Aristarchus of Samos brought out a book of certain hypotheses…that the fixed stars and the Sun remain unmoved; that the Earth is borne round the Sun on the circumference of a circle…
I pulled my car to the edge of the road and let the morning traffic weave around as best it could. I might have made it easier for everyone had I closed the driver’s side door, but, in my haste, I didn’t.
The man in Grecian robes stood just past the street curb, his sandals hovering a few inches above the grass. “Good day, Mr. Mosely,” he said. “We have a job for you.”
“A job?” No doubt I sounded as calm as I felt. Which is to say, not at all.
He waved his left hand. “Yes. Seleucus of Seleucia is trying to persuade the ancient Greeks that Aristarchus’s view of a Sun-centered universe is correct. This undermines my own view of an Earth-centered universe. He’s using advanced technology, only allowed by temporal law if it produces a better world.”
I knew about Seleucus, a Mesopotamian astronomer who in the second century B.C.E. unsuccessfully promoted Aristarchus’ Sun-centered model of the then-known universe–in contradiction to Aristotle’s Earth-centered view. Apparently Aristotle hadn’t heard the news, that even the church gave up on the Earth-centered model centuries ago.
“But, Aristarchus was right,” I said. “You were wrong.”
Aristotle cleared his throat. “We need you to testify on that very matter.”
“Are you really Aristotle?” The warm halo of light around him now encompassed me as well. The mist and wet street beyond took on its reddish glow. No one paid us any attention, only honked and made rude gestures at my parked car.
A faint smile crossed his lips. “Haven’t you heard? Aristotle’s dead.”
I wanted to say, “So why are you pretending,” but feared that might sound dumb. “What job do you have for me?”
The angry drivers and odor of car exhaust vanished, and I found myself in a large room, perhaps a hundred feet by fifty. An old, dusty scent lent an air of sobriety. Two men in robes like Aristotle’s sat at an oval stone table to my left, their backs to me. Three additional chairs sat empty.
The wall about twenty feet away consisted of a single window reaching across the room and up into the vaulted ceiling. A spiral galaxy peered through the window, its gold core and star-filled arms framed by a steady black sky. The galaxy spanned nearly thirty degrees–a third of the hundred-foot window.
About the size of the Milky Way as viewed from one of the Magellanic Clouds, or so I estimated. “Where are we?” I asked.
A woman standing at the window turned at my question. “Breathtaking isn’t it?” Her smile turned up farther on one side than the other, idiosyncratic and infectious. Her skin was smooth chocolate, a bit lighter than my own, well suited to the soft fabric that fell sarong-like down her slender body in varied shades of red. Her steps fell quick and energetic as she moved toward the table where Aristotle beckoned us.
I took one of the three empty chairs, the woman on my left, Aristotle on my right. The balding, bearded Greek across the table from the woman inclined his head in greeting.
The woman leaned over to whisper something to him, which I couldn’t hear, but I did catch the desperate appeal in her eyes.
I turned my attention to the fifth member, clean-shaven and wearing robes of similar elegance to the other Greeks, but of different design. He shook my hand across the table. “I’m Seleucus.” He smiled broadly and winked as though we had a secret between us. “I’m the one they’re trying to keep silent. Not that they’ll succeed.”
He folded his hands and bowed his head slightly to the woman. “Orana Mellotti, I hope I can count on you.”
Her mouth hung open, her face astonished. “You can’t be….Seleucus is one of the gods. Not real.”
He laughed. “Very real. At least pending the result of my trial.”
“We should begin,” the balding man said. “I’m Aristarchus, or serve that role in this court.”
I remembered he did geometry in the heyday of the Greeks around two or three hundred B.C.E. Proposed that the Sun rather than the Earth was the center of the then-known universe, based on the large size that he measured for it.
“Unfortunate that people didn’t accept your views of a central Sun until the times of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo,” I offered.
Aristotle dismissed my comment with a wave. “That is to be decided here, whether it is better that this be known at the time of Aristarchus and Seleucus, or not for another eighteen hundred years as in your timeline.”
My timeline. So there were other possibilities. How much better if the world had not suffered centuries of superstition before the scientific revolution. “So, I’m supposed to tell you about my timeline?” I tried to sound calm, but my voice wavered.
