the palace

” . . . like, not even goofin’, Dani, this guy was pos-i-tive that his company created some kind of AI demon.”

“Ya, I get that, Cass, I just don’t understand how you charging him 10k for a tarot reading is supposed to solve—”

“It’s a psychological art, Dani,” Cass groans. “You’re such a scientist, stop thinking about it with your big data brain. All these Silicon Valley guys know they’re fuckin’ around with evil spirits, they’re all—”

“Alex!” Dani cuts off Cass and waves across the palace garden. “Over here, sweetie!”

Cass turns, peering across the tall sunflowers and willowy lavender of their family’s plot. Alex hasn’t seen her Auntie Cass in years. Three years? Four? Ever since Alex and her Mom were sent to stay safe here at this palace, all secreted away in the Swiss Alps.

“Oh my gods,” Auntie Cass cries out with a smile. “Alex honey, your hair! It’s gotten so long! And so bright!” She opens her arms wide, hugging Alex tight against her long cinnamon hair and loud paisley sundress. “You’re absolutely stunning!”

“Thank you!” Alex giggles. “The color’s called Platinum Nova and my Mom let me dye it myself because I got good grades on my report card.”

“Well that’s very nice of her.” Cass trades a grin with her sister. “And that’s very good taste you have! Platinum hair, you must be the coolest girl at school, ya? You look like you should be starring in an action movie!”

“I joke that she plays so many video games that she’s turning into one of the characters,” her Mom laughs. “But if she’s getting good grades, that’s what really matters.”

“Did you just come from class?” Cass asks, nodding back toward the sunswept stone archways of the palace. Gentle music wafts into the garden from a synthesizer in the palace foyer.

“Ya, we learned about computers today and I used an app to make an AI and then I used the AI to make a game and then I played the game but I died because one of the monsters was too big and strong and scary and I didn’t have enough health left.”

So smart,” Cass grins with pride for her niece before turning over to her sister. “Dani, you must love that they have an entire world-class academy built into the place for all the families, ya? How many people again did you say are living here?”

Mom purses her lips in thought for a moment. “I think there’s about 200 of us here in residence right now? Plus all the service staff, and maybe room in one of the bunkers for another few families too.”

“So exciting that you get to live in a whole palace and meet so many other people from all around the world, isn’t it?” Cass smiles back down at Alex. “Have you made any new friends?”

“A few,” Alex nods, hoists herself up into one of the big wicker chairs around their table, dusts her white school uniform off. “I met someone else who’s like me, except he’s a boy who used to be a girl instead of a girl who used to be a boy.”

“So exciting!”

“His name was Carene when I first met him but his name’s Carson now and he’s in Grade 6 too and he’s from the US and he’s really smart and really fun and really strong and—”

“Sweetie, why don’t you tell your Aunt Cass about the art project you and Carson worked on together?” Mom prompts her. “I’ll pour you some tea, have some of these sugar cookies too if you’d like.”

“Oh ya!” Alex pipes up, snatching a cookie from the table. “Me and Carson made this album for our digital art class where he made an AI, like a whole AI! He actually coded it himself, he didn’t even have to use an app to do it, and then we used the AI to generate art for us and then we linked the AI up to my brain and then I thought about different things happening and then about painting those things and then the AI painted them for us and then—”

“Whoa whoa, slow down hun,” Auntie Cass raises her hands and chuckles. “I’m not nearly as smart as you, you have to explain this to me like I’m a big dummy. You two coded an AI and then plugged it into your brain?”

“Yeah!” Alex smiles, chomping into her cookie.

“Isn’t that like . . . dangerous?”

“Alex’s neurodrives are all military tech,” Mom explains, concern suddenly washing over her face. She pours a cup of tea, sighs into the steam. “Top secret hardware. Functionality and safety are miles ahead of anything on the market. Her father made sure of that.”

“Okay hun, so you’re literally a superhero,” Cass laughs. “You’re a superhero and you have a genius friend and together you figured out how to harness your superpowers to make art?”

