“What?” Kenichi nearly screeched. Instead he drew a long breath and grabbed control of his voice. “What do you mean, you’re turning your ship around?”
Captain Josiah Harvick shrugged and scratched his chin. “The order just came across, all ships are forbidden access to Avalon space. If already in Avalon space they must proceed to the nearest port for grounding. I’m not in Avalon space.”
“Jos, come on, you’re on our doorstep, you can be here in three hours! I can almost swim out to you, don’t do this to me.” Kenichi pleaded, clasping his hands in front of him to keep from balling them into fists.
“Nothing personal mate. You’re my favorite bug doctor in the whole of the wide blackness here, but an order is an order and I fly a clean ship.” The older man shrugged. “I’ll come back when the ban is lifted. A week, two, maybe three until all this mess settles down, swear.”
“Wait, you can’t, surely we can work something out?”
“Sorry, mate, see you in a bit.” The screen flicked off and went to its generic image of a sunny field of flowers.
Kenichi stood in the center of the main control room and tried not to swear. He really didn’t believe in swearing, but a year’s worth of planning had just been shut down. After a few more slow, steadying breaths, when he was fairly sure he could speak without sounding like a cat with it’s tail stepped on, he went to the only person that might be able to get Jos’ ship back.
The door opened to the small lab, larger than his own but he worked by himself. The lights were bright and the two doctors were perched on stools intently studying the scrolling results of some analysis.
“Don’t even start with me, Ichi.” The female of the pair spoke as the door opened, her blue eyes not even leaving the screen they were watching.
“Don’t!” she warned as she pointed to a line in the information. “See, there, that’s what I noticed.”
“Huh.” The man, William, nodded and leaned forward to peer more closely at the small print. “Hey, Ichi.”
“Will.” Ichi nodded, remembering his manners. “Amanda…”
“No. Look, you knew the risks when you signed up here. I’m sorry, this mess with the Flossin Guard is too dangerous, too messy to take any risks. I agree with home, we need to shut down our skies for a while.” She sighed and turned to study one of their closest friends, which was saying something given that the station only had seventeen members and Ichi wasn’t from Avalon.
“But, he’s three hours away, another ten minutes and he’d be headed our way.”
“And he’d be grounded here with no way of leaving. He’s an independent contractor, he needs this job, he can’t afford to break the rules, Ichi. Don’t worry, you’ll get your vacation.”
“No, you don’t understand, my work…” He sighed at her raised eyebrow. “I can’t just up and go later. I was supposed to speak at the conference next week.”
“So, give it over the vid, you’ll get the credit.”
“It’s just, please Amanda.”
“No. Flossin Guard nearly took out Jake’s whole station, so we’re in lock down until this can be resolved. No debate, no exceptions, we can’t take any risks. You of all people should know the things we work on here. Avalon space has half a dozen stations like ours, it’s just too risky.”
He ran a hand through his dark hair and tried to find a logical debate that might get her to change her mind. “I’ve put almost a year into planning this. I’ve got a lot of money tied up in deposits. I was supposed to go from the conference to spend the rest of the month on the beach drinking fruity drinks and getting a tan.”
“Avalon will reimburse you for any lost expenses, you know that.”
“He means he has a three week stay at Xerolousia planned, and he’s horny.” Will chuckled and froze the code on the screen before glancing to the now blushing entomologist.
“It’s not…” He tried to protest but the couple had a knowing look on their faces. “Alright, fine, happy? God, I’m only human. I haven’t left this station in almost three years and, in case you failed to notice, I’m sort of isolated here.”
Amanda grinned, knowing every one of the station's five single females would have happily tumbled the charmingly nerdish scientist into bed, and also equally knowing he had no interest in women. “Tell you what, I’ll loan you Will for the night.” She grinned at her husband.
“You will?” He sat up straighter. “Am I being pimped out?”
“The two of you should go do whatever it is you two do when you’re up all night.” As the de facto leader of the station, she wasn’t supposed to know about the still that had been set up. She just pretended the home brew just magically appeared.
Ichi sighed and shook his head. “I guess I’m unpacking.”
“I’ll be over in about an hour,” Will offered, trying to make it sound friendly and supportive but if it soothed Ichi’s disappointment any he didn’t see it.
