Friday, September 23, 2016 - After Lunch
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"What's this one about?" Bianca asked Laura and Morgana as they found seats in the small assembly room in Schuster. It was built like a small theater, with the seats in the rear of the room considerably higher than the seats in front, so all could have a good view of the white-board, displays, instructor, or whatever or whoever else was the topic of the assembly.
"I have no idea," the British girl answered, and Laura shrugged to signal her lack of knowledge.
"At least we get excused from fifth period classes," Bailey, Laura's roommate said with a smile.
When two men walked in the door and to the front of the room, the girls recognized them immediately as the Headmaster and Assistant Headmaster, since the men had addressed the students on a couple of occasions already.
"Please take your seats as expeditiously as possible," the Headmaster, Geoffrey Mazarin, said simply. He and Robert Turner, the Assistant, stood silently watching the students as they all filed in and found seats.
When the last student sat down, Turner looked at one of the administration's secretarial staff standing by the door. "Do we have roll?"
"Yes, sir," the secretary replied. As the students had filed in, a computer had taken note of each and every ID card, getting a quick and accurate list of who was in attendance.
"Students," Mazarin began, "there are very important briefings about policies that each of you are supposed to receive as part of our orientation. However, due to significant confusion resulting from a sudden and unplanned change in adminsitration, one of the most important briefings was inadvertently missed. Because of this, we've already had one violation of that vital policy."
A few murmurs circulated through the room, and for some reason, Laura felt like there were people looking her way, but she fought the impulse to look around, keeping her focus on the Headmaster.
"Since students can't be held to account for policies they do not know," Mazarin continued, "we really cannot punish the students who committed the infraction. However, as of the conclusion of this briefing, you will have been informed, and future violations will be dealt with in accordance with the severity of the breach of rules." He took a half-step back and turned to the Assistant.
"One of the founding principles of Whateley Academy," Mr. Turner began, "is the principle of Neutrality. We have children of villains, heroes, and others attending school, all coexisting peacefully, and the school isn't favored by any of the interested parties because we enforce Neutrality." He paused to let the words sink in a moment.
"One of the great principles of Neutrality is that no student, faculty, staff, or security person will ever give out personal information which could link a student who is a mutant or otherwise empowered to family. You know each other's real names and code names. You know each other's powers. All of that information, when tied together, could be enough for an outside group to target your family. This we cannot allow. Nor will the outside parties who support Whateley allow such a disclosure to go unnoticed."
"In the past," Mazarin stepped in, "there have been a few deliberate violations. Let me assure you that when it comes to the principles of Neutrality, all supporters will temporarily put aside any differences and take immediate action to punish anyone who deliberately violates the Neutrality. Heroes and villains will work together in this special case." His expression became somber. "Usually, the punishment is swift and very severe."
With that, the lights were dimmed slightly, and the two administrators went through some case history of violations of Neutrality, with slides or video showing the consequences of having the collective mutant, empowered, and magic communities punish someone for violating Neutrality. The results were not pretty; more than one student dashed out of the hall quickly to throw up. Two girls sitting up front were white as ghosts
"In the particular case we have before us," Turner continued after the little video, "the action was through ignorance of policy rather than malice, inadvertent rather than deliberate. Rest assured that the students who did this have been instructed on the severity of their action. They have also received punishment fitting the circumstances of an innocent mistake." His countenance darkened. "At the conclusion of this briefing, however, this type of incident will be grounds for immediate expulsion."
Mazarin interrupted. "We have also informed all outside parties of the peculiar situation we found ourselves in, so that they would not think it a deliberate act."
Mr. Turner looked to the aide by the door. "If you could turn on the projector, please?" He turned back to the assembly. "I'm about to show and explain to you the consequences of violations of Neutrality.
If the lecture and slide-show was intended to frighten the students, in most cases it succeeded. Most of the students were ashen and very somber as they filed out of the hastily-called assembly.
Friday, September 23, 2016 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
A few titters and giggles followed Laura as she carried her tray up the escalator to the team's tier, and judging from the look on her face, she knew the cause of the eyes turned her way and the bemused expressions and noises. She was in such an obviously-annoyed state that she practically slammed her tray down on the group's table.
"Well, good evening to you, too, sunshine," Tanya said sarcastically.
"Oh, stuff it!" Laura shot back angrily. Almost immediately, she regretted her words. "I'm sorry," she apologized quickly. "You didn't deserve that. It's just ...." She shook her head, her royal blue tresses dancing about her shoulders and a deep frown on her face. "It's ...."
"Go on," Bianca prodded. "Spit it out."
Laura sighed and rolled her eyes. "All this teasing ... it's ...," she shook her head again. "It's way past getting annoying."
"It might be about to get more annoying," Hikaru observed in a tone that was reminiscent of a weather report in its utter lack of emotion.
"What?" Laura asked, eyes widening and leaning a bit forward nervously. She saw the other girl, and then her teammates, looking not at her but around her. With a sinking feeling, she slowly turned her head, her body automatically pivoting a bit to follow.
"Excuse, please, Laura-san," one of the two Japanese girls who had approached Laura's position. "Do you have moment?"
Laura shot a sideways glance toward Hikaru, who was ambivalently sipping her tea, a difficult maneuver while trying to fight bemused smile. "Yes," Laura replied.
"Onishi Kiyoko," one girl introduced herself.
"Miura Sumika," the other girl said. Both seemed very uncomfortable but also they had a look of determination. "We wish to apologize."
"Apologize?" Laura hadn't yet put all the puzzle pieces together.
"We saw Gadget Girl Heroes web page," Kiyoko managed to squeak out. "Recognized your picture from seeing you on campus."
"We did not realize it was against rules to post information about students," Sumika continued.
"You ... you're the ones who posted my info?" Laura goggled, more shocked than angered by what the girls had told them. Earlier, she'd worked through the anger bit. She shook her head again in disbelief, her mouth slightly agape. "I didn't want to be a celebrity!"
"In Japan, most children wish to be gadgeteers, because they are treated well. Almost worshipped. All gadgeteers enjoy being celebrities." Kiyoko winced. "Did not occur to us that you might not want status and recognition."
Beside her, Tanya chuckled. "I told you no good would come of those pictures!"
Laura wheeled to face her teammate. "Oh, shut up!' she barked at the grinning purple-haired girl.
"You did not want to be Gadget Girl Hero?" Sumika gaped.
"But ... your web page ..."
"If you did not want that, why did you not have web manager remove pictures and information?" Kiyoko asked.
Laura frowned. "Because I didn't know it was posted!"
"You did not know?" The two girls seemed stunned beyond belief.
"Japan has some of the strictest privacy and IP protection laws," Hikaru began to explain. "The AI algorithms routinely scan Internet content originating in Japan to ensure the owner of the IP - in this case, you own the rights to your image - agrees with posting the content."
"Yes," Sumika agreed. "Are exceptions for public figures."
Hikaru smiled, but whether it was a sympathetic or smug smile wasn't discernible. "Welcome to my world."
"Which algorithms must have assumed, since photos were taken in a public space, others in the photos did give permission, and caption and text describe you as a hero," Hikaru explained, "which is by definition a public figure."
"It did not occur that you did not want to be Gadget Girl Hero," Kiyoko continued.
"Since pictures of you and your boyfriend were on website, we figured you knew and approved," Sumika continued.
"He's not my boyfriend!" Laura shot back crossly. She let her eyes drift closed as she looked down and shook her head.
After a few moments where the two Japanese girls stood awkwardly, not sure what to say or do, Laura looked up at them. "Do you know I'm getting lots and lots of e-mails? From girls who are fans? From boys who are fans, and a few who profess their undying love for me? From mothers who want to introduce me to their 'wonderful' sons?" The two Japanese girls winced at Laura's comment. She looked at them again, as if studying their expressions and trying to discern their deep-lying motivations. Then her expression relaxed. "You didn't do anything out of malice. I ... I guess I can accept your apology."
Both Japanese girls breathed a sigh of relief. Neither had wanted to make an enemy of another student. "If it is not too much trouble ...," Sumika said after a moment, pausing to see how Laura would react.
"Yes?" the blue girl replied hesitantly.
"Could I get picture with you?" She saw shock register on Laura's face. "For my sister. She is big fan of Gadget Girl Heroes. She will be so jealous I am at same school as you!"
Laura face-palmed, while around her, her friends and teammates snickered.
Friday, September 23, 2016 - Late Afternoon
Amazon Clubhouse, Tunnels, Whateley Academy
Despite being angry about Valentina flirting with the Poe false girl, as soon as the clubhouse door closed behind Brita, she practically bounced over to the Hispanic girl and wrapped her arms around her, exchanging a moderate kiss. "See you at dinner?" Brita asked.
"Maybe," Valentina smiled back. With her book backpack slung over one arm, it was obvious that she'd just showered after a workout. Slipping from Brita's arms, Valentina glanced at the other girls, then strode out the door without a look back. That seemed a little odd to Brita.
Even more peculiar, she could sense other girls coming near her. She turned, and was surprised to see Pauline, Melissa, and Irina, all seniors, standing and looking at her with grim expressions. "What's up?" Brita tried to dispel the apparent gloom that had somehow infested the clubhouse.
"We need to talk," Pauline said simply.
"We've been discussing things, and we're getting concerned about your temper," Melissa added.
"What about it?" Brita demanded sternly. "I need to stand up for Sisters."
"Standing up for Sisters is one thing," Pauline countered, "but you've been instigating fights with some girls from Poe."
"Kammie is still pissed about how you talked her into attacking the British girl while pretending to be you, and then she got in trouble," Melissa said.
"We're concerned that if you keep it up, our club is going to be associated with your temper and attacks, since you were elected president. And if that happens, another incident or two could cause the administration to pull our charter."
"Which means we'd lose the clubhouse, too," Irina spoke for the first time.