“To testify, yes. But also to decide. Witness and judge. That’s how our court works.” Aristotle nodded to his colleague across the table. “Aristarchus, your first witness.”
“Mr. Mosely, I have only a couple of questions for you.” Aristarchus stretched his palms out on the table between us. “Do you value Truth?”
I became aware of the table’s cool solidity beneath my own hands, and felt a sudden chill as the weight of my unexpected role in deciding history hit me. “Yes, of course I do.”
“Do you value it more than your own life?” he continued.
I blinked. “Well, I think so. I hope so.” Of course, I’d never had that tested.
A gleam entered Seleucus’ eyes, and he surged toward me, his hands gripping the table’s edge. “They are trying to suppress Truth.”
“Seleucus, please wait your turn to witness.” Aristotle rapped the table twice with his knuckles. “It will not serve you well if we must invoke more formal rules.”
Seleucus sat back, a faint smirk evident, but he said no more. My initial liking for him faded somewhat. Nevertheless, if he were the one on trial, as it seemed, and for declaring the Sun to be the center of the then-known universe, I saw little doubt but that his claim was the true one.
Aristotle turned to me. “You say that Copernicus and Kepler showed the Earth to orbit the Sun?”
“Yes. During the scientific revolution.”
Aristotle’s eyebrows rose. “Tell us more about this revolution.”
I squirmed. “It was when people began to choose the testimony of reason and observation over speculation and imagination.” I shrugged. “At least, that’s how I see it.”
And that was how long ago?” Aristotle looked past me at Orana, as though the question were as much for her as me.
I estimated. “I suppose about five hundred years, the fifteen hundreds I think. Before the Enlightenment.”
Aristotle ended the line of questioning before I revealed too much historical ignorance. “In your own time, people have gone to the Moon?” Aristotle’s non-sequitur startled me.
“Well, not exactly in my time, but we’re planning to go again.”
“Interesting.” He nodded and smiled, still watching Orana. I began to doubt that Aristotle’s impersonator knew what he was doing. His questions seemed aimless.
Things only got worse. He took an ancient Greek coin from his robe and laid it on the table, a tarnished silver coin with the image of an owl gazing at me with eerie intensity. “So, if five hundred people guess whether a tossed coin will come down owl or Athena, how many will get it right?” He leaned forward, his eyes burrowing into mine.
I recoiled, bumping into Orana on my other side. Her touch felt soft and warm. When I glanced at her, her dark eyes hovered just a couple inches from mine. The scent of perfume in her hair, pungent like blooming sage, filled my nostrils. Flustered, my heart skipped a beat. She smiled and shrugged, apparently as puzzled as I at Aristotle’s question.
I turned my attention back to Aristotle. “About two hundred fifty.”
“So, do two hundred and fifty of them have the Truth?” He looked ready to pounce.
“I suppose so.”
He pounced, coming out of his chair and slapping the table three times. “No! None of them have the Truth because none of them truly know. They only guess!”
Aristarchus flapped his hand gently and Aristotle returned to his chair. “I assume you know, Mr. Mosely, that there was considerable opposition to Copernicus’ claim that the Sun is the center of the solar system. Opposition that festered for a hundred years and came to a boil with the incarceration of Galileo. There was opposition in my own time as well. Cleanthes the Stoic threatened to indict me for impiety because I dared to set the Hearth of the Universe in motion.”
“Truth shouldn’t be based on preconceived notion,” I said. “Only on observation.” I injected some extra sobriety into my voice, hoping my words sounded wise in this august company. A sense of elation fluttered through me when Orana gave an approving nod.
Aristotle nodded also. “Well said. But do you think Aristarchus wasn’t influenced by preconceived notions? His thoughts grew from earlier Pythagoreans who proposed fire at the center of the universe because they believed fire to be more precious than earth.”
“I suppose we are all influenced by our beliefs and culture,” I said. “But, in the end, Aristarchus was right.”
Aristarchus nodded and rose.
Aristotle waved him back. “I’ve one more thing before our break.” He turned to me and his voice softened. “I presume you understand that if your decision changes history, your world will no longer exist.”
I felt the chill stone table through my hands again, my palms turning clammy against the cold granite. So this was how they kept science from its rightful place. Speaking out for science meant my own oblivion.
Maybe, just maybe, they’d made a mistake with me. Maybe I really did value Truth more than life.
