Overhead one of the orbiting factories of the Pearl River Co-operative moved like a brilliant shooting star swiftly across the dark-blue sky. Jept looked at the BodiKlok implant in his left wrist: 20:01. He was going to lose his slot if he didn't pull himself together and go in. With a convulsive swallow, Jept went up to the plain black door that he had already walked past five times this evening, and pushed. It opened easily, and, committed at last, he rushed through to shut himself off from the accusing eyes of the outside world.
Inside, he found himself in a tiny hallway, no bigger than a closet, with a doorway to his left curtained off by strips of smart plastic with some kind of holo function built in that played an endless stream of Chinese characters from top to bottom. He closed his eyes for a moment, composing himself, as his breath moved in harsh gasps like a man who has just almost drowned. The air smelt musty, with hints of cat pee and garlic. Then, thrusting his hands into his pockets to stop them from shaking, he pushed through the curtain.
The room beyond came as a surprise. He had been expecting something as tacky as the entranceway, something fitting this low-rent end of the Ambiguous Territories, this unclaimed offshore enclave where Law and Crime were so incestuously intertwined that it became impossible, in the end, to tell them apart. Instead, he saw a room that although windowless, was lit with a comfortable, sourceless illumination; that was spacious, with elegant furniture, and on the pale walls a piece of flowing calligraphy and a silk painting of plum blossom, nothing more. A woman, a Han Chinese woman in a black silk suit, sat behind a desk that bore only a spray of orchids in a slim vase, and a smartpad.
"Mister - Wesson, I assume," she said, her manner briskly efficient. "I am Miss Peng."
"Ah, yes, yes, right. I - er - have an appointment . . ."
"Of course, for 20:00 hours." She glanced down at her pad. "Voice ident confirmed. Please come this way." She rose and led him to the far end of the room, and down a corridor to the envo chamber. He blushed when she coolly ordered him to strip - he had been expecting a male tech, but it looked as if Miss Peng ran a one-woman operation - but complied, and within minutes had been connected in various undignified ways to the machine, been made comfortable in the support bath's viscous gel, and had the Feed connected to the twin terminals in his temples. The last thing he saw as she lowered the lid on him was Miss Peng's polite nod, as to a valued client . . .
. . . and he was standing, fully clothed, in an apartment half a world away, and at least a century in the past - late C20 America to judge by the furnishings.
The tall man who was standing at the window turned round. Sunlight made a halo around curling, raven-dark hair, and the face of a Byzantine angel. An avenging angel, if the expression on his face was anything to go by. Jept felt his heart do flip-flops.
"So you finally made it," said the other. His voice was wonderful - waste it ! Miss Peng was worth every credit if she could do this sort of work.
"Ah, look, I'm sorry Dave . . ."
"Not half as sorry as you're going to be. Come here. Now."
Jept gave in to the sim almost immediately, accepting it as real, and felt a wave of pure emotion, in which fear, lust, and excitement were so blended that in the end it was none of them.
He took a hesitant step forward. The other raised a sarcastic eyebrow with a look that said, quite as clearly as words: is that the best you can do ? He hung his head and walked slowly up to Dave.
"Well, I've tried everything else, but I can see that nothing else makes an impression on you. What did I tell you the last time that we had one of these 'discussions', hmm ?"
"That if I screwed up again, you'd give me the punishment I deserved."
"Mmm. So what do you think you deserve ?"
Jept hung his head in silence for a moment. "Whatever you say," he muttered at last.
Dave's lips quirked in a smile of satisfaction . . .
Miss Peng looked up from the SimScan monitor to the communication vid on the wall.
"What do you think ?" she asked. "Is he not perfect ?"
"Indeed, Diamond Lotus," said the grey-haired man in the vid. "You have excelled yourself. It would be a great pity to leave this young man to the unimaginative care of a pre-recorded scenario. So - limited. And in this psychologically brainwashed generation, it is so difficult to find playmates who realise the pleasures that can lie behind pain. I will take over the dominant role as soon I can complete this call and arrange the Feed connection: please have your systems standing by."