The door shut behind their friend. “Well that made me feel like a heel, poor Ichi. You should blow him just for mercy’s sake.”
“Down woman!” Will laughed. “You know brunettes aren’t my type.” He slid over and wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist. “I like redheads,” he whispered, nuzzling his face to the nape of her neck where red springy curls the color of fall pumpkins had sprung loose.
“Tuk tuk tuk, tuk tuk tuk.” Ichi clucked at the secure box full of bugs and they swarmed over to the nearest layer of clear, very thick polymer. They instantly started clucking back at him and jostling each other to be closest to the drop chute. “Oh, who’s the piggy beetles? Who’s my baby piggies?”
“You’re a strange man, Ichi,” Will tossed out, standing across the small lab from the boxes of secure, very deadly insects. Frankly he didn’t like bugs much, but he wasn’t squeamish about them. Yet seeing how they responded to Ichi made his skin crawl a little bit.
“They’re smarter than people think. Hive minds, they’re amazing.” He was proud of the swarm, he was the only person, anywhere, to successfully keep a swarm alive and healthy in captivity. “Trillions are notoriously difficult to keep but we know so little about them.” He tapped on his side of the window and chuckled as the carnivorous bugs swarmed for his finger.
“Yeah, because they keep eating their keepers.” He swallowed bile as he knew what was coming. “I can’t lie and say I’m sorry you’re staying on board, I wasn’t looking forward to feeding your children.”
“You’re too sentimental, Will.” Ichi moved to the crate in the corner and pulled out three slender cylinders. He popped the latches on them and one by one they slid open. The storage gel evaporated at contact with the air and he pulled out the feeder rats from inside. “Those scientists were stupid and lazy, there’s no way this swarm can get out, or me in.” He clucked again as he dropped the rat into the feeding chute and started its cycling. The device of his own design would move the rat into and out of four chambers before dumping it into the main box.
“Ugh, even knowing, that grosses me out. Didn’t you ever have a real pet as a child?” Ichi was just so clinical, so cold. It always amazed Will, he was from Avalon and nothing was ever too cold or clinical there.
“Hmmm?” Ichi hummed and watched the mindless rat be moved closer to the hungry swarm. “It’s no different than the tissue samples you order in. The rat’s heart beats, it breaths, but it feels nothing, it has no brain. The brainstems are fascinating, so underdeveloped to be nearly useless. That’s why I only order from PETS, they take great care in their feeder stock.” The system cycled and the rat dropped into the main container. The swarm was instantly on it and started its hour long meal. “And for your information, I had a cat as a child.” He frowned as he turned back to where Will hovered at the far side of his lab. “The thing didn’t like me much.” He picked up the remaining two not-really-alive feeder rats and dropped them into other chutes to feed other deadly, hungry insects.
The sight of the swarm gathering on the brainless, lifeless rat churned Will’s stomach and he scooped up the advertisement flyer from the PETS feeder rat box to scroll through it. 'P.E.T.S. Perfectly Ethical Transformation Solutions: Your source for all your needs', scrolled across the top as a happily illustrated woman guided him to select from the menu of options. It ranged from tissue samples, plant as well as animal and human, to the feeders. Simply for distraction he pulled up the files on the rats and studied the very empty, fluid filled brain cavity. That was a little too close to the current situation and while Ichi could watch the careful, slow consumption of the offered meal, Will tried not to.
“Companions?” He pulled up the final listing. “Huh, I didn’t know they were the same PETS.” The options for grown human companions specially made to accommodate any needs, and with the intelligence of a dim witted dog, as well as their line of artificial life sized dolls, scrolled across the flyer.
Ichi turned and pulled the flyer from his friend's hand. “Sadly, yes, don’t even suggest it.”
“I’d never suggest it. Why should we mail order you a pretty young man when you’d only feed him to your pets?” Will teased.
Only Ichi wasn’t laughing, the idea that he’d maybe be able to order a human grown without a brain to feed to his swarm set his mind to whirling. “That’s not a bad idea, a custom order, wonder how long it would take a swarm this size…”
“Kidding, kidding, of course, the cost of the human companions is just outrageous. I couldn’t afford it and besides, they consider each one a work of art. They’d never make me one to feed to a swarm.” But he glanced over his shoulder at the clicking, chirping beetles and sighed. “Mores the pity.”
