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The newsreader was a tall, round virn with a chubby face and dark red hair. His skin was covered in light and dark brown scales, and his eyes were yellow slits with speckles of pale green. When he opened his mouth, a pink forked tongue slithered out and flickered across his dry green lips. The shape of his head suggested some non-virn blood, although exactly how much was debatable. It was evidently not enough to prevent him from reading the news on telecommunication screens to snobby full-bloods.
What was it, four generations and the blood no longer mattered? Maureen thought that was the virn view. His great-great-grandfather could have been non-virn, but the newsreader was far enough removed from that ancestry that it could no longer be considered a smear on him.
His cardigan was a deep shade of green. He wore a white shirt with a green neckerchief that matched the cardigan. He was seated at a circular desk, with only an electronic prompter and a cup of something hot and smoking visible to the audience. He leaned forward on the desk, rested on his elbows, a tradition for virn newscasters during important segments as a representation of the gravity of the subject being discussed.
It contrasted human news broadcasts, which made serious attempts at professionalism. Humans hid their prompters behind cameras and expected their newsreaders to wear suits, as well as to sit up properly. Maureen leaned forwards, towards the screen, as the virn leaned closer to her. The camera panned around the newsroom, before settling back on the newsreader.
‘Morning,’ he said in a dry voice (the only virn Maureen had ever heard say “good morning” was Starg, and for some reason he had found the phrase amusing), ‘and welcome. I am Vex Shaltot Hal, and this is Virn Empire News.’
It was one of those broadcasting networks that all humans knew was intrinsically against them no matter what they did. Typically, anything with “Virn Empire” in the name was pro-virn and anti-everyone-else. Virn Empire News was an outrageous and outspoken network, which had individual channels dedicated to major populated planets throughout the Empire. Something about it drew in a lot of lower-class virn viewers.
As far as Maureen was concerned, Virn Empire News and other similar agencies were power tools used by the major players in the Empire to control virn minds. It was a difficult argument to approach a virn with, though.
‘The main headline today, which everybody is talking about: the attempted bombing by two humans of a high-class shopping centre in Piku. The culprits, one male and one female, forced their way into the shopping centre, where they threatened and frightened shoppers by brandishing blasters. Thanks to the bravery of two bold virn security guards, the humans were disarmed and have been successfully transported to a nearby prison-planet.’
Maureen drummed her fingers against the arm of the bench she was sitting on. The two kids were dead, but everyday virn could believe they had been shipped away to some prison-planet, because in a couple of months’ time nobody would care.
‘Today, Virn Empire News is tracing the aggression of humankind back to its origins. This is an insight into the fifty-year history of the human camp of Valhalla, and how the humans who our great Empire saved from imminent destruction turned against their generous virn saviours.’
Maureen scoffed. The virn may have saved a handful of humans and allowed them to settle in a camp on Montague 7, but that was about the only thing they had ever done for humans. Maureen’s daughter, Christine, who was slumped on the bench next to her, rubbed a finger against her forehead and sighed.
‘Do we have to watch this?’ she asked her mother.
Maureen shot a side-glance at her daughter. Christine was in her mid-twenties, with dark hair and eyes. She had inherited her mother’s infamous scowl.
‘I’m not forcing you to watch it,’ Maureen replied, ‘but I need to. I shouldn’t even get this channel; I had to grease a couple of palms to get these new networks set up on our telecommunication system. And I’ve got to watch it. I need to know what they’re saying about us, every single lie and piece of propaganda. If I don’t know what we’re supposed to be fighting, then I won’t know how to protect people from it.’
Christine did not reply. She pushed herself up off the bench and patted her mother on the back, before walking out of the container. The door swung loudly shut behind her. Maureen kept her eyes on the telecommunication screen. The newsreader had disappeared, and a cartoon-like image of a blue-green planet had replaced him. It began to shift into an image of a cartoon-like forest, and an overhead voice provided the story.
‘The human species originated on Sol 3, or “Earth”, as the humans call it. Humans developed from a species known as apes. A primitive, backwards race, humans built enormous, all-consuming devices that destroyed their planet and polluted their environment. They fought wars that caused further damage to Sol 3, and in their desperation, they pleaded for some kind, considerate species to come to their rescue. The great Virn Empire heard their please and came to their assistance.’
Maureen watched as the little cartoon humans marched onto a cartoon virn spacecraft. This was not what had happened as she had been taught it. Yes, there had been occasions when the humans of Earth had waged terrible wars, seemingly unable to listen to the common-sense folks who had pointed out that everything would be better if they were all just nice to each other. There had also been times when the humans on Earth had done everything possible to pollute their environment – and not always unintentionally.
