Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/books/action/view/entry_id/976484
by Zen
Rated: GC · Book · Sci-fi · #2214237
This is the first draft of a story that is complete. (10/26/2020)
#976484 added March 9, 2020 at 5:31pm
Restrictions: None
Chapter 1: Activation
Joshua Stone finished applying a light coat of gun oil to the inside of the barrel of the M1 Garand carbine and began to give the outside a bit of a wipe as well. The old World War II era rifle had been donated to the Calgary Firearms Centre a week ago in reasonably good condition by the grandson of an American veteran who had passed away a month ago. Always keen to keep guns in mint condition regardless of their age or origin, Joshua took time over the last week to maintain the Garand when there were slow periods during his shifts. For much of December the store saw the usual influx of customers typical of pre-Christmas weeks. While Canada wasn’t as fervent about firearms applications as its neighbour to the south, it had plenty of enthusiasts when it came to recreational shooting and competitions. As such, these days Joshua spent plenty of time supervising groups of all ages at the shooting range attached to the store. Downtime had been scarce at the store the past few weeks, so when there happened to be some Joshua brought out a cleaning kit and tended to some of the vintage guns the store had in its collection.

It was December 19th, a Saturday evening. By usual standards even during the holidays, the store was packed with customers for most of the day and tapered off at around five in the afternoon. It was six-twenty now, and the store had mostly emptied out about a half hour ago. Only a couple customers were still using the shooting range. Joshua could hear the muffled CHOOM of a shotgun and the popping of a pistol mingling from within the range.

Joshua held the Garand up to chest height, the wooden stock in his right hand and its barrel in his left, admiring the gleam. He had been working on this rifle for the past week on and off, and he felt an immense satisfaction at having finished his maintenance of it for at least the next few months. With a careful two-hand grip, he brought the rifle around the counter then placed it muzzle up in a vertical glass display case located roughly at the centre of the store floor. A plastic card by the stock of the rifle listed its model and price: ‘M1 Garand, $979.00’

After locking the display case with a key from the keyring hanging from his belt, he took a minute to admire the rifle in its case before heading back to staff side of the counter and washing his hands of the oil and dirt he’d accumulated on his hands from cleaning the rifle for the past half hour. After wiping his hands dry with a clean hand towel, he glanced down at the FitBit on his wrist to check the time.

Six twenty-seven. Thirty-three minutes until the store closes for the night. Joshua considered starting to give the store floor a quick sweep with a broom and then hopefully the range floor would be clear for a sweep of spent brass casings by the time he was done with the store proper.

Joshua started to reach for the doorknob of the storeroom door behind the counter, only to be interrupted by a rather monotone, low pitched beeping coming from the pocket of his trousers. Reflexively, he reached into his front right pocket for his cellphone. He pulled it out and flipped it screen-side up.

No messages or missed calls. No other app notifications. Weird, he thought. That was when he realized his phone wasn’t the source of the beep.

Joshua slid his phone back into his pocket and instead took out a black device that from a distance resembled those popular thin Apple cellphones that started coming out a few years ago. He tapped its black screen three times in quick succession to ‘wake up’ the device, then waited for the screen to light up. Instead of lighting up white with a plain background and several apps to the sides of the screen, the device woke up with a bright red screen that for a moment remained blank.

Joshua frowned and furrowed his eyebrows in confusion for a second, then his stomach sank with dread when five words in bold white text flashed into view against the contrasting red background:


Joshua’s heart rate as indicated on his FitBit spiked from seventy-five beats per minute, to eighty-four. For a couple of seconds he stared at the small pad in his hand, and he momentarily wondered if he was dreaming.

After the initial shock wore off, he shoved the device back into his pocket and pulled out his cellphone again. He ran into the staff room a little beside the storeroom where customers had stored one or two of their firearms for safekeeping and started pulling on his coat. Once his arms were through the sleeves of the jacket, Joshua brought up his phone’s contacts list to find the name ‘Elena Roux’, then with a slightly shaky thumb he hit the icon to place a call.

Within the first three rings, Joshua managed to retrieve his winter toque from a nearby coat rack and pulled it over the top of his head. By the fourth ring, he was taking his work bag out of the locker in the corner of the room. The fifth ring was cut off halfway as the person on the other end picked up.

“Hi, Josh?” the gentle voice of Joshua’s fiancée chirped in his ear. She had the usual thin ‘Quebec French’ accent that usually made Joshua’s heart race, but right now his heart rate was increased for an entirely different reason.

“El? El, can you hear me? El!” Joshua huffed into the phone.

“Yeah Josh,” Elena Roux said quickly over Joshua’s urgent half-shouts, “I hear you. Why are you shout—”

“El, you need to grab the go-bag and leave the house now", Joshua spoke rapidly into his phone, slinging the strap of his Calgary Firearms Centre satchel across his torso.

“Josh, I’m still at the grocery store—” Elena began to protest, but Joshua hardened his voice and spoke over her; he wasn’t an obnoxious man toward ladies, especially not if it was his fiancée, but if the contingency plan was in effect…

“Honey? Honey, listen to me please… Drop whatever you’re doing and get home. Grab the go-bag and head for the ranch. Just like we planned, remember?”

There was a pause from the other end. Joshua heard the faint background noises typically found in a grocery store: the beeps of RFID scanners, the chatter of clerks and customers, and the rustling of plastic bags. After a few seconds, Elena spoke again. Her tone was vastly different from before, and though Joshua couldn’t see her face, he visualized her expression turning grim.

