The heaviest burden is the one you carry alone
It’s different now.
That’s what Penny said the last time they were on the Resolute together. The Robot had changed. It didn’t listen to Will anymore. At least not all the time.
Now it listened only when it wanted to.
It’s why she’s going to make one last round past her son’s bedroom. Just to make sure.
Maureen walks along the dimly-lit corridor of the Jupiter barefoot, wearing a barely knee-length negligee. The floor feels ice cold against the soles of her feet. Colder than usual and it makes her pick up her pace, even though her legs suddenly feel unbearably heavy.
She reaches the entrance to his room and that’s when the cold envelops her like a wall of ice.
It's also the moment she sees the horror taking place inside the freezing room.
The Robot crouched on top of her son’s bed. It’s reverted to its spider-like form, four massive steel limbs are clinging to the bed and when it turns its metallic head to look at her, the lights that make up its face are an angry, vicious red.
Maureen gasps. “What the…”
The Robot stares at her and then rears two of its arms and hisses.
And then it plunges its knife-like fingers into her son’s chest. Stabbing him awake. Will screams and Maureen can see the blood gushing from his body.
She propels herself forward. Tries to put herself between her son and that creature. To use every ounce of strength she has to fight it off.
But she can’t move. Her legs are frozen in place. Fused into the ice-cold floor.
“Mom?” Will turns towards her, crying. He’s in so much pain. “Why won’t you help me?”
Why can’t she move? She trying so hard. She’s clawing her way forward, but nothing is happening.
“Mom, please help me. Please!” The Robot keeps plunging its bloody fingers into her son. Trapping him on the bed, a giant insect that’s ensnared its prey in its web.
Seeing him like this is killing her. She can’t stand it.
Why can’t she move?
And suddenly it all disappears. Will. The Robot. The bedroom on the Jupiter. Everything.
She’s gasping for air and all she can see is John, hovering above her in the darkness of their room, one hand on her shoulder. “Hey…it’s okay.”
“You were dreaming. Again.”
Maureen manages to get in a sizeable gulp of air and it makes her aware that her heart is racing. She closes her eyes, because she needs a second to shake it off. To regain a sense of reality and to separate the two worlds. Dream and reality.
When she opens them again, John’s still watching her with a worried frown and a furrowing of his brows. It’s the same expression he used to have on his face the first few times Judy rode her bike without training wheels. Even though he steadfastly denies it to this day.
She exhales. “I’m sorry…did I wake you?”
“It’s okay. Don’t be.” He replies, his gaze still locked with hers. “Wanna tell me about it?”
“It’s….” She sighs, able to breathe better now. “The same as last time. Sort of…look, it’s nothing.”
“The Robot attacking Penny?”
“It was Will this time.”
She doesn’t want to talk about it. Doesn’t want to give that morbid subconscious scenario any more credence than it deserves. No matter how terrifying it was. She knows it was a by-product of her fears and her imagination. Nothing more.
“It’s stupid.” She’s angry now too, because it keeps happening, the synapses in her brain keep tormenting her at night. Manifesting her fears and magnifying them for no reason. As if she needs to worry about her kids even more. The kids they can’t get to because she can’t find a way to get the three of them off this planet.
“Maybe it’ll help….to talk about it,” John suggests.
She musters a smile for him. Aims for reassurance but not quite succeeding. “No. It won’t.” It’ll make it worse, she thinks. To delve into it and search for some meaning that’s not there.
The kids are on Alpha Centauri. They’re safe. They have to be. Because the alternative is unthinkable.
In fact, chances are good that their children are infinitely safer than the three of them. Stranded on a freezing, desolate planet with no fuel to leave.
She shivers and can feel the goosebumps lining her arm as the wind howls outside. It’s minus 50 centigrade here at night and they only heat the ship as much as they have to, so it’s cold inside as well, all the time. They always wear more than one layer of clothing.
“Cold?” John’s still observing her, still looking at her like she might break apart, and it makes her feel guilty. Guilty for making him worry when there’s no need.
“I’m okay…” She gives him another smile and this time it comes easily. It’s not forced because he does have a calming effect on her.
“You love John because he protects you,” that’s what Smith had told her once. One of her many grandiose fake-therapist proclamations after the time she’d spent observing her family.
It’s not untrue that he does protect her – he’d throw himself in front of a bullet for her, Maureen knows that - and he does make her feel safe, like no one else can. But to suggest that’s why she loves him is absurd. There are at least a dozen other, better, reasons why he’s her other half. Starting with the way he’s looking at her now, as if he’d love to snatch the nightmares away from her and bear them himself instead. She loves him because of who he is.
“C’mere,” he huffs and pulls her close. Close enough that she can feel his rough skin against hers, limbs entwined with limbs. “I’ll warm you up.”
One of his arms is draped over her waist and she takes his hand in hers, weaves her fingers through his and runs a thumb along the callouses. John and Don have taken on the brunt of the physical work needed to keep the Jupiter running, while she’s trying to figure out a way to get them off the planet.
“Better?” he whispers into her ear.
She’ll stay awake though. Because he needs to sleep and she won’t risk waking him a second time tonight.
Maureen closes her eyes and listens to him breathe. Waits until it morphs into that steady rhythm that means he’s drifted off, and then she opens them again and stares at the bedroom wall.
“Spit it out,” Don West tells him just as they’re nearly done patching up a bunch of loose tiles near the Jupiter’s rocket thrusters. The kind of thing that if they didn’t fix, could end up getting them killed when entering a planet’s atmosphere. That is, if they ever got the ship off the ground again.
“Excuse me?” John mumbles, barely hearing his own voice in these howling winds. The sooner they’re back inside the ship the happier he’ll be. Any time spent outside makes him uneasy. Just because it hadn’t killed them yet didn’t mean this was a planet meant for long term habitation.
“Something’s eatin’ at you. I can tell.”
John makes a face through his helmet. “I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine,” Don shoots back. “I know you well enough to know when you’re doing that usual stoic, silent thing and when you’re taking that stoic, silent thing to the next level and that’s exactly what you’re doing now…so spit it out.”
Did Don ever stop talking?
“I’m patching up the last one,” he answers, hoping it’ll put an end to the conversation.
“You don’t wanna talk about it out here, fine, but I’m not letting you off the hook so easy.”
The winds keep hissing and John hopes that by the time they’re back inside, Don’s short attention span will be focused on something else.
They’re in the middle of peeling off their suits and checking them thoroughly to make sure they haven’t incurred any damage, when Don’s on his back again.
“So are you gonna tell me or what?”
Truth is, he’s been wanting to talk about it with someone. Unlike his wife, he’s always preferred to talk through a problem rather put up a wall of silence.
And there is no one else to talk to, unless he spills to the chicken.
“Well?” Don nags him and John shoots an eye-roll in his direction. How is he so full of energy after their arduous repair job anyway?
‘Cause he’s almost twenty years younger than you, John answers his own question.
“It’s Maureen,” he mumbles. “I’m worried about her.”
Don’s expression changes at the mention of her name and suddenly he’s as serious as the guy gets. “Why? She’s not…sick, is she?”
“What?” John questions. Where did that come from? “No…no.” That’s not something he even wants to think of. Not here of all places, on this desolate planet without a single medical professional anywhere in sight.
Don exhales and it reminds John that the guy loves her too. Not the same way, obviously. But he does. Just like he’s grown to love every other member of his family and John loves him for it. He’s like the pesky younger brother that he never had. “So why are you worried?”
“She’s not sleeping lately….”
“Well, maybe if you two stopped makin’ out like…”
“Let’s not go there,” John puts a quick end to that line of discussion. “She keeps getting these nightmares. About the kids.”
“Oh…” Don’s at a momentary loss of words.
“I wanna help her but I’m not sure how. She keeps shutting me down when I wanna talk about it.”
“Hmmm….” Don looks pensive. “She’s not big on opening up is she? Come to think of it, she might be even worse than you.”
“You’re not helping.”
“Tell you what I’d do, I’d nag her until she has no choice. Until she talks to you just to shut you up.”
“Yeah, I can definitely see you doing that. I’m trying to help her, not get a divorce.”
“If she hasn’t divorced you yet, it’s not gonna happen ever.”
“Trust me on this,” Don goes on. As he always does. “Don’t let her brush you off. Women…they say one thing but they mean another. They like to make you work for it.”
John raises his brows. “Says the guy whose longest relationship has been with a chicken?”
“Hey!” Don makes a face. “Don’t knock what I have with Debbie. That girl talks to me when something’s bothering her. You could learn a thing or two.”
John laughs and it makes him realize that he’s needed this. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Is she gonna be okay to go on the expedition tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” John nods. “Of course.”
“You’re not just sayin’ that ‘cause you don’t wanna argue with her?”
John frowns. Maybe that is partially true. “No…besides, what choice do we have? We can’t not go, and if she doesn’t go it means you and I go, and that means leaving her behind alone and I don’t want that.”
“Why not? She can handle any issues that come up with the Jupiter.”
“No.” He shakes his head. This isn’t up for discussion. Not with Don or Maureen. There’s enough solider left in him that he’s still willing to take command when something precious is at stake. And there’s nothing more precious to him than his family.
Don smirks. “Does she know you’re making all these decisions for her? ‘Cause I gotta feeling she wouldn’t be impressed…”
John doesn’t care. He’ll happily put up with her indignation where her safety’s concerned. Besides, it’s a mute point. “She’ll wanna go. She should go…she knows the instruments we’re using better than we do. Unlike like you and me, she can fix them if they break down.”
“I can fix anything,”
John rolls his eyes.
“Okay. I guess she’s going.” Don’s still smirking. “Just checking.”
They plan to leave the next day along with the first rays of sunlight, after spending most of yesterday getting ready for the journey. Packing the chariot with enough supplies to last them a week if need be. In case the weather turns against them and they can’t recharge the solar batteries. The plan is always to not spend more than one night in the chariot – because it’s uncomfortable and not meant to be a camper - but on each of their last two trips, unexpected challenges came up and one night had turned into two.
So Maureen is prepared for it to happen this time too.
She observes Don as he does a final exterior check on the vehicle.
“She good to go?”
“Better than good. Try not to shave off the front bumper this time, would ya?”
Maureen chuckles. “Talk to John about that.”
“Talk to John about what?” Her husband arrives in the garage carrying the last two of their packs.
“About taking better care of this beauty.”
John grins. “Brought her back didn’t I?”
“Bring her back in one piece and with fuel this time, would ya?”
Maureen exhales and stares at the freshly cleaned chariot and the trailer they’ve attached to it. “That’s the plan.”
They do this once every two weeks. Take the chariot out as far as possible to a new region in the hopes of finding a fuel source – solid or liquid – to mix with the oxygen and give them enough thrust to travel a lengthy distance away from here. Possibly to a planetary system closer to Alpha Centauri from which they might be able to pick up the signal that led their children to the colony. To signal them back in return and eventually make their own way there. Or better yet, get rescued.
All of it was such a long shot.
But it was possible. They’ve done crazier things since getting stranded in space the first time. Even used animal waste to launch their ships.
They haven’t seen any signs of animal life on this planet yet, not even microbial ones. But Maureen is still optimistic that among the mountains and rocky outcrops that surround their frozen valley they’ll find something else. Hopefully an ammonium or a potassium compound.
“We good?” John asks her.
“Don…you’ll monitor my baby, right?”
“I’ll climb on the roof and give her a peck and a polish every morning after breakfast.”
Her ‘baby’ is a giant antenna of sorts that Maureen set up five months ago on the roof of the Jupiter, assembled using a host of scrap parts and Don and John’s brute strength. Her husband wasn’t convinced it was worth the effort but he did it anyway. It’s huge and ugly and Maureen knows it isn’t effective enough to try and send a signal as far as Alpha Centauri but she wants to believe it’s possible to send a signal to a nearby Jupiter. They may have lost contact with the other colonists from the Resolute, but most of them were in the same boat as they were. They were piloting Jupiter spaceships with limited fuel. Some of them had to be nearby. Or at least close enough to hear something from their giant antenna-contraption.
But after four months of transmitting a steady stream of signals, there has been nothing but silence in response.
“Just keep it in one piece, okay? Make sure the winds don’t knock it down again.”
“Don’t I always?”
“Yeah, you do,” she acknowledges.
“All right, guys, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Maureen gives him a hug. “So everything’s fair game then.”
“Hey…” Don pretends he’s offended but he laughs and hugs her back. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Course you will,” John adds. “It’ll kill you not to talk to anyone for the next 48 hours.”
“Are you still here?”
Maureen grins as she steps into the chariot. “We’ll miss you too.”
“No, we won’t,” John adds, but of course he’s lying. The two of them have become as close as brothers. Don is able to stay in radio contact for the first ten hours or so, after which they’ll be too far out of range for the chariot. Not that it matters. If they do get stranded or if anything happens, there’s not much that Don can do. There’s no fuel to pilot the Jupiter to rescue them and no other vehicle to come get them. He can’t walk a hundred kilometres to get to them. So he’ll only stay in touch to let them know that he’s okay. And because he’ll be bored.
Their bi-weekly road trips with the chariot are a dangerous, unpredictable plunge into the unknown. One where there’s no help or back up if anything happens.
Which is why we need to make sure nothing happens, Maureen thinks as she slides into the passenger seat and shuts the door.
They wait until Don’s out of the garage and has sealed the top half of the ship before they open the ramp into the uninhabitable outside world. They should wear their suits inside the chariot even though they’ll maintain constant, adequate oxygen levels. Just in case there’s an accident and one of the vehicle’s seals breaks. However, they don’t. The suits are too uncomfortable for long range travel in their cramped environment. So they compromise and keep them in the back seats, within arm’s reach, knowing they can survive the toxic atmosphere at least a minute, give or take, without their suits.
A sudden wall of snow blocks their vision as they drive away from the Jupiter and it makes Maureen uneasy. The weather patterns indicated a high possibility of clear skies today but they’re so damn unpredictable. If they can’t recharge the solar cells while on the go, they’ll have to stay put until the sun comes out. Because they can’t risk letting the oxygen run too low.
“Reminds me of driving through a sand storm in Kuwait,” John mumbles as the wall of white blankets them. They don’t need their eyes to keep the chariot on its preprogrammed itinerary, but it’s disconcerting to not be able to see where they’re going.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t last.”
“Don’t think it will,” John replies. He has a better sense about these things than she does. A survival instinct that seems to kick in whenever they’re out in the elements, whereas she mainly relies on the readings from their instruments and hopes to hell that they’re accurate.
His hand moves on to her thigh. “Don’t worry. I got this.”
“I know.” She trusts him. With her life. But she doesn’t allow herself to relax until the worst of it passes and they regain a fair portion of their visibility, even though its still snowing. If that’s what you could call the small frozen particles that are raining down on them.
They’ve been through this portion of the valley before, so there’s no need to concentrate on the element scanner they have on board to identify the gases, liquids and solids around them. At least the ones similar to those found on Earth, the ones the instruments were designed to detect. It’ll be another two hours or so before they’re in new territory. That’s when they’ll swap places and she’ll drive. Every two hours they switch, to make sure they retain their focus.
But for now, the steady movement of the chariot and the hypnotic vision of the grey-white particles falling on the windows begin lulling her to sleep. Maureen fights it, because it’s wrong. To nap at the very start of their excursion. It doesn’t matter that she’s exhausted because she’s already been up for hours.
They’re a team. They both need to be alert.
She feels a hand squeeze her leg and his familiar voice bringing her back into awareness.
She also notices that her passenger seat has been lowered and that she’s looking up at her husband.
“Thought you might wanna know that we’re in uncharted territory now.”
Maureen blinks herself awake and pushes the lever on the side of her seat to bring it back up. “We are?”
“Don radioed twenty minutes ago. He says safe travels and bring back souvenirs.”
Maureen yawns and then chuckles. “Of course he did.” She must’ve dozed off and John let her sleep. She also notices that he turned off her comm unit so she wouldn’t hear the radio call. That’s when she sees the time on the console in front of her and does a double take. “Three hours, John? You let me sleep for three hours? Are you crazy?”
“Figured you needed it.”
“We said we’d switch drivers every two hours. This terrain is demanding…and you need to keep an eye on the geological instruments, the gaseous element readers…”
John slows down the chariot and brings it to a stop. “I’ve driven ATVs all-day long over worse terrain than this. And you…you’ve barely been sleeping lately.”
“I’ve had three kids, John! I can function on little sleep.”
“I know you can. Doesn’t mean you have to.” There’s still snow of sorts swirling around them, but now they can see the outline of mountain ranges in the distance. “Besides…I woke you as soon as we got into new territory so you focus on all your attention on the scanners.”
“What if you hadn’t seen something and ended up crashing the chariot because you were lacking an extra pair of eyes?” If the chariot breaks down there’s no way for them to get back to the Jupiter. It’s the kind of needless risk they didn’t have to take.
“We didn’t crash.”
“But you could have and…”
John shoots her look, letting her know that he’s not having it. “Are we really going to have an argument because I let you nap?”
Maureen exhales and feels her cheeks flush. It does sound absurd when he says it like that. “It’s just…it was an unnecessary risk.”
“We take a risk every time we leave the Jupiter with this thing. We don’t know what’s out here or if we’ll make it back. You’re the one who keeps insisting it’s worth it.”
“I know…” She is being ridiculous. She knows it. And truth is, she was exhausted and feels so much more alert now. In fact, letting her sleep for a couple of hours was the smart thing to do for both their sakes.
Not that she’s ready to admit that either.
“Let’s switch….” Is what she says instead.
