Where the Moon is God – Chapter 2

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

Where the Moon is God – Prologue

Where the Moon is God – Chapter 1

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That would fit a pattern.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks, Theo,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where the Moon is God – Chapter 1

You can read the first part of Where the Moon is God via the link below:

Where the Moon is God – Prologue

I hope you enjoy reading!


Theodore considered himself to be a generally very calm and collected individual. He was reverent and deeply religious, a monk who worshipped God as truly and faithfully as any man could. His mind was free of wicked thoughts, his body of sinful deeds. He had escaped from the evils of the world many years ago, delivered himself to a better place – a purer place – and forgiven those who had done him wrong.

It was rare for him, with all his composure, to be haunted by nightmares. Bad dreams were the only dreams he tended to have, when he had them, and they disturbed him deeply. There was no word he could think of to describe what simply terrifying things his unconscious mind was able to invent.

He lived in a large monastery in the country, isolated enough for the monks there to enjoy the world around them without getting too involved in its affairs. If nature could not calm his thunderous heart, then there was nothing that could. Nature, it seemed, was all out of ideas this time.

He settled himself down quietly in the middle of a small room in the monastery. It was a part of the building largely reserved for meditation. Theodore was cross-legged on the floor, his eyes closed and his bottom lip quivering with effort, but his hopes of reaching the tranquillity that meditation usually granted him proved fruitless. It had been many months, perhaps even a year, since Theodore had woken in the middle of the night in a cold sweat; the previous night had been a cruel reminder that he would never wholly defeat his demons.

It had been unlike any other night he could remember. He had tossed and turned in his tiny bed for hours, too hot one minute and shivering with cold the next. Once he had gotten to sleep, he had seen images of demons and inhuman monsters flashing through his mind. They had been hungry creatures, searching for their prey – searching for Theodore. He had thrown himself violently from side to side, as though kicking at the thin bedcovers might get them off his scent and end the dream. In the early hours of the morning, he had woken with a throbbing headache, after three mere hours of rest.

He had climbed out of his bed and walked over to the tiny window, bent his neck to see out of it, and looked up at the sky. The full moon had stared back at him and he had put the nightmare down to a superstitious mind that should have known better. After a few minutes walking back and forth in his room waiting for his pulse to return to normal, he had climbed back into his bed and attempted to return to sleep, but it had eluded him. Eventually, there had been movement from outside of his room, and giving upon sleep he prepared himself for the day, with a head that was still throbbing.

Seated on the floor of the cool room, the sun shining down upon him from a high window, he could tell him foolish he had been to be frightening of made-up monsters. It was never easy to see that in the darkness, when all kinds of people could imagine all kinds of things with little persuasion. Demons were real, of course, but then it was not the demons that caused him to cower like a child. Wild dogs could have been a danger, if he slept out in the open, but what he had dreamt of had been able to turn from a man into a wolf and back again, apparently at will.

Most enlightened scholars had rejected the concept of werewolves. Theodore had read a lot on the topic – certainly more than he was supposed to have read – but he had never seen any plausible argument to suggest that they were, or had ever been, real. There were strange creatures out there, far away in eastern countries, but England was not brimming with monsters. There was no reason for him to be afraid.

As much as demons could taunt him by inventing these nightmares, he would be able to overcome them. He had his faith. He had painstakingly trained himself over many years not to want or lust for anything, and so demons posed no threat to him. All that Theodore had to do was chuckle to himself until he remembered that werewolves were not real; anyone else in the monastery would have told him the same.

He would not talk to just anyone, of course. If he wanted to share what he had seen behind his closed eyes, then he would choose to speak with someone who was not going to judge him. There were few in the monastery who he felt would react in the right way: he did not want sage advice or some foul-tasting drink that was supposed to prevent him from having further nightmares. He wanted someone who would listen and nod, and then tell him he was an idiot once he had finished speaking.

First, however, he needed to calm his mind. Theodore knew that he was too distracted to concentrate. The fear that had gripped him when he had first woken had faded away slowly, until it had become little more than a silly memory. Something remaining behind, something he was unable to name. Something that puzzled him.

He could only vaguely remember the last time that a nightmare had woken him and shook him to his core. The rarity of bad dreams only served to make them feel more intense. He remembered how cold he had been when he had shot out of bed, exactly like this time, shaking as though from a fever, freezing despite the heat of the night. Questions had filled his mind that time, too.

How was his unconscious mind able to generate so many grizzly images, when he had done everything within his power to live a life of charity and simplicity? He had never seen a man beaten, stabbed, or ripped to pieces, so how was he able to imagine those tortures so vividly? He had an idea of them from descriptions and the odd image in texts, and although he could appreciate both he knew that there was a clear distinction between those and real life.

Apparently, his lack of witnessing anything gruesome could not stop his brain from filling in the gaps of his knowledge: the guts that he had seen spilling out onto the ground had seemed all too real, not just some sketch on a sheet of parchment by a skilled hand but something that was there, right in front of his eyes. He had dreamt of people taking their last breaths, choked gasps still echoing around in his ears.

Theodore shook his head as though this might dislodge the thoughts from his brain, breathing slowly and deeply to clear his mind. It was unsuccessful.

With such vivid images still swirling around in his head, meditation proved useless. For the first time in a long while, he abandoned his morning routine, resigning himself to some breakfast so that he could try again on a full stomach. This was not the way that he was supposed to do things, but he was shaken up, and that was a good enough excuse to adapt his behaviour.

The bread and the water that he had every morning were bland and tasteless. They did nothing to improve his mood. A silent prayer at the table helped to appease him slightly, and his worries faded somewhat as he felt the comforting feeling of the holy watching over him. Not long after he had finished his prayer, he was joined on the wooden bench by another monk.

The newcomer placed his bowl down on the table with a clunk and looked at Theodore with a grin that was far too cheery.

‘Good morning, Theo!’ the new arrival said, the grin turning into an even wider beam that split his face in two. It was a look that Theodore had seen opposite him every morning for many long years, something that would always manage to cheer him up, as though the other man’s happiness was somehow infectious. It did not seem to work on that morning. It was not a good morning, and no amount of saying that it was a good morning was going to make it one. Theodore mustered up the happiest voice he could.

‘Good morning, Thomas.’ He sighed, then ran a hand over his eyes, trying to shake the strange feeling that he was still in the dream. ‘You sound as though you might burst into song at any moment.’ Theodore paused, cocking his head to one side as he studied Thomas. ‘Please refrain.’

‘The sun is bright. It’s a beautiful day!’ Thomas ignored Theodore’s comment and continued to smile. He picked up his bread, tore some off, and examined it playfully before putting it in his mouth. Theodore watched, unable to hide his amusement.

‘Do we thank the Lord for this glorious sunshine?’ he asked Thomas, holding a piece of bread up himself and moving it between his fingers; it was a little too hard and a little too dry. They both knew the question was not serious.

‘Theo, we are Englishmen,’ Thomas replied. ‘When we get sunshine, we definitely thank the Lord.’

They chuckled quietly, mindful that some of the other monks had made vows of silence and that their whimsical conversation would not be encouraging to those devoted men. The pair shared a meaningful glance before returning to their meals, a look that said they were both glad to be in the other’s company. Theodore wondered whether anything had bothered Thomas in the night but did not ask. Thomas would want Theodore to discuss his own dream in fair exchange.

It was not long before Thomas spoke again. He had always enjoyed talking a little too much and Theodore had drawn attention to this more than once, but this was hardly enough to stop the man. Thomas pushed his half-empty bowl into the middle of the table, rested his elbows on the table, and leant on his hands, looking across at Theodore. Theodore put down his water, waiting for whatever the other wanted to say.

‘Have you heard the news from Lincoln?’

Theodore simultaneously grinned and sighed in exasperation. He shook his head slowly, chuckling to himself. Thomas seemed to know every scrap of information brought to the monastery before any other man, and his wide, excited eyes could not hide the fact that he considered this information to be something special.

‘You should stop your gossiping, brother Thomas,’ Theodore warned with a waggle of his finger. ‘It is not so good for the soul.’ He knew that the other monk was not going to finish speaking until he had shared everything he knew with Theodore, but then Thomas knew that Theodore wanted to hear it. Theodore liked to think that this was because Thomas knew how to tell a good story, but not even a monk could tire of good gossip.

‘Nonsense! I am not gossiping! It is news!’

‘Very well,’ Theodore said, still laughing quietly. The playful glance that Thomas shot him encouraged him to give in, a sly look that the other man had been able to pull off since well before they had arrived at the monastery. ‘Come, come then, brother Thomas, and tell me what news comes from Lincoln today.’

Thomas shuffled about in his seat as though the wait between announcing that he had news and Theodore asking to hear it had been too much for him, then moved his elbows off the table, his eyes fixed on Theodore’s. There was a moment of hesitation, a stillness that hung between them during which there was nothing else in the universe but them, before Thomas spoke. It was a pleasant moment: they had known one another before they had become monks and had always treated one another as brothers, although they were not related either by blood or marriage. Each man could read the other purely at a glance. Thomas was excited but also uncomfortable about what he had to say.

‘There were some horrible animal attacks inside the city walls last night,’ he finally said, unable to pass his voice off as casual. ‘I heard the news from my brother. He says he’s been keeping an eye on them.’

‘This news has come quick,’ Theodore commented.

‘You know Henry. He sent a messenger out here before the sun had even come up – he must have suspected something was going to happen and sent his messenger as soon as it did. He likes to keep me informed about goings-on in the city.’

