Where the Moon is God – Chapter 2

You can catch up on the previous parts of Where the Moon is God here:

Where the Moon is God – Prologue

Where the Moon is God – Chapter 1

This is mostly character/plot building and backstory, more action will occur in the upcoming chapters.


There was one thing, and one thing alone, that had made Thomas interested in Theodore as a child: the other’s unremitting determination to see things himself, to witness everything before judging it. It was a truly inspirational way to live and one that nobody else did with quite the same ferocity. Thomas often wondered where Theodore’s inquisitive streak had come from, although he had never asked. It was much more fun to watch and learn from Theodore’s gentle, caring personality.

Being a monk made it difficult for Theodore to travel far, and generally the two of them spent their days within the walls of their monastery, where few distractions could tempt them to sin. Theodore had to rely on the written word of others to get first-hand (or sometimes second-hand) accounts. On rare occasions, the isolation seemed to get a little too much for him, and Theodore would leave the monastery to wander alone in the surrounding countryside. What he saw during those times was anybody’s guess, and Thomas did not wish to pry.

It was another element of Theodore to admire, another that made him so different from Thomas but so very likeable. Thomas enjoyed the comfort of the monastery and did not venture unless he had to. He liked to hear news from Henry and he more than liked discussing said news with others, but as far as he was concerned there was no need to get any more involved in goings-on than that.

In the same way that Thomas reflected on the Bible in his moments of silent meditation, so Theodore used his excited need to explore to do the same. When the other man could not explore, he would read and study to diel the apparently endless desire he had to contemplate the issues of the day. Theodore knew more about scholars and religious thinkers than Thomas, purely because Theodore would spend hours pouring over their works. Thomas liked to read and to know, but Theodore liked to study and to understand.

Thomas often found himself wishing that he could be more like Theodore. He wished that he could have the amazing patience of the other man, that thirst for knowledge that could keep Theodore going and going until he became physically exhausted. In truth, however, Thomas preferred to learn from one of the greats than become one of them.

So, whenever Theodore announced that he had received a message from one of his friends around the country (including the favourite Matthew), who wanted him opinion on some argument or philosophy, Thomas would leave him to it. He liked to watch as Theodore moved from one point the next, no matter how obvious or disconnected they seemed, and built up his arguments until he could reach his own conclusion. The way he did it was fascinating.

This was why Henry had asked for their thoughts. Thomas’ brother knew as well as Thomas himself that Theodore was a genius; whenever the three of them were together (a sadly rare occurrence of late), it was evident that Henry admired Theodore almost as much as Thomas did. It had been that way ever since they had been young, and in those days, the relationship between the other two young men had bothered Thomas. It had left him feeling sour. Now that they were all older, he wished he had spent less time thinking about Theodore and Henry’s friendship and more time learning from his friend.

That was why he had naturally rushed to find Theodore with the letter from Henry. Together, they could discuss what was happening, whether it was a wild dog or a human or a demon, and why it seemed to be connected to Henry, until one of them came up with something that would be of use to the priest.

As he sat on his bed watching Theodore pace back and forth in the small bedchamber, with barely enough room for three steps in any direction, he wondered whether he would ever meet anyone else quite like Theodore. It was doubtful. There was certainly nobody else in the world who had helped Thomas to develop his faith as much as Theodore had done. The way that Theodore approached the Bible had done more for Thomas than the church or sermons or the peaceful solitude of the monastery.

Of the two of them, Theodore was the strong-minded one. He had always known what he wanted and what he believed in, and had gone out of his way to follow his desires in the right way. He was so focused on success and yet so down to earth that he was granted both mental and physical health. Although he was not physically as strong as many men, there was no reason for him to be. He had everything he needed in order to be good at what he did.

Thomas, on the other hand, was a quiet enthusiast who liked to observe greatness rather than be a part of it. Theodore had been awe-inspiring even as a child, a too-thin little boy from a poor family who had taught Thomas a lot about less fortunate people. As an adult, Thomas had always felt stronger with Theodore around, more sure of himself and more capable of completing his tasks and goals. He no longer wanted to be Theodore – those days had long passed – but he did hope to one day be that pious himself.

When Thomas had previously voiced his thoughts about this reliance on his friend, Theodore had only laughed kindly and said that Thomas should have more faith in himself. That had helped to boost Thomas’ confidence. Theodore had pointed out that every man showed his faith in different ways, and that Thomas did not need to be like Theodore to show how deeply religious he was. He did not need to go on these grand adventures he imagined Theodore went on to have a full and interesting life.

Thomas found it strange that Theodore seemed to admire him equally. Theodore would dismiss gossip and try to bat Thomas away when he brought news, but in the end they both knew that he wanted to listen, that he would stare with wide and excited eyes until Thomas had finished the story. Theodore did not hear gossip as Thomas did – but then Theodore was forever caught up in his own thoughts, never paying as much attention to the world around them as Thomas did.

When Theodore had told Thomas that the Lord did not care how they demonstrated their belief as long as it was true, he had reminded Thomas that they would both be loved equally and welcoming into His kingdom upon their deaths. Then he had added that he had always admired Thomas for the dedication he had shown to Theodore when they had run away from the city and from their families to become monks, and that Thomas was the greatest gift the Lord had ever given him.

It was an unusual compliment to be called a gift from God, but Thomas had clung to it ever since those words had left Theodore’s mouth. They had made him want to beam with joy, but he had waited until he had been alone before he had allowed himself to grin. Praise from Theodore was a marvellous thing, never giving him more belief in himself than was good for the soul, and it brightened up even the darkest days in a way that Thomas did not think anybody else’s praise could do.