"But ... those so-called girls ...." Brita started to try to explain. She knew she was violating the secret of Poe, but in her anger at the way this was developing, she didn't care.
"I don't know what you have against some of the girls in Poe," Pauline rebuked her, "but ... knock it off! Quit attacking them."
"If you don't," Melissa's countenance was grim as the reaper, "we might be forced to expel you in order to keep the club's charter."
"You wouldn't!" Brita protested.
"Yes, we would," Irina shot back. "If we lose the club, we lose our mutual protection from the reputation of the Amazons. And there are lots of upperclassmen who would relish the opportunity to get even."
Brita looked around the group, scrutinizing their faces for some hint of understanding or sympathy for her nearly-irrational hatred of changelings. But they didn't know that the Poesies Brita hated were all falsche Mädchen and not real girls. After a few tense seconds in which nobody blinked or backed down, Brita slowly nodded. "Okay. I'll back off."
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - Afternoon
Barton's Apartment, The Village, Whateley Academy
Pushing a noisy vacuum cleaner across the floor, Laura was humming to herself. While doing housework wasn't fun, she was working diligently to make sure the apartment was a clean as possible.
"Laura?" Vanessa Barton called a bit louder to her helper, but the vacuum was too loud for the girl to hear over the racket. When she realized that Laura hadn't heard her, Vanessa moved her powered chair around a coffee table until she was blocking the girl's cleaning path. Laura started with surprise, quickly shutting off the machine. "Laura," Vanessa said again, this time in a more conversational volume.
"Are you okay?" Laura asked, worried about the sudden interruption.
"I'm fine," Vanessa reassured the girl. "How about a short break?"
Laura's eyes widened. "I'm not tired," she replied quickly. "Besides, I want to make sure ...."
"... that I get my money's worth," Vanessa chuckled, having heard that very line from the girl many times previously. "Watching you work like this is making me tired!"
"I'm sorry," Laura apologized with a wince. She really wanted to make sure she did the best job possible for the Bartons since they were paying her pretty well for cleaning.
"Go get some lemonade for the both of us, then come and sit down for a little break," Vanessa directed. She'd long-since learned that she didn't need more than a stern word or two to motivate Laura, not that the girl had done anything to warrant being yelled at, because she seemed almost obsessed with pleasing the Bartons.
"Lanie ... er, Mrs. Cody ... tells me that you've been working on a project down in the labs." She took a proffered glass of lemonade. "Something about a lift seat in a car?"
Laura visibly flinched. "I ... I wanted to surprise you," she complained. "I'm not done with the prototype, and I'm not sure how it's going to work, so I didn't ...."
Vanessa laughed. "You're just like Jake. You don't want me to be disappointed, so you don't tell me anything until it's a certainty."
"Well, yeah," Laura answered. "I mean, you've had way too many things go wrong, so I didn't want to get your hopes up in case this doesn't work out."
"You'll make it work," Vanessa shot back, smiling. "With Lanie watching over you, I know you'll make it work."
"I wanted to surprise you, though," Laura answered. "I'm almost done with a scale model prototype; I've just got to 3d-print a few more parts, then get it all together. If it works the way I want it to, it'll only take a few days to fabricate the full-sized thing, and then Mr. Donner said he'd get the auto shop guys to do the modifications and installation," she blurted out in her excitement. "I should have the prototype done to show you by next weekend."
"You can show me when it's ready," Vanessa answered. "Don't rush yourself. That's when mistakes get made." She took a sip of her drink before continuing. "How is everything else going? Classes okay?"
"Oh, yes," Laura practically bubbled. "My lab classes are a lot of fun, and so is history. I've never had a teacher who taught like Mr. Barton does. He makes it interesting and easy to relate to why things happened, not just rote memorizing who did what where and when."
"He does tend to like to get people to think and not just recite dry boring facts."
"Martial Arts is okay." She winced slightly, an action not unnoticed by Mrs. Barton. "Well, mostly. Since I was in Karate for years, they have me helping, and two of the boys don't like that much. When we spar, if they think the teacher isn't looking, they try to hurt me."
"Fragile male egos," Vanessa interjected.
"Most of the time, it's no big deal. A couple of times, though, when they get to use powers, I've had to go to Doyle to get checked."
"That happens to everyone," the older woman noted. "The training is to help you survive in the real world."
"And we're still trying to figure out Hikaru, because she's ...." Laura wrinkled her nose. "It's hard to say. Sometimes, I get the feeling that she isn't really interested in being with our group. And sometimes, it seems like she's afraid to let anyone get close to her. Like she's built a wall around her inner self."
"That's pretty self-destructive," Vanessa nodded.
"But she's been kind of helpful, though, figuring out all the e-mails and the whole Gadget Girl thing."
Vanessa's eyes widened "E-mails? Gadget Girl?"
Laura sighed. "It's a Japanese fan thing. Gadget Girl Heroes." She quickly summarized the fight against The Mighty Squid, and the Japanese tourists, and then discovering to her horror that she was featured on a Japanese fad about 'Gadget Girl Heroes'.
"So my maid is famous?" Vanessa chuckled.
Laura goggled, then scrunched down a little bit, feeling her cheeks warm. "I'm not ... I mean, I didn't want ...."
Vanessa lightly touched the girl's arm. "I'm teasing," she said with a warm smile that belied any ill intent. Laura stared at her a moment, then she relaxed. "But I wonder," the older woman continued, "if Jake and I can afford to have a celebrity house-cleaner!"
This time, Laura just frowned at Vanessa.
"Do you want to be a hero?" Vanessa broke the short but awkward silence.
The question startled Laura, and she looked, surprised, at the older woman. "What?" She really didn't need to have the question repeated; her response was a mechanism she habitually used to give her brain an extra moment or two to sort out what she'd heard. "No!" she responded strongly. "I don't want to be a hero!"
"How about being a celebrity?"
"I don't want that, either," the girl said unhappily. "Hikaru told us some of the things she had to put up with. It didn't sound like much fun." A pained expression flitted across her face, almost too quickly to see, but Vanessa noted it.
"Is there something else?" she asked in a tone that somehow reminded Laura of how her mother talked.
"It's ... my ... that ... that son of a bitch," Laura managed to spit out, struggling but failing to keep anger out of her voice and trembling at what had to have been very unpleasant memories. "My ... so-called father." She put air-quotes around the word, and voice practically oozed venom. "He ... it was okay at home," she continued after regaining her composure. "Then he started getting famous, and that business started growing and he started getting rich, and he turned into a ... a total asshole!" She closed her eyes and drew a slow breath to calm herself. "I don't want to be famous, because I don't want to become an asshole like him."
Vanessa patted Laura's arm to reassure her. "Jake and I were celebrities when we were heroes," she said calmly. "We didn't let that change us. John didn't let it change him. Deb didn't let it change her." She waited until Laura made eye contact with her. "It won't change you if you don't let it. You just have to keep yourself grounded."
"But ... how am I supposed to deal with this? Everyone is teasing me, I'm getting lots of e-mail and stuff. And I didn't want any of this."
"All I can say is you need be confident about yourself, and try to ignore everything else as best as you can. Sometimes, that's going to be hard, but you need to do the best you can." She put on another motherly smile. "Try to ignore the gossip and teasing. You're surrounded by teenagers. Before you know it, some other juicy or salacious gossip will get their attention."
"I hope so."
"I know so," Mrs. Barton said confidently. "They're teenagers."
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - Afternoon
Woods behind Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
Holding some type of small, hand-held devise in front of her, a girl moved among the trees, pausing every so often to stop and sweep the devise around her. By her side was a boy, recognizable as such by the clothing he wore. His attire included gloves, so that his arms, legs, and torso looked normal, but above the neckline, he was unrecognizable as anything other than an ambiguous, head-shaped darkness that reflected absolutely no light, as his skin completely absorbed any light that happened to strike him. His hair, a severe reddish crew cut, though, being dead strands of proteins and cells, looked normal, making him look like an inverse of the Invisible Man. Not surprisingly, his code name was Black Hole.
The girl also had GSD; while she looked mostly human, her face was long and triangular with a rounded nose and downturned lips, resembling a ferret's face more than anything else. Beneath her long hair, not visible most of the time, her ears were more rounded and jutted out more than was normal for a human. Tall and lean, she looked tense like a coiled spring, ready to move or strike all the time.
"It's clear right here," the girl announced, turning off the devise and slipping it into her pocket. She then pulled out a phone, and from the looks of it, it was no ordinary cell phone. It was a little bulkier, with a couple of extra buttons on it, so she could control the encryption and frequency-hopping features to keep her communications very private. A couple of button presses and she lifted the phone to her ear.
After a moment, she said, "Silverplate?"
"Ja, this is Silverplate," came the woman's voice through the phone. "Make your report brief; I'm in the middle of an important test."
"Nothing unusual with subject 2. He just blends in and doesn't cause any trouble. He seems to be well-liked in his cottage, and we haven't noticed any potential problems."
"Sehr gut. And subject 1?"
"She has a regular job at the staff village, so she is out of surveillance several times a week. The only item of concern is that she walks between her cottage and the Village in un-monitored areas, so she's vulnerable during those times."
"You are monitoring her especially during those times?"
"Of course. We've noticed a few problems. First, there's a girl who is blatantly flirting with and propositioning subject 1."
"Yes, a very blatant lesbian. She is distracting subject 1 frequently. If the subject succumbs to the lesbian's advances, it could stir up some anti-gay bullying toward her."
"You know what you have to do with this distraction," the woman's voice came through sternly. "I can't take any chances of my subject being injured through stupidity of others."
"Jawohl," the girl replied curtly. "That leads to issue two. The lesbian's close friend is the bully who's been threatening our subject. We suspect it has to do with jealousy; the lesbian seems to increase her advances to out subject when the bully is nearby."
"Is that the one you've had issues with?"
