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I take another sip of Lensoran bubbly, letting the sour fizz linger on my tongue as I watch the blue-green planet called Earth grow larger in the viewport. Two cabin stewards—blue Kirenai like myself and also in human form—bustle between the shuttle’s empty rows of plush red seats, readying everything for the first human passengers. Earth is the most exotic destination in the galaxy at the moment, off limits to unauthorized surface traffic, and I’m the only “guest” currently on board, having pulled a lot of strings to get on this flight.

I’m curious to meet my first human, but that’s not why I’m here. My marketing team needs images and sensor data to promo our new line of sensors, and this is a great chance to get rare footage of the strange new planet.

One of the stewards pauses next to my seat. “We’re almost ready to land, sir. Can I get you anything else?”

I hand him my glass. “No, thank you.”

We’ll only be on the ground long enough to pick up our human guests—all female—for the IDA cruise, and I need to double check the atmospheric sensor mounted on the outside of the shuttle before we take off again. The IDA charged me nearly as much for the permits to install my equipment as I’d paid in bribes to get a seat on the shuttle, and the trip will be a waste if the sensor isn’t working.

 The moment we touch down, I stride toward the hatch and wait patiently while the boarding ramp unfurls. Hot, humid air sweeps in, making me nostalgic for my home on Kirenai Prime, though here it smells of bitter petrochemicals rather than sweet happa fronds. I pause at the bottom of the ramp to take in my surroundings. 

Our shuttle is the only vessel on a pad made of some sort of hard-packed aggregate painted with white and yellow lines. A strip of shorn green foliage runs down one side of the landing pad, and crude buildings sit in rows in the distance. I can make out tiny figures moving around near the structures, but none show any sign of approaching us.

While the stewards position themselves next to the ramp to await guests, I move to the nose of the shuttle and double check the settings on my company’s sensor. Everything is within expected parameters, so I upload the data already gathered before stepping away to take a few promo shots for marketing. The view near the vessel is less than spectacular, but I didn’t coordinate any extra time for exploration. I activate my comm chip to capture images of a few of the buildings. Perhaps the marketing team can use the “study primitive cultures” angle to sell a few of our products.

A grating rumble reaches me from the other side of the shuttle, so I move around to see a low, boxy vehicle coming to a stop. A female with red-gold hair climbs out, and I start recording as she engages a steward to take her luggage. He leads her up the ramp, and I swivel my recorder back toward the vehicle.

Three other females are getting out, and a human male is removing luggage from the rear of the vehicle. A female with dark hair struggles to remove an enormous case from the rear passenger door. Her sleeveless blouse and shorts expose pale skin that intrigues me, and I wonder if it’s as soft as it looks. My own current human form is based solely on holo images provided by the IDA to help Kirenai guests look appealing to the human females.

After a moment of recording, I realize she can't budge the box on her own and rush forward to help. “Please allow me to assist.”

My Iki'i immediately registers warm tendrils of gratitude as she turns to me. “Oh, God, thank you. I almost dropped it.” 

Her hazel eyes connect with mine, and I suck in a breath. She’s the loveliest being I’ve ever encountered. Her brown hair glints with auburn highlights and is held away from her face by a silver clasp decorated with pointed stars. An intoxicating smell surrounds her, like the petals of a malila flower. I stand there holding one end of the box until she raises her eyebrows. “Do you need another porter to help you?”

Porter? I flush with embarrassment, realizing the other end of the case still rests on the seat inside the vehicle. I pull the case easily from the vehicle, determined to prove I can lift anything she needs, even though I’m not part of the crew.

“Please be very careful,” she says. “This is expensive equipment.”

The case is more awkward than heavy as I hold it against my front and follow her toward the shuttle. I can’t help letting my gaze slide down her back to her pert ass and bare legs. “What sort of equipment, may I ask?”

“Astronomy. I’m writing a thesis on the atmospheric properties of an exoplanet we’ll be passing during the cruise.”

Beautiful and smart. I’d been on matchmaking cruises before and never found a mate—finding a genuine match is rare for Kirenai. But I’m already obsessed with this female, despite having known her a matter of moments.

We reach the top of the ramp and I wave off the steward who tries to take over. “I’ve got this.”

Inside the shuttle, she turns toward me. “Where can I stow this?”

I blink, then cut a gaze across the cabin. “I’m not sure.”

The steward gestures toward the back. “If you would follow me, sir, I can show you.”

Her mouth drops open. “I’m so sorry. Are you not part of the crew?”

I should tell her I’m not, but I want to keep helping her. So instead, I smile and say, “I’m here to serve. My name’s Nazhin.”

“Jennifer,” she says, following close behind as I carry the case to where the steward indicates. 

My mind is spinning with all the questions I want to ask her, and my crotch is aching with other needs. I haven’t felt so strongly attracted to anyone in ages. After stowing the case, I turn around to find her holding out what looks like a slip of colored paper.

“What is this?” I ask, taking it between two fingers.

“A tip.” She frowns. “But I guess Earth money probably doesn’t do you much good, huh?”

I chuckle and hand it back. “A tip isn’t necessary. Though I’d love it if you’d sit with me for the flight up to the Romantasy.”

Wariness pings my Iki'i as she takes a half-step backward. “Sorry, no. I realize this is a singles cruise, but I’m only here for my research. Thank you, though.” Without even a glance back, she turns and sits next to a woman with copper-bright hair.

My Iki'i reels as if it just collided with a wall. I don’t think anyone has ever dismissed me like that, and my chest aches with an uncontrollable desire to be near her. Should I tell her that my company specializes in high-end sensor design? Certainly she’d be interested in that. Then again, she was very clear that she’s not interested in being social.

I settle into a seat a few rows behind her, unable to take my eyes off the back of her seat as I ponder my options. She’s not even open to getting to know me. How can I pursue her if she won’t let me near her? And the longer I look at her, the more the need to be near her her grows. 

She’s here to do research. I glance toward where her case is stowed. I bet she’ll need to lug her equipment around, and will ask for a porter. All I need to do is to be present whenever she needs a hand. And if she thinks I’m part of the crew, well… 

The difficulty will be in keeping the secret long enough for her to get to know me without ever actually lying. And the more I ponder it, the more I like the idea. Smiling to myself, I lean back in my seat. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.

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