MEMORIES OF SURRENDER
Lydia wasn't sure how it had appeared in her hands. She'd successfully ignored the large volume for weeks on the shelf as she dusted and cleaned her master's study, even though the gilt lettering and the cover of deep blue called to her. It was forbidden. And yet, somehow, she was holding it.
She sounded out the title using the new skills she'd taught herself. The Ancient Ocean. Oh, that sounded interesting. Was it full of tales of imaginary sea creatures? Or full of information about the real wonders of undersea life? She scarcely breathed as the book opened almost by itself to a drawing of a magnificent sea creature. Above the drawing, she puzzled out the caption, letter by letter, until she knew it said E-nor-mer-i-pod. She let the unfamiliar word roll around on her tongue.
"Lydia!" A horrified gasp came from the doorway that she'd not heard open. She shrieked and the book spilled from her hands onto the carpet, still open to the page she'd been studying. She stared at Bena who stared back. The older woman opened her mouth to speak, perhaps to warn her, but it was too late. Her master's large frame filled the doorway.
Lydia stared for one brief moment into his shocked face before she threw herself to the floor, bowing so low her face flattened the carpet fibers, her arms thrust forward in supplication.
"Master!" she cried out. "I – I'm sorry! It was just so beautiful and I tried to ignore it and I don't know why–-" Terror had taken over her small form and she began to shake.
"Lydia." His voice was stern but not angry. "Lydia, look at me."
She lifted her head up but couldn't look him in the eye, so she left her gaze on his feet.
"The book is beautiful, isn't it?"
She gave a tiny nod. "Yes, Master," she squeaked, tears now gathering in the corner of her eyes and threatening to spill over.
He walked over to the book, still lying on the carpet, and looked at the page that lay open and accusing. "Oh, yes. That was one of my favorite creatures, too. My father gave me this book when I was ten."
He bent over and closed the book, picked it up, and put it back on the shelf. Then he sat down in the large desk chair. He swiveled around to face her still-prostrate form.
"Lydia, you know what the rules are, and you know what the consequences are." It was a statement, not a question. She'd known the rules since her earliest memories as a child. She trembled, her head once more buried in the carpet as though humility could save her. "I think, however, it's possible that you were only holding the book, not looking inside, and that it didn't open until it fell to the floor."
Lydia could scarcely believe that he was going to lie to lessen her punishment. "Master?" Now she did raise her head to look at him, blinking to clear the tears. "Th-thank you." Her voice was so soft she didn't know if he'd heard her. Holding a book was bad enough, but opening it to look at the pages more than doubled the penalty.
He leaned over to cup her chin with a gentleness she didn't deserve. "I'm afraid I need to go enter your name on the list for Punishment Day. And I'm forbidding you from cleaning in here anymore. You'll only clean rooms without books from now on, and if you come across one by accident, instead of just cleaning around it, you'll leave the room immediately and notify one of the male staff to resolve the situation." He shook his head as he stood up. "I'm just glad you can't actually read the words. That would be horrible." He left the room.
Lydia struggled not to throw up on the expensive white carpet.
James Morel sat up in the chair so abruptly it almost tipped over. "What the fuck is taking so long?" he groused.
"It's only been a few days, and you know I can't tell them why we want access. In their minds there's absolutely no hurry to approve an off-worlder's request for time in the university lab." Raym Dukeren was sprawled on his stomach on the hotel room bed, reading something on his small computer and erupting into sporadic laughter.
James made a noise of disgust, but he knew Raym was right. His former college friend had to be very quiet about the reason for James' visit to Midros. If any of Raym's pharmaceutical competitors knew why James was here, they'd block every move he made, and then offer him more money than he could dream of to come work for them.
It was a good thing James was an honorable man. And it didn't hurt that Raym had made a very lucrative offer to share the profits if and when James could figure out the decades-old problem that Raym had asked his help to solve.
"All right. In the meantime, let's head back down to the Archives."
