Chapter 18:

Love and Peace

The Hoshinauts

This chapter contains content about suicide, violence, and mild gore, but not nearly as much as your average Demon Slayer episode.

JAXA’s director peeked out the window of a dark Neo Leningrad apartment at the mob flooding into the street below. “Dammit Satch,” he mumbled, “we just needed one more week. You should have realized that.”

Behind him, his secretary was stuffing explosives into a tote bag. “This actually works out better for us. Her actions will make it easier to restore peace after we secure funding, and I am confident we can delay for a week.”

“You shouldn’t underestimate Satch. She’s sharper than a prog knife. Saw through me the first time we met, and she was only ten. She’s going to grow into an amazing—and attractive—woman, mark my words.”

“Focus,” the secretary said, handing him the bag. “You remember where the target is? You’ve got three hours to place the bag and get out of town. Try not to draw attention.”

“Don’t worry about me. Just make sure nobody sees you, and we’ll meet again in Minsk.”

The warehouse was unoccupied, just as expected. Normally, there would be a few guards patrolling nearby, but his secretary had arranged for them to be absent. He didn’t know how she had done it, and he didn’t particularly care. All he had to do was place the explosives and get out without being noticed.

Opening the unlocked door, he had a momentary feeling that this was too easy, but then again, every part of this plan had been too easy. His secretary had planned far ahead, and she was using all her resources to confound the world governments. It couldn’t last forever, but it didn’t need to.

Inside, the warehouse was large and dimly-lit. He walked as fast as his legs would carry him, headed towards the center of the room. A sudden movement caught his attention, and the next thing he knew, he was being tackled to the floor. The sound of footsteps surrounded him. This had been a trap. Knowing that he had no chance to escape, and knowing that torture awaited him, he reached into the bag and pressed down on a button to detonate the explosives.

Nothing happened. He pressed the button again, and again, before both of his arms were grabbed and pulled free of the bag.

Shit, this was a setup, he realized. Someone needs to take the blame for all this. Damn that gynoid.

“I still don’t get why you needed to tell them that Commander Amaya’s death wasn’t an accident.” Ever since they had ended the stream, Erika had been peppering Sachiko with question after question.

“It was a way to build trust. I made myself vulnerable so they’d sympathize with me, and I told them a secret so they would know I was being truthful.”

“Except you weren’t. I saw the footage. She didn’t—”

“Erika,” Hina interrupted, “there’s no security camera in the airlock. We faked the footage. I was Commander Amaya’s body double.”

“Is that why you kept me away from the airlock? Because I’d notice there wasn’t a camera?”

“I also didn’t want you venting air out of the station,” Sachiko said.

“And you committed the bodies to space. Without an autopsy, there’s no evidence that you didn’t kill them.”

“But that’s not a problem, because you’re not here to investigate me, right?”

Erika remained silent. She didn’t want to lie to Sachiko.

“Riiiiight?” Sachiko pressed, this time, a hardness in her voice.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not the only person who’s going to be suspicious.”

“But I’ve got no motive. They were my friends. Seriously, do you think I’m some kind of psychopath?”

“I think…” Erika paused to choose her words carefully. “… that you would do anything if you thought it absolutely necessary. If those girls somehow posed a threat to JAXA…”

Sachiko nodded. “Hypothetically, but that’s a big leap. Go ahead, investigate all you want. You won’t find any evidence that those girls were a threat. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s of propping up the organization that sent them to their deaths.” Her hand was shaking now, and Maeko grabbed it and gave her a reassuring squeeze. Even Erika had to admit it was a touching gesture, but it still made her uncomfortable, so she looked away.

“Actually, she killed one person,” Yasu said, looking up from her tablet. “Pravda’s reporting that the Soviet Premier died of heartbreak upon witnessing the devastation to his beloved Mother Earth. I bet the ice pick in his back had nothing to do with it. Oh, it says here the Central Committee has already named a man of peace as his replacement.”

“No way!” Hina cackled. “We did it!”

“Don’t celebrate yet,” Sachiko warned. “Both sides need to make peace.”

“About that,” Yasu grinned. “The speaker of the House just gunned down the president, the vice president, and the joint chiefs in what they’re calling a ‘freedom barrage.’”

“We can go home?” Erika asked, visibly relieved.

