Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "As We Grasp Them"

This poem is spillover from the May 5, 2015 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by [personal profile] redsixwing and[personal profile] stardreamer. It also fills the "forced to rely on enemy / rival" square in my 11-25-14 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the Antimatter & Stalwart Stan thread of the Polychrome Heroics series, this time featuring Shiv.

WARNING: This poem contains intense material which some readers may find disturbing. Highlight for more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features maladaptive thought patterns, petty rulebreaking, racist and other vulgar language, gossip, smoking, a nanotech terror weapon, flashbacks, traumatic amputation, an understandable but misguided violent response from the guards, graphic description of injuries and treatment, extreme discomfort with vulnerability, nonstandard response to pain, PTSD and acute stress reaction, and other challenges. Various people offer all kinds of support, Shiv's receptivity is patchy at best, and he is slowly improving. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether you want to read this right now.

"As We Grasp Them"

Shiv walked to the cafeteria,
taking satisfaction in that simple act.

It took a ridiculous amount of work --
he'd let Wacker make a training schedule,
and he had endured some truly humiliating
conversations with Ambrose -- but now he
could take all of his meals in the cafeteria if he
wanted to, and even join the general population again.

Most of the time, Shiv didn't want to, but it was
the principle of the thing. Just having
the choice mattered to him.

Ragno expected a shipment of goods from
outside the penitentiary today, which meant
that Shiv could get a few scoots from him
and enjoy a nice smoke in a quiet corner.
He was really looking forward to that.

Shiv wound up in line behind two black dudes
going on and on about their poetry class,
something weird with niggers and rivers.

Who the hell reads poetry, anyway?
No, who the hell reads poetry IN PRISON?

he thought, shaking his head.

The lunch crew dished out trays of
barbecued ribs and applesauce and
some mess of leaves that was supposed
to be organic salad, but to Shiv it just looked like
what you scraped out of a lawnmower with a stick.

He kept to the edges of the room, with his
back to the wall, waiting for Ragno
to come and find him.

Shiv didn't seek out attention the way
some people did, although he loved
to trade juicy gossip with anyone
who had something to offer him.

He swapped a few tidbits of news --
the supply truck had indeed arrived, so that
was a good thing -- and wrestled with the ribs
before giving up and using his talent
to shave the meat off the bones.

Ragno slipped into the seat
beside him and silently nudged
a couple of scoots into Shiv's hand.

Shiv handed over the quarter that
he had defaced with Ragno's profile;
he was no artist, but it had turned out
surprisingly well all the same.

They ate, they talked -- well,
Shiv talked while Ragno gave him
little sidelong glances that might have been
disapproving or just disbelieving.

What the fuck ever.

They weren't friends, really,
sometimes rivals, sometimes allies,
but Ragno was a reliable supplier and so
Shiv put up with his quirks.

After they finished eating,
the two of them disappeared into
the little niche where a water cooler made
a blind spot for the security cameras.

Ragno produced a single match
with which he lit their scoots.

Shiv smoked both of his in a few eager puffs,
relishing the way the nicotine sharpened
his senses for a few precious minutes.
Tobacco made life almost bearable, and
he missed it when he couldn't get any.

When they stepped back into view,
someone bumped into them --

and Ragno shrieked.

Shiv spun to see what was wrong,
and spied the wicked glint of metal
chaining its way over Ragno's hand.

Oh god not again I can't watch this again!

Shiv stretched out an arm to gather
all the silverware needed to make a knife
as large as his talent could handle,
with the heft of a good machete.

Then he brought it down like a guillotine
just below Ragno's left elbow.

The contaminated hand fell away.

I hope I cut high enough, Shiv thought
as he whipped off Ragno's belt.
Oh please, just let this work.

Cinched around the man's arm,
the belt slowed the bleeding, but
wouldn't pull tight enough to stop it.

That's when the first of the guards
barreled into him, slamming Shiv down
so hard that his face skidded across
the rough concrete of the floor.

"It's chayne," he chanted, over and over,
hoping that someone would hear and believe.
"Don't touch the hand. It's chayne.
Don't let anyone touch it."

What if they don't listen
what if it spreads
what if I got any on me
no I can't have or
I'd feel it already ...

The guards shouted at him
to shut up, to stop moving,
but Shiv wasn't moving and
he didn't dare shut up, not now.

Someone had taken his machete out of range.

Shiv was too shaken to make another one,
dazed from the fall and drowning in memories.

An assassin flicking a container toward the boss,
one of the young lookouts darting in front of it,
the boy screaming like a damned soul,
his sister reaching for him and the strands
of metal licking from his skin to hers,
until nothing was left but what looked like
a tangle of silver bracelets dropped into hamburger ...

"It's chayne," said Shiv. "Don't touch it."

