WARNING: This poem contains scenes that some readers may find disturbing. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. This is the visit to the bondworker in which Calliope tries to sever the bond with Vagary, but it turns out so horrible that she can't go through with it. It includes an unbalanced relationship, anticipatory grief, Calliope is completely clueless about how much the impending separation hurts Vagary already, anxiety, Vagary doesn't want to break the bond but is tired of being treated like a burden so agrees to it anyway, complications of treatment due to bond shape, graphic discussion of risks, bond manipulation is itself a risky profession to be in, graphic description of bond severance, extreme pain, unbalanced perceptions, guilt, selfishness, lots of screaming, Calliope decides that this is torture and calls it off, Vagary freaks out but is ultimately willing to repair the bond, self-blame, self-loathing, they're saying some really awful things to each other today, asking for help and getting it, medically necessary narcotics, because OW, brain fog, the bond is acting like an abused dog and snapping at them every time they touch, but won't let them get far apart either, caregiving, and other misery. Readers who have an unbalanced relationship, history of abuse, or sensitivity to rejection may find this extra stressful. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read. It's a huge plot point, though, so skipping it would leave a gap.
"A Double-Edged Sword"
[Sunday, March 22, 2015]
Calliope was so excited
she could hardly stay still.
Today was the day that she
would finally regain her freedom.
Vagary was huddled into himself,
silent and unhappy, but willing
to go along, for which Calliope
felt intensely grateful.
The clinic lay in the middle
of a flattened triangle between
Oklahoma City, Stillwater, and Tulsa.
That was in Lincoln County, up in
the northwest corner where there
wasn't much else for miles.
It was a place where you
could park something and
not attract unwanted attention.
It was also a place where
a traveling clinic would be
both welcome and expected,
because the towns were
so small that not all of them
even had a community clinic.
To find an actual hospital,
you had to go to Tulsa
or Oklahoma City.
Calliope knew that,
because she had worked
this area before; its isolation
made challenges in bad weather.
The clinic sat in the middle
of somebody's hay field,
the scene complete with
round bales of last year's hay.
A circle had been mowed in grass
just beginning to turn green, with
a rugged path leading out to it.
The clinic itself consisted of
seven shipping containers
arranged in a U shape, with
a metal roof over the middle.
The sides read Clinic in a Can,
and near the entrance was a map
showing the modules as Reception,
Bunkroom, Lab, Dotties, Exam Double,
Exam Basic, and finally Exam Advanced.
Calliope reached over to give Vagary
a reassuring pat, but he moved away.
Ah well, he'd get over it soon enough.
Calliope moved briskly toward
the trailer marked Reception,
her shoes booming on the ramp,
and Vagary followed behind her.
Inside there was only a desk,
a few chairs, and a water cooler.
The first thing Vagary did when he
stepped inside was stamp his feet
on the floor. It didn't budge.
"Okay, I give them points
for professionalism," he said.
"Most portable clinics wobble
underfoot, and it's nerve-wracking."
"Clinic in a Can levels and locks all units
upon delivery, sir," said the receptionist.
He was a young man, probably still
in college. "Your appointment?"
"Calliope and Vagary. We're here
to see Cleaver," she said eagerly.
"Exam Double," the receptionist said,
pointing the way. "Cleaver will
be waiting for you there."
Calliope and Vagary went
to the far corner of the clinic.
The room was small and clean.
It had a cabinet desk with a sink and
a rolling chair. An equipment cart
stood under a large light panel on
the wall, flanked by two beds.
The mattresses were bare,
foam wrapped in a rubbery cover,
making them easy to clean.
That wasn't very reassuring.
The bondworker was much better --
a young man wearing a white coat
and delicate wire-rimmed glasses,
whose high emotional intelligence
felt like silk to Calliope's mind.
"Hi, I'm Cleaver," he said.
"Calliope and Vagary, right?"
"Yes," Calliope said. "Thank you
so much for agreeing to help us."
"I'll do my best," Cleaver said.
"I've reviewed your files. You two
Phased through each other and
formed an accidental bond,
which you want to sever."
"Yes, please," Calliope said.
"Vagary?" Cleaver said. "I need
to be completely clear about consent."
Vagary sighed. "I'm not happy about
this, but I'm willing to go through with it.
Calliope doesn't want me. That's ...
getting old. So get it over with."
"That brings us to a complication,"
Cleaver said. "Remember that I
agreed to take your case pending
personal observation. I can see
how enmeshed you are. That will
make separation very difficult."
"Difficult, how?" Vagary said,
his voice sharpening.
"Longer and more painful,
I'm afraid," Cleaver said.
