Chapter 13: The Encounter
That is the first thing you say when you discover the corpse.
You are on horseback.
You are sitting in the saddle with your feet in the stirrups and hands on the reins as you cross the plains.
Uranos is your family’s beloved old farm horse. He has brown fur and a white mane, and is short and stocky, just like other Raputoan horses. He is gentle, patient, and stubborn. He can even withstand the cold local winters.
Uranos has been part of the family since before you were born.
But technology marched on, and the introduction of tractors made his work on the fields obsolete. Obsolete farm horses were usually sold off, but the family decided to put up with the extra costs and keep him.
Even now, he works hard for the family and is ridden regularly.
Uranos is trotting as lazily as ever.
Your dog is frolicking around as he follows.
The dog’s name is Todd. He is a three-year-old male.
Like Uranos, he is a common local breed. Though he has no pedigree, Todd’s breed is often called the Raputoan.
He is a very large dog resembling a wolf, with long, black fur and a sharp countenance.
Though Todd is a handsome watchdog, he has the unusual habit of acting like a puppy around people he trusts.
You are on your way back from fishing when you make the discovery.
You live in the countryside, in an obscure corner of the Republic of Raputoa. You have spent the 14 years of your life on this land of endless horizons, and the only entertainment available to you is secondary school and the great outdoors.
One of your hobbies in the great outdoors is fishing.
Raputoa is home to countless rivers, swamps, ponds, and lakes that dot the landscape. You would often go out to cast your line in one such body of water.
There are always insects by the water, which means bait is in plentiful supply.
Your usual haul includes catfish and eel. They taste great when you clean them properly and roast them to a golden crisp over a fire.
It is the 30th of the fourth month. The second day of the weekend. You do not have class tomorrow, as it is a holiday in the Republic of Raputoa.
In other words, today is the precious second day of a three-day weekend.
You went out alone early in the morning to fish. You rode your trusty steed Uranos under the protection of your mostly-reliable watchdog Todd.
The destination today was a large pond about 10 kilometers from home.
You caught many fish in only a few hours. But because the weather report forecasted rain for the evening, you decided to return home before noon.
The spring sun is shining warmly. Plump sacks of catfish are hanging on either side of the saddle as you and the ever-excitable Todd lazily ride across the plains.
It is a wonderful midpoint to a wonderful holiday.
That is when you discover the corpse.
Todd’s frolicking suddenly stops as he rushes without warning into a bush to the right. He barks once. It is a sign that he has found something. You nudge Uranos in that direction.
Ten seconds later, you discover a horrifying scene. A human lying completely still, face-down in the sloped mud.
Though he is covered in dirt, you can tell he is wearing a flying suit. He is not carrying anything.
The words are out of your mouth before you can think.
Finding a corpse here spells trouble for you.
That is because you are currently in the buffer zone.
The 30-kilometer strip on either bank of the Lutoni River is off-limits to civilians and military personnel.
The pond you visited today is in the buffer zone. It is about four kilometers from the boundary, which is not very far—but still legally off-limits. You entered the area knowing that full well.
Locals enter the buffer zone without blinking all the time for fishing and hunting. And now that the war is over, no one strictly enforces entry to the buffer zone. It is too vast an area to cover.
You told you parents where you were going today. They did not even scold you; in fact, they told you to bring home a big haul to help with the family finances.
But the corpse changes everything.
You must tell your parents about it, and they must report the body to the police.
Then you will have to tell them where you found the body.
Even the district police, who are never fussy about entry to the buffer zone, will have no choice but to charge you.
“Maybe I should ignore it…” You think to yourself.
You do not know why this man has died here in the middle of nowhere, and you have no way of finding out. So perhaps you should simply forget it and go home.
“No. I can’t do that.”
Then what happens to the corpse?
You know the answer. The dead rot. They are then eaten by the many animals and insects on the plains, and disappear.
You will be going fishing at the usual pond again in the future, and you will be reminded of the body each time. You cannot let a corpse simply remain there. And if Uranos ever steps on its head and crushes the skull, you will probably be traumatized for life.
You resolve to face the consequences. You will report to the police and ask them to give the body a proper burial.
That will be the best thing to do for yourself, for this unknown man, and his family.
