This is the final part of Valhalla Rising.
If you need to catch up, you can find the rest of the story via the following links:
The theme music could only be described as basic, at best. A few notes played in quick succession, repeated several times, and then the title appeared in the centre of the screen.
Zuwrath immediately decided that she did not like anything that associated the human camp with improvement. She placed one elbow on the edge of her desk and rested her head in her hand, her eyes concentrated on the screen on the opposite wall. Her tail smacked against the floor a couple of times as she waited for the words to fade away.
She should have been at home enjoying her evening, but there had been essential clarification on her new demands that Maureen Bradshaw had requested Zuwrath complete before the morning. The Controller had the sudden thought that she might not have been suspicious enough when she had received the Liaison’s unusual message.
The camera zoomed in on a virn male seated at a metal desk. Zuwrath did not recognise him, and from his appearance he was not full-blooded. His eyes were rounded in the middle, a pale blue colour, with circular pupils unlike slit-like virn eyes. Next to him was a human woman in full virn make-up, apparently made to look like a prosperous virn lady.
Zuwrath clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and huffed a long breath out of her nose. It was distasteful to see a lesser species dressed up in such a way.
For a second, a microphone dipped down from the top and was visible on the screen, but the mistake was quickly corrected. The part-virn cleared his throat, then began to speak.
‘Good evening and welcome to Valhalla Rising, a programme dedicated to breaking down the barriers between virn and humans, seeking to explore our cultures and shared values to bring us all closer together. I am Slick.’
‘And I am Lebonn,’ said the human woman, apparently abandoning her human name for one that sounded more virn.
‘Though from time-to-time we may refer to stories which have not been told in the more popular media, Valhalla Rising will largely be focused on allowing you to explore our lives, beliefs, and the benefits of improved virn-human relations.’
A Slick spoke, Zuwrath swiped her finger across her desk and opened a blank document.
I know what you are trying to do, she wrote. The language: calm, casual, more for virn than human viewing. The faces: virn, or at least some pathetic attempts to make them look virn. The costumes: extravagantly virn, so unlike human newscasters. The placement of words in sentences: virn comes before human, not the other way around. It is clever, I cannot deny that.
She allowed her hand to dangle over the keyboard as she retuned her attention to the unannounced programme. And be sure to tune into Pika channel 22 tonight, Maureen had ended her request, I think you’ll like what you see. Zuwrath ground her teeth together as the words floated through her mind. The woman, Lebonn, was talking.
‘… like virn society and culture, human society and culture is very complex and multi-layered,’ she said. Zuwrath’s fingers twitched. The keyboard noticed the movement and she had to go back to delete the jumble of letters that had sprawled across the document from the motion. ‘Today, as this is our first episode, we have decided to bring you something very basic from various human cultures for you to explore and enjoy at your leisure: recipes from Sol 3, or Earth as humans call our planet of origin.’
Zuwrath saved the document, closed it, and leaned over her desk to get a little closer to the screen. She frowned, and smacked her tail against the floor a couple more times. This was not the direction she had been expecting the broadcast to go in. Those behind it were certainly a cunning lot.
The broadcast featured nothing that was of great substance in and of itself. As well as a couple of recipes, there were readings of poetry, book recommendations, a short recreation of a funny sketch from a television show that had been salvaged from Sol 3, and descriptions of games played by both human children and adults.
And that was it.
Human cultures sneaking its way into everyday virn life like a pest burrowing its way into virn homes. Simple things, harmless things, the sorts of things that virn children or teens or laidback adults would be willing to try and (should they discover that they enjoyed them) perhaps even share with their friends and families. Things that they could discuss in polite conversations without the need for anything to become heated. Essentially, things that could be associated with humans without being a part of the “human problem”.
Things that Zuwrath could not possibly stop the average virn from doing in their private lives, behind closed doors where she could not pry. Things that they could not be held accountable for trying, because they would be doing nothing wrong.
There was no mention of the attack on the human child that Zuwrath had rejected for broadcast – but this, she found as she thought about it after the broadcast, was a hundred times worse than that. With Valhalla Rising, the pro-integration sector of virn society and politics would not need to spend nearly as much of their time persuading the ordinary virn that human culture had positive and interesting elements. No, they would be able to focus more on giving their movement the momentum it needed so that within a couple of generations, they would outnumber those who were pro-segregation.
