As a child Jane counted the seconds between strikes during thunderstorms. She would sit with her knees to her chest and her windows wide open. Lightning (one two three) thunder. Flash (one two thr—) boom.
It was the universe slamming itself in your face. Not just in storms, but in everything—it was just more obvious in storms. Light and sound were racing to thud against your ear drum, every nanosecond, rushing in to blind your cones and rods.
Are you ever shaken to a stop by the thought? Your world is light and sound. Your world is coming flying toward you.
Don’t blink, you’ll miss it.
Don’t shrink, it will swallow you.
Get out your infrared cameras, boys and girls, your rulers and pipettes and spectrometers. Let’s go to work.
Jane's mother left for a lot of reasons. When Jane was small she tried to list them all, dredging up old arguments, things heard through the heating grate in her second floor bedroom—you never listen, you’re late, how can you eat your peanut butter sandwiches with mayonnaise that’s disgusting.
Jane wrote them all down and burned the lists on her window sill, the window pushed wide open for ventilation’s sake.
She wrote them all down, the big and the little, the petty and the screamed, because it was not her place to decide which phenomena mattered most, only to record what had been. She was an observer. She was a scientist. Jane tried to figure out what the ink of her various lists had been made of by what color they burned.
It was a fairly amicable divorce, swapping Jane’s weeks and weekends and summers. But she burned lists all the same and wiped papery ash on her covers.
If you watched the storm it meant you weren’t part of it. If you wrote it down, in careful lines and documented, quantified, qualified—then you were not in the storm. You were not adrift. You were an explorer, an adventurer, a scientist, climbing up to your roof to watch meteor showers.
Her mother bought Jane a book on famous scientists for her thirteenth birthday. Isaac Newton. Einstein. Crick and Watson. Do you see a pattern here? Marie Curie was there, but she looked lonely among all that testosterone (that was a lie: Jane was sure Marie Curie had never been lonely, not as long as she'd had enough Bunsen burners hissing nearby). The book brought up Aristotle and Freud but not Grace Hopper.
Newton had the requisite sketch of a falling apple and the quote If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
Jane got printer papers and pens and wrote up neat little paragraphs of text beside printed out pictures of the first computer bug, of Vera Rubin squinting at her telescope, of Rosalind Franklin's famous, nearly uncredited X-ray diffraction images proving DNA's helical structure. Jane glued them into her book with careful patience. She had to cut off the back cover and lengthen the spine and reattach it to fit them.
When she was done, Jane stuck a Post-it on the cover of the book and wrote in careful letters I stand on the shoulders of giants.
It was a paraphrase, but she didn't think Newton would mind, so long as from the shoulders of those giants she would look and wonder and think and record.
Jane took three sciences classes her junior year of high school and for her senior just TA'd those same classes and did her own work in the back of the room. Selvig, a university friend of her father's, sent her some of the lecture material from his university courses and she sent him back packets of problem sets and questions.
Jane read old mythologies because they shared names with constellations. She liked knowing all their names—that this was Heracles. This was Heracles’s story. This was the name of the cluster of stars at his shoulder. This was how many lightyears they were from here.
Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889) [written in a thirteen year old's best cursive]
When she was twelve and a half, Maria Mitchell helped her father calculate the timing of an annular eclipse. Later in her life, she discovered a comet that would be known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.” She was also an educator, opening a non-segregated school in 1835. In 1865, she became a professor of astronomy at Vassar College. When she found she was getting paid less than the younger, less reputed male professors, she insisted on a raise and received it.
Jane met Donald Blake in grad school. Don was the sort of lover who would run soft fingers over her veins and whisper into her skin the names of each muscle those intricate, fragile, beating vessels fed.
She would take him out stargazing, drive up into the mountains as far from the city lights as they could go, to show him the stars, to introduce to him her other lovers. (A man who could not share her with the stars was not a man who should ever be allowed to touch her veins).
Jane wanted to feel insignificant. She wanted to sit awed in the darkness and inhale this light winking down at them. It came from so far away, from so long ago, older than whole civilizations, whole species, and here she was on the side of this tiny twisted road, sitting in the mulch and tipping her head up at the sky.
Don tried to kiss her, put his big warm hands on her hips and pull her back to earth. "Shh," she said. "Look at the Pleiades."
He wanted to ground her. He wanted to steady her. He was a steady man, Don, the oldest of a gaggle of siblings, brimming with a doctor's need to help, to save, to advise.
Jane got her first doctorate in astrophysics, not medicine. She wanted to know, more than anything. She wanted to marvel.
"Your head's always in the clouds," Don would snap at her in arguments, when she came late to dinner and wanted to talk about how the trucks on the street below shook their romantic table for two just slightly, and how the entirety of the earth spinning—orbiting the sun—Old Sol spinning through the Milky Way—and the Milky Way wheeling its own path through the cosmos—those they couldn't feel at all. Wasn't that amazing?
"Your head's always in the clouds," he said and Jane sighed and sipped her wine.
The clouds? She thought she could reach higher than that.
Jane had just gotten home from a brutal fluid dynamics session when her mother called. It was from the old house number. Her mother hadn't lived there in years.
"Janey, I—it's terrible news," said her mother. "There was an accident. Oh, baby, your father—"
Jane got a plane ticket. She packed her bags and flew from one hot summer to a colder one.
On the day of the funeral, Jane climbed out the back window of her old childhood house and walked out in her good black clothes to the intersection where a truck hadn’t stopped at a red light. She had had to slip out of her heels a half mile into the walk. She had the black shoes hanging from two fingers, the soles of her nylons being ground into the dirty sidewalk. They bloomed holes and little rips. Her pinned hair dropped tendrils into her sweaty face.