"Of course, General. And the usual fee . . . ?"
"Will be doubled, and is already being transmitted to your account."
Miss Peng bowed to hide the smile of pleasure this brought to her stern features, and when she lifted her face the general had gone. She clapped her hands, and the vid returned to its static display of Tang calligraphy.
Jept was dragged along the hallway by one hand, and into the master bedroom.
"Strip !" said Dave. Then for a fraction of a second his features seemed to blur, and then he shook his head.
"No, on second thoughts, just go and bend over the back of that chair.
Jept frowned for a moment, uncertain. This hadn't been part of the program design he'd requested, but a good sim programmer always spiced their work with the unexpected. He moved hesitantly towards the leather armchair in the corner, touched the back of it with one hand.
"What do I do ?" he asked. Like all the youngsters of the Modern Age, his only real ideas about spanking came from the few references in vidlit classics that managed to elude the censors' search for psychologically harmful material. But how those few references had fascinated him, excited him, until he had been driven to this seedy SimLife parlour in the Ambiguous Territories, to experience virtually what he had fantasised about for so long.
With a small sound of impatience, Dave came striding over, and positioned him over the back of the chair, bejeaned legs spread wide. The scent of his aftershave mingled with the leather of the chair and hints of something else, a darker, masculine musk, to touch primitive responses in Jept's brain. He was suddenly, unbearably aroused. He shifted awkwardly.
"You'd better keep still, or you're going to regret it," warned Dave. His hands moved over the taut denim of Jept's parted cheeks. "That is," he added, "you'll regret it even more than you're going to anyway."
"Please . . ."
"No moving, no mouthing," warned the other, "or I increase your punishment." He moved away, and took something out of a cupboard. It was a long, flat strap of stiff leather, narrow at one end, to serve as a handle, and broadening out to about 5 centimetres across. A row of small holes ran down the middle. He held it under Jept's nose.
"This is the first thing you're going to feel across your ass," he said.
Jept straightened up. "Wait," he said, "there's some mistake. I thought you were going to spank me."
The other shook his head in disbelief.
"A mistake all right, and you just made it. Didn't I tell you not to move ? And if you think I'm spanking you in jeans, think again. You'll be feeling my hand before too long, but on your bare butt, not on thick denim. I don't like to waste my effort. Now bend !"
Jept obeyed, but with a sinking feeling that something was badly wrong. Things shouldn't be diverging this much from the intended design. A firm and impatient hand in the small of his back pushed him down into the cushioned leather as Dave took his position at Jept's left side.
There was a horrid pause, and then a swish-thwack that coincided with the sudden blossoming of a sharp pain in Jept's left buttock. It was repeated, this time to the right. Even dulled by his clothes, it smarted, leaving behind a tingling discomfort that seemed to spread for several seconds afterwards. The blows began to fall thick and fast, each preceded by that horrid swishing noise. Jept began to struggle. He did not care for this at all ! The idea had sounded exciting, but the reality was a good deal too physical for his liking. But Dave's hand kept him pinned over the chair, his protests too muffled to be readily distinguishable. At last after what seemed at least a hundred blows but probably was not, his backside hot and uncomfortable, Jept was allowed up.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I think I was wrong. This is no fun at all. End sim please." There was an awkward pause. "End sim," he repeated when the surroundings did not fade out. Dave frowned.
"Cancel sim ?" said Jept, with a certain air of desperation. "Er - terminate ? Finish ?? For God's sake, get me out of here !"
"We haven't even begun," he said. "That was just the warm up. Now it's time for your punishment to begin."
"Wait, you don't understand ! Something is badly wrong here. This should all just stop."
