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Monday, 15 August 2016 09:00

I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore (part 6)

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A Generation 2 Whateley Academy Adventure

I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore

by ElrodW and Nagrij
(with help and contributions from the usual suspects)

Part 6


Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Afternoon
The Lake, Whateley Academy

Despite having run from the quad, Laura was hardly out of breath; being an exemplar - even a low-level one - had its advantages. "Where's Cally?" she practically demanded after looking around and not spotting the Italian girl in the group under a shade tree near the beach and lake.

"I thought she was going swimming with Tia and Hikaru and Tanya," Bianca replied with a shrug. Curiosity got the better of her though. "Why?"

"Nah," Vic countered, shaking his head. "I think she went over where some of the European students are. And yeah, why?"

"She was going on about singing, right?" Laura asked, her eyes darting around the small clusters of students on the grass and on the beach. "There are two guys on the quad who have a table - they're looking for members for a band."


"Yeah. So I figured Cally might be interested," Laura said, her eyes still searching the partygoers. "Oh, there she is!" She dashed off toward another group of students about sixty yards away.

"What was that about?" Tia asked as she and Tanya, both wrapped in towels, returned to the group.

Bianca shrugged again. "Laura said something about a band looking for members, and she was looking for Cally."

"No doubt she'll want to check it out," Tanya replied. "All the way up here, she kept talking about hoping to start a band. Or join one."

Laura skidded to a halt, startling the band of European students who hadn't seen her coming. "Cally!" she interrupted them rather rudely but insistently, "You've gotta come!"

"What?" Cally turned on Laura, looking less-than-enthusiastic about the interruption.

"You do know that it's not polite to interrupt," one of the upperclassmen directed a disdainful look toward Laura.

The blue-haired girl ignored him and the glares and gawks of the other European students. "There are a couple of guys recruiting for a band!" she continued insistently. "Come on! Before they leave!"

"Oh, that's Emile and Dalton and their band Unladen Swallows," one of the girls scoffed. "Or rather, what's left of it."

"I thought we were rid of them and their awful music," said a Sidhe-looking girl with flowing medium-brown locks that didn't quite hide her pointed elf-ears. From her tone and words, it was clear that she didn't approve of the band in the slightest.

Cally glanced around the eight or nine students of the European Promotional League, then with a shrug, she stood. "Excuse me," she apologized, "but I think I'll go see. I really, really like singing, and if there's a band ...."

With Laura's encouraging tugging, Cally dutifully followed her friend; at the merest mention of a band doing some recruiting, she was too curious to not follow. Behind them, Erica and Vic trotted to catch up, leaving the remains of their little social circle still under the tree.

"Slow down a little!" Cally protested as they half-walked, half-trotted toward the main campus.

Laura stared at her Italian friend for a moment. "Okay," she said, immediately slowing her pace. "But if they're gone when we get there, it's your fault."

They weren't gone - in fact, the little home-made sign on a small card table had gathered a collection of students and at least two staff members. To really highlight the fact that they were looking for a band, they had set up a keyboard and a drum set. Most of them, though, seemed to be girls looking at the big Animan horse-boy, who was in a pair of very casual Bermuda shorts and a large, tight 'Hard Rock Café' shirt that did little to hide his impressive musculature.

"Well?" one guy at the table asked. "It's an impressive looking guitar, but can you play?"

"Vanessa Jackson thought I could," the boy chuckled. Seeing the stares of undisguised disbelief, he simply shrugged. "AJ and I got stuck in an MCO holding room in Miami with her, so we jammed a bit."

"Likely story," one of the older students scoffed.

Nick, the horse-boy, just shrugged, as if nothing anyone was going to do or say would rattle his 'who gives a fuck' attitude. Instead, he detached a small box from the back of the guitar, set it on the table. A retractable cord plugged into the guitar. "It's not much of an amp," he said with a sheepish smile, "but it beats not having anything." As people watched, most of them skeptical, he checked the tuning on the guitar then gave a couple of riffs.

Looking around with a growing grin, he did a few opening chords that sounded quite familiar from a long-past music festival.

"You can't do Hendrix, son," one of the older adults said skeptically. "You're not that good."

"Not that good?" Nick asked, raising an eyebrow. He turned his attention back to his guitar and, striking the same opening chords, he played the entirety of Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

When he finished playing, the gathering of students, which had been growing as he played, cheered enthusiastically.

One of the older adults chuckled, shaking his head. "Not bad, kid," he said gruffly, "but Hendrix could sing, too. I know Hendrix. I was at Woodstock. I heard Hendrix live."

Nick shrugged, then turned to the guys at the table. "Can either of you give me a funky four-four beat on the drums?"

One of the two boys warily sat behind the drums, and after flexing a bit, began to play a tempo.

Nick jumped in again with his guitar, playing another tune, and then belted out the lyrics.

Purple haze, all in my brain
Lately things they don't seem the same
Actin' funny, but I don't know why
Excuse me while I kiss the sky

Purple haze, all around
Don't know if I'm comin' up or down
Am I happy or in misery?
Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me

Help me
Help me
Oh, no, no

Ooo, ahhh
Ooo, ahhh
Ooo, ahhh
Ooo, ahhh, yeah!

The longer Nick played and sang, the more enthusiastic the crowd became, and the other band member joined in, improvising on his keyboard. As the song was winding down, a very large, lacy feminine undergarment sailed over the heads of the crowd toward the makeshift band and hit Nick in the head, partially blocking his view and startling him so he missed several chords. After staring in disbelief at the lacy bra for several seconds, nearly every eye turned to find where the bra had come from, and jaws dropped at the sight of Mrs. Chulkris, covered in vines and leaves and grasses and flowers, rocking out like a 60's flower child.

Suddenly, she realized that the music had stopped and that everyone was looking at her. Her face flushing, she stopped dancing. "Oops," she said very sheepishly. "I ... I guess I got carried away."

The older groundskeeper chuckled. "Yeah, I think so."

Screwing up her self-confidence, she shrugged. "What can I say? Flashbacks to the 60s." Mustering every bit of dignity she could, she stepped through the group of students, most of whom were staring at her in abject shock, and took her large, lacy pink bra from Nick's hand. "Um, I better, um, go make sure my classroom is ready for Monday." She turned and walked very quickly toward Kirby Hall, holding her head high and doing her best to ignore the gaping students and their whispered comments.

After a few moments of dumbfounded gawking, Nick shook his head, trying hard to dismiss the mental image of what appeared to be an older faculty member reliving her hippie days. "So," he forced himself to say to help everyone else recover from the shock, "think I'll do?"

"Not bad, boy," the grumpy old man said simply. "Not bad."

"I think you'd be an asset in the band," the first boy said.

"Yeah," the drummer said. "I'm Dalton Li."

"Nick," the horse-boy introduced himself.

"Emile Rousseaux."

Cally stepped forward, pushed a little by Laura. "Come on," the blue girl urged, "as long as they're playing, you should sing too."

"You can sing?" Emile looked toward Cally.

"Some," Cally said hesitantly, aware that Laura had put her on the spot.

"Okay. You want some accompaniment?"

"Do you guys know 'Just Give Me a Reason'?"

"I can't say I'm a big fan of P!nk, but I'll give it a go. I assume you want me to sing the male part?" Nick asked confidently as he hefted his guitar again.

"Let's give it a shot," Emile said. "Ready?" When the other musicians nodded, Emile started playing the keyboard intro.

Right from the start
You were a thief
You stole my heart
And I your willing victim
I let you see the parts of me
That weren't all that pretty
And with every touch you fixed them

Now you've been talking in your sleep, oh, oh
Things you never say to me, oh, oh
Tell me that you've had enough
Of our love, our love

Just give me a reason
Just a little bit's enough
Just a second we're not broken just bent
And we can learn to love again
It's in the stars
It's been written in the scars on our hearts
We're not broken just bent
And we can learn to love again

After they finished, there was another round of applause. "That was fun," Nick said with a smile.

"We've got another few people who are interested," Emile said, "so we're going to get together Wednesday after classes and before dinner to jam and have more formal tryouts. I'd really like to have you two there."

"You need a techie for the equipment?" Cally asked out of the blue, looking at Laura.

Laura immediate knew where Cally was going with that. "Oh, no. No, no, no, no."

"Laura," Cally continued, "you know you'd love to work with the electronics. You can't resist - you're a gadgeteer!"

"We did lose our techie," Dalton said to Emile. "And if you're any good with electronics ...."

Laura closed her eyes and took a quick, deep breath. "Okay," she said, opening her eyes, "I'll think about it."

"Great!" Emile and Dalton said, high-fiving each other.

"I said I'd think about it," Laura reiterated just to ensure they weren't going to count on her participating. From their expressions, she figured she was wasting her breath.

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Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Afternoon
The Quad, Whateley Academy

"Are you enjoying yourself?" the dark-haired Hispanic beauty asked as she sat beside Laura at one of the many picnic tables scattered about the quad, smiling warmly.

"It's ... a nice picnic," Laura said. "A lot different than I'm used to, that's for sure!" she added with a light, pleasant laugh.

Val looked around, smiling, at the other students, including the ones with GSD who wouldn't be found on any other high school campus.

"But I'm sure I'll get used to things, and pretty soon, I'll hardly notice," Laura added, aware that Val's fingers were lightly resting on her arm.

"True," the other girl said. "But I hope there are some things you never stop noticing."

Laura glanced at Val, at her big, soft, brown eyes that seemed hypnotic and seductive. "Oh?" she asked, suddenly feeling a little flushed and a lot nervous.

"Yeah," Val brushed her upper lip lightly with her tongue. "It'd be a shame if you ever took ... friends ... for granted, and stopped noticing them." She leaned a little closer, until Laura was afraid she was going to kiss her neck or nibble on her ear in public on the quad. "Because some people will never take you for granted!" Val whispered in Laura's ear, her warm breath causing a shiver of delight to run up and down Laura's spine.

At another table a dozen yards away, a pair of eyes focused laser-like on the two girls, and beneath the eyes, a solid frown on the girl's face. One fist clenched angrily at the spectacle before her. She knew she was going to have to do something about that little tramp.

A few yards further, a second girl gawked for a moment at Laura and Val, and then, with tears threatening to leak from her eyes, rose and dashed from her table, fleeing away from the scene and toward her own cottage.

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Saturday, Sept 10th, 2016 - Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Smiling, Laura straightened her top and turned from the mirror, content with her appearance, turned to her roommate. "Well? Ready to go?"

Bailey nodded. "Yeah. Like I have been for the past fifteen minutes while you primped and preened!"

"I'm not that bad!" Laura protested with a feigned frown.

"Yeah, I know," Bailey said with a grin. "I know you're just trying to look your best for your new girlfriend. By the way, which of your girlfriends are you going with?" she added with a giggle.

Laura scowled and stuck her tongue out at Bailey. "I've only got one girlfriend," she answered.

"Val or Toni?"

"Toni," Laura snapped back. "What makes you think I'm involved with Val?"

Bailey shrugged. "It sure looks like it, the way she's been hanging around you!" She rose from her bed. "From what I hear, you better watch it around her. Rumors from the older girls are that she's bad news."

"She's a friend," Laura defended herself. "Nothing more. Now if you're done harassing me, I'm going to meet Toni."

"Aw, come on, Laura," Bailey started to say, but the blue girl slipped out the door, closing it firmly behind herself.

Striding down the hall, upset at Bailey's teasing, Laura tried to compose herself. She and Toni were going to have a nice evening at a movie in Crystal Hall, and then some time cuddling and kissing back in Poe.

It was a total surprise when Laura pulled up abruptly to avoid running into Antonia, who was storming around the corner. "Hi!" she said after overcoming her momentary shock. "You ready to go?"

The other girl's scowl deepened. "Like I want to go to a movie with you?" she roared.

Laura's jaw dropped. "But ...."

"Why don't you go with your other girlfriend?" Antonia snapped at her.

"Other ... girlfriend?" Laura stammered. "I don't ...."

"I saw you flirting with her, and kissing her!" Antonia snarled. "Everyone knows she's a man-hating lesbian! And you were enjoying flirting, weren't you? You two-timing ... slut!" Her lip starting to tremble as the water-works turned on, Antonia spun and fled back down the hall into the lesbian wing, ducking into the stairwell, sobs echoing in the hall as she ran.

After overcoming her shock, Laura chased after Antonia. "Toni!" she called out after the fleeing girl, trying to get her attention. When she got to the stairwell, it was empty; there was no telling if Toni had run up or down the stairs, and if she'd gone downstairs, there was no way Laura was going to catch her.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016
The Chapel, Whateley Academy

The church was a small one, probably unable to seat more than two hundred people at once, more fitting in her hometown than in a modern school with a ton of students. In appearance it was similar to an old world church or something, old gray stone and gargoyles included. According to the Whateley App, the church was the only place of Christian worship on the grounds, and used by all denominations - and the Catholics had the use of the place on Sunday for mass from 6:00 to 7:15, after which the protestants took over.

And there, on a sign next to the door, was the proof: "Debates of faith will not be tolerated past these doors."

Standing to the side of it, in full regalia, was the priest. He was small, under average height and thin. His brown hair was beginning to both gray at the sides and run away from top of his head, and his body seemed gnarled like a stunted oak. A broad smile lit up his face, however.

"Ah, another new face, good morning, and how do you do?"

Tia recognized that accent, faint as it was. The good father was Italian.

"Good morning, Father, I'm well. I'm Tia Del Bosque, How are you?" She managed to stifle the embarrassing yawn, but only just.

The Father grinned anyway. "Father Verraco, pleased to meet you, Miss Del Bosque. The early hour claims another victim, eh? Wouldn't do to have you fall asleep during Mass, though heavens know you might be joining the crowd of your peers there."

Tia didn't want him thinking she was like that, even as a joke. "Oh no, I wouldn't, Father! I've just been having some trouble sleeping, is all. Unfamiliar place, and all that. I normally jog mornings, I'm used to it."

"Well you've a leg up on more than a few around here, there. Why don't you head inside and see if you find a few to rub that ethic off on? It won't be long at all before it's time to start."


She went inside, taking in the familiar interior; the threshold, the red lined pews, the tabernacle altar and chair (or throne, as some detractors called it), the lectern… it was all there. Tia kicked herself mentally; of course it was. For all the weird talk about the church online, it still had to conform to doctrine or be sanctioned.

There were about a hundred people inside. Tia felt uneasy, for all that this place was supposed to be her place of worship away from home for the next four years. Even the familiar incense smell didn't do much to reassure.

But there was Airys, in the left aisle, in a circle with some other kids and chatting softly but amiably. She saw Tia and motioned her up. The others - a petite freckle faced brunette who looked more cute than beautiful, a tow headed boy who bore the distinctive exemplar stamp Tia was rapidly getting familiar with, and another tow headed boy who didn't.

A good step away there was also an ebon haired boy with a mild scowl on his face, and he had slight odor that Tia couldn't place. He was also bypassed by the exemplar stamp, but where the other boy could probably hide away in a crowd, there was no way this boy would manage that with his nose that big and chin that wide.

The last member in the group was a boy with black hair cut short, and dressed a bit oddly. Monk robe oddly; and he sported the biggest crucifix Tia had seen hanging from his neck on a heavy chain. While he was also missing the exemplar stamp, he was actually somewhat handsome, with a ready smile.

"Tia, hello and good morning. I'd like you to meet friends of mine; this is, from left to right, Carrie, Mark, Jean, and Arnold. Everyone, this is Tia, we met at powers testing."


In the assorted greetings it was easy for Tia to pick out the French accent. So the monk guy was French, huh? The others seemed to be American. She was also pretty sure only Arnold didn't know who she was. Or maybe he just didn't care.

"So,' Airys continued, 'we all just met more or less, but how about we sit together, get to know each other a bit better?"

"Sure, I'm game." Carrie agreed first, still sizing Tia up.

Airys picked an empty pew in the back and they all filed into it. Tia wasn't sure how all being silent was going to help them get to know each other better, but the others started chatting quietly about the weather and their trips in, which devolved rapidly into a powers discussion. The who-are-you and what-can-you-do did reveal something interesting. Tia wasn't as alone in being weak as she thought.

Carrie could only shrink, and only to a certain size. She couldn't pull an Antman, and while shrinking was useful, it wasn't something that could stop rampaging car throwing bricks.

Mark could manifest bird claws and wings that he swore were an owl's, and he'd taken the code name Owl to drive it home. Tia kind of envied him; flying was a pretty good power to have.

Arnold had the ability to emit a glowing gas; and when he stated that in his morose tone, Tia was finally able to place the scent around him, an almost natural gas smell that while not unpleasant, was distinctive.

Airys healed, of course. Tia thought she could detect some pent up feelings there, but she couldn't place them.

And then there was Jean.

"My powers come directly from God, and are to be used in his service to smite the truly wicked and evil."

Jean wasn't lacking in power, at least according to him, but Tia thought he might be lacking a little in sanity. At least the others were rolling their eyes at him, and not nodding along. Carrie looked like she wanted to argue for a moment - and then realized she was still in a church as Father Verraco swept past with a smile.

Everyone shut up as he walked by in a sort of red sea noise parting, and without preamble he began.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"Where's Morgana?" Vic asked, looking around the table as he put his tray down. All the Poe girls were sitting at the table, which made the British girl's absence all the more notable, as if the absence of her red hair wasn't enough of a clue.

Bianca winced. "She's ... she's in Doyle."

"What?" Tia gasped, stunned. "What happened?"

"Someone ... wanted to meet her," Erica said. "It was obviously a setup; when we realized she was missing, Bianca, Laura, Tanya, and I went out to look for her. We found her in a fight."

"It wasn't really much of a fight," Bianca said. "More like an ambush."

"Is she okay?" Tia added with more than a hint of worry in her voice.

"Who did it?" Jimmy asked the obvious question.

The Poe girls all nodded grimly. "Stahlfaust,"


"Junior. Head of the Amazons," Bailey scowled. "At the mixer, she was really trying to push Morgana into a fight."

"Why?" puzzled Vic.

The Poe girls exchanged quick glances, then Bianca shrugged. "I don't know."

Cally frowned. "There has to be a reason. Do you suppose ...?" Seeing the nod, she continued. "Do you think ... maybe ... Stahlfaust was trying to prove she's tough? Because, you know, the rumors about our fight?"

Laura forced herself to shrug; she, Bianca, and Bailey knew the reason, but they couldn't tell. "I doubt it, but it's always possible.

"When we got there, the fight was pretty much over," Erica reported. "Assuming you can call it a fight. It was more like a severe beatdown. All we could do was to stop Stahlfaust and call security."

