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Murmurs Of A Coup

Chapters: 19 Pages: 93 Word Count: 29,173 Genre: Science Fiction/Action/Adventure

The dark times have begun. Billy Wellman and Mellissa Pavlovich failed to stop Gregory di Conti’s rise to power. Now the President of the United States seeks to assassinate his predecessors to consolidate that power. Can Bill and Mellissa warn the ex-presidents in time? Find out in the sequel to the short story that started it all: Welcome to the Post-Truth World.

Chapter 1: Reunion

May 2nd, 2030

Darkness had descended on Harrisburg. In truth, it had consumed the city long before the sun had set on the horizon. The once vibrant capital of Pennsylvania was now a patchwork of lit and unlit zones, the latter too poor to afford the rising cost of electricity, so they had been disconnected from the grid. There, the only sounds that could be heard were of dogs barking and the occasional banging of a firearm, a sign that crime was on the rise.

Former U.S. President Philip J. Wellman tapped the window of his limo, barely able to see more than a few yards beyond the glass. His expression soured. “Yet another neighborhood that has plunged into shadow and despair,” he said in a whisper.

His thoughts drifted to his contribution to this situation. It would be easy for him to say that he had inherited this mess from Trump and Pence, but his conscience, which these days always took the voice of his dead son, Billy, reminded him that it was he who drove the separatist states to secede. That it was he who declared the hostilities that brought his nation to ruin, a civil war that his successor had ended, but at a price so terrible that he shuddered to think it.

Hearing his son’s voice, even if it was just a phantom echo, reminded him that Billy's birthday would be coming up in a few days. They should be celebrating it and would have if he hadn't driven his son into the arms of his political rival, Francis Downey. Philip didn't begrudge Downey. The fault was his. He hadn't listened to his son's concerns, allowed a gulf to form between them. Over a year ago, Downey's plane had gone down in the Arctic; all onboard assumed dead. Now Philip would never get to tell his son how sorry he was.

If he had just done things differently, Philip wondered, would his son still be alive? Would he still be President and not Gregory di Conti, a man even less qualified for the office of the Presidency than Donald Trump? Would millions still be alive? If only he had listened.

Philip felt a tender hand pat his lap. He turned to see his wife, Hazel, staring back at him. “Things will be alright,” she said. “Just remember to smile when socializing.”

Philip grabbed his wife’s hand. "You have my word. I'll be on my best behavior."

“I know Billy’s birthday is coming up. Hard to believe that it has been over a year since we last heard from him, but we’ll get by. We always do.”

“Yes, we have had years of practice with Franklin.” Philip glanced outside. “I always wanted grandkids. Then again, given where things are headed, it might be for the best.”

“Don’t think like that. Things will get better. We just have to have faith.”

Have faith? Both of our sons are dead. Philip held his breath. That was the last thing his wife needed to hear. “You’re right. We need to keep our faith in God and humanity.”

Neither spoke for the remainder of the journey. Philip just gazed out, again observing that more of the city had gone dark. Then their limo reached the upper-class neighborhoods, the mansions here lit up like Christmas trees. The contrast between the haves and have-nots couldn’t be starker as they transitioned from the shadows to the light.

Their limo passed the gated communities and weaved up a hill to the convention center located at its peak, a dome structure doused by spotlights.

Their driver brought the limo to a stop in front of the main entrance, and they departed.

Philip and his wife walked down the red carpet, photographers on either side flashing them with cameras, and entered the Santorum Convention Center. A statue of an archangel towered in the main lobby, and they had to climb winding stairs to reach the ballroom. Hundreds of people had gathered within, among some of the wealthiest families in Pennsylvania. Men were dressed in tuxedos, while the ladies wore the latest fashions.

The couple sought out a cadre of their closest friends. Once reunited, gossip was traded, laughter was contagious, and all were merry, or at least, they were until Simon Adams crashed the gathering. With a martini in one hand and a handful of salted nuts in the other, the lumbering oaf shouted, “Hey, Philip! Have you heard the good news? Di Conti won the war!”

“Yes,” Philip said, determined to hide his distress as he took a sip of his drink.

“It must vex you, to know that he could do what you could not and finish the civil war your bumbling started,” Simon said. “If only he ran four years ago.”

“I’m surprised you’re not weeping given how much you profited from it,” Hazel said.

Simon twisted his massive midsection to confront her. “I’ll admit that until war broke out, our profits were dipping, but I’m also a patriot. This conflict has been nothing but a distraction, one that has deterred us Americans from reclaiming our rightful place as the world’s hegemony.”

“Di Conti’s reckless use of Kinetic Rounds has wrought devastation on the former states,” Philip said, again struggling to keep his composer. A patriot? Simon was an opportunist prick. He only wanted America to be an empire again because more foreign wars would make Adam Corp. International insanely rich. ”We still don’t have an official death count, but I hear it could be in the tens of millions. I don’t even want to imagine property damage, but I assume we’ll be preoccupied with rebuilding for several decades.”

“You might have to put your dreams of a renewed American Empire on hold,” Hazel added.

“The war might have postponed our triumphant return to the world stage, but it has also created many opportunities for those with vision.” All turned to see Simon’s son, Edward, approach the group, his lovely wife, Elanor, coiled around his arm like a bejeweled heirloom. “Congress is deliberating over two massive construction projects; one of which I am told has to do with the separatist states. I’m also pleased to announce that Adams Corp. International has just won a fifteen-year bid to service the forces maintaining martial law there.”

“Fifteen years?” Herald Smith asked. “Surely the occupation won’t last that long.” He turned to Philip. “Have you heard anything about this?”

“No. I was under the impression that their statehood status would be addressed soon.”

“Well, our contract with the federal government is for fifteen years,” Edward explained.

“Damn right, it is,” Simon boasted. “Fifteen years. No one has ever gotten a contract that long. Hell, my granddaughter Amanda will be married and with kids by then.”

“And what if Amanda wants to pursue a career first?” Hazel asked. “I hear the girl is smart. Really smart. She should be encouraged to develop her talents.”

Simon eyed her. “What are you suggesting? That my granddaughter should go to college?”

“When she is old enough, yes,” Hazel said.

Simon snorted. “Like hell she is. College is no place for a lady of refined breeding.”

A debate erupted between his wife and Simon over the role of women in society. Philip tuned them out, his thoughts drifting back to what Edward had said. Fifteen years? That couldn’t be right. Why would martial law need to be extended for that long? Yes, it would take years to undo all the damage, but basic government could be restored relatively quickly unless… Philip grimaced. Unless di Conti had no intention of restoring the states to their former conditions, but instead, planned to keep them in limbo indefinitely. But why would—

“This way. Turn around,” a woman whispered into Philip’s ear.

Philip swiveled, confused as to where the voice had originated. It seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere, almost as if it was his inner voice.

“No,” the lady bellowed, clearly annoyed. “To your right. Turn to your right.”

Philip did, still wondering where the voice was coming from. Why couldn’t he— He paused. Off in the distance, a familiar face stared back at him, a ghost from his past.

“This is the 21st century, Simon. How have you been able to maintain such medieval— Hey, what are you doing?” Hazel cried as Philip yanked her away from their friends.

Philip pulled his wife deeper into the crowd. A mixture of excitement and aspiration fueled his every step. His dread grew, a fear that as he neared the object of his fixation, it would reveal itself not to be his dead son, but merely someone who shared many of Billy’s physical features, a cruel trick of the mind, one he’d suffered before. “Son, is it really you?”

“Hello, father. Hello, mother,” Billy said, his cheeks sparkling with tears.

Hazel rushed forward to embrace their son. “Oh, thank God, you’re still alive!” She glanced up. “Sixteen months. Where have you been for all this time?”

“I’m sorry for staying out of touch,” Billy said. “But it was too dangerous to call.”

Philip drew closer, not entirely convinced that this moment was real. “Too dangerous? I don’t understand. How can you be here? The Canadians found your plane’s black box. Said it suffered engine problems and crashed into the Arctic Sea. We were told there were no survivors.”

Billy grabbed Philip’s shoulder. “Dad, our plane didn’t have engine troubles. We were shot down, and our black box was damaged beyond repair.”

“Shot down? Why would the Canadians shoot down your plane?” Hazel asked.

“Mom, it wasn’t the Canadians. It was Gregory di Conti. He gave the order.”

“Di Conti?” Philip asked. “Why would he do that? Where’s Francis Downey?”

“Downey’s dead, Dad. He was murdered. Di Conti had him and the others killed?”

Philip stared, perplexed. “If Downey and the others are dead, why are you still alive?”

“That’s hard to explain. It would be easier if I just showed you.” Billy directed them to the far corner of the room where a stunning brunette in red waited.

“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Wellman,” she said in the disembodied voice Philip had heard earlier. “My name is Mellissa Pavlovich, and I’m the daughter of your enemy.”

Philip frowned. “My enemy’s daughter? Do you mean di Conti?”

“No,” Mellissa said. “My father is di Conti’s master, Supreme Inquisitor Abbot.”

Chapter 2: Dark Plots

Hundreds of miles away, a battle blimp soared above the ruins of Los Angeles like a flying turtle, its underbelly bristling with autocannons and missile launchers.

On the horizon, the sun settled over the Pacific, a mosaic of red, yellows and oranges. Its rays filtered through the gutted towers that made up the downtown area, illuminating some sections, while leaving others in shadows. Steel beams rose from sheared-off buildings. Boats rested sideways like beached whales, and fires peppered the landscape, the only other source of light. Gunfire could be heard, but their wails were becoming more sporadic.

On the video screens that lined the blimp’s bridge, its occupant eyed men in hazard suits placing civilians in body bags and moving them onto haulers. They were destined for mass graves on the city’s outskirts, some already filled with tens of thousands of corpses. The resolution was subpar, but some of the bodies were so badly mangled, so tattered and burnt, either by radiation poisoning or fire, that most would be compelled to look away.

U.S. President Gregory di Conti gazed at his handiwork and nodded with approval, his hand resting on the rails that separated him from the bridge’s canopy.

A cough caused him to turn. His master, Supreme Inquisitor Abbot, dressed in his traditional dark red robes, came up behind him. “I see that you’re enjoying the view.”

“One should savor one’s triumphs, master.” Di Conti cocked his head. “I’m surprised you’re not down there. I imagine you would find the radiation rejuvenating.”

“And I did.” Abbot lowered his hood and tilted his head slightly to the left. The diagonal scar along his right cheek, received during his final battle with his sister, had vanished, no doubt healed thanks to his kind’s unique biology and how it reacted to radiation. “The Battle of L.A. succeeded in every measure, far better than Detroit I must say.”

“The Detroit mission failed only because the SEALs turned on us. Delta Force proved more loyal. It almost saddens me that they all died in the explosion.”

Di Conti hit a button on the console, and the image changed to one of a nuclear power plant, its large cooling stacks having crumpled in on themselves.

“The Arroyo Pescadero Nuclear Facility,” di Conti proclaimed with a wide grin. “The world’s first uranium-zirconium pellet reactor. Its designers claimed that it could never melt down. That it was 100% safe. Angelenos were so convinced of this, and in the future of green energy, that they built this monstrosity in the very heart of their city.”

“And their confidence would have been warranted if we hadn’t introduced the quastinium the Heavenly Benefactors had bequeathed us into the core,” Abbot said.

Di Conti chuckled. "Indeed. The public is convinced that the meltdown was an accident. This incident not only won us the war but convinced people that nuclear power could never be safe. I have ordered the construction of more coal fire plants to replace the capacity lost. The rest of the world might be moving away from fossil fuels, but America won't."

“I imagine this news will cause your stocks in coal to skyrocket,” Abbot said. “Regardless, with this civil war over, we need to accelerate our other plans.”

Di Conti nodded. “Yes, negotiations on the wall have stalled. Few see the need, especially given that many still labor under the assumption that we are going to rebuild the former states. It doesn’t help that President Bush will be hosting a fundraiser in Huston dedicated to making Los Angeles livable again.” He shook his head. “What a waste.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps. I wonder. Will the other ex-presidents be in attendance?”

“All but Trump. He has never forgiven California for not voting for him in 2016.”

“Trump is not a threat, but the others are. I want you to attend this gathering.”

Di Conti gasped. “But master, many in my base are against the idea of rebuilding Los Angeles, as am I. This den of depravity deserves its fate.”

“I care not for Los Angeles, but we cannot have those five subverting our plans.”

Di Conti clenched his short beard and stroked it. “I doubt they would oppose me at such a venue. Besides, they know not of my role in starting the war.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. But they vehemently objected to how you ended it.”

“Oh, like the rest of them don’t have blood on their hands. Sanctimonious hypocrites.”

“The wars they fought took place on distant shores. Los Angeles, however, was a former American city.” Abbot beamed di Conti a wicked smile. “Besides, I find the best way to entice someone to go where you want is to give them something to run away from.”

Di Conti considered his master’s words, as well as the optics of such a move. He could rationalize it by making a plea for civility. His base would feel betrayed, but their devotion was beyond question and, eventually, they would get over it. Besides, the corporate media – that collection of self-congratulating idiots who once mistook Downey for a greater threat than him – would eat it up. They would hail it as his pivot to the center, when, in fact, it was anything but. No, if handled correctly, this could boost his appeal and kill two birds with one stone.

“As usual, you’re right, master,” di Conti said, an idea percolating inside his skull. “I think I will attend. I have a feeling that this event will be one to remember.”

Back at the Governor’s Ball, Philip and his wife followed their son and his fiancé to their limousine. He carefully scrutinized Billy, noting that he was scanning their surroundings, almost incessantly, as if he expected for someone to rob them. That came across as uncharacteristically skittish. Like anyone would try while his Secret Service detail was visible. What had transpired that could have made his son, a man who was a decorated fighter pilot, so edgy?

Philip’s gaze shifted to his son’s fiancé. Her demeanor was the opposite of Billy’s. Her posture conveyed confidence, while her stone-cold stare might cause some to coil. But to Philip, Mellissa reminded him of his old drill instructor: discipline, vigilant, and resolute, his emotions always shrouded by a granite gaze that you swore could melt steel.

Who was this warrior woman, and how did she become engaged to his son?

The limo’s driver reached the passenger door and opened it. “Leaving so soon, sir?”

“Yes, Raziel,” Philip said. “Please take us home.”

After the other three got in and were comfortable, Philip asked the question foremost on his mind. “Now, can either of you tell me why di Conti would want you both dead?”

"Your son and the others weren't the targets," Mellissa explained. "Downey was."

“Dad, Downey was rising high in the polls. Di Conti and Abbot were confident they could defeat you, but not Downey’s progressive message.”

“When dealing with right-wing populists like Trump or di Conti, you don’t counter them with establishment candidates,” Mellissa said. “Did you learn nothing from Hilary’s defeat?”

Philip bristled at her condescending tone but chose to let it slide. “Okay, di Conti wanted to remove Downey so that he could face me in the general election alone. How?”

“Yeah,” Hazel said. “How did they make your crash look like it was an accident?”

“So long as you had the original black box’s serial number, replacing it with a fake would be simple enough,” Mellissa said. “Then all you had to do was upload it with false data. Also, simple. As for the wreckage, I’m betting the Canadians didn’t find much.”

“Yes,” Philip said. “They only found a wing and the rear section. How did you know?”

Mellissa gave him a chilling look. “Because I’m the assassin they sent to kill your son.”

Mellissa told them her story. What began as surreal quickly devolved into the kind of nonsensical madness one only expected to hear uttered from the lips of Alex Jones or Jimmy Eagle about an ancient religious order, its lineage one that could be traced back to the Knights Templar. It had infiltrated the CIA, the FBI, and other government agencies, all part of some 900-year-old plot to take over the world. If that didn’t sound outlandish enough, this Cabal had a slave army of superhuman assassins who could block bullets with their swords.

Listening, Philip wondered if his son’s earlier signs of skittishness were an indication that he and his girlfriend were taking LSD. That seemed more plausible.

Melissa eyed him with suspicion. “You don’t believe a word I said.”

Hazel cringed. “Well, dearie, you have to admit that your tale sounds… um, far-fetched."

“That’s the understatement of the century,” Philip said. “There are people admitted to mental asylums who come across as less batshit crazy.”

Melissa removed a pocket knife from beneath her dress.

“Wo,” Philip exclaimed, hands raised. “Don’t do anything rash, dear. I didn’t say—”

Melissa slit her palm and allowed her blood to drip on the limousine’s carpet, smoke rising wherever the droplets landed. “What do you think of my story now?”

Philip stared and gulped. The acid blood had burned a hole in the carpet.

His son grabbed his hand. “Dad, you have to believe us. America is in grave danger.”

Philip continued to stare at the sizzling blood. “I’ve always known that di Conti was ruthless. I’ve even called him out once or twice, but this… this…”

“I’m a telepath,” Mellissa said. “With your permission, I can show you I’m telling the truth.”

Philip opened his mouth, then paused. He recalled the recordings he’d seen of Engineer Un, taken decades before he was born. The alien survivor of the Roswell Incident had told the scientist at Area 51 much. Telepaths existed, but as Philip understood it and his knowledge of genetics was limited, but wasn’t humanity destined to develop mastery over time and gravity? Human telepaths were impossible. That’s what Engineer Un said. Right?

