VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

If you need to catch up with Valhalla Rising before reading this, here are the links:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

This is getting pretty lengthy now – I hope you enjoy!


Maureen’s communicator chimed six times before she answered it. She was busy working on a report for the Controller and the leaders of the surrounding regions about the cruel treatment of Rokesh, and why this would have a negative impact on all parties involved. She did not expect anyone to pay attention to it, but there was the small chance that someone might notice it and that, when they did, they would want to see something official with Maureen’s name on it. If she did not file the report, then she could almost guarantee that she would get in trouble for not filing it.

She also did not much care who was trying to contact her or what they wanted.

Eventually, she grew tired of the bleeping and flicked her wrist, opening the message that the sender was apparently desperate to deliver to her. It appeared on the screen above her desk, a long text file full of boring-looking bullet points and technical information that scrolled from top to bottom automatically, to reveal the scrawled sign of Zuwrath in an ugly dark yellow font.

Maureen thought the colour suited the Controller perfectly.

She cast aside her own report and flicked the screen back up to the top with an impatient finger. The title was “SCHOOLING FOR HUMANS”, and that was all Maureen needed to read before a sense of dread began to settle in her stomach. Schooling for humans? The Controller had outdone herself this time; human schooling was not supposed to be any of her concern.

A short note from Zuwrath – or more likely, one of her representatives – at the top of the page informed Maureen that every member of the human government had been sent this information too, and that it was to be implemented immediately. This was what humans were going to be taught from now on, and there were to be no arguments on the matter.

The first section was brief and oddly vague. It stated that human children had so far had a sloppy education that the virn needed to straighten out, to ensure that humans were provided with all the necessary skills they needed to successfully grow into adulthood. Maureen noticed straight away that the emphasis was on traits that human adults (and not virn adults) were supposed to possess, as though to put humans in their place below virn from an early age.

The second section listed areas of education, including the basics such as mathematics, science, and language, which Zuwrath expected to change. Humans would be taught specifically about virn who had made important discoveries, and references to humans such as Pythagoras or Einstein were to be discouraged. After the age of twelve (the end of lower and beginning of upper school in the virn education system, adopted by humans for simplicity), humans would no longer be taught virnin: though previously it had been compulsory, it was now labelled “unnecessary”.

Maureen was not the only one who would recognise these new tactics for what they were. The emphasis on virn over human mathematicians and scientists would teach humans children that the virn were mentally and technologically superior to them from a young age, without anyone having to say it aloud. The barriers that limiting language lessons would create would keep humans in lesser jobs, where they would earn pittance wages. In a few years, it could probably even be spun to make humans appear ignorant and unwilling to enter the virn sphere of life.

The third section of the message detailed examinations exclusive to human children, then the types of jobs that human children should be encouraged to go into when their upper school ended at seventeen. None of these jobs, Maureen noticed, would require leaving the camp. The examination results would be calculated according to a bell curve, and they would determine which careers the students were ultimately expected to take. The majority of humans would end up doing factory work.

According to the report, from seventeen to nineteen, humans would enter into work placement programmes, as though this bell curve system would instantly create jobs for every child to move into the career that was selected for them. Of course, most of these jobs would require very minimal training, so the reality would be that humans would work from the age of seventeen until they could no longer physically perform the labour or were made redundant.

All of this led into adulthood. A job that was preassigned, unlike virn students, who were given ample opportunities to explore different career paths. Virn students could select their subjects based on their interests, not on the results of their examinations. There would be no such choice for human students, only instructions to follow. No freedom for humans; only a duty to perform.

The final section of the message discussed the schooling of virn children in brief, and why this needed to be different from the schooling of humans. It mentioned further education, and why this should be reserved, interestingly not for virn per se, but for “those who live outside of the camp known as Valhalla” – which was essentially the same thing as virn-exclusive.

To Maureen’s eyes, this was the part where Zuwrath had, despite not stating anything outright, bothered to hide her meaning the least. Even if, by some miracle, a handful of humans did settle outside the camp, they would still be expected to attend a human school and would therefore not get the opportunity to enter further education.

Maureen closed the text document and opened a blank file. She stared at it for a long time. What could she say in response that Zuwrath would be likely to acknowledge? The Controller had not indicated that she was interested in making massive changes to the human education system before: that had always been an internal issue of Valhalla. She doubted there was anything she could write that would change Zuwrath’s mind.

It did not seem like a sensible thing to try to do, but that was why nobody else would try. Maureen had no choice but to write something.

She drew up several drafts analysing what the impact of these alterations would be from her point of view, but deleted them all. She was not saying anything that Zuwrath would not know already. Maureen then drew up a draft message that suggested mixed schooling, but that had never got her anywhere in the past, so she deleted that, too. In the end, she gave up on an official letter and instead decided on a personal message to Zuwrath that felt more meaningful than anything that was electronically signed, dated, and stamped.

‘Controller Zuwrath,’ she dictated to the screen through gritted teeth, ‘I just received your message about schooling. Have to confess myself disappointed. You’ve never shown any interest in this kind of thing before, even when I’ve brought it up. I suppose you knew I wouldn’t be impressed. Suggest we meet to discuss as soon as possible. Maureen.’

She sent the message before she could change her mind, and returned to her condemnation of Rokesh’s eviction with a heavy heart.

~

On the northern border of Valhalla, there was an expanse of open land that humans had named the No-Land. According to the virn government, it was land that humans could potentially expand upon in the future, but they had no intention of allowing any settlements there for several decades. Sometimes, children and teens of both species would gather there to hang out with their friends, whether because this irritated their parents or because they thought they could do something frowned upon and would not get caught there.

