The Tranquil Commander

The last time he looked Western Europe was hanging in the window. Now only pitch black specked with dots indicated there was an outside world. Mark had other, more pressing, problems however. John would have to go outside.

Mark floated to the inside of the sleeping quarters. A maze of string, covering the three-dimensional compartment, held drying clothes in search of ventilation. A few scattered personal belongings that escaped their storage sites floated here and there. Lining the walls were shelves of sleeping bags, tied to their hooks. All useful possible space had been taken. Moving inside the accommodations took careful gestures and impulses in order not to get entangled in anything. John, close to his place, finished tucking the sack, grabbed a CD and inserted it into the stereo.

“Listening to Wagner, again?” Mark asked.
“Because it was Hitler’s favorite music?” John said.
“You should be careful with what you pump into your system.”
“It’s just music.”
“Well, I guess beliefs and tastes don’t come in neat packages.”

Though some times they do, Mark thought. Sometimes even language and expression define who someone is. “What kind of stuff do you read, anyway?” he said. “For fun, I mean.”

“Oh, mostly the classics,” John said. “Typee, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Last of the Mohicans. That kind of thing.”
“You’re in for innocence, then.”
“Yeah, I guess. That’s one way to put it,” John said, pensively.

The two men stood looking at each other.

“Hey, look, did they figure the data crash?” John said.
“They’re doing that now,” Mark said. “You should realign the microwave link. When you can. If you can.”
“I’m on it, boss,” John said, putting aside the headphones and moving to the EVA underwear.
“Do it, then,” Mark said. He stood watching silently, while John put on the shorts and vest.
“Mark, Mark,” he heard whispered in his ears.
“Yes,” he said, holding gently the micro on his face.
“We’ve got news for you.”
“I’ll be right there in a minute.” He pushed the handle in the hatch and moved to the service module.


This was a cargo ship on to Mars. Not the first time that Mark made the trip, anyway. They carried building materials and an assortment of devices that would help pave the way for colonists in the coming decades. Mark deeply believed in the furthering of Humankind, and this was his way of giving a small contribution to it. But even if he dreamed in his spare time with the possibilities, he was quite cool and patient. Mark knew that the future is conquered one step at a time.

The command section held workbenches for monitoring every type of automatic or human activity, and a profusion of windows to look outside into the upper part of the ship. Below this domelike compartment was the service module that connected to the other components of the craft. When Mark entered, he was greeted by the colors of blinking screens and the sounds of switches going on and off. Helen was firing quick instructions to the two other men.

“Fill me in, Helen,” Mark said.
“Home says we’ve got damaged data.”
“No kidding.”
“When the computers were fed on prelaunch,” Helen said, “a random statistical fluctuation in the main computer was served to our three processing units.”
“It spread,” one of the men added.
“Thanks, Jack,” Helen said. “Jack is checking how hard hit the life support system is.”
“Thus the heat,” Jack said. “I’m trying to protect the oxygen cycle.”

The situation could get worse then, Mark thought. The environment could overheat, or the steady supply of oxygen could be disrupted. He felt tiny drops of sweat forming on his forehead that he wiped with the palm of his hand.

“What about communications?” Mark asked.
“Steve?” Helen said.
“The small dish is out of line all right, but safe,” Steven said. “The fast link is going catastrophic by each clock cycle.”
“Damn. This was supposed to be a boring trip,” Mark said.
“Breakfast in heaven never is,” Jack said.

Mark moved towards the bench where Jack worked. His screen was filled with quickly typed, rapidly accepted and run, lines of code. Mark didn’t follow the intricacies of Jack’s thinking. For his purposes it was enough to figure the how long to completion. Jack was hours away from quarantining the error. Not a good prognosis, because the longer they hang by a string, the larger the damage and more dangerous the situation.

In the astronauts training program, later in the first flights he took, and then as a commander in the exploration of Mars, Mark learned to deal skillfully with stress as a motivator for action and to be completely oblivious of anxiety. He would not freak out for any reason whatsoever. He could worry, oh yes, he would worry, but not freak out.

Mark moved to Steven’s screen. Again, Steven was trying to secure strategic configuration data and lying down obstacles against contamination. Steven was very busy, and Mark didn’t want to distract him with questions. His task was not as critical as Jack’s because if catastrophic loss could be prevented, a few hours with slow communications would be acceptable.

