Boundary Condition: Chapter 0

We saw in the vale below us a whirlwind beginning in the road, and shewing itself by the dust it raised. Riding close by its side, I tried to break this whirlwind by striking my whip frequently through it, but without any effect. The circular motion was amazingly rapid. I accompanied it about three quarters of a mile, till some limbs of dead trees, flying about and falling near me, made me more apprehensive of danger; and then I stopped, looking at the top of it as it went on, which was visible for a very great height above the trees.
— Benjamin Franklin, 1755: "To Peter Collins"

Space, Near Future

Death comes upon us in surprising ways. If it didn't, we'd arrange to be somewhere else, right? And in the wake of death we find an obsession with time. When did this happen? When did it start? How long have I got left? But whose time should answer these questions? Whose calendar and clock?
On a space station in low-Earth orbit, there are no easy answers. The sun comes out every 90 minutes and stays for 47 before sinking back behind the limb of the blue-green planet below, and the station passes through 25 different time zones along the way. For sanity's sake, Russian stations set their clocks to Moscow's "Charlie" time, three hours fast of Greenwich, England. The Chinese are synched to Jiuquan's "Foxtrot" zone, and the handful of truly international stations are on Universal or "Zulu" or Greenwich Mean Time. London, in other words.
Where death comes upon Americans in space the situation is more complex. If you work for NASA, you log absolute time in two zones at once: Zulu and Romeo, which might stand either for Cocoa Beach where the rockets actually launch, or possibly Washington, D.C. where the checks are written. It hardly matters, because the routing of voice and telecom through Building 30 at Johnson Space Center makes these outposts a mobile extension of Houston, Texas.
The Air Force stations, on the other hand, like to keep it simple. It's Zulu time and metric units, never mind where you came from or where you think you're headed. And for some reason, the two fledgling space hotels — little more than boxcar-sized inflatable hot dogs — follow the military paradigm.
On the other other hand, should you be lucky enough to work for the National Weather Service — aka "Not Wet, Sir" if you like them or "Nitwit Circus" if you don't — you live on Sierra time. That's Omaha, Nebraska, son, and don't you forget it. The spaceplanes take off and land on the runways at Eppley Field, and the tracking network is headquartered just seventeen kilometers south at Offutt Air Force Base. Even the checks are written locally; between its subscription-only news network and its weather control services, its multimedia archives and its growing tourism business, NWS is officially self-sustaining, and may soon be handing a surplus back to Uncle Sam.
In olden times it was glamorous hereabouts to be an aviator, or to work for the railroads, or even (strange to imagine it!) to be a humble letter carrier for the Pony Express. For now it's the men and women of the Weather Service — most especially the Stormbreakers — to whom these envies accrue. Thousands of hopefuls move here every year with the dream of signing up, though fewer than twenty are accepted.
So, never mind that in low-earth orbit the sun rises and sets 16 times a day; on an NWS station your morning is the Nebraska Cornhuskers' morning, and your evening occurs as the sun slips down behind the lone tower called "Prick of the Prairie" and settles into an ocean of Tango-zone corn and buckwheat.
Wave to Headquarters as you soar high above; the city is instantly recognizable even from orbit. Surrounded by that grassy ocean, Omaha's southwestern edge has, in recent years, finally blurred into the outer fringes of Lincoln. Its eastern frontier encompasses the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa. But sail a little farther and you're in the open sea, where the cornstalks outnumber the human beings twenty million to one. Where the nearest civilization is 225 kilometers away, and it's only Des Moines. So if the Gate to God isn't exactly the most cosmopolitan city in the world, you should understand in all fairness that it doesn't need to be.
Oh-MA-ha, the locals call it, when they're in a mood to chuckle. The Big Island.
It was with great secrecy — disguised as dull routine — that a particular spaceplane lifted off from this site, this place in the middle of no place, and lit an Orbital Insertion Motor that flung it hard toward an NWS station speeding 500 kilometers overhead.
"Relief vehicle away," said a bored-sounding flight controller. "Tell Dewey Park their replacements are en route." It was a half-truth at best, but a half-lie at worst. The National Weather Service is nothing if not pragmatic.
But this young man was in on more secrets than his managers supposed, and while he spoke there was a dead body cooling under his desk — the first of many who would lose their lives in the coming spasm of transformation and realignment. The why of this is difficult to explain even now, though the where and when and how are little in doubt. But in some sense the motive for murder — even mass murder — is always the same: to control the future by removing people from it.