Darkness covered the city, flowing down the streets and collecting in the alleys. Silence sat heavily on the sleeping town, its buildings swathed in a thick fog, light pooling in liquid puddles under the occasional street lamp. The town drunk stumbled down the street, his head spinning from the pots of ale he’d just finished off in the pub. Reaching the nearest alley, he leaned heavily against the wall then slid down to sit on the ground. Reclining against the building wall, he threw his head back and began singing loudly, and badly off-key. A brief flash of light a few feet further down the alley startled him and he peered into the darkness.
« Who’s der? » he slurred, trying to make out anything in the inky blackness. No answer was forthcoming however, so after a few seconds he shrugged and went back to singing.
The reason for the flash stood silently several feet away, his eyes adjusting to the sudden darkness. The putrid smell of rotting garbage caused him to wrinkle his nose in disgust.
« Wonderful, » he thought sourly to himself. « A backwater planet in the middle of nowhere. And where do I materialize? In the middle of their garbage dump! »
He closed his eyes for a second, then took a deep breath, settling his nerves.
« Well, it could be worse I guess. I wonder just how primitive these people are. »
He picked his way slowly through the darkened alley, trying to avoid the larger concentrations of refuse. By the time he reached the street, the town drunk was happily snoring, the words to his song long forgotten in the stupor produced by the ale.
« At least » he thought to himself as he inspected the drunk, « I look like they do physically. »
He squatted down beside the drunk and carefully pulled his tattered cloak aside then frowned.
« Clothing . . . that’s another matter, » he mused, dropping the cloak back down over the snoring man.
He glanced down at his seamless, black jump suit and shook his head.
« I’ll never fit in dressed like this, » he thought, studying the drunk’s ratty attire, then stood and glanced cautiously around the street.
The fog drifted past, swirling slightly in the faint breezes as he watched, but no other signs of life were evident on the street. Satisfied things were relatively safe, he cautiously stepped out of the alley and turned left then made his way up the deserted street, hugging the rough brick wall of the building and trying to stay well out of the light as he made his way past silent store fronts.
The buildings ended fairly quickly and the street turned into a lane running out into the open land. The man stopped, then sighed and turned around.
« Better and better, » he thought, shaking his head. « Backwater planet, primitive culture, local inhabitants who appear to have all the civility of poorly bred pigs and now this. » He stared back up the street at the few buildings visible through the fog.
« Maybe it’s bigger if I go the other way. I need clothes. »
He studied the buildings for a few seconds longer then shook his head again.
« No, » he thought, correcting himself, « I need a farm. With a clothesline. And a sympathetic farmer. »
He frowned, remembering the drunks singing and made a face.
« A farmer whose language I probably don’t speak, » he muttered then looked up at the invisible stars. « Why me!? »
He glanced over his shoulder into the blackness that shrouded the lonely countryside then turned back to the town again. If there was a farm out there it certainly didn’t show up in the middle of the night.
« When I get my hands, » he thought vehemently, « on the idiot that opened that warp… »
Light spilled suddenly out of a doorway a few feet ahead of him as the door opened, and he flattened against the wall. A couple strolled out, waving behind them at a fairly crowded, smoke filled room, then wandered off down the street arm in arm. He waited until they were lost in the fog before breathing a silent sigh of relief.
« Clothes now, » he reminded himself. « And food. And sleep. Retribution later. After my powers come back. »
He glanced around, then continued on up the street toward the alley he’d materialized in.
As it came in sight he could see a dark figure bent over the drunk who had been happily snoring away in its entrance. He froze, watching as the figure drew a knife out of a sheath and silently cut the drunk’s pouch from his belt. The man narrowed his eyes and glanced around. The street was still empty and the alley was only a few feet away. Trained reflexes took over and he advanced silently, little more than a shadow, as the figure opened the pouch and began rummaging through it. He paused for a moment, waiting until the thief was completely absorbed in the contents of the pouch, then stepped forward, one hand going to the thief’s throat, the other grasping its knife hand. In a single fluid motion he bent the thief backwards, lifted it off the ground to its toes by the hand on its throat and forced the knife hand open. The knife hit the ground with a dull thud and he shoved the arm up behind his prisoner’s back. The other struggled slightly, stopping as his hand tightened around its throat.
« You know, for a thief, you’re not very observant, » he growled, his voice low.
His captive grunted and he applied a bit more pressure to the arm behind its back.
« Ow! » came the unhappy protest.
« Not only that, but your choice of targets is lousy, » he continued, then waited for a reply.
« Let me go! » the other managed, then gasped as a bit more pressure was applied to his arm.
« Well, » the man thought, « language will evidently not be a problem. That’s one positive aspect to this. »
« Let you go? » he asked in a low, dangerous voice. « Let you go? And then what? Wait while you pick up your knife and try to kill me? I think not. » He squeezed slightly on the other’s throat again.
« NO! » his captive cried out, sudden fear filling his voice. « Just let me go and I swear I won’t . . . »
« No, you’re right, » he interrupted. « You won’t . . . because you really won’t like what I’ll do if you try. »
He twisted the other’s wrist slightly, provoking another cry.
« I’ll let go, » he continued, his voice dark and threatening, « but you move and you die. Understand? »
« Yes, » came the reply through tightly clinched teeth.
