The box was a little more complicated than the cylinders his rats came in. Ichi knew to step aside and let Will and Amanda, both medical doctors, figure out the complex series of latches and locks. After a moment where they all stood tense, near to Ichi but not close to him, the box began to cycle open. The gel that had supported and stilled the life inside began to evaporate as it came in contact with the air outside of the sealed container, and the sheer volume of it created a very dramatic swirl of mist and filled the cargo hold with the smell of sharp chemicals covered with the added scent of fresh pine.
Putting his shoulder to the side of the door that had slid open, but not free, Will shoved against it to force it open. It unsealed all the way and swung off the crate, falling in a loud tumble to the floor. An extra billowing cloud of mist swirled out and someone behind Ichi sneezed.
“Is it alive?” Amanda asked from the side of the crate, but Will just stared into the rapidly drying interior. “Will?”
Movement inside caught every eye. A hand smacked out and caught the edge of the crate and a bare foot shuffled forward. The pet stumbled forward, squinting under the cargo hold’s lights but alive and moving and as it stepped out of the shadows of the crate, nude and very obviously male.
Ichi stood, stunned, as a creature from his dirtiest, deepest, most hidden of fantasy realms stepped into the ordinary and very every day world of his stations cargo hold. Taller than he was but not overly tall, maybe five-ten at most, and entirely long, lean muscle from head to foot. Even dazed, in obvious shock, the pet moved with a jaw dropping grace. His skin was pale, milk pale, ivory pale, treasured fine china pale. The face was heart shaped, with cheekbones high enough to offset the strong chin and lips expressive without being soft. A straight, obvious nose was centered between sharp eyes. Eyes were the color of storm clouds, such a metal gray shade that they pulled all attention right to them. His hair was drying from the gel and clung in long tendrils to his body, it reached almost to his waist in the back but it was deep, black cherry red. Not the orange pumpkin red of Amanda or even a reddish auburn brown but a dark, blood, brick red.
The pet took one unsteady step forward, and than another. His eyes locked onto Ichi’s and he froze. The look sent a thousand shivers across Ichi’s body and made his face flush a red nearly as dark as the pet’s hair. The pet shivered too, convulsed and fell dead forward like a fallen tree.
He hit the deck hard with nothing to break his impact and the crowd gasped. Ichi stood silent and startled as the pet so close to his feet started to have seizures. If the pet had six legs instead of two, he would have instantly had some idea what to do. Since he was human, he stayed out of the way and tried to pretend he was invisible.
“Mark! Help!” Amanda called out as both she and Will fell on the twitching creature on the ground.
One of the other researchers pushed past Ichi and joined the pair. “Over forty days, what’s he doing alive?”
“Pets aren’t people,” Will reminded them. “Help me get him to the med lab.”
The group of people easily lifted the pet and they gossiped and chatted and nudged each other along as the entire crowd followed behind Amanda, Will and Mark to the med lab. Ichi didn’t move, found he couldn’t move, and it took a long time for the silence to sink in and tell him he’d been left behind, alone and forgotten in the cargo hold.
His hands were shaking. “Oh my god,” He whispered into the silence and sat down, hard, onto the cold deck floor.
Ichi wasn’t sure how long he sat there but eventually curiosity got the better of him. He picked himself up and dusted his pants off before leaving the cargo hold. He took the turns of the hallways without thought and the door opened before him.
His hands stopped shaking. “Tuk tuk tuk, tuk tuk tuk.” He clucked but his swarm was too busy weaving their nest to notice. Safe inside his lab again, back in the world he could make sense of, he felt his shoulder’s unknotting. He eased himself back into his chair and just sat and watched his beetles.
Hours passed and the nest slowly grew. Soon his beetles were scuttling over their handiwork, inspecting it, tugging on loose fibers, giving it a very careful final inspection like he’d never witnessed before. Once they were satisfied with their work, they formed a fire brigade and passed one egg from beetle to beetle. The first one in line quickly scurried to the front and so the chain moved the egg toward its place in the nest. He smiled at seeing how each beetle turned the egg carefully, how their antennae caressed the smooth gray surface with almost-tenderness.
