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Flight of the Unladen Swallows

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A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure

Flight of the Unladen Swallows


ElrodW and Astrodragon


Sunday, October 23, 2016 - After dinner
Band Room, Whateley Academy

With the combination rehearsal / jam session over, the members of Whateley's band, the Unladen Swallows, were putting up their gear. Since the band had been accepted as to compete in the annual Maple Syrup Amateur Band Contest and Concert in Burlington, Vermont, rehearsals had taken on a sense of urgency. Despite the airs of indifference some of the older band members presented publicly, everyone wanted to do well in the competition. While some band members were visibly excited and others were nonchalant, Cally was clearly nervous about performing in public. Laura was nervous too, but for different reasons. As she strode toward the large equipment room, she felt the burden of responsibility for ensuring all their electronic equipment was working perfectly.

"Mr. August?" she said to get the attention of the music director and the band's on-campus 'sponsor'.

Mr. August looked up from his tiny desk, on which was spread a mass of paperwork. "Ah, yes, Laura," he smiled at the blue girl. "We have a little problem," he said, the smile instantly turning to a wince. "Um, with all the old equipment, the sound is .., off."


"It's got some pretty significant distortion, and a couple of frequency bands seem attenuated," the instructor continued. "Do you, maybe, have time to check out the gear?

"Uh, yeah, probably," Laura replied cautiously, voicing her confusion. "But ...."

Mr. August guessed Laura's line of thinking. "Our usual gear has a ton of devisor tech in it. The administration set their usual couple of conditions, the first of which is no devisor tech."

Laura nodded. So the band has to use the old gear, because there's no devisor tech. That makes sense."

"But it's been a few years since the band was off-campus, so we need to check it out."

"I didn't think it sounded that bad," Laura objected weakly.

"Trained ear, remember?" Mr. August chuckled. "We probably should be spending some time using the non-devisor gear, so we can identify issues earlier."

The blue gadgeteer turned to what seemed to have grown into a mountain of 'antique' sound gear, the old, bulkier, non-devisor equipment. "Do I want to know the other conditions?" she asked as she glanced back at the faculty member.

"If it wasn't a Halloween-themed contest, several students wouldn't be allowed to go."

"You mean like Tia?" the blue girl asked. "And me?"

"Well, I'm given to understand that you're pretty good at disguise, but Tia - yeah."


"As an extra precaution, the administration assigned another faculty member as an extra chaperone," he continued. "Someone with a lot of experience in avoiding trouble and mixing with the general public."

Laura frowned as she went down a mental list of faculty members who might fit that description. It was a long list. "Do I want to know?"

"You'll meet her later. And the third condition, nobody with the 'Kimba Curse' can go off campus without lots of security escort," Mr. August added.

Laura's eyebrow shot up. "Kimba Curse?"

Mr. August sighed as he shrugged. "Ah, forget it. Nobody in the band has it, so ...." Seeing that the girl was still curious, he continued. "Group of freshmen, formed a training team, attracted way more than their fair share of trouble, like iron filings to a magnet." He paused and seemed to be scrutinizing the girl with one eyebrow cocked. "You guys aren't like that, are you?"

Gob-smacked, Laura gawked for a moment, her jaw flapping as she tried to figure out how to respond. "It's not like ... we weren't ... I didn't try to ... we didn't know Squidley was there ...."

Mr. August practically roared with laughter. "Just teasing, Laura." He pulled a chair up beside his desk. "Let's go over the tech spec from the venue."

"Tech spec?"

Mr. August nodded. "At some venues, the band supplies all their equipment. At big venues, the 'house' will have a lot of the gear - amps, mixer, speakers, wiring with drops. Their tech spec details all that they provide. The bands bring their instruments, sound processors, a ... I guess you'd call it a pre-mixer, wedge monitors." He pushed a paper toward Laura. "This is what we have to work with."

Laura studied the document for a few minutes. "This looks like a strange list."

"Yes, indeed," Mr. August agreed. "It's an interesting venue. It's used a lot for concerts, competitions, and there are a few rooms which can be used as recording studios. There's a large indoor performance area, and on one stage, the back wall can open to a big outdoor amphitheater. Naturally, they have quite a bit of sound gear. They record parts of the competition and sell the music to help defray costs. And this year, they're going to do a 'live concert' video production of the evening winners' performances."

"So we don't have to take all of our gear."

A chuckle sounded from the older man. "But we're going to take it anyway - just in case. So let's sort the gear, and then check it out."

For the next twenty-five minutes, they went through the equipment one piece at a time, setting aside the equipment which was on the list of what they had to provide themselves.

"Can you do a little more thorough testing and repair?" Mr. August asked.

Laura thought a moment. "Can I take this to the labs? All the equipment is there - variable-frequency signal generator, scopes - I can set up a test stand at an unused bench. I won't have to run back and forth if I need a different bit of test gear, and the lab has the gear to make repairs if they're needed. If I bring stuff here, I'd have to check it in and out every day."

"Makes sense. Focus on the 'mandatory' gear first. If there's not time to get everything tested, we need to make sure we get the most important stuff working. It won't hurt for the band to rehearse with the new gear, as long as we get one or two final sessions with the antiques."

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Sunday, October 23, 2016 - Evening
Devisor Labs, Whateley Academy

Morgana was sitting on the stool at Laura's lab bench, sipping her ever-present cup of coffee, as the blue girl pushed a cart overflowing with sound gear into the lab. "What's all that, then?" she asked her friend.

Laura didn't look up as she pushed the heavy cart toward a vacant lab bench. "Sound gear for the band. Gotta get it checked out, and some of it probably needs repairs."

"Again?" Morgana gawked.

"The band practiced with this, and Mr. August said the equipment is distorting the sound. He made it sound like it was totally awful."

"If he noticed, the judges would notice," Morgana said with certainty. "Can I help with anything?" she asked over the coffee cup cradled in both hands and raised for another sip of the foul devisor liquid.

Laura gawked at her for a moment. "Well, duh!" she exclaimed as she continued pushing the overloaded cart.

The redhead chuckled to herself, then gulped down the rest of her coffee. "Okay." She crawled off the stool, making a production of the task as if it was some Herculean effort. "That's a lot of gear for just the two of us to unload," she mused a little louder than was really necessary.

As Morgana had predicted, three of the boys in the lab practically leaped to their feet and scrambled to help the curvy British girl. "I can help," the trio said almost in unison, which caused an eye-roll from Laura.

With three boys helping Laura and Morgana, the cart was unloaded in seconds, not that Morgana needed much assistance with her well-above-average strength. Then, as Laura began gathering test equipment, Morgana, trailed by three boys who were practically drooling over her, took the cart to get another load of gear.

As Morgana led the crew moving the gear, Laura began testing, starting with the mixer board. Of all the gear, the mixer board looked the most complex, but Laura knew that the sound processors were far more intricate. Echo, reverberation, and all the other effects were injected into the audio by the sound processors, so if they didn't work, the band might sound like crap. Of course, if their mixer board didn't work, they'd sound like crap, too.

There were probably far less complicated ways to test the gear, but Laura was a gadgeteer, so what seemed complicated to the average person was 'probably not thorough enough' to her. One by one, she injected analog inputs, varying the amplitude and frequency as she mapped out the results. She also checked for phase shift on the channels. Each input that failed, and there were several, she marked with blue painter's tape for further investigation. Every output was tested just as thoroughly.

Once she finished mapping the faults, she began to disassemble the case to expose the inner workings. Realizing that someone was standing close and watching her, she looked up, a bit startled, but it was Morgana with three of her admirers, each with a large cart full of sound gear lined up like a train.

"We've got it all," she announced proudly.

Laura rolled her eyes at the way the redhead could get boys to do her bidding. "Must be nice to have minions," she muttered sarcastically.

"They're not minions," Morgana corrected her haughtily. "They're admirers," she added softly to only Laura, a huge grin on her face.

"Minions, admirers - what's the difference? One, you simply direct. The other, you wiggle your butt and ask in a sweet helpless damsel-in-distress voice!" Laura shot back.

"I do NOT do a helpless damsel-in-distress voice!"

"I noticed you didn't deny the butt-wiggling, though," Laura giggled.

"Oh hush!" Morgana turned to her admirers. "Thank you for the help," she practically purred before turning her attention back to her friend. "Can I help?"

"Maybe," Laura mused. "I've got to test the processors, and they're a lot more complicated. This is just tracing signals and finding where the circuit is faulty. Here, let me show you."

"Laura-san!" Koichi's voice called urgently from the door. He rushed into the lab to the workbench she was at, stopping short and bowing respectfully. "So sorry interrupt," he apologized, panting as he was nearly out of breath, which indicated that he needed something in a timely manner.

Laura knew that the boy wouldn't have come to the lab unless there was some very pressing need. "No need to apologize. What is it?"

"Father-san call," Koichi reported. "Doctor say it bad. Your ... box ... not working. Doctor need help to ... adjust. Very important."

Deep worry lines appeared on the blue girl's forehead. "Okay." She glanced at her friend. "You might as well go to dinner. This could take a bit." With that, she turned and trotted out of the lab, following the Japanese boy.

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The last thing Laura expected when she returned to the lab almost an hour later was to see Morgana, on a stool, bent over the workbench, glancing back and forth between the disassembled mixer and the test equipment, and moving test leads within the device.

"I thought you'd go to dinner," Laura commented as she slid onto another stool.

"What, and let you have all the fun?" Morgana asked wryly. "It's not difficult, really."

Laura gazed at her a moment. "How much butt-wiggling and damsel-in-distress did you have to do to get the guys to show you what to do?"

Morgana turned to her, and for a brief moment, a pained expression flitted across her features. "I do know my way around electronics," she replied, trying not to sound offended. "A bit."

"Sorry," Laura apologized.

"Turns out, Morgana's good for more than drinking our coffee, one of the guys at a neighboring bench chuckled. "Really, she caught on pretty quick, and she didn't need a lot of help."

"After a point," another guy chimed in, sounding disappointed, "she wouldn't let us help!"

"You tripping all over yourselves to try to impress her was probably interfering with her work," Laura laughed, causing the boys to blush and look away from the two girls.

"So what was the problem?" Morgana asked her friend, changing the subject and trying - but failing - to not display a smug grin.

Laura sighed heavily. "The girl had a really bad seizure, and the neutralizer wasn't working, at least not on the settings I gave them. The doctors were afraid to change anything, but they were afraid to NOT do anything." She sighed again. "Would have taken me about five minutes if I'd have been there in person. With translators on both ends, double-checking everything I said, and a bit of time delay in the video-conference, it took a long time."

"But you got it to work?"

"Yeah," Laura nodded. "I walked them through a few higher-powered settings, just in case."

Morgana straightened and stretched her back and shoulders. "That channel checks out. Unless you're going to put too much power through it," she added.

"It's a band. Is there such a thing as too much power?"

"Depends on," Morgana snickered. "Are they playing remotely from an orbiting spaceship?"

"That looks like a tennis-shoe?" one of the neighboring boys interjected. "Check with the vehicle shop. They might have one hiding somewhere."

"If they don't," another boy laughed, "you could check with the alumni association. I'm sure some former student somewhere has a spaceship you could borrow for the weekend!"

Laura rolled her eyes. "This is a band contest, not a 'Disaster Area' concert!" she grumbled. "I don't think the judges would be impressed if the band played like that."

"But they'd win by default," Morgana smirked. "Sole survivors."

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Monday, October 24, 2016 - After classes
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

With an expression of concern, Morgana followed a security guard into the administration wing's conference room. Her expressions changed to worry the moment she spotted Laura, Tia, Cally, Tanya, Erica, and Jimmy sitting around the table, looking simultaneously curious and worried. The guard closed the door behind himself as she took a seat at the table, exchanging glances with their other teammates.

"So what did you do now?" Tanya said half-accusingly to the newcomers.

"Who, me?" Morgana replied defensively. "Why do you think I did something?"

"Because you always 'do something'," Jimmy shot back.

"You, or that roommate of yours that you're corrupting with your bad influence," Erica added sarcastically.

"I haven't done anything," Morgana defended herself. "At least not that I'm aware of," she added with a sloppy grin.

"Anyone have any idea what this is all about?" Cally asked.

"Nope," Tanya replied simply.

"Nobody has told us anything," Tia added.

The door re-opened, slowly and ominously, and Imp, stern-faced and carrying a very, very thick folder, strode purposefully in, closing the door behind her before marching wordlessly to the head of the table. Her timing couldn't have been better if she'd planned it, which was precisely what she'd done.

As she looked around the group, frowning, she dropped the fat folder onto the table with a resounding thump. "It seems you have been quite active, haven't you?"

If she'd wanted the group to feel nervous, she succeeded.

"I've been reviewing your collective files," she continued, touching the folder for dramatic effect. "This is just the highlights from the briefing security prepared for me." She glanced around again, shaking her head disapprovingly. "Administration and security are concerned that you've had a few too many ... adventures, and they thought that since I've had plenty of life experience with those types of things, I might be best to try to look after you lot."

"Eep," Laura squeaked as she involuntarily flinched when Imp looked at her.

Imp frowned at the group again. "And I drew the short straw!" she softly muttered to herself as she strode back to the door. "Come in," she announced out into the hall. As Imp walked back to the head of the table, the members of M3 froze, expecting someone from security or the administration to march in to deliver at the very least a serious chewing-out, and half-terrified of who Imp had invited in.

Electradyne led Nick, Kieron, Dalton Li, and Emile into the room, followed moments later by Mr. August. As they took seats, the assembled members of M3 gawked at them, then turned their stares of disbelief to Imp, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. They realized that they'd been had, that they'd been the butt of one of the Imp's gags.

As Electradyne flopped into a chair, she frowned at the Imp. "You're our 'other' chaperone?"

"Who else, but the Fabulous Imp," the teacher chuckled, "is qualified to make sure that you all have a fun trip, while at the same time keeping the lot of you out of trouble?"

Tia rolled her eyes at the teacher's statement. "I bet she got drafted," she whispered dryly to Laura, who was sitting beside her. She glanced at Imp, who, having overheard Tia's guess, gave the bunny girl a wink and a tiny grin.

"Is that really our security file?" Jimmy asked cautiously, ignoring the chuckles of his teammate at Tia's witty comment.

"No, it's far more important than that. This is every script of every Loony Tunes cartoon ever made," Imp replied, glancing down at the file with an almost reverent expression. "I'm taking it back to my vault after I'm done here; it's way too valuable to just leave lying around my office."

"So you were just kidding us about 'our file," Vic commented in a relieved voice.

"Oh, no," Imp looked at the boy, then around the table. "You guys most definitely have a file. Quite a thick file, and interesting reading, I might add." She shrugged. "If it wasn't classified, I'd have needed a hand cart to bring it over."

When the kids who weren't part of M3 finished chuckling and the kids from M3 finished rolling their eyes, Imp continued. "Okay, let's talk about the trip."

Mr. August walked to the head of the table, standing beside Imp. "Even though this is a band trip, Ms. Imp is your primary chaperone."  He saw the kids gawking at him in surprise. "Since I have an advanced music degree, I was asked to be part of the judging committee."

Dalton Li frowned. "Why do I get the feeling that's not going to help us?"

Mr. August chuckled. "Because it won't.  Because I'm your director, I must abstain from voting on your performance.  The same is true for any other music director with a connection to a competing band."

Imp grinned. "And no, you may not bribe the other judges!"

"You'd most likely be disqualified if you even tried, so don't even think about it!" Mr. August added sternly. While many of the Whateley students thought he had no sense of humor and didn't recognize jokes, in reality, he knew that unless he pre-empted what most students thought were jokes, some yahoo of a student would take it seriously and try. Better that he be seen as a fuddy-duddy than students get in serious trouble off campus.

"Now let's talk about appearance precautions." She looked around the room, her gaze pausing on Laura, Bianca, Tia, and Nick. "You," she directed her focus specifically on Nick, "can't do a lot to disguise your appearance. On the other hand, you're a reality-TV star, so that might help." She looked at Tia. "You've got the same problem, but again, you've been in the news a lot, and you've been portrayed very sympathetically as a 'victim of a deranged mutant devisor', so again, that might help."

"You two," she looked at Laura, and then Bianca, "can disguise yourselves."

"I've got my skin cream," Laura piped up enthusiastically. "And I loaned some to Bianca in New York, so we know it works for her."

"Good," Imp nodded approval. "The other thing you two have in your favor is that this is a Halloween-themed event, so you could wear costumes to further disguise your appearance." She looked at Bianca. "If you were to dress as a vamp girl, for example, your appearance could be easily passed off as a costume."

"My ... friend Antonia and I already came up with a costume for me," Laura beamed. "She helped me make a Mystique costume, so I won't have to worry about disguise the afternoon and evening of the contest and social." From the corner of her eye, Laura saw the wicked grin and waggling eyebrows Morgana was shooting her way; Morgana and Bianca knew only too well how good a 'friend' Antonia was.

"That'll cut down risk of exposure," Imp nodded approvingly before looking back at Bianca. "And you?"

Bianca winced. "I wasn't really planning on anything."

Laura's eyes widened. "Like ... a vampire girl or something! That'd be great!" she said excitedly. "A sexy black dress ..."

"With a heavily padded bra," Morgana interjected with a wicked grin.

"Yeah!" Laura was really getting excited by the idea. "Maybe a long black wig - like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark!"

Bianca gawked at the two and their enthusiastic suggestion. "No. Just ... no!"

"Oh, it'd be great!"

Without warning, Tavi materializes from Jimmy's digital assistant. "Tavi researched! Tavi found good pictures!" the little holographic figured enthused. "Tavi help!" His image fuzzed, then he solidified again, albeit with white skin, vampire fangs, a very authentic-looking Elvira wig, but instead of a clingy, immodest black dress sporting lots of cleavage, he had a simple black tunic.

Imp nodded. "It would be a very good disguise," she opined with an approving smile.

"No," Bianca restated her firm objection as she angrily backhanded the little hologram, causing him to shatter into thousands of little pixels which then faded from view.

"Party pooper," Jimmy said with a frown.

"Then YOU go as Elvira!" Bianca snapped at him. She turned to her roommate. "Why don't you go as a demon-girl? With your dragon-form and red body paint?"

The thoughtful expression signified that Morgana was actually considering the idea.

"A dom-demoness?" Cally suggested helpfully. "Leather bra and miniskirt, high black leather boots ...."


"Maybe a riding crop, and handcuffs tucked in the waist?" Erica caught up in the moment.

A broad grin spread on Imp's features. "Now you're getting into the spirit of things!"

