It was in the last two months of the Von Braun's trip to Jupiter that the solar flare had come, ripping out across the system.
The crew had had plenty of warning—hours. Nobody's life was in danger. But the shipboard routine changed dramatically. The exterior windows had all been shuttered with their radiation-scattering panels, and everybody wound up sleeping in the hall outside their quarters, since the windowed personal bunks were now off-limits until the solar storm subsided.
Hachi grumbled loudly and constantly about how this was the worst possible timing for a flare, since it meant they missed out on the entirety of the approach to Jupiter. Oh, sure, the crew watched the hi-def viewscreens from their acceleration couches as the braking rockets fired and brought them into orbit around the largest planet in the solar system. But it wasn’t the same, and everybody knew it.
"Dammit, you can't see shit on these screens." Hachi grumbled. "Might as well just be watching a fuckin’ vid-disc."
Sally Silverstone looked askance at Hachi from her own couch. "Okay, two things, Hachi. One: Watch your language, the Luna City broadcast guys are getting tired of bleeping you all the time, and we ARE on camera. And two—“
She was cut off by Leonov, who sat on Hachi's other side. "Two: show some fucking respect! We may not have window seats, but this is Jupiter, my man! Jupiter!"
Sally rolled her eyes at her two notoriously profane crewmates. "Yes, well, not in so many words. But this is it, Hachi. We're here, we made it, everything is so nominal it's creepy. The shielding's holding up just fine, so not even the flare is a real problem."
Hachi muttered something unsavory under his breath. They were right, of course. He was just frustrated. After going weeks without any EVA, and missing a real view of the final Jovian approach, he was flat-out stir crazy. Everybody was, he told himself, though he felt like he was the only one cracking under the pressure. The old man was happy as a clam, whistling away as he oversaw endless mindless diagnostic procedures day after day. It was maddening.
But they were here. They had finally made it.
Hachi took a deep breath. Captain LaLonde's voice sounded over the intercom, that cool pilot radio-chatter voice that Hachi knew for a fact she'd cultivated for decades.
"We're go for engine brake. Braking in 4... 3... 2... 1... Go on engine brake."
The soft linear pressure of the braking rockets slowly ramped up—it was strange to be feeling something like gravity axially, lengthwise down the ship, instead of the centrifugal force that had kept their bodies in their bunks and their food on their plates during the bulk of the trip. But there it was. They were slowing.
It was the last of several braking maneuvers over the past several weeks, and the one that would turn them into Jove's newest and busiest moon.
Once the anticlimactic maneuver was done, they gathered in the common area to record the interviews that would be beamed back to Earth for rebroadcast. Hachi repeated lines even he had gotten good at speaking, yet another variation of the same old spiel about how the voyage was another crucial step in humanity's journey outward, how the knowledge and resources gathered here would contribute directly to the good of the entire civilization, et cetera ad infinitum. He'd never felt more like a monkey in a cage.
Leonov smacked his back once the gauntlet had been run. "C'mon, man. We'll be out there in a couple of days. You gotta relax."
"Yeah," said Hachi flatly.
He went into the axial meeting cabin to check to see if the latest burst transmission had included a message from Ai, which it had. He and Ai had been going through a bit of a low point, recently—nothing that truly upset him, but enough to slightly complicate the once-simple pleasure of watching her face on the screen. She nattered on about Sora and Kyu for a while, said some things about the solar flare letting up that he guessed were supposed to be encouraging, although she obviously had no idea how bad it was, cooped up with no access to EVA time or even a goddamn window.
He didn't feel like recording a reply, and knew better than to do one when he was in a such a foul mood.
That night, the news came back from Luna Control that they could sleep in their quarters again, but the radiation shutters would remain closed for another few days, just to be safe.
Hachi was glad to have access to his room again, even if the rat bastards back at control were dead set on ruining this historic moment for their crew.
But a day later, while he and Leonov were doing EVA suit tolerance checks, the captain came over the intercom.
"Hey, Hachi, Leo."
"Yeah?" the two men answered in unwitting synchrony.
"Just got a burst from Luna. We're go to open windows and do EVA. You guys want to have a look outside?"
"You bet your sweet ass we are!" blurted Hachi immediately.
He and Leonov immediately shifted from suit maintenance to suit-donning, and within a few minutes were ready to cycle the airlock.
The airlock door was on the far side of the craft, so after securing their tethers, the two men clomped along the surface of the Von Braun until the curved edge of Jupiter's face began to come into view.
But it wasn't curved. It was barely curved. The mass of orange, reds, and golds that came into view was nothing like Hachi had imagined. The utter massive flat enormity of it, its ancient bulk consuming half the cosmos. Hachi felt a sudden lurching vertigo, unlike anything he'd experienced since his very first spacewalk, and much worse for the unexpectedness of it.
The sheer stunning size of the thing. The yawning indifference. What are we doing here? Hachi asked himself? Who do we think we are? This great orange god hanging in the sky, massive and porous and its churning depths vast beyond reckoning. The weight of it pressed in and down on Hachi's mind, compressing his thoughts to something beyond fear or awe, something harder and more primitive. For a moment he heard the echo of his statement to the press upon arriving in this orbit, the glib assurances he'd uttered, that humanity belonged here as a matter of species-wide destiny. The unwarranted bravado if it, god, the hubris. Who are we? Hachi demanded of himself. Who am I, to look upon this face and say we belong here?
