Excerpt from Mike MacDee's dystopian western novel.
This is an excerpt from my dystopian western novel, which is available for preorder on smashwords and Amazon. Read more of my work at MikesToybox.net!
Valhalla Bifrost was visible from anywhere in the Workman's Quarter, standing on a large hill like an old German castle of steel and white concrete. The facility's main building was a five-story manor of white brick the size of a football field: it housed the offices, gymnasium, laundromat, kitchen, valkyrie quarters and visitors' suites, and all other general facilities. The half-sized, heavily-fortified building conjoined at its hip was the "kennel," the main holding area for Bifrost's eight-thousand-plus male wards of the state -- those who weren't yet adopted by civilians or military. The courtyard was spread out between the main facility and a tall observation tower on the far east side of the grounds. It was the coziest concentration camp ever conceived -- a militarized brothel with linen-lined prison cells.
Matron and her cronies loved to emphasize the importance of the Valhallas, safeguarding the members of the male population considered most suitable for reproduction in the age of radiation. This was their public justification for keeping the barbaric male species under constant lock and key.
A paved road led up the side of the hill from the city streets to the main courtyard, with small, fortified valkyrie checkpoints at either end: one at the very bottom of the hill, monitoring everyone who tried to approach the Valhalla, and one at the top, ensuring none of the males escaped. Not having the pay grade to own a car, Juno ascended the stone steps flanking either side of the road.
Halfway up the hill was a sprawling park decorated with water fountains, lush peach groves, and a garden of sweet-smelling jasmine bushes. It was one of three public gardens in the entire city-state, where leaves still grew on the boughs and the fruit was actually edible, and a thin canopy served as a roof that kept the forever-falling snow off of the grounds (in addition to the electric heating units). This park -- nicknamed "Asgard" -- was the ideal place for visitors to mingle with the males they considered adopting as potential mates, under the watchful eye of Juno's tazer-armed valkyrie patrols.
As Juno passed through Asgard on her ascent to Valhalla, she saw three middle-aged women enjoying a croquet game with three of the facility's best "breeders": Valhallans considered eugenically ideal for reproduction. An especially tall and gallant-looking blonde Valhallan -- registered as Narcissus, or Nar for short -- was doing what he did best, sharing scandalous tales of life in the neighboring city-states that left the women sick with laughter. He looked vibrant and healthy, as if he hadn't been laid up in the infirmary for two months, and hadn't just had an arm cast removed that morning. A few months ago Juno had pried him apart from two valkyries -- Pegasus "Peggy" Reyes and Ganymede Sangrid -- who had accused him of inappropriate touching, and broke his arm in the resulting brawl. It might have been true, or the valkyries might have been the guilty party, given the frequent disciplinary actions against them when they were stationed at Valhalla Hrothgar. Nar gave no testimony either way and spent the night in solitary; Peggy and Ganymede had enjoyed two weeks' suspension for breaking his arm and not following procedure for the third time.
At the sight of Juno, Nar went silent and practically stood at attention. The women merely smiled and waved at her.
"Afternoon, Warden Radcliffe!" said the youngest of the three, a dark-skinned woman in her mid-forties. "Come talk with us!"
Juno froze and stared like a deer in front of a speeding truck. She didn't move or say anything for several moments. The women awkwardly waited for her response, wondering if she had had a heart attack and was dead on her feet.
Finally Juno approached them like they were standing around an open nuclear reactor, adjusting her eyepatch as she went, her curious face neither smiling nor frowning.
"Nar was just telling us about Governor Urd's last visit," said the eldest woman, whose slate-gray hair had been raven-black in her youth. "Is she really only interested in teenagers?"
Juno's eye looked at Nar. "Wouldn't know."
Nar shrugged innocently at the Warden.
The youngest woman leaned over her croquet mallet with a coy smile: it made her eyes squint nearly out of existence, like the smile of a fox. "What about you?"
"Pardon?" said Juno.
"Well, being Valhalla Warden has its benefits, right? Don't you get first dibs on the choice specimens? You're a strong, protective type. You probably like them younger and more vulnerable, right?"
