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Laura and the Labs

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A Second Generation Whateley Academy Tale

Laura and the Labs

by

ElrodW
(with contributions from Kristin and Mage)

 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Laura sighed as she slipped into her chair, her dinner tray unceremoniously clunking to the table hard enough that a few peas dislodged and bounced, skipping off the plate, rebounding off the tray, and skittering across the table toward Tia. The rabbit-girl looked at them, then looked suspiciously at Laura, as if the blue girl had done that on purpose, then looked at the peas again. Shaking her head, Tia took another bite of her salad, though she seemed to be watching the small round vegetables as if they might jump up and attack her. Or like she was planning on gobbling them up when no-one was looking because they looked tasty to her.


"Tough day?" Tanya asked without looking up from the hamburger she was attacking.

"Long night last night babysitting for the Bartons," Laura noted, sounding more than a bit tired. "And a lot of work this afternoon to try to catch up in the labs."

"Admit it," Morgana chided her, "you love babysitting Valerie."

"So did you!" Laura shot back. "Although I was surprised that you tried to scare them with your 'dragon form'."

"Hey," Morgana retorted sharply, "kids love dragons!"

"How are you doing on the shield generator?" Jimmy changed the subject.

"It's a personal field generator.  A PFG! It's not a 'shield'," Laura replied in a bit of a huff, setting down her fork to do air-quotes around the offending word.

"Shields up, Mr. Scott!" Bailey giggled.

"Mr. Scott was the engineer," Morgana corrected her without really thinking. "Mr. Sulu would be the one to raise the shields!"

"You're a nerd!" Tia giggled. Then she glanced at Laura. "Both of you!"

"Oh, pbthhhh!" Laura gave the rabbit-girl a raspberry before looking back to Morgana. "I've got the power regenerator figured out. Just a couple minor instabilities."

Morgana perked up a bit. "Maybe I can test it later tonight?"

"A few minor instabilities," Hikaru observed dryly. "Define 'minor instability'."

"Well," Laura winced a bit, "the plasma trap leaks a bit if the system absorbs too much energy."

"Define 'a bit'."

"And there are a couple of places I need to improve shielding from electromagnetic interference," Laura continued. "Minor tuning."

"So let me get this straight. Your PFG energy source might randomly leak a bunch of
superheated plasma"

Laura nodded. "The direction of the discharges isn't predictable, either."

"So - in random directions," Tanya noted.

"You're making it sound worse than it is," Laura grumbled. "It's not that hot."

"Fireproof too, remember? Morgana said casually.

"Yeah, and that's the other thing," Laura continued. "I'm not sure I can get it to survive the heat if you decide to do your 'human torch' thing."

"Isn't plasma several thousand degrees?" Jimmy asked simply, a forkful of pancakes dripping syrup just an inch or so above his plate, waiting for him to finish talking. As he turned back toward his breakfast, from the corner of his eye he saw Tavi doing a low-low crawl across the table toward his plate, fork in hand.

Rolling his eyes, Jimmy moved his hand surreptitiously to his butter knife. Tavi was still focused on his pancakes and didn't notice. In a flash, the knife flew through the air, smacking into the table right on Tavi's neck.

Having seen this comedic spectacle before, everyone waited for Tavi's hard-light projection to shatter into pixel-shards, but this time, it was only Tavi's head that vanished, which startled even Jimmy. Slowly, though, accompanied by a smooshing sound, a small, slimy-looking bump formed on Tavi's shoulders, growing quickly and stretching in a distorted form of Tavi's head.

"You insensitive jerk!" Tavi said, in a voice that started off Donald-Duck squeaky and slowly settled toward his normal register. "You know how much that stings!"

Jimmy shook his head. "Leave my pancakes alone, Jeebs!" In the moment of silence that followed, he glanced around, noticing all the mouths hanging agape. "I take it none of you have seen Men in Black?" he asked. Seeing no response, he shook his head sadly. "No appreciation for the classics," he complained to Tavi. With a sigh, he looked back to Morgana. "Are you sure you could handle plasma that hot?"

Bianca laughed. "Yeah, her 'wardrobe malfunctions' are a little on the extreme side, aren't they?"

"But if you get the power supply stable," Tia began.

"Power trap. Regenerative power trap," Laura corrected her without thinking.

"Excuse me, your nerdiness. If you get the power trap stable so it doesn't leak plasma, then it's something all of us could use." She glanced at Tanya with one eyebrow cocked. "After all, some of us are squishier than others. But ... could you modify it so you could direct a plasma charge for attack?"

Laura glanced at Morgana. "Plasma torpedo," the two said almost simultaneously.

"I've been thinking of that since Sunday night," Laura observed. "I'm thinking of a miniaturized electromagnetic superfield as a confinement bottle. It'd take some power, but if I tapped off the plasma itself ...." Her expression showed that she was sinking into the 'big idea' mental state that was so well-known on campus.

"Laura," interrupted the blue girl, "weren't you going to focus on the assist for Mrs. Barton's car?"

That comment snapped Laura back to reality. "Yeah." She sighed as she shrugged. "I think I've got enough projects." She glanced at Hikaru. "I still need to find something for you," she said to the Japanese girl, "since you've done so much for me."

Hikaru shook her head. "No, you don't."

"But ... isn't there something you need? Maybe a neural neutralizer? Surveillance or recon drone? Or some other holdout?"

Hikaru started to say no, but then she had a thought. "Maybe there is something." She smiled. "Kurenai?"

The holographic artificial intelligence aide to Hikaru materialized on the table in front of her, carefully hovering a centimeter above Hikaru's soup. "I have been monitoring your conversation," she said with a formal bow toward Hikaru. "As you may recall, I have repeatedly requested some micro-drones under my control, and I have laid out significant rationale for this request."

Hikaru rolled her eyes, and opened her mouth to speak, but Laura beat her to the punch. "Yeah, I can make some drones for Kurenai!"

Jimmy's little hard-light virtual assistant leaped in front of Laura, his clothing having changed in a flash from his usual ninja garb into something that looked nerdy, complete with glasses, a shirt with a pocket protector, and a small radio-control box in his hands. "Tavi wants drones, too!"

"Yes, Tavi," Laura commented, "I heard you say that. Two weeks ago. Last week. Two days ago."

"Can you integrate a microdrone with his GridGear?" Jimmy asked.

"It wouldn't be too hard," Laura replied. "GridGear is an industry standard."

"Tavi get drones!" the little VI jumped up and down excitedly. "Like this!" His appearance morphed again, transforming until he looked like Darth Vader holding the infamous black interrogation droid.

"Uh ... no!" Jimmy said firmly. "No interrogation drones!" He looked at Laura. "If you're going to make some for Kurenai, would it be too much trouble to make one or two extra ones for Tavi to control for remote recon?"

"Yeah, I could do it," Laura replied, eying the pesky little VI. "But the way he acts, I'm not sure his personality module has the wisdom and discretion to use them properly!"

The little VI looked offended. "Tavi wise. Wise like ... like ... like Jedi master!" he proclaimed. His appearance shifted again, this time taking on the appearance of a weasel-ish Yoda in tan and brown Jedi robes. "Wise, Tavi is, yes? Control drones he can! Help I will!"

Around the table, some of the group couldn't help but snicker at Tavi's little outlandish display. Jimmy shook his head again, and then slapped Tavi into shards of hard-light pixels again. "Having remote recon capability wouldn't hurt, Laura," he began, but stopped when he saw her staring at the table beside him.

Once more, Tavi materialized, still looking like Tavi-Yoda, but this time, he was mostly transparent blue, with a blue glow around him. "With drones, Jedi master more you trust, mmm?"

"Sheesh," Laura said almost in exasperation. "Will it shut him up if I make him a drone or two?"

"With blasters!" Tavi said excitedly, jumping up and down excitedly, and again shifting his appearance until he was wearing a miniature set of stormtrooper armor.

"No blasters!" Laura shook her head firmly, sounding a bit cross. "If you keep asking for stuff like that, I might have to reconsider my offer!"

Tavi gawked, and then he got a forlorn expression. He slunk back to the table beside Jimmy's plate and sat down, pouting. Thinking Jimmy wasn't looking, he suddenly had a fork in his hand, and he stabbed at the pancakes.

"It would be helpful," Jimmy said, ignoring the little VI.

"Let me see what Hikaru is thinking, and I'll see if I can adapt anything from that design for you," Laura replied.

"So, back on the original topic," Hikaru said dryly, "some drones for Kurenai is more than enough. I'm very well supplied with holdouts, after all."

Laura nodded enthusiastically. "I've got a few projects to work on first, but I'll be thinking about drones. Mostly it's going to be the power supplies. That's always the hardest thing to optimize."

Kurenai disappeared and reappeared in front of Laura. "You will likely need some complex computation to optimize the plasma containment field. If mistress will permit, I can assist with that in exchange for drones."

Laura contemplated the offer. "It would be helpful," she observed, but then she glanced at her watch. "I've got to run. I'm meeting Horace in his lab."

"The devisor chocolate?" Morgana asked?

Laura winced. "Shhh!" she chided her friend. "It's a secret project right now."

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - After Dinner
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

A boy stepped back from a whiteboard he'd had mounted on one wall of his lab. "That's it. Those are all the steps in the process."

Laura nodded. "Okay. How much time does each step take?"

Horace Bishop, a sophomore biodevisor in whose lab the two were standing, turned to his computer. He wasn't tall, or brawny, but he wasn't a skinny runt either. The best word to describe him was average. Average height, average weight, average hair, average complexion. Just average.

"Fermentation ... six to seven days," Horace scribbled on the whiteboard. He looked back at the computer. "Drying ... three days."

"There has to be a way to speed up the drying," Lara noted.

Horace glanced at her. "Maybe. The next step is roasting, so maybe those could be combined."

"Or freeze drying?" Laura postulated.

"Roasting is next," Horace said. "This is reputedly one of the trickiest parts, because temperature and time are critical to flavor. Probably a few hours. Not much to optimize there."

"Unless we get lots of pods and have a lot of chocolate beans to roast," Laura noted.

"True." Horace grinned at the girl. "I hope that this stuff tastes good, because we could make a fortune!" He looked back at the computer. "Cracking the beans and separating the nibs."

"Simple mechanical winnowing machine," Laura noted. "Not a big time consumer."

"But while a longer process is happening, like fermenting or drying, we could construct the machines for the next steps."

"True."

"Then crushing the nibs into a wet paste called cocoa liquor."

"Seems simple."

"Then we blend it with whatever we want for extra flavor." He looked at Laura. "We'll have to decide what flavors we might want."

"Chili," Laura grinned. "We'll have to make some with chili."

"Okay." He looked at the book again. "The next part is called conching. It's like a very fine milling process on the chocolate paste to make it super-smooth." He sighed. "This says that the best chocolate is conched for days."

Laura wrinkled her nose. "Well, that might be trickier to speed up, but at that point, it's not like we're racing the weather, is it?"

"Nah," Horace nodded at her assertion. "But ... my specialty is bioengineering, and yours is electronics. Maybe we should think about finding a trustworthy partner that can work on that machinery?"

Laura considered things for a bit. "Yeah, that seems reasonable."

"I've got a couple of people in mind," Horace said, having obviously thought this through some. "Let me think, and I'll introduce you so you can decide if we bring them into the team."

Laura's heart soared - she was a mere freshman, only a few weeks at school, and this sophomore was considering her as a partner on a team?

"Okay, so getting back on topic, the next step in processing is to temper it to get the correct crystalline structure and form it into its final shape. That's a tricky bit - if it's not tempered right, it doesn't have a good texture."

"So - we'll need some kind of fermenting container, a drying system, a roasting oven ..."

"Roasting should be straightforward."

Laura shook her head. "Do we have something to roast in that's also food-safe and hasn't been used for who-knows-what other bioexperiments?"

"Good point."

"A machine to crack and winnow the beans, then a mill. And then the conch." Laura scowled. "Yeah, we'll need help with the mechanical stuff."

"Okay." Horace turned to Laura and extended his hand. "So we're a team on this project?"

Laura eagerly shook his hand. She'd gotten a little information about Horace and was satisfied that he wasn't a cheat, a liar, or a misogynist.

"While there's still a little light, how about if we go see these trees and get some more pods?" Horace proposed.

Ten minutes later, the duo was on the trail between the core campus and the Village. Laura led Horace off the trail, stopping at one tree that she knew held the pods. "This is one of them," she explained. "I know there are more."

Horace nodded. "I think I see a few more." He dug in his pocket and handed what looked like a cell phone to Laura, and he retrieved one for himself. "This is a tracking device. We'll look around, and when we see a tree, we'll stand beside it and mark it." He demonstrated a control to Laura. "And get a picture or two of any pods so we can judge how ripe they are."

For about half an hour, until the fading sunlight made the task impossible, the two clambered through the woods, stopping occasionally to mark a tree and take pictures. Finally, they decided it was too dark to continue, so they started back toward the labs.

"Is this standard lab gear?" Laura asked about the item Horace had given her, curious.

Horace chuckled. "No. I use it to track the spread of plants I develop, to see how they reproduce."

Laura's eyebrow cocked up. "Isn't that ... dangerous? Introducing untested plants? There have been problems, like sawgrass in the Everglades, and invasive animals ...."

"I know," Horace admitted. "There was a very notorious biodevisor - Princess Jobe - whose work didn't make it any easier for biodevisors," he grumbled. "She's the reason that half of the laws exist. Because of all those laws and regulations, I put a 'self-destruct' gene sequence in everything I make. They can't last past three or four reproductive cycles before they're sterile and can't reproduce further. And I track where the samples are, and I develop a specific toxin against that specific plant. You wouldn't believe what kinds of safeguards we have to take - all because of Jobe!"

"How many trees did we mark?"

Horace looked at his device, and gave Laura the answer. It was far more than she'd initially thought. "From what I saw, the trees are a little more fruitful than average. I looked up information ..."

"Me, too," Laura admitted proudly. She was subconsciously letting her new lab partner know that she did research, too.

"I'd guess forty to fifty pods per tree, which is about twice average. From examining the pods you gave me, I'd put the average at sixty beans per pod, so we should get about two kilos of cocoa paste from each tree."

"I found a reference that the premium chocolate sells for forty to fifty dollars per pound," Laura added.

Both did the math in their heads. "Wow!" Horace noted. "That's enough to pay lab fees for quite a while."

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - Late Evening
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Laura had just finished locking up her lab desk when a teacher poked her head into the lab. "Aren't you up a little late?"

Laura started and half-jumped; she hadn't heard the visitor enter the lab. She instantly recognized the teacher. "Er, sorry, Mrs. Cody," she apologized. "I'd been working with a lab partner earlier, and after he started on another project, I was trying to get ahead on a couple of projects." She shook her head. "I'm having a stability problem with one of my power supplies, and ..."

Mrs. Cody chuckled. "Ah know the feeling only too well. But it's almost curfew time, and you need to get back to your cottage before you get in trouble."

"I know," Laura admitted as she walked to the door, pausing to turn off the lights and close the door. "But I really need to get my new neural neutralizer done, and Morgana really needs a PFG, and I've got a special project for ...." She cut off her statement, wincing at nearly giving away the secret. "And there's the project with Horace, and I'm trying to fine tune Tia's earplugs, and ...." She shook her head. "I feel like I'm in over my head." She cringed. "And ... and I sort-of promised Hikaru that I'd make some drones for her."

Mrs. Cody laughed. "That reminds me of someone when Ah was a student here." She waited for Laura to look at her. "Me!" she chuckled. "You want some advice?"

"Yes, please!" Laura almost pleaded.

"Either pick one project and focus exclusively on that, or schedule a specific amount of time for each project and stick to that schedule rigidly."

"I think I need to schedule my time," Laura replied. "I can't think of any project that I can shove to the back burner." She saw the redheaded instructor look at her in surprise. "I need my neural neutralizer for self-defense. I ... I haven't been attacked, but ... but there are a few ... odd ... things that make me worry. And the same for Morgana's PFG.

"That's the one with the plasma leak that almost incinerated test chamber four, right?"

"Erm, yeah," Laura cringed. "And the special project - I have to get that done for ... for special reasons. And the project with Horace - we've got a lot to do before the first frost."

"Okay, but in your schedule, you need to leave time for your friends, and your girlfriend." She smiled knowingly at Laura, who gawked at the teacher in shock. She hadn't said anything to anyone outside of Poe. Mrs. Cody chuckled. "Ah was the RA in Poe in my time. Ah recognize a few subtle signs, so Ah made a guess." She smiled. "Ah see from your reaction that mah guess was right."

"Oh." The pair walked in silence for a few seconds. "Do you know much about how I could patent some things I'm working on?" Laura changed the subject to something safe.

"What kind of things?" Mrs. Cody was naturally curious.

"First, my neural neutralizer. And if the PFG passes the devisor test, I'd like to patent it. And ... and the special project."

"The administration has an office specifically to work with patents. Make an appointment in your free time, and Ah'll go with you. The patent people talk 'legal', and they're hard to understand at times." She smiled at Laura. "It's the least Ah can do after all the babysitting - and trouble - with mah kids."

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016 - Mid Afternoon
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Laura stretched in front of her lab workbench, then unlocked it. She glanced at her watch, checking the schedule she'd thought up after her talk with Mrs. Cody, and then she opened one drawer. Slowly, she took parts of a project out of its drawer, then carefully laid out her tools. After wheeling over a scope, she connected a power supply and probes to her project, the enhanced neural neutralizer she was making.