Zuwrath reached for the case of pens on her desk, picking up a handful. She snapped them in half with one hand.
This was completely unacceptable.
Somebody was going to pay, and she knew exactly who that somebody was going to be.
‘Starg! Starg! STARG!’
Starg stood his ground. He walked calmly through the hallway that led towards Zuwrath’s office, as though he had all the time in the Empire to get there. Some of the things that Maureen had done to keep him waiting over the years had annoyed him immensely, as had many of those Zuwrath had done, but they had always worked. He was not sure if the Controller’s tricks would work against her.
He did not wish to anger Zuwrath further, yet neither did he want to appear perturbed by her shouting. If she noticed that he had something to hide (as if she could not already know), then she would go to whatever ends it took to get every single scrap of information out of him.
Starg pushed open the office door, satisfied with the length of time it took to slide open, and nodded at her once. He took the seat opposite Zuwrath without her permission.
‘Good day, Zuwrath,’ he said smugly.
‘You have been spending too much time with the Liaison,’ Zuwrath replied. She glared at him as he sat, and hissed sharply. ‘Get on your feet!’
Starg did not get up. He kept his expression calm. It was difficult, because his face wanted to fall into a sly, proud smirk, but he managed it nonetheless. He kept his lips thin and tight, and his eyes wide in a false surprise as he said, ‘Is something the matter, Zuwrath?’
‘Yes, there is something wrong!’ she replied. A few strands of her hair fell into her eyes, but she did not push them away. ‘Did you not see it?’
‘It … it …’ Starg forced his eyebrows together and looked up at the ceiling, flickering his faze from one light to the next. He wondered if he looked as though he was confused or lying. ‘That broadcast, do you mean? Ah, yes, bits of it, now, what was it? Valhalla People? Valhalla Risen?’
‘Valhalla Rising. Do not play the fool in front of me, Starg. I bet you watched every second of it. I bet you were salivating just thinking about it. I bet you knew long before I did.’
‘I happened to catch the second half of it after one of my secretaries messaged me to inform me that it was being broadcast.’
‘And broadcast in your region, no less.’
Starg lowered his eyes from the ceiling and returned his gaze to Zuwrath. She was leaning over her desk, both of her palms flat on the wood, her stare intimidating as her face hovered above him. He swallowed to prevent himself from flinching back at the sight of her so close.
‘Are you implying what I think you are implying?’ he asked Zuwrath.
‘What do you think I am implying?’ she replied.
‘That I am in some way responsible for this … this … this awful programme.’
‘Of course not!’
‘Well, how many others are there in Pika who are as close to a human as you are?’ There was a glimmer of something in Zuwrath’s eyes as she spoke, and Starg knew that she was challenging him. ‘In fact, how close are you exactly to Maureen Bradshaw? It seems to me that there may well be something more going on than what I have been led to believe.’ Starg maintained his gaze at the sneered comment. He held his head high, defying his fear of her anger. He would show Zuwrath that he was as strong as she was.
‘You know the Liaison is as professional as I,’ he retorted. ‘As for your first question, I would think that this is something you should know. Are you not supposed to be in control of our relationship with the humans? That is why they call you the Controller, is it not? I have no idea where the underground group who did this are, or who they are – but I would have thought that someone in your position should have known about them and stopped them before they could get this far, Zuwrath.’
Zuwrath flashed her teeth at him. ‘How dare you question my ability to do my job!’ she hissed.
‘How dare you accuse me of first being involved in this scandal, and secondly with the Liaison!’ Starg replied.
Zuwrath raised her arm, and for a moment Starg thought that she was going to hit him. Then, when he held his ground, she lowered it again, although the look of hatred on her face never changed.
‘Get out of my office.’
‘With great pleasure,’ he said, and left her presence as coolly as her could.
When Starg received news that Zuwrath, though disgraced, was not going to be removed from her position, he found himself snapping at everyone he came across in his irritation. He shut himself in his office there he stayed, hoping to remove the heavy feeling of disappointment off his shoulders.
