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J.A. Aarntzen

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Marginal Man
By J.A. Aarntzen
Friday, June 13, 2008

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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A gardener becomes enlisted by the King to aid in the security of his palace during a time of revolt against the kingdom.

Marginal Man

 
 
 
Still the worshippers keep on coming. After filing past the demi-god king who acknowledged each and every one of them with a parsimonious blessing they return to their bleak lives outside.
 
Are ye richer for it? We say yea.
 
Derek Mercer undid the string that fowled itself up in his lawnmower. ‘The pranksters are at it again,’ he seethes. It happens whenever there is a state holiday and it is always the young who defile the sanctity of the Royal Palace. Shrubbery, hedges and lawns were the first to take the onslaught of discontent. Soon, it would be full blown rebellion and the primate would either fall to ruin or he would stand triumphant and become a scourge to all that fail to adopt to his modus operandi. Derek Mercer had seen it all yet he stood more of a permanent artifact at the Palace than did the marble slabs on the walls. He got out his knife and sliced the string being cautious not to knick his fingers.
 
If you stand inside a government then you will fall over when that government topples. If you are detached, if you are marginal, then nothing can touch you, my friend.
 
The skies over the palace were hazy. An erratic electrical flash danced now here now there between the horizons. Once it seemed to actually light upon the turrets of the Royal Palace, splashing golden light along its skeletal perimeters. Tanya Mercer, whose window hutch faced the menacing giant, shrieked as the first bowl of thunder rattled the pyrex glass in its veneer molding.
 
Derek was in the backroom scraping the mud, the always mud, from the bottoms of his shoes. Upon hearing his wife’s scream he hurried to her side, tracking in globs of ooze on the hand-stitched carpeting.
 
“What is it?” he cried to his current lady, his fifth wife who was some forty years his junior.
 
Tanya was in hysterics and her voice was muted. She piled layers of sobs onto his shoulders while he patted her thick back, soothing her the only way he knew how by singing the Devotee’s Vigil. Somehow this tune, which was a hymn from the predominant religion of his youth, was able to relax the stress that made Tanya into a psychotic depressive. The religion had died years before her birth.
 
Finally Tanya pulled away from Derek. Her crimson pupils were fully dilated and her mouth was tight and constricted. Derek knew that she would not tell him what had upset her so.
 
Some say that memories are like stones. They are permanent and definable. I say that they have rocks in their heads.
 
Derek Mercer received a notice from the Grounds Supervisor. He was to report to his office immediately. Derek put down his hoe and wiped the grimy dust from his pants.
 
“On the seventeenth there is to be a commemorative ball in the Continents Room, Mercer,” Skipeye Wanderer told him as he handed Derek a cup of mocha and a stack of sour cream snaps.
 
Derek accepted the snack from his supervisor and said, “What does that have to do with me? I am a landscaper, I don’t handle interiors.”
 
Skipeye gave him a cross stare but retracted it quickly. He still felt pangs of guilt whenever he dealt with Derek. By right, the Grounds Supervisory position should have been Derek’s and not his. Not only did Mercer have years of seniority over him but also Mercer’s performance record was far more exemplary than his. Skipeye got the job because he was a loyalist during the last riots while Derek had not involved himself one way or the other in the affair.
 
“Rachmedes specifically requested that you handle all the arrangements. I don’t know why the Prince would bestow this burden of honor upon you Mercer. But mine is not to dally with the judgments of the Family. And I suggest that you take the same stance too. Standing in favor is preferable to no standing at all.” Skipeye handed him a clipboard with a wad of yellow sheets attached to it. “These are all the details for the ball. See to it that you carry each one out precisely. I have a certain premonition that there is more to this assignment than simply a ball. I don’t think the good King was all together pleased with your behavior during the last crisis.”
 
Derek began flipping through the pages, not noticing what anything said. King Trilion was testing his loyalty and his worth upon the Palace staff. Derek finished the last of the sour cream snaps and departed to the tools room where he had his own chair. He only drank about half of his mocha.
 
