Maeko had no clue why Sachiko would ask such a thing, but she could think of no reason why Sachiko couldn’t touch her tongue, under better circumstances, of course.
“Later,” Maeko nodded.
“When?” Sachiko shot back, her voice cracking with both nervousness and anticipation. That was a first, Maeko noted. She’d never seen Sachiko so flustered, and a quick search of her internal database confirmed that no other gynoid had either.
“We’ll figure that out later too.”
“Oh, right.” Her immediate question answered, Sachiko turned to the more pressing problem of the pressure leak. Rushing past Maeko, she had barely entered Zarya when Hina stuck her head out of the docking module.
“Found it,” Hina reported. “Tiny hole in the Soyuz.”
“Seriously?” Sachiko sighed. “I know we’re reenacting ancient space history, but did we have to go that far?”
Having overheard the conversation, Maeko floated into Zarya, coming to a stop by grabbing onto Sachiko’s shoulders. “Our manufacturing process is fully automated. There’s no possibility of a defect like the one that most likely affected MS-09.”
Hina’s expression became stern. “Maybe it was sabotage.” She managed to keep a straight face for all of three seconds before bursting into laughter, but trailed off when she realized Sachiko wasn’t laughing with her.
“Erika might have done it,” Sachiko posited. “She’s had a harder time keeping it together than any of us.”
“She was with me. We were performing maintenance on my systems when the alarm sounded.”
“See?” Hina gave Sachiko a lighthearted punch in the arm. “It wasn’t sabotage.”
“That just proves Erika didn’t do it,” Sachiko said. “It doesn’t clear you or Yasu.”
“And why would we do something like that?”
“I’m not trying to accuse you. I just think we need to make sure there are no lingering doubts.”
“Yasu and I were having an argument at the time. Claire stopped responding to my texts, and I thought maybe Yasu snitched on us.”
“I do not think she would do that,” Maeko interjected, and Sachiko was grateful that she did. It gave her an excuse not to say anything. “The last thing she wants is to hurt you.”
“I know, but she’s got that vindictive side to her, you know? You ever hear about what she did to her bullies on the way out of the orphanage?”
“No, I don’t, because it didn’t happen, and we don’t talk about it,” Sachiko said. “The important thing is that we know nobody sabotaged the Soyuz. We don’t need to litigate your personal life.”
“What about you?” Hina teased. “Seems like you’re the only one without an alibi.” She didn’t really think Sachiko had done anything, but she wasn’t going to let her go without some payback.
“I was in my cabin. I mean, I was, uh…”
A huge grin appeared on Hina’s face. “Oho? Having some private time? I didn’t think you were that kind of girl.”
“Was it your first time then? Gosh, they grow up so fast. Maybe we should have red rice tonight to celebrate.”
“OK, I was doing something embarrassing. Happy? But I wasn’t touch—doing that. This isn’t some cheap hotel. I’d sooner die than be the first person to defile the ISS.”
That answer was too much for Hina, who began cackling uncontrollably. “Defile? Really? Pfft. You were so worked up about being the first person to frig on the station? I hate to break it to you, but Erika got there way ahead of you.”
“What?” Sachiko gasped, causing Hina to laugh harder.
“She has little else to do aboard the station,” Maeko explained, “and this is a stressful situation for her.”
“It’s a stressful situation for us all,” Sachiko said, “but how did you know? Were you spying on her or something?”
“Relax,” Hina said between breaths. “I just noticed that she sometimes goes into her cabin, and when she comes out, she’s visibly relaxed. Doesn’t take an advanced degree to put two and two together.”
Sachiko had no idea what to say to that. Her first instinct was to criticize Erika, but she knew that wasn’t fair. Masturbation was a normal activity, and Erika was, well, she wasn’t normal, but she wasn’t a hoshinaut either. No, statistically, there had to be hoshinauts that did it. Sachiko wanted to think that they wouldn’t do it on a mission, but deep down, she knew that was naive. Not all the girls were as disciplined as Hina and Yasu. If they were, there would have been fewer accidents on missions.
What if it wasn’t a matter of discipline, but of interest? Hina had no qualms talking about it. Maybe she was used to it. Maybe she was also doing it in her cabin. Maybe Yasu was doing it too. Maybe Sachiko was the only one who wasn’t.
That was a disturbing prospect. It wasn’t so much that she felt left out, rather, it was that she didn’t want to imagine Hina and Yasu doing that kind of thing. They were the closest she had to biological friends.
