NEW COUNTRY ORDER.
The crowds at Teterboro Warp-Port were miniscule compared to the thousands standing outside the gates of the Capitol Towers. It was a similarly festive and anticipatory mood to the one prior to Stewart’s infamous Remembrance Day address, except the braved the ice-cold mid-January air underneath a cloudless sky and shining sun, as if the higher powers they worshipped opened up the skies for this moment.
The rock-star adoration of the crowds was palpable; a phenomenon not unnoticed by those riding in the hover-limousines over the tarmacs of east Manhattan as they approached the Towers. They felt the limos shake as the crowds packed around them to take photos and shout thank you and other assorted adorations.
As they proceeded beyond the gates, a much smaller contingent of governmental personnel lined the Joshua Evans circle, bundled up in thermal jackets, waiving and applauding. After the throng of Divine Army soldiers disembarked from their respective vehicles and entered the South Tower lobby, they all lined up single file from one end of the space to another, in anticipation of the arrival of the Ultimate Minister.
A massive contingent of reporters and photographers began lining up near the matter-barrier entranceways in preparation for the photo opportunities that awaited them. Following a ten-minute wait, a reverent silence filled the lobby as Francis Stewart, flanked by two Divine Cloaked Force agents on either side, entered. Stewart grinned from ear to ear as he was greeted by polite applause. All soldiers in attendance reverently saluted their leader as he passed by them.
Moments later, Stewart began his greetings with a firm handshake and a brief thank you statement. Eventually, he arrived at Sarah and Jesse. Jesse listened to Stewart as he congratulated Sarah, but started to tense up, as any mere human would when meeting a world leader, despite his opinions of him.
When he and Stewart stood face to face, Jesse gingerly shook Stewart’s right hand and mustered a smile.
“Congratulations, soldier,” Stewart said. “And thank you for your service to our country. We owe you a debt of gratitude that could never be repaid.”
“Um, thank you…um, your magnificence,” Jesse stammered.
“What is your name, soldier?”
“Maith, sir. Jesse. Maith.”
Stewart’s eyes popped, as if he were the mortal civilian eyeing up his favorite celebrity in person. “Maith, you say?”
Stewart then motioned over one a DCF agent, then whispered into its ear. Then, he turned back to Jesse and flashed a wide smile.
“Mr. Maith,” Stewart smugly inquired. “I’d like to have a private word with you after this ceremony. Would you care to join me?”
Suddenly, flashbacks to his meeting with Fetisov raced through Jesse’s mind. He could not believe it was coincidence that he would meet with two world leaders in a span of two days. Against his best instincts, he accepted the Ultimate Minister’s offer, albeit with conflict. In one hand, his cat-like curiosity outweighed any animosity he had previously harbored. On the other, the questions that Fetisov posed were worth asking, and he would not have any additional opportunities in the future to ask more.
An hour later, after the crowd disbursed and stragglers remained behind for photo ops or small talk, Jesse, escorted by two armed DCF agents, was taken to a conference room to the right of the auditorium. It was a small but brightly lit room, with a mahogany table at its center, black-cushioned chairs surrounding it, and holographic projectors on each corner.
Francis Stewart himself was waiting at the opposite side of the table. Reproducing his smug smile, he instantly requested for the DCF agents to leave them alone. It made Jesse even more uncomfortable, but he felt he had no choice but to listen to Stewart.
However, as the wooden doors shut behind him, whatever reverence Jesse may have temporarily attained in his mind for the leader of his country faded away, and his skeptical side took over.
“Welcome, Mr. Maith,” Stewart said.
“With all due respect, mister, um…”
“Francis, son. You may call me Francis.”
“Right, um, Francis, um…with all due respect, and I apologize for my presumption, I believe there’s a reason why I’m here.”
Stewart nodded. “I understand. I’d be asking myself the same thing, Mr. Maith,” Stewart replied as he slowly began to saunter his way around the table. “I anticipate you have questions for me, and I will give you an opportunity to ask them, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I didn’t have a couple of important questions for you.”
Jesse paused, confused.
