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Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

The new knowledge led to the very upheavals the ancient inquisitions had feared.

A Concise History of the Heavens

Once there was a species of animal that looked up at the stars and tried to find the rules that governed them.

At first, because it could not see very far, the species made rules that governed 9 planets and a few hundred stars – all it could see in the night sky.  Then, after hundreds of generations had passed, empires had risen and fallen, and a few advances in the development of lenses and mathematics were preserved against famine, plague, and fashion, a few monks realized that the universe was in fact much bigger.  When viewed more carefully, through the correct lenses, the universe contained more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand on every beach in the world.

Their fellow animals did not take this news well, and many monks were burned at the stake and others were imprisoned deep underground for speculating about what these facts could mean, but their cause was taken up by literary men of imagination and the knowledge kept alive across countries, preserved in letters on parchment snuck across borders during times of war, until eventually new ideas about what the immense size of the universe could mean began to lose their power to shock, and were debated openly in the courts of kings.

The new knowledge led to the very upheavals the ancient inquisitions had feared.  The impossibility of the narrative imagination to adequately summarize the scope of the universe led to numbers and calculations seizing primacy over words and poetry.  Just as the earth was revealed not to be the center around which every star revolved, new forms of government emerged which did not revolve around the nobility, but instead numbered every man (one) and gave him a vote, and tallied the results.

Even larger lenses were used to chart the universe, which kept getting bigger, and the calculations by which society ran grew more complex, until eventually the numerologists who studied the stars were utterly divorced from the numerologists who ran the nations, and the two began to disdain each other – denying that they even had ancestry in common.  Astronomers continued to see that the universe was bigger and bigger as economists and financiers tried to develop more complicated metrics that society could revolve around.  But a universe this big and a society this changing only created a profound sense of nervousness and unease for most people.

After war and pestilence swept the world and new nations rose again, astronomers intent on refining the calculations of a generation before discovered that not only was the universe still bigger than they’d thought, but that it was continuing to expand, stars eventually getting so far away that even their light could not penetrate the ever increasing void between them.

By this point the ancient inquisitions were gone, and so no one recognized that this was the beginning of the end.

After hundreds of generations had passed and the financiers and economists were still promising that stable prosperity was just around the corner;  after empires had risen and fallen, and literacy had gone out of fashion because the world stubbornly refused to be tamed by the symbols used to described it;  the innumerable stars in the universe had gone so far away that they could no longer be seen through even the most advanced lenses, and it looked to one and all as though there were only 9 planets and a few hundred stars.

After another few generations, barely 100 years, no one believed there had ever been anything more.

Yes, the poorly educated and superstitious still held that their ancient ancestors had seen millions of stars in the sky, and so they must be out there somewhere, but the rational scholars and the empirically minded put them down.  Ancient texts are historically unreliable, people saw what they wanted to see, and if there were more than 9 planets and a few hundred stars in the universe we would have evidence today.  But 9 planets and a few stars are all there is, and all there ever has been, in the sky.

Such complexity was manageable, and a few rules were made that governed the motion of the heavens, and the societies of men below also came to follow the guidelines, and the world spun again into an era when every star could be named and no man was a number and everything in heaven and everyone on earth knew their place.

A million years had proven the hypothesis of an infinite universe objectively wrong.  Never again would this world be fooled by a few monks who ground glass into lenses and peered into the dark.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

Read more stories by Benjamin Wachs


This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.   

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