Chapter 05: Stowaway

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Tuesday, Sol 46 (1.1.46)  2:09 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 18 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

Everyone at ESEP knows the Director of Security as “Mr. Duncan,” and only a handful know his first name is Edward. Mr. Duncan is a former Marine with Special Forces training who rarely lets his ‘all business’ persona down. He is not the type of man you would feel comfortable calling him by his first name. 

Duncan had wanted to send a Security officer on the first Mars mission, but that idea was declined. Instead he was allowed to train four of the crew in security and safety procedures that were above and beyond their normal responsibilities. They were also sent to a Special Forces boot camp for five weeks. The four were Anna Flores, the First Officer, Jeramy Prater, the Munitions Officer, Ian Banks and Peyton Rhodes who were both reserve members of the crew. 

It was just after 2:00 AM NST when he got a call from Ian on the ESS Queen Elizabeth II. He was sleeping, but he answered the call within three seconds, “Security Actual.” Ian said, “Mr. Duncan, I’m sorry if I woke you.” Duncan did not do pleasantries and said, “What’s the problem.” “It’s happened again,” Ian replied. Duncan was now completely awake and said, “Same place?” Ian said, “Not exactly, but the same section, and the same equipment. Should I wake the Admiral?” Duncan’s mind went into combat mode. He said, “No. I’ll set up a call for later this morning. Send me pictures of where it was and a report on how you found it. Be sure you give me the section number. I need it within thirty minutes….and then stand guard in that section until I send relief,” He ended the call before Ian could respond.

It was shortly before 6:00 AM NST that Jenna checked in with the Comm Center. Paige was on night shift again. Paige said, “Good morning, Admiral. How did you sleep?” Jenna smiled. Four days ago she thought Paige would be leaving the crew, but now Paige was the morale officer of positive emotions. Jenna responded, “Great actually. How was your night?” Paige said, “Good. Ian had some issue that came up last night. Mr. Duncan has set up a call with you and the Director to talk about it. I tried to schedule it for eight, but Mr. Duncan insisted it be at 6:30.” Jenna said, “No problem. I’ll get ready and come up.” Paige quickly replied, “Oh, Mr. Duncan wants you to take it in your quarters.” Jenna was now more concerned, “Alright. Where’s Ian?” Paige scrunched up her forehead and said, “He’s in one of the cargo sections. Apparently Mr. Duncan asked him to guard something.”  Now Jenna was really concerned.

Jenna showered and dressed, then went up to the mess and prepared a breakfast ration then returned to her quarters. She had made tea and was scanning her emails. She was tempted to contact Ian to find out what was going on, but she learned a long time ago that sometimes it’s better to let information come to you than to try to out maneuver the messenger.

At exactly 6:30, she was sitting at her workstation and the message icon began blinking. She touched it and the Director, Nick Castillo appeared on one screen and Mr. Duncan appeared on another. Nick and Jenna said, “Good morning,” but Mr. Duncan said, “I have Commodore Dubois and Commodore Hart on standby and I’d like them to join this call.” Jenna said, “I’m fine with it.” and Nick nodded. On two more screens Claude DuBois, the Commodore of the spaceport, and Ken Hart, the Commodore of both ships, appeared.

After they said, “Good morning,” Jenna broke in, “Mr. Duncan, would you care to explain why one of my crew is guarding an non-hab cargo section?” Jenna had not been accusatory, but everyone knew that Mr. Duncan had no authority to order any of her crew to do anything.

Duncan knew that he was on thin ice and did something he rarely did. He apologized, “Admiral, I apologize for my actions. I needed someone to keep a watch on the area and I didn’t want to wake you up to get authorization to put one of my people on board.” Jenna understood, but she knew she would have to talk to her crew about taking orders from others.

Nick said, “What’s the problem?” Duncan continued, “When we performed security sweeps four days ago on your ship we found some equipment that was not registered in one of the cargo sections. It was some oxygen equipment and a low pressure, thermal suit. I didn’t want to alarm anyone because there could have been several reasons for it to be there by accident. We logged it, removed the equipment, and I notified your security crew to check the section periodically and report anything unusual.”

Jenna asked, “What happened last night?” Duncan corrected her, “This morning actually. Ian was on night shift and decided to check the section. At about two AM he found another pressure suit and oxygen.”

Ken said what everyone was thinking, “We have someone who wants to join our crew.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Thursday, Sol 47 (1.1.47)  01:30 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Friday, 19 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

CODE ALERT! Text in three parts to follow:

CODE ALERT – PART ONE:  Closeout of ESS Queen Elizabeth II will occur today at 16:00 NST. All Earth Prime team members should have inspected and finalized all areas on the ship by 13:00 NST. No non-mission equipment should be left on the ship. Please account for all tools, suits, and other Earth Prime equipment and notify the Earth Prime Director’s Office of any missing items.

