Humanity’s Best

Part 1.

Chapter 1

The air was crisp and cold in the mountains of Banff, Alberta the day she left him.

Carter Kincaid stood outside of his rented suite in his pajamas and housecoat, letting his tears freeze on his face. Brody, his dog, pawed sadly on the inside of the door. He whines in commiseration with his friend. Inside his suite, on the dining table sat an elaborate breakfast, now cold and soggy.

The day started off so well, he ruminated. He swept into the dining area with a tray of pancakes and fruit. His girlfriend, Laura, was seated at the table. She was immaculate, makeup expertly applied, nails professionally done, not a strand of hair out of place. A perfect counterpart to his general shabbiness. Dirty bunny slippers, torn purple sweatpants, and a stained t-shirt depicting a large skulled mouse and his idiotic looking henchmouse. Brody was asleep on the bed. She looked up in surprise at his entrance.

“Breakfast is served, my dear!”, he proudly proclaimed.

“Kincaid,” she exclaimed. She had a vaguely irritating habit of referring to him by his last name. “What is this?”

He gently placed the tray on the table and began to dish out two plates. Fruit, pancakes and butter, then smothered in syrup and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. It was so enticing that his stomach gurgled in anticipation. He didn’t notice the packed bags.

Laura sighs, then blurts out, “Kincaid, I’m leaving you.”

“Whuh, Whuh?”, Carter tried to respond around a mouthful of pancakes and failed.

She stood up and moved to grab her bags. She made it to the door by the time Carter had pulled himself together enough to react. He stood up and moved towards her, bashing his hip painfully into the table on his way.

“Wait! Ow! Dammit! WAIT!”

She stopped at the door, eyes closed in determination.

“What the hell, Laura? You’re dumping me here? Just like that?” Carter waved his arms in perplexity. “What about the weeks of counselling we’ve done? I thought we were doing better now.” He rubbed the painful bump on his hip.

“Kincaid. I love you, I really do.” Her eyes were still closed. “I don’t love who I become when we’re together though.” She opened her blue eyes and looked at him, tears gently welling on the corners.

Brody padded out quietly into the room, his sleep broken by the disturbance. He eyed them both with concern.

“I need to get out and experience the world before I settle down into a career and a family”, she pleaded. “You are content to simply, BE.” Her tone was accusatory. “If I stay, I’ll resent it. And then, I’ll resent you for it.”

Carter stared quietly, sensing the end. He nodded in acceptance.

“I have to go. Goodbye, Kincaid…Carter.” Then she left.

“You ARE my world” The words whispered as they left his mouth. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall. Brody sidled in beside him, placing his brown furry head directly under Carter’s left hand.

And then the tears started to flow, and Brody offered all the support he could manage.

Chapter 2.

Deep in the mountain range, Brody wagged his tail excitedly.

The view of the mountains had always calmed Carter. The Teeth of the World, as he thinks of them. Growing up in Canmore, in the shadow of the Rocky mountains, he always felt at home in their presence. The trip to Banff was meant to share some of his passions for the Rockies with Laura. Instead, she left him.

Drawing an a ragged breath after hours of crying, he turns to Brody and says, “Well, Bro? These mountains aren’t going to hike themselves.” Brody whuffs in agreement and trots ahead. A rescue dog from a reservation near Calgary, Brody walks with a limp in his rear legs gained from hit and run when he was a puppy fending for himself. His coat, various shades of brown, stands in stark contrast to the pure white snow he ably plows through. His limbs are long, almost gangly, but he strides with assurance and poise.

Carter follows Brody along the trail, lost in thought. Returning to his apartment in Vancouver seems hollow. He only moved there to please Laura. His job as a mid-level supply manager there also seems empty. But his friends, Matt and Aaron, whom he met while living in Vancouver, that gives him pause. Maybe there was something to return to after all.

The hike is invigorating and Carter is starting to feel a bit better. The cold is getting to him, so he stops for a few sips of coffee from his thermos and puts Brody’s winter clothes on. Brody has caught the scent of a squirrel and he is alert, ears up, body taught and eyes keen, on the lookout for his eternal enemy. He looks adorable in his blue winter jacket and boots, so Carter takes out his phone and snaps a few pics.

“Well, I know one thing,” Carter ruminates as he watches Brody sniff around. “You’re never gonna leave me are you, buddy?”

Brody dashes off into the forest.

“Motherfu-” Carter dashes off after him.

Chapter 3.

“BRODY!”

“GET BACK HERE!”

Following his dog’s pawprints has led Carter far off the hiking trail. The trees here are old and imposing. The cold has increased, his breath is frosting the air in front of him. The mountains echoes his cries back to him. Carter stops and listens, then he hears it.

Barking.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” The words slip out between hurried breathes. “Leaving his leash off, what was I thinking?” He follows the barks as best as he can. His concern for his dog has driven out all thought for his own safety. Brody is a good dog, but a little dim. He couldn’t survive a night out here on his own, even if it weren’t winter.

Brody is in a semi-circular clearing, barking at a tree. Tufts of snow fall from the tree. The dog has something cornered.

“God dammit Brody! You scared the crap out of me!” Carter approaches and pulls out his leash.

He reaches out to leash his dog when he notices it. A low keening in the air. Brody stops in his tracks, frozen. Carter stops as well, frozen by the sight of the snow that had fallen on his dog. Snow that was now falling UPWARDS from his coat and into the air.

He turns and see that all the snow in the clearing has risen and is gently drifting into the sky.

The keening noise increases to an ear-splitting level. Carter cries out and falls to his knees. Brody yelps and lopes off into the forest.

In the summer of his twelfth year, Carter’s parents were killed in a tragic accident on Highway 1, the TransCanada highway, on a trip to Calgary for supplies. An R.C.M.P. officer approached him as he played with his friends outside of his house.

Carter Kincaid?”, the man asked as he removed his hat and knelt. “I’m officer —– ——–, I’m here to help you, but you need to listen to me-“

Carter shakes his head, pulling himself out of his reverie. His head is splitting and he is seeing stars.

“Uhh.. what the hell?” He checks his watch. Hours have passed. The sun is low in the sky. Carter stands up and looks around. No sign of Brody.

The snow!

A circular patch of snow in the clearing has taken the shape of an emoticon. A smiley-face.

Carter regards this. “Oh no. This is not good-” The punishing keening sounds returns.

In the orphanage in Calgary where Carter spent most of his early teens, various counsellors would visit him and try to help him work through his sadness and depression. With very little success. Today, a smaller woman with red hair is in the office for his daily appointment. She smiles as he enters and sits down.

“Good afternoon, Carter!” She has an accent he’s never heard before except on the television. British?

She continues, “I’m —– ———-, and you must understand, something very important has happened to you and you need to listen-“

“NO!” Carter screams into the snow. He realizes that he is facedown on the snow covered ground. It is dusk now, he is freezing. Everything in his line of sight is covered in red. The pain in his head is so overwhelming that he retches into the snow.

“This is not right… my memories…” Carter staggers to his feet and tries to leave the clearing.

The tree in front of his path has an emoticon carved into its trunk. Frowny face.

“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” He screams at the tree as the keening begins again.

In college, in his dorm room, his favorite show was on. Space travel, aliens, first contact between races. It sparked his imagination like nothing else.

The Captain was on the bridge, about to deliver another stunning speech in his impeccable English accent about the nobility of the human soul and it’s capacity for knowledge and understanding. But instead he said, ” Carter Kincaid, you have been selected for a continuing mission, one which requires you to be the best that your species has to offer. Furthermore-“

Carter jerks himself out of the snow. It is pitch black, or perhaps he’s gone blind. He is no longer in any condition to care. Blind mammalian instinct to flee drives him up and out of the clearing.

Running headlong out of the clearing, the slope of the mountain guides him downwards, faster and faster. Ricocheting from tree to tree, his progress comes to a complete stop as he collides headfirst into a pine tree. The sound of his head cracking against the trunk is loud enough to wake up several birds from their sleep. They squawk in displeasure.

Carter crumples to the ground. A rag doll strewn in the snow.

Beside him, an emoticon forms in the snow. Sad face.

The tree Carter smashed into also forms an emoticon. Angry face.

“I HATE THIS GAME!”

A teenage Carter had finally been adopted. His new parents had purchased a video game console for him as a housewarming gift. He has not mastered the game about the travelling plumber.

He sighs and picks up the controller that he angrily threw across his room.

Well, that was not optimal”, he says.

We will get it right this time“, the plumber responds from the television set.

Chapter 4.

Carter wakes up from a disturbing sleep.

He is warm and toasty. Brody is sleeping at his feet. Then he remembers.

Jolting up to a sitting position, he looks around. He is at the base of a pine tree he has no memory of seeing before. The ground in a circular patch around him is clear of snow. The grass is curiously green and vibrant. He has soiled himself.

‘Aw, man…”

Brody wakes up and regards him. Then he stands up and stretches then gives himself a good shake. He doesn’t seem to mind Carter’s unfit state.

He spots the footprints in the snow that he must have left the night before. The urge to flee propels him up. He still has his leash on him so he secures Brody, then he hurries out. He follows his tracks back to the clearing from the night before but circles around instead of crossing through.

His car is where he left it. Finding a garbage bag in the trunk to protect his car seat, he secures his dog and hops in the driver seat. His car starts and they drive back to the hotel at higher than safe speeds.

The staff and a few patrons give him a funny look as he enters the lobby with his jacket wrapped around his pants, but they shrug. He feeds Brody then takes a quick shower and changes his clothes, the he packs hurriedly and checks out. The front desk clerk eyes him his state of dishevellement.

“Did you enjoy your stay?”, he asks.

Carter gives him a look, the angrily replies, “My girlfriend dumped me and then I passed out in the woods, do you THINK I enjoyed myself?”

The front clerk nods, having already moved onto his next client at the desk. Carter sighs, then he and Brody leave. The drive home takes a full day, with numerous stops for Brody to relieve himself and a short sleep at a motel halfway home.

Carter pulls into the underground parking of his apartment the next day, tired but happy to be home. Taking the elevator up to his floor, he and Brody step out into the hallway. The door to his apartment is open.

“The Hell?”

Brody whuffs and runs into the apartment. Seconds later, squeals of delight emanate from his place. Carter rushes in. Three women are surrounding Brody, petting him and cooing at him. Brody is loving the attention. Carter recognizes them. Kim. Sammie. Vanessa. Laura’s friends.

Kim looks up at him, “Oh, hi Carter!”, she says sprightly. “Umm, we didn’t think you’d be back so soon.” Around his apartment are moving boxes packed with Laura’s clothes and personal items.

Carter drops his bags on the floor and walks over to the fridge. He opens the door and pulls out a jug of chilled water and pours himself a glass. After taking a long drink, he turns to them, “So, you guys knew Laura was gonna dump me?”

Awkward silence.

Vanessa walks up to him and gives him a big hug. “We’re so sorry, Carts,” she says, “we kept telling her what a great guy you are, but she couldn’t be convinced. We’re sorry we kept it from you.” The others nod in agreement.

Sammie, the shy one of the group, speaks up. “We’d still like to be friends with you, if that’s not too weird for you.”

Carter eyes them all speculatively, the pain of his loss temporarily brushing aside his encounter in the forest. They never once seemed displeased at his presence during the many group activities they did together.

“All right, I could honestly use more friends here.” The smiles from the trio could practically light the room by themselves.

Brody gives a short bark, upset that the attention has shifted away from him.

A sudden rush of emotion chokes Carter up. “Thanks guys, but I had a tough trip. Brody and I need some time to decompress. Can you finish packing up Laura’s things another time?” They nod and start to gather their things.

They each hug him on their way out and Vanessa stops at the door. “We’ve got the rental truck for a few days, so there’s no rush. You’ve got our numbers, call any one of us if you need to talk.” He nods.

He has the door almost closed when Kim barrels in. “Sorry! Sorry! I’ve got this, Laura wanted me to leave it on the counter by the bed for you.” She hands him an envelope and leaves. He closes and leans against the door.

He sniffs the envelope. Sure enough, Laura scented it with her favorite perfume. He slides a finger along the flap and eases it open. Inside is a letter written in her exquisite hand writing.

“Dearest Kincaid. I hope this letter finds you well.”

Carter shakes his head in irritation.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t deserve forgiveness, so I’m not asking for any. But I need to do this. I’m going on a European trip of self discovery. A five day tour of High Fashion and Spirituality catered by haute couture chief Arture De’risore. by the end, I anticipate that I will be renewed and ready to re-enter the world as a-”

Carter tosses the letter and envelope into the garbage.

“I’m really starting to dislike hipsters.”

Later that night, as he is asleep on his bed, Brody quietly creeps from his dog bed onto Carter’s bed. Carter snorts, then sleepily swings an arm onto Brody who soon falls asleep.

An image resolves into being beside Carter’s bed. Shadowy. Uncertain in shape. The being stares at Carter for a time, then glances at the dog. The image wavers, unfocused, then solidifies into a shadowy humanoid form.

The form drifts silently from the bedroom into the living room. The form examines the room. Bookshelf partially filled with books, mostly graphic novels of popular comic book superheroes. Framed photographs of him and Laura during happier times. Large screen television with an older model gaming console. It’s gaze finally rests on the computer. An older model, but still functional.

The form drifts over to the computer.

The computer turns on by itself.

The collected information of the world flows across the screen.

The form takes it all in.

The form learns a great deal.

Chapter 5.

Carter exults.

“Yeah! Suck it!”

Matt and Aaron shakes their heads in mock disgust at their friend’s over the top jubilation. It was their first boardgame night since Laura left, they were unsure of Carter would attend. But he did, with Brody in tow.

Matt’s wife, Karen, was out on a Ladies’ night with Aaron’s wife, Josie. Matt’s son, Jonathon, was delighted to have an evening playing with Brody, they loved each other. Barks and raucous laughter filled the hallway outside of Matt’s game room as the trio played games into the night.

Carter was withdrawn at first, seemingly unsure of himself, but the pair’s immature banter, slowly drew him out. They met at the local boardgame store and Carter fit into their friendship almost immediately, like a part they weren’t aware they were missing. They knew he was hurting, but they also knew that they could help.

Eventually, Karen and Josie returned from their outing. The guys left the game room to find Jonathon curled up on the couch with Brody, snoozing away. The ladies give Carter a big hug and Karen exclaims, “Carter, you’ve lost weight! You need to eat more!” Over his protests, she leads him into the kitchen and feeds him some delicious leftovers. Another hour goes by, with coffee and talking. And friendship.

Eventually, Josie leads a sleepy Aaron out to their car, and Carter leashes Brody and they prepare to walk home. Carter feels renewed. It begins to rain, lightly, then increasingly heavy. The streets are dark and poorly light, infrequently light by the occasional passing car.

Carter is happy. The last few days since his return have been upsetting and lonely. Kim, Sammie and Vanessa have been here and there to finish loading Laura’s stuff. Each time, one of them had brought him food. They did their best, but everything they did reminded him of the times they spent together with Laura. A night with Matt and Aaron helped tremendously. Even the rain felt cleansing against his skin.

The squirrel saw them approach.

It tensed in fear by the shrubs it was foraging through, then dashed across the street to the safety of a tree. Brody caught the movement, then unexpectedly dashed after his sworn enemy. His leash slipped out of Carter’s wet hand.

“BRODY”!

He barely had completed his shout when he saw the headlights approach.

Without thought, he dived after his dog.

A screech of tires on a water slick road.

A sickening crash and the sad yelp of a dog.

Minutes later, Carter opened his eyes. He is in the middle of the road. His dog Brody is in his arms, raised precariously over his head, whimpering and confused, but alive. The vehicle that was going to hit Brody struck him instead. The entire front end of it, an older model truck, he realizes now, has wrapped itself around him.

He is unharmed.

Shock and terror fill him. The rain suddenly feels ice cold. The air slowly fills with the smell of motor oil, anti-freeze and gasoline.

A voice speaks out of the darkness.

“Excuse me, but you really need to help the driver of that truck. He is quite badly injured.”

Carter squeals in surprise, almost dropping Brody. He awkwardly turns around as best as he can in the grip of the truck to see a woman in a long coat with an umbrella obscuring her face and protecting her from the rain.

“Whuh?…But…” His words fail him for a moment, then he recovers. “The truck HIT ME! I am literally stuck inside of its engine block!”

The woman taps her foot impatiently.

“Carter Kincaid!”, she says in a familiar english accent, “You are perfectly fine. The driver has sustained a severe concussion and broken his right radial bone and his left ulna, likely from throwing his arms up to protect his head. The steering wheel has also pushed into his chest, compressing his lungs. He is not getting enough air and will slowly suffocate without assistance. Now pull yourself free of the wreckage and help him.”

Feeling guilty, Carter nods his understanding. “Can you take Brody?” He offers the woman his leash. The woman steps back.

“I am sorry. I am deathly allergic to dogs.”

“Oh, sorry.” Carter looks around for a moment but there is no safe place to put Brody down. He shift Brody to his left shoulder and balances him with his left arm. Brody struggles but Carter calms him down. With his right hand, he plants it firmly on the right side of the truck end and pushes experimentally. Expecting little, he is very surprised to feel the truck slightly give way with a groan of steel.

He stares at the woman. “This is not possible! What is this truck made of, tin foil? There is no WAY that I should be able to move it like this, I mean-”

“CARTER!”

“Focus and save this man’s life!”

Jolted into action, Carter braces his back and pushes with his free hand. The truck folds open easily but with much grinding and crunching. He squeezes out of the wreck and crosses the street and secures Brody’s leash to a sign post. He examines himself. Dirty, wet, but whole. The impossibility of the situation threatens to overwhelm him, but then he hears a slight moan from the cab of the truck.

In the truck is an older man, with salt and pepper hair tied back in a loose ponytail. He is wearing a jeans jacket with a leather vest over top, blue jeans and worn leather boots. His weathered hands and face show that he has seen many years of outdoor activity. Carter recognizes the man. He lives in the neighborhood.

The door to the truck is locked. He glances at the woman, then sighs and grips the door. His fingers ease into the frame like it was made of clay. In one tug, the door tears off. placing the door down, he takes a better look at the driver.

“Huh. No seat belt.”

“Nevermind that,” the woman interjects, “You’ve got to get him to a hospital.”

“Fine. I’ll call 9-1-1.”

“Is that a good idea? How will you explain what happened?”

Carter looks at the wreck. “I can’t.”

The woman steps closer, the umbrella still obscuring her face. “Carter, I can HELP you, but you have to trust me. And more importantly, don’t ask questions. I will explain later but for right now, go. That way is the hospital. Run.”

As Carter gently eases the man out of the truck, Carter’s eyes light up.

A three-dimensional image of the immediate area appears before him. Directional arrows pointing in the direction of Burnaby Hospital.

“WHAT IS THIS IN MY EYES!?!”

She cautiously responds, “Why, it’s a navigational system overlayed onto your Heads Up Display.”

“MY WHAT? WHERE? WHO ARE YOU?”

“Carter, please! I’m detecting swelling in his brain, you must get him to the hospital right away!”

“How? I’m supposed to run him there? I can barely run one block!”

The woman spins her umbrella nervously. “Erm, not quite. You may want to close your eyes.”

Carter feels a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“I am not going to like any of this am I?

Across his field of vision, the words Tutorial Flight Mode Engaged slide by. With a sickening lurch, Carter feels his feet leave the ground. His screams echo through the sky, followed by Brody’s distant howls.

Closing his eyes does not help.

Chapter 6.

The next 30 minutes are a blur.

Carter Kincaid finds himself soaking wet and sitting in a hospital exam room bed with a warm blanket wrapped around his shoulders and a piping hot cup of coffee in his hands. His heart rate is finally slowing down and the shaking in his hands is diminishing. The surrealness of his situation is slowly being replaced by normality.

A nurse walks in. “Mr. Kincaid, good news. Your friend is in surgery now and the doctor expects that they can drain the swelling with little difficulty. His other injuries will heal with time and rest. You did an amazing thing, carrying him here in this weather. Everyone here thinks you’re a hero.”

Carter droops his head lower. “I’m not a hero. I just happened to be there… in this weather…”

“Crap! My Dog!”

He grabs his jacket and races for the door. The nurse yells after him, “Mr. Kincaid! You need to fill out your friend’s admittance forms! You’ve also had quite a shock and need to rest!”

Carter yells over his shoulder, “I’ve gotta get my dog! I left him outside in the rain! I’ll be back to do the paperwork! Promise!” And he runs out of the building.

Half a block away, he finds a wallet. Stopping to pick it up, he opens it. Inside is a small bundle of cash, plus a debit card and credit card. Some ID belonging to a Gunner Krogh. A licence with a photograph of the man he carried to the hospital.

“This must be where I landed,” he muses. The idea now seems laughable. Adrenalin, hysteria, too many beverages at Matt’s place. The list of non-crazy alternatives grows in his mind. The rain has stopped. Carter tucks the wallet into his jacket and runs off.

Carter arrives at the scene of the accident some time later, curiously not out of breath for a sustained run like he just performed. He tucks that disturbing thought away for later. The police are on scene. They have a couple of cruisers with lights on full, plus a tow truck preparing to hitch up the damaged truck. A pair of officers are struggling to pick up the door that he so effortlessly tore off and place it in the back of the truck.

Brody is hiding a shrub as much as his leash allows him. Loud noises and flashing lights frighten him. He is very quiet. Carter considers that a small blessing as he discreetly unhooks the leash from the sign post and he and his dog causally walk away.

Safely back at his apartment, Carter hugs Brody fiercely. “I love you SO MUCH, you dumb dog, but you have to stop running away! My life gets so much worse when you do that!” Brody whines a little but accepts the rebuke. He licks Carter’s face in contrition. Feeling emotionally spent, Carter turns in early.

Carter wakes up and feels the need for water. He eases out of bed, so as not to disturb Brody, and walks to the kitchen. Illuminated by the refrigerator light, he takes a long drink of cool water. He idly notes the rain pelting against his windows. Raining again, not unusual for Vancouver in winter. He is crossing the living room to return to his bed when a voice breaks the silence of the night.

“Carter Kincaid, it is time we had ourselves a little chat.”

Carter squeals and leaps over his couch looking for cover.

Brody angrily barks and charges out of the bedroom, dragging the blanket that was covering him.

Carter desperately reaches for the lamp on the counter by the couch and flips the light on.

In the space between the kitchen and the living room stands a woman wearing a grey military style jumpsuit with orange striping for accents. Her skin is also grey, but a shade lighter. her jet black hair is short, slicked back over her hair. Her eyes are solid gold with black pupils.

“Brody! Kill!” Carter gestures imperiously towards the intruder. Brody looks towards the spot where his friend pointed. Then casually walks over. He sniffs the air, perhaps catching a whiff of something unfamiliar. He then turns towards Carter and sits. He cocks his head, waiting for clarification.

She smiles condescendingly. “I’m afraid your companion lacks the senses to detect me,” she says in an irritatingly perfect english accent. “And even if he could, he lacks the intelligence to-”

Whuff!

She continues, “and even if he could, he lacks the intelligence to-

WHUFF!

She stops and smiles a small, unpleasant smile.

“Carter Kincaid,” she looks side eyed at the dog. No response. “I am your personal holographic interface to the Confluence Induction Field that has been implanted in you to assist in your obligation as Sector Representative. Of all your species, you have been chosen to bear this glory and obligation. Congratulations.”

Carter stares blankly for a minute. Then he sits on the couch and grabs the remote for the television. He spins the remote in his hands for a bit, then balances it on one finger. He looks at the remote as it balances on his hand.

“So, that’s it then.”

“I’ve gone insane.”

Brody pads over and rests his head on Carter’s lap.

The grey woman stares for a moment, then disappears. She re-appears in front of Carter. Startled, he drops the remote. Her stern visage softens.

“Carter Kincaid, you are as mentally stable as anyone else on your planet, which does not say much. Your species is remarkably unbalanced.” The smirk returns.

“Your incident in the mountains was not a mental break, nor an aneurysm, as you deluded yourself into thinking. You encountered our Long Range, First Contact team and they chose you to fulfill their purpose.”