And because they were biological, it would be normal for them to be interested in sex. Sachiko knew that. She’d used sex appeal to gather intelligence and gain favors. She’d ordered Hina to do the same to Erika. She knew that only worked so well because most humans were sexual beings, but, she now realized, she’d always considered herself an exception.
Sex, in her mind, was something other people did, something she might one day do when she was grown up and wanted a child of her own. She was different—better—than everyone else because she kept complete control over her instincts. That was how she had survived GE26, because she was special. That’s why the gynoids told her she was important.
Now it seemed she wasn’t so special. The desire which burned throughout her body had overridden her better judgment minutes prior. She could try to tell herself that she was just pursuing her curiosity, that since she knew there was no real danger, there was no harm in it, but she knew what she had felt: eagerness to ask, and the fear that Hina would catch her if she wasn’t quick.
All this time, she had acted like she was superior to everyone. They were enthralled by attraction and arousal, and she thought herself above them, but she really was like them after all. She had probably been attracted to gynoids all along, but had failed to recognize it. Until today, she hadn’t known it was even possible to be attracted to them.
Sensing Sachiko’s growing discomfort, Maeko gave Sachiko’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Perhaps we should not be speaking of Erika’s private situation behind her back.”
The levity disappeared from Hina’s face as she realized what she had done. She had only wanted to tease Sachiko, not spread gossip. “Sorry. You’re right. I should let everyone know we found the problem. Can I ask you to begin the investigation?”
“You can leave it to me, but Sachiko needs to rest. It appears overworking has finally caught up to her.”
Hina wasn’t convinced by that explanation, but she saw no need to argue. With a quick nod, she left towards the United States segment. Sachiko turned to go to her cabin, but Maeko kept a firm hold on her.
“Sachiko, what’s wrong?”
“I’m… not special.”
She tried to say more, but the words caught in her throat. She needed more time to process her emotions, and her exhaustion was only making it more difficult to do so. If she didn’t leave quickly, there was a chance she’d start crying in front of Maeko, and she’d never cried in front of anyone since GE26.
Maeko pulled her into a gentle hug. “Nonsense. You’re more special than you know.”
The hug was painful, more painful than touching a gynoid had ever been for Sachiko. It felt like little hooks were digging into her skin where their bodies touched, but it also felt strangely comforting. Beyond the pain, she could feel the warmth of Maeko’s body. Her heart beat hard enough that it reverberated from head to toe and though she knew it wasn’t possible, it seemed to be echoing through Maeko’s chassis as well.
“But I was too focused on my own feelings when I should have been focused on the situation. I’m no better than all those girls who washed out of the program.”
She put her arms around Maeko and tried to hug her tighter, but stopped when the pain intensified. It now felt like millions of tiny bugs swimming through her flesh, but she hesitated to give up the hug completely. Maeko, feeling Sachiko start to squirm, softly pushed her away and held her at arm’s length.
“Just because you’re not special in every way, it doesn’t mean you’re not special in any way. You’ve done things no other person could. You changed the world for the better. It’s OK to be proud, but don’t let that pride hold you to an impossible standard.”
The tears were coming now. There was no stopping them. Sachiko’s first instinct was to turn and flee. She didn’t want anyone to see her cry. She didn’t want Maeko to see it, but if it was only Maeko, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. It would be less embarrassing than running away.
As her vision began to blur, Sachiko felt Maeko’s hand on the back of her head, and the next thing she knew, her face was buried in Maeko’s shoulder. The gynoid didn’t say anything as Sachiko’s tears flowed into the fabric of her jumpsuit.
It only took a minute for Sachiko to get herself back under control, but for that brief time, she felt no pain from the gynoid’s touch.
An hour later
Hina leaned her face close to the monitor, as if that would help her see the tiny object any better in the grainy picture. “What am I looking at here? Some kind of alien probe?” From what she could tell, it was a small capsule with three legs that were embedded into the Soyuz. One of those legs had poked all the way through, creating the hole that had slowly leaked air from the station.
“If by alien, you mean ‘Murican, and by probe, you mean weapon, yes,” Melina answered through the speaker.
“Are you sure it’s a weapon?” Sachiko asked.
“The ‘Muricans say it’s a buoy designed to locate space junk, but the Soviets say it’s a mine. Neither sounded confident in their claims, so we’ve decided it’s best to be cautious and treat it like a weapon.”
Sachiko couldn’t fault that logic, but it meant they’d need to take drastic, possibly risky action to resolve the situation. “So what are we going to do about it?”
“Detaching the Soyuz is the safest option,” Melina said, “but we’d have to reorient the station, and there’s a risk that any sudden jolts could cause it to detonate.”
