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Alternate Title: Mars Endeavor
Author: Peter Cawdron
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
Self-Published, 2016
Series: Retrograde: Book 1

1. Retrograde
2. Reentry

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Colonization
Artificial Intelligence
Avg Member Rating:
(4 reads / 4 ratings)


The international team at the Mars Endeavour colony is prepared for every eventuality except one--what happens when disaster strikes Earth?

Mankind has long dreamed of reaching out to live on other planets, and with the establishment of the Mars Endeavour colony, that dream has become reality. The fledgling colony consists of 120 scientists, astronauts, medical staff, and engineers. Buried deep underground, they're protected from the harsh radiation that sterilizes the surface of the planet. The colony is prepared for every eventuality except one--what happens when disaster strikes Earth?

This book was previously published in September 2016 by the author with the title "Mars Endeavour".


Mars Endeavour Mission
Principal Crew Manifest

Name Primary Position
U.S. Module
(28 crew members)
Connor Mission Commander
Harrison U.S. Second in Command
Liz Micropaleobiologist
James (Canada) Robotics Engineer
Michelle (Puerto Rico) Martian Geologist
Amira (Navajo Nation) Imaging Specialist
McDonald Chief of Agriculture
Manu (American Samoa) Exo-environments Specialist
Danielle Paleovolcanologist
Chinese Module
(27 crew members)
Wen Chinese Commander
Su-shun Chinese Second in Command
Jianyu Surgeon
Russian Module
(29 crew members)
Vlad Russian Commander
Dimitri Russian Second in Command
Anna Medical Specialist
Eurasian Module
(36 crew members)
Max (United Kingdom) Eurasian Commander
Adin (Israel) Surface-Ops Controller
Prabhat (India) Electron Microscopist
NASA (Houston)
(John) Davies Mission Controller

Solitude, isolation, are painful things, and beyond human endurance.



I'm giddy with rice wine.

"Okay, deal the cards again," James says, circling his hand around the table. "I get this. I can fool the landlord."

"It is dou di zhu," Su-shun replies. "'Fight the landlord,' not 'fool.'"

I laugh as Jianyu pours me another tiny glass. "Are you trying to get me drunk?" I ask.

Jianyu replies, but I can't hear him over the noise of the card game and James calling out, "To fool is to fight without being seen, my friend. To fool is as good as a fight. Sometimes, it's better."

"Sometimes it is," Su-shun admits, dealing cards around the table.

Jianyu smiles at me and then turns to James, saying, "You sound like Sun Tzu in The Art of War."

"Did he say that?" James asks with innocence in his voice.

"No," Su-shun replies, and everyone bursts out laughing.

"You've had too much to drink," I say to James, but I'm the one swaying under the influence of alcohol in the light Martian gravity. I hold on to the edge of the table with one hand, feeling as though I could float away. The rest of the Chinese crew gather around, yelling and placing bets--speaking so fast I find it hard to believe anyone can follow the conversation. All I can tell is that there's a lot of excitement around James and his grossly misplaced bravado, with the Chinese betting both for and against him, but I suspect it's mostly against.

Like smoke in some seedy Shanghai restaurant, water vapor drifts around us, rising up from humidifiers wafting homemade incense throughout the Chinese module. I love the ambience. For a Midwestern girl like me, immersing myself in another culture is as intoxicating as alcohol, and I find myself torn between staying and leaving. I've got thirty kilos of rock samples to sift through tomorrow--that's easily eight to ten hours of work.

"We should be going," I say, tapping James on the shoulder and pointing at the digital clock on the wall. It's showing 12:00 a.m., but the seconds counter has gone well beyond 60--it's at 2,344 and climbing. I forget exactly how many seconds there are in the Martian time-slip, but a day on Mars is roughly forty minutes longer than it is on Earth, so our clocks are set to pause for the best part of an hour from 12:00 to 12:01. In theory, it means we can sleep in an extra half hour or so each day, but in practice, that gets channeled into our work. Our biological clocks are like those of drifters constantly traveling across time zones. The physiological effect is like driving around the world once a month--which is more crazy than it seems: around halfway through the month, noon starts to feel like midnight. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to it.

"Come on, Liz! I'm about to clean them out."

"Yeah, that's not happening," I say, gesturing toward the hatch leading out of the module. "Let's go."

Su-shun gives me a look like he's a cat with a mouse, giving James just enough freedom before swatting at him again with long, sharp claws. He smiles behind narrow, thin eyes. He's loving this.

I look to Jianyu, trying to get his attention as he moves behind James, but he's caught up in the fun.

Yelling echoes through the module. It's astonishingly loud inside the narrow, tubular mod. It's sometimes difficult to remember we're on another planet, millions of miles from home. We could be in a simulator on Earth, although things never got this wild back there. With no instructors critiquing our actions, life is a lot more free on Mars--or as free as it can be living inside a tin can.

Jianyu puts some money down on James, which surprises me--although "money" is too strong a term. Poker chips act as pseudocurrency in the informal economy that exists within the colony. Most people barter for anything they want beyond the basics, but chips are sometimes exchanged as well.

