the bunker

“How fucking dare you, Cass.”

“I’m sorry Dani, I’m just trying my best to help her! And you!”

“These aren’t your decisions to make! You can’t just show up in my home and scold me for being overprotective and then let her go off into the woods alone to do whatever she wants and—”

“I’m sorry Dani, I just want her to be happy!”

“Do you even know how much money, how much blood, all that shit he put in her brain is worth? Just her brain, not even counting all the cyborg crap they built into the rest of her body.”


“Do you have any idea how many people—countries—would love to rip her apart? Like literally dissect her like a fucking specimen?”


“Do you have any idea how much pressure I’m under from the Alliance to make sure she’s raised in accordance with their ridiculous developmental protocols?”


“Every time she gets hurt, every time she has too many negative thoughts, every time she goes too far away from me, they send me a fucking deviation warning.”

“I know, Dani. It must be so hard on you.”

“And they’ve been watching me constantly ever since her transition, hate me for pushing back against their fucking protocol, hate me for letting her live as a girl, looking for any reason they can find to take her away from me.”

“I’m so sorry, Dani.”

“Now they’re threatening to send this military psychologist to assist me with raising her—a military psychologist for a fucking 10 year old!—because apparently I can’t even be a fucking psychologist or a fucking mom properly!”

“You’re a wonderful mother. And a brilliant scholar. I’m so sorry they’re doing this to you.”

“I’m trying my fucking best to give her a normal life, a safe life, trying the best I possibly can in these fucking circumstances.”

“I want her to be safe, too. I want her to be happy.”

“And you just fucking show up here. After years of slutting around in every corner of the world, all your camgirling and metaverse grifting and psychic healer bullshit, no contact sometimes for weeks, months, after all that you just fucking show up.


Oh I’m in Berlin, I’d love to come visit you at the palace for a week or two! You just show up, Cass, out of the fucking blue.”

“Dani, I really did want to see you. And Alex. I love you both. I missed you both.”

“I can’t believe that you—”

“I’m sorry, Dani. Life hasn’t been easy for me lately, either.”


“I’m trying my best, too. I know I haven’t been a good aunt. Or a good sister.”

“Cass, I—”

“And I’m so, so sorry. And I promise I’m gonna be here for you and Alex more. I promise.”

Bitter silence creeps through the dark hallway. Alex presses her ear tight against the door of her Mom’s room, eyes wide with shock. Alex has never heard Mom get this mad before. Is this her fault? Did she get Auntie Cass in trouble?

Sniffles and sobs from the other side of the door break the silence. “I’m so fucking tired, Cass.” The sobbing swells, Mom’s voice quivering and wailing louder. “I barely even sleep anymore, I’m fucking tired!”

“Shh shh shh, you’ll wake Alex up.” Cass whispers. “Everything will be okay, Dani. Okay? I’m here for you now.”

“I’m so tired.” The sobbing turns to a whimper. “It’s too much.”

“I know, Dani. I’m so sorry.” Quiet tears ripple through their living quarters. Alex keeps her ear firm against the door, holding perfectly still, a secret shadow in the dead of night.

“I just can’t . . . I can’t.”

“It’s okay, Dani. Let it all out.”

Loud sobs leak through their airtight windows and soundproof walls. The vent in the ceiling inhales all their dirty air, filters out all the impurities, the pollution, the unclean particles, exhales with a gentle sigh. Alex breathes in and out softly, covertly, clutches the collar of her long white night gown, waiting on their next words with eager dread.

“No, it’s not okay,” Mom whimpers from the other side of the door. “Nothing is okay.”

“It’s going to be okay Dani, I promise.”


“I know this must all be so hard for you, but—”

“How will it be okay, Cass? What possible sequence of events could—”

“Dani, you’re having a panic attack. Big breath in together on 3, okay?”

“Oh God, they’re gonna send a military psychologist, Cass. They’re gonna take Alex away from me.”


“What if they arrest me?! What if—”


“I’m . . . I’m—”


Cass takes a big, deep breath in. Her sister breathes in along with her. Alex stays hushed in the hall, clutching her gown and clenching her teeth, waiting for the women to breathe out.