It was a four-way intersection. Jane leaned against one of the big metal poles that held the turn signals and watched cars come by, stop and go. She counted the time between reds and greens, learned the patterns, felt how many beats of her heart she could fit into each yellow.
Her mother was at the house, pouring drinks and holding babies. She liked to cry in a crowded room, where there were people to hug and wet cheeks to kiss. It wasn’t about an audience; it was about friendship, about having someone’s hands to hold, about knowing you were not to only one to have loved and grieved. He mattered to you? He mattered to me, too. To her mother, that was a comfort.
They were a big family, both her mother’s side and her father’s, and academia was almost another family in itself. Erik Selvig, who had helped put glow in the dark stars on Jane’s childhood bedroom ceiling and who would later fly out to a little New Mexico town because she asked him to, was telling old stories about her father. Selvig was making people smile in Jane’s living room, telling stories about her father, her absent-minded, brilliant, loyal father, who loved from afar with chalk on his hands and stars in his eyes, who made her mother laugh but not enough to stay, who had crossed an intersection at a green light and not made it to the other side.
We all grieve in different ways. Jane stood in her torn nylons beside a patch of asphalt and a metal pole hung with a traffic symbol. Green. Yellow. Red. Hold your breath. Count between the thunder and the lightning to see how far away the storm is.
Jane walked home. The soles of her feet smarted for days. She helped her mother clean house, wash dishes and throw out discarded napkins and paper plates. She curled up in the bed she had grown tall in and whispered the names of the constellations on her ceiling.
Jane felt like every light in the world had gone out. The precisely placed and chipping glow-in-the-dark stars were arrayed overhead. They faded slowly, using up their glow as the night went on. Jane brought a flashlight to bed and shone it up at whatever constellation she wanted to recharge, to bring back to life, to shine.
Her mother sold the old two-storey house. She shopped around for a new job and found a position at a university outside London. Jane helped her mother move into a bright, airy apartment in the city, stayed for two weeks, and then went back to MIT in time for the fall semester to start.
Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)
Stunted by a childhood illness, Caroline Herschel stood at four foot three. In her life as a singer and an astronomer, she discovered eight comets. She received a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. The next woman to receive this award would be Vera Rubin in 1996. An asteroid and a crater in the moon both are named for Caroline.
Universe—you could throw that world around and most people did throw that word around, but when Jane said it she meant something specific.
She meant Alpha Centauri and spiral nebulae, the cloudy birthplaces of stars, and the way wobbles in starlight let you know how many planets orbited a distant sun. She meant the stars we had photographed with Hubble and the ones that were farther, faded, distant, waiting for the James Webb telescope to launch and capture their light, and then the ones that were farther still.
She meant the way surface friction causes water to form droplets and lets water striders dance on the surface of still ponds.
The universe. Jane rolled the word around on her tongue the way she had rolled frozen grapes during hot summers as a child.
When she got to New Mexico, she started freezing grapes again.
Puente Antiguo, New Mexico, was hot. New Mexico was infuriating, with no funding to speak of and Darcy’s flippant disinterest rankling at Jane's nerves. Darcy Lewis had been the only candidate to answer Jane's request for an intern. "Did they not read my findings?" Jane said to her mother on long-distance calls. Her mother edited law student briefs and mmhmm-ed. (She was always listening; at a very young age Jane had understood that a red pen cap in her mother's teeth hardly meant her mother couldn't spit every word back to you verbatim). "There are things happening here, real science, real findings."
"Everything is real science, dear."
Jane made an exasperated noise. "Well, at least I got one. She's some sort of science major, so that's somewhat promising."
Darcy Lewis was a science major.
"You want to be a politician?" said Jane.
Darcy, who had been chewing gum when she arrived, popped a pink bubble and shrugged. "I want to get through college. You're supposed to, right? So, hey, want to show me around the digs?"
Jane was wary and irritated for weeks. She had wanted a fellow scientist (Darcy called stars "hey, sparkly" and put her earbuds in), not this child to babysit.
Jane did her experiments and built carefully duct-taped working models of the equipment she didn't have the grants to afford. She dragged Darcy out on cold desert nights to stick their head out the RV ceiling and wait for storms to come. Darcy dubbed it the Science RV and teased it like an old friend. Jane tried to explain combustion engines and Darcy twiddled her thumbs. They tried to make conversation but kept stumbling over supernovae.
“My big brother died when I was fifteen,” said Darcy once, after Jane responded to a question about her dad with a “we lost him when I was in grad school.”
Jane babbled a condolence and Darcy snorted. “What, like I’d be interesting without a tragic backstory.” Darcy popped her headphones back in. She was reading On Crime and Punishment on her tiny iPhone screen and bopping along to the tune in her ears.
Jane watched her aggravating intern’s feet twitch to the music and thought you are not who I think you are.
Jane remembered to look. Jane remembered to observe, to hypothesize and not to assume. She collected data and she built theories about this girl who had been dropped into the fringes of Jane's best science.
When you asked Darcy to do something, she did it. When you explained something to her, she remembered it—Darcy called delicate equipment that silver toaster-y thing and complained about the cell reception, but when you said you needed the oscilloscope hooked up to record your latest sensor data, it got hooked up and the floppy of data got tossed on your desk, neatly (if oddly) labeled. Squiggly data from that night it got CRAZY HOT (10/18) or Remember when I made that peanut butter and jelly smoothie? Oh yeah. (5/12, particle data).
Just a new jargon to learn, Jane supposed.
