The White Madness

This was posted over on my other site in March of last year. I hadn’t really set this one up then, but it had to go somewhere.

This is in answer to  flash challenge from a really cool guy, Chuck Wendig. You should go see his blog at terribleminds.com. I do warn you, though, he is definitely NSFW. And so is this challenge. It’s in response to a new app called Clean Reader. I won’t go into it here – check out Chuck’s blog entry titled “Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters.” The link is just below. ‘Nuff said.

The challenge is this, and I quote: “So, given all the hullaballoo with Clean Reader (“read books, not profanity”) this week, I thought a flash fiction challenge in pure defiance had some meaning. Thus: I want you to be inspired by that debacle. I want you to write filthily. Or write about filth. Sex, profanity, perversion. Fiction or meta-fiction. Any genre.”

My entry is a cut from my current WIP (Work In Progress). It’s current time, but set on another world. Sometime soon I’ll fill you all in on that. Just now, though, here’s the excerpt. It’s about people who’ve broken the rules, and those who have to deal with the aftermath. It runs somewhat over the 2000 words Chuck asked for, but hey, breaking rules, yeh? Only one cuss word. Said innocently, too. It’s the rest that hurts…

* * *

It was one of the times Deimo most feared; what he called the white madness, when his Master’s eyes were pale as ice and there was nothing human inside. A time when there was nothing Deimo could do to prevent or protect, but only stand and listen, sick and shaking and grieving inside but ultimately and utterly—helpless.

Sometimes, if he was there and could recognize the signs soon enough, he could head off the rage. Could dull its edge by offering his own body for the beating, let his Master spend the madness in the ring by putting up a real fight. Save a life by hazarding his own, where he at least had a chance to survive by his own skills.

But other times…

It had happened before. He had tried, gods knew, he had tried to save the girl, to put himself in between her and his Master, to no avail. She was already dying, and it was weeks before all his own injuries healed.

The worst of it was that his Master remembered what happened. Oh, not what he had done to the girl, no. But that Deimo had tried to prevent him—that, he remembered. The next day Khamasur had called him to the atrium and struck him down with one savage blow that left him dazed and bleeding on the floor, and stood over him with glittering eyes. And told him what would happen to his family if ever again Deimo stood between him and his intent.

Now it was happening again. Deimo had been out of the House, gone to the Citadel to meet with the Security Chiefs of the other Houses for a conference. When he returned, the watch commander told him that the Master was in such a rage as he had never seen, and when Deimo went to the atrium he found the man who had stood guard in his place sick and shaking and cowering in the hall.

What he found in the atrium was pure horror.

Deimo had the halls cleared from the atrium to the Master’s chambers, and threatened dire consequence if anyone so much as stepped into the short hall before he gave permission. He ordered the guard away from the Master’s suite, so no-one would see him covered in blood. Then he took charge of Khamasur, walking slowly with him all the long way through the House as he staggered like a drunkard from the exhaustion of his fit.

In Khamasur’s chambers Deimo stripped off his Master’s bloody clothes, drew a bath and bathed him, and put him to bed. He cleaned up the room and disposed of the bloody robes, then went back down to the atrium.

What Khamasur had done to the girl was brutal. Her body looked as though it had been savaged by animals: beaten and broken, the flesh torn and bloody. He stripped off what remained of her clothes and washed the blood from her body, then wrapped her in a sheet. Then he cleaned the atrium, washing down the tiles and columns until they were once again pristine white.

When he was done he took the body out of the House, carrying the dead girl in his arms and laying her gently across the seat of the car. He drove through the deserted streets down to the Agora and laid her in the shadows on the path nearest the House of Apollo Akestor, where she was sure to be found by the guards of the City Watch. Then he drove back to his House, sick and sad and weary.

But the worst was still to come.

The last time a madness like this had come on him, Khamasur had slept through the night and far into the next day. This time he woke again, not long after Deimo had left the House on his sad errand. Khamasur’s appetites had woken with him, and, finding no guard at his door, he commed his Governor, Panourgo. The Governor sent his runner, Oso, for wine and a tray of meats and cheeses, while he himself went to the women’s dorm. He woke the hall, chose a woman, and brought her to Khamasur, ignoring her protests and her weeping.

