The falling sun clung to the top branch of a mountain pine. Coach Kanzaki's hoverchair cast a long shadow over the athletes sprawled on the long grass. Akari couldn't see his face, just the silhouette of his chair and two or three assistants walking behind him.
“Your training up to now has been mere preparation,” he said with quiet authority. He spoke about how much more difficult this final week was going to be. At each pause to take a breath Akari strained to hear a rattle or cough. She didn't pay attention to what exactly he was saying until her friends stirred with surprise. Focusing on the words, she heard him say, “...staff and I will be meeting until late tonight. Do not disturb us unless there is an emergency,” then turn to leave.
Since camp started, two out of three evenings had been spent in team competition. The dreaded third evening was spent reviewing their performance as a group, every clumsy mistake, every strategic error. This review set the tone for individual training over the next three days. Tonight had been the night. Her stomach fluttered, flashing through each missed field hockey goal, and each unanswered sucker-punch in full-contact foosball. Had she done so poorly that he had given up on her, on all of them. Was there another team being prepared? Was he going to leave them?
Ichino shook her shoulder, “Get that alarmed look off your face and show some leadership, it's a chance to relax, not the end of the world.”
She felt Kris's warm hand on her other shoulder, “Yes, I believe he has finally realized that proper rest is as important as active training.”
Akari saw Ichino preparing snark, probably something about lazy Lunies needing so many holy rest days, and headed it off by grabbing her friends around the waist and pulling them up to stand.
Across the field, Anna Respighi was talking excitedly to Jesse who listened impassively as she stretched and shook her long blonde hair out of a ponytail. The wiry Italian generally only got that excited when she was talking about food, which was something to encourage as it usually resulted in a hot dinner, so Akari steered her friends in Anna's direction.
“It's simple and classic, but something these ancient service-bots could never do: wood fire, sticks, sausages, boom,” Anna was the team alternate, and over-compensated for her insecurity by helping around the camp.
“That sounds great,” Akari said. “How can we help.” Anna switched focus from Jessie to Akari mid-rant.
“Firewood, there's plenty behind the main cabin - a few armfuls. Kindling, from the forest. Sturdy green saplings - about a meter long, sharpen one end to a point. There are sausages in the bottom left-hand side of the back-most freezer - we will need to simmer them to thaw.”
“Kindling and sharp sticks - I will go to the forest and retrieve those items,” said Kris.
“I'll go get the firewood,” said Ichino.
Both paused and looked at Akari, pulling her slightly in the direction each was headed. Competing to get some time alone with her.
She didn't want to choose, so she slid free and cheerily threw an arm over Anna's shoulder, “Let's go start defrosting.”
Ichino Yanagada emerged from the showers frustrated. She had brought three armloads of cut logs to the firepit, not especially hurrying, and there was not even one stick there from Kris. While she washed her hair in the hot shower, she heard Akari run through, chatting at high speed with Anna and Tanya. By the time she finished rinsing and looked around the buzz of talk and laughter had moved to the locker room. When she went into the locker room they were gone. Akari didn't even say hello.
Now, she was back by the firepit, Jessie nodded hello as she stacked logs for the fire. There was no kindling, no roasting sticks and no Kris. That Lunie skips out every time there’s work to do. She stalked into the darkening woods, honing angry things to say about her lack of team spirit, her lack of respect for personal boundaries, and her generally smug, mopey, passive, and surly attitude.
She walked up the path in the direction Kris had gone, calling her name. Before her eyes had fully adapted, Kris startled her by loudly clearing her throat. She still couldn't make out Kris in the patchy shadows until she waved her arm. She sat lotus-position in a grassy clearing two paces off the path.
“Can I help you?” asked Kris, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Her surprise turned to irritation. Ichino said crabbily, “Every time the rest of us go get dinner ready you disappear, then show up as soon as the food’s served.”
“It must be a trial for you to watch Anna and the robots cook.”
“We help, get water, set the table. You’re not doing anything.”
“I am sorry, but this is the only time I have for daily prayers. I have broken most of my religious vows to be here, but my faith is still important to me.” Ichino stepped into the clearing, intending to confront Kris. The clearing was small, and she ended up kneeling awkwardly close to Kris, almost face-to-face. Kris’s sad expression drained her irritation; she resolved to find a more positive way to snap Kris out of her bad solitary mood.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your prayers,” Ichino waited until Kris acknowledged her semi-apology, “You’re the only Beginner I ever met in person. My dad always said the only god was baseball, and the only true path was through the Tigers. I wouldn’t even know how to seriously pray.”
