Secret Cargo


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Tuesday, Sol 13 (001.2.13)  07:12 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Thursday, 17 March 2016  2:00 PM PDT
  • Distance traveled:  72,999,144 kilometers   Time Delay:  3 mins 16 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  319,410,608 kilometers

The core of the ESS Sagan consists of a Command section, a Communications section, three Hab Sections, three cargo sections, an engineering section, a fuel storage section, and the Impulse Cycle Propulsion or ICP Drive section. Most of the core sections look like 50-meter hexagonal tubes; however, from outside the ship it is difficult to see the Hab and cargo core sections because the Quill sections extend out from each side of the core section.

Almost all of the Quills have at least four 30-meter sections, with the crew Quills extending to seven quills away from the core to provide near-Earth simulated gravity in the crew quarters in the sixth and seventh sections. The Hab One core section has 60 Quill sections attached. The Science division occupies two Quills each with seven sections.

The Command team has access to all areas; however, since Jenna had agreed to accepting a secret cargo, one of the labs in the sixth section had been off-limits to every crew member except Alexander Rivera. Now Jenna and Lanny had been asked to come to that lab by Alexander.

As Jenna, Ken, and Lanny climbed down into the sixth section they saw Alexander standing outside the door of Lab 6Cb, three decks down. When they reached him he said, “I know this was supposed to remain secret, but now that Mr. Castillo is gone, I think you should know what the secret project is that was put aboard just before we undocked.”

Alexander unlocked the door and all four entered. He then crossed over to a work bench to a clear plexiglas chamber lit with appeared to be ultraviolet light. Inside we’re what appeared to be eggs in individual cradles. Jenna spoke first, “Eggs?”

“Chicken eggs…fertile chicken eggs, “Alexander replied, “I began the incubation process a little less than a week after we received them and they should start hatching next week. I don’t know how many of them will be successful.”

Lanny said, “We were not supposed to have live animals. Why did they send this up?” Alexander said, “This is an expendable experiment. If there are any problems, I’m to dump it.”

Ken asked, “Why the secrecy?” Alexander replied, “Earthside was concerned that the crew may develop expectations of fresh eggs and meat, only to be disappointed. They wanted it to be a happy surprise, but if not, they wanted no one to know.”

Jenna said, “We have to develop a plan in case they survive. We can’t just let them run around on Mars. They will have to have a hab unit…and preferable one with its own atmosphere.” They laughed. Alexander said, “I know, which is part of why I wanted to talk to you about it. I was the wrong person to handle this. I don’t even like pets; however, Zeke was mentioning that his family raised chickens. I want to ask him about making this his graduate project.”

Lanny thought for a moment, “It has to be an option. We can’t force him to do it.” Jenna touched her tablet and Zeke’s voice said, “Yes, Director?” Jenna smiled and said, “Zeke, could you come to Lab 6Cb?” Zeke said, “On my way, Ma’am.”

A few minutes later Zeke walked in the door, saw everyone standing around, then saw the eggs. All he said was, “WE’VE GOT CHICKENS!”

Zeke Jackson, Chicken Wrangler of Mars.

Educating Ezekiel


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 001, Sur Two, Monday, Sol 12 (001.2.12)  07:50 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 16 March 2016  2:00 PM PDT
  • Distance traveled:  69,394,248 kilometers   Time Delay:  3 mins 18 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  323,015,504 kilometers

“She said we should treat him like a graduate student. I’m saying we should make him a graduate student.”

Alexander Rivera was not one of the names most people on Earth would know. He was the Biology Officer on the Mars Mission, and yet, his function was one of the most important. He was responsible for all of the natural sources of air, food, and water.

Zeke, or Ezekiel, Jackson had been assigned to Alexander for a work detail. He had Zeke manage the bamboo plants throughout the ship. Every hab section has large wall sections of bamboo to produce oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. Zeke’s job was to learn about caring for bamboo and monitoring their growth.

Zeke’s work impressed Alexander, and now he was discussing his idea to help Zeke earn a masters degree, with the Science Director, Lanny Deaton.

“I have contacts at UC Davis who will be happy to serve on his thesis committee, and I could be Zeke’s advisor,” Alexander continued, “We’d have to work out the topic of his thesis, but everything we do is groundbreaking work, so whatever he does will help us report our findings back to our colleagues on Earth.”

Lanny replied, “Let’s go farther. Let’s check with UC Davis and MIT about establishing a remote study program for several fields. I’ll talk with Roman about engineering programs. Once we’re on Mars we will be the first graduate program offworld. We need to make it count.”

Alexander smiled. Everything about the mission was becoming more significant than just a first landing on Mars. The mission was big before, but now it was awe-inspiring. Alexander looked up to see Zeke coming down the Quill.

“Zeke, we need to talk.”

The Charlie Rose Interview


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Sunday, Sol 11 (001.2.11)  08:29 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Tuesday, 15 March 2016  2:00 PM PDT
  • Distance traveled:  65,789,352 kilometers   Time Delay:  3 mins 12 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  326,620,400 kilometers

She is among a select group of people. As we speak, she is traveling faster than any human has traveled, and she and her crew are now farther away from Earth than any human has in history. She is leading an expedition to the fourth planet in our solar system, and upon arrival will establish our first human colony on Mars.

She has degrees in engineering and psychology, and a master’s in social psychology. She served ten years in the Royal Navy and then joined the Earth Space Exploration Program, or ESEP in 2010. She advanced at ESEP into commanding the first mission to Mars, and now has taken over the top job in the organization, and…AND, she is leading both the mission and the organization concurrently. In addition, she will become Governor of Mars once the first crop is planted in Martian soil.

Please welcome Jenna Wade.

Thank you.

First, our condolences to you and the organization for the recent loss of your Director, Nick Castillo, and the rest of the ESEP people on the plane that went down in the North Atlantic. How do you recover from that kind of tragedy?

I’m not sure anyone can fully recover. We cope, we adjust, and we move on. Director Castillo was a very dear person who was able to see through the issues and problems and create an environment for everyone to succeed. He will be missed.

There were problems at ESEP when the news arrived that the plane was missing. How did you find out and what happened at ESEP?

I didn’t find out for over twelve hours. There was a power struggle in the organization that Director Castillo had dealt with, but upon his death, a person who disagreed with the Director’s decision fell into a key role after the news broke, and he decided to take advantage of the situation.

It took you several hours to regain control of ESEP, and as I understand it, your crew was largely responsible in that effort. How did you accomplish it?

We were able to take back control of the main computer at ESEP. Paige Flores, on our crew, isolated the ESEP administration and then shut them out. Once that happened the people involved were powerless.

After the incident you were made interim Director, and now you are the permanent Director. How did that happen?

I have to admit I didn’t think this through. I assumed that once we had taken back control, I would turn over control to the leadership of ESEP, but what we realized was that we had a leadership vacuum with the loss of Director Castillo and the other administrators. There was no one to give control back to, so I became temporary Director. The member countries did not want to risk destabilizing the organization again, so they asked me to be the Interim Director. At that time we were all operating under the assumptions that a new Director would be named. Within a few days I was approached about taking on the Directorship permanently, and I was backed into a corner by several different people. It made logical sense, I just wasn’t convinced I was the person for the job.

I like to change the subject. For decades there has been discussion of sending humans to Mars. Now, this summer we will have 28 people arriving at Mars. Why is this possible now, and why isn’t NASA, SpaceX, or the European Space Agency doing it?

That’s a great question. I think the reason we are on our way to Mars is largely thanks to operating under a different paradigm. Up to now the assumption had been that any mission to Mars would be governed by the Hohmann Transfer, which assumes a slow, but very fuel-efficient method of getting to Mars. The problem is that it takes eight months under ideal orbital conditions and there is only one window of opportunity every two years. ESEP adopted a modified pulse drive that has been known since the beginning of the space age, but had not been accepted by the scientific community as a viable option, largely due to the idea that a pulse drive is unworkable to get from surface to orbit. Once in space, the pulse drive is a very workable drive system for moving large masses in relatively short time frames.

As for why ESEP is doing it as opposed to others, my opinion is that NASA became too political and lost all of its support to do anything but wade near the shores of space. The European Space Agency attempted to be smaller version of NASA and became to political. As for SpaceX and all other commercial operations, they can’t succeed because the exploration of space is not profitable for a handful of investors.

What will our presence on Mars look like?

Our first landing will be relatively small. It will be one ship and five people. They will take about three days to do a site survey. Once they have confirmed the site, they will map out the landing sites for the next several ships and place an electronic marker guide for each ship. Within two weeks the site will be established as our Command Center, and at this point, it looks like we will have an ESEP Administrative Center up and running within three weeks.

At the same time, our Science Director, Lanny Deaton, will be heading up the exploration team. Initially that was to be six people; however, now we are looking to double that within a month after landing. Food, water, and oxygen production are the highest priority for the Science and Engineering teams; however, we have to have a detailed analysis of nearby resources to know what Mars has available.

The Engineering team is tasked with creating a small village in a short period of time, followed by expansion to about one hundred people by the end of 2016. They will have to create power systems, habitats, and air and water processing systems. By the end of 2017, we will have two small cities and four remote stations on Mars. 

