You can catch up with the Valhalla Rising novella via the links below:
Like many human children, Christine had become used to seeing her parents cry from an early age. They had cried because they had been worried about Christine; they had cried because they had been worried about money; they had cried because they had allowed themselves to reach the brink of starvation just to feed their daughter. Every tear that Christine had seen had brought with it a new revelation.
She had not even been aware that there was another way to live until she had turned eight. As much as her mother and father – her dear, sweet father – had tried to hide their tears from her, it had been difficult when they had all lived together in a one-room container.
Christine and her childhood peers had been taught to stick to their local communities in Valhalla, and warned not to stray too far from their homes for any reason. It was not only virn who could be dangerous: a stray child wandering around in Valhalla made easy prey for anyone with bad intentions. These warning usually kept children away from the borders of the camp until they reached their early teens.
Some had known more than others. Maureen had wanted her daughter to enjoy her childhood as much as possible, and that was why she had tried to keep Christine in the dark. School had taught Christine the basics of six different languages: five of them human, and some simple virnin, but the only time that Christine had seen virn was in the media.
That had changed on her eighth birthday. She had wanted to throw a party and invite some of her closest friends along, but the local park had not felt exciting enough. Christine had heard whispers from some of the other children about theme parks and adventure playgrounds, where children could go on all sorts of thrilling rides. It had sounded like a dream birthday treat.
There was nothing like that in Valhalla. Space was reserved for housing and there were no funds for the upkeep of public land. So, once Christine had proven unmoveable on the topic of a birthday party in a theme park, Maureen had used her connections to the virn government to get them permission to visit one.
This had caused a lot of strife between Maureen and the other parents. Christine had not understood what the problem was at the time, but once she had grown up she had come to realise just how huge a suggestion like that could be. To take their children beyond the borders of the camp, where they would be surrounded by virn, was to put them in a frighteningly new situation. Maureen had fallen out with a number of people to make her precious eight-year-old happy.
Christine had been aware of some of the things that virn news agencies said about humans – she had not been completely ignorant. Her parents had, however, always encouraged her to believe that she was equal to a virn. Their word had been good enough for her, and for that reason she had understood no significant difference between the two species. News anchors and the occasional children’s show had taught her what virn looked like. She had been able to speak enough virnin to look cute without saying anything meaningful. Her father had wanted her to speak with virn children, so that she could get some first-hand knowledge of the language and see that they were ultimately the same. He was one of the reasons why Christine had not turned into a bitter, twisted, anti-virn adult.
In the end, only one of her friends had gone with her. Even that had been an achievement. The parents of the other girl had also attended, and they had clung to their daughter’s arm whenever a virn had so much as looked at a member of the group. When they were sure that no virn were in earshot, they had been rude and nasty about the species.
Christine’s parents had shown far more decorum. She distinctly remembered her father turning to the father of the other girl and telling him to “stop being such a judgemental wanker”, because it was the first time that Christine had ever heard her father swear. She had mimicked her parents’ behaviour (minus the swearing), and had been as polite to the virn as she was to any human.
This attitude had largely received a negative response from all virn – apart from one little boy.
He had been stood in front of her in the queue for one of the rides, which was not dissimilar to the merry-go-rounds pictures in old human books. Christine had spotted it from a distance and felt drawn to the music, as well as the sight of the riders spinning slowly as they bobbed up and down on wooden beams. It was not the most exciting ride, but the passengers had been cheering loudly, and so she had asked her mother if she could go on it.
By the time that they had joined the queue, Christine had been used to the stares of the virn around her. It had felt strange to have so many pairs of eyes on her at once – and that would never change – but the park had been far too exciting for that to bother her much. The stares of adult virn had been worse than those of their children, because the adults had apparently forgotten how rude it was to stare and make someone else – a child, nonetheless – to feel ashamed simply for existing.
That was why, when the virn boy in front of her had turned around to look at her, Christine had ignored him. She had smiled and looked right through him, as though he had not been there at all.
Her friend, on the other hand, had reacted defensively in her first close real-world encounter with her virn peer.
