To Steal from Many

She leaned forward and planted her elbows on the desk, rubbing her eyes in frustration. A handwritten report, ten pages, due tomorrow, and here she was staring at a blank sheet of paper. Not that she could afford a typed report anyway. The security checks of putting it on the computer would cost more than her grade was worth. Besides, every cent had to pay for the research.

The ringing of the phone broke her thoughts. "Hey hey, any luck on that paper yet?" She could feel her friend grinning on the other end.

"Not yet," she sighed. "I don't even know where to start, and I'm not rich enough to be skimming randomly until I find something, you know."

"Tough for you, huh. I've got a few tips if you want them."

A moral dilemma: a paper and a grade for a law and a principle, tossed aside by students from the beginning of time. "Shoot."

"Weeeell..." the voice was singsong, emphasizing in its own way the illegality of the situation. "Some of this stuff's too long to read to you, but you could take a look at Peterson's essays and maybe Smith. You'll get it from there. Wouldn't want you to miss all the agony I suffered through, right?" There was that grin again.

"You're too kind," she replied blandly.

"Yeah, well, they get suspicious when you talk for too long." She clucked her tongue. "What a world we live in, when they're suspicious of us innocent little girls gossiping about cute guys."

She made a mock gasp. "What would Mark say?!"

"That Peterson's far too brief in his trillions of words?" her friend suggested.

"For sure," she agreed. "I never did figure out why you'd have it in for a genius boy like him."

"Give him a while. He'll crack this stuff someday, and you'll have all the Petersons and Smiths you need or want. How's that?"

A faint, almost undetectable click, then a steady stream of barely audible static ran through the line. No one else would have noticed the change in her friend's tone. "And Joshua's been looking at you with big eyes lately. Gonna do anything about it?"

"Nah, he spends too much time in the libraries. Those places give me the creeps, what with all those people watching you all the time." It was a bit bold, but students tended to be rebellious. "He can stay with his books."

"Cold, very cold," her friend declared. "Well, I shouldn't be keeping you. Lots of luck to you on your homework." It didn't do to be abrupt, but fabricated fluff could only last so long.

The line went dead, and with it, the static. She sighed and replaced the handset by her pencil can. Turning, she flipped the computer on and immediately entered Peterson's name into the search field. The essays were long, as her friend had said, and a bit pricey, but it was a sound tip. She could have written the entire paper on it but for need of a differing viewpoint.

She tried a new strategy this time: she typed in a short sentence contradicting Peterson's opinion. Sure, it was a long shot, but if she was lucky she'd have her work done much sooner, and cheaper.

It took a few tries, but finally she hit upon an appropriately archaic phrasing of the sentence, and was rewarded by seeing Smith's name sitting at the top of her results list, no less. The paper flowed from her fingers after that, and she had enough time to spare after finishing to ponder just how far she'd stepped over the line in writing the paper. Sure, she'd listened to a few short works from her friend, which let her choose the two viewpoints to address, but there wasn't any copying done. True she had been sneaky about the second search, but people looking for song lyrics did that all the time. In short, her conscience calmly pushed the night's events out of the "borderline" inbox and into the "forget it" wastebasket.

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