The inside of the home was plain and mostly bare, but clean and well-cared for. A fire burned merrily in a stone hearth, and a large pot was bubbling over it, despite the more modern cooking unit only a few feet away. There were six windows, all open, but the woman pushed past the man and into the house, quickly closing them.
The man carefully closed the door behind him, the now-quiet dog remaining obediently in the yard.
“How long have you been walking?” the woman asked the man, even as she moved toward the pot on the fire.
“I… I’m not sure.” The man replied slowly, his voice cracking, as if he were unused to speaking. “All night, I guess.”
“Then, you must be hungry.” the woman replied practically. “Sit.” She pointed to a chair at a battered looking table.
The man blinked in confusion, but seeing no better course of action he did as he had been told. A moment later, the woman plunked down a plate of something in front of him, along with a spoon. It appeared to be some kind of gruel.
“I know it’s not much,” the woman apologized, “but it’s all we’ve got. They’ve taken everything else. If I could, I’d give you an egg, but we’re below quota this week as it is.”
The man shrugged, picking up the spoon and digging into the food in front of him, then touching it tentatively to his lips. Realizing that it was indeed food, he put the entire bowl of the spoon into his mouth, letting the gruel run over his tongue. He took a long, careful swallow.
“It’s delicious.” he told the woman. “Thank you.”
The woman appeared pleased with his comment, and brought him a glass of water to accompany his meal. It hadn’t been until he had started eating that the man had realized how hungry he was.
As he ate, the man watched the woman move about the room. Her actions were quick, and efficient, as if she had little time to waste, yet at the same time there was an air of anxiety around her, accompanied by a nearly tangible sense of anticipation.
“What’s up, Ramjet? I heard you barking.” The voice belonged to another man, and came from outside the home. The woman rushed over and opened the door, admitting a man dressed in overalls around whom the dog was gamboling. The new arrival looked the man over, while the woman rushed to explain.
“He just walked up, about fifteen minutes ago.” she said. “He says he’s been walking all night.” She closed the door, the dog remaining outside as before.
“I don’t doubt that.” said the other man, sitting at the table across from his ‘guest’.
“This is my farm.” he addressed the man. “We want to help you, but you need to do as we ask, without any questions, okay?”
The man nodded at the farmer, spooning the last of the gruel into his mouth.
“Thank you.” he said simply.
“It’s basic decency.” the farmer grunted. “My wife and I are of the same mind in that. It’s not like we haven’t done this before.”
The man was about to ask a question when he heard a low hum suddenly start up.
“They’re coming.” the woman said sharply, picking up the plate and spoon and catching the man’s eye.
“You’ll have to follow my husband.” she told him.
The man nodded, acknowledging that he had little choice in the matter. He raised an eyebrow in surprise as the farmer opened up a control panel in a seemingly innocuous wooden wall board, and pressed a button.
A large section of the floor opened up, pulling back to disclose a small, steep staircase going down.
“Get down there, and don’t make a sound.” the farmer ordered. “There are no lights, but we can’t risk any. I’ll get you out once they’ve gone.”
The man moved without a word, quickly and gracefully climbing down the steps. Before he had even reached the ground below, the section of flooring above him had closed.
Although the farmer had said that there weren’t any lights, this wasn’t completely true. A small red light illuminated the darkness, and the man could see that he was in a chamber about seven feet square. A pair of beds occupied most of the space, and the man sat down on one. He noticed a small speaker in the wall next to the pillow, so he lay down close to it, gratified to hear a series of barely audible sounds that were clearly coming from the room overhead. The faint sound of a barking dog came through.
“They’re here.” the woman’s voice said.
“Not as many as usual.” the farmer noted.
The sound of a loud banging was heard, and then that of a door opening.
“Good day, Sirs.” said the woman. “It is early, yet. I thought the delivery wouldn’t be made for another six hours.”
“We are not here for the delivery.” grunted an unfamiliar, male voice. “We’re just checking the area.”
“Checking for what?” the farmer asked.
“There was an… accident, last night.” the harsh voice explained. “A building collapsed. We are currently assessing the casualties, but in the meantime, we are checking to see if there were any survivors who might have… wandered off…”
“We haven’t seen anyone.” the farmer lied. “You know we would have notified you immediately if we had.”
“Yes, I can see that you have adapted well to the new regime.” the voice acknowledged begrudgingly. “Very well. If you see signs of anyone, you must contact us without delay.”
“We will.” the farmer replied calmly.
“All the same, I’ll just have my men look around.” the voice continued.
“Of course.” the farmer responded pleasantly. “Whatever you need.”
The sound of heavy footfalls passed overhead, clearly crisscrossing the room above. After a few moments, the harsh voice spoke again.
The footfalls moved away, and the sound of the door closing emerged from the tiny speaker next to the man’s ear.
“Just wait until they’ve gone.” the farmer instructed.
A minute or two later, the small light on the wall turned green, and the section in the hidden chamber’s ceiling opened up. The man could see the woman’s head above him.
“It’s clear, now.” she said. “They didn’t detect you. Come on up.”
“How?” the man asked, the word encompassing a myriad of questions.
“Drithinium shielding.” the woman smiled, patting the walls. “Their sensors can’t penetrate it, and they think there’s nothing below ground, here.”
“You’re lucky.” the farmer said as the man emerged from the floor. “If you’d been the next one…”
“The next one?” The man was confused.
“You’re not the first, and God willing, you won’t be the last to seek our help.” the woman explained. “But we have to be careful, and make the Snakeheads think we’ve accepted their rules. Every so often, we have to give someone up, so they keep trusting us.” Her voice trembled, as she said this last.