“That’s it, careful now,” he whispered to them, encouraging the awe-inspiring sight he was the first human to see. Well, the first human that had lived to report seeing anyway.
Beside him his notebook beeped at him and Will’s face appeared. “Ichi?”
“We need you to come down here to the med lab.”
“Alright.” He sighed and pushed the off button on his notebook. Four of the six eggs had been safely transported, it wouldn’t do any harm to wait and watch the last two get moved.
The med lab was the size of his own research lab. It could supposedly handle nearly any medical emergency that got tossed their way, but Ichi hoped he’d never have to test that theory. There were only two beds and in a mass illness or injury most of the station members were to be housed in their own apartments. Normally both beds were empty and, other than a run of colds or the occasional flu, the station had little use for the medical facilities. A few bumped heads at parties, a turned ankle on occasion from a clumsy step, but never really anything of serious note. In fact, he hadn’t set foot in the lab since last year’s physicals and he counted himself lucky for that.
“Where have you been?” Will scolded and stopped pacing the room as soon as the door opened.
“You just called, I came as soon as I could.” Amanda sat reading files, pointedly not looking at him or her husband. The lab’s only other occupant was the pet, curled up loosely on his side on one of the med beds, apparently asleep.
“That was over a half hour ago, Ichi.”
It hadn’t felt that long. “I came as soon as I could.”
Amanda held up a hand. “That doesn’t matter. Ichi, sit, there’s a lot you need to know.” She caught her husband’s wrist as he paced by. “And you as well, if you don’t sit and settle down I will sedate you.”
Will stopped his nervous pacing and drew a long slow breath. “I’m sorry, it’s just, everyone is so ugh.” He made a face and tried to shuck off the nervous, excited tension that their new arrival had brought with him. “I’m trying,” he muttered and dropped himself into a chair.
Ichi’s eyes had scanned the room and stopped on the sleeping pet. His face was slack now in sleep and there was still strength in it. Someone had twisted the thick tail of dark red hair back and tied it in place and it curled in a solid rope across pale skin. There was something magnetic about the pet, and it wasn’t an entirely comfortable something.
“Ichi, sit.” Amanda spoke and broke into the entomologist’s thoughts.
He nodded and pulled a chair over to where his friends sat, waiting. “Yes? I’m sorry, it’s just, my swarm, they’ve built a nest. There’s no indication that they nest in the slightest and yet it’s amazingly complex and when they’d finished–”
“I’m sure it’s fascinating.” She cut in with a small smile, knowing if allowed Ichi would ramble for hours about his bugs. “There’s a lot you need to know before you take your pet home.”
“Before I–what?” He tilted his head a little, certain he’d misheard what she said.
“Before you take him home.”
He glanced to the sleeping form and back to Amanda’s wide eyes. “I’m not taking that thing anywhere. I don’t want it.” It, it was so much better to think of the pet as an ‘it’ and not a ‘he’.
“He’s yours, you own him.”
“I don’t want it. You two keep wavering on having a child, so start out with a pet. I’ve heard every couple should raise a dog or something before they have a child.” He waved in the general direction of the medical beds. “Feel free.”
Amanda’s face grew serious. “Ichi, he belongs to you. He’s your responsibility.”
“One I didn’t ask for. I’m not good with pets, I’m sure Will’s told you, I had a cat as a child that hated me.”
“He’s made to be the companion to another man, Ichi. He’s never going to be happy being owned by a heterosexual man or a woman and, since you’re the only gay man on this station, you can’t pawn that poor creature off to someone else.” She looked to Will for support but her husband was still twitchy and she knew the look on his face, he was slowly pulling himself together. That meant until he was more stable, she was on her own.
“What does that mean, it’s ridiculous. A dog wouldn’t care about the gender or preferences of its owner.”