She takes over the driver’s seat and they continue along the route they’ve mapped, her focus on the terrain while his are on the instruments that scan their environment. They’ve never been here before but everything looks exactly like it did on all their other exploration trips. Wide, Tundra-like valleys, devoid of vegetation, surrounded by impressive, snow-capped mountains. It’s no longer snowing but neither of the planet’s two small suns are able to push through the cloud cover. If it remains that way for the rest of the day, they’ll need to stop and stay in place to conserve power until their solar cells recharge.
“Maureen…” John’s voice stirs her from her thoughts.
“Hmm?” She eyes him in her peripheral vision. He’s snacking on one of their peanut protein bars and it reminds her that she’s getting hungry too. But she’ll hold off. She’s always hesitant to consume the food they bring along on these trips, because they never know how long it has to last. “Anything pop up yet?”
“No. But tell me…are you back to doing this?”
She turns sideways to look at him this time, wondering if she missed something. “Doing what?”
“You not talking to me after we have an argument.”
Maureen’s the one who slows down the chariot now. Stares out at the wide expanse of snow and endless tundra-like terrain in front of them before turning to her husband. Taking a moment to really look at him. They’re both dressed in the base layer of their space suits, and she’s wearing gloves to drive with as well, because they keep the temperature inside the chariot as low as possible. But John unzippered the front of his jacket, because he’s always been more hot-blooded, and hot tempered, than her.
His blue eyes don’t quite know what to make of her direct gaze.
“No…” she says softly. She never wants to go back there. To their seemingly endless months of estrangement, where they didn’t talk. First because he wasn’t there and then because she no longer wanted to. Because she was too angry for conversations.
“Maureen? Are we okay?”
Her lips curl into a rueful smile. Maybe it’s a little flirty too, because she’s still crazy abut him, her anger from those days long gone. “We’re okay.”
His expression lets her know he doesn’t quite believe it, and maybe he’s right not to. Because at the moment there are some things she can't discuss. No matter how much she loves him. No matter how much she never wants to go back to the way things were.
She takes off a glove and slides her cool hand over his, rough and warm. And in response he drapes his other hand over hers too.
“You’re freezing. Let’s turn up the temperature.”
“No,” she shakes her head. They can’t. Not with the weather being what it is. They need to conserve every bit of power as long as the sunlight keeps holding back. But John always lets practicality fly out the window when it comes to her. “You’re warm enough.”
That finally elicits a smile from him too. “Is that so?”
It gives her a thrill to think of the other ways he might keep her warm tonight. Sure, their space is a little cramped, even with the rear seats pushed down, but at least out here they don’t have to worry about how loud they might be. For a change there’s no one sleeping – or worse, not sleeping - two doors down the hall from them. In fact, there’s a good chance that there’s no one else sleeping on this entire planet.
When she’s restarted the chariot and he’s finished warming her hand, John offers her half of his peanut protein bar. She takes it, reluctantly. They’ll need the energy for their inevitable walk outside as they near the mountain range. That’s when she’ll expect the instruments to start lighting up.
“You think Penny’s written another novel by now?” John wonders, out of the blue.
Maureen’s heart beats faster at the mention of her daughter’s name.
What if Penny can’t write another novel because she never made it to Alpha Centauri? What if their children are desperately waiting for their parents to find them?
Maureen can feel the rush of blood from her head. It’s an unfamiliar sense of panic and it takes her a moment until she trusts her voice to answer. To change the topic.
“Is the geo-scanner giving us anything yet?”
John sighs. “No…not yet.”
“I expect it will any moment,” she tells him as she steers the chariot straight towards a massive trio of mountains. “I wanna be sure we don’t miss anything.”
“Right…” John mumbles and she can hear the disappointment in his voice.
So they plunge back into silence.
They park the chariot as close as possible to the mountain range. The vehicle is clinging to its side as high up as they dare leave it without risking it rolling over, and then they spend the next two hours exploring on foot. The geo-scanner picks up potassium nitrate, likely in a nearby cave, and that gives them an unexpected burst of energy and optimism. If they find enough of it, it could be used as a solid propellant and get them one step closer to lifting off this planet.
They follow the increasingly strong readings and find the entrance to the cave. It’s a narrow, ice-covered opening that seems to plummet straight down to the base of the mountain, leading them to a new predicament. Whether or not to risk a descent using the minimal equipment they have.
Either way they need to go back to the chariot to refill their oxygen tanks and if they do decide to attempt it, it means taking the equipment they have back to the cave entrance.
The outside work in the suits is exhausting and they refuel with a meal and a short break back inside the vehicle.
John doesn’t want to do it. The descent looked hellish; narrow and deep.
Maureen wants to attempt it. Of course. Now that the possibility of fuel is tangible, she’s suddenly oblivious to the risks.
“The scanner just tells us it’s there,” John reminds her as they each sip a cup of what almost tastes like coffee. A brownish-caffeinated brew that doesn’t come close to the flavourful espressos and cappuccinos they used to enjoy from their expensive Italian coffee machine, back in California. It was a wedding gift from Grant Kelly’s mother, a testament to how much she still loved her daughter-in-law, even after she’d moved on with another man. “It doesn’t tell us what kind of quantities. For all we know it’s not enough anyway.”
“But what if there is enough?”
“It’s too risky,” he argues. “The walls are pure ice and if one or more of the hooks come undone, you’d have to pull me up manually and you’re not…”
“Strong enough,” she finishes for him. “I know. It’s why I’ll go down, not you. ‘Cause you’re right…I’m not strong enough. But you are.”
John shakes his head in disbelief. How was he so monumentally bad at arguing with her? “That is so not what I was getting at…”
“We have to try, John.”
“No, we don’t,” he counters her. “We keep going and see if that scanner goes haywire somewhere else! Somewhere less treacherous.”
“And what if next time it’s too close to a crevasse or too steep of an ascent up the mountain or….”
“Then we call it day and try something else tomorrow.”
“We have to try,” she repeats, her eyes meeting his with such calm, determined focus that of course she manages to convince him that they do.
So they get their gear together and trek back to the cave entrance. They set up the hooks and ropes and carabiners and John triple checks them before fastening his wife to a make-shift harness.
It’s all make-shift, he realizes. The entirety of their equipment. Some of it was meant for space walks, others for climbing – none of it for spelunking. In an ice cave of all things.
All of it makes him queasy. He’s used to danger, but he’s not used to not being equipped for it. Not having back-up. Or sending his wife straight into the heart of it.
But in the end, Maureen’s descent is surprisingly smooth. And short.
She’s only about twenty-five metres down when she radios John to bring her back up. She’s hit a wall. Literally. If the cave does open into something larger, it would require blasting through rock to find out, because the only opening she sees is a narrow slit that’s barely larger in width than her arm.
John pulls her back up without incident. His triple-checked equipment holds nicely and although they briefly consider ways to widen the opening, even Maureen isn’t reckless enough to suggest attempting to blast it with the handful of explosives they have on hand.
So they take all their equipment down and call it a day.
They make their way back to the chariot and by the time they slip out of their space suits and unwrap a cold meal inside, their mood is as sombre as the slowly darkening sky outside.
It’s not late in the day, but the daylight doesn’t last long here and they can’t continue safely in the dark.
John’s still hungry after finishing off his sandwich and although he protests when Maureen offers him a third of hers, he eventually gives in. He’s never too sure whether she’s honest about not wanting the rest or whether she’s doing it ‘cause she somehow suspects that’s he’s not full. They’ve been rationing their food for the last two months and Don now eats his tofu without protest.
They’ve planted some low maintenance vegetables in a few small, hydroponic gardens aboard the Jupiter and they still have enough food to last them a few more months. Mainly because the size of their crew went down from seven to three. And John firmly believes they won’t need that much time to figure this out.
But what if they do?
If they do then their rations will run out and there is no way for them to grow the kind of crops they’d started growing on the water planet, here on this frozen wasteland. No way their little indoor gardens can sustain them.
John pushes the morbid thoughts from his mind and swallows down the last bit of stale bread along with a healthy dose of guilt with one glance at his wife. Next time she offers him her food, he’ll turn her down. Firmly. Just to see if she’ll actually end up eating it. If she’s been lying about not wanting it.
He forces his mind back to the present, because worrying about the future is futile and counterproductive. It’s not what he was trained to do.
“So what do you think,” he asks Maureen. “Should we stay put tomorrow until the sun comes out?”
She stares out the window, into the dark void of swirling snow. Pensively, as if debating it. But only for a split second. “No,” she answers with the kind of certainty that he’s used to from her. The kind of certainty that never makes him doubt her decisions. “We can risk continuing. At least for the first half of the day. The snow should stop halfway through the night and if I were a betting woman,” she pauses and smirks. “Which I’m not, but if I were, I’d bet on sunshine tomorrow.”
“In that case, I bet you twenty bucks we get none.”
She laughs. “You haven’t learned not to bet against me yet? Besides, we both know you don’t even have twenty bucks on you.”
He chuckles, amused. And relieved that she’s managed to lift their sombre mood. He loves it when she gets cocky. It always turns him on. “Put it on my tab.”
“Oh, I will.”
“The way I see it, it’s a sure bet. If there’s no sunshine, I win. If there is, we all win.”
“Oh…that is a good way of looking at it.” Her eyes light up as she turns sideways to look at him while leaning back in her seat. “It’s early still…what are we gonna do for the rest of the day?”
He holds her gaze unflinchingly, feeling an electric tingle of anticipation spreading underneath his skin.
It’s a good feeling.
“I have no idea. What could we possibly do?”
Maureen wants him. Badly.
She wants him to do the kind of things to her that will erase all the other thoughts from her mind. Even if only for an hour or so.
For one hour she doesn’t want to think about whether or not they’ll find fuel. Whether the sun will shine tomorrow. Whether they’ll run out of food in the near future. It kills her sometimes, knowing their rations aren’t enough. John would never say so. He doesn’t complain. He bears it all with a quiet strength, because that’s who he is. ‘Accept the unexpected. ‘ That’s his motto.
She does what she can, gives him as much of her rations as she can, because he needs more calories than she does, with all those muscles of his. But she knows it’s still not enough and it hurts.
They’re counting on her to find a way off this planet and she keeps failing.
He’s hungry because she can’t find a way out. And some days, when tiny cracks appear in her impenetrable optimism, that knowledge absolutely breaks her heart.
So tonight, she wants to forget. Wants to make him forget too.
“We could read,” she suggests.
“We could,” he answers, playing along. Knowing full well they won’t. At least not yet.
“Or watch a movie.”
“Or do a maintenance check on the chariot.”
“Clean out the back area?”
John’s hand slowly moves overs hers, his fingers weaving through her fingers. Before he pushes himself out of his seat and leans in to kiss her. A long, slow, lingering kiss that elicits an unexpected moan of pleasure from her when he does unlock his lips from hers. She can already feel her body softening, even though mere seconds ago she was craving something hard and fast and rough.
She leans her head back and closes her eyes, knowing him well enough to know what he’ll do next. Smiling when she feels his fingers undo the zipper of her space jacket, his hand cradling her neck before she can feel his lips caressing that sensitive spot just below her ear lobe.
Tilting her head to give him better access, Maureen lets herself enjoy it. Wills herself to tamp down the desire to rip his clothes off this instant. Not that they could afford any rips or tears in their clothing anyway.
John groans when his knee pushes into a plastic handle on the side of the seat. “C’mon…let’s move to the back.”
He climbs onto the flattened back seats first and then pulls her in towards him as soon as she gets up onto her knees. He lifts her body weight with such ease, reminding her of his strength and that turns her on too. It always does.
She’s never been someone who’s needed strength and protection. Because she knows she’s strong too – not in the physical sense, the way he is – but smart and capable. Maybe even borderline reckless sometimes. But it’s nice, knowing that when she’s with him, she doesn’t have to be. Strong. All the time.
He takes off his space jacket, revealing a white t-shirt underneath that fits snuggly against his lean chest. Hugging the hard contours of the body she knows as well as her own. The familiar lines and curves of the well-defined muscles of his arms. Biceps and deltoids. Those ridges in his abs when he hoists her above him, making her want to run her tongue over them. Slick and hard.
God, how is it possible that after all these years her body still responds to him this way?
She, who always craves something new and beyond her reach, yet never tires of this man.
Maureen licks her lips and shoots him a grin. “Take if off.”
His hands slide underneath her jacket, lifting it off her shoulders.
“Not what I meant…yours not mine.”
“I know what you meant.” John grins as Maureen returns the favour. Runs her cold fingers underneath his t-shirt and makes him raise his arms to take if off. She rises back onto her knees and plants a pair of flat palms on his chest, before her mouth inches closer to his always-warm skin, teeth digging into his nipples just firmly enough that he groans again.
Hands on her hipbones, he pulls her into him and leans back to allow gravity to keep her close. Freeing his hands to run them through her hair and undo the clip that’s holding it up. Letting the long strands fall to her shoulders. His eyes linger on hers as if soaking in the sight, as if he doesn’t already know every inch and every line and crease, and every freckle, just as she’s memorized every inch of his body.
But he still doesn’t rush.
In striking contrast to that hard military exterior, when he’s in the privacy of their bedrooms, John’s always been a slow and tender lover. Enjoying the foreplay of it all more than any man she’s every known. Not that there have been that many. Men, that is. There were only two before Grant, because somehow dating and boys had never meant quite as much to her as the stars in the night sky and the rocket ships that blasted off towards them. Between that thirst for knowledge and the endless chores on the farm, boys took a distant backseat in her teenage and college years.
Sure, there was definitely more urgency to their lovemaking in the early days of their relationship, especially after he came back from one of his long tours away, but even then, John rarely liked to rush. As If taking the time to enjoy her body was one of the few indulgences that he, who was all duty and discipline, allowed himself to truly relish. At his own pace.
So, over time, she learned to corral her impatience and was rewarded with the kind of ecstasy that she used to think didn’t exist outside of fiction. The kind that made his long absences even harder than they already were. Because it seemed monumentally unfair of him give her such pleasure and then deny her that pleasure for months on end.
The memory of it sends a melancholy shiver up her bare arms. Makes her realize that in spite of all their current problems, at least she has him back. For good.
Maureen blinks hard and pushes the thought from her mind. Focuses only on him now. On the way he’s slowly undressing her, easing her limbs out of every article of clothing, as if he’s doing it for the first time. Unwrapping something precious.
And sure enough, all her thoughts begin to drift away. There’s only him now. No thinking, only feeling. Giving and taking and letting her senses rule. Enjoying the way her body responds to his, and his to hers.
She lets him take it slow. To tease her and bring her to the brink of ecstasy, before he slows down even further and makes her hold on a little longer, impossibly long, so that the inevitable climax hits her with such an intensity that it feels like she’ll explode.
And then they start all over again.
There’s an easy, familiar rhythm. The kind that’s possible when you know exactly which spots will elicit a response. Where to touch and press and lick and bite. And because there’s so much trust, she doesn’t’ hesitate to push their boundaries tonight. To let it get a little hard and rough, because right now she selfishly wants that too.
There are marks all over their bodies by the time they collapse on their backs, exhausted and perspiring, in spite of the low temperature in the chariot. Crescent-moon shaped indentations left behind by fingernails and bite marks from their teeth.
“Whoa…” He’s breathing heavily and it makes her happy to know she can still do that. Wear out her very-fit warrior. Not that she isn’t breathing pretty hard herself. “You okay?”
He turns onto his stomach and splays a lazy arm across her bare waist. “That was…fun.”
She exhales. “Yeah…”
“Was this your way of making sure I got a work out tonight?”
“You are the last person on our ship the needs a workout.” Maureen pushes herself up on one rubbery elbow, turns her back on him and digs through one of their bags of food. Feels John’s index finger trailing her shoulder blade and sending shivers up her spine. She fights the urge to entwine her limbs with his and drift into oblivion with him for the rest of the night. She's pleased when she finds what she was searching for. “Here…” She hands him a peanut protein bar. The one she could have had this morning but didn’t. “Since you burned all these calories.”
He narrows his brows. “Is it an extra?”
He looks skeptical but takes it anyway. Breaks it and hands her half of it.
“No, I’m fine…” she protests but he insists.
“I’m not having this unless you’re having the other half.”
Maureen rolls her eyes, but takes it. Not wanting another argument over nothing. Not after they just had the most fantastic sex. And truth is, she is hungry. Even though she’s so much better at hiding it than he is. “I don’t know what kind of strange reasoning that is…but I’m not fighting with you tonight.”
“Good. You wouldn’t win anyway.” He pushes himself up against a storage container to eat the energy bar. But not until he’s pulled out a blanket for them. Maureen covers herself, up to her shoulders, grateful for the warmth. Now that they’ve stopped…exercising, she can feel the cold seeping back into her bones again.
She joins him beside the storage box, leaning into him after he puts an arm around her shoulders. Nibbling on the energy bar, still pretending that she doesn’t want it.
“You lost weight,” he points out, with a frown.
“We all have. It was gonna happen when we reduced our caloric intake without reducing our workload.”
“Think we’ll lose more?”
“No,” she shakes her head. “Not unless we keep going at it like bunnies every night.”
He laughs. “Can I help it that you can’t keep your hands off me?”
She won’t deny it. It’s true. She can’t help but gravitate towards him whenever he’s near. Touch him, kiss him, lean on him. Even now she tilts her head up towards him in the expectation that he’ll know what she wants.
And he does.
He kisses her lips, magnifying the sweet, salty peanut taste in her mouth.
“Know what I could really go for now?”
She almost chokes. “No…not that. Not sure my heart can take it.” She sighs. “I was thinking a cigarette.”
“Wow….did not expect that.” The answer surprises him. “Been a while since I’ve seen you having one.”
“A long while.”
“Not sayin’ I miss it.”
A lopsided smile lifts her lips. Of course he doesn’t. Her treadmill-running health nut never did approve of that particular habit. “I know you don’t.”