But at that moment, Todd grabs the body by the arm and tugs.
“Todd! Bad dog!”
A chill runs down your spine at the thought of your dog eating the corpse. But a second later, your heart almost stops.
The corpse lifts its head.
Out of nowhere, it pushes itself up with its hands against the ground, looking up at you as you stare from atop Uranos.
You almost fall out of the saddle.
Todd yelps in horror and bolts faster than you have ever seen him move.
The man has the face of a ghoul. His cheeks are sunken and his face is smeared with dirt. His eyes are bloodshot. But he is still alive.
And he opens his mouth—
“Where…am I…?” he asks in Bezelese, before falling back onto his face in the mud.
You sit frozen atop your horse.
But 30 seconds later, you come to your senses. Even Todd slinks back from about 20 meters away.
You chide yourself for assuming that the man was already dead. You jump off Uranos and take out an aluminum water canteen from the saddlebag.
You go to the man. He does not seem likely to lash out at you.
A corpse spells trouble for you, but a live man does not. You must help those in need, like this man who lies before you.
One thing you know for certain is that the man is a Westerner. You are very glad that you took Bezelese courses in secondary school.
It is also likely that the man is a pilot.
A Western aeroplane may have crashed somewhere in the buffer zone or the Lutoni, and he may have come all this way to find help. It makes sense.
You do not know how many people may be on the crashed plane. More than a dozen or so, if it is a passenger plane.
That there is only one man here suggests that he was the only one still capable of moving. He may have come to try and find help on his own.
Then saving him means saving everyone else who has been left behind. You shudder at the weight of the responsibility thrust upon your shoulders.
You squat next to the man.
“E-excuse me!” you say in awkward Bezelese, turning the man over on his back. You know it is best to not move an injured person, but if he is strong enough to push himself up, this much should be all right.
It is difficult to move the man, who is larger than you, but you finally succeed in turning him over. You lean him against a mound of dirt and lay him down with his feet outstretched. It is probably not an uncomfortable position.
You have taken basic first aid lessons. You recall the things you learned and check the man’s vitals.
First, you gently place your index finger against his neck.
“He’s still alive…”
You can feel his pulse.
Then, you lick your finger and hold it before the man’s mouth. You can feel his breathing, though it is very faint.
You must call for help immediately, but before that, you open your canteen and slowly let it dribble over the man’s face.
The water washes away the dirt and mud. The man’s face begins to move, eyebrows twitching and mouth opening.
You have been waiting for that word.
Giving water to an unconscious person could kill them if the water goes into their windpipe. But the man should be able to drink now.
“Here!” you say loudly, placing the canteen opening before his lips. You slowly tilt it down.
There is plenty of water left. It flows quietly into the man’s mouth.
Though his eyes are still shut. The man is clearly drinking. You can see his throat move.
Because it is dangerous to drink too much at once, however, you stop the man after a short while. “You! Are all right! I will, call help. You, wait here! I leave water!” you say loudly, enunciating clearly. You close the canteen and place it on the man’s stomach, then place his right hand on the canteen. “The police, will protect you! The information will go to Sou Be-Il soon! And will rescue the others!”
You are trying to put the man at ease, but his response is unexpected.
The man grabs your right wrist, and looks slowly at your eyes.
“Not the police… No one left…” he says in a ghastly voice.
You fall into thought. But you do not understand. The war is over. No one would arrest the man or harm him for being a Westerner. Or perhaps he is actually a criminal.
You want to help this man. And whatever the reason, you cannot agree with him—you must speak to the police.
You resolve to deny the man his request, making to shake off his grip.
But a memory comes floating back to you.
Something seems familiar about this man, who stares weakly at you.
You have met him somewhere, you think.
Where? Not at school.
Then in Sou Be-Il, where you once visited? No.
“Wait a second…”
The image grows clearer.
You have spoken to this man before—in Roxchean.
You spoke about the Republic of Raputoa.
Then you did not meet him in Raputoa.
That leaves the Capital District.
The capital of Roxche, where you stayed for a month in the eleventh month of last year.
You remember how the man commented on your Raputoan uniform. In perfect Roxchean.
The memories come flooding back in a torrent now.
In your mind, a pair of glasses come over the man’s eyes, and his clothes are replaced by a navy-colored suit. The high ceilings of the Confederation Library pop up behind him.