‘Why are you staring at us?’ she had asked, in the best example of an angry nine-year-old voice Christine had ever heard. The girl’s parents had each grabbed hold of one of her arms. ‘Go away.’
The virn boy’s gaze had shifted slightly, and he had looked at Christine’s friend as though he had not considered that his gaze might provoke such a hostile reaction. He had replied in his own tongue. ‘I wasn’t looking at you. I was looking at her.’ Then he had pointed at Christine, who had spun at her waist to silently question her mother.
‘Can you ask him, mum?’ she had asked. Her father probably would have made her speak to the boy herself, but her mother had been kinder on her quiet nature, and had jumped in before the man could argue. Maureen’s virnin has been infallible even then, so she had politely asked the boy why he had been looking at Christine, and he had hissed something back that Christine had not understood.
Both of Christine’s parents had chuckled.
‘What is it?’ she had asked them.
‘It’s … it’s …’ Maureen had said between laughs, a rare look of genuine amusement on her face, ‘it’s … oh, Chrissy. He says he thinks you’re pretty.’
‘I was hoping it would be a few more years before something like this,’ her father had added.
Christine could not remember blushing so strongly either before or since. Her face had glowed red with the heat that had risen off her skin, and her parents had laughed even more at the sight.
‘Can you speak my tongue?’ she had asked the boy, because her translators had not seemed like much use to her in those moments.
‘Very small,’ he had replied, indicating this with two fingers held close together, followed by something extra in virnin. They had just about been able to share their names using a combination of English and virnin, so Maureen had helped to translate between them for a while.
The queue had been long, but it had not been long enough.
‘Rokesh wants to know if he’ll see you again,’ Maureen had said to Christine, when they had been close to the front.
‘I don’t know, mum. Will he?’
Christine’s parents had shared a look. ‘Why ever not? We’d be happy for you to have a virn friend.’
‘Providing he’s only a friend,’ her father had teased her. Christine had not understood the implication of this at eight, but she was sure that her father would have found it amusing had he discovered how things had turned out. She had agreed to meet Rokesh again and Maureen and the boy’s mother had exchanged details so that they could schedule a convenient time and place.
When the humans had been back on the transporter, making their return journey to Valhalla, her friends’ father had commented on Maureen’s willingness to speak on friendly terms with virn.
‘They all treat us like the crap on the bottom of their shoes!’ he had exclaimed loudly. Maureen had rounded on him in an instant.
‘Firstly,’ she had retorted, ‘I behave as I do to stop ignorant humans and virn alike from publicly insulting one another and causing unnecessary grief between our species. Secondly, I do it because if we keep whispering and making nasty little comments behind their backs, then they’ll only shun us more. And thirdly, if you’d bothered to learn your virnin, you’d know that the boy we were talking to was a half-blood with a human father.’
The man had not said a word after that. Maureen had arranged for Rokesh and Christine to meet up in a neutral area on the eastern border of Valhalla, where they had swapped childhood games and held hands as though it had been the naughtiest thing anyone had ever done.
Five months later, Christine’s father had died.
She had drifted into a mental realm where she believed that nobody would ever accept her again. Maureen, who had been grieving heavily herself and had never shown interest in another, had tried her best to keep Christine in high spirits, and it had done wonders when Christine imagined where she might have been without her mother’s help. That did not mean it had been enough.
Rokesh had asked her to play, but she had not answered any of his calls and he had grown frustrated with her. Nevertheless, the boy had continued to be persistent, and Christine had been on the verge of blocking him when his final message – translated by a cheap but generally effective tool – had changed her mind.
I know it’s bad. My dad’s gone too. He was a nice man. My mum says that I’ll see him again in Shrl. Do you think that your dad and my dad are friends now? I think so.
Shrl, the virn afterlife typically only mentioned during times of great mourning, did not have a religion connected to it as human concepts of the afterlife did. It was not associated with the performance of good or bad deeds, or of somehow being worthy of attaining eternal salvation. Humans were not taught about Shrl in school, mostly because human parents disapproved of teaching their children about non-human beliefs when that time could be dedicated to human ones.