Assignments are only for goal-directed people. If you have no goals nothing is impossible.
 
Tanya answered the knock at her door. Four disheveled women dressed in monk robes pushed their way into the house and sat themselves at the kitchen table. Tanya watched silently. She was neither surprised, gladdened nor enraged.
 
“Sister Mercer,” spoke the tall woman with the auburn sun crest on her lapel. “The time has come. On the seventeenth is the anniversary of the Fall of Reason. Prince Rachmedes is planning a ball to do honor to his great grandfather Jonus who severed the head from our spiritual magnate.”
 
“It’s more to honor himself, that is what I say,” Sister Morning snipped. She was the woman who got Tanya involved in the Reason movement in the first place several years before Tanya betrothed Derek. Derek was never aware of this schism in his wife’s loyalties.
 
The sun-crested Sister was the sect leader for Reason in the capital city. No one knew her name. She hushed Sister Morning for interrupting. “It may be for Prince Rachmedes’ honor but it is more than that. It is for all of them, the Usurpers, the Reason Killers. They make holiday of the travesty that has temporarily knocked the world out of kilter. We shall right this wrong and we will plea to the populace that this is not First Earth. Reason dictates that this quagmire is not the birthing place of humanity!”
 
In unison the five women chanted, “For humanity is noble. For humanity is the child of Perfection. And humanity shall go home!”
 
“This ball will see all the heads of state and their ministerial aides present. They lay waiting for their blood to flow,” the nameless Sister wailed. “Sister Mercer did you do as I asked?”
 
“Yes,” Tanya responded, her voice somewhat mechanical. “I have given the forged assignment to Supervisor Wanderer. He did not question its authenticity.”
 
Smiles graced all the Sisters’ faces – all but Tanya’s. Derek was to be the sacrificial goat in the event of failure.
 
“You can’t pin this on me Mister! How can you when I have no body?”
 
His unfamiliarity with the operations of the palatial security system was the biggest obstacle for Derek Mercer. He had been trained on a unit similar to this one long ago when he was hired into the Royal House maintenance staff. With that old machine all that he had to do was feed into the computers some trace cells from each invited guest. With this information the computers were able to maintain a constant scan of the movements of these individuals within the complex. An alarm would sound whenever an intruder came onto the premises that had not been scanned.
 
But since that time the Palace had installed additional security devices that Derek did not know how to operate. Since King Trilion took over the mantle of power from his father, Barth, there had been an increase in attempted insurrections. Many of these had their genesis within the inner circle of Trilion’s friends and confidantes. Now as a matter of routine anybody entering the palace must be fitted with what is known as a bangplug – a subcutaneous behavior manipulator. These send out radio signals to the computer that keeps an active three-dimensional watch on the wearer. Whenever the computer was not satisfied with the behavior of a guest it would zap him or her with a sixty-volt electrical shock. Derek was familiar with the pain. Twice the computer had immobilized him when the monitor had misinterpreted his behavior as being offensive to King Trilion.
 
But now he was in charge of this whole defense circuit. He had to supervise the installation of the bangplugs in every guest and then personally oversee the effectiveness of each plug in the wearer. Exposing heads of state and high-ranking officials to this shock made him shiver. Their wrathful eyes would burn into him while the plug burned into their afferent nerve system. Yet there was no way around it. Everybody had to submit. When he tested the voltage in their bodies, he was reminded of the old standard when the news is bad, kill the messenger.
 
Theoretically it was supposed to be that every guest had to be fitted with the bangplug. But upon occasion King Trilion would allow certain guests to be exempt from this procedure. Whenever the King felt that there was something to be gained by foregoing the procedure, he would instruct his staff to allow the guest to move about freely within the complex. Yet this was extremely rare. Even the King’s son, Prince Rachmedes had to always wear the bangplug.
 