Vagary snorted. "If you can't
source anaesthetics, I can."
"Of course I can, this is
a proper clinic and we treat
a wide range of complaints,"
Cleaver said. "Yours happens
to be one of the rarer sort."
"Then what's the problem?"
Vagary said. "Dope us up
or knock us out, and write us
a prescription for later if needed."
"If I did that, then I wouldn't be able
to see what I need to see in order
to fix this problem," Cleaver said.
"Unconscious, the mind loses
much of its detail. What you ask
would be like trying to perform
a delicate amputation in the dark."
"I don't understand," Calliope said,
starting to feel desperate as she saw
her chance slipping away. "Can't you
just --" She chopped a hand through
the air between herself and Vagary.
Cleaver leaned forward, lacing
his fingers together in order
to demonstrate the problem.
"If the bond wasn't so fimbriated,
I could just cut straight through
like most bondworkers do," he said.
"The way your spirits are enmeshed,
though, each of you would lose a lot to
the other with a straight cut. I won't risk it."
"That's how you got such a high safety rating,"
Vagary said abruptly. "You're turning away
the hopeless cases. It's a smart move."
"No, I'm just limiting the options
on offer to the clinically viable ones,"
Cleaver corrected. "I lay out the full range
of possibilities, then explain what I recommend
and what I'm willing to do. Most clients don't
want to die or wind up as vegetables, so I
get less argument than you might expect."
"Those horror stories have to come from
somewhere, though," Vagary said.
"Yes, well -- some people are
truly desperate," Cleaver said.
"They'll try anything, and there
are less scrupulous bondworkers
who will help them take their chances."
"Are you sure you can't just cut
right through it?" Calliope begged.
"I'm sure," Cleaver said. "If we had
found each other sooner, it might well
have worked. Please understand
that it's just not safe for me to be
too open about what I can do.
I have to stay circumspect."
"Understood," Vagary said. "Can
you tell what's causing the problem?"
"Not in detail, but it looks like you've
done something to merge together,
even though you don't want the bond,"
Cleaver said. "Any idea what?"
Calliope looked away. "Vagary
talked me into couples counseling.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
He had ... valid grounds for asking it."
"Well, there's the problem," Cleaver said.
"Counseling can definitely strengthen
all kinds of connections if you mean it."
"But you're still willing to help us, right?"
Calliope said, focusing on the important part.
"There has to be some way to fix this!"
"Yes, I am," said Cleaver. "You just need
to realize exactly what you're getting into.
Severing a bond is a double-edged sword.
You'll both feel it, like a knife sliding through
you, cutting a pattern. It's agonizing."
"How much pain are we talking
about here?" Vagary asked.
"A typical bond severance ranks
somewhere between a broken bone
and childbirth," Cleaver said.
"So what, about an eight at most?"
Vagary said. "I can take an eight."
"If he can take it, I can take it,"
Calliope said, lifting her chin.
"Bear in mind that you may not
feel the pain equally," Cleaver warned.
"I can sense how uneven your bond is, and
you two have expressed different feelings
about breaking it. That can affect how
you experience the separation."
"It's closer than it used to be,"
Calliope said. "It started out around
one quarter to three quarters, and now
it's more like one third to two thirds."
"That helps, but this still going to be
a rough ride," Cleaver warned them.
"I know that it's going to hurt like
hell," Vagary snapped. "It already
fucking hurts. Just get on with it."
"All right, then," said Cleaver.
He moved his chair between
the beds and patted them.
"Hop up and we'll get started."
Calliope climbed onto the bed.
It was more comfortable than
it looked. She felt nervous,
but more excited than scared.
Vagary just looked tense.
"Try to keep your breathing
steady as best you can,"
Cleaver said as he put
a hand on each of them.
"Make noise if you need to,
nobody will hear it -- there's
a privacy field over the room."
Calliope hadn't even noticed it,
but Vagary nodded agreement.
"Here we go," Cleaver warned.
Calliope felt the first slice like
a paper cut sliding over her skin
in a long meandering line.
She hissed, more startled
than hurt, and then focused
on taking slow deep breaths.
The pain got worse, winding
back over the same line but
cutting deeper now. She felt
how careful and precise it was.
Vagary was panting for air,
his face scrunched up and
his hands clutching the bed.
Calliope felt vaguely guilty, but
she was not about to give up
her chance of freedom just
because getting there hurt.
People got tattoos all the time,
and Hyperspaceman had told her
that getting them hurt like a bitch.
It got worse again, and now Calliope
could feel the bond starting to fade,
like a foreign object sliding free of flesh.
Vagary was moaning through his teeth,
rocking back and forth on the bed.