“I understand.” I said no more, fearful that the tremble in my gut might reach my voice. Whether a tremble of fear or resolution I wasn’t sure yet.
The three Greeks left through a door in the corner behind me. I found myself staring at Orana and her at me.
I rose and walked to the window. I didn’t hear her steps, but felt the warmth of her body come up on my left.
“So, what kind of work do you do?” I asked, wanting to learn more about her but unsure where to start.
“I’m an astronomer. And you?”
I shrugged, deeply interested in her profession but a touch insecure. “I work as an accountant for a private university. I always liked science, but went a more business-friendly direction. Make money and all that.”
She nodded, watching the galaxy. “Where’s Earth?”
Her question surprised me. She was the astronomer. But it got me past my insecurity, which I appreciated.
I pointed toward the edge of the swirl closest to us. “There, on the inner side of the bright Orion arm.”
“It’s so beautiful,” she said. “And orderly.”
I nodded. “Is that what drew you to science, the orderliness of it?”
“I suppose in part.” Her shoulder brushed mine and a tingle went all the way up my neck and swirled around my ears. “But even more I wanted to believe in what I can see and reason to be true, not just what I’m told.”
I smiled. “I can relate to that.”
I watched her from the corner of my eye, thinking how comfortable I felt with her. A consequence of our shared adventure, I supposed. But the tingle when we touched suggested more than that.
Her face sobered. “So, what do you think of this trial?”
My warm thoughts dissipated. I knew I had to vote for what was true, but my resulting oblivion wouldn’t let me know Orana better. And I’d miss that.
“The truth seems pretty obvious,” I said. “Although, Aristotle’s coin intrigues me. Is he suggesting that Aristarchus didn’t really know, he only guessed?
“In my world, people have forgotten the difference between guessing and science.” Her angry undertone startled me. “Despite the evidence, people think the Sun’s the center the galaxy as well as the solar system.”
I raised my brows at her people’s misconception. “But you know better.”
She smiled tightly. “My work shows that stars are not evenly distributed around the Earth or Sun. That proves that neither Sun nor Earth can be the center of the galaxy. That’s got me into trouble with my people. Heresy against the gods, they say. I was under house arrest when Aristarchus came for me.” She shuddered. “Like your Galileo I suppose.”
I stepped closer, wanting to comfort her, but unsure how. We gazed at the sky together. I felt the warmth of her body near mine, and when she took a step closer our arms touched.
Orana asked me about going to the Moon, and how it was done, but the Greeks swept back into the room just then and we returned to the table.
I turned to Aristotle, who was taking his chair on my right. “Why Orana and me?” I asked.
Aristotle combed his fingers through his beard, waiting for the scrape of chairs on stone to subside. “You’re both from twenty-three hundred years after the time branch in question. Long enough to provide perspective on how things played out. She’s a key player in these matters in her timeline, and you are her image, her twin, from yours. Balance and symmetry are important in these matters.”
I processed that, glad that in some sense I might survive in her when my world vanished. But, if we were from the same time, why didn’t she know about going to the Moon or where in the Milky Way the solar system lay?
Aristotle began questioning Seleucus. “I presume you plan to vote for your innocence?” he asked.
Seleucus smirked. “Of course.”
“So you only need to get one of these others to vote with you?” Aristotle continued. I hadn’t realized the full implications of Aristotle’s words when he said, “Witness and judge. That’s how our court works.”
“Which I feel confident of doing.” Seleucus glanced at Orana, frowned, then at me and smiled.
So, my vote alone was sufficient to win the day. I felt a wave of elation–glad that truth would prevail–tempered by a touch of fear. I wasn’t really excited about the prospect of nonexistence, although, presumably, it would be pretty painless.
“What is it that you teach the Greeks of the second century B.C.E?” Aristarchus asked.
“That the Sun, and not the Earth, is the center of their universe, that is, the solar system.”
“Is this true?”
Aristotle interrupted with a raised finger. “So, the Sun-centered model at the time of Aristarchus, is it scientific?”
Seleucus twisted in his seat, uncomfortable, I wasn’t sure why. “It’s truth,” he said.
“Is it?” Aristotle’s flat tone didn’t sound convinced, although how could he not be? “All of you, hold out your thumb, say a foot from your right eye. Close your left.”
