Chapter 20:

The ISS Comes Down

The Hoshinauts

The night was warm, but a gentle breeze cooled Yasu and Hina as they walked along the gravel path. Unlike the people who spent their entire lives in domed cities, the hoshinauts were used to the outdoors. Being surrounded by abundant flora, however, was a novel experience for them. A thick underbrush lined the road, slowly encroaching upon its edges, and a thin canopy hung above their heads.

Occasionally, Hina would stop to inspect one of the plants. “Do you really think it’s safe?”

“Sacchan wouldn’t be living here if it were dangerous. Besides, I analyzed some of the samples myself. Don’t you trust me?”

“It’s just… All this grew in a single year. Won’t it take over the entire island before long?”

“That’s the plan, but there may not be enough magic left in the reactor to cover the whole area.”

As they continued down the path, the vegetation thinned out, disappearing a hundred meters away from the residential area. It wasn’t difficult for them to spot Sachiko and Maeko’s house. It was the only one with lights on. Hina bounded up to it and pressed the doorbell with a fully outstretched arm.

It was Maeko, wearing an emerald cocktail dress, who answered the door. “Hello you two. Please, come in. Can I get you anything? We’ve got snacks over on that table.”

Yasu took her time walking the rest of the way to the house, and after handing a box of pastries to Maeko, she took a moment to survey the interior. Never before had she seen such a large single-family house. As her eyes swept past the living room, she saw Hina shoving a handful of pretzels into her mouth and quickly averted her eyes out of vicarious embarrassment, just in time to see Sachiko walking down the stairs, a big smile on her face.

“You made it! How was the voyage?”

“Mercifully short.” She walked up to Sachiko and the two embraced. “It’s been a long time, Sacchan. You look great. Where did you even get that dress? It’s amazing.” Sachiko was wearing a sleek black evening gown that seemed to be desperately clinging to her body, as if it might fall off at any moment.

“Macchan made it for me. Didn’t she do a great job? But I like your dress too. It shows off your figure nicely. Glad to see you’re finally developing your own fashion sense.”

Yasu’s dress was downright plain by comparison, just a simple red and white patterned summer dress, but she was nonetheless tickled by the compliment. “At least someone noticed.”

Ignoring Yasu’s pointed comment, Hina gulped down the last of her pretzels and walked over to greet Sachiko. They were quite the mismatched pair, Sachiko in her fancy dress, and Hina in a pastel yellow T-shirt and matching pink shorts.

“Heya Commander. Thanks for inviting us.”

“I’m not your commander anymore.”

Leaning over, Hina placed a chaste kiss on Sachiko’s cheek. “You’ll always be Commander to me. It’s a nickname, not a rank.”

Sachiko couldn’t help but laugh. “When did you become so smooth, or for that matter, so tall?”

“It’s those ‘Murican astronauts she’s training,” Yasu said. “They’re teaching her all kinds of bad habits. I can’t believe she did that in front of your wife.”

Hina brushed a pretzel crumb off Sachiko’s cheek. “Not everyone gets jealous over a simple greeting.”

Approaching from the other side, Maeko planted a less innocent kiss on Sachiko’s nape. “I may not be capable of jealousy, but I believe you’ll find I can be quite possessive.”

“That’s right, tell her off. You’ll never believe who she hooked up with the other day.”

Sachiko and Maeko shared a look, and then answered in tandem, “Claire?”

“I didn’t hook up with her! We just got coffee.”

“At her apartment.”

“What other choice did we have? The last time I met someone for coffee, your merry band of shippers had a field day. Poor girl was just trying to interview me for her school newspaper. Besides, Claire’s roommate was there too.”

“Like you’d let that stop you. You’d probably invite her to join in.”

Maeko made a big show of clearing her throat, something gynoids only did to gain attention. “Oh dear. It looks like they’re in the midst of a spat. Perhaps I should get an additional guest room set up.”

With sheepish looks on their faces, both girls began to apologize, but Sachiko cut them off. “She was joking. We prepared separate rooms for you, just in case you were fighting again.”