"Warden Radcliffe is very busy," said Nar, when he realized Juno was at a loss for a response. "It takes all her time and attention to be the Valhalla's greatest warden."
Juno could never tell when Nar was sincere and when he was sarcastic, hence why she preferred to keep him quiet. She could plainly see the knowing look in his eyes as he smiled at her: behind them was a history all-too-commonly known at Valhalla Bifrost. She briefly considered killing him to keep him quiet.
"You told us about the last warden," said the middle woman, tall and handsome with a deep voice. "What a monster."
"Not nearly as gentle as Warden Radcliffe," said Nar, giving Juno a wink and getting no visible response.
For ten minutes Juno stood there, wearing a forced smile as the three women told her about all the noteworthy events they had experienced or heard of in the past two weeks since their last visit. The Warden kept her white-knuckled fists in her pockets while she listened. She would forget all of it by the time she got to her office.
"Anyway, Warden," said the eldest woman, touching Nar's hand sweetly, "we've kept you from your work long enough. Thanks for indulging us."
Juno responded with an uncomfortable smile and nod. She bade the women farewell, told Nar to behave himself, and hastened her climb to the facility, where her comfort zone awaited.
The women and Valhallans watched her as she left.
"I think we scared her off," said the eldest.
"She's kinda rude," said the youngest, her nose wrinkled.
"Don't be stupid," said the eldest. "She just has a bit of social anxiety. She's used to a military environment where orders and routines are the only social interaction. My mother's the same way at social gatherings: she just smiles and nods and looks for a chance to escape."
The middle woman was still watching Juno ascend the steps when she spoke. "My sister fought in the Jotunheim Conflict. She enlisted with her high school friends when she was twenty-one. Six of them altogether. She was quite the social butterfly then."
"You mean Agnes?" said the eldest with a hint of surprise. "That quiet little thing?"
The middle woman nodded sadly. "She was the only one who came back alive. She spends most of her time alone now. Doesn't have it in her to socialize. Doesn't feel anyone can relate to her anymore, I suppose. Always has this somber look in her eye, like she's lost at sea and never coming home."
The three women looked at each other, then back at Juno, who had become a small, lonely speck at the top of the hill.
"The warden always makes me think of her," said the middle woman.
Visitors and staff generally entered Valhalla through the automatic plexiglass doors in the front of the main building. The foyer beyond was a three-way intersection, an arcade of white-and-blue tile. The floor at the center of the room was embroidered with the emblem of the Valkyrie Guard, Matron's party symbol from the early days of the New World: a winged laurel wreath with an upside-down Nordic hammer hanging underneath. The crest resembled a highly stylized "female" symbol if Juno squinted.
Ganymede Sangrid greeted her in the lobby. She was barely twenty-two, slim as a teenager, six inches shorter than Juno, and had her black hair done in a short, spiky pixie cut that was long in the front, with bangs covering the right eye. The exposed left eye had a teardrop tattoo underneath, which always made Juno want to slap her. Like the rest of the Valhalla's staff, she wore the standard white longcoat of the valkyrie shieldmaiden.
"Welcome back, Warden," said Ganymede as Juno came through the doors. Her normally impish smile was borderline malicious today as she saluted. She always resembled a mythical elf to Juno, her face smooth and aerodynamic, her eyes an eerie gray.
Juno halfheartedly saluted back. "Anything interesting happen while I was out?" she said quickly, and without making eye contact. On a good day, she would rather be chewing glass than talking to Ganymede.
"A few o' the boys got ornery again," said Ganymede as she walked alongside Juno, up the main hall to the offices. "Gave 'em the hose for a few minutes. That settled 'em down. Guess word got out that Freya Skuld is shipping the useless ones overseas, to fight like men for once."
