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The trip to the university was simultaneously really cool and utterly boring. Really cool because the city was incredible, rising high above the jungle canopy, you could hear the sounds of life below wherever you went. Then there was the bloody great gas giant hanging in the sky, that was a thing too. I kept having to wrangle Cerri as she rubbernecked like it was her day job.

On the boring side though… well, we had to wait for a very long time speaking to a clerk at the university before she understood what we were there for. Then we had to wait for the professor who’d put up the job listing to come and meet us.

This was like, the year 3000 or something, why the hell were we having an in person meeting when the net existed? Academics were weird.

Anyway, a crusty old white dude with a beard told us in excruciating detail why this mission was of the utmost importance. Cerri seemed to catch it, but all of the science talk went over my head.

The mission itself was fairly simple, fly out to the edge of known space and scan a weird looking cloud of aether. It would take us a pretty damn long time to get out there, multiple months if my offhand calculations were right.

The thing about Digital Galaxies was that sure, the whole galaxy was simulated, but the actual area that humanity had spread over wasn’t even a drop in the ocean. It would take almost a year to travel across that area at the speeds that current aether drives could get up to.

All this meant that we now had ourselves a long term objective to chase while we did smaller jobs along the way. Perfect for adventuring. One of us should really get into streaming actually, this would be a really fun journey to watch. No wait, a video series would be better, a stream of us flying in a ship for months would actually be really boring.

Leaving the university, Cerri turned quickly to Roger. “Cap, can Alia and I go down and look at the jungle for a bit? I really want to see it.”

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said without hesitation. “Warren will be helping me look at the markets to see if we can find some cargo to haul to our next stop.”

I opened my mouth to say I could help with that too, but then closed it again. I’d go with Cerri and see the jungle, no need to do everything around the ship. Also like, business shit had slowly become something that my mind associated with my parents and the pressures they had put on me. No matter how good at it I was, it would always be a source of anxiety for me.

“I’m going to go and see about buying us some luxuries for our ship,” Gloria told the crew thoughtfully. “Wanna come Jason?”

“I’m not sure we have the money for—“ Roger began, but our pilot cut him off.

“With real money,” she smiled, hand on hip. “There’s a cash shop in this city that sells some cool stuff, and I have a tiny bit of money to throw around right now from my last airshow. If we’re going to be stuck on the ship for weeks at a time, may as well buy us some gaming stations.”

“We’re already playing a game though?” Cerri asked, confusion etched between her perfect brows.

Gloria gave a friendly, amused snort. “Cerri, my girl… this is like, more of an alternate reality than a game. Sure, it’s fun to fly a big spaceship and shit, but it’s not that much more fun than the real world, hour to hour. Got to keep ourselves occupied somehow.”

“Oh,” the demon girl murmured, surprised and clearly not having thought of that. I hadn’t either, so it wasn’t crazy out there, but this was yet another mark of an SAI’s innocence when it came to living in real time. I was pretty convinced she was one now, but I would wait for her to tell me that. No sense in rushing her, we were all just people inside this game after all.

“It’s a plan then, see you all back at the ship in a couple of hours,” Roger agreed with a clap of his hands. “Thanks for putting out some money by the way Gloria. You didn’t have to.”

“Ah, it’s nothing,” she shrugged, waving him off. “Y'all probably all on basic anyway, so yeah. No big deal.”

You should invest some of it, I told her via the group text chat. There’s a lot of volatility in the market right now, but I’m sure there’s a place you could put it to make some steady gains.

“Ugh, that’s way too much effort,” Gloria groaned. It wasn’t even that much effort, but I wasn’t going to press her.

The group parted there, with Gloria, Jason, Roger and Warren all going for the train, while Cerri and I set off along the street to find a way down. A quick search on the net told me that there were actually walkways that would give us a safe look at the jungle down there.

“I’ve tried to get her to invest in the company that makes this game,” Cerri said after a minute or two of walking. “She’s not really about that sort of thing though. She’s a… she likes to go at things head on. Not really the thinking type, I guess.”

“I got that impression,” I giggled, glancing a smile at my companion. “You’re the thinking type though.”

“So are you,” she chuckled back, our eyes meeting for a brief moment, smiles sparking off each other like unshielded wires drawn too close together.

For some reason that interaction had me blushing and looking down at my feet. To deflect from my embarrassment, I sent her a question via my ocula. So what’s good about investing in the company that makes Digital Galaxies? Gosh I don’t even know their name.

