Cowan opened his eyes in a square room with bamboo walls. A paper door framed by light-colored wood bore an impression of a Japanese dragon. The floor was soft gray tatami mats, their crosshatched texture as convincing as any he had ever seen, and paper lanterns hung in each corner, glowing with candle light. Outside, trees rustled.
He glanced down at his body, which wasn’t his body, and gawked. He was wearing a beautiful pink and white kimono with embossed flowers. It fell open at his neck, but that wasn’t what made his eyes pop wide. It was the two huge breasts rising from his chest.
“Enjoying the view?” Sonne asked. Her voice had an odd echo to it.
Cowan jumped up as she appeared behind him, as a muscular man in samurai armor. Her helmet was red with slanted eyes, flared nostrils, and teeth that leered like he’d expect. The hilts of two swords jutted from her hips, one sheathe shorter than the other.
Cowan touched his head and found long hair bound into a clump with giant needles. He had no sword, no armor, and when he stood, his elevated sandals made him wobble. This wasn’t really the best avatar for chasing a dangerous troll through a pleasurebox.
“Why am I wearing a geisha avatar?” Cowan’s own voice echoed as well, like it was coming through a long tube, and that assured him he and Sonne were speaking on an administrator channel. No one in here could see their lips move or hear them talk.
“We’re disguised as NPCs!” Sonne marched past him, armor clanking like a pile of sticks. “This pleasurebox is occupied, by my client and your troll, and if either figures out we’re admins, they might disconnect before we can catch them.”
Using the avatars of existing non-player characters made sense. “I get that, but why not—”
“If my client sees people he doesn’t know in here, he’ll panic. Can’t have him panicking when he can’t disconnect.”
Cowan had boobs now. “But can’t you—”
“My samurai never patrol together, so we can’t both be samurai, can we?” She slid the paper door aside. “And while my geisha do travel together, then I wouldn’t have any swords.”
This was about the stunner thing. “You know I didn’t—”
“Give ‘em a squeeze if you want. I won’t judge.” Sonne left the door open and stalked out of sight. “But move that perky little ass! We’ve got a troll to slay.”
Sonne already had a head start, and she knew her pleasureboxes way better than he did. Best not press his luck. Cowan followed her outside, careful not to trip in his ridiculous sandals. The world beyond was just as impressive as the room.
Sonne had modeled an entire Japanese house with long wooden walkways lit by paper lanterns. Pictures of geisha, birds, and dragons adorned its paper walls, and freshly made spirals filled the rock garden beside the house. It was gorgeous.
Despite all the advances in photogrammetry, pleasureboxes didn’t build themselves. While it was simplistic to record and transfer the signals firing inside human brains, each brain processed those signals differently. Artists had to create computer generated environments for PBAs to project inside a user’s head, so everyone saw the same thing.
Cowan hurried after Sonne — at least, as much as he could hurry in these sandals — and walked behind her at a wobbly pace. “How long did it take you to model this?”
“A few weeks, I guess?” Sonne marched along the wooden walkway with her armor clacking away. “I didn’t model the pebbles. I just modeled one pebble and cloned it using a looping script to randomize the size, dimples, and orientation.”
“So there’s only one model loaded in the client’s PBA.” Cowan knew PBAs could only render so much visual data without causing noticeable corruption in the worldspace. “Good compromise.”
“Glad you think so! But keep walking, please. I’ve set my geisha to wander off the path every so often, but they never gawk at anything for long.”
Cowan blinked as a gentle wind caressed his skin — a subtle but effective piece of simulation — and a forest of bamboo stalks swayed beyond the paper lantern light. The air smelled like rain and grass and flowers. His sandals clopped audibly, wood on wood.
“My tracer’s out at the edge of the pleasurebox,” Sonne said, her voice still isolated to their private channel, “by the hot springs. Porting would assure anyone watching we’re actually admins, so we’ve got a bit of a walk.”
They passed another geisha, a simulated entity identical in appearance to Cowan. She respectfully lowered her head, and Cowan remembered to do the same. He was supposed to be an NPC, after all. “I still don’t understand why you modeled all this.”
Sonne didn’t look back. “What don’t you understand?”
“It’s great. I mean, I could spend hours here. But do you really need a simulation this big so your clients can hook up with their waifus? There’s not a lot involved.”
“That’s because you’re accustomed to inferior product. That’s what so many waifu parlors get wrong.”
That sounded interesting. “How so?”
“You can get cheap simsex anywhere. I could point you to hundreds of virtual dolls you could down and fuck silly tonight. It gets old fast.”
She was right — Cowan knew from experience — but he wasn’t going to admit that out loud. One board creaked as he stepped on it, one among others that didn’t, and that was another subtle touch. Sonne really did have a knack for worldbuilding.
“What keeps you coming back,” Sonne said, “is the emotional connection you form here. My clients love their waifus.”
“Seriously?” That was actually kind of sad. “How do you fall in love with a VI?”
