"Gail!" Bart called as soon as she landed in front of him. "Guess what I heard!"
He stood on top of the remaining guard tower, smiling broadly Not twenty minutes ago he'd called her while she'd been training with Zero and asked her to urgently meet him in Panselo. Even over the comm he'd sounded so excited that Gail couldn't help but get her hopes up.
"Did you-" Gail started to ask, but Bart interrupted her.
"We've found signs of your brother!"
It felt like a boulder fell from her shoulders. Gail closed her eyes for a second and exhaled, before looking up again.
"Technically, we don't have proof it's your brother," Bart said, "but we heard rumors of a rogue Phoenix far out in the Astral Empire, and who else could it be?"
It must be Kitt. No Phoenix had left Earth after the Stellanites woke them up, and while it wasn't impossible that some had been stolen or woken up before, like Gail and Kitt had been, the odds were very small.
Or it might not be a Phoenix at all. Bart had said that the Stellanites had only shared the basic minimum of information on the Phoenixes with the Galactic Federation and that both sides were eager to find out more about what the Phoenixes could do. Maybe someone had mistaken someone who used advanced barely visible technology for a Phoenix. Maybe nobody had seen anything at all, and the Phoenixes were a convenient new boogeyman to blame.
"The location fits," Bart continued. "It's close to a system that is known to be a pirate marketplace. We're trying to find out more about ships based there that match the description of the ship you saw, or if anyone tried to sell or inquire about selling humans. If your brother and the other villagers were brought there but managed to escape, and maybe steal a ship…"
"What kind of rumors?" Gail asked.
"You're going to like this," Bart promised. "It's said that a Phoenix stormed a pirate base, knocked out every single pirate, defeated their captain in single combat, and then freed all of their captives and stole all of their weapons and every single ship they owned."
"That sounds like something Kitt would love to do."
Bart noticed her cautious phrasing and grinned. "It sounds like something you'd do! Actually, even better, it sounds like something you did, just with kobolds instead of pirates."
Gail frowned, but had to admit that Bart wasn't wrong.
"You didn't steal all of their weapons and ships, but you didn't need them. Your brother might have been looking for weapons for the other villagers, and for a ship to escape," Bart said. "Thomas' sister was also taken, and she's a scientist, right? Maybe she figured out how to fly a spaceship. Or maybe some of the freed captives helped them."
"Yes, Rutea is with them." Rutea would love the challenge of figuring out how to fly a spaceship. Given time and resources, she'd probably try to build her own, and then fly it back to Earth to show off to her brother. And Thomas would probably brag about his own adventures while trying not to show just how proud he was of his little sister. "What else did the rumors say about the Phoenix?" Gail asked.
"Not much," Bart admitted. "And the reports are conflicting. Most mention enormous strength. Some say that they were invulnerable, or extremely fast, or glowing blue and shooting missiles from their hands… All of that sounds like something Phoenixes can do. If it's true, I'm impressed your brother figured out kinetic shots already, and on his own too!"
It had taken Gail weeks to be able to consistently manage kinetic shots even with Zero instructing her. If Kitt had been here they would have competed who would have been able to do it first, and the winner would get extra dessert. They had always learned new things even faster when they did it together.
"I wonder how long he's been out of stasis. At least we assume the pirates stashed them in a stasis bay, it's cheaper than having to feed prisoners. Though the Phoenix' stasis pods are configured slightly differently than normal ones, and you do need to know a species to know how to configure them in the first place, so maybe he woke up early," Bart mused.
"Is there a chance that being put into stasis pods not configured for humans could have harmed them?" Gail asked, alarmed.
"It's possible," Bart said. "In most cases you'd only find out when trying to wake them up. And even then we've developed a few techniques for trying to fix things. We hoped that we could find the pirate ship quickly and simply use hired mercenaries to steal back the stasis pods before someone messes with them, but it'll be trickier now."
"Why hired mercenaries?"
Bart grimaced. "We can't use our own people. It would be bad if the Astral Empire finds Stellanite agents in their region. We fought them off once, but if we provoke the Astral Empire into attacking Earth with their full fleet right now… that would be bad."
Gail looked around at the village around them, still in the process of rebuilding all that was damaged in the war, and had to agree.
"We'll keep eyes and ears out for more information. We'll figure something out," Bart promised. He'd made that same promise before, but he'd never sounded so optimistic.
Bart had called to say that they'd found another lead, and this time Gail had been patient enough to wait for Alex and Lisa to meet them in her room.
"This one is even more vague," Bart said right at the start. "We caught some communications between other ships of the pirate fleet the pirates Kitt robbed belonged to. They complained about being attacked by one of their own stolen ships that didn't answer to any hails and then fled. Of course someone else could have stolen some of their ships, too, but the timeline and location fits if your friends tried to make their way to the Galactic Federation."