“Our churches are slightly quieter than Osaka stadium, but we believe God is everywhere, in everything, and everyone. What we call spirits are manifestations of these hidden links that create the greater whole. There are many different paths to understanding.” She paused and smiled, “Maybe the Tigers are the correct one for you. My observance isn’t very complicated. I sing a liturgy, then meditate for several minutes, then another liturgy and so on until I get hungry. I would enjoy having company if you want to stay.”
“I don’t want to spoil it, what if I say the wrong thing and piss off your spirits or whoever else.”
Kris took her hands and folded them into a respectful clasp. Ichino tried to copy her relaxed posture. As she squirmed, Kris said, “Do not worry about angering the spirits, they understand us more than we understand them. Be open to your environment and honest in your thoughts and feelings. The spirits are powerful here. I think this is an ancient holy spot that never lost connection. The trees and grass. This is a special place. I did a report on this island for school. Do you know what's so unusual about the biome on this island?”
“City girl here,” Ichino shrugged.
Ichino thought Kris suppressed a smile before continuing, “It doesn’t matter. The first liturgy is one of praise for the natural world.” She closed her eyes and sang a simple tone poem, then sat silently.
Kris had a beautiful voice. Ichino was fascinated by the song, and tried join in the meditation. Close eyes. Breathe deeply…. Ants crawling up legs. That's a nasty shin scrape... It seems to be healing with a nice crusty scab. Ouch.
She opened her eyes. Kris was watching her, “If you keep picking it will never heal.”
Ichino refolded her hands in her lap.
“The next liturgy is in gratitude for friends and family.” She paused, “This is the time for confessing the wrongs we have done one another. I need to tell you….”
Ichino cut her off, “If you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to. I don’t mind.”
They sat in silence as a cool rising breeze wove between them. Ichino wondered if the Nerelian mother ship would be close enough to see in the sky that evening, it was supposed to be as big around as Neptune. The newscasts always mentioned most of that was energy field and the cross section was much thinner than an actual gas giant planet, as if that was a comfort. No, it wouldn’t be visible yet, it was still outside the solar system, and the shipfield's thin side aligned with its direction of travel—directly toward Earth.
Pluto was on the far side of the sun, and had been filling up with refugees before civilian travel was suspended two weeks ago. Her father was offered two seats on one of the last outer rim shuttles by a buddy on the Osaka Chemical Co-operative board, but had turned them down with his usual combination of bluster and stubbornness. He claimed he was too busy to have time to even think about leaving. Her mother told her privately that he had dressed down the OCC directors who had been planning to leave for Pluto, and had even been interviewed for the local news about how it was the duty of corporate leaders to stay and help calm the public. He also managed to mention the name of his heroic daughter five times in two minutes. She wished she was as confident in her ability to stop the Nerelians as her parents told her they were.
There hadn’t been any riots or looting, in Osaka at least. Martial law had been declared, but none of the provisions were needed. At first her father thought he would have to close the factory as no one showed up for work the morning after the Nerelian return was announced. A few days later he was forcing people to go home and rest. They needed something to do instead of sitting at home feeling helpless. The last time they talked her mother did her best to sound cheerful, despite her red eyes. Ichino flashed her shoe-endorsement grin, said everything would be alright, and hoped her face didn’t reveal her assessment that there was no realistic chance they would return from the Nerelian ship. They both had serious responsibilities and there was no point letting uncontrolled emotion sap their positive attitude. She thought about telling them she loved them, though it would be taken as an indicator that she was afraid and would make them even more worried. She would have to write them a letter to be delivered after she left camp.
She watched Kris meditate. She looked both serious and relaxed. How could she be so relaxed? Did she really think a bunch of floating ghosts could save anyone from the Nerelians? They didn’t do much to save Earth the last time around. Having gods, or God, or the spirits or whatever in the same universe as creatures as destructive and cruel as the Nerelians was a contradiction. If these higher powers existed, they either didn’t care, or weren’t strong enough to do anything about the Nerelians.
Kris opened her eyes and put her hand on Ichino’s knee, “There is something I need to say: I have been jealous of you. It has made me act from anger and be far ruder to you than you deserved.”
“Than I deserved? You, jealous of me? You're talking crazy.”
“You know I am in love with Akari. And the way she looks at you I know in my heart she will never be completely mine.”
