Dale was sitting under the front-yard tree again, watching the world turn grey in the falling twilight when Paw stepped out of the kitchen door. He rose and walked around the house.
“Ah, there you are,” Paw said as Dale strode up to him. “Wondered where you’d got off to.” He walked over to the wagon, reached behind the seat, and produced a bundle. “Here’s the clothes.”
Dale took the bundle from him with a smile. “Thanks, I do appreciate it.”
Paw smiled back before tossing a quick glance at the house. “No trouble. A word of advice though.”
Dale lifted his eyebrows in a silent question.
Paw dropped his voice, leaning in close to Dale. “Don’t stick around Kheri too much. He’s trouble. Always has been, always will be. He’s living in town now, and if that boy’s making an honest livin’ then I’m a horse.”
“Ok, I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks.”
“Might consider finding somewhere else to sleep tonight too… being as all the folk are gone now. Hate to find out you died in your sleep… or something.”
Dale blinked and stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“Like I said. Trouble.” Paw swung up onto the wagon, and then looked into Dale’s eyes. “He’s just never been caught at it.” He released his gaze, snapped the reins and the horses started to move.
Dale nodded and stepped out of the way, watching him turn the wagon and drive off. Now that is a very observant man. He started to examine the bundle he was holding then crooked one corner of his mouth into a lopsided grin. “Kheri,” he addressed the darkness behind him without turning around. “If you’re going to eavesdrop, you’ll need to be a lot quieter on the approach.”
Kheri shrugged and stepped around the corner of the house.
Dale turned to face him as he stepped into sight. “What’d you hear?”
Kheri shoved his hands into his pant’s pockets. “Nothing much. That I’m trouble. Same thing they always say behind my back.” He kicked at the ground with the toe of his boot then met Dale’s eyes. “They’re gone and my aunt’s out of the way… can you answer my question now?”
A slow smile spread over Dale’s face. “Are you sure you want the answer to that question?”
Kheri pulled his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms in imitation of Dale. “You asked me that this morning. Yeah, I want the answer to that question.”
Dale nodded. “Let it get fully dark. Where can I change?”
Kheri gestured across the yard. “The barn, I guess. Just watch out for the cow.”
Dale grinned, thinking back to the rooster, then turned and headed for the barn.
Kheri watched him walk away across the yard, fighting with emotions of confusion and fear, and a budding feeling he refused to put the name of friendship on. Demons don’t eat and sleep. Do they?
Dale opened the barn door and stepped inside. The smell was overpowering and he slapped a hand over his mouth, trying not to gag. Something squished underfoot. Figures, he thought as he scrapped the mess off the sole of his boot onto a nearby board. Wonder how long it’s been since anyone cleaned this place. I am not getting dressed in here. He walked back outside and went behind the barn.
A thick forest of tall thistles wound about with thorny vines had sprung up behind the barn. A gourd plant covered with spines rambled over the only bit of open space. Grimacing, Dale stepped carefully between its leaves.
He pulled off his belt and boots, slipped Paw’s hand-me-downs over top of his jump suit, and threaded his belt through the loops on the pants. Sensors in his suit detected the extra clothing and activated the molecular computer woven into its fabric, turning the suit invisible.
Dale touched a control on his belt and its surface shifted from gleaming black to the color and texture of dark brown, beat-up leather. He pulled his boots back on and stomped his feet down into them firmly. Activate camouflage. Target boots. Match to belt.
His suit reacted to his silent command and his boots took on a well-used appearance.
He sighed with relief and stretched, then shoved his hands in the pants pockets. Crumpled paper met his touch. He lifted one eyebrow slightly and pulled it out, peering at it in the early darkness. I wonder if this is their currency… or something else. I’ll worry about it later. He stuck it back in a pocket and walked around to the front of the barn.
Something detached itself from the darkness as he started across the yard, slamming into his back. He hit the ground, rolled with the impact, and rose to his feet. Spinning around, his hand slapped invisible controls on his belt, activating his force field and infrared vision.
Three large humanoid figures sprang into view, their heat signatures blazing like the noonday sun.
His suit reacted in time with his thought, activating the daylight effects sensors, and light washed across the yard.
Dale found himself facing three, eight foot tall, hideous creatures. Massive muscles rippled under leathery skin encased in battle armor. Foul tempered and armed with blasters, they snarled at him and advanced.
Gorgs, Dale thought as he dropped into ready stance. Why is it I always seem to wind up in a fight when I’m exhausted?
The largest Gorg stepped forward, snarling viciously. “You come with us,” he demanded in Galactic Standard, pointing his blaster at Dale’s midsection.
Dale stood his ground and said nothing.
The Gorg roared in frustration, leveled its blaster at Dale’s head, and pulled the trigger. The shot went wide as its target’s feet connected with its abdomen and it lost its balance, the blaster flying from its grasp.
Dale hit the ground, scooped up the blaster, and ducked a shot from the second Gorg. Whirling around, he brought the blaster butt down hard on the first Gorg’s head as it rose from the ground.
Stars shot off through the Gorg’s vision and it staggered.
Dale swung around, brought the blaster to sight on the third Gorg, and thumbed the trigger.
A flash of incandescence lit the night as the monster vaporized.
The other two took a step back and vanished.