"Give it back, Emma!"
My former best friend acted clueless. The redhead just smiled at me like an innocent little angel. No doubt she'd had practice with that every week in front of the cameras at her modelling job. "Give what back, Taylor?"
"My flute, you bitch. I know you stole it."
"Oh, that old piece of junk? I think Sophia threw it in the dumpster. Why do you want it so badly anyway? You've got no musical talent."
She knew exactly why I wanted the flute. It was my mother's, and she knew that. She'd been there with me after my mother had died. She knew exactly what it meant to me. But that was a long time ago. I'd given up on figuring out why she turned on me – maybe starting the modelling career made her decide she didn't want to hang out with someone as ugly as me any more. She didn't matter to me any more. My mother's memory did.
I ignored her as I ran away to the back of the school. I could smell the rancid odours of the dumpster before I saw it. Thankfully, the thing was unlocked, the chains hanging loose from the lid when I arrived. I didn't hesitate to open up the dumpster to find it. I saw a flash of silver, but not the entire flute. One of the keys had been broken off, and in another part of the dumpster I saw another piece of the flute.
They'd destroyed it. Shattered it. It was spread out in pieces all over the trash bin. I didn't care, I started climbing up so I could retrieve what I could.
As I was reaching for the biggest shard of silver metal I could see, I could feel a powerful shove tip me into the dumpster. I fell into the trash, and the lid slammed down after me.
"Stay where you belong, Hebert!" A callous laugh followed, and a few others joined her.
I recognized that voice, too. Sophia, usually the "muscle" among Emma and her posse. Figured that she was hiding somewhere around the corner. I bet Madison was off somewhere else to distract the staff and make excuses. It was how they always operated.
I writhed around in the garbage, trying to get leverage to open up the lid, but there was something blocking it. Maybe they'd locked it, I don't know. I held on tightly to the few pieces of my mom's flute I'd managed to grab, desperately hoping that I would be able to piece it back together, somehow.
I was going to yell for help, but I wanted to wait until my bullies had left. I banged on the lid a few more times and yelled, but nobody came by. I suppose everyone else was in class right now.
The smell was really getting to me. I vomited, and most of it ended up all over me as I continued to squirm.
It made me feel like I was going to pass out. Every breath I took made me feel like I was dying. I fought between gasps, my instincts telling me that I would die if I took a breath, and the same instincts telling me I'd die if I didn't. Every time I screamed for help, I had to take in a deep breath of the putrid air, causing me to throw up.
I had no idea what kind of crap ended up in Winslow's dumpster, and I was afraid that was filled with nasty diseases. It was no secret that kids openly wore gang colours here and dealt drugs. I could feel sharp objects dig into my skin. Shards of broken glass? Broken crack pipe, or something worse? Needles? I had no idea. Needles in the garbage wouldn't have surprised me. Winslow High had rightfully earned its reputation as the worst high school in town, where the wannabe gangsters regularly started shit in order to earn their way into the local gangs. There was no doubt that there were more than a few teenage drug dealers, and addicts as well. At this point, it didn't matter. I was sagging down the in the pile of trash, having lost all my strength, and my knees and shins were digging into something sharp. Combined with my vomit, whatever was in there must have been festering like mad, making the smell ever more potent. I screamed and screamed until my throat hurt, but nobody answered.
There was nobody out there. At least, nobody who cared. I couldn't tell the time exactly but I must have been here long enough that at least one class might be over. Surely someone would walk out to the back in between classes, right?
Alone. I'd been alone all of high school, ever since Emma abandoned me. Nobody helped me, not the students, especially not the teachers. Why would that change now? Hah.
I was trapped. I still held on to my mother's flute. Maybe I could find the other pieces in here. Maybe... maybe I could sort through the garbage, get the pieces, put it all back. I didn't want to lose it. I didn't want to lose mom.
I thought I heard someone talking far away. With the last, tiniest shred of hope I had remaining, I drew in one more deep breath and screamed, banging against the lid of the dumpster as hard as I could. I could feel more of the tiny glass shards and metal dig through my legs as I shifted. Nobody answered my call. As I expected.
Winslow High, where at bullying was given lip service at best. Teachers talked about it but did nothing about it. They would say "bullying is bad, don't do it," and consider the problem solved. I'd given up reporting the incidents. The administration's efforts merely amounted to "their word against mine." Simple. And since there were three of them and only one of me, I was always wrong. I was always the liar. I was always making things up. What a great message to send. If you're going to bully people, you'll get off scot-free as long as you outnumber your victims.
