Somehow, Mike found himself in the back seat of Varanelli's car while the lovebirds acted cutesy up front. Smith constantly poked fun at Varanelli, and she ate it up because she was getting attention from a guy. "Easy on the brakes, you crazy woman driver!" "Oh, no, I don't care if it is your car, I would be crazy to let someone with your taste in music have control of the radio." "What is up with your hair today, Kendra? Seriously, you have a Medusa thing going on." Mike ground his teeth every time Smith spoke. Then Varanelli would respond with giggles and "oh, Greg"s, making him clench his fists until they hurt.
When this relationship inevitably went the way of the dinosaur, Mike would need to fill in for Susie again. He had somehow inherited his dead wife's best friend. Or perhaps Susie's best friend had adopted him. Either way, every time another metrosexual prissy boy broke Varanelli's heart, he had to sit around with a bawling woman and talk about it. The role of comforting friend fit him poorly. If Varanelli was a guy, he'd smack her for being an idiot, they'd go get drunk, then everything would be fine.
He took his mind off of the drama up front by concentrating on his plan to avoid being late with the rent. Srinivas kept a ridiculous amount of money on him at all times in cash. Mike couldn't bring himself to ask for money, but he could eat out a lot for lunch over the next week with his favorite Indian coworker, pay for both their meals on the credit card he wasn't supposed to be using, and then take cash from Srinivas. The money problem would, as usual, be pushed a few weeks into the future. Also as usual, the problem would be worse when it returned. Something to worry about in a few weeks. Maybe he would be a rich superhero by then and money wouldn't cause him headaches anymore.
Varanelli parked in the Mon Wharf, beneath one of the many overpasses crisscrossing the area. Mike exited the car and brushed against Smith hard enough to put the guy off balance, but not quite hard enough to be threatening. Mike plastered a placid mask over his face. He was just a dumb, clumsy yokel who sometimes bumped into people. After a moment, Smith put some space between them and offered his arm to Varanelli like he was escorting her to a ball. Mike tailed them on the walk to the park, a less than charitable expression on his face the entire time.
Downtown Pittsburgh existed between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, up to the point where they merged to form the Ohio river. That delta and the public park attached to it was known as Point Park. A fountain adorned the area closest to the joining of the rivers, which was where Tyler Marius had told them to meet. On a Monday night, the area had few visitors, which was good, but not so few that their presence would be suspicious, which was even better. As they walked through the grass, Mike spotted Jimmy and Srinivas walked just ahead of them and sprinted to catch up.
"Hey, look at you two hanging out without me," he said in greeting.
Jimmy nodded to Mike in greeting. "I figured a lone Indian man walking to the point had to be your boy."
Srinivas ignored them. "Hello, Kendra."
Varanelli flashed her fakest smile. "Hi, Srinivas."
As Srinivas moved to put himself awkwardly between Smith and Varanelli, Jimmy spoke in a low voice. "Is this awkward?"
"No, man, this is great. I wish Sri could cock-block Smith all the time."
Jimmy raised one eyebrow quizzically. "Is that right?"
"Smith's an asshole."
"And your Indian friend . . . ."
"And your Indian friend Srinivas doesn't stand a chance with Kendra."
"Not my problem."
"Naw, it's perfect for you."
Mike's head tilted. "What are you getting at?"
"You live with this chick and refuse to date. What do you think I'm getting at?"
"Bro, you got a bad read on the situation. Varanelli ain't my type. And I'm not her type. We both prefer petite girly types, only difference being she likes girly guys and I like girly girls." This conversation happened too often.
Jimmy shook his head. "So Kendra likes the girly boys and you like the boyish girls. All them womanly curves turn you off."
Mike lifted his t-shirt halfway to his armpit. "More like the curves remind me of what I see in the mirror."
"Put the love handles away, man. No one wants to see that."
"You sure, Jimmy? I got curves for miles. I might be your type."
"Now that you mention it . . . ." Jimmy gave a hard pinch to Mike's love handle. Mike squealed and pulled his shirt back down. Jimmy snapped his finger in mock disappointment. "C'mon, Mike, bring the curves back out."
"You're too rough with the merchandise, Jimmy."
"Hey, look over there, it's one of your friends from your happy hour party. She looks like the petite girly girl type."
Mike glanced to the side and saw Specialist Spencer, overdressed for a trip to the park, paralelling their path to the fountain. "No, Jimmy. That bitch is not my type."
