(ALL GLORY TO WILDBOW for Worm, characters, etc.)
Well, it seems Exalted and Worm crossovers are all the rage these days, and far be it from me to fail to jump on a bandwagon when I see one to give the people what they want . . .
Twilight Solar Taylor. Nope, no monstrous or unambiguously evil side effects to see here, no sir. Originally published bit by bit on the spacebattles dot com creative writing forums.
One of the last conversations I had with my mother before she died was about bullying. We were sitting around after dinner one night watching TV while Dad was out late at work, and a special about bullying was on.
Mom chuckled at the saccharine advice from the talking heads to seek authority figures for help.
"That never works. The last thing on any teacher or administrator's mind is assisting students that actually need help. Don't listen to this crap if something like that ever happens to you."
I smiled slightly. My mom was pretty cynical sometimes.
"Listen to this guy. 'Figure out why they are bullying.' Screw that. No one cares why the rapist rapes, he's still scum. Same principle applies. Anyways, if you get this crap at some point, see if you can figure out how they do things. If you can't rely on the system that is supposed to protect you, see if you can't undermine the system that's screwing you. If that even makes any sense. Bullies follow social conventions like anyone else, and they can be countered, depending on how they operate."
There was a pause, and a commercial for the local Wards team played in the background. Mom looked at it for a second and laughed.
"Or, you could try that superhero help line thing. Somehow I think it will be worthless, but it couldn't very well make things worse, right?"
The idea was so dumb, but so amusing, I had to laugh. The Wards, busting in through the windows and doors of the classroom, coming down on some schoolyard quarrel as if they were actual super-criminals? It would be something.
About a month after she died, when Emma's campaign against me started in earnest, I remembered that conversation.
It cheered me up a bit. That night, I thought about it, and decided to bother with a e-mail to the line. What would be the harm?
A general description of a bullying campaign. Names withheld, even mine.
As expected, there was no response.
As the days passed, I kept my eyes open. I was not the only target Emma's group had; I was just the prime one. I kept my log of bullying events at home, not daring to keep it on my person at school.
On one hand I wanted to run, to avoid them, to hide- but I noticed a pattern since I was thinking about it. The longer it took them to find me, the harder their next action hit. If I was always available, then they tended to be less overtly cruel and creative, if not less frequent.
It still sucked ass, though.
Regardless, I was just one of many targets. On the rare occasions they were not after me and I was around, I could watch them work from the side.
I saw them go after another girl in the cafeteria once. Strangely, Emma wasn't in the lead. She was standing back with Sophia as Madison took the reins and laid misery down on their current target. Emma was looking . . . slightly uncomfortable? And hiding it. I knew her that well, at least. She was legitimately sneering when she was coming at me these days.
Sophia was giving the exact same cold glare and smile she always did. Her expression barely changed- but when it did, it was in response to the leader's actions, not the victim. Once, Emma almost raised a hand to intervene but a sharp glare and word from Sophia stopped her dead.
Just when the session seemed finished, Sophia smiled a little wider and said something, and the leader flipped the victim's lunch tray onto her lap, lunch and all. Then they made a laughing exit from the cafeteria. The victim screamed; apparently the soup of the day was still hot.
Why did this feel so weird?
Why was my stomach flipping in loops?
Sophia is the leader.
I was so traumatized by the idea of my former best friend attacking me that I completely failed to notice any other relevant details. Critical details.
Over the next couple days, my log began to account for Sophia's behavior in particular, and not just when the group targeted me. I strove to listen to them chattering in the same classes. I fought down my fear and listened, like my life depended on it. The new focus actually helped me ignore the actual bullying, to a degree.
Sophia wasn't just the leader. She was the bully. The other girls were just accessories. Interchangeable, even, depending on the situation. The same hollow cheerful social interaction, whoever her current friends were. The same subtly goading attitude.
Next came research. Common antisocial behavior patterns. Bullying studies. Mom said not to focus on the why, but I wasn't looking for sob stories. I was trying to confirm if the pattern I was seeing even required the aggressor to have one.
A few evenings of reading later, and I had my internet amateur diagnosis.
I might have gone crazy, but I was pretty sure Sophia Hess was a sociopath. Like, the dangerous kind. The slightest resistance, the merest flicker of self-defense got her pressing her cronies to double down on the violence.
And it was violence, even if it wasn't bruising physical battery most of the time.
I finally understood why I was so terrified when they were targeting me.
Somehow, I knew.