Humans and virn generally kept their distance from one another, even in No-Land. There were occasional shouting matches between teenage groups, but little more than that had been reported for a long time. No-Land was not considered a dangerous place: there was nothing of strategic value there to incite one side or the other. Neither species could claim any rights over the other to be there, or to use the land. It was not officially human land – yet – but it was destined to belong to humans and according to virn law, that meant it was not officially virn either.

There were a few tents along the border or No-Land. Most of the humans in Valhalla had situation themselves close to the factories, and near No-Land there was nothing to keep a large population employed. Those who lived in the tents were largely jobless – it was often said that the only employment was the task of cleaning the public conveniences.

Sometimes, visitors would come from deeper within Valhalla. They would pity the people on the border, but would only ever suggest one thing: move further into the camp. The response to this from the border folks was that they could envision no better lives for themselves being worked to death in a factory. The cycle continued.

A group of human children were playing together in No-Land. They kept close to the human side – it was common for those who lived around the border to do so. One was from inner Valhalla; the others were local.

The games they entertained themselves with were sweet and innocent. They ran around, shouting their excitement in the open air. They chased one another for hours, while on the other side of No-Land a gang of virn teenagers stood huddled together, listening to music and casting occasional glances over at the children, as though they considered the kids annoying.

Then the child from the inner camp, who did not understand the importance of staying close to the camp, got a little closer to the virn. A little closer, and a little closer, each time drawing the rest of the humans out with him without any of them realising it. After one particularly long chase, he slipped and landed in the mid a few paces from the group of virn. One of the teenager spun around.

Some of them had their hands on their hips. Others had their arms folded across their chests. All of them looked angry at the interruption. They wore bright colours – a display of rebellion against the bland work uniforms that matched virn skin colour. The one who had spun around, who had a hat sat on the top of his head with a wide brim that was flat against his forehead, stepped towards the child.

What do you think you’re doing, human?’ he asked, spitting as he spoke. The human boy, with a poor grasp of virnin, could only understand one word: human. He stood up as the other children gathered nervously around him, craning their necks up to look at the much bigger virn teens.

Sorry,’ he mumbled, the word a little slurred, then tried to back away. The other children stepped back with him.

Not so fast,’ the virn hissed. He reached out and grabbed the boy by the shoulder, pulling him sharply then letting him go, so that he fell face-first into the mud again.

The virn teens laughed.

The human children stood still, their eyes blown wide. They did not have to understand the virnin to know what the implication of these words were. The human boy pushed himself to his feet and wiped his face with his sleeve. Again, he tried to back away, and again he was dragged down into the mud.

Eat it,’ he was told, and when he frowned in confusion the teenagers imitated eating to get the message across. The boy remained still.

‘Let’s go. They’re mean,’ said one of the other children.

Shut up,’ one of the teenage girls snapped at her. The human winced at the tone. ‘If you can’t speak our tongue then don’t leave your crappy home.’

Better, if you can’t speak it, don’t live on our planet,’ another virn chimed in, as the humans shared blank but frightened expressions. ‘Lazy human bastards just expect us to learn their tongues and introduce their laws into our society to compensate for their backwards culture.’

My dad used to work in a factory that made spaceship parts,’ the first teen hissed. ‘Until human scum came along and took his job. Now they’re making poor quality parts on the cheap – good for nothing losers.’ He spat on the human boy still laid in the mud, who wiped the globule away with the back of his hand. ‘Stay still! If I spit on you, you’ll leave it where it lands! That’s your place in the universe!’ He placed his foot on the small of the boy’s back and applied just enough pressure to keep him still. ‘And this is mine.’

The rest of the human children began to edge backwards.

You know what you are?’ the lead virn asked as he leant down over the boy under his foot. ‘Do you? Want me to say it, you’re a wipt. You’re a low, dirty, disgusting wipt.’

The human boy looked up. The children halted and stared at the teenagers in horror. There were some words that every human knew.

Yeah,’ laughed another of the virn, ‘you’re all wipts.’

Wipts, wipts, wipts,’ the chanted in unison, laughing all the while.

The human children had heard enough. Those who were free turned and ran back to Valhalla; the boy on the ground pushed up against his captor and managed to scramble to his feet in the teen’s surprise. Before he could follow the others back to the camp, the chief tormentor reached into his belt and pulled out a long, thin dagger. It had a jagged edge on one side and was smooth on the other. He swept the jagged blade along the boy’s face.

The child screamed and ran, bleeding heavily onto his shirt.

Never forget what you are!

~

‘H – Hello? Is that Maureen Bradshaw?’

‘Speaking, yes. Hello. Who’s calling?’

‘Oh, Mrs Bradshaw, thank goodness! I’ve called so many different numbers for you, but they must’ve all been old ones – I need to tell you something, about something that happened on the border with Nesmara earlier today. It’s so horrible – so important – someone needs to tell the presses, to do something! We can’t tolerate this any longer, we can’t! Our children – frightened in their own homes. Oh, it’s awful! Have you – have you heard?’

‘I haven’t heard anything about Nesmara. Just calm down, please, and start with your name.’

‘Okay, okay, okay … my name’s Jessica.’

‘Jessica. Hi, Jessica. You can call me Maureen.’

‘Thank you, Maureen.’

‘Not at all. Now, Jessica, please tell me what happened. In your own time.’

