“Please don’t tell me they’re sending a Progress up here just to deliver some pajamas,” Yasu groaned.
It was early morning aboard the ISS, and the four hoshinauts were gathered in Unity. Melina was talking them through their schedule for the day over video chat.
“OK,” Melina said, “I won’t. We’re sending a Soyuz, and it’s carrying more than just pajamas.”
The atmosphere quickly turned tense.
“We’ve only been here a few days,” Sachiko said, crossing her arms. “As much as I’d like to hope we’re sending the cargo home, if it were that easy to get rid of her, we would have done so before launch.”
“So,” Yasu voiced the question that Sachiko had danced around, “are we getting more hoshinauts, or more cargo?”
“I’m not allowed to say,” Melina admitted. “Director thinks it’ll make good footage if it’s a surprise.”
“Melina,” Sachiko sighed, “I don’t need to remind you that I’m responsible for the safety of my crew and this station. No matter how good of a surprise it is, I need to know about any potential threats.”
“You don’t need to remind me,” Melina agreed. “I would let you know if there were any potential danger.”
“That’s not your call,” Sachiko said, keeping her voice even. “It’s mine.”
“C’mon, Sachi,” Melina said. “We’ve known each other for how many years? Would it kill you to trust me for once in your life?”
“I do trust you,” Sachiko replied, “but when lives are at stake, I can’t afford to take your word for it.”
“Figures,” Melina sighed, “but you’ll listen to a gynoid, right?”
A gynoid leaned into the frame from Melina’s right, flashing a peace sign. “Do not worry. There is no danger to you or the mission. I look forward to seeing the footage.”
“So there you have it,” Melina said with a huge grin on her face.
Sachiko looked like she wanted to say something further, but she pressed her lips tight and took a deep breath instead. “Fine. Anything else?”
“That’s all from mission control,” Melina reported.
“Great,” Sachiko snapped before anyone else could say anything. “You three, go ahead and get started. Melina, we need to talk in private.”
“Ohhhhh, Melina’s in trouble,” Hina and Yasu whooped as Sachiko floated off towards the Russian segment.
“The hell was that?” Sachiko growled into her headset when she arrived in Zvezda.
“Whoa, Sachi, calm down. I was just following orders.”
“Oh, you were following orders, were you? Tell me, who ordered you to undermine my authority in front of the crew?”
“Sorry,” Melina scoffed. “I didn’t think you’d throw a tantrum over it.”
“Melina, this is important. Who gave the order?”
“I didn’t mean it like that. Director thought it would be a fun surprise, and Flight agreed. Since we know who’s onboard, we didn’t consider it a safety concern, and the quickest way to resolve this was to ask Surgeon to reassure you.”
“And neither of you thought for a second about how that would make me look to my crew.”
“OK, Sachi, if you’re really hung up about rank, maybe you should listen when the director gives orders. It’s not your place to decide who launches, or when.”
To Sachiko, that was probably the stupidest thing she’d ever heard Melina say. Had she not paid any attention to the shifting power dynamics at Neo JAXA? Did she not realize the director was just keeping the chair warm for Sachiko until she came of age? Worse, was she completely ignorant of her own position and duties? Getting mad at Melina had been as pointless as getting mad at a small child who didn’t understand what they had done wrong.
When Sachiko next spoke, her voice was calm, but had a sharp edge to it.
“But it is my responsibility to keep my crew safe, and it’s your responsibility to facilitate communication between us and Flight. You’re not there to solve problems without being asked. The next time a situation like this comes up, just say that you’ll relay my concerns to Flight, then we can hash it out in private. Do you understand?”
Melina still thought Sachiko was overreacting, but she couldn’t argue with that logic, and there was something about Sachiko’s tone that told her it would be a bad idea to talk back, so she answered simply, “Got it.”
“Good. Oh, and one more thing. I’m giving you a second chance because you have a lot of potential, but mess up again, and your career is over.”
“Sure thing,” Melina said, making no attempt to hide her sarcasm.
“If you don’t believe me, ask a gynoid. They’ll tell you what’s up. Sachiko out.”
