She stood on the spot, on the designated mark on the floor, and tried to imagine her toes were growing roots into the hard surface so they could anchor her feet and stop her legs from shaking.
He sat only a few paces from her, behind his raised bench and he would probably be peering down at her with those alien hawk-like eyes—but she daren’t check. To her left was the court recorder, the man who’d called out her name. To her right, the prosecutor. Another man. He was not her friend. He was her enemy.
She had a lawyer—he was located behind her and out of sight. She’d met him that morning for the first time and he kept forgetting her name. He left her with the clear impression she should plead guilty and accept her fate. He’d done nothing to help and presented her defense in a matter of minutes.
She wasn’t sure about pleading guilty but she was determined to correct one major mistake on her part. She swayed and clenched her hands together behind her back. Her wrists were cuffed.
“Zara Webb, do you have anything you wish to say to the judge before you agree or disagree with your culpability?” the clerk asked.
In the Vendu world, entering a plea came after the evidence has been presented. Then came the judge’s sentencing. She’d no clue as to what to expect; her counsel had been pessimistic.
“You got drunk. You got your friends drunk,” he’d said during their short meeting. He’d said it with disgust and a grimace. The Vendu frowned upon drunkenness; in fact, any loss of control was a weakness.
Don’t look up—don’t make eye contact with the judge. She examined her shoes. “I wish, no, I beg the court to please let me take the blame on my own. Please don’t prosecute the others. It was my foolishness that got everyone in trouble.”
The prosecutor rose to his feet, cleared his throat, and addressed the judge. The man she couldn’t look at. “Sir. We, the prosecution, are willing to forgo further charges, if the human, Zara Webb, is willing to bear the burden of their guilt.” He spoke with a scathing nasal drawl, which even in the language of the Vendu was obvious. Zara’s fluency in the foreign tongue was excellent.
She waited. The pause dragged on.
“Very well. I will accept her guilt as collective.” The judge’s voice possessed a depth. It was the first time he’d spoken as the recorder had conducted the proceedings. Zara would have liked listening to that voice in a different scenario—it had a presence.
“Be aware,” he continued, “the punishment will be greater.”
Her counsel had warned her about this possibility. However, she wanted to make amends.
“I understand, sir.”
“The charges stand unaltered,” declared the recorder. “Zara Webb, you deliberately drank alcohol in excess to ensure your intoxication, knowing it would impede your judgement. This alone is not a crime. The charges relate to your behavior and misdemeanors subsequent to your intoxication.”
She didn’t quite see it that way. She had meant to have a fun evening with four fellow students. Four young Vendu women who were keen to find out how humans spent their leisure time. Zara had considered it part of her role as a cultural exchange operative to show the Vendu how humans both worked hard and enjoyed life.
She’d probably taken it too far when she let them drink the strong vodka on empty stomachs. But how was she to know that vomiting in public was an offense and why the hell was it wrong to dance in the streets?
We were having fun!
Okay, Zara should have known from her briefing sessions prior to departing Earth’s human territory that the Vendu had peculiar attitudes toward how they spent their free time. No dancing. No theaters. No concerts. Private music appreciation was their preference, which was probably why busking in the street outside the New Ayers Rock Technology University wasn’t a good idea, especially not in middle of the night.
Then she’d tried to bribe the policeman with a drink from the bottle in her hand—a big no-no. She’d puked on his sleeve, something considered so disrespectful that one of her friends had nearly fainted.
“Resisting arrest,” added the recorder gravely.
Jeez. She wasn’t really resisting. She’d felt dizzy and maybe she’d pushed against him a few times.
Okay, she’d cussed a lot.
“Actuating an escape.”
That was harder to explain. She had been confused and panicked; she’d tried to climb out of the bathroom window in the police station. She’d gotten stuck. They had to yank her out. Her pants fell down and she’d kept yelling at them, rather rudely.
God, I’ve fucked up.
She didn’t want to get kicked off the exchange program. At least she’d saved the others the burden of a court case by accepting it was her mistake. The whole evening was a massive screw-up. Instead of showing her new girlfriends how to party, she’d made a fool of herself. Thank goodness nothing had been reported back home.
“Do you accept your culpability? Yes or no?” the judge asked.
His voice shook her out of her regretful thoughts. Time to pull up her big girl pants and admit her fault. On the plus side, the conditions of the exchange program had ruled out any sentence involving an off-world penal colony. However, the Vendu had refused to budge on other forms of punishment, like corporal punishment. Surely, he wouldn’t go that far?