He let go and the thief stumbled forward, whirled around, then stood uncertainly in front of him, rubbing his wrist and watching him warily. The fog drifted slowly past behind him, diffusing what light the nearby street lamp shed and giving him an unearthly backdrop. The thief looked up into a pair of brown eyes that appeared faintly to glow and gulped, his blood running cold.
« Your name? » the man asked, looking down at the thief and crossing his arms.
« Why? » the other asked hesitantly.
« Because I asked, » he stated bluntly.
« Kheri, » came the response after a moment.
He nodded, then bent over and picked the knife up off the ground.
Kheri’s eyes darted to the street but prudence kept him from moving.
« You can call me Dale, » the man said, straightening up and handing the knife back to its owner.
Kheri looked at the knife suspiciously, then carefully reached out and took it, sheathing it quickly.
« So now what? » Kheri asked nervously, looking back up at the man who towered a full twelve inches over his slight, five and a half feet.
« First, give him back his pouch, » Dale replied, indicating the drunk. « Second, you just became my guide to this place. To start with, I need other clothing. You’re going to help me find some. »
Kheri opened his mouth to protest, caught the look on Dale’s face, nodded once, then dropped the pouch next to the drunk.
« What kind of clothes do you want, » he asked, his gaze wandering over Dale’s strange attire.
« Normal stuff, » Dale told him. « What any average, working man would wear. »
Kheri stared at the jumpsuit for a couple more seconds then nodded.
« All right, » he replied apprehensively, « I know where you can get something but we’ll have to leave town. The only stuff around here is either on someone’s back or in a store. And they’re locked. »
« And stuff outside town isn’t? » Dale asked.
« Well… » Kheri fidgeted and tried not to feel frightened. « My aunt’s got a farm. It’s several miles out. I can try to get you some of my uncle’s old things unless you object to a walk? »
Dale caught his eyes and held his gaze for a moment until Kheri shivered and looked down.
« All right, » he replied, satisfied that Kheri was telling the truth, « we’ll go visit your aunt. Which way? »
« Uh . . . » Kheri stammered, his heart pounding, « T. . . this way. »
He moved cautiously past the larger man then stepped out of the alley and started up the street toward the center of town. Dale turned and followed silently behind him. Kheri’s thoughts raced as he walked past the silent wooden buildings that lined the street. The desire to dash off into the fog filled him and he fought it down, certain that he would fail in the attempt. His arm still ached from the pressure Dale had exerted on it back in the alley and he had no desire to find out just how strong he really was. He rubbed his throat, still feeling the ghostly impressions which Dale’s fingers had left in it and shivered.
« Clothes… » he thought, trying to control his overly active imagination. « I gotta tell her something. . . »
He pictured the ancient steamer trunk locked away in his aunt’s attic, full of his uncle’s rotting clothing and frowned.
« Maybe I can just offer to clean up, » he thought then shook his head. « She’ll have it locked though. I gotta get her to give’m to me. »
His arm twinged slightly and he rubbed at the shoulder, remembering the sudden, iron grip which had grasped his wrist, the ease with which Dale had lifted him from the ground, then held him on the tips of his toes, and shivered. The brief events in the alley sprang back to the front of his thoughts and overpowered his shaky attempt at planning. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath, then forced himself to consider what his Aunt might respond to.
He was distracted, still deep in thought, when the last few buildings came in sight. Dale dropped a hand firmly on his shoulder, shattering his concentration and he jumped.
« Stop, » came the soft command behind him. He froze instantly and glanced quickly around. A few seconds later a movement in the shadows a short way up the street caught his attention and he flattened against the wall next to Dale, holding his breath, watching. A figure detached itself from the shadows a moment later and crossed the street, visible now as one of the town guards. The two of them stood motionless, waiting as the guard glanced around, then made his way on down the street.
« All right, let’s go, » Dale said quietly after the guard had vanished into the fog and his footsteps were no longer to be heard. Kheri nodded silently, then looked curiously at Dale as they started walking again. Dale returned his gaze and lifted an eyebrow in question.
« Yes? » he asked.
« How’d you know he was there? » Kheri asked.
« I heard him, » came Dale’s quiet reply.
« You heard him? » he repeated dubiously.
« Yes. » Dale answered without explanation.
A shiver ran up Kheri’s spine and he stopped, turned to face Dale and took a deep breath.
« Who . . . I meant what… » he stammered, unable to turn thoughts into words.
Dale sighed inwardly, then crossed his arms and looked down into Kheri’s eyes.
« Are you sure you want the answer to that question? » he asked. Kheri nodded, his eyes locked on Dale’s face.
« At the moment, » Dale told him, « I’m just a stranger who would prefer not to be noticed. You get on my bad side, I might turn out to be your worst nightmare. »
Kheri swallowed nervously, unable to look away.
« You do as I ask, and behave, and I may turn out to be a valuable friend, » Dale continued, still holding Kheri’s gaze with his own. « You want more explanation than that, earn it. How far is it to your aunt’s farm from here? »
« Uh. . ., » Kheri stammered and shook his thoughts free from the somewhat frightening flight of fantasy they’d taken.
« About three. . . four miles. . . not far. An hour or so walk, » he replied.
« She get up early? » Dale asked.
« Usually yes, » Kheri agreed, « and this is market day. There’ll be traffic coming into town in a while, too. »
Dale regarded him silently for a moment longer, watching the younger man fidget nervously.
« In that case, » he suggested softly, a flinty edge to his voice, « I suggest you turn around and we get going. »
Kheri broke into a sudden sweat and turned quickly around, leading the way out of town.