However, in the decade preceding the arrival of the virn, serious attempts had been made to correct these errors. Perhaps if there had been more time, or a few more common-sense people, they might have been successful. Instead, the seas had risen, and people had been pushed further and further inland.
This had resulted in too many humans and too little food. Diseases had spread, people had starved, and leaders had been powerless to do anything to save many of them. Then the virn ships had arrived, the first contact ever between humans and a non-human species – hence why the idea of them pleading for another species to save them was nonsense. One of the captains of the virn spacecraft had then made humanity an offer.
It had not been a good offer.
The captain had suggested that he be allowed to select a certain number of humans and transport them to another planet, where they would be able to establish a colony. It had not been a large number of humans compared to the amount of those left on the Earth, but it had been their best – and their only – chance to save the species.
Maureen’s parents had been lucky enough to get selected. She had been one of the first humans born in Valhalla, and so had received the best descriptions of Earth from people who had actually been born and raised on the planet. The children of Valhalla did not get that same privilege much anymore, and instead had to rely on how the planet and its people were portrayed in the media. There were very few who had been born on the Earth left.
The broadcast continued on whilst her mind had been working. The cartoon virn spacecraft, packed with cartoon humans, had now made to a cartoon version of Montague 7 and landed.
‘The rescued humans were given the land which is now called Valhalla, designed as a place of permanent residence for them.’ That was another lie, and not one that Maureen expected the majority of Virn Empire News viewers to recognise. ‘However, over the years they have demanded increasingly more from the surrounding regions, and have turned the land that was gifted to them out of the good of the Empire – and using virn tax money – into a wasteland.
‘It has been fifty years, and still humans refuse to accept virn culture, favouring their own backwards beliefs and practices. They have chosen to make themselves easily distinguishable from virn through what they wear, how they speak, and how they behave. They continue to speak their own language, to interact only with their own kind, and to teach the religious drivel of Sol 3 in our Empire. They do everything they can to avoid work and are only happy when the virn taxpayer is giving them money to fund their laziness.’
Maureen pushed her palm against her lips to prevent herself from swearing loudly at the screen. No good would come from reacting negatively to this slander: it was designed to piss everyone who heard it off. The people of Valhalla were incredibly hardworking. They practiced old Earth beliefs because that was the only major part of their heritage they had left. Outlets like Virn Empire News were all too supportive of the virn government using tax money to pay for their next war, but providing aid to give young humans a better chance in life? That was just ridiculous!
Perhaps if humans were freer to leave the camp – perhaps if they did not need written permission just to walk around virn cities – perhaps if they did not face racism and hatred every time they ventured beyond the walls and borders of Valhalla –
Perhaps if the factories built into the walls were decent places to work – perhaps if humans were paid the same basic rate as virn – perhaps –
The reporter was back on the screen in his cardigan and neckerchief. He was in the middle of something, probably a diatribe on why humans were the worst scroungers the virn had ever had the misfortune to come across.
‘… not the biggest problem concerning human integration into our society. What really holds these people back is their inability to cooperate with us. The human governing body was designed primarily to encourage humans to work with virn. However, humans have always had a different idea. Today, Virn Empire News can exclusively announce that it has discovered the human government’s real intentions!’
Maureen sighed and got up off the bench to pour herself a glass of something strong. What possible “real intentions” of a poor minority within society could be so dramatically damning?
‘A government which is really controlled by the corrupt Liaison, Maureen Bradshaw!’
It was good that Maureen had not taken a glass out of the cupboard before her name was mentioned. Glasses were hard to come by in Valhalla, and she hated drinking out of plastic cups. She would have had one glass fewer if she had made it to the cupboard any faster.
Her own face was on the screen. The photograph was, as she expected, less than flattering. It looked as though a sneaky journalist may have snapped it when she had been halfway through a bite of something spicy. She felt her surprise transform into rage as the newsreader continued.
‘Maureen Bradshaw is not the first human to adopt the informal title of Liaison. Neither is she the first who wishes to destroy the virn system of rights and laws and replace it with systems that favour humans. And she is certainly not the first who has tried to force our government to cave in to her outrageous demands.’
The newsreader paused for long enough for Maureen to realised that the noise she could hear was her own teeth grinding together. She was not a violent woman. The virn media had tried to knock her back before, and she had overcome it. Zuwrath had never allowed them this much freedom before, though.
