Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Huposkhesis"

This poem is spillover from the March 1, 2016 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] alexseanchai, [personal profile] capriuni, and [personal profile] redsixwing. It also fills the "sphere of influence" square in my 2-29-16 card for the Villain Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by [personal profile] technoshaman and LJ user Ng_moonmoth. It belongs to the series Polychrome Heroics.

Warning: This poem includes some touchy topics. Highlight to read the more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It has a break-in, theft of controlled substances and very private information, calling supervillains for help, some very complex applications of Knowledge Control, an unpleasant skin condition, messy medical details, a little angst, and other problems. But mostly it's Dr. Melas solving problems like a boss. :D So it's more positive than not. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.


Dr. Althea Melas stared at the remnants
of her pharmaceutical safe. Its thick steel doors
had somehow been peeled away, one hanging
crazily by a hinge, the other crumpled on the floor.

The safe itself stood empty, although most of
its small shelves and larger file drawers remained
intact. All of the controlled substances along with
the unlisted but exotic things needed for treating
superpowered clients were gone -- and worse,
so were the Secure On Paper Only medical files
that she kept in the safe for maximum confidentiality.

Althea waffled over whom to call.

Obviously she needed to notify the receptionist,
because the clinic couldn't function without
its pharmacy, and replacing those supplies
would take both time and money,
so she started with that.

Logically, she should report the theft to
the police, because they'd want to know
about the missing drugs, and they might
be able to track down the culprit.

Althea looked at the ruined doors and
reconsidered. Anyone capable of crumpling
three-inch-thick steel like craft paper was
probably outside the range of what
ordinary police could handle.

She thought about calling SPOON,
who could certainly deal with whatever
supervillain had done this ... but then again,
it wasn't their secure files in the wind.

So she took a deep breath and
called the emergency number that
she had gotten from Dr. Infanta.

"Hello, this is Dr. Althea Melas at
All Creatures Great and Small," she said.
"Somebody broke into my drug safe and stole
everything in it, which includes narcotics,
soup care supplies, and medical data for
superpowered clients. I don't know what
they were after or what to do next."

"Thank you for notifying us, Dr. Melas,"
said the dispatcher on the other end.
"Please transmit an image of the damage."

Althea turned her smartphone around
and snapped a long view of the room,
then closeups of both mangled doors.

"We will send a data management team
at once," said the dispatcher. "If you provide
a list of the burgled medical supplies, we can
also send replacements for those."

"Uh ... sure," Althea said. That was
quite a lot of money, but she had been
getting clinic-renovation-sized tips
from some of her clients. "Let me
pull up our stocking list for you."

By the time she had finished
reordering supplies from ... what,
Supervillain Drugs R Us? ...
a soft whuff of air announced
the arrival of the data team.

The teleporter was a statuesque woman
with dark olive skin and wild brown hair.

At her elbow, the passenger was
a woman with fair skin thickly mottled in
patches of snakeskin, her head crowned
with braids of streaky blonde hair.

Gray eyes regarded the scene with
unblinking calm, and after a moment,
Althea realized that she could not blink,
as she had no eyelids, a fact somewhat
disguised by the dramatic makeup.

"I am Pythia. I will determine what
has happened to the information and
retrieve it," said the snakeskinned woman.
"Pronaia, you may help with documentation."

Althea had no idea how they meant
to accomplish that, but it didn't matter.

The teleporter walked around the ruined safe,
taking measurements and photographs.
"Do you have a list of client names or
file names of other sensitive material
stored in this locker?" she asked.

"I do, but ..." Althea hesitated.

Pythia smiled. "Your discretion does
justice to your reputation," she said,
tugging at her charcoal wrap dress.
"I will have all of the information
soon enough, and you may rest
assured it is safe with me. It is
merely easier if I have more of
it when I begin the search."

There was something eerie about her
that gave Althea an odd feeling, but it
wasn't ominous -- Pythia seemed
quite trustworthy for reasons that
Althea also could not name.

So the veterinarian handed over
the list of what she had kept in
the pharmaceutical safe.

