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Starg was short for a virn, which still put him at over six feet in height. He limped on his right leg, an old battle wound, and he stooped a little as he walked, making him look shorter than he was. It was his responsibility to oversee peace in the Piku region, which shared a border with the camp of Valhalla.
He had a proud military background. Once he had spent his maximum permitted time in the virn army – thirty years, unless one’s military feats were considered so great that it benefitted the Empire for the soldier to stay – he had been offered his current position, which he had been in for twelve years. Starg was no longer a military officer, and he did not have as much authority as the local security forces, but what he did have was sway over the relationship between the virn in Piku and the humans in Valhalla.
His official title was Keeper of the Peace, but whenever Starg was asked to describe his job he referred to himself as Receiver of the Nuisance. When he was not dealing with his own people, some of whom did everything they possibly could to start fights with humans, then he had to handle the humans themselves. He did not like humans, at least as a rule, and he liked associating with them even less. One thing he despised more than humans, or at least on par with his hatred of them, however, were virn who deliberately provoked trouble between the two species. That was not because he felt particularly sorry for the way that humans were forced to live by the Empire – he had, after all, fought in many battles for the Empire – but instead because when virn provoked humans, humans tended to respond negatively.
For this reason, Starg did everything he could to keep the humans content within the walls of the camp.
Most of the incidents Starg had to deal with were relatively minor. Somebody had offended somebody else, somebody had insulted somebody else’s cultural heritage, somebody had started a fight with somebody else, and so on. Occasionally, though, something happened that shook Starg and his team from brow to tail.
The near-bombing of the shopping centre was one of the most extreme cases he had ever had to deal with. It had caused a great deal of panic and Starg was at something of a loss. Bombings happened every now and then, and humans were by no means the only rehoused species to attack the virn because they felt their lives were unfair. What was so alarming was how far the two humans had managed to get into Piku in order to threaten the richest part of the district. Nobody had stopped them; only a few had spotted them. Somehow, they had managed to build themselves a couple of rudimentary devices and walk straight into one of the most prestigious malls on the planet.
And these had been young humans, not yet adults. Imagine what they might have been able to do if they had been fully grown!
Zuwrath had begun hassling Starg for information on what he was going to do to punish the camp from the moment he had heard about the near-miss. A message from Maureen Bradshaw a short while later had confirmed that she was just as concerned about the safety of her people and the negative impact of this nastiness.
“It’s not something that the 99.9% of humans do, or even consider doing,” she had put in her message. Starg knew that. He was hardly going to deal out blame unconditionally, even though he thought so little of humans. Of course, he knew what Zuwrath’s response to that would be without having to hear it: some humans did do it, which was apparently enough to warrant sanctions upon them all.
That was why Starg had visited Valhalla after the incident, only to discover that Maureen had been summoned to Louch to meet with Zuwrath. That was typical of Zuwrath: she never thought Starg was important enough to know what was going on. He was the Keeper of the Peace in Piku, and yet she had not even bothered to invite him to attend: all she cared about was what he was going to do to make other humans suffer for this. The Controller was always going over his head, and Starg was not the only official on Montague 7 who took issue with her.
The government in Valhalla offered him a place to stay and wait for Maureen’s return. It was a small, stuffy container that was more like a tin box than a building. Starg was convinced that he had been left in there on his own to get a tiny taste of what humans experienced every single day. As the hours passed, he increasingly considered getting up and leaving without a backwards glance.
He knew that humans lived in poor conditions, but that did not mean he had to live it himself. After all, they never helped themselves. The cold silence built up around him until he could stand it no longer.
His need to go to the lavatory was the final straw. Starg was not as young as he had once been. He grunted and lifted himself off the metal bench he had been uncomfortably squatting on, stomping as he walked out of the container and away from the camp. He relieved himself where nobody could see, then climbed into his rover and began the long journey back to his office.
Maureen spotted Starg’s rover from a distance. She recognised it and called for the shuttle driver to pull over. The shuttle only stopped for long enough for her to jump off, and she watched it move away before she waved down the rover. Starg saw her and pulled over by the side of the road. He climbed out of his rover and walked towards her.
They shook hands in the way that humans typically greeted one another.
‘I hope I find you well, Starg,’ Maureen said.
‘I visited the camp to look for you,’ Starg replied. He limped over to the kerb and swung himself down into a sitting position. Maureen walked with him and sat down next to him, aware that Starg would not appreciate it if he had to strain his neck to look up at her. The Keeper of the Peace in Piku would not be made to feel uncomfortable at the Liaison’s expense. ‘Zuwrath failed to tell me about your little meeting – I suppose she thinks I’m not important enough to be included in a discussion concerning the affairs of my own region. I believed I would catch you in Valhalla.’
‘Where you would’ve had me at a disadvantage, surprising me in my own home,’ Maureen commented. Starg was easier for her to talk to than Zuwrath, and Maureen had a lot of experience speaking with him. They had no reasons to quarrel; they were both just trying to do what they thought was best. Zuwrath was direct and final, but Starg recognised the importance of treating humans with decency. He was not very good at it, but he tried.
‘Perhaps so. It wasn’t just the shopping mall I wanted to see you about. I have some information I doubt the Controller would want to share. Valhalla seemed like the best place to do it.’
