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.

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