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The machine worked quickly to feed Gloria’s nanites, but while that happened I was trapped in her embrace. I didn’t actually get totally comfortable like that either, Gloria was too erratic, too wild for my brain to calm down around her.

She did let me go once the machine was done though, and without too much teasing, which was nice. Then it was back to the bridge, pretending like nothing weird had happened. I was worried that Gloria would say something, but she didn’t, instead sitting down in her chair and getting to work on her job.

We dropped out of aetherskip mode near Leirthym, the moon with the large university that we were hoping to get a nice science mission from.

Leirthym was a verdant jungle world for much of its surface, only the two largest continents had anything else, their interiors containing vast savannahs where rainfall was scarce. It was a pretty world, all in all.

When Gloria took us down towards the landing pad we’d been assigned at one of the many cities on the surface, I found myself grinning like an idiot. Diving into an atmosphere out in reality was actually pretty boring. The space elevators didn’t have very big windows, and I’d never been fortunate enough to get a ride to Luna on one of the skyships that were starting to become a thing.

This though, this was a front row seat. Heat engulfed the outside of the bridge as we dropped, while the moon began to grow in size. It was incredible, the way the planet seemed to get bigger and bigger, to the point where my brain was thinking, surely it’ll stop now? Nope, the damn thing engulfed my field of view, until I could see nothing but green and blue.

Our speed leveled out as we entered the stratosphere, and so did the angle of our descent. Cruising dozens of kilometers above the surface, I gawked in open wonder as distant terrain passed lazily by beneath us.

“This is so cool,” I whispered, a grin splitting my face.

“It is something, isn’t it?” Cerri whispered back, sounding way closer than I thought she should be.

I glanced up to find her leaning over the side of her chair, angelic face about a foot from mine as she stared down at Leirthym with me. My eyes got caught on hers, the way they sparkled with so much life and intelligence. My smile turned funny as I watched her, the subtle movements of her face, the way a strand of hair was threatening to slip its bonds. Why was I so fascinated by her?

When she looked up… goodness, my heart skipped a beat the moment our eyes met. That smile, so alive and full of excitement, it made me want to smile just for seeing it. Then it changed, turning almost shy as we held each other in that gentle exchange of life and emotion. I could see her, truly see her behind those glossy lenses with their starry rings of blue and black. The moment seemed to etch itself into my mind, memory savouring it as it was stored with utmost care. I already knew I’d be dreaming of those eyes for a long time.

“Really pretty,” I said in reply to what she’d said what felt like a week ago. I wasn’t talking about the moon below us though, I was talking about her. My head and my heart felt so strange, each echoing and amplifying a wordless ache that was pushing me to be closer to her, to keep her attention.

Cheeks flushing with pink, she broke the eye contact to look back down at the planet. “Y-yeah… I like the green, the jungles. I want to see the jungles.”

“I like the blue, it’s so deep, I wonder what’s underneath,” I found myself saying, brain spitting out the first thing I thought. That being that her eyes were goddamn gorgeous and I wanted to keep staring into them.

Those eyes flicked back up to meet mine, widening a little in the process. She didn’t say anything for several moments, opening and closing her mouth as though she was lost for words. “The oceans? Do you want to see them?”

I shook my head. “No, but you want to see the jungles, right? We could go look at them while Roger goes to get the mission.”

“Maybe,” she mumbled, turning back to the swath of green below us. Her eyes did a little dance between the jungle, the back of the captain’s chair, then to me. Watching her wrestle with the decision had my stomach doing funny things, fluttering and flipping and stuff. She was really cute. Finally, she frowned and gave me a sad look, “But my job as the science officer means I should be there, right?”

“No, not really. This is a game Cerri, we’re playing it to have fun,” I told her with another shake of my head. “If we wanted to do a job, we’d be out in the real world or in the FTLN, doing… doing something that makes like, money and shit.”

A grin blossomed across her lips again, and I froze as her hand came up to gently cup my cheek. Oh gosh, why was she looking at me like that? Why was she grinning all sly-like?

“Since when was little Alia so calm and worldly, hmm?” she asked, an eyebrow quirking up to go with her question.

Stunned as I was, all I could do was gulp air like a fish. I did manage an ocula message, thankfully. You just went from being all small and vulnerable to… this! I was just helping because you looked… I don’t know! Words! Gah!