His world did not revolve around Theodore. It was difficult for Thomas to imagine life without the other, but there were times when even he had to admit they both needed a break. His life was dedicated to none other than God. Nevertheless, there had been a few occasions when Thomas had wondered where exactly admiration ended and the worshipping of a false (and very human) idol began.

Theodore, for as much as he sang Thomas’ praises, seemed to view their friendship differently. He had always been oblivious to the way that Thomas revered him – which was not necessarily a bad thing – and likely would have condemned the behaviour if he had ever caught on. Although he had always led, and Thomas had always followed, Theodore had never done anything to take advantage of that position.

Thomas could not remember the first time they had referred to one another as ‘brother’, because long before they had started on the path to become monks Theodore had heard other monks using the title and had adopted it for himself. He had integrated it into their friendship and Thomas had enjoyed the new term just as much. It had focused his attention on both Theodore and the monks.

Despite how Thomas had always walked in Theodore’s footsteps, willing to do anything the other had wanted of him, Theodore had never mentioned noticing it. He had certainly never used the position to his advantage, although he could have done so if he had ever wanted to. Thomas knew Theodore would never play on that power. Henry had made signs that he had spotted Thomas’ admiration, but what he thought of it was a secret known only to the priest; he seemed content to allow Thomas to live his life the way he wanted to, in Theodore’s shadow.

Theodore was kind and considerate, the nicest person Thomas knew, with such a sensitive soul that Thomas sometimes did not feel good enough to be in his presence. That was what he thought as Theodore paced up and down, muttering quietly to himself as he thought about what had happened in Lincoln the previous night. Theodore would not rest until he had found his answer, because nine people had already died, and each death was a tragedy regardless of the extent of one’s sins. The dead might have changed their ways, if only they had been granted more time.

‘Wasn’t there a full moon last night?’ Theodore asked suddenly, making a scuffing sound on the floor as he stopped in his tracks. It pulled Thomas out of his own thoughts. Thomas scowled in his concentration. He had never paid much attention to the cycle of the moon; Theodore seemed to find it far easier to keep track of things like that, because Theodore noticed everything.

‘Yes … I think there was …’ he answered with some uncertainty.

Theodore made a sound that was half disbelief and half amazement. ‘Yes, I remember waking up and looking out of the window in the middle of the night! I had a bad dream.’ Thomas knew what that meant. He recognised the frightened look in Theodore’s eyes: it must have been an awful nightmare.

‘What was it about?’ he asked. Theodore visibly shook at being reminded of the dream.

‘I was being chased by something – or rather, by some things. They were monsters, demons, and hungry animals. I saw their faces.’

He hung his head for a moment and breathed a long sigh. Thomas thought about getting off the bed and going over to comfort the other man, but before he could decide what would be the best way to do it, Theodore had raised his head and started to pace again.

‘You’re safe here,’ Thomas told him, feeling weak at his hesitation. ‘They’re just nightmares.’

‘I know they are. I thought I’d conquered them, but … they keep coming back. Even meditation wouldn’t help me this time. Before you arrived at breakfast I was caught in madness and confusion. Each nightmare I have is worse than the previous one.’

Theodore stopped at the window and stooped to peer out of it. He ran a hand through his fair hair and squinted up at the sun.

‘You’re too tall for this building,’ Thomas told him, hoping to change the subject. He always felt uncomfortable when Theodore spoke about his nightmares, because there was nothing that he could do to help. Theodore did not seem to hear him.

‘Yes, the moon was full and bright,’ he muttered, still staring out of the window. Theodore did not elaborate further, until Thomas decided to push him for more information. People had been killed, after all, and they were distracted by the topic of the moon.

‘Is that relevant?’ he asked, one eyebrow raised.

‘I have no idea. I would be interested to know if the other six deaths had also occurred on a full moon.’

‘That would fit a pattern.’

‘It would do more than that. It would explain why your brother seemed to know exactly when to expect the deaths – why he was so quick to write to you. I’m not saying it’s certain, but – Henry must have suspected that something was going to happen. Perhaps this killer only strikes on a full moon.’ Theodore turned back to Thomas after he had finished; he did not look pleased with his own analysis. He rubbed his chin. ‘You know how I feel about superstition. People have felt spooked by the moon ever since we were first cast out for our rebellion. There’s something eerie about it.’

‘Well, of course there is,’ Thomas agreed. ‘It’s something we’ll never be able to touch.’

‘I feel like a fool for mentioning it,’ Theodore admitted.

‘There’s no need to. You’ve found something that might link the three nights together. It would be foolish to suggest that this is some creature from a folk tale designed to scare children and uneducated people, but the cycle of the moon could be a valid point. Henry didn’t say anything about it, but I’m willing to bet he knew.’

Theodore nodded. ‘He probably didn’t want us to label it as nonsense straight away,’ he said. ‘Do you think common people might believe it to be a folk-creature?’

‘That would explain why the witnesses have provided such useless accounts. Of course, they are an uneducated lot – we can’t forget that. Their minds are small, and they often struggle to understand even the most basic of truths – but then, you know that already, Theo.’

‘I was merely suggesting,’ said Theodore, the smile on his face revealing that there had been no need for Thomas to remind him of lay ignorance, ‘that perhaps they would have another view of this that we do not have. After all, it is laypeople being killed; relatives of the deceased doubtless have their own theories about what killed them. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to find out what they think. Consider it, Thomas – if you were a demon, what better way would there be to create terror within common people than by taking the form of a monster from their misguided beliefs?’