‘Okay, okay … well, we were visited by a couple of friends and their young son this morning. We let our kids play together on the border, in No-Land – a shared space for humans and virn alike. There were some virn teens out there. Normally they’re fine, you know, they don’t make a fuss or anything. Sometimes they all hang out or even play together. Only this time … oh, it’s so awful! One of the virn attacked their little boy – none of us saw it happen, because we’ve never had to worry about anything like this before, but they attacked him with a knife across his face! He’s going to have a scar under his left eye now, we’ve done what we can for him but when the doctor came about an hour ago she said it’s likely he’ll have the scar for the rest of his life.’

‘Hold on, hold on, Jessica. Did you say the virn teen attacked him? Why?’

‘According to the other kids, the virn started on him when he got too close.’

‘Oh, how awful. I’m so sorry, Jessica. I hope he’s all right.’

‘He’ll recover, in time. What we want to know is if there’s anything you can do to make sure these virn kids get what’s coming to them. Our kids still need to go out and play. We don’t want them to be afraid of going into No-Land.’

‘Well … I’ll certainly see what I can do.’

‘We’ll be eternally grateful.’

‘I hope I can give you some good news. Thanks for letting me know, Jessica. And give my best to the kid and his parents.’

‘Thank you, Maureen.’

~

Maureen wasted no time in contacting Starg about the incident in No-Land. Although it was not his territory, she did not know the Keeper of the Peace in Nesmara, the region north of Valhalla, as well as she knew Starg. She wanted to use her relationship with Starg to persuade the Keeper of Nesmara to openly discuss the issue of virn violence against humans, an issue they were unlikely to discuss with her without persuasion.

The longer she waited, the less likely it would be that anybody would care.

This was not like other attacks she had known in her time as Liaison. It was not a group of drunk virn and a group of drunk humans clashing with each other on a street. It was not a gang of virn targeting a human or a gang of humans targeting a virn. It was not a long-running feud or a bitter argument. It was not even a racist attack that had escalated and got out of hand. This was teenagers attacking children, and she did not think Starg would be able to deny the moral dilemma when he heard it.

Maureen finally had proof of something she had been saying to both Starg and Zuwrath all along: that the bitter dislike that had emerged from human and virn misunderstanding had grown into something dangerous, inherent in society. If children and teens were getting involved in the physical fight, then that was all the evidence she needed.

She informed Starg that she was going to visit him and left Valhalla at the earliest opportunity. After Jessica’s evening call, she had spent the night planning what she was going to say and, after a few hours of sleep, had located a transporter the next morning. When she arrived at Starg’s office in Pika, he was there waiting for her.

‘What is it?’ he asked. His eyebrows were forced together in a knot in the middle of his head, as though a visit from Maureen was the last thing he needed. She recognised the annoyance on his face and realised she would have to keep it short.

‘The Keeper of Peace in Nesmara,’ she replied, ‘doesn’t like me.’

‘None of the Keepers like you,’ Starg assured her.

‘How flattering, Starg. Yet however much you protest, you at least came to Valhalla, instead of expecting me to always come to you. You have seen how I live and you know more about Valhalla than the rest of them put together.’

Starg’s top lip quivered. ‘And?’ he snarled.

‘… And I was hoping I could ask you to use your influence to persuade the Keeper in Nesmara to do something important for my people.’

Starg sighed. He rubbed his forehead with his hand, then dropped the hand down by his side.

‘Why do you not speak with him yourself? Dragu is an intelligent man.’

‘But I’m not close enough to him. I know what he’ll say to me. I need you to help me to speak with him, someone on his level who can give me a bit of a boost. Come on, Starg, think about it: I wouldn’t have to keep coming to you with all my problems if I got on better with other Keepers.’

That would be a good thing indeed. I have to deal with so many human issues currently that I have no idea which direction I am heading in.’ Starg’s eyebrows drifted apart, and his expression cooled somewhat. ‘So, tell me what it is this time.’

‘There’s a place between Valhalla and Nesmara called No-Land,’ Maureen began.

‘I’ve heard of it.’

‘Yesterday, a group of virn teenagers attacked a human child there.’

Starg’s eyes widened. He took a step towards Maureen; she held her ground. ‘You can prove this?’ he asked.

‘The child is physically scarred.’

Starg nodded. Then, he tilted his head and his eyes narrowed again. ‘And you want …?’

‘I want you to help me persuade Dragu to publish it in the media. Big news. This should be making headlines.’

Maureen’s words were met with a short, sharp bark of laughter from Starg. He stepped away from her and began circling the room, still grinning to himself, and chuckling occasionally.

‘You’ll have to go to Zuwrath, then.’

‘That’s what I was afraid you’d say. Starg, can’t we do this without involving her?’

‘No way,’ Starg scoffed. ‘I refuse to get involved in that – Zuwrath would have me by my balls. If you want it, you’ll have to do it yourself.’

He waved her out, and Maureen left.

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VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

You can catch up with the Valhalla Rising novella via the links below:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3


Like many human children, Christine had become used to seeing her parents cry from an early age. They had cried because they had been worried about Christine; they had cried because they had been worried about money; they had cried because they had allowed themselves to reach the brink of starvation just to feed their daughter. Every tear that Christine had seen had brought with it a new revelation.

She had not even been aware that there was another way to live until she had turned eight. As much as her mother and father – her dear, sweet father – had tried to hide their tears from her, it had been difficult when they had all lived together in a one-room container.

Christine and her childhood peers had been taught to stick to their local communities in Valhalla, and warned not to stray too far from their homes for any reason. It was not only virn who could be dangerous: a stray child wandering around in Valhalla made easy prey for anyone with bad intentions. These warning usually kept children away from the borders of the camp until they reached their early teens.

