It was hard enough being a college dropout in a city with a half dead economy. In Brockton most people were either ignoring the reality of the situation or had given up hope completely. Realistically the only growth industry was cape work, and if you weren't a cape that meant tourism, the PRT, or henchmaning for the truly desperate. Most of the city would have given their right arm for superpowers. Too bad they don't understand what you have to go through in order to trigger, or how the powers you get don't exactly match up with what you dreamed about.
If I thought the current level of what my power was capable of was all I would ever get I would probably be pretty frustrated. Back when I was in college everyone dreamed about being a tinker. When you were in an engineering program in the same city as Armsmaster it was really inevitable. When I finally got powers they didn't exactly match what you'd expect from a tinker. Then again, from what I'd learned most tinkers didn't exactly function on the level of what you'd expect from a tinker.
See, technically I had only made one thing so far. It was a doozy, but still not exactly the stuff heroes are made of. I might have been able to leverage it into some obscure application, especially the secondary effects, but it would have been a challenge. Still, it's not as bad as it could have been. Or would have been.
I'd had my mighty pseudo-tinker powers for all of a week and had not accomplished much in that time. Mostly I'd been focusing on sorting out the mess of my life that had resulted in my trigger event. I wouldn't exactly say bridges were burned, but there were some close relations that it would be awkward to deal with for a while. Triggers don't really fix anything. Well, they might if it's one of the ones that turns you super strong to deal with being crushed by a car, but for anything that has a longer buildup there's no amount of power that is actually going to fix the problems with either you or your life that led to that situation. Accepting that at least let me start to move on.
I was riding the bus home after a grueling week of work. They say there are no jobs in Brockton Bay. That's not exactly true. There are plenty of jobs as long as you're relatively young, clean, willing to put up with abuse from the general public, and don't need to support anyone else or have any serious obligations beyond basic survival. Which is how I was able to land a job as a part time retail worker in the rich side of the city. In a store where everyone other than the manager was part time, since that let you avoid all those pesky benefits that would have to be paid.
It was how I was able to afford a truly terrible apartment in not quite the worst area of the docks. I was currently living in the part of the city they had warned us against when I first moved out of dorms. It at least got me away from Captain's Hill and thanks to my power was just bearable. The apartment was about a five minute walk from the nearest bus stop, which it this neighborhood was a somewhat harrowing experience. The apartment was part of an oversized house that had been divided into five units, which placed mine as a long thin studio apartment. My theory was it had been assembled out of left over space. The fact that it had to be accessed from what must have been a converted fire escape only did more to convinced me. It was clearly a case of 'we have this extra space. Can we get someone to pay for it?'.
I know there were much worse places. I'd looked at what they offered in my price range Downtown and this was totally worth the half hour bus commute. Plus, thanks to my power, it had one advantage.
Once I got home I dumped my jacket and headed for the closet. This would probably wear thin eventually, but for now, after just a week of having my power it was still a blast. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my key.
It was the first thing I built, if I could count as the person who built it. There were two kinds of things I could make with my powers. Things made out of normal material, and things like this. I couldn't recreate the key if my life depended on it, but that doesn't matter because it will always exist. I've essentially made it a universal constant that I will always have this key. Destroyed, lost, or just separated and it will turn up in a few minutes. That effect, and what it could accomplish was enough that if I didn't know the full scope of my powers I probably would have assumed the key and what it could do was everything. Then it would be off to the PRT to let them try to figure out how to brand me as a door based superhero.
I slid the key into the closet door and turned it. Rather than open into a small and musty collection of shirts and winter coats the door revealed a blank white cube of a room exactly five meters on each side. Safe and mobile access to an extradimensional space wasn't a terrible power and could probably have any number of applications. I mean, if I wanted to go villain it would have let me clean out entire stores without anything weighing me down. I was putting it to a much more mundane application.
