the climb

Three horses trot up the winding dirt trail, hooves stomping through hanging vines and overgrown wildgrass.

“Are you sure Mom isn’t gonna be mad at us?” Alex calls ahead to Soren.

“I mean, she might be a little mad at me,” Soren laughs. “Just don’t tell her we took the horses!”

“Where’s the cool thing you found?” Carson shouts ahead, his horse pacing up the trail alongside Alex’s horse.

“Waaaay up ahead. We’ve gotta take the tough trail and then climb that cliff again!”

“But Mom told us—”

“I promise it’ll be worth the trek!”

The trail stretches on and on, the woods hugging up the side of the mountain, twisting and turning higher and higher up slope after slope.

“What kinda games you kids playing these days?” Soren calls back as their horses step over fallen branches and rough rocks.

“We’re real into Gods & Titans!” Carson responds. “It’s big fun!”

“That some kinda team strats deal?”

“Ya!” Alex shouts excitedly. “One team is Gods and the other team is Titans and the Titans created the Gods but now the Gods want to be like the Titans so the Gods have to kill the Titans and there’s different types of Gods and different types of Titans and they each have special powers and you have to fight together with your team and—”

“Oh so it’s sorta based on Greek mythology?”

“I mean, yeah I guess so.”

Soren strokes his curly beard. “You ever study any of that in school? Zeus and Prometheus? Odyssey and Iliad? All that good stuff?”

“Yeah, but this is all futuristic and the Gods are super mythic cyborgs and the Titans are these big strong robots and—”

“It’s so mythic!” Carson pipes up.

“Mythic? That what you kids are calling cool these days?”

“Sometimes!” Alex nods.

“F’real though it’s so dang fun,” Carson twangs. “You can even customize your avatar and get special rewards for winnin’ enough battles and there’s even a pro league for it now!”

“Sounds mythic,” Soren laughs. “Wish I still had time for games like that. Maybe you two will play in the pro league one day eh?”

“I wish!” Alex grins. “The pro league guys are so good, Zedi Abebe can run a support build Apollo but still get a Mythic Killstreak and kill like, SO many Titans with just one solar arrow, she’s so—”

“Whoa, look at that!” Carson points up as a hawk screeches down from the treetops above, soars out into the grassy clearing ahead.

“Imagine being able to fly like that!” Alex shouts. “You could get anywhere so fast!”

“You two ever heard of hyperdrones?” Soren asks as their horses prod along out of the woods.


“They’re drones that move really, really fast. Like way faster than that hawk.”

“How fast?”

“Mach 50. You know how fast that is?”

“No,” Alex shakes her head.

“That’s 50 times faster than the speed of sound, right?” Carson asks.

“Exactly. We launch ’em out of a big cannon that’s full of magnets way up in outer space, then they fly down to their target. LA to Beijing in under 10 minutes.”

“Hot damn!” Carson gasps. “Alli, imagine if we were hyperdrones and could fly that fast!”

“But don’t they hurt people?” Alex asks.

“I mean, yeah,” Soren shrugs. “But that’s life for ya, sis. We all fight sometimes, right?”

“Yeah . . .” Alex mumbles. “But never shoot things out of a big space gun when I get in a fight with someone.”

“Well, maybe one day you’ll have to.” Soren scratches the stubble on his scalp, sighs in thought. “Life is strange. Sometimes we get forced into fights we’d rather not have.”

“But we have to fight anyways, right?” Carson asks.

“I mean, we could just bend a knee and surrender,” Soren chuckles. “But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the glory in that?”

They trot and trot across the sunlit slope of the mountain. The late afternoon sky sprawls across the green grass ahead. Trees and valleys and creeks and peaks stretch out in every direction. Breathtaking. But something about what Soren said doesn’t sit right with Alex.

Carson pulls ahead to hear more of Soren’s war stories as they ride through the clearing, around a narrow bend in the mountain, and up to the steep rocks of the next leg of their ascent.

“Sor,” she murmurs from behind as their horses carefully tiptoe up the rocky path.


