If you need to catch up with Valhalla Rising before reading this part, here are the links:
We’re getting through the story now; I hope you enjoy this part!
Zuwrath was busy reading a damning report on the working conditions in the factories of Valhalla when her secretary announced the surprise arrival of the human Liaison. The report had been written by a famous pro-integration journalist who was known for interfering in the treatment of other species by the Empire.
The Controller saved the report and closed it, the sections that she had highlighted for deletion still flashing before her eyes. It was a good thing the media would now have to run all reports about humans via Zuwrath before publishing them, because if this story got out she could foresee a backlash from the more liberal parts of the virn community.
The liberal community was substantial enough to be an issue. It was largely composed of students and young people who had become tired of the old ways, as well as older virn who had either witnessed the poor treatment of other species or sympathised with them in some way. Zuwrath knew the liberals had gained control of the media before, in the cases of other species and other settlements, and it always ended in the same way. Once they started to get their way, they gained increased support from the masses, and eventually the aliens species was integrated into virn society – forever obliterating essential elements of virn culture and values.
Zuwrath folded her arms across her chest and called for Maureen to enter. The human woman poked her head around the doorway first, an annoying grin plastered on her face, before the rest of her body followed.
‘Good afternoon, Controller Zuwrath,’ Maureen said.
‘What is it?’ Zuwrath asked. She felt her mouth twitch as Maureen continued to smile despite them both being aware that the human considered the Controller to be extremely rude.
‘Oh, I just have a little request, is all,’ Maureen replied. There was an air of something in her unusually high voice that Zuwrath had come to associate with deception. She walked across the room and sat down in the seat opposite Zuwrath. ‘About an incident that occurred the other day on the northern border of Valhalla.’
‘What incident?’ Zuwrath reached for the pile of documents on her desk. She had not seen anything there that she had expected Maureen to be concerned about – at least, not any more concerned than the Liaison usually was.
‘Well, it probably hasn’t been reported to you yet,’ Maureen said. Her smile widened a little, but it was the opposite what she said next. ‘A human child was attacked and injured by a virn teenager on the northern border. The family and friends of the child would like it to be reported in the virn media, because, according to your own rules, the human media can’t operate outside Valhalla. They’re not looking for anything especially long-winded or detailed, you understand – just some recognition of the fact that this boy will be scarred for the rest of his life following this attack.’
Zuwrath maintained her disinterested expression until Maureen’s smile finally faltered. The Controller unfolded her arms and placed her hands flat on the desk before her, pressing a little on the wood. The desk creaked, and she hissed.
‘Excuse me?’ Maureen asked. She did not look entirely surprised. Zuwrath would have thought the Liaison a fool if she had been. The question had been short, but the tone of Maureen’s voice had obviously changed, the softness replaced by something deep and dark.
‘I said no. You have not even given me the details of this incident, just some hear-say from some humans on the northern border. Tell me: why was the child unattended? Where were its parents? What were they doing that was too important to look after their offspring? What is so wrong with the education of human children that they think they can approach virn children and rile them up?’
‘No, no, no, Zuwrath, the kids didn’t rile anybody up – this was a group of children, for crying out loud!’
It was the moment Zuwrath waited patiently for every time she met Maureen, the moment when the human woman because so discouraged by Zuwrath’s lack of movement that her uncontrolled anger took over. It did not always happen, but when it did, it was beautiful. Maureen’s eyes would get dark, her face would go pale, her lips would tighten and the wrinkles on her head would become increasingly prominent. The Liaison could not maintain a steady expression for as long as Zuwrath could.
‘Children,’ continued Zuwrath, as though she had not heard Maureen, ‘whose parents are so stupid that they believe the stories their young children invent without a second thought. Parents who believe their young could not possibly have been aggravating a group of good virn teens!’
‘No, that’s not it! That’s –’ Maureen began, and Zuwrath felt a surge of excitement as the Liaison looked ready to launch herself into a full argument. The length of a breath later, and Maureen’s entire demeanour changed. She paused, frowned to herself, and glared at a spot on the ceiling. ‘Fine. Fine – I’ve got somewhere to be, anyway.’