It took me a moment to comply, but since Orana followed his lead, I did too.
“Now, line it up with something at a distance, say a corner of the room.”
I did so.
“Now, close your right eye and open your left.”
Of course, my thumb seemed to jump, moving abruptly relative to the corner I lined it up with. Parallax.
“You see, if the Earth truly moved through space, as Aristarchus proposed, the stars should appear to shift their position just like your thumb appears to shift when you view it from a moving perspective.” Aristotle tapped his knuckles on the table in a drum beat of emphasis. “I and the other Greek scholars understood this. Yet, the stars did not shift. Aristarchus assertion that the Earth orbits the sun was therefore not supported by observation, and was in fact contrary to it!”
Seleucus scowled. “That’s because stars are too far away. Try your exercise with your thumb at arm’s length. Your thumb seems to move far less. If far enough away, you’d see no movement at all.”
“So, in your time, people couldn’t measure the shift?” I could see Aristotle setting up for another of his pounces, but couldn’t anticipate where he was going.
“Then, on what observation is your theory based?”
Seleucus glanced away. “It is the truth.”
Aristotle pounced out of his seat, slapping the table three times. “Aha. You didn’t know. In your time, it’s like flipping a coin. Some guesses are right and some wrong, but there is no truth to them because there’s no evidence and therefore no knowing!”
Seleucus said nothing. Aristarchus slipped into the silence with a redirection. “It may be we couldn’t measure the parallax shift, but that would become possible later. Isn’t the Sun-centered model true even if it couldn’t be measured or proven?”
“I say yes.” Seleucus’ mouth set in a terse line.
“Like flipping a coin,” Aristotle repeated, taking his seat. “No Truth.”
I spoke out before my natural reticence could stop me. “So, Aristarchus’ interpretation was correct, but he didn’t actually have observational evidence to support it?”
Seleucus nodded, reluctantly I thought, and looked away.
I leaned forward, a new thought beginning to take shape in my mind. “What were the consequences of people adopting a correct view of the solar system before there was supporting evidence?”
Aristotle raised a hand. “That question will be addressed with Orana’s testimony.”
The Greeks rose from the table and turned toward the door behind me.
“Whoa.” I half-rose from my seat. “What’s the deal with leaving us here?”
Aristotle turned, the others continuing to the door. “You need time to consider the testimony. We’ll be gone only an hour, your time.”
“I’m rather hungry,” Orana said.
Aristotle grimaced apologetically. “Of course. I’ll have food brought.” He vanished after the other two, leaving Orana and I once again in the large empty room.
“I suppose you plan to acquit Seleucus,” I said, realizing for the first time that a failure to acquit would destroy her timeline and her existence along with it.
She left the table and walked to the window. “I don’t think so,” she said, her back to me. “Seleucus is one of the gods. At least in my world. He spoke his truth by authority, not by reason. That has created a world adrift, unable to discern truth from political or religious convenience.”
Seleucus’ testimony and Orana’s words drew my conscience toward agreement. But with the scent of her perfume still thick in my nostrils and my respect for her courage and intellect still thick in my mind, I no longer felt sure I could vote my conscience. I did not want her to vanish with her timeline.
Ironic. Finally, I found someone I could learn to love, and she was from an existence that should have never been. With Seleucus’ vote already decided, my vote would make the difference, for her to live, or to never be.
I walked up beside her and slipped my fingers through hers. She looked at me, a shiver passing through her hand to mine. “How will you vote?” she asked.
I squeezed her hand and watched the galaxy, its rush and turbulence stilled by size and distance. “I don’t know yet,” I said.
Our meal arrived and I returned to the table. Orana lingered at the window. Steam and aroma from the herbed pork and gravy-topped potatoes awakened my hunger. I picked up my fork and started in.
Orana sat down as the server placed her settings, a bowl and woven placemat. Her meal consisted of a grain-and-vegetable concoction in the bowl and a few brown balls, perhaps deep fried, on the mat.
She saw me eyeing her meal and offered a taste. “A mix of ground grains, legumes, and starchy roots,” she said. “My favorite.” She watched my eyes and smiled when I gave an approving nod.
“And, do I get to try yours?” she asked when I didn’t reciprocate.
