Charlie Mills strolled toward home along the chilly, rain-soaked side roads and sidewalks of a late night in Portland, Oregon’s wintertime. He might have been in more of a hurry but he’d just closed up the restaurant and it had been a long week and his only plans for the next two days involved books, video games, and most importantly getting as much sleep as humanly possible before starting it all over again Tuesday afternoon. His working clothes were stuffed into a duffel bag which rested on his back, the strap slung across his chest. Now he wore the traditional uniform of an average Portland working stiff: Jeans, sneakers, t-shirt and a hoodie. Nobody paid him any mind, and the few people he saw didn’t catch his attention in the slightest. Charlie was a nondescript man in a quiet part of a mid-sized American city. He certainly should never have expected to witness an apparition from another dimension.
A pulsing orange glow from the narrow space between two storefronts caught his eye. Charlie stopped and turned to face it, leaning toward it slightly but not stepping any closer. At first there was just a pinpoint, a tiny orange sun lighting up the space. Then it expanded, and as it expanded there grew a pitch black space in the center of the fuzzy orange blob.
“What the hell?”
Charlie took a step back and started to reach for his phone. At that moment a creature jumped out of that dark space and landed in the alleyway. Its skin seemed to be pale orange, which might have been a trick of the available lighting. About the size of a small dog, it wobbled in circles briefly, finding its balance. A few seconds later the orange, oval-shaped portal shrank and disappeared.
The creature looked at Charlie and hissed, sounding like a cross between a lizard and a large cat. Survival instincts kicked in; Charlie turned and ran for his life. He could hear the claws scraping concrete right behind him as he cleared block after block on the way home. Taking a chance, when he reached one of the major side streets he crossed the intersection diagonally to save time, as he knew he couldn’t keep running forever. There was no traffic at all, so nothing impeded either Charlie or the monster chasing him.
There was only one small city park between Charlie and home, and he knew the footpaths quite well. He turned into the park and tried to push for one last bit of speed. In horror, however, he realized that there was a man perched on one of the picnic tables, and the creature might choose to attack that man instead. Charlie turned and took one of the other paved paths, knowing it would mean a longer sprint but he might save a life.
A few dozen yards later he saw a man sitting on a park bench.
The realization that it was the same man caused Charlie to stumble and tumble onto the ground, so he didn’t get a very good view of the bright red beam of energy which sliced the pursuing creature into pieces, though it had seemed to come from out of the strange man’s outstretched hand.
“Well, isn’t that an ugly little cuss.” The stranger stood up and walked over to the smoking corpse he’d made of the creature. “Bound and determined to make a meal out of you, too, wasn’t he?” He turned and offered a hand up to Charlie. “Hi. Andrew Wolfe. How are you feeling? Anything broken or cut? Not that I’m a very good healer but I’ll do until someone qualified shows up.”
Charlie accepted the help, slowly straightening himself and patting himself down, making sure nothing was severed or missing. “Uh. Thanks. I’m Charlie.” He looked around, saw his duffel, and went to collect it from under the tree it had rolled over to when he’d taken his spill. He paused and took several deep breaths before turning back around and walking slowly back to where his mysterious benefactor waited. He looked Andrew right in the eye, mainly because that was easier to deal with than looking too closely at the monster he’d been running from. “So, you… uh, how… I’m sorry. I’m very confused and very tired and kind of scared.”
“Completely understandable,” Andrew replied. “None of this should have happened. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Um. Who are you, and how did you do that?”
“Andrew Wolfe, and I did that by channeling ridiculous amounts of energy into directed beams which fried that ugly little critter until it stopped moving.”
“You’re not serious.”
“Only when I have to be.” Andrew grinned. “Let me try a different answer: There’s a gadget in my head which lets me manipulate matter and energy in a delightful variety of ways, some of which involve zapping baddies.”
Charlie finally worked up the nerve to look at the dead creature. There were thick dark lines of char where it had been seared into pieces, and under the sodium street lights it still looked a bit orange of skin, with no hair, and tiny, sharply pointed ears and a tail to match. Other tiny pointy features included its rows of teeth in a narrow, doglike mouth, and the claws and spikes on its feet and legs.
“That would have torn me to ribbons.”
“Hmm. Probably, yes. I have questions, however.”
Charlie looked back up at Andrew. “Yeah. Me too.”
Andrew laughed. “Good, good. We’ll work on that. Tell you what, can you find me something to put a bit of this thing,” he gestured at the corpse, “into for safe keeping? I need to have someone analyze it.”
“We’re in a park. What do you think I’m going to find?”
“If I had to guess,” Andrew answered, “I’d say that in a nearby trash can you’ll find a food container of some sort. Shipping box, take-out box, even a good-sized juice carton will do. I’m not taking the whole critter with me, just a chunk of it.”
Charlie swallowed hard. “That’s… disgusting.”
“I know. Necessary, though. I don’t get paid for doing easy jobs. Well, not often.”
“This is a job?”
Andrew grinned at Charlie while striking his best movie-star pose. “No offense, kid, but a sorcerer of my remarkable talents doesn’t hang around in gloomy city parks on rainy winter nights just to pass the time.”
“I…” Charlie began, stopped, frowned, looked closely at Andrew and started again, “I’m pretty sure you’re not much older than I am.”
“Doesn’t bat an eyelash at ‘sorcerer’ but gets his hackles up at ‘kid,’ I suppose that’s kids these days.” Andrew rolled his eyes. “I work out a lot and I eat my vegetables. Don’t assume you can judge my age just by looking. In the dark. In the rain.” He pointed down the pathway. “A container of some kind? Please?”
Charlie shook his head but walked toward the nearest trash can without further comment. After rummaging for a few seconds he returned with an Asian-style take-out box and handed it to Andrew.
