410 - The Fires of Conflict

The alarm rings throughout Safe Harbor.

Summer, unusually for her, is already present. There’s a boy she’s moping about - but has yet to talk to - and she hasn’t worked up the nerve to talk to anyone about it.

She runs, and sees the rest of the Newmen running as well, toward the operations room.

Otto has a holographic display up and running. On it, the team can see Leo and Aria dialed in remotely from the Nursery. Summer’s grateful for their restraint, but says nothing.

Joining the team in Ops are two new faces. Otto wastes no time in introducing them.

The first is a man with dark skin, close-cropped hair, and a ready smile. “This is Dr. Jean Mana,” Otto says, inflecting the first name in the French fashion. “For assorted reasons that are nobody’s business, he needs a place to hang out for awhile. He’s good with languages and we’ll be trusting him to handle communications and liaison.”

The others nod or exchange greetings with a smile.

The second is an Atlantean Blood, a young woman whose name Otto gives as Minato Umishita. “Minato will be handling launches, retrievals, and other day-to-day Ops activities. Minato, can you tell the good folks the chain of command around here?”

The girl wriggles her head tentacles in pleasure, like a non-verbal squeal, and recites proudly. “In the field, it’s Otto, then God Almighty, then Leo, Aria, Mo, Big Bill, or Summer. Dr. Mana can pre-empt an operation but not initiate one. For Safe Harbor business it’s Leo and Aria, then anyone they delegate.”

“Very good,” Otto says proudly. “Now onto business.”

He directs the team’s attention to the holographic projection, now showing a map, and zooms in.

“This is a humanitarian project with political implications. We might get in trouble with someone important here. I’ve made the executive decision to act anyway, but I’ll let any of you decide to sit this one out if you need. Hear me out before you decide.”

The map shows markers, indicating road traffic along major highways. Otto continues. “We got refugee caravans converging on this one particular settlement out in the Syrian desert. We got really really good intel cough Charade cough that someone’s sending fighter-bombers out to hit the settlement and the caravans in the next 24 hours. Our job is to halt a huge loss of life.”

“Complicating this is a familiar face. He’s the reason the settlement exists to begin with.”

The map flickers, now showing the settlement at ground level. It’s being seen through the eyes of a Phoenix, Slim-Fast.

The Newmen gasp in surprise.

“It did what it’s meant to do. What any of us would do,” Otto says, looking sternly from face to face. “It found some people in need. It took them under its wing. And it will defend them.”

He looks to Leo on the screen. “Hey boss, say some fighter-bombers came for your people, and you had no restraint whatsoever. What’s your play?”

“I’d tear them apart,” Leo says quietly. “Which would escalate the situation.”

“You cannot tell it to leave?” Dr. Mana asks.

Leo handles this. “Slim-Fast is a Phoenix. Built on my brain imprint. It’s non-sentient, but in other ways it’s me. And I wouldn’t leave these people.”

Otto nods. “So our mission is: interfere with the fighters, and any follow-up ground forces they’re sending, without harming them or making this worse. Somehow get the refugees resettled in a way that doesn’t upset Slim-Fast. Cover the caravans as they come in.”

He turns now to Aria. “Yes or no question. Could we absorb that many refugees?”

“No,” says Aria immediately. “Not without a seriously beefed up logistics story. We just don’t have the food or oxygen production right now. It would take weeks.”

Otto nods. “Okay. The refugees will have to come up with a plan for now. We’ll help execute it. But as a reminder to everyone - we are not fighters. We are a rescue team. We do not take lives. We save them.”

He now comes to the question. “Knowing all this, anyone wanna bow out?”

Nobody does.

Otto turns next to Dr. Mana. “We’re walking the walk. Can you talk the talk?”

“My Mesopotamian Arabic and Kurdish are fluent and up to date,” the linguist replies in clear, concise English. “I can manage Siryon if necessary.”

“Good deal.” Otto claps his hands. “Alright. Saddle up. Minato, we’ve practiced. Now we’re doing it for real.”

“Yes sir!” the girl exclaims.

The team disperses to their places. Summer hops into the Chariot. Mo and Big Bill dock their human shells with their vehicular ones. Minato’s eager voice runs through the checklist, hitting everything on the first try.

“Plasma pressure to… 99%,” she announces. “102%… 105%… Okay? Okay!”

The Hula Hoop engages, and a portal springs to life over Syrian airspace.

“Launch!” Minato shouts, and one by one, the Newmen launch themselves into an unknown and uncertain new world.

1 Like

Early inspections of the settlement are a revelation.

The core of it is a camp built out of vehicles and scrap. The Phoenix is parked at the center, with everything else built around it as a respectful distance. Slim-Fast’s interior is half open. The molecular lathe and other machinery is operating full-time, synthesizing food and medicine from the raw organic materials the refugees bring it.

It’s such a basic, fundamental technology used by super-gadgeteers the world over. It’s 3D printing at the molecular level.

Why aren’t more people doing this? Otto asks himself. The answer is obvious, of course. The technology is so easy to exploit. Making heroin is biochemically no more difficult than making insulin. What’s different is motivation. You’d have to want to hurt people. Slim-Fast, like other Phoenixes, won’t allow itself to be used by such people. And it is astonishingly good at identifying them.

There’s no technological solution to making people better.

The team has been on the ground for three hours when the call comes.

Summer is flying long reconnaissance flights in the Chariot. Big Bill is staying closer to home, but is operating long-range radar searches. Mo and Otto are at the settlement itself, talking to the people in charge with Dr. Mana translating.

With a bit of help from Leo, Minato links the call into everyone’s comm system.

The man’s voice is hostile and demanding from the get-go. “This is Jeff Arbogast of the State Department. You don’t know how hard it was to get hold of you people. Who’s in charge here?”

“Otto Newman. We’re on humanitarian–”

“You are out of line,” Arbogast says, cutting him off. “Your people need to get out of Syria right now.”

“We’re talking to some people here who we’re pretty sure are in imminent danger,” Otto counters.

“They are not your concern.”

