Fiction

What Goes Around

The Emperor was angry.

Sitting in the anteroom to the throne room, waiting to be summoned, Marcus knew that much.  It was not like the Emperor to summon a provincial governor unless something had gone terribly wrong.  Could it be the number of executions?  Marcus’ count was certainly high, but the Emperor wasn’t exactly a squeamish person.  And as Tacitus had said, “Great empires are not maintained by timidity.”      

The taxes were a little low, to be sure, but not the lowest.  There were other provinces, much poorer and much less well administered than his.  Certainly, he had not been summoned all this way to talk about improving revenue.  That could just as easily have been done at a distance.

Marcus glanced up at the centurion standing by the door, looking forward impassively.  He had half a mind to get up and walk out but he knew better.  The guard might be staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious, but there was not a detail in the room that he hadn’t noticed.  Undoubtedly, the trickle of sweat on Marcus’ forehead had even been noted.

At that thought, Marcus became even more disheartened.  If he could not pull anything over on this brute by the door, how on earth was he going to stand before the Emperor and hold his own?  Surely the man would be able to see every flaw.  He could hardly have maintained his grip on power for so long had he not been a very good judge of human character.  And there was one failing that Marcus had, despite all his administrative and political talents: he had very little character.

He sighed a little and slumped back, reflecting a little on how he had come to this sorry state.  It was such a pity.  He used to love these trips to Washington.  Why, oh why had he been assigned to govern New England, of all places?


It had been the result of the Wars, of course.  In the midst of their endless prosecution, the Congress had granted sweeping emergency powers to the president in response to the ongoing crisis.  The president and his staff began to refer to himself as the “Commander-in-Chief”, most often as the “Commander.”  Historians pointed out, though few paid attention at the time, that the Latin word Imperator–Emperor–had meant the same thing. By the time most of the people realized that their republic had become an empire, it was already too late.  Those in power were loath to yield that power back to those who had given it to them in the first place. 

There were protests, but dissent was quelled.  Then there were outright rebellions and each was repressed: in Texas, in West Virginia, in the Pacific Northwest and most brutally in New England.  Massachusetts was placed under direct federal rule by an Administrator appointed by the Commander.  The other New England states were allowed native governors, but few served without the consent of Washington. 

Despite New England’s defeat and repression, small groups of Hampshirites, adopting the former motto of that state “Live Free or Die”, began a decades-long guerilla campaign whose folly was only outmatched by its ineffectiveness.

Of course, it wouldn’t be America if religion weren’t involved in reacting to the changed American reality.  One reaction was exemplified by a movement that became known as “Edwardsian”–claiming spiritual descent from Jonathan Edwards.  They took the position that the actions of the State, including the annexation of territories in Canada and Mexico, was part of God’s will and should be supported by the faithful. 

They often held positions of importance in the churches because of their loyalty to Washington.  They viewed America as a messianic nation, the city on the Hill, that God had ordained to rule in power in the name of God.  Their opposites were the New Puritans who rejected all the religious authority of the Edwardsians and lived in isolated communities in remote parts of the country.  In New England, they tended to reside in Vermont and in portions of remote Maine. Coming into prominence during this period, but by no means with the prominence they would later enjoy, were the Separationists.  They practiced a strict religious lifestyle, separating themselves out as much as possible from imperial civic life.  By their example, they hoped to show a way of Christian living that rejected the values of empire and embraced the values and ideals of God. 

In time, they would become immensely popular and would often articulate a spirituality that was supportive and helpful of the working classes, who were being increasingly marginalized under the Commander’s rule.  But religion always caused unrest and New England was a powder keg.  Was that not why Marcus had been appointed there as governor in the first place?

Marcus has served faithfully in the Canadian Incursion, the Second Libyan War, and in Mexico.  He had been the perfect candidate to govern an unruly people.  When Maximus had come to power after the suspicious, but not entirely unwarranted, death of the first Commander, he was recognized immediately as the man for the job.  (Maximus, by the way, was the one who had done away with the pretense of republicanism and just named everything as it was, including himself as Emperor).   But Marcus’ skills had not been enough.  For here he sat, awaiting that same self-styled Emperor, and likely a pronouncement of his own doom.