“Okay,” Cass says as they exhale. “And one more time in 1. 2. 3. Big breath in.”

Alex bites at her fingernails and breathes in along with them.

“And big breath out,” Cass instructs. “How we feeling?”

“Thank you,” Dani chokes back her tears. “That helped.”

“You’re under so much stress right now. Let’s think about what we can do to take some of that stress off you asap, ya?”

“Okay,” Dani sniffles.

“The university will let you take a parental leave, right?”

“Yeah,” Dani whimpers, peeling a tissue out of its box. “I have up to six months of leave.”

“So why don’t you?”

“I can’t, Cass. I have a grant for a new research project starting in the fall, I have two conferences this summer, prep for a course I’m teaching in fall, I’m on two committees that need me to—”

“Dani, you’re working all the time hun. Nothing bad will happen if you take some time off.”

“No, you don’t understand. There’s too much work. If I take a break, by the time I get back there’s gonna be—”

“No Dani, I do understand. I understand that you’re completely burnt out. You need a break. You want to spend more time with Alex. You’re so worried about her. I understand perfectly well.”

Alex keeps gnawing at her fingernails, grinding her teeth, tugging at her gown. Did she cause all of this? Is she really making Mom worried so often? Why is she so worried? “Yeah,” Mom whispers. “I’m scared.”

“You’re gonna take a parental leave,” Cass commands. “You need the time off. Especially with Soren back on deployment again.”


“No. You told me earlier that you can find someone else to teach that course. And that you can delay that new research project. This week, you’re gonna start winding down your work and then take a leave for the rest of the summer. Maybe more.”


“No excuses. And I can stay here with you and Alex at the palace for as long as you need too to help out, okay?”


“And I’m so sorry I let her go off into the woods all alone, but I promise I’ll get better, okay? I’m trying my best at this auntie thing, too.”

The tiniest smile cracks onto Alex’s face. She might not understand why she’s caused so much trouble for Mom, but Auntie Cass staying in the palace with them for a while is good news.

On the other side of the door, Mom sniffles and sighs with relief. “I’m sorry for the things I said about you earlier, Cass. I know life’s been rough for you lately, too. I lost control of my words.”

“It’s okay, Dan,” Cass whispers. “It’s war. Everyone’s under so much stress right now. I get it.”

“Fucking hell Cass,” Dani laughs as she peels another tissue out of the box. “This was supposed to be an experiment for one or two years. Just a proof-of-concept. And now I’m her mother! I just—”

Sirens rupture the tired darkness, alert message howls into Alex’s bionic eyes:






Alex stands tall, instincts kick in, thoughts racing, active threat alert, Condition 2, that means an attack is inbound, the palace’s defense systems might stop it, but maybe not, so they all need to go down into the bunker to be safe, that means Mom and Aunt Cass will open the door any moment, that means—”

“Alex!” Her Mom jumps up in surprise. “What are you doing out here?”

“I’m, I’m—”

“Nevermind, we need to get down into the bunker right now, okay sweetie?”

“Okay,” Alex grabs her hand tight. “Are you coming too, Auntie Cass?”

“Yup, let’s go hun.”

The women march down the residential hall, other mothers and children fleeing from their own living quarters, scurrying out to the tall plants and antique sofas of the moonlit mezzanine, “CONDITION 2, CONDITION 2” howling from the Palace speakers as they spiral down the marble stairwells, through the opulent pillars and golden ornaments of the lobby, down the lofty white grand hall that links their living quarters to the bunker deep below.

Alex squeezes her Mom’s hand and tugs at her pajamas as the families all huddle into the waiting cargo lift. “Mom, who’s attacking us this time?”

“I don’t know sweetie.” She wraps her arms around Alex’s shoulders, holds Alex tight to her leg.

“Why do they wanna hurt us so much?”

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “We’re gonna be okay though.”

“Do you like riding on elevators?” Cass smiles down at her.

“Not this one,” Alex frowns. “It’s big and scary and goes way too fast and it’s scary in the bunker and sometimes we have to stay down there for hours and—”

“Alli!” Carson crowds into the cargo lift, his caretaker droid holding his hand and leading him along. “It’s Antifa! Antifa are attacking us again!”