Maureen rest her elbows on her knees and put her chin in her hands. She leaned towards Starg. She knew what he wanted from her: the exchange of information was never a one-way process with men like Starg. ‘We only discussed the repercussions of the bomb attempt. Nothing to do with your people, and I suppose by not inviting you along Zuwrath thought she could make it doubly hard by getting you to punish us, as well.’ Maureen paused; the look that crossed Starg’s face revealed that she was correct. ‘She’s refusing to deliver two thousand containers that we’ve been long waiting for. Think of all those humans back there living in tents, waiting for the day they can get a safer, stronger, weather-resistance home. That’s two thousand families who won’t get what they were promised all those years ago.’
Starg grimaced. ‘I have seen some of those tents,’ he said, ‘and I have smelt them, as well. It’s a poor life. Perhaps if those who lived in them worked a little harder, or –’
‘Oh, don’t start that, Starg, I’ve had enough nonsense from Zuwrath already. You know those stories about humans being lazy aren’t true. Every species, every nation, every community has its own examples of those who want a free ride, but that doesn’t mean you can label all of those people in that way.’
‘Well … that’s how things are, I suppose. That’s how humans look from the outside.’
Maureen clenched a fist and reminded herself of the importance of patience. She nodded her head, and waited for a few moments for Starg to speak again. When he did not, she had to push him.
‘There’s something you want to tell me?’
‘There is.’ Starg looked up and down the road as though checking that it was clear before he continued. ‘Zuwrath’s office sent some information out to the Keepers of the Peace. I know you’re closer to me than to any of the other Keepers. In another life, we might even have been allies.’
‘Starg. I’m welling up with tears.’
‘I’m serious, Maureen. Though … if you don’t want to know …’
‘Oh no, no, I’ll hear you out. I don’t mean to be snappy, I don’t, it’s just these meetings with Zuwrath … they make me so frustrated! I find myself making smart remarks to everyone when I get home. So, please, do go on.’
‘Indeed, she expects a lot while giving nothing in return. Which is, of course, what she’s done this time. Zuwrath’s given virn news broadcasters more powers to discuss the “Human Issue”, as they’ve been instructed to call it. There’s a list of specific broadcasters who have her permission – she’s not exactly tried to conceal what her intentions are.’
Starg reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, which he passed to Maureen.
‘She’s been watching my communications for a while now,’ he explained. ‘She can’t watch a pen, though.’
Maureen turned the folded slip of paper over in her hands and opened it, her eyes scanning down the list of broadcasters. A sickening feeling rose from the bottom of her stomach and filled her mouth with the bitter taste of bile.
‘They’re all extreme, virn-first, broadcasters,’ she commented.
‘And they’re all anti-human immigration.’
‘Yes, yes, I can see … listen, Starg, do you want this back?’
‘No! I want it destroyed. Might fall into the wrong hands if not – I’m sure somehow Zuwrath will be able to trace the handwriting back to me. Actually, I brought my light.’
‘Very well. Give me a moment to memorise what I can, then.’ Maureen looked down at the list again. There were names of news broadcasters in print and digital media, from every region of the planet and even some off-world agencies. One of them broadcast empire-wide. When she could not bear to look at it any longer, she passed the paper back to Starg, who set it alight with the flick of his lighter. He dropped it on the road and they watched it burn until there was only a pile of ash.
‘Those channels will not attempt to discuss the Human Issue fairly. Neither will the papers. Digital media will love it – communicators will be filled with anti-human stories every minute of every day. Virn don’t need the truth, providing they have enough news stories saying the same thing. The more attacks – or attempted attacks – there are, the more the anti-human sentiment will grow. This will only add more to your troubles. That is what I wanted to tell you.’
Finished, Starg stood and dusted himself down, then made his way to his rover. Maureen followed him. Before he climbed inside, he spun around to face her.
‘Do you want something more?’ he asked.
‘Only to say thank you for warning me about this,’ Maureen replied. ‘Sincerely, Starg. I mean it. Thank you.’
‘Hmm.’ The Keeper of the Peace of Piku scratched his chin, and Maureen was not sure whether he believed her or not. ‘You think that things are going to change?’
‘Things are changing every day. The only thing we can do is try to point them in the right direction, so that one day, humans will wake up in a better world.’
‘Well, I hope you’ve got a plan to make that happen,’ Starg said. ‘For the record, my right direction is a little different to yours. I see your people’s pain, and I acknowledge it, but I’m unconvinced by the arguments for full human integration. There’s not much need for it. What we do need is a world where virn are told the truth about humans, rather than this slander.’
‘I think our truths may be somewhat different, too.’
‘Whatever do you mean?’
Maureen brushed a stray hair out of her eyes and blinked slowly at Starg. ‘Do you think I’m worth the same as a virn woman, Starg? Are any women of any of the species that so enjoy the pleasure of living beneath the banners of the wonderful Virn Empire worth as much as a virn woman?’
Starg appeared to be visibly uncomfortable. He gripped the handle on the door of his rover and flexed his fingers. He could not look Maureen in the eyes.
‘I fought for the Virn Empire,’ he reminded her.
‘I know that. You won’t hear a word against it – but I wasn’t attacking the Empire.’
There was a long pause, which Maureen enjoyed more than she was willing to admit.
‘You’re a good woman, for a human,’ Starg said at last.
‘Like I said, I think our truths may be somewhat different.’
Starg shook himself with a huff and turned to climb into the rover. Maureen watched him disappear at the next junction, heading back to Piku, before she set off walking in the opposite direction, back to Valhalla.