Laura and the Chocolate Factory (part 1 of 3)
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Tale
Laura and the Chocolate Factory
Part One of Three
Saturday, October 1, 2016 - Evening
New York City Morgue
The attendant, clad in a white labcoat over his street clothes didn't bother looking at the two men who came into his workspace. "Put him over there," he said in a thoroughly bored, non-interested tone as he absently pointing to a wall-full of small doors.
"Where? Here?" one of the burly men with the gurney asked.
"Next to the other three," the attendant grumbled. "Gotta put him on ice for a bit."
"Busy night?" the other gurney man asked, trying to make conversation.
"Three in the last hour," the morgue attendant muttered. "Been a very busy weekend. Doc is almost two days behind."
"Sheeiiit," the first gurney man whistled.
The attendant shrugged. "Job security. People gonna die. Someone's gotta take care of 'em when they do."
"Better you than me," the second gurney man said.
"Yeah, maybe," the attendant grumbled, "but I'd rather work here than on an ambulance." He jerked his head toward a hallway. "Let's go fill out the paperwork, and I can get back to my lunch." Leaving the body-laden gurney by the row of body drawers, the trio of men ambled out of the room into an office, to complete the necessary paperwork for the city, county, and state bureaucracies.
In the room, there was a slight thud in the row of drawers, then another, and a third, even louder. The door, designed to swing open to the side and with its latch on the outside, bulged out from some hidden pressure, and after a few seconds, the tortured hinges and latch gave up; the door twisted out of its jamb, hanging awkwardly on the remains of one battered hinge.
From within, the drawer on which the body was resting slid out, arms awkwardly pushing and grasping the door frame to move it, until finally, fully extended, the sheet-draped body sat up.
For a dead person, the 'corpse' had remarkably lifelike color as he clambered awkwardly off the shelf. The sheet which had covered him was quickly and expertly refashioned in to a toga, although the hang of the improvised garment revealed a bruised and bloody hole in the corpse's chest. On his wrist hung a watch which the morgue staff had not been able to remove to put with the man's other personal effects.
Monday, October 3, 2016 - After Classes
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
Horace Bishop looked up from his workbench, which was strewn with a variety of tools and odd parts. Beside him, a man of about twenty five stood, clad like Horace in a labcoat, although the boy's attire was a little cleaner and neater.
"You sure this will work?" Horace asked the man, code-named 'Shine, skeptically.
'Shine shrugged. "Ah been fermentin' stuff all mah life. Ah know this'll work." He was busily fitting together parts into a large tub which sat on a small round table. The tub was wrapped tightly with a copper coil, and a small gantry rose above it; the contraption vaguely resembled an antique washer with a wringer above it. Both Horace and 'Shine were adding more parts, all at the direction of the elder one.
"This isn't grain to make alcohol," the boy noted. "It's a little different."
"Fermentin' is fermentin," 'Shine drawled."It all works the same."
Horace paused a moment. "You ever ferment cocoa beans?"
"Nah. Ain't never thought about it." 'Shine chuckled. "Ah did try fermentin' coffee beans, though. Lots of people said it was blasphemy. Few said it sounded like a good idea."
"Wouldn't roasting the beans ...?"
Shine anticipated the question. "Ah drained off the alcohol. Vacuum-dried it off, actually. After the beans was roasted and ground, ah mixed some of the alcohol-rich coffee-liqeouer in with the brewin' water."
"Was it any good?" Horace's curiosity had been piqued. After all, he and most devisors and gadgeteers practically lived on coffee.
"It was damned good!" Shine laughed. "'Course, it didn't take long afore Mrs. C found out about it and confiscated it." He grinned. "Way I hear it, there was a mighty strange party in the Village that weekend."
Horace wrinkled his brow. "Strange? How?"
"Think about it. All the caffeine stimulant of devisor coffee with the sedating effect of alcohol. They say the revelers were alternatin' 'tween bouncin' off walls and lyin' around near sleepin'." Shine finished installing a part. "That should do it." He paused to take a sip of his favorite sipping whiskey from an ever-present silver flask in his pocket. "Either of them girls caught your eye?" he asked Horace.
The boy blushed a bit. "I ... I guess," he said with red cheeks. "Lori - she's nice and cute, too."
"Which one is she? The racoon girl or the blue one?"
"Lori is the racoon girl."
"She's cute in a special way. Got a bit of advice for ya."
Shine grinned. "Don't ever take her t' mah part of the country, 'specially at night," he said with a soft laugh. "Most folk learned from when they was young-uns to shoot raccoons on sight. They's kinda pests back home. Someone might make a mistake if she was around."
"I'll ... remember that," Horace said, startled at the joke. "If taking a trip with her ever comes up."
"Let's see what the yeast strains are doin'."
On another part of Horace's bench was arranged a row of a couple of dozen stoppered flasks, each with a couple of cacao beans. "I'll go check out the gas chromatograph," Horace volunteered.
Shine shook his head. "Ain't no need fer that." He began a very unscientific test of the flasks, tipping it up so a bit of liquid adhered to the stopper, then removing the stopper. First, he sniffed deeply, then if the results were promising, he dabbed a fingertip and tasted it. Several of the experiments didn't make it to the taste test. The flasks were sorted - most, including those he hadn't tasted, went into what was obviously a 'discard' place, while six went into another row. Shine did another round of sampling, discarding three more flasks.
"Give it a taste," Shine directed. "Ah think Ah know the one that's best, but Ah want your opinion, too. And get them girls over here. They're part of the team, right?"
Horace, Laura, and Lori repeated the taste tests, and one flask was set aside. They went back and forth a couple of times on the remaining candidates, but eventually all three of them settled on one. Shine nodded. "That's the one Ah thought, too. But it ain't mah project, so Ah figgered Ah should let y'all decide."
"So, when do we start fermenting?" Lori Sims asked eagerly. She had GSD, like several others at Whateley, having a racoon-ish appearance. The other girl, Laura Samuels, had royal blue hair to accentuate her pale blue skin.
"Ah suggest y'all start with four or five pods for a test batch," Shine said. As the three teens cracked open the tough outer rinds, exposing a gooey, slimy mess, Shine leaned back against Horace's workbench and took a good swig of his favorite distilled beverage from his ever-present pocket flask.
Once the pods' contents were in the tub, Horace closed a lid. As the process started, he and Shine narrated to the girls. First, to eliminate variability, the gooey mess was bathed for a few minutes with ultraviolet light to kill any 'wild' yeast strains and bacteria. After that, Shine carefully introduced some of the liquid from the chosen flask. Water flooded the pipes to heat the tub to a consistent temperature, while a set of paddles like a giant mixer very slowly stirred the cacao beans. Several of Shine's devises were in and attached to the fermenter to speed the process.
"Should be done by mornin'," Shine said confidently.
"Are you sure?" Laura asked, forehead wrinkled with worry and uncertainty. "The references I checked says it takes six to eight days to ferment."
"The folk who wrote them references don't know me," Shine chuckled. "When Ah say it'll be done by mornin, it'll be done by mornin'."
"That'll be convenient, then," Lori said.
"Let me know if'n there's problems," Shine said before ambling off.
Quickly, Horace and the girls secured the equipment; since the theft of parts of Laura's inventions, security was a little tighter in the labs, so they weren't worried too much about leaving the experiment while they went to dinner. Lab thieves were smarter than to fiddle with or steal experiments of biodevisors.
"Lori and I should be done with the dryer-roaster tonight, I hope," Laura reported as the trio walked toward the elevators so they could go to dinner.
Lori nodded excitedly. "We're going to alternate low-temperature heating with vacuum dry out the beans, then when the moisture level is low enough, it'll switch to high-temperature roasting."
Laura nodded her agreement. "That should simplify processing by a step, and with the drying method Lori came up with, it should be much faster."
"You two just can't wait to get some chocolate made!" Horace teased them.
Lori and Laura exchanged glances, then burst into giggles. "Who, us?"
Tuesday, October 4, 2016 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"Bubbly blue coming up behind you," Tanya whispered to her table mates.
Bianca groaned. "I suppose she's in one of her bouncy, happy moods?" She shook her head. "How does she manage to stay so damned cheerful all the time?"
"Getting her model back might have something to do with it," Bailey volunteered. "And from what I see, this is nothing. You don't have to live with her sweet, naive optimism every day!"
"If she were striped yellow and orange instead of blue, we'd have to describe her as 'bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun - fun - fun - fun - fun!" Morgana noted sarcastically. She saw the slightly confused looks, especially on Koichi and Taka's faces. "Oh, good grief! You mean you've never heard the Tigger song from Winnie the Pooh?"
A quick flurry of Japanese flew between the boys before they nodded eagerly. "Ah. Winnie Pooh!" Taka said to Koichi.
"Tigger friend Pooh!" Koichi asked hopefully. "Kureji tora?"
"If that means crazy tiger, yeah, you got it," Vic chimed in before looking up at Laura as she set her plate on the table. "Hi."
"Great day, huh?" Laura said eagerly as she flopped into a chair.
Bianca winced and groaned again. "Great if you don't mind getting beat to a pulp in BMA!" she complained. "Don't tell me you aren't sore from those ... exercises?"
Laura shrugged, her cheerful expression unfazed. "Yeah, I guess it hurts a little. But I think I've figured out the plasma trap for Morgana's PFG!"
"So why are you so damned cheerful today?" Jimmy asked bluntly.
"I divided up my time, like you suggested," Laura retorted, "and I'm making good progress on all my projects! Of course, with the deal with Koichi's dad, I have to spend more time on the new neural neutralizer." She wrinkled her nose. "And I have to make a new neural scanner so I can tune it more accurately before I go to Japan, so those have priority!"
"What about my PFG?" Morgana interjected. "You said you were getting close to done with that!"
Laura nodded to the redhead. "I haven't forgotten. That gets my attention for a few hours every other day."
"What about my drones?" Tavi perked up and looked at Laura with what he thought was a woeful, pleading look. "Tavi need drones!"
"I haven't forgotten those, either," Laura cut off his protests, "but Hikaru's drones have higher priority!"
"And the car?" Tanya asked with a raised eyebrow. "Where's that on the list?"
"She was up very late working on it," Bailey complained. "Something disturbed me and I woke up around two, and she was still hunched over her desk slurping that biohazardous brew from the labs and working on it." She shook her head in disbelief. "At least, I think it was the car project! Could've been the chocolate project, too!"
"I'd believe the chocolate project," Bianca snorted. "She's been obsessed by chocolate lately!"
"Oh, hush!" Laura said, giving Bianca a raspberry. "I'm not obsessed by anything."
Tanya grinned in Vic's direction. "If she has to be obsessed about anything, chocolate is a good choice!"
"Haven't you got a few too many projects?" Vic asked. "That's ... what ... ten or eleven?"
Laura shot him a dirty look. "Only about six," she replied defensively. "Or seven." She paused, her mind racing to add up her list. "Okay, eight. But that's nothing! Some guys have eleven or twelve going at once!"
"At least you got Tia's new earbuds done before you got so distracted."
"Where is she anyway? Too good for us plebians?" Cally asked, glancing around the dining hall.
"Off hob-nobbing with the patrician class," Morgana responded with a frown. "I told you the Melvillains would corrupt her innocent little soul!"
"You said no such thing!" Tanya shot back. "But yeah."
Laura grinned. "If I remember right, she has a weakness for chocolate, so when the test batches are done, if we let her know that she doesn't get any unless she's with us ...."
"You can't do that! That's extortion!" Jimmy interrupted.
Bianca looked coolly across the table. "Actually, it's not. It's just ... if she wants family privileges, she needs to act like part of the family."
"Well – it just seems like extortion!" Jimmy countered after a bit of thought, not really knowing how to answer.
"So?" Bianca chuckled. "Sounds like a plan to me!"
Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - Evening
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Horace?" Laura stood near her partners, looking over a large devise that was designed to dry and then roast the fermented cacao beans. The first test batch was nearly done, or that's what the trio - her, Horace, and Lori - believed.
"Yeah?" The devisor boy didn't look away from the gas chromatograph he was setting up on his workbench.
"You okay without me for a bit?"
Horace did glance her way at that. "I guess so. Why?" Lori, too, looked at her.
Laura winced. She hated to ask to work on other projects, especially considering how much the others were putting into the chocolate-making machinery. "Um, I've got to work on my neural neutralizer. I'm supposed to get it shipped out to Japan on Saturday. And Morgana keeps bugging me about her PFG."
"Nah, go ahead," Horace answered easily, turning his attention back to his lab equipment. "Lori's got the grinder and winnow about done, and I'm just going to sample every so often until the analysis says the flavor profile is right. Until those are done, there's not much you can do."
