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Poem: "A Way Out of No Way" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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Poem: "A Way Out of No Way"
This poem is spillover from the July 3, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] technoshaman. It also fills the "slaves" square in my 6-23-18 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by a pool run by [personal profile] ng_moonmoth. It belongs in the Officer Pink thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains intense topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features a herd of centaurs imprisoned in the Umsetzung Complex, Turq refusing to go into the dungeon without Ansel for backup, a debate over Ansel going back on duty with an injured hand, another debate about protective equipment, fear and misery, panicky centaurs, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.


"A Way Out of No Way"


Ansel and Turq were wiping off
the top of the picnic table, and Kedric
was throwing away the garbage from
their lunch, when Callen came over.

"We found survivors," she said.
"Some of them we can get out on
our own, but we're having trouble
with the centaurs kept underneath
the north end of the STEMZ Building."

Turq sat down hard, the bench
shifting underneath his weight.

"Centaurs," Ansel echoed.

"Yes," said Callen. "We got
close enough to see that much,
but they're panicky. They won't
come out, even though we've already
opened the electric locks on the cells."

"They're afraid," Turq said. "They don't
know if you're working with the white coats.
Your armor is scary. That stuff makes
you all look like heavier guards."

"I thought it might be something
like that," Callen said. "Will you
come and help us with them?"

Turq looked at Ansel. "We --"

"I mean by yourself, Turq,
since Ansel's already logged out
due to injury," Callen said.

"No," Turq said, shaking
his head. "I'm sorry, but no.
I'm not going in there without
my backup. That place is -- if
the white coats -- I can't risk that."

"Ansel can't go back on duty
with a broken hand," Callen said.

"It's not broken, it's just bruised,"
Ansel said. "That'll learn me to put
my gloves on before I hit someone.
The brace is just to keep the nicks on
my knuckles from getting any worse."

"If you're sure ..." Callen said.

"I'm combat-capable," Ansel said.
"That doesn't really matter, though,
because the mission is to support
Turq while he talks the survivors out
of their cells. I could fight if I had to,
but that's not what you're asking for."

"All right, then you can log back in,
but you'll have to sign for it," Callen said.

"No problem," Ansel said. "The whole point
of me coming today was backup for Turq."

"Yeah, if Ansel comes with me, then
I'm willing to go down and talk with
the survivors you found," Turq said.

"Where's your attending medic?"
Callen asked Ansel. "This will be
easier if we can get him to sign
the papers certifying you fit for duty."

"I'm here," Kedric said. "What's up?"

"Callen wants your confirmation
that I can go back on duty," Ansel said.

"Let me see your hand," Kedric said,
beckoning for it. Ansel obeyed, and
Kedric took off the brace. "All right,
the bruises show more now, but they
have stopped spreading, and the cuts
are secure. Close your hand."

Ansel made a fist. It didn't hurt
as much as it had before, or
more precisely, he couldn't
feel it through the ibuprofen.

"See, I'm fine," he said.

He wasn't looking forward
to putting his gloves back on,
but he wasn't about to forget again.

"I agree," Kedric said. "It's a trivial injury,
and you can deploy if you want to." He
signed the form on the tablet computer
that Callen held out for him to use.

Ansel signed, and even that was
no more than vaguely uncomfortable.

Then he put his gloves on, which
was not fun but was bearable,
followed by his helmet.

Turq still hadn't moved.

"Helmet, goggles, and gloves,"
Ansel reminded the boy.

"I can't," Turq said, shaking
his head. "If I go down there
looking like another guard, then
they will freak, and I will have
no chance of reaching them."

"You need protection," Ansel said.

"I needed protection when nutjobs
were shooting at people," Turq said.
"Right now, I need for the survivors
to see who I really am." He rubbed
a hand through his blue hair.

Ansel's glove clattered over
the side of his helmet as he
echoed the gesture. "Well, darn."

"You have to wear protection," Callen said.

"I know the protocols, but like Turq said,
there's no point going down if we can't
complete the mission," Ansel replied.

"We would just make it worse by
scaring them," Turq said. "Besides,
I'll only wind up shucking it anyway.
They need to see what I am,
as well as who I am."

Ansel knew that Turq could
carry things with him when he
shifted shape, but the armor
wouldn't protect him when it was
tucked away with his human form.

"So we're stuck," Ansel said.

"Okay, let's explore other options,"
Kedric said. "Turq is right in that nobody
is shooting at us now and the survivors will
be skittish. Ansel and Callen are right that
this situation normally calls for protection.
So what are the credible threats right now?"

"Boobytraps," Turq said. "Things like
the gizmos out on the lawn. Any of it
could be rigged -- but once we go
through an area, it should be safe,"

"Enemy combatants," Ansel said.
"There might be guards or others that
the breach teams haven't found yet,
if they're hiding somewhere in there."

"I don't think so," Callen said. "BASH
already cleared the stairs and unlocked
the doors, so if anyone or anything was
left, then they should have responded
to that activity. It's probably safe."