“Okay,” Elena said in a tense whisper, “Josh… what’s happening, exactly?”

“I’m sorry El, I don’t know either. I just got the memo. Get moving now, please.”

Elena took a breath, her inhalation coming across as unsteady and short from what Joshua could hear. He had been together with Elena for three years and engaged only for two months, but he knew her better than anyone.

Joshua knew she was scared. He was willing to bet all his money on that. But she also knew she was levelheaded and calmer than most other civilians when confronted with a crisis. That was just one of the parts of her that Joshua admired.

“I will, Josh. Are you coming?” she said, sounding worried but still feigning calm as best as she could.

“I can’t, El. They’ve activated me. I don’t know what’s going on yet, but I’ll find out soon enough. You just focus on getting out of the city quickly, because in an hour or two the highways will likely be clogged. Okay?”

Joshua knew that Elena knew he couldn’t join her, though he very much wanted to. This was why he ran this plan by her in the first place, for when situations as unlikely as this one were to occur. Plenty of things about Elena Joshua struggled with or found troublesome, but he loved her more than he loved anyone in the world, and he was glad to have a fiancée who did not ask too many questions or dismiss him as paranoid when they first rehearsed this plan that Joshua had devised.

“Okay,” Elena answered tersely. Loosely translated, this was her way of saying she didn’t like the idea of being apart from him but was agreeing to this because she once promised she would if ever she had to.

“There’s a Glock and two spare mags in the go-bag,” Joshua told her, now making his way to the store’s front entrance. Joshua didn’t have time to even inform his coworker Dave that he had to leave early. He just had to hope Dave would make it home all right. “Keep the gun with you at all times. And if you have to use it—”

“—shoot to kill,” Elena finished for him, quoting him word for word, sounding mildly anxious about having to actually use a firearm on another person. Joshua took her shooting every two weeks or so as a hobby they could share but also partly because Joshua wanted to at least make sure Elena could properly use a gun if her life depended on it. Canada didn’t allow for civilians to carry for self-defense purposes, but this was a special case. “I got it, Josh. I’ll… I’ll do what I have to do.”

Joshua burst out of the store and walked briskly across the parking lot, ignoring the honking of a pickup truck he abruptly cut in front of as it was pulling out of its parking spot. Cold flurries falling from the overcast sky blew into Joshua’s face, but the drop in temperature of his surroundings barely registered in Joshua’s mind.

“You do that honey,” he tried to lower his voice to reassure his fiancée. “We’ve prepared for this, so we’re going to be just fine. Just stick to the plan.”

Joshua reached his Chevrolet truck that was parked in front of the laundromat adjacent to the firearms store. Fumbling in his coat pocket for the remote attached to his car keys, he hit the unlock button, yanked open the driver’s door, tossed his satchel onto the front passenger seat, and climbed behind the steering wheel.

“Okay,” Elena said again. The sounds of chatter and beeping RFID readers were now replaced with by the hum of automobiles and the honking of car horns in the background. “Josh… please be careful. I’ll wait for you to call me on the… the pad. I know you’ll be busy but come back to me when you can. Please.”

Joshua nodded even though she couldn’t see him, willing the gesture to act as testament to his promise. “I promise. I’ll come back for you, El. I’ll come back. I’m getting behind the wheel now and I’ve got to hang up, but just focus on our plan. You can do this. Understand?”

“Yes,” Elena said, starting to sound rushed and out of breath; Joshua imagined she was running across the parking lot of whichever grocery store she was at, heading for her car. “Watch yourself, Josh. I’m waiting for you no matter what. I love you.”

Joshua noted the slight choke Elena made when she those last three words.

“I love you too, El. So much. Stay sharp, yeah?”

“Got it. I’m… I’m gonna let you go now, Josh.”

“Okay. Take care, El. I’ll talk to you soon. Love you.”

“Love you.”

Two seconds later, the line went dead. Elena’s voice rang in his ears, a strange sense of finality creeping along Joshua’s body.

He shook his head, axing the thought that that conversation may well be their last one. He couldn’t afford to be negative when the situation was already bleak. One thing he learned from his time in the RCAF was that even when the bird you’re piloting starts spinning on a one-way ticket to earth, you keep calm. You don’t start screaming your head off. You don’t let the defeatism monster dominate your thoughts. You cling on to what little light you have left. You fight to the end. Because you never know when that determination alone might see you through.

Shoving his phone back into his pocket, Joshua started the Chevy’s engine and immediately turned on the radio. He wasn’t even halfway out of the parking lot when a frantic, panicky newscaster began to relay the news over the airwaves. Joshua paid the panic in the radio little mind, instead prioritizing on internalizing the content in the words coming out of the newscaster’s mouth. He wasn’t really expecting to get much out of a radio caster even if a crisis was especially bad, but he wanted to get a feel for how bad things were.

He’d have time for all the details later.

“So, you got any plans for the holidays?”

With Damon’s arm around her shoulders, Genel Martinez leaned more against the twenty-three year old’s lean but muscular frame. Compared to Damon Burke’s tall stature, Genel stood at a stark 157 centimetres next to him. The top of her head barely reached past the man’s elbow. When the two started dating, their peers at the Army often ribbed the two as the ‘giant and the midget’ couple. Damon and Genel had been working together for two years now as fellow reserves squadmates in the Canadian Army, and it wasn’t really long after Damon came on board that it became common knowledge among the two’s circle that Damon had an interest in Genel. It had been just over a month since Damon finally worked the courage to ask Genel out, with Genel answering him affirmatively without hesitation.