"Thanks," Laura acknowledged gratefully. She didn't want to admit it to her friends, but she was feeling stretched thin by too many projects.
"Can you come back later tonight, or skip a class tomorrow?" Lori asked over her shoulder. "It's going to take a few more hours to finish the winnow and grinder. Then I've got to a make something like an olive-oil press to press out some of the cocoa butter, and I could use your help."
"Okay," Laura agreed. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"Then I need to work on a conching machine after we get the chocolate blended. That's going to take some thought, but Horace said it's the most critical process for getting velvety-smooth chocolate."
"You want me to get you a 'lab pass', too?" Horace asked without looking away from his bench. A 'lab pass' was permission for a devisor or gadgeteer to stay in the labs past curfew. Overuse of passes was highly discouraged; in the past, some lab-residents wouldn't show up in their rooms for days or weeks at a time. Besides the impact to classwork and grades, the lack of personal hygiene could cause some rather offensives odors after a few days.
Laura thought for a moment. "Yeah, that'd be good. I'll see you in a couple of hours, then."
As she walked to her lab, Laura considered her projects. Her simple time allocation wasn't working too hot, she had to admit. Her number one priority had to be getting her neural neutralizer ready to ship to Japan. Number two - she had to work on the modified neutralizer. Scratch that - PFGs for Morgana and Tia came first, considering the threats that had already occurred. And Calley. She couldn't forget a PFG for Calley. Of course, once the first one was working, copying them would be simply time-consuming, not the more tedious and unpredictable experimentation and tinkering. After she had the PFGs done, she'd have time to work on the new model neural neutralizer. And the scanner. She couldn't forget the scanner.
She set herself a deadline - if she didn't have the other projects done by the end of October, she'd have to move them down her priority list so she could focus on the job for Koichi's dad.
That left chocolate and the car mods for Mrs. Barton. She so desperately wanted to get the car modifications done, but realistically, that was going to have to move down her priority list, too. And the chocolate? She didn't have a lot of say there; she was part of a team, and if it was a high priority to Lori and Horace, Laura was going to have to contribute her share of work, too.
And the band that Calley was in - somehow, she and Morgana had ended up volunteering - or being drafted - to help as roadies on the sound systems. Given what Laura had seen of that equipment, it had seen better days. It unofficially belonged to the music department, which didn't have budget for proper equipment and thus relied on the goodness of the lab crew to patch up what they had to keep it going. The graduating seniors of last year's band hadn't helped, obviously; they saw the end of the tunnel, and the band's equipment was probably near the tail-end of their priority list. So Laura had to devote some of her precious time to the band's sound equipment, too.
However Laura ended up setting her priorities, she was absolutely not going to tell her friends; she did not need another round of 'I told you so' from Bianca and Tanya.
The lab where Laura did her own work only had two other gadgeteers working; she unlocked her workbench and took out the parts for her PFG and plasma trap. She'd fibbed a little bit - one part for her neural neutralizer was in the automated integrated-circuit fab lab and wouldn't be done for a couple of days, but she really needed a mental break from the chocolate project, and she felt guilty that she wasn't helping Morgana more.
After tinkering a little bit, Laura carried some parts to one of the lab's containment chambers. She carefully arranged an odd-shaped gizmo on a test stand, then connected two heavy-duty power leads to sockets in the chamber wall. After confirming everything was properly connected, she closed the heavy chamber doors and went to the operator's station, viewing the inside through a closed-circuit monitor.
The first test didn't go well; Laura thought about the data, then after ensuring the chamber was safe, adjusted her rig. Once more, she began running tests. This time, it seemed to be going much better, so she stepped up the stress on her rig. To simulate a PFG absorbing energy, Laura made the power supply give random shots of energy to the field. The plasma trap looked stable, although she'd have to study the data to be certain, so she nervously pressed a button on a control panel. On cue, the device began to vent hot plasma from its containment chamber out through a magnetic 'tube'. She'd eventually connect that to a gizmo to charge and then launch plasma torpedos, but for now, just having the system vent excess plasma was a very good sign.
After several more tests, Laura powered down the chamber and retrieved her parts. She put them away, then decided to call it a night. She couldn't do a lot more with the plasma torpedo system until she solved the nettlesome problem of 'pumping' the plasma from the confinement trap into the higher-pressure magnetic containment field of the torpedo. She could work on that problem just as easily in her room as in the lab.
Thursday, October 6, 2016 - After Dinner
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"You missed dinner again," Morgana scolded Laura as the redhead strode purposefully into Horace's lab, which had become the de facto "chocolate factory".
Laura winced, glancing at her project partners. "I wasn't paying attention to the time."
"Yeah, like that's never happened before," Morgana quipped with a slight eye-roll. "Here." She produced a packaged meal she'd picked up after Laura hadn't shown up at the dinner table.
"Thanks," Laura said with genuine appreciation.
"Can't have you starving to death. At least not until you've got my PFG done!" she added with a grin. She produced two more bags she'd been holding out of sight behind her back. "I figured you hadn't eaten, either," she said to Lori and Horace.
"Thank you," Horace said.
Lori, however, took the proffered bag and looked warily at the redhead. "This isn't going to get you free chocolate," she cautioned.
"I am wounded that you'd even think that!" Morgana countered, feigning hurt in her voice. The smile, however, gave away that she wasn't seriously offended. "What gave it away?" She stepped closer to the workbench behind the trio, looking at a melange of disassembled mechanical parts. "What'cha working on?" She circled the table, peering at the bits. "It looks kind of like maybe ... an oil press?"
Laura tried to quickly chew and swallow a mouthful of hamburger she'd just bitten off, but Horace answered. "That's what it started off as. We're adapting it to press much of the cocoa butter off the ground cocoa paste."
Lori looked at Morgana for a second, then looked at Laura, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "She's not as much a gadget-dummy as you said she is!"
"I never said that!" Laura countered defensively, missing completely that Lori was joking. "All I said is that for not having a gadgeteer aptitude, she's reasonably bright around technical stuff!"
"Reasonably bright?" Morgana goggled at Laura, while across from her, Lori and Horace were struggling to suppress laughter. "Reasonably bright?"
"I didn't mean it like ... like ..." Laura protested, but Morgana's grin and the bursts of mirth from her partners finally clued Laura in that they were teasing.
Laura was spared further teasing by the arrival of Mrs. Cody and Dr. Barton. "Have you got a few minutes?" Mrs. Cody asked.
Laura glanced at her teammates, who nodded. They weren't about to say no to a teacher like Mrs. Cody.
"Let's go out in the hall so we don't distract your partners from their work," Dr. Barton suggested.
Laura nodded and turned to follow the two adults out, but then she stopped, lightly grasped Morgana's elbow, and guided her out, to the redhead's obvious confusion. After they were in the hall, Laura answered her friend's unspoken question. "I think Horace wants some private time with Lori," she said.
"Didn't you see how he was looking at her?" Laura continued.
Mrs. Cody got right to the point. "When do you want to start fabricating the parts for Vanessa's car?"
Laura goggled. "I've got to ... I mean, I should ... do a prototype or a mockup," she protested. "It's got to fit precisely, or ...."
Mrs. Cody chuckled pleasantly. "Your model is your prototype," she reminded the blue girl. "You made it from manufacturer's specifications, right?"
"Yeah," Laura replied. "It wasn't easy to find that data. Trade secrets, proprietary data, and all that." She shook her head, frowning. "If any measurement is off, even by a few millimeters, the door mechanism might bind, or there'd be too much road noise, or ...."
Dr. Barton glanced at Mrs. Cody, smiling, then looked at Laura. "I'll get the Magic Arts department to come up with a reason to keep Vanessa busy all day tomorrow, and I'll take her car to the workshop."
Mrs. Cody nodded. "We'll get you scheduled for the big precision 3-D scanner. You simply take off the doors, scan the car, and you'll have a comparison of 'as-built' to the design specs, so you can adjust the CAD model."
"But ... that's a lot of work, and ...."
"And I'll write you a lab pass so you can skip classes to do that," Dr. Barton concluded. "Vanessa will never know."
"Once you've got the model tweaked, you can start fabricating parts."
"Okay," Laura agreed, suddenly feeling a little more pressure in her already-busy schedule.
"We'll have to set up a meeting with the legal department, too," Mrs. Cody added, "to work on your patent."
"The other discussion with legal will be about the Japanese offer."
Laura goggled. "The Japanese ... oh, you mean the trip? I didn't think that'd be ...."
Mrs. Cody shook her head. "No, no, not the trip. The legal department received a request this morning from Japan, specifically from Taniguchi Industries. They are interested in helping you patent your neural neutralizer in Japan."
"What?" Laura's jaw nearly hit the floor.
"With a cover letter from Prime Minister Abe, no less. Actually, two patents. The first as a non-lethal self-defense weapon, and the other as a medical treatment device for seizures. And there's a request from an old acquaintance to license the technology." Mrs. Cody shook her head. "Since you invented it before you got to Whateley, the legal department really shouldn't be involved, but I persuaded them to give you advice."
"What's that going to cost her?" Morgana asked. She hadn't intended to sound sarcastic, but it certainly came out that way.
"Probably a modest percentage of royalties," Mrs. Cody replied, eying Morgana. "A lot less than they charge for royalties for inventions made and patented by students." She turned toward Morgana. "Your friend certainly is a skeptic, isn't she?" she added, staring evenly at the redhead.
"Maybe it's just a British thing," Morgana replied calmly, "but I stand up for my friends. I don't like to see them taken advantage of." She got a strange expression that was somewhere between a frown and something very unpleasant. "Besides, solicitors in general have a reputation of being somewhat less than totally trustworthy, and American solicitors in particular are considered a thoroughly nasty lot."
Mrs. Cody shook her head, rolling her eyes at Morgana's comment. At the same time, it was good that Laura had such a friend. "The lawyers at Whateley are as protective of the students as the faculty. They are paid a salary, not a commission, so they would get no benefit from taking advantage of the students."
"If there are complaints from students, faculty, or even alumni," Dr. Barton added with a wry smile, "the staff attorneys could lose their jobs."
Mrs. Cody's head snapped toward the sound of approaching heels, just in time to see Hikaru coming around a corner, a slightly-annoyed look on her face and an envelope in her hand. Laura's gaze followed that of the teacher.
As soon as Hikaru made eye contact with Laura, her expression softened. "Ah, Laura, I've been looking for you."
"Should have figured she'd be in the labs," Morgana quipped sarcastically.
Hikaru ignored the redhead. "May I have a moment of your time?"
Laura looked at the two faculty members, and got nods of approval. "Okay. I think we're done - at least with this topic." She looked specifically at Mrs. Cody. "If you can stay for a few minutes, I'd like to get your feedback on my plasma confinement apparatus." She looked at Hikaru. "Is this, like, private-private, or can we discuss it here? It doesn't make a lot of difference to me," she added hastily.
Hikaru tilted her head slightly, studying the two with Laura. "I think Mrs. Cody and perhaps your advisor Dr. Barton would be able to provide good advice. Ms. Jones is unlikely to have expertise in the subject, so I doubt her opinion would be of value, but this isn't sensitive, so I have no issues with her listening." Hikaru's tone was carefully neutral.
Morgana shrugged and leaned against the tunnel wall, obvious in her intent to stay and listen, if for no other reason than to troll Hikaru.
"Okay, what's up?" Laura asked, curious at the interruption, Hikaru's formal tone, and the envelope clutched in Hikaru's hands. Mrs. Cody and Dr. Barton, too, looked with bemused expressions at the formality of Hikaru's mannerisms and her polite disdain for Morgana's presence.
Hikaru's slight shrug indicated her lack of care for Morgana, as she handed over an already-opened envelope. "I've been asked to deliver this packet to you, and given your ... " Hikaru paused for a second searching for a word. "Ah... inexperience with how business is truly handled, not just in America, but in Japan, to assist you with understanding this." Hikaru's eyebrow rose slightly in a question.
With a quick glance at Dr. Barton and Mrs. Cody for some sign of reassurance, Laura opened the envelope, then unfolded the two pages. Her eyebrows shot up as she read the header of the topmost letter, and she looked up at Hikaru, half-expecting to see the Japanese girl indicate that she was pranking Laura. Seeing no such sign, she read the contents, then read the second page.
"This is what you were just talking about," Laura explained to Mrs. Cody, her voice quiet in her total surprise. "An offer to help patent my inventions in Japan!"
Hikaru's eyes narrowed at Laura's comment. "You were talking about this matter?" she asked Mrs. Cody. "I received this letter by courier, and wished to handle this matter with the diligence expected." Hikaru's head tilted slightly. "Are you not from the South, Mrs. Cody?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, Ah proudly hail from Georgia."