"Security ... didn't do anything? They didn't come?" Jimmy asked, astonished. "They're supposed to be monitoring all of the campus."

"Apparently, there are a couple of malfunctioning cameras, and she got jumped in one of the dead spots," Bianca reported unhappily.

The nervous faces grew worried. "Maybe we better find out where those are?" Jimmy suggested.

"Yeah. Good idea," Erica said with a nod.

"Is security doing anything about the girl who attacked?"

Tanya shook her head sadly. "There's no security footage," she said with a sigh, "so it's a case of Morgana's word against Stahlfaust's. There's not much security can do." She saw the looks of disbelief. "It's a matter of evidence," she explained. "A lot of crimes never get solved because there's no evidence."

"Well, that really sucks," Bailey grumbled.

"By some strange coincidence, Mrs. Dennon came to Doyle with security," Laura said distastefully. "So she's on Morgana's case again."

"And she wasn't any too happy with the rest of us, either," Bianca added.

"Since there's no proof, Morgana and Stahlfaust both got detention because it was an unauthorized fight," Tanya explained.

"That's two of you," Vic said, eliciting a frown from Tanya because of her fight with Ratel and the resulting detention.

"I think Mrs. Dennon figured out what happened, though," Erica added. "Morgana's detention is being Mrs. Dennon's gofer in her evening 'bricks' class, but Stahlfaust got a week's detention in Hawthorne."

Laura stifled a yawn, which got Bianca yawning too. "Sorry," she apologized. "We were up late with Morgana in Doyle, and security."

"So how is Morgana? How bad was she hurt?" Tia asked the question that seemed to have been forgotten.

"Broken ribs, broken nose, fractured collarbone, significant concussion, a broken leg ...."

"Wow! That was a beatdown!" Jimmy exclaimed softly. "Did Stahlfaust get hurt at all?"

"She got a few burns and cuts," Tanya said, "but Morgana got the worse of it. That's why Stahlfaust got Hawthorne for her detention."

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"Hey, there's Hikaru!" Tia said enthusiastically.

"Great," Laura said with a slight lack of enthusiasm. "We'll get to hear more of the wonderful life of the Melvillains!" She realized, too late, that Tia was also from Melville. "Present company excepted."

Tia shrugged, but there was a twinge of sadness that flitted across her features. "I know Melville has a ... reputation ..."

"As a bunch of rich snobs?" Bailey speculated on how Tia would have completed the sentence. "That's why you don't belong there; you belong in Poe," she glanced around the table, noting the non-Poesies, and continued with a grin, "with the rest of us nut-jobs!"

Tia stared at Bailey a second or two, and then she nodded. "Yeah, maybe, but the kids in Melville are nicer than people think." She pulled a face, remembering. "Well, most of them anyway. They just... have to put on an act or something, I don't know. I don't know how to explain it but I've seen it before, in California. It's a celebrity thing, or I thought it was."

Vic glanced at Taka. "I heard once that Japanese - and Chinese - people work very hard to present a calm, stoic, neutral face in public. Maybe that's her problem - being RA, she doesn't have much private time to let her hair down, so to speak."

"Public ... let hair down?" Taka asked, befuddled by the idiom. "Why ... good to let hair down in public?"

"It's a saying," Bianca explained. "It means to not hide your feelings and emotions."

"Ah, wakarimasu!" Taka said, the lightbulb in his head turning on. "Difficult for her ... yes? Nihonjin ... not like show weakness." He stood abruptly. "I go ... get more fruit. Any ... like more too?" he asked, looking around the table.

At that moment, Hikaru chose to flash-step to the table, using her power instead of taking the more mundane elevator or escalator. She evidently misjudged her clearance, because before she could set herself, she was bumped sharply, causing a chain reaction. Miso soup and hot water sprayed across Kenshin, causing him to leap up with a word that was surely a curse and begin tearing at his clothes. Tia wasted no time throwing her water on him.

"Eww, it's WINKING at me!" Tanya shouted when Hikaru's fish landed on her plate. But that hadn't been the last of flying food, thought. Tia hadn't ducked in time; a large pickle stuck out of one of her ears, and a small bowl of rice landed on top of Bianca's head, dumping its contents to blend with her skin. The last plate, in a one-in-a-billion chance, filled with over easy eggs, sausages and toast… flipped over a few times and landed almost perfectly in front of jimmy but with only half its payload, the other half having bombed Bailey along the way.

Laura and the others - at least those not dealing the food fallout, gawked at the humorous scene, while Kenshin, having finally worked enough buttons, stripped off his soaked clothing and somehow producing a yukata from nothing, he wrapped it like a robe around himself so fast bystanders couldn't be sure what they just witnessed.

For a long moment, as Kenshin brushed off the liquid that had seeped through his stripped off clothing, no one said anything. The stunned silence was broken by Hikaru covering her mouth and trying to repress giggles, as she stammered out. "I'm so … so … so ..." Pausing for a moment to giggle helplessly as Bailey retrieved sausages, she finally recovered enough to finish. "Sorry …." Turning to look at Tanya, Hikaru's helpless smile quirked a bit as Tanya was still pointing at the fish and the Japanese girl calmed the purple haired girl down by telling her. "The …" *giggle* "fish is" *snort* "dead."

Before anyone else could say anything, a voice rang out. "Lookit at the fag with his girly dress!" Half the table spun looking for the voice, their expressions promising violence to whoever had shouted, but before anyone could say a word, there was a loud 'oof' and a 'thud' and the voice was silent. Instead of laughter, several girls on the second level, including one Venus Inc. girl who was on her way to the third level, gawked and oohed and aahed at Kenshin's new outfit, which looked rich enough to be silk.

Laura turned to look at the now serious Hikaru, but before she could say anything, Jimmy calmly passed Hikaru the plate. "I know that was an 'Ooops' moment. Don't try to squeeze into tight places." Hikaru could only nod sheepishly at the statement.

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"So," Erica asked, looking askance at Hikaru and Taka, "when were you going to tell us about these other ... capabilities? Like your," she eyed Hikaru, "warping?" She turned to Taka. "Or how you made that ... kimono ... out of nothing?"

"Manifestor?" Laura asked, sounding certain of the answer.

"Manifest clothing," Taka replied. "Japanese. Traditional."

"So, can you make me a nice kimono?" the blue girl asked eagerly.

"Laura," Bianca chided her, "not polite."

"And are you a warper?" Cally asked Hikaru.

The Japanese girl shrugged. "I don't know. It's ... something my spirit does, but ... the power testing crew didn't say how I do it."

"You know," Jimmy said thoughtfully, "you might want to cool it with that ... warping ...."

"Flash step." Seeing the looks of confusion, Hikaru explained, "Amaterasu calls it flash-step."

"Whatever you call it," Jimmy said with a shrug, "you might want to cool it with that until you get a handle on it."

"At least until you get better control," Vic added. "And improve your accuracy."

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"Are you sure you're alright?" Cally fussed over Morgana, carrying the girl's tray as three of the other girls escorted her up to the group's table.

Morgana tried to shrug, but the expression on her face belied her nonchalant attitude. "Yeah," she lied, then she saw the looks she was getting. "Not really," she admitted. "My ribs and my leg and shoulder hurt and I've got a hell of a headache. It seems bricks are vulnerable to sonics."

"Shouldn't you be resting?" Vic worried.

"The healing really drained me," Morgana explained, "so the doctor told me to get a good meal."

Laura looked at the tray. "Did that include eating nine thousand calories for breakfast?"

"I'm not that bad," Morgana groused. Following Cally, she sat down at the table, leaning back a little so the Italian girl could set her tray down.

"Until security figures something out, maybe you shouldn't go anywhere alone," Tanya cautioned, breaking the awkward silence at the table.

"That sounds like a good idea," Jimmy agreed. "If someone attacked you once, they might do it again."

"If we can't figure out why, then maybe we should all take similar precautions," Tia suggested. "If it's because of our fight ...." She glanced at Tanya. "I told you it was a bad idea to get involved in that fight."

"It wasn't the fight," Morgana said with iron certainty.

"Are you sure?"

She nodded. "Yes." There wasn't any doubt in her voice. Morgana sighed. "Can we talk about something more fun than the fight? Like ... I talked to the Commonwealth group yesterday, and they sound like a good group. They're having a 'get to know you' meeting on Thursday."

Laura eyed the redhead cautiously. "There's a ... gadgeteers meeting on Tuesday, and ..."

"That sounds like fun! You know I like tech stuff!" exclaimed Morgana, happy again at the prospect, which caused Laura to wince.

"Um, it's ... it's only for students registered on the technical track."

"Figures," Morgana snorted but without venom in her voice. "Like you colonials to make interesting groups that entice people, and then you don't let others join!"

"Says the girl who's interested in the Commonwealth Snobs!" Bailey chuckled.

"That's different."

"How? Because you have a queen and we don't?" Vic kidded.

"Well, yeah. That and we know how to drive on the proper side of the road!"

Cally saw a point to interrupt. "You guys should have been on the quad when we met the guys trying to put a band back together."

"Yeah," Laura said, nodding agreement. "Nick, the horse-boy? Wow! He can really rock that guitar!"

"And his voice is ... mmmmm," Cally purred. "He's got a range like Freddy Mercury, and when he hits bass, his voice is smoother than Barry White!"

"Emile and Dalton were pretty interested in your singing, too," Laura chimed in, and then she grinned. "Besides, you were really loving singing duet with Nick, weren't you?"

"Well, yeah," Cally admitted with the tiniest hint of a blush. "Aren't you interested in the Lit Chix and the Anime club and Sci Fi club?" she asked Laura, changing the subject abruptly.

A vigorous head-shake denied at least part of Cally's question. "Anime and Sci-Fi? Yeah. But the Lit Chix?" With a wrinkled nose, Laura shook her head no. "But Misty, from our floor, is very interested in them. So is Taka.

"Yes," the Japanese boy said with a solemn nod. "Reading key to learn."

"And meeting girls," Jimmy chuckled. "I might have to join, too. Can't have the girls thinking that all guys are like you; after all, we have some quality examples of manhood to dazzle the babes."

"So you're joining Lit Chix, too?" Bianca challenged him. "Don't you have to, you know, read to join them?"

Vic shot her a sneering look. "We can't have Taka getting all the girls."

"Taka not want ... all girls," the Japanese boy protested. "Four, five enough ... how you say? High number?"

"Dimes," Jimmy smiled. "Tens - which given the exemplar babes around here, are much more common than outside these hallowed grounds."

"Is this going to be like Monster Musume - a Japanese boy collects a harem of adoring girls?" Vic asked with a chuckle. "You realize that if you start collecting such a harem, other guys are going to get more than a bit jealous."

"I heard there's a 'frequent buyer' club in the chemist shop in Fox Hall." Seeing the puzzled eyes looking her way, Morgana continued. "Once you've bought ten condoms, you get two free." She grinned at Taka. "With the Lit Chix and Venus Inc., you're going to need a lot of condoms."

Taka frowned. "Is ... to be discrete. Man not brag. Subject only ... private discussing. No ... like affection in public."

"Well, you're in America," Lapin chuckled. "Some of these girls are gonna want to swap spit with you in public - and some will aggressively start things. You better adjust to PDAs." Seeing the confused look on the Japanese boy's face, she explained. "Public Displays of Affection."

"Girls ... kiss ... me?" He clearly didn't believe Lapin.

"Yes," Lapin assured him. "And with your looks, there's apt to be a line of girls wanting to lock lips with you!"

"Just watch out for jealous boyfriends," Bianca laughed.

"How about the rest of you? Any clubs you're interested in?"

Bianca just shrugged, but Tanya piped up. "The FSHA," she said.

One by one, the others expressed their interest, or lack thereof, in the various clubs. Not surprisingly to Laura, Bianca was very muted in her response, as if she wanted to keep a very low profile on campus. Given what she'd revealed in the wing meeting, Laura understood her reluctance.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Early Afternoon
Arena 99, Whateley Academy

It would be easy to guess that the aerial sports club was a popular spectator sport, given the size of the crowd in the Arena 99 stands; Laura was quite grateful that she and Bailey had come early. Of course, their seats weren't as fancy as the skyboxes which some groups like the Alphas and Venus Inc. had, but it was better than nothing.

"Next time we won't have to come so early," Bailey observed as they waved and called attention to themselves so the rest of the group could find them.

Tanya, Erica, Vic, and Jimmy wiggled through the crowd toward the front row 'box' seating, and from their expressions, they were puzzled.

"How'd you get this?" Vic asked skeptically.

Laura beamed with an 'I told you so' kind of look. "It's a perk of being a registered team." She gestured to the sides, to other boxes that were slowly filling. "See?"

"It's like seats on the 40-yard line!" Jimmy said with a grin as he sat down. "Could be better, but we'll let you slide this time," he added, giving Bianca and Tanya a wink as he teased Laura.

The front wall of the arena, behind a small stage in the center, was covered with a large projected display of pictures from various Whateley activities, no doubt to set the mood for the new students. About half the pictures were typical high-school images - groups of kids in activities or hamming for the camera in various silly poses, while the other half were very Whateley-specific, like the gadgeteer exercise with their remote-controlled armored combat robots, or combats in the various arenas, or the gadgeteer in the midst of a nearly ruined, blackened lab, standing looking meekly with singed hair and lab-coat and sooty cheeks, holding the remains of whatever experiment had gone so horribly wrong.

Eventually, the images ceased, replaced by a large Whateley coat-of-arms, and the lights in the stands dimmed slightly. From the left, the Assistant Headmaster strolled casually to center-stage, a spotlight following him.

"Ahem," Falcon cleared his throat, silencing the crowd. "I hope everyone had fun yesterday at the picnic." Some cheers answered his question for him. "To all of you newcomers to Whateley - and that includes myself," he added with a self-deprecating chuckle to help put the freshmen at ease, "this is a demonstration of the Whateley flight games, a sport invented by some of Whateley's very own students since most other sports weren't exactly practical. It's not exactly fair to play football when your opponent's running back has a frictionless PK field that makes it impossible to tackle him!" That drew a lot of laughs. "Believe me, when I was a student here, we tried everything to make it work."

"Yeah," Laura whispered to Bailey, "I can see how that'd be a problem."

"I could try to explain it all to you," Falcon continued, "but it'd be better if I let the Flier Club president give you the correct facts." With yesterday's and today's talks, Laura was starting to like Falcon; he wasn't at all pretentious or overbearing, but seemed quite approachable.

A girl walked onto the stage; she looked like a cross between a human, a fairy, and a hummingbird, with greenish-blue iridescent feathers instead of hair that came down in a widow's peak almost to her eyebrows. She had four large wings - two on a side like a butterfly - translucent with gold-colored veins spreading tree-like from the center of her back, and she walked lightly, practically skipping happily, as if she had the energy and enthusiasm of a hummingbird. At about five-three, she was dwarfed by Falcon, who offered her the mic.

"Hi," she said cheerfully. "I'm Rose Little Deer, but I also go by Thanagila, which is a Native American word for 'hummingbird.' If all you freshmen feared that Whateley was going to be like a prison, with non-stop homework and toil, well maybe our little demonstration will show you that we have a lot of time for fun, too. Since we're all mutants, we sometimes invent our own games. Such was the case in 2007, when a girl named Knockoff was challenged by another student to a race, and they settled on a flying obstacle-course race since both were fliers. So many of the flying students wanted to participate - including those using gadgets and devises - that they started scheduling a weekly time for challenge matches." She grinned, glancing at Falcon with a knowing look. "There were so many bets placed on the various contests that the fliers got together and decided to make a regular club so they could leverage their fair share of the ... um ... proceeds."

Falcon leaned over toward the microphone. "Yes, despite the best efforts of administrators long-since past to discourage wagering, for some reason, students insist on gambling. It was wisely decided to allow a little organization to the process, and a cabal of bookies naturally sprang up. As my position is to discourage gambling by students, I won't tell you who they are, though. If you can't find the bookies, you're probably not going to make intelligent gambling wagers." A roar of laughter circulated through the crowd as Falcon straightened back up.

"Today, you'll see three of our games demonstrated. We'll demonstrate our timed obstacle course, where the best time wins, we'll show you a relay race, and we'll play an abbreviated game of what we call 'air-ball', although some insist that it should be 'air-sock-hock-rug-cross-ball' since it borrows elements from soccer, hockey, rugby, and lacrosse."

She waited for the titters of laughter to die down. "Now some of you are probably wondering how you can participate in the Fliers Club. It's pretty simple. First, you need to be able to fly." She paused for more chuckles. "Whether it's through your powers or magic or a devise or gadget doesn't matter. Just so long as you can fly. Second, you have to be enrolled in or have passed the Introduction to Flying class - although if you're enrolled in flight class, you'll be a provisional member of the club." She grimaced visibly. "Since the administration has made Powers Theory and Powers Lab a prerequisite for Flight Instruction, we'll waive that rule for anyone currently enrolled in the Powers classes. Third, and most importantly, you'll have to demonstrate your flying skill and safety to one of the safety crew." An older boy walked onto the stage beside the diminutive girl. "Since I'm competing in the obstacle race, I'll give the mic to our club vice-president." She handed the boy the mic and then, perhaps to show off a little, rose a few feet and flew off the stage.

"Hey, guys and gals," the boy said enthusiastically. "I'm Marvin Bates, Thani's assistant - which means I do all the work and she gets all the credit." More laughter. "And no, don't bother to ask if any of my relatives own a motel! That joke is way, waaaayyy too old!" A few students laughed aloud, while some of the younger ones wrinkled their brows in confusion.

"Let me explain how the first game works." As he spoke, the panel behind him turned transparent, showing the interior of the large arena, set up with a few tall buildings and some landscape features like a rock arch, a waterfall with a hollow behind it, and several massive sequoia-like trees. In the 'city' area were sky bridges between the buildings and signs and traffic lights overhanging the streets. It was a bizarre combination of elements that was impossible in the real world.

"One of the club members works with the arena control team to design the obstacle course. As you can see, we mix things up a bit. Thani and all the contestants are in a waiting room, so they will see the course for the first time when they race, so they don't have an advantage from having 'learned' the course by watching others." He pulled out what looked like a TV remote and pressed a button. Instantly, areas of the arena lit up with holographically-projected arrows and numbers. "As you can see, the course has some straight flight paths that reward the speedy, and some tight turns that reward the agile."

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Tanya's eyes were practically glowing with enthusiasm. "That looks like so much fun!" she declared to the group. "I have got to sign up for that club!"

