VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

Large, bold fonts flashed the names of the stores across the wide halls of the shopping mall. The text reflected in the shiny windows of those opposite, lighting up the goods that had been carefully set up and placed on display. Some of the stores were decorated with glittering lights, there to catch the attention of the busy shoppers, whose wallets and purses bulged with the potential to splurge on new and fashionable items.

The shopping centre had long, pale walls. Occasional pieces of modern artwork hung in some of the empty spaces. They were each labelled with the name of their creator, mostly students who lived in hope that the shoppers would notice their work and commission a piece for their own homes. The ceilings were high, designed to give the impression of peace and tranquillity; everything was there to encourage the happiness of the shoppers.

Heels clicked on tiled floors, creating a rhythmic pattern just audible above the soft music playing from the speakers high on the walls. The heat in there was astonishing, but it did not seem to bother any of the shoppers. The strutted around without a single concern for the temperature.

This was a place for the super-rich. The shoppers walked around with their noses held in the air, decked to the nines in designer clothes that proudly demonstrated their elitism. They wore dresses with bone collars that had been taken from endangered species (after the natural death of the animal, or so it was claimed). Handmade shoes so intricate that each pair was one of a kind. Fur coats, gloves, and hats; the marks of people who were simply too wealthy to care about the little man – or the whines of those do-gooder campaigners who were on their side.

Their children trailed along behind them, dressed immaculately in clothing that was worth more than the average man’s best suit. Some of them carried pets, which wore studied collars and pretty, unnecessary little items of clothing.

The precious stones worn by the shoppers shone in the bright lights of the mall. They hung on their jewellery and were stuck to the pieces of metal in their piercings. Their noses, ears, and lips bore loops and gems that gave them an air of obscene glamour. The communicators on their wrists were top-of-the-range, the newest designs to come off the market. Wearing anything as outdated as the second-best model would have been disastrous to these people. They flashed their wealth with confidence, bold and unafraid.

Slowly, they drifted from store to store, scrutinising what was on offer in judgemental voices. Store assistants rocked back and forth on their balls of their feet as they begged silently to whatever deity they believe in that they would make enough sales to fill their quota that day. They wore masks covered with the branded logo of their store, so that the shoppers would not have to look at their faces when – or if – they addressed them. It was customary and created a divide between the wealthy shopper and the employee that reinforced their social classes.

Prices were of no concern, which was why they were never displayed openly in the shop windows. If something was good enough for these shoppers, then the price of it was irrelevant.

It was rare to see middle- and lower-class shoppers in that mall. If they did manage to save up substantially, they occasionally went along to splash out, but when they did they clutched their money nervously and left feeling robbed. Heads would turn in their direction as they moved around the mall, undisguised tut tuts following them as they went. They were not encouraged to feel welcome; indeed, their presence was considered suspicious.

Many of the rich shoppers pitied these lower classes for their absurd fussing over the mere matter of price. Why did they bother to visit at all, if they had such a preoccupation with spending money? There were cheaper, outdated malls for their kind in other locations, loud and unclean places that suited them and their kind.

Even more unusual than lower-class shoppers were humans. Human men and women had strange opinions about right and wrong and good and bad, and they were not afraid to let these opinions be known. They had no sense of their place – which was somewhere else, far away from this mall – and made themselves the centre of attention wherever they went. The idea of a human being able to afford anything on offer in this mall was beyond ridiculous.

That was why the young human male and female who entered the shopping centre in the heat of a mid-week afternoon were so curious. They were evidently not wealthy enough to be there; that was obvious from the mud on their shoes to the knots in their hair. Shoppers stepped aside as the two humans approached, or else turned on their heels and went in the opposite direction to avoid walking past the pair altogether.

‘Liz,’ the young man whispered to his partner, a sense of urgency in his voice. ‘I’m not sure about this.’ He was dressed in a tracksuit with a long coat thrown over the top, wrapped tightly around his body. It was at least a couple of sizes too large for him, and he looked lumpy. One of his arms was wrapped around the woman’s shoulders, but she was the one leading him. They walked a short distance inside the mall, past a couple of security guards in masks who turned their heads and watched them go by, as though daring the humans to make a wrong move.

Liz, who had been clutching at her own tightly worn, lumpy jacket, removed her hands from the material for just long enough to pat her partner the back. ‘Ignore them, Jack,’ she said, as her hands found their way back to the jacket. ‘There’s no law against us being here. Besides, this is important. You know why. Nobody here cares. The virn don’t care.’

