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“Can I take your picture?” Larissa sat a few feet away from me on the grey velvet sofa as I aimed my iPhone towards her. I stared at the screen intently for a moment before shifting my focus, looking over the brim of the phone at her defeated, hopeless state portrayed by bloodshot eyes.
“What for? I don’t think it would be a very good one.” She found it difficult to speak above a tone of depressing mumble. “I’m not exactly prepared for a photo shoot right now.”
“Stop it. You look beautiful.” The chipper tone in my voice was a deceiving attempt to bring some semblance of elation to the bleak reality we had learned of our existence.
“It’s not insecurity. You know that.” Her looks were always something Larissa was confident in. That certainly wasn’t the source of her discontent. Normally we take pictures of happy times that we want to look back on and reminisce over. But neither of us were happy at that moment. Her face was a cemented lump of apathy that wouldn’t be going away anytime soon. “Why do you want a picture of me like this?”
“Because I want to remember what you look like.”
She would be gone soon. And there was nothing I could do to stop it. I really can’t say I blame her. Life had no purpose or meaning anymore. I was finding it difficult not to leave this world myself.
The eye in the sky destroyed it all.
Some said it was God. Technically they’re right, although their interpretation of “God” is a bit skewed and thus incorrect. They’re just making excuses. I don’t exactly blame them for their attempts to make sense of the eye. In a way I sort of envy their ignorance. I wish I could live in bliss like that.
Enlightenment is punishment.
Larissa and I were coworkers at Caltech. I was head of the astronomy and physics department there, a position I held for the last eight years where I was lucky enough to fuel and satisfy my fascination with celestial objects for a living. Since I was a young boy I looked at the sky in awe and dreamed of a weightless, floating journey through the stars. At night I’d sit on my porch with my knees pulled against my chest and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my hand looking at the moonlight shining on trees and the sparkling fireworks hovering above the earth.
A career in astronomy was all I ever wanted.
Larissa came on board a little less than a year ago. For the past six months we’d been something a little more than coworkers. Romantic interests…I guess? When you reach a certain age you sort of stop putting labels on things. I suppose you could call her my girlfriend. It sounds so childish saying that at my age.
Whatever you want to call it, Larissa had become another perk of my job. At 43 years old I had never married; never really had a serious relationship since my twenties. Routine, order and the stars were all the gratification I needed. It wasn’t until I saw Larissa that I realized how lonely my life had become. She was 8 years younger than I and had the same thirst for the stars as I did. It was all we ever talked about, and with me being somewhat more experienced in the field she clung to my every word, eating them up like she was putting sunshine in her veins.
One night I invited her back to my quaint home in Simi Valley. We sat side by side on the grass next to the large oak tree in my backyard with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches pointing out our favorite constellations. She rested her head on my shoulder and I knew I had found the person that I could share every part of my life with.
I loved her. Even though I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
Everything was right in the world. It all came together in harmonious delight when Larissa took over my heart. She filled a void I didn’t know I had and quickly became my satellite, going wherever I went and running circles around me.
All that changed two weeks ago when Keck Observatory contacted me for a consultation regarding an unusual discovery. The observatory, located at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, was managed by Caltech and the California Association for Research in Astronomy. The site housed the two most renowned and scientifically productive telescopes in the world, capable of reaching the outermost areas of space. Each telescope sat mounted on Mauna Kea as two large spheres 33 feet in diameter. Just after I had come on board in 2008 the telescopes at Keck captured the first images of exoplanets within an exosolar system 129 light years away from earth. The main star was named HR 8799. The visuals took over one hundred years to reach our planet, and we took pictures of it like a group of excited tourists.
“What did you find?” I asked Norah, the Director of Advancement at Keck, when she called.
Her voice trembled on the other end. “I don’t know…it’s…I’m sending you a picture. You won’t believe me if I told you.”
“Sweetheart, just tell me.”
I heard a deep breath flow into the receiver. “It’s…an eye.”
“You mean the helix nebula?” I asked, instantly reminded of the formation that looked eerily similar to an eyeball, resulting in the nickname the ‘Eye of god’. “No, but similar…only much larger. And it’s moving.”
“Moving? Like orbiting around something?”
“More like looking around at things. The pupil is moving.”
My face contorted from confusion. “What??”
It didn’t make any sense to me when I first heard it. Now, looking back, I wish I just ignored that call and went about my life. But I suppose that’s the nature of humanity, isn’t it? We’re all curious and desperate for answers.
Norah sent me two pictures of what was observed through the telescope shortly after we hung up. The first picture appeared to show ionized gas surrounding an interstellar medium creating the illusion of an eye. It was unique, although it was certainly nothing never seen before. But the second picture showed the medium moved slightly to the left as though it were a pupil looking around and studying the universe.
I wasted no time and booked myself and Larissa a flight to Hawaii. Part of my rush there was anticipation of studying the odd formation and try to determine why it was moving. Larissa could help decipher its origins. Plus, it was a nice excuse to take a trip to Hawaii together on company money. The next day after we landed, Larissa and I drove up the access road in a car I rented up to the summit. At the top, we were just above the clouds. Mauna Kea is the highest point in all of Hawaii and it’s considered the best location in the world for massive telescopes like these. There’s no obstruction blocking the view. I had visited the site a few times since I took over the astronomy department. Each visit was breathtaking.
Norah greeted us as we parked and led us through the observatory directly into the control room where a monitor was displaying the eye in the sky. In front of the monitor sat a couple of young men I had never met before operating the controls.
The pupil had moved further to the left since the last picture was taken.
“How much time passed between the two pictures you sent me?” I asked Norah.
“Couple of days. It’s moving very slowly.”