Cally looked at Laura. "What about you? I'm sure you can make some flying gadget so you can participate, too!"

"Um, sports are not my thing, really," the blue-haired girl answered nervously. "But ... maybe..."

"And you two can use your magic to fly, can't you?" Bailey asked of Morgana and Bianca.

"Not gonna happen," Bianca said firmly, but the look in Morgana's eyes indicated that maybe she was considering it.

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The short hummingbird-girl strode confidently to Mark, a grin on her face. "You're goin' down today, buzzard-boy!"

"And who's going to beat me?" Mark asked of the girl, a wicked grin on his face. "A tiny little bird that only hovers well? You know what they call owls - silent death!"

"Too bad we don't have a contest for catching field mice at night!" Thani shot back with a grin. "You might actually stand a chance in that one!"

A tall, red-haired girl sighed heavily, shaking her head. "Would you two spare the rest of us from having to watch your bizarre courtship rituals and just kiss each other for luck?"

Thani laughed. "Shauna, have you seen the team pairings yet?"

The redhead shook her head. "No. Who am I flying with in the relay race? And am I on an air-ball team?"

"You're flying with me, Natalie, and Gordon in the relay," Thanagila said with a smile, then she glanced at Mark. "Against buzzard-boy and his team of losers!" She stuck her tongue out at Mark.

"You want to practice congratulating us for winning?" Shauna taunted Mark.

"As if!" He stared at Thani, a grin forming. "How about we wager a bit?"

"How much you willing to lose?" she shot back without pause.

"Whoever loses is the other's butler and maid for two days!" Mark answered cockily.

"Done!" Thanagila replied. "And I'm very particular about how my delicates get laundered," she added with a confident smirk. "But you know that from all the bets you lost last year, don't you!"

"Har, har!" Mark snarked with a frown. "My room is extra messy, and you know I like seeing you in a French maid outfit when you clean it!"

"Thani, you're up!" someone in the room of waiting fliers called.

"Well, I'm going to go set the time for you to try to beat." The hummingbird girl strode confidently toward the doors, and via the tunnel, out into the cavernous arena.

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Thanagila - Rose Little Deer - walked out to the end of what appeared to be a high diving platform, ten meters above the arena floor. She preferred being first - best to post a time and watch others try to beat it than to have the pressure of trying to beat times already on the board. Bracing herself against the rails for a good shove-off, she pushed away the jitters she always felt before a race. Taking a couple deep breaths to focus, she leaned slightly forward, lifting her head to look out on the course. It only took a second for her to spot the green arrow, the marker for the first obstacle, and another few milliseconds to locate a red arrow beyond it, pointing at the second obstacle which was obviously hidden from view by the city-scape.

A countdown timer beeped at one-second intervals; she knew there would be five of them, followed by a different tone marking the start.


Thani launched herself forward, her wings extended and immediately catching air and arresting her fall. At the same time, they pushed air behind her with every beat, increasing her forward speed. She let herself fall a bit, trading off a few meters of altitude for more speed, since she had to pass under a skybridge enroute to the second obstacle. She liked this part of the course; its tight turns fit her agile flying style perfectly.

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"How do they do that?" Vic asked, his eyes fixed on the arena. When Thanagila had flown into a street between buildings towering on either side, a move that should have put her out of view of the spectators, parts of the city-scape just vanished, allowing an unfettered view of the girl's flight.

"Probably hard-light holograms," Laura speculated, enjoying the display of some of Whateley's technology first-hand. "Practical - they can change a scene in seconds, and they can delete the ones that would impair our view!"

"Damn, she's good!" Tanya mouthed as she watched the experienced flier, realizing that she had a lot to learn about flying so skillfully. "I have so got to get in that club!"

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Thanagila sped down the straightaway toward the next marker in the forest, knowing that she was losing any time advantage her agility had given her in the city. The flight seemed agonizingly long; she knew others were much faster, but she pressed as hard as she dared, knowing she was going to be very tired after the flight.

And then she was in the trees, and the arrows lit up like a slalom course among the trunks of the towering giants. For the briefest of seconds, she thought of the Endor speeder chase in Star Wars, but she forced that thought away; she could not afford to let herself be distracted, or she would end up like a speeder-bike crashing ignominiously into a tree.

Some of the turns were tight, where her agility again gave her an edge, while others were small course alterations that favored faster fliers.

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"You've got to be kidding!" Bailey said in disbelief as she watched the flier navigating through a vertical slalom course of rock arches, one atop another, which caused her to have to double back on her flight path three times as she climbed several meters for each arch.

"She's good!" Vic said in awe. There was a delicate grace to Thanagila's flight, like a hummingbird whose wings were too fast to see as anything but a blur, but whose motion had the start-and-stop darting found on the little nectar-sucking birds.

"I wonder if I could use multiple antigrav units to shape a propulsion and maneuvering field," Laura mused aloud. "Like a warp bubble, but narrow at one end to squeeze the field generator forward ...."

The other girls turned and stared at the blue-haired gadgeteer; it was so typical of a tech-head to lose the spectacle of what was happening as they got inspired by something they were watching. Bianca rolled her eyes in an exaggerated fashion, which caused Morgana and Jimmy to chuckle.

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After navigating through a winding canyon, going over or under several arches and even under a waterfall, Thani pushed herself toward the city-scape again. Even though the arena was only three or four hundred meters on a side, the ability of the holograms to change almost instantly allowed the course designers to have several 'laps' inside the arena without the flier ever repeating an obstacle.

She flew up on a gradual climb - an optimal tradeoff between forward speed and vertical speed - and between two massive billboards atop a building. Immediately, she tucked up into a stoop and let gravity assist her downward, to a skybridge that she had to fly under, then over the next, and under a third before taking two tight turns and racing for the finish line.

Panting, sweating, and feeling her muscles burn, Thani dropped heavily to the landing platform, pausing to look up at the clock. She grinned as her time was posted - bumping the leader down into second place by a little over two seconds.

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"Not bad," Mark said, still feeling competitive. "But watch how a pro does it!"

Thani chuckled. "I can't wait to see you lumbering through the tight obstacles - or crashing into them! Now get out there for your run so I can watch you humiliate yourself!"

"In your dreams!" Mark replied over his shoulder.

Shauna smiled and shook her head. These two had such a strange relationship!

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"He's pretty fast on the straight part," Bailey observed. Indeed, compared to Thani's flight moments before, Mark - Owl - was noticeably faster in straight flight than the hummingbird girl.

"Here comes the split," Jimmy said, one eye on the clocks showing the leader's split time compared to Owl's and the other eye watching him fly. The boy flew past the checkpoint, and the split times were shown. "He more than made up for the first part," he announced needlessly. "He's ahead now."

"Yeah, but there are a lot more twisty bits to slow him again," Morgana commented dryly.

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Mark felt the strain in his manifested wings as he pulled the last turns as tight as he dared. It had been strange to feel the wings when he first manifested them years earlier; it was like they were a part of his body and he got strange sensory feedback, as if from real living tissue. Now he was used to the sensation and used it to his advantage. Once he'd seen a manifestor who had no such feedback taking a corner too tight; his manifested wings failed, and the boy had been quite injured from impacting on an obstacle at high speed. That happened a lot to devisors and gadgeteers, too.

There was the finish line! He fought the temptation to look up at the clock, instead focusing on beating his wings as hard as he could, trading off what altitude he had for an extra bit of speed.

There! The chime sounded, marking the completion of his run. He spread his wings, catching the air and braking himself, and then settled down on the landing platform. For a few seconds he caught his breath, and then his wings and talons de-manifested, leaving the boy standing.

Nervously, he turned toward the center display, the racing clock and leaderboard. His head dropped, and he sighed - Thani's time was better than his by a mere seven hundredths of a second.

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Everyone in the stands cringed when a competitor, a devisor, turned very tightly around a tree obstacle, and just at that moment, the devise he was using to fly failed. One moment, he was astride his riding platform, which appropriately enough had some resemblance to a Star Wars speeder bike, and the next moment he and the platform tumbled through the air and into something - it wasn't possible to tell if it was a hard-light hologram or the actual wall. The bike and the rider fell separately, the bike trailing smoke from some overloaded and burned-out component.

Before anyone could turn away from what looked to be an even more painful impact on the arena floor, the boy hit, but it was as if he'd hit a pole-vaulter's landing mat instead of the hard floor. For the briefest of moments, it appeared that he was suspended a few inches above the floor, but then he dropped the last bit as whatever field had caught him was switched off. A team was already running across the arena floor to the kid.

"Well, still want to join the club?" Bianca asked Tanya.

Tanya shrugged. "Since I'm not using one of Laura's toys, I don't have to worry about my flight failing me!"

Laura spun, frowning and then sticking out her tongue at the lavender-haired girl. "My gadgets don't fail!" she declared strongly.

"Sure, sure," Cally chuckled. "That'll be you sprawled out there if you join!"

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"Good job," Mark congratulated Foxbat, a junior from Twain with GSD that gave him bat wings and ears. He had edged out Thanagila by a tenth of a second, putting her second and Mark third. He turned toward Thani and Shauna. "Guess the bet's off since neither of us won."

"Hold on there, Romeo," Shauna said, frowning at him. "As I recall, the bet wasn't whether one or the other of you would win. It was whether she'd beat you or you'd beat her! And since she had a faster time than you, she won, even if she didn't win the whole contest!"

Thani grinned triumphantly. "You can start with my laundry after dinner!"

Mark's countenance darkened as he realized he wasn't going to sneak out of the bet. "Okay," he answered grudgingly.

"Better yet, you can start by getting a tray of my favorite food from Crystal Hall and serving me dinner yourself!" Thani and Shauna giggled at Mark's frown. "And since you like that French maid outfit so much, maybe you should wear it when you're cleaning my room!"

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"That looks like fun!" Tanya gushed as three teams of four lined up for a relay race.

"Kind of late for a restroom break, isn't it?" Cally asked as several dozen students dashed out of the stands. "They'll miss the race."

Bianca shook her head. "I suspect that they're running to the bookies to place bets now that they know the teams."

"Even for demonstrations?" Laura asked naively.

Bailey nodded. "Mom told me that the bookies will lay odds on just about anything, and with so many kids away from home, betting is kind of a ... a staple entertainment. Just like the Assistant Headmaster said."

"I'm not going to bet," Laura said firmly. "I've never been a betting type."

"Two dollars says she's betting by mid-terms," Bianca giggled to Bailey.

"Oh, hush!" Laura said, pouting.

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The race was relatively simple - each flier did two laps of the one-thousand-meter oval, flying over or under bars or through circular hoops to add variety to the course. A starting platform lifted off the floor with the three lead-off fliers, and when the chime sounded, they all took off. Each team had at least one devisor or gadgeteer, and all three teams chose to have them fly on the first leg.

As soon as the third gadgeteer passed the start-finish line on his first lap, the next set of fliers got on the platform and it was lifted. Owl's team, in the lead, flew hard toward the second-leg flier; the baton handoff was completed among a flurry of gadgets and arms and legs, much to the amazement of many freshmen.

Those with wings had a slight disadvantage, Laura surmised quickly; they had to hand off the baton with their wings possibly interfering. Thanagila had an interesting solution - she leapt straight up and then dived down toward her team's gadgeteer, accepting the baton from below her so her wings never got in the way. The third team almost muffed the exchange; the PK flier on the second leg actually had to stop to let their gadgeteer catch up and make the exchange. Already in third place, the bad exchange put them even further behind Thani's team.

The final handoff was made, and Mark - Owl - was flying against Shauna, a PK flier. Starting with a lead, he carefully used his position to block her attempts to overtake him, but unlike race cars, he had to maneuver in two dimensions. Still, one had to admire his skill in using the bars and hoops to cause an opponent to lose momentum and thwart a passing attempt.

And then the two of them came out of the last turn, past the last hoop, and it was a race to the finish line, Mark's wings beating furiously, and Shauna streamlining her body to minimize drag as her PK field propelled her forward.

Laura found herself on her feet, cheering wildly, like nearly everyone else in the stands, as the very close race came to the last sprint to the finish. The owl-boy was holding his lead, barely, using some sense to know where his opponent was, because he slipped slightly right or left, or up or down, so that the airflow from his wings impinged on her in an attempt to slow her, even if only slightly. But the redhead girl was determined, fighting all the way to the finish.

At the end, the owl-boy won by half a body-length.

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"We'll take a twenty-minute break," the loudspeaker announced, "so the fliers can rest and change into their air-ball gear."

"I'm going to take a little break myself," Laura announced, standing from her seat. When no-one joined her, she walked toward the exit tunnel. There, she bumped into Krystal.

"What do you think?" the RA asked pleasantly.

"That is so cool!" Laura gushed.

"Yeah. Sometimes, I come just to watch them practice." Krystal looked evenly at Laura. "You're a gadgeteer - are you going to make some flying contraption so you can join the fun and games?"

Laura winced, recalling how the one devisor or gadgeteer had crashed his speeder bike. "I don't know," she said warily.

When they were a bit away from others, Krystal lightly grasped Laura's arm, causing the blue girl to spin towards her. "What's going on with you and Antonia?" she asked softly, but her features were stern.

Laura winced. "I ... I'm not sure. She accused me of chasing after Val ..."

"Krystal's eyes narrowed. "Valentina? Eurydice?"

"Yeah," Laura replied, confused at how quickly Krystal had guessed.

"If you're smart, you'll stay away from her. She's nothing but trouble!"

"I ... I wasn't doing anything! She was ...." Laura cringed as the thought. "I guess she was flirting a bunch, and ... and she kissed me! I didn't start anything!"

Krystal sighed. "Well, that explains a bunch. You need to go talk to Antonia and get this all straightened out. It's not good for any of us to have a lot of melodrama on the wing."

Laura nodded, fighting the moisture in her eyes at Krystal's unpleasant reminder. "I ... I tried to talk to her a couple times this morning, and again at lunch, but I kept missing her."

"Just ... get it worked out. Please."

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"So how does this work?" Morgana asked as the hovering referee held up a silver softball at the center of the arena, which had been reconfigured to about two hundred yards by one hundred yards in size. "Is it like your silly football?"

"I have no idea," Tanya replied. "I've never seen it either."

Laura held up her cell phone. "The rules are online under the flight club," she explained with exasperation, as if the answer was obvious. "Every player has a stick - the picture looks like some weird hybrid of a lacrosse stick and a hockey stick. The player cannot carry the ball, either on their person or in the lacrosse basket; they have to slap, hit, or kick the ball down the field. A goal is worth five points, and a ball strike on something called the 'target zone' under the goal is worth one point." She looked at the field. "I guess that's the half-circle down there?"

"What's with the pads? Is this a contact sport?" Morgana asked.

Laura shrugged. "Could be like football or hockey, where some contact is expected." She looked at her phone some more. "There are penalties, but that looks confusing."

"How so?"

Laura wrinkled her brow. "Some penalties yield a penalty shot, like in soccer, but others have a player put in a penalty box like hockey. It's not really clear which is which." She looked up at Morgana. "Damn - the rules are written like legalese!"

"I hope they don't have some goofy, hard-to understand offside rule like in soccer!" Morgana said, wincing.

"Or like icing in hockey!" Bianca noted.

"Listen to this!" Laura exclaimed with a squeal of delight. "A player who strikes another player in the genital area with his or her stick shall serve either a three-minute penalty in the penalty box, or must go on a date with the player who was struck, at the choice of the player who was struck!"

"What the hell?" the others demanded almost in unison.

"Apparently! According to the website, this is known as the 'Peeper Rule' after a student who evidently had a reputation of being a rather unpopular lech!" Laura giggled. "I guess a bunch of girls who were playing decided to use the game to express their dislike of him?"

"Hey, it looks like it's about to start!" Tanya interrupted Laura's study of the rules.

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At the sound of a chime, the ref tossed the silver ball into the middle of the field, where it began to slowly drift down like a balloon. It never hit the ground. One of the five blue team fliers, who'd been circling because he had wings and couldn't hover, unlike many of the gadgeteers and PK fliers, beat a red player to the ball, and with a quick, fluid motion, scooped it into the basket of his stick and snapped the ball across the playing field toward one of his teammates.

The blue player receiving the ball snagged it in his basket and immediately dumped it, reversed his stick, and using the hockey stick end, began to bat the ball down the field. He was overtaken by a red player, and with some minor bumping, the ball was deflected from the blue player. A second red player swooped in and snagged the ball in her basket, and then she flipped it back toward the center of the field.

Thanagila, apparently captain of the red team, swooped in toward the ball at the same time a blue flier - wearing some type of flying belt gadget or devise - sped toward it.

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"How can a girl that small hit that hard?" Laura asked, her mouth hanging open.

"I don't care how you say it," Vic said with a grin, "that's gotta hurt!"

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Having knocked the blue player away - rather violently, Thanagila began guiding the ball, using her stick like a hockey player, toward the goal at the blue end of the field. When one defender, having been waiting in the area of the goal, charged out to intercept her, Thani slapped the ball to a teammate, who caught it in his basket and deftly flipped it back across the field to a third red player. That girl caught it and threw it back to Thani, who immediately dumped it back to the girl. She in turn tossed it to the male teammate across the field.

Running a three-on-two fast break, the red team was a model of practice and precision in passing. None of the three had the ball for more than a second or two as they slapped and tossed it back and forth. The two defenders had positioned themselves between the three attackers and the goal, and when Thani bobbled a pass headed her way, the defender swooped to take the ball away from Thani.

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"She bobbled that on purpose!" Bianca said, amazed at the hummingbird girl's tactic.

"Yeah, and it worked!" Cally noted, admiring Thanagila's skill. She'd duped the defender, and once he'd committed to getting the ball from her, she suddenly had it in control and flipped it with a hockey-style shot across the field to her now-uncovered teammate.

The cheering of the crowd turned to a groan of disappointment when the shot missed the goal by a couple of feet.

"Hey, shouldn't that be a penalty?" an outraged Bailey snapped when the defender bumped heavily into Thani. Evidently it wasn't considered a foul, as play continued with a blue-team toss-in since the ball had hit the rear wall.

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Apparently, the guy who'd collided with the hummingbird girl was a gadgeteer or devisor, and the collision caused some damage to his flight belt, because he tumbled and crashed to the floor. It was easy to tell the new students from the veterans - most of the new students were on their feet, gasping, crying out in shock, or doing something else to indicate their shock at the impending crash. But the tumbling blue team member hit the same energy-absorbing force field as had been used in the races, and after hauling himself back to his feet, battered very little except for his ego, the gadgeteer fiddled with his flight belt and then launched himself back into the fray.

