“You’re still unsteady on your feet. We should call it off, or at least delay it.”
Placing a hand on the wall to support herself, Sachiko drew herself up to her full height and looked her handler straight in the eyes. “No. I’ll be fine. I’m just saving my strength for when the time comes.”
“But you mustn't show any weakness before the new premier. There will be Kremlinologists watching your every move. Unless you’re completely sure—”
“I am. Delaying again would be an admission of weakness.”
Still unsure about the plan, the handler turned to Yasu. “What about you? Are you still up to it?”
“Don’t worry. I know how to handle Soviets.”
The handler ran her hand through her hair. Her instincts told her this was a bad idea, but she didn’t have the authority to put a stop to it if both girls were willing. “Just remember, no Russian. The premier doesn’t speak a lick of it, and it’s a sore point for him.”
Before she could reply, Sachiko’s phone buzzed. She pulled it from her pocket and saw a text message.
Maeko: How are things going over there?
Sachiko: We’re managing. I miss you though. How are things in the land of freedom and hamburgers?
In response, Maeko sent a photo of Hina with her arms around two women in bunny outfits. All three of them had big grins on their faces, though only Hina’s appeared genuine. Behind them, Sachiko could make out Erika downing a cocktail, with another glass in her left hand.
Sachiko: Do me a favor and never show that to Yasu.
Maeko: No promises.
Sachiko: Are they treating you well?
Maeko: They are tolerating my presence. You don’t need to worry. We’re in a free speech green zone. Nobody will attempt to damage me here. They even gave me this when I asked for it.
Another photo followed, this time a selfie of Maeko in a bunny suit.
Sachiko: Stoooop. You’re going to give me a nose bleed right before a state dinner.
Fantasies involving Maeko wearing various costumes flooded into Sachiko’s mind.
“Hey,” Yasu said, pulling Sachiko back to reality, “you’re drooling. Stop texting your girlfriend. It’s almost time.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“I’m pissed. Hina hasn’t contacted me even once, but I’m not jealous. Maeko can’t love you back. Your love is just as one-sided as mine.”
“I don’t need her to. My love is enough for both of us.”
“But that’s… Don’t you think you deserve love?”
“Sure, everyone does, but not everyone gets it. I’m happy enough just being with her.”
Yasu let out a heavy sigh. “Must be nice.”
The table was small and sparsely decorated, a Soviet statement against the excesses of capitalism, but the food was exquisitely prepared. Yasu, Sachiko, and the Soviet premier sat at equal distances from one another, while a gaggle of men and women observed them closely from the sides of the room.
After they had finished the first course, vodka shot glasses were placed before them. It was not an unforeseen development. There were no laws against underage drinking in the Expedition, but neither of the girls had ever partook. Sachiko hoped that the pills her handler had given them to counteract the intoxicating effects would work.
“To Col. Alexeyev,” the premier toasted.
With a practiced motion, both Sachiko and Yasu brought the glasses up to their lips. They had to appear neither eager nor hesitant. To enjoy the drink too much would signal that they were glad for his death, to reject it would be an insult to his memory. Both girls managed to control their expressions as the liquid burned the back of their throats.
Yasu remained silent, as she had throughout the dinner, leaving Sachiko to speak. “I only met him briefly, but I could tell he was a good man.”
“He and I were good friends, you know. We went back many years. Many decades. I must admit, I was surprised to learn that he cooperated with the ‘Murican. His hatred for them ran deep. Sure, I trusted him to follow orders, but I never expected he would exceed them.”
“It happened so quickly after the airlock detached. I couldn’t tell you what was going through his head, but I do know that in ancient times, cosmonauts looked down upon Earth and remarked that there were no borders visible from space. Being up there inspired feelings that we are all one people, but perhaps they both realized, in that instant, that if they didn’t act together, everyone would die.”
“I see. I suppose we’ll never truly know. I’m just glad he’ll be remembered as a hero.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
As soon as the words were out of Sachiko’s mouth, another round of vodka shots was placed on the table. Once again, she repeated the ritual with the premier, but Yasu didn’t touch her glass, and it caused the premier to turn to her, a nervous smile on his face.