She puzzled over the meter, which showed no electrical signals. She switched off the power supply, then turned it on again - and got the same result. She checked the scope, and verified that it was working, then reconnected it - with no result.

Frowning, Laura began to trace backward on the circuit board, looking for a problem that she knew hadn't been there before. Just the day before, it had been showing signals in the part of the circuit she intended to work on. Still she found no signal. Suspecting that the 'trigger' switch had broken, she bypassed the trigger. Still nothing. She cycled the main power switch, and again there was nothing. A probe showed that power was coming into her circuits, but it wasn't doing anything.

Frowning, Laura unhooked the probes and turned off the power supply, then disassembled the circuit boards from the housing she'd designed for the gadget. Surely there was something that had burned out, or a connection which had shorted. One by one, the three circuit boards came out as Laura gently teased the connectors off and lifted them free of the case. Then she pulled out the main board, the power circuit that conditioned the battery power for the rest of the neural neutralizer.

Laura gawked at the board. She closed her eyes and lightly shook her head, then looked again. In a corner of the circuit board, there was an empty spot that should have held a very custom, very expensive circuit which was a core part of the power conditioning circuit. She stared for several seconds as she realized that someone had stolen part of her work.

She quickly set the parts on her bench and started to leave, but then she looked around, seeing all the other lab denizens working at their own benches, none of them paying attention to her. Suddenly feeling paranoid, she unhooked a few things and then closed her workbench, locking it before leaving to find an instructor.

By some strange coincidence or twist of fate, as she scampered down a tunnel toward her instructor's office and lab, she nearly ran over Mrs. Cody, who was emerging from an elevator.

"Whoa!" Mrs. Cody said, catching the girl before the two collided.

"Mrs. Cody!" Laura started, fighting her anguish, "someone ... someone ...." Her emotions got the better of her and she started to cry. "... stole ... from my bench ...."

"Whoa, Laura!" Mrs. Cody gently held Laura by both arms. "Slow down and tell me."

Laura wiped at her tears, managing to get her sobs under control. "Someone ... stole part of my neural neutralizer," she managed to whimper. "The new one I was working on! The power circuit ... part of it ...the custom chip ... is gone"

"Are you sure?" Mrs. Cody had to ask.

"I was working on it yesterday. It was all there!" She sobbed again. "Someone broke into my bench and stole the chip. It's one I designed especially for this," she added.

The redheaded instructor's eyes widened, then she nodded. "I remember. The circuit fab lab made that for you ... two weeks ago?" The labs had an automated IC fabrication lab; the students fed in a circuit design, and a few hours later, a completed integrated circuit chip emerged. Manufacturing an IC was very expensive, and students only used it when there was no other choice. Parts made on that system really put a dent in a student's lab fees.

"It's ... it's gone!" Laura repeated.  She led Mrs. Cody back to her lab, and ignoring all the sudden attention from the other gadgeteers and devisors, she opened her workbench and showed her the empty spot in the circuit board.

"Calm down, Laura," Mrs. Cody said soothingly. "The labs all have security cameras, and there are cameras covering the tunnels. We'll go talk to security, and we'll find out who took it."

"But ... the backlog ... It'll ... it'll take three weeks ... before I ... before I can get another made!" Laura sobbed. "And it'll cost ... it'll cost ...."

"Laura," Mrs. Cody's voice was very calming, "we'll find a way to get you to the front of the queue, and the lab has some discretionary funds for situations like this."

Laura relocked her lab bench, then with Mrs. Cody, walked through the tunnels and up to the security offices in Kane Hall. That was an exercise in futility; Sergeant Daniels, the officer in charge of the late shift, pulled up camera recordings from the lab and both directions of the tunnels near the lab. The trio sat in the office watching the videos play at super-fast motion, watching for anything out of the ordinary. In twenty minutes, they looked at all three camera angles, and there was nothing. No-one came to the lab, no-one left the lab, no-one was in the lab. When Sergeant Daniels expressed doubt that something could have been stolen with no evidence, Laura was upset by his implication that this wasn't an actual theft, but more like misplaced equipment. Fortunately, Mrs. Cody rose to the occasion. She demanded that he look at earlier tapes from within the lab. At key points, as Laura worked, she had him zoom in, where it was obvious that the scope was showing electrical signals, that the neural neutralizer was working and it had the part in it. Then she had him review tapes from less than an hour ago, and once more, she had him zoom in on Laura's bench, where she contrasted the active scope signals from the day before with the absolutely flat signals from that day. With such evidence, Sergeant Daniels helped Laura fill out an incident report.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016 - Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Laura was strangely quiet as she sat down at the group table, and she was less than enthusiastic about tucking into her favorite breakfast.

"Is there something wrong, Laura?" Taka asked in his accented English. "Seem ... upset.

Koichi, seated next to Taka since he'd essentially grafted himself to the group, looked at Laura, and then turned to Taka. He spoke a few words in Japanese, and Taka replied with a nod, also in Japanese. "Why you look sad?"

Laura shook her head. "Last night, I was in my lab to work on my enhanced neural neutralizer, and ...."

"Called it," Tanya said to Jimmy, both of whom were seated at her left. She turned back to Laura. "I figured that's why you missed dinner last night."

Laura shook her head. "No, I had to go to the security office."

Eyes popped open at that comment. "Security?" Morgana mouthed softly.

Laura caught the meaning of their surprise, and hastily added, "No, it's not like that. I was there with Mrs. Cody. We had to report a theft and look at security tapes."

"What was stolen?" "A theft?" "Who did it?"

Laura sighed. "Someone stole my custom power-conditioning chip from my new neural neutralizer." She felt rather than saw the shocked expressions. "It took me almost two weeks to design, and then I had to wait almost two weeks for time in the IC fab to get it." She shook her head, fighting back tears. "And someone swiped it."

"So ... if you have the design, can you make another one?" Morgana asked the obvious question.

"Right now, the queue to use the fab is almost three weeks," Laura sobbed sadly. "Mrs. Cody said she'd try to help me cut in line, but ...."

Tanya smiled. "So babysitting her kids earned you some brownie points, right?"

Laura gawked at Tanya's attempted humor, then she sighed, and a wee hint of a smile tried but failed to flicker across her morose expression. "I guess." She sighed again. "Anyway, we looked at security tapes of the lab and the tunnels outside the lab." She closed her eyes and shook her head sadly. "Nothing. Nobody came, nobody went, nothing. So ... no clues on the tapes. Security went to my lab and gathered some forensic evidence, but ... there wasn't much. It's ... it's a mystery." She sighed yet again. "It's so damned frustrating! This set me back weeks!"

"But you've got lots of other projects to work on while you wait, right?" Tia suggested.

"I suppose," Laura said, obviously still lamenting the theft of her component. "And ... and Horace Bishop asked me to partner with him on a ... a special project."

Bianca eyed her, then leaned closer. "Is this the kind of special project that's going to make Antonia jealous?"

Laura's eyes widened, and she stared in shock at her friend. "No, nothing like that!" she emphatically denied. "It's ... well," she looked around furtively, and leaned a little closer to the table, to a point where conversation would be quieter. Puzzled, the others followed suit.

"Morgana knows a little bit," Laura said softly. She was confident that the usual background din of the dining hall would make their conversation inaudible. "I found some weird pods when I was walking home from babysitting a few days ago. I asked Horace Bishop - he's a biodevisor - if he knew what they are. Turns out the pods are from a bioengineered, hybrid cacao tree."

"But ... cacao trees are a tropical plant!" Bailey noted in surprise.

"Like I said, it's a bioengineered hybrid," Laura said. "Anyway, the pods are cacao pods, and they have the beans inside so we can make chocolate." She saw the surprised expressions. "Horace says they're a really premium species of cacao tree, so we're going to make an experimental batch and test it."

"Okay, so you get a small chocolate bar," Tanya commented. "So?"

Laura shook her head. "No. There are dozens and dozens of trees scattered around the area where I found the first pods. If it works out, we figured that we can make tens of kilograms of premium chocolate!"

Bianca glanced around the table, then looked at Laura. "So why are you sitting here eating breakfast instead of making chocolate?"

Laura stared at the white girl for a couple of seconds. "Bio-engineered cacao trees? You think we should just make it and give it away without testing?"

Morgana stared a couple of seconds, then she cocked an eyebrow. "Do you think your friend could make a bioengineered coffee bush like that?"

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Beneath the table, unseen to the group and not detected by Bianca's and Morgana's magic, no bigger than a pencil eraser and hidden in what appeared to be old gum stuck to the table, a tiny electronic device picked up every word the group said. The signal from the bug was so weak that without knowing how to find it, it would be hard to pick up over all the radio-frequency background 'clutter' all around the campus. But one electronic gadget did know how to find the faint signal, and it picked it up, decoded it, and amplified it, then digitized it and sent it out over the campus Wi-Fi network, suitably disguised to avoid attracting interest.

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Secret Squirrels Clubhouse, Whateley Academy

In one small room of the clubhouse, a computer was constantly receiving many signals from all over campus, dutifully storing the data away in files for later analysis. In the case of one particular data stream, however, a girl was monitoring it, listening for anything of importance, any small clue or scrap of useful information. Amy Tinghill was only a freshman, but her dad's background as a police detective made her a good prospect for the group, and she'd been quickly rushed to join. Now, it was her turn to monitor the 'important' conversations under the supervision of Tyrone Sullivan, a junior who was supervising Amy as she learned the tedious but necessary task of gathering intelligence on a subject.

Amy stiffened for a moment then she scrawled a note and handed it to Tyrone, who bolted upright and put down his semi-appetizing to-go breakfast. When there was active monitoring, one member of the Corps was always in the clubhouse - in case something big broke. Amy's note indicated that something big may have broken. As he read, Tyrone's eyes widened, and then he picked up his cell phone and sent a cryptic message.

In Crystal Hall, a girl's phone buzzed softly. She interrupted her conversation with her table-mates and picked up her phone. As she read, her eyes widened, then narrowed again. She grabbed her tray off the table, abandoning her meal half-uneaten; with one hand, she carried her tray, while with her other hand, she urgently tapped her phone to send out a text message.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016 - After Breakfast
Behind Holbrook Arena, Whateley Academy

"Silverplate, this is Sentinel," a girl spoke insistently into her phone, which appeared to be nothing more than a regular smart phone, but many special features were built into the device. These features were hidden, required code access, and among other things, provided very secure scrambled communication.

"Go ahead Sentinel." The voice on the other end was heavily accented and full of irritation. "But make it brief - you are interrupting very important experiments!"

"Of course," the girl responded, not surprised at all by the German woman's curt attitude. "Someone is interfering with Subject One's lab developments. A critical and specialized component was stolen."

"Was?" Silverplate demanded, suddenly very attentive and reflexively switching to German. "How serious is this?"

"Report from the surveillance is that Subject One is discouraged. A public statement was made that she wondered if Whateley was worth such troubles."

"Find it! Find who did this!" Silverplate practically yelled. "Make sure my subject's property is returned to her undamaged, and make sure the perpetrator knows not to do this again."

The girl hesitated. "That's unusual for Whateley, Silverplate. These types of small thefts, fights, and pranks happen all the time, and they don't draw much attention."

"I don't care!" Silverplate yelled into her phone, which rang in the girl's ears. "This is my subject! She's very important to my experiments! You are not to let anything happen to her, including these types of pranks and thefts! Versteh?"

"Of course," the girl replied, startled by the vehemence in Silverplate's voice. "I already have the surveillance team investigating, but my source in Security informed me that the security tapes are blank. Whoever did this knows the security systems well enough to subvert them."

"Use whatever means are necessary. Including ... psychic or magic," Silverplate spat out in anger. It was clear from the distasteful way she spoke the words that she had no admiration for psychic and magic powers."

"Yes, Silverplate." The girl hung up the call, puzzling over her instructions. Silverplate didn't understand - any kind of demonstration of 'protection' for a student was going to result in her getting a lot of unwanted attention from bullies who felt that they had something to prove, which in  turn would make life more difficult for her and her comrades.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016 - After Classes
The Flying Blue Squirrel Pub, The Village, Whateley Academy

"Ah understand y'all have a project that might need mah skills," said a mid-twenties man with somewhat disheveled hair, jeans, and a somewhat faded T-shirt bearing a picture of a Greek helmet and the lettering 'ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ'.

Mrs. Cody, sitting across a booth from Laura and Horace, shook her head, looking up at the man who was standing next to the booth. "Y'all keep forgetting your manners, Shine," she chided him. "Not unexpected from some backwoods Tennessee boy," she chuckled.

The man scowled, but with a twinkle in his eye. "Just 'cuz Ah ain't from Georgia don't mean Ah don't know the meaning of Southern hospitality!" He smiled at the two. "Round here, they call me 'Shine, cause mah specialty is moonshine."

"From the talk I heard in the labs," Horace replied, smiling politely, "you're the world's foremost expert on fermenting and distilling ... fine beverages." He spoke almost reverently as if addressing such a renowned devisor was the greatest honor he could hope for. "And they say you're really rich from your devises."

The man shrugged as he slid into the seat beside Mrs. Cody. "Shucks, compared to Elaine, ah ain't got but two or three inventions," he said, blushing a bit. "She's the real genius." He glanced at her. "They used to call her the Gadgeteer Goddess," he chuckled, causing the redhead's cheeks to attempt to turn the same color as her hair. "And the Lab Queen.  And the Mechanism Maestra," he continued.

"That's enough!" Mrs. Cody cut him off before he could continue. "We didn't come here for you to poke fun at me. These kids have a project that you might be able to help with."

"Oh? Does it involve distilling beverages?" he asked, almost eagerly.

Laura glanced at Horace, exchanging a look that they were dealing with someone who was less-than-serious, and that perhaps someone had been pulling their legs about this man.

"No, we found some ... cacao trees ...."

Shine's eyebrows rose. "Chocolate liqueur?" he asked with anticipation.

"No," Mrs. Cody interjected. "They'll have to wait until they're old enough before they try anything like that."

"We want to make chocolate, but the first step is fermenting the beans," Laura said quickly before the conversation could be side-tracked again. "We're looking for ways to speed up the processes - there are a lot of steps in it - and Mrs. Cody said you might be able to help with the fermenting part."

That got Shine's attention. For the next thirty or forty minutes, the little group of lab denizens discussed the fermentation mechanism, honing in on chocolate beans in particular.  By the end of the discussion, they'd arranged for time with the man to look at ways to implement his ideas.

As they stood to leave, Shine said to Laura, "I understand you're a good babysitter," he said.

Laura glanced up at Mrs. Cody. "Um, I do some babysitting," she replied cautiously.

"Hands off my babysitter, Shine!" Mrs. Cody said with a faux threatening tone. "Besides, y'all have a nanny!" Before he could counter, she continued, "And y'all live in that mansion down in Berlin, and Laura isn't old enough to drive!"

"One, she's not a full-time nanny. Two, she does want a day off from time to time," Shine countered. "Three, the missus don't mind a little help, 'specially if it's a Whateley girl. Four, Ah pay a helluva lot more than Mrs. Cody," he smiled at Elaine, "and five, it ain't a mansion."

"Oh yeah," Mrs. Cody shot right back - and it was obvious that the mutual teasing between the two was normal friendly banter, "y'all's mansion is you're vacation home back at her parents' place."

After exchanging pleasantries, the two students and Mrs. Cody walked back toward the campus. "Most people would never guess that he's really, really rich," she said. "He's really a down-to-earth guy. So is his wife. She's a Southern girl, too."

"Really rich?" Horace asked, a little surprised. Shine looked and sounded like a backwoods boy.

Mrs. Cody smiled, chuckling to herself. "His best devises can make new brandy taste like hundred-year-old vintage Napoleon brandy." She saw the boy stutter-step at her comment. "Yeah. That Shine."

"My family wasn't big on drinking, so I hadn't heard exactly what he invented." She cocked one eyebrow. "If he's that good about distillation, too, I imagine that places like Brazil ...."

Mrs. Cody chuckled. "Yeah. His devises have helped a lot of third-word economies switch to ethanol-based fuels. The Saudis and Russians hate him because he is single-handedly responsible for driving down petroleum fuel consumption by a sizeable percent. The beauty is, since they're devises, no-one can copy them. The royalties - and he doesn't ask for much - net him more than a million dollars each and every day."

Laura gawked openly at that statement in disbelief. "A day?"

"Like I said, he's really, really wealthy." She smiled again. "Just don't treat him like he's rich, and you'll get along just fine. Remember, he's one of us and he loves getting down in the labs - just like we do."

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Thursday, September 29, 2016 - After Classes
Campus Quad, Whateley Academy

"Hey, Laura! Wait up!" Morgana's voice sang out across campus, which caused Laura to look up in surprise. She'd been in a funk about her missing power supply parts, and walking back to Poe was so routine that she wasn't really paying attention around her. She waited for Morgana to catch up.

"Laura, can we talk when we get to Poe? My room, I don't want to discuss it out here in the open." Morgana's voice and expression were serious enough to make Laura do a double-take.

"Uh, sure." Morgana's cloak-and-dagger attitude made Laura worry, but Morgana must have noticed because she tried to reassure Laura with a pat on the shoulder. That attempt failed miserably.

