Chapter 15:

Maybe She Was Going to Say “I’m Sorry,” or “I’m Proud of You,” or “I Wish Things Had Turned Out Differently.” There’s No Way She Was Going to Say “I Love You,” Right? Right?

The Hoshinauts

No matter how hard she tried, Hina was unable to turn the mine away from the station. A gyroscope inside the weapon prevented her from rotating it.

This is it. I did say we’d all die together. I just wish I’d been able to save the station.

Truth be told, she’d never believed in the space program the same way Sachiko did. Sachiko’s dream of a better future for humankind was a noble one, beautiful even, but unrealistic. Even the best of people were sometimes driven by their worst instincts. If you handed them a perfect future, they’d find a way to ruin it.

Nor was she particularly loyal to JAXA. The kind of people who sent teenage orphans to their deaths didn’t deserve loyalty.

Her reason for wanting to save the station was purely selfish. She liked being in space. It was fun, and she wanted to share that fun with others. If the station were destroyed, people might never come to space again. Now that she was moving slowly backwards, that seemed an inevitable possibility, and there was nothing she could do but shout futilely, “Stop, stop, STOP!”

Do I really want those to be my last words? What happened to making the best of what life throws at me? I should say something meaningful.

“Yasu, I—”

To Hina’s surprise, she slowed and came to a complete stop.

“I’ve got her.” Erika’s voice was audibly strained, even over the radio. “I can’t hold her for long.”

“I’m almost there,” Sachiko told her. “Hang on just a little longer.”

“How long?” Erika asked, but Sachiko knew better than to answer a question like that. Giving Erika a deadline to count down to would only distract her. “I can’t anymore…” Hina could feel herself start to move backwards again, albeit slower than before.

“Got her,” Sachiko declared, coming to a quick stop behind Hina. She put one hand on the back of Hina’s propulsion unit to hold her in place.

“Where’s Yasu?” Hina grunted. “She was always faster than you in the sims.”

“I got a head start. She’ll be here soon. It might take both of us.”

“And it still might not be enough. No idea what the ‘Muricans packed into this thing.”

“In that case, I’ll throttle down slowly and let it gently back us into the station.”

For the next minute, Sachiko allowed the mine to push them towards the ISS, moving maybe ten centimeters a second. They were halfway back to the station when they slowed to a stop.

“Damn thing’s almost out of gas!” Hina exclaimed.

“So am I,” Sachiko said. “Yasu, where are you?”

For a brief moment, terror seeped under Hina’s skin. Maybe Yasu hadn’t successfully purged all the nitrogen from her body. She could be floating dead in space right now. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but Hina didn’t let it distract her from keeping a firm hold on the mine. She had never been one to freeze up in fear, no matter how daunting the situation, but she always paid for it later. As soon as she relaxed, those feelings would hit her all at once.

She needn't have worried. “I’m about five meters behind you,” Yasu answered.

As if echoing Hina’s relief, the mine sputtered as it ran completely out of propellant. Gently, ever so gently, Hina pushed it away, prepared to grab it again if it suddenly started back up.

“OK, let’s get back inside,” Sachiko ordered, and Hina wasn’t in the mood to remind her that she was actually in command, thank you very much. She was happy that everyone was OK, and she wasn’t going to let Sachiko’s habits ruin that.

With Yasu pulling the others behind her, it didn’t take long to reach the Quest Joint Airlock. During repressurization, none of them spoke, each lost in their own thoughts of mortality. Once it was safe, they doffed their spacesuits. It didn’t take as long to remove them as it did to put them on, but they still followed procedure to inspect the suits and store them properly.

They were unable to figure out what caused the valve in Maeko’s propulsion unit to become stuck. It would have to be disassembled, but that could wait for later. Maeko suggested giving the job to Erika, so she had something to occupy her time, and none of the others objected.

“Yasu, let’s take our suits back to Poisk,” Sachiko said, once they had finished.

