Chapter 06: Au Revoir

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sunday, Sol 50 (1.1.50)  22:56 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Tuesday, 23 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

Commodore Dubois voice was loud and insistent, “MR. JACKSON, RETURN THAT POD TO EARTH PRIME, NOW!” Jenna could tell by the video that Claude knew his only option was to talk him back on the spaceport. Then Zeke Jackson’s image came up on the Command deck’s primary monitor. He was in the pilot’s seat of a construction pod. Jackson looked calm…too calm. Jackson looked at the camera and said, “Commodore Dubois, it has been a pleasure serving under you….but if I’m not going to Mars, I’m definitely not going back to Earth….at least in one piece….au revoir!”

The monitor changed to an image of a small construction pod moving away from the spaceport and heading straight down toward Earth. On the Command deck a voice said, “Sir, he’s turned off the Comm.” Then another voice said, “Sir, Davis is in a pod and he is going to pursue.” A second pod was now in the image and it was following the path of the first one, but by now the first pod was almost too small to see.

From the second pod Davis reported, “I have him in sight, but I think he has used all his fuel to accelerate. I can keep him in sight with my camera, but I’ll never catch up to him.” Claude’s voice was now resigned. “Stay with him if you can, but don’t go out of safety limits.” Everyone realized that no one could stop Zeke now.

The Command deck’s main monitor now switched to the camera on the chase pod. It was continuing towards Earth. For the next 45 minutes the chase pod kept recording the fate of Zeke Jackson. Every few minutes someone on the Command deck could be heard trying to call him, knowing his Comm was turned off. As Zeke’s pod began hitting the outer atmosphere it started gyrating and then spinning. Claude ordered the monitor to be shut down, and then he left the Command deck.

This was the third time she had watched the video of the events leading up to Zeke’s death. The first was with Wendy and Ken last night less than an hour after it happened. The second was this morning when she played it for the crew, and now she was alone in her quarters and had to see it again. She knew how much it meant to Zeke to go to Mars, but no one had anticipated that he was suicidal. It made sense now that it happened, but Zeke was too full of life to think that he might end it for any reason.

But this was not a time Jenna could dwell on Zeke Jackson’s suicide. Yesterday the Earth Prime team closed out the ESS Carl Sagan and earlier today it undocked and moved into a similar type of orbit as the QE II, but they were thousands of kilometers apart. The QE II’s orbit was set to use the Moon to boost it on the correct trajectory, while the Sagan was taking a more direct path.

Tomorrow the QE II will fire a series of pellets to accelerate out of Earth’s gravitational pull. Then two days later it will accelerate again to approximately 147,000 kilometers per hour. Half a day earlier, the Sagan will begin a series of firings to accelerate to 150,000 kilometers per hour. A few days later the Sagan will catch up to the QE II and it will accelerate to match the speed of the Sagan. Then during the next week the two ships will become one.

There will be a time to mourn for Zeke, but it will have to wait a couple of weeks. Now, Jenna needed to sleep.

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Monday, Sol 51 (1.1.51)  22:18 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 24 February 2016  2:00 PM PST

It was now after 8:30. A voice said…..


Ken looked to the woman standing across the room seemingly oblivious to what was going on around her. He walked toward her and stopped a respectful distance from her. She felt his presence. “It looks like rain,” she said as she stared at the monitor. “We won’t need our umbrellas,” he replied.

They both looked at the video image of Earth. She calmly turned and faced him and smiled. Both knew that this would be the last time for at least two years they would be this close to Earth. 

Jenna then looked over his shoulder at two women at the Communications Post. She made eye contact with the younger woman sitting at console and said, “Ms. Flores, ESEP Center, please.” Almost instantly the image of a Nick Castillo appeared on a monitor.

“Any words of wisdom, Mr. Castillo,” she asked? The man on the monitor smiled and said, “Try not to hit any of the big round things as you leave.” The crew all smiled, except for Keira Choi. As the new pilot of the ship, she wasn’t amused by navigation jokes.