The other families all start whispering. “Is that some theory your Dad’s company churned out?” Alex’s Mom raises an eyebrow at Carson, then up at his caretaker. “Or is that actual military intelligence?”

The caretaker processes her question. Her uncanny eyes and false smile light up. “Hello, Danielle.” She turns back down to Carson as the elevator doors seal shut, the airlock hisses, the giant magnets lining the elevator shaft energize, humming and whirring with static.

The speakers ring out as the cargo lift trembles and rumbles online. “Dropping to bunker in 3.”

“Okay sweetie, here we go,” Alex’s Mom smiles down at her. “Remember to grab onto me if it’s too fast for you.”


“Cass you might wanna brace yourself against something too, this thing falls fast.”


Cass glances at the dozens of souls packed in around her. “Brace myself against what?”

A thump from the giant magnets above, a flash of light, and Cass slips and stumbles as the cargo lift plunges down into the shaft, racing deeper and deeper and deeper underground, the families all muttering and dreading amongst themselves, all gazing around the lift with suspicion, all quickly closing in on the bunker below.

Carson leans into Alex, cups her ear and whispers into it. “Y’think Antifa came here lookin’ for us?”

Alex gnaws at her fingernails in fright. The other kids glare at her and Carson, silent accusation etched on their faces.

“Robot brain,” one girl scowls at her.

“This is all your fault,” another girl beside her murmurs as the elevator shakes and hums, “you and your gross redneck boyfriend.”

“Hey! He’s not—” Alex starts, but Mom covers her mouth and beams daggers into the eyes of the other girls’ mothers.

One of the other boys silently mouths at Carson:


Carson frowns and sinks into the soft silicone arms of his caretaker.

The cargo lift falls and falls and falls a mile below the Palace, nearly at the bunker, when suddenly the walls around them rattle, shake, creak with mechanical frustration as the lift grinds to a stop.

Cass clutches a crystal charm hanging from her neck and rolls it between her fingers.

“Mom, what’s happening now?” Alex mumbles.

Cass closes her eyes in prayer to her witch goddess, sealed lips reciting soundless spells.

“I . . . I’m not sure, sweetie.” Mom searches the faces of the other mothers for any clues. “Probably just a little glitch. I’m sure everything we’ll keep moving again soon.”

“Alli.” Carson tugs on her night gown and whispers to her. “Y’think Antifa found a way into the Palace?” He looks up at his caretaker and tugs on her arm. “Did Antifa find a way into the Palace?”

The caretaker processes his question. Her eyes light up with data, but her body goes limp. The light suddenly leaves her eyes. Her faux flesh goes cold. Sparks flicker from her overheating brain.

Carson jumps back from the glitchy android. “What the—”

Just as her brow begins to bubble and melt, the elevator lights fizzle out. Dim emergency lights flicker on for the briefest moment, then short out. Quiet, fearful breaths fill the pitch black elevator. The buzzing of distant locusts echoes down from the top of the shaft.

Carson feels around in the dark for Alex’s arm, curls up against her. “Alli,” he whispers. “What’s that sound?”

Alex tugs on her Mom’s pajamas and whimpers. “Mom what’s that buzzing sound?”

“Shh shh.” Mom’s unseen hand cradles her hair. “We have to be extra quiet right now, sweetie.”

“I’m scared.”

“It’ll be over soon. Just be extra quiet for now, okay?”

“I . . .”

“And stay as still as you can, okay sweetie?”

“I . . . I can’t breathe.”

“You’re having a panic attack hun,” Cass whispers from behind. “Just breathe in and out with me and everything will be okay.”

Cass holds her trembling hand, gently squeezing as she quietly inhales, gently releasing as she softly exhales. “Big inhale,” her voice enters Alex’s head. “Big exhale.” Her hand squeezes and releases, squeezes and releases, squeezes and releases, hypnotizing Alex into a peaceful, meditative darkness. “Big inhale.” Alex calms, trembling stops, body syncs to her Auntie’s warm wavelength. “Big exh—”

A thud from up the elevator shaft snaps Alex back into panic mode. The buzzing swells into a loud metallic screeching. Another thud, this time closer. The muted gasps of other children fill the broken elevator. Alex clutches Aunt Cass tight.