I wish I had power in numbers behind me. I knew it was Sophia that pushed me in, and Emma that specifically knew the flute was a good target for them. It wouldn't matter if I reported it. No doubt they would vouch for each other again, and the administration would assume I went swimming in trash as a "cry for attention."
No wonder nobody ever joined my side, came to my defense, or stood up to the Bitch Trio. They would get bullied too. And suffer the same fate. Being stuck in a dumpster gave you time to think about things for a while. It tended to happen after the panic wore off and hopelessness set in.
I'd given up wishing someone would help me. It's not like wishing my bullies would stop ever actually stopped them for the past year and a half. There was nothing I could do. My voice had given out. No room to move inside this cramped dumpster. What could my body do? I'd torn apart my skin trying to rattle open the door mechanism. They must have put the padlock on. The bugs couldn't help me. I'd gleefully imagined I could control them in my delirious, hopeless desire. But even if I could, bugs couldn't chew through a solid lock. God damn, even my imagination couldn't give me a superpower that could get me out of here.
Maybe the bacteria would kill me and decompose me into a rancid pile of goo. Then I'd drip out dumpster.
I'd almost resigned to the idea that I would just die here. Ha ha, maybe a murder charge might finally catch the police's attention, and someone would finally do something. Oh, who was I kidding? Emma's dad was a lawyer, and they'd just frame it as a suicide. It would be written on my grave how useless and pathetic I was. Oh gods, was I actually agreeing with the crap my bullies said to me? Was I going crazy, or were they right? It was hard to tell at this point.
I didn't know how much longer I could stay conscious. If only I could put it back together. I was probably going to die. If not the disease, then maybe suffocation, or maybe I'd be compacted into the dump truck when nobody came to help. I was stuck in here anyway. I was covered in filth. I ran my hands through the darkness, sifting through the trash, hoping to find something that felt familiar. I wouldn't call it hope. It wasn't as if it would help.
Even if I was going to die, I just wanted to be able to hold my mom's flute again.
Some people, after traumatic events, gained superpowers. They called it the Trigger event. It was something I learned about years ago, when I was young and fantasized about being the next Alexandria. I didn't understand what Trigger events really were or why all the superheroes were always so reluctant to talk about them.
Now I knew. And after being locked in a dumpster for an entire day, screaming myself hoarse, nearly dying from septic shock… I was almost certain I did have a power. I just had no idea what it was. My mind felt a little different, like I had an extra sense or an invisible arm. I just had no idea what my power did exactly. Or maybe it was the drugs.
I was partly sedated in the hospital for days. Morphine to dull the pain. There was very little I could do, and I had spent most of my time trying to figure out if I had a power or not. Holding on to that last scrap of hope from my childhood that I could be a superhero. I tried to float up off my bed. Nope. Break or bend something. I was barely strong enough to spoon feed myself hospital food. I tried to transform into something. Nope, unless even skinnier version of myself due to loss of appetite counted. I tried reading the nurse's mind, I just ended up just looking constipated. I just felt like I had a power. Or maybe I was delirious.
Hi, I'm Taylor Hebert, punching bag of the universe. It's like everything conspired to act against me. Maybe I got powers, but I can't figure out what they do. My bullies commit a blatant crime against me, and my dad gets stuck with the hospital bills. The teachers know it happened but deny all responsibility. Hey, the dumpster behind the school isn't in school, so it's not their problem. I didn't get a good look at who shoved me in, therefore there's no point in investigating anything. The school administration was clearly made up of the world's greatest detectives.
It wasn't until a week later, when I returned home from the hospital that I realized what my powers were. So no, it wasn't just the morphine giving me funny feelings. The painkillers and sedatives and all the other drugs I was hopped up on must have been suppressing them. I had only discovered it by accident - I guess powers didn't always come naturally to people who received them? I didn't exactly chat with parahumans on a regular basis.
At home, under the comfort of blankets and ice cream, I was able to finally calm down and forget about things, even if it was just for a brief moment. I discovered my power when I inadvertently made a robot out of a few paperclips, staples, AAA batteries and the desk clock. Without thinking. I was just watching TV at the time. It couldn't do much right away, mainly just walk around and bump into the table legs. But that wasn't the cool part. I could control it just by thinking it. I hadn't been able to control any of the hospital machines when I had been there. I definitely tried.
So maybe I could only control what I made myself. I was no expert on robotics before I had my powers, but I knew at the very least robots needed some kind of circuitry, radio, remote controls, or something like that. My bot... didn't. I didn't have any way to control it. It just... did what I thought. I wasn't sure if that made me a robotics expert or not, but for the moment I didn't care. I had a little companion.