"It will stop when I say so," said Dave. "Now come here." His voice was calm but there was something in it that Jept found it impossible to disobey. Dave reached out and pulled him close, very close, he could feel the other man's body heat warm against him. One strong tanned hand with its long musician's fingers began to undo the buttons of his shirt, with a slow methodical rhythm; and all the while, Dave was looking into his eyes, smiling. It ought to have been reassuring, that smile, but despite its warmth Jept thought it might be the most alarming expression that he had ever seen. The hands moved to his jeans, fumbled for a moment with the belt, and then, the smile broadening, unzipped his fly. The sound of the zipper was shockingly loud in the sudden silence. The jeans folded themselves slowly down his thighs as Dave reached up and pulled the shirt off.
"Yes," he said. "You'll do. Step out of those jeans."
Silent, scared, but rigidly erect in his white underpants, Jept obeyed. He hadn't realised that it was possible to be so afraid and so turned on at the same time !
"Please . . ." he said, but he was no longer sure what he was asking for, whether for this to end, or for it to continue.
"Don't worry, little Jept," Dave said mockingly. "I'll look after you." He beckoned, crooking a forefinger, then sitting himself on the bed drew Jept gently but irresistibly down, across his thighs, legs and torso draping down on either side to present a provocatively raised and subtly curved pair of buttocks, taut and hard with young muscle inside their thin and inadequate covering.
"Oh yes," murmured Dave. "Now remember," he added in a brisker tone of voice, as if suddenly remembering his role, "this will hurt you a great deal more than it does me. But you won't forget the consequences of screwing me around again in a hurry."
With a smart crack he brought the palm of his hand down on Jept's behind. Before Jept's shocked "Ow !" had time to resonate, a firm and rhythmic spanking had begun, that covered every inch of that temptingly displayed butt - top, sides, crown, and especially that tender spot where the curve of the cheeks intersected in a nice little line with the top of the thighs.
Jept's gasps became cries, and cries presently became tears, while his wriggles became frantic struggles, but in vain: as the agony mounted in wave after wave of stinging heat Dave merely clamped him in position with a powerful left arm, and when it became necessary, a leg hooked over his.
At last, in desperation, a wriggle having brought him within range, Jept turned like a snake and bit Dave's side.
"Ow ! You little bastard ! You'll pay for that." Furiously Dave literally tore down Jept's underpants, the thin material ripping under the force of the other man's hands.
"No, no, wait, I'm sorry . . ." sobbed Jept.
"Not as sorry as you're gonna be !" snarled Dave. His hand began to rain down blows on the flaming scarlet cheeks so vividly displayed among the tatters of their former raiment, like roses in snow. Jept immediately realised his error: it was possible for a spanking to hurt more than the one he had just received, and the sting of hand on underpants, even thin ones, was markedly less than that of a hand on bare, quivering, and unprotected flesh.
A dialogue, or rather a pair of monologues, ensued, of the form:
"Ow, no, please, I didn't . . . OW ! No, really, I . . . OW ! OWW !! Please Dave ! I can't take . . . OW. OW. OWW !! . . ."
"Bite me, will you, you WHACK ! little bastard ? Well, I'll WHACK teach WHACK ! you to keep your WHACK WHACK ! mouth WHACK ! shut. You think what you've WHACK had so far WHACK was bad, well it's WHACK ! a WHACK picnic, compared to what you're gonna get now !"
Eventually, his immediate anger sated, Dave released the sobbing Jept from his knee.
"Had enough ?" he asked.
Jept nodded, mutely.
"Hmm. Well, I don't know. Just go and bend back over the chair while I think about it."
Jept wiped his eyes and obeyed, still silent. Dave observed the deep crimson hue that flushed the young man's cheeks with the pride of a workman contemplating a job well done. He smiled, ferally, enjoying the power he had, that made this beautiful young man stand in this humiliating position in front of him, marked with the scarlet and purple signature of his hand.
"Well, Jept, you know you shouldn't have bitten me like that," he said at last. "No, don't interrupt," he added, as this seemed likely to trigger a round of frantic apologies. "You see, it kind of interrupted the program of punishments I had laid out for you."
