Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Poem: "Targets for Their Own Self-Hatred"

This poem is spillover from the July 7, 2020 Poetry Fishbowl drawing prompts from previous discussion with [personal profile] siliconshaman, [personal profile] kengr, and Anonymous. It also fills the "Wise Men" square in my 7-1-20 card for the Winterfest in July Bingo fest. It has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. This poem belongs to the Officer Pink thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes the aftermath of the mad science raid, Carl Bernhardt's lab notes and detailed discussion of same, a principled psychopath working for the police as a zetetic analyst, the generational evolution of mad science street drugs, their ghastly effects, boundary issues, international politics as an obstacle in getting mad science drugs off the street, the debate over whether street drugs have any medical uses, post-traumatic stress in mad science survivors, and how that limits their current access to care, struggling to discuss ethics where one person is intuitive and the other is logical due to lacking a conscience, discussion of adaptive stress issues, debate over whether anything constructive could be gained from Nazi research or other mad science, discussion of human experimentation, reference to human/sapient trafficking, and other challenges. Please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.


"Targets for Their Own Self-Hatred"

[Tuesday, April 21, 2015]

Ansel pulled into the parking lot
that had become a collection of
trailers for the people working
on the aftermath of the raid.

Ava had set aside the space
because nobody wanted to work
inside the compound itself any more
than necessary, for fear that it might be
boobytrapped, toxic, or who-knows-what.

Ansel parked beside one small cluster
consisting of an office trailer, a lab,
and another for living space.

He had been asked to deliver
some of Carl Bernhardt's material
along with police records pertaining
to the case, because he knew several
of the victims and could talk about
their needs without bothering them.

Legalities notwithstanding, the police
felt so bad about failing to protect
the victims sooner that they didn't
want to impose on them if it
could possibly be avoided.

Ansel heaved the trunk
out of the backseat and
lumbered up the metal steps.

Not having a hand free,
he kicked the door a few times
to announce his presence.

An older woman wearing
a secretary badge let him in.

The large office had paneling of
warm brown wood. A work counter
ran along one wall, and the rest
of the space was crowded with
desks and office equipment.

The secretary used her arms
to make a clean spot on the counter
so Ansel could set down the trunk.

Then she poked her head through
the hall door and said, "Delivery's here!"

A younger woman and a man appeared,
both of them wearing task force badges.

The woman seemed warm and bright,
auburn hair gleaming in the sun.
There was something about her
that attracted Ansel's attention
and just made him want
to drift in her direction.

Her companion, on
the other hand, was
sort of a blank; Ansel
couldn't get the sense of
thereness from him that
he did from most people.

It was peculiar, but not
alarming in the way that
some people just made
his professional instincts
raise their hackles, so
he politely ignored it.

"Hi, I'm Ansel Nicholson,
also known as Officer Pink,"
he said. "I've come here from
the Bluehill police, and I was
asked to bring you some of
Carl Bernhardt's research and
police files concerning him."

"I'm Minda Haslanger and
my partner is Akil Dammermann,"
the woman said. "Please be patient
with him. He has personality differences
that make him ideal for this kind of work,
but not everyone appreciates them."

"I'm more or less living with a supervillain,"
Ansel said. "I've no grounds to complain."

"Can I have my stuff now?" Akil said.
The tips of his fingers curled.

"All right, since you're so excited,
let's get started," Minda said.

"This is excited?" Ansel said.

Akil seemed perfectly calm
to him, more than most people
would be in this situation.

"He's very laid back," Minda said.
"For him, this is the equivalent
of bouncing up and down."

"Sure, dig in," Ansel invited,
lifting the top off the trunk.

Akil reached in and lifted out
the tray of T-mem bands,
then riffled the papers
that lay underneath.

As Ansel stepped away,
he rubbed his hands
against his thighs.

Just touching the stuff
made him feel gross.

"Go wash your hands,"
Akil said without looking up.

"What?" Ansel said.

"If you feel dirty, wash
your hands and use soap --
but only do it once so you
don't scrub your skin off,"
Akil said, pointing to a door.
"Studies show the physical act
of washing relieves moral filth."