"How about a compromise?"
Ansel said. "Wear the armor in, but
take it off before approaching the cells."

"I can live with that," Turq said. "I'm
not eager to get shot at, you know."

"Thank goodness for that," Ansel said.

So Turq put on the rest of his protection
while Ansel checked his pistol and zatzer.
Hopefully they wouldn't need any of that,
but it was better to be safe than sorry.

They walked back to the STEMZ Building,
Kedric tailing them until he peeled off
to rejoin the support station.

When they reached the door,
though, Turq froze up.

"What's wrong?" Ansel said.

"I sooo don't want to go in there,"
Turq moaned. "I never wanted
to come back to this place."

"You don't have to do this,"
Ansel said. "It's my job, not yours."

Turq took a deep breath. "I have to,"
he said. "I left people behind once.
I won't do it again. Nobody else has
as good a chance as I do of coaxing
the centaurs out without anyone
getting hurt in the process."

"That's probably true," Ansel said,
putting a hand on Turq's shoulder.
"I'm right here if you need me."

"Let's do this," Turq said.

"Remember how we worked
in the last raid," Ansel said.
"Try to stay right behind me,
and I'll protect you in case
anything goes wrong."

"Okay," Turq said,
not sounding okay at all.

Ansel could see sweat
glistening on his pale skin.

They had a job to do, though, so
Ansel opened the heavy metal door
and led the way down the stairs.

Those were metal, too, and
wanted to clang underfoot.
Ansel tried to walk softly, but
combat boots weren't made for it.

"Jin shen shu," Turq muttered,
and his footsteps grew softer.

Ansel could not escape
the awareness that this facility
practiced human experimentation.

It made his skin crawl, and he
could see how it affected Turq.

Ansel kept a sharp eye out
for traps or other trouble, but
he saw nothing out of place.

The stairs were just stairs.

At the bottom, a thick metal door
sealed the way to the cell block.

The lights on the lock glowed green,
though -- the BASH hackers
had done their job well.

"It seems clear," Ansel said.

"Okay," Turq said. He took off
his helmet, goggles, and gloves.
Sweat dripped from the ends
of his short turquoise hair.

Ansel pulled off his helmet.
"Ready when you are," he said.

Turq pushed open the door
and stepped just inside it.

"Hi," he said, peeking into
the cell block. "My name
is Turq. I'm one of you."

Someone scoffed.
"You're no centaur!"

"I'm not one of your cohort,
but I am a survivor," Turq said.

Then he turned into the caney.

Squeals of surprise came
from the nearby cells.

"What are you?"
said a rough voice.

Turq shifted back into
human form. "So now you
know that I'm a shapeshifter,"
he said. "This place still scares me
to bits, so I brought a friend for
protection. He's a soup too."

When Turq waved, Ansel
stepped forward, letting them
see his thistle-pink hair.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Ansel,
also known as Officer Pink.
I'm here to rescue you."

The centaurs snorted and
stamped in their cells.

Ansel could see a few of
them in the nearest cells, but
most were just dim shapes huddled
as far away as they could get.

They were shaking in place,
some with their tails clamped
and others swishing madly.

Their behavior made Ansel
think of abused horses, or
worse, enslaved humans.

"What you need to know now
is that police and superheroes
raided the compound," Turq said.
"They arrested everyone who worked
here. They unlocked the doors.
It's safe for you to come out."

"Nothing is safe!" said a sharp voice.

Ansel wasn't surprised to hear
signs of traumatic stress.

The centaurs reminded him
so much of Turq, fragile and fierce
in equal measure. The last thing
Ansel wanted was a repetition of
that disastrous first meeting.

Fortunately, he had learned
a lot about soups since then, and
he could use his experiences with
Turq to help the centaurs now.

"The stairwell is clear," he said.
"We just came down through there.
You can get out the same way."

"And then what?" said a smooth voice.

"Whatever you want," Turq said.
"You're free now. There are people
to help if you want that, but if not,
I'll tell them to leave you alone."

"We'll get them to back away
from the door so that you have
room to come out," Ansel added.

"You promise that it's safe?"
This voice was softer, mellow.

"It's safe to come out," Turq said.
"It might not be safe to stay. People
have checked, but that's just this bit
of the compound. Who knows what
the white coats might have set up in
some other part? It could be risky."

Inside the buildings had been
the hot zone, and even though
the weapons had stopped firing,
Ansel didn't feel safe in here.

The back of his neck crawled,
wishing for his helmet again.

He had looked for boobytraps
without finding any, but that didn't
necessarily mean there were none.

"Think about this," Ansel added.
"Do you trust the people who ran
this place? Do you want to stay
in an area that they controlled?"

"Hell no," said the rough voice.

"I know it's awful in here," Turq said.
"Remember that there is a creative force
in this universe, working to pull down
the gigantic mountains of evil, a power
that is able to make a way out of no way and
transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows."

"Well said," Ansel remarked. "The way is
right there, just waiting to be taken."
He waved a hand at the door.