Pronaia sat down in a nearby chair,
and Pythia moved forward to examine
the wreckage. She trailed her fingertips
along a bent shelf, paused to scratch
her forearm, then prodded the lock
on the still-hanging door.

She peered so closely that her nose
almost touched the mangled metal.

"I believe the lists are accurate,"
she declared. "However, the thief is
attempting to conceal the location and
disposition of the plundered items.
I will need my ostraka for this."

She brought out a bag, but
it snagged on her wrap, and
she gave an irritated twitch.

"Excuse me, I hate to interrupt
an important investigation, but I have
a professional concern," said Althea.
"Are you feeling all right? You seem
uncomfortable, and it looks like you
have gone through a dry shed."

Pythia gave a long, hissing sigh.
"I am always uncomfortable, and
I always have difficulty shedding,"
she admitted. "My powers, while
quite effective on others, do not help
much with finding data on my own
behalf, so I am left guessing."

"Have you found anything
that helps?" Althea asked.

"Extra moisture, sometimes,"
said Pythia. "I tried standing
in the steam vent outside, before
we came in, but I've dried out again."

"I have a hydrotherapy tub here,"
Althea said. "You're welcome to it."

"We are in the middle of a mission,"
Pronaia pointed out, "and this is
an ongoing problem, not a crisis."

"Dysecdysis can be serious if
left untreated," Althea said.
"Pythia, can you soak and
work at the same time?"

"I can try," she said.

So Althea filled the hydrotherapy tub
with tepid water, then poured in a cup
of Epsom salt which was good for
softening human skin and used
by some snake keepers to help
deal with problem shedding.

"I'm sorry that I don't have
much to offer you for modesty,"
Althea said. "That's not usually
a concern for my clients."

Pythia shrugged and said,
"I am not modest either.
At home, I often go nude.
Fabric irritates my skin."

She unwrapped the dress,
which was rather similar to
an ancient Greek peplos,
except that it pinned under
her left arm instead of
over her shoulders.

Beneath that she wore only
a band wrapped around her chest
and another around her hips.

Peeling those off as well,
Pythia stepped into the water.
"Ahh, that's lovely," she said.

Althea provided a rolling table
to hold the divinatory tools, which
turned out to be handfuls of
little ceramic tiles stamped
with the Greek alphabet.

"So you can ... see into
the future?" Althea guessed.

"The future, the present, the past,"
said Pythia. "All of knowledge
is my sphere of influence."

"Wow," said Althea.

"We are looking for someone
other than just the strongman who
broke into your safe," said Pythia.
"This is a matter of brains, not brawn."

She shuffled the ostraka, and
one jumped out of her hands.

"What does that mean?" Althea asked,
curious despite herself. She had never
placed much stock in Greek superstitions,
despite all of her grandmother's stories,
but now the Pythia piqued her interest.

Perhaps this was an opportunity
to explore more of her own heritage.

"Huposkhesis," Pythia said, her lips
thinning into a mysterious smile.
"It means a hero's quest, or
an honorable profession."

"I'm not a superhera,"
Althea protested then.
"I'm just a veterinarian."

"Well, it cannot refer to the case,"
said Pythia. "An honorable thief
does not abscond with everything
in a pharmaceutical safe. They might
take half of it, but only a scoundrel
would take the entire stock."

"How are you feeling now?"
Althea asked to change the topic.

"Better," said Pythia. "I don't
itch as much as I did before."

"Let me see an arm," Althea said.

Pythia held out her left hand
and kept working with the right,
laying out ostraka in rows.

Althea could see where the shed
had failed, old scales adhering to
the edges wherever patches of
snake skin met human skin.

"Hmm," she said. "I think that
I can get some of this off now."

She brought out a luffa sponge
and started gently scuffing over
the dead scales, encouraging
them to slough away.

"I have identified the miscreants,"
Pythia said, "I think." She held
one of the tiles close to her nose.
"Dunamis. Unreasonable force
will defeat itself; a tyrant falls."

Althea frowned. "That's great news,
but the way you're staring at that thing
worries me. Can you see it at all?"

"Somewhat," said Pythia.

"Your eye scales didn't shed,
did they?" said Althea.

Pythia shook her head.

"How many fingers am I
holding up?" Althea asked.