After several back-and-forth exchanges, a flier from the blue team pounced on a red team player from above and behind, knocking the red player out of the way and deftly batting the ball back toward a teammate. In the race to the ball, a red and a blue player collided solidly.

A piercing whistle halted play, and the ref announced a penalty on the red team. Because of the location of the foul, the red team player, disgust on his face, flapped to the penalty box and sat down, taking the opportunity for a long drink. On the field, Blue took advantage of the short-handed red team and drove quickly to the goal. The first shot was a little wide of the goal, but the ball rebounded to the floor, and a whistle announced a score.

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"What was that?" Bianca asked, baffled. "How was that a point?"

Laura consulted her smart-phone. "I guess the ball hit in the target zone."

"Well, that's cheap!" Bailey snorted.

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Despite the single point scored by Blue, the penalty ran the full two minutes, during which Red and Blue went back and forth a few times, and each team scored a point. Finally, when the Red team was back at full strength, they immediately went on the offensive, and in another three-on-two fast break, scored a goal for five points.

Despite the tolerance of a great deal of contact, on Blue's next possession, Thani got a little overly enthusiastic with defense against Owl, and a penalty was called on her. Because of the location of the foul, the ref signaled for a 'penalty kick', and Owl scored, tying the game at seven points each.

After another back-and-forth, Red scored again, and in taking the shot, a gadgeteer on the red team was seriously fouled; he impacted hard against the wall and crumpled to a heap on the floor of the arena, spared further harm by the energy-absorbing field. Still, from the unnatural angle at which his forearm hung, he'd sustained a broken arm. Play was halted while a medical team attended to the injured player, and with a temporary splint and sling on his arm, he was led out of the arena to the cheers of the crowd.

A substitute player took the penalty shot and scored, and then the game went to more back-and-forth, with Red scoring two points and Blue one. Then Red got the ball again, and in a very aggressive defense, since they were behind and running out of time, a Blue player hit Thani very hard, resulting in a foul, and the hummingbird girl staggered in the air, almost crumpling, but she managed to keep her wings flapping and stayed in the air. Her penalty shot scored.

Blue got the ball, and was driving, but the hummingbird girl pounced from above and behind the player, timing her impact so perfectly that a glancing blow was all that was necessary to make the player lose focus while Thani scooped up the ball in her basket and flicked it to a teammate, where they played keep-away from the desperate Blue team until the horn sounded, ending the game; Red had nineteen points, and Blue had seven.

It was fast-moving, it was wild, and it was quite exciting. And when it was over, Laura left the arena feeling fatigued from just watching the non-stop action. She couldn't imagine how fatigued she'd be if she'd been playing. Or if she'd have watched a four-period game instead of the one-period demonstration.

And she had a very powerful need to make some kind of flying gadget so she could play the game, too!

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Late-Afternoon
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Trembling with nervousness, Laura reached up to knock on the door, but she hesitated, afraid of what kind of response she'd get. Lowering her hand, she started to turn away from room 216, but Flower stood in the hallway leaning against a wall, giving her a look of encouragement. And she had told Laura to settle things so they didn't have a lot of dramatics on their wing. Steeling herself and gulping nervously, even though her mouth seemed parched, Laura knocked on the door.

As the door creaked open, Laura thought she was going to faint, and she fought against her 'fight or flight' reflex that was demanding that she run away. Fear of Flower's disapproval kept her rooted in place long enough for the door to fully open.

"Oh, you," Leslie 'Ping' responded somewhat caustically. With visible disdain and anger on her features, Leslie looked totally unlike the oriental beauty with flame-red hair that Laura had first met at the wing meeting. "What do you want?"

"Um," Laura spoke hesitantly, "I need to talk to Antonia."

"Why?" Leslie demanded. "So you can twist the knife more?"

Her words caused Laura to flinch; who knew what kind of rumors had started over Val flirting and kissing her. "I ... I want to explain to Toni what happened. That I didn't start anything, but Val ... was the ... she ... she started it!" Laura couldn't stop tears from trickling down her cheeks because she knew she'd hurt Toni.

Leslie didn't look like she was going to budge; if anything, she seemed more resolute to block Laura's access to Toni. "Please?" Laura practically begged.

Still blocking the door with one hand firmly on the knob so Laura couldn't barge past her, Leslie looked over her shoulder, her determination wavering. When she looked back at Laura, her expression was untrusting. "This isn't going to be 'the talk', is it?" she demanded.

"The talk?" Laura started to ask, but her mind caught up to the implications of Leslie's question. "No! It's not like that!"

Grudgingly, Leslie stepped back from the door so Laura could enter.

Antonia sat on her bed, knees drawn up before her and her laptop on the covers by her side. She glared at Laura with a suspicious and angry expression.

"I'm sorry," Laura blurted out. "I ... I didn't start anything! She was flirting and she kissed me before I could do anything!"

"Yeah, right!" Toni snapped her reply.

"I ... we were just talking, and then she kissed me!"

"You were flirting enough to invite that kind of kiss!" Toni shot back.

"I was not!" Laura exclaimed, and then had to stop and think. "I don't think I was!" Tears rolling down her cheeks, she sat on the edge of Toni's bed and reached out to take her hand, but Toni yanked her hands away, wrapping her arms around her updrawn knees.

"If that wasn't flirting, what is?"

Laura lowered her gaze, starting at her hands, as tears dripped off her cheeks. "I ... I wasn't trying to flirt or anything!" she sobbed. "It's just ... since I changed, I don't know how I'm supposed to act ... in situations like that, and Val caught me by surprise."

Toni opened her mouth to rebut Laura, but her words stuck in her throat. She thought back to when she'd manifested and had started changing, and how she hadn't had anyone but her mother to teach her how to be a girl - and that included dealing with advances from boys who suddenly found Toni attractive.

Then another memory butted in, and Toni's expression, which had been softening in understanding of Laura's plight, hardened again. She turned her face away from Laura, staring at the bottom corner of a poster. "I ... I can't!" she said, fighting her own powerful memories.

"I wasn't trying to hurt you, honest to God!" Laura blubbered. "I'm ... I'm sorry. And ... I guess I understand if you ... if you ... can't forgive me." She sat, waiting for a reply from Toni, but when nothing was forthcoming after several long seconds, she stood and turned to the door. At the threshold, she paused. "I'm so sorry! I ...." she said without looking back at Toni. With those words, which seemed to bear an incredible finality, Laura took a step.

"Laura, wait!" Toni's voice was small and frightened. "I ... I ..." She stopped speaking, unsure of what to say. "Can we talk some more?"

Laura turned back, heart racing with trepidation and anxiety; she had no idea what Toni wanted to talk about. "Uh huh," she muttered.

When Toni looked up at her roommate, Leslie got the idea. "Um, I'm going down to the kitchen for a snack," she said, making a lame excuse. "You want anything?"

Toni shook her head. "No," she replied, at which point Leslie ducked out of the room, closing the door behind herself.

"I know what Eurydice is like, because I saw her in action last year, so I shouldn't have been so quick to judge," Toni said softly. "She looks at girls as novelty toys to seduce and then throw away." She sighed, still looking at the wall. "I ... I know she'd do something like that, especially since you're so cute."

Laura stood mutely, not trusting herself to speak.

"It's just ... I didn't want to ever go through that again!" Toni sobbed. "The last relationship ... was really hard. I got hurt so badly, and ... and it felt like that was happening all over again."

"I wasn't trying ...."

"It hurt again," Toni said softly. "So much that I guess I wasn't thinking clearly. I know what Val is like. I know that she'd try to seduce you, that she'd be the aggressor. But ...." Toni turned from the wall and looked up at Laura, her cheeks glistening from her tears. "I ... I got scared that it was happening again."

Laura took a couple of steps and gingerly sat on the edge of Toni's bed. "I ...."

"Do you want Val instead of me?" Toni asked, afraid to look at Laura for fear of the answer.

"No," Laura replied without hesitation. "She's ... good looking and all, but ... but so are you, and you're more fun to be around. I ...."

"Shhh," Toni said, putting her finger over Laura's lips to hush her. "I guess I need to learn to be more trusting." She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around the blue girl, laying her head on Laura's shoulder. "I'm sorry I let my past get in the way."

Laura shook her head. "I'm sorry if I was flirting with Val. I didn't realize what it looked like."

"Do you ... do you want to be ... my girlfriend?"

Laura leaned back, resting her forehead against Toni's so their faces were only centimeters apart. "Yes," she said strongly. "I'd like that a lot."

"Good," Toni said, smiling. "So would I." She moved her head slightly, turning it, her lips zeroing in on Laura's. For her part, the blue girl didn't resist at all, but lifted her lips to reciprocate the kiss.

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"Oooh, I take it you and Toni made up!" Flower commented with a knowing grin as she walked past Laura on her way from the bathroom to her own room.

Laura's dreamy expression didn't waver a bit. "Yeah," she said, her mind obviously somewhere far away.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Late Evening
Whateley Campus

Stahlfaust knew she was going to have to teach that little tramp to stay the hell away from her girlfriend! Since she already had detention, she had planned on just letting it go - for now - until Trisha Loyola, one of the Amazons, started razzing her about 'losing' her girlfriend, and to a GSD froshie, too! It hadn't helped that Val kept talking about how cute Laura was. Brita was so blinded by the thought of that blue changeling making moves on her girl that she couldn't see that Trisha was manipulating her because Trish figured she should be leader of the Amazons. She couldn't see that she was being set up, only that she was going to have to fight for her girl.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Late Evening
Whateley Campus

Cursing himself for his stupid actions the last year and summer, Eric Weber - Catalyst - glanced nervously over his shoulder, trying to spot anything that looked like a moving shadow or a threat - of which he knew several. Why couldn't he have been smarter the preceding year? Surely there had to have been another option to rescue his mom from financial ruin. But he hadn't thought of any, and his talent - chemical devisor - didn't help because his devises weren't patentable, and thus not worth much. And then that damned Melina Stavros had come onto the scene. She was so gorgeous and seductive, and oh-so-damned sympathetic - or at least, that's how she'd seemed to him. Shortly after they started dating - which he could now see was just a ruse on her part - she'd suggested a couple of ideas to earn some money, and he'd jumped at the chance.

Shortly after he'd received the first payment, Melina's true colors came through - an evil, manipulative aide to her father, head of the Chtapodi - or Octopus - Greek criminal organization, and like an octopus, it had tentacles everywhere, involved in all kinds of crime. Her codename - Peisinoe - fit only too well, and through his lack of appreciation of mythology, he'd only too late learned its significance after she'd lured him into her trap. Eric's expected role was simple - make catalytic devises to churn out synthetic heroin and cocaine from harmless precursor chemicals.

Eric was in very deep shit. He was late getting his latest devises delivered and he owed Chtapodi a lot of money. To make matters worse, Melina had more than hinted that Chtapodi knew where his mother lived and wouldn't hesitate to harm her, and that she had a few 'friends' on campus who wouldn't hesitate to apply 'reminders' of his financial and devise obligations.

He feared encountering those 'friends'; he had to avoid the thugs long enough to get back into his lab and get new devises made for Melina, or his life wasn't worth a plugged nickel.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Late Evening
Whateley Campus

Laura bit her lip nervously as she walked. Something didn't feel right about this. A note from Val, asking to meet her late, near Holbrook? Why? Naturally, she went to talk to Toni, since she was going to be damned careful to not even give an appearance of sneaking around. Toni's advice was to meet her and make sure she told Val that Laura had a girlfriend and wasn't interested. As she walked hesitantly between the circles on the dark walkway cast by the periodic lights, she started to wish that she'd asked Erica or Tanya to accompany her. Or both.

It seemed so simple, but she felt like something was going to go wrong. She couldn't help but think that it would be easier if Toni was with her; that way, she could clearly demonstrate to Val that she wasn't available, and also prove to Toni that Laura had zero interest in Val.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Late Evening
Whateley Campus

The figured darted between the shadows of trees, struggling to keep hidden from view. It was well known that now, at the start of a school year, friends and enemies were made quickly, and some of the freshmen came with enemies already established. With all the antics of new students getting used to rules, it was a perfect time for a bully - or enemy - to apply a little forceful persuasion or revenge.

And it looked like that was precisely what was about to happen. Eyes narrowed to slits as the figure, dressed in black with face-shadowing to camouflage his features, slowly stalked what he knew was about to be an attack. What was more, the attacker had to be an upperclassman - the location was in an area known to a few to have malfunctioning and unreliable security cameras. On the other hand, that made his job easy.

In the faint moonlight and dim illumination from the path lighting, the boy recognized the attacker. Nodding grimly, he reached behind himself into his backpack, rummaging expertly through the gear to find the appropriate 'countermeasures'. A small gun appeared in one hand, and then a small case, which he opened and carefully selected one dart.

Without a sound, he loaded the special dart into the single-shot, break-action gun and gently closed the action again, all the while keeping his eyes on the stalker. He knew better than to take his eyes off the target; the group had spent many hours practicing stealth and covert ops. Now it was his time to see how well he'd learned. Taking careful aim, he squeezed the trigger.

Within the gun, the trigger ignited a tiny amount of nitroguanidine inside a cartridge, generating a massive amount of high-pressure gas. But unlike conventional cartridges, the special one in the boy's gun telescoped forward under the pressure, its interlocking and progressively smaller sections completely containing all the gas. The force accelerated the dart down the barrel almost as fast as a rifle bullet of comparable weight, but the special cartridge contained all the gas and made the shot totally silent.

Nearly two dozen yards away, the dart struck - not into the target, but into the tree bark a few inches from the target's head. The boy watched with a satisfied smile as the target turned, startled by the very soft plop of the dart as it stuck into the tree, and then, precisely two seconds later, crumpled to the ground as the gas released from the dart rendered the would-be attacker unconscious.

As he extracted the spent gas cartridge from his gun and reloaded it, the boy telekinetically pulled the dart from the tree to himself and permitted himself a grim smile. There would be no signs of an assault, no wounds, no inexplicable marks on his target. The would-be victim knew nothing, and the would-be assailant had no evidence of anything. Exactly as the 'guardians,' the tight little secret sub-group, expected.

Always keeping to the shadows, the boy resumed his vigilant patrol. It was exactly as the legends of the ninja said - unseen, unheard, and impossible to stop.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Just before Midnight
New York City

Inside the secret inner office, the dark man hunched over a massive oak working table, the scene illuminated strangely not by the overhead fluorescent lights, but by special torches in holders on the wall and by candles arranged just so on the table. Each candle was at a specific point of a spell circle that the man was still working to complete, tracing carefully in strange alchemical inks - different colors of malachite, cobalt, sulfur, and red mercury, and most importantly, blood. Referring frequently to notes written on parchment scrolls, he meticulously drew the figures, pausing every so often to incant in a words that, if heard by a normal person, would most probably have rendered them insane in seconds. The drawing itself had an Escher-like quality of twisting and turning upon itself in a multidimensional form that seemed to flow as its complexity increased and the incantations were pronounced.

At several points of the intricate working, gems and precious stones of various types were arranged, also in a precise pattern - rubies, diamonds, emeralds, sapphire, jade, and others - over a hundred stones in all. The complex pattern probably only made sense if viewed in at least seventeen dimensions - incomprehensible to the human mind.

Tirelessly, not pausing for even the tiniest break, the dark man continued his work in the flickering candlelight. Finally, he put his pen to one side and sat back to study his creation. For nearly an hour, he compared the complex diagram to the copious notes he had on the table beside him.

At long last, he gave a simple nod and, pushing aside his notes, he took one sheet of parchment, with strange symbols and words that looked to be dried blood. Standing, he began to chant, tracing the figure in precise points as he incanted the unearthly, mind-warping ritual.

The diagram glowed, light sparkling through the gems and among the lines, and slowly, a thing coalesced in the air above the diagram. The dark man smiled wickedly as he began to study this map to things better left unseen and unspoken. Behind him, on a wall, two large maps began to glow, each sporting a complex pattern of something as the energy darkened and burned itself into the maps.

With a final flash of energy, the thing in the air collapsed on itself, and the complex diagram swallowed itself into nothingness, leaving only the precious stones on the table surface. Not even the tiniest hint of magical ink or of scorching from the awful energies had marred the table.

The dark man smiled, a most unpleasant expression, his eyes burning with not a hint of human sanity in them. It would take much time, he knew, to complete his task, but he was making progress, and that was the important part.

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Just before Midnight
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

Laura cuddled up with Toni, watching a movie on Toni's laptop. "There was no-one there!" she said softly.

"Some kind of gag?" Toni asked.

"I don't know. Worse, I can't find the note anymore."

"Well, let's not worry about it then," Toni said, leaning to one side to nibble on Laura's ear. "I'm sure it was just someone pranking you."

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Sunday, Sept 11th, 2016 - Just before Midnight
Abandoned Room, Tunnels Beneath Whateley Academy

Responding to something unseen, a curious octagonal shape protruding about half a meter up from the floor began to glow in a rainbow of colors. Its shape was too regular to be natural, but it looked like nothing manmade either. A dizzying array of colors swirled about its surface, illuminating furniture and fixtures thickly covered with dust in a room long-since abandoned and forgotten about.

Swirling in patterns that would mesmerize an observer, the light increased in intensity as the speed of the twisting patterns increased, until it was a blinding, incoherent light with no discernable pattern. And still it became brighter before the light dimmed several times, and then went out, extinguished by some unseen force, while at the same time, gamma radiation exploded outward at low but detectable levels - detectable, that is, if someone had been in the room with recording instruments and had not been rendered insane or overwhelmed by the fantastical light show.

For a few seconds, the shape glowed bright red, like metal that had been overheated, but that glow faded, finally dimming to nothing and returning the room to its previously dark condition, as if nothing had ever happened.

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Morning
World History Class, Whateley Academy

Laura paused in the doorway and glanced around the classroom. It was relatively large, with seats for perhaps fifty students, and a good fraction of the seats were occupied. Fortunately, she spied Cally sitting near the front, with vacant desks on either side of her. The blue girl scurried toward her friend before she became an obstacle in the doorway, as there were several more students filing into the room.

"Where's Tanya?" she asked as she slid into a seat. "I thought she was in this class."

"She is," Cally replied. "She had to stop in the ladies' room."

Laura glanced around again. Older students - no doubt upperclassmen trying to finish electives - were occupying the back seats, leaving the still-open seats in the front. "Couldn't you have gotten us something that wasn't front-and-center?" She was painfully aware of the attention being focused on her and Cally from the back chairs.