This is the man you met at the Confederation Library!
The man who said he once lived in Raputoa!
And now he sits before you in your homeland, inside the buffer zone.
Your cry of confusion echoes across the plains.
* * *
A thick cloud cover obscures the moon. It has not started raining yet.
Your home is situated in the middle of the great plains.
Uranos lazily drinks water in the barn, and Todd is curled up in front of the door. Next to him is a small, rusted car.
Inside the brick house, a man in his sixties steps into the living room. Your parents follow.
The old man is a local doctor. He is slightly plump in build, and is your family physician.
The doctor pulls off his coat, rolls it up, and places it atop his medical bag.
“How is he, doctor?” you ask, having waited in the living room brewing tea.
You pour a cup of tea for the doctor in the guest teacup. You pour some for yourself and your parents as well. Everyone takes a seat.
The doctor takes a sip and sighs.
That answers your most pressing question. You must have been wearing quite the worried look on your face.
“Thank goodness,” you sigh.
“But,” the doctor emphasizes, looking around at your family. He goes on to explain the situation.
The mystery man took a hard blow to the head, which may have fractured his skull. The man probably patched up the cut on his right thigh, which should of course be redone. The broken ankle needs to be taken care of at a large hospital. He is malnourished, feverish, and shows signs of mild dehydration.
“I’ve given him medication. He’s asleep now. But you’ll do well to get this man moved to a larger hospital as soon as you can tomorrow. If his ankle doesn’t get fixed up, he’ll never walk properly again.”
Drops of rain begin drumming against the roof.
Soon, the drumming gives way to a hum, then a roar.
“It’s a little late, but I suppose the weather report was right after all,” the doctor says, and turns to you. “It’s a good thing you found him today. If he were lying out there now, he would have died of exhaustion or hypothermia.”
Your father speaks up then. “So…who is this man?”
It is a natural question to ask.
You have not told them the most important details.
That the man spoke to you in Bezelese today, but in Roxchean back in the Capital District. That the man claimed to have once lived in Raputoa.
After discovering the man, you rushed back home. You woke your father from his nap and explained the situation.
Your father hitched a wagon to the back of the tractor and brought back the unconscious man. Your brother is away studying at an agricultural school, so you laid the man down in his bed and called in the doctor.
You have not called the police yet, saying to your father, “I found him in the buffer zone! I’ll get in trouble if they find out I was in there! And he said there wasn’t anyone else, so we have to hurry up and call a doctor first! It’ll be really bad if we let a guest die on our watch!”
The doctor continues to speak. “I suppose he’s most likely a pilot from cross-river. But it’s strange he doesn’t have a badge of rank or a name tag. That’s standard equipment for soldiers,” he points out. You recall that he was once a military doctor for Roxche.
The doctor continues. “You said you didn’t call the police?”
You twitch. That is the question you were hoping to avoid.
“You must have found him in the buffer zone, yes?”
Spoken like a true local. He has read you like a book.
“You realize we can’t just keep this under wraps.”
He is so correct that you cannot respond.
Your family cannot keep this stranger hidden under your roof forever.
Food is not a concern, as you are farmers. But because this man does not have national medical insurance, his medical bills will cost a fortune. Especially if he is taken to a large hospital for surgery. You cannot imagine how expensive it will be.
You cannot see this man as being a bad person.
But you do not have definite proof that he is not a bad person.
When you spoke to him briefly in the Capital District, he spoke fondly of Raputoa.
But there is no proof that he was not lying.
Perhaps he is a criminal who stole an aeroplane from Sou Be-Il and crossed the border. You have no idea what he might do once he recovers his health. Once you begin to think in that direction, the possibilities seem endless.
Though they do not say so, your parents and the doctor are likely wary of the man because he is from the West. It is like this with everyone who is old enough to remember the war.
“I suppose we’ll have to contact the police tomorrow, ask them for protection,” says your father, “we can tell them that we found him very close to the border, so close it doesn’t cause us trouble. There’s no evidence, after all. I’m sure the government will handle the rest.”
Your mother says nothing because she agrees.
You cannot agree. But you cannot argue, either.
Your father seems to understand your position. He gives you a gentle nod.