Theodore nodded; Thomas’ brother often fuelled his gossip. ‘Wait – what do you mean? Is he looking out for attacks?’ he asked. He was shocked at the topic: animal attacks were rare in cities, especially in those with a wall. ‘Have there been others?’

‘Henry says there were some killings last month, too,’ Thomas explained. He picked up another piece of bread from his bowl and chewed on it for a few moments before continuing. Theodore had given up on his own bread. ‘He says the bodies were all of sinners – well, you know the sort of people who wander around cities at night – and they seem to have been attacked by some wild beast, something with huge claws and gigantic teeth. He thinks it’s probably a wild dog. Three were killed last night: one woman of the night, one gambler, one adulterer.’  Thomas counted them off on his fingers, the slender digits unfurling slowly. ‘Three also last month, and three the month before that.’ He reached nine and held his hands in front of Theodore’s face, as though this reiterated some point Theodore was missing. ‘He doesn’t think it will stop.’

‘It sounds as though he might be right.’

‘Yes. The constable got involved last month.’

‘They don’t appear to have done much.’

‘According to Henry, they killed a lot of dogs in the city, not that it’s done any good. There were a few suspects, too.’

‘People?’ Theodore raised his eyebrows, watching Thomas carefully. ‘Human suspects?’

‘Yes, well … Henry says all nine victims were morally corrupt.’ Thomas frowned. ‘It sounds strange … he did say they look like animal attacks, but you wouldn’t think an animal would be able to get past the wall or the guards month after month. Animals would go after anyone, maybe the guards themselves, not nine sinners … it sounds as though the constable will be baffled. Henry is baffled. He thinks our opinions on the matter might be useful.’

Theodore stared across the table at Thomas, his face blank, as he thought to himself. He watched the other man finish his bread and water and saw Thomas eyeing what was left in Theodore’s bowl.

‘Take it,’ he said, not wishing to be distracted from his thoughts. Thomas thanked him and snatched the bowl away, scooping up the last piece of bread and finishing it off. ‘Let me think for a while.’

‘Of course, brother,’ Thomas replied. He too fell into a thoughtful silence. Theodore watched the other man for a while, wondering what advice he would be able to offer that might help or comfort Thomas’ brother. Murders were not the forte of a monk.

This was not the first time Henry had asked for their advice, but it had only ever been matters of religion before. He had been a great support to them when they had been young, when they had played together despite the insistence of both sets of parents that they were from separate worlds and should stay that way. When the time had come, he had helped them to set off on the long path to become monks, and so they tried to assist him whenever he requested it.

If the truth was to be told, Thomas had always had an interest in things that should not have concerned him, which was how he had become friends with Theodore – a poor child with almost no education at the time – in the first place. This might have been another example of Thomas trying to get involved in something he should not, but that kind of thinking would not help Henry. It would be wrong to ignore these deaths based on Thomas’ over interest.

Theodore emerged from his thoughts to notice that Thomas had not come to a useful conclusion either. He tried to go back into his own mind, but found distracting questions floating to the front of his mind and slammed his fist down onto the wooden table in frustration.

Thomas jumped. The other monks, seated at the surrounding tables, jumped. The whole room stared at Theodore, who muttered a feeble apology about needing to meditate more and waited for the rest of the room to go back to their breakfasts before he spoke to Thomas.

‘Does Henry really think we can come to any kind of conclusion about what could have done this?’ he asked. ‘Man, woman, demon, wild dog … I doubt we can give your brother anything more than he already has. We will be no more helpful than the constable. Yes, there are wild dogs in the forests around this monastery and yes, they could get to the city and back in a night with ease. As far as I know, they live in packs, and they do not go beyond the treeline, otherwise we ourselves would be unsafe.’

‘Someone would surely spot a wild pack,’ Thomas agreed. ‘I think Henry just wants any help he can get.’

‘That, I understand. I’m not saying that I’m not convinced it isn’t an animal. I’m just saying … I … don’t know what I’m saying. Even if it is an animal, there seems to be no way to find it unless it is caught in the act. There are so many, but … no, no, I don’t believe it was an animal.’

‘Neither do I,’ said Thomas. ‘Which begs the question: what is it? You think a person can tear people apart, cut deeper than bone, and that they would eat …’ he stalled, one hand over his mouth, as though trying not to be sick. ‘Because I don’t think a human would.’

Theodore scratched his chin thoughtfully and noticed that he needed to shave. ‘I don’t think so, either. Do you know what I could do? I could message my friend Matthew, the monk from St. Albans. He likes to document strange things that happen, so he might have come across something like this before. You remember him, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I remember him. Good man. Likes to talk.’

‘It might take some time for him to reply, and he might not have anything to say, but …’

‘But it’s worth a shot,’ Thomas finished for Theodore. ‘I’ll tell Henry you’ll write to Matthew, but we should also think of some suggestions of our own. He’s evidently very concerned about his parishioners being targeted like this.’

‘Wait – his parishioners were targeted?’ Theodore asked. This was beginning to sound less like a wild dog and more like the work of someone or something evil and sinister that was targeting specific people.

‘Yes … all nine of them were his.’ Thomas picked at a few crumbs that remained in the bottom of his bowl and scowled. ‘Do you think this food is getting worse? Anyway, the constable had guards stationed around the area last night, like they knew it was going to be there. No idea whether they saw anything, though. Apparently, there have only been a handful of sightings of this thing. Henry say’s he’s spoken to people who have seen it but not got much from them. Stories of vague shapes and monsters lurking in the shadows. Well, you know how people make things up sometimes.’

He paused, still playing with the crumbs. Theodore waited for Thomas to continue. ‘That’s not even the weirdest thing about it,’ Thomas said eventually. ‘You see, all nine of them had confessed their sins to Henry shortly before they had died … within the month of their deaths, as far as Henry can remember. He wrote that none had been ready for forgiveness, and had not taken their penances seriously.’

Theodore could not hide his surprise. ‘How very strange. They are sinners,’ he pointed out, a shake of his head accompanying the final word, ‘and it is the cities that breed them. They’re everywhere in populated areas; whenever you look, wherever you turn, there they are. Maybe it’s a coincidence … but it would be an impressive coincidence indeed. Your brother does take a lot of confessions, and not all of those people are able to drag themselves out of the corruption of the city as easily as we did.’

Thomas nodded in agreement. He glanced around himself and kept his voice low to avoid being overheard. ‘I suppose there’s always the possibility that it’s someone close to Henry. My brother seems to be contemplating divine involvement, or even retribution. All things happen for a reason.’

‘I don’t want to think it could be someone Henry knows,’ Theodore replied, ‘and divine intervention, even in the case of the worst sinners, is extremely rare. Could all nine really have done enough to warrant it? God would have been willing to forgive them, when they were ready.’

Theodore was stumped. It was Thomas who brought up the final possibility.

‘It might be a demon,’ he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. ‘That sounds like the most realistic option to me. A demon is roaming the city, punishing souls that do not see the light.’

‘It could be a demon,’ Theodore agreed, his own voice only a breath. ‘It could be.’

He left the statement there and fell silence once more. Theodore did not like to put words in God’s mouth and always liked to ensure he had clear evidence before crying out his support for something. He had been that way ever since his father had first encouraged him to embrace Christianity fully and join the church, then only a boy. That was how he had first met Thomas, and their relationship had developed from there. Theodore wanted to know that there was no chance that these attacks were being caused by an animal before advising Henry to protect himself and his flock from something far more sinister.

Where the Moon is God – Prologue

The sleeping city lay under a thick fog that granted occasional glimpses of the moon. It kept the prying eyes of heaven off what was happening below, where a young woman’s life hung in the balance.

She had been running down the dark streets for what seemed like forever. Her gown flapped around behind her loosely, rustling with her every step. Heavy make-up, revealing clothing, and a stench of sex gave away her profession, her filth lingering behind her in the darkness.

If there had ever been a time when she would live to see the dawn, it had long since passed. The only course of action that remained to her was to delay the inevitable.

It was becoming harder with every step: she was exhausted.

She had been chased through the streets at night before, by angry men who had taken advantage of her and then returned at a later hour to take back the money they had paid her. But this time, her pursuer was no man – it was something far more sinister, more monstrous than anyone who threatened her with cruel words or solid fists could ever have been. Fear was something she knew well, but tonight … this was a new kind of terror.

The narrow, cobbled streets she ran through were devoid of human life, but then no passer-by would have stopped to help her once they spotted the monster at her heels. Not to save a woman of the night.

The ragged breath that struck the back of her legs sent shivers up her spine; the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end at the feeling. She screamed as her chest began to tighten, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes.

She turned sharply to the right, down a hidden passageway that led onto the next street. Not fooled, her pursuer flew around the corner after her, spitting and snarling. It wanted her to remember it was there; she was hardly likely to forget. In fact, the part of her mind that could still concentrate on something other than panic and faster and death was convinced that it was toying with her. Twice she had thought she had escaped, and twice it had jumped at her out of nowhere, continuing their pursuit.

It was a swift and powerful beast, bouncing off the ground on four lean legs, the occasional sharp claw scraping across a stone. The whore ran barefoot ahead, leaving a trail of blood in her wake and trying her best to ignore the pain.

Barks, growls, and crueller sounds filled her ears. They were the sorts of noises she had only heard before in her nightmares. The beast grunted and snarled like a creature of no natural origin.

She knew what it was. There was only one thing it could possibly be. She was being chased through the streets by a demon. It was proof that her sins had condemned her to hell, proof that there was nothing but torture awaiting her in the next life.

