Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Surviving Difficult Times"

This poem is spillover from the February 6, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [profile] chanter_greenie and [personal profile] librarygeek. It also fills the "mind control" square in my 1-3-18 card for the [community profile] trope_bingo fest, and the "taking it slow" square in my 1-31-18 Romantic card for the Valentines Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the Calliope thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

WARNING: This poem contains topics that some readers may find disturbing. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers and perhaps triggers. It contains canon-atypical violence, Rabid City, because Rabid City is always a warning, gang warfare, a gunfight, hostile use of superpowers, messy medical details, mass casualty incident and triage, Calliope struck down by hostile mindwipe and declared a lost cause, Vagary freaking out over that and insisting she's not gone, Vagary fixing much of the damage with a healer's assistance, multiple fatalities, moral injury, typical awkwardness between Calliope and Vagary, and other mayhem. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read. However, it's a major plot point in this thread, so skipping it would leave a big gap.

"Surviving Difficult Times"

Vagary hated Rabid City.

He hadn't even liked it much
when he came through on a tour
back when it was still called "Rapid City" --
it was dingy, dusty, full of tired tourists --
he hadn't bought so much as a t-shirt.

Now it was a great deal worse.

Vagary would have been happy
to leave it as a party town and
let the wild young things burn it
to the ground if they wanted to.

When people did things that could
turn public sentiment against soups
in general, though, someone had
to try and get a lid on that shit.

Kraken had decided that Vagary
was "someone" this week, so
here he was doing his best.

Rabid City had become
a favorite watering hole for
the less savory supervillains,
and they tangled with local gangs,
who were not super but had
home court advantage.

The current skirmish involved
the McGillycuddy Complex with
its Cold Storage Warehouse and
the Smoking Gun Shooting Gallery.

Presumably both sides wanted
a convenient place to peddle
weapons and other contraband.

Vagary's assignment was to phase
through walls and drag hidden enemies
out where his teammates could get them.

It wasn't much of a challenge to find
and reveal the ones hidden in or behind
various vehicles, even during a fight.

He kept one ear on the choont-choont of
a glue gun and the sharper crack of pistols.

The open-air warehouse was easy too,
and the shooting gallery not much harder
since only the alley walls were hardened
while the front of the building was flimsy.

Getting people out of the cold storage one
was a giant pain in his ass, though, especially
after several of them noticed him and locked
themselves inside one of the deep freezers.

Vagary jammed the door from the outside
and then went to report their position to
his unit leader. Let them chill a while.

A blinding pain brought him to his knees.

When Vagary woke up, the fight
was over and a healer was patching
what felt like a nasty head wound.
"Did I get shot?" he mumbled.

"No, you hit your head on a rock
when you fell," Edmon said. "Lie still,
and I'll have this fixed in a minute.
It's not too serious, just messy."

But the look on Edmon's face
was enough to worry Vagary.

"Don't lie to me," he said.
"What's wrong? Why did I fall?"

Edmon looked aside. "I don't
know why you fell, they said
you just dropped," he replied.
"System says that you are
the next of kin for this one."
He jerked a thumb sideways.

It was Calliope.

She was in uniform,
with no blood showing on
the pink-white-blue dexflan,
but she was flat on her back
and she wasn't moving at all.

The bond was a throbbing ache
in his head, or maybe that was
just the head injury that Edmon
was still knitting closed.

"Why is she even here?"
Vagary said, as he struggled
to sit up. "I thought that she
was back in Stillwater."

"I heard she came to Box Elder
with those two." Edmon waved at
a pair of shellshocked superheroes
sitting in the back of an ambulance
being fussed over by paramedics.
"Some weather thing or whatever."

Vagary looked up. Ugly gray clouds
covered the sky. He wondered what
was going on up there, but he couldn't
feel the weather with anything but his skin.

"Anyway, when the shit hit the fan,
they all piled into the fight," Edmon said.

Because of course she would,
Vagary realized as he stared down
at Calliope's limp body. She always would.