“When you said maybe one day I’ll have to fight like you, like with real guns and big magnets and hyperdrones . . . do you really think I’ll have to do that?”

Soren looks back at her, his aviators glaring in the light as he frowns. “I dunno, sis. Doesn’t seem like this war’s gonna be winding down any time soon.”

“But what about everything you’ve done to help in the Middle East? And the US?” Carson asks. “Haven’t ya’ll been beatin’ so many bad guys over there?”

“Not enough to put an end to all this fighting,” Soren sighs. “And this whole new generation of AI everyone’s building—all the biotech too—fighting could still drag on for a while yet. Years.”

“But why does everyone keep fighting?” Alex tilts her head.

“Beats me, sis.” Soren groans and takes a swig of water, stares off into the valleys below. “At first it was over oil and gas. Then food and water. Land, minerals. Scrap metal, even. But at some point it just became a mindless cycle of revenge.”

“So we’ll have to fight when we get old too?” Alex nervously nibbles at her nails, stares up at the rough rocks and sharp cliffs ahead. “I don’t wanna fight. I wanna do art and dance and play games and—”

“That’s why I’m off fighting so much,” Soren nods. “So you might not have to.”

“But what if Dad makes me fight?

“He’ll certainly try to.”

“He’s always fighting,” Alex sneers. “And whenever I see him, he always tells me how great of a fighter I’ll be one day. But I don’t wanna fight.”

Soren gently tugs his horse’s reins, pulls back alongside Alex, drops his sunglasses down his nose to look her in the eye. “Sis, you know what you are, right? You know why Dad made you?”

“Yeah. I know.” Alex glares at her brother. “He made me to fight.”

“Yep. Made you to fight. Raised me for it, too. But you don’t have to fight if you don’t want to.”

“But if I don’t fight, he’ll take me back to his scientists and they’ll—”

“Sis, listen to me very carefully.” Their horses stamp up the rugged rocky trail, creeping through the shade of the mountain high above. “If Dad ever calls you back to one of his labs, he won’t make you fight if you refuse.”

“But what if they plug my brain into the—”

“They might do that. But they still can’t force you to fight.” Soren points at her brain. “They designed you to choose your own path. To make your own decisions. You have no value to them if you’re just like another one of their robots. They will try to force you to fight. But you won’t have to if you keep refusing. Do you understand?”

“I don’t think so . . .” Alex mumbles.

Soren lowers his voice to a whisper that Carson’s electronic ears can’t detect. “Dad’s changed a lot since last time you saw him. War’s made him cold, calculating. Calloused. But he still hasn’t lost all of his humanity. If you refuse to fight, he will let you do something else.”

“Does . . . Does Mom know how mean he is now?”

“Mom tries to keep these things hidden from you by keeping you in this bubble.” Soren points around to the empty mountains, the quiet valleys between them. “But you can’t stay here hiding away from the real world in some palace forever. One day, Dad will send for you.”

“But when he does, I just tell him I don’t wanna fight. Right?”

“If you really don’t wanna fight, then you tell him that over and over and over and over and over. And then you follow your own path.”

“And then I can go back to dancing? And art?”

“He’d rather have a useful dancer than useless fighter,” Soren smirks. “And a happy daughter than a miserable son.”

“Ay Sor!” Carson hollers from up ahead. “This is the cliff we gotta climb, ya?”

The stones covering the trail ahead grow bigger and taller and sharper, rising up and up and up into the towering face of the steep cliff.

“Yessir!” Soren responds. The horses come to a stop, too nervous to tread over the jagged rocks ahead. “How ’bout I go up on ahead, climb up to the top, and toss a rope down for you two?”

“Hell ya!” Carson grins as they hop down from their horses.

“Hey Soren,” Alex mumbles. “Are you sure Mom won’t—”

“Ah dammit!” Soren heaves his hulking backpack off his shoulders and onto the rocks. “I think I forgot to bring the small harnesses for you two!”

“That’s okay, we don’t need harnesses!” Carson bounces eagerly. “We’re tough, right Alli?”

Carson’s eyes light up with pride and joy. Alex scans the sharp stones, the hefty boulders, the sheer face of the cliff. Mom won’t find out, right?