Sweat rolled down his skin.
It wasn't that bad, though. Was it?
Then Calliope recalled how uneven
their bond was, how Vagary had
always borne the brunt of it.
If she felt this bad, then
how much worse did he feel?
He was blocking her as much
as he could, or she'd know.
This close together, she
should feel an echo of it.
The bond faded more, and
Calliope got her first real taste
of solitude in months. It was
heady and unfamiliar now,
and even a little bitter.
The double-edged sword
slid deeper into their energy,
a cold line dividing them
into two separate people.
Vagary started screaming.
He clenched his jaw so hard
that the muscles showed, and
he curled into a ball on the bed.
This must be like torture for him.
No, Calliope realized with
dawning horror, it was torture, and
it was happening because of her.
She wanted her freedom, yes,
but not like this. Not at this price.
She longed for it, but she wasn't
sure she could go through with it,
not with Vagary shrieking like that.
Calliope wanted her life back, but
she didn't want to torture anyone
in order to get what she wanted.
She didn't want to be evil.
Vagary screamed and screamed
through his clenched teeth, but
he never said no, never said stop.
Calliope would have to say it for him.
It took her a minute to unstick
her tongue from the roof of her mouth.
"Stop," she said, and then louder, "Stop!
This is too much. It's not worth it."
"Stopped," Cleaver said at once.
"We can take a breather. Sometimes
that helps people get through this."
Vagary was sobbing, and then
shouting at her through his tears.
"What the fuck are you doing?
Let him finish it! Dragging it out
just makes it all the worse."
"As soon as we're done, I can
heal the edges for both of you,
so that you won't be left with
open injuries," said Cleaver.
"I can't do this anymore,"
Calliope said. "I'm sorry. This
is all my fault. I can't torture
someone to cut myself free."
"You already have," Vagary said,
and curled up even tighter.
His words sloshed over
the raw wounds of her soul
like so much saltwater.
"What do you want me
to do?" Cleaver said quietly.
"Fix this," Calliope said.
"Can you fix it? Can you
put us back together?"
"If that's what you both want,"
Cleaver said. "Understand
that doing so will knit the bond
even tighter, though -- like the way
that a broken bone is stronger at
the seam for a while after it heals."
"I understand," Calliope said, although
she wasn't sure if she did. She had to try.
"It's your choice," Cleaver said.
"This is always your choice."
It was, and that's what gave
Calliope the strength to do it.
This time, she had a choice.
"Do it," she said. "Heal the bond."
"Vagary?" Cleaver said, and when
he didn't respond, shook him gently.
"Come on, talk to me a little here."
Vagary must have said something,
because Cleaver nodded and
shifted a hand to his forehead.
A moment later, Vagary went limp.
"Is he -- is he okay?" Calliope asked,
suddenly hating that she had to ask.
"He's unconscious and out of pain,"
Cleaver said. "I can find my way back
along the seam even in the dark.
The cut's fresh -- it's still bleeding
energy all over the place."
Oh. So that's why Calliope
felt dizzy and exhausted.
"Here, let me help with that,"
Cleaver said. "I don't need
you fainting on me now."
He did something to her
that eased the pain a little and
made the room stop spinning.
"Thank you," she mumbled.
"I feel less awful now."
"That's good," Cleaver said.
"Rest if you can. I'm going
to focus on Vagary first and
shore up his energy before I
start repairing the bond. He's
lost more than you have."
"Okay," said Calliope . "Thanks
for taking good care of him."
She rolled on her side
so she could watch Vagary.
Even asleep, he looked awful,
but not as bad as before.
She still felt guilty, though.
That burned worse than
the damaged bond.
She was a horrible person.
Vagary was a supervillain, and
he deserved better than that.
Calliope couldn't look at him
any longer. She rolled on her back
and stared up at the white ceiling.
Slowly the pain of the bond
changed from a sharp fresh slice
to the pervasive ache of a healing wound.
She could sense Vagary again, dimly.
Everything was still blurry, though,
and she found herself drifting
for a long time in the haze.
Eventually Cleaver patted her
on the shoulder and said, "Wake up,
Calliope. We need to talk about
what we're going to do next."
"Home," she groaned.
"We need to get home."
"Do you have a ride?"
Cleaver asked. "I can't just
put you in a taxi. You'll need
someone to look after you,
both of you, for a day or few."
Calliope's brain staggered back
into action. "I can call a friend."
"You do that while I set up
your aftercare instructions, since
I can't use the preprinted ones now --
too much has changed," Cleaver said.
"It should only take a few minutes."