"Yes. Both of the problem girls are part of a group of somewhat angry and belligerent man-hating, baseline-hating girls who call themselves the Amazons and are frequently in trouble for starting fights."
"The Amazons? Hmmm...."
"They don't lose very many fights. They train hard and seem quite proud of their martial prowess."
"Recruit the girl who wants to attack our subject."
"What?" The ferret-girl's jaw dropped in astonishment.
"Recruit the bully girl. She would make good muscle, no?"
"But ... she's ... a lesbian!"
"I don't care who she sleeps with! We need fighters - just in case, and if you recruit her, she can be directed to leave our subject alone. Don't let her know details apart from the fact that your group is very pro-mutant. Let on that you're training in case you have to fight for mutant rights, and she should take the bait." The woman paused. "If the group is as pro-mutant as you say, they could be 'useful idiots'."
"I think that's a bad idea, Silverplate."
"Objection noted. Carry out your orders."
"Jawohl!" With the crispness of the girl's response, it wouldn't have been unexpected for her to snap to attention and raise her arm in a Nazi salute.
"And discourage the lesbian. Now what is the third issue?"
The ferret-girl sighed. "In the labs, someone is sabotaging her work. The subject is becoming frustrated and has commented that she sometimes wonders if the school is worth all the headaches."
"Then we must not let that person or persons discourage her. You know what to do."
"My contact with the Secret Squirrels is already investigating, surreptitiously of course."
"Good." The woman paused a moment. "Silverplate Out." The line went dead, leaving the girl trying to digest the completely unexpected orders she'd been given. It was possible the boy was stunned as well, but as his skin was a near-perfect absorber of light, there was no expression from which to judge his mood, only the flat-black inky darkness.
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - Near Dinnertime
Tech Tunnel Beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
As she walked out of the lab, a bit of movement that she saw from the corner of her eye caused Laura to pause and look to satisfy her curiosity. She sighed at recognizing who she saw; the boy was trying a little too hard to look like he wasn't watching her, while his pace suddenly increased to close the distance. After a couple of seconds, during which Laura turned and slowly walked down the tunnel toward the lift to the cafeteria, the boy drew up next to her. "Hi, Laura," he said in accented English.
She glanced at the boy. "Hi, Kosuke,"
"Are you going to dinner?" the Japanese boy asked. Kosuke Nakano was a freshman gadgeteer from Kochi Japan, and it was obvious to even the blind that he had become infatuated with Laura. "I could walk you to Crystal Hall, so no-one could do harm."
"Yeah, I'm on my way to dinner. And I suppose if you walked with me, we could talk about our projects," Laura answered. "I'm late for dinner, I think. I'm supposed to meet my friends, but I got a little wrapped up in a project, and ...."
Kosuke nodded, smiling. "I understand. Sometimes it is difficult to leave your work."
Laura chuckled. "That does seem to be a common affliction all of us down here suffer from!"
"Ah, but not suffering," Kosuke countered. "It is joy to make something that has never been made before." He smiled at Laura. "And such inventions are noted by government of Japan and big companies. Five zaibatsus have interest in me, since they say I am 'gadget genius'." He sounded quite proud of being recognized by major Japanese corporations. "You could get good job in Japan, in zaibatsu, too."
Laura's eyes widened. "I'm not sure I want to go to Japan."
"Gadgeteers are heroes in Japan. Large demand for gadgeteers since all companies want new products that gadgeteers invent," Kosuke explained. "You could get job with big pay, especially since you are 'Gadget Girl Hero."
Laura cringed at the phrase. "I've had enough of this Gadget Girl Hero stuff! I wish I could make it stop! I don't want to be a celebrity!"
"It is too late," Kosuke replied with a grin and chuckle. "So best idea is to make advantage of your fame. If you want, companies will pay big salary and private lab if they hire you. Most will pay for apartment, too." He shrugged. "Probably many Japanese boys are interested in you."
Hints about the issue that the boy was skirting around, Laura shook her head. "I can't leave my mom and my little sister. And moving to Japan? I don' understand any of the culture. I'd be a fish out of water!" She gave a half-hearted chuckle. "And I bet that if I signed up with a company, someone would contract a reality show about a blue gaijin in Japan! No thanks."
"Big zaibatsu would pay for mother and sister to come, too. In Japan, family is very important. And privacy in Japan is respected. None would make show about you unless you said yes. Even though you are famous Gadget Girl Hero." Kosuke glanced at the girl, his face showing worry. It was obvious that he was trying to muster courage to say something to Laura.
"How come you know so much about the Gadget Girl Hero stuff?" Laura queried, almost a demand punctuating her unhappiness about the subject.
"I ... read news about Gadget Girl Heroes," Kosuke admitted. "Is inspiring to see what Gadget Girls invent."
"I don't know why they think I'm so special," Laura muttered unhappily. "And I'm getting a lot of e-mail from boys and mothers in Japan."
Kosuke gulped at Laura's revelation. "Families like to have gadget inventor. It is prestige. It shows importance." He looked down, wincing shyly. "And I read that some boys say 'anata wa utsukushī tenshi desu'."
"What does that mean?"
"In English, they say 'you are beautiful angel'," Kosuke said, his cheeks reddening.
"And what do you say?" Laura felt like teasing the boy a bit.
Kosuke flinched. "I think boys are right." He glanced at Laura, and misread her expression as being upset. "But most look at outside. I think you have beauty inside. Beauty of mind and beauty of gentle spirit."
Laura knew she could take the teasing up a notch. "So you don't think I'm pretty?"
Kosuke's expression was almost panic, not knowing how to answer her question without offending her. "I think ...."
A pleasant laugh came from Laura. "I'm teasing. I really didn't expect you to answer that."
The boy nearly fell over with relief. "Is that what Americans call no-win?"
"Yeah. A verbal trap. Another way is to say 'damned if you do, damned if you don't."
"If your friends are gone from dining," the boy asked uneasily, "maybe you sit with us at gadgeteer table? We can talk about projects."
"Probably not tonight," Laura replied as politely as she could. He was almost asking her on a date. An informal date, but dining with him at the gadgeteers' table could be construed by many as an informal date. "If my friends have eaten, I'll pick up a 'to go' dinner and get back to work. With all my odd jobs, I have to take advantage of every minute I get in the labs." Seeing his expression of extreme curiosity, Laura continued. "I help Hikaru and Tia keep their rooms clean and do their laundry, and I babysit for teachers' kids in The Village."
The boy's eyes nearly popped from their sockets. "You ... are friend of Myoujin-sama?"
A simple nod was all the response Laura gave. "So with the jobs, it's hard to get lab time, and I'm trying to make a few things for my friends. Like Morgana. She needs a personal field generator."
"She is redhead demon girl that comes to labs and drinks much coffee?"
"Yup, that's her. So anyway, I have to get these projects done to help my friends. And I need to start make demo gadgets for the weapons fair." She smiled. "But I should spend time with the labcoat crew, so maybe once in a while, I can eat with you guys."
Kosuke looked astonished that she sort-of said yes for something in the future. She'd let him off the hook before he had to admit that she was very pretty. And he was trying - and mostly failing - to work up the courage to ask her to a movie in Crystal Hall."
Sunday, September 25, 2016 - Evening
Behind Laird Hall, Whateley Academy
As had become habit, the girl walked slowly around Laird Hall, constantly scanning around her. She knew where the bushes and corners and building features were that someone could use if they wished to ambush her. Not that Brita was paranoid, but she'd been rattled by being threatened the other night, and she knew that while the Amazons were a force that others didn't mess with, that was only when they were in a group. Individually, they were all vulnerable.
Brita hadn't told any of the other Amazons about being ambushed and threatened; they were already unhappy with her over bullying certain of the girls from Poe, and she didn't need another incident to incite the others against her. She had to investigate on her own, to determine the magnitude of the threat, to see if it was credible, to see who had threatened her, and then she could get the other Amazons, and maybe she wouldn't have to divulge that she'd only been ambushed because she'd been stalking that blue falsches Mädchen, the one with whom Val had been flagrantly flirting.
Someone had left Brita a message to meet her behind Laird, with a cryptic mention that it had to do with Val and the blue girl. Naturally, Brita was on guard to avoid surprises. And so she came, alone as requested, but with all her holdouts and ready to fight if necessary. Unknown to most, one of her holdouts, palmed in her hand, was a 'deadman' switch, a panic button that if released would sound a silent alarm, including her location, to all the Ammys.
Two figures waited in the woods, not trying to camouflage their positions, but with hoods up, their identities were hidden, just like the two who had threatened her. It was probably the same pair. The Amazon girl gulped uneasily; she knew, as did many, that this area was covered by only one security camera, and it often 'malfunctioned'.
She mustered her courage and stepped boldly toward the pair; perhaps if she didn't show fear, didn't show that they intimidated her, but she acted and spoke with bluster, they'd back down a little. "I'm here. What do you want?" she demanded of the two figures once she was within about ten feet, stopping with her fists clenched and resting on her hips, a display of strength and fearlessness.
One of the two, a boy considering his voice, laughed. "You don't frighten easily. That's good." It was the same voice she'd heard threatening her the other night.
"How serious are you about protecting mutants from ... hostile threats?" the other, the same girl's voice, asked.
This wasn't what Brita expected. "What?"
"Mutant rights," the girl repeated. "How serious are you about defending mutants?"
"And not just members of your little lesbian fight club?" the boy added with a chuckle.
Brita stiffened; while the sexualities of the Amazons wasn't hidden, it also wasn't boasted of publicly, so many students could only guess according to rumors. But this boy sounded firm in his conviction. "We're outnumbered and hated," Brita replied. "You saw the Helen Goodkind film. You know what the attitudes are toward mutants."
"Do you want to help protecting our kind?" the girl's voice asked.
"My ... supervisor ... was impressed by my report on you," the girl said bluntly. "She suggested that you might fit into our organization quite well."