Christine had asked her mother what Shrl was and whether her father was there, and Maureen had smiled and squeezed her shoulder.
‘Shrl isn’t like human beliefs,’ she had said. ‘Lots of humans think it’s strange – but, really, it’s no stranger than our beliefs. It’s just this place where everybody goes when they die. The virn believe that everybody looks the same there, because everybody is the same in spirit form. No difference in species, or height, or hair colour, or skin colour, or gender, or body shape … or anything.’
‘If everybody looks the same then how do you know who everybody is?’ Christine had asked.
‘Well, I don’t know. Maybe people wear name badges.’
In reality, the concept of Shrl was a lot more complicated than Maureen had made out. It was a non-physical plane of existence which existed both parallel to and beyond the physical world. The basic principle that Maureen had taught Christine was true, however: in Shrl no single species or individual was supposed to have any distinguishing marks, although it was actually thought to be a non-physical afterlife.
Maureen had taken Christine to visit Rokesh and his mother following the message. Maureen and Rokesh’s mother had been good friends for many years, until the latter had died. Christine and Rokesh had been young adults at the time, and had not long been declared an item.
Three years and six months later, and Rokesh was there stood at the doorway of Christine and Maureen’s container. It was raining heavily, a torrent of water cascading down off the metal roof onto his hair, flattening it. He was shivering. Christine invited him in immediately.
‘You didn’t say you were coming,’ she said, as he stepped inside and shut the door behind him. Christine had proven more adept at speaking virnin than Rokesh was at any human language, so they spoke in virnin whenever they could. She kissed him on the cheek, then opened a cupboard and pulled out a towel, which he received gratefully.
‘I didn’t actually know that I was coming until a couple of hours ago,’ he replied.
‘Why, what happened? You look awful! You’re all right, aren’t you? You’re not hurt or anything?’
‘I feel awful. I’m not hurt, no – but I’m not all right, either, it’s just …’ Rokesh sighed and dropped the bags he was carrying onto the floor. There were three of them, large and stuffed haphazardly with his personal affects. ‘Well, I’m here now, anyway. There’s a lot of negative stuff going around at my work. Anti-human stuff. And they found out that the non-virn half of me is human, and they fired me. Didn’t stop there, either – I was encouraged to leave town. Gently, at first. Then, when I didn’t leave fast enough, much less gently.’
‘Oh no, oh my goodness, oh Rokesh! Sweetheart, come here,’ Christine exclaimed, holding out her arms. He leaned into her, burying his head into her shoulder. His scales were rough against her neck, but no worse than stubble. ‘Don’t you worry now, honey, you can stay here with us.’
‘Your mother won’t mind?’ Rokesh asked. Despite all that Maureen had done for him in the past, he still sounded genuinely confused. Christine wondered whether he was really asking whether Maureen would mind, or if everybody else in the camp would mind.
‘No honey,’ she said, ‘she won’t mind at all.’
It was a three-mile drive from Valhalla to the closest virn town, and a good thing that was, too. The camp met the empty road, a shadow of tents and rectangular metal containers that looked gloomy and unkempt – where there was no wall to keep the humans in their place. Litter lined the road, but it was nothing compared to the sheer amount of rubbish in the camp.
Humans did not like to live in their dirty surroundings. If they have been able to do anything about it, well, then many of them said that they would have. It was Zuwrath who had decreed that garbage collections in the camp should occur only once every fortnight, rather than the standard three times a week that virn communities on the planet received. If there was a lot of rubbish produced on Montague 7, then that was because of the sheer numbers living on the planet.
After all, spending too much money on humans was highly frowned upon by many prominent virn figures. The more prominent they were, the more likely other virn would listen to what they had to say – and so the less that could be spent on humans the better.
The real cause of the litter problems in Valhalla was that the garbage collectors only turned up about half of the times they were supposed to, and when they did turn up they worked as fast as they could so that they could leave again. This meant that Valhalla was only serviced about once every four weeks, and poorly. The litter had naturally piled up until it had exceeded all storage capacity.
