For the first time, Ken could see the ceiling of the construct, hazy like a light-polluted sky at night. Instead of stars or a moon, a single gash of white light stretched across the dome. In the center where it was thickest, the light moved like a fog—anti-ether gathering to provide illumination for the construct below. With its aid, Ken saw beyond the gates to an expansive lawn that stretched for a hundred yards or more. Russet flagstones cut a path through small gardens of red brick and white roses, drawing his eye to the formidable house slowly coming into focus.
Four massive pillars supported a deep portico on the front of the house, its interior flanked by benches of black wrought iron and cherry wood slats. At the center, a red door glowed as if a fire roared behind it.
The house reminded Ken of the elegant, sprawling mansions he had seen on a business trip to Los Angeles, so unlike the shotgun home from his childhood or the studio apartment he rented in downtown Sacramento. But even those comparisons were slight; he had never seen this house before in his life.
How had he come to stand in front of it?
Ken tried to imagine a plausible scenario: drinking the night away with Wade, stumbling out of Old Downtown at the most unsafe of hours, back to the hotel where he stripped off his shirt and jacket, and finally, pulling his company-issued Koertig immersion rig from his carry-on bag. A drunk incursion into VNet wasn’t unheard of, but usually it was in search of some erotic diversion, something to take his mind off the meetings or the bills or the loss of his lab.
The sound of crunching snow faded, replaced by the creaking of an opening door.
A slender figure emerged from the house. Each tap of her black heels on the flagstones brought her closer, until finally Ken could see eyes staring at him across the distance. Her brown hair fluttered in the breezeless construct. What remained of the ether pushed at the white fabric of her tunic, adorning the edges with gold stitching. Slits along the sides provided glimpses of long, smooth legs.
Ken took a step back. Maybe it was a porn sim after all.
But if so, why the heaviness in his chest, why the uncomfortable warmth burning at the back of his head? A porn sim would have flooded him with emotionware, making him feel confident, strong, and happy. Instead, Ken could hardly appreciate the look in the woman’s eyes, a level of attention he hadn’t had in years, at least not without entering his credit card first.
Ken put his hands in his pockets and waited.
At the gate, the woman paused, her warm, brown eyes settling into a soft gaze.
“You don’t recognize me,” she said.
“Should I?” He motioned to the house behind her. “I don’t think I’ve ever been to this brothel before.”
She smiled at him. “I assure you, Mr. Barnes, this is no brothel, and I am no prostitute.”
“Who are you then?”
“I’m your Personal Assistant.” She curtsied. “My name is Caprice.”
“What happened to my old one?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
Ken shook his head, looked over Caprice’s shoulder. “This place is new to me. What are our coordinates?”
“All will be explained,” she replied, pulling lightly on the iron gates. “Welcome, Mr. Barnes, to the House of Nepenthe.”