The happy, helpful chiming of Ichi’s alarm clock set his head to screaming. For a man that hadn’t ever consumed more than a glass or two of wine or sake during the course of his lifetime, waking up with hangovers had been far from uncommon during the last few years. To his station mates credit, they rarely actually got drunk but the consumption of alcohol was a cultural sign of good times so even if it was watered or not even touched, every get together had something. He’d long since learned that most days, the jug of punch was often untouched and the kettles of tea were emptied. It was only on special occasions, celebrations and sorrows that they actually got drunk, and Ichi had been holding his own right beside them.
He groaned and sat up, wiping drool from the corner of his mouth, which felt stuffed with cotton. “Alarm, off.” He ordered and tried to remember why he hadn’t made it to his bed the night before. The empty bottle of home brew made it pretty clear that he’d simply drank where he sat and fallen asleep on his own sofa.
He staggered to his feet and stumbled to his kitchen. It was a sad day when he would find the hangover cure before the bathroom. Then again, it was even sadder that he’d sat alone drinking. All because of Andrew and his obsession with younger men, which Ichi had known about from day one and hadn’t worried over. Thirty had seemed like a lifetime away when he’d been in university and he’d been too busy with work to really notice he’d slipped past that mark.
He shook out one of the dissolve tabs, the size of his thumbnail and mint fresh for the removal of the hangover vomit taste, and popped it on his tongue. It happily melted and instantly hit his bloodstream. Before he could turn on his morning tea, his headache started to dim and his stomach settled. With steadier hands he peeled off his shirt and moved to shower and change for the new day.
As he crossed his living room his feet froze and into his mind crept just what was glowing across his vid screen. “Oh, my, god.”
The custom made PETS Companion Doll that Will had wrangled him into making still spun in a small circle, but now information was plastered over it. A shipment date was flashing in one corner and across the top repeated the words ‘Thank you for your order, your request has been processed.’
Ichi’s stomach turned over and he ran for his bathroom.
“I’m never drinking again.” Ichi announced when he’d finally settled his nerves, cleaned up for the day and managed to find his way to Will’s lab. Amanda, gratefully, wasn’t in yet or had been in and was currently off seeing to station business.
Will just glanced over to his friend who outwardly appeared none the worse for the wear of the previous night. “You always say that and you always drink again. The threat is losing its strength.”
“I’m serious this time.” He dropped his screen notebook beside Will and dropped himself onto an empty stool. “I am never, ever drinking again.”
Will paused his work and glanced to the screen that glowed beside him. It took a moment but when understanding dawned he started laughing. “You didn’t.”
“Apparently, I did.”
“And you don’t remember it?”
“Of course I don’t!” He hissed back, trying not to blush and praying Amanda wouldn’t walk in. “What am I going to do?”
“Cancel the order.”
“I’ve already spent the entire morning trying, they don’t accept cancellations.”
“They must get a lot of hung over calls the morning after an order is placed.”
“Will, what am I going to do?” Nothing in his experience prepared him for this.
“I would have thought a man of your age wouldn’t need instruction.” He teased dryly just to make Ichi blush.
“What were you doing drinking after I left anyway? You know better.” He scolded but picked up the notepad to read the fine print.
“Andrew, well, it’s complicated.”
“Un-complicate it for me.”
“He doesn’t get involved with men over thirty, I forgot and well, he’s now seeing his nineteen year old assistant.” He sighed and rubbed at his eyes, relishing the sharp pain.
“Ouch. You know, you picked him because you knew he’d eventually dump you.” He kept scanning the fine print, hoping to find a ‘my friend was drunk and wants to cancel his order’ clause and not finding one.
“Don’t, not right now Will.”
“You avoid intimacy like the plague, and trust me, I’ve seen people avoid the plague. There’s more to life than your creepy bugs. I’m actually impressed you placed the order, proves you’re human after all,” he grumbled.
“I like bugs, they’re nicer than humans.” His stomach felt sick again, he told it to shut up. “What am I going to do?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like you can get out of the order, so you’re going to be the proud owner of your own sex doll. Who’s going to know? I mean, I won’t tell anyone, you won’t tell anyone, and if anyone finds out tell them to walk to the nearest air lock and go swim in vacuum. No one here will care, so why worry about it? It’ll show up in ahh…” He glanced down. “About three months. I’ll help you move the crate to your room, no one will know.”