"Two, but I know them with
my gift, I can't see them clearly
with my eyes," said Pythia.

Obviously Althea had a lot more
to learn about taking care of
people with exotic abilities.

"Okay, I'm a good veterinarian and I
can do basic reptile care, but I am not
a herpetologist," she said. "Let me call
a friend? I know one at the San Diego Zoo."

Pythia beckoned to Pronaia, and
the two women conferred in Greek,
of which Althea could catch only half.

Maybe Althea should brush up
on her second-native language,
if she was going to be getting
more foreign clients in the future.

"You will call him, and he will come,"
Pythia declared. "I like him already."

So Althea called Ronny Nadilo, explaining
only the basics of the situation, that she
had a reptilian soup with shedding trouble
and wanted him to come help with it.

Ronny agreed eagerly, and Pythia
sent Pronaia to go pick him up.

"Pinpointing a location is difficult,"
said Pythia. "Do you have an atlas,
or at least a map of the world?"

"This is a veterinary clinic, not
a public library," said Althea. "I will
have to print one out for you."

That required walking to
the nearest office and asking
to borrow their printer, but soon
Althea came back with a map.

Pythia tossed her ostraka onto
the page one handful at a time,
then said happily, "Gê, the Earth,
will give you the ripe fruit of
your labors. I found them.”

"That's wonderful," said Althea.

Just then, Pronaia returned
with the herpetologist in tow.

"Oh my God, you're gorgeous,"
Ronny said, staring at Pythia.
Then he blushed and stuttered,
"I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be
rude, it's just that I really like
snakes and I've never seen
anyone as amazing as you."

Pythia regarded him with
an enigmatic smile. "I do not
mind honest admiration."

"Can I take a look at you?"
Ronny said. "I mean, to see
how your skin is doing?"

"Yes," said Pythia, and
offered him the same arm
that Althea had been scrubbing.

"I think you've soaked enough
that the rest of this should come off
with a little help," said Ronny, then
turned to Althea. "Is there a bed
or a table that we can use?"

"There's an exam room across
the hall from here; we can use
the table in there," she said.

Fortunately there were rubber mats
to protect the more delicate animals
from the cold, hard stainless steel
of the exam table, so that Pythia had
something comfortable to lie on.

She came wrapped in a bath sheet,
and they simply used that to drape
over the parts of her body that they
weren't working on presently.

"I brought some stuff with me,"
Ronny said, opening his backpack.
"Zoo Med Repti Shedding Aid -- it has
jojoba and vitamin E oils to loosen scales."

"You sound like a spa salesman,"
Pronaia said from her chair.

Ronny ignored her and said to Pythia,
"Let me coat your arms first, so that you
can get used to my touch. Then I'll do
your face, so it has time to soak in. We
can work on your back while you're
playing that little tile game."

Althea hadn't explained all the details
of why Pythia had come to the clinic.

Pythia let Ronny spray the stuff over
her and smooth it into the rough skin,
which left her new scales glossy
and the old ones more flexible.

"You work on the easy parts,
and leave the tricky bits for me,"
Ronny said to Althea, and
she was happy to agree.

Together they coaxed the old skin
off of Pythia's back, while Pythia
and Pronaia chattered in Greek
about how to find the supervillains
who had staged today's heist.

The blend of human and snake skin was
strange, but beautiful. As they worked,
the dull scales fell away leaving behind
a glistening new expanse of brown,
cream, and dark gray skin.

"You really are a python,"
Ronny said quietly.

"I am the Pythia," she said.
"The Oracle of Delphi has always
been a python priestess ... though
perhaps not quite like this before."

"So will you tell my fortune?" he joked.

Languidly Pythia plucked one ostrakon
from the pile and read, "Theoi. You have
the helping gods of this path. It means that
you are already following your destiny, and
will succeed so long as you stay true to it."

"Oh," he said faintly.

"She kind of did the same thing to me,"
Althea told him. "Something about
a hero's honorable profession. I
told her I'm not a superhera."

"Well, maybe you're her superhera,"
Ronny pointed out. "Between us, we've
pretty much solved the shedding problem."