The woman tried to turn left, but the creature snapped at her and forced her to go right instead. She realised her mistake immediately when she came to the bottom of a steep, cobbled hill, too fatigued to climb. Stumbling onwards regardless, she tripped and caught herself, then picked her feet up and focused herself on the ascent. That small portion of her mind again told her that the beast was waiting for her to collapse, waiting for her most vulnerable moment.

When that moment came, she would feel the true power of the monster. She had seen it only for a moment, right before the chase had begun, but the image had seared itself onto her irises. It had wide, staring eyes and enormous teeth. It was covered in black and grey fur, water droplets clinging onto the longer hairs from the heavy downfall that had engulfed the city earlier that night. The largest of its teeth, a pair of yellow fangs, had promised to tear through her clothes and skin with ease.

It was the pitch-black eyes that had scared her the most about the creature, their soulless glare deeply unnerving. The beast had stared at her intimately, eagerly, as though it had been assessing her, before she had overcome her initial feeling of shock and started to run.

Close to the top of the hill, she turned and tripped around a sharp corner, then flew straight into the wall of a house and landed on the ground with a huff. If anyone from the nearby houses was woken by the sound of her fall, none of them came outside to see what was going on.

She realised in that moment that it was over.

The creature was on her in an instant. A pair of huge, sabre-like teeth sunk into one of her shoulders; she screamed out into the night, but still nobody came outside. With teeth and claws it dug through flesh and bone, scattering what little she had been wearing and creating a bloody mess as the beast devoured her with haste. For all of the patience it had shown during the chase, it was evidently desperate to feed. She was not left to scream for long; an assault on her neck left her vocal chords scattered down the alley.

A barely audible gurgle signalled the final moment of the whore’s physical life, and then her suffering ended.

*

Blood and small pieces of skin dangled sloppily from the hairs around the beast’s mouth. It took a final bite before leaving the carcass of the whore in the alley, to be found by some unsuspecting person the following morning. She had been a hasty feast that it had eaten its way through in under a minute.

The animal sped off, far from satisfied. Keen eyes adapted to the night sought out a second victim. Real food came once a month, and only human flesh could truly please it.

And the chase – the game it played – was a celebration of its freedom. Like real food, freedom only came once a month. For the rest of the time, the creature was a prisoner, trapped inside the body of a human who had no idea that it was there and knew nothing of what happened when the monster took over.

It was incredibly smart and had great mental strength. The more people it tore apart and devoured, the stronger it seemed to become. It was sly enough to allow its human host to live their normal life, oblivious to the beast within, and ready to take over should it become threatened.

There, within that human, it had grown. A prisoner trapped inside a human-cell. The longer it had been in there, the more it had yearned for release, until it had been willing to do anything to escape. One day, it would take complete control of the body they shared, and then it would be the human trapped within the body of the beast.

There was nothing it thought about more than destroying the human: it was obsessed. Yet it was also patient, incredibly so. Patience was something it had always known.

Not much longer. Not much longer. Soon, it would be able to take control more frequently, and feed increasingly often. That was when it would be able to strike. The human would know the unnatural, unstoppable pain of being trapped inside a body that was not their own.

It was hardly the first to kill for freedom.

*

The second feed was easy for the beast to find. The only people who were out in the city at that hour were slow, easy targets, with no idea of what was lurking in the shadows.

He was a scruffy-looking man sneaking about at the back of a gambling den, probably looking for coins that had been dropped on the ground. The downward spiral of addiction encouraged by the city was evident on him. In a way, the monster would be doing him a favour.

After a while, the man gave up searching for coins and set off down the street, the beast following him. His life and death were under its command.

They walked for some time, the human staggering from side-to-side and muttering to himself, clearly intoxicated; the beast following without a sound. This was going to be a poor hunt, but chasing the screaming prostitute had been extremely satisfying and the animal knew it would be best to lay low after her deafening shrieks. The game was not an essential part of the hunt.

The gambler paused at the corner of a house, leaning against the wall to catch his breath. He did not seem to have the ability to run in him. Having no desire to continue the crawl, the beast took its chance and struck.

It leapt at the man and sunk its teeth into his neck, digging its fangs deep into the skin and slicing across his neck, leaving a trail of blood. The gambler did not even have a chance to see who his attacker was, dead before he hit the ground; the creature devoured his limp body just as it had done the harlot’s. Like her, the taste of his sins mingled with his flesh. A stink of impiety and negativity came off the meat, foul even to the beast’s nose. It could taste and smell every crime, every wrong, every immoral action the man had ever committed, from the first lie to the drinking and the gambling of that night.

The feast finished, the beast skulked away. One more meal to finish off the night, and then the creature would spend its remaining few hours wandering around the countryside, where it could chase wild animals and quietly observe the pack of wild dogs that lived in the nearby forest. They were instinctive animals without the same intelligent level conscious thought that the beast possessed, but it yearned to live as they did nonetheless. A simple life. An animalistic life.

Perhaps it could persuade them to allow it to join their pack. It would take some time. The beast was more powerful than any of them, strong enough to tear a man in two. It would continue to hunger for the taste of human flesh, like none of the others did, because it knew the power of that precious meat, but life with the wild dogs would be easy. It could live as nature had intended, no matter how unique it was.

The first few times that it had taken control from the human, it had not killed. It had done nothing more than enjoy its newfound freedom. Back then, the creature had believed it could have done anything; it had come to understand that it would have to suffer before it could do the things that others took for granted.

It tried to behave as the wild dogs behaved, to follow its instincts and do what felt natural. As the clouds drifted across the sky slowly, the full moon came into view, and instinct kicked in: the creature stood on its two back legs and reared up, howling at the moon, the only god it would ever answer to. The full moon was a blessing, the sign of its monthly night of freedom.

It would grow hungry in the last few days before the full moon. By the time it took control, it was usually ravenous. The beast would be desperate for the taste of skin and blood; sometimes it became so needy that its human host would crave large amounts of meat too. Two minds did not fit well in one body and one could have an impact upon the other without either of them noticing.

A third victim was close – the beast could sense it. They came out at night, the sinners. A part of the creature wanted to punish them for what they had done, perhaps a way that it could justify what it did, to carry out the work of the being that humans called God and purge society of their filth. It was a message to those who remained alive that they should live better lives and avoid immorality.

The last meal was not difficult for the monster to find, but he was accompanied by another person: a young girl, who he had been having an adulterous relationship with. She could live for another day, young enough to learn to change; if the beast caught her next month, that would be too bad. She would have to learn to run, and fast.

The beast’s quarrel was with the man, the one with the large stomach who reeked of sex. He should have been at home in bed, asleep with his wife and under the same roof as his children, but instead an excuse had allowed him to meet up with his younger lover. Whatever he had done to encourage the girl to believe his lies, it had been successful.

Wary of approaching more than one person at a time, the beast held back. It had learned previously that it was important for its prey to be alone and defenceless. If there were too many witnesses to its presence in the city, that would bring about its disaster.

After a short distance, the pair stopped, and the girl turned to face the man. She stood on the tips of her toes and kissed the man firmly on the lips before vanishing into her parent’s house and leaving her lover behind in the darkness. It would be the last time that she would ever see him. The beast was to save her from his manipulation.

The beast’s nose crinkled in disgust. There would be punishment for this man’s sin in this life, and in the next. He stood there, half shrouded in the shadow cast by that house, for a minute or so, seemingly lost in his thoughts. It was nothing for the beast to wait for him to turn and begin lumbering back down the street.

What a shame it was – he was too fat for a long chase. He would make a good meal, though.

The beast emerged from the darkness, gleefully watching the way that the man’s eyes went wide and his face fell as he spotted the great hulking monster in his path. It growled low and snapped at him; he tore off in the opposite direction, his footfalls heavy. There was no reason for the beast to toy with him: he offered it no fun. It sped after him, catching up with him before he was able to reach the corner at the far end of the street.

He was pulled to the ground as though he weighed nothing. The third frenzied feeding of the night followed, and then the beast, wary that it must have been heard and likely spotted, crept away on quiet paws. It retreated to the dull green countryside beyond the city walls, where it felt the forest call to it.

The beast made its way over and settled down in the undergrowth on the outskirts of the forest, where it could look out into the stillness of the night. It enjoyed the contrast between the atmospheres of the city and the countryside. The only sounds in the forest were quiet, sometimes so quiet that it had to strain its ears to hear them. That in itself was significant: the animal had highly acute hearing.

Nocturnal animals hooted and called out into the night, their sounds sinister and uncanny in the darkness. The beast let out a soft howl, joining their chorus. Soon, it would be able to call this place home. Before then, there would be several long months, when it was not in command. It could feel itself growing stronger, but it was not yet strong enough.

One day, it would have full control of the body that it was forced to share with a worthless, hypocritical being. One day, but not yet.

For the present, the only home it had was the one where the human decided to spend their days. For the present, the human was so strong that the beast was sometimes unable to understand where they ended and it began. Two minds, forced to live where there should only ever have been one. A body pushed and forced to twist and change, depending upon which one of them was in control, and the way the controller wanted to look. A painful combination of monster and human that should never have been brought together, in which one of them would always be the captive of the other.

Maybe the human would realise that there was something living inside of them soon, and find out what the creature did. Perhaps they would discover what they became on the full moon and try to fight back, but the beast doubted that they would have the strength. It was confident that it could dominate, should the human ever learn that it existed within them.

There was a more pressing worry than that human, in any case; the beast knew them inside out. Other humans, however, were not the same. If a large enough group of laypeople discovered it, then they would have no issue with killing human and best as one, taking them both out with a single blow to kill the nightmare that stalked the streets. Then there were other dangers, hunters and soldiers, which would be even more dangerous for the beast.

