Chapter 1:

That Smirk

The Hoshinauts

Sachiko Cook, age eighteen, had commanded three space missions. Handling the press was a piece of cake in comparison. At least, it should have been.

But from her seat atop the stage, it took everything she had to hide her scorn for the assembled reporters. The auditorium was dimly lit, so she couldn’t make out their faces, but she had memorized their names. They had all written articles critical of the space program. It was thanks to them that Neo JAXA had nearly been disbanded, and Sachiko would never forgive them.

If she had her way, Sachiko would have had them all fired, but Neo JAXA's Office of Communications—OCOMM for short—had taken a different approach. It had required a lot of arm twisting, but they had managed to turn the reporters back to their cause. The public would have noticed if the government removed all the critical reporters. It was far better that they appeared to change their opinions of their own accord.

Sachiko had to admit OCOMM's strategy had been for the best, but she didn't trust the reporters. They were, after all, still beholden to their audiences. If the public turned against the space program again, the reporters would fold under the slightest pressure, falling victim to fear, greed, violence, despair, and a host of other failings that remained deeply embedded in the human psyche. She had seen it happen to people like them, and she was sure she would see it again.

Despite her turbulent feelings, she appeared calm. With a relaxed posture and a confident smile, she answered one vapid question after another, making sure to always look directly into one of the dozens of cameras set up behind the press pool. She hadn't always been a natural, but after four years and dozens of press conferences, it would be odd if she hadn't mastered the skills required by now.

The same could not be said of her crewmates. Seated immediately to her right, Pilot Hina Johnson, age sixteen, had the basics down, but she still struggled to keep her eyes focused on the camera when asked a question. There was a trick to looking into the nearest camera while also appearing to look at the speaker, and Hina had yet to master it.

“The problem was, Harmony was spinning now,” Hina said with a grin. “Hooking it with the robotic arm was impossible, but if we left it like that, it would crash into the station. So I grabbed on for dear life and fired my thrusters. It was probably the dumbest thing I've ever done. So many things could have gone wrong. I could have easily made it worse, and I might have died in the process, but luckily, everything lined up perfectly, and I was able to slow it down.”

It was a story she had told to the press hundreds of times, but they never got tired of asking about it. Hina, on the other hand, was sick to death of telling it. She hated reliving that moment of terror when she thought for sure that her life was about to end, but she knew if she let that fear show, they’d never allow her to go to space again, so she hid her feelings and answered with enthusiasm. The world knew her as a girl with boundless strength and energy—JAXA’s own genki girl—and she was determined to keep that appearance up until retirement.

“I guess that's why you're the prodigy of the space program,” the reporter quipped.

“It wasn't just me,” Hina shook her head, causing her short red hair to bob back and forth. “If my crew mates hadn't responded as quickly as they did, I might not have made it back alive.”

The reporter finished writing her notes and stepped away, allowing another to approach. He adjusted his glasses and leaned close to the mic. “Yasu, I hear that you and Hina have known each other for a long time.”

To Hina's right, Flight Engineer Yasu Fisher, also age sixteen, jerked her head up. She was shy around strangers, and had kept her head down to avoid eye contact. “That's right,” she answered, pulling her straight black hair behind her ear. “We went to the same orph—we grew up together.”

“How does it feel to be going to space with your childhood friend?” the reporter followed up.

She glanced nervously at Hina before looking back in the reporter’s general direction. “It's a dream come true. When we were kids, Hina was always helping me. I followed her to JAXA to prove that I can stand on my own now. I'm happy I have a chance to show her how strong I've become.”

It was one of the many responses she had practiced, and she delivered it well. Despite her flaws, Sachiko trusted her to get the job done.

There was, however, one person on the stage who had yet to answer any questions. Sitting to Sachiko's left, Mission Specialist Erika Vidal, age unknown, real name unknown, had spent the entire time sitting straight up and staring at the camera directly in front of her. Sachiko would have preferred Erika remain silent for the rest of the conference, but she knew OCOMM would never allow that to happen.

Sure enough, a reporter from Neo Crystal Tokyo TV stepped up to the mic with a question for her. “Mrs. Vidal—”

“You may call me Erika.”

“Erika then,” the reporter said with an exasperated smile. “How does it feel to have been chosen for this historic mission?”

“It is an honor.”

The reporter waited for Erika to continue, but when she did not, he prompted, “You're a mission specialist, right? Could you tell us a bit about your duties aboard the station?”

This question caught Sachiko's attention. She had no idea why Erika had been assigned to her crew, and neither did anyone at JAXA. She wasn't even a hoshinaut. The order had come from the highest levels of the government, and Erika had thus far refused to talk about it. Sachiko switched to a camera to her left, so she could watch Erika out of the corner of her eye. Erika was visibly tense, but would she let anything slip out of nervousness?

“I will have many duties,” Erika answered, “but rest assured, I will perform them all.”

Despite her disappointment, Sachiko couldn't help but visibly scoff at Erika's inability to answer such a softball question. Though she kept her eyes on the camera, the right side of her mouth curled into a condescending smirk. It lasted only for a moment however, as a ‘Murican reporter stepped up to the mic, and Sachiko snapped back to attention.