At that moment, the doorbell rang. Yasu and Hina looked at the door in confusion. The airship had left without dropping off any other passengers. Sachiko however, broke away from Maeko with a big smile on her face.

“Erika! You made it!”

“You didn’t give me much choice. Nice dress by the way. That’s new for you.”

“You like it?”

“Probably more than I should admit in front of your wife. Hey everyone. It’s uh, good to see you. Sorry for turning up empty-handed, but I figured you probably wouldn’t trust anything that came from me.”

Raising one hand into the air, Hina returned the greeting. “Osu. Glad to see you’re not dead.”

“It’s not like I wanted to ghost you guys. I had orders. ‘Erika’ was never supposed to exist for as long as she did.”

As she was talking, Sachiko sauntered over to Maeko and held out her hand. “I won. Pay up.”

“Sure. Our finances are shared anyway, but I’m curious: How did you convince her to come?”

“It was no big deal. I just sent an invitation to her apartment.”

“To my private residence. You have no idea how dangerous that was. My boss flipped her lid and started hunting for leakers. For all I know, half of my colleagues will be purged by the time I return. If you weren’t all public symbols of the current peace…”

“It worked though, didn’t it? And I’m glad. It wouldn’t have felt right without you here.”

“You know, for a long while, I was glad to get away from you all, but… I’m glad I came. I never got a chance to properly apologize, or to thank you, for everything.”

All eyes were focused on her now, and Erika blushed from the attention. It was Yasu who eventually broke the silence.

“Even I have to admit, that was precious. You were right: she is cute.”

“You wouldn’t call me cute if you knew what I really looked like. Wait, do you know what I really look like?”

Without warning, Hina pulled Erika into a hug. “Even if we did, we’d still call you cute. Your appearance has nothing to do with it. Sorry for being rude earlier. I missed you a lot, and it hurt when you disappeared.”

Erika was completely unprepared for this assault on her emotions. Her blush deepened, and she hid it by burying her face in Hina’s shirt, only to suddenly remember that Yasu was in the room. She tried to push away, but Hina held her tight, long enough for Yasu to snap a photo of the two of them.

“Oh, that one came out nicely. The shippers are gonna love it. Wanna see?” She turned the phone towards Hina and Erika, causing the latter to blink in momentary confusion.

“You want them to ship Hina with me?”

“Gotta do something to shake things up. After I banned all the NTR weirdos, and after you disappeared, things settled into a rut of Sachiko x Maeko and Hina x Yasu. I never fully appreciated the dynamic you brought to things until after you were gone.”

“But you’re not… jealous?”

“Of you? Erika, don’t take this the wrong way, but after taking care of you for so long, we started seeing you as some kind of pet. Being jealous of you would be like being jealous of Hina showing affection to a house cat.”

Hina jumped to Erika’s defense. “That’s not fair. She saved me from crashing into the station, and she helped with the livestream.”

“OK, fine, she’s not our pet, she’s our child.”

Everyone laughed at the irony of the statement, even Erika, and the tense atmosphere in the room evaporated. After regaining control of her swirling emotions, Erika asked, “Why are you still doing the shipping thing? I thought you apologized.”

“I tried to shut it down by coming clean to the community about who I was, but that only increased the popularity. It was chaotic for a while. Eventually, they banded together to negotiate for my blessing, and I just couldn’t keep saying no. Besides, Sacchan and Maeko wanted the publicity, so I agreed, as long as the community accepted some boundaries, and they’ve been pretty good at policing themselves. I’m sure they’ll eventually lose interest, but for now it’s been… fun.”

“Very fun,” Sachiko agreed. “I read one just the other day called something like, A Story Where SachiMae Hold Hands All Day Long. It was surprisingly good. The author did their research, and they created a lot of humorous situations from the premise.”

From there, the party proceeded without major drama. Hina finished off the entire bowl of pretzels and half of the pastries on her own, but refused to try any of the fruit grown on the island, even after seeing Yasu and Sachiko eat it without suffering repercussions. They all took lots of photos for the shipping community, mostly of Sachiko and Maeko, but Yasu even kabedoned Erika. Even though the sight of Sachiko clinging to Maeko still made Erika feel uneasy, she had to admit that Sachiko appeared genuinely happy, which was something she’d never seen before.

