By Jennifer Williams
“And how much of the planet does your company own, Ms Myatt? Real estate here must be very expensive.”
Ms Myatt smiled at the question, and tapping her heels to her horse’s flank led them to the edge of the path. There was an especially spectacular view from that position. Expensive maybe, but worth every penny.
“Call me Lavinia, please. The Ranch owns this entire valley, right up to the hills you can see there.” She pointed with her free hand. The sky was a deep blue at the moment, but the sunset later would be violet and pink, which always struck Lavinia as particularly apt. Escapar really was the perfect planet. “There are ten separate complexes in this valley, all entirely self contained and remote enough that we can keep the illusion going as long as you need, Kia.”
The woman on the horse next to her stiffened slightly, obviously put out by the use of her first name, but Lavinia just smiled some more. Nobody kept to formalities very long when they planned to stay at the Ranch.
“Shall we go down and take a tour?” she continued. “It’s a beautiful day for it.”
Kia nodded, and the two of them took their horses down the final part of the path and into the soft grasses of the valley itself. In the near distance was the first complex, a simple fenced paddock and a robust but quaint looking little house. It had been designed very carefully to be as quaint as possible. The scent of the grasses greeted them like a friend from a dream, bringing half forgotten memories… Lavinia almost laughed at herself. This place even got to her, sometimes.
“And the men? They are all in on it, are they?”
“Of course.” Lavinia bit down her impatience. Kia was not like most of the other clients they had. It wasn’t unusual for them to want to have a look at the place before they signed over their credits, but they didn’t normally have so many questions. After all, most of the information was there on the adverts, and besides, most of the clients didn’t want to know too much about it. That would spoil the fun. “They all have a degree of acting training and are fully committed to the experience. Oh, here we are, look, Troy is a great example of what we offer.”
A tall, bronzed man had stepped out of the wooden house, a coil of rope slung over his naked shoulders. He had glossy black hair, a hint of stubble, and was ridiculously handsome. Lavinia waved at him, and he waved cheerfully back, flashing a perfect white grin.
“Troy used to be the villain in a long running TV show, The Chambers of Our Love Collide. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? He did that for a few years and then the character got killed off, so he works for us now.”
Troy walked to the paddock, where a chestnut mare waited to be brushed down. Lavinia was particularly proud of the horses, all of which were shipped in from Earth or bred from original Earth stock. They were beautiful animals, and a large part of the attraction of the Ranch. All ridiculously expensive, of course.
“And how does it all work, exactly?”
“We have a number of different scenarios.” They rode past Troy’s paddock and passed a wide strip of grassy land. Ahead there was an almost identical complex. The wooden house was a little larger and perhaps more recently painted, but there were horses in the paddock and Lavinia could already see a tall figure toiling outside, oiled muscles glistening in the sunlight. “Our clients often go with the more traditional storylines. A single woman, lost in inhospitable country. Perhaps her travelling party suffered a hit by raiders, or there was a terrible storm. She comes across a little ranch in the middle of nowhere, and asks a man there for help.” Lavinia grinned, warming to her subject. “Of course at first he will be a terrible brute, full of stormy rages, and a dark past is absolutely a given, but eventually through persistence and a good heart she will win him over. As well as his love for her, he will reveal himself to be a deeply kind man whose passions are as big as his rages. He probably looks after stray animals too.”
Lavinia caught the look on Kia’s face, and shrugged. “What can I say? Those are the classics. Sometimes our clients want to reverse the situation and our men are the ones who turn up on their doorsteps, but it all amounts to the same thing.”
They had drawn level with the house, and again Lavinia waved to the impossibly perfect man tending the horses. He had tousled blond hair and a tiny scar on his cheekbone. The women went crazy for that scar.
“Ray there is one of our most popular models.”
“And the men…” Kia shifted uncomfortably in her saddle. She was looking at Ray with keen interest. “They sleep with the women?”
“I’m not altogether sure exactly how much actual sleeping gets done, but believe me, all the women are very satisfied by the end of the week. And it’s never longer than a week. We don’t want anyone getting too attached.”
“And what about the men?” Kia had still not smiled, not once. “How do they feel about all this?”
“They get all their food and bills paid for, generous holiday entitlement, full medical insurance. Free accommodation, obviously. And an unending parade of women to adore them. Everyone is checked out before they come, by the way. No one’s health is ever at risk.”
“But they are just puppets,” said Kia. “Objects for these women to lust over, to control.”
The horses had taken them past Ray’s paddock and on to the next. A man younger and slimmer than the previous two stood at his front gate. His soft brown hair was artfully combed to fall over his big blue eyes, and he had cheekbones to die for.
“These men find it empowering,” said Lavinia. She was beginning to tire of the questions. “None of them has ever complained about their treatment.”
“It’s prostitution!” said Kia hotly. “Slavery!”
The slim young man at the gate watched them approach with interest. Kia called out to him as they got closer.
“You, what’s your name?”
He looked briefly to Lavinia before answering.
“Are you happy here, Carlos? Do you like being a pet?”
Carlos blushed slightly, and looked up at them through long eyelashes.
“In truth… it is a little degrading.”
“Oh, come on now.” Lavinia held up both hands. “We treat you well Carlos, and I don’t remember anyone giving you permission to talk.”
“I’ve had enough of this.” Kia tugged at the reins, turning the horse so that she faced Lavinia, and took a petite handgun from within the folds of her loose blouse. “I’m giving this boy his freedom. He’s coming with me!”
Without hesitation she shot Lavinia square in the chest, sending the older woman flying off the back of her horse and into the dirt. A dark red stain spread across her shirt and she did not move again. Giving Carlos her hand, Kia helped him up onto the horse to sit behind her.
Lavinia waited for the hoof beats to retreat a fair way before sitting up. The safety mat had broken her fall well enough but the thump from the blood squib would probably leave a bruise. She patted gingerly at her damp chest and clambered to her feet. Kia and Carlos were a dot in the distance, riding off together into their own story. An unusual request perhaps, but Kia was an unusually rich client. A bruise and a ruined shirt wouldn’t matter much one way or another.
The sunset, thought Lavinia as she clambered back onto her horse. A few hours later and the sunset would have been a treat.