Jimmy blinked at the harshness. "I take it we dislike that one?"
"Very much, Jimmy."
"Do I get to know why?"
"It's not a story I like to tell."
"No pressure then."
"Thanks," Mike said.
They spotted Sergeant Pain standing at the fountain with two men they didn't recognize. Mike's scowl grew more stern. Tyler Marius had told them to keep their experience at the bar quiet. Sergeant Pain must have thought that instruction didn't apply to him. Over the years, Mike had been punished a number of times for problems that Sergeant Pain had caused. Everyone had. The man took every bit as many liberties in his job as he did in social situations, thinking himself special and above the rules. If he cost Mike his chance to get his life back on track . . . . Well, Sergeant Pain was always asking to see Mike fight. If things went south tonight, he was going to get to see it up close and personal.
A hand clamped onto his shoulder, startling him. Mike looked over to see an irate Tyler Marius. "Don't say a word until I've handled our uninvited guests."
Without waiting on a response, Tyler Marius strode on ahead to confront Sergeant Pain.
"Hey, this is the guy I was telling you about, Tyler Marius."
The Angmari folded his arms as he came to a stop before them. "I never said you could bring anyone else."
"Oh, I must have missed that part. Don't worry, you're going to want these guys," Sergeant Pain said.
"No. I only have enough of the goods for eight people."
Sergeant Pain's expression turned to one of confusion.
Tyler Marius continued. "You can sell to these guys yourself. I don't need more middlemen in this territory."
One of the guys there with Sergeant Pain swore and smacked himself in the head. "Is this drug related?"
Tyler Marius held a finger in front of his lips. "A little quieter, friend. You two don't belong here. We're conducting business that you aren't part of."
Sergeant Pain opened his mouth to object, then coughed instead, a hand going to his throat. His other friend frowned.
"But . . . are you an Angmari with powers?"
"A what? How much of the sample did this guy take? It's potent stuff," Tyler Marius said.
Disappointment filled the air, so thick Mike felt like he had been suckered by Sergeant Pain. The two uninvited men stormed off, throwing obscenities behind them as they left. The sense of disappointment disappeared as if it had never been, revealing to Mike that it had never been his emotion.
Sergeant Pain stood up straight, anger in his eyes . . . and then he doubled over to vomit over himself.
Tyler Marius stood before them, unperturbed. "Do you know what is truly terrifying about the kinetic talent? Or kinesis, as my people call it. Old movies, from before we knew the talents, always showed people being thrown into walls. But why would a kinetic do something so inefficient? Why not just use your talent inside the body of your opponent?" Sergeant Pain doubled over once more, bile pouring from his mouth to coat the front of his body once more. "It's so easy to squeeze the digestive system and bring everything back up. Much easier than lifting a full grown man."
"Stop!" The word gurgled free of Sergeant Pain. "Please! I'm sorry! I won't do it again!"
"Of course you won't," Tyler Marius said, voice grim. "I never finished my thought. Do you know what is truly terrifying about this talent? Four ounces of pressure in the brain stem will kill a human. You don't have to be a strong kinetic. You could be incredibly weak and still effortlessly murder someone. On this planet, no one would even know to check for a brain push. They would just write it off as a stroke and dispose of the body."
Sergeant Pain began to cry.
A callous malevolence grew upon the face of Tyler Marius. "I am not a weak kinetic, Mister Crane. I was one of the leads of the Angmari special forces teams. There are precious few on this world or in orbit around it who could even approach my power. And you dare to subvert my authority?"
"I couldn't care less if you're sorry or not. At this moment, all that matters is your ability to stay silent. Can you keep your mouth shut, Mister Crane?"
Sergeant Pain nodded his head vigorously.
"Here is the deal. I let you live. In return, you never speak of my existence again. To anyone. Ever." Tyler Marius let those words stand a moment, then squeezed his fist at eye level just as Sergeant Pain bent in half once more. This time the sergeant didn't vomit. He reached both hands towards his rear, but stopped before he made contact, a look of horror on his face.
Mike would never in a million years have believed that he could watch Sergeant Pain shit himself without laughing, but in that moment he felt only fear. What kind of person was he aligning himself with?
Tyler Marius spoke into the silence. "Never speak of me or my activities here. This moment is as merciful as I am willing to be. If I ever hear you have betrayed me again, your life will end. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir." Sergeant Pain's eyes remained on the ground as he sobbed those words.
