The days following were a hectic whirlwind. Jude headed off out to Arias for her first forty-eight hour rotation. The work was precise, requiring all of the dexterity she had discovered she possessed back in the first days at Kakuda, and took up all of her concentration skills. Working on her own, this meant she didn’t have much time to break bread and chat with her co-workers but in the brief contacts she had with them, all three women appeared to be pleasant and convivial enough. In the minimal down time (again, Cee-Cee with its focus on getting the maximum out of its staff) before sleeping, she would scan her pad for messages. Neesh was focussed on doing all the necessary last-minute preparations for her voyage back to London and her new post. Maxie was enjoying but juggling his role as full-time parent to a pair of rambunctious under-fives – still, he made time to send her notes and voice mail. It was no different from being in the early days of any new relationship – she missed him and he missed her, they couldn’t wait to spend time together, etc. When the company transport dropped her in O-City at the completion of her shift, she found herself rushing eagerly back to the apartment.
Chaos reigned but it was a fun kind of chaos – Neesh running around, packing, turning the apartment upside down, and searching for this or that. Maxie gently chided her – “They have shops in London remember. It would probably make sense for you to just get new things .” Jude and Neesh exchanged a sisterly look of exasperation. The Shepherds, whose tribal motto seemed to be “any excuse for a party” wanted to host a going away gathering for Neesh. Maxie managed to convince Mama Ila that time was of the essence and instead they had arranged a small dinner at her house. However, it was to be that same evening so Jude was barely settled when she was being cajoled into getting gussied up because there was a taxi on its way. She didn’t mind – being the only child of a mother who planned everything to the nth degree, she wasn’t at all used to the hectic anarchy of the Shepherd-Moore household but she had to admit that she was, so far, loving it.
The five of them eventually were on their way. As the cab made its way through the early evening traffic and as the children nattered away with each other, Neesh asked Jude how her work was going and along with Maxie, caught her upon the plans on the home front. Neesh would be heading away the day after next – unfortunately this coincided with Jude’s job. The little time they had managed to spend together had found them becoming very close – although they were clear, for the time being, that theirs would be a platonic relationship, there was a lot of affection and Neesh and Jude were fast friends.
Together, the trio had agreed that, as far as the wider family was concerned, and this included Jude’s parents as much as Ila, Bly and the others here on Mars, Jude had been offered the job and Maxie and Neesh had offered her their home as a friend for the time being. Dera and Myki had accepted Jude in the “auntie” role and they were minded to be affectionate but discrete around them. As progressive and forward thinking as the late twenty-first century had become, this was more a matter of timing and circumstance more than anything else. Ila welcomed them. Jude found her to be so different from her own mother – more open. Dory, Jude had surmised over the years, was more one to make snap judgements of people and look for motives, never just taking someone on face value. Jude guessed that this was more to do with her parents’ celebrity, in that even nowadays people wanted a piece of the well-known.
Bly had also joined them. There was no strangeness, no hard feelings – he had been sincere when they had parted as friends. The dinner conversation was light and entertaining, with Jude being made a party to all sorts of tales about Bly and Kristof growing up together with Ila comparing them fondly to Dera and Myki. Ila rose to clear away some of the plates and serving dishes and Jude offered to help. In the kitchenette, as Jude scraped the plates into the composter and rinsed the glasses, she noticed Ila take pause. The older woman’s mask of joviality slipped.
“Are you alright?” Jude asked, concerned to see the matriarch looking sorrowful.
“I’m fine, Ila told her, “it’s just…what with what happened to my dear Kris. And to Maxie too – I know he’s hiding it but I can see he’s hurting. Neesh too. And her going so far away to work.”
Jude reached out to comfort this dear woman. “It is all happening sort of fast, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes. And I want to help. I don’t want to be the busy-body mother-in-law. And now that Kristof…well, I’m not sure of my place anymore.”
“Don’t be silly, Ila. You’re the little ones’ grandma. You’re the link to their – baxi. And I can assure you, both Neesh and Maxie love you. You are very important to them.”
Ila composed herself and gave Jude a hug. “Thank you, Jude. I needed to hear that. You are going to be good for this family.”
“Maxie and Neesh…,” Jude began.
“A mother knows, my dear. Be happy, and make my darlings happy. That’s all I ask.”
The small band headed home soon after. Jude offered to see Dera and Myki to bed, to give Neesh and Maxie some precious time together. When she returned to the living space shortly afterwards – the two children being worn out and asleep very quickly – the snuggling pair on the couch parted and made room for her to cuddle in with them.
“She knows, you know.” Jude whispered as she leaned into Maxie.
Who?” asked Neesh, “Mother Ila?”
“She didn’t say in as many words, but yes, I think she’s no fool. But she appears to be happy for us.”
“Well I never,” said Maxie.
The next day was the last one where all of the new family would be together. No big plans had been made – they wanted to give the children as relaxing a day as possible. As sweet-natured as they were, the adults knew that the next few days were going to be a strain, especially for Maxie, who would be seeing both Neesh and Jude off, leaving him with the little ones. They took the train into the city centre and visited the arboretum, stopping off for tofu-cones on the way home. Neesh made a big fuss of seeing her babies to bed that night, knowing it would be the last for some time. She cried softly as the three of them lay together in her and Maxie’s big bed. There was no sex, as they had maintained, just a cosy intimacy.
The next morning, Jude was the first to leave. The children were up and about as she packed her overnight bag and work gear. Myki watched her.
“Are you okay there, sweet-pea?” Jude said to zher.
“Uh-huh. I’m a tiny bit sad that Neesh-Baxi is going away to Lumdun today.”
Jude tousled the little one’s hair. “Yes, I’m sad too. But she’ll talk to us over the comm and the next few months will fly in. And Maxie-Baxi will be here every day with you and Dera.”
“I know. And you. You’ll be here lots.”
“Yes, honey. I will.”
It was hard going back to work – Neesh gave Jude a massive hug goodbye and promised to message her when she arrived earth-side. Back at the recovery base, Kathryn and Mae had returned for their shift too. They all settled back into their own routines of sorting and salvaging.
On the second day back, El called Jude into her office.
“I’ve had an urgent call from our headquarters. The next phase of our operations was to have been the retrieval and recovery of the second of the Mars orbiters, Reconnaissance. A shuttle had been despatched from our base on the moon, to link with it as it made its elliptical orbit pass by Phobos. Unfortunately, the craft had experienced some damage, we believe from a meteor shower as it came back around and the main radar antennae have become detached during aero braking. These vital components, our sensors tell us, impacted along with a section of the CRISM spectrometer in or around the Stickney crater. Jude,” El spoke directly to her newest technician, “Chief Howe has asked if you’d volunteer to join the team, on account of your EVA expertise.”
“Sure, when do I need to be heading off?” Jude was nervous at the prospect of working off-planet again but Wib’s words about getting back onto the horse that threw you after her first extra-vehicular jaunt came to mind. But whatever was out there, it had to beat the slow and tedious dismantling that she had been doing.
“This afternoon. A space hopper (as the mini ground to larger craft shuttles were nick-named) will take you up to the Enyo and you’ll be instructed from there.”
Jude had a short break to pack her gear and send a quick comm to Maxie.
“How long will you be away for?” he asked her, his concern obvious. He was just back from seeing Neesh off and he wasn’t relishing the prospect of his second love going into space too.
“I’m not sure. An extra day or two. And I’m sure I can wangle a bit of leave after. Don’t worry, love. I’m just doing what I do best – cleaning up trash. It’ll be a breeze and then I’m all yours.”
”Count on it.”
“Oh I will.”