A heavy knee ground painfully into
his waist, and a fist crashed into his face.
All Shiv could see was someone's crotch,
belt buckle glinting above him.

By then, though, the other prisoners
had taken up the chant.

Shiv just hoped it had been in time.
He couldn't hear anyone screaming --
even Ragno had subsided to low moans --
so maybe the danger had passed.

Fuckers stole my knife, he thought.

Shiv hated it when people got away with
a blade he had made, without paying for it.
Anything touched by a superpower was valuable.
Someone would probably sell it to a collector and
make a mint, not that Shiv would see a dime of it.
He had made shanks for some of the other inmates
to earn himself a stake in the prison economy,
but he sure didn't give it out for free.

The warden's shrill whistle cut through the noise.

Shiv could hear the rumble of orders,
and worried tones from the medics as they
scooped Ragno onto a stretcher, but he
couldn't make out the words through
the press of bodies above him.

Suddenly the weight slackened as
the guards let go of him, and Shiv heard
someone say, "Get your fucking knee
off of his back before I break it."

Good old Dr. Bloch.
He doesn't approve of anyone
roughing up his patients.

Cool fingers touched the side of Shiv's throat
and the doctor asked, "Can you breathe all right?"

"Yeah," said Shiv.

"How about moving your hands and feet?"
said Dr. Bloch, and Shiv wiggled them all.

Fingers ruffled through his hair and then
worked down his back. When they
reached his waist, Shiv yelped.

Fuck, that hurts. Fuck fuck fuck,
he thought. Should've stabbed that guard.

"Possibly a bruised kidney," said Dr. Bloch.
"I'll need to run some scans when we get you
down to the infirmary. Does anything
hurt like it might be broken?"

Shiv knew exactly what broken bones
felt like, and could feel them with
his talent as well as his nerves.
"No breaks ... maybe a cracked rib
or two, definitely bruised though."

"I'm not finding any signs of spinal injury
or other major trauma, so I need to roll you
up on your side to check your front," said Dr. Bloch.

The motion peeled Shiv's cheek away from the concrete,
tearing loose scabs that had just started to form,
and a whimper sneaked out before he could
clench his teeth to muffle the sound.

"Jesus Christ," the doctor muttered.
"Here, let me get some gauze on that
before you pick up any more grit."

Shiv lay still and allowed Dr. Bloch to stuff
wads of gauze under his left cheek.
He'd had plenty of worse beatings,
but it still hurt to move.

From this angle he could see that
one guard had popped a plastic tub
over the contaminated hand and
was now on the phone to SPAZMAT.

Shiv tried to ignore the milling crowd
as guards cleared the room of inmates,
and concentrated instead on the bits
of metal and glass moving around.

More poking and prodding went
over his chest and down his arms,
making him flinch at the sore spots.

"You've got a few scrapes here too,
on your hands and forearms, but
these look minor," said Dr. Bloch.

Shiv hadn't had time to break his fall
with anything except his face.

"Okay, we're loading you onto
the stretcher now," Dr. Bloch warned.

They managed to lift Shiv onto it
and get him down to the infirmary
without jostling his injuries, which was ...
a lot less unpleasant than it would have been
to stagger there under his own power, although
he could have done it if he'd had to.

Shiv was really grateful that even
the penitentiary hospital, which wasn't
exactly the cutting edge of anywhere,
had equipment good enough to run scans
without requiring him to move more than a little.

"No serious internal bleeding, nothing that
needs surgery, nothing I can't care for here,"
Dr. Bloch declared after reading the reports,
then rattled off a few predictions and warnings
based on what he saw that Shiv mostly tuned out.
"Some of the results will take longer to process,
but I can get started on the rest of your injuries."

What Shiv really wanted, now that he knew
he wasn't dying or otherwise in danger,
was to hole up in his room for a while,
but that sure wasn't happening.

"First let's get some ice on those bruises
before they get any bigger," said Dr. Bloch.
He reached into a freezer and came back
with a whole handful of stuff. "This is
a saddle wrap; it goes over your kidneys.
This long one is a shoulder wrap; put it
wherever your back hurts the worst.
Put the small one on the side of
your face that isn't scraped."

Oh. Ice. Ice is good, Shiv thought.
Dr. Bloch helped him juggle the cold packs
into place so they covered the bruises.

The doctor's fingers were firm yet gentle on his chin
as the man measured the size of his free hand
against the size of the scrape on Shiv's cheek.

"A bad abrasion is like a burn," Dr. Bloch explained.
"You've lost about one percent of your skin here.
Have you ever had road rash before?"

"Yeah," Shiv admitted.

He used to like motorbikes, like feeling
the wind in his hair, until he wiped out on
a dirt road. Apparently not even his
above-average ability to recover from
injuries could compensate for getting gravel
under his skin, and one knee had gotten infected.
Shiv had finally given up and gone to the clinic,
where they had to dig out the tiny rock with
a scalpel. He still had the scar from that.

