Check out the prologue here:
Maureen Bradshaw was a middle-aged human woman of around average height. She was thin and underweight, like all humans who reached her age. She often wore a sceptical frown, which had become her customary appearance in the media. The frown formed three long age lines across her forehead and made her look worn.
She was a prominent figure in both human and virn news, because she had a unique job that required her involvement in both worlds: Maureen was the official Liaison between humans and the virn, the rulers of Montague 7.
Most humans viewed this as a special, even in some instances an honourable position. They thought there was something prestigious about attending meetings with senior virn figures and giving interviews to the media. As the longest serving Liaison in the history of human-virn relations, Maureen knew just how wrong they were.
Yes, it was true that she had permission to leave Valhalla, the camp the virn had graciously (as it was officially documented) allowed humans to settle, whenever she wished. It was possible for other humans to get that same permission, but the virn had made this a long and difficult process for the average human, so many of them had never seen the world beyond the walls. A handful left the camp illegally every month or so, but they were always rounded up by the virn authorities and dragged back to Valhalla. The escape and recapture would always be widely reported in the virn media, and then a few days of uproar about the breach in virn security would occur before the whole thing would be forgotten about.
It was also true that Maureen got the opportunity to practice her virnin frequently in the presence of real virn, rather than the artificial holo-programs that were used in classrooms. They had pre-set conversations installed on them that became dry rather quickly. Meeting real virn outside of Valhalla had given Maureen a first-hand look at virn life, and how different it was from the life they had granted humans in their so-called generosity.
Those were the parts of her job that Maureen was asked to talk about the most. They were only the barest elements of her work, and if anything, they only served to reinforce her belief that humans were deliberately kept out of Valhalla in order to prevent their integration into virn society. It was not the first time that the Virn Empire had repressed a species to serve their own ends: they had a history of doing so with lesser-developed species, following the conquest of their planets.
This was not something virn history books discussed, but there were plenty who were willing to discuss how they had been treated if the price was right.
Some humans liked to point out that the virn were not exactly what they would consider moral. The virn governing body on Montague 7 did things because those things benefitted their own people. They had created an entirely separate branch of government for humans, led by humans, to shift the responsibility of human affairs off their shoulders. The human government needed the permission of the virn government to do anything or pass any legislation, which meant it achieved very little, but it did what it was intended to do because the human government was there to take the blame.
Maureen reported to the human government, but she did not like to get too involved with it. She knew it was a puppet, and that was a part of her job she greatly disliked.
The absolute worst part of her job, however, was meeting with the virn Controller, who was essentially Maureen’s counterpart. The Controller, a proud virn woman named Zuwrath, had next to no interest in bettering the human position and seemed to take great joy in making Maureen’s life as difficult as possible. Zuwrath refused to budge on most issues, although she expected Maureen to jump through hoops to accommodate her demands. The virn had the upper hand in their relationship and she liked to remind the human of that. All things considered, Zuwrath was perfect for her job.
Whenever Maureen had to deliver Zuwrath’s new demands to the human government – which then moved to put them into action without debate – there was outrage in Valhalla. The human media broadcasted ugly little cartoons of Maureen trying and failing to persuade an anti-human Zuwrath to show a little compassion. The media loved to depict Maureen, and used her image at every opportunity.
Although Zuwrath’s stubbornness was well-known, there had been a few occasions when Maureen had been able to persuade the Controller to do something positive for humans. This was not a case of changing the virn’s mind, because that was impossible: it was about persuading the Controller that a little addition would do a great deal for virn as well as for humans.
Maureen was a symbol of achievement against insurmountable odds (when the media was not out to get her), and that was the kind of role model young humans needed.
Of course, Zuwrath was not the only virn Maureen had a working relationship with. Others could be more reasonable, at least when compared to the Controller. Aside from Zuwrath, the most important were the leaders of the thirty-eight regions on the planet, each the head of a government sector ruling over a part of Montague 7. A handful of them had been nice enough in the past to express their wishes that humans and virn might one day live together in peace, but had also felt concern that it might cause trouble if humans were integrated into their region.
Maureen was used to being told that she was welcome, and that her people were welcome too … just not here. This was at least an acknowledgement that human life was incredibly hard. The harder it got, the more disgruntled humans became – especially the youth, who could cause Maureen a great deal of trouble. When they rebelled, Zuwrath placed harsher demands on the human government, and the average virn man and woman became a little more concerned about the presence of humans on their planet. This meant that human life got harder. It was a vicious cycle that Maureen had been fighting for far longer than the ten years she had spent as Liaison.
She had to believe it was possible for things to change, even if that change took generations. Maureen did not expect to see virn treat humans as their equals in her own lifetime.
The Liaison had heard about the two human teens who had tried to bomb some high-end virn mall, and so she had waited for Zuwrath’s call. It had not been a long wait. Zuwrath had decided against the standard digital communication to summon Maureen, and had instead decided to send two virn officers to Valhalla to fetch her instead. Maureen suspected that their presence was designed to frighten humans into obedience, lest anybody might feel inspired by the two silly children.
