VALHALLA RISING – Part 9

This is the final part of Valhalla Rising.

If you need to catch up, you can find the rest of the story via the following links:

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

VALHALLA RISING – Part 8


The theme music could only be described as basic, at best. A few notes played in quick succession, repeated several times, and then the title appeared in the centre of the screen.

 

VALHALLA RISING

 

Zuwrath immediately decided that she did not like anything that associated the human camp with improvement. She placed one elbow on the edge of her desk and rested her head in her hand, her eyes concentrated on the screen on the opposite wall. Her tail smacked against the floor a couple of times as she waited for the words to fade away.

She should have been at home enjoying her evening, but there had been essential clarification on her new demands that Maureen Bradshaw had requested Zuwrath complete before the morning. The Controller had the sudden thought that she might not have been suspicious enough when she had received the Liaison’s unusual message.

The camera zoomed in on a virn male seated at a metal desk. Zuwrath did not recognise him, and from his appearance he was not full-blooded. His eyes were rounded in the middle, a pale blue colour, with circular pupils unlike slit-like virn eyes. Next to him was a human woman in full virn make-up, apparently made to look like a prosperous virn lady.

Zuwrath clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and huffed a long breath out of her nose. It was distasteful to see a lesser species dressed up in such a way.

For a second, a microphone dipped down from the top and was visible on the screen, but the mistake was quickly corrected. The part-virn cleared his throat, then began to speak.

Good evening and welcome to Valhalla Rising, a programme dedicated to breaking down the barriers between virn and humans, seeking to explore our cultures and shared values to bring us all closer together. I am Slick.’

And I am Lebonn,’ said the human woman, apparently abandoning her human name for one that sounded more virn.

Though from time-to-time we may refer to stories which have not been told in the more popular media, Valhalla Rising will largely be focused on allowing you to explore our lives, beliefs, and the benefits of improved virn-human relations.’

A Slick spoke, Zuwrath swiped her finger across her desk and opened a blank document.

I know what you are trying to do, she wrote. The language: calm, casual, more for virn than human viewing. The faces: virn, or at least some pathetic attempts to make them look virn. The costumes: extravagantly virn, so unlike human newscasters. The placement of words in sentences: virn comes before human, not the other way around. It is clever, I cannot deny that.

She allowed her hand to dangle over the keyboard as she retuned her attention to the unannounced programme. And be sure to tune into Pika channel 22 tonight, Maureen had ended her request, I think you’ll like what you see. Zuwrath ground her teeth together as the words floated through her mind. The woman, Lebonn, was talking.

‘… like virn society and culture, human society and culture is very complex and multi-layered,’ she said. Zuwrath’s fingers twitched. The keyboard noticed the movement and she had to go back to delete the jumble of letters that had sprawled across the document from the motion. ‘Today, as this is our first episode, we have decided to bring you something very basic from various human cultures for you to explore and enjoy at your leisure: recipes from Sol 3, or Earth as humans call our planet of origin.’

Zuwrath saved the document, closed it, and leaned over her desk to get a little closer to the screen. She frowned, and smacked her tail against the floor a couple more times. This was not the direction she had been expecting the broadcast to go in. Those behind it were certainly a cunning lot.

The broadcast featured nothing that was of great substance in and of itself. As well as a couple of recipes, there were readings of poetry, book recommendations, a short recreation of a funny sketch from a television show that had been salvaged from Sol 3, and descriptions of games played by both human children and adults.

And that was it.

Human cultures sneaking its way into everyday virn life like a pest burrowing its way into virn homes. Simple things, harmless things, the sorts of things that virn children or teens or laidback adults would be willing to try and (should they discover that they enjoyed them) perhaps even share with their friends and families. Things that they could discuss in polite conversations without the need for anything to become heated. Essentially, things that could be associated with humans without being a part of the “human problem”.

Things that Zuwrath could not possibly stop the average virn from doing in their private lives, behind closed doors where she could not pry. Things that they could not be held accountable for trying, because they would be doing nothing wrong.

There was no mention of the attack on the human child that Zuwrath had rejected for broadcast – but this, she found as she thought about it after the broadcast, was a hundred times worse than that. With Valhalla Rising, the pro-integration sector of virn society and politics would not need to spend nearly as much of their time persuading the ordinary virn that human culture had positive and interesting elements. No, they would be able to focus more on giving their movement the momentum it needed so that within a couple of generations, they would outnumber those who were pro-segregation.

Zuwrath reached for the case of pens on her desk, picking up a handful. She snapped them in half with one hand.

This was completely unacceptable.

Somebody was going to pay, and she knew exactly who that somebody was going to be.

~

Starg! Starg! STARG!

Starg stood his ground. He walked calmly through the hallway that led towards Zuwrath’s office, as though he had all the time in the Empire to get there. Some of the things that Maureen had done to keep him waiting over the years had annoyed him immensely, as had many of those Zuwrath had done, but they had always worked. He was not sure if the Controller’s tricks would work against her.

He did not wish to anger Zuwrath further, yet neither did he want to appear perturbed by her shouting. If she noticed that he had something to hide (as if she could not already know), then she would go to whatever ends it took to get every single scrap of information out of him.

Starg pushed open the office door, satisfied with the length of time it took to slide open, and nodded at her once. He took the seat opposite Zuwrath without her permission.

Good day, Zuwrath,’ he said smugly.

You have been spending too much time with the Liaison,’ Zuwrath replied. She glared at him as he sat, and hissed sharply. ‘Get on your feet!’

Starg did not get up. He kept his expression calm. It was difficult, because his face wanted to fall into a sly, proud smirk, but he managed it nonetheless. He kept his lips thin and tight, and his eyes wide in a false surprise as he said, ‘Is something the matter, Zuwrath?

Yes, there is something wrong!’ she replied. A few strands of her hair fell into her eyes, but she did not push them away. ‘Did you not see it?