The Liaison stood up abruptly and brushed herself down. She stepped away from the desk and began to walk away, but twisted her body around to face Zuwrath before she reached the door.
‘Beware, Zuwrath. There’s an old human saying: pride comes before a fall. You look incredibly proud to me.’
Zuwrath watched her go. The Controller snarled and reopened the report.
Christine and her friends liked to hang out at Caesar Plaza. The plaza was named after a famous emperor, although few humans recognised his significance. Caesar was a figure from the past of a world they only knew about from stories and images. They were about as displaced from Caesar as they were from the virn.
Caesar Plaza had cafes, bars, and places to sit and chat, as well as music and other live performances. It was a centre of human culture, located in the north west of the camp. There, Christine and her friends would eat, drink, chat, and listen to the performers.
It was tough to get a spot playing there, because every human child had the dream of performing in Caesar Plaza. The performers were paid well, they were tipped well, and they were respected. Valhalla was in dire need of entertainment.
Many of the friends from Christine’s youth had gone on to live their own lives, but a few of them remained.
Lukas was the grandson of Jakub Starosta. He was unemployed, and (unlike his grandfather) had a lack of interest in the idea of integration. Unlike Christine, the majority of her generation had been born to parents who had experienced the virn lack of sympathy for humans first-hand and had become fed up with it. Their anti-virn feelings had given Lukas – and many of their fellows – a foul view of virn from a young age.
Maria was slightly older than the others. She had worked in one of the factories in the walls of Valhalla for more than ten years and it had hardened her. She had seen people wounded by the machinery in those factories, and had herself suffered from the low rates of pay and poor worker conditions. Although a promised wage was better than no wage at all, she had decided that it was not worth the risk to her life. She had quit her job and now made jewellery, which she sold cheaply to travellers driving through the surrounding territories.
Orion has been named after a famous constellation visible from the Earth. He was the youngest of Christine’s close friends and he worked in one of the cafes in Caesar Plaza. It was a good job, with the potential for him to advance to supervisor or even manager in the future, although those positions were always hotly fought over. He could get his friends group discounts on food and drinks, which was a good thing in the north-west, as it was the wealthiest part of Valhalla.
Slick was the first half-human, half-virn Christine had ever met. His virn mother had originally come to Valhalla to help the human settlers, but she had fallen in love with his father when she had nursed the man back to health from a bad case of pneumonia. Slick was the eldest of their three children. He was thought to be the first of his kind, and the virn media had been quick to condemn both him and his mother following his birth.
Slick’s face was tanned and smooth, apart from a smattering of green scales beneath his eyes. His hair was wiry, like virn hair, and he had a short, stubby tail. His body was half covered in scales, and half in hair. He could not inflate himself to defend himself against predators, a matter that had become something of a running joke for those who knew him. By the standards of blood purists like Zuwrath, Slick was a poor excuse for a virn. It was a good thing that he did not care.
Interbreeding was not uncommon among virn, but the concept that humans were an inferior species had led to many condemning breeding with humans. Blood purists claimed that Slick and those like him were dumb, slow, and mentally unstable because they were part-human. His friends knew better than this, but then Maureen had taught Christine long ago that it was almost impossible to persuade someone they were wrong when they did not wish to be persuaded.
Christine met her friends at one of the cafes on the outskirts of the plaza, where the music was quieter and there were fewer eyes and ears to pry. Slick had messaged her to join them urgently, but to go alone and to tell nobody where she was going. When she had asked him why it was so secretive, he had only repeated his request for her to meet them, adding that he needed her support. Intrigues, she had told Rokesh and her mother that she was going for a walk and that she would be back later for her supper. They had not questioned her.