Everyone tenses up. They can hear Otto’s voice grow cold, even over the interference from the communication system. “Every human life is our concern, Mr. Arbogast. If the attack comes while we’re talking, I will hang up on you, so hurry up and make your threats already.”

This naked defiance deflates some of Arbogast’s bluster, but he rallies. “The Syria situation is an internal affair. You are risking an international incident by interfering.”

“You gonna send some people to do the job for us?” Otto asks. “If not, we’re here, we’re gonna save lives, and we’re not doing it for America or any other nation. We’re doing it for these people. If someone at the U.N. doesn’t like that, I’ll tell them the same thing I’ll tell you. Help people or get out of the way.”

Aria comes onto the call, strong and proud. “Mr. Arbogast, I’m Aria Newman. I represent the leadership of Safe Harbor, which plays host to Otto’s rescue efforts. We are an independent international entity. Bodies which wish to engage with us can begin doing so by formally recognizing us. But at this time we do not acknowledge your authority over our operations.”

“You won’t be the first to try this. It won’t end well for you,” Arbogast promises. Then the line goes dead.

It’s another 45 minutes before the fighters come screaming in.

Big Bill is the first to report a radar contact.

Otto doesn’t wait for confirmation. “Minato - launch the Sled!” he orders.

“Building up plasma pressure, sir. Sled in… 32 seconds.” The girl sounds stressed.

“Roger. Summer - stall the fighters. Big Bill - as arranged. Caravan scoop. Mo - point defense.”

A chorus of acknowledgements come over the radio.

Summer arcs the Chariot toward the radar contact at high altitude. She circles around and scans, finding the contact after a few moments. “Um, four groups of uh, four fighters apiece. I don’t know what kind.”

“You aren’t a trained fighter pilot,” cautions Aria over comms. “Remember that.”

Summer grins at her sister’s caution. “I know. But I don’t think those guys can do what I can do either.”

“What’s that?”

Summer angles the Chariot downward and pours on the power. “Survive 20G turns.”

She flies straight through the formation, sending the fighters in a surprised spiral outward from their formation. After a moment, the fighters do what she hoped - form up again, and follow her.

She dives for the ground. The fighters pull out before she does. They have to - she has a much tighter climbing radius, and supplemental thrusters they don’t. She levels out at a mere 15 feet over the ground, sending up dust plumes, then pulls the nose upward and re-orients to find the fighters again.

She can sort of imagine Alycia’s voice in her mind. “Right now they’re asking permission to fire at you. Pretty soon they’ll get it.”

She thumbs on the defensive suite of the Chariot, and readies herself.

The Sled emerges from a fresh portal, loaded down with three vital things: medical supplies, synthesized from Safe Harbor’s own lathes, an enormous power bank, and a bunch of Summer’s newly assembled spare drones.

The drones aren’t for the Chariot. They’re for the defense of the settlement.

Otto has been having a conversation with the de facto leader, a man named Youssef. Having to mediate it through Dr. Mana has slowed things down, but everyone is now on the same page.

The refugees are going to have to move. Otto is here to help with that, but cannot provide a place to move to. The last few hours have been preparing for this eventuality.

Otto asked Aria for special permission to house people with medical issues in Safe Harbor, at least temporarily, and she conceded this much. Those people are now being loaded onto the sled, with Mo hauling equipment off at the same time.

Everyone else has been loading into the vehicles. Slim-Fast is making nervous bird noises, and is clearly agitated by the activity. Otto has been furiously inputting commands through the Phoenix interface - “friendlies are moving” - and the stubborn bird seems to have gotten the basic idea, but refuses to move an inch regardless.

There’s a big bus that will play host to the power bank for the drones. Mo mounts it on top, lashes it down, and pronounces it good - at least until the weight of the bank crushes the roof. Refugees do their best to stack stuff underneath as reinforcement, but the bus groans under the weight regardless.

This vehicle will be at the heart of the new super-caravan. As other convoys come in, they’ll join up and take position around this one. The drones will orbit, intercepting bombs or missiles or guns or whatever, then recharge at the bank.

Big Bill is already on the ground, loading vulnerable people from the incoming caravans on board and hauling them back to Slim-Fast’s location. He can’t reach everyone, but he’ll get who he can. Otto has also tasked him with providing the other caravans with radios to coordinate the effort.

Summer reports in. “I think they’re getting bored of me. Some of them are peeling off.”

Explosions come over the comms as she speaks.

“You okay, lady?” Otto asks urgently.

“Oh yeah, these boys just have something long and hard for me,” Summer giggles.

“Just call them missiles and take a cold shower, geez,” Otto grumbles.

He turns to Youssef. “They’re coming,” he says tensely. Dr. Mana translates, but Youssef gets the message without it.

Everyone who can fit on the Sled is on board. Minato opens the portal at Otto’s command, and it glides through.

The Battery Bus groans and lurches, but it gets underway. Other vehicles take up position around it, creating a cloud of dust. The defense drones begin circling. Overhead, Big Bill jets past.

This is it, Otto thinks to himself. The die is cast.

Sure enough, Big Bill’s radar picks up a detachment of aircraft at long range, coming from where Summer is engaging the pack.

Minato’s voice breaks in. “Otto? Um, that man, Mr. Arbogast–”

“Tell him to fuck off,” Otto says flatly.

“But sir, he says–”

“I said, tell him–”

“–he wants to help.”

Otto blinks. “He wants to what?”

“I’ll put him through,” Minato says brightly.

Otto sighs. Kids.

Arbogast’s voice comes through. “Mr. Newman. You didn’t take my advice then so I don’t know if you’ll take it now. The planes coming in are Soviet-made Su-22s. They probably won’t attack the caravan directly. They’ll bomb the road ahead and behind to trap the vehicles in place for ground forces to deal with. Bombs are expensive, soldiers are cheap.”

“Why tell us?” Otto demands.

“To keep this from escalating further.” Arbogast’s voice has a newfound weariness. “Just tell me how many you shot down already.”

“Zero,” says Otto.

He can feel Arbogast’s surprise in the silent pause, and fills in. “I told you earlier. Human life is our concern.”