But it was Maeko who grabbed hold of Yasu’s spacesuit. “I will do it. Let’s give these two some time to talk.”

“If… you think that’s best.” Sachiko grabbed her own spacesuit and opened the hatch to the rest of the station. Before leaving, she shot Hina a warning glance. She was aware of the Suzu hugging incident. In contrast, Maeko gave Hina a sly wink as she followed Sachiko.

Sachiko had been right to be worried. Now that they were safe—as safe as they could be, anyway—Hina’s nerves were finally getting to her. She knew hugging Yasu would produce nostalgic feelings that would calm her down, but she resolved not to repeat her mistake.

Yasu, however, had no such hesitation, and she threw her arms around a surprised Hina, resting her head on Hina’s chest. She immediately regretted it. Hina’s top was soaked through with sweat, and a particularly strong smell had festered during the time she was in her spacesuit. In short, Hina was in desperate need of a shower. This was too good a chance to pass up, however, so Yasu gave a deep sigh, pretending to be every bit the Yamato nadeshiko that Maeko said Hina preferred.

She desperately wanted to ask what Hina was about to say earlier, before she was cut off, but didn’t want to come off as demanding, so she instead said, “Thank you for protecting me.”

That was too much for Hina, who hugged Yasu tight. A wave of relief washed over her, followed by a wave of shame. Hugging Yasu felt so good, so familiar. Sure, they were both taller and more muscular now, but the feeling was familiar enough that memories of the orphanage came rushing into her mind. It also made her feel strong and powerful, and she needed that more than anything at the moment, but in the back of her mind, she knew that this sentiment was unhealthy, both for her and for Yasu.

It was the reason she had sought to separate herself from Yasu in the first place. Yasu had always been the smart one. Hina never would have been able to skip grades if Yasu hadn’t helped her study. It was only because Yasu had always lacked courage that Hina had seemed more capable. But with Hina always protecting her, Yasu never had the opportunity to find her own strength. At first Hina didn’t mind. She rather enjoyed feeling superior to Yasu in this way, but the older they got, the more it bothered her. She was becoming stronger and independent, while Yasu remained an emotional child, despite her growing intellect.

She was pulled from her conflicting thoughts when Erika pulled herself into the airlock. Her breathing was ragged, and she looked as though she was fighting to stay standing, even though she was floating in microgravity. It was all she could do to raise her hand and give Hina the weakest slap across the face in human history.

“You could have died,” she wheezed.

“You look like you’re about to,” Hina commented. Keeping a firm hold on Yasu.

“And whose fault do you think that is?” Erika’s voice was louder now, but only barely above conversation level. “You keep pulling stunts like that and you’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Hey,” Yasu said, wriggling out of Hina’s grasp, “lay off. You don’t get to talk to her that way.”

“Someone has to. Unless she suffers some consequences, she’s going to keep putting herself in harm’s way, and eventually she’ll find herself in a situation she can’t handle.”

“Consequences?! You have no idea what it’s like out there, or what she went through after Harmony. She did what was necessary.”

“No,” Erika insisted, “she put us all at risk to save a walking computer.”

Yasu wanted to argue the point, but she found she agreed with Erika. It didn’t matter to her whether Maeko was a gynoid or not, but she would have traded anyone’s life for Hina’s. Still, even if Erika was right, she wasn’t going to allow her to disrespect Hina.

“She wouldn’t have needed to risk anything if you had taken care of it with magic.”

“You think I don’t know that? Maybe I have no idea what it takes to do what you do, but you have no idea what it’s like to be me. Day in and day out I watch as girls half my age donate their magical energy to the geoengineering cause and still cast spells far beyond what I could ever achieve.”

Hina placed a hand on Erika’s shoulder. “Your magic saved me out there. You should be proud of yourself.”

“And it took everything I had left. I just… I’ve carried too many girls your age home in body bags because they got overconfident in their own powers. I don’t want you to make the same mistake.”

