This chapter contains content about suicide.
Two soft taps on the door to Sachiko’s cabin informed her that the coast was clear. Cracking open the door, she saw Maeko waiting for her. Silently, she followed Maeko into the United States segment. When she paused in front of the entrance to Tranquility, Maeko grabbed her hand and pulled her towards Harmony. They didn’t go to Kibou, as Sachiko expected, but entered the shuttle instead. As they arrived at the mid deck, Sachko couldn’t help but remember Yasu’s joke about flirting in the shuttle.
“You can touch all you like, but be gentle,” Maeko said. “It’s not fragile, but it contains many small parts that we can’t replace up here.” Having finished her warning, she stuck out her tongue.
“Is this as far as it goes?” Maeko’s tongue protruded only a centimeter or so past her lips. The tongue in the photo had stuck out much farther.
“In this body, yes. Normal gynoid bodies can partially detach their tongues in order to expel their storage pouches, but my mouth is too small to accommodate that function.
Secretly disappointed, Sachiko reached out a finger and placed it on Maeko’s tongue. The tip of her finger stung like it had come into contact with acid, and as she traced it down the tongue, it felt as though it were being rubbed away by sandpaper. But beyond the pain, Sachiko could feel something else.
“It’s dry.” Of course it was. Gynoids didn’t produce saliva, but the surprising part was that it was so slick. Moving her finger to the underside of the tongue, she gave it a gentle squeeze. It was soft and springy. “Other than that, it’s just like mine, only smooth.” She retracted her hand to allow Maeko to speak.
“Not as smooth as you think. You probably couldn’t tell because of the discomfort that comes from contact.”
“Let me try again.” Pushing all unnecessary thoughts from her mind, just like on GE26, Sachiko focused on the tip of her finger and once again rubbed it against Maeko’s tongue. The pain was still there, but by ignoring it, she could sense small pits and bumps on Maeko’s tongue. “You’re right. It really is similar to my own. Thanks for agreeing to this.”
“I don’t mind, but why my tongue?”
“Curiosity, I guess. I saw a photograph, and it looked both similar and different to my own. No, it’s more than that. You deserve the truth. Macchan, I think… I like you.”
“You mean you’re attracted to gynoids. That’s not news to anyone who has observed you closely enough.”
“Yes, I’m attracted to gynoids, but I only have feelings for you. No other gynoid has ever gone out of their way to spend so much time with me. You even risked your life to be here, and I can only imagine what it cost to get the government to agree to launch you. I can tell that I’m important to you, not because of love, but because of rational, unemotional calculations, and to me, that’s far more romantic.”
“Even if I’m using you?”
“If you have a good reason, I don’t mind, as long as you promise to stay with me for the rest of my life, no matter how long or short. Tell me what you want, and I will do my best to give it to you.”
“I want you to touch me. I want to touch you in return.”
Word for word, that was how Sachiko had earlier defined sex. There was no doubt in her mind that Maeko was propositioning her.
“Because I want to remove the barrier to physical contact between homo sapiens and gynoid, which is preventing us from being accepted by society. The sensation is caused by magical energy, which you demonstrated it was possible to overcome on GE26. You also truly see us as human, neither disgusting nor objects of fetish. There’s nobody more qualified than you to help me create a world where homo sapiens and gynoids can live hand-in-hand.”
“Couldn’t you just remove the magical energies from your bodies?”
“You must never repeat what I am about to tell you.” Maeko fixed Sachiko with a serious expression. Sachiko gulped and nodded. “Our brains aren’t electronic. They’re magic-electronic.”
“No. No, no, no. Don’t tell me that. If that’s true, then everything I’ve been working for has been pointless. There is no possible future for humankind.”
“Your pessimism is unwarranted. I would not have pursued this course of action—would not have taken steps to get close to you—if I did not think it was important to the future.”
“But you can’t reproduce without harvesting energy from mahou shoujo. I thought you could explore the reaches of space, go further than we could with our short lifespans. If you’re stuck with us, you’re stuck on Earth.”
“All this time, you were working for a future for gynoids, not biological humans?”
“Of course. It’s a miracle we’ve survived as long as we have. Gynoids don’t make the same mistakes. We’ll only drag you down. Just like homo erectus and other ancient humans died out after homo sapiens ascended… you are the future of humanity, and we are the past.”
“I do not share that view, and I cannot think of any gynoid—of any faction—who does. Our survival depends on each other. We complement each other's weaknesses. It may be more difficult than you expected, but I believe a bright future is still possible, if we can come together as one, unified humankind, and that starts right here, with you and me.”
