Chapter 6:


The Hoshinauts

“You don’t mean Claire from the orphanage, do you?” Hina asked. “That’s the only Claire I know.”

“Which one was Claire again?” Yasu asked in reply.

“Light brown hair, curly side-bob,” Hina replied. “Hung out with the popular girls, but didn’t talk much.”

“The one who rubbed dirt into my hair?”

“She apologized for that,” Hina said.

“Because you made her,” Yasu pouted.

“But she was really sorry. She never did anything to you after that. She was just looking for attention.”

“Attention from you, apparently,” Yasu said.

“That-s not—OK, maybe that’s true,” Hina realized. “We did start hanging out a bit after that.”

“Huh? I don’t remember that,” Yasu said.

“Yeah, well, I figured you’d be mad, so I didn’t tell you,” Hina admitted.

“Damn right I would have been mad,” Yasu shouted, “but I would have gotten over it. Now I’m pissed at you for hiding it from me.”

“Why?” Hina challenged. “I’m not allowed to keep any secrets from you? I can’t live my life without you being a part of every moment?”

“I didn’t mean that,” Yasu said, shocked at Hina’s outburst. “I just—”

“And why is this coming up now of all times?” Hina continued.

“Enough,” Sachiko shouted, clapping her hands. “Work this out later. We’ve got a job to do.”

Yasu barely had time to wipe a tear from her eye before a loud thump jolted the station. The Soyuz had docked.

The three hoshinauts sprang into action. There was a long checklist of tasks to complete before the Soyuz’s hatch could be opened. They needed to confirm that the docking seal didn’t have any leaks and equalize the pressure and temperature between the station and the Soyuz.

Erika was once again left with nothing to do but retreat into her fear that something might go wrong. To her, this whole process seemed to take an eternity, but for the others, an hour passed in the blink of an eye.

Sachiko had pushed them to complete their tasks as quickly as possible. She wanted to flex on whoever it was that was being sent up. Whoever finished first would end up waiting on the other party, meaning whoever finished last would end up being a burden. Although she didn’t know who was in the Soyuz, Sachiko wanted to start the relationship in a dominant position.

To her dismay, both sides reported that they were ready at the same time. It was not the outcome Sachiko had hoped for, but it wasn’t too disappointing. An amateur wouldn’t have been so quick, so it was unlikely they were getting another useless crew member.

Because the docking module was too small to accommodate all of them, only Sachiko and Yasu were present, the latter only to film the much-anticipated first meeting. She had barely started the camera when the Soyuz’s hatch opened.

“Welcome aboard,” Sachiko said, wearing her most convincing fake smile. She extended a hand in greeting.

To her surprise, the hand that clasped it was not made of flesh and bone but of a metal-ceramic alloy covered with artificial skin—articulated not by joints but by servos. Sachiko’s fake smile gave way to a shocked expression, but it was quickly replaced with a genuine grin.

The Soyuz’s occupant was a gynoid wearing a blue JAXA jumpsuit. She was shorter than other gynoids, but otherwise identical, with gray skin and medium-length brown-red hair.

This changed everything.

“Come here,” Sachiko said, pulling the gynoid into a brief hug. Direct contact with the gynoid caused her skin to tingle. It was an unpleasant feeling, and her body was screaming at her to pull away, but she ignored it. She patted the gynoid twice on the back, hugging her for just as long as she would anyone else.

“That was unexpected,” the gynoid said. “I’ve heard rumors that you shake hands with us, but not that you give hugs.”

“New crew members get hugs from everyone,” Sachiko explained. “It’s an ancient tradition aboard the ISS.”

“I am aware,” the gynoid said, “but I did not expect it to apply to gynoids.”

“You’re getting three more hugs, even if I have to order them to do it.”

It was likely she’d have to. Nobody wanted to touch gynoids if they could help it. Everyone reacted differently. Some felt pins and needles throughout their body, bordering on unbearable pain; some became itchy from their scalps to their toes; and others described the feeling as being covered in gritty, viscous slime.

“I believe that would be more trouble than it is worth,” the gynoid said. “Your gesture was more than enough for me.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Sachiko said, changing the subject, “but may I ask why?”

“I come bearing pajamas,” the gynoid said.

“I heard,” Sachiko grimaced.

“As well as food, water, and oxygen,” the gynoid added. This caused Yasu to giggle, despite herself.