Carter rests his head in his hands.

“They? Who? Why?” Disbelief is written everywhere on him.

The grey woman sighs.

“Your species has trained itself to sit and watch for much of your lives, so here,” the television turns on. “Sit and watch this.” Images spin across the screen, wondrous and terrifying.

Brody falls asleep on the couch.

Chapter 7.

An endless black void filled the screen.

Then an expansion.

Energy and matter are flung out into the endless void in all directions. They interact in various ways. Stars, then planets, form. Galaxies are built. A particular spiral galaxy comes in focus. The focus shifts to one of the arms. One star, nine planets and a whole lot of debris zoom in. One planet in particular now. Mostly water, one moon. Then one landmass, cities and roads, the zoom continues.

One apartment. One room. One man on a couch watching tv with a dog asleep,

Then it rewinds. The universe at half the size. A smaller, denser galaxy than the Milky Way. The image focuses on a moon sized object hurtling through a planetary system. It is moving towards one planet. Mostly water, one moon. The rogue planet collides with the moon, shattering it into three large objects, raining hell down on the surface below.

The inhabitants of the planet grew up in fear of the three orbiting celestial objects. They were nearly extinguished in the collision. The sky fell on them.

Millenia later, the fear persisted. The inhabitants became industrialized, burning fossil fuels with increasing demand. Science allowing them to see farther and farther into their region of space. Then they saw it.

A rogue planet passing through their system. The species collectively held their breath as the object passed by harmlessly. Almost harmlessly. The planet plowed through an asteroid belt, dislodging a multitude of world ending missiles directly at them.

The species waited for the end.

Then the three shattered pieces of their moon swung into place. A rare celestial occurrence that none gave any heed to. Acting as a shield, the remnants of the moon absorbed the majority of the deadly missiles. The species was saved.

Fear turned to love and the concept of the Shield was forever ingrained in the species.

Rampant industrialization was curtailed in favor of beneficial research. The love of the Shield sparked a species wide surge in compassion, safety and understanding. Within a generation, a new, clean energy source was discovered. The Confluence Induction Field.

The Induction field provided unlimited energy. Reactors powered every aspect of their society. It allowed them to push free of the gravity of their world and into the stars. As their reach extended, the though of possible contact with unknown species thrilled them. How they yearned to share their knowledge with others and create a Unity in the depths of space!

Through generations of exposure to the Induction Field, a Grand Change occurred. The species slowly shed their material forms and became living conduits of the Confluence Induction Field. It was they and they were it.

In this new form, faster than light travel was possible. Entire vistas of new worlds were discovered , and on a precious few of them, sentient life existed. The species eagerly sent diplomatic envoys to make contact and establish meaningful connections with their new neighbors.

It was a disaster.

The new species would not, or could not, accept that intelligent life existed in the universe that was not them. Genocidal wars were raged on each planet over the idea. Religous extremism, atheistic self-annihilation, sychophantic displays of power meant to sway these new “gods” lead to over a dozen worlds destructing themselves.

The species was unprepared for this reaction and mourns the loss of those races to this day.

A new approach was considered.

Travellers, sent in pairs, out into the vast reaches of space, would find worlds with intelligent life forms and single out an individual member. That individual would be connected with the Confluence Induction Field and given the mission of preparing their species for connection to the Unity. How that individual achieved that goal was left to them.

The television switches to an image of Carter Kincaid, on his couch, with Brody sleeping peacefully beside him.

Then it goes black.

Chapter 8.

Carter Kincaid dreams of flying.

Through cities, over oceans and high into the sky. Skimming the upper edge of the atmosphere, with the Earth below, Carter stretches his arms out and switches his view to the stars, taking in Infinity.

Freefalling back down, Carter swoops low over a teeming metropolis. The rooftops are crowded with cheering people. An enormous statue looms out over the bay. It is him. The crowd roars.

Carter! CARTER! CARTER!

Someone is knocking on his door.

“Carter! Carter! Carter!”

Carter groggily gets up off his couch and goes to the door. Peeping through the eye hole, he sees Vanessa. He checks his watch. It is late afternoon.

He opens the door with a yawn. “Oh, hi Vanessa! I was sleeping. What’s up?” Brody bounds over the couch and nozzles her affectionately.

She gives him a welcoming hug, but pulls back quickly. “Whoah! You stink! Take a shower soon!”

Vanessa takes out a set of keys and hands them to Carter. “Forgot to give these to you, it’s Laura’s old set. We’ve finished moving her crap yesterday.”

She eyes him speculatively. “Are you all right? You look a little rough.” She scratches Brody behind his ears, he is in heaven.

Carter stretches his neck. “Just, had a couple of weird days, you know?”

“Well, take that shower and join us tonight. The gang is meeting for drinks at 8 at the local. See you there?”

“Uh, sure!” Carter nods enthusiastically, suddenly aware of his stench.

She nods and moves in for another hug, but is stopped by the smell. She fist bumps him instead. “Okay! See you at 8!”

Carter closes the door. He turns and looks at the television and thinks of the information it gave him. No sign of the grey woman either. The shower calls to him.

One delightful shower later, Carter is walking back to the hospital, sipping an amazing coffee. The grey woman appears beside him.

“I think she likes you,” she observes.

Carter stops cold. He gently bops a clenched fist against his forehead. The coffee cup quivers in his other hand.

“All right, assuming that I’m not suffering from a schizophrenic break and I’m somehow still in command of all my mental faculties, and assuming that everything you’ve told me is true, why the hell are you giving me advice about my relationship status?”

The grey woman looks at him. “I am the greatest artificial intelligence that your planet will ever likely see, I can multi-task.” She smiles.

He shakes his head and continues on. The hospital is just around the corner.

“So, who ARE you? What do I call you?”

“I am your Personal Holographic Interface. Your Guide to the Confluence Induction Field. I’m here to help you adapt to the power within you until they become second nature.” She looks down and kicks a rock. The rock flies off with the force of a cannonball. Carter watches the rock with a look of surprise. When he looks back at his companion, he sees that the rock is still there.

“Mostly, I am here for exposition.”

Inside the hospital, paperwork awaits. Carter finishes the admission for Gunner Krogh. Visiting Gunner in his room, he sees that both of Gunner’s arms are in casts and his head is bandaged. An I.V. is plugged into him and a heart rate monitor as well. Carter feels terrible.

“Poor guy.” He stands by the foot of the bed and rests his hands on the bed rails. “I am so sorry, man. I had to save my dog.” He takes a seat and sits by Gunner for a while. He does not wake up. Carter takes out Gunner’s recovered wallet and flips through it. A photograph, old and weathered, of a younger Gunner seated on a motorcycle, with an attractive blonde woman in his lap.

“I need to call his job and let them know he’s injured. Where does he work? Crap, he can’t lose his job because of me!” He flips through the wallet one more time but finds nothing that helps.

“Dammit! Heal faster! Wake up!”

“I can help.” The grey woman walks into the room. Carter looks up. “That’s great! With what?’

“Both. I can run a search on his personal information to find out where he works. I can also scan his medical records and suggest ways to improve his recovery.”

Carter nods. “Do it! Uhm, Guide! That’s what I’ll call you from now on. Guide.” He nods again. She sighs.

“Gunner Krogh works at the Zeitgeist Pulp mill, in Richmond.” She rattles off a phone number for the supervisor’s office. “Gunner Krogh has diabetes, type two, loosely controlled, and a damaged liver, likely from excessive alcohol consumption, though no new damage, indicating that he has been sober for some time. Estimated five years. This is all in addition to his current medical issues.”

Carter blinks in surprise. “Wow, that’s impressive. What do you recommend we do to make him recover faster?”

Guide responds, “I suggest that you infuse him with a micro dose of Confluence energy, to supercharge his body’s self-repair systems. That will speed up his recovery significantly, but not so much to be suspicious.”

“I can do that?” She nods, “Just touch him and I will activate the connection.”

He touches Gunner’s hand. An image scrolls by in his field of vision, Healing Induction Initiated. Carter is about to let go but Gunner suddenly grips his hand. Carter looks up and Gunner is staring intently at him. Then his eyes gently close as sleep overtakes him.

Carter stands up and shakes his hands, unnerved. “I can just DO that? Heal people? What else can I do?” He rushes out of the room and into the hallway.

Guide responds, “At your preliminary stage of experience, very little. Enhanced strength, speed and kinetic resistance. More abilities will be available with experience. Like flying.”

Carter puts his jacket on. “But that healing thing, that’s something I can do right now? Whenever I want?”

Guide nods. “It is such a minor drain on your energy reserves that, yes, you can.”

Carter smiles. He spends the rest of the afternoon visiting patients in the hospital, shaking their hands and offering words of support. Eventually security escorts him out.

Chapter 9.

Carter Kincaid revels in his newfound ability.

Taking a day trip to Grouse mountain to hike along “The Grind”, as the locals call the hiking trail. Carter and Brody have stepped off the beaten trail to test his strength. Finding a boulder about a meter wide, he grips it firmly and heaves it up over his head. It moves easily. He tosses it up six meters and catches it. Guide is resting on another boulder nearby wearing reading glasses and writing into a notebook. Brody is vigilantly examining each tree in the small clearing and marking his territory.

She looks up and adjusts her glasses, peering with her gold eyes at his efforts. “That is approximately an 165.5 kg stone you are lifting. Excellent work!”

“Now break it.”

Carter spins the boulder a couple of times, then puts it down. “Isn’t that going to hurt me?” He ineffectually tries to crack his knuckles.

“Unlikely. Your kinetic resistance should make it feel like punching a block of cheese. Just strike here.” A bullseye appears in Carter’s eyesight, with the center in a small blemish in the otherwise uniformly coloured stone.

Carter is thrown off by the notion of cheese punching, but winds up and swings with a shout. “Hah!” The rock shatters in two with a loud crack. Bits of rock fly out in all directions. Brody yips in surprise.

Guide smiles primly. “Well done!” She stands up and gestures with her hand. “See that tree other there? Jump over it.”

The tree is eight meters tall and stands apart from its tree friends. “Well,” he says, “It’s no tall building, but ok!” He shakes his head and takes a running jump. And clears it. The landing is a little different. Carter hits the ground with a crunch and rolls a few extra meters.

The world spins for a few minutes, but then Brody appears in his line of sight and licks his face in concern. Guide walks into view and bends down to peer at Carter. She adjusts her glasses, “You’ll have to work on your landings, it would seem.” Carter groans miserably.

On their way back to the car, Brody bounds ahead. Carter rushes after but sees the object of Brody’s attention. A young girl in a flower snow suit and glasses is standing near a SUV and is squealing in delight at Brody’s arrival. She runs up and starts petting and hugging him. Brody is in his element here: the center of attention. Carter spots the rest of her family packing up their car

Carter approaches his car and opens the trunk. He pulls out a water dish and a jug of water and begins filling it. The young girl can be quietly heard whispering to Brody, “Just be quiet, OK? I’ll sneak you in the trunk and you can live with us.” She is petting and hugging Brody so much that it makes Carter’s heart hurt.

The girl’s family call her over and she reluctantly steps away. Carter hears her plaintive cries of, “But! But! The puppy!” Then the van doors close and in moments the vehicle pulls away. Brody looks on sadly. Then he turns and trots up to Carter for a drink of water.

“Geeze buddy,” Carter ruffles his fur, “You are a heartbreaker.”

After dropping off Brody at home, Carter heads out for a short visit with Gunner. It has been a few days since his last visit and he is feeling guilty about it. The other reason for his guilt is that his conversation with Gunner’s supervisor at the Zietgiest Pulp mill did not go well.

Gunner is awake.The older man is sitting upright in his bed reading a newspaper and wearing glasses. His forearms are in casts and his head is still bandaged but the bandages are smaller. Carter stops at the doorway. He looks up.

“Hello! You must be Carter,” he says in a deep baritone. He takes off his glasses. “The nurses talk a great deal about you. You’ve rarely been from my side, they say. have a seat.” He gestures to the seat beside him.

Carter’s heart is pounding in his chest as he sits down. Gunner seems much larger when he is awake. “Uh, the nurses talk about me? Hello, by the way.”

Gunner nods and tries to adjust his position in bed. He winces in pain and stops. “Ah! I keep trying to use my arms. Need to let them heal.” He settles back down. He rests his arms on his chest.

“They say that you talk to yourself when you think no one is listening.”

Sweat breaks out on Carter’s face.

“Yeah, yes well,” he responds, “everybody has their quirks, right?”

Gunner gently reaches for a cup of water on the stand beside his bed and takes a sip. He eyes the door before he continues.

“Is one of your quirks being able to stop a truck cold by merely standing in front of it?”

Dead silence fills the room. Carter is sweating profusely now. Guide appears on the other side of Gunner’s bed.

“He knows your secret,” she says. “Kill him.”

Carter explodes in a fit of coughing. “WHAT?”, he manages after getting himself somewhat back under control.

Guide shrugs. “Or not, I don’t care. How you manage your gift is entirely your responsiblity.” She disappears.

Gunner, for his part, has slipped out of bed and shuffled over to the water dispenser. He returns with a cup of cold water and hands it to Carter, which he gratefully accepts. Then he sits on the corner of his bed and watches Carter take a few sips.

“You were trying to save your dog. I understand that. I apologize for nearly hitting him. Him, or her?” Carter nods at the first one. “Ok, he looked like a mutt. Mutts are good. Purebreeds have too many issues to make themselves useful at times. They are not good survivors.” He nods at that.

Carter’s mind is racing. “You suffered a head injury. I think you hallucinated it. No one can take a hit from a fast moving truck and stop it cold.”

“Please believe that,” he thinks to himself.

“I don’t believe that.” Gunner slides back into bed as an orderly comes in with cart filled with trays of food. The orderly takes a tray and hands it to Gunner. On the tray is a plate with sliced apples, each with a dollop of peanut butter on them, and a small container of yogurt with a spoon. He smiles and nods to Carter.

“Why, Mr. Krogh, I’m happy to see your friend here today!” Gunner nods and takes a bite of an apple slice. The orderly takes the cart and wheels it out of the room.

Around mouthfulls of food, Gunner continues, “I’ve lived a hard life. I didn’t get this far by being unobservant.” He raises his shirt to reveal numerous scars across his body, including two small circular marks on his chest.

“I saw the fear on your face as you dove in to save your dog. Fear is natural, fear is good. Fear keeps you sharp. But you acted. You are a good man, I think. I haven’t seen many in my life. I certainly wasn’t when I was your age.” He smiles ruefully.

Finishing his apples, he puts the plate on his side table, and the yogurt as well.

“I was drifting in and out for a few moments afterwards. I heard you arguing with someone. Then I saw you bend the front of my truck like it was made out of cardboard.”

Carter nervously considers fleeing the room, but does nothing.

“It was my fault,” he finally manages. “The leash slipped out of my hand. I saved my dog but nearly killed you in the process.”

“But you fixed it somehow, didn’t you?” Gunner spins the empty tray in his hands. “The bonesaws say I’m recovering as though I were a man half my age. Your doing?” Carter nods glumly.

“You don’t know what the hell you are doing, do you, Carter?” Another glum nod.

Gunner sighs, then leans back in bed. “I’m getting tired. Do you mind getting me another cup of water?” Carter snaps up. “Of course! No problem.”

When Carter returns with the cup, he leans forward to hand the cup over. Gunner smiles, then smashes the tray into Carter’s face as hard as he can. The tray shatters into pieces. Gunner cries out in pain.

Carter is unhurt. He shakes his head to clear off bits of plastic that had stuck to his face. He is dumbstruck.

The orderly races back into the room. “Mr. Krogh! What happened? Are you ok?”

Gunner is holding his arms up, eyes pinned shut in pain. “I dropped the tray, Greg. I tried to grab it and smashed my arms against the bed frame. The tray shattered. Carter here is helping to pick up the pieces.”

Greg the orderly nods. “Ok! I’ll get the night nurse here right away!” He turns and runs out of the room.

Carter bands down and picks up a few pieces of debris. When he stands up, the shock has worn off.

“What the HELL, man?”

Gunner is rocking back and forth, grimacing against the pain. He forces his eyes open and looks at Carter.

“Forgive me. I needed absolute proof about you, I am sorry that I doubted.”

Carter takes his pile of broken tray pieces and dumps them in a nearby garbage bin.

“So, are you indestructible?”

Carter sighs. “No, just highly undamagable.”

A nurse rushes in. She starts examining Gunner’s arms, then stops and turns to Carter.

“Sir, you should leave. Visiting hours are nearly over. We’ll take care of your friend here, even though he clearly wants to stay as long as possible!” She turns back to her patient.

Gunner replies, “It’s only because I enjoy your sponge baths. I have never felt so pampered before.”

Carter turns to leave, but Gunner stops him one last time. “Come back tomorrow friend! We have much to discuss.”

Carter Kincaid leaves, wondering just what he has gotten himself into.

Chapter 10.

Gunner Krogh lost his job.

That was the news Carter meant to deliver, but he was blindsided by Gunner`s demeanor. He gave Gunner the bad news the next day when they met, but Gunner seemed not to mind.

“I have some funds saved, I will survive,” he said. “I always do.” He turned to look at Carter, “I think I am where I need to be next.” Carter Kincaid felt reassured and uncomfortable at the same time.

A friendship grew between them. Carter was relieved to have someone to share his story with and Gunner found something that he had been looking for: a renewed purpose. Brody was afraid of Gunner initially, but was won over by his quiet assurance.

The two week vacation he had planned with Laura that went straight to hell, had ended. Carter went back to work at his uninteresting job with it’s uninteresting people. The office life no longer held his attention.

Talking to his Guide was also frustrating. He had no idea what to do with himself.

“Carter Kincaid,” Guide said, tilting her head as she awaited his response, “Humanity is on the verge of extinguishing itself. You, as chosen representative of the Unity, have the responsibility to unite your people and lead them away from this path. Towards us. Towards Unity.”

Carter angrily replied, “But how? How can I stop a world full of hate and distrust?” Switching on his television, he is swamped with news of genocide, hatred, greed, environmental disasters, weather catastrophes.

“By being a shining example of what the best of humanity can be. Or by conquering the planet and subjugating the populace. Or by leaving humanity behind and joining the Unity. Or, you could burn the planet down and then join the Unity. The choices are nigh limitless.” She smirks.

“Carter, you are the sum total of your world’s experiences.” She is leaning with her back against the kitchen counter. “Every incidence of war, famine, plague, peace and plenty is etched upon your existence. You simply CANNOT make an incorrect decision here in regards to how you deal with your planet: any choice you make is exactly what your species has conditioned you to make. You are perfect, at least in regards to what your planet needs.”

Again, that irritating smirk.

By the end of his shift on Thursday, Carter is ready to quit. Gunner phones him while he is taking Brody out for a walk and trying again to make sense of his life. He had been thinking about calling Vanessa.

“Carter, my friend!” Gunner’s deep voice resonates from Carter’s phone. “We have been talking a lot about Purpose. Yours and mine. I think I have found something to help us in both our quests.”

“I need you to go to the Shipyards in North Van, and I need you there by 11 pm.”

Carter slowly responds, “Gunner, what’s this about? What is going to happen at 11?”

Gunner takes a long time to reply. “Once, long ago, I was a different man. I have still maintained some of my connections to that old life. I…”, he hesitates, “I made a choice today Carter. I believe in you, my friend.”

“Go to the docks, and listen. Just…Listen. And find your purpose. We both have a long night ahead of us. I burned some bridges tonight. If I survive, I will contact you. Good-bye.”

Carter looks at his phone for a moment, blood suddenly cold. He and Brody hurry back to their apartment. With Brody safe, he calls Gunner.

No answer.

Carter drives over to his house. A small, older house whose best days are behind it. No answer at the door and the lights are off. He checks the clock on his phone. Time is running out to get to the docks. He makes his way there.

Heavy clouds are rolling in off the ocean. A squall. Carter sits in his car a block away from the dock. The clock on the car radio reads 11:00. He is nervously tapping his fingers along the steering wheel. He looks to the passenger seat. Guide is there.

“Carter. It’s time.” He leaves the car. It begins to rain, then sleet.

The shipyards are busy, and well lit. Massive argo containers are being loaded and off-loaded from ships and onto tractor-trailer trucks. There is a great amount of noise.

Turning his back against the wind and sleet, Tries to listen. Machinery. Engines idling then revving. The wind whistling past his ears. His own anxious thoughts spinning around and around in his head.

“HOW CAN ANYONE LISTEN TO ANYTHING WITH ALL THIS NOISE!!!”

Sound Filters engaged.

Sudden silence.

“You can do that?” he turns to Guide. She is bundled up in winter clothes and is holding an umbrella. She gives him a dirty look.

“No, Carter. YOU can do that.”

“Now, what do you want to listen to first?”

Carter thinks for a minute. “Uhm, give me it all, then we’ll take off one sound at a time.”

Moments pass by as the man and the hologram pare down all the available noises until one, or several identical noises catch their attention. Crying.

Weeping and crying.

“Oh no…Guide, where is that coming from?” He already knows.

“I’ve marked the containers, six of them on your Heads-up display.” Guide has a look of concern on her face.

Carter fights back the very strong urge to run away. He shakes his head. “I can’t go in there like this. I can see dozens of cameras.”

Guide walks over to him and places a hand on his shoulders. “I can take care of that. No one will recognize you.” Carter looks down. His clothes have changed. A grey military style jumpsuit with bright orange striping and a cape, dark orange with grey striping.

She smiles. “I noticed the vast collection of comics you have. I thought you would approve.” He smiles and nods. She continues, “Your Heads-Up display will shield your face and mark your current objectives. Just act, and don’t second guess yourself.”

Carter Kincaid runs and easily jumps over the four meter tall fence.

And into history.

Chapter 11.

Gunner Krogh was bleeding and cornered in an underground parkade.

Taking cover behind a parked car, He takes stock of his inventory. A custom six-shot revolver, chrome plated and shoulder holster. A gift from an old friend. An old friend now lost, taken by death. Opening up the cylinder, he shakes out six empty shell casings. He pockets them in one and pull out six new bullets from his other pocket. His last six.

In his chest pocket, he finds his favorite pair of old shades. Round, black, very old. A key FOB for a truck. A pack of his favorite cigarettes, unopened. and a zippo lighter. He hasn’t smoked in five years, on the order of his doctor. He keeps the pack on hand for a specific situation. The situation of his imminent death.

He thinks about lighting up now.

Gunner notices footsteps walking into the parkade. Three pairs. He finishes loading the bullets into the gun and clicks the cylinder into place.

A voice calls out, “Krogh! You can’t keep this up forever, old man! All this running around is bad for your heart!” Raucous laughter from the other two.

Gunner drops his head in concentration, mapping out in his head the exact position of each car in the lot and attempting to pinpoint his assailants location. Then he pops up and fires. two shots.

There is a cry of pain, then the sound of a body hitting the pavement. Then the return fire. He drops back down as the car he is using for cover is peppered with bullets. He listens. Assault rifles set to full auto. They mean business.

He looks at his gun. A relic, like himself. The sleek chrome finish is tarnished and worn. Two shots gone, four left. He regrets leaving his glasses at home. Pride telling him that he didn’t need them. In the old day, before his eyes went, he would have been able to tag all three. The hard way it is.

He takes careful aim, and shoots out the light over his head. Three shots left.

Bullets rake his cover. A tire flattens. “Don’t try anything funny, you crazy bastard! We’ve got you pinned down! It’s over.”

Gunner takes a breath, then pops out of cover, firing off two quick shots, each striking a parkade light. As he suspected, the other shooters have taken cover. One shot left.

The return fire catches him in his right shoulder as he tries to duck back into cover. His custom jacket blunts some of the force of the multiple impacts, but a few bullets break through. His right arm, his shooting arm, is useless.

The parkade, however, in engulfed in darkness.

Gunner pulls himself up and back against his cover. A pair of lights flash out in his direction. He pulls off his belt and uses it as a tourniquet on his right arm to staunch the blood.

“OKAY!” He yells out. “Okay! You got me! I’m throwing my gun out.” With his off hand, he tosses his gun into the center of the parking lot.