“Mr. Maith,” Stewart resumed, as he slowly approached Jesse. “How much do you know about Project Miracle?”
The shock of the question arrested Jesse’s heart. “I beg your pardon, sir?”
“Mr. Maith,” Stewart replied in a more stern tone, “I’ve come to understand that our deceased foe, Mr. Fetisov, had a private word with you in the Cave during Operation Seattle Slewfoot.”
The incarceration of Jesse’s limbs had now reached his arms. “Who told you that?!” he implored.
“It doesn’t matter. Mr. Maith, did George Fetisov reveal to you what Project Miracle is?!”
Jesse remained silent. He couldn’t figure out an appropriate way to respond.
“Sir,” Jesse gingerly replied. “He told me he knew my father, and that he could have been saved by Project Miracle. Instead, you let him, and millions of others die. Is this true?!”
Stewart guffawed like a hyena injected with laughing gas. The situation for Jesse had officially become surreal; he felt like he was in a bad nightmare with no way of waking up. The incredulity of the smugness and arrogance of Francis Stewart was once that he had always read about and heard about. However, when he saw this behavior firsthand, he nonetheless felt empty inside.
“And you actually believe that?!” Stewart asked, sounding like a drunk college kid.
“Is it true, sir?!”
“Look,” Stewart replied while catching his breath. “Mr. Maith, George Fetisov was an embittered liar hell-bent on revenge. He’d say anything, and I mean anything, to get ahead.
“Why did he ask specifically for me by name in Seattle?! And why would you ask for me by name only days later? What is going on?!”
“Son, the truth is, Fetisov wanted you for something. He sees your football games on Friday nights. He knows you go to Everton, just as I have come to discover.”
“How do you know all this about me?!”
Stewart scoffed. “I’m the damn Ultimate Minister! I can find information about anyone I want!”
Fear overtook Jesse. All his suspicions about the Ultimate Minister were being revealed as fact, and he knew he couldn’t react with anger, thinking a DCF agent could burst through the door and shoot him on sight. He had to restrain himself.
“And so did Fetisov,” Stewart continued. “He was going to recruit you and your friends to commit treason against this nation.”
“What ‘friends,’ specifically?”
“You know what I mean.”
“My cousins? My girlfriend?”
“Again, I think you know.”
“So, you invited me here to charge me with a Third violation?”
Stewart chuckled. “Far from it, Mr. Maith. Far from it.”
“I think you’re lying,” an angered Jesse growled. “Tell me the truth.”
“Then why don’t you tell me what Project Miracle is, sir?!”
Stewart paused and sighed, then authoritatively stuck out his right arm. “Okay, Jesse, I’m sorry, I came on too strong. You’re right, I should be more transparent.”
Jesse nodded in approval, anticipating Stewart’s response.
“But,” Stewart replied, “if I told you what Project Miracle is…would you really want to know?”
“It’s like if you wanted to know for sure if there’s truly an afterlife. If you know there is one for a fact, why live here on earth when you can just commit suicide and live in heaven for all eternity?!”
Jesse creased his eyebrows in confusion.
“The point I’m trying to make is,” Stewart resumed, “the reward of the aura behind the idea of Project Miracle far outweighs the risk of revealing it to the public. The more people guess, the more they can be controlled.”
“Kind of like the story of Joshua Ev…”
“DON’T. GO THERE.”
Jesse recoiled in horror. He knew he had crossed a line with Stewart, and now, he anticipated getting blasted.
“Mr. Maith,” Stewart resumed, summoning the intimidating tone that seized the minds of the Supreme Assembly of Administration for years. “The real truth here is, the revelation of Project Miracle would be a biblical mistake. Rioting, looting, hysteria, you name it, would destroy the fabric of our country. I am forging a future based on law and order, and zealous devotion to our savior. This is the key to peace. George Fetisov interrupted it. Peace or death is attainable, Mr. Maith, and I aim to achieve that before I meet my maker.”
“By going to…um…wuh…”
Jesse’s eyes bulged in shock.
