If you haven’t read the previous chapters of VALHALLA RISING, you can find them here:
I hope you enjoy this part – there’s just one part left after this one.
Funeral traditions on Montague 7 dictated that the service be held in an open public space in the middle of the day. The body was placed in a coffin and scented candles were placed around it. The scents were chosen according to old virn beliefs that connected certain smells to the personality of the deceased. The mourners wore long, pastel-coloured robes, with hoods pulled up to hide their faces from one another.
This was a tradition that humans had adopted when they had first settled on the planet. The original Controller had refused to grant humanity a sacred place to bury their dead if they did not follow the planet’s traditions, and so to avoid complications, human authorities had labelled it a planetary tradition, rather than a virn one.
Other planets in the Empire had their own traditions. It was often difficult to tell where each tradition had originated, but they often came down to the resources which had been available to the first settlers. Montague 7 had offered large open spaces with nowhere to hide tears, and so traditions had been developed accordingly.
Lukas did not get a funeral. As soon as his body was returned to Valhalla, his family burned it as a demonstration that they disagreed with what he had done. Their decision not to give him a proper funeral was mentioned as briefly as possible by the various media outlets that continued to condemn his actions, by a thirty second mention on the news channels and a small side-note in the papers.
Maria and Orion did, however, arrange a service later that same week as a demonstration against violence. They encouraged people to wear their pastel robes with the hoods down, which was supposed to show that those who attended were thinking of everyone who had suffered from the violence between humans and virn, rather than any one individual.
Christine and Rokesh turned up at the service with candles that smelt like handmade paper. Ancient virn had associated the smell of paper with information, evidence, and memories, because they had kept meticulous paper records of their lives. They placed the candles in the centre of a large tent in the centre of the site, and for a moment were overwhelmed by the combination of smells in there as they tried to pick out each individually.
They moved around the site together, walking slowly and only nodding to greet the others they met. The walls of the tent, both inside and out, were covered with photographs of the innocent virn and humans who had been killed during acts of violence between the two species. They examined the pictures in silence, and when they finally left their hearts were heavy with sorrow.
Maria, Orion, and Slick were stood together a short distance from the tent, and Christine and Rokesh approached them. It was the first time Christine had seen the others since they had discovered that Lukas had left the camp, and the tears that lined their eyes suggested she was not the only one who had been playing her last conversation with him over and over in her mind to find out if there was something she could have said to change his mind.
‘This may not be a good time for any of us,’ Christine said, after she had introduced Rokesh to the others, ‘but I’ve – we’ve,’ she corrected herself, taking hold of Rokesh’s hand and smiling, ‘got an idea that we think you could help us to make a reality.’
The three listened to Rokesh’s proposal, and as the concept became clearer in their minds, their eyes slowly began to light up. The emptiness on their faces turned to hope, and they rediscovered what had been stolen from them by Lukas.
Christine stood with her hands on her hips, looking around at the temporary studio that had been erected in Orion’s bedroom. He lived in one of the oldest containers, rusty and creaky, but it was surprisingly spacious with separate living and sleeping areas, and – most importantly for their needs – there was no chance that they might be interrupted.
She smiled to herself as she examined the room. It was not the best-looking studio, but it was good enough for a human broadcast. The sheet they had tossed up against the wall as a backdrop had been cleaned and ironed, and the stillness in the room made it look almost like a painted wall.
Slick was seated in the official anchor chair; having a half-virn as the head figure of the show was a big positive, because it would grant the broadcast more authenticity with the virn public. Next to him sat Maria, her hair and face painted as a legitimate and splendid replica of a rich virn lady.
It was not meant to mock, but they had worried whether it might seem that way for a while, before deciding they wanted to demonstrate that they respected virn culture as much as they wanted virn to respect their own. The make-up and hair were important elements of this, because it was one of the first things that the viewers would notice. Not to include them would allow virn to say they were ignoring virn culture.
Somehow, Christine knew, whatever decision they made would be twisted, if an interpreter truly wanted to twist it.
‘It looks good, doesn’t it?’ Orion asked Christine, He was manning the camera; hers was the microphone. They were only preparing for a rehearsal, but all recognised the necessity to get as close to perfection as they possibly could.
‘It’s very impressive,’ she agreed.
‘But something’s not right? I can see it in your eyes.’
