane Paris, on Tuesday morning.

He lost three immediate family members in a matter of hours and suddenly was a single parent. ESEP was able to get him from the ship to his daughter in less than 24 hours, which was a small miracle performed by a dedicated ESEP team.

Jenna had talked to him briefly on Thursday, and Nick Castillo, the Director of ESEP, was forwarding reports to her from the Counselors that had been assigned to live and care for him and his daughter while he worked through the grief and life changes resulting from the loss of his wife and in-laws.

As for the crew, they had been trained to accept the loss of a crewmate and move on, but this was different. They lost a crewmate, but he was still alive and he was suffering. They couldn’t be there for him.

Even worse was the reality of the situation. Every crew member knew that during the two-year mission things might change with the people they left behind. None of them realized how significant the changes could be, and how suddenly it could happen.

Dane was lucky in some aspects. His family tragedy occurred while the ship was still in orbit, and still attached to Earth Prime, the orbiting spaceport. In ten days there was no turning back. Whatever happened on Earth would be literally be on a different world.

Two weeks ago, ESEP worldwide and orbital operations switched over to the time zone of the landing site on Mars. That meant adopting the Mars clock and calendar. The Mars calendar didn’t have Valentine’s Day on it. It didn’t have any holidays, but that didn’t mean the crew wouldn’t be thinking of family and friends during Earth holidays.

Jenna was sipping her tea in her quarters and thinking that the timing of this couldn’t be worse. Currently the Mars night, their night, was Valentine’s Day for much of the western world. Throughout the morning the crew would be reminded of the people they would be missing during the next two years. Jenna had considered a light duty day for today, but with the countdown starting this morning, it would require everyone at their stations. 

The start of the countdown was significant, but it was mostly a historical moment. During the next ten days the countdown would keep everyone on a tight schedule; however, after it began the workload would be light because the mission was two days ahead of schedule.

Jenna checked in with the Comm Center for any pending messages before she dressed for the day. She touched the Comm icon on her pad and the voice said, “Good Morning, Rear Admiral. You’re up early.” The voice was Paige Flores who was covering the night shift. Paige had developed a close friendship with Dane Paris, and her mood this morning seemed out of line for her emotional state the last time they talked.

“Good morning, how was last night?” Jenna asked. Paige replied, “It was good. I talked to Dane last night.” Jenna was glad to hear they had a chance to reconnect, “How’s he doing?” Paige mood seemed to become more serious, “He’s still trying to deal with new issues, but he’s focusing on helping his daughter deal with the loss of her Mom and grandparents. That seems to be helping him.”

Jenna had suspected taking over the role of nurturer for his daughter, Abby, would help him out of the emotional hole he could be sucked into. Jenna said, “That’s good. Dane’s a great father.”

Paige agreed and then moved the conversation on, “Admiral, the Director would like you to contact him as soon as possible, and you have some other messages, but would it be okay if I came to talk to you after you call the Director?” Jenna was curious why, but decided not to ask now. She hoped that Paige wouldn’t be requesting to leave the ship. “Of course,” Jenna replied, “I’ll call you when I’m done.”

Jenna put her concerns about Paige to the side and focused on her call to the Director. She would have been woken if there was an emergency, but lately the Director hadn’t been the source of good news. About ten seconds after she finished her conversation with Paige a flashing icon appeared at her workstation. Paige had set up the video call.

Jenna touched the icon and the image of Megan, Nick Castillo’s assistant, came up on the monitor. She said, “Rear Admiral Wade, good morning. The Director is on his way.” Jenna smiled and said, “Megan, thank you for all your help in these past few days. If I could requisition you for our mission, I would.” Megan smiled and said, “Thank you, Rear Admiral. It is a pleasure to help out in any way I can. The Director is here.”

Jenna could see the doorway to Nick’s office suite across from the camera and within seconds of Megan saying he was ‘here,’ he stepped into the room. Megan had an uncanny sense of her boss and Jenna wondered if she was really human.