Ansel had read something similar,
so he stopped wiping his hands on
his pants and went to the bathroom.
He needed to pee anyway.

The soap actually did
make him feel cleaner.

When he came back,
Akil was up to his elbows
in the trunk, hips swaying
faintly back and forth.

Ansel could imagine
a more expressive person
wriggling like a puppy.

It was surprisingly easy
to read Akil, once he thought
of how Nebuly's depression
tended to flatten his expression.

"Will you be okay?" Ansel said.
"That research is creepy stuff."

"Oh, it can't hurt me," Akil said.
"I'm a psychopath. I don't have
any empathy, so things that upset
other people don't bother me; I'm
immune. It's like how Deaf people
can work safely in a noisy factory."

Maybe that explained the blank spot.

"That is a very useful immunity to have
for this case," Ansel said. "Wise men
have chosen well in hiring you for it."

"It turns out, I've been trailing this guy
for years," Akil said. "I study zetetic drugs,
that's what our task force is all about.
We just didn't know exactly who was
behind the first-generation crap."

"What kind of drugs?" Ansel wondered.
"Anything I need to worry about on the street?"

"Yeah, let me show you a family tree of them,
as much as we know it so far," Akil said.
He grabbed the nearest tablet computer
and tapped some kind of command.

When he turned the screen toward
Ansel, it showed a picture of Bernhardt
with several lines and boxes branching out.

"Our perp peddles all kinds of poison,"
Akil said. "You probably know at least
two of these: Gate-R and Hopp-R."

"Yes," Ansel said tightly. Gate-R was
a psychoactive drug that could cause
reptilian traits. Hopp-R was a sex drug
with more mammalian tendencies. Both
had high risks of major bodily damage.

"So here's another first-generation drug,
Isht-R," said Akil. "It fiddles with hormones
and has made some people manifest
Pheromone powers as a result."

"That's alarming," Ansel said.

"So what all these have in common
is that they work, but they're crappy,"
said Akil. "Everything is a kludge."

"The survivors," Ansel murmured.
"Every one we've found so far
has some awful side effect, or
several, that wrecks their health."

"That's useful to know," Akil said.
"I'll need to see them so I can --"

"Boundaries," Minda said, and
Akil stopped instantly. "It would be
useful for us to see the survivors
and ask about their experiences,
but they might not want to do that.
They have a right to decline."

"Most will probably refuse, but
at least a couple of them are
hitting back with everything
they've got," Ansel said. "So
you might get a few takers."

"I handle the interactions with
people as much as possible,"
Minda said. "Here's my card."

"Thank you, I'll pass it along,"
Ansel said, pocketing it.

"So that's settled," Akil said.
"Moving along, we come to
the second-generation drugs,
those inspired by Bernhard's crap.
MOOVE is a sex drug based on cows,
which can still cause animal traits, but
the side effects aren't as dangerous."

"That makes sense," Ansel said.
"It's like how cars get better, safer."

"Exactly. People are refining as
they go," said Akil. "PANT is similar
but derived from canines and felines,
meant to induce a heat cycle in women.
Sometimes it backfires and makes
them aggressively violent instead."

"Like oxytocin?" Ansel said. "That's why
it's not much use as a date-rape drug. It
lowers inhibitions, but that just increases
your chance of getting kicked in the crotch."

"Yeah, but when the heat works, it's
a real hook," Akil said. "Now PREND
works differently, it boosts hormones
for arousal and empathy. Sometimes it
causes psychic powers. We think the idea
was to make sex slaves who can intuit
and fulfill their user's secret desires."

"That is deeply disturbing," Ansel said.

It made him wonder if any of this
tied into some of the problems
he'd seen around the county
over the last several years.

"I'll take your word for it,"
Akil said. "Next we have
some second-generation drugs
that we believe are inspired by
Bernhardt's work, but we haven't
pinned down a connection yet."

Ansel looked at the diagram,
following the dotted lines where
the others had been solid. "Okay?"

"H-Force is based on horses,
enhancing muscle development
and speed," Akil said. "PRUVE
is similar but based on cows, for
muscle development and strength.
Both can cause superpowers and
primal traits. They have other risks,
but again, not as bad as earlier stuff."