It … it …’ Starg forced his eyebrows together and looked up at the ceiling, flickering his faze from one light to the next. He wondered if he looked as though he was confused or lying. ‘That broadcast, do you mean? Ah, yes, bits of it, now, what was it? Valhalla People? Valhalla Risen?

Valhalla Rising. Do not play the fool in front of me, Starg. I bet you watched every second of it. I bet you were salivating just thinking about it. I bet you knew long before I did.’

I happened to catch the second half of it after one of my secretaries messaged me to inform me that it was being broadcast.’

And broadcast in your region, no less.’

Starg lowered his eyes from the ceiling and returned his gaze to Zuwrath. She was leaning over her desk, both of her palms flat on the wood, her stare intimidating as her face hovered above him. He swallowed to prevent himself from flinching back at the sight of her so close.

Are you implying what I think you are implying?’ he asked Zuwrath.

What do you think I am implying?’ she replied.

That I am in some way responsible for this … this … this awful programme.’

Are you?

Of course not!

Well, how many others are there in Pika who are as close to a human as you are?’ There was a glimmer of something in Zuwrath’s eyes as she spoke, and Starg knew that she was challenging him. ‘In fact, how close are you exactly to Maureen Bradshaw? It seems to me that there may well be something more going on than what I have been led to believe.’ Starg maintained his gaze at the sneered comment. He held his head high, defying his fear of her anger. He would show Zuwrath that he was as strong as she was.

You know the Liaison is as professional as I,’ he retorted. ‘As for your first question, I would think that this is something you should know. Are you not supposed to be in control of our relationship with the humans? That is why they call you the Controller, is it not? I have no idea where the underground group who did this are, or who they are – but I would have thought that someone in your position should have known about them and stopped them before they could get this far, Zuwrath.’

Zuwrath flashed her teeth at him. ‘How dare you question my ability to do my job!’ she hissed.

How dare you accuse me of first being involved in this scandal, and secondly with the Liaison!’ Starg replied.

Zuwrath raised her arm, and for a moment Starg thought that she was going to hit him. Then, when he held his ground, she lowered it again, although the look of hatred on her face never changed.

Get out of my office.’

With great pleasure,’ he said, and left her presence as coolly as her could.

~

When Starg received news that Zuwrath, though disgraced, was not going to be removed from her position, he found himself snapping at everyone he came across in his irritation. He shut himself in his office there he stayed, hoping to remove the heavy feeling of disappointment off his shoulders.

He sat down behind his desk and tried to think of a new plan.

When nothing came into his mind, he stood up, walked around the desk, and sat down in the opposite seat, as though this might help him to think more clearly. He stared at his empty seat and scratched his chin. His tongue flickered out to wet his lips as he racked his brain for ideas.

This had been so close! The idea had excited him, thrilled him even, and now he felt the impact of a failure that was not his own, but might well have been.

Zuwrath already suspected Starg of permitting the broadcast. She knew he had permitted it, she just needed the evidence. Starg had been forced to bribe some questionable people to get the broadcast slot and he did not believe that they would keep quiet for long if the Controller found them. He could not afford to sit back and hope that Zuwrath would slip up, or that she would ignore the problem, but neither could he allow this to go much further without facing repercussions. Zuwrath likely had her own people stationed around him, watching his every move.

Whatever Starg was going to do next, he was going to have to do it quickly. He would not have much time to plot Zuwrath’s downfall.

He was not going to back down just because his time was short.

The Controller messaged him, instructing him to meet her on her advance to Valhalla, with no indication of what she had planned. Starg was no closer to a solution. He supposed that, should he see an opportunity to disgrace the Controller, then he would have to take it.

~

Zuwrath was stood in front of one hundred virn police officers dressed in full riot gear. Each held a loaded rifle. Starg saw them before he got out of his transporter, and stepped off the vehicle with the air of someone who was unnerved by the sight of so many armed officers. Zuwrath sneered as he approached her.

What is the meaning of this?’ Starg asked, once he was stood before her. He was pleased to note that his voice was steady.

It is for the humans,’ Zuwrath replied casually.

But why do you need armed officers? It was only a broadcast …

They need to be taught a lesson. I want to make sure this does not happen again. I want to make sure those behind this will not dare.’

Starg felt himself shiver a little at the uncaring tone of her voice. ‘And what about the virn who helped?’ he asked.

Zuwrath narrowed her eyes at him. Her sneer widened, and Starg was sure that she could see right through him. ‘Oh, they will get what is coming to them, too. Perhaps when they see how defiant we are to their pathetic attempts at making humans look our equals, they will think again. I can only hope that they will …’ she hissed low, as though savouring the sound on her tongue, ‘… reveal themselves in some way.’

Then we shall both hope that it is so,’ Starg replied. He swung an arm around, indicating in the direction of the camp. ‘Shall we?’ Zuwrath did not mention his sudden movement away from the subject under discussion. They began to march, the heavy footfalls of the officers behind them creating a rhythmic, doom-laden sound in Starg’s ears. Nobody would miss them coming, and nobody would be under any illusions.

Once we arrive, we will locate those responsible for this broadcast and shut them down. They should be easy enough to find – the presence of an armed force should persuade somebody to talk. The half-blood will be an easy target.’

What are you going to do with them when you find them?’ Starg asked.

Zuwrath chuckled darkly. ‘What happens will happen.’

Starg kept his eyes focused on the camp in the distance, as he said, ‘Yes, I suppose it will. And you want me with you as a show of solidarity?

I want you with me, Starg, so I know what you’re up to. To remind you I’m no fool.’

Starg did not reply. He marched in time, highly aware of the rifles behind him. The long walls that separated Pika from Valhalla came closer, but Zuwrath veered off to the right and Starg followed. The officers turned too, their boots filling the still air with thunder.

They walked around the wall, to an empty patch of land between two factories, where the wall had been knocked down to grant the workers an open space for their breaks. It was full of factory workers enjoying their limited free time. The buzz of conversation died down as they approached.