"Well, this is a lot like that, only worse because
it's on your face," said Dr. Bloch. "You need
strong antibiotics and fluid replacement,
so I'm starting an IV. Hold still; this will pinch."

Shiv could feel sharp metal moving through the air,
his talent alert as always to potential weapons,
anything he could control or use to his advantage.
He could have stopped it if he wanted to,
but he just didn't want to.

For him, the bite of the needle came as a relief.
It was a small point of familiarity piercing
through the haze: controlled pain, safe pain.
It let off some of the pressure building inside him,
loosened the knot of tension between
his shoulderblades. Shiv sighed.

"Hm," the doctor said, eyeing Shiv
as he reached for the bandage tape.

That's when it all went horribly wrong
inside Shiv's head, just the way that
anything good always went wrong somehow.

Dr. Bloch's hand was big enough
to wrap around Shiv's whole wrist and
it didn't matter that he was trying to help, only
that Shiv could feel fingers closing around him
and holding him down as the tape stretched
over more and more of his skin.

Not good not good not good!

"Don't," Shiv gasped, the word squeaking out
before he could catch it to hold it back.

"Don't what?" asked Dr. Bloch, his hand
already opening. "Don't hold onto your wrist?
Don't put the tape on? If you're allergic to
the adhesive, I've got some webbing instead."

Shiv scrabbled to think past the skittering chaos
in his head, the deep ache in his back and
the blazing pain across his face.

Anything he said could be turned against him,
but if he didn't say something then Dr. Bloch would
just go right back to what he was doing. Shiv
didn't mind handcuffs because he could control them,
peel the metal apart with his power and turn it into knives.
The tape was too soft, and the hand -- was a hand,
it was never good when someone wanted to pin him.

"Don't go all the way around," Shiv muttered.

"Okay," the doctor said, and finished the job
with short little pieces that were less aggravating.
"Here, put this towel over your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Leave the scraped side of your face clear."

Shiv glared at him. "Why?"

"Because I need to clean the abrasion, and
that tends to be very unpleasant. The best way
to address that is with anaesthetic spray, which you
do not want to get anywhere else," Dr. Bloch explained.

"Fine," Shiv said, grabbing the offered towel.

He hated not being able to see,
even just for a minute. It was
bad enough that everything was
blurry now, and his aim was off,
without having it all blotted out at once.

Because then Shiv could see what happened
the last time someone had gotten chayned up,
and there was not enough brain bleach
in the world to erase that image.

Frigid mist washed over his face,
then thickened into annoying trickles --

and then nothing.

The pain went away like chalk
washed off a board by a wet rag.

That definitely didn't suck.

Well, except for the part where
Shiv still couldn't see and
the inside of his head was
a fucking horror show.

Dr. Bloch touched his wrist again,
his fingers feeling warmer now. "Hm.
Your pulse is up. Is something bothering you
that I could fix?" he said, lifting the towel away.

Shiv blinked in the sudden light,
thinking that what he really needed was
never to see someone chayned to death again.

He didn't realize that he had spoken aloud.

The doctor's head came up.
"You've seen it before?" he said quietly.
"I mean, seen it in person, not just from description?"

"Yeah," Shiv said through his teeth.

"Can't say I blame you then," said Dr. Bloch.
His voice lowered even further. "When I was
in college, I went on tour with a relief group in Africa,
supposed to be good for my résumé." He grimaced.
"There was this mad scientist. So. I wound up
seeing a lot of things I wish I hadn't."

"Nobody likes mad scientists," Shiv said.

"Quite true," said Dr. Bloch, and
handed him a tablet computer. "Here,
play a few rounds of CarGo. It'll help
take your mind off what I'm doing."

So Shiv played video games,
while the doctor picked little bits of floor
out of his face and hummed under his breath
as his hands did their slow, thorough work.
The forearm scrapes got tended too,
but they weren't nearly as bad.

"How much pain are you in?"
Dr. Bloch asked out of the blue.

Shiv was almost caught off-balance
enough to answer him outright, but
deflected it. "The guards knocked me
into the floor and punched my face,
so what do you think, genius?"

"Well, it's not my opinion that matters,"
Dr. Bloch said smoothly. He reached over
and saved Shiv's game, then did something
that brought up a whole different menu.
"Here are your choices for pain control.
You can use the text helper, or just
ask me if you have any questions."

That was new.
Usually when Shiv got hurt --
and couldn't get away fast enough --
people either did whatever they wanted to him
or else drove him nuts asking permission
until he wanted to stab them.

Or actually did stab them.
He'd gotten fired twice, and
beaten bloody once, for
violating medical neutrality.

Curious in spite of himself,
Shiv poked at the menu.
What started as a list of drugs
in order of their strength
folded out into entries about
their ups and downs and interactions.