"And if things go sideways ...," Tanya began.

"Which they usually do when you're involved," Jimmy added with a grin.

"You'll already be in your fighting form, and ..."

"No!" Imp snapped. "We are NOT going to need your fighting form, because you're all going to do everything possible to avoid any confrontations!"

Morgana stared at her with big sad puppy-dog eyes. "But I'm more comfortable in that form!"

"Then use that form as part of your costume," Imp directed.

"But no dom theme!" Morgana said firmly.

Both Bianca and Morgana were so busy shaking their heads 'no' at the costume suggestions that they didn't see Jimmy waggling his eyebrows and grinning at Laura, Erica, and Tanya. If they had, they might have worried.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - Mid-afternoon
Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy

"And how are you doing today?" Dr. Shu asked pleasantly as he sat down once Cally had taken a seat. The question was intended to be reassuring that everything was normal, even though he could easily read the ... fear? ... in Cally's posture and expression.

"I ... I am not sure," Cally replied uneasily. "I think everything should be okay, right?"

Her choice of phrasing wasn't lost on the psychiatrist. "Should be?"

Cally winced, lightly biting her lower lip for a moment. "Si. I should be happy, no? The band, it is playing at a contest, and I like to sing with the band." She sighed. "So I should be happy."


"What if ... what if ...?" Cally was unable to continue as she fought what the psychiatrist had repeatedly assured her were unreasonable fears.

"Do you have any problems with the others in the band?"

Cally hadn't been expecting that question. "What?"

"The other members of the band - have you had any problems with them? Have they treated you with any prejudice? Any anger? Any hostility?"

"No," Cally replied cautiously.

"How about your friends? Do they show any hostility?"

The girl shook her head vigorously. "No. They show only support and care."

"I understand some of them are part of the technical staff? Road workers?" Dr. Shu asked.

Cally's chuckled at the psychiatrist's jumbled terminology, but it sounded hollow. "They are called Roadies," she replied. "And yes, some of my teammates are part of the support crew."

"And I am told several other friends are accompanying the band on the trip, correct?" Dr. Shu continued. "As the event was being discussed in staff meetings, I recommended that it would be helpful to your confidence if they were to go as well. It would give you more feeling of safety."

"Yes, I suppose so," Cally replied.

"And I wasn't the only one."

"What?" Cally's eyes widened in surprise.

Dr. Shu nodded. "After being thrown, one must get back on the horse."

"What? Horse?"

Dr. Shu smiled. "A person who suffers a traumatic event must confront the cause of the trauma and overcome the fear."

"But ... it was so ...," Cally winced, her voice trembling, "it was ... terrifying!"

The doctor smiled at Cally. "If I did not think that you could deal with the trip, I would not recommend that you go. If I did not think it would help reassure you, I would not have recommended that more of your friends go on the trip with you."

"I ... I suppose that will help." She thought a moment. "Does that include Bianca?" Cally asked hopefully. Bianca's magic was powerful and could be very helpful defending her against ... whatever.

Dr. Shu shook his head. "No, unfortunately not." He knew what the girl was going to ask. "I can't say much, except that information suggests the threat to her is much larger than had been suspected." He hoped his voice didn't betray him; he hated the role the administration gave him, that he was to help 'seed' rumors about Cally's white-skinned teammate being essentially under house-arrest for her own protection.


"I am certain that you will be safe," Dr. Shu reassured her. "And if something does happen, your friends will do everything they can to help protect you."


"If you do not master your fears," the doctor said somberly, "your fears will master you."

Cally's eyes widened. "Is that something Confucius said?" she asked, curious.

"I thought it was Yoda," Dr. Shu dead-panned in reply. He thought it a good sign that the girl, though discussing traumatizing events, couldn't hold back a giggle at his off-the-wall comment.

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As Cally walked out of Dr. Shu's office, her eyebrows rose at the sight of Bianca sitting in a chair in the 'waiting room' area, trying not to look bored as she flipped through a magazine. Cally quickly decided to say nothing, but to hurry out, lest there be some conversation that would be embarrassing to either Bianca or herself.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - Late afternoon
Administration Conference Room, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Headmaster Lecompte sat down at the head of the table and immediately got to business. "What's the problem?" he asked bluntly.

"You mean, who's the problem?" Robert Turner asked flatly.

The psychology department staff exchanged glances at Turner's semi-sarcastic comment. "Ms. St. Claire," Dr. Cody replied.

One of the admin staff, grinning wickedly, extended his hand, palm up, to a colleague. "Pay up." The second, grumbling, fished out his wallet and pulled out a five dollar bill and unhappily slapped it on the open palm.

Turner frowned at the two. "Knock it off, you two! That's not very professional!"

Lecompte ignored the exchange. "I take it you're concerned about her."

"That's an understatement," Cody replied unhappily.

"Did you meet with her?" Turner asked.

"Yeah. It was about as productive as talking to a tree."

"You expected differently?"

Cody shook his head. "No. But I was hoping for something different."

"I can't order her to discuss her problems with you," the headmaster replied bluntly.

"I know," Cody grumbled. "She didn't say anything, but we've been talking to several of her friends, and watching how she's reacting." He grimaced and shook his head. "Her body language and interactions with friends are starting to look like a textbook case of 'prisoner for life'."

"Which is?" Turner prompted with a worried frown because he suspected that he knew what Cody was about to say.

"A prisoner in a life sentence without possibility of parole will hit a point of depression, sometimes extreme, sometimes desperate," Cody answered grimly. "She's a teenage girl faced with indeterminate confinement to campus in the name of protecting her."

"We still don't know the extent of the threat to her," Sam Everheart, head of security, protested. "And it's a near certainty that news of her trip came from somewhere on campus."

"We're going to have to figure out something," Cody shot right back, "before she starts suffering from depression and paranoia."

"So what are we supposed to do?" Turner grumbled. "Let her off campus, knowing that there's a very credible threat to her life? Or keep her cooped up here until she goes crazy? Somehow monitor over a thousand students, faculty and staff to prevent a leak if she does leave campus?"

Lecompte looked thoughtful for a few moments, long enough that the discussion halted and everyone looked at him. "First, this meeting is over." He looked at Turner. "My office." He looked at Cody, then at Grimes. "You also."

A few minutes later, Cody, Turner, and Grimes sat down in Lecompte's office. "What are you thinking?" Turner asked even as he was taking a seat.

"Scarlet Letter," Lecompte said. "We'll get her off campus. This band trip may be just the thing she needs."

Turner's eyes lit up as he understood. "A lot of her team-mates and friends are going to support Ms. Persico."

Lecompte nodded. "Exactly. So they'll also be backup for Ms. St. Claire. In the meantime, no-one, not even Ms. St. Claire, will know she's going. On the contrary, we'll let it be known that she is decidedly NOT going on the trip."

"I'd suggest letting word spread from her and her teammates," Cody suggested. "It'll seem more natural."

"I concur," Turner added.

"At the last possible moment, we sneak her onto the bus. That's where you come in," he looked at Grimes.

"An illusion spell," the magic user said with certainty. "But Fey is better at making that type of illusion. If we can pry her away from that tree for a few minutes," she added sarcastically. Everyone knew how much time Fey spent nurturing the sole surviving World Tree that was growing in The Grove.

Lecompte, Turner, and Cody nodded. "Let's make it happen."

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Thursday, October 27, 2016 - After classes
Security Room, Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Sergeant Clauser looked up from his computer before the person who'd come to speak to him could even open his mouth. "What?" he asked with a bit of irritation in his voice.

"Duty calls. Forsythe said you need to give a pre-brief for a weekend trip off-campus."

Clauser rolled his eyes. "Why is it always me?"

The officer shrugged. "I dunno. Short straw?"

Clauser sighed, then stood. "What's the group?"

"Some kind of band contest. I think it's in Vermont."

"Who's got the pool?"


"Is anyone going to fuss if I wait to bet until I've seen who's going?" Clauser asked.

"Probably. You know the drill."

"Okay." Clauser thought a moment. "Alright, it's Vermont, and the band, so ... ten. Fight, Saturday, ... I'll take four pm." He turned and strode past the front desk toward the conference room; he frowned at the way the two at the desk smirked. They knew something he didn't, and their expressions of mirth did not bode well.

As he approached the room, he could tell the students were already gathered from the chattering emanating through the open doorway. Curiosity made him pause a moment to listen.

"Why do I have to sit through another one of these?" one female voice complained. "I've only heard it like a dozen times!"

"I bet I could recite the damned briefing from memory!" another griped.

Clauser knew how to handle this cocky group. He stepped through the door. "Okay, if you think you can recite ...." His voice cut off as his jaw dropped. "Oh, crap!" He mouthed to himself as his stomach dropped. "Not you again!" He glared at the members of M3 who were sitting around the conference table. Worse, Imp was sitting with the group, which meant she was a chaperone - he started thinking that he should have bet on Friday night instead. There was no way Imp and this group of freshmen trouble-magnets would survive even an hour in public without some type of trouble. And since he was doing the pre-brief, he was also going to be leading the security team trying to clean up whatever mess the students made. He had the ominous feeling that he should have called in sick and gone fishing instead of coming to work.

"Okay, let's get the boring part over with," Clauser announced after taking a deep breath. For ten minutes, he gave them the standard security lecture about precautions to take when off campus, disguises, avoiding trouble, and how to report trouble - both potential and actual - to security. As expected, there were no questions.

"Now, there are no known Humanity First chapters in Burlington, but that doesn't mean there aren't individual members. The only villain activity of note was eight months ago; a minor villain group from New York City was laying low in Montpelier." He shook his head, rolling his eyes. "Stupid idiots forgot that bank and jewelry robberies don't go with laying low!" He glared at M3. "I think you guys know him. The Mighty Squid?"

"Eeep!" Laura squeaked at the reminder, especially since Clauser was specifically staring at her and her friends.

"I am told most of the people at the contest will be high-school and college age; those age groups are not known for high levels of self-control, so there are likely to be some hot-heads. Don't provoke any trouble. Any questions so far?" As expected, the upper-classmen were bored and the freshmen looked too timid to ask.

Imp stood up abruptly and walked up beside Clauser, pausing along the way to hand a stack of stapled papers to one student to pass around to the others. Surprisingly, each had a thumb drive attached. "Now for the non-standard part," she announced. Unlike her usual demeanor, Imp looked serious for a change. A street map appeared on the wall when a projector was turned on with a bright green dot on one building. "Here's the hotel. We have three contingency rendezvous points," Imp continued. The map changed slightly - now three large red dots appeared on the map. "The USB stick has maps of all this, and street-view pictures where possible to orientate yourselves. Memorize them." Imp proceeded with instructions for the emergency rendezvous procedures, which matched what was on the papers. She repeated the process with a map of the venue, again adding that the info was on their thumb drives, and they needed to commit the details to memory as best as they could.

Even the upperclassmen were surprised by Imp's demeanor about avoiding trouble and contingency procedures. She had a reputation as having been an outstanding thief in her less-than-legal career; it was now clear why she'd been so good - she stayed extremely well prepared, and she obviously expected the same of the students she was escorting on the trip.

The final surprise was Imp's insistence that if anyone had non-lethal, non-obvious holdouts, they should bring them. The M3 group left with the distinct impression that they weren't being told everything the administration knew or suspected about the trip. It was enough to leave them somewhat nervous.

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Friday, October 28, 2016 - After lunch
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy

Morgana and Bianca looked at each other as they walked to Grime's office. Neither of them was feeling particularly guilty about anything, so they presumed that there was nothing to worry about. On the other hand, with Grimes one could never be sure.

Grimes was sitting behind her desk, and she gestured to them to sit. Given that she had one of her patented inscrutable looks on, they still had no idea why they'd been called here.

"Don't worry, you two aren't in any trouble. This time," she added with a wry smile. "I've called you to talk about Bianca's trip with the band this weekend."

That simple enough statement caused both girls to look at her in confusion. Finally Bianca broke the tension. "But ma'am, I'm not going! They said I couldn't, it was too risky."

Grimes tapped one of the boxes. "Well now. We did indeed consider that there might be a risk, after Berlin. On the other hand, the counselors noted that just locking you up here wouldn't be good either. So we have arranged some precautions, which will allow you to go with your friends while keeping things safe for you."

Judging from the girls' expressions, they were still confused, so she carried on with her explanation.

"Bianca, the biggest risk was someone planning an attack of some sort at the event. To enable you to go, the first requirement was a ruse that you wouldn't be going. The next step will be to sneak you onto the bus."

She opened the two boxes in front of her to show the two amulets inside. "These contain illusion spells. One will make the wearer look like Bianca, the other like one of the Security Guards, Officer Canterbury. While the rest of you are packing the bus, Bianca will meet up with Officer Canterbury, and then with her amulet on will board the bus and help pack it. Bianca, you will then head off with the bus. Officer Canterbury will mingle to make it obvious you aren't on the bus. She'll use it again intermittently on Saturday so that people see you again, or at least think that they see you on campus. Once the bus has left Whateley grounds, you can take the illusion off."

Morgana frowned as she took in the explanation. "Ma'am, what if someone finds out when we're at the band concert?"

"Very unlikely, Morgana. Given that it's obvious Bianca isn't going, why should anyone there find out? And even if they did, they'd have to arrange some sort of raid with no notice. Bianca has a dozen Whateley students and two teachers with her, so any sort of impromptu raid will be highly unlikely to succeed. And security's computer wizzes will be playing with their toys, monitoring as much of the electronic communications around the venue as possible."

For once, Bianca was looking happy. "So I can go with my friends? That would be so great!"

"Yes, Bianca. There is one thing you need to do for me before you leave. She pushed one of the amulets over. "I need three drops of your blood on this, so Officer Canterbury will look like you."

Morgana had to hide her amusement as Bianca hurried to do as asked; she'd never seen her friend so eager to give blood before."

"Just be around the bus when they start to load it, Officer Canterbury will call you and tell you where to go so you can swap appearances."

"Yes ma'am... uh, what about my overnight stuff?"

"I'm sure Morgana can take it as hers, or pack your things in her bag."

"Sure, that will be easy. Bianca, I'll just use my larger luggage and put your stuff in it."

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Friday, October 29, 2016 - Mid-afternoon
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Bianca took a seat as Imp announced imminent departure, which required that the kids settle down, take their seats, and of course fasten their seat belts. While a number of the kids had given her odd looks, obviously wondering why a security officer had been added, no-one had actually said anything. The weirdest thing had been looking out of the bus window to see herself waving goodbye as the bus pulled out.

Imp didn't say anything until the bus was clear of the school. Then she waved at Bianca. "You can take that amulet off now."

That statement produced a lot of odd looks from the other passengers, until Bianca pulled it off over her head,.


She smiled. "Yeah, it's me, They snuck me on under an illusion."

Laura grinned. "This is so great! All of us taking a trip together! Just like New York City!"

The other members of M3 gawked at her with horror-stricken expressions. "Don't say that!"

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"Cally said she saw you in the shrink's office the other day," Morgana said very softly to her roommate, soft enough that it was unlikely anyone else would hear. Except maybe Tia - if she wasn't wearing her noise-reducing earplugs, but Tia was on their team, and she was trustworthy.

"Yeah," Bianca admitted. "Someone - probably in admin - thinks I should be screwed up mentally and that talking to a counselor would help me."

"And you disagree?"

"It was a waste of time," Bianca snorted. "Like I'm going to tell anyone about the ... complexities ... of family business."

"So you didn't say anything?" Morgana asked, curious.

"That's not what I meant," Bianca grinned. "The counselor wanted to talk about my problems. I told him my only problem is that I'm a fan of the Cubs and the Bears, and both teams really suck."

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"Are we there yet?"

Imp rolled her eyes; she couldn't turn to directly stare down the offending students since she was driving and it sounded like the smart-ass was in the very back of the large passenger van.

"How long 'til we get there?" another pesky student sang out amongst the giggling.

"I don't know," Imp replied, shrugging her shoulders in an exaggerated manner. It was about the only gesture she could make to the kids in the back of the van. "You'll have to ask the navigator. I'm just driving."

"Navigator?" That surprised voice was clearly Tia's.

"Yeah, navigator," Imp replied, but then her voice sounded concerned. "Which one of you was assigned as navigator so we don't get lost?"

Amid a lot of, "not me," comments, the students began to exchange worried glances and mumbled concerns

"So ... we might be ... lost?" Kieron said nervously.

Laura was trying hard not to giggle. "No," she chuckled. "Miss Imp is pulling our legs! She's got exemplar memory, and an artist's eye for detail! No way ...."

"No, I don't," Imp said firmly to Laura.

"No you don't what?" Laura asked, baffled.

"I don't have exemplar memory," Imp said simply.

"Uh ... you mean ...." Laura stammered, suddenly wondering if her confidence in the art teacher was truly misplaced.

"But I do have an artist's eye for detail," Imp said with a grin. "And a great memory! How else would I have been able to do all the fabulous things I've done? How else would I have convinced the world that I'm the Fabulous Imp?" she added in triumph.

"I knew there was no way you'd let us get lost!" Laura declared quite emphatically, announcing to the band and her friends that while she might have missed one detail, her faith in her teacher was solidly backed by fact.

"But you foiled my fun with logic!" Imp feigned a grumble. She shot a quick frown at Laura, who was seated in the second row on the passenger side of the van. "Remind me to leave you at home next time! Spoilsport!"

"Are we there, yet?" Bianca retorted with a laugh.

"Anyone see a program?" Cally asked. "How many bands are there?"

"Mister August gave me a preliminary schedule when we were cross-checking our equipment list," Morgana replied, already reaching for a folder, from which she extracted a sheaf of papers. "Um," she mumbled to herself as she leafed through the paperwork. "Oh, here it is!"

"Let me see!" one of the boys tried to reach over the bench seat to take from Morgana.

The redhead was having none of that. "Uh, uh! Don't get grabby!"

"So how many bands?"

With her roommate looking on, Morgana ticked through the list. "Looks like ..."

"Oh, good God!" Bianca interrupted. "Someone named their band that?"

"Named what?"

Bianca shook her head, chuckling. "According to this list, there's a band called 'Chocolate Urinal Cakes'!"

"No way!"

"Ah, Tia will like this one!" Morgana sidetracked herself from counting the bands. "Murder Bunnies!" That elicited a frown and Tia sticking her tongue out at the redhead.

"How about this?" Bianca chimed in. "Nuclear Sunburn!"

Laura wrinkled her nose. "By the time you get a sunburn from a nuclear source, the cell damage would ...."