Hikaru's eyes flashed slightly, as if she was considering something. "I claim family from the Bayous, in case you didn't know ..." A slight smile formed on her countenance, which for a moment could have been interpreted as friendly or reminiscing. "I would assume, Mrs. Cody, that you understand what this is all about."
"Ah have a very strong suspicion," the tall, curvy teacher replied nonchalantly, "but please continue."
"Quite." Hikaru turned to Laura, and smiled slightly. "It's very simple, Laura. I'm not only a messenger, and not only meant to imply how serious it is, but I'm also here to give you some advice, and give you some... pointers towards good legal assistance." Hikaru shrugged slightly. "I have no doubt Whateley's own legal department is without a doubt capable of handling any and all legal matters in the United States and the Commonwealth, not to mention the European Union..." Mrs. Barton nodded at that careful phrasing, but before Laura could speak, Hikaru pushed on, seeming a bit annoyed at the conversation and wanting to get it over with.
The young avatar paused, and a slight expression of distaste crossed her features, but she continued on. "Japan's laws, however, are a bit tricky, and Japan's corporations, I have to admit, play a bit fast and loose with intellectual property laws. Even if you patent in Japan, without strong legal representation or a strong agreement with one of the corporations in Japan, it isn't unheard of for... shall we say foreign patent-holders to be simply ignored in Japan. The same is true for foreign issued patents. It was felt that if I assisted you, in this minor manner, you would ..."
Hikaru sighed and shrugged, finally admitting what she didn't want to. "... you would not be taken to the cleaners, shall we say, but instead treated as a Japanese patent holder would be in Japan." She frowned deeply. "There's not much I can do for China, I'm afraid, and unfortunately there isn't much Whateley can do there, either." The frown vanished. "The way the Prime Minister had these letters delivered ...," Hikaru glanced at Mrs. Barton with a slight smile. "I'm sure your advisor understands how Business is *really* handled in Japan."
"Okay ...," Laura said slowly as she digested the meaning hidden in Hikaru's message. The Japanese girl was on a mission that came from the highest levels in the Japanese government, and if Laura understood, Hikaru was implying that her role was to make sure that Laura wasn't taken advantage of, as happened with foreign patent-holders. She wondered what she had done to garner such attention; all she had done was volunteer to help an ailing Japanese girl as a favor to Koichi's father. Was Taniguchi-san that important that the Prime Minister would be involved? The pieces of the puzzle made no sense to Laura.
"Laura," Mrs. Cody said calmly, "from what Ah know of patent issues and intellectual property in Japan, Ah think you should listen to what Hikaru is telling you." She shrugged with a faint smile. "It's a legal, diplomatic thing, and that's well beyond mah expertise. After all, the best diplomat Ah know ...."
"... is a fully-charged phaser bank," Laura completed the quote with her own reference, even if it wasn't the one Mrs. Cody started.
"Nerd-girl!" Morgana chuckled.
Laura spun to face her. "You can't tell me you weren't thinking the same thing!" she accused.
Mrs. Cody laughed aloud, a pleasant, warm, friendly sound. "Since you finished mah quote, that makes three of us!"
Laura blushed a bit, then got a thoughtful look. "How soon do I have to answer?" she asked timidly. "I really need time to think and get advice."
"There is no rush," Hikaru answered. She looked up to Mrs. Cody. "Would it be presumptuous of me to ask to be involved in the meetings with the Whateley legal staff about the patents in Japan?"
"Given the level of interest by the Japanese government," Mrs. Cody replied in her thick Southern drawl, slowed perhaps a bit more to emphasize the serious nature of her comments, "Ah think that would be wise. Ah'll work to schedule a meeting." She glanced at Dr. Barton. "Since you're Laura's advisor, would you like to be included?"
Dr. Barton shook his head. "Vanessa and I trust you to not steal our helper. I think I can trust you to represent her interests here, too."
Hikaru simply nodded at the advisor and turned to Laura. "Then I'll leave you to think about this." Hikaru paused and nodded once. "While I would never pressure you, I would suggest you decide quickly, as there is some urgency involved." She raised an eyebrow as she looked at Laura.
"Some urgency?" Laura went back to being confused.
"As soon as your neural neutralizer is used to help the daughter of Taniguchi-san's friend ...." She left the thought hanging, and the meaning was so obvious that she didn't need to say it.
"Okay. I'll trust Mrs. Cody to get a meeting set up soon, and we'll have plenty of opportunities to talk if - when - I have more questions."
Hikaru nodded. "If you will excuse me, I'm on duty now, so I will see you later." The brief bow, along with a spin on a heel indicated she was actually in a hurry.
After Hikaru left, Dr. Barton excused himself and departed; Laura knew he wanted to get home for 'family time' with Vanessa and Valerie.
The remaining trio - Laura with her red-headed friend on one-side and the red-haired Mrs. Cody on the other - walked toward Laura's lab as the techie girl and Mrs. Cody engaged in an increasingly complex technical discussion of Laura's regenerative plasma trap, the problems she was having, her idea for shunting aside excess plasma, and the concept of turning that extra energy into an offensive 'plasma torpedo'. Mrs. Cody was 'fascinated' by the idea of making a plasma torpedo; she and Laura were batting ideas back and forth faster than an intense table-tennis match, and while Morgana was technically competent, the deluge of phrases such as "magnetic plasma compression pump," "super-capacitor powered mini-toroidal superconducting confinement bottle," "acceleration-induced instability," and the like was simply overwhelming. The two gadgeteers seemed to be almost completing each other's sentences as they burrowed through the design, problems, and possible solutions.
Morgana finally interrupted the two to remind Laura that her two partners-in-chocolate were still working on that project, and that she probably should go back to help them.
As the two walked back toward Horace's lab, Laura look at her friend with a slightly puzzled expression. "Why are you so anti-lawyer anyway? I mean, they haven't done anything yet - have they?"
Morgana looked back and sighed deeply. "I may just be overreacting, but when our parents were killed, my sister and I got to see all the hoops lawyers made us jump through to get our situation sorted out. OK, I was only eight and they didn't directly involve me, really, but I got chapter and verse from Ceri about it all. She said it was ... brutal. And sleezy,"
"Wow, were they, like, evil lawyers like in the movies?"
Morgana's face broke into a half smile at her blue friends idea of legal matter. "No, Laura, not really. To be fair to them, they weren't evil - they were just lawyers."
In lab, Laura noticed that Horace and Lori were exchanging glances, and when Laura looked directly at Lori, she blushed and looked away quickly. Laura smiled to herself as she threw her effort into helping the raccoon-girl complete the chocolate processing machinery that Lori had designed, while Horace worked over his bench, studying the chocolate as he strove to perfect the flavor profile. Morgana decided that it wasn't interesting enough, so she went back to her room to study some more. Not unexpectedly, it was late, again, when Laura returned to her room. She was asleep almost before her head hit her pillow.
Friday, October 7, 2016 - After Classes
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Well?" Horace asked hesitantly as the trio of would-be chocolatiers stood beside one of Lori's machines, which had been finely grinding the chocolate. From their research, they knew the longer the chocolate was processed and ground, or conched in the chocolate-making vernacular, the smoother it would be. The flavor profile, created by the fermenting, roasting, and blending was locked in. Now it was a matter of making the chocolate smooth.
"You gonna try a sample?" Lori asked him a little uneasily.
"Are you?" Horace replied.
"Of course!" Lori shot back. Still, there was as little hesitation or nervousness in her voice. This was a big venture on their part, and if the chocolate tasted bad, all their effort had been wasted. Neither Horace nor Lori wanted to discover that unfortunate outcome.
"Oh, for Pete's sake!" Laura said with a scowl. "Just try it!"
"Why don't you?" Lori stepped to one side so Laura could get closer to the machine, which was not running so the trio could get at the hopefully-tasty sweet without having their hands mashed.
"Fine," Laura replied. She stepped closer, then, reached down into the strange-looking contraption. With a glance over her shoulder at her partners, she swiped her finger into the gooey, chocolate paste. Without looking at the others, she steeled her nerves and popped her chocolate-covered finger into her mouth.
For several seconds, she stood still, her eyes closed and her expression unreadable, until Lori touched her shoulder, nervous that something was wrong. "Laura?" she asked in a worried voice.
"Mmmmm!" Laura moaned, her eyes shut as she savored the sample of their first batch. She seemed thoroughly enraptured by her first taste.
"It's good?" Horace asked the silly question. From where he stood, he couldn't see Laura's expression.
Lori, however, was convinced. She shoved Laura to one side and reached into her machine, scooped up her own sample and plopped it into her mouth. Horace, convinced by the reactions of the girls, pushed his way to the machine, but unlike the girls, he grabbed a handy stirring spoon and scooped up a healthy amount of their product.
For a few minutes, there was practically a free-for-all as the trio took sample after sample, all of which were quite satisfactory.
"Okay, it's good," Horace finally managed to say, evidently not noticing that he had some chocolate smeared on his face. Lori, however, did notice, and she put her hands on the sides of his face. Expecting a kiss, Horace grinned in anticipation and started to pucker up, but at the last moment, Lori turned his face slightly and slurped the chocolate off the side of his mouth, reveling in the taste and giggling at the way she'd confused him.
"It's beyond good!" Laura exclaimed happily. "This is probably the best chocolate I've ever tasted!"
"But ...," Lori hesitated as she spoke. "It's ... it's not very smooth."
"Yeah," Horace agreed. "It's really good flavor, but it feels a bit ... chalky in my mouth."
Laura winced. "I wondered if that was just me."
"So we have to conch it longer?"
Lori nodded. "Unless ...." She got a far-off look in her eyes as she considered an idea. She turned to Laura. "You ever hear of a potato ricer?"
"Yeah, Mom uses one all the time. It makes super-smooth mashed potatoes."
"Potato ricer?" Horace was perplexed.
"Okay, so it's like ... an extruder for cooked potatoes. You squeeze the big potato chunks through small holes in the bottom, and it comes out really smooth and fine textured."
"So ... if we can make something like that for the chocolate ...," Horace began, seeing the light.
"We'd have to find out a good particle size in really good chocolate," Lori piped in.
"I'll run over to the bookstore and get some samples," Laura volunteered.
"And I can make a quick test rig," Lori enthused.
"So ... we get some kind of micro-sieve done, then we should get a good dark chocolate. And then we can blend it for flavors," Horace began.
"Chocolate with chile!" Laura gushed.
"Hazelnut!" Lori added eagerly.
"Maybe chocolate covered cherries?" Laura continued.
"Hold your horses," Horace cautioned the enthusiastic girls. "Probably two or three flavors, max, and something like chocolate-covered cherries are probably a little too complicated."
"So ... I'll see what the most popular flavors are in the bookstore, and I can survey my friends," Laura said, her mood slightly damped by Horace's interjection of reality.
"Yeah, we should all do that." Horace grinned. "Meanwhile ...." He took another spoonful of chocolate, followed quickly by his two female partners.
Saturday, October 8, 2016 - late Afternoon
Labs, Whateley Academy
For the third time, Laura pressed a button which rang a bell inside the lab behind the heavy steel door. She wasn't a biodevisor, and wasn't assigned to verify anyone else's biodevise projects, so she didn't have access to this particular testing lab. Impatiently, she glanced at her watch, just to double check that she wasn't too early or too late. Horace said four, and it was five minutes before.
She let her arm drop to her side when a sound of sliding steel interrupted her time check. Multiple locks - like a bank vault! Surely what was inside couldn't be that valuable.
Lori greeted her when the heavy door pulled open. "Hi! Have any problems finding the lab?"
Laura shook her head, entering the secretive and mysterious test lab when Lori stepped to one side, and the blue girl was no sooner inside than Lori relocked the door.
When she turned from her task, Lori had to dodge Laura, who stood gawking at the contents of the lab.
The cavern itself was much larger than the average lab - about fifty or sixty feet wide, and it wasn't possible to guess the length, as over a dozen tall steel racks stretched toward the far wall. Some kind of robotic systems were between the racks, mostly blocking the view to the opposite end of the lab. The racks looked like nothing so much as tall library shelves adorned with Star-Trek style blinky lights on the end panels, stretching nearly to the high ceiling above them.
"This is a test lab?" Laura asked, still gawking at the equipment.
"This," Horace said, turning from a computer display on one end of one rack, "is the bio-compatibility testing and verification facility." He gestured Laura toward him, and she obliged, then followed his gesture to look between two racks so she could see its contents. "Each rack has over two hundred thousand test cells, each divided into a control and a test sample. The test cells contain a wide variety of genotypes of human cells, including ever major bodily system and organ, representing a pretty complete spectrum of people."