Jack stopped walking and took several deep breaths. Liz halted less than a second later, and spun immediately to look into his eyes. ‘Yeah,’ he said after a few moments of tense silence, ‘yeah … we have to. We have to.’ It sounded as though he was trying to convince himself more than in agreement with Liz. Jack dragged his eyes away from the piercing stare of his sister and looked around the mall instead, his eyes darting this way and that. Sweat was already forming on his brow at the thought of what was ahead, but that could have been put down to the heat. His hands shook a little as he checked that the coat was still closed. ‘Should we – uh – should we look around, or – or something – then?’

Liz pursed her lips in thought. If she was nervous or uncertain of what they were about to do, then she did not show it. ‘Yes, let’s go deeper inside,’ she said, before she spun around and walked on to scout out a store that interested her. ‘This one,’ she added after a while, pointing to a large store with an almost empty window, save for four handbags that were each seated atop a gold podium.

They headed in that direction, but before they could reach the entrance to the store the two security guards had caught up with them and stood in their way.

Liz puffed out her chest a little and said in her best, yet still somewhat broken, virnin. ‘Can we help you?’

Random security check,’ one of the virn guards answered. ‘Come with us.’

Jack, whose virnin was not as good as his sister’s, looked blankly at Liz. She made no sign that she was concerned, so he did his best to imitate her and plodded along silently behind her, following the two guards into a small room located near the entrance of the mall. The door closed behind them, and the two humans looked up at the masked guards with their best innocent faces.

Jack wanted to scream. The hairs on the back of his neck were making him feel itchy, and he was sure that the sweat on his brow was going to start forming pools of water at his feet at any moment.

One of the guards took off his mask and placed it down on the table. He stepped towards the two humans, and leaned down until he was eye-level with Jack. His sharp scales were too close for comfort, and Jack struggled to remain still under the glare of those thin, yellow eyes. The guard hissed sharply, smirking at Jack’s evident discomfort.

You look a little too hot, human. Not got something to hide, have you?’

Jack turned to Liz, for help more than for a translation.

Your mall’s very hot,’ she told the guard, looking him directly in the eyes as she spoke. There was a moment’s pause. ‘Why have you brought us here?’

Random security check,’ the other guard repeated.

Why? Random, two humans? We’ve got nothing to hide.’

Looks to me like you might have.’

The guard allowed those words to dangle in the air between them for a while. The one staring at Jack briefly flickered his eyes down to his oversized coat, and Jack found that he didn’t have to understand what was being said to know exactly what was going on.

He felt so stupid. Why had he allowed Liz to persuade him that this was something they should do? Why hadn’t they stayed in Valhalla, where they would have been hungry and miserable but safe nonetheless? It was all his sister’s fault: it had been her idea, her plan, she had been the one who had convinced Jack of its necessity. Now they were in serious trouble.

Jack stared into the unblinking eyes of the virn guard and swallowed the lump in his throat. He was sure that the guard would have been able to knock him out in one blow, if he wanted to. Jack was also pretty sure that the guard wanted to. It would be only too easy for the virn to get away with it. Humans, in the mall, causing trouble. Tried to get them to leave politely. Kid was scaring people. Had to do it, really, no other choice. He just wouldn’t comply.

Take off your coats,’ the masked guard said.

Liz shook her head. Jack, ignorant to his meaning, copied her. The guard in front of Jack, noticing that he did not understand the language, clicked his teeth impatiently.

‘Your coat comes off now,’ he told Jack in plain English. He had a thick accent and the words blended together a little. He prodded the young man’s shoulder with a thick finger, the point of his manicured nail digging through the material and into Jack’s skin. ‘Feel less hot then.’

‘No,’ Jack replied, a little bluntly. ‘I – I mean, I’m fine, thanks. I think I – I’d just like to leave.’

He tried to step around the guard, but a whirring sound stopped him in his tracks. He looked around at the other guard and saw that the virn was pointing a blaster at Liz’s face. It was long, thin, and the blue light on the side indicated that it was armed to stun.

Jack looked at Liz and wondered what he was supposed to do now. This was not a part of the plan. She stared at the blaster with one eyebrow raised, as though she was daring the guard to fire. Jack’s guard prodded him in the shoulder again, this time harder.

‘Okay,’ Jack said, seeing no other way out of the situation and wanting desperately to find one. ‘Okay. Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll take it off.’

‘Jack!’ Liz warned him. Jack paused, his hands hovering over the sash of his coat, poised to untie it.

His hesitation encouraged the guard with the blaster to change its settings from stun to kill. The light on the side turned from blue to green.

Defying his sister, Jack pulled the sash loose and let the coat fall down to the floor. He saw a flash before he was overwhelmed by an intense surge of pain in the middle of his chest.

Then it was over.

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