In addition, Mars Prime, our orbiting spaceport, will become the cargo and personnel center for Mars. Almost everything and everyone will be processed through Earth Prime before going to the surface.

I want to go back to something you said. You said that commercial operations can’t succeed because it’s not profitable?

Yes. We learned in the 1960’s that space exploration creates jobs and technologies, but not profit. Space is great for the economy, but the business model of making money is not viable in an exploration environment. Business and space exploration are incompatible, and we can see that in the fact that NASA is basically a defunct space organization since it has been turned over to the private sector. SpaceX is essentially trying to reinvent the same technology of the 1970’s, and is merely adding a few new tricks such as landing reusable boosters that contribute nothing to space exploration. Eventually, investors will grow weary of waiting for a financial return that will depend on NASA buying SpaceX systems, which NASA could have done on their own if they were still a viable space program.

I should explain that because of the time delay between Earth and the ESS Sagan, Director Wade is receiving a series of questions, and I don’t hear her response for over three minutes, therefore if I have a followup question it will be over six minutes after her response. We’ll take a break. 

Rebirth of Exploration


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Saturday, Sol 10 (001.2.10)  09:07 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 14 March 2016  2:00 PM PDT
  • Distance traveled:  62,184,456 kilometers   Time Delay:  3 mins 06 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  330,225,296 kilometers

When the Mars mission left Earth orbit it was moving away from Earth. As Earth continued its orbit, it began paralleling the course of the ESS Sagan. Now the relative distance between the Earth and the Sagan were increasing at a lesser rate which meant the time delay between Earth and the crew was leveling off.

Mars Earth 13 MARMegan remarked,

“Things are moving fast now, Director. They are now saying we are on track to put up fifty Quill sections in the next thirty Earth days, and I won’t be surprised if that is at sixty sections by this time next month. Our biggest issues are the equipment, supplies, and personnel. We have enough cargo planned for the next month or so, and we have three crews in training, but we need to determine the additional roles needed on the accelerated schedule. 

The Engineering team is having a field day with the Storm Crater idea, and with your request for rapid surface transportation. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them so excited. Your Areology Officer, Steve Conner, is going to have a long list of minerals and compounds to find at the landing site. It seems Martian cement and Martian glass are both a priority for the Engineering team.

We’ve had requests for interviews from everyone. I know you can’t do many, but I think it will be important to do three or four in the next week or so. I’m sending you a list, but the one’s I think you should give the strongest consideration of doing are, the BBC,, New York Times, Reuters, the Science Media Centre, and the Charlie Rose Show. I would put the Charlie Rose show at the top of my recommendations. They won’t send us questions in advance, but will transmit three questions, and while you are responding to them, they will transmit more questions, so it will feel like a real-time interview to you with no time delay.

Economists are predicting our accelerated schedule will grow the world GDP by three percent this year, and as much as a seven percent increase next year. Member countries will see most of the growth, and we have ten new countries that want to join.

Finally, Daylight Saving Day was a non-event. We arrived ahead of schedule and most of the administration team slept well during the flight. Everyone is occupied with the new schedule, and no one had time to worry about what happened last time. I love Nippon and it feels great to be here. I’ll wait for your response, otherwise I’ll check in with you at 14:00 NST.”

Daylight Saving Day


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Friday, Sol 9 (001.2.9)  09:46 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Sunday, 13 March 2016  2:00 PM PDT
  • Distance traveled:  58,579,560 kilometers   Time Delay:  3 mins 00 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  333,830,192 kilometers

Daylight Saving Time on Earth does not impact ESEP. The entire organization operates on Noctis Standard Time, which is not affected by Earth time zones, nor annual changes in time for the seasons of Earth. In addition, the Mars landing site is close enough to the equator that there is no reason to impose a Daylight Saving-type change to the standard time.

However, an adjustment to the location of ESEP’s operation is advantageous in keeping Earth in synch with the mission.  A Mars day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, so every eight days or so the administrative functions on Earth is moved west in order to keep the Mars day aligned with the Earth day. The day of the swap is known as the Daylight Saving Day, as it is done to keep Earth-based ESEP functions in the daylight when the Mars landing site is in the daylight.

Currently, the administrative functions are handled out of the San Jose ESEP Center in California. At 12:01 AM NST it will switch to Kumamoto, Japan. A handful of administrators will leave San Jose at about 4:00 PM NST today and arrive in Japan at about 3:00 AM NST (6:00 AM JST.) At 6:00 AM NST (9:00 AM JST) the day shift will begin for ESEP.

It was during the last swap from the twin Operation Centers in Figueres, Spain and Perpignan, France that one of the three planes carrying the administrative team crashed in the North Atlantic. Today was haunted by the fact that it was the first Daylight Saving Day since the tragedy.

While it was on the minds of the Command team listening to Megan De Luca, it didn’t seem to faze her as she was explaining,

“Director, I understand your concerns; however, the more this has been discussed, the more logical it seems. The one issue is computer power. As we move into longer and longer transmission delays, the infrastructure needed to support an offworld centered administration becomes a critical issue.

The solution seems to be a triple-redundant computer system. This would mean computer centers on Earth, in orbit above Earth on Earth Prime, and a computer center on Mars. We had discussed the computer center on Mars as part of the establishment of self-sufficient colonies; however, what we are talking about now is sending the infrastructure up as soon as we have it built. This also means that a significant element of colonization will now be in place years before we planned.

Establishing ESEP administration offworld also means establishing support staff on Mars ahead of schedule. Development and Exploration would be concurrent. Life support and food resources would become a high priority. None of this is a negative, it just means we are moving faster than we originally planned. Let me know if we can move forward on this. It is pending your approval.”

Naomi was the first to speak,

“Director, Paige will be the lead on the computer system and Earthside has discussed this with her. Based on her recommendation, they could have the hardware ready to leave Earth orbit by the second or third week of Sur Three. I’m not sure when it would be in Mars orbit, but it would be a shorter trip than ours, so it would be there soon after we have established our landing site.”

Roman Gomez followed up,

“Director, the timing of it is good. They are talking about a three section Quill, and it would be best to land it close to our base, so connecting it up would be less complicated than bringing it in later. They expect Earth Prime’s computer center to be operational by the time we arrive at Mars.”

Jenna said,

“Alright, it’s a go; and Megan, I want this to be an open decision, with it revisited after we arrive at Mars. None of us really know what our lives will be like once we start putting people on the surface. I’ll assume the Directorship on those conditions. Also, let’s move up the next mission. Roman, I need you and Lanny to come up with a priority list of what we need and when we need it. Assume we will have four more missions by the end of this year, and a January mission. Look at equipment, supplies, and personnel.

Kayla, your medical center has now become a full-fledged hospital. Find out what we need for 400 people on Mars by Sur One of Year Two. Wendy, you need to look at staffing and facilities for your team. Assume two bases, four outposts, and multiple remote operations by the start of Year Two.

Ken, I’m not sure we can keep you as Commodore on Mars Prime. Look for a replacement and the timing of getting them to Mars. Same for you Naomi. Roman, at one point the engineering team discussed using Storm Crater as a city center and covering it with a transparent dome. Would you and Lanny look into the idea and decide whether we would be better with excavating living spaces underground or using a crater and building in to it.

Now, Megan, let’s talk about Daylight Saving Day.”

Under New Managment


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Thursday, Sol 8 (001.2.8)  11:23 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 12 March 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  54,974,664 kilometers   Time Delay:  2 mins 48 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  337,435,088 kilometers

Mr. Duncan’s suicide was the bad end to a series of tragic events. It exposed the frailty of some of the people in ESEP. People who had been important gatekeepers in the decision-making process had suddenly turned on the central goal of the organization, only because the organization had grown past them. Instead of protecting the mission to Mars, they were trying to end it because they wouldn’t let go.

This frailty was not lost on the member countries of ESEP. The shock of the management coup began discussions of security and protocols. The Executive management was now split between the newly created Council, and the Interim Director, Jenna Wade, and her crew. The Council consisted of Division Executives and two representatives of the member countries. 

Throughout the crisis and the fallout, Jenna and her staff were the heroes. To the ESEP member countries and the Council, the process of selecting a new Director to replace Jenna seemed pointless. An idea grew that the solution to finding new leadership for ESEP had already been accomplished when Jenna and the Mars Mission crew took back control of ESEP.

Jenna laughed and said, “That’s absurd!”

Megan’s image was on the screen in front of Jenna. Megan had just explained the agenda item for tomorrow’s Council meeting that would make Jenna the permanent Director of ESEP. Megan wouldn’t hear Jenna’s reaction for another three minutes, but she could have guessed what it would be, and she knew she would have some more explaining to do.

Ken said, “No, actually it makes perfect sense. ESEP was vulnerable because people had access to key people and critical systems. With you offworld, and the Sagan controlling ESEP computers, any attempt to attack the company is almost impossible unless they destroy every communication system on Earth.”

Jenna’s Command team was gathered around for the morning briefing from Megan, and heard the idea at the same time Jenna did.