When they got to their rooms, Morgana opened her door and gestured to her friend to join her. Still having no idea what the redhead was up to, Laura just nodded and did as she was asked. Once they had shut the door and sat down, it was a different story.

"Ok, Morgana, what's the big mystery?"

Morgana pointed at the sigils, glyphs and symbols scattered across the walls and ceiling. "I had something I wanted to talk about, and I didn't want to do it in public. There are far too many people spying and generally being nosey around here, and it's about your missing circuit."

Laura sat up. "Oh!! Do you know..."

Her friend held up her hand to stop the outflow of words. "No, Laura, I have no idea. But I did have an idea for it happens again."

Laura slumped back for a moment in disappointment; seeing that, Morgana hurried on with her explanation.

"Look, if someone has gotten away with it once, they'll probably do it again, right? Now, it was stolen from your lab, and security didn't find anything, right?"

Laura nodded miserably. "The tapes just didn't show anything at all."

"Exactly. So it's likely that whoever did it is one of the lab-coats." She saw Laura start to bristle at the suggestion her lab-mates might be less-than-honest. "They'd have access, they'd know what to look for, and they'd know how to spoof security."

"Well, yes, but how does that help?" Laura slumped down a little more. "They can steal all my stuff and there's nothing I can do! Even if they beef up security, they could just walk through it again!" She had to fight not to sniffle in front of her friend at the thought of someone stealing her hard-earned equipment again.

This time Morgana smiled widely, the sort of satisfied smile of 'I know something you don't'. "Ah, but there's one thing I've noticed about the lab crew, Laura. They are pretty good at tech - well, that's why they are here, after all - but I bet whoever stole your stuff, no matter how much of a tech whiz they are, knows jack shit about magic! So if I was to cast some spells on your kit, and they steal stuff again, we have a much better chance of getting it back."

Laura thought about that for a few moments, then looked up at the taller girl. "You'd do that for me? But it would be so much trouble..."

This time Morgana leaned forward and put a finger against Laura's mouth to silence her. "OK. First, it's not like we're talking major sorcery here. Second, it will be good practice for me. And third - Laura, you're doing all this stuff for us. It's making me feel guilty about taking advantage of you. So this is something I can do for you in return. And finally, even ignoring all of that, you're my friend and someone's been ripping off your stuff.

Laura bit her lips. "Um, it won't be dangerous, will it?"

Morgana shook her head. "No, no danger to you or anyone else in the lab. It will just allow any your items to be traced."

Laura thought about it for a moment, then nodded hard. "OK - I really don't want to lose any more stuff, I can't afford it."

"OK, then let me sort out the best spell to use, and the next time you're alone in the lab, I'll do the spells. This will work best if no-one else knows about it."

"Hmm - it's Pizza night, right?" Laura asked. "Everyone, and I mean every one, in the labs will go for the special pizzas. I'll bet that half an hour before dinnertime, the lab will be empty."

"Okay, I'll meet you in the labs after I get done with preparations."

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Thursday, September 29, 2016 - After Classes
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

"Hi, Morgana!" several boys sang out like a bunch of love-sick puppies as the redhead strode into the lab.

 Laura glanced up from her workbench. "You just have to get your afternoon fix, don't you," she asked as Morgana made a beeline toward the large coffeepot of devisor coffee, which was always her first stop in the labs.

Morgana filled her extra-large cup with the extremely potent devisor coffee, and noticed the pot was almost empty. Out of courtesy and habit, she set her cup down and pulled the filter holder out of the coffee cup. She'd been mooching devisor coffee long enough to not be alarmed that the waste bin next to the table was marked for hazardous waste. Whether this was true or just a prank she didn't know; she suspected the latter, but knowing devisors, nothing would surprise her. She made a show of donning heavy acid-rated gloves before she got the coffee can down and scooped more than twice the normal amount into the percolator basket. Once the coffee was brewing, she peeled off the thick rubber gloves and picked up her cup. She suspected the process of brewing the devisor coffee was like a ritual to discourage any non-lab-types from partaking of the brew out of fear of what was actually in it. Taking a long sip, she closed her eyes for a moment and relished the taste of the potent brew.

"What are  you working on?" Morgana asked Laura as she hovered over the blue-skin girl's lab bench.

Laura turned so Morgana could see. Two halves of a ceramic-lined stainless-steel sphere about a hundred-twenty millimeters in diameter were lying on the bench; one looked like it was pierced by a solid stainless-steel rod sticking out about fifteen millimeters from each side of the sphere, which in turn was wired to a complex array of circuitry on the bench, while the other had a very stubby dull gray cylinder poking up from the inside. "My regenerative plasma trap."

"So ... the lining is shaped to be a torus?" Morgana speculated. "And the center is some kind of magnet to create a confinement field?"

"Yup." Laura sighed. "I'm still having some instability, though, if the plasma density gets too high." She picked up the pieces and expertly assembled the gizmo. "Here, I'll show you." With Morgana in tow, she went to what looked at first glance to be a huge oven set into a wall, but the thick, fireproof blast door gave hint that this was not an oven. The chamber faced a nook in the lab, so if something did happen and the door was breached, the blast would be directed away from the occupants.

After connecting her gadget to some power and control leads, Laura pushed the heavy door shut and locked it securely.  With Morgana still following her, she went to a control station where a monitor showed the interior of the chamber. Slowly, Laura amped up the power, until finally, a blast of plasma erupted from one end of the straight steel rod. "See?" Laura said with a shrug. "The plasma density is about half what I expected, but that's not a surprise because the magnetic confinement field drops as the temperature increases."

Morgana looked at the monitor again. "Why don't you cool the ceramic?"

"Stainless is a poor heat conductor and it's not permeable to the magnetic field." Laura started to shrug, but then her eyes fixed to stare across the room at nothing in particular. "If I ...." The rest of her words were lost as she mumbled to herself, her eyes dancing around in their sockets like they were following equations on a whiteboard; in reality, Laura was visualizing the equations and circuit as if it were written in the air in front of her. "That ... might ... do it," she finally mumbled.

"What might do it?" Morgana was curious. That resulted in Laura launching into a complex description of thermoelectric effects and Peltier cooling and tapping some of the plasma energy, which even though Morgana was pretty tech-savvy, Laura's rapid-fire description left her head spinning.

"So, you think you've solved the problem?" Morgana finally asked, trying to summarize everything she hadn't understood into one simple question.

"Won't know until I try," Laura said with a shrug. From the corner of  her eye, she saw movement, and she turned to see the last two lab-coats leaving, which left her alone with Morgana.

"You were right about the pizza," Morgana observed. "I don't quite understand why ...."

Laura chuckled, shaking her head. "It's only the world's best pizza, bar none! Like - the best gourmet dish combined with the ultimate comfort food!"

"I don't know why everyone makes such a bother," Morgana commented dryly. "It's not like they're serving good fish and chips!"

"So how do you do this?" Laura asked, sounding a bit nervous because she had the typical lab-coat distrust of magic.

"Put the kit you want me to guard on the bench, and we'll get started," Morgana replied.

Laura slid open the drawer on her workstation and took out other components and gadgets she was making, including her neural neutralizers, some expensive tools, and a few other gadgets.

Morgana moved the gadgets and tools a little further apart, before reaching into her bag and getting out some notes and slips of paper. "Is this being recorded?" she asked.

Laura nodded. "Standard practice." She read Morgana's wince. "Just a sec." She rolled over a tall stand, then deployed it as a privacy screen. "Sometimes we get a little paranoid about having our designs copied," she said with a smile. "Security will note that I'm using the screen, and they'll check to make sure nothing is missing from anywhere in the lab. They're kind of paranoid, too."

Morgana held one slip up to show Laura. "I've made up these spell slips already, now I just need to put one under each item and power up the spell."

Laura looked at the slip, then at her items. "It won't damage anything, will it? Or.." she suddenly looked nervous "It doesn't need my blood or anything like that, does it?"

Morgana patted her hand. "No, it's not dangerous, and no blood. There is a version that would tie them all directly to you, and that would need a few drops of your blood. But I decided against that - while it would let you track the stuff directly, I figured having you find whoever had stolen it on your own might not be the safest idea for you."

Laura thought about that. "So how do we find something?"

Morgana finished slipping one of the paper slips under each devise before answering. "You'll need me - well, any mage, but it's easier for me since I set the spell. I figure we should have someone from security as well, then when we follow the trace its official. It's quite likely whoever does this has traps or defenses on wherever they stash their stolen stuff."

"Traps... Bianca's rubbing off on you, isn't she?"

Morgana just grinned. "Hey, to be fair Bianca isn't paranoid, she really does have people out to get her! As long as she leaves my coffee mug alone, I find her wards quite reassuring, actually. Now..." The redhead settled into a more lecturing mode. She assumed Laura's somewhat dubious expression meant OK, and explained her spell and the Magic Law of Contagion and how it connected things. If Morgana had been confused by Laura's techno-babble, Laura was totally lost in her friend's description of magic. "If someone steals a part, there will be a connection we can trace. At least to the part, it won't necessarily lead us to whoever did it unless it's still on them."

Laura nodded. "Ok, that seems straightforward." Then she looked worried. "But what if whoever stole it just destroys it?"

Morgana gave a lopsided grin. "Yeah, if they destroy it would likely make it untraceable. But you tech crew are like magpies, if whoever it is steals something interesting, they'll probably try and examine it or reuse it. So I reckon we have a pretty good chance. Now, step back a bit while I cast the spells."

Laura did as she was told - despite living next door to two mages, she was still a bit uncertain about the whole idea of magic. For her part, Morgana regarded her preparations carefully, then held her hands above the first device, fingers moving slowly. Laura couldn't see anything happening, but the mage seemed satisfied as she repeated the procedure for the other items on the workbench. She stood back and eyed them thoughtfully.

"That should do it, Laura. Now just put them all away - leave the spell slips, I'll take care of them, and we can lock up here."

Laura blinked. "Was that it?" I expected..."

Morgana rolled her eyes. "Not you too! Why does everyone expect magic to be splashy and colorful?"

"I guess I was expecting flashes and puffs of smoke and such," Laura said with a shrug. "But don't put everything away yet; I've got one more, but I've got to get it out of the safe," Laura added hastily.

"A safe?" Morgana was a little surprised.

The blue girl nodded somberly. "It's a little too big to lock in my cabinets," she explained, "and, well, after last night, I'm glad I didn't have it there. It's the working model and all my design notes for the assist I've designed for Mrs. Barton's car."

"That complicated bit of kit you've been babbling about to refit her car doors?" Morgana asked. "Well, when you're not going on about chocolate, anyway."

"Oh, hush! I don't go on about things like that!" She went to a vault-like door about half a square meter in size, set into the stone of one wall. On a keypad, she punched in a number, then scanned her student ID. Following this, she put her thumb on a scanner, then looked into an eyepiece.

"You guys really are paranoid!" Morgana quipped.

Laura shook her head. "Some of the projects are worth millions," she explained. "And some could be dangerous. The labs have a lot of secure storage areas."

"It's not opening," Morgana observed after a couple of seconds of no activity.

"My request for access has been relayed to the security office. They have to enter an access code before the safe will open." As if on cue, an LED next to the keypad turned green, and a soft mechanical sound could be heard as motors drove the locking bolts open. She turned a handle to unfasten the final mechanical bolts, and then tugged the heavy door. She circled from behind the heavy door to retrieve her model, with a curious Morgana walked to her side.

The wail of despair and anguish from the blue girl could be heard hundreds of meters up and down the lab tunnels as she stared.

The safe was empty.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016 - Late Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

The moment Mrs. Horton came into Bianca's room, the girls became silent and looked at her in anticipation. "How is she, Mrs. H?" Bianca asked, her brow wrinkled with concern.

Mrs. Horton grimaced. "Antonia is with her now. The doctor said it was kind of like a very severe emotional attack, like a panic attack, so they gave her a sedative." She looked around the room at Laura's friends, Bianca, Bailey, and Flower.

"Where's Morgana?" Bianca asked, wondering about her roommate.

"She's with Mrs. Cody at security since she was present when Laura discovered the theft," Mrs. Horton replied. "Mrs. Cody told security that this was a very important project to Laura. Has she talked to any of you about it?"

"Um, yeah," Bailey replied, suddenly feeling uneasy. "Why?"

Mrs. Horton instantly recognized the cause of Bailey's reticence. "It's not for security. None of you are suspects. It's for Dr. Markham, so she can understand how much of a psychological blow this was to Laura. The doctor needs to know so she can best help Laura."

"Oh. Well, she's always really excited when she talks about it," Bailey replied. "She's really, really proud of that invention."

"From what she said, I think Mrs. Cody can answer that better than we can," Bianca added. "Laura's always gushing about Mrs. Cody and how good she is in the labs. Laura has told us how good of friends Mrs. Cody and Mrs. Barton are, and how much Mrs. Cody helped her with her design."

"That's what worries Dr. Markham. She's concerned about Laura's mental health, and more specifically, her getting into a serious state of depression."

Bianca and Bailey winced simultaneously, and Mrs. Horton noticed. Prompted by their house-mother, Bailey explained, "After the power thing was swiped," she said uneasily, "Laura was pretty bummed, and said that she wasn't sure being here was worth it if people were going to steal her work and get away with it."

The housemother winced. "That's what I was afraid of. And it sounds like this project was a lot more important to Laura." She looked at the girls individually, meeting them eye to eye. "I want you to promise me that one of you or her other friends will be with her all the time, and that if she says anything that sounds ... bad," she grimaced as she said the word, reluctant to say what she really meant but knowing the girls would understand, "you'll tell me or Dr. Markham immediately. Okay?"

Bailey immediately nodded, but Bianca looked a little hesitant. "Not a sorceror's contract, Bianca," Mrs. Horton continued. "Just a promise that you'll try to help her." With a sigh of relief at not being bound by a sorcerer's contract, Bianca nodded her agreement.

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Friday, September 30, 2016 - Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Despite everyone's efforts, Laura was a wet blanket draped over the normally cheery and lively table mood and discussions at the M3 table. Unusually, Antonia sat with them to support Laura, even though she dared not show that with physical signs like hand-holding or hugging.

Worried, Morgana tried to sound cheery about another one of Laura's projects. "How goes the great chocolate experiment?" she asked.

The blue girl shrugged. "Okay, I guess," she answered without even a hint of enthusiasm.

"I heard that yesterday you met with some genius devisor who went to school here," Tanya noted.

"Yeah. Guy named 'Shine."

"I heard he was really rich," Vic added to the conversation.

"Yeah, that's what Mrs. Cody said," Laura replied.

Koichi looked at Taka, puzzled, and asked him a couple of questions, then Koichi looked at Laura. "Excuse please," he began. "You met man named Shine?" His question sounded almost reverent, as if the name was holy or something.

"You've heard of him?" Morgana asked, surprised.

"Hai," Koichi responded. "In Nihon, very ...." He wrinkled his nose and looked back at Taka, saying a few words. Taka replied, and Koichi turned back. "Is very known-well person. Very good devisor."

"Well known," Bianca corrected him. "We say well-known, not known-well."

"Or famous," Tia added.

"Ah, arigato," Koichi said in thanks for the correction. "Important devisor. One part Father company make biru. Father jōryūsho," he looked at Taka again, and got a correction. "Ah, disutiri?"

"Distillery?" Bianca prompted.

"Hai. Make shochu. Start last year to make uisuki." He grinned. "Father know Shine well. Very famous." He smiled at Laura. "Father come parent day. He talk you about company. Someday, you go to Nihon, Father show you disutiri and other factory parts?"

"Mmm," Laura said noncommittally. "Why bother," she muttered unhappily. "I probably won't be here long anyway." She shook her head, and those around the table could see tears starting to trickle down her cheeks. "It's not worth it," she sobbed. "I make something, and it gets stolen. Someone else is probably going to make money from my invention." She tried to wipe her tears with the back of her sleeve. "I don't know why I came here anyway." The trickle turned into a stream, while around her, her table-mates stared, not sure what to do or how to handle Laura's mood.

After several awkward seconds, Tanya rose from the table, leaving her tray, and walked determinedly out of the cafeteria. Everyone knew where she was going - to get Dr. Markham.

Beneath the table, the little bug captured every single word that was said.

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Friday, September 29, 2016 - After Breakfast
Near Laird Hall, Whateley Academy

The girl listened intently to her phone, biting her lip and pacing nervously. "Dammit, pick up!" she muttered uselessly, as if her sense of urgency would cause others to somehow act upon her needs.

"Silverplate, I have urgent news. The subject had another project stolen from the labs. A major project. She's not taking it well; one of her friends had one of the school counselors come to the cafeteria to talk to the subject, and escorted her to her office. She made a comment about wanting to leave! I'm working to find out who did it, and I'm going to make sure they pay! I promise you, Tante Hilde, that they will pay!"

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Saturday, October 1, 2016 - Evening (across International Date Line)
Small  Club, Osaka, Japan

It took Hideo Taniguchi a few moments to adjust to the interior lights and sound level after entering the small club. The interior was substantially more formal than the average after-hours places that the salary-men of companies gathered for their evening socializing - a tradition which was slowly fading as younger Japanese employees wanted to focus more on families and their own activities. Still, traditions died hard, and Hideo was tradition-bound, as had been his father and his grandfather before him. Tonight, though, was not a night to socialize with his upper managers; at least once every two weeks, he had drinks and a meal with two of his oldest friends and classmates from back in school and university.