“Where’s John?” Helen asked.
“Going outside,” Mark replied.
“You’ll have to nurse him. We can’t afford to lose both links.”


The EVA bench had a few monitors overseeing the outside of the ship, including the zones where the communications dishes lay. Mark also had, through one of the windows, direct line of sight over the cargo bay and into the smaller dish. He quickly glanced at the instruments to make sure nothing was there out of the ordinary. Then he called, “John, John.”

“I’m opening the airlock,” John said, in Mark’s headset. Mark moved through the switches in his bench and picked a set of vitals. “All right, I’ll be here,” he said.

“Moving to the fixing bolts,” John said.
“Tighten them.”
“Here we go. One. Two. Three. Done.”
“Still isn’t right.”
“Could it be the initial angle?”

Mark looked out the window trying to figure in his mind the three-dimensional geometry of the dish and its orientation. Mentally he took into account a small rotation of the dish relative to the ship, and then considered the overall direction of an incoming communications beam from Earth.

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“Yes. There’s a mismatch between software and physics.”
“Can it be done from the inside?” John asked.
“No. You’ll have to reset it manually.”
“My rope is too short.”
“Get inside and pick a longer one.”
“No need. I’ll get loose and fix the damn thing.”

Mark frowned. Under his watch no one took unnecessary risks. No one played the odds of wishful thinking. Both training and experience combined to make that a dictum carved in stone. What if a glitch occurred? Then what?

“That’s unnecessary risk, and I will not allow it.”
“It won’t be the first time I do it. I’ve been loose before.”

The childish propensity to experiment with safety. Mark would give him quite a lecture when he came back inside. “No, do it safe.”

“Done. I’m pulling to the crank,” John said.
Mark took a deep breath. “Don’t get loose of the handle,” he said.
“Tell me when it’s right,” John said.
“Thirty degrees. Twenty. Ten,” Mark said.
“I’ll slow down,” John said.
“Five, four, three.”
“Easy, now,” John said.
“Two, one. There,” Mark said.

The dish had been fixed. It was still dangerous to John though, until he grabbed the rope again. The situation was beyond Mark’s control, something that he hated. “Get back in, John,” he ordered.

“I’m floating. I’m floating. God,” John screeched.
See? Now what? “Is the crane in your path?” Mark asked.
“It might. Move it. Do something.”

Mark grabbed the corner of the EVA bench and gave himself thrust towards the cargo bench. Immediately he started maneuvering the robotic arm.

“Radially. Positive angle, now,” John said.
“Slower or faster?” Mark said.
“Just right. Here, here, baby.”

John, avoiding sudden moves, was simply stretching his arm to catch the moving crane. Just in case, Mark slowed its motion slightly.

“I don’t want to send you flying,” Mark said.
“One more inch,” John said. “Grabbed.”
Mark cleaned the perspiration in his forehead. “Can you get to the airlock?” he asked.
“Yes. Give me a minute,” John said.
Mark left the bench. “I’ll go and help you.”
“No need. I’m pulling myself to the airlock.”

Mark maneuvered to leave the command section and enter the service module.

Going through the service module tunnel, Mark pondered how to scold John. John had disobeyed Mark’s direct command, and proceeded to put himself in jeopardy. The I told you so, was too obvious and probably would not leave a lasting impression in John’s mind. How best to clobber him? Perhaps Mark would be more effective if he said nothing, just letting John’s anxiety and fear make their stigma.

When Mark arrived to the entrance of the pressure room, he could see through the window in the door that John was closing the airlock. When the pressure warning light went from red to green, Mark opened the hatch and got inside.

John was taking off the helmet, cursing and swearing. Mark helped him with the boots and the EVA suit. They put the suit in its nest. John, with unnaturally bright eyes, finally managed sort of an apology, “I should have listened to you.”

Mark stared at John for a moment. Then he said, “Get into the uniform. We should go to the command section.”


In the command section, the frenzy going on before had slowed. Mark could see that Steven was relaxed, tinkering with some final details in his bench, and Helen was calmly checking some paper charts in her hand. Jack, however, was still very busy, hastily typing instructions. When Steven saw Mark and John entering the section, he signaled to get Mark’s attention.