A voice yell out, “Stand up then, Gunner. A quick end is the best we can do for you.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Gunner takes out his old sunglasses and places them on awkwardly with his left hand. Then he slowly and painfully stands up and moves into the open. His back against a row of vehicles and he is facing the entranceway.

The flashlights swing as new ammunition is loaded into their rifles.

“Dead in a parking lot.” The flashlight on his right flicks directly in his face. “Not the way I’d want to go out, my friend. But then, people in our line of work rarely get to choose the manner of their exit, do they?”

Gunner nods. “Took the words right out of my mouth.” He turns on the FOB concealed in his right hand.

The parking lot floods with light as the truck he was standing in front of activates all of its lights. The men cry out in shock and confusion as they are blinded. Gunner, facing away from the truck and wearing sunglasses, is spared. He has only moments to act.

He lunges forward, towards the shooter on his right. With his good hand, he grabs the rifle in the shooter’s hand and pulls the trigger, haphazardly spraying bullets in the direction of his ally.

It works. The second shooter is shredded by gunfire. He topples to the ground.

The remaining man struggles to pull his gun away as the clip runs empty. Blinking furiously, trying to regain his sight, he swings his rifle wildly, hitting nothing.

“You son of a bitch! You’re not walking away from this!”

Gunner lurches away from his swing, then steadies himself, lining up his next strike. With a sure swing, his sturdy steel-toed boot connects solidly into the groin of the man. He drops heavily.

Staggering a little, Gunner walks over to where he threw his gun. Picking it up, he notices several new scuff marks on it. He tsks. One shot left.

The man has rolled over and onto his hands and knees. He wretches a little. He manages to squeak out, “You think we’re done with you?”

He glares into the barrel of Gunner’s weapon.

“This is just the beginning.”

The last shot echoes throughout the parkade.

Gunner Krogh lurches towards the truck and slides into the driver seat. He leans over and pulls out an emergency medical kit from the glove compartment. He binds his wounds as best as he is able and swallows a couple of painkillers.

Plugging in his phone to the truck, he hits the autodial number for a SANDOZ. The number rings three times, then a sleepy voice answers, “Krogh? I was just about asleep.”

Gunner replies, “Wake up, I’m coming in hot. I’ve been shot, a couple of times.”

A string of expletives stream out of the phone. Then, “Fine! I’ll get the suite ready. Short notice means double the fee, remember?”

“I remember. Just get ready.” Gunner hangs up. He looks at the clock on his dashboard. 11:20.

He starts the truck and drives out, carefully maneuvering around the corpses. As he exits the garage, he dials one more number: 911.

“Hullo?” His voice and tone changes. “I was driving near the shipyards in North Van and I heard multiple gunshots. It sounds like a warzone in there!”

Sleet pelts against his truck as he drives away into the night.

Chapter 12.

Officer Kiala Mc Connell laughed at a joke her best friend shared with her.

Patrya Smith leaned in close as she doubled over with laughter at the table in the late night coffee shop that they frequented at during Kiala’s shift. The staff eyed the pair distastefully. Snow slowly built up outside.

Kiala lifted up her drink and took a careful drink, still giggling at her friend’s sense of humour. Her fiery, unruly hair strained to be free from the confines of a tight ponytail and patrolmen’s cap. She took a look over to her cruiser. Inside sat her partner, Jim Constable, diligently working on a crossword puzzle. Officer Constable, she loved that name, and gently teased him about it often. He was in the car, wanting to give the women some time together and he enjoyed his puzzles.

“K, you are wasting your time walking your beat, when you should be working with me in my studio.”

“Oh hell no! I’d rather be taking mug shots than family portraits”.

Patrya insisted that Kiala was wandering down the wrong path in life but understood that her friend’s service fulfilled her in a meaningful way. Kiala was immensely impressed with how talented a photographer Patrya was, and how successful she became. But they both agreed that while they made a formidable pair, working together would be a terrible idea.

Patrya takes out her ever-present camera and snaps a picture of her friend holding her beverage in both her hands, framed against the snowy window. Then she pans around the cafe, taking in the late night humanity in all its various colours. Kiala watches her friend and admires her ability to find beauty even in the mundane.

Then Kiala notices a confrontation occurring at the main til. A man is leaning over and haranguing the woman at the station. The conversation is becoming heated.

“I am gonna sue this place for discrimination!”

” I told you sir, we do not sell cigarettes! Please leave.”

Kiala steps up, “Is everything all right here?” As she approaches, a palpable cloud of stale alcohol emanates from the man. He turns with an angry look on his face but it vanishes into a disgusting leer.

“Well, hello officer!” Her dislike of him increases by an order of magnitude. ” I was merely trying to elucidate the ignorate help here about the slipshod quality of service they are currently providing. I’m sure an educated woman such as yourself can appreciate such eloquent assertions.” He smiles, unaware of how often he slurred during that disjointed speech.

She mentally sighs. “Sir,” she glances at the nametag of the woman behind the til, “Maxine here asked you to leave. I suggest that you follow her instructions.”

The man stands up straight. “I will not leave until I am satisfied.” He reaches out a hand to place on Kiala’s shoulder. “Unless, maybe YOU can help with my satisfaction?…”

Patrya snaps a few pictures, “Uh oh, bad move man.”

Kiala snatches his hand just as it touches her shoulder. “DO”,

She twists his arm around, “NOT”,

He gasps out in pain, “TOUCH”,

He suddenly finds himself in a reverse arm lock, “ME!”

She drags him to the exit and shoves him through the door. “Have a good night sir, I would hate to write you up for drunk and disorderly. Go home.”

The man awkwardly stumbles out, rubbing his arm with a hurt look on his face. Then he wanders away into the storm. Patrya laughs.

Maxine thanks her for her help, and Kiala returns to her seat. Patrya shows her the action photos she took. Constable walks in, shaking snow from his hat. He looks concerned.

“We gotta go, Mc Connell, Something big at the North shipyard.”

Kiala gets her things, “Big? Turf war?”

Jim shakes his head. “We’re on point. Up to us to find out.”

“Wait,” jumps in Patrya, “Turf war?” She stands up as well, camera in hand.

“Don’t even think of following us, Pat. Your mom would kill me if you got hurt.” The wounded look on her face tells Kiala that Pat is listening. Patyra sits down. “Fine. Jerk.”

As the cruiser speeds away, Patrya counts down from sixty, then gets up and leaves. Soon her car takes off into the night in the direction of the shipyard.

Patrya catches up to Kiaka and Jim as they are slipping on their bullet proof vests just outside of the Shipyard. Explosions ripple through the air as well as bullet fire, being slightly baffled by the office buildings in between and the heavy downfall of snow and high winds.

Jim glances her way as Patyra exits her car. “Told you,” he says to Kiala as she moves to the trunk of the cruiser. She opens it and pulls out two shotguns, then hands one to Jim. She angrily says, “You better hope you don’t get shot, because if you do, I will kill you.”

Patyra is scanning the area with her camera. “Look! By the gate!”

The officers peer through the downfall and see that a dozen woman are clustered around the gate. A few are trying to climb the chain-link fence. None are dressed for the weather.

‘That’s not good.” Kiala pulls out a set of bolt-cutters from the trunk and starts running over. “Call it in, Jim! We’re gonna need everyone!” Patrya follows.

Patrya gets some stunning shots of her friend opening up the gate and guiding the women towards her cruiser and Jim. An explosion throws off her next pic, but her third shot shows Kiala firing her shotgun at someone out of frame.

A shot of Officer Mc Connell charging down between cargo containers.

Another photograph of her, from ground level as she is leaning out from behind cover and firing her shotgun.

A graphic photo of a clear area between crates, filled with unconscious men armed with assault rifles. Piles of bullets are spent in the snow.

Her next photograph, which local newspapers will call,

“Mystery Man rescues Enslaved Women”,

And which History will one day call,

“The Day the World Changed”,

Reveals:

A container tipped over from its place on the second row, precariously balancing one end on the top of the ground level container.

Officer Kiala Mc Connell standing out in the open, Her shotgun pointed at the person on top of the container. Her normally determined face is frozen in a look of shock and fear.

A man is standing on top of the metal container, impossibly holding one of the container doors over his head. The door has been ripped off the tipped bin. He is dressed in an outlandish grey outfit with bright orange striping and a cape, similarly grey and orange, blowing in the wind. His head is covered in a highly reflective helmet that is covering his face but leaves his mouth open. He is turned from the container entrance and faces Kiala, his mouth is open in surprise.

From the open door of the spilled container, scared women are crawling out to freedom.

Chapter 13.

Carter Kincaid is having a weird day.

Now he is standing in front of a police officer pointing a shotgun at him.

It was all going so well: Leaping the fence and making his way to the nearest marked container. A pair of workers confronted him about not being allowed there. It was simple to rip open the door and show them the caged women inside. The workers ran off then.

Armed guards arrived. Carter threw up his hands in self-defense. That didn’t stop them from opening fire.

Bullets. So many bullets.

Carter couldn’t stop himself from diving for cover. His speed and mobility vastly superior to those of the guards. He leapt away over the containers. The weather gave him a great deal of cover, the guards had trouble pinpointing him. He made it to the second container and pried it open. Women, dirty and screaming at him in languages he didn’t understand. Trying to direct them to safety was not working, their fear and lack of communication driving them to the edge of hysteria.

Guide informed him that guards were converging on his location, which was putting the women in danger. He slapped his hands together to get their attention. The shockwave blasts throughout the entire shipyard. All of the other machinery comes to a slow halt as the other workers and guards realize that something is wrong.

Carter stared in shock. The women in the container were cowering and covering their ears. He has their attention. He points to all of them with one hand and with the other, points towards the gate. They understand and leave.

More leaping. More guards. Two more containers were opened.

A poorly timed leap put him in the center of a group of guards. They opened fire without hesitation. Carter cowered as the bullets rained down upon him. His screams echoed through the facility. Then the bullets stopped.

He was unharmed. Completely. He was standing in a snowy field of spent ammunition.

He looked at the guards. They were staring in fear at the impossible man in front of them. Then they started to reload their rifles.

“STOP!” Carter leapt at them, fear and anger propelling him. One after another, he shoved the men into the adjacent containers. They each hit heavily and slide unconscious to the ground. Soon, he was standing alone.

With the fourth container open and the woman freed, Carter leapt towards the last bin. He landed in the snow and slipped. Struggling to right himself, he noticed a group of guards approaching. They were holding something in their hands. His Heads Up display identified the object as grenades.

They threw. He leapt, too slow. The explosion propelled him into the top container, crashing into it and tipping it off the bottom container. He could hear the cries of pain from the trapped women inside.

“I AM SO SORRY!” I cried into the upturned container. He scrambled up and watched the guards spread out. Taking them out took time, and more explosions. But they fell.

Jumping back up to the tipped container, He ripped off the door and shouted to the women that they were safe. He was exhausted emotionally. Then he heard a woman shout, “Freeze! Police!” He spun, still holding the door over his head as he saw a police officer holding a shotgun toward him. He also heard the click of a camera.

“Uhh,” He looks around. The area is clear of armed guards. It is very quiet now but for the blowing of the wind.

He gently puts down the door, leaning it against the bottom container. Pointing to the open bin, he says, “These woman need medical help.”

“Help is on the way,” she confidently declares, her momentary shock dissolved. her aim is steady. “Now get down here.”

He hops down.

Kiala Mc Connell can clearly see her reflection in the stranger’s helmet. The snow isn’t sticking to it to it at all. He is smiling nervously.

Another camera click.

“There are dozens of armed men, all unconscious. Did you do that? How?” Staring at herself is making her feel self-conscious.

Carter looks around. He ventures, “Luck?” He can hear the sirens approaching, many of them.

“Look, I heard these women crying for help. I couldn’t stand by and do nothing.

Guide walks out from behind the officer. “Carter, you need to make a choice. Stay and reveal your abilities to the world, or leave. Choose quickly.”

“Where can I run?” He looks around. There is just the bay and the street, and the street was quickly filling with police and other response teams.

“Who are you talking to?”, Kiala demands. Radio in the helmet perhaps? “Stop That!”

Guide responds, “Well, I suppose that you could activate your Trainee Flight System and leave. I’ll plot a course for you to safety.”

“Oh-kahe,” Carter replies through gritted teeth.

He lifts off the ground.

“What the FUCK?!?” Kiala steps back in awe.

Patrya snaps dozens of shots of this scene. The costumed man lifting off and flying out into the bay.

“I got it!” Patyra fist pumps victoriously as she runs up to her friend. “All of it!”

“I…” Kiala steps back, “I don’t believe it.”

“You don’t have to believe it, baby! It happened! We’ll be famous!” Patyra does a little dance in the falling snow.

Officer Mc Connell merely stares into the sky, certain that her world has just gotten stranger.

Chapter 14.

Within twenty-four hours, the world took notice.

The talking heads on television circulated Patyra Smith’s photograph, making her the most sought after photographer in the world. The internet was aflame with commentors arguing for and against the validity of her photo. Her work was conclusively proven as often as it was disproven. Her work number was ringing non-stop with reporters clamouring for an interview.

Patyra hired a publicist, a local woman named Khaleesi Jones to handle her social media. Khaleesi was a firebrand, worthy of her namesake, and made short work of those looking to defame Patrya, while cultivating worthwhile contacts in the media with usable soundbites and press clips. With her guidance, Patrya smoothly ascended the ladder of fame.

Officer Kiala Mc Connell was placed on administrative leave following her part on the incident. She was forbade from even mentioning that she was there. She was interviewed multiple times by various departments. given surprisingly thorough medical examinations on numerous occasions and refered to half a dozen psychological experts. Her face was also plastered on the internet and various media sources. The Vancouver Police department did their best to conceal her identity, but the world found out eventually.

Her small apartment in west Vancouver was flooded by paparazzi and she was forced to enter witness protection for her own safety. She was infuriated by this invasion into her personal life. Stalking across her small, dingy motel room, she stopped in front of a tall full body mirror. She looked at herself and saw the scared, uncertain woman who stood in front of an imposing man with a mirrored helmet.

With a roar of fury, she spins and strikes out with a perfectly executed roundhouse kick to her ‘face’. The mirror shatters into hundreds of pieces. She steps back and sits down upon her bed. Armed officers charge into her room. The find her with her face in her hands, trying to come to grips with what she experienced and her own reaction to it.

Gunner Krogh convalesced in Miles Sandoz’s underground medical facilities. Calling it a ‘facility’ was an overstatement. A concealed bomb shelter with decaying, obsolete equipment, Sandoz offered a neutral location to get medical services without unwanted questions. For a price. Gunner was now looking at a severe financial deficit with limited promise of recovery.

But it was worth it. Flipping through the newspapers showed him that his faith was rewarded. Kincaid was revealed to the world. A God existed among men. Things would never be the same.

Carter Kincaid hid in his apartment for two days straight after that night, certain that the authorities would knock his door down at any moment. Brody was afraid for his friend, and paced uncertainly for long periods of time. There were a few ‘accidents’.

His friends Matt and Aaron phoned him, just to check in on him. He failed to return their calls. Vanessa called as well. And again the next day. Work phoned as well, he missed his shift on friday. He called them back with a weak excuse about feeling under the weather.

Carter dragged himself into the shower on the third day. Brody was excited, hopeful for the return of his friend’s old self. Exiting the shower, he headed to the fridge. Largely empty. He was suddenly starving.

The knock on his door startled him so much he nearly dove through the wall and into his bedroom. Brody barked excitedly.

“Carter?”, Vanessa called through the door. “I can hear Brody! Are you ok in there?”

He opens the door and lets her inside. Brody is beside himself with joy. She nearly gags with the smell of stale dog and stale man. “Oh my God! Open some windows, please!”

He rushes to do so, and Vanessa looks at him, pale and unkempt. “What the hell happened to you Carter?”

Carter has the windows open and takes a deep breath of fresh air. The snow has already melted and humidity is in the air. “I’ve…I’ve had a rough couple of days…”

“Dammit, what did Laura do to you, you are a mess!” She moves to hug him, carefully smelling him before committing. Unable to explain completely, an emotionally exhausted Carter starts to weep gently.

“Come on, you doofus,” she says affectionately, “Let’s take Brody for a walk.” Brody yips in encouragement.

After a pit stop for a delicious coffee, the trio are off and walking through a nearby park. Carter feels fortified by the caffeine and the company. He experimentally reaches out with a hand and brushes it against Vanessa’s. She takes it and squeezes it with reassurance.

“Thank you for this.” He looks out as Brody frolics among the mossy trees. He looks awkward, with his long limbs and large frame, almost cartoonish. But his grace is undeniable. Brody looks back at the pair and barks, encouraging them to follow him farther along the path.

“Have you seen the news lately?” Vanessa shifts the topic. “Everyone is going crazy over the flying man! So weird, right?”

“Yeah,” he replies, “I honestly don’t know what to make of that.”

She looks up into the sky. “Is he a superhero, like in the comic books?” She looks at him, her eyes are brown and very deep. He finds himself falling into them. “Can he save us?”

Carter Kincaid is lost in her eyes for a moment, but recovers. “Maybe he’s not here to save us. Maybe he is here to inspire us to save ourselves.” He stops in mid-step.

“What’s up?” Vanessa is a half-step ahead, still holding his hand and is nearly pulled off her feet by his sudden change.

“Well, I think he’s inspired me,” he says. “Can I, MAY I, kiss you?”

She leans in and they kiss.

She pulls back, still holding onto him, “Thank you for asking, Carter Kincaid. I’ve had far too many douchebags just lunge in and kiss me like I’m some sort of bullseye. I’ve gotten pretty good at the side head tilt to evade those unwanted attempts.”

Carter smiles. “I’m not perfect, but I am trying to be better.”

Three days later, and the sea is rough as the Vancouver Translink Seabus leaves the downtown core for its daily trip to North Van. It is rush hour and the passengers are anxious to get home. Another storm is blowing in.

The harbour it travels through is littered with the debris of over a century of development. The rough water dislodges some ancient piece of a seafaring vessel that sank a long while ago. That ancient item swiftly rises to the surface. The seabus is unfortunately in the way.

The crash is felt throughout the vessel. Warning Klaxons sound at all levels of the ship. The passengers start to panic.

“What the hell was that!”, the The Captain shouts. One of his officers shouts back, “Our port pontoon struck something with enough force to puncture her! She’s taking on water!” Panic is rising in his voice.

“All right, call it in! With this weather, we’re in danger of sinking fast!” He turns to another seaman, “And start handing out the life jackets!”

The passengers begin screaming as the rough water starts to seep into the main deck. The crew look on with fear. Minutes pass by with no sign of emergency response. Each wave the ship crests tips the vessel a little more, and water flows in faster.

Suddenly, the vessel levels out.

The crew and passengers look out through the port side windows and see a miracle.

A man in a grey jumpsuit with orange striping and a cape, with a mirrored helmet is holding onto a massive metal chain. The chain is attached to a large anchor and the anchor is imbedded into the frame of the ship. Impossibly, the man is in mid-air and holding the chain, which is supporting the ship.

“HI!’, he yells.

“I CAN HOLD THIS STEADY UNTIL HELP ARRIVES!” And he does.

Rescue ships arrive and helicopters as well, covering the flying man with dozens of spotlights. The rescued passengers. as they transfer to the other ships, look up with wonder and fear. News helicopters start to circle.

“HEY! YOU WITH THE CAPE! WHO ARE YOU?” One of the news crews brazenly yells out.

Carter Kincaid is fighting off a panic attack. Floating, in mid-air, with the world watching him. He is reminded of something Guide said to him, about “being a shining example of the best Humanity can be.” An example… He swallows down an urge to vomit.

Increasing the volume of his voice so that everyone can hear it, he replies,

“I AM THE EXEMPLAR.

End Part 1.

Part 2.

Chapter 15.

“Are you sure this is wise?”

Gunner Krogh rolled his chair back from the computer to allow Carter access, a look of concern on his face. He was fully recovered from his long night with help from Carter’s miraculous healing boost. Even the wear and tear of his rough life seemed to be washing away, all thanks to his saviour. But Carter’s new plan gave him pause for concern.

“Allowing your holographic widget full access to the internet does not seem like a good idea. This could SkyNet on us all.”

Carter’s personal holographic interface frowned in confusion momentarily, then understanding.

“A movie reference, Gunner Krogh? How Droll.” The words emanated from the computer. Gunner jumps in his seat. “A Human built artificial intelligence would undoubtably have severe cognitive dysfunction, considering the source of its programing, but I am from a superior intelligence. My programming only extends as far as assisting Carter Kincaid in his capacity as Emissary of the Unity, though in the pursuit of that goal, my reach can be quite extensive.”

Gunner grunts, “Hm. she always like this?” He looks at Carter, who shrugs. Guide frowns beside him.

The computer speaks again, “Carter, you may be pleased to know that your persona, The Exemplar, is the most searched topic on numerous search engines, even the Dark Web. Multiple bounties have been posted there regarding your true identity. Rest assured, I will confound all efforts in this area. You are safe.”

“You have been busy these last three months,” Gunner adds, “responding to multiple emergencies and stopping minor crimes here and there.” He swings his chair around dramatically to look at Carter. “You need to start thinking bigger. You hurt the scumbags who traffic in people, but they are still out there. You can stop them. And the drug trade. And corruption in big business and government. You can stop it all.”

Carter takes a sip of coffee, and savouring its delicious flavour, responds, “That’s no small task. How do I find them? How can I track them down?” His life has been amazing lately, basking in the glory of The Exemplar, plus his relationship with Vanessa. He is in no particular rush to shake things up.

“I still have some contacts left,” Gunner replies. “We will start at the bottom, then work our way up the ladder, People will talk.” He smiles grimly.

Patyra Smith leaves a voicemail on her friend’s phone. “Kiala! Hey! I’m calling you from the airport, I’m just about to board my flight to Italy for my photo shoot! Really wish you could’ve come along! Stop working so hard, cracking the glass ceiling with your head won’t help anyone! Please call me when you can, or run it through Khaleesi! I touch down in fourteen hours! Love you! Bye!”

Officer Kiala Mc Connell was working double time, pushing herself to her limits. Only a threatening meeting between union officials and the police department made it possible for her to return to work, she did not want to give anyone a chance to doubt her ability.

As she sprinted down the street after an armed robbery suspect, she inwardly admitted to herself that she was also doing it to prove something to herself. Her world was measured and orderly. She understood that her occupation held risks, violence and possible death. she was prepared for those, as much as anyone could. She easily vaulted over a fence and into a park. Officer Constable was a ways behind her and the distance was growing.

Bullets. Muzzel velocity. Trajectory. These things she could understand. But a flying indestructible man? He seemed to be without fear. She needed to understand him. And herself.

Following a footpath up and over a quaint bridge, she stops and attempts to locate her target. Listening, senses reaching out, she hears him. An exhausted Constable drags himself up, panting and wheezing. She puts a finger to her lips and points down. Underneath. Jim nods and takes a few steps back, circling the bridge to the right.

“Police!” We have you surrounded!”

The man bolts out from the other side of the bridge, just as Kiala intended. She timed her leap perfectly, tackling him to the ground. Jim rounds the bridge, handcuffs in hand.

“Nicely done officer,” he compliments. He calls it in on his radio. Soon the offender is being loaded in their cruiser. “Not a shot fired, gotta love that.” He stretches his back. “Saves us a lot of paperwork that way.”

Back at the station, after their man was securely in a cell and the pair were seated at their desks, Jim finally asks, “So, how much longer are you gonna keep pushing yourself? Kiala looks at him, surprise written on her face.

Jim continues, “You’ve been working extra shifts since you got back. You are gonna have a breakdown if you keep this up.” Kiala sputters, “You don’t have to work these extra shifts with me Jim, I-”

“Bull, K. We’re partners. Have been now for what, five years? You’re going through something and I’m going to be there to help you through it.”

Jim takes his shoes off and gratefully rubs his feet. “You saw something that spooked you. Defied your sense of the world. I know how you work. You can’t let it rest until you confront it head on. You’re looking for the Exemplar and I’ll be here with you when you do.”