CODE ALERT – PART TWO:  All non-essential personnel should be off ship by 12:00 NST today. Final inspections of all cargo areas will occur from 08:00 to 11:00 NST and Hab area inspections will occur between 10:00 and 13:00 NST. Inspection teams will work from stern to aft closing out areas behind them.

CODE ALERT – PART THREE:  Security personnel will be at both entrance hatches at 12:00 NST today. All personnel must have proper authorization to enter the ship. At 16:00 NST all hatches will be closed and sealed. No one may enter the ship without pre-authorization of the Nick Castillo, Director of ESEP, Rear Admiral Jenna Wade, Commodore Ken Hart, AND Commodore Claude Dubois. Ship will depart from port at 10:35 NST on Sol 49 Sur 1.

The Code Alert was broadcast at 01:30 NST. It was now 05:34 NST and Jenna was rereading the Code Alert. She had read it yesterday after Duncan sent the final draft to her, Nick Castillo, and Claude Dubois. As she sipped the morning tea she wondered if it would work.

Early yesterday morning one of her crew had discovered evidence that someone was trying to stowaway on her ship. The person had left equipment in a cargo area that would keep him or her alive in an unheated and stagnant air environment.

In three days the ESS Queen Elizabeth II will leave the Earth Prime spaceport and because she will be under her own power, life support functions such as circulating air and heat will be shut down in some cargo areas. It was in one of these sections that equipment had been found that would keep someone alive for a few days.

Whoever was responsible was clever. They chose an area that none of the crew would have reason to enter. They had some type of quick attachment device that allowed them to put a tablet in front of the camera playing a loop of the cargo bay. A person would have to be watching a monitor that had that camera up to catch them putting the tablet in place. With almost 100 cameras around the interior of the ship, no one was going to be watching an empty cargo space.

It took several replays of the video of the cargo area to catch the moment the tablet was put in place and it was not removed for 29 hours, so it was impossible to track down the person based on the time the camera was disabled. The person also managed to avoid all other cameras leading to that section. This person was good.

After the equipment was discovered yesterday morning, Duncan ordered it left in place. He had a hidden camera with a motion detector installed with a view of the equipment. Duncan left two security people hidden away near the cargo quill ready to arrest the person if they came back to check on the equipment. The perpetrator didn’t.

Time was running out. The person would likely board the ship just before departure from the spaceport. That would make him or her easier to catch, but it would mean the QE II would have to return and redock, which had never been done before. Ships are constructed with the first section already docked at the spaceport. Docking the mass of the entire ship would be nearly impossible. They had to catch the person before the QE II undocked.

Duncan decided to try to trap the person at the closeout. By having the inspection of the cargo areas end at 11:00, and the putting Security in place at the ship entrance hatch at 12:00, he felt that the potential stowaway would try to check on his or her equipment during the hour after the end of the cargo inspections, but before Security took positions at the hatches.

Jenna, Nick, and Claude all agreed, but now Jenna was having doubts. This person was not stupid and they had avoided detection on a ship covered in cameras. Somehow it didn’t make sense that they would fall for the trap.

Jenna dressed for the day and headed to the Command Commons area to grab some breakfast. Only Ken, Nick, Claude, and her knew about the plan to catch the stowaway. One of her reserve crew members knew about the equipment, but he was told to not discuss the situation with anyone. Most of the Command staff came to the Command Commons area while Jenna was there, but she kept the conversation on the closeout events, and avoided any hints that a significant security issue was overshadowing the day.

The morning kept the crew busy with the closeout procedures, but at 11:00, Jenna and Ken announced that they would have a working lunch in her quarters. The two of them climbed down to the Commons area to get a lunch ration, prepared it, then headed down to her quarters.

Once there she contacted Duncan and Nick and pulled up the camera feed from the hidden camera. Jenna knew that nothing had happened or else she would have been called. She looked at both of Duncan and Nick on the monitors and said, “You don’t mind if we eat, do you?” Nick said, “No.” Duncan was unresponsive. Jenna was concerned that if they didn’t catch him or her the departure schedule might have to be pushed back, but at this point it was up to Duncan, and she and Ken would just have to focus on their jobs.

Over the next hour Ken, Nick, and Jenna talked about mission issues. None of them were significant, but lately all their conversations had been about major issues. This was one of the rare times when they could chat about the mission rather than discuss the mission.