“The next one who comes; we have to send him back.” the farmer said grimly.
“I… I guess, it’s my lucky day, then.” the man said wryly.
“It’s a surprise for us too.” the woman said. “We’ve never had anyone close to your classification, before. The highest until now has been a three stripe…”
“Hush, woman!” the farmer interrupted her. “He doesn’t need to be reminded of the reality of his situation. Although,” he turned to the man, addressing him, now, “I’m guessing it was only that ‘accident’ last night that enabled you to get away. There’s probably a lot of high level security for men like you.”
“Like me…” the man wasn’t sure what to make of that.
“Your stars.” the woman explained. “We know what that means.” She pointed at the man’s chest.
Curiously, the man looked down at his body. He hadn’t paid any attention before to his attire, but now he saw that he was dressed in some kind of baggy, red, one piece garment. At least, it had at one time been red. Now it was dirty and torn, covered with dark and dusty dirt stains.
The area on his chest to which the woman was pointing had a series of numbers on it, and above that, five once-white stars clearly stood out.
“I knew about the stars, but I’ve never seen so many.” the farmer admitted, a frank curiosity crossing his face. “You must have been high up in the Federation.”
“I… I don’t recall.”
“Of course you don’t.” the farmer replied, wiping the curiosity from his face. “That’s as it should be.”
“Let me help you get cleaned up.” the woman offered, attempting to smooth over the awkward moment. “You can use the bathroom over here, and change into these.” She pulled a small pile of clean, folded garments from a cupboard.
“Thank you.” the man said again, accepting the clothes with a gracious nod. “I appreciate your help, Mr. and Mrs….”
“It doesn’t matter.” the farmer said quickly. “As you say, it’s better that you don’t recall. The less we know about each other, the better.”
The man nodded, grasping the reality of the situation in which he found himself. Part of him regretted this necessity, but the majority of him was relieved.
The truth was, he didn’t recall.
He stepped into the bathroom the woman indicated, closing the door and staring into the mirror above the sink. It was as if he were looking at a stranger’s face. The high cheekbones, the defined facial features, the brilliant blue eyes that stared back at him; they were all unfamiliar, as if he were looking at a stranger.
He ruefully ran a hand over his head, stubbled with rough auburn growth. Clearly he had been shaved bald not too long ago. It all fit.
The shaved head, the dirty red garment he wore, the men looking for him, the number on his chest…
He was a prisoner.
Or, to be more precise, he had been a prisoner. It appeared that he had been given a chance at freedom. Why these people were helping him, he wasn’t certain, but he appreciated their assistance, all the same.
But why had he been a prisoner? As hard as he tried, the man could not remember being in prison, or how he had come about such a sentence. In fact, he could remember very little, not even his own name.
Just who was he?
He knew of amnesia, of course, but not about the specifics. Had something happened to him to wipe his memories clean? Had this happened to him in the prison?
A sense of frustration took hold of him, and the man in the mirror scowled. He jumped back, surprised at the menace he saw on that face.
He forced himself to calm down, then went about taking off the dirty red clothing he wore, concentrating on the simple task of cleaning himself up. A razor and soap had been placed with the clean garments the woman had handed to him, and he made good use of the simple toiletries.
The day’s worth of stubble on his face was shaved off, although he left the small amount of hair on his head alone. Hopefully, it would grow back soon. The man used a washcloth and the soap to give himself a makeshift bath, grimacing as he noticed the many bruises and scars that seemed to crisscross his body. On the insides of his arms, he noted a tiny network of lines and spots, indicating that he had been subjected to numerous injections at some point in his past.
He wondered what it all meant.
The clothing he had been given was plain and simple: unremarkable in its bland coloring and style. It was a little big, but fit the man well enough.
When he was finished, the man picked up the red garment, bringing it out to the main room with him.
The farmer was gone, but the woman was still there.
“You certainly look much more human, all cleaned up.” she smiled at him, taking the red garment from his hands.
“I feel much more human.” the man replied, watching curiously as the woman threw his former clothing onto the fire, where it quickly burned to ashes.
“Let’s hope that’s the last you see of anything like that.” the woman commented, to which the man simply nodded.
“You must be tired.” the woman continued. “You can rest, but it has to be in the safe room. I’m expecting the Snakeheads to come back for their delivery in a few hours.”
“Snakeheads?” the man asked.
“Oh.” the woman was taken aback for a moment. “I hadn’t thought about that. Five stars and all; you were probably in there since the beginning of the Occupation.”
“Yes.” replied the man, figuring it was the best explanation he could give.
“We call them ‘Snakeheads’.” the woman explained. “They don’t like it of course, so we don’t use the term in front of them. It’s because of those green masks, with the red eyes and the fangs. They look like nasty snakes.”
“When you leave, you’ll find things very different from what you were used to, before.” the woman warned him. “They’ve made a lot of changes. You’ll have to keep your head down until you figure things out.”
“Not that you wouldn’t be doing that anyway.” she added quickly.
“Thanks for the advice.” the man smiled thinly.
The woman nodded, opening up the floor section again to allow him to enter.
“I’ll check on you in about eight hours.” she informed him. “But after you’ve rested, you’ll have to be on your way. It isn’t safe for you to stay here.”
“I understand.” the man nodded.
He climbed down the steps again, the floor section closing back up over him. He found his way back to the bed on which he had sat earlier, laying himself down upon it and quickly falling into a dreamless sleep.