The ban on travel in Avalon space was lifted a few weeks later and the small research station paid it little mind. Ichi, with no further plans to go on holiday, tossed himself into his work without looking back. He didn’t follow the news and the growing scandal of the Flossin Guard exposure. Neither did he take too much notice to the fact that a new push to expose the harsh treatment and condition of Avalon citizens during the occupation was started by a Captain Elliot Gore, a decorated Concord Fleet officer. It was a bit of news that had his Avalon station mates buzzing in concerned distraction, as Elliot Gore was the son of the commanding General that had torn their world apart.
It didn’t matter to Ichi personally, he didn’t belong to their world and he had his work to focus on. For weeks as Elliot Gore’s efforts to bring about reparations for the harm his father had done was first met with suspicion and then grudging admiration, Ichi moved around the station as a virtual ghost. It was just what his uneasy, battered ego needed, the solitude of work and his pets to regain his sense of self that had been bruised with Andrews rejection, his canceled plans, and his own stupidity.
When three months came and no crate arrived in Jos Harvick’s hold, Ichi sighed a breath of relief. Maybe they’d lost his order; he wouldn’t protest it. Or maybe his order had been lost in shipment, it wasn’t common but it wasn’t unheard of either. It could have happened and it would have been a blessing. He didn’t really care so long as that three-month window came and went and nothing with his name attached to it arrived.
So two months later he’d nearly forgotten the order placed one drunken night, even if his mind still shied away at the shocked pain of being dropped by his part-time lover. He had his hands full; his swarm had laid eggs, something that had never occurred in captivity before, no one had even observed them mating. Ichi had been near giddy with delight, as proud as any parent, and he’d been pouring over weeks of recordings trying to spot their mating. It had him distracted enough that he’d lost track of days and had forgotten that Jos Harvick was due back at their station. He wasn’t just due, but overdue.
“Hey! Ichi!” Will poked his head into the small lab.
“Shhh, they’re building a nest for the eggs.” On a whim, he’d provided his swarm with different bedding material, of different styles, and the group had chattered happily before starting to weave a complex nest. He’d been watching them for hours, taking notes as he went; it was better to see it live anyway.
“You’re taping it right?”
Ichi nodded and kept his eyes on the enclosure.
“Well, good because Harvick is docking and there’s an extra couple of boxes with your name on them in his manifest.”
“What do you mean?” He asked, quickly keying in a note about the males being skittish about getting knocked inside the growing nest.
“Your order.” Will prompted.
“My order?” He frowned and thought and than remembered and blushed. “Oh, I’d hoped they’d lost it.”
“I promised you I’d help you move it but it if sits in the cargo hold for too long people will notice. So, tape your morbid friends and get moving.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was in the hallway.
“Right.” Suddenly, watching the nest being built didn’t seem the most important thing. “Do you think we can talk Mr. Harvick into just taking it back? Return to sender or something?”
“This is Avalon, there is no return to sender option on shipments, and besides he’ll want to know why and what it is and I don’t think you want to answer those questions.”
“God, no.” He didn’t want anyone knowing. “You didn’t tell Amanda did you?” He’d never thought to ask until now, but the idea that she might know made him uncomfortable.
“Of course not, I haven’t said a word.” He hurried them through empty hallways, which weren’t unusual during the day but something had his nerves uneasy.
When they reached the cargo hold, he knew why. Ichi froze just inside the door, stunned and unsure if he could turn and run before he was noticed. There were seventeen people on the station; not counting himself and Will that meant there were fifteen others. A dozen of those fifteen waited in the hold, talking and laughing, two of the women poked at the boxes stacked to the side and marked with the PETS logo and Harvick stood in a small group talking and waving a notebook around with his wide, ranging hand motions.
“Will…” His blood froze and suddenly, the idea that his swarm might one day escape and consume him slowly over days was no longer the worst fate he could think of.