Nick looked up at the video monitor and said, “Good morning, Jenna. I didn’t mean to have you woken.” Jenna replied, “I was awake and checked in. They didn’t wake me up.” Nick said, “Can’t sleep?” Jenna shook her head and said, “Not last night. If things go well this morning I might order a nap for the crew.” Nick smiled and said, “If you do that, I’ll do the same here. I know your crew was hit the hardest by the tragedy, but I didn’t realize how much everyone down here would be affected.” Jenna said, “I’m halfway serious about the nap.” Nick replied, “I’m completely serious. If all goes well this morning we’ll both stand down our people until 10:00 AM tomorrow. Claude’s team has been asking to help out. I’m sure he can find people to cover shifts for you.”

Jenna then said, “Wait, we have the countdown starting. Are we going to put that on hold?” Nick shook his head, “No. We’ll start the countdown and do the immediate tasks related to initiating it, but…,” at this point Nick turned to his assistant, “Megan, how many tasks would we delay if we stand down the crew and staff from noon today until ten AM tomorrow?”

Megan scrolled through her tablet for a few seconds and said, “32 system tests and tasks are scheduled and also fifteen meetings. The total allocated time to recover from a delay is 28 hours and seven minutes a” Nick turned to Jenna and said, “Maybe it’s not..” But Megan interrupted, “Of course, if the tasks are rescheduled to be done concurrently it will take one hour and 43 minutes to be back on schedule.” Nick smiled again, then frowned, “What about the meetings?” Megan replied, “Most of the meetings can be eliminated and combined with the end of day meetings.”

Nick had a thought and then touched an icon on his tablet. A now familiar voice said, “Security Actual. What can I do for you Director.” Jenna noticed that Megan began quickly typing out a message on her pad. Nick seemed unaware of her activity and continued, “Mr. Duncan, I think we should follow your recommendation and stand down operations for the security sweep you suggested.” Mr. Duncan was clearly confused, “Security sweep?….I’m not…..” Mr. Duncan paused. It became apparent to Jenna that Megan had sent some type of message to Mr. Duncan and he resumed his response with enthusiasm, “YES. The security sweep from noon today until ten AM tomorrow…do we…do I need more time to do this sweep? Nick was clearly enjoying this and replied, “Now, Mr. Duncan, we can’t hold up the program too long…noon today until ten AM is all we can afford I’m afraid.”

Megan had continued typing while they talked. Mr. Duncan then added, “Very well, I’ll send out….” At that moment a message marked urgent popped up on everyone’s tablet. The conversation stopped as everyone read it. It said,

CODE ALERT! Text in two parts to follow:

CODE ALERT – PART ONE:  All non-critical operations will stand down after countdown initiation. Today at noon, all non-critical mission operations will stand down until 10 AM tomorrow. All non-critical task and all meetings are to be rescheduled. The Office of the ESEP’s Director will issue a new schedule later today. All questions and concerns should be forwarded to that office.

CODE ALERT – PART TWO:  Security will be performing a routine security operation from noon today until 10 AM tomorrow. This was planned but unannounced for security reasons. This is not in response to any known issue or concern, but a test of pre-departure security. Thank you for your cooperation.

Mr. Duncan then resumed, “Correction, I’ve sent out a message to all…I think it’s all…operations….Actually, Director, I really would like to do a security sweep of both ships and Earth Prime.”  Nick looked at Jenna on his monitor and she nodded. Nick said, “You have the Rear Admiral’s approval and…” Nick looked back at Megan who was once again typing, then he continued, “I’m sure Claude will be contacting you shortly with his approval.” Mr. Duncan said, “Excellent, thank you.”

Nick now turned back to his video call with Jenna, “How’s the new pilot doing?” “She’s a little rattled right now,” Jenna replied. Jenna had a pilot in mind to replace Dane, but it turned out the pilot was in training to advance to Captain and would have had to give that up to go on the mission. Jenna and Ken bypassed the top two candidates suggested by the Director and offered the position to the third person on the list.

Nick decided to ask, “Why did you select Keira over the others?” Jenna smiled, “We liked her.” Nick was not going to accept a non-answer, he said, “She was kicked off one ship for insubordination and she was the pilot on the shuttle crash eleven months ago.” Jenna replied, “It was because of those events that we selected her. The ship she was kicked off of was captained by Williams, who you fired this week, and on the shuttle crash, everyone walked away, which, under the circumstances is a miracle. She’s been tested and proved herself.”