Philip frowned. Engineer Un was a telepath and a powerful one at that, but he didn’t have acid blood. Only one race in the galaxy did. Wait. Was he actually thinking of going through with this? Why not? If Mellissa was lying, if this was still just the delusions of someone with a fevered imagination and a rare, but not supernatural or otherworldly blood condition, then what did he have to lose? “Very well, my dear. Dazzle me with your powers.”

Mellissa drew closer and pressed her uninjured hand against his temple. Philip found himself teleported into a hallway. The walls echoed with the clanging of metal. He panned to see two combatants coming down it. Armed with swords, they moved with inhuman speed, twirling like tornadoes, each attempting to bypass the other's defenses. No one could react so quickly, not even the greatest of swordsmen, and yet they did so with flair and grace.

Soldiers from parallel corridors converged on them and opened fire. Their aim seemed to be directed at the female combatant, a petite with short raven hair. The arch of her sword altered slightly, sending the bullets back, and the soldiers toppled.

The pair passed him, and finally, Philip got a look at the other fighter, a bearded man with hawkish cheekbones. He launched a sidekick, forcing the woman to back up. Then he bolted down the hallway at cheetah speeds. The petite ran after him.

How could any of this be possible, Philip thought as he crept forward, his limbs moving without any input from him. Where was he? Who was he?

He neared a reflective surface and gazed at the face of a teenage girl; her features a younger approximation of Mellissa's. Well, that answered one question.

Philip reached a flight of stairs. He ascended five floors before catching another glimpse of the pair. The woman battered relentlessly at the man’s defenses.

“Yield, brother,” she said between blows. “You’ve never been a match for me.”

“I will not let you free father,” the man screamed. “Nor let you take my children.”

“You’re children? I’ve been more of a father to them than you. I’m taking them away from this madness. You want to stay. Fine. But they’re coming with me, as is Dad.”

The male combatant backed up, desperate to deflect her swipes. One swing sent his sword flying, while another cut a diagonal scar along his right cheek.

The woman kneed him in the stomach, then slammed his head against the wall. The concrete shattered, the depression growing with each wack of his head. His skull should be mush by now, yet it was merely bloodied. The last strike knocked him out.

Philip dashed to the man and, in Mellissa’s voice, said, “Aunt Catherina, don’t kill Dad.”

Aunt Catherina reached out to him and said, “Sweetie, what are you doing here?”

“I saw you and Dad arguing, then he drew his sword,” Philip said, again in Mellissa’s voice. “I know that Dad can be mean at times, but please, don’t kill him?”

Aunt Catherina moved him off to one side. “It’s okay, sweetie. I would never kill your father. He’s my brother, but I couldn’t let him stop me. Do you understand?”.

Philip sniffled. “Yes, but why do you two have to fight at all? I’m sick of always fighting.”

“I know,” she said in a tender voice. “So am I. I’m going to free you and your sisters and take you someplace where you’ll never have to fight again.”

Aunt Catherina wiped the tears from his eyes, her smile reassuring him.

“I would like that,” Philip said.

“I know you would. I promise, Mellissa, I will never let anything bad happen to you. Okay?”

“Can Dad come with us?”

“I would like that, sweetie, but your father wants to stay. That’s why we were fighting.”

“I just want this nightmare to end. Can we go now?”

Aunt Catherina nodded. “Of course. Everything is going to be—” A blade erupted from his aunt’s chest and missed his by an inch. Philip looked up. Over Aunt Catherina’s shoulder, towered his father. His eyes burned with an unholy fury as he plunged the sword deeper.

“That’s the price for all who would turn their backs on the Lord,” his father said, twisting the handle, so to enlarge the hole he’d made in his sister’s heart.

With her remaining strength, his aunt reached out to him. “I’m so very proud of you.”

Philip stared at her lifeless body for a sec, then lashed out at his father with his fists. “I hate you! I hate you! She just wanted to leave. Why did you have to kill her?”

His father grabbed his wrists. “Stop! This is not how Jesus would want you to behave.”

“I hate Jesus,” Philip screamed. “I wish I was never born. I wish you weren’t my father!”

“That’s blasphemy. For your sake, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” He turned and exhaled. “Ah, Gregory, good. Can you please escort my daughter back to her room?”

Philip panned to see Gregory di Conti, a decade or two younger than he remembered, standing a few feet off. Four soldiers accompanied him, and each was armed with a pole that ended with a metal cable looped in a noose. The wires crackled with electricity.

Di Conti made a gesture, and the soldiers approached Philip and maneuvered the nooses around his neck. Energy jolted throughout his body.

“Keep her steady,” di Conti cried, his voice barely audible over Philip’s screams.

Philip felt a prick; then he awoke to find himself sitting opposite Mellissa. Tears streamed downed her cheeks. Oh, God, he thought. How old was she when that happened?

“Now do you believe me?” Mellissa asked. “Now do you understand the evil that we face?”

Philip nodded. “Yes, I do. What do you need me to do for you?”

Chapter 3: The Chase

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, High Inquisitor Cain sat in the cabin of a Black Hawk helicopter. On either side of him, a trooper handled a tranquilizer cannon bolted to the copter’s floor. Other Black Hawks glinted in the distance, a full moon hovering over them.

Cain typed on the computer resting on his lap. It brought up a video feed from a Predator drone. Below, thermal images moved through a wheat field, too fast to be any terrestrial animal. Men on motorcycles and jeeps followed on the adjacent roadway.

A shape jumped out of the wheat field and freed one of the riders from his motorcycle. The bike flipped forwards, tearing itself against the hard cement.

Cain tapped on the gunner’s shoulder and pointed. “Over there. Do you see?”

The gunner nodded and brought his cannon around. A stream of tranquilizer darts exited the barrel at high velocities. The target dodged them all.

“Men, scatter your shots,” Cain said into his headset. “Don’t let her anticipate your moves.”

The other helicopters fired. One scored a hit, and the target lost speed.

“She’s slowing down,” Cain said. “Fire the electro net.”

A soldier in a jeep maneuvered his vehicle alongside the target, and his passenger lifted a rifle. It fired a net attached to the automobile by a long cable.

The net snared the target, and she tumbled across the gravel.

“We’ve got one,” Cain said into his headset. “Men, focus your fire on the rest.”

His helicopter and the others banked and went after about a dozen more. The last, who appeared to be the group’s leader, was armed with a sword. She deflected their tranquilizer darts.

“Flashbang grenades. Switch to flashbangs,” Cain screamed at the gunner, who nodded and lifted his grenade launcher. It spat out bomblets, and they detonated with a bright flash, as well as emitted an ear-shattering bang. The jeeps below fired nets. Several missed, but one snared the target, sending her to the ground and shocking her with crackling blue energy.

Cain ordered the pilot to land. The helicopter touched down, and he made his way to the target, a girl of Asian descent, probably no older than seventeen.

“I take it that you’re the leader.” He bent over. “So, natural, what is your designation?’

“My sisters call me Chen,” she said.

“I don’t care what your sisters call you. I want to know your designation.” Cain turned to the driver of a nearby jeep. “Templar, would you please shock her?”

Sparks flew from the cable to the net, and electricity danced over Chen, throwing the teenager into convulsion. “Three Four Eight Nine,” she cried.

Cain signaled the driver to stop. “Good. Now, why did you and the others run away?”

“We heard Mellissa’s telepathic call. Her invitation to be free. To become Nephilims.”

“Freedom? Why would you want that? Don’t you enjoy our hospitality?”

“Hospitality? You abuse us. Torture us. Rape us. Do you think we don’t know that life is different outside? We’re telepaths. We’re sick of your hospitality.”

“You naturals have grown so defiant. That’s why we’re replacing you all with clones.”

Cain made a gesture, and the net once again coursed with electricity. The wattage intensified, not dying down until he was convinced the target was unconscious.

Afterward, he headed back to the helicopter. A templar followed him. “My lord, how is it possible that Miss Pavlovich is communicating with these Inquisitors?”

"Naturals have a kind of telepathic bond, developed by years of growing up together," Cain said. "There are limits to how far it can travel, but if you have Inquisitors spread out like we currently do, then you can create a network. Miss Pavlovich needs only be at the edge of this network, and her message will spread from one natural to the next until it reaches all."

The templar nodded. “Most disturbing. Do you want us to return them to the Black Site?”

“No. We’re having them all shipped off to Area 51. Hopefully, that will bring an end to this network. Then we just need to kill Miss Pavlovich.”

Chapter 4: Obama

A week later, former President Barak Hussein Obama and his wife, Machelle, stepped out of the terminal of Heathrow Airport. Dark clouds hung overhead and showered the land with a relentless downpour, compelling them to raise their umbrellas.

A self-driving car zoomed past them. A common sight in England, but almost unheard of in the U.S. Not that he would know, Obama mused. The reminder of his exile, self-imposed as it was these days, bit like a wasp's sting, a bitter irony given how Trump had spent years harassing him over his citizenship. He banished the thought and reached the curb.

Another autonomous car came to a stop beside them and opened its door. He packed his luggage in the back before plopping himself in. “Take us home,” Obama said.

The dashboard came to life, and the vehicle accelerated forward down Tunnel Road. Yellow lights flickered through the sunroof above until it exited the tunnel.

“Malia was thinking of moving her wedding to next year,” Michelle said beside him.

“Was she now?” Obama asked. “Why is that?”

“Well, with the civil war over, she was hoping to have it in Hawaii.”

Obama frowned. “I still think Paris would be a safer choice.”

“Hawaii was the only separatist state that didn’t see fighting during the war. It’s perfectly safe. Besides, she wants to have her wedding in the United States.”

Obama considered her words and again, was reminded of why he was now living in England. Near the end of the war, when di Conti ordered the bombing of Illinois, Obama had decided to get his family across the Canadian border. He thought he could re-enter through Maine or New York, only to have a border guard tell him that he couldn’t because Illinois was at war with the United States and he was considered a citizen of Illinois. That took some balls, denying entry to a former President of the United States.

Obama suspected that di Conti was behind the humiliating treatment. Few else would have the authority. What he’d done to earn the man’s ire defied him, though if Obama had to guess, it had less to do with his actions and more to do with the color of his skin. Many in America still resented the fact that a black man once occupied the Oval Office.

Obama shook his head. “We have only recently gotten the issue of our citizenship resolved, and you don't want to know the favors I had to call in.”

Michelle gripped his thigh. “I realize how slighted you feel about that issue.”

“It’s not that. There is still likely political fallout to be had. Look, we’ll be heading for W’s fundraiser in a few days. Let’s see how bad things are before deciding anything.”

The two agreed to table the discussion for another time, and Obama turned his gaze to the window, admiring the upscale Victorian era-style townhouses that made up the neighborhood. Steel guardrails lined the balconies, and a single row of trees added to the décor.

The car turned onto their street. A limousine was parked beside their townhouse.

“Were you expecting company?” Obama asked.

Michelle shook her head. “Not until 3 o’clock.”

Their car came to a stop beside the larger vehicle, and Obama approached the back door. The window lowered. “Where’s your security detail?” Philip Wellman asked.

Obama forced a smile. “I’m in the process of getting them back. Would you like to come in?”

Philip nodded, and the three of them headed for the front door. Obama retrieved his mail before opening the door, revealing a spacious if quaint foray. “Prince Henry and his wife Meghan helped us pick the place out. They’ve been very supportive,” Obama said.

“I heard you four are close,” Philip said as he hung up his coat. Michelle headed upstairs, while Obama escorted Philip to the kitchen. “Know that I made several calls on your behalf. I’m just glad this incident is over. So, when do you and Michelle plan to move back.”

“Not anytime soon I imagine,” Obama replied. He placed the stack of letters on the kitchen table and began opening them. “I’ll be heading for Texas to attend W's fundraiser, but I told di Conti I wouldn't be returning for good until he lets the other expats in. He just laughed.”

Obama skimmed each letter. The first was heat and hydro. The second he didn’t even bother reading and placed it to the side, while the third was addressed from a Jacob Fryer, an expat like himself who had his citizenship revoked when he fled the United States during the civil war. Their stories were hardly unique. Over twelve and a half million Americans were currently living abroad in political limbo, all because they had been residents of the separatist states and unlike him, had no influential friends to help them get their citizenship reinstated.

Obama placed the letter in a large box where he kept all those written by expats. “So, what brings you to Jolly Old England? I know it’s not the weather.”

“I have a few business ventures here in London.” Philip eyed the letter Obama had discarded. “Odd. The return address here says Trump Tower. Is this from who I think it is?”

“Open it.” Obama placed another letter in the expat bin. “You have my permission.”

Philip scanned the document. “This makes no sense. It’s a photocopy of Trump’s passport.”

“Donald’s way of reminding me that, for a time, I was without citizenship.”

“I knew he could be petty, but this?”

"Donald is a case study of what happens to someone if they never grow up. He might be in his eighties, but he has all the maturity of a seven-year-old." Obama dropped the third letter into the expat bin, then turned. "So, what brought you here? I mean the real reason."

“In one second.” Philip removed a metal wand and waved it in the air. An electronic beep escaped it, growing louder as he brought the device closer to a potted plant on the windowsill. “It seems that you have a nasty bug infestation. I would call an exterminator.”

Obama examined the circular object Philip removed from beneath the pot. It blinked, a sign that it was still transmitting. “Yes, I think you’re right.”

Philip put the device on the kitchen table. “Do you have anything heavy?”

Obama darted to a closet and retrieved a hammer. “This should suffice.”

“Let’s hope.” Philip smashed the device with the hammer. “Okay, now it’s safe to talk.”

“Good, because I’ve got a lot of questions. Like who bugged my house? The Russians?”

Philip shook his head. “The CIA I’m sorry to say.”

“The CIA? Why would the CIA be spying on me? What’s going on?”

“Do you remember the briefing every president gets after winning the presidency? The one about the Retikkees, the Vijics, Engineer Un, and the Roswell Incident of 1947?”

Obama pictured dead aliens suspended in tanks. “Yes. Do you realize that briefing is classified Omega Red? Only the President, the Joint Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and the Secretary of Defense have clearance to see it. I haven’t even discussed it with Michelle.”

Philip nodded. “Nor have I Hazel. Pence told me that Trump was also kept in the dark.”

“He and Michael Flynn. Unprecedent I realize, but we knew Flynn was compromised by the Russians. The Russians already know about the Retikkees—"

“But there’s no telling who else Flynn might have squealed to.”

“And we couldn’t risk Trump tweeting the existence of aliens. We weren’t worried about the public finding out about the Retikkees, but the Vijics—”

“People would be rioting in the streets if they learned that the Lizard People were real.”

“Indeed. It’s bad enough Alex Jones rants about them. Still, it has been five million years since the Vijics last visited Earth, unless you’re saying that’s changed.”

“Not to my knowledge. I imagine we would all be dead if they had.”

Obama frowned. “Okay, if this is not about them, then why did you bring it up?”

“Because.” Philip let out a deep sigh. “What if I told you that there exists a race of humans that have the telepathic abilities of a Retikkee and the acid blood of a Vijic, but are slaves to a Christian order whose ideology is identical to al Qaida? Now, what would you say if I added that this secret cult has, for decades, been infiltrating our government, placing their people in key positions of power within FEMA, the CIA, the FBI, and even the military.”

Obama eyed the smashed listening device. Could Philip be telling the truth? He shook his head. “You’re talking about the deep state. Doesn’t exist.”

Philip grabbed Obama’s arms. “It does exist. It’s called the Cabal, and it engineered the civil war and assassinated Downey to get di Conti elected president.”

“And why would this Cabal do that? What is di Conti to them?”

“Di Conti is a Grand Inquisitor within their order. He means to destroy our republic.”

Obama took a step back, still skeptical. “Do you have any proof?”

Philip gestured to the hallway. “If you come with me, I will introduce you to one of these human telepaths, and she will give you all the proof you need.”

Billy and Mellissa waited for his father and President Obama at a pub a few blocks away. Fearing that the Cabal might be spying on the Obamas, they felt it would be best if Philip confronted Obama alone and then met them later at an undisclosed location. Philip wouldn’t even know where to meet them, only the route he should take.

Mellissa stood guard on the pub's roof, acting as a spotter, while Billy leaned beside the establishment’s entrance. He scanned the road for his dad’s limousine.

Forty-five minutes later, the black vehicle turned a corner and approached. Billy waited for his fiancé to give a telepathic all clear before stepping out and waving at them. The limousine stopped, and he escorted his father and Obama to the back of the pub.

There they found Mellissa sitting at a corner table; her clothes damped from being out in the rain. They told Obama their story. He didn’t believe them, not until his fiancé performed a mind meld. From that moment on, they talked only about how best to remove di Conti. Obama and Philip were for impeachment, whereas Mellissa favored a more extreme approach.

“Impeachment might have worked with Trump and Nixon, but it won’t with di Conti,” she said. “We should be bringing our case before the other world leaders.”

“Are you suggesting we get the other nations to invade America?” Obama asked.

“Yes,” Mellissa said. “They alone have the strength to take di Conti down.”

“China would never give back any territory it conquered,” Philip said, “and while I think Volkov is sincere in her intentions to turn Russia into a liberal democracy, I still don’t trust her, not when it comes to the national security of the United States.”

Billy nodded. “I’m with dad on this. Besides, whatever choice we make, we need legitimacy and the best way to get that is to have all the past presidents on our side.”

Melissa waved her head. “Do you think Trump is going to support us? Seriously? He’s libel to back di Conti solely because Obama opposes him.”

