WARNING: This poem deals with some intense and controversial issues. Some of the warnings are spoilers; highlight to read. It talks about historic suicides, possible murder, assisted suicide in battlefield conditions, homosexuality, kink, vulgar and derogatory language, discrimination against smart people, homophobia, despair caused by social pressure, and other cultural ills. Please think carefully about whether or not this is something you want to read.
"The Lights Behind Us"
[June 7, 1954]
Whammy Lass sat on the ratty little cot
in the breakroom of the SPOON office,
crying into her handkerchief.
"Are you all right?" asked Franz.
"No," she said. "He was one of us."
She waved a hand at the crinkled paper
lying beside her on the cot. "Alan Turing
killed himself earlier today. He left a note.
His family wired a message to me."
Franz skimmed over the lines.
"He was super-smart and he
could 'hear' technology. The British
hounded him to death for being a pervert,"
the engineer said. Then he dropped the page
and flung up his hands. "Who cares?
Half of Germany likes to dress in leather
and flog each other up against a wall!"
Whammy Lass groaned. "I do not
need to know what a bunch of krauts
like to do for a good time, Franz!"
"Be that as it may, I think suicide
is likely to remain an ongoing problem
for people with special powers," Franz said.
"Bigotry is the bloody fucking problem,"
Whammy Lass snarled, throwing
her hankie onto the mattress.
"Conceded," Franz said. "However,
suicide is a well-known response to
that kind of persecution. It's a matter of
having a distal problem and a proximate problem."
"We need to do something about this,"
Whammy Lass said. "He was one of us.
If we'd known sooner, maybe we could have
done something to help him. Now it's too late."
"Most people think of suicide as a moral failing
in the individual, not a flaw in society," Franz said.
"Most people have never had to help
a gut-shot soldier hold the knife,"
Whammy Lass growled. "Moral failing,
my super-powered ass."
"We've been trying to identify other people
with unusual abilities," Franz said.
"Just knowing they're not alone might help."
"Alan Turing knew enough to tell his family
to send me that note, and he's still dead,"
Whammy Lass said. "We need to do more.
Maybe we could make a charity fund or something
for people with superpowers who are in trouble."
"That's a start," Franz said. "It makes me wonder,
though, just how many of us there are -- or were.
We can't be the first. There have always been
stories about heroes doing extraordinary things."
"It would be interesting to look through history
and see if we could find some earlier soups,"
Whammy Lass agreed.
So the two of them went to the library
and dug into references of the odd,
the eccentric, the mad, and the crackpots.
Most of it seemed to be either nonsense or
exaggeration, but a few references panned out.
They found Alberto Santos-Dumont,
a Brazilian aviator known for his
studies and experiments in aeronautics.
While some of his designs had gone into
production, others could never be replicated.
"Gizmology or super-gizmology?"
Franz wondered as he read further.
"Air elemental," Whammy Lass suggested.
"People thought he was a nutjob -- they used
the phrase 'wings of madness' repeatedly
and implied that he made things fly by magic
instead of by technology."
"Another suicide," Franz murmured,
tracing a finger over the yellowed article.
"Or possibly a murder," Whammy Lass
said grimly, and showed him her book.
The next one they agreed upon
was Nikola Tesla. "Super-smart,"
they both said at the same time.
"Super-gizmologist," Franz added.
"I was thinking some kind of
energy manipulation," Whammy Lass
said, tapping a pencil on her notebook.
"It says he had an eidetic memory and
slept only two hours a night," Franz read.
"Can people have more than one superpower?"
"I know Gandhi can read both minds and feelings,
but it really seems like a single power for him,
even though I've met a couple of other people
who had only one or the other," said Whammy Lass.
"I have yet to meet anyone I'm sure has multiple gifts."
"There's the French legend of La Petite Mort,"
Franz said, pointing to another book,
"and that's not the only tale of a tiny assassin
with an assortment of unbelievable powers."
Whammy Lass snorted. "Unbelievable
is the word for it. We're not here for fairy tales."
She turned a page. "We should be grateful
that Tesla never completed his energy weapons,
or at least never released any. Some of these
sound too close to the Sterbenfeld for my comfort."
"He died in poverty," Franz observed.
"We really need a charity fund,"
Whammy Lass said. "I can lift a tank,
but I can't hold down a job for the life of me.