‘Those people only see what they want to see,’ Thomas replied awkwardly. He had not considered whether the creature might want anything more than to kill. ‘So, you’re saying that if the common folk belief it’s something that intellectuals know doesn’t exist … then the demon can keep killing for longer?’

‘Exactly. Let’s suppose it is a demon. Maybe it could even move from one place to another without suspicion in this manner.’ Theodore sighed. ‘I don’t know. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m not convinced this is a demon, but I keep thinking that it has to be something other than a human. That little guiding voice in my head is saying “what if?” – well, what if the entire thing is just exaggerated, silly rumours? What if they catch the man responsible tomorrow?? What if, what if, what if!’

‘I feel the same. The cities …’ Thomas shrugged.

‘You still don’t like the cities, do you?’

 

Theodore did not need Thomas to answer that question and they both knew it. If he had not already known the answer, then he would have been able to tell what it was simply by looking into the other man’s eyes.

Thomas’ father had been furious with the pair of them when they had left Lincoln as young men. As far as the older man had been concerned, Theodore had stolen his son from him. The confusing games that Thomas’ father had played, designed to manipulate Thomas and force him to reconcile with his angry father, had led to the monk holding a powerful and negative opinion of cities and the people who lived within them.

Sometimes, Thomas’ father had seemed to regret his words, to relent, but it had never stayed that way for long. The last time that it had happened, he had demanded that Thomas either return home to wed or stay out of his life for good. Thomas had chosen the latter and stuck to the country ever since. Thankfully, the only word Thomas heard of his father was from Henry, and even this was sparse.

Theodore had his reservations about cities, too, though not to the same extent as Thomas. They were a breeding ground for corrupt clergymen, the priest Henry being the exception. City clergymen accepted bribes and seemed to have a passion for adultery. They even claimed power over the monasteries, with no rights to them. They were greedy, sinful men, who led the laypeople living under their wings into the Hell-fire along with themselves.

As well as this, cities were filthy, smelly places. Theodore recalled how angry and unhealthy the people he had lived with in Lincoln had been. Stepping into an urban area would produce gluttony, lust, or any other sin imaginable; Theodore had wondered on more than one occasion how long it would be before he himself was tempted by the sheer corruption within large towns and cities.

Then there was the ignorance. It would only serve to make Henry’s situation worse if the so-called witnesses were speaking of monsters from scary stories. If people were seeing what terrified them in the darkness, Theodore would hate to discover what he would see if he ever faced this killer.

Things were simpler in the country. The monks examined philosophical and theological arguments, and spent little to no time dwelling on the problems of city-folk. Nevertheless, there were occasions when they were impossible to ignore.

Providing a religious purity that was unobtainable in cities, the wide expanse of open farmland and grassland around them allowed Theodore to withdraw from the physical world and reach a glorious state of mind that was untroubled by human affairs. This letter from Henry seemed to be dragging him back to the physical world, but he did have an ability to look beyond things that could offer him an insight Henry simply did not have.

Thomas shifted on his bed, his fists twisted in the covers; Theodore made a mental note to suggest meditation later in the day. Talking about the place where they had grown up was clearly wearing on Thomas. The sitting monk sighed and, after a brief silence in which they had both been allowed to think, he responded to Theodore’s earlier question.

‘It’s not that I don’t like the cities,’ he said hesitantly, ‘it’s that I think the people who live in those places are … they’re too desperate for proof of what is obvious, if only they bothered to look. They see God and devils and all manner of things in places where they are not. They make up lies, they don’t look to the church as much as they should, and they invent explanations for the world around themselves. They could find Christ on the soles of their shoes if they stared at them for long enough.’

That was exactly how Theodore felt, but he thought better than to prolong their conversation. He acted on his mental note to suggest they go meditate, and Thomas offered him a grateful smile in return. They left the room and headed down the hall, to the quietest room in the monastery.

As he sat there on the floor with his eyes shut, Theodore felt his mind slip into rest, and was thankful that there was nothing to distract him this time. He lost himself in the tranquillity; after an age, he was pulled back into the real world by Thomas whispering in his ear.

‘Thanks, Theo,’ he said.

Theodore opened one eye to look at Thomas, then the other. He smiled. ‘I think it helped us both,’ he replied.

They went to eat, and Thomas seemed much more cheerful. Theodore watched the other man, his mind sinking back into those busy, complicated thoughts that were always going around in his head when he was not focusing on clearing his mind. He could not meditate forever. They would soon need to discuss Lincoln again, and when they did Thomas was going to have to try his best to focus on the issue at hand, rather than on their past.

Theodore had tried to help Thomas overcome his hated of urban areas, but he had never been successful and had sometimes wondered whether he did not know the whole truth about the other man’s father. If Thomas was hiding something, then Theodore did not dare to consider what keeping that lie was doing to his immortal soul. His own attempts to help had only ever made the situation worse. A letter that he had written to Henry during one of his most concerned moments, asking how they could help Thomas to leave his fury in the past, had only left Theodore hurt when the priest had told him never to bring up the subject again.

It had been an odd and blunt thing for the priest to say, but Theodore had a great deal of respect for Henry and had decided to follow this instruction. Henry had, after all, been the one who had helped the pair of them escape from Lincoln, and who had stayed behind to protect them after his father had discovered him attempting to make his own escape. There was nothing Theodore could ever do to repay the priest. Shutting up when Henry asked him to was a start.

Thomas noticed Theodore was watching him between mouthfuls and put his spoon down. ‘You know, I cannot imagine how this culprit is going to be caught other than with blood on his hands,’ he said, mistaking Theodore’s concern over him for concern over the dead in Lincoln. ‘I wish nobody else will have to die, I do, but I do not see how they might be discovered otherwise. Clearly, neither Henry nor the constable have enough to go on to find them.’