"Hey, little buddy," I said to my tiny robot. It turned to "face" me eagerly. For something without a head, or technically without a front or a back, it was surprisingly cute. Or maybe that was my pride talking. It was objectively pretty ugly, but I had made it. So it was cute to me.
"Come here," I said. I dropped my hand down towards the floor. The little robot skittered towards me obediently and crawled up my fingers to reach my chest. The paperclip legs stung my skin a tiny bit, but it didn't cut me at all.
"Alright, buggy-bot. Show me what you can do. Um… pass me the TV remote!"
It crawled back down my arm, up the coffee table leg, and reached the TV remote. It had nothing to grip the remote, so it crawled to the opposite side and pushed the remote towards me. Slowly. Ever so slowly. It kept pushing until the remote toppled over the edge and onto the carpet.
My little bot crawled down and continued to try to get the remote closer to me. Unfortunately, there was just too much friction, and its tiny little legs just couldn't push against the carpet very well. I laughed. "Okay, that's enough you little dope. You did good." I picked up the remote and used my finger to pat it.
I'm pretty sure it was just a robot and didn't have feelings. And it was probably only doing what I was ordering it to do. But I didn't care. It was cute, and it was practically my pet. The odd thing was that I knew I was controlling it, and yet... I was still somewhat surprised by what it did. Maybe it was my subconscious that controlled it? I didn't even understand my own power. But it didn't really matter.
Not the flashiest of the superpowers, but definitely one of the most valuable. The Protectorate would probably classify me as Tinker 1, Master 1. The strongest local hero, Armsmaster, was a Tinker. Most of the Protectorate's headquarters was based on Tinker-tech. So while it would have been nice to have powers like, I super-strength or teleportation or the classic Alexandria package, there was no shame in being a Tinker. Master was also kind of obvious, since I could control the robot with my mind. Until I could figure out what I could really create, my Tinker rating would remain pretty low. And I was pretty sure I could only control the robots I made, not animals or other humans, so I wouldn't be a highly-rated Master either.
I looked at the clock to see how long Dad would be until he got back home, but I couldn't find it.
Then I smacked myself when I remembered I'd dismantled it to make my robot. And also, the TV remote didn't have batteries any more.
I guess I had to go out and grab a cheap clock to replace it. And maybe extra batteries, too. I could use my allowance money, no need to bother Dad with my problems. I grabbed my pepper spray and whistle. The part of town I lived in wasn't that bad, but it was a town with three major gangs. Maybe one fifth of the students in Winslow were either part of a gang or were likely to join one before graduation or dropping out. You couldn't be too safe in a town like Brockton Bay.
I hadn't gone for a run since getting back from the hospital. My legs felt like toothpicks powered by Jello right now – the shit I stewed in while inside the dumpster had wreaked havoc on them. I was lucky not to have gotten gangrene. Today I had to take it slow to work my way back up to my routine.
I also took my new little bot with me. It skittered on the ground like a pet rat. It moved slowly (okay, it was pretty fast for its size) but I wasn't running quickly anyway. Not with my legs in the condition that they were. I could still see the scars, discoloured skin, and bruises that covered them.
The run… no, jog… no, speed-walk was not what I had hoped it would be. I felt pain in my shins and ankles with every step. I started out at what I thought I could handle, and quickly had to go slower and slower until I was only slightly faster than a brisk stride. I used to run every day; but now my legs were in such bad condition that I'd be lucky to run at all before the end of the month. I felt so useless and weak.
At least I had a training partner. My scavenged-scrap robo-bug followed me diligently.
En route to the electronics store, I tried to test my powers, to see what my limits were or if I had anything else I didn't realize I had yet. At the traffic light, I tried to force the light to change earlier. No dice. Just like in the hospital, I couldn't control electronics in general. Just the robot I created. I focused on animals and people I passed by too, just in case. Nothing. Which was actually a good thing; if I could actually control other people's minds, I could instantly jump up in threat ratings and every gang, as well as the Protectorate, would probably want to either recruit, control, or kill me. Masters that could control other people always caused a media frenzy. It was practically an entire genre of film; Masters that took over people's minds. Cliche horror, but not unfounded.
On the other hand, I was definitely a Tinker. As I was thinking of what clock I should buy, my mind instantly jumped to improvements on the robot I had made. As well as what materials I'd want to get. And things I could salvage or scavenge to make further designs. I had to consciously quash down the urge to buy twenty clocks.
I did pass by a secondhand store before I got to the electronics store. Maybe I COULD buy twenty clocks…NO! Bad Taylor, bad! No buying twenty clocks, I berated myself. Maybe I'd limit myself to five, if they were cheap enough.