He tried the FAQ list, raising his eyebrows
at the style of the questions, which sounded
like they'd been taken directly from
conversations with inmates.

What if I guess too low,
and it doesn't help enough?

led to a chart of which drugs
you could simply take more of,
and whether you could switch to
a different drug or had to let
the first one wear off first.

What if I guess too high,
and get confused or drowsy?

led to a discussion of drugs
with fewer side effects and
a chart mapping their uses
for different injuries.

This was ... surprisingly useful.

"Why give me a computer program
when you're standing right here?"
Shiv wondered aloud.

"Because in this facility, a majority
of my patients don't like talking about
their pain with a doctor, whether they're
inmates or guards," came the reply
as Dr. Bloch dabbed something smelly
over Shiv's skin. "Many of them do better
with a text interface, hence the program."

"Guess I can't argue with that one,"
Shiv said as he flicked to another page.

What if I don't want drugs? it said.

"There are other options besides drugs?"
Shiv said, tilting his head.

Dr. Bloch glanced over at the tablet and
said, "Oh yes, pain control is a big field.
Different things work for different complaints,
but also for different people. Some drugs
that work fine for naries don't for soups,
and blue chamomile works better
for soups than it does for naries.
Go ahead and take a peek."

Shiv opened the tab, which led to
a whole list of other methods ranging
from the obvious (cold and hot packs)
to the ridiculous (meditation) and then
the bits of mental imagery that went
from things he already did to things that
sounded pretty much like superpowers.

There were even some things that were
completely new to him -- he hadn't known
that people got massage to manage pain
instead of to get their rocks off or for that
stupid Healthy Touch program the prison had.

That could be really handy to know
when he was out of prison and
getting the shit kicked out of him.

"This interests you?" asked Dr. Bloch,
looking over his shoulder.

Shiv shrugged. "Maybe."

"Look here, there's a whole little diagnostic tree
usable at layperson level," the doctor said,
tabbing through several screens to demonstrate.
"How much first aid have you studied?"

"I'm no good in school," Shiv said.

"Well, luckily this isn't a school,"
Dr. Bloch said dryly, startling Shiv
into a laugh. "The servers do have
some information about first aid if you
want it, though, and I can let you
keep a copy of that drug guide
to read on your own tablet."

Shiv glanced at him.
Sometimes people offered
you things just so they could
take it all away again, or manipulated
you into leaning on them and then
royally screwed you over.

The last time Shiv had let his guard down,
Turtledove had drugged him with something
that left him seeing spots for a week (which
she swore she hadn't known would happen,
not that he believed her) so he put a knife
through the back of her hand and pinned it
to the table. Then Boss Batir had flogged him
until he couldn't walk and run him out of Lincoln
with nothing but the clothes on his back.

Yeah, let's not go there again,
Shiv thought bitterly.

Now here was Dr. Bloch
making pretty little offers that
probably wouldn't hold up either.

Shiv could test that, though.

"This one," he said, picking
a drug in the middle of the range,
"and yeah, a copy of the guide."

"I'll be right back," said Dr. Bloch.

Shiv could hear him rattling around
in the infirmary, and soon he returned
with two blue pills in a paper cup,
a bottle of water, and a bottle of soda.

"Here's something else that plays well
with the pills you picked," the doctor said,
waggling the soda. "It's passionfruit and
passionflower, which most people find
soothing, plus it helps other drugs
work better, especially for soups."

Shiv squinted at the bottle.
He could just make out the name,
Airmid's Brew, with the big ℞, and
what he thought was a bunghole
that turned out to be a purple flower.

He hadn't even known that soda
came in prescription strength.

"It wasn't on the menu," Shiv said warily.

The doctor's mouth turned up at one corner.
"Well, I don't offer it to everyone," he said.
"Consider this a token of appreciation for
not trying to stab me." Then he shrugged.
"Or you can take the water instead, but
then those particular pills will leave you
tasting chalk for about ten minutes."

Huh. Maybe there's some point to
that medical neutrality crap after all

Shiv took the soda, cracked it open, and
gave it a cautious sniff. It smelled fruity.
He knocked back the pills and chased them
with plenty of soda. The taste was just
odd enough to keep it from being perfect,
with a bitter undertone, but the fruit part,
that was surprisingly good.

"Better than the dishwater they serve
in the cafeteria," Shiv said.

"I'm glad to hear it," said Dr. Bloch.
"Now, I've covered the abrasions with
a short-term liquid skin, but they still
need to be cleaned and re-dressed
three times a day. Would you rather
do that yourself, or shall I take care of it?"

Shiv felt torn. On the one hand,
he wanted to tell Dr. Bloch to fuck off.
On the other ... this was his face.
He really didn't want scars there.

"It's not exactly the kind of thing that
I'm good at," Shiv admitted, looking away.