At 11:58 NST, Nick said, “It looks like our person didn’t take the bait.” Duncan replied, “It doesn’t make any sense. He has to know that his stuff could have been found. He should have come.” Jenna joined in, “Maybe he’s changed his….” Jenna looked closer at the monitor and then said, “Mr. Duncan, what is that flashing icon at the bottom of the screen?” Duncan casually answered, “That’s just the motion detector icon.” Jenna tried again, “But why is it flashing.” Duncan thought for a moment, “Uhm, well it flashes when it senses….wait, we would see the person…unless….but he couldn’t have…he doesn’t….” Jenna interrupted him, “Mr. Duncan, he has fooled your camera and he’s there.”

Before Jenna had finished Duncan had sent the signal to his staff on board. Hopefully, it would not be too late.

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Friday, Sol 48 (1.1.48)  00:52 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 20 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

It was almost one AM NST and Zeke Jackson had been under questioning for twelve hours. He was caught in a cargo area on the QE II and accused of attempting to be a stowaway on the first mission to Mars.

Mr. Duncan had both of his Security Officers on Earth Prime questioning Zeke and he was watching from his monitor in his Earthbound office in Peru. Zeke flowed through the stages of interrogation. First he denied everything, then he acted annoyed, then he went silent, then he got angry, now he was back to silence.

Nick had told Duncan that he had to end the interrogation at midnight, but Duncan had interpreted that to mean that when his staff took an hour for a meal break, he could leave alone Zeke handcuffed at the table while they were gone, and then add an hour. Despite their efforts, they hadn’t learned much more than they could figure out on their own. 

Duncan was feeling frustrated and his Security team was feeling cruel. They were considering leaving Zeke sitting at the table and going to bed, but then Claude Dubois walked into the room. Claude looked at the monitor at Duncan and said, “What have you learned?” “Not much,” Duncan replied. Claude looked at his exhausted former employee and said, “Has he been fed?” The Security team both shook their heads, ‘no.’ Claude then said, “Take him to the Commons area and feed him, and then let him clean up, then put him in Section J in one of the quarters. I’ll send two people to watch over him tonight and you two can get some sleep.”

Duncan did not agree with the Claude’s orders, but he couldn’t do anything about it. Claude was the Commodore of the spaceport and he could release Zeke if he wanted, or have him put to death. Duncan had pushed it farther than he should and ESEP was not an organization that condoned torture of anyone regardless of what they had done.

Duncan was embarrassed. He almost failed to catch Zeke and his failure was in front of three of the most important people in ESEP. Duncan didn’t like being embarrassed.

Closeout of QE II had gone ahead as scheduled. Jenna went off ship to see talk with Claude before the closeout. She had wanted to interview Zeke, but Duncan asked for him to be isolated for a few hours. The fear that he was some kind of terrorist was Jenna’s greatest concern, but after talking to Claude and reviewing Zeke’s history she was convinced he didn’t fit the profile.

Under Claude’s orders, Zeke was allowed to sleep until eight AM NST, dress, and eat. Duncan had planned to start the interrogation at five AM, but he discovered that Claude had talked to Nick about his methods and Duncan was ordered to stand down. Claude would take charge of the prisoner and Security would only be allowed to guard Zeke.

Nick, Claude, and Jenna had decided she would interview Zeke at ten AM. Jenna’s skill at assess someone in a short period of time was a natural ability that had only improved with her years of experience in solving people issues. She wanted to do this face-to-face, which involved her going off ship. After closeout, no one was supposed to cross the ship/spaceport barrier unless it was mission critical. They decided this was mission critical.

Claude had Zeke brought to his quarters and asked the guards to wait outside. Nick was present via the video monitor. Claude asked Zeke to sit down and asked him if he wanted anything to drink. He shook his head ‘no.’ Zeke was unsure what was going on. He expected the interrogation, but this was more like a friendly conference.

The door opened and Jenna walked in. Zeke immediately stood up and faced her. Jenna said, “Have a seat Zeke.” Claude asked her if she wanted anything and she said, “If you have tea, that would be great.” She turned to Zeke and said, “Zeke, do you want something?” Zeke said, “Ah, tea would be great.” Claude smiled. Already she had gotten farther with Zeke than Security and she had just walked in the door. He began preparing the tea. 

Jenna sat down, looked Zeke in the eye and began, “First, I apologize for your treatment yesterday. What you’ve done is a major violation of our program, and you will answer for that in court; however, you were mistreated last night. That is unacceptable.” Zeke shook his head, and said, “Admiral, I deserved what I got, and I know I will be punished. I am sorry I have created a problem for you.” Jenna was not expecting Zeke’s humble attitude. She skipped her lead in questions and went to the heart of the matter, “Zeke, …why?”