"Ah, Hideo-san!" a member of the wait staff called out upon recognizing him. She was small and her graying hair betrayed that she was several years older than Hideo, though how many years older was difficult to judge since she, like most Japanese women, aged quite gracefully. She wore the pleasant smile of a grandmother. "It is good to have you visit my humble club again!"

Hideo smiled and bowed to the woman. "Kiku-san! I am glad to see that it was nothing serious. You are looking as well as ever!"

The older woman dismissed his comment. "Bah! The doctors are too quick to think I'm on my deathbed!" She smiled at one of her favorite customers. "Miyakaza-san and Yamada-san are already here, in your usual place, and Chihiro is your hostess this evening. They are already three drinks ahead of you, and they have been complaining that you are not here to pay your share!"

"Then please make their next drinks your best single-malt scotch!" Hideo laughed. "They will forgive anything if I give them good whiskey!"

Hideo strode easily to meet his friends. In addition to an open area for most customers, the club had several small, more private rooms walled off with traditional doors, and Hideo's friends were in one, sitting at a traditional low table. While their hostess Chihiro wasn't a proper geisha in the usual Japanese sense, she kept their drinks refilled, flirted some, and occasionally sang for her customers, providing a pretty and feminine presence to help the men feel less stressed. Like many women who served in her role, she was aghast at the western notion that equated hostesses with geishas who in turn were associated with prostitution, and all three men would have defended her honor as a gracious lady if the need arose.

"Hideo!" one friend, Haruki Miyakaza sang out when he saw his friend. The other man, Kenzo Yamada, was noticeably less enthusiastic in greeting his friend. As the men conversed and drank, Hideo quickly realized that Kenzo was less conversational than Haruki. The hostess Chihiro was paying more attention to Kenzo than usual, another sign that something was bothering the businessman.

 After several more drinks, Hideo decided to broach the subject. "You seem unhappy, Kenzo," he observed cautiously.

Kenzo shook his head, his features glum. "It is my daughter, Nanami," he reported sadly. "We got a report from the doctor today, and the news was not good."

"Oh? Is she not getting better?" Haruki asked, sobered slightly by his friend's mood. Hideo, too, showed his concern.

Kenzo shook his head. "No. If anything, she's getting worse."

"The doctors can't do anything?" Hideo asked.

Kenzo shook his head again, his expression more sad. "They can operate to remove the part of her brain which they think is causing the seizures," he took a very big drink, obviously trying to drown his sorrow, "but most likely she would be paralyzed and possibly have cognitive issues for the rest of her life."

"My friend," Haruki said, clapping his companion on the back, "you know we will do anything we can, so please do not hesitate to ask for help."

"It is hardest on my wife," Kenzo continued. "Nanami requires constant care, so Aya cannot work, and although she does not speak of it, I can tell she misses daily interaction with friends and co-workers."

"Then I will ask Masumi to visit," Hideo answered quickly.

As the evening progressed and more alcohol was consumed, the conversation wasn't nearly as lively and animated as was usual for the men's get-together, which wasn't at all surprising considering the unfortunately condition of Kenzo's daughter and the heartbreaking news he had gotten that day. The men left earlier than normal after renewing their promise to meet again in the usual two weeks.

As he rode home, Hideo kept thinking back to the conversation. Something was disturbing him, something he felt he should remember, but with the drinks, his brain kept it frustratingly out of mental reach. All through the rest of the evening, it nagged at  his mind, constantly distracting him as he struggled to remember.

In the middle of the night, as his brain cleared the alcohol-induced fog, pieces came together, and he sat up suddenly, wide awake and alert. Masumi awoke, too, startled by her husband's motion. "Is something wrong?" she asked, concerned.

"I must call Koichi!" Hideo answered as he scrambled from bed.

"Can it wait until morning?" Masumi asked, trying to full awaken from a deep but interrupted slumber.

"Koichi should be getting out of classes now. If I wait, it'll be late there!" Hideo insisted firmly.

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Friday, September 29, 2016 - After Breakfast
Secret Squirrels Clubhouse, Whateley Academy

Quentin St.James glanced around the room at all the members, including a couple who were rushing or were evaluating the club. "We've had a serious incident with the subject we've had under observation," he said grimly. "That subject has had an important item stolen earlier, and then had a very significant project prototype stolen some time yesterday. Needless to say, the party who engaged our services is very, very unhappy."

Jimmy Cannes, observing the meeting as he contemplated whether he should apply or not, frowned. Quentin's words sounded eerily like what he'd heard at breakfast only moments ago. He carefully schooled his expression when Quinton looked his way as his gaze swept the room. Surely they weren't observing Laura, were they? Was it just a coincidence, or was Laura being surveilled? If so, something really hinky was going on. He'd need more information before he was certain that it wasn't a coincidence, but what he'd heard already made the hairs on his neck stand up.

"We have been asked to find out who did these thefts as quickly as we can, and if possible, we are directed to retrieve the missing items."

"Why?" Carrie Harper, Mouse, one of the new members being inducted into the club, asked.

"Because that's what the client has engaged us to do," Ed Temple, Mister Blank, explained to the new member. "In the real world of private detective work, it's a common type of request."

"So, what do we do if ... when ... we find the perpetrator?" Sam Verner, Tiptoe, asked uneasily.

"We follow legal procedures and notify the client," Quentin replied easily. "That, and finding the items if we can, are the extent of our responsibility." He frowned, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "We're not 'thugs for hire'," he added sternly. Seeing no further signs of questions, he turned to Mister Blank. "Ed?"

"For you new members, I'm the assigned case lead on this. That's how we operate. Everyone will have a chance to be a case lead in your time here, so don't worry." He looked at the new members and Jimmy. "Don't get so eager - you may find that being a case leader is a royal pain in the ass! Especially when clues are hard to find and leads disappear." He watched Mouse and Tiptoe squirm, but Jimmy was stoically unreadable.

"Okay, let's go over what we know. Both items were stolen from Freshman Gadgeteer Lab B. Both were secured; the first in a locked cabinet, and the second in an assigned high-security safe. In both cases, the lab security video showed nothing."

Jimmy gulped - at this point, he knew they were talking about Laura. The question in his mind was not whether they were looking for her stolen items, but who had engaged them to watch Laura, and why. Now, besides interacting with the Squirrels, he had his own detective work to do.

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Friday, September 30, 2016 - Afternoon
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Horace Bishop stepped back from the diagram he had on the whiteboard in his lab. "Well, that's it," he said conclusively. "That's a flow of the processes, and what equipment we need." Hearing no response, he turned to his project partner. "Laura?"

The blue girl seemed to be zoned; it took a moment for her to realize that her name had been called. "Oh," she said as she refocused herself. "Yeah, that looks good."

Horace frowned. "Is something wrong?" he asked. Like most teenage boys, he was utterly clueless about reading girls' emotions and moods; being a devisor made the problem much worse.

Laura looked at him, then shook her head and lowered her gaze. "Someone ... someone stole ... my ... some of my stuff," she said, fighting a losing battle against tears. "I ... I'm sorry," she said, wiping at her eyes, "I'll pay better attention."

"If Shine can help us with the fermentation," Horace repeated himself, pointing to one of the steps, "we'll still need help with drying, roasting, crushing and winnowing, grinding, and then conching. Since most of that is mechanical, I was thinking of Ian Chapman ...."

"No!!" Laura shot back angrily. "Not him!"

"What?"

"That group he's in ... did that ... mess to my friend Cally!" Laura replied. "I won't work with him or anyone else from his club!"

Horace flinched from her vehemence. "Okay," he said slowly. "What about Lori Sims?"

"Don't know her," Laura replied.

"Sophomore. Gadgeteer, specializes in mechanical gadgets."

Laura thought a moment. "The one who looks like a raccoon?" she asked. "The one some girls call Trash Panda?"

"Yeah," Horace said sounding a little wistful. "She's pretty cute, isn't she? And those other girls are just mean!"

Laura thought another moment. "I'd like to meet her before we decide on anything, but maybe."

"Okay, so we'll talk to Lori," Horace said. He noticed her expression and bloodshot eyes. "Are you okay?"

Laura shook her head. "I'm ... I can't concentrate," she said sadly. "One of my projects ... was going to be a special gift to a friend."

"Security will find it," Horace said with certainty, trying to cheer up Laura. Inwardly, he wasn't so sure. Lots of equipment and projects were stolen in the labs, far more than most would admit. It was a fact of life, and some years it got so bad that gadgeteers never left their projects in the lab if they could help it, but slept with them in their cottage rooms.

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Friday, September 30, 2016 - Afternoon
Emerson Cottage, Whateley Academy

Using a free class period to exercise his talent, Koichi tried to ignore the buzzing of his cell phone because he was at work on a large sketch, but he knew that the only people calling him would be his parents. He saw the caller ID tag the call as his family; automatically, Koichi looked at his watch and then did a quick calculation. It was nearly two in the morning in Japan.

Koichi answered. <Father.>

<Koichi, I have a very important task for you.> Hideo got right to the point.

Koichi frowned. <It is very late, father. Is something wrong?>

<No, no,> Hideo retorted. <Listen - I need to talk with your friend Samuels-san. Do you understand?>

<Why, father?> Koichi couldn't help but ask. <What do I tell her? She is an American. She will be curious.>

<It is ... private business,> Hideo replied. <Tell her it is technical. It is important to help a friend's daughter.>

<Hai, Father,> Koichi replied, almost automatically half-bowing as if he was answering his father in person. <I will tell her.>

<Good. Are classes going well?>

<Yes, Father.>

<And your other task?> Hideo asked.

<I am working on it, Father,> Koichi stretched the truth until it was nearly transparent. <I will send you a message after I have talked to her with her schedule. She is in the labs very much. When will be the best time to call you? Counting the time difference, of course.>

<Time doesn't matter. If it is working hours, call my office phone. If it isn't work hours, call my cell phone.>

<I will try to call before midnight,> Koichi answered. <Or after six in the morning.>

<Time does not matter. If you wake me, so be it. This is very important! Do you understand? Call me no matter what time of the day it is.>

<Hai!> Koichi replied sharply, his eyes wide at his father's unheard-of request. It was so unlike his father's normal behavior. <I will find her and arrange for you to talk to her.>

<Very good, son. Now it is late here. Work hard at your studies.>

<Hai, Father.> Koichi heard the phone connection break, and he scowled while wrinkling his forehead. This was a very unusual request from his father. And he'd been given permission to interrupt his father at any time? That was absolutely unheard of. Well, he would comply. All he has to do is talk to Laura - if he could find her. She was very busy in the labs, and didn't always come to meals.

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Friday, September 30, 2016 - After Dinner
Campus Quad, Whateley Academy

"Laura-san!"

The urgent and familiar voice rang out behind the blue girl as she slowly walked toward Kane Hall. Security had demanded that she fill out even more paperwork and give more statements, as well as turn over copies of any design notes or other data which might identify her stolen parts, and another security team wanted to work with her at her lab bench to look for more clues. She stopped and turned, not surprised at all to see Koichi walking very quickly to catch up to her.

The boy scooted closer, then half-bowed, looking a little flustered or embarrassed. "Excuse interrupting, please," he said.

Laura shook her head, smiling. "Not quite, Koichi," she gently corrected the Japanese boy. "Please excuse me for interrupting."

Koichi nodded eagerly, half-bowing a couple more times. "Arigato gozaimasu," he said. "Thank you much."

"You'll get it," Laura said. "Now, why the rush?"

"Need to talk you please."

"You could have talked to me at dinner," Laura noted, wondering why the boy wanted to talk to her in private. "You ... aren't going to ask me on a date or something, are you?" If he did, she didn't know how she'd politely decline without offending him. Though he seemed at times to be like a shadow, or an eager puppy, he seemed to be a nice kid.

"Ah, no!" Koichi said, eyes wide. "No date! No. I ... have private matter to talk to you."

Laura knew enough about how girls operated to know that she could use his denial of wanting a date - with its implication that she wasn't worthy of a date - to totally humiliate him, but she also knew that Koichi was learning his way around American students and customs. She glanced around, seeing very few people. "Okay, I'm listening. I assume it's something you didn't want to discuss at breakfast."

Koichi slowly digested her words. "Hai," he said when he understood her meaning. "Yes. Father call me this afternoon. You ... in lab busy."

"So you couldn't find me to talk this afternoon, right?" Laura prompted.

"Yes. Father says important. Private. He wants you call." Koichi tried to explain.

"Your father wants me to call him?" Laura repeated, astonished at what the boy seemed to be saying.

"Yes, Father wants to talk. He says very important."

Laura frowned a bit. "Did he say what it was about?"

"No," Koichi said. "Just he want you call. He says important, call any time. Night, day - no matter. You call," Koichi reported. "Work, home, sleep - no matter. He wants you call any time."

"I don't know," Laura hesitated. "I mean, your father is important, and ... and there's cultural and language differences. I'd feel kind of awkward calling him."

Koichi nodded his understanding. "I make call. Introduce, then you talk. No problems, okay?"

Laura cocked one eyebrow. Somehow, any time any of her friends suggested that there would be no problems, there were problems. "I guess so."

The Japanese boy smiled. "You call now?"

Laura shook her head, scowling. "I have to meet Security ... about my things which were stolen from my lab. We'll figure out when you're not busy and I'm not busy and we can call."

Koichi nodded with a smile. Getting Laura to agree to talk to her father would definitely meet father's approval. "Okay."

"And we'll try to call when it's not the middle of the night in Japan," Laura added.

Koichi's eyes widened. "Father say ..."

Laura cut him off, shaking her head. "Unless your father said it's a matter of life and death, calling in the middle of the night is just rude. Not polite at all. We'll figure out when we can call when he's not sleeping, okay?"

Koichi nodded again. "He not say life or death matter."

Laura nodded. "I'll call you when I get done with Security, and we'll arrange a time, okay?"

"Hai!" Koichi responded, nodding enthusiastically and grinning. His father wanted Laura to work for him in Japan, and her polite manners would do well, unlike the stereotypical brash American. Not that he intended to follow through his father's other plan. Laura was not interested, period. If she went to work for his father, it would be because she wanted to, not because she'd been tricked into a marriage with family obligations to work at the company.

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Saturday, October 1, 2016 - Morning
Private Lab, Boston

A nondescript man in a labcoat hefted a large box onto a rare vacant spot on a lab bench. "What have we here?" he asked himself, almost bubbling with glee as he began to carefully but quickly open the box. It was wrapped for shipping, with a variety of markings and labels, including several prominent 'fragile' labels. Despite that, it had no markings one would expect from the prominent shipping and parcel companies, so its route to the lab was somewhat of a mystery.

Slowly, the paper and cardboard container and internal shipping padding opened, revealing a model of a car. The man frowned deeply; his contact had promised him something very valuable, but this was just a model like any other. It was then that he noticed a fat manila envelope in the packing materials, so he picked it up and opened it.

"This is a very special retrofit to a car," the first paper read in large handwritten letters. "All the design info is in the package as well."

The man set aside the paper and dug into the envelope. There were several sketches of a device in various states of operation, and as he looked through them, the scowl disappeared from his face. He got to a computer disk, and he set aside the papers and went to his computer. As he perused the documents, drawings, and notes on the disk, he was amazed at how complete the schematics and notes were. Whoever had been developing this was very skilled and extremely thorough. He grinned - that would make his task extremely easy.

After briefly perusing the notes, he went back to the model. The power switch wasn't obvious, but when he activated it, the mechanism went through a very detailed and precise operational routine, and it repeated it in reverse when he cycled the power again.

The man glanced at several other piles of equipment on his workbenches, then grinned at the model.  Unlike all the others, this one had gigantic potential, and could make him a fortune. With one more wistful glance at the detailed model, he picked up his phone and placed a call.

"Harvey? Ted. Say, listen, a really good one came in today's shipment." The man listened for a moment. "No, this has huge potential. It's a car assist for disabled people, and it could be a game changer. I'll take a couple of pictures of the model and drawings, and you get running on a patent search."

The man waited only a moment before yelling into the phone, "Of course I'm going to patent it! But this is hot, and we can't wait. I want to start the paperwork right now, while you get going on a search! If there's nothing like it, I want to file the application on Monday first thing!"

"No, Harv, you don't want to know where I get them. Just do the search ASAP, and you'll get your cut."  He waited a moment. "Good, good. I'll get the pics to you about a minute after we hang up."

After cutting the connection, the man displayed some schematics and drawings on the computer and took some screen-shots. Then he took a few more pictures of the model in action. Done, he attached the pictures to a message and sent it to his contact before sitting back down and admiring the craftsmanship of the model.

"You, my friend, are going to make me a very rich man!" he chortled."

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Saturday, October 1, 2016 - Morning
Meeting Room, Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

The blue girl looked at her watch for about the fiftieth time, then winced. "Are you sure it won't be too late? Or too early? Or whatever?" she asked nervously.

Koichi shook his head. "Time not matter," he said again.

Hikaru, borrowed to help translate just in case, shook her head. "With the time difference, it's early in the day in Japan, so it won't be impolite."

Laura winced, then looked at Koichi, who was grinning and nodding eagerly. "Father say - call important, time not." He spoke in Japanese to Hikaru, who nodded.

"His father is expecting a call at any time that it's convenient for you. Koichi doesn't know why, but he said his father conveyed that it is a rather urgent matter."

