THE FIRST TO BE CONDEMNED.
The scene in the Maith dining room appeared to be a festive and joyous one, like a holiday gathering. A smorgasbord of food options laid the center of the glass table with lit candles interspersed in the middle. The Maith and Jacobson families were casually dressed in sweaters, khakis, and dresses, and were cheerfully engaging in small talk.
All, that is, except Jesse.
As he slumped in his seat to the left of his uncle’s at the head of the table, he was unconscious to the jovial mingling between his family and friends, and did he have the appetite to indulge in the Jacobson’s painstakingly-made meal of chicken casserole with cranberry and apple sauce.
The dining room, to him, was purgatorial. In his mopey eyes, there were no luxurious furnishings, no candles, no food or drink, or humans present. Instead, his blue eyes glanced upon a virtual void; a kaleidoscope-like amalgam of blurred colors. In stark contrast, his mind replayed the Stewart meeting on a continuous loop. He had been shot at countless times in Seattle, but witnessing Jack Minor’s cold-blooded murder and having a pistol pointed at his head was a burden he couldn’t bear.
This attitude was not lost on the Jacobsons, sitting directly across the table from Jesse.
“Jesse,” a grinning Greg inquired, “you’re a true Freedomian hero and you’re sitting there looking like you just shot and killed a dog!”
Jesse didn’t acknowledge.
“Okay,” Greg added, “bad joke. I apologize. Jesse? JESSE?!”
Snapped from his trance, Jesse whipped his eyes back and forth, not knowing whom had just addressed him.
“Greg,” Bob said, “You have to appreciate the stress Jesse’s been under recently. He’s exhausted.”
“I understand, Bob, but you’d think he’d be a little happy.”
“You know,” Betsy interjected, “I can’t say it enough, but you and your cousins deserve more than a medal for what you did for our country.”
Jesse half-heartedly nodded. “Thank you both,” he spluttered. “It…means…a lot.”
Greg and Betsy then raised their wine glasses. “Hey everyone,” Greg announced, “To the death of George Fetisov, and to the dawning of a new, more prosperous, and better future for this country we adore!”
All raised their glasses.
“Jesse,” Betsy grunted, “I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out –“
“Betsy,” Bob interrupted, “please! Leave him be. Jesse, would you like to talk a little more about your meeting with the Ultimate Minister?”
“Another great honor!” Greg exclaimed, then clanked his wine glass with his wife’s.
Despite his reverie, Jesse quietly realized the superficiality of his neighbors. He wondered why they didn’t toast to the safe return of him and his cousins. Were they really concerned with their safety? Or did they care more about appearing like patriotic Freedomers to soothe their egos?
“So, what did you learn from our great Ultimate Minister, Jesse?” Betsy smugly inquired.
“I’m so jealous,” Greg added. “Did he say anything inspirational? What kind of words did he use to describe your heroism?”
“We’re dying to know!” Betsy said.
Jesse slowly rotated his head towards his neighbors. His expression remained blank as he did so.
“Well?!” Greg insisted.
“Um, yeah…it was great,” Jesse stumbled. “I mean, he didn’t say, you know, anything that, well, you may have not heard before on TV, or things heard through the grapevine, or…anything.”
Greg and Betsy looked at Jesse silently with skepticism. They simply couldn’t believe he wasn’t thrilled with what he accomplished and whom he met, and they especially could not comprehend how he felt. Jesse, meanwhile, felt that even if he told them the truth of what Stewart said and did in that conference room, he’d be dismissed as, at best, a liar, or at worst, a traitor for which they would have no hesitation to report a Third violation in the name of patriotism.
A loud buzzing then broke the gawkiness.
“Hold on, they’re about to start!” Beth interrupted. “Just got an alert on my phone!”
“Start what?!” Jesse asked.
“The special event!” Greg replied. “Shall we go to the TV?!”
“Wait, what special event?!” Jesse implored. Before he could get an answer, the Jacobsons and the rest of his family had already retreated to the living room.
Moments later, Jesse joined his family and neighbors to see the holotv tuned to NOR and the holographic image of Mark Leonard, clad in a three-piece suit with DRF-flag vest, seated in NOR’s main newsroom, a set with a giant Freedomian flag dominating the background.
As Leonard droned on, the next words Greg said ripped Jesse’s heart in half like a machete swipe. “You have your betting slip ready, dear?”
Jesse’s purgatorial trance instantaneously ceased, and his disposition transitioned to fury. Every traumatic childhood memory, running the gamut from his mother’s death up to 9/25, replayed in his mind until he focused on the Rockefeller Execution Grounds.
“Um, Greg,” Jesse implored. “What’s going…who…who are they executing?”
