Title: DOMINION: FIRE AND ICE
Author: D.A. Hewitt
Publisher: Double Dragon eBooks
Genre: Science Fiction
Author: D.A. Hewitt
Publisher: Double Dragon eBooks
Genre: Science Fiction
Dominion Off-Earth Resources has beaten the competition into space and is ready to establish its monopoly with the opening of the orbiting space resort Dominion. But Pettit Space Industries has a secret plan to emerge as a major contender in the commercialization of space. The upstart company is training the first space rescue squad at a secluded off-grid site in Barrow, Alaska.
The rescue squad gets nearly more than it can handle when its first mission involves the Pope, who’s traveling to the Moon to establish the Lunar See. During the rescue attempt, they discover Earth is imperiled by an asteroid large enough to cause mass extinction. Using the unique skills taught during their training, skills emphasized by the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung, these Jungi Knights must elevate their game if they are to save both the Earth and the Pope—while not getting killed in the process.
“Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”
~ Joseph Conrad
The bus chortled as it slowed, the magnetic-drive treads slowing their frenzied snow-gyrating pace. “Barrow, Alaska,” the driver said cheerily enough. “Only five percent of the world’s land mass is as far from the equator. Average temperature in January, minus twenty-five Celsius.” White billowing clouds churned briefly from the exhaust. The engine cut off. The driver stood, facing his six passengers, and said, “We’re here.”
I grabbed my bag, slung it over my shoulder, and headed for the front, shivering reflexively.
“Last chance to back out,” the driver added as the last of us stepped onto the frozen snow. His breath lingered as white mist. He looked questioningly at us and played with the door control, flapping it at us, taunting us.
We were standing in front of a Quonset hut, bundled in parkas and survival clothing, enough to keep us warm for days in the most extreme climates. And I counted Barlow, Alaska, as one of those.
“Go on—get out of here!” the tallest of us barked at the driver. I didn’t know any of their names, but from what I’d gathered from the sparse chit-chat on the drive from Prudhoe Bay (no reason was given for why we hadn’t continued the flight from Juneau to Barrow instead of the drop-off and subsequent bus ride in), this guy was the most gung-ho among us.
The driver smiled. “I’ll be back to pick up any dropouts.” He closed the door, picked up his comm device, and spoke briefly into it.
One moment, we were staring at the bus—I can do this, I will do this—and the next we were all spinning in response to a deep voice projecting out from where the Quonset hut door had slammed open.
“The sheep have arrived!” the voice boomed.
He stood in the doorframe as the door banged against him in the stiffening arctic wind. For a moment, he seemed stuck there, his massive shoulders too wide, his girth too large to fit through. Then he took a step back, spun, and said, “Follow me!”
I’d been thinking my life was getting stranger and stranger as of late, and the next thing that happened cemented that thought-trend in my mind, because we stepped into a room heated to tropical temperatures, the ground covered in sand. The room took the entire width of the Quonset hut. One other door on the opposite wall from the door we’d just entered was the room’s only other exit.
“Throw down your stuff anywhere,” the bulky man said, dropping his parka, revealing himself to be wearing only green shorts and a white muscle shirt. His chest was enormous (ah, the booming voice), and he thumped it when he caught me looking at him. He appeared Polynesian. His skin was dark and his black hair was tied back in a ponytail, thick and scruffy.
“My name today is Mister Chenga,” the Polynesian announced. Whenever he spoke, everyone’s head turned to him as though his voice subconsciously demanded our attention. “Take off your clothes to your underwear and then take a seat.”
“Where do we sit?” one of the girls—the short blonde—asked with what sounded like a Russian accent. “There are no chairs.”
The Polynesian’s face scrunched up as though he had just tasted something awful. He began jumping up and down, repeating the question to himself with his attempt at a high-pitch voice, “Where do we sit? Where do we sit? Where do we sit?”
The girl back-stepped cautiously.
The Polynesian stopped jumping and stared at her. In an oddly calm voice, he said, “On the sand.”
“Da. I did not want to get you excited,” the girl said evenly.