He sat down behind his desk and tried to think of a new plan.
When nothing came into his mind, he stood up, walked around the desk, and sat down in the opposite seat, as though this might help him to think more clearly. He stared at his empty seat and scratched his chin. His tongue flickered out to wet his lips as he racked his brain for ideas.
This had been so close! The idea had excited him, thrilled him even, and now he felt the impact of a failure that was not his own, but might well have been.
Zuwrath already suspected Starg of permitting the broadcast. She knew he had permitted it, she just needed the evidence. Starg had been forced to bribe some questionable people to get the broadcast slot and he did not believe that they would keep quiet for long if the Controller found them. He could not afford to sit back and hope that Zuwrath would slip up, or that she would ignore the problem, but neither could he allow this to go much further without facing repercussions. Zuwrath likely had her own people stationed around him, watching his every move.
Whatever Starg was going to do next, he was going to have to do it quickly. He would not have much time to plot Zuwrath’s downfall.
He was not going to back down just because his time was short.
The Controller messaged him, instructing him to meet her on her advance to Valhalla, with no indication of what she had planned. Starg was no closer to a solution. He supposed that, should he see an opportunity to disgrace the Controller, then he would have to take it.
Zuwrath was stood in front of one hundred virn police officers dressed in full riot gear. Each held a loaded rifle. Starg saw them before he got out of his transporter, and stepped off the vehicle with the air of someone who was unnerved by the sight of so many armed officers. Zuwrath sneered as he approached her.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ Starg asked, once he was stood before her. He was pleased to note that his voice was steady.
‘It is for the humans,’ Zuwrath replied casually.
‘But why do you need armed officers? It was only a broadcast …’
‘They need to be taught a lesson. I want to make sure this does not happen again. I want to make sure those behind this will not dare.’
Starg felt himself shiver a little at the uncaring tone of her voice. ‘And what about the virn who helped?’ he asked.
Zuwrath narrowed her eyes at him. Her sneer widened, and Starg was sure that she could see right through him. ‘Oh, they will get what is coming to them, too. Perhaps when they see how defiant we are to their pathetic attempts at making humans look our equals, they will think again. I can only hope that they will …’ she hissed low, as though savouring the sound on her tongue, ‘… reveal themselves in some way.’
‘Then we shall both hope that it is so,’ Starg replied. He swung an arm around, indicating in the direction of the camp. ‘Shall we?’ Zuwrath did not mention his sudden movement away from the subject under discussion. They began to march, the heavy footfalls of the officers behind them creating a rhythmic, doom-laden sound in Starg’s ears. Nobody would miss them coming, and nobody would be under any illusions.
‘Once we arrive, we will locate those responsible for this broadcast and shut them down. They should be easy enough to find – the presence of an armed force should persuade somebody to talk. The half-blood will be an easy target.’
‘What are you going to do with them when you find them?’ Starg asked.
Zuwrath chuckled darkly. ‘What happens will happen.’
Starg kept his eyes focused on the camp in the distance, as he said, ‘Yes, I suppose it will. And you want me with you as a show of solidarity?’
‘I want you with me, Starg, so I know what you’re up to. To remind you I’m no fool.’
Starg did not reply. He marched in time, highly aware of the rifles behind him. The long walls that separated Pika from Valhalla came closer, but Zuwrath veered off to the right and Starg followed. The officers turned too, their boots filling the still air with thunder.
They walked around the wall, to an empty patch of land between two factories, where the wall had been knocked down to grant the workers an open space for their breaks. It was full of factory workers enjoying their limited free time. The buzz of conversation died down as they approached.
There was silence. All eyes were on Zuwrath and the officers behind her.
‘I want to speak to Maureen Bradshaw,’ Zuwrath announced. At first, nobody moved. The Controller threw her head back and snarled. ‘You,’ she said, pointing to a human male in front of her, whose legs shook as she glared at him, ‘fetch her. Now.’