"I tried," Cally answered. "But I was told by them," she nodded toward the upperclassmen, "that freshmen had to sit in the front."

"Figures," Laura said unhappily. She was spared any further reply when a hulking man in shirt-and-tie walked in carrying a folder, which he set on the only piece of furniture in the front of the room - a desk for the instructor. Laura grinned when Tractor shot her a small smile as he surveyed the room. Glancing to one side, she saw a look of admiration on Tanya's face as the hero-wannabe stared at the former hero. Despite Tanya having grown up around the River City Wardens, Laura couldn't help but wonder if her friend had a case of hero worship of their teacher.

Either that or she was crushing on their teacher. Their married teacher. With a gorgeous wife.

"Good morning," Dr. Barton began, casually leaning back against the desk. "This is World History two-oh-one, in case you are in the wrong room." There was a minor scramble as two boys - young and probably freshmen, scrambled to collect their belongings and scurry out the door, to the amusement of everyone else.

"Good. Now that that's settled, you're all where you're supposed to be - unless someone decided to skip class today. I'm Dr. Jake Barton, and I'm your instructor for this class term. You'll find that I'm a pretty easy-going guy," his expression got stern, "if you do your homework, read your assignments, and participate in class. If you do all of that, earning a C will be easy. If not ...." His visage turned wicked, "I'll be happy to oblige you and give you a D or an F."

"We'll have four tests and a final counting for sixty percent of your grade. Twenty percent will be from a term paper you'll write, and the final twenty percent will be quizzes and classroom participation. Any questions so far?"

No-one spoke up or raised a hand.

"I do my quizzes a little differently than you may be used to. You're responsible for reading and understanding the material in the book. We'll review that in class, but a lot of my instruction will be other sources to augment the book, and that'll be used in our classroom discussions. Now, you may think that you can skate by without reading the book." He grinned. "You can't. My quizzes are basically going to be one or more questions that you can easily answer if you read the book, but which you can't if you didn't. Example - identify three points about Emperor Maximian in the Diocletian Tetrarchy, or identify two major impacts of the Athenian Sicilian Expedition."

Murmurs rippled around the room as the students expressed disbelief at what Dr. Barton seemed to be asking of them, while he merely smiled at them.

"When I'm not teaching, I'm usually in my office," he continued after a moment. "Unfortunately, as department head, I have some standing and ad hoc meetings, so my calendar is posted. If I'm not in a meeting, I keep an open-door policy, so if you have questions, feel free to drop in."

Dr. Barton looked at Tanya and Laura in the front row, a thin smile on his face. "I know some of my advisees are here; I hope you'll find it worthwhile that I put you in my class."

After extracting a sheet from his folder, he passed it to Laura. "I'm passing around an attendance sheet. Please check your name so I have roll. At the start of each class, I'll have an attendance sheet posted by the door for you to check as you enter." He grinned and chuckled. "And don't think you can fool me by checking off your friend or roommate. I have an exemplar memory, and I will know if you're in class on a particular day or not."

Murmurs of disappointment circled the room.

Dr. Barton shook his head, smiling. "I'm an alumnus of Whateley. I know all the superpower tricks you might pull. I strongly suggest that you don't. Psi types especially. Not only is that cheating, it's also against the psi code of ethics and can get you expelled from Whateley." He paused ominously to let that message sink in.

"A little about me. I graduated from Whateley in 1998, and then attended the University of Nebraska where I got a BS in history shortly before I finally married the girl I'd been chasing for six years. Yes, I met my wife when we were both students here, and I chased her diligently until she decided to catch me." He paused for the inevitable chuckle, some of which was delayed as kids had to think about his peculiar phrasing. "The two of us joined a superhero group ..."

"Which one?"

Dr. Barton smiled and half-chuckled. "If you're freshman, you'll learn the need to carefully guard your code-name, and not let anyone associate it with your real name. If you're an upperclassman, you should know better than to ask such a question. While I was an active hero, I worked on my master's degree in history, and following that, I started on my PhD. Once we retired ...."

Laura noticed a brief hint of anguish in Dr. Barton's eyes; unlike most of the others, she knew why it was there.

"... I applied for a job here and was accepted. My wife is a part-time instructor in the magic arts department." He paused again and looked around. "Much of history is interpreting data from the past. We can never know perfectly what happened or why, so I welcome spirited debate. I'm a pretty easy-going guy about that, I think. But ..." his voice took a warning tone, "there's a line, and when I close a debate, it's closed, period and stop. Don't push my patience. I will expel you from class if you become disruptive. Understand?"

"I'm going to start today with an example of how I teach and how you'll learn. Let's take the British colony of India." He looked back to the front row. "Let's say my friend here," he pointed to Laura, who blushed, "has a little farm. She grows crops and has livestock, and while not using the latest farming gadgets and techniques, she's happy with her farm because she's growing something that only grows on her farm, and which the neighbors want."

Laura felt a little embarrassed and at the same time thrilled that Dr. Barton was involving her in class; it was so unlike her last classroom experience in her old prep school when everyone treated her like she had the plague just because she was a mutant.

Dr. Barton continued his example, building a farm metaphor for India and Britain, and in the process, making it abundantly clear to Laura how the people of India felt about being a colony - both in what they gained and in the independence they lost under British colonial rule.

When he finished, he leaned back against the desk again. "For tomorrow, read the first section of chapter one about early Greek civilization up to the Greek Dark Ages." He had it timed almost to the second; no sooner had he finished than the bell rang dismissing class.

As the trio marched down the hall, dodging a swarming mass of students, Tanya chuckled. "You loved being involved in the example, didn't you - India?"

Laura blushed again. "Yeah. It was nice ... to be involved in class discussion for a change. What do you think of him?"

"I think his class is going to be a lot of fun," Cally replied. "But I'll wait until after the first test to render my final judgment."

Tanya nodded. "He's as friendly in the classroom as he was advising me." She glanced around. "The superhero group he was with? It's the Sioux Falls League. He did some pretty impressive things."

Laura grinned. "Yeah, he told me." Seeing the looks of disbelief, she continued, "On his desk - he has pictures of the League, and it wasn't hard to pick him out. And I talked to his wife at the picnic last Thursday night." She sighed. "She's very nice. It's too bad what happened."

"What?" Cally and Tanya asked, suddenly very curious.

Laura shook her head, flinching from her inadvertent words. "I shouldn't have said anything. It's not my place to tell." Leaving the mystery unspoken, she turned her attention to the upcoming class. "I wonder what martial arts is going to be like."

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Mid-Morning
Stauffer's Lab, Kansas City

Dr. Stauffer was hunched over her laptop at her desk, peering at the display and then furiously typing in a few numbers and studying the results of the complex calculations, turning her head to the side to check the formulas in her handwritten notebook. A frown crossed her face, and she stared intently at one number, then moved a cursor over the spreadsheet cell displaying that number and studying the formula. Again and again, cell after cell, she looked at the computations and the intermediate results, pausing occasionally to compare the data to her notebook.

The ringing of the phone was a most unwelcome intrusion to her focus. "Verdammt!" she swore, glaring at the offending instrument as if by sheer will she could cause it to cease its interrupting noise. After the third ring, she snatched the handpiece from its cradle. "Ja?" she said curtly.

"Frau Doctor," the man on the other end reported immediately, "Sentinel has their daily report."

Stauffer closed her eyes and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "Very well. Put them on." She pushed a button to activate the speakerphone so she could work on her precious calculations.

The phone clicked. "Hello, Silverplate?" came through the speaker.

"Jawohl. I am in the middle of important work, Sentinel. Make this brief," she demanded imperiously.

"Someone may have been trying to hurt one of the subjects," the person with the project code name Sentinel reported.

Stauffer bolted upright in her chair. "Was?" she was astounded. "Say that again, bitte!"

"Someone may have been trying to hurt one of the subjects. Our ... agents ... stopped them as a precaution." There was a momentary hesitation as Dr. Stauffer stiffened and drew a breath to speak. "Of course," Sentinel continued quickly, "extra precautions were taken to ensure that nothing traces to us."

"You are sure?"

"Positive. For the first few weeks, there are many ... incidents ... involving violence - at least a half dozen a night. The agents we have ... employed ... are usually busy with their little protection games, so there is no cause for suspicion."

"But if the group ...?"

Sentinel seemed to have an answer to every possible objection. "It's a very secretive group inside a larger organization. It's not on any official records, and most students know of it only through myth and school legend. There is no possibility that our role will be detected."

Stauffer frowned. "Sie müssen dass Person bestrafen! Versteh?" she snarled.

"What? English, please!"

"You must make an example of them," she snarled. "They must feel much pain for attempting to hurt my subject!"

"We can't get away with ...."

"DO IT!" Stauffer yelled, smashing her hand on her desktop and rattling her coffee cup. "I don't want excuses!"

"Of course. It will be done."

"Good. Report to my assistant when you complete the task. I'm very busy with my experiments! Versteh?"

"Jawohl! Wir verstehen."

Stauffer angrily jabbed the speaker button on the phone, cutting off the call. "Verdammt!" she swore to herself again. In a fit of fury, she swept her coffee cup and saucer off her desk, and it crashed on the floor, shattering into hundreds of pieces. It didn't matter; she had underlings to clean up things like that. She rubbed her temples, fighting off the headache that threatened to overtake her, both from her intense concentration and from the disturbing phone call.

When she looked up, Dr. Stauffer took a deep breath to refocus her efforts. She gazed back at her computer, and after looking a bit, she focused on one cell, resuming checking the formulas in the spreadsheet against her notebook. She paused, thinking a second, and then shook her head gently. She knew she'd done the previous cell. She was certain of it.

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Morning
BMA Class, Whateley Academy

It was bad enough to be in the Poe bathrooms, but Laura felt even more awkward in the locker room in Laird Hall as she changed into her gi. All the other girls seemed to stop and gawk at her physical ... anomalies, making her blush a lovely shade of lilac and made her a little more shy as she dressed. She was almost late to the mat.

Unlike many others who stood around cluelessly, Laura knew what was expected, and immediately took a seiza position at the edge of the mat with the few others who had some martial arts experience. When the lithe black instructor wearing what appeared to be a black body stocking walked gracefully to the center of the mat, with one upperclassmen and one old man flanking her, Laura focused her attention on the Sensei.

"Class!" Tolman Sensei barked in a surprisingly commanding voice. "The instruction period has started. You should now shut your mouths and pay attention to your instructor, which would be me." As the group fell silent, Tolman looked around. "Welcome to Basic Martial Arts. I am Sensei Tolman. You will call me either Sensei Tolman, or simply Sensei. Is that clear?" She allowed a few seconds for murmured assents.

Tolman looked at held her hand toward the small, older man. "This is Ito Soke, who is an instructor emeritus. Evidently, he has more fun teaching new students than enjoying his retirement and tending his bonsai trees and garden." If she expected to lighten the mood, it didn't happen. In fact, contrary to her intent, the students seemed more nervous, as if they could sense supreme confidence radiating from the old master.

"My assistants for this term are Helen Cartwright, who's a senior," she gestured toward the girl beside her, "and Frank Watkins, who graduated last spring but has remained an extra term to help his cousin with her powers. He is not here today, but will join us later this week. You will treat both of my teaching assistants with the same respect you give to me. Clear?"

When the class had mostly agreed by mumbled 'yes' and 'uh huh' statements, Tolman continued. "At the start of class, you are expected to be at the edge of the mat, sitting in seiza position, like ... Laura, isn't it?"

"Yes, Sensei! Laura Samuels." Laura replied crisply, as she'd learned to do back home in her dojo.

"Suckup!" a girl near her practically spat. Though she'd heard it, Laura ignored the comment and kept her focus on the Sensei. Slowly, ungracefully, the students knelt down as Laura was doing. Glyph knelt next to Laura, who also stole a few glances around the dojo. Tanya was beside Vic, and Morgana, hustled over to sit next to Bianca.

While everyone was settling in, Morgana smirked at Bianca. "With your skin color, you kind of blend in with your gi."

Bianca chuckled. "And if I stood next to a wall, I'd be perfectly camouflaged, right?"

Morgana glanced at Laura, and having heard the conversation, Laura frowned. "Don't even think it!" Seeing her feigned 'what?' look, Laura frowned. "You were going to say I look like a karate smurf!"

Sensei Tolman noted the interchange, because the ruckus of students sitting down had abated. "Is there something wrong, Miss Samuels?"

Laura flushed slightly lavender. "Um, no Sensei," she apologized quickly. "Just a joke."

"Oh? Would you care to share it with the rest of the class?"

Laura's skin turned nearly purple, and she winced visibly. "No, Sensei."

Tolman stared at her for a moment, making sure Laura understood her disapproval, then she continued with her introductory talk. "To begin, if you've had martial arts training, raise your hand." She was staring directly at Laura, a fact which couldn't be missed. Several hands went up, including Laura's, but not as many as she would have thought.

"Good. That means there aren't as many bad habits that I have to break," Tolman said, again shooting a sly grin at Laura. "This class is about teaching you to fight so you can survive. It's not about starting you on the path to grand master, or teaching you some philosophical underpinnings. It's about fighting, plain and simple. Now, can you tell me why?"

"Um," one boy said as he shot his hand up, "it don't make sense that we have t' take this class." His Southern hillbilly accent was plain to hear. "We got our powers." The boy had mild GSD that made him look a little like an anthropomorphized pig.

"Oh?" Tolman focused on the boy. "You are ...?"

"Bacon, ma'am," he replied, which elicited chuckles from many of the students.

"And your power?"

"I'm a PK brick, ma'am," the boy replied. "That's what they said back in Nashville, anyway."

"And your powers give you the ability to fight and survive?"

"Well," Bacon said, sounding a little unsure of himself, "yeah. I mean, ain't no way a baseline can stand up to a PK brick, right?"

"That's what most students start out believing," Sensei Tolman countered. "And what's your real name? In classes, I much prefer to use real names, not code-names." She forced a half-smile. "Some students get a little ... creative ... with code-names and end up embarrassing themselves."

"Josh Marble, ma'am."

"First, Mr. Marble, it's 'Sensei', not 'ma'am', and second, I'd like you to demonstrate your theory."

Bacon winced. "Um, Sensei," he protested, "I don't wanna hurt you."

Sensei Tolman shrugged, a grin creeping onto her features. "Don't worry. You won't."

"Ready?" At the uncertain nod from the boy, she said loudly, "Begin."

Laura knew what to expect in a martial arts sparring round, but even with her background, the action was almost too fast to see. Bacon charged, preparing to land a haymaker on Sensei Tolman, but she wasn't there, and Bacon sailed ungracefully through the air, landing face-first on the mat with his arm twisted uncomfortably behind him..

"Again," Tolman said. "From here on, when I start a match, I will use the word 'Hajime', understand? And 'Yame' means stop." When the boy was in place again, Ito, acting as referee, started the fight. This time, Bacon was warier, and wasn't charging in to hit the instructor. Instead, he circled carefully, keeping out of arms' reach, and suddenly closing to grapple with the instructor. This time, he ended up flat on his face, one arm stretched painfully in an arm bar.

"Take your place on the edge of the mat," Tolman said. "Now, Bacon had a considerable power advantage over me, and I wasn't using any power. And yet, Bacon lost twice. Why?"

"Because he's not trained?" one anonymous girl suggested.

"Precisely." She turned to Laura. "Miss Samuels has significant experience in karate, and yet she's in the basic class. The reason is that we teach a lot more than karate. Miss Samuels, would you please spar with Miss Cartwright?"

"Yes, Sensei," Laura snapped as she practically leapt to her feet. Unlike Bacon, she knew to be wary, and she'd been in many a sparring match.

But the outcome was the same - she ended up getting her ass kicked, twice. And despite knowing how to ride a blow and fall, she still hurt from a couple of bruises.

As Laura resumed her seat at the edge of the mat, Tolman continued. "Those who've had some experience come to the center of the mat, please." Laura dutifully followed, and to her delight, she noted that the bitchy girl who'd snarkily called her a suck-up before wasn't among them. Ito and Tolman questioned the group, and like all the other 'experienced' students, she had to spar with the teaching assistant. After the brief grilling and sparring, Tolman sent the group back to their positions at the edge of the mat.

"We're going to assess your skills," Tolman continued when they were all back in place. She divided the class into thirds. "This group," she pointed to the group to Laura's right, "will go with Ito Sensei. This group," she pointed to the group on the left, "with Miss Cartwright. The rest of you, follow me. "

As the groups followed their designated instructors toward the sparring circles, the same girl who'd made nasty comments walked past Laura. "Freak!" she hissed. "Fucking teacher's pet! I'm gonna enjoy kicking your ass!"

Stunned by the vehemence of the girl, a rather ordinary-looking girl who wasn't particularly attractive or graceful, Laura stumble-stepped, wondering why the girl was being so pissy to her. And yet, she'd encountered such hostility back home after she started changing - first from the boys who'd been her friends as Larry became less and less masculine, and then from everyone as her skin started turning blue. She'd hoped that Whateley would be different, that she wouldn't face such blatant hostility, but .... She sighed sadly.

First, two girls named Mouse and Rapunzel sparred; Laura figured Rapunzel would eventually run into copyright and trademark lawyers regarding her choice of codename. Rapunzel's hair suddenly animated to grab her opponent, who shrank to mouse-sized - hence her code-name. Others squared off with the other two instructors; Laura glanced at Nick fighting another boy Crysis under Ito's scrutiny.

In Tolman's ring, once Rapunzel and Mouse were done, she had Morgana fight against another girl; Laura was critically observing Morgana's style - or more precisely, lack thereof. She had power, but she wasn't as coordinated as she could have been, and her movements weren't fluid and directed. She wondered if she could get permission to help Morgana after classes.

Then Tolman called Glyph, and Bianca strode nervously to one side of the ring. "And Laura Samuels."

"Two freaks fighting!" the bitchy girl snarked loudly enough that Laura could hear her. She hoped that Bianca didn't hear; she was going to have to try to ignore the obnoxious girl.

No sooner had Tolman said 'Hajime' than Laura charged at Bianca, who barely knew how to get her guard up. When Laura easily took Glyph down, she looked apologetically at her friend, who looked quite chagrined at her very poor performance. "Don't worry," she tried to assure the white-skinned mage. "You'll get better."

A second round yielded the same result; Laura used some punches and kicks - which she pulled to avoid hurting Bianca - and Bianca ended up down in an arm bar, unable to resist.

