“So, Adnan knows some people who can get us to the safe house closest to the beach where most of the immigrants around here end up. The weather is looking pretty nasty this week, which works in our favor. He can manage the storms at least near us, if you can patrol under the water to find where the boats are in trouble. I’ll use your back, if you can take on a large enough form – like a killer whale or something – as a teleport jump spot so we can hop them to the shore, where the Greeks can get them to the safe house. What do you think?”
Aramat, otherwise known as Shift, pushed her auburn hair out of her face as she looked over the map Schism had drawn into the red clay outside their youth hostel. The hostel was a good cover, but also the only thing Schism could afford, her parents having cut her off after her latest refusal to return home this summer. They were supposedly spending their vacation backpacking in Mytilene, the capital city of Lesbos, which just happened to be one of the islands Syrian refugees, desperate to escape civil war, crossed dangerous waters to get to. The alien girl pursed her lips in thought.
“I think we need to do a better job this time to not get caught, or we are going to get Storm King expelled.”
“Yeah. You’re not wrong. I’m pretty sure Summers knows we’re going to try again, and he didn’t explicitly say not to. But I’ve been thinking about how I can keep you and Adnan out of the spotlight with this if we do get caught again.”
“Nina…sorry, Simone, I am not afraid to take the punishment, same as you! It is his scholarship that is on the line.”
“I know! That’s why neither of you can get caught. You need to be his cover if the authorities start questioning him. Simple plan: he came to Greece to find members of his family. You were there to support him. It’s all true. We just leave out the part where we’re considering all of Syria his family and that you’re literally supporting him as a shapeshifter carrying him and refugees to safety. Yeah, they probably won’t buy it, but it’s not technically perjury. I can get you guys away and, trust me, I know how to be a distraction.”
“I do not like this, but I do not know this legal system and I know you have been studying it. Let us just not get caught, ok?”
Five days later, spitting salt water out of her mouth and squinting against the spray from an unruly ocean, Schism managed to make out a dark shadow racing toward her underwater. The family of seven, huddled into their makeshift lifejackets, watched with preternatural calm as they made ready to teleport out of this sinking lifeboat with the extraordinary teenagers that had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, just a few minutes ago. Adnan was able to quickly explain the situation before he had to take off and redirect the storm away from another boat while scrambling the visuals on the Russian drone attempting to track it. His agony at the decision to leave was painfully obvious; through both insane luck and sheer determination, they’d managed to not lose a boat yet this summer, but who knew how long either of those would hold. Shift, Storm King, and Schism knew any failures were going to stay with them forever, and all of their powers were being pushed to the limit to prevent anything going wrong on their watch. The Greek, Turkish, and Russian authorities had put out various APBs on the trio, though with no more detailed info than “suspicious superhero activity bypassing security protocols.”
The shadow grew alarmingly large as a giant octopus shot toward the wracked vessel. Smoothly dodging around the side, a tentacle lashed out toward the boat, and the two younger children screamed in at first fear, then surprise, as the beast snatched them to safety away from a series of jagged rocks rising up through the storm. “Good work, Shift!” The gray elf screamed out into the storm, hoping her friend could hear her. Suddenly, a humanoid hand and face rose up next to the boat edge. Aramat pushed her sodden hair out of her eyes and gasped out. “Schism! We are near the next jump point, but it is going to be under water any minute. You need to move these people NOW. I will watch the boat but get them going!”
Schism’s mind, which had been slipping into a state of exhaustion, flared back awake. “I can only manage two at a time right now; otherwise it’s getting too dangerous. Storm King’s handling his situation, but he’s close to dropping, too. This is our last one, understood?” The weary girl nodded, then shifted back to her octopus form, bracing against the rocks and holding the boat in place. Schism spoke quickly to the two parents, both grim-faced and ready to move. Haya, the mother, was to go with the youngest – a little boy barely five years old. It took some convincing with Schism’s limited Arabic to not have her return and escort each child back, but ultimately the three of them blipped out, first landing on a bare patch of land in the sea a mile closer to the Lesbos beach. The water was nearly sweeping over it, and Schism paused only enough to catch her breath before teleporting them into the waiting arms of the Greek activists at the final point. Twice more again the journey was made with the rest of the children. Their father, Ruzgar, insisted on being the last one left as he saw his family taken to safety.