“Are you done now?”
“Good, let’s go get drunk.” He tossed an arm around his friend's shoulders and guided him out of the lab.
“You know, I never drank until I came here. The stories are all true; everyone from Avalon is an alcoholic.” It was a weak protest since he’d learned to drink almost as easily as his station mates.
“That’s because everyone from Kakurega are monks and have sticks up their asses. You should thank us for showing you the grand zests of life and the joys of home brew.” The ongoing debate was friendly; each mocked the other’s home lightly and without malice. “You should come see Avalon with me, I’ll show you around. We’ve plenty of handsome men inclined your way. Cute fellow like you? We’ll get you laid in no time.”
“I don’t…” He sputtered. “I’m not looking to get laid.”
“Blown, laid, whatever you want, we’ll find it.”
He was laughing now, gently, at the blush creeping across his friend’s face. The man was far too prudish and it was one more wall Will was set to tear down. “Come, let’s get you drunk. That’s the only way I ever win at cards against you.”
It was hours later, and Will with less money to his name, when they staggered back to Ichi’s set of rooms. He was leaning heavily on his friend, who was still far too sober for his liking, and clutching a bottle of the clear, flavorful alcohol.
“A royal flush, a royal flush! You’re the luckiest bastard I’ve ever met. I had a straight flush, man, I thought for sure I had you.”
Ichi got his room door open and let his friend stagger in. It was a nice set of rooms, nothing fancy by any means, but the small kitchen was a rarity on Avalon designed and built stations. They tended to assume everyone was like them and wanted to gather in a communal kitchen for meals. Someone had thought ahead to the tiny size of the station and planned that occasionally privacy might be sought.
Ichi was grateful for it. As much as he’d grown to care for his station mates, there were times when the loud, cheerful, vibrant people really got on his nerves and all he wanted was a quiet meal, alone. That and his choice of foods rarely showed up on the communal kitchen’s menu.
That meant that his living room was just an open space with a narrow table shoved along a wall and a small kitchen placed nearby. He had a sofa, soft and big enough for three that rarely got used, and a vid screen hung on the wall across from it. Except for letters or calls home, which weren’t frequent, he rarely turned it on.
The first thing Will did once the bottle was safely secured on the small side table by the sofa was to turn the screen on and find a channel with softer music to shatter Ichi’s preferred silence. The darker man sighed and moved to dig glasses from one of his cupboards, knowing if he didn’t Will would drink right from the bottle.
“Seriously Ichi, Amanda’s cousin, you’d like him. He’s a farmer so he’s all tan and strong.”
“Let’s not have this conversation.”
“Ah, not drunk enough I see!” He poured out the clear liquid into the glasses and pressed one into Ichi’s hand. “You’re almost family you know, another year and we’ll adopt you.”
“I don’t want to be adopted.”
“Hush, of course you do! And family looks out for family.” Will slurred drunkenly but there was something dark in his eyes.
Ichi knew that look, most everyone from Avalon had it when they spoke of family. The Concord’s invasion, occupation and than near annihilation of their little colony had broken every family on the planet.
Will dropped himself onto the sofa and downed another swallow. “We’ll find you some sweaty man loving soon, don’t you worry about it.”
“I’m not worried about it, it’s just…” He was drunk to allow this conversation to continue, but part of him really wanted to whine to someone.
“Just what?” Will leaned over, squinted his eyes and than grinned. “You had a boyfriend meeting you!” he announced with certainty.
“Don’t do that!” Ichi scolded and sat with more reserve on the other end of the sofa.
“Can’t help it, I’m drunk and a level 22 psi, and you’re horny as hell and disappointed about missing your meeting.”
Ichi’s grandfather had been a pioneer in the field of biophysics, he’d helped design and create the standard test that was now used to judge and rank a human’s psychic skills. It was a field of science that was half mysticism and required either raw, inborn gifts or near mystical genius for mathematics. Ichi had neither and the field of biophysics simply confused him.
He was happy knowing the basics; that most of humanity, over 95 percent of them, tested as flat line, base zero, for psychic skills. Ichi’s grandfather had given long-winded lectures to attempt to explain that a zero was just human standard. That it included a mother who knew her child was lost or hurt, and the person that knew to check in on a friend that they hadn’t spoken to in a while only to find out the friend was in a rough patch in their life. His grandfather had debated that all humans had some base psychic attunement but that a rare few spiked higher.