Some had known more than others. Maureen had wanted her daughter to enjoy her childhood as much as possible, and that was why she had tried to keep Christine in the dark. School had taught Christine the basics of six different languages: five of them human, and some simple virnin, but the only time that Christine had seen virn was in the media.

That had changed on her eighth birthday. She had wanted to throw a party and invite some of her closest friends along, but the local park had not felt exciting enough. Christine had heard whispers from some of the other children about theme parks and adventure playgrounds, where children could go on all sorts of thrilling rides. It had sounded like a dream birthday treat.

There was nothing like that in Valhalla. Space was reserved for housing and there were no funds for the upkeep of public land. So, once Christine had proven unmoveable on the topic of a birthday party in a theme park, Maureen had used her connections to the virn government to get them permission to visit one.

This had caused a lot of strife between Maureen and the other parents. Christine had not understood what the problem was at the time, but once she had grown up she had come to realise just how huge a suggestion like that could be. To take their children beyond the borders of the camp, where they would be surrounded by virn, was to put them in a frighteningly new situation. Maureen had fallen out with a number of people to make her precious eight-year-old happy.

Christine had been aware of some of the things that virn news agencies said about humans – she had not been completely ignorant. Her parents had, however, always encouraged her to believe that she was equal to a virn. Their word had been good enough for her, and for that reason she had understood no significant difference between the two species. News anchors and the occasional children’s show had taught her what virn looked like. She had been able to speak enough virnin to look cute without saying anything meaningful. Her father had wanted her to speak with virn children, so that she could get some first-hand knowledge of the language and see that they were ultimately the same. He was one of the reasons why Christine had not turned into a bitter, twisted, anti-virn adult.

In the end, only one of her friends had gone with her. Even that had been an achievement. The parents of the other girl had also attended, and they had clung to their daughter’s arm whenever a virn had so much as looked at a member of the group. When they were sure that no virn were in earshot, they had been rude and nasty about the species.

Christine’s parents had shown far more decorum. She distinctly remembered her father turning to the father of the other girl and telling him to “stop being such a judgemental wanker”, because it was the first time that Christine had ever heard her father swear. She had mimicked her parents’ behaviour (minus the swearing), and had been as polite to the virn as she was to any human.

This attitude had largely received a negative response from all virn – apart from one little boy.

He had been stood in front of her in the queue for one of the rides, which was not dissimilar to the merry-go-rounds pictures in old human books. Christine had spotted it from a distance and felt drawn to the music, as well as the sight of the riders spinning slowly as they bobbed up and down on wooden beams. It was not the most exciting ride, but the passengers had been cheering loudly, and so she had asked her mother if she could go on it.

By the time that they had joined the queue, Christine had been used to the stares of the virn around her. It had felt strange to have so many pairs of eyes on her at once – and that would never change – but the park had been far too exciting for that to bother her much. The stares of adult virn had been worse than those of their children, because the adults had apparently forgotten how rude it was to stare and make someone else – a child, nonetheless – to feel ashamed simply for existing.

That was why, when the virn boy in front of her had turned around to look at her, Christine had ignored him. She had smiled and looked right through him, as though he had not been there at all.

Her friend, on the other hand, had reacted defensively in her first close real-world encounter with her virn peer.

‘Why are you staring at us?’ she had asked, in the best example of an angry nine-year-old voice Christine had ever heard. The girl’s parents had each grabbed hold of one of her arms. ‘Go away.’

The virn boy’s gaze had shifted slightly, and he had looked at Christine’s friend as though he had not considered that his gaze might provoke such a hostile reaction. He had replied in his own tongue. ‘I wasn’t looking at you. I was looking at her.’ Then he had pointed at Christine, who had spun at her waist to silently question her mother.

‘Can you ask him, mum?’ she had asked. Her father probably would have made her speak to the boy herself, but her mother had been kinder on her quiet nature, and had jumped in before the man could argue. Maureen’s virnin has been infallible even then, so she had politely asked the boy why he had been looking at Christine, and he had hissed something back that Christine had not understood.

Both of Christine’s parents had chuckled.

‘What is it?’ she had asked them.

‘It’s … it’s …’ Maureen had said between laughs, a rare look of genuine amusement on her face, ‘it’s … oh, Chrissy. He says he thinks you’re pretty.’

‘I was hoping it would be a few more years before something like this,’ her father had added.

Christine could not remember blushing so strongly either before or since. Her face had glowed red with the heat that had risen off her skin, and her parents had laughed even more at the sight.

‘Can you speak my tongue?’ she had asked the boy, because her translators had not seemed like much use to her in those moments.

‘Very small,’ he had replied, indicating this with two fingers held close together, followed by something extra in virnin. They had just about been able to share their names using a combination of English and virnin, so Maureen had helped to translate between them for a while.

The queue had been long, but it had not been long enough.

‘Rokesh wants to know if he’ll see you again,’ Maureen had said to Christine, when they had been close to the front.

‘I don’t know, mum. Will he?’

Christine’s parents had shared a look. ‘Why ever not? We’d be happy for you to have a virn friend.’

‘Providing he’s only a friend,’ her father had teased her. Christine had not understood the implication of this at eight, but she was sure that her father would have found it amusing had he discovered how things had turned out. She had agreed to meet Rokesh again and Maureen and the boy’s mother had exchanged details so that they could schedule a convenient time and place.

When the humans had been back on the transporter, making their return journey to Valhalla, her friends’ father had commented on Maureen’s willingness to speak on friendly terms with virn.