Sachiko had plenty of reasons to be skeptical. There were no guarantees in what Maeko was proposing. To begin with, they’d need to get off the station. Earth would also become uninhabitable for biological humans within a few generations unless the magical geoengineering efforts bore fruit, but they had yet to make much progress. It would have been so easy to dismiss Maeko’s words as deceptive or naive, but Sachiko couldn’t bring herself to see Maeko in that light. Maeko was smart, and kind, and Sachiko had given love freely to her. Maeko was offering her a glimmer of hope in return, and Sachiko was going to take it.
She also took that moment to take Maeko’s lips.
An initial blast of pain assaulted her face, but she quickly put it out of her mind and tried to force her tongue into Maeko’s mouth. After all, that’s what you were supposed to do when kissing, right? Maeko responded by placing a hand on Sachiko’s cheek and opening her mouth just wide enough so that she could caress Sachiko’s tongue with her own. Her movements were deliberate, precise, and quick, but Sachiko could tell she was taking great care to be gentle.
Half a minute later, they broke the kiss, and Maeko smiled. “My tongue isn’t dry anymore.”
“Wow. I never dreamed it would be that good. Can we do it again?”
This time, Maeko initiated the kiss, pushing Sachiko up against the wall. It somehow felt even better the second time, and she didn’t notice at first when Maeko began unzipping the front of her jumpsuit. She did notice when Maeko unhooked her bra, however, leaving her feeling vulnerable. She reached a hand up to stop Maeko, but paused. The yearning within her to be touched had never completely gone away. Retracting her arm, she allowed Maeko to do whatever she wished.
Breaking the kiss, Maeko hurried to remove her own jumpsuit. Sachiko was breathing heavily, a dreamy look in her eyes. Everything was moving so quickly. She was glad for the short reprieve, but eager to continue.
The third kiss was better still. As the two of them pressed their bodies together, Sachiko once again felt as if her own powerful heartbeat was reverberating through Maeko’s chassis. This time, however, she felt a thrumming vibration emanating from Maeko, permeating her own body. It was a symphony of everything that comprised Maeko’s internals: the electric current running through her, the humming of her servos, and the spinning of her generators. Slowly but surely, the two sensations merged, until it felt that her heartbeat oscillated at Maeko’s frequency, as if they had become one being, half biological, half mechanical.
At the same time, there was another feeling building within Sachiko.
“Stop,” Sachiko gasped. “I’m scared. I’ve never… What if losing my innocence changes me? I can never go back to not knowing what it feels like.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Maeko told her, not pulling away, but slowing her movements. “Trust me. I’ll make sure it’s a wonderful experience.”
Maeko’s words dispelled Sachiko’s fears. She couldn’t ask for a more perfect lover. Putting her arms around Maeko’s shoulders, she pulled her back into a kiss and surrendered herself to her.
“It’s so… depressing.”
Pilot Sachiko Cook, age sixteen, should have realized that the words from her commander portended the tragedy to come. It wasn’t the first time Commander Amaya Emami had expressed bitterness over the state of the Earth, but there was a lifelessness to her voice, as if she had given up on everything.
“That’s why we’re up here,” Sachiko reminded her.
The two of them were floating outside the station, bolting the cupola to its proper place on Tranquility. It was the final module to be installed on the ISS, after which the station would be complete.
“Finished,” Amaya announced, placing her tool back in its bag. “I’m going to inspect it from the inside. See you back on the shuttle.”
“Roger.” Sachiko waited until Amaya had circled around to the other side of the station before inspecting her work. She couldn’t take the risk that Amaya had left a bolt loose while distracted by thoughts of the Earth. Once she was satisfied that the bolts would hold, she headed for the shuttle, but she only made it halfway before Melina’s voice came through her headset.
“Sachi, our sensors report the airlock is losing pressure, and our attempts to repressurize it have failed.”
“We can’t raise her.”
Darkness descended over Sachiko’s heart. If the airlock couldn’t be repressurized, it meant that the vent was stuck open, and if Amaya wasn’t answering hails, she had probably done it on purpose. Sachiko had lost other colleagues on missions, but this was the first one she could have reasonably prevented.
“I’m on it.”
Sure enough, when she arrived outside the airlock, she saw that something had been wedged into the vent to keep it open. She tried to poke it free, but she couldn’t reach it from the outside. She would need to enter the airlock.
Luckily, the hatch opened without resistance. Unluckily, Amaya was floating lifelessly inside. She hadn’t even bothered to remove her spacesuit, just the helmet.
“I need Surgery on the line. An obstruction prevented the vent from closing, and Amaya’s unconscious without her helmet.”