Ichi was a solid, dead on flat line. He was happy with that. His life was complex enough without anything extra. He liked knowing the world was solid and real and definable. However, the vast majority of the people from Avalon were not flat lines. Seventy-four percent of the population showed a ranking of over five, adding in those five and under and the number jumped up to an astounding ninety-nine percent.
While it was almost unheard of in the general population for a human to have a psi rate of over twenty, it wasn’t uncommon on Avalon. In fact, while a rating over twenty was extremely rare, statistically improbable, in the general population it happened often enough on Avalon to attract little notice. Ichi’s grandfather had spent years trying to learn why.
Until the flaws in the Network drive system turned their study focus around. The Network drive was amazing; it let humanity cross vast distances faster than ever before. Ichi was like most people, his field of study wasn’t advanced inter-dimensional physics, so his understanding of the Network drive was limited. It didn’t bother him any, the same way when he turned the lights on in his room and the room lit up he didn’t bother worrying about the complex wiring that allowed it.
He knew what everyone else did: it cut travel times down to manageable amounts, and the original Network drive was flawed. It had worked, yes, but it had also worn holes into the very fabric of dimensional space. As scary as that sounded it wasn’t that big of a deal, those worn patches re-wove in short order. But sometimes, before they could, something got through. Something that tore entire crews apart and turned ships into floating morgues with only babbling nonsense about demons and monsters left on the ship’s log.
Biophysics was the first feild to understand and find a solution. Ichi’s grandfather’s research had taken a turn from understanding the why’s of human population to the why’s of inter-dimensional beings. Termed ‘Demons’ by the general population, it was his grandfather’s research team that first learned these creatures fed on human emotional energy, and once fed they became strong enough to manifest a physical shape. It was his grandfather’s team that first learned that some of the stronger psis were not only able to sense but manipulate the Demons’ energy fields, and so effectively combat and remove them. It was shortly after that when his grandfather and his entire team had been found torn into parts too small to identify by the creatures he had been attempting to study.
Then the Network drive had been fixed and the engines no longer were scratching portals for the Demons to slip through, the entire science of biophysics became a quaint, almost old fashioned side venture. It was agreed that it was interesting to know just why some people were born with a higher skill ranking, but it no longer was important.
Until thirty years ago when an entire town on a colony in the middle of nowhere was found torn into shreds and their logs and files showed sobbing, terrified people speaking of demons and monsters. There had been no Network drives present to contain a flaw in and slowly it became clear that these monsters, once thought safely contained in their own space, missed the open buffet of their human feasts. Suddenly biophysics was all the rage and the scientific world started scrambling for solutions. They discovered that a tear between space worn open from the other side wasn’t so easily closed from this side.
Now any place was a potential target as groups and gatherings of humans one by one were attacked. Survivor's only options became to run away, carrying the fears with them and acting like lightening rods for charging up new attacks. The scientific world went back to the original research and Ichi’s grandfather’s theory about high-level psis. Successes were slow but it became a proven fact that a high-level human psi was capable of shutting down, containing and sealing a rift.
Except when they were outmatched, in which case the psi was quickly overwhelmed and killed in horrible ways. This further limited the already shallow pool of people with the skills and the inclination to stop the Demons. And all the while, the place with the highest concentration of psis was embroiled in a shameful occupation and slowly was being pushed toward extinction.
Ichi didn’t fully understand the politics. He was a Concord citizen after all, and the idea that any system wouldn’t wish to join the Concord boggled his mind. But Avalon, like a handful of others, clung to their independence. Worse, they flaunted their scorn of the Concord, harbored smugglers and loosely defined inter-space laws. Ichi was starting to learn it wasn’t done maliciously but it was almost a cultural need for the people of Avalon to cause trouble. If a garden had a sign reading ‘do not walk on grass,’ he was pretty sure they’d take picnics in the center; if a computer system had fourteen levels of security, he knew they’d find ways to hack in just to see why; it was just their nature.
It was deemed that Avalon needed to be reigned in. Why should the Concord go to the expense of terra-forming a new world to colonize when Avalon was eighty percent unsettled and filled to bursting with rich resources. Two birds with one stone and off the Fleet went with boatloads of colonists.