"All right then, I'll handle it," Dr. Bloch said.
"I'll program it into your schedule, along with
the beeper to remind you when to take
the cold packs off and on." He reached over
to lift the one on Shiv's right cheek. "Sorry that
you're still going to be black and blue here."

"Guess the guards don't like me," Shiv said.
He was starting to drift a little, and while
he could still feel the ache in his back,
he didn't really care about it anymore.

"The part you'll probably hate is that
you need to stay in bed for a while,"
said Dr. Bloch. "That means no gym,
no eating in the cafeteria, and no showering,
until I clear you," Dr. Bloch continued. "Since
this is a medical necessity and not a penalty,
you may choose other privileges instead."

Shiv pushed down his desire for the music channel.
"I don't need anything," he said curtly.

"The bruising on your kidney isn't as bad
as it could be, but it's nothing to fool around with,"
said Dr. Bloch. "The more rest you get, the faster
you'll heal, so consider that before you decide whether
to jump up just to show me you don't like rules."

Shiv was pretty sure that he'd walked
around with his kidneys bruised a lot worse
than this, and it hadn't killed him, it had
just hurt like fuck. He didn't have
the energy to care about that either.

"Whatever," he said, and finished
the last of the funny-flavored soda.

"There's nothing more I can do for you here,
so I'll send you back to your room," said Dr. Bloch
as he unhooked the various things that he had
stuck on or in Shiv. "I think that you'll be
more comfortable there, which means
that everyone will be safer."

Shiv nodded, and then shivered.
When did it get so cold in here?

Dr. Bloch pressed a hand to his skin
and said, "Injury can make people feel cold.
I'll get you something to wrap up in."

The next thing Shiv knew, he was
covered in deep blue Microfyne.
The blanket fluffed itself as if
trying to snuggle with him,
warm and fuzzy and ...

Shiv tried to push it off,
but wound up petting it instead.

Hooked, he thought. I am so fucking screwed.

Dr. Bloch called a team to carry Shiv
back to his own room, which was
humiliating, but less awful than
being trapped in the infirmary.

Just when Shiv thought that he might
get a moment's peace, Ambrose showed up
with his hands clasped neatly behind him.

"The fuck you want?" Shiv said,
too lazy even to flip him off properly.

"I wanted to check on you after
what happened," Ambrose said.
"How are you doing?"

"Doc says I'll probably be pissing pink for
a few days, and my face is scuffed
all to hell," Shiv said.

"I'm sorry to hear that," said Ambrose.

Shiv shrugged. "I've had worse."

"I'm sorry about that too."

"For all the good that does me," Shiv said.

Ambrose fell silent.

To Shiv, it felt like the not-quite-hum
of dead air when a radio was on
but not broadcasting. The fine hairs
between his shoulderblades rose up.

"You're doing that creepy silent stalker
thing again, Rosie," said Shiv.

Ambrose grimaced. He hated the nickname
that Shiv had come up with, so of course Shiv
used it at every opportunity now. Besides, it fit him.
Ambrose always looked at the world through
rose-colored glasses, even in here.

"You're not making it easy for me
to find a safe topic," the chaplain said.

Shiv just smirked at him.

"I also wanted to say that I'm sorry
about the Jump Up Johnny," Ambrose added.

"Rosie, it wasn't like that," Shiv said.

Ambrose looked at him, suddenly
more serious than Shiv had ever seen.
"It is unquestionable that you saved Ragno's life,
and that you were the only person in the cafeteria
who could have done so," said Ambrose. "That
is not the kind of thing for which someone
should be tackled and beaten."

"They were more focused on the part
where I chopped a guy's arm off," Shiv said,
shaking his head. "Credible threat."

"Have you stopped to consider that your
actions will probably get your sentence
reduced to time served?" Ambrose said.
"Saving a life like that usually clears any
debt to society up to or including another life."

Shiv hadn't thought about it.

"You must be glad to see the back of me."

"Not so much, no," Ambrose said with a frown.

"Now what the fuck is wrong?"
Shiv said, rolling his eyes.

"You've made some good progress here,"
the chaplain said. "I expected that we'd
have more time to keep working on that.
If you go back out into the community ...
well, I worry, is all. You know me."

Not really, you fluff-headed loon.

"I just wanted to encourage you
to reach for the opportunities you have,"
said Ambrose. "If you need me after
you leave, then you can find me through
Community Support on most weekends."

Because of course working with cons
all week isn't enough for you.

"Opportunities are like knives," Shiv said.
"They tumble past as we grasp them, and
if we catch them the wrong way, they cut us."

"Maybe so," Ambrose said. "Anyway,
some of us thought you deserved better."
For the first time he brought his hands
out from behind his back, holding
what looked like a rolled tube.

"Great, if I need to hit someone
on the nose," Shiv snarked.