He didn’t feel small or alone—he knew in a visceral and terrifying way his own smallness and aloneness. Witnessing this unbelievably vast presence, there was no room for feeling. Only the simple fact that he was small and ephemeral and millions of miles from home. Jupiter would not congratulate him for arriving here, nor was his tiny mote of loneliness its concern.
Time passed, though Hachi was unaware of it. Eventually Leonov's voice crackled over the radio. "Hey, Hachi."
Hachi shook his head, blinked himself out of his stunned reverie. He realized his eyes were very moist. Tears would have been running down his face, but for the mercy of free-fall. "Uh... yeah."
"Let's go back in, huh?"
After returning to the airlock, the two men extracted themselves from their pressure suits in silence. It was awkward, but Hachi had no idea how to express what he'd just seen and felt, and he assumed that Leonov would have the same problem.
In a daze, he returned to the day's duty schedule, though his mind was on none of it.
Another burst transmission came through, and it included another message from Ai. That night in his quarters, Hachi played the message.
Ai's smiling face bloomed into existence on the terminal; a burbling Sora was on her lap (his daughter occupied herself with a cookie).
"Hi, Hachirota. I heard they gave the all-clear on the solar flare, so unless you're on some kind of strange schedule, I guess you’ve seen Jupiter with your own eyes by the time you get this message. Gosh, it must be incredible. Maybe someday I'll get to see it, too..."
Ai trailed off, her expression momentarily complicated. But she soon shook it away, forcing cheer to the forefront.
"Anyway! Do you want to tell papa what you did today, Sora? Hmm?" She bounced the toddler sitting on her knee, who giggled.
"Potty!" she offered after few seconds of bouncing.
"Yes! Well, almost," added Ai, looking back at the vid camera. "But we're getting closer, aren't we, baby? Yes we are."
Ai paused to regard her daughter before continuing.
"Anyway. We haven't heard from you in a couple of days, Hachirota, so make sure to tell us all about Jupiter soon. Can't wait to hear from you, darling. Bye."
Hachi watched Ai look away from the screen as she ended the recording.
His heart so filled with love and affection he couldn’t stand it.
He was glad to be back in his private quarters, because he wept. Sobbed. For minutes, until he had a headache from the intensity of it.
After taking some time to compose himself, he situated himself in front of his terminal, and began recording a reply.
“Hi, Ai. And hi, Sora. I just now got back from my first EVA in Jupiter orbit. It’s, uh… I can’t really describe it. It’s so huge, you just can’t believe it. Leonov was out there with me, and I don’t think he could believe it either. Like lookin’ right into God’s face or something. Ugh, I can’t believe I’m sayin’ stuff like that now.”
Hachi looked away from the monitor camera briefly, composing himself.
“It got me to thinking about stuff… I dunno. I really miss you. I miss everybody. We’ve got a year in orbit before we thrust for the return trip, and I hope it passes real fast. Don’t let the old man know I said so, though, he’ll just hassle me about bein’ soft or something, the bastard.”
He paused again, and thought of his wife and his daughter sitting at the computer, watching the message he was recording.
“I just love you guys so much. I miss you so much.”
He felt his lip quivering and his eyes welling with tears—what is wrong with me? he demanded of himself, as he wiped his eyes with the base of his palm and took a deep breath.
“A-anyway, um, I’ll take lots of pictures for you. Sora, you be good, okay? Me and mama both love you.”
Things began to settle into a new, much busier routine now that the Von Braun had made Jovian orbit. Hachi found himself exhausted at the end of each day, both physically and psychologically. Though he was getting better at it, working for hours above the vast gas giant was still unnerving, as though the parts of his brain responsible for feeling awe were simply exhausted.
Ai had responded delicately to his unusually emotional message; Hachi thought about the ways someone else might have poked fun at his teary-eyed confession, and thanked his good fortune for having Ai instead—Ai whose mind it would never cross to make light of his feelings.
A couple of weeks after the arrival at Jupiter, Hachi sat down to read her latest message.
“Okay, don’t be mad,” she started. Sora was not with her. “But I thought you should know before Sally or somebody gets wind of this.”
Hachi raised an eyebrow at the screen.
“So you know Time magazine, right? Well their latest issue’s cover story is the Von Braun’s arrival at Jupiter, and um…” She paused for a moment. “Well, they put you on the cover, Hachi.”
“What the—?” exploded Hachi, despite himself, shutting up as his wife continued.
“Here, they sent me a preview of the issue.” She reached off-camera to get something from her desk's surface. “So… here it is.”
There it was.
Breathtaking in its simplicity, really.
There was no image of Jupiter on the cover.
Only the image of Hachi’s face, captured on the inward-pointed helmet camera of his EVA suit, of when he first looked upon the giant.
His mouth was agape, his eyes red and brimming with tears.
A single small headline ran across the bottom of the page.
“Humanity at Jupiter.”