All of Jane's frozen grapes also started disappearing, but she just started buying double when she went to the little corner market in town.
Puente Antiguo means old bridge. Digest this. Move on.
When Jane had made seven predictions for light-storm phenomena on her desert, and seven of them had been correct, she called Erik Selvig. He hopped on a plane because the last time he had seen her had been at her father's funeral; because he had read her findings.
He came, and they went out to the desert to find a storm.
“Jane, you’re an astrophysicist, not a storm chaser,” said Erik Selvig.
"I am not dying for six college credits," called Darcy with no actual fear in her voice.
Jane thought those three minutes were rather character-defining. She grabbed the wheel and drove toward the heart of the storm. Darcy made noise and without a shake in her hands Darcy made the quick, careful decision to taser the big scary man who roared at them.
Selvig was cautious and thoughtful, by-the-book, insisting they take the hit-by-a-car-then-tasered man back to the hospital and leave the science behind. (Jane protested—that was characteristic, too).
“Jane, you’re an astrophysicist, not a storm chaser,” said Erik Selvig, and he was wrong. She was just an astrophysicist too.
Rebecca Cole (1846-1922)
Rebecca Cole was the second African-American woman to earn a medical license. She worked closely with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US. Rebecca practiced medicine for over fifty years. No images of Rebecca remain.
There was something there, in those days in New Mexico: these massive, gaseous giants, these old gods and the way they pulled hapless victims and wide-eyed scientists into their orbits; the way Jane drove towards them, ran towards them, with cameras and taped-together equipment in her hands. She stood out in the rain and shunned the eye of the storm.
Hubris and wonder, the great mythological sins. They said mortals would burn to a crisp, if they looked on the untamed truth of deities, but truth was what Jane had been after all this time. Jane couldn’t imagine having the strength to look away.
Jane would eat the entire pomegranate if it gave her a whole new world.
And she did: she drove what could be a mad man to a government base, to find a hammer. She chased the storm. She fed Thor coffee and consumed his data like it was oxygen. She evacuated a tiny New Mexico town. She faced down faceless goons in plain black suits. She felt everything coming together, like when you're two lines from the end of an algebraic solution and you can feel it coming.
And then her storm vanished. Thor didn't come back.
Jane kept chasing—chasing particle data and predictable storms, Einstein-Rosen bridges and SHIELD funding. Darcy signed up for online courses and extended her internship. Jane didn't thank her and she didn't ask why. She had a feeling Darcy wouldn't appreciate the attention. She'd rather just bully SHIELD into giving her a new iPod (a better model, and repayment for twice the songs she'd had on it) and keep stealing Jane's grapes out of the freezer.
The closest Jane got to an answer was one night, sitting on the RV roof out in the desert, swinging their legs and waiting for a storm. "This science thing," said Darcy. "It's alright. I mean, the muscle definition on the space guy alone was almost worth it."
"And you know you'd turn into a science hermit without me. I've seen you wear Mr. Rogers sweaters, Jane. You're going to get eyeglass chains next, I just know it."
"It gets cold!"
"Mr. Rogers sweaters," said Darcy.
SHIELD returned Jane's equipment and set up a generous fund for her to continue her research. She kept her taped-together equipment, though she bought some new additions. But that stuff was hers. She knew its ins and outs, had left fingerprints on its innermost innards. She sent in monthly reports that largely explained that nothing was happening. The desert was quiet. The storm was gone.
For Christmas, Jane bought Agent Coulson a coffee cup that said SON OF COUL in blocky black letters and Agent Sitwell an eyeglass-cleaning cloth covered with an accurate star map of the Northern Hemisphere's constellations. She pointed out her favorites in the card that accompanied it.
Jane cried when Sally Ride died. She ate ice cream out of a pint tub and watched old documentaries and read every article about Sally’s life, her space flight, her partner, her witty interviews. Jane poured herself a glass of champagne and climbed up on the roof and toasted to the stars.
Jane waited for a storm.
No, that wasn't quite right—that wasn't quite accurate, and accuracy mattered.
Jane chased the storm. She built new equipment and scoured her data. When New Mexico kept coming up dry, she moved outward. She called on SHIELD resources and tried to find other hot spots. (None of them were so aptly named as Puente Antiguo, which would always keep a special place in her heart and her humor).
Darcy followed, slamming doors and stealing Jane's chips, acing any online class that asked her to argue and forgetting to ask Jane for help on her science and mathematics. Jane eventually learned she had to almost bully her into accepting the help.
"Who taught you not to ask for things?"
Darcy rolled her eyes. "Who taught you to be nosy? Hey, wait, I thought that was a, uh, that little Greek s dude."
"A lowercase sigma? No, it's a cursive v. That's a sigma there."
"We have both? What idiot decided that?"
"Probably Einstein or somebody," said Jane. "They can always read their own handwriting."
"See, this is why you get to do the grocery shopping," said Darcy. "You'd send me out to get cursive v's and I'd come back with a baby sigma and you know it'd just be your scientist handwriting's fault."
They chased the storm. Months went by. Jane went out to stand in actual rain and let it drench her. The sun had blasted each water drop hitting her face into steam, once, and sent it flying upward to the sky. It had turned to ice, to crystals, to water droplets, and clung closer and closer to its siblings. The water had traveled miles, maybe, over oceans and fields and country borders, to fall here on her face.
When Jane got back to the Motel Six where they were staying, soaked through, Darcy bullied her into a hot shower and played I'm Singing in the Rain at top volume all night.
Accuracy is how right you are.