Today on the guest list handed to Derek there was one name that had the star beside it that granted this person exemption from the treatment. The name was Sabella, a queen dowager from the neighboring state of Carra. This caused Derek to feel ill at ease. Trilion had nothing to gain from the Carrians and in particular from a dowager queen. Carra had some 73 dowagers and none of them exerted any political influence. Derek had not even heard of this Sabella.
 
For safety’s sake he placed the list into the authenticator. The computer showed that the seal was that of Prince Rachmedes and that the Prince himself had imprinted it on the document. It was impossible to forge another person’s pressure. Derek still felt uneasy. His sense of duty told him that he should go to a higher authority. Rachmedes’ loyalty could be called into question. Sons have been known to rebel against fathers. But to tell an unwitting father that his son is conspiring against him could backfire against the informer. Kill the messenger.
 
Derek had strong suspicions now that the entire promenade was a sham. It could be some form of disguise for an assassination attempt. Why else was he called into a duty that was not in his venue of expertise? Trilion could not possibly be concerned about a gardener’s allegiance. By the same token a marginal man can make the ideal scapegoat in the event of failure. Almost certainly Rachmedes was probably aware about how Derek had not acted with speed in the defense of the King during the last uprise. It was perfect.
 
Derek Mercer decided to use tact and approach the King about a possible malfunction in the security system.   He knew that there was no malfunction. He would ask the King if this dowager queen was to be exempt.
 
She is a pretty girl
As pretty as any in the land
My love is a flux, a twirl
Please pretty girl take my hand
 
(Taken from the popular song by Hermis Angetti. The song had two titles depending upon whom you believe. The first is simply the opening line, “She Is A Pretty Girl”. Hermis Angetti however insisted that the proper title is “Senses Awhirl For A While”
 
Fruit was plentiful in the salad that Tanya prepared for the forthcoming celebration, the Birth of Reason. She placed it into the icebox and began whistling a song that she had not heard in ages. She suddenly realized that it was the song that King Trilion had banned because the composer was a devout Reasoner. All the compositions of Hermis Angetti were now taboo. What Tanya could not comprehend though was that Hermis Angetti had lived more than a hundred years before the birth of the present tyrant. All the musicians and all the people of that era were of the Reason faith. Yet Trilion chose only to ban the songs of Hermis Angetti. There was nothing very different about the works of Maestro Angetti as compared to his contemporary peers. His lyrics were of pap and pulp. No matter how perversely you construe those inane love ditties there was nothing in them of a political or rebellious nature.
 
Yet Tanya was fully aware that Trilion had created his own monster. The music of Hermis Angetti now served as a rallying point for the counter-revolution, the New Sisters and Brothers of Reason. To this broadly based political organization, Tanya Mercer was thick and true . More so than to her husband Derek. The man was old and she did not wholly know where she stood among his four previous wives in the annals of his life. Indeed, Derek did not know to which wife’s tomb he would lay next to upon the cessation of his vitality.
 
A knock came to the door. Sister Morning burst in. Her face and hands were bloodied.
 
“Damn your betrothed!” she cursed and kicked over a chair. “Damn your betrothed!”
 
Tanya glanced toward the Royal Palace through the window. The menacing night fliers that she saw two evenings earlier were spewing out of the turrets dressed in their battle regalia. King Trilion was the necromancer that she had suspected. He had unraveled the dead and charged them with holding their fealty to him to protect the throne at all costs. Tanya began shivering and thought that she might heave.
 
Sister Morning sneered at her. Great globs of blood clung to her eyebrows and dribbled down her cheeks and neck. “Derek Mercer,” she growled, “is the avenging angel. He is not as he may seem. Gardener, hoer, benevolent gray head. He is foul. He is spite. He redeems the evil.” She glared at Tanya with the eyes of a mad woman and with the fear of damnation spiking her to the flaming embers.
 