"Two hundred thousand?" Laura continued to gawk.
"Each test cell is exposed to the substance under review - in our case, that's the chocolate ...."
"So that's where all the chocolate went!"
Horace and Lori nodded. "After the required exposure time, each chamber is compared fully to it's adjoining control to find any changes in the human cells."
"But, wouldn't that take weeks or even months to test all the samples?"
Horace shook his head, pointing down the row to where the robotic system was slowly moving. "It's fully automated and pretty fast, although it takes a lot of computer horsepower to digest the results. It takes about two and a half seconds per 'strip' of chambers, or a about two and a half hours for the whole batch."
"For two hundred thousand samples?" Laura shook her head in disbelief. "I've never heard of the FDA using anything like this."
"They won't touch it. They're afraid the test rig is a devise and wouldn't get proper test results, even though it's so good that Whateley's labs have identified several dozen reactions that were missed in the 'proper' drug trials." He shook his head with disgust. "Oh, and speaking of that, various test chambers include chemicals from foods and a lot of medicines and drugs."
Horace briefly thought about explaining the cloning 'farm' which constantly grew new tissue samples to test, and how robotic units loaded the test containers and then loaded those into the testing machinery. He contemplated explaining the life-support system that kept the samples alive. In the end, though, he figured that even though it was interesting as hell to him, neither Lori nor Laura were biodevisors, and as such wouldn't appreciate the utter genius of the system.
"So, do you have the results?" Laura asked simply, getting to the point.
Horace nodded, holding up a folder. "We passed the legally-unrecognized Whateley testing which says that, if we submit to official FDA testing, we would pass with no problems and therefore the school is OK with us selling it around campus."
"So let's start manufacturing!" Laura enthused.
"Can't yet. Our results have to be replicated by three independent Whateley testers just to make sure we don't game the system. And they'll almost certainly use different lots of tissue samples, so there might be an anomaly or two to resolve. But it should be done sometime tomorrow."
"And if they find an anomaly?"
"More testing. But we came through clean. Our samples met every criterion for FDA approval."
"If our test results were good, then I need to get to work on improving the concher," Lori said. "I've got an idea for using a molecular sieve with the roller to make it smoother."
Laura nodded her agreement. "If you don't need my help for a while, I can start working on some molds for the chocolate." She wrinkled her brow. "We need a brand name. And a logo."
"If my concher idea works," Lori continued, "we should be in production by Monday. Tuesday at the latest."
Laura smiled for the first time in the discussion. "Good. I know a few people who can't wait to buy some chocolate. And I can't wait to sell it to them."
Saturday, October 8, 2016 - Very Late
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Morgana had to suddenly stop short of the bathroom door to avoid running into Laura, who was coming out of the communal restroom. "Whoa!" she exclaimed, then made a show of looking at her watch. "What are you doing here so early? It's not even midnight!"
"You're exaggerating!" Laura protested mildly, even though she knew Morgana was right. Lately, being in her cottage before curfew was a rare event.
"No babysitting tonight?" Bianca asked from behind Laura.
"Not tonight," Laura replied simply. "Got to get back to work." She dodged the two and went back to her room. Her computer was alive with CAD drawings and spreadsheets of calculations and parts specifications, and she was almost immediately focused exclusively on her work.
A couple of minutes later, her room door opened and both her neighbors, Bianca and Morgana, let themselves into her room. Morgana sat on Laura's bed, while Bianca helped herself to Laura's roommate's chair. "So why aren't you in your lab?" the redhead asked.
"Or Horace's lab?" Bianca added.
"We have to wait for others to replicate our safety tests," Laura replied without looking away from her computer. "And Lori is experimenting with a design for the concher, so ...."
"Concher?" the two visitors asked almost simultaneously.
"Very fine grinder. It's a machine specific to chocolate-making," Laura explained. "It's what makes the chocolate smooth instead of grainy. The more that chocolate is conched, the smoother and better it is. Anyway, until she's done with her prototype, there's nothing for me to do with that project, and I need do to some thinking about the neural neutralizer for Koichi's dad, and I'm waiting for time in the fab lab to make parts for Mrs. Barton's car."
"What about your other six dozen projects?" Morgana teased her friend. "Like my PFG?"
"I don't have six dozen projects!" Laura shot a glare at Morgana, then realized from her grin that she was just kidding her. "I've got the computer running some CFD simulations to verify the magnetic plasma pump to charge the projectiles," Laura began.
"You've got a design for the projectiles? And the launcher? So it's ready to test?" Morgana asked, a little excitedly. She was anxious to get a protective field generator in her kit. Bianca, too, wanted some extra protection against some less-than-friendly types.
"They won't let me test it live until the CFD results get an estimate of the safety margin on the plasma trap," Laura grumbled. "The basic PFG power supply is ready to go."
"So ... later this week?"
"Probably. I might have to tweak the plasma pump, but I'm confident that the computer runs will verify my design." Laura shrugged. "The torpedo design is mostly done, I think."
"A magic fireball is so much easier," Bianca stated flatly.
"Unless you run out of essence," Morgana chucked.
"Yeah," Laura agreed. "If that happens, you'll appreciate being able to shoot a plasma ball at someone who's shooting at you."
Sunday, October 9, 2016 - Morning
Labs beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"Miss Samuels?" The man's voice from the lab doorway startled Laura, and she nearly jumped.
"Yes?" Laura answered quickly when she recovered and turned to the door, recognizing a security guard standing calmly and looking at her.
"The Assistant Headmaster would like you to report to his office."
"Now?" Laura goggled, her voice a touch frantic and distraught.
"He didn't say, but I think it's safe to assume he meant now and not later this evening," the officer replied sarcastically.
Laura frowned at the officer's smart-ass response. "Did he say why?" she asked. "I'm very busy trying to finish calibrating my device so a courier can hand-carry it to Japan. It's very important!" she added. "It's to treat a little girl with bad seizures!"
"That would explain the two Japanese guests in his office," the officer said with a shrug.
"What?!?" Laura exclaimed with surprise. "They aren't supposed to be here until ...," she looked at the clock. "Oh, shit! I'm way behind schedule!" she cried out in panic.
"I need you to come with me," the officer repeated.
"But ... I have more work to do before I can package it for shipment!" Laura complained.
The guard was unmoved. After locking up her workbench, Laura very reluctantly accompanied the officer through the tunnels and up to Schuster Hall. The officer stopped at the administration suite's outer doors, while Laura entered. Surprisingly, for a Saturday, the receptionist was at her desk. She glanced up at Laura. "Conference room," she said simply. From several meetings with administrators already - which, on reflection, she figured was not necessarily a good thing - she knew the way, and knocked on the door.
"Come in," Dr. Turner said as he held the door open for Laura, gesturing toward the table.
Laura gawked to see that Hikaru was sitting calmly at the conference table, which really shouldn't have surprised her, and Koichi was present, too, which was a surprise. The surprise was that Hikaru was wearing a very smartly-tailored navy blue business suit and skirt over a smart white shirt; Laura knew that Hikaru's avatar spirit hated anything that wasn't red or gold, so the color choice spoke volumes about the intent of the meeting. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail as well, adding to her totally-professional appearance. Koichi wore his full school uniform instead of a suit. Two other adults from Whateley staff were present, also in formal business suits with ties. The Assistant Headmaster, too, wore a proper business suit, much more formal than he normally wore during business hours at Whateley. Laura immediately felt woefully underdressed.
Two Japanese adults, one man and one woman, were also at the table. They rose instantly with almost military precision and formally bowed to Laura.
"Samuels-san," the woman said in an accented voice. Like Hikaru, she wore a dark navy suit and skirt and plain white shirt, and her hair, too, was pulled back in a ponytail. "Asami Nishimura. It is a pleasure to meet you."
The Japanese man spoke. "Yousuke Nakano. It is good to meet the Gadget Girl Hero who is doing big help for daughter of Japan." He was no less well-attired than any other adult present, wearing what Laura was starting to guess was standard Japanese business attire - a navy suit and plain white shirt. Unlike his female colleague, though, Mr. Nakano wore a tie.
Laura winced at being reminded of the whole Gadget Girl Hero debacle. "I am pleased to meet you Nishimura-san and Nakano-san." She bowed as Hikaru had shown her. She noted a very slight rise on the Japanese woman's eyebrows, possibly from surprise at Laura's use of Japanese etiquette. "But I'm not a gadget girl hero," she protested, hoping she sounded polite and humble. "It is good fortune that I am able to offer some little assistance to a friend of Koichi's family."
"Prime Minister Abe sends greetings and thanks you for helping Japan," Ms. Nishimura said. The two Japanese adults waited until Laura sat down to take their own seats.
"You're here to pick up my neural neutralizer?" Laura asked. The two nodded, and Laura winced. "I am sorry, but I'm not quite ready to package it for shipping," Laura apologized. She winced at the surprised expressions on the Japanese adults. "I have to finish a little testing to make sure that it operates reliably and safely," she added.
Hikaru spoke, sounding quite formal. <Laura-san is being very conscientious to make sure that her invention is safe and effective. She would be very distraught if an error on her part caused harm to the girl.>
Mr. Nakano nodded knowingly. <Hai. It is good that she is so diligent with her work, then.>
<I suspect that Laura-san feels guilty that her invention is not ready for you right now, however,> Hikaru added.
<Please tell her that we will wait patiently for her to properly complete her work. We do not want her to rush her work.> Ms. Nishimura explained to Hikaru. <We have standby seats on several consecutive JAL flights starting this afternoon, to be certain that we can take the first flight after we return to Boston.>
Hikaru nodded, then turned to Laura. "They said that there is no rush. They have flight arrangements for whenever they return to Boston, so there is no rigid time deadline. They would prefer that you are thorough with your work."
"Uh, okay," Laura replied to Hikaru hesitantly, looking at the other two Whateley staff members in the room.
"The consulate officers brought paperwork to begin filing for a patent in Japan for your invention," Dr. Turner added, nodding to the unnamed two. "Our patent staff is here to help ensure that everything is in order."
Laura glanced at Hikaru, who gave a simple nod. She'd briefed Laura on the Japanese patent system, and no doubt was present to help protect her friend's interests.
"I would suggest that you return to your lab to continue your work," Dr. Turner said, "and we will review the patent paperwork. Of course, we'll review it with you before you sign anything," he added to reassure Laura.
"Samuels-san, may I see lab where you work?" Asami Nishimura asked. "Not patent expert, so ... I can contribute nothing here," she added by way of explanation.
"Sure," Laura replied with a smile.
"I will come too?" Koichi asked, to which Laura nodded. Then she looked at Hikaru to see her intentions.
"I will stay here ... to help translate for both parties," she said in a totally neutral tone, but the look she shot to Laura indicated that Hikaru was going to help look out for Laura's interests.
Sunday, October 9, 2016 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"I was going to just have lunch with my friends," Laura protested to the Assistant Headmaster. "Like I normally do."
"Nonsense, Miss Samuels," the administrator replied cheerily. "We have important guests who are here because of your invention, so it's important to show proper hospitality."
"But ... I'm just a high-school girl," Laura added.
"Miss Samuels," Dr. Turner sounded less like a teacher and more like a mentor, "when you go to Japan, you'll very likely be dining and dealing with important executives, and possibly some politicians. It's part of doing business, especially internationally, so you might think of this as your first lesson in business etiquette."
Begrudgingly, Laura nodded and then followed the adults, with Hikaru and Koichi, through the 'forbidden gateway', as students were wont to call the doorway into the staff dining area. Surprisingly to her, the food selection was pretty much the same as in the student serving area, but the staff had the choice of self-serve or having the staff plate their food to increase its visual appeal.
"If you want to impress our guests," Hikaru had sidled up by Laura and spoke softly so only Laura could hear, "follow my lead in ordering food."
Hikaru gave Laura a tiny shake of the head to cut off the blue girl's objection. "On our Christmas trip, you're going to be dining with important executives. Manners are everything, but no adult expects a teenager to have fully mastered business manners. As long as you try to act correctly, you will make a good impression, which is your goal, right??" Laura sighed and nodded, wondering not for the first time if she'd bitten off more than she could handle with the trip.
Laura followed Hikaru's lead, getting food that was far more upscale than her usual fare; she noticed that the Japanese guests were taking the Assistant Headmaster's advice on their selections. No doubt, he was used to dealing with such situations. Before she went to Japan, Laura was going to have to learn a lot more about Japanese manners and social niceties.