Tonight the two were celebrating the first day of their two-week leave, and they’d decided beforehand that they’d spend this first day ice skating at Olympic Park and going out to have dinner at a fancy restaurant that Damon had booked in advance. They had just finished skating for an hour late in the afternoon, finishing up when it got dark. The two were relaxing side by side now on a bench overlooking the rink. Genel’s eyes stayed on the large Christmas tree that dominated the center of the rink, watching its various lights blinking on and off.

“Not really,” Genel replied. “What about you?”

“My folks are coming over just before the twenty-fifth, so I’ll be spending the days up to the New Year with them.”

Genel smiled, still watching the lights going on and off sometimes in unison and sometimes in turns. Her mind had, for the moment, gone elsewhere. She didn’t respond to Damon’s holiday plans. It wasn’t that she didn’t care to hear what he had planned but looking at those colours ahead of her made her think of someone else she knew – someone she knew who would be spending Christmas alone. Somehow, though she was with her caring boyfriend, she felt a bitter twinge of loneliness in her chest.

“Gen?” Damon gave her shoulder a light shake, rousing the woman from her thoughts.

“Oh. Yeah? That sounds fun,” Genel said absently.

“You aren’t sulking about not seeing me for a week, are you?”

Genel glanced up at Damon and playfully stuck he tongue out at him. She gave him a small pout and replied, “No, no. It’s fine. I’m sure your folks and your sister are more fun than me.”

Damon laughed, his voice reminding her fondly of a dog’s bark. It was a reassuring sound she’d come to associate with a relaxed atmosphere over the months she’d spent working with him.

“Don’t worry Gen,” Damon rubbed her shoulder and planted a quick kiss on the top of Genel’s head. “After the first, we’ll still have a week to spend together before we go back to work.”

“Mmm. I’m holding you to that,” she said playfully.

She returned her gaze back toward the Christmas lights. Earlier today she’d been looking forward to spending the whole evening with Damon, but now here she was with her mind flying off to a different place. The truth was that Genel wasn’t at all disappointed that Damon had the twenty-fifth all the way to New Year’s booked with his family. Family, after all, was important and Genel fully understood that. But that wasn’t why she was preoccupied.

Damon surreptitiously moved his hand from her shoulder down to her waist. Despite her mind being away, Genel did notice the gesture. When Damon’s hand then descended on top of her thigh and began gently rubbing the palm against the fabric of her jeans, Genel retaliated by placing her hand on Damon’s thigh to mimic the gesture.

They’d been dating a month now and these little displays of affection weren’t new to her. Genel really liked Damon and thought that he was a genuinely great guy – he was funny, helpful, athletic, and of course attractive. More than a few times now Damon had invited her over to his place, most often after work. Genel was date-savvy enough to recognize an invitation to a guy’s place was sometimes an invitation to his room. She didn’t take offense to these veiled invitations, but at the same time she didn’t entertain them once, and Damon had offered them several times now since they became a couple. She really liked him, and she’d often tease him in more ways than one, but she never quite felt strongly enough to be intimate with him that way. More often than not she truly felt sorry for not indulging him even once, but she couldn’t bring herself to get in bed with him. So far Damon hadn’t asked why she kept refusing him, but Genel knew he was frustrated even if he didn’t outwardly show it.

It wasn’t that Genel enjoyed stringing decent men like him along, or that she wasn’t attracted to him in a physical sense. She wasn’t sworn to celibacy for the rest of her days, either.

She’d pondered a few times over the course of her relationship with Damon if she was being unfair to him. When she said yes to him asking her out, she really did feel happy and wanted to spend more time with him. But if Damon wanted something more from this relationship, he’d have trouble eventually. Genel said yes to being his girlfriend, she was thinking of a light, casual experience – not to mean that she would date multiple guys at once, but certainly meaning she wasn’t looking for heavy emotional attachments. Maybe she ought to have asked Damon early on what kind of relationship he was looking for.

If Damon came out and told Genel he was in love with her, Genel wouldn’t be able to reciprocate it. She didn’t want to lie to a friend like him. She’d have to let him down, and realistically the relationship would end then.

“Hey Gen,” Damon said quietly, resting his chin on top of Genel’s head.


“If I said I was in love with you, would it be too soon?”

Genel bit her lip and flinched internally. Did he read her mind somehow? The timing was uncanny.

She took a moment to respond. First, the truth that will get his hopes up, but the truth nonetheless—

“No, not really.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

The two of them went silent for a minute. Genel felt an uncomfortable feeling gnawing at her in her chest.

“Do you?” she blurted abruptly, not looking at Damon’s face. She didn’t want to confront him about this, at least not yet. But maybe it would be better to address this now before he starts to expect too much?

“Of course I do,” Damon answered without a second of hesitation.

Genel held in a truly regretful sigh. That was that, then.

“I see,” she mumbled uncertainly.

More silence followed. Genel wondered if it would be more merciful to simply drive the final nail in the coffin now rather than later. She would have to do it eventually either way, now that she knew her idea of this relationship didn’t align with Damon’s.

