After the senior leader meeting, Cassandane asked Mike and Sam to stay behind. Mike stood impassively while Jimmy and Varanelli cleared out. The meeting had gone long as they discussed the arctic base. On top of that, he hadn't slept well the previous night. Too much stress from the battle and losing a soldier. Too much anger at himself and everyone else.
"I have not been able to offer the two of you training as frequently as I had originally planned," Cassandane said. "Based on the political climate, that will remain the case for the foreseeable future. I designed some training aids for the two of you to learn the trickier aspects of full body hardening." She went to the mini fridge they had acquired and removed two tupperware containers.
Mike looked down into the one he had been handed. It was full of jello with bits of suspended fruit arranged in a three dimensional pattern. "How did you get it to stay like that?"
"The kinetic talent," Cassandane said.
"You mean to tell me you held this stuff in place until the jello . . . never mind, you used the teleotic talent to set it instantly."
"The drill," Cassandane said, "is to harden the jello so that the fruit doesn't move when you shake the container. This will roughly simulate hardening the brain."
Mike reached his teleotic sense towards the contents and jiggled the plastic container. "Doesn't sound hard." He created a pattern and shook it violently. When he finished, the jello settled back into the shape he had enforced on it, but the contents had shifted drastically. "Or maybe it is very hard."
"This is step one of learning to harden a brain," Cassandane said. "Once you can handle this, you need to figure out how to apply a challenging spatial-dependent pattern selectively on brain tissue without impeding the flow of blood. If you do it wrong, you go unconscious from hypoxia. Needless to say, don't train this while standing or flying until you have mastered it." She took back the tupperware containers. "You both look to need sleep now. Be sure to train with the Jello tomorrow."
Sam cleared her throat. "Before bed . . . can you say why we have to go all the way to the arctic?"
"Because I don't want our organization to be seen as subservient to any nation. Particularly to one whose leader is painting us as dangerous and incompetent. The ultimate home of the EDA will be in orbit, where we can remain separate from the world we protect. Moving to a remote region is only an intermediate step while we are educating the locals on the talents."
Mike glanced between the two women. "Perhaps this is a silly question, but what stops someone from throwing a nuke at us when we're not surrounded by civilians?"
"Who with access to nuclear weapons would use them against us? Mike, I do not think a radioactive explosion would be sufficient to end my life. An attack of that magnitude would only invite war from other nations and a rapid assassination of their leadership from me."
"I mean, that's great that you think you can nerf a nuclear weapon, Cassandane, but the rest of us aren't at your level. I for one would not like to die like that," Mike said.
"The operations team will not spend much time at the training camp, so your fears are unfounded."
"You will be mobile," Cassandane said.
"Why? Are we being deployed places?"
"You will be moved to increase the difficulty of finding you. And also to prevent attacks from Nallit's forces on the training camp. Everyone survives longer if the operations team travels." Cassandane nodded towards the door. "We can discuss this later."
Mike stomped towards the men's sleeping room, slowing and stopping just short of his destination as he saw Spencer huddled up near the row of windows overlooking the roof and city. He groaned as he changed course and approached. Spencer didn't say anything when he squatted down beside her.
"You need to get some sleep, Sergeant." And so do I, he thought.
"Woodrow was my fault," Spencer said. "I split the team up."
Mike stared out at the lights of the nearby buildings. "Cody saved the lives of that helicopter crew. Two of the three would have died for sure, but last I heard they didn't even need to stay overnight at the hospital. That's the kind of thing the EDA is supposed to do: save people from threats no one else can handle. You left Smith and Jess to provide security for Cody, because my tactics said you should. Cody is a straight teleotic, so you had to leave a kinetic like Smith. The second person was Jess, who has the least training of everyone. Every choice you made went exactly by the book. The book that I wrote, Spencer."
He sighed as he pressed his forehead against the chill glass of the window. "I can't even say that separating our forces like that was wrong. I've gone over the situation over and over again in my mind. If we're not going to save people, then what are we doing? And if we are going to save people, then we can't leave our healers vulnerable. For a while there, I thought the problem might have been that I ditched the rest of you. Then at night I replay events, and realize that I struck out blind and smooshed the source of every corona in my vicinity. I do that in proximity to my own troops and it's going to be an epic tragedy. I should have finished my battle faster. I should have spent less time checking on the helicopter crew. Seconds mattered and I wasted over a minute. This is on me, Spencer."
She shook her head. "I didn't know what to do, Ski. They pushed us back over water, and I didn't know what orders to give. I just tried not to be thrown out of the sky. Then Woodrow went down."
Mike put a hand on her shoulder. "Trust me, I know how it feels to be in over your head. But you can't do this now, Spencer. You are critical to the operations team. I don't trust anyone else to run things as my second in command. The two of us have to be good enough, because the best alternatives are worse."
"Great, so I'm the least incompetent person for the job."
"Hashtag winning," Mike muttered.
After a moment of silence, Spencer blurted out "I think Jimmy is cheating on me."
"Don't start doubting everything just because . . . ."
"It's been happening since before D.C. Maybe it's karma for what I did in Iraq. I just really wish the timing wasn't so bad. Why does everything have to hit all at once?"
Mike could only shrug in response. He'd hit rock bottom after leaving Iraq to attend Susie's funeral. Nothing anyone said back then did any good -- most of it just pissed him off.
"Ski? Do you . . . I mean . . . never mind. Stupid. I'm just lonely and you have somehow gotten back into prime condition in less than a month."
Mike squeezed her shoulder. "You're a friend. A real, true friend. And my right hand on the team. But the two of us can never happen again. I can't be reminded of my worst moment like that."
"I know. Me either. I just really feel lonely right now."
"Get some sleep, Sergeant. Tomorrow I want our team to start training some classified combat techniques that might help us survive in the future and I need you to be my right hand."
"Yes, Centurion," Spencer said.
I will be releasing less frequently over the summer. While I truly appreciate all of my readers, putting out 5 chapters a week has worn me out and now that the COVID-19 lockdown has let up there are a lot of activities I want to do that I haven't been able to do in a while. I'll try to do a minimum of one chapter a week, hopefully more.