“Howdy, y'all. Lot o' folks back home are wonderin' whether y'all are just LARPin’ our ancient history, or if there's some greater meanin' to all this.”

Sachiko forced the smile from her face. This was an unexpectedly serious question, and she needed to appear somber while answering. “It's true that we're not doing much more than reenacting history, but we're not doing it for fun. It's been centuries since we've had a permanent presence in space. A lot of living knowledge has been lost, and the easiest way to relearn it is to trace the steps your ancestors took. Of course, if either the ‘Murican Empire or the Soviet Expedition wanted to participate, I'm sure things would go much faster.”

The two superpowers were not interested in human spaceflight. Neither wanted to risk weaponizing space again, not during a tenuous peace after centuries of war. Sachiko's statement, however, had been what the reporter was looking for. With a big smile on his face, he stepped aside, allowing a Soviet reporter to approach the mic.

“Commander Sachiko,” he said, staring at her with an intense expression on his face, “you appear to have grown in the last year. Will your height not interfere with your mission?”

“I still measure within regulations,” Sachiko said. It was true, but just barely.

“No hoshinaut has ever been cleared to fly past age seventeen,” the reporter pointed out.

“I have,” Sachiko told him. “It will not be a problem.” The reporter opened his mouth as if to say more, but a red light at the bottom of the stage lit up. “I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today. Thank you for coming. If you still need anything, our press office is open until five. Take a left down the hallway as you exit.”

With a fake smile once again plastered on her face, Sachiko stood up, followed by Hina and Yasu. They all turned to their left to exit the stage, only to be blocked by Erika, who remained seated. Sachiko tapped her on the shoulder, causing her to start. She looked up at Sachiko, who pointed towards the stairs on the side of the stage, and Erika quickly leapt up and marched in that direction.

It was only when they entered a restricted hallway did the hoshinauts relax.

“Nice job, everyone,” Hina said.

Yasu rested her head on Hina’s broad shoulder and sighed. “I'm glad we don't have to do that again until we get back.”

The unexpected contact made Hina flinch. She reached her hand up and patted Yasu on the head. After rubbing her cheek back and forth a few times, Yasu straightened up.

“You don't know what happens when the press conferences end?” Sachiko asked.

“Don't tell me,” Yasu groaned.

“That's when the personal interviews begin.”

“It's not that bad,” Hina tried to reassure Yasu. “It'll be a few weeks before they start.”

“But we'll be on the ISS by then,” Yasu pointed out.

“Yeah, we'll be doing them aboard the station,” Hina confirmed. “They're already scheduled.”

“Don't worry about it,” Sachiko added. “The personal interviews are even fluffier than the press conferences.”

As they turned a corner, they abruptly came face-to-face with Neo JAXA’s director. He was an older man, just shy of sixty years old, who hid his age well. His secretary, a gynoid, walked just behind him. The two of them wore expensive matching suits.

“Well done, ladies,” he greeted them, a broad smile on his face. He placed a hand on Sachiko’s shoulder and bent down to murmur into her ear. “Try to stay out of international politics next time.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Sachiko said, grabbing his hand and pulling it firmly off her shoulder. She pinched it as hard as she dared, wanting to hurt him, but not leave a visible bruise. His expression hardened as he did his best not to cry out in pain. “Let me give you some advice in return. Stop. Touching. The. Girls. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“I believe this is the fourth such warning you have issued,” the secretary said. “However, you have once again mistaken the director’s intentions. He lost his balance and instinctively grabbed you to steady himself, though he is too proud to admit it.”

“Always an excuse,” Sachiko grumbled.

“You may rest assured,” the secretary said, “I am keeping a very close eye on him.”

Sachiko immediately backed off. “Sorry. I know you’re always with him. I didn’t mean—”

“No need to apologize,” the gynoid told her. “You were only concerned about the space program’s image. I promise you, there will be no scandals under our watch. Now, we’re late for a meeting. Please excuse us.”

As the secretary prodded the director forward, Erika took advantage of the distraction to split off down a side hallway. She walked quickly to distance herself from the group.

Hina quickly noticed. “Hey, Erika,” she called out. “Erika. Hey, Erika. Erikaaaaa.”

Once again, Erika started, but this time, Sachiko was convinced that it was because she’d just remembered her own alias. She hadn't responded because she hadn't realized Hina was addressing her. She turned around to face Hina. “Yes, what do you want?”

“Good job today,” Hina said.

“I don't need your fake sympathy,” Erika replied.

“No, I'm serious,” Hina insisted. “That wasn't bad for your first time. You were a little stiff, but you didn't say anything you shouldn't.”

“I don't need your real sympathy either,” Erika huffed. She turned back around and marched off.

“Don't forget to report for quarantine tomorrow morning,” Sachiko called after her. “I'm not going to come find you again if you forget.”

“I will have many duties,” Yasu imitated in a mocking voice, “but rest assured, I will perform them all.” She may have been shy around strangers, but she didn’t hold back amongst friends.