She took a breath, pushing her shoulder off Damon’s arm. She looked up at him finally. “Listen, Damon.”

He didn’t smile. He appeared to know what was coming. Still, he said, “Yeah, what’s up?”

This sucks, Genel thought wearily, feeling truly remorseful that she had to disappoint this man whom she really liked. I shouldn’t have gone through with this if I wasn’t ready for commitment. I had to have known this would possibly lead to something serious. Now I’m really about to hurt him, all because I have issues.

Just as she was about to deliver the truth about her feelings to Damon, a low pitched beeping erupted from inside her purse.

She glanced down at the purple purse she kept slung from her left shoulder. Damon too appeared to home in on the noise.

Genel recognized the beeping. It wasn’t her cellphone – it was her other ‘phone’. Creating some more distance between her and Damon, she reached into her purse and stood up.

“Sorry Damon,” she apologized profusely, even giving a tiny bow without thinking. Her guilt must be dripping out of her already. “I’ve got to take this.”

He managed a thin smile. “Okay. No worries.”

Genel walked a few paces away from the bench, stopping just underneath the light of a nearby lamppost. Once she was a safe distance from her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, she dug out a device about five inches long, two and half wide, and a tenth thick. After tapping the screen three times, she waited a few seconds for the screen to light up white. But when it did, instead of glowing white, the screen showed a bright red.

“What the—”

Genel sucked in a breath when the words in bold white text showed up next against the red background.


For five seconds, Genel stared at the words as if willing them to disappear like an illusion. After blinking twice and still finding the words staring up at her from the screen, she felt the truth sink in, hitting her with the force of a blast of ice cold water.

“No way,” she said under her breath. She whipped her head around to turn her attention back to Damon.

He was looking at her, still waiting on the bench. He looked fairly pensive at first, but upon seeing Genel’s troubled expression his eyes widened with concern.

Genel walked back over to him, still trying to come up with an alibi for why she would need to take off suddenly.

“Damon,” she began, her mind rapidly becoming preoccupied with many things that Damon had nothing to do with.

“Gen, what’s wrong?” he stood up and walked closer to her until he was practically standing over her.

“I’ve… I’ve got to go. I’m sorry,” Genel said distractedly, though she really felt sorry for him as she babbled, “I’m sorry.”

Genel started to back away from him, intending to get on the nearest train that would take her to the southern end of the city, but Damon caught her wrist quickly.

“Wait! What’s going on? Gen, tell me. Where are you going?” he demanded, bewildered at her sudden shift to wanting to leave.

“Please let go,” Genel tugged on her arm, trying to break free of Damon’s grip. “I need to leave. It’s… it’s an emergency.”

“All right, but can you at least explain what’s wrong? You’re not making a lot of sense.”

Genel was caught between her obligation to leave, and her concern for Damon’s safety. For a moment, she stood in place with her boyfriend’s hand still around her wrist. The standoff was broken when a ringing noise originating from Damon’s pants pocket shattered their relative silence.

He glanced down at where his phone sat, looked up at Genel, then took out his smartphone with his free hand. Tapping at the screen, he frowned thoughtfully and hesitated before holding the device up to his ear.

“Sergeant Damon Burke speaking,” he said in a more businesslike tone.

Genel watched as his expression turned from slightly quizzical to near incredulous. His mouth opened as if to protest whatever he was hearing, but eventually he merely replied: “Understood. Linking up with my unit now.”

He hung up, stared at his phone with glassy eyes for a second, then glanced up at Genel. She didn’t appear surprised.

“Our unit’s been called in,” he said with a faraway voice.

Genel drew in a sharp breath. If Canadian Army Reserves personnel were being called in, something was clearly underway. Something bad. She’d been a reservist for over five years without seeing much action apart from training exercises meant to keep her from being rusty, but now her unit was being deployed out of the blue.

Genel heard her own phone’s ringtone chiming shrilly in her purse but didn’t bother to take it out. She knew who was calling: a dispatch officer, probably the same one that just contacted Damon.

Damon furrowed his eyebrows and pocketed his phone. “We’ve got to report to the Lieutenant, Gen. Come on.”

He slipped his fingers in between Genel’s. but Genel let go of his hand immediately. Damon gave her a bewildered stare.

“What are you doing? We need to go,” he said with some impatience.

Genel shook her head, starting to back away from him again. She didn’t have much time now. “Like I said, I’ve got an emergency. I can’t go with you, Damon. I’m sorry.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look, I can’t explain right now. Just go!”

“Gen— Hey! Wait! GEN!”

Genel turned on her heel and took off across the park, heading for the train station at City Hall. Taking stock of all the people on the platform, on the sidewalks, and at the park, she could only hope that they get somewhere safe soon. She sprinted across the street, nearly getting caught by the bumpers of a couple of cars that had the right of way. She didn’t stop until she barely managed to make it inside the last car of a southbound train that was about to pull out of the station.

Genel wondered if she’d ever see Damon again. She may not have loved him, but she did think of him as her friend.

Why were the Reserves being deployed, and where? What the hell was going on?

Silently offering a prayer for Damon and the rest of her unit that she couldn’t join, she found a seat in the back of the car and looked out the window as the train began to move.

She wondered how much longer the Christmas lights at the park would stay lit.