Mister Chenga nodded slowly, squinting at her. I’m sure she felt she was being marked as a potential troublemaker. As we began undressing, he walked a few meters away from the group and faced us. “Listen up. I’m sure you don’t want to make me mad, so the first thing you need to understand is that there is such a thing as a stupid question.” He paused and stared at the girl.
The girl visibly gulped. She was attractive, now that I was getting to see more of her. Blonde hair, angular face, stunningly beautiful, petite body. I doubted she cleared much over a meter and a half. She looked to have a wiry strength, a tight, taut body like a gymnast’s. Her underwear was black.
How in the hell did she come to volunteer for this?
“I’ll get back to stupid questions later,” Mister Chenga said. “In the meantime, listen closely. For today, call me Mister Chenga. If today goes well, tomorrow you may call me Cheng.” He grinned and spread his arms wide.
For a moment, he looked friendly with a pleasant demeanor.
“It’s more efficient,” he explained. “In a rescue situation, shorter names save time.” He looked at the northern wall. Along the ceiling, a number of slogans were displayed.
Mister Chenga’s gaze lingered on the phrase Timing is everything before continuing. “If today doesn’t go well, tomorrow you’ll again call me Mister Chenga. Is that clear?”
Several of us responded.
Mister Chenga’s forehead knotted up, as though concern rippled his skin directly via energy seeping out from the front of his brain. “It would be quicker, more efficient, if the group answers as one. I suggest a unified response such as ‘Yes, Mister Chenga,’ would serve you well.”
Everyone was as naked as we were going to get—in our underwear—and we were sitting in a semi-circle around the Polynesian. “Yes, Mister Chenga,” we mumbled.
“Good enough for now,” Mister Chenga said. He dropped to a knee, then somewhat laboriously rocked his weight back and settled into a sitting position. He shifted his butt from side to side, sweeping sand away, furrowing himself in. “It’s time we introduce ourselves. I’ll be checking for signs of grid‑loss syndrome.”
Most people never left the grid. With medical alert and GPS implants, medical response times had been cut to under thirty seconds on average for grid dwellers. The risk of death from an accident while off-grid was too great for most. Extended stays at sea? Caribbean cruises? No problem, the grid went with you, ready to stabilize any wound, any condition, until you could be ferried to the nearest medical facility capable of restoring your health.
Some people did leave the grid, though. There were two main groups of them—adventurers who traveled to extreme Earth climates such as Barrow, Alaska, and off-earthers.
The off-earthers worked in space and on the Moon, which in recent years had a rapidly growing population due to expanding lunar excavation and processing sites. The population was growing so fast that the first lunar bank had opened last year, which prompted financial institutions into a chaotic flurry of mergers and acquisitions. (The winners were the early investors in asteroid mining, especially palladium and other precious metals and rare earths. There were two of them—Pettit Space Industries (PSI) and Dominion Off-Earth Resources (DOER). The Vatican, because of its investments in DOER was also reaping rewards.)
I’d been off-planet enough to know being off-grid wouldn’t be a problem for me. The symptoms were jitters followed by profuse sweating and episodes of hysteria. Fairly easy to spot, especially now since we were all half naked.
Mister Chenga cleared his throat. “I don’t care if you introduced yourselves on the bus. We’ll do it again. Who wants to start?”
Nobody answered. I took the opportunity to examine the other recruits. Six of us in all. Two girls. The blonde gymnast I had already admired and another girl who was taller with black hair and a muscular body; in fact, it was so well muscled, I couldn’t help but think she was a wrestler.
Actually, there’s a wrestling hold I’ve been meaning to try …
Shut up and pay attention, I told myself.
The tall guy looked strong and quick, like he could handle himself in a fight. His eyes seemed to perpetually gleam like he was calculating odds of schemes that were constantly percolating in his mind.
The other two guys didn’t appear to be as strong as the tall, cocky guy. I figured them to be forest ranger types, people who fare well outdoors and who like to hike and climb and do all the nature crap. One of them wore glasses, wire rims no less. It was hard to imagine why anyone opted for spectacles in this age of correctable vision.
“You,” Mister Chenga said, pointing at the guy wearing the spectacles. “Introduce yourself. Give me a synopsis of your life.” His head swiveled as he examined his sheep. “And when I say synopsis, I mean, be brief.” He returned his gaze to the man wearing glasses. “And explain why you forgo the corrective procedure for eyesight.”