She used to only open up around Hina, but lately, she’d been more assertive in Sachiko’s presence. Hina considered it a good thing, but she couldn’t help but worry that Sachiko’s pessimism was rubbing off on her friend.

“At least she knew her place,” Sachiko commented.

“Come on,” Hina said. “Do you always have to be so mean?”

“What do you think will happen if we're nice to her?” Sachiko shot back.

“You'll feel better inside,” Hina answered.

“The government won't get the message,” Sachiko said. “They'll keep pulling stunts like this until they get someone killed. If they're going to force unqualified people into our crews, we have a duty to make it as unpleasant as possible for them.”

“I don't think the suits care how tough we are on Erika,” Hina observed, “and things would be easier on us if she was more cooperative.”

“She's never once tried to cooperate with us,” Sachiko said, “but I appreciate what you're saying. It's just… you're too pure. That's not a bad thing, but you're easily taken advantage of. Leave the interpersonal stuff to me, OK? Just concentrate on the mission.”

“Promise you won't do anything stupid to ground her,” Hina requested.

“Don't worry,” Sachiko smiled, “she's coming to space with us. I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize our launch. You know as well as I do how unforgiving space is, and we won't always be able to protect her.”

“Why does that sound like a threat?” Hina chuckled nervously.

Sachiko scoffed. “You know I wouldn't do something like that.”

“Sometimes I don't understand why you do the things you do,” Hina said. “You're so needlessly mean-spirited.”

“Every time someone dies in space, it causes problems for us,” Sachiko said. “I don't want Erika to get hurt, and I'll do everything to prevent it, but there’s a decent chance it will happen no matter what we do. She doesn't have the proper training or mindset.”

“That's true,” Hina admitted, “but still…”

“We need to trust each other,” Sachiko said, “or else this mission will fail. If you can't trust me, you need to say something now. There's not much time before launch.”

“Didn't you just say I was too trusting? Too pure?”

“I also said you shouldn't change that,” Sachiko smiled.

Hina sighed. “I trust you. How could I not? It's only… I don't get why you're so awful to other people.”

“We just went over this. I have to be mean to Erika.”

“It's not just Erika,” Hina insisted. “You push away anyone you think doesn't measure up to your standards. You're isolating yourself.”

“I don't need weak people in my life,” Sachiko snarled. “You, of all people, should understand that. We're special. We don't break under pressure like they do. That's why we're here.”

“Everyone has their breaking point,” Hina said, “and you're not as strong as you think you are. You're blind to your own weaknesses.”

“Oh? If you know so much about me, what are my weaknesses?”

Hina hesitated. She wasn't sure if this was the right place or time to humble Sachiko. Maybe she should wait until after they returned to Earth. On the other hand, she didn't know how Sachiko would react, and if this came up again while they were in space, it could cause real problems. She decided to come clean. “You can't say no to the gynoids. I've manipulated you countless times by convincing the gynoids to give you an order. I'm not the only one, either.”

“That's not a weakness,” Sachiko argued. “They're the future of humankind. It doesn't matter where the idea comes from, if they—”

“Ohmygosh Sacchan,” Yasu shrieked, interrupting the conversation. “You're trending on SNS!”

“They're finally paying attention to us?” Sachiko asked. She reached for the smartphone that Yasu was offering, but frowned when she saw what was on the screen.

The top post read, “THAT SMIRK! 😍” It contained a photo of the brief moment when Sachiko had scoffed at Erika on stage. The next one was similar, if a bit more reserved. “That smirk says it all.” Each post had a few hundred likes and dozens of replies.

“The Sachiko x Erika shippers are having a field day,” Yasu said.

“They're shipping us?” Sachiko exclaimed.

“Some of them are,” Yasu said. “Since Erika was added to the crew recently, there aren't many who ship her. Most see her as the unwelcome interloper interfering with the existing ships, but because you always put yourself between us and her during press events, there are a fair number who jumped aboard the Erika x Sachiko ship. There were only a handful who preferred Sachiko x Erika, but I bet this will cause more to cross over.”

“How long has this been going on?” Sachiko asked, pushing the phone back into Yasu's hands.

“Since our first press conference. It was just a few hardcore space nerds, but the hoshinauts tag on Ao3 has been growing.” She showed Sachiko the phone again. There were thousands of stories, but from a glance, it appeared that they only had a few hundred hits each.

“This is gross,” Sachiko frowned. “This is wrong.”

“I totally get you,” Yasu said, not at all understanding what Sachiko had meant. “I'd be upset if I were you, but if you want to be seen as the top more often, you need to stop giving off that jealous bottom energy.”

“I do not—” Sachiko yelled. Hina put her hand over her own mouth to stifle a laugh, and Sachiko took a moment to collect herself. “Do me a favor and send this to OCOMM. It's their job to deal with publicity issues, and we don't have time for these kinds of distractions. We launch in two weeks. I want you both to devote yourself to the mission full time until then. Got it?”

“Yes, Commander,” Hina said, still giggling.

“Yes, Commander,” Yasu echoed, a blank expression on her face. She had no intention of reporting the hoshinaut shipping community to the higher-ups, not after all the work she had done to create it.

F.C Fondness
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