The dream of leaving the Advanced Nations behind disappeared as soon as Gromov and his crew commenced readying the spaceship for departure.
The old owner Luciano had very unorthodox views on what the long space journey required: the only food available were different kinds of pasta and spicy sauces, not to speak about the storage room dedicated only to shelves with the vine.
“That rotten bastard!”
In permanent awe, Gromov went through the list of “necessities” that he had inherited. “What has he been doing all the time? Painting sexbombs, drinking Chardonnay, and listening to opera?”
“Dear Luciano told me he was the man of the world,” explained the doll enthusiastically. Right now, since Gromov asked her to help him with some administrative tasks, she was wearing a grey business-like costume, high-heeled shoes, and a white, almost unbuttoned shirt, from which her enormous bosoms threatened to slide out anytime she moved.
Since she had been asked to work as a secretary, the internal AI prompted her to put on black-framed glasses. Flashing vivid red nail polish, she kept pushing them up with her index finger.
Beside her stood distracted Uriah, who had been peeking non-stop towards her chest area, leaning over the android like a cracked tree. All of this made Gromov awfully nervous.
“Uriah,” he said finally. “Leave Doll alone, come over here and sit down before you fall down. We need to talk.”
After the system notification, the artificial woman raised her head. “Is Doll my new name? What a lovely name! Thank you very much, Captain Gromov. Doll is happy.”
"If you want to make Doll even happier, what about buying her new underwear? Would you like to check the latest offer from SexySexyLadies?"
Suddenly, the Doll's voice seemed to belong to a different woman; it deepened and wore promising undertones.
"No. And stop acting like a living advertisement!"
The lady hidden in Doll's body continued: "Do you wish to stop receiving promotional notices?"
"SexySexyLadies respect your wishes. Do you agree to send your personal anonymized data to our commercial department?"
Gromov glared at her in utter disbelief. "Do you track your clients' activities? With sex toys?" he asked.
"Yes, it helps to improve SexySexyLadies' services. SexySexyLadies' mission is to deliver top-notch products to our customers. Do not worry, though; your data are properly anonymized, Captain Gromov."
"That's reassuring. Still no, leave my data be."
"A pity. If you change..."
"Shut up! Pay attention to the task I'd assigned to you. I need you to check all items of cargo and verify if we have everything that the people from Rusty Asteroids ordered. It is not my fault that the old degenerate left me such a mess."
"As you wish, you brute."
Picking up from learned behavior patterns, the Doll's AI concluded it was the right time for sulking. Hence, the android resentfully pursed her lips and sat behind the captain's table to continue her work.
Such an act almost made Gromov apologize; for a moment, he considered purchasing the underwear to remedy his blunder.
"Am I brainless or what?"
Once he realized that the AI almost tricked him into spending money for nothing, he howled. There were stories of men who had ruined themselves because of these things, but Gromov dismissed them as exaggerated nonsense. Now he knew better.
"Well played, GreedyGreedyLadies," he mumbled and turned his attention to Uriah. "Now, on a serious note. Yesterday you went to the ship medical center. The results are not good. In fact, they are over critical limits in many cases. Do you want to see them for yourself?"
"No, sir. No need. I knew I would not last any longer. The last days my state has been worsening."
"Correct,” Gromov nodded. “Eventually, your organism will collapse. This ship has only basic medical equipment, not to mention the fact that the most qualified physician is our Doll over there. Since I verified there was no arrest warrant on your person, I strongly suggest you giving up on your heroic future and visiting the nearest hospital. If money is the problem, I can pay the bill for you."
Uriah, who had trouble moving since the artificial gravitational field had been re-established, tried to stand up, then he sat back, and to Gromov's horror, began to cry.
"Don't tell me he is another one who wants to squeeze new underwear out of me," Gromov thought, feeling embarrassed. The last time he saw a grown man crying was at SF Academy twenty years ago.
"Look, Uriah," he continued. "You'll be fine. See, I will arrange medical treatment for you."
"No, sir. I'm not crying because I am afraid to die."
"It certainly looks this way," Gromov pondered silently.
"I’m crying because you are such a noble person. Dying in your company will be an honor.”
