Special thanks to Ng_moonmoth for extensive assistance in developing the social and technological aspects of this setting as a whole, along with particular attention to the Alta Familia structure and the history of both V and Spalling. You can now read the demifiction "News Bulletin: The Massacre of Cascabel" and "The Conscience of the War" about the original incident. (These are direct links that skip past the cutline. Warnings are similar to those for this poem, plus a whole lot of additional social wrangling.)
WARNING: This poem features some extremely intense scenes due to the characters having survived appalling pasts. The current environment is safe and supportive, but the referred events definitely are not. The warnings are spoilers; highlight to read. Here come more details about why Spalling and V are kind of messed up. During military service, Spalling initiated a surgical strike that turned into a MASS casualty event, contributing to severe PTSD, survivor guilt, suicidal ideation, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, and nightmares. Growing up, V suffered extreme emotional neglect and psychological abuse from terrible parents. As already established, V also spent time on the street and has some social damage from that. Both V and Spalling are getting better, but this is just a really rough day for them. If these topics are touchy for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read.
"Too Much Energy"
Spalling looked at the latest message from Astin,
a list of more things that Babs and Estelle
could use to build shielding against space junk.
He jotted a reply, noting the location and prices
of a few items that he had in stock, and estimates
for what he thought he could get later.
He added some sharp advice that Sargasso Base
had ought to be thinking about shieldtech too,
never mind how good this Minotaur person thought
he was. You just couldn't pile that much junk
into one system and call it safe.
There was also a vidclip of people
squealing over the automed, their hands
flapping in excitement, too much energy
to contain. At least, Spalling thought it was
excitement. He still had trouble figuring out
exactly what they felt or meant sometimes.
Hesitantly he lifted his own hands
and tried to copy the motion, as if
that might help him divine its import.
"They are good people," V said quietly.
"Sure they're kind of clastic, but I get
the sense that they are also trustworthy,
even without the paperwork to prove it."
That was high praise coming
from anyone in the Alta Familia,
who based their economy
on trust as much as money.
"I agree," Spalling said as he dropped
his hands to his lap, embarrassed to be
caught doing something so silly.
"Come help me lug Estelle's order
to the Pending Sale storage bay?"
"I will be happy to assist," V said.
Together they moved the generator and
the pressor beam nozzle onto a cart,
pushing them toward the door.
Then a loose clamp slid off the pile
and hit the floor with a BANG.
Spalling dove behind the nearest crate,
reflex pulling the hideaway gun
from his booth before he landed.
A breath later he realized
what had actually happened
and straightened up again,
putting the gun away.
"Guess I'm still a bit jumpy," he said.
As a fire control officer, he hadn't seen
a lot of combat up close and personal,
but his position had gotten raided
a couple of times, and it didn't take
much getting shot at to teach a fellow
to kiss pavement quickly if he wanted to live.
"You know, I've seen that kind of reaction before,
on the street," V said. "If there's anything
you need me to do, or maybe not do ..."
"Try not to make loud, sudden noises,"
Spalling said dryly.
They finished hauling the equipment
into the Pending Sale bay and unloaded it.
Then the first shipment of supplements arrived,
so Spalling had to go sign for that and
fit the containers onto a pallet.
Over at the mealpack factory, his friend Clade
had been ecstatic about a deal to pick up
the excess nutrient supplements. They all came
in the same size of bulk order but the recipe
didn't call for exactly the same amounts,
so that certain things were always left over
when others ran short and required a reorder.
"I hope they can get their food production
up and running soon," said V. "It is
a frightening thing, not to know
the source of your next meal."
"Ain't that the truth," Spalling said.
There had been times, during the war,
when the Carinan forces hit the supply lines
so hard that his whole unit went on short rations.
That evening they opened up a tinned roast for supper,
which was more than enough for the two of them,
but Spalling figured they could use the rest
to make sandwiches for lunch.
When they went to bed, he gave thanks
for the sound of someone else breathing
in the bunkroom, which had been far too quiet
for comfort when he first mustered out
and took over the warehouse.
By the time he'd made it back to Trunnion,
the shooting had been over, and it had been
cheaper to muster him out here, where
Spalling's knowledge made him useful for
taking charge of the decommissioned facility
and the more ... interesting leftovers, keeping
this corner of the galaxy quieter as a result.