I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, if I fought back in any capacity . . . if I actually tried to challenge them on a fair playing field, I would lose. I would never go further than Sophia was willing to call and raise- or push Emma into calling and raising. I didn't have it in me. Emotionally, politically, or financially.
I studied the school rulebook. I studied the local law. The school rules were just blurry enough to be bent to mean anything to anyone, and no discrete penalties were applied to any specific offenses- so the richest lawyer would win, if it came to that.
Emma's dad was a very highly paid lawyer.
I laid out the nature of the situation in my head. I tried to figure out any action I could take within the rules and law. I considered actions I could take outside the rules and law.
It said something about society that all of the options that made the hurting stop also happened to classify as felonies.
When they stole my mom's flute from my locker, I didn't go back to school for the next few days.
After mulling over my earlier depressing realizations, I sent another letter to the Wards help line as a personal in-joke. Let it never be said Taylor Hebert didn't ask for help when she needed it. Ha.
This letter was more strongly worded, containing a new summary of the social dynamic, the box of laws and rules, and the complete lack of 'good' (as opposed to evil) options I had. It went on, extrapolating that the most concerning girl in question was a cancerous presence turning her own companions into hollowed out tumors on society as she groomed them each with their own personal reigns of terror. I didn't use quite so colorful language, but I did drop the terms sociopath and potentially extremely dangerous to students.
I also used some carefully worded sentences that indirectly implied I might be about to snap, myself- but nothing incriminating. Just enough to game whatever auto junk mail system they no doubt employed. Suicide watch, school shooter watch, whatever- anything to attract some attention without threatening or seeming okay enough to ignore.
Once again, there was no response the next day.
Somewhere, in the dozens of sub-processes indirectly under Dragon's control, a server at the Brockton Bay PRT building cross-referenced some trigger words and with names in a database. Taylor's two e-mails had been taken, filed, and deemed not worth the resources to follow up on for potential public relations gain; no human (or conscious AI) ever laid eyes on them personally. That changed after her mother's name was cross referenced by the system during a routine tagging pass, and everything about Annette Hebert's life and previous associations gave a slight boost in priority to her daughter's words. The e-mails (which had been traced and de-anonymized as a matter of course before archival) were brought up and re-analyzed. A particular combination of factors lined up appropriately; Taylor could be at risk of associating with sympathetic villainous forces. In addition, as she was at North High, there was already a Wards member on site. The resource expenditure could be minimized and points could be gained in the public eye if concrete evidence of the bullying behavior was found. Lawyers could only do so much against the PRT if they had Tinker-tech recordings of brutal behavior from their clients on public property, after all.
A new blip appeared on the Wards' team to-do list, with a preference note for Shadow Stalker. It stayed up on the board for a couple days until Clean-Up day, the day one member had to sit down and go over all the low priority stuff that had been ignored if nothing was currently on fire, screaming for help, or blowing up.
Clockblocker sat down at his personal terminal and sighed.
"I fucking hate Clean-Up Day."
He scrolled through a bunch of bulletin board items. The one saving grace of Clean-Up Day duty was that he got to parse out the assignments as he saw fit. That meant the week before you were on duty, your teammates might suck up a bit in the hopes you didn't shit on them with a day of litter clean-up or graffiti removal. As Clockblocker was cheerfully vindictive, he didn't hesitate in passing out crap duties with a smile. Sure, he'd get shit later, but . . . fuck it. This was one of his few opportunities to vent.
He got to the North High entry, glanced over the report. Minor suicide risk, bullied girl, loss of mother. Nothing too major, just some teen that probably wanted a shoulder to cry on.
Not that he wanted to play white knight.
He almost hit the 'assign' button to send it to the default Ward, and froze.
Providing emotional support?
Kid Win was walking by outside his room. He waved.
"Dude, check this out."
His teammate walked up and read the report, not particularly reacting until he got to the default assignee.
"Ah, haha, holy crap. I think her level of help would be to fire a bolt in this girl's shoulder and tell her to man up."
"Yeah, that's about what I was thinking. Who the hell decided it was a good idea to-"
Shadow Stalker tossed them a glare as she strode by his doorway.
"-sell these things for ten times their market value! It's highway robbery!" he recovered without missing a beat.
Once they were fairly certain Sophia was out of earshot, Kid Win replied.
"I'll give it a shot. Hell, I've been meaning to test out a new idea, and this girl would be perfect, if nothing else. If we catch the bullies in the act, we just drop Sophia on them like a rabid honey badger without telling her what's going on. She'll scare them so shitless they'll never look at a classmate sideways ever again." Kid Win wasn't the crudest speaker on the team by far, but like most of them, for Shadow Stalker he could make an exception.