“The glitch is confined, I think,” Steven said. “We’ll be downloading the fast link software through the small dish. That ought to do it.”
Helen took her eyes off the charts. “What about you, Jack?” she asked.
“Not yet finished, but getting there,” Jack said. “We lost efficiency, though.”
“Is life support stable?” Mark said.
“Yes,” Jack said. “But I don’t know if we’ll have enough oxygen for the remainder of the trip.”
They all looked at him.
“There’s five of us,” Jack said. “We’ll have a hard time.”
“Can you make a precise estimate of the oxygen left in the recycling system?” Helen asked.
“No, not yet,” Jack replied. “First, I’m trying to shut in the damage. Only then, will I be able to assess the oxygen left, and if there are ways to circumvent the damage done.”

Mark thought a bit. No use fretting about the situation until Jack regained control. The team was tired. Better take some rest, and then return to the problems with renewed energy.

“I reckon we should go and take a nap,” Mark said. “We’ll think better with a clearer head.”
“I’ll stay here for my watch,” John said.
“Then everybody goes to sleep,” Mark said, “except John, and Jack will go too, when he gets the problem contained.”
“All right,” Helen said, “come on, Steve.”
Helen and Steve left the command section and got into the service module.
“Wake us up if anything happens,” Mark said. And he too, headed for the sleeping quarters.


Mark tucked the sleeping bag around him. The situation was steady, but could grow worse. Was there a way to improve the oxygen cycle? They would have thought of that wouldn’t they? Damn. Decisions, always decisions.

No one was expecting Mars to become a second habitat for humans, as the effort of terraforming the planet was perceived to be hugely expensive if not a practical impossibility. That fate might be reserved for Venus, Mark had read, by seeding the thick atmosphere with bioengineered algae that, over centuries would break up the carbon dioxide and, by runaway uncontrolled growth, with time massively substitute it for oxygen, as it happened in the early history of Earth.

But the Martian settlement that by some estimates would possibly be numbering the few millions, or the population of a small metropolis, was still perhaps centuries away. Mark knew that one of the problems would be motivation to settle. Apart from scientific stations, leading people to live in a cold lifeless desert, was for the moment a hard sell. However Mark held a broad perspective. There hadn’t been a single instance in his life where adversity, perceived the right way, didn’t conceal hidden opportunities. Besides, American colonists in the XVIIth century had had to face a similar hurdle.

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While half-asleep Mark could contemplate the priorities by which he had lived. The space program was his job, his mission. Perhaps when they grew up, his children would be proud of him. Or they would complain the he never was around to see them grow. Fortunately he had a fine, understanding woman. But he had missed the birth of the older son, and hadn’t seen much of the younger daughter. Did she even recognize him as her father? Family was first priority on a different level. The personal level. Perhaps in a few years, after doing his bit, Mark would be able to retire and become a full-time parent. “Mark.” His son called in a now forgotten beach. “Mark.” That’s…

Mark was fully awake and looking at Jack’s face.
“Yes,” Mark said.
“I confined the damage,” Jack whispered. “The good news is that I’m pretty confident I can reverse most of it. We should be safe for the mission.”
“Are you sure?” Mark said.
“I can’t be sure,” Jack said, “but I would put money on it.”
“All right,” Mark said, “try and get some sleep now.”
“Okay,” Jack said.


Mark closed his eyes and his thoughts began to wander again. Nothing can be achieved without at least some measure of sacrifice. He just hoped that he hadn’t strained his family too much. Mars would be done for him, soon. For the moment he had to think about the colonists that eventually would come. The blueprints of the colony, the building droids in his ship, everything the advanced team needed. For a moment he saw the building team fighting the Martian wind. The bright red swirling wind that permeated every crevice of their suits. Mark could hear it thundering inside their small station, thundering as Wagner. Wagner.

Mark woke up. Wagner was coming from the internal loudspeakers.

“Shit. John locked the hatch,” Jack said.
“John,” Mark said, “what the hell is the matter?”
“Hey, guys,” John said through the intercom, “ready to face the facts?”

Everybody was awake in the sleeping quarters.