"We just don't know of a street drug
that Bernhardt developed along
the lines of those enhancements,"
Minda said. "They have elements
in common with others, so we
suspect he inspired them."

Turq had once mentioned
something about experiments
intended to make him stronger.

The memory made Ansel's skin
crawl, and he wasn't even a survivor
himself, just friends with some.

If Akil could trace the connections
among the different drugs, hopefully
that would help get some of them
off the street to prevent future harm.

"Maybe you'll find a connection
in the trunk," Ansel suggested.

"That's what we're hoping for,"
Akil said as he traced a line on
the screen. "Here's the kicker --
they call it the White Peony. We
don't know much about this one
except it's another sex drug with
strong metagenic qualities that
often causes mental imbalances."

"It's showing up mostly in Asia,
so we don't have much data yet,"
Minda said. "Based on similarities
with the others, we suspect that
it's a third-generation drug -- it's
more effective and the drawbacks
are subtler, easier to conceal."

"Yeesh," Ansel said. "Let me
guess, the Asian authorities
don't want to play ball."

"They do not, but we're
hoping to bring them around
if we can prove a connection,"
Minda replied. "After all, they
don't have the treasure trove that
you BASH folks just cracked open."

"Good point," Ansel said, then sighed.
"It sounds like Bernhardt is behind
a lot of street drugs, directly or
indirectly, including some of
the worst stuff on the market."

"That's where our investigations
point," said Akil. "Studying relations
across the zetetic drugs helps us
understand their creation and effects,
not just for law enforcement purposes
so we that can stop them, but also
for medical purposes to buffer
some of the consequences."

That was a delicate way of saying
that Bernhardt was responsible for
a large number of primal soups, not
to mention crippling injuries and deaths.

Ansel had found far too many junkies
in a wretched condition to be at all
comfortable with this conversation.

"I wonder just how many of the primals
trace back to Bernhardt," he mused.

"A lot," Minda said grimly. "Hopp-R and
Gate-R are among the most popular of
the drugs that dribble pimps use. Worse,
they're often used on unwilling victims, so
warning people away from them does little
to solve the problem -- and the effects
can appear in a user's children."

"Junkies use Gate-R on their own,
though," Akil said. "The issue there
is that their lives somehow hurt worse
than having their arms and legs rot off.
I'm not sure how we could fix that."

"Well, first we'd have to know what hurts,
then figure out whether it's something that
can be changed," Ansel said thoughtfully.
"That's a question for counselors, not cops."

"Also, we have to watch for hidden factors,
because different users don't always respond
the same to drugs," said Minda. "Krokodil
works as a painkiller for some soups who
get no relief from other drugs, and it
bears some similarities to Gate-R."

"I didn't know that krokodil had
any legitimate uses," said Ansel.

"Most people don't," said Minda.
"We got a tip, though, and then
research verified the accuracy of it."

"I do know that some soups have
different reactions to drugs," Ansel said.
"Sometimes that's a real hardship,
more for some people than others."

Nebuly's attempts to find something
that would ease his depression
had only ended in disaster.

"One challenge we face is that
while primals are common among
soups, they don't show up much,"
Minda said. "They tend to hide,
and that makes it hard to help
them, or even figure out what
works or doesn't work for them."

"Yeah, I've noticed," Ansel said.
"Turq's cohort are mystic shifters, and
the centaurs have a mythical imprint.
Other people get weird about them.
But if they look like ordinary animals,
sometimes folks ignore them instead."

Minda smiled. "We've heard about
the purple cat, but haven't seen it."

"Same here," Ansel said. "Maybe
we'll get to see it someday, if it's real."

"I'd like that," Minda said. "So far,
we've only seen pictures of the victims
from the mad science lab. That's all
very interesting, but a bit limited."

"They're skittish," Ansel warned her.
"Even the ones who escaped years ago
still have trouble with all kinds of triggers."

"Can you tell us anything to avoid?"
Minda asked. "It might help."