“Kids,” he can hear the bureaucrat mutter under his breath. In an audible voice, Arbogast continues. “Right. If you’re there and committed, if you keep those people alive long enough, someone will decide it’s not worth pursuing for now and give up. Until the next time a hardliner gets a bug up their ass about the wrong ethnic groups being in their territory.”

Otto listens quietly as the lecture grows more solemn. “Seems like every young idealist with superpowers thinks they can solve the Middle East, or Africa, or whatever, and then whoever’s turf they breach takes it out on the local American military base, on soldiers who were just minding their own business. Then we have to respond. Violence begets violence.”

“We can’t just leave these people to die!” Otto practically shouts into the radio.

“Someone is always going to die for the sins of the ancestors, or the colonizers, or the offenders, Mr. Newman,” Arbogast says sadly.

Otto looks up, at the brilliant light of the sun in the sky. He looks around, at the hopeful, fearful faces looking out the windows. He sees parents holding children. He sees young people tending to old people. He takes a breath, and steels his soul.

“Maybe. But nobody dies today.”

The call clicks off.

“New plan,” Otto announces to his team. “30% of the point defense drones will go ahead with the Battery Bus. They’ll intercept bombs. Rest of the drones are guarding individual vehicles - just in case. We don’t care about the road behind us - we’re going ahead. Big Bill, Mo, and me will use grapples to lift vehicles over bomb craters. Mo, construction foam and leveler to fill in any craters we can fill. Summer, stop playing with your boyfriends and get back here. We need the Chariot to fly interference on bombers. Buzz them at the last second as they come in, throw off their aim if you can.”

Again, a chorus of compliance comes over the radio.

It’s mere seconds before the Su-22s overfly the caravan.

“Move your metal butts!” Otto shouts.

The point defense drones are fully autonomous. The bombers come in and release their payloads. The drones in turn track the bombs’ ballistic arcs.

Otto feels the first pangs of despair when he sees how many bombs are getting through. “What’s going on?” he demands.

“Sorry - I’m computing and flying at the same time,” comes Summer’s voice, apologetically. “This isn’t the scenario we prepped for.”

As though on cue, an exotic super-jet overflies the caravan. But it’s not the Chariot.

Otto recognizes it immediately, and swears. “Slim-Fast. Shit! Shit shit shit–”

The screaming Phoenix is targeting the bombers. Otto, immediately plugging into its HUD, can see the markers.

“No buddy, no no no no, don’t do this, don’t escalate–” Otto is begging the animal, knowing it won’t understand and wouldn’t obey anyway, as he frantically tries untagging the bombers.

Slim-Fast transforms in midair from fighter to robot bird. This isn’t some kind of optimal strategy - it’s just a display of dominance, a rage reaction, and Otto knows it.

What would Leo do? Attack - unless–

In desperation, he tries a Hail Mary. “Summer, bear with me!” he shouts. And he redirects control of the drones from the Chariot to Slim-Fast.

“Keep 'em safe, please keep 'em safe, remember, buddy, remember,” Otto begs. “You have a shield, use it, use it, use it god dammit…”

He’s distracted by the sudden approach of the caravan’s vehicles to the newly formed bomb crater. “MO!”

“Already on it, boss,” Mo answers. The rescue vehicle pulls ahead of the others, firing a blob of construction foam into the hole. As it fires, Mo transforms from vehicle to humanoid and executes a graceful somersault in the process, then pushes off the ground with powerful arms, and engages his own rockets while in the air. His grapples lash out, and grab hold of a beat-up minivan that’s about to hit the crater. He lifts it, just inches from the crater’s edge, and in a few seconds sets it down on the other side.

Meanwhile, the construction foam has started to harden. He fires a compressed package of memory-metal from an arm-mounted launcher, which lands atop the foam. The weight will even out the foam underneath, making it level and safe for the next vehicle to cross.

Big Bill is swooping in as well. His grapples also fire, taking hold of vehicles and steering them around or over chunks of rubble or holes in the ground, faster than a human driver could react.

Otto feels like an eternity has passed. He returns his attention to Slim-Fast, the Phoenix, fearing the worst.

Slim-Fast has taken control of its new assets, and is directing the drones. More bombs are coming in, but this time they’re met by a mastermind whose sole and only interest is protecting the people of the settlement it helped support. The drones aren’t moving in their preprogrammed patterns. They’re flocking, like birds, and scatter or converge to intercept the bombs.

Oh thank Jesus Christ and all the saints.

It’s not long before the bombers that Summer was distracting arrive, and they too line up their shots.

Unfortunately, Slim-Fast doesn’t recognize that the drones need to recharge. Otto must wrest control of individual drones away from it, then dispatch them back to the Battery Bus, and Slim-Fast is fighting him every step of the way.

“God dammit you fucking bird,” Otto grumbles. “Summer, status.”

“Looks like a bombing run, I think,” the girl reports. “These boys haven’t seen a third of what I’ve got.”

The Chariot overtakes the bombers and transforms suddenly, and Summer dispatches her own drones in an orbit around her. Unable to follow their path without colliding with something, but with time to pull out, the bomber pilots choose the safer course and peel off.

“They’ll come back until they run out of fuel,” Otto warns. “This isn’t over.”

Sure enough, the bombers fly away - only to bank and come round again.

The caravan continues weathering the assault. Minute after minute, like hungry vultures, the bombers come in, and some desperate combination of the Chariot, the drones, and Slim-Fast - kept on a short leash by Otto - keep them from doing much more damage to the road.

Some gets through, and Mo and Big Bill keep plugging. More construction foam, until Mo runs out. More grappling lines, until the stresses they place on the vehicles becomes too much and the drivers must simply slow down and follow other vehicles through narrower and narrower safe zones - becoming more vulnerable in the process.

“Power pack’s running low,” Summer reports. “Withdraw the point defense drones. I’ll tackle the rest of the bombs.”

“Okay, do it.” Otto phones home. “Minato - Sled status.”

Aria interrupts. “We don’t have trained doctors here - we don’t know how many people we can safely take off the Sled to redeploy it. I made the call to keep them with the medical gear, and the refugees who came with them are gonna stay with them.”