“We can unload all that later,” Sachiko said. “The others are waiting in Destiny. I’ll introduce you. May I ask for your name?”

“R. Maeko,” the gynoid answered.

“Can I call you Maeko then?” Sachiko followed up. It was commonplace to drop the R. prefix when talking to a gynoid. Those who insisted on pronouncing it every time typically did so for political reasons, to emphasize that the gynoids were robots, not humans. However, Sachiko knew that some gynoids preferred to be addressed by their full names, so she always checked first.

“It was very considerate of you to ask,” Maeko commented. “I can already tell we are going to get along, so why don’t you call me Macchan?”

“Sounds good,” Sachiko smiled. “You can call me whatever you like. That’s what everyone else does.”

As they conversed, they traveled through the station slowly, Sachiko making sure that Maeko was able to move safely in microgravity. When they arrived in Destiny, Hina did a double-take, but Erika appeared unsurprised.

“Everyone, this is Maeko,” Sachiko announced. “Line up for hugs.”

Hina approached first, but she hesitated. She needed a moment to brace herself for what was to come. Reaching out, she pulled Maeko into a brief hug and then backed away as quickly as was polite. Once she was finished, Sachiko turned her attention to Yasu.

“Sacchan,” Yasu whimpered, “you know they make me nauseous.”

“You can handle it for two seconds,” Sachiko told her. “Give me that camera.”

“That really isn’t necessary,” Maeko said. “I did not come all this way for hugs.”

“No, I insist,” Sachiko said. “Your humanity may be a topic of political debate on Earth, but as long as I command this station, you are human, and you will be treated the same as any other crew member.”

“That’s quite the proclamation,” the gynoid said, studying Sachiko closely.

“Hold on,” Erika snorted, “the walking computer gets to be treated like a human, but I’m reduced to luggage?”

“What did I just say?” Sachiko snapped, fury writ large upon her face. “She is not a walking computer.”

“Oh dear,” Maeko interceded. “Am I to understand that you have been treating my mechanic poorly?”

“Your… mechanic?” Sachiko swallowed. “Her?”

“I understand your confusion,” Maeko said. “No offense, Erika. I’m sure you will do an adequate job, but you were not my first choice.”

“That’s news to me,” Erika said, her expression blank. “I was told you requested me personally.”

“I did,” Maeko confirmed, “but only after many others declined. You were the only one brave enough to accept the mission.”

“I thought gynoid maintenance was performed by other gynoids,” Sachiko said, still skeptical that Erika was actually a mechanic.

“Usually,” Maeko confirmed, “but we have to have a backup plan in case something happens to all of us at once. As you can imagine, there are very few individuals who have the ability to understand our construction and who are trustworthy enough to keep that knowledge secret.”

“In that case,” Sachiko said, floating over to Erika, “I must apologize.”

As Sachiko held out her hand to Erika, Erika couldn’t help but reflect on Sachiko’s sudden change in demeanor. Sachiko had always carried herself confidently and moved with purpose—at least when she wasn’t throwing tantrums—but now her movements seemed almost robotic. Was she unconsciously imitating the gynoid? It would have been cute, if it weren’t so creepy.

“Apology accepted,” Erika said, shaking Sachiko’s hand. She wasn’t quite sure why Sachiko’s attitude had changed so suddenly, but she welcomed it. Maybe things would be less tense from now on.

“I’m afraid I can’t lift any of the restrictions on you,” Sachiko said.

“I understand,” Erika nodded. “They’re partly for my protection, and I don’t have a death wish.”

For a brief moment, Sachiko stiffened. Erika wasn’t sure if it was because of something she said, or if Sachiko was still moving like a gynoid, but Sachiko didn’t appear to notice at all.

“Your turn,” Sachiko said, releasing her hand and gesturing to Yasu. After handing Sachiko the camera, Yasu approached Erika, hand outstretched, only to be corrected by Sachiko. “No, not that. Hug.”

Gritting her teeth, Yasu approached Maeko. A wave of nausea swept through her body as she hugged the gynoid. Even through their jumpsuits, touching the gynoid just felt so wrong. After ending the hug, she pushed herself back and began to heave, but managed to calm herself before she lost her stomach contents. Erika was not so lucky, and Hina had to intervene, holding a barf bag in front of Erika’s face.

“You’re really a mechanic?” Sachiko asked. “Even though you can’t touch gynoids?”

