The Courier Ch. 13bycaligula97236©
Chapter 13 -- Criminal # 101025
Maria Elena spent the next several hours in Kim's office, recovering from the first of 34 judicial switchings that were part of her formal sentence. Victor moved a chair close to the recovery table and took a seat to massage her hands and the uninjured parts of her body.
Maria Elena did not move once she was settled on her stomach on the table. The pain searing into her was bearable as long as she stayed still, but any movement caused her welts to throb and burn. For a long time the pain and trauma from the switching filled her thoughts, pushing out anything else that might have worried her just a day or two before. But anyhow, it was done. The trial was over and her first punishment was over. She would fall asleep (or pass out), her welts would turn much darker, and eventually she would wake up and begin her life as a convicted criminal.
As happy as she might have been about her success during Criminal # 101025's trial and sentencing, Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna had to move on with other responsibilities. For the moment she was done with Maria Elena. The criminal had been switched, returned to her custody, and now was safely on a recovery table with her lover to comfort her. Meanwhile, she had to deal with other cases, including the recent arrest of a French antiquities dealer who had been caught smuggling some ancient artifacts out of the country. That particular case would be a real challenge, because Kim had never defended a suspect who had violated the country's antiquities laws.
The Spokeswoman glanced at her assistant, Criminal # 98946, who was more than eight months pregnant with a stomach that was painfully swollen. She had held up well so far, but within a week or two she would have to go on maternity leave, leaving her boss with a double-load of work. Not a pleasant thing to contemplate, especially with the trial of that antiquities smuggler coming up.
Program Director Cecilia Sanchez briefly went into the Central Cathedral to make sure her students' clothing and other personal items were safely stored. She smiled slightly as she picked up a bag full of unused signs and banners, the props with which the Americans would have created a public scandal had Kim not intervened. Cecilia thought it would be better to get rid of the bag of protest items, just in case they decided to get stupid again. She passed the bag to a Cathedral attendant and asked him to burn it. The director's next concern was herself. Because she had gone to trial, she was wearing one of her best dresses. She vaguely wondered if she might be called upon to perform Public Penance along with the others. If that happened she would have to toss a dress worth nearly $ 700 into a fire pit, something she had no desire whatsoever to do. Better to take off the dress and put on a prayer robe, just in case. She paid the attendant a copper coin to rent a black robe, changed into it, and put her dress with the items belonging to her students. If the Church decided to collar her for any reason, they would not burn the prayer robe. Cecilia reflected that it was a bit hypocritical that the Clergy had no problem burning clothing that belonged to other people, but if someone went in wearing a Church-issued prayer robe; that was one item that would never go into the fire-pit.
Once she was properly attired in her rented outfit, the exchange program director was ready to go to the Temple of the Ancients and deal with her students. She walked several blocks from the Central Plaza to the nearby Plaza of the Ancients. She took a deep breath as she approached the Temple, still concerned about the possibility that she might be collared along with her students. She really could not think of any reason she would have to be collared, but she wanted to be ready just in case. She had been collared once before, during the summer of the first year she spent in Danubia, along with her fiancé and her friend Cynthia Lee. After four months the Church released the three Americans from their Penance, but within a year both Jason and Cynthia returned to the Temple, burned their clothing for a second time, and resumed performing Public Penance. To some extent she could understand why Jason would want to return to wearing a collar, but Cynthia's motives were a total mystery. Cecilia did not ask, because if a person was performing Public Penance it was not considered appropriate for an outsider to ask why.
Cecilia climbed the stairs and entered the main Temple chamber. She expected her students to be on the back balcony, which was the spot where people usually began Penance service to the Church. As she exited the rear of the building, sure enough, there they were, along with the Priest from the Cathedral. The students were kneeling, each one with a Priest or Priestess standing behind them praying with hands placed upon their shoulders. Cecilia approached the group and fell to her knees. She stayed upright, however. She was not wearing a collar and therefore was not expected to place her head on the ground.
The director could tell that everyone in Carmen's group was scared out of their wits. Their eyes were wide with confusion and worry over the sinister ritual in which they were participating. She noted that their temporary collars already had been taken off and that each was holding a more permanent collar specifically fitted for his or her neck. Within a few minutes they would be asked to accept the collars they were holding, knowing that their existence would become very different from what they had been used to over the summer. Their daily lives would become comparable to the life of Criminal # 101025. For them to truly show support for Maria Elena, merely protesting for a single morning would not be enough. For at least a month they would be required to live like her, to become little more than criminals themselves.
Carmen, as the leader of the protestors, was the first to hand her collar to the Priest standing over her. She swallowed as he placed the device around her neck and locked it. As instructed, she knelt forward, placing her head on the ground and completely exposing her bottom and vulva. She would have to stay in that position until all of her companions were collared. Cecilia continued to kneel as she watched; hugely relieved that so far there had been no mention of her being collared along with her students.