One thing that pleased Laura was seeing the bitchy girl - Suzanne Lipford - get stomped in her sparring match. The girl was a brick, so she was tough and strong, but a speedster made a monkey out of her, zipping in and out to avoid hits while delivering his own. When Suzanne finished her match, she saw Laura watching and her eyes shot daggers at the blue-skinned girl.

For now, Laura's experience gave her an edge, but she knew that, for whatever reason, Suzanne was going to try to hurt her if they ever sparred. She gulped nervously, and again when the girls were showering and Suzanne very pointedly glared at her for several uncomfortable seconds.

Great, she thought to herself. She'd picked up an enemy, for reasons that she couldn't understand. And on the first day of classes. Laura hoped that Suzanne was an exception, not the rule.

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Morning
Survival Class, Whateley Academy

Tia hesitated before the door, then realized what she was doing, squared her shoulders, and walked in. Whatever this class really was, it couldn't be as bad as martial arts, she was sure. Though she wasn't sure exactly what it was; her phone app had led her to "Arena 77", underground, and into what looked like a City block, complete with billboards. Right away she saw some people she knew, mingling among the other students.

"Airys, hi!" She turned.

"Hi Tia. Well, the gang's all here I guess."

Tia didn't see any colors sported. "What gang?"

Airys gestured. "All the underdogs who are taking the class, of course. Some of the older ones of us are taking Survival 2, but all of us in 1 are now here."

Tia looked but didn't see a teacher. "I wonder what we're doing."

Billy walked up; he had been sniffing around, literally. "There's someone else here, but I don't know exactly where. Do either of you have any idea what we're doing? This looks like a laser tag or paintball range."

"Right you are, Bloodhound." The man who stepped out from what looked like an insurance office was tall, had short dark hair combed back without a single hair out of place, and was wearing dark sunglasses in the dim lighting. Well-built and more than a little handsome, he moved toward them with a dancer's grace. He stopped as they all turned to face him.

"I am Mr. Anderson, your instructor for this class. To clarify, this is Survival 1; only those signed up for Survival 1 should be here. If that isn't you, you should leave now."

He waited. Someone muffled a cough, but no one moved.

"Alright then. First lesson; what is Survival 1? What is it supposed to teach, as a class?"

The question didn't sound rhetorical, and Tia could tell he was staring at them all in turn. Tia had her eyes on the teacher but someone took a shot at answering it:

"Teaching us how to fight in real world conditions?"

That had to be wrong, Tia thought. Mr. Anderson turned to her as he replied. "That's incorrect, Neil. Anyone else? How about you, Lucretia?"

Tia sighed. "Teaching us to survive in real world situations."

Mr. Anderson nodded. "That's correct. This class is all about the preservation of life and limb; your life, your limbs. Survival, by any means necessary. Property like cars or buildings? That cute horse or sheep you saw at the petting zoo one time when you were ten? Don't hesitate putting it between you and the armed gunmen you see marching down the street. Because at the end of the day, you as a person are more valuable than anything else. It's my job, and the job of this class, to make sure that if you one day find yourself in a crossfire between Madame Pain and Dr. Diabolik that you survive to return to your loved ones. Understand?"

Tia nodded along with the rest.

"Alright, a few ground rules. Use of your code names is encouraged, but not mandatory. I for one will be using them however; operational security is important, after all. You never know when your real name, dropped to the wrong parties, can lead to… situations." He looked far away a moment and Tia couldn't help but wonder if he was actually remembering something of his past.

He shook himself out of it and continued. "The boundaries are this arena; to move beyond is to fail the exercise. If you are hit, keep moving; I will judge all hits as either fatal or non-fatal. A fatal hit and you fail the round. A round will end when everyone has been judged a fatality. There will be multiple rounds."

Airys spoke up, raising her hand. "Excuse me, sir. But hit by what? Are you going to be shooting lasers at us, sir?"

Mr. Anderson grinned and as one all the kids took a step back. "No, I will not be shooting at you. They will."

'They' came flooding out from behind the buildings. They were large cones, seemingly on wheels, with bumps along the bottom three feet or so. Painted gold, they had a suction cup arm or appendage for their left hand side, and a claw or grabber for their right. They also had 2 horn-like protrusions sticking up from their turret-like head and one blue glowing rod, surrounded by what looked like a large rubber seal, for a nose.

Tia was already edging away from the robots, or whatever they were, when Mr. Anderson continued in a rush, "Ready? Begin!"

With a synthesized battle-cry of "Exterminate!" the silly looking things broke ranks and started shooting brightly colored paintballs everywhere.

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Afternoon
Workshop - Whateley Academy

"Your fees for this class cover ...." The woman at the front of the lab paused when a student scurried in, finding an open seat and looking quite self-conscious.

When Laura realized that the instructor was looking at her, she winced. "I ... um ... I got a bit lost," she admitted sheepishly. Laura recognized one of the three upperclassmen sitting at the front of the lab who were assisting in the 'orientation' - she'd met Gordon Campbell at the mixer, and he was the 'crashed' flier at the flying club demo the previous day. The other two looked a bit similar; possibly they were twins.

A stern glare from the instructor halted the titters of laughter from other students. "I assume that none of the rest of you have ever gotten lost before? Especially given the rather ..., complex ... nature of our tunnels?"

"It'd be handier if there was an actual map of the tunnels," Laura meekly suggested. "The symbolic map ... doesn't account for a few side tunnels and, well, it's kind of easy to take a wrong turn."

Angela Merenis smiled coyly as the other students slowly agreed with Laura's viewpoint. "I suppose it would be helpful," she said with a nod. "Except for one thing." She paused to let the freshmen ponder what she was thinking, while a couple of older students sitting up front smirked.

"What's that?" one of the girls finally asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

"You may have heard rumors about strange things in the tunnels?" Ms. Merenis asked with one eyebrow cocked upward. "I guess you could call them ghost stories?" Her question was met with more than a bit of skepticism. "Supposedly, several years back, someone did make a detailed map of all the tunnels. The map turned out, quite unfortunately, to be a magical rune that opened a gateway and let something ... very unpleasant ... loose. It took all of our magic department, three heavily armed security teams, and a lot of luck to push it back from whence it came."

From the snickers and chuckles, no-one took her warning seriously.

All three of the teaching assistants were nodding somberly, which made a few freshmen swallow nervously. "Not kidding, guys," Gordon said, frowning. "This whole area - including the school - has some ... interesting ... things happen."

"No student is permitted below level three without explicit permission of the administration and an armed security escort. Your IDs won't allow you to go below level three. And if you stumble across something that seems extremely unusual," Ms. Merenis cautioned, her tone serious as a heart attack, "do not investigate on your own. Let security handle it; they're equipped and paid to deal with dangerous things."

The instructor waited a bit for her words to sink in. "Well, we're a little off our agenda; safety and security was going to come later in the orientation, so consider this a preview." She pasted a smile back on her face. "Now, as I was saying, each course has lab fees which cover basic supplies. For example, in electronics class, there is a set of minimal projects which you must complete as part of your course assignments. Of course, as you're all devisors and gadgeteers, I seriously doubt that any of you will be content to only do the minimum projects ...."

Chuckles and smiles returned to the assembled students after the ominous detour.

"And anything you build for personal use," one of the TA twins began.

"Such as a personal forcefield generator," the other blonde-haired TA - the girl, continued seamlessly.

"Or a sonic disruptor," the first continued the sentence, their seamless sentences actually getting more than slightly weird.

"You'll have to pay for the lab supplies ..."

"From your personal lab account." It was like the two were of one mind and their thoughts were so connected that they could fill in each other's thoughts and complete their sentences way more than even television shows portrayed twins.

A brown-haired girl next to Laura raised her hand. "Even if the project is part of the course requirements?" Her accent pegged her as British.

"Your instructor will make an assessment before you begin the project," Ms. Merenis explained. "It's going to vary a bit from class to class, and it all depends on your project."

Unlike many of the students, Laura was paying rapt attention and taking notes, which got her several smirks and demeaning looks from one of the boys who appeared to be a nob, from the way his hair was styled, the contemptuous sneer on his face, and what appeared to be a tailored labcoat!

"Every one of you will be assigned a workbench," Ms. Merenis continued, "in the general-purpose labs. Each of these labs has a basic set of equipment you will share, such as a chem hood, a small lathe and milling machine, soldering stations, and so forth. If you're highly advanced, you may be assigned to a more specialized lab, such as the chemistry or bioengineering labs or metalworking shop."

"We have to share equipment?" the snooty boy who'd been sneering at Laura asked in disbelief.

"As freshmen, yes," Ms. Merenis said with an air of finality that almost dared the boy to argue.

"But ..., I mean ...," the boy stammered, "but ... working with ... everyone?" he finally blurted.

Ms. Merenis' frown could have frozen lava. "Do you have a problem with any group in particular?" she demanded icily.

The boy shrank in his seat, chastised by her tone of voice. "Um, ... er ...," he stammered, looking uncomfortably around the room, "Um, no," he said, but the way he'd replied left it abundantly clear that he did have some prejudices against some students or races or ethnicities or something.

"If you do," she continued to glare at the boy, possibly suspecting from the way he'd been looking around at others and his words, "you'd better find a way to deal with it. Prejudices and bias in our labs can cause two rather unpleasant situations." She sneered at him to emphasize her point. "First," she looked round the room, "and this applies to all of you, if you show any bias or prejudice, you may find that very few of your fellow students will be willing to help you if you get stuck on a project. And secondly, you need to remember where you are and with whom you're dealing. If you get too obnoxious with your bigotry," she smiled wickedly, "well, let's just say that the lab crew sticks together and has a strong proclivity, even a group passion, for getting even."

The Poe upperclassman, Gordon, nodded. "For a long time, gadgeteers and devisors were considered weaklings by the ... more powerful students," he explained. "You should all know something about bullying - perhaps you were bullied, maybe you were a bully." He looked around the room, assessing the students' reactions. "It doesn't matter. At Whateley, a long time ago, the labcoat crew was considered underdogs. That changed when Gizmatic organized the labcoat students. We watch out for each other. We protect each other. And if one of us gets bullied," he let a sinister grin creep onto his features, "we get even."

"It doesn't matter," the blonde girl chimed in.

"If the bully is one of us, or someone else," her twin continued.

"We stick together and teach the bully a lesson he or she won't forget."

"You can be a pompous twit all you want," Gordon said, "and nobody is going to give a crap. But if you mess with one of ours, even if you're a devisor or gadgeteer yourself, the rest of us will make sure that your offense is repaid at least threefold."

"That brings us to the subject of your workbenches," Ms. Merenis continued. "Your lab bench - and the tools and projects on it and in the drawers, are yours, just the same as those on another bench are someone else's. We do not tolerate sabotage, theft, or any other offense against someone else's work. Keep in mind that every square inch of the labs is covered by at least one camera, using a combination of technologies that are virtually impossible to jam or render inoperable." She let that sink in - no doubt, as she knew, some of the students would take that as a challenge to defeat the monitoring.

"Now that the briefing is over, let's divide you up into your workspaces and then we'll let you get anything you brought to your bench. How many of you brought projects, tools, or other personal gear from home?"

About three fourths of the students raised their hands.

"After you get your bench assignment," Ms. Merenis continued, "we'll give you time to bring your gear to your workbench."

"Er, Ms. Merenis?" Gordon interrupted. "The weapons briefing?"

"Oh, yes," the instructor replied. "Thank you, Gordon. How many of you have projects which include a 'projective' offensive capability?" Seeing a few confused expressions, she elucidated. "Any kind of a weapon that's not defensive - projectile-firing, chemical, biological, electronic - any projects like that?"

About a third of the hands rose, including Laura's, which seemed to surprise many of the boys, including the obnoxious rich kid.

"Any and all projects that are assessed as having an offensive capability must be registered with security," the instructor stated, "and if it's something that can be carried, you have to pass a weapons class before you can carry it on campus. PFGs - no. Neural neutralizers or the like which operate at a distance," she was staring directly at Laura, which made the blue girl gulp uneasily, "yes."

A few minutes later, a small group of five students followed Gordon through the maze of tunnels to a large workshop with equipment scattered among the eight or ten workbenches. "And here is your home-away-from-home," the Poe boy said with a smile. "Pick out a workbench and stake your claim."

Laura looked around a little, including at the obvious monitoring cameras, and then walked to a workbench in a corner, away from the shared equipment.

"You want this one?" Gordon asked from behind her, startling her a little bit. "On the touchpad, enter your name and then your thumbprints. That'll key the power and the drawer locks to you."

Laura slowly turned and arched an eyebrow at the Poe boy. "That's the security? With this group?"

The boy chuckled. "No. It wouldn't even slow down most of the labcoat types. It's to register it with the labs and security, and it helps foil the muscle-heads. You know," he added at her puzzled expression, "the non-lab types. The finger-wigglers, the bricks - those types."

"What about the other devisors and gadgeteers?" Laura asked the obvious question.

"There'll be some messing around at first," Gordon admitted, "but after the first time the Order is called on someone, that'll stop dead."

"The Order?"

"Order of the Worn Wrench. We have an introductory meeting later this week."

"Oh. Sly alluded to it Saturday at the picnic." She arched an eyebrow. "It's real?"

"Yup." Gordon turned to assist another of the students.

"Hi," the British girl who'd asked questions at the orientation said. "I'm Michelle Brown. Computers and data electronics."

"Laura," the blue girl replied. "Laura Samuels. Electronics - mostly."

"And this is my twin brother Micheal," the girl said. "We're both computer nerds."

"Why," another boy who'd edged into the conversation asked, "was the instructor giving you the gimlet-eye when she talked about offensive weapons?" He had a sparkle in his eye. "You build weapons?" he asked eagerly.

Laura chuckled. "Security confiscated my neural neutralizer," she explained with a shrug, "until I pass the firearm safety class."

"Cool!" the boy replied. "Steve Gevorgian." He grinned. "I like weapons."

"How many of yours did they confiscate?" Michelle asked knowingly.

"Most of them," Steve admitted. "But I don't like to be defenseless, so ..." he glanced around, and seeing that the TA was looking elsewhere, he pulled a pen from his pocket, took off his belt buckle, removed the battery pack from his smart-phone, and a few other unobtrusive bits and pieces, and within seconds, he had a crude-looking energy pistol of some form.

"Like the Klingon warriors on TNG!" Laura couldn't help exclaiming. "That's pretty neat!"

"I have another holdout or two," the boy bragged. "Like I said, I hate to be defenseless."

"I’ll have to remember that," Michelle and Micheal said simultaneously.

"I'm glad we didn't get Boltrunner in our lab," Micheal observed, looking at the last girl who was getting assistance from Gordon.


"He's an energizer," Steve explained. "He discharges electrical energy. If he gets too excited," he threw his hands upward and outward, "Poof! Instant fried electronics."

"Yeah," Michelle started to say, but she was interrupted when Steve frowned and moved his arm toward Laura again, glaring at her.

"Why are you recording me?" he demanded angrily from Laura. "Are you spying for someone?"

"What?!?" Laura demanded, backing up from the obviously-enraged boy. "I'm not recording or anything!"

Steve loomed over Laura, easily a head taller than her. "That's not what my monitor says," he snarled, pulling a small electronic device from his cuff.

"What? But ... I haven't ... I don't ..." Laura stammered. "I swear, I'm not monitoring anyone!"

Guided by the small device, less than a quarter the size of a smartphone, Steve moved it around Laura, guided by some feedback it was giving him. "Open up your labcoat!" he ordered sharply and angrily.

After a moment's hesitation, Laura unbuttoned her labcoat, and opened the flaps outward. The boy's device homed in on the collar of her shirt. Flipping it up, he yanked something from under it.

"What's this?" he hissed angrily at Laura. Even the twins were looking suspiciously at her.

"I don't know!" Laura defended herself. "I have no idea ..."

"Ow!" Steve cried, dropping the micro-miniature bug that was little bigger than a button. It glowed, then smoke erupted from it, and finally, its case melted. "What the hell?"

The excitement around Laura had brought Gordon and the other girl to them. "What's going on?"

"She was recording our conversation!" Steve snapped, pointing at the still-smoking device on the floor.

Gordon stared at Laura for a few seconds, making her uncomfortable, then he bent down over the remains of the device. "Still hot," he said, having had the good sense to not touch it since it was smoking. Instead, he reached out to Laura's workbench, opened the drawer, and pulled out a needle-nosed plier to retrieve what remained of the bug.

"Hmm," Gordon said as he examined the smoldering remains more closely. "Hard to say from what's left, but it looks like it might be something of the GizBug 4000 series," Straightening, he looked around the little gathering. "Those things have a range of about a hundred meters, with a built-in remote-triggered self-destruct mechanism."

Still frowning, Steve swept his scanning device over Laura again. "Apart from her cell phone," he declared, "she doesn't have any electronics on her. But could it be triggered by her cell phone?"

"Her hands weren't even near her pockets," Michelle replied, giving Laura an alibi. "She couldn't have triggered it with her cell phone."

"Then who?"

"Let me check with a contact I have in ... security," Gordon said. "If it is a Gizbug 4000, then whoever was monitoring had to be down in the tunnels, and should show up on the security cameras." He grimaced. "If so, then you'll have to narrow it down to one of the forty or fifty people who are always scurrying around down in the labs."

"So ... someone's watching me?" the blue girl gulped nervously.

"Or using you without your knowledge to spy on others," Micheal offered.

"If I were you," the last girl in the group offered, "I'd think about enemies you might have, and maybe think about some defenses."

"Assuming, of course," Steve added, glaring suspiciously at Laura, "that you weren't doing the spying yourself!"

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Afternoon
Tunnels - Whateley Academy

The girl was very practiced at strolling casually while keeping a sharp eye on her subject. Hanging around waiting for a subject to move was always difficult; it was a dead give-away to just stand around waiting and glancing around. Finally, she saw her subject moving again, and she casually gathered her 'distraction and cover' and then strolled after the subject, staying a discrete distance back.

"Subject is on the move again," she said softly, turning her head slightly to talk toward her collar. "I'm following."

"Okay. We've got a new wrinkle."

The girl schooled her features. "Oh?" she asked without giving even the slightest visible hint of surprise.

"We should get a DNA sample to confirm it's really the subject."

"What?" the girl almost - almost - lost her cool. "Why?"

"You know the rules," the contact on the other end of her radio link explained. "I don't have to remind you of history. We need to confirm before we take any other action."

"And how the hell do we do that?"

"Anything she's eaten? Or drink containers? What about the power labs? They take blood samples."

"That might take time, and it's very risky," the girl replied. "And subject has not had power testing yet."