The office was a fifty-foot-long, blue-carpeted room with double-doors on either end, and two long rows of metal desks arranged back-to-back from one entrance to the other. It was always busy, and on a slow day half of the desks were still occupied by valkyries taking phonecalls and filing various documents, often tripping over each other in their hurry to stay on Juno's strict schedule. Along the left wall from the lobby entrance were the offices for the warden, vice warden, and warrant officer (on maternity leave): the walls were glass and fitted with black blinds, allowing the facility chiefs to keep an eye on the office staff, which mostly consisted of young women in their twenties. Since Juno became warden five years ago, the feisty young staff had matured and stayed constantly on-task...for the most part.
"And we get a vacation outta it," Ganymede continued as she escorted Juno to her office. "We should go to war more often, am I right? Heheh..."
Juno didn't reply as she removed her coat and hung it on the rack by her office door. Ganymede ignored a disgusted look sent courtesy of Skye Jensen, a platinum blonde valkyrie with a supermodel's face working at the desk just outside Juno's door. The plaque on her desk read, "Junior Ward Matron".
"Also that frou-frou expert lady called," said Ganymede. "Dr. Anus."
"Ouranos," corrected Juno without looking at her. "I thought she was running errands for Venus Unlimited. She decided to grace us with her presence after all?"
"That gig got canceled. Buncha chubby protesters wouldn't let anyone in th' building. She'll be here before dinner, for her copy of the stock roster."
"I look forward to it," said Juno with zero enthusiasm.
"Oh yeah, and Apollo's on laundry duty," added Ganymede with a smirk.
This finally made Juno look Ganymede in the eye. "Again?" she snarled.
Ganymede eagerly dogged the warden's steps as she stormed across the facility to the laundromat, past the gymnasium where two teams of young men played basketball under heavy valkyrie supervision.
The laundromat was huge and not unlike a prison laundry room: two dozen Valhallans in form-fitting gray jumpsuits pushed laundry carts in and out of the room, offloading dirty clothes and bedsheets, which were packed into the giant, cylindrical washers and dryers lining the far wall. Valkyries stood in pairs at each of the three entrances, watchdogging the Valhallans as they worked. All of the Valhallans were between twenty and forty years old, and very physically fit from their daily exercise programs.
All but eleven-year-old Apollo: small, fairly dark skin, shaven head, his ethnicity unknown even to Dr. Kirk, the Valhalla physician. The boy stood out in the laundry room like a clownfish in an aquarium of pikes, struggling to heft a heavy adult-sized comforter out of one laundry cart.
Apollo glanced at the valkyries standing at the door closest to him, and froze momentarily when he recognized them as Medusa "Duzie" Hrist and Peggy Reyes. Duzie was a magenta-haired doll with big blue eyes and a dainty nose, in stark contrast to the tall, Iberian thug Peggy. They both noticed him looking at them as they chatted idly, their arms folded, their tasers visible in their belt holsters.
Duzie smiled and winked at the boy. A little too suggestively.
Apollo averted his eyes, unable to stomach the gesture.
Bell -- a large, tan, bullish Valhallan in his thirties -- nudged Gill, the equally big Valhallan next to him, and nodded to the kid with an amused look on his face. "Looks like Bed Wetter needs a hand," he said quietly.
Stumbling, Apollo finally pulled the comforter out of the laundry cart and struggled to drag it over to Bell's dryer, a midget carrying a humpback whale. Bell held the door open for him, smiling politely. He and Gill helped the boy load the comforter into the dryer.
Then they loaded him in, ignoring the boy's squeals.
Duzie started forward, calling for Bell to stop, but the chuckling Peggy grabbed her arm. "Leave it," she laughed.
Bell leaned against the industrial dryer, laughing hysterically as Apollo tumbled around and around, his tiny face screaming silently through the dryer's glass door. His resemblance to a terrified goldfish threw all the Valhallans into fits of laughter.
"Maybe that'll dry Bed Wetter up!" Bell cackled.
"Missin' yer daddy now, huh, Kid?" laughed Gill.
The valkyries on guard duty were the first to notice Juno when she stormed through the doors and across the room with Ganymede in tow. One by one the Valhallans noticed her (or felt her seething presence) and immediately stifled their laughter and returned to their chores. By the time Bell finally realized the warden was present, she was standing right behind him, but he couldn't control his laughter despite his best efforts.