"What happened to her?" he asked,
still worried by the healer's expression.

"They say the fight started between
the gang and the nutjobs when
Wipeout starting mindwiping people,"
Edmon said. "She got hit. I'm sorry."

That's when Vagary noticed the tag
fastened around Calliope's wrist.

The only strip left was the black one.

"She's NOT DEAD, you fucking quack!"
he shouted. "She's still breathing."

"Her body is still breathing, but I'm not
picking up any signs of higher brain activity
at all," Edmon said. "It's psychoclusion.
She's gone, man. I'm very sorry."

"She is NOT gone, because
I can still feel her," Vagary said.
"We have a bond. It hurts
like hell, but it's there."

"You have a ... oh!"
Edmon exclaimed. He
put a hand on Calliope.
"There may be hope.
Let me make a call."

He let go of them both
to use his smartphone.

The pain in Vagary's head
got worse, but it didn't feel
like the wound was as bad
as it had been at first.

"Don't die on me,
you stubborn bitch,"
Vagary whispered as he
picked up Calliope's hand.
"Don't you dare die on me."

"Yes, I'll hold," Edmon said,
drumming his fingers on his leg.

Vagary looked around, wondering
if the fight was really over or if they
might still be in continuing danger.
"Where's that Wipeout bastard?"

"Oh, you don't have to worry about
him anymore," the healer said, tipping
his head toward a blanket-covered shape.
"When Wipeout started mindwiping people,
Hardrock stopped playing pattycake."

"Well, good," Vagary growled.

"Except for the poor EFAide
who has to convince Hardrock
that he did the right thing,"
the healer replied.

Vagary didn't give a fuck
about that. The rock man
huddled in a miserable lump
was not his problem.

Then whoever Edmon was
trying to reach came on the line,
and the healer turned his attention
to describing Calliope's condition
and what Vagary said about her.

Soon Edmon hung up and said,
"Here's the plan. You may be able
to sort of pour her back into herself.
Think of it like Wipeout has deleted
a hard drive, and you have the backup.
You just have to reinstall the data."

"How do I do that?" Vagary said.
He squeezed Calliope's hand,
but she still didn't respond.

"Talk to her. Tell her who she is,
who you are, and what you are
to each other," Edmon said.
"Push energy through the bond."

Vagary left the bond alone
as much as he could, because
Calliope hated the bond and
she hated him, so he hadn't
dared explore it very much.

He could feel it, though.

He could always feel it,
a lot more clearly than she
ever seemed to feel it unless
something went wrong.

Now he groped for the bond
and tried to send some of
his own energy through it.

That made his head hurt worse,
but Vagary just kept going.

"Your name is Calliope," he said.
"You live in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
You are a superhera. You have
Air Powers and some Empathy too."

He held her hand and he talked,
telling her about herself as best
he could remember the details.

He reached for her with his mind,
straining his Telepathy to see if he
could hitch it to her Empathy like
it did when their control slipped.

"Come on, Calliope, don't
leave me like this," Vagary said.
"Sit up and call me a dick!"

A sudden burning gush of energy
went through him, and that got
the flow started between them.

"That's it," he said. "Listen to
my voice. Come back to me."

Was that a twitch?

Vagary rubbed her hand,
but couldn't feel a change.
It gave him hope, though.

"We're nemeses," he said.
"We've had this bond between us
ever since we Phased through
each other. I know you hate it,
and you hate me, but right now
I am so fucking grateful for it."

"No," Calliope whispered.

Vagary sagged with relief.
"Oh, thank god," he said.
"You'll probably hate me for
this too, but I'm not sorry."

"Don't lie to me," she said.
"I can't take it. Not like this."

"What?" Vagary said, bewildered.

"Stick to factual statements,"
Edmon said with a frown.

"I -- I thought I was,"
Vagary said, looking
down at Calliope.

"I don't hate you,"
Calliope said. "I can
remember that much."