Nick smiled and said, “I’ve learned to trust your judgement. In fact, Megan gave me the list with Keira’s name at the top, and I moved her to the third option.” Jenna said, “You need to stop doing that. Megan’s way smarter than all of us.”

Nick smiled and glanced over his shoulder at Megan at her station. She was involved in a video call with three other people. Nick quietly said, “I found her in a bottle walking on a beach” Megan looked over her shoulder at Nick and said, “I heard that….Master,” and then resumed her video call.

Nick and Jenna both laughed. After a moment Nick became serious and said, “There is some cargo coming up to you that we need to talk about.”

Jenna’s smile disappeared.

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Saturday, Sol 42 (1.1.42)  4:58 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Sunday, 14 February 2016  2:15 PM PST

As the Rear Admiral and commander of the Mars Mission, Jenna Wade approved every item coming on board the ESS Queen Elizabeth II and the ESS Carl Sagan. Cargo didn’t leave Earth until Jenna approved it.

Now the ESEP Director was telling her that something was already on the way to the spaceport, Earth Prime, to be loaded on one of her ships. Nick wouldn’t be calling her if it was routine cargo, and it wouldn’t be in route unless ESEP was pushing it to go on the mission.

It was about 5:00 AM and Jenna had not slept well. It was Valentine’s Day on Earth, and the crew was dealing with loss. This was not a good time to be forcing a new wrinkle to the mission.

Jenna looked at the monitor the man who stood in his office 2,500 kilometers below. She masked her emotions and then said, “What’s the cargo?” Nick was in a difficult spot. Jenna had the authority to refuse any change to the mission and with what had happened this week, any other commander might take the position that no further changes would be made before the ships leave Earth orbit. This was now a test of Jenna’s emotional state as much as it was a change in the mission.

Nick said, “We have two experiments for you to approve.” One, you’ve been briefed on, and the other I can’t tell you about.” Any other person might have launched into a tirade. This was a breach of her command authority and according to protocol she should reject the new experiments.

However, Jenna did not become the first commander of a mission to Mars by accident. She had an extraordinary ability to listen and gather all the information before taking actions. She also was able to act quickly in a crisis on whatever information she had at the moment. Nick’s statement intrigued her, rather than enraged her.

Jenna smiled and said, “Go on.” Nick knew this was a good sign, and he was a little disappointed with himself for thinking that Jenna would behave like a normal person.

Nick continued, “The OPB team had a breakthrough and they want to send a test batch with you to Mars.” Jenna was very familiar with the subject. OPB stood for Oxygen Producing Bacteria and an experiment was planned for this mission, but they couldn’t find a way to turn off the bacteria if it got out of control. There were strict rules about introducing a biologic element to Mars if it couldn’t be controlled.

“Did they find a switch,” Jenna asked? Nick smiled and said, “Exactly, they have a counter agent that not only switches it off, but kills the bacteria and then consumes itself. The end result is a filmy paste that doesn’t spread or blow away. I watched them kill a batch. It’s impressive.” Jenna was not surprised that Nick observed the experiment. He wouldn’t have considered the experiment unless he observed it.

“What’s the setup,” Jenna asked? Nick replied, “A three-chambered experiment within an isolation box. The bacteria are sealed inside a container inside one of the vacuum-sealed chambers. Martian soil and atmosphere is added to another chamber and sealed. First atmosphere is allowed to enter the third chamber and the air is shared with the bacteria chamber. If all goes well the bacteria is then exposed directly to the soil. Parameters have been established for growth rates and oxygen production at each stage of the experiment. Too much of either and the bacteria is killed. We still need your Science Director to approve it.” Nick waited.

Jenna was hesitant about OPB. If it survived in the Martian environment there was the potential that it could escape and grow uncontrolled. Bacteria and viruses had a bad habit of unintended consequences, especially when they are human-designed. Jenna also knew that if she didn’t take the experiment it would be on the next mission, and she preferred to have direct control of the program than have to oversee another commander.