“I didn’t say a word, I swear.” Will hissed back but he eyed his wife near the boxes laughing.
Amanda glanced up when her husband’s eyes fell on her and she smiled widely. “Ichi! Hurry up and open it, we’re dying to see!”
Suddenly, thirteen pairs of eyes swung his way and a half dozen different conversations ended. He felt the blood drain from his face and his pulse pounded in his ears. It was just a matter of time before he turned on his heel and hurried back to his lab to die of embarrassment or until he flat out passed out from shame, he knew it. “How do they know?” He managed to whisper, not really asking Will.
Will pulled on his friends arm and got him moving. “They’re Avalon, we’re nosy bastards. Secrets tend to get out around us, I’m sorry.”
“What’s everyone doing here?” Ichi managed to ask when Will dragged him into the storage room. The large doors were open and the tube connected Harvick’s ship’s main hold to their storage hold cast a pinkish glow to that corner of the large room.
“Hush, we all known.” Amanda smiled. “Open it up, Ichi, we want to see.” A chorus of agreement followed.
“But, it’s nothing…” he tried to lie and knew it sounded like a lie. Besides, they had an uncanny knack at knowing when people were lying.
“Aw, I told them Ichi.” Harvick nodded, looking proud.
“Here, look.” Harvick moved forward pushing buttons on his notebook as he went. He set it down and it projected a message upwards.
It was the same generic woman that illustrated PETS promotional brochures. She flickered a little and solidified into a slightly glowing and very fake looking spokeswoman. “Congratulations–” There was a pause, just a fraction too long, making it pretty clear that the message was generic and the specifics were simply plugged in. “Kenichi Vitorui of–” Another half-beat, too long pause. “Avalon Station S14592.” Her fake smile broadened as she stared off to a point a good distance from where Ichi actually stood. “You’ve been randomly selected to receive a free upgrade. From time to time, here at PETS Companion division, one of our Living Companion models doesn’t quite meet our expectations. When this occurs, if it’s at all possible and compatible, we upgrade special clients like you–” A half beat too long pause. “Kenichi Vitorui, from a standard doll to a real Living Companion.”
She smiled wider. “We’re certain you’ll have a grand time with your new Living Companion. You’ll find included a full instruction manual on care and training of your new Pet as well as a complimentary six month supply of nutritionally complete kibble. The shipment crate converts easily into a housing crate for your newest Pet and makes a convenient bed. If you have any questions, our technical support line is open to inquiries at any time and we’d be happy to assist you. Again, congratulations and we hope you enjoy your free upgrade.” She smiled for a second longer before the projected message clicked off and disappeared.
The room broke out in excited conversation again and Ichi just turned to go. Will caught his arm and kept him from going more than a few steps. “Want me to just kill you now?” Will teased.
“Don’t tempt me.” He drew a breath and turned back to the waiting group.
“Open it Ichi!” someone called out.
“No, no one is opening it! Captain, please, there’s been a mistake.”
He glanced to his files. “You didn’t order a customized doll companion from PETS?”
“I, well, yes, I did, but that was a mistake too. I don’t want this.” He pointed to the boxes sitting, still sealed, nearby. “Send it back.”
“Can’t do that.”
“Of course you can, I’ll pay the transport, just take it away.”
“Ichi…” Amanda spoke softly from where she knelt near one of the boxes.
“No,” he snapped back to her. “It’s going back.”
“We have to open it.”
“No, we don’t.” He met her eye and stopped. It wasn’t idle curiosity there, or even cruel teasing, but real concern. “Why?”
“The date, this pet’s been in storage for forty three days.”
The conversations and whispering stopped and even Ichi paused. His rats had a longer shelf life, six months or more in gel storage, but they had no complex neural tissue and they were rats. For larger life forms, say, something as complex and large as a human, even an altered human, the longest they could safely stay in gel storage without a break was supposed to be twenty nine days.
“You didn’t take it out?” Will snapped at Harvick. Somewhere along the lines of shipping the pet should have taken it out of storage at least for a few hours before putting it back in.
Harvick shook his head. “I just transport, that should have been done at one of the weigh stations.”
All eyes turned to Ichi and he shook his head. “Open it.”