Erika was completely terrified. There was over a million kilograms of fuel within the shuttle and its boosters, and if something went wrong, they’d all be burned alive. That there hadn’t been any launch accidents in modern history was small comfort. With such little margin for error, the possibility remained. She did her best to hide her fear, but the other hoshinauts picked up on it.
“Looks like the cargo’s scared,” Yasu observed.
It was launch day, and the four of them were sitting on the flight deck of the space shuttle Endeavour. Hina and Sachiko were seated at the front, Hina on the port side, and Sachiko starboard. Erika was strapped down to a seat in the middle of the deck, and Yasu was behind her on the starboard side.
“She has every right to be,” Sachiko said. “She’s about to experience sustained three Gs for the first time in her life. Poor thing might pass out. Though, since she’s just dead weight anyway, that wouldn’t be a problem.”
Everything they said was being broadcast to mission control, but they knew the rest of Neo JAXA felt the same way about Erika, so they didn’t hold back.
“Come on, Sacchan,” Yasu giggled, “it’s less than a minute. No one would pass out from that.”
“You’d be surprised how fragile some people are,” Sachiko told her.
“Eh?” Yasu exclaimed. “Eeeeeh? You mean she’s even weaker than me? Ohmygosh, her leg is twitching. Do you think she’s pissing herself with fear?”
“I’m not,” Erika said through clenched teeth.
“Ah, ah, ah,” Sachiko said, wagging a finger. “The cargo doesn’t get to speak, remember? It might interfere with flight procedures.”
“OK, that’s enough,” a woman’s voice crackled over their headsets. “Let’s keep it clean, OK, Yasu?”
“Sorry,” Yasu cooed, though it didn’t sound to anyone like she meant it.
“We’re turning on the camera,” the voice reported, “so whatever you say next is going to be streamed to thousands of viewers.”
“Understood,” Sachiko confirmed.
“Thank you, Melina,” Hina added. She sighed inwardly. Where had the kind Yasu she knew as a child gone? It was Sachiko’s fault she had become like this. No, that wasn’t fair. Yasu had gained a lot of confidence after Sachiko took her under her wing. Hina had never been able to do that much for Yasu, and she knew she was jealous of Sachiko for it.
Still, she couldn’t approve of this hazing, and it hurt to see Yasu participating in it.
“Alright ladies,” another voice, a man’s this time, came over the mic, “We’ve got perfect conditions, so let’s not waste any time getting you up there.” The communications feed briefly became a flurry of activity as the Orbiter Test Coordinator read out a checklist of instructions.
Erika tried to follow along, but the chatter was too fast-paced, and too laced with jargon, for her to understand anything. It abruptly halted, and Hina began tapping on her instrument panel. Erika desperately wanted to ask what was going on, but she knew she would only be getting in the way, so she bit her tongue.
“OTC, PLT,” Hina said after what had seemed like hours to Erika, but in fact had only been a few seconds. “Caution-and-warning memory is cleared, no unexpected errors.”
No unexpected errors? Erika thought to herself. There are expected errors? I don’t like that. What if—
“Endeavour, OTC,” the man’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Close and lock your visors, and initiate O2 flow.”
This was the one instruction Erika knew she had to listen for. She hurriedly pulled her visor down but her hands were trembling so much that she struggled to grab the bailer bar and lock it into place. Yasu had to reach over and pull it down for her. Unfortunately for Erika, there was nobody sitting to her left, so she was on her own to open the oxygen valve. By the time she got it open, there were less than thirty seconds to launch.
“GLS is go for main engine start,” yet another voice said over the comm.
Erika took a deep breath to steel herself, but nothing could prepare her for what was about to come. At T-minus 6 seconds, a powerful jolt wracked the ship, and for a sickening moment, Erika feared it was going to tip over, but it bucked back just as hard in the other direction. The roar of the engine pervaded the ship, drowning out Erika’s screams of terror.
OCOMM, foreseeing that Erika might freak out, had made arrangements to cut her mic during launch. Hopefully, to outsiders, it would look like she was shouting in excitement. It helped that Sachiko and Hina, who were closer to the camera, had big grins on their faces. For the first few seconds, it was convincing, even as the shuttle rolled along its vertical axis. When it pitched, however, Erika flailed her arms in panic, and Yasu had to grab her right arm to stop her from smacking Hina in the side of the head.