I scrambled to comply, embarrassed that I’d thought my own favorites too mundane to offer. She took the bite with an appreciative “mmm,” and then licked a bit of stray gravy off her lips. I thought I spotted a flirty tease in her eyes before she returned to her meal.
With an effort, I turned my thoughts from those fine lips–and my imaginings concerning them–to the matter at hand. “So what do you mean when you say your world has chosen authority over reason?”
A shadow crossed her face and she sat back in her chair, weary. “The gods deny the value of reason, so beliefs are capricious, erratic.”
“Religion always seems to resist change,” I observed.
She glanced at me and took a handful of pilaf. “It’s not the resistance to change that’s such a problem. It’s the rejection of observation and reasoned argument. The gods are right because they’re right. And they’re quite free to imprison anyone, or kill them, for inferred heresies.” She shivered.
I felt her dread, radiating. Her battle wasn’t like Galileo’s, but much worse. Religions in my timeline were mostly compatible with observation and reason except for selected cases where observation failed to support favored political truths in the church. In fact, Christianity and Islam had long traditions of contributing to scientific discovery.
I put a hand on her shoulder. “I admire your courage.”
She smiled and leaned into my touch. My arm went around her shoulders of its own accord and gave a brief hug.
“You’re kind,” she said, “and embrace real truth.” She placed her hand over mine. “I value that.”
I ate in silence, grappling with my growing concern that seizing on a truth too soon had undermined the progress of science. Perhaps my timeline, with all its problems, was the best one after all. But, I didn’t want Orana to vanish into oblivion with her timeline.
Not when I was falling in love.
The faux-Greeks returned, and Aristarchus addressed Orana. “How long have your people accepted that the Sun is the center of the known universe?”
Her lips set in a determined line. “Since the time of Seleucus, near the end of the Greeks’ golden age.” I enjoyed watching her, the way her face moved, the flexing of her body as she shifted in the chair.
“And, how long has it been recognized that our solar system is only one part of a larger universe?” Aristarchus asked.
“Since shortly thereafter, during the time of the Romans.”
“And are these beliefs true?”
Orana hesitated, her eyes darting to each of us around the table, first to Aristarchus across from her, then to Seleucus and Aristotle, and finally to me on her right. “Yes, but my people continue to insist that the Sun must be the center of the Universe.”
“So they have some things wrong and some things right. Scientifically speaking, is it possible for any Truth to be absolute or complete?”
“Of course not.”
Aristarchus pulled his chair closer to the table and the scrape of wood on stone echoed back from the vaulted ceiling above us. “Then, the fact that knowledge is incomplete does not undermine the value of the portion of Truth that’s known, does it?”
She gave a short laugh at his turn of logic. “I suppose not.”
Aristotle cleared his throat. “But, doesn’t your timeline lag Mr. Mosely’s, presently in a period analogous to his scientific revolution of some five hundred years ago?”
Orana glanced at me, and I gave an encouraging smile. ”
“Perhaps.” She looked at her hands, fingers twisted together on the table. “It’s not clear it will prevail in my world.”
Aristotle rose from his chair. “I’ve no more questions. But I have a suggestion, a story really, for you to consider.”
He glanced at Aristarchus who nodded for him to continue. “Aristotle often spoke against the amoral, irrational nature of the Greek gods, without order or reason, so contrary to the order in nature. Isn’t that so, Aristarchus?” He paused and Aristarchus nodded.
“The seeds of consistency and ethics planted by him and others made room for philosophical partnerships with religions more compatible with reason and morality. It’s no accident that eighteen hundred years after his death, the Christian church still defended his teachings. Regardless of his misunderstanding of Earth’s place in the universe, he based his belief on observation and reason. In contrast, Seleucus, in Orana’s timeline, presented truth as revelation from a charismatic individual. Supported by magical acts of advanced technology. More consistent with capricious and powerful gods than with reason or observation.”
Aristotle cast a hard look at Seleucus before continuing. “A core contribution of the Greeks was pursuit of argument and reason above authority and revelation. In contrast, Seleucus adopted views before there was evidence. True because he said it. If this court goes with right guesses instead of reasoned conclusions, the world will go astray, as we have seen.”
Aristotle sat down in silence. I heard Orana breathing on my left, but couldn’t take my eyes from Aristotle. I knew he was right, if not in the details, then at least in the outcome.