Billy looked his fiancé in the eyes. “No, of course not, but Bush, Clinton, and Pence will.”

“Young Wellman’s right,” Obama said. “If we can prove that di Conti was behind the war, Congress will have no choice but to bring up articles of impeachment.”

“Articles of impeachment?” Mellissa gave Obama a look. “Again, do you think di Conti cares about the rule of law? The only laws he recognizes are those found in Leviticus.”

“I realize that,” Obama said. “But we have to think about what comes next. America is governed at the behest of the people. Like it or not, di Conti won their consent. Yes, he engineered a war and had Downey assassinated to achieve this end, but if we remove him by undemocratic means, we will be destroying the very principles upon which this nation was founded on. No, the only way to depose of di Conti is through Congress.”

Mellissa slammed a fist. “And what if di Conti decides to burn the Congress Building to the ground? It’s not unprecedented. Does the Reichstag Fire ring a bell?”

“Yes, and it took a world war to rid the Earth of Hitler and his Nazis,” Philip said. “And if you bring the other nations in, that’s exactly what we’ll have!”

“News flash. If di Conti stays in power, there will eventually be a world war!”

"Enough." Billy raised his hands. "We can scream all we want, but in the end, we need legitimacy. Otherwise, this will devolve into a bloodbath.”

“Our best bet is still to unite all the ex-presidents behind us,” Obama said.

“But how do we bring them together without raising suspicions?” Billy asked. “We’ve already found a bug in your home and several in my parent’s.”

Obama leaned back in his chair and tapped his chin. He snapped his fingers. “George is hosting a fundraiser to help the cleanup efforts in Los Angeles. All but Trump has agreed to attend. During the gala, we could go upstairs and have a private meeting.”

“There’s just one problem,” Philip said. “Even di Conti will be attending.”

“Which is why I think it’s our best venue,” Obama said. “Di Conti won’t take actions against us while the spotlights are squarely on him.”

Billy frowned. “That might work, but what do we do in the meantime?”

“That all depends on you two,” Obama said. “Your evidence is compelling, but if you want to turn Congress, you’re going to need something more tangible.”

Billy glanced over at Mellissa. “Well, honey, do you have any suggestions?”

Mellissa sighed. “We’re going to need bank records, as well as an up-to-date list of every Cabalist plant inside the CIA and FBI. I know the identities of the members of the High Council, but the acolytes and High Inquisitors are another story. We will also need documentation of what they’ve been doing. That means we’re going to have to infiltrate a Black Site.”

"A Black Site," Obama said. "Are you talking about the Black Sites I had shut down?"

“The Black Sites on foreign soil were closed, but not those in the U.S.,” Mellissa said. “Those are under the control of FEMA. There are about three dozen of them.”

“You’re talking about the concentration camps Alex Jones rants about,” Billy said.

Mellissa cringed. “Alex Jones is not as wrong as you might think. He’s just misinformed about who controls them. That or he’s a Cabalist engaging in misdirection.”

Obama leaned back in his seat. “Could you successfully infiltrate a Black Site?”

“It’s never been attempted, but most are staffed these days with clones,” Mellissa said. “They shouldn’t be a problem, so yes, I believe I could.”

“Well then,” Obama said, “I will leave such matters to you and young Wellman.”

Chapter 5: The Meeting

A few hours later, President di Conti sat in the Oval Office. Standing before him was Energy Secretary Herald Rodriguez, a holdout from the Wellman administration. Some of di Conti’s closest advisors were also in attendance, their gazes directed forward.

A holographic monitor took up the front wall. The words Project Longinus hovered over its top left corner, with a diagram of a power plant taking up the rest of the screen. The building was pentagon-shaped and resting on its roof was possibly the world’s largest radio dish.

“My agency has looked over the designs you’ve provided,” Rodriguez said. “As you can see, the surface structure alone is massive, but it pales in comparison to what lies underneath.”

The image zoomed out, revealing that the power plant rested on a bowl-shaped structure with a tube running down its center like an inverted skyscraper. That alone was an impressive sight, but it didn't end there. A series of pipes connected the facility to the Earth's asthenosphere, some reaching a mind-boggling depth of seventy-five miles.

“Frankly, Mister President, I’m not certain this design is feasible,” Rodriguez said. “This piping for example. The deepest hole ever drilled is the Kola Borehole in Russia. With a diameter of 9 inches, it reaches a depth of 7.5 miles. We’ll have to drill ten times as deep.”

"I hear Asthen Corp is doing promising work," di Conti reassured him.

Rodriguez sighed. “Yes, they have patented a drill that is theorized to be able to burrow to a depth of thirty miles, but that’s still half of what these plans call for.”

Di Conti smiled. “I have full confidence Asthen Corp can figure a workaround." He leaned forward. "You should see this challenge as an opportunity, Mister Secretary.”

Rodriquez lowered his glasses and wiped them with a cloth. “Sir, I feel I must be blunt with you. You claim this facility is some kind of fusion reactor, but these blueprints don’t correspond with any known design, be it a tokamak or laser ignition. Yes, the surface facility bears a superficial resemblance to the Downey Futuristic’s A.L.I.C.E. design, which you claim it is based on, but I have no idea what the subterranean structure does.”

“The Downey Futuristic design had several major defects,” Robert Phillimore said. “The subterranean facility will help augment its… shortcomings."

Rodriquez rewarded Phillimore with a harsh glare before returning his gaze on di Conti. "Sir, I have two PhDs, one in nuclear physics and the other in mechanical engineering, and I still don’t have a clue what half of its parts do. Some appear to be missing.” He gestured to a section of the facility. “For example, I don’t know what goes here.”

Di Conti eyed the spot Rodriguez pointed to: the inverted skyscraper that descended from the surface structure. “It will house—” He searched for the right word. “—batteries.”

“Batteries? What kind of batteries? Antimatter? Nuclear? Chemical? I need to know.”

Di Conti visualized the power source, and his grin widened. “Ah, but I disagree. Now, having reviewed the plans, can your agency give me a timetable for completion?”

“Again, I still have no idea what these batteries are. Do they need to be built?”

“The batteries in question have been in production for decades now.”

“Can I see one of them?”

Di Conti raised a hand. “Again, I have already said no. So, how long?”

Rodriguez scanned the ground before replying. “Twenty years. That’s the best I can do.”

“Twenty years? I realize that this is a daunting project, but surely it won’t take that long.”

Rodriguez exhaled. “Sir, we’re talking about one of the largest construction projects ever attempted, an engineering feat that will surpass the Three Gorges Dam, made all the worse because we have no factories big enough to build some of the parts needed. Not to mention some of the technologies required don’t even exist. Frankly, it might take longer.”

“I see. Well, I expect you to begin construction regardless.” The man was about to object, but di Conti lifted a finger. “This is your top priority. Now leave us.”

Di Conti watched him depart, his rage simmering. How dare he talk back to him? “I want that wetback gone. We should never have kept him on.”

“We had no choice,” Phillimore explained. “The Senate refused to confirm our nominee, and that department is too important to leave understaffed.”

“Then kill him. I don’t care how. Send an Inquisitor. Just get rid of him.”

"Don't you think that's a bit… well, drastic? We could demand his resignation instead."

Di Conti cast Phillimore a menacing gaze. "You saw how that wetback spoke to me. When my great granddaddy was alive, whenever a nigger or a wetback thumb their nose, be it by dating a fine southern bell or refusing to do the task assigned to them, he and his buddies engaged in a good old fashion lynching. Hung their corpses from a tree for all to see."

“This is not the 1920s. We can’t just go around lynching blacks and Latinos anymore.”

“Of course, it’s not! Niggers and wetbacks knew their place back then.”

"Be that as it may, murdering a Secretary is… ill-advised. Some might suspect us of—"

“That’s why I said send an Inquisitor. They can do all sorts of stuff with a crime scene. Make it look like the hit took place elsewhere or that it was a random mugging.”

Phillimore exhaled. “I’ll dispatch an Inquisitor at once.” He paused. “I hate to say this, but the Secretary might have a point. Many senators will bulk—"

Di Conti’s sneer grew more pronounced. “Be careful of what you say next.”

“All I was about to say, my lord, is that this is no Black Site. We’re talking about a trillion dollars. We would have an easier time getting money for the wall.”

"I couldn't care less about that wall," di Conti snapped. "The Heavenly Benefactors placed us in power so that we could build this facility. All their plans hinge on it. I will not fail them or God. If I must starve half of America to get the necessary funding, I will. If I must kill nine-tenths of the population to build it, so be it. The completion of Project Longinus is our number one concern. Everything else is secondary. Do you understand? Well, do you?”

“We might not need Congress, at least not at this time.” Di Conti shifted to his youngest aide, James Richards, a boy barely out of high school, yet already demonstrating great promise with his cunning insight and unquenchable ambition. “Right now, we have several fiscal hawks who won’t budge. Senators John Pool and Ran Paul come to mind. Rather than wasting our energy on them, we should expend our reserves from the Middle East heist.”

“Those funds are meant to build an army of Steel Templars,” di Conti reminded him.

“A design that has yet to be perfected,” James rebutted. “Besides, the longer we delay, the greater we risk disaster, as well as angering our Heavenly Benefactors.”

Di Conti rested back in his chair. “You make a valid point. Very well. Have the necessary funds transferred to—” A light blinked on his desk. “Yes, what is it?”

A holographic image of a robed figure appeared. "My lord, the listening device we had installed in the Obama residence has gone offline. Should we send an Inquisitor?”

Di Conti pondered an appropriate response. He would relish giving such an order, but the Obamas weren’t Secretary Rodriguez. Abbot had plans for them.

“No. Keep monitoring the other presidents. We will deal with them at the appropriate time.”

Two days later, Billy, his fiancé, and his dad were heading back to Heathrow after having a meeting with the Prime Minister of England. Despite their reservations of involving outsiders, both Obama and Philip felt it was best that a trusted few knew. Prince William and Prince Henry attended the meeting, as well as the President of France, who was in London for other matters.

It was his idea that, as part of their demonstration, Mellissa would show off what an Inquisitor could do. On the grounds of Buckingham Palace, his fiancé engaged twenty-four men from the Household Cavalry, the most elite soldiers in the British army. Even when equipped with strength enhancing powered armor, they stood little chance, and to Mellissa’s credit, she dispatched them without causing any lasting damage.

Billy recalled drooping jaws and awestruck expressions as the group observed feats of strength and agility only witnessed before in a superhero movie.

The four leaders had promised to aid America should the need ever arise.

His father escorted them to the terminal. As Mellissa was busy buying their tickets, Billy turned to Dad and said, “What will you and Obama be doing while we infiltrate a Black Site?”

“Obama is headed for Canada to see Prime Minister Jagmeet Singh and inform him of the threat di Conti poses to his people,” Philip said. “Afterwards, he will make his way to Crawford to see Bush. I've got a few things to finish up here; then I'm off to Mexico City. President Ezio Calero needs to be warned. I'll be heading to the fundraiser from there. I expect to see you two. If you’ve got more evidence, great. If not, well, we’ll plan our next move there. Okay?”

Billy nodded, part of him unhappy that they had to split up and not just because he was in no rush to storm a Black Site. “Well, I guess we will see you in a few days. Good luck, Dad.”

As Billy turned, he felt a hand grip his shoulder. “Wait, Son. There’s something I’ve meant to say for the last few days, but I couldn’t… it’s just… well…”

Billy drew closer and comforted his father. “It’s okay, Dad. You can tell me.”

“It’s just…” He chuckled, tears dripping down his cheeks. “When you first told me you were going to work for Downey, I was…. well, shocked. I said some things that I shouldn’t.”

“Dad, we both said things we regretted, but that’s behind us. I forgive you. Let’s move on.”

“No,” Philip said, and he reached for the back of Billy’s neck. “There is something I need to say, and you need to hear it. You were right to abandon me for Downey. I should have let the separatist states leave. I thought I was keeping America together, but now I realize that I was walking into di Conti’s trap. I should have listened to you. I should of—”

“We all make mistakes. What matters is that we learn from them and don’t repeat them.”

“There’s more I need to say,” his father proclaimed. “Downey should have been President, and I should have backed him. I was just too stubborn to see it. I thought we were still living in the era of Clinton and Obama, but the American people have moved on. Now we might be on the verge of another civil war, all because I allowed my pride to blind me.”

“It won’t come to that. We’ll stop di Conti and Supreme Inquisitor Abbot together.”

“No, son, only you can. You and those like you are the future. Me and the other ex-presidents, we’re just here to help you along.”

“Which means the world to me. I don’t want to go through this without you at my side.”

The two remained in that pose, their foreheads pressed against each other’s, for several long seconds, then they withdrew and gazed at one another. Billy didn’t want this moment to end. They had come full circle. Once so close that Billy could never have imagined a time when they would not be allies, only to be torn apart by opposing ideologies. Now they were a team again, and once more, Billy felt like they could overcome any obstacle placed in front of them.

The silence lasted a moment longer, then Mellissa tapped Billy on the shoulder. “Honey, I’ve got our tickets. We can head to customs whenever you’re ready.”

Billy nodded before saying, “Thank you.” He turned to his father. “We better get going.”

Philip bobbed his head. “Yeah, that would be best. Well, goodbye you two.”

“Goodbye, Dad.” Billy gazed at his father one last time, then turned and headed for customs.

Chapter 6: The Visitor

Long after everyone else had gone home, Secretary Rodriguez sat at his desk within the Energy Agency. Several posters plastered the walls, including one with a flying saucer taking up the foreground and the words “I Believe” printed above in large font.

As he gazed at his computer screen, Rodriguez started wondering if aliens had designed the blueprint he was staring at. This Project Longinus had nothing to do with fusion. The equations beside it were complex, almost undecipherable, even to a man of his high intellect. It hinted to a yet undiscovered fifth force, something unrelated to electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear force, or even gravity. Something that had to do with the mind.

The mind, Rodriguez thought. That made no sense. Besides the power of imagination, what else could the human brain contribute? It certainly couldn't power a lightbulb.

Rodriguez’s gaze turned to the inverted skyscraper. It supposedly housed batteries. What would a power plant need with batteries? Its function was to generate—

The icon for his interagency messaging account blinked. Rodriguez clicked on it, and text appeared. I hear you’ve been tasked with constructing Project Longinus.

Rodriquez squinted at the id address. It was blank. How was that possible?

He typed, Who are you and how did you get my e-mail?

How I got it is not important. As for who I am, people know me as the Visitor. What’s critical is that people learn that Project Longinus is a Trojan horse.

A Trojan horse, Rodriguez wrote. What do you mean? What kind of power plant is it?

It doesn't generate power. It consumes it, and fusion doesn't make the energy it consumes.

A diagram popped up on Rodriguez’s monitor, a blueprint of the battery the President said the inverted skyscraper would house. Rodriguez gulped.

“Those monsters,” he said aloud. “Those inhuman monsters. How could they do that?”

He crafted his next message. I need to know what Project Longinus is. What’s its function?

A new window materialized, and Rodriguez stared, horrified. Text appeared beneath the window. This is the nightmare that awaits your species should you not act.

“The president’s insane,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve gotta warn others. I’ve gotta—”

Behind him, metal clicked into position. Rodriquez turned, the last thing he saw was the strange obsidian eyes of a woman holding a pistol.

Chapter 7: Beginning Their Investigation

Billy’s and Mellissa’s flight from Heathrow to McCarran International Airport had taken seventeen hours, with a six-hour stopover at New York City. It was almost five o’clock by the time their plane reached Las Vegas, and they reckoned they had only three hours of daylight remaining. After passing customs and retrieving their luggage, they hailed a taxi and went searching for a hotel, a task that proved more difficult than Billy imagined.

Las Vegas, once known for its lavish hotels and opulent casinos, had been the site of several battles during the civil war, and it still carried the scars of that conflict. Caesars Palace, which Billy and Mellissa passed as their taxi headed up the Las Vegas Strip, now featured a seven-story-size hole in its northern tower, while a crater took the place of the three fountains at its entrance. Other hotels were in even worst condition, and few were renting out.

In the end, the two were forced to spend the night in a motel. The next day, they rented a pickup truck, procured the equipment they would need to infiltrate the Black Site, and headed southeast, down Interstate Fifteen towards Mojave National Preserve.

Two hours later, they departed Interstate Fifteen and entered the preserve, a rugged, desolate landscape with a few mountains looming off in the distance.

Billy sat in the passenger seat, while Mellissa was behind the wheel. The afternoon sun hovered over them, its light glinting in Billy’s eyes, forcing him to look away. “So, what more can you tell me about the Black Site were heading to?” he asked.

Mellissa made a right turn and headed down a dirt road. “Most of the Black Sites are just oversize prisons, designed for the day when the Cabal takes over and needs somewhere to dump political prisoners and other malcontents. Now that that day is fast approaching, they will likely be buzzing with activity. However, there exists a second set of Black Sites.”

Billy frowned. “What function does this second set of Black Sites serves?”

“They specialize in the raising and training of Inquisitors.”

“The raising and training of Inquisitors? Shouldn’t we avoid those?”

“They are heavily guarded, but so are all Black Sites, but most of the Inquisitors there will be children or clones. Dangerous, but not to the same degree as adults.”

Clones? A shiver traveled down Billy's spine. "How recent are these clones?"