“Roger,” Otto replies. That means no spare power bank.

That also means no control over Slim-Fast, he reminds himself.

The bombers have switched to guns, and are now simply strafing the caravan. But not all of them - and Otto infers in the moment that this means individual pilots are sick of this bullshit and are venting their frustration.

Summer responds by physically interposing the Chariot between them and the vehicles. Bullets ricochet off the Chariot’s carbon-allotrope skin, but many many rounds get through.

These in turn are tackled by the last line of defense: the drones allocated to protect the vehicles. Their power packs are fresh and their screens are strong. Otto can hear children screaming as bullets bounce off hard-light constructs only feet away from them, but he bears with it, and follows Summer’s cue - putting his own invulnerable robot body in the path of the oncoming attacks.

After what feels like an eternity, the bombers peel off, and do not return for another attack.

Otto watches Slim-Fast like a hawk. But the bird-god stays with the caravan.

“Human casualties: 0.0,” says Otto, quoting “Terminator 2”.

Objectively, it’s a victory. So why does he want to cry?

Big Bill is overflying the super-caravan, his cargo bay loaded with mothers and their kids, when the news comes in.

Arbogast is back on the line, and Bill privately thinks Otto is going to give Minato grief after this job for letting him on at all. But what he says needs to be heard.

“So there’s been a high-level decision to tell you people - not ask - to stay out of United States territory for the time being.”

There’s a chorus of complaints, but Otto silences them with a quiet declaration. “Chill, gang. We made our beds. Keep talking, Mr. Arbogast. What is ‘the time being’?”

“For as long as it takes to demonstrate that you aren’t working for us as some kind of operatives,” Arbogast answers. “We have to open diplomatic channels, tell a lot of suspicious people you aren’t affiliated with us, and get them to buy it. That’s gonna take time. I understand that most of you are under the Hayden Act. So you’re people, we’re respecting that, but we tell people to stay out all the time.”

The bureaucrat’s voice grows sing-song, as he recites a familiar refrain. “This injunction applies not only to yourselves as individuals but to any member of your organization. Anyone found in violation of the injunction shall face penalties not limited to fines, imprisonment, or death.”

“‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’,” quips Otto.

“Practicality always looks like hypocrisy from a distance,” Arbogast retorts sharply. “How many of these people are you taking to your ‘Safe Harbor’?”

Nobody has an answer for that.

Arbogast continues, more quietly. “Kid. I get it. I wasn’t sculpted out of mud in the basement of State. I came to this job with ideals and dreams and all that. I haven’t thrown those away entirely. But I plant my little garden with the flowers that I can keep alive. You lot are now learning what the United States spent two centuries figuring out. At least make an effort to learn from our mistakes, and start making practical calls instead of empty promises.”

The call ends there.

Bill checks on his interior cameras to see how the refugees are doing. To his surprise, one kid is showing the others a trick she can do - manifest a small flame out of nothingness. A pyrokinetic?

He calls Dr. Mana, hoping he’ll translate a conversation. Admiration, an offer to put the kid in touch with someone who can train her, something that acknowledges the specialness of what’s happening. But when he mentions this, he can see the scholar shake his head on the screen. “You should not say anything. Do not tell anyone what you saw.”

Big Bill is confused. “Is this some kinda cultural thing? A, whatcha call it, stigma or taboo?”

Dr. Mana shakes his head. “Not exactly. But these people… their enemies will take any excuse, not only to kill them, or drive them out, but to dehumanize them. These super-powers, they are associated with people, yes?”

“Generally, yeah,” Bill says in confusion.

“The people who attacked the caravan today would find it inconvenient for them to be people,” Dr. Mana says simply and sorrowfully. “They know that. They are sharing a secret among themselves. They don’t know that you can see. They don’t really understand what you are.”

The doctor laughs. “Honestly, I don’t fully understand it myself. But please. Keep their secret. Don’t tell even your friends what you saw. They do not need to feel any more afraid.”

“No, I getcha,” Big Bill says at last. He slumps back in his seat, and lets out a long sigh.

Mo makes a private call to Big Bill. Although the two often talk, with or without Otto, it’s Bill that does most of the actual talking.

“There’s other refugee camps, yeah?” the taciturn rescue robot asks.

“Reckon so,” Bill replies. “We only got a call about this one, though.”

“Feels like we took a little bite from a really big apple,” Mo says, after a moment’s silence.

“Sure does.”

“Whatcha think?”

Bill doesn’t know how to answer his fellow’s question. “I think it’s makin’ me think hard about what it means to rescue people. If you think about it, think about the people I mean, and you stretch out their future in your head in the days and weeks after we come by and do our thing… is it better to give them a few more days, a little more time? Or is it givin’ them false hope?”

“I can’t say I think any hope is false,” Bill says, after turning the thought over. “Hope is always for something you don’t have already, ain’t it? If it was guaranteed, it’d be a promise. Hope is like a pirate treasure map. Maybe there’s no treasure, but there sure ain’t gonna be if you don’t go and dig it up.”

Mo comes round to his point. “Guess I’m asking, how long you think we should stick with these people. Others need us. They need us. Not enough us to go around.”

“Are you asking if it’s time we–”


The exchange goes by rapidly. Neither man will say “build more Newman-type robots”. The moral weight of the action hangs over them even now. Only Leo and Otto have dared it so far, and they made only two unique entities each. The very idea of mass production is not something these individuals want to dwell on.

Big Bill pivots to the more palatable alternative. “Guess we got a lotta construction coming up. First thing Otto’s gonna say when we get back is ‘hey Aria we need to build more stuff’, and the little lady will do that arm fold thing she does, and they’ll have their tense standoff, and she’ll tell him what it’ll take. Then we start building. You reckon so?”

“Probably,” Mo replies.

“And how big do we have to build to keep enough people safe that we’ll feel content?” Big Bill asks quietly.

Mo has no answer for this. But they keep the call open, even as the silence stretches out, because to do otherwise is to be alone.

Summer is flying long, lazy recon loops around the caravan. She’s keeping an eye on the tactical radar of the Chariot, connected to Big Bill’s long-range radar set.