"Heh. Sounds good, I'll leave it in your capable hands."
Three days into my self-imposed social exile, my e-mail app dinged.
After a few minutes of lethargic apathy, I pulled myself up and checked my inbox.
A politely worded response from the local Wards. I almost deleted it before realizing that while the first portion of the mail WAS mass-copy letterhead, it was only a bunch of disclaimers and crap disavowing the local PRT branch from the opinions and beliefs expressed by any individual cape, etc. After all that, the actual message started.
First off, sorry we know your name. It's automatically traced. I'm Kid Win with the BB Wards.
Condolences about your mom. That popped up too.
Regarding your bully problem, I might be able to help with that. If you're seeing everything you mentioned in your second mail, then I could easily get that kind of thing on camera. If you wouldn't object, I could send you a box of cloaked floating camera drones that could keep tabs on you just about everywhere but the girls' bathroom for a week. I can even include a panic button that will send them after you in places like that, if you feel you are actually in danger. I'll get notified too, in that case.
Needless to say, if you hit that button and cry wolf, it all goes away.
Also, final detail; if you'd be willing to share the names of your tormentors I can have them monitored within the bounds of the law on public property as well. I'm particularly concerned about your sociopath suspect. You might be the least of her victims.
Hope to hear back (and sorry for cyber-snoopiness),
Brockon Bay Wards
I almost laughed. Camera drones? Following me around? It was beyond perfect. All I had to do was accept.
Accept, and return to school. In the face of those bitches. And stand there are take whatever they dished out until someone decided it was enough to go on.
I replied in the positive, and I listed the three names, pointing out Sophia as the danger.
A while later, Kid Win responded.
I'm still in, but I am going to get a better set of drones made for this. Avoid school until Monday, please. They will be on your doorstep by Sunday night.
Not sure how to react, I just accepted it. Dad wasn't putting the pressure on, and it's not like I wanted to return to class anyway.
Sunday, a box hit the doorstep as promised. I too it upstairs, opened it, and read the note. Basic instructions. Little control box with two buttons. The panic button, and a 'private area' button. Drones would not follow me into any clearly marked women's restroom or any door I entered while holding the privacy button. Click the privacy button twice to cancel a privacy designation. Click four times to decloak them for a moment to confirm they were still with me. Simple enough. They had power to last a week.
I took them out into the backyard, then activated each drone. They were golf-ball sized, and each one floated up and cloaked. After the last one was aloft, I held the privacy button and re-entered the house.
The next morning I walked a block away from home and quadruple-clicked. Eight little balls popped into existence in the air all around me, and vanished. Looked good.
A couple days into the week were relatively uneventful. A bit of token harassment, name calling and such, but nothing serious. Then we had gym, after class and Emma's locker surprise happened. I had hesitated to hit the locker room, hoping they would be gone before I went in. I was wrong.
Three of them dragged me into the appropriate row a lockers. As one let go to open the 'special' locker I mashed the privacy button twice through my jeans. As they shoved me towards it I realized what I was about to experience.
Before I was all the way in, I decided to get anything I could out of them while they felt like gloating. The cameras should be in here. I turned a bit while struggling
"Emma, what would your parents think - let go!- about being involved with this kind of filth?"
Not my best line, I admit. Still, she bit.
"Taylor, I think we both know that no one will take your word against mine. After all, if they would, you've have gone and reported on us a long time ago, right? Or maybe, ha, you already have!"
With this last word, she threw her weight into me and I stumbled forward. I was all the way inside. The door slammed shut. I felt the controller. I hit the panic button.
If this was crying wolf. I didn't care. If it got me out of this locker, I would consider the whole thing worth it.
"Actually, Emma, I meant Sophia, and how you exist now as nothing but her little bitch."
The giggling stopped for a second. Sophia's voice cut through, inflection calm.
"Oh? You seem to have a good eye for a weakling crybaby. Well, let's just say Emma improved her taste in friends."
Sociopath. Lies easily. Why would she befriend Emma? She's no 'stronger' than I am. No way. Oh. Right.
"Or," I interjected, "you're just being a smart aspiring criminal sociopath and got to know her to have a good lawyer on retainer."
There was some silence for a second, and then Sophia's voice cut through again.
"We're done here."
Kid Win had passed out a set of single-use limited teleport beacons to a set of volunteers on the Wards. He explained a bit about the situation, that it was a Clean-up Day duty Clock had slammed him with, and he might need a bunch of backup on very short notice. Paperwork was filed, and Arcadia High had a special series of 'split field trips' sending its students in small groups all over the city and local area for community service.