The Alta Familia who had been playing their own
little game of 'Storage Wars' were quietly warned
to leave this one alone, and willing to comply out of
respect for a veteran who had saved Trunnion's can
more than once during the war. So that's how
he came by Spalling's Super Surplus Shed.
It had just been so silent, so empty of anyone
except for himself, until V moved in uninvited.
Spalling hadn't known how to hire people;
he'd never worked in Personnel.
Now he found it easier to fall asleep,
counting V's breaths in the darkness
like so many invisible sheep.
That night Spalling had nightmares again.
In his dreams he found himself back at
his old fire control board, fingers curled
over the launch buttons as he made
the final calculations over Brakeworm Base.
The laser licked out of the long muzzle
and swept over the supply depot,
vaporizing the structure in an instant.
Then the ground shuddered under that fiery touch,
and parts of it slowly began to sink away as if
someone had dropped a graben bomb.
Spalling watched in horror as the whole planet
shook itself apart, and even from orbit
he imagined that he could smell the smoke
and hear the screams of the doomed.
He flinched away from the carnage --
and hit the floor, hard, rolling over
the cold ceramcrete as he tried
to kick his way free of confinement.
He'd fallen out of bed again.
Groaning, he pushed himself up
onto his hands and knees
as he shoved the sweaty blanket
away from his lower body.
"Spalling? Are you awake?"
V's voice sounded small
in the cavernous darkness
of the bunkroom.
"Yeah, I am now," Spalling said.
"You sounded ..." V paused,
perhaps searching for some word
that would not offend. "... restless."
"I'm certainly not getting any more
rest tonight," Spalling admitted.
His heart still hammered in his chest
and adrenaline ripped through his veins,
lurid and useless in this situation.
"Did I disturb your sleep?" V asked.
"No, it wasn't your fault," Spalling said.
"My head just decided to put on
a horror show tonight. Stupid, really.
Didn't even happen that way."
"Then perhaps it would help
to recite the truth," said V.
"Better to face the past as it
honestly was, than whatever
mirage guilt might make of it."
The hell of it was that he did
find some cold comfort in that,
because as bad as it was,
it could have been even worse;
but it had been an atrocity all the same,
and surely it was evil to soothe himself.
He deserved to suffer for what he had done.
"That's not exactly a decent thing
for me to do," Spalling replied.
"I do not mind listening," said V.
"I have heard horror stories before."
"Not like this," Spalling said.
It was unconscionable to imagine
laying such a burden on one so young.
"There is always the veterans' advisor,
if you prefer professional care," V said.
Spalling would rather have gone
for a spacewalk without a suit.
He realized that V would not give up
the pursuit, and would winkle out the truth,
if not now, then some time later.
Maybe V did need to know who the kid
had gotten mixed up with.
"I'm the Annihilator," he confessed,
for once not shying away from the nickname.
"I wondered what it had been," V said.
"I knew you survived some sort of horror."
"Yes, that's exactly the problem,"
Spalling said. "I survived.
I've no right to keep living
when so many good men and
women went to their deaths
in this damned war."
"All wars are damned," V observed.
"It is a thing that my grandfather says."
"Wise man," Spalling said.
The main reason that he had not
put an end to his own miserable existence
is that it seemed like a coward's way out
of a punishment he had richly earned.
"It might help to speak of the false dream,
if you will not revisit the real memory," V said.
Spalling sighed. "I dreamed that the laser
affected Cascabel like a graben bomb."
"No wonder you fell out of bed."
Spalling finally picked himself off the floor,
feeling as if every year of his life
had become a separate grain of sand
gritting between the balls of his thighbones
and the sockets of his pelvis.
He sat back on his bed, the cold mattress
creaking and groaning beneath him.
The sheets, too, were soaked with sweat.
"There is no shortage of bunks," V murmured.
Spalling moved to the next one in the row,
kept ready out of habit even though it was
unlikely that anyone would need it. This one
was just as cold, but at least it was dry.
"I used to work fire control," he heard himself say.
"When we swept into a system, it was my job
to take out select targets on the planetary surface."
"I have seen you type," V said. "You have great skill."
Spalling's hands still shook with the aftershocks
from his nightmare. "Nothing like what it was."
