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“Hey, Alia… you got a minute?” David asked, leaning into the workshop and rapping on the already open door.

I glanced briefly up from the partially assembled mech and nodded, “Yeah. What’s up?”

“So… once the ship is underway, Ed and I were thinking of logging out for a few days to deal with some real life stuff…” he told me, trailing off at the end expectantly, like I was meant to understand the rest of his unspoken sentence.

Cocking my head at him, I waited for him to continue. Would he continue? Or had I just misunderstood and there weren't more words to follow?

“Do you want to come with us?” he asked after several moments of us blankly staring at each other. “You’ll be alone with strangers on the ship.”

My gut twisted violently as my mind brushed up against the idea of going back out into the real world, and I quickly shook my head at him. “N-no… I’m okay here… um… I have lots of work to do in here and um, and not much else to do outside anyway so like… there’s no point in logging out.”

He gave me a sort of sad look, and I hastily added, “Sorry! I guess I didn’t ask if you wanted me to log out… is there something you like, wanted to do with me or something?”

Crap, had I upset him? He looked more sad now. Why was he sad? Did I say the wrong thing? I really didn’t want to log out, but if he and Ed really wanted me to…

“No, no… you’re fine,” he said, a proper happy smile appearing on his face. “You do have some power armour to build, after all.” He said the last with a wink, and now it was me who was frowning.

“I don’t have the parts to make you any power armour,” I told him seriously, shaking a spanner at him. “Honestly, go make us some money so you can buy some or something.”

He just laughed, retreating out of view. “Catch you in a few days, Alia.”

Wait… what time was it? If he was saying goodbye now, that meant we’d be leaving soon. I wanted to be up on the bridge to see us leaving! It was going to be so cool! I wonder if the shield would go through the ship or around it? Would I feel it pass through my body?

I dropped everything and bounded for the nearest ladder, taking the rungs two at a time in my haste to reach my destination.

I passed Ed on my way down the central hallway, waving as I dodged past him. He called something to me as I went, but I didn’t really parse what he’d said. No time for talking anyway, it was spaceship zoomies time.

Making it to the bridge, I seated myself down in the engineering chair next to Cerri’s science station. The bridge was a glass box, only the rear being a solid metal bulkhead. The pilot’s seat was at the front and slightly lower than the rest, the captain’s chair directly behind it. Behind the captain were Warren, Cerri and me, all in a line.

Each of our three chairs had two big steel arms attached at the back that held an array of screens, and I pulled both around in front of me now, positioning them in a way where I could reach them properly.

On the other side of Cerri, Warren made a sound of moderately surprised interest. “You know that freighter that went missing from Luna a few months ago? The one that boosted for Jupiter and then went dark?”

“Are we talking inside or outside of the game?” Cerri asked with a wry smile as she absently tapped at one of her screens.

“Outside,” Warren said, giving Cerri a slightly frustrated look. “The Sol system is a barren wasteland inside the game.”

“Right, forgot about that,” she murmured, leaning forward to squint at a graph.

“Anyway, so that freighter, they haven’t found it, but guess what they detected! There’s been movement on Callisto, they reckon it’s dust clouds from explosions,” he continued, turning to look at the both of us. “I reckon someone is trying to mine it.”

Why though? I asked via my ocula, frowning as I searched my memory for the relevant data. Callisto does seem to be reasonably rich in materials, but the fuel cost of getting there plus the cost of mining there versus the asteroid belt just doesn’t net you much profit. There’s no point to going out there yet, not until the tech back in reality is much better.

“Yeah, that’s what confused me as well,” Warren agreed, leaning on the arm of his chair to the point where if it weren’t bolted to the floor he’d be tipping over. “See, I don’t think they intend to get that stuff back to earth at all, I reckon they’re—“

“Quiet, Warren,” Cerri sighed, rubbing at her eyes with thumb and forefinger. “Let’s get ready to fly around in pretend space, then we can talk about wild conspiracy theories about real space.”

“Oh, right… yeah,” he said, chagrined. “I should double check the maneuvering thrusters are working.”

“Good boy,” Cerri mumbled, already seeming to have forgotten him as she frowned at some readout. “Weird…” she muttered, poking at a screen for a moment to highlight something.

I left them both to it, getting on with my own work of making sure the engines were all okay. We wouldn’t be using the aetherdrive for an hour or two, but it had been a little strange during test sims and I wanted to make sure it didn’t like, explode on us or something.

“The tower has cleared us for takeoff,” Gloria called from her position at the front.

Roger leaned back in his seat, giving her a lazy gesture to continue. “Take us out. It’s time to see the galaxy.”