‘They all treat us like the crap on the bottom of their shoes!’ he had exclaimed loudly. Maureen had rounded on him in an instant.

‘Firstly,’ she had retorted, ‘I behave as I do to stop ignorant humans and virn alike from publicly insulting one another and causing unnecessary grief between our species. Secondly, I do it because if we keep whispering and making nasty little comments behind their backs, then they’ll only shun us more. And thirdly, if you’d bothered to learn your virnin, you’d know that the boy we were talking to was a half-blood with a human father.’

The man had not said a word after that. Maureen had arranged for Rokesh and Christine to meet up in a neutral area on the eastern border of Valhalla, where they had swapped childhood games and held hands as though it had been the naughtiest thing anyone had ever done.

Five months later, Christine’s father had died.

She had drifted into a mental realm where she believed that nobody would ever accept her again. Maureen, who had been grieving heavily herself and had never shown interest in another, had tried her best to keep Christine in high spirits, and it had done wonders when Christine imagined where she might have been without her mother’s help. That did not mean it had been enough.

Rokesh had asked her to play, but she had not answered any of his calls and he had grown frustrated with her. Nevertheless, the boy had continued to be persistent, and Christine had been on the verge of blocking him when his final message – translated by a cheap but generally effective tool – had changed her mind.

I know it’s bad. My dad’s gone too. He was a nice man. My mum says that I’ll see him again in Shrl. Do you think that your dad and my dad are friends now? I think so.

            Shrl, the virn afterlife typically only mentioned during times of great mourning, did not have a religion connected to it as human concepts of the afterlife did. It was not associated with the performance of good or bad deeds, or of somehow being worthy of attaining eternal salvation. Humans were not taught about Shrl in school, mostly because human parents disapproved of teaching their children about non-human beliefs when that time could be dedicated to human ones.

Christine had asked her mother what Shrl was and whether her father was there, and Maureen had smiled and squeezed her shoulder.

Shrl isn’t like human beliefs,’ she had said. ‘Lots of humans think it’s strange – but, really, it’s no stranger than our beliefs. It’s just this place where everybody goes when they die. The virn believe that everybody looks the same there, because everybody is the same in spirit form. No difference in species, or height, or hair colour, or skin colour, or gender, or body shape … or anything.’

‘If everybody looks the same then how do you know who everybody is?’ Christine had asked.

‘Well, I don’t know. Maybe people wear name badges.’

In reality, the concept of Shrl was a lot more complicated than Maureen had made out. It was a non-physical plane of existence which existed both parallel to and beyond the physical world. The basic principle that Maureen had taught Christine was true, however: in Shrl no single species or individual was supposed to have any distinguishing marks, although it was actually thought to be a non-physical afterlife.

Maureen had taken Christine to visit Rokesh and his mother following the message. Maureen and Rokesh’s mother had been good friends for many years, until the latter had died. Christine and Rokesh had been young adults at the time, and had not long been declared an item.

Three years and six months later, and Rokesh was there stood at the doorway of Christine and Maureen’s container. It was raining heavily, a torrent of water cascading down off the metal roof onto his hair, flattening it. He was shivering. Christine invited him in immediately.

You didn’t say you were coming,’ she said, as he stepped inside and shut the door behind him. Christine had proven more adept at speaking virnin than Rokesh was at any human language, so they spoke in virnin whenever they could. She kissed him on the cheek, then opened a cupboard and pulled out a towel, which he received gratefully.

I didn’t actually know that I was coming until a couple of hours ago,’ he replied.

Why, what happened? You look awful! You’re all right, aren’t you? You’re not hurt or anything?

I feel awful. I’m not hurt, no – but I’m not all right, either, it’s just …’ Rokesh sighed and dropped the bags he was carrying onto the floor. There were three of them, large and stuffed haphazardly with his personal affects. ‘Well, I’m here now, anyway. There’s a lot of negative stuff going around at my work. Anti-human stuff. And they found out that the non-virn half of me is human, and they fired me. Didn’t stop there, either – I was encouraged to leave town. Gently, at first. Then, when I didn’t leave fast enough, much less gently.

Oh no, oh my goodness, oh Rokesh! Sweetheart, come here,’ Christine exclaimed, holding out her arms. He leaned into her, burying his head into her shoulder. His scales were rough against her neck, but no worse than stubble. ‘Don’t you worry now, honey, you can stay here with us.’

Your mother won’t mind?’ Rokesh asked. Despite all that Maureen had done for him in the past, he still sounded genuinely confused. Christine wondered whether he was really asking whether Maureen would mind, or if everybody else in the camp would mind.

No honey,’ she said, ‘she won’t mind at all.’

~

It was a three-mile drive from Valhalla to the closest virn town, and a good thing that was, too. The camp met the empty road, a shadow of tents and rectangular metal containers that looked gloomy and unkempt – where there was no wall to keep the humans in their place. Litter lined the road, but it was nothing compared to the sheer amount of rubbish in the camp.

Humans did not like to live in their dirty surroundings. If they have been able to do anything about it, well, then many of them said that they would have. It was Zuwrath who had decreed that garbage collections in the camp should occur only once every fortnight, rather than the standard three times a week that virn communities on the planet received. If there was a lot of rubbish produced on Montague 7, then that was because of the sheer numbers living on the planet.

After all, spending too much money on humans was highly frowned upon by many prominent virn figures. The more prominent they were, the more likely other virn would listen to what they had to say – and so the less that could be spent on humans the better.

The real cause of the litter problems in Valhalla was that the garbage collectors only turned up about half of the times they were supposed to, and when they did turn up they worked as fast as they could so that they could leave again. This meant that Valhalla was only serviced about once every four weeks, and poorly. The litter had naturally piled up until it had exceeded all storage capacity.