There was silence. All eyes were on Zuwrath and the officers behind her.

‘I want to speak to Maureen Bradshaw,’ Zuwrath announced. At first, nobody moved. The Controller threw her head back and snarled. ‘You,’ she said, pointing to a human male in front of her, whose legs shook as she glared at him, ‘fetch her. Now.’

The man ran away as fast as he could. Starg could not help but feel impressed by the power of her presence, even as he wondered what he could do to ruin her. He breathed through his nose slowly, trying to calm himself down as he waited. Zuwrath, apparently, felt no reason to say anything further, and seemed quite content to let everyone else around her stand in their uncomfortable silence.

As time went on, the managers of the factories came out to see why their employees had not returned. Then, other people who lived close to the factories came out of their tents and containers, curious about what was going on. The crowd of humans became so large that Starg could not tell how many of them there were.             Zuwrath made no indication that she was bothered by their presence.

After what to Starg was an age, the people at the back of the crowd began to whisper. They parted, as though to let someone through, and the movement spread through the group until it reached the front of the crowd. The human Liaison and her daughter emerged, both with expressions of polite confusion.

‘Zuwrath,’ Maureen said, as the people around them look on in amazement at her confidence to address the Controller. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’

‘Valhalla Rising!’ Zuwrath hissed. Many humans jumped in fright at the sound of her natural tongue. ‘I want the brats responsible for that offensive broadcast!

Maureen laughed. Starg could hardly believe it when he heard it. She stood there opposite Zuwrath and laughed in the Controller’s face like nothing Zuwrath could do or say could possibly frighten her. ‘Offensive broadcast?’ she asked, blatantly refusing to use virnin in response to the Controller’s outburst. She turned to the crowd behind her, and added, ‘Tell me, my friends, did any of you find Valhalla Rising offensive?’

Those who were brave enough to speak, likely encouraged by Maureen’s own display of strength, muttered words of disagreement; others shook their heads. Zuwrath snarled.

‘I care not what you people think!’ Zuwrath shouted, this time for all the humans to understand. ‘I want those who are responsible for the broadcast, and I want them now! They will pay!’

‘Pay? For what?’ Christine, who Starg had seen but once in a photograph Maureen had shown him, asked. She stepped forward as she spoke. ‘For telling virn that we’re worth no less than they are?’ There were further noises from the crowd, this time of agreement. ‘For letting them share in our culture, our society, our reality?’ The murmuring grew louder. ‘For showing ourselves as your equals?’

‘Silence!’ Zuwrath roared, as the crowd’s agreement became almost deafening. Out of the corner of his eye, Starg noticed that some of the officers behind him were uncomfortable with the crowd’s reaction: they likely did not wish for the situation to turn violent – that would be an unmitigated disaster for all involved. ‘I said silence!’ she shouted again, when some members of the crowd continued to murmur. It took a few more seconds before they fell silent again.

An idea – a terrible, awful idea – leapt into Starg’s mind. He could see the humans turning on them, and (despite their superior weaponry), they were outnumbered enough for him to foresee the humans defeating or severely harming them. He was defenceless, and he did not like it.

He turned to the officer behind him. The officer noticed the movement, and leaned towards Starg to allow the Keeper to whisper to him as Zuwrath continued to stare down the crowd. Maureen was saying something to the Controller, so she was comfortably distracted.

I think it might be a good idea,’ he whispered, ‘if the humans could see that I, too, was armed. As a former soldier. They look restless … it might be a useful deterrent.’

The officer nodded, and passed Starg his rifle. He then pulled the pistol out of its holster, and returned to his former position. Starg spun back around and fingered the rifle. He was not entirely sure what he was doing, or who he was most afraid of.

Maureen and Zuwrath were arguing over Valhalla Rising. Starg was shocked to note that Maureen was not trying to hide her role in setting up the broadcast.

‘You know who was responsible, then?’ Zuwrath asked her. ‘You, in fact, were involved in this broadcast?’

‘Not at all,’ Maureen replied. ‘Only in securing the broadcast time.’

‘You know,’ Zuwrath repeated, ‘who was responsible?’

There was a moment’s pause.

‘Yes.’

Zuwrath grinned in victory. ‘Then give me names, Liaison, or you shall be removed from your position.’

‘Oh, please,’ Maureen said, waving an idle hand. She stepped forward, away from the crowd, and began to pace up and down, her hands behind her back. ‘I’ll be stripped of my title regardless, after this. I’ve got no reason to give you anything, Zuwrath. You’ve got no authority over me. That’s why you’ve brought these officers: the only tactic left to you is intimidation. Do you think you can scare me – us – into giving you answers? Just because you’re pissed off? You do realise that this situation is a direct violation of the agreement first laid down by our parent’s generation, don’t you? Bringing troops with weapons onto human-occupied land is a physical threat to my people.’

‘I do not care about your people,’ Zuwrath spat back. ‘Just give me the names I want.’

Maureen stopped pacing and smiled at Zuwrath pleasantly. Her eyes flickered to Starg for the briefest of moments, and he gripped the rifle a little tighter in response.

‘I can only give you one name,’ Maureen replied.

‘Then give it!’

Again, Maureen’s eyes flickered to Starg.

He nodded his head to show her that he understood.

‘Do you believe in karma, Zuwrath?’ Maureen asked. ‘It’s something we humans –’

‘The name, damn you!’

Starg adjusted the rifle again, as subtly as he could.

‘It was me,’ he said.

Zuwrath turned to him, her eyes wide, and Starg could see the proud retort that she had suspected him all along written on her lips as he did the only thing that made sense in that moment.

He raised the rifle and shot her.

~

The rifle beam travelled through the space between Starg and Zuwrath as though in slow motion. On one side, the virn police officers stood, caught off-guard by the attack. They were stunned for long enough that Starg managed to duck behind a nearby metal crate before they could shoot him. On the other side, the mob of angry humans stood in equal shock, their jaws dropping open in their surprise.

