the dance

“Still can’t believe you’re leaving tomorrow.” Carson holds her close as they slowly sway across the dancefloor. Her long white dress flows and flutters under the silky mauve spotlights.

Alex lays her head on his shoulder and sighs. “I know. I don’t wanna go.” A glittering banner looms over the dance hall:

Congratulations Grads!

Twinkling stars and neon galaxies beam out from overhead projectors, crawling across the walls in deep purples and vivid pinks.

“It just don’t feel real.” Carson stares up at the projectors on the ceiling, diving through his memories. “Like . . . High school! We made it all the way to high school together! And now you ain’t even gonna be at the Palace no more.”

“Hey.” Alex cups the back of his neck and looks up into his eyes. “I promise we’ll be together again, okay?”

“But how do you know that?” Carson sways along with her from side to side.

“Because I’m not gonna fight for my Dad,” Alex scowls. The ballad playing through the speakers swells with wistful power. “He can force me to move back to his lab. But he can’t force me to train. He can’t force me to fight.”

“How you so damn sure about that?”

Alex gently clasps his hand, leads their sway to the left. “Because I’ll refuse to fight in his stupid war. I wanna be here with you.”

Carson laughs. “World ain’t that simple, Alli.”

The Palace’s other Grade 8 grads sway along with their partners in their own little universes of the dance hall. Others gossip and sip fruit punch along the far wall.

“Besides,” Carson mutters, “my Daddy probably won’t let me stay here much longer either.”

“These fucking men,” Alex pouts, guides his hand to the right. “You’re gonna be a man soon, why do all you guys like fighting so much?”

“I dunno,” Carson shrugs. “Makes us feel strong I guess?”

“That’s what you always say.” Alex raises her brow. “You don’t need to fight to feel strong.”

Carson shrugs again. “Hormones I guess?”


“I guess?” Carson squints. “I sure didn’t feel like fighting this much back when I was a girl.”

“Carr, you’re 12,” Alex smirks. “You’re not even on that many hormones!”

“13 soon, actually.” He guides her hand into a gentle spin. “And already startin’ to feel much different. They’ve been switchin’ a bunch of my growth genes online.”

“Whatever.” She rolls her eyes, rolls her hands back over his shoulders. “Still doesn’t excuse violence.”

A smooth, hypnotic beat rolls out of the speakers. Dreamy harp strings and piano chords float across the dance hall. Neon lights throb and mellow, lavender fog drifts down from overhead as they softly sway and spiral through the dancefloor.

Alex looks back up at Carson, fog swimming between their eyes. “So where do you think your Dad is gonna send you after the Palace?”

“Dunno.” Carson glances up at the foggers hanging from the ceiling, back down at her glowing grey eyes. “Prolly back to Texas for a while? He bought a shit-ton of farmland north of Dallas. Settin’ up a huge compound that’s gonna be all safe and walled-off soon.”

“So kinda like the Palace?”

“Yep. He even hired a whole security team, keep all the bad guys out. Cartels. Militias.”

Alex sighs and dreams as purple fog and blacklight splash all over the floor. “A bunch of farmland, eh? Wouldn’t it be nice to just like . . . have a farm?”

“What you mean?”

“Just away from all of . . . this.” She shifts her eyes around the dance hall. The kids sipping fruit punch along the far wall shift their eyes back at her. “We could plant crops, big garden full of flowers. Hang out. No security teams, no lockdowns. No fighting. Y’know, normal life?”

“That what normal life is? Farms and no security?”

“I just think it’d be cute,” she shrugs. “Don’t you?”

“Guess so,” Carson smiles. “What would ya plant?”

“Hmmm . . .” Alex visions her fantasy farm as she leads him into a twirl. “Wheat so I can make my own pastries. Lots of mint for tea. Maybe some fruits and sunflowers.”

“Sunflowers ain’t food.”

“Ever heard of sunflower seeds?” Alex laughs.

“That’s a snack, that ain’t food.”

“You and all your food,” Alex scoffs.

“If we’re gonna have a farm, we need real food,” Carson chuckles. “Pork. Beef. The real stuff, not lab-grown or plant-based or whatever.”

“But then we’d have to raise animals,” Alex reminds him. “And kill them too.”

“Ya. So?”

“Are you gonna kill a cute little pig?” Alex tilts her head. “Because I’m certainly not.”

“I mean, we gotta eat don’t we?”

“I guess.”

“Can’t just be eatin’ sunflower seeds and pastries all the time,” Carson teases.