“But you know…there was one good thing about that awful habit of yours. If you hadn’t stepped outside that day to have one, at that AFB function, we probably would never have met.”
“You’re right.” Maureen looks up at him, shuddering at the alternative, and pushes the last piece of her energy bar into his mouth. “Eat it,” she orders. “I’m so fed up of peanut everything.”
He grumbles and protests but he does. Because of course he’s still hungry.
And she did literally shove it into his mouth. She hasn’t been so good at finding a solution to the problem of getting off this planet, but she’s still capable of taking care of the ones she loves.
Her eyes linger on his beautiful face and then her mind drifts back in time, far away from this frozen planet to a hot summer evening in southern California.
Before the world fell apart.
Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex
19 Years Ago
Now that she’s finally far enough from the din of the hundreds of voices inside the main building, Maureen Kelly lights the cigarette she stole from a colleague with its borrowed lighter and exhales as she stares out into the dark, endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean in front of her.
It only holds her attention for a few seconds before her gaze automatically gravitates towards the star-filled sky. It’s hard to focus on a giant pool of water when there’s an infinite universe that beckons to her whenever she looks up. Plus, tonight is offering something that’s become increasingly rare in her smog-filled city:
A clear sky.
Clear enough to see some familiar stars and constellations – Venus, Orion, Sirius, and the Pleiades.
It’s a crime, really, she thinks, to spend a night like this indoors, making small-talk with the press and investors that are posing for photos in front of the giant model of the as-yet-unnamed ship that will one day take humans to Alpha Centauri. A model that will likely change in appearance before the build begins in a decade or so.
Maureen is aware that the trips to Alpha Centauri probably won’t happen in her lifetime. They simply don’t have the technology to travel at those speeds yet. And even if they do develop them in the near future, she’ll be too old to gain passage by then.
But she’s going to work hard to make sure it happens in Judy’s lifetime.
With that thought in mind, she takes a deep welcome drag and blows the smoke out into the stifling hot summer air. Waiting for a breeze from the ocean that never comes.
But that’s okay. This already, is more than enough. A moment of solitude with the ocean and the stars and a guilty pleasure that she hasn’t indulged in for ages. Not since she became pregnant., well over a year ago.
Being raised on a farm meant she was used to hard work, long hours and very early mornings. Then came college and the all-nighters she pulled while working towards her PhD. Maybe all of that gave her an advantage when it came to dealing with motherhood. All the sleepless nights and the too-soon return to work – it didn’t feel as daunting when you were already used to long days and short nights.
Besides, none of it was as unbearably hard as losing the man she loved.
It’s why she’s out here now, alone on this concrete terrace.
She could handle the small talk and she was capable of turning on the charm for the press, but being paraded onto that makeshift stage during the commemoration of the lives lost aboard the Fortuna, that had been too much.
She closes her eyes and inhales again. Lets the nicotine course through her veins as she tries to put the meaningless words of consolation out of her mind.
“Excuse me… ma’am!”
A voice in the dark comes out of nowhere, startling her as she turns to see where its coming from.
“There’s no smoking allowed on the grounds.”
Maureen sighs and tosses what’s left of the cigarette to the ground. Stubs it out with her heel and gives it a quick wistful glance before turning to the man who told her what she’s already well aware of. It’s why she snuck out here, to a terrace that looked deserted.
“Sorry,” she mumbles. Acting as though she didn’t know. Hopefully that would be enough to make him go away and leave her alone to steal a few more minutes of quiet before she’s duty-bound to step back inside and promote the Alpha Centauri project to those who’ll help pay for it. To ooh and aah over tonight’s planned rocket launch, which she knows is more show than anything else. “I’ve quit these things anyway,” she adds.
He smirks. “I can see that.”
Okay, she opened the door to that one. And he stepped right in. Bastard.
“I’d offer you one, as blackmail. But I really don’t have any others on me. I swiped this one from a colleague.”
“Oh, I don’t smoke.” He has a friendly, easy-going smile. On that disarms her in spite of the fact that she’s annoyed with him for taking this small pleasure away from her tonight. “And I can’t be bribed.”
She wants to ask whether he’s a Boy Scout too, but bites her tongue.
“Are you grounds security?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
Maureen finally takes a good look at him. The full-dress uniform doesn’t surprise her because this place is full of them. Alpha males trying to out-medal each other, like peacocks flashing their shiny feathers.
So he’s military. But he’s not Air Force, she can tell that much. And judging from the metal and the stripes attached to his uniform, he’s not a low-ranked foot solider either. In fact, he’s far too decorated for this kind of Mickey Mouse security assignment.
“Seems to be below your pay-grade,” she challenges after spotting the gold eagle clutching the trident and pistol on his breast plate. “You’re a Navy SEAL.”
“I am.” He shrugs, not the least bit insulted. “What can I say? They’re always short-staffed and I’m a recent transfer to the West Coast who didn’t have anything else to do tonight. So I volunteered.”
Of course he did. “Really?”
“What about you?” he asks. “You’re not military, are you? Even though you clearly know your insignias.”
“No,” she shakes her head. “If I was you can bet they’d have paraded me around in full regalia too.”
“Oh, you’d pull it off,” he says lightly, even though she’s just insulted him a second time.
“I’m sorry,” she frowns. Annoyed with herself. She's behaving like a peeved teenager, irritated because she was caught. “That was rude.”
“It’s okay. I ruined your smoke break. You’re allowed a jab. Or two.”
“Look…I’m not anti-military. Just not a fan or wars and pomp and circumstance, that's all. In fact, my husband was Air Force.”
His blue eyes dart to the gold band on her ring finger. The ring that she still can’t bring herself to remove. “Was?”
“He’s gone. Missing.”
The earnest Navy SEAL removes his hat in an unexpected gesture of respect and that toys with her emotions. Makes her bite the inside of her bottom lip to push back the moisture that threatens to pool in her eyes. She lowers her gaze to the cigarette that’s on the ground, and she wishes it were back in her hand so she had something to distract her, to fidget with.
But it’s not, so instead she takes a deep breath of the hot, salty ocean air.
“What brings you here tonight then?” he asks quietly and she’s grateful for the change in topic.
“Are you with the press?”
Maureen realizes that her plastic ID is half-hidden under the flimsy, sequined dress jacket she’s wearing. “No. I’m an aerospace engineer. I work on the Alpha Centauri Project, not here, in a lab closer to LA, but they dragged us out here for their big presentation tonight. The rocket launch.”
“So I’m talking to a literal rocket scientist?”
He’s genuinely impressed and its endearing. It lifts the heaviness that’s been sitting on her chest all evening. “There are a lot of them here tonight if you want to talk to some more.”
He’s smiling again and for the first time it strikes her that he’s handsome. That in another time and place she might have flirted with him. Not that she's flirting material these days. She’s barely given any thought to her appearance since Judy came along. Her too- long hair desperately needs a visit to a stylist, there’s baby weight that she still hasn’t lost and lately she’s been wearing only minimal make-up. There’s nothing about her that invites a second glance.
And that’s fine by her. She has no desire to be noticed. Not like that. Not yet.
“No need. I’m enjoying the company of this particular one.”
“In spite of the jabs?”
“Maybe because of them.” He grins and it almost sounds like a challenge. Then he holds out his hand. “I’m John….John Robinson.”
She extends her own. “Maureen Kelly.”
“Have you been here long?”
“At Vandenberg? On this terrace?”
He chuckles. “No….I meant California. Are you from around here?”
“Not originally, no. But I did my post-grad at Stanford and then stayed for work.” And for Grant.
“I’ve only been here three days,” he confesses. “Feel a bit like a fish out of water. Don’t know anyone here aside from a couple of Navy buddies.”
“You’ll either love it, or hate it. I don’t think there’s an in-between when it comes to LA.”
“I don’t suppose you’d want to have a coffee with me sometime? Maybe you could give me some tips as a local?”
Maureen raises her brows. That is not what she expected. “Are you…asking me on a date?”
“Yes….” But it’s as though the word escapes his mouth by accident. Completely without his permission. He winces. Backtracking. “I mean no. No. Not a date-date…obviously. “He corrects himself while darting another glance at her wedding ring. He’s tongue-tied now and it’s kind of cute. “I was just thinking it would be nice to know one person from around here that’s not military. Nothing more than that.”
“Look….” Maureen holds his gaze. Maybe a part of her is flattered but there’s no point in giving him false hope. She’s not dating material. Not now and maybe not for a long time. “I have a six-month old baby girl….” She pauses waiting for her words to sink in. Waiting for him to rescind his offer, or at least acknowledge that this coffee date will never happen.
But instead, his face lights up. “That’s… wonderful! You could bring her along. Maybe we could go for a take-out coffee and a walk.”
“I guess what I was trying to say is…I barely have time to breathe these days. Between her and work.”
“Ah….of course.” He nods, unable to hide a trace of disappointment. “I understand.” Still, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out what looks like a business card, as well as a pen. Then he scribbles a phone number on the back. “But if you do find an hour that you don’t know what do with, and you’re in the mood for some company, I’d love it if you called. I don’t expect to head out on another tour for at least three weeks.”
“Okay…” she takes the card from him and slips it into the pocket of her jacket. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Please do.” He puts his cap back on. “It was nice to meet you, Maureen. I’ll stop bothering you now and see if there are any other sneaky smokers hanging around these grounds.”
“It was nice to meet you too, John.” She feels a sudden pang of regret, out of nowhere, and she doesn’t know what to make of it. The solitude she was craving a moment ago no is longer as appealing. “Look, you’re not…bothering me.”
“No?” His eyes meet hers with something that looks like hope.
So he doesn’t leave right away and that’s all right with her. He senses that she doesn’t want to make meaningless small talk and he's oddly comfortable with silence.
For several long minutes, he stands along the railing beside her, his attention on the vast ocean straight ahead and hers once again drawn to the dark skies above.
I'm trying to post a chapter a day as I don't think I'll have much time to write/post towards the end of the month and I'm hoping to post the whole thing before then, rather than leave you hanging. In other words, this fic is a little more rushed than I'd like to be and it's also un-beta-ed. Apologies for the typos etc (all mistakes are mine!) and thanks for understanding. If I do spot any, I'll try to fix them as I go.
Thank you also to those leaving comments. Always appreciated!
“I didn’t think. you were gonna call,” he admits in the increasingly cold chariot. They’ve reluctantly put their clothes back on. Reluctantly decided that they do need to clean up the back space just in case they are stuck inside it for another night. “I mean, I really hoped you would. But I wasn’t expecting it.”
“I wasn’t either,” she tells him. Three children and seventeen years of marriage later, they can be honest about the night that ended up changing both their lives.
“But you did.”
“Yeah…” Maureen grins. “One of my better decisions.” She’s still leaning against him. “Tell me something…did you cancel something else in order to meet up with me that day?”
“What makes you say that?”
“The way you answered my call.”
“I can’t believe that even back then. When we barely knew each other…” He’s toying with a strand of her hair. “When I thought I was such a tough guy…you already saw through me way too easily.”
19 Years Ago
“Why don’t you go out tonight, dear?” Grant’s mother asks her.
“Go call someone. Go out for a drink with a friend. Or treat yourself to something at a spa. You need that, Maureen. We all do. I haven’t seen you do anything but work and look after my precious grandchild these last six months.”
Maureen scrunches her nose. “You’re the one who looks after her all the time.”
It’s true. She wouldn’t have been able to do this, go back to work as a single mom, if Grant’s mother hadn’t moved in with her. Hadn’t agreed to take care of Judy while she went to work. Her debt of gratitude to this big-hearted woman who is still dealing with her own grief, is immeasurable.
“Oh, you have no idea how happy I am to be here. That you welcomed me into your life and let me be with Grant’s beautiful baby girl. This precious little girl’s that’s makin’ me feel like my boy’s spirit is still so close.”
“I don’t know what I’d have done without you these last six months.” Her own mother came down the first week after Judy was born but even that was difficult to arrange. You couldn’t just leave a farm to babysit a grandchild. Maureen understands that all too well. So, if it wasn’t for Martha Kelly…
“Go and have some fun for once,” Martha Kelly coaxes her. “You’ve been with your girl all day. Mama needs some personal time.”
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t make me shove you out of this apartment.”
Maureen sighs. “Fine.”
But when she steps into her bedroom, it occurs to her that there really isn’t anyone to call. The sad truth is, she has no friends. She’s not anti-social, there are colleagues that she gets along well with and every now then she joins them for a drink after work. Although not lately. She also used to love going out with Grant and his friends. Join other couples for dinner and sometimes even a concert or a play. But none of these people were close enough that she could call them up on a Sunday afternoon for a last-minute get-together. People made their weekend plans days in advance.
It's hard to digest, this realization of just how lonely she is. She sits down on the bed and indulges in a moment of self-pity, before brushing it off.
Self-pity is not her thing. Never has been and she has no plans to start now.
She’ll go downtown and do her nails. Something she hasn't done for as long as she can remember. Then maybe drive up to Griffith Observatory – God, how she loved that place when she first moved here. She’d spend every free minute there because it brought her so close to the stars. Maybe she’ll have decadent dessert at that café up there. The one with the spectacular view of the city. Baby weight be damned.
She gets up and opens her closet door in search of something to wear, something light and pretty. A colourful summer dress would be perfect to go with this heatwave. And sunscreen for her pale complexion. Lots of sunscreen.
The first thing that catches her eye when she opens the closet is the black, sequined dress jacket she wore at that press-investor event at Vandenberg last week, and with it comes the memory of the Navy SEAL. The one who crashed her smoke break.
Maureen pulls out the business card he gave her from the pocket and eyes the number on the back.
She can hear his voice in her head. The easy, gentle smile that came with it.
… if you do….find an hour you don’t know what do with and want some company, I’d love it if you called.
She sees her cellphone on the edge of her bed and picks it up. Starts to dial the first four numbers before she hits the cancel button.
What’s she thinking? It’s too last-minute.
Maureen swallows. Since when did she give up before even trying?
She types the numbers into her phone and opts for a text instead. It would give him an easy out. Pretend he didn’t see it until an hour later instead of being caught off guard by an unknown number.
-Hi John…it’s Maureen. You crashed my illegal smoke break at Vandenberg last week. If you’re not doing anything this afternoon, I happen to have an hour or two that I don’t know what to do with.
She sets the phone back down, surprised that she’s nervous. As in heart-racing, sweaty-palms nervous. The kind of nervous that she doesn’t usually get.
She finds a summer dress that fits the bill for a hot California weekend. One that fits a little more snugly than it did pre-Judy. But it’s passable, she decides, after a long look into the full-length mirror. It’s not that tight that she looks like a stuffed sausage. No, she’s far from that. Even with the lingering baby weight.
Besides, it’s about comfort on a hot summer afternoon. Not the unlikely possibility of John Robinson answering her text.
She’s putting on some dark lipstick when she hears her phone buzzing.
It’s been less than five minutes.
-Maureen….I’d love to see you! Tell me where and when. I can pick you up.
An unexpected tingle runs up her spine and she takes several long seconds before she returns his text.
An hour later she’s standing outside a busy café on Wilson Ave. She wasn’t ready to give him her home address yet. Maybe she would be later tonight. Or maybe not.
So instead of accepting his offer to pick her up, she took the bus here, and for once in her life it came on time. So now she’s early. Very early.
She’s still nervous too. Because the thought of meeting up with another man, even though this is not a date and even though it’s been a year since Grant went missing, makes her feel guilty. As if she’s betraying him somehow.
It’s not a date, she repeats to herself. Although she knows that Grant would have been the first person to tell her to do this. To let go for one night.
Maureen fishes through her purse for the pack of cigarettes she bought two days ago. Pulling one out sends her on another guilt trip. She should never have bought them. She’s gone a year without them, so she’s definitely capable of quitting.
But losing Grant…it was just so damn hard. She’s been craving something familiar and comforting. Plus, it’s not like she plans to ever smoke in the apartment. Or near Judy.
Besides, she’s so early that she has lots of time. John doesn't need to know and he won't. She’ll have one to calm her nerves about this non-date and then she’ll pop a piece of gum.
“Maureen?” his voice startles her so much so that she drops the cigarette barely two drags in. Bastard. That was twice now.
Maureen turns around to see John Robinson standing next to her. Looking as relaxed and handsome as he did that night on the terrace. Minus the full-dress uniform.
“Sorry…that wasn’t intentional. I’m not patrolling the grounds tonight.”
Maureen stares at him. Already annoyed. This was probably a bad idea. “Why are you so early?”
Instead of asking her the same thing, he tells her that he was worried about the infamous Los Angeles traffic. That he left extra early because of it. “It’s really nice to see you again, ” he adds.
“And by the way, I’m not the smoking police…not outside of Vandenberg anyway. Please go ahead if you want.”
She shakes her head. It’s so hard to stay annoyed with him. “No. It’s fine. I quit, remember?”
He laughs. “Right. Obviously.”
She smirks. “Obviously."
He cocks his head towards a Hyatt hotel around the corner. “Come on. I parked half a block away. Tell me where you wanna go and what I need to see. You can pretend I’m your chauffeur for the rest of the day.”
So she does.
She takes him up to Griffith Park and they share two decadent desserts on the outdoor patio of the End of the Universe Café, overlooking the entire Los Angeles skyline, where she points out a dozen landmarks to him, before they go for a long walk on the grounds. Long enough to make them hungry for something more substantial and gives her an excuse to bring them back to Hollywood for dinner.
One hour segues into two, and two into four.
It’s dark by the time they’re ordering tacos and cervezas on a patio.