“Oh, that’ll do just fine. First we need to clean it out,” Andrew said, opening the box and sniffing at the contents. “Because, wow, that’s almost as rank as this critter’s corpse.” He held the open box out at arm’s length. After a few seconds the whole box began to glow with a faint white light, then with a flash and a fizzling noise a cloud of smoke and sparks erupted from it. Andrew pulled the box close again, blowing into it to clear out a few lingering particles and to visually inspect it for suitability. “Crisp and clean. There we go. Now for the fun part.” He knelt by the critter’s body, box held sideways next to it. Pointing a finger at one of the haunches, he created an thin white energy blade starting at his fingertip and used that to slice a small strip of flesh, which levitated into the take-out box.
“Ugh.” Charlie tried to avoid retching.
Eyes still on his work, Andrew said, “You may not want to watch the next part. I need some sensory organ tissue and to see if I can locate any useful parts of its central nervous system.”
“I’m not going to eat meat for a week.” Charlie went to the bench and sat down, facing away from the scene of forensic surgery. He couldn’t escape the sizzling sounds of plasma cutting through flesh and bone, though the rain picked up while he waited, which helped to wash out the sound and smell just a bit.
“Okay, that’s over with.”
A blinding white flash lit up the entire park. When Charlie turned to look, all he saw was Andrew, a white take-out box, and a small pile of soggy ashes. With the creature gone, Charlie could calm down enough to really look at the man. He was a couple inches taller than Charlie and sported a tousled mass of short brown hair above a pleasant but pale and unremarkable face. Somehow he managed to wear a full-length black trenchcoat without coming off looking like he spent too much of his free time hanging out in comic book shops. No mean feat of styling, in this city.
Andrew returned Charlie’s scrutiny, then said, “So. We should talk. But first, I need to place a call.”
Charlie fumbled in his pocket. “Do you need to borrow my phone?”
Andrew laughed good-naturedly. “If I needed a phone, I’d have brought one, but thank you for offering.”
“Uh. Least I can do. You saved my life, I guess.”
“True, but I don’t think that your long distance plan covers this sort of thing.” With that, Andrew walked over and set the take-out box on the bench next to Charlie, who pointedly avoided looking at it. Then Andrew bowed his head, folded his hands together with index fingers steepled, and quietly intoned a name.
That syllable seemed to shimmer and echo inside Charlie’s skull, then fade into the fabric of the cosmos. Charlie blinked, looked around in confusion, then faced Andrew once again.
“Well, that was interesting,” Andrew said.
“You felt that, just a bit, didn’t you?”
Andrew frowned in thought for a moment, then smiled. “I just made a really, really long distance call. Help should be on the way soon.”
“Help? You can… I mean… I saw you… that light… wait. You need help?”
“Absolutely. Well, you need help, and if I’m not mistaken this whole world needs help, and I’m awfully damned good but I don’t think I can save the world from those critters all by myself.”
Andrew flashed a cheery, toothy grin worthy of a movie star. “You think I’d spoil that surprise? Not hardly, kid.” He picked up the take-out box. “Come on, let’s get going. You live around here, right?”
“Don’t worry, I won’t impose. I’ll be outside, keeping watch. I just need someplace to store this,” Andrew waved the box around, “and a refrigerator should do the job nicely.”
“You want to put that into my fridge? Are you nuts?”
“If I put it into the freezer it might damage the tissues. We can’t have that. Besides, I’m pretty sure that the others will be here by morning so it won’t be there for very long.”
“Others. More like you.” A tone of dread crept into Charlie’s voice at the prospect.
“Well, more or less like me. Similar. We work in the same line of business.”
“And that is?”
“That would be the world-saving business.”
“Now I know you’re lying to me.”
“Nope,” Andrew insisted. “Actually, I don’t lie. I may joke, but not lie. One of my moral quirks.”
Charlie’s eyebrows went up. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have a hard time trusting someone who tells me they never lie.”
“That’s a healthy level of skepticism, actually. I’m not offended, don’t worry.”
“Can I ask you another question?”
“Sure. On the way to your house,” Andrew held up the take-out box again. “We need to secure this soon.”
“Uh. Okay.” Charlie set off, leading the way to his apartment building. “Anyway. I’m not trying to be offensive, but… Andrew Wolfe? What’s with the spy movie name?”
Andrew laughed. “Okay, you caught me out. I was not, in fact, born with this name. But that’s one of the perks of the job, reinventing yourself.”
“Your parents stuck you with something unpronounceable, huh?”
“Kind of. ADRW-40516-E.”
Charlie stopped and stared at Andrew. “What are you, a robot?”
Andrew kept walking, forcing Charlie to catch up. “To answer that properly I’d have to delve into the etymology of the word, and we’d be here all night. Suffice to say that I’m effectively human, I’m made out of DNA and all the same other stuff that you are. I just… had a lot of parents, for lack of a better way to put it.”
“Test tube baby.”
“Grossly oversimplified summation, but not entirely inaccurate.”
“And you’re going to save the world.”
“With a little help from my friends, yes.”
Charlie shook his head, fatigue and events wearing down the last of his ability to process information. “Still not sure I can trust a guy who says he never lies but changed his name to something out of an adventure novel.”
“Choosing what you want to be called isn’t lying, Charlie,” Andrew insisted, his tone slightly petulant.
A few minutes later they reached Charlie’s apartment building, a modest older structure of brick and wood, where he gingerly accepted the take-out box from Andrew.
“Good night, Charlie.”
“I hope I can sleep.”
“You had a good, brisk run on a chilly winter evening. You’ll sleep fine.”
“Tomorrow we start figuring out how to save the world.”