“I mean, I guess we’ve climbed it before,” Alex says. “I’m sure we can handle it without harnesses.”

Soren gazes up the cliff and clicks his tongue. “I dunno, sis. That’s very high up for you two to be going without harnesses.”

“Are you gonna use a harness?” Carson teases him.

Soren chuckles. “Just cuz I don’t use one doesn’t mean you two don’t need one.”

“Why not?” Alex prods.

Soren chuckles even louder. “I’m way older than you two! I’ve climbed way more than you! You two shouldn’t be free climbing until you’re much more experienced.”

“But we’re way stronger than you,” Carson keeps teasing. “If you fall, you’ll break a bone. But our bones are unbreakable, right Alli?”

“You kids are not stronger than me,” Soren laughs.

“Plus we have superskin!” Alex adds. “Auntie Cass even said we have superpowers!”

“Aunt Cass says a lot of stupid—”

“Oh oh oh!” Carson squawks. “AND we have superblood! Remember how fast Alli healed after she fell off her horse last summer?”

Soren pauses, scratches his beard pensively. “I mean . . . I guess when you think about all those augs you two’ve got, you are pretty damn tough.”

Carson scoffs. “Of course we can handle a tiny little cliff! You can’t just promise to take us to some cool ‘ol mystery spot and then not let us go there!”

“Alright alright.” Soren heaves his bag back onto his shoulders. I’ll go ahead and toss a rope down for you two when I get to the top. But you have to be extra careful, ya?”

“Yes!” They both yelp in unison.

“Yes what?”

“Yes we’ll be extra careful!”

“Alright, good.” Soren laughs as he scans the face of the cliff one more time. “You two wait here, then climb the rope up extra careful.”

Soren hoists up his cargo pants, tucks in his tank top, and marches over to the tall granite wall. He feels around for a grip, twists his fingers and toes into tiny cracks in the stone, and levers himself up the cliffside, step by step by step by step.

“Your bro is so fuckin’ mythic,” Carson giggles. “He was tellin’ me they were fightin’ rebels in Arizona and there was this huuuuuge canyon they had to climb up and—”

“I don’t wanna talk about fighting right now.” Alex pouts and turns to Carson. “Why do you like fighting so much, anyways?”

Carson’s glow dims and deflates. “Sorry,” he mutters. “I just think all the tech they use is kinda mythic. And they’re strong. And I like it when I feel strong.”

Alex folds her arms and raises a brow. “You can feel strong without fighting, y’know?”

“Course I know,” Carson smirks playfully. “That’s why we’re about to climb this here cliff. Real tough guy shit!”

“You’re such a dork,” Alex giggles. “Gym class dork.”

“Ay Alli, you’re the dorky one. Walkin’ around with some fancy supercomputers in your brain.” Carson nudges her shoulder. “Walkin’ around the Palace all like bleep bloop bleep blorp.”

Alex smiles, nudges him back even harder. “Shut up, gym class dork.”

“Long silver hair like some kinda nerdy anime robot ninja.”

“Umm, my hair color’s called Platinum Nova, okay?” Alex rolls her eyes.

“Pssh, whatever,” Carson laughs. “Art class dork.”

“Ay folks!” Soren calls out from way up top the cliff. “I’m gonna toss the rope down now! Remember to be extra careful, ya?”

“You first, gym class dork!” Alex points Carson toward the cliff.

“Yes ma’am.” Carson salutes with a roll of his eyes and a smile. He carefully steps across the rocks, up to the wall as the long rope falls from above. He tugs it once, twice, then pulls himself up to the rocks, plants his feet into the cliff, and walks up the slope step by step by step.

“You’re climbing so fast!” Alex shouts up at him. “When’d you get this good?”

Carson beams from ear to ear as he scales the wall, foot after foot after foot, his bio-hacked arms and legs filling with liquid steel as he muscles up and up and over the clifftop.

“Ez-pz!” He shouts back down. Soren gives him a little fist bump as he dusts his hands off. “Your turn, Alli!”