"Chill, Laura!" Tia chided her friend. "It's a joke name!"

"Ooh, this is a good one!" Morgana enthused. "Clockwork Sheep!"

"Left-Handed Monkey Wrench!" Bianca laughed, then she glanced at her roommate. "For you, I suppose it would be Left-Handed Monkey Spanner!"

"Oh, hush!" Morgana looked at the list. "Radically Chick - do you suppose that's a girl band?"

"Well, it's probably not baby poultry!"

"Gin and Harmonic."

"Oooh! Here's a good one - Mermaid Sushi!"

"That's sick!" Vic said, grimacing.

"Death Valley Lifeguards."

"So that band is absolutely pointless?" Tia giggled.

"No Hit Wonder!"

"Never heard of 'em!"

"Invisible Nudists." Morgana said as she continued to peruse the list

"Where's the fun in that?" one of the guys in back said in a disappointed voice.

"More boring names. Ah, here's one. Narcoleptic Owl."

"Cranial Flatulance!"

"Fancy way of saying Brain Fart!"

"With a name like that, I bet their songs don't make any sense!"

"No Refunds?" Bianca gaped at the list. "A band called 'No Refunds'?"

"Not exactly a ringing endorsement for any concert they ever perform at, is it?"

"Hey, here's probably the most sensible band name on this list!" Morgana piped in. "Random Acts of Stupid!"

"Hmm," Cally mused thoughtfully. "I guess, from that list, Unladen Swallows really isn't that strange a name for our band!"

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"Did you decide which version of Mystique you're using for the costume?" Jimmy asked Laura, seated one row ahead of him on the bus.

Laura turned. "When I decided on her for a costume, I didn't realize there were so many versions!" That elicited a few chuckles from those around her. She pulled out her phone, tapped a bit, and then opened a picture showing the evolution of the comic-book character in her various costumes.

"I hope you picked the two-thousand nine version," Jimmy said, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Those spike heels just rock!"

"Then you wear them," Tia interjected sarcastically. "I hope it's not the two-thousand-one version. That outfit is just plain fugly!"

"Ninety-five looks like she's trying to be GI Joe. I don't like the long tabard look of seventy-eight or eight-four, and the bare-midriff look is out."

"So that leaves ninety-eight and thirteen?" Tia asked.

Laura nodded. "I picked thirteen. The costume was pretty easy, and the belt gives me a place to put my neural neutralizer and a few other goodies - just in case."

Morgana and Bianca turned toward Laura, their expressions a mix of apprehension, foreboding, and a little defensiveness. "Don't jinx us like that!" Bianca said.

Morgana glanced around the seats, scrutinizing her teammates. "I would normally say that Laura's being paranoid," she said softly. "But after the discussion with security, is she the only one with holdouts?" She looked around the M3 group, subconsciously letting her hand drop to her belt.

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Friday, October 29, 2016 - Early Evening
Hotel near Contest Venue, Burlington, Vermont

With almost expert precision, Imp maneuvered the small bus into the parking lot of a chain hotel, eschewing the portico where vehicles normally parked during check-in. While Imp was a good driver, maneuvering a thirty-plus passenger bus there would have been a serious challenge for even an expert driver. Instead, she was practical and parked the bus on the side of the building.

"Miss Imp," Laura, seated in the front row of passenger seats, piped up, "I thought we were going to the venue to set up our gear."

"We're going to check in first. If it takes a while to offload and set up the sound equipment, it'll be late when we get here to check in, you all will be tired and cranky, and you'll make my life miserable," Mr. August replied before Imp could. That logical explanation was met with a bit of grumbling, mostly about the supposition that the students would be cranky.

After the muttered protests died down, Imp continued. "Stay on the bus. I know you'll horse around some ...." She glanced at Nick, grinning. "Especially you."

"Sorry. Can't help it," Nick chuckled, turning what could have been a slight into a joke.

Imp glanced at a couple of students, and let her gaze settle specifically on Laura. "Keep your disguises unless I say it's okay."

"But we were told costumes are okay since it's a Halloween theme!" Tia objected.

"And that'll be okay tomorrow, but not tonight. Don't use your powers. And most of all, try to avoid bloodshed," Imp finished her admonitions. "Too much paperwork in Security," she added by way of explanation. "I'll get everyone checked in, then you can move your personal gear to your rooms." Though the students had been cooped up on the bus for a couple of hours, their enthusiasm hadn't waned; on the contrary, they had grown substantially more boisterous as they had neared their destination.

Though her reputation at school was that she was carefree, non-serious, and a world-class prankster, when it came to the welfare of her students, Imp was very organized and very serious. With a prepared folder of arrangements, it only took her a few minutes to get everyone checked in. She returned to the bus before anyone could cause too much trouble.

"Okay, listen up." Imp's attitude was all business. "Here are the room assignments. Nick, you and Kieron are in 215. Dalton, Emile - 217. Jimmy, Vic - 219. Electradyne, Calliope - 220. Bianca, Tanya - 216. Laura, Tia - 218. Morgana, Erica - 214."

The M3 crew exchanged glances; the pattern of rooms put Bianca in the middle, surrounded by other students. Also, being on the second floor denied easy entry to any of the rooms, while also being low enough that the windows were a viable escape route. The 'heavyweights' of M3 were also very close to be able to help their friend if needed.

"What room are you in?" Tia asked, curious.

"I'm in the presidential suite, of course," Imp replied simply. That reply was greeted with a couple of groans and lots of eye-rolls.

"What about you?" Nick directed his question at Mr. August.

The man shrugged. "I'm a music major."

Nick's expression hardened into a frown. "So?"

"So, until I got a job at Whateley,"Mr. August replied with a straight face, "I bounced between bad paying gigs in seedy bars and odd jobs, and slept in my car.  So the bus will be like a palace to me!"

"Grab your gear. I'll give you your key-card as you exit the bus. Drop your gear in your room, and meet back here in twenty minutes." She grinned. "If you're tired, you had an entire relaxing, uneventful scenic drive to take a nap! We'll take the band gear to set up, and then we'll get dinner."

"Where are we going to eat?"

"All meals are buffet-style at the venue. Questions?"

"So it's all you can eat?" Tanya asked hopefully.

"Yes, but try not to make it obvious your typical serving size ranges from wheelbarrow to pickup-truck."

Bianca nudged her roomie. "And are you going to show us all up by devouring the food like a plague of locusts?"

Morgana grinned. "First, dragons are not locusts. Second, I am a subtle dragon, and third I brought a pack of energy bars in case they didn't feel us properly."

"If you didn't guzzle that hyper-caffeinated devisor sludge by the bucket-full," Erica snorted, "you wouldn't be bouncing around like a hyper-active Tigger burning so much energy that you have to refuel with wagon-loads of food! Or energy bars!"

"Her energy bars are probably made from that foul brew!" Jimmy chuckled. "I don't think she could survive more than a few hours without her 'fix'!"

Whether it was coincidence or great timing, at that moment Tavi popped into view, holding an coffee cup that was extremely outsized for him, with 'XXX' scribbled on one side. "Morgana always has coffee!" He made a show of pretending to drink, then spitting out the liquid and choking and gagging on it. "Nasty!" He was so busy acting like he'd been poisoned that he didn't see Morgana's backhand coming at him, and as a result of her striking him, Tavi shattered into tons of little hard-light pixels that then faded away.

"Get going!" Imp urged strongly to interrupt the banter. "You have to get the gear unloaded before we can eat!" After the last one filed off the bus, Imp shook her head. "Something tells me this is going to be a long weekend," she sighed.

The Imp's reputation for unpredictability served her well; five minutes before her twenty-minute deadline, all the students were back on the bus, none having been brave enough - or foolhardy enough - to see what their teachers and chaperones might do.

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Friday, October 29, 2016 - Evening
Maple Tree Concert Hall and Studios, Burlington, Vermont

It was hard to miss the contest venue; besides the fact that it looked like an arena and was one of the largest buildings in the area, the parking lot they'd been directed to, a large lot behind the building, also had a half-dozen buses, lots of cars, and several trailers hitched to cars or pickups. If that weren't enough of a giveaway, one bus and most of the trailers had logos and artwork that were definitely not from sports teams.

"Hey, look, Tia!" Tanya bubbled enthusiastically. "You're going to fit right in with them!" She was pointing at a large enclosed trailer that sported a logo with large, blood-spattered, psychotic-looking cartoon bunnies holding dripping knives.

"Oh, pbthhhh!" Tia responded unhappily, giving her friend a raspberry of disapproval.

"Don't you think painting the name 'The Murder Bunnies' is kind of redundant?" Laura asked innocently. "Seems pretty obvious if you ask me!"

"Where's the trailer for 'Chocolate Urinal Cakes'?" Jimmy asked eagerly. "I want to see what kind of logo they have!"


Imp parked the Whateley bus between two other buses, then turned toward the group in the back. "You will never find a more wretched hive of anti-mutant scum and villainy," she intoned in a serious voice. "We must be cautious." She paused for dramatic effect, but the moment was lost with some guffaws and giggles. "Laura, Morgana, Tanya - go with Mr. August to find out where I need to park the bus so you guys can unload the gear." She opened the door as the two girls worked their way forward from their seats. "There should be some arrangement for securing the gear, too."

When Laura returned alone, she quickly pre-empted Imp's concern that something had happened. "Morgana and Tanya are getting carts to move the equipment. We can unload the bus around the corner," she pointed ahead, to a corner of the building, "by the stage doors."

 Imp moved the bus to a designated loading and unloading zone. The other two were waiting outside a stage door with a pair of large carts. After a reminder from their teachers to not 'show off' their superior strength, the students moved the gear onto the carts, then, following Morgana, they wheeled the overly-laden carts from the busy parking lot, through a large pair of stage doors, and into an even more bustling indoor area.  Imp didn't help, but walked around the venue, studying the layout, as was her standard operating procedure when in a new environment. Mr. August, meanwhile, checked in with the judging committee, which almost instantly got him stuck in a meeting for almost the rest of the evening.

"Not quite as busy as the M25," Morgana commented dryly as she helped swerve one of their carts out of the way of another being pushed down the hall at what seemed breakneck speed with no apparent consideration of others. "But just as dangerous!"

"The what?"

"M25. British motorway known for bad congestion," Morgana explained.

"You mean traffic jam, right?" Laura retorted, just as dryly, "Funny, this doesn't look like a British motorway. For one thing, most of them are moving on the correct side of the hallway."

"Careful," Bianca deadpanned. "You're going to set her off on why the proper terms are 'boot', and 'bonnet', and then she'll go off onto 'loo', 'lorries', 'lifts', and all sorts of other weird terms she uses instead of learning the common American terms!"

"Then she'll get into a lecture about the history of why they drive on the left side of the road," Tia added with a chuckle, "and why the rest of the world is wrong."

Morgana gave the two a raspberry. "Yes, but disagreeing about which side of the road one should ride one's horse or drive one's carriage was hardly a reason to rebel against King and crown! Anyway, I thought most America drivers just drive down the middle of the road anyway!"

There was a loud crash to the side, and practically as one, they all turned to see that some other band's roadie had run a cart of equipment into a corner; because his head was still turned toward the Whateley girls and his jaw was still hanging open. It was enough for the girls to realize that a lot of guys were ogling them, and that many of the girls were giving them the jealous stink eye. Of all of the girls, though, Tia seemed least intimidated by the attention, probably because since her forced change, she'd been in the public eye and had had to deal with a lot of unwanted attention. Their steps became a little less confident and a little more self-conscious.

It took four trips to unload all the gear in a way that looked normal; it had taken only one trip for the Whateley students to load the bus, but since they were being very cautious to not display any powers, they were under-doing the lifting. Each band had a room - really little more than a large, locking closet - in which to store their gear; Imp took one copy of the key, and Mr. August took the other.

Tanya's next comment surprised precisely no-one. "Let's go find something to eat. I'm hungry."

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Imp steered her charges back to the bus instead of allowing them to follow their noses to a promised buffet. Tanya and Morgana started to object, but they saw their chaperone's expression.

"Okay, before we eat," Imp began, "you probably need a few tips about not giving yourselves away by eating like you do at school." She pointedly looked at Morgana and Tanya. "Getting a fifth or sixth heaping plate of food is a giveaway that you're not a baseline."

"So how ...?" Morgana began.

"Like magic," Imp didn't let the girl finish her question, "the key is misdirection. Start with a salad ..."

"Rabbit food? Yuck!" one of the guys scoffed, then he glanced at Tia and winced visibly. "Sorry."

"Salad bowls are large. Fill one with high-calorie, high-protein food, then disguise it with a thin layer of salad and salad toppings. A girl can go back for more salad without raising eyebrows, so you can do get two helpings this way."

Morgana glanced at Tanya, who was just as surprised by the helpful tip.

"Second, if a friend - say Laura - does the same, you can surreptitiously switch 'salad' bowls at the table without anyone suspecting anything."


"On your plate, do the same - high calorie, high protein food in a layer on the bottom, cover that with some veggies, bread, and so forth. Don't heap it too high, which is why you need to get high-density food, even if it's not your favorite."

"The way Morgana eats," Bianca scoffed, "food isn't in her mouth long enough to taste, so that's not an issue!"

"Oh, hush!" Morgana stuck her tongue out at her roommate.

"Always wear a light jacket or sweater. You can make your first trip or trips through the line wearing it, and then you can get another trip or two after you take it off so a casual observer would think it's multiple different people."

"So that's why you checked to see if we were wearing jackets!" Laura said as she realized the purpose behind the teacher's direction. "And if we had reversible jackets ...?"

"You're not going to fool someone who's very deliberately watching," Imp continued, "so there's no use in trying. You're trying to not be obvious to a casual observer."

"What do we do if we think there's someone who's paying a little too much attention to us?" Tanya asked, worried by Imp's last cautioning statement.

"If you think you're being watched," Imp said somberly, "eat like a baseline, then eat food bars and emergency snacks in the hotel."

"And lastly, always, always be ready to ..."

"... to create a distraction, or to do something to change your basic appearance, and then get away before a potential situation can turn bad," Tia completed the Imp's warning. She'd heard it several times in survival class, especially when Imp was substituting as teacher.

"And don't forget," Imp reminded the group, "Mr. August messaged me that the committee meeting was likely going to take all evening, so you need to leave enough food in the buffet," she specifically glared at Morgana, Erica, and Tanya, "to get him a to-go plate!  Don't eat everything!"

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If the Whateley group wanted to be inconspicuous, they failed. Of course, that would have been impossible with Nick and Tia in the group; neither could adequately disguise their anatomy.

"Hey, you!" an angry voice called out toward the group. "Mutant!"

Imp was instantly ready for trouble, and she smiled grimly to herself when, from the corner of her eye, she saw Laura slip her hand into her jacket pocket to her neural neutralizer. Bianca, likewise, had her hand on the spell cards in her pocket. Some of these kids were learning quickly.

"Wait a sec!" one of the girls practically shrieked. "Aren't you from that TV show?" she asked, sounding like an awestruck fan. "You are! You're from that Paradise Island show!" She was practically bouncing up and down with excitement as she pointed at Nick.

"Yeah, it's him!" another girl cried out. "That's such a great show!"

Tia had temporarily turned off her earbuds so she could hear if trouble was brewing; she didn't count on hearing a couple of nearby girls in the dining room whispering in their excitement about being near a TV star. Nor did she want to hear one of the two whispering speculation about whether Nick was hung as well as his appearance would suggest - like a horse! She hastily turned her noise-dampening earbuds back on as her stomach did flip-flops and her skin tried to turn a sickly shade of green.

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The Whateley students milled about for a few moments as they surveyed the room to understand how the dining facilities worked. It was a simple buffet line on one side of a cafeteria-like room, with staff busily replacing empty trays as the gathered herd of mostly teenagers attacked the food like a swarm of locusts.

"I think someone's staring at me," Tia whispered urgently to Bianca.

As discretely as possible, Bianca glanced about. "Yup," she confirmed. "There's some guy heading this way, and his eyes are laser-focused on you."

"That's what you get for being a famous girl with large ... um ...." Jimmy cupped his hands way in front of his chest to demonstrate what he wasn't going to say.

Even with a slow-motion replay, it would have been impossible to tell whether Morgana or Tia slapped him first.

"Hi," the guy said cheerfully as he stopped in front of Tia. "What band are you with?" As chat lines went, his effort wasn't very smooth.

"We're the Unladen Swallows," Morgana cut in, sensing that Tia was less than thrilled about this guy trying to chat her up.

The guy stayed focused on Tia. "A couple of guys in my band were having a discussion about where we've seen you. I said you're the girl that got attacked by that ... deranged mutant, but they didn't think so."

Tia shrugged. "Yeah, that's me, unfortunately." She'd gotten used to unwanted fame with the reminder of what Jamie had done to her, and her reply was mostly devoid of emotion.

"I'm Ryan," the guy said confidently. "Ryan Morris. I'm lead guitarist of the ...." He suddenly stopped, realizing that his band's name might offend Tia. "Um, the, um ... Murder Bunnies," he finished, wincing slightly.

Tia stared at the guy, startled at his forwardness and the sheer absurdity of him thinking his band's name might somehow be offensive to her. Which it was a little bit.

"That hardly describes you, does it Tia?" Laura interjected, trying with her teammates to distract the guy from their friend. They'd noticed the guy's eyes wandering to Tia's bust whenever he thought she wasn't looking. No doubt Tia would eventually embarrass the hell out of the guy by revealing that her peripheral vision was immensely better than that of baselines. "Except when guys get too forward with you, right?"

"Do you do vocals, or play?" the guy continued, having either not heard or purposely ignoring Laura's comment.

"No," Tia replied politely but coolly. She was not enthused about being the center of this guy's attention - even though she had to admit that he was a bit ... cute.

"With her great hearing," Jimmy tried to cut in, "she's an expert in sound, so she's with our tech crew."

He was ignored, and to the dismay of the Murder Bunnies' singer, other guys were slowly drifting toward the attractive, busty, celebrity bunny-girl.

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"Every guy here is looking at Tia," Bianca observed, "and every girl is drooling over Nick, so while everyone is distracted, you can load up on food."

"Except for the guys gawking at Morgana," Laura cautioned.

"So here's the plan" Jimmy interjected. "Morgana, you go through line and get a normal salad and plate. Then go to an empty table away from us ...."

"Wiggle your ass while you walk, just to keep all the guys' eyes focused on you," Laura said with a grin. "Just like you do in the labs!"

Morgana gave Laura another raspberry.

"We'll pile up extra on our plates for you," Jimmy finished.