Every single eye of everyone who was present had followed the beam of light from Starg’s rifle to the centre of Zuwrath’s chest. The Controller had been thrown backwards, several police officers knocked out as she landed on top of them.

She was dead before she hit them.

There was a pause. A moment when there was neither sound nor movement, and human and virn alike stared at the limp body of the bitter Controller. Then, something began to ripple through those present, and a thunderous noise erupted from the centre of the human mob. They reached around them and grabbed whatever was in their reach – bricks, stones, pieces of metal – then began to charge at the virn officers, attacking them with their fists if they had nothing else at hand.

The virn were well trained, despite their temporary lapse at Starg’s surprise attack. They reacted faster this time, turning their weapons on the humans and firing on them. Their superiority was immediately obvious, as the first wave of humans were sent crashing down into the mud and did not get back up.

The roar of the rifles did not deter the other humans, and those who managed to reach the line of officers began to beat them mercilessly. A couple managed to take hold of the rifles, which they turned on their former owners.

Both sides struck at the other, but the virn advantage was evident from the beginning. Humans fell over one another and were shot at short range, whether on their feet or their knees. Their corpses began to pile up, and still the virn continued to shoot. Maureen and Christine darted this way and that, swerving to avoid rifle beams and fists alike. Nobody seemed to know or care who they were attacking.

Maureen reached the wall, and threw a hand out for Christine to take hold of. Her daughter caught it, and Maureen dragged her around the side of the wall to protect them both. On the opposite opening in the wall, they saw Starg, who had moved from his position behind the crate to behind the wall. He still gripped his rifle. His eyes were closed, his face screwed up, as though he was trying to wake from a bad dream. He was also muttering something to himself. They were only ten strides apart, but it was too far to hear what he was saying over the noise of the fighting.

‘Starg,’ Maureen called, trying to catch his attention. ‘Starg,’ she repeated, a little louder this time, but again he made no indication that he had heard her. ‘Starg!’

Startled, he jumped out of whatever unreality he had been in. For a moment, it looked as though he was about to turn the rifle on them, and Maureen pushed Christine instinctively behind her to protect her. The moment passed, and recognition dawned in Starg’s narrow eyes.

‘Maureen!’ he called, his voice barely carrying across the empty space between them. His free hand reached out towards the two women, but they dared not cross to him in case they were shot or dragged into the fighting. Maureen shook her head, and Starg lowered the hand.

‘What’ve you done?’ Maureen asked. Starg’s eyes widened, and he took a brief glance around the side of the wall, as though he had not truly accepted the consequences of his actions yet. Then, before either of them could go any further, the mob moved back through the gap in the wall and they were surrounded by blood and screaming.

Christine tugged on Maureen’s arm, and they moved further along the wall to get away from the mob. There were no longer any rifle beams, as though the virn officers had abandoned their weaponry in favour of their fists, or else had it pried away from them by the eager but unarmed humans. Patience had worn out on both sides; there was no sense of damage control, just pure carnal rage.

Starg followed the women, dashing across the empty space that the mob had passed through. He ducked away from the fighters, and the motion caught Maureen’s eye. She spun, knocking the weapon out of his hand in one smooth movement. It landed on the ground a short distance away, and Starg watched it go, his mouth hung slightly open, his eyes clouded over.

Why did you do that?’ he asked her.

Maureen refused to speak virnin on her own land. ‘You won’t get involved in the fighting now, will you, Starg?’ she snapped at him, pointing at him with her left hand even as Christine tugged on her right. ‘You’ll shoot Zuwrath no problem, as long as you know you have some temporary advantage, but once everyone has gathered their sense, you won’t get involved. You caused all of this, and yet here you are waving a gun around in loose fingers as you hide behind corners.’

She grabbed hold of his face, and tilted his head so that Starg could see the fight. It had spread out, and other humans from deeper in the camp were starting to get involved, pulling the offending virn off one by one and joining in the attack.

‘This is what the Keeper of the Peace in Pika has done. This is your legacy, Starg.’

Starg’s face paled as he watched the brawl, Maureen’s fingers holding him tightly in place.

‘Is this how you wish to be remembered? As the man who caused this?’

‘No,’ Starg replied weakly.

‘Well, what are you going to do about it? You can’t stop them now. Here, humans and virn will die together, hating one another more than they ever have before.’

Starg grabbed Maureen by the front of her jacket with both hands, his scales digging into the flesh of her neck. ‘Hide me,’ he begged her.

Maureen turned to look at those fighting. There were humans she recognised within the crowd. People she had seen on the streets begging for scraps, people she had spoken with, people who had been shamed for the desperate things they had done just to feed their children. More lay amongst the dead. All of them were people who would have been able to live good, honest, wholesome lives, if only they had been given the chance. If only they were equal to virn.

She looked back at Starg, his pitiful face squashed between the vice-like grip of her fingers, tears beginning to form in the corners of his eyes as he watched the thoughts flickering through her mind.

‘You don’t know me nearly as well as you think, Starg,’ she said. ‘More’s the pity. We could have been friends.’ She let go of him, tossing him onto the ground. ‘You shot Zuwrath. You started this. You can deal with it.’

As she allowed Christine to drag her away from the fighting, Maureen wondered how much damage this incident was going to cause.

~

In the end, it was nothing more than a shadow. A whisper. A blur on the edge of vision, then a blinding light, and then …

As a wise virn prophet had once said, only the dead know what follows the light.

Starg did not seem them. Perhaps that was because once Maureen had disappeared, he allowed himself to sink down into the muddy ground, his tears obscuring his vision as his sobs shook his body. The world was nothing more than an obnoxious calamity of noise and violence, and there he was in the middle of it, his brain shocked beyond comparison.

This was his violence. Starg had wanted to remove Zuwrath so much that he had been blind to the consequences. In the end, he had done little more than create chaos. He was the god of the destruction that was happening around him.

