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Dan Holden's Creative Writing

Peregrine on Mars

night sailWhen I was a kid, I used sail with my father out of a cove on Martha’s Vineyard. As I got older, we ventured far into the wide Atlantic.

On warm nights, the still water reflected the stars above so clearly that the ocean seemed to disappear. I imagined that we were sailing straight into the Universe.

As much as I loved sailing, I really wanted to reach those stars…or at least, the planets. So as I grew up, I followed the space program with a passion.

I got into sci-fi video games as a kid and joined discussion groups about colonizing Mars during high school. I received a degree in space studies from Virginia Military Institute and enlisted into the Air Force as a fighter pilot.

On February 15, 2014 I got an email assigning me to the NASA Astronaut Training Program. I picked up the phone and read the email to my Dad. We were both crying so hard I could barely get through it.

Before long I was invited to participate in the Mars Design Reference Mission and the Settlement Strategic Planning Conference and from there, I was sent to train for the Mars Transport Fleet.

Every day was like a dream come true; I was practically laughing as my head hit the pillow.

With additional financing from a few visionary billionaires, things started moving pretty fast. By 2018 we had established a new Low Earth Orbiter and in 2022 we began launching the Transport Fleet to build a new Mid Mars Orbiter.

That was my fleet, and the Mayflower was my ship.

By 2024 we had a ground crew on Mars large enough to establish a reasonably good habitat with enough machinery to begin ice mining in earnest.

Ice provides water for the colony dwellers and liquid fuel for the colony, the Mars Shuttles and the Transport Fleet ships, including the Mayflower.

Anyway, because ice is embedded into the rock on Mars, they mine for it – like open-pit mining on Earth. Massive robotic vehicles harvest the rock and crunch it up, and then it is heated in a small nuclear reactor to separate the hydrogen and oxygen. Because the whole system is mostly robotic and automated, it takes only a few people to maintain it.

I’d never actually been on Mars to see this, and to me that wasn’t so important. Being out here between the planets, sailing at 40,000 miles an hour with nothing but stars all around…it’s a dream come true, like the ocean really did disappear. Or maybe stars are the new ocean.

So, everything was going well and we were all feeling really good about our prospects for enlarging the base.

Then, on December 18 of 2025, I received an alert of an accident on the surface. I opened the Comm and clicked through to the video from Bjorn Amundsen, the director of the Aldrin 1 Mars Colony.

He said an iceminer’s transport had rolled down the side of a crater. The cabin depressurized and one crew member was dead. Another managed to climb out, and she was in the colony’s sick bay.

Just about then I got a video message from Amundsen himself, asking for my ETA to the Mars Orbiter. I hoped he wasn’t thinking of transporting this lady back to Earth; I was three days out and still had to unload. I did some quick calculations and came up with a return trip of 141 days to Low Earth Orbiter, where they might be able to stage an emergency medical crew. But I couldn’t understand why they would need it; after all, the Colony had its own doctor.

“You remember a Nena Ochoa? She’s the one in sick bay. She came here last August,” he said, shaking his head. “Just a kid really. She had her helmet off when the transporter went over, but she put it on as soon as she could. The biggest problem now is that her lungs are badly damaged from the decompression. And she’s pregnant.”

“Pregnant?”

“Yup. Apparently Moravek was the father, he’s the one who died. We’ve got to get her out of here. If her lungs aren’t sufficiently repaired when she goes into labor it could kill her. We don’t have provisions for this.”

I related my calculations for getting her back to LEO. It took him a while to reply.

“If it was just her, I might give the OK to continue our efforts here,” said Amundsen. “But with the kid, the stakes are higher. We don’t know how he is going to turn out…with the low gravity, radiation exposure, and this. We just don’t have resources.”

“You’re the boss,” I said. “But we’re still going to have to off-load the bay. I can’t go back with a full load.”

“All right, fair enough,” he said. “Can you take a pressure tank in the personnel deck?” he asked.

“We have one,” I said. “It’s good for 180 days. How many are in the medical crew?”

“I can’t give you a medical crew,” said Amundsen. “I can’t afford to lose anyone here. If you have problems just call us, we can help. But you’ll have to do this on your own. Can you handle that?”

I took a deep breath and sat back, my eyes wandering over the instrumentation.

“Well, I mean, I can do it certainly. I’ve got Carver here to help out. He’s asleep now. But is that really the best we can do? I’m just thinking liability here.”