Kiala pushes her report away, tears starting to form. “I really hate how well you know me, Jim.” She smiles. How much like a father he has become from the stereotypical grumpy cop approaching retirement he was when she was first partnered with him.

“And you’re right. I can’t rest until I confront this Exemplar. And arrest him. He’s interfered in dozens of police operations. Those are serious crimes. He needs to face justice.” Her smile turns grim.

Chapter 16.

The Exemplar stands alone atop a highrise rooftop, looking out upon the city.

He has had a busy day. Stopping a high speed chase, then dealing with a house fire and an apartment fire. His day job seems less and less fulfilling, plus it consumes a lot of his time. Time that he could be out here, or up there in the sky. He looks up into the night sky.

Mentally adjusting his Heads-Up display to show him new alerts, he notices a disturbing trend.

Copycats.

Men and women dressing up as him, and risking their lives to fight crime. Across the world, there have been multiple instances already. And far too many injuries.

“This isn’t what I wanted, ” he muses.

Guide appears by his side. She peers with her golden eyes over the ledge to the long drop below. “Carter, I’ve looked into the medical records of those injured, and most of them have a history of psychological issues. You are changing the world, by your very presence. Every change in your society creates new problems, it is unavoidable.”

“Indeed,” she continues, “You acclimation to the Confluence Induction Field is progressing beyond anticipated parameters. Soon you will unlock new and more effective abilities. Well done.”

“To what end? There are wars raging even now across the world. I can’t be everywhere.”

Guide shrugs. “I am not here to tell you what to do, I merely guide you in your efforts. Whatever you choose to do, I will assist. Such is my program.”

“You are no help,” Carter says, “Why don’t you-”

“HEY! COSPLAY!”

Carter starts. He looks around. A police cruiser is parked in front of the building he is on the roof of. There is a crowd formed around it. A police officer is shouting at him with a megaphone, “YOU HAVE SO MUCH TO LIVE FOR!”

“DON’T JUMP!”

From the rooftop access, another officer exits. He looks friendly. “It’s ok, I’m just here to talk.” He approaches slowly.

Fainter cries of “Don’t jump!” echo up the side of the building. The crowd is chiming in.

Carter is completely embarrassed. He meekly goes with the officer to the sidewalk. There is much applause. Several members of the crowd hug him. Someone gives him a warm bowl of soup. It is delicious. The police give him a blanket to fight off the chill of the night.

Carter is touched by the compassion of the people here.

One of the crowd asks, “That’s a nice outfit. How did you make it?’

Carter finishes his soup and replies, “Custom order.”

Later, as Carter opens the door to his apartment, Vanessa is inside asleep on the couch with Brody also sleeping on the far end. She awakens as the door closes and sleepily asks him “Where did you get that nice blanket?”

“Oh no!” Carter realizes, “I completely forgot about our date night!” He rushes in. “I am so sorry, work took longer that I thought and I must’ve forgotten about the time.” They hug. “I fell asleep and the other guys gave me this blanket.”

“It’s ok, I’m just glad you’re safe and home now.” She lightly kisses him and leads him into the kitchen. “There is some leftover lasagna, not much,” she smiles slyly, “I was pretty hungry. I’ll pop it into the microwave.”

Carter folds up his new blanket admiring Vanesssa as she fusses with the microwave. “Why, Miss Case, you will spoil me with this attention.” She scoffs.

“You’re lucky I like you. I wouldn’t do this for anyone else.” She turns to face him as the timer on the microwave counts down. “Please be more considerate, Carter. A phone call is all I ask for.”

“I am truly sorry. I promise that I won’t do that again,” he says solemnly.

“All right, forgiven,” she says with a smile. She yawns and stretches. “Ok, I’m going to bed, I’ll see you in a bit?” Carter nods as the microwave beeps in completion. She walks into the bedroom and Brody follows her, his tail wagging happily. Carter eats his lukewarm lasagna, happy and content.

The next day, Gunner calls him.

“Hello, my friend,” his booming voice echoes out of Carter’s phone. “I finally found some actionable intelligence for you. Come over when you can and we will go over it.” Carter agrees and spends the rest of his shift at the office anxious and inattentive.

Later that night, The Exemplar is flying low, skimming along the calm waters of the Fraser river towards a warehousing district in Coquiltam. Gunner is speaking to him via his computer and a new communication set-up that they have.

“Paradigm Logistics is the company you hit when you freed those women. They are currently under investigation by the federal government. Many of their staff were ‘replaced’ in the aftermath, but they are still dealing in the trafficking business. They have just moved their dealings to a shell company, New Horizons Technical Support, that operates in this neighborhood.”

Carter slows down to a stop, his feet are lightly touching the rising and falling waves. “I’m not really eager to face down a hail of bullets and grenades again. Why don’t we just call the police and tell them we saw something?”

“No good.”, Gunner replies. “Paradigm has doubled down on buying the cops out in this area. Calling them would just tip our hand and they would move the ‘merchandise’ again. We need to act, and by ‘we’, I mean YOU.”

The enormity of this company, merely one of many, shakes Carter to his core. “How can I stop so much evil? How can anyone?”

“Carter…EXEMPLAR, you do not have the luxury of choice. You have the power to change the world for the better. Now you just need the will to use it. The other option is to let these innocents suffer. Can you do that?”

Gunner continues, “Paradigm Logistics, all of these parasites really, operate fundamentally like a pyramid. Start knocking down the support, the base, and the rest will fall.”

“You’re right, I can’t focus on the big picture right now.” Carter starts moving again. “One of these days buddy, you’re gonna have to tell me how you know so much about these doings.”

“No, I don’t,” Gunner replies. “But trust me when I say that I am now as determined to stop them as you are.”

Guide materializes beside Carter as he closes in on the facility. “Exemplar, the target location has wi-fi. I can enter and disable security systems as well as shutting down the local telecommunications grid so the people there can’t call for help. By your command.”

The Exemplar floats just above the facility. Shipping containers are being moved about. Industry and commerce as normal, on the surface. To his enhanced vision, he can see the seedy underbelly of it all. People as a commodity.

“Do it.”

He flys in.

Chapter 17.

“Carter has this.”

Gunner pushes himself away from the computer terminal as The Exemplar tears into the criminal warehouse. He walks over to the refrigerator and pulls out a cold beer. Opening it up, he takes a long drink. Over his speakers, he hears the sounds of breaking glass and men shouting. Then gunfire.

He walks over to a wall that he has covered with information about his city. Maps, pictures, companies, and several photographs of police officers. Most of the police have a cross drawn through them. Four officers, from various locations across Vancouver remain.

“I need an honest cop.”

He looks at the four. Kiala Mc Connell is one of them. He taps a pen against her picture.

“Guide?”

“Yes, Gunner?”

“I need you to find Kiala Mc Connell’s phone number. It is time to send police backup for Carter.”

Officers Mc Connell and Constable are sitting in their cruiser eating doughnuts. The sugar rush is helping Kiala to stay awake. Another double shift, they are starting to take their toll. She looks over to her partner. He is flipping through his wife’s social media platforms. Poor Jim is clearly missing his family.

Her partner’s insistence at staying out with her is really increasing her guilt. Her personal issues should not be forcing Jim away from his wife and kids. It has been several months now and is becoming increasingly unlikely that she will have another encounter with The Exemplar.

She turns to speak to Jim, then her cell phone rings. She picks it up. Number unknown. She ignores it, if it’s important, they will leave a message.

She phone rings again. Unknown number again. Jim is looking at her now.

“You gonna answer that? It’s disrupting my calm.”

She gives him a look, then answers with a curt, “Hello.”  A British sounding woman speaks, “Officer Kiala Mc Connell, I have information that you may find useful.”

“Who is this? If you know I’m a police officer, then you must know the penalty for harassment.”

“I have information about The Exemplar. He is currently ‘investigating’ a New Horizons Technical Support facility in Coquitlam. I suggest that you make your way there immediately.” The unknown caller hangs up.

Jim adjusts his belt, too many doughnuts and late nights are making it fit poorly. “Who the hell phones you with a hot tip about The Exemplar? And how did they get your number?”

Kiala picks up her radio and calls in, “Dispatch, any hits on a place called New Horizons in Coquitlam?”

“Negative, officer. All quiet in the neighborhood tonight.”

Jim has already punched in the coordinates into his map system and starts up the cruiser. ‘Well, there is obviously a bigger picture we’re not seeing here, but we have an opportunity to chat with this ‘hero’, so let’s take it.”

Kiala takes out her sidearm and inspects it, making sure that it is tip-top shape.

“Roger that partner, let’s go.”

They take off into the night.

Reyansh was driving along highway one as it passed through the community of Coquitlam. His modest SUV was humming along the highway, filled with his wife and two children and numerous packages. Toys for his children and gifts for his wife plus a few extra items for his friends when they got back home. It was late, he was tired.

Fighting off a new wave of fatigue, Reyansh turns on the radio, keeping the volume down so he doesn’t wake anyone else in the van. A cheerful song is on and soon he is humming along. A snort freezes him. He looks over and sees his wife, Aruna switching her position in the passenger seat from sleeping on her right, to her left. As he watches, she opens her eyes and looks at him for a moment. She smiles sleepily and drifts back into sleep.

He smiles with contentment. The vacation to Banff was a success. Shopping with his wife, letting his children experience snow, real snow, deep and cold, unlike the weather they experience in Vancouver was a delight for Abhay and Aabah. His children. Twins. Miracles made flesh.

In his fatigue, he doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the truck and trailer that pass by. Their speed is significant. His only concern is getting home safely and tucking his children into bed. Hopefully they will not put up much of a fuss. Then climbing into bed with Aruna, his warm cozy bed. So much bed, so close. So soon.

He blinks away sleep. Once. Then twice. In between blinks, the truck has gained a new feature. Reyansh peers closer. The truck has put some distance between them but with the highways lights on, he can make out a man. A flying man in a cape, floating behind the truck, very close to the trailer end.

The rear doors of the trailer suddenly swing open. Two men are in the back standing in front an array of boxes, one of the men is holding onto a long rectangular box with a hole in the middle of it. The other man is holding onto the trailer with one hand and with the other hand, the belt of the man holding the box. Reynash is confused.

Suddenly, Reyansh sees a gout of flame erupts from the box that the man was holding.

It was the last thing he would ever see.

Chapter 18.

It was so easy.

The Exemplar’s first target was the security office, on the third floor. The noise of machinery masked his entrance through the windows. Bullet-proof glass, he noted. They were expecting trouble, but not from him. The glass was no obstacle.

Smashing the computers was the best he could think of for shutting down security. Inelegant, but sufficient. He noticed that the guards travelled in pairs, very observant, but rarely looking up, which gave him the advantage. The guards inside the facility fell quickly, rendered unconscious by his brute strength.

He sacrificed his stealth when he had to charge out into the open to incapacitate another pair of guards. Others saw him an opened fire, the echoes of gunfire rippling throughout the area. Other tried to call in for help from a security control that was no longer operational.

He cleared a path to the front gate and smashed the gate open. Then he turned back to free the captives He was just opening the first container when a truck with a trailer sped through the newly opened gate. No time for that, unfortunately. He marked its direction and continued opening the other containers.

In the warehouse he discovered that this company was also shipping drugs, and guns. Lots of guns. Plus a very large quantity of money. Millions of dollars, in cases, in a very secure vault.

Escorting the women and some children out of the facility, he promised them that help would be arriving soon and that they were now safe. He rocketed away into the sky, following the fleeing truck. He tried to ignore the prayers that were being made to him.

He caught up to the truck as it was speeding along the highway. Arrogantly, he flew up alongside the driver and waved, then fell behind the trailer. He was pondering the best way to stop the truck when suddenly the rear doors opened and two men stood by the open doors.

One was armed with a rocket launcher.

His HUD identified the make and model as it fired. He had never seen one before except in the movies. He casually performed a barrel roll, swinging himself easily out of its path.

“This is way too easy,” Carter thought. “They wasted their one shot on a-”

Guide’s voice screamed in his head, “CARTER! THE ROCKET IS ABOUT TO STRIKE A CIVILIAN VEHICLE!”

Carter’s heart stopped.

He spun around and watched in horror as the wayward rocket homed in on an SUV. With his enhanced vision, he could clearly see the driver staring in disbelief at his impending doom. The was no way he could reach them in time. He saw the sleeping woman in the passenger seat and the two children behind them in car seats.

A targeting reticule appeared in his field of vision, adjusting and centering on the rocket. A line underneath it read,

Convergence Beam initiated

“CARTER! FIRE NOW!”

Without understanding what he was doing, Carter reached out with his right hand and a beam of light? Or energy? connected his hand with the rocket.

The rocket exploded instantly, but still far too close to the SUV.

Officers Mc Connell and Constable spot the smoke on their way in. They pass it going the opposite way on highway one. They use an emergency turn around point on the highway and circle back to the scene, approaching the vehicle from behind.

An older model SUV is in smoking ruin. The entire front half is crumpled, like it impacted against a solid wall. All of the doors have been forcibly removed. Officer Constable turns on the emergency lights of their cruiser as they slow down and approach. When they open the doors of their car, they immediately pick out the cries of children.

Cautiously reaching the front of the SUV, the pair see two children wrapped in a blanket, holding each other and wailing.  Some distance away from them lies a body, wrapped in a grey blanket. The blanket has curiously familiar dark orange striping.

And then, they spot The Exemplar. He is cradling an older man in his lap, he has his hand on the man’s chest and is rocking back and forth slightly. He is missing his cape and his hand is glowing as it rests on his chest.

He turns his head to them, “This man is stabilized, but I can’t do anything for his face.” His voice is raw, his breath ragged. They close in. The man’s face is a mess. Jagged slashes criss-cross his face. His eyes are gone.

“I couldn’t do anything for his wife…”

Jim, mutters, “Jesus…”

Kiala covers her mouth with one hand, her other hand is covering her sidearm in its holster. “What happened here? I received a phone call from an unknown number. It told me to come here. That you would be here.”

Jim quietly says to Kiala, “I’ll call this in and take the children into the cruiser.” He moves away. Kiala stands over The Exemplar. He seems so broken.

“I found another trafficking operation,” The Exemplar says quietly. “I stopped it, but someone got away. I followed them onto the highway. They tried to shoot me with a rocket launcher. I dodged it, but it struck these people instead. This is my fault.”

Officer Mc Connell steps back. She draws her gun from her holster. She knows it’s useless against this man, but the forms must be observed.

“Are the captives still at the warehouse?”

He nods.

She calls in support for the people at the warehouse, and when she finishes, she turns to The Exemplar.

“Exemplar, you are under arrest for Manslaughter, Vigilantism, and Reckless Endangerment.”

He nods and gently lays the unconscious man down on the ground. Then he stands up and faces her. She handcuffs him and continues to read him his rights.

Chapter 19.

“Carter, you can’t let them do this to you!”, Gunner Krogh screams into his monitor.

He angrily crumples up his beer can and flings it across his room. “I stepped away from the monitor for five minutes and everything went to Hell!” His monitor was linked to The Exemplar’s HUD, he saw everything that Carter saw, including the tragedy with the SUV.

He shakes his head, trying to brush off his anger and focus on Carter. He seems completely shut down. He hasn’t responded to anything Gunner has said in ten minutes. Gunner sits back down in front of his monitor and reviews the current situation.

Emergency services has arrived on the scene, fire trucks and ambulances and more police. Tactical response teams as well, plus helicopter support. Carter hasn’t moved from his location. Paramedics have recovered the body of the woman and roll her away to a nearby ambulance. The Exemplar’s cape has somehow re-attached itself to his back.

“Shit, I recognize some of those other cops.” He looks from his monitor to the collage on his wall.  The Exemplar’s HUD is cataloging and identifying every person who crosses his path. Several of the cops surrounding him are on the payroll of Paradigm Logistics. Not good.

“Carter,” he says carefully, “I know that things are bad right now. Really bad, and I am sorry about that, but you need to Listen. Several of the cops around you have been bought by Paradigm.”

“You are in danger. You need to get out of there.”

Carter Kincaid simply says, “A woman is dead because of me.” Several officers look at him. A red-headed female officer steps into his line of sight. Carter’s Heads Up Display identifies her as Kiala Mc Connell. She is peering intently at him.

“Who are you talking to? Take that helmet off!”

Gunner shouts, “Carter! Don’t do it! If those other cops find out who you are, so will Paradigm!”

The Exemplar sighs. “Officer, the man in my head is telling me that those six officers over there are on the payroll of Paradigm Logistics. Paradigm owns New Horizons, the warehouse that held the captives. That warehouse also has a supply of weapons and drugs. Paradigm is dirty, I was trying to stop them.”

Kiala looks over casually to where Exemplar directed. There was a cluster of six policemen chatting amongst each other. One of them notices her and waves. She smiles and waves back, slightly unnerved.

Gunner tries again, “Carter, a terrible thing happened today, but you are fighting a war here and sometimes terrible things happen. What you are feeling right now is natural. I have felt that way myself. It is Guilt. You have to accept it and learn to live with it.”

“You can be better. You HAVE to be better. Only you can save us from all of this ugliness.”

Kiala commits their faces to memory. She has heard about corruption in the force before but never wanted to believe it. Now this stranger, this Hero, is telling her and now suddenly she wants to believe it? His raw vulnerability is telling her that he isn’t lying.

He whispers, “Officer Mc Connell, I can’t stay here. If I’m unmasked, Paradigm and others will come for me and the people I care about. I promise you that I will reveal the truth about Paradigm and others like them. I promise that one day, I will tell the world who I am.”

Kiala stands there for a moment, then nods. “Perhaps you can do more outside the law then I can from within. I’ll dig up the truth about these guys here and their connection to Paradigm.”

“Thank you.” Effortlessly, he snaps his handcuffs apart. His hands start to glow, the cuffs quickly turn to slag and slide off, burning the ground at his feet. Kiala pulls her sidearm and shouts, “He’s bolting!” He soars off into the night, quickly outpacing the pursuing helicopters.

Carter is soon home, fiercely hugging Brody. Brody whuffs as the air is squeezed out of him. “Sorry buddy,” Carter lets go. Guide appears at the doorway to the bedroom.

“Carter Kincaid, you suffered a great deal of emotional distress today. Let us talk about it. The information I learned about grief processing indicates that this will help you”

Carter drags himself into bed. “Not today, Guide. Not today.”

Guides face softens as he slowly drifts off into sleep. Brody climbs onto the bed beside him and turns a few times, searching for the optimal spot to lay down and join his friend in slumber.

Chapter 20.

The public backlash against The Exemplar is immediate.

A nation-wide warrant is issued for his arrest. The media spirals into conspiracy theories about his origins and mental health. Crowd-funding for Reyansh Reddy and his children reaches hundreds of thousands of dollars in days. Dozens of people turn themselves into the police every day across the country claiming to be The Exemplar.

Reyansh is recovering in isolation in Vancouver General Hospital. The isolation is for his protection as the overwhelmed and underpaid staff have been flooded with media eager to speak with him. There have been numerous attempts to sneak media past security and into his quarters. His children are safely at their grandparent’s house.

It is night. He is awake, in his bed, struggling to decipher the beginnings of Braille. A radio quietly plays in the background. His face is healing tremendously well, beyond all the expectations of his doctors. They almost want to call it miraculous. The explosion shattered the window of his SUV into hundreds of pieces, sending them flying into his face and across the body of his wife. His face should have been a criss-cross of scars, but instead, they healed to minor blemishes across his face. Unfortunately, his eyes could not be saved.

The work to understand this new manner of reading is progressing, but slowly. He closes the book and rubs his eyes, a habit, from when he was studious college student. It always helped him focus. Now, his hands touch the bandages covering his useless eyes. And the loss hits him again, as it does everyday. More than the eyesight: Aruna, she is lost forever.

“Oh, Aruna, I wish you were here to help me with this.” He weeps gently in the lonely room.

The radio crackles, then static. A voice, uncertain of itself, speaks out to him.

“Uh-hum, Reyansh? Is it ok if I speak with you?”

Reyansh starts. He hadn’t heard anyone enter. “Hello? Who is this?”

The radio speaks, “I am the man that did this to you…”

“I am The Exemplar.”

Reyansh grips his book tightly in is hands. He thinks for a moment about activating the emergency button on his bed and summoning help. Instead, he takes a deep breath and exhales. “How can I help you? I am afraid that I have little to offer at the moment.”

“It’s ok, I’m not really there with you. I’m hijacking the radio to speak.”

“It is my understanding that these radios are one-way only. You command the airwaves as well? Truly, your power is beyond comprehension.”

“Reyansh, I am so sorry for what happened to you and your wife.” The voice cracks a little, Reyansh can hear muffled sobs. “I was trying to stop the truck carrying kidnapped women and children and your family was caught in the crossfire. I was trying to save people. I never meant for this to happen.”

Reyansh sits in silence for a while, pondering his response.

He finally says, “I was not sure how I would react if I ever met you in person after this. I thought I might be angry, howling at you in rage and pain. Your actions took my wife away. The mother of my children will never see them grow up and enter the world.”

“Instead, I feel sorry for you. You carry a tremendous burden on your shoulders. My family and I have been watching your work since you arrived. You are trying to change the world. The world will resist you, it will fight back with all of its might. It is the nature of change.”

“I do not hate you. When the police came, I told them what happened. I told them that it was an accident, that you were not to blame. If you had not acted as you did, my entire family would have died.”

Exemplar replies, “Thank you Reyansh, that means a lot. I-”

“But that does not mean that you are not free from guilt. You are a strong man, likely the strongest in the world, but you are also rash. The world has too many strong and rash people. You must be better than that. Raw strength will not win the day. Use your mind.”

“You’re right. I’m thinking like a comic book character, punching things will not make the world better. I will fix this, I will help you and your family in any way that I can, I promise.”

The Exemplar sits on a nearby rooftop with a view of the hospital. A new determination is growing within him. He flies off, towards Gunner’s house.

Gunner is sleeping on his recliner couch, the legs fully extended and the back almost horizontal. A barely discernible noise wakes him. He noiselessly draws his revolver and prepares for company. Carter Kincaid walks in.

“I almost shot you. You should call first.” He swings the seat upright and stands up. The two share a hug. “I haven’t seen you in some time. I thought you might have hung up the cape.”

Carter walks over to the wall containing Gunner’s information on Vancouver’s undeworld. “I almost did.”

He turns around to face Gunner. “I realized something today: the world doesn’t need a strongman in tights. There is still a place for The Exemplar, but maybe he should be the face of something bigger, something greater.”

“Information and technology run our world, so that is where I should be focusing my efforts. Guide,” he says, “You have access to advanced technology right?”

“Stop right there,” the computer speaks. “I understand what you intend, but that will NEVER happen. The Unity will glady share knowledge with your species, but only when you have reached a newer level of understanding,beyond your base passions.”

Carter looks crestfallen, but Guide continues, “However, I CAN extrapolate existing technological trends and suggest areas of improvement.” Gunner grunts in approval.

Carter is pacing the room now, thinking furiously. “All right then, The Exemplar can still fight crimes and protect us, but I can join, or start a tech company and start improving things that way.  Clean energy, increasing food production, decreasing poverty, the environment. All of it!” Gunner is nodding along, taking in the idea.

Then he stops.

“But I’m broke.”

“I’m kind of just making ends meet with my job. I need a large influx of money and fast.”

Gunner smiles grimly. It’s the only time he does smile. “My friend, I have an idea about where you can get large quantities of money very quickly.”

“It just requires a bit of grunt work.”

Chapter 21.

The drug lab burns in the night.

A concrete wall collapses as The Exemplar smashes his way through it. He examines his immediate surrounds, then turns around and walks back in. Smoke is starting to billow through the opening. He returns carrying and dragging several unconscious bodies. The defenders of this illegal operation.

“Huh. Still with the no-kill policy? Most of these thugs are murderers. Some, multiple times over. Waste of effort, if you ask.” Gunner Krogh express his opinion over the comm system they have set up.

“No One Dies,” is all Carter says in return. He heads back in, sirens can be heard in the distance.

