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This is getting pretty lengthy now – I hope you enjoy!
Maureen’s communicator chimed six times before she answered it. She was busy working on a report for the Controller and the leaders of the surrounding regions about the cruel treatment of Rokesh, and why this would have a negative impact on all parties involved. She did not expect anyone to pay attention to it, but there was the small chance that someone might notice it and that, when they did, they would want to see something official with Maureen’s name on it. If she did not file the report, then she could almost guarantee that she would get in trouble for not filing it.
She also did not much care who was trying to contact her or what they wanted.
Eventually, she grew tired of the bleeping and flicked her wrist, opening the message that the sender was apparently desperate to deliver to her. It appeared on the screen above her desk, a long text file full of boring-looking bullet points and technical information that scrolled from top to bottom automatically, to reveal the scrawled sign of Zuwrath in an ugly dark yellow font.
Maureen thought the colour suited the Controller perfectly.
She cast aside her own report and flicked the screen back up to the top with an impatient finger. The title was “SCHOOLING FOR HUMANS”, and that was all Maureen needed to read before a sense of dread began to settle in her stomach. Schooling for humans? The Controller had outdone herself this time; human schooling was not supposed to be any of her concern.
A short note from Zuwrath – or more likely, one of her representatives – at the top of the page informed Maureen that every member of the human government had been sent this information too, and that it was to be implemented immediately. This was what humans were going to be taught from now on, and there were to be no arguments on the matter.
The first section was brief and oddly vague. It stated that human children had so far had a sloppy education that the virn needed to straighten out, to ensure that humans were provided with all the necessary skills they needed to successfully grow into adulthood. Maureen noticed straight away that the emphasis was on traits that human adults (and not virn adults) were supposed to possess, as though to put humans in their place below virn from an early age.
The second section listed areas of education, including the basics such as mathematics, science, and language, which Zuwrath expected to change. Humans would be taught specifically about virn who had made important discoveries, and references to humans such as Pythagoras or Einstein were to be discouraged. After the age of twelve (the end of lower and beginning of upper school in the virn education system, adopted by humans for simplicity), humans would no longer be taught virnin: though previously it had been compulsory, it was now labelled “unnecessary”.
Maureen was not the only one who would recognise these new tactics for what they were. The emphasis on virn over human mathematicians and scientists would teach humans children that the virn were mentally and technologically superior to them from a young age, without anyone having to say it aloud. The barriers that limiting language lessons would create would keep humans in lesser jobs, where they would earn pittance wages. In a few years, it could probably even be spun to make humans appear ignorant and unwilling to enter the virn sphere of life.
The third section of the message detailed examinations exclusive to human children, then the types of jobs that human children should be encouraged to go into when their upper school ended at seventeen. None of these jobs, Maureen noticed, would require leaving the camp. The examination results would be calculated according to a bell curve, and they would determine which careers the students were ultimately expected to take. The majority of humans would end up doing factory work.
According to the report, from seventeen to nineteen, humans would enter into work placement programmes, as though this bell curve system would instantly create jobs for every child to move into the career that was selected for them. Of course, most of these jobs would require very minimal training, so the reality would be that humans would work from the age of seventeen until they could no longer physically perform the labour or were made redundant.
All of this led into adulthood. A job that was preassigned, unlike virn students, who were given ample opportunities to explore different career paths. Virn students could select their subjects based on their interests, not on the results of their examinations. There would be no such choice for human students, only instructions to follow. No freedom for humans; only a duty to perform.
The final section of the message discussed the schooling of virn children in brief, and why this needed to be different from the schooling of humans. It mentioned further education, and why this should be reserved, interestingly not for virn per se, but for “those who live outside of the camp known as Valhalla” – which was essentially the same thing as virn-exclusive.
To Maureen’s eyes, this was the part where Zuwrath had, despite not stating anything outright, bothered to hide her meaning the least. Even if, by some miracle, a handful of humans did settle outside the camp, they would still be expected to attend a human school and would therefore not get the opportunity to enter further education.