The conversation at the table focused mainly on Laura's lab and how impressed the Japanese woman was with Laura's diligence in testing and re-testing her neural neutralizer before she finally declared it fit to send to Japan. Laura was nearly continually blushing from the compliments, to which she wasn't accustomed - her father had never complimented her on anything.
Finally, to Laura's profound relief, the meal was over, the Whateley patent and legal team were satisfied with the proposed Japanese patent, the neural neutralizer was very carefully packed, and the consular officers departed after much formal thank you's and so forth.
"How do you deal with that all the time?" Laura asked Hikaru as they watched the guests drive away.
"That was mild," Hikaru said. Her tone made Laura think she was kidding, but her expression conveyed that she was serious.
"Mild?" Laura had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Why do I have the feeling that I'm going to make a total mess of the trip?" She sighed heavily. "Maybe I can take some chocolate to bribe them to overlook my social mistakes."
"Your ... chocolate?" Hikaru gawked at Laura.
The blue girl nodded. "I gave Nishimura-san a small sample." She read the alarm on Hikaru's face. "We successfully completed all the lab's food-grade toxicity testing yesterday!" she added quickly. "She thought the chocolate was very good." She thought a moment. "Maybe I should send her some - once we get into production - as a thank-you for her help."
Sunday, October 9, 2016 - After Lunch
Outside Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"Okay, double-oh-seven," Tanya spoke sarcastically, hands on her hips, as the majority of the group of friends - minus Laura who was tied up with her neural neutralizer - clustered at a small table inside a horseshoe-shaped low brick wall in the quad. "What's with all the cloak and dagger?"
Jimmy looked around the group, his expression somber. "We have a problem."
"What do you mean, we?" Bailey demanded.
"It's complicated," Jimmy started saying, but he stopped as he tried to figure out how to explain. "I was checking out the Intelligence Corps of Cadets ...."
"The Secret Squirrels?" Vic asked. "Why would ...?"
"You know I'm interested in detective and police work," Jimmy explained. "I thought I'd check them out to see if the club was worth joining."
"Okay, so you wanted to be a Secret Squirrel. How is that a problem?" Tanya asked.
"To be blunt, we knew someone was trying to spy on us because of the bug we found, right?" He saw the nods acknowledging his statement, along with a glance or two at Bianca. Jimmy noticed. "Yeah, that's what we all thought. It turns out that might not be the case. Instead, someone is watching Laura. Closely." He looked around and saw the stares of disbelief. "I'm not kidding. From what I gather, somebody is very interested in our blue girl."
Bianca's jaw dropped. "In New York - her stolen luggage that was mysteriously returned?"
Jimmy shrugged. "Maybe the same, maybe just a coincidence."
"What do you mean, watching her?" Morgana was clearly worried about her friend.
"Let me explain everything I know, then we'll get to the questions." Jimmy waited until all the group nodded their agreement. "First, the Squirr .... the Intelligence Corps somehow got the idea that Laura is the daughter of a super-villain - well, a C-list villain - called Spinel. The Corps thinks she's a threat ...."
"She's welcome in the club," Bianca commented sarcastically. "Sorry," she apologized sheepishly for interrupting Jimmy's narrative.
"I did a little research," Jimmy continued. "She can't be the daughter of Spinel. First, Spinel's coloration came from a devisor lab accident, not her mutation. Second, and possibly more importantly, Spinel hates men. Really hates men. It's rumored that stems from nasty sexual abuse while she was young - and she's the prime suspect in the brutal torture and murder the family friend who did it."
"That would make her unlikely as Laura's mom." Tanya shook her head. "Don't the Squirrels know how to do basic detective work?"
"Most of them, no," Jimmy said, shaking his head. "I get the distinct impression that a couple of the older members know that's not true but are using it as a cover - which might indicate that there's some outside party using the Squirrels to do their spy work. Moreover, our table is bugged - again; I've heard part of one of the recordings. That's why I wanted to talk out here. From the conversations I've overheard in the clubhouse, Laura may be bugged, too."
He looked around again. "Why did the Corps get involved in finding her stuff that was stolen? And why is there a rumor that the thief ended up hurt. As in Doyle-level of hurt."
"That rumor's not just in the Squirrel's clubhouse," Bianca said grimly. "It seems that someone wanted to send a message."
Jimmy nodded. "That's my take, too."
"A message?" Bailey asked.
"If you mess with Laura, you'll get badly hurt. Or worse," Jimmy intoned solemnly.
"Who? And why?" Tanya asked, becoming more perplexed by the moment.
"That's what we need to find out," Jimmy replied.
"You realize that someone's going to start thinking that you're her protection," Vic glanced at Bianca. "That she's one of your minions and you're telling everyone 'hands off'."
"Great," Bianca sighed. "All I need is more people thinking I have minions."
"Well, you can always argue that she's not the right color," Bailey tried to add some levity to the serious conversation. "Everyone knows that minions are yellow, not blue!" The joke fell flat.
"So what do we do?" Vic asked. "If she's under 'protection', anything we do might make things worse for her."
"We can use the theft of her stuff as an excuse to put some wards on her, or her belongings," Morgana suggested. "That should block her being bugged."
"And find some excuse to put a jammer at our table?" Bianca suggested.
"Maybe the resident Japanese princess knows a good excuse for a jammer," Vic interjected.
"You're going to have to stay in the Squirrels," Tanya looked seriously at Jimmy. "Right now, that's our only pipeline for information about what's going on here."
"Unfortunately," Jimmy nodded, his expression pained, "that's the same conclusion I came to."
Sunday, October 9, 2016 - dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
Tanya frowned as she looked at her team-member coming up the stairs, then she glanced around the table to see other reactions, then she looked back at Laura. "What's got you looking like you don't now which way is up?" she asked as the blue girl sat at the M3 table.
"Weird day," Laura mumbled. Before her teammates could ask what she meant by that, she took a huge sip of her drink - which was usually green or herbal tea. Her eyes drifted shut momentarily and she sighed, relishing the beverage. "Really weird day."
"Define weird," Vic asked of her.
"This morning, I met with officials from the Japanese consulate so my neural neutralizer would be delivered to Koichi's dad." She shot a glance at the Japanese boy, who sat stoically as if he didn't understand Laura, but everyone knew he was learning English very quickly. "It was a last-minute scramble because I wasn't quite done ...."
"Because you've been spending all your time on your devisor chocolate!" Morgana interjected.
Laura frowned at her before continuing. "Then I had lunch with them and the Assistant Headmaster, and they delivered an offer from the Japanese Prime Minister's office to assist me with Japanese patents!"
"Really? That could earn you quite a tidy sum," Morgana observed dryly.
Laura gave her another disapproving look, then continued. "And then, after that very pleasant experience, I got to visit the Assistant Headmaster's office where I got royally reamed for my role in yesterday's little catastrophe." She shook her head unhappily. "Talk about an emotionally roller-coaster of a day!"
"You weren't the one who got the bruises," Bailey observed, glancing at Morgana.
"Yeah, but I was the one who had to sit through three hours of lab safety training videos!" Laura shot back unhappily. "And I've got several more hours of sitting through safety training videos mandated by the administration! With tests!"
"So why aren't you totally sulking?" Bianca asked with one eyebrow raised. "Does it have anything to do with that small pile of ... probably your chocolate ... on your tray?"
Laura smiled for the first time in the conversation. "We passed the first tests. Full battery of toxicology tests and a full bio-compatibility test." She shook her head. "You should see the bio-testing lab! It's amazing! It's ...."
"... not relevant to this conversation," Jimmy interrupted.
"Yeah," Morgana agreed. "Stay on target," she added in a monotone droning voice, just like the Star Wars pilot in the Death Star attack.
Laura blew a raspberry at Morgana. "Anyway, we're almost approved. Three independent groups have to replicate our tests, and then we'll exceed all Food and Drug Administration requirements for food safety!"
"That's good news," Bianca noted. "Enough to make up for the rest of the day?"
Laura agreed with a big smile. "I brought samples for everyone." She passed out small foil-wrapped morsels. "We're thinking that once we get full production going, we'll make milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and maybe mint or chili. I think we should make chili-chocolate."
Morgana shook her head when Laura offered her a sample, lifting her hand to wave off the morsel. "I'm ... right now, the thought of chocolate kind of puts me off."
"Are you okay?"
"How can you call yourself a girl if you don't want chocolate?"
Morgana shot a few unpleasant looks at those who'd mocked her, but she winced toward Bianca. "Might be residual stress from yesterday?" the white girl asked.
"Maybe." She turned toward Laura. "If you do sell it, some kind of brand label would probably help."
"Yeah," Laura nodded agreement, "we thought of that. We decided on a brand, but we've got to come up with a label design. And I can add a negative of the design into the mold pattern before I send it to the 3-D printers."
"That'd be good. What's the brand idea?" Tanya asked, curiosity demanding an answer before Laura decided to tell the group, especially since she might be prone to go off on a technical tangent about the 3-D printing process or the CAD modeling software she was going to use.
"Punk Pink Penguin Chocolates," Laura answered simply.
"What!?!" several of the group declared in astonishment.
"Punk Pink Penguin Chocolates," Laura repeated. "Horace didn't like it, but Lori and I outvoted him."
Most of the mouths dropped open in disbelief; Bailey, Jimmy, and even Tavi face-palmed at the proposed brand name. "Why Punk Pink Penguin?" Tanya finally stammered the obvious question, her mouth hanging ajar.
Laura winced. "It was late, and we'd decided on penguin somewhere in the name. Do you have any idea how many names with Penguin are trademarked?" she asked a tangential question.
"Lots. So why Punk Pink Penguin?" Bianca steered the conversation back to the immediate question.
"We wanted something alliterative, and Pink Penguin, and Purple Penguin are trademarks. Periwinkle Penguin sounded ... weird ...."
"And Punk Pink Penguin doesn't?" Vic asked, astonished at Laura's logic.
"We ruled out Paisley Penguin, and Drunken Penguin wasn't alliterative enough for Horace."
"Puny Penguin would have worked," Tanya suggested.
"We down-voted that. And Pretty Pink Penguin, and Princess Penguin. And Platinum Penguin and Plutonium Penguin."
"Plutonium Penguin?" Morgana gawked at her friend. "That was really one of your ideas?"
"It was late, and we didn't like it anyway," Laura said defensively.
"Well, duh!" Jimmy replied. "Who at Whateley in their right mind is going to eat a Plutonium Penguin chocolate bar that comes from devisor labs?"
"Yeah, that's why we voted it down. And Horace was adamant that we weren't doing Princess Penguin."
"Yet somehow Punk Pink Penguin is better than Princess Penguin?" Bailey asked carefully. "I don't follow the logic there."
Laura wrinkled her nose again. "Like I said, it was late. Anyway," she turned toward their newest group member, "I was hoping you could draw up some kind of design we could print on the labels."
"Pankupinkupengin?" Koichi asked carefully, not sure he'd heard correctly. When Laura hesitantly nodded, he picked up his ever-present sketch pad and quickly roughed out an idea. "Pankupinkupengin?"
The sketch was a girl penguin with a definite anime look, with a bow tie and wide belt and a wild punk haircut - short on the sides and moppish on top in a sort-of sloppy mohawk way.
"Tie pinku," Koichi added. "And ... obi."
"That's the idea, I think," Laura beamed at the sketch. "Can you draw it in color so we can print it on our labels?" She thought a second. "And maybe a pink streak in the hair?"
"Punk Pink Penguin," Morgana said slowly, shaking her head. "That's just wrong on so many levels."
Sunday, October 7, 2016 - Evening
Band Hall, Whateley Academy
All the rest of the band and support techies were already in the band room when Laura came in, feeling sheepish because she knew she was late, and the looks she was getting indicated that the others had been waiting. Blushing, she found a non-prominent seat at the rear of the practice room.
"Okay, since we're all here now," Dalton Li, the de-facto leader of The Unladen Swallows student band, shot a look at Laura, making her blush an even deeper shade of blue, "we finally got approval from the administration to go to the music festival."
The announcement caused an eruption of cheers around the room, which died down when Mr. King, the band's advisor, walked to the 'front' of the group. "There is some money in the band's account from last year, but everyone is going to have to contribute for the costs." There were a few groans after that announcement. "And the administration won't let you charge it to your student fees accounts," he added.
"So how much?" The question, or similar, came from several students at once.
"We'll be staying 2 nights in Concord. Leave Friday, then set up our gear at the venue. Saturday morning tune-up, and the event all day. Sunday, we come home. That's two nights of lodging plus meals. My first guess is about a hundred fifty each - the rest will be paid from what's left in the band account."