It was just past five in the afternoon when he got back to his condo in the Evergreen neighbourhood. He’d been called in to work an 8-4 shift at the corporate mailroom he worked casual at, which was a first because he usually only ever worked on weekdays before. Despite being slightly annoyed that he had to come in to cover for a no-show weekend employee, he nonetheless dragged himself out of bed at six that morning and left for work at seven.

He parked his car in front of the townhouse condo that he rented, shut off the engine, and popped the trunk. After retrieving the groceries from the back, he locked his car doors and unlocked the front door to his home.

Once inside, he set down the four bags of groceries in the foyer, locked up behind him, and glanced down at the doormat he was standing on. By his feet were two envelopes that were presumably pushed through the mail slot installed on his door sometime today.

Crouching down, he picked up the two envelopes and quickly looked at the senders of both. The first one was from his bank and judging from the rough weight and the current date, he inferred that it was simply his monthly credit card statement inside.

I really should go paperless, he thought. Striding toward the dining table, he tossed the envelope from the bank on top, intending to run its contents through the shredder later. When the piece of stationery landed on the table with a faint fwhap, he brought his attention to the second envelope.

The other envelope didn’t have a professional return label printed on the top left corner. Instead, the name ‘Naomi Wolfe’ was inscribed there in small, neat cursive. Below the name was a return address in Surrey, British Columbia.

At first, he raised his eyebrows and wondered why Naomi Wolfe would snail mail him a letter in this current age of instant messaging, video chat, and cellphones, but—

Well, she’s always been pretty old-fashioned, I guess.

He smirked a bit to himself and wondered how on earth a borderline Luddite like Naomi ever managed to be employed in their shared line of work.

Glancing at the recipient’s name and address, he silently read: ‘Ian Alcantara, 103-4 Everway Square SW Calgary, AB T4X 6ZT’

Taking a moment to feel the envelope for any strangely shaped objects that may be hidden inside, he found none. As best as he could tell, it contained a couple pieces of cards that fit comfortably inside the letter size envelope.

Ian strode across the dining area and reached for his letter opener resting in a pen holder sitting on top of the two-drawer filing cabinet, Grasping the letter in his left hand, he slid the opener smoothly across the flap side of the envelope. When the envelope was fully unsealed, he reached inside and produced two thirty dollar gift cards for use at Indigo, a popular chain of bookstores located all across Canada.

A yellow Post-It note was the last thing the envelope held. Pulling it out and holding it up to eye level, Ian silently read its simple message written in the same cursive on the outside of the envelope.

“Gift cards come across as impersonal normally, but I know how into books you are, so here. Merry Christmas. Take care of yourself. –N”

Ian smiled slightly to himself. He never expected any gifts from anyone during the holidays, and he didn’t usually buy anything for anyone but the people he was closest to. Naomi nailed his ideal Christmas present. She certainly could have done worse; Ian knew one other colleague of his who probably would have gifted him with a voucher to the local risque men’s club across the city just to make a point about Ian’s solitary lifestyle. Between a questionable lap dance and an engrossing read, he highly preferred the latter.

Gently placing the gift cards and note back inside the envelope, he set the envelope down on a different side of the dining table from his credit card statement, Ian got to work on putting away the groceries he bought. Putting canned beans and fish in the cupboards and the raw chicken and beef in the freezer, he idly thought about what to have for dinner.

There wasn’t any of the baked salmon he liked left in the fridge. At the same time, he didn’t feel like cooking anything tonight.

Right. Microwaveable ‘crap’ it is then, as Genel would say.

Deciding on dumplings for dinner, Ian took out the frozen bag of pork dumplings from his freezer, shook four pieces out onto a plate, and popped the plate into the microwave oven above the stove. Setting the timer to two minutes, he hit START on its keypad and waited as the dumplings rotated for a couple minutes.

When the food was heated, he heaped about two cups worth of white rice onto the plate and ate the dumplings with the rice, managing to clean out his plate in just five minutes. Once the dishes were washed, Ian headed for his bedroom past the dining area and kitchen.

As per his tradition on weekdays or whenever he worked days for his mailroom job, Ian drew the curtains closed to darken his room, changed into a more comfortable undershirt and sweatpants, and laid down in bed. Reaching underneath his pillow for the familiar sleep blindfold he kept there, he thought: Just for a few hours. Then we’ll get to work.

He glanced across the room at his work desk, cluttered with various magazines and newspapers on current world events. He then looked to its right, on the wall next to the messy desk. Mounted there was a corkboard he bought from an arts shop two and a half years ago. Posted on this corkboard, and indeed dominating nearly every inch of its expanse, was a haphazard combination of newspaper clippings, still images, and plenty of Post-It notes of different colours linked to one another by threads of red and blue yarn. The newspaper clippings, photos, and notes were pinned to the board using thumb tacks, around which the threads of yarn were twined.

The articles all covered various national and international news. Titles like ‘Calgary Bombing Worst Act of Terrorism in Canada in a Decade’, ‘One Year After Calgary Blast, No Suspects Identified’, and ‘Rise of Private Military Companies Should Concern Western Nations, experts say’ were among many similar headings that were tacked on to the board. In the meantime, the handwritten notes bore observations and speculations linked to both articles and photos. Some examples written on the Post-Its included musings like ‘Bomb identified as military grade Semtex (who would have access to this?)’, ‘No apparent links between bombing victims – MOTIVE???’ and ‘Single pixel web beacon image is too low quality – find clearer images!!’