The door opened and an aide came out into the anteroom.  His suit bore the cut of one who is on the inside of the halls of power, his hair perfectly in place.  He sized up Marcus with a notable degree of disdain.  Of course, Marcus, glancing at the man’s callous-free hands, did likewise.  “The Emperor commands you to enter,” he said.  Marcus rose and the centurion shifted slightly as he did, grasping firmly his rifle, his index finger laying near the safety.  Others might not have noticed, but Marcus had been on the other side of that display of power for too long.He entered the throne room and noted the impressive view out the windows.   Washington’s Obelisk in the background, Lincoln’s Temple beyond that.  Maximus had been right to make the Capitol his palace. 

The effect was so much more impressive than the garden view from the White House.  Besides, it was easier to keep an eye on the Senate this way.

“Hail, Maximus,” Marcus said, raising his hand to his brow in traditional military salute. The Emperor did not respond directly.  He merely looked down, brushed something off his uniform tunic, and spoke to the centurion. 

“Guard, leave us.” Marcus’ eyes widened a little at that. 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Maximus continued. “I’ve got a gun right here should you try anything stupid.” The Emperor Maximus I, born Otto Thurin, Jr., military man turned Southern Baptist preacher, had been commander of the Georgia National Guard when the first revolts began.  Demonstrating his competence in quelling the Atlanta Rebellion, he was dispatched to other crisis areas throughout the country.  He was the Hero of the Battle of Austin, Pacifier of the Northwest, and most famously, Master and Subjugator of New England. 

When the first Commander began to falter in his command, it was Thurin who propped him up with sheer military might.  And then when the Commander met his untimely demise, it was Thurin who naturally stepped into place. There were few rivals worthy enough to take him on.  He was, to say the least, a formidable personality.  And all of that personality was palpable here in this room.

“My lord,” Marcus responded simply.

Maximus looked Marcus up and down.  “You have no idea why you’re here, do you?”

“I await the Emperor’s instruction,” Marcus responded.  His father had always told him never to provide an answer when a police officer asked, ‘Do you know why I pulled you over?’ He wasn’t about to provide the terrifying man opposite with any confessions prior to hearing the charge against him.

Maximus chuckled.  “A politic answer, Marcus. You may have enough political savvy to save yourself.”

“Yes, my Emperor.”

“Tell me about Sal Davidson.”

“Sal… Davidson, my lord?” Marcus stammered.  Of all the things he thought he might be asked about, the execution of a Down East troublemaker was hardly on top of the list.

“Yes,” Maximus replied simply.  “I want to know everything.”

Marcus paused.  At the time, Davidson’s execution made all the sense in the world.  Political trouble maker.  Volatile time of year.  The Edwardsians were in favor of it.  The public had turned.  What could possibly have been wrong with that?

Marcus,” the emperor said again somewhat forcefully.  

“My lord, yes, apologies. I was just gathering my thoughts.  Sal Davidson was a citizen of the Maine territory who came into Boston during the Patriot Day holiday with an entourage of fellow Mainers. He was accused and convicted of sedition for calling for the destruction of the government and speaking in favor of establishing a new political order. He was executed in public per standing orders.  His movement was effectively eliminated.”

“Was it?” Maximus asked, though clearly with skepticism.

“Of course, my lord.  We cut off the head and the snake surely died.”

“As you say,” Maximus replied.  “Tell me, I understand you placed a rather peculiar charge over him at the execution.”

Marcus swallowed.  It had been an act of mockery; perhaps it had crossed a line.  “Yes, my lord. The sign said, ‘President of the New Englanders’.”

“President of the New Englanders?” 

“Yes, my lord.  It was meant to mock his teaching about what he called the ‘Commonwealth of God’.” Marcus shifted on his feet.  He hated dealing with religion.  It was all so counterproductive to the work he tried to do.  Sure, the Edwardsians were helpful as allies and they made a lot of things happen in the region.  But Marcus tried to steer clear of wading into the religious debates that divided the various constituencies of the Empire.

