When Mike returned with sandwich wraps, mostly chicken but with a few that substituted hummus. The soldiers jumped into line the moment he placed the boxes down, which conveniently avoided any awkward conversations. Or so he thought. Rather than join the food line, Varanelli tugged on his sleeve until he followed her outside onto the roof of the conference center.
"What is happening with Jess?"
Mike folded his arms. "She is a dumb kid attracted to authority."
"Come on, Ski."
He fixed her with a firm look. "Do you really think I want to date someone half my age?"
"I think she likes you. She might be a little . . . quirkier . . . than Susie was, but she is outgoing and energetic and a little naive. Just how you like them."
Mike clenched his jaw and looked away.
"Ski, it's been long enough. You don't have to be alone forever."
"Why do you want me to move on? Varanelli, you should fucking hate me after what went down on deployment."
"I tried to, at first." Varanelli shrugged. "What happened to her wasn't your fault. Some piece of shit Hajji mined the road. Susie never knew what you were up to, but if she did, she would have forgiven you. She let all her exes before you get away with being dirtbags."
"We'll never know how she would have reacted," Mike said.
"Mike . . . I'm the only person in the world who loved Susie as much as you, but that never stopped me from seeing her flaws. She would have yelled at you for a week, then repressed the entire mess and refused to talk about it for the rest of time. She never gave up a relationship easy in her life. Things had to get real bad before she would see the light. Every damn time. She never learned."
"Varanelli, there are a million reasons for me to not date. Even if you set aside the fact that I don't want to, my life is in danger. My mission in life is to get myself and my team to the point where none of us dies in the next year. That's all I have the capacity to care about right now."
She raised a hand to cover her face momentarily. "What about Spencer?"
"If you wanted to pursue something with Spencer . . . it wouldn't be the end of the world. I already got even with her, so I don't have a problem if you want to . . . whatever."
Mike groaned. "Got even? What does that mean?"
"Eye for an eye, that type of thing."
"Varanelli, you better not be screwing around with her paperwork. I recommended you for the administrator position to get you out of training, so don't do anything that would reflect bad on me."
"I shouldn't have said anything. It's fine, Ski. No one will ever know, and even if they did it wouldn't break any rules. Just forget about it."
Mike pointed a finger directly in her face. "You forget about setting me up and I'll forget about whatever revenge plot you have going on."
Varanelli smacked the finger away. "Fine. I'll give it a break for a while."
As he opened the door to allow Varanelli inside, he felt the touch of a corona from a higher section of roof and spotted Cassandane standing above. She dropped to stand beside him, raising a single brow on her otherwise placid features. "Anything I need to be concerned about?"
"Nothing to worry about, boss. The troops are getting a little familiar after spending so much time together. I'll make sure they cut out this high school shit and get back to training like their lives depend on it."
Cassandane nodded. "Let me know if my involvement is required. I have been absent lately due to politics. The U.S. president is displeased he attuned noetic. He blames me for not doing my part right. Fortunately, Canada is willing to grant us property without condition as an incentive to have us move there."
"They speak the same language and it would make my claims that we are independent of U.S. interests more credible."
Mike stared out over the city. "I guess all of us are dealing with messes of some sort. Any chance you would be available to corona wrestle tonight?"
Her expression changed to a predatory smile. "I have ten minutes free now."
Mike attacked. His corona unfurled, climbing upwise a fraction too slow to get above Cassandane, both of their kinetic fields rising above the level of normal reality like whales breaching the ocean. As Cassandane crashed down above him, Mike released the tension inside his corona to wilt and drop Cassandane beneath him. The expression on her face told him that he had surprised her. As he scrambled to secure top position, Cassandane imitated his maneuver, turning his sloppy trick into something resembling an actual technique. Specifically, her interpretation of it reminded him of a sit-out in wrestling, with his downwise pressure suddenly sending him crashing as she slipped out from beneath him. Then Cassandane held the position for several minutes before Mike admitted defeat.
"I can't believe you're still beating me like this," he grumbled.
Cassandane smiled. "You feel like we should be equally matched because our strength is roughly equivalent. But you still have less than two months of experience."
"I know, I get that. I used to gleefully rub my hands together when body builders showed up to my MMA gym because I would absolutely wreck guys significantly bigger and stronger than me. But you haven't even really trained for combat outside of what we do together. You just felt me try something I've been working on for a while, and instantly you're better at it than me." Mike folded his arms and looked at his feet. "No matter how hard I dedicate myself to anything, I'm never the best at it in my group. And as soon as I slack off for a moment, my whole life goes off the rails."
"You are the second best at corona combat in the world," Cassandane said. "Is that so bad?"
"Third best. Nallit could spank either of us on strength alone."
"Sorry for the pity party, I know you don't like to do the moral support role."
Cassandane stepped in front of him to make eye contact. "Do you know what makes an Aoleyen?"
Unsure of her intention, Mike only shrugged.
"The history books said my kind was bred for intelligence and rationality. Anatomical studies found Aoleyens had larger prefontal cortexes and smaller insula than the general population. The part of the brain responsible for planning, working memory, and self-control is enhanced while the part of the brain responsible for empathy is atrophied. My kind was in fact smarter on average. We produced a once-in-a-generation genius a couple of times a decade from a small population.
"But brilliance does not define an Aoleyen. Obsession does. A happy Aoleyen exists in a state of flow, constantly stimulated with challenging work. We happily grind away our life solving problems in our chosen field. As the average child of two celebrated academics, I could never find a topic to hold my interest. I was brilliant compared to the Angmari, but average among my kind. I could never truly compete in a challenging field and the pride instilled in me by my parents would not let me be content with a lesser role.
"I settled into a bureaucratic role when it became clear that I could never find a passion like my parents had. Sullen apathy defined my young adult life. Until the Chekowan came offering their talents. I attuned as a paragon after a sloppy group initiation and gained a purpose for the first time in my life. An obsession. I trained constantly with the talents and eventually learned that the Chekowan were holding back their knowledge even as they attuned my world's population at a rapid pace.
"That led me to seek out teachers. Which caught the attention of Nallit. I was his only student to arrive already attuned. He preferred to indoctrinate his subordinates from the start. My low empathy and obsessive devotion to advancement earned his respect. I did things I sorely regret for the opportunity to learn from him. But even knowing that the cost of my knowledge was the destruction of my world . . . I would still do it again. Because the talents are my obsession, Mike. I think they may be yours as well. If so, then my instruction ensures you will become great at them."
Mike swallowed. "Thanks for the pep talk, boss. You've got me wondering if maybe I'm part Aoleyen myself."
Cassandane broke eye contact and walked towards the door. "Unlikely."
He shook his head to clear it as he followed her inside.