Ian gazed at the mind map across the room. He’d spent the last thirty-one months putting this together. A lot of his points were still only questions and speculations, but all the same he kept building upon the map whenever he could. To an outsider, he knew the sight of this map would make others question his mental stability and wonder if he had an unhealthy obsession. But Ian wasn’t chasing ghosts any more than he was chasing aliens or mythical animals in a fantasy world. What he was after was plausible. Real.

Just need to find more links to put together. Need a clearer picture here.

He eventually pulled the blindfold down over his eyes and got out the music player he always stuffed in his pillowcase. He turned the player on, put the buds in his ears, and navigated the player’s menus without even needing to use his eyes; he’d done this countless times before on similar early evenings. He selected a playlist he put together specifically to help put him to sleep, navigated to a track that went on for three continuous hours featuring the sound of rain falling on a roof, rolled over so that his back was to the door, and was asleep within ten minutes.

Tonight, the nightmares graciously left him alone.

When Ian awoke, he instantly got the sinking feeling in his stomach that told him he overslept. It had happened many times before, but regardless of how used to this routine his body was, it still deviated from its expected waking time on occasion. As he sat up slowly, he pulled off his blindfold and removed his earbuds, which were by then feeding him the sounds of a gently flowing river instead of the patter of rain on a rooftop he had chosen before dozing off.

So I overslept again…


Ian took a few seconds to really wake up. He thought at first he was hearing sirens. And gunfire.

He shook his head in an absent attempt to shake off the last traces of drowsiness and trained his ears to focus.

Yes, there definitely was gunfire. By his estimate, the sounds were coming from the west, probably past the intersection of Eversyde Way and 24th Street. There was a police station a couple minutes’ walk from his place, and he placed the source of the gunfire at this location.

“The hell?” he muttered, a little perplexed. Gunfights and the sounds of firearms were hardly a first for him, but there was no reason for gunfire to be heard in this neighbourhood. In fact, there was no reason to hear gunfire anywhere in the country unless you were near a crime in progress, or at a military training base or shooting range.

By the sounds of things, neither was likely. There wasn’t a military base in this part of town, and judging from how he could discern the pop of semi-automatic pistols discharging underneath the near-incessant report of several automatic rifles firing in unison, this was a sustained shootout – unlikely that some local criminal warranted such a barrage. As per the Firearms Act, automatic weapons were banned from civilian use anywhere in the country. Even the famous AR-15 platforms that were allowed by the government had to be converted to semi-automatic and limited to five rounds per magazine in order for a civilian to possess a ‘restricted’ firearm. Further, the only legal use for such a rifle was for competition and recreational shooting, and there wasn’t a shooting range within shouting distance of the condo complex. Ian surmised the automatics rattling in the distance were being fed by standard thirty round mags, not five round mags.

Okay, this is a weird dream.

Ian swung his legs over the side of his bed and reached for his phone, which he left on the bedside dresser. No sooner than he caught a glimpse of a notification on his home screen indicating he had twelve missed calls and six unread text messages did his phone start ringing and vibrating in his hand.

The caller’s name was Genel Martinez.

He swiped right on the green receiver icon and placed his phone to his ear. “Genel?”

The first thing he heard was a fair bit of wind whistling in from Genel’s end. Then his close friend’s anxious voice came through with enough volume that Ian had to jerk his phone away from his ear; Genel spoke to him nearly in shouting volume.

“Ian? Ian, are you there?”

Ian brought the phone a bit closer back to his head. “I’m here,” he replied, raising his voice enough so that hopefully Genel could hear him through the gust of wind on her end, “What is—”

“Where the hell have you been?” Genel demanded, not letting him finish. She sounded equally impatient and relieved. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

Somehow, Ian’s mind focused momentarily on the gunfire he was still hearing outside.

“Sorry, I slept through… whatever’s going on.”

Genel seemed to take an extra few seconds before she spoke again. “You’re kidding. Whatever, just… just check your TACPAD. I still don’t have the full details, but it looks like we’re dealing with an invading army.”

At the words ‘invading army’, Ian found himself grappling with both his trust in his ears and his occasionally vivid imagination.

“I see,” he said with a dubious tone. If Genel was telling him this, he found it impossible not to believe her. It was just that the situation seemed too much like a fictional plot.

“Anyway, where are you? What’s it like out there?” he asked, getting to his feet.

“It’s a mess,” Genel replied, and in the background Ian clearly discerned some protracted yelling and more automatic gunfire. “I’m seeing major military presence on the main roads, blocking traffic and detaining civs. Those resisting detainment are being gunned down. I don’t understand how these soldiers took over so fast.”

If that was true, someone high up with connections in the right places planned this out for a long time.

“Where are you?” Ian asked Genel again, moving closer to his walk-in closet beside the mind map. “You okay?”

The sound of an explosion from somewhere close to Genel’s position came through over the line. For just a fleeting moment, Ian’s mind conjured an image of a multiple-story building and a murky figure resembling a person standing in front of it. All of a sudden, his breath rapidly quickened and became shallower. He scrunched his eyes shut and focused on slowing his breathing, just like how his mentor once taught him. Inhale deeply, count to two, exhale… inhale deeply, count to two, exhale…

He got his breathing back to a calmer rhythm in time to hear Genel respond: “I’m all right. I’m trying to head for Haven on foot – you’ll get nowhere driving with soldiers blocking the roads and detaining drivers and pedestrians alike. At least if you’re on foot you can keep mobile and stay out of sight.”