It was true, at least for the time being --
the rest of the skin had come off cleanly,
so Pythia lay sleek and serene on the table.

"Let me do your eyes, and then we'll
be done," Ronny said to Pythia, and
she let him ease the clouded scales
away from her face while Althea
watched carefully to learn the trick.

"I can see again," Pythia said,
her voice brightening. Then she
stirred the ostraka with her hands.
"Ha! I have found the missing piece."

She dropped back into Greek and
gave instructions to Pronaia, who
relayed them to someone else
through her smartphone.

Ronny gave Pythia another bottle of
the shedding aid, along with his card.
"Next time, call me if you start having
trouble with your skin," he said. "Don't
wait until it gets this bad again."

"I will call, and you will come,"
Pythia agreed, then looked at Althea.
"It was good of you to find him for me."

"One good turn deserves another,"
Althea said. "I'm just glad we could help."

Pronaia left to take Ronny home,
leaving Pythia with Althea.

So Althea brought Pythia's clothes
to her and politely turned away while
the other woman got dressed again.

"Thank you for everything," said Pythia.
"Do not worry about your privacy or
your patient files; all that information
will be returned and nobody nefarious
will be able to keep any of it."

"Thank you," said Althea.
That was a big relief.

Pronaia returned, and Pythia
kissed Althea on both cheeks,
a friendly farewell that was
familiar but unexpected.

It was strange, working with people
who had superpowers, and not all
the same ethics as ordinary folk.

Althea's life was changing, and
she was starting to wonder if maybe
you didn't need superpowers after all
to make a difference in the world.

After Pythia and Pronaia left,
Althea walked back to the pharmacy
to start cleaning up the mess --
then stopped and stared.

The room was spotless.

The plain old pharmaceutical safe
had been replaced by a heavier model
with an even thicker door. A manual
dangled from the handle beside
a formidable-looking zetetic lock.

Althea consulted the manual,
followed the instructions, and
opened the door of the safe.

Inside she found her files, all in order.

The medical supplies had been
refreshed, most of them from
the same vendors that she had
always used, but someone else
had added an entire case of
blue chamomile in cobalt bottles
no bigger than her thumb tip.

A note stuck to the front of the carton
read, in black physician-sloppy script,
Recommend 5/8 dram size bottles.
Easier to send home with patients

Very carefully, Althea closed the safe
and then leaned against the locked door.

Her life was getting so much more interesting.

* * *


Dr. Althea Melas -- She has olive skin, brown eyes, and straight brown hair usually pinned up. She is third generation Greek-American, who speaks English fluently and Greek somewhat. Dr. Melas works at All Creatures Great and Small, a large veterinary clinic in Westbord that surreptitiously serves soups with animal features.
Qualities: Master (+6) Veterinarian, Expert (+4) Constitution, Expert (+4) Intelligence, Expert (+4) Neutral, Good (+2) Athlete, Good (+2) Compassion, Good (+2) Cook, Good (+2) Mother, Good (+2) Schmaltzy Music, Good (+2) Scrapbooking, Good (+2) Soup Contacts, Good (+2) Soup Research
Poor (-2) Student Debt