Precision has to do with your methods. If you do the same test again, will you get the same answer? It doesn’t matter if it’s the right one, just that it’s the same one.
(Accuracy: did you hit the bull’s eye?
Precision: I don’t care about the target—can you do a Robin Hood and split the arrow you already shot?)
Aliens came to New York. The day before, Jane (with Darcy in tow, like a wayward child, like a minder, like an oxygen tank for the critically ill) was put on a private SHIELD jet and flown to an observatory in Norway. She watched stars through their big telescopes and exchanged notes with the astronomers there.
Jane tried to call Erik Selvig and got nothing but voicemail. Darcy dragged their rather cowed SHIELD protective detail over a few days in and the poor man dumped out the story about Selvig and Loki and Loki's fairy princess wand of mind-screw (Darcy's wording). Jane never asked how Darcy got the story out of him.
Jane watched the footage of New York. Lightning flashed up the Chrysler Building and Jane thought furiously that's my storm, that's my storm, where the hell have you been?
Thor and Loki's departure was filmed from a distance in Central Park. Jane watched it once.
She kept looking for data, hopping from site to promising site. This was her life's work, this odd phenomena no one else had had the stamina to look twice at until it suddenly manifested a handsome blond alien with a massive hammer in its midst. She looked. There were no storms to find.
Thor had disappeared from the New Mexico desert two years before Jane's mother went on sabbatical to Bath. Jane and Darcy moved into her London flat; there had been some promising readings nearby, though Jane worried the city's emanations were affecting them.
There had been promising readings elsewhere, too, but this housing was free and SHIELD funding had started to run dry. They wanted results. Jane just wanted answers.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Byron was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. Her mother, bitter and frightened at the impetuous romantic destruction of her wayward husband (who left a month after Ada’s birth, never to return), had encouraged Ada’s interest in logic and mathematics, thinking it might keep Byron’s “insanity” from appearing in her child. Trapped in bed by sickness, a twelve year old Ada studied the flights of birds, steam power, and brainstormed various wing models and materials. She wanted to find a way to fly. Later in her life, Ada wrote what was perhaps the first algorithm meant to be calculated by a machine, earning her the title of world’s first computer programmer.
Did you know? The universe expands. The universe is expanding, screaming outwards, growing bigger and more chaotic with every one of your inhales. Do you know how we know? Look at the dark night sky, the pinpricks of light.
Heinreich Olbers said the universe must be finite. If it kept going forever, every place you look would have a star, no matter how distant, no matter how far. The whole sky would be light.
Newton’s theories of gravity were a contradiction to this—the universe could not be finite the way Olbers insisted it had to be. If it was, the endless force of gravity would have caused the universe to collapse in on itself.
It was Hubble, however, who discovered the solution to this dilemma: the universe was expanding.
This discovery had to do with the kinds of light astronomers were finding from the furthest stars. The wavelength of the light from the farthest stars was long, as though it had been stretched out, as though its source was rushing away faster than the ones closer to us.
If the edges of the universe weren't rushing away from us, if this was a closed static volume—the entire universe would have collapsed down to a single mass. If the universe was infinite, if starlight was doing nothing but streaming down at us instead of running away and trailing farewell waves behind them—the whole sky would be light.
But it's not.
Go sit up on a hillside and stare at the stars like you think they might be telling you something.
Jane was in a very nice restaurant with a very nice man named Richard when Darcy came and dangled a storm under her nose. Jane tried to send her away, because she was trying to be a person. She was trying to be a friendly if distractible PhD on a nice date with a nice man, not a sparking weather vane wrapped up in a woman’s ill-fitting skin. Pressure differentials, she thought. We’re on the verge of something.
Darcy shrugged and left. (She waited in the car when she got downstairs; she was years into this now, her half-finished BA floating somewhere in the metadata. She knew better than to expect Jane to function for long on a date when there was science to do).
“Sea bass sea bass sea bass,” Jane muttered and tried to read a menu while calculations sparked behind her eyes. Had the oscillations on those readings been—?
When Richard suggested she just go, Jane sprinted down the stairs.
There had been a lot of nice men in her life who had nicely let her go. Don Blake had been a long pause, but he was just one in a long line of people who had loved her plaid shirts and waving hands, the way her eyes lit up. But eventually they realized that she would never look at them the way she looked at the stars. Eventually they realized that they only loved the light in her eyes because they thought that one day, finally, eventually, she would turn to them with eyes that bright and smile.
But they were not storms. They were not universes. They were doctors and actors and elementary school teachers and academians.
Maybe they would have been universes if Jane had looked a little harder. But they kept grabbing her hand when she was trying to explain a particular complex point of gravitational mechanics, trying to stroke her palm and get her to smile at them.
Thor was a storm. He drew her a universe in her notebook on a rooftop in New Mexico. He promised her answers and she could think of no better declaration of love. When Jane stared up at glowing gold light on a medical table in Asgard (a few hours from now) and called it a quantum field generator, he smiled without asking for her attention. He didn’t ask her to bring her joy back down to earthly levels, to come to dinner on time and remember to meet his eyes.
When Thor came back to earth, there was a storm in Jane's veins, too. The aether was infecting her system, scouring her pulse with a red-black light.
It was killing her.
Jane had been fragile all her life. When she felt like a frail young girl she thought of granite chasms, of the crushing depths of the deepest oceans, the hearts of supernovae. She was fragile. She was infinitesimal. So was everything.
But now she wasn’t. She had a red storm in her veins.