"That sounds likely," Alex said, and Gail and Lisa nodded.
"It's hard to contact a spaceship in flight that you don't have any information on. Honestly, right now we're hoping they'll make it to the Galactic Federation on their own. We established a few discreet contacts in the border patrol so we'll hopefully be notified as soon as they come near."
"How long do you think that will take?" Lisa asked.
Bart shrugged. "It depends on their ship. If they have a functioning stasis bay so they don't need a large food supply and sufficient fuel, they could make it in a few weeks."
"Weeks!" Lisa exclaimed.
"Space is big," Alex said.
Lisa rolled her eyes and elbowed him.
Weeks. It had been months now since space pirates had come to Panselo and every day felt like it was too long, but for so many months she'd only had her faith that she'd see her brother and her family again one day. In contrast, a timeline of several weeks seemed to be right around the corner.
Bart finally contacted Gail to meet him three hours after the planet-wide level-one-alarms had been activated. He asked her to come to his ship because he wanted to be immediately available in case of new developments.
"The Astral Empire threatened Earth with another invasion," he said after Gail was led into his office. He sat at his desk and absent-mindedly fiddled with a pen.
"General Mirak said." General Mirak, the officer in charge of the Phoenix Corps, hadn't given them any more detail than that, only that an attack was unlikely but not impossible in the next few hours. "What happened?" What do you need me to do, Gail didn't ask. Before the first major battle against the Astral Empire they'd had a conversation together with General Mirak and established that Gail was a reservist: in peacetime she was a civilian who trained with the Corps, in battle situations she was a normal member of the Phoenix Corps, and Bart could also directly request her services as a special agent.
"The Astral Empire accused us of attacking one of their military bases," Bart said with a sigh. "Because one of their military bases was attacked by a Phoenix."
"Kitt?" Gail exclaimed.
"There's video." Bart pulled it up on his pad and they watched in silence.
It was a series of security videos. Most of them only lasted a few seconds before the camera was destroyed by a well-aimed shot. In those seconds they showed glimpses of a young human with orange hair in a green vest, carrying a staff in one hand and a blaster in the other. Some videos also showed him exchanging fire with unseen enemies. The last one showed him in close combat with a member of an alien species Gail didn't know. The alien, a large thin lizard-like creature wearing an Astral Empire uniform, managed to knock the staff out of Kitt's hand. Kitt raised his empty hand: a blue glow coalesced around it, and in the next second a bolt of energy hit the alien in the middle of their torso, throwing them back and out of view. Kitt quickly picked up his staff and ran after them.
"It's definitely Kitt," Gail confirmed.
Bart nodded. "The Astral Empire is accusing us of having sent him to sabotage their base. We denied it, of course, and told them that pirates stole him months ago. We didn't want to tell them that because we didn't want anyone to get any bad ideas to try and copy them, but it was the better alternative at this point. The only reason why both the Astral Empire and the Galactic Federation decided to leave Earth alone for now was because we promised that the Phoenixes would only act in self-defense."
"Did they believe you?"
"No idea, but they're pretending that they do, for now. They declared Kitt a criminal and put a high bounty on his head. Alive only."
At least that meant they hadn't captured him yet, Gail reminded herself.
"We don't know why he attacked the base, or what he did there, or how he got away, or if he still has his ship. Maybe they needed to resupply and just stumbled upon the base accidentally, or maybe they were captured and this was a break-out, we don't know. We don't even know which base it was. The Astral Empire will do their best to catch him and they strongly suspect that he'll head toward either the Galactic Federation or Earth, but he knows that too. We have no idea what he'll do next. We asked the Astral Empire to hand him over to us if they do capture him, but frankly, the chances of that are not great. We'll just have to hope that he makes it on his own." Bart leaned back in his chair. He looked tired.
"And the other villagers?" Gail asked.
"There was no mention of them. We don't know if they're still with Kitt or if they got separated somehow."
The familiar feeling of constant worry for her stolen family, which had finally simmered down after the previous news, was back. She'd told herself so often in the past months that there was nothing she could do for them and that it was more important to focus on keeping those still with her safe than to give in to her fears, but that was easier said than done.
"I wanted to keep you informed," Bart said.
"Thank you," Gail said. "I know you're doing what you can."
"Let's hope it'll be enough."
"The Astral Empire sent us another message about Kitt," Bart said.
"What is it?" Alex asked eagerly.