Jenna sensed the unintended insult to her pilot and shot back, “Just keep the Earth and Moon out of our way and we’ll be fine.” Keira smiled. Nick smiled and then became more somber as he said, “Good luck and God’s speed.” Jenna replied, “Thank you,” then she looked at Ken and said, “The ship is yours, Commodore Hart. Take us to Mars, please.”

Ken nodded and looked at Anna, his First Officer. She understood what he wanted and she touched an icon and said, “All hands, all stations, CODE ALERT!” Ken then touched and an icon on his pad and said, “All hands, this is the Capt…..Commodore, secure for ICP.” He then looked at Keira and said, “Ms. Choi, you have a go.” Keira replied, “Aye, Commodore. ICP firing in sixteen minutes and thirteen seconds.” Ken remarked, “Aye, Commodore?” Keira smiled and said, “I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek.”

Everyone on the Command Deck moved to their stations and strapped into their seats. The ICP firing would not be exceptionally violent, nor would it be heard in space, but the QE II would begin to move and that movement would be perpendicular to the rotating Quills of the ship. Standard procedures required that everyone and everything be secured.

Now they had a long sixteen minute wait while everything was checked and double checked. Hundreds of steps would have to happen perfectly over the next sixteen minutes before the first of six explosive pellets would be pushed out of the aft section of the ship one by one. With each pellet there would be an explosion that would push the ship forward. If all went well, ten larger pellets would fire four minutes later, followed another twelve pellets four minutes after that.

The speed produced by the explosions will push the ship to 41,000 km/hr, enough to send the ESS Queen Elizabeth II out of Earth’s orbit….and towards a rendezvous with Mars.

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Tuesday, Sol 52 (1.1.52)  21:39 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Thursday, 25 February 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  1,036,235 kilometers

The good news was that the ESS Queen Elizabeth II was on her way to Mars. Current velocity was 41,039 kilometers per hour. They had grazed past the Moon eighteen hours ago and it nudged their path enough to put them where they needed to be in order to rendezvous with Mars less than four months from now.

The bad news was that they might not be going to Mars. Less than 24 hours ago they were supposed to fire three series of pellets that exploded behind the ship to bring them up to escape velocity from the Earth. The first two series happened just as the engineers and munitions people had designed. A pellet was pushed out the aft section on a tether, a blast door closed, and the pellet was detonated at a precise distance. In milliseconds the computer analyzed the results and selected the next pellet based on explosive power and sent it out the aft to a precise distance. It took about seven seconds between the firings of each pellet.

Earth to Mars in 110 days

Earth to Mars in 110 days

The first series was six pellets and the second series was ten pellets. Those sixteen worked perfectly. It was the third series of twelve pellets that were threatening a premature end to the mission.

As with the previous two series the pilot, Keira Choi had programmed in the firing sequence before initiation. The computer had established that the first two series had been too sweet, meaning the impact the explosions had on the velocity was greater than expected. They now needed the final series to be ‘sour.’ This involved the munitions person, Jeramy Prater, setting up a different rack of pellets, which required giving the computer new instructions. They had four minutes between the second and third series of firings to accomplish the changes.

Jeramy had a problem with the computer accepting the changes and did not have time to do a visual check of the pellet racks. When the time came for the series to fire the computer pushed out the first pellet and did not fire because the blast door did not close completely. The computer sensed the failure to detonate and compensated by immediately releasing the tether on the first pellet and pushed another pellet out with the same result. Every four seconds the computer pushed out another pellet with no detonation. In 48 seconds the ship lost twelve pellets.

Keira and Jeramy worked frantically to shut down the Impulse Cycle Propulsion or ICP drive. Jeramy was able to visually inspect the rack with cameras in the propulsion drive and within seconds he determined that the rack was slightly out of position. That caused the pellet to slide out and tap the blast door causing it to fail to completely close.