Maureen gives him a long list of places to check out – from hidden gems that only locals know about to iconic take-out vendors and romantic restaurants. Places she used to go to with Grant, that she knows she’ll never go back to anyway, because they come with too many memories. So she’s happy to pass them on to John, so he can makes some new ones there. They talk and joke and laugh and, just like their mutual silence on the terrace, there’s nothing awkward or uncomfortable about any of it. She feels at ease around him and he seems to genuinely want to get to know his new hometown.
Best of all, her earlier guilt rolls off her shoulders, because he makes no romantic overtures. There’s no flirting, no attempts to put his hands on her, no hints or suggestions that he wants anything more from her than maybe, possibly, a friendship.
They’re just two lonely people enjoying each other’s company.
For the first time in a long time, she’s not a single mom, or a grieving widow, or an engineer with the weight of a giant space ship on her shoulders. She’s just Maureen, enjoying an afternoon out.
By the end of it, she trusts him enough to let him drive her home.
John gets out of the car after he pulls up in front of her apartment building. Opens the door for her. “Thanks for today,” he says. “I think it’s fair to say…this has been my best day in LA so far. Seeing it through your eyes.”
“It’s not just traffic and pollution, is it?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be a quasi-Angeleno in no time.”
“If dunno about that, but if you want to offer further help, you have my number. Call me anytime, ‘kay? Even if you don’t want to do anything and just wanna chat.”
“Okay,” she smiles. “’Night, John. Thanks for the ride and the dessert…and dinner.”
“Anytime. ‘Night, Maureen.”
He waits until she’s inside the building, giving her a wave before walking back around the car and driving off. She pauses a minute after he leaves, because she feels too giddy-happy. Too buoyant. She doesn’t want Martha Kelly to think she went on a date. Because she didn’t.
By the time she walks through the door, she's not radiating happiness anymore. At least not quite so blatantly.
Her baby girl is awake and bouncing on her grandmother’s lap on the living room couch.
“Oh hi, sweetie,” Maureen extends her arms to take her daughter from Martha. “What are you still doing up? Does this mean you won’t be up at 2am tonight?”
“Looks like she wanted to wait up for her mama. She had a long nap while you were out.”
“Sorry to get back so late,” Maureen sits down and plants a kiss on Judy’s tiny, perfect nose.
“Don’t you be sorry for that, girl,” Martha chides her. “Did you have a nice time?”
Maureen holds her daughter close and ignores the guilt that starts tugging at her again. “Yeah….I did.”
“I was supposed to grab a beer and watch a ball game at a bar with a Navy buddy that night,” John confesses. “It wasn’t all that painful to cancel.”
“Well, I’m glad you did,” Maureen admits, while sealing up a supply bag. Debating whether to do a last-minute perimeter check outside, around the vehicle. They should have done it on their way back, when they were still suited up.
“When I drove off that night, after our first non-date, the only thing I could think about was wanting to do it all over again. I couldn’t imagine not seeing you again.”
Maureen purrs when he starts to massage a kink out of her shoulders. “Ah…but you did.”
19 Years Ago
He sent her a short text the day after their get together on Sunday.
-Yesterday was really nice. Thanks for getting me out of the apartment and showing me LA. If you’re up for doing it again let me know.
No pressure. No invitation for a specific future date.
Maybe he really isn’t interested in anything more, she thinks. Which is great, right? Because that’s exactly how she feels.
Maureen wipes some butternut squash puree from Judy’s mouth. Her daughter started solids only a few days ago but took to them like a champ. She’d been ahead on most developmental milestones – smiling, rolling over, raising her head. At this rate she’d graduate college by the time she was 16.
“Right, my little genius?” Maureen steers the next spoonful into her mouth as though it’s a space ship coming in for a slow, calculated landing. “No pressure, though.”
She’ll pack up the stroller and diaper bag and take her out for a long walk in the neighbourhood this afternoon. The heat finally broke and grandma needed a break.
Judy’s little arms are flying in the air trying to reach for the spoon that’s about to fly into her mouth.
But she’s thwarted by her mother’s steady hand. “Nice try, sweetheart.”
When she’s done and cleaned up, Maureen plops her daughter into the Bumbo chair and watches Judy’s dark, curious eyes follow her every movement.
“That’s right, we’re getting ready for walk,” and as she starts to pack for it, Maureen spies her phone sitting on the living room table.
Maybe…they could have company?
Stop it…it’s not like he’ll not have plans two Sundays in a row. He might even have been deployed by now.
So what did she have to lose? He’d text back with an apology or not at all and she’d go for a walk with Judy anyway.
Maureen sends him a text. Same casual invite as last time.
And this time her phone rings less than a minute later.
“Maureen, hi! Sorry…can’t text, I’m on the freeway.”
She car hear the smile in his voice. Was he always like this, or only when he spoke to her?
“No worries. I figured you might be busy…”
“I’m not. Just had to drop off something for work.”
“Where are you?”
There’s a pause at his end, as if he’s trying to figure it out.
“Near Long Beach…I think.”
“You’re about an hour away then.”
“See you in an hour then?”
She’s the one smiling now. “Okay…yes. See you in an hour.”
Judy picks up on her energy and now her baby girl is beaming at her too.
It’s when she’s looking at that perfect little human whom she loves more than she’d ever imagined possible, Maureen suddenly realizes she hadn’t mentioned she’d be bringing her daughter along.
She debates calling John back and letting him know.
But then she doesn’t.
“If he wants us to be friends, he’ll have to accept that we’re a package deal,” she mumbles to Judy, letting her baby wrap a hand around her pinky finger and tug at it. Last Sunday’s solo outing, as wonderful as it was, wasn’t something she could indulge in every week.
Maureen wouldn’t blame him for not being interested in this. A too-busy single mom with a baby. Still. It leaves her a little sad, knowing that this might be the last time she sees him.
He rings her doorbell exactly forty-seven minutes after their call ended, again dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and looking impossibly fit. It’s making her even more conscious of the fact that she hasn’t hit the gym in ages.
“Hi,” his face lights up when he sees the stroller. “Well, look at that, I get to meet the little princess today.” He squats down to say hello to her and doesn’t bat an eye when her flailing arms try to take a swipe at his nose. Of course his Navy SEAL reflexes are way too fast for her little warrior to stand a chance.
Judy’s disappointed scowl makes Maureen laugh. “Looks like she’s met her match.”
If John is surprised or perturbed that she’s bringing her daughter along, he doesn’t show it.
Walking through her neighbourhood, they quickly fall into that same easy rhythm they had last week. The conversation flows and the times passes without her noticing.
They sit down at a café for ice cream and iced coffees, while Maureen tries to give Judy her late afternoon bottle, a bottle that her daughter suddenly has absolutely no interest in. Even worse, she’s starting to get fussy. Cranky and fidgety.
It’s strange, because Judy’s never been a particularly fussy baby. She only cries to let her know she needs something. Food, sleep, a diaper change. But right now, Maureen knows she’s cranky for no reason. Maybe because she’s outside and there’s a slight breeze, and far away from her favourite mobile. The one of the Solar System, that was a baby shower gift from work. And right now, nothing that she’s doing seems to soothe her. Maureen knows her baby girl well enough to know she’s seconds away from all-out tears and crying.
She looks at John and mouths a silent apology for the ear-shattering noise that’s about to come.
“Can I try?” he offers.
“Try?” Maureen isn’t sure what he means.
“She’s gonna let you know just how well her lungs function any moment now,” Maureen warns him and reluctantly hands him her little girl. Knowing she’ll probably be back in her arms in seconds.
John takes the baby with ease, cradling her in those strong arms, as though he’s done it a dozen times before.
“I have two little nephews,” he explains, reading her mind. “Twin boys. Dylan and Lucas.”
To Maureen’s surprise, Judy doesn’t start crying. At least not all out. She’s still mewling and fidgety and making pitiful little sounds, but there’s something about the way that John holds her that seems to soothe her.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he plants a kiss on her curly, black hair. “We’re okay, aren’t we? You just wanted to hang out with someone else for a bit, right?”
Maureen shakes her head in disbelief. But at the same time she can’t stop staring. At the way he coos to her and rocks her in his arms as if both of them were waiting for this exact opportunity. Within minutes, she goes from fussy to relaxed, her limbs slowly hanging off his arms limply as she starts to drift off.
“Wow…” Maureen marvels. “I’ve never seen her take to a stranger like this. What a Daddy’s Girl…”
John’s eyes meet hers and linger on them for a long moment, until Maureen realizes what she said.
“I’m sorry…that was a stupid thing to say.”
Was she actively trying freak him out? To ruin her one friendship before it got off the ground?
“It’s okay…” he mumbles, still rocking Judy into a deeper sleep.
“No. It’s not,” Maureen insists. “Please don’t think I meant anything by it. It’s just…sometimes I wonder how she’d be with her father. I hate that he’s never had a chance to hold her, and that she’s never had a chance to be held by him.” She leaves it at that. Because this, seeing Judy in this man’s arms is already messing with her emotions in too many ways.
“It’s okay, really.” He’s still looking at her as if trying to say something that he can’t put into words. “Tell me about him.”
“Her father. You haven’t mentioned your husband since that night on the terrace.” His thumb is stroking Judy’s bare arm in gentle circles. “You said he’s missing. Is there a chance he’ll be found?”
“He was on the Fortuna.”
“Oh…” John’s mouth drops open. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
“‘Lost in space’ is what the official report says, but there’s no way we would have lost all contact unless the ship suffered a complete and catastrophic structural failure. We have ways to track even parts of the ship.”
“Maureen Kelly….” John looks at the baby in his arms and it’s as though a lightbulb went on in his head. “Grant Kelly’s your husband, isn’t he? He was the mission commander on the Fortuna.”
“It’s why you were out on the terrace at Vandenberg, that night, isn’t it? It was right after the commemoration ceremony.”
Maureen doesn’t answer. Doesn’t need to.
“Grant Kelly’s a national hero.”
“Sure. He’s a hero.” Maureen can’t take her eyes off her daughter, now fast asleep in John’s arms. “Judy will have a plaque to look at when she gets older instead of a father to hold her. Guide her.”
“I’m sorry…” John repeats, as though it’s the only thing to be said.
“I don’t mean to sound bitter. I’m not. Grant was well aware of the risks going in and he died doing what he loved. That’s more than most of us can say. But seeing you with Judy now…made me wish he’d had a chance to hold her. Even if only once.”
“He would have been madly in love.”
“Yeah,” Maureen nods in agreement. “He would have. Let me take her from you…put her back in the stroller so you can finish your ice cream before it melts.”
“I don’t mind…”
But Maureen’s already standing and bending down to take her sleeping daughter from his arms. “That was amazing by the way. I might be calling you when she’s teething.”
John laughs. “Please do. I’ll bring ear plugs.”
And so they go back to their easy conversation, talking about everything and nothing, until Judy wakes up again an hour later. This time she’s very ready for her bottle.
“I’ll quickly feed her here,” Maureen suggests. “Then she’ll likely conk out in the stroller on the walk back home.”
“Take your time,” John says, swirling the last bit of coffee in his cup, enjoying the sunshine and the company. “I’m in no hurry.”
To justify keeping their table, he orders them both another coffee and when Judy’s done, he walks them back home as the sun starts to set on the horizon.
It’s a beautiful, lazy Sunday afternoon.
She could get used to this.
“I think I started to fall for you that afternoon. When I saw you holding Judy in your arms at that café.”
“It was pretty sexy, wasn’t it?”
Maureen snorts. “If you say so.”
“I fell for you way before that.”
“Way before? How is that possible? That was only our second non-date.”
“It was that first evening when I caught you smoking at Vandenberg. God, you were so damn sexy that night. Leaning against that railing in those heels and that short skirt with that long slit on the side that ran all the way up to your hips.”
“It did not!”
“Oh, it did. Trust me. I had a hard time keeping my eyes off your legs.”
“You’re so full of it.”
“You were so pissed off with me for ruining your ten minutes of solitude. Making you ditch that precious cigarette. But what really made me fall for you is the fact that you were so completely unaware of how stunning you were that night. That was a helluva combo.”
She blushes. Funny, that he’s still capable of doing that to her, after all these years. After all the decidedly unsexy times they’ve spent together, seeing each other at some of the rawest, worst moments in their lives.
“Honestly,” she confesses. “By our third non-date, I was starting to doubt that you had any romantic interests whatsoever. In fact, I was starting to wonder if you were gay.”
19 Years Ago
She’s the one who reached out to him the first couple of times but he’s the one who’s calling her now.
Not to ask her out but to say hi. To see how her day’s going. To wish her a good one. To ask about Judy. It’s like he just wants to hear her voice.
John Robinson had become a near-daily presence in her life.
On Thursday, she calls to ask him if he wants to grab a bite with her after work. Tell him she’s leaving early today. “My treat this time,” she says. “”Cause it comes with a condition. I need you to help me load some IKEA furniture into my car and lug it up to my apartment. That way I don’t have to wait for delivery.”
She’ll have to bring Judy because Martha’s going to a book club tonight. But that’s a good thing, because if John does help her haul the cabinet inside, Martha won’t be there. And knowing him, he definitely will.
Otherwise, she wouldn’t have asked him to do this, because she’s not ready to introduce Grant Kelly’s mom to John Robinson, even though they’re nothing more than friends.
He agrees and offers to drive. Like all their outings, it’s relaxed and easy going. They stop for an early dinner after her furniture shopping, and this time, instead of sleeping, Judy bounces around on John’s lap at the IKEA café while Maureen gets the food. Small plates of smoked salmon, shrimp, meatballs and baby potatoes, bubbly drinks and salads with funny Swedish names, carried on a pair of giant trays.
It’s an achingly ordinary, wonderful afternoon.
That is, until they’re on the highway, heading back to her apartment and suddenly there’s smoke billowing out from under the hood of his car.
“Shit,” John pulls off the highway at the nearest exit ramp and parks at the back of the closest fast-food restaurant, before jumping out to have a look at what’s going on.
Maureen looks out of her window, itching to have a look under the hood as well. But for now, she stays put and turns around to check on her baby girl in the back seat. Judy’s wide-awake, her eyes following John.
Maureen smiles at her. “What an adventure, huh? Look at all that smoke.”
There’s more of it after John pops the hood open with a yelp.
“Oh God, John, wait for it to cool down,” Maureen mumbles with a wince, knowing he can’t hear her.
She hears him tinkering and cursing for a few minutes, as the smoke slowly dissipates enough for her to roll down the window. And then he closes the hood again, a frown on his face.
Maureen steps out of the car. “Did you find the problem?”
“Oil leak, I think.”
“It’s hard to tell exactly where it’s comin’ from. Engine’s a bit of a mess.”
“Mind if I have a look?”
He’s skeptical but nods. “Sure…go for it.”
“Will you keep an eye on Judy?”
Maureen opens the hood and cringes at how dirty everything is. “You weren’t kidding when you said the engine’s a mess.”
John’s interpretation of “keep-an-eye-on” is lifting Judy out of her car seat and picking her up in his arms. They’re now both looking at her skeptically. “Are you an auto mechanic too?”
“Internal combustion engine mechanisms and their components, they’re pretty universal. Block, pistons, shafts, cylinders…once you know how they work, you can figure out what’s stopped them from working.”
Judy’s squealing and pointing towards her mother. “She makes it sound so simple, your Mom, doesn’t she?” John says, wrinkling his nose. “So…oil leak?”
Maureen bends over the engine to get a closer look. “I’d say It’s a fair bet given all the oily residue around the end of your valve cover, but it’s hard to tell where exactly it’s coming from. I also think it’s not your only problem.”
He’s still frowning. “There’s more?”
“You gotta flashlight?”
“Course,” he scoffs. “I’m a Navy SEAL, I’ve got a whole survival kit in the trunk.”
“You have a survival kit in the trunk but you never thought to have a look under the hood?”
“I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that,” he whispers to Judy as he pops the trunk and hands Maureen a flashlight. “Let’s just say this used car was an impulse purchase.”
The flashlight makes things a little clearer. Literally. “As I suspected…take a look here, at this hose.” She scrubs away at some residue with her fingernail. “See? It’s punctured.”
“You think that’s the culprit?”
“I think it’s the main culprit….I’m not doubting you also have an oil leak.”
“Guess it’s time to call a tow truck. I’ll call set up a ride share to take you home.”
John bounces Judy in his arms and it makes her daughter giggle. It’s so damn cute that it takes all of Maureen’s willpower to focus on the engine. To not wipe her grimy hands on her jeans, grab her phone and take a picture.
She doesn’t want to leave him yet. “Hang on…I think we can patch this up until you drive it to a repair shop.”
“It’s your call,“ he says, not entirely convinced. “I don’t wanna take any risks with you two in the car.”
“It’ll be okay. I don’t see any oil leaking onto a coolant. This…this we can patch. At least long enough to get us both home.”
“You got any duct tape in that trunk of yours?”
“You bet.” He pops the trunk with Judy still in his arms. “You’re gonna duct tape the leak?”
“Why not? Duct tape can hold almost to boiling point, 93 degrees Celsius to be exact.”
“Do you also have some water and anti-freeze in there?”
“Now you’re pushing it.”
He gets her the tape and she patches up the tear on the hose. Crosses her fingers that when they got back in the car and he turn on the engine that her guess was correct, that it was the main culprit.
It starts without incident. Or smoke.
Even so, John doesn’t venture back on the highway. He takes local streets back to her apartment and when they get there, he rolls up his sleeves and hauls the IKEA cabinet up into her living room.
“You sure you don’t want any help assembling it?”
She wants to say yes. Not because she needs the help. But because she wants him to stay for the rest of the day. She wants to put Judy to bed, open a bottle of wine and turn on some music while they assemble it together.