“Not immediately,” a gynoid voice informed them. “Your shuttle suffered a foam strike on takeoff. We’ll need to send a replacement, but we don’t have one ready at the moment.”

Sachiko let out a long, exasperated sigh. “Do we really have to roleplay everything? Remind me again why we went with the Shuttle. No, wait, I remember. Budgetary reasons. How long until we can launch another?”

“We have a Progress ready to send supplies as soon as the superpowers commit to not shooting it down, but the conflict prevented us from preparing any other vessels. Best case, we could have a Soyuz to you in three weeks, or a Shuttle in five. However, if we were to request assistance from ‘Murica and the Expedition, we may be ready sooner.”

“International involvement would complicate the mission,” Hina pointed out. “Their space programs are still in their infancies, and their trust issues won’t disappear overnight.”

“That’s true,” Sachiko agreed, “but it’s also an opportunity for the two countries to get used to working together. If they’re going to take over space exploration from us, I’d rather they cooperate.”

The two girls silently stared at each other. They were both in an awkward situation. Although Hina was in charge of the mission and the crew’s safety, Sachiko was in charge of JAXA more broadly. Hina knew she ought to argue strenuously against such a risky plan, but she also knew she would be alone. Nobody wanted to spend another day up here, let alone weeks, when there was always a chance that peace would fall apart again.

“OK, let’s ask for help.” She knew she might regret it, but she was determined to live with the consequences, just like Sachiko always had.

“Col. Alexeyev, welcome aboard the ISS.” Sachiko extended her hand, and the burly Soviet gave it a firm shake.

He was a short man, chosen specifically because his small stature would allow him to move unencumbered throughout the station, but every bit of him exuded toughness, from his bulging, veiny muscles to the large scar down the left side of his face.

“You are Sachiko Cook.” It was a statement, not a question. “I am happy to make your acquaintance.” He didn’t look the least bit happy though. His expression remained stern.

“Oh? But we met once before.”

“You were a young girl. I’m surprised you remember.”

Sachiko pointed to the side of her own face. “You’re not an easy man to forget, and you left quite an impression on our security team. Even our ‘Murican mercenary grudgingly complimented your performance.”

He gave Sachiko a sheepish look that was difficult to interpret. Was he flattered? Embarrassed? “If we were meeting in better circumstances, I would like to talk about many things, but my superiors say I should say very little. I am a blunt man, prone to cause offense.”

“I understand. Diplomacy is very difficult. I, too, prefer to be direct, so let me be honest with you now. I’m aware you’re not fond of your ‘Murican counterpart. If you cause any trouble, I’ll make sure you regret it.”

Col. Alexeyev’s expression did not change as he regarded Sachiko. “There are very few people who can credibly threaten me. I fear them because they are strong or powerful. You are neither.”

“It’s up to you whether to believe me or not, but answer me honestly, when you met me on GE26, did you mark me as the most likely to survive an accident? Did you see a girl who would carry her country’s space program on her shoulders? I’m strong and powerful in ways you don’t understand.”

“Regardless, I’m not planning anything. One handshake, smile for the camera, and then we both go back to our own ships. Those are my instructions, and I know better than to disobey, but it may not be easy for him to forgive. If he starts something, I will finish it. Simple. Quick.”

“Don’t worry about him. He’s getting the same warning right now.”

Gesturing in the direction of the United States segment, Sachiko followed close behind him, keeping a close eye for any sudden movements. In retrospect, Hina had been correct: International cooperation had come at too steep a price. Both countries had insisted on sending two enemies to the station to make a big show of them burying the hatchet. It would be a powerful propaganda piece if it went off without a hitch, but the risks outweighed the benefits in Sachiko’s estimation.

She followed him to Destiny, where Hina was waiting with a similarly-stocky ‘Murican. The two of them were laughing about something, but when the man saw Col. Alexeyev, his mood quickly shifted.

Hina noticed a second too late. She made a grab for him but came up empty as he lunged past her grasp. Sachiko was quicker to react, and she caught Col. Alexeyev by the back of his collar, but was helplessly pulled behind him as he met the ‘Murican’s charge. Even at her peak, she would be no match for his strength, but her muscles had atrophied from months spent in microgravity. Maeko emerged from Tranquility, intending to pull Sachiko away from the two men, but Sachiko had quickly realized the folly of her action and pushed herself away from them.