Before Melina could respond, Sachiko switched off her headset. She had to admit that felt good. Ever since Hina had pointed out that people were using the gynoids to influence her decisions, she’d wondered if she‘d ever have the chance to do the same to others. Most people avoided gynoids as much as possible. Very few understood how intelligent—or important—they really were.
It was nearly midnight aboard the station, and Yasu floated silently from the Russian segment to the United States segment. As she passed through Harmony, she waved to the cameras set up to monitor Erika’s crew quarters at night. She may have kept her plan secret from the others on the station, but she had made sure to get OCOMM’s approval first.
When she reached the Kibou module, she set up a camera and hooked her tablet up to it. Tapping on the tablet, she began the livestream and waited for people to join. The stream had only been announced hours prior, so she didn’t expect a large audience, but to her surprise, hundreds joined in the first minute. From the usernames, she could tell it was a good mix of JAXA employees, space nerds, and people from the shipping community. When the viewer count neared a thousand, she pointed the camera at herself.
“Sup, nerds?” she greeted them. OCOMM had advised her to adopt an outgoing persona, to act like she was a v-tuber, and the audience her simps, in order to overcome her shyness. “Welcome to the top-secret stream. I’m gonna give you a tour of the station because Sacchan chickened out.
“Right now I’m in Kibou. That’s right, weebs, it’s the Japanese module. It’s not only the biggest room on the station, it’s also the quietest. The original station had a big robotic arm attached to it for experiments, but we don’t do experiments, so we mostly use it for storage.”
She pointed the camera overhead, showing off some of the luggage tied down in the logistics module. At the same time, she checked the chat. There were only a few messages, but none of them negative, and the viewer count was continuing to climb. Nobody had gotten offended at being called a nerd or a weeb. Perhaps this was going to work after all.
“Alright, next we have Harmony. The module that Hina just looooves to brag about saving, and now she sleeps in it.” She stopped outside Hina’s cabin and grabbed one of the door handles. “The station is noisy, and these doors block out a lot of noise, but Hina’s a deep sleeper.”
She opened the door and focused the camera on the cabin. Hina was indeed in her sleeping bag, with a facemask over her eyes and mufflers over her ears. Her jaw hung slack, a telltale sign that she was asleep.
“See, what did I tell you?” Yasu asked rhetorically. She poked Hina on the cheek to demonstrate that she would remain asleep, but the action caused Hina to close her mouth and swallow.
“Yasu…” Hina groaned, causing Yasu to freeze up. Had she really been caught so early in the stream? “Yasu, don’t cry. You can have my dessert.” She hadn’t woken after all. She was just talking in her sleep.
“Ohmygosh,” Yasu gasped, barely more than a whisper. She turned the camera back towards her own face. “I can’t believe she still remembers that. That was ages ago. We were just kids. I was gonna draw a mustache on her while she slept, but that was too sweet. OK chat, say nighty-night to Hina.”
Yasu was in an ecstatic mood. She still had a place in Hina’s heart. Even if it was only as a fond memory, that was more than she had ever expected. Not once had Hina ever spoken fondly of their time in the orphanage.
As she slid the door closed, Hina mumbled, “You look really cute today, Claire,” and Yasu’s heart fell, plummeting through the bottom of the station and burning up in the atmosphere.
Claire?! Who’s that? Yasu thought to herself. She quickly racked her brain. There was nobody named Claire in the space program. It wasn’t a common name in modern times, so she was sure she’d remember. Maybe she’s got a secret girlfriend? No way. When would she find the time? Shit, the stream! OK, deep breath. I can do this.
“Everyone calls her the prodigy of the space program for her piloting skills, but honestly, being able to sleep like that in microgravity is much more impressive,” Yasu blathered, saying the first thing that came to her mind to get the stream back on track. “Let’s head to the kitchen. She did say I could have her dessert.”
Floating quickly into Unity, Yasu opened a food compartment and pulled out a bag of chocolate pudding. “Her favorite,” Yasu explained to the camera. Opening the packet, she squirted a blob of it into the air and then, after letting it float for a few seconds, chomped down on it in an exaggerated motion.
She really didn’t want to be doing this right now. She wanted to go back to her cabin, curl up into a ball, and cry, but she had suggested this stream, and she was going to see it through.