Right now the cube contained a duffle bag, mattress, work desk, small bookcase, two storage trunks, and an old office chair. There was also a battery lantern on the desk since the lighting level in this area left something to be desired. At least it was dark enough that it was possible to sleep here, and the place had less temperature and odor issues than my own apartment.
I wasn't here just to get away from my living conditions. Aside from the entry way there was a single door on the left side of the cube. Before I headed that way I set up the crude door bar I had built earlier. One downside was I couldn't close the door while I was inside. That was probably a safety measure since I didn't know what would happen if the door I used was opened when I tried to get out, or worse destroyed. I had no intention of getting stuck in here forever, but I wasn't going to let anyone wander in behind me. Between my locked, bolted and chained apartment door and the chunk of steel wedging this door shut as far as I could get it I was reasonably secure. It wouldn't stop most of the capes in this city, but I was thankfully off their radar by virtue of not doing anything superhero related.
I walked through the inner door into my workshop. It wasn't exactly what you would expect when you heard the words 'tinker' and 'workshop'. The place wasn't bedecked with the blistering technology of a science hero. It wasn't even a top quality manufacturing facility. This was more of what you would get from a high school metal shop. There were tools and machinery, but it was fairly basic stuff. Not even a proper numeric control lathe. I was lucky I had a manufacturing component in my college courses otherwise I'd be completely lost here. My high school had phased out shop class long ago so it was only thanks to a single college class offered more as a formality that I knew what I was doing.
Fortunately the place was stocked with materials and safety equipment. Unless I wanted to work with exotic alloys or bring in high tech equipment the whole place was designed so I wouldn't have to go out for anything. That was a very good thing. I don't know if it was true, but there were rumors about people who triggered as tinkers started buying random stuff like loads of silly putty, old microwaves, or cleaning chemicals only to get exposed by various agencies or gangs on the lookout for behavior like that. I had my doubts, since that seemed like it would generate loads of false positives, but who knew how good the thinkers working for people like that were.
I didn't want to end up exposed, especially not with my powers at their current level. So the fact that I had a private, personal, and well stocked workshop was a blessing. It was just too bad I couldn't build anything worth a damn.
What I had produced in my after work hours over the last week was nothing more than curiosities. Honestly it had been more about trying to get used to working with this kind of equipment again. The closest thing I'd made to a useful tool was that door jam, and that was just a matter of measuring correctly and working the right tools. I had rough tinker facilities, but I didn't have any tinker knowledge.
That is, I didn't have any yet.
I closed my eyes and felt out the potential extent of my power. Over three hundred flares of lightning burned in my mind, all but one completely beyond my reach. The only mote I could touch was the single piece representing my workshop. The embers were arranged into twelve general constellations each along a different theme, but I could barely gleam what it was at the moment. These were what I was working towards. These were the reason I hadn't given up and sulked off to the Protectorate. These were tinker powers.
Every one of them represented some level of crafting ability, power, knowledge or resource. I could just barely feel them now, but I knew how strong they were. Even the weakest among them was significant and the highest tiers were world shaking. These were hero powers. More than that these were Hero powers, powers on the level of the first, legendary, and unlimited tinker. Powers that would let a person be the kind of technology superhero that used to appear in comic books, not the stripped down nonsense that was currently running around.
There but for the grace of god and all that.
My reach had been slowly building in the week since I got my powers. It was gradual at first, but had accelerated recently. Soon I would have a chance to link to another one of the points of light. The constellations shifted and changed so I had no idea what I would be able to reach, or even if what I had built up would be strong enough for whatever spark swung close at the time. This was the first time this had happened, but being able to feel it coming was incredible. I was lucky to have the level of understanding of my power that I'd been blessed with.
