“I can’t believe it’s been fifteen months.”
Mia pulled her legs under her, grinning across the navigation console to the others. Elliot grinned back, putting up both thumbs.
“We didn’t do so bad, right? Four restorations, and we’ve got a high quality-rating…I mean, not as high as the fancy pro crews, but—”
“Pffft!” Jules waved a dismissive hand, so enthusiastically that Elliot had to duck to avoid getting hit in the face. “Those fakers—oops, sorry, Ell. They’re just shiny new equipment, no real know-how. None of the pro crews were brave enough to fly out to the Cemetery Rim, huh? That was us, baby. Taking any job, no fear!”
She swiveled her chair around, but Mia could tell, in her tone, the difference between her usual brand of loud excitement, and the jittery anticipation as they came closer to landing. They all shared the same excited jitters—they hadn’t seen Alma and Char in over a year—but Jules had it cranked up to eleven. She’d missed Alma, much as she wouldn’t admit it. They’d all sat up with her a few late nights, applying hot chocolate with a tower of whipped cream to her poorly-disguised sniffles.
“Can’t wait to tell them about the Rim trip. Except, let’s maybe not tell Alma about the fuel tank leeches, ok? I mean, you can barely see the dents anyway.”
“She’ll see them,” Mia predicted with a sigh. Alma had a near-supernatural ability to know when something was wrong with her ship. “We’ll just agree it was an accident, and we learned our lesson: no more skinny-dipping in shiny ancient space pools.” She wiggled her eyebrows at Grace, who chuckled back from her seat across the room.
“Like she’s one to talk.” Jules huffed, “She and Char had plenty of naked picnics whenever we found some secluded scenic ruin. Like we couldn’t see them. Eesh.” She pulled a sour face in Elliot’s direction, and Elliot covered their eyes with a hand, pointedly, making everyone laugh.
A series of beeps came from the console, and Mia leaned forward, eagerly. They broke through the cloud cover, at last, and the familiar green-and-blue hill appeared below. From this distance, the house was barely visible, but they all still squinted, trying to get a glimpse of Alma and Char.
“You think they’ve been okay?” Worry had doused the feverish energy in Jules’s voice. “Fifteen months is a long time to be stuck on land. I don’t think Alma’s ever been in one place for so long…”
“They sounded fine when we checked in,” said Mia. They’d had this chat before. Nearly six months stuck at the Rim, too far for proper communication, was a long time to worry about things. “They said they’re waiting for us.”
“I guess.” Jules hugged herself, sighing.
“I think those two would be okay anywhere,” murmured Grace, “so long as they’re together.”
That made them all smile, again, and Jules shot Grace a sideways look. “Can we tell them they’re totally the inspiration for the heroines of your latest play?”
Grace’s cheeks darkened. “They are not!”
Mia giggled, holding her hands up when Grace gave her an indignant look. “I didn’t say anything!”
“Anyway, they won’t ask about that,” Grace scowled, “they’ll be too busy hearing about the time you two adopted twin space-octopi.”
“They were cute!” Mia and Jules defended in chorus, and Elliot clapped their hands, though whether in agreement or to get everyone’s attention on the landing alarm, no one could tell for sure.
They landed on the soft field atop the hill, and when the ship's hatch lowered, Alma and Char stood waiting only yards away. With a screech, Jules launched herself straight into Alma’s arms, squeezing so tight her aunt stumbled back with a surprised ‘ooph!’.
Char pulled Ell into a tight hug, then, without letting go, reached for Mia with one arm, pulling her in. Mia grabbed Grace’s elbow and tugged her into the group hug, until none of them could breathe and they were all laughing. After Jules had unfurled herself from Alma, they swapped, until everyone was hugged out and no one wanted to admit they were crying.
“So,” grinned Jules in the end, her voice a little stuffy. “Missed us?”
Alma thumped her lovingly over the head. “Clown.”
“You love me and you know it.”
“I do love you,” Alma agreed, as she and Char waved everyone toward the house. “We’ve got fresh fruit salad and roasted squash from our garden, and not a single portion of jerky or rehydrated rations.”
“I think I love you too,” laughed Mia, while Elliot made a heart shape with their hands. “Is there any berry syrup, too?”
“You know it,” said Char, one arm still around Ell and Mia’s waists, and they hurried downhill toward the cozy little house, that Alma and Char had made their home for the past year and a half.