The man ran away as fast as he could. Starg could not help but feel impressed by the power of her presence, even as he wondered what he could do to ruin her. He breathed through his nose slowly, trying to calm himself down as he waited. Zuwrath, apparently, felt no reason to say anything further, and seemed quite content to let everyone else around her stand in their uncomfortable silence.
As time went on, the managers of the factories came out to see why their employees had not returned. Then, other people who lived close to the factories came out of their tents and containers, curious about what was going on. The crowd of humans became so large that Starg could not tell how many of them there were. Zuwrath made no indication that she was bothered by their presence.
After what to Starg was an age, the people at the back of the crowd began to whisper. They parted, as though to let someone through, and the movement spread through the group until it reached the front of the crowd. The human Liaison and her daughter emerged, both with expressions of polite confusion.
‘Zuwrath,’ Maureen said, as the people around them look on in amazement at her confidence to address the Controller. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’
‘Valhalla Rising!’ Zuwrath hissed. Many humans jumped in fright at the sound of her natural tongue. ‘I want the brats responsible for that offensive broadcast!’
Maureen laughed. Starg could hardly believe it when he heard it. She stood there opposite Zuwrath and laughed in the Controller’s face like nothing Zuwrath could do or say could possibly frighten her. ‘Offensive broadcast?’ she asked, blatantly refusing to use virnin in response to the Controller’s outburst. She turned to the crowd behind her, and added, ‘Tell me, my friends, did any of you find Valhalla Rising offensive?’
Those who were brave enough to speak, likely encouraged by Maureen’s own display of strength, muttered words of disagreement; others shook their heads. Zuwrath snarled.
‘I care not what you people think!’ Zuwrath shouted, this time for all the humans to understand. ‘I want those who are responsible for the broadcast, and I want them now! They will pay!’
‘Pay? For what?’ Christine, who Starg had seen but once in a photograph Maureen had shown him, asked. She stepped forward as she spoke. ‘For telling virn that we’re worth no less than they are?’ There were further noises from the crowd, this time of agreement. ‘For letting them share in our culture, our society, our reality?’ The murmuring grew louder. ‘For showing ourselves as your equals?’
‘Silence!’ Zuwrath roared, as the crowd’s agreement became almost deafening. Out of the corner of his eye, Starg noticed that some of the officers behind him were uncomfortable with the crowd’s reaction: they likely did not wish for the situation to turn violent – that would be an unmitigated disaster for all involved. ‘I said silence!’ she shouted again, when some members of the crowd continued to murmur. It took a few more seconds before they fell silent again.
An idea – a terrible, awful idea – leapt into Starg’s mind. He could see the humans turning on them, and (despite their superior weaponry), they were outnumbered enough for him to foresee the humans defeating or severely harming them. He was defenceless, and he did not like it.
He turned to the officer behind him. The officer noticed the movement, and leaned towards Starg to allow the Keeper to whisper to him as Zuwrath continued to stare down the crowd. Maureen was saying something to the Controller, so she was comfortably distracted.
‘I think it might be a good idea,’ he whispered, ‘if the humans could see that I, too, was armed. As a former soldier. They look restless … it might be a useful deterrent.’
The officer nodded, and passed Starg his rifle. He then pulled the pistol out of its holster, and returned to his former position. Starg spun back around and fingered the rifle. He was not entirely sure what he was doing, or who he was most afraid of.
Maureen and Zuwrath were arguing over Valhalla Rising. Starg was shocked to note that Maureen was not trying to hide her role in setting up the broadcast.
‘You know who was responsible, then?’ Zuwrath asked her. ‘You, in fact, were involved in this broadcast?’
‘Not at all,’ Maureen replied. ‘Only in securing the broadcast time.’
‘You know,’ Zuwrath repeated, ‘who was responsible?’
There was a moment’s pause.
Zuwrath grinned in victory. ‘Then give me names, Liaison, or you shall be removed from your position.’
‘Oh, please,’ Maureen said, waving an idle hand. She stepped forward, away from the crowd, and began to pace up and down, her hands behind her back. ‘I’ll be stripped of my title regardless, after this. I’ve got no reason to give you anything, Zuwrath. You’ve got no authority over me. That’s why you’ve brought these officers: the only tactic left to you is intimidation. Do you think you can scare me – us – into giving you answers? Just because you’re pissed off? You do realise that this situation is a direct violation of the agreement first laid down by our parent’s generation, don’t you? Bringing troops with weapons onto human-occupied land is a physical threat to my people.’