"Okay. Okay," Vagary said.
"We, um, we meet sometimes
to satisfy the bond. We go to
couples counseling. We visit parks
in Stillwater. You introduced me to
your favorite ice cream parlor."

"Blue Spruce," she said slowly.

"That's good," Edmon said.
"Try to remember as much as
you can. When Vagary tells you
something, add some details."

Vagary kept talking, and Calliope
filled in more and more bits.

Then Vagary's throat ran dry,
and he started coughing.

Edmon handed him a bottle
of water. "Here, drink this,"
he said. Then he turned to
Calliope. "Hi, I'm Edmon and
I'm a healer. May I check you?"

Calliope flopped her free hand
toward him, which was the most
that Vagary had seen her move.

Edmon wrapped his fingers
around her wrist and closed
his eyes for a moment.

Then he grinned and said,
"Brain activity is nearly normal.
I think you're going to be okay."

Vagary put down the half-empty bottle
and concentrated on not crying in relief.

The breeze was turning colder, stirring
grass that was as much brown as green
this late in the year. He shivered.

"Guess we don't need this
anymore," Edmon said, and
took the triage tag off Calliope.

When she saw it, she blanched,
her freckles standing out like
butter flecks in churned milk.

"I was dead?" she whispered.

"Expectant," said Edmon.
"Your body was still breathing,
but your brain wasn't doing
more than automatic functions."

"Thank you," Calliope said to Edmon.

"Thank him," the healer said,
pointing her toward Vagary.
"He just saved your mind."

Calliope blinked at him.
"Thank you, Vagary."

"You're welcome," he said.

"Can they be moved?"
someone asked. "The cops
have taken their own sweet time,
but they're heading this way."

"Yes, we can clear out,"
Edmon said. "I've healed
our casualties as best I can."

There were still several corpses --
fortunately, none on Kraken's side --
and a lot of wounded gangsters, but
the ambulances could handle those.

Kraken had already swept away
the superpowered nutjobs, and
the police could have the minions.

"Let's get while the getting's good,"
Vagary said. He climbed to his feet
and helped Calliope into a tac van.

It would be better if nobody got
to wondering why a superhera
was being healed by supervillains.

Safely netted into place, Calliope
leaned against Vagary. He let her.

"You surprised me today," she said.
"I was not expecting courage."

"We don’t develop courage by
being happy every day," Vagary said.
"We develop it by surviving difficult times
and by challenging adversity." Then he
shrugged. "That's life as a supervillain."

It had been easier before he had
so much to lose, but Calliope
didn't need to know that.

They were trying to take it slow,
and he had no idea what this mess
would do to that plan, but it could
have ended so much worse.

The bond had subsided into
a dim ache. It was probably okay.

As the van pulled away, Calliope
slumped even further onto Vagary,
her head pillowed on his shoulder.

Maybe it was awful of him, but
Vagary still felt secretly grateful
for the incident because it let him
know that, for whatever reason,

Calliope didn't hate him.

* * *


Wipeout (Xavier Brown) -- He has butterscotch skin, brown eyes, and straight brown hair buzzed short. He is colorblind. He is mixed-race of unknown origin, as his mother left the hospital after giving birth without naming the father or herself. He grew up in the foster care system without strong attachments to anyone. It's where he learned to erase memories on request, which remains a lucrative sideline for him. Wipeout is unscrupulous and doesn't hesitate to break laws or violate people's minds to complete an assignment. He works for other supervillains, extracting or erasing information from other people's minds. Popular among the unprincipled supervillains, he often comes to the negative attention of the principled ones because he does things that foment hatred of soups in general. Yet he can be charming and persuasive when he wants to be. Wipeout is killed in a cape fight in Rabid City.
Origin: Medical experiments during a stay in Juvenile Hall left him with superpowers.
Uniform: Whatever fits. He literally does not care what he wears.
Qualities: Expert (+2) Corporate Espionage, Good (+2) Cunning, Good (+2) Fast, Good (+2) Persuasion
Poor (-2) Colorblind
Powers: Expert (+4) Telepath
Motivation: To make it didn't happen.