The words hit her like a slap, and she sputtered something about how Akari didn't belong to anyone. And continued along the lines of how typical it was for Kris to be giving up so easily, trailing off as Kris's mopey expression led to the recognition that it was a sincere attempt at an apology and not passive-aggressive game-playing, and that she shouldn't be running her mouth off in return.
She took a deep breath, “Look, Akari is Akari. With all she's been through, all we're all going through right now... I feel my feet are barely touching the ground, you know what I mean, how can this be real.”
“I agree, it is a difficult time, which is why it is important that we are honest with each other. Would at least you tell me if you had feelings for Akari?”
Ichino thought back over all the nights with Akari lying sweaty in her arms. The slightly bitter taste and smell of her hair, hands running over bodies in the dark, Akari straddling her and their hot mouths pressed together. How insane with jealousy she had been at the thought Akari was doing the same with Kris. But they had never talked about what it meant in the morning. Ichino knew from when she was six and away at training camp the first time that she was attracted to girls, it was common enough. But she was never able to figure out how Akari really felt, was she just playing around or was it something serious, any attempt to address the topic was met with a blush and change of conversation.
“I saw the video interview with you and Akari after your third upset win in a row in the Cosmo Beauty Semi-Finals. Just the way your arms were around each other, way too familiar. I hated you so much. I should have been there with my arm around Akari on University Satellite. I shut off the video and went for a run to clear my head. By the time I calmed down and rationalized: this was good, Akari was coming out of her shell and making friends. I was still friends with Akari, and I wasn't even sure if either of us had wanted anything more than that.” She leaned forward and put a hand on Kris's leg to emphasize the punchline, “So I thought, everything was OK, and then I looked around and realized I was 30 kilometers out of town, it was dark and below freezing, and all I had on was a sports bra, sweat pants, and socks.”
“You are a person of fire and passion, I respect that,” Kris answered and put her hand on Ichino's leg in a friendly way.
“I was disappointed when I finally met you - that you weren't nearly as awful as I had imagined you. Sort of arrogant and sulky at times, but I could see why she likes you. You've been a good influence on her, I can see that she's absorbed some of your, not sure how to describe it, calm strength, inner peace, confidence, whatever. I mean, she went toe-to-toe with Mylandah to stop her from bullying Anna. You should have seen her at those first Japan region qualifiers, scared of her own shadow.”
“Tell me how you met Akari. She doesn't talk much about her past.”
“Well, to be fair, her mom had recently died, and it was her first time away from home for an extended period. They had lived in near isolation at Tomoe's ranch, not too far from here. Security reasons, I suppose. It's tough to live a normal life when you're the daughter of one of the most famous people in the Solar System. Not blaming her mom, but it would have been better for Akari to get out more. Seriously, she was still wetting the bed the first month or two there. The first time I noticed Akari, she was skulking at the edge of the crowd waiting for match scores to be announced, stumbling because she was too shy to look up. Maybe someone tripped her, or she was just clumsy enough to fall into a knot of tough chicks from Tokyo, goth eye-makeup and everything. Akari tried to apologize, they shoved her back and started to circle. Without really thinking, I shouldered one from behind, grabbed her, and ran.”
Kris had put another warm hand on her thigh. She ignored it and continued, “We talked, well, I talked at her and she made eye-contact once. She got a reputation as a weirdo, no one wanted to room with her in Antarctica, so we ended up together again. She was like a little sister at first - I pushed her hard, she would hide, or cry, once she even quit and flew back home to Hokkaido and I went and talked her into returning. Not sure how we got away with that.”
Kris leaned in close, “You talk quite a lot, but, like Akari, you never say how you feel.”
“A little sister at first, as I said. As she started gaining confidence, I saw her differently. A rival... a lover.” Ichino laughed with a snort, “Damn it, I guess I did fall in love with that little idiot.”
“With me it was love at first sight, there was an aura around her as she walked through the spaceport. I had not watched the Earth competition, and did not know who she was or that she was Tomoe's daughter.”
What good did it do for either of them to love Akari? Images flashed about running far away with her, somewhere quiet and safe. But there was nowhere safe to hide. Nothing she could do to protect Akari, or her family, or anyone else except go along with the crazy plan to answer the Nerelian challenge to an athletic competition, on their home ship. And maybe if they won, or maybe they were supposed to try hard and lose anyway, the Nerelians would turn and leave after spending thousands of years traveling through space to get here.
