He’d been thinking about socks when his car left the road. The front bumper crashed through a post holding up the speed limit sign. The car rolled, struck a tree, spun, tumbled down the steep embankment. When momentum and gravity finished pulling and pushing, the car was upside down and wedged between two trees.
Black socks with gold trim around the toes. He wore black socks, but never with gold trim. He wanted to ask Amie about them, but she’d already left for work.
The deflating airbag was smothering, and something had come to rest in his leg. The seat was jammed forward, pressing him into the steering wheel. He swiped the airbag out of the way. The windshield was a white lattice of cracks and jagged lines that reminded him of the frost patterns that formed on the aluminum housing of the heat exchanger in the lab.
He felt no pain, and then he felt nothing but pain. Reality had been knocked out of step with his senses. There was sharp agony from the gash in his leg, throbbing in his chest from the airbag, searing misery in his ankle which he couldn’t see but suspected was bent at an angle it shouldn’t be, and pulsing in his head which bulged behind his eyes.
The heat exchanger was a Joule-Thomson loop design and worked in lockstep with a pulse-tube precooler to pull the Mid-Infrared Sensor down to an impressive -447 F. (7 degrees Kelvin). The one in the lab was the prototype. The final version was installed on the James Webb Space Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI for short), which had been orbiting at the L2 Lagrangian point for the last six months, roughly one million miles from the Earth. Lagrangian points were balance centers where the gravity of two larger objects pull equally at a smaller object, keeping it stable. L2 balanced between the Earth and sun.
His marriage had been stuck in a Lagrangian point between divorce and compromise for years. Their kids had left for college, and the stress of raising them and having two full-time jobs finally collapsed the equilibrium he and Amie had developed through years of parenting and working full careers. She’d been promoted to Director of Emergency Medicine and spent a lot more time at work. Which was fine, because he needed to spend time in the lab making final adjustments to MIRI’s software. The orbit of their lives began to separate.
He saw that now, just as he saw the broken tree limbs in the tangled scrubland his car had lurched through when it left the road. He couldn’t see up the embankment, but suspected the car wasn’t visible from the road. Aside from the broken speed limit sign, there was probably very little evidence he had been in an accident. The deer he swerved to avoid wouldn’t be calling emergency services, and he couldn’t reach his cell phone. He wasn’t sure if anyone would find him.
He wasn’t sure if he wanted them to.
The James Webb Space Telescope was an eleven-billion-dollar effort to put a system of sensors far enough away from the Earth so nothing would interfere with its ability to capture images of the universe. The media machine at NASA had been calling it “Hubble on steroids.” MIRI captured medium-resolution spectroscopy in ways nothing ever had. It had been imaging gas clouds and forming galaxies billions of light-years away and had advanced understanding of the observable universe more in the last six months than Hubble had during its entire thirty-plus-year mission. Greatest of all was this latest achievement—definitive proof of not just life on another planet, but civilization.
He was on his way to the press conference where the public announcement would be made. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t move much and couldn’t extract himself from the wreck. His ankle had started to itch, and his toes tingled. NASA’s media director, Rich, wanted a single person to interview, a single name to receive credit. The discovery was a collaborative effort with dozens of astronomers, but that’s simply not as interesting as hearing about a sole scientist toiling away in a lab. Rich claimed the public wanted another Einstein or Newton, Galileo or Copernicus. He wasn’t a genius, and even history’s most-remembered names didn’t work alone. The discovery wasn’t his alone, and if he could make the press conference, he would let everyone know.
That would mean surviving the wreck, and he wasn’t yet sure if he wanted to. It came down to the socks.
He’d spent the night in the lab. Amie had been calling, but he still had data to review and he ignored the phone. He listened to her messages at dawn, each one growing increasingly angry and worried in a way only she could manage.
The last message was somber and poignant. “I’m tired of this,” she’d said. “We can’t keep stumbling around like we don’t want to offend each other, and we can’t live like this,” a pause, “are we even married in anything but name?”
A question he’d been asking himself for a very long time. She hadn’t wanted him to touch her, and it wasn’t like he hadn’t tried. He could never find the words to say what he wanted. He did love her, did want her. They had barely spoken in months, and never about anything that mattered.
Rich tried to prep him with pre-interview questions—chief of which was: How will we communicate with this alien civilization? We won’t was his answer, but Rich advised him to come up with something better. How can you communicate with a civilization more than twelve light-years away? Almost seventy-one trillion miles. An impossible distance. No one would ever be able to go there. You couldn’t communicate over radio because it was far too slow. Light might work, but we don’t have the technology to send a light signal that far, there’s no guarantee the aliens could receive it, and there’d be a twenty-four-year lag before an answer came back.