After a lifetime of chasing storms in RVs in the New Mexico desert, counting the pause before thunder in her childhood bedroom—the storm was in her veins. Now, there was a universe expanding inside of her, nebulae in her left kidney, stardust in her eyes, every muscle fiber singing along the lightyears.
She knew before Odin told her that she was not meant to hold the aether and survive. She was dying.
Jane was dying and she was upset about her mother. Her mother would get a phone call on her sabbatical in Bath, and wouldn't that just ruin the whole vacation? Darcy would have to find a new source of college credits and travel expenses. Darcy would have to find someone new to follow around the apartment with her iPod blasting Aladdin’s A Whole New World whenever Jane got too misty-eyed about multiworld theories.
Jane wouldn’t be talking about scientific theory if she was dead.
And maybe that was worst of all. Jane was dying. She wasn’t even as old as her father had been on the last day of his life, and everyone had kept murmuring about his life cut so short. She had finally found her storm in that New Mexico desert outside a conveniently named town, the storm she’d been looking for all her life. Maybe this was the worst of it. She had Asgard at her fingertips, now, quantum field generators and magnetic repulsor children’s toys. The rainbow/Bifrost/Einstein-Rosen bridge had left sparkles on her tongue.
This was a lifetime (more than a lifetime) of study, of discovery, of missed dinners and late nights. Thor’s hand was warm on her back and she wanted to weep at the loss. Jane wondered if she could ask him to bring Selvig here, after she’d gone, if the world hadn’t ended, because someone ought to study the Bifrost, ought to write the articles she was dreaming of, run the experiments, learn.
But she had wanted it to be her.
Maybe Selvig would list her as a co-author, posthumously.
It wasn’t the authorship, though, that she wanted. It was the discovery. Standing on an Asgardian balcony, answers strewn before her for the picking, Jane closed her eyes tight, trying to remember the way the Bifrost had felt on her skin, pulling her apart and squishing her into streams of light, pulling and squishing and twisting and not touching her at all. She had found it. She had found her mystery, her storm, her bridge, and walked through it.
Jane opened her eyes. The edge of Asgard seem to drop off into a void; she didn’t know how the vehicle whizzing by functioned; Thor’s warmth at her back was desired but still so very new and unexplored.
Well, she wasn’t dead yet. Time to see what experimentation she could fit in before then.
"Scientific experiments with only a single case study are unprofessional," Jane told Thor, one hand in his long hair. He raised both eyebrows. "That means I'd like you to kiss me again. If, you know, that's alright."
Malekith and his warriors came to Asgard. When the golden dome shield went up around the palace, Jane itched to get her hands on the innards of it. They sent her away with Frigga and Jane went.
“Is this really the time for tea?” said Jane, trying to see if she could glimpse something go on outside the finely draped room.
“It’s very good tea,” said Frigga, and put her longsword down beside the kettle. Jane stared slightly, and then tore her gaze away to the woman’s face. “I will do my best to keep you safe, child,” said Frigga. She passed Jane a cup.
Jane barely touched her spicy Asgardian tea. She left it lukewarm on a side table when Frigga tucked her away to hide and left an illusion in her place. They didn’t talk about much in those brief few minutes before Malekith came for her. Jane made a tentative compliment about the palace and Frigga smiled. “Yes, how do you find our world?”
“It’s—” Jane bit her lip and then leaned forward. “That quantum field generator? The atomic mapping was—”
Jane felt more watched in that conversation than she ever had—not a bug on a slide, perhaps, but more like a star cluster. Frigga was mapping her, learning the lines of her face, the way her eyes lit up when she said magnetic propulsion. When she built her illusion of Jane to trick their attackers (to trick her killers) moments later, it would be perfect.
“Time to hide, my dear,” Frigga said, ending the only conversation Jane would ever have with her lover’s mother. “Do not come out until I say. Do you understand? Not for anything.”
Sometimes Jane felt like Thor looked at her like she was a comet, like he was breathlessly pressing his eye up against the telescope, trying not to blink as it streaked across the sky. He wanted to capture her, impress that fiery sight into his ocular nerve and never let it fade (did Asgardian eyesight work like humans did? What spectrums did Thor see in?).
They buried Frigga scattered with roses and with a sword in her hands.
Except it wasn’t a burial (accuracy, Jane)—it was a last journey. It was a burning, a sea voyage and a final flight. It was a scattering of light. Jane stood on the wide stone of Asgard, staring out as Frigga’s flaming vessel burst into a scattering of sparks.
She wanted to ask Thor how gravity worked in this instance, the boat falling off the edge of the world, but instead she just squeezed her hand. This was his grief, this vigil, not hers.
But she thought he would probably have understood that the question was her way of grieving, not a flippant interest in the technicalities. This was how they honored their dead, how their mourning worked, and she wanted to understand, to write the equations into herself, beside Newton and Gauss, and mourn this woman properly.
They snuck out of Asgard. Jane, between fainting, woozy spells, and fits of feeling like she had power bursting from her pores, noticed three things:
- Thor had a strategist in him, which did not surprise her, but seemed to surprise quite a few people who had known him for millennia.
- Loki the illusionist had shaped himself like his mother. He moved with her grace. But he had his father's ability to lift up some lives as more important than others and Jane had never been more thankful that Thor did not resemble his brother in that.
- She was still dying.
3a. Thor had a plan to get the aether out of her, to purge her body. But she was still dying. If they saved her, she was still dying.
3b. They all were. That was how living worked.
As Malekith yanked it out of her, the aether showed Jane the universe. The aether showed her the universe going dark—the breadth and span of it—her universe, dying.
How dare it.