Brita's curiosity had been piqued. "What organization?" She frowned. "You're not talking about those weenies in Ev Rocks, are you?"
The girl laughed. "They're a nice cover for our organization. A bunch of useful idiots."
"We hide inside that club. But we work for someone who's a little less idealistic and pacifistic," the boy replied.
Brita cocked an eyebrow. "Okay, you've got my attention."
"Your fighting spirit was noted. The fact that you train far more than most was noted."
"And the fact that I'm ... not straight?" Brita posed carefully.
The girl laughed. "As the person I report to noted, we don't really care who you sleep with if you're willing to fight to defend all mutants. Not just the women and girls."
"Fight ... to defend men?" Brita's jaw dropped. It was completely against her instincts.
"We don't ask you to give up your girlfriends. Only answer whether you'd defend mutant men and boys," the boy replied with a nod.
"I'd be lying if I said that the idea of fighting MCO and H1 wasn't very enticing," Brita admitted, easing her suspicions a little. "But I have to know more about what I'd be getting into."
"And my boss would think you an impetuous fool if you didn't ask for more information. Are you willing to listen? Bearing in mind that we can only reveal things that won't put our organization in jeopardy." The girl's voice was deadly earnest. "And anything I tell you can't be revealed without our authorization."
"Cloak and dagger?" Brita asked. Her curiosity was really skyrocketing by the mysteries they were hinting at. "I know how to keep a secret."
"We know how to silence you if you don't," the boy interjected menacingly.
"That's how serious we are. If you listen to what we have to say, you can't tell anyone anything about this conversation."
Brita nodded grimly. "You have my word. As a German and as an Amazon."
"Okay." The girl seemed to be hesitant. "On campus, we call ourselves Vanguard, a subsection of the Evolution Rocks club."
"But where they're pacifist sissies, we believe that der Tag is coming, that we will face an attack on our rights and our lives," the boy pronounced.
"We plan to be ready. Vanguard is a cover for The Directorate, our parent organization."
"Even we don't know all the details about The Directorate," the girl admitted. "It has to be that way for security. But just as Vanguard hides within Evolution Rocks on campus, so The Directorate hides within Evolution Rocks off campus."
"We don't know the details, but we do know that the blue girl and one other on campus are extremely important to the projects that are in work to prepare for the day," the boy added.
"We're preparing to fight, and to win," the girl said solemnly. "You have fighting spirit. Our superiors were impressed by that. That's why we were directed to approach you - because we will need fighters to protect important people and projects and to defend mutants when, not if, things go sideways for mutant rights."
Brita considered the overall situation. While it was true that Val flirting with the blue girl was annoying, it wasn't like Brita had and exclusive relationship with Val. Val played the field, always seeking a new challenge. Brita, likewise, wasn't tied to any one Amazon girl. Was Val worth the risk? She slowly came to the conclusion that this game had far more potential for using the skills she and the Amazons built, for the good of mutants everywhere, and that the downside of chasing Val - a pursuit that had so far proven fruitless - seemed paltry in comparison.
"I'm interested," Brita said firmly. She knew that she'd just crossed the Rubicon, that she'd committed to something that sounded very serious. Based on the threats that had been made previously, the group was deadly earnest about its mission. The thought of being involved in something dangerous thrilled her. "Tell me more."
Monday, September 26, 2016 - Morning
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Out of habit, Hideo Taniguchi bowed to the receptionist in the administrative offices, a gesture of respect. From the corner of his eye, he could see that his son was aping his gesture.
"The Headmaster is expecting you. Please follow me to his conference room." The young woman smiled charmingly and walked across the reception area and down a short corridor to a meeting room. "Please make yourselves comfortable. Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee? Soft drink?"
"Thank you, no," Hideo answered politely.
"I'll tell the Headmaster that you're here."
"Thank you." Hideo bowed again. It simply wouldn't do to not show respect to everyone at this campus, a place that was evidently very esteemed in the eyes of the government of Japan.
Even before he and Koichi could sit, before the door could close behind the receptionist, a pair of men entered the room. The first was older, graying, with eyes that betrayed a calculating mind that demanded precision, or so the report from DOPS had told him. The other was a little less stiff and formal, but more muscular and younger.
"Mister Taniguchi?" the older gentleman asked politely.
"Hai. Do I have the honor of speaking to Mazarin-san?" he asked, making sure he was using the most formal mannerisms and addresses that the situation required.
"I'm Geoffry Mazarin," the older man said with a pleasant smile.
"Taniguchi, Hideo," the Japanese man said, bowing respectfully, and deeper than he'd bowed to the receptionist.
To his surprise and delight, both men matched his gesture instead of the American custom of handshakes. "I'm Robert Turner," the beefier, younger man introduced himself. "Assistant Headmaster."
"My son, Koichi," Hideo gestured toward the boy.
"I am pleased to meet you, Turner-sama and Mazarin-sama," the boy said as he bowed. The boy's manners stirred pride in his father that he'd learned good etiquette in his upbringing.
"Let's be seated, and please, formalities are not required."
"We received an application for your son," Robert Turner got right to the point. "With a ringing endorsement from the Japanese DOPS."
Hideo nodded. "I brought copies of requested forms in case papers from DOPS were not transmitted in timely manner."
"Why do you want your son to attend Whateley?" Mazarin was no less direct that his assistant.
"Since he is mutant, I want him to have best education to take most advantage from his talent," Hideo replied. "DOPS in Japan told me this is best school for his situation."
Turner turned to the boy. "Why do you want to attend Whateley?" He noticed that the boy glanced quickly at his father, who nodded.
"Teachers tell me I have potential as artist. This is good, because I like art. I want to be artist and learn how to use my gift to help my art," Koichi said plainly.
"You refer to the ability to infuse your art projects with your emotion, so that viewers experience it the same way that you do?" Mazarin asked.
"Yes," the boy said, giving his father a hesitant glance. "And opportunity to learn from great art teacher who is very admired by artists in Japan."
Turner goggled and coughed to clear his throat. "Excuse me? Did you just say that one of our art teachers is admired in Japan? Which means that teacher would have to be well-known? And the only one who might possibly be that well known ...." A sinking feeling engulfed him as he put two and two together, and he lowered his head, shaking it and sighing. "She's going to be insufferable when she hears this."
"You mean more insufferable, don't you?" Mazarin asked with a chuckle. "I assume you are talking about Imp?"
Hideo took a paper from his suit jacket pocket and unfolded it, revealing a lot of Japanese characters. "If I may, I have questions about school," he began.
"That's why we're here," Mazarin replied with a smile. "To answer any questions you might have."
For almost an hour, Taniguchi asked his questions and the two administrators answered them. Koichi was asked by Turner and Mazarin to explain how his power worked, noting what he said and what the letter from Japan's DOPS had said.
Finally, Hideo seemed to be out of questions. "Is it permitted to talk to some students?" he asked formally.
Robert Turner smiled. Any parent who wanted to get opinions from actual students and not just the administration was being very prudent. "Certainly. Are there power types you'd like to talk to? Art students? We have some Japanese students here as well."
From his jacket pocket, Hideo pulled another paper. Carefully unfolding it, he showed it to the two administrators. "These two?"
Mazarin was startled by the request. "Any reason for these two in particular?"
Hideo nodded. "Are well-known in Japan. Girl is Gadget Girl Hero from fighting villain in New York. Boy fought, too. Are Koichi's age." He shrugged, smiling.
"And if you select the students to interview," Turner said, smiling, "we couldn't cherry-pick students, and you would be more likely to get unbiased opinions." He noted Hideo's expression - surprise and a little uneasy. "I wish all parents who came for interviews would be as wise as you," he said to show Hideo that he didn't take the request as an insult, but rather felt pleased that the Japanese man was showing prudence and wisdom.
The effort to mollify Hideo's sense of honor worked. Mazarin rose and opened the door, sticking his head out. "Please have Laura Samuels and Taka Ono report to the small conference room." He sat back down. "When they arrive, we will leave you so they won't feel intimidated in how they answer your questions. Now, while we're waiting, would you care for a refreshment?"
Monday, September 26, 2016 - Late Morning
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
With an unexpected bang, the classroom door stopped its motion when it contacted a door stop against a wall. The noise interrupted the lecture, and gained the attention of almost all the students, save only for the two or three who were napping. Even the instructor, Dr. Barton, was startled by the sudden interruption. In the doorway stood a pair of security officers.
"Can I help you?" Barton asked; though his words were polite, it was easy to read his tone of voice to understand his irritation at being interrupted.
"We are instructed to take Laura Samuels to administration," one security officer answered.
"Oh?" Barton was unimpressed. "Is there a problem?"
"We were only instructed to take her to administration," the officer replied curtly.
Dr. Barton nodded. "Miss Samuels, you're excused. I'll send you the lecture notes and the assignment."
Only Dr. Barton's calm demeanor kept Laura from panicking. That and the fact that the officers were carrying only their sidearms, and they had those holstered. She slid her books into her backpack, slung it over her shoulder, and then followed the officers.
Once they were in the hall, out of earshot of any of the classes, Laura couldn't contain her curiosity. "Why do they want to see me?"
"No idea," one officer answered, the one who'd done the talking in the classroom.
Giving up on getting more information from the security duo, Laura walked between the two, trying to have a bored expression, so that the passersby would not think she was in trouble. It wasn't a long walk, so she had little time to enjoy the pleasant autumn afternoon before she was escorted into the administrative suite in Schuster Hall.
To her surprise, Taka Ono was seated and calmly waiting. Before she could say anything, the secretary stood. "Thank you," she said to the officers. "Dismissed." Somehow, it didn't seem right to Laura that a secretary would order the security guards around; it seemed like a private giving orders to a major. But again, she had little time to contemplate the odd situation. "Ms. Samuels, Mr. Ono, please follow me." She led the two bewildered students to a conference room.