The meal stretched for hours, with everyone asking questions and recounting tales of old temple restorations and glowy space-octopi, and having so many portions of fresh food that by the end they couldn’t bring themselves to move anymore.
“So what have you two been doing?” Jules lay sprawled across the sofa with a piece of honey-dipped fried dough. “Other than sitting around growing squash. Bo-ring.” But she grinned at Alma as she said it, and ducked when Alma tossed a throw pillow at her head.
“This and that.” Char smiled, and she and Alma exchanged a silent, meaningful look. Alma grinned.
“We keep busy.”
Jules scowled suspiciously. “That sounds like you’re up to something. What is it? Ah—” She held up a hand, “Unless it’s more naked picnics. Then you can keep it your business.”
“Ay.” Alma groaned and rolled her eyes, coming to sit on the armrest of Char’s plush chair. “Can you believe this disrespect? Brat.”
Char laughed. “Redid the house, for the most part. Now we have a library. Built-in shelves and everything.” She nudged Alma, who winked back. “We’ve been helping the town with storm-proofing their homes. This sector’s getting some solar weather lately, and those debris storms were giving people trouble.”
“We heard.” Mia grimaced. “If you need to move…”
“Nothing so bad,” said Alma. “This area’s pretty stable, compared to other sectors. We’re safe; just the occasional space rock breaking through roofs. We know how to guard against that.”
“Just saying, we always have room for more crew,” said Jules. “Just so long as we’re clear that we’d be the senior crew, now, and we get to boss you around.”
“The horror,” snickered Char. “I think we’ll stay here.” She glanced up at her wife, as though to double check, and Alma nodded and leaned down to kiss her temple. They looked…happy, Mia thought. She’d worried a bit, too, about them being stuck for so long, about what would happen if Alma got antsy and they didn’t have a ship to travel and no way to contact the Sunbeam for half a year. But there was no nervous energy in the room, no chafing edges between them.
She met Jules’s eyes and silent communication passed between them. Jules saw it, too. Ell surreptitiously elbowed her, and they nodded to each other, content and reassured.
As night fell, Char got up to go adjust the temperature in their little outdoors greenhouse, while everyone else helped Alma clear the table; after which, they all brought out the various drinks they’d collected from their journeys and, sitting cross-legged around the coffee table, leaning into each other or the edge of the sofa, talked and laughed late into the night.
Jules suggested a video game, and as everyone knew what her ‘just one game’ meant, the proposal was met with mixed enthusiasm and some pointed yawns; but they’d all been too eager for each other’s company, and no one wanted the night to end.
“We’ve got those games you sent right before we went to the Rim.” Jules had already begun pulling boards and cards from her satchel. “It was great having new stuff to play. Especially when we were stuck in that dead void two weeks…which never happened.” (She’d caught Alma’s crestfallen look.) “Dead void? What dead void? We had a great time in the safest places and no one got void-concussed or brought leeches into the fuel tank, definitely. Oops.”
She giggled, and Char took her ale bottle and replaced it with berry syrup.
“Anyway—thanks for the games. I almost beat Ell, just so you know. Grace’s spreadsheets help a lot.”
“Except when Grace and Ell team up,” Mia added. “Then it’s just a massacre.”
“We’ve forbidden that team-up,” Jules nodded wisely. “Should be against the rules.”
“All the games we sent were co-op.” Char grinned. “Only you could turn those into a competition.”
Jules feigned a modest bow. “I try.”
“So you all liked the games,” Alma said, and she shot Char a meaningful look. “Any favorites?”
“Temple Quest,” Jules, Mia and Grace said at once, and Elliot raised their thumbs again. “I loved the early puzzles,” said Mia. “Having to figure out all those hidden rooms, and get the clues for defeating the final monster.”
“I like the power-ups,” said Jules. “And the way players can either compete or team up, and how that gives you different gameplay paths.”
“I like the pretty graphics,” said Grace. “They remind me of real places.”
Char and Alma grinned at each other.
“Okay, something’s going on here that we’re not a part of,” said Jules. “Spill.”
Char cleared her throat. “I’m gonna make some coffee.” She started to get up from the armchair, but Alma leaned over and tugged her back.
“Oh, no you don’t. This is your brain-baby. You get to take credit.”