The motion made the centaurs
skitter away from him, edging
along the far wall of their cells.

He couldn't send them away
from him like he would with a horse
in a corral, but he noted the movement.

"Okay, folks, I have had about all
of this that I can handle," Turq said.
"I think you should get out as soon
as you can. I know that I am."

He backed out of the cell block.

Ansel dropped his shoulders down,
closed his hands, and turned his back
on the centaurs before walking out.

Then he found the mechanism
that controlled the door and
set the thing to stay open.

Together they climbed back
up the stairs into the light.

Turq stood in the sun, shaking,
as he let the breeze blow
through his wet hair.

Ansel glanced over
his shoulder, wondering
if horse training techniques
would work on centaurs.

If anyone would know
how mad science survivors
might react, it was Turq.

"Do you think the centaurs
can trust us enough to come
out of hiding?" Ansel said.

"All we can do is wait,"
Turq said, "and hope."

* * *

Notes:

"When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Post-traumatic stress comes from surviving horrific events. Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder, aka Compound-PTSD, comes from experiencing not a single disaster but a series of them or a period of extended abuse. PDSD can be harder to treat if the person never had an experience of being safe or getting help, or if times of safety repeatedly fell back into awfulness again. All survivors of mad science torture should be presumed to have PDSD until they can be assessed individually, and should receive trauma-informed care. Understand how to help someone with traumatic stress.

(These links are touchy.)
The core of trauma-informed care is asking "What happened to you?" instead of "What is wrong with you?" This forms the basis of the principles and practices. There are instructions for supporting trauma survivors and working through your own trauma. First responders typically have workplace procedures to minimize the risk of developing PTSD.

At the scene of an emergency, the hot zone is actively dangerous, the warm zone is potentially risky, and the cold zone ought to be safe unless something major changes. Only combat medics or other specially trained personnel will go into a hot zone. Regular paramedics may not even want to go into a warm zone, although some do. Usually people want to keep the medics away from danger because they are valuable. Firefighters and police often cross-train in emergency medicine, though, and some Emotional First Aides specialize in disaster scenes. So there may be someone willing to dive in even if the danger is not completely contained yet. Turq is volunteering because nobody else can do what he does, and the authorities accept his help for that reason, but everyone understands it's beyond the call of duty and he has no obligation to risk himself that way.

Most awards for heroism focus on people whose job it is to do dangerous things -- such as police, firefighters, or EMTs -- but the Gallantoro Award from Australia thoughtfully distinguishes between them and civilians. Turq displays heroism by going back into the facility where he suffered mad science torture, for the sake of helping other survivors; it's not his job, so that puts it beyond the call of duty. He does show signs that he'd make a good first responder, though. Look at the traits for police, firefighters, and medics to see a combined image of first responder attributes in general. Here is some advice on how to live heroically, and notice that heroes don't see any of that as particularly exceptional -- they see it as "what anyone would do."

It can be difficult to deal with people who refuse help, especially for first responders. Understand that this refusal may not be irrational but may come from bad help or other problems that deter help-seeking behavior. Here the rescuers are trying to deal with a herd of traumatized centaurs whose recent experiences have made them justifiably suspicious of everyone else. Thus the most important step is to make sure you don't make matters worse. In order for people to request or accept help, it must be known, accessible, respectful, effective, and free of drawbacks that outweigh its benefits. Think about what to do when someone doesn't want help, and how to stop thinking that accepting help is a sign of weakness.

Force is a poor means of control, and in fact indicates less power; in some situations, it is not a feasible option at all. Locally, police are dubious about de-escalation training. T-American police are far more enthusiastic about exploring alternatives to violence. This means when force is not available, they have other tools in the box.

Jin Shen Shu is the "skill of light body" taught in Shaolin Kung Fu. Turq has studied but not yet mastered these techniques.

Hackers sometimes work in police departments. In this case, they're breaking into electronic locks to free prisoners.

Vulnerability relates to different soft spots and defenses for different people. While helpful in hostile conditions, those defenses can cause problems under more favorable ones. Vulnerability can be a sign of strength instead of weakness, and it aids intimacy. Turq and Ansel use it to show the traumatized centaurs that they are not a threat, which works because mad scientists and their employees would never do such a thing. There are ways to build rapport and to be more vulnerable in relationships.

Crisis management depends on listening, empathizing, and building rapport. Active listening can help build rapport quickly or slowly, even in the face of negative circumstances. Turq has an edge here because he is a fellow survivor of mad science torture, Ansel does because of his police training, and both of them do because of their superpowers.

(These links are heinous.)



Nazi boobytraps included some truly awful stuff by the end of World War II.

The Body Language of Horses is the best reference on this topic. Online, you can read about some horse body language and look at illustrations. The tail communicates a lot.

Horse interactions with each other can be very different from how they relate to humans. To a horse, a human seems predatorial much of the time. Ansel is not an expert, but he knows enough to help in this case. Centaurs aren't horses, but they pick up many equine instincts that make equestrian experience useful in dealing with them.
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