Wendy said, “And from a management perspective, it pushes back daily decisions to the people who are closest to the issues, so only the big decisions go to the top. It is ideal for a more efficient model of management. Because you’re too far away to nitpick on details that you don’t need to know, everything moves faster.”

Jenna said, “Because I’m not around to make a remark about the windows being dirty, no one scurries to clean the windows, because it’s not important to the objectives. I see your point, but what happens when we get to Mars? I can’t run ESEP and our first exploration of Mars.”

Wendy replied, “Why not? You’re at the tip of the sword. Where better to direct the operations of the Exploration of Mars than from Mars. It is one of the best management models I have ever heard.”

Jenna looked at her team and said, “What about all of you? This is putting an extra workload on all of you. We are going to have busy days setting up on Mars.” Lanny, the Director of Science for the mission said, “I’d much rather be setting up are experiments on Mars knowing that you’re commanding all of ESEP’s resources, rather than being second guessed by my colleagues on Earth. Roman added, “We’re not going to be following their playbook in the Engineering Division when we get to Mars. I like the idea of them as consultants, not overlords, and if they select a Earthbound Director, that person is going to want to justify their existence by nitpicking what we are doing. With you as the Director, I’m confident that our workloads will be easier rather than harder.”

Jenna shook her head, and said, “First it was Commander, then I was a Rear Admiral, now I’m being asked to be the ESEP Director and Governor of Mars? Does anyone else see a problem here?”

Seven people in unison said, “No.”



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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Tuesday, Sol 6 (1.2.6)  13:01 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Thursday, 10 March 2016  2:22 PM PST

Jenna and Wendy left her quarters and climbed up to the Mess. Jenna asked, “What’s the deal with everyone telling me to eat?” Wendy said, “You can thank Kayla. We’ve all been briefed to be your welfare team. Megan has asked for daily reports.” Jenna said, “Megan. I love her, but does everyone realize she is our master?,” then Jenna continued, “That reminds me….” Jenna called Ken. Ken answered, “What can I do for you Director?” Jenna hesitated. It had only been today that everyone began using her official title at Megan’s insistence. Jenna wasn’t used to it. Jenna replied, “Are you on the Command deck?” Ken said, “Yes.” Jenna said, “Good, if you have a few minutes I need to talk to you.” Ken replied, “Acknowledged.”

Wendy and Jenna were in the Mess and Wendy told her to go on. She would bring her lunch. Jenna climbed onto her workstation deck and saw Ken waiting for her. Jenna called John Schultz, who was a Comm Specialist for the mission, but now was handling Comm duties that would normally only be seen at one of the ESEP Centers on Earth. Jenna said, “John, I need to transmit to Earth Prime Actual, encrypted and priority.”

Ken said, “What’s up?” Jenna said, “I want you to work with Claude on something.” Jenna’s tapped an icon and a screen came up, “Transmission to Earth Prime Actual, Priority, Encoded – Delay 2 mins 36 secs” Jenna looked at her camera and said,

“Claude I’m asking you and Ken to work together on Megan’s detail. I know we have her under protection, but I’d like Ken to have someone he personally knows and trusts to lead her security team. Likewise, I need you to identify someone you know and trust to be her personal assistant. I trust her to find people who can assist her with her schedule and workload, but she is a critical link in ESEP’s continued operation, and I don’t think she places a priority on her needs. Set her up with team of five people managing her personal/work life interaction. I want them to report to Wendy and Kayla on a daily basis. I need all of them vetted with Ken. To be clear, she is to be covered by top-tier security and welfare. We cannot afford to lose her under any circumstances.

Also, I’m denying your request of your last message. I’m afraid transporting Mr. Duncan to Earth Prime and accidentally losing him out an airlock may send a message that we’re being to soft on him. My plan is to take up our friend’s in Chile who have offered to take Mr. Duncan on the high plateau, strip him, stake him to the ground, and cover him in honey. They say it could be days before the ants take enough blood for him to bleed to death. Jenna out.”

She looked at Ken, who had been smiling at the last topic, and said, “She may fight us on this.” Ken replied, “Megan’s smart. She’ll know why we’re doing this, and she’ll accept it. The key will be finding people who can know when to let Megan be Megan, and when to step in. Good call on involving Wendy and Kayla. Offworld oversight is the best security we have now.”

Wendy brought Jenna’s lunch and Jenna thanked her and sat down at her workstation. All the workstation chairs had a frame the size of a food container that could be pulled out. In addition, workstations had built-in water dispensers for hot and cold drinking water. Jenna invited Ken and Wendy to sit in chairs designed to allow a small group of people to sit and talk with the Admiral at her workstation.

Jenna looked at Wendy and said, “Claude and Ken are going to set up a personal assistant team for Megan. I’m also asking Ken to personally set up her security team. The personal assistant team will be reporting to you and Kayla.” Wendy smiled and said, “Is this to get her back?” Jenna replied, “Actually, I thought of this yesterday, but I forgot to take care of it. Her monitoring my welfare reminded me.”

Jenna turned to Ken, “What’s the status of the investigation?” Ken said,

“As far as we can determine the plane crash was an accident. Based on communications we reviewed, Mr. Duncan was the first to be informed and he took control. I don’t know at what point he decided to make it a coup, but it seems it developed over a period of hours. By six that morning he was fully committed and ordered the passengers on the first two planes to be held upon landing.

I have a team reviewing the past six months of the people involved to determine if there has been any plan brewing, but it seems that everyone was loyal to ESEP until Nick allowed the mission to have priority decision-making. At that point, the organization fractured in a power struggle.

Everyone we know to be involved is under arrest somewhere. My team has tabs on all of them and none of them can be released without that law enforcement agency notifying us. In some cases it seems we have people who were just following orders; however, after Mr. Duncan began acting as ESEP Actual, it should have been obvious to anyone that he was not qualified to assume those duties. We may have cases coming to the Council for leniency.”

Naomi came down to the Admiral’s deck and Jenna motioned for her to join them. Ken continued,

“Right now we seem to be secure company-wide. Part of that is due to the fact that Paige holds the leash of the ESEP computer system and no one can try anything without her knowing it.”

Naomi broke in, “Sorry to interrupt, Director, we just got word. Mr. Duncan was found dead in his cell. It was suicide.”

Moving On


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Tuesday, Sol 6 (001.2.6)  12:40 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Thursday, 10 March 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  47,764,872 kilometers   Time Delay:  2 mins 36 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  344,644,880 kilometers

“This is awkward trying to have a meeting when we are dealing with a five-minute round trip delay in transmission; however, our new format seems to be working. I would like Megan to continue to chair the new Council and I will observe meeting. I will transmit questions and concerns through Megan during the meeting and make remarks at the end of the meeting. Since I will abstain from all votes, the Council can make decisions without waiting for my vote.

With the exception of emergency issues, all agenda items must be submitted to Megan by 14:00 the day prior to the meeting. All items should only have a three-minute summary, and the rest of the information should be attached to the agenda item with a file.

As for the interim staff structure: Megan De Luca is now Earth Liaison for ESEP, Ken Hart is now ESEP Director of Security, Naomi Pierce is now my Chief of Staff, Paige Flores is now ESEP Chief Information Officer, and Anna Flores is now Mars Mission Operations Executive. The rest of the Mars Mission crew is expanding their roles during the interim.

I would ask the Council to work quickly to restore ESEP’s leadership, so that everyone can return to a normal schedule. I appreciate everyone’s dedication to ESEP and the Mars missions. It is incredible that we are back on schedule, less than a week after losing seven of our top leadership, and putting down a management coup. Thank you to all of you and your staff.”

Jenna ended her transmission and looked to her left, where Wendy was waiting. Wendy said, “Did you ever think that going to Mars, meant you had to run the whole, damn thing?” Jenna just looked down and shook her head. She then said, “Nick was my anchor. He was the one who cleared my path. I don’t know how long I can go without him there.”

Wendy said, “Well, that’s a side of you I don’t need to see.” Jenna looked up in surprise. Wendy continued,

“I’ve never seen a person like you. People hardly know you and they want to work with you. Sure, Nick was good at greasing the track and clearing the trash, but his motivation was to help you. You have a unique ability to do the right thing and Nick knew that, so he tried to help you. Now you are surrounded by ‘Nicks’ who all are motivated to help you, and you are mourning the loss of one person. Yes, you need the time to mourn for Nick, but you are not one person acting alone. Everyone else has had the same loss, but they are rallying around you. We remembered Nick two days ago and celebrated his life. Unfortunately, you, of all people, can’t linger on his loss. We will remember him many times over the next few years, but now you have to move on.”

Jenna said, “If I were a normal person, I would be angry right now.” Wendy smiled and said, “Jenna, there is nothing about you that’s normal. Let’s go grab some lunch.”

An icon was flashing at Jenna’s workstation. Jenna tapped it and said, “What’s next, Naomi?” Naomi replied, “You should grab some lunch and come up to the Command deck. I need to brief you on some important messages.” Jenna sighed and said, “On my way.”