Jeramy and Choi had determined the problem, fixed it, and had a plan to resume the process within 115 seconds. On the Command deck Choi said, “Commodore, we have the solution. I can manually fire.” Ken looked at his First Officer, Anna, who watched Keira work through the problem, she gave a nod to say she agreed with Keira. Ken then looked at Jenna just as she was getting a text message from Nick the Director at ESEP Center on Earth and it said,

ESEP advises ABORT.” 

Jenna glanced at the message. ESEP had no authority to order any action. This was, as it said, an advisory; however, it meant that the smartest minds on Earth were giving her a course of action that could not be lightly ignored. Jenna didn’t hesitate. She knew what Keira had planned to do and agreed that it was an acceptable solution. Jenna didn’t need to say anything, but she wanted it to be clear this decision was on her.

“DO IT!”

In the next two minutes Keira manually ordered the computer to fire a pellet, detonate it, and then evaluate the result. She then ordered the next firing and the computer made the calculations of which pellet and how far away to detonate it. The process was slightly slower than the computer-managed firing, but produced the desired results.

Keira announced, “We are at speed and on course, Commodore. Current velocity is 41.039K.” Jenna looked at the Comm Director and said, “Naomi, Code Alert and tie in ESEP Center.” Naomi tapped on her pad, and said, “All hands, all stations, CODE ALERT from Admiral Wade.” Jenna then touched her tablet and said, “All departments, we need a full assessment of the event and of our current status. Report every at every quarter hour to your Director until further notice. All Directors report to my quarters immediately. Expect a long night.”

By midnight the failure was completely understood and a solution was devised and tested. The issue was that they were only at escape velocity from Earth and in two days they would have another firing, followed by a third series and in five days. They had lost twelve pellets which reduced their margin of safety inventory by a third.

ESEP Center was advising that the ESS Carl Sagan not initiate the Orbital Transfer Firing in two days, and that the ESS QE II begin operations to return to Earth.

Jenna relieved the crew and Command team at one AM on Tuesday, Sol 52. She decided that they would start again after some sleep and reassess the status of the mission with a decision to be made by the end of the day.

During the morning and afternoon the crew reviewed their departments and built a report of current mission status. It was now after 9:30 PM NST and the entire crew was either in the Command deck section, or on monitor from their assigned station. Jenna began,

“Our current status is that with the failed third firing yesterday, we have lost a significant portion of our fuel safety margin. We feel we have addressed the issues of the ICP and resolved them; however, if we return we can be back to Earth in a few days and ESEP’s plan is to refit and relaunch us early in Sur 2. All of you have reviewed the report of our situation and have contributed to the assessment of your department. We now need to decide. Do we go or abort?”

Before her words had stopped echoing in the ship Paige Flores said, “Go.” within ten seconds everyone on the crew had joined the chorus of “GO!”

Ken and Jenna smiled at each other. This was the best crew. Jenna looked at Paige and said, “Ms. Flores, would you connect me to ESEP Center.” Paige smiled and said, “Yes, Ma’am!” Nick’s image came up and Jenna said, “We’re going to Mars. What’s next?”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur 1, Wednesday, Sol 53 (1.1.53)  21:01 PM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Friday, 26 February 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  2,021,171 kilometers

It was time for the second big push to Mars. The uninhabited ESS Carl Sagan successfully left Earth orbit at 7:42:58 AM NST and was chasing the QE II for a rendezvous in three days. The Sagan was up to its planned speed at 150,204 km/hr. The QE II had a two-day head start but was poking along at only 41,039 km/hr. Now it was time for the QE II to pick up the pace.

The mishap of two days before was on everyone’s mind. Twelve fuel pellets had been lost when the blast door was failing to close and the computer recycled the system to fire another pellet with the same outcome. The crew intervened within seconds, but it almost ended the mission.