“So, tell me a little more about this man,” the Emperor asked. “As much as you can recall.”

“I will do my best, Emperor,” Marcus replied.  “I confess to not knowing that much about him before this whole business went on.” 

“So he went from unknown to executed convict in a week?”

“Well, majesty,” Marcus stammered. “He was unknown to me, but not to the people of Maine.”

“Go on.”

“Davidson ran a construction company in Watchtower, Maine.  A small town that no one ever really pays attention to.  Most of the people in that town are lobstermen, blue-collar types.  Davidson Construction was one of the respected local businesses there.”

“Was there anything seditious or suspicious about this business?” Maximus inquired.

“No, Emperor.  It was, according to all reports, a legitimate tax-paying business.”  Marcus included that because it was well known that political unrest always began with tax rebellions.  No, there had been nothing remarkable about Davidson Construction.  “But some time last year, Sal sold his share in the business to a brother and began… well, preaching.”

“Preaching?” 

“Yes, out of doors.  In open fields.  In churches.  In synagogues. In mosques.  Everywhere.  All this without any kind of religious education.”

“Not every preacher requires one,” said the Emperor knowingly, grumbling somewhat.  In his pre-Imperial days, he had always been looked down on by those who thought he lacked the proper depth to his theological education.    

Marcus pressed on, hoping not to dwell on his gaffe.  “In any event, he began to attract followers.  From the intelligence I have, there was an inner circle and a larger outer circle.  Members of the outer circle would sometimes travel to hear him preach, but the inner circle was always with him.”

“Who were in this inner circle? Other preachers?”

“No, majesty.  A peculiar bunch really.  A number of lobstermen, other various blue collar types, and even one of the regional revenue administrators.  There was at least one Hampshirite, possibly two.  That was the reason our agents began paying closer attention to him.”

“Explain.” 

“Well, you know the religious thicket that we encounter in a number of the states.  In New England, it’s particularly complex, but we try to stay out of it.  So it’s not really a big deal when someone comes around talking about God or sin or morality or whatever.  But Davidson began to talk about this ‘Commonwealth of God’ and it began to sound dangerously political.”

“In what way?” asked Maximus, leaning forward. 

“Redistribution of wealth, various legal questions, an implicit criticism of Imperial social structure.”

“How so?”

“As I said, your majesty, I was not really aware of Davidson before his entry into Boston.  I am relying on the reports I have received subsequent to his arrival. It appears, however, that there were a number of his teachings that created some… controversy.”  Marcus paused and pulled a tablet out of his valise. “I don’t really have it all in my head—may I?” he asked, gesturing to his tablet.  Maximus nodded and after Marcus was able to locate the relevant reports through his networked drives he continued. “Ah, yes, here it is.  Well, he alienated a lot of the Separatists right away when he was spending a fair amount of time with disreputable types.  Prostitutes, drug dealers, and even some of our regional revenue administrators.  They got really bent out of shape when some of his followers had a get-together and were drinking beer on a Sunday in violation of the blue laws.”

“Pissing off puritanical prudes is not worthy of our criminal justice system, Marcus,” said Maximus.  “What else did he do?”

Marcus continued scrolling through his report.  “Well, there’s a lot of that kind of thing… let’s see… He gathered large crowds around him when he’d preach.  That’s not necessarily illegal, but some of the local authorities in Maine Territory thought that worth keeping an eye on.  There were  some… well… fantastic stories.”

“Such as?”

“He apparently cured a man of AIDS and another of Parkinson’s.  An old woman who’d been suffering from Alzheimer’s said that she’d been cured simply by grabbing onto his jacket.  There was even a report that the daughter of the president of a local mosque had been brought back to life.  The EMS and the paramedics had gone into the house and said she’d died.  Davidson went into the room after they’d left and a few minutes later brought the girl out and said she’d just been sleeping. Of course, you know how those Down Easters in Maine like to tell stories.”

Maximus began to look uneasy.  Of course, that made Marcus feel even more nervous; the last thing you wanted to do was make the Emperor uncomfortable. Marcus had paused but Maximus simply nodded that he should continue.