“PETS Living Companions aren’t dogs and they aren’t cats. Yes, the base of their genetic code is human, but they’re not human. They’re brains are built from the ground up differently. They aren’t self aware, they aren’t conscious, they don’t have human emotions, and they’re not capable of human speech. They’re just barely smart enough to be trainable, like a dog, a rather stupid one at that. What’s more, they make them for specific functions, they’re built from their DNA up for this function.” She punched buttons on her panel and brought up files.
“I’m not sure I like where this is going.”
“You don’t need to like it. This pet was built to be the sexual companion to another man, end of story, bottom line. Someone put a lot of time and effort, not to mention money, to customize this pet for that function. His nerve endings are double terminated.”
Ichi frowned. “Meaning?”
“Meaning he’s made to respond twice as strongly to touch. His libido? In theory is doubled or tripled from a base line human standard. He’s been built to have a docile, pleasing personality. This pet wasn’t created to be someone’s doll or toy or as a platonic companion, he was created from the ground up to be someone’s sexual companion.” She half-pitied Ichi, the man was blushing and obviously flustered at the very idea.
“None of that means he was meant just for another man.” But he thought about the curve of the pet’s shoulder, the lean muscle, the way the deltoid tapered to a point on his arm, and he couldn’t chase the thought away.
“Ichi, he’s a rejected pet because the person that paid to commission certain specifications didn’t get what he wanted. One of the modifications that wasn’t successful was a self lubricating anus, now you tell me if I’m assuming the wrong thing.”
He dropped his face into his hands and rubbed his eyes, hoping maybe this was some odd dream he was about to wake up from. “That’s not a funny joke.”
“I’m not laughing. It’s all right here, a list of requested specific modifications and some are marked as failed and some unknown. Hair color, eye color, neither took exactly the right color, the self lube seems a touch odd but it’s not a difficult concept, simple implantation of specialized goblet cells, but his body rejected them. The double terminated nerve endings are a difficult modification and that one took. Even his hair length was specified, and for most of it he passed fine, but when your client is willing to spend more than this station does in a year to buy a new toy, he expects perfection. One failure rejects the whole pet.” It was beautiful in the sheer scientific perfection of the creation of these companions, and if she was slightly less ethical she’d admire them. As it was, it smelled too much like slavery to her, even if she knew that what was sat in the handsome pet’s skull bore no resemblance to a human brain.
“So, how is this my fault? Why can’t we pack it back up and send it back?”
“For one, he can’t go back into the gel for a while. I know Pets are supposed to be hardier than a human but, frankly, I’ve no idea how he survived so long in storage. For another, if one of their free upgrade Pets get returned they don’t shuffle them to another free upgrade winner. Apparently these upgrades are fairly rare, if the winner rejects the pet, the pet is assumed to be unforgivably flawed and is liquidated.”
“Killed?” Ichi couldn’t help it, he glanced to the sleeping form and the idea of something so handsome, so graceful and lean, being liquidated pained him. He really was a work of art and some gene designer had gone above and beyond the call of duty to make him.
“Killed. Self-aware or not, that’s a living creature. You may not have asked for this but neither did he ask to be dissolved for spare genetic material.”
Ichi slouched back into his chair. “Okay, okay, I’m not that inhuman. Just explain to me why it has to stay with me. Why can’t we get it, I don’t know, its own room or something.”
“You never had a dog.” She sighed. “What were you? Raised in a lab?”
“Well, yes,” he answered.
Amanda glanced to Will and he shrugged, not sure himself if Ichi was kidding or being honest. The dark haired man had a very dry sense of humor and he’d never spoken of his childhood or home life before. “That’s a joke right?”
Ichi just shook his head, a little surprised at the reaction. “No.”
The look that passed between the married couple was softer this time and again Will just shrugged before Amanda took them back to the topic at hand. “It doesn’t matter, just, he’s a lot like a dog. He’s a social creature. Even if we put him in a room and you gave him food and water and he was physically taken care of, he’d be miserable. We’d be better off sending him back to be liquidated.”
“Fine but why does it have to be me?”
She sighed and looked to Will and he shook his head before answering. “Look, Ichi, he’s a super-charged, horny sex machine in a human shape attuned to men. Every other man here is straight. You’re cute and our friend and none of us have wanted to get it on with you, how awkward do you think it would be for one of us to have that pet trying to fulfill his function with us?”