Ambrose simply unrolled the thing
to show a red-gold-blue target
made of some fuzzy fabric,
with a set of balls clinging to it.

A target.

Shiv tried to sit up, only to have
his back twinge a warning. "Gimme."

Smiling, Ambrose laid the gift in his lap.

Shiv ran his hands over it, hefting the balls.
They weren't striped with vrip strips, but
instead felt rough all over. They seemed
oddly well balanced for toys. Usually balls
like this wouldn't fly worth a crap because
the shells were lopsided, but these felt great.

"No way you got something this fancy
at the prison commissary," he said.

"There's a Sport FX not far from here,"
Ambrose said. "One of the guards
went down there after he realized
what really happened in the cafeteria."

Shiv looked at the target set with
even more interest. Sport FX carried
cutting-edge and gizmotronic games and
sporting equipment. Mostly that meant
things that couldn't be used in competition
because they were too effective, but
were a lot of fun to play with at home.

This really is a sweet little game.

He wasn't the kind of man who
said thank you to anyone, but maybe
if he did what they expected of him,
they might give him more swag later.

"Thanks," Shiv muttered.

Ambrose smoothed the board
against the wall. "See, you can
slide it around if you want to move it,
or peel it off and put it somewhere else."

"I can't really get out of bed to retrieve
the balls," Shiv said. Well, he could,
and he hungered for anything that
would let him practice his aim, but
moving would slow down his recovery
and he definitely couldn't afford that.

"Gosh, it's a pity that you're stuck
all alone in your room with no friends
to help you while you're down,"
the chaplain teased.

Shiv threw a ball at Ambrose.
It stuck on his shirt over his heart.

"I don't have any friends, Rosie," said Shiv.

Ambrose sighed. "Then what about
enemies who feel like they owe you a favor?"

That made Shiv wonder whether Ragno's contacts
would be pleased that he'd saved the man's life
or pissed that he'd cut off an arm to do it.

"No shortage of enemies," Shiv admitted.

Ambrose peeled the target off of
the wall and did something to the rim
of the board that made it turn rigid,
holding it up in front of himself.
"Then hit me with your best shot."

The problem with taking drugs
was that they made Shiv too mellow
to feel like continuing an argument for long.

Besides, it was a target.

He peered at the fuzzy lines,
trying to make them come clearer,
then flicked the balls at the center.

Ambrose had to hand them back
several times, but in the end,

Shiv hit the bullseye.

* * *


Dr. Niles Bloch -- He has fair skin, brown eyes, and short dark hair starting to turn silver. He is tall and sturdy, with a notable presence. His hands possess fine manual dexterity, though, allowing him to do very delicate tasks. His roommate during premed was studying to be an herbalist; they've kept in touch, and Dr. Bloch has developed excellent connections in alternative medicine. Mostly he uses things like prescription herbal sodas or suckers as bribes to entice wary patients. It works. It also makes him popular as well as effective.
Dr. Bloch works at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. He enjoys exploring the boundaries of medicine, looking for new information or creative ways to use current resources. One of his recent projects involves trying to figure out who is likely to develop Super-Immunity from using the Aegis vaccine base. He's comfortable working with prison inmates, even supervillains, and balances gentleness with firmness. However, his observational acuity makes it difficult for him to get close to people, because he knows so much about them, and everyone has dark parts.
Qualities: Master (+6) Doctor, Master (+6) Observant, Expert (+4) Dexterity, Expert (+4) Contacts in Alternative Medicine, Expert (+4) Influencing People, Good (+2) Fearless, Good (+2) Innovative Medicine, Good (+2) Gentle, Good (+2) Listener, Good (+2) Soup Friends, Good (+2) Stern, Good (+2) Video Gamer
Poor (-2) Things He Can't Unsee

Turtledove (Cai Grabowski) -- She has fair skin, green eyes, and straight brown hair to her shoulders. She is tall and slim. She is left-handed. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. Having spent her childhood in the foster care system, Cai has turned her parentification into an asset. She excels at taking care of people, so long as their needs are ordinary. She still keeps in touch with the system and especially her last set of foster parents, who helped her get through nursing school.
Turtledove works as a street nurse, often helping criminals and supervillains. She isn't very good at compensating for the differences that superpowers can make in someone's metabolism, which can cause weird effects. But it's not like most of the people she treats have better options. One of those mishaps left Shiv seeing spots for a week, which pissed him off enough to stab her. She has a scar through the back of her right hand from that.
Origin: Cai grew up in the foster care system. There wasn't always enough time or money to take care of everyone, so she learned what to do that would keep people from getting worse. It began with first aid, and then late in puberty, her Healing gift emerged.
Uniform: Street clothes. She carries a moderately good first aid kit in a backpack that says "Street Nurse."
Qualities: Expert (+4) First Aid, Good (+2) Graceful, Good (+2) Optimistic, Good (+2) Gaining Trust
Poor (-2) Soup Care
Powers: Average (0) Healing
Motivation: To keep problems from getting worse.

