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4.

The Alphas and Betas went off for a little squash soccer, a game they had invented, and then out for wine, a lovely white from grapes grown on the slopes of the uninhabitable highland above Canada. They went off to bed in actual queen-size beds well past Bluehorse-3’s midnight, got up eight hours later just about dawn, and went for a swim in the Parallelogram Sea. By midmorning, they found themselves seated around a large table on a verandah overlooking the bay, having actual fish and actual lettuce. Locally grown coffee gave way to locally made pale ale.

“Make the most of it,” said Vera Santos. “We’re going to be back on regurgitated food and drink in about thirty hours. It’s going to be a while before we have fish like this, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, we won’t be gone that long,” said Maria Apple. “Twelve years out, then maybe a couple more jumps, twenty each, then back home?” She looked at Izawa.

“That’s seventy or eighty years,” said Gemma Izawa. “Probably more.”

“I think it could be a lot more,” said Timmis Green. “We’re chasing the Ngugma.”

“Because,” said Natasha, “my name is Natasha Kleiner. You killed my planet. Prepare to die.”

“You keep using this word,” said Vera. “I do not think it means what you think it means. You guys know that film?”

“Timmis showed it to me,” said Li Zan, “on our honeymoon.”

“And there’s no way to plan a campaign like that,” said Rachel. “We know we’re going to catch up with them. We just don’t know where.”

“Not forgetting,” said Clay, “that we also need to work out how to attack them. The simulations are very comforting, really, but—!”

“But if they’re at all correct,” said Vera, “then we’re better off with the Fyaa than without them.”

“Either we get them,” said Rachel, “with their zippy little fighters and their, um, carefree ferocity, or we manage with just us and the Primoids, or there’s someone else, which there isn’t. There are a lot of dead civilizations around here—the Plaque People, the guys from Holey, whoever once long ago lived at Bluehorse—but we only know of four going concerns, and one of those four is the Ngugma themselves.”

“Are we the only ones who survived an Ngugma attack?” asked Maria Apple.

“Apparently so. Yeah.”

“What does that tell you about the Ngugma?” asked Vera.

“That they prey on the weak,” said Clay. “Well, I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to show them.”

They looked around at each other, exchanging nods, murmurs and raised eyebrows. Apple laughed.

“We’re a bunch of old couples,” she said. “Look at us.”

“Remember those swinging singles we used to be?” said Natasha. “Back in Old Quebec?”

“Okay, everyone,” said Gemma Izawa, “this sounds like we need to do a group selfie.”

They laughed, and then set about organizing themselves for a picture. The girl who had been waiting on them came over to take it, as they unconsciously coupled up: Gemma and Maria, Li and Timmis, Tasha and Vera, Rachel and Clay.

“This is us,” said Clay between takes. “This is what we were when we grew up.”

“A bunch of old couples?” said Natasha.

“Who figured out how to beat the Ngugma.”

 

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