The Radcliffe house was a two-story home in the middle-class suburbs of Bifrost. It was one of the few homes in the neighborhood with a driveway and garage (Juno had converted the garage to her personal gym), and one of only three houses on the entire street that still had lights on that late in the evening. From the street, the stumbling shapes in the windows suggested a party in progress, attended by thirty out of the four hundred valkyries that worked the Valhalla.
“The ante’s three bites,” said Devon.
“I’m givin’ you two, so deal with it,” said Echo.
All of the Valhalla workers — the lot of them giggling drunks — were gathered around the ovular dining room table. Devon stood in the middle of the crowd, collecting square sections from everyone’s Midgard Ration Bars and adding them to a large pool at the center of the table. Each bar was divided into twelve square “bites” and sealed in a white wrapper bearing the Bifrost Biodome logo in blue ink — a variant of the Valkyrie Guard emblem with ears of wheat replacing the laurel wreath. Across the room, a short, stout valkyrie was hanging up a dart board on the wall.
“The ante is three, dumbshit,” Devon said to Echo, reaching up to bop the towering Latina on the head with her small spiral notepad. “That means you toss in three or you don’t bet.”
“Dontcha got any faith in the Warden?” said Skye, hitching her hands on her round hips. The pretty platinum blonde teetered a bit more than the other girls, two drinks in and already flying. In her high school yearbook Skye was probably named “Most Likely to Wear a Lampshade at a Party.”
Juno sat at the table with a tipsy and amused smile on her face as she listened to them argue. She idly spun her sleek ballistic knife on the tabletop, its red firing switch locked under the safety pin. The was a souvenir allowed to all Amazon Force troopers who served during wartime.
Echo groaned and tossed three bites into the pool. “Awright, awright, fine!”
Devon shooed Echo away and scribbled everyone’s bets on the notepad. “Okay, show of hands for hitting six to three.” She took a hand-count and jotted it down. “That’s four nay-sayers. Three to bullseye?” Another hand-count, more scribbling. “Twelve o’ ya. And for bullseye?”
Juno turned around in her seat with the ballistic knife in her hand, facing the wall opposite the dart board, where her tall vanity mirror was erected. Reflected in the mirror’s center was the dartboard, reduced to the size of a drink coaster; to the side, Juno in her seat, knife in hand. From her position the board was thirty feet behind her.
“Nobody?” said Devon in mock-shock. “Okay, bitches, clear the runway and keep quiet!”
Juno pulled the knife’s safety pin and set it on the table. She adjusted her eyepatch. Using her reflection to aim, she pointed the blade over her shoulder in the dartboard’s direction. The girls all gathered around the table on the mirror’s side, watching with wide, drunk, child-like eyes. Only Devon was smirking with confidence.
When the knife was as still and steady as a mountain, Juno’s thumb caressed the red switch.
The blade launched off of the handle with a metallic hiss and buried its nose perfectly in the center of the dartboard. The house erupted with frustrated curses and giddy squeals of amazement.
Things calmed down slightly after Devon finished distributing everyone’s winnings, again arguing with Echo over how much she was supposed to get. Juno frequently vanished from the living room to avoid further group activities, especially when Skye insisted on karaoke. After a few off-key renditions of songs new and old, Skye, Echo, and a few other girls returned to giggling about Juno’s neighbors, in particular the woman next door who lived with three handsome young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. The girls kept peeking at their house through the blinds, and laughing when the boys peeked back at them, waving and smiling. Skye joked that Juno had never mentioned them in order to keep them for herself. Juno insisted she had never noticed them. Skye suggested inviting them over for a drink, including the woman so Devon wouldn’t feel left out. Echo joked that Devon had her heart set on someone else, which brought on a red-faced Devon rant about how her personal life was nobody’s goddamned business. When Juno left to refresh her glass of bourbon, Echo and Skye boldly went next door and knocked.