But Martha will be back soon, and she doesn’t want to explain John to her mother-in-law.
What’s to explain though?
“Thanks for the offer…but I’m good. I should give Judy a bath. Put her to bed before her grandma comes home. I’ll do it later tonight.”
She hands him a soda for the road. “Please go fix that car, properly, before it explodes on the highway.”
John gives her a grin and a mock salute. “Yes, ma’am.”
She watches him drive off from her window. Once again there were no romantic overtures of any sort. She’s starting to wonder if he’s attracted to women at all. So far there’s been absolutely no indication that he wants anything more than a friendship from her and she should have been relieved about that.
But she’s not.
“You know, I said I fell for you that first night. On the terrace, and I did,” John remembers. “But that afternoon, when you got your hands dirty and fixed my engine with duct tape, that’s when I fell hard. I knew then that you were the one.”
“it was pretty sexy, wasn’t it?”
“You have no idea.”
“I figured if duct tape was good enough for Apollo 13, it would be good enough for your lemon of a car.”
“Hey, don’t knock Betty. I got her fixed and we had a lot of good times in that lemon.”
Maureen smiles at the recollection. “It’s true. You got her fixed before you met me a few days later. It’s when we had our first kiss wasn’t it?”
John sighs as he fastens his space suit. He’s decided to do a perimeter check after all. “I wish…it’d been different, that first kiss. Wish it didn’t come with a goodbye.”
“I don’t,” she muses. “You gave me something to hold on to. Something that I’d been missing for a long time. You gave me hope.”
19 years Ago
They call and text each other every day now. Short, simple conversation, mostly about nothing.
-Hi, how’s it going? How was work? Are you exploring LA with all your free time?
She smiles whenever she sees his name come up on her phone. Like now when another text pops up.
-Maureen, can I see you tonight?
The question surprises her. It’s the first time that he’s asking to meet her.
-Is everything okay?
-I’d love to but I can’t. Martha’s meeting a friend tonight and I have to get home to Judy.
-It’s okay…I understand. No worries.
John came without hesitation every time she reached out and asked if he wanted to meet up and now, the one time that he’s asking, she’s turning him down? It makes her feel lousy. Makes her wonder if this is why she doesn’t have any friends.
She changes her mind.
-You know what….I could go for a quick coffee after work
She could get home thirty minutes late and blame it on the traffic. Or a meeting that ran late. Sorry, Martha.
There’s a pause on the other end before his next text pops up.
-You’re sure? I know you’re busy.
-Yes, yes. I’m sure.
They meet at a Starbucks two blocks from her lab complex.
“Hi!” His face lights up when he sees her, like it always does, and it eases her worry that something’s wrong. He probably just wanted to see her. She’s okay with that, because she selfishly wants to see him too.
“Tell me what you want,” she says as they line up. “My treat.”
“No….I coaxed you out here. My treat.”
She already knows him well enough to know it’s futile to argue. “Just a coffee. Milk no sugar.”
“And a blueberry scone, right? I heard that.”
She rolls her eyes. “You didn’t but it’s not like I can stop you.”
He grabs their drinks and treats, but they have no luck finding a table, or even a bench to sit down at a nearby playground. So, they end up walking to the stone steps at the entrance of a municipal building one block down. After five o’clock there’s little chance of any foot traffic in and out of its doors. That’s where they sit down.
“Sorry….I was hoping for a seat that’s not made of concrete.”
“No…this is nice. The fresh air and the lack of people.” She grew up handling cow manure, so she’s not exactly fussy. Or delicate. Maureen digs into the bag and starts eating the scone. Now that she’s having it, she’s aware of just how hungry she is. Of the fact that she’d planned to have lunch at some point today but never got around to it.
He watches her inhale it. “You know, you don’t have to force yourself to eat that on my account.”
She gives his knee a whack because he already knows her too well. It drives her crazy (and turns her on). Maureen turns to him after shovelling the last piece into her mouth. There’s something melancholy about the way he’s looking at her tonight that she can’t quite put a finger on. “You sure everything’s okay?” she asks, wiping the crumbs off her lips with the back of her hand, ignoring the napkin that’s inside her paper bag.
“Yes. Good.” His index finger runs along the top of his coffee cup and he stares at it before he finally meets her gaze. “I’m getting shipped out.”
Her stomach clenches. “Oh…when?”
“It’s why I wanted to see you tonight. I wanted to say goodbye in person.”
Goodbye. The finality of that word hits her like a slap. The scone she just wolfed down too quickly suddenly sits in her stomach like a brick.
Maureen wraps her fingers around her coffee cup and holds it tight. So tight that she’s afraid the paper might crumble and she’ll spill the hot beverage all over herself. Burn her hands and stain the new mauve- coloured suit she bought only last week.
Why did this hurt so much? They were fast-friends, nothing more. Two lonely people that happened to hit it off and enjoyed each other’s company. It’s not like she didn’t know this was coming. His leave had already been extended a week longer than expected. She knew this wouldn’t last.
It takes all her willpower to muster a smile. To control the shakiness in her voice. She’d gotten better at it, at reining in her emotions, since losing Grant. Or so she liked to think. “I’m glad you did. These last few weeks…it was really nice to have you around. To get to know you.”
He smiles back at her. “You too. You accomplished the impossible. Made me fall in love….with LA.”
She digs deep to sound casual. “Ah come on…it’s really not that bad.”
“No…no, it’s not.”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“They’re flying us out to a base in the UAE first thing tomorrow morning, then we’ll get further instructions there. A lot of my assignments are like that. Last minute, need-to-know. So I’m not tempted to spill to a pretty lady over a blueberry scone. If I had to take bets, judging from the rumblings I’ve heard last week, I’d say we’ll end up somewhere in the Gulf of Oman. But that’s just a guess.”
“Do you know how long?”
“No,” he shrugs. “Maybe only a few weeks. But probably longer.”
Maureen nods. Understanding. She knows all about duty and commitments. “Do you ever not want to go?”
He ponders the question. “Sometimes there are things and people that I don’t want to leave, but no….I wanna to do this. I wanna believe that these skills I have, all this training and preparation are gonna make a difference. Maybe stop some people from dying or stop a conflict from boiling over into a war. Every time I get called up, I know it’s what I’m supposed to do.”
He doesn’t have to explain. She gets it. She’s had the same drive since she was a kid and realized she was good at math. Really good. Even then she knew that she could, and had to, use it for a bigger purpose than running a farm. “I understand.”
He stands up after they’ve finished their coffees. “I’ll walk you back to your car.”
“Okay.” She takes his outstretched hand to help her up and they stroll back to her building’s garage where they need to part ways, because he doesn’t have the clearance to get inside.
“So I guess this is it, huh?” Maureen wants to give him a hug but fights the urge. A hug is more intimacy than she can handle right now.
But John’s not having it.
For the first time since that evening on the terrace he steps close enough into her space to wrap his arms around her. Holds on to her as though he doesn’t want to let go.
The last person who held her like this was Grant. Before he left her forever.
It’s that memory that breaks down the last of her defenses and she can no longer hold back the tears that pool in her eyes. She wants to grab John and not let go, but she also wants to hit him and push him away. Why would you do this?
“Hey…hey…” He pulls back and wipes her tears away with his thumb.
“Don’t mind me, okay? I cry easily. It’s been a stressful day at work that’s all and…I’m gonna miss having you around…that’s all.” She wipes some away too, hating that it doesn’t stop new ones from rolling down her cheeks.
“Don’t apologize, Maureen, please,” he tells her. “It was selfish of me, to drag you out here tonight just to tell you this.”
Yeah, it was.
She shakes her head. “No, I’m glad you did. It beats a text.”
“I couldn’t imagine not seeing you before I left.” He’s standing so close now that he slides a hand around her neck. Leans down to kiss her as if he can’t fight it anymore. Tender and tentative at first, but when her hands snake around his neck, and she kisses him back, he lets her know how much he want this. Wants to feel her and taste her.
No, he definitely isn’t gay. Definitely, absolutely not.
She doesn’t realize how much she wants it too until his mouth is on hers, claiming it. Desires that she’s kept dormant and tucked away for over year are surging back strong, because he’s ignited a spark inside her. She almost forgot how good this feels, the sheer joy of it. There’s no going back. She wants more. The way his tongue is exploring her and the feel of his hands on her body, it’s barely enough to scratch the surface. It doesn’t soothe the rising heat inside her.
Neither of them have the willpower to stop kissing each other. They’re like drunk teenagers making out. Until a security guard walks by, clears his throat and shoots them an unimpressed “get-a-room” look.
“I’m sorry….” John’s breathing hard. One of his hands has inched inside the rim of her skirt, fingers slowly moving towards the small of her back. He slides them back out when a moan escapes her throat. “That was selfish too.”
Maureen closes her eyes. Exhales. There are too many emotions swirling in her head and heart. “Was that a goodbye kiss, John?”
She needs to know. Because she wants him more than anything she’s wanted in a long time. And if that’s not going to happen, she needs to know now. Before she allows herself to dive any deeper down into this abyss.
“I don’t want it to be,” he admits. “I’m so crazy about you, Maureen. I don’t know if I can give you what you need, but I do know I don’t wanna let go of you. You and Judy. I want you in my life.”
She can literally feel the relief roll off her shoulders. “Then let me be the judge of what I need.”
HIs handsome face lights up, looking as relieved as she feels. “Okay...okay.”
Truth is, she doesn’t have much to offer either. Her days are filled with long hours at work and what’s left of her time is devoted to Judy. If all she gets with John are stolen moments between his tours, then that’s enough for her. Because she doesn’t want to let go of him either.
She kisses him again, as soon as the guard is gone. Deeply and passionately. Knowing that this has to sustain her for a while. Wishing so badly that they had more time tonight. Time for more than kissing.
She’s glad she’s wearing heels, because they’re almost the same height when she does. It lets her rest her forehead against his and catch her breath.
“That wasn’t a goodbye kiss, by the way,” she whispers. “That was a come-back-to-me kiss.”
“In that case, I will, Maureen Kelly. “ John tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “I have a feeling I’m always gonna come back to you.”
“You did come back,” Maureen muses after John is suited back up inside the chariot. She should put on hers too for when he opens the door, but she probably won’t. It’ll leave her coughing but her lungs can stand thirty seconds of this atmosphere.
“Four months later.”
“I barely recognized you, with your fatigues and beard and that wild mop of hair.”
“Oh, I had no trouble recognizing you, stepping out of that giant lab in Pasadena. While my hair grew out, you’d cut yours. It was barely touching your shoulders now. You wore these big, glamourous, movie star sunglasses and when I saw you reaching into your purse, I had a feeling what you were going for.”
“You waited until I lit it, before you snuck up on me. Jerk.”
He’s grinning from ear to ear. “I did. Purposely. I thought that way we’d come full circle from the first time we met.”
She remembers throwing away the cigarette and running into his arms. No more able to stop her tears that day than she did the last time she saw him.
The entire time he was gone, even though he stayed in touch with her whenever he could, she still wasn’t truly convinced that he really would come back. Not until she saw him that day after leaving work.
The next time she saw him again was two days later. By then he’d cut his hair then and this time it was Judy who ran into his arms. Literally. Because she started to run about five minutes after she learned to walk.
Maureen invited him over for dinner and finally introduced him to Martha. All her guilt and hesitation at bringing this man into their lives evaporated when she saw how well the two of them got along. How happy Martha was to see her falling in love again.
Two weeks later, John started staying over at her place. and fourteen months later, she found out she was pregnant again.
And then she finally did quit smoking. For good.
After he does the perimeter check, they both slide back into the front seats in order to gaze up at the skies.
There’s a stunning light show on this planet, visible whenever there’s a clear sky, similar to the Northern Lights on Earth but far more spectacular. Maybe because there were two suns here that caused more intense solar winds. The result was a jaw-dropping celestial performance that they nearly always made time to watch, even though they’ve now seen hundreds of them. There’s something about it that always takes their breath away. Always softens the harshness of being stranded on an icy wasteland.
When it’s over they head to the back to read underneath the thermal blankets, curling into each other because it’s freezing inside the chariot now.
John drifts off first, as he almost always does. It’s only when the rhythm of his breathing slows down, that she’s usually lulled into sleep too. Knowing he’s here, safe and healthy. And thankfully not snoring. All of that, helps her drift into her own oblivion.
It’s a deep, peaceful slumber. Until it isn’t.
He’s still sleeping when she wakes up again and that reassures her. He’s here. Safe.
That steady rhythm of his heart beat that’s been intricately linked to hers for nearly two decades now.
But then she takes a closer look at his face and gasps in shock. He’s so gaunt and emaciated. There’s barely any flesh on his face. His cheeks are hollow cavities of skin on bone. His eyes are buried in deep skeletal sockets.
“John…” She nudges him. “John…wake up. We need to get you some help.”
But he doesn’t budge. Doesn’t open his eyes. He’s cold and still.
She pushes herself up onto her elbows and then her knees.
“It’s too late. You can’t help him anymore. You waited too long Too long to find a way off this unforgiving planet.”
Maureen whips her head around.
It’s the Robot. How the hell did it get here?
Since when did it talk like this?
“Everyone was counting on you figure this out. Your children, Don, your husband. How could you let them all down?”
“Help him! Please!” She’s hysterical. She can hear it in her voice.
“I will,” the Robot announces, the blue lights of his face swirling in her direction. “I will do what is best.”
“Please….please.” She’s sobbing because John is so still, so pale. He’s dying.
The Robot hovers over him and takes one last look at Maureen before focusing all its attention on John.
Then it plunges its hand into John’s chest.
“It is the best for him,” the Robots metallic voice hisses while its long, pointy fingers keep stabbing into her husband. They must have hit an artery because blood is gushing from his chest now. “To stop his suffering.”
She launches herself at the Robot but it’s futile. She’s no match for its strength.
She’s punching him and kicking him and now he’s holding her down.
Except it’s not the Robot anymore. It’s John that she’s trying to kick and hit while he’s pinning down her wrists.
He loosens his grip as soon as recognition dawns in her eyes. “Hey, it’s me. Come back to me.”
“John…” she whispers his name and feels her body go limp.
“You’re okay, love. Was just a nightmare. You’re safe. I’m safe.”
He releases his grip on her and in spite of the darkness, she’s able to make out the bloody scratch on his face. Reaches for it. “Did I do that?”
He hadn’t noticed it until she points it out.
John wipes if off with the back of his hand and ends up smearing blood all over his face. It makes her shiver because the sight of it, the blood, brings her right back to the dream.
She throws off the thermal blanket. “Let me clean it.”
“It’s fine. It’s just a scratch.”
But she’s already turned on the lights and is digging through their supplies for the First Aid kit. His protests fall on deaf ears as she dabs at the messy scratch with an antiseptic wipe and then put a fair amount of antibiotic ointment on it before covering it with a giant Band-Aid. “That’s better.”
“Thanks, Doc. Am I gonna live?”
She can’t bring herself to joke about it. “I’m so sorry, babe.”
She’s still pressing on the Band-Aid, making sure it stays when John grabs her wrist again. It makes her wince because it’s sore from when he pinned her down a minute ago.
“Sorry, sorry….” He lets go of her hand. “Didn’t mean to grab you that hard.”
“It’s not, Maureen. None of this is okay.”
“I hate that I keep waking you.” She runs an exasperated hand through her hair and stares at his bandaged cheek. “Or worse. I don’t know why I keep having these dreams, John. It’s not like I even think about that damn Robot.” She sinks back onto their make-shift bed. The back floor of the chariot. “When we get back to the Jupiter, I’ll sleep in a separate room until this ends.”
“No,” John shakes his head. “You won’t.”
“I can’t keep waking you up. It’s bad enough that I keep interrupting my own sleep, I can’t do it to you as well. We need all of us to be alert, focused…”
“Can you stop thinking of me as a crew member for one minute and remember that I’m your husband? We’re not sleeping apart after almost twenty years of marriage.”
“Really?” She pauses for a minute to let the irony of that sink in. “We spent half of our marriage sleeping apart, John.”
He winces. He knows she didn’t mean to but it feels like she threw a literal dagger at him. “That was on me. I get it.”
“So if it’s on you, it’s okay? But if I choose to do it for both of our sakes, it’s not?”
“What am I supposed to do on the Jupiter when my wife wakes up screaming at night? Put in ear plugs and ignore it?”
“Yes…that’s exactly what you should do! At some point I’ll wake up and it’ll be okay.” She’s still staring at his bandaged face with a frown. “Better than me ripping your eyes out next time.”
He shoots her a gimme-a-break look. “Don’t worry, I can still take you. Especially when you’re asleep.”
She sighs. “It’s not up for discussion.”
“You’re right,” he agrees, hovering over her now. Staring her down. “It’s not.”
She pushes a flat palm against his chest. “Don’t be difficult.”
“Babe, I don’t wanna fight. But you’re not sleeping alone or dealing with this alone. Not happening.”
He’s still hovering over her and part of her wants to cup his jaw, pull him close and kiss that ugly scratch her nails left on his handsome face. And at the same time, she wants to whack him for being so damn stubborn.
“Maureen…” his voice softens as it always does when he’s trying to placate her. Get her to listen to his side of things. “I love you. I wanna help you, not plug my ears when you wake up terrified.”
“You can’t help me,” she reasons, her own voice softening in response to his. She can be gentle and reasonable too. Especially with him. “If you could…you’d have done it by now. I know you would. But this…this will go away on its own.”
“I can’t help you if you won’t even let me try.”
“That’s not true…tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it.”
“Let’s talk about our kids, Maureen. I miss them.”
She narrows her brows, not understanding. “What do our kids have to do with this?”
“Every time I mention them you shut me down and I think that these nightmares you have…they’re related to this. To the fact that you can’t seem talk about them.”