“Name’s Maxwell Lolande, but everyone calls me Max.” He took off his glasses and gently cleaned them with the bottom of his t-shirt. “Studies indicate a certain amount of blurred vision can actually increase reaction time for athletes. Something to do with mirror neurons, which react to anticipated visual stimuli, not actual vision per se. Do you see the difference?” He chuckled and pushed his glasses back onto his nose. “Never mind. Anyway, vision isn’t the only means by which to collect data.”
“Background?” Mister Chenga asked.
“Sensors.” Max’s eyes narrowed. “I may not be the quickest here, or the strongest, but I can guarantee I’ll have the best sources of information.”
Mister Chenga grunted. “What kind of information?”
“Whatever you want. I deployed a few sensors before we came inside. My outdoor drones are measuring every centimeter of this facility. From the outside, of course. I don’t want to press my luck yet.”
Mister Chenga jumped up, lunged forward, and ended up crouched in the sand by the belongings of Maxwell Lolande. He picked up Max’s backpack (crimson color, a tree intricately woven with golden thread into the back flap), rummaged through it, making sounds as though it were a bag of silverware, then dropped it and stood. “I rely on my eyes,” he said, returning to his spot. “And you sound French to me. Are you French?”
“No, Mister Chenga. American.”
“Pffft. Aren’t we all.”
“I may have French ancestry.”
“Well, the French are good at helping others in battle, but on their own, not so much.”
“Yes, well, instead of going to battle, this is supposed to be a rescue squad, right? That’s what we’re here for—a high-profile team that rescues stranded people who had enough money to get lost in the Alaskan wilderness.”
“That’s the plan,” Mister Chenga agreed. “If you can pass this training course.”
“So far, so good,” Max said.
“You’re still calling me Mister Chenga, so I guess it’s still early. What’ve you studied? What’s your specialty?”
“Physics. Communications. Robotics. And of course, sensors.”
Mister Chenga grunted again. “Well, if I need a weather forecast, I’ll know where to go.”
I suspected—no, knew—Mister Chenga had files on every one of us and figured he must have a reason for asking questions for which he already knew the answers. I thought of asking him but didn’t want to be accused of asking a dumb question.
No matter. Ten weeks or so of basic training, and I’m out.
Mister Chenga looked to his right, where the blonde gymnast sat. “What about you?”
Her voice was high-pitched, her body slight in nature (and yet so … hmmm, limber). “Julia Lipniski. I go by Julia. I study general science. But Mister Pettit recruited me because my endurance is high. And I fit in narrow spaces. Good traits for rescue team, da?”
Or maybe he selected you because you’re bubbling with enthusiasm and a can-do attitude.
“Perhaps,” Mister Chenga said. “You cross-country ski?”
“I am Olympic skater. Skate more than ski. But da. I train to strengthen my legs by cross-country skiing. Kilometer after kilometer. I love it.”
I couldn’t imagine anyone enjoying cross-country skiing. Why not go to a mountain, take a lift, and then just blast your way downhill? But no, some people liked to exert themselves and sweat, kilometer after kilometer …
Mister Chenga turned to the other female in our group. “And our other lady representative?”
The dark-haired girl laughed. “A lady? I’m guessing you haven’t read my application.”
“It was a figure of speech,” Mister Chenga said. “So you think you’re tough?”
“Damn straight,” she said.
“Watch your French!” Mister Chenga told her.
“I didn’t speak French. I swore. In English. If you don’t know the difference, I’ve got to ask myself what the hell I’m doing here.”
“I said watch your French!”
“You don’t want me to swear?”
“None of you,” Mister Chenga said. “Not yet anyway.”
“Fine. Why didn’t you say so? Have it your way. No more swearing. No more French.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “Name’s Kelly Cook. Bounty hunter. Some people say I work too hard on my attitude, but I say to hell with them.”
Mister Chenga sighed, mumbled something about dramatics, and turned to me. “Well, well, allow me to make this introduction. This is Doug Pettit, son of the late Harve Pettit, who founded Pettit Space Industries. He’s a bit of a loner. His educational background is scattered. His main employment is heading foundations.”