Not particularly happy about having the uninvited guest on board, Gromov would move heavens to get rid of Uriah. Still, Uriah insisted on staying with him until the bitter end.
“Don’t cause troubles for me, you self-obsessed piece of garbage,” Gromov wanted to say - only to realize he was too soft-hearted to throw that at Uriah. “You will probably die if you stay here. But it’s your choice.”
“I understand, sir. Very kind of you.”
“The reason why I am willing to let you stay here is simple,” Gromov went on. “I’ve glanced through the downloaded materials you had given to me. Since I cannot dwell further in blissful ignorance, I have to undertake some actions, no matter how reluctant I feel about that.”
Gromov had a headache when inspecting the private letters of the Space Forces’ higher echelons. The more he dived into their affairs, the more he realized that those people were hardly qualified for their jobs. Corruption did not enrage Gromov as much as blatant incompetency.
A few minutes passed on.
“Sir, the lives of your comrades are at stake,” Uriah spoke up cautiously.
“This is hardly unusual for SF pilots and gunners,” barked Gromov. “I don’t need someone like you to remind me of that.”
“So what do you hesitate for, sir?”
“Why, indeed! All the activists out there with no brain cells left would know what to do, right? Call journalist, eager to get their sensation. Call the opposition, eager to smash their rivals. Or perhaps I should establish a civic movement? #OneForAll sounds legit, doesn’t it? A brave hero comes to the rescue. Make Gromov the president!”
“What’s wrong with that, sir? It’s the right thing to do.”
“Is it? With Plantarians coming, do you think the best thing we can do is to put the damned planet into turmoil, completely dismantling the whole system? In the hope that the resulting chaos will bloom into blossoms of a fairer future? Ha, Andrey would love that part. Bloom into blossoms of a fairer future.”
“What is it, Uriah?"
"May I express my opinion, sir? Won't you get angry with me?”
“Aren’t you a little selfish, sir? I mean, it feels like you don’t want to trouble yourself.”
Being at a loss for words, astonished Gromov glared at Uriah, the very symbol of reckless selfishness. “Did you understand the gist of what I tried to explain?” he asked through gritted teeth. “Of course, I don’t want to trouble myself, especially with given outcomes.”
“What outcomes, sir?”
“In the best case, nothing except for faces will change. In the worst case, the Plantarians will subdue the whole planet.”
“Are you sure?”
“Not at all. In hindsight, the Plantarians’ invasion might be the better alternative. If you ask me, humans are overrated species.”
“With all possible respect, sir. If everyone thought alike, there would be no progress.”
“And what makes you believe, Uriah, there was any progress from the start? Now kindly shut up, or I’ll change my mind.”
After that, Uriah had no courage to talk back any further.
Suddenly, Gromov grinned maliciously. “They say that a discussion is necessary for solving problems. In our case, the positive result is I suppressed all my urge to strangle you, Uriah. Surprisingly enough, your mindless, naïve blabbering reminded me of someone.”
Uriah’s question had an undertone of jealousy.
“No, just another idiot… Doll! Doll!”
Since her task involved virtual checkings, the AI switched off body functions, so she turned into a rigid statue. It took some time before the android raised her head and responded with a captivating smile.
“Isn’t she far too perfect?” Gromov contemplated. Except for the moment when she stopped breathing, no one can distinguish between her and real humans. In fact, people could hardly compete with her, especially when it came to capability.
In playing chess and maintaining the ship or whatever else, she overshadowed Gromov in all possible aspects, but still, she was a servant and he was a master. His only complaints originated from the behavioral patterns which mimicked living people. If not for them, she would be a masterpiece, uncomparable to the unsightly presence of her creators.
This was for the first time in Gromov’s life when he had encountered someone who surpassed him so much. Granted, Doll had access to the vast data network, and she did not understand the word she said; still, by chatting to her, no one could tell she was not a self-aware creature.
After a while, the AI concluded the silence had been awkward.
“Captain Gromov?” Doll spoke up. “You were staring at me for two minutes and twenty-one seconds. If you find my face lacking, what about buying a new model from SexySexyLadies?”
“I thought I forbid you to advertise stuff.”
“I only mentioned the possibility. We do everything to make our customers satisfied.”