"Neither is my social station."
"That makes two of us," Spalling said.
"It was supposed to be a surgical strike
on a starport support building. Take that out,
and cripple Brakeworm Base with a minimum
of collateral damage. I had it all worked out so
the line of fire would stay clear of their field hospital
and the school for the army brats." He gave
a bitter laugh. "For all the good that did."
"How did it happen?" V said. "You dreamed of
a graben bomb, but that's not how you struck."
"I fired a laser beam into a warehouse that held --
was supposed to have held -- military supplies,"
said Spalling. "Only we didn't know they had
a replacement stardrive in there, and the laser
poured in too much energy, so that the SQE
shoved the drive into subspace. Since it
wasn't attached to a ship and shielded in
the usual way, it took the town with it."
"I heard rumors about the Massacre of Cascabel,
and snippets of news reports, but the war news
has never been what I would call trustworthy," V said.
"The truth is a good treatment for many ills."
It helped, in an odd way, to have someone listen
and respond with such ordinary acknowledgements,
as if Spalling had confessed to no more than shooting
a few people, as any soldier or spacer-at-arms might do.
"Whole place turned into a ball of plasma about
sixty miles wide," Spalling explained. "The west side
of Pivot Sound got leveled, downtown Windage was
pretty well cooked too, with extensive damage throughout
the suburbs. Then there were fires and structural damage
all the way down to Astragal and up to Fillet Ridge.
The entire west coast power grid crashed, which
delayed rescue efforts." His knuckles turned white
where his hands clenched each other for stability.
"Death toll was estimated right at a million."
The planet had not been broken apart,
but its usefulness had surely been destroyed.
"It has been said that the incident encouraged
the Galactic Arms to apply themselves more seriously
to making peace, so that it would not happen again," V said.
"I've heard that too," Spalling said. "Doesn't make me
stop wishing that it didn't happen in the first place."
"My father once said that he wished I had
never been born," V said. "My mother
said it every other Sunday over brunch."
That was more detail than the clam-tight teen
had shared in weeks of constant companionship.
Even though it had been freely offered,
Spalling felt like an eavesdropper.
"Gods of the broad black, no child
should ever have to listen to that!" he said.
"Someone needs to bust your parents in the face."
"I would squander a small fortune to see that."
"You know, it's not like you got nothing out of
walking away from your family," Spalling dared
to say. "You found something better. Astin
would stick up for you, I'm sure of it. You
have fans out in the Lacuna, too, who
appreciate your trading tips."
"It is always good to have allies," said V.
"Yeah, I miss the men in my unit," Spalling said.
"I've spent so much time in the service, it feels
strange to be on the outside now, with
nobody's annoying noises to listen to
except for the ones I make myself.
You're quiet as a cockroach
most of the time."
With a soft rustle, V climbed out of the bunk
and hauled the mattress over beside Spalling.
"Sometimes I find it difficult to sleep in a bunk
after so much time on the street," V said.
"It does not do to draw too much attention outside."
And then the bunk frame rattled as V kicked it,
one foot knocking rhythmically against the metal leg.
"Cut that out before I come down there
and shove you in a can!" Spalling snapped
out of sheer instinct, and oh, it felt so good
and normal that it made him laugh.
"Of course, sir," said V. "I would not
wish to keep you awake."
The teen lay so close that Spalling
could feel V's breath in a warm puff
against the hand that hung out
over the edge of the bunk.
It was not the same as having
a whole unit of men to share
his bunkroom with, but it was better
than wasting too much energy dwelling
in the past, always trying to find people
to blame and excuses to make for
the mess that was his life.
Maybe that was another reason why
he liked the people of the Lacuna so much --
they too had survived terrible losses and
appalling victories that left them to make
their own way in the middle of nowhere.
Spalling shifted on the mattress,
his arm reaching a little farther
into the emptiness.
V rolled over, muttering
some unintelligible complaint,
and the curve of a shoulder came
to rest under the dangling fingertips.
It was enough for them both to hold onto.
* * *
"People spend too much time finding other people to blame, too much energy finding excuses for not being what they are capable of being, and not enough energy putting themselves on the line, growing out of the past, and getting on with their lives."