The Headmaster and Assistant Headmaster were both in the conference room, as were a Japanese man in a neat business suit and a Japanese boy about their age. The man's eyes widened, and he couldn't keep from smiling a bit.
"Mister Taniguchi, this is Laura Samuels, one of our gadgeteer students," the Headmaster looked at Laura, "and Taka Ono, who is one of our better martial arts students. May I present Taniguchi-san, and his son Koichi. Mr. Taniguchi is considering having his son attend school, so they are here to learn more about the unique offerings of our school."
Hideo bowed formally to the two students. "I am pleased to meet you, Laura-chan and Taka-chan." Taka bowed immediately, and after a moment, Laura decided to copy Taka's gesture.
Koichi also bowed, but unlike his father, he kept his eyes focused on Laura. For some reason, she was more attractive in person than her picture had suggested, and he was contemplating his father's orders, wondering if perhaps this wouldn't be less onerous than he'd first feared. "It is nice to meet you Laura. Taka."
Mazarin smiled. "Mr. Taniguchi asked if he could speak with a couple of students. I don't blame him at all for being cautious with his son's safety and education." He grinned. "If I were in his shoes, I'd do the same, just to get a unique student perspective of Whateley."
Laura cocked an eyebrow, still looking at the boy. "Or to ensure that he's getting the unvarnished truth from students?"
Turner laughed aloud. "I see that Jake's description of you is spot-on." He saw the girl's expression change to one of shock. "Oh, don't worry. He hasn't said anything bad. Just that you're ... direct, shall we say?"
"We'll leave you to have a private discussion with the students," Mazarin said to Hideo. "If you would like, your son can have lunch with them. It would be our honor if you would dine with Mr. Turner and me in the faculty dining room. If you need anything, just ask the secretary." With another bow to the elder Taniguchi, the pair of administrators left the room, closing the door softly behind them.
Hideo gestured toward the chairs, a non-verbal suggestion that they be seated. Even though he was a guest at Whateley, when he'd been left alone in the conference room, Laura noticed that he took charge, demonstrating that he was used to being in charge. "I am pleased you are able to talk with us."
"It's our pleasure," Laura answered for herself and Taka. "I hope we can answer all your questions, but I wonder why us? We're just freshmen. Surely there are others who know more about the school."
Hideo turned to Taka. <It is good to meet a son of Japan here. It speaks highly of the school that they trust Whateley with your education.>
<I am honored to meet you. Laura-san asked why we are meeting with you.>
Hideo smiled. <I understand some English. I asked to speak with you and Samuel-san. You are both known in Japan from your heroic battle in New York. Samuel-san is also known as a Gadget Girl Hero. I wanted my son to meet both of you.>
Taka gawked for a moment, then he did his best to translate for Laura. When he mentioned that the Taniguchis knew of her celebrity status as a Gadget Girl Hero, Laura stared in disbelief, her mouth agape. "I don't want to be a famous Gadget Girl Hero!" she protested.
"If you would permit," Taka continued, ignoring the girl's reaction, "Taniguchi-san would like picture with you. Daughter Sakura-chan is big fan of Gadget Girl Heroes. Picture would be prize for her to show to friends at school."
Laura wanted to face palm. "Tanya is never going to let me forget what she said in New York!" With a sigh, she shrugged. "Why not? It's not like a picture or two will make things worse than they already are."
Monday, September 26, 2016 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Following Taka and Laura, Koichi's eyes were wide in surprise at the number of mutants with GSD who were queued up to get lunch, talking with other kids as if it was normal for a living, walking stone to be joking and laughing with another resembling a human lizard and a third who looked like a young Greek god. A few students carried multiple trays stacked high with a dizzying array of foods of all types, as if they were feeding a platoon, but at some tables, there were students busily shoveling food into their mouths with all the picky-ness and daintness of stokers shoveling coal into a boiler. In the steam tables from which the students were serving themselves, the Japanese boy saw steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, salad fixings, every vegetable imaginable to man and some that weren't, and breads and rolls of all kinds.
"Excuse, Laura-san," Koichi addressed the blue girl, his brow wrinkled in confusion and his voice almost awe-struck. "What is special day for this feast?"
"Special day?" Laura gawked for a moment, then chuckled. "No, this isn't special. This is just a normal lunch."
"Normal?" Koichi gawked. "Every day?"
<Food is self-serve,> Taka informed the confused boy. <Some students have severe dietary restrictions, so cooks always make huge variety of food.>
<Ah. Hai.> The newcomer nodded. <Food is expensive, then.>
Taka got an amused smile. <Food is part of fees for attending school. And free for guests.> He added the last bit when he correctly judged Koichi's expression to be one of concern about how much lunch would cost him.
"You can find just about any kind of food here," Laura added as she picked up a tray, plate, and silverware. "Italian, French, Caribbean, Mexican, Chinese." She winced slightly. "I like the Japanese and Mexican foods, but I don't know how authentic they are. You might find it ... unpalatable if it's an Americanized version and not true Japanese food."
"I will try pizza," the boy said, hungrily eyeing the assortment of pizzas that were prepared and waiting.
Laura pointed to another part of the serving line. "If you want a custom pizza," she explained, "you can make it over there. Pick your crust, sauce, and toppings, put it all together, and slide it into the machine. It's a devisor pizza oven that'll cook your pizza in about a minute." Laura could see his amazement, so she led him to the pizza line, where she guided Koichi, encouraged him to not be stingy, and assembled a pizza for herself.
After checking out in what Koichi thought was a cashier's line but was really just for tallying food consumption, they joined Taka and went up to the second floor, to the M3 table, where several of the group paused mid-bite, looking at the newcomer.
"This is Koichi Taniguchi," Laura introduced the boy. "He's visiting and might enroll here. His father and the administration thought it would be good if he talked to some average students to answer any questions he might have."
"Well, that rules us out," Morgana snorted with a chuckle. "I don't think anyone would call us average!"
"Or normal," Tanya snickered.
"Are all members of fan club?" Koichi asked, directing the question to Laura.
"Fan club?" Morgana laughed aloud. "Us? Part of Laura's fan club?" Giggles of mirth, outright laughter, and derisive snorts erupted around the table, and Laura's cheeks turned a nice shade of lavender as she blushed.
"No," Bianca replied with a sideways glance at Laura. "If anything, she's our fan club!"
"Oh, hush!" Laura snapped back, sticking her tongue out at Bianca, which caused more giggling around the M3 table and a bit more confusion to Koichi.
"So you might join us in the asylum?" Tanya asked Koichi as he sat down.
"Asylum?" Koichi was struggling to process her joke.
"Insane asylum. Loonie bin. Nut-house," Bailey chuckled. "None of us are normal, so I guess it fits to call us all nuts!"
"Ah. You call school insane asylum?" Koichi asked, realization dawning visibly on his face. He smiled faintly. "Yes. I see. Many friends think I am crazy with art because most in Japan wish to be gadgeteers."
"The red-headed smartie-pants is Morgana," Laura began the introductions. "She's from England ...."
"How many times to I have to repeat, I'm WELSH!" the fiery redhead interrupted, although whether her indignation was an act or real wasn't intuitively obvious.
"Meh! Po-tay-to, po-tah-to!" Tanya chuckled.
Laura ignored Morgana's objection. "... but we don't hold that against her."
Morgana blew a raspberry at Laura, which caused more laughter. Obviously Morgana wasn't upset at Laura, but the two were mutually kidding each other, hinting at a solid friendship.
"The one doing the ghost impersonation next to her is Bianca, who's also her roommate." Bianca didn't grace the comment with an answer; instead she just shook her head slightly anhd rolled her eyes, which made Laura chuckle. "We're all trying to figure out how they put up with each other."
"My roommate Bailey. If you lose anything, check with her." Laura got a wicked grin. "If she didn't swipe it, she's got a power that will help find it."
"Just for that, I'm not going to help you find your missing earring!" Bailey huffed with mock indignation.
"Vic. I'm still not sure why we keep him around, but he's mostly harmless." Vic sighed and rolled his eyes like Bianca had.
"Purple-hair there is Tanya. She's the serious one of our group." She made a big production of feigning an aside to Koichi. "Personally, I think her sense of humor was surgically removed."
Koichi was trying to politely bow, but since he had sat down at the same times as Laura and Taka, the best he could do was a formal nod of his head, and Laura was going too quickly through the introductions for him to comply with the formalities that went with introductions in Japan.
"Jimmy isn't here right now," Laura continued. "And Erica and Callie aren't here ...."
Erica's arrival couldn't have been better timed if it had been scripted. "Callie took a hard fall in BMA," she announced to the group. "She hurt her shoulder. Jimmy went with her to Doyle to get it checked out."
"Is she okay?" Morgana, Vic, and Bailey asked simultaneously. The expressions on the others' faces echoed their concern.
Erica nodded. "She got off-balance practicing takedowns and she hit the mats pretty hard. It's probably not serious, but Sensei Tolman wanted her to go to Doyle to make sure."
"Your timing is almost perfect," Laura continued. "Our guest is Koichi Taniguchi. He's interviewing to see if he'll come here, and the administration wanted him to talk with some average students."
"And we already did the 'we're not average or normal' line," Bianca interjected as Erica wound up to say something similar.
"You're no fun!" Erica frowned.
"And this refugee from the Sound of Music is Erica," Laura continued smoothly.
"Pbthhhh!" Erica responded to Laura's description.
"We already did that one, too!" Bailey laughed.
"Sometimes, their highnesses Tia and Hikaru grace us with their presence," Morgana said after the smirks and snickers and giggles died down, sounding nonchalant and shrugging that didn't at all match her wicked smile. "Apparently today isn't our lucky day."
"So what's your trick?" Bailey asked, giving voice to the question that all of them had.
"I ... my art ...." Koichi shook his head. "Is hard to explain." He turned to Taka. <When I create art, my feelings somehow get attached to the work, and everyone who views it can feel like I did when I made it.> In Japanese, it was easy for him to describe what he did, but he wasn't good enough in English to explain.
