WARNING: This poem contains intense material that many readers may find disturbing. It also contains a hefty serving of poetic justice. Highlight to read the more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. There is mad science, Carl Bernhardt is always a warning, graphic description of medical torture and experimentation on sapient people, centaurs produced by mad science, a distorted response that could be learned helplessness or Stockholm syndrome, references to sapient trafficking and sexual exploitation, graphic description of injuries, messy medical details, unethical employees, and other challenges. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read. It does advance the plot a bit, but a lot of the general trajectory is already established, so it's only a minor gap if you choose to skip this one.
"The Source of Pain"
The centaurs were proving
a most gratifying success.
Carl Bernhardt had discovered
that while humans were unlikely
to survive the grafting process
without superpowers, there was
no significant difference between
natural and induced superpowers.
A range of abilities would serve, too --
Healing, Regeneration, Toughness,
Super-Immunity or Super-Constitution.
Some of those were even common.
So now he had a fine series of
the creatures, whose herd instincts
discouraged them from escape attempts
which had cost him so many other subjects.
The one currently in the stanchion --
a pinto girl with brown spots and black hair --
was a favorite whose easygoing nature made her
simple to work with. She was actually trying not
to fight against the restraints as he swabbed
caustic substances on her skin to observe
how long it took to regenerate each burn.
Even though he was the source of pain,
she tried to obey him, tried to be good.
She would make someone a marvelous toy
if he ever decided to sell her, although
with her sweet temperament, Carl was
more inclined to keep her for breeding.
When he poured the drain cleaner on her,
though, she bucked so hard that he jerked back
in reflex, hitting the cart which held his supplies.
Caustics slopped over his hand and arm,
making him flail at the source of pain.
The Bunsen burner caught his sleeve
and lit it on fire, blue flames leaping up.
He screamed and ripped off his lab coat,
batting out the flames and trying
to wipe off the caustics.
The damage was already done.
Skin sloughed off in long shreds,
allowing blood and lymph to bubble up.
He could even see some of the bones
through the back of his hand.
Carl grabbed a syringe of anaesthetic
and stabbed himself repeatedly around
the injuries until the pain began to fade.
He looked at the ruin of his arm.
There was no alternative; he would
have to bargain for a healer if he wanted
to keep it. Few of them wished to work for him,
so this would be difficult and risky to arrange.
It could attract unwanted attention, and
the local environment was already turning up
the heat on human trafficking. People were
sniffing around in places where they had
no business being, but he could not afford
to 'disappear' them and draw even more eyes.
The centaur girl was sobbing about how sorry
she was, as if that made any difference.
Carl's hand shook as he completed his notes
for the session, then pushed the button
to summon the livestock nurse.
Hagatha Vener was cool and competent,
without the pesky ethics that had cost him
so many valuable employees over time.
When she saw his injuries, she exclaimed,
"Doctor! What happened, what do you need?"
"Never mind that, I'll deal with it," he said,
forcing his voice not to shake. "Put the subject
back in her stall. Have the lab cleaned."
"Yes, doctor," she said, and set to work.
It was so hard to find staff who didn't argue,
Carl realized. He should give her a raise.
With Hagatha on the job, he could finally
stagger out of the lab and go lie down
while he sought a healer who could be
bribed to come repair his arm.
It still hurt, damn it, and he didn't
dare take anything stronger before
negotiations this delicate and vital.
How ironic, that his very expression of
being should become such a source of pain.
* * *
Carl Bernhardt -- He has fair skin, beady black eyes, and short black hair that is going gray and receding at the hairline. His ancestors moved from Germany to Argentina during World War II, carrying on less-than-ethical scientific research. When people objected to that, his parents moved from Argentina to America to escape the heat. In high school, Carl studied Spanish and went to Argentina with his classmates, wanting to visit some of his relatives there. Upon discovering that some of them were still in the family business of shadowy experiments, he decided to stay and get involved himself. His personal interest developed into studying superpowers, connecting with the family background through his desire to replicate superpowers as a way of furthering evolution. Eventually his research led to him fleeing from Argentina and bouncing around several other countries. Wanted by various authorities, he is currently back in America.
As a psychopath, Carl excels at manipulating people for his own ends, and feels no empathy or remorse. He disregards laws, morals, and the rights of others. He views the whole world as a lab and everything in it as materials for his experiments. However, Carl also fakes being normal well enough to fool almost everyone except for his hapless captives. He is calm, logical, and organized in his plans. Most people take him for a respectable scientist and tend to do whatever he wants. But anyone who has dealt with psychopaths or narcissists gets a bonus for recognizing him -- you can see it in his creepy, soulless eyes if you know what to look for. The problem is that nobody else will believe you when you try to warn them about how dangerous he is.