Jeramy Prater, the Munitions Officer and the Engineering team fixed the problem and the gun was given new instructions to not fire a second pellet if the first one failed. Still, he wasn’t taking any chances of losing more fuel. 

Prater stood in his spacesuit looking out the gap that the pellets would flow through in a moment. It was not a recommended place to be during active propulsion, but by being here during the firing, he could stop the process if it misbehaved again. 

He looked up at the gun above him. The racks of fuel pellets and the push mechanism were in position for firing. In front of him were four guide rails for a push plate that kept the pellet from deviating from the path of the ‘barrel’. Two days ago this push plate caught the rack and went out of alignment causing the pellet to hit the blast door as it exited.

Everything looked ready for the ICP to fire its series of pellets. Jeramy checked to be sure he was clear of the pellet barrel. It would be a short day for him if he got in the way of a departing pellet. In his glove he held his safety tether that would keep him attached to the ship.

On the Command deck the pilot, Keira Choi, contacted Jeramy. “You set, Mr. Prater?” He responded, “I’m a go here.” Keira looked at the First Officer and nodded.

Anna looked at the Ken and said, “We’re good to go, Commodore.” Ken responded, “Ms. Flores, take us to 147K.” Anna opened ship wide communications and said, “All stations, all hands, stand by for ICP firing. Ms. Choi, give them a countdown.” Keira said, “Aye, aye.” Anna and Ken looked at each other and she shrugged. This “Aye” response was not what they were accustomed to with their former Pilot.

Keira gave the countdown,

“In 23 seconds,….15 seconds….10,…9,…8,…7,…6,…5,…4,….3,…2,…1,…Fire.”

Suddenly a voice called over the speakers, “MAN OVERBOARD, WE LOST HIM!” Ken yelled, “BELAY THAT ORDER!,” but his words were slower than Keira’s reaction. She had aborted the detonation at the first sound of crisis. She knew that there could be only one crew member at risk of going into space.

Instantly all eyes looked at the aft monitor and where there should have been debris and smoke from an explosion there was a tethered spacesuit thrashing wildly within a few meters of the explosive pellet. In the silence on the Command Deck everyone could hear desperate gasps over the speakers.

Jenna took control. “Prater, are you okay?” The only response sounded like a man drowning. Again, she called, “Jeramy, ANSWER ME!”

Wendy Stevens had been talking to Jenna a few seconds before the firing and now interrupted her, “Admiral, I don’t think he can.” Jenna knew what Wendy was implying. She locked eyes at Wendy and said, “Can you bring him down?” Wendy immediately pulled up her pad and hit the COM icon and said, “Mr. Prater, this is Wendy,…..I’m afraid you don’t have permission for a spacewalk.”

Jenna fired an icy look at Wendy and said, “You’re making jokes?” Wendy held up her hand to cut the Admiral off.

At first there was silence. The gasps on the speaker had stopped. Then a short laugh, followed by a longer one, followed by a continuous laugh. At this point everyone looked in disbelief, then smiled, then wild laughter broke out.

Jenna got herself under control and then waved to the crew on deck to be quiet. Jeramy’s laughter subsided and he said through breaths of relief, “Does…this…mean..I’m not going to die?” Wendy said, “Well, I can’t guarantee what’s going to happen once we have you back on board….the Admiral looks pretty pissed.” Wendy and Jenna looked at each other and smiled.

Jeramy said, “Ya, understood. Permission to come back on board.” Jenna nodded to Keira, who said, “Permission granted.” Jeramy quickly remarked, “Keira, you must have fast hands…I should be in little pieces right now.” Keira smiled. Then Jeramy said, “I think I can reach the pellet tether, do you want me to bring it in?”