"Okay, I guess," Laura said grudgingly.

Koichi nodded, then put his phone on a table they were seated around, switching to speaker-phone mode and then selecting a number from the phone's memory.

<Koichi?> a man's voice on the other end answered after only a couple of rings. Presumably, it was Koichi's father.

<Yes, father.>

<Are you with Samuels-san?> he asked. Laura knew enough to guess that Koichi's father was asking about her.

<Yes, father.>

<Good.>  The voice switched to English. "Samuels-san, I am honored that you would speak with me."

Laura flinched; the formality of Japanese people was a little off-putting to her more casual preferences. Even her father's business dealings were often far too formal for her liking. "My friend indicated that you had a matter of some urgency, and that I may be of some service to you."

"From what I saw in your lab," Hideo Taniguchi began, "you are very skilled gadget maker. Daughter say Gadget Girl," he said in halting English.

Laura worried about whether the conversation was going to take forever, even as she blushed about being called a Gadget Girl, as if that was special. It was a little too reminiscent of the misadventure with Japanese fans that she'd only too recently survived. She glanced at Hikaru, who was smiling knowingly. "I am honored that you would speak so highly of my unworthy works," she said, having been given a quick tutoring lesson in Japanese etiquette.

"You have much ... skill at gadgets," Hideo said.

"Mr. Taniguchi," Laura interrupted politely, "I have a friend here who is Japanese and very fluent in English. If you would prefer, she can translate so we avoid any miscommunication, and that I do not unduly impose on you. My friend and translator is Myoujin Hikaru,"

<Voice of the Heavens?> Mr. Taniguchi said with a gasp. <I am ... I am honored, Myoujin-sama, ... that you would use your time to help a mere businessman with my insignificant problem.>

Hikaru rolled her eyes at what she considered too high a level of obeisance. <I wish to help my classmate, Laura, and I am also pleased to help fellow Japanese in any small way that I can.  It is, after all, a duty, of all Japanese, ne?>

Hideo spoke again, and Hikaru translated. "Taniguchi-san would like to know if you have ever been to Japan, and if not, have you considered visiting the Land of the Rising Sun?"

The surprised expression on Laura's face told the whole story - this was supposed to be an urgent discussion about some problem, or so Koichi had intimated, but at that moment the conversation was about tourism in Japan? Hikaru read her expression, and after a brief smirk at Laura's innocence about the ways of Japanese manners and interpersonal dialog, she mouthed the word 'politeness' to Laura.

"I hadn't ever thought about it before this fall," Laura confessed aloud, still puzzled about the strange direction of conversation. "After the whole Gadget Girl Heroes thing, I started to wonder if maybe it would be fun to visit there someday."

Hikaru translated again, but based on the speed of Mr. Taniguchi's answer, Laura began to believe that he understood English pretty well. "Perhaps you will have an opportunity to visit Japan soon," he said in Japanese, and Hikaru translated.

Laura nodded. "I think it would be nice," she said, but then she frowned a moment. "But I thought we were here to talk about something urgent, and I don't think the Japanese tourist industry was urgent."

There was a pause after Hikaru spoke, and then Mr. Taniguchi spoke again, a bit slower, with some strain in his voice. "Taniguchi-san has a small problem that he thinks you could help solve," Hikaru translated.

Laura's eyes widened considerably. "I would be glad to help in any way I could," she began, "but I'm just a freshman Gadgeteer! Surely there are a lot of very good engineers in Japan who could help him better than I could!"

Almost immediately, with a tiny smile at how Laura had picked up the need for politeness and humility, Hikaru translated into Japanese.

Again, Hikaru translated. After several short back-and-forth exchanges, she finally understood the gist of what Mr. Taniguchi was saying. "Mr. Taniguchi said that he remembers your neural device, and the conversation where you two discussed that it might be useful for controlling seizures."

"Yes. I was impressed by your insight into possible uses of technology," she complimented him. Then her eyes widened in shock. "Are you having medical issues? If you needs some help that my neural neutralizer can help with, I'll be glad to help!"  Her urgency and eagerness to help was unmistakable, even if Hideo didn't completely understand her English perfectly. "I don't need to go to Japan for that; I can make a copy of my neural neutralizer and get it sent in a few days."

Again, there was a flurry of Japanese. "It's not for him. Mr. Taniguchi has a college friend whose daughter suffers from seizures, and her condition is getting worse. He wishes to help his friend, and was hoping that your neural device might provide relief to the girl. That's why he's willing to pay expenses for your device."

"Oh, I can't charge him for that!" Laura objected. "It's not a big deal, and I'm earning enough from babysitting to pay for the parts. I'll have to make a new model that I can tune, so it would match her neural patterns, but ...."

Hikaru got busy translating again. "He suggests that you will need to come to Japan. It would take much time for his best engineers to understand it well enough to tune it for the girl. Since you are the expert on the invention, you are best qualified to tune it for her."

"Oh," Laura reacted. "That makes sense."

Hideo spoke more, obviously having understood enough to know what Laura meant. "Since you will have to come to Japan to tune the device, I will of course pay all of your expenses," Hikaru translated.

Laura paused a moment to think again. "A trip to Japan ... that's going to interrupt my classes. I might be able to get excused for this trip. Maybe on Thanksgiving break, if that's not too late?"

"Do you have a break in your classes sooner?" Hideo said through Hikaru's translation.

Hikaru raised an eyebrow, then spoke softly. <Taniguchi-san, is the situation truly desperate?>

There was a long moment of awkward silence on the phone line, then Mr. Taniguchi spoke again, in Japanese. Hikaru was sobered by what he said, and her eyes narrowed fractionally in a nearly unnoticeable display of concern before she translated. "The daughter's condition is bad and worsening. If something isn't done very soon, her seizures will become be life-threatening. Surgery would stop the seizures, but would most likely cause irreversible damage."

Laura winced. "Okay, I'll get Mrs. Cody to help me talk to the Headmaster so I can plan a trip. I think he'll understand."

"Laura," Hikaru got the blue girl's attention, "do you think your current design could be used - perhaps on a short-term basis?" Laura gawked at the Japanese girl, who repeated the question in Japanese for Taniguchi-san.

The suggestion surprised Laura, both by its insight and because she hadn't thought of it. After several moments where Laura's focus shifted into gadgeteer-brain-space, she winced, then nodded. "It should help," she replied. "It would dampen the most serious seizures, even if it wasn't tuned specifically for the girl. It'd probably knock her unconscious, though, so it isn't a good long-term solution." She saw a look of hesitance before Hikaru translated. "It's been very thoroughly tested, and it wouldn't be harmful. I can send one to him. That would maybe buy some time."

"Perhaps for short-term use for the worst seizures?" Hideo speculated through Hikaru's translation.

"That would probably work," Laura agreed after a moment's thought. "We could set up a video-conference so I could consult to make sure it's set at the minimum effective power. Her family and doctors are going to have to be careful not to overuse it. The current model is not selective - it'll blank all neural impulses, so it'd be like knocking her unconscious for a few seconds. It was designed for self-defense, not therapy," she added.

"He'll make sure that you are consulted to adjust the power setting," Hikaru translated after Hideo answered Laura.

"I'll have to reassemble the power converter," Laura explained. "I can probably get it sent by next weekend." She saw Hikaru's- eyebrows rise again. "It'll only take an hour or so to make another one for me for self-defense."

Hikaru explained to Mr. Taniguchi, then she thought. <This will be difficult to ship through American and Japanese customs,> she observed, <since it could be viewed as a weapon, even though it's designed strictly for self-defense. I will request our consul in Boston pick it up so it can be sent in a diplomatic pouch. That will prevent any ... unfortunate ... bureaucratic delays. I will also request of Abe-dono to have the proper agencies classify Laura's invention as a medical device to preclude future ... misunderstandings.>

<Thank you, Myoujin-sama! That will be most helpful!>

Hikaru looked at Laura. "I told Taniguchi-san that I'd arrange a diplomatic courier, to avoid senseless bureaucracies on both ends, and I'll make sure that the regulatory agencies classify it as a medical device."

"That's a good idea," Laura agreed. "So then I can start planning a trip on the Thanksgiving break and not miss have to miss any classes." She sighed. "Although mom and my sister will miss me ....  But this is more important, so ...."

<Taniguchi-san, if Laura's current neural neutralizer works for the worst seizures, would it be reasonable to postpone her to travel until our Winter Break, which starts on December 18? That it would give Laura much more time to make sure the adjustments are accurate,> Hikaru suggested. When Mr. Taniguchi agreed to that strategy, Hikaru translated to English for Laura.

The blue girl looked less than thrilled. "That would work out better technically," she said, "but ...." She winced, but then shook her head, her expression firming. "Mom and Julie will understand that the girl's life is important, and that we can spend time together later." She interrupted Hikaru before the Japanese girl could translate. "Don't tell him that! The girl's life is too important!"

"I understand family," Hideo interrupted the two girls, speaking in English. "You ... bring family. Bring mother and sister. You have good holiday in Japan," he said as if it was already a done deal.

Laura's eyes went wide. She'd hoped that he hadn't heard her protest. "But that'll cost a fortune!" she protested.

"Bah!" Mr. Taniguchi cut off her protest. "I own company. Trip ... small matter. Cost not important. Helping friend worth price, no matter how much."

"I guess," Laura stammered, not quite believing what was transpiring in this conversation. "I'll  have to check with Mom first," she added.

<Taniguchi-san, I would be more than honored to arrange for Laura and her family to travel with me as I will return to Japan on the Winter Break. My home is a bit empty, after all ...,> Hikaru said to Hideo.

Taniguchi paused for a moment, then he replied. <I would be grateful for your assistance. I do insist on helping with accommodations. As I understand, you have a fine apartment, but it is still an apartment that would be crowded with extra guests, and your apartment is not in Osaka where the girl lives.>

<We'll work out the details, Taniguchi-san, and please, call me Hikaru.  Kurenai will contact your assistant to work out details, ne?>  Hikaru smiled slightly again as she turned to Laura, who was looking a bit puzzled at the rapid fire Japanese.

"Laura, would you please contact your mother and see if she and your sister would be enjoy a trip to Japan on our Winter Break?  All expenses paid, of course, and I would love to have your company on the trip."  Hikaru paused.  "I already have Tia coming so... more the merrier, I believe?"  The last came out a bit odd to Laura's ears, but she couldn't place exactly why.

Laura nodded. "Okay, I'll talk to her."

"We will travel first-class on JAL," Hikaru added, "and Mr. Taniguchi will arrange your stay in a very good hotel, too."

Laura winced at the cost implications. Japan was notoriously expensive; lodging for her, her mother, and her sister, plus the airline tickets, was going to be far more than she'd ever afford.

"I look forward to the trip," Laura said, smiling but having an ominous premonition that her words were some kind of jinx.

"Thank you, thank you," Mr. Taniguchi said, and Laura imagined that he was bowing to his phone as customs dictated he would have done in person. "I am in your debt for doing this favor for me and my friend."

Hikaru held up her arm, and Kurenai appeared, hovering over Hikaru's wrist computer. She bowed to Laura and then held up a sign that read, "Say no. Say it is my honor to help all those who can be helped.'.  Kurenai flipped the sign with 'Also, don't worry about cost.  It's covered.'

Laura gawked a moment, then spoke. "No, Taniguichi-san. It is my honor to be able to help those who need help." She turned to Hikaru. "Please tell him that I will call him when the device is shipped, and I will make myself available at any time to consult with her doctors to help them use the device."

Hikaru translated, and after a few pleasantries, they ended the call.

The Japanese girl tilted her head.  "You aren't to worry about the cost, Laura." She shrugged.  "First, even if I don't give into the Prime Minister's request to fly on a Gulfstream, JAL for ten or so people isn't that costly, and you're doing Hideo a major favor.  Besides,"  she had a wry smile as she shrugged, "to us, money isn't everything.  Friends and family are."

"But ...," Laura started to protest.

"I can assure you, Taniguchi-san can easily afford this, Kami... I can."  Hikaru smiled slightly, the smile not reaching her eyes.  "So don't worry about it."  Laura still was trying to figure out what the odd tone and body language of the Japanese RA was hinting at.

After they finished the call, Laura escorted Hikaru and Koichi out of Poe. "I can't believe what I'm getting myself into," she said softly.

"You'll love Japan," Hikaru said with a smile.  "I think it would help you to learn more about my nation, and perhaps some basic Japanese. I could recommend some books that might be helpful?" She paused as Laura considered the suggestion. "I'll be able to answer some questions, of course. I'm certain that Kasai-sensei would love to expound on Japanese culture and language as well."

"I hope so," Laura noted, a bit worried that she wouldn't be able to adequately copy the politeness that she'd heard expressed in the phone conversation. She didn't want to embarrass herself in Japan, nor did she want to make her host feel awkward due to her American manners.  Hikaru's suggestion of books and possible in-person discussion of Japan was actually a very good one, and Laura was inclined to follow, though she was reluctant to take too much of Hikaru's time. She already owed her for the furisode, and though she was certain that the Japanese girl was generous almost to a fault, Laura didn't want to be seen as taking advantage. Talking with Kasai-sensei would be a good start. But would that hurt Hikaru's feelings? Laura was going to have to think this through for a bit before she decided on a course of action.

Koichi was silent, but was thinking deeply. His sister was a pain to him; if he could show her that it was through his efforts that a noted Gadget Girl Hero was coming to help father, she'd be humbled, even if only a little bit.

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Saturday, October 1, 2016 - After Lunch
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

"I don't think it's going to work," Bailey, Laura's room-mate, said uneasily. She and Laura were at Laura's lab bench, with Vic, Tanya, and Jimmy with her for moral support.

"But you can sense the emotions and feelings and stuff from things, right?" Tanya asked.

"Yeah, but the part that's missing - I won't be able to feel that," Bailey retorted.

"You found the missing earring," Laura shot back hopefully.

"That's different," Bailey said with a frown. "It's ... it's hard to explain. It's like ... like I could sense when the missing one was separated from the pair. The two ... it's like ... they were intertwined. The emotions on them were synchronized, so ... it's like when I read them, they were in stereo. When the one went missing, it's like it went to mono." She shook her head. "I don't know. I can't explain it. My teachers are trying to figure it out, too."

"Well, at least you can give it a try," Tanya encouraged Bailey.

Nervously, carefully, Bailey picked up the new model of Laura's neural neutralizer, it's shell open and a large component visibly missing. She concentrated, closing her eyes, and her expression visibly changed. "Okay, I'm picking up a lot of your emotions, Laura," she reported. "Concentration and focus, eagerness, intermittent frustration, intense joy ...."

"Probably when you had some technical issues," Vic noted, "and happiness when you solved them?"

"That kind of nails how I work," Laura confirmed.

"There's ... something foreign," Bailey reported. "Anger, hatred ... of girls? A sense of intrusion in a special space?"

"Maybe the thief is a misogynistic bastard?" Jimmy suggested.

"That explains more than a few of the guys in the labs," Laura noted bitterly, unhappy of the reminder that some of her fellow lab-denizens were less than polite, and some even very overt in their dislike of her presence in the lab. Of course, that wasn't like Horace, or Kosuke, who was obviously smitten by Laura.

"Any sense of guilt?" Jimmy asked. "Or shame? Anything that might suggest remorse or a guilty conscience?"

Bailey shook her head. "No. More a sense of ... entitlement?" She wrinkled her nose. "Like ... he's entitled to steal other people's stuff maybe?" She concentrated a few more seconds. "Anger at freshmen having better lab space? A sense of persecution that they're getting help from staff, maybe?"

"That's not a lot to go on," Vic noted.

Bailey focused another few moments. "Whoever took it - it was around dinnertime. He's feeling rushed - like he has to finish the job quickly and get to dinner so he won't be a suspect. And ... something else. Something ... that turns off?" She put down the neural neutralizer, shaking her head. "Sorry. That's all I can get."

Laura sighed. "Thanks for trying. It was worth a shot."

"I think you can rule out any exemplars, though," Bailey added. Seeing the eyebrows of her compatriots rise, she continued, "Whoever took it is angry at the 'beautiful people' and at the same time extremely envious."

"Let me lock up the rest of my stuff," Laura said unenthusiastically, "and then we can try to find something fun to do." The fact that she wasn't interested in working in the lab caused her friends' jaws to drop in shock. That was so unlike Laura that it emphasized how depressed she was over having her projects stolen.

As she finished locking up her workbench, a disturbance at the lab door caused all activity to cease.

"Okay, everyone, please stay calm," a burly security sergeant ordered.

Right behind the sergeant was one of the lab supervisors. "Okay, I know this is unusual," a balding, pudgy faculty member, wearing a distinctive tie-dyed labcoat and speaking in a thick Scottish burr, began, "and this isn't to imply anything against anyone, but security wants to conduct a search of your lab spaces for some stolen property."

"That will include a search of everyone here," the sergeant said, stepping aside so three of the security staff could enter the room. "Place any backpacks, briefcases, or satchels in a line in front of Officer Hales." The designated officer stepped to one side, lifting his hand slightly to indicate that he was Hales. "After that, line up single-file. Officer Schmidt will do a pat-down of all the male students, and Officer McFarlane will pat down the female students. When you have finished, you will take your personal belongings and move to the hall."