Ichi blushed again, wondered idly if a person could die from blushing too much and couldn’t meet either of his friend’s eyes. “What makes you think it would be any less awkward for me?”
“Goddess sake, Ichi, this is a gift! Right here is a creature made specifically to be a sexual partner to those that can’t afford the time of a relationship. He’s attractive, I know you think he is, he’s made to be your lover and you’re having second thoughts?” Will shook his head. “You’ve been hanging out with bugs too long, my friend.”
“But, I’d be taking advantage…”
“He’s not human!” Will retorted but Amanda put her hand on her husband’s arm and leaned toward their friend.
“No one is saying you have to do anything with him. Just feed him, be social toward him, make sure he’s taken care of like any good owner should. He’s trainable, if you don’t want him coming on to you, I’m sure you can train him not to.”
That made logical sense but he sat and tried to think of a logical debate against it. When none emerged he nodded. “Alright, you win, at least until I can think of a better solution.”
Amanda let go of the breath she hadn’t know she was holding. “Good. Now, I’ve sent his care instructions to your home system. He’s housetrained, and he knows several commands. You’re only supposed to feed him the provided kibble and it’s considered bad for discipline to let him sleep in your bed. Mark and Henry were putting his crate together and they said they’d drop it by your rooms tonight.”
“Ichi, this is serious.”
“I’m the one with a pet that looks like a man, I think I understand how serious this is.”
She sighed. “He’s a little sick right now, and disoriented, so he’s out of sorts and might be for a couple of days. I don’t know how he survived being in storage for so long but it’s going to take him time to recover. Also, you’re going to need to think of a name for him.”
“He didn’t come with one. You’ll have to name him. Anna wanted to call him Fluffy, so pick one quickly before something stupid like that sticks. And, he came with a set of kilt-like skirts, apparently that’s standard dress for Pets. We got him into one here so he’s ready to go.”
“Now, I’ve work to do, can you take your pet home so I can get to it?”
He opened his mouth to protest about his beetles and their nest but the look in her eyes was stubborn. She wasn’t just his friend, she was technically in charge of the entire station. “Of course.” He surrendered.
“Good.” She smiled now and stood up. At the side of the medical bed she brushed back loose threads of dark red. “Hey there pretty boy, wake up now, thata boy, wake up.”
The gray eyes fluttered and squinted open. A slender hand rose up to rub at his face and he half sat up. Those dazed, amazing, eyes slid from Amanda to Ichi and they widened in some quickly hidden emotion before a yawn split the handsome face.
“That’s unnerving.” Ichi found himself whispering. “Can it, he, understand us?”
Amanda shook her head. “No, his brain isn’t built that way. Like a dog, he’ll know only that the sound of his command word means to do a certain action, and like a dog he should respond to tone.” She produced a slender silver silk rope from beside the bed and offered one end to the pet and his hand wrapped around it. “His leash.” She offered the other end to Ichi and he took it carefully. “They recommend you use it until he figures out who his owner is.”
“And walk, he’ll follow.”
“Just like that? He’ll hold on to his end and follow?”
She nodded. “He’s trained, remember? This isn’t just a pet, someone spent a lot of money making him a very high end pet. Now, take him home, let Mark and Henry help you get his crate in place, feed him, name him and let him get some rest.”
Experimentally, Ichi took a step or two back until the cord between himself and the handsome pet was tight. The pet slid from the medical table with graceful ease and landed softly on bare feet. His head automatically bowed, his eyes downcast but his grip on the rope was strong.
“This is wrong on so many levels.”
“Read the files on him, once you study the science behind it, you’ll see Pets only look like people.” She tried to smile but her belief wasn’t as firm as Will’s.
“Okay.” He took a small step toward the door and the pet mirrored it. Still shaking his head, he led his newest pet out into the hallway. He followed always at the same distance, always with his head down. It made Ichi uncomfortable beyond words but he led the creature back to his own apartment of rooms, one careful step at a time.