‘That is not something we need to solve,’ Theodore reminded Thomas, picking up his own neglected spoon as he tried to act casual. ‘Henry just wants our advice. The king will send others to deal with this killer, should he feel that the constable cannot handle the job. If there is anything the constable has not uncovered, the king’s men will find it. We must remember that it is not our place to hunt down murderers; we can help in other ways. Our opinions are treasured. If this is a demon, they’ll find the right people to deal with it.’

‘It sounds like a powerful one,’ Thomas pointed out.

‘Yes, it does. They might ask the bishop to expel it.’

Thomas paused for a moment, then said, ‘You’re right, Theo.’ The excitement he had shown when he had first spoken of Henry’s letter was gone, replaced by an almost disinterested gaze. ‘Of course – and I can understand why Henry wants our advice. Whatever it is, it’s circling him.’

‘It seems so,’ Theodore agreed. He reached across the table with his free hand and grasped Thomas’ shoulder gently, hoping to reassure the other with his touch. ‘I’m sure it’ll be resolved, and the perpetrator dealt with accordingly, because it can get anywhere near him.’

Thomas smiled at that, a more genuine look than any Theodore had seen on his face so far that day. Perhaps all he had wanted was a bit of comfort. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said; Theodore removed the hand and returned his attention to his food. Thomas did the same, finishing without any mention of the poor taste this time.

They spent the remainder of the day focused on their own tasks. Theodore wrote a letter to Matthew asking if the man had ever heard of anything like this killer before, then returned to studying in the hope that he might find an incident strange enough to relate to Henry’s letter. It was late when he gave up and retired to his chamber.

He would try again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until he found something useful for the priest. Theodore sat at the end of his bed that night, contemplating to himself. He had no doubts that Henry was in trouble until this killer was caught.

Laying in his bed, Theodore glanced briefly out of the nearby window and was reminded of his nightmare by the silvery moon. Perhaps he should not have cast his dream aside so lightly – had those wolves been a warning, a message from a higher being that there were monsters in Lincoln? People had visions from God all the time, especially those who lived simple lives such as his own. He had always assumed that it would be obvious when one received a direct message from the Lord, without any need for interpretation, but he found this suddenly in doubt.

If he had not opened himself up to the idea of divinely inspired dreams enough to recognise one when he had it, then he needed to grant himself the time to understand whether there was any meaning behind his nightmare. He could not ignore the dream when it and the deaths had happened simultaneously.

The idea that the Lord was telling him personally that there was a demon in Lincoln came with another problem: it would likely mean Theodore was somehow involved. The nightmare had been incredibly vivid, and he could remember it so well that the more he thought about it, the more the connection seemed to make sense. Yet, if this was the case, why had he not also had nightmares during the other six deaths? Why would God not have alerted Theodore sooner, so that he might have averted those earlier deaths?

Groaning from the dull ache growing in his head from such thoughts, Theodore closed his eyes and reached out with an invisible hand, searching for any feelings of divine influence over him. After several minutes he gave up, deciding that he was probably looking too far into the dream and that there was no reason for him to definitively link it to what was happening in the city.

He rolled onto his side and buried his head in his hands, trying to drag the thoughts from his mind so that he could get some sleep. There was nothing he could do to bring those people back.

Theodore slept easier that night, soundless and without any terrors to wake him or make him sweat. When he woke the next morning, he had managed to convince himself that the nightmare was of no importance and that he had been looking for an answer where there had been no question.

This would settle down, and justice would be served. His advice would no doubt be useful to Henry, but this was not his fight.

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VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

Check out the prologue here:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue


Maureen Bradshaw was a middle-aged human woman of around average height. She was thin and underweight, like all humans who reached her age. She often wore a sceptical frown, which had become her customary appearance in the media. The frown formed three long age lines across her forehead and made her look worn.

She was a prominent figure in both human and virn news, because she had a unique job that required her involvement in both worlds: Maureen was the official Liaison between humans and the virn, the rulers of Montague 7.

Most humans viewed this as a special, even in some instances an honourable position. They thought there was something prestigious about attending meetings with senior virn figures and giving interviews to the media. As the longest serving Liaison in the history of human-virn relations, Maureen knew just how wrong they were.

Yes, it was true that she had permission to leave Valhalla, the camp the virn had graciously (as it was officially documented) allowed humans to settle, whenever she wished. It was possible for other humans to get that same permission, but the virn had made this a long and difficult process for the average human, so many of them had never seen the world beyond the walls. A handful left the camp illegally every month or so, but they were always rounded up by the virn authorities and dragged back to Valhalla. The escape and recapture would always be widely reported in the virn media, and then a few days of uproar about the breach in virn security would occur before the whole thing would be forgotten about.

It was also true that Maureen got the opportunity to practice her virnin frequently in the presence of real virn, rather than the artificial holo-programs that were used in classrooms. They had pre-set conversations installed on them that became dry rather quickly. Meeting real virn outside of Valhalla had given Maureen a first-hand look at virn life, and how different it was from the life they had granted humans in their so-called generosity.

Those were the parts of her job that Maureen was asked to talk about the most. They were only the barest elements of her work, and if anything, they only served to reinforce her belief that humans were deliberately kept out of Valhalla in order to prevent their integration into virn society. It was not the first time that the Virn Empire had repressed a species to serve their own ends: they had a history of doing so with lesser-developed species, following the conquest of their planets.

This was not something virn history books discussed, but there were plenty who were willing to discuss how they had been treated if the price was right.

