“Are you sure? I thought it would be bigger,” Sally said, her hands on her hips while she watched her brother work.
They were both filthy and sweating, having dug for the better part of the afternoon. Each of them also had a Geiger meter on their jacket, which crackled sporadically amidst the soot-stained ruins. A light snow had begun to fall, dusting the shredded landscape with a veil of silent whiteness. It had taken them three days to get this far into the forbidden zone, and it would be three days going back out. Assuming one of the random Peacekeeper patrols didn’t get them first.
“Here, help me turn it over,” Jacob said.
Sally obliged, groaning from exertion when they pried up the object from its ash-choked grave.
The rectangular case wobbled on-end, and both Jacob and his sister hopped out of the way when the weighty thing crunched onto its back.
“They certainly built it to last,” Sally said. Her breath puffed clouds in the chilled air.
“I’ll go get Professor Mandari,” Jacob said. And then he was off.
Sally sat wearily on a blackened piece of concrete, hugging her arms over her knees. She and Jake were breaking the law. It was part of their trial as initiates into the Order of Eagles. There would be prison for them both if they got caught. Sally had never broken the law in her life, and ever since they’d entered the forbidden zone she’d been experiencing moral vertigo — once you broke the law, seriously, where did you stop?
Sally shivered, and not because of the cold. Is this how Mama had felt, before she’d gone away?
Memories of her long-gone mother made Sally lonely to the point of fright, and to get her mind off her predicament, she summoned up her practiced student’s analytical mindset and looked carefully at the deserted desolation around her. The toppled remnants of a dead capital stretched into the distance for as far as she could see. Sally gathered it had been a long time since the bomb. The Peacekeepers never gave details on why this place had been nuked, save for the sure knowledge that the Side of Right had won against the Side of Wrong.
But Sally wasn’t so sure anymore. Indeed, had not been sure in a very long time.
The police who patrolled the edges of the forbidden zone warned citizens that the zone was lethally radioactive. Do not enter. Only, in three days spent penetrating the zone, Sally’s Geiger counter hadn’t red-lined. Not even once. Fallout in the zone was clearly not as bad as was officially reported. The police were not telling the truth.
What else might they be lying about?
Sally pondered this as the minutes passed and the snow began to fall more heavily, mirroring her clouded mood.
Eventually she heard the plodding footsteps of her brother and the Professor as they made their way back to where Sally kept watch.
When old man Mandari, the Grand Eagle himself, finally appeared and saw the box, he paused, breath held half-exhaled in his chest. Without speaking, he settled slowly onto his knees and began using a handkerchief to wipe away the dust and debris from the metal rectangle’s face. Soon, it became obvious that the front of the box was transparent, like a window. Only, there was no way ordinary glass could have withstood the shockwave that had hit this place, so the window had to be something else.
Satisfied, Professor Mandari leaned over the box and popped on his flashlight, studying the box’s contents. It took just three seconds, and then the old man leapt to his feet and gave a whoop, punching the air with a fist.
“Jacob, Sally,” Mandari said, “you have done far better than I could have hoped! Here now, we need to get this back to the camp site.”
“How?” Jacob asked. “The box weighs more than I do.”
“We’ll go back and get the rover.”
“That might stir up dust,” Sally said. “We’d be seen.”
The Professor considered.
“You’re right. We’ll just have to try and open the box here.”
“With what?” Sally said. She saw no obvious latches nor handles on the metal rectangle, and if a nuclear detonation could only crack the transparent window, there was little chance they could break it out with a rock or piece of concrete.
Mandari smiled behind his bushy beard, his wide, brown-skinned nose wrinkling and his dark eyes glinting. His gloved right hand dove into the interior of his thick coat, and quickly produced a series of small gleaming items on a metal hoop.
“Keys?” Sally said.
“I took them from the university archive,” Mandari said. “Nobody knew what they were for. They’re not like the keys we use now. These are special. It took me twenty years of reading before I understood. Now, we shall see if my research has been worth it.”
Jacob and Sally stood back as Mandari knelt again and ran his hands along the sides of the mental case, seeking a socket.
He found it, and after blowing out dust and grime with a gust of breath through puckered lips, the Professor applied the first key to lock, and pressed.
Mandari tried the next. And the next. And the next.
Sally felt her heart sink, until finally a loud series of click-clacks rang, and Mandari gently lifted the marred window away from the metal box.
“Jacob, Sally, come here and see this.”
