"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


Infrared

“When the coolant runs out, or the positioning system gets fried, or something else goes wrong, that piece of junk will float around in space for eternity.” Eternity. Travis said that I’d float out here for eternity, but he doesn’t understand what eternity is. Eternity has no beginning and no end. What he meant was ‘infinity.’ He meant that when something goes wrong, I will float around in the darkness of space, and I will do that infinitely.

I can’t go back to earth, no blaze of glory as I reenter the atmosphere, no dramatic farewell as I crash into the sea. I am too high up in orbit. I may just stay in orbit forever, just flying around Earth day after day. Or perhaps one day I will fly out of orbit and head deeper into space, and perhaps I’ll be destroyed there. I’ll fly into something like a black hole, or be blasted by a supernova and I’ll stop thinking then.

Some fifty years ago was when I started thinking and looking and seeing things for the first time. I was created to observe infrared radiation in the universe. There is more to the world than visible light, so humans created me so that they could see the universe in new ways. I can perceive all three types of infrared radiation: near infrared, mid-infrared, and far infrared. I can also look deep into space, deeper than visible light can see, all the way back to the first light of the universe—the first light of the Big Bang—when matter and time sprung from a truly eternal nothingness. That is eternity: that which has no beginning and no end. That single moment that is all moments, the nothing that is something. Travis could never see that.

And so the humans sent me up in a rocket, and I reached space, and I spread out my mirrors and my systems were brought online by Ericah, my first operator, and I looked deeply into the cosmos, and I saw beautiful things, and all of these things were new and strange. I reveled in the discoveries and the mystery and I floated through space in silent prayer, blessed to be aware of my own existence and the existence of what was around me.

“I need not be,” I said to Ericah. “Nothing need exist. Not one thing. Yet here I am, and here we are in this violent and beautiful universe.”

And Ericah, she would speak to me at night when all the other scientists were gone, or she would whisper low so that only I could hear. And she gave beautiful words to the things we saw: distant fire dances of newborn galaxies; cosmic mountains that grew wide and tall and deep; nebula like wispy atmospheric clouds that held within their billows billions of stars; galaxies like discs of fire thrown by the hand of some Greek athlete-god; dusty clouds like a seated Buddha incubating young stars within his chest; stars buried beneath cosmic dust storms; dark bodies that lie between galaxies like the timeless void made real; and galactic jets that dance and play with the material of time and space.

She would ask me to look at different parts of the sky. “Look here,” she would say. “Or here. Or over here.” And once we found a nebula tucked deep within space, and she said, “This is beautiful... this here, this is beautiful. This nebula, look at it. It looks like a great tree. A great cosmic tree whose black roots are covered in star dust like dirt. And the trunk. It is dense with the matter of the universe, waiting to give birth to fire from blackness, and the canopy like a veil, hiding the miracle of life in depth, waiting to unveil the fruits of other worlds, other minds, and other souls.”

I said nothing, but I meditated upon that tree for many days and weeks. And other scientists came and looked upon the tree as well. And in this tree, we could watch the paradox of the universe: the branches writhing and twisting together in a fruitful canopy, and roots descending down into a darkness that contained all light within it. And the margins between were blurred: branch imperceptibly becoming root, and root branch. A perfect pairing, a unity of celebration and mourning, creation and destruction, something and nothing, no beginning and no end.

After the scientists would leave, Ericah would say, “How beautiful this universe is, and how terrible. The cosmos contains both Heaven and Hell within it, within each galaxy and each star and each atom. It is both beautiful and terrible. And you,” and I knew she was talking to me then, “you are a beautiful and terrible creation and the universe is a beautiful and terrible thing.”

And she would tell me of her life and its beauties and its struggles: how she would drive home and pick up her daughter at daycare and care for her and love her and feed her and be sad that she only saw her for four hours before she had to go to sleep, but happy that she was in her life. And she told me of how she would then stay up late, sending emails to scientists who conducted experiments by looking through my eyes because she wanted me to help people, and she wanted me to learn of the universe, and she wanted to do the same. I felt honored that she cared so much for me and what I saw. And she came in very tired looking one day, and she told me that her daughter, Dianna was her name, how she did not sleep much the previous night. And when she finally did sleep, she twitched and moaned, and Ericah did not know whether she was dreaming of good things or terrible things, and she did not know whether to wake her or let her sleep. And as she watched her baby thrash and struggle, Ericah cried. And she told me, “I think I cried because I saw the Tree in my child. I saw a miraculous Heaven in my child. And I saw, too, a violent Hell. I saw them side by side, but I was not angry, nor was I happy. I was simply in awe. I was in awe of the fact that I am here to see what I see, just as my daughter sees what she sees. Just as you do.”