“Not any more,” I said. “Things have changed. It seems my dad figured he’d be doing me a favor by making me earn a living.”
“I know of the will,” Mister Chenga said.
“Right. I’m not in it. But I’ll be up front with you, Mister Chenga, because you seem like a straightforward kind of guy.”
A few snickers answered this assessment.
“You’ll get honest effort out of me,” I told him, “and I’m going to pass this boot camp, but then I’m taking the bonus and opting out.”
Mister Chenga smiled broadly. “Of course you are! Not a problem.”
I squinted, unable to detect any sign of deception. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“No. Everyone here signed the same contract. Everyone can take their bonus—enough to live on for ten years, I might add—and opt out after passing this training course. It’s either that or sign up for a five-year enlistment. Why should it bother me?”
“You’re going to spend a lot of hours training us. Seems you’d like to reap the fruits of your labor. Who wants to assemble a team only to see people quit?”
“I understand your concern, Doug Pettit. What I you fail to grasp is that I know something you don’t.”
“If you do pass this training course, this boot camp as you call it, you’ll be a different person. You’ll not think the same as you do today. I’d not make any future predictions based on how you feel at this moment. If I were you, that is.”
It was my turn to snicker. “Well, la de da. I guess we’re good then.”
Mister Chenga snorted and turned to the tall cocky guy on my left. They chatted after Archibald Blake Tannenbaum—just call me Blake—told Mister Chenga his name. Blake explained he was a test pilot and could handle any emergency situation with a cool precision that made disaster responders drool.
I tried to even my breathing. Mister Chenga had brought up the will. My blood pressure had been rising since, my breath growing shallower. Dad thinks he cut me out. He should’ve realized I may not be Harve Pettit caliber, but I can be resourceful when necessary.
Growing calmer, I casually looked around. The blonde skater—Julia—dug her heels into the sand as though conditioned to exercise her muscles during off-training hours. The others ran their hands through the sand, occasionally glancing down while sifting sand through their fingers, familiarizing themselves with this place by experiencing the tactile feel of the heated grit, making themselves at home. The sand was brownish, most likely reconstituted glass. It had the same feel as natural sand, the same as on a Carolina beach in August, with the heat pressing down, and the girl in the adjacent suite getting frisky with me in our own little Margarita-ville.
Shut up, I told myself. You and your stupid hormones will get us into trouble.
“And last but not least, introduce yourself,” Mister Chenga said, facing the last of the recruits, a thinner, blonder version of Blake. He had optimistic blue eyes but a gaunt face.
“Robert Montarro, but please call me Rob. I’m one of those new breed of environmentalists who actually travel outside the cities into the wildernesses they’re trying to protect.”
“Well, pat yourself on the back for that,” Mister Chenga said.
“I also have underwater experience, cold-water.”
“That could come in handy,” Mister Chenga admitted.
“And I’m eager.”
“We’ll see how long that lasts.”
Rob frowned but said nothing.
Mister Chenga stood and paced back and forth in front of us. “Now that we’ve introduced ourselves, I’m going to teach you your first lesson. If you aren’t complete knuckleheads, we should get through it in less than an hour. Afterward, I’ll show you to your quarters. Everyone pairs up in a room. You’ll freshen up. Dinner is in two hours. After dinner, you’ll meet your mentor for this training.”
“I thought you were our mentor,” Julia said. I liked the sound of her voice—like a songbird’s, high and melodic—and I wondered how a suggestion of bunking with her would be received.
“I’m your trainer. I am here to test you. Your mentor is here to help you.”
“What’s our mentor’s name?” I asked.
“Your mentor will introduce himself,” Mister Chenga said. He marched across the sand, through the door opposite the one we’d entered. A few moments later, he returned. Behind him, there was a narrow passageway with bulkheads. I could see the end of the passageway at the far end of the Quonset hut, where there appeared to be a dining area.
Mister Chenga lumbered toward us and tossed a baseball-size rock onto the sand in the center of our semi-circled group.
We stared at it as though expecting a beanstalk to emerge.