“Can so.” Alex laughs as they step and twirl further form the other grads. Pink and blue auras wash over their faces, pulse through their hands, bounce off her bright platinum hair.

“Your hair looks nice under all these lights.” Carson looks away and blushes. “Real pretty.”

Alex giggles. The beat slows as she sets a tender hand on the back of his head, pulls him closer as they lilt and sway. “Your hair’s getting long at the back.” She runs her fingers through his smoky curls. “Soft.”

“Oh, so you a mullet girl?” Carson twangs with a grin.

Alex turns to the side cackling. “It’s so Texas.” She looks back up into eyes as the harp sings and hums. “It’s cute though.”

“I’ve been thinkin’ about cuttin’ it real short.” Carson rests his hands on her shoulders, leads her into a forward step. “Think I’d look good with a buzz cut?”

“Hmm,” Alex looks him up and down and blinks. “Oh ya. I can totally see it. Especially with how big your shoulders are getting.”

“Right? Buzz cut would be real tough guy shit.”

Alex cackles again. “You’re such a dork.” The neon blues and pinks dim. The air shines and glitters with harp strings and soft drums. “Gym class dork.”

She stands on her toes. Holds the back of his neck. He clasps her shoulders and leans into her. Her eyes close. Then his. She presses close against him, nervous lip fluttering, when the alert suddenly erupts into their eyes:






They leap up, shriek, the music drowned under the sirens and children screaming, scrambling out of the dance hall, dashing down into the Palace’s bunker.

“We’ve gotta go the Bunker!” Carson shouts, tugging her hand away from the dance floor. “NOW!”

“No.” Alex yanks him back so hard that he tumbles to the ground. “I’m not going down into that bunker again.”

“The hell you mean, Alli?” His eyes pop as he hollers over the sirens. “Palace is under attack, we need to go NOW!”

“Who’s trying to kill us this time?!” Alex cries. “Organization? Federation? Communists? Neo-nazis?”


“Maybe my Dad just wants to pull this plug on his whole stupid experiment and finish me off himself!”


“Everyone just wants us dead!”

“That’s why we need to GO NOW!” Carson yells.

“Fuck that!” Alex pulls away and marches to the dance hall’s outdoor exit. “I’m not going into that bunker again! They killed my Aunt Cass down there! Infected my Mom!”

“Alli, wait!”

“I’m leaving this palace forever!” Alex lunges against the heavy metal door, but the Palace’s defense systems have sealed it shut. She smashes against it again and again and again as the sirens blare and a new alert flashes into her brain:






“Are you gonna help or not?!” Alex screams to Carson as she throws herself against the door. Nanobots and bio-steel in her bloodstream stiffen and fortify her body, a distant wing of the Palace booms and rumbles with danger.

Carson hurries over and kicks the door with the strength of a giant. “This is dummy shit, Alli!” The heavy door bends and buckles under their combined might. “You’re goddamn unhinged! This isn’t emergency protocol at all!”

She pounds all her rage and wrath into the door as he pushes and punches with impossible force, the sirens screeching, the speakers howling “CONDITION 3, CONDITION 3” as the door gives in to their frenzy, flings open, Alex sprints into the dark rainy night.

“Alli, wait up!” Carson calls from behind. “You’re way faster than me!”

But her programming has taken over, her instincts driving her through the palace courtyard at top speed, tramples across the peppermint patches and sunflowers beds she planted with her Mom, splashes across the shallow river separating the Palace from the world, runs up the trail where they used to hike with Soren, deeper and deeper into the woods, Carson still running close behind her, booming and popping from the besieged Palace off in the distance, rain soaking her hair, mud dripping from her white dress, speeding into darkness, gasping until her nerves calm, the adrenaline slows, the nanobots and bio-hacks in her superhuman legs pause.

She stumbles up to a fallen tree and crashes down on its black, moss-ridden bark. Rainwater pools all around her hands and feet.

“Alli!” Carson gallops over through the forest mud, slows to a limp as a catches his breath. “Shit, you’re so fast. Jesus Chr—”

“What do we do?!” Alex hunches over and breaks into tears, heavy rain pelting against her face.

Carson groans in pain, thuds down next to her on the rotting log and hunches over in thought. “I mean . . . I guess we gotta wait out here now ’til it’s safe to—”

“I just want to exist!” She cries. “We’re 12 . . . 13 years old and we’re not even allowed to just exist!”

“I know,” Carson sighs. “I’m fuckin’ tuckered too. All these damn attacks all the time.”