Mars Strikes Back


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Thursday, Sol 1 (1.2.1)  23:17 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 5 March 2016  8:25 PM PST

The last few hours had been busy for the crew of the Sagan. Jeramy had been able to buy time with the ground Engineering team with questions and concerns. The over-cautious ESEP Engineering administrator, Paul-Henri Giroux, had been reinstated by ESEP along with several fired engineers who sought to have Rear Admiral Wade relieved of command. Jeramy was able to induce delays by raising safety issues related to a direct return firing. At one point he almost had the administrator considering four-month return that involved minimal fuel.

While Jeramy conducted multiple transmissions of questions, issues, and concerns, Paige hacked into the ESEP system. She was able to create a copy of their data and build a dummy ESEP data base that she could shut down at anytime. Paige also secured the real ESEP database from access and built three different ways to access it outside of the ESEP communication system.

In addition, Paige and the Comm team, supplied emails, and video and audio conversations to Jenna and her Command team. Within three hours they had determined who was involved in the coup and who was locked out from ESEP. Jenna was also able to send messages to Megan and explain what had happened. She also had Megan prepare a takeover team for all the ESEP facilities to move in on a moment’s notice. Once Jenna gave the word, specific people throughout the world and in orbit would discover they were locked out of the system and no longer an employee of ESEP.

ESEP had decided that they would begin the first firing at 12:01 AM NST. Other than the Engineering team discussions, there had been very little communication from Mr. Duncan. It was clear he abhorred the crew and saw no reason to explain or discuss the situation with them. He desperately wanted to get them back and end the mission as quickly as possible.

However, since ESEP would be controlling the ship, they would have to warn the crew prior to the firings. This made a convenient deadline for the Sagan crew to end the charade and take action. Jenna waited for Mr. Duncan’s transmission, but at 11:45 PM NST Jenna looked at Anna and said, “Let’s pull the rug. Call Mr. Duncan and tell him we have a problem. Paige, stand ready.”

Anna smiled and said, “Paige, connect me to ESEP Actual.” A screen came up that said, “Transmission to ESEP Actual – 97 second delay.” Anna looked at her camera and said, “Mars Actual, we have a problem. We may need to delay the firing. Please respond.”

Jenna sent a message to pull the temporary computer connection he had established with the IPC drive. This effectively ended any firing and would send a signal to ESEP.

Paige announced, Message should be received in 75 seconds.” Paige did a countdown, then she allowed twenty seconds for them to establish a response, and then after another 33 seconds she signalled the Admiral. Jenna said, “Paige, enable program Castillo.” Paige touched and icon and multiple new screens came up on the Command deck.

Jenna and Ken stepped up next to Anna and looked at the camera. Jenna said, “Mr. Duncan, I hope I haven’t caught you in mid-sentence, but you may realize you are no longer in charge….Naomi.”

Naomi said, “COMMAND ALERT! All ESEP hands, all stations, standby for a message from Rear Admiral Wade.”

Jenna stepped forward and said,

“All ESEP employees. Today, we have had to deal with the tragic loss of some of our best leaders and we will miss them dearly. Unfortunately, Mr. Duncan, his security team, and several former employees took this opportunity to insert themselves into  the decision-making authority for ESEP, and attempted to takeover all ESEP operations. That has ended as of this moment. We have established who was part of this effort and their access to all ESEP systems has been terminated. In most cases they will find themselves locked in their work areas. They are to be arrested by the localized national authority and held for international charges of piracy, fraud, and several other charges. I, am acting as temporary ESEP Director until we can reestablish an Earth-based leadership team. All ESEP systems are now under the control of the crew of the ESS Sagan and will remain that way until our leadership is restored. Megan De Luca, the Director’s Assistant will be the point of contact for ESEP. I am asking all departments and divisions to assess their current situation and issues that need resolution in the next twenty-four hours, next two days, next four days, next week, next two weeks, next month, and next two months. Our goal will be to be back under normal operations within two month. Sunday, Sur Two, Sol 4 will be a day of grieving for the friends we lost today. Thank you for your patience and time.”

Mr. Duncan stood bewildered, locked in the Director’s office in San Jose. All the computer screens around him had the same message,

Now Under Control of the ESS Sagan
Mars Can Be A Bitch

The Message


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Thursday, Sol 1 (1.2.1)  17:39 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 5 March 2016  3:47 PM PST

Jenna took a sip of tea and said, “We need to find out what is going on back on Earth.” The seven of them had gathered in her quarters to assess the situation at ESEP. ESEP had taken over control over the Sagan’s systems, but Paige had made sure they could only make temporary changes. ESEP could access ship cameras; however, Paige had improved upon’s Zeke’s usage of recording video and when ESEP pulled up any camera, they only saw what Paige wanted them to see. Currently, ESEP’s view of the brig showed the Admiral and the Commodore pacing, sitting, and talking, while both were in the Admiral’s quarters planning on how to respond to the coup by Mr. Duncan and unknown individuals on Earth.

Wendy said, “I could try to contact some people on the ground team, but I don’t know who might be complicit with Mr. Duncan.” Naomi said, “Any call from anyone on the ship is going to be routed through ESEP and they will monitor those communications.”

Jenna’s door chimed. Jenna found Paige waiting outside. Jenna brought her in and said, “What’s up, Paige?” Paige had a funny expression and said, “We got an audio message from Earth, but it wasn’t through ESEP. It came from the European Space Agency. ESEP deleted it almost immediately, but they don’t realize that they only are operating in a dummy block of software, so we still have the message in our system.” The door chimed again. Wendy crossed back to the door while Jenna said, “Paige, pull up the message.”

Jeramy was at the door. Jenna waved him in. He realized that he was interrupting something and waited. Paige played the message and Jenna recognized the voice immediately. It was Megan, Nick’s assistant,

“Admiral or Commodore, I don’t know if you will get this message, but I had to try to contact you. As you are probably aware, the Director and seven other top ESEP administrators were killed when their plane crashed somewhere in the North Atlantic. I was on one of the two planes that made it and I was aware the plane was missing before we landed in San Jose. On landing, we were held for debriefing; however, in hindsight, we were essentially kidnapped. I was told that since Nick was no longer the Director that I was relieved of duty and put on leave until such time that my position with ESEP could be determined. I don’t know that the crash was an intentional act, or just an opportunity for certain people to take advantage of; however, a few key people are using the crisis to seize control of ESEP. At this point, the people who supported Nick and his administration are locked out of ESEP. I don’t know what is happening with your mission, but I do know that many of the people involved have been very unhappy about our decisions in the past few weeks and would rather see the mission return to Earth. Good luck. I will contact you with more information when I have it. Good luck.”

Ken said, “Can we contact her through the Europeans?” Naomi and Paige, both shook their heads and Naomi said, “If we do, ESEP will also get the message and they will know the game were playing.” Jenna said, “I wish we could take over ESEP computers like they think they’ve taken over ours.” Paige said, “We can…well, I need a way to access their system, so they don’t realize it.” Jenna said, “What do you mean?” Paige replied, “I need to send them a normal file with code attached that will unlock their system and mask my manipulation…oh, and I need a transmission to piggyback on while I’m rewriting their code.”

Jeramy said, “Could it be a file of firing data?” Paige said, “Yes.” Jeramy smiled, “Mr. Duncan has sent me a message to reconnect the ICP drive to the computer. I was going to delay him by asking the Engineering to check my firing data to confirm the rack configuration. I could also send a transmission asking them several questions about the return and fuel required for the firings. I could talk for at least ten minutes.” Jenna looked at Paige, “Will that work?”

Paige said, “Easy peasy.” 

The Coup


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Thursday, Sol 1 (1.2.1)  16:58 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 5 March 2016  3:06 PM PST

Jenna began climbing the Quill, followed by Ken, Ian, and Peyton. She was stopped when Naomi said, “Admiral, I’m showing that ESEP is trying to link to our systems. Do you want me to lock them out?” Jenna immediately called Jeramy, “Jeramy, have you secured the munitions?” Jeramy responded, “No.” “Do so, now, before you meet up with us,” Jenna replied, “and make sure that the IPC drive has a hard disconnect from the computer. I don’t want ESEP to be able to fire our engines.” Jeramy said, “Aye, aye.”

Jenna looked at Naomi and said, “Naomi, can you set ESEP up so they can access systems, but we can cut them off at anytime and undo anything they do….and make it look like we tried to stop them, but lost?” “Yes,” Naomi replied and then she turned to Paige, “Paige, block the ESEP signal, then take a system snapshot, then increase the encryption to 256, build a dummy pathway at 128, and an isolated block for ESEP commands that we can shut down and erase.” Paige nodded and got to work.

Jenna then said, “Alright everyone, remember, make it real. Don’t refuse ESEP orders, but don’t blindly follow them either. Naomi, cameras back up and recording when Jeramy meets up with us at the core.” At that Jenna and the other three began the long climb to the center of the ship.

The brig was located in the seventh section of Sagan’s hab Quill. It was meant to be as far away from any command areas and in the heaviest gravity environment on the ship. It also has the heaviest shielding on the ship as the end of each Quill received more exposure to cosmic rays than the core section.

