Heroes & Ghosts Chapter 1

“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.

“Amanda…”

“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…”

“Ichi!”

“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?”

Ichi  nodded.

“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.”

“Will!”

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.”

“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.”

“Sexy.”

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.”

“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.

“Same  height.”

“Hair  color?”

Ichi  sighed. “Brown.”

“Eyes?”

“Brown.”

“Build?”

“Average.”

Will  glanced up. “Ichi! I’m taking this seriously.”

“You’re  drunk.”

“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.”

“Like  Andrew?”

“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?”

“Sure.”

“Be  honest.”

“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?”

“Light.”

“Hair?”

“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.

“Endowment?”

“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.

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