Juno pointed her finger at the dryer door. "Open it."
Bell obeyed, and Apollo spilled out of the dryer and onto the floor in a heap. Some of the men began laughing again.
"Get your asses back to work!" Juno shouted to the entire room.
While everyone immediately did as he was told, Juno took Apollo into the hall just outside Duzie's and Peggy's door, ordering the two valkyries to accompany her and Ganymede.
Apollo stood in the hall while Juno knelt in front of him. Ganymede, Duzie, and Peggy stood around them, watching curiously; Ganymede couldn't help grinning as she watched the boy squirm anxiously.
"Eleven years is too old to be wetting the bed," said an exasperated Juno. "That's why I have you doing grownup's work. To toughen you up."
She said it matter-of-factly, neither mocking nor scolding the boy. It seemed no less humiliating to Apollo, looking at his feet with moist, red eyes, unable to make eye contact.
His mortified demeanor gave Juno pause. She tried to find something else to look at while she talked. "This place runs on a tight schedule," she said, softening her voice slightly. "Every time I have to change that schedule to suit your needs, it throws everything out of whack."
Apollo glanced up at Ganymede, realized she was about to laugh, and quickly looked back at the floor.
"Why does it keep happening?" said Juno. "Bad dreams? Defiance?"
Apollo's face began to flush red as Juno leaned closer to him. He said nothing.
"Is it a protest?" said Juno.
Apollo still said nothing.
Juno sighed and stood up. "All right. Help the boys 'til Skye comes to get you. Laundry duty is over."
Ganymede couldn't hold it in anymore, and squealed with delight. "Lookit how red he is! It's adorable!"
In one motion Juno turned and bitch-slapped Ganymede with the force of a freight train; she fell with a thud against the wall and slid to the floor, unconscious, a red welt on her right cheek. The startled Duzie, Peggy, and Apollo all stared wide-eyed at the unmoving Ganymede.
"Take her to the infirmary," barked Juno. "And when she wakes up, tell her she will laugh when appropriate."
Apollo vanished back through the laundromat doors with tears in his eyes. Through the crack in the doors some of the Valhallans could just see Juno shouting at the two conscious valkyries.
"And you two better start doing your jobs from now on!" she snarled. "Funny how this kind of shit always happens on your watch!"
Peggy narrowed her eyes. "We put in our transfer notices already," she said defiantly, to Duzie's horror. "Transfer us if you don't think we're doin' a good job."
She stood a full six inches taller than the warden, but her height advantage vanished in the face of Juno's furious blue eye. Juno closed the distance between them and said hotly, "What was that? Are you challenging me?"
Peggy stood her ground, despite the sudden growing urge to back away (an urge Duzie was already indulging shamelessly). Her cracking voice betrayed her confidence. "N-No. I'm just sayin'--"
"Where would I transfer you to?" barked Juno. "Who would take you that hasn't already gotten rid of you?"
Juno stared at her and waited for an answer. Peggy stared back.
Peggy broke eye contact first. She said nothing, wearing the huffy expression of a teenager scolded by her mom.
Juno shoved her aside and walked down the hall, growling at the two valkyries over her shoulder. "I got stuck with you three 'cos you're fuckups. That also means you're stuck with me. It's in your best interests to start impressing me hella quick."
Dr. Ouranos arrived ten after five, insisting that the warden call her Octavia. Her rapid, prattling speech reminded Juno of the Jotun gunboat that covered the shore with a .50 caliber blanket during a rather hairy extraction. She talked to Juno like they were sorority sisters, which Juno tolerated like the intestinal flu.
The warden instantly hated everything about her. She was a perky woman in her forties with thick-rimmed glasses and long, platinum blonde hair that sprouted in almost cartoonish ringlets. Her purple slack-suit cost more rations than Juno made in a year, and was form-fitting to make the woman look like a purple violin wherever she went. She walked with a model's swagger and carried a dainty black leather valise in a finely manicured hand dripping with silver rings.
"No coffee?" said Octavia as she sat in the leather visitor's chair, glancing curiously around the room with a disappointed look on her face.