The sweet smell of spiced rice floats through the air. Thin strips of faux meat sizzle in a wok as the chef constantly turns over a succulent Asian dish, adding a small ladle of water every few seconds, causing steam to billow into the overly humid air. The chef is talking as rapidly as everyone else, though to whom I don't know--I'm not sure anyone's listening. Although the meal smells delicious, I can't imagine the crew wanting to eat at what equates to almost 1:00 a.m., but for the Chinese, the party is just getting started.

I love the Chinese mod. Technically, it's a mirror image of our own module, yet the Chinese have made it into a home. Somehow, they've transformed their mod into a back alley in Guangzhou--vibrant and full of life. Clothes hang from a line running across the back of the communal room, which is something Connor would never allow in the U.S. module. To my mind, the pieces of clothing act as pendants, colorful flags, festive decorations. I doubt anyone here gives them a second thought. They're a touch of life on Earth being transplanted on Mars.

"You be the landlord," Su-shun yells, pointing at James as though he were fingering a murderer in a lineup.

"Oh, no, no, no, my friend," James says, wagging his finger. "I see what you're trying to do. You be the landlord!" Laughter erupts from around the crowded table.

Jianyu says, "Come on, Liz. Throw some chips into the pot." His hand runs down the back of my arm. Jianyu steps around me, but his hand lingers just long enough to express tenderness. He's normally guarded about our relationship. I don't think he's embarrassed about dating a foreigner, or intentionally secretive, he's just private about his feelings, and that's fine with me. Rural Chinese modesty is quaint to someone who lived in downtown Chicago for six years. Tonight, though, the rice wine is going to his head, and he sneaks a kiss on my cheek, adding, "You know you want to."

"No way," I say, laughing more at his impetuous public kiss than anything he said, yet I'm swept up in the euphoria. It's no longer a question of staying or leaving, but of betting or continuing to fiddle with the chips in my pocket. I'm tired. I performed an eight-hour surface op earlier today. My body yearns for bed, but my heart loves the explosion of life around me.

"Ah, ha ha," Su-shun says, this time pointing at me. "She's afraid he will lose!"

"She's too smart," Jianyu replies, winking at me, and more poker chips find themselves cast onto the pile in the middle of the table. How anyone keeps track of what's been bet and by whom, I have no idea, but the system seems to work. Deep down, I suspect no one really cares. The chips are like gold on a games night like this, even though they're little more than a novelty.

There are five players seated at the round dining table, with two dozen others cramped around them, all trying to get a good vantage point. That's pretty much everyone in the Chinese mod, but the commotion within the module gives the impression there are hundreds of people bustling through a crowded market.

Su-shun finishes dealing to the players, but before anyone can pick up their cards, Wen storms over, pulling people away so she can get to the table.

"Out. Out. Out!" she yells over the ruckus, reaching in and scooping up two piles of cards. "Americans must leave."

"What?" Su-shun has a look of disbelief on his face.

"You leave now!" Wen yells, looking me in the eye. This is a shift in persona. There's no banter, no friendly rivalry. I see anger in her eyes.

"James," I say, pulling on his shoulder. "We need to go."

"What? No way. I've got chips in that pot!"

Wen doesn't bother collecting the other cards. It's enough to simply toss them from the table. The other players are incensed.

"Leave!" she yells.

Wen doesn't stop with the cards. With a bat of her hand, the chips are scattered across the table. In the low Martian gravity, they skim through the air and bounce over the floor of the module. We've been on Mars for nine months building the main base, but the sight of objects being propelled under Martian gravity never gets old. It's jarring to see physical things obeying a rate other than the 1 g in which we were raised. It's as though the universe has betrayed us, and life on Mars never feels quite right.

"Wen!" Jianyu protests, but the old matriarch will not be pacified, and she screams again for us to leave.

Wen has her long hair pulled back into a ponytail. At sixty-four, she's the oldest person on Mars, but you'd never guess her age from her work rate or her physique. She's imposing, intimidating even the men.

James gets slowly to his feet. He sways a little under the influence of alcohol and strange gravity. At the best of times, it's easy to lose your footing on Mars. For James, this isn't the best of times. I take his arm. Wen grabs both of us, marching us toward the central hub at the end of the mod.

As we're in roughly one-third of Earth's gravity, even the most forceful march is stunted, but I can feel Wen pushing us on. Our feet bounce slightly between steps.

Most colonists struggle to retain 1 g fitness. It's easy to slack off and settle for less, but not Wen. She used to run marathons on Earth. I doubt she'd have any problem running several back-to-back up here. One of the Chinese men opens the hatch as we're marched out.

"We're just having a little fun!" James protests as we're thrust into the vast central hub connecting the various modules like spokes of a giant wheel. The Eurasians are in the process of closing their outer hatch. The outer hatch to the Russian module is already shut. It's normal to keep the inner hatches secure to control humidity and airflow, but the heavy outer hatches are only ever closed during containment tests or depressurization drills. It's the middle of the night. This isn't about our game. Something else has happened, and not knowing why we're being treated like this is a little scary. My mind is dull with alcohol, and that thought passes like a bird on the breeze.