“One more jump, with Ruzgar and Shift, and we’re done,” thought Schism in relief as she made her hop from the midway point, now nearly under water, back to the boat. She teleported in just in time to see it ripped from Aramat’s exhausted hold and thrown into a black wave that enveloped both it and the man clinging to its side. As he disappeared from sight, Schism instinctively jumped to the jagged rocks behind her and clung to them, screaming his name and desperately searching the water. Something, anything, all she needed was a glimpse and she could save him. But there was nothing more than churning waves and howling wind. He was lost.
Seconds passed like an eternity. And then, exploding from the darkness, an impossible entity tore itself from the ocean. First in the shape of a siren, powerful tail lashing against the current, and then a great phoenix with wings straining against the wind, Aramat flew upward with the unconscious man grasped in her talons. Schism could feel the power ripping through the other girl as she pushed herself to extraordinary limits, and knew there was very little time before it burned out the young shapeshifter. As soon as the Schism got a clear line of site, she dove toward them, frightened to miss them and channeling her teleportation so quickly the two seemed able to pass directly through her like a portal. In a desperate measure, she reached her powers into Ruzgar’s dematerialized form, filtering out the water that had filled his lungs and leaving it behind. Solidifying herself alongside them and staggering through knee-deep water, Schism tried to gather her strength for one last jump, but felt her body start sinking into the ocean instead. Over the wind, she thought she heard the Storm King’s voice, strained and frantic; seconds later the three of them were whisked up in the air, toward the beach and safety.
Her last memories were of Ruzgar, conscious now and stumbling toward his wife and children, while the other rescuers bundled them in warm blankets and hurried them to the safe house. The sound of helicopters was approaching, though, and everyone knew what that meant. Aramat stared at Schism, unwilling and angry. “Follow the plan,” Schism managed to grate out, her red eyes blazing back at her friend. Adnan raised his head from the sand, tense and confused. “What is she talking about?” The other girl, with her alien strength, managed to grab him and drag him away with the scattering activists. Nina…that is, Simone heaved herself up and stood to face the Greek Coast Guard closing in. The Storm King’s voice, raised in delirious anger – “What the hell is she talking about?! Damn it! Nina!” – echoed in her ears. She smiled to herself, a slight blush appearing for just a moment on her face.
Seventy-two hours later, Schism looked up from the floor of her cell as the unmistakable cadence of American voices sounded down the hallway. The restraint collar around her neck shifted slightly, and she gripped it for a second, willing herself for the hundredth time not to tear at it in panic. She hadn’t been in a room like this since before coming to Claremont. Her old home had started becoming a series of cages, each one more powerful, as both her family and the local authorities had tried to contain her and her powers. Those were painful memories, and not ones she’d thought she be revisiting in this world, so it was a bad first day after her capture. The good news was that her friends got away pretty cleanly, thanks to both a great deal of sophistry and a well-developed network of contacts among the allies they’d made over the last few weeks.
She forced her hands away from the collar and picked at the remnants of her dinner. At first, her food tray would arrive half empty, the guard delivering it staring at her in rage and disgust. “Freak” and “monster” were words she now knew in both Greek and Arabic. But as time went on, she noticed things about him. How he kept looking at his phone, at a photo of a man bearing a close resemblance to himself. How he sometimes smelled like spoiled milk or would hastily shove a child’s bib back in his pocket. She asked another, friendlier guard a few questions, learned about how his brother had been in the Coast Guard, and was lost in a Syrian refugee rescue operation last year. How his grief was turning to rage against those refugees and the people who risk everything to bring them here.