He saw the outline of a rifle pointing at his head, aimed directly between his eyes. Someone must have picked it up, but he could not make out whether they were virn or humans. He saw the rifle light up, and a beam came out of the end.

Then he fell, lay still, and became one with the dead.

~

It was nobody’s surprise when Maureen resigned. She had always been determined to do her best, and witnessing the brutality of the massacre on the border of Valhalla had been the final straw for her. She delivered the resignation letter to the remains of the human government personally. Each expressed his sadness that she had chosen to leave.

Christine did her best to cheer her mother up after the initial feeling of failure, mingled with the pain of such a senseless loss of life. She did not see her mother smile one in the week that followed the attack, and that hurt. The virn government on Montague 7 did not seem to know how to handle the situation, because both the Controller and the Keeper of the Peace in Pika had been shot by virn weapons, and at least one by virn hands.

The virn media was hushed up, but the human media spoke as loudly as it could about what had happened. Valhalla Rising appeared again, to make a brief by powerful broadcast on what had happened. It was permitted to broadcast on virn channels, perhaps lest a cover-up was suspected, and made a statement on the number of dead, not distinguishing between humans and virn, decreeing it a dark day for all species. It was as respectful as they could make it, given their shattered faith.

Everybody involved in the programme knew how delicately they had to handle the situation. The human government reacted before the virn government or empire could, though they still took their time as they figured out how exactly to respond without being accused on telling only one side of the story.

A day of mourning was declared in Valhalla, one week after the massacre. Initially, Maureen refused to attend. Christine hoped that her mother might change her mind on the day, but this did not happen, and she spent most of the morning trying to figure out how she would get Maureen to the border for the scheduled time. The attack had occurred in the afternoon, and the vigil was to begin at that same time.

She was eventually forced to go alone. Maureen sat in their container, as she had done every day since the massacre, staring at a blank wall. She did not move, and she did not respond to her daughter when Christine announced that she was leaving.

When she reached the border, she was surprised at what she saw. Several people asked her where Maureen was, and she made an excuse so that she could return to the container to fetch her mother.

‘Mum,’ she said, bursting through the door, ‘come on, mum, you’ve got to come. They’re waiting for you.’

Maureen did not immediately make any sign that she had heard her daughter speak. Recognition was slow to appear on her face, and she blinked several times before turning to Christine, as though she had only just realised that her daughter was there.

‘I always told myself I was doing a good thing,’ she said, in a dry, croaky voice. ‘A good thing.’

‘And you’ve done the best you could do,’ Christine insisted. She knelt in front of her mother, looking up into Maureen’s tired eyes. She did not seem to be fully aware of her surroundings.

‘I only wanted to help people. To make things better.’

‘Mum,’ Christine said, cupping Maureen’s face with one hand, ‘this is not your fault. There’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent it. Starg had his own agenda, and the virn troops reacted to it. You couldn’t have stopped it.’

Maureen blinked a couple more times. She opened her mouth as though she was going to say something further, as though there was something on her mind that she had done or said, or should have done or should have said, but then closed it again.

‘They’re waiting for you, mum.’

‘Who are?’

‘Everyone.’

‘Everyone? Why?’

‘Because it’s a memorial for all the victims. Everyone is there, and everyone is waiting for you.’

Maureen shook her head. ‘No,’ she said, ‘no, I’m not going there.’

‘Well, you’re going to have to step outside this cannister at some point. And when you do, then everyone will ask you why you didn’t turn up to the memorial, and then you’ll regret not attending. Anyway, I think you need to see this. It’ll help.’

Maureen frowned at her, but Christine only smiled and stood, holding out a hand for her mother to take. A few moments of hesitation, and then Maureen took it, allowing her daughter to lead her outside. Maureen was dressed in clothes that she had not changed for days, but Christine did not think that her mother would have appreciated any delays had she been in her right mind at the time. Once Maureen saw what was waiting for her at the border, then she would understand.

Christine led her mother towards the border as fast as she could. Around them, groups of other humans walked in the same direction, all of them silent and solemn.

They carried candles with them, but none were lit yet. The human government had asked that nobody light the candles until they arrived at the sight for the memorial. It was typically a virn tradition to remember the war dead.

The ancient virn had apparently believed that, if the candles were lit anywhere other than on the site of the victim’s death, then any souls which the burning candle passed would follow them to the memorial site. This demonstrated a lack of respect for those who were being remembered by the lighting of the candle, and disturbed the dead. The belief had been passed down until it had become mere tradition; acknowledging it made the memorial service legitimate on a virn planet.

When Maureen and Christine rounded the final corner, and saw the gathering of people there, Maureen’s hand fell away from her daughter’s. Christine spun, half-expecting to see her mother running back the way they had come, but Maureen was stood there, staring at the gathering before her. Christine smiled.

There were countless humans there, either holding or lighting candles, but they were not alone. Stood with them, around them, between them, holding candles and keeping their silence, were just as many virn, their faces contrasting those of the humans in the flickering light. Some of them turned their heads as Maureen approached, and Christine handed her a candle to light and hold above her head. She then joined her mother with her own candle, stood by her side.

They stayed there in union, their silent vigil saying more than their words ever could have.

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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 3

You can catch up with Valhalla Rising using the links below:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

VALHALLA RISING – Part 2


The newsreader was a tall, round virn with a chubby face and dark red hair. His skin was covered in light and dark brown scales, and his eyes were yellow slits with speckles of pale green. When he opened his mouth, a pink forked tongue slithered out and flickered across his dry green lips. The shape of his head suggested some non-virn blood, although exactly how much was debatable. It was evidently not enough to prevent him from reading the news on telecommunication screens to snobby full-bloods.

What was it, four generations and the blood no longer mattered? Maureen thought that was the virn view. His great-great-grandfather could have been non-virn, but the newsreader was far enough removed from that ancestry that it could no longer be considered a smear on him.