Once there she and Ken were unceremoniously pushed in and the door was locked. Ian stood guard while Jeramy and Peyton moved back to the their workstations. As Peyton returned to the Command deck, Paige nodded to Anna that she had finished her work. Anna called Jeramy and confirmed he had secured his area.

Now it was time for Act I. “Anna said, Naomi, connect me to ESEP Actual.” In a second a screen came up that said, “Transmitting to ESEP Actual – 97 sec. delay.” Anna began,

“ESEP Actual, per orders from Mr. Duncan we have taken Rear Admiral Wade and Commodore Hart under custody, and I have temporarily assumed command of the ship and the mission. I would like to know under what authority I was directed to take this action and what they are charged with, as my actions could be construed as mutiny, and I have a crew that can correctly question my actions. I also need further guidance as to what my next action is to be. I await your response.”

Anna stood by waiting for their answer. While she did, Paige noticed that someone was trying to access the ship command software from ESEP. She watched them struggle with the encryption and estimated it would take them another five minutes to gain control of the ship. ESEP probably would have rather just taken over the ship, but they needed to buy five minutes, so it wasn’t a surprise when Mr. Duncan appeared on the ship’s monitors. Mr. Duncan said,

“Well done, First Officer Anna. We will determine your new rank and promotion later. I understand you concern about the actions you have been forced to take; however, please know that you have been entirely justified in taking command of the ship. We realized a few day’s ago that there was a significant leadership problem on the ship; however, we were made powerless to address the problem. With the tragic loss of many of the ESEP Executives last night we have recommitted to restoring the Mars Mission to normal protocols. When the ESS Queen Elizabeth II had a misfire of a dozen fuel pellets, we had recommended it return to Earth. Had that been done, we would not be where we are now. The new leadership of ESEP has determined that the Mars Mission is not viable and must return to Earth for a refit and crew replacement. Some of your crew may be eligible to leave on the next mission; however, past and current adherence to ESEP orders will be a significant determination for eligibility. At this time you should stand down operations and prepare for a direct return firing. We have decided to bring back the mission as quickly as possible. More information to follow.”

At this point all the ships systems blinked off and the ship went mostly dark except for emergency lighting. When the system came back up the workstations were all showing one message….

Now under ESEP control
Welcome back to Earth.

Command Alert!


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Thursday, Sol 1 (1.2.1)  17:12 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 5 March 2016  2:41 PM PST

The festivities for Assimilation Day came to a sudden end. A ‘Command Alert’ was an alert of the highest level. The Director of ESEP, Nick Castillo, once said, “If I issue a Command Alert during the mission, assume we are being invaded by an alien species and Earth has already been overrun.” It crossed Jenna’s mind that maybe Nick was playing a prank, but she knew Nick well enough that he would never toy with a communication that might potentially be mission ending.

Jenna was surrounded as she approached her monitor over her workstation. She touched the red flashing icon and the screen pulled up a video image of the Director’s work suite in San Jose, California, but no one was in camera range. After a moment, Mr. Duncan stepped into view. He began,

“Rear Admiral Jenna Wade, I must inform you that one of the three planes carrying the Director and the Executive team has been lost in route from Spain to California. We have been waiting for more information, but here is what we know currently. The first two planes took off from the Barcelona airport yesterday between 20:18 and 20:27 Noctis Standard Time. The third plane had a mechanical issue that was resolved and it left at 21:41 Noctis Standard Time. The first two planes arrived in San Jose at 07:38 and 07:52 Noctis Standard Time.

We last had contact with the third plane at 03:23 Noctis Standard Time and it was located south of Greenland. The plane should have checked in with Nav Canada at approximately 04:11, but did not. I should have landed shortly after 09:00 but it did not. We will send you more information as soon as is appropriate.”

And the screen went blank. “What the HELL!,” yelled Jenna, “We will send you more information as soon as appropriate??? Who was on that plane? Why did it take them over twelve hours after it went missing for them to contact me? Who is in charge down there?”

Jenna paused for a moment and Reserve crew members Ian Banks and Peyton Rhodes came to the deck. Peyton said, “Admiral, we’ve received orders from ESEP to arrest you and put you in the brig. What the hell is going on?” Then Jeramy Prater came down and said, “Admiral, I just got orders to secure my area and then assist in a ship leadership change. Is this a holiday joke?”

Jenna looked at Ken and said, “It looks like they are staging a coup and you’re to be in command.” Anna said, “Nope, they apparently don’t like Ken either. My message says I am to oversee the arrest of the Admiral and be prepared to arrest the Commodore, then assume command and standby for new orders. Can I tell them where they can stick it?”

Jenna thought for a moment, and then said, “No. I want you to do your job. It’s the best way for us to find out what is going on.”

First Holiday


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur Two, Thursday, Sol 1 (1.2.1)  15:52 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Saturday, 5 March 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  29,740,392 kilometers   Time Delay:  96 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  362,669,360 kilometers

Keira and Zeke had been sent to inspect the four construction pods. Zeke took the opportunity to give Keira a quick orientation on the construction pods and what they could and couldn’t do. She and Zeke had a pilot to pilot understanding and she worked with Zeke a few times at Earth Prime, so they had already developed a friendship.

Zeke was telling Keira a story about a pod pilot that failed to close the pod’s interior hatch before undocking when they both were ordered to report to the Auxiliary Command deck.

As they floated down the core they noticed the lights were down near the hab sections. The only thing glowing were the color coded gravity indicator lights running down the Command Quill. They headed down into the Quill to determine the problem, but at the entrance to the third section there were two people in space suits blocking their way. The sun visors were down so they couldn’t tell who was in the suits.

The space suit on their left held out its hand. His voice was coming through the ship’s intercom and he said, “Halt! You are not one with us!” The second space suit pointed at Keira. It was a female voice and they recognized it to be the First Officer, Anna, who said, “What is your name Earthling!” Keira kind of smiled and said, “Keira?” Anna then insisted, “YOUR FULL NAME!” Keira shrugged and said, “Keira Choi.” Anna fired back,”Your REAL Full Name!”

Keira was a little mystified. Her father was Korean and her mother was Japanese, but Keira had lived in the United States since she started school. Her first teacher called her Keira, which she discovered made it easier to fit in with the other kids. She hadn’t used her real first name in two decades. Keira quietly responded, “Mariko Choi.”

Zeke was a little surprised by this revelation that Keira’s name was not Keira, but he didn’t have long to consider it as the male spacesuit pointed at him and demanded, “WHAT IS YOUR FULL NAME?” Zeke looked at him and said, “Ezekiel Apollo Jackson.” The voice continued, “Mariko Choi and Ezekiel Apollo Jackson, you are to go immediately to the Command deck and await your trial!”

The two in spacesuits moved aside and Keira and Zeke continued down the Quill. The sections were still dark until they reached the Command deck in section five, but lights in that section came on as they passed through the threshold. Crew members were standing at the edge of each deck as they moved into the section and came to the Rear Admiral and Commodore’s deck.

There the Director of Science, Lanny Deaton, and the Director of Communications, Naomi Pierce had them move on to the deck where Jenna and Ken were standing. Ken began, “Mariko Choi and Ezekiel Apollo Jackson. You stand accused of failure to be assimilated. How do you plead?”

Zeke timidly said, “Guilty?” At this all the crew began stomping their feet and yelling out “Guilty!”

Ken said, “Mariko Choi and Ezekiel Apollo Jackson you have been found guilty…” At this Keira said, “I didn’t say I was guilty.” At this Ken said, “A Denier! She must be cleansed! Take her to the showers! At this crew members moved in to Keira and started to take her off the deck and she yelled, “WAIT, WAIT…I’m guilty, I’m guilty, just like Zeke.” At this the crew moved away from her and Ken resumed, “As I was saying, you have been found guilty and are to be sentenced immediately! Rear Admiral Wade, the suspects are guilty and await your sentencing.”

Jenna stepped forward, held a cup with a clear liquid in it and said, “Crew of the ESS Carl Sagan. We have two that have been found guilty of failure to be assimilated. As today, the first day of Sur Two, is declared to be Assimilation Day, I, as Rear Admiral of this mission to Mars do assign the sentence for Mariko Choi and Ezekiel Apollo Jackson be made to drink this Potion of Assimilation.”

At that point she gave the cup to Keira who tentatively sipped from the cup to the boos of the crew. Jenna put the cup to Keira’s lips and tipped it up until she had emptied it. A small amount spilled from each corner of her mouth and she shuddered as she swallowed it. Naomi stepped forward and filled the cup halfway. Jenna turned to Zeke who reached for the cup and downed the contents without spilling any, then he held out the cup to Naomi for more. Wild laughter broke out among the crew.

Amid the noise and celebration all monitors in the Command section went black. Everyone stopped and looked at the blank screens. Seconds later all the screens were filled with the following message:


The Understanding


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Wednesday, Sol 60 (1.1.60)  16:31 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Friday, 4 March 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  26,135,496 kilometers   Time Delay:  84 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  366,274,256 kilometers

Zeke sat facing Jenna’s workstation in her quarters. On the monitors were Commodore Dubois and Director Castillo. In front of him were four other people. Rear Admiral Wade, Commodore Hart, First Officer Flores, and Wendy Stevens were all focused on him. For Zeke, it was Judgement Day.

