Hina, Yasu, and Erika all stared at Maeko, mouths agape. Maeko looked straight back at them, and with a smile on her face, put a finger to her lips.
“I think we can call it a day,” Maeko whispered. “She obviously hasn’t been getting enough sleep. You can stow the pajamas in the Soyuz.”
Leaning close, Hina inspected Sachiko’s sleeping face. She really did look exhausted, and Hina cursed herself for not noticing earlier.
So much for being “highly perceptive,” or whatever Erika called it, she thought bitterly.
She knew she was being too hard on herself. Yes, Sachiko had dark circles under her eyes, and she’d been irritable, but that was typical for Sachiko. She was always working hard, under a lot of pressure, but for her to fall asleep while on duty, it must have been really bad.
“You know,” Erika said when they were alone in Harmony, “Yasu is right. You really should reject her more clearly.”
“Are you jealous too?” Hina asked, smiling.
“I’m just pointing out that you’re sending a lot of mixed signals,” Erika said.
“It’s not that simple,” Hina sighed. “We grew up together. In many ways, we’re the only family we have. I may not be in love with her, but I do love her, and I don’t want to make things harder between us than they are now. Besides, she takes rejection… poorly.”
“I noticed,” Erika chuckled. “She’s even worse than you.”
“Hey, I backed off, didn’t I?” Hina defended herself. She debated whether or not she should tell Erika the truth, that she had attempted to seduce her as part of a plan to get information. Sachiko seemed to trust Erika now, so maybe it would be OK to come clean.
“Again, I’m sorry,” Hina said, rubbing the back of her neck. “The way I acted was inappropriate.” A full apology could come later, she decided, after clearing it with Sachiko.
“Yes it was,” Erika agreed. “It was also, I recently learned, against regulations. You could be grounded permanently for that kind of behavior.”
“Is this… Are you blackmailing me?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Erika said. Her voice was friendly, and Hina relaxed. “Just promise you won’t do it again. Oh, and if you could get Yasu to stop with her childish bullying, I’d appreciate it. She tried to stick a sign to my back yesterday.”
“Ugh,” Hina groaned, running her hands through her short hair. “I can probably get her to cut it out, but I’m going to owe her a favor. This sucks.”
Her reaction made Erika giggle. The strong, confident, and handsome Hina was bothered by something so trivial. It was times like this that reminded Erika that the hoshinauts really were children.
“Maybe I am a little jealous,” Erika mused. “I probably shouldn’t say this to an orphan, but not everyone is close with their family. I can understand why you treasure your current relationship with Yasu.”
“If you don’t like your family, you can always start a new one,” Hina said. “I’m sure it wouldn't be hard to find someone who likes you.”
Easy for you to say, Erika thought, but she didn’t voice that complaint. Instead, she decided to tease Hina. “I thought you promised to stop flirting with me.”
“I didn’t mean me,” Hina clarified, blood rushing to her cheeks.
I like her better when she’s cute like that, Erika thought to herself. Not that I like her. It’s just gap moe… Do I like her? No, not even as a friend, but I can’t deny there’s a place in my heart for her now. She’s like a girl I see around the neighborhood. I hope for the best for her, and nothing more than that.
It’s acceptable if it’s nothing more than that, right?
“Good morning,” Maeko greeted Sachiko as she awoke in a darkened Kibou.
“What time is it?” Sachiko asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“0441,” Maeko answered. “You slept for more than nine hours.”
“I could sleep for nine more,” Sachiko groaned. “I never sleep this well in space. Did you drug me?” There was no anger in the question, and Maeko could tell that Sachiko trusted her.
“There was no need,” Maeko replied. “You were sleep deprived.”
“You never give direct answers,” Sachiko mumbled.
“I didn’t drug you,” Maeko said, placing her palm on Sachiko’s cheek. The sudden touch was like being slapped with ice-cold water, and Sachiko flailed around, now fully awake.
“How come it didn’t feel like that when I was asleep?”
“These pajamas are thick,” Maeko pointed out, “and I avoided touching you directly.” To demonstrate, she retracted her hand into her sleeve and placed it once more on Sachiko’s cheek. It still felt uncomfortable, but it was bearable, and even a little warm.
“Well,” Sachiko said, searching for a way to change the subject. She had just realized how embarrassing it was that she fell asleep in front of the others, and in a gynoid’s embrace at that. “Let me help you to a charger. You must be running low after staying with me all night.”
“No charger,” Maeko informed her. “Two miniature reactors have been built into my chassis.”