Jane gasped on the floor of that dark world as Thor roared and Loki died and Malekith ignored her discarded and useless shell. He had taken that red storm from her veins and that was all he needed.
Jane rose on shaking legs and did not feel emptied.
“Illness is their defining trait,” Odin had said on their first meeting. Jane had wanted to snap, “In the old myths, Odin gave up his right eye for the sake of knowledge. The Norse All-Father is also All-Knowing. But you? You lost your eye for war. What does that say?”
Odin only took her in when he recognized the storm in her veins. He was a fool. She had always had a storm raging in her.
Trust my rage, Jane thought. My rage is quiet. My rage is taped together. My rage is smarter than you.
A universe swirled in her depths, jangling with Darcy’s latest wit, shaped by Selvig’s teachings and Don’s warm hands, Thor’s easy smile. She had watched her mother have the strength to walk away, head held high, and that had built the spiral galaxies under her lungs, the ones that let her straighten her shoulders and stand her ground.
A storm had been born in her the day her father died. She had been a storm all her life, blooming new thunderclouds in her liver when she sat on the roof and watched meteors, sparking lightning along her veins when people told her things were out of her reach. A storm had been born in her the day she first understood the word unknown.
They got back to earth. They found Selvig and Darcy, his theories and his madness, Darcy's car and the instruments Selvig had been using to track the convergence. A storm was coming. But Jane had Thor at her back, Selvig's instrumentation at her fingertips, a decade of expertise under her tongue.
Selvig had been tracking the convergence, chasing the storm, but Jane would control it. She got out her duct tape and pliers and wiring supplies and huddled in the back of the car with his tracking poles while Darcy drove them to Greenwich and broke the speed limit.
No cops seemed to want to pull them over when they saw Thor riding shotgun.
The convergence had already begun. They planted Selvig's poles. Jane toggled switches and twisted dials, hiding behind pillars and doing calculations in her head. Malekith had ripped the storm of the aether from her and left her on the ground like a spent husk. She gave a last click and three of his men vanished from the field.
Jane stepped into that battle for the sake of light, with her taped-together equipment, with her taped-together self. She held the storm in her hands.
The last blow of the battle was from Thor's hammer, jamming one of the duct-taped poles of science through Malekith. It was an ironic facsimile of building, driving that nail home.
Jane Foster saved the world in a plaid jacket and red boots, with an adapted toy car remote and quite a lot of duct tape.
“You’re not leaving for good this time,” said Jane when Thor reappeared on her balcony after the ruckus in London. It was not a question or a request.
“I have sworn to defend not just this world, but all of the nine,” Thor said like the gravely loyal, vaguely apologetic golden retriever he was.
“Sounds good,” she said. “Let me pack my equipment.” He didn’t blink, he didn’t stare, he smiled. She grinned back and said, “I told you that wouldn’t be my last time on the Bifrost.”
“It will not always be safe,” he said.
“I’m an astrophysicist,” she said. “I’m a storm chaser. I go where the science is. Darcy, where’s the pulse—uh, the toaster-looking thing?”
Almost as soon as he got back, Thor got an alert of an invasion in one of the other realms. Jane eyed the Bifrost greedily and suggested he just leave her here in Asgard.
"I have watched you," Heimdall told her gravely, the first morning she hiked down to the end of the rainbow road with a backpack full of portable equipment.
"That's not creepy," she said. "Hi, I'm Jane."
"Right, the watching." Jane pulled the silver toaster thing out of her backpack. "And you are?"
When Thor got back, a week later, Jane had somehow dredged up some chalkboard paint and the entirety of the inner walls of the Bifrost were covered in it. She dragged a stool around behind her, clambering up on it to add to her notes, which reached from the ground on up. She pestered Heimdall with questions and mumbled monologues of theory.
For the first few days Heimdall had watched gravely from the center of the room. Finally, he had frowned and said, "Is that a lowercase sigma or a cursive v?" and then released his sword, grabbed a spare piece of chalk, and joined her.
Thor had to call twice before Heimdall stepped back to his post and opened the Bifrost to him. Thor stepped into the room, looked once at all the walls, and then roared with laughter. "Have you eaten?" Thor asked Jane.
"I think, last night?" she said. "No, wait, I had a protein bar this morning. I'm good. No, really, I'm— but this last—"
Thor was apparently as stubborn as Darcy when he needed to be.
Katherine G Johnson (1918- )
Katherine referred to herself and the other female research mathematicians in her group at NASA-Langley as “computers who wore skirts.” Katherine, who had once had an entire course in analytic geometry created for her by Dr. W.W. Schiefflin Claytor (the third African-American to obtain a Ph.D. in mathematics), moved from her all-female computations group to the Flight Mechanics and Spacecraft Controls Branches. There, a Black woman among largely white male scientists, she calculated flight paths and launch windows for space flight missions from 1959 onward, including the flight of the first American in space (Alan Shepard) and the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon in 1969.
When computers were brought into NASA's controls room, Katherine's speed and accuracy were so respected that she was asked to check the computers' answers.
“I figured out why SHIELD wouldn’t talk to me when London was exploding,” Darcy told her when Jane finally dropped back to earth to download some research notes and get some new underwear. “Apparently they’re Nazis or something. DC’s on fire, I think.”
Jane ran to the store before she called Heimdall to bring her back and bought four bags of green grapes. She considered buying a mini freezer, but figured Asgard probably had a better model than anything she could find here.
Jane stepped foot in each of the nine worlds with Thor. A few she had to spend some time bullying him into, and he had insisted on more armed guards than just him and his hammer. Jane took notes, took readings, took samples. She also breathed deep and threw her head back each time to take a look at their unknown constellations.