“Alli,” Carson breathes. “What’s happening?”

Quiet alarm grips the families. The buzzing and thumping and screeching stop. A few quiet sighs float through the lift, but their relief is quickly broken as a tiny red laser flashes through the room, pierces a pinhole into the ceiling.

Hushed screams fill the air. The darkness around them hisses as oxygen rushes out from the airtight cargo lift. The mothers all cradle their children as the buzzing returns, grows louder, louder, louder, screeching and droning and roaring as a black cloud of locusts swarm in through the pinhole.

“Get down!” Alex’s Mom shouts as she flings her to the ground, the robotic locusts screaming, scanning their shrieking targets, algorithms reading their faces, sniffing their genes, lasers flashing, gunpowder popping, gas spraying, the elevator screaming, the smell of burning fogging up the darkness as the tiny mechanical locusts buzz and screech and howl for blood.

Cass leaps onto Alex, covers her from head to toe, arms wrapped tight around her head, her necklaces and charms dangling onto Alex’s face, whispering a Wiccan blessing as the locusts search out and destroy their targets.

The buzzing swells into a deafening wall of noise as another swarm of locusts pours in through ceiling, screeching and popping and flashing at the first swarm. Palace defense systems.

The defense swarm buzzes and shrieks at the invaders, electric pulses and white-hot lasers strobing through the air, consuming the cargo lift in a cacophony of automated violence, bodies ducking and rolling and crying as the crossfire pops and flashes through the dark, husks of damaged locusts raining down on them, clinking and clanking and clattering as they roll off Cass, down Alex’s sides, onto the cold steel floor.

“Why won’t they stop?!” Alex screams out into Mom’s mind.

Mom holds her hand tight. “It’ll be over soon,” her hand says.

Just as the carnage reaches a crescendo, the crossfire suddenly stops. The lift goes perfectly dark again. The loud screeching and buzzing softens into a deep, droning hum. The cloud of locusts dissipates, floating up into the pinhole in the ceiling and back up the elevator shaft.

“Is it . . . is it over?” Carson mumbles. The children all begin whispering and sniffling and murmuring.

“Mom,” Alex tugs at her fingers. “Is it over now?”

“Stay still until we hear from Palace Defense,” she whispers back to Alex in the dark. “We’re gonna be here for just a little while longer, okay sweetie?”

“How long?” Carson whispers.

“Until we hear from Palace Defense,” she repeats. “Cass, you good?”

Cass lays over Alex, still covering her from head to toe, her necklaces and charms still sprawled over Alex’s face, her hands still shielding Alex’s brain.

“Cass,” Dani repeats. “You good?”

Cass still lays over Alex. Her arms rest heavy on Alex’s head. Her head slumps to the side as Alex feels for her hand. Her soothing aura fades as her weight sinks further and further into Alex.

“Hey Auntie Cass,” Alex trembles as she whispers up to her. “Are you okay?”

The dim emergency lights hum back online with a sickly yellow glow. The lights stutter and flicker as they wash through the shadowy cargo lift.

“Oh no!” A voice cries out from across the lift. “Oh my God no!” Gasps and shrieks cut through the dim yellow light. Pain echoes up through the elevator shaft. Alex rolls her head, scans the floor beside her to see Auntie Cass’ luckiest charm, her crystal witch’s wheel, chipped and cracked and scattered amidst a mess of shattered electronics and mangled locusts.

“Mom?” Another girl’s voice whimpers from across the lift. “Mom?!”

“Erin?!” Another woman across the lift howls. “Erin get up! Erin?!” Something wet starts to drip down from Auntie Cass onto Alex’s face, seep into her hair, pool at her feet.

“Alex, Carson,” Mom commands them, “I want you two to close your eyes and do not open them again until I say so, okay?”

Alex seals her eyes shut and swallows back her horror.

“Alex,” Mom grabs her attention. “Sweetie, I want you to think of your happiest place, okay? If you could be anywhere at all right now, doing anything you want, what would you be doing?”