Humans spoke of monsters and demons that could transform into whatever shape they desired, their stories making little or no distinction between the human and the beast that occupied that body, imagining them to be indistinguishable in some instances. Was that what it was? A demon? The beast had no answers to life’s simplest – and hardest – question. Humans had concluded, with their limited knowledge, that monsters were instinctive creatures, wanting nothing more than destruction and death, but this beast wished for far more. It knew loneliness like no human could understand it – it wanted to belong, to be accepted.

If it was a demon, then humans knew nothing of demons.

The beast had learned these stories through the human, their memories and conversations. It had spent a lot of time learning how to delve into the human’s mind without arousing suspicion. They were a well-educated person, a matter which had served the creature well, with a wide knowledge of folklore, religion, and modern thought.

The human had been useful, in this respect. They had taught the animal much about the world around it, including their weaknesses and how it could use those to its advantage. It would almost be a shame when the beast took over and the human was no more – or, rather, it would have been, had the concept of taking over not been such a glorious one. Freedom was the one thing that the animal would give anything for.

Yes, it killed. It destroyed lives, from individuals to whole communities, but it did so in a righteous way. Those it took down and fed upon were sinners, and their punishments in the next life would be far worse than anything it could possibly do to them in this one. With each human it devoured, it could feel its autonomy getting closer. The need to be free was, after all, hardly alien to mankind: it was only natural. It killed so that it could life, no in self-defence, but in self-preservation. It had never considered that there might be another way.

From the stories that humans told, the animal knew that it was a monster. This was what monsters did.

New story upcoming: Where the Moon is God

Now that I have posted the final chapter of Valhalla Rising, and the whole story is available on this blog to read, I am going to begin posting another story. This one is a horror entitled Where the Moon is God, and I wrote it before I wrote Valhalla Rising.

The prologue will be up later today, and chapter 1 will appear in 3 weeks time, as I will be on holiday for the next 2 weeks.

I hope you enjoy!

VALHALLA RISING – Part 8

If you haven’t read the previous chapters of VALHALLA RISING, you can find them here:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

VALHALLA RISING – PART 6

VALHALLA RISING – Part 7

I hope you enjoy this part – there’s just one part left after this one.


Funeral traditions on Montague 7 dictated that the service be held in an open public space in the middle of the day. The body was placed in a coffin and scented candles were placed around it. The scents were chosen according to old virn beliefs that connected certain smells to the personality of the deceased. The mourners wore long, pastel-coloured robes, with hoods pulled up to hide their faces from one another.

This was a tradition that humans had adopted when they had first settled on the planet. The original Controller had refused to grant humanity a sacred place to bury their dead if they did not follow the planet’s traditions, and so to avoid complications, human authorities had labelled it a planetary tradition, rather than a virn one.

Other planets in the Empire had their own traditions. It was often difficult to tell where each tradition had originated, but they often came down to the resources which had been available to the first settlers. Montague 7 had offered large open spaces with nowhere to hide tears, and so traditions had been developed accordingly.

Lukas did not get a funeral. As soon as his body was returned to Valhalla, his family burned it as a demonstration that they disagreed with what he had done. Their decision not to give him a proper funeral was mentioned as briefly as possible by the various media outlets that continued to condemn his actions, by a thirty second mention on the news channels and a small side-note in the papers.

Maria and Orion did, however, arrange a service later that same week as a demonstration against violence. They encouraged people to wear their pastel robes with the hoods down, which was supposed to show that those who attended were thinking of everyone who had suffered from the violence between humans and virn, rather than any one individual.

Christine and Rokesh turned up at the service with candles that smelt like handmade paper. Ancient virn had associated the smell of paper with information, evidence, and memories, because they had kept meticulous paper records of their lives. They placed the candles in the centre of a large tent in the centre of the site, and for a moment were overwhelmed by the combination of smells in there as they tried to pick out each individually.

They moved around the site together, walking slowly and only nodding to greet the others they met. The walls of the tent, both inside and out, were covered with photographs of the innocent virn and humans who had been killed during acts of violence between the two species. They examined the pictures in silence, and when they finally left their hearts were heavy with sorrow.

Maria, Orion, and Slick were stood together a short distance from the tent, and Christine and Rokesh approached them. It was the first time Christine had seen the others since they had discovered that Lukas had left the camp, and the tears that lined their eyes suggested she was not the only one who had been playing her last conversation with him over and over in her mind to find out if there was something she could have said to change his mind.

‘This may not be a good time for any of us,’ Christine said, after she had introduced Rokesh to the others, ‘but I’ve – we’ve,’ she corrected herself, taking hold of Rokesh’s hand and smiling, ‘got an idea that we think you could help us to make a reality.’

The three listened to Rokesh’s proposal, and as the concept became clearer in their minds, their eyes slowly began to light up. The emptiness on their faces turned to hope, and they rediscovered what had been stolen from them by Lukas.

~

Christine stood with her hands on her hips, looking around at the temporary studio that had been erected in Orion’s bedroom. He lived in one of the oldest containers, rusty and creaky, but it was surprisingly spacious with separate living and sleeping areas, and – most importantly for their needs – there was no chance that they might be interrupted.

She smiled to herself as she examined the room. It was not the best-looking studio, but it was good enough for a human broadcast. The sheet they had tossed up against the wall as a backdrop had been cleaned and ironed, and the stillness in the room made it look almost like a painted wall.

Slick was seated in the official anchor chair; having a half-virn as the head figure of the show was a big positive, because it would grant the broadcast more authenticity with the virn public. Next to him sat Maria, her hair and face painted as a legitimate and splendid replica of a rich virn lady.

It was not meant to mock, but they had worried whether it might seem that way for a while, before deciding they wanted to demonstrate that they respected virn culture as much as they wanted virn to respect their own. The make-up and hair were important elements of this, because it was one of the first things that the viewers would notice. Not to include them would allow virn to say they were ignoring virn culture.

Somehow, Christine knew, whatever decision they made would be twisted, if an interpreter truly wanted to twist it.

‘It looks good, doesn’t it?’ Orion asked Christine, He was manning the camera; hers was the microphone. They were only preparing for a rehearsal, but all recognised the necessity to get as close to perfection as they possibly could.

‘It’s very impressive,’ she agreed.

‘But something’s not right? I can see it in your eyes.’

Christine sighed. ‘It doesn’t mean anything if Zuwrath won’t give us a broadcast slot. I ignored that stumbling block for a while, but now that we’re pretty much ready for a real broadcast, it’s turned into a huge blockade. How are we ever going to persuade the Controller?’

‘Can’t your mother help? She knows Zuwrath.’

‘My mother and Zuwrath hate one another. They only work together because they must, in order to achieve their own goals. I can ask her … but I already know what she’ll say.’

Orion’s smile fell from his face. ‘You’ve got to try, Chris,’ he said.

‘I will. I’ll call her.’

~

Maureen’s communicator vibrated against her wrist for about half a second before it began to ring. She shook her arm to answer it, held it up in front of her, and an image of Christine appeared before her.

‘Hi, Chris,’ Maureen said. ‘Oh – is that your studio? It looks great! Do you know when you’ll be broadcasting yet?’

Christine smiled awkwardly, her lips pulled tight and thin. ‘Uh, no, net yet, Mum. Actually … that’s what I’m calling about. We – I mean, I – may have missed out one tiny little detail when I told you about it.’

‘You did? What detail? It sounded like such a great idea! Who’s stopping you? Is it someone in the government? What could they possibly be against – ?’

‘Mum, Mum, stop,’ Christine insisted. ‘That’s not it.’ She took a deep breath, as Maureen’s brain whirred with questions. ‘The problem is that … it’s that we don’t want to broadcast it on human channels.’

There was a long pause, during which Maureen’s brain processed this new information and Christine waited for her mother to respond.

‘You want to broadcast on virn channels?’

‘Yes.’

Another pause. Maureen’s eyes flickered shut. She sucked in a breath, then opened her eyes again. ‘Chris …’

‘Don’t tell me we can’t do it.’

‘You’re a big girl, Chris. Do you really want me to give you false hope?’

‘You can ask Zuwrath, Mum.’

Maureen laughed before she could stop herself. ‘And she could get me fired for even daring to ask! Imagine the hype in the virn media from the mere cheek of such a question! They wouldn’t even need to watch your broadcast to condemn it!’

Christine put on her best puppy dog look, the one with the big eyes that she had used when she was a child and had wanted something from her father.

‘Fine. Leave it with me. No promises.’

‘Ee! Thanks, Mum!’

‘Don’t expect much –’ Maureen began, but Christine had already ended the call and vanished. Maureen rubbed her temples with both hands and groaned. She could not ask Zuwrath if the group could broadcast their show on virn television, because the Controller would consider it a violation of the boundaries of Maureen’s position as Liaison.

Luckily, the Controller was not the only one who could give her air time. It might not be planet-wide, but things could spread across the Empire at an alarming rate.

~

Oh, hello Starg, how good to see your face again!

Starg glared at Maureen over the holographic communicator.

You want something,’ he stated, in a dry, monotonous voice.

Now really, Starg, why must you be so suspicious of me? I could be calling just to catch up with you following our last conversation.’

I could hang up,’ Starg suggested. ‘I do actually have other things to do.’

All right, fine,’ Maureen sighed. Her smile faded a little, before she deliberately curled the corners back up to maintain her warm grin. ‘There’s something I’d like to discuss with you. I was hoping we might be able to meet in person.’

I have got a lot of other things to do.’

