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Go About Your Business, Act As If You're Free

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After the Astral Empire's attack had been repelled and the worst of the damage repaired, Lisa sought out Bart. She knew from Gail that he spent most of his time either on ships or in the Pristine City, but thanks to a tip from Leo she knew when he would next be in Daea. Leo even got her into the palace and made sure that they would meet.

It was the first time she would actually meet Bart in person, Lisa realized. She'd met him as a golem head, and once as a hologram, but never as an actual physical person. She half expected him to look different – maybe his skin would be less blue in person? – but when he entered the room he looked exactly as he had the last time she'd seen him, down to the unusual uniform.

Bart smiled when he saw her and started to greet her, but then abruptly he frowned and interrupted himself. "Is Gail okay?"

"Yes," Lisa said, blinking in surprise. "As far as I know, she's fine. I last saw her two days ago, and we talked this morning." The Stellanites had handed out communicators to key people to organize the battles, and Bart had given Gail some extra ones for her friends so she could stay in contact with Panselo while she was fighting elsewhere. "Why, did something happen?"

Bart relaxed. "Not that I know of. I just didn't expect to see you here." He sat down at a table.

Lisa sat down as well. She would have teased him about thinking that she would only contact him to talk about Gail, except –

"I did want to talk to you about Gail," she admitted.

"Oh? Did Leo tell you about the statue?"

"What statue?" Lisa asked, momentarily distracted.

"We're building her a statue in Daea. All in gold." He leaned back with a grin.

"I'm not sure she will like that," Lisa warned.

"It's important to have symbols. Gail is the perfect symbol for how the Phoenixes are a part of this world."

"Has that been a problem?"

For a moment Bart looked tired. "It's a work in progress. You should ask Leo about how it's going here."

"Maybe I will." Leo had given her his personal communicator number, but Lisa hadn't used it very often. She knew he was very busy, first helping coordinate the battles and now rebuilding Daea. But he had contacted her to ask if everyone was alright every time there had been an attack even somewhat near Panselo, and he'd seemed to enjoy their chats. Lisa wasn't a fool, and even though she enjoyed the occasional fantasy, she knew that Leo was no Prince Charming. But maybe they could become friends.

It was worrying that Bart and Leo felt the need for a symbol to foster goodwill toward Phoenixes, even right now after they had saved Earth from the Astral Empire. In Panselo, naturally everyone had accepted them because of Gail. Gail had even brought her friend Zero for a visit once, before the battles. He'd been a little strange and clearly not used to human company, but the children had befriended him quickly, and he'd been somewhat baffled but very willing to indulge them and even fly them around. Unsurprisingly the children had loved him after that.

"So what did you want to talk about?"

"Right." Lisa sat up straight. "Gail told us about the Phoenixes."

"I assumed so," Bart said with a raised eyebrow.

"We asked a lot of questions, so I think she told us everything she knew. Which is everything you've told her. Which is probably more than most other people know?" Gail had mentioned that Bart had thought about informing people about the upcoming battles with loudspeakers, but had ultimately decided against it because it was unclear how much people would believe an announcement from an unknown source like that. Instead he'd identified local rulers, like Leo, and tasked them to inform their people.

"Probably," Bart agreed. "Getting across the basics was more important than including all the details."

Local rulers were more likely to be trusted by their people, but it also meant that they controlled what exactly they told their people. Gail had said that at least one of the Stellanites had been on a "cultural mission" as a traveling musicians, so at least the Stellanites should know a little about who they could contact, but it was still a risk. Lisa wondered if the Stellanites had mentioned that it was the Phoenixes who'd been responsible for razing the earth at the end of the Great War. Even if they hadn't, people might wonder why the Phoenixes hadn't prevented it instead. Maybe it wasn't that surprising that people were cautious about more than a hundred living superweapons that had suddenly appeared.

"She also mentioned that Phoenixes were genetically engineered to be obedient."

"Yes," Bart said, looking more cautious.

Lisa took a deep breath. "Gail is a Phoenix."

Bart nodded. He looked uncomfortable.

"What does that mean?" Lisa demanded. "At first I thought it was nonsense. Of course Gail isn't obedient. But then I thought about it, and she was always the good kid. Her and Kitt both. They never talked back to Nana, and they were always willing to help anyone who asked. I thought they were both simply very nice! Have we been taking advantage of them all this time?"

Lisa had lain awake in bed at night, trying to think about times Gail had said no to requests made of her. None had come to mind. Instead, however, she'd thought of many times Gail had decided to help without anyone even asking her. Did that prove that she was helpful of her own free will? Or did she just think that she should do what people asked of her?

Bart sighed. "I wondered the same thing."

"And?"

"There's no way to know," he said simply.

"But you have all the notes!" Lisa protested. "And you talked to all the other Phoenixes you woke up!"

"We're still deciphering the notes," Bart corrected. "And to be honest, the scientists who made the Phoenixes were often guessing. The Phoenixes we woke up have been very obedient, but they were all heavily conditioned practically from birth. There's no way to tell if the attempted genetic modification for obedience even worked."

"Oh."

"Gail didn't have that conditioning. If, for example, she or her brothers had problems with authority, then we'd know that the genetic modification failed. But, as you said…" Bart trailed off and spread his hands.