Although Maureen and the other leaders of the camp had done what they could to encourage their fellows to reuse, or else to dispose of their waste in the best possible way, there simply were not enough bins to go around.

The smell was more repulsive than the sight. It rose through the air and caused those nearby to cough and gag. The stench of rotten food, soiled clothing, and general waste was at its worst during the summer months, when the heat made the smell almost unbearable.

The people themselves were hardly in a better condition. They were smelly and miserable, though neither were their fault. The toilet system was appalling, with no private bathrooms in the camp whatsoever. Valhalla was dotted with small, brick buildings (as well as some of the original fifty-year old wooden cabins), which served as rudimentary public lavatories.

As for the public showers, they were little better than the toilets. There were separate blocks assigned to men and women, but there was little anybody could do to stop the wrong person walking into the wrong block, and there was no room for those who did not fit comfortably between the two genders. Hardly any of the showers had curtains, which meant humans became used to having next to no privacy from an early age. The lack of security meant that most families had a story.

Showering in groups was important, just like many other basic parts of human life. The simple act of walking alone could be dangerous – everyone in Valhalla knew that.

Once a visitor accepted the smell of the camp and the sight of the litter, they began to notice just how awful life in Valhalla was. The exhausted faces of the people said more than their words could ever have done. Their eyes were blank and hopeless, their lips dried and chapped, their skin grey and prematurely aged.

With so many crammed together in such a small, confined space, disease was rife. Though helpful young virn who were taking a year out of the medical degrees would come along to inoculate the children, and well-meaning virn charities sent volunteers to provide clean water and improve the sanitation – often temporary improvements – this could not prevent the spread of sickness.

Some of these diseases were venereal, and these were often the ones hidden away, unnoticed even by the carriers. Others were diseases that had been brought from the Earth, which had thrown the virn medical community into panic when humans had first arrived on Montague 7.

Humans suffered the most from virn diseases. Their immune systems struggled to cope with these alien viruses, and human science was not effective enough to defend them from some of their devastating consequences. Humans relied almost entirely on virn cures for these, as virn medicine was both more advanced and more effective.

Despite their problems, humans had learned to keep brave faces. They were a strong and defiant species, and they were keen to show it. Their schools were crammed full of students, and they used virn science and philosophy to demonstrate their sophistication and intelligence.

Some virn, apparently horrified by the idea that humans could reproduce, claimed that they bred too quickly, and that this was why their schools were so full and their camp was overcrowded.

Valhalla had originally been designed to hold five-hundred-thousand humans, and it had been classified as a settlement rather than a camp. The virn leaders who had brought the first thirty-five-thousand humans to Montague 7 had at least been smart enough to leave plenty of room for humans to repopulate their species. They had also introduced exercises to encourage cultural integration, in the hopes that before they reached capacity Valhalla would no longer be necessary.

Ten years after the arrival of the first human settlers, however, the project had proved too expensive, and the virn government had pulled out of what they had referred to as the “Valhalla Operation”. They had severely limited the amount of space allocated to Valhalla and then placed a single virn in charge of finding some way to combine virn and human society in a way that neither side would object to. A way which would ultimately benefit virn the most. This was the Controller.

The first Controller had been genuinely interested in human culture and the ways in which it was like virn culture. He had been happy to visit Valhalla, and had often called upon the virn government to provide humans with greater protection and improvements to what, by that time, was already being called a camp site.

That was when the owners to the largest virn media groups had stepped in and shaken things up. They had manipulated their news broadcasts to label humans as lazy beggars who were trying to take money out of the rich virn economy. This had not only led to the virn government refusing additional funds to Valhalla, but also to the withdrawal of some funding and the firing of the first Controller. Walls had been built around the camp, although they had never fully been completed.

A new Controller had been selected from within the ranks of the government, as had been the rule ever since. They were always decidedly anti-human, and through this sentiment the virn government was able to secure its hold on power on Montague 7. Their harsh treatment of the humans in the camp had satisfied the virn public for forty of the past fifty years, and during all that time there had never been an election they had lost.

One of Them

The faces drifted in and out of focus, twirling and spinning until they became a blur of colours with a lack of any distinguishing features.

In the end, they were all the same. Hair colour, skin colour, eye colour, lipstick, eyeliner, moustaches, beards … whatever. They were all the same.

Laying in the mud, I dared to raise my head enough to see their distorted faces. I did not need to be able to recognise any of them. It was what they said that defined them, but they never said anything I had not heard before.

Pathetic.

Loser.

Waste of space.

I did not need them to say it to me. I had learnt these things long ago. I if I wasn’t pathetic, wasn’t a loser, wasn’t a waste of space, then this wouldn’t keep happening to me. Everywhere I went, every school I attended, it was always the same. They were always there, with their unrecognisable faces and their sharp words.

It was nothing to do with them. It was me, I was the one who was wrong. As their faces twirled and span, they became part of a collective, the same group of people. I, meanwhile, was alone, recognisable and vulnerable, easy to spot in a crowd.

To change, I had to become a blur. I had to become one of them.

The mud smeared on my face hid me a little, and that was where my disguise – my process of blending in, of joining them – would begin.

111.

