Heroes & Ghosts Chapter 2

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.

“Will.”

“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.”

“You  promise?”

“I  promise.”

 

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.

“You  what?”

“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.”

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