Zeke looked down for a moment and then looked back at her and said, “You’re the best. Not only you, but your entire crew. I want to go to Mars and I want it to be with your crew. I would stay in a food locker the entire trip if it means I can go to Mars with you and your crew. If I had the chance…I’m sorry,…I would do it again.” Jenna said, “Why didn’t you apply for the crew?” At that moment Claude interrupted and said, “He can’t.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Saturday, Sol 49 (1.1.49)  00:13 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Sunday, 21 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

Jenna was still awake. In two days they would be leaving Earth orbit and the cord would be cut. There would be no turning back. It is what she had been working towards for years, but she had let the lack of issues during the last few months lull her into believing that they would be immune to last-minute problems.

The ship was in great shape. They were ahead of schedule on almost every checklist and if they had to leave a this moment, they could. What she didn’t expect was the personnel issues. Her crew was fine and had recovered from a last-minute change in the pilot, but she didn’t anticipate a stowaway issue.

What really bothered her was that the stowaway, Zeke Jackson, was the type of person she would have selected for her crew….except she never saw his application because he only had a bachelor’s degree and it was in physical education with a minor in engineering. He also had barely passing grades…in his major, but straight A’s in his minor.

Zeke was on a basketball scholarship and apparently he was barely able to stay in school because he missed the workouts and sometimes practices. His coaches threatened to pull his scholarship if he didn’t focus on basketball. His distraction was his love for engineering, but the university couldn’t offer him a full ride scholarship in engineering.

He graduated but getting an advanced degree was out of the question. He wormed his way into an ESEP job and quickly worked his way into space. His superiors always praised his work, but without at least a master’s degree he was lucky just to be on the construction crew in orbit. He was an expert in piloting several types of pods used in the construction of the ships, and was fully qualified for pressure suit work.

Zeke’s position made his plans to stowaway on the QE II possible. His skills as a pilot and his inch by inch familiarity with the ship gave him the ability to sneak into the cargo section from outside. Zeke able to pilot a pod to the QE II using various structures to cloak his movements. He then docked to the cargo section and entered from the pressurized pod into the pressurized section.

Zeke only had one camera to fool, and once that was done he was undetectable. He was very careful and knew that if anyone suspected a possible stowaway onboard they might put a hidden camera in place. Zeke recognized the fake hidden camera component that Duncan had installed and was able to fool it the same why he fooled the original camera. Zeke’s only mistake was to think that the tablet blocked the motion detector.

As Jenna was remembering how they caught Zeke she realized that she hadn’t had anyone recheck Zeke’s ex-stowaway compartment to be sure everything was removed. She was about to contact her Peyton Rhodes, her other reserve crew member who was on night shift, but then she decided she wanted to see it for herself.

She climbed up to the Command deck and checked in with the crew on duty, then continued up to the core. In the last section she was almost weightless, which is a relatively rare feeling on ships designed to have the crew work in a gravity environment.

The quill of the cargo section had been sealed, but she knew that it was still pressurized and heated so she opened the hatch and floated down into the quill. She noticed a light was on and someone was in the third section. She decided to find out why one of her crew was in the section, so she quietly approached. Zeke saw her staring at him as he turned around and he jumped and fell.

“How the HELL did you get away from the guards, and back aboard my ship???” she said with the best fake anger she could muster. He stammered, “I’m sorry, Ad..Admiral. I..I..did it the same way.” Jenna looked at him with genuine concern, “What did you do to the Security team?” Zeke was still rattled and said, “NOTHING, no nothing…they always stay outside the room…they don’t know I’m gone.” Jenna was relieved, and then said, “You are going to go right back and get in your bed. I am going to call them in thirty minutes and have them check on you. AND DON’T GET CAUGHT!”

Zeke couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He should be shoved out an airlock but the Admiral was giving him the chance to make this second violation go away without reporting it. He almost shouted, “Yes Ma’am!…and thank you, Ma’am!” Zeke began gathering up the equipment he’d brought over. When he looked up again Jenna was gone.

As promised Jeanna contacted the Security team thirty minutes later and asked them to check on Zeke. In a minute the guard called back and said, “He’s sleeping. Do you want me to wake him up?” “Nope, but I would like one of you stay inside the room with him for the night,” she replied.

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Saturday, Sol 49 (1.1.49)  23:35 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 22 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

Earlier today the ESS Queen Elizabeth II undocked from Earth Prime and moved into a higher orbit. Everything proceeded smoothly and now the QE II has settled into an orbit that is 5,174 kilometers at apogee, and 3,317 kilometers at perigee. The ship’s current speed averages a little over 22,000 km/hr.