Some humans liked to point out that the virn were not exactly what they would consider moral. The virn governing body on Montague 7 did things because those things benefitted their own people. They had created an entirely separate branch of government for humans, led by humans, to shift the responsibility of human affairs off their shoulders. The human government needed the permission of the virn government to do anything or pass any legislation, which meant it achieved very little, but it did what it was intended to do because the human government was there to take the blame.

Maureen reported to the human government, but she did not like to get too involved with it. She knew it was a puppet, and that was a part of her job she greatly disliked.

The absolute worst part of her job, however, was meeting with the virn Controller, who was essentially Maureen’s counterpart. The Controller, a proud virn woman named Zuwrath, had next to no interest in bettering the human position and seemed to take great joy in making Maureen’s life as difficult as possible. Zuwrath refused to budge on most issues, although she expected Maureen to jump through hoops to accommodate her demands. The virn had the upper hand in their relationship and she liked to remind the human of that. All things considered, Zuwrath was perfect for her job.

Whenever Maureen had to deliver Zuwrath’s new demands to the human government – which then moved to put them into action without debate – there was outrage in Valhalla. The human media broadcasted ugly little cartoons of Maureen trying and failing to persuade an anti-human Zuwrath to show a little compassion. The media loved to depict Maureen, and used her image at every opportunity.

Although Zuwrath’s stubbornness was well-known, there had been a few occasions when Maureen had been able to persuade the Controller to do something positive for humans. This was not a case of changing the virn’s mind, because that was impossible: it was about persuading the Controller that a little addition would do a great deal for virn as well as for humans.

Maureen was a symbol of achievement against insurmountable odds (when the media was not out to get her), and that was the kind of role model young humans needed.

Of course, Zuwrath was not the only virn Maureen had a working relationship with. Others could be more reasonable, at least when compared to the Controller. Aside from Zuwrath, the most important were the leaders of the thirty-eight regions on the planet, each the head of a government sector ruling over a part of Montague 7. A handful of them had been nice enough in the past to express their wishes that humans and virn might one day live together in peace, but had also felt concern that it might cause trouble if humans were integrated into their region.

Maureen was used to being told that she was welcome, and that her people were welcome too … just not here. This was at least an acknowledgement that human life was incredibly hard. The harder it got, the more disgruntled humans became – especially the youth, who could cause Maureen a great deal of trouble. When they rebelled, Zuwrath placed harsher demands on the human government, and the average virn man and woman became a little more concerned about the presence of humans on their planet. This meant that human life got harder. It was a vicious cycle that Maureen had been fighting for far longer than the ten years she had spent as Liaison.

She had to believe it was possible for things to change, even if that change took generations. Maureen did not expect to see virn treat humans as their equals in her own lifetime.

The Liaison had heard about the two human teens who had tried to bomb some high-end virn mall, and so she had waited for Zuwrath’s call. It had not been a long wait. Zuwrath had decided against the standard digital communication to summon Maureen, and had instead decided to send two virn officers to Valhalla to fetch her instead. Maureen suspected that their presence was designed to frighten humans into obedience, lest anybody might feel inspired by the two silly children.

They had buzzed her when they had arrived at the gates of the camp, and Maureen had gone to them laughing loudly at their unwillingness to enter. Zuwrath had likely warned them not to: there had been a few incidents in the past when her underlings had gone home and shared the reality of how humans lived with the virn media. The Controller did not need a surge of sympathetic interest in the human cause.

The masked officers escorted Maureen to Zuwrath’s headquarters in an unmarked vehicle. Valhalla was not officially located in any region, but Zuwrath worked in Louch, the region to the north of the camp. There, the Controller busied herself night and day to keep humans contained within their own little world and prevent their involvement in wider virn society. Maureen had stressed to Zuwrath on many occasions that their separation and segregation only served to increase the mutual dislike the two species shared for one another, but Zuwrath did not seem to care. It did not matter whether the average virn held the correct opinion of humans, so long as the virn remained better off.

When Maureen entered Zuwrath’s office, the Controller’s secretary greeted her. He was a young, somewhat jumpy virn on an apprenticeship. His squeaky voice put him at under twenty years of age, and probably still in the early stages of puberty. When it broke, it would no doubt match his scaly hide and narrow eyes far better than the squeak did. The virn life cycle was on average, and based on their own calendar, forty years longer than that of humans – more, when one considered the life expectancy in Valhalla. This meant that virn children enjoyed a long and happy youth and were not officially classed as adults until they reached twenty-five years of age. Puberty did not start until the late teens at the earliest.

Wait here,’ the secretary told her. He entered Zuwrath’s private room to see if she was ready, then came back out a moment later. ‘Take a seat.’

Maureen knew that Zuwrath was more than ready to see her. The Controller just liked to agitate her by making her sit down and wait in the corner of her office every single time she was summoned. Maureen did her best to ignore the Controller’s deliberate manipulation: she had a great deal of practice when it came to Zuwrath.

She counted twenty-three minutes before Zuwrath poked her scaly head around the door of her private room and instructed Maureen to come in. The Liaison obeyed, as politely as she could.

Zuwrath’s office was a large room decorated with spectacular paintings, all by famous virn artists who were now long deceased. It was the Controller’s private art collection, but Maureen had always thought that the paintings, with their elegant swirls, sharp angles, and earthly colours, paled in comparison to Zuwrath herself.

The Controller was tall, a full head and shoulder over Maureen, with wide-set eyes and dry, scaled skin. The colour of her scales – or her armour, as Zuwrath had once referred to them – indicated her family’s racial purity: Zuwrath was from one hundred percent virn stock, and she liked to make sure that everyone around her knew that. There was no interspecies breeding in her ancestry. Her tail stuck out the back of her clothes, long and strong. She was pure enough that she could regrow it if she ever lost it.