Jane came back for two weeks around her mother's birthday, to convince everyone she was still alive. She brought Darcy an Asgardian battery-like device Thor had recommended for her iPod (Darcy didn't recharge it for a year). Jane also brought her a job offer; Thor had threatened to get Heimdall to lock her out of the Bifrost if she didn't stop and eat at least three times a day. Jane thought she could probably convince Heimdall to let her in anyway, but there was a great deal more to Darcy than just making sure Jane remembered to eat. She had missed her intern.
A week into Jane's self-enforced vacation, there was a hard knock at the door of her mother's London flat. When she opened it, she stared.
Sif was wearing what had to be Asgardian-casual—a bit less armor than normal, but still rather far from sweats and a tank top. "I would speak to you, Lady Jane."
"Lady, um, Sif," said Jane. She had one hand on her jacket so she finished shrugging it on. "I was just about to grab a cup of coffee. Want to come?"
What was it about Asgardians and looking at you like they were taking you apart? Jane led Sif down the sidewalk and thought about how Thor looked at her (like a lover), how Loki had (like a puzzle he'd thought he'd solved), Odin (a puzzle he didn't recognize as even worth his time to attempt). Though Odin had seemed different lately, and Jane was deciding whether or not she was okay with it.
Sif looked at her like a soldier who was assessing a battlefield. Now that Jane thought about it, that was how Frigga had looked at her, over a steaming mug of tea in the middle of the opening shots of a war—like a warrior.
Sif said, “Thor is in Asgard, handling a diplomatic matter."
“I know,” said Jane, sliding into a polyester booth. “Heimdall and I have got a prototype working for a Bifrost, uh, cell phone of sorts.”
Sif looked steadily at her. “I would speak to you of Thor. You are important to him. He is... important to me.”
The waitress, a plump woman with a tired smile and a curious glance at Sif, came by. Jane ordered them both coffees and pancakes. It was a diner that was trying very hard to be American, and it was close enough for Jane’s confusedly homesick tastes.
“If you hurt him,” said Sif, and Jane coughed.
“Oh,” Jane said. “Oh, is this like the dad with the shotgun—or big sister with the broadsword, okay, wow.”
“He is very apt to trust, to fight without thought for himself, to—” Sif bit off the words as the waitress returned with a pot and poured both their clunky mugs full to the brim with hot coffee. She plunked down a little pitcher of cream and left.
Jane sipped her coffee without caution or cream; most things were drinkable after lukewarm bottom-of-the-pot mud from the last dredges of her PhD days.
“I want to understand you,” said Sif. “You are very close to him. You are very important, and I do not understand why Thor would—” She cut herself off, glowering carefully.
“Fall for a squishy little thing like me?” said Jane. “Let me know when you figure it out.”
“If you hurt him,” said Sif again.
“I won’t,” Jane said. “I wouldn’t, I mean, he matters to me, too, Si—Lady Sif.” Jane fluttered her hands over the table top, glancing up at Sif and trying to find the right thing to do. “I’m not Loki,” she said finally.
Sif’s hands were very still on the warm mug. “That is not—”
“Yes it is,” said Jane. “And you’re right, I saw the New York footage, too, every bit I could find. Thor let him get too close. He forgives people. He trusts them and he bleeds for it. But I’m not going to stab him in the stomach, Sif. I’m not his brother.”
Sif lifted the coffee cup and took a cautious sip without taking her eyes off Jane. She blinked and swallowed. “That is very strong.”
“Do you like it?” said Jane. Sif took another sip.
“Okay,” said Jane quickly. “Please don’t smash it. The way to ask for seconds in Midgard is to ask, alright?”
Sif looked at her. “Did Thor break a mug?”
“He did, his first time. A café in New Mexico—that little town you saved, actually, thank you. But he threw it down, said Another! and grinned while we stared at him.”
“That is Thor,” said Sif and Jane swore she almost smiled. “I am not Thor.” She poured in a little cream and stirred it delicately with a spoon.
The pancakes came and Jane explained syrup. Sif studied her like she was deciding something and Jane tried to look trustworthy.
“Did you know Frigga well?” Jane said finally. Sif, mouth full of pancake, blinked.
“I barely knew her,” said Jane. “And then she died for me.”
“She died for her son’s wayward heart,” said Sif, and Jane grinned at her.
“Yes I suppose that might be a bit more accurate,” Jane said as Sif blinked slowly at her lack of offense. “I like accuracy,” Jane explained to her. “I like honesty. Do you understand what I am? I’m a scientist. Truth is what we’re about.”
Sif took another bite of syrup-soaked pancake. She swallowed. “I was not meant to be a warrior. Thor stood by me, because—”
“He would,” Jane agreed.
“Lady Frigga—I was always awestruck by her,” said Sif. “Effortless elegant. I had always been an awkward child on anything but the practice field, and here I was again refusing to play the tune I was told. She pulled me aside, once—many kind older women had pulled me aside, to warn me of the rough lives of our warriors and the things I was giving up. Lady Frigga pulled me aside and said she’d never seen my equal with a sword. She told me that she was sure I knew how rough the lives of our warriors were and that she was sure I knew what I was giving up. She said I had chosen a hard life and a good one, and that I had her aid if I ever needed it.”
“Did you ever need it?” said Jane.
“No,” said Sif and this time the smirk was actually visible. “But I did take her friendship. It was one of the wisest choices I have ever made.”
Jane's last week flew by. Darcy spent it packing bags and asking questions about cute Asgardians and what the weather was like. "Should I bring a jacket? Do I need flipflops? Oooh, do I need this sparkly thing? I do, I need it, I know it, it's coming with us."