The two grad students obeyed their teacher, and used their own flashlights to fully illuminate the interior of the box.
A piece of paper lay within. It was laminated with a stiff, transparent substance, like a plastic tablet.
The paper looked ancient, as did the handwriting that covered it.
“I recognize the alphabet,” Jacob said, “but I don’t know the language.”
“I do.” Sally said. “It’s the old American English, from before the bomb. Though the usage seems… archaic.”
“Yes, Sally,” Mandari said, “and what does the old text say?”
Sally leaned close, her breath misting and her hand sweeping flakes off the laminated paper. She spoke slowly and with many pauses, her brow pinched as she deciphered the antique document.
“‘When in the Course of human events… it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth… the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.'”
Professor Mandari beamed.
“Very good, Sally.”
“What does it mean?” Jacob asked
Sally felt a cold surety — colder than the night that settled upon them — caress her soul.
“That the United Nations lies to us,” Sally said, which elicited a grim nod from her teacher. “They told us the old country was a horrible fascist state, ruled by tyrants. But that’s not how it really was, was it Professor?”
“No,” Mandari said, “those of us who have long suspected the truth, have had to hide our suspicions behind false loyalty. The Secretary-General does not tolerate dissent, and this document, if it were to be verified as authentic and made known to the public, would directly challenge the Global Governors’ version of history.”
Jacob seemed like he might be physically ill.
Sally felt empathy for her brother. But also anger. She was older than Jacob and could remember the secret stories Mama had whispered to Sally at night, when Sally had been three or four years old — stories about the golden land of promise, which their ancient ancestors had come from across the sea to settle. A land that had existed before the United Nations, when a man or a woman could be free to think and do as he or she pleased, without it having to always serve the Greater Good as dictated by the bureaucrats in New York..
Mama was dead now. The police who had taken Mama for reeducation had told Uncle Bernard that she died of pneumonia while in custody. But as Sally stared at the Declaration of Independence, she felt in her heart that she could finally admit the truth. Mama had been killed for what she knew, and tried to pass onto her children. Uncle Bernard hadn’t been as bold, which is why he’d never been taken, but he’d at least encouraged his nephew and, especially, niece, to seek alternative knowledge.
Sally felt hot tears form on her eyelids and slide down her cold-bitten cheeks.
“Why did they have to do it?” Sally demanded in a stricken voice.
Professor Mandari came close and braced Sally’s shoulder’s with his paw-like hands.
“Freedom is dangerous, my dear. I am sure, in the beginning, the United Nations thought they were just doing what was best. If what the Order of Eagles has learned is true, the old country was beset with crises. Things were getting out of control. It was thought that somebody had to do something drastic.”
“But burying the truth! And murder!” Sally said, fists balled at her hips.
“I am sorry, child.”
Sally stood glaring at her Professor, her face wet and flushed and her lips trembling with loss and rage and self-pity.
Jacob had sat down near the metal box, his head cradled in his hands while his shoulders shook softly.
Seeing this, Sally went and shared her brother’s pain, until only the light from their flashlights shown in the gathering snow.
“We need to go,” Mandari finally said. “There will be time for sadness later. We have to get our prize out of the zone. Take it to the Order. Hide it away.”
“What for?” Sally said bitterly.
“We can’t change the present,” the Professor said, stooped on one knee so that he could look into Sally’s flushed face. “But I suspect there will come a time, when this seed can take root. Until then, we need to preserve it, and be patient.”
Sally nodded, wiped her face, and groggily got to her feet. Numbly, she collected her flashlight and directed it for Mandari’s benefit as he flipped out a small blanket and quickly swaddled the Declaration — a document which everyone thought had been destroyed, and almost all traces of which had been obliterated from memory — then hugged the paper to his chest like a father gathering a newborn to his bosom.
Sally and her brother then braced the old Eagle as he tottered back to camp. To steel herself against the hurt, Sally kept Mandari chattering fantastically about God-given liberties and another mythical piece of paper, called the Constitution; which contained words Sally and Jacob had only ever heard used in the academic abstract, and which were considered rude among common society.
How an old piece of paper with old words on it would change things, Sally couldn’t be sure. All her life, there had only been the globe-spanning power of the U.N. The U.N. ruled everything, provided everything, was both the beginning and the end of everything. Pitting a piece of paper against that… seemed like madness.
But Mandari seemed resolute, and Sally’s loyalty was to him, above all else.
That, and to her mother.
Maybe Sally’s children or grandchildren or great grandchildren would know what to do with the document?