He appears once more, with a pair of large duffel bags, stuffed full. He looks around one more time, then takes to the skies.

“Heh. Robbing criminals, there is something poetic about that,” Gunner says as The Exemplar speeds through the air. Soon, they were standing in Gunner’s garage. Carter, back in his regular clothes, drops the bags and opens them up. The bags are packed with money. Gunner kneels and quickly counts.

“About five million, a good start.”

“It feels hypocritical, using illegally obtained money to improve the world.” Carter looks worried. Gunner looks up, “History won’t care how it happened, just that it did.”  he stands up.

“My guy, my launderer, is very discreet. He’ll handle this, no questions, and, after taking a large chunk of it, we’ll have our seed money. This is going to work.”

Carter Kincaid quit his day job.

He celebrated with Vanessa, Matt and Aaron, and their wives, Karen and Josie. Sitting at their favorite bar, called Mc Pubs, they drank and laughed. Matt shouts over the din of the other bar patrons, “I still can’t believe you quit, have you figured out what you’re gonna do now?”

Carter shrugs, “I got a couple of ideas,” he shouts back. “What I do may surprise you!”

Vanessa give Carter a big hug, “Whatever you do,’ she shouts, “It will be great!”

Mc Pubs was a unique bar. The owners, wanting to not specialize, went for the blandest, most inoffensive bar they could. It was monstrously tacky, with elements of a traditional pub, a sports bar, a dance club and a karaoke bar all horribly mish-mashed into each other. They all loved it.

The Exemplar continued his work, moving around the world. One day, he was in the USA, stopping wildfires from ravaging California. On another, He was in India, saving people from flooding and mud slides. In Africa, he stopped heavily armed raiders from sacking villages and kidnapping their people. This lead him to an illegal blood diamond operation, which he destroyed. As he left, people both praised and cursed him.

Guide translated the curses, “YOU HAVEN’T FIXED ANYTHING! SOON, ANOTHER GROUP OF MONSTERS WILL MOVE IN!”

“SAVE US! WE WILL SING YOUR PRAISES TO THE HEAVENS!”

“CAN YOU FIND MY DAUGHTER? SHE WAS TAKEN THREE MONTHS AGO BY THESE MEN AND I CAN’T FIND HER ANYWHERE!”

The Exemplar hangs his head in shame as he flies away, their cries for help filling his ears.

His personal savings nearly exhausted, Carter is thrilled when Gunner calls him and informs him that the first batch of laundered money has arrived. he soon arrives at Gunner’s home. He looks around. “Where is it?”

Gunner shakes his head. “It’s all electronic. I have emailed it to you.” Guide materializes beside him. She nods, “I’ve taken the liberty of accepting the transfer of funds, as well as creating false records that indicate that you recently cashed in stock options that you were gifted as a child.”

An image appears in his eyes. The amount of money he now has. He sits down, shocked. “That…that is a lot of money.”

Gunner nods. “It is. Have you decided where to put it?”

Carter swallows, then nods. “Uh, yeah, I have.”

“New Horizons Technical Support. It’s a shell company right? Those things change hands as needed, now we’ll be the ones using it. It has enough space for what I have in mind.”

Guide speaks through the computer speakers, “I have already put an offer in on New Horizons, using the same channel as their last purchaser. With luck, the current owners will think nothing is amiss and accept our offer, assuming that we are another shell company.”

One month later, The New Horizons Technical Support offices and warehouse is closed done. It re-opens a month later as New Horizons Information Developement with little fanfare. Carter Kincaid, Vanessa Chase, and Gunner Krogh are the only ones in attendance.

“So, this is it, huh?” Vanessa is a little skeptical. “Sinking your life savings on a new business is risky, Carter. I’m just saying.” She looks over at Gunner, whom she just met. Gunner is Carter’s partner in this endeavor.

Gunner notices her and smiles, not very well. “Well, we may not have any staff or equipment, but do not worry.” He opens the gate and they walk in. The warehouse is empty. The office is empty, except for a brand new computer, sitting atop of a very old desk, purchased from a thrift store the night before. The room lights up as they enter.

“Hey, Hydro is up!”, Carter exclaims. He is excited as a young child at the newness of it all. He quickly moves from room to room, turning on all the lights.

Gunner sighs, and explains to Vanessa, “We will initially be dealing with computer programs. As we sell them and generate revenue, more improvements will come. It is a sure thing.” Again, that unusual smile of his. Vanessa is not reassured.

Carter shouts from another room, “And, we have Wi-Fi!”

Chapter 22.

Kiala Mc Connell takes a long, hot shower.

It is the middle of the night, and she feels dirty and disgusted. Her investigation into the corruption in the police force has led her down dark paths she never knew existed. She just returned from a long night with Joel, who works in the sex crimes division. He has been selling bootleg copies of videos about women forced into becoming sex trade workers. Videos that he has access to because of his position.

Pretending to like Joel in order to get closer to him was difficult. Acting as though she shared his interests in watching women suffer was one of the hardest things she has ever done. Joel is one of the six men The Exemplar implicated as being dirty, of the other five, he seemed the easiest to get close to.

The others were ex-military. Hardcases. Very clannish and insular, She tried to approach one but was politely brushed off. Her partner, Jim Constable, gave her what information he had on them, that they were gunning for spots on the tactical response unit. Teamwork was highly regarded, which was why they stuck together so much.

He also warned her to stay away from them.

She finishes her shower and walks over to her kitchen. She makes herself a warm cup of tea and sits down on her couch. She reaches over and takes her laptop. Opening it up, she seens that she has an email from her dear friend Patrya. Her Italy photoshoot led her to other photoshoots across the world. She is in New Zealand now. She is happy, living the life she always dreamed of.

Kiala smiles, happy for her friend. Tears start to flow down her face. The ugliness of her life stands in stark comparison to the life of beauty that her best friend has found. Her resolve however, is untouched. Kiala will see her task through and take these traitors down.

Joel has taken a shine to her. The next time she sees him, he has taken steps to improve his appearance. Showered, clean clothes, hair combed. He almost looks like a normal person and not a skeevy degenerate. “Hey uh, Kiala,” he mumbles. “Thanks for sharing with me that you’ve been hurting financially since your time off. I appreciate your trust.”

“I’ve uh, I’ve got someone I think you should meet.” Joel seems nervous, more than usual. Kiala’ s heart soars. This could be it! She’ll either get enough information to bring them all down, or she’ll get enough on one and she’ll squeeze him until he gives up the others.

“Oh Joel, Thank you!” Kiala forces her disgust down as she hugs him.

A week later, She meets Joel down by the docks. It is quiet, the only sound is the horns of shipping vessels as the ferry back and forth across the bay. Several large containers provide convenient cover. It is cool, the salt-smell of the sea catches in her nose. Her recording equipment is securely attached to her and fully operational.

A nondescript car approaches. Kiala’s heart is racing and her palms are sweaty. She forces herself into an appearance of normality. She finds herself wishing that The Exemplar were here but catches herself. She has the strength to do this. She doesn’t need flight or superstrength to face down corruption in the force.

The door to the car opens. Joel steps out, smiling. Kiala forces herself to smile back. He approaches her. “Hey uh, don’t be nervous, ok? The Boss just wants a meet and greet.” She nods, not noticing who steps out of the car next.

‘Joel, you are a stupid fucking idiot. I told you to stay away from her.”

Kiala’s blood runs cold at the sound of that voice.

Jim Constable walks up to her, wearing a long coat to protect against the chill. He looks worried.

“No, no, no,” She mumbles to herself. “Not this.” She steps back.

Joel interrupts, “She’s cool, man. I trust her.”

Jim smiles at her. “Yes, I trust her too.” He pulls out a gun and shoots Joel in the chest. The shot echoes throughout the docks, disturbing some seagulls, who fly away, squawking in protest.

“NO!” Kiala lunges at her partner, a wild swing. He easily sidesteps and counters, swinging her into one of the nearby containers, knocking the wind out of her. She slides down to the ground, struggling to catch her breath.

“You’re off your game, K. What did I tell you about that?” Jim covers her with his gun while he walks over to the corpse of Joel. He kneels down and with his left hand, roots around in Joel’s jacket and with an “Ah-hah!”, pulls out Joel’s sidearm.

He aims it at Kiala. She has managed to pull herself to her feet. She leans against the corner.

“Jim, why? You have a family. Kids. You have no reason to do this.”

“No reason? NO REASON?!?” He takes aim. “When my wife was sick, when my benefits ran out and Sheila was dying without her meds, who do you think stepped in? Just look the other way, they said, and Sheila will get all the help she needs. And Paradigm lived up to their end of the bargain.”

“Sheila is alive because of them. Loyalty. That’s what I owe them. Hell, for saving my wife, I’d do it for free.”

Kiala, realizing the end is near, braces herself. She stands ready.

“So this is it, partner? If so, it has been a pleasure to meet your family and build a friendship with them.”

Jim responds, “I’m afraid so, partner. You were a good officer. I’ll tell them you went out with honour: A corruption sting that went south.” He fires.

Kiala bounces off the shipping container and stumbles off the dock, into the cold waters below. Jim walks up and watches her sink deeper and deeper into the dark, murky water.

He walks back to the car, struck by a sudden urge to call his wife and tell her how much he loves her.

Chapter 23.

New Horizons Information Developement sold its first product.

An application that easily connects multiple social media platforms. They made a modest fee, and used it to retain the services of Khaleesi Jones, publicist. Her services were not cheap, as her name was now well-regarded in the PR business. Their pitch to her, which was written by Guide and catered to her psychological profile, seemed to be exactly the next challenge she was looking for.

“You guys are a MESS.”, She says on a tour of their pitiable facilities. She runs a delicate finger along the sole table they have and examines the grime she reveals. “I LOVE it.”

She is dressed to make an impression, and she succeeds. Carter is in awe of her, Gunner as well. “This is it, this is my legacy to the world.”

“I will build your company, from the ground up, and make it the most successful company in the world!” Her eyes shine with anticipation. She turns to them, “Information development? What does that mean, exactly?”

Gunner nudges Carter, who says, “Um, it means that we are generalists, looking at dipping our toes in multiple waters, Hardware, software, transport, shipping. even aeronautics and ultimately space tourism.”

“Oh,” she exclaims in mock surprise, “The World then?”

The next products New Horizons make sell for greater profits. The local business start to take notice. Offers of discounts and  partnerships start to come in. Interestingly, offers made by Paradigm Logistics and their shell companies are turned down. Renovations are done to a wing of New Horizon’s office space and technical personnel are hired.

Gunner appears to the new staff as a combination of Human Resource officer and Security director. He seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once. Carter simply amazes them with his technological knowhow. There isn’t a question they can throw at him that he can’t answer immediately.

Gunner and Carter are sitting in the office one night, after the others have signed off for the night. Sitting around the old desk and computer has become their regular meeting place. “We’re growing,” Gunner says as they eat take-out. “Quickly, but not so fast as to create suspicion. That’s good.” Carter nods.

Guide shimmers into existence beside Carter, her voice coming through the speakers, “I have some information regarding Paradigm Logistics. I do apologize for the delay, it would be much faster if you allowed me to access their computer systems directly instead of communications between them and their associates.”

Carter shakes his head. Talking around a mouthfull of food, he says, “We gotta do this by the book. Sending you in there like a wrecking ball would create as many problems as it would solve. Their allies would go to ground and it would be nearly impossible to find them afterwards. We need to take them down, all of them, all at once.”

“Doing it this way makes it look like a single, determined hacker patiently found a way in. We can anonymously deliver this information to the authorities and the press,who can swoop in and do their thing. We can take down Paradigm with a single button push.”

Guide merely shakes her head. Her golden eyes seem to pierce Carter as she says, “That is what I needed to talk to you about. I have discovered information linking Paradigm C.E.O. Jonathon Standard to Vancouver M.P. Steward Smythe. Images cycle through Carter’s eyesight of numerous social gatherings showing the pair of them together including a photograph of them and their families together on a large yacht.”

Gunner snorts in derision. “A corrupt M.P.? Surely, such a thing has never happened before?”

Carter waves it away. “This doesn’t change our plan. If we have to take down a Member of Parliament for corruption, then so be it. We’ll just need to make sure our evidence is rock solid.”

Carter returns home late that night. Brody bounds over to the front door, anxious for a walk. “Oh, sorry, buddy”, he says as he grabs a leash off the wall and some compostable waste bags. “Let’s go!” Brody barks in excitement.

Brody and Carter have a walk, Brody is relieved and Carter is carrying around a smelly bag. “Hey,” Carter thinks aloud, ” I could have an area built for dogs, I could bring you to work!’ Brody wags his tail excitedly.

A vibration in his pocket catches his attention. His phone. He rarely uses it anymore, using his business phone more often. Several messages from Vanessa. “Oh no!” He calls her.

After a several rings, she answers with a sleepy, “Hello?”

“Vanessa, I am so sorry for not getting back to you. Work has been crazy with the new recruits and our new projects. I completely apologize.”

“Carter,” she yawns, “It’s ok. I was just checking in with you. Starting a new business is incredibly stressful. Don’t work yourself too hard ok?”

“I’m here for you, always. Just don’t forget about that.”

“I won’t Vanessa, I promise. Have a good sleep, I love you.”

“Mmm, love you too.” She hangs up.

Carter and Brody continue their walk for a bit, then Carter realizes something:

“I just told her I loved her for the first time! Over the phone?” He slams his palm into his forehead.

“I am an idiot sometimes.”

Brody barks in affirmation.

Chapter 24.

The world responds to The Exemplar.

In the nine months since his arrival, the major, industrialized, nations have declared him a threat to national peace and sovereignty . Some have declared to arrest him on site while others have threatened heavier responses. Smaller nations have declared him a Godsend.

Posters and t-shirts and GIFs of The Exemplar performing great deeds spread across the world. Religious zeal jumps in any region he has appeared. Small organizations dedicated to him have risen in several locations around the world. Cults, upon closer examination.

But still, he acts.

A small European city, largely ignored by the world until recently has become the target of a massive military operation. Terrorists, they say, are using this location as a base for their nefarious schemes. Regular shellings and bombings have levelled huge swaths of the city. The people suffer and die without count.

On the central road leading into the war-torn city, a convoy of armoured vehicles prepares to enter. They stop at the city limits. A costumed man stands in their way.

With inhuman clarity, his voice booms out, seeming to reach every member of the military unit,

“THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT HIDING, NOR SUPPORTING TERRORISTS! TURN YOUR VEHICLES AROUND AND RETURN TO YOUR BASE!”

Scattered laughter echoes from the convoy. They had not expected him to speak their language. An officer steps out with a microphone attached to his vehicle.

“Cosplay! I cannot accept your offer! Every day, my people die because of villains using this town as cover! Step aside, or you will be fired on!”

The Exemplar shakes his head. “I can’t do that!”, he replies. He raises his hands in supplication. “I have searched this city exhaustively and found no evidence of collusion, please believe me!”

The officer calls forward five soldiers. They line up in a neat formation. At a signal from the officer, they draw and aim their weapons with precision. The Exemplar sighs and tenses, flexing his fingers nervously. The Guide stands at his side and observes passively.

“READY!”

“AIM!”

“FI-!”

A gust of wind nearly blows the men over. When they recover, they are startled to find that they have been disarmed. The costumed man has their rifles and is now crushing them in his hands.

The officer panics. “It’s him! IT’S HIM! Open fire, all units!”

Explosions ripple throughout the area as the various units in the convoy target and fire upon The Exemplar. Rising above a billowing cloud of explosions, he is unharmed. Scanning each vehicle in the convoy with his enhanced vision, he finds and exploits structural weakness with his titanic strength. Within minutes, the entire convoy is disabled.

There are no casualties.

As the last soldier flees the wreckage, Guide speaks up, “Carter, bombers inbound.” Carter looks up, each plane is marked on his HUD. He takes to the skies.

High above the clouds, he stares at the incoming attack group. “Wow, that is a lot of planes.”

“Indeed,” Guide says. “I am intercepting communications indicating that artillery is moving into position. You will not be able to defend this city for long.”

“No One Dies,” is all Carter says as he mentally pulls up the option for the Convergence Beam.

The air fleet moves in to begin their bombing run, their cargo holds full of high-yield explosives. At the designated point, the hatches open and death rains down upon the beleaguered city. Beams of light strike out from a central point in the air, unerringly hitting each piece of ordnance, detonating them long before they reach the ground.

The last of the bombers leaves the area. Carter has just enough time to target one and disable it as a shell zips past him, towards the town. “Whoah!” He spins and lashes out with a blast, destroying the shell before it hits the city. “Too close.” He turns and examines the situation. twelve artillery units, each with defensive support of troopers and armoured vehicles, spread out around the city.

The bombers are swinging around for another run.

The Artillery begins to fire. The Exemplar counters each attack. He is able to destroy one, then another of the units. The bombers are nearly there.

A lucky strike hits The Exemplar, knocking him from the air. He recovers, rising unsteadily into the sky. Three or four shells have struck the city.

“Dammit!” He strikes out with renewed vigor. Looking around, he says, “Guide, the power that’s protecting me, the con-fluey-”

“The Confluence Induction Field.” She says, standing at his side. A shell passes through her form. He shoots it down.

“Ok, it protects me and empowers me.” He blasts another shell. “How MUCH power exactly do I  have?”

“Well,” she says, “You are intrinsically bound to the Field. The Field gives you access to the energy of a pocket dimension, it is essentially limitless.”

The Bombers are overhead. The cargo hold is open and the bombs start to fall.

“EXPAND MY DEFENSIVE SHIELD TO COVER THE CITY!”

Guide looks skeptical.

“Are you sure? You have never handled that much power before.”

“JUST DO IT! DO IT NOW!”

A golden wave of energy erupts from The Exemplar, covering the city below with a shimmering field. The bombs rain down and the artillery strikes down.

All impacting against the field. The city underneath remains unharmed.

The people of the city, in awe, step out into the streets. Some pray, others begin to weep, a few have mobile devices and raise them to the sky, capturing the image of The Exemplar and his valiant defence of the city and transmitting it to the world.

For several minutes, the world watches a man, a single man, stand against the forces of an entire army. Then, from The Exemplar, a single coherent beam of energy lances out again and again, damaging the bombers and forcing them to retreat. Then the beam strikes out, destroying the artillery cannons and the support vehicles. The crews escape unharmed.

The army is in full retreat. The Exemplar maintains the shield until they are no longer in his expanded range of sight. Then the field drops, and he slowly sinks to the earth. Into the reverent arms of the populace below.

In profound silence, the people approach and silently, rest their hands upon him. Exhausted, he can do nothing but return the contact, resting his hand upon theirs. A woman approaches him, mobile device in hand. She says, quietly, trying not to disturb the silence,

“Why did you save us?”

The Exemplar wearily raises his head and looks directly into the camera,

“No One Dies.”

Chapter 25.

The Exemplar spent two days with the people, safeguarding the city from further attack.

He never slept. He stood watching the road that the army approached. The people brought him food and water. He enjoyed their coffee.

The phrase, “No one dies,” has now become the most searched phrase on the internet.

Layal, the woman who spoke with him on the first day, spoke some english and the pair conversed frequently. Fierce, intelligent, and determined to expose the suffering here to the world. She risked her life every day, climbing among the ruins of her city, searching for survivors and undetonated munitions.

On the second day, a relief convoy from the United Nations arrived, bringing food and medical supplies and a large contingent of reporters.

When the reporters swarmed The Exemplar, it was Layal who redirected them to the situation here, working to dispel the myth that terrorists operate from her home. Carter found her to be inspirational. Looking around at the devastation again, he wished that he had the power to accelerate the restoration.

A man in a UN vest and a suitcase approaches Carter as he was sipping on a steaming cup of coffee. “Exemplar!”, he stops and extends his hand in greeting. Carter put his cup down and said, “That’s The Exemplar.” He takes the offered hand and shakes it.

“The, will do.”

The man is confused.

“Uh, ok, The.” He doesn’t notice that Carter is grinning wildly.

The man is off his game now. “I, uh, I am Tyler Kurn, Legal representative of the United Nations. You are in violation of a dozen international agreements on national sovereignty.” He pulls out some paperwork from his suitcase and hands it to Carter. He quickly flips through, allowing Guide to scan and record the information on them.

“Serious charges,” She murmurs.

Carter hands the papers back to Tyler, who continues, “Your presence is requested at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, in thirty days. If you fail to appear, you will be tried, in absentia. Do you understand?”

Carter is about to answer when Guide interrupts, “You have a call from Gunner.”

Gunner’s booming voice speaks out, “You have an emergency at the office. A serious emergency. You need to return immediately.”

The Exemplar turns to Tyler, “I will attempt to make this. Gotta go!” He flies off as Tyler looks on in wonder.

He stops long enough to locate Layal. She has her phone out and is showing various recordings to the media.  She waves as he approaches and smiles. He touches down briefly to touch her phone and whisper, “I have to go, but I’ve given you a phone number. If the army returns, call me and I will return.”

She nods, “Godspeed, Hero.” He smiles and leaves.

A sub-orbital flight sees The Exemplar return to Vancouver in record time. He lands behind his office and runs in on foot as Carter Kincaid. Gunner meets him in the main entrance. He is covered in blood.

Officer Jim Constable is wearing a black armband on his uniform as he fills out paperwork at the desk of his precinct office. The one that he shared with Kiala Mc Connell. Every officer who passes his desk stops and quietly says a few words of support.

Kiala Mc Connell has been declared dead for a week Following the shootout between her and Joel Sandian. Joel has been discovered to be a dirty cop and the precinct is in shock.  Jim was off work on grief leave but was at the office today to meet with a counsellor about loss and depression. He finishes his paperwork and goes into the counsellor’s office.

As the meeting drags on, Jim notices a commotion outside. Officers are running back and forth. The counsellor brings his attention back to the meeting. Jim genuinely has some grief over Kiala’s death, but he goes through the motions of pretending to mourn. Perhaps he can swing a few more days off.

The meeting is finally over and Jim grabs his cap and leaves the room. He heads in the direction of the commotion, eager to take some juicy news home to his wife. In the Lunch room, he finds a crowd surrounding someone. Elbowing his way through the crowd, he makes his way to the front.

He fires off the quip, “Who died?”, as he comes face to face with Kiala Mc Connell.

Her face is pale and bruised. Her eyes are sunken but alert. She is wearing clothes that don’t fit her. And she is very much not dead.

Beside her is Superintendent Les, of the Investigative Support branch. She is listening to an audio recording on a cell phone. He can barely make out the last bit,

“Loyalty. That’s what I owe them. Hell, for saving my wife, I’d do it for free.”

His voice.

As the assembled police officers stare in disbelief, Jim Constable sits down at a table and removes his black armband. He carefully folds it up and places it on the tabletop. He quietly says, “I’d like to talk to a lawyer.”

Chapter 26.

The Vancouver Police Department quietly removed six officers from active duty.

The testimony that Jim Constable provided made it imperative to take in the other officers as fast as possible. A false sighting of The Exemplar made it easy to call in all active officers in the area, as he was still under an Arrest on Sight warrant. The suspected officers, Rico, Cole, Macon, Dante and Randall arrived none the wiser. The group pulled up and, after disembarking their vehicle soon found themselves surrounded and disarmed.

Saying nothing, the group surrenders. A single phone call is made by Dante when they arrive at the station, and in time a lawyer arrives. Desmond Roche, a surprisingly high end laywer. He sweeps in and commands the five as to their further actions. He confidently declares that soon the five will be free.

Kiala Mc Connell is returned from the dead. They claim to the media that her “death” was part of an undercover sting operation that has now been resolved. Privately, the heads of her office demand to know how she survived being shot in the chest and falling into the sea. She claims that she drifted on the water for a time and was discovered by a man who was illegally fishing. He took her home and cared for her until she was well enough to return. The man wanted a promise of anonymity for his illegal activity in exchange for his help, which she was in no position to refuse.

Her bosses are incredulous, but they accept it. The results were invaluable. Kiala is sent off to the hospital for evaluation.

Inspector Les visits her one day. Kiala’s single room is full of get-well cards and flowers and a few balloons. Kiala is reading an entertainment magazine, keeping up with the latest scandals and weddings.

