Boundary Condition: Chapter 1

1.
Shuttlerise

Catskin. Iceland Spar, medium. Hand and Bladder Glass. Madgeburg Hemispheres. Lodestone. Tantalus Cup.
— "Apparatus and Material for Experiments in Physics", CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, Cleveland, Ohio, 1913.

"Onigiri," said Tomohiro Sato, holding up one of the sticky rice balls he and Chip had been whipping up in the galley these past few weeks. They were the size of small peaches, and with a bit of salty fish paste in the center, they were good. They also held together in zero-g, making them the only decent way to eat rice up here without a godawful mess.
"Rice ball," answered Jiminy Gomez, wondering what the zinger was this time. Tomo — a famous weatherman in his own country — was here on Dewey Park Station to learn the delicate art of the Free Will Index forecast, and he seemed determined to teach something of comparable value in return: the art of the bilingual pun.
"Nigiri means 'squeeze,'" Tomo explained, as they drifted through the gray-white pressurized tunnel connecting the trailing sensor arm to the station core. "With your hand, right? To form the rice into a ball." His accent wasn't perfect, but it was good; only the pacing really betrayed him.
"Okay, so what's the 'O'?"
Tomo waved the question away. "Unimportant. Means 'elegant.' You stick that on a lot of words. Shiri means 'ass,' right? 'Oshiri' means derriere. Much nicer."
With that, Tomo tossed the rice ball to Jiminy, who'd had six long months in zero-g and caught it easily. He eyed it uneasily, though. Where was the gag?
"You like?" said Tomo. "Go ahead, eat it. Exercise your free will."
Hmm. Jiminy could feel the ghost of a punchline out there somewhere, but he didn't have enough information yet. He was going to get zinged. Again.
"Please tell me this has nothing to do with your ass."
Tomo laughed. "Not this time. But you eat that thing, it means you owe me a debt. The word for that is giri, and if you take that off you're left with oni, which means 'goblin.' Oni giri, the debt owed to a goblin."
Jiminy made sure Tomo could see him rolling his eyes. "They call you the Weather Wit? Really?"
"Ah," said Tomo, waving that away, too. "You spoiled my rhythm. You know how you say 'Jim knows a little Japanese?' Jim wa nihongo hanashimasu."
As Tomo said this, he turned in mid-air and touched his finger to Jiminy's nose at the word "knows," and again at 'hana,' which was the Japanese word for nose. A double-entendre? A triple? A bilingual triple entendre?
"Hmm," he said, thinking that one over. Clever was not quite the same thing as funny.
They passed through the final hatchway — about as wide as a standard doorway back home — and into the station core. It wasn't much; just a bus-sized fiberglass habitat module — the Hab — serviced by a spiderweb of rollout carbon trusses and inflatable Kevlar tube tents. Dewey Park covered as much footprint as an aircraft carrier, but inside it had the volume of a midsize submarine, and only weighed as much as a Lear Jet.
If the two NASA stations were Cadillacs — classy, rugged, and safe as houses — then the three NWS ones were more along the lines of an Indian Tata. That is to say: flimsy, maintenance-hungry, and cheaper than their own weight in gasoline. If Jim really wanted to, he could puncture the Hab wall with a ball-point pen. But hey, that was life in the 'Service. With a big job and a small budget, they simply couldn't afford to be too cautious.
"You want to hear an actual joke?" he asked Tomo. "I'll tell you a joke. You know the Pope?"
"Personally? Okay, okay, yes, I know who he is. You just got a new one, right?"
"The Catholics got him, yeah. Not me personally. Anyway, he was just crowned.: Dave the First, the American pope. And he's supposed to go to New York City to catch a plane to Rome, so they pack him in this bulletproof Popemobile, and he's surrounded by bodyguards. One of them's driving, two are in the back seat, one's on the roof… And it suddenly dawns on old Dave, that these guys will be on him like glue for the rest of his life. Never a moment alone.
"Buuut… just as quickly he realizes he's the boss here. These guards have to do what he says. So he says to the one who's driving, he says, 'Slide over. I'm taking the wheel.' And what can the guy do? He slides over, and Pope Dave starts driving."
"Uh huh," said Tomohiro, crossing his arms like this was already the worst joke he'd ever heard. He was slowly tilting, too, which in zero gravity was a subtle way of dissing someone. If you were interested, you didn't drift; you kept yourself aligned with the person you were listening to.
But Jim pressed on. "So anyway, it's not built like a normal car, and he's not used to the controls. He's wandering in and out of his lane, can't hold a constant speed. Pretty soon the cops pull him over, so he rolls down the window like a good citizen and hands over his driver's license. And the one cop says to the other cop, 'Holy shit, we've got to let this guy go. He's really important.'"