Mister Chenga returned to his position, just beyond the rock, sitting in the depression he’d made. “Before I begin the lesson, I want to be clear about what we’re doing here.”
“We all signed contracts,” Blake pointed out. “We understand why we’re here. What didn’t they tell us?”
Mister Chenga laughed. “There is much we’re not telling you, but you wouldn’t understand yet. You’re sheep. You can’t see past the ends of your noses. You’re all dogs chasing your tails.”
“Excuse me,” the bounty hunter, Kelly Cook, interrupted. “I’m not a dog.”
“And my sensors can perceive data well beyond the human range of perception,” Max noted, “well past my nose.”
Mister Chenga slowly shook his head. “There is power out there that your sensors won’t pick up.”
Max frowned and I almost laughed because his face scrunched up and his glasses moved up his nose, pushed by his cheeks as though in physical response to hearing something blasphemous. “What power?”
“The power of the mind, of the unconscious.”
Blake tossed a handful of sand toward the rock. “I’ve been through this before, Mister Chenga. I’m sure anyone like Julia who has gone through extensive physical training has, too. You’re talking about motivational tools. Will power.”
“Very perceptive, Blake. It’s more than that, quite a bit more, but let’s start with that. Yes, we’ll learn motivational tools to bolster, indeed to undergird, our will power.”
To me, it sounded like we were going to be subjected to a series of rah‑rah routines. We’d be expected to keep a stiff upper lip and to never quit even in the worst of conditions.
Not necessarily a bad mindset to have, though, in subzero temperatures, skiing cross-country in blizzard conditions, freezing wind shrieking through the pines as we race to save someone who fell off a mountainside.
“Contractually, you’re obligated to pass this training course or your contract is void. We have ten weeks scheduled. It’s a one-time shot. If after ten weeks you haven’t passed this course, we ship you back to Anchorage.”
Several heads nodded.
Mister Chenga smiled and spread his arms wide. “But if you pass, you get your bonus and we throw a big party!” He laughed. “And after the party, you get a two-week leave and then report to start your five-year duty.”
I cleared my throat.
Mister Chenga sighed. “Or take your bonus and opt out.”
“The ten-week training course doesn’t count toward the five years?” the environmentalist—Rob—asked.
“No, as clearly stated in the contract.”
Rob nodded as though confirming he remembered reading that particular passage, but the nod was too hesitant to be convincing.
“And so,” Mister Chenga continued, “it’s time we start. What you’ll be doing here in this training course is, for the most part, expanding on this first lesson I’m about to teach you.” He pointed at the rock. “Can someone tell me what that is?” He leered at us, his gaze wandering from one set of eyes to another, daring us to answer stupidly.
I’m sure if there’re dumb questions, there must be dumb answers.
“I don’t need a sensor to inform you, Mister Chenga,” Max said, adjusting the position of his wire-rim glasses, “that the object you’ve tossed into the sand is a rock.”
“Yes!” Mister Chenga said, clapping his hands. He appeared genuinely excited, as though our group had passed some kind of mid-term exam. He pointed at the rock, a rather unattractive piece of coal and lead. “A rock, indeed. Now, there are two kinds of objects in this universe. One of them is what we will call rock. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Mister Chenga,” we chorused.
“Anyone care to guess what the other kind of object is?”
“Living things,” I said.
I could feel everyone’s stare, but I simply looked at the sand in front of me, where I was tracing a series of short, parallel furrows.
“Let’s call them emergent beings,” Mister Chenga said. “Everyone agrees living things are beings. They are emergent in that their identity as such—who or what they are—is defined by conscious activity over time. Consciousness is emergent. If time stopped, you’d have a rock of a body and no consciousness. With the ingredient of time is added, consciousness comes into being.”
“Living things, emergent beings, same difference to me,” Blake said.
“And what am I?” Mister Chenga asked.
“According to your definition,” Blake answered, “a living thing, an emergent being.”
“Although,” I added, trying not to visualize the thought of Mister Chenga dead, with medical first responder drones blaring a waaaah sound of failure, “once you’re dead, your body will no longer be an emergent anything.” I nodded toward the rock.
“You’re body is a rock at that point,” Max added.
