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Poem: "Dr. Doohickey and the Problem of Locomotion" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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Poem: "Dr. Doohickey and the Problem of Locomotion"

As selected in an audience poll, this is the free epic for the September 3, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl reaching the $200 goal.  It came out of the August 2013 Crowdfunding Creative Jam, prompted by ankewehner, who wanted to read about adaptive technology.  It also fills the "Deadline / time bomb" square in my 6-10-13 card for the Hurt/Comfort fest.  This poem belongs to the Polychrome Heroics series, and comes before "Dr. Doohickey and the Mad Science Scrambler."

WARNING: Severe content ahead. Think carefully before reading onward. Death trap with countdown. Shattered expectations. Graphic violence, dismemberment, and gore. Permanent injury leading to disability. Emotional fluctuation. Coping with new limitations.


Dr. Doohickey and the Problem of Locomotion


Mr. Pernicious lived up to his name.
No matter how many minions
Dr. Doohickey managed to snare
with his Storm Gun -- which fired
a cloud of carbon nanoparticles
that contracted into a snug net --
the supervillain himself always
managed to be somewhere else.

Then Mr. Pernicious managed to hit him --
from behind, of course -- with the Evil Eye.
Dr. Doohickey slumped to the ground,
paralyzed and dazed by the blast of pure malevolence.

The last thing he saw, as his vision faded,
was the dark face of Mr. Pernicious leaning over him
in a neat black suit and top hat.
"Sorry I can't stay," the supervillain said,
"but I have plans to play and people to corrupt."
The hands of the minions were gruff and ungentle
as they dragged Dr. Doohickey away.

The superhero came to tied on a conveyor belt
that clacked its way slowly toward a woodchipper.
All right, so I'm in a death trap,
Dr. Doohickey thought.  This is nothing new.

He looked around to ascertain the depth of his danger
and saw the little red numbers of the timer
over the control box for the woodchipper.

00.58

00.57

He had less than a minute to escape
before the blades turned on and the conveyor
fed him into the gaping maw of the hopper.

Dr. Doohickey was still half-numb from the blast
but he could move a little, enough to writhe
inside his rope cocoon and try to escape.
I can do this,  he thought.  I know how to do this.

He wormed one arm free, with his feet
less than a yard from the woodchipper now.
The numbers ticked inexorably downward.
He groped around, hoping to find something
that would help him out of the death trap.

His scrabbling fingers found a wrench
which he jabbed at the unseen wheels and gears
of the conveyor belt beneath him.

The belt did not stop moving.
The timer did not stop ticking.
He was too sluggish to roll onto the floor.

He would get out of this somehow.
He always did.
He was the hero.

00.01

00.00

The woodchipper whirred into action.
When his feet were inches from the blades,
Dr. Doohickey threw the wrench at the control box.
It hit -- the display blinked --
but the machinery did not shut down.

He stared at it in shock.
This isn't how it's supposed to happen!
he thought with stunned betrayal.

The spinning blades sliced into his feet.
He screamed.

His lab assistant Crystal found him
before the death trap actually lived up to its name.
She dragged him away from the woodchipper,
blood pouring from the ragged remains of his legs.

"Stay with me," she said as she held him in her lap
to keep him off the cold concrete floor.
"Help is on the way.  Just hold on a little longer."
Her hands felt warm against his cool damp skin.
She shouldn't have to see him like this,
but it was a comfort to have her there.

Dr. Doohickey heard sirens, and Crystal crying,
and then nothing.

He woke to find Crystal crying again,
or perhaps she had simply never stopped.
"I'm sorry," she said.  "I'm sorry that
I couldn't get there in time."

He looked down the line of his body,
a soft curve under the white blankets,
ending abruptly just below his hips.
"Not your fault," he said hoarsely.

Crystal stayed with him,
because she was good that way,
as meticulous about fetching and carrying
here as she was in the lab.

They threw him out of the hospital
after only a few days anyway,
because he would not -- could  not --
stop tinkering with everything in reach
and there was apparently something wrong
with animating the bed to move as he wished.

The wheelchair they gave him
was a monstrosity of dumb metal
and heavy canvas and handles  on the back.
"Let go," he sulked at Crystal
when she tried to push him.
"There's nothing wrong with my arms."

Superhero or not, though,
he was a bit flabby from lab work
rather than gym work,
so he couldn't actually propel himself
very far by hand.

Crystal was patient with him
even when his new limitations
frayed his temper to the breaking point.
She soothed his frustrations with a quiet touch
and encouraged him to develop his upper-body strength.

Still unwilling to concede,
Dr. Doohickey did what he did best:
he locked himself in his lab and invented.
It took him a week to build a wheelchair
that was comfortable and lightweight
and easy to maneuver.

It took him less than a month
to grow tired of that one,
and design a gizmotronic antchair
that could transform from manual wheelchair
to self-mobile robot that carried him
wherever he wished to go.
And this time there were no nurses
to yell at him that it wasn't allowed.

It felt good to work with his hands again,
to create something in his mind
and bring it forth into bright metal.
Even without legs, he was still Dr. Doohickey,
still the crack gizmologist who made
supervillains quake in their ludicrous boots.
It didn't matter that people laughed at his clothes
but never laughed at his jokes:
his inventions were no laughing matter at all.