His cardigan was a deep shade of green. He wore a white shirt with a green neckerchief that matched the cardigan. He was seated at a circular desk, with only an electronic prompter and a cup of something hot and smoking visible to the audience. He leaned forward on the desk, rested on his elbows, a tradition for virn newscasters during important segments as a representation of the gravity of the subject being discussed.

It contrasted human news broadcasts, which made serious attempts at professionalism. Humans hid their prompters behind cameras and expected their newsreaders to wear suits, as well as to sit up properly. Maureen leaned forwards, towards the screen, as the virn leaned closer to her. The camera panned around the newsroom, before settling back on the newsreader.

Morning,’ he said in a dry voice (the only virn Maureen had ever heard say “good morning” was Starg, and for some reason he had found the phrase amusing), ‘and welcome. I am Vex Shaltot Hal, and this is Virn Empire News.’

It was one of those broadcasting networks that all humans knew was intrinsically against them no matter what they did. Typically, anything with “Virn Empire” in the name was pro-virn and anti-everyone-else. Virn Empire News was an outrageous and outspoken network, which had individual channels dedicated to major populated planets throughout the Empire. Something about it drew in a lot of lower-class virn viewers.

As far as Maureen was concerned, Virn Empire News and other similar agencies were power tools used by the major players in the Empire to control virn minds. It was a difficult argument to approach a virn with, though.

The main headline today, which everybody is talking about: the attempted bombing by two humans of a high-class shopping centre in Piku. The culprits, one male and one female, forced their way into the shopping centre, where they threatened and frightened shoppers by brandishing blasters. Thanks to the bravery of two bold virn security guards, the humans were disarmed and have been successfully transported to a nearby prison-planet.

Maureen drummed her fingers against the arm of the bench she was sitting on. The two kids were dead, but everyday virn could believe they had been shipped away to some prison-planet, because in a couple of months’ time nobody would care.

Today, Virn Empire News is tracing the aggression of humankind back to its origins. This is an insight into the fifty-year history of the human camp of Valhalla, and how the humans who our great Empire saved from imminent destruction turned against their generous virn saviours.

Maureen scoffed. The virn may have saved a handful of humans and allowed them to settle in a camp on Montague 7, but that was about the only thing they had ever done for humans. Maureen’s daughter, Christine, who was slumped on the bench next to her, rubbed a finger against her forehead and sighed.

‘Do we have to watch this?’ she asked her mother.

Maureen shot a side-glance at her daughter. Christine was in her mid-twenties, with dark hair and eyes. She had inherited her mother’s infamous scowl.

‘I’m not forcing you to watch it,’ Maureen replied, ‘but I need to. I shouldn’t even get this channel; I had to grease a couple of palms to get these new networks set up on our telecommunication system. And I’ve got to watch it. I need to know what they’re saying about us, every single lie and piece of propaganda. If I don’t know what we’re supposed to be fighting, then I won’t know how to protect people from it.’

Christine did not reply. She pushed herself up off the bench and patted her mother on the back, before walking out of the container. The door swung loudly shut behind her. Maureen kept her eyes on the telecommunication screen. The newsreader had disappeared, and a cartoon-like image of a blue-green planet had replaced him. It began to shift into an image of a cartoon-like forest, and an overhead voice provided the story.

The human species originated on Sol 3, or “Earth”, as the humans call it. Humans developed from a species known as apes. A primitive, backwards race, humans built enormous, all-consuming devices that destroyed their planet and polluted their environment. They fought wars that caused further damage to Sol 3, and in their desperation, they pleaded for some kind, considerate species to come to their rescue. The great Virn Empire heard their please and came to their assistance.’

Maureen watched as the little cartoon humans marched onto a cartoon virn spacecraft. This was not what had happened as she had been taught it. Yes, there had been occasions when the humans of Earth had waged terrible wars, seemingly unable to listen to the common-sense folks who had pointed out that everything would be better if they were all just nice to each other. There had also been times when the humans on Earth had done everything possible to pollute their environment – and not always unintentionally.

However, in the decade preceding the arrival of the virn, serious attempts had been made to correct these errors. Perhaps if there had been more time, or a few more common-sense people, they might have been successful. Instead, the seas had risen, and people had been pushed further and further inland.

This had resulted in too many humans and too little food. Diseases had spread, people had starved, and leaders had been powerless to do anything to save many of them. Then the virn ships had arrived, the first contact ever between humans and a non-human species – hence why the idea of them pleading for another species to save them was nonsense. One of the captains of the virn spacecraft had then made humanity an offer.

It had not been a good offer.

The captain had suggested that he be allowed to select a certain number of humans and transport them to another planet, where they would be able to establish a colony. It had not been a large number of humans compared to the amount of those left on the Earth, but it had been their best – and their only – chance to save the species.

Maureen’s parents had been lucky enough to get selected. She had been one of the first humans born in Valhalla, and so had received the best descriptions of Earth from people who had actually been born and raised on the planet. The children of Valhalla did not get that same privilege much anymore, and instead had to rely on how the planet and its people were portrayed in the media. There were very few who had been born on the Earth left.

The broadcast continued on whilst her mind had been working. The cartoon virn spacecraft, packed with cartoon humans, had now made to a cartoon version of Montague 7 and landed.

The rescued humans were given the land which is now called Valhalla, designed as a place of permanent residence for them.’ That was another lie, and not one that Maureen expected the majority of Virn Empire News viewers to recognise. ‘However, over the years they have demanded increasingly more from the surrounding regions, and have turned the land that was gifted to them out of the good of the Empire – and using virn tax money – into a wasteland.

It has been fifty years, and still humans refuse to accept virn culture, favouring their own backwards beliefs and practices. They have chosen to make themselves easily distinguishable from virn through what they wear, how they speak, and how they behave. They continue to speak their own language, to interact only with their own kind, and to teach the religious drivel of Sol 3 in our Empire. They do everything they can to avoid work and are only happy when the virn taxpayer is giving them money to fund their laziness.’