She’s also thinking.

Hours ago, she was thinking about a boy with nice eyes and wavy blonde hair and abs, and she can’t even remember his name. Now, she’s persona non grata in the United States of America.

She thinks how little any of it matters. It’s all childish.

But this is the choice she made, isn’t it? To live like a mortal, live a life with consequences, take chances, pay prices.

I got outlawed from the US before Alycia did.

The thought actually makes her laugh out loud.

Is this what Alycia feels like? Hunted - excluded - cursed for the wrong life choices?

The laughter fades away.

She uses the Chariot’s optics to zoom in on some of the refugee vehicles.

No. We didn’t make the wrong choices, she realizes. We’re suffering the consequence of someone else’s decision. But we’d do this again in a heartbeat.

Would we? her doubt asks.

She looks through the telescopic zoom at the people, huddled together for shelter and the hope of a new life, and wills the doubt to fade away.

The refugee caravan has come to a stop, due to the vehicles’ need to refuel and rest.

Otto has a talk with Youssef through Dr. Mana.

“It would be easy for us to say, we will stay as long as you need us,” Otto explains. “Then the weight would be on you to decide when you’d asked too much. We don’t deny your need, but others need us too.”

Youssef smiles and pats the big robot on the leg - as high as he can reach. Through Dr. Mana, he answers. “Tomorrow is tomorrow. You gave us today. That is enough.”

Otto hesitates, and makes a decision. “We’ll go with you just a little longer. Just in case.”

It’s almost an hour when the latest call comes from Safe Harbor.

Minato sounds honestly scared. “Uh, guys? Aria says everyone needs to get back here right away. I’m opening the portal, once I get your location ping…”

The Hula Hoop opens. One by one, the Newman vehicles pile through and return to their positions within the launch system.

In humanoid shells and at human scales, the robots run to the Nursery.

Aria, holding little Fez, is watching Leo like a hawk. Leo, in turn, is curled up in a tight knot, looking at nothing, doing nothing but holding his knees to his chest. He says nothing.

“What happened?” Otto demands.

Aria looks at him with empty eyes. “We were in a conference, talking about an expansion of Safe Harbor. Lot of Atlanteans were present. We were going over the early proposals, and…”

She glances back at Leo. “He hadn’t been talking. I should have noticed earlier. He was slipping away. I was focused on Fez, and the meeting. It’s my fault.”

Her eyes return to Otto, pleading and fearful. “Leo attacked one of the Atlanteans. Just came across the table at him. I was able to stop him in time, but…”

The others immediately gather around Leo. Otto kneels and studies him for almost a minute.

“Boss…” he murmurs.

Leo doesn’t respond.

Otto looks up. “Alright. I’ll take care of this. Just stay here and look after Fez. It’s gonna be okay, Aria.”

Aria does not look like it’s going to be okay.

Otto is on the phone with Leo’s therapist, Doctor Faraja Kariuki. This is one of those situations where an in-person examination is really necessary. Unfortunately, she’s in the United States, where Leo can’t go any longer. Sure, they could sneak in, but Otto asks about that, and is informed in no uncertain terms that there would be a duty to notify law enforcement.

The backup plan is to find someone in another country, then fill them in with Leo’s case notes.

The Newmen have no infrastructure anywhere else - nobody to call, no finances, no insurance. Arbogast’s words haunt Otto.

A ray of hope shines through.

“I can come somewhere else,” the therapist explains. “If you can find a way to arrange the billing, I’m willing to travel, for so unique a patient.”

The Spanish superhero, Hellenic, has graciously taken Otto’s call for help. She meets Dr. Kariuki at the airport in England, then flies her into an open stretch of air. A portal opens there, and the pair pass through.

Hellenic stays only long enough to drop off her passenger, out of respect for the privacy of the Newmen. Otto welcomes Kariuki and escorts her to the Nursery, where there’s a 24-hour rotating watch keeping an eye on Leo and Aria.

The therapist makes her examination, once again using the data from Leo’s neurochip and asking for Aria’s assistance in interpreting it.

“He can’t stay here,” is her conclusion. “He cannot live in this place. He can’t be underwater, or near the Atlanteans, or near other triggers for his prior trauma.”

“I have to be with him,” Aria asserts in no uncertain terms.

“Then you must leave too,” is the doctor’s conclusion.

“But… I’m building this city. I’m the administrator–”

“Then you must make a choice,” says Dr. Kariuki firmly.

Leo and Aria can’t go to the United States.

They can’t go anywhere without a Nursery, because that’s where their newborn baby has to live.

Hellenic and other European supers are sympathetic, but the legal proprieties must be obeyed. Privately, Hellenic conveys to Otto that they too are concerned about the optics of publicly associating someone the United States is on the outs with.

Antarctica is technically ungoverned, but it is lonely beyond measure. Leo cannot be allowed to wrap himself up into himself, the therapist warns. He needs contact.

The team discuss technical solutions, like remotely operated drones with holographic projectors.

It’s Otto who finally suggests the simple solution. “We’ll build another vehicle. Propulsion, automation, life support, and the rest is all Nursery. We’ll just drop it somewhere in an English-speaking country. Leo and Aria will live out of that, and hopefully find some neighbors. If shit goes south, the craft packs up and leaves, and we try again.”

The Newman boys get to work on building the new thing, which is dubbed the RV almost immediately.

Summer contributes by taking care of Fez, every moment she can, freeing Aria to tend to Leo more often.

The baby is visibly growing and maturing. From Aria’s numerous photos, reference images, and notes, she’s been obsessive about monitoring her baby’s development against some kind of metric, in a desperate bid to establish that her child is “normal”. For her part, Summer is happy enough to play with Fez, read to them, soothe them to sleep, and comfort them when they wake up crying or hungry.

Dr. Kariuki is assisting with Leo’s needs, although she makes it clear she is a therapist and not a caretaker. Rather, she spends time studying his brain patterns and other indicators.