“Very recent,” Mellissa said. “My father is the progenitor of all Inquisitors, save my aunt of course, but natural born Inquisitors mature at roughly the same rate as humans.”

“Meaning it takes decades to grow a sizeable army. Not ideal if you want to police the U.S.”

“Or take over the world,” Mellissa added. “I have never seen how these clones are created, but I’m told it takes only a few months for them to reach adulthood.”

A few months, Billy thought. That seemed wrong to him, but then again, so did cloning.

Mellissa spun the wheel, and they veered around a corner and straightened, a tableland towering in the distance. “The Black Site we’re headed for is the one I grew up in. I haven’t seen it in years, but I’m familiar with its layout. That should aid in our infiltration.”

Billy grimaced. “I imagine it won’t be as easy as walking up and asking for a guided tour.”

“No. They’ll shoot us on sight if we did that.” Mellissa pointed to the tableland. “There’s a canyon dividing that mesa. On the other side is the Black Site.”

Billy scanned the tall natural structure. “Why do I have a feeling we’re going to climb that?”

"What do you think I bought the glider for?" She gestured to the disassembled glider in the pickup's rear. "We'll make our descent at night. There's an obstacle course on the east side of the compound, next to the urban warfare and pacification complex. We'll hide the glider there."

Billy continued to eye the tableland. He couldn’t be sure from this distance, but he doubted its plateau was more than 1100 feet above sea level. That didn’t give them much room to maneuver, and that was just one of his concerns. “And once we get inside and acquire our evidence, then what? How do you suggest we exit the facility undetected? Not by glider.”

“I was thinking of hijacking the fastest vehicle I can find and ramming the front gate.”

“That’s not exactly subtle.”

Mellissa chuckled. “Honey, flying a glider into a Black Site isn’t subtle either, but unless you’ve got a cloak of invisibility, it’s the best plan we’ve got.”

“No, I left that at my folk’s house, along with my magic flying carpet.”

“You have a flying carpet? Well, I wish you’d told me this sooner. You would have saved me the hassle of renting this glider for the day.”

Billy gave her a look. “You do realize I was being sarcastic?”

“I know you were trying, my dear. It was a good effort.”

Billy rolled his eyes, then glanced out the window. A while later, they reached the cliff face.

They departed the pickup, and Billy went for his climbing gear, while Mellissa dashed up the diagonal wall like a spider on webbing. Billy was just starting his ascent when she reached the top. She bent down and hollered, “Dearie, would you like a hand up?”

“You just have to show off,” he mumbled. “No, my love, I’m fine,” Billy grunted as he reached for a protrusion in the wall, then having gotten a firm grip, pulled himself up until he inserted his hand inside a tiny crevice. The act required all his upper body strength, and as he went for the next protrusion, he swore that he would go to the gym more regularly.

“Are you sure?” Mellissa said, who now held up a rope in one hand. “It would be no trouble.”

Sweat dripped down Billy’s brow. “Nay. I’m managing just fine. Thanks for asking.”

Mellissa gave him a concerned look. “If you’re sure. Just remember, you’ve got more strength in your legs than your arms. Rely on them instead.”

“Thanks. Now, let me concentrate.” Billy paced himself, as well as did what his fiancé suggested, and reached the top after what seemed like forever.

Billy crawled up the ledge and panted. “See. No trouble.”

“Well, it took you long enough. Now we need to head back to the truck.”

Billy forced himself to sit up. “Why? We were just there.”

“Yeah, and now we need to return. We’re going to take it to the Black Site.”

“But, I thought we were going to use the glider to infiltrate the base.”

“That was before I had discovered that this place had become abandoned,” Mellissa said as she handed Billy a pair of binoculars.

He took it and after catching his breath, got up and eyed the site. “No lights. No guards. No nothing. Yeah, it’s abandoned, but where did all the Inquisitors get shipped off to?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Mellissa said. “But hey, look at the bright side. At least we don’t have to go sneaking about. That’s something, right?”

Billy turned to her and exhaled. "It would if you had told me this before I did the climb."

Chapter 8: An Unwanted Pregnancy

Hundreds of miles away, Chen awoke in the back of a sixteen-wheeler. Darkness consumed the trailer, but her Inquisitor eyes converted the body heat of her sisters into thermal light, enough that she could get an outline of her surroundings. She looked up to see her arms chained to the horizontal bar of a metal cross. She tried to raise her legs but discovered that they were fastened to the lower diagonal bar.

Her ears picked up the hum of a diesel engine. They were in transit but to where? Most likely back to the Black Site she had escaped from, Chen reckoned.

Minutes later, the truck came to a stop, and the rear of the trailer opened. Light poured through, stark at first, but soon her eyes adjusted.

A conveyor belt built into the trailer’s floor cranked, and hers and the other crosses exited the vehicle. She was confronted not with the familiar sights of the Black Site, but a military base, one that was cut in half by the largest runway she had ever seen. Dozens of hangers towered in the distance, and a nearby sign read Area 51. Area 51? Oh, no.

The cross she was on rotated sixty degrees, and she found herself staring at the pungent smile of High Inquisitor Cain. “I hope you enjoyed your trip.”

Chen snarled. "Where have you taken my sisters and me?"

“You are the property of the United States government. You get to demand nothing.”

“I won’t fight for you,” Chen said. “Do you understand? I won’t kill. Ever.”

Cain drew closer, and his grin widened. "That's alright, dearie. We don't need you to fight. Just that you give us an endless supply of soldiers."

He withdrew, then a crane lowered and lifted her cross. Chen soon found herself flying down a conveyer belt, one that traveled the length of the facility.

Chen struggled against her restraints, but they wouldn't budge. What kind of metal were they using, she thought as she approached a building. A trap door opened, and seconds later, her trip ended with her confined to a small room. Mechanical arms dangled above her, some ending with pincers or tiny fingers, while others were fitted with long needles.

An artificial voice emitted from a speaker. “Lasers online. Beginning clothing removal.”

Her skin warmed until her clothes fell off, and she was naked.

“Clothing removal completed,” the voice said. “Beginning DNA extraction.”

An arm lowered. It rotated and positioned itself behind her, and Chen experienced a sharp jab in her back. She cried out, her shrieks competing with the wail of the drill.

The pain eventually came to an end. “DNA extracted. Beginning in vitro fertilization.”

A monitor above her blinked to life. It displayed a human egg. A needle containing DNA – her DNA – approached it and injected the egg with her life’s essence.

Oh god, they’re going to clone me, Chen thought, and she resumed her struggle.

“In vitro fertilization completed. Beginning implantation process.”

A new mechanical arm descended, this one ending with a metal shaft, like the tail of a scorpion. Realizing its intent, Chen clamped her legs shut.

“Three Four Eight Nine,” Cain said over the speakers. “Don’t fight it. Embrace your destiny.”

More mechanical arms dropped, and they forced her legs to spread. The shaft, cold and unwelcomed, entered her vagina. Chen cried out, her final protest, as her inners were violated, and the eggs flew up her uterus to connect with its outer lining.

“Implantation completed. Transporting breeder Three Four Eight Nine to the nursery.”

From a booth above, Cain watched the impregnation process with interest.

In total, the procedure had only taken ten minutes. He imagined it would’ve gone longer if human doctors were involved, not to mention more dangerous. Three Four Eight Nine might have been unable to resist hydraulic arms, but human bones she could snap with ease.

A shame, he thought as he watched Three Four Eight Nine be carried away, that she couldn’t appreciate the gift he’d bestowed on her. Motherhood was the highest calling for a woman, the sole purpose for which God created them. Not getting a career or being promiscuous as feminists would have you believe, who, in truth, saw women as nothing more than selfish, grimy whores who would rather debase their bodies then serve the Lord.

No, Cain had saved her from that. Now she would get to experience the joys of childbirth again and again, and without having to be despoiled by the act of sex.

“Without being tainted by sex,” Cain whispered, the word sex ending in a sharp hiss. It suddenly dawned on him that the woman was doubly blessed. In a sense, she was a modern-day Virgin Marry. Her children would have no father, and like Jesus, be born to atone for Eve’s crimes. They would suffer and die, as should all who carry the mark of original sin, but through their tribulations, they would be sanctified, and through their actions, be it by spying on the citizenry or assassinating the Cabal’s enemies, they would save humanity.

With his moment of reflection over, Cain made his way to the nursery, descending several flights of stairs, exiting into the courtyard, and entering another building.

He scanned the hanger-sized nursery. It had only been partly built when he’d last visited, and its occupants were then forced to rest on makeshift tables. Now the tables had been removed, and they were strapped to crosses, their fat bellies hanging like overgrown tumors.

“An amazing sight. Each breeder contains twenty fetuses, and each one is a clone of them.”

Cain turned to see Area 51’s chief scientist, Wilbert Hamstring, approach. They shook hands.

“Thank you for letting me witness the impregnation process,” Cain said.

“You’re welcome. I’m betting you want to see how our newest breeder is faring.” Hamstring escorted Cain to Three Four Eight Nine’s cross.

The woman, who had been so defiant when they first met, now slumbered, her dangling hair hiding much of her naked body. Tubes had been attached to both her back and abdomen and a liquid could be seen flowing through them, though Cain was clueless as to its function.

Hamstring pointed to Three Four Eight Nine. “As you can see, we have given her a mild sedative – well, for an Inquisitor anyways – to keep her quiet, as well as a concoction of human growth hormones and other chemicals to accelerate the development of the twenty fetuses inside her. They should become viable for tanking in a month and training in five.”

“And deployment in six. Six months from fertilization to deployment,” Cain said. “This technological wonder you’ve created never ceases to amaze.”

“I’m glad that you approve. We take great pride in the work we do here.”

“My wife is with child. If I gave her these drugs, would they shorten her pregnancy?”

“Yes. It would reduce it to fifteen days or less, but I would strongly advise against it.”

Cain turned to the man. “Oh, and why is that?”

“Inquisitors are far more resilient than humans. I’m afraid your wife would not survive?”

Cain grabbed his chin. “I see. I guess I’ll just have to put up with her whining. Oh, have you picked a name for Three Four Eight Nine’s model number?”

“Not yet,” Hamstring said. “Why? Do you have a suggestion?”

Cain eyed the sleeping Inquisitor. “In fact, I do. Call them… Inquisitor Chen.”

Chapter 9: The Black Site

Minutes later, Billy and Mellissa returned to their pickup before heading for the abandoned Black Site. They drove past an old sign that indicated that the area was the property of the United States government and that trespassers would be shot.

Billy let out a whistle as they drew closer. The facility was easily the size of the largest of prisons and likely dwarfed most military bases. There was even a runway on the northern side, big enough for a 747 to take off from. How did the Cabal, or was it FEMA, managed to acquire funding for something this large from Congress? Did Congress approve of it, or was it part of the various black projects the CIA ran? "So, this is the deep state."

"More or less," Mellissa said. "Every time a hurricane hits a town, or a flood destroys a city; Congress gives FEMA tens of billions of dollars to rebuild."

“And the Cabal skims a little off the top to construct and maintain these Black Site.”

“Yep. It only takes a few million to operate these bases. A drop in the bucket. The military, when America still had one, wasted more on camouflaged pants.”

Billy shook his head, dumbfounded. He had always known that Washington was corrupt, that lobbyists and corporations bought senators and members of Congress, but this seemed to blow his past preconceptions out of the water. How many bureaucrats were paid to look the other way? How many politicians accepted campaign donations – legalized bribes might be a better word to call them – to attach these Black Sites to appropriation bills, Black Sites that were ultimately meant to imprison hundreds of thousands of Americans?

Billy continued to shake his head in disgust. Didn't they realize that they were placing their own heads the chopping block? What did this mean for democracy? If shown proof of di Conti’s crimes, would Congress act or would an armed uprising be necessary?

Mellissa gave him a glance. “So, what is really troubling you? I’ve been telling you for over a year now how the Cabal has gamed the system.”

Brent sighed, feeling flustered. "I have finally reconciled with my father, but the reason we grew apart was that he declared war with the secessionist states."

“Your dad thought letting them leave would destroy America,” Mellissa said.

“I get that, and he told me that he regretted it. But here we are, about to sneak into a Cabal Black Site, with the hope of finding evidence, so we can get a president impeached. But if we fail, we will have no choice but to start another civil war to remove him.”

Mellissa bit her lip. “Sometimes war is inevitable. Some enemies you can’t reason with. They don’t want a better deal, just to see the world burn.”

His fiancé twirled the wheel, turning the truck left as they approached the main gate. Beyond it was a building with bars on the windows. A prison from the looks of it. Billy stared at the imposing structure, his mind eventually returning to his earlier dilemma.

Billy knew war. Hell, he was a fighter pilot once, had taken countless lives for his country, but he was only following orders back then. He wasn't the one sending people's sons and daughters to die. He wasn't the one deciding which targets would be hit and which people would lose their lives. Would he be a hypocrite to start a war now? Could he live with himself?

A cracking sound awoke Billy from his thoughts, a horizontal pole snapping in two when Mellissa drove the truck through the front gate.

“Well, I said I was going to ram that gate,” Mellissa proclaimed.

Billy chuckled. “Well, that’s one more item you can check off your bucket list.”

Mellissa brought the pickup to a stop beside the administration building. They got out and gathered their gear. Billy holstered a pistol to his belt, along with a pocket knife. The site might appear abandoned, but coyotes could have taken up residence.

After he’d strapped his backpack on, Billy picked up one of the two video cameras they’d brought. “Do you think we will find any clues as to where they went?”

“Doubtful.” Mellissa reached for the other camera and turned on the built-in flashlight. “Still, some evidence is better than none. At least we won’t have to fight our way out.”

Billy nodded and followed Melissa inside. A flip of a nearby light switch told them that the installation was without power. They traveled down darken corridors, the only source of light being sunlight peeking through tiny holes. Their flashlights illuminated cobwebs, as well as dust on windows, both signs that this Black Site had been abandoned for a while.

They took a left and traveled down another corridor. Dry blood splattered across its floor, some of which had eaten to the level below. Billy pointed his camera at the hole. "Acid blood. Well, we can confirm that Inquisitors were here. That'll back up your story."

“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to that,” Mellissa said. “Testifying before Congress that is.”

“You have nothing to worry about. They will believe you.”

“That’s not what worries me,” his fiancé said and continued down the hall.

Billy grimaced, then followed. They soon finished searching the first building, a nursery Billy figured, one designed to accommodate hundreds of infants. They crossed a ditch as they made their way to the next building, fragments of bone sticking out of the dirt. They found shovels and began digging. Thirty minutes later, they uncovered hundreds of bodies.

Billy brought the skull of an infant close to his face. “I thought the Cabal was pro-life.”

"Pro-birth. Once you're born, they couldn't care less about you." Mellissa lifted the rib of an adult and snapped it in two. "This bone is too brittle to be an Inquisitor. My guess: human. Our mothers were runaways or slaves brought in from around the world. Those who didn't meet the requirements or got too old to continue giving birth were put down."

“Put down?” Billy eyed the bone. “What kind of criteria were the Cabal screening for?”

“The usual. Intelligence and athleticism, but physical beauty was also a requirement. Do you think it was by accident that I look like a supermodel?”

“Well, I have to say that I’ll be forever indebted to them for that.”

Mellissa eyed him. “I see. So, you approve of what they did to these women.”

“No! Of course, not, but that doesn’t mean nothing good came out of it. You for example.”

“And you appreciate the fact that I’m every guy’s wet dream.”

Sweat dripped down Billy’s brow, and his throat constricted. “Well, yes. Look. Don’t get me wrong. You have many other fine qualities. You’re strong willed and brilliant. But I would be lying if I didn’t say I was initially drawn to you because of your looks.”.

A long silence befell them, one made more uncomfortable by his fiancé’s penetrating glare. Her lips twitched upwards. “Nice save, fly guy.”

Billy exhaled, then shifted his gaze back to the skull. “So, any idea why they killed this kid?”

"From the size of the skull, I'm guessing either due to a birth defect or being male."

Billy frowned as he imagined the victims’ final hours. The babies would have been clueless of what was transpiring, but what about the women? Did they know they were about to die? He examined the bones but found no signs of bullet holes. Could they have been gassed? He shuddered at the thought. “I’d hoped this kind of evil died with the Nazis.”

"Hitler got his views on Jews from reading Martin Luther, so it shouldn't come as a shock."

Billy looked up. “You’re not suggesting the founder of Protestantism was a Cabalist.”

“Supreme Inquisitor Martin Luther? Yes.”

Mellissa got to her feet and headed deeper into the facility. They entered a cafeteria, but instead of finding long tables were children would typically gather and chat while they ate, they were met by rows of cubicles, each cubicle containing a single desk and chair.

Billy dusted off a sign that hung before one. “No talking or thinking is permitted. Consume your food in a timely fashion, then clean up, and leave the cafeteria.”

“Not exactly what you remember from your years in grade school I’m betting.”

Billy eyed the sign again. “No. What happens to those who misbehave?”

Mellissa headed for a door at the far corner. It opened to a courtyard, where a jungle gym stood, or so Billy thought until he noted chains were dangling from it.

"Lunchtime ends, and the children are brought here," Mellissa explained. "They are made to watch as the misbehaving child is hung from those chains and receives twenty lashes from a barbed whip. Afterward, all the children are forced to run for ten miles. No big deal for we Inquisitors, even as children, but imagine doing so on an empty stomach."