“Hello,” said Skye when the oldest of the three men answered. “We represent the Committee Against Valkyrie Prejudice. Our goals are to increase public awareness and put a stop to valkyrie stereotypes, such as the misconception that valkyries hate boys. Would you be interested in partaking in a study we’re conducting next door?”
The young man smiled timidly with a mouth full of perfect teeth. His open tunic displayed his smooth, marble-like pectoral muscles, and his skin was golden-brown.
“What would I have to do?” he asked.
Skye said as casually as possible, “Only come next door and fuck us.”
The homeowner suddenly appeared, a husky, round-faced brunette in her thirties, who angrily pushed the man aside before he could reply and slammed the door in the valkyries’ faces.
“We’ll pay for it!” Skye shouted hopefully through the door.
“Tolja it wouldn’t work,” said Echo as she headed back to Juno’s house.
Juno promptly ordered them not to bug her neighbors and to keep the party within Radcliffe boundaries. After another round of karaoke, two more awkward conversations, and another Devon rant, the phone rang. Juno walked into the kitchen — barely in a straight line — and reached for her wall-phone while her girls continued fooling around in the living room.
“Warden, where ya goin’?” said Devon.
“Getting the goddamned phone!” she said, taking the receiver from the cradle, then pausing to shout at two new recruits who were beginning to make out in the back of the kitchen. “Not in my house, for god’s sake! You got a car! Go do it there!”
The two shieldmaidens nervously apologized and wasted no time scrambling out of the house. Shaking her head, Juno held the receiver to her ear and said, “Hello.”
Her irritation quickly melted into dread when she heard a familiar voice say, “Heyyy, Juno! Long time no talk.”
Juno said quietly, “Freya…?”
“I’m outside,” said Freya Skuld. “Come say hi.” Then she hung up.
Juno returned the phone to its cradle and peeked through the kitchen blinds. An armored limo sat in front of her driveway, the engine running, the emblem of the Valkyrie Guard painted on the doors.
Juno hesitated. She walked out of the kitchen to the closet by her front door and put on a plain brown longcoat and white woolly scarf. She looked up and found Devon and Echo watching her.
“Now where ya goin’?” said Devon.
“Be right back,” said Juno. “Keep everyone inside,” she added ominously as she went out.
Devon and Echo stared at the door for a moment. Devon’s almond-eyed face was at its cutest when it was glum, like it was now. Her band-aid was coming loose.
“Wassup with the Boss?” said Echo, smoothing the band-aid on her superior’s cheek.
Devon brushed her hand away. “Prolly anxiety. Party was supposed to help her open up.”
Echo laughed and took another swig of her hard cider. “We’d need an acetylene torch for that miracle.”
Juno folded her arms and hugged her coat tighter to her body as she marched toward the waiting limo. Few things put her on edge more than being in a battlezone, and dealing with Skuld was at the top of the list.
Butch Siri stood by the back door on the driver’s side, waiting for her. Another valkyrie climbed out of the driver’s seat to greet her: the driver had wild brown hair that was buzzed along the sides, and a smarmy look on her face.
As Juno approached the back door, Siri roughly stopped her, spun her around, and began to frisk her. She wasn’t gentle.
“Oh what the fuck is this?” groaned Juno.
“Just relax and enjoy it,” said the driver.
When Siri finished, she backed away and opened the door. Juno straightened her coat as she climbed in. “Where’d she find you, the zoo?” she said.
Juno had never been in a limousine before, but she had seen them on television, and the backseat was exactly what she had expected: two wide seats facing each other, a mini-bar sitting between them, along the wall opposite the door.
Sitting in the right-most seat was Skuld in her purple Freya overcoat, enjoying a stout glass of blood-red liquor — no ice — and smiling at Juno the way a person would smile at a dog that’s done something cute or amusing. Her ornate eye tattoo always made her mean smiles even meaner.