Jenna started by saying, “Zeke, I’m think I know how you did it, but would you explain how you got from the brig on Earth Prime to the Sagan?

Zeke replied, “Yes, Ma’am. I was able to get out of the brig by detaching the storage locker in the room from the wall. The locker was locked, but if you lift it from one of the front corners and pull out at the same time, It will usually pop out. They don’t have a wall cover behind the storage locker so I was able to get into the wall. Once in the wall I could get almost anywhere on that deck.”

Jenna interjected, “Why did you come out where Security could see you?” Zeke replied, “I didn’t come out where they could see me. I had to go to the pods first and program the one pod and prep both of them. After that I went back to get their attention. I needed them to know I had escaped. I then worked my way back….”

Claude’s delayed question interrupted him, “How did you call Earth Prime from the pod that burned up?” Zeke replied, “I called you from the pod I was hiding on, but I routed the transmission through the other, sir.”

Jenna asked, “How did you get to the Sagan?” “I undocked at the same time Davis undocked,” Zeke replied, “I assumed that if anyone noticed they would think the two pods were leaving to chase the other pod. I held my position for a few minutes and then drifted along the structure and up the Sagan. I was docked, unloaded all my equipment, and settled in by the time the other pod burned up.”

Wendy spoke up, “What happened during acceleration? You were hit with more G’s than the human body was designed for.”

Zeke smiled, “I pulled some of the hab insulation out of storage and created a compression bed. It took a little time to rig it up, but I had the time. It was tough, but …”

Again, Zeke was interrupted by the delayed question, this one from the Director, “What was your plan if Jenna hadn’t figured out that you were already on the ship?” Zeke responded, “I wasn’t going to surprise them. I planned on calling them once the Sagan caught up to them.”

Jenna leaned forward, “Zeke, you understand that no one is condoning what you did.” Zeke answered, “Oh no, Ma’am. I expect to be punished.”

Jenna said, “Zeke, would you tell us about your role in the merger of the two ships.” Zeke looked confused and said, “Uhm, after we merged the hab sections I met up with the crew and I started talking to Keira…uhm, the pilot. I told her that at Earth Prime the engineer’s procedures were based on human docking practices and didn’t account for the computer’s capability of multitasking. The First Officer joined the discussion and pretty soon we were creating procedures on how to speed up…expedite the assimilation process. Anna, uhm..the First Officer showed our plan to Commodore Hart, who showed it to you.”

Anna interrupted, “Actually, Zeke says it was our plan, but it was Zeke’s knowledge of ship construction that helped lay out the new procedures. He had every procedure in his head and we wrote it down. In the end, he had not missed a step that needed to be done.”

Zeke looked a little embarrassed, and then said, “May I say something?” Jenna said, “Yes.” Zeke looked at Claude and said, “Commodore Dubois, I enjoyed working under your command, and I hope you do not think that I wanted to trick or deceive you. I’m sorry that I put everyone in a bad position, but I really hope that you don’t think I was ungrateful for the opportunities you gave me on Earth Prime.”

Jenna waited for a time in case Claude wanted to respond, and when he didn’t Jenna said, “Zeke, we have made it official that you are on our crew and under our command. Do you understand that you are obligated to follow our orders and abide by our rules?” Zeke nodded his head and said, “Yes, Ma’am. If I didn’t I might jeopardize everyone’s life.”

Jenna then added, “We appreciate your work you have done since you’ve been on our crew. You will have a work detail and expected to perform to the highest standards.”

Zeke said, “Yes, Ma’am” Jenna then said, “Zeke, thank you. You’re dismissed.” Zeke said, “Thank you, Ma’am.” and stood up and walked out of Jenna’s quarters.

Jenna turned toward Wendy and said, “Your assessment.” Wendy said, “Based on his history and his interactions with the crew, he genuinely wants to be a part of our team. I think his rebellion was not a rebellion, but a reach for a dream.”

Anna jumped in and said, “I was very skeptical about him, but his work and his understanding of our ships gives us an advantage on this mission I never knew was missing. He is a resource…” She was interrupted by Commodore Dubois, “Zeke was the….I’m sorry…I’ll go ahead and continue since I’ve already interrupted, I was going to say, Zeke was our best crew member in thinking outside the box. He could take the most difficult problem and come up with a brilliant solution. I will miss him; however, I suspect we will benefit from his work on your crew….again, sorry.”

Anna looked at Claude on the monitor and said, “No problem, I really said I’ll I had to say.”

Jenna said, “Nick, unless you have a problem with it, I think we burn his past. If he was a normal person I’d put him in a pod and say good luck, but I agree with Anna, he’s too valuable of an asset to waste time and worry about punishment.” Everyone in the room nodded, and then looked at Nick’s monitor for his response. A little over three minutes later Nick smiled and responded.

“Why are we still talking about this?”

The Inquisition


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Tuesday, Sol 59 (1.1.59)  17:10 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Thursday, 3 March 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  22,530,600 kilometers   Time Delay:  72 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  369,879,152 kilometers

Nick was glad that Jenna was over 22 million kilometers away from the people around him. He didn’t think she was a violent person, but she would have cause to injure the Director of ESEP Engineering, Paul-Henri Giroux. He and several top engineers had demanded this meeting to ‘get the Admiral set straight.’

In a usual move, the engineers had found an ally in the ESEP Counseling team. Their concerns about crew morale seemed to be strengthened by the radical merger of the two ships in less than forty minutes. It demonstrated that the leadership of the Mars mission was asserting their independence from ESEP and that, from an organizational standpoint, was a possible symptom of instability of leadership.

Paul-Henri had his engineers go through a long list of procedures that had been violated or performed out of sequence in the deconstruction of the Queen Elizabeth II, and the merger with the Carl Sagan. His twenty-minute presentation of engineering sins was meant to emphasize the concerns of the ESEP Counseling team.

Jenna patiently waited until Paul-Henri was through. There was now a one minute and twelve second delay in her receiving the video. About two and a half minutes later Jenna responded,

“I believe you’re correct. Our crew violated all of those procedures. What you fail to understand is that those procedures were for ship deconstruction and construction under your strict clinical limitations. Limitations that are outdated and over cautious. We’re past clinical ship construction and now we are doing it. We rewrote the procedures and sent them to you. We weren’t asking for your approval because it would be a waste of everyone’s time. As for our mental state and motivations, we have learned something in the short time we’ve been a crew. We’ve learned that Mars doesn’t favor the cautious or the timid. It would be easy to let every problem or issue chop away at us and reduce our confidence. What you are a witness to is our response to the challenge that is before us. We are going to Mars, not to Disney World. We have to step up our game, and we are. I would suggest you do the same.”

The silence was deafening. Jenna did not step on anyone’s toes, rather, she took a hammer and crushed them.

Paul-Henri broke the silence and he knew his words wouldn’t reach the Rear Admiral until after he finished, “Nick, I’m sure the problem is obvious. I know this makes it difficult for you, but it is apparent that the Rear Admiral must be relieved of command.”

Nick looked down, and then looked at Jenna on the main monitor. Finally, he spoke,

“Jenna, I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go………… do whatever you need to get done. My apologies for putting you through this, but I had to find out if they could handle the transition. Paul-Henri, thank you for your service to ESEP. You’ll find Mr. Duncan has some people waiting outside the room to help you transition out of ESEP. People, there will be other changes and some of you are going to be leaving ESEP tomorrow. You’re role was important to get us where we are; however, that role is complete. We now have an operational space program and our new role is one of consultant and advisor, not overlord and master. We don’t make the decisions, the crews do. NASA got bogged down with people who never left the ground, trying to tell the people in space how to do their job. That isn’t going to happen here. Counseling team, I think it’s great that Wendy is willing to work with you. If she ever decides that you are not a valuable resource for her, you’re gone. She, and every other Counselor on a mission will be your superior. I don’t have time for your second guessing and contrary analysis. You’re not there, so don’t pretend you know more than Wendy or the Command team of the ship. You either make the transition to your new role or you walk. “

Nick ended abruptly. He then turned and looked at the monitor. “Jenna, again, my apologies. I think we now have an understanding among the ESEP team. I got your notes on the holiday. Assimilation Day. I like it. I would like to share a drink with your crew on the first around five in the afternoon if they’re up for it. Maybe we can get ESEP to the point of assimilating with your team by tomorrow….but it may take us a little longer. Sleep well tonight, you deserve it!”



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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sunday, Sol 57 (1.1.57)  18:49 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Tuesday, 1 March 2016  2:22 PM PST


Jenna began, “All stations, all hands we are initiating Assimilation Plan Delta. We are now on Priority Comm protocols. Communication only between linked subgroups, unless it is an emergency. Let’s look smart out there. Ms. Paige Flores, initiate go/no go.”

Priority Comm protocols meant that only the parties actively involved in a process or procedure were allowed to communicate with each other unless there was an emergency that someone outside the subgroup was aware of that needed to be communicated. This effectively told everyone at ESEP, “Just watch and don’t bug us.” ESEP could contact Naomi, but she would be the judge of what information to pass on to the crew and what to hold for later.