“Let’s not forget that what’s true is true,” Aristarchus injected quietly. “How can you give methodology higher priority than truth?”
“The time has come to choose,” Aristotle said. He looked first at Seleucus. “Your vote?”
“For Truth, of course,” he said. “For my own claim.”
Aristotle’s now gentle eyes found Orana. “Agree with Seleucus and the matter is settled.”
She shook her head slowly. “No. The greater truth is in how we learn, not merely in what we know. I must vote against Seleucus and,” she hesitated, “and against myself.”
Aristotle’s eyes turned on me. I didn’t want them there. Didn’t want the final decision. To save myself or save Orana. I would have saved Orana in a moment, no matter the cost to me, if there were not more at stake.
My eyes clung to her, noting the courage in her posture, the determined set to her lips. How could I disrespect that?
Yet, I didn’t want to let her go.
She leaned over and kissed me. I froze at her soft touch, then my arms went around her shoulders and I tugged her to me. “Do what’s right,” she whispered in my ear, “so that, while I still exist, I can love you for it.”
I let her go. Wanting nothing so much as her. Nothing so much as to save her. But my lips moved differently. “I vote against Seleucus.”
We all five froze for a moment, waiting. Then Seleucus disappeared, like morning mist vanishing in the sunlight. “Is…is he dead?” I asked.
Aristotle scratched at his beard. “No, he is, indeed, Seleucus of Seleucia, and will be remembered as such. But he doesn’t have his technology. Only his voice. With neither evidence nor magic, he won’t prevail.”
With a heartbeat of hope, I realized that Orana remained in her chair, gazing at us in confusion, perhaps as startled as me to find she still existed.
“Orana, she won’t die after all?” My voice cut out on me as hope that she and I might have enough time for real love bubbled up to interfere with the flow of air.
Aristotle looked sad and rose from his chair. “I’m sorry. She has no place to return. When you leave here, she will cease to be.”
I felt a surge of anger. Was her death required by some ridiculous bureaucratic rule, like she had to die to protect the timeline or some such nonsense? If she hadn’t already disappeared, then there had to be some way she could live. I said as much, standing and putting my nose in Aristotle’s face. I suppose I shouted.
He remained calm. Even sad for my loss. Our loss. “I’m sorry. Time’s all about symmetry.”
I turned toward Orana, my hands held out in helpless appeal. “No.”
“You must leave, now, Mr. Mosely.” Aristotle grabbed my sleeve and tugged. “She’ll feel no pain.”
Her eyes locked in mine, courage, sadness, warmth. “Goodbye, Mr. Mosely. I don’t even know your first name.”
“Arden.” Aristotle pulled me toward the doorway in the corner.
Orana waved and I twisted to wave back. Her hand began to grow translucent. My last look at her. Unless…
“Wait.” I stopped, and Aristotle’s momentum pulled my shirt sleeve down over the upper part of my hand. “What do you mean that Time’s all about symmetry?”
“She can’t stay here if her matching image doesn’t.”
“You mean me.”
I felt a surge of hope. “What if I stay?”
Aristotle raised his brows. “There’s only one job here. Time lawyer. Like me.”
“Any work available right now?” I dared a faint smile and stole a glance at Orana who was stepping over to join us.
Aristarchus laughed and clapped me on the back. “There’s one case pending. A matter of a Traveler influencing the geological clash between catastrophists and uniformitarianists in the 1800s. You might like it.”
Aristarchus began walking toward the door. “Arden, perhaps you can go as Charles Lyell, and Orana,” he glanced over his shoulder with a wicked grin, “as Georges Cuvier.”
|Russ Colson lives with his wife, Mary, on a farmstead in northern Minnesota, far enough from city lights to see the Milky Way and the aurora borealis. He teaches planetary science, meteorology, and geology at Minnesota State University Moorhead. In 2010, he was selected by the Carnegie Foundation as US Professor of the Year. Before coming to Minnesota, Russ worked at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and at Washington University in St. Louis where, among other things, he studied how a lunar colony might mine oxygen from the local rock. He writes a variety of articles and speculative fiction stories, publishing in Clarkesworld Magazine, Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, New Myths, Kazka Flash Fiction, and others. This story was inspired by an honors class at MSUM in which students examined how ancient science has influenced our modern worldview.|