If you haven’t read the previous chapters of VALHALLA RISING, you can find them here:
I hope you enjoy this part!
‘Starg,’ Maureen said, staring across the desk at the virn, ‘I’m waiting.’
‘And what exactly are you waiting for?’ Starg asked her. He spoke carefully in his sharp accent, uncomfortable with human language. Maureen tapped her nails on his freshly polished desk, generating a clicking sound that irritated his ears. He gritted his teeth, and she stopped when she saw his glare. The smirk on her face told him that she had known exactly how the sound would affect him.
‘I’m waiting for you to tell me why this latest attack proves that all humans are undisciplined, violent monsters.’
Starg tilted his head to one side and studied Maureen through narrowed eyes. She appeared to be almost bored, likely fed up with dealing with incidents such as this. He centred his head again, once he had decided upon what to say.
‘The ancient virn on Vir 4 – our planet of origin, so they say – used to believe in a creature called Clarisnador. Have you heard of it?’
Maureen shook her head.
‘It was supposed to be two virn high, white like an albino, with thick black hair and a long beard that covered its entire body. It wore no clothes. Ancient virn believed Clarisnador stalked the streets on the one night each year that evil spirts could cross into the physical world. The monster was claimed to be invisible to those virn who had not committed major sins – but murders, rapists, and the like would be chased by it until it caught them and killed them.’
‘Interesting,’ Maureen commented. ‘I do enjoy old folklore.’
Starg allowed his grin to split his face. ‘Oh, but it wasn’t just a story. Not according to one text, anyway. Apparently, if you believe it, a tall, pale man was responsible for stalking people through one town and stabbing them on their doorsteps. He only did it on that one night every year, because he knew that the superstitious folks would blame evil spirits. He got away with it for six years, after which he was caught and burned alive by the townsfolk. A few decades later, and the story had spread so rapidly it had become legend.
‘Some virn scholars dispute the legitimacy of the text,’ Starg continued, ‘and others claim that it is a later source, perhaps written to explain the origins of the legend. Whatever the truth is, it is thought-provoking.’
‘You know, Starg, I usually feel like I’m the one who says thing just to fill the empty space between us. That’s what I’m told by a lot of the virn I work with. As Zuwrath has said to me once before, and I quote: “The air has no need for your words”. So, tell me, what’s the point of your tangent?’
‘The point,’ Starg clarified, ‘is that sometimes we hear a story about one monster, and we take that one monster and turn it into a hundred different monsters. I didn’t think about it until I was reading about the history of the Clarisnador the other night.’ He shrugged his shoulders, and suddenly felt the need to clarify his curiosity. ‘We all have our outside interests.’
‘It seems that our outside interests are quite similar in some respects.’
‘Perhaps so. And I just happened to think about it, as I was reading – I just happened to notice the similarities between the origins of that monster, and how we create the monsters of today.’
Maureen’s face told him that she knew exactly what he was trying to avoid saying. ‘Haven’t I said all along,’ she said, ‘that you shouldn’t attempt to judge humans based on how a small minority of us have behaved? The majority of us condemn the violence just as much as you do.’
‘Yes. Yes, you have said that. And, likewise, we condemn our own people when virn … misbehave.’ Starg scratched the back of his neck. ‘I have already been briefed about the attack, by the way. One virn in hospital, his tail should start to grow back in a couple of days. I hear it’s a painful process. Three virn dead, their families have been informed. The human was shot dead by virn officers, and you’ll be allowed to take his body back to Valhalla with you today.’
‘His family will be grateful for that. I should tell you, by the way, that Jakub Starosta has decided to formally resign his post. No word on who’ll take his place.’
‘That seems sensible. As for the body – it’s a sign of good faith, something to keep your people quiet. I think Zuwrath is concerned that the story behind why the human was there and what he was trying to defend might get out. You don’t know how virn would react to that – she wants to keep the family in her good books.’ Starg sighed heavily. ‘I said it, but – it really is true. You and I, Maureen, we’re not very different. We both could cause great damage to the other, whether through our words or our actions. Neither of us wants to be belittled by the other – neither of us would tolerate that for long.’
‘And those things extend to the rest of our people.’
‘I cannot condone –’
‘Neither can I,’ Maureen stressed immediately. ‘I abhor and oppose all violence. I refuse to support violent humans and I refuse to support violent virn.’
‘Good. And I also.’
There was a lengthy silence as the two of them communicated on a level that was beyond speech, their eyes saying more than their words ever could. For the first time since he had met her, Starg felt as though Maureen truly understood him, and he her.