Starg,’ Maureen said, trying not to sound as though she was frustrated or nervous, ‘I promise you, this is an opportunity you won’t want to miss. What I’m going to propose to you … I guarantee you it’ll be of great interest.

Starg’s eyes did not give any indication of temptation, and Maureen knew she might already have said too much over official channels. However, both of them were aware that she would not have called him idly. ‘I’ll give you fifteen minutes, if you can get here before the end of the day,’ Starg said. The sooner they met, Starg apparently realised, the better.

That’s great! I promise you, you won’t regret this. I’m leaving right now.’ Maureen picked up her wallet and her identification card, then left her container.

Move swiftly,’ Starg told her, before he disconnected the call. Maureen rolled her eyes when he disappeared.

‘And goodbye to you too, Mister Starg,’ she said to the blank screen. She shook her arm, and the static flickered away. Aware that time was of the essence, she hurried herself along, and caught the first transport that she could find.

~

Starg dismissed the message from Zuwrath with a flick of his wrist. Upon receiving it, he had wondered whether she had observed his conversation with Maureen and had become suspicious, but she had not mentioned their communication. That did not mean Zuwrath was in the dark, but neither did it mean Starg needed to worry himself about it too much.

The Controller was doing her best to impose increasingly harsh sanctions on the people of Valhalla, and it was having a negative effect on the districts closest to the encampment. Starg had expressed his concerns to the Controller in a written examination of her impact; her response had offered him no sympathy of any kind, and she had even suggested that it might be Starg himself who was damaging Pika.

There was no point in responding with the information Starg has that supported his claims, because Zuwrath liked to sweep aside anything that suggested Montague 7 would be better if humans were integrated into the virn-dominated world. Starg did not like humans, he thought that they were a backwards and awkward race (with some exceptions), but he recognised that the strains between both species were not going to disappear just because they were ignored.

His representatives had agreed with independent virn studies that suggested if humans and virn worked together and shared the same spaces, not only their relationships but also their productivity would increase. This had been the case with several other species who had previously been introduced into the Empire, although many pro-purity conspirators such as Zuwrath denied anything of the sort.

Humans, Starg knew in some deep part of him that was not entirely ready to face the reality of his knowledge, would be statistically less likely to be violent or aggressive to virn if they had been treated as equal to virn in the first place.

Unfortunately, the Controller was firmly allied with the more conservative parts of the virn Empire. It did not matter that she was, on paper at least, supposed to be impartial; Zuwrath served the very purpose that her position had been created for.

‘Oh, I know that look.’

Starg looked up from his communicator to see that Maureen was stood in his office. He was a little startled, but hid the shock: it was not often that Maureen entered without announcing herself first. Whatever she wanted to speak with him about, it was clearly important to her. A smile tugged at the corners of his dry lips, once the surprise had worn off, and he allowed it to take over his face. Maureen was not his favourite person to work with, but compared to Zuwrath she was most welcome.

You know it?’ he asked. Maureen chuckled to herself and walked a little closer to his desk.

May I sit?’ she asked. It was one of those filler sentences that humans used when they wished to sound polite. Starg nodded with a grunt. ‘Thanks.’ She settled herself in the chair, brushing away a few stray crumbs that the previous occupant had left on the arm. ‘I do know it, yes. That’s the look I see in the mirror after I’ve spoken to Zuwrath.’

Starg grunted again. The smile that had gripped him had faded away now. ‘The Controller does not care for my opinion on virn-human relations.’

Maureen pushed herself forwards over the desk, her hands braced on the arms of the chair. ‘And what is your opinion?’ she asked him.

Apparently it is unimportant.’ Starg knew better than to give Maureen too much information. ‘You claimed you had an interesting proposal for me?

Yes. Yes, I do.’ Maureen clasped her hands together and pursed her lips. She took her time before speaking again, a habit that Starg could not help but associate with the Controller, and when Maureen did speak it was slowly, as though she was selecting her words carefully. ‘Tell me, Starg, exactly how much would you like to make the Controller suffer?

Very much,’ Starg confirmed. His heart began to beat a little faster at the mere suggestion of the pair of them hurting Zuwrath.

Well, I think I may have something up my sleeve that could get her in serious trouble.’

Starg’s eyes widened slightly, enough that Maureen had surely spotted the movement. He held a hand up before she could say anything further, then stood up and walked around his desk to check that the door and windows were all shut. When he was sure that they would not be overheard, he walked back around the desk and sat down opposite her, leaning close enough that they could speak in whispers.

Even then, despite these safety measures, he took still one further, aware that his secretary’s understanding of human languages was not as good as his own.

‘Do you have a plan already formed?’ Starg asked.

‘Better than that. I’ve got a whole team of people ready to carry it out. Everything is prepared, all we need is one simple favour from you.’

‘What do you need?’

Maureen grinned, showing a full set of teeth. She held Starg’s gaze for a few seconds. ‘Air time on virn television,’ she said.

Starg leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. ‘I can’t give you that. Why would you want that?’

‘We’ve designed a programme to show a virn audience the real human experience, from the human perspective. I know as well as you do, if a human show gets broadcast on virn television, especially one that claims us as equals, then Zuwrath will get in serious trouble for allowing it. Oh, you and I might too, but it’d be worth it to bring her down.’

‘Have you asked her about it?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Because you know she is too careful to give you an opportunity to embarrass her.’ Starg folded his arms across his chest. He grimaced, trying to imagine what possible results Maureen could gain from such a display. The question of whether the average virn would accept humans as their equal was an intriguing one, but even more intriguing was the question of what would happen to Zuwrath after the broadcast had been made.

He wondered, too, what the consequences might be for himself, and for the Liaison, but an image of a publicly shamed Zuwrath was entirely too distracting.

Maureen moved her hands from the arms of her chair to Starg’s desk and leaned closer to him, their faces inches apart. ‘A new Controller,’ she said, as though she had read Starg’s mind.

‘A potentially worse Controller,’ Starg commented. ‘Potential termination of my job.’

‘A potentially sympathetic public willing to listen to sympathetic Keepers,’ Maureen corrected him. ‘And a sympathetic public would accept only a sympathetic Controller.’

Starg pursed his lips.

‘Do you believe what you say?’ he asked. The look in Maureen’s eyes was wild, her pupils blown wide and her excitement evident. She made no effort to disguise what this conversation meant to her.

‘Of course. Every word.’

‘And Zuwrath would, certainly, not be allowed to remain after such an impressive blunder.’

Maureen did not reply, but she did not need to. She could read Starg far better than he sometimes felt he could read himself. She gave him time to think the idea through for himself. He knew that Maureen’s silence was meant to encourage him; she knew he wanted what she was offering. His life and his job – if he still had a job – would both be infinitely better without Zuwrath to crush his every attempt at a mutual, forward-thinking relationship with humans.

In small steps, of course. If Starg had to be the one to make the first step, then, he decided, he would do it with pride.

‘Perhaps it is not such a poor idea after all,’ he mused eventually, ‘to see a human broadcast on virn television. We have all sorts of broadcasts these days, after all, coming from all corners of the Empire. Yet there is always room for more. I have the authority to grant you broadcast time in Pika. Zuwrath only has the authority to stop me if she hears what I am doing ahead of time.’

‘Then you agree to allow us to broadcast? Before Zuwrath can get wind of this?’

Starg reached up with one hand to scratch his chin, but this time his reaction was for effect. He had already made his decision, and Maureen knew it. Ridding himself of Zuwrath had been Starg’s main aim for almost as long as he had worked as Keeper of the Peace. He was merely making a show for the Liaison.

‘When do you wish to broadcast?’

‘We should be ready one week from now.’

‘At what time do you wish to broadcast?’

‘Prime time. When virn families sit down to share their evening meal. Every generation watching.’

‘That request will be almost impossible to fulfil.’

‘I like the sound of that.’

‘You like it?’

‘Yes. Almost. You said “almost”, Starg.’

The Keeper of the Peace grinned. ‘I did say that,’ he agreed.

‘Then you can do it?’

‘A week from today, prime time,’ Starg said, making a mental note for himself to find as much money as he could to bribe the best programmer he could afford. ‘On a popular channel. So it shall be. Look out for my messages – they will be protected and encoded.’

‘Of course,’ Maureen smiled. ‘We wouldn’t want Zuwrath to find out before the broadcast can be made.’

Starg’s grin widened, all teeth and tongue. ‘Was there anything else?’ It was a difficult question to ask when all he wanted to do was offer Maureen a strong drink. This was a reason to celebrate, and yet there they were, busy making small talk across his desk as though their plotting was entirely insignificant.

‘Nothing I can think of.’ Maureen pushed herself to her feet. ‘If this goes off without a hitch, then I’ll buy you a drink. Or two. Heck, I’ll buy until you black out.’

            ‘I warn you, I can hold my drink well.’

‘I look forward to finding out exactly how well.’

With those words, she left Starg to wonder what impact his decision would have for them all.

~

By the time that Maureen had arrived back at the camp, Starg had already forwarded a message directly to the private system installed in her home.

Christine and Rokesh met her outside their container, and her daughter threw her arms around her. Maureen chuckled, then pried Christine’s fingers off her.

‘Why, whatever is it?’ she asked jokingly.

‘Pika,’ Christine said, ‘prime time. One week from tomorrow. I mean, it took us a little time to figure out the message, because I haven’t used your private codes in a while, but – oh, Mum, thank you so much!’

Impressed by Starg’s efficiency and that he had kept his promise, Maureen could only smile.

‘Just make sure it’s worth it,’ she replied, patting Christine on her back.

‘We will.’