"You won't give it up?" Crystal asked once,
only once, her hand gentle on his shoulder.
"I won't," Dr. Doohickey replied.  "I can't.
This is me.  This is what I do.  This is what I am."

"Okay," she said.  Then she gave the antchair
a critical look.  "In that case, this thing
is going to need a seatbelt.  If I know you,
in no time you'll have it running upside-down
or something else crazy like that."

"Sure, as soon as I finish this," he said,
leaning over the instrument of his vengeance.
"You have time for that later," Crystal assured him,
putting her hand over his.  "You have plenty of time. 
Take care of yourself first, Donald."
She understood his new sensitivity about time
better than he did in some ways.

He couldn't ignore her, not when she got like this.
Grudgingly he set aside his current project
and went to devise a safety harness for the antchair.
She was probably right about his use of it anyhow.

Behind him on the workbench, the beginnings
of the Egghead Beater glittered with promise.

* * *

Notes:

Adaptive technology (also called adaptive equipment or assistive technology) is hardware or software that compensates for a disability, allowing people to do more things.  Eyeglasses, wheelchairs, computer programs that read aloud, etc. all count.  One awesome thing about speculative fiction is that it allows us to imagine better gear than we can currently make -- which may inspire future inventors to push the envelope.

Carbon nanotubes are exceptionally strong.

The Evil Eye appears in Italian and other folklore.

Death Trap, Conveyor Belt-O-Doom, and Race Against the Clock are classic tropes.  I couldn't resist twisting the last one.  In my writing, anyone can be a hero -- but that doesn't always protect them from the consequences of a high-risk lifestyle.  Nor do said consequences necessarily put them out of business.

Dr. Doohickey uses positive self-talk to stay calm while facing a death trap.  It's basically the same technique athletes use in competition.  Remember, no situation is so bad that panic can't make it a whole lot worse.

A person with a new disability tends to go through phases of adjustment, not necessarily in an orderly progression.  Here you can see glimpses of several different moods following the traumatic incident.  A superhero's adaptation to a deliberately caused injury may be compared to a veteran recovering from combat trauma.  Some have great difficulty while others rebound strongly.  The style of modern warfare and advances in medical care mean more amputees among veterans.

Wheelchair etiquette covers various points.  A person in a manual wheelchair may or may not want someone else pushing the chair.  It's their choice.  Someone with a new disability may not yet fully understand their options, abilities, and limitations; that can cause frustration.  In that case, try to be supportive. 

Antbots are robots that derive some features from those of ants.  This page includes a hopping antbot with six legs.  Here's a project aimed at creating artificial ants.  Collaborative robots solve navigation challenges by working together.  These should give you some idea of the style of robotics inspiring the antchair.  Also, many standard wheelchairs are junk and entertainment portrayals are often worse; here's a comparison of some dreadful examples.  You can see why folks might want to improve the gear.  Extant wheelchairs currently include some pretty far-out stuff.

PTSD can leave people with lingering issues after a horrific experience.  The newly acquired sensitivity to time and timers may be a symptom of that, or a more isolated and less serious quirk.

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Comments
From: technoshaman Date: September 9th, 2013 02:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
*chuckles* yeah, I could see a guy like that being so headstrong he couldn't pause to make a safety belt.

Modern ones are velcro, as seen in this Guiness ad that made the rounds last week. (I really love love love that ad; I won't spoil it but if you haven't seen it, go see.)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 9th, 2013 08:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

Aww...

>>*chuckles* yeah, I could see a guy like that being so headstrong he couldn't pause to make a safety belt.<<

Safety precautions are often an afterthought brought about by mishaps.

>> Modern ones are velcro, as seen in this Guiness ad that made the rounds last week. (I really love love love that ad; I won't spoil it but if you haven't seen it, go see.) <<

That is adorable. Thanks everso for sharing.
From: technoshaman Date: September 10th, 2013 04:33 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Aww...

Just returning the smiles... :)
siege From: siege Date: September 10th, 2013 12:28 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't know if it's the BEST wheelchair in the world, but this one is pretty awesome.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 10th, 2013 12:57 am (UTC) (Link)

O_O

Wow, that's ... kind of alarming. I could see Brenda wielding that against some fire-vulnerable monstrosity, but that's a scary image. And Dr. Doohickey would be all "Fire it up!" ... and not realize that it was dripping lit fuel on the ground or something.
thnidu From: thnidu Date: September 1st, 2015 10:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, that is WONDERFUL! Ta ever so.
chordatesrock From: chordatesrock Date: October 1st, 2013 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)
LOL, that's awesome.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 1st, 2013 04:58 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I'm glad you enjoyed this so much.
aldersprig From: aldersprig Date: December 22nd, 2013 01:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Wooosh. Well-done, well-handled.

I've been reading my way through polychrome; can't seem to stop.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 22nd, 2013 05:09 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> Wooosh. Well-done, well-handled. <<

I'm glad that worked for you. I figure if the countdown never actually triggers a disaster that catches a hero, it stops being a credible threat, and that's boring. Heroism is dangerous work; the chronicles should show that.

>> I've been reading my way through polychrome; can't seem to stop. <<

Yay! You can always request more of a favorite series, character, or motif in any open prompt call. Next up is "it seemed like a good idea at the time" on January 7, which is a great match for this series.
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