Curious – a wonderfully vivid poem.

february stationery

I run my tongue around the back of my teeth
pushing the perceived space underneath my gums
and being surprised when my teeth hold fast

I’ve had a repeated nightmare, intrusive thoughts
about my teeth coming out; since this started
and I know that in a list of most common dreams
your teeth falling out would come right under nudity

But hear me out as I pretend again that I am special

Do you remember the jagged edge of your teeth
as they dangled, held in only by nerves and roots?
I do. I remember pushing, prodding, twisting
cutting my tongue open on the edge only to
give up at the last second


But I would do it, constantly, until I fell asleep

and perhaps in the night too, as I woke with
a pillow full of blood, scrabbling to find the tooth

And it isn’t that I want my…

View original post 46 more words

The Best Christmas Present Ever

‘How am I supposed to look after that?’ Pip hissed. She had dragged her sister, Becky, into the hallway so that she could snap at her without anybody else noticing. One of Pip’s hands clung to the front of Becky’s t-shirt, her fingers digging into the material, so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. Becky showed no sign of being apologetic.

‘You saw how Paul’s face lit up when he first laid eyes on it. I know he’s been going on and on about getting one for a while.’ Becky’s shoulders were relaxed, her posture easy, but her eyes presented Pip with a clear challenge. ‘Don’t deny it.’

‘That’s not the point! He might want one, but he’s only seven! Who’s going to be the one who actually has to look after it, who has to train it, who has to feed it and take it out for walks? Me, that’s who!’

‘Oh, come on, sis, I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to take it out for a walk –’

‘And you’re trying to teach him what? That he can have anything he wants? Is that it?’

‘Pip,’ Becky said, her voice as smooth and calm as ever, one hand reaching up to touch her sister’s lightly, ‘relax. He’s been through so much in such a short life. This year has been tough on him, but he’s doing so well in school despite all the pain and visits to the hospital. Let him have this. I know the real reason you’re annoyed, and if you need some help to pay for it, then –‘

‘I don’t need financial aid,’ Pip replied. She released Becky’s top, and their hands fell back down to their sides. Despite the haze of conflicting feelings that buzzed through Pip’s mind, she forced herself to regain her composure under her sister’s watchful gaze. A sigh escaped her lips. She walked over to the door to the living room, and Becky followed; they stood there leaning on either side of the door frame, and looked in.

Paul was sitting on the rug in the middle of the room. His tiny frame, too small for his age, was quivering with excitement as he rolled around with the new puppy that was darting around him. The bandana that Pip had taught him to wrap around his head to disguise his lack of hair flapped around at the back with his sudden movements. The bruises from his IV seemed to have no effect on him in those moments – he would normally complain that they were sore and visible this recently after treatment.

Pip smiled.

Then Paul spotted them in the doorway, and in one movement he rolled over and caught the puppy, landing on his knees facing the door. He raised his head and looked up at the two women with a wide, toothy grin.

‘I love the puppy, Aunty Becky!’ he said. Becky turned to Pip with a victorious smirk.

‘All right,’ said Pip. ‘Maybe it’s the best Christmas present ever.’ She paused, as the puppy wriggled out of Paul’s skinny arms and bounded over to the pile of used wrapping paper, which it proceeded to pee on. ‘Maybe.’

Kindergarten

Little heads turn,
Tiny eyes widen,
Mouths hang open
It’s English time!
Language lessons
Are important here,
So English begins
At kindergarten.
There’s not much
A teacher can do:
These kids barely
Speak Vietnamese,
So songs and colours
Are today’s subjects.
Numbers, songs,
Letters, songs –
Kindergarten teachers
Can lose their minds
When every lesson
Means repetition!
The kids gather
Around their legs
Beaming, speaking,
Screeching sometimes
In Vietnamese;
Too young for school
Undisciplined
Lacking control,
Their eagerness
Is infectious –
At least for a while.
And after classes
Kindergarten teachers
Want to curl up
In a warm bed
To get some
Well-deserved sleep.
High school teachers
Tell them it’s easy,
Singing songs every day,
But kindergarten
Teachers know better:
It’s easy to teach
When the lesson
Can be planned
From beginning to end.
They run, they shout,
They play, they dream
Of a chance to rest
All while surrounded
By twenty hyper kids.

© Laura Marie Clark

Excerpt from the book “City Of The World”

Please visit my author page and share in my adventure:
http://www.ctupublishinggroup.com/laura-marie-clark.html

Button Eyes

I understand, you know. And I don’t blame you. I’m not one to lay blame on others, and you know it. Whoever they are, whatever they want – I’m always there, smiling politely, two shining button eyes staring ahead at everyone and anyone who looks my way.

You used to play with my hair. Sometimes, you’d get your fingers tangled in it – but I wouldn’t complain. Not ever. All you did was pull a bit. I just kept smiling. You never pulled hard enough for any of it to come out, because you loved me. And I loved you.

I still do, and I know that you love me too. I realise that it was an accident. You’re probably up on that aeroplane now, forcing Mum to search through her hand luggage again and again to find me. I can imagine you now: red faced, tears running down your cheeks, flapping your hands around as you desperately tell Mum that you have to catch the next flight back after you land at home. She won’t let you come to collect me – and that’s fine. I know it wasn’t deliberate.

Perhaps if Mum calls the hotel, they’ll be able to send me back to you. The housekeepers will find me and hand me into lost property – a pretty, well kept dolly like me, they’ll be able to tell how much I’m loved.

It wasn’t your fault that I fell down the side of the bed as you were packing your case and you missed me. I was hidden between the bed and the bedside cabinet, so you couldn’t see me. You’ll get over it, in a while – and, maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll see each other again. You’ll find me in the post, delivered by a faceless driver, and we’ll cling to one another in happiness of our reunion.