Jenna said, “Alright. I’m sure Lanny will go for it. He was disappointed when we canceled it. Have your Science team brief Lanny. I’ll let him know he has the authority to approve it.” While she had been talking she typed out a text to her Science Director. Jenna knew that it might be a matter of seconds before the ground science team contacted Lanny.

Jenna then looked up at Nick and said, “Now, about that experiment you can’t tell me about.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Saturday, Sol 42 (1.1.42)  5:10 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Sunday, 14 February 2016  2:27 PM PST

The four primary ESEP project teams are divided up into five-year stages. The Stage Four project team is devoted to planning and putting into motion the necessary resources for programs and projects that will be needed fifteen to twenty years from now. The Stage Three project team takes the work of the previous team and continues developing and revising the overall plan for ESEP programs that would occur in ten to fifteen years. Stage Two handles the five to ten-year time frame, and Stage One makes the planning that started twenty years ago become reality.

In general, Stage Four consisted of architects, engineers, researchers, and scientists designing the next generation of ships, habitats, and Earth/space/Mars production facilities. Stage Three consists of logisticians, managers, engineers, and scientists that develop factories and test new concepts and equipment. Stage Two consists of actual pre-production and production work, and Stage One puts everything into place, and then follows through with the support and maintenance of those programs.

Most ESEP personnel in the first three Stages tend to stay with their team; however, people who are critical to the success of the development of a particular project often float into the next Stage to keep consistency to the project or program. 

ESEP began work in 2003. Stage Four and Stage Three have been working concurrently for over a decade and Stage One only became distinct from Stage Two in 2011. This process of growing the project teams into four umbrella groups has helped manage some of the chaos, but it also causes friction between project teams, especially when one team has fallen behind.

Jenna joined ESEP in 2010, and was assigned to the Stage Two Science division because they kept falling behind on their programs. In a six month period, she had made significant progress in getting the Science teams back on schedule, and her success led to her transfer to the team developing the first Mars mission. It was several years behind schedule and she was given the unusual position of overseeing both Stage Two and Stage One teams.

Within days Jenna had identified that problem with the first Mars mission was an incompetent program Director on the Stage Two team and a Stage One Director that was attempting to sabotage the Stage Two Director in order to cover up some of his failures. Jenna’s first move was to remove both Directors and then she found people within the teams to move up. Within a year the first Mars mission was back on schedule.

Jenna was not the type of person to apply threats and intimidation to turn things around, but rather had an uncanny ability to determine where a problem existed, who was being stifled in making progress, and then clear out the issues that were holding people back.

As word got around, ESEP administrators had multiple requests from divisions and programs to have Jenna temporarily help them move forward. When it came time to choose someone to lead the first, and most complicated, mission to Mars, ESEP’s only issue was whether or not they could afford to have Jenna off-world for over two years.

At this moment Jenna was sitting in her quarters on the ESS Queen Elizabeth II talking to her boss, Nick Castillo, who was standing in his office in San Jose, California. Nick and Jenna did not have a boss/employee relationship. Jenna’s talent was getting people to get things done and Nick’s talent was to understand Jenna’s talent and to make sure she was in an environment to use her talent to the maximum extent. Jenna trusted Nick and knew he would never intentionally deceive her or abuse that trust in any way.

When Nick said he had cargo that ESEP wanted to put on her ship and he couldn’t tell her what it was, she knew that whatever it was, Nick had good reasons for the secrecy and she knew that he would not endanger the crew or ship.

Nick resumed the conversation, “The cargo is a small A-1 size box. It has special environmental handling requirements. Alexander Rivera will be the only crew member to be briefed.” Jenna thought for a moment and then said, “Will my Biology Officer be told what he is handling?” “Yes,” Nick replied, “He will be made the program chief once he agrees to the experiment, and if he doesn’t agree to it the experiment doesn’t go on the mission.”

Jenna was now satisfied, but she thought she would probe a little more, “Why can’t we know?” Nick was not supposed to give any hints, but he felt compelled to reassure Jenna. Nick said, “It is an experiment that has a high probability of failure, but if it works the crew will be very happy. We don’t want to elevate expectations and then be the cause of the crew’s disappointment.”