“All right. I’ll make my way over to Haven too. I’ll see you there. Have you heard from Josh?”

“Yeah, he was the first to report in. Said he would make his way to Haven too. By the sounds of things he’s got a head start on me. We both tried reaching you on your TACPAD and cell, but you weren’t responding and—”

Genel paused, and Ian sensed some hesitation from her. After a second, she added, “I was worried.”

“Don’t be. I’m fine.”

Genel sighed, though the sound was nearly imperceptible with how loudly the wind was whipping in the background. “I’m glad. Listen, right now I’m still at the intersection of James McKevitt and Twenty-Two-X. That’s not far from your place. Do you want me to hold position here and lay low until you come meet me?”

“No,” Ian said immediately, “No point. You keep moving and stay away from all possible threats. Don’t get into confrontations if at all possible. There’s plenty here we don’t understand yet, and right now we’re scattered. We need to link up first before attempting to fight back. Understood?”

“Copy. Does ‘avoid confrontations’ apply to you as well?”

There was a knowing undercurrent in her question.

“Yeah,” he answered, meaning it, “I don’t like fighting blind unless I have to. I’ll make my way out of Evergreen and meet you guys at Haven.”

“Solid copy. Lord knows how cell services haven’t gone down yet. In case you need to reach us, just use your TACPAD.”

Ian grabbed a charcoal black windbreaker from his closet and tossed it onto the bed.

“Right. One last thing. Have you heard from our newest addition? Callsign: ‘Angel’?”

“Negative. I’ve been pinging her comms for over an hour now but she isn’t responding.”

“We’ll look into the matter after we’ve regrouped. I’ll see you and Josh at Haven.”

“Roger. Hey, Ian?” Genel’s tone took on an anxious edge again, just enough that Ian could notice it.


She took a second before replying. “Be careful.”

“Don’t worry about me,” he told her dismissively.

Genel sighed again, this time more clearly because of a momentary lull in the gust. “Affirmative. Out.”

She hung up, leaving Ian alone with nothing but the sounds of gunfire down the street to remind him of the gravity of the situation. He dug out a pair of dark gray combat pants from his clothes dresser, a brown fleece sweater, and a black winter face mask and tossed all the items onto the bed with the windbreaker.

As he undressed, Ian tapped the screen of his TACPAD three times to awaken it from standby mode. When the screen came to life, the background wasn’t the usual white he was used to – it was bright red. Five words in bold white were generated on top of the backdrop:


So it’s that bad, then.

Ian practically ripped off his nightshirt and shorts, threw on the clothes he tossed onto his bed, and returned to his walk-in closet. Running his hand along the far wall where it met the adjacent right wall, he felt his fingers brush the camouflaged cover of a biometric scanner and keypad. He flipped it open to reveal the palm scanner and keypad underneath, then placed his right palm flat on the scanner. After a two second delay during which the biometric scanner scanned his fingerprints, a small beep came from the device, followed by an automated female voice reciting: ‘Verified: Alcantara, Ian. Code Zero-Five-Seven’.

A second later, the back wall of the walk-in closet slid through the adjacent wall on the left. Once the far wall was out of the way, a hidden wall beyond it was revealed, only instead of plain drywall it was a flat steel wall the width of the back wall that had just slid to the left. Mounted to this metal wall was a wide steel locker nearly as wide as the wall behind it. The locker had no door to conceal its contents, so the small arsenal of firearms and other weaponry stored within its shelves were immediately visible. Along the left half of the weapons locker were several assault and battle rifles, their muzzles up and stocks down. Underneath the rifles were a few small shelves containing unopened boxes of rifle cartridges as well as several dozen loaded magazines compatible with the rifles above them. On the other side of the locker was an assortment of semiautomatic handguns along with various boxes and magazines containing different calibers of ammo underneath. Above and between the two kinds of firearms, mounted high on the back wall of the locker, was a thin, front-zip ballistic vest, with a tactical knife in a leather sheath mounted to its right breast. Right below the vest was a cradle holding a wrist brace with a depressed centre measuring exactly like the dimensions of Ian’s TACPAD. Beneath the wrist brace still, laying on a shelf was a lightweight utility belt that utilizes magnets throughout to hold metal equipment in place.

Ian took the vest off the wall first and put it on, zipping the vest up to the top of his sternum. Afterwards, he wrapped the utility belt securely around his waist, adjusting it for his waist size. He grabbed two fragmentation grenades and two flashbangs, adhering them to his belt on either side of his waist. He then reached down for the shelf on the bottom underneath the pistol accessories and took out two holsters for handguns. He attached one to his right thigh, the other to his left. When his apparel was secure, he took the wrist brace from the cradle and wrapped it around his right forearm with the slot for the TACPAD on the inside of his wrist. He placed the TACPAD in its slot on the brace, allowing him to consult the device without having to use his fingers to hold it.

Next, Ian selected a compact assault rifle from the half dozen rifles in the locker. He withdrew the Heckler & Koch G36C modified for left handed shooters with a mounted 3x optic, small foregrip, and attached muzzle brake. He briefly checked the weapon over for any damage or defects, and after finding it in perfect condition, he took four standard thirty round magazines from the shelf and placed them in each of the four ammo pouches mounted to the bottom half of his ballistic vest. He took one last mag and fed it through the G36C’s magwell, then charged the bolt on the right hand side of the rifle to chamber a fresh round from the fresh magazine. Satisfied with his choice, Ian set the rifle down on its stock and against the wall just outside of his walk-in closet.