“Da,” Julia agreed. “Dust to dust.”
“Right,” Mister Chenga said, “but until then, my body is part of me. It’s alive, as am I.”
I thought about asking if he thought his body and him were one and the same, but I had a feeling that was going to be a takeaway from a future lesson.
“Now,” Mister Chenga continued, “all of you emergent beings focus your attention on the rock, your conscious attention.”
We stared intently.
“Note its texture, see its color, sense its mass.”
As the seconds passed, I became aware of everyone’s breathing. The room was quiet. The sand on the ground and the snow blanketing the roof of the Quonset hut dampened the sound of wind outside. Time seemed to slow, and I relaxed.
This is like meditation. Maybe this boot camp isn’t going to be so difficult after all.
As though in a trance, Mister Chenga softly said, “I want someone to make the rock move across the room.”
I frowned. What kind of mumbo jumbo is this? I glanced away from the rock at the others. Julia, Rob, and Max were glaring at the rock as though directing their anger at it—trying to make the rock move by hating it?
Rob was looking at the rock, but his eyes darted occasionally back and forth as though confusion jabbed at him.
“I can do it,” Blake said, pushing himself up. “It’s a think‑outside‑the‑box lesson.” He stepped to the rock, picked it up, and walked outside the semicircle, where he placed the rock down. Returning to his spot, he asked, “How’s that?”
His smile faded as Mister Chenga responded, “I meant without touching it.” He rolled over onto his feet, returned the rock to its original position, and calmly sat back down.
Oh really? This I have to see.
“That’s going to be more difficult,” Blake said.
I reached over to my bag and pulled out a notebook.
Mister Chenga shook his head. “Or anything that is touching your hand, such as a notebook, while also touching the rock.”
Ah well, worth a try.
I returned the notebook to my bag and looked at the others, some appearing perplexed, others thoughtful. Max propped his head onto a hand and resembled a Greek statue.
This has to be some sort of game. Blake said it was a test for thinking outside the box. That means no assumptions, no preconceived boundaries.
Move the rock without touching it.
Move the rock …
Was it a game of words?
Maybe it was about emergent beings.
“Julia?” I whispered.
“Do what I tell you, okay?”
Her poignant green eyes fluttered. She peered at me, a slight smile slowly bending her lips, which appeared naturally highlighted with a red fullness. “Okay, Doug.”
In a louder voice, I said, “Julia, stand up.”
“Walk over to the rock, pick it up, and move it across the room.”
She did as instructed and stood outside the semicircle, rock in hand, looking at Mister Chenga questioningly.
“Very good,” Mister Chenga said. “Return to your seat.”
Julia obeyed, tossing the rock back into the middle on her way.
Mister Chenga stood. He towered over the group. “This is your first lesson. We will be learning to harness sources of power of which you are unaware. It is not will power, although it fuels your will and strengthens it. You must always be conscious of this first lesson.” He wagged his finger at us, emphasizing the point.
“Excuse me,” Blake interrupted. “But what exactly was the lesson? I don’t get it.”
Mister Chenga shrugged as though capable of disseminating only so much information at a time. “The lesson is, although you can control your body and other emergent beings, you cannot move rocks with your thoughts.”
“You’re kidding me,” Blake said. “That’s all?”
“Do you think this is a trivial matter?”
Blake put his hands to his head as though trying to prevent it from exploding, then ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, everyone knows you can’t move rocks with your thoughts. Most people anyway.”
“And have you ever tried?”
Blake shrugged. “Sure. Actually, just now. But who hasn’t at some point? Everyone’s seen telekinesis in genre retro vids and probably tried it just for fun.”
“And what did you attempt after watching the genre retro vid? Was it a levitation attempt?”
“I tried making a ball roll across the floor. As I said, it didn’t work.”
“But you half-expected the ball to roll, didn’t you?”
Blake hesitated. “I wouldn’t say expected necessarily. More like wanted.”
“You anticipated the ball rolling,” Mister Chenga said.
“Part of me, I suppose.”
“That’s your ego part.” Mister Chenga walked over in front of Blake. “Sit down.”