Jane packed a bag of clothes, a bag of new equipment, and a bag of pancake mix and syrup. Heimdall brought them home and Jane watched Darcy's face, which was always more performative than really expressive, flick through awe and interest and glee. (Never fear, not this girl). (Never fear, really?).
Jane kept researching the Bifrost, running experiments beside Heimdall's endless patience and deep knowledge, even if it was a mix of practicality and poetry rather than empirical science. Heimdall was getting a co-authorship out of this even if it was with her last breath. Jane kept researching the nine realms and occasionally taking apart Asgardian desk lamps and flying machines to revamp her test equipment, but she also researched Frigga.
She was trying to understand Thor’s doting mother and Sif’s quiet guide, to reconcile Odin’s sharp, observant best advisor and Loki’s mentor on sleight of hand, in lies, misdirection, and loyalty. Jane dug through Sif’s stories and Thor’s reminisces, even a few polite dinners with Odin who wasn’t nearly as cold as she expected.
Sif found her old Asgardian-style home videos, with three-dimensional surround sound and an odd smell component to the experience. Jane had had to dredge up some of her own childhood home videos to explain the concept, though she had a feeling Sif had only been pretending ignorance. Jane curled up when her eyes got too tired to read her data and watched an adolescent Thor and Loki tussle, watched Frigga smile and move with endless deliberation, leave peace in her wake. Loki really did look like his mother, but he moved in Thor's shadow, the very shape of his shoulders trying to imitate his brother's easy bravado.
Sif showed up at the Bifrost one day and said, "The young Darcy claims you have not eaten yet this afternoon. Come; you shared with me a meal of your people once, and now it is my turn."
They snacked on weird flavorful wafers and spicy Asgardian tea. “Wasn’t Sif an earth goddess, in the old myths?” Jane asked.
“I hadn’t quite figured myself out yet,” said Sif.
Jane blinked. “The reality of immortality isn’t really intuitive to me, yet,” she admitted. Sif smirked into her tea. “And you were blond, weren’t you?” Jane asked. “There was some story about that.”
“One of Loki’s pranks,” said Sif, and Jane changed the subject.
Sif kept coming, dragging her out onto the Asgard city streets, insisting she and Thor come gaming with the Warriors Three in the evenings. Jane brought tea back to Heimdall in odd disposable ceramic mugs. Darcy joined them, dragging herself (gratefully) away from sorting Jane's data and (reluctantly) away from courting Asgardians—except maybe that was Darcy's data, there, her science.
Darcy walked the streets with wide eyes, taking in the way laundry was left out to dry, the kind of cat calls one passerby made to another, the slang, the social scripts. Jane didn't quite understand the appeal, but she supposed Darcy never quite understood Jane's inner thrill at the sight of a nice clean oscilloscope reading either.
Jane started to get a taste for the tea. She told Sif stories about her father. Sif told her stories about her wars.
“Thor learned about power being a gift,” said Sif, and sipped from her mug again, “when he came to your Midgard. He learned about being powerless.”
“I know a lot about that,” said Jane.
“Yes,” said Sif, and it didn’t feel like an insult. “Yes, I think you will teach us all something, Jane.”
They were all universes: her father, her mother, Erik Selvig, and her least favorite thesis advisor; the girls in school who had teased her about her lumpy sweaters and the librarians who had dredged up old, dusty books for her from she wasn’t sure where. There were lifetimes of study hidden in Darcy’s careless banter and sharp tongue, the way she would follow them to the end of the world, complaining and wise-cracking all the way; in Don’s need to be grounding and Richard’s kindnesses.
Jane didn’t know all their universes and she didn't mean to. She did not feel guilty for not knowing their universes, for walking away when Richard gave her the chance, for disappearing when Don gave her the opening. She did not feel guilty. She was a universe, too.
Jane was star clusters beside her belly button and a white dwarf in the curve of her foot. She was long nights and waving hands and distractions, and they had wanted her to be someone else.
But Sif listened. Thor never tried to pull her back to earth. Darcy teased her and complained and made her get warm and dry after rainstorms. Frigga had saved her life and Selvig had shaped her mind. Heimdall had opened the stars to her. She would learn their universes because she chose to. This life would be a long slow collision of near misses along lightyears of space as each of their spiral galaxies passed one another.
Jane stood on the shoulders of these giants. They had made her who she was.
Sif would go stiff and not speak until she was ready. Darcy would bounce back, inscrutable, young and kind and terrible, and make Jane rip out her hair with frustration. Thor would laugh like he had nothing holding him down (and they said the boy couldn’t lie), he would disappear and come back, and he would look at her like she was a comet burning across his sky. Heimdall would look out at the secrets of the Bifrost and Jane would wonder how many people had forgotten to look at him. She would ask him, maybe, someday, and maybe he would tell her.
One late midnight, Thor took her up to scramble onto a roof of the palace. They lay back on the tiles, the storm chaser and her storm, and Jane’s whole field of view was blazing with a thousand constellations she didn’t know.
Jane raised a chalk-smudged finger and said, “Let’s start there. What’s that star’s name?”
Their storm was not done. Thor would have so many wars to live through. Jane would never learn it all. There were Loki's undiscovered ambitions to deal with, his plans hidden behind his father's kingly visage. There was terror to come, loss and strife and chaos.
But here they were. This is what they had. It was a world of gods and aliens smashing through New York’s Central Library’s façade. What could Jane do?
Look. Observe. Hypothesize.
Did you know? The universe expands.