She wore clothes of brown and moss green, which matched her scales. Every inch of her body, apart from her tail, head, and neck, was clothed. The body suit zipped up on Zuwrath’s left side and gave her enough freedom that she could swell up if she wanted to threaten or needed to defend herself. The spines down her back always looked sharp, but the thick material she wore protected others from cutting themselves if they touched her. Maureen had never seen Zuwrath in a mask; the Controller was too important to wear one.

Sit down,’ Zuwrath instructed, waving a gloved hand at the chair on the opposite side of her desk. Maureen took the seat as Zuwrath also sat. The Controller straightened a few papers on her desk with an amused smile, because she finally turned her thin yellow eyes on the other woman. ‘Maureen,’ she said, ‘let’s not waste our time here.’

With all due respect, Controller,’ Maureen replied, forcing herself to sound as though she did still have some respect left for the other woman after the long wait, ‘I know what this is about, and it’s a complicated issue. This attempted bombing is only one in a long list of incidents. It’s more than a matter of what’s right and what’s wrong or what can be done in response to this specifically – it all comes down to the human situation.’

The human situation is that your people destroyed your own planet and my people gave some of them a place to settle and –’ Zuwrath screwed up her face in repulsion, her eyes narrowing until only the thin yellow slits of her pupils remained visible, ‘– repopulate.’

And we are starting to repopulate. Which we are grateful for. There are now far too many of us for humans to live comfortably in Valhalla. We need more space, better facilities, access to clean water and –

It sounds like this has happened at a very convenient time.’

Maureen fell silent. There was an awkward pause in which the Liaison and the Controller stared across the table at one another. As always, Maureen was the one who backed down. That was the way all of their standoffs ended; Zuwrath would have been content to sit there and stare at Maureen forever, barely blinking, but Maureen wanted to get to the matter in hand. The virn’s body had a higher tolerance to a lack of food, water, and bathroom facilities than Maureen’s, and her priorities were seemingly to be as difficult as possible.

In addition, Zuwrath knew Maureen too well. She knew that Maureen could not accept violence, because Maureen had personally led a campaign several years previously against the militarisation of human anger. The Liaison had been at the forefront of converting many young humans who had been physically aggressive towards virn to a peaceful form of protest instead.

Yes, they continued to protest, and they still irritated the Controller, but the virn media did not pay that much attention to humans who protested in a reasonable way. That would have put humans in a far too favourable light – but at least it was not negative attention.

You know I didn’t have anything to do with this, Zuwrath. You know it’s a result of how desperate young humans feel. What those two teens could’ve done sickens me. It sickens every good, honest, hard-working human.’

Zuwrath scoffed. ‘Well, I suppose there must be a few around. Ah, it sickens the humans, but your people continue to attack mine nonetheless.’

I’ve told you before, those are not my people.’

They’re human, aren’t they? You’re human. That makes them your people.’

It does not! My people are peaceful. My people don’t behave in ways that are detrimental to human affairs.’

Zuwrath leaned over her desk, her yellow slits boring into Maureen’s pale pupils. ‘Humans are humans,’ she said, as though this was supposed to mean something. ‘When one human attacks us, we must assume that all humans are a threat. Who knows how many sympathisers there are in that camp?’

There are no sympathisers!’ Maureen responded heatedly.

I cannot be certain of that. My media cannot be certain of that. Do you think you can convince the average virn that his or her family would be safe if a family of humans lived next door? Can you swear their children would be safe playing with human children? There have been problems with species integration throughout the history of the great Virn Empire, but you humans are something else. You cannot be trusted.’

The behaviour of an extremely small minority is a response to the way we have been treated over the years. Come on, Zuwrath, you know the virn media was against human from the beginning. Yes, the violence is wrong, and I’ll continue to repeat that until I’m blue in the face. Yes, the loss of both human and virn life is terrible, but –’

The loss of virn life,’ Zuwrath correct her, ‘is an abomination.’

It is. I’m not trying to deny that. I’m trying to get you to see that we’ve been treated as inferior, as second-class, as incompetent, as unintelligent for so long, as … as a species whose rights can be ignored for the benefit of the Empire. From the moment that we arrived, almost fifty years ago, we’ve been treated in that way. That’s why we slave away in factories with poor lighting, inadequate heating, and dangerous machinery, taking minimal breaks, while virn men and women work in clean, healthy environments that respect them and their needs. We need better standards, Zuwrath: we can’t spend as long in the sun as a virn without becoming dehydrated, and we can’t work for as many hours without rest.’

Then perhaps my predecessors fifty years ago were correct in placing you in that camp,’ Zuwrath stated.

Zuwrath, we’re as intelligent and capable as any virn. Our bodies aren’t identical to yours, but that doesn’t make up any lesser than you. Just like the offspring of virn who breed with other species can become tired faster than you, or they can’t grow back their tails, or they have fewer scales … we’re different, but just as valuable.

Inferior species.’

Some of the half-virn, half-bexelm children can store food and water in their bodies for up to a week in case they have to go without,’ Maureen pointed out. ‘That’s not inferior.’

The Controller’s eyes lit up, and she smashed her fist onto her desk before jabbing a long finger at the papers she had fussed over when they had first sat down. ‘You are here to discuss what happened at the shopping mall,’ she reminded Maureen. The Liaison forced herself to keep a straight face, despite her desire to grin: it was an achievement when Zuwrath ended an argument without first proving herself right.