Yasu’s firm grip had a calming effect on Erika. In the periphery of her vision, she could make out the grimace on Yasu’s face, though she misunderstood what it meant. To Erika, Yasu’s frown was one of pity and disgust at her cowardice, but Yasu was thinking only of how this would look to the shippers. Yasu x Erika was the least popular ship, and not one that Yasu wanted to encourage, but she knew there was no helping it now. By the time they reached the ISS, there would be at least half a dozen new Yasu x Erika fics about them holding hands during launch.
Nodding slightly, Erika slowly pulled her arm towards her chest, and Yasu let her go. Erika managed to control her fear for the next couple minutes until booster separation, when another jolt rattled the ship, causing Erika to flail about once again.
The rest of the ascent was uneventful, and once Erika got used to it, boring even. The acceleration was not enough to seriously bother her, and by the time of external tank separation, just over eight minutes into the flight, Erika had managed to completely calm herself. The danger, she felt, had largely passed.
A few minutes later, Erika heard a voice over her headset, “We’re turning the cameras off.” She recognized the speaker as the woman Hina had called Melina, but she was so distracted by the feeling of microgravity that she barely registered the words.
“How’s the cargo doing? Sachiko asked Yasu. “Still with us?”
“Seems so,” Yasu answered. “I’ll take her to the WCS so she can change out of her dirty diapy.”
“I’m fine,” Erika said, brushing away Yasu’s hand.
“Mission control, where’s our rendezvous profile?” Sachiko asked, ignoring the drama behind her.
“Sending it now,” a voice replied over the radio. “You’re on track to rendezvous in about 21 hours.”
“Been there, done that,” Sachiko scoffed. “Hina, how fast can you get us there?”
“Seven hours,” Hina answered.
“Great,” Sachiko smiled. “Let’s do that.”
“What’s going on?” Erika asked, fear creeping back into her heart.
“Mission control recommended a standard approach to the ISS, but we’re taking an expedited route,” Hina explained.
“You’re disobeying orders?!” Erika gasped.
“Relax,” Hina said. “It’s perfectly safe. I wouldn’t do anything dangerous.”
“And we’re not disobeying orders,” Sachiko added. “I’m in command; I give the orders. Now, let’s get out of these pumpkins. We’ve got a lot of filming to do before we reach the ISS.”
“Filming?” Erika asked.
“Don’t know about you, but our primary mission is to film a reality show,” Sachiko said, reaching over to disconnect parts of Hina’s ACE suit.
“I knew JAXA was having budget issues,” Erika said, “but isn’t that like trying to pay for a house by selling matches?”
“OCOMM thinks it’ll change public perception of the program if we can demonstrate that we’re living normal lives up here,” Hina said.
“Besides, the cute girls doing cute things genre is popular right now,” Yasu said. “We’ll make a good haul.”
“Look who’s calling herself cute again,” Hina quipped, causing Yasu to lean forward and give her a friendly punch in the arm.
“That was great,” Sachiko observed. “Do that again later for the cameras.”
“Take over for a bit,” Hina told Sachiko. “Just keep watch while I change. Yasu, give me a hand.” The two of them unstrapped themselves and floated off to the mid deck.
“Endeavour,” Melina’s voice came a minute later. “The director has requested… footage of you changing out of your suits.”
“Absolutely not,” Sachiko snapped. “You can tell the director that if he can’t keep it in his pants, I can make some calls and have him replaced.”
There were a few moments of silence as Melina relayed Sachiko’s threat, and then, after a brief, audible scuffle, a man’s voice came on the line. “You know I don’t mean it that way, Satch.”
“And you know I don’t make empty threats,” Sachiko countered.
“A little skinmanship in the changing room is a CGDCT staple,” the director pleaded. “It would do wonders for our image.”
“I don’t care,” Sachiko said. “They’re underage.”
“I’m not asking for nudity,” the director said, “but if you’re that concerned about it, how about you and Erika? You’re both, uh, legal.”
“Are we?” Sachiko asked, raising an eyebrow. “Did you learn something about our mysterious cargo?”
“Well, no,” the director admitted, “but we’ve both seen the way she handles herself…”
“I swear officer, I thought she was eighteen,” Sachiko said in a mocking imitation of the director. “It doesn’t matter how old she is. We’re not doing it. Don’t say another word. I’m serious.”