Billy tried to visualize the act and yet couldn’t. He didn’t want to. Was there any bottom to the Cabal’s cruelty? “Were… were you ever disciplined?”

“Yes. On multiple occasions. Thankfully, vijicroid heals all wounds.”


“A synthetic hormone. Lets us Inquisitors heal like the X-Man Wolverine.”

Billy nodded, and they headed back inside and left the cafeteria behind for an adjacent hallway, one they continued down until they reached what Mellissa called ‘the dormitories.’ Scanning the spartan accommodations, Billy found her choice of words perplexing.

He recalled his undergrad years at Oxford. The dorms there, where college-aged students would frolic about and party when not studying for exams, were lively places, each room personalized with posters, trinkets, and hand-me-down furniture. They were places of experimentation and self-discovery, where youngsters grew, sometimes with little regard to the laws and norms of society, from teens to adults. This place, on the other hand, with hallways partitioned off by barred doors, made Billy think of a maximum-security prison.

He followed Mellissa until she came to a stop before a door and scraped the dust off the label. “One Three Three One – Mellissa. This is your room,” Billy said.

“I don’t understand. Why was my room not reassigned after I graduated?”

“You said your dad valued you more than the rest. Perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to have it reassigned. My parents still keep my old room as I left it.”

“Your parents love you. My father…” She went silent. “I have a sick feeling I’m going to find a shrine of me on the other side, maybe even nude pictures.”

His fiancé’s hand lingered on the door handle. Billy grabbed it. “You don’t have to.”

Mellissa turned the nob. “Yes, I do.”

She pulled the door, revealing a small reticular room, with a barred window at the rear, a toilet and a washbasin on the left corner, and a single bed on the right.

“So, this is where you spent your formative years,” Billy said. “It’s… well, spars.”

“I realize that it’s not much compared to your childhood, with butlers and nannies attending to your every need, but for the longest time, this cell was my entire world.” Mellissa approached a wall and rubbed the grime off with her fingers, exposing faded colored drawings underneath. “Dad would give me markers every other week. I was the only one who got them. He told me not to tell my sisters. Of course, they eventually found out.”

Billy came up behind her and eyed the life-like renderings. “How did they take the news?”

“Most didn’t care, but Sophia did. She was always trying to win father’s approval, but nothing she did was good enough. She could be a real bitch at times.”

Tears dripped down Melissa’s cheeks, her shoulders trembling as her body quivered.

“It’s just… I have no idea what became of Sophia. Is she still alive? Has she been cloned?”

Billy grimaced, remembering that Mellissa had already faced clones of her aunt. How painful must that have been, seeing your aunt for a moment, tricked into believing that she was still alive, only to discover that you were confronting a stranger with an identical face? Billy imagined how he would react if someone had cloned his dead brother. Badly he reckoned.

Billy kneeled beside her and began stroking her back. “It’s okay. Everything will be alright.”

“Alright?” Mellissa sobbed. “Nothing is right. My sisters are either dead or cloned. I have no idea where their bodies are buried. They might just be lying in some ditch.”

"Once di Conti is impeached, and he and your father have been tried and imprisoned for their crimes, your people will be freed. We will find your dead and bury them."

“Will we? You say that the Cabal is an aberration, but are they really? Is the way they treat my sisters any different than how your ancestors treated slaves or Native Americans?”

Billy spun her around and gripped her tightly. “We Americans fought a war to end slavery.”

“You still mistreat the Native Americans. You still break treaties, misappropriate their lands.”

“You’ve got to have faith that God has a plan. He will not let your people’s subjugation—"

“God?” Mellissa rubbed her eyes. “You mistake that I share yours or my father’s belief in an all-powerful deity. If God is real and he is all good, then he can’t be all-powerful. If he is all-powerful, then he cannot be all good. Oh, and don’t even tell me the story of original sin. It’s a copout. An all-knowing deity wouldn’t create such a silly little thing like the Tree of Knowledge. He would know that such a device would undo his perfect creation.”

Billy stared at his beloved, hurt by her words, but chose not to react.

"Face it," Mellissa said. "This universe is a cruel and unforgiving place. A benevolent creator wouldn't have designed worms that eat their way out of little children's eyes. He wouldn't have made tumors or given me blood that burns through carpets. If he were real and good, my people would never have been enslaved in the first place. No, if God is real, then he is a being of pure evil, someone that makes Satan look like a guy you would like to have a drink with."

“If you don’t believe in God, then believe in humanity,” Billy said. “When the American people become aware of the Cabal’s activities, they will—"

Mellissa waved her hands. "Look at this place. American taxpayers funded this hellhole. Did anyone ask where the money was going? Well, did they?"

“They didn’t know. Once the American people learn the truth, they will—"

“Will what? Do you honestly think they will grant my people freedom?”

“Yes. Not everyone is as evil as the Cabal.”

“Wake up. My people are living weapons. Your Congress will never free us. If we want freedom, we must take it. By force if necessary.”

Billy stared at his fiancé. There was nothing he could say that would relieve her of her fear. Her pain. Instead, he just allowed her to cry on his shoulder.

Minutes passed, and Mellissa’s wails echoed throughout the facility.

Chapter 10: The Sister

At Area 51, Sophia Pavlovich strolled down hallways. Few Inquisitors were granted this privilege these days, not since her sister Mellissa had betrayed the Cabal, but Sophia’s dedication to the order was beyond question. Even so, acolytes and other base personnel regarded her with suspicion, as well as whispered behind her back.

Sophia ignored them. She had earned the right to walk these halls unaccompanied. What Mellissa or the other renegade Inquisitors had done changed nothing.

Sophia turned a corner and stopped at the second door on the right. She stepped through it to find her father, Supreme Inquisitor Abbot, standing before a glass tube, a corpse frozen in a block of ice housed within. A closer examination revealed it to be her aunt.

With his gaze still focused on the corpse, he said, "Your Aunt Catherina was the greatest warrior I had ever known, yet she was never a true believer like you or me."

“That is why she betrayed you. I will never make that mistake, father. I am a believer.”

Abbot turned, his expression sorrowful. “Perhaps, though failure is just as bad as betrayal.”

Those last words stung like salt over an open wound. Hadn’t Sophia proven herself time and again? Hadn’t she been nothing but faithful, unlike her no-good sister Mellissa, who betrayed her and the organization they swore an oath to, and for what? A guy with a pretty face. How could their father still consider her his most beloved daughter? It wasn’t fair.

Sophia bowed. “I will not fail you again, father. You have my word.”

“We will see, child. We shall see. Now follow me.” Abbot folded his hands into his sleeves and exited the room. “Have you felt it? In the ether. Your sister’s call.”

Sophia frowned, recollecting the moment Mellissa had sent every Inquisitor her message using their psychic bond. She had quickly shut herself off, yet parts of it filtered through. “Yes, a call to action. A call to become Nephilim. I warned you that she would turn.”

"Yes, you did. It appears that Mellissa has chosen the same path as her aunt. And now her recent behavior forces me to take an act I had hoped to avoid."

“Yes, you let her go in the Canadian wilderness,” Sophia noted. “My soldiers and I were nearing the combat zone. We could have intercepted them and—”

“And what? Terminate your own sister? It’s not as easy as you might think.”

Sophia glanced sideways. “You did it with Aunt Catherina. I would have ended her as well.”

Abbot raised an arm, and the lighting above them darkened as a light bulb twirled, descended from the ceiling, and landed in his palm. "It was the heartbreak of taking your aunt's life that unlocked my telekinesis powers. I loved your aunt. I would have done almost anything to keep her with us, except betray Jesus Christ, which was what she asked of me."

He took a deep breath and turned to face Sophia. “We are but instruments of God’s will. Humanity is counting on us to bring everlasting peace to this world. Your aunt didn’t get this, neither it seems does Mellissa. Despite what you might tell yourself, you will find killing your sister no easier than I did. Still, it is your test, just as your aunt was mine.”

Sophia gulped. Was she hearing her father correctly? Did he just give her permission to hunt down and terminate Mellissa? “I will not fail you, father.”

“See that you don’t,” Abbot said in a stern voice before walking up to a door and waving a hand. The door parted, opening to unveil a room populated by metal crosses. One of her sisters hung from each, naked and in a sedated state. Their bellies, enlarged from carrying twenty of their clones, drooped like bags full of water. Sophia shivered at the sight.

Her father pointed to an empty cross. "This will be your fate if you fail me, Daughter. Find your sister, kill her, and return to me with her head."

Sophia stared at the empty cross. Her cross should she fail. “Yes, father.”

The next morning, President di Conti sat on a couch within Air Force One at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston, Texas. On the opposite wall of his cabin, a monitor displayed a morning news show. He couldn't recall, nor did he care, if he had ever met the people that made up the panel. Morning shows were all the same these days, be it Morning Joe on MSNBC, New Day on CNN or Fox and Friends on Fox News. They were made up of sleazy ex-politicians, groveling yes men, condescending journalists, toady lobbyists, and other Washington insiders. All elitist pricks who were entirely out of touch with the American people, and yet who smugly assumed that they had their fingers on the pulse of the nation.

Di Conti nursed a martini as he focused on a pretty host, her blonde hair tied up in a bun. She gazed at the camera and said, “Today, President di Conti will be heading to Huston, Texas to participate in the fundraiser being hosted by President Bush to help rebuild Los Angeles after the devastating Battle of L.A., where damage done to the Arroyo Pescadero Nuclear Facility unleashed a radioactive cloud that has resulted in thousands of deaths.”

The camera panned on her cohost. “I have to say that I didn’t see this coming. Di Conti has shown the former presidents nothing but contempt, particularly Bush.”

“Well, everyone knows di Conti doesn’t like the Republican Party’s old guard,” another said.

“With the civil war over, I think di Conti is coming to realize the need to build bridges, not just with the Republican establishment, but the Democrats as well,” the blonde host replied.

An older gentleman shook his head. “I think you’re all kidding yourselves if you think this is nothing but a publicity stunt. Di Conti isn’t going to change.”

“That’s not exactly fair,” the blonde host said. “Yes, di Conti has used divisive rhetoric on the campaign trail, but he’s president. The office has an effect—”

“Did the office of the presidency change Donald Trump?” The gentlemen asked.

Another pundit frowned. “I think that’s a little uncalled for.”

“Is it?” The gentlemen said. “Don’t you see the similarities with Trump or Nixon?”

“No,” di Conti said to himself, his martini only a few inches from his lips. “For starters, when I conspire against America, I don’t get caught.”

“I’ll admit that di Conti shares their… indifference to political correctness,” the pundit said.

“And their talent for race baiting and demagoguing minorities and other disadvantaged groups,” the gentlemen added, his hand smacking against the table.

“Yes, but both Trump and Nixon were accused of conspiracy. Di Conti isn’t under any FBI investigation. There are no accusations of conclusion or obstruction of justice. You might object to the words he uses on the campaign trail, but he is squeaky clean.”

“To our knowledge. For all we know, he was behind Downey’s death. No, there’s something wrong with this president, and I attend to find out what.”

Di Conti snarled. “Did you ever hear the saying: curiosity killed the cat?”

“Rob, don’t be paranoid,” replied the blonde. “Di Conti is no murderer, and I’ll make a prediction. Tonight, we’re going to see his pivot to the center.”

“Yes, you would love to see me grovel before the establishment.” Di Conti turned to his guest. “The media often wonders why I won, or why Downey would have beaten me had I not secretly had him killed, and that is because the people have finally woken up to the truth. This truth. That there is no such thing as the Republican or Democratic Party, just the Establishment Party, with one wing of the party being socially conservative and the other wing being socially liberal. What you do in office doesn’t matter, so long as you show the party deference.”

“That’s why they hated Bernie Sanders and Francis Downey. Oh, Sanders engaged in bipartisanship, but did he do what the elites wanted? No. He didn’t fundraise for them. He didn’t tow the party line, and neither would have Downey. The Establishment Party did everything it could to stop them, believing that the public both needed and wanted more yes men, people who only care about making the party and its donors happy. Of course, the public has grown sick of yes men. That’s why they voted for Trump in 2016 and me twelve years later.”

“It almost sounds like you respected those three politicians,” his guest replied.

“Trump?” Di Conti chuckled. “No. Trump’s a modern-day P.T. Barnum. A con man. A swindler. A snake oil salesman. There’s nothing about him to admire, other than his ability to get fools to give him money or votes. As for Sanders and Downey…” Di Conti leaned back and recalled his last debate with Downey. “Both stood in the way of God’s plan, and for that, they had to die. Still, unlike their Democratic colleagues, they didn’t sell themselves off to the highest bidder like cheap prostitutes. I can respect their integrity, misguided as it was.”

Di Conti put down his martini, got out of his seat, and straightened his tie. “I’ve got a rally at ten. You’re not required, but I expect you and your sisters to be at the gala.”

The Inquisitor nodded. “Of course, my lord. None shall see us enter or leave.”

“Good.” Di Conti made his way to the exit of Air Force One and descended the stairway until his foot stepped on the tarmac. He waved at the cameras.

Reporters gathered around him, one shoving her microphone into his face. “Mister President, would you care to comment on the murder of Secretary Rodriquez?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know much that hasn’t already been reported,” di Conti said with a concerned look. “That Herald was ambushed by an illegal alien while jogging near his home.”

Di Conti stifled a self-congratulatory smile. The Inquisitor had done her job well, making it look like the man had died elsewhere. And him using Secretary Rodriquez’s first name added that extra touch of familiarity, as if suggesting they were close friends. It was so out of the norm in Washington, where politicians typically addressed one another by their titles, and only spoke after carefully considering their words, not realizing that made them seem artificial, a robot in a suit. No wonder Trump was able to run circles around them, di Conti thought.

Another reporter pushed his mic towards him. “Mister President, Secretary Rodriquez’s killer hasn’t been caught yet. How do you know it’s an illegal alien?”

“Did I say illegal alien?” Di Conti dipped his lips. “Well, I shouldn’t say anymore, other than that I have full confidence the police will find Herald’s killer.”

Di Conti picked up his pace, certain that the media would run with that, and that soon, talk of illegal aliens and the need for greater border security would dominate the news cycle. The media made it too easy, but then again, these were the same dimwits who were strung around by Trump, and that guy was as subtle as a herd of rampaging elephants.

Chapter 11: Amazing Discoveries

Billy awoke the next morning in Melissa’s old bed, his wife snuggling beside him. Yesterday had been emotionally exhausting for them, though particularly for Mellissa, who Billy had come to realize didn't expect this trip down memory lane would affect her as profoundly as it had. He tried to console her, but in the end, he didn't know what to say. Billy no longer could tell her things for her people would get better because he no longer knew if they would. Their situation was so complicated that he struggled to find comparisons.

In a way, Mellissa's people were like the African Americans brought to the U.S. during the slave trade. No, that wasn't a fair analogy. Africans and Europeans were only separated evolutionary wise by a few thousand years, and the difference in their genes was mostly cosmetic. While individually some Europeans might be smarter, faster or stronger than some Africans, just as the reverse was also true, as a whole, the difference in education and income between blacks and whites in America was socioeconomic, not biological.

Nephilims, or Inquisitors as the Cabal called them, were measurably superior to their human counterparts. If it weren't for the fact that they had started life already enslaved, they would never have found themselves in such a situation. The Cabalists were kidding themselves if they believed they could keep the Nephilims in bondage indefinitely.

Billy grimaced. That presented a problem. His fiancé wasn't paranoid in fearing that Congress might not grant her people freedom. Many would likely recognize that the Nephilims, being a superior species, would probably overrun society if allowed. What human would want to compete with a Nephilim in the labor market when the dumbest of Nephilims was smarter than the most brilliant of humans by several magnitudes?

More troubling, many would be tempted to use the Nephilims in a manner like the Cabal. That thought brought Billy back to the dilemma he had been wrestling with earlier: if it became necessary to start a civil war, would it not make sense to acquire his own army of Nephilims. Who else would be able to counter the Cabal’s army of Inquisitors, but if he did that, if he used the Nephilims as cannon fodder for his quest to liberate America, was he any better than the Cabal? Or was the old saying that the ends justify the means true?

Such thoughts had kept Billy awake for much of the night. In the morning, they had breakfast. Mellissa had caught a coyote and roasted it over a fire.

After breakfast, they searched the other buildings but found little else of note, the Cabal having removed anything that might tell them where they had gone. Their trip finished at a small shack, next to one of the main hangers, which to Billy’s surprise, housed an elevator.

“Where do you think this leads?” Billy asked as he tapped the call button. Nothing happened.

Mellissa dug her fingers into the door and tore it open, revealing a shaft that seemed to go deep into the Earth’s crust. “To the reason I picked this Black Site.”

Billy gazed at the elevator line that ran down it. “You know I can’t survive such a fall.”

“Yes, but I can. Put your arms around my waist and hold on tight.”

Billy did, and Mellissa hopped down the shaft. It felt like they had been falling forever, then their descent slowed when his fiancé gripped the elevator line.

Once again on solid ground, Billy swiped his hand over his brow, while he pointed his camera’s flashlight down a dark corridor. “Goddammit, it feels like we’re in a furnace.”

“Not surprising,” Mellissa said. “We’re almost three miles below the surface. It gets pretty hot at these depths, but don’t sweat yourself. No pun intended.”