"Let's keep a tail, then. Eventually, we'll get a chance to get a DNA sample."

"I still think that's a stupid idea!"

"The corps was almost disbanded years ago for not following procedures!" the contact reminded the girl. "If we get careless and are disbanded, what do we do then?"

"Point conceded," she said softly, then paused to smile at someone walking toward her. "Afternoon, Holo," she said to the boy whose path crossed hers. "Ready for a new year?"

Holo fidgeted unhappily. "No. And ... you're not going to ask me for more favors, are you? Because the last time ...."

The girl smiled innocently. "Last spring was all a misunderstanding," she purred. "You're not going to hold a grudge forever, are you?"

"What do you want now?" the boy asked, exasperated at the demand he knew was coming his way.

The girl pouted. "I'm hurt. I say good afternoon, and you think I want something from you? I was just on my way back to my cottage ...."

"Which is that way," the boy pointed out.

"And I thought I'd be polite. That's all." She smiled. "See you around."

"Yeah." Holo continued walking, leaving the girl staring after him.

After a sec, she turned her head slightly. "I think I've got an idea," she said with a sinister grin.

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Afternoon
Crystal Hall - Whateley Academy

"Where's Hikaru?" Tanya asked as she slid her tray onto the table. "Eating with the snobs again?"

Taka shook his head. "Hikaru ... burn out today."


"Hikaru in test lab," Taka repeated. "Burn out."

Morgana nodded. "She's in Doyle. Evidently, she pushed things in power testing today and she had a burnout event."

"OMG!" Erica exclaimed. "Is she okay?"

"Not know," Taka reported with a shrug.

"I would hope that, since the administration knows we're kind of with her," Laura opined, "that they'd let us know if something serious had happened to her."

"You'd think," Vic retorted, "but ... I'm not sure they've got things figured out to that extent yet."

"Well, someone ..." Tanya started to say, then she perked up, eyes widening, and she half-stood from her chair. "Tia! Over here!" It appeared that the rabbit-girl was planning to sit with another group - perhaps a new clique of Melvillains she was getting to know.

Tia looked around, instantly locating the source of the sound from her highly-functional and direction-finding ears. Spotting Tanya, she said something to the three girls and guy at the table she'd been planning to sit at, and instead carried her tray to the rest of the gang. "What's up?" she asked as she sat.

"We just heard that something happened to Hikaru in testing," Cally blurted out before anyone else could talk. "What's going on? Do you know anything?"

Tia sighed and nodded. "Tiff told me just a bit ago. She was doing more testing in the labs ..." She didn't manage to completely suppress her shudder at the memory of her own testing, nor did Morgana. "Evidently, they pushed her a little too far using her power and she had a mild burnout event."

"Is she okay?"

Tia shrugged. "As far as they can tell, yeah," she reported. "But ... her last burnout affected her mind, so even if she's okay physically ...." She didn't have to complete the sentence for everyone to know what she was talking about. In point of fact, she couldn't complete the sentence because she was quite worried about her RA and fellow Melvillain. "She's in Doyle for observation," she added.

"Maybe we should go visit her," Laura suggested.

"After dinner," Tanya stated before shoving a large forkful of meat into her mouth.


"So on a little cheerier subject," Cally began, "how were your classes? The ones we weren't all in, I mean?"

"Magic is going to be way cool," Morgana said enthusiastically.

"Speak for yourself," Bianca snorted. "You didn't get an instant-enemy in there."

"Bah! Don't worry about it," Morgana retorted. "She was probably just having a bad day and needed someone to get bitchy at."

"What?" Laura's curiosity was piqued by the snippets she heard.

"Chained Melody - a girl with bardic magic - got a little ..."

"More than a little!" Bianca interrupted.

"A little pissy," Morgana continued. "Some kind of chip on her shoulder. An arrogant 'I'm special' attitude."

"And then I got tossed around BMA like I was a rag doll!"

Laura winced visibly. "I told you you'd get better!"

"Yeah," Bianca said in disgust, "but that doesn't do me any good now!" She looked at Laura, eyes pleading. "Maybe you can teach me outside of class?"

"Um," Laura hesitated, "maybe I should just help practice what we learn in class? So you can get good at it? I don't want to teach you something wrong that'll get you hurt or in trouble."

Bianca thought a moment. "I suppose you're right."

"Anything else exciting happen in classes?"

Laura waited a moment, then nodded when no-one else spoke. "Someone," she said in a hushed voice, "planted a bug on my shirt, and a boy in the labs thought I was spying on him! He got pretty pissed!"

"A bug?" Tanya's eyes were wide as saucers. "Who did it?"

Laura shook her head sadly. "Don't know, but one of the TAs in the lab found it. He said that it looked like a GizBug four thousand, or at least what was left of it."

"What was left of it?"

"Yeah. It ... he thinks it had a self-destruct mechanism in it. After Steve found it, it got hot, started smoking, and then pretty much melted."

If Bianca's skin hadn't been white, it would have turned that color when she blanched. "Maybe ... maybe they're putting a bug on you to try to find out something about ... one of us?"

"Eep!' Laura cringed. "I hadn't thought of that. I'll call Steve tonight; maybe he'll help me build a copy of his scanner so we can check for bugs."

"Good idea."

"And he said something about a jammer." She got a far-off look in her eyes. "I've got an idea or two from my neural projecto-stimulator," she said mostly to herself. "If ... if I could detune the frequency and have it emit into a hemi antenna instead of a wave guide ...."

Morgana stared at her for a few moments. "Well, she's lost to us for a while."

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Evening
Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy

"Hi!" Morgana and Cally said enthusiastically as they peeked into Hikaru's room.

She looked toward the door from the TV, and her face brightened some. "Have you come to rescue me?" she asked sarcastically.

"What? Oh, no," Tanya replied. "We'd get in trouble. Besides, if you're hurt, that'd be ...."

Hikaru sighed. "Yeah, I've heard it all from the doctors. So I guess I'll have to stay here a while until they're satisfied nothing is wrong."

"Did they at least feed you?"

"Yeah," Hikaru replied, "and for hospital food, it wasn't too terribly bad. Not gourmet restaurant, but a far cry from the stereotype."

"So what happened?" Vic asked bluntly.

Hikaru shrugged, shaking her head. "Power testing again. They asked me to push my powers a bit, and ... and I overdid it."

"How bad is it?" Tia asked nervously.

"I'm okay, bunny," the Japanese girl replied confidently. "Just a little warning and ..." Her eyes darted to the door, where Laura was edging into the room. "Ah, you're with friends," she commented lightly to Tanya and Tia. "I'm Hikaru Myoujin," she introduced herself to Laura. "Nice to meet you."

The girls' faces blanched almost as white as Bianca when they realized that Hikaru didn't remember Laura.

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Evening
The Quad, Whateley Academy

A shadow detached itself from the towering remains of what had once been a mighty oak and walked brazenly to the student who was standing in a small clearing, glancing around herself somewhat nervously.

"You weren't followed?" a deep, raspy voice sounded from the shadowy figure.

"As if!" the student said confidently. "Who could catch us?"

"Don't get cocky!" the shadowy figure retorted angrily. "The Squirrels are not to be trifled with; they almost caught you thrice in the spring term. If I hadn't intervened ...."

The student sighed, grimacing as she acknowledged the man's words. "Okay, okay. I get the message. Be careful of the Squirrels."

"Be careful around everyone!" the dark man countered sharply. "Unless you want to be humiliated like your club was back in oh-nine!"

"They got lucky!"

"They were good, and your predecessors got overconfident and sloppy!"

"You didn't have me meet you for a history lesson," the girl changed the subject.

"No, I didn't," the man replied, extracting a thumb drive from his pocket. "Here's a list of every student and organization."

The girls face wrinkled with confusion. "What do you want me to do with this?"

"Get creative," the man replied. "There are certain ... organizations and individuals who need to be discredited, humiliated, or broken apart. You shouldn't have to work hard to guess who those might be!"

"Okayyyyy." The girl was still clearly confused.

"The other part is a copy of the database of new students. You should be able to find some good candidates for recruiting."

"Into our group?"

"Into any of the key groups," the man roared back. "Identify them, isolate them, and put on some recruiting pressure. And if anyone pushes back, take them down."


The man scowled deeply, shaking his head in disbelief. "You know how to take down a person or an organization." He stood trembling with anger for a few seconds. "If you find any obstacles, you have the contact info. Let me know and the administration will ... help."

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Monday, Sept 12th, 2016 - Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

The girls, Poesies all, glanced nervously about the small 'common room' on the second floor of Poe, murmuring among themselves as they puzzled about the reason for their rather covert meeting to which they'd been summoned but which no-one seemed to know anything about. The room was set up more like a classroom than a social setting; the girls sat in three rows of chairs behind tables. The sense of mystery deepened considerably when Tia walked into the room, or rather, when she started into the room. Startled by the collection of girls therein, she halted mid-stride in the door.

"Tia!" Bailey was the first to recover. "Come sit here."

Glancing nervously at the others, who were equally nervous about Tia's presence, the bunny-girl slid into a chair between Tia and Morgana. "What's going on?" she asked softly of Morgana. "What's this about?"

With a shrug, Morgana answered, "I don't know any more than ...." She paused when the door opened again and the Poe girls' Resident Advisor came into the room. With a smile at her charges, she took a seat in front of the tables, facing the girls. Only seconds later, two older women came in.

Lillian Dennon halted just inside the doorway, her jaw agape at the students sitting before her. Or at least at some of them. Shaking her head, she face-palmed at her stroke of bad luck. "Why me?" she mouthed to herself a few times.

"Hi, Mrs. Dennon," Laura squeaked, trying to lighten things a little bit.

Regathering her composure, Mrs. Dennon stepped inside the room and allowed the second woman, an older woman strode gracefully in, closing the door behind herself. "Good evening, girls," she said cheerfully, putting special emphasis on the word 'girls'. "I'm Mrs. Braithwaithe, and I teach home economics." She shot a glance at Mrs. Dennon, who still looked a little chagrined at who was in the room with her. "And I take it some of you know Mrs. Dennon?"

"Um," Laura grimaced, "yeah. Kind of."

Lillian took a breath to steady herself against whatever bad premonitions she was having at meeting the girls. "Some of these girls," she said, struggling to keep her voice even and not show her sudden exasperation, "were in the Squidley incident."

"Oh?" Mrs. Braithwaithe was intrigued. "Which ones?"

"Miss Samuels," Dennon said, gesturing toward Laura, "Miss St. James," she nodded toward Bianca. "Miss Jones," she continued, indicating Morgana, "and Miss Del Bosque." She frowned. "I was given to understand that you're in Melville, Miss Del Bosque."

"Yes, ma'am," Tia answered softly. "According to Mrs. Horton, I was supposed to be in Poe, but someone in the administration messed up my paperwork."

"As long as you understand the ... delicate situation ... of the Poe girls," Mrs. Braithwaithe said.

"Yes, ma'am," Tia replied quickly. "Mrs. Horton put a spell on me so I wouldn't accidentally spill the secret, and I know better than to say anything on purpose." Both older women seemed to breathe big sighs of relief at that news.

"You're probably wondering why you're here, I bet?"

"Because ... you think one of us is the murderer, and you're going to do the big reveal scene?" Misty asked with a wicked grin.

Lillian was tempted to face-palm again, settling for looking up as she sighed, "Why me?" again and again.

"Not exactly," Mrs. Braithwaithe chuckled. "You all are changelings," she said, "and as such, you have unique ... challenges ... fitting in. You've only been girls for a short time, and you all could use some help with skills that a normal girl would have."

"Over the years," Mrs. Dennon continued, "we observed enough difficulties that changelings were having that we decided to offer ... classes ... specifically and secretly to changelings, to help you with those skills so you could blend in better."

"What kind of skills?" Morgana asked, curious and not in the slightest bit shy.

"Walking, speech habits and patterns, dressing, makeup, fashion - typical things that boys make fun of girls doing, and which you haven't had experience in."


Mrs. Dennon looked at the girls with a stern expression. "I don't need to tell most of you how hostile the world can be to anyone with ... different ... sexuality. As Changelings, you are square in that group. Having a few skills like we offer will help you fit in, and thus reduce the chances that someone might suspect your status as changelings."

"And with that, you'll have more confidence and a greater feeling of security. It'll be much harder for the bigots on campus - and in the outside world - to see you as anything but a born-girl. It'll help you be safer."

"Is this mandatory?"

"No," Mrs. Dennon answered, eyeing the girl who'd asked the question. "But it is very highly recommended. Just like BMA teaches you to skills to survive, so too this class teaches you skills that will help you pass."

"We really, really recommend that you participate in the class," Flower said to encourage her charges. "It's entirely optional, but it is a good class. I know - I took it when I was a freshman."

"And the older changelings are a resource you can call upon with any questions," Mrs. Dennon said. She smiled and looked around the room. "So, who's interested?" As she expected, every hand went up.

"Very good," Mrs. Braithwaithe smiled. "So first, let's talk about how girls walk, or are supposed to walk, and how that's different from the way guys clumsily lumber about."

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Tuesday, Sept 13th, 2016 - Early Morning
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Where is it? Where could it be?" Bailey turned the corner, going left into the student lounge area instead of right towards the lobby and an early breakfast.

There in the lounge, throwing couch cushions into a corner and barely managing not to knock over the TV, was a student; one of the ones Bailey had met at the wing meeting. It took a moment for the name and face to connect. Misty was her name, followed by about a dozen others. Alicia was also in evidence, carefully scanning under the couches with a flashlight and making a squicked out face at what she was seeing.

"What's wrong?" Bailey didn't realize she'd spoke until Misty looked up, tears in her eyes.

"My pendant! My St. Anthony medallion, an heirloom from my Grandma, is missing! I had it on this chain," she held up a thin gold chain "but it caught on my jacket zipper or something and snapped, and I don't know where! It's not in my room, and not here, and… I just don't know what to do!"

Alicia got up and hugged Misty while she hiccupped, trying not to cry. Bailey managed to hold a grin, but only just. This, she could help with! Even better, it would be easy, since Misty still had the chain.

"I can help, if you lend me the chain for a bit." Alicia gave her a look she didn't like, but Misty gave Bailey a look of radiant hope.


Bailey nodded, trying to project confidence. "Really. It's my power. I'm psychic."

Alicia's look soured further. "I thought that was just a danger sense?"

Bailey shook her head. "Psychometry of a sort too. I can see the past of an item, or find items with an item linked to it. That chain should do the trick."

The chain was dumped in her hand so fast she blinked, looking up to catch Misty's watery but expectant gaze. "Can you do it right now, or do you need darkness or candles or anything like that?"

"No, now's good." Bailey rolled her eyes. Misty apparently watched too many movies, and not the kind her Mom liked.

Bailey relaxed, cupping the chain with both hands. She cast herself back along the chain, viewing everything around it as a holo-movie being reversed. She moved past the evening quickly; if the medallion had been in the room itself, Misty probably would have found it and Bailey didn't want to invade the other girl's privacy. If she didn't find anything, Bailey could always go back and take a closer look there, but jumping right to it felt wrong.

In fact, it was best to tell Misty so; Bailey didn't want to get labeled a pervert or anything. It took a little effort, but she managed to keep her focus. "I'm skipping the last hour or so in your room; I'm assuming you already went over it and don't want to intrude."

Misty just nodded, eyes still on her and holding her breath.

Another few minutes or a timeless moment later, Bailey had the answer. She saw the medallion drop off a weakened chain as Misty had been accidentally bumped off one of the walkway between Laird and Schuster during the mad scramble of students between classes.  A bit more rewinding saw Misty clutching it in the locker room after her BMA class, and she was jostled on the path, it snagged on a button, loosening the chain. Always in reverse of course, which was mildly annoying, but now she knew where it fell and how it happened.

"Alright, I know where it is." Bailey led the march, out of the cottage and to the edge of the walkway to Laird Hall. The patch of grass the medallion had fallen in last night was clearly lit up to her; it would be as long as she held the chain. She stopped before it and reached down noting that there were fresh footprints crushing the grass near it.

The medallion was there, facing sideways. Bailey picked it up and returned both it and the chain to Misty, their rightful owner.

"Alright, you need a better chain. The one you were using is too light. Maybe a leather cord or something...."

Misty lunged, forcing Bailey back a step with the force of her hug. "Oh thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou....."

Bailey patted her lightly on the back a few times. "You're welcome."

Alicia pulled Misty off. "Come on, we'll miss breakfast!"

And just like that they were gone. With a shrug and a sigh, Bailey started for the cafeteria herself. At least she had made friends last night; that is, she thought she had.

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Tuesday, Sept 13th, 2016 - Mid-morning
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

The tall former-hero shut the door behind himself and slumped into a chair. "Long day this morning," he said, a hint of fatigue in his voice.

The headmaster Le Compte chuckled, which, given his deep voice, came out as a more of a rumble. "Yeah. This is a lot different from my last job."

"If I'd have known how much paperwork there was," Robert Turner said with a sigh, "I think I'd have stayed in the superhero game."

Geoffrey Mazarin smiled. "That's a young person's game, and you know it."

"Yeah," Turner admitted, "but ... it's still got the adrenaline factor that pushing paper and reading reports about student fights and approving disciplinary measures and trying to fix scheduling SNAFUs don't have."

Mazarin tapped his ever-present cane against his leg, causing a bit of a metallic thump. "Yeah, but once all that excitement and action starts to catch up, you won't miss it. Coffee?"

"As long as it's the good stuff."

Mazarin tapped his phone. "Please bring in two cups of coffee." He looked evenly at Robert. "One lump of sugar and one creamer for mine, two creamers for Mr. Turner." He let off the button. "Right?"

Robert Turner chuckled. "How much else do you know about me?"

Mazarin chuckled. "Enough that when the Trustees proposed your name, I knew you were the right person for the job. Tough, competent, intelligent. And seasoned by raising a teen daughter."

"Speaking of which," Robert said as the secretary brought in coffee and handed him a steaming cup, "we've had six serious fights so far, and two significant assaults. Plus one student being seriously harassed as gay."

Mazarin shrugged. "We'll have to crack down, since they're breaking the rules."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," Robert said, causing the headmaster to arch an eyebrow.

"Are you saying that we shouldn't enforce the rules?"

Robert sighed. "These are kids. Teenagers. They've got a lot to deal with besides the normal teen angst. Being mutants, learning to use or control their power. Being bullied and suddenly being powerful enough to be the bullies. With the girl, the normal 'am I as pretty as her' taken to a whole new level. And most of them are very smart."

"Which is all the more reason to strictly enforce the rules."