Christine sighed. ‘It doesn’t mean anything if Zuwrath won’t give us a broadcast slot. I ignored that stumbling block for a while, but now that we’re pretty much ready for a real broadcast, it’s turned into a huge blockade. How are we ever going to persuade the Controller?’
‘Can’t your mother help? She knows Zuwrath.’
‘My mother and Zuwrath hate one another. They only work together because they must, in order to achieve their own goals. I can ask her … but I already know what she’ll say.’
Orion’s smile fell from his face. ‘You’ve got to try, Chris,’ he said.
‘I will. I’ll call her.’
Maureen’s communicator vibrated against her wrist for about half a second before it began to ring. She shook her arm to answer it, held it up in front of her, and an image of Christine appeared before her.
‘Hi, Chris,’ Maureen said. ‘Oh – is that your studio? It looks great! Do you know when you’ll be broadcasting yet?’
Christine smiled awkwardly, her lips pulled tight and thin. ‘Uh, no, net yet, Mum. Actually … that’s what I’m calling about. We – I mean, I – may have missed out one tiny little detail when I told you about it.’
‘You did? What detail? It sounded like such a great idea! Who’s stopping you? Is it someone in the government? What could they possibly be against – ?’
‘Mum, Mum, stop,’ Christine insisted. ‘That’s not it.’ She took a deep breath, as Maureen’s brain whirred with questions. ‘The problem is that … it’s that we don’t want to broadcast it on human channels.’
There was a long pause, during which Maureen’s brain processed this new information and Christine waited for her mother to respond.
‘You want to broadcast on virn channels?’
Another pause. Maureen’s eyes flickered shut. She sucked in a breath, then opened her eyes again. ‘Chris …’
‘Don’t tell me we can’t do it.’
‘You’re a big girl, Chris. Do you really want me to give you false hope?’
‘You can ask Zuwrath, Mum.’
Maureen laughed before she could stop herself. ‘And she could get me fired for even daring to ask! Imagine the hype in the virn media from the mere cheek of such a question! They wouldn’t even need to watch your broadcast to condemn it!’
Christine put on her best puppy dog look, the one with the big eyes that she had used when she was a child and had wanted something from her father.
‘Fine. Leave it with me. No promises.’
‘Ee! Thanks, Mum!’
‘Don’t expect much –’ Maureen began, but Christine had already ended the call and vanished. Maureen rubbed her temples with both hands and groaned. She could not ask Zuwrath if the group could broadcast their show on virn television, because the Controller would consider it a violation of the boundaries of Maureen’s position as Liaison.
Luckily, the Controller was not the only one who could give her air time. It might not be planet-wide, but things could spread across the Empire at an alarming rate.
‘Oh, hello Starg, how good to see your face again!’
Starg glared at Maureen over the holographic communicator.
‘You want something,’ he stated, in a dry, monotonous voice.
‘Now really, Starg, why must you be so suspicious of me? I could be calling just to catch up with you following our last conversation.’
‘I could hang up,’ Starg suggested. ‘I do actually have other things to do.’
‘All right, fine,’ Maureen sighed. Her smile faded a little, before she deliberately curled the corners back up to maintain her warm grin. ‘There’s something I’d like to discuss with you. I was hoping we might be able to meet in person.’
‘I have got a lot of other things to do.’
‘Starg,’ Maureen said, trying not to sound as though she was frustrated or nervous, ‘I promise you, this is an opportunity you won’t want to miss. What I’m going to propose to you … I guarantee you it’ll be of great interest.’
Starg’s eyes did not give any indication of temptation, and Maureen knew she might already have said too much over official channels. However, both of them were aware that she would not have called him idly. ‘I’ll give you fifteen minutes, if you can get here before the end of the day,’ Starg said. The sooner they met, Starg apparently realised, the better.
‘That’s great! I promise you, you won’t regret this. I’m leaving right now.’ Maureen picked up her wallet and her identification card, then left her container.
‘Move swiftly,’ Starg told her, before he disconnected the call. Maureen rolled her eyes when he disappeared.
‘And goodbye to you too, Mister Starg,’ she said to the blank screen. She shook her arm, and the static flickered away. Aware that time was of the essence, she hurried herself along, and caught the first transport that she could find.
Starg dismissed the message from Zuwrath with a flick of his wrist. Upon receiving it, he had wondered whether she had observed his conversation with Maureen and had become suspicious, but she had not mentioned their communication. That did not mean Zuwrath was in the dark, but neither did it mean Starg needed to worry himself about it too much.