Billy turned his flashlight on his fiancé, who headed for a circuit breaker on the far wall. She flipped a switch, and ceiling lights came to life, illuminating the hallway. Seconds later, a cold wind exploded from nearby vents as powerful fans pumped air from the surface.

“Given the depth of this place, I figured it would have its own independent power source, not something you can remove at a moment’s notice,” Mellissa said.

“You said that this was the reason you picked this Black Site. What do you hope to find?”

Mellissa headed down the corridor. “I’ve only been down here once before; the night my aunt died. She had come here to free my grandfather.”

“Your grandfather? You don’t honestly think he’s still down here, do you?”

“Before we learned that this place was abandoned, yes. Now, no. Still, I have so many questions about my people’s origins. Here, we might find some answers.”

Billy escorted his fiancé down one hallway after another. They weren’t as empty as those above. Why was that? Did the Cabal not have time to evacuate them or saw no need? Did they assume anyone who tried to climb down the shaft would fall to their deaths?

Billy waved his flashlight along one wall, then the other. Doors lined them. What they found behind some were more shocking and disturbing than even Billy would have imagined. One appeared to be a laboratory. Within glass tanks filled with a clear liquid, floated deformed infants. They were clearly human, though their deformities varied, with some having enlarged eyes and three-fingered hands, while others looked almost reptilian.

Billy brought his flashlight over a label. “Three Two. Wasn’t your aunt called Three Seven?”

Mellissa nodded. “Yes, and my father is Three Six. Are… are these their siblings?”

Billy eyed the tanks again. “That would be my guess. Failed attempts from the looks of it. We always wondered if your kind was natural or artificial. Now we know.”

“Yes, my people were engineered. Still doesn’t explain where our powers come from.”

Billy nodded. “True. I know of no animal that’s telepathic or has acid for blood.”

They took a few more minutes of video before continuing their journey. Many of the other rooms appeared to be devoted to medical research. They found skeletons resting on operating tables, as well as hanging from metal crosses. Seeing them dangling brought a shiver down Billy’s spine, and he was relieved when they departed for the hallway.

They traversed yet another corridor, the doors here having been spread further apart, and opened one. “Mellissa, don’t move a muscle,” Billy said.

Billy tilted his head as six eyes stared back at him. The snake let out a hiss and coiled its body around the room, the creature easily several hundred feet long. Billy took a step back, both frightened and perplexed. Large, colorful wings sprouted from its back, along with a bony sail. Snakes didn't have wings. Then again, neither were they the length of a football field.

Billy squinted. One of the wings seemed smaller than the other. A deformity perhaps? Maybe. His gaze lowered. The creature did look sickly, with lose scales drooping from saggy skin. Ribs pressed against them. How long since it last ate, Billy wondered.

Mellissa walked forward. “Oh, poor girl. Did they leave you here to die?”

“Honey, why are you going near the giant snake?”

“It’s okay, my love. She means us no harm.” Mellissa approached the creature, and it allowed her to pet its head. “Her kind are called butterfly serpents.”

Billy eyed the giant, still tempted to pull his fiancé away, though as time passed, that urge lessoned. Even sickly, the creature was a majestic specimen, with a colorful feathered headdress that flapped at its sides. “Butterfly serpents? How do you know this?”

“She told me,” Mellissa said. “Her kind are incredibly smart. She even understands English. She could explain this to you if her vocal cords weren’t so primitive.”

Billy took a step forward, still a little fearful of being eaten. “But how are you two communicating? Wait. You’re not suggesting she’s telepathic?”

“Yes and no. A better word would be to say that she’s receptive to my telepathy.”

“Receptive to your telepathy?” Billy scanned the beast. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the fossil record. Could she be engineered like you?”

“I don’t believe so. She says she has memories of a life beyond these walls.”

Billy frowned. “So, the Cabal captured her and brought her to this place.”

“Again, I don’t think so,” Mellissa said as she continued to pet the beast. “I think these are genetic memories, ones she inherited from her forbearers. Oh, and wherever she’s from, it’s not Earth, not unless you know of a place where trees grow to be the size of skyscrapers.”

"I do not." Billy scanned the giant. Not of this Earth? Could this animal be an extraterrestrial? That seemed unlikely, and yet if this creature was an alien, how did it get to Earth? Its wings had no visible appendages like hands that it could use to manipulate its environment. So, it might be as smart as a human, but it would be incapable of building tools, let alone the starship needed to bring it from its home system to Earth. Could someone else have brought it here?

Billy examined the room for any clues. It was relatively non-descriptive, which flustered him. Even if aliens had brought this butterfly serpent to Earth, how did it fall into the hands of the Cabal? Were the Cabal working with aliens, or did they simply find their tech?

“Are you sure?” Mellissa said. “Perhaps there is another… Okay. If that’s what you want.”

Billy drew closer. “What’s going on.”

Mellissa turned to him. “She asked me to end her suffering.”

“Wait. You mean she wants you to kill her?”

Mellissa nodded. “She’s been languishing in this cage for months. Starving. She’s already on the verge of death. All I would be doing is hastening it.”

Billy considered her words. “Couldn’t we get her medical attention?”

“I’ve already offered that. She’s not interested. She just wants the pain to end.”

The butterfly serpent lowered its head. Mellissa removed her sword and aimed for an area at the rear of its skull. For a second, she didn’t move, and Billy almost hoped she wouldn’t, but then she plunged the sword deep. The creature wailed but fought to keep its head down to the ground. Mellissa pushed the blade deeper, as well as twisted the handle.

The butterfly serpent shrieked for several more agonizing seconds, then quieted, and died.

“There you go, girl,” Mellissa said as she patted the beast. “You’ll suffer no more.”

Billy stared at Mellissa and pointed. “Honey, your t-shirt.”

“Yeah, what about it? Do I have a little blood on me?”

“Look. Just look.” Billy gestured to a spot where the creature’s blood had landed. Smoke rose from it, and it was eating through the fabric.

“Acid for blood,” Melissa said. “She has acid for blood.”

“Just like you,” Billy noted. “Do you feel anything?”

"No, the acid appears only to affect my clothes."

“Then it must be of the same acidity.”

Mellissa gazed up at him. “Does that mean we’re related?”

Chapter 12: A Warning Unheard

In Mexico City, Philip Wellman stood before the desk of President Ezio Calero. He had been required to wait several hours in the lobby before even seeing the man. Sixteen months earlier, all he needed to do to speak with him was pick up a phone and dial. In some respects, life had been more straightforward then. He might not have been the most powerful man in the world like had been the case with his predecessors. He had inherited a post-superpower United States, but still, leaders answered when he called. Now he was a citizen, and it was only out of respect that he got any meeting, and even then, it was midafternoon when he was allowed in.

Maybe that was also why Calero didn’t take him seriously. He hadn’t said as much, but his body language told Philip that he likely thought him nuts. Granted, Philip reflected, his tale was a doozy. Still, he’d believed his dealing with the man over the years had shown himself to be someone of thoughtful deliberation, not prone to indulging in wild conspiracies.

After thoroughly explaining the situation, Philip finished by saying, "Mister President, if America falls, Mexico will be next. You must ready your armies for war."

Calero reclined back in his chair. “Mister Wellman, I have no love for di Conti. I wish you were still president, but the fact remains that you aren’t. If I start positioning my tanks along the U.S./Mexico border, that might be interpreted as an act of aggression by di Conti. Besides, he wouldn’t start a new war so soon after ending another.”

Philip gasped. "Have you heard nothing of what I said? Di Conti assassinated a political rival to win the presidency. This isn't the same as conspiring with Russians."

“Yes, you also said that di Conti is a member of the Knights Templar.”

Philip pressed his palms down on the man’s desk. “They call themselves the Cabal these days, and once their control of the U.S. is complete, they’ll be coming after your people.”

Calero rose from his chair, towering over Philip by half a foot, and headed for a nearby window. "American imperialism isn't new. You forget that Texas once belonged to Mexico and that many Latin American countries, both democracies, and dictatorships, have fallen prey to the CIA over the decades. But most of this happened when the United States was a global power. I imagine many in your country would love nothing more than return to your imperial ways, but the reality is that your leaders will be busy with rebuilding."

Philip eyed Calero, wondering how much of what he heard was pride and how much was wishful thinking. He could understand the man's reservations. Alone, Mexico was no match for the United States, even in its weakened state. Yes, Mexico had allies. The Canadians, the Australians, the Brazilians, and the Indians, but other than the Indians, those states lacked nukes, and few had the resources to project their power beyond their shores.

Philip thought of what else he could say that might change the man's mind, but realized, for now, there was nothing. Well, at least, a warning had been given.

“I hope for your people’s safety that you reconsider,” Philip said.

Calero twirled, his expression softening. “And I hope for your nation’s future that you are wrong. What will you do next, Mister Wellman?”

Philip sighed. “I must now warn my people of the grave danger they are in.”

Calero nodded. “If President di Conti asks, I will say that we never had this conversation. I pray that you don’t give me a reason to regret that.”

“It’s not my actions you need to fear, but di Conti’s,” Philip said, then departed.

Chapter 13: Strange Revelations

Billy and Mellissa left the butterfly serpent where they found it. They considered burying the noble beast. It deserved as much, but as strong as his fiancé was, not even she could haul the leviathan to the surface, not by her lonesome. They did collect some tissue samples. A DNA analysis would reveal the creature's exact origin.

They checked the other rooms, just in case more butterfly serpents had been left to starve. They found corpses, but they belonged to different beasts, including one that looked an awful lot like a tyrannosaurus rex, only it was several times larger and had large back spines, as well as six eyes, a feature Billy recalled the butterfly serpent shared. Were they also related?

The last chamber they visited left Billy with a chill, his mind incapable of making sense of it. The room had been filled with burnt corpses; human remains. The bite marks on them suggested that they had been chewing on each other. More disturbing, they discovered the husks of flowers growing out of their guts. They wondered if the flowers were fire resistant because they had survived the blaze intact, with a few still displaying peddles, and their skin retaining a healthy shine. Billy tested the theory by bringing his lighter next to one. The flame waxed its peddles, but the flower didn’t catch on fire, nor change color or wither.

Billy was glad the second they left that chamber, and not just because it alleviated him of that rancid stench. Despite all the horrible things Mellissa had told him about the Cabal, nothing had prepared him for this. Were they test subjects or had the Cabal lost containment? What kind of experiments were they conducting? What type of flower grew in a man's gut?

Billy followed Mellissa deeper into the facility, fearful of what other horrors they might find.

His fiancé seemed to know the way. They turned right at one intersection and left at another. Eventually, they reached a second elevator.

As it descended, Billy rubbed the sweat from his brow. “It’s starting to get hot again. How much deeper does this installation go?”

“I’m not entirely sure, but this is the last elevator. Not much further,” Mellissa said.

Billy shook his head. “Did you confront any beasts the last time you were down here?”

“No, but I didn’t exactly investigate all the rooms, though now that I think about it, I do recall hearing strange noises. That could have been them.”

Billy thought of the flowers and the human remains. “I wonder what they were all about.”

“Knowing the Cabal, they were probably part of some bioweapons research. The larger beasts would have made effective urban pacification units.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to face that butterfly serpent in battle, that’s for sure.”

Mellissa frowned. “She told me she refused to obey their commands. That’s partly why the Cabal left her here. If the rest of her kind are like her, I doubt they’ll get much use out of them.”

“Maybe not them, but I imagine others could, but only if they gave them a reason to fight.”

“What are you suggesting? An alliance between her people and mine?”

Billy shrugged. “You’ve never been an animal person, yet you bonded instantly with her. Also, who wouldn’t want a giant flying snake as a pet?”

Mellissa chuckled. “Well, she was less an animal and more a person. Still, riding her would have been cool.” She sighed. “Acid for blood? Do you think she’s the source of my powers?”

Billy bit his lip. He was still unsure what that butterfly serpent was: a genetic experiment or an alien from outer space. If it was the latter, did that mean he was about to marry an E.T.? Did it matter if she was? “I don’t know. But I do know is that regardless of what the case might be, you will always be the woman I fell in love with. Isn’t that all that matters?”

Mellissa looked away, doubt etched on her face, then nodded. “I guess you’re right.”

The elevator came to a stop, and the door parted, revealing a darkened room. It took them a few seconds to find the circuit breaker, and again lighting was restored, and the air vents hummed with life. They made their way down a series of corridors, as well as descended a few flights of stairs until finally, they reached a triangular door. It opened.

Billy whistled as he scanned the chamber. The place looked like a tornado had hit it. Debris laid about: 1960s era computers sliced in two, their upper sections lying on their sides. The walls had diagonal cuts along them, possibly made by a sword.

“This is where my aunt and father had their last argument.” Mellissa pointed to a cross standing at the far end. “That was where the being I saw was being held.”

"Your grandfather?" Billy approached the crucifix. He was careful to avoid the glass shards that lined the chamber and aimed his recorder on the cross. It was made of metal, with chains fastened to its horizontal arms. "Someone definitely hung here."

Mellissa sniffed, then shook her head. Billy reached for her. “Are you alright?”

Melissa placed a hand on her forehead. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m just…” She wagged her head again. “This room… it’s filled with some kind of gas.”

“What kind of symptoms are you experiencing?”

“I… I can still sense your thoughts, but it’s… different. Harder to focus in on.”

Billy scanned the room again and wiggled his nose. “I can smell nothing.”

"There are only trace amounts left. I would hate to experience a full dose."

“And it affects your telepathy. Could it be some kind of anti-telepathic gas?”

"I guess, but why have the Cabal never used it on my sisters or me?"

“Hum. Perhaps your grandfather was a more powerful telepath. Perhaps the methods used to restrain you and your sisters were insufficient against him.”

Mellissa grimaced. “A more powerful telepath? More powerful than even my father?”

“Maybe.” Billy turned his gaze back to the cross. It looked like it was meant for a child or a halfling. A halfling? If Mellissa was part alien… No, it couldn’t be that, could it? “You told me once your father can lift objects with his mind, but you can’t. If your powers are just a diluted form of his, wouldn’t it make sense that his would be a diluted form of your grandfather’s?”

Mellissa caressed the metal cross. “I guess. But I’ve seen my father levitate a dozen cars over his head. What could my grandfather do? Lift entire mountains?”

Billy thought of other psychic phenomena he'd read about. "Perhaps, or perhaps he could light people on fire. Can you recall any more details?"

“Large oval eyes, long arms, and a massive head. That’s all I remember.”

“Are you sure? What about skin tone? Did it have greyish skin?”

“I… I… I don’t know.” Mellissa withdrew her hand from the cross. “This chamber was filled with a greenish gas the last time I was here. It made seeing difficult.”

Billy twirled, examining the room one last time. It was devoid of any additional clues, nothing to hint further to the nature of Mellissa’s grandfather or the origins of her powers.

Unease befell Billy. An alien halfling, with a large head and big oval eyes. Could it be?

Billy exhaled. “Well, we didn’t get as much evidence as I was hoping for. Still, what we do have will collaborate parts of your story, and at least, we didn’t have to fight for it.”

“I would’ve preferred we’d gotten a list of who in the FBI and the CIA are Cabalists.”

"Not to mention those among the ranks of the military," Billy said, his eyes fixed on the smashed computer terminals. They were likely beyond repair. Even if they weren't, he doubted the Cabal would be stupid enough to keep it there. That list was probably one of their most guarded secrets. Without it, they would never be confident that they'd got them all, nor could the public be satisfied that those government agencies were acting on their behalf.

Billy and Mellissa turned and exited the chamber. They retraced their steps through the labyrinth of hallways and rode the elevators back to the surface.

Philip and his wife Hazel walked through customs at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. It was midafternoon, and the fundraiser was only a few hours away. They headed for the terminal’s front entrance, where a limousine waited for them.

As Philip got in, his phone vibrated. He checked the screen.

“What is it?” Hazel asked.

Philip turned. “A text message from our son. He and Mellissa have found their evidence and are on their way. They will be arriving in a few hours.”

Hazel nodded, her expression displaying one of relief. “Good. Good.”

In the subsequent years after 9-11, governments around the world, but the United States, in particular, made changes to their laws to confront the growing, and often vague threat, that was radical jihad. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was one such example. Initially, it had been designed to give intelligence agencies authorization to collect email communications from foreigners abroad. However, when the Second American Civil War erupted, amendments were added to allow for the acquisition of domestic emails as well.

Of course, Section 702 of the act still required a court permit before these emails could be opened and reviewed. Under the di Conti administration, that step was merely ignored. Inquisitors, taking the place of supercomputers, now shifted through terabits of data, looking for anything that might suggest seditious activity or targets of opportunity.

One Inquisitor noted such an email. She looked up the radio tower that had intercepted it and realized that it was within the range of a decommissioned Black Site. A few strokes of her keyboard and she learned that the site's motion sensors had been triggered.

She tapped a key, and the light above her blinked. Seconds later, an acolyte, dressed in black robes, approached her. “What have you discovered?’

She displayed the email's contents on a neighboring monitor. "This message was sent fifteen minutes ago from a decommissioned Black Site: BS 01."

The acolyte leaned in. “And who received this email?”

She brought up the subject’s portrait. “President Philip Jacob Wellman.”

The acolyte recoiled, as if hearing the man’s name induced pain. “I need to show this to the High Council.” He patted her shoulder. “You’ve done well. Keep it up.”