“That’s not true.” She raises a single skeptical brow. “Plus, you’re a shrink now?”
“No, I’m your husband and I know you.”
“It’s the middle of the night, John…we have a long day ahead of us. I really think you should get some sleep.”
“I’ll do the same.”
He stops hovering and settles in next to her, close enough that their shoulders are touching. “No, you won’t. You’ll stay awake ‘til I fall asleep and then you’ll stay awake for the rest of the night because you don’t wanna risk another nightmare. It’s why you’re so tired lately.”
Maureen turns to him with a sigh. “So what do we do then? We talk and both stay awake?”
“That makes no sense.”
“I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but sometimes it’s not about what makes sense.”
She stares at him as he reaches out to caress her face. He’s always known her so much better than she’s given him credit for. From day one. “Okay, fine, talk about the kids. I’ll listen.”
“I keep picturing Judy in charge of 97 kids…” He chuckles. “And thinking her biggest challenge is gonna be her own younger sister.”
Of course, the first kid he thinks of Judy. The only child of theirs that doesn’t share his blood is the one he’s always had the closest bond with. He’s probably also right, Penny will be a handful for Judy to rein in. Maureen smiles at the thought. Much as her middle-child was the one she always butted heads with the most, deep down she knows it’s because Penny is the one who’s most like her. Headstrong, independent and fiercely protective of those she loves.
Just as John and Judy both have that same unflinching sense of duty and responsibility. They both want to make the worlds they live in a better place. Their moral boundaries have always been more clearly defined than Maureen’s, Penny’s and even Will’s, all of whom were more apt to see the world in shades of grey. It’s also why Judy took John’s absences harder than any of her other kids. Because she’d decided it was wrong and there was no justification for it.
Maureen brushes all those thoughts from her mind. She’s not sure she’s ready to let herself think about them. Not yet.
John’s rambling now. Something about Will and catching a foul ball with him at a Dodgers game. She ignores what he’s saying and concentrates on his voice instead. Feels her eyelids slowly drifting shut to its familiar sound.
17 Years Ago
“Hey, put that down,” John chides her. “Let me do it.”
It’s just a bag of groceries. The kind she lifts in and out of the car with ease, once every couple of weeks when he’s not around. And will lift again in the near future. John doesn’t ask her how she does it when he’s not here, but he definitely cannot stand to see her doing it when he is.
Maureen relents and leaves it there for him on the curb. Even though he’s already carrying her almost-three-year-old daughter and four other bags.
“C’mon, sweetie. You can walk,” she tells Judy, trying to coax the girl from John’s arms. “You don’t need be carried around all day.”
John’s been back for three days and Maureen is certain that Judy’s been glued to him for most of that time.
She’s not about to be separated now either, wrapping her skinny little arms around his neck as soon as Maureen tries to disentangle her from him.
“S’all right, Maureen. Leave her. She’s happy where she is.”
Judy flashes her a victory smile, knowing she’s safe with him for now. Away from Mama’s clutches.
Maureen still doesn’t quite understand that instant, inseparable bond that her daughter has had with him from the day they first met. But she’s grateful for it.
“It’s boiling out,” John points out as they walk towards her apartment, their apartment now, his hands full of groceries. “Please tell me the AC’s finally working. Turn it on and stay inside.”
“You know it’’ll take you at least three trips back and forth when we could easily do this in one or two.”
“You’re not supposed to lift anything heavy.”
“Six pounds of vegetables and a bunch of toilet paper isn’t heavy.”
“Babe….” He shoots her a look that tells her it’s not up for negotiation. As if she’s a solider in his regiment, and Maureen sighs, wondering how long this overprotective act is going to last before she loses her mind. Or kills him.
Probably only a few weeks, since he’ll likely be gone again after that, she thinks. So she lets it go and strolls into the apartment without a single grocery bag in her hands. Tries to enjoy it rather than fight it. It’s what women wanted, wasn’t it? A big, strong man to take care of them?
Just the thought makes her cringe. She’d be miserable with a man who wouldn’t let her do anything.
It does take John three trips to haul in all the groceries, as predicted, because Judy absolutely will not get off his arm.
In the meantime, Maureen puts the groceries away and starts to mix a fresh batch of lemonade in the kitchen where John joins her when he’s done.
“Where’s the leech that was attached to your bicep?”
John cocks his head towards the living room. “I planted her on the couch. That show with the train is on.”
Maureen pours him a glass of lemonade but he reaches into the fridge for a beer instead, and she’s not impressed. “You should be drinking lemonade with me. In solidarity.”
He grins and puts down his beer. “Yeah…you’re right. Sorry.”
“I’m kidding,” she leans against the kitchen counter and reaches for the bottle he put down, taking a sip.
He’s aghast. “What are you doing?”
“It’s a sip of beer, John. I’m not throwing back vodka shots.” He really was going to drive her nuts.
“But you shouldn’t, right?”
She takes another sip just to rile him. Did he also think she had decaf this morning? “No. You’re right. Our baby’s going to have three arms now.”
He shakes his head and leans in to kiss her. “What am I gonna do with you?”
She kisses him back, deeply and eagerly. God, he’s sexy like this. Wearing these tight jeans and all sweaty from their grocery haul, a three-day stubble on his cheeks that bristles against her skin. “I can think of a few things…”
“But you’re not smoking anymore, are you?”
“No. I quit the day we met, remember?”
The earnest panic in his eyes makes tormenting him irresistible. “No, you idiot. Of course I’m not smoking. Or drinking.”
“All right, all right….” He deftly undoes the two lower buttons of her blouse and runs a hand over her belly in wonder. “I can’t believe how big you are….”
She shoots him a look. She’s not big. Not by a long shot, but at twenty weeks along she’s definitely showing and she can’t quite hide her bump anymore, not even with flowing dresses and generous blouses.
“I mean, compared to when I left…” he adds. Too late. “I was only gone for just over two months this time and before I left, I couldn’t even tell you were pregnant. You were so thin and now…” His hand is still on her belly and, oh, she wants him to slide it lower. Wants him to take off all her clothes.
Maureen bites her lip and tries to tame her raging pregnancy hormones. “It’s what happens. They grow.”
“But you’re feeling okay?”
She’s pretty sure he’s already asked her that today. Twice. “I’m great.”
“You look great.”
“Thanks.” She did feel good. So far this pregnancy was as easy as her last one. Clean bill of health after every doctor’s appointment. No morning sickness. No excessive fatigue. She knows there will be some aches and pains as she gets bigger, but even with Judy, it was nothing she couldn’t handle.
“Come, sit down.” John moves his beer bottle and her lemonade glass to the table. In case that’s too heavy for her to lift as well. “I’ve been thinking.”
Maureen leans over to take a glimpse into the living room, where Judy’s engrossed in her TV show, giving them a rare minute of adult time. Maureen needs to get some fluids into her daughter as well with this heat, but it can wait another few minutes. “About what?”
“When Penelope gets here, I’m gonna be her Dad.”
“I sure hope so. Because she’s definitely yours.”
“I don’t wanna be Penny’s Dad, and Judy’s Step-Dad. I want both girls to know they’ve got a dad. That we’re one family.”
Maureen isn’t sure what he’s getting at. “We are…a family. You’ve been amazing with Judy since day one. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s crazy about you! Her first word was Dada…not Step-Dada.” She takes a sip of her lemonade. “Not Mama.”
He’s so boyishly proud about that and he won’t even try to hide it. “You’re gonna hold that against her ‘til she’s a teenager, aren’t you?”
“You bet. Probably longer.”
“I was thinking, I’d like to adopt her. Give her my name. So that we’re all Robinsons.”
The two of them got married in a small, outdoor ceremony in Ojai, two weeks after Maureen found out she was pregnant and she’d agreed to change her last name from Kelly to Robinson. Hopefully, her final name change.
“I…wow…I don’t know what to say.”
“I mean…if you’re okay with it.” He adds. “Only if you’re okay with it. I don’t want her to forget her father, Maureen. I know we’re both gonna keep his memory alive for her. It’s not about that. I just want her to know that she’s my daughter as much as Penny is. In the same way.”
“I think Judy’s always gonna know that she’s different with one look in the mirror. That changing her name isn’t gonna change that. I know we’re gonna raise her to not just be okay with that, but proud of it. I want her to know who she is.” Maureen takes a deep breath. “But I also think she’d love it. She’d love to call you Dad. I mean…she already does and if you want to make it official…” She reaches across the table to take his hand in hers. “Then yes, absolutely, I’m okay with it.”
They filed the papers to begin the adoption process the next day and John signed them five weeks later before he was shipped out to Qatar for his next assignment.
And when he came back, five months later, there were three Robinsons to welcome him home.
John’s relieved that it wasn’t much of a fight. That she’s okay with it.
She lets him ramble about their kids. Even lifts her lips in a smile when he jokes about Judy coaching the kids in track and field on Alpha Centauri, cracking the whip while Penny writes about it with a fair number of eye rolls. But it doesn’t take long for her to close her eyes and he’s not entirely sure that she’s really listening.
When he sees her breathing slow down, her lips part slightly and her features suddenly slack and relaxed, he knows for sure that she’s not. Listening, that is. Because she’s asleep.
There’s a lopsided smile on his face as he covers her with the thermal blanket, not sure whether to proud or offended. Proud that he’s still able to calm her down like no one else can, or offended that she finds his rambling so boring that it put her right to sleep.
Mostly he’s glad, that she is. Sleeping.
If she wakes from another nightmare, then so be it. They’ll deal with that one too.
He needs to get it through her thick skull that this thing…whatever it is that’s tormenting her in the middle of the night, isn’t her problem. It’s theirs.
This time he steadfastly will not let her go it alone. Even though he knows she’s capable of it.
Funny, how he’s the one who’s wide awake now. Staring at the ceiling of their cramped chariot.
It’s rare that she falls asleep before him. Because he spent a lifetime training his body to be able to sleep at the drop of a hat, whenever the opportunity happens to come around. (They often didn’t). He’s slept in ATVs, underneath open desert skies, in the bombed out remains of a building, next to half a dozen smelly men, during turbulent flights on transport planes and next to crying, teething babies. Even standing up.
Fact is, he can sleep anywhere, anytime. Except right now, it seems.
It’s gnawing at him. This sense of failure. Her wants so badly to help her with this, to fix it and make it go away. But he doesn’t know how.
He wants to believe that he’s always been a good husband. A good father.
He’s always loved and provided for his family. When everything went south on Earth, he rolled up his sleeves and personally set up a perimeter fence around the house to keep them safe. He’s always adored his kids and spent every free minute with them when he was at home and in spite of their long periods apart, he’d never been unfaithful to Maureen. Even towards the end, when his absences got longer and longer and the temptations got bigger. Even when she’d become cold and distant and he knew that his marriage was all but over, he still didn’t have it in him. He still loved her too much to consider hurting her like that.
He’s also been lucky, because he’s always been able to put the horrors he saw into a box. To lock them away and leave them there, on battlefields and destroyed villages, far from home. He’s known soldiers who, through no fault of their own, hadn’t been able to do the same. Who brought home those horrors – in the form of trauma and violence, or even substance abuse – which ultimately made it impossible to have the kind of happy family life that he’s always enjoyed.
But, in spite of all that, the hard truth is that he’s probably wrong.
He’s hasn’t been a great father or a great husband.
It wasn’t just about loving them and protecting them when he was around. The problem was that half the time he wasn’t around.
He missed birthdays and Thanksgivings and Christmases. First steps and scraped knees and baseball practices. Tantrums and triumphs. Sure, he loved his kids, but he couldn’t pretend to really know them. Not the way their mother did.
His thoughts drift back to the day that he was teaching six-year-old Judy what to do at home in the case of an emergency, making sure she knew what numbers to dial in case anything happened in their increasingly unstable world, only to discover she’d already done it several months prior. When her mother collapsed while home alone with her and Penny.
“Judy…what are you talking about?”
When she told him he didn’t believe it.
Was she making this up? How could he not know that his pregnant wife collapsed and that it was his six-year-old daughter who called an ambulance? How?
You never found out because Maureen knew it wouldn’t have made a difference, he answered his own question. Ashamed.
“I know what to do, Dad. Don’t worry. Penny was crying when it happened. She was so scared when Mom didn’t wake up, but I made sure she was okay too.”
He hugged her tight. His beautiful, smart, too-mature-for-her-age kid.
He’d talk to Maureen about it – he needed to know – to confirm - why she didn’t tell him any of it - and he swore to himself that after that, things would change. He had to do better. Or else he was going to lose them all.
For a while they did get better.
But then a meteor crashed into the planet, and everything in the world around him just kept getting worse.
14 Years Ago
Penny was almost three years old when they finally went on a honeymoon, after postponing it three times. Between John getting shipped out and the Alpha Centauri project gaining traction and demanding more and more of her time, there never seemed to be a right moment. Until that summer when John’s sister offered to take their kids along on a beach trip and they suddenly had an entire week to themselves. John was on leave and Maureen had multiple weeks of unused vacation days to take.
So they booked a last-minute trip to Tuscany.
Seven days of pizza, pasta and hiking from one picturesque, medieval town to the other. Seven days of wine and sex. Seven days of rediscovering each other. Seven days of no kids and no responsibilities to anyone else but themselves.
It was glorious.
They came back tanned and happy; more in love than ever. Best of all, John stayed home for the next two months, even after Maureen went back to work. He ran the household with a mix of dad jokes, playtimes and military discipline and she always came home to a meticulous apartment and delicious home-cooked meals. She teased him that he was a far better housewife than she’d ever be.
And a week after he left, she found out she was pregnant again.
It wasn’t planned, and it came at a busy time, but they were both excited. They’d talked about having a third or even two more. Maureen had always wanted at least three. Wanted her children to have the big family and the siblings that she never had.
Plus, she’d had such easy pregnancies with the first two that Maureen wasn’t worried that it would be too much, even with the extra toddler on hand. Martha Kelly still came by a couple of days a week to help her out with cooking and looking after the girls and Judy was such a good kid and such a big help already. Maureen also had a regular neighbourhood baby-sitter on-call and a cleaning lady who came by once a week.
It would be fine. Even with John not home.
Except it’s not.
Because this time around she has the kind of awful, dramatic pregnancy that Maureen used to think existed only on soap operas. She foolishly, and arrogantly, never imagined that she’d have the kind of pregnancy that could bring her to her knees. No, those happened to other, more delicate, women. Not her. She was tough and strong.
It was a rare, but massive, miscalculation on her part.
This time around, she has morning sickness from day one. She can barely keep anything down, some days not even water, and she ends up losing weight instead of gaining it, in spite of the prescription strength anti-nauseants she’s taking. It doesn’t end after the first trimester either, like her doctor hoped it would.
“It typically eases after the first trimester, but not always. Some women experience it throughout their pregnancies. This one could be different for you, Maureen, for several reasons…because you’re carrying a boy, because you’re older now, or maybe you’re under more stress, or maybe… for absolutely no reason at all.”
Whatever the reason, it means she can't get enough nutrients and can’t stay sufficiently hydrated. They hook her up to an IV every Saturday afternoon.
Then there’s the constant, unrelenting fatigue. The kind that makes it hard to keep her eyes open when she driving and makes her brain feel like it’s full of a dense fog. For the first and only time in her life, she makes mistakes at work. Small, simple errors in calculation that often come with disastrous results. One of which makes her fail a major structural soundness test, and takes her over a week to rectify.
One night after dinner with the kids, Maureen gets up too fast from her chair and suddenly her vision tunnels and the world goes black. It’s followed by a sharp pain that should’ve jolted her back out of unconsciousness. But it doesn’t.
Instead, she comes to with worried paramedic hovering over, while another one is watching over her two girls, standing beside their mother who’s lying on the floor of the dining room.
Judy’s skinny arms are wrapped around Penny, who’s bawling her eyes out. Her sassy, spunky toddler, with those cute, checkered overalls and red-haired pig tails, is so scared that she’s inconsolable.
Maureen asks the paramedics not to take her to a hospital unless absolutely necessary. So they patch up the cut she got on the side of her head from the fall, and give her tips on how to prevent her blood pressure from dropping again.
Meanwhile, Judy keeps consoling her little sister. She makes sure that Penny eats the rest of her dinner and then puts her to bed, before finally crawling into bed with her mom. Just to make sure that she’s okay too.
That night, Maureen decides that this will be her last child. No more.
Amidst it all, while she’s fighting her pregnancy battle, her husband is fighting actual battles on the other side of the Earth.
John tries hard to connect with her whenever he can, even at the expense of his sleep. But it’s not the same. It’s not enough.
“You have no idea how much I miss you and Judy and Penny,” he tells her during one of their rare video calls.
“I miss you too. babe.”
“You’re at 24 weeks now, right?”
She groans. “John… no. I’m not in the mood.”
“Okay...no worries. I’m sorry.” He looks at her with so much longing that it almost breaks her heart. “It’s just that…this time. I haven’t seen you at all since you became pregnant. Haven’t seen your body change.”
“You just…you look….”
“I swear, if you tell me I look tired, I’m gonna reach through this screen and throttle you.”
She’s so irrationally, inexplicably angry with him that night. Angry at herself too. Angry for being so tired that she can barely focus on their conversation long enough to string together a coherent sentence. Angry that she’s so nauseous again that she knows her dinner isn’t going to stay down. Angry that she wants him home so badly that she’s close to tears. Most of all, she’s angry because this tired, defeated woman isn’t her. She doesn’t want it to be her.
“I wasn’t gonna say tired.”
“Yes, you were.” And he would have been absolutely correct.
“No…I was gonna say…pale. You look pale. You’re not still having morning sickness are you?”