“We’re gonna have to go out there and pull it out by hand,” Hina declared. She was sure mission control had come to the same conclusion, but they were waiting for someone to volunteer.
Sachiko shook her head. “There’s too much we don’t know about it. Even if we manage to remove it, it might fire its thrusters and latch onto the ship again. It might detonate.”
“I didn’t mean pull the weapon out,” Hina clarified. I meant pull the Soyuz out.”
The whole room fell silent. It was an unthinkable idea, but it was better than the alternatives.
Yasu was the first to speak up. “Can we use the Canadarm?”
“The Canadarm can’t move the Soyuz far enough from the station,” Melina said, “and trying to toss the Soyuz away is too risky. If we used two astronaut propulsion units, we could slowly accelerate the Soyuz to two meters per second before you reach the ends of your tethers. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to safely clear the station and put the Soyuz in a lower orbit.”
“That would take precise coordination between the two hoshinauts,” Sachiko pointed out. “There would be no room for error.”
“I can do it,” Hina said.
“No,” Yasu shouted.
Hina shot a reassuring smile at her friend. “Compared to Harmony, this is nothing.”
“You still have nightmares about Harmony. You can’t put yourself through any more.”
The smile remained on Hina’s face, but her eyelids drooped ever so slightly. She placed a hand atop Yasu’s head. “I want to protect you. Please, let me do this.”
Pushing Hina’s arm away, Yasu turned to hide the large grin forming on her blushing face. This wasn’t the time to be happy about something like that, especially when she was sure Hina was just manipulating her feelings, but she couldn’t help it. “You’re so unfair. Just come back safe, OK? I don’t want you getting hurt for my sake.”
That left one obvious choice for the other slot. Maeko raised her arm.
“I will go too.”
Sachiko tightened her hands into fists. She didn’t want to risk anyone on this foolhardy plan, least of all Maeko, but if she wanted to reclaim her self-image, she needed to suppress her emotions. The Hina-Maeko pair had the highest chance of success. Rather than wasting time arguing, as Yasu had done, she should be spending the time thinking of ways to improve the safety of the plan.
Instead, it was Erika who voiced opposition. “Your brain shielding may not fully protect you outside the station.”
“I am aware,” Maeko stated, “but it remains the best option, unless you can provide an alternative.”
“Hey, good idea,” Yasu exclaimed. “Sparkles here can just—”
“Yasu, stop,” Sachiko warned. “Watch what you say.”
“It’s a fucking emergency, Sacchan. It’s time to stop pretending that we don’t know Erika’s a mahou shoujo.”
“I’m not—” Erika tried to protest, but with a roar, Yasu launched herself at Erika, slamming her into the wall.
“Now’s not the time to play games. Lives are at stake!”
Unlike when she had been pinned by Sachiko, Erika’s fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, and she tried to push Yasu off her. She knew Sachiko wasn’t violent, but Yasu? She had no clue. She had precious little intelligence on Yasu. Everyone at the orphanage loved talking about Hina, but when asked about Yasu, they clammed up, adult and child alike.
It was Sachiko who pulled Yasu off Erika, spinning Yasu around to face her. She was angrier than Yasu had ever seen her, causing Yasu to shrink back in fear.
“No, we don’t know that, but you know better than to reveal my hand.”
“B—But she could teleport the weapon—”
“If she could teleport, you think she’d still be aboard the station? You saw how scared she was when she learned we were stuck up here.”
“I’m sorry, Sacchan, I didn’t think—”
“That’s right,” Sachiko spat, “you didn’t think. Just because we call it magic, doesn’t mean it can do anything. This isn’t a fairy tale or some old anime. Magic is just an energy field that some people produce. It has limits, even if we don’t fully understand them. Trusting your safety to something like that is nothing but foolish.”
“That’s enough.” Hina put a hand on Sachiko’s shoulder to pull her away from Yasu. “You’ve made your point.” Sachiko released Yasu and Hina maneuvered herself between them, as if shielding Yasu from Sachiko. There was a look of seriousness in Hina’s eyes that Sachiko had never seen before. Even when she was serious, Hina came off as easygoing and jovial, and Sachiko could tell that she had crossed a line.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I got emotional. It won’t happen again.”
Hina’s expression relaxed, and a smile returned to her face, as if nothing had happened. She gave Sachiko a friendly slap on the back. “Oh, is that all? OK then, let’s get this show on the road! We’re wasting time.”
With nothing more that either of them could say in protest, Yasu and Sachiko were forced to watch as the women they loved entered the airlock.