"Taylor? Why are there seven clocks on the dinner table?" I heard my dad call out to me. I had been clearing out the tiny room in the cellar in hopes to make it my workshop. Our house was old – old enough to have a coal chute, back whenever people used to burn coal inside their own homes. The coal room was obviously unused, so I thought it was a nice place to hide away and do my Tinkering.
Crap. I had intended to keep this a secret from my dad, but building things was so distracting I had completely forgotten to clean up and lost track of time. There was no way to get around it; I would just have to admit it to him. Strange that he was actually talking to me now. Not that we'd exchanged more than a few words at a time since mom died.
"One of them's acually a broken mp3 player!" I shouted back up at him. That was a good find. More complex circuitry for me to salvage than clocks, and it was basically the same price as a secondhand clock because only the clock part of it worked.
I heard my dad walking down the stairs. "Okay, so why are there six clocks and a broken mp3 player here?" he asked.
I had debated during my shopping trip whether I would tell my dad about my powers or not, but at this point I had no choice. A lot of capes did their cape thing in secret, even from their own family or friends. They kept their identities completely separate, for various reasons. For one thing, it was to prevent their family from being targeted by villains. Even though it was really taboo to target a cape's civilian life, there were always people who broke the rules and used it as a tactic. Plausible deniability went a long way there. I had tried to think of ways of breaking it to him slowly, but all those plans were clearly being thrown out the window now.
On the other hand, I wasn't planning on going out and being a superhero. Or a supervillain. I mean, what could I really do, anyway? Make some useless pet-sized robot? Maybe they could be toys or something. For the most part, I'd end up just living a calm, civilian life with minor superpowers to keep things entertaining. I mean, there was that other cape in town, Parian. She just did puppet shows for kids in the park with her power. And it wasn't as if I had the money or the space to just do this on my own, not without Dad's help. Tinkers were notorious for being ridiculously weak at first, needing lots of money or materials to get the ball rolling.
But the real issue was my Dad. I knew he'd had to deal with parahumans before - mainly villains. He was doing his best to protect the Dockworker's Union, finding work for the members, even though the Docks themselves were all but abandoned. Nobody but criminals wanted to do anything with the area, and almost all criminals were led by parahumans. They constantly tried to bribe or threaten dad and the other dockworkers. And since the Docks were such a low-value part of the city, the PRT wasn't sparing many heroes to help. I was afraid he would have... bias against them.
I took a deep breath and put on a fake cheerful voice. "Hey dad! Uh… long story short, I have powers?"
I looked at my father's face. He looked at me blankly for a second. One eyebrow went up. He took a deep breath, sighed and walked up to me with a somewhat forced smile. "Okay, tell me what you can do."
Phew. That went way better than I thought it would.
"Uh, I made this little guy," I said, ordering my little bug-bot to crawl up to him. He held the robot in his hands, carefully inspecting it.
"Wow, that's pretty interesting. So these…?" He asked, holding up the bag of second-hand store merchandise.
"I think I can make more. Better ones. That's just raw material," I explained. "Oh, except one. I, uh, accidentally dismantled the living room clock to make Buggy McBugface here."
"So, I have to ask… are you planning on being a hero with your new powers? Because, Taylor, you have to know, I'll always want what's best for you. But you'll always be my precious daughter, and..."
"...if you're going to be in danger, I can't condone… wait, what?"
"I'm not planning on being a superhero, dad. I mean, can you think of how much crime I could fight with him?" Buggy fell down to the ground on its back. It wiggled its legs frantically and was unable to right itself. Something I'd have to fix for future models…
"Oh. You're… not?"
"No, dad. Can you imagine him taking on an Endbringer?" I asked, flipping Buggy over. I still had no idea what else I could make. I mean, I had some ideas, but it wasn't like I instantly figured out my specialty, or how to put it to use.
"I see. That's… good! Oh, Taylor. You have no idea how relieved I am." He gave me a tight hug. "So. What can you build?"
I'm not sure if dad was enjoying the tinkering, or if he was just looking for an excuse to have some more father-daughter time. Maybe it was both. We hadn't spent much time with each other since Mom died. Dad was even more depressed than I was for months after that, and we barely spoke to each other. We took care of each other - as in, he paid the bills and I cooked food occasionally, but neither of us really knew how to help each other. We didn't even talk to each other. We just... occasionally existed in the same building as each other.