Ian then selected two handguns from his collection: a stock Heckler & Koch HK45, and his customized Walther PPQ with night sights, a match grade trigger, ported slide, and a threaded barrel for attachments. He loaded a ten round magazine of .45 ACPs into the HK45, and a fifteen round magazine of 9mm rounds into the PPQ. He slid the HK into the holster on his right thigh, and the PPQ into the holster on his left. After securing two extra magazines for each handgun to his belt, there was only one piece of gear left to retrieve.

Ian reached to the corner of the hidden compartment behind his closet’s wall and pulled out the jet black one-strap backpack that was designed to fit snugly around the wearer’s torso without impeding much movement. Inside the pack were essentials that he kept topped off and up to date regularly: a small first aid kit, a change of thermal clothing bundled tightly to conserve space, two bottles of water, several energy bars, an emergency transponder linked to TACPADs associated with his teammates, and a spare switchblade. He put on the backpack, tugging on the strap to adjust for comfort.

Right. That just leaves…

Ian double checked that he had all his gear on him already, then he manually keyed in the digits 011895 to bring his closet back to its original state, hiding the armory he kept hidden beyond the back wall. He shut the door to his closet, then strode over to his cluttered desk and grabbed a gray mini thumb drive the size of the distal phalange of his index finger from the bottom of a pen holder in the corner. He got this gadget from Genel herself who devised it a year ago, when Ian had asked her for help acquiring a device that would quickly delete all data from a computer while being able to store the same data within its flash memory chip that had a 190 gigabyte capacity. Perfect for quick data denial and retrieval, Ian clearly remembered Genel telling him as she proudly held up the device for his perusal. No need to trash your hard drive after manually hooking it up to an external and waiting for a long transfer. Just plug in, press the blue button on the side, and this gizmo will do both denial and storage for you in under three minutes. You could sell your PC as a factory issue for close to your buying price after if you wanted to.

Ian crouched down and plugged the thumb drive into one of the ports on his PC’s CPU. He pressed the tiny blue button on the side of the device, prompting a similar blue light running along the length of the drive to light up in a ‘loading bar’ fashion. While he was waiting for the drive to do its job, Ian walked over to his bedside dresser.

With a delicate movement, he pulled open the top drawer and reached for the back of the space, his hand gliding past scraps of paper, pens, old music players, and other personal effects until his fingers made contact with something slender and soft. He carefully pulled the object out and brought it close to his face.

It was a braided cord made from special fibers. About fifteen centimetres long and weighing barely eighteen grams, the cord showed some slight wear and tear along its length. Despite its apparent age however, the cord itself appeared to have been woven expertly. Its exquisite colours of red, orange, blue, and white melded against and with each other with perfect harmony.

Everything in Ian’s townhouse could be replaced: his china, furniture, collection of books, clothes, personal computer, and even the small arsenal of weapons he owned in the closet. He rented this place for his convenience and for the sake of having a permanent address, but not much else. To him, it was just a place to come back to in between jobs, and as such he didn’t feel any sense of attachment to it. He wasn’t at all worried what would become of it now that Dark Sky was here. Everything in this townhouse was something he could buy or create again, but—

Ian wrapped the braided cord gingerly around his left wrist, securing it with a small metal clip to hold it in place.

This is something I’ll never be able to replace.

Lifting up the right sleeve of his windbreaker, Ian tapped the screen of the TACPAD mounted to the brace on his right forearm three times, dismissing the message about Dark Sky with a swipe. He tapped a small icon that resembled the same TACPAD he was using on the top right of the screen to set the device to Active Mode. The screen then lit up white with several icons on the top left marked: ‘COMMS’, ‘GPS’, ‘DATABASE’, and ‘PURGE’. Taking out a small earpiece just under the size of a twenty-five cent coin from a secret compartment opposite the brace’s TACPAD dock, Ian placed the earpiece in his right ear and grabbed a black toque from a coat rack next to his bedroom door. He donned the hat and returned to his PC. The device’s light had turned from deep blue to vibrant green, indicating that its data deletion and storage was complete. He unplugged the thumb drive and slipped it into one of his windbreaker’s inside pockets.

Ian gave his bedroom one last look. His eyes lingered a couple seconds longer on the mind map he’d built than anything else left in the room. He hated to leave it behind, but he did back up all his data to his PC, and now that data was securely stored to the thumb drive resting against his chest. He could reconstruct a physical mind map when he needed to.

All right. Time to go.

The sounds of gunfire that were coming from the police station had subsided during his prep time, but now that they had, Ian could hear more from further away in different directions from his position.

He picked up his G36C from the floor, taking the grip in his left hand and placing his left index finger on the body of the rifle, just above the trigger guard. He stepped out of his bedroom, stalked across the expanse of his condo’s dining area and living room, and slipped out of the front door. The condo complex and parking lot outside fortunately appeared to be clear of possible hostiles, but Ian could sense gunfire erupting from several directions not too far from the condo complex.

He recalled one nugget of wisdom his late mentor once shared with him:

A ghost never has to worry about being shot, kid.

As much as memories of that brusque woman pained him still, Ian had to admit plenty of things she taught him actually were for his benefit.

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