VALHALLA RISING – Part 7

If you haven’t read the previous chapters of VALHALLA RISING, you can find them here:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

VALHALLA RISING – PART 6

I hope you enjoy this part!


‘Starg,’ Maureen said, staring across the desk at the virn, ‘I’m waiting.’

‘And what exactly are you waiting for?’ Starg asked her. He spoke carefully in his sharp accent, uncomfortable with human language. Maureen tapped her nails on his freshly polished desk, generating a clicking sound that irritated his ears. He gritted his teeth, and she stopped when she saw his glare. The smirk on her face told him that she had known exactly how the sound would affect him.

‘I’m waiting for you to tell me why this latest attack proves that all humans are undisciplined, violent monsters.’

Starg tilted his head to one side and studied Maureen through narrowed eyes. She appeared to be almost bored, likely fed up with dealing with incidents such as this. He centred his head again, once he had decided upon what to say.

‘The ancient virn on Vir 4 – our planet of origin, so they say – used to believe in a creature called Clarisnador. Have you heard of it?’

Maureen shook her head.

‘It was supposed to be two virn high, white like an albino, with thick black hair and a long beard that covered its entire body. It wore no clothes. Ancient virn believed Clarisnador stalked the streets on the one night each year that evil spirts could cross into the physical world. The monster was claimed to be invisible to those virn who had not committed major sins – but murders, rapists, and the like would be chased by it until it caught them and killed them.’

‘Interesting,’ Maureen commented. ‘I do enjoy old folklore.’

Starg allowed his grin to split his face. ‘Oh, but it wasn’t just a story. Not according to one text, anyway. Apparently, if you believe it, a tall, pale man was responsible for stalking people through one town and stabbing them on their doorsteps. He only did it on that one night every year, because he knew that the superstitious folks would blame evil spirits. He got away with it for six years, after which he was caught and burned alive by the townsfolk. A few decades later, and the story had spread so rapidly it had become legend.

‘Some virn scholars dispute the legitimacy of the text,’ Starg continued, ‘and others claim that it is a later source, perhaps written to explain the origins of the legend. Whatever the truth is, it is thought-provoking.’

‘You know, Starg, I usually feel like I’m the one who says thing just to fill the empty space between us. That’s what I’m told by a lot of the virn I work with. As Zuwrath has said to me once before, and I quote: “The air has no need for your words”. So, tell me, what’s the point of your tangent?’

‘The point,’ Starg clarified, ‘is that sometimes we hear a story about one monster, and we take that one monster and turn it into a hundred different monsters. I didn’t think about it until I was reading about the history of the Clarisnador the other night.’ He shrugged his shoulders, and suddenly felt the need to clarify his curiosity. ‘We all have our outside interests.’

‘It seems that our outside interests are quite similar in some respects.’

‘Perhaps so. And I just happened to think about it, as I was reading – I just happened to notice the similarities between the origins of that monster, and how we create the monsters of today.’

Maureen’s face told him that she knew exactly what he was trying to avoid saying. ‘Haven’t I said all along,’ she said, ‘that you shouldn’t attempt to judge humans based on how a small minority of us have behaved? The majority of us condemn the violence just as much as you do.’

‘Yes. Yes, you have said that. And, likewise, we condemn our own people when virn … misbehave.’ Starg scratched the back of his neck. ‘I have already been briefed about the attack, by the way. One virn in hospital, his tail should start to grow back in a couple of days. I hear it’s a painful process. Three virn dead, their families have been informed. The human was shot dead by virn officers, and you’ll be allowed to take his body back to Valhalla with you today.’

‘His family will be grateful for that. I should tell you, by the way, that Jakub Starosta has decided to formally resign his post. No word on who’ll take his place.’

‘That seems sensible. As for the body – it’s a sign of good faith, something to keep your people quiet. I think Zuwrath is concerned that the story behind why the human was there and what he was trying to defend might get out. You don’t know how virn would react to that – she wants to keep the family in her good books.’ Starg sighed heavily. ‘I said it, but – it really is true. You and I, Maureen, we’re not very different. We both could cause great damage to the other, whether through our words or our actions. Neither of us wants to be belittled by the other – neither of us would tolerate that for long.’

‘And those things extend to the rest of our people.’

‘I cannot condone –’

‘Neither can I,’ Maureen stressed immediately. ‘I abhor and oppose all violence. I refuse to support violent humans and I refuse to support violent virn.’

‘Good. And I also.’

‘Good.’

There was a lengthy silence as the two of them communicated on a level that was beyond speech, their eyes saying more than their words ever could. For the first time since he had met her, Starg felt as though Maureen truly understood him, and he her.

‘This leaves us in a position that we’ve never been in before,’ Maureen said at last.

‘It does. But it also does not. I can agree with you to an extent that virn stereotyping of humans is encouraging some of your people to counter in inappropriate ways, but I still need to deliver a suitable punishment for the violence. If I do not, someone else will take my place and deliver it instead. Whether they are my actions or the actions of the next Keeper, they will create more monsters in the eyes of the arrogant and the ignorant.’

‘I expect nothing less than repercussions – and I do want you to keep your job, Starg. I would hate to have to build this kind of relationship from the ground with someone new. But you must do your best to stress that there is also good in humanity – not just to highlight the bad behaviour. The positives need to be emphasised more.’

Starg grimaced. ‘It is a lot easier to create monsters than heroes.’

Maureen reached across the desk and grasped hold of his hand. Starg noticed that her skin was a little warmer than his own. It was smooth, and seemed more at risk of damage. It was a surprisingly pleasant touch.

‘I’m not saying it’ll happen overnight. I’m not saying it’ll happen in our lifetimes. But, if we make a start today, if we begin something to change how we all treat one another, then people will remember you for that.’

Starg’s grimace turned into a smile. He liked the idea of being remembered for being the one who had implemented the change that would improve virn-human relations.

~

When Zuwrath read what Maureen had written to her about the attack on Lukas’ younger brother and how this had warped Lukas’ mind, all Hell broke loose. The Controller stepped out in front of a group of questioning virn reporters and practically roared her response to the press.

The Controller Zuwrath, by whose might humankind has been granted such marvellous potential, which day-by-day they squander as they do everything to avoid their responsibilities,” stated one infamous website, “has stated that certain sections of the human government are attempting to blame the recent attack that left one virn seriously injured and three dead on the heads of the poor victims. She has retorted furiously against these slanderous lies and requests the immediate removal of anyone who has been involved in creating or spreading such nonsense from the government of Valhalla.”

Maureen did not read the rest. Another message, this time a personal one from Zuwrath herself, flashed up on her communicator screen. She looked at Starg who was still sat there across her on the other side of the desk, then opened it.

Jakub will take the blame for the governing body’s lies, the message said.

Maureen opened a blank document and typed up a response.

So, no word on the virn teens who attacked a human child and left him scarred?

She hovered her hand over the communicatory. One swipe left would send the message.

            She swiped right and deleted it.

‘Why did you write that message if you were not planning to send it?’ Starg asked her. He had been reading the news report too, and had watched her respond to Zuwrath in silence. An open bottle of virn gin and two glasses sat between them. Maureen picked up her glass and drained it, before placing it back on its coaster.

‘It helps me to think more clearly if I get my feelings down first,’ she explained. ‘Then I delete them. Nobody who works in politics is withdrawn from what’s going on … we all have real, raw feelings about the sensitive issues we must handle. I’ve got to keep face for the public – so I discard my emotions before I start.’

Starg nodded to show that he understood. ‘Humans use language to express themselves far more than we do. We have always expressed our emotions on our faces, in our behaviour. Your people have created a whole system of words around yours.’

‘Yes.’ Maureen poured herself another glass of gin; Starg emptied his glass and held it up for Maureen to refill. ‘We use our faces and our bodies to express things too, Starg, but our words are powerful things. That’s why many humans think virn talk as if they’re stuck up.’

‘Your people are more open than mine.’

‘Do you think that’s a negative thing?’ It was a genuine question. Maureen waited for Starg to respond with a sense of curiosity.

‘I am not sure about it,’ he said at last. He pursed his lips, frowning a little, then continued. ‘At first, I was convinced it was a bad thing. But I now recognise that the way your people express emotions enables you to see them in a different way than we do. For instance, we see anger as a demonstration of power, because of its physical dominance; you see it as a loss of power, a loss of control, because it makes humans say things that they might not typically say.’

‘Yes. I’m always a little surprised when the virn media talks about Zuwrath’s fury as a display of her strength. I never expect it to be seen in that way.’

‘But it is a strength to us. She is very controlled. She knows how to use her anger.’

‘Well, I don’t disagree with you on that.’

Starg’s communicator lit up at that moment, and he lifted up his arm.

‘Talking of Zuwrath,’ he said, looking down at the light coming from his wrist. The sleek device was several models above Maureen’s own communicator, and she expected it could do things that hers could only dream of.

‘Should I leave?’

‘No. It’s just a message. You can stay to see whatever she wants to say.’ Starg shook his arm, and the message popped up between them, the text readable from either side and divided by a white background.

STARG, the first line read in large letters, DENY ALL REPORTS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST HUMANS.

‘I don’t think she could’ve made that any clearer than she has,’ Maureen said. Starg chuckled.

‘The plainness of her message is quite evident,’ he said with a smile. Maureen smiled back: Starg was not funny in the slightest, but at least he was willing to admit to what was going on around them. Maureen was tired of having to explain every single point she wished to make to virn who did not want to examine issues from the human perspective.

Starg flicked his hand at the screen and the page scrolled down. They continued to read in silence.