-- J. Michael Straczynski
Hand flapping among neurovariant people can express happy excitement or unhappy stress. It's not always easy to distinguish, especially for outsiders. Spalling shows unusual empathy in trying to mimic that to understand it better -- something that neurotypical people need to do in Lacuna culture, just as neurovariant people are expected to refrain from hand flapping in nuerotypical-dominated cultures.
Clastic is slang for eclectic or eccentric, kind of like "flaky." It comes from geological vocabulary, referring to a type of sedimentary rock which is made from fragments of pre-existing rocks.
Identifying trustworthy people can prove challenging, especially for survivors of abuse or betrayal. Know who to trust.
A pressor beam is a force beam that pushes, instead of pulling like a tractor beam. Pressors are popular for defensive applications.
PTSD can follow any psychological trauma, but is especially common in veterans. Triggers and hypervigilance rank among the symptoms. In this case, Spalling is okay most of the time, but he's never more than a heartbeat away from high alert and his reflexes are still on hair-trigger response to things like loud noises. It's a little different from folks who feel wired all the time and can't relax at all. There are tips for helping someone with PTSD, coping with triggers, and soothing hypervigilance. V knows some of this stuff from living on the street, as homelessness can cause or exacerbate PTSD.
Food security is a fundamental concern for all societies, as food insecurity makes survival precarious and thus undermines social stability. Improving food security requires complex attention to multiple factors. In order to survive, the Lacuna must attain food security, preferably by producing their own supplies although this may be augmented with stable imports.
Sleep disruptions are common in PTSD, often complicated by other factors for returning soldiers, such as social withdrawal. This is particularly true in transitioning from barracks to private bedrooms. There are tips on how to get used to sleeping alone. However, if nocturnal companionship is available, it often works better.
Nightmares are another common challenge with PTSD. They may be treated with talk therapy, image replacement therapy, or other methods. Here Spalling benefits from reaffirming what actually happened, and how that differed from the nightmare, as well as reconnecting with another person. The question of whether to interrupt someone's nightmare depends on severity: let them sleep through minor muttering or tossing, but wake them up for screaming or thrashing that indicate major distress. There are even guide dogs trained for this purpose. Know how to comfort someone after a nightmare and how to stop having nightmares.
Survivor guilt is a devastating response to traumatic events, especially common in veterans. What bothers Spalling the most is that he was trying to follow the rules of engagement, but wound up obliterating a lot of civilians anyway. There are ways to deal with survivor guilt.
Suicidal ideation often accompanies PTSD. While Spalling is not actively suicidal, neither is "living as punishment" a healthy perspective. Understand how to cope with suicidal thoughts or help someone who feels suicidal.
Cascabel, like many of the other place names in this poem, comes from cannon vocabulary. Imagine some soldiers needing to name a bunch of places in a hurry: one simple solution is to grab a file and just start assigning words at random out of it.
A graben bomb shoves the target into subspace in an uncontrolled manner. When aimed at a planet, the results can be catastrophic, and can even shatter the planet into pieces. The term comes from earthquake vocabulary, in which a graben is a section of ground that slips downward.
SQE (pronounced "squee") stands for "subspace quantum energy," required to shift from normal space to subspace. If not carefully controlled, it can be very dangerous.
A weapon of mass destruction tends to cause a mass-casualty incident. The profound social impact of this may require trauma-informed interventions. However, the horrific effects can also scare some sense into people, leading to treaties that restrict or ban such weapons.
In estimating the effects of an orbital laser strike activating an unsecured stardrive, we looked at the effects of nuclear weapons and their radial zones. For comparison, the Hiroshima bomb had a ground zero radius of about one mile, killed 60,000-80,000 people instantly, and racked up a final kill around 135,000. Population density of cities can vary greatly. We figured that the trend of cramming people together would probably continue, but has upper limits, and a military base would not be at the maximum. So it could have been a whole lot worse.
Of the men who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Charles Sweeney and Paul Tibbets maintained that they felt no guilt for their actions, while Claude Eatherly later developed considerable problems because of his contributions. Since Spalling is a decent fellow, he feels deep remorse even though he followed the guidelines and the massive death toll was neither intended nor really foreseeable.
Emotional child abuse includes everything from neglecting a child's relational needs to the classic "I wish you were never born." This makes it difficult for V to relate to other adults. Understand how to deal with abusive parents.