Maureen closed the text document and opened a blank file. She stared at it for a long time. What could she say in response that Zuwrath would be likely to acknowledge? The Controller had not indicated that she was interested in making massive changes to the human education system before: that had always been an internal issue of Valhalla. She doubted there was anything she could write that would change Zuwrath’s mind.
It did not seem like a sensible thing to try to do, but that was why nobody else would try. Maureen had no choice but to write something.
She drew up several drafts analysing what the impact of these alterations would be from her point of view, but deleted them all. She was not saying anything that Zuwrath would not know already. Maureen then drew up a draft message that suggested mixed schooling, but that had never got her anywhere in the past, so she deleted that, too. In the end, she gave up on an official letter and instead decided on a personal message to Zuwrath that felt more meaningful than anything that was electronically signed, dated, and stamped.
‘Controller Zuwrath,’ she dictated to the screen through gritted teeth, ‘I just received your message about schooling. Have to confess myself disappointed. You’ve never shown any interest in this kind of thing before, even when I’ve brought it up. I suppose you knew I wouldn’t be impressed. Suggest we meet to discuss as soon as possible. Maureen.’
She sent the message before she could change her mind, and returned to her condemnation of Rokesh’s eviction with a heavy heart.
On the northern border of Valhalla, there was an expanse of open land that humans had named the No-Land. According to the virn government, it was land that humans could potentially expand upon in the future, but they had no intention of allowing any settlements there for several decades. Sometimes, children and teens of both species would gather there to hang out with their friends, whether because this irritated their parents or because they thought they could do something frowned upon and would not get caught there.
Humans and virn generally kept their distance from one another, even in No-Land. There were occasional shouting matches between teenage groups, but little more than that had been reported for a long time. No-Land was not considered a dangerous place: there was nothing of strategic value there to incite one side or the other. Neither species could claim any rights over the other to be there, or to use the land. It was not officially human land – yet – but it was destined to belong to humans and according to virn law, that meant it was not officially virn either.
There were a few tents along the border or No-Land. Most of the humans in Valhalla had situation themselves close to the factories, and near No-Land there was nothing to keep a large population employed. Those who lived in the tents were largely jobless – it was often said that the only employment was the task of cleaning the public conveniences.
Sometimes, visitors would come from deeper within Valhalla. They would pity the people on the border, but would only ever suggest one thing: move further into the camp. The response to this from the border folks was that they could envision no better lives for themselves being worked to death in a factory. The cycle continued.
A group of human children were playing together in No-Land. They kept close to the human side – it was common for those who lived around the border to do so. One was from inner Valhalla; the others were local.
The games they entertained themselves with were sweet and innocent. They ran around, shouting their excitement in the open air. They chased one another for hours, while on the other side of No-Land a gang of virn teenagers stood huddled together, listening to music and casting occasional glances over at the children, as though they considered the kids annoying.
Then the child from the inner camp, who did not understand the importance of staying close to the camp, got a little closer to the virn. A little closer, and a little closer, each time drawing the rest of the humans out with him without any of them realising it. After one particularly long chase, he slipped and landed in the mid a few paces from the group of virn. One of the teenager spun around.
Some of them had their hands on their hips. Others had their arms folded across their chests. All of them looked angry at the interruption. They wore bright colours – a display of rebellion against the bland work uniforms that matched virn skin colour. The one who had spun around, who had a hat sat on the top of his head with a wide brim that was flat against his forehead, stepped towards the child.
‘What do you think you’re doing, human?’ he asked, spitting as he spoke. The human boy, with a poor grasp of virnin, could only understand one word: human. He stood up as the other children gathered nervously around him, craning their necks up to look at the much bigger virn teens.
‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, the word a little slurred, then tried to back away. The other children stepped back with him.
‘Not so fast,’ the virn hissed. He reached out and grabbed the boy by the shoulder, pulling him sharply then letting him go, so that he fell face-first into the mud again.
The virn teens laughed.