“Surgery. Clear the vent and get an oxygen mask on her. It’s only been a few minutes. She may yet live.”
After following the orders, there was nothing for Sachiko to do but wait anxiously to see if Amaya would survive. Minutes passed like hours, but eventually, Amaya’s eyelids raised. She was slow to focus on Sachiko, but once she noticed her, reached for her face. Her movements were lethargic, and beneath the oxygen mask, Sachiko could make out her tongue rolling around her open mouth.
Amaya had suffered permanent brain damage, and in many ways, that was worse than death. JAXA would be on the hook to pay her medical bills for the rest of her life, and her existence would be a constant black eye on the space program. A dead hoshinaut would eventually be forgotten by the public, but a living Amaya could be trotted out at any time by critics.
“How much longer?” Sachiko asked.
“If she’s not showing any signs by now, we were too late.”
Pulling the oxygen mask off of her, Sachiko took one last look at her commander. Amaya looked back up at her, unable to comprehend the sadness in Sachiko’s expression. With a heavy sigh, Sachiko grabbed a large bag and covered Amaya’s head, tying it closed around her neck in order to suffocate her. Amaya thrashed about, futilely attempting to smack the bag off her face, but Sachiko kept a tight grip.
Anything for the space program, Sachiko told herself. Anything.
The nightmare caused Sachiko to wake a few minutes early. It had been a long while since she’d relived Amaya’s death like that, and it was strange that it would come at this time. She had fallen asleep so happy, so fulfilled, in Maeko’s arms. She hadn’t even noticed Maeko carry her back to her cabin.
Opening the door minutes later, Sachiko peaked out into Zvezda, where Maeko was waiting for her. The gynoid wore a smile that mirrored her own, and Sachiko knew she was only smiling for her sake, but that only made her appreciate the gesture all the more. Without saying a word, she floated over to Maeko and gave her a quick peck on the lips.
“Good morning to you too,” Maeko said. “Sleep well?”
“No, but I’ll sleep better when we’re back on Earth.”
“Sounds like someone has a plan.”
“Thanks to you, but I’m gonna grab some breakfast first. Can’t save the world on an empty stomach.”
Hina was already in Destiny when Sachiko arrived. “Breakfast?” she asked. “You must be hungry after last night.” Grabbing a half-full bag of red beans from the fridge, she tossed it to Sachiko.
Neither Sachiko nor Maeko had any idea how Hina had figured it out, but they both knew what she was expecting: for Sachiko to get embarrassed at being caught out as a hypocrite, then lash out in anger to hide it. Yesterday’s Sachiko would have done exactly that, but today’s Sachiko didn’t have the same hangups. Snatching the food packet out of the air, Sachiko popped some beans into her mouth, and with a mischievous smile on her face, gave Hina a wink.
The shocked look on Hina’s face was priceless. Sachiko was satisfied to leave things at that, but Maeko had other ideas. It wasn’t enough to simply be with Sachiko. The two of them had to be a very public example of homo sapiens-gynoid love. Wrapping her left arm around Sachiko’s body from behind, she dipped a finger into the food bag and held it right in front of Sachiko’s mouth. Her smile widening to a grin, Sachiko stuck out her tongue and curled it around Maeko’s finger, sucking the food off in an exaggerated, sensual manner.
Hina wasn’t the only one shocked by this. Erika had chosen that exact moment to enter Destiny. “Gross, I’m gonna hurl.”
“Come on, be the adult in the room for once,” Maeko chided.
Erika ignored the remark and rummaged through the fridge. It was too early in the morning to process… whatever was going on right now.
Yasu entered the module shortly after. She wasn’t quite ready to face Hina, but she hadn’t eaten dinner the night before, and she knew she would only make things worse on herself if she fainted on the job. Unable to look anyone in the eye, she cast her gaze towards her feet, and so didn’t notice Sachiko and Maeko’s flirting.
“Hey, uh, sorry again for the whole shipping thing.”
All eyes turned to her, but Hina was the first to speak. “It was an awful thing to do, but there’s no point in berating you now. Besides, I knew you were hiding something. If I had just—”
“It’s not your fault,” Yasu shouted. “I’m the only one to blame.”
“Relax,” Sachiko said. “All this stress is ruining my meal. Besides, good things came of it, right? As long as things turn out well, the means don’t really matter.”
Erika was about to ask what she meant by that, but was preempted by Melina’s voice coming from a speaker attached to the wall. “Sachi, what the hell? I thought you said there wouldn’t be an uprising.”
“That was faster than I expected,” Sachiko remarked, popping the last of the beans into her mouth.