"Pardon?" said Juno as she sat at her desk.
Octavia laughed sheepishly. "Well, it's just...the last warden offered me coffee."
With a stony face Juno pressed her intercom button and asked Devon to get coffee for the doctor, who responded with a smile of satisfaction as she opened her valise.
"So this is part of your job?" said Juno, gesturing to the valise. "Uh...identifying--"
"Identifying queer men is an important role that I am proud to fill for Matron," sang the blonde, drawing a blue portfolio out of the valise. "Venus Unlimited prides itself in being up-to-date in all aspects of gender studies, especially the study of men's wants and needs, however base and simplistic they may be. It's essential in order to keep them under control, which you already well know."
Juno grunted vaguely.
Skye knocked and entered, giving Octavia her coffee, who thanked her with a phony smile and briefly commented on her lovely hair. Skye smiled and left. Octavia's reaction to the first sip would have been the same if she had been told it was actually dog shit.
Reaching into her top desk drawer, Juno placed a thick file folder on the desk and slid it across to the doctor, who greedily snatched it up and began perusing it, her lips curling into a lascivious grin as she scanned the photos and physical details of several young, fit Valhallans. The sight of one or two made her giggle like a fourteen-year-old. "You really do get the pick of the litter, don't you, Juno?"
Juno grunted again. "What exactly do you do with them? During the test I mean."
Octavia slid the folder into her portfolio and had it back in her valise before Juno realized it was already gone. "The Venus ABC Test. It's a lengthy series of tests starting with a detailed and highly reliable questionnaire format which we commonly use in our magazine." She briefly sized up the warden. "You don't read our magazine of course."
"No," Juno told her flatly.
She continued, unflinching. "We then compile all the answers and organize them into A, B, and C categories. Basically if you're an A, you go away. Off to the front lines to serve Matron in a more useful fashion." She giggled again. "We like to call it the Gay B C Test!"
The laugh that came from Juno was only slightly disdainful.
Octavia didn't seem to notice. "I brought a sample questionnaire if you'd like to see it," she chirped as she swiftly drew a pink test packet from her valise and dropped it into Juno's hands before she could protest.
With a sigh, Juno read silently for a few moments, her brow furrowing more and more the further she read. "What is your dream occupation?"
Octavia nodded. "Generally anything related to housekeeping is a dead giveaway. Also any nurturing love of children, though that requires more testing, hence why we require a short essay answer."
One question asked the test-taker to identify a color that instantly reminded Juno of an eggplant: a dark purple similar to that of the Freya's formal attire. The answers were Purple, Violet, Aubergine, and Crimson.
She shook her head, making a face as if she smelled rotten eggs. "I don't even know the answer to this. Isn't it purple?"
Octavia's condescending smile landed in the pit of Juno's stomach and began to boil. "Aubergine. But I wouldn't expect you to know that, being a strong military woman."
Juno ignored her passive-aggressive comment and read the next one aloud, somewhat incredulously. "What ideally do you want your mate to smell like?"
Octavia became visibly excited, bouncing in her chair with a squeal. "That's a classic! Tried and true. Sweet spices, perfume, and fruit are all the most common answers for straight men. The sort of feminine scents that drive them wild, as I'm sure you well know."
Juno laughed. "Sawdust and mud? Is this a joke?"
The doctor shrugged. "If they want their women to smell like men, the answer is obvious. Off they go to the front lines!"
Juno's eye bulged suddenly. "Wait, Lye and rendered fat is an answer?!"
"We're also trying to weed out the serial killer types. They're ideal for special forces."
Shaking her head, Juno tossed the questionnaire back across the desk, pursing her lips and exhaling loudly. The reaction caused Octavia's right eyelid to twitch, though she continued to smile stupidly at the warden.
"What, um," Juno began. "What are you a doctor of exactly?"
Octavia sat up straight and proud, beaming as she said, "Marketing research! Ten years of exemplary work in the field! Matron hand-picked me for the Valhalla!" She scrunched her body up to contain her gleeful squeals. "Mother was on cloud nine when she heard!"
"I bet," said Juno listlessly.