A few minutes later 14 US citizens, one in a black prayer robe and the others completely naked, left the Temple of the Ancients. Each was holding a sheet of paper explaining what was expected from a person performing Penance. Cecilia led her group directly to the university. Later she would have to send someone to the Cathedral to pick up the group's clothing and her own dress.
Cecilia told her group that instead of taking the trolley they would walk to the campus, which was nearly two kilometers away. She explained that the students needed to get used to being naked in public as quickly as possible and that walking fully exposed along a major street was the best way to do that. More importantly, she needed time to explain the protocol required of anyone performing Penance and make sure the students understood that what they were doing was a very serious commitment. She reminded the group that regular university classes would be starting the following week.
"Before you get into class, you need to make sure you completely understand the rules of Public Penance. You gotta kneel whenever you talk to anyone who's a public official, which means if you need to talk to any of your professors, you gotta be on your knees with your head on the floor before you open your mouth. In theory that would mean me as well, but I'm not gonna make you kneel in front of me unless you screw up and piss me off."
Cecilia gave the students a chance to think about what she had said and continued:
"The Danubians are gonna be watching you, especially now. I want you to understand that as long as you follow protocol, you're doing something that they'll consider very honorable. You break protocol, and they'll consider you dishonored, so make sure you memorize what's on that paper the Temple gave you. And another thing. Don't you be talking about what you're doing to anyone. People don't talk about Public Penance. You don't have to justify why you're collared, because that's between you and the Church. Public Penance is not something you discuss; it's something you just do. If you start talking about what you're doing or trying to explain why, you'll be dishonored. Get it?"
"Anyhow in your case there's no mystery, 'cause everyone knows you're doing it for Maria Elena. And that's another thing. I want each of you to be proud of... (well, not exactly proud, because the Danubians make fun of that, being proud, I mean) ...but...I guess...just understand that you made a big difference in her life. Not just with the perjury, but also the switchings. Without you, she probably would've been sentenced to somewhere around 100 switchings total. Thanks to you it got cut down to 34. And keep in mind it'll probably be less than that, 'cause they won't switch her if she's pregnant and they won't switch her if she's done some outstanding act of public service. So, you accomplished a lot more here than you could have in the US or anywhere else. I mean, in the courtroom they did pay attention to the fact you guys were out there kneeling and holding up your signs. Anywhere else, you would've gotten blown off."
Cecilia and the others walked quietly as they approached the university. They had missed language class and would barely be in time for physical fitness training. There were 47 students in the program who had not participated in the protest that the director needed to talk to. She gathered the entire group, with the 13 naked protesters standing off to one side.
"OK people. I think you all know that your Colombian classmate went on trial today, and that 13 of you went downtown to protest what was gonna happen to her. Well, we all found out there's a correct way to protest here, and what your classmates are doing is the way it's done. After the protest they had to go to the Temple and get collared. For those of you who don't have it figured out yet, they're performing Public Penance. Now, I really don't give a shit how curious you might be about it, because the Danubians don't talk about Public Penance. Do NOT ask them anything about what's going on. As for how long they'll stay collared, that's between each one of them and the Church. I'm warning you again, don't you be asking a bunch of questions, 'cause they can't answer! So don't ask!"
Maria Elena woke up late in the afternoon. Victor, who had been reading a book while she slept, immediately stood up and took her hand. She needed to get off the table to get a drink, go to the bathroom, and leave the office. Very carefully he helped her get down as she winced from the welts that covered her backside and shoulders. A few minutes later Merchant Victor Dukov and Criminal # 101025 slowly walked down the stairs leading out of the Central Police Station. He held her arm as she went down the steps on unsteady feet. She noticed that people were watching, but was too tired and in too much pain to really care.
They took a trolley to return to the university, and from there slowly walked back to Victor's house. Cecilia gave her a glass of blackberry punch, while Pedro looked at her with a terrified expression. Cecilia later would have to explain to her nephew that Maria Elena had been a naughty grown-up, and what happened to her was how naughty grown-ups had to be punished. A few minutes later Maria Elena was on Victor's bed, completely exhausted and desperate to just lie still.
The next morning the criminal woke up and went to the kitchen. Her body still throbbed and ached from her punishment, but Cecilia had told her that she needed to resume her normal life within 24 hours of her trial. She would be expected to help with breakfast and to return to the university to resume her classes. Her cruelly-punished body would be on display while she gardened and when she was with the norteamericanos. She would understand that it was an important part of her sentence for everyone in her life to see her after she had been switched.
Maria Elena's employers were understanding of her situation and gave her a very light assignment, sweeping sidewalks. The welts still throbbed, but the gentle movement of sweeping and the hot late summer sunshine on her skin began to heal her more quickly than she could have expected. She felt humiliated anytime she noticed someone looking at her, but for people to see her after a switching was part of her Path in Life as a criminal.
Class was more difficult. The norteamericanos gathered around her, some of them wanting to express sympathy and some of them just curious to see, up close, a person who had received an infamous Danubian judicial switching. Cecilia explained that there was a tradition that all punished criminals had to perform when surrounded by people who knew them. Maria Elena had to put her hands on the language instructor's desk and bent over slightly, to allow her classmates to examine her more thoroughly. The criminal's face flushed with humiliation and resentment as she stood still and her wide-eyed classmates studied the painful welts that remained from her first judicial switching.