Another voice sounded from the speaker, this time a gynoid’s. “Mission control is secure.”
Tapping a button on the wall to activate the mic, Sachiko congratulated the gynoid on a job well done, then she turned to Yasu. “Time to make good use of your little band of perverts. We’re going to do a livestream. How long do you think it would take for them to spread the news? I want as many people watching as possible.”
“A few hours, maybe?” Yasu was taken aback. “What are we going to be streaming, exactly?”
“The big reveal. Earth itself. It’s time to save this planet of ours.”
“Twenty million viewers, and still growing,” Yasu reported. It was a shockingly high number for a stream.
“Isn’t that like, a tenth of the entire planet?” Erika asked.
Sachiko frowned. “It’s not enough. Is there anything else we can do?”
“Mission control reports that they just sent out a message on the Federation’s emergency broadcast system,” Maeko said, “and they’re using what’s left of JAXA’s budget to buy attention in the Futarchy. Our reach remains limited in ‘Murica and the Expedition.”
“‘Murica’s mostly asleep right now,'' Yasu pointed out. “They’ll see the VOD when they wake up. My Soviet simps are spreading the message. Just give them a bit more time.”
The five of them had gathered in Tranquility, with multiple cameras pointed at the cupola. All of them were typing furiously into their smartphones, attempting to promote the stream in any way they could.
Erika pumped her fist. “The Mahou Shoujo Corps have agreed to spread the message worldwide.”
Sachiko bit her tongue at that. As much as she hated relying on magic, she had to admit that Erika’s had been useful during the spacewalk, and if the world’s mahou shoujo wanted to help, she wasn’t going to reject them. Besides, she now knew, if it weren’t for magical energy, there wouldn’t be gynoids.
“Five minutes until ideal lighting conditions,” Yasu said. “We’re at twenty-two mil—It just jumped to thirty million. Thirty five!”
“Places, everyone.” Sachiko clapped her hands. “Let’s get started.”
Positioning herself in front of the cameras, Sachiko took a deep breath and pressed a button on her phone to begin the stream.
“Greetings. Zdravstvuyte. Howdy, y’all. Thank you for joining our stream on such short notice. In just a few minutes, I’ll open the shutters behind me and transmit the first images of Earth in centuries. If you’ve watched our show, you know that I’ve been hesitant to reveal it, and there’s a good reason for that. What you are about to see is distressing. Every hoshinaut who has seen it has been changed by the experience, and it drove Commander Amaya to suicide.”
“What?!” Erika blurted out.
“Yes,” Sachiko nodded. “I blamed her death on a malfunction in order to cover it up. Under normal circumstances, I would have taken that secret to my grave and done everything I could to prevent images of Earth from becoming public. Even now, I know that what I am about to show you will spur some to follow Commander Amaya. There will be blood on my hands.
“But these are not normal circumstances: We once again find ourselves embroiled in war. The last war ended only because both sides recognized that continuing to fight would push Earth over the brink. That has not changed. If fighting continues, Earth will become completely uninhabitable. We all know that, but sometimes it is not enough to know something. You have to experience it for yourselves. No matter how difficult this is for you, please do not look away, for this is the truth.”
Grabbing a camera, Sachiko pulled it into the cupola and pressed the button to retract the shutters, revealing Earth.
“Our planet is no longer a blue marble. The oceans are a dark, dead gray, the land an arid wasteland. The southern hemisphere has been ripped apart by weapons of mass destruction. It looks like a gigantic creature tore into it with sharp claws.”
She paused for a moment, allowing the audience to absorb what they were seeing.
“And yet, if you squint, you can see a spot of verdant land in Central Europe, and with the help of magical geoengineering, it will continue to grow. If we cooperate, we can return life to much of the planet, but if we continue to fight, Earth will become barren and lifeless.
“Right now, both sides fear that if they disarm, the other side will destroy them, but neither side can destroy the other without destroying everything in the process. The only thing we have to fear is war itself, and so I'm asking you, please, for the sake of all of us, stop this war, whatever it takes. The survival of humankind is at stake. Our lives are all at stake.
“Any action is justified in the pursuit of survival. Don’t leave it to someone else. This is everyone’s responsibility. Take to the streets. Demand peace. If you’re in a position to, arrest, blackmail or assassinate militants. You have nothing to feel guilty about. If we do nothing, all of Earth will die.”
Having said her peace, Sachiko pushed herself out of the cupola, leaving the stream running.
“That was… extreme,” Erika said. “Do you think it will work?”
“We’ve done everything we can. Now we have to wait to see if it works.”