“He appears to have been fairly popular with the locals though he alienated many of the Separatists and the Edwardsians because he kept telling them they were focusing on the details of religion rather than the broad strokes.” Marcus paused for a moment.  He was reading his report in order and he knew that there was little to implicate the exercise of Imperial authority at this point.  And yet Maximus remained strangely silent.  Where he had been impatient to get to the heart of the matter earlier, he now seemed pensive, reflective.  He was listening, but he wasn’t looking directly at Marcus anymore, but at a point across the room. When Marcus paused, Maximus simply waved him to continue.

“Apparently, local agents noted that his activity began to increase, despite a fairly unsuccessful visit to his home congregation in Watchtower and once the provincial governor had dealt with John Mercer.”

“John Mercer?” Maximus asked.  “Yes, a local religious figure.  Something of a firebrand.  Preached a lot about repentance and the coming of the same ‘Commonwealth of God’ that Davidson would later talk about. Was pretty popular—still is—and was largely ignored by the authorities until he started to criticize Governor Harding’s sexual ethics.  He claimed that anyone who’d cheated on his own wife with his sister-in-law was not morally fit to govern in the name of a faithful people.”

“Ha!” exclaimed Maximus.  “We’ve known that Harding’s been a philandering bastard for years.  What happened to this Mercer fellow, anyway?”

“He was beheaded.”

“Oh.  Pity.  He sounded entertaining.”

Marcus nodded. “Everyone thought so, even Harding.  It was Harding’s new wife—the sister in law—who didn’t take kindly to it.  But more to the point, our reports suggest that Sal Davidson had been involved with John Mercer in some way.”

“Ah, and perhaps might be looking for some vengeance?” Maximus asked.  

“It couldn’t be ruled out.  We suspect that a number of Mercer’s followers became Davidson’s and we know that Davidson already had at least one Hampshirite in his company,” Marcus reported.  These facts he was much clearer on as part of the narrative, forming the basis for much of his own decision as to Davidson’s fate.  “In any event, neither his poor reception in Watchtower or Mercer’s death seemed to discourage Davidson from his program.”

“I see.  Anything else odd about his activity in Maine?”

“Let’s see…”, Marcus said, returning to his tablet. “Uh… an incident healing a migrant worker’s daughter… various healings… teachings…. To be quite honest, majesty, our reports on this part of his activity are not as detailed.  It was really after he came to Boston that we started paying attention.  Much of what we have of the earlier activity was filled in much later.  And to be honest, was not as relevant to our decisions.”

“Alright, then.  Get to it,” Maximus said.  He wasn’t quite impatient, because he was riveted by every revelation Marcus provided.  But there was just a bit of anxiety—or was that dread?—tinging his words.

“Sal Davidson and his companions arrived in Boston the week before the Patriot Day holiday.  There were already large crowds in town for the Marathon and some of the other festivities that coming weekend.  Word had gotten out that this preacher and healer from Maine was in town and he was received quite warmly.”

“What, at the airport?”

“No, majesty.  Davidson arrived having borrowed someone’s old car… a pinto, I think.  He came in on Route 1 and there were crowds cheering for him as he did.  Apparently, he did a tour of the downtown area and then went out to Brookline for the night.  But he came back the following morning and went to the Old North Church.”

Maximus swallowed.  The Old North Church had been a hotbed of protest.  It wasn’t the most convenient location–no broad squares or anything–but its symbolic value had been high.  And crowds would frequently gather in the adjacent Paul Revere Mall, often with sedition on their minds.  The Edwardsians had laid claim to the church as their center, insisting that the spirit of the Revolution was enshrined in them and in the authority they wielded.  As much as the Edwardsians would have liked that to have been true, everyone knew different; they were quislings serving the Empire.  As such, they were often the target of popular scorn.  More than one demonstration had been forcefully put down in that Mall.  Anything around the Old North Church was trouble.

“What happened at the church?” Maximus asked.

“It seems that Davidson knocked over all the tables and souvenir stands on the Paul Revere Mall.  It was reported that he made disparaging comments about buying and selling in the shadow of the church—many have made that same criticism—but it was some other comments that he made that got him noticed by my operatives.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, he claimed that he would destroy the church and build a new one in three days.”