“How about you, Yasu? Do you have any thoughts about our dear, departed Col. Alexeyev?” Yasu just stared back at him, her head tilted slightly to the side, and said nothing, as she had done throughout the entire dinner. The premier flicked his eyes towards Sachiko. “Is she… all there?”
“She’s just quiet around new people, but she’s very intelligent. If she hadn’t devoted her life to the space program, she’d be graduating from the University of Neo Tokyo right about now.”
“I see. In my line of work, they say you have to watch out for the quiet ones the most.”
Sachiko nodded. “You never know what they might do when provoked.”
“Just like JAXA’s director. Excuse me. Former director.”
Now they were getting to the true purpose of the dinner. It wasn’t just a PR piece for good diplomatic relations. The Soviets had the old director in custody, and the premier wanted to hear the new director’s opinion on what should be done with him.
“My government once more wishes to express their deep sorrow that one of ours caused such a mess. It has been decided that, as much as we would like to carry out his punishment ourselves, we are in no place to ask for such an honor. As far as we’re concerned, you can do what you please with him.”
“Rest assured, we’ll make sure he gets his, but I was hoping you might offer some insight into what would truly upset him. A swift death is too good for him. He ought to suffer, don’t you think?”
“Status and power were important to him. There’s not much more you can take, except maybe to deny him notoriety. Erase his name from history, so that he is known only as the director of JAXA, a fool who nearly destroyed the whole world for his own ego. If you pass a law forbidding the utterance of his name, I’m sure the other nations will follow suit. I know I will be relieved to never hear it again.”
“Not bad. Perhaps we will announce it just prior to his execution, so the world may see him sink further into the depths of despair.”
“This is a rather heavy discussion for dinner. May I offer one more toast, Premier? To the Soviet space program. May it be ever successful.”
This time, Yasu was not given a shot glass, but the premier raised his to Sachiko. “To the space program. I think it would be helpful if our countries continued to cooperate.”
Putting her glass down, Sachiko’s expression turned sour. “As a representative of my government, I’m not allowed to agree with that sentiment, but if you would permit me to share my personal thoughts…”
“You wish to say something your government would not approve of?” He gestured to the Kremlinologists all around them. “I can’t guarantee it will stay between us. The consequences could be severe.”
“Even so, I believe that right now, we have a chance to drastically influence the future for the better, if you will hear me out.”
“I’m all ears.”
“As soon as you demonstrate the ability to conduct your own launches, the Federation will stop transferring technology to both the Expedition and ‘Murica. I think that would slow progress intolerably, but the government is concerned about losing its technological edge when it comes to defense. Those worries could be alleviated if you were to enter into a joint space program.”
The premier scoffed. “Overseen by the Federation, no doubt.”
“Yes, but let me be clear, I don’t just mean a joint program with us, but with the ‘Muricans as well. The Federation can’t easily refuse the both of you, but you’ll need to put the right person in charge. You need someone the Federation trusts, and who is adept at getting what they want, but who is more interested in advancing space exploration than securing the Federation’s interests.”
“Let me guess. This person would just so happen to be you.” Despite his tone, the premier didn’t appear upset. Instead, he was looking at Sachiko with a newfound respect, acknowledging her as a fellow player of the same game.
“There are, unfortunately, other matters that need my attention. I can, however, offer you a list of candidates should you desire one.” She tilted her head ever so slightly in Yasu’s direction.
“I believe it’s worth considering. Perhaps we should call it a night so I can consult with my advisors?”
“It’s been a pleasure.” Sachiko stood and extended a hand, but the premier pulled her close and planted a quick kiss on her left cheek, then her right, and finally her left again. With each kiss, he whispered a syllable into her ear, enunciating the name of the current head of the State Planning Committee. He didn’t need to say any more. Eliminating this man, Sachiko realized, would be the price of the premier’s cooperation.
Turning to Yasu, he stopped in his tracks as he met her icy stare. “Has anyone ever told you your eyes are cold and hard, like Soviet steel?”
Without changing her expression, Yasu broke her silence to say a single word. “Yes.”
“I warned you not to drink so much.”