In unison five voices all responded, “NO!” Ken said, “Prater, I want you to treat that pellet like a Rottweiler with a new bone…just back away from it and don’t make it angry.” “Aye, Commodore.” Prater replied, “I’m on my way.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Thursday, Sol 54 (1.1.54)  20:22 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 27 February 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  5,555,363 kilometers

In addition to its launch facility near Arica, Chile, ESEP has four ‘Centers’ around the world. The primary Center is in San Jose, California, USA. There are also Centers in Kumamoto, Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan 熊本市; and the twin Operation Centers in Figueres, Spain and Perpignan, France.

On January 30, 2016, all ESEP operations converted to Noctis Standard Time (NST) at the Mars landing site. Since then the Director of ESEP and most of his leadership team have chosen to move from Center to Center on Earth to stay with the daytime at the Mars landing site. This way they have a day of schedule adjustment when they fly to the next Center, but then they enjoy daylight on Earth at the same time the crew is on their day schedule. Currently, the leadership team is split between the twin Centers in Spain and France.

This also means the leadership team experiences late nights when the crew of the ESS Queen Elizabeth II is up late like tonight. Last evening the ship had a near disaster when the Munitions Officer was pulled out the firing chamber into space. His safety tether drifted into the ICP barrel just as a fuel pellet had been pushed out and he was sucked into space.

Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously injured, his space suit didn’t become damaged and leak, and the pilot was fast enough to abort the detonation of the pellet milliseconds before the computer sent the command. The crew also recovered quickly from the incident and was able to fire the ICP drive 45 minutes later. The QE II was now travelling at 147,258 kilometers per hour.

The ESEP leadership team and the Command team of the QE II planned a special mission assessment meeting tonight at six PM tonight and they were now two hours and 22 minutes into the meeting. 

Nick was speaking from his office in Spain, “…our concern now is that the crew might develop a ‘cursed’ mentality about this mission.” Wendy spoke up, “Director, my ground team has expressed this to me and I am aware of the possibility of that attitude; however, my assessment is just the opposite. The crew has developed a “bring it on” attitude and my sense is that if we lost this ship the crew would just don spacesuits and grab the Sagan when it comes by tomorrow.”

Nick laughed, “I agree. This crew is a special group of people. I trust in your assessment and I’ll have a little chat with the our Counselling trolls down here.”

Jenna changed the subject, “Nick, when will your team move to San Jose?” Nick replied, “We’re leaving here the afternoon of Sol 60 and sleep in the air. Will be should be in the San Jose Center by eight AM of Sol 1.

Jenna said, “That reminds me, we have been talking about making the first day of every Mars month a holiday.” Nick lit up, “That’s a great idea. Do you have a plan for your first holiday?” “Not yet,” Jenna replied, “but we have almost a week.” Nick said, “Keep me posted and we will make it an ESEP-wide holiday.”

Nick continued, “In honor of the new holiday, let’s consider the final item on my list as our present to you. Ken, when the Sagan left dock our cameras picked up an extra pod on the ship. You were supposed to have three, now you have four.” Ken said, “How did it get there?” Jenna’s suddenly began to listen very intently. Nick said, “We don’t know how it got there. After the Sagan left, Claude’s team conducted the standard inventory and discovered a pod missing. We checked the video file and found it two days ago. With everything else, we decided to wait to tell you.”

Jenna suddenly showed her military persona, “Was the pod there on the Sagan before or after closeout?” Nick knew Jenna was asking an important question, but he didn’t know why it was important and said, “We’re not sure, we haven’t had time to do a review of the video to know when it was docked to the ship. It could have been weeks ago.” Jenna fired back, “But I’m willing to bet I know when it happened.”

Jenna had gone into another world, as if the meeting and everyone around her no longer existed. Jenna called to the First Officer, “Anna.” Anna was two decks above them but was participating in the meeting from her workstation. “Yes, Admiral?,” she replied. Jenna continued, “I need you to check out the Sagan section by section.” Anna was confused, “What am I looking for Admiral?” Jenna hesitated while she thought. If what she was thinking was correct, the camera may not see anything.