"I'm sorry we have to do this," the supervisor said, "but we have to stop thievery. The quicker you cooperate, the sooner we'll get this unpleasantness over and you can return to work.  I will have to unlock your workbenches and safes," he added.

The search took half an hour; obviously, security and the lab staff were used to conducting searches and pat-downs, which didn't cheer Laura any. The only reason they'd be so efficient was because theft in the labs was common. Once her lab bench was relocked, Laura and her friends trudged out of the lab and down the tunnels.

Despite their efficiency, the guards didn't spot a tiny bump on a zipper on Laura's backpack. Laura and her friends hadn't spotted it, either.

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Saturday, October 1, 2016 - After Dinner
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Accompanied by her roommate, Laura walked into the security offices in Kane Hall. Her expression was a mixture of gloomy and irritated. "Okay, I'm here," she announced to the duty officer. "What do you want?" She wasn't in a mood for pleasantries. Helping Vanessa with Valerie had been difficult because her special project for Vanessa had been stolen, and Vanessa's power-chair was a brutal reminder of that.

"See the sergeant, room four," the duty officer said in a thoroughly bored tone.

With Bailey at her side, Laura strode into the sergeant's office. "You sent for me?"

The sergeant nodded. "We found something that I believe belongs to you," he reported. "Follow me." He stood and walked out of the office to another room, which was a small ante-room to a large, securely-caged room.

"Item ...," the sergeant paused and looked at a paper he'd brought from his desk, "item four-six dash two two seven dash eight one three."

A bored officer inside the evidence locker nodded, then retrieved a medium-sized, bulging manila envelope, which he handed to the sergeant through an opening in the cage door. The sergeant opened the envelope and pulled out an item, which was sealed inside a plastic bag.

"My powerpack!" Laura practically screamed. "You ... you found my powerpack!"

"It was found in another student's workbench," the sergeant added. "It matches the description and technical dimensions you provided in the report, and a lab supervisor confirmed that it is indeed your work." He grabbed a tablet computer which the officer inside the cage was holding out to him. "Please sign, acknowledging receipt of your item."

"At least I can work on my neural neutralizer again!" Laura said, part of her gloomy mood dissipated by security's recovery of her part. She scrawled her signature on the tablet. "Anything else?"

The sergeant shook his head. "No, that's all. You may go. I'll close out the security reports and e-mail you a copy."

From the doorway, Laura turned back to the sergeant, having thought of something. "If it's not against the rules, can you tell me where you found it?"

"Lab B-seven, workspace four," the duty sergeant reported.

Laura's face clouded again. "That bastard!" she practically screamed in fury. She stormed from the office and to the elevators to the lab tunnels, with Bailey chasing to catch up.

"Laura, don't be hasty!" Bailey pleaded with her roommate, following her all the way to a lab in tunnel B.

The blue girl stomped across the lab, pausing to hand the still-bagged part to Bailey. "You ... you bastard!" Laura screamed at the boy at bench four, her supposed-partner Horace. He'd turned partway toward the furious girl when his cheek stung from her sharp slap. "You ... you pretended to work with me ... so you could steal my stuff, is that it?"

"What?" the stunned boy asked in confusion. "I already explained ...."

Laura didn't let him finish. "Security told me they found my powerpack in your desk! Thief!" she turned, and fighting both fury and heartbreak, stormed from the lab, tears streaming down her pale blue cheeks. Behind her, Horace stood in shock.

"But ... I didn't steal it!" Horace protested after the departing angry girl. "Someone must have hidden it in my workbench when security started looking! Security checked me out; I've got a solid alibi for the entire day that it was reported stolen!""

Bailey shook her head. "Laura's really upset right now," she explained to Horace. "This wasn't the only thing that was stolen; her other project that was swiped is a lot more important to her. I'll try talking to her after she calms down." She looked evenly at the unhappy boy. "So, what's your 'air tight' alibi?"

Horace grimaced. "I'm allergic to blueberries," he explained, starting to blush. "They make me have a really bad rash and ... they really upset my entire digestive tract. I ... I was at Doyle - half-sedated to keep me from going crazy from the itching, and I had an IV to keep me from dehydrating from ... you know."

Bailey managed to keep from chuckling. "Yeah, I can see that being in Doyle would give you an alibi." She shook her head. "If you're so allergic to them, why did you eat them?"

Horace frowned. "The muffins were supposed to have artificial blueberries," he admitted sheepishly. "I checked - they always make them that way. They're supposed to be made that way. Evidently, someone new on the kitchen staff put in real blueberries by mistake."

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Saturday, October 1, 2016 - Late Evening
Secret Squirrels Clubhouse, Whateley Academy

James looked around the clubhouse; most members were there, as were a couple of students who were considering joining the club. "Well, Ed?" he asked the assigned case leader.

Ed shrugged. "We still have a mystery," he commented.

"How?" Mouse asked, perplexed. "Security caught the thief and recovered the stolen part. Sounds to me like case-closed!"

"He's got an air-tight alibi," Jimmy Cannes, one of the prospective students who was checking out the Intelligence Corps of Cadets, reported.

Quentin nodded, smiling approvingly. "Are we sure of that? Everyone claims to have an alibi."

One girl stood. "I checked his alibi with Doyle. Horace Bishop spent the day in Doyle recovering from severe reaction bordering on anaphylactic shock and diarrheal dehydration due to accidental ingestion of an allergen."

"So he was set up," Mouse indicated, a little deflated from having overlooked a factor in their recordings and reports. "So now what?"

Daniel Parker, a junior Poesie who was sitting to one side of the clubhouse in front of a computer, spoke up. "The clue is later in the audiotape of the subject." He selected a file and then started it playing, turning up the volume.

"Laura, the thief was pleased and eager to put the part in his workbench, but then there's panic about being caught by security. There's a strong desire of hiding it in someone else's workbench - someone he hates and can set up - and he can recover it after the heat is off. He's changing direction, and is certain where he's going." There was a long pause. "Then ... nothing."

Jimmy made an urgent note to himself that he was going to have to let Laura know that she was being spied on, in a way that didn't tip off the Squirrels.

"So?" Ed asked around the room.

"The perp's lab is in the other direction from Horace Bishop," Mouse suggested.

"And it's an upperclassman who has experience with Horace," Caroline 'Violet' Voight, the club tech genius, said with certainty. "It's very unlikely that a freshman wouldn't yet have developed animosity toward  Horace, but an upperclassman would have had at least a year."

"So that narrows things down," Ed reported. He turned toward a senior girl, Grace McCoy. "Any luck with the security videos?"

Grace nodded. "One of our prospective members," she nodded toward Jimmy, "noticed something odd on the tapes." She fiddled with her laptop, and the screen was copied to a projector and shown on one wall of the clubhouse. More fiddling showed two camera views side-by-side. "These are two adjacent cameras looking down the tunnel. Notice on the left, there's a student walking down the tunnel toward the subject's lab." For a few seconds, she let the scenes play.

"He didn't appear in the next camera," Violet said, scowling. "Side tunnel?"

"No."

Jimmy frowned. "How do you have access to the security cameras? Aren't they pretty tightly encoded?"

"Someone in the Masterminds years ago made a decoding gadget. The cadets at that time felt it necessary to ... confiscate ... the device so it wouldn't be used for nefarious purposes," Grace said, smirking. "And it shows that the cameras were all working perfectly."

"So ... an invisibility spell, maybe?" Quentin speculated.

"Why would a mage want a technologically advanced power supply?" Mouse asked.

"Exactly," Grace said. She glanced at Jimmy. "Jimmy, here, seems to have a knack for thinking outside the box. He gave me an idea." She clicked on her computer, and once again there was a scene. This time, a student walked past the camera, but within a couple of seconds of him being out of sight, there was a momentary blurring on the camera, then it cleared again.

"Is that a clue?" one of the boys asked.

"Go ahead and explain it, Jimmy," Grace said. The fact that she was willing to give credit to him for his suggestion impressed Jimmy. He'd known too many people who would have hogged credit for themselves.

Jimmy Cannes winced, not liking the spotlight, and his theory was quite unorthodox, so he was really opening himself up to embarrassment. But ....  "I remember an old Western movie. A group was planning a bank robbery, but the bank had windows opening out onto the street so the inside of the bank was clearly visible. They hung a large painting of the back of the bank, so to the outside it looked like everything was normal, but behind the painting, they could rob the bank." He shook his head. "It was a silly plot, but ...."

"So ... someone put up a scene in front of the camera?"

Grace shook her head. "There would be no light on the fake image so it would be a black spot, and placing it would have caused some obvious distortion." She smirked. "The answer is even cleverer. The momentary distortion on this camera angle, and on several others around the subject's lab and workbench, is caused by a very small, high-resolution transparent LED screen being put in front of the camera. Until it's activated, it's like a small window. When activated, it displays a scene of the tunnel with nobody in it, so it looks perfectly normal."

"Is that possible?" Mouse asked skeptically. She wasn't a tech genius and was dubious of the explanation.

"For an opto-electronics genius, it'd be child's play," Grace replied with confidence. "In fact," she said smugly as she held up a small plastic bag, "the thief didn't have an opportunity to retrieve all of his gadgets. It's hard to see because it's so small and mostly transparent, but I found one of them on one of the cameras inside the subject's lab. From the size of its power supply, the gadget should be good for about twenty minutes tops."

"So ... we're looking for an upperclassman, male, who dislikes Horace Bishop, who probably dislikes girls in the labs, and who has talent in opto-electronics?"

Ed frowned. "I think I know who the perp is," he said firmly.

Quentin and Grace nodded. "We're probably thinking of the same person," Grace said.

"Who?" Mouse asked eagerly.

"A very important factor when investigating is to be quite certain before you start lobbing accusations," Ed mildly rebuked Mouse. "False allegations could get us in serious trouble, and they could gravely damage an individual's reputation."

Quentin looked at Grace. "I think we need to pay a visit to someone in Tunnel section C."

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Sunday, October 2, 2016 - After Dinner
Labs Beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Jimmy, Bailey, Morgana, and Tanya walked purposefully into the lab, causing a bit of a stir, but Laura didn't notice; she was bent over her workbench using a high-powered magnifier and micro-soldering apparatus to work on her newest neural neutralizer.

"Laura?" Bailey called when the friends stopped behind the blue girl.

"Just a sec, Bailey," Laura replied, not looking up from her work. For a few more seconds, there were miniscule puffs of solder flux vaporizing, and then Laura straightened, setting the micro-solderer down. "Yes?" she asked, turning. Her eyes widened when she saw four of her friends instead of just Bailey. "What?"

"Laura," Jimmy said, "the Intelligence Corps of Cadets found out who stole your powerpack."

"But ... it was found in Horace's workbench!"

"Quit being so damned stubborn!" Morgana chided her sharply. "Bailey already told you that whoever took it was practically gleeful about setting up someone they hated by hiding the part there, in case security did a search!"

"Which they did," Tanya added.

"But Horace was in Doyle all day, sick from an extreme allergic reaction," Jimmy continued. "The records in Doyle prove it. He was being treated for anaphylaxis and severe diarrhea."

"So ... Horace didn't do it?" Laura finally asked after her brain chewed on the new facts for a long few seconds.

"No," Morgana answered, "and I think you owe Horace an apology."

Laura dropped her head, nodding. "Yeah," she admitted sheepishly. "The way I acted, it's probably the end of our chocolate project, too. And I wouldn't blame him for not wanting to work with me after my rant."

"Come on," Tanya urged, lightly grasping Laura's elbow. "We'll go with you."

"What? But ...."

"No time like the present," Jimmy said.

Laura gawked at her friends for a moment, then grudgingly nodded. "I have to lock up first."

A little later, the group - four friends surrounding Laura in case she decided to chicken out - entered another of the labs. Pausing to draw a breath and steady her nerves, Laura marched over to Horace's workbench, where he was animatedly talking to another girl wearing a labcoat, with a couple of the cacao pods on his workbench. She hesitated a moment, certain that Horace was interviewing someone else to take her place on the project.

"Um, Horace?" Laura said meekly when she heard a break in their conversation.

The boy turned abruptly from the other girl, and he winced visibly when he saw Laura. "Yes?"

"I, um," Laura started nervously. Morgana gave her a nudge in the back to spur her on. "My friends found evidence that the real thief hid my powerpack in your bench so you'd get the blame. They explained how everyone was absolutely certain that you weren't the one who stole it. I, um, I guess ... I owe you an apology." Laura wasn't even making eye contact with the boy. "I'm sorry I accused you."

"I accept your apology," Horace said, sounding relieved that she'd recognized her mistake.

"So ... I'll go back to my lab. I can't blame you for looking for a new partner after the way I yelled at you."

Horace gawked at her. "New partner?"

"Yeah," Laura said glumly. "I figured you wouldn't want to work with me anymore."

"Well, I am interviewing Lori about the project," Horace admitted, then he couldn't contain his amusement any longer and started chuckling. "But not to replace you! To be part of our team! Your timing is perfect - since you're here right now, we can both interview her."

The girl reached out a hand to Laura. "I'm Lori Sims," she introduced herself, shaking Laura's hand. Laura could now see that Lori had some type of GSD; some dark coloration around her eyes made a mask that made her vaguely resemble a raccoon, and her ears were higher on her head, slightly pointed, and looked a bit furry, adding to the impression that Lori was a raccoon-girl.

"Laura Samuels," Laura introduced herself.

Morgana clapped Laura's shoulder. "I guess our work here is done," she smirked. "We'll leave you, Horace, and ... um ...."

"Don't you dare call me 'Trash Panda'!" Lori wheeled on Morgana, her visage angry. Her canine teeth were slightly exaggerated as well, making her look even more like a raccoon.

"I wasn't ...." Morgana started to defend herself.

"You were thinking it!" Lori snapped. "I could tell! Don't deny it."

"Um, I've got a meeting ... with ... some friends," Morgana made a lame excuse before backing away and quickly leaving the lab, with the others close at heel, all intimidated by Lori's fiery temper.

Laura and Horace chuckled at their hasty departure. Finally Laura composed herself. "Okay," she began, "how about you tell us what you can bring to our little project?"

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Sunday, October 2, 2016 - Late
Financier's Penthouse Apartment

The ringtone on the Financier's phone was an obscure - and generally reviled - rock band. She sighed, then glanced at her partner. "Excuse me, hon," she said. "I have to take this."

"I know," the partner, a very pretty girl with dark hair and a cute Gallic nose, answered patiently. "It's your Bat-phone, and duty calls, no?" She spoke with a charming accent.

The Financier slid out from her partner's arm and stood, already answering the phone before she paced away from the sofa where she'd been sitting with her partner.

"Financier," she said simply.

"This is Corrine," the party at the other end of the phone spoke. "I'm sorry to call you so late on a weekend, but ...."

"There is no need to apologize. I left instructions to call if you found anything," Financier replied brusquely. "I take it you did find something?"

"Yeah," Corrine answered. "The computer team found a big hit on the Silverplate request."

"Go on," Financier replied, suddenly very alert.

"They found one business that makes a lot of searches of the US patent database. That wouldn't mean anything, but starting Friday, the search volume increased markedly and the search topic has been very closely related to the topic Silverplate's described," Corrine reported.

"You have a business address and name?" Financier asked the obvious question.

"Yes, ma'am," Corrine replied. She rattled off the information. "But there's more."

"Go on."

"The team decided to poke a little further. According to one of them, the firm's computer security leaves much to be desired."

"I didn't authorize that!" Financier objected.

"They said you'd say that. You know them - once they get a notion to dig into someone's computers, they can't be stopped!"

Financier rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache coming on. She was going to have to find a way to keep her best computer hackers on a tighter leash - if that was even possible, which she honestly didn't believe. "What did they find?" she asked.

"It's a small, one-person business, operating mainly as a patent-troll. Interestingly enough, several of the patent issues come from a place you're quite familiar with," Corrine noted.

"Whateley?" Somehow Financier already knew the answer.

"Yes. They cross-checked, and those patent issues all somehow correspond to 'missing' or stolen items from Whateley."

"Okay. We'll have to find a way ..."

"There's more," Corrine interrupted. "The troll has a mostly-compete patent application that almost perfectly matches the subject of Silverplate's request. There are photos attached of a model as well, and the application revolves around a working model of the invention."

"Get Legal ready to pounce. I want them on him first thing tomorrow morning. Write this up, code-word Trolde."

"Trolde?"

Financier nodded to herself. "Danish for Trolls. Anything else?"

"Not so far," Corrine reported, "but I expect to get more information from the team. You know how they like to dig."

"Tell them to focus on the patent issues that are related to Whateley. Find anything they can on those."

"You think there's a connection?"

"I know there's a connection," Financier said determinedly. "Tell them bonuses for their work. You too. See you tomorrow." She hung up her phone, then immediately dialed another number.

The phone rang, and a very groggy voice answered. "Hello?"

"Silverplate? Financier. I've got a strike."

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Sunday, October 2, 2016 - Late Evening
Behind Holbrook Arena, Whateley Academy

Peter Campbell frowned as he waited impatiently behind the library, Dunn Hall. He'd been tipped off that someone had information about a couple of very big projects in the labs. Projects big enough that they couldn't be discussed over the phone. Even though he was dubious that someone would find parts important enough to him, he nonetheless decided it was worth at least hearing out the tipster.