Inwardly, Sachiko was furious at the director, and not just because of his inappropriate suggestion. She had the same suspicions about Erika, but she had been keeping them secret. She wanted as much advantage over Erika as possible. Luckily, he hadn’t spilled the beans completely, and he had backed off. It wouldn’t be impossible for Sachiko to have him replaced, but he was well-connected. It would cost her a lot of favors.
“Sorry about that,” Melina apologized. “He threatened to have me reassigned.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Sachiko told her.
“Thanks, Commander,” Hina said, arriving back on the flight deck. “I’ll take it from here.” She was wearing a navy blue tank top and khaki shorts. Given her exchange with the director, Sachiko was worried that Hina was showing too much skin, but she knew why Hina preferred to dress this way in space. If she needed to go on another emergency spacewalk, she could quickly change out of these clothes.
The attire seemed to have another benefit as well: It showed off Hina’s impressive physique, and Sachiko couldn’t help but notice that Erika appeared intimidated by Hina’s large biceps.
Yasu, on the other hand, was wearing a blue jumpsuit. She seemed to wear it everywhere, even in the dorms, and honestly, Sachiko approved. It was very practical, and she often wore a jumpsuit herself. She knew, however, that Yasu only wore jumpsuits because she had a hard time coordinating outfits. During the years when normal girls were developing their fashion senses, Yasu had devoted herself entirely to hoshinaut training.
“All yours,” Sachiko said, unbuckling herself. “Yasu, get the cameras set up. Cargo, with me.”
She led Erika to the mid deck, allowing her some time to adjust to moving in microgravity. Meanwhile, Yasu began unpacking and setting up cameras to film their show. The cameras built into the shuttle were designed first and foremost to be sturdy, so their picture quality was poor.
Thankfully, Erika adjusted quickly, and it wasn’t long before Sachiko was changing into her own jumpsuit. She chanced a glance at Erika’s suitcase. To say her wardrobe was plain would be an understatement. Sachiko knew it might just be confirmation bias on her part, but it appeared Erika only owned clothes that would draw as little attention as possible.
Once Erika had finished changing into a cream colored polo shirt and jeans, Sachiko grabbed a large bag full of playing cards from storage and urged Erika back to the flight deck.
“Alright, script says we need thirty minutes of footage playing Old Maid,” Sachiko announced.
“We’ve got a Hohmann Transfer in twenty five,” Hina said. “Let’s make it twenty.”
“Twenty minutes it is,” Sachiko nodded, strapping Erika back into her seat. “Cameras ready?”
“Rolling,” Yasu confirmed.
Sitting sideways in her chair, Sachiko shuffled and dealt the cards, handing them directly to the others. Hina glanced quickly at her hand, then, turning her attention back to the monitors, picked out the pairs and handed them to Sachiko, who put them back in the bag.
Once the others returned their pairs, the game began. Sachiko gathered her hand and held it out for Erika, who grabbed a card at random. It didn’t make a pair, so she offered her hand to Yasu, who quickly picked a card. When it came time for Hina to pick, however, she didn’t turn away from the monitors.
“Third from the left,” Hina said. Yasu took the card and handed it to Hina. Without even looking, Hina flicked it towards Sachiko, then flicked a matching card in the same direction.
Erika was so stunned by this that she didn’t notice Sachiko offering her hand until she smacked Erika over the head with it. Had Yasu somehow communicated with Hina? Had they set something up beforehand? Erika had watched Sachiko shuffle the deck, and she hadn’t noticed anything unusual about it, but to her chagrin, the game continued in this manner until she was left holding the old maid, and Hina had won handily.
“Let me deal next,” Erika demanded, and Sachiko handed over the cards with a self-satisfied grin.
In the end, they played three games, and the result was always the same. Hina won, and Erika was left holding the old maid. Though she kept a watchful eye on the trio, Erika had no idea how they were doing it, and it ate at her. They were just children, and yet they were toying with her so easily. It was bad enough they had rubbed her uselessness in her face during the launch. Were they trying to show her that they were better than her in everything?
No, of course not. They were just trying to provoke her, like the immature children they were. As the only adult aboard, she knew she couldn’t sink to their level. She wouldn’t get back at them, nor would she resent them for what they had done. She would bury her pride and acknowledge that her life was in their hands. It was the mature thing to do.
And yet, it only made her feel worse. If she couldn’t get angry at them, there was only one person she could be angry with: herself.