When she arrived at the café, the others were sat outside at one of the round plastic tables. Their heads were pressed together, and they were whispering to one another in hurried voices. Christine could not make out what they were saying, but she could tell that they did not wish to be overheard. She hesitated; Slick, apparently not as engrossed in the conversation as the others, spotted her out of the corner of his eye.
‘Chris!’ he said, perhaps a little louder than he had expected, and stood up, scraping his chair across the ground. The other three jumped at his movement. They turned as one to see Christine stood nearby.
‘Chris!’ Lukas exclaimed, moving out of the tight circle and throwing his arms into the air. He shifted his chair so that they could get a fifth person around the table. ‘Come over here, come and join us!’
Once Christine sat down, Lukas practically forced her into their huddle. Slick, who had sat back down and was opposite Christine, caught her attention. His eyes seemed to flash as he attempted to communicate something to her silently.
‘What’s going on?’ she asked. ‘Why all the secrecy?’
‘Shh! Shh!’ Lukas hissed at her, glancing around, presumably to ensure that nobody was listening to their conversation. ‘Keep your voice down!’
‘Lukas,’ Maria said, a note of warning in her voice, ‘don’t you think –’
‘I already know what I think,’ Lukas hissed, cutting her off. ‘Don’t you think we’ve put up with enough? Can’t you hear them laughing at us, over the walls and beyond the borders of our camp? Every day on the news, in the papers, on the wireless … they mock us and criticise us and label us as inferior people. Well, if they want to learn the hard way, then I say we teach them the hard way.’
‘But what you’re talking about is madness,’ Slick said, his eyes again flashing at Christine.
‘I have to admit,’ said Orion, ‘I don’t count myself amongst the people who do the kind of things you’re talking about. I have endured much – my family has endured much. But they have not yet endured enough for me to consider this.’
‘My family has,’ Lukas replied. ‘My brother has. He will never look the same again, not after what that virn scum did to him.’
The group fell silent at the spat insult. Christine looked from one friend to the next, until she had made her way around the table. She was clearly missing something.
‘I … don’t think I understand,’ she said. ‘What’re you talking about?’
‘Some virn teenagers attacked my brother,’ Lukas told her. His fists clenched, and he ground his teeth loud enough that Christine could hear them scrape together. ‘It was on the border to the north. But I spoke to some of the locals there, and they reckon those virn go there a lot. When I find them, I’m going to repay them in kind for what they’ve done.’
‘What? Don’t be ridiculous!’
‘That’s what we’ve been saying to him,’ Slick said.
‘This is my brother,’ Lukas repeated. ‘The whole family is distraught. Grandpa Jakub kept going on and on about proper political procedure, but what has proper political procedure done for our people so far? In the last fifty years, how far have we come? Someone needs to teach these bastards a lesson.’
‘And you think you’re the man to do that?’ Maria asked, her eyebrows disappearing into her hair. ‘Come on, Lukas, this is crazy talk. You’re not a violent man, the very idea of you committing an act of –’
‘An act of what, exactly? Revenge? Nothing could persuade me of the need to correct these pathetic virn more than what they’ve already done.’
‘No, no way,’ Christine said. She glanced over her shoulder, an involuntary movement, to make certain that they were still alone. The only other people seated outside the café were a couple on the farthest table, who seemed too deeply engrossed in their date to care what the group was whispering about. ‘You can’t be serious, Lukas. This isn’t who you are. Your grandfather is correct – the proper political procedure is the right path to take.’
‘And just how longer are you willing to wait for them to grant us the equality we deserve, Chris? One generation? Two? Are you willing to see your grandchildren scarred – even killed – by virn who hate us and treat us as inferior just because we were born human? Are you willing to wait forever?’
‘The only way we’ll be waiting forever is if humans continue to react violently,’ Christine replied, to nods of agreement from the other three. ‘There’s no better way to persuade the virn that we’re inferior, brutish, and not ready to be integrated into their society than by committing barbarous acts against their people. You want to see equality? Be democratic and patient. We have to show virn that we are good, perhaps even better than some of them. We have to be tolerant, we have to show them that we can live in harmony with them.’