Equally unpleasant was having to face Carmen and the 12 other students who now wore Church collars on her behalf. The 13 naked exchange students all looked very uneasy with their situations. The most difficult adjustment was attending language class in the nude, especially when they were called upon to answer a question. The rule was that a collared university student had to stand up, kneel, and place their head on the floor before responding. If the student answered correctly, the language instructor granted permission to "recover" and sit. If the student answered incorrectly, that person had to remain kneeling, with their bottom and genitalia fully exposed to the rest of the class, until called upon again. The instructor tried to go easy on the collared students, but protocol was protocol and he was not in a position to tell them not to comply with what Public Penance required of them.
After class Criminal # 101025 asked Carmen to gather the collared classmates together. She let them know that she was well-aware that it was because of their sacrifice that the perjury charge was dropped and she had been sentenced to a single switching per year. Now that she already had endured the first of those dreadful punishments, she could fully appreciate the huge favor they had done for her. To be switched once a year would be bad enough, but without them she would have faced the switching table at least once every six months. She tried to express her gratitude, but then tears welled up in her eyes. Although she had started to cry, she forced herself to give her classmates the real reason she was so affected by what they had done for her. Carmen translated:
"I...in all my life...there's only been two people who ever cared about me...I mean cared about me to ever actually do anything for me. One of them was my mother. The other was my boyfriend...my first boyfriend. I'll never see either of them again. My boyfriend is dead, and I am ashamed to face my mother. So I am alone, and there isn't anyone to care about what happened to me. Or that's what I thought. You all cared about me, and you were going to go get yourselves arrested to try to help me...and now you're all...naked...because you cared about me. I...I love you...for what you did for me...I mean...I wasn't worth it...but you did it anyway...and I will always remember...and I would give my life for any of you..."
Maria Elena broke down crying. One by one she accepted a hug from each of the classmates who were sacrificing for her.
She knew, at that moment, that in spite of the difficult existence she faced as a collared criminal, she had gained so much more by coming to Danubia than she ever could have imagined. Exactly two weeks had passed since that moment in the airport when she was desperately trying to get that drug dog to be quiet and those two cops came running up to her with their pistols drawn. Just two weeks, but already she knew that she had been redeemed...redeemed so that she could learn to care about other people and have a life worth living.
The following day was Wednesday of Maria Elena's third week in Danubia. She woke up and gently kissed Victor. She had spent yet another night in his bed, but still was too sore to have sex with him. She hoped that by that evening she would be recovered enough to resume that portion of her life. She got up and looked at herself in a full-length mirror. Her welts were still very dark and painful, but she noticed that they had just started to fade. Excellent. Another day gardening in the sun would help, and hopefully by the beginning of the following week her skin would be completely healed.
She helped Cecilia with breakfast. They chatted about the upcoming fall semester and a likely change in Maria Elena's work schedule. Because the norteamericanos would be enrolled in normal classes with Danubian university students, the language training would end and Maria Elena would have to work longer hours in the garden. The Ministry would pay the university for a tutor, but only for two hours a day. Also, because she no longer would be part of the exchange group, Maria Elena would not have to attend physical fitness training.
"I guess the point is you've gotten to know my students, but after next week you guys won't be together in class anymore. They'll all be in different classes taking different subjects. That's when things are gonna change in the exchange program and people will start going their separate ways. It's like that every year, the summer group splits up once they start normal classes. The way things normally work is that several cliques will form; you'll have groups that end up not having much to do with each other. I wouldn't be surprised if the collared group forms its own clique at the beginning, but once their collars come off, I bet they'll split up. Anyhow, whether or not you hang out with any of my students is up to you, but you'll have to remember they're free and you're not, so they'll always have more time than you."
Once she had cleaned up from breakfast, Maria Elena went to the university and reported for work. Her boss decided that she was healthy enough to rake leaves, so he handed her a rake. He then departed, leaving the criminal alone to reflect on her own situation. She realized that, as much as she idealized her classmates, it was true they would move on with their lives as soon as the semester started. She felt she was close enough to Carmen that their friendship would continue, but she did not feel she knew any of the others well enough to predict what would happen. One big problem was the reality that most of them spoke no Spanish and she did not speak English, so they would only be able to communicate in Danubian.
As she raked, Maria Elena realized something else that troubled her. She did not much care for Cecilia. The Dominican's abrasive and bossy personality grated on her, so she hoped to be around her as little as possible in the future. The sooner she did not have to rely on that irritating woman, the better. Cecilia had been extremely helpful and never did anything to offend her, so outwardly she would have to remain cordial. However, over time she hoped to build a life that would allow her to distance herself from her housemate. Being friends with Carmen offered one opportunity to not have to deal so much with Cecilia. Another opportunity she had was to finish taking over the responsibilities of the house, which would free Cecilia to spend more time away with Jason or with her students.