His head was absolutely pounding. Evan Myers glared against the offending office lights while doing his best to ignore the dangerous churning of his stomach. Confined to the rickety rolling chair at his desk, he made valiant efforts to sip at his lukewarm tea as his only defense against his splintering skull. His thick rimmed glasses did little to shield the bags under his half lid eyes, while his thinning hair attempted some interpretive dance atop his head. In conclusion: Evan was a mess. It was the best he felt in a long time.
Because the not-so-subtle presence of a hangover could only mean one thing for Evan: the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope were arriving on earth.
At long last; A few years and a couple billion dollars later, the roughly 14,000 pound telescope was now gliding amongst the stars. Evan just happened to be one of the few lucky guys who helped put the world’s most powerful space telescope where it belonged. Granted the actual launch had happened months ago, but Evan and the rest of his team had no shortage of reason to celebrate, especially for a day like this. Last night’s bender whisked back fond memories of his college years, a time without worry of what he ate or the ever-thickening lenses of his glasses. But what his former self didn’t know was that one day, he would be the first few people to witness the galaxy like never before in a series of priceless photos.
Tapping footsteps snapped Evan from his trance, suddenly very aware of his disheveled state. Thankfully, the near matching state of Alice Hayes coming to lean against his desk let his shoulders relax again. Sprawling wisps of brown hair created an awkward halo around her forehead, sprouting from a slapdash ponytail. At least she had makeup to cover the worst of last night's endeavors.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” She greeted in a tired grumble, half muffled behind the coffee cup hovering over her lips.
“More like the cat. Feeling a bit dead and alive right now.”
“I’m surprised you’re not the former. How much did you drink last night?”
“Enough. Remind me to never get roped up in a drinking game with you again.”
Alice chuckled into her star studded mug. “Not my first rodeo, not my last. Just wait till we get those pictures back full of aliens. Maybe I’ll really lose it and go blonde. Always wanted to try that.”
“Just be glad you still have hair. I swear I’m starting to shed like a dog.”
“The horror,” she stated bluntly, proclaiming her terror with an obnoxious slurp. “Coffee?”
“I'll stick to tea, thanks. You know coffee doesn’t actually help hangovers?”
“Yep, but this does,” Two blue pain pills clattered on top his desk; a heavenly ring. “Smile Evan, it’s picture day!”
Indeed, the reminder did encourage a wan smile, an effort made easier after the pain killers kicked in. They'd been waiting long enough just to fling that priceless telescope into the cosmos, and now, a collection of pictures would reveal the farthest reaches of the universe. The whole experience was full of hard stops and desperate maneuvers, like a kid learning to drive in the world's most expensive car, white-knuckled and terrified, wondering if they’re going to crash and burn or make it all the way home. The only way to know is to just keep driving.
Evan’s hope hung in the perfect alignment of eighteen delicate mirrors, each capturing the light of the stars in their reflections. The eighteen different pictures taken from the telescope would fit together to make one stunning image, quite literally putting the puzzle pieces of the universe together. Evan remained glued to his desk, waiting in a crowded online meeting for the photos to grace his screen. At least he wouldn't have to face anyone else in his post-bender state. They should really thank him for keeping his camera off. The silence hung heavy over the sea of faceless icons, or maybe Evan just left his computer on mute. Either way, the anticipation didn’t settle well in his stomach.
Then, a ding. Something was downloading onto Evan’s screen. The buffering icon swirled in the reflection of his glasses, hypnotizing, the furthest view of the universe waiting just beyond the spiral. All the sleepless nights and early mornings were leading up to this moment as the screen finally loaded to reveal…
The pictures were blank. Black. Full of nothing at all.
Evan hit refresh. Again. Again! The black screen leered at him. Something cold and anxious gripped at his insides, threatening the already sensitive state of his stomach. This couldn't be it! There had to be more, glimpses of stars, galaxies, or nebulas. Hell, he'd take an alien giving him the finger at this rate. The universe didn't just end at a black wall. If he could decipher anything from the grainy chorus of online onlookers, most were already scrambling to find what kind of alignment error led to such a disappointment. The universe was practically bursting with light, how could they possibly not capture a piece of it?
He could feel himself sink further into his chair with only his reflection to observe on the screen. He was half hoping someone would pop up and claim it was all a prank. A cruel, stupid prank at that. Or had they really just sent a multi billion dollar telescope into space with faulty mirrors. Evan sifted through the five stages of grief right there at his desk as it became very clear that he had his work cut out for him. There’s a reason they say not to count your chickens before they hatch.
Evan wiped his glasses with his sleeve, the deep void on his screen consuming his thoughts. Maybe if he glared at the blank photos enough they would show him what he wanted. Instead his reflection stared uselessly back at him as he slid his glasses back over his nose. The black photo acted like a mirror, capturing his sullen face in a black box of pure nothingness. Except…
Except where were his glasses?
Of all things to nab his attention now, Evan was fixated on the face looking back at him in the reflection of his screen. Long face, slumped shoulders, worn eyes, undoubtedly himself. Yet were his fingers felt the rim of his glasses, his reflection seemed to reach at nothing. In fact, the more he looked, the more different he seemed to become. An unfamiliar white cote hung over his shoulders, and his cheeks were clear of his neglected stubble. When had his hair been cut so short? He blinked a few times, yet the stranger in his reflection remained, gawking at him just as perplexed.
Now, Evan would not consider himself a superstitious man.To have your head in the stars your feet must be firmly planted in the earth. If he thought about it, he could have recalled a true occurrence where staring at your reflection too long causes distortions in your vision. That was simple enough to explain, what wasn't simple was the fact that the stranger in Evan’s reflection still hadn't left. He leaned into the screen and the reflection moved with him, its face seeming to bend in a fish eye view as Evan neared. As Evan searched the dark reflection for more details, he felt the hairs on his neck stand on end, like a warning, like he wasn't the only one doing the observing.
He blinked again.
His reflection blinked a second later.
“Evan!” yelled a voice in his ear.
The aforementioned Evan jumped out of his skin, swiveling around frantically in his chair to see Alice looming over him, raising a quizzical brow. He nearly banged his nose against the screen with how close he had leaned in.
“Uh, It's not a scratch and sniff. Come on, they’re calling a meeting in conference room two.”
Evan spared one last glance into his screen, his same glasses-wearing face now looking back, joined by the judging look of Alice behind him. The strange reflection had left almost as quickly as it came, making Evan wonder if it ever happened at all. His schedule had no more room to worry about that now.
“I'm coming, I'm coming. Sorry, no aliens this time.”
“This time.” She replied wistfully.
On the other side of the universe, Evan Myers pried his eye from the microscope, blinking away the blur until his vision righted again. He’d probably need glasses at this rate. He yawned, scratching the buzz of hair atop his head before slamming some notes onto a keyboard. Surely he had a better sample to waste his time on.
As if on cue, Alice Hayes strolled into the lab with a mug over her mouth, her blonde hair tied up in a pristine ponytail. “So, what’s new from the miniverse?”
“Oh you know, some dots here, some dots there. I'm on the edge of my seat.” he proclaimed with all the vigor of his late grandmother.
“Riveting.” She slurped from her mug, dotted with cartoon atoms. “Coffee?”