‘I do not care about your people,’ Zuwrath spat back. ‘Just give me the names I want.’
Maureen stopped pacing and smiled at Zuwrath pleasantly. Her eyes flickered to Starg for the briefest of moments, and he gripped the rifle a little tighter in response.
‘I can only give you one name,’ Maureen replied.
‘Then give it!’
Again, Maureen’s eyes flickered to Starg.
He nodded his head to show her that he understood.
‘Do you believe in karma, Zuwrath?’ Maureen asked. ‘It’s something we humans –’
‘The name, damn you!’
Starg adjusted the rifle again, as subtly as he could.
‘It was me,’ he said.
Zuwrath turned to him, her eyes wide, and Starg could see the proud retort that she had suspected him all along written on her lips as he did the only thing that made sense in that moment.
He raised the rifle and shot her.
The rifle beam travelled through the space between Starg and Zuwrath as though in slow motion. On one side, the virn police officers stood, caught off-guard by the attack. They were stunned for long enough that Starg managed to duck behind a nearby metal crate before they could shoot him. On the other side, the mob of angry humans stood in equal shock, their jaws dropping open in their surprise.
Every single eye of everyone who was present had followed the beam of light from Starg’s rifle to the centre of Zuwrath’s chest. The Controller had been thrown backwards, several police officers knocked out as she landed on top of them.
She was dead before she hit them.
There was a pause. A moment when there was neither sound nor movement, and human and virn alike stared at the limp body of the bitter Controller. Then, something began to ripple through those present, and a thunderous noise erupted from the centre of the human mob. They reached around them and grabbed whatever was in their reach – bricks, stones, pieces of metal – then began to charge at the virn officers, attacking them with their fists if they had nothing else at hand.
The virn were well trained, despite their temporary lapse at Starg’s surprise attack. They reacted faster this time, turning their weapons on the humans and firing on them. Their superiority was immediately obvious, as the first wave of humans were sent crashing down into the mud and did not get back up.
The roar of the rifles did not deter the other humans, and those who managed to reach the line of officers began to beat them mercilessly. A couple managed to take hold of the rifles, which they turned on their former owners.
Both sides struck at the other, but the virn advantage was evident from the beginning. Humans fell over one another and were shot at short range, whether on their feet or their knees. Their corpses began to pile up, and still the virn continued to shoot. Maureen and Christine darted this way and that, swerving to avoid rifle beams and fists alike. Nobody seemed to know or care who they were attacking.
Maureen reached the wall, and threw a hand out for Christine to take hold of. Her daughter caught it, and Maureen dragged her around the side of the wall to protect them both. On the opposite opening in the wall, they saw Starg, who had moved from his position behind the crate to behind the wall. He still gripped his rifle. His eyes were closed, his face screwed up, as though he was trying to wake from a bad dream. He was also muttering something to himself. They were only ten strides apart, but it was too far to hear what he was saying over the noise of the fighting.
‘Starg,’ Maureen called, trying to catch his attention. ‘Starg,’ she repeated, a little louder this time, but again he made no indication that he had heard her. ‘Starg!’
Startled, he jumped out of whatever unreality he had been in. For a moment, it looked as though he was about to turn the rifle on them, and Maureen pushed Christine instinctively behind her to protect her. The moment passed, and recognition dawned in Starg’s narrow eyes.
‘Maureen!’ he called, his voice barely carrying across the empty space between them. His free hand reached out towards the two women, but they dared not cross to him in case they were shot or dragged into the fighting. Maureen shook her head, and Starg lowered the hand.
‘What’ve you done?’ Maureen asked. Starg’s eyes widened, and he took a brief glance around the side of the wall, as though he had not truly accepted the consequences of his actions yet. Then, before either of them could go any further, the mob moved back through the gap in the wall and they were surrounded by blood and screaming.