“Yeah!” Alex smiles again, wolfing down the rest of the rest of her cookie. “Do you wanna see?” She mumbles through her full mouth.

Yes, I totally wanna see your superhero art!”

Tiny digital lights twinkle into Alex’s grey eyes, into her Auntie’s contact lenses, into her Mom’s cat-eye glasses, shared documents flickering into view, gazing through file paths, SchoolGrade 6, Visual Art, Garden ProjectAlbum, until a full gallery of vibrant colors and playful scenes pops into view.

“Oh, wow,” Cass gasps. “The textures and the scenery! The detail! The style!”

“Our teacher called it surrealism and I like painting like that because I can make weird plants and animals and monsters and I can make them any color I want and do whatever I want.”

“Alex hun, you made these just by thinking about them?”

“Yup!” Alex nods proudly. “I just thought about the garden and all the pretty flowers and Carson’s AI drew them for me!”

“It’s called augmented creation,” Alex’s Mom explains, pushing a hot cup of tea toward Alex. “Her neurodrives make her able to do all sorts of things with AI just by thinking about it. Certainly helps that she has a vivid imagination, too.”

“Come here,” Cass commands Alex with a grin. “Let me feel your forehead.” Alex leans forward in her big chair into her Auntie’s hand. “Oof!” Cass pulls away, shaking her hand jokingly. “It’s so hot! Be careful not to overheat your brain with all those smarts.”

“I’m fiiiiine,” Alex laughs.

“Sweetie, try your tea,” Mom smiles across the table. “It’s peppermint.”

“I don’t like peppermint,” Alex frowns. “It tastes like stinky grass.”

“Do you want some honey for it? Or some sugar?”

“No. It still won’t taste like peppermint candies at all.”

“You don’t like the taste of peppermint tea?” Cass gasps. The mystical gemstones and crystal rings lining her fingers sparkle in the sunshine as she cradles her own cup. “But peppermint is so good. It’ll help that big brain of yours! It’ll give you the coolest dreams. Surrealist dreams.”

“I like cool dreams.”

“Give it a try then! It’s not so bad once you get past the bitterness.”

Alex lifts her teacup to her mouth and takes a tiny slurp. “It’s okay, I guess.”

“Keep sipping! It’s an acquired taste,” Cass says. “All the other kids will think you’re super sophisticated.”

Alex takes a bigger slurp, swishes it around. “I guess it’s kinda sweet if you leave it in your mouth for a little while.” She raises her brow and takes another sip.

“I’ll have to make it for you more often, then,” her Mom laughs. “Your Aunt Cass has good taste, doesn’t she?”

Alex nods. “It’s bitter but it’s also kinda sweet? It’s really weird . . . but I like it!”

“That’s life for ya, hun,” Cass chuckles. “Speaking of which—Dani, before Alex got here you were telling about about how life’s been here for the two of you so far?”

“Oh, let’s continue that another time,” Mom shrugs, nodding across the table at Alex. “Alex is here now! We’re both so happy you made the trip all the way out here.”

“Well, I’ll be in Berlin full-time soon, so I’ll be able to come around much more often!”

“We’d love to have you here any time, right Alex?”

Alex nods and bites at another cookie in excitement. “Auntie Cass is my favorite auntie.”

Dani and Cass laugh. Then trade nervous stares. “We haven’t had many visitors here since Alex started her transition,” Dani explains, sipping at her tea. “Especially from her Dad’s side of the family.”

“Soren’s here though, right?” Cass asks.

“Yes, thank God,” Dani groans. “Thank God her brother has a good heart. Spends all his leave time here these days. Which is less and less lately with everything going on in South Asia, but I’m still so glad that Alex has a positive male influence like Soren in her life now that she—”

“Dani,” Cass interrupts, sets down her teacup, trades a knowing glance with her sister. “Let’s not try to pathologize her right now, ya?” Cass spins away from her and back to Alex. “Alex hun, it must be so nice to have your brother visiting all the time. Is that exciting for you?”

“Ya! Sor’s great.”

“I bet you two go on the best adventures together whenever he comes to visit, ya?”