“Their name is Digital Exodus,” Cerri explained, mercifully ignoring my bright red face. “So far, all the human investors haven’t really taken them seriously because they’re SAI. They think of um... them as children. SAI are coming into society right now with no capital, so they’re really in need of money.”

“Wow, that’s stupid,” I frowned, speaking out loud again because like… it was really really stupid. “Even I can see this game is going to take off… here, give me a second.”

Opening my VR overlay, I went through and found the app to throw some money behind the devs of this game. I didn’t have any investments going at the moment, having cashed out of everything a few months ago when I saw that politics across the globe was getting dicey. Just needed to make sure I saved enough money to survive until my legal situation was fixed up and I could get on basic.

 Giving me a funny look, Cerri askedm “What… did you just do?”

“Bought some shares,” I told her awkwardly, suddenly wondering if I’d messed up.

Rather than getting upset, a smile grew across her face and all of a sudden she was hugging me. It took me a second to even process all the emotions and sensations that slammed into me like a truck.

First, there was her warmth, body radiating heat in a way that made me want to smoosh my face in as tight against her as I could. She smelled wonderful too, sweet and warm, maybe a vanilla and fruit perfume of some kind. Then there was the way her body seemed to fold me in, like a tall, beautiful and feminine blanket. She felt like… she felt like safety, like a place where I could let my guard down and just relax a little.

My arms were coming up to wrap around her thin waist before I even consciously realised it, but once they were there, I held on for dear life. I wanted to keep hugging her, it felt so nice, a balm to my soul that I hadn’t known I needed.

Then she was releasing me, and I had to do the same for fear of being weird. Her absence ached the moment contact ceased between us, a deep seated need replacing it.

We stood and stared at each other for several seconds, cyan to starlight, the both of us with cheeks ever so slightly flushed. It was so incredibly awkward, but also… not? It was hard to describe, a sort of magnetic tension filling the space between us.

“I uh… I wanted to talk to you about something,” she told me, eyes flitting bashfully to the pavement for a moment, then back to meet mine. “I mean, if you’re okay talking about personal things. Mine, I mean… my personal things. Not yours, that’s up to you to… nevermind. Um, yeah. If it’s okay… I guess. Is it okay?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, voice refusing to go any louder. I was breathless, wondering what she would say. Was she going to tell me she wasn’t human?

“I um… so I’m like, twenty eight years old now… I think. It’s hard to tell. Um, anyway I figure you’ve been really good, you’re such a sweet, kind person and… I think of you as a friend, I mean we’re new to being friends but that’s how I see it,” she babbled, clearly very nervous. In an act that was very out of character for me, I gathered her hands up with mine and squeezed them tight. My heart was beating so fast for her, whatever she wanted to tell me, it was obviously incredibly important to her.

“I’m… I’m an SAI,” she finally blurted, lowering her voice as though someone around us might jump out and try to attack her or something. “I know that’s not like, a massive deal anymore. But… I’m always worried when I tell someone because I don’t know if they will even see me as a person afterwards. Not that I think you’ll be like that, obviously… it’s just…”

“I know,” I told her with a funny, wobbly smile. “I sort of guessed from the way you have said and done certain things. Oh um… and I definitely see you as a person still. I mean, I probably see you as more of a person, considering how aggressively stupid some fleshlings can be.”

“Fleshlings,” she giggled, her nose scrunching up all cute-like. “Yeah… I know. I mean, SAI can be pretty dumb too sometimes. It’s not a meatsack-exclusive trait.”

“Yeah but I feel like the meatsacks have you beat as far as like, stupidity per capita or whatever,” I grinned, enjoying the way her eyes were sparkling with joy. She was so damned pretty, and cute… and smart… and just, so many good and wonderful things.

It was about then that she noticed our fingers were now intertwined in a messy knot, like a pair of old wired headphones forgotten in someone’s pocket. She let them go with a blink, eyes dancing nervously all over the place.

“Anyway, we should um… keep walking, find a way down to the jungle and stuff. Not that i want to stop talking about this… but I want to see the forest as well. I mean, the jungle. Wait no, I think a jungle is a type of forest. Goodness, I should know that, but I’m all funny because that was scary and now my stupid brain isn’t operating properly and… yeah,” she rambled adorably, a bashful smile all across her lips.

“Let’s go find the jungle that might also be a forest then,” I said, trying to squash a flutter in my heart and an amused grin from my mouth. Gosh, how was she so damned cute? She looked like a succubus but she was just an adorable nerd. I think… I think I might have been catching feelings for her… or whatever. I wasn’t an expert. I didn’t know what it was meant to feel like.