Christine tugged on Maureen’s arm, and they moved further along the wall to get away from the mob. There were no longer any rifle beams, as though the virn officers had abandoned their weaponry in favour of their fists, or else had it pried away from them by the eager but unarmed humans. Patience had worn out on both sides; there was no sense of damage control, just pure carnal rage.
Starg followed the women, dashing across the empty space that the mob had passed through. He ducked away from the fighters, and the motion caught Maureen’s eye. She spun, knocking the weapon out of his hand in one smooth movement. It landed on the ground a short distance away, and Starg watched it go, his mouth hung slightly open, his eyes clouded over.
‘Why did you do that?’ he asked her.
Maureen refused to speak virnin on her own land. ‘You won’t get involved in the fighting now, will you, Starg?’ she snapped at him, pointing at him with her left hand even as Christine tugged on her right. ‘You’ll shoot Zuwrath no problem, as long as you know you have some temporary advantage, but once everyone has gathered their sense, you won’t get involved. You caused all of this, and yet here you are waving a gun around in loose fingers as you hide behind corners.’
She grabbed hold of his face, and tilted his head so that Starg could see the fight. It had spread out, and other humans from deeper in the camp were starting to get involved, pulling the offending virn off one by one and joining in the attack.
‘This is what the Keeper of the Peace in Pika has done. This is your legacy, Starg.’
Starg’s face paled as he watched the brawl, Maureen’s fingers holding him tightly in place.
‘Is this how you wish to be remembered? As the man who caused this?’
‘No,’ Starg replied weakly.
‘Well, what are you going to do about it? You can’t stop them now. Here, humans and virn will die together, hating one another more than they ever have before.’
Starg grabbed Maureen by the front of her jacket with both hands, his scales digging into the flesh of her neck. ‘Hide me,’ he begged her.
Maureen turned to look at those fighting. There were humans she recognised within the crowd. People she had seen on the streets begging for scraps, people she had spoken with, people who had been shamed for the desperate things they had done just to feed their children. More lay amongst the dead. All of them were people who would have been able to live good, honest, wholesome lives, if only they had been given the chance. If only they were equal to virn.
She looked back at Starg, his pitiful face squashed between the vice-like grip of her fingers, tears beginning to form in the corners of his eyes as he watched the thoughts flickering through her mind.
‘You don’t know me nearly as well as you think, Starg,’ she said. ‘More’s the pity. We could have been friends.’ She let go of him, tossing him onto the ground. ‘You shot Zuwrath. You started this. You can deal with it.’
As she allowed Christine to drag her away from the fighting, Maureen wondered how much damage this incident was going to cause.
In the end, it was nothing more than a shadow. A whisper. A blur on the edge of vision, then a blinding light, and then …
As a wise virn prophet had once said, only the dead know what follows the light.
Starg did not seem them. Perhaps that was because once Maureen had disappeared, he allowed himself to sink down into the muddy ground, his tears obscuring his vision as his sobs shook his body. The world was nothing more than an obnoxious calamity of noise and violence, and there he was in the middle of it, his brain shocked beyond comparison.
This was his violence. Starg had wanted to remove Zuwrath so much that he had been blind to the consequences. In the end, he had done little more than create chaos. He was the god of the destruction that was happening around him.
He saw the outline of a rifle pointing at his head, aimed directly between his eyes. Someone must have picked it up, but he could not make out whether they were virn or humans. He saw the rifle light up, and a beam came out of the end.
Then he fell, lay still, and became one with the dead.
It was nobody’s surprise when Maureen resigned. She had always been determined to do her best, and witnessing the brutality of the massacre on the border of Valhalla had been the final straw for her. She delivered the resignation letter to the remains of the human government personally. Each expressed his sadness that she had chosen to leave.
Christine did her best to cheer her mother up after the initial feeling of failure, mingled with the pain of such a senseless loss of life. She did not see her mother smile one in the week that followed the attack, and that hurt. The virn government on Montague 7 did not seem to know how to handle the situation, because both the Controller and the Keeper of the Peace in Pika had been shot by virn weapons, and at least one by virn hands.