Any virn crimes against humans will be considered as a counter-attack to (or defence against) human violence and will not be discussed with the media or other persons deemed likely to share this information with third parties. Any information on virn crimes that becomes available in Pika will be considered YOUR slip-up. The penalty will be your sacking and the blame will be on your shoulders for creating false stories as a human sympathiser. All reports of virn violence against humans will be denied vehemently by you and your staff. There will be no discussion.

‘Does it strike you as incredibly strange that Zuwrath doesn’t want ordinary virn to know that some of their own kind are attacking humans?’ Maureen asked, once Starg had turned his eyes away from the screen.

‘Perhaps she thinks it is best not to escalate things,’ Starg suggested. He did not look at Maureen when he spoke, instead focused on his hands.

‘Or perhaps she has realised that because she has painted all humans as monsters due to the violent actions of a few, admitting that virn are violent to us would apply the same logic onto her own – your own – people.’

Starg’s eyes found Maureen’s face at last. A tongue snaked out of his mouth to wet his dry lips for the merest moment. ‘I think you should go now,’ he said.

Maureen did not miss the way that his eyes contradicted his words. She got out of her chair and left the room.

~

Rokesh saw how Lukas’ actions had torn Christine apart. Her very appearance seemed to have been affected, as though the questions that were flittering through her mind were darkening her looks. Her skin was pale, almost grey, and she appeared to be sick. The marks under her eyes were purple with exhaustion. She began to come out with spots from the stress, and no matter how often Rokesh told her that he did not care, she hid herself away because of them.

Rokesh tried to encourage Christine to go outside of the container with him, because whenever he went out alone he was aware of countless human eyes upon him. He was not the only half-human in the camp, but they were rare enough that he felt the pressure of judgement.

Everybody stared. He was a spectacle. It was a little selfish, but Christine needed to get out.

One evening, he came back from the wash rooms to find Maureen and Christine talking together quietly. Rokesh did not try to disguise his presence, but he made sure to give them space and sat on the other side of the container until their conversation was over.

‘It’s not your fault, Chris,’ Maureen said, louder, and Rokesh was surprised to realise that Christine somehow blamed herself for what Lukas had done. ‘You couldn’t have stopped him.’

‘I sh – sh – should’ve said something to s – stop h – him,’ Christine replied between sobs. Her voice was muffled, her head rest on her mother’s shoulder. Maureen had one arm wrapped around Christine’s shoulders and was rubbing her back affectionately.

‘Come on, now, you can’t think like that. Lukas was his own man. What do you believe you could’ve done to change his mind?’

‘I – I don’t kn – know. Something. There must have been something.’

‘Nothing, Chris,’ Maureen said, shaking her head. ‘There’s nothing you could’ve done. I know it’s hard, but you need to accept that. Until you do, you won’t be able to move on.’

Christine cried all night long. She refused to allow Rokesh to touch her or hold her. Her sobs echoed around the container and kept all three of them up, although there was nothing that could console her.

‘If only there was something …’ Rokesh muttered to himself, half-delirious, at four in the morning.

Then a mad thought entered his mind, and jammed itself in there, refusing to leave.

~

Chris,’ Rokesh said the next day, ‘I want you to come with me to the market today. I have an idea that I want to talk to you about and I think you would be able to envision it more clearly if you came with me.’

Christine wiped away the tears that still clung to the corners of her tired eyes and smiled weakly. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Rok,’ she replied. ‘People will see me.’

Are you embarrassed about being seen with me?’ he asked. His father had taught him a lot about reading between the lines of what humans said and what they really meant. Christine’s eyes widened in shock, as though she had not considered this interpretation, and shook her head.

No, no, of course not!’

Then what is it that you feel so ashamed of?

I – it’s just, well, I mean – a lot of people knew I was friends with Lukas.’

Oh, people know all sorts of things,’ Maureen piped up. She was sat at the table, hunched over a solitary slice of toast, her eyes drooping. ‘People used to know that Earth was the only populated planet in the universe. They used to know that humans were the only intelligent species in existence. They used to know that nothing was more important than money, power, and possessions.

Well, look at us now. We know different now.’ Maureen jabbed the knife she had been using to butter her toast in Christine’s direction. ‘You know you didn’t support Lukas’ actions. Rokesh knows it. I know it. Some of those people out there, they don’t even know the name of the Controller. So, you stick to knowing what you know, and let them know whatever they know. Besides,’ she added as an afterthought, rubbing her eyes with her free hand, ‘I need to get some rest and I can’t do it with you two stuck in here.’

Christine’s smile fell from her face. ‘Mum,’ she said, ‘I – I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you awake last night, you must be so busy with all this and you were only trying to make me see sense. I couldn’t have done anything to stop Lukas.’

I’ll forgive you for it all,’ Maureen replied, ‘if you go to the goddamn market.’

They shared a laugh, and Christine and Rokesh left the container. It was bright outside, and although people stared at them and whispered behind their hands as they got closer to the market, something within Rokesh told him to ignore it. Just before they got to the first stall, he grabbed Christine’s hand and dragged her to one side.

Wait,’ he said, ‘come this way with me.’

What? Why?’ she asked, but allowed him to lead her nonetheless. Rokesh did not reply immediately. He took Christine down a side street and they emerged before one of the large screens in the centre of Valhalla, where a subtitled virn news programme was broadcast on the side of a stone wall, twenty-four hours a day. Rokesh stopped and faced the screen in silence.

Rok,’ Christine said, ‘I need an explanation for this, please.’

Rokesh turned away from the screen and looked at Christine. Over her shoulder, an elderly man glared at the couple, but whether it was because of his species or the fact that they were speaking in virnin, he did not care. He wrapped an arm around Christine’s shoulder and pulled her closer, so that her head was on his chest. She leaned into him a little more, placing one of her hands over his heart.

Why are we here?’ she asked again, when he still did not answer.

I want to watch this,’ he said quietly.

Why? The only things they say about us on this channel are negative. Mum says it’s only played here to remind us that our place is here, and that when we leave it causes trouble for everyone. The human news channels are better – you can get them in some of the cafes in Caesar Plaza.

No,’ said Rokesh, ‘I want to watch this one.’

They stood there in silence for a while as a propaganda played on. People stood in the square from time to time, hoping to get a glimpse of the goings-on outside the camp, but they never stayed for long.

All right,’ Christine said, during one story concerning a famous celebrity couple who had announced their engagement, ‘have you seen enough now?

Rokesh thought to himself. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Let’s head to the market.’

They walked around the market, but did not purchase anything. It was good to get out of the container and spend some time as a couple. Other people’s eyes mattered less and less the longer that they were on display. Eventually, they became bored and reached the first stall, which Rokesh had originally pulled Christine away from.

Before we go back to the container,’ Rokesh said, pausing just beyond the stall, ‘there’s something I want to tell you. I’ve been thinking about it since earlier this morning, so it’s not particularly well thought out just yet. But it’s important.

Sure thing,’ said Christine, ‘go on.’

We should create a programme that shows all the good things about human culture, and we should broadcast it inside and outside of Valhalla.’

Christine did not say anything for a few moments. By the time that she spoke, Rokesh had already decided that, now that it had been said aloud, it did not seem like such a good idea after all.

There’s no way we could get permission to do that,’ she said. ‘Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to make and broadcast a programme.’

Well … I thought we could make something basic. One set, a table and a couple of chairs, a nice backdrop, some lights, some cheap recording equipment. Virn culture is broadcast into Valhalla all the time, on news channels and within schools and factories. If we could pick out the best parts of humanity, the parts that might make humans seem harmless to everyday virn, then virn might start to accept that there is so much more to humanity than what they’ve been told.’

Rokesh … that’s a really good idea. Where did all this come from?

It is? I saw how upset you were last night, and I just thought … and then I wondered if it was possible, so I wanted to watch the news and see how the virn on there act. You see, if we were going to broadcast on virn channels, we would need to look and act like they do to get their respect. It would need to be as presentable as possible, however cheap.’ He paused, but when Christine did not reply, he added, ‘So, do you think it’s possible?

I think it could really make a difference, long-term. I mean, think about it! If ordinary virn could learn more about humans and human life, and see the ways in which we’re similar as well as they ways we’re different, then some of the barriers that have been built between us might start to crumble! Of course, there’s hatred inherent in both societies, but …

One step at a time,’ Rokesh said.

Yes. Like mum’s always said: “Be patient, be good, and things will change for the better”.’

VALHALLA RISING – PART 6

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

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

VALHALLA RISING – Part 3

VALHALLA RISING – Part 4

VALHALLA RISING – Part 5

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.

No.’

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.’

‘What?’

‘What?’

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.

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.

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.

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2

Need to catch up before you read this part?

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1


Starg was short for a virn, which still put him at over six feet in height. He limped on his right leg, an old battle wound, and he stooped a little as he walked, making him look shorter than he was. It was his responsibility to oversee peace in the Piku region, which shared a border with the camp of Valhalla.

He had a proud military background. Once he had spent his maximum permitted time in the virn army – thirty years, unless one’s military feats were considered so great that it benefitted the Empire for the soldier to stay – he had been offered his current position, which he had been in for twelve years. Starg was no longer a military officer, and he did not have as much authority as the local security forces, but what he did have was sway over the relationship between the virn in Piku and the humans in Valhalla.

His official title was Keeper of the Peace, but whenever Starg was asked to describe his job he referred to himself as Receiver of the Nuisance. When he was not dealing with his own people, some of whom did everything they possibly could to start fights with humans, then he had to handle the humans themselves. He did not like humans, at least as a rule, and he liked associating with them even less. One thing he despised more than humans, or at least on par with his hatred of them, however, were virn who deliberately provoked trouble between the two species. That was not because he felt particularly sorry for the way that humans were forced to live by the Empire – he had, after all, fought in many battles for the Empire – but instead because when virn provoked humans, humans tended to respond negatively.