When the topic of conversation landed on Yasu’s upcoming PhD defense, however, Erika found herself unable to keep up. Although Hina enjoyed watching Yasu get so animated about her studies, she’d heard it all many times before, and noticing that Erika was feeling out of place again, stood up and held out a hand.

“I need some fresh air. Will you accompany me?”

Looking to Yasu first for permission, Erika took Hina’s hand, and the two of them stepped out into the warm evening.

“Thanks for rescuing me. Mind if I ask a personal question? Are you and Yasu fighting right now?”

“Why do you want to know? Planning to try to steal me away from her?”

“No! I just don’t want to say anything that’ll make it worse.”

“That’s sweet, but you don’t need to worry about us. We’ll have things patched up quickly, just like always. She thinks I cheated on her, but I didn’t, and she’ll realize that before too long.”

“Have you considered that maybe you two have different definitions of cheating, just like you had different definitions of love?”

Hina stopped in her tracks. Since they were still holding hands, Erika was forced to stop alongside her.

“Maybe we do. I’ll talk with her about it tonight.”

“Great. You know, you can let go of my hand now.”

“I don’t want to. I’m afraid you’ll run away, and I’ll never see you again.”

This was bad. They were alone, and Hina was coming on strong, but she wasn’t awkward and unpracticed like she had been on the ISS. Worse, in the three years since they’d returned to Earth, Hina had managed to become even hotter.

“If you say things like that, you’re never going to convince Yasu you’re not cheating on her.”

“Deep down, she knows I’ve never slept with anyone else. At least, I haven’t yet.”

“Yet?” It was less a word and more of a gulping noise.

“Ever since you showed up tonight, I couldn’t stop thinking about you, about how this is probably the last time I’ll ever see you, and about how it could have been different. What if you had been receptive? What if I had chosen you over Yasu? As much as I love her—and I do love her—I’m plagued by self-doubt. What if I settled for my childhood friend too quickly? What if there’s an even better match for me out there, and what if that someone was you the whole time?”

“Trust me, you and Yasu are perfect together. Or, at the very least, you deserve each other.”

“That’s not how you really feel. I know you don’t want to hurt Yasu, and I don’t either, but I want one good memory to remember you by. How about it? We couldn’t be in a more romantic situation, out here, alone, unseen, at the epicenter of new plant life on Earth. Just one kiss, a secret which we’ll keep for the rest of our lives.”

Erika wanted nothing more than to kiss the handsome tomboy. Never in her life had anyone wooed her so perfectly, but she knew she couldn’t go through with it. If their lips touched, it wouldn’t end with only a kiss. It would end up with a horrible mistake that hurt Yasu, get her in trouble with her boss, and make their inevitable parting that much more painful.

“No.” Erika pushed Hina away, and even in the darkness, she could see the hurt and confusion on Hina’s face. Her own expression probably looked very similar. “There’s no use worrying over what-ifs. They didn’t happen. Isn’t it your personal creed to make the best of what life throws at you? Yasu is the best thing life has given you. Make the best of your relationship with her, for my sake also.”

“Thanks.” A forced smile returned to Hina’s face. “You’re a good friend.”

A friend. Yes, that’s all she would ever be. It was the right choice, Erika knew, no matter how much it hurt them both in the moment.

“Look, there.” Maeko pointed at a tiny spec in the night sky. It took the others some time to spot it against the backdrop of the milky way. “Here, I’ll point the telescope.”

Always the leader, Sachiko was the first to peer through the telescope at the ISS breaking up in Earth’s atmosphere. She quickly made way for the others, however. It wouldn’t last long. Once they had all taken a turn, they kept their eyes on it as long as possible, and were rewarded as the molten remains left an easily-visible burning trail through the sky.

Each of them watched until it faded into nothing. They all—except for Maeko—felt as if their bad memories of the experience burned away with it. All the fear, anger, uncertainty and drama were carried away by the flames, leaving only nostalgic feelings of their time together. They had relied on each other and survived. More than that, they had saved the entire planet.

For the first time in any of their lives, the future felt bright.