She wove her fingers together and squeezed them into a knot.
“Yes, sir,” she said through dry lips.
Another lengthy pause. More shoe inspecting. Her heart was pummeling so hard it almost hurt in her chest. It was like she was breathing through a tiny hole and not getting enough air.
“Zara Webb, you admit fault and will be punished according to our laws. Your human frailties are no excuse. In coming here, to our great continent and imperial colony on Earth, you agreed to abide by our laws. You were briefed and reminded of our high values of behavior.”
She nodded softly. She had signed an agreement before she’d left for this country that had once been called Australia. Now it was part of the Vendu Empire, an outpost where they could keep an eye on their new allies: Earthlings.
“Therefore your punishment must set an example. You will be transported to the discipline unit. You will lay bare your body, be bound to a post, and be whipped for the duration of fifty strokes to be conducted over no fewer than five sessions. Fifty strokes of a single whip across your buttocks.”
Zara listened in stunned silence. This was what she dreaded: a whipping! Her lips trembled and a familiar prickle of tears filled her eyes.
“To set an example to other Vendu so that they may not be tempted into following your drunken habits, your punishments will be publicized. Globally. This is the law. This is our way.”
Zara gasped and her chin jerked up. The nameless judge was staring straight at her, his dark eyes fixed and unwavering. His short locks of hair were swept back to reveal high cheeks and a broad forehead. He was a striking man and his firm gaze pinned her to the spot.
The tears threatened to well up and over the brims of her eyes. Globally meant broadcasting from all Vendu satellites and not only to their own people but to hers. Her fellow humans. Her friends. Family. Her jaw hung in horror when she realized the venerable committee who’d selected her for the exchange program would also witness her punishment.
“No, please. Not in public—” She moved forward and one of the court guards stepped between her and the judge’s high plinth.
“The sentence is fitting,” the judge declared.
Tears flooded her eyes and formed rivulets down her cheeks. “No, sir, you don’t understand. It isn’t the whipping—” a lie; the whipping terrified her as she had no idea what pain she could tolerate, “it’s the public venue.”
“It is our way,” he reiterated firmly and his eyebrows furrowed into a frown.
She didn’t know what to do. With only instinct to fall back on, she dropped to her knees. “Please, please. I would go to prison, anything, just don’t let my family see this, hear about this. It’s humiliating. I’m so ashamed.”
He drummed his fingers on the bench and sighed, his lips then briefly pursed. “Is that not the purpose of punishing you?”
“Yes, but…” How to explain that the shame would last on, past the whipping and hang about her for ages afterward. The Vendu preferred this kind of punishment because they could move on and put it behind them once completed. If anything, coming out of the horrendous discipline was a display of courage, demonstrating how they could take punishment and gain strength from it. But, Zara wasn’t Vendu.
She sank back on her heels and feeling overwhelmed, she sobbed.
“Help her up,” the judge ordered. “Take her away. She will need to enter the pre-punishment preparations. They will calm her.”
Calm her? Being made ready for her whipping would be calming?
She looked over her shoulder as she was led away. He was watching her intently. The frown had left his face and another expression had replaced it. He almost appeared bemused by her breakdown, or perhaps even concerned.
Galen Hosta, one of twelve High Judges posted to the imperial colony on Earth, returned to his office and poured himself a large measure of coffee from the pot and sipped on it. He’d acquired a taste for the human drink not long after he’d arrived on Earth a year ago. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but Galen believed he should try out a few of the Earthlings’ habits.
He was the youngest judge at the colony and had risen to the rank through sheer determination. One of his fellow judges had joked that Galen had a rocket tied to his back, propelling upward at a phenomenal rate as he overtook the older judges on the imperial outpost circuit. It wasn’t unprecedented, just unusual. As a member of the elite warrior classes, Galen had the backing of the imperial family. So when the opportunity for the Earth posting has arisen, he’d bent a few ears to get his name to the top of the list.
Earth intrigued him. More specifically humans. He’d read the reports about Marco, the governor of the penal colony Tagra, who’d claimed a human girl, made her his prisoner, and brought her back to Earth as his bride. A remarkable achievement, and more remarkable was the Empire’s response; humans were no longer the enemy. Instead, they were potential breeding partners. If the Vendu offered the humans non-military technologies, especially the environmental ones, then the Earthlings were willing to consider mating with the Vendu. The shift in diplomacy had led to the establishment of a cultural exchange program for students and the hope for an improved relationship between the Vendu and their conquered host planet. There was plenty of bitterness to resolve.