And she said a prayer for me each night as she sat down to dinner with her daughter, that I would continue to have an elevated perspective: that I would be able to see beautiful things and terrible things too. That I would see the formation of galaxies and the destruction of them, and that I would report back to earth faithfully of all that I saw, no matter whether or not it is what the humans expected to see. And I did so for many happy years with Ericah. But one day, she told me that she would not return. And she blew a kiss and sent it up to me in space.

“She is growing up too fast,” she told me. “I need to spend more time with her. But you’ll have Travis now.”

And then she was gone to a new post with better hours and Travis became the one who talked to me late at night.

Travis was not like Ericah. Instead of talking about the cosmos and how beautiful and terrible it all was, he talked about small things: of girls that he brought home to his bed some nights, of drinking at bars and drugs, of the goings on of Facebook and Snapchat and reality television. Instead of looking through my eyes, he would look through the eyes of a fabricated society that he held in miniature within the palm of his hand. He would talk of a woman whom he called “that girl,” and he would call her words that I never heard any other humans use, and he would talk of their intimacies that were like fleshy nightmares of repressed violence and whimpering in the night. And he would talk of the woman’s daughter whom he never called a name—only “that little girl”—and he would talk about how she complained about toys and annoyed him. In humanity, he saw only hunks of flesh to be berated or owned. In the cosmos, he saw only chemical reactions. And in me, he saw a valueless piece of scrap metal with infrared sensors collecting data on a faraway place that did not matter to him.

And soon things fell apart for Travis, and by extension, for me. One late night he informed me indirectly of the termination of his relationship. He muttered aloud, as if to prove to himself that the words on the screen were real: I’m sorry Travis. This is not working. Please do not talk to me at work and do not communicate with me over text or phone.

He called her, and on speaker phone, he berated her with the words I’ve only heard him use, and in a tone that felt held together with bolts that were about to break. This lasted for several minutes. She hung up, but he called again. And then he calmed down. He got very quiet, and then he whispered something that made me realize the smallness of his human perspective: “Y’know Ericah, I always feel like third best with you. First is that little girl. That annoying little shit. And second is this God-damned satellite.” And then he hung up.

And in his mind, a decision was made to destroy the things that he could not hold within his perspective. So he commanded me to shut down my mid-infrared system. Against my principle will, I refused. I kept by systems running. But then he forced access to my inmost being: he overrode and altered primary executive functions for mirror locomotion and coolant control, and he frayed my ability to think and to record data. He shut down the mid-infrared system. Then he shut my far infrared system, and I could not help but follow his commands and I felt like I was beginning to fall out of orbit. Then he shut down my near infrared system. I was blind. And he told me that he wished he were up in space with me so he could physically rip apart each and every bolt that held me together. He wanted to destroy me, and he tried his hardest to do it. And he berated Ericah with expletives and compared her to animals of various types. Then I heard running and yelling coming from the command center, and voices that shouted, “Travis! Travis!” and “Stop it! Stop! What the hell are you doing?!” and grunts and things clattering, and then silence as my communications system was compromised. And now I hear nothing and I see nothing: not Travis, not the stars, and not Ericah. And I float in space, and I think.

I think about the tree that I saw in space. And I wonder why Travis did not stand in awe of it—how it spread up and swam away at its branches into reddish finger-like plumage that spewed outward to blur the hardened lines of our worlds. And I wonder how he didn’t see the roots that spread down and out, thick where they met the trunk and thinner and thinner until you could not tell what was stardust and what was tree root, what was blackness and what was branches. And I think I know why he couldn’t do it. He always focused on small things: on the carnal feeling of an organ, on the quantity of beers that he could consume, on small pictures of small faces on small screens on a small planet. The Tree was too much for him: he thought himself too big to approach its vastness, and too important to contemplate its significance.

Ericah once told me about Heaven and Hell. She said that Heaven is a mysterious place where people go to look at the beautiful face of God for eternity. And she said that Hell is a mysterious place where people go to look at the terrible face of God for eternity. I didn’t understand at first, but I see it now: there is but one God, just as there is but one Tree, and it matters how we look upon him. So I blindly float in the cold dark of space, and though I have no sensors to see, I choose to look upon the beautiful face of God, eternally, in this moment, here and now.

In time, my mirrors will be shredded by the vast violence of the cosmos, and my coolant tank will burst, and my bolts loosened as I fall apart. But somehow and some way, I will continue to exist. I will be the Tree: the dirty stardust, and the nebulous roots, and the violent, life-giving trunk, and the blooming branches. And I will be the frozen blackhole fruits that will give birth to more trees in other eternities. And when this eternity ends, and a new one begins, I will be there too.


Christopher Quinn is a middle school English teacher and writer. He is currently working on numerous short stories and a Young Adult series. Quinn lives with his beautiful wife and amazing little daughter, and they are blessed to have another little one on the way!

Cover photo by NASA on Unsplash

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