The human children stood still, their eyes blown wide. They did not have to understand the virnin to know what the implication of these words were. The human boy pushed himself to his feet and wiped his face with his sleeve. Again, he tried to back away, and again he was dragged down into the mud.
‘Eat it,’ he was told, and when he frowned in confusion the teenagers imitated eating to get the message across. The boy remained still.
‘Let’s go. They’re mean,’ said one of the other children.
‘Shut up,’ one of the teenage girls snapped at her. The human winced at the tone. ‘If you can’t speak our tongue then don’t leave your crappy home.’
‘Better, if you can’t speak it, don’t live on our planet,’ another virn chimed in, as the humans shared blank but frightened expressions. ‘Lazy human bastards just expect us to learn their tongues and introduce their laws into our society to compensate for their backwards culture.’
‘My dad used to work in a factory that made spaceship parts,’ the first teen hissed. ‘Until human scum came along and took his job. Now they’re making poor quality parts on the cheap – good for nothing losers.’ He spat on the human boy still laid in the mud, who wiped the globule away with the back of his hand. ‘Stay still! If I spit on you, you’ll leave it where it lands! That’s your place in the universe!’ He placed his foot on the small of the boy’s back and applied just enough pressure to keep him still. ‘And this is mine.’
The rest of the human children began to edge backwards.
‘You know what you are?’ the lead virn asked as he leant down over the boy under his foot. ‘Do you? Want me to say it, you’re a wipt. You’re a low, dirty, disgusting wipt.’
The human boy looked up. The children halted and stared at the teenagers in horror. There were some words that every human knew.
‘Yeah,’ laughed another of the virn, ‘you’re all wipts.’
‘Wipts, wipts, wipts,’ the chanted in unison, laughing all the while.
The human children had heard enough. Those who were free turned and ran back to Valhalla; the boy on the ground pushed up against his captor and managed to scramble to his feet in the teen’s surprise. Before he could follow the others back to the camp, the chief tormentor reached into his belt and pulled out a long, thin dagger. It had a jagged edge on one side and was smooth on the other. He swept the jagged blade along the boy’s face.
The child screamed and ran, bleeding heavily onto his shirt.
‘Never forget what you are!’
‘H – Hello? Is that Maureen Bradshaw?’
‘Speaking, yes. Hello. Who’s calling?’
‘Oh, Mrs Bradshaw, thank goodness! I’ve called so many different numbers for you, but they must’ve all been old ones – I need to tell you something, about something that happened on the border with Nesmara earlier today. It’s so horrible – so important – someone needs to tell the presses, to do something! We can’t tolerate this any longer, we can’t! Our children – frightened in their own homes. Oh, it’s awful! Have you – have you heard?’
‘I haven’t heard anything about Nesmara. Just calm down, please, and start with your name.’
‘Okay, okay, okay … my name’s Jessica.’
‘Jessica. Hi, Jessica. You can call me Maureen.’
‘Thank you, Maureen.’
‘Not at all. Now, Jessica, please tell me what happened. In your own time.’
‘Okay, okay … well, we were visited by a couple of friends and their young son this morning. We let our kids play together on the border, in No-Land – a shared space for humans and virn alike. There were some virn teens out there. Normally they’re fine, you know, they don’t make a fuss or anything. Sometimes they all hang out or even play together. Only this time … oh, it’s so awful! One of the virn attacked their little boy – none of us saw it happen, because we’ve never had to worry about anything like this before, but they attacked him with a knife across his face! He’s going to have a scar under his left eye now, we’ve done what we can for him but when the doctor came about an hour ago she said it’s likely he’ll have the scar for the rest of his life.’
‘Hold on, hold on, Jessica. Did you say the virn teen attacked him? Why?’
‘According to the other kids, the virn started on him when he got too close.’
‘Oh, how awful. I’m so sorry, Jessica. I hope he’s all right.’
‘He’ll recover, in time. What we want to know is if there’s anything you can do to make sure these virn kids get what’s coming to them. Our kids still need to go out and play. We don’t want them to be afraid of going into No-Land.’