“We’re listening,” Helen said.
“We may not have enough oxygen for the five of us,” John said.
Mark looked to Jack. Jack looked back. “So?” Mark said.
“So,” John said, “better if one of us survives to take the ship to the guys waiting in Mars’ surface.”
“And the one would be you, right?” Mark said.

They stood listening to Wagner through the loudspeakers. “You didn’t tell him,” Mark said, addressing Jack.
“No,” Jack said. “I had no reason to.”
“Tell him what?” Helen said.
John scratched his head. Mark was looking to something in his feet. Steven was as anxious and curious as Helen.
“Jack thinks he can reverse most of the damage,” Mark said. “But if we tell John now, he will think we are lying to defuse the situation.”
“I can’t repair the oxygen cycle confined in here,” Jack said.
“That’s just great,” Steven said.

“Hey,” John said in the loudspeakers, “what’s the whispering about?”
“You’re crossing on your friends, man,” Mark said to the intercom.
“Yeah? Aren’t you the one that believes in necessary decisions?” John said.
“Thought out decisions,” Mark said.
“Thought by you, you mean,” John said, “the rag drag kid that pulled himself to the space program.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Mark shouted.
“First person on Mars’ surface,” John said. “Space hero. Role model in the hood.”

Mark turned off the intercom.

“This is ludicrous,” Jack said. “I could be fixing the oxygen recycling system, right now.”

Sometimes individual judgment calls are necessary. But Mark was a team player. The best of the one for the sake of the all. Space training was very quick in weeding out personality issues. That was even more razor-sharp on longer-term missions like the ones to Mars. If a crew had the minor maladjustment it was immediately pulled off. Somehow John had survived in a crew that Mark had learned to trust and care for. But that wasn’t the only angle to consider.

“This is not about survival of this particular mission,” Mark said.
The three in the sleeping quarters looked at him.
“It’s about the whole Mars program,” Mark said.
“Hold on. You’re taking a wild jump there,” Helen said.
“If he survives by betraying us, astronauts and colonists to Mars will be afraid that anyone may snap when the going gets tough. The Administration will have to shut him down for good when he arrives.”
“If they can figure, that is,” Helen said.
“Well, Helen,” Steven said, “Schrödinger’s cat is bull.”
“What?” Helen asked.
“They can make this ship decohere on arrival,” Steven said.
“They measure remaining oxygen and compare it with our breathing rates,” Mark said.
“They look up when we ate, and measure processed poop in our bellies,” Jack said.
“They will have enough variables,” Steven said.
“John would have to be unbelievably bright and would need infinite computational power to conceal this,” Mark said.
“He would have to anticipate every possible check to his song,” Steven said.
“I don’t like the dying part, though,” Jack said.
“It’s no different from where I come from,” Mark said. “Being alive sometimes kills you.”
“We either all stand together,” Helen said, “or we all fall. Nice thought. Can we convince him of that?”
“Truth always prevails, eventually,” Mark said. “It just may be after we’re dead.”

Helen looked pensive and excited with some insight in her mind. “Let’s see,” she said, going to the intercom and turning it on again. “John, John,” she called.

“Yes,” John answered.
“How will you explain what happened here?” Helen asked.
“Well, it was an accident,” John replied, “You all died on me.”
“What? No specifics?” Helen said.
“I’ll have time to think about them,” John said.
“Why don’t we play that game now?” Helen said. “The truth game.”
“All right. Go ahead and shoot.”
“We’re breathing oxygen, John,” Helen said. “How will you explain the amount available? They have our breathing rates record.”
“I’ll burn something to screw the data,” John replied.
“You’ll also leave molecules of the combustion,” Helen said.
“I’ll empty your compartment,” John said.
“Why would you need to do that, knowing we were inside? What about the bodies?”
“I’ll puncture the compartment and trash out the bodies.”
“From the outside?” Helen asked.
“Yes,” John replied.
“They will establish the speed of impact, and the instrument used.”

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There was a moment of pause. “I guess finding a meteorite―,” John said.
“That hits the exact right place in the ship,” Helen interrupted.
“―won’t do. Let me think about that.”

The blast of Wagner’s music was still in the loudspeakers. John took his time to talk again.