Like pretty much everyone in school I'd taken electives on parahuman studies. There were rumors that the cape population of the city took those courses in their secret identities, and the younger members of New Wave showed up occasionally. They were the cool courses that everyone was interested in. Get a chance to learn about the history of capes, cape impact on society, and theories on how powers worked. With the insight I'd gained since triggering I could say most of what they were teaching was pure crap. That may have been intentional since people trying to self-invoke a trigger event was a nightmare in terms of self-inflicted harm. Some of the other stuff was so far off the mark that I had to wonder if there was an intentional attempt to conceal it. Passenger theory had barely been touched on, and that was mostly to dismiss it. I kind of understood, it seemed ridiculous, and it was a lot more likely that anyone who thought their powers came from an outside intelligence was crazy rather than uniquely insightful.
I was definitely in the latter category. I could feel my passenger's excitement as my reach grew for the final grasp. A mote swung close from one of the mid-sized constellations. My power tried to grasp it, but the energy was too much. The flare of energy spun away and out of reach. There was mild disappointment from my passenger, but not despair. My reach was growing. Another mote would come, and I would be able to handle a stronger power by the time it arrived.
The emotional reassurance of my passenger was probably the most comforting thing in my life. My connection with him didn't go any further than what he was feeling, but that was still incredibly enlightening. I trusted that he had my best interest at heart, or at least my survival. The reason I trusted that was because of how badly he wanted this set of powers complete.
I didn't have much information from my passenger, but I did understand my power. Generally people have a roughly instinctive understanding of how their powers work. Mine were a little more in depth than that. I understood the nature of how powers were gained and what they meant. I knew the name of the power I had, Metalwork Workshop which was from the Toolkits constellation of powers. And I knew the name of the entire array of powers and how badly my passenger wanted it to be complete.
My power, or the array of my potential powers, was the Celestial Forge. From what I could tell it was the ultimate tinker power and my passenger's combined Holy Grail and Mount Everest. His emotions when considering the breath of the powers were complicated, but mostly centered on a longing to see them in action. He wanted this to be completed and was heavily invested in me being the one to finish it. All his guidance and support was for the purpose of turning me into the greatest tinker that had ever existed. I just hoped I could live up to those expectations.
I wasn't likely to see any new powers tonight. I'd completed a circuit of the various pieces of borderline scrap metal that represented my crafting projects from the previous week. A persistent infinitely restocking workshop really was incredible, but without the skills to make better use of it all I had was a hobby room. I checked my watch. It was getting on past six. I had kind of blocked out this evening for dealing with any new ability I got from my power, but that was a wash. That left me some time to prepare for the other aspects of being a superhero.
There's a common impression that tinkers make something of a soft target in cape fights. That might be true for anyone who doesn't show up with power armor or a personal force field, but the fact is most capes out there have no physical boosts at all. Brutes are common enough, but outside of that category everyone is as vulnerable as a normal human. The problem for tinkers is that they have time commitments that keep them from being able to train to the level expected from capes.
See, if you don't have some power that makes training unnecessary the amount of physical conditioning necessary to just survive a cape encounter is insane. Fortunately I had already been running regularly before getting my powers. That was great for endurance, but there was the whole issue of muscle growth and combat skills to think of. I was lucky enough that my neighborhood had a solution to both of those problems.
I left my workshop and closed the door to the extradimensional space. The transition from pristine room to dingy apartment was stark, but at least my apartment got slightly more livable now that I didn't need to allocate space for sleeping or storage. I headed to the small kitchenette area and grabbed a high protein snack before gathering my workout gear and leaving the apartment.
Another load off my mind thanks to my powers, not storing anything of value in the apartment made me a lot less concerned about leaving it. I effectively had access to all my worldly possessions anywhere. As long as I could access any kind of door and I'd never have to worry about them being compromised. There were tinkers who would kill for that kind of security and my powers provided it as a near afterthought.
My destination was only a couple of blocks away and was in a fairly active part of the neighborhood. This was an area of the Docks where the people living here were holding out hope for the city turning around. It was an endearing investment in the community that probably only persisted because there was minimal value to be found here for any of the local gangs. I was heading for an old building dating to the fifties that probably hadn't been meaningfully updated since then. Still, having a boxing gym within walking distance that only charged forty dollars a month for membership was worth the potential fire hazard. Actually, fire was unlikely considering this place was probably stuffed to the gills with asbestos.