Laura felt her heart sink. Unlike others, she didn't have a surplus of cash, not after she spent her funds on parts for her various lab projects.
After the first discussion of logistics for the trip, the band got down to practice, but Laura remained distracted. At least she could teach Morgana how to set up and tune the equipment so the band wouldn't sound bad on her account.
She was still in such a glum mood when the meeting ended that she didn't wait for Morgana, but just stumbled dejectedly back toward Poe.
"Hey, wait up!" Morgana called out as she trotted toward Laura. The blue girl paused, looking toward her friend, and when Morgana caught up, they resumed the walk to their cottage. "Why so down? We're going to the band festival!"
Laura sighed, shaking her head sadly. "You are. I'm not."
One of Morgana's eyebrows cocked up as she looked toward her friend. "What do you mean? You're the lead techie. Of course you're going."
"No. I can't afford it," Laura retorted, her voice choking and her eyes fixed on the ground in front of them. She'd put a lot of effort into repairing and improving the band's audio equipment, but she was going to miss the payoff, the trip to the band festival.
"What?" Morgana gawked, almost missing a step. "But ...."
"I can't afford it."
"But ... I know the others can help out! The princess alone could easily gift ...."
Laura's head shook firmly. "I don't want to take any more from Hikaru. She's so generous to me already. I ... I just can't owe her any more."
"But ... if it's a loan?"
"Everything I earn goes to normal expenses. I don't have any extra. When would I be able to pay it back?" Laura replied sadly.
"Um," Morgana's mind raced; she knew the others would help Laura, but she also knew her friend didn't like charity. "How about when you sell your chocolate? Hikaru said premium chocolate is worth big bucks."
Laura halted, turning toward her red-headed friend, her eyes wide and her expression cheering a bit. "I .... Yeah, that'd work!"
Monday, October 10, 2016 - Before Breakfast
Labs Beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
The moment Laura came around the corner to Horace's lab, she pulled up short, frowning. Confronting her was a serious increase in the security of the lab; the door had multiple lock systems - a keypad, obviously for a numeric code, a separate card reader with a slot likely for her student ID card, and what looked like a peephole but she knew was a retinal scanner. Unable to enter the lab, she located a doorbell button and pressed it.
It took over a minute for the door to open, and Lori peeked out sheepishly. "I guess you noticed the new locks."
"Yeah. Paranoid much?" Laura replied as she let the door close behind her.
"The lab staff recommended some more security after we told them the value of the chocolate," Horace called out from behind a large tank. "Lori, can you code Laura into the system?"
"Sure," the racoonish-looking girl answered. She typed something into a keypad on the inside of the door, then had Laura enter a personal PIN. As they set up the other systems, curiosity got the better of Laura. "How much did you estimate we could make?"
"Four or five thousand dollars," Lori replied, "based on twenty dollars a pound. That's what we figured from what I found about the value of chocolate."
Laura's eyebrows rose. "Hikaru said ultra-premium chocolate is sixty to eighty dollars a pound."
Lori goggled, and from behind the tank, Horace whistled. "Nice. Want some better news? I was digging around the lab project records on the computers, and I found notes about how fast it would be possible to make cacao trees produce pods."
"Decent," Laura answered with a grin. She turned to the raccoon girl. "Need help with anything?"
Lori shook her head. "Nah. If you two keep moving beans through the other processing steps, I should have the concher ready later today."
"Can you check to see if maybe there's a wrapping machine around the labs anywhere?"
Laura nodded. "I'll check with Mrs. Cody. If anyone knows if one of them is here, she would." She wrinkled her nose a bit. "I just thought of something."
"What?" Horace and Lori asked in near unison.
"What are we going to do with the extra cocoa butter?"
Lori's eyebrows shot up. "That's a good question." She looked at Horace. "Any thoughts?"
"You know Marsha Fuller?" Horace answered the girls' question with a question.
Laura shook her head. "No."
"She's a sophomore gadgeteer, and she's focused on cosmetics. I already spoke to her, and she said it'd be perfect for some of the projects she's working on."
"Seems reasonable," Lori noted with a nod.
"She'll pay, too. Good cocoa butter is around twenty-five dollars a pound. Not huge dollars, but it's something."
"Sounds like a deal. Now, if you guys like the design, I'll get to work on the molds." Laura fumbled around and pulled a paper from her pocket. "I had a friend sketch up this." She held out Koichi's drawing for the others to see.
"Neat!" Lori squealed with delight. "That's perfect!"
Horace came around from behind the tank and warily took the paper. His expression instantly soured. "You're kidding! This is ... yuck!"
"It's cute!!" Lori shot back. The image was a cartoon-ish anime-style female penguin in an action-hero pose, wearing a wide pink Japanese obi and a pink bow tie, with a mop of pink hair in a very punk-girl style.
"It's ... it's ... stupid! It's awful!"
Laura ignored his reaction and produced a second page. "Here's a deep outline we can etch into the molds, too."
Horace didn't even look. "I still don't like it."
"You agreed we'd go with whatever we voted on!" Lori countered in the tone that said if Horace knew what was good for him, he'd shut up.
Horace gawked at the two girls for a few awkward seconds, wondering if they'd back down from the silly logo. Finally, he turned, shaking his head, and stalked back to his work. "I should have know two girls would come up with something like this," he grumbled. "The other guys are SO going to rip me about this forever! I'm never going to live this down!"
Monday, October 10, 2016 - Dinner
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"What's in the bag?" Tanya asked Laura as the blue girl sat down at the M3 table, a brown lunch-bag on her tray.
"That's it? What's in the bag?" Laura feigned hurt. "No, 'how are you, Laura' or 'how are your projects going, Laura'?"
Morgana smirked. "You're going to tell us all about your projects regardless, so why bother asking?"
"Saves time to skip the useless informal chit-chat," Jimmy added with a smile.
Jimmy's almost-always-present virtual assistant popped into being beside its owner. "Tavi can do informal chit-chat!" it said excitedly. "How are you?" he said as he jumped to Laura's tray, sitting on one slightly-upraised edge of the plastic. "How are projects going? Busy? Classes okay? What project do you work on today?"
Jimmy rolled his eyes. "Tavi!" he barked at the little semi-autonomous VI.
Laura chuckled. "At least Tavi knows how to engage in polite conversation!" she countered.
"Work on chocolate?" Tavi asked excitedly. "Tavi want chocolate!"
"Yes, I've been working on the chocolate," Laura replied.
"Told you! Now pay up," Bianca said, glancing at Vic.
Laura goggled as her disbelieving stare bounced back and forth between the two. "You're betting on what I'm working on?"
"Yup. So, what's in the bag?" Tanya repeated. "I bet it's samples of your chocolate."
"As if that isn't obvious," Bailey deadpanned.
Tavi shimmered, and reappeared as a punk-looking penguin. "Tavi want chocolate! Tavi be good mascot for chocolate!"
"In case you hadn't noticed," Jimmy chuckled, "Punk Pink Penguin is a girl character! And you're not!"
Tavi's eyes went wide, and he paled - an obvious gimmick built into the personality module of his program. "Ick! Tavi not want to be girl!" The little VI character dissolved into pixels again, reappearing as his normal little weasel self and scampering back to Jimmy's side, as if Laura might turn him into a girl penguin and Jimmy could protect him.
"So we've made some samples," Laura continued, ignoring Tavi's little interruption, "and want to get some opinions. We'll probably make three or four flavors - you know, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and maybe a couple of others, depending on what people want." She upended her bag and dumped the contents on her tray. Little cones covered in a variety of colored foils spilled out, looking like a pile of rainbow-colored chocolate kisses.
"And we're the guinea pigs for your various flavor concoctions?" Morgana asked warily.
Laura frowned. "Not guinea pigs," she retorted, a bit miffed. "We passed all the FDA tests. It's safe. We just want to find out what flavors people want!"
"White chocolate!" Bailey chimed in.
"That's not really chocolate-chocolate," Morgana observed critically. "It's made from the cocoa butter, so the flavors aren't as intense!"
"Well, I still like it!" Bailey shot back, sticking out her tongue for emphasis. "So pbthhh!"
"Mocha-chocolate," Morgana chimed in. "With devisor coffee, for that little extra kick!"
"Raspberry-chocolate!" Bianca voiced her opinion.
"Slow down a bit," Laura interrupted, scrambling to get out a pen to write. "Okay, I'm going to write these down, then you can vote about which flavor you'd eat."
In short order, Laura had a dozen flavors, including amaretto-chocolate and coconut chocolate, not counting Bailey's suggestion for maple-nut chocolate. When the suggestions petered out, she went down the list to see who would eat the various flavors. To no-one's surprise, milk chocolate and dark chocolate were the favorites, while chili chocolate and mocha-chocolate were surprisingly popular.
Laura was accused of being stingy when she only gave out a few samples, but she explained that she was going to let some other students sample the chocolate and get their opinions as well. Ironically, despite her insistence on dark chocolate and mocha-chocolate, Morgana passed on the samples, protesting that her stomach was a little upset. Given that she'd also picked sparingly at her meal, Bianca insisted that Morgana should go to Doyle to get checked out, to which the redhead immediately objected.
After disposing of her tray, Laura took the lunch-bag of remaining samples to the table of Japanese students.
"Excuse me," Laura said cautiously as she stood at one end of the table, "I'd like to get your opinions of some chocolate if I could."
Laura nodded. "My friends and I are making some chocolate, and we want to get some opinions on the quality of the chocolate, and also find out what flavors would be most popular."
"Ah. Yes," Sumika Miura nodded her understanding. She spoke around the group in Japanese, and the nods of agreement were immediate and heartfelt, judging by the expressions. "Please, join us. We are happy to help."
Once more, Laura emptied her sack onto the table, and with a little translation, explained the various flavors that she, Lori, and Horace had made samples of, and repeated her poll of favorite flavors and let the Japanese students try some of the chocolate. To say the results were positive would have been an understatement; given the reaction of the Japanese students, Laura was becoming more confident that the chocolate was going to be a huge hit. And from the way the Japanese girls begged and pleaded for extra samples, she suspected that they'd be very good customers.
Monday, October 11, 2016 - Evening
Labs, Whateley Academy
While Lori continued fine-tuning her ultra-fine conching machine, Horace and Laura worked in the computer lab on turning Koichi's drawings into some type of 3-D embossing that could be worked into the chocolate molds, giving them a much more professional look. The Japanese boy was naturally with them; he wanted to see the process by which one of his drawings could be made into part of a product.
"Okay, how does this look?" Laura asked as she leaned back from the computer keyboard. On the screen was a 3-D shallow-relief model of the Punk Pink Penguin.
"I think it looks good," Horace said.
The two of them looked at Koichi, who wrinkled his nose. "Something ... wrong. Not good look."
Laura frowned. "Well, this is hard!" she declared. "It's not like we can do a full 3-D model! The chocolate is only so thick!"
"Like ... coin!" Koichi said. Seeing the confused looks, he dug in his pocket and produced an American quarter. "See! Thin model, still life-like."
Laura looked at Horace, then at Koichi. "You ever done any coin engraving?" Both boys shook their heads.
"There has to be some information about shallow engraving on the web somewhere," Horace insisted. "See if you can find something."
While Horace and Koichi refilled their coffee cups, Laura did some on-line searching. She found a few articles, which made absolutely no sense to either Horace or Laura. "Does this mean anything to you?" she finally asked Koichi after trying in vain to decode several articles discussing of the fine art of shallow engraving.
When Koichi shrugged, Laura vacated her chair so the Japanese boy could manipulate the computer. In short order, he was frowning as well. "Not good English," he explained. "Not understanding."
Laura leaned over his shoulder and made a few mouse clicks. "This should be a reasonable translation," she said as she engaged the web translator. The page reloaded, this time with a scramble of kanji, katakana, and hiragana symbols all over the screen.
Koichi started reading, then he chuckled, followed by shaking his head and making what were probably obscene comments in Japanese. Finally giving up, he turned toward Laura and Horace. "Translate bad. Not sensible."
"Well, now what?" Horace grumbled unhappily. "I suppose we could just do an outline of all the logo, with lines for the different colors."
Koichi, though, had other ideas, and he began furiously typing at the keyboard. The other two watching in amazement as he plunged headlong into a maze of Japanese characters on Japanese website; he seemed to be reading entire pages in mere seconds, when in fact he was scanning for some key words or phrases or links. Finally, he got to a page that seemed to hold his attention, and he leaned closer to the screen, focused intently on reading it. "Hai!" he muttered to himself as he started nodding slightly. He leaned back. "Is ... easy," he declared with a smile, relinquishing the chair to Laura.
