“Are you finished?” Sachiko sighed.
Outwardly, Sachiko affected a calm, if exasperated, demeanor. Inwardly, however, she was raging.
Useless! Useless! Useless! This man is useless! Ahhh, I was a fool to expect anything better from him. He’s got connections and resources, but instead of helping to solve the problem, he’d rather sit around and clumsily attempt to score political points. Anyone with half a brain can see past his lazy pandering, but he managed to get this far because he’s got the devil’s own luck. No, this is my fault. People don’t change the habits that made them successful, and I never really taught him how he should behave. Now I’ve got to deal with him on top of everything else.
“I think the rest can wait until you're back on Earth.” She could practically hear his smug grin over the radio. “Wouldn’t want to stress you out too much while you still have a mission to lead.”
“Oh?” Sachiko replied. “I’d have thought this would be much more stressful for you. After all, it’s your responsibility to do something about it.”
“I’m not a god, Satch,” he chuckled. “I’m flattered you think so highly of me, but my job is to run this agency, not foster world peace. I know how to stay in my lane, unlike some people.”
“JAXA isn’t just some government agency. You’re responsible for securing the future of human spaceflight,” Sachiko corrected. “If this war escalates, what do you think happens to the space program?”
“Maybe you should have thought about that before running your mouth,” he shot back.
Sachiko smiled. He was starting to get testy. He just needed another push. “Now it’s my turn to be flattered. The superpowers don’t take advice from me, and this has been going on for much longer than a few weeks. Neither government moves that quickly. Besides, you said they were assembling a Shuttle? Do you remember how long it took us to build just the factory?”
“Three years,” he admitted, “But the ‘Muricans have more resources.”
“More money and raw materials, maybe, but we have superior technology. I suppose if they had our assistance… Oh, they would need it, wouldn’t they? The ancient blueprints were incomplete, and they certainly don’t have anyone capable of developing the rest. That kind of assistance could only come from JAXA, and given the importance, it could have only come from the top.”
“You’re trying to pin this on me,” he growled. “It’s not going to work.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Sachiko scoffed. “I’m not you. Do you think I care who mission control blames for this? You’re about to be hounded by far more important people, demanding to know what you gave the ‘Muricans and the Soviets.”
“Nothing, I swear.”
“Then they’ll want to know how you could be in the dark about something so important going on right under your nose, but if you let them pull you into their inquiries, you’ll have no time left for anything else. Your only chance for survival is to be seen as having a hand in reestablishing peace, so I suggest you start moving, now.”
The only response was the sound of a headset clattering against a desk, and Sachiko was satisfied that he had finally understood. After a few seconds, there was more rustling and then a timid voice said, “Wow that was—Sorry, did you need something?” It wasn’t Melina. Probably one of the hoshinaut candidates.
“Put Surgery on,” Sachiko ordered.
“Is there a medical emergency?” the girl asked.
“If there were, you shouldn’t waste my time asking,” Sachiko snapped. “Put Surgery on, now.”
Does nobody down there understand how to work the CAPCOM station? She grumbled inwardly.
“Surgery,” came a gynoid voice.
“Encrypted channel,” Sachiko replied. She removed her headset, turned it off, and swapped it for another. The advantage of talking to a gynoid was that the gynoid could communicate her thoughts directly into the radio system. Nobody would overhear her side of the conversation. Once Surgery confirmed that the channel was secure, Sachiko asked how serious the situation was between the ‘Muricans and the Soviets.
“It is salvageable,” Surgery reported. “Both attacks were perpetrated by militant factions without orders. Both sides will need to carry out purges, and it will be messy, but we’re confident that peace can be restored quickly. The Federation is already in talks with both sides, and we’re helping to craft a narrative that allows everyone to save face.”
“Keep me updated. If things get worse, we may need to evacuate, and I want as much warning as possible. Don’t let the director try to ambush me like that again.”
“We will do what we can,” Surgery told her.
“Why is Maeko here?” Sachiko asked, changing the topic abruptly. She had no more time to waste.
“Has she not told you herself?” Surgery asked in reply.
“She’s yet to give me a direct answer to my questions, just like you’re doing now.”
“I can assure you that you are in no danger.”
“Like I told Melina, that’s my call to make. It’s not that I don’t trust your intentions, but not even gynoids have perfect judgment. Just ask those who were with me on GE26.”
“I am aware, but what you’re asking for is classified.”
“So you trust Erika but not me?” Sachiko shouted.
“If it makes you feel better, we trust you more than we trust her, but it’s on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know.”
Things were not going the way Sachiko wanted. She could argue until she was blue in the face that she needed the information in order to carry out her mission, but Surgery would not budge. If she were on Earth, she would have plenty of ways to get around gynoid obstruction, plenty of people she could trust to help her gather intelligence. It was frustrating, but, stuck in orbit, she could only jump straight to the nuclear option.