And Avalon, a world of mostly-pacifists that had no formal army and no Fleet except for a handful of merchant ships, was quickly overwhelmed and occupied. All property and land was seized and given to Concordant Citizen landlords, giving free rule to civilize the savage population. Tens of thousands were killed, on both sides, as the occupation pushed the normal peaceful nature of Avalon too far and they took up quiet arms with an informal militia. The resistance was met with greater laws, less freedom for Avalon citizens, more restrictions. And the harsher the laws, the more they fought.
Until the Fleet drew a line and dropped the Bare Earth Virus. It had never been used before but Avalon’s isolated nature and the blockade that had been in place for a decade made it a likely test grounds. The Concord’s own citizens were merely collateral damage, expendable and replaceable. The Bare Earth was insidious. It attached to everything--soil, air, plants, animals. It contaminated everything in an ecosystem so long as it was able to mutate and grow.
The first weeks, and even months, weren’t so bad. A handful of the population fell ill, a handful died, most of Avalon had laughed and teased that the Fleet had underestimated their stronger constitutions. The Avalon scientists knew better, Bare Earth was only learning their system. The second wave killed thousands and each wave thereafter killed more as the virus changed to become deadly to another segment of the population. Some mutations caused madness, some killed quickly, and others killed painfully slowly. And now, cut off from any supportive order, chaos tore what little civilization that was left apart. The occupying clung to control as best they could, fighting the virus and the weakened Avalon citizens. The planet stood on the brink of extinction. Wiped clean of human life, it would only take five years once cleansed for the Bare Earth to degrade in the ecosystem and make the planet habitable again. Five years was a short time to wait when the Concord had been fighting for decades.
It was either chance or fate that dropped a street child with no family and no name into the hands of their doctors. Mercy Shillelagh had proven unusually resistant to the virus, but just how the Avalon researchers managed to find a vaccine was still a closely guarded secret. They saved their world, their culture and way of life with that vaccine and it gave them a weapon like none before. As they only people immune, the upper hand was instantly theirs.
And rather than seal themselves away, it was Mercy Shillelagh that stepped forward to combat the growing danger from the other-worldly demons that so plagued the Concord. As the human with the highest psi rating of ninety-four and an affinity for the Demons bioenergy like none before her, she became the founding member of the independent Psi Guard. Following her example, over half the Guard’s ranks were soon filled with Avalon citizens, all working as independent contractors and making the money required to rebuild their world.
Avalon had used that boost as a spring board. With their world ruined, their natural resources torn and tainted and decades of clean up and repair ahead of them, they encouraged the surviving citizens to exploit the one resource no one could take from them. Within a handful of years, Avalon was producing some of the finest researchers, scientists, computer programmers and academic elite anywhere. Their research facilities were of the highest caliber and their concerns for security meant that they were on a very short list of places that Ichi could bring his very deadly swarm to for a controlled study.
It didn’t mean he was comfortable living around the unusual people, even without the added factor of psychic skills. Their informal ease with each other and their casual approach made him uneasy. So many from Avalon had lost so much that all of them now were bonded tighter than family, and it often left Ichi feeling even more like an outsider.
So he’d gone and befriended the most casual, most informal, and the one person on their little research station that had the highest psi rating. Will was everything that made Ichi uncomfortable but somehow, as the years had gone by, it was only around Will that Ichi ever found himself just being himself.
That didn’t mean when he was drunk and knowing things he had no right to know Ichi didn’t want to kick him. It was unnerving and well beyond intuition. Being drunk himself didn’t ease the unhappy stab of pain or the bitterness of embarrassment at having his secret so casually uncovered.
“I’m not horny as hell,” Ichi protested.
That only drew snickers from Will. “What’s his name?”
“There’s no name to tell,” he muttered out around his growing blush.
“Bullshit there’s not. Come on, come on, I’m not strong enough to pluck it from thin air, tell me?” He poured more drink into their glasses and nudged at his reserved friend.
“Andrew.” Will nodded, rolling the name across his tongue. “All this time and I had no idea you had a boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Ichi tossed back right away without thinking.
That just raised Will’s eyebrows.
“It’s just… I’m not…” He sighed and knew Will would never leave it alone until he explained. “We’ve just know each since University.”