When Deimo returned the Watch commander met him at the door, telling him what the door guard had heard when he took over at shift change.

Deimo ran.

He found the door guard waiting in the hall, as far away from the Master’s door as he could get and still stand his post. Deimo took his report, then sent the guard away, telling the man that he himself would look in on the Master and stand guard until the next shift change.

And then he went inside.

It was a scene of carnage. Blood was everywhere: on the floor, on the walls and pillars, on the hangings. Khamasur lay naked in the middle of the room in a welter of gore, and Deimo went to him first. For all the blood on his body, only a small amount of it was his; cuts and abrasions on his hands from the blows he had given, and a long shallow cut on his arm that looked as if it came from a knife.

Deimo heard a soft sound, and looking up he saw the runner boy, Oso, on the balcony, cowering hard against the balustrade. He was shivering in shock, staring with his gaze fixed on Khamasur.

Deimo rose and came forward, then stepped between the boy and his Master to block his view, crouching down a few feet away. The boy was spattered with blood; on his clothes, on his face, and in his pale hair. “Oso,” Deimo said softly. “Oso.” He reached out his hand and the boy cringed, but his eyes lost the fixed stare and tracked to Deimo. “Oso, are you alright? Are you hurt?” Deimo kept his voice soft, soothing. The boy shook his head.

He looked back at the boy, and gestured back to the horrific scene. “Did you see what happened here?” Oso nodded. Very gently Deimo asked him, “Can you tell me?” The boy nodded again, and Deimo shifted, settled down on one knee.

“Master called Panourgo,” the boy said, his voice faint but clear. “Master wanted a girl, wanted wine, and meat, and cheese. Panourgo sent me to fetch wine, and meat, and cheese for Master, told me to bring it here. I brought it here.”

Deimo nodded encouragement, reassuring the boy that he understood. It would take time to get the full story, he knew; the boy had to tell it in his own way, and with the life he had to live and the horror of what he had seen tonight… It would take time.

“Master took the wine, Master didn’t want the meat and cheese. He wanted the girl. Wanted her to drink wine with him. The girl was afraid of Master. She didn’t want wine. She wanted to go, go back to her room, go back to bed. Master hit the girl, hit her. The girl fell down, and Master fucked the girl, hard, hard.” Deimo winced at how casually the boy said it, knowing it was the only word he knew for the act. For what had so often been done to him. Gods, the life he led in this House… “She cried. She cried, and she screamed, and Master hit her.

“Master wanted more wine. He got up and put more wine in his cup and drank it. The girl got up, too. She wanted cheese and meat. She went to the plate with the cheese and meat, and she took the knife to cut the cheese and meat. But then she ran, she ran to Master and cut him with the knife. Master threw away the cup with the wine. He took the knife from the girl and hit her with the knife. Hit her. Hit her. Hit her…” The boy’s voice trailed off, and he looked again at Khamasur on the floor. “There was blood when he hit her. When he hit her with the knife. She screamed when he hit her with the knife, and then she didn’t scream any more. She fell down. Master kept hitting her with the knife.” The boy stopped, and just crouched there, shivering.

Deimo looked around the room, looking for the body that was the source of all the blood, but saw nothing, no-one. He looked back at the boy. “Oso,” he asked, gesturing around them again. “Where is she?”

The boy shifted his gaze back to Deimo, staring at him with stricken eyes. Slowly, very slowly, the boy turned his head to look over his shoulder—through the balusters at his back, out to the sea.

Gods bless…” Deimo breathed. Very slowly he stood, trying not to frighten the boy any further. He moved away and went to the railing a few feet from the boy, looked over and down. There on the rocks, hundreds of feet below, he could see the body. Broken and still, white robes swirling on the incoming tide.

The boy spoke again; still quiet, still matter-of-fact. “Master got up, and he looked at her. He looked at her a long time. Then he hit her with his foot, and he looked at her again. Then he bent down, and he picked up the girl, and he carried her here where we watch the sun. He held her up, made her be standing here. And then he made her fly. She flew. She had white wings, and she flew down, down, down to the sea.” There was something strange in his voice when he said it, almost a yearning.