“Yum!” She exclaimed. “Food doesn’t taste as strong in space, but you can’t go wrong with pudding. I wonder if they put extra sugar in it to compensate. We don’t have to worry about getting fat, because we work out every day.
“Anyway, this is pretty much the social center of the station. We do all our group activities here. There’s not a lot of room, and since Sachhan tenses up whenever someone gets close to the airlock, there’s not much space to move around.”
There was no reason for her to say that, and Sachiko would be pissed when she found out. Maybe that was why she had done it. She wanted someone else to be mad at her. She glanced at the chat. JAXA employees were trying to assure everyone that the airlock was completely safe now, and Sachiko had no reason to worry. Twisting the lid back onto the pudding, Sachiko put it back in the fridge.
“Alright, where are my Soviets? Any Soviets in the chat?” A few hundred viewers flooded the chat with emojis. “We’re about to enter the Russian segment. You won’t want to miss this. It’s smaller than the United States segment, but it contains the most important module on the station.”
The tour of the Russian segment lasted only a few minutes. It consisted of the Zarya module, which was being used only for storage; two docking modules; and Zvezda. She dared not approach the crew cabins. Unlike Hina, Sachiko was a light sleeper, and although it was unlikely she’d be able to hear Yasu from inside her cabin, Yasu did not want to risk getting caught.
Despite this, the Soviets in the chat were in high spirits as Yasu returned to the United States segment, chatting excitedly about the genius of the old USSR.
“Last, but not least, we have Tranquility,” Yasu announced. “It’s where they crammed everything else. Seriously, it’s so random. Most of the exercise equipment is in here, but it’s like, right outside of the toilet. Good thing we’re all pure, innocent maidens who would never do anything as embarrassing as go to the bathroom.”
Yasu spent some time demonstrating the exercise machines. The chat was particularly impressed by how much she could bench press, despite her small stature. This led to some inappropriate comments that got quite a few people banned.
“And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for,” Yasu said after unhooking herself from the treadmill. “We’re going down into the cupola to get a good look at Earth.”
After spinning herself so she could enter the cupola in the proper orientation, Yasu reached out for the camera and was shocked to find Sachiko standing in the entryway to Tranquility.
“Sacchan,” Yasu gasped. “I was just, uh…”
Smiling, Sachiko turned her phone towards Yasu. The stream was playing on it.
“You were just about to give away the goods for free,” Sachiko finished for her. “We’re the only ones who know what Earth looks like now, only the hoshinauts who reach orbit. Did you know that? Not even mission control gets to see it.”
“B—but Hina said they have a right—”
“And you think you can take all the credit? For the first images of Earth since before the war?”
“You said I could,” Yasu whimpered, almost too quietly for Sachiko to hear.
“I said you could film it for our show,” Sachiko snapped. “I never said you could stream it.” She floated quickly over to Yasu and put her hand over the camera lens. “Say goodbye, chat.”
It was the last thing they heard before the stream cut out.
Sachiko hadn’t gotten mad at Yasu. In fact, once the camera was off, she’d just turned around and gone back to bed. To Sachiko, there had been no reason to say anything. She could see the pain in Yasu’s eyes, and though she didn’t know why Yasu was hurting, there was no sense in making it worse.
For the first couple days, Yasu wished Sachiko would berate her. She wanted another excuse to feel bad, and she wanted someone else to share in her pain. Sachiko was too smart to fall into that trap. In fact, she even helped to keep the existence of the stream a secret from Hina and Erika.
Yasu didn’t let it affect her duties, but in her spare time, she stewed in self-loathing. Not even the shipping community brought her any solace. They were all writing and drawing fantasies about what happened after Sachiko turned off the camera. There was only one drawing of a young Hina gifting her dessert to Yasu, and when Yasu saw it, she cried. It should have represented everything she wanted in life, and yet Hina’s words were still rampaging through her heart. The question became an all-consuming obsession.
And so, mere minutes before the Soyuz was due to arrive, after they had reviewed their plans, Sachiko asked if there were any questions, and Yasu couldn’t keep it bottled up any more.“Yeah, just one,” Yasu said, looking Hina square in the eyes. “Who the hell is Claire?”