Right, yes, of course. Yes. Well, obviously, we humans are deeply sorry for the upset that this incident has caused.’

And what am I supposed to do when the shoppers start demanding compensation for trauma? These high-class virn think the empire of themselves. If they see an opportunity to sue, they’ll go for it.

Please express our deepest sympathies. We woefully regret the actions of these two humans. However, Zuwrath, I would like to point out that the governors and I feel the situation could have been resolved without either of the humans being killed. If the perpetrators had been virn, well then, some humans might argue they would only have been stunned –’

A shipment of new containers was scheduled to be delivered to Valhalla tomorrow,’ Zuwrath interrupted. She rifled through the papers and pulled one out of the pile, then waved it in front of Maureen’s face. The Liaison saw the receipt for two thousand new containers, which would likely have housed more than ten thousand humans. She knew what Zuwrath was getting at.

We’ve been waiting for those containers for almost five years now,’ she said. ‘There are many families who’ve lived in tents since the first colonists settled here. They’ve been so patient, waiting for their chance to live in a container, where they can be protected from the weather and from thieves and from the spread of disease, and to have their own screens where they can view the news and learn to communicate with virn and better themselves and –

Zuwrath screwed the piece of paper up into a ball and threw it into the bin at the end of her desk. Maureen stopped talking.

They can wait a few more years, then,’ the Controller said.

Zuwrath,’ Maureen said, picking her words carefully, ‘people won’t stand for this. Those you punish for this action have done nothing wrong and have never caused you any strife – but the more humans you upset, the more enemies you’ll create for yourself. Don’t punish every human for this horrendous incident. Don’t place the blame on the heads of the innocent. On children.’

The Controller clicked her tongue and waved a hand at the door. ‘Get out,’ she said. Maureen stood, deliberately raking the wooden legs of her chair against the floor. Zuwrath flinched backwards at the sound, her sensitive hearing alarmed by the sharp noise.

‘One day, Zuwrath. One day you’ll go too far.’

The Controller’s grin almost split her face in two.

‘I said: get out.’

 

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

Large, bold fonts flashed the names of the stores across the wide halls of the shopping mall. The text reflected in the shiny windows of those opposite, lighting up the goods that had been carefully set up and placed on display. Some of the stores were decorated with glittering lights, there to catch the attention of the busy shoppers, whose wallets and purses bulged with the potential to splurge on new and fashionable items.

The shopping centre had long, pale walls. Occasional pieces of modern artwork hung in some of the empty spaces. They were each labelled with the name of their creator, mostly students who lived in hope that the shoppers would notice their work and commission a piece for their own homes. The ceilings were high, designed to give the impression of peace and tranquillity; everything was there to encourage the happiness of the shoppers.

Heels clicked on tiled floors, creating a rhythmic pattern just audible above the soft music playing from the speakers high on the walls. The heat in there was astonishing, but it did not seem to bother any of the shoppers. The strutted around without a single concern for the temperature.

This was a place for the super-rich. The shoppers walked around with their noses held in the air, decked to the nines in designer clothes that proudly demonstrated their elitism. They wore dresses with bone collars that had been taken from endangered species (after the natural death of the animal, or so it was claimed). Handmade shoes so intricate that each pair was one of a kind. Fur coats, gloves, and hats; the marks of people who were simply too wealthy to care about the little man – or the whines of those do-gooder campaigners who were on their side.

Their children trailed along behind them, dressed immaculately in clothing that was worth more than the average man’s best suit. Some of them carried pets, which wore studied collars and pretty, unnecessary little items of clothing.

The precious stones worn by the shoppers shone in the bright lights of the mall. They hung on their jewellery and were stuck to the pieces of metal in their piercings. Their noses, ears, and lips bore loops and gems that gave them an air of obscene glamour. The communicators on their wrists were top-of-the-range, the newest designs to come off the market. Wearing anything as outdated as the second-best model would have been disastrous to these people. They flashed their wealth with confidence, bold and unafraid.

Slowly, they drifted from store to store, scrutinising what was on offer in judgemental voices. Store assistants rocked back and forth on their balls of their feet as they begged silently to whatever deity they believe in that they would make enough sales to fill their quota that day. They wore masks covered with the branded logo of their store, so that the shoppers would not have to look at their faces when – or if – they addressed them. It was customary and created a divide between the wealthy shopper and the employee that reinforced their social classes.

Prices were of no concern, which was why they were never displayed openly in the shop windows. If something was good enough for these shoppers, then the price of it was irrelevant.

It was rare to see middle- and lower-class shoppers in that mall. If they did manage to save up substantially, they occasionally went along to splash out, but when they did they clutched their money nervously and left feeling robbed. Heads would turn in their direction as they moved around the mall, undisguised tut tuts following them as they went. They were not encouraged to feel welcome; indeed, their presence was considered suspicious.

Many of the rich shoppers pitied these lower classes for their absurd fussing over the mere matter of price. Why did they bother to visit at all, if they had such a preoccupation with spending money? There were cheaper, outdated malls for their kind in other locations, loud and unclean places that suited them and their kind.

Even more unusual than lower-class shoppers were humans. Human men and women had strange opinions about right and wrong and good and bad, and they were not afraid to let these opinions be known. They had no sense of their place – which was somewhere else, far away from this mall – and made themselves the centre of attention wherever they went. The idea of a human being able to afford anything on offer in this mall was beyond ridiculous.

That was why the young human male and female who entered the shopping centre in the heat of a mid-week afternoon were so curious. They were evidently not wealthy enough to be there; that was obvious from the mud on their shoes to the knots in their hair. Shoppers stepped aside as the two humans approached, or else turned on their heels and went in the opposite direction to avoid walking past the pair altogether.