By the time she looked back, it was over. As he had promised, Col. Alexeyev had made it simple and quick. In his right hand, he held a bloody knife, which he had used to cut open the ‘Murican’s throat. There was another knife stuck in his left flank, buried to the hilt. She had no idea where they had been hiding the weapons, but at this point, it didn’t matter.

“What the hell?” Erika had entered the module behind Maeko just in time to see the grizzly scene.

Col. Alexeyev gripped the knife sticking into him and braced himself, preparing to pull it out. “He started it. Get me some bandages.”

Hina didn’t move. She was in shock at what she had just witnessed. Erika moved slowly towards the man, and Sachiko, not wanting her to offer magical healing to Col. Alexeyev, spoke first. “Let the gynoid remove it. She can do it surgically. Hina, snap out of it and pass me the medical kit right behind you.”

Reluctantly, Col. Alexeyev released his grip on the blade protruding from his gut. Accepting the medical kit from Hina, Sachiko took what she needed and handed it to Maeko. She placed a stick in Col. Alexeyev’s mouth and he bit down on it, then she wrapped one arm under his to hold him steady. Maeko pressed a scalpel against his side, and he screwed his eyes closed in preparation for the pain.

That gave Sachiko the opening she needed. Stabbing the knife she removed from the medical kit into his neck, she pulled it across his throat, just as he’d done to the ‘Murican. In his last moments, his eyes bulged open and he attempted to stab Sachiko with his free arm, but Maeko caught his wrist, and then he was unconscious.

Backing away from the scene, Sachiko let out a nervous, relieved laugh. “Simple. Quick. He was right about that. Help me get the bodies into the airlock. Erika, can you do something about all this blood?”

“I… I…” Erika stammered. “You killed him.”

“He was a threat to peace. Even if we covered up what he did, people would always be suspicious, and he might have let the truth slip.”

“He might have? That’s a poor reason to kill someone. He could have just as easily kept the secret. How can you be so calm about this?”

“Because I only did what was necessary. You’ve seen Earth. There is no margin for risk. We’re going to have to engineer an accident aboard the station now, and invent a story about the two of them putting aside their differences to get us to safety. They will be symbols for peace. Only question is, can I trust you, or are you going to join them? It’s more realistic if one of us dies as well.”

Erika felt a firm hand on her shoulder, but instead of being detained, she found herself pulled backward, and Hina moved between her and Sachiko.

“You can trust her. We either all go home, or none of us do.”

“Don’t think I won’t kill you too. Emotions have no place in these kinds of decisions. I’d sacrifice anyone, even Macchan, to secure peace.”

It was Yasu who ended up breaking the stalemate. Approaching silently from the Russian segment, she grabbed a fistful of Sachiko’s hair and pulled back hard. Placing her free hand on Sachiko’s forearm, she prevented Sachiko from swinging the knife around.

Stupidity has no place in these kinds of decisions. Erika’s a dog who wags her tail for the government, remember? They won’t want it known, so she’ll keep quiet. You, on the other hand, are a loose cannon who threatened Hina, forgetting I’ve been behind you the entire time.”

“OK, you’re right. I’m sorry. Look, I’m dropping the knife.”

“If you ever threaten Hina again—”

“I won’t! I won’t! I didn’t want to in the first place, you know that.”

“Good.” She released Sachiko and pushed her towards Maeko, picked the knife out of the air, and approached Hina. “Hold on to this, just in case she tries something.”

“Alright, I will, but calm down, OK? We’re all friends here. It was just a misunderstanding.”

As if snapping out of a trance, Yasu realized where she was and what she had done. Hina was right in front of her, breathing heavily. She wasn’t sure exactly what Hina was feeling, but she did know that Hina was looking straight at her. That was good enough for Yasu.

With the last of her fading courage, she put her hand around the back of Hina’s head and pulled their lips together. It was an awkward, forceful kiss. Yasu had no experience, and Hina was too shocked to cooperate. Breaking the kiss, she studied Hina’s face intently, looking for any indication that her feelings had gotten through.

Maybe it was her imagination, but Hina’s cheeks looked just the slightest bit redder. Despite everything, the violence, the threats, and the floating corpses spewing blood into the air, she had managed to make Hina blush.

And that was what was truly important.