His experiments have produced a number of substances, gizmos, super-gizmos, and even a few people that Carl has sold for exorbitant prices. Turq is one of the few to survive and escape. That's an example of the skill level: a lot of theoretical knowledge, some equipment, but in live subjects the results are often fatal and even when they're not fatal there are significant flaws. This irritates Carl to no end, and sometimes makes his buyers unhappy too. But that's okay: he can always kill them if they complain.
Origin: Eugenics. The family has spent decades dabbling in everything from breeding programs to genetic engineering in hopes of improving the human race, and occasionally they take personal advantage of techniques that seem promising.
Uniform: Usually a business suit or lab wear.
Qualities: Master (+6) Psychopath, Expert (+4) I Can Kill You in So Many Ways, Expert (+4) Master's Degree in Biology, Good (+2) Dexterity, Good (+2) Knowledge of Superpowers, Good (+2) Wealth
Poor (-2) Wanted by the Authorities
Powers: Expert (+4) Super-Intellect, Good (+2) Super-Gizmology
Motivation: To learn everything about superpowers.
Lilita Nieves -- She has fair skin, brown eyes, and long straight black hair. She is a centaur with a bay pinto coat showing large brown spots on a white background, black feet below the knees and hocks, and a black tail. She is only 14, but already has full breasts. Her human heritage includes American, Hispanic, and Jewish. Her horse heritage is mustang. Lilita suffers from traumatic stress as a result of human trafficking which landed her in a mad science lab. It manifests primarily as shyness and a pronounced fawn response. She clings to other members of her herd when they are together, trying to hide behind them as much as possible.
Origin: Mad science torture. Carl Bernhardt cut her in half and spliced her upper body to the lower body of a mare.
Uniform: None. She is kept nude.
Qualities: Good (+2) Easygoing, Good (+2) Graceful, Good (+2) Observant, Good (+2) Pretty
Poor (-2) Shy
Powers: Good (+2) Regeneration, Average (0) Centaur
Centaurs are stronger and faster than ordinary humans. Most of the surviving centaurs have an additional superpower which helped them to withstand the trauma of their creation. The more common ones include Healing, Regeneration, Toughness, Super-Constitution, and Super-Immunity. Some of them also have Super-Strength or Super-Speed, and they are stronger or faster than other centaurs.
Vulnerability: Digestive issues.
Due to Carl Bernhardt's erratic pratices, centaurs also tend to have physical problems. In Lilita's case, her human and equine digestive systems don't work together very well, leaving her prone to colic and other problems. She needs a special diet and gets even sicker without it.
Motivation: To avoid punishment.
A bay horse has a brown body with black points (mane, tail, and lower legs). A pinto horse can be any color splashed with white. Often the legs are partly or wholly white, although they can be dark.
Hagatha Vener -- She has fair skin, brown eyes, and short hair streaked in lighter and darker blonde. She works for Carl Bernhardt, taking care of the livestock. Hagatha has a cruel streak and sometimes takes trophies from dead subjects. Among them is a pink fur coat from one of Turq's cohort.
Qualities: Good (+2) Livestock Nurse, Good (+2) Logical-Mathematical Intelligence, Good (+2) Methodical, Good (+2) Reliable
Poor (-2) Ethics
* * *
"This is your karma. You do not understand now, but you will understand later. The source of pain is within your own larger expression of being."
– H. Raven Rose
(Some of these links are horrifying.)
The mad scientist is an entertainment trope, but also appears throughout much of history. Unlike most horror archetypes, mad scientists are scary precisely because they are real; the fictional ones derive their terror from the real ones. People sometimes wonder what makes a mad scientist and whether they could be one. There is actually a link between genius and what is considered insanity. Most mad scientists are really just mad engineers, but Carl Bernhardt is at least attempting to go through the motions of scientific method. He's a shitty scientist as well as a deplorable person, but more than just a mad engineer.
(More ghastly links.)
Research on human subjects is supposed to have careful ethics. However, human experimentation and medical torture have a long and ugly history. Efforts to stop them have been haphazard, often hindered by people who find the proposed laws or rules to be inconvenient. The motivations are questionable.
A stanchion is a device for restraining livestock, which can be as simple as a head latch for milking or as elaborate as an articulated cage. For mad science, the cage model is preferred. This type of stanchion is used for restraining cattle, such as for hoof trimming, and the lab model would likely be similar. By the way, when working on livestock, never pick up two feet at the same time as shown in that second picture; only do one at a time, to maintain stability.
(These links are gross.)
Chemical burns are caused by caustic substances, and are difficult to treat with conventional methods. Because hands have relatively thin skin, serious burns may expose deep structures such as tendons and bones.
A Bunsen burner is often used in labs for heating materials.
(More gross links.)
Thermal burns occur from exposure to high temperature, such as a flame. They range from mild to severe.
(Third link includes minor cruelty to animals.)
Karma can take many forms. Instant karma is often a direct result of one's own negative actions.