“Is he a bug doc too?”
“No, he’s an ecologist.” He’d given up trying to get them to not call him a bug doctor.
“Is he, you know?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know.”
Ichi ran a hand over his face and prayed that Will would just pass out. “Will…”
“Show me a picture!” He hit on the idea and sat up. “Come on, I know you’ve got them, don’t make me dig in your files!” Will lurched toward the panel access and had his hands smacked by the less drunk Ichi. “Ow!”
“Stop! Okay, fine, a picture.” Part of him wanted the sympathy and part of him just wanted to poke at the wounds a little. He tapped a few commands and the vid screen lit up with a picture from the last time he’d crossed paths with Andrew.
Will whistled under his breath. The Ichi he knew, always serious, rarely smiling, looked different. He was relaxed, a shy, half-grin teased his mouth and actually touched the slightly almond shaped, light hazel blue-green eyes. The near black hair was crushed under a wide hat that shaded Ichi from the bright sunshine. He also wore a carefully buttoned up shirt with loose, long sleeves in an effort to protect his station-sheltered skin from the harshness of real sunlight.
Andrew hung across his shoulders, smiling brightly with startlingly white teeth. His shirt was white but cut to show the lean strength of his shoulders and arms. Will guessed that Andrew was shorter, so maybe five-six to Ichi’s five-eight, but seemed larger just from sheer personality. His skin was darkly black, his eyes a lighter shade of brown, and he wore his hair into twisted dreadlocks that brushed the top of his shoulders. Even Will had to admit the man was handsome.
“I’m impressed, Ichi, didn’t think you had it in you! You two are cute.”
“I’m straight and I’d do him. Hell, Amanda would be all over him. Who knew you had such a cute boyfriend.”
“He’s not, it’s not like that.”
“Even kinkier, who knew you’re into casual sex.” Will chuckled and sprawled on the sofa, enjoying watching the normally unshakeable Ichi squirm.
“It’s not, we’re just friends. He stuck up for me at school. Entomologist are at the low end of the geek totem pole, I had tech nerds beating me up.” He finished the contents of his cup in long swallows, trying to push down the awkward and uncomfortable memories of his years at school. Andrew had been several years older and the only bright spot about the time.
“Amanda’s cousin, he’d be a perfect part-time boyfriend. He’s dumb as a box of hammers, but that boy can bench press you.”
“No, and I swear, Will, if you send him my name I’ll do something awful to you with ants.”
“You wouldn’t.” He refilled Ichi’s empty glass.
“I would too!”
“You wouldn’t because it would hurt the ants.”
Ichi sighed. “Okay, so I wouldn’t, but I can be clever if I have to be.” He collapsed back on the sofa and rubbed at his eyes. “God, I’m so horny! It’s been almost four years, Will, four years.”
“I’m sorry, friend, I really am. As soon as this mess blows over I’ll take some time off, we’ll go home for a bit and I’ll introduce you around. We’ll get you laid.”
“I don’t want to just get laid, I…” He sighed and kept his eyes shut. His people simply did not discuss things like sex, and Avalon, well, on Avalon there wasn’t much that wasn’t discussed. “I’m not comfortable with people. I don‘t really like most people.”
“No shit.” Will teased, laughing again. “You talk baby talk to bugs that would happily eat you alive. I think we’re all pretty clear on the ‘Ichi isn’t good with folks’ concept.”
“It’s not easy for me to be… physical with someone. Andrew and I have a history, we’re comfortable.”
Will’s laughter stopped. “I do understand.” He reached over and took up the access panel for the vid screen. “Here.”
Ichi opened his eyes and saw the company logo across the screen. “No.” He shook his head.
“Hush, just make a doll, give me some idea what type you like.” He’d punched up PETS companion doll creation site. It would have been more fun to make a living companion, but that page was password protected for customers with bank accounts large enough to accept such a heavy cost.
“You first.” Ichi mocked, knowing that Will wouldn’t.
“Sure.” He began to click on specifications adding hair and eye color to the generic female form, widening the hips, adding curl to the hair.
“Oh, that doesn‘t count, it looks just like Amanda.” It didn’t, not really, but the doll appearing on the screen was gaining an eerie resemblance to Will’s wife.