“Yes, I know, you people get so offended by that word,” Stewart scoffed. “But you know, deep down inside your bleeding heart, for this to be true. History is filled with conflict, and it will continue to be until the sun swallows this planet. But, like the story about Project Miracle, the aura behind ‘peace or death’ keeps you warm and fuzzy at night underneath your luxury duvet blankets, beneath your translucent roof, protected by the electrified fences of your nine-percenter districts. It’s this same aura that keeps the pryvies warm and fuzzy on cold, dark nights without such luxuries. At the end of the day, Freedomers are happy and content, regardless of their social or economic stature. I made sure that happened. You’re just among the fortunate, Mr. Maith. Aren’t you grateful for that?!”
No response. Jesse had nothing.
“I think you’d be a fool not to welcome this new country order,” Stewart growled. “You and your family stand to benefit the most, and that will never change as long as you don’t screw it up! You’re welcome! Hell, my intuitions about your generation were correct! You don’t appreciate what you have, and you whine when things don’t go your way or see something you don’t like. I guess I was naïve to think that sending kids your age to the frontlines would change your perspective.”
The Project didn’t lie, Jesse thought. Anger seethed within from head to toe. A heavy frown overtook his face, and his hands began contracting toward a clenching formation. Just like in Seattle, Jesse was prepared to die.
He wanted His Magnificence dead.
Before he could mount an attempt, though, a short figure entered the conference room.
“Ah, Jack Minor!” Stewart gleamed. “Mr. Maith, I would like you to meet the senior-most member of the Supreme Assembly of Administration.”
“It’s a real honor, Jesse,” Minor glistened as he shook Jesse’s clammy hand. “I’ll bet Francis never told you that I will be the one to succeed him as Ultimate Minister,” he continued with a chuckle.
Stewart, returning the laugh with a strangely awkward tone, simultaneously emitted a hint of evil. Then, he smiled like the villain of a comic book movie at Minor, who recoiled in confusion.
“Ah, but Jack, my old friend, that’s just not going to happen!” Stewart yapped.
Immediately after, Stewart reached into his coat pocket and produced an HK-186 pistol with a silencer and pointed it at Minor.
With one ping, Minor’s heart exploded underneath his white shirt, and his slain corpse collapsed to the brown-carpeted floor.
Jesse gasped in shock, and froze, anticipating he would be shot next. Instead, Stewart re-inserted the laser-pistol into his pocket while Jesse panted for air.
Stewart knelt toward the deceased Minor. “I’m sorry, old friend,” he whispered. Then he calmly looked Jesse in his now reddened baby-blue eyes as his face perspired in fear. “Oh, relax, kid. If I wanted to kill you, I’d have shot you already.”
Stewart slowly approached Jesse while grinning and came to within a foot. Still completely tense, Jesse could not bring himself to look at him, until Stewart almost subtly coerced him when he pointed his pistol at Jesse’s head.
“Jesse? Jesse?! I think you oughta look at me before I change my mind.”
Terrified and numb, a hyperventilating Jesse tilted his head up.
“I trust, Mr. Maith,” Stewart seethed, “you won’t disclose anything, and I mean anything, about what you’ve seen and heard here today. If so, the consequences for you and possibly your family will be swift, severe, and possibly deadly. Do I make myself clear?”
Frightened, Jesse nodded vigorously. Stewart grinned and re-inserted his pistol into his jacket pocket.
“Good!” Stewart exclaimed. “Which leads me to my second question. Jesse Charleston Maith, how would you like to be the next Ultimate Minister of the Divine Republic of Freedom?”
“Wha..whaa…huh?!” Jesse stuttered.
“You are the perfect fit for this role,” Stewart replied. “You have the smarts, the looks, and the ambition to lead the Divine Republic of Freedom into a golden age the likes of which no nation has ever seen. And you’ve proved you’re willing to die for it. Your family will never see one day of poverty ever again. Your children and your children’s children will reap the benefits of nine-percenter life. And you now understand that God and Joshua’s word is infallible. You will fall in line, and you will make sure every living, breathing Freedomer does the same long after I’m gone.”
For Jesse, still hindered by fear, reply was impossible.
In his own arrogant way, Stewart nodded. “I’ll give you time to think about it, of course.”