"Anything medical," Ansel said.
"You'll have better luck wearing
business suits like you are now
than white coats, but even then
you're likely to spook them."

"That's too bad," Minda said. "I
had hoped we could help each other."

"It's possible," Ansel said slowly.
"None of them really know what was
done to them. They've only seen
the effects, not the actual details.
If you offer to share information,
that might appeal to some."

"We can analyze any substances
retrieved in the raid," said Akil. "I can
read and interpret lab notes, but you'll
want Minda to deliver any news."

"Understood," Ansel said.
"Stick to what you do well."

"Thing is, if they want to know
more than what's already written,
that means analyzing the people,
not just the records," said Akil.
"Even ordinary drugs can affect
users in different ways, and
zetetic ones all the more so."

Ansel grimaced. "You will
scare the hell out of them if you
mention that, even though they
might wish to know what you
could tell them about the drugs
and effects on their bodies."

"Akil, you have to be careful
with the victims," Minda said.

"I know, I know," Akil said,
"but my hands are tied. I can't
pull chemistry out of thin air!"

"You just have to feel your way
through it, and stop when people
start getting uncomfortable," Ansel said.

Akil looked away, his face carefully blank.
"I can't," he said quietly. "I don't have
the same pieces as you do. I can't
feel anything when people are upset.
I can read faces, if I'm watching and
paying attention, but I can't really do
that and do science at the same time."

"I'm sorry," Ansel said. "I'm not
used to working around this ..."
What had Minda called it?
"... personality difference yet."

"That's my job," Minda said.

"I can do some things myself,"
Akil said. "I can follow directions
really well if someone tells me
what to do or to avoid. But I can't
extrapolate well from one thing
to another. I need descriptions,
with details based on facts or
actions, not based on feelings."

Ansel blinked, groping around
inside himself and coming up
with ... pretty much nothing.

"I have no idea where to start,"
he confessed. "I mean, I've taken
classes in emotional first aid and
ethical law enforcement, but they
didn't say anything about that."

"They all assume the student has
a conscience, but I was born without
one, " Akil said. "Yeah, I minored in ethics
and needed a tutor to translate for me."

That made Ansel think back over
how he'd made decisions, and yes,
they were based far more on feeling
what needed to happen than working
through a set of rules or processes.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "This isn't
the first time I've run into limitations
that I didn't even know I had."

Minda chuckled. "You really
are an intuitive," she said.

"I guess I am," Ansel said.
He ruffled a hand through
his pink hair. "That's
how I got this, though."

"Tangled with someone you
couldn't beat?" Minda asked.

"No, a class full of kids pointed out
that I'd led a rather sheltered life and
couldn't understand some of their issues,"
Ansel said. "They weren't wrong, so I
went to a hairdresser who changed
my hair color, and that naturally led
to a lot of new experiences."

"Wow," Akil said, looking up
from his current bit of material
from the lab. "I never heard of
anyone throwing away privilege."

"I found out that ... this is me,"
Ansel said. "I'd never missed it
before, but afterwards it just
felt right to me, so I'm really
glad that I made the change.
It's worth every challenge."

"Yeah, that I understand,"
Akil said. "People ask me
wouldn't I rather be normal.
I always hate that question."

"You are normal," Ansel said.
"You just have a different set of
strengths and weaknesses. I
doubt that I could go through
that trunk without throwing up."

Akil looked at the page in his hands
and then carefully set it facedown.

"Based on past observations of
colleagues who got into my stuff,
that's probably true," Akil said.
"I recommend that you rely on us
and don't try to look at the notes.
I've already seen multiple violations
of scientific standards, and things
no ethics committee would approve."

"I'm still trying to figure out how
to frame ethical choices based on
logic rather than intuition," Ansel said.
"I can read and remember rules, I can
even tell if they're good ones, but when
I try to describe it, I just get feelings."

That made him anxious, because
not knowing things had gotten him
and other people hurt before.

"If you want to learn more about
this topic, I recommend starting
with the bottom rungs," Minda said.

"Do you have any suggestions?"
Ansel said. "I've been studying issues
related to superpowers, but this one
seems like exactly the kind of thing
that I need to know for working with
supervillains. They probably don't
feel the same way about ethics that
I do, but might understand logic."