Rich said, “Tell them how you’d work out a common language.”
It would have to be math. Words are tricky; there’s no real way to convey meaning in language without learning the nuances of inflection and intonation. His wife’s two most hated words were “moist” and “panties.” Saying them made her shiver with revulsion. But in German, “feuchtes Höschen” sounds brutal even if spoken softly. German is such a harsh and distinct language; its beauty comes from symmetry arranged through a lattice of consonant sounds. How could you ever convey that to an alien civilization? Maybe they didn’t hear the same way, or could only hear in a spectrum humans couldn’t.
He couldn’t even talk to his wife—how was he expected to define how to talk with an alien civilization? It no longer mattered if Amie had already taken a lover, someone who wore black socks with gold fringe around the toes.
The lab was just under an hour from their house, and it was eight in the morning when he stumbled home to shower, change, and get to the press conference. He’d been thinking about work, about reprocessing the images from Teegarden B, where they’d captured a very large orbital platform, and Teegarden C, where the initial imagery showed a partial ring structure around the planet. He walked past the socks the first time without noticing. Amie’s car was gone and she would’ve left for work hours earlier. The bed was still unmade. Both sides looked slept in. Had either of them made the bed from the previous night? Or was it the other, the owner of the socks, sharing the bed he once shared with his wife? His children were conceived on that bed. Maybe his marriage ended there.
He’d lost all sense of time, and didn’t know how long he’d been hanging upside down. He didn’t wear a watch. A car drove by. He could hear it but not see it. They didn’t stop. He was pretty sure his right arm was broken. He could barely move it. He tried reaching with his left to his right pocket for his cell phone. Stretching made more things hurt, and he screamed when he felt something wet pop in his right shoulder. The tingling went down to his fingers.
He blacked out.
Dizziness and panic washed over him. He was shivering even though it was hot. He had to calm down. He thought about Teegarden’s Star. It was the twenty-fourth nearest to Earth’s. It was much older than our sun by four billion years. That meant whatever civilizations had arisen on Planets B and C could be older than mankind. There wasn’t enough detail in the imagery to know what the orbital platform was, or its purpose, or what the ring around Teegarden C was, but they couldn’t be a natural phenomenon. Something had put them there. He tried to imagine living on a world lit by light from a red dwarf like Teegarden’s Star. The imagery couldn’t say if the civilization was still active, and some in the lab were guessing they had died off only to leave orbital remains. That might explain why no signals of any kind had ever been received from Teegarden’s Star—if they had sent a signal, it would’ve arrived long before humans had evolved, maybe even before the solar system formed. It was likely there was no one around to receive it.
Had he missed signals from Amie? He couldn’t remember if she’d ever mentioned someone from work, not that he expected her to admit she had interests outside the marriage. His anxious mind filled in a thousand scenarios—a young and virile doctor who’d swept her off her feet, a burly nurse who made her feel important in all the ways he hadn’t—and it was these thoughts storming through his mind when he spotted the deer.
Exhaustion has a way of affecting reaction times, altering perception ever so slightly while decreasing rational thought. He shouldn’t expect the marriage to work if he didn’t talk to her, and she shouldn’t expect him to stay if they weren’t going to touch, or kiss, or have any kind of intimacy. They were both far from amorous youth, and she’d been dealing with a laundry list of issues from childbirth, endometriosis, stress, and age that seemed to rob her of desire. They’d fallen into a pattern of living with nothing but space between them, space that at times felt as wide as the gap between Earth and Teegarden’s Star.
She was still the first person he thought of when he had something exciting to share, and that had to count for something. She was the first one he’d told about the images, about the proof of a civilization twelve light-years away. “Maybe they can start paying the mortgage, because you forgot and we’re getting late notices,” she’d said. He’d forgotten because he’d been in the lab working on imagery enhancement. Her response prompted anger he hadn’t known he’d been harboring, and the shouting match that resulted sent them both storming from the house.
That was Saturday, and they’d barely spoken since. He hated feeling like an outsider in his own home, a stranger to his own wife, and he’d been holding onto her share of the blame as proof of his righteousness when he should have acknowledged the argument wasn’t winnable by either side.
Hanging upside down in the wreckage brought a clarity to the situation he didn’t have when he was whole and unbroken. He didn’t know if he hallucinated someone exclaiming, “Holy shit!” or if someone really was there.
Depression wasn’t a state he thought himself encumbered by. It was like a failing orbit. Objects in space don’t feel gravity’s tug until they’re scraping the atmosphere, burning up on reentry. He didn’t know how long he’d been burning. She didn’t want him, and that hurt more than anything else. But hadn’t he hurt her just as much?