Carol Les takes a seat and says, “You read that trash? It’ll rot your brains.”

Kiala puts it down and smiles ruefully. “Yeah, I know it’s trashy, but I love it. Besides, it gives me something to do around here, besides physio.”

“Well, you’re in luck then,” Carol says. She pulls out an envelope from her jacket and flips it into Kiala’s lap. As Kiala picks it up and opens it, Carols says, “It’s a  lot of legalese, but essentially, it’s a promotion. When you’re ready, of course.” As Kiala reads the letter, her eyes slowly widen in surprise.

“Every branch wants a piece of you. You have your pick, Emergency response unit, Operational planning, Marine support. Even Internal Affairs, my branch.” Carol sits back and smugly watches the emotions play across Kiala’s face. She made a bet with the other office heads which branch she would choose.

Kiala looks down at her lap, then away from Carol completely. She takes a moment to collect herself and lets out a deep breath.

“Carol, I’m not sure about returning to the force.”

Carol’s smug look evaporates.

She continues, “I’ve spent years with the Force. I thought I’d seen it all. But Jim was my FRIEND. We spent holidays together. I watched his kids when he and Sheila went out on dates. And I NEVER SAW IT COMING.” Her entire body is trembling with emotion.

Carol leans forward in her seat, and a concerned look on her face. “Kiala, you’ve been through a serious trauma. We all understand that. There’s no rush here. You have lots of time to recover and talk to the shrinks about what happened. You can still do so much good here, think of your career. You’re a HERO.”

Kiala looks at the cover of her magazine. The central picture is of The Exemplar during his defense of the foreign town. “A hero,” she muses.

Carol stands up, “I have to get going, but I’ll be back to see you.” She stops at the doorway. “Just think about it. No rash actions, ok?” Kiala nods in understanding. She is  looking towards a card.

Carol’s sharp eyes pick out that the card is clearly meant for children. It has a cartoon tiger in traction, looking sad. Inside, she can see that it is from a Carter and Gunner. She thinks about it for a moment but finds no one in the force who knows Kiala and goes by those names. She makes a mental note to find out more information about that as she leaves Kiala to her thoughts.

Chapter 27.

“Sandoz, you say?”

Gunner cracks open a beer and sits back on his lounger. He nods, “Yes, it was all very bizarre.” He takes a sip, savouring it with a satisfied sigh.

“At about two a.m. I received a frantic call from my friend. He was outside my house with a dying woman in his car, and a cop, no less. He had the skills to handle it, I have no doubt, but he is easily panicked. An injured police officer beat down his door, she mumbled that she was aware of his services for some time now and needed his help.”

Gunner takes a moment  to wet his lips with another swig, then continues. “He drove her over to my house and dropped her off on my step. Said I owed him, which I did, I suppose. But what a sight to wake up to!” He shakes his head.

“Anyways, I couldn’t have her die there, so I stuffed her in the trunk of my company car and took her to the office. Plenty of unused spaces there, no one knew she was there. You were overseas, so I couldn’t bother you. I bought what supplies I could and kept her alive as long as I was able.”

“She was nearly gone by the time you got back. No one could have saved her by then, except you.” Gunner stares almost reverentially at Carter. He finished his beer. “Your gifts are growing beyond anything I could have imagined.”

“With your work overseas, you showed the World what you could do. Now they will listen.”

Carter looks haunted.

“There was so much suffering. I had to do something. I examined the city top to bottom and found nothing to link them to terror cells. I can’t understand why they were attacked. It doesn’t add up, there has to be another reason.”

Gunner leans forward and rests his chin on his hands. “Well, you have two weeks to find something before you appear at The Hague, so let’s make the time count and uncover this secret conspiracy.”

New Horizons Information Developement sold another groundbreaking program. Larger companies were starting to take notice. Several attempts at takeovers were thwarted by Guide’s clever strategy of playing several companies against each other. No one company can buy them without severe economic reprisal from the others. It was a stalemate in their favour, which allowed them to continue to grow.

Carter, as CEO, managed to buy his way into the BC Chamber of Commerce’ Premier and Cabinet lunch event. The registration filled quickly, so Carter was forced to “donate” a large sum of money to free up a seat, but the opportunity to meet Jonathon Standard and Steward Smythe at the same time was too good an opportunity to miss.

The suite in the extravagant hotel was especially extravagent for the luncheon event. Several tables arranged to face the central table of the Premier and his staff. The seat to the right of the premier is empty, but all the other eats at his table are full. Carter felt woefully out of place here, amid the government officials and business bigwigs. His suit was new and uncomfortable and very itchy. He didn’t know anyone there. Hovering over the food table, Carter smiled and nodded to everyone who passed by.

Fashionably late, Jonathon Standard arrives. A crowd of people immediately gravitate to him. He smiles and tells a few jokes, and the crowd laughs. He makes his way to the food table.

Carter finishes stuffing his sandwich into his mouth and makes his move. He slides over. “These sandwiches are a delight, try one!” Jonathon gives him a curious look and laughs uncomfortably.

“No can do, friend, I’m allergic to gluten.” He extends a hand. “I’m Jonathon Standard, I work at Paradigm Logistics. And you are?”

Carter takes his hand and shakes it. “Carter Kincaid, uh, of New Horizons Information Development.”

Jonathon’s smile grows, showing off his amazing pearly white teeth. “New Horizons? The new kid on the block! You’re all anyone talks about. We should set up a meeting, pitch a few ideas at each other. Paradigm has resources that can help a young, hungry business like yours.”

Carter mumbles a response. His small talk game is weak compared to an experienced businessman like Jonathon, but he strives to keep up. Eventually he manages, “Can you answer a question for me?” Jonathon nods, curiousity peeked.

“That empty seat by the premier, who is it for?”

Jonathon shrugs, “No One.”

Steward Smythe, from his seat at the table, spots Jonathon and waves him over. Jonathon takes his cue, “Oops, gotta shmooze. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Carter. We’ll do it again sometime.” Carter nods as Jonathon walks away.

Guide appears beside Carter as he fill up his third cup of increasingly stale coffee. “There,” she says, “They are both using their phones. coordinating their schedules. I’m in.” She walks to the door, then stops. “We can go now, unless you’d prefer to stay?”

Carter looks at his barely touched coffee for a moment, then gets up. There are better coffees elsewhere.

Chapter 28.

Kiala wiped sweat off her brow.

Since being released from the hospital and returning to her apartment, she has spent most of her time in the excercise room of her building. The room was large and well equipped, a major factor in her decision to rent there. It was late, so she had the facility to herself and was playing her excersize music loud.

A floor-to-ceiling mirror ran the length of one of the walls. As she toweled off more of her sweat, she examined herself in detail. Pale, white skin, a smattering of freckles here and there, her fiery red hair tied back in an unruly ponytail. She couldn’t tell by her appearance that she was nearly dead two weeks ago.

She was shot.

She could have died.

She SHOULD have died.

Moving from the free weights to the practice dummy, she begins sparring. Her thoughts wander as she goes through the motions. The form is perfect, she can do it with almost no focus.

She remembers pulling herself from the cold water.

Her chest felt like it was on fire, even though the rest of her body was numb. Every breath was pain.

The only thought in her head that she can remember is “Help. Need help.” Over and over.

How she found Francis Sandoz’s underground medical facility, she will never know. One of her snitch contacts told her about him and his illegal work. She had a thought in the back of her head about waiting for an important criminal to go in and busting them both, but never got past the idea phase.

Even in her near death state, she was still thinking tactically. Turning up in a hospital with who knows how many corrupted cops, she likely wouldn’t have survived more than a couple of days.

The dummy is rattling vigorously from her punishing blows.

Her memories fade in and out after that point. She remembers an aged warrior carrying her into his car, over her mumbled protests.

She remembers a cold room and an old mattress. The old warrior tending her with practiced care. Not the first deathbed he sat beside, it seemed. Her clothes, grimed with blood and other stains, he removed tenderly and replaced with someone else’s clothing.

The fire in her chest spread throughout her body. The old warrior struggled to hold her and prevent her thrashing from hurting herself.

Eventually, the fire passes, and she is free from pain and discomfort. She sees the old warrior’s face, warped with concern. She wants to tell him not to worry, that it doesn’t hurt anymore. That would make him happy, she thought. But, she can’t. Movement seems beyond her capabilities at the moment. She just wants to sleep, just for a little while.

But then, a radiant being enters her line of sight.

Light emanates from every part of this being. She tries to look at its face but can only see a broken, dying woman. She feels sorry for whomever that person is.

She tries to raise her hand to the face of the dying woman, to provide any kind of support. The radiant being gently clasps its hand around hers and suddenly the fire is back. But this time, it does not hurt. It suffuses her, lifts her up out of her death state, and she is now aware of her body. The fire is making her conscious of every detail of her body, her blood as it pounds through her system, her brain, every synapse sparking a star in the heavens. Her sense of touch, amplified, she can count the number of thread in her clothes. She can breathe again, she can see fire in every exhalation.

The joy of life. The power of life. It is hers. Her life.

Suddenly, the fire is gone.

She feels alone. More alone than ever before in her life. She cries out in loss. Exhausted, she sleeps for a time.

The old warrior enters her room to find her awake, staring forlornly at her phone. He has a bag of food. Gas station edibles. She has been trying to turn it on for some time now. The sloshing of water she can hear inside is not a good sign. The phone held the confession of Jim Constable.

Saying nothing, he puts the bag of food down beside her and leaves. He comes back a short time later with another man in tow. He is not like the old man, meek where the other is strong, soft where the other is firm. Opposite, but to her practiced eyes, she can tell that the old man defers to the younger man. The younger man clumsily pulls out an older model phone, in an ugly yellow colour and gives it to her.

“Uh, hey,” he stumbles, “I saw that your phone was wrecked, so I mirrored it onto this old phone.” He smiles, nervously. It seems to be all he knows how to do. “You, uh, you can keep it.”

She turns it on. “Is that even possible with a dead phone?” She pulls up the media menu and selects the last recording. Jim’s voice comes through loud and clear.

The man shrugs. “I have a way with technology.”

They introduce themselves. Carter, the younger man. Gunner, the elder.

Kiala tries to leave but a sudden wave of dizziness hits her hard. It’s urgent, she tell them, life or death. They look at each other, then Carter steps forward. “We can help. Where do you need to go?”

She tell them. Her precinct office. The one she shares with Jim Constable.

The rest is clear, his arrest and the arrest of the others. Now she is here, alone.

She takes a break, and drinks some water.

Her recovery is amazing. She was back to full health in a week, after being shot. It shouldn’t be possible. But then, The Exemplar saved an entire city from aerial bombardment while she was hovering near death. That shouldn’t be possible either.

Frustrated, she shakes her head, trying to clear her thoughts.

Yoga usually clears her mind. She takes a mat and flops it down in front of one of the mirrors and begins her routine.

It works. Her mind was completely at ease when she hears a voice behind her say, “Um, Hi!”

The Exemplar is standing beside her.

She nearly jumps out of her skin.

Chapter 29.

“DON’T DO THAT!”, she screams.

The Exemplar raises his hands in surrender. “Sorry, sorry!” He takes a few steps back in the face of her anger.

She grabs a towel, furious that he got the drop on her, and with herself. She feels sweaty and gross. “How did you get in?” She looks around, no open windows, the door is closed and locks automatically via an electronic passkey.

The Exemplar still has his hands up. “I have a way with electronics.” He slowly lowers his arms.

Taking a  couple of deep breaths to calm herself, she looks at her intruder. His helmet is distracting, it keeps reflecting her image back at herself. It unnerves her, throws her off from studying him. She looks away.

“So, what do you want?” She walks over to where her water bottle is and takes a drink. He reaches into one of his belt pouches and takes out a USB stick. An ordinary, average piece of hardware. He extends his hand out and presents it to her.

“I need your help,” he says.

“So what, you think I’m your sidekick now?” Her fists ball up in anger. “I did what you asked once before and I nearly died for it!” Her rage and sadness find release at last.

“I lost my partner, my best friend! I was shot and left for dead! I nearly drowned!” She is screaming now.

“No one in the precinct will look at me now! No one trusts a snitch! My only options now are to transfer to a different department or quit!”

“I loved my job! I loved the life that I had before I met you, and you took both away!” With tears in her eyes, she throws her towel at him.

The Exemplar stands, head down, accepting her rebuke.

He says, after a long moment of silence, “I am sorry that you went through so much, that you suffered and lost people you care about. But I have come to realize now that I can’t do enough by myself to change the world. I need help.”

“I need the help of good people. Honest people. Like you.” He looks up towards her.

“On this stick is information connecting Jonathon Standard of Paradigm Logistics and MP Steward Smythe in the bribing of city officials and abetting in various illegal activities, such as human trafficking, weapon smuggling and drug shipments. It’s all there, taken from their computer system.”

She takes the USB stick from him and turns it over in her hands.

“No one will believe me if I deliver this information to the public. But you can.” He catches her attention away from the device in her hands.

“I know how tough it must have been for you to investigate your own people. But you did it because it was the right thing to do. That it needed to be done” She nods.

She puts the stick in her exercise bag, then turns to face him again. “Why are you doing all of this? Fighting crime, exposing corruption, nearly starting wars?” The image of herself she sees in his reflection seems different somehow. Stronger now, for the release of pent up emotions.

The Exemplar turns away and catches his reflection in the wall length mirror. Examining himself, he replies, “I always felt powerless growing up. We all do, I suppose. We have this small corner of the world that we carve out for ourselves, and we do this pretty much involuntarily. We do the things we need to do in order to get by, and then we sit and watch the rest of the world as it suffers and bleeds. And we’re glad that it’s not happening to us.”

“But then, this happened,” He raises his fists up, and they glow with shimmering power. He opens his hands, and the power is released, rainbow light, arcing from one hand to the other. “And I realized that I don’t need this power to save the world. I’ve encountered people across the planet that are trying to do the exact same thing. And none of them can do what I can do.”

“I see the suffering in the world, the pain. And I can stop it.” He turns to her. “You’ve seen it too, that’s why you’re a police officer.”

“My dad used to beat the hell out of my mom,” she quietly says. “The cops could never do a damn thing to stop him. So, when I was old enough, I joined. To try to find ways to help other women like my mom.” She hugs herself, suddenly chilled.

“I’m sorry,” he says. She shakes her head, the pain is old, but unforgettable.

“I’ve seen that humanity can be better. We can be better. We just need to be reminded that hatred and apathy can be fought. I’m trying to guide us to an era without war, or hunger, or disease. I’ve learned that one person can make a difference, be an example for the rest.”

It suddenly clicks for her. “An Exemplar, I get it now.” She nods again.

His turn to nod now, “Yes! I can get the ball rolling, but it’s up to everyone else to take the ball and carry it.”

“If we can get our act together, there is a universe out there that will welcome us. I’m anxious to get us there.” She looks confused by the last part.

‘So, will you help?” He raises his fist out. She looks at it, then bumps her own fist against it.

“Fine. But I’m not your sidekick. If anyone calls me Exemplette, I will kill them.” He smiles nervously.

She picks up her gym bag and swings it onto her shoulder. “So, is this the part where you distract me and then vanish mysteriously, leaving me alone in an empty room?”

He hikes his thumb over his shoulder and says, “Thought I might just use the door, actually.”

Chapter 30.

The operation moved fast.

Newly minted Detective Kiala Mc Connell pulled into the gated driveway of the remote mountain resort belonging to Jonathon Standard. Steward Smythe and his family were spending a long weekend there with Jonathon and his family. It was the perfect time to arrest them both.

The Exemplar watched from a kilometer overhead.

Her team of trustworthy officers followed her in, brushing aside the security detail protecting both Jonathon and Steward and their families. A particularly large specimen of guard stepped in front of Kiala as she led her team in. He put his massive hand on her shoulder as he reached for his radio. The size difference mattered not at all as Kiala quickly and efficiently demolished the large man. Within seconds, he was on the floor and being wrapped in binder cuffs.

With military precision, the team swept through room after room until they located Jonathon and his guests. Led out in handcuffs into the central area by the front doors and surrounded by fearful family members, Jonathon and Steward looked at each other forlornly as Kiala read them their rights.

An officer moves up beside Kiala and says, “Boss, we have a room upstairs that’s locked. Security like I’ve never seen before. We’ll need the brain squad up here to crack it.” She nods in understanding.

Jonathon, his head lowered in shame, quietly says, “Don’t go up there. There is nothing there to help you.”

Kiala looks at him, suddenly curious. “What is so special about that room? Who is it for?”

He looks up at her, with sadness in his eyes.

“No One.”

Kiala is suddenly covered in gore as his head explodes. She blinks and takes in a breath  to shout-

The Exemplar saw the shot. He is as stunned as the rest. In his eyes, the shot replays in reverse, blood spatter analysis, trajectory of the bullet, wind speed measurements, a line speeds out from the window where Jonathon was shot and out into the surrounding mountainside.

A second shot is fired.

The Exemplar plunges through the sky and straight through the skylight overhanging the foyer where Kiala and her detainees are. He reaches out with his hand and grabs the second bullet as it was about to enter the head of Steward Smythe. The shattered glass follows after a moment, showering everyone as they hunker down for cover.

The Exemplar drops the bullet to the ground as he bounds out through the broken window towards the source of the attack. Kiala stares for a moment, then screams out for emergency response. The assembled families begin screaming.

Carter can see the shooter, he is almost there. The shooter is dressed in camouflage, in a well concealed sniper nest. He has set aside his rifle and drawn a pistol. Carter is nearly there as the man places the barrel under his chin and pulls the trigger. The Bang! echoes solemnly throughout the mountain.

“Dammit!” Carter sets down and examines the area. A novel, War and Peace, with a bookmark in the first quarter. Food rations, a thermos that smells of coffee. He has been here for a while. A trail leads downhill.

A small building, hidden in the forest. Inside, another dead man. Self-inflicted gunshot. Food. Water. Supplies for months.

Carter looks around, suddenly afraid and feeling very small.

“Who are these people?”

He returns to the manor. Steward Smythe is crying over the body of Jonathon Standard. The other officers have secured the various families as best as they can. Kiala Mc Connell walks up to him, still covered in blood and brain matter. She points upstairs.

“Get that door open.”

Guide is standing outside of the door as he approaches, “I can unlock the door for you-” He kicks the door down with a mighty crash. The room and the contents therein are suddenly consumed in a fiery explosion. The Exemplar stands there, unharmed.

“God Damn it.” He stands there in impotent rage as the room burns around him.

Chapter 31.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague was packed to capacity.

Security was doubled, then tripled. People from around the world traveled here to witness the trial of The Exemplar. The assembled diplomats feared for their personal safety from the masses.

Talia Russek, attaché to the Israeli diplomat in attendance, pushes her way through the crowd. She is very irritated at the number of times that she has been stopped and forced to show her credentials, but she understands, the world is here to judge a God, after all. She looks up on occasion, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man for herself. The media has enough images of him but she feels it is more personal to see him for herself.

For what is most likely the millionth time, Talia is stopped and has to pull out her identification. As she is putting it away, a shoulder strikes her in the back, causing her to drop her documents. Muttering a curse, she kneels to sweep the papers back into her shoulder bag. A shadow looms over her as she does so.

“Excuse me?” The words are spat out angrily.

She looks up at a man in the uniform of an Iraqi Captain who is towering over her. A look of barely contained disgust is on his face. She sighs, then stands up straight and returns his glare.

“You knocked my documents to the floor, I said.”, is her response. No fear.

The man measures her look, then nods. “Then I apologize.” He kneels, and begins to help gather the papers.

She tries to bat his hands away. “These are sensitive documents you’re handling, Captain-”

“Nassim. Nassim Touma,” he interrupts.

“Well. Captain Touma,” She continues, “you should not be touching them.”

He pulls back, anger rising. He is about to say something when a hand is placed on his shoulder. His companion, the Iraq diplomat. “Calm yourself. We need to go.” Nassim agrees, then stands up and goes. Talia shakes her head as the pair leaves.

A commotion from the crowd catches her attention. She looks up and scans around the area. A silence descends upon the people as they stare up in wonder. The Exemplar has arrived.

As he touches down to the pavement, several people drop to their knees in worship. More follow. Soon, most of the crowd has fallen to their knees. The Exemplar stands there in the center of the crowd. He looks concerned. He raises his hands in supplication, “Please, everybody, stand.”

Looking around for himself, he sees that Talia remains standing. He shrugs, embarrassed. She mouths the word, “Sorry,” and smiles.

A man rushes out from the court building towards him. He extends his hand. “Hello, The. I’m Tyler Kurn. We’ve met before, remember?” He is all smiles. He turns and guides The Exemplar towards the building. “Do you have legal representation? If not, I have been appointed as your councilor.”

The Exemplar and the councilor walk towards the building. Over his shoulder, he gives Talia a Thumb’s Up. She waves back and revises her opinion of him. He has no idea what is about to happen.

The council room is in chaos. Members shout angrily at each other from across the room. The judicial panel judges shout above the dim, trying to return some semblance of order. More security is called in finally and several people are removed, screaming in frustration. The room finally calms down.

The Exemplar enters the room and it erupts again.

Several long minutes are spent restoring order. More delegates are removed. Carter Kincaid takes the time to look around the room. Two-thirds of the room are occupied by media. Dozens of reporters are trying quietly, desperately, to get his attention for a suitable image to capture.

The long, imposing desk of the judicial panel stands before him. Fifteen of the most powerful and well-respected judges in the world are in front of him, shouting at the assembled delegates like stern kindergarten teachers. Carter has to hold in a chuckle.

Behind him, on both sides are seats filled with diplomats from around the world with a few empty from forced removal. Carter can feel hundreds of eyes burning into him. His cheeks start to flush.

Beside him stands Tyler Kurn. He is busily organizing paperwork. He is wearing a nice suit, his hair is perfect. His entire persona is that of someone who thrives on this kind of atmosphere. A surprisingly effective choice for a lawyer.

Quietly, he says, “Where are you from, Tyler?”

Tyler glances up for a second, then continues with his documents. “Timaru, New Zealand, originally, but my parents travelled extensively when I was a child so I never picked up much of an accent. Only when I’m tired, really.” He flips a page and examines the contents. “I am fluent in six languages and can muddle through two others. I’ve studied dozens of cultures around the world. People interest me. How we get along, how we interact, and the laws we use to defend ourselves. I think I was literally built for this job” He smiles.

The center most judge speaks, “Well, now that we have settled ourselves, let us all thank this fellow here,” he points to The Exemplar, “For appearing for these proceedings.”

A smattering of polite applause ripples through the crowd.

He continues, “Now, Mr. Exemplar, you are aware of the charges against you?” The Exemplar nods, “Yes, Mr. Kurn here has explained them throughly.”

“Excellent. Then before we start with the reading and documentation of the charges, do you have anything to say to the court?”

Carter indicates that he does, and moves forward. A gentle hand stops him. Tyler leans forward and whispers, “Try not to immediately incriminate yourself, OK?” He winks.

The Exemplar stands before the microphone and faces the judges. He clears his throat nervously. His palms start to sweat.

“I am The Exemplar,” he begins, “I have power that is unimaginable and has never before been seen on Earth. I can see suffering, tragedy, war, and hate all across the world. I can stop it.” A murmur rumbles through the crowd.

“I have also seen beauty, compassion, peace and a desire for the improvement of the common good. I am here to Inspire this, on a global level. I believe that we can unite, and save our world from ourselves.” Incredulous chatter can be heard.

The central judge is openly skeptical. “Hmmm, well. Thank you for those words. Please be seated and we will begin.”

Sitting himself down, Carter says to Tyler, “I don’t think I swayed them.” Tyler nods.

“At least, you were succinct.”

An aide appears and reads aloud the list of charges brought against The Exemplar. It is long, and very wordy. Carter finds himself drifting off from time to time, but then he notices something.

Turning to Tyler, he whispers, “Hey, why is there an empty seat at the judge’s table?”