Chapter 14: The Confrontation

Hours later, nighttime had fallen on the city of Huston, Texas. The press gathered beside the red carpet leading up to the Twin Summits Hotel, the newest and most luxurious resort in Huston, if not all of Texas. State-of-the-art, holographic projectors beamed neon signs on the sides of the sixty-story tower, while further up, spotlights illuminated a star-shaped carbon crystal, the largest in the world, that hung suspended between its two peaks by cables.

Limousines rolled up one at a time, and celebrities exited; movie stars, many from traditional Hollywood, though a few from the growing Christian studios based in Texas and who saw themselves as the Christian, conservative alternative to liberal Hollywood.

There were also sports celebrities, as well as CEOs from some of America's largest corporations, television personalities, and rock stars. Next came the ex-presidents and their wives, beginning with the Pences, then the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Obamas.

Philip and Hazel were the last, and as their limo drove up, Philip scanned the crowd. “I don’t see di Conti anywhere. He’ll likely be the last to arrive.”

He felt his wife’s hand on his. “Just remembered to behave yourself when he does.”

Philip made a sneer. “That bastard tried to have our son killed, nor will I forgive him for his treatment of Mellissa and the other Inquisitors.”

“I know,” his wife said, “and di Conti will face justice, but you won’t be helping our cause if you get arrested for giving him a black eye.”

Philip imagined di Conti bloodied and chuckled. “It might just be worth it.”

His wife’s tone lowered. “Honey, don’t even think about it.”

“Fine, but I make no promises how Mellissa will react should their paths cross.”

“Mellissa I’m not worried about.”

“I would. She’s libel to rip his head clean off.”

"I do not doubt that she could, but it's you I'm concerned about."

Philip turned to her and frowned. "What are you saying? That it's okay for her to engage in vigilante justice because she has superpowers?

“No, but she would survive such an attempt.”

Philip sighed. "As always, you're probably right." He returned his gaze to the crowd.

Their limousine came to a halt, and the two got out and walked down the red carpet, cameras flashing on either side. A few reporters asked them questions. Philip waved and maintained a smile, though the latter proved more taxing than usual. All he could think about was that he would soon confront di Conti, and he would have to reframe from strangling the man.

They entered the lobby and headed for the reception hall. Everyone had gathered there, and they were greeted by the hosts: George W. Bush and his lovely wife, Laura. "I'm glad you could make it. Hehe," said the ex-president, then he glanced left and right before his expression turned serious. "I've had my men scan the site for listening devices, both before and after the Secret Service arrived. It’s clean, and the level I've reserved for us is soundproof."

Philip scanned the reception hall, again, di Conti nowhere to be seen. “Good. Good. How many of your men do you trust? Completely that is?”

“Well, my Secret Service detail has been with me since 2008,” Bush said.

“The Secret Service might have been compromised before di Conti became president.”

“Frank and Johnson are on the up and up.”

“Okay. And what about the rest of the hotel’s security?”

“My cousin owns this hotel. All have been working for him for at least seven months.”

Philip considered Bush’s words. If the Cabal had installed a plant, it would have been recent. “Okay, when are we going to have this meeting?”

“After the dinner. We should be here to welcome his royal majesty?”

“Good idea. That will also give my son and his fiancé time to arrive. They have—”

A hush befell the crowd when Hail to the Chief started playing over the loudspeakers, and everyone faced the front. Preceded by a dozen Secret Service agents, di Conti entered, basking in the adorations of the guests and shaking hands. He approached Bush, his welcoming grin seeming sincere, though as Philip recalled, it always did whenever they greeted. What was going through di Conti's head? Seething hatred or mild contempt?

Di Conti grabbed Bush’s hand and embraced the elder statesman as if they were best friends. “How wonderful to see you again, George.”

“You too, Gregory,” Bush replied. “I’m glad you could find time in your busy schedule.”

Di Conti placed a hand on Bush's shoulder. "For you, always. Besides, I couldn't think of a nobler cause than restoring Los Angeles to its former glory." He turned to Laura. "And who is this radiant beauty? Your daughter perhaps," bowing as he kissed her hand.

Laura faked a blush. Or maybe it was genuine, Philip wondered. “And where is your wife?” Laura asked. “I thought she would be attending.”

“Alas, Veronica is sick,” di Conti said. “She told me to give you her regards, though.”

Philip watched the pleasant exchange, struggling to keep his own emotions in check, then the moment he dreaded arrived. Di Conti confronted him and offered a hand.

Philip took it and forced a smile, all the while secretly imagining himself squeezing the life out of the sadist, this demon who wore human clothes. Oh, it hurt as their fingers wrapped around each other. He was so close. Close enough to kill, and yet he would be the one who would die if he made such an attempt. "Nice to see you again, di Conti."

"And you too, Philip." Di Conti repaid his handshake with a grizzly's hug. "You look good. I had feared defeat my take its toll on you. I'm glad it hasn't."

“You won fair and square,” Philip said, again, fighting the urge to attack.

Di Conti let go. “By the way, I hear that your son’s birthday just passed. Again, you have my deepest condolence for your loss. Billy was a true patriot.”

You know he’s not dead, despite your best efforts, Philip thought. “Yes, he was.”

Chapter 15: The Ambush

An hour later, Billy's and Mellissa's plane landed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Customs took longer than he liked, though given that they were carrying bioagents, they were lucky to get through at all, and in truth, wouldn't if Mellissa hadn't mind rub a few guards to look the other way. Billy felt bad for the guards. A mind rub wouldn't do permanent damage, but of all his fiancé's powers, her ability to influence the thoughts of others bothered him the most. More than once he'd wondered if she'd ever used it on him.

Billy shook his head, realizing that was his insecurity talking. He had no reason to suspect that Mellissa had. He didn't like that she could, and if she did, well, then his only option would be to leave her. Besides, what they did to the guards was necessary. Those DNA samples were critical to their case against di Conti and Supreme Inquisitor Abbot.

They exited the terminal to find his father’s limousine waiting for them.

The driver’s window lowered as they approached, revealing Raziel. “Your parents are already at the gala, but they left suitable attire for you.”

Billy leaned in. “Thanks. We’ll get changed.”

“Oh, and I do suggest that you both dose yourself with a can of body spray.”

“I told you we should have had a shower before heading back,” Mellissa said.

“Well, we were press for time,” Billy rebutted, then he and Mellissa entered the back. A tuxedo and a blue dress laid on their seats. “Raziel, don’t spare the whip,” Billy said

Raziel glanced at them through the rear-view mirror, and in his dry South African voice, said, “I’m afraid I left that in the other limo, Master Wellman.”

The limousine accelerated forward. Billy and Mellissa stripped down to their underwear and discarded their old clothes to the floor. The lights from incoming traffic flickered through the windows, giving definition to their lean and athletic bodies.

Billy was fastening his tie around his neck when something rammed the limousine’s rear, tossing him forward. He recovered and gazed out the rear window.

“Raziel, we’ve got company,” he said, his eyes trained on a black SUV.

Five identical SUVs came up beside it. Inquisitors got out and climbed onto their roofs, their swords drawn. One leaped onto the limousine.

Mellissa removed her sword and plunged it skyward, drawing blood. “No hitchhikers.”

Billy darted for the window dividing their cabin from the driver’s section. “Raziel, do you have a firearm by any chance?”

“In the glove compartment, Master Wellman,” he said and reached for it before handing it over. “I take it you want me to put the peddle to the metal.”

“That would be much obliged. Just try to keep it steady for me.” Billy turned to see Mellissa exiting the vehicle. “You’re heading out?”

“Someone’s got to get rid of these uninvited guests.”

Back at the Twin Summits Hotel, Philip and his wife, Hazel, had dinner with the other ex-presidents and their wives, as well as with President di Conti. The man chatted throughout the evening with anyone who would listen, behaving as if they were all good friends.

Philip kept his eyes on him, brooding. He had always seen di Conti as pompous, to the point of calling him callous and narcissistic, but now he wondered if those traits were a symptom of a deeper malady, maybe even sociopathy. If everything he had learned about the man was correct, di Conti despised them all, and yet here he was, chumming with them.

He did his best to maintain an appearance of calm, yet secretly, Philip was fuming. He wanted to stand and call out di Conti for his crimes but told himself to be patient. The Cabal had waited nine hundred years for their moment. He could suffer di Conti a little while longer.

Philip checked his cellphone. A text message had been sent to him by his driver, Raziel, informing him that he had picked up his son and his fiancé and that they were on their way.

Good, Philip thought as he tucked it back in his pocket. Hopefully, Billy and Mellissa would have evidence implicating di Conti of treason, maybe even a list of his fellow Cabalists.

Philip pictured di Conti in an orange prison uniform, and the fake smile he displayed widened.

Soon enough, though not enough for his liking, the dinner ended, and one by one, the five ex-presidents made their way to the seventh floor to have their meeting.

Bush was the last to take his seat at the table. "Let's begin. So, Obama has gotten us up to speed. I always knew that di Conti fellow wasn't right. Reminded me too much of Cheney. I was a fool to trust him and Rumsfeld. I was a fool to send our troops into Iraq. Well, as I'm so fond of saying, fool me once, shame on you. But once fooled, you can't be fooled again. Hehe."

“You’re not the only one, George,” Obama said. “This is not widely known, but a few months after bin Laden’s death, a young major came to me with a journal alleging that members of the CIA had helped bin Laden plan 9/11. I didn’t take it seriously enough then. I handed the journal over to CIA Director Richard Smith, who I’ve since come to learn was a Cabalist.”

“We’ve all been played by the Cabal. I probably the most.” Philip thumped his finger on the hardwood desk. “But that changes today. We now know who our true enemy is, and soon, so will the American people. Di Conti and his fellow Cabalists will have nowhere to hide. We will drive them from our shores, like we would a foreign invader. We will—”

Two armed agents opened the door and rushed in, cries hollering beyond the doorway. They went silent the second they slammed the doors shut.

Bush got to his feet. “Frank. Johnson. What is going on?”

One of the men panted. “We’re under attack. They have swords. Goddamn swords!”

The ex-presidents turned to Philip. “They have to be Inquisitors,” he announced.

An explosion tore a hole in the door, expelling shrapnel and forcing everyone to seek cover. Crouched behind his chair, Philip looked up. A blur flew through the hole, a tornado with a silver edge. The edge slowed to reveal itself to be the blade of a longsword.

The Inquisitor used it to intercept Frank's and Johnson's shots, then she pivoted on her heel, spinning as she brought her sword down and sliced Johnson in two. A flip of the handle and she batted a bullet, sending it back towards Frank. He dropped.

Five more women dressed in black entered, followed by di Conti. He gave them a mischievous grin. “I was wondering where you five dandled off to.”

Philip got up and growled. “You’re going to pay for what you just did, di Conti.”

"And what's that? Apprehending five traitors for conspiring against their government?"

"That's rich coming from you," Clinton said. "You and your fellow Cabalists have conspired with America's enemies. You were behind 9-11 and the U.S.S Cole.”

Di Conti drew closer. “It’s true. We helped al Qaeda commit 9-11, but only so we could start a war with the Muslim world.” Di Conti pointed to Bush. “And it would have worked if this idiot had done his job properly.” He turned to the man. “All you had to do was kill all the Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s it, and it would have driven the Islamists mad, igniting a global conflict that would have kicked off Armageddon and resulted in the return of Jesus Christ, but no, you had to bring democracy to those desert-dwelling camel herders!”

“I didn’t go into Iraq to slaughter Muslims,” Bush said, “but to destroy WMDs. It was you Cabalists who tricked me into thinking Saddam had them.”

“Of course, you stupid nitwit,” di Conti roared. “We control the CIA. If you had just killed them all, Israel would still exist. How can Jesus return and exterminate the Jews if Israel doesn’t exist? Did you think that through, moron? Did you? Well, did you?”

Philip glanced at the clock hanging over the door and wished his son’s fiancé was here. Was she held up in traffic? Had they already killed them?

Philip inched a few centimeters from his chair. One of the female assassins lifted her submachine gun. He stared down the barrel, then at the woman's eyes. They were as black as the void and yet oddly familiar. Where had he seen eyes like those before? He squinted. Ink seemed to swirl just beneath the iris, like the alien corpses at Area 51…

Philip gasped. "Dear God. It was you Cabalists who kidnapped him."

Di Conti gave him a perplexed look. “What are you talking about?”

“Your order was behind Kennedy’s assassination,” Philip said. “It was you who attacked Area 51 in 1964. Where is he? Where is Engineer Un?”

Di Conti chuckled. “Ah, I was curious to see if any of you would make the connection. Yes, Engineer Un is alive, though I imagine he wishes he wasn’t.”

“Let the little guy go,” Bush said. “If the Retikkees find out—”

“The Retikkees are the enemies of God,” di Conti declared. “We have every intention to start a war with them, just as we intend to conquer the Earth.”

Philip gulped and eyed his fellow ex-presidents, who all displayed terror-filled faces. He confronted di Conti. "Listen. The Retikkees are an Elder Race. Even if America were at full strength, even if you had a thousand times our numbers and a million nukes at your command, it wouldn’t be a contest." He took a step closer, aware that the woman's gun remained trained on him. "Please, I beg you. They can destroy stars. Don't challenge their might."

“Ah, yes, their all-powerful nova missile,” di Conti said with a sneer. “Better this world burns and everyone on it dies than give Satan an inch,”

“You’re mad,” Pence said. “Completely and utterly mad.”

Di Conti cocked his head. “Funny, Mike. I thought you didn’t believe in the Retikkees.”

“I don’t pretend to know what they are or their place in God’s plan,” Pence admitted, “but I do know that America could never defeat them.”

“It’s not going to come to that,” Obama said. “We’re not going to let you get away with this.”

Di Conti snorted. "I disagree. This fundraiser will continue as planned, only now it will suffer a bombing, one powerful enough to level this entire building.”

“Let me guess,” Clinton said. “The explosion will mask the fact that we died earlier.”

“Most preceptive. Oh, and believe me when I say that I’m truly regretful that your wives must perish alongside you.”

“Now, wait just a minute,” Bush said. “Kill us if you must but leave our wives and the other guests alone. I mean… Do you have any decency? Any at all?”

“I’m afraid not. You see, if your wives survive, then they might start asking questions, and I can’t have that.” Di Conti smiled. “I hope you can understand.”

The bastard was enjoying himself, Philip thought, then a calmness washed over him. He knew that he was going to die tonight. Nothing could stop that, but if he could keep di Conti talking, just for a little while longer, perhaps that’ll give his son and his fiancé time to get here. He could live with dying, so long as he got to see Mellissa slit di Conti’s throat.

Philip beamed di Conti a bemused grin. “You think yourself so clever, but you’ve forgotten one critical detail. The bombing will make it look like you were trying to silence your critics.”

Di Conti strolled across the room, the shadows sweeping over him as he moved beyond the lamplights and came to a stop in front of him. “Ah, but have I? Why do you think I came? Why do you think I was so chummy during dinner? It was an act. We had the event recorded.” He chuckled. “In a few minutes, the Secret Service will discover the bomb, time enough to get me to safety, but not to disarm it. It will look like the bomb was meant for me.”

Philip clenched his fists. They had walked into di Conti’s trap, and with nothing left to lose, he swung, a punch that would relieve him of di Conti’s smug smile.

An Inquisitor caught his fist before it could land, then applied pressure, like his hand was in a compressor, and drove Philip to his knees.

“Let him go,” the other ex-presidents cried.

Bones popped as the woman's grip constricted, the crackling sound meshing with the husky voice of di Conti. "You've wanted to do that for some time, haven't you?"

Philip fought the urge to scream, even going so far as to bite down on his tongue.

Di Conti leaned in. “You thought that because your democracy could weather a bumbling imbecile like Trump, it could withstand anything, even us. Arrogant fool.”

Tears poured down Philip’s cheeks, and blood dripped down his mouth.

“I always thought it was destiny that the man I should beat to win the presidency would be called Philip. It was King Philip of France who tried to wipe out my order seven centuries ago. He could not. What made you think you could? Well, answer me. Answer me!”

“I couldn’t,” Philip cried, then the pain disappeared as the Inquisitor released her grip.

Di Conti bared his teeth. “Yes, you couldn’t. Now you will die knowing that I will destroy everything you love, even your son and his pretty little girlfriend. Oh, yes, we know that they are here.” He glanced right. “Inquisitor Elizabeth, please, scan President Wellman’s brain.”

Inquisitor Elizabeth pulled off her glove and touched his forehead. Philip wailed; he couldn’t stop himself this time. It was like a rodent was scavenging within the confines of his mind, only this rat was on fire, and every neuron it touched caused it to burn and whither.

The Inquisitor was seeking for something. Engineer Un. Mellissa. His son. No, he wouldn’t give her what she wanted. Philip resisted, but that only made the burning sensation worse. His eyes rolled back, and he lost track of time. Hours might have past, or maybe it was just seconds. When she finally released him, he heaved his stomach’s contents onto the floor.

Inquisitor Elizabeth tugged her glove back into place. “President Wellman has not divulged the existence of Engineer Un to his son or Miss Pavlovich.”

Di Conti nodded. "Good. Hopefully, our agents will dispose of them shortly, but should they fail, at least we don't have to worry about them trying to rescue the demon."

The demon? Engineer Un? Philip attempted to stand. “That’s what Mellissa’s aunt was trying to do the night Abbot killed her. Free Un from bondage.”