Even after we got over it (mostly), we were never really as close as we probably should have been. I guess it stemmed partly from the hopelessness that lingered from mom's death; it was a problem that neither of us could fix. Complaining about it, whine about it, wishing we could have changed the past - nothing we actually did would have ever brought her back. It was all we could think about, but neither of us could actually do anything about it. So we just stopped talking to each other for a year, other than the occasional "hello" or "dinner's ready."
Even when we did start talking to each other, we still never really shared our problems. Dad's work was stressful enough, along with money. He didn't bother me with his issues, because I couldn't do anything about it. He didn't want me to worry about something I couldn't do anything about. I didn't want to bother him with my school issues for the exact same reasons.
But now we had something to share with each other. Especially because we were both learning as we went along.
For example, I realized I had no talent for fixing his truck even with my Tinkering skill. The big, complex machinery just didn't jive with my powers. But at least Dad let me try it out. He explained what he knew about it, and I understood it about as much as any normal person would. That meant cars definitely weren't my specialty. Unlike Squealer, one of the villains that terrorized the areas near the docks with her haphazard monster-truck creations.
Little robo-bugs made sense to me, though. From my shopping haul, I managed to make ten more bugs. They were incrementally better as I figured out what to make. My second one had an actual face, with little mandibles to grip things. The third and fourth had two little gripper arms so they could hold on to each other. The last six didn't have any additional features, but they were all smaller and smaller- mostly owing to the fact that I was running low on materials and just had to build them that way.
Collectively, they could lift a cup of water and carry it to me. Yay teamwork!
"They're like ants," my dad commented. "A few hundred more and maybe they can help around the house."
That was the comment that led us to the scrapyard.
I never knew about this place, but apparently dad had used it often back in the day. Both as a place to dump mechanical scrap from the docks when business had been good, and to scavenge spare parts to keep his old truck running. A small entrance fee and we were allowed to take as much as we could carry. I wasn't expecting to find very much – Brockton Bay had several Tinker capes already, most notably the hero Armsmaster and the (not particularly successful) villain L33t, the aforementioned Squealer, alongside several others. The scrapyard was pretty much cleaned out of useful Tinker materials. However, my bugs gave me a minor advantage.
They could crawl deep into junk piles and find small, nearly-useless bits of scrap that others ignored. I didn't need large, intact pieces. I could make do with small pieces. The smaller the parts I had, the smaller I would just build my next bots. So a two-inch piece of wire was just about useless to everyone else? I could strip it apart and make eight tiny bot legs out of it.
Most of the time, I would tell my bots to only bring back pieces they could actually carry. Although they could carry far more than their own weight, most of the larger pieces were wedged or stuck under much larger objects. I told my bots to ignore those; it was only when there was a real hidden gem buried deep that Dad and I would have to use our muscles and dig.
We spent an entire afternoon there. I constructed more bots as they gathered the scrap, building as we went. Every time I had a completed one, I sent it out to gather as well. We kept going until I ended up with more spare parts than we could carry. We entered with eleven; we ended up leaving with eighteen functional robots plus enough scrap to build thirty more.
"I'd say today was a pretty successful day," Dad said, grinning. "I haven't seen you this happy for a long time."
He was right. In the scrapyard, I didn't have a care in the world except for making more of my little robots. I had a talent and I was using it. Dad was there by my side. We didn't have much, but it made me happy just to be there without a care in the world.
"Thanks for taking me here, dad," I said.
"I'm glad you found your calling," he said, while stepping forward to give me an awkward hug. "I know I haven't been a good father lately. I'm sorry I haven't didn't support you after... uh... well, until you were in the hosp... err, what I'm trying to say is that I'm here now. I'm not making that mistake again. I'm going to help you be the best you can be."
"Oh... um... thanks, dad," I mumbled out. It was true, the past year we'd practically ignored each other. Not that I hated him but I guess neither of us really figured out how to talk.
Dad ended up driving me to an electronics specialty store. My mind whirled with things I could create with everything I was seeing. Wires, resistors, transistors, batteries, solder... I wanted to buy everything there. Clear out its entire stock and make millions of robots.
I did manage to restrain myself. Dad ended up buying me a precision toolset, and just a few small items that would help me round off the next additions to my swarm of robots. I was excited to get back home. With my small swarm of bots, I still couldn't do much, but... I could reassemble most of Mom's flute. They couldn't repair the cracks, and they weren't powerful enough to hammer bent metal back into shape, but they could hold all the pieces together while I taped things back together.
I wouldn't lose Mom.
Author's Note: Hey, I'm back. And first things first: I haven't actually read Worm. I discovered this fandom through several crossovers, and ended up writing something based entirely on what I learned from fanon. I'll actually go and read the real thing now.