Deimo stared down at the girl’s body, and his heart ached in his chest. There was no way to get down there, no way to reach her. But the tide would take her, and the sea would give her peace.

He turned to the boy. “Oso, will you do something for me? For me, and for the Master?” The boy nodded. “Go into the bathing room and draw a bath. You can wash yourself, too. Here,” he said. He took off the dark gray tunic of his uniform, then took off the soft linen one he wore underneath. “If you give me your tunic when you take it off, I will have it cleaned and give it back to you. You can wear this one to go home.” He shrugged. “It’s big, but it’s clean.” He started to reach out to hand it to Oso, but the boy cringed back, so he folded it instead and set it aside where the boy could get it. Then he backed away.

He left the suite of rooms and went down the hall; found the cleaning supplies and brought them back with him. The boy was gone and so was the tunic, but he could hear water running in the bathing room. He settled down to cleaning the room, but when the boy came back out Deimo went and picked Khamasur up in his arms. He carried his Master into the bathing room and washed him clean once more, dried him off, and put him to bed again.

When he came back out, the boy was gone.

Deimo pulled out his com and called Altheo, the House Physician, and told him to come up to Khamasur’s rooms—and told him to bring a galánas device. There was a moment of silence, and then the Physician said one word. “Bad?” he asked.

“The worst.” Deimo’s voice was tight and hard, the words almost choking him.

“I’ll be there.”

Deimo put the com away and kept washing.

* * *

He was still cleaning when Altheo arrived. He let the Physician in and stood aside, and Altheo stopped dead in the hall, staring around him. “What happened here?” he asked, appalled.

“Khamasur,” Deimo answered, curt and succinct. “Two women are dead. One down in the atrium, one here.” He didn’t look at Altheo when he said it; couldn’t look him in the eyes. “I took the one down to the Agora. Just like last time.” His words were bitter. “At least she’ll get a decent burial.” He knelt down, went back to scrubbing the floor.

“And the other?” Altheo’s voice was faint. Deimo gestured to the balcony.

Altheo went to the rail, looked over. “Great Kheiron’s bow…” When he turned back, his face was sick. “And Khamasur?”

Deimo gestured to the bedroom. “Sleeping it off.”

“Is he hurt?”

“Abrasions on his hands, and a scratch from a knife.” He looked up at the Physician, his face gone suddenly bitter. “If you could put him out for—” He cut himself off sharply, but both of them knew the word he hadn’t said. Forever… “For the night. Until tomorrow. Until night.”

Altheo nodded. “Give us all some time to breathe.” He headed off to the bedroom.

Deimo looked up again. “Altheo—” The Physician looked back at him. “Oso was here, the whole time. He saw it all.”

“Oh, gods…” Altheo stood there for a moment, then shook his head and continued on. He came out a few minutes later, putting the galánas device back in its case. He watched Deimo for a few moments. “Deimo, are you—?”

“Fine.” The word was more a grunt than anything.

“Deimo.”

I said I’m fine.” It hung there between them for a long moment. “I’m sorry, Altheo. But what do you want me to say? That I’m appalled? I am. That I’m angry? I am. That I’m hurting, that I’m devastated about both those girls, that I wish we could just…” He cut off his words, sat back on his heels and looked up at the other man. “I’m all those things and a hundred more, and what good does it do to say them?” He took a breath that was half a sob and threw down the rag he’d been using. “What good does any of it do? We’re here. We can’t leave, we have too many ties and too many responsibilities, and just like that poor boy Oso we’ll be here until we’re broken or we die, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing, until we die, or he dies, or the world ends.” He looked away, picked up the rag, and started scrubbing again.

“This has to stop.”

“Let me know when you find a way,” Deimo said bitterly. “Until then there’s no use talking.”

“This has to stop. You can’t keep doing this.”