“Traitors to the state, Jesse,” Greg growled. “Who else?! They deserve it!”
“Right, but whom?!”
“Shh! Listen to Leonard!”
Jesse reluctantly focused his attention on the holoscreen, where the camera cut away to a shot of a filled-to-capacity Rockefeller Execution Ground, ironically appearing beneath a sunny sky.
The cameras focused on the flapping DRF flag draped behind the marble platform, then zoomed out to reveal Francis Stewart, clad in a suit extremely similar to the one he wore to Sarah Boynton’s execution years prior, walking towards the center of the empty space to the adoring applause and standing ovation of the hundreds in attendance.
“HIS MAGNIFICENCE!” they shouted.
The flashbacks to that awful day in 8 N.G. arrested Jesse with fear. Every execution he had ever seen since Sarah Boyntons always gave him pause and prompted bad memories, but this one felt different. To him, the timing of this event was suspect.
His worst fears were confirmed during the Ultimate Minister’s opening remarks.
“My fellow Freedomers,” Stewart began, his words echoing throughout the concrete canyon of the Execution Grounds. “We’ve been gathered at this most iconic of venues many times before, but today is a special day. As we celebrate the efforts of our Divine Military in the overthrow, and ultimately, killing of President George Fetisov, we also usher in a new era for the Divine Republic of Freedom; an era where law and order are ensured, the path to prosperity remains smooth, and one where the principles of liberty, freedom, and reverence never, ever again go unabated or unquestioned. This morning, we ratified the fourteenth indentation to the Divine Treatise of Freedom, which states The Ultimate Minister shall be granted total autonomy in all matters regarding military conflict, legislative and judicial matters deemed by the Ultimate Minister and only the Ultimate Minister, to be in the best interests of the Divine Republic of Freedom, that any violation of the Third Indentation of the Divine Treatise of Freedom is punishable by death without trial or due process, and the contents of the Eleventh Indentation of the Divine Treatise of Freedom are hereby expanded to include the granting of authority by the Ultimate Minister and only the Ultimate Minister, for the Divine Cloaked Forces to search and seize property without a warrant.”
As Stewart paused, deafening cheering drowned out the applause in the crowd. Greg and Beth joined in.
No due process?! Total autonomy?!
Everything Jesse, Sarah, and his fellow readers and posters on projectdriht.net feared, what the likes of George Fetisov and Pete Harrison had eluded to, were validated as fact.
More importantly, the final actions and words of Stewart’s conversation made more sense.
His Magnificence’s next words rang through Jesse’s ears like the incessant hooting of an owl in the dead of night: “Finally, the Ultimate Minister is hereby granted the authority to decree that any person or persons they deem an enemy of the state or a threat to national security to be executed without trial or due process!” After another round of applause, Stewart concluded: “All this brings us to this moment! Let us bring out the first to be condemned under the Fourteenth!”
Jesse dropped his water, spilling its remaining contents on his black boots and the beige carpet beneath. His jaw became locked as after his mouth was rendered agape. The combination of random chatter, applause, and shouting from those in the living room and Rockefeller were slowly descending into a blurred echo of white noise.
This included the rabid shouting of the Jacobsons.
“THAT’S RIGHT! KILL THOSE TRAITORS!”
“NO ONE WILL EVER DARE QUESTION US AGAIN! GOD BLESS THE DRF AND GOD BLESS HIS MAGNIFICENCE!”
Those “traitors,” dragged out onto the podium without gray knapsacks over their heads, tied at the ankles and hands, were Karen MacDougal and Devon LaForge.
The former members of Supreme Assembly of Administration were then thrown onto the ground by red-cloaked DCF agents like a heavy bag of sand being thrown into a pile. Their screams for mercy and their final veiled shots at Francis Stewart, through Jesse’s ears, were the like the coda of a loud rock song; filled with feedback, echoes, and unintelligible lyrics.
They were never given the opportunity for last words. Stewart, in the most menacing, evil growl he could produce, said words that slowly dissolved in Jesse’s ears like audio in a filmstrip dissolving: “May God and Joshua judge you harshly before you go to hell!”
Jesse’s eyes descended into temporary blindness after he witnessed the Divine Cloaked Force agents that carried LaForge and MacDougal to the podium disintegrate their heads with HK-86’s.
The ensuing cheers from the Jacobsons were deafening, and a virtually fatal blow to his soul.
For the first time since he was eight, he felt…nothing.
Finally, a buzzing emitted from Jesse’s pocket. At first, he ignored it.
Then another buzzing.
Jesse produced his ultraphone, and when he read the image of the text message, he sprinted out of the living room and retreated upstairs.
OPEN YOUR BOX AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. WE ARE IN GRAVE DANGER.