Despite the fact that Koichi thought it was easy, his lack of skill in English and Laura's unfamiliarity with terms of art and engraving made it all but impossible for her to understand his attempt at instructions. After several frustrating attempts spanning half an hour, Laura scrambled from her chair, shaking her head in annoyance, and gesturing for Koichi to sit down.
The next many minutes were almost comical, with Koichi trying to manipulate the controls of the graphics program, pausing to ask Laura in halting English, attempting to decode her replies, and Laura working through various options of the different software tools until she hit the one Koichi was asking for. It was quite fortuitous that he had a good memory, because after finding a particular tool once, he didn't need to ask for that again.
"Like this?" he asked when the computer applying his finishing touches. The result was astonishing - it appeared very lifelike, despite having a very shallow working depth.
"That's really good!" Laura exclaimed delightedly.
"Yeah, that works - even if the logo is stupid," Horace agreed reluctantly, having to get in a jab at the logo the two girls had pushed onto the project. "Now what?"
Laura gestured to Koichi, who understood and gave her back her chair. "Now I join this to the rest of the pattern." She did a few quick keystrokes, and the image merged with a background that looked like a 3-D small square of chocolate. "Make copies to fit the mold." A few more deft inputs cloned the square in two directions, making a computer representation of a multi-sectioned candy-bar. "Based on the density of chocolate," Laura added, "this is scaled so the bar is the size we want. And voila!" She keyed one final set of inputs, and the image became a negative mold of multiple candy bars laid out in a grid.
"Now I just send this to the 3-D printer, and it'll make a master. Probably take half an hour. Then I'll make the mold from food-grade silicone."
"One mold? That'll slow production," Horace observed.
"Okay, I can print another master while I cast the first mold. By the time I'm done with that, the second master should be done, so I can have two molds made tonight. I can make two more before breakfast. With a fast-setting catalyst, we can have eight or so by lunchtime. As fast as chocolate sets, we really wouldn't be able to use more than that," Laura explained. "Labels are printed, the foil is ready, and now we have the molds being made."
"So it sounds like we can start manufacturing chocolate tomorrow." Horace said with a grin. "Good. Then the money rolls in!"
Wed, October 12, 2016 - late evening
Labs, Whateley Academy
Laura's focus on her workbench was interrupted by a sudden chorus of "Hi's" and "Hello's" as the boys in the lab greeted a newcomer. Before Laura could turn to see who was intruding in the 'sacred hallow of the gadgeteers', she heard one loud, "Hi, Morgana! Can I get you some coffee?"
That caused Laura to roll her eyes. "Suck up," she muttered to herself. "Hi," she greeted her friend. "What brings you here? This isn't exactly on the way back to the cottage."
Morgana shrugged. "I'll pass on the coffee. Sleep, you know - something us mere mortals can't do with massive doses of caffeine circulating in our bloodstreams." She turned to Laura. "What can I say? I'm curious to see how you're doing on the PFG."
Laura stepped aside as Morgana came to her workbench. "Things are going pretty well. Except the launcher. That's got a glitch or two that are causing a feedback surge that overwhelms the regenerative trap."
"So if you skip the launcher, it's ready to test?" Morgana asked hopefully.
"Well, yes, but ...."
"So let's test it!"
Laura shook her head. "Without the launcher, I can't dissipate any excess plasma if the field absorbs too much energy." She gave her friend a 'mother knows best' look, or the closest she could approximate. "You don't want to be inside a field when the plasma containment leaks and surrounds you with a lot of hot plasma, do you?"
"Fireproof, remember?" Morgana said with a smug smile.
"Yeah, but your clothes aren't, and you've had more than enough 'wardrobe malfunctions' for one year." She glanced over her shoulder at the boys in the lab, some of whom were highly distracted from their own projects by the curvy redhead. "Not that the guys would mind, but don't those put a dent in your clothing allowance?"
"So when will you be ready to test?"
Laura smirked. "I was expecting you to snoop around tonight because I know how curious and impatient you are." She gathered up some items from her workbench. "I figured I'd wait for you to show up for my final test of the evening."
"And you found time to work on this project amidst your chocolate tycoon-ship?"
Laura just shook her head. "Lori, Horace, and I have been molding chocolate all day. Thankfully, we have the wrapping machine to handle packaging. Tomorrow, the big sale starts." She turned away from her bench. "C'mon. Let's run a test."
The two girls walked from the lab, which caused a puzzled eyebrow rise from Morgana. Laura didn't see it, but it was like she had a sense about her friend's mood. "Graduated from the small chamber in our lab. The field is getting strong enough that I have to use one of the bigger containment chambers."
At the large test chamber, which was ominously behind a solid steel blast door, Morgana helped Laura mount the PFG on a stand inside a cubical area, lined like the door in thick steel. As the two sealed the chamber, Morgana glanced at a couple of holes in one side of the chamber. "What are you testing it against?" she asked.
Laura shut and latched the heavy door, then led Morgana to a control room. "Two different frequencies of lasers, low-power microwave emitter, and a pellet gun."
"What, no photon torpedoes?"
Laura rolled her eyes. "That's the lab next door," she answered dryly. Laura activated a control panel, logged in to a computer, and then turned on monitors. "This isn't the big range, so I can only test on small-scale stuff here."
After confirming that the PFG was powered on from its battery pack, Laura remotely aimed a small low-powered laser at the center of the test stand. When the firing button was pressed, the result was a bright splash of energy about a meter from the stand and device. Simultaneously, indicator LEDs on the field generator began to light up and flash.
"The field is stable. Let's see how much energy the plasma trap can absorb," Laura reported, failing to hide a touch of excitement in her voice.
For almost ten minutes, the shield was subjected to a small but steady barrage of laser energy and some small air-rifle pellets, all of which it seemed to handle without problems.
"Okay, plasma containment is near the threshold I set. Engaging the launcher."
What happened next was difficult to describe without watching a slow-motion video of the event. Hot plasma was pumped into a 'torpedo', really a small toroidal magnetic containment device which was inside a gas-operated launcher. The first torpedo launched successfully, but the plasma tap hadn't been completely closed, so when the trap tried to fill the second torpedo, hot plasma vented inside the shield. The second torpedo launched wildly because the launching device was damaged from the plasma, and it bounced off the floor at the foot of the test stand. Instantly, all the remaining stored plasma was released. All of the instruments on the control panel went wild.
After hitting the power cutoff button, Laura looked in dismay at the rig. There were scorch marks all over. "Well, that wasn't quite what I expected," she said, trying not to sound dejected at the failure of her field generator.
After cleaning up the test chamber and putting all the pieces of Laura's contraption back in her lab, the two girls walked back toward Poe. "What happened?" Morgana asked, since she was curious and Laura hadn't talked much about the failure.
"My guess - current flowing in the plasma tap set up an unstable magnetic field distortion in the main plasma containment. It basically left a hole in the trap's containment field, and that leaked into the launcher, causing it ...."
"To go boom?" Morgana suggested.
"Yeah, basically," Laura agreed glumly. "And despite it being a setback, at least I got some chocolate to console myself with," she added.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - Late Evening
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
Bailey lay on her bed with her back propped against the wall when Laura quietly opened the door. Seeing that the light was on, she shrugged and gave up on trying to be stealthy.
"I didn't expect you to be up late," she said as she closed the door behind her, and then kicked her shoes in the general direction of her wardrobe. Her backpack slid off her shoulder and plopped heavily on her bed.
"Got a test tomorrow," Bailey replied simply. "I figured you'd be working late in the labs as usual, so I didn't bother going to a study room."
"I wasn't working in the labs," Laura said as she started to peel off her clothes to change into her nightie. She paused and turned to her backpack. "Here," she said, extracting a wrapped sample of the chocolate she'd been working on, and tossing it to her roommate.
"Thanks." Bailey quickly unwrapped it, then smiled. "Hazelnut?" she asked knowingly before popping the small conical candy into her mouth.
"Yeah. We figured we could make a couple more flavors, and hazelnut was a popular choice." Laura accurately tossed her shirt into her laundry basket, which was beside the wardrobe. "And it's not like it's hard to get, so it was an easy choice."
"When are you going to get me a sample of the chile chocolate?" Bailey asked through the chocolate kiss melting in her mouth. "That's the one I want to try."
"I've got a couple," Laura replied, digging into the backpack again. For several seconds, she rummaged through the pocket where she'd kept her chocolate samples, then sighed. "I had some. Toni must have taken them."
"Ah, so if you weren't in your room, and Antonia took your chocolate samples, you were spending time doing a little ... biology studying ... in your girlfriend's room?" Bailey deduced, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
Laura blushed a shade of lavender. "We were ... discussing ... the math assignments," she said in a very weak excuse.
"I'm not buying that," Bailey laughed. "And didn't you say that you two weren't going to stay up late ... discussing things ... on a school night?"
Laura's cheeks turned a darker shade of purple - her normal blushing color given her blue skin. "Well, yeah, but ... but we, um, she, um, we both felt ... a little cuddlier tonight." She continued to disrobe.
"You weren't so cuddly that you broke any rules, were you?"
Laura rolled her eyes. "No, mother!" She drew out the word 'mother' in that sarcastic way that a teenager would.
Bailey started to speak, but she stopped, and put down her book, peering intently at her roommate. "I would have guessed that you'd broken some rules based on the marks your bra left on your back."
Laura spun her head, staring at her roommate in disbelief. "What?"
Bailey laughed again. "Not enough room for your boobs and Toni's hands in your bra, is there?"
Laura shook her head, frowning slightly. "No, it's not like that! We weren't getting all 'handsy'!" She read her roommate's expression. "I think I'm having a little growth spurt. My bra has felt a little tight all day." She shrugged again. "I might have to go to the bookstore this weekend and get a new one." She stepped out of her panties and pulled on her nightie. "Not that I'm complaining," she added with a wicked smile. "I've been waiting for the titty-fairy to visit me so I'm not the smallest one on the floor!"
"Careful what you wish for," Bailey laughed. "You don't want the boob-fairy to make you go from the smallest boobs to the biggest! Not the way some of the exemplar upperclassmen girls are endowed! I don't think you could handle the attention," she added. "And your back would probably be killing you!"
Thursday, October 14, 2016 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"Hi, Laura!" The cheery greeting caught the blue girl by surprise, as she and Lori were sitting at a table by one of the entrances to the dining hall, eating their lunch in bites and nibbles between customers buying their chocolate. At the moment, there had been a lull, and Laura was trying to get at least one mouthful of food to quell the rumbling in her stomach.
"Oh, hi, Kiyoko, Sumika!" Laura's instinct would have been to give them quick hugs, as that was one common way American girls greeted friends, but she knew that would be odd and awkward for the Japanese girls. Instead, she gave a quick bow of her head in greeting.
"We wish to invite you to watch anime movies tomorrow night," Sumika said.
"That'd be fun!" Laura replied happily. "But I've got to take my turn in our chocolate factory," she added with a somewhat crestfallen expression.
"If you take my shift after classes," Lori piped up, "I'll take your evening shift."
Laura's eyebrows rose. "With Horace?" she asked the raccoon-girl sotto voce.
"Just doing a favor," Lori shot back defensively while blushing a bit.
"And the processes are mostly automated now," Laura countered, "so you'll have a lot of time. I suppose you'll be ... discussing ... projects with Horace?"
"Of course!" Lori shot back.
"And it wouldn't cross your mind to be a little ... affectionate ... with your boyfriend?" Laura giggled.
"He's not my boyfriend!" Lori countered, while the Japanese girls giggled at the exchange between the two American girls. "He's just ... a lab partner."
"Oh, okay," Laura shot back with a knowing nod. "So you two just experiment together?"
"Yes!" Lori replied quickly, then she paused, her mouth ajar, and reconsidered her words. "I mean, no! Not the way you're thinking!"
"So, it looks like I'm free tomorrow night after all," Laura replied to her Japanese friends, leaving her chocolate partner both frowning and blushing.
"Good! We meet you after dinner tomorrow?" Sumika suggested.
"Or maybe you have dinner with us?" Kiyoko put in her own suggestion.
"I'd love to," Laura said, "but it takes two of us to sell chocolate at dinnertime while the other one works on production."
"Ah, hai!" Kiyoko nodded.
"About chocolate," Sumika said, "we like to buy some."
"Very good chocolate!" Kiyoko chimed in, nodding enthusiastically and practically grinning.
The other Japanese girl nodded her agreement, then began discussing what they wished to purchase, with Laura's study of Japanese giving her an understanding a little of what they were saying - like five or eight candy bars, chocolate-chile or milk chocolate or coffee-chocolate. Meanwhile, Lori was helping two other customers.