“I know,” he said. “And I have to think about the colony. You will do fine. It’s the pregnancy we are worried about. Our best guess is that she’s 20, 21 weeks along, which if I work this out right means…”

“She’ll be 39 – she’ll be nearly due!”

“Right, she’ll be almost due when you reach LEO. I can’t do better here,” said Amundsen.

“Okay,” I said. “Well, keep me posted and we will get ready.”

“Good man,” said Amundsen, as he signed off.

The rest of the trip was pretty routine. Truth be told, these ships could sail themselves, but the investors wouldn’t allow it.

They say the worst part about sailing a cargo ship to Mars is having an incompatible co-pilot. Carver isn’t half bad, he’s a little spider monkey in the cabin, but sometimes his babbling video calls can get on my nerves. I think he is trying to achieve celebrity status on Earth.

He is pretty resourceful though, and we needed to bring equipment from the medical bay to the pressure tank. I told him everything when he woke up, and he got right on it.

That night as I lay trying to sleep, my memories of Nena Ochoa came back to me. She was in a transport that included the doctor who is probably working on her now. She is kind of short with black hair. Someone said she was Native American, but I am not sure what tribe. Somewhere in California, or Oregon maybe. I remembered her saying she’s a widow…her husband died only last year, after refusing Western medical help for a severe flu.

It struck me as odd that a Native American could be the first woman to conceive a child on Mars.

We orbited Mars twice and docked with the MMO with no problems. The cargo transfer was done quickly with robotics.

The medical crew brought their pressure tank into the cabin and we transferred Nena to our tank without a hitch. After she was securely inside our eyes met and she smiled. I was pleased that she recognized me. I smiled patted the tank window to reassure her.

“Here’s the full medical file and a backup,” said the doctor, handing me two hardened USB drives. “You will want to upload them and make entries every day. The program will access her sensors automatically so we will be able to monitor her condition here and at LEO.”

“Sounds good,” I said, shaking his hand. “Anything else I need to know?”

“You’ll get prompts for treatment regimes. If anything changes we can modify them. Hannover is checking your medical cabinet to be sure you have everything you need. After that you should be good to go.”

As much as I was prepared for the formalities of bringing Nena on board, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t prepared emotionally. Here was a woman in deep physical distress, in a tank, pregnant with a baby. And now I had to care for her as best I could.

Frankly I wasn’t expecting this.

I’m not really a people person. Sure I can lead a ship and a crew. But my co-pilot and I hardly ever exchange more than a dozen words in a day. It’s peaceful, and I like it that way.

Now there’s this girl, breathing softly but rapidly in a big can over my shoulder. She’s so helpless, it’s hard to even look at her. And with the artificial gravity switched on, I feel guilty for walking around.

Almost immediately, I begin to realize there’s video traffic about our return flight. I expected something because the accident made the news on Earth, but certain bits of detail led me to believe Carver must be telling people about Nena on the Internet. I told him to stop it but I don’t think he intends to. I reminded him that personnel medical records are confidential, even on a high-profile space mission. He just winked and headed to his bunk.

We were only a couple of days into the flight when the medics advised me to slowly begin stepping down the air pressure in the tank. The concern was that Nena had ruptured her lung, which leads to internal bleeding and causes air bubbles to escape into her chest. Repressurization made the bubbles smaller so they wouldn’t damage her heart or brain. After a few days, the bubbles should have all cleared out and the real work of lung repair had to begin in earnest.

Bringing her to normal pressure would allow the lungs to re-inflate and begin working again.

On the sixth day I was able to help Nena out of the tank, but she was very weak and couldn’t do much more than smile as she tried walking around the cabin. A pained expression passed across her face as we looked out the window at the rapidly receding red planet.

“Home,” she said, looking at me with eyes as dark and earnest as any I had ever seen. She took my hand and put it on her swelling stomach. “That’s his home.”

As I lay in my bunk that night I began to realize the implications of what she was trying to tell me.

By the next morning the story was everywhere; TV, the Internet, even the Dark Net. An injured woman was being transported back to Earth to save her life. The communications group at NASA was scrambling to handle all the requests. Our commanders were telling Carver they would shut his media down if he didn’t shut up, but he didn’t.

When the press found out she was pregnant, the story went global. Not because she was pregnant, but because the writers were inflating the story, saying Nena was near death and that her baby would fall from the sky alone, with no parents, no connection to Mars or Earth. He’s a child of the Universe, and almost immediately, everybody wants him.

In fact, about an hour after we got up I received a call from no less than The Vatican. They must have known I went to a Jesuit high school. They said I had a duty to seek guardianship of the child and bring him to Rome where he could be raised in a Vatican orphanage and schooled by the best church scholars.