“Maybe it’s the liquor talking,” mused Skuld, “but something about your sexy ‘pirate captain’ vibe just gets me all hot n’ bothered.”
“Excellency,” said Juno with as little enthusiasm as possible.
Skuld rolled her eyes. “Aw, don’t get all reverent and shit. You can still call me Thea. We’re still sorority sisters, right?”
Juno didn’t return the Freya’s smile as she sat across from her. Siri slammed the door behind her.
Thea pressed the button on the intercom next to her. “Phoebe, drive around the block ’til I say stop.”
The snowfall became heavier as the limo turned up the end of Juno’s street, reducing the surrounding neighborhood to a living static of dancing white specks against a black canvas, with the occasional yellow square of a backlit house window. The limo’s sleekness clashed hideously with its soiled suburban surroundings, as if it were from another world: the only other car in Juno’s neighborhood was a jury-rigged salvage job from the Old World, owned by a burly old woman who smelted recycled scrap at the smithies. Everyone else either walked or used scooters or dog sleds.
“Wanna drink?” said Thea, gesturing to the bar.
“I’ve had enough tonight,” said Juno, suddenly sober.
Thea looked into her glass as she swirled it around. “It’s Lernean blood wine. Not bad. Doesn’t beat the local mead, though.”
Juno said nothing, watching her host with a deadpan expression.
It got a chuckle out of Thea. “Never were much for chat, were you, Juno? All action, no talk. You’d think we’da got along better in the academy.”
“I’m trying to imagine what could be important enough to bring my new Commander-in-Chief all the way down from her tower to my level. Last time it was to brag about your recent promotion to the Right Hand of Matron.”
An ugly grin slithered across Thea’s boyish face. “Ohh, it gets better.” She raised her glass to Juno. “By next week it could very well be ‘Matron.’ Period.”
Thea tossed back the last of her wine, relishing the growing look of horrified disbelief washing over Juno’s face.
“Matron’s been bedridden for the last two weeks,” said Thea. “Brain tumor. Malignant.” She looked hard at Juno. “The people don’t know yet. And it’ll stay that way for awhile, so take note.”
“Her paranoia has gone through the ceiling and straight to the sun. I’m looking forward to the phase where she just lays there, unable to speak or convey much of anything but silent agony and madness.” Thea crossed her legs. “When she kicks it, Midgard will fall either to me, Governor Urd, or that prissy-ass Propaganda Minister Denny. Chief Justice Odessa was in the race ’til her date with the firing squad last night, thanks to a…” She rolled her free hand in the air while searching for the right word. “…misinterpretation of her last letter to Matron.”
Juno didn’t react.
Thea shrugged with an expression of mock-sadness. “My fault, I’m afraid. But what can ya do?” She filled her empty glass at the mini-bar, this time foregoing the blood wine for a crystal bottle of amber liquor; the car instantly filled with the scent of honey as she poured it. “Since she fell ill, I’ve been managing her affairs in her absence. My personal staff tends to her every need, and keeps me updated on anything that happens at her house, including visitors. Basically, I decide who sees her and who doesn’t.”
“So you’re the best-suited successor,” said Juno.
Thea gave her a cautionary look. “I’ll tell you when it’s okay to interject.”
The Freya sniffed her drink like a connoisseur before taking her first sip. She smacked her lips with a stupid grin. “That’s more like it.” She crossed her legs. “I’m getting into position for a takeover as smooth as my youngest daughter’s bottom, but there’s a snag. Since most of Midgard’s population relies on the Bifrost and Lernea biodomes for their food, having Lernea as a friend is kind of important. Suffice it to say, having Lernea as anything less than my best friend would seriously fuck up my game.”
Thea’s free hand pointed to Juno, who reacted with alarm as if it were a loaded gun.
“You’re gonna help me win them over,” said Thea, “before Denny or Urd does. I’m setting aside our differences ‘cos I know you’re dependable.”