The party was still going late into the night, but with Erika passing out on her feet, her handler had pulled her aside and was escorting her back to her hotel room. To Erika, it felt as though one moment, she had been right in the middle of the action, and the next, she was in a boring, quiet hallway. At some point, she remembered seeing Hina talking to a congresswoman with a serious expression on her face that was out of place amongst such revelry.
“Shut up. You’d be drinking too if you went through what I did. I wanted to get blackout drunk, maybe wake up in bed the next morning with an awful hangover next to someone I shouldn’t a slept with.”
“At least you're still coherent. Someone like Hina?”
“No! No. Yes. No! One of them bunny waitresses, or maybe a spy trying to seduce me for information.”
“Half of those bunny waitresses are spies trying to seduce our people for information. You seemed more interested in Hina though.”
“Fine, I admit it. She’s totally my type. Happy? But I never touched her, and I never will, no matter how drunk I get.”
“Because she’s a child?”
“She’s a child?! Oh, right, she is. I tend to forget that. No, it’s because she’s crazy. They all are. You have no idea what it was like.”
Having reached the hotel room, the handler leaned Erika up against the wall and unlocked the door before sitting her down in a chair and handing her a glass of water.
“Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“I don’t know how to describe it. Those girls could do anything they set their minds to. Not like mahou shoujo. I’m not sayin’ they had special powers, just that they were smart, determined, and had the training to back it up. I was like a damn baby next to them. Relied on them for everything. Didn’t see ‘em as children after the first few days.
“But I suppose when everything you do is amazing, it all seems normal. There were no boundaries except the ones they set for themselves. They created their own little world, and I had no choice but to live in it with them. I was scared, and I was lonely. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about inviting Hina into my cabin, but I never did, and not just because she’s a minor, but because Yasu woulda killed me.”
“Yasu? Not Sachiko?”
“Funny thing about Yasu. Somehow our research never turned this up. When it comes to Hina, she turns violent. Like really violent. Threw me up against the wall for a perceived slight, and even attacked Sachiko once. You know she used to be bullied? Endured it silently the entire time after Hina left, but as she was leaving the orphanage to move to the JAXA dorms, the girls decided they really wanted to pick a fight with her, so they insulted Hina. She sent three of them to the hospital.
“That’s not even the worst of it. One of the bullies, girl named Claire, stayed out of the fight, but witnessed the whole thing. She once rubbed mud in Yasu’s hair, so Yasu walks right up to her and wipes her bloody hands all over Claire’s head, gives a fake apology, and then walks out. Showed up at JAXA with bloodstains on her clothes.
“Hina learns about this because it turns out she’s secretly carrying a torch for Claire. Kinda. Long story. Hina’s feelings seem to change at the drop of a hat. Anyway, Claire’s definitely got a thing for Hina. On the night of the pajama party, Yasu catches Hina texting Claire, and she grabs Hina’s phone so she can snap a selfie of the two of them together and send it to Claire, and Hina just lets her.
“That’s when I first realized they care about each other more than normal people. Hina can flirt with other girls, and Yasu will only get mad at them; Sachiko will forgive Yasu for attacking her because she earned the right; and Hina tried to toy with my feelings because Sachiko asked her to. That’s why I’m trying to drink myself into a stupor. I just want to forget the whole thing.”
Dipping her pinky into the water glass, she swirled it around until it turned a deep red. Surprised that she had managed to actually cast a spell while inebriated, she let out a self-satisfied chuckle. Her joy didn’t last long, however. It tasted like rubbing alcohol.
With an annoyed smirk, the handler flicked her wrist, summoning a martini directly into her hand. “Here. I can’t bear to watch you drink a botched cocktail from a cup.”
Not stopping to question how the handler had been able to make the drink appear out of thin air, Erika tipped the glass, but instead of the liquid pouring into her mouth, her consciousness seemed to flow in the opposite direction. For an indeterminable amount of time, she was the liquid, sloshing gently back and forth, and then it all reversed, and she was herself again, but sober. There was only one person she knew capable of casting such profound magic.
“Chief? Is that you?”
“Took you long enough to notice. You’ve lost your edge.”
Erika didn’t think that was fair. The chief’s disguise was perfect. Even at peak condition, she wouldn’t have been able to see through it.
“I never expected you to come here. Don’t you have a million more important things to do?”