The Japanese girls settled on ten of the bars - two of the chile, one milk chocolate, one hazelnut, and six coffee-chocolate. As they paid Laura, Sumika noted her puzzled look at the quantity they were buying. "Present for family," she explained.
When the lunch period was over, Lori and Laura gathered up the unsold chocolate, which was a surprisingly small amount, and went via the Schuster elevators back to their lab so they could secure the precious candy.
"I told you this would sell pretty well," Laura beamed as they put their earnings into a small safe in the lab.
"I never said it wouldn't," Lori shot back, grinning from ear to ear. Their chocolate project was off to a very good start, even at the price of fifteen dollars per candy bar.
Friday, October 14, 2016 - Morning
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"So, too good to join us at 'our' table now?" Vic spoke to Laura, one eyebrow cocked sardonically, as he, Tanya, and Bianca paused at one entrance to Crystal Hall, where two of the three chocolate-makers were doing good business hawking their tasty wares. They stood to one side of a table, making it obvious that they weren't trying to cut in what was a significant line of students waiting to buy the 'Punk Pink Panda' chocolates.
Laura glanced up from making change for Sumika Miura, one of her Japanese acquaintances, and frowned at her teammates, all of whom were smirking. "Pbthhhh!" Laura shot them a raspberry, then finished counting out change. "Here you go, Sumika. Arigato. Thank you for your business."
Sumika accepted her change and bowed to Laura. "Very good chocolate. Thank you." She slipped the change into her purse, then picked up six candy bars, and with a final courteous bow, scampered off to where two of her friends waited eagerly.
"I'm not ignoring you," Laura shot back before turning to another customer. "How may I help you?"
The boy in front of the line was a wiry kid with unkempt hair, not at all muscular like the exemplar boys. "Two ... no, three ...."
"Four," a boy beside him said. The second boy, probably a friend or roommate, was a bit shorter and portlier, making the two look like an unlikely duo that could have done an appreciable representation of Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello in a Halloween costume contest. "Chocolate-coffee and chocolate chili," he directed.
"Two milk chocolate, a chocolate-coffee, and a chocolate-chili," the first boy corrected his order.
"Sure," Laura replied with a smile. She picked out the requested candy bars from boxes behind the table, then took the boys' money and gave them the chocolate. "I hope you enjoy them," she concluded the transaction.
"Kind of expensive," the chubby boy shot back with a frown.
"But you said it was worth every penny," the skinny boy replied to his friend as the two walked away.
"I'm hoping they'll drop their prices!" the second boy countered.
"We only get to sell our chocolate during breakfast and dinner," Laura said to her friends. "Mealtime plus a half hour. We need to make the most of this."
"It looks like you'll run out of chocolate before you run out of time," Tanya observed.
"Where's the other one of 'The Three Chocolateers'?" Bianca asked.
"Making more chocolate bars," Laura explained as she filled another order. She glanced up at her friends, and noticed Bianca studiously looking at her. "What?"
"Your ... it looks like you're ... clothes are tight," the white girl suggested, trying to avoid saying anything that might embarrass anyone, especially the boys who were in line and who weren't used to girls' discussion topics.
Laura shrugged. "Just a little growth spurt," she discounted her friend's comment, also trying to not say anything embarrassing. "I've got to stop by the bookstore this afternoon to get new ... clothes. Or tomorrow. Depends on how busy we are with chocolate." She turned her attention to the line of chocolate buyers. "Hi, Hikaru," she greeted the next customer. "Would you like to buy some chocolate?"
The Japanese girl eyed the chocolate bars. "I understand your candy passed all the safety tests?" she asked in a way that could have been interpreted in several ways - such as a statement of fact or a skeptical question.
"Yes," Laura replied, not taking offense at what could have been heard as a very offensive question. "The school wouldn't let us sell them if we hadn't."
"Ah, of course." Hikaru looked over the bars. "In that case, I'd like to try one of each. One hazelnut, one milk-chocolate, one chocolate-coffee, and one chocolate-chili."
"We'll catch you at lunch," Tanya commented as Laura's friends and teammates turned away from the chocolate sellers so they wouldn't distract Laura's money-making venture.
Outside Crystal Hall, Tanya turned to Bianca. "Was I imagining things, or does Laura look a little ... bigger?"
Bianca nodded. "She was complaining about her bra being a little tight this morning. I guess she's having a little growth spurt."
Tanya scowled deeply. "I should have such problems," she griped. It was a well-known not-so-secret fact among the girls in M3 that Tanya felt a little insecure about how under-developed she was.
Vic frowned deeply at the two. "Do you have to talk about things like that?"
Bianca glanced at him. "Aw, are we embarrassing you?" she teased.
"Yes!" Vic shot back unhappily.
Saturday, October 15, 2016 - Afternoon
Testing Ranges, Whateley Academy
If he hadn't been in a Saturday afternoon art seminar, Koichi would have joined nearly the entirety of the M3 lunch table to witness a test of Laura's PFG at the high-energy range. As it was, nearly everyone else seemingly had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, and a pleasant one at that. Reminding Laura of the tale of the Pied Piper, Tia, Bailey, Vic, Erica, Bianca, and Morgana all followed her as she traipsed through the lab tunnels, her unusual contraption held delicately as if it were a Ming vase. While her teammates chatted about nearly anything that came to mind, Laura walked carefully, trying hard to ignore the chatter and protect her expensive and complex field generator.
"Earth to blue girl!" Tia called out sharply, puncturing Laura's device-testing worry field.
"Um, were you talking to me?" Laura glanced quickly over her shoulder at Tia, then refocused on carrying her precious invention.
"Um, yeah!" Tia said in a desultory tone typical of teenagers. "If this works, can you make more for all of us?"
Laura sighed to herself. "Once all the testing is done, maybe. They'll be kind of expensive."
"Says the poor girl to the rich rabbit girl with a custom Porsche," Vic teased both of his teammates.
While Tia gave Vic a well-deserved raspberry, Laura halted outside a heavy vault-like door about eight feet tall by five feet wide. She swiped her student ID card at a reader built into the wall beside the massive steel and ceramic blast-resistant panel. A moment later, an intercom built into the reader chimed. "May I help you?"
"Laura Samuels. I have a reservation for this range for testing," Laura replied nervously.
A heavy grating sound emanated from the door, and then it swung slowly inward.
Erica whistled to herself as they stepped through the door. "This is like battleship armor!" It wasn't quite, but the door was almost four inches thick, layered steel and ceramic specially designed to absorb, ablate, or deflect energy and projectile impacts. It was an ominous sign of the type of testing done in the range.
Laura led her little procession into an antechamber to the much bigger range, where Caitlin Bardue waited with her arms crossed. "Your range time started at two," she observed in a carefully neutral tone.
Laura winced. "I'm sorry we're late. Some people," she shot an unhappy glance at Bailey and Tia, "are a little slow."
"You brought your own cheering squad?" Ms. Bardue asked sardonically. "Or are you supplying your own test dummies today?"
Somehow, Laura managed not to laugh aloud. "They wanted to watch my test since no-one has seen a PFG in action before."
"Might as well. They'll be using the ranges sooner or later, so it doesn't hurt to become familiar with the ranges and the safety rules." Caitlin looked at the assembled group. "Everyone, scan in on the reader by the door." She waited until the group complied. "That will be necessary on every range so we can keep track of who is using the ranges - in case ...."
"Now for some rules. On ranges, the range-master is God, period and stop. You do nothing without the range-master's permission. We are responsible for your safety, and we take our jobs very seriously."
She waited a moment for her words to sink in, then turned to Laura. "Your device, your tests. Are you going on the hot range?"
Laura shook her head. "Mrs. Cody told me to use an instrumented dummy for the first tests since I'm not a brick."
"So all of you will be in the control room? Good. That simplifies the safety briefing." Ms. Bardue ran down a list of rules, all of which essentially boiled down to "don't be stupid and you'll most likely be safe."
Laura mounted her field generator on a heavily-instrumented test dummy, plugged in data cables, then retreated back to the control room, where Ms. Bardue activated a pair of transparent shield panels and a heavy-duty force field to protect the control room from whatever mayhem might be unleashed during the tests.
"Your test. How do you want to proceed?"
Laura winced very slightly; she'd initially thought that Mrs. Cody's briefing about Caitlin Bardue was a joke. She could see that if anything, Mrs. Cody was being restrained in her descriptions. She pulled a sheet of papers from a folder. "Mrs. Cody helped me with a set of test procedures," she said, handing the sheets to the range-master.
Ms. Bardue's eyebrow rose incrementally. It wasn't often that students, let alone freshmen students, had a thorough set of test procedures and objectives prepared for a test. Most just tried to wing it which often resulted in useless data.
"Small caliber gunfire," Ms. Bardue noted, pressing a couple of controls and using a heavy odd-shaped key to unlock the control board. "Fire when ready."
At Laura's request, Caitlin fired the weapons on Laura's command, while she studied the telemetry readouts. The field successfully held off pistol rounds, then thirty-caliber rifle fire. Even fifty-caliber rounds didn't penetrate the shield, although they did cause the generator to consume a lot of the battery power.
Next came energy weapons, and the genius of Laura's design shone through. The more energy that the test weapons threw at the shield, the more energy was absorbed into the plasma trap. She had the testing stop momentarily while she remotely triggered a 'torpedo' discharge to vent off excess plasma; a bright ball of swirling energy shot out of the launcher and splattered on the far wall of the range.
Caitlin's eyebrows shot up when her panel lit up some red warning lights. "What are you shooting out of that thing? I thought this was a defensive system!"
Laura flinched at the range-master's surprised and unhappy tone of voice. "It's in the procedures - I have to vent out excess plasma energy or the power system will overload, possibly exploding!"
"What are you shooting?" Caitlin demanded again.
"It's superheated plasma in a magnetic confinement ball, shot out of an EM launcher."
"Superheated plasma? Magnetic confinement?" Caitlin gawked at the blue girl. "Like they use in experimental fusion reactors?"
"No!" Laura rebutted, then one eye narrowed as she got a thoughtful expression. ""Maybe if I augmented the magnetic core with a concentric superconducting toroid, I could use the plasma energy in one core to generate a current which would increase the magnetic confinement in the other core ... and if I used deuterium or tritium to generate the plasma, maybe ...."
"You are NOT going to test a miniature thermonuclear weapon on my ranges!" Caitlin barked, having recognized the sign of a gadgeteer or devisor mentally shifting into 'big idea' mode and having heard enough key words that she had a strong inkling of what Laura was contemplating. "Understand?"
The harsh tone snapped Laura out of her idea dreaming mode. "Yes, ma'am," she said meekly. She filed away the idea for something to investigate later. After the PFG was working. And after she finished the Mark II Neural Neutralizer. And the neural tuning scanner. And Vanessa's car.
After a few more tests, Laura subjected the field generator to simultaneous energy and kinetic attacks, and to her delight, the energy weapons were keeping the power cells charged so the field could successfully repel the kinetic projectiles. The following series was intended to test the ability of the device to launch plasma torpedoes while simultaneously being attacked, but the first test run showed that the aiming system was wildly inaccurate while the field was also absorbing energy. It also vented hot plasma inside the shield, a problem Laura still hadn't quite solved.
"Do you want to try protection against heat energy?" Caitlin asked after Laura re-checked her rig for damage.
Laura came back behind the transparent shields. "What do you think, Morgana? Want to give it a try?"
"I guess I can do that."
Caitlin turned off the control panel and removed her key. "Weapons are all secured and locked. But we'll keep the shields up just in case. None of you are fireproof," she added unnecessarily.
When Caitlin cleared her, Morgana walked around the shield out to the range and approached the test dummy. "Ready?"
Laura checked the telemetry from her rig. "Power level is good." She looked up at Caitlin, who nodded. "Okay, Morgana. Start at low power."
The redhead focused for a moment, then fire grew around her hands, which she pressed toward the test dummy until she met resistance from the field generator.
"Everything is good. Give it a little more."
Morgana nodded, then upped the intensity of the flames, which splashed off the field generator, while the power trap hummed as it soaked up the energy.
"A little more," Laura called out to her friend. "It's having a hard time with the fire. Be ready to stop if I tell you. The power isn't too steady."
The flames around Morgana flared brighter, then brighter, reaching a level that greatly alarmed Laura. "Morgana! Stop! It's venting plasma! Stop!"
It looked for a moment like the redhead was struggling to lower her intensity, but then the fire flared even brighter. The force field protecting the control room screeched in protest at the intense heat, and then with a bright flash, Morgana's flames abruptly stopped as the girl collapsed to the ground.
(To Be Continued)