“This isn’t normal!” Alex wails. “This isn’t how people are supposed to live! All this fighting!”

“We ain’t normal. Never will be.” Carson shuffles over and throws an arm over her. “We’re kinda spooky to all the normal people. Maybe if all those folks actually knew us, they’d—”

“They’ll only ever see us as a threat!” Alex shrieks and turns to leer into his eyes. “We’re nothing but dangerous freaks to them!”

Carson rubs his neck. “I dunno ’bout that, maybe we just gotta—”

“Carr, they want us to die!”

“I know, but—”

“There’s no making peace with people like that!” Alex howls. “We have to either fight or die!”

“Thought you hated fighting?”

“I do!” Alex screams into the stormy woods. “I don’t wanna fight!”

She weeps and trembles into his arms. Crickets play a quiet melody in the bushes. Water flows and beats into the canopy above them, black leaves swaying with the wind in a steady, cold rhythm as she sobs into her spoiled grad dress.

Carson holds her close and tears up with her. “I’m sorry, Alli. I’m sorry we can’t have normal lives. Can’t be normal people.”

She gazes down the trail leading back to the Palace. The booming and popping of the flash attack have calmed, but the loud sirens still linger in the air. “This is all just an illusion. A bad dream,” she murmurs. “Nothing about this place is real. Fake fortress world.”

“Soren was right,” Carson wipes his eyes dry and nods. “The Palace is just a big damn bubble. And it ain’t even a safe bubble anymore.”

“I want to leave the Palace.” Alex scowls at the dark, dirty trail they ran into the woods from. “I want to leave and never come back.”

“You’re leavin’ tomorrow,” Carson reminds her. “Goin’ to your Dad’s lab.”

“Fuck him.” Her bright, glittery dye rinses away from her hair, streams of Platinum Nova sloshing down her face and dress. “I’m not safe with him either.”

“Soren’s still on duty in Pakistan?”

“Yeah.” She chokes down her tears. “Haven’t heard from him in weeks. Maybe he’s dead too. Wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Nobody else you can run off to?’

“No.” Alex hangs her head. “Mom and Auntie Cass are gone. The rest of his family won’t even talk to me anymore cuz, well—”

Carson nods knowingly. “Trans drama, ya?”

“Ya. Trans drama.” Alex flicks the teardrops and platinum dye off her face. “I’m all alone now.”

“Hey.” Carson cradles her head. “You’re not alone. I’ll still be here. And we’ll still talk, even after you leave tomorrow. And we’ll see each other again, ya?”

“If my Dad lets me,” Alex scoffs.

“Hey.” Carson turns her chin to face him. “He can’t keep you in that lab forever. If it gets tough, just remember that we will see each other again, aight?”

Alex peers deep into his eyes and sees their million futures there. Their escape from this tainted palace. Their fantasy farm. Their sunflowers and pigs and horses and trees. Their nightmare of military service. The suffering they’re about to endure. Their lives as child soldiers and veteran commanders. Their inevitable reunion, and the million dances they’ll share when they’re together again. Is this what love is supposed to be? Something that endures every possible darkness? Something that exists in every possible future?

The palace sirens stop. The rain dulls to a pitter-patter. The cold wind rests. The dim glow of faraway flames rises over the trees from the palace grounds.

“Oh damn,” Carson looks up from her eyes, gaping at the fiery orange glow in the night sky. “Maybe it’s good we didn’t follow protocol this time.”

“Is . . . Is the Palace on fire?” Alex gasps.

They stand up from their rotten, swampy log and tiptoe curiously, carefully down the trail.

“Holy shit. I think it is on fire,” Carson whispers back to her. “What should we do?”

Instincts activate. Alex processes the situation, thinks through the potential attackers, their usual siege tactics, fire bombings are unusual, maybe they targeted one specific residential wing of the Palace? Or one specific security compound? Or maybe the hostiles were destroyed by Palace Defense and a small fire started during their skirmish? And that’s why the sirens have now stopped?

Just as she begins to formulate a plan, she hears leaves and footsteps rustling down the trail. She scans down the hill: droid sentries and robot dogs prowling through the trees.

“Oh shit, are those Palace Defense?” Carson asks. “Or hostiles?”

“I don’t know.” Alex tries zooming in, turning her built-in night vision on and off, turning infrared vision on and off, but can’t get a good lock on the sentries. “I can’t see them well from here.”

“Shit shit.” Carson seizes up in fear. “Alli, where do we go?”