Yasu wasn’t stupid. She knew that it was a bad idea to give into blackmail. The best play was to come clean before Maeko could tattle on her. Whatever Maeko wanted her to do, Hina and Sachiko would be more upset when they found out than they would be about the shipping.
There was something oddly enticing about the offer. If she accepted, she’d have a partner in crime, someone to talk about shipping with. And who cared if Hina and Sachiko hated her for it? Her relationship with Hina would never be what she wanted, and as much as she liked Sachiko, she also resented her. If Sachiko had never offered Hina a way out, Hina would have stayed at the orphanage. She would have been forced to deal with her issues instead of running away from them. Perhaps then she would have eventually seen Yasu as someone who genuinely cared for her, not just the girl who was always close by.
Sensing Yasu’s indecision, Maeko decided she needed a further push. “If you help me get what I want, I can help you get what you want.”
“I doubt it,” Yasu scoffed. “You don’t even know what I—”
“Hina likes the girly types,” Maeko interrupted. “Smooth-skinned, sweet-smelling, short, meek, with long hair that she can run her fingers through.”
“Like I… used to be,” Yasu mumbled.
“She feels relaxed when holding such a girl securely from behind, when the girl lets go of all resistance and entrusts herself completely to her.”
“She hugged me like that when we were younger,” Yasu said.
“Imagine that,” Maeko responded. “Maybe you still have a chance with her after all.”
“Wait, how do you know this?” Yasu demanded.
“After the Harmony incident, she grabbed one of her crewmates from behind, and it took hours for her to calm down enough to release her,” Maeko explained. “They were both thoroughly interrogated afterwards.”
When Maeko next opened her mouth, it was not her own voice that came out, but a recording of Hina’s.
“I used to do that to Yasu when we were kids. It relaxed me.”
Next came the director’s voice.
“But it created quite a problem for us.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I feel bad for Suzu. She didn’t deserve that, but I just… I needed to feel safe.”
“Space exploration is inherently unsafe. If you can’t handle it, we won’t send you back up.”
It was the director’s job to make those kinds of hard decisions, but Yasu was nevertheless offended that he’d consider grounding Hina. He’d never been up here. He had no idea what it was really like.
“That would be a mistake,” Hina’s voice told him. “I saved the entire station. If you ground me without good reason, JAXA will appear cold and ungrateful.”
“We appreciate what you did, but it would be irresponsible to send you back if you can’t handle it.”
“I can. I’ve been through the worst once already. I’m prepared for it now.”
“That’s not the only issue. I need—We need to know if you had any… impure motives when you hugged Suzu.”
“Impure? You mean, like, sexual? No. Absolutely not.”
“Have you ever had sex?”
Hearing the question aloud made Yasu feel sick. He had no business asking her that, even if it was his job to avoid scandals. Worse, there was an edge to his voice that hadn’t been present in his other questions. He was enjoying this. Was it because he held tremendous power over her future, or because he got a perverse excitement from hearing about a teenage girl’s private life? Probably both, Yasu decided.
She had always disliked the director, despite only ever speaking with him once or twice. Sachiko had an obvious distaste for the man, and that was enough for Yasu, but she didn’t really know much about him. Even when he had fled from JAXA, he was little more than an abstract concept in Yasu’s mind, but now she hated him with every fiber of her being. If she ever got back to Earth, she would make it her life’s mission to track him down and make sure he got what he deserved.
At that point, she knew she should stop Maeko from continuing the recording. It was a violation of Hina’s privacy, and if she continued to listen, she would be almost as bad as the director.
She really wanted to know.
“No!” Hina’s voice replied. “I’ve never even been to second base.”
“OK, you made your point,” Yasu said. “I don’t want to hear it, I just need to know how you’re going to help me.”
“We’re going to increase your feminine charms,” Maeko said.
“That’s not going to work,” Yasu said. “I was girly when we were younger, and she still went for Claire.”
“She went for Claire to convince herself she didn’t have a crush on you,” Maeko told her.
“That’s all in the recording?” Yasu questioned.
“If you read between the lines,” Maeko confirmed. “Besides, I’m going to make you look better than Claire ever has.”
“Up here?” Yasu scoffed. “Unlikely.”
“I brought plenty of cloth and thread for sewing new outfits,” Maeko said. “In retrospect, I should have brought additional food instead, but we might as well make use of it.”
“Why did you bring that stuff?” Yasu asked.
“Again, that is none of your business. Do we have a deal?”
The next morning
“Under normal circumstances, I would be transferring command to someone from another crew, and then we’d all head back to Earth,” Sachiko said, twirling the key to the ISS between her fingers. “I’m sure we’d all prefer that, but, under normal circumstances, I would not have the opportunity to hand this off to Hina Johnson, and there is nobody I would rather see in command of the station than her. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, without her, human space exploration would have come to a premature end. Before I give her this key, I want to acknowledge the efforts of the entire crew during this mission. It has been difficult at times, but even knowing the strength and fortitude that each of you possess…”
Sachiko had only started her speech, but the others’ eyes had already glazed over. Erika was completely unprepared for the pomp and circumstance of JAXA ceremonies. Yasu had experienced a few of them before, but was still unused to them. Even Maeko was thinking about other things, confident that she could process the recording at a much higher speed later. Hina appeared to be paying attention, but whether that was because she was genuinely interested, or if she was faking it, only she knew.