Pythia (Kriska Sideris) -- She has hair brindled in lighter and darker shades of blonde, lidless gray snake eyes, and fair skin mottled with patches of brown and cream scales. She wears makeup in attempt to minimize the reptilian look of her eyes, but it won't cover the scales. She is Greek and lives in Arachova. She speaks English, Esperanto, French, Georgian, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish. She worked as a librarian before her transformation.
Knowledge control includes a wide range of applications to discover, store, and transfer information. Pythia has a perfect memory and a vast archive of knowledge; beyond that she can easily find out more. She enjoys learning new things, especially languages and history. She has declared herself a neutral party in soup politics and insists on being treated as such. She liberally hands out information about a person's own powers, or about superpowers in general, but is far more cautious about revealing anything on someone else's powers or that could be used to hurt anyone. Occasionally she assists superheroes or law enforcement, but her standards are very high and attempts to pressure her quickly lead to her reading the bully's life out loud which usually ends the confrontation at once. Pythia has ties with Dr. Infanta whose Time Powers similarly allow her to influence the flow of information, and they share an interest in keeping the world on an even keel without strangling free will. Relations with Granny Whammy are more tenuous due to SPOON's sometimes-high pressure tactics pushing people toward the white side of the cape.
Her Python Traits count as Poor because they cause more trouble than they're worth. She requires live or whole dead animals to eat, and hates that. So she tries to get by on things like thawed pinky mice, until her body gets cranky about it, then resorts to live food just until she feels better. Her jaw dislocates properly to swallow large prey, but afterward it doesn't always go back into the socket without help. Pythia gets sluggish in cool temperatures. Shedding time causes awful problems because her skin is patchy; she often retains some scales, including the ones over her eyes. Most people find her appearance and demeanor disturbing, so the Poor aspect can apply to some social interactions.
Origin: Along with some friends in archaeology and geology, Kriska was exploring caves in the vicinity of Delphi when an earthquake struck. Loose soil and rock blocked most of the entrance, and it took hours for rescuers to dig them out. Members of the party variously felt lightheaded, queasy, and giddy; some fell unconscious. All were taken to the nearest hospital and recovered fully. Over the next few weeks, however, Kriska's skin began to thicken and discolor in places. Within a year she had taken on her current serpentine appearance, developing Knowledge Control along with it.
Uniform: Her patchy skin makes most clothing uncomfortable, so she tends to favor a minimum of underwear with at most a loose wrap over it. In private she often goes nude for comfort. However, she enjoys traditional Greek jewelry; she frequently wears long dangling gold earrings, and puts her hair up with gold pins.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Oracle, Good (+2) Greek Folk Music, Good (+2) Impassive, Good (+2) Limber
Powers: Master (+6) Knowledge Control
Poor (-2) Python Traits
Limitation: Her manipulation of information applies only to others, not herself, a source of immense frustration as she struggles to manage her serpentine condition. Also, she cannot force people to believe her; as she puts it, "An oracle's duty is to warn, not to convince."
Motivation: To guard and transmit knowledge.

This map of Greece shows Arachova and Delphi, an area prone to earthquakes.

Knowledge Control in this case is related to things like Knowledge Manipulation and Nigh Omniscience. It is difficult for Pythia to use her powers on herself for similar reasons as trying to focus on your own nose or see the back of your head. Pythia is the historic name of the Oracle at Delphi.

Pronaia -- She has dark olive skin, brown eyes, and curly brown hair just past her shoulders. She is statuesque, with a tall sturdy body and a face of classic beauty which looks more handsome than pretty by modern standards. Pronaia is Greek. She speaks English, Esperanto, German, Greek, Romany, and Russian. Pronaia serves as the teleporter and personal companion for Pythia.
Origin: Her powers emerged at puberty.
Uniform: On duty, she wears a very brief tunic of cream capery. Pronaia likes the "nymph of Artemis" look although her allegiance is more toward Athena. Off duty, she often wears similar dresses.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Discretion, Good (+2) Fast, Good (+2) Followship Skills, Good (+2) Memory
Poor (-2) Low Alcohol Tolerance
Powers: Expert (+4) Teleportation
Motivation: To serve the Pythia.

Ronny Nadilo -- He has fair skin, brown eyes, and short brown hair with a beard and mustache. He wears two small hoop earrings in his left ear. Ronny works at the San Diego Zoo in the Reptile House. He likes snakes better than girls, which is sometimes a problem, because most girls don't like snakes. Ronny helps Pythia cope with her python traits.
Qualities: Master (+6) Herpetologist, Expert (+4) Dexterity, Expert (+4) Gentle, Good (+2) Naturalistic Intelligence, Good (+2) Soup-Friendly, Good (+2) Surfer
Poor (-2) Most Girls Don't Like Snakes

* * *

"Huposkhesis -- the hero's quest, or an honorable profession.
Υ Upsilon 9 10 400 “The affair holds a noble undertaking {Huposkhesis}.”
Affair: deed, act, issue; holds: involves, implies, gives cause for, holds fast, hinders, guides, steers; noble: high-born, high-minded, excellent, notable;undertaking: engagement, promise, profession.
There is some issue to be resolved, or some deed is under consideration; it involves high-mindedness, either in commitment, deed, or professional pursuit. The oracle may tell us that the affair is admirable due to this noble element, or that the situation may guide us to seek the appropriate noble undertaking or profession. The hero’s quest. On the other hand, the oracle may mean that the situation hinders this fine undertaking. Thus you should try to understand the situation: does it demand an excellent undertaking or impede it?"
-- A Greek Alphabet Oracle

All Creatures Great and Small has several buildings. We're in this one today. This is the hydrotherapy pool. There is also a heat lamp for drying off.