<I understand,> Taka replied. <It would be better if Myoujin-sama was here. My English is not good, and I fear that I would not be able to properly translate.>
Koichi frowned. Then he got an inspiration. "I will show if with paper and pencil." Tanya was the quickest to respond. The Japanese boy looked around a bit, letting his gaze settle on the small waterfall in the center of Crystal Hall, cascading down from what appeared to be a mountain cliff that towered up to the third tier from a small pool at the bottom. Glancing at the waterfall and then at Laura, he quickly sketched a scene, his imagination putting Laura, in a flowing kimono, standing at the railing of a Japanese-style bridge which spanned a koi pond, with the waterfall in the background falling onto rocks and flowing into the pond. Around the pond, Koichi sketched bamboo shoots and flowers, filling in the sketch as his pencil danced across the page.
When he set down the pencil, he saw the others gawking at him. "Not good, I know," he said with a wince. "But ... here." He handed the sketch to Laura.
The blue girl's mouth dropped open in amazement as she stared at the sketch. "I feel the sketch!" she declared in astonishment. "I feel like I'm a visitor learning to love the waterfall and pond. I feel the peace and tranquility of the scene. I feel the satisfied curiosity of ...well, of me ...." She shook her head slightly. "It's ... it's unreal! Like I'm looking at myself and feeling how I would be starting to love ... Japan? ... in real life."
"Let me see that," Morgana, sitting beside Laura, was closest to the drawing. As she held it and stared, a strange look came over her face, a look of tranquility and peace and happiness. "It's like ... I feel pleased that someone is learning to love my country," she reported. "Even though Japan isn't my country, the sketch makes me feel like it kind of is!"
One by one, the others held and gazed at the sketch, and all their reactions were identical - they all said they could feel the pride of someone showing a guest his or her homeland and watching as the guest began to fall in love with that homeland.
"Wow!" Bianca said, expressing their collective sentiment. "Is that what you were thinking when you made the sketch?"
"Yes," Koichi said. "Is what I do - feelings when I draw become in art."
"How long does it last?" Erica finally voiced the obvious question.
"Not know. Never had feeling fade from art." Koichi shrugged. "DOPS think it is permanent when they test me."
"It makes your art very unique," Bailey said with a hint of admiration in her voice. "Unlike any other."
The Japanese boy shrugged. "Skill is not good. Much I have to master to be good artist."
Laura shook her head. "It's a lot better than I could do!" she declared. "When we finish eating, I'm going to find my friend Antonia to see if she can introduce you to Imp!"
Koichi's eyes looked like they were going to spring from his head. "Imp? You ... introduce me to Imp?"
Bailey nodded. "I'm not in any of her art classes, but sometimes she substitutes teaching Survival 1, so I know her." She grinned. "I've gotta warn you - Imp is kind of ... strange."
"Strange?" Koichi was a bit puzzled for a moment, so he glanced at Taka.
<I do not understand term she used, but people say Imp is eccentric,> Taka said with a shrug.
"Ah! Kimyōna? Kureijī?" Koichi smiled. "Hai. Many artists little kureji! Father-san think I also kureji!"
Bianca gazed evenly at the boy. "If kureji means what it sounds like it means, you certainly found the right group to hang with," she deadpanned.
Monday, September 25, 2016 - Afternoon
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Bailey looked uncomfortable, checking her watch yet again as she walked with Laura, Taka, and Koichi toward Imp's office. "Are you sure this is okay?" she asked.
"It'll be okay," Laura replied confidently. "The administration said we can miss classes while we show our guest around the school."
"That was for you and Taka," Bailey countered uneasily.
"We'll talk to Imp a little bit, then you can go to class a bit late and show your instructor your pass," Laura tried to persuade her roommate to chill. "It's not like you're playing hooky the rest of the day."
"Like you are?" Bailey quipped with a grin.
The group approached an office that was quite unlike most of the bland, sterile office doors of other teachers. Above the door hung a sign that read in a nice Gothic font, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter." The nameplate on the door proclaimed "The Fabulous Imp" in fluorescent color-changing letters carved into a black panel, and it was surrounded by a marqueetype set of chasing lights. The door had what appeared to be a doggie door in the lower panel with a sign above it reading "Acme Deliveries Only." In the lower edge of the door were the outlines of a cat and a mouse having broken through the door cartoon-style; a closer look revealed that the openings were very skillfully painted onto the door. Above the door handle was a confusing and apparently impassable maze of locks, hasps, latches, and knobs. On a bulletin board next to the door, there was a page labeled "Entry instructions", which looked to be an impossible combination of physically-challenging simultaneous actions and logic-defying steps - and at the bottom was printed, "Never mind. Just turn the doorknob." Imp had posted notes for her classes, including an Escher print with a 'you are here' sticker claiming to be directions to some type of studio or workshop.
"Yup," Laura said, rolling her eyes at the display of an unorthodox teacher, "she's...." She looked at Koichi. "How did you say that? Strange?"
Koichi was looking at the odd display. "Kureji," he repeated.
On the door jamb was a doorbell button, too, which had several Post-it-notes around it warning "Please do NOT press this button!" - likely from other teachers. Below it was an engraved panel stating "Please Stand on the X When Pressing Button. Not a Trap! Honest!" The group looked down and noticed a large white "X" which had appeared on the floor, with a barely-visible square around it, like the outline of a large trap-door in the floor. Almost as one, the kids jumped back from the square.
Laura couldn't resist and she pressed the button. A loud two-pitched foghorn sounded, followed by a booming, deep voice emanating from near the top of the door asking, "You rang?" At the same time, the door swung inward with a creak worthy of a haunted house. Fog descended from the top of the opening doorway, enhancing the feeling of entering a haunted house.
Inside the office, the Imp sat in a swiveling easy-chair facing the door, grinning wickedly and petting an obviously-stuffed white cat in her lap. "Won't you come in to my lair?" she asked with a sinister chuckle.
"Um," Laura said nervously as she stepped through the door, "this ... I mean, what they say ... um ...." She halted, glancing up nervously at a very large black anvil overhead, ACME written on the side in large white block letters and dangling menacingly from what looked to be a very frayed and fragile rope.
Imp laughed and tossed the fake cat to one side. "Our assistant headmaster told me you'd probably be paying me a visit, so I thought I could help make you feel welcome by putting up a few of the little 'decorations' my one-time understudy made for me." She stood and gestured for the kids to enter her office. "What can I do to ... I mean for ... you?" A flip of a switch on her desk caused the 'anvil' to be pulled easily to one side by a thin, very light thread, revealing that the anvil was only a light prop apparently to amuse the Imp by making visitors nervous.
"Miss Imp," Bailey spoke, the least surprised of the group, "Laura and Taka are showing a potential student around the school ...."
Laura shook off her momentary surprise at the eccentricity of the teacher, "This is Koichi Taniguchi," she introduced the Japanese boy. "He's an artist, and, well, he wanted to meet you."
Imp's eyebrows rose up her forehead. "You wanted to meet me?"
Koichi nodded, half-bowing formally. "Pleased to meet you, Imp-sensei. It is my honor to meet such honored art teacher."
If anything, the Imp's eyebrows rose higher. "Honored art teacher? Are you sure you're talking about me?"
"Yes, sensei," Koichi replied. "You are well-known in Japan as great art teacher. Many wish they could learn from you."
"Are you sure they've got the right Imp?" If anything, she looked a bit embarrassed, but she shook that expression off quite quickly. "Finally," Imp said triumphantly, "all my bribes to the judges and art critics has paid off! Bwah, hah, hah!" She waited until the surprise at her antics was gone from Koichi's face. "Are you an artist?" Before Koichi could answer, the teacher suddenly straightened, concerned. "Wait a minute. Do any of you mind if I share video of your visit with my understudy? I know she'd absolutely love to see some of her ideas in action."
The kids looked at Imp as if she was insane, then looked at each other. "I ... I guess not," Laura spoke first. Quickly, the others agreed.
"I'm sure she'll appreciate it." She looked serious again. "Now, I take it you're interested in art?"
"Yes," Koichi said enthusiastically. "I am beginner, but I like to make art."
Laura extended the drawing he'd made at lunch to Imp. "He's pretty good," she said, "and he's got a unique ... talent."
Imp took the drawing and looked at it, and almost immediately, her jaw dropped open a bit. "This ... I feel something looking at this."
"He's an empath," Bailey blurted, "and whatever he's feeling when he makes art gets bound as projective empathy to his project."
Imp turned her attention back to the drawing, scrutinizing his work like an art critic. "You have raw talent," she noted. "You need to refine your ability, but I think you have very good potential."
Koichi was caught between blushing at the compliment and beaming that the famed Imp recognized his talent. "Thank you, sensei," he said, bowing again.
"If you decide to attend Whateley," Imp said, "I would very much like to teach you. With your unique talent, you could become a very influential artist."
The Japanese boy's eyes widened. "You want to teach me?" He looked and sounded like he was in disbelief that he'd just won a huge lottery.
Monday, September 25, 2016 - Afternoon
Tunnels Beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
Taka had gone back to his classes, so Laura was the only one on an elevator with Koichi and Mr. Taniguchi descending rapidly toward the tunnels and the labs. When Mr. Taniguchi asked to see the labs, Laura was thrilled, because that was her stomping grounds, unlike their visit with Imp where she felt out of place. Koichi, however, seemed indifferent to touring the labs.
"Do you have own lab?" Mr. Taniguchi engaged in conversation as they stepped out of the elevator.
"No," Laura replied easily. "I'm just a freshman, and freshmen usually don't get private labs. Not unless I invent something really big and important."
"You have interest area?" Mr. Taniguchi sensed Laura's confusion. "Cars? Electronics? Medicine? Chemicals? Interest area?"