‘And what if we can’t?’
‘But of course we can!’ Orion said. ‘Other species have done it before us.’
‘Apparently. There are still violent pro-virn groups.’
‘There are violent groups on both sides, no doubt.’
‘Exactly – look at my parents,’ Slick interjected. ‘If they aren’t proof that we can all get along, then what is?’
‘Well, perhaps I don’t want to get along.’
‘Now, Lukas, that is insane,’ Christine said. ‘You can’t talk about humans and virn like this. The very idea that one species will somehow become rid of the other species is ridiculous. We are here because virn helped to relocate our parents and grandparents to this planet: we owe them that much.’
‘I owe them nothing. But they – they owe my family blood!’
‘Lukas – Lukas wait!’ Maria cried, as Lukas slammed his fists down on the table and pushed himself away, leaving before they could say anything further to call him back. The four remaining at the table were still, staring at the alleyway down which Lukas had disappeared.
‘Thank you, Chris,’ Slick said at last.
‘For what? I did nothing to convince him that he’s wrong. I don’t have my mum’s golden tongue.’
‘None of us could persuade him – but we’re glad that you agreed with us.’
‘Yes, we are,’ Maria agreed. ‘He showed no sign that he would change his mind.’
‘It’s … it’s …’ Orion said, as though he could not find the right word to adequately explain the situation. ‘Well, I suppose none of us can really tell how we would react.’ He cleared his throat loudly. ‘Let’s hope it’s only words. Let’s hope he’s only angry.’
‘I hope our hope is enough,’ Christine replied. There were murmurs of agreement from the others, before they fell into a silence once more.
Christine laid on her back on her fold-up bed, her hands shielding her eyes. Her head felt heavy and sore. There was a repetitive throbbing feeling in her temples, a genetic gift from her mother that became increasingly worse during stressful situations.
There was little she could think of that was more stressful than this.
Lukas had always been a good man. That was a broad thing to say about anybody, Christine knew, but Lukas had always been honest and righteous and fair. As far as she had been aware. He had never liked to see anyone belittled, and he had always stood up for the smaller guy – but only ever with words. Then, the news that his little brother had been scarred had come, and … something within him had changed. Christine supposed that, had she had a little brother or sister, she might have felt equally as protective over them.
She supposed that, even if it was an uncomfortable thought.
Her parents had taught her to think about her actions in all situations, and that included this one. When her father had died, her mother had not threatened to attack anyone. Maureen could have done it; she could have gone around shouting at everyone who had asked her how she was coming, but she had not. She had controlled her anger and direct her raw emotion towards the path of justice, which was what Christine had learned to do too.
She drifted in and out of an uncomfortable sleep for a while, until she was brought back to her senses by a sharp rapping on the door of the container. Christine pushed herself to her feet, her head still throbbing, though less violently, and the rapping became louder. Whoever was on the other side of the door started to shout her name, muffled by the thick metal. Christine reached the door, slid the latch, and heaved it open.
‘Chris!’ Maria forced her way inside as soon as the door was open enough for her to get one foot inside. ‘Shit, Chris, I’ve been calling you for ages!’
‘You have?’ Christine checked her wrist, but her communicator was missing. ‘I must’ve took my watch off when I got into bed … I kept drifting off, my head was pounding and I’m just exhausted …’
She spotted the watch on the bed, and strapped it back onto her wrist. There were nine missed calls from Maria.
‘Never mind that, you’ve got to come and do something, quick! Lukas has gone!’
‘Gone? What do you mean, gone? He already stormed off.’
‘No, no, worse than that. There’s no time – come on!’ Maria grabbed one of Christine’s wrists and pulled her out of the container in one powerful tug; Christine locked the container with her communicator and, once the initial shock of what Maria was trying to say had worn off, she shook her friend off so that they could move faster.
‘Where are we going?’ Christine asked between deep breaths.
‘Mes Lap. On the border with Pika. Now.