I checked in and got changed. The place was practically a time capsule, but it worked for what I needed. I had no illusion about being 'fight ready' after less than a week, but I was getting into a decent routine that would generate meaningful improvement eventually. I grabbed one of the jump ropes for a warm-up along with a set of push-ups, squats and crunches. I spent about fifteen minutes practicing the basic combinations from my introductory lesson before switching to the heavy bag.
I pushed as far as I could but there were hard limits I was still struggling with. Endurance from running didn't translate perfectly to this kind of workout. Eventually I was catching my breath with a water bottle while half collapsed on one of the side benches. That was when I saw Doug wandering over from the main ring.
The best way I could describe Doug was if someone took Mickey from the Rocky movies and scaled him up to about six foot five. The guy was pushing sixty now but had apparently been an absolute terror in his youth. He had transitioned into coaching with all the grace of a rabid bull and would typically serenade the entire gym on deficiencies in your technique in a voice worthy of a drill sergeant.
He was in something of a good mood when he approached me, apparently having shouted himself out during his earlier training session. "Joe! Good to see you again. Too many young guys vanish after their first class."
"Well you know," I took a sip from my water bottle. "Don't want to embarrass myself the next time I see Mr. Laborn."
He nodded at that. "The man knows his boxing, though he's probably a good part of why guys vanish after their first class."
The gym gave a free training session with signup. Given how intense the coaches were I think that was a strategy to weed out anyone who wasn't serious about this kind of thing. Doug was a good example of that, but Mr. Laborn was on a whole other level. "He around tonight?"
"Na, doing something with his kids. You looking for a practice round?"
I emphatically shook my head. "Not even close to ready for that."
"Stick with it and you'll get there." He nodded contemplatively. "We don't get too many guys from the college down here. You're engineering, right?"
I suppressed a wince. I had danced around my enrollment status when I filled out my application. Dropping out of college hadn't been a smooth process and until recently I had still held out some hopes of finishing my degree.
That was gone now.
"Was engineering. College didn't work out for me."
"Sorry to hear that, kid. What happened?"
No one would ever accuse Doug of having an excess of tact. That said there was something about the guy that made him easy to talk to. There was a decent chance that no matter what I said he would tell me to suck it up and head back to school, but that was just his nature. There wasn't real malice behind it.
He also wasn't going to let this go without some kind of answer. "A bunch of stuff. College, well it looked better from the outside. Like, it's supposed to be this fresh start where everything's different, but you just run into the same problems as the rest of your life."
He snorted. "Problems never go away. They're part of life. You just get to pick the window dressing."
That brought a weak grin to my face. "I guess. Things just kind of fell apart for me. Can't really name a single thing that set it off."
"Uh-huh. Was it a girl?"
"With guys your age it's usually a girl. Or there's a girl somewhere in the equation. That what happened?"
"No." Doug's expression said he didn't believe it. I let out a slow breath. "Ok, I had a pretty bad relationship the fell apart spectacularly, but I didn't drop out over that."
"It's never only a girl, but I've seen dozens of guys your age trying to get their lives together. There's always a girl in there somewhere." He paused. "Or a guy, but they're usually quieter about that."
I nodded. Colleges had a certain social mentality that didn't exactly mesh with having super powered neo-Nazi's running around. Brockton's solution seemed to be dressing up everything with just enough deniability to avoid attracting attention.
Doug was looking at me expectantly. I glanced around. No one was that close to us and his students were savoring the brief respite from his tutelage as a chance to catch their breath and desperately rehydrate.
I hated talking about this. It wasn't just that the entire relationship was cringeworthy in retrospect. What really got me was everyone looking at it and assuming that was where everything went wrong. They thought that the rest of my life was fine and I'd let it all fall apart over some girl. Still, Doug was legendarily bullheaded but not known for making snap judgements.