"Ah, you mean do I have a focus area?" Laura got what he was saying. "Mostly electronics," she answered. "I have one ... invention that could help people fend off attackers, and might help police subdue criminals with non-lethal force."
"Interesting," Mr. Taniguchi answered, though it wasn't obvious how much of Laura's explanation he had understood.
"I've got a couple of projects for communication electronics," she added. "Personal stereo, hearing protection, that kind of thing. And ... I'm working on a project for a friend's car."
"Ah! Company know much about vehicles!" Mr. Taniguchi exclaimed with delight. "Taniguchi Industries started make bicycles. Make scooters, motorcycles. Now, make many products mostly for small ....," he paused, searching for an appropriate word, "unique ... market."
Laura caught on right away. "Specialty markets? Where there is a need for a unique product but the market is small enough that major companies won't make the products?"
Taniguchi smiled and nodded. "Yes. Specialty market!" He thought a moment. "Find things that not for main consumer, but for small market." His eyes lit up. "Like ... your invention to subdue might be for doctor for patient with ... um ... seizure?" he asked.
Laura's gawked at the older man. "I hadn't thought of that!" she practically exclaimed gleefully. "That might have good market potential."
The freshman lab was only about half-full, since many of the lab-denizens were in other classes, but it was enough that Mr. Taniguchi seemed in awe being in the presence of so many gadgeteers and devisors in one lab. Sensing his curiosity, she introduced him to the other students.
Trying to not be rude to the other students, Mr. Taniguchi politely greeted them, but it was obvious that his attention focused mainly on Laura and her workbench. Still, he was diplomatic, and he did say that he hoped he'd have more time to talk with them and see their 'wonderful' projects, but Laura was the host the administration assigned to the tour. He left a strong implication that if it wouldn't offend Laura, he would really like to talk to more of the gadgeteers.
Unfortunately, one of the students in the lab was Berghold Stuttley, a devisor with persistent Diedrick's Syndrome. The fact that Mr. Taniguchi wasn't looking at his project somehow tripped another episode. "You must look at my latest development," he insisted in a mix of mad-scientist histrionics and desperate babble. "My new PFG will revolutionize space travel!" he exclaimed, his eyes wild with excitement. "No more spacesuits! Man can travel among the stars in an insulated energy bubble! It'll be like ...." He shook off the Brown twins who were trying to calm him down, albeit with little effect. "You're trying to stop me too!" He ranted at them, pulling his arms away from their hands. "You can't stop me! I have to show the world!" he continued. "Get back! Leave me alone!"
Laura sighed; this was another of those days. "Stark, calm down," she implored of the taller boy. In his state, eyes wild and his hair a disheveled mess with a stained white lab coat, he looked the part of a stereotypical mad scientist, and his ranting didn't help the image. "Stark!" she tried to get through to him again.
"I'll change the way we live and travel! I'll change everything! No more umbrellas! No more bird crap on your cars! My force field ...."
At another bench, Steve Gevorgian, a weapons nut, calmly set his tools aside and extracted a strange-looking gun reminiscent of early science fiction. Keeping an eye on Stark, he reached for a power pack.
"No Steve!" Laura snapped. "Not that!" Steve's lowest-powered weapon could out-power a military-grade taser, making it potentially dangerous to the target, to say nothing of the fact that the energy discharge wasn't exactly a straight-line beam, so anyone nearby could potentially receive the paralyzing jolt. Laura grabbed her old neural neutralizer, the one that looked like a Star Trek compact phaser, from its charging rack. Across the room, Kosuke Nakano, the Japanese boy who had a crush on Laura, grabbed at Steve's power pack, trying to wrestle it from the larger, stronger boy.
His actions weren't totally ineffective; he slowed Steven down just enough for Laura to fire her neural neutralizer at the increasingly-noisy and frantic Diedrick's sufferer. The effect was exactly like a stunning beam from Star Trek - Stark froze mid-rant for a few milliseconds, and then he collapsed to the floor.
"Sorry about that," Laura apologized, her cheeks flushing lilac with embarrassment. "It's ... well, he ...."
"He's a stark raving nutter," Michelle Brown, one of the twins, said in a thoroughly British voice as she squatted down beside the fallen devisor. "He's okay. Just down for the count."
"As usual," her twin brother Michael said. He picked up the receiver of a phone and pressed a couple of buttons, and began to report the incident.
"Is he injured?" Mr. Taniguchi inquired, eyebrows raised.
"No," Laura assured him. "Just stunned. The effect will wear off in a few minutes."
"My NLI Mark 3 would have done just as good a job," Gevorgian grumbled angrily, yanking his arm clear of Kosuke's hands.
"Your Non-Lethal Interdictor, Mark Zero," Michelle Brown started sarcastically, "is about as target selective as a hand grenade!"
"And the aim is about as accurate as a blunderbuss!" her brother interrupted his conversation to toss in another jab.
"You'd have more likely zapped one of us instead of him," Laura snapped.
"How ... device work?" Mr. Taniguchi asked Laura excitedly.
"It causes resonance with the inter-neural chemicals, causing a temporary polarizing alignment and impeding neural impulses," Laura explained.
"But ... heart? Breathing? Controlled by nerves! Why it not kill by stopping heart?"
Laura smiled at how knowledgeable Mr. Taniguchi was; technical knowledge overcame some of the language barrier, and she loved to talk tech. "There are very subtle differences between the autonomic nerves and the voluntary nerves. The beam is very narrowly tuned to affect only the voluntary nerves." She continued to discuss her gadget with Mr. Taniguchi, while across the room, Koichi eased over to Kosuke's bench.
Kosuke noticed the boy coming his way. <Good afternoon,> he said politely although he looked a bit anxious. <Are you a gadgeteer, too?>
Koichi vigorously shook his head no. <No. Father-san would prefer that I was, but I am an artist.>
Kosuke's expression eased considerably. <Do you have a special talent? Are you coming to school here?>
<Yes. I am empath. My feelings bind to my art, so viewers feel my art emotionally. Father-san wants me to come to school here. I will probably be enrolled soon.> He didn't sound overly happy as he explained. As they talked, two adults came into the lab and stooped over Stuttley, tending to the stunned and fallen boy. <What will happen to him?> Koichi asked curiously. <Will he be in trouble for becoming ... so agitated?>
<This happens all the time,> Kosuke chuckled. <He will not be in trouble. They will take him to the medical center to check, but he should be back in a half hour or so.> He glanced at Laura, and Koichi could read in his expression that he was interested in Laura. <Laura's neural neutralizer is very effective, and the instructors want her to make some for the lab staff in case someone has a Diedrick's event.>
<That is impressive,> Koichi replied. It seemed that all the boys' attention turned to a red-headed newcomer with curled horns on her head; he recognized her from lunch. <Is this demon-girl one of the gadgeteers?> he asked again.
"Hi, Morgana," one of the boys said cheerfully.
Laura glanced up from her animated technical conversation with Mr. Taniguchi, and groaned. "Someone hide the coffeepot! The coffee vampire is here to rob you guys again!" In response to Laura's comment, Morgana replied diplomatically and maturely - she stuck her tongue out at the blue gadgeteer.
Kosuke grinned back at the visitor. <Morgana is not a gadgeteer, but she is a regular visitor,> he explained with a shrug. <She likes the devisor coffee here. Most boys don't complain when she visits, partly because she is actually technically semi-competent.>
The male half of the Brown twins rolled his eyes and frowned at Laura. "We don't mind her coming down occasionally," he shot back. "We like to see her!"
"Yeah, you like seeing her for two reasons," Laura muttered mischievously.
"You're just jealous," Morgana grinned at Laura, arching her back a bit so her chest pushed outward a little more.
"Yeah, that's it ... wiggle your butt, throw out your boobs, give the boys a cheap thrill, and then drink all their coffee!" Laura chuckled, shaking her head. Beside her, Mr. Taniguchi was taking in the exchange with disbelief. The group in the labs was so informal, so jovial, that he wondered how they could accomplish the things that gadgeteers were well-known for.
"Hey, if it works," Morgana shot back.
For the rest of their visit, Koichi's gaze was going back and forth between Morgana and Laura - he found the demon-girl attractive, but he had been directed to woo Laura. While his father was present in the labs, he had to make sure he paid appropriate attention to the blue gadgeteer girl. His father, though, was thoroughly involved with discussing a scale model of a project that Laura was working on for some addition to a car.
Monday, September 26, 2016 - Afternoon
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"Well, Mr. Taniguchi," Assistant Headmaster Turner began, looking up from a tablet computer, "all of the paperwork is in order for your son to attend Whateley."
"Thank you. Department Of Paranormal Studies works to be efficient," the elder Taniguchi replied with a hint of a smile.
"What date would you like him to start?" Turner asked.
Taniguchi looked puzzled. "What date?"
"I assume that he'll need to gather his belongings and say goodbye to his friends," Turner explained.
"No, Turner-san," Taniguchi said firmly. "He ... ready to start now. His mother send belongings ... soon as I say he attend."
"It may take some time," Robert Turner explained patiently, wondering from the boy's dour expression if his father was rushing things a bit. "Shipping to Whateley is sometimes slow."
"Koichi bring clothing for week. DOPS say he need uniforms, and school have store to buy. We prepare - in event he accepted. DOPS say they set up funding account. We provide money to account, so he can buy what he need."
Mr. Turner smiled. "I must say you are better prepared than most parents, Taniguchi-san," he complimented the Japanese businessman. He turned to Koichi. "On behalf of the faculty and staff, I'd like to welcome you to Whateley Academy."
"Thank you, Turner-sama," Koichi replied formally, if a bit stiffly. He was clearly less than happy about the situation, but he would do what his parents thought best for him.
"Before we assign you to a cottage," Mr. Turner continued, "I need to ask you a question." His somber tone indicated something possibly ominous. "Many of our students have Gross Structural Deformity, GSD. They can appear odd, or even frightening ...."