Aria has worked out a difficult deal. The doctor gets to publish Leo as a case study in a book - an examination of hypergenius treatment - and the price of therapy will be covered by the book’s profits. It feels somehow wrong, but the doctor assures Aria that other geniuses will benefit from the research.

“My goal is not to profit from your husband, my dear,” she says. “Many medical breakthroughs were achieved thanks to unique opportunities, but sadly were exploited without the consent of the patient. I will not make that mistake with the two of you.”

Safe Harbor’s manufacturing base is able to assemble the RV much faster than it took to plan it. It’s only a few days after Leo’s incident that they’re able to start testing.

Aria carries Fez’s robotic brain, as delicately as though she were transporting the Crown Jewels, and plugs it into the waiting socket of the RV.

The system comes to life, and the holographic Nursery is restored from backup. At the center of it is her child, cooing in wonder and surprise.

Destinations are discussed. Countries with lots of open land and lax law enforcement are considered more appealing, as are those with difficult geography that would let someone hide out. The final four are Australia, Italy, Switzerland, and Ireland.

Aria opts for Australia. The pair of them have American accents that will stand out, but the hope is that they’ll be able to cover for that with a story that they’re travelers.

“If the cops show up, we’ll run for it,” Aria says. “Pack up and move on.”

Dr. Kariuki, as Leo’s therapist, signs off on the plan, with the caveat that doctor-patient confidentiality can only cover so many sins. Otto arranges with Hellenic for another pickup, and she says her goodbyes to everyone.

This clears the deck for the most important question: the administration of Safe Harbor in Aria’s absence.

“I’ve made a list of people I trust the most,” she says crisply. “I’ve informed seven of them that they’re now an executive council. Their decisions will be binding on Safe Harbor as a whole. The Launch System, and your rescue operations, will continue to be independent and under Otto’s direction - I’ve made that clear. But the rest of the city…”

She bites her lip. “I think I can trust them. I hope. I know I can trust all of you.” She looks from face to face, gauging her Newman family and friends. “I sometimes fear you’re the only people I can trust. This is difficult for me. But of my two babies, Fez is infinitely more important.”

Summer and Aria share a heartfelt, tearful hug. The others hug her as well. They help Leo on board the RV, with supportive pats to the shoulder and whispered words of encouragement.

The Hula Hoop opens onto the Australian outback, and Aria pilots it through. Then the portal closes, and the Newmen left behind let out a long collective sigh.

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Safe Harbor is quiet. Word has gotten around about what happened, and people aren’t sure what comes next.

Otto, as the senior Newman left in the city, takes it upon himself to round up everyone that was at the fateful meeting for a face-to-face. He talks about Leo’s experiences as a child, the trauma his father inflicted on him, and the horrific abuse and later battle with the Atlantean commander Saito. He talks about Leo’s recovery, and the hand Aria and himself had in it. He lays it out factually. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness for Leo’s actions, just understanding of the circumstances behind it.

He knows this is going to take time to process, so leaves it at that.

He meets with the seven people Aria entrusted with Safe Harbor’s near term future. They’re a mixture of human ex-captives and Atlantean Blood. They’re scientists, scholars, and poets for the post part. One is a human biomechanic who worked on Atlantean systems, not anyone’s idea of an authority figure, but he quickly realizes what Aria saw in the guy - an easy familiarity around everyone, from squid hybrids to giant robots. The city’s leadership, he feels, is in good hands.

His next stop is Mo’s workshop. The taciturn rescue robot’s experiments in using plasma and magnetic fields to quickly mass-produce Newman-type carbon allotropes has been promising. Can it be scaled up? Can Safe Harbor grow, if there’s enough raw materials and power to feed into the fabricator?

“Maybe,” is Mo’s answer.

“Dammit, dude, I need something here,” Otto protests. “The world’s going to shit faster than we’re able to grow. Sooner or later someone’s gonna get another metamaterial railgun army equipped, shoot us full of holes, and we’re gonna need replacement shells but quick. You got a great idea here. I need to know how reliable it is.”

Mo shrugs. “Dunno.”

“Well you’ve been using it, right?” Otto asks. “It built those spare drones we used on the operation?”


“So it works.”


Otto wants to point a finger in his face, but feels that would be rude. Plus, Mo in his full-sized robot mode is taller than Otto himself. For all his talk of being ‘the big guy’, Otto is now the weenie of the group, and it irks him.

Instead, he holds out his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I know you get the importance of it. Lemme try a different tack. What’s blockin’ you from making this thing work as reliably as we need?”

Mo hmms. “Time,” he says finally.

Otto lets out a sigh. “Okay. Just… Just put in the time, alright? Anything else, anything that’s a distraction from making it solid, you bring to me and I’ll solve it.”

“Raw materials, and power,” Mo says.

“Yeah. I’ll get on that right now,” Otto promises with a smile.

The Casimir Fractal is a superscience invention that’s existed for decades. Rossum used it, which is how knowledge of it fell into Leo’s hands. One Fractal can breed another one - although what “one fractal” means is up for debate. It’s the most reliable power source known to man - it simply extracts electrons from the a quirk of physical law - but it’s limited. Leo worked around that by letting juice accumulate in high-capacity graphene batteries of his own design, but it still takes time to build up usable amounts of oomph.

Otto needs something more muscular, that also won’t blow up in his - or the city’s - face.

Of all the candidates he’s aware of, nuclear fusion is the safest. Take deuterium or tritium, put a whole lot of energy into containing the reaction, hopefully get more energy out of it. The theoretical problems are more or less solved, and fusion power plants have been up and running for awhile. The biggest hurdles are in engineering the parts, pushback from traditionalists in the energy sector, and aggressive legislation.

Fine. He’ll just have to somehow find a physicist and a team of engineers. No problem.

He sighs. Saving the world is looking less and less easy by the hour.

He finds Big Bill performing maintenance on the Launch System, and joins in.

The big robot is normally more talkative than Mo, but recent event seem to have taken the wind out of his sails. It sounds strange to describe a robot this way, but all Otto can think is that he’s doing the maintenance - well, mechanically.

Finally Otto decides he needs to say something. Anything.

“You working on anything like Mo’s fabricator? Or just having fun down here playing with the Hula Hoop all day?”