For this reason, Starg did everything he could to keep the humans content within the walls of the camp.

Most of the incidents Starg had to deal with were relatively minor. Somebody had offended somebody else, somebody had insulted somebody else’s cultural heritage, somebody had started a fight with somebody else, and so on. Occasionally, though, something happened that shook Starg and his team from brow to tail.

The near-bombing of the shopping centre was one of the most extreme cases he had ever had to deal with. It had caused a great deal of panic and Starg was at something of a loss. Bombings happened every now and then, and humans were by no means the only rehoused species to attack the virn because they felt their lives were unfair. What was so alarming was how far the two humans had managed to get into Piku in order to threaten the richest part of the district. Nobody had stopped them; only a few had spotted them. Somehow, they had managed to build themselves a couple of rudimentary devices and walk straight into one of the most prestigious malls on the planet.

And these had been young humans, not yet adults. Imagine what they might have been able to do if they had been fully grown!

Zuwrath had begun hassling Starg for information on what he was going to do to punish the camp from the moment he had heard about the near-miss. A message from Maureen Bradshaw a short while later had confirmed that she was just as concerned about the safety of her people and the negative impact of this nastiness.

“It’s not something that the 99.9% of humans do, or even consider doing,” she had put in her message. Starg knew that. He was hardly going to deal out blame unconditionally, even though he thought so little of humans. Of course, he knew what Zuwrath’s response to that would be without having to hear it: some humans did do it, which was apparently enough to warrant sanctions upon them all.

That was why Starg had visited Valhalla after the incident, only to discover that Maureen had been summoned to Louch to meet with Zuwrath. That was typical of Zuwrath: she never thought Starg was important enough to know what was going on. He was the Keeper of the Peace in Piku, and yet she had not even bothered to invite him to attend: all she cared about was what he was going to do to make other humans suffer for this. The Controller was always going over his head, and Starg was not the only official on Montague 7 who took issue with her.

The government in Valhalla offered him a place to stay and wait for Maureen’s return. It was a small, stuffy container that was more like a tin box than a building. Starg was convinced that he had been left in there on his own to get a tiny taste of what humans experienced every single day. As the hours passed, he increasingly considered getting up and leaving without a backwards glance.

He knew that humans lived in poor conditions, but that did not mean he had to live it himself. After all, they never helped themselves. The cold silence built up around him until he could stand it no longer.

His need to go to the lavatory was the final straw. Starg was not as young as he had once been. He grunted and lifted himself off the metal bench he had been uncomfortably squatting on, stomping as he walked out of the container and away from the camp. He relieved himself where nobody could see, then climbed into his rover and began the long journey back to his office.

~

Maureen spotted Starg’s rover from a distance. She recognised it and called for the shuttle driver to pull over. The shuttle only stopped for long enough for her to jump off, and she watched it move away before she waved down the rover. Starg saw her and pulled over by the side of the road. He climbed out of his rover and walked towards her.

They shook hands in the way that humans typically greeted one another.

I hope I find you well, Starg,’ Maureen said.

I visited the camp to look for you,’ Starg replied. He limped over to the kerb and swung himself down into a sitting position. Maureen walked with him and sat down next to him, aware that Starg would not appreciate it if he had to strain his neck to look up at her. The Keeper of the Peace in Piku would not be made to feel uncomfortable at the Liaison’s expense. ‘Zuwrath failed to tell me about your little meeting – I suppose she thinks I’m not important enough to be included in a discussion concerning the affairs of my own region. I believed I would catch you in Valhalla.

Where you would’ve had me at a disadvantage, surprising me in my own home,’ Maureen commented. Starg was easier for her to talk to than Zuwrath, and Maureen had a lot of experience speaking with him. They had no reasons to quarrel; they were both just trying to do what they thought was best. Zuwrath was direct and final, but Starg recognised the importance of treating humans with decency. He was not very good at it, but he tried.

Perhaps so. It wasn’t just the shopping mall I wanted to see you about. I have some information I doubt the Controller would want to share. Valhalla seemed like the best place to do it.’

Maureen rest her elbows on her knees and put her chin in her hands. She leaned towards Starg. She knew what he wanted from her: the exchange of information was never a one-way process with men like Starg. ‘We only discussed the repercussions of the bomb attempt. Nothing to do with your people, and I suppose by not inviting you along Zuwrath thought she could make it doubly hard by getting you to punish us, as well.’ Maureen paused; the look that crossed Starg’s face revealed that she was correct. ‘She’s refusing to deliver two thousand containers that we’ve been long waiting for. Think of all those humans back there living in tents, waiting for the day they can get a safer, stronger, weather-resistance home. That’s two thousand families who won’t get what they were promised all those years ago.’

Starg grimaced. ‘I have seen some of those tents,’ he said, ‘and I have smelt them, as well. It’s a poor life. Perhaps if those who lived in them worked a little harder, or –

Oh, don’t start that, Starg, I’ve had enough nonsense from Zuwrath already. You know those stories about humans being lazy aren’t true. Every species, every nation, every community has its own examples of those who want a free ride, but that doesn’t mean you can label all of those people in that way.’

Well … that’s how things are, I suppose. That’s how humans look from the outside.

Maureen clenched a fist and reminded herself of the importance of patience. She nodded her head, and waited for a few moments for Starg to speak again. When he did not, she had to push him.

There’s something you want to tell me?

There is.’ Starg looked up and down the road as though checking that it was clear before he continued. ‘Zuwrath’s office sent some information out to the Keepers of the Peace. I know you’re closer to me than to any of the other Keepers. In another life, we might even have been allies.

Starg. I’m welling up with tears.’

I’m serious, Maureen. Though … if you don’t want to know …

Oh no, no, I’ll hear you out. I don’t mean to be snappy, I don’t, it’s just these meetings with Zuwrath … they make me so frustrated! I find myself making smart remarks to everyone when I get home. So, please, do go on.’

Indeed, she expects a lot while giving nothing in return. Which is, of course, what she’s done this time. Zuwrath’s given virn news broadcasters more powers to discuss the “Human Issue”, as they’ve been instructed to call it. There’s a list of specific broadcasters who have her permission – she’s not exactly tried to conceal what her intentions are.’

Starg reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a slip of paper, which he passed to Maureen.

She’s been watching my communications for a while now,’ he explained. ‘She can’t watch a pen, though.’

Maureen turned the folded slip of paper over in her hands and opened it, her eyes scanning down the list of broadcasters. A sickening feeling rose from the bottom of her stomach and filled her mouth with the bitter taste of bile.

They’re all extreme, virn-first, broadcasters,’ she commented.

And they’re all anti-human immigration.’

Yes, yes, I can see … listen, Starg, do you want this back?’

No! I want it destroyed. Might fall into the wrong hands if not – I’m sure somehow Zuwrath will be able to trace the handwriting back to me. Actually, I brought my light.’

Very well. Give me a moment to memorise what I can, then.’ Maureen looked down at the list again. There were names of news broadcasters in print and digital media, from every region of the planet and even some off-world agencies. One of them broadcast empire-wide. When she could not bear to look at it any longer, she passed the paper back to Starg, who set it alight with the flick of his lighter. He dropped it on the road and they watched it burn until there was only a pile of ash.

Those channels will not attempt to discuss the Human Issue fairly. Neither will the papers. Digital media will love it – communicators will be filled with anti-human stories every minute of every day. Virn don’t need the truth, providing they have enough news stories saying the same thing. The more attacks – or attempted attacks – there are, the more the anti-human sentiment will grow. This will only add more to your troubles. That is what I wanted to tell you.’

Finished, Starg stood and dusted himself down, then made his way to his rover. Maureen followed him. Before he climbed inside, he spun around to face her.

Do you want something more?’ he asked.

Only to say thank you for warning me about this,’ Maureen replied. ‘Sincerely, Starg. I mean it. Thank you.’

Hmm.’ The Keeper of the Peace of Piku scratched his chin, and Maureen was not sure whether he believed her or not. ‘You think that things are going to change?’

Things are changing every day. The only thing we can do is try to point them in the right direction, so that one day, humans will wake up in a better world.

Well, I hope you’ve got a plan to make that happen,’ Starg said. ‘For the record, my right direction is a little different to yours. I see your people’s pain, and I acknowledge it, but I’m unconvinced by the arguments for full human integration. There’s not much need for it. What we do need is a world where virn are told the truth about humans, rather than this slander.’

I think our truths may be somewhat different, too.’

Whatever do you mean?’

Maureen brushed a stray hair out of her eyes and blinked slowly at Starg. ‘Do you think I’m worth the same as a virn woman, Starg? Are any women of any of the species that so enjoy the pleasure of living beneath the banners of the wonderful Virn Empire worth as much as a virn woman?’

Starg appeared to be visibly uncomfortable. He gripped the handle on the door of his rover and flexed his fingers. He could not look Maureen in the eyes.

I fought for the Virn Empire,’ he reminded her.

I know that. You won’t hear a word against it – but I wasn’t attacking the Empire.’

There was a long pause, which Maureen enjoyed more than she was willing to admit.

You’re a good woman, for a human,’ Starg said at last.

Like I said, I think our truths may be somewhat different.’

Starg shook himself with a huff and turned to climb into the rover. Maureen watched him disappear at the next junction, heading back to Piku, before she set off walking in the opposite direction, back to Valhalla.