‘Liz,’ the young man whispered to his partner, a sense of urgency in his voice. ‘I’m not sure about this.’ He was dressed in a tracksuit with a long coat thrown over the top, wrapped tightly around his body. It was at least a couple of sizes too large for him, and he looked lumpy. One of his arms was wrapped around the woman’s shoulders, but she was the one leading him. They walked a short distance inside the mall, past a couple of security guards in masks who turned their heads and watched them go by, as though daring the humans to make a wrong move.

Liz, who had been clutching at her own tightly worn, lumpy jacket, removed her hands from the material for just long enough to pat her partner the back. ‘Ignore them, Jack,’ she said, as her hands found their way back to the jacket. ‘There’s no law against us being here. Besides, this is important. You know why. Nobody here cares. The virn don’t care.’

Jack stopped walking and took several deep breaths. Liz halted less than a second later, and spun immediately to look into his eyes. ‘Yeah,’ he said after a few moments of tense silence, ‘yeah … we have to. We have to.’ It sounded as though he was trying to convince himself more than in agreement with Liz. Jack dragged his eyes away from the piercing stare of his sister and looked around the mall instead, his eyes darting this way and that. Sweat was already forming on his brow at the thought of what was ahead, but that could have been put down to the heat. His hands shook a little as he checked that the coat was still closed. ‘Should we – uh – should we look around, or – or something – then?’

Liz pursed her lips in thought. If she was nervous or uncertain of what they were about to do, then she did not show it. ‘Yes, let’s go deeper inside,’ she said, before she spun around and walked on to scout out a store that interested her. ‘This one,’ she added after a while, pointing to a large store with an almost empty window, save for four handbags that were each seated atop a gold podium.

They headed in that direction, but before they could reach the entrance to the store the two security guards had caught up with them and stood in their way.

Liz puffed out her chest a little and said in her best, yet still somewhat broken, virnin. ‘Can we help you?’

Random security check,’ one of the virn guards answered. ‘Come with us.’

Jack, whose virnin was not as good as his sister’s, looked blankly at Liz. She made no sign that she was concerned, so he did his best to imitate her and plodded along silently behind her, following the two guards into a small room located near the entrance of the mall. The door closed behind them, and the two humans looked up at the masked guards with their best innocent faces.

Jack wanted to scream. The hairs on the back of his neck were making him feel itchy, and he was sure that the sweat on his brow was going to start forming pools of water at his feet at any moment.

One of the guards took off his mask and placed it down on the table. He stepped towards the two humans, and leaned down until he was eye-level with Jack. His sharp scales were too close for comfort, and Jack struggled to remain still under the glare of those thin, yellow eyes. The guard hissed sharply, smirking at Jack’s evident discomfort.

You look a little too hot, human. Not got something to hide, have you?’

Jack turned to Liz, for help more than for a translation.

Your mall’s very hot,’ she told the guard, looking him directly in the eyes as she spoke. There was a moment’s pause. ‘Why have you brought us here?’

Random security check,’ the other guard repeated.

Why? Random, two humans? We’ve got nothing to hide.’

Looks to me like you might have.’

The guard allowed those words to dangle in the air between them for a while. The one staring at Jack briefly flickered his eyes down to his oversized coat, and Jack found that he didn’t have to understand what was being said to know exactly what was going on.

He felt so stupid. Why had he allowed Liz to persuade him that this was something they should do? Why hadn’t they stayed in Valhalla, where they would have been hungry and miserable but safe nonetheless? It was all his sister’s fault: it had been her idea, her plan, she had been the one who had convinced Jack of its necessity. Now they were in serious trouble.

Jack stared into the unblinking eyes of the virn guard and swallowed the lump in his throat. He was sure that the guard would have been able to knock him out in one blow, if he wanted to. Jack was also pretty sure that the guard wanted to. It would be only too easy for the virn to get away with it. Humans, in the mall, causing trouble. Tried to get them to leave politely. Kid was scaring people. Had to do it, really, no other choice. He just wouldn’t comply.

Take off your coats,’ the masked guard said.

Liz shook her head. Jack, ignorant to his meaning, copied her. The guard in front of Jack, noticing that he did not understand the language, clicked his teeth impatiently.

‘Your coat comes off now,’ he told Jack in plain English. He had a thick accent and the words blended together a little. He prodded the young man’s shoulder with a thick finger, the point of his manicured nail digging through the material and into Jack’s skin. ‘Feel less hot then.’

‘No,’ Jack replied, a little bluntly. ‘I – I mean, I’m fine, thanks. I think I – I’d just like to leave.’

He tried to step around the guard, but a whirring sound stopped him in his tracks. He looked around at the other guard and saw that the virn was pointing a blaster at Liz’s face. It was long, thin, and the blue light on the side indicated that it was armed to stun.

Jack looked at Liz and wondered what he was supposed to do now. This was not a part of the plan. She stared at the blaster with one eyebrow raised, as though she was daring the guard to fire. Jack’s guard prodded him in the shoulder again, this time harder.

‘Okay,’ Jack said, seeing no other way out of the situation and wanting desperately to find one. ‘Okay. Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll take it off.’

‘Jack!’ Liz warned him. Jack paused, his hands hovering over the sash of his coat, poised to untie it.

His hesitation encouraged the guard with the blaster to change its settings from stun to kill. The light on the side turned from blue to green.

Defying his sister, Jack pulled the sash loose and let the coat fall down to the floor. He saw a flash before he was overwhelmed by an intense surge of pain in the middle of his chest.

Then it was over.