Boss Batir (Ulises Landron) -- He has tinted skin, brown eyes, and brown hair buzzed short. A scar cuts through the hairline on the right side of his face. His heritage is Hispanic and American. He supervises a lucrative drugrunning business in Lincoln, Nebraska. He tends to exert control through harsh punishments.
Origin: When Ulises was a boy, his father used to beat him a lot. One day the man threw Ulises against the wall and cracked his skull. Nobody realized it at the time, but that caused the boy to develop superpowers. The next time his father lashed out, Ulises struck back and killed him without really meaning to. But not exactly NOT meaning to either.
Uniform: Street clothes. He favors blue-collar work clothes in dark colors.
Qualities: Master (+6) Gangster, Expert (+4) Tough, Good (+2) Disciplinarian
Poor (-2) Violent Temper
Powers: Expert (+4) Control Force
Motivation: To be in control.

* * *

"Mishaps are like knives, that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle."
-- James Russell Lowell

Scoot -- a cigarette cut down to, or rolled at, a very short length such as one inch so that it can be smoked very quickly, before anyone can take it away.

Contraband items make up a vital part of the prison economy. It is difficult or impossible to shut down the human impulse to trade resources, and so Terramagne-American policy aims to quash the more dangerous items while allowing a little discreet leeway with nondangerous ones as a psychological safety valve. Tighter control is exerted over areas like solitary rooms than over public areas, reflecting the tendency toward earned privileges.

(Due to the controversial nature of tobacco/nicotine, these links vary in quality.)Tobacco produces both soothing and invigorating effects. Like many entheogens, it can also affect psychic abilities or other superpowers. Thus tobacco functions as a type of adaptogen, helping some users to stay balanced, much the same way a chemical buffer keeps a solution neutral -- but the negative effects of smoking mean that tobacco is rarely listed as an adaptogen, even though people use it most explicitly to cope with stress.

The poem Shiv overhears is "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes, and you'll notice that he misheard "negro" as "nigger" because he has far more experience with racial slurs than the history of black poetry. I always put that one in the classes I designed, and I'm not the only one who has introduced poetry in prison education.

Prison gardens, especially organic ones, can have multiple benefits such as improving diet and teaching vocational skills. Not everyone necessarily appreciates this.

Gossip has advantages and disadvantages. One of the latter is that mobsters following the custom of omertà tend to look down on it. Ragno has occasionally worked for the Marionettes, Shiv can't keep his trap shut, and sometimes they annoy each other because of that.

Introverts share some common traits, some of which you can see in Shiv and some of which he has stifled or distorted or doesn't even know about. Both introversion and extroversion are natural human aspects, which can be healthy or unhealthy. Going against these personal inclinations can do a lot of damage. So introverts need to understand how to meet their own needs, especially in balancing social and solitary times.

Sometimes supervillains save people, even if they may do it primarily for selfish reasons.

Chayne is an extremely dangerous nanotech weapon, designed by a mad super-gizmologist. It is primarily used for assassination and terrorism. It works by ripping out the metallic and mineral parts of the body to make more nanites, forming a distinctive silvery network above the skin which spreads rapidly and causes an agonizing death. The most effective way to stop it from killing someone is to lop off the affected body part if hit on an extremity. Its one limitation is that it can only exist within live flesh; it cannot cross inert floors or air, etc. to reach a new victim, although it can be spread by touch. It resembles a limited form of grey goo.

Traumatic amputation requires immediate care. It is still greatly preferable to the alternative in this case.

Complex moral and ethical issues surround the use of force, continuum of force, and what is considered appropriate force. The prevalence of superpowers and advanced technology have influenced these developments in Terramagne. One result supports a general trend toward preferring de-escalation and minimal force, due to the risk of extreme superpower incidents. Another concerns priorities, in that responsible authorities are expected to consider everyone's safety, not just their own. A third effect extends the expectation of appropriate force beyond civil authorities to superheroes in particular, and other people with superpowers in general. This circular chart illustrates one perspective of increasing appropriate force as the danger increases. This grid maps areas of excessive force and ineffective force, divided by the target line of appropriate force.

Because Shiv caused serious bodily harm already, the guards' response was largely reasonable; but given his motivation, it was not accurate. Too much critical information was obscured at the outset: that the chayne was a terrible danger, that Shiv knew what it was and how to deal with it, that he was not intending to start a real fight, that he was too freaked out to keep using his superpower mindfully (although it might have gone off instinctively), that he had context-relevant PTSD issues, and so on. (Hitting Shiv after he was pinned was excessive force, driven by the high-stress environment.) Shiv actually understands this, not because he's a forgiving person, but because he is fully familiar and comfortable with violence as a way of life. A key difference is that in T-America, individuals committing such honest mistakes are more likely to feel remorse and seek to restore balance; whereas in L-America, any kind of justice for it is rare and almost always organizational rather than individual, with the few individual apologies rejected as insincere.