The virn media was hushed up, but the human media spoke as loudly as it could about what had happened. Valhalla Rising appeared again, to make a brief by powerful broadcast on what had happened. It was permitted to broadcast on virn channels, perhaps lest a cover-up was suspected, and made a statement on the number of dead, not distinguishing between humans and virn, decreeing it a dark day for all species. It was as respectful as they could make it, given their shattered faith.
Everybody involved in the programme knew how delicately they had to handle the situation. The human government reacted before the virn government or empire could, though they still took their time as they figured out how exactly to respond without being accused on telling only one side of the story.
A day of mourning was declared in Valhalla, one week after the massacre. Initially, Maureen refused to attend. Christine hoped that her mother might change her mind on the day, but this did not happen, and she spent most of the morning trying to figure out how she would get Maureen to the border for the scheduled time. The attack had occurred in the afternoon, and the vigil was to begin at that same time.
She was eventually forced to go alone. Maureen sat in their container, as she had done every day since the massacre, staring at a blank wall. She did not move, and she did not respond to her daughter when Christine announced that she was leaving.
When she reached the border, she was surprised at what she saw. Several people asked her where Maureen was, and she made an excuse so that she could return to the container to fetch her mother.
‘Mum,’ she said, bursting through the door, ‘come on, mum, you’ve got to come. They’re waiting for you.’
Maureen did not immediately make any sign that she had heard her daughter speak. Recognition was slow to appear on her face, and she blinked several times before turning to Christine, as though she had only just realised that her daughter was there.
‘I always told myself I was doing a good thing,’ she said, in a dry, croaky voice. ‘A good thing.’
‘And you’ve done the best you could do,’ Christine insisted. She knelt in front of her mother, looking up into Maureen’s tired eyes. She did not seem to be fully aware of her surroundings.
‘I only wanted to help people. To make things better.’
‘Mum,’ Christine said, cupping Maureen’s face with one hand, ‘this is not your fault. There’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent it. Starg had his own agenda, and the virn troops reacted to it. You couldn’t have stopped it.’
Maureen blinked a couple more times. She opened her mouth as though she was going to say something further, as though there was something on her mind that she had done or said, or should have done or should have said, but then closed it again.
‘They’re waiting for you, mum.’
‘Because it’s a memorial for all the victims. Everyone is there, and everyone is waiting for you.’
Maureen shook her head. ‘No,’ she said, ‘no, I’m not going there.’
‘Well, you’re going to have to step outside this cannister at some point. And when you do, then everyone will ask you why you didn’t turn up to the memorial, and then you’ll regret not attending. Anyway, I think you need to see this. It’ll help.’
Maureen frowned at her, but Christine only smiled and stood, holding out a hand for her mother to take. A few moments of hesitation, and then Maureen took it, allowing her daughter to lead her outside. Maureen was dressed in clothes that she had not changed for days, but Christine did not think that her mother would have appreciated any delays had she been in her right mind at the time. Once Maureen saw what was waiting for her at the border, then she would understand.
Christine led her mother towards the border as fast as she could. Around them, groups of other humans walked in the same direction, all of them silent and solemn.
They carried candles with them, but none were lit yet. The human government had asked that nobody light the candles until they arrived at the sight for the memorial. It was typically a virn tradition to remember the war dead.
The ancient virn had apparently believed that, if the candles were lit anywhere other than on the site of the victim’s death, then any souls which the burning candle passed would follow them to the memorial site. This demonstrated a lack of respect for those who were being remembered by the lighting of the candle, and disturbed the dead. The belief had been passed down until it had become mere tradition; acknowledging it made the memorial service legitimate on a virn planet.
When Maureen and Christine rounded the final corner, and saw the gathering of people there, Maureen’s hand fell away from her daughter’s. Christine spun, half-expecting to see her mother running back the way they had come, but Maureen was stood there, staring at the gathering before her. Christine smiled.
There were countless humans there, either holding or lighting candles, but they were not alone. Stood with them, around them, between them, holding candles and keeping their silence, were just as many virn, their faces contrasting those of the humans in the flickering light. Some of them turned their heads as Maureen approached, and Christine handed her a candle to light and hold above her head. She then joined her mother with her own candle, stood by her side.
They stayed there in union, their silent vigil saying more than their words ever could have.