Mister Chenga paced back and forth in the sand, his hands locked behind his back. “As we train, your bodies will reach excellent physical condition. This’ll make you feel strong. And you will be. You’ll also learn how to marshal forces of nature.”
“Like wind?” Julia asked.
“No. More like the power of the mind.” Mister Chenga paused. “Figuring out what you want gets you more than halfway to the solution, but if your solution involves wanting a rock to move by way of thought alone, you’ll fail.”
He continued pacing.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “Our first lesson is that we have no power to move rocks with our thoughts?”
“Precisely,” Mister Chenga said. “But you do have power to control the not-rock things in our universe. And you were the one who illustrated that point in our first lesson, Doug Pettit.”
“Living things,” I mumbled.
“Emergent beings,” Mister Chenga responded. “Emergent beings, humans in particular.”
“Are you implying we can control others with our thoughts?” I asked.
“As you showed us, it’s indeed possible.”
“I simply asked her. She complied. I didn’t force her to do anything.”
Mister Chenga stopped and stood hands on hips. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
“I don’t think I am,” I told him. “Julia moved the rock.”
The Polynesian’s chest seemed to double in size as he drew in a slow, deep breath. He let it out equally slowly as though exercising an anger management skill. “My point is this. If you become aware of certain forces at your disposal and become adept at harnessing those forces, remember that you can use only those forces on emergent beings, most notably your self, and your body. But you can’t move rocks. It could become an illusion of your ego.”
Blake leaned toward bounty hunter Kelly and whispered, “I bet you could move my rocks without touching them.” He turned away before she could respond.
“Fine,” I said. “Use power on emergent beings only, not rocks. I get it. Can we go home now?”
“Actually,” Mister Chenga said, “you summarized it very nicely, so yes, go to your new homes now.” He pointed at the doorway with the corridor and bulkheads beyond. “Take your belongings and find your bunks. They’re in the three rooms on the right. Double occupancy. There are lockers and desks, places to store your gear. Relax and wait for the dinner chime. The head is last room on the left. Don’t go beyond the head for now. Otherwise, move about freely.”
The six of us stood and gathered our gear in silence. Blake was first to go through, having already decided that if there was a position of team leader, he’d be first in line. Kelly Cook followed close behind.
“Tomorrow,” Mister Chenga added cheerfully, “we start with a five‑K cross‑country ski trip followed by breakfast and your next lesson.”
I followed close behind the Russian skater. “Julia, you seem pleasant enough. I don’t suppose you’d care to bunk together?”
She smiled, shifted her feet so that she was walking sideways, and slugged me in the shoulder. “Nyet—but nice try!”
Wincing, I rubbed what I was sure would be a bruise in the morning.
“I’ll bunk with you,” Max said, stepping to my side. “If you don’t mind.”
“Sure,” I told him. Max seemed like the quiet type, someone who liked sitting back and reading sensor data all day. That was his thing. Which was fine with me. I had a thing, too. It was called leave me alone and maybe we can get through this without too much grief.
We stepped toward the doorway, where Mister Chenga stood with arms crossed.
As I neared the door, Mister Chenga grabbed my arm and pulled me aside. “Just so we’re clear,” he said, “I’ll try not to be biased, but I don’t think you belong here. In my opinion, your presence jeopardizes the chance of others passing the course.”
“And why would you think that?” I asked, thinking, good question!
“It’s been my experience that people with hidden agendas cause others to stumble.”
“Mine isn’t hidden. I told you mine. And besides, in your experience, you’ve never come across me, so I’d say your education has been sadly lacking when it comes to knowing what I’m capable of.”
“I’ve seen your application. You’re as capable as anyone here, but what have you achieved with your life?”
“Well, I almost got married once.”
At first, I thought his insides were going to burst right through his skin. His dark skin actually lightened, becoming flushed, his blood pressure skyrocketing. Then he laughed. “At least you’re funny. Style points count here.”
“So we’re good?” I asked.
The Polynesian nodded. “I wish you good luck.”
“It’s been my experience that luck has very little to do with anything.” I turned and stepped through the doorway, seeing Max waving at me from the second room on the right, thinking I heard Mister Chenga snicker and say, “Sadly lacking …”