“Mhm!” Alex bobs her head, takes a big gulp of her tea. “We take horses from the stables and we take them out to the trails behind the garden and we climb up the trails through the woods and we go up the big hill there and we—”

“Whooooa there cowgirl, you’re riding horses? Up the mountain?” Cass raises a brow at Alex, then at her Mom, curiously nibbles at her cookie.

“Well, I figure she’s got all this genetically fortified skin and superbones, so why not?” Dani shrugs. “She’s banged herself up a couple of times, but it heals scary fast.”

“Don’t you worry about her when she goes up there?” Cass tilts her head. “You worry about her a lot.”

“A little,” Dani sighs. “But Soren’s got his combat medic training and knows those trails like the back of his hand. Keeps me from worrying too much, y’know?”


“Besides, they have so much fun up on that mountain. I’m sure they’d keep going up there together whether I wanted them to or not.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad then, ya?” Cass smiles over at Alex. “Mom lettin’ ya break the rules every now and then?”

“Mhm!” Alex mumbles through her cookie. “I like breaking the rules sometimes. I like the mountain.”

“What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen up on the mountain?” Cass asks.

“Hmmmmm . . .”

“Like has your brother taken you anywhere that was extra special?”

“Hmmmmm well this one time we trying to find a way up to the summit but the trails didn’t go all the way up there and the horses didn’t wanna walk up that high anyways so we went up to this big cliff and there were lots of big boulders on it and then Soren started climbing the boulders and then when he got to the top he threw down a big rope for me to climb and then I climbed up the rope and then—”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Mom chimes in. “I’ve never heard this story. Your brother tried taking you to the summit? And you went bouldering with him?”

“Ya but it was easy to climb once I had the rope and then when I got to the top it was so cool and so pretty because it was just like being here in the garden but there were no other people around but there was a big field up there and there were sunflowers everywhere and a little river and there were tadpoles in the river and there were birds and weird plants and big trees and we climbed one of the trees and—”

“I’m gonna need to talk to your brother about this,” Mom sighs, glancing over at Cass. “This is a little more than I’m comfortable with.”

A mischievous smile washes over Auntie Cass’ face. “Alex hun, you found a whole garden at the top of the cliff?”


“That sounds dope! I bet it was so pretty up there! Did you—”

“She’s still not strong enough for that kind of hike,” Dani cuts in. “She’ll get hurt.”

The two sisters glare at one another for a moment. Private messages twinkle in their eyes:


You can’t protect her like this forever

Cass stop

She needs to explore, now more than ever

Cass please stop

You can’t protect her like this forever

Just let them play together

Cass you are not her mother


“Mom, am I in trouble for climbing up to the other garden?”

“No sweetie,” Mom laughs bitterly. “But your brother sure is.”

“Dani, maybe—”

“Cass, no.” Dani softly puts her hand up. “Alex, did you know your Aunt Cass used to be a dancer?”

Whoa, really?!”

“Yep. Before the Flu, she was a backup dancer for a big pop star. They travelled all over the world dancing!”

“Wow, I didn’t know that!” Alex slurps up the rest of her tea. “You never told me about that, Auntie Cass!”

Cass feigns a chuckle, throws a caustic squint at her sister. “I was a dancer. Only for a few years, though.”

“What type of dancing did you do?” Alex asks.

“Hmmm . . . a mix of styles! Mostly ruzo, soca, old-school breakdance.”

“Alex is a bit of a dancer herself lately,” Dani smiles.

“Oh really?” Cass perks up. “Alex hun, you just keep getting more and more incredible! Tell me all about your dancing!”

“Ya I love dance class!” Alex hops up and down in her seat. “I have dance class twice a week and we’re learning lots of types of dances and moves but I really like doing freestyle, freestyle is my favorite, I did a freestyle dance for my assignment and I danced to a really fast electro song I thought up and my dance teacher liked it a lot and she gave me an A+.”

“Wow, A+?! All the other girls and boys must wanna dance with you!”