“Forget it. Can you search up and contact a person for me?”
“I can. For your convenience, I need you to grant me access to your social networks’ accounts.”
“Granted,” Gromov sneered. “I have no social networks’ accounts to start with.”
“Prepare to be surprised, sir,” mumbled Uriah.
Out of the blue, Doll started reciting a long list of portals to which Gromov had ever signed for. Not only did she scrutinize his email contacts, but she connected into the communication wristband, commenting on the endless queue of people who had been trying to call Gromov recently.
In a few moments, she conquered complete Gromov’s online existence, discarding unwanted messages and highlighting those which needed Gromov’s attention. The majority came from newspapers and publishing companies.
“The public need to know more about you,” she quoted one of them. “Are you interested in writing a biography, Captain Gromov?”
“Tell them I am the most boring chap under the Sun. There is nothing to write about.”
“Will you marry me?”
“This is a persistent question in your emails. Would you like to see photos of those ladies and gentlemen to consider their proposals? Several of them included very intimate pictures.”
“It is so nice to be popular, sir.”
For an unknown reason, Uriah took a pillow from under his head and covered his face, his shoulders shaking violently.
Gromov ignored him. “You have my permission to send them the latest offer from SexySexyLadies.”
“Would you like to create a referral link, Captain Gromov? You will get a provision from each closed transaction.”
“Wait for a second…”
Gromov left the cabin and started banging the wall with his forehead. After he came back, Uriah was on the floor, painfully gasping for breath.
“Are you alright, you moron?”
“Sorry, sir. Can’t stop laughing. Can I see those pictures, sir?”
“You wish! This is not a laughing matter at all. If anything, it only proves how rotten is this damned society. Doll, delete everything related to marriage or biography. I’m too old for the former and too young for the latter.”
“One thousand and seventy-four messages deleted. Anything else, Captain Gromov?”
“Now I need you to find and call certain Lieutenant Schubert, Heinrich Schubert to be precise. Is it a problem?”
“Not at all. In the last three days, Heinrich Schubert has sent you several urgent emails. Would you like to call him now?”
With a pinch of guilt, Gromov realized he deliberately avoided everyone since they had released him from the detention cell. The detachment from reality provided by the spaceship suited him fine, and he was reluctant to change anything.
“Alright. Call the lieutenant, Doll.”
“As you wish. Which number do you prefer from the given options? The first is…”
“Just pick up the first available number, Doll.”
“As you wish. Would you like to switch to HMV?”
“Whatever. What is it, anyway? His Majesty’s voice?”
“The HMV stands for Holographic Mode Visuals, Captain Gromov.”
“Oh crap, that filthy rich bastard Luciano. What was he? A smuggler?”
After considering the measly money Gromov had paid for the spaceship, the luxurious accessories like an automatized medical center, a high-end android, or now, the HMW, would probably double the price if Gromov had decided to sell it.
If Uriah Uriah, playing the ghost and breaching safety audits, was the only reason why Cecil Shanks gave Gromov such a discount, then Gromov could not help having warm, paternal feelings towards the script kiddie.
“What is it, sir?”
Uriah was startled by Gromov’s tender stare. He had already learned that the captain’s attention was never good.
“Nothing, son, just take you rest. And you, Doll, call Lieutenant Schubert.”
Born in the Czech Republic, Pavel Morava is not a native English speaker. Having been twenty-two years old, he published his first book, which did not become an international bestseller. After a few other attempts, Pavel Morava abandoned the literary career for over twenty years, during which period he has been focusing on processing of plastics, programming, and raising of children.
Recently, with more time at his disposal, he returned to the forgotten ambition, fighting a futile battle with English language, procrastination, and the tendency to give up too early.
Being vivid reader of not Anglo-Saxon origin, Pavel Morava was fortunate enough to experience books from different countries, including Czech, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, French, German, and English. Such a vast literary variety heavily influenced his own work, which typically relies on an one-point-of-view narrative, consecutive storytelling, and elimination of unnecessary details.
Web novels and online publishing made him reevaluate his approach to style and building blocks of the text; the result should be, hopefully, lighter, shorter, and more intelligible for reading on electronic devices.