“I wasn’t the one to go fix the dish. Mark was,” John said finally.
“So?” Helen said.
“He got loose.”
“You still have to empty this compartment, and you have three more to go.”
“Jack tried to help him in the outside.”
“You need somebody in the command section.”
“I was in the command section. The exit airlock was left imperfectly closed in Jack’s rush and the sleeping quarters depressurized, taking you and Steven.”
“Our bodies. Why would the hatch to the command section be closed if you anticipated nothing? Jack is still alive.”
“All four of you have to go in one stroke.”
“That’s right,” Helen said.
“One of my tools when in the outside cracked your window.”
“You have nobody in the command section.”
“Mark cracked the window. I was in the command section.”
“Why would the hatch in the sleeping quarters be closed? Mark would be alive.”
“Mark was taken by the blowout.”
“Will they see his body?”
“No. He had no EVA rope.”
“The hatch. What were you doing while all of this happened?”
“Yes. I couldn’t be sleeping.”
“Not while Mark was in the outside.”
“This is getting weird,” John said. He fell silent.

“Consider something weirder. What will they do if you arrive with an unconvincing story?” Helen asked. “Besides, you cannot suggest to them anything outside of what you were doing and thinking.”

“I would have to reproduce the feelings and actions that I had when presented with my own facts.”

“That’s right,” Helen said.
“I would have to anticipate weeks of work by smart police.”
“And you have to do it within hours. Until normal communications status is resumed.”
“They certainly won’t hail me as a hero,” John said.
“Basically, it’s riskier to think you have a convincing story than to take your chances with us.”
“They will serve no purpose killing me.”
“They will think you thought that.”

Helen had him cornered, Mark thought. John was silent in the loudspeakers, presumably thinking how to disentangle himself from the situation he had created.

“He is not convinced yet,” Jack said.
“Give him time,” Helen said. “Have faith.”
“Actually, it’s super rationality,” Steven said.
“Super what?” Helen asked.
“It means that good people always stick together,” Mark said, “no matter where and when. Belief in what is fair and appropriate exists by itself.”
“Super rationality is when you think you’re smart,” Steven said, “but that other people are also very smart.”
“John has pretty good IQ scores,” Helen said.
“Two guys with lower IQ,” Mark said, “working together can outsmart him.”

John cut off the Wagner music. He coughed to the intercom. “All right guys, what should I do?” he said.

“Do the fucking right thing,” Mark said.
“Do what’s best for you,” Steven said.
“Open the hatch,” Jack said.
After a while, the handle rotated and John appeared floating at the hatch.
“This chess was fun,” Helen said. “We should do it again sometime.”
“For a moment there,” Jack said, “I thought you were for real.”
“Jack,” Mark said. “Get to work.”
Jack nodded and left the sleeping quarters.
“You know what, John,” Steven said, “Jack will be able to fix the oxygen.”
“And this was all for nothing,” Helen added.
“You should trust your buddies, John,” Mark said. “We stick together because that’s the only way to go. But enough of this. Everybody resume the ship’s duties.”

Helen embraced John and left. Steven also left. John winced at Mark and opened his mouth to say something but Mark cut him off bluntly, “Don’t say a thing.”

Mark stayed behind, alone in the sleeping quarters. It took him a moment to regain composure. He rapidly decided to postpone any decision, so he got to the daily chores.


When the shift ended, Mark headed to the sleeping bag and his usual bit of nearly awake meditation. The incident was not over yet, as he had to report it. John would stand trial and probably receive a dishonorable discharge, Mark decided. If only that could be done discreetly, by hiding the true implications of the event from the press. This smelled slightly immoral but seemed the only way to proceed. Judging and meting out the punishment. Not an unfamiliar responsibility to someone in command. However, Mark knew well that prejudice is a predigested, prepackaged, form of inane tagging, and judgment becomes judgmental when it is framed in terms of stereotype. All along he fought hard to avoid ensnaring his own reason into tidy little boxes, but he was part of the Establishment now. Icon of the community, national hero, a name in historical records. The book that John mentioned, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Had he been in his life a subservient, accommodating black man, like Uncle Tom? That thought was racist and Mark momentarily hated himself for even considering it. A highly accomplished white man would never think about his own ethnicity. Apart from the responsibility of being a role model, why should Mark? He felt quite comfortable with himself. Then he fell asleep.

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