Galen swallowed another mouthful of coffee; the taste was a bitterness he could tolerate. Sitting behind his desk, he opened the file for the next court case and immediately closed it again. He couldn’t stop thinking about the girl. The human who had knelt before his bench and wept. Why was it bothering him so much? If she were Vendu, would he be thinking about her?
She was a beautiful creature with flowing blonde hair and blue eyes. A lithe, almost athletic figure, yet still generous about the hips and bosom. She had maintained a suitable pose of contriteness during the proceedings, bravely taking the collective guilt of the others, until the sentencing. Anger had flashed briefly on her face, then horror and obvious fear. She shouldn’t have looked at him. Perhaps if he hadn’t seen her eyes he might not be distracted.
Tears. Fucking big tears. She really was distressed by the punishment. Not the whipping it would seem but the public humiliation. He imagined her now, in the detention cell of the court’s discipline unit, being stripped and prepared. Her pale skin, unmarked by tattoos, poked and prodded and her malleable, well-oiled ass cheeks in the grip of the medic as he assessed their robustness. She would need much tempering—firm-handed spankings—to ready her for the whip. It could take several weeks before the punishment was complete. Weeks of being ogled by Vendu guards. He understood her fears. The reason for the tears.
He arched his stiff back and tried yet again to forget her. What’s done is done, his father would say. She had led her new friends astray knowing that the Vendu’s system of justice was harsh and unyielding. It should have been drummed into her before she arrived. If the exchange program witnessed her whipping on the global broadcast channel, they would demand her resignation. The channel was a publicity avenue designed to educate humans in the ways of the Vendu, including their legal system.
He slammed the cup on his desk. She’d infected him. Somehow altered his perception of human femininity from one of disinterest to undeniable lust. So quickly. So easily.
Should he seek a way to alleviate her vilification? Was there an alternative to a public whipping? As a judge or imperial warrior, he couldn’t show leniency. Some other kind of suitable punishment was needed, something that would lessen her fears, but not the need for discipline.
He summoned his clerk, Adris.
Adris was ancient in appearance, wrinkled and slightly stooped, but what he lacked in physical strength, he made up for in legal knowledge.
“Adris,” Galen began as the clerk closed the door behind him. “I’m considering commuting Zara Webb’s sentence.”
The diminutive man frowned. “Pardon her? The Empire would not look favorably on such a suggestion. She has no diplomatic immunity.”
“Yes, I realize that. In any case only the imperial governor of this colony can commute a sentence. She needs to be disciplined. I wish to alter the nature of the punishment.”
Adris’s frown changed to a look of confusion. “Alter, sir?”
“I’m correct in thinking that for Earthlings public humiliation is abhorrent?”
“I believe so. But she committed her crimes in public, therefore, she should suffer retribution in public. It is our way.”
Galen stared up at the ceiling. If only the little human hadn’t looked at him. “I’m not considering lessening the humiliation, merely altering its nature.”
“I must point out she bears the guilt of four others. She must be punished fittingly.” Adris was a stickler for rules. A loyal Vendu. Was Galen betraying his kind with his idea?
“Are ordeals acceptable punishments on colonies or are they forbidden beyond the home world?”
Adris’s eyebrows rose high into the wrinkled furrows of his forehead. “Ordeals?” He paused to think. “I’m not aware of any restrictions. They are ancient forms of punishments but they have not been removed from the statutes. Were you thinking of a particular one, sir?”
Galen smiled. “Yes. The Ordeal of Astra.”
“Astra?” Adris scratched his chin. “Will Zara Webb have a choice? Will she have the option to stay with her original sentence?”
“I will give her the choice. However, the fact is I have already chosen her. I must claim her.” Galen had made a major confession to his clerk; he wasn’t simply punishing the girl, he was taking her.
“I see, sir.” Adris wasn’t a fool. His lips twitched, keen to comment, but the old man was too respectful to pass judgement on the wisdom of the choice.
“You disapprove?” Galen asked.
“She is a human, sir. An alien. It might be beyond her abilities.”