‘This leaves us in a position that we’ve never been in before,’ Maureen said at last.
‘It does. But it also does not. I can agree with you to an extent that virn stereotyping of humans is encouraging some of your people to counter in inappropriate ways, but I still need to deliver a suitable punishment for the violence. If I do not, someone else will take my place and deliver it instead. Whether they are my actions or the actions of the next Keeper, they will create more monsters in the eyes of the arrogant and the ignorant.’
‘I expect nothing less than repercussions – and I do want you to keep your job, Starg. I would hate to have to build this kind of relationship from the ground with someone new. But you must do your best to stress that there is also good in humanity – not just to highlight the bad behaviour. The positives need to be emphasised more.’
Starg grimaced. ‘It is a lot easier to create monsters than heroes.’
Maureen reached across the desk and grasped hold of his hand. Starg noticed that her skin was a little warmer than his own. It was smooth, and seemed more at risk of damage. It was a surprisingly pleasant touch.
‘I’m not saying it’ll happen overnight. I’m not saying it’ll happen in our lifetimes. But, if we make a start today, if we begin something to change how we all treat one another, then people will remember you for that.’
Starg’s grimace turned into a smile. He liked the idea of being remembered for being the one who had implemented the change that would improve virn-human relations.
When Zuwrath read what Maureen had written to her about the attack on Lukas’ younger brother and how this had warped Lukas’ mind, all Hell broke loose. The Controller stepped out in front of a group of questioning virn reporters and practically roared her response to the press.
“The Controller Zuwrath, by whose might humankind has been granted such marvellous potential, which day-by-day they squander as they do everything to avoid their responsibilities,” stated one infamous website, “has stated that certain sections of the human government are attempting to blame the recent attack that left one virn seriously injured and three dead on the heads of the poor victims. She has retorted furiously against these slanderous lies and requests the immediate removal of anyone who has been involved in creating or spreading such nonsense from the government of Valhalla.”
Maureen did not read the rest. Another message, this time a personal one from Zuwrath herself, flashed up on her communicator screen. She looked at Starg who was still sat there across her on the other side of the desk, then opened it.
Jakub will take the blame for the governing body’s lies, the message said.
Maureen opened a blank document and typed up a response.
So, no word on the virn teens who attacked a human child and left him scarred?
She hovered her hand over the communicatory. One swipe left would send the message.
She swiped right and deleted it.
‘Why did you write that message if you were not planning to send it?’ Starg asked her. He had been reading the news report too, and had watched her respond to Zuwrath in silence. An open bottle of virn gin and two glasses sat between them. Maureen picked up her glass and drained it, before placing it back on its coaster.
‘It helps me to think more clearly if I get my feelings down first,’ she explained. ‘Then I delete them. Nobody who works in politics is withdrawn from what’s going on … we all have real, raw feelings about the sensitive issues we must handle. I’ve got to keep face for the public – so I discard my emotions before I start.’
Starg nodded to show that he understood. ‘Humans use language to express themselves far more than we do. We have always expressed our emotions on our faces, in our behaviour. Your people have created a whole system of words around yours.’
‘Yes.’ Maureen poured herself another glass of gin; Starg emptied his glass and held it up for Maureen to refill. ‘We use our faces and our bodies to express things too, Starg, but our words are powerful things. That’s why many humans think virn talk as if they’re stuck up.’
‘Your people are more open than mine.’
‘Do you think that’s a negative thing?’ It was a genuine question. Maureen waited for Starg to respond with a sense of curiosity.
‘I am not sure about it,’ he said at last. He pursed his lips, frowning a little, then continued. ‘At first, I was convinced it was a bad thing. But I now recognise that the way your people express emotions enables you to see them in a different way than we do. For instance, we see anger as a demonstration of power, because of its physical dominance; you see it as a loss of power, a loss of control, because it makes humans say things that they might not typically say.’
‘Yes. I’m always a little surprised when the virn media talks about Zuwrath’s fury as a display of her strength. I never expect it to be seen in that way.’
‘But it is a strength to us. She is very controlled. She knows how to use her anger.’
‘Well, I don’t disagree with you on that.’
Starg’s communicator lit up at that moment, and he lifted up his arm.
‘Talking of Zuwrath,’ he said, looking down at the light coming from his wrist. The sleek device was several models above Maureen’s own communicator, and she expected it could do things that hers could only dream of.
‘Should I leave?’
‘No. It’s just a message. You can stay to see whatever she wants to say.’ Starg shook his arm, and the message popped up between them, the text readable from either side and divided by a white background.
STARG, the first line read in large letters, DENY ALL REPORTS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST HUMANS.