They had buzzed her when they had arrived at the gates of the camp, and Maureen had gone to them laughing loudly at their unwillingness to enter. Zuwrath had likely warned them not to: there had been a few incidents in the past when her underlings had gone home and shared the reality of how humans lived with the virn media. The Controller did not need a surge of sympathetic interest in the human cause.
The masked officers escorted Maureen to Zuwrath’s headquarters in an unmarked vehicle. Valhalla was not officially located in any region, but Zuwrath worked in Louch, the region to the north of the camp. There, the Controller busied herself night and day to keep humans contained within their own little world and prevent their involvement in wider virn society. Maureen had stressed to Zuwrath on many occasions that their separation and segregation only served to increase the mutual dislike the two species shared for one another, but Zuwrath did not seem to care. It did not matter whether the average virn held the correct opinion of humans, so long as the virn remained better off.
When Maureen entered Zuwrath’s office, the Controller’s secretary greeted her. He was a young, somewhat jumpy virn on an apprenticeship. His squeaky voice put him at under twenty years of age, and probably still in the early stages of puberty. When it broke, it would no doubt match his scaly hide and narrow eyes far better than the squeak did. The virn life cycle was on average, and based on their own calendar, forty years longer than that of humans – more, when one considered the life expectancy in Valhalla. This meant that virn children enjoyed a long and happy youth and were not officially classed as adults until they reached twenty-five years of age. Puberty did not start until the late teens at the earliest.
‘Wait here,’ the secretary told her. He entered Zuwrath’s private room to see if she was ready, then came back out a moment later. ‘Take a seat.’
Maureen knew that Zuwrath was more than ready to see her. The Controller just liked to agitate her by making her sit down and wait in the corner of her office every single time she was summoned. Maureen did her best to ignore the Controller’s deliberate manipulation: she had a great deal of practice when it came to Zuwrath.
She counted twenty-three minutes before Zuwrath poked her scaly head around the door of her private room and instructed Maureen to come in. The Liaison obeyed, as politely as she could.
Zuwrath’s office was a large room decorated with spectacular paintings, all by famous virn artists who were now long deceased. It was the Controller’s private art collection, but Maureen had always thought that the paintings, with their elegant swirls, sharp angles, and earthly colours, paled in comparison to Zuwrath herself.
The Controller was tall, a full head and shoulder over Maureen, with wide-set eyes and dry, scaled skin. The colour of her scales – or her armour, as Zuwrath had once referred to them – indicated her family’s racial purity: Zuwrath was from one hundred percent virn stock, and she liked to make sure that everyone around her knew that. There was no interspecies breeding in her ancestry. Her tail stuck out the back of her clothes, long and strong. She was pure enough that she could regrow it if she ever lost it.
She wore clothes of brown and moss green, which matched her scales. Every inch of her body, apart from her tail, head, and neck, was clothed. The body suit zipped up on Zuwrath’s left side and gave her enough freedom that she could swell up if she wanted to threaten or needed to defend herself. The spines down her back always looked sharp, but the thick material she wore protected others from cutting themselves if they touched her. Maureen had never seen Zuwrath in a mask; the Controller was too important to wear one.
‘Sit down,’ Zuwrath instructed, waving a gloved hand at the chair on the opposite side of her desk. Maureen took the seat as Zuwrath also sat. The Controller straightened a few papers on her desk with an amused smile, because she finally turned her thin yellow eyes on the other woman. ‘Maureen,’ she said, ‘let’s not waste our time here.’
‘With all due respect, Controller,’ Maureen replied, forcing herself to sound as though she did still have some respect left for the other woman after the long wait, ‘I know what this is about, and it’s a complicated issue. This attempted bombing is only one in a long list of incidents. It’s more than a matter of what’s right and what’s wrong or what can be done in response to this specifically – it all comes down to the human situation.’
‘The human situation is that your people destroyed your own planet and my people gave some of them a place to settle and –’ Zuwrath screwed up her face in repulsion, her eyes narrowing until only the thin yellow slits of her pupils remained visible, ‘– repopulate.’
‘And we are starting to repopulate. Which we are grateful for. There are now far too many of us for humans to live comfortably in Valhalla. We need more space, better facilities, access to clean water and –’
‘It sounds like this has happened at a very convenient time.’
Maureen fell silent. There was an awkward pause in which the Liaison and the Controller stared across the table at one another. As always, Maureen was the one who backed down. That was the way all of their standoffs ended; Zuwrath would have been content to sit there and stare at Maureen forever, barely blinking, but Maureen wanted to get to the matter in hand. The virn’s body had a higher tolerance to a lack of food, water, and bathroom facilities than Maureen’s, and her priorities were seemingly to be as difficult as possible.
In addition, Zuwrath knew Maureen too well. She knew that Maureen could not accept violence, because Maureen had personally led a campaign several years previously against the militarisation of human anger. The Liaison had been at the forefront of converting many young humans who had been physically aggressive towards virn to a peaceful form of protest instead.
Yes, they continued to protest, and they still irritated the Controller, but the virn media did not pay that much attention to humans who protested in a reasonable way. That would have put humans in a far too favourable light – but at least it was not negative attention.