“Possibly. It could also be moving incredibly fast, we’re just observing a different gravitational time dilation through the telescope. How far away is this constellation?”
Norah took a deep breath and exhaled, maintaining her steady eyes fixed on mine. “Forty five billion light-years.”
“Huh? That’s inconceivable! The farthest object ever recorded is galaxy MACS0647-JD at 13.3 billion light-years away. And that was with the Hubble telescope! Keck doesn’t have that functionality!”
“Well, it does now. We enhanced its mirrors two months ago to increase magnification capabilities.”
My eyebrows uncontrollably shot into the middle of my forehead. “I don’t recall hearing the board of directors approve such a thing!”
“They didn’t. This was a privately funded experiment…one that worked.”
“Who funded this?” Larissa chimed in.
“I’m sorry, that’s classified information.”
I looked up at the thick metal beams and pipes of pressurized hydraulic fluids over our heads that held the massive telescope in place with indignant jealousy. The furthest reaching telescope ever created was partially owned by the company I held a relatively high position with. It was within my fingertips, yet I hadn’t even the slightest knowledge of it. Optical instruments like this were invented to expand humanity’s knowledge and answer some of the most complex and mysterious questions about the origins of everything in existence. And they were keeping the wonders of the universe a secret.
“So basically you have the most powerful scientific invention ever created by humanity here and didn’t think it was necessary to tell anyone?”
“It was an experiment. The funding was enough to cover the upgrade and reversion if it didn’t work. Part of the agreement was secrecy. We only started using it last week. We wanted to be sure it worked before making any kind of announcement.”
“This is not some rich kids Tonka truck, Norah. You should have gotten approval. Or at least mentioned it to someone.”
“There’s something I haven’t told you about this eye,” Norah continued, ignoring my discontent. “We saw something else.”
My intrigue felt like a rush of adrenaline. “What?”
One of the young men turned in his swivel chair and locked his wide eyes with me. “God.”
I instantly rolled my eyes. Throughout history when mankind has encountered something unexplainable it’s attributed to some sort of God or supernatural force only to be given a logical scientific explanation many years later. Why would this be any different?
“We don’t know that, Tim,” Norah shot at him.
“What the hell is he talking about?!” Larissa questioned.
I supported her demand. “Indeed! What nonsense is this young man referring to?”
Norah resigned momentarily, then turned her head sideways to address Tim. “Turn on the infrared.”
Tim flicked a switch on the control panel and about thirty seconds later the outline of a face surrounded the eye. Shades of red and orange overlapped each other, clearly displaying a nose, a mouth, and a second eye that was covered by a winking eyelid.
And just beyond the eye I could faintly make out more, smaller infrared outlines.
My world had crumbled at the site. One of my worst fears was a reality. “Turn that monitor off right now…” I ordered in a low growl. Tim sat motionless in his chair, frozen in perplexity. “NOW!”
He jumped at my outburst and fumbled to find the switch.
“What’s gotten into you?” Norah demanded, squinting at me.
“Who else knows about this?”
“The five of us in this room and ten other people. They all said it was God too.”
“Keep it that way. Tell no one. Tell that piggy bank of yours the modifications didn’t work and revert the telescope back to its original state.”
“Why? What is it?!”
I looked at Norah with a stern eye. “Humanity will tear itself apart over this.”
“Is it…God?” Tim’s hopeful expression was like that of a child. I couldn’t take that away.
It wasn’t giant aliens, if that’s what you’re all thinking. An alien is a creature from outer space. These figures showing up on the infrared display weren’t in outer space. They were beyond it.
Norah and her team had built a telescope that had the capability of reaching the end of our universe. Forty five billion light years. That’s where everything ends. What’s beyond that has been a complete mystery. Until now.
It’s something I was frightened of when I first conceived the thought in 2004 after reading an article by Jim Holt proposing the idea of universe creation. Three years later, Lancaster University successfully created an entire universe in a test tube, simulating the big bang with low-energy whirlpools of helium. The result was a functioning universe no larger than a marble.
I had feared that our universe was created this way. And that day in Keck Observatory confirmed my fears. I saw our creators. Everything we’ve ever known to exist is all just a mediocre science experiment. At any minute they could pull the plug on us and wipe it all away.
We’re all living at their will inside a test tube somewhere.
We left Keck and returned to our hotel shortly after I pushed the telescope away from the eye and hoped it would never be found again. Larissa pestered me all night in our hotel room, doing all she could to force an explanation from me. I caved eventually, telling her about Lancaster’s test tube and how its origin is the same as ours. She wept the rest of the night.
All we know…all we believe…everything is a lie. The greatest lie ever told.
“I can’t live in a world without meaning…” She sat on my couch crying a few days after we returned from Hawaii. “I don’t want to wake up every day and think ‘Is this it? Is today the day they end their experiment and kill us all?’ That’s not a life I want to live.”
“Don’t let the stars die earlier than they’re intended to,” I urged. “Let me show you the sky…just one more time.”
Her bottom lip quivered as a tear ran down her cheek. “Even though you’re with me now, I’m light-years away from you.”
That night, while I was asleep, Larissa snuck outside and tied a noose to a thick branch of the large oak tree in my backyard and hanged herself. Her side of the bed was empty and cold in the morning. When I extended my arm to her side and found it vacated I already knew…she had taken her own life.
Each night since I sit on my back porch with her picture displayed on my phone, staring at both the stars and the shadows they create over my backyard. One shadow in particular dominates my focus. Deep down I know it’s unlikely the eye will see her, but personal conviction is a powerful prospect that shields truth. So I leave her there, oscillating in the wind. A dismal plea of desperation…the ominous scarecrow for our creators.