"Should we tell her that she doesn't have to listen to orders? Just in case?" Lisa asked.

Bart grimaced. "It's not that easy. Obedience is a vague concept. Obedience to whom? A weapon that obeys any order is too dangerous to send against an enemy. Obedience is only useful when it's targeted. Who do you think Gail would be obedient to?"

"Nana," Lisa said immediately.

"And do you think Nana would want her to obey any order anyone gives her, no matter what it is?"

"Of course not!"

"And I'm sure Gail knows that."

"Good," Lisa said. Bart was right: Gail surely knew that Nana wouldn't want her to obey any random order. Though – did Gail think that Nana wanted her to be nice and help people? No, surely Gail knew that Nana just wanted her to be happy. If Gail had been standoffish or even rude, Nana would still have loved her.

Lisa felt a little silly now to have assumed that Gail had to obey orders because of what she was. It was impossible to think that Gail would, for example, hurt anyone just because someone told her to.

"You said the Phoenixes were conditioned for obedience. Who are they obedient to?" That was a rather important question, Lisa realized.

Bart grimaced again. "It's a somewhat delicate topic," he cautioned.

That only made Lisa's worry increase sharply. If the power of the Phoenixes was uncontrolled…

Immediately afterwards she felt guilty for the thought. The Phoenixes were people: they didn't need to be "controlled" like things. It was unsurprising that their creators had wanted to modify them to be obedient, but even the idea of anyone wanting to force Gail to obey them made Lisa angry.

Admittedly, Lisa was absolutely certain that Gail would never try to take over the world, even if she had the power to do so. She couldn't say the same about the other Phoenixes. They'd already proven that they could destroy the world, regardless of whether or not it had been on orders or not. That just made it even more important to know whose orders they listened to.

"I thought they listened to you," she said.

"They do." Bart sighed. "They think I'm their new master. It's tricky. We want them to listen to us, but we don't want them to think they have to obey us. At least I don't. They're people, not slaves. But there are those who think it would be dangerous to tell them they don't have to obey orders, considering their power. And soldiers have to obey orders too, after all. But the Phoenixes never had a choice in whether or not they wanted to fight."

"It would have been unfortunate if they'd decided not to fight against the Astral Empire," Lisa agreed.

Bart nodded. "I'm trying to encourage Gail to spend time with them. It's good for her training, too. She wants to get better at flying, and to figure out how to shoot energy beams. And hopefully she can be a good example for them."

"She did say she enjoys training with them."

"Luckily she does."

"Maybe she could bring them to visit Panselo again," Lisa suggested. "The children would love to see Zero again. And they're very strong, maybe they could help with rebuilding? Gail said they live in the Pristine City for now, but it might be good for them to meet more people."

"That's a good idea," Bart said. "Maybe you could invite other people to Panselo at the same time, so they can get to meet the Phoenixes themselves."

"I'm sure Gail will have ideas. Maybe I can send a letter to the mayor, too… or at least to Garnet…" Lisa stopped as she remembered something else. "Gail and Kitt were brought to Panselo as babies – I have a lot of questions now about where Ava found them, by the way. Are there more Phoenix babies?"

"Yes. But we're not waking them up yet. The oldest are around twenty-three. They seem to have become active as soldiers at twenty, and we've only woken up those twenty and older so far. We want to wait with waking up the children until it's less dangerous."

"It might never be less dangerous, if the Astral Empire and the Galactic Federation both want them," Lisa pointed out.

"I know," Bart said grimly.

"Right!" Lisa sat up straight and clapped her hands once. "Glad we cleared that up."

"We'll do our best," Bart promised.

"I know," Lisa said. She believed him. Bart still seemed to be quite young himself, though it was hard to say due to the Stellanites' different appearance, but he'd done his best to help so far, and it was in large part due to him that the Earth hadn't been conquered and harvested yet. And, importantly, Gail trusted him. "Let me know if you need help. I have to look after the children, but if there's anything I can do…"

"Thank you," Bart said, and he seemed honestly grateful, instead of dismissive of her help as she'd almost feared. "Here, I'll give you my communicator contact."

"You can also visit, if you want," Lisa offered. "From what Gail has said, there's better food elsewhere, but if you need a break…"

"I might take you up on that." For a moment he allowed himself to look tired. Then he straightened and looked at the clock on the wall. "I'm afraid I'm due back at the city now, unfortunately. There's another meeting…"

"I understand."

Lisa stood up as well. For a moment she hesitated, then she stepped forward and hugged him quickly. "Thank you. For looking after Gail."

"Uh… You're welcome." He looked slightly awkward. "She didn't really need much help."

"I was glad she wasn't alone," Lisa said sincerely.

"Oh. Well… it was no trouble."

"From what I've heard, it was at least a little bit of trouble," Lisa grinned.

"A little bit," Bart conceded with a smile.

He waved and left the room.

Lisa exhaled. At least after this conversation she felt comfortable making requests to Gail again. She took out her communicator. "Hey Gail! I had an idea – do you think Zero would like to visit again?"

As she listened to Gail's enthusiastic reply, Lisa felt like maybe, things would turn out all right.