I said I’m not sure if Nena would approve, because she is still alive and doing better every day. And she’s Native American.

Out of view of the camera, Nena smiled and whispered, “Thank you.”

The days went by a little quicker with Nena there. I’m sure she thought her progress was slow, but for me, it made the trip go faster.

As her pregnancy continued to develop, the medical team put Nena on a gradually more rigorous exercise regime, mostly to keep up her bone mass and heart conditioning. They were careful not to stress her breathing too much because they continued to detect abnormalities in the structure of her lungs. Privately they began to consider whether the return to earth might harm her as well.

One day I caught Nena gazing at the Earth. Though we were still several million miles away, you could almost see the Tiny Blue Dot getting larger.

“Do you miss it?” I asked, leaning against the rail in front of the port.

“I do,” she said. “We had many wonderful Pow Wows on Earth. The colors and the dances were all so spectacular.”

“What made you go to Mars?”

She thought about that for a minute.

“It has been a goal of our people for thousands of years to live in harmony with the natural world,” said Nena. “We humans are as much creatures of the natural world as the eagles and the wolves. It’s taken white people centuries to understand this message, and by the time they did, it was too late. The earth is in crisis and that’s part of the reason we are going to Mars.”

“True…,” I said.

“The message must be even louder on Mars, so the settlers hear and understand and apply it,” she said. “We must respect all life.”

“I get that!” I said, enthusiastically. “When I was younger, I used to participate in terraforming discussions. We talked at great length about the implications of introducing atmosphere and water and life to Mars.”

“There’s no question that will happen,” said Nena. “But will we respect it? Or will we abuse it, harvest it, and then abandon it? Will we manipulate it so that it no longer compares to life on earth? And what if we do find some native biology, below the surface perhaps?”

“Exactly!” I said.

We talked about terraforming and other stuff for days after that, and before we knew it we were nearing the LEO.

The closer we got, the more the medical team wanted to assess Nena. So she spent a lot of time on the Comm with them. Meanwhile, the discussion on Earth was once again blowing up. What would the baby look like? Would he be the new Messiah? Was this a sign of the end of days? The requests for detailed information about the baby were overwhelming.

At times, I sensed that Nena was looking over my shoulder at the news. She was clearly even more disturbed by all the questions than I.

We were still about eight million miles out – a little more than a week from the LEO – when Nena went into labor. That meant she was going to have the baby on the ship.

With me assisting.

Nena’s distress was obvious. Though she was in good condition, her breathing with each wave of contractions was shallow and rapid almost from the start. I began to worry if she would make it. If the baby would make it.

“Jack,” she said, as she came through another wave, “We have to talk.”

She sat in a chair beside me, holding my hand. I felt like it should have been the other way around.

“If I don’t make it, I’m giving you guardianship,” she gasped.

“Nena, wait, that’s not going to –“ I protested.

She silenced me with a wave of her hand and then placed it on mine again.

“If I don’t make it, I’m giving you guardianship. That is final. I have my reasons,” she said.

“But what about your family?”

“My family, yes, but not his,” she said, gently rubbing her swollen belly. “His father is buried on Mars and if I die, my spirit flies back to him from here. We have no place on earth, and neither does he.”

“But Nena there are so many people down there who want to take care of him,” I said. “Good people, successful people who can ensure that he has a good life –“

“Mostly they just want to be part of the show,” said Nena. “The boy from space. It makes good theater. And I know what the Vatican wants. They want to keep him in their special orphanage for privileged kids who have been ordained for greatness.”

She twitched with the pain of another contraction.

“My son is already ordained for greatness. He is going to be the first boy on Mars. A native spirit of the planet.”

“Nena, what if they won’t –“

“They have to,” she said, “You have to. Insist that they take him. That is my wish, in case I don’t make it.”

I sat stunned, wondering how I would carry out her wish. Here we have come all the way from Mars, almost to Earth, and she wants me to turn back around and take her boy back to Mars to live … with whom?

“Nena, who would take care of him?” I asked.

She just looked at me with those big brown eyes and smiled.

“I have decided on a name,” she said, panting in anticipation of another contraction.

“What is it?” I asked, shocked that I hadn’t noticed he needed one.

“You will laugh, but I like it,” she said. “I am going to call him Peregrine. Do you know the story of Peregrine White?”

“No,” I said, thinking it must be some native lore.

She wiped the perspiration from her face with the palm of her hand.

