“Long before even our grandfathers were born,” Carl began, “a great nation stood on this very ground and beyond. It survived through many centuries and many wars. It stood as a banner to free men all over the world.” All around the room, the townsfolk were nodding as if they’d heard this story many times before, and yet all were listening in rapt attention—the trio of travelers included.
“No one knows quite when it all started, but slowly the freedoms disappeared. After all, slowly is the only way freedom can ever disappear from the grasp of man—little by little over time. More and more people gave up little freedoms as fewer and fewer of them realized how precious even the little freedoms are.”
“Always men have known freedom can only be taken by consent or by force, and certain types of men have used this knowledge over their fellows. What these men learned, though, is freedom taken by force makes men yearn to have it back again. If taken by consent, it is rarely missed.”
“Such was the way the nation founded on freedom died.”
Mary looked around at the crowd; several men were bowing their heads and a few of the women were dabbing at their eyes. She could even feel a lump rising in her own throat. The freedom people had once given away so freely was exactly what she wanted for her own home.
“History has told us,” Carl continued, “and we have learned their lessons well, that the nation was beset from without as well as within. This was a time of great wars, and more than this nation’s land was ravaged by the bombs of men who would see freedom die. Many were afraid the very freedom we hold dear was the cause of those other men’s hatred for the nation, and the people hurried to cast off the freedoms in order to save themselves.”
“When the great war came, their casting off of liberty meant little to their enemies. Millions died to keep the nation safe, and millions more died trying to see the nation fall. In the end, the nation won the great war, but in doing so, we lost the battle.”
“The people in their fear and dejection agreed to let their freedom melt away like so much snow on the mountainside. They begged the government to take care of them, even more so than before. They begged and the government gave them what they wanted, but at a price. If they had only seen what the ultimate price would be, they would never have agreed, but the loss was so small and insignificant at first, no one thought ill would come of it.”
“We all know the results of that.” A mumble went through the crowd. “But perhaps our traveler friends do not know. Or maybe,” he said, “they do.”
“This great nation was founded from the east, and so the center of its government was on the easternmost shores. Mind you after a couple hundred years the nation had grown to stand from ocean to ocean, but the government still held its heart in an eastern city. This was a cause of some dismay to the people who lived on the west coast. They raged and railed as much as they could in a country based on freedom, but always their cries were left unanswered. With technology, neither coast was really unreachable and distant. The actual location of the government was nonessential. But the time came when the west would have their prize.”
“After the great war, the nation’s capitol lay in ruins. Its once-firm central government was without a home. The west called out to the people, telling of their escape from the bombs and the poisons, and the citizens of the nation rallied around the cry. Soon the center of government lay in a shining city on the ocean.”
Mary shook her head. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know where this tale was headed, and yet she craved the knowledge. Leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, she waited with expectant dread.
“With the change came a new force rising above the rest.” He paused and lowered his voice to nearly a whisper—a whisper that reverberated through the hushed room. “That force was the Union.”
Her heart sank into the very bottom of her stomach. Suddenly the large and scrumptious breakfast rolled beneath her ribcage.
“I see from the looks on the travelers’ faces, they know whereof I speak, and they have my deepest sympathy for their experiences.” Carl spoke to the crowd, but Mary could feel his words in her heart. “The Union built upon the ideas that came before it. They gave each person the little things they desired, but in return they took the freedoms required for such gifts. Before long, the Union had all the freedoms and the gifts were no longer as pretty or as desirable.”
“It was then that a small revolution began to take place under the Union’s piercing gaze. In small groups, the people gathered. In secret, they made plans to get some of their freedoms back. They planned to have a logical discourse, but they soon learned where there is unfettered power there is little room for logic. They sent a group of representatives to speak to the Union. Those representatives were never heard from again.”
“When logic didn’t work, they made plans for war.”
“Unfortunately, over the years the Union had taken so much from the people, they had little left to wage war with. They gathered armies only to have them obliterated by the Union’s better equipped forces. It appeared all would be lost until a small group of scientists found the technology the Union had kept from them. They built a weapon so powerful the Union would have no choice but to capitulate to their demands. Or so they thought.”
“The Union called their bluff, so to speak,” said another of the townsmen.
“Indeed. The people built a weapon they didn’t want to use. They paraded it in front of the Union and threatened its use. The Union dared them to use it, and they couldn’t.”
“Taken aback by this turn of events, our forefathers tried to find a different way to obtain their freedoms. While they were thinking of a peaceful way to approach their enemy, however, the Union was developing a weapon of their own—a weapon they weren’t afraid to use if it meant keeping their power. By this time, they’d already been pushed back to the very confines of their city by the ocean, and they weren’t about to lose their hold on that, too. So they told the people to bow down to them, or they would use their weapon.”
A young man behind Pola spoke, and his words sent a chill through the audience. “They weren’t bluffing.”
“No, William, they weren’t. The people didn’t do as they were told, and the Union used a nearby city as an example. As far as we know, no one survived to tell the tale of that day.”
Mary choked back a gasp. They were talking about the dead city, she just knew it and after the tale they’d just told, she had a feeling Carl knew it, too. Her hand reached out and clutched at Daniel’s. When she looked his face was as white as she assumed her own was.
“Over the course of many weeks, the Union used their weapon time and again. Many cities were lost with all of their people inside. Soon, the people were reduced to nomads and travelers, but still they refused to stop. They discovered that while the Union’s weapon was perfect for eradicating cities, it was powerless against the individual. In droves, they struck out across the wastelands to take matters into their own hands. Too many bodies littered the dunes from both sides until a sort of truce was struck.”
“The people would no longer rise against the Union city if the Union would leave the people alone. We were just a scattered few by that time, beaten and broken by decades of strife. Technology lay in ruins and the citizens were too scattered to be effective any longer. We only wanted to be left alone. The Union seeing its own numbers decimated, agreed. Thus the war stopped with neither side a true winner. The people lost much, but they gained their freedom. The Union gained their lives, but lost their power.”
“And we? Our ancestors were the last men to fight. They were the last to agree to a truce neither side was happy with. Once the sides had settled into their uneasy truce, our ancestors disappeared into the mountains, where we live to this day.”
Tears streamed down Mary’s face. Their story was her own, but unlike those people from so long ago, she was no part of the truce. She had to fight the Union. And if fighting meant losing everything, including her life, she would at least die trying.
“Don’t cry, Mary,” Carl said from beside her. “It was a story from long ago. The worst is over now, and we are beginning to build our lives back to what they were before the horrors began.”
She looked at him through bleary eyes. “It isn’t over for us. We have to go back.”
“I know ye do, dear, but hope is not lost for ye. Our ancestors lost because we were many and the Union excels in controlling the many. Ye have a better chance for success because ye are few.”
“And,” said another townsman, “because they’ll never be expecting anyone to fight them after all these years.”
Mary stood and looked as all the people gathered around their new friends from the Union city. “Thank you for telling your story. I’m glad the end was a happy one for you and your ancestors…” She sniffled back the tears she knew lay behind her words. “But I don’t think the story has an end for me just yet. We have to go back.”