I'm seeing a pattern here that I do not like."
"The thing about smart people," said Franz,
"is that we seem like crazy people to dumb people."
"I don't want their efforts to be forgotten,"
Whammy Lass said. "I don't want to be left
with nothing more than the lights behind us,
shining on the dark water of history."
"What else can we do about it?" Franz said.
"I'm a war hero," said Whammy Lass.
"That has to be good for something.
I could try accepting more of those
silly invitations for public speaking."
"People don't listen," Franz said.
"Well then," said Whammy Lass,
"I'll have to make them listen."
* * *
Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was a famous inventor. Special thanks to zeeth_kyrah for mentioning elsewhere the Tesla fluid valve, which is an awesome piece of gizmology extant in our world too. In Terramagne it is THE preferred type of valve for gizmos and super-gizmos anywhere it will fit, precisely because it is so durable.
Alberto Santos-Dumont (20 July 1873 – 23 July 1932) studied aeronautics in Brazil. He was a gizmologist as well as a soup. Special thanks to chanter_greenie for identifying the source of his Air Powers as the custom wristwatch built by Louis Cartier. The watch has since been passed down through the Santos-Dumont family. Since it can only enhance a power, not bestow one, it doesn't always seem to "do" anything for its wearers, and has the reputation of being a "lucky charm" that only works if it likes you.
The watchmaker Cartier himself was one of several supergizmologists responsible for France's eclectic supply of accessories that activate, grant, or enhance superpowers. In fact, the Cartier watches with their original square design underlie Terramagne's evolution of the vidwatch decades later, as the square pilot watch never gave way to round ones as in our world. The first generation of anything like an actual vidwatch premiered during World War II when the T-Allies enjoyed a few true wireless telephones rather than the clunky radiotelephones of Local-Allies. In 1942, Louis Cartier delivered one case of 24 of gizmotronic wristwatches with a telephone function (not all the later bells and whistles of modern ones) shortly before his death. These were later retro-engineered by the Cartier family to produce mass-market versions, although it took decades for them to gain real popularity.
Alan Turing (23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954) has been counted the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. In our world, it is believed that he committed suicide, although some of his relatives believe his death was accidental. In Terramagne, he made it explicitly clear that he was going to take his ball and go home, and why.
Suicide affects other people. It's important to understand that someone else's suicide was not your fault. However, bullying correlates with suicide. If society makes people's lives unlivable, it is no surprise that some of the victims cease living, so the first step to preventing suicide is making sure that people have decent lives and are protected from torment. Understand how to deal with suicidal thoughts and how to help someone who is suicidal. These remain ongoing challenges for soups in Terramagne, on top of all the issues shared with our world such as bullying and bigotry.
For decades in the early and middle 1900s, Germany was a hotbed of thinly concealed sexual adventure with a thriving nightlife if you knew where to find it. Some references to this appear in the history of BDSM.
Kraut is a rude term for German, most used during WWI and WWII. Whammy Lass simply never dropped the habit; she doesn't think that all Germans are inherently bad people, but she had enough bad experiences to leave a lasting impression. The common ground of superpowers makes it possible for her and Franz to form a friendship, but there's always a thin membrane separating them and sometimes they bug the hell out of each other. They've decided to tolerate each other's irritating habits anyway.
Bigotry has negative effects on the speaker and other people. Know how to respond to bigotry and fight homophobia.
Suicide is not a moral failing, but a result of having more pain than coping methods. Sometimes it's because of missing life skills or depression, but other times it's due to poverty, torment, or other crushing external circumstances. Not talked about nearly as much, but ubiquitous throughout human warfare, is the use of suicide or mercy killing for gravely wounded soldiers when medical care is unavailable. The morality of suicide and assisted death is very complex.
La Petite Mort means "the little death" and most often refers to orgasm, but it has some other macabre associations. In Terramagne it is a French nickname for Dr. Infanta.
Sterbenfeld device -- a super-gizmo dating from World War II, whose name literally means "death field." It generates a plane of energy fatal to everything. The Germans never had very many of these, and couldn't get the area of effect large enough to outstrip conventional weaponry, but it was still terrifying. The technology remains rare but has appeared in modern times.
Among the issues for gifted people is that they are often considered crazy by those who do not understand them. They rarely get the support they deserve. There are tips for raising smart children and support gifted children.