“Well actually, I have to do a group project, so me and my friend Carson used an AI to make a bunch of songs together and now we’re coming up with a dance to—”

“Speaking of whom,” Mom lifts her hand to wave toward the palace foyer. “Hi Carson!”

“Danielle!” Carson waves back at her. “Alli!” Carson brisks through the white daisies and pink peonies of the garden toward their table, the summer breeze rippling across his puffy Oxford shirt and messy ruffles of hair.

Alex hops out of her chair, moseys over to him. “Auntie Cass, this is Carson!” She swings her arm around his shoulder, showing him off proudly. “He’s my friend I was telling you about, he’s really smart and his Dad is in charge of a big tech company and we have lots of classes together and he likes computers and games a lot too.”

“Carson, I’ve heard so many good things about you.” Cass smiles, opening her arms wide. “Do ya do hugs?”

“Alli talks about you all the time!” Carson squeezes her tight. “Nice to meet ya!”

“Whoa, that’s a big hug there,” Cass laughs with a wince. “Alex mentioned you’re strong, but I didn’t expect to be hugged by Superman!”

Carson giggles. “Alli only thinks I’m strong because I beat her in an arm wrestle one time. She’s the strongest.”

“Alex is very strong,” Dani mutters with a tinge of worry. “Carson, why don’t you pull up a seat with us? We’ve got tea and cookies.”

“Alli and me have to go to dance practice, though!”

Alex tilts her head. “I thought it wasn’t until 3:30? Don’t we have another 20 minutes?”

“Ya but if we start now, we can finish planning our choreo before we start practice!”

Alex looks to her Mom for permission to leave the garden early. “Do what you want, sweetie,” she smiles across the table at her. “Your Aunt Cass will be here all week, so if you need to work on your choreo, go for it.”

“We’ll have plenty of time to visit, hun!” Cass nods. “And family dinner together at 6 in the dining hall, ya?”

“Oh ya!”

“Carson is welcome to come too if he’d like,” Alex’s Mom smiles at him.

Carson bounces at the invitation. “Oh boy, they’re servin’ the good pork belly tonight! You bet I’ll be there!”

“Pork belly! So decadent!” Cass chuckles. “Carson, are you a little bit of a foodie?”

“Oh yes ma’am, I am not picky with my food.”

“What’s your favorite dish they serve at—”

A sharp whistle pierces through Cass’ voice from down the garden trail. The group turns to see Soren whistling and waving, trekking up the trail from the woodlands surrounding the palace. Fresh sweat clings to his frizzy brown beard, clings to his black tattoos and dusty cargo pants and combat boots. He heaves his hefty backpack to the ground and hikes on into the garden.

“Ay Auntie Cass!” He calls over. “Been a while!”

“It has,” she gets up from her seat for a big hug. “You’re looking a bit rough, Sor! Just go for a hike?”

“Yep, up the mountain a ways. How was the trip in from Berlin?”

“Flight to Milan was the usual, but the helicopter and drive over here were interesting. Never flown with a military escort before!”

“Oh ya, they’re real hard asses, eh?” Soren laughs. “All those rules they make ya follow.”

“Ay Soren, see anythin’ good up on the mountain today?” Carson asks.

“Matter of fact, I did!” Soren curls his ragged beard, boyish wonder twinkling in his eyes. “You and Alex done school for the day? Wanna come see?”

“Oooh what did you find?” Alex’s eyes light up with the same wonder as her brother’s.

“It’s a surprise!” Soren grins. “But I promise you’ll both love it.”

“Soren,” Mom cuts in. “We need to talk about—”

“Let’s talk after family dinner tonight,” Soren interrupts. “We’ve still got a couple of hours for a hike!”

“I thought you kids had dance practice?” Cass pours herself another cup of tea.

“Soren,” his Mom starts again, “no mountain for Alex today, we need to talk about—”

“Ehhh don’t worry about it Mum,” Soren waves her off. “We’re not goin’ far.”


“Let’s go see what’s up the mountain!” Carson hollers. “We can do dance practice tomorrow, I bet Soren found somethin’ real good!”