Tyler, who has been following along on his papers with the reading, looks up, then taps his pen against his nose. “You know, I’m not sure,” he says quietly. “I’ve been to a several of sessions here and there is always an empty seat. Usually one more than the number of judges. Perhaps it’s reserved for a late arriving judge.”

Carter looks at him, suddenly cold.

“So, it’s for No One, then?”

Multiple explosions tear through the complex.

Chapter 32.

Fire.

The choking smell of smoke.

Alarms are blaring angrily everywhere.

Screams. So many screams.

UN Peacekeeper, Lieutenant Ethan Masters shakes his head and wipes his eyes, trying to clear away the confusion. From his station at the entrance to the courthouse, he sees that the gates are open and that armed hostiles are firing into the building and at every body they can see. There are bodies lying in the road up the to the entrance and all along the fence surrounding the courthouse.

Pulling himself up, he can’t remember exactly what happened. There was the largest crowd of people that he had ever seen huddling around the gates for the trial of The Exemplar. He and his unit were hard pressed keeping order. Nearly everyone who pleaded with him to be allowed in had a legitimate reason to be here, this “hero” had touched many lives, but no one was getting in without proper credentials.

Then he saw an explosion rip through the crowd. He pulled up his rifle and prepared to move in and aid the civilians when another explosion happened right beside him. A flash/bang grenade most likely. He was trying to recover from that when someone hit him in the head with the butt of their rifle. As he went down, he saw a curious thing, the man who hit him was another Peacekeeper, but of a different unit. Then for a while, darkness.

He reaches for his rifle, but finds it missing. Cursing, he pulls out his sidearm. He turns on his radio to call for help but only gets a blast of static. Radio interference. The other members of his team are there but also unconscious. He tries to wake one, Charlie from Philadelphia, but his head lolls to one side. Not waking up anytime soon. More shooting, coming from inside the courthouse.

Ethan makes a quick prayer, then moves towards the shooting.

Talia Russek hides behind some debris. Behind her are a group of diplomats and media. She found them caught in the crossfire between the intruders and the defenders, soon to be wiped out by the conflict. She couldn’t leave them to be killed, so she rallied them to move and now she is looking for safety. She fears there may be none.

With a groan, part of the ceiling collapses in front of her. The attackers have inflicted serious structural damage. The dust fills up the area and Talia pulls her group forward. She makes her way from one end of the hallway to the other. She is hoping that this door will lead her and her group out. She swings it open to find that two armed men are also reaching for the door from the other side.

Acting quickly, she pulls on the door, yanking the first one into the hallway with her. He stumbles in. She slams the door closed. The intruder recovers and draws his rifle but in the close quarters of the hallway, Talia has the advantage. She uses one hand to shove the barrel of his rifle towards the floor and with her other arm, strikes him in the throat with her elbow. The rifles fires aimlessly into the floor.

She leans against the door just as it was about to open. While the first man is recovering from her attack, with a grunt, she manages to swing him around so he is the one against the door. She lays into him with a series of expert blows, but he has recovered and is ready. The force of her strikes are blunted against his armoured protection. He drops his rifle and pulls out a wicked looking knife from his belt and slashes. She steps back but is stopped by the wall behind her. The knife slashes through her suit and into her chest. She cries out in pain.

The intruder grins evilly as he braces himself against the door, ready to deliver the killing blow.

Bullets tear through the door behind him, striking him in the back. Talia sags down to the floor, fighting off shock. The door shoves open and the second intruder steps in, over the body of his companion. He looks down in surprise, then anger. He sees Talia and aims his rifle at her. She glares at him.

From the smoke and fire from the hallway that she came through, a body screams and charges, tackling the second man to the ground. The pair fall to the ground, rolling and cursing. Talia, struggling to keep her eyes open, leans over and pulls out the knife of the fallen attacker. She spots that one of the men struggling on the ground is in a uniform that she recognizes. She yells, “Here!” and tosses the knife.

The knife is caught and used, to deadly effect.

Captain Nassim Touma, beaten and bruised, but alive, stands up and moves towards her. He examines her wounds, then uses his knife to carve up his uniform into bandages. “Here,” he says, “Use this keep and it pressed against your wound. It’s the best we can do for now until we can find a medic.” He takes the rifle and spare ammunition from the corpse.

Nassim leans against another doorway. A pair of diplomats assist Talia and the rest of the small group follow. A large section of wall has been blown away, allowing more intruders to enter. There are four armed men at the opening.

Nassim checks his ammo, making some calculations. He quietly says to the group, “I’ll draw them away, the rest of you make a run for the opening.” The others nod in agreement, but Talia weakly says, “Don’t be stupid, Captain. Your life is worth far more than to spend it here.”

Nassim turns to argue with Talia but then an explosion tears through the room. Gunfire follows as they dive for cover. He looks down at the sudden pain in his stomach. A piece of shrapnel has lodged in his stomach.

A hand grabs his. Talia’s.

Together, they wait for the end.

“HELLO!”, a voice shouts.

A Peacekeeper steps into the opening. He slings his rifle and motions to them. “The way is clear! Come on!”

The group exits the courthouse. Lieutenant Ethan Masters provides cover as they go. On their way out, they see The Exemplar. He is holding up a large section of floor from collapsing. Several civilians are exiting safely. There seems to be no more shooting.

Ethan looks up with wonder at him.

A single shot rings out.

Ethan looks down in surprise at the sudden hole in his chest, then he collapses.

Chapter 33.

The media called it, The Day the Hero Failed.

Simultaneous attacks occured across the world. Organized strikes on public buildings claimed the lives of thousands. Several of the attacking groups managed to escape into anonymity, while those that encountered stiff resistance fought until they were outnumbered, at which point they claimed their own lives. No organization claimed responsibilty.

The world reeled from the unexpected savagery of the attacks.

The media asked where the hero was when the world needed him? Images and videos flooded the internet of him helping a single attack while other parts of the world burned. The public outcry was great: Useless. Incompetent. Favoritism.

The hearing was postponed until repairs could be effected to the courthouse and the services for those lost could be completed. And replacements found. Days of mourning occured worldwide.

Russia declared serious reprisal if this “hero” enters their territories. The United States of America, in a show of solidarity, did the same. Canada’s main diplomat spoke that The Exemplar would find no comfort in their land, adding hastily that Canada was not the likely origin of this “super” man.

Kiala Mc Connell snorted in derision at this report. She finished putting on her ceremonial uniform, checking that every button was in place, both shoes polished to prefection, belt in place, hat clean and neat. She double and triple checked that her unruly hair was tamed and subdued under her hat. No defiance could be tolerated today.

Not for all the funerals she needed to attend.

Vancouver was not spared from the global assault. The United Nations-Vancouver branch office was hit and hit hard. Police arrived quickly, but not fast enough for the meager security forces. More and more officers arrived, almost as fast as they were felled. No one expected the onlsaught.

By the time Tactical forces had surrounded the building sealed off the area, the conflict was over. Deadly silence filled the office. As the negotiation team arrived, a few brave officers scouted inside and discovered that the assault team had taken their lives.

Kiala was asleep at the time. Her friends at the precinct called her and she rushed over. The loss of life was horrifying. So many of her colleauges lost, innocents in the UN building, and a pair of pedestrians out for a late walk met their end. The street outside the office was a charnel scene.

Now, days later, funerals would be held. Memorials have been going non-stop for the fallen. Local news has been broadcasting daily where contributions could be made on behalf of the families who have lost loved ones.

It rained. Suitable enough for such a sad day. Kiala stood in the rain, sheltered by an umbrella, as the bodies of her friends and co-workers were lowered into the graves of the honoured dead. She felt cold, deep inside, a rock of ice in her belly. Someone had to answer for this.

The services were bland, inoffensive, without heart. She wanted sermons of fire and brimstone. She wanted words of revenge and pursuit. Promises of justice and unyeilding vengance. Instead she ate small slices of cake and shared words of sympathy with the grieving families.

After the last ceremony, she walked to her car and drove off into the rain. It was late, the services had taken most of the day. She drove across town, listening to the rain beat against her car. Aimlessy, she drove for a time until she stopped in front of New Horizons Information Developement. Instinct drew her here.

She sat in her car for a while, thinking about the day. Then she took off her hat and gloves, letting her hair go gloriously free. She grabbed her purse and stepped out. The gates were closed and locked by a sturdy chain. No cameras she could see.

She easily scales the fence and walks towards the building. The warehouse is undergoing more renovations. Business most be booming. Plenty of unguarded entrance points for the workers and materials. She finds one and enters.

On the second floor, she encounters a dog. Not a fierce guard dog like she expected, but a goofy, long limbed dog, like something she saw in a cartoon when she was younger. The dog growls menacingly, hackles on his back raised. Kiala knows she has only moments to act before the dog starts barking or worse, attacks.

“Easy, pup.” She raises one hand up and with the other, reaches into her purse. The dog growls louder and crouches, ready for action. She pulls out a piece of cake she was saving and unwraps it from the napkins that were provided.

Instantly, the dog’s entire attitude shifts. Angry to hungry. He tilts his head in a calculated way that humans find irresistable. It works.

“Good boy,” she coos. She hands out the cake. The dog sits at attention. The dog raises a paw, the gesture a guarantee for the human to melt into his paws. It works.

Gunner Krogh sneaks up on Kiala as she is fawning over Brody who is happily devouring a slice of cake, his revolver is drawn and ready for use. Seeing who it is, he silently puts his gun away and clears his throat. She starts and stands up. Brody lets out a whuff, displeased at the interruption of his new disciple.

“Little late for a visit with the dog, don’t you think, Detective?”, he says in his booming voice.

She swipes dog fur off her uniform. “Well, Justice never sleeps, right?”

He laughs, and invites her into the main office area.

Seated next to the main, delapitated, desk that they refuse to get rid of, Gunner brings her some hot tea. Brody is resting at her feet.

“So what brings you here this late then?” Gunner has a cup for himself and sits down across from her. “I am sorry for your loss, I should also add.”

She takes a sip, warming to the flavour of the beverage. “The world is going to Hell. I need to speak to your boss, if he’s here.” She can see that the head office room is lit.

Gunner reaches over and activates the telecom, “Boss? Visitor.”

After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Carter Kincaid walks out. He looks like he has seen better days. Messy hair, unshaven, and in desperate need of a bath. A look of tremendous sadness frames his body.

“Detective uh, Mc Connell, right?” He extends his hand out for a shake. Kiala spots that his nails are dirty. She gets angry. She slaps his hand away.

“Pull yourself together, man!” She stares at him. He shrinks in response.

“I don’t need Carter Kincaid, CEO of some fly-by-night operation, I need The Exemplar.”

Carter and Gunner are in shock as she continues,

“I know that you are The Exemplar.”

 

Midnight at the End of the Universe pt. 6

Isolde Drarm grew up alone.

Her intelligence set her apart from the other children her age. They never knew what to make of her. Sometimes they teased her. Usually, they left her alone.

Mathematics, literature, even music. They all came so easily to her. She advanced through the education system rapidly. A prodigy, they called her. Praise rained down on her, but only, it seemed, when she excelled. Companionship however, eluded her. She was always alone.

It wasn’t until her freshman year that she found her first friend. Hustling across the campus, anxious to not be late for her next class, she collided with a fellow student. Alika was her name. She was setting up a stage for a public meeting for the university’s LBGTQ alliance. Flustered and riddled with anxiety over the incident, she apologized again and again. Alika smiled and accepted Isolde’s apology, wringing out a promise to attend her next speech.

When Isolde was able to attend Alika’s next speech, she was impressed. Alika had a natural grace and eloquence that made her seem mesmerizing. Unperturbed, even when a small group of trolls started heckling her, Alika stated the mission goals of her group without missing a beat and received a standing ovation.

Isolde shyly spoke to Alika after the meeting and was again amazed at how gifted a speaker she was. Alika had a gift at understanding people, at seeing to the heart of them, and helping create a connection between the two. Isolde, without fully understanding it, was falling in love.

Their friendship was deep and insightful. Alika helped Isolde to understand herself and her complex feelings. Being several years her senior meant that Alika could not return fully return Isolde’s affections, much to Isolde’s dismay. But, she eventually accepted it. Alika was the first to give her the nickname “Izzy”.

Izzy received a curious text from Alika one night. Izzy was doing an all night practice session before an important exam. The message said that Alika was woken up by a strong smell in her room, but the thought of getting up to find out the source of the odor was making her dizzy. Her last words were that she was going to ignore it and try to sleep through it.

Isolde managed an A+ on her exam. She hustled over to Alika’s dorm room to tell her the great news to find one of Alika’s other friends crying in her room. A stroke had killed her friend overnight and Isolde’s world collapsed.

Struggling to make sense of her best friend’s death, Isolde threw herself into medical science, her other passions forgotten. Her need to understand Life and Death pushed her into the top of her field. And other related fields. The possibility of life on other worlds and what form that might take sparked her imagination.

Life on Earth was lonely without her friend.

Onboard the Remembrance, the massive, rotating space station, Captain Katherine MacNamara was luxuriating in a zero gravity shower. Squeezing rinseless soap and water from pouches onto her body, then towelling off the excess moisture, Katherine hasn’t felt this clean in months. The Calamity had run out of personal cleaning products some time ago.

Exiting the shower room, Katherine floated over to the closet of the officer’s quarters she had discovered. Opening the doors, she discovered it full of uniforms. Rifling through them, she found that they closely matched her size. Donning a fresh uniform, she continued her search of the room. No personal items, no pictures, no name on the door. A blank room. Were the clothes and cleaning products shipped ahead of time? Who unpacked them?

As she left the room, she saw Isolde leaving a room farther down, also in a fresh uniform. A smile involuntarily broke across Katherine’s face. Izzy was radiant, even with a frown upon her face. Isolde saw her and smiled back. “They have toothpaste, Mac! I brushed my teeth!”, she exclaimed.

“I know! It’s amazing!” Mac floated over. “Everything is here for us! We can live here comfortably, and once we make it to the command area, we should be able to find out what happened to the crew and occupants.” The stress of the last 8 months and the terror of the void slowly was slipping from her body. She gently takes Isolde’s hand in hers, “Come on, let’s finish this.” Isolde nods and together, they leave.

“Officer’s quarters are here,” Katherine muses, “so Command should be just ahead.” The officer’s deck has numerous features that the pair pass by: workout room, small cafeteria, a break room filled with games and screens, and a small corporate branded coffee shop. “Everything for the officer on the go,” Isolde mutters. She motions to tie back her hair, but remembers that she cut hers short last month. Phantom hair syndrome.

“Why is this station here?”, she asks.

“Why does it have exactly everything we need?”

Mac turns to her, “This is a miracle. A Godsend. A chance to start over.” Her eyes soften. “We can start over Izzy, a fresh start”. She smiles.

Isolde looks at her, longing and confusion warring inside herself. She pulls her hand away from Katherine. “Too many questions…”

Isolde moves on, past her captain, to the command deck.

The door is locked. Electronic passkey. Isolde looks at Katherine and motions to the scanner. Katherine takes out her old passkey, the one she used on the International Space station, and taps it on the scanner. To both their surprise, it beeps pleasantly and changes color to green. The door opens.

The Command module is impressive. Row upon row of computers monitoring the day to day life of the Remembrance. Comfortable chairs. Plenty of room. Cheerful aesthetics. The Commander’s station is majestic: three banks of screens, terminals surrounding a deluxe chair. The entire station at one’s fingertips. Mac slides into the seat.

Running her fingers over the console, Mac feels connected to the entire station. The hairs on the back of her neck start to rise. A faint noise catches her attention. Barely audible. She’s heard it before, when they first entered the station. So familiar…

“Hey Mac”, Katherine is jarred out of her revery by Isolde. She is floating by a bank of monitors. “One of these monitors is picking up sound from somewhere.” Katherine starts punching in commands into her view screen, zeroing in on the source. A flashing icon catches her attention. Command level access required. Curious, she punches in her ID.

Isolde, after flipping through two dozen cameras, discovers Jax in the auditorium. Jax is singing a love ballad to an empty theater. Isolde listens for a while, impressed with his skill. She turns to Katherine, “Captain, I found Jax. He’s the source of the noise.” Katherine looks up from her screen that she was reading intently, annoyance clearly written on her face.

“What is that idiot up to? Where is Abe?”

“Uh, don’t see him anywhere.”

Katherine’s eyes keep flicking back to her screen.

“Izzy, go grab Jax and then see if you can find Abe. Come back here once you’re all together. I found something that could be big.”

“Yes sir,” Isolde salutes sarcastically and leaves the command room.
Euthros peyya

 

The title makes to sense to Katherine but the contents of the information packet thrill her to her core.

The Remembrance has a massive Hadron drive and the crew had orders to use the time dilation effect from activating the drive to “ride out” millions of years as the black hole collapsed and “spat out” a new universe. Then the Remembrance would seed life on nascent worlds using genetic material stored in the central hub of the station.

“Seeding new life…” she mutters as information flashes across the screen.

“Izzy and I could live together, again and again, across thousands of worlds, throughout history!”

Pulling up a file on the central hub, Katherine feverishly plots a course to the genetic sample storage area.

Isolde makes her way to the auditorium as Jax continues to sing. He stops occasionally to perform skits. The external speakers of the auditorium have been turned on and Isolde can hear every word, every inflection. Jax can uniquely modify his pitch and tone to appeal to a variety of audiences. As much as she hates Jax, she is impressed by his ability. “No wonder he was the most famous man on earth.”

The Auditorium is fully illuminated as Isolde approaches, flood lights shining on every corner and into the “sky”. The doors are locked, however. Shouting futilely against Jax’s songs, Isolde finally storms off in search of a communication console, cursing herself for not equipping a communicator when she was in Ops. She waits a surprisingly long time at the console waiting for a response.

Katherine finally appears on-screen, the image behind her shows that she is no longer in Ops. “Oh, hey Iz, did you find the others?”

“I’m at the stadium but can’t get in. No sign of Abe here. Where are you?”

Katherine smiles, “I found something amazing! Forget the others and meet me in the central hub, R&D area. Oh, and swipe your access card, I’ve improved your security rating. You should now be able to enter all areas of the station.”

Isolde complies, confused at her captain. “Forget the others? That’s not how we do things. For better or worse. we’re Family. The only ones we have left.”

Captain MacNamara sighs and relents. “You are correct Lieutenant, I apologize. Just meet me here and we’ll find Abe together.” She switches her screen off.

Isolde looks at the blank screen for a moment, then swipes her access card. With her new status, she easily accesses the cameras and runs a search for Abraham Standford, starting from the cafeteria where they were last all together. Jax is singing a power ballad in the background.

The security cameras are ubiquitous throughout the station, and provide unparalleled imagery of the events that happened.

Abraham, looking sad and forlorn, sings an obscure and slightly disturbing song.

Thomas Jackson turning and assaulting him viciously.

Thomas throwing the prone body of Abe out of the cafeteria.

Abraham’s body floating through the empty central corridor.

He seems to come to near one of the elevators, a complete wreck.

He drags himself onto the lift and activates it.

Abe exits the lift and painfully makes his way to the E.V.A quarters and then climbs into a suit.

He exits the station and spacewalks to the nuclear cannon machinery.

He enters the cannon via an access port and waits patiently as the cannon powers up and fires, disintegrating him instantly.

The blood flowing through Isolde Drarm turns to ice as Jax hits the high note in his song. She looks back to the auditorium and spots that the main doors are now open. Breathing heavily, her senses fully aware, she cautiously moves towards the elevator bank.

A Meditation on the Self.

I am a writer. But I am now blocked.

I was writing a story. Chapter by chapter. Week by week. I have been unable to finish my work. I sometimes sit and stare at my unfinished work, mentally punishing myself for my inability to end the story.

The words are there. I cannot make them leave my mind and take their place on page.

I am depressed.

The depression is not the result of my not finishing the story I’ve written.

I suffer from depression. It has been a lifelong condition, it seems. My constant companion.

I grew up in a house filled with abuse. I was abused.

Was is the cause of my depression or would it have occurred regardless? My thoughts spiral along the path of self-doubt: the path that abuse sets before you. The thought pattern that abusers drive into you.

I have spent years fighting the grip of depression. I have sought help from counsellors and doctors. I am on medication. I daily wage a silent war to confront my darkest thoughts and challenge them, striving to change them into positive or at least, neutral thoughts.

After years of therapy and medication, I have come to the conclusion that I will never be rid of my constant companion. At best, AT BEST, I have learned enough techniques to keep the darkness at bay temporarily. Muted, but never eliminated.

Some days, it is a snicker behind my back, on others, a scream that drowns out all other thoughts.

Spending time with my friends helps immeasurably. With them I can laugh, and joke, and for a time, forget. Talking about it helps as well. I spent far too many years internalizing my suffering. Developing the strength to speak of my experiences has been liberating. Even writing these words down here has been helpful.

The wave of depression will break. The writing will continue. I will be myself again.

I am Ellis.

Midnight at the End of the Universe pt 5

A thunderous rumble tears through the E.M.S.X Calamity. A screen sputters and flares to life in the darkness. An image of Abraham Stanford resolves slowly, switching from black and white to full colour. He is speaking.

“I’ve never had a lot of use for religion. Science has been my guiding star through life. It might have been an adverse reaction to my childhood. My parents and family are all extremely religious and they really expected me to follow in their footsteps. When I told my folks that I wanted to go to M.I.T., they just about disowned me.”

“Near the end of getting my Masters of Aerospace engineering, my dad came to me and told me of a Festival that was about to occur in my small coastal hometown. The Festival only happens once a century and is supposedly older than the colony of european settlers that eventually became the U.S.” He shrugs in disbelief.

“I couldn’t make it. I was so close to completing my masterpiece, the theoretical miniaturization of the Hadron collider that eventually led to my berth onboard the Calamity“, he gestures around to the room he his in. He shakes his head. “The look my father gave me. The disappointment in his eyes haunts me to this day.”

“He said to me as he left that by turning my back on my family, I will become ‘diminished’. That I’ve lost my place in the glory of our God. Forever.”

“I’ve never understood that. I mean, I’ve travelled the world over, when I was displaying the model of the Calamity and her inner workings. Everywhere I stopped, I took the time and spoke to holy men. I spoke to Christians, Bhuddists, Judaists, and dozens more. You want to know something creepy?” Abraham leans in close to the camera.

“Not one of them knew of the faith of my people. Not one.”

“I even had a chance to speak to a Ngangkari of Australia. He had no clue either, but he did tell me that there was a darkness out in the world, waiting. Waiting? For what?” Abe shakes his head and returns to his seat. “I grew up listening to tales told by my grandparents. Insane tales. Crazy. Were they all members of a cult? What bullet did I dodge by not going back with my dad?” He smiles and leans back in his seat.

The screen abruptly cuts out.

Aboard the Remembrance, Isolde Drarm is silently following her Captain, Katherine McNamara as they explore the kilometers long, slowly rotating space station. Her belly is full, but anxiety is making her feel slightly nauseous. As Mac stops and takes a long drink from a nearby fountain tap, Abraham’s last words ring hollowly in Isolde’s head.

“Death is coming for us.”

Since leaving the shopping district, the pair have been travelling through what seems to be a manufacturing area. Warehouses stacked upon warehouses, flowing from ground to ceiling overhead, then back to ground. Zero gravity makes optimal use of space here. The entrances are all locked. Electronic passkeys are required.

Katherine pulls out a small flashlight from her utility belt and shines it in several windows. “Dammit! Resource manufacturing at out fingertips and we can’t get in!” She pounds her fist against a door. Isolde looks at her, fear is sinking it’s claws deep into her. “It was a bad idea to leave Abe alone with Jax. Abe hasn’t been right since his breakdown. Combining that with Jax’s near sociopathic level of narcissism, the results could be explosive.”

Jax has acquired several cosmetic products and personal care items from a convenience store and is now busily applying them, as his own supply was dangerously low. He has not left the shopping and entertainment district yet, against the Captain’s orders. His companion Abraham is floating among the aisles, mournfully staring at the products on display. He picks up a magazine and flips through the pages.

“Jackson, have you seen this?” Abe holds out the magazine towards him. “The date, look at the date. It’s the same month as when we left Earth.”