Jenna had one last question, “Why can’t I know.” Nick’s expression changed, “That was my call. I am authorized to tell you and Ken, but I’d like both of you to be surprised along with the crew.”

That was all Jenna needed. She would be the first, and probably last commander to let an unknown experiment on a Mars mission, but that is what made Jenna unique. She said, “Okay, have your people talk to Alex and if he agrees then it’s a go. I’ll talk to Ken.”

Jenna changed the subject, “How are Dane and Abby doing?” Nick frowned, “It’s gotten complicated.” Jenna wondered how much more complicated anything could become than losing your spouse, your in-laws, becoming a single parent, and being taken off the first human mission to Mars. Jenna had to ask, “What’s going on.”

Nick sighed and said, “Technically, this is probably a confidential issue, but since our Recovery Team learned of it at the same time Dane did, I can tell you. Trice was having an affair and planning on leaving Dane. She apparently had been with the other man when she received the call about her Dad and left to pick up her mother. When he didn’t see her or hear from her he assumed she was dealing with the family crisis. Finally after two days he shows up at Dane’s house and learns from our team that Trice had died. It was a big scene with the guy, Dane and Abby. Trice had been taking Abby on her dates to let her get to know him. Apparently Abby was becoming attached to this guy because he was playing the ‘Dad’ role while Dane was gone.”

Jenna stared at the monitor for a moment then said, “Crap.” Nick continued, “There’s more and this may affect you. Dane was having an affair with Paige.” Suddenly Jenna was reminded that Paige was waiting to talk to her. She said, “Nick, we may need that replacement Comm Officer.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Saturday, Sol 42 (1.1.42)  6:07 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Sunday, 14 February 2016  2:24 PM PST

Jenna had finished her video call with Nick Castillo and then contacted her Comm Officer, Paige Flores. Paige wanted to meet with her, but under the circumstances she decided to put Paige off until she could dress for the day. Jenna also wanted the ship’s Counselor on standby in case she was needed.

Paige Flores was the youngest crew member. She was 27 and like all crew members, she had a special talent that uniquely qualified her to be on the first mission to Mars. Paige’s gift was her understanding of electrical and computer systems. She had a doctorate in electrical engineering and a masters in computer science; however, she looked more like a model than a geeky engineer.

Paige rarely formed attachments to anyone but her older sister, who was also on this mission. Anna Flores was the First Officer and Jenna had selected her to be on the crew six months before she began interviewing for a Comm Officer. ESEP administration was initially hesitant to have sisters on the same mission, but both were highly qualified and Jenna wanted her. It was the Counseling team that cleared the way for Paige to join the mission because they wanted to study familial relationships during long-term isolation.

Jenna was beginning to regret selecting Paige because she suspected that her maturity, or lack of it, might be a factor on this mission. Jenna was looking through Paige’s file to remind her of why she selected her when her door chimed.

“Come in,” Jenna said. Paige entered and said, “Good morning, Rear Admiral. Thank you for letting me come talk to you so early. Do you mind if I ask the Counselor to come and join us? I really would like her to hear what I have to say.” Jenna was confused, but she touched her tablet to call Wendy. In a moment Wendy’s voice said, “Good morning, Jenna.”

Wendy knew that Jenna might ask her to come into this meeting, but she didn’t want it to sound like she knew. Wendy was surprised when Jenna said., “Wendy, Paige and I are meeting in my quarters and she asked if you could join us.” Wendy paused for a moment and thought to herself, “Paige wants me there?” She then realized she was creating an uncomfortable silence and blurted out, “Be right there!”

Paige then launched into her next thought, “I’ve been talking to Wendy and she has given me a different perspective on my situation and I really want her to hear this.” Jenna motioned to Paige to sit down and asked her if she wanted tea. Before she could answer the door chimed and without hesitation Paige said, “Come in!” Suddenly Paige realized that she should not have invited someone into the Admiral’s quarters. Paige said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did that.”