He glanced up and grinned in a silly, besotted way. “It does, doesn’t it? She’s my dream woman, can’t blame me for that. Only, I bet the doll version of her wouldn’t hog all the covers at night.”
“This is pointless.”
“Your turn. Taller or shorter than you?” He switched the doll’s basic form to male and waited.
Ichi sighed. “Brown.”
Will glanced up. “Ichi! I’m taking this seriously.”
“So are you.”
“Point taken.” Ichi glanced to the bland, ordinary looking man taking form on the screen. “I’m ordinary, ordinary suits me.”
“This is supposed to be fun, what’s your ideal? And you aren’t ordinary, you talk baby talk to swarms.” He cleared the image. “Now, taller or shorter?”
Ichi dropped his head back onto the sofa and sipped at his drink. “Taller, just a little though, not too tall.”
Will grinned with an evil bent. “Build?”
He shrugged. “I don’t care.”
“How about like this?”
The doll on the screen suddenly was built like a muscle man and Ichi raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Do I seem like the sort that would be attracted to that?”
“Naw, this seems more your sort.” He punched a few more commands in and the body changed into a slender, lean waif.
Ichi forgot to be embarrassed. “No, not really, graceful, lean, but toned.”
“Yes,” he answered softly, watching the doll’s body grow long, slender, lean muscles. He looked like a dancer now, strong but elegant.
“Skin? Andrew dark?”
“Lighter.” He admitted.
“How much lighter?”
Ichi glanced down to his own golden skin and shook his head. “If you laugh at me I swear…”
“I know, I know, the ants, now out with it.”
“Lighter than me, I like seeing… it’s just…”
Will nodded in total seriousness. “I understand, I’m the same way with Amanda, I like seeing my hand against her paler skin.”
“Far too much information, but yes.”
Will lightened the skin, made it several shades from pale but also several shades lighter than his friend. “Okay, eye color?”
Ichi shrugged, fascinated now. “I don’t have a preference.”
“Light or dark?”
“Again, I’ve never worried about it. Light, I guess.”
Will nodded and clicked generic light for both, unspecific the computer would pick a random combination if the doll was ordered but for the display it just put on pale blonde with blue eyes. “Short hair? Long? Mid-length?”
“Shorter, but long enough to run hands through.” A shaggy, layered, slightly longer than short but not quite mid-length cut appeared on the doll and Ichi found himself nodding.
“Tell me you just didn’t ask that?”
“I’m your best friend, if you can’t be honest with me?” He grinned and the doll’s penis grew to a ridiculous length.
“Average!” Ichi finally admitted. “Just average, I don’t think about these things.”
“What kind of guy are you? I’ve spent hours thinking about Amanda’s breasts, they’re simply perfect you know. I couldn’t improve them in any way.”
“Again with the information I don’t need.” Ichi shook his head, but watched fascinated as the dolls penis returned to a normal size.
Will went all the way, showing dozens of eye, lip and nose shapes, face styles and cheekbone levels and bit by bit he plugged in Ichi’s choices. He was surprised at the man being put together, he had expected Ichi to cling to his concept of ordinary. Instead, the doll that appeared body part by body part was becoming a rather handsome, unordinary example of humanity. It wasn’t pretty and not the least bit feminine and, if Will was being objective, Ichi was closer to pretty than the doll had become but there was no denying the doll was quite attractive.
“My friend, you need to order this doll.”
“I most certainly do not!”
“It comes with tight gripping ass action and a super suction mouth,” Will read the specs off.
“You did not just say that.” Ichi was too drunk to blush but he wasn’t too drunk to flush with a tinge of interest.
“And get this, it has a tongue attachment! How neat is that? The central computer will regulate its skin temperature, it has real soft touch artificial skin, you can even set it to breath, blink, and have a heartbeat. It’s designed for easy cleaning too.”
“We aren’t having this conversation.”
“Aw, Ichi, no one would mind. I mean, you wouldn’t be the first person to order one, I promise you. We all know how difficult it has to be for you. We’ve actually been toying with hiring you a professional.”
“Okay, that’s it, this conversation is over with.” He was blushing bright red now, he could feel it. Apparently he wasn’t too drunk to be embarrassed.
“Just for a couple of days, nothing long term. Mary wanted to send your name into one of those mail order spouse companies.”