The Controller was doing her best to impose increasingly harsh sanctions on the people of Valhalla, and it was having a negative effect on the districts closest to the encampment. Starg had expressed his concerns to the Controller in a written examination of her impact; her response had offered him no sympathy of any kind, and she had even suggested that it might be Starg himself who was damaging Pika.
There was no point in responding with the information Starg has that supported his claims, because Zuwrath liked to sweep aside anything that suggested Montague 7 would be better if humans were integrated into the virn-dominated world. Starg did not like humans, he thought that they were a backwards and awkward race (with some exceptions), but he recognised that the strains between both species were not going to disappear just because they were ignored.
His representatives had agreed with independent virn studies that suggested if humans and virn worked together and shared the same spaces, not only their relationships but also their productivity would increase. This had been the case with several other species who had previously been introduced into the Empire, although many pro-purity conspirators such as Zuwrath denied anything of the sort.
Humans, Starg knew in some deep part of him that was not entirely ready to face the reality of his knowledge, would be statistically less likely to be violent or aggressive to virn if they had been treated as equal to virn in the first place.
Unfortunately, the Controller was firmly allied with the more conservative parts of the virn Empire. It did not matter that she was, on paper at least, supposed to be impartial; Zuwrath served the very purpose that her position had been created for.
‘Oh, I know that look.’
Starg looked up from his communicator to see that Maureen was stood in his office. He was a little startled, but hid the shock: it was not often that Maureen entered without announcing herself first. Whatever she wanted to speak with him about, it was clearly important to her. A smile tugged at the corners of his dry lips, once the surprise had worn off, and he allowed it to take over his face. Maureen was not his favourite person to work with, but compared to Zuwrath she was most welcome.
‘You know it?’ he asked. Maureen chuckled to herself and walked a little closer to his desk.
‘May I sit?’ she asked. It was one of those filler sentences that humans used when they wished to sound polite. Starg nodded with a grunt. ‘Thanks.’ She settled herself in the chair, brushing away a few stray crumbs that the previous occupant had left on the arm. ‘I do know it, yes. That’s the look I see in the mirror after I’ve spoken to Zuwrath.’
Starg grunted again. The smile that had gripped him had faded away now. ‘The Controller does not care for my opinion on virn-human relations.’
Maureen pushed herself forwards over the desk, her hands braced on the arms of the chair. ‘And what is your opinion?’ she asked him.
‘Apparently it is unimportant.’ Starg knew better than to give Maureen too much information. ‘You claimed you had an interesting proposal for me?’
‘Yes. Yes, I do.’ Maureen clasped her hands together and pursed her lips. She took her time before speaking again, a habit that Starg could not help but associate with the Controller, and when Maureen did speak it was slowly, as though she was selecting her words carefully. ‘Tell me, Starg, exactly how much would you like to make the Controller suffer?’
‘Very much,’ Starg confirmed. His heart began to beat a little faster at the mere suggestion of the pair of them hurting Zuwrath.
‘Well, I think I may have something up my sleeve that could get her in serious trouble.’
Starg’s eyes widened slightly, enough that Maureen had surely spotted the movement. He held a hand up before she could say anything further, then stood up and walked around his desk to check that the door and windows were all shut. When he was sure that they would not be overheard, he walked back around the desk and sat down opposite her, leaning close enough that they could speak in whispers.
Even then, despite these safety measures, he took still one further, aware that his secretary’s understanding of human languages was not as good as his own.
‘Do you have a plan already formed?’ Starg asked.
‘Better than that. I’ve got a whole team of people ready to carry it out. Everything is prepared, all we need is one simple favour from you.’
‘What do you need?’
Maureen grinned, showing a full set of teeth. She held Starg’s gaze for a few seconds. ‘Air time on virn television,’ she said.
Starg leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. ‘I can’t give you that. Why would you want that?’
‘We’ve designed a programme to show a virn audience the real human experience, from the human perspective. I know as well as you do, if a human show gets broadcast on virn television, especially one that claims us as equals, then Zuwrath will get in serious trouble for allowing it. Oh, you and I might too, but it’d be worth it to bring her down.’