“You meet one that’s convincing enough. My girls are all VI, not self-aware by any means, but they’d still ace the Turing test. My waifus adore their clients, and my clients adore them back. That’s my hook. That’s what keeps you coming back.”
“Your VIs are that convincing?” Was she boasting? “Why waste that on prostitution?”
Sonne’s shoulders squared. “You going to moralize at me now?”
“No, I’d never do that. It just seems overcomplicated.”
“Let me tell you why it’s not.” They stepped off the edge of the wooden platform and walked a path of white stones on black dirt. “Trafficking.”
“Our vaunted Office of Mental Health would love everyone to believe no one gets trafficked anymore, that our clear circuit paradise has no place for girls forced into sexual slavery. All they do is suppress the news. I give johns an alternative.”
Cowan felt a pit open in his stomach. “These men are into sex trafficking?”
“I really hope not. Yet anyone can rationalize, convince themselves a woman wants it, likes it, no matter the fear in her eyes. I’ll build a dozen pleasureboxes to keep horny dudes satisfied if it stops one real person from getting raped.”
Cowan respected the passion in Sonne’s voice. Ellen had that passion too, before he made her erase her brain. Sonne shared Ellen’s determination to make the world better.
“My waifus can’t really experience fear, or guilt, or pain,” Sonne continued. “They’re just simulations, and simulations don’t cry themselves to sleep at night. And if any of my clients does do something a real woman wouldn’t like, I report them.”
“I get it,” Cowan said.
“Do you?” Her voice had an edge to it.
“Yes. I’d never thought about it until you explained things, but the reasons you’re doing this makes sense. And even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be any of my business.”
“Glad you think so.” She didn’t stop walking.
He’d probably just insulted her, again, but he’d done a pretty piss poor job of gaining her trust already. What was one more misstep? He popped an admin screen.
Options for time of day, gravity, and avatar pain threshold appeared, among dozens of others. He pulled a client list for this pleasurebox and verified he and Sonne were in Admin mode. He doubted Sonne would lie, but he should have checked sooner.
His query returned three users, the two of them and Carl Jennings. There was no troll, and there was no Jeb. Only admins could hide themselves from other admins, which suggested their troll was in admin mode as well. That wasn’t comforting.
Her admin menu offered no guns, just a dagger, wakasashi, and samurai sword. Cowan wondered if he could even swing that sword with these water balloons strapped to his chest. Still, the sword had the highest attack power and an enchantment against spirits, so he’d summon that first if they got attacked.
They approached a forest of rustling bamboo lit by a full moon with a hint of yellow to it. Cowan considered all the tricks this troll could be using to enter this pleasurebox without appearing on the user list, and then he had a thought. “Sonne, one question.”
“Question away.” If she was still pissed at him, she hid it well.
“When we were first discussing how that external signal invaded your simBeds … before Jeb got locked down … you said you thought a competitor might have drilled in and patched into your hardline.”
“So who are your neighbors?”
Her samurai alter ego stood before the bamboo forest as if searching for ninja. “The parlor next door caters to shooters, running boxes like StrikeForceGo and DropForce. They do all right, but most of the gun nerds play from home these days.”
“What about the other side?”
“That’s History in Motion.”
“Is that as boring as it sounds?”
Sonne actually laughed at that. “Historical recreations of presidential inaugurations and the Mars landing don’t really pay the bills.” She moved her armored head left and right, making a show of looking for simulated invaders. “So you think—”
“Wouldn’t it be perfect? Someone could break into History in Motion, drill into the walls, and patch into your lines. We know our troll is in this pleasurebox, but they don’t show on your roster.”
“Which would happen if they’re accessing this pleasurebox, but not registered with my suite’s overlord VI. They’re registered next door.” Sonne turned on him. “Shit, Soto, I think you’re onto something. So do we hop out and break into the other parlor?”
A gust of wind caught Cowan’s kimono, threatening to expose things he did not want exposed. What would Jeb do if he were here? Cowan imagined Jeb laying it out for him.
“No,” Cowan said. “We don’t risk violence in a physical confrontation. We lock our troll down here first, so we can end this external signal and call for backup.”
Sonne turned back to the bamboo. “Makes sense.”
“Also, what if they booby-trapped the door or something?”
“Exploding would be bad.” Sonne led them toward a narrow path through the bamboo, marked by raised white stones.
Soon enough, they came to a wide clearing with a large steaming bowl of mirrored water. Hot springs? Of course an environment like this would have hot springs. Still futzing with his Admin panel, Cowan finally located the avatar appearance sliders.
Cowan slid Chest left and gave himself a significant breast reduction. Finally, he could swing a sword properly! He finally knew why most female StrikeForceGo players used male or athletic female avatars.
“Soto,” Sonne said, and she sounded pissed again, “you know every geisha in this pleasurebox runs off the same sliders, right?”
Cowan felt a hint of panic. “They do?”
“You just deflated every pair of boobs in this sim. If our troll notices, they might—”
A throwing star came flying from the bamboo.
* * *
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