The QE II used chemical propulsion to move away from the spaceport, but once the ship was 400 kilometers away from Earth Prime it test fired one of the small propulsion pellets for the Impulse Cycle Propulsion or ICP followed by the firing of a larger pellet almost three hours later. Both perform as expected. The ship will now remain in this orbit for two days before leaving Earth for Mars.

After Jenna had found her would-be stowaway on her ship a second time, she asked Commodore Claude Dubois, the Commander of Earth Prime spaceport to have a constant guard on Zeke Jackson. She also asked to have Zeke somewhere she could see him as the QE II moved away from the spaceport. She meant somewhere there was a camera so she could visually know he was still on the spaceport and hadn’t snuck on her ship again.

Claude did her one better. As the QE II drifted away, Jenna, and everyone on the Command deck saw three people in pressure suits outside the core Command deck of Earth Prime. One of them was strapped down to the bulkhead, and when she zoomed in she could see Zeke Jackson’s face in the suit that was strapped down. Zeke had a big smile and gave the QE II a thumbs up, which caused an outbreak of uncontrolled laughter on the ship and back on Earth Prime.

That was thirteen hours ago. Now it was quiet. There were no issues or crises. The ship was on its own power and they were now the farthest human beings from Earth.

ESEP recognized that the first mission to Mars would inflict psychological and emotional stress on the crew. That’s why the schedule was designed in stages. Like someone testing the water, then wading in it, then swimming in it. In future missions the closeout, undocking, moving to a higher orbit, and firing for the orbital transfer will likely happen in a ten-hour period.

But this mission is planned to take one major step, then grow accustomed to it, then take the next step. Jenna wondered if that was a form of cruelty for the crew. The feeling of being slowly torn away from everything and everyone they know.

Jenna was in mid-thought when a quiet knock came on her door. She didn’t say anything, she just walked over to the door and opened it. There stood Wendy with a bottle of wine. Wendy said, “I know it’s late, but…” Just then Ken opened his door just below and across from her. He apparently thought the knock was at his door. Wendy, saw him and asked Jenna, “The more the merrier?” Jenna nodded ‘yes’ and waved for Ken to come up.

In a few minutes they were all sitting and drinking a glass of wine.  Ken said, “What was the deal with Zeke Jackson? I thought he would be unhappy to see us leave.” Jenna said, “I think I’m starting to understand him. He really likes us and while he wishes he could be going with us, he wants to see us succeed.” Ken shook his head, “Interesting guy.” Jenna smiled and said, “You don’t know the half of it.”

Wendy said, “Did you know how many of the crew are friends with Zeke?” “No,” replied Jenna. Wendy continued, “Everyone I’ve talked in the last few days knows him and most refer to him as ‘Space Angel.’ He apparently got to know the entire crew and is, well, was the person to go to if you needed anything from the construction crew.”

Jenna became serious and looked at both of them and said, “Are we ready? Is the crew ready?” Ken spoke up first and said, “Yes, We are. We’ve had some distractions, but I think getting away from the spaceport will be good for us.”

Wendy waited for Ken, then said, “I agree with Ken, but maybe from a different perspective. We all knew that this phase of the mission would be one of the hardest. The closeout and undocking are two physical manifestations of separation from everyone we know. We expect some emotional trauma and I will be in constant contact with the crew. Honestly, that’s why I came here tonight. I needed to see how you’re doing,…so, how are you doing?”

Wendy wouldn’t normally put someone on the spot in front of another person, but Jenna and Ken are a team, and this was a perfect situation to let them establish a bond and push Ken into a more realistic perspective of what was happening to the crew.

Jenna understood Wendy, and she knew why Wendy was skating close to the edge of counseling protocols. This was an important moment for her and Ken. Jeanna paused and said, “I’m the type of person that lives through the emotions of the people I care about. I can separate my feelings from theirs, but it is important for me to see things from their viewpoint. I wouldn’t have wanted them to deal with the last-minute issues we have dealt with, but I’m fairly confident these experiences will be valuable later in the mission. It is highly probable that we will lose someone in the next two years, actually the projections are that we will lose three, but we will have to bear down and move on…”

At that point Jenna was interrupted by a tone from her workstation. Comm Center was trying to reach her. She stood up and crossed to her workstation and touched the blinking icon, “What’s up, John” John was the Comm Specialist on duty. He replied, “I’m sorry. We have an urgent call from Commodore Dubois. He asked me to wake you.” “Put him through,” Jenna said. John looked down, touched something on the panel and his face disappeared and Claude’s face appeared and he looked pained. Claude said, “Jenna, I thought you would want to know. Zeke Jackson just killed himself.”