‘I don’t think she could’ve made that any clearer than she has,’ Maureen said. Starg chuckled.
‘The plainness of her message is quite evident,’ he said with a smile. Maureen smiled back: Starg was not funny in the slightest, but at least he was willing to admit to what was going on around them. Maureen was tired of having to explain every single point she wished to make to virn who did not want to examine issues from the human perspective.
Starg flicked his hand at the screen and the page scrolled down. They continued to read in silence.
Any virn crimes against humans will be considered as a counter-attack to (or defence against) human violence and will not be discussed with the media or other persons deemed likely to share this information with third parties. Any information on virn crimes that becomes available in Pika will be considered YOUR slip-up. The penalty will be your sacking and the blame will be on your shoulders for creating false stories as a human sympathiser. All reports of virn violence against humans will be denied vehemently by you and your staff. There will be no discussion.
‘Does it strike you as incredibly strange that Zuwrath doesn’t want ordinary virn to know that some of their own kind are attacking humans?’ Maureen asked, once Starg had turned his eyes away from the screen.
‘Perhaps she thinks it is best not to escalate things,’ Starg suggested. He did not look at Maureen when he spoke, instead focused on his hands.
‘Or perhaps she has realised that because she has painted all humans as monsters due to the violent actions of a few, admitting that virn are violent to us would apply the same logic onto her own – your own – people.’
Starg’s eyes found Maureen’s face at last. A tongue snaked out of his mouth to wet his dry lips for the merest moment. ‘I think you should go now,’ he said.
Maureen did not miss the way that his eyes contradicted his words. She got out of her chair and left the room.
Rokesh saw how Lukas’ actions had torn Christine apart. Her very appearance seemed to have been affected, as though the questions that were flittering through her mind were darkening her looks. Her skin was pale, almost grey, and she appeared to be sick. The marks under her eyes were purple with exhaustion. She began to come out with spots from the stress, and no matter how often Rokesh told her that he did not care, she hid herself away because of them.
Rokesh tried to encourage Christine to go outside of the container with him, because whenever he went out alone he was aware of countless human eyes upon him. He was not the only half-human in the camp, but they were rare enough that he felt the pressure of judgement.
Everybody stared. He was a spectacle. It was a little selfish, but Christine needed to get out.
One evening, he came back from the wash rooms to find Maureen and Christine talking together quietly. Rokesh did not try to disguise his presence, but he made sure to give them space and sat on the other side of the container until their conversation was over.
‘It’s not your fault, Chris,’ Maureen said, louder, and Rokesh was surprised to realise that Christine somehow blamed herself for what Lukas had done. ‘You couldn’t have stopped him.’
‘I sh – sh – should’ve said something to s – stop h – him,’ Christine replied between sobs. Her voice was muffled, her head rest on her mother’s shoulder. Maureen had one arm wrapped around Christine’s shoulders and was rubbing her back affectionately.
‘Come on, now, you can’t think like that. Lukas was his own man. What do you believe you could’ve done to change his mind?’
‘I – I don’t kn – know. Something. There must have been something.’
‘Nothing, Chris,’ Maureen said, shaking her head. ‘There’s nothing you could’ve done. I know it’s hard, but you need to accept that. Until you do, you won’t be able to move on.’
Christine cried all night long. She refused to allow Rokesh to touch her or hold her. Her sobs echoed around the container and kept all three of them up, although there was nothing that could console her.
‘If only there was something …’ Rokesh muttered to himself, half-delirious, at four in the morning.
Then a mad thought entered his mind, and jammed itself in there, refusing to leave.
‘Chris,’ Rokesh said the next day, ‘I want you to come with me to the market today. I have an idea that I want to talk to you about and I think you would be able to envision it more clearly if you came with me.’
Christine wiped away the tears that still clung to the corners of her tired eyes and smiled weakly. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Rok,’ she replied. ‘People will see me.’
‘Are you embarrassed about being seen with me?’ he asked. His father had taught him a lot about reading between the lines of what humans said and what they really meant. Christine’s eyes widened in shock, as though she had not considered this interpretation, and shook her head.
‘No, no, of course not!’
‘Then what is it that you feel so ashamed of?’
‘I – it’s just, well, I mean – a lot of people knew I was friends with Lukas.’
‘Oh, people know all sorts of things,’ Maureen piped up. She was sat at the table, hunched over a solitary slice of toast, her eyes drooping. ‘People used to know that Earth was the only populated planet in the universe. They used to know that humans were the only intelligent species in existence. They used to know that nothing was more important than money, power, and possessions.