“Stop.” He stood up and got Will up off his sofa by pulling on the man’s collar. “Go home to your wife Will, just pretend tonight didn’t happen. If there is any mercy in the universe you’ll be too drunk to remember this conversation.” He led the other man toward his door.
“Order the doll, Ichi, you’ll be so much happier. It’s just a sex toy for gods sake, it’s not even immoral or kinky.”
Which made Ichi wonder just what his friend would consider kinky. “Out! Go home!”
“Think about it, order it and you can always store it away if you don’t like it. When have you done anything for yourself?” he asked as the door shut on his face. He stood, drunk and a little disappointed to be so rudely tossed into the hall, until he turned and made his way to his own set of rooms and his awaiting wife.
Ichi leaned on his door and locked it. He was the only person on the station that locked their doors out of habit. None of the folks from Avalon ever did, which seemed insane to him given all that they’d lived through, but Ichi had grown up locking doors and so he continued to do so. He was alone now, in his empty apartment, in his silence and facing the unhappy task of writing Andrew to explain.
Before he could figure out what to say, his screen beeped with an incoming call. There wasn’t a long list of people willing to pay the cost of talking to him live so he answered it carefully but his face lit up with a smile when Andrew appeared.
“Hey.” Ichi slurred out. “I was just about to write you.”
“Ichi, I just saw the shut down order on the news, are you okay? That’s not your station right? The one with the murders and bombings? And are you drunk?” Andrew frowned.
“Yeah, a little and no, it’s not mine.”
“Since when did you start drinking?”
He rubbed at his head. “It’s a social experiment.”
“Will you be able to make the conference?”
Ichi sat down. “It doesn’t look promising.”
“That’s a shame, Steve was looking forward to meeting you.”
“Steve?” The name was one he’d heard. “Your assistant, Steve?”
“The one, he’s coming with me to the conference.”
Ichi’s alcohol muddled mind took a moment to process the look he saw on Andrew’s face. “You’re sleeping with him.”
“What of it?”
“Andrew, he’s nineteen and you‘re, you‘re old enough to be his father.”
“You know I don’t sleep with anyone over thirty.”
Ichi had just turned thirty two. “But, I’m over thirty.”
“And I thought we had an understanding about that, Ichi. It’s never been more than friendly, right?” Andrew asked carefully.
He was too drunk to have his normal control, so some of the suddenly stunned, pained shock slipped onto his face but Ichi quickly rubbed his eyes and shook it off. “Of course, I’m sorry.” He held up his glass before taking a long swallow. “I’m drunk and not thinking clearly.” He suddenly felt like an idiot.
Andrew didn’t look convinced but he nodded. “Okay, so, I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine, this is actually a good thing. I’ve so much work to do and the swarm is touchy about strangers taking care of them so it’s better if I don’t leave them alone for so long, this really is a good thing. I don’t like traveling all that much anyway and I can’t afford to get a sunburn again.” He knew he was babbling but he was afraid if he stopped he’d just sit like a stunned animal unable to speak at all.
“And, we’re okay, right? You and I?”
Ichi nodded. “Of course.”
“Well, good, I was worried about you.” He glanced off camera. “I need to run, I promised I’d pick Steve up for dinner.”
“Of course,” he heard himself repeating like an idiot.
“It was good to see you, Ich, you look good.”
That made him flush again, but he wasn’t sure if it was from pleasure or anger. “Thanks, you too.”
“Write to me?”
“I will,” he promised when he wanted to throw his glass at the screen and shout. Hating that manners and control prevented him from doing what he wanted. The screen went black for a second and than flicked back to the custom made doll that slowly spun in a circle to be inspected. “Oh, my.” Ichi sighed and slumped forward over his knees, suddenly feeling lightheaded. “Oh.”
This was why he didn’t date, he always got dumped and that hurt too much. Will—outgoing, laughing, fun to be around Will—didn’t understand that. When, if, he’d ever been dumped, he could see Will shaking it off. Ichi didn’t shake anything off, rejection clung to him like sticky fingers.
He rolled the half empty glass in his hands and picked up the mostly empty bottle. If ever there was a night to get really drunk, this one was it. He finished the contents of the cup in quick swallows and proceeded to drink straight from the bottle.