Grudgingly because she was being forced to be the center of attention, Morgana nodded and began her part of what M3 would later refine as their standard 'Operation Chow Down'.

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Across the room, Jack Hopkins looked up from his plate, fork halfway to his mouth, when he heard his twin sister Jacilyn cursing aloud. "What?" he asked.

"Look at him!" Jacilyn snarled. "Drooling over that rabbit-slut!" Her gaze was fixed on something across the room.

Naturally, Jack turned his head to look, quickly spotting his friend and band-mate Ryan Morris trying to hit on a cute girl with bunny ears. With a shrug, he turned back to his plate; eating was far more important to him at that moment than listening to his twin bitching about her boyfriend. "Isn't she the girl that was in the news - the one attacked by that mutant brainiac?" He looked a bit more closely. "You gotta admit - she's got a cute butt!"

"He should be with me, not drooling over some bit of fluff!" Jacilyn huffed.

Jack shrugged again as he shoveled some chili into his mouth. His twin was being hyper-jealous and insecure - again. "So he's trying to chat up some celebrity bunny-girl," he muttered with his mouth still half full. "So are half the guys here."

"Half the guys here aren't going steady with me!" She turned back to her brother. "What band is she with, anyway?"

Jack paused eating again and looked again. If his sister didn't calm down, he was going to starve. He'd talked with some girl with bright blue hair moving gear into the hall with bunny-girl. "Uh, Unladen ... um, birds of some kind. Pigeons? Doves?" He'd actually been far more focused on the blue-haired girl's chest than on what she was saying.

"That's the same band the horse-guy is in!" another girl at the table, one of Jacilyn's friends and 'stage dancers', said. "I saw him singing and playing guitar in that Paradise Island show!"

"Yeah," a third girl chimed in dreamily. "He's got a voice like Barry White!"

"That might be tough to compete with," Jack grumbled. He wasn't actually in the band, but was the band's electronics tech.

"And if the rabbit-girl is one of their stage dancers ...." another girl mused.

"Well, bunny-slut's going to learn not to mess with my boyfriend!" Jacilyn hissed angrily.

"Oh, geez!" Jack muttered to himself. His sister was kind of a hot-head. "What are you going to do?"

"You mean, what are WE going to do!" the jealous girl retorted firmly. Her expression hardened. "Did you see where they were moving their gear?" she demanded of her twin brother.

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Friday, October 29, 2016 - Early Evening
Hotel near Concert Hall, Burlington, Vermont

"Why do I have to switch rooms?" Laura fussed, scowling at Imp. "Bianca and Morgana are roommates, so they're used to rooming together!" A few of the students, including Laura, the two Poe roomies and Tia, were gathered in Laura's hotel room, severely overcrowding the small space.

"You saw how some of the other band members reacted to Tia and Nick?" Imp didn't need to remind them of the event less than an hour earlier. "Things here are potentially a little more hostile than security suggested."

"So? We know ...." Morgana started to object.

"No, you don't know!" Imp interrupted brusquely. "You don't know how quickly and how viciously anti-mutant sentiment can turn!" She paused to take a dramatic deep breath; it never ceased to surprise her how naive some mutants could be about the vicious hatred they would likely encounter somewhere in their lives. Some of these, M3 to be specific, had some experience with fighting, but it was unlikely they'd encountered raw, unadulterated hatred just because of what they were.

Imp looked around at the startled faces; none of them had seen her get this ... passionate ... about matters of safety, but as chaperone, she had to try to try to impress on them how dangerous the real world could be, and how fast average people could be stirred from indifference into a riotous, hate-filled mob.

"Did any of you thing about why I assigned you to the rooms you're in?" Imp continued, noting with satisfaction that the students were paying rapt attention to her now, "without stopping to consider safety." She looked at the bunny girl. "Tia, what can you do if you need to protect yourself?"

"Um, run away?" Tia answered meekly.

"Good," Imp nodded, "but what if you can't run? So here's why. Bianca, Morgana, you're both magic users. You both know how to use some magic defensively, but Bianca is also squishy."

"So that's why I room with her," Morgana interrupted, a bit frustrated.

Imp shook her head, then explained her reasoning for the assignments. She wanted every pair to be capable of self-defense as well as fighting their way out of the hotel if things went really sideways. That meant a pair would need to be tough, or quick, or able to project power to protect both of them. Laura had her defensive tech. Erica and Tanya were bricks. Tia was the one who needed the most protection. Eventually, reluctantly, all of the kids agreed with her logic, so Bianca would room with Laura, Tia would room with Morgana, and Erica and Tanya would share a room.

"Good luck," Laura chuckled to Tia. "Morgana snores!"

"I do not!" Morgana shot back.

Tia just smiled and tapped an ear. "That's what you made these earphones for, Laura!"

Imp stood in the hall watching as the students shuffled to their rooms. As a precaution, she'd carefully watched as she drove the bus back to the hotel and drove a circuitous route to ensure that they weren't followed. At the hotel, she had deployed tiny sensors in the hallway near their rooms and in the fire stairs; they were so tiny that one would have to be very deliberately looking to find them. In her room was a wireless station that relayed the alarm sensors and real-time video to Whateley, where security would be monitoring so she could get her 'beauty sleep'. If necessary, they would wake her. Some might have called her paranoid, but there was a reason that she'd been so successful in her former career, and those same talents applied to keeping herself - and her charges - safe in a world that generally hated mutants.

The kids were an interesting mix. She mused to herself that several of them - all in M3 - were changelings, not that it mattered. Some might be tomboys, though. It wasn't her business, and besides, she had to spend her free time trying to stay one step ahead of her daughter Karma, which didn't leave her any time to worry about who did or didn't change sex as part of their manifesting.

When all the kids were settled, she went to her room, both anticipating and dreading a call home. She missed her family, but she also worried what kind of trouble Karma had gotten into. Whoever said home life was boring clearly hadn't met her family.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016 - After breakfast
Maple Tree Concert Hall and Studios, Burlington, Vermont

Morgana nearly ran over Laura when the blue-haired girl halted suddenly in the open doorway to the band's equipment storage room. "Something wrong?"

Laura frowned deeply. "This ... this isn't ..." She shook her head. "It ... feels ... off." She stepped into the small room - in reality little more than a large closet - and looked around intently, her frown deepening.

"You think someone was in here?" Morgana asked as from the doorway.

Laura shook her head again. "I don't know. It's just ...." She pointed at one of the mixers. "I could have sworn I had you guys put that ... over there."

Morgana's expression darkened. "Yeah, I did. Remember, you made a big fuss at me about that?"

 "I've got a really bad feeling about this." Laura quickly made a decision. "Go get Miss Imp. I'm going to start doing a few quick ..." Her eyes widened. "Shit!" she swore loudly, and her visual search of the room began a scramble to physically search it. "My tool kit! It's ... it's not ... I put it right here!" She pointed to an empty spot on a shelf.

"Are you sure?" Morgana asked, but she wasn't nearly as skeptical as she sounded. She knew Laura was not one to misplace her tool kit.

"I KNOW I put it here! It's gone!"

"Someone swiped it? That means someone is messing with us," Morgana noted somberly before she quick-stepped out of the room to find their teacher.

Laura looked more closely at the misplaced mixer. Almost immediately, she noted that one of the screws fastening the case together was sticking out a bit, and the screw head had some damage that shouldn't have been there - exactly like if someone cross-threaded a screw trying to put it together. She knew that she was too conscientious to make such a blunder, and Morgana was too. It had to have been done after they unloaded the gear - which meant sabotage.

With no scopes, no meters, and not even basic tools, Laura felt helpless. If the gear had been tampered with, she had no means to even try to effect repairs.

It only took a few moments for Morgana to return with Imp, with half the band following closely behind.

Once convinced that Laura and Morgana weren't imagining things, Imp formulated a plan. "You," she pointed at five of the group - all, not coincidentally, girls - "go see if you can convince some band to loan Laura some basic tools. Morgana knows what Laura needs."

"Do the 'sweet helpless girl' routine," Jimmy added with a chuckle.

The joke didn't go over well. Imp shot him a withering glare, Bianca elbowed him in the ribs, and the other girls gave him disapproving looks.

As the designated students scrambled on their urgent errand, Imp tried to calm the distressed devisor. "Can you start testing the equipment, at least for power?"

Laura nodded, but when she picked up a power cord from a tangled pile that had been neatly organized, she felt uneasy and studied the cord. "Look at this!" she practically cried as she held up one end of the cord. "It looks like it might be damaged, and I KNOW all the cords were in perfect shape!"

"Can you do anything?"

"Not without a meter!" Laura retorted. "If the cable is damaged, it might not work at all, or worst case, someone gets electrocuted!"

Imp thought a moment. "Okay, let's get some contingency plans. We passed a big-box hardware store on our way here from the hotel. Make a list of what you need in case nobody is able to borrow any tools. Jimmy - put that detective know-how to work and start documenting all of this. Put your smart-phone to use and take pictures of anything Laura says."'

Jimmy's little assistant, powered by his Grid-Gear, popped into view, wearing a Sherlock Holmes hat and carrying a huge magnifying glass. "Tavi help! Tavi good detective!"

"Shut up, Tavi!" Jimmy snapped at his little hologram-ferret assistant. "Got it," he replied to the teacher.

"And can your Grid-Gear do anything to help Laura with troubleshooting? Electric continuity? EM field?" Imp asked.

"I don't think so," Jimmy replied.

"If Tavi have drone, Tavi could help!" The little digital creature looked at Laura. "Get Tavi drone so Tavi can help!"

"Even if someone lends Laura tools, we don't have time to fix anything!" Electradyne noted glumly. "We're supposed to start setting up in room three in fifteen minutes so we can perform in less than an hour."

"Let me and Mr. August handle that," Imp said firmly. "Bianca, go find Mr. August and tell him what happened. Tell him I said he needs to bring one of the staff members here ASAP. We'll try to persuade the staff to let you guys perform later. Laura, set aside anything you find that has obvious damage to show the staff. Jimmy, since I know a little bit about breaking and entering, I'll help find some evidence to back our request. Laura, get the list of what you need. As soon as Mr. August gets here, one of us will run down to the store and pick up what we can find."

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With Bianca having cast a ward spell on the door, and with Tanya standing guard outside, Morgana and Laura huddled in the cramped confines of the equipment room. With a clumsy hardware-store multimeter, the smallest screwdriver set that had been available, some power cord repair ends, a bulky soldering gun, and a lot of electrical tape, Morgana had finished repairing the power cords. "Okay, what now?"

Seated on the hard floor, Laura sighed and leaned back from the sound gear she was looking at. "Now ... we give up."

 It appeared that their respite in performance time had been for naught. In keeping with the appearance of being strictly neutral, Mr. August had said nothing, instead making Electradyne and Dalton Li plead their case, backed by Laura's technical explanation of the damage that she'd found, with Jimmy's initial evidence of tampering.

"What?" Morgana exclaimed in astonishment. "Give up?"

Laura picked up the soldering gun, a bulky instrument more suited for house wiring than delicate electronic circuits. In her inspections, she'd found quite a bit of damage inside a couple of the boxes - cut wires were one thing, but there were also some very obvious scratches through some traces on the circuit boards themselves. "I can't get this to work," she complained in a resigned tone. "Not on the circuit boards. It's way too bulky, and the heat control isn't fine enough. I'll fry more components than I can repair. It'd be like ... like putting in a thumbtack with a wrecking ball!"

"You can't give up!" Morgana shot back, trying in her own way to challenge her friend to keep trying. "You're a Whateley devisor!"

"I can't fix this if I don't have the tools!" Laura countered sadly. From her tone and expression, it was clear that she hated admitting defeat.

"How fine a point do you need?" Morgana asked a surprising question.

Laura shrugged. "Half a millimeter or so. And I need temperature controlled to within about twenty-five degrees."

"C or F?"

Laura rolled her eyes. "What difference does it make? This thing," she held out the soldering gun like it was a snake, "can't satisfy either condition."

"Maybe not," Morgana said with a curiously smug tone, "but maybe this can!" She held one of the tiniest screwdrivers between her fingers. "I think I can control the heat that well. We might as well give it a try."

"You think?" Laura drew a deep breath, and slowly exhaled. "That's as good as you can get - you think? This is totally nuts," she said with a heavy sigh and tiny shake of her head, "but I guess we don't have anything to lose."

Working carefully, Laura and Morgana scraped off a protective coat on the circuit boards to expose the metal traces, then Laura held a single filament of stranded power cord wire with a pair of tweezers - which she'd had the presence of mind to include on her list - and solder in the other, while Morgana focused very intently on controlling the temperature of her hand, and through her fingers, the tip of the small screwdriver. She didn't notice that, with the effort of controlling her finger temperature, the rest of her body was getting much warmer as well.

Laura did notice. The blue girl was sweating profusely from the heat radiated from her friend, badly enough that her 'waterproof' skin makeup was smearing and smudging. After the first couple of traces were repaired, the two girls were starting to feel optimistic again.

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"Without a scope, how do we know if all the repairs are good?" Laura asked the obvious question as she put the last screw in the last component. Everything they could fix was fixed, but her question was valid - working with crude gear in less-than-ideal conditions, they might have messed something up. "My ear isn't good at picking up small distinctions in music."

"Mine, either," Morgana admitted as she opened the door to the tiny room, both to ventilate the heat she'd generated and to let the others know that they were done. They thought. "But Mr. August probably is."

Laura shook her head. "He's got to be neutral, so he probably won't be able to help."

"Maybe Electradyne? Or Nick?"

"Electradyne or Nick what?" Bianca asked as the band and support team began to huddle around the two. Most of the event attendees were either setting up, playing, or taking down their own equipment, so the halls were quite deserted except for the Unladen Swallows crew.

"I'm not sure if everything still works, and I don't have a good ear for music, so I don't know if we've accidentally added some distortion," Laura explained.

"And no test gear, right?" Bianca asked rhetorically.

"Um," Jimmy interjected hesitantly. "I think maybe my Grid-Gear can measure some sound characteristics. That is part of detective work, you know - analyzing phone calls, doing voice matching, and the like - so it may be able to help out." He lifted his wrist, exposing what looked like a fat and extra-fancy watch. "Tavi."

The little digital assistant materialized; from his getup, it was obvious he'd been listening, because his appearance - which he seemed to always alter to fit his interpretation of the situation - was that of a holographic ferret DJ, complete with fancy headphones. "Tavi can help!"

"Well, I guess your little holo-weasel is better than nothing," Electradyne said sarcastically.

Jimmy winced, knowing even before it happened that Tavi was going to take offense, or at least pretend to take offense, at being called a weasel. It was a point of digital pride for the little virtual assistant. Or at least he was programmed to make it seem like it was a point of pride. True to Jimmy's prediction, Tavi glared, then turned away and sat down pouting. "You need to apologize," he implored the older girl.

"Oh, good grief!" Electradyne grumbled. "This is ridiculous!" She noted all the others were staring at her with pleading looks. After a few seconds, she rolled her eyes. "Oh, all right. Sorry, Tavi." She sounded not in the least bit contrite. "Okay? Now get to work."

To avoid tipping off the saboteur that they'd fixed their gear, Bianca cast a sound dampening spell that would make the tiny equipment room into a nearly-perfect anechoic chamber. With the door shut, no-one outside would have any clue of what was happening inside. To further confuse any curious bystanders, the rest of the band wandered off to the cafeteria, doing their best to look glum, while Morgana cast a protection spell on the door once she, Jimmy, and Laura were inside.

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It had been over three hours since Laura had discovered the sabotage and had started repairs. More than three hours of working in a cramped, hot, oversized closet. Over an hour of being next to Morgana as the redhead concentrated on heating her fingertips just so - and because her entire focus was on the hand she was using as an improvised soldering iron, the rest of her body was getting warmer than normal for a human. Much warmer. Hot enough that Laura was dripping with sweat within half an hour. Almost two hours of listening to tone after tone through channel after channel of the gear, still in the unventilated hot room, while Jimmy and Tavi analyzed the sounds. Almost two hours of Laura diligently redlining notes on her 'master chart' of what plugged into where in the maze of connectors on the sound gear.

As the group continued to struggle to complete the repairs, a knock sounded on the door. With a worried glance to Morgana, Laura turned and opened it. "Forty-five minutes for you to finish and for us to set up," Electradyne announced after poking her head into the workroom. She quickly retreated, closing the door behind her.

In response to Laura's worried look, Jimmy vocalized an unshakable fact - they were running out of time and would only have time to test two or three more channels. The best they could do in the time left to them, he suggested, was to use the least distorted channels of the ones they'd tested and rejected. Laura, hating anything imperfect in anything electronic, grimaced and glanced at Morgana, who stared a moment, and then grimly nodded. Though it went against all her instincts, Laura bowed to the inevitable. Morgana began to fasten the cover on the last piece of gear, while Laura, frequently consulting notes she'd scribbled while doing the repairs, began to write, in very large letters, a tabular chart of channel assignments. This 'cheat sheet' she then taped to the mixer board.

Cautiously, wobbling a bit because the required level of concentration had fatigued her, too, Morgana cracked open the door and peeked out. Spotting only Tanya in the hallway, she pushed on the door to open it wide, only to find that Laura was holding it. Puzzled, Morgana looked at her friend.

"If the building has heat sensors as part of their alarm," the blue girl explained as she wiped her brow yet again, "an outrush of exceptionally hot air might trip it." She hated having to be cautious; the small crack was admitting a tiny bit of refreshingly cool air, and she yearned to escape the little oven their workspace had become.

Morgana pushed the door open a bit more, allowing more of the stifling heat to slowly vent from the room, until finally, Laura gave her the okay. The door swung open, and the trio practically staggered into the cool corridor.

Tanya had been sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall with a backpack, a couple of books, and a notebook serving to disguise her as a normal student trying to take advantage of a few moments of 'free time' to study. Immediately, she shoved her 'props' into the backpack and practically leaped to her feet and dashed to her school-mates, pausing only long enough to make sure the corridor was clear, or at least that no-one was obviously staring her way.

"Well?" she asked eagerly, trying to read the expressions of her extremely fatigued team-mates. She recoiled from the hot air still rolling out of the tiny workroom.

"Did the best we could," Laura explained wearily. "Get the others so we can get set up."

Morgana steadied her friend, who was wobbling more than a bit. "Tanya, watch the gear. Jimmy, go get the others. I'm taking Laura to get something to rehydrate herself." She looked at the girl, who was trying to object. "And we have to find a place to clean up. Your makeup is smudging and smearing."