"So I was in the engineering program. It was pretty small, like twenty five people. Mostly guys as well. Just three girls in our year."
"So you went after one of them?"
"Not at first." He gave me a look. "Ok, there was this girl who had transferred from math to engineering in sophomore year."
"Really. What was her name?"
"Sabah." Doug raised an eyebrow. "She was Iraqi. Really good at math but her English wasn't perfect. That gave her some trouble with parts of the course work. I helped her out with that."
"And one thing led to another?"
"Not exactly. We spent a lot of time together but it never really went further. I suggested stuff but she was always really demure about it, like a whole bunch of non-answers and putting things off."
"That was probably a hint."
That stung. "Yeah, I got that in hindsight."
"So what happened?"
"It wasn't going well, but one of my friends convinced me to give it another try, just ask directly and put it behind me."
"Not bad advice."
I actually flinched at that. "Uh, so I tried and it went bad. She tore into me and we had words. It was public and messy and I figured that was it."
"I'm guessing there's more?"
I nodded. "I tried to avoid her after that, but six weeks later she comes to me, apologizes and says she had a bad day and wants to work together again."
"So what did you do?"
"I tried to go back to the way things were, but it was really awkward. And she ended up transferring to the fashion program pretty soon after."
I shrugged. "Everyone was surprised. She didn't talk to anyone about it, she just left. I found out later she had lost her dad to a heart attack. I guess that's the kind of thing that makes you reevaluate stuff."
Doug nodded grimly.
"Look, it was a mess, but that's not why I dropped out."
"Not saying it is, but that kind of thing usually contributes." He looked around the gym. "I'm not going to give you some bullshit speech about how boxing is like life and how what you learn here will carry you through. Boxing is boxing and life is life. The only thing they have in common is they're both hard, painful, and take a lot of work. College might not have worked for you, but you're a bright kid and are willing to put in the hours. You'll be fine."
"Thanks, I appreciate that."
"Don't let it go to your head. Now I've got to get back to those slackers before they think this is some kind of holiday."
While Doug stomped off to terrorize his students I wrapped up my workout with a marathon of pushups, squats, and crunches. I figured if I buried myself in exercise I might be able to drown out the horrible feelings that conversation had dug up. It was basically the same principle that had gotten me into running. By the time I showered and slunk back to my apartment my body was burning but I had managed to put my college years mostly out of my mind. I threw together a cheap but high protein dinner, mostly beans really, before opening my workshop and crashing for the night.
Jumpchain abilities this chapter:
Workshop (Personal Reality) 100:
Each purchase of this adds to your Personal Reality Workshop needed to perform specific type of craft, which is to be specified when purchase is made. It comes with a basic set of tools and supplies. Good for fixing or creating all sorts of things, although any complex parts or nonstandard supplies will have to be brought in from outside. Additional purchases can add different types of Workshops to your Personal Reality or expand existing ones. Anything built in one of those workshops is fiat backed to be restored to its original condition within 48 hours if damaged or destroyed.
Access Key (Personal Reality) Free:
This is a special key which lets you access your Personal Reality and its contents.
When inserted into any lock on any door, the door opens to reveal a gateway into your Reality at a predetermined location within it. You are the only person who can take the key from the lock, the gateway remains open as long as the key is in the lock, and if key is ever lost or stolen you will find it in your pocket a few minutes later. You cannot close the door as long as you are inside the Personal Reality.
Entrance Hall (Personal Reality) Free:
This is the room your Access Key opens a door to. It starts off as a 5 meter cube with blank white walls, floor, and ceiling, as some doors, one leading to the current Host Reality, the other into your Cosmic Warehouse, with additional doors leading to other extensions as these get added to your Personal Reality. Feel free to customize this Entrance Hall as you see fit. Additional Halls can, at your discretion, be linked only to certain keys or only to certain extensions. This allows you to have an entry hall just for skiing if you want.