Raym made a face. "You really want to go down there again? It's dusty and smelly and dim."
James laughed. "You are such a scientist! Not happy unless you're in a clean, bright lab."
"Gah!" Raym waved his hand in dismissal. "Midros' history is dirt-poor poverty! It's full of superstitions and weird ways. Until paeolate came along and made us rich, there was nothing here worth writing down to remember. I doubt any of those books are more than a hundred years old."
"Hey, dumbshit, you asked me to come here and see if I could find out why Oblita won't work anywhere else but on Midros. I happen to think the people of the past have a lot to teach us, and since you told me that legends say Oblita used to work in other places, you get to help me dig around in old books and translate. Why your people ever decided to start writing books in Br'ini, instead of the Basic that everyone else in this universe speaks, is beyond me. I'm still struggling with it."
"Give me five minutes to finish this," Raym grumped, and turned back to his computer.
A growing noise outside caught James' attention as he waited. With a curious glance at Raym, who didn't seem to notice, he rose and walked over to the window.
From the tenth floor he looked out over a large open area of grass, walking paths, and fountains that were tucked between the massive high rises in the medium-sized city that was the capital of Midros. Small trees with pink blossoms dotted the sidewalks all over town, softening the sharp edges of the urban landscape. Overlaying the whole scene was the faintest tinge of pink, courtesy of the paeolate dust glistening in the sunlight that bounced off the walls of blue glass buildings.
One hundred years ago, almost no one had heard of the mineral called paeolate. Intersolar travel had been a reality for a long time, but the thick heavy hulls that kept ships from burning up in a planet's atmosphere during takeoff and landing took so much fuel to escape gravity that casual travel and the movement of goods from planet to planet was prohibitively expensive. Then someone had the bright idea of taking this abundant mineral, found only on Midros, and mixing it with a few other things, and painting it on the outer hulls of ships. Suddenly they wouldn't burn up any more. Overnight, hulls became incredibly thin and lightweight, and much less expensive to operate. Trade between planets exploded with a pent-up fury. And private individuals with money could buy their own ships.
This planet – this formerly modest, quiet planet with its simple way of life – was suddenly the richest planet in the known universe.
James pushed aside the sheer curtain and looked down. The middle of the grassy area held a small stage that was usually empty except for the occasional lunch-eating businessman seated upon its steps, enjoying the sunshine. Today, however, there was a large crowd of several hundred women gathered on all four sides, looking expectantly at the platform, where a pole had been erected in the middle. The women were all kneeling, and the angle of the sun reflected the silver around the neck of every single one of them.
Midros was the only planet in the known interstellar community that still had slavery. When paeolate money had started rolling in, the owners of the large mining conglomerates, flush with cash and sudden power, built their vision of a perfect society that placed them at the top. Employment, education, and even the ability to marry and have children became attainments available only to those who agreed with the new government. Protests were few, and ruthlessly put down. Within fifty years, women, whose equality had been tenuous before paeolate, lost everything. Midros told nosy outsiders to go away or the paeolate would disappear, and the greedy interstellar community left them alone.
James started to turn to Raym to ask what this gathering of slaves was when he caught sight of a woman being escorted through a path in the crowd, towards the platform. She wore a loose white shift along with her shiny silver collar, and her arms were bound in front of her. As he watched, she was placed facing the pole. Her hands were raised high above her head and secured so that she stood on her tiptoes. Her shift was pulled away, leaving her bared to the crowd. A man stepped forward, said a few words James couldn't hear and then positioned himself beside her. Without hesitation, he drew back something whip-like and snapped it forward to land on the woman's back.
The scream that came through the window knocked him backwards. "What the fuck!" He turned to Raym, still sprawled on the rumpled covers. "What the fuck are they doing?"
Raym shrugged. "It's Punishment Day." His eyes never left the computer screen.
"What the fuck is Punishment Day?"