‘Have you asked her about it?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Because you know she is too careful to give you an opportunity to embarrass her.’ Starg folded his arms across his chest. He grimaced, trying to imagine what possible results Maureen could gain from such a display. The question of whether the average virn would accept humans as their equal was an intriguing one, but even more intriguing was the question of what would happen to Zuwrath after the broadcast had been made.
He wondered, too, what the consequences might be for himself, and for the Liaison, but an image of a publicly shamed Zuwrath was entirely too distracting.
Maureen moved her hands from the arms of her chair to Starg’s desk and leaned closer to him, their faces inches apart. ‘A new Controller,’ she said, as though she had read Starg’s mind.
‘A potentially worse Controller,’ Starg commented. ‘Potential termination of my job.’
‘A potentially sympathetic public willing to listen to sympathetic Keepers,’ Maureen corrected him. ‘And a sympathetic public would accept only a sympathetic Controller.’
Starg pursed his lips.
‘Do you believe what you say?’ he asked. The look in Maureen’s eyes was wild, her pupils blown wide and her excitement evident. She made no effort to disguise what this conversation meant to her.
‘Of course. Every word.’
‘And Zuwrath would, certainly, not be allowed to remain after such an impressive blunder.’
Maureen did not reply, but she did not need to. She could read Starg far better than he sometimes felt he could read himself. She gave him time to think the idea through for himself. He knew that Maureen’s silence was meant to encourage him; she knew he wanted what she was offering. His life and his job – if he still had a job – would both be infinitely better without Zuwrath to crush his every attempt at a mutual, forward-thinking relationship with humans.
In small steps, of course. If Starg had to be the one to make the first step, then, he decided, he would do it with pride.
‘Perhaps it is not such a poor idea after all,’ he mused eventually, ‘to see a human broadcast on virn television. We have all sorts of broadcasts these days, after all, coming from all corners of the Empire. Yet there is always room for more. I have the authority to grant you broadcast time in Pika. Zuwrath only has the authority to stop me if she hears what I am doing ahead of time.’
‘Then you agree to allow us to broadcast? Before Zuwrath can get wind of this?’
Starg reached up with one hand to scratch his chin, but this time his reaction was for effect. He had already made his decision, and Maureen knew it. Ridding himself of Zuwrath had been Starg’s main aim for almost as long as he had worked as Keeper of the Peace. He was merely making a show for the Liaison.
‘When do you wish to broadcast?’
‘We should be ready one week from now.’
‘At what time do you wish to broadcast?’
‘Prime time. When virn families sit down to share their evening meal. Every generation watching.’
‘That request will be almost impossible to fulfil.’
‘I like the sound of that.’
‘You like it?’
‘Yes. Almost. You said “almost”, Starg.’
The Keeper of the Peace grinned. ‘I did say that,’ he agreed.
‘Then you can do it?’
‘A week from today, prime time,’ Starg said, making a mental note for himself to find as much money as he could to bribe the best programmer he could afford. ‘On a popular channel. So it shall be. Look out for my messages – they will be protected and encoded.’
‘Of course,’ Maureen smiled. ‘We wouldn’t want Zuwrath to find out before the broadcast can be made.’
Starg’s grin widened, all teeth and tongue. ‘Was there anything else?’ It was a difficult question to ask when all he wanted to do was offer Maureen a strong drink. This was a reason to celebrate, and yet there they were, busy making small talk across his desk as though their plotting was entirely insignificant.
‘Nothing I can think of.’ Maureen pushed herself to her feet. ‘If this goes off without a hitch, then I’ll buy you a drink. Or two. Heck, I’ll buy until you black out.’
‘I warn you, I can hold my drink well.’
‘I look forward to finding out exactly how well.’
With those words, she left Starg to wonder what impact his decision would have for them all.
By the time that Maureen had arrived back at the camp, Starg had already forwarded a message directly to the private system installed in her home.
Christine and Rokesh met her outside their container, and her daughter threw her arms around her. Maureen chuckled, then pried Christine’s fingers off her.
‘Why, whatever is it?’ she asked jokingly.
‘Pika,’ Christine said, ‘prime time. One week from tomorrow. I mean, it took us a little time to figure out the message, because I haven’t used your private codes in a while, but – oh, Mum, thank you so much!’
Impressed by Starg’s efficiency and that he had kept his promise, Maureen could only smile.
‘Just make sure it’s worth it,’ she replied, patting Christine on her back.