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Jacilyn Hopkins, girlfriend of the Murder Bunnies' guitarist who'd been trying to chat up Tia, strode eagerly down the hallway from where her boyfriend's band had performed. Knowing that slut-bunny's band was out of the contest, she wore a grin of anticipation; the slut bunny was helping her band-mates wheel their equipment into one of the audition rooms to set up. Each room was set up like a recording studio room, with a soundproof glass separating the band from the judges and a small number of spectators. Practically giggling with anticipation, she quick-stepped toward the 'spectator' entrance for that room; she just had to watch the slut-bunny's band crash and burn as that band's equipment, which Jacilyn's twin brother had sabotaged, totally failed them. With luck, there'd be a lot of sparks and smoke, too. It was going to be delicious to watch.

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Weakly, Laura lowered a bottle of sports drink from her mouth. "We can't go in there!" she protested to Morgana as the redhead pushed her toward a room labeled 'Dressing Room 14'.

Morgana continued to push her friend into the dressing room. "We're using it for what it's meant to be used for," she fibbed. There was no time for the inevitable argument if Laura knew that Morgana hadn't gotten permission but was operating on the 'easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission' principle. "We don't have a lot of time - strip and get a shower," Morgana ordered as she locked the door behind herself. "Your clothes are soaked, so you'll have to put on your Halloween costume."

Urged on by her red-headed friend, Laura got cleaned up from sweat and runny makeup and got her costume on in record time, and the pair made it to the audition room in time to finish sound checks for the band's competition performance.

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"Okay, Thank you for your performance," a disembodied voice echoed in the performance room as one of the judges acknowledged the completion of the Unladen Swallows competition mini-set. "Please promptly remove your equipment to prepare the room for the next entrant."

The band members grinned, and a few high-fives were given; the performance had, if anything, been better than their best rehearsal. After a moment of celebration, they began to put away their gear. Guitars were easy; they just had to be unplugged and packed in their cases. The drum kit, however, was not so easy, and the tech crew of the band seemed to burst through the door into the performance room, descending on the band's equipment like a swarm of locusts. In the sound booth, Laura, after a very heavy sigh of relief, wiped her brow and with Morgana and Tanya, began to unplug the master control console, mixers, and effects generators from the house wiring.

"That went better than I expected," Laura admitted, pausing to take yet another big gulp of sports drink. All through the performance, she'd been guzzling the drinks whenever she got a chance, and she was slowly getting herself rehydrated - with a lot of 'encouragement' from Morgana.

While the band and several of the support crew worked on stowing the instruments and microphones, Jimmy pushed a cart into the sound booth, and he and Tanya carefully stacked all the electronic equipment as quickly as Laura and Morgana disconnected all the plugs and jacks, separating Whateley's equipment from the house wiring. It had taken almost half an hour to get their sound gear configured; all that was undone in mere minutes.

As the crew wheeled their carts of instruments and equipment out of the room, the next band started to bring their own gear in. Laura dodged to the side just in time to avoid being run over by the new band's cart of equipment.

"Sorry," the guy wheeling the cart said sincerely.

"No problem," Laura replied with a smile. "You're in a bigger hurry than I am, since you're just going to perform, but we just got done." She guessed that the guy had Mediterranean ancestry from his complexion and jet-black hair.

The guy shot Laura a broad grin. "Yeah, I saw you guys. Not bad. But ... Unladen Swallows? Is that from 'The Holy Grail'?"

"Yeah. The band's had that name since ... forever, I guess." Laura saw the bewildered look on the guy's face. "Music program at our high school." She glanced at the cart full of gear, and nudged it toward the sound booth.

"Nice Mystique costume! By the way, I'm Vinny."

"Laura. Nice to meet you." The blue girl shrugged at the compliment as if uninterested, but inside, she was delighted that her handiwork had been favorably noticed. "It's just something I threw together. But there aren't a lot of costumes, so I feel a bit out of place."

"I bet there'll be a lot more at the concert and dance. The concert is open to the public."

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Outside the performance room, Jacilyn Hopkins stormed down the hallway, red-faced with anger and an expression that caused people to duck out of her way. Steam was practically rolling from her ears, her fury was so great. Within seconds, she'd found her twin brother in the cafeteria, and she stomped angrily to where he was eating a cheeseburger.

"You said you fixed their stuff!" she snarled at her brother, startling him from behind, so he nearly choked on a bit of his burger.

"Shhh!" he tried to get her to lower her voice, lest her rant give away their sabotage. "I did," he hissed to her, trying to guide her to a chair so she'd be less obvious.

"Well it didn't work!" Jacilyn snapped angrily in reply. "I just came from their performance, and all their gear sounded normal!"

"That's impossible! I cut a lot of internal wires and circuits! Some of the power plugs should have shorted! And even if they had noticed any of my tampering, there's no way they could get it all fixed - not without tools! And certainly not in a couple of hours!"

"Well, they did!" the girl shot back. "They sounded good - nothing was wrong with their sound gear! They weren't humiliated like they you said they would be!"

The boy sighed. "So what if they didn't crash and burn? They're just another band. You know we're going to win."

"That's not the point!" she rebutted. "Slut-bunny was flirting with Ryan, so they had to be punished! And they weren't! He watched them perform, and he seemed to like their sound! And then that rabbit-whore was flirting with him again after they were done!"

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Laura caught up to the crew just as Bianca was finishing a ward on their equipment room. They were done performing - unless they were ranked in the top five, in which case they'd perform a few numbers again in the evening with the other top finishers. That would be less like a contest and more like a typical rock gig. Hence the ward to protect their gear.

"Convenient timing - after all the work is done," Morgana quipped with more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice. "Where were you?"

"One of the guys from Radically Chick had some questions about the sound setup. He wanted to know if we'd found anything off that they should avoid," Laura answered with a shrug.

With a grin, Jimmy turned to Bianca. "Told you it'd be gadget stuff."

"Oh, pbthhhh!" Laura responded in a dignified manner. "He introduced me to the rest of their band. They're on some college break, so they drove up here on break for the contest. One of their guitarists is Russian, too, and he's really, really good."

"Drove _up_?"

"He's really good?"

"Yeah. They're from somewhere in Florida. They've got five in the band, and only one techie with them, and their manager. I thought it would be nice to help them out." Laura looked at Morgana. "I stayed and listened a bit. They're really good!"

"They've got a manager?" Tia asked, wide-eyed.

"Yeah. It's Brittany's mom. That's their lead singer. She's really got the rock goddess look down!"

"She must be hot," Morgana whispered to Laura. "You're drooling again."

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"I am NOT wearing a costume!" Bianca's voice was firm, and her expression was no less determined. The girls had dragged her into one of the dressing rooms and were very insistent that Bianca should 'disguise' herself by taking advantage of the Halloween theme; after lunch, an increasing number of the spectators, and some contestants, were in costume.

"But it'll be better than having to wear the skin goop!" Tanya attempted to persuade Bianca.

"I don't have anything for a costume, anyway," Bianca said smugly.

"After lunch," Morgana countered, "Tanya and I ran to the big-box store across the street and got everything you might need."

"Enough stuff that you have a choice," Tanya added enthusiastically, taking out her phone and retrieving a picture. "Like this!"

"I am NOT going to dress up as a zombie!" Bianca stated firmly. "Several years ago, The Family got crosswise with the Necromancer, and he loosed some real zombies on us." She shuddered involuntarily at some very unpleasant memories. "No thanks."

"Well, how about this?" Tanya got another picture. "It'll actually be better at disguising your white skin."

"A vampire lady - with white hair?" Bianca scoffed. "Get real - vampires almost universally have black hair."

"Thought of that," Morgana said, extracting a small round tin from a bag. "This'll make your hair jet black."

"Shoe polish?" Bianca gawked at the tin.

"Don't worry! It'll wash out," Tanya chimed in. "Probably," she added in a whisper.

Laura pulled some diaphanous material out of another bag. "This will work for the lady vampire. A few quick stitches and it'll be a flowing gown over white yoga pants and white long-sleeve shirt to cover your tats. Or I can make part of it into a veil and train, so you could be a tragic ghost bride!"

"No! I'm not going to be any kind of a ghost!"

"I bet you'd do the ghost bride if Tinker asked you!" Morgana chided her friend and roommate.

"Maybe," Bianca replied, "but she's not here, and the rest of you can't' make me!"

 "Okay, if you don't want white, we've got enough stuff to do Goth girl," Tanya countered. "Dark lipstick and eye shadow, darken your hair ...."

Bianca glared sternly at the other three girls. "You aren't going to give up, are you?"

"Nope," Morgana shot back.

"Why don't you have a costume then?" Bianca demanded of her roommate.

"I'm going to put on my succubus costume," Morgana smirked, "the one I was thinking of for the Halloween dance.

Bianca tried to stare-down the other three, but that was a futile waste of about twenty seconds. "Okay, if it'll make you shut up, I'll do something ghost-like.

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"Would you hurry up and get ready?" Tanya fussed at Bianca. "We haven't got all day!"

Morgana shook her head as she softly chuckled. "Technically true, but we do have a few hours until the mixer."

"What she really means is, the hors d'oeuvres are getting cold and she's hungry," Laura quipped, grinning at Tanya, who replied by giving the blue girl a raspberry.

"What are you staring at?" Morgana's tone was less jovial when she noticed her roommate's focus was fixed on something high up on the wall.

"I don't know," Bianca replied with her eyes still locked onto whatever she saw. "Some kind of marking, I think."

"So someone scrawled a little graffiti," Tanya said with a shrug. "Big deal. Finish changing, and let's go mingle ... and snack."

Bianca shook her head, keeping her gaze on the marking. "I don't think it's graffiti," she said in a solemn voice that seemed to echo with ominous tones.

"Magic wards of some kind?" Morgana's voice was suddenly just as solemn.

"No, but there's some ... strange ... magic to them. Like ...," Bianca broke off. "You know when we were going over ancient runic magic in Mrs. Grimes' class? It's got that same stylistic 'feel' to it. It reads like ... like, I don't know. If you looked at writing in a very old font, you'd know it was writing, and you might be able to read bits of it, even if you didn't recognize everything?" She shook her head. "It's kind of familiar, and also not. But I don't sense any active magic."

Morgana dragged a chair from a makeup bench, then clambered up on it to study the mark more closely. "It's pretty intricate, so if it's supposed to be a spell, it's probably a very complex one. But I don't get any sense of active magic, either," she agreed.  "If it was actually doing anything I'd see it. But maybe it was caused by magic?" She reached up to the intricate marking, which caused the other girls to gasp and jump back, fearing that Morgana was about to unleash some horrific spell.

Before anyone could say any words of caution, Morgana pressed on the figure, and part of the intricately carved interior pieces moved. "That's weird. It's like ... I guess the closest is that it seems to have been burned through the wall here. The pieces in the middle are clean cut from the outside - it's like some giant die-cutter or laser burned through the entire wall." She carefully extracted a piece and stepped down. "See this?"

Laura examined the bit carefully. "That's cleaner than I could program a laser CNC to cut!" she declared almost reverently. "It cut clean through drywall, mortar, and tile, but there's nothing that would suggest laser-cutting. It's like whatever did this just disintegrated every line that makes up the figure."

After thinking a moment, Morgana climbed back up on the chair to study the mark some more.

"Don't you dare keep poking at that!" Bianca practically yelled at her roommate. "If something did disintegrate part of the wall, you could lose a finger!"

Morgana simply shrugged, then held out her hand, displaying the long 'dragon claw' nail tip that was a hallmark of her 'dragon form'. "Nail. Non-living keratin accumulation on my fingertips. And it didn't so much as scratch it. I was being careful." She turned around, carefully lining up her body while frequently looking back at the marking. "There!" she declared, pointing and staring at another 'mark' on the opposite wall. "There's another one!"

"Let's get some pictures of this, and let's take a couple of those fragments with us," Laura declared. "I know the tech department will want to investigate what could cut this cleanly."

"And if there's magic residue or it's some kind of magic rune, Mrs. Grimes will want to see it," Bianca added.

"Maybe we should record where they are, too," Morgana added.

"That seems reasonable. Then we can go mingle," Tanya said firmly.

"And eat, too, right?" Laura said to Tanya with a grin.

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Morgana, true to her word, was dressed as an alluring succubus, and her 'dragon form' gave her suitable horns to make the look quite demonic. She'd added some red skin dye to add to the 'demon' effect, ignoring Bianca's comments on how much exposed skin she needed to cover up.

"Wow!" Jimmy gawked at Bianca and Morgana as the girls emerged from the dressing room. He'd been convinced to wear a costume, so he sported a khaki topcoat with a shoulder cape and a deerstalker hat in hounds tooth fabric, and he carried a highly-curved Meerschaum pipe. No one doubted that if Tavi appeared, he'd be outfitted as Dr. Watson.

Bianca had been worn down by the other three, and she was dressed as a ghost-girl. She refused the explanation of 'tragic bride' making her costume better, but Laura's imagination had taken charge of what Bianca wore. With some mascara as paint and laces, Laura had made the long-sleeved shirt look like a corset, and the girls had gotten a long white skirt as part of the costume options. Using her ever-present sewing repair kit, Laura had opened the neckline into a scoop-neck and had wrapped the sleeves with loose sheer fabric. The sewing was very hasty and not durable, but it wasn't intended for more than the one night, and some double-sided tape had helped. A pair of long white gloves completed the ensemble. And since the 'costume' was cheap and disposable, the girls had painted some simulated bloody stab wounds on the torso.

Dark lipstick and eye shadow and some blush around her eye sockets contrasted with Bianca's white complexion to give her a sexy but deathly appearance. Laura had done up part of her white hair into two braided buns high on the sides of her head, with the rest of her hair falling loosely. Two skull pins the girls had picked up in the Halloween section were placed' in the hair buns and a white necklace with ghoulish ornamentation adorned her neck.

"Yeah," Cally echoed. "Nice costumes."

"Yeah," Jimmy agreed. "You look 'freshly dead', to paraphrase 'Young Frankenstein'."

"Let's go listen to a few of the bands before dinner," Tanya suggested.

"And at dinner, we'll find out how the band placed."

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What had been a cafeteria earlier in the day had been transformed; the tables and chairs were mostly gone, and what few remained were moved to the sides. The buffet line still took up one end, but now, the room was more like an impromptu dance club in an auditorium than a school cafeteria.

As with any large event, clusters of known friends and associates were practically ubiquitous, with quite a bit less than half of the attendees circulating and doing the 'meet and greet' thing that the event was supposed to be. About a quarter of the attendees - both band members and spectators who'd come for the evening concert - wore costumes, ranging from lame to obviously hastily put-together to a few elaborate costumes. Unsurprisingly, the Whateley students were among the groups with better costumes. Of course, Nick's getup was simple but effective; it wasn't often one saw a horse Animan wearing Bermuda shorts, a loud tropical print shirt, and sunglasses. Had her getup been a costume, Tia would have probably won.

Laura stood out because of her Mystique costume was so well-done, and she knew she was getting plenty of attention. So was Bianca; in some ways, her costume was even more effective than Laura's - taking full advantage of her white skin and hair, enough so that she remained within the Whateley group to avoid excess socializing.

The band members from Radically Chic were chatting with Laura as she waited in the buffet line, although it was really less a line than a small mob waiting for a chance to eat, but otherwise distracted by socializing.

Many guys were huddled around Tia, enchanted by her good looks, unusually-charming appearance, and her celebrity status, to the point that her friends had 'rescued' her from the crowd a few times, only for a herd of adoring boys to slowly re-congregate around her. There was one boy, however, who seemed to be a fixture at all such gatherings - the guy from the Murder Bunnies band. The other Whateley girls noted that he was a smooth talker, was obviously taken by her, and he was persistent. It was Tanya who deadpanned that he was probably stupid enough to think that the name of his band would give him an inside track on trying to woo the Whateley rabbit girl.

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At Laura's invitation, the five members of Radically Chick followed her to socialize with the Whateley crew; though the two groups had very little in common, they were at their core musicians, and that was enough.

While the two bands socialized, one of the organizers walked in, looked around, and then, as the music halted, he climbed up on a table, carrying a wireless mic in his hand. If he'd have been over thirty, it would have been a spectacle, but since he was attired less like a typical 'suit', he got away with it. His entrance and climbing on the table had the desired effect; the chat quickly died down as attention turned to the unusual interloper.

"Are you all having a good time?" he called out; he clearly knew how to work the crowd, and the group applauded, hooted, and whistled to indicate their agreement. "Well, the fun only gets better tonight!" He waited for a bit of anticipatory hooting to die out. "After we all finish our little socializing here, the top bands will each play a few numbers in what's become a tradition - the concert of the winners." More whooping and hollering ensued. Then he started to descend from the table, but the crowd was both excited and curious, and rightly felt that he was leaving without revealing which bands were in the top five.

The announcer feigned surprise at the crowd reaction, and he stepped back. "You want to know who is performing?" The crowd excitement rose to a whole new level. "Okay, I suppose I can tell you." He waited for the cheering din to fade. "In alphabetical order, so I don't give away who won, the top five bands are - Clockwork Sheep, The Band that Shall Not Be named, Murder bunnies, Radically Chick, and The Unladen Swallows."

The noise level grew to nearly the point of being painful, and continued for several minutes, while the Whateley band exchanged celebratory gestures among themselves and with the Radically Chick band that was still in one small social cluster. Jimmy wasn't too disappointed that the lead singer of the other band gave him a hearty congratulatory hug, while the guys in the other band high-fived, shook hands, and gave a few cautious hugs to the Whateley girls.

When the uproar had faded, the announcer announced the performance order, arranged, he assured everyone, by random drawing and not related to the order of finishing. First up was The Band That Shall Not Be Named, followed by Whateley's Unladen Swallows, Radically Chick, Murder Bunnies, and finally, Clockwork Sheep.

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Bianca calmly sipped at her glass of punch, then looked at Laura. "That Russian guy from the other band seemed to really be into you."

"Really?" Laura asked with raised eyebrows. "I hadn't noticed."

"Yeah, right!" Tanya shot back. "As if you didn't notice the enthusiasm of the hug he gave you after we found out we were in the top five, or how he was focused almost exclusively on you, or how he asked you several times if you wanted to dance, or ...."

With a sheepish grin, Laura held up a hand to signal her friend to stop. "Okay, so maybe he was a bit interested. But I'm not. I didn't dance with him, you know."

"Yeah," Bianca quipped with a sly grin, "but at least you were polite about turning him down - unlike how Morgana rejected all of her would-be suitors and their shy, clumsy requests to dance."