Jept heard this in horror. Surely he couldn't be proposing . . .
"Now I could take up where I left off," Dave went on, "but I guess that wouldn't be practical. So I'm going to let you off."
"Oh, thank you," cried Jept, straightening up, his heart filled with a rush of gratitude.
"But FIRST," said Dave sternly, indicating, with a motion like that of a dyspeptic Roman emperor condemning another gladiator to death, that Jept should get back into position, "first, you get six strokes of the paddle across your bare ass."
Jept's flaming cheeks tautened in horrid anticipation, as Dave retrieved the leather paddle. Six strokes ! His poor backside already felt as if it might go critical and achieve meltdown at any minute. When would they OH MY GOD !
The paddle descended. The fire leaped up, as if Jept had sat upon coals, but suddenly, strangely, it seemed to change, become an unfocused heat that sank deep into him, liquefying his insides. The second and third strokes seemed only to magnify this strange sensation. He felt light headed - could he be about to pass out ? Yet the sensation was not unpleasant - indeed, it felt quite . . . quite . . . with the fourth blow he became certain - he was having an orgasm. Not in quite the direct, intense way that normal ejaculation produced, but an all-over, overwhelming, erotic experience. His breath grew short, and Dave, as if realising, laid on the fifth and sixth strokes but did not stop, continuing, not as hard, but firmly and rhythmically, until with a groan, and a shudder, Jept collapsed, ejaculating streams, to the floor.
Strong and gentle arms picked him up, very carefully, and laid him with great tenderness, like a sleeping child, face down on the bed. The same hands that had brought him such pain massaged, with exquisite care, something cooling and soothing into his throbbing buttocks.
"Ah Jept, you're a natural," murmured Dave. "I thought you were when I first saw you playing that silly sim."
"What do you mean ?" murmured Jept sleepily, a great calm having filled his soul and left him floating far above the world. "This is the sim." He had forgotten actually, long ago, had accepted it all.
"Ah Jept," laughed Dave. "The world is a good deal more complicated than you allow for. Come and see me soon." He placed something - a folded piece of paper - in Jept's hand, and closed the young man's fingers about it.
Then he was gone, and Jept was drifting away into dreams . . .
"Missah Wesson !" snapped Miss Peng for the third time, her impeccable accent slipping a little under the stress. For a horrid moment she thought she had lost him. The General pays me a good deal too little for these games, she thought. On the other hand, all was well that ended well. She helped the disorientated Jept out of the tank, noticing as she did so that his buttocks were flushed and bruised with psychosomatic welts. Jept was still so high that he did not even blush.
"The sim didn't abort," he said at last.
"You tried to leave the sim before completion ?" asked Miss Peng with grave serenity. "And the standard command for the Series V failed ?"
"Yes. I - er - that is, what is the standard command ? "
"Quit Sim. Or in emergency, Quit Sim Now."
"I - that is, I'm not sure . . ."
"Mister Wesson, sim tanks are not toys. You should not indulge in them if you don't know what you are doing. I am afraid Peng Associates cannot be responsible for unwise use of our equipment. I might arrange a small refund - say 10% ?"
"No, that wasn't what I wanted. I mean I thought I wanted to stop, but I didn't, and he knew. He knew."
Miss Peng shook her head.
"Please be careful, Mister Wesson," she said at last. "The world is a very much more complicated place than you may realise." And she left him to dress, satisfied that he would make no trouble. It was only after she had gone that he remembered where he had heard those words, or words very like them, before.
But as Jept stood and stretched something dropped from his fingers, something that he had been holding clenched in his fist without realising it, something that had not, impossibly, been in his hand before he entered the tank. It was a small piece of smartpaper, which uncrumpled itself to pristine newness as he shook it. And on it was printed:
Jept: come and visit me soon
followed by a livecredit authorisation for a return hypersonic to the Republic of San Francisco. It was unsigned, but it bore, at the bottom, the logo of a fearsomely recognisable leather paddle . . .