Further considerations concern the dynamics in play. Shiv has a patchy grasp of the ally-to-enemy scale, Ragno's perception of their relationship is a bit different, and the guards' misreading of Shiv's motivation led them to misplace him on that scale in relation to themselves. This graphic illustrates the management of pursuit, which compares to engagement with supervillains in Terramagne. Serious bodily harm is a valid reason to engage -- but the guards knew that wrestling with Shiv made it easier for him to kill them if he wished and also raised the chance of his superpower escaping his control. His precision is quite good under mindful direction, but his self-regulation sucks.

SPAZMAT is the equivalent of HAZMAT for dealing with superpowered issues. It stands for Super-Powered Assessment, Zetetics, Management, And Transport. Dangerous goods can cause a lot of trouble if not handled correctly.

Bruises are usually superficial but can go deep enough to affect internal organs such as the kidneys. First aid involves ice to stop the bleeding, and it's possible to find cold packs in all kinds of conveniently customized shapes such as a saddle pack or a long pack. The ideal treatment for kidney bruises is bed rest, but people from a poor or rough background often just walk it off if it's not severe enough to be life-threatening. The big risk with organ bruises is that the difference between minor and major is very difficult to discern.

Serious abrasions behave much like burns, and require careful treatment. Injuries to the face raise more concern than other parts of the body. Both the amount and quality of care can drastically improve outcomes; basically the more you baby it, the better chance of good results.

Stress responses vary along a spectrum. (Shiv has never really been in good shape, but his level of functionality goes up and down.) Trauma can lead to acute stress reaction or post-traumatic stress disorder. Emotional first aid can help prevent PTSD.

Another helpful tactic involves playing some kind of stacking-sorting game. Because PTSD is fundamentally a sorting error -- the bad memories get "stuck in a loop" because they won't go through the brain's usual routine for filing daily experiences -- this activity helps place things in context and avoid making them worse. CarGo is a weirdly compelling 3D video game in T-America about packing groceries into various handbaskets, carts, vehicles, and kitchen storage. The more of the groceries you can cram into the space -- without damaging fragile ones like eggs -- the more points you get.

Pain control methods include some non-pharmacological ones. T-America has a much more refined and functional process for helping people choose, and use responsibly, methods effective in managing their level of pain. They also pay more attention to what they call Total Comfort Level, which is to say that someone might be less upset by a certain level of pain than by side effects or vulnerable feelings from taking a painkiller. This approach requires more knowledge, skill, time, and attention but it pays off in better pain management and lower risk of complications. As Shiv's past experience indicates, however, not all caregivers are equally good at taking care of people, especially soups.

Medical neutrality includes not injuring caregivers, and on the whole, Terramagne does a lot better at that compared with our world, especially in the more civilized countries. However, heath workers still get injured in war and in hospitals. Studies indicate that the best ways to reduce violent incidents include giving quality care, along with providing safe facilities and trauma-informed staff. Hence the difference between Shiv's response to Turtledove and to Dr. Bloch.

Passionflower has soothing effects on the body and mind. (Yes, it really looks like a bunghole, especially if your vision is fuzzy.) Passionfruit also has medicinal and spiritual properties. Put them together and you get an herbal remedy that relaxes the user and enhances the effect of other drugs. Usually drug interactions are bad, but when applied mindfully, this synergy makes it possible to use lower doses for the desired impact, which reduces the chance of unpleasant side effects.

Airmid is a Celtic goddess of herbs and healing. In T-America, Airmid's Brew is a company that makes primarily herbal remedies, most of them at prescription strength.

Comfort objects have a soothing effect on adults as well as children. Emergency workers use blankets to treat both the physical and emotional symptoms of shock. Microfiber is a decent L-American equivalent of the T-American gizmotronic material Microfyne.

Jump Up Johnny is when someone does a good deed and gets criticized or attacked for it; this usually, though not always, refers to superpowers. It is frowned upon because it can shift people toward the supervillain side of the spectrum.

Shiv's new target board looks similar to this one, although the balls are covered entirely in grippy stuff rather than striped. Vrip is a fastener similar to velcro but much lighter, barely thicker than the fabric itself.

Sport FX (variously pronounced "sport fix" or "sport effects") is a retail chain of mostly non-competition equipment that uses retro-engineered tech and gizmology to achieve spectactular results. Thus most of it is ineligible for competition use because it can produce too much advantage or may exceed the range of the facility, similar to some restrictions on equipment in L-America. However, lots of people love the sporting gear and family games.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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