"The way she shot them down, word has probably spread that she's a lesbian or a bitch!" Laura chuckled. "Which was probably her intent."

"Then she shouldn't have dragged Jimmy out onto the dance floor," Tanya noted.

"I think she was trying to demonstrate that she's spoken for," Bianca chuckled, "and Jimmy was a 'safe bet'."

"And did you see how wide Jimmy's eyes got? He hasn't been that panicked since he first saw Tanya in her swimsuit!" Laura laughed.

"I think that's going to backfire," Tanya noted. "I bet the guys will be lining up for a chance to dance with her now!"

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Jacilyn Hopkins was past angry. Her boyfriend showed his disrespect for her by continuing to flirt with the rabbit-slut, and now he probably expected her to put on a happy face for the band placing in the top five? And be a stage dancer with them in their big finale? The band had brought the girls along in case they were in the finals; in the contest itself, stage dancers weren't part of the judging, but since they made the finals, the live concert part, having the dancing girls would really add pizazz to their final number. Except Jacilyn was getting more and more upset by the minute.

One of her friends, also a dancer in the band, wandered over to her little social cluster. "Where's Ryan?"

"Over there," Jacilyn spat, nodding her head in the direction of her boyfriend, who was hanging around Tia like a love-sick puppy. "The asshole has been non-stop flirting with that slut-bunny ever since they got here!"

"I understand that she's a celebrity of some kind!" one of the band guys tried to excuse Ryan's actions.

"That doesn't excuse him disrespecting Jacilyn!" the friend countered angrily.

"Well, if he's going to dis me like that," Jacilyn spat in fury, "he can go fuck himself. And the rest of the band with him! I'm not going to help guys like him and ... you," she glared angrily at the guy who'd tried to make an excuse for her boyfriend, "be so disrespectful!"

"What do you mean?" the guy asked, getting concerned by Jacilyn's display of her well-known temper.

"I'm not dancing for you assholes!" Jacilyn spat. "Let's see how you guys like being disrespected!" She turned and stormed toward her boyfriend.

"Yeah, me too!" the two girls added with angry glares. Jacilyn was a leader of the little clique of girls they all belonged to, and if she was going to prove her point, they were with her. Even if they couldn't quite figure out how they were making her point.

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The boyfriend in question, Ryan, glanced up from his non-stop smile directed toward Tia when he noticed movement, and he ended up looking square in the red-with-fury face of his girlfriend Jacilyn. "Hey, babe!" he said, smiling at the newcomer.

His cheek stung from her response as she slapped him hard. "Don't 'babe' me, ass-wipe!" she snarled, pausing to glare maliciously at Tia. "I'm sick of you flirting with other girls - like slut-bunny here! - and ignoring me!"

"But I wasn't ...," he tried to interrupt.

"Save it! I'm through with you!" she yelled loudly enough that people were starting to stare at the spectacle she was making. "And you can look somewhere else for dancers for tonight!" she added. "I'm not going on stage with you bastards!" She turned and stormed off, leaving her boyfriend gawking in her wake.

Before he could react further, one of his band mates, who'd followed the irate girlfriend, joined him and Tia. "She's pissed," he said needlessly.

"No kidding!" Ryan retorted. He glanced at Tia. "Excuse us for a moment," he said before turning away from Tia and taking a couple of steps away.

"Dude," Ryan's band mate said, shaking his head, "you've been flirting non-stop with her since they got here."

"No, I haven't!"

"Yes, you have. And you know how jealous Jacilyn is."

"Shit!" Ryan muttered. "She quit, so one of the other girls will have to do her part."

The other boy shook his head again, a grim expression on his face. "Zoey and Rach quit, too."

"That leaves Katie, which ruins our big finale!" Ryan groused. "How is a killer mutant zombie bunny a threat if she's the only one on stage?"

The other boy nodded grimly, before he suddenly stopped. His head swiveled toward Tia, who had more guys gathered around her.

Ryan followed his gaze, and a light-bulb went off. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

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"So that's our problem," Ryan concluded his explanation of their band's predicament, carefully omitting that his girlfriend's mood was due to his flirting. That bit of info would most likely have doomed their efforts. He glanced back and forth between the two friends who flanked him, who nodded their confirmation.

 "Why should we help you guys win?" Tanya asked the obvious question.

One of Ryan's friends started to answer, but Laura cut him off. "The judging part is over. If someone does decide to help, it won't affect the outcome."

Ryan nodded. "At this point, it's just entertainment."

Tia glanced around the other Whateley kids. "What do you think? Might be kind of fun."

Bianca shook her head. "It'd take Laura and me too long to clean off our makeup, and then put it back on after." Laura caught the wink the white girl gave her, and understood how she was playing this.

"Besides," one of the Murder Bunnies guys quipped, "we want zombie bunnies, not ghost bunnies."

"Morgana? Tanya? Erica?" Tia asked simply.

"Same thing - makeup change," Morgana replied evenly.

Tanya glanced at Erica. "What do you think?"

"Ah, what the hell!" Erica said after thinking a few seconds. "Why not give it a shot?"

"Yeah, if you do end up embarrassing yourselves on stage, it's not like you're doing it in front of the whole school!" Morgana added with a wry grin.

Jimmy's little VI assistant chose that moment to appear, this time looking like some kind of anime bunny. "Tavi help! Tavi good bunny! Tavi dance!"

"What the ...?" one of the guys started to ask.

"Hey, is that one of those Grid Gear things?" Ryan's other friend asked, eyes wide with a techno-geek grin on his face. "Those things are so cool!"

"Come on, then," Ryan indicated to the three volunteers. "Let's go talk to Katie. She knows the song, and she's the creative one on stage work, so she'll come up with something simple but good." He glanced at Jimmy, then down at Tavi's little sad-faced bunny impression. "You too. Maybe she can figure out some role for you, too."

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Nick's singing, and the reaction of the girls in the audience to his mellifluous crooning, reminded Imp of some of her earliest memories from early youth - how ga-ga young ladies were going at rock concerts, fainting, screaming in adoration, and even throwing underwear at the stage. Fortunately, she hadn't seen any of the latter, but she knew that the boy's singing was causing quite a stir. She was long past the age of going wobbly in the knees at some talented male singer, but she recognized the effect he had. Like the Beatles, or like Elvis.

That didn't mean she didn't appreciate his talent however. She did. But she was more concerned with how some of the boys were reacting. If Nick were a baseline, she reckoned, most boys present would be quite jealous at how their girlfriends were reacting. But as an Animan and celebrity, the effect on the male egos of boyfriends would be taken up a notch. It wouldn't take much to set off that jealousy into an incident, and if there was a hint that mutants were present, the results could be extremely unpredictable. It was her job to protect her charges from any unpredictable incidents.

The performance arena was set up like a large dance club - clusters of tables around the edges, with a dance floor in front of the stage, although few were dancing. Instead, rock fans were crammed into the space, eager to get up close to the bands and their performances. That layout made it easier for Imp to circulate among the crowd to listen for any hints of trouble. The fact that the bands didn't even marginally reflect her taste in music made it easier for her to concentrate on the task at hand, unlike almost all the other chaperones present.

At one point, she passed by one of the organizers, who was likewise wandering through the crowd, and the knowing look and nod he shot her way made it clear to Imp that he, too, was on the lookout for trouble, and that he didn't disapprove of what she was doing. From her days doing hours of 'research' on places she later 'professionally visited', Imp also recognized a few adults around the perimeter of the performance arena who looked and acted more like private security than regular chaperones. She approved of the measures the organizers were taking.

However, she also knew that trouble tended to come out of nowhere and escalate quickly, so she was taking no chances.

She'd heard nothing worrying during The Band That Shall Not Be Named's set of four songs, and after the stage reset, there weren't any clear indications of trouble, although there were hints of jealousy. Nick's and Tia's status as celebrities, and victim-hood in Tia's case, seemed to be keeping the lid on the kettle.

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Without repeatedly watching each of the multiple cameras recording every angle of the performance, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to describe exactly what happened in the Murder Bunnies' number "Killer Mutant Zombie Bunnies"; there was just too much. It could be said however, that the performance of the dancers pretty much matched the often-hilarious lyrics, done in the style of Weird Al and containing many pop-culture references, and most of the audience would have rated the performance as fantastic.

There was the starting theme of cute innocent bunny, with soft background vocals that sounded like to some like 'Kill the Wabbit' repeated over and over. Many in the audience thought there was a line straight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail of 'One Rabbit Stew, Coming Up.' The dancing girls, including Tia wearing some kind of hairpiece that obscured her ears, were happily harassing poor little digital anime bunny Tavi.

Then, sometime in the second verse, Tavi exploded into a shower of blood-red pixels, which seemed to splatter Tia in the face. She fell and disappeared from sight of the audience, only to appear moments later looking like an honest-to-goodness full-blown zombie bunny, but no-one in the audience could ever clearly tell where Tia had gone or how her makeup and costume change had been done in what seemed like seconds.

What ensued was a hilarious mix of more song lyrics that sounded like "Bugs' revenge", "take that, Fudd", and "Arthur and his k'nigits had it coming" and more bunny-related lines, while Tia lumbered zombie-like about the dancing part of stage chasing the other girls as a little Tavi angel, now also a zombie bunny, hovered about her shoulder. One by one, the other girls fell to the killer zombie bunny, and in turn, just like Tia, after a quick costume change, they reappeared as more zombie bunnies.

Everyone knew that if that song ever went viral, someone would have a field day doing a music video, and possibly an animated video. The stagecraft, though simple and mostly unrehearsed, added a hilarious punch to the song, especially the last repeating line as the sound faded - something to the effect that "Only zombies want Hefner's bunnies now".

No-one was certain of what the actual words were, much like with the lyrics of "Louie, Louie"; the combination of a strong, loud bass, a little too much volume on one of the guitars, and some muddying of the words left everyone quite unsure of exactly what the group had been saying - not that unclear lyrics detracted in any way from the stage spectacle. The only thing that had universal concurrence was that up to that point, the Murder Bunnies had put on the best stage show. All the other bands were very grateful that the stage show wasn't part of the contest.

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In a little over twenty-four hours, Jacilyn's mood had gone from excited about the concert, to upset with her boyfriend paying attention to the slut-bunny, to angry enough to sabotage that other band, to furious that her plans had been thwarted. Her temper flared to red-hot when that other band's performance at the evening concert had gone so well, and crossed into volcanic when Ryan continued to flirt with the rabbit-girl. Her now-ex-friend Katie had, in short order, figured a simple but effective dance routine for the floppy-eared slut and the other substitutes, the band performance had been enthusiastically received, and, much as she hated to admit it, the crowd noise indicated that slut-bunny and her friends were the stars of the Murder Bunnies featured song, which pushed her temper that approached super-nova range.

"You okay?" a tall boy, solidly built like a football player, asked in concern after he heard the distinctive crumpling of a plastic drinks glass, and then saw her face that was crimson with fury.

"Those ... sluts ... ruined everything!" Jacilyn blurted, angry and frustrated to the point of tears at how her plotting and scheming had crashed down around her. It should have been her performing for that number. It should have been her getting all the applause. It should have been her getting all the attention from Ryan.

"What?" the guy asked, puzzled.

While the girl wasn't the brightest bulb in the socket, nor the most emotionally stable, she was street-smart clever, and over her life she'd become an expert in manipulating people. It only took microseconds for a new scheme to come to mind. "They gotta be mutants!" she huffed indignantly, in what was only partially an act.

"What do you mean?" The guy was paying more attention to the girl's ample cleavage on prominent display by her strategically low-cut top. He also sounded like he'd played a few too many games without his helmet on, which is precisely what Jacilyn was counting on.

"That whole band! The Unloaded Sparrows ...."

"I think they're called the Unladen Swallows," the guy corrected her.

 "Whatever." Jacilyn knew she had him from where his eyes were focused. She sighed heavily in a way that was guaranteed to make her boobs jiggle. "They gotta be mutants. Look at them - the girls are unnaturally good looking - like most mutants are!" She pointed at the gathering of Whateley students.

The guy glanced up from her bosom and glanced at where the Swallows were gathered. The girl did have a point he realized when he turned his attention back to her.

While he'd taken a glance at that other band, Jacilyn had quickly and strategically adjusted her bra so that her cleavage looked a bit more inviting. "And that guy," she pointed at Jimmy in his distinctive Sherlock Holmes costume, "he's got to be one of those gadgetoiders. Their sound gear was hopelessly broken, and he fixed it - here! That's not human!"

The guy cocked one eyebrow in suspicion. "How ... how do you know it was broken? And that he fixed it?"

"That's what I heard," Jacilyn whispered conspiratorially. "One of the tech guys from another band was sure they were mutants, and he wanted to make sure they didn't win. Because that wouldn't be fair," she improvised a lie to cover the fact that she had orchestrated the sabotage. "And he fixed it - without tools or anything!" She scowled and shook her head. "Only a mutant could do that!"

The guy's features were darkening, just as Jacilyn had planned. "That does sound odd."

She nodded, grim-faced. All she had to do now to close the deal was give the guy another couple of emotional nudges, maybe flash a bit more cleavage, play the helpless damsel, and he'd go off accusing the Swallows of being mutants and stir up trouble. Ryan would see for himself how much trouble they were - and then he'd get his head on straight and crawl back to her.

"And that ... rabbit girl - she ...," Jacilyn let her expression change as she made tears flow on command, so she'd appear the poor aggrieved victim, "I was with my boyfriend last night," she wiped her cheek, "she came up to my boyfriend, and ... and she used some kind of psychic powers on him! It's like ... she has some kind of power over him! He's been hanging around her, and ... and she even made him replace me in their performance!" she blubbered.

"Wait a sec," the guy said after thinking a bit. "She's famous. Didn't some mutant brainiac use some ray-gun turn her into ... well, her?" He frowned. "She was a guy, then got turned ...."

"Into some mutant tranny?" Jacilyn blubbered some more. "She's got to be a mutant! Would you drool over a tranny, knowing it had been a guy?" She shook her head and bit her lip. "That's ... that's why I know she has to have some psychic mind powers! My boyfriend would never drool over a ... a tranny ... like that!"

The guy grimly nodded in agreement. He knew he wouldn't be taken in by some fake girl! No real man would - unless someone used some kind of mind-ray or powers on him. This poor girl was right - at least one of that band had to be using some kind of mutant powers.

"I wish someone would stop them! It's not fair if a bunch of mutants can come to a contest for normal people and use their mutant powers to win! And steal boyfriends!" Her sob story had made fertile ground in his mind, and she'd planted the seed. Soon, that band would get what they had coming to them.

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Her finely-tuned practice at observation and keen sense of people's moods often served Imp well, and she had long since learned to trust any 'gut feel' that she had. And she had such a feeling at that moment. She'd quickly picked out one girl that was laser-focused on the Whateley band with an expression that was at best hateful, and as that girl talked with others, more attention was being directed their way. Though no culprit had been identified, it wouldn't be in the least surprising if the girl had something to do with the sabotage to the Whateley band equipment. She was probably the instigator of the other band's need to recruit Tia, Erica, and Tanya. If so, it was understandable that she was even more upset after her attempt to sabotage the other band had failed so spectacularly.

The overall mood wasn't anything serious - yet - but it definitely bore watching. Closely. Imp knew only too well how fast and how radically a crowd's mood could swing in the right circumstances.

From experience of sometimes needing to distract a crowd, Imp also suspected that if the angry girl's adversarial focus was the Swallows, she would be manipulating others with rumor and innuendo, highlighting anything odd to plant seeds of fear, uncertainty, doubt, and hostility, and stir things up. Her already keen powers of observation ratcheted up a notch or two.

Keeping an eye on the spiteful girl, Imp strolled to the Whateley group.

"Tanya," she said softly, still looking around the crowd, "I want you to get the tech crew and move our gear."

"We'll have plenty of time to move it to the storage room," Erica, standing beside Tanya, countered, confused.

Imp shook her head, her expression guardedly neutral. "No. Get it loaded on the bus."

"I thought the plan was to load it up tomorrow morning before we headed back to Whateley," Bianca observed about the change of plan.

"Trouble?" Tanya asked, now getting a bit worried. The sabotage and the comments in the dining hall about Tia and Nick had begun to worry her.

Imp shook her head 'no', but didn't wipe the frown off her face. "Not yet, and I don't want any. So let's not take chances. Take the gear directly to the bus," she directed.

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 The effort to reload the gear was slowed by the number of people at the venue and the layout of the place. Other bands, especially those who weren't the final five, had filled the loading areas to do exactly what Imp wanted the Whateley band to do. And since human nature included a large dose of laziness and selfishness, some hadn't bothered to move their rigs once they'd finished loading. Consequently, she hadn't been able to park at either area, but forty or fifty yards away. Further, the foot traffic through the loading areas was intense and stacks of not-yet-loaded equipment constricted the hallways. Further, since Imp wanted to be discrete, she'd found an alternate route - one of the emergency exits. The fact that it was wired to trip the fire alarms wasn't even challenging to Imp; it took all of five seconds to defeat that 'feature'. And because the band members felt obligated to stay around the performance arena, both because other bands wanted to socialize, and because they were finalists and needed to be there, the loading process wasn't as quick as Imp would have preferred.

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The applause was dying down from the last encore of the last band to play, Clockwork Sheep, when the emcee came on stage with an enthusiastic bounce to his step. Instantly, the applause picked right back up, as everyone knew this was the cap of the entire event - the crowning of the best band in that year's contest.

"Did everyone have a good time tonight?" the emcee called, and was answered by cheers and whoops and whistles.

"Every year, this gets bigger and better, and you've all helped make this the best Maple Syrup Contest and Concert by far!" When the applause died, he continued. "We've had the most bands ever, which made it tough to get all the judging done, but from the response, it's all been worth it! And from the response we get from the audience, next year we're going to do a spring and a fall contest!"

"We always recognize the band with what we feel is the best name, and this year's winner is ... Death Valley Lifeguards!" A couple of band-members from that group scrambled up on stage to accept a small trophy. It wasn't a big trophy, but based on the cheers from the crowd, it was a coveted award. It was also well-known that while the kids considered some band names better, there was no way the organizers were handing a trophy to a band named Mermaid Sushi. Or Chocolate Urinal Cakes.

"Now I'd like to recognize some bands that have traveled some distance to compete. From Toronto, Canada, we have Narcoleptic Owl! Stand up please so everyone can see you!" As the crowd cheered, the four-person band from Toronto stood, waved around a bit, and then sat back down. "From South Dakota ..." The emcee paused, looking a bit puzzled. "I thought that was just a fictional place!" His bad joke was greeted by a few raspberries and much laughter. "From Rapid City, Stonefaced" This band stood for its own recognition. The announcer highlighted a couple more bands, and then he got to his last shout-out.