“I want an audience with the gynoid council,” Sachiko demanded.
“It won’t do you any good,” Surgery replied.
“Put me through anyway.”
Several long seconds passed before Surgery replied, “Perhaps we can compromise. I can give you some details.”
In other words, what Maeko, Surgery, and Erika were up to didn’t have the full backing of other gynoids, and Surgery was in no rush to make them aware of their activities.
“Is Erika really a mechanic?”
“Your suspicions are correct. She knows little of our construction, and only what she was trained in for this mission.”
“Who conceived this mission?”
“And who authorized it?”
“It was personally approved by your political benefactor.”
Even over an encrypted channel, Surgery was being vague, and now Sachiko knew why. The Federation’s intelligence chief had signed off on this, and would doubtlessly be unhappy when she learned that Sachiko was poking around. Sachiko briefly considered ending the call immediately, but there was still one question she needed answered.
“Why is Maeko here?”
“Her main objective is to test an experimental shielding rig for gynoid brains. We would not last long in outer space without it. However, personally, I believe she may have other plans as well.”
“Thank you,” Sachiko said, switching off the headset and rushing out of the cabin. She entered Destiny just in time to see Hina grab Maeko from behind and kick off of the wall towards the airlock. Yasu caught them both and brought them to a stop. “What the hell is going on here?” Sachiko yelled.
“She was trying to interrupt you,” Hina said. Pushing Maeko away from her.
“So you got physical?” Sachiko shot back. “You know better than that. There will be no more altercations aboard this station except in an emergency. Now, apologize.”
“Sorry,” Hina mumbled.
“Maeko, with me,” Sachiko ordered, leading her back towards the docking module. “You’re going back,” she added, once they were alone.
“I am not,” Maeko said, “and I told you to call me Macchan.”
“I won’t allow it. If you didn’t want the council knowing about your experimental brain shielding, it’s obviously not safe enough. If it fails—”
“Then we will know what we need to improve,” Maeko interrupted. “I am prepared to risk myself for that.”
“But the PR—”
“You’ve proven to be quite adept at handling the PR. Besides, what do you think will happen to me if I attempt to land in the midst of heightened tensions? I could be shot out of the sky during reentry.”
“That seems unlikely.”
“It is more likely than a failure of the shielding system. You cannot order me off the station while doing so is unsafe.”
“Please tell me you didn’t cause this conflict to have an excuse to not go back,” Sachiko groaned. She didn’t want to believe a gynoid would do that, but Maeko was from a minority faction.
“Of course I didn’t,” Maeko said. “I wanted to be the first gynoid in space, but not the last. However, I have no qualms using the situation to my advantage. You would do the same.”
“As soon as things settle then,” Sachiko said.
“I will re-evaluate the risks at that time,” Maeko assured her. “For now, we have a pajama party to film.”
Whoever coordinated these pajamas had a sick sense of humor. They were hooded onesies, each with a different animal motif, the kind of pajamas you occasionally saw young girls wear in anime, but they had odd designs.
Hina’s was bright orange with white and black stripes, and it had fins on the back. It was obvious that she was supposed to be a clownfish. Yasu’s was light purple, and its only distinguishing feature was a mop of red tentacles with white tips atop the hood. Only Maeko understood what it was.
“A sea anemone,” she explained. “A marine animal that had a symbiotic relationship with the clownfish. Its tentacles contained venomous barbs. The clownfish was immune to the venom, and so would swim among the tentacles for protection. In return, it would attract food for the anemone to eat and make sure it kept clean.”
“That is just like us,” Yasu exclaimed, shaking her head to rub the felt tentacles all over Hina’s back.
Sachiko’s outfit needed no explanation. It was covered with faux white wool, with ears that stuck out from the hood. When she put it on, she looked like the grumpiest sheep that ever lived. It was bad enough on its own, but Maeko was wearing brown wolf pajamas to match. Sachiko thought of many interpretations for this pairing, and she didn’t like any of them.
Rounding out the cast, Erika’s pajamas were plain in comparison. Instead of being fashioned after an animal, they were printed with images of various types of luggage. A few hours earlier, Sachiko would have smiled at that, but now she lamented the misunderstanding.
The five of them gathered in Kibou for their mock pajama party. They had set cameras up around the module to film them from multiple angles.
“Everyone have their lines memorized?” Sachiko asked as they took their positions.
“I can’t believe they’re making us say this,” Yasu sighed.
“Let’s just get it over with,” Sachiko said. “Action.”
Yasu’s demeanor instantly became bright and cheery. “OK, Sacchan,” she said, “your turn. Truth or dare?”
“Who do you have a crush on?”
“Right now, I’m focused on the space program, not romance. I want to give my all to my work.”
“You’re saying you’ve never had a crush on someone?” Erika interjected.
“Never,” Sachiko confirmed, “but maybe I’ll meet someone special after I retire. Hina, truth or dare?”