The elder Taniguchi's eyes brightened. "Ah. Demon-girl from lunch and in labs. She ... GSD?"
All of a sudden, Laura understood why the administration had kept her in the meeting. "And me," she admitted sheepishly. "I have GSD. Minor compared to others, but ... yeah."
"Some students are uncomfortable with GSD," Turner continued. "We try to accommodate those students in the cottages to minimize ... problems. For boys, Twain Cottage contains most of the students with GSD, while Emerson Cottage doesn't."
"Ah. You wonder if I have problem with GSD student in dorm?" Koichi asked. He glanced at Laura, and then thought about Morgana. "No problem."
Robert Turner tapped the tablet in front of him. "I see that Japan DOPS has suggested that we might consider Melville Cottage. It is a cottage for those of ... higher social standing," he said awkwardly. "I don't know if you'd prefer that housing option."
<Father-san,> Koichi shifted to Japanese to address his father, <I would prefer not to be in the social cottage. It seems presumptuous and arrogant to me. I have not done anything worthy of being in such a setting. It could limit my ability to become acquainted with other students.>
The father nodded, betraying no emotion. <Hai. It could become difficult to become acquainted with other gadgeteers if you are seen as self-aggrandizing.> He turned back to Turner. "Son would prefer not Melville."
"I understand. We will assign him to Emerson Cottage at present." He turned to Laura. "Since we have already presumed upon your time, could I ask you to show Koichi to the Emerson? The house-parent will take care of everything after that."
Laura nodded, then stood when the others rose. "Okay."
Mr. Taniguchi turned to Laura and bowed formally. "Thank you for your help, Saumuels-san. I am confident Koichi is at school he will be welcome and make friends. I thank you for your time touring labs."
"It was my pleasure, Mr. Taniguchi," Laura replied, smiling at having been recognized for her small efforts.
"Son is not technical, but perhaps someday you meet daughter, Sakura-chan. She has interest in technology. I would like to show you my humble company, too," Taniguchi was laying on the compliments and invitations. "Someday you come to Japan?"
"That would be nice," Laura replied politely, with a bit of excitement as well. From what she'd learned from the elder Taniguchi, the company would be interesting to visit.
Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - Very Early Morning (Other side of Int'l Date Line)
Taniguchi Family Home, Osaka, Japan
Sakura read an e-mail, and practically squealed with delight. "Mother," she called out in her enthusiasm. "Koichi sent an e-mail!"
Masumi Taniguchi put down what she was doing and went to her daughter's room. "You should be getting ready for school," she chided her daughter, "not reading e-mails from your brother!"
"I'm sorry, mother," Sakura winced, immediately feeling shame that her mother was absolutely correct. She turned from her computer to resume getting ready for school.
"What did he say?" her mother asked after a moment.
Sakura turned back and opened the e-mail app. "He's going to attend Whateley Academy," she replied. "He's already met Laura-chan," she paused and scrolled on the mail. "Look! He's got a picture with her!" Sakura moved so her mother could see the picture. "Do you suppose father-san took the picture?"
"Probably," her mother answered.
"And ... a group picture of gadgeteers that share a lab with Laura-chan!" She looked longingly at the image. "I wish I could go to Whateley!" she complained. "It sounds so cool!"
"Perhaps if you are lucky, you will receive the gift of gadgeteering."
"I hope so." Sakura scrolled some more. "Who ... who is this?" she asked, staring at a picture of her brother with Laura-chan and the Japanese boy everyone thought was Laura's boyfriend. With them was a woman who looked somewhat like a devil, with dark scales on her head and devil-horns - and a huge grin. In the background was a painting on the wall, with a barely-discernible placard that read, "No safe behind this picture. Honest." Just in the top of the picture was something large and black hanging, but there wasn't enough of it visible to identify the mysterious object.
"Judging from the smile on your brother's face, perhaps that is the art instructor that your brother was so eager to meet," the mother speculated.
"Father will be home in three days. Since he is in America, he has arranged some business meetings," Sakura finished.
"Finish getting ready for school," her mother directed, turning her attention to her own morning routine.
"First things first," Sakura said with a grin. She opened a website for Gadget Girl Heroes, navigated to Laura's page, and added some information. Then she replied to the e-mail from Koichi, begging him to please, please, please ask Laura-chan if she would exchange e-mails with Sakura, since the Japanese girl was a huge fan of Gadget Girl Heroes. Satisfied, she hit the send button, then finished preparing for school.
Monday, September 26, 2016 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
No sooner had Laura entered the cafeteria than she felt swarmed by several Japanese students, among them Koichi and Kosuke. "We would like to invite you to join us for dinner," one of the girls Laura remembered was Sumika Miura – one of the two who'd 'outed' her to the Gadget Girl Heroes group in Japan.
Laura glanced around the group. "Um ...." She didn't have the foggiest idea of where that sudden invitation might have come from.
One of the other girls spoke up. "You help newest student from Japan. We want to show appreciation."
Laura's left eyebrow cocked up on her forehead. "A simple thank you would have been sufficient," she suggested cautiously.
"To Amerikajin, maybe," Sumika replied.
"Not meant to offend," Kosuke interjected quickly.
"We show you hospitality you show to Koichi-san. And to say sorry for Gadget Girl Heroes website."
Sensing that the students wanted to be polite and not wanting to offend them, Laura relented. "Okay." A tiny smile crept onto her face. "And after spending time with Hikaru, I am kind of interested in Japan."
With the enthusiastic group of Japanese students, Laura was introduced to Japanese dishes that she hadn't known were served in the cafeteria. She hadn't known that they had a small clubhouse which was set up with Japanese decor and for Japanese-style dining. And while she'd known that she was a bit of a celebrity in Japan, she hadn't realized the extent of her fame until several of the Japanese students wanted picture with her and permission to post them on their own websites.
And through the politeness and enthusiasm to introduce her to all things Japanese, Laura found that she'd somehow agreed to join the Japanese students for dining periodically. At least she'd have an occasion to wear the fancy kimono that Hikaru had given her.
Thursday, September 29, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Behind Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
With a hat drawn over her head and long-sleeve shirt and pants, there was little to see of the girl beneath the attire, save for her face and hands. She leaned against a tree, trying to enjoy a moment or two of solitude and peace and quiet, especially since her skin was changing color - again. That made three times that day, which was highly unusual. The power boffins were looking for some pattern, something which triggered the change, but so far they had nothing, and so she kept covered up mostly. A glance at her hands showed the bad news - her right hand was a subdued tan which she'd had. Her left, though, showed the color that she was changing to - a deep forest green. "Why does it have to be green?" she complained to herself. It could have been worse, though - she hated the memory of the day she'd been day-glo hot pink.
In a few minutes the change would be complete and she'd go to dinner with her friends, but for now she was free of wisecracks and jokes at her expense from the pretties.
The ringing of her phone was an unexpected interruption. She pulled it from a pocket and accepted the call. "Hello?"
"Is this Melissa Wang?" the feminine voice on the line asked.
"Yes. Who am I talking to?"
"Your code name is Flicka, right? And you're a member of Vanguard?" the woman asked through the phone.
"I don't know what ...."
"What I'm talking about?" The woman laughed. "The weather in Reno today is red hail."
Melissa's eyes widened. Whoever she was speaking to knew the day's code phrase. "So carry your steel umbrella," she relied with the countersign. "Yes, I'm Melissa Wang, Flicka. What can I do for you?"
"A friend of Silverplate gave me your contact information. Let me introduce myself. I'm The Financier. I work with The Directorate, but you probably already guessed as much."
"There is a freshman girl at Whateley," the Financier stated. "She is under your observation because Silverplate has great interest in her mutation."
"Yes. Cerulea," Flicka answered. "We're watching her."
"I'm interested in something that's she developed before she got to Whateley. She has a neural neutralizer, and it's a gadget, not a devise," the woman explained. "I want to get the license for it."
"Um, why?" Flicka's curiosity was piqued by the inquiry from someone high up in The Directorate.
"You've heard of the Home Guard, haven't you?"
Flicka instinctively nodded as she answered even though the person on the phone couldn't see her. "Yes. They're in charge of self-defense aspects of The Directorate."
"My last audit of the Home Guard has shown some discrepancies, and my sources suggest that the Home Guard is getting weapons for offensive purposes. If they do accumulate weapons and funds, they could stir up an insurrection which would miserably fail and set back mutant rights by decades. I will not let them succeed."
"Okay. I think I understand," Flicka answered slowly, wracking her brain to try to put the pieces together.
The woman on the phone chuckled. "From the tone of your voice, I would guess you don't understand yet. The girl's neural neutralizer is a very good defensive weapon, wouldn't you agree?"
"I guess so."
"So. If we can license the rights to build it, we would be supplying purely defensive weapons, and that would undercut the Home Guard's rational for acquiring weapons that could be used in an uprising. I have good rationale to limit their funding to preclude them gaining offensive weapons."
The light turned on for Flicka. "Okay, that makes sense. But ... doesn't Whateley usually handle the licensing of technology? Do we want to get them involved?"
The woman chuckled. "I'm an alumna of Whateley, and I dealt with some gadgeteers and their technology licensing. The school licenses things that were invented at the school. But the girl arrived at Whateley with a working device, which means that she didn't invent it here, so the school has no legal justification for getting involved ."
"Oh. That makes sense. But what do you want me to do?"
"The Evolution Rocks club would be a good unknowing party to approach the girl. Use the grounds of 'just in case' defense for 'poor helpless mutants' in an oppressive world."
"I can do that," Flicka replied with some enthusiasm. Meetings and talk were one thing, but this was action toward protecting mutants, and that's what Vanguard was supposed to be about.
"I'll send you a text with contact information. Financier out." The phone line went dead.
Flicka stood up, a smile forming on her face. She'd have to carefully sound out the Ev Rocks members to find who would be the best patsy.