Most of the student body knew it was a Wards front for something, but no one could figure out what would be worth scrambling Arcadia's classes just to pull out a large number of them during the school day.
They were all out on various low-level tasks; the aforementioned litter cleanup and graffiti cleaning, etc. No one complained when their little wrist beacons blinked and beeped, warning them of an impending sudden teleport. Only Clockblocker cursed, as he was in the restroom and the timing was . . . utterly terrible. Fumbling with a zipper, he barely had time to assume a cocky pose before the world went scrambled and he appeared in . . . a dimly lit locker room?
He saw Sophia and two other girls snapping their heads around in surprise. Other Wards popped into being all around them. Sophia seemed to come to some realization, as she turned to a locker and yelled,
"That tattling little freak!"
Clockblocker dove forward, nailing the other two girls with his power, freezing them in time- cursing internally as his hand passed through Sophia as expected. He hit the ground hard, cursed externally, then rolled away as Kid Win tossed some kind of electrified net down over her. She jerked and staggered, then jumped up almost to the ceiling in her shadow form. Fortunately she didn't get high enough to escape, and she came back down.
Clockblocker moved forward, ready to tag her if she phased back in to avoid that electro-net. She obliged.
What he didn't expect was for her to fling something at the locker she had looked at earlier before she hit the ground.
"TAYLOR!" Kid Win yelled.
Clockblocker tapped and froze Sophia after she landed as she jerked from the net once again and phased back to solid; then he flinched in pain as the world went white.
I could barely see out the vent of the locker door. Motion, sound.
I didn't know why they showed up in such force. I didn't know how. All I knew is that I had won, utterly and completely. My effort, my research, my observations, my refusal to back down- my willingness to ask for help- was all rewarded.
I didn't expect the crashing or the cursing. I didn't expect the yelling. I could only see floor and feet through the downward-pointing vent. I didn't expect a knife to come flying down towards the middle of the locker door.
A translucent knife. Time seemed to slow as I slammed myself backwards in my tiny prison and tried to raise my arms. It passed through the door as if it wasn't there. I was wondering how I even had enough light to see it when everything went white.
A moment later, the locker door was torn off.
Groans and cries of pain greeted me along with the fresh air. Everyone was averting their gaze and/or squinting from some intense brightness increase.
"Oy, gimme a break, who called for the lightshow?" whined someone who I'd later realize was Clockblocker.
The Brockton Bay Wards, or a decent portion of them, were in the locker room, with Clockblocker apparently having frozen all three girls; Sophia on the ground, tangled in some sort of electrified net in addition to Clockblocker's time-freeze. A couple others, their names escaped me at the moment, were flanking the area and preventing anyone else from entering the locker room.
As everyone's vision came back, all eyes gravitated between my stomach and my forehead.
Just in front of my t-shirt, a glowing, golden force field seemed to be holding back the throwing knife. It faded, and the weapon clattered to the floor.
Throwing knife? What the hell?
Slightly dazed, I stumbled out of the locker, taking the hands of the two Wards to either side. Vista peered behind me, looking at what was with me in there.
"Were those . . . oh, ew!"
I turned and saw the old, dried out and sun bleached . . . used disposable feminine hygiene implements. They had been quite ripe and not exactly dry when I was fist pushed in there.
There was a crackling from the floor. We looked down and watched as the paint on the concrete faded and started peeling up in chips.
I started as a tarp someone grabbed from somewhere was thrown over my head from the side.
I stood there dumbly as the commentary started.
"OK, so she's glowing. But she's not glowing, the air all around her is glowing. So we can't actually cover her up to put it out."
"Hey, check out her forehead."
"Holy crap, it's shining through the tarp."
The tarp came off. Vista knocked the boys upside the head once each.
"Be more considerate you jerks! Also, get the hell out, this is a girls' locker room!"
Mumbling and grumbling followed as I was taken and gently pulled towards the exit. The tarp was actually put back over me, more as a shroud/sheet, and I was guided out to a Protectorate vehicle.
I saw the unmistakable figure of Miss Militia pass by going the other way, followed by Armsmaster. Neither was smiling, though they did each give me a nod as they passed by. Still confused, I nodded back, and then I was in the van.
Wait. Glowing. Energy shield. That wasn't them.
It was me?
As the van started moving, I came out of my daze just enough to realize that this, perhaps, was turning out to be the best day of my life.