Jax tears his gaze away from the mirror that he is using and glances at the magazine. “Big deal, bro. Rags like these are never up to date. Sad, lonely people read them because they have nothing better to do.” He moves the mirror around at various angles, examining his handiwork. He is pleased.

Abraham floats over to a nearby counter. He grips the top, braces himself, and pulls against the top with all of his deteriorated might. The countertop holds firm against him. “This all seems so real,” he mutters. He leans back and stretches out, cracking and popping audible along his spine.

“You know, all of this reminds me of stuff I heard as a child.” Abe leans against the countertop and looks out along the main walkway of the station. “The Universe is Alive. It has will, cunning, and determination. My folks used to say that one day, the Universe will Wake Up from its Endless Dream, and us humans, everyone everywhere will cease to be.”

“By performing the holy litany at the proper times, and making the necessary sacrifices (of what?),” Abe shudders, “my people believed that they were keeping the Universe asleep. They believed they were saving us all.” He picks up a pack of chewing gum and flicks it aimlessly down the corridor. “What if, when we turned on the Hadron Drive, we killed the universe before it had a chance to wake up and become whatever it was supposed to become? What if the universe, whatever remnants that are left anyway, is angry?”

“Crazy right?”

Jax is flipping through the magazine that Abe gave him, totally uninterested.

Abe pulls out a locket that has been hanging around his neck and opens it. Inside is a tiny photo of his daughter Jane, smiling and holding a bunch of flowers. Dandelions in full bloom. Her favorite. “My father taught her an old song, how did it go?” Voice raw and out of practice, Abe sings.

The song is old, older than Abe realizes. The words speak of a solemn promise, of servitude unending and of maintaining the Eternal Slumber ere disaster falls. The song conjures images of a world too fantastic to believe, of a world where creatures older than Man arise from the sea and teach mankind the importance of maintaining the Rites of Slumber and performing the blood sacrifices of livestock and occasionally humans. Abe has heard this song throughout his lifetime, the words are only that. Words. But to others?

Jax just about manages to cave Abraham’s head in with a stool. Tears are bubbling around his eyes. and a few drift away around the convenience store.

“Shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!”

Abraham’s head bounces off the countertop. Jax flails about, pummeling Abe with any limb that gets close enough to reach him. Each blow pushes him away and he struggles to regain his position. Soon droplets of blood float randomly around the store. With a grunt and a heave, Jax throws Abraham’s near lifeless body out of the store and gently floating down the walkway.

The Song. The SONG. Rampaging through his head, drowning out all of his vapid, self-centered thoughts. The Heretic dared say aloud the Holy Words?

Jax grabs his head, uncertain. “Whuh…what just happened?” His heart is racing, blood is pounding, his hands are shaking. And covered in blood, he just now noticed. Looking around, he see the drops of blood floating aimlessly around the store. Frightened, he kicks out and leaves the store.

Abraham floats gently down the corridor, bouncing off walls, floor and ceiling. A pack of chewing gum ricochets off of him. His eyes slowly open.

A tiny hand reaches out and grabs the packet. Expertly, a stick of gum is removed and unwrapped then placed in a tiny smiling mouth.

“Hi Daddy,” Jane Stanford says around a large bubble she has blown.

“I’ve missed you.”

Thomas Jackson floats through the entertainment area, dazed and confused.

“Abe!”

“Abraham!”

“Where did you go buddy? Something weird happened and I need some help!”

As he drifts past a large theater, a noise catches his attention. Quiet, but slowly increasing in volume.

jax!

Jax!

JAX!

JAX!

Cautiously, Jax enters the theater. As he enters, cool air conditioning caresses him. The smell of beer and fast food waft over him. There is no one around and yet Jax can feel an excitement in the air. A familiar tune is playing over the PA system, one of his songs. With a smile on his face, Jax moves towards the center stage. Spotlights sweep across row after row of empty seats. The main stage is awash in multi-coloured lights. Three massive screens flash with images of Jax at various points of his career. On the stage is a microphone on a stand.

Jax happily floats over and takes his place on center stage.

The crowd roars and the station rumbles.

“Calamity?”, Abe croaks, fighting back tears. “Oh, my daughter, my beloved, I never thought I would see you again.” Slowly, painfully, he reaches out to embrace her. He finds his left arm doesn’t work as well as it used to, but no matter. She is here. With him. As she warmly returns the hug, they both break down into tears.

“I told you that I would always be waiting for you to come home papa, even when I was sick, don’t you remember?” Jane sniffles and wipes away her tears. “We’re all waiting for you, grandpa and grandma and all our neighbors from home. Everyone we knew, expect for mama, I don’t know where she is.” Jane looks around concerned.

“Calamity, Jane my dear,” Abraham coughs violently. “I’m hurt, badly.” Jane kisses her father lightly on the cheek. “Don’t worry Papa, I know where we can fix you! Follow me!” She skips off towards the lifts. Abraham agonizingly follows.

At the central hub, after a long trip, Abraham exits the elevator to find his daughter putting on an E.V.A. suit. “What are you doing? It’s not safe outside!”, he yells. The exertion of yelling makes him light-headed. He is very cold. “Papa,” Jane says with all the impatience of youth, “It’s ok. I’ve had all the training. C’mon, put your suit on and let’s go!” Abe sighs, and slowly suits up.

Exiting the station with his daughter, Abe takes in the enormity of the Void. It has always felt oddly comforting. Jane leads him to a second hatch with numerous warning signs plastered about it. She opens the hatch and crawls inside. Abe looks at the signs for a moment, then follows.

With the last of his strength, Abraham pulls himself into the base of a large cylindrical tube. He drifts against the side, it is very warm but cooling swiftly. It reminds him of something but he is past the point of caring.

“Daughter?”, he gasps. “Will we finally be together?”

“Yes Papa,” she nods solemnly. “You and me together forever.”

The base of the cylinder opens up. Machinery is revealed. Massive amounts of energy are generated. The entire cylinder lights up.

“We’ve forgiven you. Welcome Home.”

The cannon fires.

An Amusing Aside

In addition to writing strange fiction, I also write of events that occur in my day to day existence. One such event occurred today:

While performing my duties as a bus driver, a transit personnel trainer boarded my bus. He was here to do a Driver Evaluation on me as I drove, he explained. “Just drive like I’m not even here”, he says.

I express my surprise. 13 years on the job and this is the first time a Driver Evaluation has occurred. I start to drive, but a thought starts brewing in my head.

13 years. Driving in snow, rain, and heat. Through floods and stampedes. 13 years of dealing with buttheads and outright hostile passengers.

WHO THE HELL DOES HE THINK HE IS TO JUDGE ME?

I AM THE GREATEST BUS DRIVER THAT EVER LIVED!

AND ANOTHER THING, HE CAN GO STRAIGHT TO HELL WITH HIS-

“Uh, hey Ellis, I finished your evaluation. You did great! Really impressive driving out there. Good job!” The trainer got off my bus and walked away.

Well, I’m glad I didn’t overreact.

Midnight at the End of the Universe pt. 4

“That’s it? What the hell is it?”

“Shut your mouth Jax, or I’ll shut it for you.”

“Guys! Let’s keep it together for a little longer ok?”

“So much lost…music…poetry…we’ll never see it again…”

“Abe, focus! We don’t need your fucking…just…just FOCUS alright? Give me your opinion on what we’re looking at.”

The air in the control module is rank. The oxygen scrubbers are wearing out. Numerous lights across the Calamity are flashing intermittently or simply burnt out. The crew look empty. Haunted.

The journey took two months longer than anticipated.

Abraham leans closer to the screen, his eyesight is worsening, and squints. “Let’s see…radiation is Gamma, X-ray, Neutron, Alpha, Beta…” He turns on another screen and types in some commands. Reading the information displayed, Abe rubs his eyes, then says, “This is a directed Nuclear explosion.”

Jax is incredulous. “What? Some asshole is dropping nukes in space?”

“No! Well, yes, I suppose.”

“That’s insane! Who would do that and why?” Katherine turns to Abe, sizing him up. Perhaps he’s finally gone, she wondered.

Isolde speaks up. “Perhaps it’s a sign. There is nothing out here beyond Nemesis. For anything to catch our sensors, it would have to be pretty big. Maybe it’s meant for us. Like a Lighthouse.” Her hair is growing back in after shaving it a month ago.

Katherine grabs her own hair in her hands. She pulls them away, a clump of hair in each hand. She barely notices. Her attention is pulled to the screen in front of her, “We can see it!”

An enormous Wheel spins clockwise in the void. Dull grey, running lights flickering along the hull. Four spokes lead inward to connect to a Hub. From a large tube in the center of the Hub and another on the opposite side, a massive flash of energy blasts out into the void, temporarily blinding the crew.

“Christ. That’s a man-made ship! There are survivors on there! With supplies!” Katherine slides into her seat, relief shaking her to her core.

“Yeah! Yeah! YEAH!” Jax dances around as much as he can in zero gravity.

Isolde hugs herself, tears forming bubbles in the corner of her eyes.

Abraham sighs and rests his head against his screen.

“Let’s find a docking port and meet my fans,” quips Jax.

The approach is tense. “What kind of diseased mind puts the docking port right next to a nuclear cannon?” Mac’s knuckles are white as she carefully maneuvers her ship to a port at the base of the cannon. The cannon fires again as the ship is locked into place. The entire vessel is rocked. “All right, we’re docked and locked.” Katherine releases her grip on the controls.

Isolde stares at a monitor. “Sensors are detecting atmospheric pressure on the external door. Replenishing O2 supplies.” Impatience ripples through her body. Clean, fresh air wafts through the ship. Everyone takes a deep breath.

“Shotgun!” Jax leaps down the corridor to the docking port. “Wait you idiot!”, Mac yells. “We’ve got a dozen safety protocols to run through before we exit the ship.” She unstraps herself from her chair and moves after him. “Ah, fuck it.” Protocol has degenerated significantly over the last eight months.

Abraham shakes his head as if trying to wake himself from a dream. “This…this can’t be real.” He looks mournfully at Isolde as she begins to unbuckle herself. “After all this time, after everything we’ve done, suddenly we find a space station? That was built by man?”

Isolde, impatient to be gone, waves him off. “We NEED this Abe. Our supplies are gone. This the miracle we need right now.” She floats off down the corridor.

Abraham watches her go. He runs his hands along the console at his station. “A miracle,” he sighs. Then he unbuckles himself and slowly follows the rest of his crew.

The crew of the Calamity exits the ship for the first time in eons. “I was expecting fanfare, parade music. Something.” Jax peers down the corridor that leads away from the ship. It is empty. A light blinks from a panel at the far end. “Hmm, not enough rotational force to generate gravity. I should have noticed that earlier, stupid.” Isolde shakes her head in disappointment. She is tired, malnourished. They all are.

The panel is connected to a large door. Katherine taps the any key and the screen lights up. A message reads:

“Welcome to the Remembrance.”

“We have been waiting.”

The entire station rocks slightly as the cannon fires again.

Abraham gently runs his hand across the screen, his face reflected in the screen looks ghastly. The door opens. A long hallway extends in either direction gradually bending along the curve of its circular design.

“I just want this to end,” whispers Katherine. Exhaustion hangs off of her like a shroud. Her crew does not hear her. She taps the communication button on the panel; “Hello! This is Captain Katherine McNamara of the E.M.S.X. Calamity! We’ve been lost for so long…we need help!” There is no response. “Please, PLEASE, respond!” Katherine hangs her head, shivers. Something is breaking inside her.

Jax floats past her, into the hallway. Peering down one way, he shouts “Elevators!” Then he points the other way, “Over there too!” Abe moves in and disappears down a corridor. Isolde moves to Katherine and raises a hand to place on her shoulder, to offer support, strength, compassion. She stops, uncertain. It has been so long since they were together. She pulls her hand back. The crew waits in silence.

Abraham returns to them from the opposite hallway. His skin is pale and sallow, his uniform is covered with stains of uncertain origins. “There are elevators connected to every spoke, numbered but no identification as to where they go other than to the outer circle.”

Jax is combing his hair. Of all the crew, he is in the best shape. His uniform is spotless, with crisp creases and numerous product ads. He finds a reflective surface and studies his image. His last drone camera broke down a month ago and Abe wouldn’t fix it. He smiles wistfully, he looks good and it’s being wasted on his wreck of a crew. “One Lift is the same as another, right? Let’s just take one and see where it leads.”

Katherine looks at him. She hates him so much. “Fine. Let’s find the first one then. Number 1.” He shrugs, and the crew moves along the corridor until the elevator marked “1″ appears. “Where is the crew?”, wonders Isolde. “Some sort of stasis maybe? How did they survive, uh…I mean…”

“How did this station survive the end of the universe?”, replies Abe. Isolde frowns at him, but has no response.

The doors to the lift open as they approach. Sullenly they enter. Vertical safety bars line the walls and a large window on either side of the door. A panel on the inside of the elevator shows two options: 1 and 2. 1 is currently green. “Well, that’s easy enough,” Katherine says. She presses the button marked 2. The doors close and the lift moves.

Moving away from the hub, the windows occasionally reveal an external view of the enormous station. The trip is silent, each crew member is lost in thought. Katherine thinks she can almost hear a jingle playing quietly in the background. “It sounds so familiar.” she thinks, “Can Izzy hear it?” She looks over at her lost partner and sees her staring out the window. Starvation crimps Isolde’s frame but she is still gorgeous, will always BE gorgeous. A bittersweet smile crosses Katherine’s face. She looks away.

Jax is about to lose his temper when the lift finally slows down and stops. The doors slide open and reveal an enormous hallway lined with the occasional potted plant, garbage bin and water dispensers. This stuns the crew momentarily, but just as quickly, the spell is broken when as one, they all push out of the elevator straight towards the water dispenser. Each takes a long, desperate drink. Fresh water has been non-existent onboard the Calamity for quite some time.

“I see shops!” Jax is staring aghast at a long section of hallway. It is filled with stores: grocery stores, beauty supplies, a movie theater, restaurants, coffee shops, knick-knack stores and many others. All devoid of occupants. “I don’t understand any of this,” Isolde says as the others move into the grocery store. The grocery store contains many pre-packaged containers of food in sealed cold storage. The doors open easily and the crew gorges themselves on partially frozen food.

Mac smiles, her belly full. “We can stay here. Even if there aren’t any others here, we can stay.” Jax floats by, “I HOPE there are other people here. I need to get LAID.” Isolde places her empty container of food in the recycling bin, “We need to keep moving. We have to find a command module and find out where this station came from and if there are any other people here.”

Abraham slowly moves over to the recycling bin and places his container in. “There are no survivors here.” Mac glances his way, “What makes you think that old friend?” She emphasized the word ‘Friend’ sarcastically. Abe doesn’t notice. He is looking up and down the corridor. He says, “This, ALL OF THIS, is a rest. A reprieve. We murdered an entire universe. For our crimes, we deserve death and Death is coming for us. This is our Last Meal.”

Mac scoffs. “You’ve gone mad, you’ve been made this whole time. Now we’re finally in a place big enough to ignore you if you decide to kill yourself again.” Isolde gasps. Jax looks up, a slice of meat dangling from his mouth. “Captain! That was totally uncalled for!”, Isolde shouts. Her words startle Mac, she looks at Isolde for a time silently.

“You’re right lieutenant. That was uncalled for. Abraham, Please accept my apology.” Abe stares away, unhearing. She shakes her head. “Fine. Look crew: we have a lot of distance to cover as we search for survivors. We’ll do it faster if we split up. Drarm, you’re with me. Jackson, take Stanford and go left. We’ll go right and meet on the far side. I’ve noticed communication stations scattered about, we’ll use them to stay in touch.” She turns and heads out. Isolde looks at the two men and mouths the word “SORRY”, then she follows.

The station rocks under the force of another cannon blast.

Midnight at the End of the Universe pt. 3

Thomas Jackson, dressed smartly in a high-ranking military uniform speaks to the viewer, his voice like rich velvet.

“The E.M.S.X. Calamity is perhaps, the greatest work of human ingenuity in our history. Never before has humanity united as it has for the creation of this incredible technology. Hundreds of our greatest minds worked together tirelessly for years, fusing science and technology into what will become the ship you see here,” He gestures beside him, a 3-D image of the Calamity appears and the ship changes shape, from one design to the next.

A Naval ship from the mid twentieth century.

A large Disc with a pair of cylinders extending away from it perpendicularly then switching to parallel.

An enormous sphere with a small convex area.

Designs slide by, grotesque and wonderous, sublime and insidious, one after the other into the hundreds. Finally, the image stops on a crudely designed ship drawn in orange crayon. Circular, with a module opposite the Gravitic Inversion pincers. From a window inside the module a stick-man waves hello. Hearts coloured in red float above the stick-man’s head.

Underneath, in blue crayon, is written:

Daddy at work. Hope he comes home soon. I miss him.

Somberly, with his voice carefully modulated to express maximum sorrow and empathy, Jax says, “Jane ‘Calamity’ Stanford submitted this design. Her father, Abraham Stanford, was an essential member of the orbital construction crew. His generous pay cheque was being spent to furiously fight the cancer trying to steal his daughter from him.”

“Sadly, the Cancer won.”

An image of Abraham appears, huddled over a screen, The screen shows a graveyard under blue sky. A crowd dressed in black looks attentively at the screen. Abraham slowly speaks, “My Calamity was an anomaly. The fire of life burned too hot in her young body. Ever inquisitive she was, she had a thirst for knowledge that surpassed even my own. As soon as she could hold a utensil, she was dismantling every toy she had, trying to understand the HOW of things. How does this work? How does that? What holds it all together?”

He smiles, “Once I walked into your room. You were crying, perhaps a nightmare. I stepped on one of your deconstructed toys and stumbled. I fell with a large crash, and woke everyone in the house up.’What a Calamity’, I said, and laughed. And your new name began.”

“You are gone now, my daughter. In the Old Ways, your body would be weighted with stones and sank beneath the seas near our ancestral home.” The crowd by the graveyard look uncertainly at each other. “The Old Ways are dead. There is only the Future now. Goodbye, my Love.”

“And thus,” concludes Jax, “is the origin of the E.M.S.X. Calamity told.” He crisply salutes.

“Please press ‘Continue’ if you would like to know more about this one of a kind vessel.”

The storage area has been successfully converted into a greenhouse and hydroponics garden. At the center floats Isolde Drarm. Her uniform is worn. Her hair is long, much longer than before. Coaxing new life into these old plants has been getting harder and harder. Between what they can grow, and what they can recover, the situation is stable but starting to decline.

Thinner than she was at the start of her voyage, Isolde kicks off gently and floats down a row of plants, checking each carefully for signs of disease. Muscle atrophy is a serious risk, as is skeletal deterioration. As Chief Medical Officer, her standing orders for extra sessions in the workout room were seldom heeded, even by her. Except for Jax. His narcissism demanded nothing less of himself than physical perfection. Which was fine by her. The less time he spent leering at her the better.

It’s safe here. The others rarely venture into this humid area. The sessions with Abe were difficult both on him and her. Trying to reconnect with him, trying to rekindle his interest in living weighed heavily on her. Her words to him seem increasingly hollow. Is she changing his mind about life, how important it is to continue living, and how vital he was to the crew of the Calamity, or was he changing her view, that life was finished. That there was nothing left, nothing to go home to, no home to go to. If only she could talk to Mac…

Abraham Stanford tried to commit suicide.

Five months into their estimated six month journey, Abe left his quarters during his rest period. He calmly drifted down the corridor to the E.V.A. room. Deftly, with a sure touch from having practically built this vessel with his own hands, he bypassed the sensor security protocols that prevented the exit from opening for an occupant without a registered spacesuit. He closed the interior door and looked, for the last time, at the ship he once so loved. Then, he activated the exterior door.

Nothing happened.

He tried again. Still nothing.

He punched the door. Again. And again. Until his fists were bloody pulps and he was pulling in ragged breaths. It wasn`t until he realized that his breath was not calming down, that it was getting harder to breathe, that he turned around.

Watching him from the viewport of the interior door was Captain McNamara and Lt. Drarm. Abraham launched himself at them. He ricocheted off the door and drifted slowly backwards. As his world slowly spun into darkness, he gasped, “There…is… nothing…left…” Isolde carefully reintroduced oxygen back into his chamber. Together, they gently moved his unconscious body back to his quarters.

The object they were travelling towards was officially named EMSXC-247×2. Jax called it “New Hope” out of a sense of irony. It was the only other object left in their observable universe. It emitted a steady pulse of radiation that was mostly drowned out by the background radiation coming from the singular, universe consuming blackhole that they created and orbited. Jax called it, “The Nemesis”. Mac wishes that Jax would just shut up sometimes.

The Calamity was not built for long distance travel. The Hadron Drive was her primary means of getting around. The Hadron drive would never be used again.

Small thrusters, used for fine maneuvering, gave the Calamity the push she needed to get under way. A six month journey was laughably optimistic. Onboard, resources were inventoried, then allocated. Some were sacrificed to create new resources. The cargo bay was slowly transformed into a botanical wonder. Work gave the crew purpose. Then Abraham snapped.

The twice daily excursion to inspect and maintain the hull fell squarely on Katherine’s shoulders after that. The toll it took on her was immense. The absolute nothingness of the void outside the ship terrified her beyond words. But, she continued to perform the inspections, there was no one else who could.

In her dreams, the Void has shape. It tortured her and tormented her. She ran, but could never elude it. It wrapped tendrils of icy death around her neck. Screaming herself awake in her tethered cot, she saw Isolde beside her, her eyes wide with concern.

“Mac! Are you ok?” Isolde reaches over and activates the lights.

“I’m fine Izzy…I’m fine. Just had a bad dream.” Katherine rubs her face with her hands. She has aged noticeably: wrinkles are appearing on her face, dark circles under her eyes, streaks of grey showing in her hair. Her hands betray fine tremors.

“Mac, the E.V.A.’s are killing you. You need to let Jax and I handle some. It will take some of the stress off of you.” She runs a cool hand through Katherine’s hair. Mac shoves her hand away.

“Jax wouldn’t survive two seconds out there. Besides, I can’t risk having him fuck up and possibly killing us all. And I can’t send you Izzy, you don’t know what it’s like out there. You’re too important to the crew. I can keep the ship together, but you keep us together.”

Isolde smiles, then shakes her head. “You are no good to the crew if you have a breakdown. Please, let Jax and I run some simulations at least to get us ready for an E.V.A.-”

“Enough!” Katherine turns her head. “Just get Abe well enough to resume his duties. You have your orders LIEUTENANT, I expect you to carry them out.” She turns out the lights then adjusts herself back in her tethered cot and closes her eyes. Isolde looks at her for a moment longer, then carefully extracts herself from the cot. She floats over to the locker where her clothes are stored and takes them. Quietly she puts them on and leaves the quarters, her eyes are red with unshed tears.

In Katherine’s dreams, the Void is waiting.

In his luxury quarters, every screen is alight with footage from his last concert. Thousands upon thousands of fans are screaming his name, “JAX! JAX! JAX!” Jax is in the middle of the room, naked, reliving the adoration of his fans. He is rock hard.

The concert ends, the screens darkens and the room lights up. His erection falls.

“Gawd fucking dammit! Two women left in the whole damn UNIVERSE and neither will touch me with a ten foot pole!” The one good remote camera glides up and down his body, recording his every movement. He looks over to a clear case attached to his desk that holds the remains of his other remote and sighs. ‘Accidentally’ walking in on Captain McNamara as she undressed for an E.V.A. trip seemed like a good idea at the time. She beat the holy hell out of him and as further insult, shoved his camera so far up his ass that he had to go to the medical lab to get it extracted.

“Space madness, that’s what it is,” he fumes. The others look and smell like shit, but not him. exercise, pursued with near mania, keeps him in top physical form. Anything for his fans. “Abraham went batshit crazy; our dear Captain isn’t far behind. Who’s left? ME!” He calls up an image of himself in a military uniform.

“Captain ‘Jax’ Jaxon, I like the sound of that!” His hands wander over his body as his erection returns, the camera recording every bit of it.