‘You know I didn’t have anything to do with this, Zuwrath. You know it’s a result of how desperate young humans feel. What those two teens could’ve done sickens me. It sickens every good, honest, hard-working human.’
Zuwrath scoffed. ‘Well, I suppose there must be a few around. Ah, it sickens the humans, but your people continue to attack mine nonetheless.’
‘I’ve told you before, those are not my people.’
‘They’re human, aren’t they? You’re human. That makes them your people.’
‘It does not! My people are peaceful. My people don’t behave in ways that are detrimental to human affairs.’
Zuwrath leaned over her desk, her yellow slits boring into Maureen’s pale pupils. ‘Humans are humans,’ she said, as though this was supposed to mean something. ‘When one human attacks us, we must assume that all humans are a threat. Who knows how many sympathisers there are in that camp?’
‘There are no sympathisers!’ Maureen responded heatedly.
‘I cannot be certain of that. My media cannot be certain of that. Do you think you can convince the average virn that his or her family would be safe if a family of humans lived next door? Can you swear their children would be safe playing with human children? There have been problems with species integration throughout the history of the great Virn Empire, but you humans are something else. You cannot be trusted.’
‘The behaviour of an extremely small minority is a response to the way we have been treated over the years. Come on, Zuwrath, you know the virn media was against human from the beginning. Yes, the violence is wrong, and I’ll continue to repeat that until I’m blue in the face. Yes, the loss of both human and virn life is terrible, but –’
‘The loss of virn life,’ Zuwrath correct her, ‘is an abomination.’
‘It is. I’m not trying to deny that. I’m trying to get you to see that we’ve been treated as inferior, as second-class, as incompetent, as unintelligent for so long, as … as a species whose rights can be ignored for the benefit of the Empire. From the moment that we arrived, almost fifty years ago, we’ve been treated in that way. That’s why we slave away in factories with poor lighting, inadequate heating, and dangerous machinery, taking minimal breaks, while virn men and women work in clean, healthy environments that respect them and their needs. We need better standards, Zuwrath: we can’t spend as long in the sun as a virn without becoming dehydrated, and we can’t work for as many hours without rest.’
‘Then perhaps my predecessors fifty years ago were correct in placing you in that camp,’ Zuwrath stated.
‘Zuwrath, we’re as intelligent and capable as any virn. Our bodies aren’t identical to yours, but that doesn’t make up any lesser than you. Just like the offspring of virn who breed with other species can become tired faster than you, or they can’t grow back their tails, or they have fewer scales … we’re different, but just as valuable.’
‘Some of the half-virn, half-bexelm children can store food and water in their bodies for up to a week in case they have to go without,’ Maureen pointed out. ‘That’s not inferior.’
The Controller’s eyes lit up, and she smashed her fist onto her desk before jabbing a long finger at the papers she had fussed over when they had first sat down. ‘You are here to discuss what happened at the shopping mall,’ she reminded Maureen. The Liaison forced herself to keep a straight face, despite her desire to grin: it was an achievement when Zuwrath ended an argument without first proving herself right.
‘Right, yes, of course. Yes. Well, obviously, we humans are deeply sorry for the upset that this incident has caused.’
‘And what am I supposed to do when the shoppers start demanding compensation for trauma? These high-class virn think the empire of themselves. If they see an opportunity to sue, they’ll go for it.’
‘Please express our deepest sympathies. We woefully regret the actions of these two humans. However, Zuwrath, I would like to point out that the governors and I feel the situation could have been resolved without either of the humans being killed. If the perpetrators had been virn, well then, some humans might argue they would only have been stunned –’
‘A shipment of new containers was scheduled to be delivered to Valhalla tomorrow,’ Zuwrath interrupted. She rifled through the papers and pulled one out of the pile, then waved it in front of Maureen’s face. The Liaison saw the receipt for two thousand new containers, which would likely have housed more than ten thousand humans. She knew what Zuwrath was getting at.
‘We’ve been waiting for those containers for almost five years now,’ she said. ‘There are many families who’ve lived in tents since the first colonists settled here. They’ve been so patient, waiting for their chance to live in a container, where they can be protected from the weather and from thieves and from the spread of disease, and to have their own screens where they can view the news and learn to communicate with virn and better themselves and –’
Zuwrath screwed the piece of paper up into a ball and threw it into the bin at the end of her desk. Maureen stopped talking.
‘They can wait a few more years, then,’ the Controller said.
‘Zuwrath,’ Maureen said, picking her words carefully, ‘people won’t stand for this. Those you punish for this action have done nothing wrong and have never caused you any strife – but the more humans you upset, the more enemies you’ll create for yourself. Don’t punish every human for this horrendous incident. Don’t place the blame on the heads of the innocent. On children.’
The Controller clicked her tongue and waved a hand at the door. ‘Get out,’ she said. Maureen stood, deliberately raking the wooden legs of her chair against the floor. Zuwrath flinched backwards at the sound, her sensitive hearing alarmed by the sharp noise.
‘One day, Zuwrath. One day you’ll go too far.’
The Controller’s grin almost split her face in two.
‘I said: get out.’