(This link is graphic.)
Edmon Roberts
-- He has ruddy skin, brown eyes, and short brown hair. He wears glasses. Feeling betrayed by his experiences in the military, he wound up working for some of the more principled supervillains. They pay well, and at least they're honest about what they do. His experience as a combat medic makes him extremely valuable to them.
Origin: He was captured by enemy forces in Iraq and forced to treat one of their casualties, threatened with death if the man died. Roberts manifested healing and succeeded -- only to discover after his release that the man was a notorious terrorist. After that, Roberts decided that he'd had enough of this shit and left the army as soon as his enlistment ran out. He never mentioned his ability to anyone there.
Uniform: Despite leaving the military, he still likes camo cloth, particularly the desert style. Besides that, he favors soft neutrals.
Qualities: Good (+2) Combat Medic, Good (+2) Honor, Good (+2) Kinesthetic Intelligence, Good (+2) Strength, Good (+2) Teamwork
Poor (-2) Feelings of Betrayal
Powers: Good (+2) Healing
Motivation: To serve with honor.

Hardrock (Peter Huddleston) -- He has a stony gray body with blue eyes, but no hair. After the landslide turned him into a living rock, he became very lonely, because not many people wanted to be around him. Kraken was the most welcoming, so that's where he wound up. He provides muscle for them, and they keep him company. It works.
Origin: Caught in a rockslide, he crawled out of it as a rock man.
Uniform: None. He goes nude. He no longer has visible genitals.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Enforcer, Good (+2) Naturalistic Intelligence, Good (+2) Mountain Climber, Good (+2) Stamina
Poor (-2) Dexterity
Powers: Good (+2) Armor, Good (+2) Super-Strength
Motivation: Companionship.

* * *

“We don’t develop courage by being happy every day. We develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”
Barbara de Angelis

Rapid City is most dangerous city in South Dakota, and generally the worst. Consider this a little payback for that "No Indians" sign I saw there a few decades back.

See a map of Rapid City. The airport is about 6.2 miles from town.

This is the Rapid City Regional Airport. Here is an aerial view and some of the nearby scenery.

Here is the McGillycuddy Complex Cold Storage Warehouse. The tan building in the foreground is the cold storage warehouse. Behind it is another warehouse that is not climate-controlled. In the background is an apartment building that houses workers for several factories visible behind it. Most of the warehouse workers also live there, as do menial staff for the airport.

The Smoking Gun Shooting Gallery is right next door. They sell guns and ammo. Here are the shooting lanes.

Souvenirs are tangible memories that store deep and complex meanings. People have various reasons for not buying souvenirs. When an experienced traveler and collector refuses, however, it is often a condemnation of the place.

Phasing is a superpower that allows the user to pass through solid objects. In tactical terms, this largely negates cover. A concrete wall might stop bullets, but it won't stop someone with Phasing. After working hard, Vagary starts to get tired, so passing through the thick wall of a commercial refrigerator is something he doesn't want to do -- although he probably still could if he had to. Concealment still works to hide people from sight, though. Vagary can't see through bushes or whatever while in solid form. Once he becomes intangible, everything turns into kind of a palimpsest. He has to Phase into the buildings to search them. And of course, he can't be hurt by ordinary weapons while Phased, although some energy weapons might still connect.

Moral injury is a common consequence of going to war. Read some examples from veterans. Treating moral injury is difficult, and the kind of reliving exercise often used for PTSD can actively exacerbate a moral injury. So far, group therapy is among the most effective treatments. Community support also helps. More recently, atonement has been recommended. Hardrock may be a supervillain, but he generally doesn't want to kill people, and feels terrible about it even though Wipeout was a heinous bastard.

A more general approach is becoming a better person. Working on this process can help relieve the sense of shame and self-loathing that often comes from a moral injury. Here are 101 ways to become a better person.