Of all the times that her husband had simply carried out orders without question, why did he have to hound this one out? Tanya had thought that everything was in order. Prince Rachmedes, himself, endorsed the plan with the royal seal. The prince had never given any display of rebellious behavior. It was the biggest and yet one of the easiest secrets to keep. Prince Rachmedes was a Reasoner. He was not power hungry. He would have chosen a lesser seat in the new regime and would have cooperated with the nameless Sister in the governing of the land and the reintegration of the tenets and tithes of Reason.
 
For the longest period the Reasoners did not attempt an all-out revolt because they assumed that in the end Rachmedes would take over after the death of Trilion. To keep suspicion away from them they had staged an occasional uprising so that no quiet before the storm theory could filter in Trilion’s head.
 
But a fortnight ago, Rachmedes told the secret enclave of Reason that he had almost conclusive evidence that Trilion was delving into preternatural methods of prolonging his life through the use of ancient Kabal rituals combined with prosthetics. Trilion was trying to achieve immortality and was seeking to become King of the Dead as well. With the Dead as his protectors and with an ageless body Trilion could rule forever. No rebirth for Reason. No search for First Earth. With this news the neo-Reasoners lost the luxury of waiting. They now had to do something.
 
They hastily prepared the assassination attempt using the name of Sabella of Carra as their means to get close to the King. Some Carrian Reasoners murdered Sabella and an imposter was to take the dowager queen’s place at the ball. Everything might have worked out had Derek Mercer not suddenly become a hound dog.
 
Rewards and punishment work on the flesh. The flesh sways its reasons by the dogma of hedonism. But not the Spirit. The Spirit knows only one course – the Noble Road where Truth is the cobblestone.
 
Trilion summoned his Courts. Men and women dressed in the austere robes of the ancestors entered the great hall that was adorned with lavish paintings of former heads of state, monarchs, despots and committees. None in the promenade could affix a name to the faces of the various leaders whom at one time held the pulse of the country within their gaze. The nation had many different governmental forms – the blind idealism of democracy; the steely will of tyrants; and the liberalism of socialism. All came and went. Yet the country still survived. The trees still grew on the hillsides and the birds still perched on them.
 
Many gave death to the land. Many had their bones decompose and become the soil of the land. The trees, the hillsides and the birds could thank them. It was they whom Trilion appealed to when he declared himself Monarch of All Time – Keeper of the Nation. Their blood oaths in their long ago lives kept them bound to the one who proclaims. Trilion proclaimed.
 
Insurrections will come and go in their cyclical fashion but Trilion would live on. He was not forecast. His existence was due to the fusing of Chance and Will and he has become. It did not matter that his people did not love him, honor him, or respect him. He had the Power and he was invincible. Too many people had sworn their fealty in the past to the seat of government. That allegiance was much more than the idle words that the pledgers had believed. It was the will of a people and that will is not bound by the physical. The Dead had to keep their word. The Dead, being dead, were blind to all the senses and judgment. They had to wield to Trilion’s wishes. They were his arm.
 
The promenade and the regal music came to an abrupt stop. The sergeant-at-arms lifted his ivory staff and the congregation dropped to their knees, including Derek Mercer.
 
He did not want to be conspicuous.
 
Trilion made a fiery speech in which he charged the rebels that included his son Rachmedes and Derek’s wife Tanya with high treason. The King pointed out that there were avenues for change within the constitution. Resorts to violence had never accomplished what the perpetrators set out to do. They only discover that instead of righting the wrong what they create is a political Pandora’s Box that is much larger than their lives. It was the usual preamble that Trilion sputters before decreeing the execution of conspirators and criminals.
 
Derek had heard it all before. Usually ennui would set in on him during these speeches. He had learned not to get emotionally involved with the plight of the doomed. They were only learning a lesson that had been taught thousands of times over and over. Unfortunately each person only gets a chance to learn it once and then it is too late. Derek Mercer had seen it all before.
 