Ken suddenly realized what Jenna was thinking, and added, “Anna, in each section, turn the lights on and off while you have it up on your monitor and note if you see a change. Start looking at….Director, where was the pod located?” Nick was now fully confused, “Uhm, cargo section three, Quill four ‘D’. Jenna, what’s going on?” Jenna smiled and said, “Just looking for some lost equipment, Nick.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Friday, Sol 55 (1.1.55)  19:44 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Sunday, 28 February 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  9,089,555 kilometers

Anna replied, “Commodore, I can’t bring the lights up in that section.” Ken looked at Jenna and she said, “That rat bastard!……Anna, keep the lights up and Naomi, would you connected me to that section.” The Comm Director tapped a few commands on her tablet and monitor next to the one with Nick’s confused face on it came up black. Naomi said, “You’re patched in, Admiral.”

Jenna then said, “Zeke, what are you doing on my ship?” The black screen started to have patches of light on it, then they could see a gloved hand removing something over the lens. Someone gasped. Finally the monitor showed the bewildered face of Zeke Jackson in a low pressure suit floating in front of the camera. Zeke opened the faceplate of his helmet and you could see his breath in the cold, stagnant air as he said, “Admiral, ah…how did you know?” 

Ken walked away from the group as he was starting to laugh. Everyone else but Jenna was in shock. Jenna said, “JACKSON, I’ll be doing the talking! You are on my ship and that makes you part of my crew! You will report to the hab section in Quill 1C where Anna will assign you quarters! I want you fed and rested and ready for duty at eight AM tomorrow! Is that clear!”

Zeke looked more confused and then a smile began to grow until it looked like it might break his face. He said, “YES Ma’am! Thank you, Ma’am! You won’t regret this!” He then disappeared.

Ken said, “Anna, turn up the life support in Quill 1C and assign quarters to Zeke Jackson.” Nick tried to protest, “But we can’t let him get away with this.” Jenna smiled and said, “That ship has literally already sailed. He’s mine now for the next two years.” Nick said, “ESEP will still want to press charges when he comes back to Earth.” “Nick, I might suggest that ESEP begin looking at it as if it were our plan all along. Otherwise, the public might think we’re so incompetent that we let a stowaway get on board the first mission to Mars.” Nick suddenly realized the public relations disaster waiting for them, and said, “GOOD point. We can credit Mr. Duncan,….for this elaborate test of our security. Oh, this is going to kill him when he finds out.” Jenna laughed.

The Command Team had gathered around Jenna. She looked at Naomi and said, “Naomi, would you raise Earth Prime Actual. I need to talk to Claude.” Jeanna said to Ken, “Can you build duty schedule for Zeke? I’d like to put him under Anna for the time being.” Ken said, “We’ll have him wake up the Sagan for us.” “Good,” Jenna replied, “He’s a good asset and we want him working for us rather than against us.”

Jenna then looked at Wendy and Kayla, “Kayla, he just went through an acceleration that wasn’t designed for humans. You’ll need to check him out when we rendezvous with the Sagan. Wendy, I think I understand Zeke, but I’ll need your assessment to make sure I’m not being influenced by his charm.”

Jenna was now speaking to the entire Command team, “We now have 29 members in our crew. We need to assess what that means for the mission. As far as number 29, Zeke had straight A’s in his engineering minor, but was on a basketball scholarship. He didn’t have a chance for an advanced degree. Everything in his work record indicates he is a brilliant learner. We should consider him as a graduate student and use him as such.”

Jenna was interrupted by Naomi, “Admiral, I have Commodore Dubois.” Jenna said, “On monitor two.” Claude’s image came up on a monitor and he said, “Good evening, Admiral. How can I help you?” Jenna said, “Claude, we found your missing equipment.” Claude looked knowingly, “Yes. My apologies. We’re still not sure how it was left on the Sagan.”

Jenna smiled, “Oh, you’re talking about the pod. Yes, we know how that happened, too.” Claude looked confused.