‘Well, look at us now. We know different now.’ Maureen jabbed the knife she had been using to butter her toast in Christine’s direction. ‘You know you didn’t support Lukas’ actions. Rokesh knows it. I know it. Some of those people out there, they don’t even know the name of the Controller. So, you stick to knowing what you know, and let them know whatever they know. Besides,’ she added as an afterthought, rubbing her eyes with her free hand, ‘I need to get some rest and I can’t do it with you two stuck in here.’
Christine’s smile fell from her face. ‘Mum,’ she said, ‘I – I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you awake last night, you must be so busy with all this and you were only trying to make me see sense. I couldn’t have done anything to stop Lukas.’
‘I’ll forgive you for it all,’ Maureen replied, ‘if you go to the goddamn market.’
They shared a laugh, and Christine and Rokesh left the container. It was bright outside, and although people stared at them and whispered behind their hands as they got closer to the market, something within Rokesh told him to ignore it. Just before they got to the first stall, he grabbed Christine’s hand and dragged her to one side.
‘Wait,’ he said, ‘come this way with me.’
‘What? Why?’ she asked, but allowed him to lead her nonetheless. Rokesh did not reply immediately. He took Christine down a side street and they emerged before one of the large screens in the centre of Valhalla, where a subtitled virn news programme was broadcast on the side of a stone wall, twenty-four hours a day. Rokesh stopped and faced the screen in silence.
‘Rok,’ Christine said, ‘I need an explanation for this, please.’
Rokesh turned away from the screen and looked at Christine. Over her shoulder, an elderly man glared at the couple, but whether it was because of his species or the fact that they were speaking in virnin, he did not care. He wrapped an arm around Christine’s shoulder and pulled her closer, so that her head was on his chest. She leaned into him a little more, placing one of her hands over his heart.
‘Why are we here?’ she asked again, when he still did not answer.
‘I want to watch this,’ he said quietly.
‘Why? The only things they say about us on this channel are negative. Mum says it’s only played here to remind us that our place is here, and that when we leave it causes trouble for everyone. The human news channels are better – you can get them in some of the cafes in Caesar Plaza.’
‘No,’ said Rokesh, ‘I want to watch this one.’
They stood there in silence for a while as a propaganda played on. People stood in the square from time to time, hoping to get a glimpse of the goings-on outside the camp, but they never stayed for long.
‘All right,’ Christine said, during one story concerning a famous celebrity couple who had announced their engagement, ‘have you seen enough now?’
Rokesh thought to himself. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Let’s head to the market.’
They walked around the market, but did not purchase anything. It was good to get out of the container and spend some time as a couple. Other people’s eyes mattered less and less the longer that they were on display. Eventually, they became bored and reached the first stall, which Rokesh had originally pulled Christine away from.
‘Before we go back to the container,’ Rokesh said, pausing just beyond the stall, ‘there’s something I want to tell you. I’ve been thinking about it since earlier this morning, so it’s not particularly well thought out just yet. But it’s important.’
‘Sure thing,’ said Christine, ‘go on.’
‘We should create a programme that shows all the good things about human culture, and we should broadcast it inside and outside of Valhalla.’
Christine did not say anything for a few moments. By the time that she spoke, Rokesh had already decided that, now that it had been said aloud, it did not seem like such a good idea after all.
‘There’s no way we could get permission to do that,’ she said. ‘Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to make and broadcast a programme.’
‘Well … I thought we could make something basic. One set, a table and a couple of chairs, a nice backdrop, some lights, some cheap recording equipment. Virn culture is broadcast into Valhalla all the time, on news channels and within schools and factories. If we could pick out the best parts of humanity, the parts that might make humans seem harmless to everyday virn, then virn might start to accept that there is so much more to humanity than what they’ve been told.’
‘Rokesh … that’s a really good idea. Where did all this come from?’
‘It is? I saw how upset you were last night, and I just thought … and then I wondered if it was possible, so I wanted to watch the news and see how the virn on there act. You see, if we were going to broadcast on virn channels, we would need to look and act like they do to get their respect. It would need to be as presentable as possible, however cheap.’ He paused, but when Christine did not reply, he added, ‘So, do you think it’s possible?’
‘I think it could really make a difference, long-term. I mean, think about it! If ordinary virn could learn more about humans and human life, and see the ways in which we’re similar as well as they ways we’re different, then some of the barriers that have been built between us might start to crumble! Of course, there’s hatred inherent in both societies, but …’
‘One step at a time,’ Rokesh said.
‘Yes. Like mum’s always said: “Be patient, be good, and things will change for the better”.’