Deimo surged to his feet, and the Physician backed away hurriedly. “Then who, Altheo?” His words were savage, bitten off with an anger that had no recourse. “Should I have told Oso to do it? He would have, you know. He does what he’s told, it’s the only way he can be safe. It’s the only part of his life he can control. And we’re just like him, you know that, don’t you? It’s the only way we can survive here, keeping our heads down and doing what we’re told. The only way we can be safe. Except we can’t. Because there’s that…” He swung his arm, indicating the room around them, the bedroom beyond, and the balcony where a young girl’s life ended and he didn’t even know who she was. He wouldn’t know, until someone in the House reported her missing, and then what did he tell her family? His face shivered; too many emotions to show clearly, and then it went to stone. Cold. Hard. Expressionless. “Go back to your rooms, Altheo. You’ve done what you came to do. I have to finish.”

Altheo nodded, acknowledging what Deimo had said, and what he couldn’t say. He looked around again, then walked away. But he laid a hand on Deimo’s shoulder as he passed, silent commiseration. And then Deimo was alone.

* * *

Off the Grid and Lost – Danny Ryder

I figure it’s time you meet someone else on Thanah – one of the Gathered, Danny Ryder. He starts out as a bad boy – an ex-con, one with a desperate need to belong to something, a gang, whatever. So long as they’ll have his back, he’ll have theirs. But things don’t work out the way he planned… and he realizes there’s someone he wants to protect.

Month 5, day 26 – 186 days on Thanah

somewhere in the House

Nobody seemed to know where Ryder was lately, not his bad-ass homeboys, nor the Ouroi. He showed up for his work shift every day, looking rougher than usual but doing his job with a dogged focus. Just sort of keeping his head down, like he was thinking hard while doing something else. Shift done, he’d ghost over to the dining hall and eat—and then disappear off the House radar. Since in general no-one was much interested in looking for him, no-one much missed him either. His pack could care less—Roach was still pissed at him over the stupid kid, and the others found it safer to follow Roach’s lead rather than risk crossing him anyway. Still, even Roach wondered every once in a while where Ryder’d got to, in an annoyed, sort of missing-having-a-whipping-boy kind of way.

Where he was, was lost. Something—or someone—had poked him in a place he’d thought long dead, and now he was trying to figure out if this was a good thing or a bad thing. It had been a very long time since he’d thought about anyone but himself, and now he couldn’t seem to think about anyone else but her.

He didn’t really know why yet, hadn’t figured it out, but ever since he’d talked to the redhead in the back hall she’d been sort of there in the back of his mind. How she’d given him his space, coming on him like that. How she’d listened, really listened, to what he’d said; had seemed to believe him. How she’d caught on so quick that he had to cover himself, caught the ball and didn’t fumble. There was something to her that stuck in his mind like a sandbur and wouldn’t let go.

There was something going on with her, too, something big, something that when he thought about it set his teeth on edge like biting into a piece of tinfoil. She didn’t dress or act like a skank or a ho, but there was still the rumor in the House that she had some guy outside, real rough trade. But it didn’t fit with what he saw of her, and he couldn’t figure how anyone else could believe that. So something was going down, and she was deep in the middle of it.

Jimmy Spitz, a young kid he’d met in the House that was also from Brooklyn, he worked in the gym and he said she was in there like three-four hours every day, working out like a crazy person with some guy Arvanis and that security guy, Sinclair. Said they were teaching her all sorts of stuff he’d never seen before—not just karate stuff but wrestling and boxing and like that.

He’d learned she went out every two weeks with the Keeper, Kanti, but then Kanti came back alone every time and the redhead came back hours later all beat to shit and looking like she’d been run over flat by a garbage truck. Now maybe the word was true and she had some rough trade going—but those hours in the gym said something else to Ryder. That kind of drive said obsession to him, that there was something so big in her mind that was worth taking that kind of punishment.

He remembered back to that day in the dining hall when she’d laid the smackdown on him. She’d been beat all to shit like they said, and looked like she’d been through six kinds of hell. She’d hit him like a piledriver, looking crazy, freakin’ like she was on drugs. Now he was thinking it was something else—something worse, something sick. He knew a girl who’d been gang-raped, back home. She’d had that same look in her eyes, got the same freak on if somebody touched her when she didn’t see it coming. He’d heard she’d walked off a subway platform in front of an inbound.