From her workstation Paige called out, “Assimilation Plan Delta subgroup, stand by” Paige then began calling through the list:

“Sagan Prime?” Anna responded, “Go.”

“QE Prime?” Keira responded, “Go”

Paige continued the list which involved almost all the crew, including the crew in construction pods. She finally wrapped up the list:

“Assimilation Crew Chief?” Zeke responded, “Go.”

“Operation Observer?”  Jeramy responded, “Go.”

Paige said, “Commodore Hart, all stations ready.”

Ken joined the group, “Jeramy show us what you have.”

Fifty seconds later Nick and the rest of the ground team on Earth saw the view from Jeramy’s construction pod. He was stationed about a kilometer above and looking down on the Sagan. Also in the view were the two sections of the QE II to its starboard side. His function was to keep an eye on the bigger picture while providing visual information for everyone involved.

Ken continued, “QE II Prime, begin Cargo section SEP.” Within seconds the image showed the cargo and ICP drive sections separate from each other. The QE II was now in three sections. Ken waited until the sections were only meters apart and then said, “QE II Prime, begin 180 Yaw on ICP and Command sections.” Slowly both the Command and ICP sections began rotating clockwise. This maneuver was necessary because both would be attached to the Sagan facing the opposite direction; however, ESEP procedures demanded that all ship construction and deconstruction work be done one step at a time. What the Mars Mission crew was doing was beautiful space ballet, but it was not protocol.

While the two QE II sections were rotating the Commodore continued, “Sagan Prime, begin SEP procedure.” The Sagan began to separate between the aft-most rotating Quill hab section, and the forward most Quill cargo section. As the two sections were moving farther apart Ken said, QE II Prime, move and merge cargo sections to the Sagan. It was about this time that the Command and ICP sections of the QE II had completed a 180 degree spin and they stopped. Keira announced, “180 yaw maneuver complete.” Ken responded, “Good, QE II Prime, move those sections into place and merge them.”

Nick’s office was start to have a flow of engineers walking in muttering and saying things, “What the hell?”, “What are they doing?”, and “Who do they think they are?” Nick knew he was going to have to calm them all down, but now he was mesmerized by the perfect ballet on the monitor.

In 38 minutes it was all done. The ESS Queen Elizabeth II was no longer a viable independent ship and it was now part of the ESS Carl Sagan. The engineers back on Earth were mostly angry; however, a few engineers had been suggesting that the construction and deconstruction of ships did not need to take weeks and multiple actions could be done concurrently.

All this was possible because the computer was actually maneuvering the sections and the humans were the inspectors making sure everything was going as planned. Theoretically, everything could be done at the same moment because the computer was aware of where every section was in space and what direction it was moving.

Part of the anger of the engineers was due to the exposure of their over cautious approach to ship construction. The crew of the new flagship Sagan proved the capabilities of the computer guidance and management software, and spaceship construction was about to become a lot faster than thought possible.

As for the 29 crew members of the Sagan, they could now look forward to several days of relaxation….except for the Admiral and Commodore, they would have hours of video meetings added so that ESEP divisions could tell them where they almost went wrong.

Plan Delta


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sunday, Sol 57 (1.1.57)  18:27 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Tuesday, 1 March 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  15,320,808 kilometers   Time Delay:  48 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  377,088,944 kilometers

Jenna tapped the blinking icon on her workstation on the Command deck. It was the Comm Center. “Is it the Director?,” Jenna asked. Naomi said, “Yes. The message just came in.” Jenna asked, “Are you ready?” Naomi again said, “Yes.” Jenna looked over at Ken and he nodded to her. Jenna looked back at Naomi’s image on her monitor, “Okay, let’s do this. Run the Director’s first message and then set us up for concurrent transmission.”

The ESS Queen Elizabeth II and the ESS Carl Sagan had rendezvoused last night and the crew had moved the rotating hab sections over from QE II and merged them into the Sagan forward of the its rotating hab section. It had gone smoothly and within an hour the merge was secure. This left the QE II in two sections alongside the Sagan. Her Core Command section was about one hundred meters in front of the cargo and ICP drive sections.

The next step was to merge the rest of the QE II to the Sagan. As of last night the plan was to do it all today, which was considered to be a week’s worth of work. The Ken and Jenna had planned to begin again this morning, but instead after some discussion the plan was changed. The crew spent the day working out the details of the plan and now they were about to do something that had never been done before…and ESEP had no clue about the change.

The engineers at ESEP were already in opposition to the plan to do the rest of the merger of the ships in one day, but they could only advise, not make demands or restrict the crew or its command. In addition, the two ships had traveled almost 15 million kilometers in less than a week and the time delay in radio signal transmission was 48 seconds one way. The authority of the Admiral and Commodore were absolute by right and by reason.

Jenna could see Naomi tap her console and instantly Nick’s image was up at her secondary monitor. Nick said,

“Good evening, Jenna. I hope you got some rest today. Congratulations again on merging the QE II hab section with the Sagan. Our engineering team down here is reluctantly praising how quickly and smoothly it went. That said, they would like to see a formal plan of the rest of the assimilation, and they would like to advise a less ambitious schedule than trying to finish the job in one day. I’m assuming that you intended to begin tomorrow, but if you need another day of rest, that would be fine with everyone here. They have reminded me that you have three and a half months before you get to Mars. Also, the Counseling team is concerned about any mishap that might occur in a rushed schedule. They feel it might impact crew morale. As for me, do whatever you think is best and I’ll work it out with the people down here. I trust your judgement. It would help me if you send a plan so I can occupy them with something. Thanks!”

Nick’s image was replaced by a “Ready for concurrent transmission – time delay: 48 seconds,” which meant that she had an open channel to ESEP on Earth but the delay would be 48 seconds between her transmission and its arrival to Earth, plus the time it took for them to respond, plus the 50 seconds for their signal to reach her.

Jenna began to send her response to Nick,

“Good morning, Nick. We did sleep, but we’ve had a very busy day. As far as our formal plan of assimilation, Naomi is sending that to you now. It is a complete step-by-step process and has been reviewed and approved by the Command team. As for the ground Counseling team’s concern of our crew’s emotional state I asked Wendy and Dr. Summers to perform a crew readiness evaluation today and their reports are also being transmitted as I speak. You asked me to forewarn you when we might endanger the health of your engineering team, so please consider this your warning. In the report you have received you will learn that today the crew banded together to put into motion a different plan for the ship merger. As soon as I’m finished here we will announce a Code Alert for our ships and ESEP divisions concerned with the ship operations. We will then begin a continuous feed until the assimilation is complete. Our entire crew will be dedicated to this effort, so we have assigned Ms. Pierce as ESEP liaison. She will monitor and control all communications with ESEP. We are now on Priority Comm protocols. With that, Naomi, a Code Alert please.”

Naomi announced, “All stations, all hands, CODE ALERT from Rear Admiral Wade.”

Leap Day Interception


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Saturday, Sol 56 (1.1.56)  19:05 NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 29 February 2016  2:00 PM PST
  • Distance traveled:  12,623,747 kilometers   Time Delay:  36 secs
  • Distance to Mars Rendezvous:  379,786,005 kilometers

The aft camera was focused on the ESS Carl Sagan as it approached. At a hundred kilometers away it looked big. This was the first flight of this design and while both the Sagan and the Queen Elizabeth II consisted of the same elements, the Sagan only had one rotating Quill section and the rest of the Quills were cargo sections.

The Sagan was longer than the QE II, but the with the exception of the stowaway, Zeke Jackson, the Sagan had no crew. The QE II was meant to carry all the ‘organics’ including humans.

The QE II had fired its ICP drive and was now travelling 94 kilometers per hour slower than the Sagan. The QE II would now slowly increase its velocity using chemical reaction engines. When the Sagan comes along the QE II will match its speed.

As the First Officer, Anna was in charge of the final maneuvers and in charge of merging the two ships into one. She was also responsible for the new crew member, Zeke, that snuck on the Sagan and faked his death. Anna was not pleased with Zeke; however, he would make her work easier.

Anna called over to Zeke on the Sagan. He responded quickly to her call, “This is Zeke.” Anna asked, “Zeke, I’m showing all hab sections powered up. Did you do a line check on all the fluid lines?” Zeke got to know most of the crew while he was on the construction team, but Anna tended cold and impersonal. He was cautious around her. “Yes, Ma’am. I did a pressure check and visual of all the lines,…twice. I have one line in Quill 1B that I’d like to check again. It was damp and I wasn’t sure if it was condensation or a small leak.”

Anna was doubtful. When she did a line check it took her three hours. He was saying he did it in two hours and did a visual survey twice. She would check the tapes later. She suspected he was trying to ‘Biff‘ her, but for now she would play along.

Anna continued, “You can go ahead and disconnect couplings between Quill 1 and the Core Command section.” Zeke replied, “That’s already done Ma’am, and I’ve sealed the bulkhead hatches and tested them. They are ready for SEP as soon as you are alongside.” Again, Anna was doubtful, but this she could check right now. She pulled up cameras on both sides of the bulkhead hatches and in fact, they were closed and sealed. She checked the status of the seal, and it was a green light to SEP.