“Credit for what?” asked Jules, while Grace tilted her head, curiously. Mia followed Char’s glance to the games on the table, and a suspicion—a weird, totally out-there suspicion—began to tingle at the edges of her thoughts.
Char rubbed her neck. “You know how you four worried we might get…bored, here, living the domestic life?”
“We,” mimicked Alma. “I know you all thought I’d be itching to launch back into space after a month.” She grinned with peevish satisfaction. “Shows what you know. Char started to get bored, instead.”
Her wife sighed, giving her a wry look. “Once we got the house cleaned and the garden spruced up, there wasn’t much for me to do. The storm season kept us indoors most days, Alma was still building the library… I had more free time than I’m used to. I started sorting through our statues and all the stuff we’d brought off the ship, and I found one of Jules’s old games, and…” She waved a hand to the games on the coffee table, “I thought I’d try something new.”
Elliot clapper their hands gently, and Mia’s mouth made an excited ‘oh’.
Jules’s jaw dropped.
“Are you saying…”
“Nice,” whispered Mia, and beside her Grace nodded, “Cool.”
Jules jumped to her feet, throwing her hands in the air. “ARE YOU SAYING YOU MADE THOSE GAMES?”
“It was a team effort, really,” said Char, once they’d gotten over everyone’s initial shock, and Jules had subsided into silent (as opposed to her previous, very loud) bafflement. “I just came up with the general setting—”
“And plots,” added Alma. “And graphics. You know all those journals she kept, from everything we restored? Turns out, there’s plenty in there to make a thousand games.”
Char nodded. “It just didn’t feel right, now that we’re not in the restoration business anymore, just letting all that knowledge…die. So I thought, what might be a good way to share it? Thought about writing a book, maybe, but I’m not sure that’s for me. We already have a writer in the family.” She smiled at Grace, who grinned back; she’d finished a new play in their time in the Rim, and read it to Mia, Ell and Jules in brief installments every night.
“And most people wouldn’t want to read about a bunch of old rundown buildings held together by vacuum sealant, anyway,” Char went on.
“On the other hand, old rundown buildings make great settings for all those games Jules made us buy her,” said Alma. “So.”
“Alma wrote most of the interface code. She’s a genius when it comes to haptic circuitry—”
“Only class I took in med school that I enjoyed. Anyway, Elliot helped the few times I got stuck—”
Mia gaped at Ell. “That’s what all those tech support calls were about!” She pointed a finger at Grace. “I told you they were being suspicious!”
Jules poked Ell in the ribs. “You knew about this?” Elliot held up their hands, laughing.
“We didn’t tell them what were doing, exactly,” said Char.
“Not that it was that hard to guess,” Alma added, and Ell winked at her. Char settled deeper in the armchair, leaning her shoulder into Alma’s side.
“We played us with just us for a while, trying out various characters and rules, but eventually we figured we were ready for some external player feedback. So we sent them to you. Alpha testing, I guess.”
Jules covered her mouth with her hands. “Amazing.” She made a screechy noise, tipping back on top of Elliot on the sofa, then jumped to her feet again. “I can’t believe we were alpha-testing your games. Char. Char THEY’RE SO GOOD.”
Char blushed. “Well, if Alma hadn’t encouraged me to go for it, and Elliot hadn’t helped…”
Alma nudged her with her shoulder. “It was all you, babe. And your journals.”
“I can’t believe it!” Jules’s eyes lit up suddenly. “Do you have any new ones? What about extended versions? Wait—what about RARE QUESTS? Do you have rare quests? DO YOU HAVE AN EXTENDED VERSION OF TEMPLE QUEST?”
Everyone started laughing, and Alma hopped off the armrest. “I’m gonna make that coffee. You’re not getting any,” she pointed a finger Jules. “And don’t think this is going to be the norm. Starting tomorrow, we keep regular sleeping hours."
"We're grown-ups," Jules grumbled.
"And I care about this, why?"
Grace giggled under her breath. Elliot hopped off the sofa to perch on the armrest on Char's other side, while Mia helped Jules set up the Temple Quest interface, the two of them debating heatedly who should be allowed the experienced historian and who should take the loyal space pirate. Elliot innocently proposed teaming up with Char, prompting a united, loud chorus of protests, and by the time Alma returned with a coffee tray, she found Grace, Mia and Jules grunting theatrically as they tried to tug Ell away from Char, everyone laughing so hard they were doubled over, tears streaming down their faces.