They were too late.
Christine and Maria saw it from afar. Even at a distance, it was horrible.
They heard it as though they were there, right in the middle of it all.
They thought they could feel the slice of the machete as Lukas swung it around and struck down the teenagers, and as it happened nothing else mattered.
Nothing except the screams and the bodies falling to the ground.
In the following days, they would discover how Lukas had discovered who the teenagers were, how he had tracked them down, and how much time he had spent wandering the borders of Valhalla causing trouble before he had caught up with his prey.
In the following days, there would be a landslide of information mingled with the torrent of emotional chaos left behind.
But right then, in those moments, there were only screams.
They reacted immediately, but they were too far away from Lukas to get to him. He was tackled to the ground by a group of humans who had been closer to the border. As he was pinned down, shouting his hatred of virn into the open air, Maria slowed to a halt. She grabbed hold of Christine’s jacked to stop her.
They stood there, both panting.
Neither of them spoke. There was nothing to say.
They turned and walked away with their heads hung.
When Maureen called her on the communicator, Christine was still in shock. She answered the call with a swipe of her arm.
‘Hey Chris, listen, I just want – what is it?’ Maureen asked, changing the direction of the conversation when she saw the look on her daughter’s face.
‘I – I …’ Christine said slowly, ‘I don’t know.’
‘She will not tell me,’ Rokesh said, shifting so that he was in front of the camera on Christine’s communicator. ‘I found her wandering around, I brought her back to your container, and I kept saying, I cannot help if I do not know the problem. Still, she will not tell me.’
Maureen nodded. ‘Chris,’ she said, ‘Chris honey, what is it? What’s upset you? Has something happened? What’s happened? Tell me, Chris.’
‘I – Lukas,’ she said.
‘What about Lukas?’
‘You – it just – I didn’t expect …’
‘Didn’t expect what?’ Maureen asked, after a short silence. Christine looked down at her feet, then back up at the communicator screen.
‘He hurt them, mum,’ she said. ‘I think maybe he killed some of them.’
Maureen and Rokesh reacted at the same time. Maureen lifted her communicator and moved it, backing herself into a small room, presumably so that she could not be overheard. Rokesh wrapped his arms around Christine, leaning over her chair and holding onto her hands so that she could not get away. His embrace was less soothing than she would have liked, but the fact that he was there was the important part.
‘After his brother got attacked. Lukas’ little brother. He – Lukas – he wanted revenge. I’m starting to hear things … from the others. They say he was following the virn … I don’t know.’
‘Oh no,’ Rokesh sighed, his head rest against Christine’s. It was not the best thing to say, but then Christine did not know what she wanted either of them to say.
‘Lukas wanted revenge?’ Maureen asked. The look on her face told Christine that she did not want to ask the next question on her mind, no matter how necessary it was t ask. ‘What did he do, Chris?’
‘He – told us,’ she said. ‘He told us, all of us, but we told him not to. Then he left, and we left. That was a week ago now … I didn’t hear anything about it, then Maria came over earlier and … we ran … and there he was … cutting them …’
‘Oh, Chris …’ Rokesh held onto her tighter, until he almost surrounded her. ‘How much did you see?’
‘It was … a way off. But enough.’
‘Chris,’ Maureen said, leaning closer to her screen, ‘listen to me carefully. I know how distressing this must be for you, but right now I’m supposed to be meeting Starg, the Keeper of Peace in Pika. He’ll invite me through into his office at any moment.’
‘Pika,’ Christine repeated, as if in a trance, ‘yes, Pika. Mes Lap.’
‘Mes Lap – what, that’s where this happened?’
‘Mes Lap, yes. Pika. The border’
‘Okay. In that case, it’s even more important that you listen to me. Starg will know about this attack soon enough, if he doesn’t already. I know you’ve been good friends with Lukas for a long time, but right now I need you to put all your feelings aside and tell me, from the beginning, exactly what happened.’
Christine sniffed. ‘Okay,’ she said.