Maximus looked pale.  Marcus began to wonder whether he should go on with his report when Maximus began to speak.

“Threatening an act of terrorism.”

“Precisely, majesty,” Marcus answered.  “That and his talking about the Commonwealth of God made it clear that he was not some traveling preacher and healer but was in fact an insurgent and an insurrectionist.  He had made a direct threat against the established order and suggested it should be overturned.  ‘Destroyed’.”

“Then you had no choice, Governor, at last,” Maximus concluded, but unhappily.

“No, majesty.  Your orders on sedition and rebellion have been quite explicit.”

“Indeed.  How did you go about arresting him?”

Marcus put the tablet down.  This part of the tale was well established in his memory.  “The Edwardsians came to us, scandalized that this rabble-rouser from Maine should have threatened their precious church.  They felt that he had undermined their credibility in the community and that something had to be done.  As the Edwardsians make our job governing that unruly, no-good region somewhat easier, we had to agree.  Besides, during ‘patriotic’ holidays we have a zero-tolerance policy for anything remotely seditious.  The Edwardsians said they could find out where Davidson was staying since that was a pretty well-kept secret.  In the end, one of his followers, a man named Christian Daggerman, happened to come forward saying that he could let the Edwardsians know where Davidson would be.  From what I hear, they paid him pretty well for the information.”

“I’ll bet.  Probably from the proceeds in the Paul Revere Mall market,” Maximus snorted.

“Indeed, majesty,” Marcus continued.  “The Edwardsians put together a posse comitatus and had Davidson arrested the night before Patriot Day.  His followers didn’t put up much of a fight; most of them took off not to be seen again.  One of them was caught lingering around the Church precincts but denied being a follower of Davidson’s. It was laughable; the man had the thickest Maine accent.  It was obvious who he must have been. Anyway, the following morning they brought him to the State House, though not after questioning him themselves and roughing him up a little bit.  We judged him for making threats against the State, for fomenting revolution, and sedition and found him guilty.  It being a holiday, we offered him to the crowds to see if they thought we should grant clemency.  They didn’t.  Though they did ask us to release a Sal Abbison, who was arrested during the previous insurrection.  Davidson was taken out and executed on Bunker Hill.”

“But not before you’d hung the sign over him.”

“Yes, majesty.  It was perhaps… ill-considered.  But Patriot Day is not a time to pull punches with insurrectionists.  Every year there’s usually some rally to restore the republic or demanding independence for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  At last year’s Patriot Day Red Sox game alone we arrested two thousand people and wound up executing two hundred of them.  I merely wanted to make the lesson clear to anyone else who thought that God might want them to restore their precious Commonwealth.”

Marcus finished his report with a certain finality.  But it was a finality that was forced.  Maximus could tell.

“But that’s not all, is it, Marcus?” he asked.

The governor’s shoulders slumped. He had hoped to have been done with the inquest.  He had made it clear that he had acted in the Empire’s interest and followed the requirements of the Emperor’s own edicts.  But now he had to deal with this nonsense and with the Emperor as well.

“No, majesty,” Marcus forced out. “There was a … robbery.”  Marcus was clearly uncomfortable even discussing the bizarre coda to the whole episode.  For what it was worth, Marcus could be consoled by the fact that the Emperor appeared to be just as uncomfortable, but for the life of him, Marcus couldn’t figure out why.

“A robbery?” Maximus coaxed.

“Normally, convicted felons are taken outside the city and buried in the unmarked graves outside the city.  The Empire doesn’t provide for full funeral privileges for convicts.”

“No, of course not,” Maximus replied.  “To do so would violate the public trust.”

“However, in Davidson’s case,” Marcus continued, “there was a member of the Territorial Council, one of the Edwardsians, no less, asked if he could take Davidson’s body and bury it in his family’s private plot.  I had no reason not to grant the request, so I did.  But apparently, after the weekend, reports began to circulate that when the caretaker unlocked the mausoleum to bury the body, the body was missing.  This fact seemed to cause a lot of consternation among the Edwardsians on the Territorial Council.  They were nearly beside themselves and demanded all kinds of inquiries.  Personally, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.  One of his followers probably swiped it to bury it back in Maine.  Either way, the man was dead and the issue settled.”