It was almost as though the Controller had said “make up whatever bullshit you like” and the broadcaster had done exactly that. This was ridiculous. The virn had an empire, a damn empire. All humans had was too many of them squashed into too little space. What in the hell of it were these virn afraid of?
‘What Maureen Bradshaw has that gives her power is her privilege amongst humans. Her parents were some of those rescued from Sol 3, and she was born a mere ten months after the arrival in Valhalla. As she was born on Montague 7, she possesses the rights of a native, but born and raised in the human camp she has been educated to honour human culture over virn culture. Her ungrateful parents and tutors taught her to manipulate and use her position to influence the younger generations of humans and force our government into difficult situations.
‘This is why, two decades after the arrival of humans on our planet, our government wisely chose to distinguish between the rights of virn and the rights of humans born on virn-owned soil. Maureen Bradshaw, however, still has rights under the old laws. She uses this privilege and her position as Liaison to claim tax money from honest, hard-working virn men and women, which she gives to her own lazy people. She works from within our own system to eradicate our way of life and replace it with humans and their primitive ways.’
Maureen raised her arm and swung it at the elbow, around to the right until the telecommunicator turned off. She was motionless for a while, then folded her arms across her chest, wondering how anyone could consider it acceptable to tell such lies.
This was all Zuwrath’s doing, she was sure of it.
The human government was a small organisation with a big name. Most of the work it did was carried out by three men: Luther Spinney, an optimistic old gentlemen who was spokesperson and did what he could to keep everybody else’s spirits up; Anthony Russell, who was more of a realist, and knew more about the virn legal system than any other human; and Jakub Starosta, who was well-versed in virnin, both written and spoken, as well as virn culture and history.
Together, they formed a front against almost impossible odds. Anybody who saw them would have said that there was little difference between the three of them politically, although Maureen knew this was only because of the situation humanity was in. When they could do something, they did it without a fuss, and they did it that way because the choices they had to make were simple. Feed people or let them starve. House them or leave them to sleep outside. There were no big moral questions to face and bickering was a waste of time.
Starosta was naturally conservative. Spinney, ever able to see the good in the world, was a liberal. Russell did his best to sit somewhere in the middle of the other two, but he was fairly left-leaning when he got the chance to let his ideas shine. He had seen an opportunity in the beginning to create a completely new society founded on equality, but the virn government had stepped in the way of his dreams. Left-wing politics were not popular in the Empire.
Unfortunately, the three of them seemed to be increasingly left powerless. They had little ability to create jobs, generation income, or improve everyday life in Valhalla, and were unable to act without official permission from the Controller. They spent most of their time trying to remind humans of the importance of patience and resilience, and squashing the uncommon violent reactions from humans towards virn which only served to create them further trouble.
This was not easy. Young humans had a documented issue with virn authority and being put in their place by the Empire’s officers. When they were treated like second-class citizens and criticised daily, people tended to react negatively.
Spinney summoned Maureen a couple of hours after the false story had been featured on Virn Empire News. She knew that he did not have access to the channel, but news spread fast across the media. He had probably heard half the story from someone else who had heard it from someone else, but he would know enough. She could have sat around in her container and guessed what they were going to say to her without answering the summon, but that would not help anybody. Maureen could not allow the media to win by hiding away and doing nothing: she had to hold her head up high and remain strong.
The three men worked in a large container, five times the size of a standard container, which was divided into sections by fold-up plastic walls. Maureen walked inside, past the secretaries working at cheap typing systems, where they were preparing speeches, writing letters, or carrying out research. There were six, two for each governor (a number Zuwrath had dictated), all young men and women in neat suits, who hoped one day to become politicians to improve the human standard of living. In a corner of the container, a small group of other humans in similar suits usually sat and debated issues to be presented to the three governors; this time, as Maureen passed them, they fell annoyingly silent.
Fingers stopped flying over keyboards as she walked on. Eyes flickered in her direction and then away in embarrassment. Maureen pretended not to notice the stillness in the room. These people knew her, they knew what she had dedicated her life to achieve. It was the same ridiculous dream that they wanted to dedicate their own lives to.
Most of the jokes about her that circulated in the media tended to blow over after a couple of weeks, and then things would return to normal. This felt different.
She walked around the plastic wall that separated the three governors from the others, and approached them without hesitation.
‘Ah! It’s good to see you, Maureen,’ Russell said when he saw her. His voice was solemn, and she got the immediate impression that none of them felt it was good to see her at all. Sometimes, to her utmost surprise, Maureen found herself appreciating the way that Zuwrath and Starg spoke to her: at least neither of them pretended to like her. There was also no need for Maureen to pretend to like them. ‘Please, do make yourself comfortable.’