“You’re… nuclear. Excuse me.” Still in her pajamas, Sachiko hurried back to Zvezda, where she grabbed the headset from her cabin and hurried to Tranquility for some privacy. “This is Sachiko. Put Surgery on the line, now.”
“Surgery,” a gynoid voice replied.
Good, Sachiko thought, they’re learning.
“Maeko’s got two nuclear reactors,” Sachiko spat. “You told me there was no risk to my crew.”
“I stand by my assessment,” Surgery replied, “We improved the design of your parents’ reactor. The fissile material has already been rendered inert.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Sachiko said.
“It should,” Surgery insisted. “You are familiar with all of the emergency procedures, and they are only generating enough energy to power a single gynoid. If containment fails, you’ll feel lightheaded at most.”
“You don’t know that,” Sachiko spat. “Those generators utilize forces beyond our current understanding. What if they behave differently in microgravity?”
“We accounted for that,” Surgery assured her.
“Did you test it?” Sachiko pressed. The question was met only with silence. There was something Surgery didn’t want to tell her. That could only mean they had tested it, and they would have done it during one of Sachiko’s missions, because she knew how to safely shut it down. They’d sent her up with an experimental reactor and hadn’t told her. “You tested it during my last mission, didn’t you?”
“It had nothing to do with the airlock incident,” Surgery said.
“That doesn’t matter,” Sachiko said. “You should have told me. I hate this. I hate being kept in the dark, and I especially hate it when you and Maeko—Macchan won’t give me straight answers.”
“You often say you will do anything for the space program,” Surgery pointed out. “Put up with it, for the cause.”
“Fuck you.” The words spilled from Sachiko’s mouth before she could stop them. She was losing her cool again, putting herself at a disadvantage. Surgery wouldn’t make that mistake. She had no emotions to cloud her judgment. “Don’t you dare try to manipulate me like that. I’m taking this to the gynoid council. Put someone else on.”
“If I were you, I would think very carefully about what you say, and who you say it to,” Surgery advised. “Remember who’s backing Maeko.”
Despite her anger, Sachiko was able to think clearly enough to recognize it as a warning, not a threat. Nevertheless, she was in no mood to back down, so she repeated her demand to talk to someone else.
“Sachi,” Melina’s voice was the next to come over the headset, “we’ve got a situation down here. The director is missing.”
“Missing?” Sachiko blinked. “What about his secretary? She was supposed to keep an eye on him.”
“She’s gone too,” Melina reported. “All we found was a note, but we’ve got no evidence the director wrote it. It reads, ‘I’ll be back. Since Satch thinks she’s so smart, she can run things in my absence.’”
“Idiot,” Sachiko said, rolling her eyes. “There’s no way I can replace him while I’m in orbit, and I’m a minor to boot. We need a real replacement, but I can’t imagine anyone with half a brain wants to walk into this mess.”
“What should we do then?” Melina asked.
“Just make sure the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is informed,” Sachiko answered. “She’ll tell the Prime Minister, and he’ll appoint a new director. It may take a few days, but we’re all smart people. We’ll manage until then.”
“It might take longer than that,” Melina said. “We can’t get messages through to anyone in government, not even the Minister of State for Space Policy. We’ve been told they’re completely focused on preventing an all-out war.”
“They’re probably detaining anyone with a shred of political influence, just to make sure they don’t do something stupid,” Sachiko surmised. If I were down there, they’d be after me too. “The director probably got wind that counterintelligence agents are en route to Neo Tanegashima. I don’t think they’ll be eager to interfere with operations, but perhaps we should post some armed guards outside mission control.”
“Don’t worry, the gynoids will take care of it,” Sachiko said. “They already know where the weapons are.”
“Weapons?” Melina gasped.
“Don’t worry,” Sachiko repeated. “They’re locked down good. Even if someone else found them, only the gynoids and I can access them.”
“So you can do what, fight a gynoid revolution?”
“It’s just for emergencies,” Sachiko said, “and speaking of emergencies, I’ve got to go. See you in a few hours for the DPC. Oh, and don’t give Surgery a gun. She’s from a minority faction.”
“Gynoids have factions?!” was the last thing Sachiko heard before switching off the headset. Once again, Sachiko was exasperated at Melina’s ignorance. It wasn’t like the gynoids were hiding anything about themselves. The gynoid council even livestreamed its meetings. Anyone who paid even the slightest attention would know that the gynoids have factions, but they all wanted as little as possible to do with what they regarded as disgusting tools. And yes, there was definitely something disgusting about them, from the way they looked and moved to the way that touching them made your skin crawl.