Maureen pushed her palm against her lips to prevent herself from swearing loudly at the screen. No good would come from reacting negatively to this slander: it was designed to piss everyone who heard it off. The people of Valhalla were incredibly hardworking. They practiced old Earth beliefs because that was the only major part of their heritage they had left. Outlets like Virn Empire News were all too supportive of the virn government using tax money to pay for their next war, but providing aid to give young humans a better chance in life? That was just ridiculous!

Perhaps if humans were freer to leave the camp – perhaps if they did not need written permission just to walk around virn cities – perhaps if they did not face racism and hatred every time they ventured beyond the walls and borders of Valhalla –

Perhaps if the factories built into the walls were decent places to work – perhaps if humans were paid the same basic rate as virn – perhaps –

Perhaps.

The reporter was back on the screen in his cardigan and neckerchief. He was in the middle of something, probably a diatribe on why humans were the worst scroungers the virn had ever had the misfortune to come across.

… not the biggest problem concerning human integration into our society. What really holds these people back is their inability to cooperate with us. The human governing body was designed primarily to encourage humans to work with virn. However, humans have always had a different idea. Today, Virn Empire News can exclusively announce that it has discovered the human government’s real intentions!

Maureen sighed and got up off the bench to pour herself a glass of something strong. What possible “real intentions” of a poor minority within society could be so dramatically damning?

A government which is really controlled by the corrupt Liaison, Maureen Bradshaw!

It was good that Maureen had not taken a glass out of the cupboard before her name was mentioned. Glasses were hard to come by in Valhalla, and she hated drinking out of plastic cups. She would have had one glass fewer if she had made it to the cupboard any faster.

Her own face was on the screen. The photograph was, as she expected, less than flattering. It looked as though a sneaky journalist may have snapped it when she had been halfway through a bite of something spicy. She felt her surprise transform into rage as the newsreader continued.

Maureen Bradshaw is not the first human to adopt the informal title of Liaison. Neither is she the first who wishes to destroy the virn system of rights and laws and replace it with systems that favour humans. And she is certainly not the first who has tried to force our government to cave in to her outrageous demands.’

The newsreader paused for long enough for Maureen to realised that the noise she could hear was her own teeth grinding together. She was not a violent woman. The virn media had tried to knock her back before, and she had overcome it. Zuwrath had never allowed them this much freedom before, though.

It was almost as though the Controller had said “make up whatever bullshit you like” and the broadcaster had done exactly that. This was ridiculous. The virn had an empire, a damn empire. All humans had was too many of them squashed into too little space. What in the hell of it were these virn afraid of?

What Maureen Bradshaw has that gives her power is her privilege amongst humans. Her parents were some of those rescued from Sol 3, and she was born a mere ten months after the arrival in Valhalla. As she was born on Montague 7, she possesses the rights of a native, but born and raised in the human camp she has been educated to honour human culture over virn culture. Her ungrateful parents and tutors taught her to manipulate and use her position to influence the younger generations of humans and force our government into difficult situations.

This is why, two decades after the arrival of humans on our planet, our government wisely chose to distinguish between the rights of virn and the rights of humans born on virn-owned soil. Maureen Bradshaw, however, still has rights under the old laws. She uses this privilege and her position as Liaison to claim tax money from honest, hard-working virn men and women, which she gives to her own lazy people. She works from within our own system to eradicate our way of life and replace it with humans and their primitive ways.’

Maureen raised her arm and swung it at the elbow, around to the right until the telecommunicator turned off. She was motionless for a while, then folded her arms across her chest, wondering how anyone could consider it acceptable to tell such lies.

This was all Zuwrath’s doing, she was sure of it.

~

The human government was a small organisation with a big name. Most of the work it did was carried out by three men: Luther Spinney, an optimistic old gentlemen who was spokesperson and did what he could to keep everybody else’s spirits up; Anthony Russell, who was more of a realist, and knew more about the virn legal system than any other human; and Jakub Starosta, who was well-versed in virnin, both written and spoken, as well as virn culture and history.

Together, they formed a front against almost impossible odds. Anybody who saw them would have said that there was little difference between the three of them politically, although Maureen knew this was only because of the situation humanity was in. When they could do something, they did it without a fuss, and they did it that way because the choices they had to make were simple. Feed people or let them starve. House them or leave them to sleep outside. There were no big moral questions to face and bickering was a waste of time.

Starosta was naturally conservative. Spinney, ever able to see the good in the world, was a liberal. Russell did his best to sit somewhere in the middle of the other two, but he was fairly left-leaning when he got the chance to let his ideas shine. He had seen an opportunity in the beginning to create a completely new society founded on equality, but the virn government had stepped in the way of his dreams. Left-wing politics were not popular in the Empire.

Unfortunately, the three of them seemed to be increasingly left powerless. They had little ability to create jobs, generation income, or improve everyday life in Valhalla, and were unable to act without official permission from the Controller. They spent most of their time trying to remind humans of the importance of patience and resilience, and squashing the uncommon violent reactions from humans towards virn which only served to create them further trouble.

This was not easy. Young humans had a documented issue with virn authority and being put in their place by the Empire’s officers. When they were treated like second-class citizens and criticised daily, people tended to react negatively.

Spinney summoned Maureen a couple of hours after the false story had been featured on Virn Empire News. She knew that he did not have access to the channel, but news spread fast across the media. He had probably heard half the story from someone else who had heard it from someone else, but he would know enough. She could have sat around in her container and guessed what they were going to say to her without answering the summon, but that would not help anybody. Maureen could not allow the media to win by hiding away and doing nothing: she had to hold her head up high and remain strong.