Thea sipped her drink with one hand; with the other she passed Juno a sealed, half-inch-thick file folder stamped “CLASSIFIED.” Juno reached for it hesitantly; she broke the seal when Thea nodded at her.
“The governor of Lernea is Dr. Cecilia Helstrom,” said Thea, “the hospital director and owner of the West Biodome, which she inherited from her mama. Surgeon, radiologist, field medic for four years. Saw so much bloody action in pre-treaty Normandy, the old bitch could probably stand toe-to-toe with the likes of us. These days she just plays messiah in her own little private kingdom. Her subjects lovingly call her ‘Mama Doc’.” Here she rolled her eyes. “Her niece, Hilda, is a decorated army vet — ‘scuse me, formerly decorated, ‘fore you got her court-martialed — who runs the Lernean Gendarmerie. Basically the Helstroms run the entire west coast of Midgard, mostly as they see fit. We send a liaison over there every six months to make sure they’re paying their taxes and upholding Matron’s law. They’ve been revolutionizing the science of bone marrow transplants and making impressive progress.”
Juno’s anxiety went into overdrive, kicking the inner walls of her stomach. She knew Hilda Helstrom, and looked forward to their reunion like she looked forward to a mammogram. She glossed over the file’s contents as she listened attentively, awaiting the part that would potentially screw her over. As if having the Right Hand of Matron use her as a pawn wasn’t screwjob enough.
“A few years back, the late Freya Dane sent them a choice marrow specimen named Helios, who helped cure a lotta sick people. His son Apollo resides in your Valhalla. He’s my trump card: I promised him to Helstrom the day he came of age, but she can’t wait any longer. And neither can I, given the current political climate. I gotta deliver on my promise now. Helstrom gets her dream boy, shuts out Denny and Urd, and paints me as a saint all along the west coast.”
The file contained Apollo’s entire history in Bifrost, and that of his father Helios, most of which was old news to Juno, their photographs clipped to the documents. Her eyes lingered on the photo of Helios — it instilled a sharp pang in her chest which she quickly suppressed.
“I’m tasking you with a simple, but nonetheless important, errand: deliver the kid safely to Lernea.”
Juno looked at her over the file, stony-faced and mildly perplexed.
“‘Safely‘ means air travel is outta the question,” said Thea when Juno, as usual, said nothing. “Blizzards are unpredictable this time o’ year, so I got you booked on the Wasteland Rail. It’s two days’ ride straight to Lernea. You’ll travel plainclothes so no Ragnarok dykes try to take a shot at you. You won’t look like a Valkyrie Guard escort: just a cute li’l mommy taking her cute li’l son on a trip. You can say you’re takin’ him to see his daddy, which wouldn’t be a lie. They won’t allow guns on the train, but I got ’em to okay your magic knife. If they give you any trouble over it, have ’em call my office.”
“Permission to interject?”
Juno held up the file in one hand. “Any valkyrie could do this. Why choose me?”
Thea looked long and hard at Juno over her glass. “Boys don’t fuck with you. Girls don’t fuck with you. That’s why you’re the warden of the Valhalla, and that’s why I choose you. I’m not gonna entrust this to some dumbass greenhorn, especially in light of recent events.” Thea scoffed. “A Valhalla riot and a failed attempt on Helstrom’s life, both in the same goddamned week. Right now Ragnarok is lookin’ for any excuse to keep the people whisperin’ about our shortcomings instead of singin’ about our virtues. Any other questions?”
“When do I leave?” said Juno, searching for anything but Thea to look at.
“Wasteland train gets back in four days. It’ll stop at the depot early in the morning, stick around just long enough to change passengers. You’ll be on it when it leaves. The tickets are in the dossier.” She pressed the intercom button again. “Phoebe, stop here.”
The limo left Juno standing in a growing blizzard with the file in her hands. Juno watched the car vanish into the darkness of the city, her face dripping with resentment.