“Peregrine White was the first English child born in America,” she said, touching my cheek. “He was born on the Mayflower, in the dead of winter, while half the other passengers died waiting for the weather to turn – including his father.

“Peregrine lived though, and he grew up and had his own family. I can’t say he was a model person by Native standards, he led a militia that killed many Indians, but that is why he must be remembered on Mars. Even my son carries the power of good or harm.”

The labor continued throughout that day, and when Carver woke up, he not surprisingly began to film it. We took the opportunity to film Nena’s request that I act as Peregrine’s guardian if anything should go wrong. The video was sent privately to NASA while the rest of Carver’s work made its way across the Earth, where millions of people watched anxiously – and speculated wildly.

The closer we came to delivery, the worse Nena suffered. Amundsen’s concerns so many weeks earlier were coming true. Nena’s lungs could barely stand the pressure. She went from occasionally coughing up blood, to wiping a steady stream from the side of her mouth. Her shoulders caved and she clutched at her chest in pain. Her color changed every few minutes.

On Earth, native tribes danced and prayed for her. Millions sent messages of good will and hope. Others, as usual, sent pleas to take care of the baby. The Vatican was in almost constant contact on my Comm line.

Nena’s vital signs became erratic. Her breathing was difficult, her heart was racing and abnormal, her blood pressure was falling fast. I sent a message requesting that the LEO medics stand by to prep me for a Caesarean section in case she passed before Peregrine could emerge.

And then it happened. With one last miraculous explosion of strength, Nena pushed Peregrine’s head through, and the rest of his tiny body slid quickly into my shaking hands.

Nena went limp. Her head fell to the side, eyes half closed. Her vital signs were so shallow they barely registered.

I put Peregrine into a cloth-lined specimen bin on the console, thankful again that the ship’s gravity system was there to keep him from floating away. Then I dampened a cloth and pressed it lightly on Nena’s face, listening for sounds of breathing, watching for signs of life.

I couldn’t imagine taking care of Peregrine without her. Yet at the same time, I fully understood what she wanted. And then I knew what to do.

I lifted the still naked baby and took him to Nena. I turned him over and placed him on her chest, where he lay quietly, contentedly. After a moment he twitched and cried, and then Nena’s hands flew over him. She drew a deep breath, opened her eyes and looked at her son, her eyes slowly focusing on his scrunched up face.

“Peregrine,” she said smiling. “My baby.”

“Babe in space,” I said absently. Nena looked at me and smiled.

In the days that followed, Nena recovered even quicker than before. It seemed that the two Ochoas nursed each other back to health.

We boarded the LEO a few days later and the emergency team thoroughly checked out mother and son. Miraculously, Peregrine seemed to be completely healthy, though he weighed a mere six pounds. His eyes were as deep and dark and his mother’s, and judging by his cries, his lungs were quite a bit better.

The medical team left the LEO after a couple more days of tests. NASA gave us the green light to return to Mars aboard the Mayflower, along with a new shipment of cargo and a new co-pilot.

The trip turned out to be one of my last; my radiation exposure was already over the limit, meaning Mission Control wanted me out of the sky. So they revised my orders, sending me to the Mars colony with a new assignment: to plan a terraforming project for the settlement.

I spent the next few years in the colony, working with Nena on the terraforming plan and preparations.

Peregrine grew quickly and became a wonderful boy, smart and savvy and skilled in Native American ways.

The settlement grew into a large compound of pressurized bubbles and fortified buildings. Later, a city was formed with a massive bubble over everything. In this environment, we could grow self-sustaining plants and raise animals imported from earth.

It was the start of the first planetary terraforming effort, and Peregrine and I worked side-by-side to make it as earth-like as possible. Eventually, Peregrine was elected steward of the biosphere, a passionate caretaker of all terraformed life on Mars for many years.

I returned to Earth and retired, spending the rest of my days sailing with a family of my own on the quiet island known as Martha’s Vineyard.

Copyright (C) 2014 by Dan Holden

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2 comments on “Peregrine on Mars

  1. Cherie Blackwell
    February 17, 2014

    Dan Holden rises to the fore with an impressively tight writing style and pure excellence in story construction. Taking a theme often repeated in science fiction (that of the first Mars colony) he provides a fresh concept by working the Mars missions as a mirror of life on planet Earth. The story is uncannily plausible. It sheds light on our not-to-distant future as an interplanetary race.

  2. Dan Holden
    February 17, 2014

    Thank you Cherie!! Very kind words.

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