"I don't agree. Look at this one case - a girl wanted to spar with another one. The second agreed, so the first one attacked. Both got disciplined for fighting."

"As it should be."

Robert shook his head. "It was a misunderstanding. The second girl thought they were talking about fighting later, in a proper sparring arena. It wasn't really her fault. And she got punished the same as the girl who attacked."

"They were both involved in the fight."

"That's the type of thing we're dealing with, especially with the Freshmen," Turner said. "They don't know the rules yet. Hell," he sighed, "I don't know all the rules yet!"

"Ignorance of the law ...."

Robert shrugged. "Yeah, I know the theory. But this isn't a Syndicate - or superhero team - field organization. Teens react differently from trained operatives and foot soldiers."

"Are you suggesting I should be ... softer?" Mazarin sounded a little defensive.

Robert shook his head after taking a sip of his coffee. "No. I'm suggesting that we're both new on the job, and we might want to be flexible on how we deal with students. A lot of them don't have homes to go to. They might need someone to look up to as a ... as a substitute family."

Mazarin nodded. "And that's what I'm counting on you for. You know how to deal with teens. I don't. I was never married. I never had children. My experience in organizations was, as you noted, with professionals, not teens."

"Good cop, bad cop?"

Mazarin didn't even pause to think. "No. Just ... different styles."

"Can I suggest something?"

"Of course. That's why you have the job."

"Maybe ... maybe you should set aside some time every day to do a little MBWA," Turner suggested.

"Management By Walking Around? I did that in my ... my past job."

"Coupled with a little open-door time to let the kids get to know that you're not a boogie-man." Turner chuckled at Mazarin's reaction. "I very strongly suspect that the Capes and a lot of kids who just want an education and don't plan to go into either of our lines of work are suspicious of you. They might be worried that you're ... unapproachable and distant and overly formal."

"Points noted." Mazarin thought a moment as he caffeinated himself via the mug. "I know the past administration did do the good cop / bad cop thing. Ms. Hartford was the bitch to Carson's parental demeanor. I don't want to work like that." He took another sip. "Okay, as long as you keep me informed, I'll let you use your discretion in disciplinary matters for first-offenders among the Freshmen."

"What about some open-door time?"

"I'll try," Mazarin said after a momentary pause. "But ... I'm discovering that the trustees expect me to spend most of my time meeting various groups to keep the cash spigot open."

"You might want to delegate some of that, too," Turner suggested. "I don't know how much success you're going to have working with hero groups."

"Point taken. But for now, I'd like you to focus on the students, and I'll focus on the money."

Turner nodded. "Okay." He drank the rest of his coffee and set his cup on a small table. "I suspect," he said as he stood, "that we're going to have a lot of these conversations about our differences in opinion about how to run this school."

Mazarin chuckled again. "As do I."

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 2nd period
English Class, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Kenshin was not nervous as he walked into his second period class. He would not allow himself to be. The walk over was good for that, as strange as it was for him. All his life, the classroom had been a social unit and a space for the teachers to visit and impart wisdom, so the idea of having to go to different rooms himself for each subject of the day was something that Hikaru-sama had spent much of the previous day drumming into his head. No, the walk between lessons was not a reason for nerves, even with all the inconvenient bumped shoulders and elbows that found themselves in his path, or the muttered words that sometimes accompanied them. He still needed to ask one of his friends what "fag" and "fudgepacker" were supposed to mean.

It was five minutes before the start of his first real English class in the United States, and he would not let himself be nervous. It wasn't as if he didn't realize how odd his own English was, not when it took him three attempts to understand anything said to him, or many more for the person who had to listen to his words. No, no, he was calm. He was not nervous...

Kenshin quickly took a seat, and only afterwards checked to see who he was sitting by. Then he had to look again. Right across the aisle in the middle of the neatly organized desks, there was an absolutely enormous young man. The student could have been one of the aspiring young sumo rikishi at his local high school, only twice as muscular, with a mass of lime-green hair sticking out in two directions, a round red nose, and pale skin. A strange sort of smile-shaped patch surrounded his mouth, which itself did not reflect the same emotion.

"Whatchu starin' at?" the young giant demanded.

"Ano... sorry. Surprised. Did not, eto... piero-san? Not expecting."

"Whatchu call me?" The giant's chair scraped the floor and fell back, and that huge red nose was right in Kenshin's face.

"Eto, piero-san? In English, ano... nandadake..." He searched his memory for the right word. "Ku... Curu... Culow..."

"Hey, Pete!" A much shorter young man materialized between them. His eyes were a bright pink, like cake icing or the mascot for that English school in Kenshin's hometown. "I'm sure he didn't mean nothin'. Like David meeting Goliath, a bit of shock is normal, right?" he asked Kenshin, who shrugged in sort-of agreement. The words themselves didn't mean anything to him yet, but he got the sentiment. They were meant to defuse the situation.

Kenshin nodded carefully. The young giant looked strong, but that would have posed no problem. However, he had promised not to start fights, even if by accident. He let this other student be the peacemaker.

"Lemme tell you what," the pink-eyed boy was saying. "Thinkin' you two got off to the wrong start. My name's Daniel, and this is my roommate, Pete."

"I am Taka. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu." Kenshin bowed his head politely.

"Good, good. You like doughnuts?" Daniel asked. He waved his hands, and suddenly there was a chocolate-glazed pastry between his fingers. "Here you go, Pete," he said, giving it to the giant. "How 'bout you, Taka? Got any favorites?"

"Eto... do you know ... honey old-fashioned?"

"Well, I know a doughnut called an 'old-fashioned', and with a honey glaze? Gimme a sec." Kenshin's eyes tried to follow the motion of Daniel's hands, but still he could not see where the other student got the pastry.

He took the doughnut and had a bite. It tasted good, better than at the stores back home, in fact.

The presence of baked goods drew in the other students, and Daniel's supply seemed inexhaustible. Kenshin sat back and observed his classmates. There were about two dozen students in the class, split evenly between boys and girls. He thought Pete -- or Humorless, as one of the other kids called him -- might be the oldest, but the young giant wasn't the only large one in the class. There was a young man with dark brown-grey skin who was the size of an American football player, and looked like he had armor padding under his school uniform. A thick band of rough skin cover his nose and cheeks, like a rhino's horn.

There was another Asian boy sitting in the back, and a Middle-Eastern girl with golden eyes and a head scarf. Kenshin thought he might have seen her earlier in the week, when he was meeting with the English teacher. All by herself, there was a dark-skinned... no. Kenshin blinked. There was a dark-scaled young woman with cable-like braids.

Towards the front, one row before the teacher's desk and the widescreen display on the wall, a young woman with green, almost leafy hair was chatting with a girl who was two sizes too small for the chair she was in. To their right, a boy with layers of armor plate instead of hair was napping at his desk.

It was... an interesting mix, he figured. Certainly, it was nothing like his old school.

"I see you brought enough for the entire class, Mr. Diggins. Or do you prefer 'Doughnut'?" All heads turned to the door as the teacher followed her words into the room.

"Figger that 'Daniel' is good nuff for me," the pink-eyed boy replied.

"Well," the teacher said, making her way to the front. "Rules state that there's to be no food in class without special permissions, so..." She tapped the button on the side of the wall screen and brought it to life. "Class starts in forty-five seconds. There'd better be no crumbs visible when I turn around." She proceeded to organize the oversized display screen, ignoring the frantic sounds of munching and chewing behind her.

Kenshin was already done with his, so he spent the time watching the teacher. Ms. Barnes looked young but sounded old, and the black pantsuit she wore was as professional as any Japanese office lady's. During their meeting earlier in the week, it had taken her less than five minutes to assess his English level and determine his course of study for that semester, and after that they'd chatted for a little while longer. Her Japanese was better than his English.

The big board was also worthy of attention. He'd never seen a smartpad screen so large as that before coming to Whateley, and it was interesting to see the brown-haired woman direct icons and write notes using a soft-tipped stylus and her own two hands.

The bell rang, and everyone's desk was spotless.

"Roll call!" Ms. Barnes announced. "Starting from the top today. Anais Carrasco?"

"Here!" said the green-haired girl in the front row.

"Arsi Khan?"

"Sain uu!" This came from the other Asian boy in the back.

"I think you mean 'here', Mr. Khan," the teacher said dryly as the rest of the class giggled. "Avsel Goran?" The girl in the scarf timidly raised her hand. "Daniel Diggins, of course. Francesco Persico?" That was a handsome young man who looked oddly familiar. "Franklin Post?" And the human rhinoceros. "John Irvine? John?" Ms. Barnes rapped on the desk of the armored young man, waking him up from his nap with a snap that almost knocked him over backwards. "Good to have you with us. Jordain Statham?" That was the dark-scaled girl in the back. "Kareela Greer?" The very small girl at the front quickly raised her hand.

Kenshin focused on remembering it all, matching each name to a face. In fact, he was so focused that he almost missed his own name, coming right after the young giant, Peter Foley, and a thin kid named Sam Verner who he hadn't noticed before then.

"Hai! Ano... Here!" he said, barely catching himself.

"Good," said the teacher. "And my name is Myra Barnes. If you would please take out your student smartpads? Everyone should have one; they're issued by the school, and we'll be using them extensively for this course." She waited a moment for them to comply. "Okay then, you need to go to the school intranet address that's currently on the board and put in your student ID or codename. That will start the download of today's lesson material. While we wait," she continued, turning a blue-eyed stare at the class, "can anyone tell us why we are here?"

"Cuz someone thinks we're stupid," grunted Pete. Several other students muttered agreement.

"No, in point of fact," replied the teacher. "The English Learners course is built around one particular word, and that is 'disadvantaged.' Whateley is one of the best schools on the planet, but that doesn't mean much if you're not prepared. One way or another, each of you here needs help catching up. It could be because you're from another country, and this is your first time to study in English. Or perhaps your previous schools failed you in some way, and you were never taught what you need. A few of you had to skip school for several months, for reasons that are your own. And lastly, there are some -- and you know who you are, so I shall not say -- who are several times smarter now than you were six months ago. It is not fair to throw you into a regular high school English class at this level just yet, and so here we are. Now, everyone's smartpad should be finished downloading, so let us begin with a reading assessment."

"That anything like a test?" asked Jordain suspiciously. "Already? Cuz if it is, yinz can go..."

"Hey, I am a teacher, not a sadist. You're not getting graded on this," said Ms. Barnes. "The point of this class is to improve, so first we have to determine where you are right now. So, you will have the next thirty minutes to read what has been downloaded for you and answer some questions. It isn't a race, so take your time. You may all start... now." She mimicked the starting gun of a race with her right hand. "Bang!"

Kenshin opened the assessment file, and a text appeared on his smartpad screen. THE TALE OF THE PEACH BOY, it read in big letters. As he began, he realized that he knew this story. It was "Momotaro," the most famous fairy tale in Japanese literature, and a personal favorite of his childhood. Once he knew this, it was much easier to guess what the new words meant, and when it came time to answer some questions, he felt very confident with his answers.

The second segment wasn't quite as easy, but neither was it too difficult. It was probably about the level he could expect from the prefectural tests of proficiency in Japan, the ones he'd had to miss this year because... He shook his head. There was no point in regrets. Last spring had been busy, and he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Partway through the third segment, the smartboard began to chirp, for all the world like an oversized cuckoo clock. "Time's up, everyone!" Ms. Barnes announced. "We still have some business to go over before the period ends. First, most of your homework assignments will be available the same way as how we downloaded today's assessment. In fact, you already have today's homework on there." She paused a moment for the groans to die down. "It's a grammar assessment, so just like today's it will not be graded. Just do the best you can with it.

"Second, there will also be handwritten assignments from time to time. Those are to be turned in promptly at the beginning of class, on my desk and next to whatever bribes you wish to try. That won't do anything for your grade, but it may put me in a better mood for the day. I'm partial to strawberry creme filling, by the way," she added with a wink to Daniel.

"Gotcha," he replied with an even bigger wink that set half the class to giggling again.

"Third, I wasn't joking when I said that improvement is our mission here. Sixty percent of your grade hinges on simply getting better at speaking and writing in English over the course of this semester. Odd-numbered days will be for grammar instruction, and even-numbered days are for reading practice. Despite what you may think, none of you are stupid. Here is where you get to prove it." She checked her watch. "Any questions while we still have time?"

There were quite a few, as it turned out, though the teacher had to coax some of them out into the open. She showed them how to pull up the syllabus online, how to use some of the more useful tools available for the pads, and a sample of the available reading material. Apparently every one of the reading assessments had been individualized for each student, and the semester's reading list was equally malleable.

By the time the bell rang, everyone was largely satisfied. Even Pete had a not-unhappy look on his face. Kenshin didn't need to tell himself not to be nervous now, though he knew it was not going to be easy, either. There was an entire semester ahead of him... as well as his third-period English tutoring session in the study labs. Stoically, he shouldered his bag and hurried on his way.

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Tues, Sept 13th, 2016 - Late Evening
Hidden Lab, near Kansas City

Fred Drake, a technician in a lab coat, diligently avoided looking at the girl he and his partner were dragging unceremoniously down the hall. Looking at the kids made it that much harder, and he wasn't paid to care about them; only to help the Doctor. She was groggy anyway, her body still fighting off the drugs which had made her capture so trivial.

Fred thought to himself as the two hoisted her onto a lab table; he'd have to speak with his wife urgently about making sure his kids were NEVER out past ten-thirty at night. Thirteen- and fourteen-year-old kids had no business being out that late anyway.

As he strapped her down, Fred couldn't help looking at the wisp of a girl; she was a very cute brunette, maybe a hundred pounds dripping wet, and showing the promise of a nice figure with her developing curves. He felt a pang of conscience; somewhere, parents were frantic about why their daughter was out late, and they'd no doubt already called the police. He hoped she made it. The parents deserved to have their child back.

For a brief moment, the thought of quitting flitted through his mind before he ruthlessly squashed it. With these people, one didn't quit unless one had a death wish. They left no witnesses, period. And that would include his entire family, just in case he'd left notes or spoken to his wife about the experiments. The organization behind this whole nightmarish mess had broad tentacles, and he'd probably never be safe if he ran. No, he'd do just what he'd done every time he assisted with a teenager - he'd go home and get mind-numbingly drunk on cheap bourbon for a few days.

As the straps went around the girl's arms, legs, and body, Fred heard heels strutting imperiously across the bare concrete floor.

"Is she ready?" Dr. Stauffer demanded.

"Almost. The sedative hasn't worn off yet," his partner reported.

"We will have no thrashing about like the last two, understood?" Dr. Stauffer ordered. "Use the gel restraint."

"Yes, ma'am," Fred snapped an answer, while under his breath he muttered, "Damn Nazi bitch!"

On the sides of the slab, interlocking panels were quickly fitted, forming a plexiglass box around the sides of the girl, and as soon as the panels were all locked together, the other technician dragged a hose down from its ceiling position. With a flip of a switch, a thick, gooey liquid gushed out of the large hose onto the slab, flowing like honey around the girl's body, quickly filling up the box-like enclosure.

"Get an IV line in her," Dr. Stauffer barked to the technician while the goo was pumped around the girl.

"Yes, ma'am," Fred answered immediately. With trained precision, he inserted a needle into the girl's arm and then taped down an IV line. A stand was wheeled in place, and a saline drip started flowing into the girl's arm.

"All ready," the other technician said as the large hose retracted. Around the girl, the honey-like fluid had already set up into a foam-like gel, padding her and, with the straps, preventing any motion.

"Administer the counter-agent so she's awake."

Fred hated this part. It wouldn't be so bad if the kids were asleep or unconscious, but the Doctor demanded that they be awake so she could gauge their reactions. Following his orders, he picked a syringe off a stainless-steel tray on a mobile stand, and after checking the contents, he injected its contents into the IV line. It didn't take long to take effect. The girl's eyes fluttered, then opened wide with fear.

"What ...?" she started to say, but that word choked off into a scream when she found that she couldn't move.

"My dear," Dr. Stauffer crooned, looking down into the terrified girl's eyes, "you will be okay. We have to ... administer some medicine to help you," she lied smoothly. With the girl's eyes tracking her, wide open and full of fear, Dr. Stauffer picked up a vial and a syringe from the tray. "Weight?"

"Forty-five kilos," the other technician snapped an answer.

The doctor carefully drew fluid from a dark vial into a syringe, tapping it to get the last air bubbles out. "Turn on the scanner," she barked.

Obediently, Fred nodded before he switched on several instruments on a panel beside the slab. Overhead and around the girl, measuring instruments that seemed like props from a science-fiction B-movie hummed to life, parts glowing and humming with energy. "Ready."

"Now just relax, my dear," Dr. Stauffer crooned to the terrified girl, turning away to inject the serum into the IV line. "This won't take long."

Almost immediately the girl screamed, loud and long, an ear-piercing shriek of agony. Her body tried to convulse against the gel restraint and the straps, but they did their job and held her in place as spasms wracked her body. She paused, struggling to breathe, gasping for breath, as pink foam erupted from her lips. Fred turned to the instruments, fighting the rising bile.

"Neural activity is off the charts," he reported, still trying to control his lurching stomach. He already knew, with sickening certainty, that the girl wasn't going to make it. Already, the serum was breaking down her cells, just like it did in most of the other trials, only this one was working much faster. He tried to block the girl's screams, which were dying off into an unpleasant gurgling sound, a nightmarish noise which would haunt him forever. It took an effort to focus on his job. "Body temperature is one ten and rising. Blood pressure is falling." He glanced over at another instrument, watching its indicator plummet like a stone. "Neural activity is ... zero," he gulped as he reported the flat-lined readout. He didn't have to look behind himself to know that the girl was dead.

"Verdammt!" Stauffer swore vehemently. "I know I have the dosage right!" She turned away from the deceased subject and looked at the wall of readouts. "Aha!" she cried in triumph, a disquieting sound of joy in the situation. "She WAS activating! See here?" she pointed at a couple of the readouts. "Her MGC was activating!" She looked back at the girl, shaking her head angrily. "But why did she burn out? She should not have burned out!" She turned away from the table and strode out of the lab. "Get the samples and save all the data. I want to analyze the results first thing in the morning!"

Fred glanced at the girl, and this time, he couldn't control the spasm in his stomach. With a lurch, the contents of his stomach were splashed all over the lab floor. Beside him, his partner held the back of Fred's labcoat to keep him from falling, and Fred knew he was shaking his head sympathetically.

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FIN - of this story!

Read 7429 times Last modified on Tuesday, 09 November 2021 03:56

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