Raym's reply was cut short by another scream. James turned back to the window. He stared at the scene. Even from up here, he could see the bright red blotches across the formerly white skin. That was no ordinary whip; this one left wide marks on the skin, not thin stripes. And this was definitely no ordinary punishment. This was a judicial punishment, designed for maximum pain that would be felt for days to come.
He ignored the twitching of his cock.
"Every two weeks," Raym finally looked up, "all the slaves in the city who've broken major rules, or whose masters are too lazy to punish them at home, are sent here. Every slave is required to attend at least once a month. Sometimes it's over in just an hour, and sometimes it's longer. Just depends." He turned back to the screen.
"What kind of rules deserve this kind of punishment?" He was still mesmerized as a third scream rose up to disappear into the deep blue sky.
"Oh, about what you'd expect. Running away, fighting back, disrespect of a master in public, getting caught with a man who isn't her master, touching books written in Br'ini... I don't know. There are lots." He shrugged again.
Now James did turn to look at him, managing not to flinch from yet another scream. "Touching books written in Br'ini?"
"Didn't you have the mandatory orientation on the ship before you arrived?"
James scowled. "I was too busy studying. I skipped it."
"You really shouldn't have."
"So educate me now," James snapped in irritation.
Raym sighed. "Okay," he began as though James was a little child, "we used to all speak Eluiim, before we became modern, and now everyone also knows the Basic that all the planets speak. But most of our literature, law and documents are written in Br'ini, an ancient language that women are forbidden to learn. Even holding or opening a book in Br'ini is grounds for a severe public punishment. And the punishment for learning to read Br'ini in secret is... well, let's just say it's not pretty. Maybe a little too much, in my opinion, but that's the law, and what can you do?" He shrugged once more.
James looked at him with an open mouth. "Why?"
"Because reading what men think and write gives women ideas that aren't healthy for them. They're happier when their world is predictable and limited."
"You can't be serious."
"James, don't make me regret that I asked you here. This is our way of life; it has been for a long time, and we don't tolerate criticism." The dark tone in his voice was unusual for the normally cheerful young man.
James turned back to the window. The whipping hadn't ceased, but the screaming had. The woman sagged in her bonds, no longer struggling as the last strokes were laid upon her back. Her skin was bright red, almost like it had been burned, from her shoulders to the middle of her back, and then again over the soft fleshiness of her ass. James didn't fail to note that they'd skipped the vulnerable part of her lower back over her kidneys. At least this guy knew what he was doing. Her escorts reappeared and released her hands, one of them catching her as she fell. They dragged her off the stage and disappeared into a building.
James continued to stare down, both horrified and mesmerized. Another woman appeared with two escorts, but she wasn't as docile. She protested and fought the whole way to the stage. She, too, wore a white shift, but she had a black collar on, marking her as a visitor from off world. Women who visited Midros, even professionals, still had to register as slaves, wear a collar and observe most of the rules of behavior while on the streets. Most never strayed outside the "safe zone" of the hotel, a place where their behavior was only loosely monitored.
Raym joined him at the window. He chuckled. "Oh, I heard about her. This ought to be good."
James looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
"There was a reception last night at some government official's house. She and the Minister of Energy were having quite a nice conversation about hydroelectric plants, and then apparently he turned to her master and commented that she had lovely breasts and would her master mind if he fondled them? Everyone understands that most off-world masters say no, and that's the end of it. She didn't give him a chance. She threw her drink in the Minister's face."
James' eyes widened as he imagined the fallout from that incident. He looked back down at the scene below. She was still struggling even as her hands were restrained high above. This time the punisher took up a cane. He swung the thin rod to land on her soft backside. James couldn't hear the sound of it landing, but he saw how deep a dent it briefly made, and a moment later, he heard her scream. Her struggles became even more wild, and her outrage louder.
He'd had enough. "Let's head down to the Archives and stay there for a while. I'm not sure I'll be able to focus up here if this goes on all day." I'm not sure I'll be able to tear my eyes from the window if naked young women are punished where I can watch with both fascination and horror.