Maureen almost refused, but then she thought better of it and took the plastic chair that Russell was indicating to. It was cold enough that she could feel it through her clothes. She tried to figure out what kind of attitude it was best to display as she waited for one of them to speak.
‘Have you seen the news?’ Starosta asked, as though there was some chance she might have missed it. Her communicator had practically blown up about half an hour after she had turned off the broadcast and had not stopped since then; Maureen had become so bored of new messages that she had muted the damn thing.
Starosta was one of the oldest men in Valhalla and Maureen did not wish to insult an Earth-born at that moment. Not after all that talk of her so-called privilege.
‘I heard about it,’ she replied.
‘Which channel did you hear about?’
Maureen had lost count of how many channels she had heard about. As soon as the story had finished on Virn Empire News, it had been rebroadcast on just about every other virn channel Montague 7 had.
‘I heard it started on Empire News,’ she replied, forcing her face to remain calm.
‘Yes, that’s right,’ Russell said. ‘I reckon it’s been shown on about two hundred channels so far. And rehashed on communicators, too. Probably be in print tomorrow.’
‘That’s an awful lot of news agencies in a very short space of time.’
‘Yes, it is. Not all of them are as extreme as Empire is, either. A few of them have been quite good at reporting the conditions here in little segments. That’s in the past, though. I don’t think I need to tell you that it’ll only get worse.’
Maureen coughed to clear a lump in her throat. She looked from one solemn face to the next as she tried to silently reach out to each of the men in turn.
‘Do you think many virn will believe the story?’ she asked. She deliberately did not add about me to the end of her sentence. It was not a question she needed any of them to answer, but she did not want to appear as though she knew more than any of them. She liked her job and being smart about it was not going to make them any happier.
‘Many,’ Starosta confirmed with a node.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘me too.’
There was a moment of silence that hung in the air between them, the dull sound of conversation and typing on the other side of the plastic screen seemingly so distant. Maureen felt as though the four of them were holding a collective breath.
‘Look here, Maureen,’ Spinney said, leaning towards her in his seat. It was the first time he had acknowledged her presence since she had entered the container. ‘Don’t get us wrong. We don’t want to get rid of you. You’re good at your job, the best Liaison any of us have ever known.’ Russell and Starosta nodded in agreement.
‘You’ve done a lot over the past decade, and you’re popular here in Valhalla. This incident in the shopping mall, though … and then these reports a few days later … it doesn’t look good. People don’t tend to react well to things like this. The more people who get frustrated, the more people who will want to do something in response to the sanctions and the false stories in the media, and so the worse our situation will get. The loss of all those containers … well, I honestly don’t know how much more this camp can take before something goes horribly wrong.’
‘I realise this. Luther, I see these things first-hand every day. Sometimes I’m the first one there. After a while, I started to notice little indicators that tempers might erupt.’
‘Then you appreciate precisely how difficult this situation is for us.’
Maureen hesitated. She wanted to reply that no, she did not, because she thought this situation was perfectly straightforward and that, if she had been in Spinney’s situation, she could have fired the Liaison and told Virn Empire News that if they wanted to report on humans, they were welcome to come to Valhalla and do it properly. There would be no need for cartoon drawings or dodgy photographs then. She would have arranged interviews with as many news agencies as would have her, and she would have gotten the real stories out there, somehow. She would have taken full advantage of the fact that Zuwrath had allowed these channels to broadcast anything they wanted about humans and used the more liberal channels to generate a backlash of pro-human propaganda.
Spinney did not know about Zuwrath granting them permission, though. He likely suspected it, but he had not seen the list that Maureen had. He did not know how much there was still to come.
‘Yes,’ she said eventually. ‘I appreciate and understand.’
Russell glared at her from Spinney’s left, but Maureen did not react and kept her eyes fixed firmly on Spinney.
‘Good. Then you’ll also understand that, if you do become a focus point of an anti-human campaign, then regrettably … we’ll have no choice but to find your replacement.’
Maureen’s jaw tightened, and she adjusted her focus to the bald patch on the top of Spinney’s head. She wondered who amongst the suits in the other room was eyeing up her job.
‘It won’t go that far,’ she told him. ‘I can promise you that. I won’t give them the pleasure of using me as a tool to bring down the rest of our people. If it gets that far then I’ll see myself out.’
‘We sincerely hope it doesn’t have to come to that,’ Russell said.
‘As do I.’