Wen yells, "Zhànzheng fànzi!" as she shuts the hatch. I catch a glimpse of Jianyu behind her. He looks confused, bewildered. He tries to say something, mouthing a few words in English, but I don't understand.

Zhànzheng fànzi. Jianyu has been teaching me Chinese. Although I struggle with the sheer complexity of the language, he's taught me some of the more common expressions, and I remember this one because to my ear it seems to rhyme. In Chinese, I'm pretty sure it means "warmonger."

I feel like a leper being shunned.

"What the hell?" James says, leaning against the railing of the walkway within the hub.

Starlight drifts down from above.

The four modules that make up the Martian colony are set deep underground within volcanic lava tubes to protect us from cosmic radiation. There's roughly thirty feet of basalt and regolith between us and the harsh, radiation-scorched surface of the planet.

The four mods have been built in two lava tunnels that converge in the shape of an X. At the center of the X, the roof of the tunnel has collapsed, probably millions of years ago, long before Homo sapiens existed as a species. That's the crazy thing about Mars: nothing's new. There's plenty of fine-dust erosion and the odd meteor strike, but the geological vistas we explore are hundreds of millions--if not billions--of years old. It's as though the planet has been frozen in time, waiting for explorers from Earth.

The collapsed section above the hub forms a natural skylight some forty feet across and easily visible from orbit. It took almost four months for our automated extrusion builder to create a glass dome over the skylight, forcing us to suit up when moving between mods for what felt like an eternity, but it was worth the wait. Once the dome was in place and the walls were sealed with thick plastic manufactured here on Mars, the hub tripled the usable space within the colony. The glass in the skylight is three feet thick and laced with lead, along with numerous layers of laminate to protect us from radiation. Near the edge, the glass distorts the light from outside, but on a clear night like tonight, you get a stunning view of the stars directly overhead.

Harrison comes bounding out of the U.S. module.

"Where the hell have you two been?" he yells across the hub with its crops of wheat and corn growing in layered fields beneath soft blue grow lights. The hub is huge, and not just because it's wider than the modules. It's naturally almost four stories deep. James and I are on a raised metal walkway above the top field, still feeling somewhat bewildered by Wen, somewhat jovial from being slightly drunk, and somewhat enchanted with Mars itself.

Harrison comes running along the walkway. He's not known for his subtlety. Harrison's a robotics engineer from landlocked Arizona, yet he swears like a sailor hitting his thumb with a hammer. One of the common misconceptions about life on Mars is that everyone's a scientist, but it takes mechanics, doctors, and engineers to make the colony work.

"Connor's been looking for you fuckers everywhere. You need to come with me. Now!"

"Whoa there, cowboy," James says in a thick drawl. "Just what the Sam Hill is going on?" James is from Canada, but he loves winding Harrison up with a fake Texas accent, even though Harrison's from Arizona. To James, the mysterious American Southwest is just one big muddle. Perhaps it's his blasé attitude that makes him so effective at annoying Harrison. I can't help but laugh.

I slur my words. "Yeah, cowboy. Slow down."

"Connor wants you back in the mod" is all Harrison will say, refusing to be baited. He grabs James by the wrist and pulls him on. James snatches at my hand, and I fall in step behind the two men, laughing at the madness of such a rush on Mars. The rice wine has left me light-headed and as clumsy as a kid stepping off a spinning fairground ride. Running in Martian gravity is entirely counterintuitive. I lean into the run at an angle that would have me falling flat on my face on Earth, but on Mars it results in a gentle lope.

I can see Michelle standing by the hatch leading into the U.S. module, ready to close the heavy metal door behind us. We're the same age, but her dark skin is flawless and she usually looks much younger than me. Now, though, she looks exhausted. She's dressed in her pj's, barefoot, no bra beneath her top, hair disheveled. Why is she even awake?

"What's wrong with everyone?" I ask.

Michelle says, "They just nuked Chicago."



They just nuked Chicago. I don't hear anything after those four words.

Michelle's talking rapidly, rattling off details, but my mind is caught in a stupor, trying to shake off my alcohol-induced lethargy. Try as I may, I can't think straight. The moment seems to demand I switch seamlessly from one mind-set to another, but I can't. I'm numb, and those four words keep rattling around in my head.

They. Who the hell are "they"? Who would do this? And why?

Just. Any news we get is at least half an hour old by the time it's made its tortuous route to us. I have no idea what time it is in Chicago, as the Martian time-slip means we're constantly drifting out of sync with the various time zones on Earth.

Nuked. That's got to be a mistake. My mind cannot grasp how something like this could happen. Nuclear weapons are the stuff of nightmares.

Chicago. There are four milliion people in Chicago, including my parents, who live just outside Joliet. I have dozens of friends in downtown apartments not more than half a mile from the waterfront. This must be a mistake. Please, this has to be a mistake.

Copyright © 2016 by Peter Cawdron



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