"It works for me," Akil said.
"Psychopaths tend to be
very goal-oriented people."

Ansel remembered reading
something about that in a unit
on serial killers, but he'd been
unable to wrap his mind around it.

"You might try taking classes at
the Tremont Lighthouse Foundation,"
said Minda. "They're mostly online, actually
based in a lighthouse in Maine. I earned
a certificate in Moral Theory and Development
from them. You probably want to begin with
an introductory class on ethics and one on
philosophy, before getting into higher theory."

Ansel took out his phone to make notes.
"Can you give me the name again?"

"Here, pair up and I can just give you
the link to their website -- if you tell them
I referred you, then you get a discount
and I get a credit toward my next class,"
Minda said, holding out her phone.

Happily Ansel touched his to hers,
letting the devices exchange information.

Looking at the screen, he saw that
the website had a page devoted
to continuing education requirements.

"Oh hey, these would suit a bunch of
things I can use for work," Ansel said.
He glanced up at Akil. "Thank you.
If we hadn't met, I might have fallen
face-first into this gap instead of
spotting it in time to fix it."

"You're welcome," Akil said.
"But say that after you've
passed the class. I barely
squeaked through some of
mine, no matter how much
I studied. It's hard to make
your brain do things that just
don't fit its natural inclination."

"Take plenty of breaks, don't
push yourself too hard, and
stop if you get a headache,"
Minda said. "Seriously.
PASS is nobody's friend."

"That's the type-falsification one,
right? Like what happens to folks
living in the wrong gender?" Ansel said.

"Yeah, it was discovered in relation
to personality types, but it's a risk
anywhere someone tries to hide
their true self or do things that
don't come naturally," Minda said.

Ansel could easily see how trying
to use only logic instead of intuition
in ethics would drive him nuts.
"I'll be careful," he promised her.

The puzzle still intrigued him,
but he didn't want to wreck himself
trying to figure out how to solve it.

"There's a lot of information in here,"
Akil said, lifting another notebook
from the trunk. "Bernhardt may be
a quack and a kludge, but he
sure likes to talk to himself."

"I hope that helps," Ansel said.
"Can you really do something
with that ... stuff? It seems strange
for anything good to come from it."

"Well, that depends on what you mean,"
said Akil. "There's plenty of data about
his experiments. For any survivors,
that's valuable in ways it wouldn't be
to anyone else. Certainly it's useful to us
in researching zetetic drugs. But it's like
Nazi research, you can't use it as a base
for other scientific developments."

"Yeah, that would be immoral,"
Ansel said with a shudder.

"It's more than that," said Akil.
"The Nazis weren't really doing
science, or not just science, and
that corrupted the results. What
I'm seeing here looks similar."

"How so?" Ansel asked.

"The concentration camps were
a laboratory for the Nazis," said Akil.
"They put the minorities and intellectuals
in there because the general population
wouldn't mind losing those people, not
because they made ideal test subjects.
The Nazi leaders knew people needed
targets for their own self-hatred."

"That's cruel," said Ansel,
"and also pretty cynical."

Akil shrugged. "They're Nazis,
what do you expect?" he said.
"The ends justify the means mindset
has been the impetus behind many
a cruel medical or social experiment.
It used to be Jews; now it's primals
and other people with superpowers."

Or people with disabilities and differences,
Ansel remembered suddenly. The Nazis
had murdered a lot more than just Jews, and
it hadn't helped Germany's health one bit.

The parallel with superpowers worried him,
though. He didn't want to see primals or
other soups hiding for fear of persecution.

Besides, stuff like this was why so few soups
wanted to participate in medical studies,
which then meant people like Nebuly
couldn't get help they needed because
nobody knew what would work for them.

Of course, after all the mad science,
each of the survivors was unique,
so there might not have been
anything relevant after all.

Still, it would have been nice if
they'd had enough references
that someone could try.

"In any case, we'll work with
the data we have while we have it,"
Minda said. "Let's hope it's enough."

"We can do more with it than we
could without it," said Akil.
"That's enough for me."