Erika was too busy vomiting to answer, so Maeko spoke in her defense. “She comes through when it counts, just like you.”

That didn’t sit well with Sachiko, but pressing the matter wouldn’t get her anywhere. They’d only known each other for a few minutes, but Maeko had already given two non-answers in response to Sachiko’s questions. Something was off, and it was obvious that if she wanted answers, she’d have to get them elsewhere.

The rest of the day went by quickly. Erika spent an hour recovering in her cabin, emerging for her daily exercise. Once she had gotten used to it, life aboard the station had become boring. She exercised for two and a half hours every day, and she would be involved in filming scenes every now and then, but other than that, she had nothing to do but watch the hoshinauts as they performed their tasks throughout the station.

That now included Maeko, who assisted in unloading the cargo from the Soyuz and then took air and surface samples from all of the modules. She tended, Erika noticed, to stay close to Sachiko while they worked. At first, she didn’t think anything of it. Sachiko had a less intense reaction to contact with the gynoid. It made sense for Maeko to keep physical distance from the others, and because space was limited, that necessitated staying closer to Sachiko.

There was something about the way Maeko moved though. She was a bit too clumsy for a gynoid, and would sometimes bump into Sachiko, seemingly by accident. More than once, she had put her hand on Sachiko’s shoulder to stabilize herself. It was as if she were going out of her way to initiate casual physical contact, but Erika had no idea why she would do that.

At dinner, Erika ate slowly, hoping her stomach wouldn’t reject it. In contrast, Sachiko wolfed her food down quickly and then left for the Russian segment. She occasionally did this when she needed time to speak with mission control in private. Maeko watched her leave, then looked back at the others for a moment before moving to follow Sachiko, but Hina blocked her way.

“Maeko, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself?”

“But I am a gynoid,” Maeko replied. “I was built in a factory. My background is the same as every other gynoid, so if you will excuse me…”

“You’re the first gynoid in space,” Hina corrected. “There have to be some interesting circumstances behind that.”

“None that I can divulge,” Maeko said.

“Then maybe you can divulge why you’ve been following the commander around like a lost puppy all day,” Hina pressed.

“You’re mistaken,” Maeko said. “I am merely concerned about her because she left so suddenly.”

“You don’t need to worry about the commander,” Hina said. “She can take care of herself, but she needs some time alone.”

That much was true, Maeko had to admit to herself, and yet, this situation was not ideal. Although Hina was highly perceptive, she had not expected that to extend to gynoid behavior. Perhaps she had been too obvious in sticking close to Sachiko, but no matter the cause, if Hina was going to be a consistent obstacle, she’d have to find a way to remove Hina from the station.

While the two of them argued, Sachiko entered her crew cabin and slipped on a pair of headphones.

“Mission control, this is Sachiko.”

She expected Melina or one of the other CAPCOMs to respond after a brief delay, but it was the Director of JAXA who answered.

“Hey, Satch. Got the footage earlier today. Have you seen it yet? The look on your face is priceless.”

“Don’t you have more important things to do?” Sachiko fired back. “Put Melina on.”

“I’m busy alright, but nothing’s more important than this mission.”

“Then get off the line. I have pressing questions for mission control.”

“I’ll do that in a minute, but I’ve got news for you first, and you deserve to hear it from me.”

“So you just waited around in the CAPCOM chair until I called?” Sachiko scoffed.

“Didn’t have to wait long. You’ve become predictable, you know that?”

“Whatever. What’s so important that you felt you had to tell me yourself?

“A few hours ago, the ‘Murican Empire launched a strike in Soviet territory.”

Sachiko’s blood froze. War? After all these years?

“Some kind of mistake?” Sachiko croaked.

“Oh, it was a mistake alright,” the director said, his voice suddenly cold. “The Soviets had secretly constructed a launch pad for civilian spaceships, and the ‘Muricans, fearing a space race would reignite the war, destroyed it. Soviets responded by bombing a factory the ‘Muricans were building a Space Shuttle in, and they used the same justification.”

“That makes no sense. You can’t go to war with someone to prevent going to war with them.”

“Tell that to the hothead hoshinaut who encouraged the ‘Muricans and the Soviets to get involved with space exploration. Congrats, Satch, you really did it. Thirty years of peace, and now it’s gone, all because you couldn’t keep your damn mouth shut.”

Lucky / Glenn