Maximus looked down at his desk and sat silently, tracing his fingers along the edge of the desk.  Marcus wasn’t sure how to respond so he remained standing at attention as he had throughout the entire meeting.  He looked out over the National Mall at the crowds moving along the neatly manicured lawns maintained by prisoner laborers.  The gleaming marble of the Imperial buildings lining Constitution and Independence Avenues.  The kites flying near the Washington Obelisk, ringed by flags bearing the Stars and Eagle, smoke rising from the altars at the Temple of Lincoln.  In the distance rose the villas of the senatorial class along the Georgetown cliffs.  A legion marched in parade formation along the Capitol grounds below.  In the skies above flew planes bearing pilgrims and tribute from every corner of the globe.  Everywhere ensigns of a world-spanning empire were on display.  Marcus smiled with satisfaction at the glory on display before him.  It had been his honor and privilege to serve the Empire.  Whatever happened, he would always feel that satisfaction.

After a few moments, Maximus turned, stood and gazed out the window as well.  “It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Marcus?”

“Yes, majesty,” Marcus replied.  

“It’ll be nice while it lasts, but the writing is already on the wall,” Maximus said matter-of-factly

“Majesty?” Marcus asked incredulously.

“You don’t realize it now and it may be that you may go down to your grave without ever seeing it worked out, but you’ve just participated in a world-changing event.  It is only a matter of time before this grand empire that we have built here will come down.  Of course, it would fall sooner or later, but now we know that God intends it to be sooner.”

Marcus turned from the window and now stared at his Emperor, disbelieving.  Maximus had never adopted this tone as far as he knew.  He spoke with a softness in his voice, tinged by a sense of resignation.  This was not the Master and Subjugator of New England.  A different man now stood before him.  “I know you’re not a religious man, Marcus,” Maximus continued. “That’s no accident.  I didn’t promote any religious men to my important command posts.  The religion of the Empire is that religion that worships the Empire.  It’s the only way the Imperium can survive.  The old religions might survive or eventually get blended with the Imperial one.  That process had already long been underway even before the first Commander took power.  And so, it’s no wonder that you didn’t see the drama you were getting wrapped up in.”

“I guess not, Majesty,” Marcus said.  He supposed he ought to feel better having received the Emperor’s largess and graciousness. But if anything, he began to feel more unease.

“In the early centuries of Christianity there was a heresy known as Montanism.  Among the Montanists was a woman named Prisca who taught that ‘in each generation the Messiah would be reborn, would be betrayed, would die, and be resurrected, until mankind turns away from evil, and sins no more.’  I had come across that heresy in an earlier life and always found it a compelling idea.  I never gave it any credence of course, and still wouldn’t, had I not heard your report from New England.  It seems God has other ideas.”

He turned to face Marcus and continued.  “I am sorry about that.  I sent you to Boston to govern an unruly province.  Instead, I have placed you at the heart of a great drama and made of you a Pontius Pilate.  I am afraid that history will remember you in an unflattering light.”

Marcus didn’t know what to say.  He was only vaguely aware of the significance of what the Emperor was telling him. He knew that upon his return to Boston he had some research to do.  He also knew that he wasn’t going to like what he found. “Majesty, the only glory I seek is the glory of the Empire.”

Maximus chuckled.  “Honorable to the last.  Have no fear, Marcus, I am not displeased with you.  You couldn’t have known that you were simply a supporting player in someone else’s play.” 

Maximus walked back to his desk and pressed a button.  Two centurions came in. “See the Governor out.”

Marcus turned to face the Emperor and raised his hand in salute again. “Hail, Maximus.”  He turned and walked out to a world that would never be the same for him.

Maximus muttered to himself, “What goes around…” and turned back to the window and looked out at the tableau before him.  It was a beautiful spring day in Washington: the Mall was full of activity, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, and the flags of the Empire were fluttering in the breeze.  It was a beautiful day, thought Maximus, but the sun was already beginning to set.