Calliope used her vidwatch
because she would've dropped
a phone. "Hype? It's Calliope.
I need emergency pickup for two."
"What happened?" Hyperspaceman said.
"I fucked up," Calliope said, trying not
to start crying, because if she did then
she'd never stop. "Please, just come
pick us up in about five minutes? You
can use my vidwatch as a beacon."
"I'll be right there," Hyperspaceman said.
"Don't sweat it, Calliope, you've pulled me
out of awful jams more than once before."
This was true. Hype had some problems
with family that made Calliope's life
look like a cakewalk in comparison.
Cleaver handed Calliope two bags,
one with her name printed on it and
the other with Vagary's. "Here," he said.
"I'm giving you pure narcotics for today and
half-and-halfs for the next two. After that,
over-the-counter painkillers should suffice --
if not, call me. Do you have blue chamomile?"
"Yes, but not on me," Calliope said. "I have
some in the medicine cabinet at home. I think."
"I'll get you some just to make sure," Cleaver said.
He brought four bottles, and dropped two into
each bag. "You'll both be sore and tired for
a while. Take it easy or you'll make it
that much worse, understand?"
"No argument here," Calliope said.
"I feel like death warmed over."
"It will get better," Cleaver said.
Then he handed Calliope a pair of
folders. "Here are the instructions,
so you don't have to try remembering
them through all of the brain fog."
"Thanks," Calliope said. "I'm sorry
for -- for everything, really I am."
"Apology accepted," Cleaver said.
"Sometimes things just go wrong.
We'll deal with it, one way or another."
Hyperspaceman arrived then, and
exclaimed over how bad they looked.
"Can you walk?" he said, frowning at
Calliope. "Hell, is he even awake?"
"I'll get him up," Cleaver said,
and patted at Vagary until the man
dragged himself off the bed and
practically fell on Hyperspaceman.
"I've got you," Hype said, catching
Vagary around the waist. "Calliope,
grab my other side for safe travel."
Their hands bumped together over
Hyperspaceman's back, snapping
a spark of static electricity that
made them shift position.
Calliope clung shamelessly
to Hyperspaceman as the tunnel
opened in front of them and then
poured them into her living room.
It was such a relief to be home,
she almost started crying.
"What do you need now?"
"Water," Calliope said,
pawing at the bags of pills.
Vagary snatched his and
upended it on the couch. "Wow,
he gave us the good stuff, and
blue chamomile both in
tincture and oil form."
them bottles of water so
they could take the pills.
"Would you like a hand
with the blue?" he asked.
"Please," Calliope said.
It was so nice to have
someone there to help.
She didn't feel any better,
but at least she didn't have
to struggle through this alone.
Hyperspaceman helped her
put some of the musky oil on
her wrists without spilling it
everywhere, then added
a few drops to the water.
Calliope chugged it
as fast as she could,
trying not to taste it.
"Her doses I know,
yours I don't," Hype said
to Vagary. "Do you want
some help, or not?"
"There's a card,"
he said, groping at
the small pile of stuff.
at the card and said, "Okay,
these work and play well
together. Do you care
if combining the two
makes you drowsy?"
"I do not want to be
awake right now,"
measured out the blue
for him, then offered
to walk Calliope to bed.
But when the two headed for
her bedroom, a sharp pain
pulled her up short.
It felt familiar, like
pulling on fresh stitches.
"Fuck," Vagary said.
"We're right back
where we started."
waking up in the hotel room,
tied to him by an aching tether.
"Couch," she mumbled. "Hype,
open up the hide-a-bed for us."
Hyperspaceman didn't argue,
just set up the bed and blankets.
When they climbed in and leaned
together to soothe the bond, though,
they got another painful surprise.
Strange energy crawled along
their skin everywhere that it
touched, buzzing and biting.
"What is that?" Calliope yelped,
pulling away from Vagary. "When
we touched it felt like electric shocks."
"Some kind of backlash, probably,"
he groaned. "Figure it out later."
It seemed there was more
to the double-edged sword
of separation and reunion
than anyone had realized.
"Here," said Hyperspaceman,
holding out a body pillow. "Put this
between you. That way you can
stay close without touching."
"Good idea," Calliope said.
She curled against the pillow
and dragged a blanket over herself.
"Sleep," said Hyperspaceman.
"You'll feel better in the morning."
Calliope hoped so. This was
all her fault and she had to find
a way to make up for it. Somehow.
The drugs were helping, a little.
Calliope did what she could to relax.
She fell asleep listening to the sound
of Vagary's hitched breathing as
it slowly began to even out.
* * *
This poem is long, so the notes will appear separately. Read the character and location notes. Here are the content notes.