A figure came toward him, the lights around Dunn Hall behind the person, so that all Peter could see was an outline. For a brief moment, he had a sense of danger or impending doom, but it lasted barely long enough to be recognized, drowned in an emotional sea of envy and covetousness of parts that the biased staff was helping all those lesser-gadgeteers make. The staff hated him, he knew, because he was brilliant and had very good ideas. Too many times, though, his ideas had been stolen by others, thanks to his explaining things to the staff and them handing the concepts to other, more-favored students.

"You wanted to talk?" Peter demanded of the approaching figure.

"I have information about some ... interesting parts being made in freshman labs," the approaching figure replied in a booming masculine voice.

"Go on. I'm ...."

Peter wasn't doing much of anything at that moment. A puff of something behind him caused him to turn, and almost instantly, his body practically froze as the quick-acting paralyzing agent did its work. He could still see and hear, and he felt pain as he toppled onto the ground, but he was totally helpless. Even trying to call out didn't work; while he was still breathing, he was unable to draw a deep breath or exhale sharply enough to yell.

Two masked figures came into his view, appearing sideways to him since he was lying on his side on the ground.

"You recognize this?" one of the figures asked, bending down and holding a transparent bag which held a little red translucent plastic dot. Little dark opaque spots around the periphery stood out very clearly. Despite the color, Peter instantly recognized what the bag held, and that it had been stained to make it more visible. "This is one of yours, isn't it?"

"No!" Peter managed to squeak in a barely-audible voice. "Not mine." He realized that he'd been lured out here on a pretense, and he also realized that if these two had his lens-display-dot, they knew exactly what he'd used it for.

"If it's not yours, why are there a couple of dozen exactly like it in your lab bench?" one of the figures demanded. "Why does Mr. Pressman remember you developing that device?"

"I ... someone ... stole ...."

"Yes, someone stole something," the other figure snarled. While the first voice was definitely male, the second voice was that of a girl. A very angry girl.  "You stole something from one of the students. Something very important."

"Don't you remember your Sunday school lessons?" the first figured asked mockingly. "Something about 'thou shalt not steal'? Or were you playing hooky that Sunday?"

"All ... the ... time ...."

The two figures understood that Peter was trying to imply that theft in the labs happened all the time, and they had no business singling him out.

"Perhaps," the second figure snapped. "But you stole from the wrong person this time."

"Won't ... happen ...."

"We know it won't happen again," the first figure said in a voice that was heavy with malevolent overtones.

"You'll remember your lesson well enough that you'll leave this person alone."

Peter's eyes widened in terror as he saw the shadowy figure that sounded like a girl lift her foot and stomp on his arm. Pain shot through his body like fire as his arm broke with a sickeningly audible crack.

"Don't worry," the girl reassured him, her voice mockingly sweet, "we aren't going to kill you - this time. And we'll call security to make sure you get over to Doyle - after we're done."

"Please ... no!" Peter tried to yell, but all that emerged was a pitiful whimper.

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Monday, October 3, 2016 - Very Early Morning
Private Lab, Boston MA

Whistling happily to himself, Floyd Mallory unlocked the door to his office / lab and stepped in. This was going to be a very busy day, but also a very profitable day. He hung up his jacket and slipped on his customary labcoat. He had an appearance of a busy inventor to maintain, just in case someone unexpectedly dropped by. He turned on his computer, then turned on a coffee machine before sliding into a chair behind his desk.

As the computer tried but failed to start, Floyd frowned. This was highly unexpected; he'd paid extra to ensure his computer was ultra-reliable and had the latest anti-virus and anti-malware protection. He reached for the computer reset button, but was interrupted by a noise that sounded very much like someone was putting a key in a lock in his door. Before he could rise, the door opened and two men in dark suits stepped in, one average in size, and the other a hulking, frowning brute of a man. They looked like nothing so much as a mafia boss and his thuggish sidekick and muscle.

"Are you Floyd Mallory?" the smaller man asked, flashing a smile.

"Yes, I'm Dr. Mallory," Floyd replied. "Can I help you?"

"Yes," the smaller man said with an unnerving certainty and false pleasantry, while the larger man turned and locked the office door. "Yes, you can."

Startled by the two men's actions, Floyd Mallory slid one hand under his desk, reaching for a panic alarm that his paranoid nature had made him install.

The boss smirked. "Go ahead, press your alarm button all day. We disabled it to make sure no-one would interrupt the little conversation we're going to have."

"You don't have an appointment," Floyd tried to sound firm and in charge. "And I have very important business to take care of."

"Mr. Tony don't need no appointment," the large brutish man snarled.

"I suppose trafficking in stolen inventions and stealing patents does keep you really busy," Mr. Tony sneered.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Floyd said, trying to keep his voice from quavering and showing the fear that he felt. These men knew too much. Slowly, carefully, he started to reach for the pistol hidden in a holster fastened to the bottom of his desk drawer.

The brute's arm moved very quickly, more quickly than one would expect for such a brute of a man, and a sharp pain radiated from Floyd's upper right arm. He looked down in surprise and was startled to see the hilt of a throwing knife protruding from his sleeve, even though there was no blood. Yet.

"I want to talk to you about a certain ... package ... that you received last Friday." Mr. Tony didn't sound like there was any doubt in his mind.

Floyd's mind raced. Mr. Tony knew far more than he should, than anyone should! Floyd had always been very thorough with protecting his actions and information. And yet, they knew.

"First," Mr. Tony said calmly, "I want to know where you put the model and all the data that came with it." He saw Floyd's eyes glance momentarily at a large cabinet, betraying where the requested items were. "Very good," he smiled. "Vito, see what secrets Dr. Mallory has hidden in the cabinet."

"Sure thing," Vito replied. He tried the cabinet handle, but it didn't budge. "It's locked, Mr. Tony."

"I don't suppose you have a key handy," Mr. Tony said to Floyd, still smiling wickedly.

Before Floyd could answer, there was a crash. Startled, Floyd turned toward the cabinet and Vito. The hulk of a man stood with one door of the cabinet in his hand, ripped from its hinges.

"Never mind, Mr. Tony. I found the key," Vito said with a grin. He began to pull items from the cabinet, taking special care with a large, intricate model.

"Be careful! That's very delicate," Floyd interrupted. "I spent hundreds  of hours ...."

"I don't think so," Mr. Tony said. He pulled out his cell phone, and after flipping through a few photos, he turned the display toward Dr. Mallory. "Recognize this?" The picture was that same model, taken in less-than-ideal lighting conditions, sitting on a workbench with a pale-blue-skinned girl with startlingly vibrant blue hair standing next to it, smiling for the camera.

Floyd gulped nervously. Somehow, these men had impossibly obtained evidence of the theft that had been perpetrated at Whateley and the invention that had been pilfered and delivered to him.

"You weren't planning to patent someone else's invention and then sue them for royalties, were you? Like you've done hundreds of times? Like you've done to Whateley students almost two dozen times over the last seven years?" Mr. Tony's comment was less a question than a pointed accusation that fit the facts with uncanny accuracy.

"Let's start with who your contact is at Whateley," Mr. Tony said calmly as he casually sat on the corner of the desk, still facing Floyd.

Floyd's fear turned into absolute terror as Vito circled behind his chair with an eager grin of anticipation, cracking his knuckles as he walked.

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Monday, October 2, 2016 - Before Lunch
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Practically bubbling with enthusiasm and happiness, Laura walked into Dr. Barton's office in Schuster, with a Japanese girl at her side. "Don't worry, Sumika," Laura said, "Dr. Barton said I could use his office so we don't have to walk back to my cottage."

Sumika Miura was a little uneasy about intruding into a faculty member's office because it didn't fit her cultural norms. Then again, Americans were so different from Japanese people, and what was fitting to them didn't necessarily meet Japanese norms. Even though it was a teacher's office, Laura moved and sat with comfortable ease, with a familiarity that couldn't be explained by a teacher-student relationship, or even an advisor-student one. It was almost like they were family - which was a preposterous idea, Sumika told herself.

"I really appreciate you taking time to help me," Laura said as she lifted Dr. Barton's phone and began to dial a number.

"Ah,  least I can do to ... make up for ...  Gadget Girl Hero mess," Sumika replied contritely.

Laura actually chuckled. "You don't owe me any favors," she dismissed Sumika's concern. "In fact, it's kind of working out well." She turned her attention back to the phone cradled on her shoulder with a speed that made Sumika wonder if Laura had some type of attention-deficit issue.

"Hi, Julie," she spoke into the phone happily. "Is mom around? Okay, can you put the phone on speaker, please?"

"Can you hear me?" Laura's mom asked.

"I can hear you just fine," Laura replied. "I'm going to put you on hold for a bit while I call Taniguchi-san."

"Listen to you - getting all into Japanese culture! I swear, to listen to you, it's like you're turning Japanese!" Mrs. Samuels scolded her daughter, but to Sumika, it sounded like there was genuine affection and teasing behind the light reprimand-that-wasn't-a-reprimand.

"I'm just being polite," Laura shot back, then she pressed a button on the phone, placing her mother on hold while she dialed. This number she had to look up on her cell phone, but after dialing a very long string of numbers, she rocked her head in time to some unheard music while she waited.

"Taniguchi-san? This is Laura Samuels." She punched a button to put the call on speaker-phone. "I have a friend to help translate if that is easier."

"Ah, Samuels-san! How are you?" Hideo Taniguchi's heavily-accented voice came through the speaker.

"I am well," Laura replied. "My friend Miura Sumika is with me to help."

"Konichiwa, Taniguchi-san!" Sumika said, sounding quite formal. <I offer my services to help my friend Laura.>

<Your thoughtfulness is appreciated, no doubt,> Taniguchi replied. <I can tell that Laura chooses her friends wisely.>

As Sumika exchanged pleasantries with Hideo, Laura pressed another button on the phone. "I have my mom and my little sister on the other line," she announced. "Mom, Julie, I have Taniguchi to explain his idea about travel this Christmas."

"Hello, Mr. Taniguchi," Mom said, her voice warm and friendly.

"Konichiwa, Mrs. Samuels," Taniguchi replied. "Konichiwa, Julie?"

"Yup. I'm Julie."

"It is a pleasure ... to have chance to talk with ... mama-san of wonderful gadget girl Laura. She is help son Koichi with new school, and she has great invention to help friend."

"Please, call me April," Mom said. "I don't like to dwell on formalities."

"Ah. April. Spring month. Flowers, Hanami!" Hideo replied graciously. "Is good ..." He stopped and reverted to Japanese.

Sumika listened, then spoke in English. "Taniguchi-san says is good luck to have name of month of hanami. Sakura - cherry blossom - are symbol of life and ... joy. Much celebrated in Japan, much in month of April."

Laura could practically hear her mother blushing; Hideo in the first couple of minutes had complimented April Samuels in a way that her ex-husband hadn't in over a decade.

"Laura tells me that you are an important businessman, so I don't want to take up your valuable time," April said, and Sumika translated. "Laura said that you would like us to travel to Japan during our Christmas break?"

After Sumika translated, Hideo spoke again, and Sumika put his words into English. "Laura has invention that might help daughter of friend. Daughter has very bad seizures and is getting worse. I asked Laura if she could help. She will need to work with doctors and engineers to make her device tuned for girl, so it is best if she travels to Japan."

"That makes sense," Mrs. Samuels said.

"Travel on holiday without family is not good. Travel without family is not good. So I asked Laura to talk to you, to tell you I invite you to travel with her."

"That would be a very expensive trip," April hesitated. "You don't need to spend a lot of money; I know Laura would help out for nothing."

Sumika did more translating. "Laura's help is worth life of girl. How do I price that? I have large company, so I can easily pay for trip. Laura's help is generous offer, so I would like to repay kind help with offer for you to visit Japan. Is least I can do to show appreciation to Laura."

"It seems like a lot ..." April began to say.

"You will love Japan. I will make sure you have Winter Holiday to never forget!" Even before Sumika was able to translate, Laura's mom could read the enthusiasm in Mr. Taniguchi's voice.

"Mr. Taniguchi, you are a very persuasive man. How could we possibly refuse such a generous offer?" Mrs. Samuels replied. Laura had had Hikaru give Mrs. Samuels a very brief introduction to Japanese manners and etiquette; refusing Mr. Taniguchi's offer that was itself made to show appreciation for a favor - that would be a serious blow to Mr. Taniguchi's pride and a breach of etiquette. Especially since there was no reason for the three Samuels women to not go.

A few more minutes were spent on pleasantries, and then Mr. Taniguchi gave Mrs. Samuels contact information for one of his secretaries, who would help coordinate travel arrangements.

Before they hung up, Mr. Taniguchi asked one more question. "How is son Koichi doing in school?"

"He is doing well. All he ever talks about is his art class and his art teacher. His English is still not good, but it's improving," Laura reported. "If he were better in English, I would have had him translate. And if he wasn't in class, I'd have brought him along so he could speak with his father. Another time, perhaps."

After they hung up with Mr. Taniguchi, Sumika asked to leave to go to lunch, leaving Laura on the phone with her mother.

"Mr. Taniguchi is sure a charmer," Mrs. Samuels chuckled.

"He wasn't flirting, mom," Laura said with a groan. "Japanese are just very polite. And he's married," she added for good measure.

"If all Japanese men are that charming, I think I'll enjoy the trip!" she said with a light laugh.

"Mom!"

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Monday, October 3, 2016 - Early Morning
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

"Dr. Mazarin, there's a man on line two that says he has an urgent message for you," the secretary said, poking her head through the open door to the Headmaster's office.

"Please take a message," Mazarin replied. "I'm scheduled for a conference call with the trustees and DPA in a couple of minutes.

"The caller said to tell you that Tango is more fun than Rumba," the secretary added.

Mazarin stiffened, recognizing the code phrase. "I'll take the call. Please call into the telecon and inform them that I am momentarily delayed by a critical last-minute item."

After the secretary had closed the door behind her, Mazarin picked up his phone and selected the second phone line. "Mazarin," he said curtly.

"No time for pleasantries, Le Compte?" the voice said with a chuckle. "Is running that school that taxing on your time?"

"It's certainly more time-consuming than planning business excursions," Mazarin replied. "But you know I retired, so this is probably a very pressing matter?"

"Information was given to me about a couple of parties who were engaged in theft from the school in a way that some do-gooders might consider a violation of the Neutrality Accords," the caller said.

"Go on," Mazarin prompted.

"Not on an open line. My current employer wants an item delivered there ASAP, and I can send information about the violations with it. Can I send a warper to make the delivery?"

Mazarin whistled softly to himself. Engaging the services of a warper for package delivery was extremely expensive. "Does the warper have a beacon?"

"Yes. He's approved for deliveries to Whateley."

Mazarin glanced at his computer. "Okay, here's the beacon code." He read off a number which was a one-time-use code for warper-deliveries. Normally, a warper penetrating the shield around the Whateley campus would set off alarms and security would respond, but an authorized warper using a coded beacon would not. As soon as Mazarin marked it as used on his computer, the Whateley security systems would generate another one-time-use access code as a precaution to prevent mis-use of the access codes. "It's good for half an hour."

"He'll be there in about two minutes, as soon as we finish his paperwork." The line clicked dead, leaving Mazarin wondering about the subject his former associate wouldn't discuss over the phone.

Fifteen minutes later, Laura peeked meekly into the administration outer office. "Someone called for me?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," the secretary answered as soon as she recognized Laura. She rose from her chair. "Please follow me." She led Laura to a small conference room. Inside, to her surprise, the Assistant Headmaster was leaning against the conference table waiting, with Mrs. Cody immediately to his right and more surprisingly, Dr. Barton to his left.

"Um, did I do something wrong?" Laura asked, her voice trembling a bit.

"Oh, no," Mrs. Cody answered quickly. "Not at all."

"I think you'll find this meeting quite productive," Dr. Barton said with a twinkle in his eye.

"I think this belongs to you," Robert Turner said, and at his words, the trio parted.

Laura gasped with shock. On the table, was her model which they'd hidden with their bodies, the assist she'd designed to help Mrs. Barton and which had been stolen. "Ahhh!" was all she could say for a few moments as she rushed to the table, examining her handiwork for damage. To her added amazement, behind the model was a sheaf of papers and notes and a thumb drive which she recognized, which held all her computer design data. "How ...?" she started to say, but she was speechless.

"Dr. Mazarin's contacts located your invention and returned it to Whateley. He wanted to be here to give it back to you," Dr. Barton said, "but he's in a very important conference call. I'm sure, though, that he'd appreciate it if you stopped by his office to thank him in person."

Laura spun and hugged Mrs. Cody, tears streaming down her cheeks. Then she hugged Dr. Barton, and finally, gave a big hug to the Assistant Headmaster. "I ... I don't know what to say," she blubbered through tears of absolute joy.

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Monday, October 3, 2016 - Late Morning
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

The girl that walked into Dr. Mazarin's office was confident in a way that was almost disturbing. Lithe, with long, wavy dark hair, her tanned skin hinted at a Hispanic ancestry. She was definitely an exemplar, and she strutted in a way that drew attention to her ultra-feminine airs.

"Sit down, Miss Guzman," Dr. Mazarin said, unswayed by her attempt to use her sexuality to her advantage. His years of experience had inured him to such crude and obvious tactics. He studied the girl as she sat gracefully in a chair before his large desk. "Do you know why I asked to talk to you?" he asked bluntly.

Mayra Guzman shook her head, sending her long tresses dancing in yet another attempt at a sensual display. "I have no idea."