They were meeting in Alex' new office. The mayor's office, as the kids had started calling it, and Lisa had immediately followed suit once she realized that it annoyed him. Alex kept insisting that he wasn't the mayor, that he was just looking after the village until the mayor came back, but nobody knew when that would be and the kids had decided that in the meantime the village needed a new mayor.
"They're claiming he destroyed a civilian village and killed almost every inhabitant."
"Kitt would never," Alex insisted.
Gail, too surprised to even speak, nodded furiously.
"Unfortunately, that doesn't matter. There's no evidence it was him, it could have been anyone, but we have no proof to the contrary even if they made it all up or are just blaming him for propaganda reasons. Even if they have proof he was there, it could have been in self-defense or a rescue or even a secret military base under the village."
"I bet they made it up completely!" Alex said.
"Probably. Anyway, even if it's nonsense, I just wanted to keep you informed. I'm sorry there's no better news," Bart said.
"I'm sure there'll be better news soon," Lisa said optimistically.
"I really hope you're right."
"Do you have better news this time?" was the first thing Lisa asked Bart at their next meeting.
From the grim look on his face, Gail knew the answer even before he spoke.
"I'm sorry," Bart said.
"Are they okay?" Alex demanded.
"According to communications we intercepted, the Astral Empire succeeded in shooting down the ship they suspected the Phoenix to be on over a planet in the Neutral Zone."
Gail's mind was blank.
"A patrol of the Galactic Federation discovered the wreck. Signs led them to suspect several survivors had made it out and are now hiding on the planet. They also found several human remains."
"Who?" Lisa choked out.
"We don't know. We've sent a request for pictures and to be sent the bodies, but didn't get a reply so far."
There were survivors. Gail's heart was beating fast. Kitt was probably fine, he must be: he was a Phoenix, he was durable, and he healed fast. But Nana, and Kazu and Mika, and the others…
"Which planet?" she asked.
"You can't go," Bart said. "There are currently patrols from both the Astral Empire and the Galactic Federation looking for them there. Any Phoenix showing up there will be considered a provocation. We can't afford that."
"We have to help them somehow!"
"We do. We will."
"Well how are you going to do it?" Alex demanded.
"Drones. We don't have enough ships to station one there where it could be attacked, but we're sending a ship to drop off search drones. The problem is that the Astral Empire will probably be using search drones as well. We need a sign for your villagers to understand that ours are friendly. Do you have an idea what we could use?"
Gail, Alex, and Lisa exchanged a look. "Can your drones play music?" Gail finally asked. "They should play Panselo's song. Everyone from the village will recognize it."
"Play it, I'll record it, and then we'll send the drones immediately."
"Do you think your drones can find them before the Astral Empire does?" Lisa asked.
"I hope so," Bart only said.
Gail looked through the window at the sky. Kitt was out there, they even knew approximately where, and she couldn't go there and help him. If she went there, she'd likely be able to defeat everyone who was after her brother and the rest of her family, she could bring them home safely.
But she couldn't do it without potentially being discovered. And Bart was right that the Astral Empire would likely interpret that as a direct attack and retaliate against Earth. Many more people would die in the resulting battles. Kitt wouldn't want that.
If he died while she just sat there, waiting…
Gail refused to think about it.
Bart looked tired and only slightly less grim the next time he called them to share news. "Kitt is definitely alive," he reported. "One of our drones found him."
"And?" Lisa asked eagerly.
"He shot it before it could play the song."
Understandable, but very inconvenient.
"Shortly before that our drone also discovered the remains of two patrol teams, one from the Astral Empire and one from the Galactic Federation. The first had three corpses, the other had one. If the Galactic Federation finds him first they will almost certainly jail him for that, which conveniently gives them an opportunity to study a Phoenix." Bart's hands were clenched into fists.
"Did the drone see any of the others?"
"No, only Kitt. The others are presumably well hidden."
"What do we do now?" Lisa asked.
"We know where he was. We'll send another drone, and hopefully it can play the song before Kitt sees it."
"You should write him a letter," Gail suggested.
"That might be a little difficult for the current post office," Alex mentioned.
Gail ignored him. "Write a message, print it on a hundred pieces of paper, and spread them over the whole region. He'll find one eventually. Tell him which drones are ours. Or maybe he found a communicator: tell him how to contact us."
"That could work," Bart said. "It's a good idea. We'll try it."
It had to work. Gail didn't know what else they could do at this point that wouldn't endanger everyone else on Earth. Every day was another day that Kitt and the others were stuck on an alien planet: they could be captured or even killed at any moment, they could already be captured or dead.
She had to trust her brother to stay alive and to keep the other safe. He would get the message and he'd bring them all home. There was nothing Gail could do but hope.
Four days later, Kitt called.