The Ministry of Heavenly Understanding
by Harry Lang
part 1 of 2
On the planet Thal, in the ancient kingdom of Molkoth, there stood a mighty mountain called Baek and, on it, the king’s observatory. One frosted, evergreen-scented morning in early spring Royal Astronomer Tche was making his daily inspection of the instruments operated by the observers of the “sun shift.”
No surprises meant no humiliation of observation masters, no punishment of malefactors and no errors entered on the charts and tables used for His Majesty’s astrological projections. Tche was a scrupulous man who would not hesitate to humiliate, punish or acknowledge errors but he enjoyed none of those things. He liked order and smooth operations. He liked the anonymity of flawlessly executed duty. Above all he liked impeccable data, the only reliable guide to the truths of the world.
Tche completed his inspection then followed the trail of routine down the stone steps descending from the observation plateau to the winding gravel path leading to the administration building. A few turquoise shoots of grass peeped at him from between the rosy stones of the small, immaculate courtyard; he took note.
Upon reaching his office Tche was greeted by his secretary. “Grass in the courtyard,” said Tche as he took the steaming tea offered by the young man. The secretary bowed and said nothing. There had been no grass when he had left the previous evening and the groundskeeper’s morning shift had not yet started. Nevertheless, the grass would be gone within the hour, as would the elderly groundskeeper.
Finally reaching the happy seclusion of his office Tche settled himself behind his desk, running a finger across its glassy surface. He was not a sentimental man but the desk was a gift from his late father, presented to commemorate his successful completion of the civil service examinations. Inlays of many varieties of exotic wood formed a striking representation of the glowing cosmos against deep indigo. It was a fantastically beautiful object and thoroughly impersonal, the perfect representative of Tche’s father and his intentions.
Tche spread a sheet of paper across the writing pad and placed the weights to keep it flat and still, allowing his mind to empty itself as he followed his devotional routine. As he took up the brush to begin his morning poem his secretary announced the unscheduled arrival of his master, the Minister of Heavenly Understanding.
“Minister Quox, this is a surprise!” said Tche, rising from his pillow as he rinsed his brush.
“Should a royal astronomer be surprised?” snorted the old Minister as he took Tche’s place behind the desk, making himself at home with much swishing of robes and glaring about. He then smiled, deflating all pomp as he opened his pouch and pulled out a skin of wine. “How can you advise His Majesty when you can’t even foretell the arrival of an old mentor?”
“It was cloudy last night,” protested Tche, pouring a drink for his friend, “and the sun never yields small predictions.”
“This is so,” smiled the Minister, draining the cup and pouring one for his friend. “What has the sky been telling you?”
“The sky is quiet, Minister,” answered Tche. “We have seen no auspicious indications.”
“His Majesty’s Tranquil Reign will continue?”
“Have you come for reassurance?” asked Tche. “What concerns His Majesty?”
“The same thing that always concerns him,” said the old minister with a tired sigh. This territory was all too familiar. “The Lesser Prince is raising another army and making belligerent statements. This will be his twelfth attempt. The ministers have repeatedly told His Majesty to crush the usurper and bring him to justice but he can’t bring himself to do it. You know how brothers can be.”
Tche did not know but nodded as if he did.
“The King finds much assurance in heaven and little in the character of his ministers,” said Quox. “I have told him it would be prudent to see to the defenses regardless of the state of the sky.”
Tche was glad to be stationed on his breezy mountaintop, far from the tangled distractions and intrigues of the royal city. Good scholars were ruined every day by the onslaught of petty bickering and hidden manipulations of the rulers of the kingdom of Molkoth. All their heavenly gifts were bent toward the expansion of power and maintenance of control. Master Quox was almost an exception but only almost.
“Now, to my real purpose,” continued Quox, refusing a second drink. “I hear that you have devised an instrument with which to commit blasphemy.”
“You deny it?”
“I... that is... I have done nothing but devise a means of analyzing light in order to determine the material composition of stars and planets. The device is called a spectroscope. We have already discovered that the planets are composed of substances similar to the moon but different from the stars, whereas the sun and stars are nearly indistinguishable.”
“Indeed?” For a moment Quox forgot his position as a civil servant and returned to his first love of astronomy. “Then the planets have weight, which could account in part for their motions... But consider your position, Director. Is it prudent for lowly men to subject the divine host to such close scrutiny?”