Mazarin suppressed an impulse to put on a villainous sneer. "As a junior," he began, "I'm sure you know of the Neutrality Accords."

"Yes." Her curiosity was piqued. "But what does that have to do with me?"

"Let me pose a little hypothetical scenario," Mazarin countered, his sonorous voice sounding simultaneously ominous and calming, a characteristic he knew and used to his advantage. "Suppose someone off-campus was involved in theft of intellectual property from Whateley labs," he began. "That person would be in violation of neutrality, agreed?"

"Yes, but what does that have to do with me?"

"And if a student were to be found aiding and abetting that theft, that student would likewise be violating the accords, would they not?" Mazarin continued, laying out his case point-by-point.

"I suppose," Mayra answered in a very practiced non-committal fashion.

Mazarin noted that her demeanor confirmed what he'd read in her file - this girl was a practiced sociopath. "You do understand that a great many groups - hero and villain alike - would - and previously have - set aside their differences to stop neutrality violation, correct?"

"I suppose," Mayra answered. "But ... if such a theft were to occur, that would be something that you, as a member of the Syndicate, would understand as being 'business as usual'."

"Congratulations, Miss Guzman!" Mazarin said in an unexpectedly pleasant tone. "You're the first to use the 'you're one of us' argument to excuse your actions!" He smiled briefly. "To be honest, I'm a little disappointed at your timing, though, because now I owe the Assistant Headmaster dinner. We had a wager on how long it would take for a student to try that excuse."

The Headmaster's bemused attitude about her excuse had Mayra confused, and she was starting to worry because he was treating her argument almost like it was a childish joke.

"I reject that premise. It's been too widely used to justify unconscionable actions, would you not agree?" He smiled again. "While I was loyal to my former employer, I've since retired, and while I keep my oaths and secrets to my former employer to the extent allowed by my current position, my loyalty lies with my current employer and with the students under my charge. I cannot and will not condone any actions that bring harm to my students, regardless of my former profession." Though he had a pleasant expression, his words were hard as steel, cutting and leaving no doubt as to his thoughts on the subject.

Mayra gulped unconsciously, her facade cracking along with her previously unassailable self-confidence. "Um, okay," she stammered.

Mazarin picked up a picture and reached across his desk. "You may recognize the subject of this photo."

Bewildered at what he was getting at with his seemingly-random trains of thought, Mayra took the picture. No sooner had she glanced at it than she had her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide and all color draining from her face as she fought to not throw up. Despite the extremely gruesome condition of the subject, there was no doubt to her who it was.

"I know you're a member of the Masterminds," Mazarin continued without letting the girl recover. "The people who visited the subject of that photo persuaded him to answer a few questions, such as identifying his contact at Whateley, before his ... unfortunate demise. Of course, his statements would not be considered legally-admissible evidence, given the nature of his final conversations," Mazarin said, "but that might not matter to various parties whose interest was less about justice under the law and more about preserving the Neutrality Accords."

The girl steadied herself in her chair as her world spun out of her control. "So ... what ...?"

"Unlike others, I operate on the basis of verifiable facts, not rumor or speculation," the Headmaster spoke solemnly. "Speculation about one incident is not, to me, actionable. A second incident, however, would not be a coincidence, and I would be obligated to do everything in my power to protect Whateley and my students." He stared evenly at the girl, his hawkish gaze seeming to penetrate to her soul in a bone-chilling fashion. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Um, yes, sir," she squeaked, thoroughly rattled.

"I'm glad we've had this pleasant little conversation," Mazarin said with an air of finality. "Dismissed." He turned his attention back to some correspondence on his desk, indicating silently that the girl should leave. Quietly, completely unnerved, she rose and almost tiptoed to the door. As it opened, Mazarin looked up. "I trust that I won't see you in my office again?"

"No, sir," Mayra replied uneasily.

"Good. And Miss Guzman?" She paused again. "At your earliest convenience, please ensure that your compatriots and colleagues understand my position. This warning to you will be considered a final warning to all."

She gulped, nodded in acknowledgment, and  pulled the door shut behind herself , hastening from the administrative wing back toward her cottage. For the first time in many, many years, she felt a bone-chilling fear that left her trembling.

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Monday, October 3, 2016 - Before Breakfast
Near Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Quentin St. James shook his head with a chuckle as approached the back side of Laird Hall. He'd been told to meet a friend there, and from the voice, he knew exactly who that 'friend' was - Ron Forrester, better known to all as Black Hole. And there was Ron, leaning against the gym building, his presence like a human-shaped ink blot on the building's stucco wall.

"So much for a 'spy vs. spy' clandestine meeting," Quentin laughed. He couldn't see Black Hole's reaction; no-one could since he absorbed all incident light, making him a perpetually-inky shadow. "So what's so important?"

"Let's take a walk," Ron said. Most people felt odd hearing a voice coming out of a dark nothingness, but Quentin had known Ron for a year and was used to the strange boy.

"Your nickel," Quentin said with a shrug, falling in beside his friend. "So, what's on your mind? You satisfied with the job?"

"My superiors are very pleased," Ron said enigmatically. "They are very interested in making sure the girl is ... protected from unfortunate events."

"Like having her crap stolen from a lab?" Quentin asked. "Who are you working for?"

"That's not important," Ron said.

"Was the leg-breaking really necessary?" Quentin demanded. "He could have been ...."

Were he not totally featureless, Ron's head would have been visibly shaking vehemently. "No. I had my orders. We had to set an example in this case."

"Who is 'we'?" Quentin demanded again. "This ... you've got us following the daughter of the villain Spinel, and ...."

"That's a cover story," Ron interrupted with a laugh. "It's a load of crap. She's just an average mutant girl from Kansas City with GSD and an asshat H-1-loving father."

"What? So ... why the tale about Spinel and villain plots and such?"

Ron chuckled. "Mustela and I needed to get you interested enough to keep her under surveillance. It worked, didn't it?"

Quentin frowned. This was getting crazy, a lot stranger than the story of just watching a villain's daughter. "I don't like getting played like that! What the hell is going on here?"

"I don't know," Ron confessed honestly. "Hell, even Mustela doesn't know. All either of us DO know is that our outside contact Silverplate wants us to make sure the girl is kept safe and happy. And she pays very well for us to do that job - as you well know."

Quentin sighed. "Yeah, I know." The Secret Squirrels club account had been significantly bolstered because of shadowing the blue girl.

The shape that was Ron turned toward Quentin. "You want to be an actor, don't you?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" he scowled.

"You know what the actors' guilds say about mutants, don't you?"

Quentin shook his head sadly. "Yeah, I know. It's not fair, but I'm sure I can prove myself."

"Silverplate works for a group that wants to change those discriminatory laws," Ron held out a carrot to the Secret Squirrel, to see if he'd be tempted.

"What, your little Ev Rocks peace-niks and kum-ba-ya chanters?" He shook his head, snorting derisively. "The only thing they're good for is bleating to the media whenever there's a mutant incident that if the rest of the world wasn't so discriminatory, mutants would be peaceful, happy little lackeys. They're a freakin' circus act! They'll never be more than a cute little curiosity the media treats like good little pet mutants!"

Ron chuckled heartily, a deep rumbled laughter coming from the inky void. "Circus act! Pet mutants! That's one of the best descriptions I've heard of them in a long time. I'm sure Silverplate will find it amusing as well! I'll admit they're worthless, but they're good cover." He watched his friend's eyebrows rise incrementally out of curiosity. "There's an organization that's working on ensuring change happens. Silverplate is part of that. She recruited Mustela, and Mustela recruited me. There are a few others, like StahlFaust."

"That man-hating goose-stepping German she-hulk?" Quentin spat in disbelief. "That ...."

"That piece of gorgeous Amazonian-built womanhood that you'd give your left nut to bang?" Ron laughed. "That's what you told me last year, remember?" He shrugged. "She's handy. Like teaching Pete Campbell to keep his hands off her stuff."

"She's the one who put him in Doyle?" Quentin gawked. "And he lived?"

"We held her back," Ron said with another shrug. "Here's the deal," he said, finally cutting to the chase. "We don't have the resources ourselves. Not yet. We are building on campus, but we have to be very, very careful who we recruit."

"And yet you recruited Brita!" Quentin shot back.

"She's a useful enforcer, but she doesn't know the whole story," Ron countered. "So, here's the proposition. I need a liaison in the Sec ... Intelligence Corps. Someone who can do some detective work for us from time to time. Someone who can convince them to 'practice shadowing' and tailing and all that other fancy detective crap on either the blue girl or another subject. Someone to practice your little spy gadgets on."

"We keep an eye on her, you mean," Quentin cut through the flowery words.

"Yup. And in return, we keep padding your account. Need some state-of-the-art snooping toys? Silverplate will get them to us, and we'll pass them on to you. Basically, anything within reason, Silverplate will fund."

"So ... even if she were to travel to Disney World with her family ...," he said sarcastically.

Ron shrugged again. "We'd find a way to keep a tail on her - at Silverplate's expense."

"I'll have to think a bit," Quentin said. From his tone, he was obviously intrigued by the financial aspect, and the mysterious organization had piqued his curiosity. "But ... I don't want to get involved in anything ... violent."

"With Brita working with us, you won't have to. Probably not, anyway," Ron replied. "I need an answer by tonight, when I make a status report." He turned to walk away, but paused. "And in case you didn't know, you're already very involved, whether you like it or not."

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Monday, October 3, 2016 - Late Morning
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"Everyone is looking at me kind of funny," Laura complained as she plopped herself into a chair at the M3 table. "Like ... they're wary or something."

"Or afraid," Vic said between spoonfuls of chili.

"Afraid?" Laura was shocked. "Why would anyone be afraid of me?"

Tanya, Bianca, and Morgana exchanged looks.

"What?" Laura had seen their nervous glances.

Morgana glanced at the other two, then winced as she looked at Laura. "You heard about one of the lab-rats? Pete somebody?"

"Lab-crew!" Laura objected. "Lab crew, not lab-rats!"

"Is he the one that was put in Doyle last night?" Cally asked. She shook her head. "He was beat up pretty bad, I hear."

"What does that have to do with me?" Laura practically demanded.

"Rumor has it that he was the one who swiped your power pack," Tanya explained, "and he got roughed up because he got caught."

"And since he's in Doyle, there's a buzz that ...," Bianca wrinkled her nose, "that you have some kind of protection. That messing with you is not good for one's health."

Laura goggled, her jaw hanging agape. "You're kidding!" she finally stammered. "I had nothing to do with that!"

"You know how gossip works," Vic said with a shrug before shoving another spoonful into his mouth.

"Why would I need any protection?" Laura practically demanded. "I'm not important. Not like you!" she whispered insistently to Bianca. "Or Hikaru! I'm just an ordinary girl from Kansas City!"

"Another incident or two, and people will start believing that you work for me!" Bianca chuckled. "Especially with the holdouts you're making for me and the group."

"And you sit at the same table as Bianca," Cally added.

Morgana sighed, shaking her head. "Don't joke. I've already heard rumors to that effect!"

Laura gaped at Morgana for a few seconds. "Well," she finally spoke, sounding both resigned and philosophical, "if people are afraid of me, maybe they'll leave my stuff alone and let me go first in line at the test stands! I've got a lot of testing to do. I've still got bugs to work out on the regenerative plasma trap for the PFG, and I'm ready to test the 'torpedo' launcher, and I've got to test the power circuits for my new neural neutralizer, and ...."

Morgana, Bailey, Bianca, and Cally exchanged glances that all had the same message - 'she's off in gadget land again'.

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Monday, October 3, 2016 - Late Evening
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

Hikaru padded out of the bathroom after loosely tying her yukata, and started rubbing a towel over her long wet hair, grabbing a cordless hair dryer as she passed by the vanity. As she prepared to blow-dry her hair, a thought occurred to her. "Kurenai.  Contact the Prime Minister's office, please, and ask when he would have a convenient moment of his time to talk?"

Kurenai's avatar appeared over the charging stand her bracelet home was at.  "Of course, Hikaru-sama."   A few moments later, the holographic display changed to Shinzo Abe's face.

<Myoujin-dono.  I actually happen to have a few spare moments, and it is always a pleasure to take your calls, though I hope ....>  Abe's voice was semi concerned and warm.

Assured that Kurenai wouldn't be showing her in her loose yukata, and her hair still wet, Hikaru responded dryly.  <There is nothing wrong, but I fear that I may have put you in an awkward situation ....> Trailing off, she let him blink for a second.

 <I truly find that hard to believe.>

 Hikaru had to smile slightly.  <I am afraid, Abe-dono, that I promised a resource of yours without having first asked your permission.>

 Abe's eyebrow rose.  <I am sure I would have granted permission before you promised, though I am now curious.>

 <Taniguchi Hideo, of Taniguchi Industries in Osaka, contacted a classmate of mine through his son, who now attends Whateley. He was interested in one of her inventions.>  Hikaru was ready to continue, but Abe politely cleared his throat.

 <His son would not be amiss as a consideration, Hikaru-dono, if you are interested in such this early.  But I am aware of the young man and his father, my apologies.>

 Abe's first sentence irritated the avatar, but she managed to keep it off her face.  Hikaru paused, resetting her thoughts  <As I understand the situation, one of Taniguchi-san's friends has a daughter who has a serious medical issue. When Taniguchi-san brought his son here, he discussed several of my classmate's inventions with her.>  Abe nodded. 

Hikaru continued her narrative. <When he learned of his friend's daughter, he felt, and I can understand why, that one specific invention might provide some aid for his friend's child.  It is technically a device meant for self-defense, and works, if I understand correctly, by suppressing neural activity.>  Abe's eyes sharpened at that.  Hikaru continued, seeing he was following.  <But like a Taser, the effect might be used to control seizures such as the girl suffers.>

 Before Hikaru could continue on, Abe spoke. <Allow me to guess. You promised your aid in getting the proper paperwork and approvals through the proper government offices, as well as use of our consulate to ship this device?>  Abe was rewarded with a simple nod.  <Be assured that I do not consider your action to be improperly using our nation's resources without permission. Indeed, you acted in the manner required of you. I will make sure it is all done correctly ....> He paused, a thoughtful look on his face. <A device to shut down neural activity without killing, you say?>

 <I believe so. The classmate, Samuels Laura, seems interested as well in our home.>  She noted Abe's eyebrows rose on his forehead, signaling that his curiosity had been piqued. <It was through what Americans call a 'comedy of errors' that my classmate became known in Japan as a 'Gadget Girl Hero', which in turn brought her to Taniguchi-san's attention. Because of those events, she has become curious about our country.>

 Abe's eyes lit up and a small smile crossing his lips.  <It is possible that Hideo-san sent his son for more than one reason, ne?>

 <Possibly.> Hikaru added.

 Abe laughed lightly.  <Be sure to encourage her, and if she is interested, well ....>

 <On that, I will need a few visas, Abe-dono. Because her presence is required to optimize the device's effects for the girl, Taniguchi-san extended an invitation for her to visit Japan. Because the trip would be over Winter Break, my classmate was reluctant to be separated from her family during the holiday, but she was willing to sacrifice time with her family to help the daughter of Taniguchi-san's friend.>

 Abe's eyebrows rose in amazement. <She sounds like a remarkable young woman.>

 Hikaru nodded. <Indeed. Taniguchi-san was not willing to ask such a sacrifice of her, so he extended his invitation to include her mother and sister in the trip. Kurenai-chan has the information. In addition, I will have a few friends travel with me ...>  Hikaru trailed off.

 <Consider it done. Have your lovely assistant send the information to mine, if you would be so kind.>  Abe waved off . <One item occurred to me – if she is willing, I think the offer of a patent on her invention in Japan would be a nice gesture of gratitude. As well, perhaps Taniguchi-san might consider licensing her invention for medical purposes.>

 <I will inquire discretely to see if she would be interested,> Hikaru replied.

Abe suddenly got a very thoughtful expression. <I wonder if her original invention could be of use to our Self-Defense Forces?>

<That thought had occurred to me, Abe-dono. Perhaps of use to our police as well.>

<In that case, a second patent application and licensing may be in order,> the Prime Minister speculated.

<I will follow up on that idea, as well.> Hikaru smiled at the Prime Minister. <Thank you for your assistance and understanding in this manner, and no, all is going well. Again, thank you, I know you could have had better uses of your time.>  Hikaru trailed off, only to be interrupted by Abe again.

 <This was a very pleasant diversion, and most certainly not a waste of time.  She will be in Japan, for your winter break, no?>  Abe's eyebrow rose slightly.

 <Yes ...>  Hikaru was a bit surprised, wondering where he was going.

 Abe nodded once.  <I will send your assistant an invitation for you and all your guests to share a meal with my family, I wish to meet this young lady who is aiding one of ours, and I look forward to hearing of this 'comedy of errors'.>

 Hikaru blinked.  <Of course.  I will pass it along .... Ja ne.>  Abe nodded, and bowed slightly, with Hikaru returning it, as the call ended.

 Hikaru after a moment, finally summed up the call.  "... Shit.  Laura's going to kill me."

  Kurenai's snicker responded as Hikaru picked up her hair dryer to resume the task.  "She'll try.  But, if it works, in either application, and is replicable? I think the money would make her very happy."

 Hikaru paused before turning on the dryer.  "That just might put her into shock."

 

FIN
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