“Ichan,” Kris said tenderly.
Ichino was surprised at the familiar address, and the hands gliding up her thighs.
“Ichan, your silence alarms me.” Teasingly, she added, “As you said to Akari, tonight is a night to relax, not worry.”
Heh, she had succeeded in cheering up Kris. Still she wasn't ready to set aside her heavy thoughts, “Swear to me you'll do everything possible to protect Akari.”
Kris put her hands on Ichino's hips and leaned forward, “I affirm that I will, and know that I do not need to ask the same of you.”
A burst of emotion surprised her, and her voice broke as she answered, “We'll protect her, together.”
“Yes,” Kris replied with quiet confidence.
Ichino wiped away a small tear, “How can you be so calm? I do my best to keep control, and I'm strong, and it's like you're not even strong, you just are,” her voice wavered, “actually calm. I'm an idiot, I can't even say how much I admire you without it sounding like an insult.”
“The spirits are always with us, those of our ancestors, the spirits of the Earth and other planets. We are connected to them, and to each other, in a way that can never be broken. The entire Solar System Navy, the Nerelians, all that blind destructive energy is a shadow of the true power of these connections. Open yourself to that power and let go of your fear.”
It still sounded delusional, but it was exactly what she needed at that moment, “I'm glad you're on my team.” She hugged Kris, and they knelt there in each other's arms, heads on each others shoulders.
Kris leaned back – it was too dark to see her face clearly, but she could feel Kris's warm breath on her lips, “This conflict between us was wrong, you are gracious when I behaved terribly. I was also angry and jealous and began to hate you. It was wrong and I am happy now that we are friends.” Kris gently kissed her lips, “I can see why Akari fell in love, you are very kind, and very beautiful.”
This is awkward. Kris was sure of herself, and the kiss tender and honest, so Ichino decided to accept it as a friendly gesture. She gave Kris a gentle return kiss then started to stand. Kris remained kneeling. She was breathing heavily as if she was still upset. Ichino put out a hand to steady herself and help Kris stand up. Kris had put her hands on the backs of her thighs. The net effect was that she lost her balance and started to fall backwards. Kris caught her and shifted position so she fell in her lap. She was too surprised to react when Kris's hand slipped up the front of her tunic. There has been a misunderstanding. Not that she didn't find Kris attractive, and it wasn't that she thought she should have Akari all to herself. That was for Akari to decide, and Kris was Akari's special friend and her and Kris could be just as close, sometime in the future. She tried to tell Kris that they should go back to camp, but lost the words with Kris's mouth on hers.
When Kris’s began slowly kissing down her lean body she just didn’t want to say whatever it was that might stop her. She shivered involuntarily, only in part from the cold. She fumbled to find the hem of Kris's shirt, gave up and groped her in return.
Kris traced her neck and breasts, while Ichino drank in the sensations and thought about how she would like to be doing the same to Akari. Things became mixed until she half imagined it was Akari breathing on her stomach, and Akari’s fingers pulling down the bottom half of her body suit. Akari’s steel cable arms picking her up and laying her flat on her back. That didn't seem quite right, Akari was strong but she would have a hard time getting the leverage to lift her so smoothly.
Did it matter that it was Kris and not Akari going down there? The thought whirled upon rippling waves of pleasure, took on water, and sank deep into her ocean. Resistance abandoned her and she allowed the waters to rise up, and drown her again and again until her limp form washed up on the beach of rational thought. There was a stick, or maybe a small rock digging into her back. Her hands were entangled in Kris’s hair. She had hazy memories of saying something, but couldn’t remember if it been yelled or whispered.
Kris slowly kissed back up her stomach and chest. A sudden surge of embarrassment arrived when Kris reached the hollow of her neck. Were the others close enough to hear what happened? What would Akari think? Was Kris going to kiss her on the mouth? Did Kris expect her to reciprocate? She had to get back before the others figured out what happened. She dumped Kris on the ground, and jumped to her feet before remembering she was naked. Kneeling, she combed through the grass, then shook the bugs and leaves off her crumpled clothes.
Kris tried to cling to her, “Wait, don’t go….”
“Sorry, gotta get back, the others will be wondering…. This was great, but let's keep this just between us,” she winced at sounding like such an asshole. Kris was experienced enough to understand. They could talk about it later, when they were fully dressed.
“Of course, I just….”
“Bye”, Ichino found the second leg hole of her suit and sprinted toward the camp lights, dressing as she ran.