Anna was impressed…a little..and she said, “Very well.” Zeke then took a chance, “Ma’am, may I suggest something?” Anna didn’t like pushy people, but she also didn’t have a good reason to refuse him. Anna said, “Go ahead.” Zeke said, “The Sagan is ready for the QE II’s hab section. I know we’re into evening, but it would take less than an hour to integrate your hab section as soon as you are here. That would leave the Command section, the cargo section, and the ICP section to integrate, and I can get do them tomorrow.”

Anna was amused. This guy had no clue of what he was talking about. He was going to do a week’s worth of work in two days. Anna decided to let him down slowly, “Zeke, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but that is pushing our schedule too much. I will run it by the Commodore, but I’m pretty sure will stick to the recommended schedule.” Zeke replied, “It doesn’t hurt to ask.” Anna responded, “No, I guess not. I’ll check in with you when we are alongside.”

Anna ended her conversation, and then called up the video of the Sagan for the last few hours. She was able to condense all the video by sorting for movement and the file now showed every place that Zeke had been. She began skimming and watched him work. He was fast. He decoupled and sealed the bulkheads faster than Anna thought possible. He wasted no motion. His visual check of the lines was brilliant. He had a cloth or paper and a vapor tester. He ran the paper down the hoses and looked for moisture then scanned them with the tester. He was especially thorough around couplings where a leak was more likely. She watched him come back the way he came checking the lines again.

Anna was going to wait to talk to the Commodore about Zeke’s idea, but she decided that maybe they should consider his plan. She climbed down two decks to the Commodore’s station and saw him talking to the Admiral. Jenna saw her and asked, “How’s Zeke doing?” “Very well,” she replied. “He’s amazing fast in his work.”

Jenna said, “I think you’ll like him once you get to know him.” Anna continued, “About Zeke, he suggested, and I discouraged this, but he suggested that we move the hab section over immediately once were alongside, and then he said he could get the other three sections done tomorrow. I know that’s ridiculous, but I wanted you to be aware of his suggestion.

Ken said, “Does he have the Sagan ready for SEP?” Anna said, “Yes, and I verified his work.” Ken looked at Jenna, “Your thoughts?” Jenna said, “As long as we can have everything ready on our end, then it would be great to transfer the flag tonight and be already settled in.” Ken turned back to Anna, “Can we have our section ready?” Anna was a little amazed they were taking this idea seriously…and a little defensive about whether she could have ‘her’ ship ready. Anna stood up straight and said, “Yes, we can be ready by the time we’re alongside.” Ken said, “Excellent, let’s make that our plan unless somebody has an issue with it.”

He tapped his pad to call the Comm Center. Krista Parker was on duty, “Yes, Commodore?” Ken said, “Krista, give me a Code Alert and tie me into the Sagan, and ESEP.” Krista said, “Yes, sir…….All stations, all hands, CODE ALERT from Commodore Hart.” Ken tapped in and said,

“Crew of the QE II and the Sagan. We are considering merging the Hab sections of the QE II with the Sagan and transferring the flag as soon as we are alongside. That would give us about one hour to prepare the QE II. The Sagan is ready to receive us once we are there. The cargo sections, the ICP drive and the Core Command would be integrated tomorrow. In ten minutes the First Officer will call for a go/no go from all the crew. Thank you.”

Jenna looked at her pad and laughed. Nick had sent her a message. It said,

“ESEP engineers are having cardios. Warn me next time you’re going to try to kill my staff. :)”

Ken then tied into Keira and Zeke, “Keira and Zeke, are you good with this?” Keira replied, “Zeke and I have been discussing this. I figured it was a no go, but it is really easy peasy.” Ken continued, “Zeke, are you good to go out in a pod and tug us?” Zeke said, “Pod is ready and I’m good to go.”

Ken then turned back to Anna, “Okay, Anna. Put it into motion. Do the go/no go, but don’t wait until then to start prep.” Anna said, “You realize that if we actually get all this done by tomorrow, we’ll be a week ahead. 

Jenna said, “That’s it!” Ken and Anna looked at her. Jenna continued, “We’ve been trying to figure out what holiday to have for the first day of Sur 2. It is Assimilation Day, and we will have two days to plan it!

Number 29


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  • 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.

Extra Equipment


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  • 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.”

The Second Push


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  • 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 then recycled the system to fire another pellet with the same outcome. The crew caught the problem 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 earlier interrupted, “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.”

48 Seconds of Failure


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  • 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.” 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. She decided that they would start again tomorrow and reassess the status of the mission with a decision to be made by the end of the day.

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?”

The Big Silent Bang


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  • 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 45,000 km/hr, enough to send the ESS Queen Elizabeth II out of Earth’s orbit….and towards a rendezvous with Mars.

SPECIAL BULLETIN: Orbital Transfer Firing Event

Earth Space Exploration Program (ESEP)

Written Media Briefing:  24 February 2016  15:00 PM PST  (Sol 51 Sur 1 Year 1  23:16 NST)

ICP Firing Event

The Orbital Transfer Firing (OTF) of the ESS Queen Elizabeth II did not go as planned. There is no more information at this time. The crew and ground personnel are currently reviewing the situation and determining if the mission is threatened. The ESS QE II is at escape velocity and will pass by the Moon tonight between 6:30 PM and 7:00 PM tonight.

If the mission is aborted it would take about a week to return to Earth.

Further information on Earth’s first human mission to Mars can be found at


Noctis of Mars is a real-time science fiction adventure published online at The book begins at the commissioning ceremonies which occurred on 1 February 2016. Each day at 14:00 PT (17:00 ET) a new section of a chapter is published. The chapters are published each time the last section of a chapter is published.

The First Chapter can be read here:   Chapter 1 – Commissioning Day

Au Revoir


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  • 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 100,000 kilometers per hour. A few hours before the second firing, 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.

Leaving Port


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  • 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 the Earth Prime spaceport 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. 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 again, 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 has taken one major step at a time and 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, “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.” Jeanna 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.” 

Security Breach


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  • 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 few days 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 they couldn’t offer him a full ride scholarship.

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. 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.

He was able to avoid detection when he was preparing the cargo section by using his skills as a pilot and his inch by inch familiarity with the ship. 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 they might put a hidden camera in place. When Duncan had one installed in an attempt to catch him, Zeke recognized the fake component and created a new video loop of the scene from its perspective. He then used two tablets to fool both the original camera and the hidden one. Zeke’s only mistake was to think that the tablet blocked the motion detector.

Jenna realized that she hadn’t had anyone recheck the Zeke’s stowaway compartment to be sure everything was ready for departure. 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, and on board 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 and when he looked up again Jenna was gone.

As promised Jeanna contacted the Security team 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.

Red Handed


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  • 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 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 Zeke handcuffed at the table and add an hour on to the interrogation. 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 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.”

Rat Trap


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  • 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.

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 the monitor to catch them putting the tablet in place and with almost 100 cameras in place, no one was going to catch it.

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, “May 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.



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  • 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 has 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.”

Talking Paige


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  • 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 team because they wanted to study familial relationships during long-term missions.

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 already 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 directed at someone. 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 them and between the two of them they worked through them 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 onboard 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.

Trust and Betrayal


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  • 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 was 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 took the work of the previous team and continued developing and revising the overall plan for ESEP programs that would occur in ten to fifteen years. Stage Two handled the five to ten-year time frame, and Stage One made 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 consisted of logisticians, managers, engineers, and scientists that developed factories and tested new concepts and equipment. Stage Two consisted of actual pre-production and production work, and Stage One put everything into place, and then followed 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. Her success led to her transfer to 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 went 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.”

Valentine Gifts


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  • 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 to one of her ships. Nick wouldn’t be calling her if it was routine cargo, and it wouldn’t be in route unless ESEP wanted 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 break through 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 set up,” 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 to the soil. Parameters have been established for growth rates and oxygen production. 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.”

Valentine’s Night


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  • 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 10-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 adapting 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. During the crew’s morning tasks they would likely 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 start of the countdown, this morning would require everyone at their stations. The afternoon would be anticlimactic as the first few days of the countdown were designed with long, open time periods to allow any issues to be resolved without holding up the count. 

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 everything, 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, “Monitor my call and come down 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.

The image of Megan, Nick Castillo’s assistant, was 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.” 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 the crew down from noon today until ten AM tomorrow?”

Megan scrolled through her tablet for a few seconds and said, “32 non-countdown tasks are scheduled and 15 meetings. The total allocated time to recover from a delay is 28 hours and seven minutes.” Nick turned to Jenna and said, “Maybe it’s not..” But Megan interrupted, “Of course, if those the tasks are rescheduled to be done concurrently it will take one hour and 43 minutes.”

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 – 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 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 continued, “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.

Top To Bottom


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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Tuesday, Sol 38 (1.1.38)  8:47 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Wednesday, 10 February 2016  3:30 PM PST

CREW ALERT! Text in three parts to follow.

CREW 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.

CREW 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.

CREW 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 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.”

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 Monday. 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.”