He could no longer feel his leg or his ankle. He felt cold.
Not quite -447 degrees cold, but when you’re shivering, all things are relative. The MIRI Sensor had to be super-chilled because the arsenic-doped silicon detectors were more sensitive at extreme cold. They were capturing and processing infrared radiation cast off by stars and black holes, galaxies and dust clouds, and some of that light had been traveling the galaxy for billions of years, which made it as faint as the affection he’d felt from his wife these last few years.
There wasn’t a point when either of them decided to separate, and though they’d had arguments about divorce, neither wanted it. There was a time when her kiss, her touch, and her embrace could make him feel as if he were the most important person who had ever lived, and in those times, he found his strength, his drive, and his determination. He’d hoped he’d been able to do the same for her, and hadn’t he always been there? In the hospitals when she’d gotten sick, taking care of the kids and house and bills while she recovered, and hadn’t he pushed her to get the director position? But their relationship wasn’t a game he could tally scores from.
The last few months, the silence had turned to shouting, and the memory of it made him hear it now as if she were in the car with him, shouting and pushing and shoving. But they had never been physical, never hit one another. The thought of hurting her stung him deeply, and he wanted to roar against the memory for being so wrong. He needed her the way MIRI needed coolers to operate.
The socks changed everything. If she wanted out, he’d concede everything: the house, the cars, the savings accounts. He’d get an apartment close to work. Walking might do him good. Oh, but the ankle, and the gash in his leg that he no longer felt, could he walk? Had he been in an accident? Had there been a deer? Or was he so exhausted he steered into the trees?
Amie, where is Amie? He could hear someone yelling for her, calling over and over again. Repetition was good. More data made the images clearer. MIRI was designed to look at distant objects, and he’d pointed the array at Teegarden’s Star as a close-range test until he had the idea of adjusting the focal range between the low- and high-resolution spectroscopic sensors. The images of the objects around Teegarden B and C were captured by accident, much like finding the socks.
Had she left them for him? A final epitaph to their marriage, a bold declaration with no hidden meaning? It’s over.
He couldn’t open his eyes, and there were hands and more voices and sharp objects and cold ones. He imagined himself floating in space, heading toward L2. It was farther away from the Earth than any human had ever been, more than four times farther than the moon. At that distance, there would be no repair and modification missions like Hubble. The Webb Telescope was expensive because everything had to be automated with multiple backups, from the large imaging mirrors that unfolded like an origami puzzle to the stabilization thrusters. It was as beautiful and fragile as his marriage.
He thought he heard Amie’s voice, but she wasn’t in the car. Could he still fix things with her? Did he want to? Maybe. Their marriage was an engineering marvel much like the Webb Telescope, a delicate balance of systems and sensors to achieve something neither could do on their own. They had two fantastic kids and two successful careers.
He was thinking about the socks when the world came into sudden and sharp focus. He was lying down, a stinging light above him. A woman in a mask stood over him. “Mr. Leery, can you hear me?”
“You’ve been in an accident.”
“I know. There was a deer.”
“Do you know what day it is?”
“Tuesday. I have a press conference.”
And everything went fuzzy again.
He was swimming in space again and there were bright spots and dark ones, stars maybe, and Amie was with him because he could hear her voice telling him everything was going to be all right and that she would help him pull through and that she loved him and she was sorry and don’t speak just rest, and he asked about the cat because you can’t forget to feed the cat or she’ll knock over the flowerpot, the one by the window, and Amie said she would remember.
When he came to, the room was dim. There were machines beeping, and tubes connected to him. Amie was there, smiling. She had water in her eyes and her hair was unkempt. She held his hand and said everything would be all right, but he couldn’t talk because something was in his mouth pushing and pulling air, and his chest burned, but he didn’t hurt. They locked eyes and he tried to smile and say he was sorry, but the words wouldn’t come out because the thing in his mouth had pinned his tongue. His arms were strapped down, and he didn’t know why, but Amie was here and he wasn’t afraid. A nurse came in, the kind of tall and handsome man who might’ve worn black socks with gold trim. Amie sat in the chair across the room, and she pulled her feet up and hugged her knees and smiled. She was still the tall and beautiful woman he married. She wore his jeans, dark-blue stretch-fit. She favored men’s clothes because they fit better. The nurse was talking and pulling at the mask on his face, and another nurse was there, and they were asking him to be still, but he couldn’t.
He needed to see Amie’s feet. She had socks on.
Black ones. With gold trim.