Learning this, Schism found she couldn’t despise the man the way she’d wanted to at first. So, instead of returning hate for hate, she started talking to him, ignoring his insults and cold silences. Saying that she knows this isn’t right, that it’s not just some fun adventure, that good people die. That new people – immigrants – are scary, and it seems like there isn’t enough to go around already. But sometimes, even when there aren’t any good answers, you have to fight for the best things you can hold on to. That his brother must have believed that, and if he and his children were ever in danger, like these Syrian families were, she would be just as willing to risk everything for them, and him. At that, he snorted and said, “You, you’re just a kid. You don’t know anything.” Schism smiled back at him then. Kid is better than monster. Not a huge step, but her trays started appearing with more food now. Maybe there’s something to this “diplomacy” thing, she thought.
As the voices got closer, she leaned in and listened intently. Recognizing one in particular, the girl was engulfed in a combination of relief and embarrassment. Principal Summers had arrived.
When she looked at him, his air seemed easy and calm as a smile played across the seventy-year-old’s face. However, when she met his eyes for a moment, what she saw was disappointment.
On the plane ride back, a tense silence filled the passenger area. Summers wasn’t speaking, and Nina refused to be the one to break the silence. Aramat shifted uncomfortably before speaking.
“Why is no one speaking? Is that not what you humans do, talk and talk to express yourself because you have no ability to interface more directly? This feels wrong and I…” She suddenly stopped when she caught Summers’s gaze.
“I’m not human, and I’m not going to apologize, if that’s what you’re waiting for,” Nina murmured. “We did the right thing regardless of what the rules say.”
“I also feel we did the right thing,” Aramat chimed in feeling more confident in numbers.
Nina repositioned herself in her chair, picking up steam. “Rules aren’t as important as people. I thought this world was different. If you’re going to try and intimidate us into following the line, or say we don’t know anything because we’re children, you can stop right there. I’ve heard more than…”
“It was sloppy.” Summers waited a moment before continuing. “You allowed yourself to get caught.”
“But there were several days where we were not caught!” Aramat happily pointed out.
“If you hadn’t gotten caught, you could have just as easily drowned in those waters. And it wasn’t just you. In your state, you were on the edge of making a mistake and then someone else would have died. You pushed yourself beyond your limits. You rushed in, trusting your power. I thought we were teaching you finesse, how to use your head.”
Nina breathed in quickly, rage and shame mixing together. “We had a plan. It was a good plan, We just didn’t expect how strong the storms were. Things shifted.”
Summers set down his cane and put a hand on each of his students’ shoulders. “It was, but it could be better. Obviously, I’ll need to take a more hands-on approach with both of you.” A wry tone entered his voice as he continued. “I really am getting too old for this.”
As Nina entered Claremont, things felt different. There was no security cell, no warm blasts of salt and rain. Autumn leaves drifted along lazily and children laughing in the distance could be heard. Then suddenly the wind spiked up and a lightning bolt cracked the air, as Storm King touched down from the sky, his hair whipping about him.
“I didn’t ask you to take the fall for me!”
“I was ready to take the consequences. If someone’s going to fight, they need to be ready to accept what comes next.”
“You have a scholarship. If you were caught, it would all be over.”
“But we were in it together! We could have kept protecting one another.”
“Adnan, we had already pushed ourselves too much. If we had fought, something bad would have happened.” For a moment, Nina could almost feel the collar again. “I’m sorry we didn’t tell you. I’m sorry you were taken without a choice.”
Adnan looked down at his feet for a second. The air settled and the electricity in it faded away. A bird started chirping. “I thought the three of us were a really good team.”
Nina risked a smile. “Yeah, me too.”
“Okay, let’s do that again. Well, maybe not that! But, uh, something like that. Soon!”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about a few things.”
“Okay, good. Uh, I need to go. Okay, bye.” Adnan suddenly rushed off.
Nina stared at him for a moment before making her way to detention, which has started becoming her new school year tradition. Hey, at least she would get to see the janitor’s cat.