Alex skips across the rocks and over to the rope, scans up and down the wall one last time before mounting her feet into the wall, gripping the rope, big inhale.

“I’ll bet you can’t climb up faster than I did!” Carson dares her.

Big exhale as she races up the rope, body floods with artificial biochemistry, brain bursts with synthetic adrenaline, arms swell with lab-grown strength, legs pulse with fortified blood as she hurls herself up toward Carson.”

“Holy shit,” Carson turns to Soren. “She’s even faster than you.”

“EXTRA. CAREFUL.” Soren yells, but Alex doesn’t need his reminder. She’s got this. All that matters is the rope, the rocks, her feet running, running, running up the cliffside, her arms pulling, pulling, pulling with all her might, mind slipping into hyperfocus, body gliding up the vertical, left foot, left arm, right foot, right arm, faster, left foot, left arm, right foot, right arm, FASTER, left foot, right foot, left—

“AH!” She shrieks as a stone crumbles at her feet, rope slips from her grip, stumbles off the wall, falling, no rocks, no rope, brain erupts with special-purpose chemicals, body tenses, blood hardens, nerves steel as she plummets onto the jagged rocks below.

“ALLI!” Carson screams from above. Soren dashes onto the rope, rappels back down the cliff, bounces, slides, leaps toward her as she rolls over onto her back.

“ALEX!” He yells. “Are you hurt?!”

“Uggggh,” Alex groans. “Owie.”

“Shit!” His eyes pop wide as he flings his backpack onto the rocks beside her. “Shit shit shit!” He takes a big inhale, regains his focus, and big exhale as he rummages through his med kit.

“Actually . . . I think I’m okay now!” Alex leans up from the ground to look around. Blood pours from the gash in her head, drips from the scrapes on her arms.

“You are NOT okay!” Soren holds his hand up as he flings his med kit open. “Hold still, you might have had a concussion.”

“A concussion?” Alex tilts her head. “But my head’s barely even hurt?”

“YES it is!” Soren grabs a roll of gauze, a tube of repair gel, a tiny syringe, looks back up at her head wound. “You need to hold still, your head is—” He suddenly goes quiet, staring at her head in awe and horror. The skin around her wound stitches itself together. New skin bubbles up out of the wound and onto her scalp. Meshes and lattices of precision-engineered proteins pull her new flesh taut, sealing the gash shut, the blood in her hair quickly drying and sponging back into her body.

“What the fuck,” Soren mutters under his breath.

“Is she okay?!” Carson yells from atop the cliff.

Soren keeps staring at her, grimacing in shock and wonder. “How did you . . .”

“How did I what?” Alex tilts her head again. “It wasn’t that big of fall! I’m fine!”

Soren shakes his head, laughs in disbelief. “She fine!” He calls back up to Carson. “Alex, you didn’t heal anywhere near this fast when you got hurt last summer. You were bleeding a lot just now, but then it just . . . it just—”

“Ya, Mom says I’m starting a new growth phase!” Alex stands up proudly. “So now I heal way faster and I’m way stronger and I can think better and I can run further and she says I’ll have even more genes switching on soon, so then I’ll be even stronger  and I’ll be able to run even faster and I’ll get way taller and I’ll—”

“You’ll need to be extra careful, sis.” Soren puts his hand on her shoulder. His fascinated eyes turn sharp and fearful. “You might feel stronger, but you still have limits. You need to know your limits.”

“I know, I just—”

“And the stronger you get, the more people are gonna be wondering how you got so strong.”

“I know . . .”

“And no matter how strong you get, there will still be other people who are much stronger than you. Stronger in different ways than you. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Alex mumbles. “I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful.”

Soren hugs her tight. “Maybe it’s a good idea if we call it a day? Go back down to the Palace to rest?”

“Ay!” Carson calls down again. “Ya’ll comin’ up here or not?!”

“But Carr is already all the way up there!” Alex points up to him. “Can I please just try to climb it one more time? I promise I’ll be extra careful this time!”

Soren grits his teeth, takes a big breath in. “I dunno sis, you smashed yourself up really bad there.”