Although Maureen and the other leaders of the camp had done what they could to encourage their fellows to reuse, or else to dispose of their waste in the best possible way, there simply were not enough bins to go around.
The smell was more repulsive than the sight. It rose through the air and caused those nearby to cough and gag. The stench of rotten food, soiled clothing, and general waste was at its worst during the summer months, when the heat made the smell almost unbearable.
The people themselves were hardly in a better condition. They were smelly and miserable, though neither were their fault. The toilet system was appalling, with no private bathrooms in the camp whatsoever. Valhalla was dotted with small, brick buildings (as well as some of the original fifty-year old wooden cabins), which served as rudimentary public lavatories.
As for the public showers, they were little better than the toilets. There were separate blocks assigned to men and women, but there was little anybody could do to stop the wrong person walking into the wrong block, and there was no room for those who did not fit comfortably between the two genders. Hardly any of the showers had curtains, which meant humans became used to having next to no privacy from an early age. The lack of security meant that most families had a story.
Showering in groups was important, just like many other basic parts of human life. The simple act of walking alone could be dangerous – everyone in Valhalla knew that.
Once a visitor accepted the smell of the camp and the sight of the litter, they began to notice just how awful life in Valhalla was. The exhausted faces of the people said more than their words could ever have done. Their eyes were blank and hopeless, their lips dried and chapped, their skin grey and prematurely aged.
With so many crammed together in such a small, confined space, disease was rife. Though helpful young virn who were taking a year out of the medical degrees would come along to inoculate the children, and well-meaning virn charities sent volunteers to provide clean water and improve the sanitation – often temporary improvements – this could not prevent the spread of sickness.
Some of these diseases were venereal, and these were often the ones hidden away, unnoticed even by the carriers. Others were diseases that had been brought from the Earth, which had thrown the virn medical community into panic when humans had first arrived on Montague 7.
Humans suffered the most from virn diseases. Their immune systems struggled to cope with these alien viruses, and human science was not effective enough to defend them from some of their devastating consequences. Humans relied almost entirely on virn cures for these, as virn medicine was both more advanced and more effective.
Despite their problems, humans had learned to keep brave faces. They were a strong and defiant species, and they were keen to show it. Their schools were crammed full of students, and they used virn science and philosophy to demonstrate their sophistication and intelligence.
Some virn, apparently horrified by the idea that humans could reproduce, claimed that they bred too quickly, and that this was why their schools were so full and their camp was overcrowded.
Valhalla had originally been designed to hold five-hundred-thousand humans, and it had been classified as a settlement rather than a camp. The virn leaders who had brought the first thirty-five-thousand humans to Montague 7 had at least been smart enough to leave plenty of room for humans to repopulate their species. They had also introduced exercises to encourage cultural integration, in the hopes that before they reached capacity Valhalla would no longer be necessary.
Ten years after the arrival of the first human settlers, however, the project had proved too expensive, and the virn government had pulled out of what they had referred to as the “Valhalla Operation”. They had severely limited the amount of space allocated to Valhalla and then placed a single virn in charge of finding some way to combine virn and human society in a way that neither side would object to. A way which would ultimately benefit virn the most. This was the Controller.
The first Controller had been genuinely interested in human culture and the ways in which it was like virn culture. He had been happy to visit Valhalla, and had often called upon the virn government to provide humans with greater protection and improvements to what, by that time, was already being called a camp site.
That was when the owners to the largest virn media groups had stepped in and shaken things up. They had manipulated their news broadcasts to label humans as lazy beggars who were trying to take money out of the rich virn economy. This had not only led to the virn government refusing additional funds to Valhalla, but also to the withdrawal of some funding and the firing of the first Controller. Walls had been built around the camp, although they had never fully been completed.
A new Controller had been selected from within the ranks of the government, as had been the rule ever since. They were always decidedly anti-human, and through this sentiment the virn government was able to secure its hold on power on Montague 7. Their harsh treatment of the humans in the camp had satisfied the virn public for forty of the past fifty years, and during all that time there had never been an election they had lost.