This is the original pharmaceutical safe before it was destroyed..

Trust comes from different attributes, some visible at first glance while others take time to observe. Here are some ways of building trust.

"The following is an authentic ancient Greek alphabet oracle, which is from an inscription in Olympos, a city in ancient Lycia. Although many modern Pagans are familiar with rune-casting and similar systems, the divinatory use of the Greek alphabet is less well known. Each letter of the alphabet has a corresponding oracle, and the first word of the oracle (in Greek) begins with that letter. In the following translation, the Greek word (in its dictionary form) is enclosed in {curly braces} and follows the corresponding English word or phrase. There are at least three methods of consulting the alphabet oracle.
The first uses a set of 24 stones or potsherds (pottery fragments), each inscribed or painted with a letter of the alphabet. Each stone should have one of the Greek letters (Α, Β, Γ, etc.), shown in the alphabet chart below. You can easily make the stones yourself (but make sure you can tell Μ and Σ apart) or buy them from a craftsperson. Keep the stones in a jug, box, or bag, and when you want to consult the oracle, pick a stone without looking. (One ancient method was to shake the stones in a bowl or frame drum until one jumped out.) This method is similar to the use of rune stones (and it’s interesting that most systems of rune casting use 24 runes). Stones used in this way would be called psêphoi (PSAY-foy) in Ancient Greek (calculi in Latin); inscribed or painted potsherds are ostraca in Greek (testae in Latin)."
-- A Greek Alphabet Oracle

Ostraka are ceramic pieces used in divination or voting.

Problem shedding or dysecdysis can happen with any kind of snake. When helping snakes remove their skin, the use of shedding aids such as Zoo Med Repti Snake and Lizard Shedding Aid can assist in removing stuck pieces.

See images of a peplos wrap and historic Greek and Roman underwear such as the bikini. The Pythia's gray wrap dress looks similar to this.

"Δ Delta 27 26 4 “In customs inopportune strength {Dunamis} is weak.”
Customs: rules, laws, allotments; inopportune: ill-timed, unreasonable, importunate, undue, not kairos (fit, in due measure, exact, at the appropriate or critical time, etc.); strength: power, ability, authority.
Ill-timed force will be ineffective; act with precision; timing is everything. Knowing where and when to strike is more important than strength; misapplied ability is disability. Blind conformity to customs is spineless; overly strict adherence to rules is self-defeating. Unreasonable or undue force will defeat itself; a tyrant must fall."
-- A Greek Alphabet Oracle

"Γ Gamma 28 27 3 “Gaia [the Earth] {Gê} will give you the ripe fruit of your labors.”
Ripe: complete, final; fruits: produce, returns, profits, results.
You will have a successful harvest, or you will reap all your profits from the Earth. The Mother of All will bring your labors to a fruitful conclusion. Gaia will give you your just deserts."
-- A Greek Alphabet Oracle

"Θ Theta 22 22 9 “You have the helping Gods {Theoi} of this path.”
Helping: propitious, defending; path: road, course, way.
The “way” may be a concrete road, a plan of action, a spiritual path, a way of life, etc. In any case, the Gods who oversee this way will help and defend you, so you may go forward with confidence; you are under divine care because you are following your destiny."
-- A Greek Alphabet Oracle

Greek kissing is a form of greeting customarily used with family or close friends. This is Pythia's way of expressing that she counts Dr. Melas as "connected" now.

Glass vials come in many sizes and are often used for storing essential oils. A 1-dram vial is about thumb size, and among the most common. A 5/8-dram vial is about fingertip size.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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