Big Bill blinks, and turns to his fellow Newman in surprise. “Me? Naw. I got an upgraded PINNACLE brain, sure, but I’m just not the inventing type. Shucks, I can barely fly a plane!”

Otto laughs at the joke, but grows more serious. “Yeah, maybe you’re more of a people person. Well you’re in luck, my friend. We got people problems.”

“Whatcha got?” Bill asks curiously.

Otto spreads his hands in a helpless shrug. “What’s all this teleportation stuff for, if we don’t know where we’re going? What does it mean to rescue people, if we don’t know which people need rescuing? We’ve been pretty ad-hoc so far. Listening to the news, tips from people we know. I think we could maybe swing an ASIST group account since it’s theoretically international. I need someone to brainstorm more ways to track down people in need.”

Otto takes a breath, and gets to the hard part. “Most of all, I need a way not only to get more data, but to filter it. Find all trouble spots, sort by urgency. See what you can do to come up with a brilliant solution there. Failing that, find someone who does this professionally and get them to build us a system to do it.”

“I’ll sure try,” Big Bill says with a reassuring enthusiasm.

Otto smiles. “Great. Oh, hey, any idea where Summer went?”


Otto blinks. “Where’s that?”

“It’s an island off the coast of Spain. She asked that nice superhero lady, Hellenic, about it while she was here, bringin’ the doctor for Leo.”

“Huh. What’d she want with a place like that?” Otto muses aloud.

“She asked about uh, hotspots,” Bill says, after checking his memory for a moment. “Places with lots of people and fun, somethin’ like that.”

Otto lets out a sigh. “Damn party girl. She’s off to make out with some boy and dance the night away.”

Bill’s mood changes slightly, and he hunkers down to look at Otto more closely. “Say, does that, uh, bother you at all? Her, an’ some other fella?”

Otto blinks. “What? No way. Not unless she gets hurt. I mean then, Alycia an’ me got a pact to make that guy regret it.” He slams a solid fist into an open palm.

The jet robot nods. “Well, see, Mo an’ me, we know how ya felt about Miss Aria. What with Summer an’ her bein’, y’know–”

Otto laughs. “I know. And I’ve had time to think about it.”

He straightens up, and looks his friend in the eyes. “Any man would love to have a girlfriend like Aria or Summer. For Leo - and people like him, namely us - she’s the perfect woman. But I was created before her, so did I really inherit Leo’s love for Pneuma herself? Nah. I figured it out awhile ago. The thing was, I was interested in those longings that were in Leo’s head long before Pneuma took shape as a reality. These days, I got different interests.”

Big Bill draws back thoughtfully and nods. “I reckon I see whatcha mean.”

Otto catches Mo wandering into the Launch System, and decides it’s as good a time to ask as any. “Well, what about you fellas? I got kind of a relationship going, but what about the two of you? If either of you are interested in Summer - or anyone else - what’s stopping you from making your moves?”

“Y’don’t give us any free time,” says Mo immediately.

Big Bill chuckles ruefully at that.

Otto sighs. “I can take a hint. Fine. You two jokers go have fun somewhere. I’ll finish up work on the Launch System.”

As the two depart, he shouts after them. “And learn another god damn language some week! It’s a big world, we’re gonna have to start interacting with more people. And you can’t hit on someone with Dr. Mana translating for ya!”

Summer was able to secure an invitation to the party yacht by landing on the deck while it was already at sea. Having a superhero just fly down to your boat is novel. When you’re young, rich, and high, what else is worthwhile but a procession of novel amusements?

Several of the boys seemed interested, but they’ve been drawn back to their existing dates out of some sense of propriety or shame. The lad who’s left didn’t seem to show up with a girl or two. He’s not the tanned muscular sort that most of these fellows are, but he’s got a British accent, a nice smile and he can listen despite clearly having mixed alcohol and something stronger earlier. As a result, Summer is down to her undergarments and is having an innuendo-laden chat with him when her phone rings. She can tell who it is from the ringtone.

“I’m so sorry, I’ve got to take this,” she says with her best winning smile. “It’s my brother.”

Otto isn’t strictly her brother - their relationship is far more complicated - but it explains well enough.

“Am I interrupting anything?” Otto asks saucily.

Summer lets out an exaggerated sigh. “It’s fine. I’m talking to…” She glances over to prompt herself. “Douglas. We’re having such a wonderful time. What’s up?”

She listens to what Otto has to say, and responds noncommittally. She hangs up, and turns to the young man, watching curiously.

“I’m so sorry. I have to go. But thank you so much, I had a good time talking to you.”

“Me too,” Douglas manages, through a haze of desire and drugs.

Summer slips back into her outer garments, and takes off like a rocket from the deck of the yacht.

The Hula Hoop yawns open just long enough for Summer to come through. She finds Otto, still running maintenance checks on the systems.

“What are you doing back here? I told you to enjoy yourself,” he says in surprise.

“Yeah, but…” Summer touches down, and rubs her fingertips together awkwardly. “Look, I have a really weird request. Can you get Big Bill and Mo on comms?”

Otto patches her through, and Summer asks her favor. “Listen, guys, I know it’s weird, things are weird, everything is weird. Can we just hang out tonight? I need three big teddy bears to cuddle with.”

Otto chuckles. Summer can hear Big Bill’s voice over the system. “Sure thing li’l lady. Say, how do you feel about seein’ a movie?”

“Whatcha got?” Summer asks.

“Chaplin,” quips Mo.

“Rebel Without a Cause,” suggests Otto.

“A Gene Autry movie?” Big Bill asks.

They settle on “Casablanca”.

The boys are relaxing on the couch, watching television on the big screen. Summer is stretched out across all three boys’ laps, wrapped in a blanket and looking very comfortable.

Otto periodically peeks over at the other two. But neither of them seem at all uncomfortable with the arrangement. Sure, the relationship is weird. But Summer is Summer. If she needs something, she gets it.

Otto broaches the subject only after the movie ends, as Mo is thumbing through the group’s meager Plex server’s supply of DVD rips.