The three men worked in a large container, five times the size of a standard container, which was divided into sections by fold-up plastic walls. Maureen walked inside, past the secretaries working at cheap typing systems, where they were preparing speeches, writing letters, or carrying out research. There were six, two for each governor (a number Zuwrath had dictated), all young men and women in neat suits, who hoped one day to become politicians to improve the human standard of living. In a corner of the container, a small group of other humans in similar suits usually sat and debated issues to be presented to the three governors; this time, as Maureen passed them, they fell annoyingly silent.

Fingers stopped flying over keyboards as she walked on. Eyes flickered in her direction and then away in embarrassment. Maureen pretended not to notice the stillness in the room. These people knew her, they knew what she had dedicated her life to achieve. It was the same ridiculous dream that they wanted to dedicate their own lives to.

Most of the jokes about her that circulated in the media tended to blow over after a couple of weeks, and then things would return to normal. This felt different.

She walked around the plastic wall that separated the three governors from the others, and approached them without hesitation.

‘Ah! It’s good to see you, Maureen,’ Russell said when he saw her. His voice was solemn, and she got the immediate impression that none of them felt it was good to see her at all. Sometimes, to her utmost surprise, Maureen found herself appreciating the way that Zuwrath and Starg spoke to her: at least neither of them pretended to like her. There was also no need for Maureen to pretend to like them. ‘Please, do make yourself comfortable.’

Maureen almost refused, but then she thought better of it and took the plastic chair that Russell was indicating to. It was cold enough that she could feel it through her clothes. She tried to figure out what kind of attitude it was best to display as she waited for one of them to speak.

‘Have you seen the news?’ Starosta asked, as though there was some chance she might have missed it. Her communicator had practically blown up about half an hour after she had turned off the broadcast and had not stopped since then; Maureen had become so bored of new messages that she had muted the damn thing.

Starosta was one of the oldest men in Valhalla and Maureen did not wish to insult an Earth-born at that moment. Not after all that talk of her so-called privilege.

‘I heard about it,’ she replied.

‘Which channel did you hear about?’

Maureen had lost count of how many channels she had heard about. As soon as the story had finished on Virn Empire News, it had been rebroadcast on just about every other virn channel Montague 7 had.

‘I heard it started on Empire News,’ she replied, forcing her face to remain calm.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ Russell said. ‘I reckon it’s been shown on about two hundred channels so far. And rehashed on communicators, too. Probably be in print tomorrow.’

‘That’s an awful lot of news agencies in a very short space of time.’

‘Yes, it is. Not all of them are as extreme as Empire is, either. A few of them have been quite good at reporting the conditions here in little segments. That’s in the past, though. I don’t think I need to tell you that it’ll only get worse.’

Maureen coughed to clear a lump in her throat. She looked from one solemn face to the next as she tried to silently reach out to each of the men in turn.

‘Do you think many virn will believe the story?’ she asked. She deliberately did not add about me to the end of her sentence. It was not a question she needed any of them to answer, but she did not want to appear as though she knew more than any of them. She liked her job and being smart about it was not going to make them any happier.

‘Many,’ Starosta confirmed with a node.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘me too.’

There was a moment of silence that hung in the air between them, the dull sound of conversation and typing on the other side of the plastic screen seemingly so distant. Maureen felt as though the four of them were holding a collective breath.

‘Look here, Maureen,’ Spinney said, leaning towards her in his seat. It was the first time he had acknowledged her presence since she had entered the container. ‘Don’t get us wrong. We don’t want to get rid of you. You’re good at your job, the best Liaison any of us have ever known.’ Russell and Starosta nodded in agreement.

‘You’ve done a lot over the past decade, and you’re popular here in Valhalla. This incident in the shopping mall, though … and then these reports a few days later … it doesn’t look good. People don’t tend to react well to things like this. The more people who get frustrated, the more people who will want to do something in response to the sanctions and the false stories in the media, and so the worse our situation will get. The loss of all those containers … well, I honestly don’t know how much more this camp can take before something goes horribly wrong.’

‘I realise this. Luther, I see these things first-hand every day. Sometimes I’m the first one there. After a while, I started to notice little indicators that tempers might erupt.’

‘Then you appreciate precisely how difficult this situation is for us.’

Maureen hesitated. She wanted to reply that no, she did not, because she thought this situation was perfectly straightforward and that, if she had been in Spinney’s situation, she could have fired the Liaison and told Virn Empire News that if they wanted to report on humans, they were welcome to come to Valhalla and do it properly. There would be no need for cartoon drawings or dodgy photographs then. She would have arranged interviews with as many news agencies as would have her, and she would have gotten the real stories out there, somehow. She would have taken full advantage of the fact that Zuwrath had allowed these channels to broadcast anything they wanted about humans and used the more liberal channels to generate a backlash of pro-human propaganda.

Spinney did not know about Zuwrath granting them permission, though. He likely suspected it, but he had not seen the list that Maureen had. He did not know how much there was still to come.

‘Yes,’ she said eventually. ‘I appreciate and understand.’

Russell glared at her from Spinney’s left, but Maureen did not react and kept her eyes fixed firmly on Spinney.

‘Good. Then you’ll also understand that, if you do become a focus point of an anti-human campaign, then regrettably … we’ll have no choice but to find your replacement.’

Maureen’s jaw tightened, and she adjusted her focus to the bald patch on the top of Spinney’s head. She wondered who amongst the suits in the other room was eyeing up her job.

‘It won’t go that far,’ she told him. ‘I can promise you that. I won’t give them the pleasure of using me as a tool to bring down the rest of our people. If it gets that far then I’ll see myself out.’

‘We sincerely hope it doesn’t have to come to that,’ Russell said.

‘As do I.’

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.

VALHALLA RISING – Part 1

Check out the prologue here:

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are no sympathisers!’ Maureen responded heatedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inferior species.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I said: get out.’

 

VALHALLA RISING – Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random security check,’ the other guard repeated.

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

Looks to me like you might have.’

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

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

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

Take off your coats,’ the masked guard said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it was over.