“Governor Marco proved that Earthling females are compatible. She wants to avoid public disgrace, and this will ensure it.” Galen knew that humiliation came in many forms. What he wished to propose was just one of those forms.
“A Vendu female would submit without resistance to this ordeal. What if she disobeys you?”
“She will learn the consequences. The whipping stands, I’m not reducing the sentence. It will be administered as I see fit.”
Adris nodded. “Then I would suggest you retrieve her from detention. Swiftly, sir.”
“Have her brought back here to my chambers for sentencing.”
Galen finished his tepid coffee. She could refuse. But if her eyes were any indication of her feelings, he doubted she would.
They’d let her wash the tears from her face before locking her in a cell. She’d cried all the way from the courtroom to the detention center two streets away. Bundled into a shuttle with an unsympathetic guard, she wanted to curl up on the seat and disappear. But she couldn’t. She had been shackled around the ankles and wrists for the duration of the short journey. For a civilization with advanced technologies, the Vendu were woefully archaic when it came to their treatment of prisoners.
Alone in a small cell, she waited. There was a wide bench, which she perched on. The cold steel made her shiver. They’d gone to fetch the medic. What he had planned for her, Zara wasn’t sure, but it was guaranteed to be unpleasant and degrading.
All this because of a few bottles of liquor. Her friends back in New Phoenix had sent them as a birthday gift. What she’d failed to notice was the alcohol content: double the usual strength. A nice idea to reduce the cost of shipping the stuff, except she’d given it to her Vendu colleagues; women with whom she hoped to cultivate a friendship. They’d drunk it like water.
The little musical concert they had performed on the street by the fountain was hardly a serious offense, although she had discovered the Vendu weren’t especially good at singing. After that things got a bit hazy. Had she been that appalling? Once a Vendu is captured they should obey their captors and not make a serious escape attempt.
She had let so many people down: her mentor, the enthusiastic man who had guided her through the training program, her Vendu language professor without whom she would never have become fluent, and above all else, her family. Her mom and dad. Her little sister, April. Each day April battled to stay alive while an incurable disease racked her body. The program’s coordinator had no inclination of Zara’s other mission, the one her parents had put great hope in Zara achieving.
The door opened and she jumped to her feet. Three men! One was a burly guard with a shaved head covered in tattoos, the other an officious-looking man with a disdainful expression, and the third had to be the medic. Dressed in a white tunic and face mask, he carried a case. Laying it on the end of bench, he opened it and began to place objects on the surface. Metal things with tubes and what looked like a thin speculum. She guessed they were probes and sensors.
“You need to undress,” the official said.
She froze. Undress! The reality of the dire situation sank in. What if she resisted? Would they rip her clothes off?
The doctor patted her shoulder. “Once you’re naked, I want you bent over the bench for a thorough inspection.”
Behind her, the guard snorted gleefully. “Your first human, Doctor?” he said.
The medic pivoted to face the two men. He ignored Zara. “Yes. I’ve read up on their anatomy. I’m especially keen to see her external clitoris. I gather it is highly responsive to stimulation.”
“What!” Zara shrieked, snapping her knees together. “You can’t touch me there.”
“Clothes off, Zara Webb,” barked the guard. “The doctor can examine you as he sees appropriate. I expect he’ll give your ass a good oiling too, then when I give you your first spanking—”
“You?” she stuttered. “Spank me?”
“A tempering procedure,” the official explained. “To prepare you for the whipping. Each spanking will desensitize you and teach you not to tense. We don’t want any permanent harm.”
“Each spanking…” She stepped back, away from the guard.
“With my hand.” The guard flexed his wrist.
She turned to the medic. “Please, sir, you can’t let them do this.”
“It is the authorized procedure. It’s for your benefit. After a few spankings, you’ll develop a continuous sense of warmth. It’s not that unpleasant. If you clench too much, we can insert a plug in your anus to teach you to keep your buttocks apart.” The medic tapped the bench, his impatience growing.
The blood drained from her face. Now she felt like vomiting. The tears she’d chased away were rapidly reforming. This was just the beginning. She still had the public whipping to endure.
Her back hit the wall. She’d nowhere to go.
The door swung open and a perspiring guard barged into the room. “Good, I’ve caught you in time,” he panted. “You’re to stop. The judge wants her back for resentencing.”
Zara’s legs turned to jelly and she nearly collapsed against the wall. Things were about to get worse.