“If men are lowly should they be feared by the ‘spirits’ on high?”
“Director Tche, don’t misunderstand,” said Quox with a wave of his hand. “His Majesty knows the heavens are the handiwork of the fathomless God and yield only praiseworthy discoveries to the explorations of men. If your instrument is true and accurate he would be fascinated to know what you find. But the ministers will be furious. Knowledge is change and any change which diminishes their power over the people is their fiercest enemy.”
“What would you have me do, Minister?” said Tche. “Each discovery opens the way for countless others; to retreat from such inquiries condemns us to barbarism. The ministers themselves enjoy harvests unheard of in former times due to the sort of changes they fear.”
“So. I have stopped being a scientist and become a politician, my friend. You discover new things in the changeless heavens while I discover changeless things in unstable men. Clearly The God is at work in one but not the other.”
“As you say, Minister.”
Quox chuckled. “It seems you have become a politician as well. Your convictions were not so malleable when you were my student.”
“My convictions have not changed, Master,” said Tche. “Years of observation only strengthen my conviction that the movements of the heavenly objects are directed solely by physical processes.”
“Yet you remain silent and presume to advise His Majesty according to the astrological traditions. Do you recognize no conflict in this?”
“I have considered informing His Majesty.”
“A childish idea,” said Tche. “I have dismissed it. In order to carry out the exploration of the heavens I must be a Royal Astronomer. I have not been dishonest with His Majesty. I have applied the astrological formulae precisely and accurately and His Majesty is satisfied. It is simply a form of mathematics. Politicians make conflicts where none exist.”
“You risk more than you know, my friend,” warned Quox. “And I don’t believe your lack of ethical concern. Even men who do not see divinity behind the order of the heavens possess the conscience of heaven’s maker.”
“So,” acknowledged Tche, filling his master’s cup, “you see why I prefer the straight road of science to the twisting path of ethics and politics. They are too much work. They lead to absurdities.”
“Ha! You have progressed since your student days!” smiled Quox. “You believe your certitude will prevail against the certitudes of all others.”
“And why not, Minister? I do not invent the truth; I merely discover it. So will all men.”
“Ah, the truth!” Minister Quox’s amethyst eyes sparkled as he recalled a long forgotten episode from his own past. “How many have lost everything only to find in the end that their conviction was misguided or at least inconvenient to powers vastly beyond them! Let me ask you one thing, my pupil. My friend. Can you know? At this presumably early stage in our understanding of the worlds do you really mean to declare with certainty that heaven is lifeless or do you mean to say that as a humble astronomer you are only capable of observing heavenly phenomena with the imperfect means of mortals?”
Tche had never considered the question from such a perspective. Certainly the Minister was right about power and inconvenience; despite his unwavering conviction, or rather because of it, he had always lived in fear. But didn’t all wisdom teach that the divine way was beyond finding out? A scientist had no obligation to make pronouncements regarding ultimate questions whose answers lay in unobservable realms. Quox’s formulation allowed a man like Tche to maintain his integrity without risking his reputation or worse. His friend was a politician indeed.
“Director!” Tche’s secretary shouted from the outer office. “Come quickly! The sun glass...”
The two astronomers needed no explanation. They moved with all possible speed up the steps of the path and onto the observation plateau. Men were crowded around a complicated device mounted on a granite slab situated in the middle of a maze of symbols and numbers. Gasps and a few sobs could be heard.
A magnified image of the disk of the sun was projected onto a screen of treated paper, safely viewed through colored glass. All watched quietly as the master sun observer counted, “Nine, ten, eleven, twelve!”
A stream of fire shot out from the blazing disk. The observer began counting again; the fire subsided when he reached twelve. The cycle repeated a number of times then stopped.
“How many?” asked Tche. His face was the color of ashes and his voice trembled. The observer could not bring himself to answer.
“How many? Tell me!”
“Twelve, Director. The cycle repeated twelve times.” None of the scholars present could lift their heads. Quiet sobs were carried upon the scented breeze.
“I will inform His Majesty,” said Quox quietly.
Not even the stalwart Director Tche could withhold tears.
Copyright © 2013 by Harry Lang