This time, however, he held a special interest in the proceedings. And the interest did not stem from the fact that his wife, Tanya, was to be executed while he watched on. He had seen his four other wives being executed – three at the hands of Barth, father of Trilion and one to Trilion before. Tanya would be the second wife he would lose to the current king. It seemed for some reason that every woman that he married turned out to be a political animal. There was nothing special in that for everybody was that creature at one time or another when they get involved in self and group interests. Only Derek Mercer and a few like him had put scorn onto humanity’s higher pretenses of self-importance. Derek Mercer and those similar to him were marginal men.  They did not care. Why care when there is no difference?
 
Nor was Derek’s interest in the proceedings a function of the conversation he had with Trilion earlier that day. The King had summoned him and given him a chance not to attend the executions because of his wife. Derek answered that it did not matter. She would be dead regardless.
 
To this Trilion said, “You are like me, Derek Mercer. We come from the same root. We see things in a higher order where the individual is as paltry and significant as the dust that settles upon the desk.”
 
Derek’s response was, “For some people the dust becomes a hindrance to the breath.”
 
“But the dust will always be there. You have to learn to live with it,” Trilion replied, his eyes liking what he was hearing. “Tell me Derek Mercer, do you believe in First Earth?”
 
“It does not matter what I believe, your Majesty. What is is and no belief can change that. For that reason I do not believe.”
 
“There are those that would have said that my raising of the dead is impossible – that it was beyond belief. Yet, you saw with your critical, cynical eyes the wraiths and ghosts appear and become my vanguard. How does that settle with you Derek Mercer?”
 
“Your Majesty, I just finished saying what is is. What you did was not something new or novel. You did not tear the seams of reality. Reality always was able to permit what you did. Your predecessors could have used it had they known that it existed. Humanity is still learning the ground rules of existence. What is is.”
 
The King did not like the perfunctory manner in which Derek spoke. To him it seemed that the gardener was undermining his regal authority. In Derek Mercer he saw a potential lethal enemy. An enemy that could be the only one with the power to dethrone him. Derek Mercer had to be pacified. Somehow Trilion could not bring upon himself the idea of killing a man that was so much like him. “Have you taken your oath of allegiance to me Derek Mercer?” The King eyed Derek with red, eagle eyes.
 
“Yes, your majesty.”
Trilion was satisfied with this answer. A man like Derek Mercer is woven from the fabric of honesty.
 
As the gardener watched the Sergeant-at-arms lift his ivory staff and the congregation all fell into a supine position, he thought about that question of fealty. For the first time in his long years, he had lied. He never took such an oath. Expediency had prevailed over honesty – just this one time.
 
What made Derek look at this public execution with special interest was that he was all too conscious of the gun he had concealed in his cuff. Derek Mercer’s consciousness was of a different kind. It did not have its physiological correlates within his body that would alert and trigger the bangplug at the back of his head. Derek Mercer’s consciousness was that of No Mind, expansive mindlessness. 
 
Derek Mercer was one of the last of the satori school of Zen. Derek knew that his was not First Earth. He knew that because he was one of the few survivors from that planet that had mothered Homo sapiens. First Earth in its waning years had a tyrant of its own that was much like Trilion and came to possess special powers that held the entire populace at ransom. First Earthers did not give in to the tyrant’s demands and paid the ultimate price as the planet was blown up in its orbit. Derek Mercer knew this because he was that tyrant. He suffered a remorseful guilt unequaled by any being of conscience. To atone for his sin he knew that he had to go on living. Death would never give him solace. He did not deem himself worthy of eternal sleep. He had to live forever and bear the pain for his foolishness and his cruelty.
 
The colonized worlds, the millions of them, never learned of First Earth’s fate. For Derek Mercer while he was Extreme Tyrant had secreted away the Earth and its solar system and hid it from the colonies. He did this out of fear of reprisal. He did not have power over the colonies and they could have easily come and rescued the Mother from the Enslaver. Within each colony there had grown the mythos that they were First Earth. Not many were going to come to the rescue of the true one.
 