“Fuck yeah,” Gloria said, her voice practically made of pure excitement. “Come on girl, let’s spread those wings.”

The hull shook with a dull tremor as the docking clamps released us, and a few seconds later I could feel just the slightest sensation of movement, even if the whole ship was spinning 180 degrees.

That was the gravity plates at work. Apparently, back in the distant past of the fake galaxy, they’d had the tech to travel through the aether, but the huge gravity of a star had severely hindered a ship’s ability to enter aetherspace.

Essentially, travelling from one star to another had been a matter of months, but travelling from the outer reaches of the star system to the inhabited worlds had also taken months. This was because the human body can only take so much acceleration before it breaks, and while aether travel didn’t produce any, normal space travel did.

That’s where the gravity plates came in. In addition to creating a field of gravity, they also served to partially isolate everything within the field from external forces, such as other fields of gravity and the effects of inertia. This meant that a spin that should have knocked me out instead just felt like spinning gently on a computer chair.

The Turshen slowed to a halt as we finished the spin, then slowly began to move out into the center of the massive egg-shaped spaceport.

I found myself leaning forward and pushing my screens out of the way to get a better look out the windows. The sight was breathtaking, the huge spaceport slowly moving by at a sedate pace.

Turning to look over at Cerri, I gave her a huge grin and waved to get her attention.

The giggle I got in return had my smile widening even further and my heart doing a funny little dance. “Something,” she mouthed to me, wiggling her eyebrows cheekily.

I nodded, a giggle of my own spilling out. Cerri was cool, I liked her a lot. I hoped we could be friends one day.

When we reached the center, we began to slowly rise towards the shielded upper exit. This was one of many things I’d been interested in!

Passing through it, there was no wave of energy that phased through the ship. Evidently it wrapped around the Turshen rather than being a flat plane that we moved through. I wonder if all the shields worked like that? I hadn’t really looked at the shields on our ship yet, they’d been fairly robust according to our tests.

Then we were out and following the exit corridor lights. I wasn’t looking at them though, because the view out the windows was incredible. Spaceport Halifa stretched out in all directions like some sort of titanic, metallic, multi-limbed beast, the orbital version of city sprawl.

Beyond the station was Halifa herself. The gargantuan gas giant hung in space like a slumbering goddess, the storms and swirling clouds in its upper atmosphere like the contented rise and fall of a massive chest as it breathed deep. Surrounding her were her energetic daughters, moons that zipped around her at breakneck pace, at least in the timescale of stars.

“Where to boss?” Gloria asked, leaning back and spinning in her chair to face us as the Turshen followed the exit flightplan.

“Wherever the winds take us,” Roger said calmly, leaning back in his chair beatifically.

Gloria rolled her eyes. “Give me a proper destination, you dumbass Captain fucking Kirk wannabe.”

Laughing, he nodded and pulled one of his screens around in front of him. “Here, this is the place. One of Halifa’s moons has a huge university on it, they offer scientific missions to gather data for quite a bit of cash, provided you have the correct instruments.”

“Which we do,” Cerri chimed in, looking pleased with herself. When she caught me staring, she threw a wink my way, causing my gaze to dash away and a blush to surface on my cheeks. She was too pretty when she did that! It wasn’t fair!

“Copy, I’ll punch in the coordinates now,” Gloria said, swivelling on her chair to face the front again.

The ship began to orient itself towards our destination, which was nothing more than a spec of light at this distance.

Now, I mentioned previously that humanity had used normal-space engines in the past to move about a star system. That was no longer the case. These days, ships skipped through the boundary between normal and aether space, not quite existing in either. This style of travel was only possible around a star, where its gravity was constantly forcing a ship back into normal space.

With both types of engines running, a trip that would have taken us days to complete now only took us an hour or two. Honestly, I thought aether-skipping was horribly jank, but it worked... so who was I to complain?

“Well, I don’t know about you all, but I’m hungry and the ship has this handled,” Gloria said, standing and stretching herself up tall, midriff peeking through from under the hem of her T-shirt. Wow she had nice abs. Damn it, I was surrounded by pretty people, this was difficult!

“AI are rather useful, aren’t they?” Cerri quipped, smirking at our pilot as she sauntered past.

Gloria laughed and shouted back through the open door, “Sometimes, but they always think they know soooo much more. It’s obnoxious.”

“That’s because they do,” Cerri shot back forcefully, although her lips were turned up in a grin.

Sitting there in my seat, something about their banter sparked a sudden suspicion… was Cerri an SAI? Surely not?