Neither Hina nor Yasu had an immediate comeback for that. They knew Erika was older than them, but they never suspected that she was old enough to have served in the war. Hina eventually broke the silence with an awkward joke.

“No body bags up here. We commit the bodies to space.”

“You mean they never did autopsies on the girls who died?” Erika asked.

Hina shrugged. “There was no need. The cause of death was always obvious. Don’t tell me you suspect Sachiko after all.”

Erika shook her head. “No, of course not. Sorry, I just… I’m exhausted. I need to rest for a bit.”

Instead of returning to her cabin, as one might expect, Erika closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep in the airlock.

For once, Sachiko felt as though she could sleep through the night in her cabin. Before she closed her eyes, however, her phone lit up, displaying a text message containing nothing but a number. Instantly, she was wide awake. She grabbed her encrypted headset and turned to the number indicated in the message.

“Do you have any idea how long I’ve been trying to get in contact?” She asked, knowing neither side wanted to waste time with pointless greetings.

“Yes, I do.” Sachiko didn’t recognize the voice, but that didn’t mean much. Whoever was on the other end of the line would be using a device to disguise themselves. “Where is JAXA’s director?”

“How should I know? Isn’t that your job?”

“It is. That’s why I’m asking you.”

“Well sorry, I’ve been too busy running the entire space program and dealing with ‘Murican space mines to search for him.”

“Space mines? The ‘Muricans haven’t launched any space mines.”

“Probably been up here for centuries. One of them stuck to the Soyuz.”

The line was quiet for several seconds. “Shaped like a pill with three legs? Thirty centimeters long?”

“That’s it,” Sachiko confirmed.

“That’s not a mine. It’s a buoy for locating space junk.”

“The ‘Muricans said that, but the Soviets insisted it was a mine.”

“Soviet intelligence from seven hundred years ago speculated that they were mines, but it was corrected a few years later. Whoever you consulted probably just looked at the oldest report in their database.”

Sachiko wanted nothing more than to let loose with a string of profanities, but she knew better than to waste an intelligence operative’s time. Whoever this was, they had just done her a favor, and she needed to thank them.

“I can at least tell you that the director’s not on Neo Tanegashima. I’ve got people searching it top to bottom every day. It’s a small island, and they know all the hiding spots. Don’t know for sure how he got off the island without being noticed, but there’s a good chance he snuck aboard one of the three airships that left the island between the time he was last seen and the time we noticed he was gone.”

“That’s helpful. In your opinion, would he be more likely to side with the ‘Muricans or the Soviets?”

“Before I answer that, I need another favor. Just pass along a message. JAXA desperately needs a new permanent director. I can’t hold it together much longer.”

“I’ll pass it along, but don’t get your hopes up. Nobody’s got time to prop up an agency that won’t exist much longer.”

“What do you mean won’t exist much longer?” Sachiko nearly shouted into her headset. “We just finished building the ISS.”

“I agree with you. Seems a waste. But now that the ‘Muricans and the Expedition are pursuing their own space programs, the government is happy to step back and let countries with more resources take over. Funding to JAXA was supposed to end weeks ago, but the government obviously can’t cut you off while you’re stuck in space. Not while you’re alive, anyway.”

“Did the director know about this?”

More silence, this time for nearly a minute, and then, “He did.”

“You don’t think he started the war in some kind of braindead attempt to secure a future for JAXA, do you?”

“You tell me. Is he capable of that?”

“He has the resources, and he’s dumb enough to come up with a plan like that. I should have realized when he tried to pin the blame on me.”

“If we can find proof that he was behind it, that might be enough to end the war, so tell me, where would he go?”

“He’s friendly with diplomats from both sides…”

Sachiko knew she had to get this call right. Once again, everything depended on her, but she didn’t hate it. The added pressure only reinforced her determination to save humankind from the brink of extinction, it propelled her down the path she knew she must take, and most of all, it made her feel important.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.