“Yes, but you really went above and beyond on this one. I wanted to congratulate you myself… and to hear your report directly. You’ve said a lot about Yasu and Hina, but what about Sachiko?”
“I could find no evidence that she was involved in the deaths of those girls.”
“If there were evidence, we wouldn’t have needed to go through the trouble of sending someone to space. I’m interested in your gut. Is she a murderer?”
“No. She’s an honest, hard-working, self-sacrificing—”
“OK, OK. You don’t need to lay it on that thick. In fact, if anyone asks, you should probably say as little as possible.”
Once again, the chief had seen through her. Now that Sachiko was responsible for ending the conflict, it didn’t matter whether or not she was a murderer. She couldn’t be arrested without causing an international stir. The chief’s bigger concern was now whether or not Erika was liable to cause problems by telling the truth.
“Say Chief, while you’re here, how about my reward?”
“About that… I lied. There’s no technique I can teach you to increase your magical power. It’s determined at birth, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. I told you what you wanted to hear because I needed someone to take the mission.”
“You’re kidding. After all that, I get nothing?!”
“I can’t give you what doesn’t exist, but I’ll give you anything in my power. Think it over. There must be something else you want.”
Erika remained silent. Her eyes began watering with the realization that she would never be the magical girl she wished to be.
The chief put her hand over Erika’s. “For now, let me give you some advice. It’s not that those girls care about each other more than other people: They care about themselves. I’m the same way. You can’t accomplish great things if you spend time or effort on anything besides your goals. You have to be extremely selfish. That’s why you’ll never live up to your dreams. It’s not about how little magic you have. You care about others too much.”
Those words ripped at Erika’s heart. That way of looking at it explained a lot of the girls’ behavior. It probably explained Sachiko’s whole deal, but Yasu had devoted a lot of her time to nurturing a fantasy world, and Hina had risked a confrontation with Sachiko in order to protect Erika. She lifted her head to tell the chief that she was wrong, but the chief had already left.
The former director of JAXA was jerked awake by the sound of his rusty cell door opening. He tried to lift his head to look at his visitor, but his muscles ached in protest. All his blurry vision could make out was a young woman in a blue jumpsuit, holding a knife.
“That you, Satch? I shoulda known you’d be the one they’d send. Heard you tipped them off that I’d be in the Expedition. You were always so clever. Lot smarter than me, that’s for damn sure. You’re gonna do great things some day, I just wish I could have lived to see it. But you know, it’s not like I’m a stupid man, even if I pretended to be.
“Most of those fools in mission control accepted your story at face value, but not me. When I realized what really happened to poor Amaya, I knew you didn’t just have the smarts, but also the determination, to craft a better future. I did this all for you, Satch. Even if you didn’t want it, I needed to preserve just a tiny speck of hope so I could pass it on to you.
“So please Satch, do me one favor. Put me out of my misery. I haven’t talked. I swear it, but I can’t hold out forever. But before you do, I have something important to tell you. The future depends on it. Please, lift my head so I can whisper it into your ear.”
The hoshinaut approached the man, shackled to a stone wall, and, grabbing his hair, pulled his head upward. She was not gentle, nor did he expect her to be, but he expected her to be Sachiko. As they came face-to-face, he saw not the arrogant, contemptuous visage of his successor, but blue eyes that burned with a hot anger.
“This is for Hina.”
The director felt the air flee from his lungs as Yasu kneed his diaphragm. It hurt, but…
“There’s nothing you can do to me that the Soviets haven’t already done.”
“You gotta tell Satch that—”
“Shut. Up.” She slapped his cheek with her free hand, just hard enough for it to sting them both.
“I wasn’t alone. I had help.”
“No shit. Did you really think you were fooling anyone? Who in their right minds would think you could pull this off on your own. The government’s already hunting down the others.”
“Listen, Yasu, you need to kill me. I know things the Soviets mustn't learn. I haven’t talked yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”
Yasu’s laughter, shrill and derisive, reverberated throughout the cell. “The way your mouth keeps moving, I suspect they broke you a long time ago, and you don’t even realize you told them everything. Don’t beg me for death, because I’m not here to deliver mercy.”