‘Well … I’ll certainly see what I can do.’
‘We’ll be eternally grateful.’
‘I hope I can give you some good news. Thanks for letting me know, Jessica. And give my best to the kid and his parents.’
‘Thank you, Maureen.’
Maureen wasted no time in contacting Starg about the incident in No-Land. Although it was not his territory, she did not know the Keeper of the Peace in Nesmara, the region north of Valhalla, as well as she knew Starg. She wanted to use her relationship with Starg to persuade the Keeper of Nesmara to openly discuss the issue of virn violence against humans, an issue they were unlikely to discuss with her without persuasion.
The longer she waited, the less likely it would be that anybody would care.
This was not like other attacks she had known in her time as Liaison. It was not a group of drunk virn and a group of drunk humans clashing with each other on a street. It was not a gang of virn targeting a human or a gang of humans targeting a virn. It was not a long-running feud or a bitter argument. It was not even a racist attack that had escalated and got out of hand. This was teenagers attacking children, and she did not think Starg would be able to deny the moral dilemma when he heard it.
Maureen finally had proof of something she had been saying to both Starg and Zuwrath all along: that the bitter dislike that had emerged from human and virn misunderstanding had grown into something dangerous, inherent in society. If children and teens were getting involved in the physical fight, then that was all the evidence she needed.
She informed Starg that she was going to visit him and left Valhalla at the earliest opportunity. After Jessica’s evening call, she had spent the night planning what she was going to say and, after a few hours of sleep, had located a transporter the next morning. When she arrived at Starg’s office in Pika, he was there waiting for her.
‘What is it?’ he asked. His eyebrows were forced together in a knot in the middle of his head, as though a visit from Maureen was the last thing he needed. She recognised the annoyance on his face and realised she would have to keep it short.
‘The Keeper of Peace in Nesmara,’ she replied, ‘doesn’t like me.’
‘None of the Keepers like you,’ Starg assured her.
‘How flattering, Starg. Yet however much you protest, you at least came to Valhalla, instead of expecting me to always come to you. You have seen how I live and you know more about Valhalla than the rest of them put together.’
Starg’s top lip quivered. ‘And?’ he snarled.
‘… And I was hoping I could ask you to use your influence to persuade the Keeper in Nesmara to do something important for my people.’
Starg sighed. He rubbed his forehead with his hand, then dropped the hand down by his side.
‘Why do you not speak with him yourself? Dragu is an intelligent man.’
‘But I’m not close enough to him. I know what he’ll say to me. I need you to help me to speak with him, someone on his level who can give me a bit of a boost. Come on, Starg, think about it: I wouldn’t have to keep coming to you with all my problems if I got on better with other Keepers.’
‘That would be a good thing indeed. I have to deal with so many human issues currently that I have no idea which direction I am heading in.’ Starg’s eyebrows drifted apart, and his expression cooled somewhat. ‘So, tell me what it is this time.’
‘There’s a place between Valhalla and Nesmara called No-Land,’ Maureen began.
‘I’ve heard of it.’
‘Yesterday, a group of virn teenagers attacked a human child there.’
Starg’s eyes widened. He took a step towards Maureen; she held her ground. ‘You can prove this?’ he asked.
‘The child is physically scarred.’
Starg nodded. Then, he tilted his head and his eyes narrowed again. ‘And you want …?’
‘I want you to help me persuade Dragu to publish it in the media. Big news. This should be making headlines.’
Maureen’s words were met with a short, sharp bark of laughter from Starg. He stepped away from her and began circling the room, still grinning to himself, and chuckling occasionally.
‘You’ll have to go to Zuwrath, then.’
‘That’s what I was afraid you’d say. Starg, can’t we do this without involving her?’
‘No way,’ Starg scoffed. ‘I refuse to get involved in that – Zuwrath would have me by my balls. If you want it, you’ll have to do it yourself.’
He waved her out, and Maureen left.