That night in the Junior Ward, where teenage and adolescent male orphans slept on rows of bunk beds, Apollo lay on his bottom bunk, clinging to his pillow and reminiscing. He remembered a scene from years ago that took place in the same laundromat.
"Hey, Big H!" said Bell. "What's happenin'?"
Apollo remembered Bell with his hands up, backing away from a large, imposing man in his late twenties with dark skin and indeterminate ethnicity -- Apollo's father, Helios. Several other Valhallans surrounded the two men, too scared to interfere.
"We were just foolin' around, Big H," said Bell. "Didn't mean no harm!"
"Yeah?" said Helios in his booming baritone. He suddenly shoved the massive Bell up against the dryers with a boom like a cannon, as if the big Valhallan weighed nothing. "Next time you fuck with my kid, you'll be in the infirmary for six months. Remember that, you little shit."
A valkyrie shouted something nearby, and everyone returned to his chores, keeping at arm's length from the humiliated Bell. Helios ignored the valkyrie's order, kneeling in front of Apollo to look him over. His face could be terrifying or nurturing, depending on the situation. It was the latter now, his stark green eyes filling the boy with warmth.
"You hurt, Bud?" he said.
"I'm fine, Papa," Apollo said.
The background changed suddenly, to early morning in the snowy Valhalla courtyard. A chain link fence was between them, and Apollo felt snowflakes on his skin. Helios's warm face was anguished, the eyes moist and terrified as he tried to touch his son through the fence.
Apollo kept sobbing and saying "Papa" over and over.
"I'll see ya soon, Bud, okay?" said Helios. "Some people in Lernea need my help."
Apollo felt himself being dragged away from the fence by powerful adult hands. Helios was brought to his feet and led away from the fence by his valkyrie escort -- one of them was the one-eyed woman, Warden Radcliffe.
"Get him back inside before he gets hypothermia!" she shouted to whomever was dragging the boy away.
"I'll be back before ya know it!" Helios shouted. He was being led to an armored truck, the back doors open, two valkyrie guards waiting inside.
Time jumped again. Apollo was alone in Helios's cell, on the first floor of the kennel. His father had been gone for months.
Apollo stood on his tiptoes to peer through the small squint in the metal cell door. Across the hall, he saw Bell poking one hand through his squint, his grin barely visible. Ganymede was in the hall just outside the door, talking to him while Duzie clumsily unlocked Apollo's door.
"Hurry up, ya dumb drunk slut," said Ganymede. Her voice was hoarse and her eyes glassy.
"Shuddup awreddy," mumbled Duzie.
"Hey, leave the kid, man," said Bell. "If you wanna good time, all ya gotta do is ask Ol' Bell!"
Ganymede was to Bell what a kitten was to a tiger; yet the valkyrie could bring him to his knees so easily, grabbing his thumb and twisting it mercilessly, nearly snapping it clean off. Apollo heard him bump against his cell door as he yelped in pain.
"Keep your hands to yourself," Ganymede growled. "And keep your mouth shut, if you don't wanna become a eunuch. Get my drift?"
Apollo's door opened then, and Duzie entered, smiling sweetly at him. Her cheeks were bright pink, and she seemed to have trouble walking in a straight line as she came into the cell.
"Hi, sweetie," she slurred. "Mind if we come in? We're bored."
The memory was fuzzy in parts. Apollo was on his back on his father's bed, with Ganymede at his feet, roughly pulling off his pants. His head was resting in Duzie's naked lap, her red-faced smile hovering over him as she unfastened her bra.
Ganymede cursed. "Goddammit, keep squirmin' and I'll break it off!"
Duzie gasped and gave Ganymede an appalled look. "Gan, don't say things like that!" She smiled down at Apollo again. "We won't hurt ya, baby. Honest."
Her hands were clammy to the touch as they brushed his face, then fondled his naked chest.
"Oh god," she giggled, "he's trembling!"
Apollo killed the memory there, returning to the present with a sob. He laid facedown on his bed, his face buried in his pillow, his eyes closed and wet with tears. His mattress was damp again.