“No, it’s fine.”
“You didn’t send me any new listings this week. Does that mean you found a place you like?
“Listings?” It takes Maureen a couple of seconds to realize what he’s talking about. To remember that she was supposed to be house-hunting this week. That they really needed to move into a bigger place with another baby on the way. Her small, beautiful apartment is bursting at the seams. “I…uh no. I didn’t get around to it this week.”
He’s looking at her too closely. With too much concern. “It’s okay…don’t worry about it. Just take care of yourself.”
“What about you? How are you?” He looks tired too. Battle-weary in the very literal sense.
“I’m good…was a rough couple of days, but things are looking better now. I’m doing what I can to get back before William arrives. I’ve told them how important it is to be there this time and they’re doin’ what they can to make it happen.”
She sighs. “I know.”
“I love you, Maureen. You and the kids, you’re my anchor, you know that right? It’s what gets me through…everything.”
She bites her lip. She really is going to cry if she keeps talking to him and she doesn’t want to do that to him. His focus needs to be on the war zone he’s in, so that he makes it home in one piece. “I love you too, John but….I, uh…I should go. I left the girls alone and they’ve been way too quiet.”
“Yes…go.” He gives her one of those smiles that always make her weak. “Make sure they’re not playing with scissors and matches and building explosives. Give them big hugs from Dad, okay?”
As soon as she disconnects the call, she runs to the bathroom to throw up.
Six weeks later, just when she thinks her miserable pregnancy can’t possibly get any worse, it does.
She’s been cramping all day and when she gets home, her water breaks. At just under 30 weeks.
“Fuck. No. No, no, no…”
She calls Martha to come over and take care of the girls and then orders a taxi to take her to the hospital, where it doesn’t seem to matter to her son that he’s way, way too early. He’s ready to come into the world and when he does, weighing in at just over three pounds (half the size of his baby sisters when they arrived), lungs not fully developed yet, Maureen is truly terrified for the first time in her life.
She feels like the ground has opened under her feet and is about to swallow her whole.
She goes on early maternity leave and spends the next eights weeks in the NICU, every single day, willing her son to pull through in spite of the fact that everything seems to be a constant struggle for him. Just gaining a few grams of weight is a monumental battle.
But somehow, whether it’s her constant encouragement or whether it’s because he’s heard more than enough of it and needs a break, William Robinson does pull through. Her tiny, beautiful boy, who might be weaker than his sisters, but absolutely refuses to give up. He’s much more of a fighter than he looks and he’s already taken up an enormous space in her heart.
John finally comes home, three days after Will is released from the hospital.
Her husband looks like he’s been through hell and back and when he holds his son for the first time he cries. Heavy, messy tears that run down his face into his scraggy beard and drip onto his fatigues.
“It’s gonna be okay, babe, isn’t it? Tell me it’s gonna be okay?” He asks her after setting the baby down in his crib next to their own bed of their now too-small apartment. As though he really isn’t sure. As though this last tour did a number on him too.
Maureen takes him in her arms and holds him tight. Grateful for everything. He’s back and their family is complete. They all somehow made it through the last nine months and it feels like they made it through darkest months of their marriage. She’s convinced that it will get easier after this.
“Yeah…it’s gonna be okay. Of course it is.”
“I know I’m not here enough. I’m not here when it matters.” John can’t seem to stop his tears. He sits down on the rim of their, hunched over.
Maureen doesn’t let go and lets him lean on her. Her strong, tough, sobbing solider who so obviously needs her strength now. “No…you’re not,” she agrees, dusting a kiss on to his messy beard and running her hand through his hair. Curly, unkempt hair that desperately needs a trip to a barbershop. “But when you are here you give us a hundred and ten percent, and that…that’s enough.”
For a long while it is enough.
It does get easier as the kids get bigger. She raises them to help out at home, to know that they’re a team that needs to work together. John’s absences get longer, but when he does come home, he does what he’s always done. He gives them all of his attention. He loves them and takes care of them. It’s no easy task because it seems that every time he comes back home, the world’s plunged even deeper into chaos. There are endless conflicts, unrelenting heat waves, unbreathable air, riots and mass protests, even alien objects crashing from the sky.
The Alpha Centauri project is moving at warp speed now and Maureen makes two trips up into orbit to oversee the construction of the colonist ship. It has a name now: The Resolute.
She’s not sure how exactly they’ve suddenly mastered the kind of speeds that were unthinkable a decade ago. She snoops and pesters but keeps hitting walls. “Security reasons” and “Lack of clearance” are the excuses she gets. It irks her that she, who’s been so integral to the construction of the ship, isn’t part of that elusive inner circle.
But she has her suspicions as to why. Because she’s a civilian, not military. She knows that whatever fusion or fission technology suddenly made the impossible possible, will also be used by the military. As a weapon.
It makes her stomach turn and she thinks that maybe she doesn’t want to know, after all.
But more importantly, it means that colonizing space is no longer a remote possibility for her children or grandchildren. She herself now has a good chance of taking her entire family to Alpha Centauri. In this lifetime.
She suggests it to John. But she can barely get a hold of him for more than five minutes at a time. He’s been away for eight months now. Missed her birthday, their anniversary, Penny’s birthday and Judy’s high school graduation. No calls, no cards and it makes her hurt for the kids, more than anything else. She can take it, but they shouldn’t have to.
She’s starting to wonder if he’s having an affair. They’ve been drifting apart for a year now. She’s been distant and angry, and past the point of caring whether or not that makes her a bad wife. If that’s the excuse he needs to be with someone else, then she’ll give him that out. Because the endless absences finally take their toll.
One afternoon, she opens a letter from the military addressed to him. She does it absentmindedly, figuring it’s nothing of importance, probably just an invite to one of their events that’s already come and gone, given the date of the stamp. Instead, it’s something much more formal. A notice informing him that he can remain on base near LA for the rest of the year, if he chooses.
He had the option to be here, in LA with her and the kids. The entire year!
But he chose not to be.
She’s waiting in her car for Judy’s indoor soccer practice to end when she reads it. And she’s so grateful that the game goes into overtime, because by the time she rips the letter apart and throws it into the nearest recycling bin, she’s a mess. Blotchy eyes and tear-stained cheeks come with the realization that her marriage is over.
She can’t bring herself to file for divorce, and she’s not sure why. Maybe it’s because a naïve, foolish part of her still loves him. Or because she doesn’t want to admit that something that’s been so wonderful could end so badly. Maybe she just wants him to find the balls to do it first. Then he can’t blame the demise of their marriage on her.
But he won’t. Maureen knows him well enough to know that he’ll leave it up to her. Everything is always on her. Her responsibility. Her fault.
She doesn’t do it. Not yet, anyway, but she does decide that she’s going to give her kids a better life than this. She needs to give them a future where they can breathe the air and not live in a house surrounded by a seven-foot perimeter fence.
When Maureen finally gets a hold of him, she lets John know that she wants him to relinquish custody. So she can take all three of them into space.
With or without him.
She no longer cares.
He smiles when he sees the clouds lifting. The suns are coming out and it’s a glorious double sunrise. Pink and yellow and orange hues fill the sky and John soaks in the beauty of it all.
He debates waking his sleeping wife, so she can see it too, and then decides against it. Knowing it’ll be a matter of minutes until she wakes of her own accord, what with all this light suddenly filling the chariot. It’ll be blindingly bright soon. Let her come into wakefulness gently, on her own.
And sure, enough he sees her eyes looking up at him less than two minutes later.
He knows her so well. Her rhythm, her body, the way she reacts to things. Nearly eighteen years of marriage will do that.
She squints in the brightness and stifles a yawn.
“Morning,” he looks down at her. “I ordered some sunshine for us today.”
She smiles a lazy smile. He loves the way she looks at him first thing in the morning, in those handful of seconds when she’s not the mission commander, just his wife and lover. Still drowsy and sleepy and a little less certain about everything than when she’s wide awake. “Nice. Can you order us a cappuccino and a croissant too?”
“With a side of bacon and eggs?”
“Oh God…” she groans and throws off the covers. “Now you’re just tormenting me.”
“Tell me something…why does that chicken of ours never lay any eggs?”
“You might have to ask Don that. Between you and me, I’ve thought about having it for dinner more than once.”
“Probably best not to mention that to Don.”
“Agreed,” she stares out the window and grins. “Wow, look at this weather change. It’s fantastic.”
John knows they need to make the most of it. Because now they can travel and recharge the solar cells at the same time. “Ready to get going?”
She's already packing up their sleeping quarters. “You bet. Let’s go find some fuel.”
Because the sunlight lasts all day, they modify their itinerary and push the chariot to go further than originally planned.
It’ll mean another night spent outside on the terrain and John’s not crazy about that, but Maureen’s right about having to seize the opportunity. Especially since they’ve come this far already.
They skirt close to a yet-undiscovered mountain range all day, and even though the terrain is considerably more challenging, they both agree that their chances of finding something there is greater than out in the Tundra.
But shockingly, there’s nothing. Barely a blip on any of their scanners all day long. They do two lengthy excursions in their suits on foot and when the suns finally fade, they return to the chariot exhausted and frustrated.
“We’ll head back to the Jupiter right after sunrise tomorrow morning,” John tells her as they eat an MRE that tastes a lot like cardboard.
“If we get another sunny day like this tomorrow, I think we should push it and squeeze in one more day,” Maureen says, staring out the front window into the encroaching darkness. The temperature inside the chariot, which had been surprisingly comfortable all day, thanks to the sunlight, has already dipped rapidly.
John raises his brows and checks her expression because, surely, she’s joking. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No.” She turns to him. Dead serious. Of course. “We have enough food for a week.”
“We have enough food in case of an absolute emergency…as in case the chariot breaks down and we have to figure out how to repair it.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“We need fuel, John!” Maureen reminds him, as if she’s somehow stunned that he should reject her absurd proposal. “We’re not gonna get it by staying cooped up in the Jupiter!”
“We’re not gonna get it out here either!” John shakes his head in disbelief. “We’ve been at it all day and not one peep from the scanners.”
“We could go back to the ice cave. Find a way to blast through the narrow opening.”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Why?” He looks at her incredulously. “Because we’re already staying a day longer than we should? Because we put the tires through hell all day and they need to be checked? Because this vehicle isn’t meant to sustain us for days on end? Because finding fuel and killing ourselves in the process defeats the purpose?”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“You’re being ridiculous!”
“It’s been seven months, John!” She throws her arms into the air in frustration and hits the ceiling. Hard enough to make her wince. And then, as if that wasn’t sufficiently painful, she bangs her fist into the door in anger. Not once but twice. It shocks him because he can’t remember ever seeing her this frustrated.
“Seven months and I haven’t been able to figure it out! We’re running out of food because I can’t get us off this damn planet!”
“What if there is no fuel source here? What are you supposed to do? Manufacture it out of nowhere? Yank it out of a magic hat?”
“I won’t believe that. There has to be!”
John exhales and then flinches when he sees her bang another fist into the door, so hard that the dry skin on her knuckles breaks and bleeds. He can’t watch it anymore. “Jesus…Maureen, stop! It’s not just your responsibility, your burden, to get us off this planet.”
Her eyes are wet. She’s taking this so hard and it’s not like her.
“How can you say that? Of course it is! Don…he’s a technician, a mechanic…you’re a Navy SEAL, I’m the one with the PhD in engineering…the rocket scientist. So how exactly is it not my responsibility?”
It dawns on him in that moment, the reason for her nightmares. The same recurring nightmares in which members of her family die horrible, painful deaths, one by one, while she’s watching. Helpless and unable to stop it.
He doesn’t need to be a shrink to put two and two together.
“We’re a team, Maureen. A crew. You, me and Don. It’s on all of us to get us out of here.”
“No…” she shakes her head. Absolutely not buying it. “It’s not.”
“Our entire marriage, I’ve never told you that you don’t need to go it alone. Never really acted like it either. I should have and I regret that I didn’t. Because now you have this deeply ingrained belief…that everything’s all on you. All the time. You couldn’t be more wrong about that.”
“Not everything but this….I have to figure this out, John…” She’s crying now. For the first time since they left their children, she’s crying. “I have to.”
“No…you don’t.” It’s hard to move towards her when they’re both sitting in the front of the vehicle. But he does. Gets on his knees and takes her in his arms, holds her close and lets her cry until she’s done. “It’s not on you.” He keeps saying it, whispering it into her ear. Hoping it’ll sink in.
She’s frighteningly quiet; doesn’t say anything at all. But when she wipes the rest of her tears away, they both crawl to the back. The weight of the day’s failure unbearably heavy.
He’s the one who patches her up this time. Dabbing some of the antibiotic ointment over her bloody knuckles while she watches on in silence, her blue eyes fixated on his face.
“I’m sorry,” she finally breaks her silence when they’re lying down, facing each other. “I don’t know what got it into me. You’re right…about tomorrow. We need to go back.”
“I know that you know.” He kisses her bloody knuckles. “My reckless, beautiful, brilliant wife.”
“Don’t make me cry again.”
“I’ll still love you. Blotchy face and red eyes and all.”
“Thanks. I think.” Her hand reaches for his face, tracing the bandage on his cheek with her index finger. “You’re a good man, John. I don’t know if I tell you that often enough. Not just a good man…a good husband and a good father.”
“Shhh….” She silences hm by putting a finger on his lips. “You’re not allowed to contradict me here. I’m a rocket scientist, remember? According to you we never get it wrong.”
“I wasn’t even there for the birth of any of our kids.”
“Truthfully, it would’ve been a little weird if you were there for the first one.”
He snorts. “Fair point.”
“You’re a good father, John. I mean it. Really good.”
He exhales, not realizing until now how much he needed to hear her say it.
“We raised some good kids, didn’t we? Even if we end up dying on this godforsaken planet at least we did right by them.”
It takes him by surprise. That she mentions them, without prompting, for the first time in a long time. “Yeah…we did. We didn’t just raise good kids. We raised smart, capable kids. You know what that means, right?”
“They’ll probably end up finding us before we find them.”
“Let’s hope they do…’cause God knows I’m not getting anywhere.”
“We’ll figure it out. Together.”
“I’ll keep sayin’ it, until you believe it. However long it takes.”
She smiles a sleepy smile. “I’ll work on it. The believing part.”
They sleep soundly. No nightmares for her. Maybe it’s cause they were both exhausted but he wants to believe his words had something do it with it as well.
They get ready to make the journey back as soon as the first of the two suns pierces through the darkness. Barring any unforeseen obstacles, it’ll still take them a good twelve hours to drive back to the Jupiter. The first three hours will be the most challenging as they need to weave through the foothills of the mountains they explored yesterday. After that it’ll be a straight shot back on flat tundra. Once they leave the foothills, they should have radio contact with Don again. They’ll try to reach out as soon as they do because after two days, he must be getting worried. And stir crazy without anyone to talk to.
They leave the scanning instruments on, not expecting anything from them.
John navigates them through the foothills and Maureen takes the wheel after that. They try for radio contact with no luck at first. They’ll keep trying every ten minutes.
The second sun pushes through and it raises the temperature in the chariot. Allows them to undo a layer of clothing and warm up.
“You know, even if we do find a fuel source, there’s only so much our tanks can carry. Only so far we can go.”
“I know…” Maureen acknowledges. “Plus, there’s no mothership who’ll take us in this time.” That’s their doing too. They purposely destroyed the Resolute, the project she spent half her life working on, in order to protect the children of the 24th colonist group.
“Then there’s that.”
“Doesn’t mean I’m giving up,” she tells him. “Yesterday was….frustrating. I took it out on you.”
“More like you took it out on the chariot door and your knuckles.”
That’s true too, she agrees with a sigh. They’re swollen and bruised today and it hurts every time she grips the steering wheel too hard over rough terrain. But she doesn’t tell him that, in case he insists on driving the rest of the day. “Maybe all this pressure I’ve put on myself to get us off this planet…it’s given me tunnel vision. I should step back and look at the bigger picture.”
“Let’s all three of us discuss it when we get back,” John adds. “Brainstorm what we can all do find a solution. Don and me, we’re both guilty of waiting for you to figure things out and…it’s gotta stop.”
His lips are a thin, hard line, letting her know this isn’t up for discussion. “No. It’s not.”
There’s a static cackling that suddenly interrupts their conversation. “J2 to C11, come in. J2 to C11 come in.”
John grabs the receiver. “C11, come in.”
“So you are alive! Seriously guys, would it kill you to let me know?” Don’s voice booms through the receiver. “I was starting to think I’d have all this food to myself. Starting to get excited.”
“Dream on,” John replies with a grin. “We’ll be there in about eight hours. Actually, the way my wife’s driving probably seven.”
“Hey…” Maureen cuts in. “Not true.” She bites back a smile. “Seven and a half, maybe.”
“See what I mean?”
“Guys, I have news. You’re not gonna believe it.”
“Debbie finally laid an egg?”
“Maybe if you stopped pressuring her, Maureen, she would.”
John is still grinning. “What news? Tell us.”
“You know, just for that remark, I dunno if I’m gonna tell you my big news. You can wait, ‘til you get here.”
“Don!” Maureen groans. “Look, I’ll come and rub her belly tonight if that’ll make up for it. Now spit it out.”
“Gonna hold you to that.”
“Don…” John growls.
“Maureen, you know those mayday signals you make us transmit on your baby every day?”
“Yeah…” Her heart skips a beat. “What about them?”
“Day after you guys left, I got an incoming signal.”
Her jaw drops and she turns to John in shock. Almost looses her steely grip on the steering wheel. “What?”
“That’s right,” they can hear the big ass grin in his voice. “Told you it was big, big news.”
“What kind of signal?”
“Get your butts here and you’ll find out.”