But they were sapient. They were human. Why couldn’t people push past their discomfort and look at the gynoids for who they were? Was it really so much easier to avert their eyes?
As Sachiko made her way back to Kibou, she forced such philosophical thoughts from her mind. She needed to focus her attention on the task at hand. Maeko was waiting for her, still in her wolf pajamas.
“Let’s review the emergency procedures for shutting down your reactors,” Sachiko ordered.
“Does this mean I can stay?”
Sachiko was tempted to not answer, to only say something that could be interpreted as an answer. It’s what Maeko and Surgery had been doing to her all this time, but she decided it was better to lead by example.
“Yes,” Sachiko nodded, “assuming you cooperate. Now, strip.”
“How forward,” Maeko teased as she unzipped her pajamas, “but I like that about you. When you want something, you make it happen.”
Sachiko saw no need to respond to Maeko’s provocation. She didn’t yet know what the gynoid was playing for, and she didn’t want any part of it. Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she watched silently as Maeko removed her clothing.
Like all gynoids, her chassis was modeled after the female form, but it was neither especially attractive nor unattractive. Their creator had wanted to create what he called a “normal woman”—albeit one without genitals—but having no idea how to do that, he had looked up the average measurements for women worldwide and used those. In doing so, he had created a body that looked similar to every woman, and yet looked like no woman that ever existed. There was something about this uncanny valley that Sachiko found instinctively disturbing, but on second glance, deeply alluring.
“Like what you see?” Maeko asked once she finished undressing. As far as Sachiko could tell, she was no different than any other gynoid, aside from being shorter.
“Where are the reactors?” Sachiko asked in reply.
“They’re in my buttocks,” Maeko answered. She turned away from Sachiko to give her a better look. “It was the only place they’d fit. I suggested that the chest would be more accessible in an emergency, but the council refused to allow me to enlarge my breasts.”
“I’m surprised they allowed you to make any modifications at all,” Sachiko murmured. “That must have required a lot of convincing.” Inspecting Maeko’s bottom, she found nothing unusual about it. It was smooth and covered with a layer of artificial skin. “How do I access them? In an emergency, cutting and peeling away the skin would take too long.”
“There are recessed buttons near the top," Maeko explained. “Pressing down hard will release an agent which will dissolve my skin, but which poses no threat to you. After that, remove the access panels, and you know the rest.”
“Three turns counterclockwise, wait until you feel the pressure drop, then one turn clockwise and remove,” Sachiko reminded herself. “Where exactly are these buttons?”
“You may feel around for them, but don’t press too hard,” Maeko said, bending forward and sticking her rear out towards Sachiko. “It would take more than a day to re-grow the skin.”
Yasu woke early, not that she had been sleeping deeply to begin with. No matter how tired she got, she doubted she would ever sleep soundly in microgravity. She had no idea how Hina did it, or Sachiko for that matter, and in a gynoid’s arms no less. Still, six or seven hours of light sleep seemed to be all she required to remain sharp during the day.
Since she had some time before breakfast, she grabbed her drawing tablet and made her way to Kibou. There were so many ideas swimming around in her head now. Most of them involved Sachiko and Maeko as a sheep and a wolf, but, she thought, she could probably draw herself as an anemone, hugging a clownfish Hina. It somehow didn’t feel as wrong when it wasn’t realistic.
Now that she thought about it, that was the magic of shipping. It was all pretend. The drawings and the stories weren't really depicting her and Hina, but rather, imaginary versions of themselves. That’s why it didn’t even feel wrong to include a gynoid. They were gross in real life, but in a fantasy world, they could be different. Kinda like a yaoi hole, or something. She felt silly for ever having been unable to draw Hina x Yasu.
It was with these thoughts in mind that she rounded the corner just in time to witness Sachiko, still in her sheep pajamas, place her palms on Maeko’s naked butt. The sight surprised her so much that she dropped her tablet and let out a loud gasp. Sachiko and Maeko turned their heads towards her, and Sachiko’s face turned bright red.
“We were just—” Sachiko started to explain.
“I’m sorry,” Yasu blurted out, pushing off the wall back towards the Russian segment. What she had seen wasn’t so different from what she had been imagining moments ago, but seeing it in real life had shattered the wall she had been attempting to build up between her fantasies and reality, and that was a deeply unsettling feeling.
As Sachiko rushed to catch up with Yasu, Maeko picked up the drawing tablet she had left behind.