“Thank you,” she said, her smile turning mercifully grateful instead of… like, what it was just now. “Would you… go on a trip to the jungle with me?”

Yes!!!! Absolutely!!!!! I told her with the ocula equivalent of enthusiastic exclamation.

“You’re so cute,” she murmured with a sigh, before pushing back out of reach and into her chair. “Thank you. I do think we should go along with Roger first though, then ask for some sightseeing time.”

I gave a nod and a smile, then through an effort of will I turned back to my console to keep an eye on the engines as we came into the port.

The city we were coming down on looked gorgeous. Encircling the mouth of a river, the tall spires of a modern society clashed with the jungle they had allowed to grow around their feet. It seemed that they had very little ground level infrastructure at all, instead just relying on raised bridges and promenades between the massive buildings.

We passed the majority of the city by, heading for the spaceport that had been built a reasonable distance from the main hub. The port was significantly smaller than the one up on Spaceport Halifa, but it didn’t really need to be much bigger. Our ship wasn’t the largest class that was rated for landings, but it was getting close. The big capital ships had a tendency to break apart if they had to deal with too much gravity.

Retro thrusters firing, we sidled around until we reached our designated pad, and with a gentle thud and a bit of sway, the Turshen touched down. Roger was immediately up and walking for the elevator. I guess he had to go talk to the dock people, because much like real life, they had customs on all these worlds too.

“Be ready in ten people, I’ll go get us cleared to enter the city,” he called.




The port was connected to the city proper by a free monorail, which we took advantage of once we were cleared to enter the city.

Normally I would have been gawking out the window at the scenery, but I had something far more interesting to watch. Cerri was staring out the window with a look of blissful wonder on her face and a huge smile tugging at her lips.

Cerri? I asked her in a private message. What’s with the excitement?

To my surprise, she messaged me back with her own ocula, although she turned to give me a bashful smile in the process. It’s just so beautiful! Look at it all, teeming with life and energy! I know this is VR, but it’s the first forest I’ve seen with my own eyes and it’s so incredible! I wish I could see the code they used to simulate all of this too, because from a cursory glance it appears to have a proper and diverse ecosystem!

Reading her excited rambling in my ocula, a grin slowly spread across my face, while the fluttering feeling from before gained a few extra wingbeats. She was just so damned painfully cute.

I wish I knew what to do with all of the emotions rushing around inside me, I wish I even understood them. I mean sure, I could tell they were probably good. Especially the nervousness that was not nervousness. It was like a sweet sourness in aching, fluttering emotional form.

We’ll go see it after we’ve been to the university. I promise. I told her with utmost sincerity. Something in me needed her to see it up close, because it was obviously important to her. Even though I’d known her for just a week, I wanted her to be happy.

Plus, if my suspicion about her being an SAI was correct, then this would be a pretty amazing experience for her. How did I talk to her about this though? Was it polite to just ask them? I hadn’t had many interactions with them so far, there weren't a whole lot of them around yet. I think the last population count was like half a million total?

So yeah, I had no clue what was polite to ask, what was private… all that stuff. Like, if she was an SAI, but not saying it, did that just mean she wanted to be treated as just another person on the net, playing games?

You’re doing a lot of thinking again. She told me with a wry smile, the blinking text interrupting my bout of anxious overthinking. But thank you, I’m honestly very excited to go and see it. Have you ever seen forests before?

Only from above. I sighed, looking down and away from her. I felt a little ashamed of my status as the rich kid. I mean, I knew what people rightfully thought of us cloud people. We’d ruined the world by all accounts, and when we’d fixed it, we’d also fixed ourselves in the sky permanently. There would be no popular uprising in the future, nothing could go against the drone swarms of the United Nations Military. We’d seen the videos of what had happened to the American Republic.

“Now you’re thinking and frowning,” Cerri whispered out loud, shuffling closer on the seat. “Did I say something wrong?”

Looking up, I shook my head and battled another funny lighter-than-air feeling in my chest as she worriedly searched my eyes. “No, it’s fine. Just thinking about life. Let’s go back to the jungle, it’s way more interesting.”

“Alright,” she murmured in the tone of someone who was absolutely going to bring the topic up later. Damn it.