"Out of curiosity, what would
you do with it?" Ansel asked.

"Destroy it," Akil said promptly.

"Why?" Ansel asked. "I mean,
obviously it's horrible, but you
made it sound like you could
have gotten something from it."

"Well, that's simple," said Akil.
"Do you trust Bernhardt and
his pack of mad scientists?"

"Heck no," Ansel said, stung.

"That's why," said Akil. "The usability
of data depends on the reliability of
the people who gathered it. Were
they competent enough to design
valid experiments? Were they
observant enough to notice what
really happened? Were they
honest enough to record all of
that exactly? I tend to doubt it."

"Ah," said Ansel. "When you
put it like that, I see your point."

"We haven't gone through this data
yet, but based on past experiences,
most mad scientists fail at many of
the fundamental standards of science,"
Minda explained. "They make a lot
of the same mistakes as drug cookers,
for instance. You've probably seen that."

"I have," Ansel said. "They don't store
things carefully, and that's what makes
a drug lab such a dangerous firetrap."

"So, that's one type of carelessness
that you've seen," Minda said, nodding.
"Carelessness is like cockroaches --
there's usually more than you see."

"That makes a disturbing amount
of sense," Ansel said. Certainly
the suspects gave him the same
squidgy feeling that cockroaches did.

"I'm glad you understand," Minda said.
"Not everyone is so accommodating."

"You're the experts," Ansel said.
"I'm actually wondering if you two
might be willing to speak with
the survivors and help them
decide what to do with the data.
The current proposal is to let them
have it after the case concludes."

"Ethically, any information about
them belongs to them, since they
didn't consent to share it," Minda said.
"We have been asked to minimize
the number of people viewing it
for law enforcement purposes."

"Thank you for respecting
their privacy as much as
you can," Ansel replied.

"They might want to keep
information related to what
happened to them," Minda said.
"It could help with health problems,
just knowing how they got that way."

"Yeah, there's at least one paramedic
they tolerate, and we're hoping to get
more caregivers, too," said Ansel.
"I'm sure they'd appreciate having
that information, if the survivors
will consent to share any of it."

"Beyond that, it's up to them,"
Akil said. "It's interesting on
a scientific level, but things that
don't relate to any survivors have
no concrete grounds for salvage."

"We'll talk them through it as best
we can," Minda said. "Hopefully that
will help them make good decisions.
Maybe we can connect the survivors
here with others elsewhere."

"Others?" Ansel said, frowning.

"We know that Bernhardt's drugs
cause primal manifestations in
some users. They might feel
an affinity for each other and
the survivors from this lab,"
Minda said. "That suggests
we should offer those people
a chance to connect if they wish."

"Also, the records suggest that
Bernhardt sold some of his victims
to fund his experiments," Akil said,
waving a page. "Right now, we don't
know how many ... but it's probably
not a small number. He's been at this
a long time, and he has connections
all over the trafficking industry."

"Yeah, there were some escapes
too," Ansel said. "I don't know how many."

"Anything people are willing to share
could help us find more," said Minda.
"Those other victims would have
a right to restitution as well."

"I'll let them know," Ansel said.
"It's a touchy topic, but so far
people seem interested in
reconnecting if they can."

He knew that Turq and Nebuly
both felt guilty about escaping
and leaving other members of
their cohort behind in captivity.

If others had escaped, they
probably felt the same way.

There was no telling how
other survivors might feel.

Ansel just hoped that, in
a world that wasn't always
very welcoming of primals,
they would not also become
targets for their own self-hatred.

"Enough," Minda said. "We
appreciate your help, but
this kind of work is hard on
sensitive people. Go walk
in a park and get lunch."

Ansel opened his mouth
to argue, but then he realized
that he felt grimy again and
was as much hungry as queasy.

"Okay," he said. He borrowed
the bathroom again on the way out,
and that made him feel a bit better.

Ansel didn't know his way
around Ava, but that was okay.
He could do a little exploring.

Maybe he'd even see that purple cat.

* * *

Notes:

This poem is long, so its character, location, and content notes will appear separately.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, safety, science, weblit, writing
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