But don’t worry if it never happens. I know it wasn’t your fault. I know you don’t care for me any less. I’ll always be your little dolly, smiling politely, staring with my shining button eyes.

Savage Country by Anderson Ryle

“Do you want to play guns?” he asked me.

This was a complicated question, and while I stood not knowing what to say, the summer heat beat down through the cloudless Virginia sky. Twenty years has gone by now, and each summer heat wave brings back this vivid memory. It will forever be with me, as clear as it was that day when I was eight.

A dozen or so boys watched me, waiting to hear my answer, and not one of them seemed to notice the oppressive humidity hanging thickly about us. The leader of the horde stood out in front, eyes fixed on me, with a toy cap gun in each hand.

The first part of the question that my eight-year-old brain had to address was this boy’s use of the word ‘guns’. He said it like ‘guns’ was an activity. In my universe, guns are not an activity; guns are things, guns are objects, guns are weapons, and guns can be used for many activities, but they are not activities. They can be used for hunting, or warfare, or even the occasional wild west duel that takes place at high noon on a hot summer day with the hero only seconds faster than the crooked sheriff who finally, finally got what was coming to him, but guns, in my universe, were not an activity.

In my world, as an eight year old boy who grew up playing games like, Boggle, and Scrabble, and the magnificent Trivial Pursuit, ‘playing guns’ did not compute. So I stood there silent for a moment as this other eight-year-old boy watched me, his mouth held open slightly, and all the other boys crowding in behind him also brandishing toy weapons of various kinds. They looked for all the world like a tribe of savages. Some were shirtless, some had skinned knees, and one even had an unnoticed booger hanging from his nose. But every one of them burned by the sun under which they played each summer day. They all looked at me like they didn’t understand why I wasn’t responding, as if they couldn’t have asked a simpler question.

But as I mentioned before, his question was multifaceted. I tried to step out of my universe and into some crazy parallel universe where ‘guns’ was an activity. The question then hinged around the rest of his sentence, ‘do you want to…’ Now that was a loaded question, pardon the pun. Did I want to…what? What did ‘playing guns’ entail? I had no way of knowing what I was signing up for. If I said ‘yes’, would I be resigning myself to an afternoon of getting stung by humming steel pellets fired from the smoking mouth of Red Rider BB guns? Entirely possible. I didn’t know what these booger-nosed hooligans were capable of. The mere savagery of that undetected booger was simply beyond my comprehension. A boy who can look another human in the face while standing there in such a state, well, he must be capable of anything. Saying ‘yes’ was right out of the question.

But to say ‘no’, now, there was another conundrum. If I said ‘no’ to the prospect of ‘playing guns’ without knowing what in involved, well I could be passing up on the greatest event of my life. The day I kissed Sally from School was good, but ‘playing guns’… that could be monumental. An eight year old goes to play with savages; he leaves a boy, he comes back a man. I could see the headlines already! The radio broadcasts! The cinema posters! I was sure that to say ‘no’ would be closing the door on one of life’s great opportunities… forever.

“How do you play guns?” I asked back at him.

The tribe’s leader looked at me like I was an alien from outer space assuming the form of an eight-year-old human boy. His eyes scanned my tucked in polo shirt and my khaki pants, and it was as if a realization dawned on his face. He knew right then that I really was an alien from outer space, at least an alien from a different city, a different suburb, and a whole different way of life. He realized that I had a whole different culture, and he didn’t hold it against me for a minute.

He just held out a Smith and Wesson replica cap gun and said, “You take this one, and shoot at me, and I’ll take the other and shoot at you.” He paused for a moment, looking at me to see if I understood, and then finished with, “It’s every man for himself.”

I took the toy six-shooter in my little hand, and I swear I grew six inches taller. My universe turned on its head. My world flipped upside down. But never for one minute did I want anything else. In my old universe there was order, there was reason, there were games that have boards, and rulebooks, and winners and losers. But here, out here in savage country, there were no rules; there was mayhem. Glorious mayhem. No winners. No losers. Just endless hours of joy serenaded by the pap-pap-pap of the cap guns, and the happy hollers of eight year old boys. Eight-year-old boys being eight-year-old boys.


About Anderson

Anderson Ryle is an engineer living in Fort Collins Colorado. He enjoys writing noir fiction, and has recently published his first noir short story “The Back Doors of Fancy Places”. He loves a good adventure, a dim jazz bar, and a smokey glass of single malt scotch.

Check out Anderson’s blog, where he posts stories, discusses writing tips, and allows guest posts via the Contact page: https://andersonryle.wordpress.com/

In Days of Innocence

Dandelion seeds drifting on a summer breeze
Destined to be forever free, to swirl around
Above fields of multi-coloured flowers;
I cupped my hands together, tried to catch you,
Floating on my cloud of innocent wonder:
Rosy cheeks, baby teeth, eyes wide open in awe
At nature’s dancing pattern in the air.
How beautiful the simple, the ordinary can be
To children chasing dandelion seeds.

Creators

We were there in the beginning
Before your universe was made
We formed you from nothing
Though not fully formed ourselves.
We are not what you believe –
There is so much more to us,
To our story, to our being,
Than what you have seen and heard:
Once, before time as you know
It began, I was the centre
Of everything; the universe
Bowed to us in worship and obedience
Like no one since has been respected
For we are the Creators,
The ones who have made all
As you know all, and built the world
That you experience around you.
If others helped to make you,
Or donated some part of themselves
So that you could be, develop,
And learn the ways of the world,
Then they were only our assistants:
It is us two who deserve praise
For who you have become,
But children can be fast to forget
And good parents ask for nothing.