Bonding is a popular trope, variously described as a soul link or mind link. In fanfic it's often called a soulbond. Calliope and Vagary developed this connection accidentally after Phasing through each other. It allows them to sense each other's thoughts and feelings, although they usually suppress it due to Calliope's severe distaste for it. They can also draw strength from each other -- which means that a blow which would be essentially fatal under most circumstances is not in this case.

Psychoclusion is the most extreme form of mindwiping, in which the personality is erased from the body, leaving no higher brain functions. Destruction is total and prevents the body from forming another mind. The process is rarely reversible through telepathic means, although it may be possible for Time Powers or Soul Powers to restore the mind in other ways. It doesn't require finesse, just enough power to burn out the mind, which means a telepath of Good level can often do it on purpose, and sometimes weaker ones can under stress. Almost none of them will do so deliberately, because they tend to be mentally fastidious, but it is a known survival function that can be activated by grievous harm. There are several documented cases of someone trying to rape or murder a telepath, only to fall over, permanently devoid of all thought. The person may be left in a persistent vegetative state or a coma. The name comes from "psycho" for mind and "clus" for close, literally "mind closure."

Ambulances from Rabid City and several nearby areas converged on the cape incident near the airport. Well, at least something around there still works.

A mass-casualty incident occurs when the number of victims exceeds the supplies and personnel available to care for them. Cape fights frequently result in mass-casualty incidents. This requires triage. Most first responders will use medical triage developed for civilian contexts. Due to its origins, Kraken trains its people to military standards and thus uses combat triage. This flyer explains combat casualty care (Page 1, Page 2, Page 3).

A MET Tag is a popular type of triage tag. Read the instructions. This design is so simple that it uses only pictures, no text, thus removing the language barrier. It can be used effectively by minimally trained or even untrained people. It's much faster than more complicated modern tags. which require a lengthy training manual. Explore the design history of triage tags. In T-America, the more detailed tags are often used by trained personnel or situations with a moderate number of casualties. The simpler MET tags are used by citizen responders, larger incidents, and situations where people may speak different languages.

In this case, Edmon identified personality death which is untreatable under most circumstances, tagged the still-breathing victim Expectant, and moved on to people he could actually help. One of the quirks of triage with superpowers is that some life-wrecking things such as head injuries are much more fixable if you get healing on the spot. Vagary understandably lost his shit over this, but Edmon made the correct decision based on combat triage procedures. Another quirk of supervillain health care is that heroic measures are more often opt-in than opt-out anyway. Supervillains tend not to save people when the prognosis is poor, because they generally wouldn't want that themselves -- it's a matter of presumed nonconsent which is prevailingly accurate in their context.

Presumed nonconsent is a Terramagne-American legal term that describes the probability that a person would refuse to do or to allow something, for use in situations where they cannot communicate their wishes or should not be harassed with unwelcome attentions. When a majority of persons would refuse if asked, then the norm is considered to be refusal, and the principle of presumed nonconsent applies. For example, almost no citizens approaching a Planned Parenthood clinic wish to discuss their intimate health matters with strangers; unwelcome attention is harrassment; harassment is illegal; so protestors are prohibited from bothering people coming to a clinic under the principle of presumed nonconsent. They may still carry signs, and if they don't speak, the boundary is closer; the one for general verbalized protests is farther back, but they can be arrested if they make it personal. Similarly, some populations are so averse to heroic measures when the prognosis is poor that they apply presumed nonconsent in those cases and withhold medical treatment, allowing the person to die peacefully, although palliative care may still be permitted.

See the side and front of the Kraken tac van. The cab has generous electronics, while the back has benches and equipment for securing passengers or gear. Supervillains generally favor black vans.

Courage is the virtue of facing difficult situations with fortitude. People routinely think of supervillains as lacking courage. I don't know why, because they often rush into dangerous situations. They're just using their courage in pursuit of different goals than superheroes -- or even, as here, similar goals with much more ruthless means. Even poor Hardrock would rather puree someone's head than let another person get mindwiped. He'll just take the moral injury and deal with it later. Explore ways you can build up your courage.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, gender studies, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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