Derek Mercer had stolen away and had come to live on this Earth.
 
Goodbye, goodbye. What is so good about it?
 
Rachmedes was the first one executed. This dubious honor was always bestowed upon the more distinguished rebels. One by one the rebels were rent with bullets. This type of execution was always the preferable one. It did the job fast and it was messy enough to satisfy ghoulish onlookers.
 
Tanya was now third in line. She was fully prepared to die. Ever since her arrest she assumed the posture of a martyr and was inwardly pleased with it. Martyrs are immortalized. She was fully alert to what was going on around her. She was not at all like the zombie-faced prisoners that were shocked beyond the point that they could no longer believe that all of this was happening. Tanya was not at all like that. She knew she was going to die. Her brave chin was not a ruse.
 
She saw her husband, Derek, in the crowd. She saw him lie prostrate like the others. Her thoughts about him were different now. He was no longer the rat. If it weren’t for Derek this extreme moment of sacrifice that would inspire all the secret sects of Reasoners to uprise and cast out the Pretender would not happen. She didn’t care that she would not be there to see it. Her memory would certainly be there.
 
A ghastly cry broke through her blissful musings. She saw that Sister Morning was not taking it stoically. The woman, her comrade-in-arms, had awakened from her catatonic state and was alive for the last few moments of her life before the bullets frayed her purple gown and the blood washed through.
 
The nameless Sister, the brainchild of the assassination plot, was next in line. She turned to look at Tanya. Tanya saw that her eyes were soaked with tears that just did not want to leave the safe harbor within her eyelashes.
 
“Sister Mercer,” the nameless Sister said softly. Tanya was expecting the woman to say goodbye, thank her for her help and belief in reason, and then to say something about how the battle was lost but the war would be won. All the carefully groomed psychological state that Tanya had worked so diligently on for this the hour of her death was shattered. The nameless Sister said through a toothy sneer, “I curse you Sister Mercer. Your name is the damnation of Reason!”
 
“Why?” Tanya cried.
 
But the nameless Sister stomped off to the blood podium and took her bullets without giving answer.
 
Tanya was next. Her composure was gone. The martyr syndrome left her mind and she saw what reality had in store for her. She would not even exist a minute from now. Her memory would be glossed over as one in a million of the political victims of Trilion. Her eyes found Derek. She looked at the only man that she called husband. He had not shown any indication that he was in distress. Her whole being was sobbing with pleas – cries for mercy, cries for help. Yet Derek remained emotionless. For Tanya had not said a word with her voice. Her eyes were saying it all. She wanted to live. She wanted to be Derek’s wife. Derek!
 
She felt chunks of her flesh leave her at the speed of light. Then she felt no more.
 
The past is a collective memory. The future is the hope of the individual. The present is the fine line that separates them.
 
The Sergeant-at-arms lifted his ivory staff. People were allowed to their feet and to speak once more.
 
The gist of most conversations was how dignified most of the prisoners had faced their ultimate moment. Only the imposter dowager queen of Carra and Sister Morning had broken and begged for mercy. The rest took it with the solemn mind that one must have in the last seconds of life.
 
Trilion left the hall. His face was stone. Nobody ever knew if the King had pleasure in witnessing these slaughters or whether the entire affair disgusted him.
 
Derek Mercer was cursing himself. He had intended to assassinate the King and he knew that he could do it. He was one of only a few that had the capability. The Dead, the King’s guard, had no effect upon the gardener. Ghosts feared him more than they felt bound to their oaths of fealty. He was all that the Dead feared. They knew he would never be one of them and that knowledge made Derek Mercer exempt from any terror that the Dead may inflict.
 
Why didn’t he kill Trilion then before Tanya was executed?
 
He shook his shoulders. The answer was that Derek Mercer still wasn’t through punishing himself. He could not permit himself the luxury of caring. Not yet at least.

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