An audible choking noise escaped from Erika’s throat when, after about seven minutes of blathering, Sachiko began repeating the entire speech in Russian. Both Hina and Yasu had to suppress a giggle at Erika’s reaction. Outside of JAXA, only the most hardcore of Soviets spoke any Russian. There were probably more Russian speakers inside JAXA than outside, but the Soviet audience always got a kick out of it, even if they didn’t speak it themselves.
“And so, it is with great pride that I relinquish command of the station to Hina Johnson,” Sachiko concluded, holding out the key.
Hina took the key and the two of them shook hands. “I accept command.” She then launched into her own—shorter—speech, praising the strength of Sachiko’s leadership and vowing to live up to the example she had set. As she repeated it in Russian, the honest smile on Sachiko’s face slowly faded. Even she had to admit that her leadership style was extreme at times, and now Hina was implying that she’d be subjected to it.
It’ll be fine, Sachiko told herself. Hina’s smart. She won’t let anything bad happen, and she’ll come to me for advice when she needs it. I can take a bit of my own medicine in exchange for more free time.
“OK, cameras off,” Hina ordered. “Mission Control, I want to explore the possibility of using the remaining fuel in the Soyuz to boost the station.”
“What are you doing?” Sachiko asked.
“We’re still at a historically low altitude,” Hina explained. “The plan was to slowly boost it to a higher average altitude with each resupply mission, but we’ve only had one resupply, and we still haven’t used it to boost the station.”
“But we don’t need to use all the fuel,” Sachiko pressed. “We can last for six months with just a couple small boosts.”
“But how long will the station last after that?” Yasu asked. “This isn’t just about our lives. You said it yourself: Human space exploration could end prematurely if anything happens to the station. Even if we die up here, I want to give JAXA every possible chance to salvage the situation.”
“That’s admirable,” Sachiko said, “but the Soyuz is one of our lifeboats. If something were to happen to the shuttle—”
“The Soyuz only seats three,” Hina interrupted, “and there are five of us. I don’t want to have a fight about who gets a seat if something did happen. We’re all in this together. We either all go home, or none of us do.”
“You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this,” Sachiko smiled. “I’m sorry for questioning your decision.”
“It’s fine,” Hina said, relaxing her shoulders. “That’s why I did this first. It’s probably the most uncomfortable decision I’m going to have to make, so I wanted to see if I could win you over. From here on out, things should be easier for both of us.”
“You’re going to make a great commander,” Sachiko told her, but inwardly, she was already questioning her decision to relinquish command. After all, Hina had once decided to risk everything to save the station, and she had nearly died for it. If they were all in this together, as she insisted, would she expect them to follow her to their deaths next time?
A few days later
Steeling herself as best she could for what was to come, Erika ran her finger across Maeko’s forehead, dissolving the artificial skin she touched. The friction from rubbing up against the gynoid made her feel like her finger was being rubbed down to the bone. Twisting the top of Maeko’s skull, she lifted it, revealing the experimental shielding covering her electronic brain. With specialized tools, she poked and prodded at it.
“Don’t leave me in suspense, doc,” Maeko joked. “What’s my prognosis?”
“It’s holding,” Erika mumbled, “but the magical field is weaker than it was last time. There’s no permanent damage, but we should check again in a week to see if the decay has accelerated.”
“I would prefer it if you could prevent the decay to begin with,” Maeko said.
“The field is too unstable,” Erika told her. “It’s reacting to space radiation in ways that we didn’t anticipate. I can try to reinforce it, but it will eventually fail. It’s just a question of how long it will take.”
“Do whatever you can to keep it functional for as long as possible,” Maeko ordered.
“Yeah, yeah,” Erika groaned. Placing her tools back in their pouch, she put her palm flat on Maeko’s shielding. What followed was the most unpleasant sensation she had ever experienced. It wasn’t just that contact with Maeko felt like burning hot, hairy slime, but it also forcibly sucked the magical energy from her body. It wasn’t that she needed it herself. She hadn’t cast a single spell since going undercover, but it felt like her innards were being sucked out through her hand.
“Thank you,” Maeko said, latching her skull back together after Erika finished. “What you’re doing is more important than you could imagine.”
“If you say so,” Erika sighed. “It’s hard to imagine what’s so important about you rubbing yourself all over Sachiko in outer space.”
Before Maeko could say anything, alarms started blaring throughout the station. Maeko grabbed Erika’s wrist to lead her to Zvezda, where they were to meet during emergencies. Along the way, she glanced at a monitor to see what had caused the alarm.
The pressure inside the station was dropping.