"And finally, a band that's not only traveled a long way to join us this year, but they're also making their final amateur appearance, and will soon be known by everyone because they've inked a record deal, all the way from Southern Florida, Radically Chick!"

After all the applause died down, he continued. "And now, the moment you've all been waiting for. Would the final five bands please join me on stage?" After a bit of shuffling, the five groups clustered in their little groups on the stage which was still full of equipment from the last band to play.

"In fifth place, The Band That Shall Not Be Named!" Applause greeted the announcement, and a representative of the band stepped forward to accept a trophy and an envelope.

"Our fourth place finisher tonight - Clockwork Sheep!"

"In third place, Murder Bunnies!"

Cally looked nervously at Nick and Electradyne. They'd never imagined that they'd be a finalist, let alone one of the top two bands. To them, the trip had been mostly about playing in public and having fun.

"And finally, the runner-up band for the Maple Syrup Amateur Band Trophy is ... Radically Chick!" Applause erupted, and Cally cupped her hands over her mouth in disbelief. "Which means that the winners of this year's Maple Syrup Amateur Band Trophy are Unladen Swallows!" The applause was nearly deafening, while Cally and Electradyne were nearly in tears from the joy of having won.

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Jacilyn Hopkins wanted to scream in rage at the announcement. Not only had her boyfriend been disrespecting her, slut-bunny had taken her place - HER place - on stage with the Murder Bunnies' smash finale, and now the slut-bunny's band had won. "Fucking cheating, lying mutant scum!" she snarled, half under her breath. "They probably used some mind powers on the judges, too!"

The guy who'd been hanging around Jacilyn, who she'd been not-so-subtly manipulating while he gawked at her cleavage, the footballer who'd played a few too many games without his helmet, nodded with an angry expression. "Yeah! That ain't right!"

"Someone ought to teach those cheating scumballs a lesson!"

"Me and the boys can take care of her," the guy nodded, speaking through a clenched jaw. "Her and that horsey-boy."

Jacilyn had a sudden moment of clarity. If the brute next to her did something publicly, he'd blab when police got involved - which they would - and then she'd be implicated. "Yeah, they deserve something like that," she agreed, knowing that her merely speaking would rivet the thug's attention. "But ... they're celebrities," she added a cautioning note. "They've probably got bodyguards or something. And paparazzi cameras all around them!"

"Oh, yeah," the big bruiser said as her warning words sank in. Clearly he was disappointed at having a good fight stolen from him.

"And even if they are filthy mutant cheaters," she continued, "the media would spin it as 'celebrities minding their own business and helping celebrate a little music festival get attacked by vicious redneck thugs'!"

"You're probably right," the big guy said. "But it's not right that they can get away with cheating!"

" But ... some of their band and crew aren't celebrities, though," Jacilyn was masterfully manipulating the somewhat-thick boy. "And no-one would notice if they got a little come-uppance!" She glanced around. "Like her!" She pointed at Laura. "I saw her setting up their equipment. And ... one of their crew was dressed up like Sherlock Holmes! He should be easy to find. And if something happened to them when their celebrity friends - and paparazzi - weren't around ...." She hoped the guy wasn't too dim that she'd have to spell it out precisely for him.

The boy winced - even if the girl dressed up as Mystique was a mutant, it wasn't right hitting a girl. But a boy ....

"I think me and Bob and Carl need to have a little ... chat ... with Sherlock!" he said, grinning broadly and cracking his knuckles.

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A guy returning to the side of his girlfriend handed her a cup of punch. "Here you go," he said. He didn't sound at all happy.

The girl picked up on his sudden change of tone. "Something wrong?" she asked, nearly shouting to be heard over the background music.

"Yeah!" the guy snapped. "One of the winning bands is a bunch of mutants!"

The girl's eyebrows lifted, but then she shrugged. "You mean, like Vanessa Jackson?"


"So what's the big deal?" the girl asked, puzzled by her boyfriend's anger.

"She doesn't run around pretending to be normal and using mutant powers to cheat local bands out of prizes!" the boy spat. The fact that Mermaid Sushi, the band he was a member of, hadn't made it into the top five, added to his annoyance; the rumor had made him dead certain that they would have placed - and gotten some prize money - if it weren't for some cheating mutant band.

One might have thought that, in a dance hall full of milling teenagers where conversation was nearly impossible due to very loud music, rumors and innuendo were impossible. However, it was well known that a rumor was the only naturally-occurring thing recognized as being possibly faster than the speed of light and more powerful than the meteor which had wiped out the dinosaurs.

Others nearby heard at least some of what the boy and his girlfriend had been very loudly conversing about. True, they'd only heard bits and bobs of the discussion, and none of the kids within shouting range had heard the same pieces of the conversation, but that didn't slow the gossip, and the fragmentary nature of the near-shouted words only hastened the speed with which a natural rumor metastasized.

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Nathan Peterson felt like the entire contest was a huge curse to him. He'd taken a bit of a tumble as he was helping unload the gear for Invisible Nudists, and he barely avoided serious injury in the fall, but at the cost of a probable wrist sprain. Which was very serious, as he was the drummer. His fiancé had ignored him the minute the Unladen Swallows had showed up with those two celebrities; she was positively fawning over the horse-boy, and when he sang, she melted, relegating Nathan to feeling like he was truly invisible.

The sprained wrist hadn't helped the band; he knew he was off with his drumming, and the whole band knew they had no chance of placing in the top. Then, to add insult to injury, the fates struck again; someone else decided on Sherlock Holmes as a costume, leaving his efforts looking like a pitiful imitation.

Feeling glum, he was trudging back from a nature-break when three very large high-school boys menacingly stepped in front of him.

"Going somewhere?" the largest of the three snarled at him as he glared down at the smaller boy. "We don't like filthy cheating mutants around these parts!"

"What?" Nathan was confused by the words, which were dulled by light pain meds for the sprain. "What are you .... Oof!" He halted mid-sentence when a fist drove into his stomach, knocking the breath from him and causing him to double over.

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Imp's internal alarm bells were ringing loudly. Unlike most, she'd been paying close attention to the rumors sweeping like wildfire through the crowded hall; the gossip was bad and worsening with exponential speed, with their accusations of cheating mutants, mind control, other powers. Imp's worst fears about the trip were quickly coming to pass. She quickly found Mr. August, and after she shared her growing concerns, he agreed with her conclusion. As the music teacher headed one way in the hall, Imp went the other.  Almost instantly, she spotted Electradyne.

"Get the others!" she ordered as she neared the girl. "We're getting our gear and getting out of here now!"

The questioning look from Electradyne displayed the girl's confusion. "What?"

"Get the others NOW!" Imp repeated in a far sterner tone. She feared there was no time to explain. "Get the gear, load it, and we're leaving as quickly as we can!"

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Striding with determined frustration, Morgana left the main concert area toward the studio and storage area. Since her change, she'd become only too aware that even if girls had the same number of stalls as a gents restroom, there was always a queue - usually a very long queue - because girls took far longer, not that she could figure out why. With guys - unzip, pee, shake, zip. Girls - panties down, squat, pee, wipe, panties up. Okay, she admitted to herself - there was an extra step, maybe two, but surely not enough to triple or quadruple the time. And given the time that some girls took, she couldn't help but wonder if they weren't taking the opportunity for a self-administered gynecological exam.

Despite extensive soundproofing throughout the building, it was impossible to completely contain the boisterous noise of a crowd of high-school and college-age kids and their loud music. The sound penetrated to every hallway, every nook of the large facility, so it was no surprise that, upon rounding a corner, Morgana saw the scuffle before she heard it. And it was less a scuffle than four large thuggish boys administering a beating to one smaller boy.

Morgana's eyes widened momentarily as she recognized the Sherlock costume the boy was wearing. "Jimmy!" she said in surprise, and then her shocked expression transformed in an instant to fury. How dare these thugs attack her teammate?

As the thug nearest her wound up to deliver what would be a serious punch to the victim, Morgana caught his arm, and her superior strength halted the intended blow dead in its tracks, pulling the thug slightly off balance as he'd already been shifting his balance to enhance the power of his strike.

"Wha....?" he gasped in surprise as he struggled to regain his balance.

"Leave my friend alone!" Morgana snarled.

One of the guy's fellow goons was quick to react, almost instantly wheeling and hammering a sucker punch at Morgana's undefended side, striking her hard in the left kidney, as he snapped, "Filthy mutant!" Given his size, it should have been a crippling blow.

Morgana let go of the first thug's arm, then slowly turned toward the guy who'd hit her. "Ow," she deadpanned, then a wicked grin spread across her face, and she drove her clenched fist into the second boy's solar plexus. He dropped like a wet sack of cement.

As the other three turned toward the significantly-outnumbered girl, Morgana got a second glance at the boy they'd been beating. It wasn't Jimmy, but some other boy who'd been wearing the same costume. She shrugged and metaphorically rolled up her sleeves. Bullies were bullies, and she had no time for them. Putting a few in their place, while technically a violation of the rules against fighting, she felt was her job. Besides, a minor scuffle in the back corridors of the facility would surely never be noticed.

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Furious to the point of irrationality, Jacilyn stalked toward the girl dressed as Mystique - a girl she had seen with that band, with Slut-bunny! And just like the rabbit-girl, she had to be punished for daring to show their mutant faces at this venue, and for daring to win! That was the Murder Bunnies' prize and trophy they'd stolen, and she'd been displaced from a spotlight role in the band's finale by Slut-bunny and her friends! In her raging fury, she completely overlooked her own role in her downfall.

Jacilyn grabbed at the blue girl's arm, intending to confront her, to slap her, to hit her, to do something to exact vengeance. But the girl, not having seen the raging manic girl approaching, unexpectedly turned at the last moment. Jacilyn's long nails raked the girl's arm deeply.

"Ouch!" the blue girl cried in pain, looking down at four parallel, deep scratches that were already bleeding. She looked up to her attacker, only to receive another slashing swipe at her cheek, again slicing through the top skin layer and again drawing blood.

A few feet away, at the snack table, Tia was loading a plate with some fruit, when she saw the insane nut-job slash at Laura. She heard Laura's cry, and saw the blood welling from the scratches. Laura recoiled in fear and shock at the sudden, unwarranted attack, and before either Tia or Laura could react, the girl swiped at Laura again.

"That's ... that's not ... not makeup!" Jacilyn stammered, looking alternately between her fingers and Laura; if Laura had been wearing makeup, her fingers would be smudged blue. They weren't. That could only mean one thing.

"Mutant!" Jacilyn screeched angrily, raising her voice loud enough that nearby kids couldn't help but hear her.

Tia looked helplessly - there was nothing she could do, but then she realized that being hit by something would distract the nut-case. She grabbed what she thought was the best projectile from her plate, wound up, and lobbed a blueberry as hard as she could.

It was a perfect strike. The blueberry's trajectory took it right at Jacilyn's head, and passing cleanly past the soft ear tissue, struck square on Jacilyn's ear canal. While the berry was too large to directly enter, its impact created a pressure wave that slammed painfully into the girl's eardrum.

Jacilyn shrieked in pain and clutched at her ear. Her mouth dropped open in horror as her fingers encountered something wet in her ear; ignoring the pain, she held her fingers up to her face and stared. She shrieked again; the juice from the splattered blueberry wasn't exactly blue, but in the light of the concert hall, distracted by pain, she thought that she was bleeding.

Taking advantage of the momentary distraction, Laura slipped her fingers onto her concealed neural neutralizer, and pointing it in the general direction of her attacker, she squeezed the trigger. Jacilyn collapsed in a heap.

By that time, Tia had scampered to Laura's side. "That was you?" Laura asked, glancing at the remains of a blueberry stuck in her attacker's outer ear. "Thanks. I think we should make ourselves scarce."

"No arguments here," Tia nodded in agreement.

"Go find Ms. Imp and tell them what happened. I'll go find the others," Laura directed. "I think we need to get out of here now."

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The sudden, noticeable reduction in crowd noise was like a ripple in the force, a minor disturbance that rushed through the crowd. Though no-one could directly hear anything, there was a sense that something was up.

And then the first rumors came - "There's a fight!" Only seconds later, another rumor swept through the room from another direction - "Mutants!!"

Imp took notice of both, raising her internal alarms to full. But before she could act, Tia scurried to her. "Miss Imp!" the rabbit girl called out breathlessly. "Some girl attacked Laura," she reported without pause. "Laura had to user her ... holdout."

"We're leaving now. Find someone to pair up with, and head for the bus."

"We need to finish loading the gear," Tia noted.

"Forget the gear. The school will send someone for it. We're leaving the moment everyone is on the bus," Imp directed insistently.

With a nod, Tia turned and ran into the crowd, seeking any of the other Whateley students.

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Near their assigned storage closet, Laura spotted Tanya and Jimmy lugging gear toward the bus. Nearly out of breath since she wasn't an exemplar, Laura hastened to them. "Wait up!"

The two paused and looked at Laura, confused a bit that she was running and calling out to them. "What's up?" Tanya asked.

"Fight," Laura gasped, "In the hall. We gotta get out of here!"

Jimmy and Tanya exchanged glances, then nodded. "Let's go," Tanya answered. "Laura, there's more stuff in our storage area."

Not yet realizing the urgency of the situation, Laura nodded, then quick-marched back to their storage and grabbed the large, awkward, but not-too-heavy mixer, the same one she and Jimmy and Morgana had repaired only hours earlier. The same one that Jacilyn's brother had sabotaged and which she knew could only have been repaired by mutants. Indirectly, it was that very mixer which had started the entire disturbance.

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It was pure luck that Jimmy noticed Morgana in the midst of a growing, angry mob that was starting to crowd what looked to be a dead-end corridor. "Morgana's in trouble!" he snapped to Tanya.

Morgana wasn't actually in trouble, but dealing with a mob of teens was proving difficult. The biggest problem was that they were just teens, and with her energizer strength, she was spending her time and mental focus trying to fend them off her without actually breaking bones or doing even more serious damage. She seriously wished that she had taken her original belt, with its built-in shield spell, and had ignored Laura's fashion sense that it just didn't work with her costume. Laura's final argument - that this was 'just' a dance with teens, had persuaded her, and besides, she could always just cast a shield spell. Unfortunately, while the boys weren't that good at combat, the sheer number of enraged boys trying to attack her meant that she didn't have the time needed to cast the spell.

Tanya unceremoniously and none-too-gently dropped her armload of gear down, nodding. "Let's go!"

Jimmy likewise had set his gear down. "Too many. Bowling ball?" he asked.

Tanya nodded, understanding the obscure reference from martial arts class. She grabbed Jimmy's arm, then pulled him down the hall. Stopping suddenly, she pulled Jimmy with all her might as she spun her entire torso, letting go of Jimmy and whipping him down the hall. The moment Tanya let go of is arm, Jimmy snapped on his shield and curled himself up in a fetal position.

The effect was stunning - to the crowd surrounding Morgana, that is. Like a huge human bowling ball, Jimmy and his PK shield rolled and bounced a couple of times before smashing into the back of the group, scattering them like bowling pins. Not all went down, but enough that Tanya, surrounded by the purple glow of her own shield, easily pushed the remaining few aside and got to Morgana's side. Jimmy, likewise, uncurled and joined his teammates, albeit a bit unsteady from having impersonated a bowling ball.

It was fate that had Laura going by the same corridor, carrying the mixer toward the bus; hearing the angry roar of a crowd in a fight mood, she glanced down the hall just in time to see Jimmy smack into the crowd, and then he and Tanya joined Morgana to face the mob.

Laura nearly dropped the mixer and hastened down the same hall, her hand already drawing her neural neutralizer. A couple of boys took hits when they spotted her coming, or when they got in her way, and she reunited with her teammates to fight off the angry mob. It didn't occur to Laura that the three teammates were all bricks, and she was the only squishy target in the Whateley group.

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As she hastened to gather her little flock of students, Imp paused and cupped one hand over one ear, with a frown of concentration. In her ear, she had a wireless speaker that was smaller than any in-ear hearing aid, almost totally invisible. The speaker was linked to a small radio which dangled on her wrist, one of many special purpose 'charms' on what looked like a normal charm bracelet. This particular charm was tuned to scan typical police frequencies.

Imp looked up at Electradyne. "Police are on their way. Get everyone on the bus now! No time to be subtle - run! Forget the gear! Just get on the bus!"

Fortunately, Laura's and Tia's little defense exhibition against the crazy girl was devolving into a huge argument, with accusations and counter-accusations, and an occasional shout of 'But ... mutants!", and the apparent fight outside the concert hall was also providing a huge distraction as students swarmed to see what was happening, so Imp trotting through the crowd didn't look too unusual.

One by one, Imp or Electradyne located the others and directed them to the bus. After she thought no-one else was in the hall, she located Imp, and quickly told the teacher who she'd directed to the bus. Imp frowned. "We're missing Laura, Jimmy, Morgana, and Tanya."

Electradyne winced. "The other fight?"

Imp nodded grimly.

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The small group of Whateley students, Jimmy, Morgana, Tanya, and Laura, found themselves backed into a dead-end. There was a door, presumably leading outside, but it wasn't marked as an emergency exit, and it was solidly locked. The one advantage the position held for them was that the attackers, about eight to ten in number, were now only on one side of them, so now with Jimmy and Tanya in front, Laura and Morgana were reasonably protected - which hadn't always been the case. Even in Dragonform, Morgana wasn't impervious to attacks, and Laura was particularly vulnerable, having been on the receiving end of two or three hard blows that she knew were going to leave bruises on the blue girl. From the lack of serious injuries to the attackers, it was clear that the Whateley students were fighting defensively defense, trying hard to not seriously hurt the boys who'd set upon them.

"What now?" Morgana shouted to be heard by her compatriots.

"I'm almost out of juice!" Laura notified the others as she fired another shot between Jimmy and Tanya, who had to stay a bit apart so their shields didn't interact. She'd used a lot of power drying an 'area' shot against the attackers, but while four or five of them succumbed to the neural neutralizer, it seemed more came to take their place and join the fight.

"Can you break the lock? Or the door?" Jimmy yelled over his shoulder.

Morgana nodded, then turned and punched at the door, trying to get a hole for her dragon claw, so she could rip the metal to shreds.

"You know who'd like this?" Tanya called out to her friends as she deflected another attempted punch and counter-punched only enough to hurt her erstwhile attacker. "Ratel!"