No one spoke as the sergeant ran from them. Tyler Marius cleared his throat to get their attention. "Tonight's lesson has been delayed long enough. Gather around."
Mike moved forward with the rest of them until they were close, but not too close, to their instructor. "The three talents depend upon what are known as precursors. Animas gives the kinetic talent. Gravitas gives the teleotic talent. Nous gives the noetic talent. For now, you need to receive a charge of precursor from someone else. After some training, you should be able to harness precursor yourselves. Over time, you will gain the ability to generate the precursor yourself."
Tyler Marius raised a finger to add import to his next words. "The process should not be rushed. There are three precursors. However, if you attune partially, you will not be able to use all three talents. Do not limit yourself by being hasty. This is something you can only do once, so you must do it right. Each of you has the potential to have all three talents. But the probability that even one of you will generate all three precursors is tiny. Fortunately, you have an excellent instructor." He flashed a brilliant smile. "Line up. I want to give each of you a charge. A real one this time."
Mike joined the line immediately behind the bartender, noticing the man for the first time. "I'm Mike, by the way."
"Bill," the bartender said.
Tyler Marius made his way down the line, shaking the hand of each of them in turn. The charge hit Mike like a train, almost knocking him unconscious. Head spinning, Mike seized control of what he now knew was nous to expand his mind. The increased quantity of precursor and the fact that he was sober this time combined to great effect. Mike felt his consciousness ballooning into what he imagined was temporary genius. He grasped the animas, pulling on it until it spilled out around him, flowing to form a stable sphere of influence. The final precursor, gravitas, coated his mind once more like an oily layer. He had never worked out how he was supposed to . . . actually, his enhanced mind saw the trick almost immediately. Mike poked at a too-long fingernail, forming a tactile visualization of a smooth edge a half inch further back. The overhanging portion of the nail simply fell off, no longer connected.
Mike felt a giddy giggle claw its way free of his control. This was worth the risk of hanging out with a superpowered alien psychopath.
Tyler Marius clapped his hands to get their attention. "We have to train the talents all at once to avoid partial attunement. It's not ideal, but it is necessary. The first thing I want you to do is channel the animas into the area around you if you haven't already. This creates a zone around you that we call a corona. You can impart motion to anything within your corona. With a gentler touch, you can use your corona to get a tactile sense of your immediate surroundings. That is what I want you to do now. Instead of moving anything, still your corona and pay attention to the pressure you feel. Let your expanded minds collect those sense impressions and turn it into a mental map of your surroundings."
All around him, Mike felt his fellow students shimmer into existence. With his mind temporarily boosted, there was no effort involved. The cement beneath him was easily discernible as a hard surface, as was the fountain's sides. The water within felt less substantial, but still had enough contrast with the air for him to identify it. The other people revealed themselves by the fact that they were absenses in his senses. The closer his corona got to one of them, the less it could feel.
"Does anyone know why you can't see each other?"
Mike answered Tyler Marius. "Their coronas are interfering?"
"Correct. The best defense against a kinetic attack is to have your own corona. It prevents a brain push or any other direct manipulation. It won't stop a thrown brick from puncturing your skull, at least not passively, so it is important to hone your kinetic sense. Then you can detect and stop any object sent your way. Or if you trust your teleotic talent, just harden your body to the point that it can't be damaged. That, by the way, requires a lot of skill. We're talking years of training. Kinesis is a much easier talent to master than the other two. It is direct and human intuition is well suited to its ways. The only real challenge is handling all of the information, which isn't a challenge when you enhance your mind."
Mike found himself smiling with the sheer joy of what was happening. He looked around, caught himself sharing a grin with Spencer, and intentionally turned away. She had ruined so many of his moments, but he wouldn't let her foul this one. This night was going to be awesome.
Tyler Marius pulled a notebook out of a backpack. "Silly exercise number one: I want each of you to use teleotic attraction to tear paper along perfectly crisp straight lines -- without using any force, other than gravity and the weight of the page. If you correctly employ gravitas, the cellulose molecules in the paper will spontaneously split where you want it to. Teleotic attraction is the power to alter the probability of a physical form existing. You can't make the impossible possible, but it's surprisingly simple to make the improbable come to pass." A rubber bouncy ball slipped free of the backpack, then floated back inside. "Silly exercise number two is going to involve fine control of kinesis. It is going to be a blast."