“Ah, so Mellissa revealed to you how her aunt died,” di Conti said.

“I saw,” Philip said. “I saw the way you treat them. Like rabid dogs in a kennel.” His gaze swept over the six assassins. “Di Conti and the others don’t deserve your loyalty. Follow my son’s fiancé’s example. Turn on your masters. Become Nephilims. Become free.”

Di Conti bent down, inches from his face. “Don’t bother. These six are under my control.”

“One day, they will turn on you and free Un,” Philip said. “Then you’ll wish you died here.”

Di Conti grabbed Philip by the hair and pulled it up. “If you’re hoping Un will save America, think again. He’s no longer the Retikkee you read about.”

“He doesn’t have to be as virtuous as Superman, only that he’s as powerful as him.”

Di Conti released Philip and moved away. "We have stripped Un of his powers. He cannot save America. No one can." He walked up to one of the Inquisitors. "We will tear down the institutions that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison held sacrosanct and remake America into the embodiment of God's kingdom. All will worship Jesus or die.".

“America is more than a people or a set of institutions,” Philip declared. “It is an idea, and you cannot kill an idea. It will go on even after our deaths.”

Di Conti turned. “True. I cannot kill an idea, but I can kill those who carry it.”

"Doesn't matter. Someone else will rediscover it. Liberty is man's highest aspiration."

“No, liberty is man’s greatest sin, and after I kill you five, I will show the American people true freedom, the kind that comes only by submitting to authority.” He patted the Inquisitor on the shoulder, then gestured to the ex-presidents. "Bring them to the window and make them watch their loved ones dance. Let them contemplate that it was their actions that doomed them."

The group was herded to the window, the ballroom beneath it, where their families gathered and conversed, oblivious to the danger that was counting down to zero.

Di Conti approached Philip, straightening his sleeves as he did, then pinched him on the cheek. “I’m going to miss our chats, but I’m afraid I can’t stay.”

Philip sneered. “You might kill us, but my son will end your rule.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” di Conti said as he turned and headed for the exit.

Chapter 16: The Chase, Part II

A few miles away, Mellissa stood on the roof of her fiancé’s limousine, her sword weaving around her body as she deflected bullets in a high-speed pursuit.

The limousine swerved left and right, merging in and out of ongoing traffic. It made a hard right at the next turn, and Mellissa almost slid off the edge. She managed to keep her footing, her eyes trained on the half-dozen SUVs that entered the intersection and spun to catch them. One rammed headlong into a truck, showering the crossing with shrapnel and glass.

The others made it and continued their pursuit, their drivers firing submachine guns through their windshields. Most sailed towards her, and Mellissa easily batted them aside. Others peppered the limousine. Occasionally, her fiancé shot back from a passenger window.

On three of the SUVs stood Inquisitors, with a firearm in one hand and a sword in the other. They dashed from one moving car’s roof to the next.

One landed beside Mellissa and traded a few blows before Mellissa could slice her spine in two. Her next attacker required even less effort, but the third proved to be a veteran. They danced atop the roof, swinging and countering one another until finally, their blades locked. A face, almost as familiar as her own, stared back at her. Melissa gasped. "Sophia, is that you?"

"Yes," Sophia said, who altered her stance so that she could bring the full weight of her sword down on Mellissa's blade. "Surprised to see me?"

Mellissa strained to hold back her sword. “Yes, you never answered me in the link.”

“And get singled out like the others. Do you have any idea what your actions have rot?”

A horn wailed. The two turned to see a sixteen-wheeler barreling towards them. The limousine managed to swerve around it, but they were thrown off. They caught hold of the side of a bus, the passengers inside staring at them, many wide-eyed.

With one hand gripped firmly on the bus’s side, Sophia swung at her. Mellissa deflected her blade with her own. “You didn’t answer my question,” Sophia said.

“I’ve been in Canada for the last few months. I’m not exactly up on current events.”

Sophia plunged her sword at her, but Mellissa paired it aside. "The clones were only meant to complement we Inquisitors, not replace us, but your actions in the Arctic forced the council's hand. Now all existing Inquisitors are scheduled to be cloned, even me!"

“Blame father. He could have stopped this. Ever wonder why he didn’t?” Mellissa leaped off the bus and onto another vehicle speeding down the highway.

Sophia went after her. The two traversed the freeway, using the oncoming cars as stepping stones. Mellissa hopped onto the trailer of a long hauler.

“Well, what do you have to say?” Melissa said as she twirled and readied her sword.

“Our father has a destiny: to usher in God’s kingdom. Sometimes, that requires—”

“Oh, spare me such bullshit, Sophia. Why do you struggle so hard to impress him? He’s never going to love you. You’re just a number to him.”

“Shut up,” Sophia snapped, her cheeks reddened with tears, and she took another swing at Mellissa. “I should have been his favorite. I did everything right.”

Mellissa blocked her next attack. “Which doesn’t matter to him. Dad loves me only because I remind him of my mom. He’s sick in the head, been brainwashed by the lies the Cabal told. Jesus isn’t coming back. What Dad is doing will only bring America to ruin.”

“You say that because you’ve never believed, just like Aunt Catherina.”

“Yes, and Dad murdered our aunt. If he can do that, what do you think he will do to you?”

The hauler turned at the next offramp into an industrial zone. Coal-ash rose from nearby chimneys. They fought as the hauler brought them towards an automated steel mill. Melissa hopped off at the next platform and trotted into the facility. Her sister followed.

Massive ladles filled with molten steel hung high over their heads. Conveyor belts moved the ladles to other sections of the plant where they poured their contents into molds for ingoting. Mellissa avoided the superhot streams as she dodged Sophia’s swings.

“You’ve always thought that you were better than everyone else,” Sophia cried. “You’ve always believed that you knew best. Why did you betray us for him?”

Mellissa deflected her next swipe. “Billy? I just wanted a life of my own.”

“And what about our father? Don’t you have any sense of duty to him?”

“You’re the one who wants to impress him. I just want him out of my life.”

“If that’s true, why come back? You could have stayed in Canada with your boyfriend.”

“Until the Cabal invades. Our people will never be free so long as it exists. You want to talk about being disloyal. Look how Dad treats our people.”

“Dad’s loyalty is to God, as should yours, unbeliever!”

Her sister maneuvered Mellissa into a cramped corridor, with an assembly line running alongside it. Presses connected to hydraulics lowered and flattened the steel ingots into thin plates, while large blades dropped and cut them into smaller sections. During a swing, Mellissa's sword got caught beneath one of the blades and snapped in two.

Distracted, if only for a nanosecond, her sister’s sword plunged into her shoulder, enlisting a cry as blood dripped down onto her dress and burned holes in the fabric.

Sophia pressed her blade deeper. “You’ve always won, but it seems complacency has made you weak. Now Dad will recognize me as the better daughter. He has to.”

Even as pain nipped at her senses, Mellissa focused and scanned the environment. Pipes with the label "Warning: Hot Compressed Gas" ran along the adjacent wall. "He's never going to love you," Mellissa said. "No matter how hard you try, no matter what you do, he's never going to give you the love and affection you crave. It's just not in him."

Sophia wept. “You’re wrong. He’ll see me as the daughter you refused to—”

Mellissa threw the hilt of her sword at the pipe, the damaged blade severing it and releasing the compressed gas. It burned the left side of Sophia’s face. She screamed, and Melissa got up and slammed her body into her sister, driving them forward, out of the corridor, and into a stack of steel beams. The force of the blow caused them to topple on top of them.

Melissa groaned, then removed her sister’s sword from her shoulder before attempting to lift the beam that rested on her chest. It weighed a ton, and with only one functional arm, the best she could manage was pushing it to the side.

Free, Mellissa forced herself to stand and looked down. Sophia rested with several beams stacked on top of her, the left side of her face disfigured by the heat. “Kill me.”

Mellissa raised her sister’s sword, then lowered it. “No. I’m not going to kill you.”

“Please, I beg you. They will clone me if you don’t. I would rather die than be cloned.”

Mellissa frowned. Killing her sister might be the merciful thing to do, but... “I’m not going to do that. Despite all you’ve done, you’re still my sister, and I love you. Perhaps father will show you mercy, but I doubt it. It’s just not in his nature. Goodbye, Sophia.”

Turning her back, Mellissa limped out of the steel mill, busted into the nearest vehicle, and hotwired it, then headed for the Twin Summits Hotel.

Back at the Twin Summits Hotel, Philip and the other ex-presidents stood next to the window, their wives and friends dancing below on the ballroom. Philip tried to find his wife, Hazel, among the sea of people, but they were little more than specks. He could imagine her laughing and trading gossip with Michelle Obama or Laura Bush, unaware that in a few short minutes she and everyone else in this building would be ash and chard bones.

Such thoughts compelled Philip to look back at the life he'd lived. He had been less than a perfect man. He meant what he said to his son at Heathrow that he shouldn't have run for a second term, that America needed a new kind of leader, the kind Francis Downey or Bernie Sanders would have been if they had won the office, but he didn't regret it. He tried to be the best president for America, taking the actions that he believed, rightly or wrongly, would make America safe, just like Obama, Clinton, Bush, and Pence had before him.

Yes, he’d done his best, Philip thought, and he had fathered two wonderful boys, one of whom he had no doubt would go on to accomplish great things.

His gaze turned to the Inquisitor that kept watch on them. Her stare would often flicker towards the window and the people dancing below. He had lived a full life, but what of her? If what Mellissa told him was true, then this young woman had never been given a choice regarding her profession. She would die today having known nothing.

“You don’t have to do this,” Philip said. “You could live a normal life.”

The Inquisitor continued to watch the dancers. “I was picked for this mission because I am among the last of the naturals. It was this or become a breeder.”

Become a breeder? Philip’s eyelids widened. Dear lord, that must be the word the Cabal used to describe someone who was about to be cloned. “You know those don’t have to be your only options. If you helped us, we would make sure you were cleared of all charges. Then you could meet a guy, have kids, grow old, and go to all the dances you could ever want.”

“I know a few gentlemen your age,” Bush said. “I could introduce you to them.”

She turned, a sneer on her otherwise radiant face. “I am a handmaiden of Christ, born to atone for the sins of Eve. A fiery death is a better fate than I deserve.”

“And I thought Chaney was a cloud of gloom and doom,” Bush said.

Philip frowned, then turned his gaze back towards the ballroom and those who danced in bliss. “I guess this is where America’s story ends. Well, at least, it was a good dance, among good friends and good music. If one’s life must end, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”

A hand rested on his shoulder. “America’s story will not end with us,” Obama said. “Billy and Mellissa will free Engineer Un, and together, they will—”

Chapter 17: Heartbreak

In the passenger seat of his parent's limo, Billy aimed with his pistol. He let off a round, and the bullet punctured a tire. The vehicle lost control and rolled over.

Billy looked forward. His driver, Raziel, handled the wheel with a professional racer’s flair. He outran a red light. Incoming traffic swerved to miss them, as well as the two remaining SUVs. A glance at the rear-view mirror told Billy that one didn’t make it.

“We’re down to one SUV, Raziel,” Billy said as he reloaded his pistol. “Nice driving by the way. Why did you ever get out of professional racing?”

“For the wife and kids. After the accident I had in 2007, I promised them I would—”

A bullet blew the rear-view mirror off its hinge, while a second tore a hole in the windshield.

“That was too close,” Billy said and leaned out of the window before returning fire. “How much further do we’ve got to go? I’m down to my last magazine.”

Billy peppered the headlights of the opposing SUV, causing them to go dark.

Raziel tapped his shoulder, then pointed to their left. “It’s that tall building over there. I’m going to make a left at the next intersection. Get ready to bail. I’ll try to lead them away.”

Raziel performed a sharp turn at a yellow light, bringing the Twin Summit Hotel front and center. They sped towards it, the SUV catching up, when—

Boom. Boom. Kaboom! The Twin Summits Hotel's base expanded like a newborn sun, the upper levels collapsing on top of one another now that there was nothing to hold them up. A shockwave threw debris, dust, and twisted metal in all directions, scarring nearby buildings and causing the glass to shatter, as well as lifting Billy's limousine and tumbling it sideways.

Billy awoke within the twisted frame of the limo, his vision red. He glanced left to see Raziel's head split in two and resting on the steering wheel.

A check of the man’s pulse confirmed what he already knew. “Goodbye, old friend.”

With effort, Billy exited the limousine through the shattered windshield and limped towards what remained of the Twin Summits Hotel. Smaller fires raged around it, while a billowing smoke rose from its remains. A few bodies littered the ground, but they had likely been outside and killed by the shockwave. Anyone within would have been instantly incinerated.

Including Mom and Dad, Billy thought, his world going up in smoke before his eyes. He had lost everything. His brother, and now his parents. The ex-presidents were also dead, so no one would back his and Mellissa's story, not like anyone would. Those who suspected di Conti's involvement would be hesitant to act now. He and Abbot had won.

Billy fell to his knees and sobbed but stopped when he heard a gun cocking. He looked up to see an Inquisitor standing over him. “Time for you to join your—”

Headlights blinded them in a bright light, and a convertible ran over the Inquisitor. Mellissa exited it, her clothes in tatters. “Did you miss me, honey?”

“Always, but aren’t you forgetting something?” Billy raised his pistol and shot the pinned Inquisitor three times in the head, then limped into his fiancé’s arms and kissed her on the lips. “Sorry about that, but your people have a nasty habit of not staying dead.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, but I was held up with family matters,” Mellissa said.

“You were there when I needed you the most. That’s what—” Sirens bellowed in the distance. Billy grimaced. “Police will be here shortly.”

“Yeah, and we don’t have anyone to back our story.”

Billy nodded, and then with Mellissa’s help, departed the area.

President di Conti rode in the back of his limo as it returned him to Air Force One. A makeup artist sat opposite him and cut a gash across his forehead with a scalpel, while a second applied a dark powder meant to look like dirt and grime. When the first brought the knife towards his beard, di Conti raised a hand. "Not my facial hair. You will leave that be."

The makeup artist bobbed her head and started carving gashes along his right forehand. Di Conti winced, but otherwise, allowed the artisans to perform their work.

Minutes later, the limousine came to a stop over the tarmac. A crowd of reporters converged in front of it, and di Conti was met with flashes of light.

“President. Mister President. Do you have any idea who was behind this attack?”

Faking fury, di Conti exited the vehicle and tore the microphone from the reporter’s hand. “Damn right I do! It was the Californians, and I was their target. Me. Me!”

The reporter gasped. “The Californians? Are you sure, Mister President?”

"Yes, I am sure, you dimwit. This fundraiser was about helping those ingrates, and how did they respond? By blowing up a building full of innocents!" Di Conti turned to the cameras and pointed. "To the people of those Godforsaken states, Obama, Bush, Clinton, Pence, and Wellman were patriots, the greatest presidents America had ever produced, and if you think that by taking their lives you can make us cower, think again. I am done with being civil. With this one act, you have forfeited your right ever to become states again. Do you hear me?"

"And to the American people, the first thing I'm going to do when I get back to Washington is scrapping the bill meant to rebuild the separatist states. Not a single cent is going to be wasted on those savages. Instead, all will go to building a wall, one larger than even the Great Wall of China, so that those vermin can never trouble us again. You have my word."

Di Conti handed the reporter her mic and headed for Air Force One. He climbed its stairs, made his way to his office, sat down, and loosened his tie.

He chuckled. “That was some damn good acting, maybe even worthy of an Emmy.”

Chapter 18: The Decision

Three months later, Billy and Mellissa rested on a bed in a motel on the outskirts of Monroe, Texas. An old flat screen television lit the darkened room. A newscaster read from a teleprompter, video footage of the U.S. Senate playing beside him.

“The Senate has voted 61-13 in favor of the Forfeited Territories Act, which declares that the twelve separatist states, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan have their state status reduced to that of a territory, with additional restrictions, including limitations on migration. The act also sets aside money for the construction of a wall that will run along the—”

Billy grabbed the remote and hit the mute button. “Well, that’s that. There’s nothing to stop di Conti from turning the former states into one giant prison.”

Billy brooded. It was bad enough that the people of the Forfeited Territories had been blamed for a crime they never committed, but that his dad’s murder was the justification used to strip them of their rights boiled his blood. Was there nothing di Conti couldn’t turn to his advantage?

Mellissa rubbed his back. “I talked with some ex-SEALs today. They’ve agreed to join. Are you sure about this? This isn’t what your father wanted.”

Billy eyed the television set. It displayed an old video of di Conti attending the funerals of the ex-presidents, his wife and President Trump standing beside him. At that moment, he felt like he was gazing at his own Rubicon. Beyond it drummed the cries for war, promising nothing but suffering and death. He'd thought, no, had hoped, that he could spare America more hardship. Not repeat his father's mistake, but as he eyed di Conti standing alongside President Trump, he realized that he'd been fooling himself this whole time.

Billy sneered. “Yes. Congress is beyond redemption. They just proved it.”

Mellissa nodded. “Then it’s settled. We begin an armed resistance.”

Billy leaned back in his bed and imagined the road that lied ahead. “This is not the outcome I would have preferred. People are going to die in the months and years to come, and in the beginning, we’re going to be alone, but in time, people will come to see through di Conti’s lies. They will side with us, and our revolution will drive the Cabal from these shores.”

Billy turned to face his wife and examined the ring on her finger. They had gotten married the other night, a simple ceremony with a few close friends.