The redhead, though—she was taking it the other way, fighting it, trying to make herself stronger, strong enough to take whoever was doing—whatever—to her.

The only thing he couldn’t figure out was why. There had to be a reason why someone would go out on purpose to take that kind of shit, and keep going back.

Maybe if he could figure out why, he could get her out of his skull and get back to his damn life.

* * *

The Fourteen Houses of Thanah

On the world of Thanah there is but one City. It is set on the eastern coast of a northern continent in a cirque valley on a high, high cliff, and it spills down to a harbor in the shelter of the mountain’s arms. The Fourteen Houses are spaced along the arc of the cirque like the prongs of a setting around the central jewel of the Agora, with the finest gem being the great Temple of Athēna Arkhegetis—Athēna the Originator—the founder, protector, and patroness of the City.

The Houses encompass the Lords of the City, their families, their workers and their families. Each House has its businesses, its offices, stores, warehouses and the like in locations throughout the City, but most of the workers live within the enclaves that are the physical Houses.

Within the Houses, the Master is the source of his or her House’s well-being—what each member needs to live: food, clothing, shelter, and health. Their House provides these to each member in exchange for their loyalty, their service, and their obedience. As with the great feudal lords of Europe, the Master of each House holds the rights of low, middle, and high justice: where his people interact within the House, his word is the final law. There is, of course, a certain parity of law across the Houses.

Elsewhere throughout the City, the Law is set by the Assembly; the lawmaking and governing body made up of the Masters of each House. Where people of multiple Houses interact, the Assembly is the final arbiter of law.

Thanah was settled more than two millennia ago by humans of Earth, brought there by an alien race known to them only as the Seekers. All that long time ago, a Seeker ship was cast away in the mountains above a great polis called Athenae, known to us now as Athens. The people that lived in the mountains befriended the Seekers and helped them to survive in their—to the Seekers—primitive world for the many years it took for a rescue to come. In gratitude, when the Seekers left for the stars they brought their human friends and servants with them, and settled them in the valley most like the mountains of their former home.

But as often happens, there was a worm at the heart of the beautiful fruit. Something in their new world was different. Whether it was something new and inimical, or something lacking, even the Seekers were unable to discover, and as generations passed children became fewer and fewer, and miscarriages more and more frequent. At long last the Seekers did the only thing they could think of to do: they went back to Earth and convinced more humans to return to Thanah with them in the hope that in time together they would discover and correct the problem.

It was not to be. At first again, the births were many, the children healthy, and the parents overjoyed. But once again the problem returned with succeeding generations. And so the Seekers went back—again, and again, and again.

In that same time, the Seekers taught the humans their technology, and their medicine, and all the other trappings of civilization.

And in that same time, the Seekers themselves waned as all life will eventually. When each Seeker knew its death was near, it took ship to seek a place among the stars, and soon there were no more Seekers. But the humans had learned well, and had built their own Ship, manned by them and sent out to the other colonies the Seekers had settled throughout the long generations. Colonies of humans, and of other races stranger still than the Seekers themselves. Through those years, the humans of the Ship of Stars traveled among the worlds as traders and explorers. But when it became clear that that their numbers would soon fall below what was needed to survive, the humans of the Ship went back to the world of their origin.

But they had never gone with the Seekers before and seen how they found their new colonists, and so the humans of the Ship simply took what they needed. Wherever there was a small village, or a group of people alone on a road or in a field, there the Ship-folk gathered their quarry, sending them to sleep with their technology and carrying them back to their new home of Thanah.

And so it is that the Gather-Ship travels a great circle among the stars, carrying goods and artworks and crafters in trade to the colonies, and thence back to Earth to acquire seeds and stock and goods and pretty things—and people. There is but one Gather-Ship, and its course among the stars takes almost twenty-five of Thanah’s years; more than twenty-seven of Earth’s.

This year, the ship brought back almost three thousand people from Earth. Among them was a young woman named Ari Dillon—and Thanah will never be the same.