Wendy came in and Jenna said, “That’s okay, but are you nervous?” Paige said, “Yes, I am. I’m not sure exactly what to feel right now.” Jenna said, “That’s understandable under our circumstances.” Jenna looked at Wendy and said, “Have a seat. I’m getting tea for Paige and I, would you like a cup?” Wendy said ‘yes,’ and Jenna began putting together a tea-tray for them.

Wendy decided to probe Paige while Jenna made the tea, “What’s going on, Paige?” At that invitation Paige launched into a stream of words,

“I talked to Dane last night….which was great….he’s doing better….he found out his wife was leaving him….that wasn’t good, but he’s okay…he and I were having an affair….he didn’t tell me he suspected Trice was cheating….Abby’s a mess because this other guy was trying to replace Dane as her father…I like Dane, but he’s now in this mess….I know ESEP knows about our affair….I was really mad at you Jenna, but Dane helped me see that he couldn’t have stayed on this mission….I want to stay here, but maybe I’m now too involved….I don’t want to be involved…”

At this point Wendy took control, “Paige, let me see if I understand your concerns. You were involved in a relationship with Dane, but you concerned that he needs to sort things out without you, you don’t want ESEP to hold this relationship against you and you want to stay with this mission, and you were mad a Jenna because you thought she kicked Dane off the mission too soon, but you understand there was no choice…is that everything?”

Paige looked at Wendy blankly and paused. Paige said, “Yes…yes, I believe it is.”

Jenna had sat down with the tea-tray and had poured everyone tea. She looked at Wendy and they both smiled. As Jenna handed Paige her tea she said, “Paige, I have no concerns about you or your ability to do your job. The only reason I would replace you is if you wanted off the ship, and I’m hearing that this mission is your priority. Wendy can help you sort out any issues you’re having about your relationship with Dane.”

Jenna paused and then continued, “Finally, I pleased to hear that both you and Dane understand that he had to go to his daughter. It is human nature to want someone to blame for the outcome of this tragedy, and I expected both of you to have some anger over situation. I’m not offended and I’m pleased you have forgiven me.

Jenna reached out to her and took her hand and said, “You’re part of our crew, period.”

Paige’s face and body began to relax. Jenna thought Paige might start crying, but she didn’t. Paige said, “Thank you. That’s all I needed to  hear.”

Jenna said, “I’m going up to grab a bite and then head up to the Command deck. Why don’t you head off to sleep?” Paige responded, “I can’t. I won’t be able to sleep until I know the countdown has started.” Jenna said, “Alright, then come up with me for breakfast and then we’ll both go to the Command deck. The countdown starts in three hours, and then you can head off to bed.”

The three of them ate a quick breakfast and then headed to the Command deck. Jenna had a flood of messages coming in but she asked Paige to prioritize the them and between the two they worked through most of the messages with ten minutes to spare before the countdown commenced. By this time a long list of divisions and departments had given the ‘go’ to start the countdown.

All of the Earth-based stations had completed their checklists and now the spaceport was finishing up their list. It was up to the departments on board the ship now. As it came down to the last ninety seconds, Anna, the First Officer, was running down the final four sectors,

“Science?” “GO!”

“Comm?” “GO!”

“Engineering?” “GO!”

“Navigation?” “GO!”

Anna then turned to Ken and said, “Commodore, we have a go to begin the countdown.” Ken turned to Jenna and said, “Rear Admiral Wade, we are ready to commence countdown with your approval.”

All eyes and the cameras focused on Jenna and she said, “Comm Officer Flores, everybody seems to think we should go to Mars. Do you agree?” Paige looked a little startled as all focus came to her. She smiled and said, “I agree!” Then Jenna had another surprise for everyone and said, “Then Comm Officer Flores, would you give the Commodore your approval?” Everyone on the Command deck was beaming. After all that happened in the past week, this made it all right. Paige turned to Ken and said, “You have approval to commence the countdown!”

Ken snapped back to the Anna, “First Officer Flores, your sister says we can go!” Everyone wanted to laugh but they had cut the process too close and Anna quickly announced, “COUNTDOWN begins on MY MARK, in six, five, four, three, two, one, MARK!”

In 251 hours, seventeen minutes, and 32 seconds the ESS Queen Elizabeth II would begin her journey to Mars.