Morgana turned sharply, surprised, and then she nodded. "Yeah, she'd love it!"

"I vote next time we go off-campus, we bring her!" Laura chimed in as she lined up for another shot. This shot was weak, only momentarily stunning her target.

"Should have used Energizers!" Jimmy quipped when he saw the reduced effect of Laura's latest effort.

"Morgana, just heat a claw and melt through the lock!" Laura suggested. Unlike Jimmy and Tanya, she was getting very concerned. Without a working neural neutralizer, she was practically helpless; the confined space didn't give her adequate room for using her martial arts training.

"Interesting idea," Morgana shot back. The sound of metal tearing followed as a couple of claws penetrated the steel and the metal gave up the fight. "I'll try that next time." Two or three punches to the now-exposed lock mechanism broke the door completely open. With Tanya and Jimmy providing rear-guard, Morgana and Laura darted through the opening and out onto the parking lot. It took only seconds for the two to orientate themselves, and they turned toward where the bus should be waiting.

The fight hadn't been without consequence to the Whateley students, though. As Laura broke into a run, her left leg collapsed, and she screamed in pain as she pitched unceremoniously to the asphalt of the parking lot. During one of the attacks where one guy landed a heavy blow on her ribs, someone else had kicked her leg hard, but with an explosion of pain from one or more probably-broken ribs, Laura hadn't noticed, or had mentally dismissed damage to her leg. Now she couldn't avoid feeling it.

It took Morgana a moment to realize that Laura was no longer beside her, which was also the amount of time it took for her to register the scream of pain from her friend. She turned back, and seeing Laura on the ground, she darted back, bent down, and scooped up the blue girl as Jimmy and then Tanya exited the building and joined them.

The delay was just long enough that a couple of guys got between the Whateley students and their bus. If she'd been healthy and not nearly passed out from pain, and if her neural neutralizer had had a full charge, Laura could have easily dispatched the duo without missing a step. By the time Jimmy and Tanya realized they were going to have to fight their way to the bus, they were surrounded again. Once again, however, they were disadvantaged because they had attackers all around them.

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Standing by the door onto the bus, Imp was mentally checking off students as they boarded; when Nick and Electradyne got on, all the students except the four who were likely involved in the fight were on. All Imp had to do was locate the fight. That wasn't too difficult, it turned out; the sound of Laura's scream of pain when her knee collapsed was a distinctive marker for the location of the scuffle. The fact that some of the concert attendees were hastening in the direction of the scream also gave her a good clue.

It took the experienced teacher only a moment to decide on a course of action. Driving the bus through the gathered kids was not an option, even though it would allow her to get to her four students. And while her PK field would give her protection, it would call attention to her and the others, and what was a major scuffle could easily escalate into a full riot. She took a quick mental inventory of skills available among her students.

"Bianca, come with me! We need a distraction!" Imp ordered sternly. The white girl, still wearing her ghostly costume, darted to Imp's side.

Behind them in the bus, Mr. August knew the contingency plan - keep the doors shut; the bus was armored against anything up to anti-tank shaped-charge rounds, and he knew how to drive the crazy Whateley contraption as well as anyone. While Imp went to rescue her charges, he was busy communicating the situation to Whateley security in real-time, just in case they needed to use a warper to dispatch a team.

 "Can you fly?" Imp asked as the two hurried toward the fight.

"No," Bianca answered immediately.

"Invisible?" Bianca shook her head.

"What can you do to distract them?" The pair was still quick-stepping toward the fight; they still had about twenty or twenty-five yards to get to the assembled mob.

"Got an idea," Bianca replied, still moving. "I'll ..."

"Just do it."

Bianca darted to one side, then as she concentrated, a very strong gust of wind assaulted the gathered crowd. Fighting gale-force winds, the onlookers and combatants turned toward the sudden gusts - just in time to see a white-clad, ghostly girl, with a shimmering light backlighting her and adding to the spectral image, seemed to float toward them, a strong blast of wind still emanating from her. Through the whistling wind, a strange unearthly shriek rose, and as she quickly approached the circle, now parting as students backed away from the ghostly phantom, the wind kept driving them away.

Just as she neared the four Whateley students, who seemed to be immune to the image, the light rose above her head, illuminating her from above, then it grew almost instantly into a blinding glare, which bobbed and danced above her head a bit as she continued to screech and shriek.

Morgana instantly knew what her roommate was doing. "Grab onto her!" she barked to the others as she clutched at Bianca's clothing, hidden from the crowd by the blinding white light.

Simultaneously, Bianca slapped a spell slip onto herself, and with the wind still blasting, now in all directions, the light rose, slowly at first, then faster and faster, whirling around in a vortex-like path as it climbed.

"Let's go - fast! This light is really burning essence!" Bianca urged. "And don't look at the light!"

Clutching the ghostly girl, the group slowly moved through the huge gap that Bianca had originally made. It was as if they were invisible; no-one seemed to notice the students making a getaway. When they were clear, Bianca made the light zoom skyward for a second, then smash into the ground where the students had been, and it crashed with an overpowering burst of light that temporarily blinded everyone looking at it.

The five students, with Morgana carrying Laura, clambered onto the bus, and Imp slammed the door shut. Morgana eased the blue girl into a seat, and almost lost her balance as the bus lurched into motion, moving away from the spectacle that Bianca had created.

"Oh, oh!" Electradyne called out as the bus wheeled around. "Cops!"

She wasn't wrong - there were several sets of police lights flashing and quite obviously coming toward the venue, with sirens blaring to emphasize their approach.

"I can see eight cars," Kieron added. "Probably more."

"Riot response," Imp said grimly. She turned the bus back toward the rear of the venue, away from where the police cars were swarming into the lot. The venue's parking lot had a rear entrance that gave easy access to the building's service entrances. As expected, Imp had done her homework and knew where that rear driveway was, and more importantly, that it was long and wound around behind the venue and a couple of adjacent before turning back toward the street.

"Now what?" Dalton Li asked nervously. He knew, as did the others, that they would universally be blamed for the riot, and the consequences, being away from the refuge that was Whateley, would at best be unpleasant. The MCO would probably be involved, too, which added to his concern.

Morgana peered out of the back window of the bus, her enhanced vision showing clearly six police cars and two black 4x4 SUVs. The SUVs were worrying because they could go off-road to cut off any escape path the bus might take.

"Ms. Imp? There are six police cars and two 4x4's following us!" Morgana yelled toward the front of the small bus.

Imp glanced in the mirror, seeing only a blur of flashing lights. "Damn!" she cursed softly. The 4x4s were a serious complication; they could easily cross curbs and other natural road barriers, and cut off the bus' retreat, even though she could keep cars following them at bay because the bus was out of the parking lot and on the narrower entrance drive.

"I have an idea for stopping or slowing ...." Morgana started.

Imp was known for being decisive in a crisis; it was how she'd been so successful. "Do it!" she called over her shoulder. "Just don't kill anyone."

Morgana nodded. "Vic! Back here!" The urgency of the situation and the commanding nature of Morgana's call made the boy quickly scramble to the rear. Bianca was still at the back, trying to see what was happening in the darkness.

"Bianca, make some water behind the bus. Vic, as soon as she summons it, hold it as a sheet of water on the ground."

Vic looked dubious. "I don't think a think sheet of water is going to slow them up much."

Morgana gave them both a grin worthy of the Imp. "It will when I freeze it!" She thought a quick moment. "Try to make the water  a few centimeters thick, so the ground doesn't instantly melt it after I freeze it!"

Despite a couple of worried look, her two teammates did as asked.  Almost immediately, there was a sheet of water behind the bus which covered a narrower driveway leading away from the parking lot.

Bracing herself against the bus's motion, Morgana deftly moved her hand, tracing out a spell diagram in the air with her fingertip, and then, drawing on a reserve of energy leftover from the fight, with a convulsive effort, she poured essence into the invisible diagram. The spell instantly transformed into a sheet of ice covering the ground.

The first vehicle nearly made it across the ice, carried by inertia to follow a straight line, but then the front wheels slipped, and the car went into a skid, which abruptly halted as soon as the wheels moved off the ice onto dry asphalt. The driver of the second vehicle, closely following the first, saw the lead car skid for some reason, and he did as trained - he lifted his foot off the gas and turned to avoid hitting the now-sideways lead car. On dry pavement, it would have worked. On the unexpected patch of ice, it threw the car into a spin, which ended when that car crashed into the first.  Another car joined joined the pileup, while the remaining cars managed to turn enough to avoid the wreck, but it, too, spun out of control and jumped over the access road's curb. One of the SUVs ended up going over the curb to avoid the tangle of cars, bouncing enough that the driver had little control for a moment - just long enough for the front bumper to greet a large tree.

"Not as many as in The Blues Brothers," Imp said, sounding a bit disappointed, "but satisfying nonetheless!"

"Ahead of us!" Kieron called out needlessly; Imp was well aware that the police, knowing the area, had sent a car into the back access road to prevent just the type of escape they were trying to make.

"Hang on!" Imp ordered the students as she stomped on the brake and reached for a control nearly hidden under the dash. As soon as she activated it, the bus rose in height as the suspension was significantly raised. At the same time, the engine sound changed drastically when the transmission shifted into low-range all-wheel drive mode. With a flick of the wheel and a solid lurch, the bus surmounted the curb.

"I always wanted to go four-wheeling in a bus!" Imp giggled gleefully. "Don't you just love all these special features that Whateley puts in their vehicles?"

"I suppose it has a boat mode, too," Jimmy offered sarcastically.

Imp glanced at him, then looked at the dashboard. "Yeah it does. Sort of. Jet-ski mode. Let's go try that one out, too!" she said excitedly.

Behind her, the students gawked in disbelief - because Imp seemed totally unflappable, or because she could joke at a time like this, or because she sounded quite convincing that she was going to try out the jet-ski mode just for fun!

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Sunday, October 30, 2016 - very early morning
Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Sergeant Clauser rolled his eyes at the gathered students. "I knew you lot were going to get up to some kind of trouble!"

"To be fair," Imp interrupted before Electradyne could say anything, "they didn't start it."

"That's what they all say," Clauser grumbled. "Well, we've got ...."

Clauser paused when the door opened and the desk clerk stuck his head in. "Admin said to hold off a bit. Assistant Headmaster Turner wants to hear this one."

The sergeant rolled his eyes. "Okay," he muttered, turning to face the waiting, tired, and frustrated students, "we'll wait. I'm going to get some coffee. Use the restroom if you need, but stay in the building." Grumbling to himself, he left the briefing room.

"I knew we were going to end up getting 'the lecture'," Electradyne mumbled. "A few people warned me that you guys were trouble magnets, and I was going to somehow get swept up in your chaos."

"We are not trouble magnets," Morgana protested firmly and quite insistently. "It's ... just coincidence."

"Or two or three," Laura added to emphasize her friend's point.

Imp smiled wickedly. "More like eight to ten."

"Squidley was before we even got here," Jimmy protested. "So that really doesn't count."

"Same here. My 'incidents' were before I got here," Nick chimed in. "Besides, I'm not part of their team of ... insanity."

"We are not insane," Tia objected.

"Yeah. We just act that way to confuse people!"

Kieron shook his head, frowning like Electradyne. "If the odds of a coincidence were as high as one in two, you guys are like one in a thousand!"

"Actually, it averages one in five point two off-campus excursions that end up in some type of ... disturbance," a male voice chimed in from the door. The students had been focused on their discussion that they hadn't noticed Assistant Headmaster Turner open the door and pause in the doorway, amused by the running commentary. "So if you had eight incidents, it'd be one in slightly more than half a million," he added with a chuckle.

The members of M3 exchanged nervous glances at the statistic, wondering if the administration really considered them trouble magnets.

"And if you really had eight or more incidents," Turner added, "do you think we'd ever let you go off campus?"

"It's really far from a record," Mr. August chimed in. "Several years ago, there was a group that couldn't go a week - on-campus or off - without some type of incident. The tales of their adventures were almost legendary - and pretty interesting."

"And dangerous. Some of their events have become part of standard Security training," Clauser added. "You guys don't want to even try to compare to what that group did." He looked at the Assistant Headmaster. "Standard debrief procedure?" With a nod of agreement, he continued. "I've got three officers ready for your interviews. You will each meet individually with an officer to privately tell your version of the story..."

"While you're waiting for your individual interviews," Turner noted, "a security officer will wait here with you. You aren't to talk among yourselves until the interviews are complete. Since you've been up quite a while, the cafeteria is sending over some food." He glanced at Tanya. "Lots of food," he added with a wry grin.

"The interviews will be recorded and computer transcribed. As the interviews are happening, a team, aided by an expert system, will be sorting the stories into a timeline. Within a few minutes of the last interview, we'll have a detailed timeline," Clauser explained.

"Including any discrepancies," Turner added. His last words were taken as a warning to the students to not embellish or fudge their accounts; no doubt Imp's version would be included in the timeline as a reference.

Based on Imp's recommendation, Laura and Morgana were among the first to be interviewed because they'd been involved in most of the actions. Some, like Nick and Kieran, didn't have long tales to tell, so several students were done before Laura walked sheepishly back into the room, having had the longest and most detailed interview of all.

"About time," Bianca said dryly as a female officer escorted Laura back into the briefing room. The way everyone was looking at her, Laura knew that they'd all finished their own accounts. With her cheeks blushing lilac, she picked up a breakfast bagel from the food that had been brought, and sheepishly sat unobtrusively in a corner chair instead of at the briefing table.

After what seemed an eternity, but was really only about six minutes, Turner, Imp, and Clauser came back into the room. All of M3 looked expectantly and a bit fearfully at the headmaster as they awaited his judgment. The older students and Nick, however, looked thoroughly bored by the proceedings.

Turner looked around the room, noting which students were intimidated and which weren't. As security had briefed him, Morgana looked the least cowed of all the freshmen, while the blue girl was practically scared stiff. "Well, that was quite a concert, wasn't it?" he asked in a surprisingly cheery voice. "To be honest, I've been at far more ... eventful ... concerts in my younger days." His wistful expression faded. "From your interviews, we think we have a pretty good picture of what happened. Most of you," he explicitly looked sternly at Morgana, "were very restrained in your actions."

Morgana frowned, and looked like she was going to respond in her own defense, but Turner shook his head, silencing her. "Even your action might be considered justifiable," he said. "In dim light, seeing what you thought was a teammate being beaten, it was an understandable rookie mistake."

"But a mistake, nonetheless," Imp chimed in. "Errors like that can have very severe consequences."

"You can't think you understand a situation," Turner continued. "You have to know the situation before you act."

"We've already dispatched a security team to Burlington to retrieve Whateley's equipment and to gather evidence," Clauser interjected. "No doubt there's security camera footage, and the team will try to interview staff from the venue."

"So, let's get to your serious lapses and mistakes," Imp said ominously.

"You made good use of the event theme to disguise yourselves," Turner continued, "except you two." He was alternating is gaze between Tia and Nick. "That wasn't an issue here, though, because you were recognized as celebrities." His expression grew stern. "That won't always be the case. You can't disguise your appearance, so you'll have to take extra precautions wherever you go. Not a pleasant fact, but a fact nonetheless."

Turner directed his attention at Laura. "Your neural neutralizer - it uses a rechargeable internal battery?" Wide-eyed at the direction this interview was taking, she nodded. "Modify it to use battery packs you can swap out. Keep spare packs on hand."

"You can use a rechargeable battery pack for normal use, but keep some high-capacity one-use power packs in your holdouts," Imp advised. "You found out what running out of juice can mean."

Imp turned to Bianca. "I asked you for a diversion, and you improvised a very clever and effective diversion, using your limited resources and spells. Picking a theme that fit your costume and the season added to the effectiveness." She frowned. "If someone in the crowd, though, was resistant to magic or a mage, your 'ignore me' spell wouldn't have worked nearly as well. It was a risky move."

"A calculated risk," Morgana felt obliged to defend her roommate. "Mages aren't common, and magic resistance is rare among baselines."

Turner stared directly at Morgana. "Ms. Imp didn't say it was a foolish move, just that it was a risk." He turned to Bianca. "Did you have a backup plan?" When the white girl gulped, he nodded grimly. "I thought not. When you plan something, always try to come up with a backup plan and a backup to the backup. Things can go sideways very quickly - often too quickly to think your way out of a situation."

Bianca nodded. "Yes, sir," she answered formally.

"At the next staff meeting, we'll discuss how to add backup planning whenever a student formulates a plan. It needs to be practiced until it's automatic and instinctive," Turner continued.

The two experienced teachers continued reviewing the events in a way that sounded more like Sensei Tolman's lectures in BMA and simulation debriefs than what they figured a security interview would be.

Finally, the Assistant Headmaster sat back in his chair. "I think that's enough for now. You may be called back to clarify some points once security returns with their evidence. And we reserve the right to add consequences if evidence shows that any of your actions were unwarranted." He stood. "You've all had a long couple of days. Go get some sleep. I'll notify the cafeteria that some of you may want a late breakfast if you decide to sleep in." D

"But at least they won," Mr. August chimed in with a thin smile.

Turner, paused, turning back, and then he nodded. "At least you won."

After he and Imp left, the students gathered a little more food- especially the energizers - before they wandered back to their rooms. Clauser kept urging them to hurry, giving the impression that he was on overtime or wanted to leave. As he escorted the M3 team members out of the briefing room, a security officer approached him. "Got a sec, Sarge?"

"Yeah, what?"

The other officer handed him a fat envelope. "You won the pool." Clauser gawked at the man. "About seven hundred bucks."

Clauser's jaw dropped. "Seven hundred?"

"Some of the faculty decided to join the pool. And everyone figured something would happen a lot sooner." He chuckled. "Personally, I bet that they wouldn't survive checking into the hotel before trouble struck!"

Laura and the others couldn't help but overhear the comments. As they left the building, Laura thought for a few moments. "You know, if they're betting on us getting in trouble all the time, maybe we really ARE trouble magnets!" she commented as they walked away from Kane Hall.

Tanya laughed. "So the next time we go off campus, we bring Ratel!"

Morgana shook her head. "How about next time we go off campus, we don't get in trouble, just to mess with their betting pool!"

"If that's even possible," Laura mumbled to herself.



Read 1013 times Last modified on Monday, 08 May 2023 23:07


4 weeks ago
Bianca shook her head, chuckling. "According to this list, there's a band called 'Chocolate Urinal Cakes'!"
I was at DragonCon when one of the performing bands was "the Impotent Sea Snakes."
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