“You’ve done well today. There’s nothing as noble as saving someone in danger. And I’m so very proud of you. But there’s no sense in taking on more than you can shoulder, or worrying about things you can’t control. Some seeds just never bear fruit, remember that.”
He is right.
“He’s a very lucky man, to be rescued like that. And if not for Todd, you might have passed him by, too.”
Your father is right. You were on horseback, but without Todd, you never would have spotted the man.
“I’ll call the police tomorrow. I’ll tell them that I was the one who found him, and I’ll take the questioning. All right?”
Nodding is all you can do.
The only thing a 14-year-old secondary school student like you can do is pray that an even greater stroke of luck will come to help the man.
You are standing under the eaves. It is raining bullets.
“Thank you!” you say to the doctor as he steps into his car.
Even though it is a holiday, the doctor did not charge for the treatment. You are overwhelmed by gratitude.
You watch the taillights disappear into the distance.
Your parents turn to go back inside.
Todd is still sitting at your feet. You are about to order him to go to the doghouse when you notice something.
A headlight is bobbing towards you, coming from the direction the taillights disappeared in.
“Is that the doctor? Did he forget something?” you wonder out loud. Your father turns.
For some reason, there is only one headlight. It slowly wobbles towards the house.
“Hm. Is one of the headlights broken?” your father wonders, stopping mid-turn. Considering the scarcity of motor vehicles in the area, the headlight most likely belongs to the doctor.
But you soon see that the headlight bobbing through the rain does not belong to a car.
The pounding rain concealed most of the noise, but you can now clearly hear the roar of a motorcycle.
The large motorcycle draws closer, growing louder and louder. It turns and reaches your property.
It is too dark to make out clearly, but the driver seems to be a man.
“Who is that?”
“I don’t know.”
Just as you and your father exchange questions, the motorcycle comes to a stop about 10 meters from the door. And it falls over.
It must have slipped in the mud. The man falls with the motorcycle, unable to hold it steady. The exhaust pipe hits the mud and steam begins to rise. The engine stops. Mud smears the right side of the man’s coat.
The man rises, leaving the motorcycle in the dirt. “Hello there!” he calls in Roxchean as you and your father watch in shock.
The man walks closer, and soon the light under the eaves illuminates his face.
The man’s muddied coat is black and slick, likely waterproof and made of rubber.
On his head was a bowl-shaped helmet. With a gloved hand, the man pulls down the goggles from his eyes.
The man has a sturdy, athletic figure.
His face is neither too intimidating nor flippant—in a word, nondescript. His messy beard makes it hard to tell his age. He could easily be anywhere from thirty to his forties.
The man stops. He has no intention of getting too close for comfort.
Todd begins growling quietly at your feet. You tug gently on his collar. Now he will do nothing unless you give him a command.
With rain pouring on his helmet and dripping down his face, the man speaks.
“Pardon me! I’m a traveler!”
You become aware of a large backpack strapped to the back of the fallen motorcycle.
“Sorry for barging in like this, but would you let me stay the night? Storehouse, barn, I’m not picky. I just don’t have a sleeping bag with me.”
You understand what he is trying to say. The downpour has put this man in a bind.
The area is considered safe, mostly because it is so sparsely populated. And locals are generally kind to those in need. In the winter, it is not uncommon to allow people whose cars have broken down outside to stay over.
But this self-proclaimed traveler is a complete enigma, and your family is currently looking after another person. Your father responds.
“I’m afraid we can’t let you in the house, but would you be okay with the shed over there? You can bring in your motorcycle, too. It’s got running water, and you can do your business outside somewhere in the area.”
He must have thought things through before giving this reply.
“That’s more than good enough for me, sir! Gods bless Raputoa!” the man cries, and pulls his motorcycle upright. He must be used to this, as he hefts it with ease.
“I owe you! Lemme thank you properly tomorrow morning!” says the man, pushing his motorcycle in the pouring rain.
Your father gently pushes you back into the house. When he tells you to bring Todd as well, you pull him in by the collar. Todd looks happy, as he usually spends even midwinter outside.
Your mother is waiting with a curious look inside. When your father explains the situation, she tells him to check all the locks again, just in case.
“We’re getting so many guests at once,” she mumbles.