“Why’d you come back? Weren’t having fun with Douglas or whoever?”

Summer rolls on her back so she can look up at Otto. Her face is cloudy with mixed emotions. “I realized I didn’t really want to be there. I was just lonely. I wanted to be someone - with people - whatever. But it was an escape. And I got to thinking.”

She looks at the others. “What if they were live-streaming the party on that boat? And what if some supervillain had come out to find me, and the boat sank, and everyone needed rescuing? You know? And we’d drag those people out of the water, back to Ibiza, and the EMTs would give them blankets and soup and they’d be on the phone to their parents, and then tomorrow everything would be okay. Because they’d get to go home. They had a scare and they’d get to go home afterward.”

She sighs and looks at the ceiling. “What does it mean to rescue people who don’t get to go home? You know?”

“The refugees,” says Otto quietly. “Or people like them. But I checked. Slim-Fast came with them.”

“It’s too late tonight,” Summer says quietly. “But can we go see them tomorrow? Or just, you know, peek in from a distance or something?”

Otto smiles. “We’ll see what happens.”

Summer nods, and Otto can see another thought come to her, then pause as she considers how brave she wants to be.

“You know, there’s four of us now. We’re all kind of on the same sleep schedule. What happens when there’s an emergency while we’re asleep?”

“Someone else gets it,” Otto says firmly. “One of my rules is that we are not the sole protectors of the world. So do not let it bother you.”

“I guess…” Summer levers herself to her feet, clinging to the blanket she wrapped herself inside. “You guys have been really sweet to me tonight. Thank you. I really needed that.”

Otto’s smile is gentle. “You get some rest, okay? The rest of us will go to sleep soon too.”

At 9am local time, Summer is in the ops center with Otto and Mo. Joining them is Dr. Jean Mana, at Otto’s invitation.

The four of them watch through Slim-Fast’s eyes. The refugees found a cave system, moved some of their vehicles inside, and have set up a new settlement there. The Phoenix followed them in and is now “nesting”. Once again, people are using its assorted super-tech tools to create the necessities of life, under its watchful eye.

“This ‘Phoenix’. This is… a robot, like you?” Dr. Mana asks.

“Not quite like us, but yeah, same physical technology. The mind is very different.” Otto taps his head. “See, we’re mentally remixes of the boss - of Leo Newman nee Snow - but we’re as human as anyone, y’know? Conscious, sentient beings. Hopes, dreams, frustrations, favorite foods, the works. The Phoenix isn’t sentient though. It’s smart, it’s empathic, but it’s not conscious. Even a crow has more self-awareness than it does, just in terms of neocortical wiring and metacognitive transmission.”

Dr. Mana takes all this in, and his smile is curiously melancholy. “It is not a person, but based on, if I understand you, the template of someone who is.”


The linguist looks at the screen. “These people have resisted dehumanization and genocide for so long. And now they are protected by a creature whose dehumanization was intentionally benevolent.”

He seems like he has more to say. Otto and Summer give him the room to do so. Mo, as usual, has little to say anyway.

“Your own exile from the United States caught all of you by surprise, if you’ll forgive me an observation. Because of your own personhood. Your empathy triumphed over whatever patriotism you possessed.”

Otto laughs out loud at that. “Doc, I think you overestimate how much faith any of us have in our particular government, for good and sufficient reasons.”

Dr. Mana chuckles sympathetically, and Summer suspects he too has dealt with a hostile government in his life. But he goes on.

“You took a stand. It is easy to say ‘I am against genocide’. This is not a complex topic at all. You choose human life over a political policy. But how useful is that stance, if you aren’t the one dropping the bombs?”

He watches the screen intently. “I have seen people on social media say ‘it is complicated’. But is it? You might say it’s complicated if you profit from the situation, and want an excuse not to change it. For example, if you’ve made a particular group a scapegoat for your problems. Or if your nation’s policies made enemies in a region of the world, and now you prop up a friendly state as a shield against their reprisals.”

“There is a saying, ‘to ride the tiger’. The tiger is a dangerous creature. After a point, it becomes more dangerous to dismount than to stay on. What do you do? That is the dilemma facing people like Mr. Arbogast. This too is complicated.”

“There is another, more insidious reason to say ‘it is complicated’. You see the genocide and you say, ‘this must stop’. All well and good. Then you ask ‘how do I get to the people who are dropping those bombs? How do I make them see?’ That is the complicated path. But it is only complicated if you see yourself alone on this path. Joining with others - doing your part in the effort - is also simple.”

He gestures at the Phoenix’s schematics on another screen. “Your creature will always play its part, won’t it. This will always be simple for it.”

Otto smiles, and remembers. “Leo always says, ‘connection is strength’. The Phoenix is a part of our effort, yeah. But it’s not alone - and neither are any of us, ever. If those people need more help, we’ll find a way to give it.”

Summer, listening and looking, gasps as she sees something. “Otto - Otto!” she shouts, and points excitedly.

Otto follows the path of her finger to a particular indicator on the schematic screen. His low laugh turns into a long, joyful belly laugh.

“I must ask you to explain,” Dr. Mana says with a confused smile. “Your technology is still strange to me.”

Otto reads off the indication. “Egg status: processing. Last update: 14 hours 32 minutes ago.”

He turns to the Doctor. “When the Phoenix feels like it’s at war - when its destruction is a possibility - it lays an egg. The egg will turn into another Phoenix. Slim-Fast learned from our battle with the bombers. It’ll be a shield, not a sword. And it’ll teach that lesson to the new arrival. In a few days, these people will have two protectors.”

Dr. Mana claps his hands. “That is wonderful. That is something you have done for these people that nobody else could.”

Otto shakes his head. “Doc, it’s something we couldn’t have done without you. If we couldn’t coordinate with Youssef, none of this would have been possible. And, uh, the source of information that tipped us off. Way I see it, we’re all doing our part.”

Dr. Mana smiles in appreciation, and pats Otto on the arm with a warm hand.

Another successful rescue, and a complicated aftermath. But things are looking up for our heroes - and we’ll see how Leo and Aria are coping in Australia soon.

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