“Dare,” Hina answered.
“I dare you to do a quadruple backflip.”
“Pfft, that’s easy,” Hina said. “Give me a little push, would you?”
Yasu and Sachiko grabbed Hina by the calves, lifted her into the center of Kibou, and pushed her so that she started spinning slowly backwards. Hina curled herself into a ball and the others counted her rotations.
However, when they reached four, they all backed away. Because Kibou was so large, Hina couldn’t reach any of the walls to stop herself.
“Hey, guys?” Hina said as she continued spinning. “Hey, come on. Help me out. I’m gonna be sick!”
The others laughed for several seconds before Sachiko shouted, “Cut,” and they moved forward to bring Hina to a stop.
“What a dumb skit,” Erika murmured.
“You’re telling me,” Hina said, instinctively clinging to Yasu for support as she waited for the dizziness to fade.
“What I meant was, who cares if Sachiko has a crush on someone?”
“It’s truth or dare,” Yasu said. “What else are you going to ask about besides love?”
“Personally,” Erika said, “I’d ask what really happened on GE26.”
“Not this again,” Sachiko groaned. “For the last time, the ‘Muricans didn’t sabotage the reactor. It was an accident.”
“But your parents were—” Erika started to protest.
“They were human,” Sachiko interrupted, “and humans make mistakes.”
“I thought you said the gynoids were human,” Erika commented. “They don’t make mistakes.”
“Yes, they do,” Sachiko said, shooting a glance at Maeko.
“Sachiko is correct,” Maeko said. “She is also telling the truth about GE26. The gynoids on the island corroborated her story.”
“It could be a cover-up,” Erika insisted.
“Erika, please,” Sachiko said. “I was just starting to respect you. Don’t make me regret it.”
“I’d drop it if I were you,” Hina added. “Her parents are kinda a sore point for the commander.”
“We’re wasting time,” Sachiko said. “We’ve got a lot of B-roll to shoot. Let’s do the ice cream next, before it melts.”
For the next three hours, they filmed an array of sleepover staples. They ate ice cream, pretending that it tasted delicious, and Erika couldn’t help but notice that Hina and Yasu shared a spoon like it was no big deal; they watched a movie for a few minutes; they mimed playing the king game; they had a mock pillow fight; and they gave each other makeovers. As they were finishing, Hina moved behind Yasu and started combing her hair. In microgravity, it was a meaningless act, but Yasu smiled.
“That feels nice,” Yasu commented, “but I still haven’t forgotten about Claire.”
Before Sachiko could intervene, she felt a pair of hands undo her braid and run a comb through her hair. She could tell it was Maeko by the tingling she felt in her scalp, but it wasn’t that unpleasant. In fact there was something nostalgic about it. Had the gynoids once brushed her hair aboard the Odake Maru? She didn’t remember that ever happening, but it had been nine years, and it was such a trivial thing.
Trivial, like Hina and Yasu’s spat. Might as well let them work it out now. It was the end of a long day, and they had enough footage. Tomorrow, she’d tell them about the war, and they would feel foolish about getting worked up over something so trivial in comparison.
“You’re getting upset over nothing,” Hina said, as if to echo Sachiko’s inner thoughts. “I’m allowed to make other friends. Besides, we’re not that close.”
“If she were just a friend, you wouldn’t have hidden her from me,” Yasu countered. “Was she your first kiss? Do you still have a thing for her?”
“You were my first kiss,” Hina reminded her.
“We were kids playing house. That didn’t count.”
“And she has a boyfriend now,” Hina said. “You’re too suspicious of everyone.” She handed Yasu her smartphone, which displayed a photo of Claire with her arm around a guy’s shoulder. Yasu took the phone and scrolled up, reading Hina’s message history with Claire.
“She’s obviously flirting with you,” Yasu said. “I bet she only hooked up with this guy to make you jealous.”
“You’re the only jealous one,” Hina told her.
“That’s right, I’m jealous,” Yasu pouted. “I’ve always been the jealous type. If you couldn’t handle that, you should have stopped being my friend a long time ago.”
“I tried to leave,” Hina reminded her. “You’re the one who followed me to JAXA.”
“Shut up,” Yasu growled. “We’re taking a selfie too.”
“You’re being especially toxic today,” Hina complained, but she obediently placed her arm around Yasu’s shoulder for the picture.
Yasu had other plans. She grabbed Hina’s wrist and moved it from her shoulder to her waist. She then put her own hand around Hina’s waist and pulled her close before taking the selfie. It came out great. Yasu’s expression perfectly conveyed how possessive she was of Hina, and as for Hina, well, she at least smiled for the camera. Before Hina could react, Yasu sent the photo to Claire.
A photo like that could cause a minor scandal. If Sachiko had been paying attention, she would have been furious, but to everyone’s shock, she had drifted off to sleep in Maeko’s arms, a warm smile on her face.