John clutches the receiver. “Don, tell us right now what the hell you’re talking about.”
The giant smile is still audible in Don’s voice. “I’m not spoiling the surprise. You’ll find out soon enough. Safe trip home!” And with that, he ends the transmission.
Maureen turns to John, incredulous. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
John tries to radio him back. “Pick up, or I swear…” But he has no luck.
“Did he really just do that to us?”
“If he’s joking about this, he’s gonna be cleaning the septic tank for the next three months.”
Maureen eyes the speedometer and pushes down hard on the acceleration pedal. “Exactly how fast can these things go?”
In six and a half hours, they’re within view of the Jupiter. John’s in the drivers seat when it finally appears in their line of vision, about a mile straight ahead.
“Oh my God….” Maureen can’t believe what she sees as they get closer.
There’s another Jupiter parked next to theirs.
Maureen’s heart is pounding and her hands are clammy by the time the ramp of their Jupiter is lowered and they drive inside their ship. She’s glad she’s not steering the chariot.
“It’s a Jupiter Astra,” John points out after observing the other Jupiter parked next to theirs. "It's an older model, used about five colonist groups ago. It had to have come from Alpha Centauri.”
Maureen nods. “You’re right. But how? They don’t have the capacity to travel across these kinds of distances.”
“Unless it’s been outfitted with an alien engine.”
They’re inside the garage now and they have to wait five minutes until the ship is sealed and the toxic air they've allowed to enter is sucked back out.
It’s an eternity.
“You look like you’re gonna jump out of your skin.” John says, taking her hand in his. “One more minute. You got this.”
“Is it crazy to think our kids might be on that ship?”
“No.” He turns to her. Squeezes her hand. “Not crazy at all.”
The beep signaling safe entry goes off and they let go of each other. Rip open the doors of the chariot, just as the circular door leading to the garage opens as well.
When Maureen sees who’s climbing down the ladder stairs, her tears are unstoppable.
“Judy…” Her eldest daughter runs towards her, straight into her arms.
“Mom…” She crying too. Even more so when John joins their hug. Wrapping his arms around both of them. They’re a sobbing, joyful mess. All three of them.
It’s a while before they let go. Before they notice that there are three other people and a robot standing in the garage. One of them is Don West, who’s taping their tearful reunion on his comm.
“Your other kids are gonna wanna see this,” he explains when John shakes his head. “Trust me.”
Maureen wipes away her tears with the back of her hand. “I think I’ve done more crying the last two days than in the last seven months.”
“Last two days?” Judy asks. Nothing gets by her.
Maureen cups her daugher’s face in her hands and plants a kiss on her forehead. “It’s all good now. No more tears.”
“Speaking of other kids…where are Will and Penny?”
“On Alpha Centauri,” Judy tells them. “I made them stay behind when I decided to go on this rescue mission. Thought it was too dangerous for them.”
“We had to come back and try and find as many 24th Colonists as we could. We knew they’d all be stranded when we saw the Resolute get destroyed.”
“You saw that?” Maureen questioned.
“Just before we entered the rift.”
Don West coughs, not so discretely and it makes John and Maureen aware of the two others standing in the garage. One of whom Maureen recognizes.
The Japanese woman gives her a hug. “Maureen, John…it’s so good to see you.”
“How did you make it to Alpha Centauri?” John asks her.
“I was one of the first colonists who was rescued. Then I volunteered as a pilot, to help others. I’m glad I did.” She steps aside. “Let me introduce you to Mohammed.”
The other man in the room is tall and dark, with a commanding air and the kind of ramrod posture that makes Maureen suspect that he’s military.
“Dr. Robinson.” He steps forward to shake her hand. “Mohammed al Hasani, Deputy Leader of Alpha Centauri.”
His title on their new home is equivalent to that of the US Vice-President. It’s a lofty presence on their stranded ship. “Please…it’s Maureen. Welcome.”
He shakes John’s hand too. “I’ve heard a lot about your family.” Amusement spreads across his features. “Mostly good, some of it…hard to believe.”
“Believe it,” Don pipes in.
“Commander Al-Hasani.” John obviously knows him from the military, confirming Maureen’s suspicion. He gives him a firm handshake back. “It’s probably all true.”
“So you’ve been running rescue flights for seven months now? Since you got to Alpha Centauri?” Maureen asks.
Judy scrunches her nose. “Not quite that long…we didn’t get to Alpha Centauri right away.”
“So where did….?”
Judy wraps an arm around her mother’s waist. “Come let’s go to our Jupiter. We have a lot to tell you and…we have a lot of food. Don’s been digging into it since yesterday.”
Judy looks at both of her parents with the kind of worried face that she used to get from them. “Looks like you two could use some too.”
Maureen can’t help watching her husband dig in. They’re eating dinner in the Hub of the Jupiter Astra, all of them. Don, Judy, Mohammed, Naoko, John and herself. They’re microwaved frozen meals but made from fresh grown ingredients on Alpha Centauri and it’s the best thing they’ve had on months.
Don’s literally licking his fingers after every other bite and all three of them will be so full that they might be sick tonight. They’re not used to eating these kinds of portions anymore. This kind of food.
“Most of the colonists landed on the amber desert planet,” Judy explains. “Because it was the closest and it was habitable.”
“For the record, it’s what I suggested,” Don pipes in. “But these guys…no, of course not. ‘Lets get as far as possible from the suns. Wait ‘til we’re near the outer reaches of this system and forced to land on a frozen ball with unbreathable air.”
“You did the right thing,” Judy cuts him off and both John and Maureen notice the sombre expression on her face.
“But you found the other colonists on the desert planet, right?” John asks.
“We found twenty-six survivors,” Mohammed tells them.
Maureen suddenly loses her appetite. “What do you mean, twenty-six survivors? If most colonists went there, that means there would have been hundreds…”
“I was on that planet,” Naoko says. “More than a dozen robot ships followed us there. Most….” Her voice is barely audible. “Most colonists did not survive.”
“Oh no…Hiroki? Aiko?”
“My daughter she is fine. She is on Alpha Centauri. Hiroki…” She shakes her head.
“Oh Naoko, I’m so sorry.” Maureen reaches across the table to squeeze her colleague’s hand. “So sorry.”
“It’s why I volunteered to be a pilot on the rescue missions,” Naoko explains. “I’m alive because they rescued me. I want to bring others home too. We haven’t made contact with anyone in almost a month. We were starting to lose hope that we would still find survivors. We didn’t search this planet because we didn’t think any of the Jupiters would have made it this far…but then we heard your signal.” She smiles at them. “It gives me hope, knowing we’re still finding colonists.” She smiles. “Finding friends.”
“I thought the robots only attacked us because we took their engine, because they wanted it back. The colonists on the desert planet didn’t have a robot engine,” John questions.
“I didn’t matter,” Naoko replies, bitterly. “They wanted us gone. Maybe they were angry that the children escaped with their engine.”
Maureen’s gaze shifts to Will’s Robot, standing in one of the doorways of the Hub, looking like it’s guarding them. Wonders how it’s possible that this one keeps saving them while others want them dead. How Naoko sleeps with it on board knowing one of them killed her father.
“It’s no small miracle that we did hear your signal given how far away we were,” Mohammed points out. “But then we got here and saw the size of that….that dish and antenna on your roof. Impressive.”
“My wife’s idea.” There’s pride in John’s voice when he points it out.
“You should’ve seen when we turned the ship into a sailboat,” Maureen shrugs. “That was crazier.”
“That was crazier,” Don agrees.
Judy laughs. “Hey, it got us off the water planet.”
“I’ve dismantled it, by the way, the antenna.” Don adds. “She’s ready to fly.”
“We’ll put the engine in your Jupiter,” Mohammed explains. “And the Robot will take you and your Jupiter to Alpha Centauri first thing tomorrow morning.”
“But you’ll come with us, right?”
“No. We’ll wait here on our ship and the Robot will take a chariot-sized shuttle transport back. Then we’ll keep searching the planets in this system. Another two weeks before we head back to Alpha Centauri.”
Mohammed turns to Judy. “I know you wanted to be part of this in order to find your parents. That you have a medical internship to complete on Alpha Centauri. We’ll understand if that’s what you choose to do next.”
“I’m definitely finishing this one,” Judy answers without hesitation. “And I’ll decide whether to continue after that.”
Maureen sees John straighten his back in his chair and she can already sense what’s coming. He’ll offer to take Judy’s place on the next rescue mission. Not only to give his daughter a chance to continue her studies, but because he feels indebted after being rescued himself. It’s his innate sense of duty, which she loves and hates all at once.
He doesn’t say it yet, but she knows it’s coming.
“You’ll be a welcome addition to the colony, Maureen, especially now,” Mohammed adds.
“We’re planning to build a new colony transport, after what happened to the Resolute. It’ll be a smaller ship but we feel that we’re ready for the undertaking and you, you were instrumental to the original build. It’ll be an immense help to have you on board for this one.”
Maureen nods. The prospect of another mass project is both exciting and daunting. “Yes…of course.”
He’s the first to get up when the dinner is done. “Naoko and I will head back to our ship. Get the engine ready for transfer with the help of the Robot. Don’t worry…we don’t need help. I’m sure you want to catch up with your daughter.”
They do. The four of them chat for a good hour and Don even brings in Debbie, because of course she’s family too.
By the end of it, neither John nor Maureen can stop yawning. The combination of the big meals, the adrenaline crash and the long day hits them hard and fast.
“You can spend the night here,” Maureen offers Judy as they leave the Hub and walk towards their quarters. “Your old room’s a bit of a mess because we’ve been using it for storage but the bed’s still there. Still made.”
“I should head back to our ship. But Mom…can I talk to you for a sec?”
The look on Judy’s face worries John. Makes him suspicious but Don gives him a push. “Girl talk. It’s not for you and me, bud.”
“Is everything okay?” Maureen asks her daughter as soon as the men are out of earshot, searching her face for anything suggesting it’s not.
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“Why do you look so worried then?”
“Do you remember when I said we didn’t make it to Alpha Centauri right away?”
“You said something about taking a detour.”
“The signal that the Resolute picked up wasn’t from Alpha Centauri. It was from the Fortuna.”
Maureen is sure she misheard. “What?”
“It was damaged and empty, a ghost ship, orbiting a destroyed a planet without power. But it was still transmitting a weak emergency signal.”
“No…” Maureen knees suddenly feel like they’re made of rubber. “That’s not possible.”
Judy’s hand is on her arm and she leads her towards one of supply chests in the corridor that can double as a bench. “Come, let’s sit down, Mom.”
“We managed to dock it, even though it was tricky.”
“With ninety-seven kids on board?” Maureen pictures her daughter, whose piloting experience was minimal at best, undertaking the complicated maneuver. “That’s a helluva of a risk.”
Judy looks rueful. “I know…but I had to.” Then she give her a defiant, lopsided smile. “Guess I have a bit of you in me too. We found three crew members, Mom. Dead.”
“Oh baby…” Maureen pulls her daughter close. “I’m sorry.”
“Dad wasn’t one of them. We checked the ship’s logs and it looks like they made a last-ditch attempt to launch themselves to the nearest planet using a shuttle craft. That was the last entry. It was eighteen years ago.”
Maureen does the math and it breaks her heart. “That means they were alive well over a year after they were declared missing.”
“Yeah…” Judy pulls an envelope out of her pocket. “When I went to Dad’s quarters there were two letters inside a drawer next to his bed. One was “for my daughter” and the other one was….is for you. ” She hands her the envelope.
Maureen takes it with a shaky hand. “He wrote us letters?”
Judy nods. “It was nice, Mom. It’s like he was talking to me for the first time.” A tear rolls down her cheek. “I’m gonna let you read yours alone, ‘kay?” She says when she’s finally ready to get back up, to let go of her mother’s embrace. “I love you, Mom. You have no idea how happy I am that we found you guys. I’ll let Penny tell you how we eventually made it to Alpha Centauri. She’s much better at telling this story than I am. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, before you take off and go home.”
Maureen nods. Not trusting her voice. Watching her eldest walk down the hallway, until she’s gone from her vision. Waits until she’s alone before opening the envelope with her name on it, sealed eighteen years ago.
Maureen, my love
I think this is it.
Our power sources are dwindling and because of the hit we took, we’re almost out of supplies, but I won’t bore you with those details. If by some miracle you’re reading this, that means you you’ll get those from the official logs. We’re going to try and enter an atmosphere in a transport shuttle tomorrow with limited fuel. It’s basically a suicide mission, but we have to try. Before we’re too weak to do anything.
I don’t think you’ll ever read this, but I needed to write this down. Mostly for me, because I need to remember you tonight.
I miss you so much.
I miss showering with you at the crack of dawn. I miss watching you trying to cook, mostly because it was hilarious seeing you do something that you were absolutely terrible at. That is until you made me eat what you made. Then the joke was on me. I really miss the way you kiss me. So fierce and possessive. I miss watching you figuring out three-page equations that the rest of us would toss in the garbage. Watching you think always turned me on. And on that note, I miss your gorgeous body. (Okay, that one’s shallow. But it’s true) I miss making love to you. But most of all, I miss your laugh. You have the best laugh. No one here laughs at my jokes, not like you do anyway. Assholes.
Maureen laughs and she has to wipe away the tears that are blurring her vision, in order to keep reading.
We didn’t have enough time together but those three years, we packed a lot of living into them. We always worked hard, too hard probably, but we had fun too. Remember taking that single engine Cessna out over the ocean? How you screamed when I did those aerial acrobatics but then you liked it and told me to do some more. You fearless, thrill-seeking lunatic (I mean that in the nicest way)
How about that sexy convertible you had? We’d drive her up the coast and then we’d spend the night sleeping on an empty beach. Just you me, a bottle of wine, a pack of cigarettes, cheap packaged sandwiches, chocolate bars and a blanket, looking up the stars. We didn’t do fancy back then, did we?
But those nights on secluded beaches with you…those were the best nights my life, Maureen. I’d give up a limb, or two, to have one more of those.
It kills me to know that I’m never going to see my little girl. I hope she knows how much I love her. You know what? I’m going to tell her myself. I’m going to write her a letter too. As soon as I finish this one.
I’m so sorry that I’m leaving you both behind. I hope you’ll forgive me for that.
I selfishly hope you won’t forget me. But even more than that, I hope you find happiness again. You have too much love to give to not share it with someone else. Whoever brings you that happiness, I hope he never forgets how damn lucky he is.
Tomorrow when we launch, I’m going to think of you. I know it sounds crazy, and maybe I am going crazy, but I believe we’ll meet again one day, up here in the stars.
She reads it again. And again. Because reading it brings him back to life, if only for a brief moment in time. This joyful, larger-than-life man who stole her heart the first time he came to inspect one of her spaceship projects. Who deserved a lifetime of happiness.
She must have stayed out here, alone in the corridor, too long, because John’s come looking for her. Worry creases his forehead when he sees her tear-stained face.
“Hey…” He squats in front of her. “What’s wrong?”
Maureen tells him everything, about Judy finding the Fortuna. About the letters.
He wraps his arms around her and holds on tight. Until she’s finally ready to let go and he takes her hand in his. “Come, let’s go to bed.”
“I…I wanna stay out here a little longer. I know it’s stupid…but it’s like he’s here and if I leave, he’ll be gone again. Just a little bit longer.”
“No… not stupid at all.” He puts an arm around her shoulder, dusts a kiss onto her temple. “You wanna be alone?”
She hesitates. Then shakes her head. “Stay?”
“As long as you need.”
She doesn’t know how long they stay there on that bench, in the corridor, without a word. Time stands still.
After a long while, Maureen leans her head on his shoulder. “You remember the night we met at Vandenberg, when you stood on the terrace with me? When we stared at the horizon in silence? I don’t know how, but you gave me the strength I needed to go back into the room and do my job after that commemoration service. “ She squeezes his thigh. “I feel like you’re doing the same thing tonight.”
He skirts his hand over hers. “Anytime.”
She smiles. “You wanna go on the next rescue mission, don’t you?”
“I…no.” The question catches him off-guard. “No, no…I promised not to leave you again.”
“It’s what you do, John.” She holds his gaze. “I build space ships and you help people. You’ve never, ever told me that I spend too much time at work, even though I do. Never suggested I should give it up to stay home and focus on the kids.”
“What are you saying?”
“I think you should go.”
“Look, let me be clear I’m not okay with you leaving for months and months at a time. I never want to go back to that. But Judy says these missions are one month at a time. A month will go by real quick, especially if they’re making me help them with this new transport project. Our kids are able to look after themselves now, and we have to do our part on Alpha Centauri. So yes, I think, that in two weeks, when the next mission leaves, you should go. If there are still colonists stranded out there waiting to be rescued, like we were until tonight, they deserve to have the most capable people looking for them. That’s you.”
There’s both relief and appreciation on his face. That, even after everything they’ve gone through, she understands. “Okay. I’ll go.”
“Just come back to me, okay?”
And once again he reminds her of that hot, summer evening at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Because nearly twenty years later, he still looks at her as if he’s got a crush.
This amazing man.
“Oh, trust me. Maureen Robinson.” John’s fingers weave through hers and their wedding bands sparkle as they catch the bright light of the hallway. “I’m always coming back to you.”
I have to admit, this story was written with more haste than usual so of course as I re-read parts of it, I already want to change a few dozen things. In other words, apologies that parts of it are a bit of a mess. The original idea was a much shorter fic set exclusively in the present but then the backstory kind of took on a life of its own (and it's totally canon in my head now. LOL)
Big thank you to the two readers who stopped by and left your feedback as I was posting it. It was SO super lovely to hear from you and your enthusiasm for it made me smile. Thanks for coming along on this ride.
Comments at any time are always appreciated.