"'What makes you say that?' says the other cop. He's not looking, right? He's filling out paperwork. And the first cop turns to him and says, 'I don't know who he is, but he's got Pope Dave for a fucking chauffer!'"
Tomo processed that for a few seconds, then spent another few trying not to laugh. But it was a good joke, and it broke out a decent chuckle.
"See?" said Jiminy. "That's a joke. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to find my headset in time for dock ops."
"Oh. You should hurry," Tomo said. "We don't really have that long."
Jim slid open the fanfold of his cabin, which was about the size of three coffins stacked vertically. (How much space did one person really need? Especially in microgravity?) He drifted to the back and commenced rummaging, finally locating his headset in the webbing of his top desk drawer. Safety and command protocols aside, he didn't normally wear the thing indoors. It chafed and squeezed, and after enough hours it would turn his whole ear red. This one was dead, of course — he was always forgetting to turn it off — so he swapped in the battery waiting fresh on the charger, then slid the whole thing down over his head and right ear, carefully adjusting the microphone to the proper angle and distance from his mouth. The headsets had literally come from Radio Shack, and were damned flaky about things like that.
Finally he switched it on, and was greeted by the chatter of Bob Cass and Lisa Goho in the control cupola at the "top" of the Hab, i.e., the part facing away from Earth. Opposite the docking module, so they could guide the shuttle in with minimal risk of being personally crushed by it. Bob was the station commander, Lisa was the X.O., and both of them were pilots. Indeed, they would be flying that same shuttle back to Earth tomorrow afternoon.
"Aaah, closing rate 3.6 meters per second," Lisa informed the channel flatly. "Recommend another deceleration toot."
"Aaah, roger that," said an unfamiliar voice — the shuttle's own current pilot. "Be advised, we are still lining up the final approach. Expect a burn in approximately fifteen seconds."
It went on like that for some time. The "Aaah" was to trigger the mics in voice-activated mode. Without it they would step on the first second or two of actual speech, with sometimes calamitous results. It was an old and effective method for talking hands-free on a half-duplex channel, but it did pretty much make them sound like retards. "Better radios" were always high on the NWS Astronautics wish list, but you know, good radios were way more expensive than the ones that could just barely get the job done. The astronauts had offered many times to buy the radios themselves, out of pocket, but that was seen as a bad PR move. "Next year," the brass kept promising. They couldn't turn a profit, after all, by spending money on frills.
Robert and Lisa had CNN running up there in the cupola as well. This struck Jim as both disrespectful and a wee bit dangerous, but then again he himself had never been more than an air tanker copilot. NWS space pilots were all former Stormbreakers, almost impossible to fluster or distract. They'd spent long hours of their lives in thunderheads and hurricane eyewalls, dropping surfactant or sealing oils, shutting down the weather's engines of rage. Space station duty was positively dull by comparison.
So in the background Jim could hear that the President was in Louisiana, where the Chinese Premier was speaking out not only against biodiesel (which in his opinion was full of turkey prions and therefore more deadly than nuclear waste), but also against prayer and meditation, which "rob us of the very freedom of our souls." Uh huh.
"You guys had better get down there," advised Chip, the Station Engineer, from the galley niche where he was assigned this shift. He was glumly washing the dishes one-by-one, in a plastic bag filled with soapy water. Everyone knew it was a duty he hated. But he was also wearing a headset, and apparently keeping closer track of the dock ops than Jiminy himself. "You've got, like, two minutes. If you're lucky."
"Shall we?" Tomo asked, gesturing at the deck hatch located directly beneath the sealed control blister. Their own mics were in push-to-talk mode, so they couldn't step on the channel by mistake.
"Yeah," Jiminy agreed, swiveling head-down so he could grasp the hatch's locking ring. Balletic movements like that were second nature to him by now, but the thrill had long worn off. Being a spaceman was fun, and the bleeding edge of a new science was always a good place to park yourself. Just about everything he did up here was a major contribution in one way or another — he was one of the world's first quantum weathermen; his place in history was assured. Nevertheless, he was ready to be home, to eat cheeseburgers and smell fresh-cut grass again, and he had a hard time believing his escape was really imminent. Surely something would screw it up. But just as surely that something would not be Jim Gomez himself, so he grabbed the ring, planted his toes under a pair of holding rungs, and twisted the latch open.
Tomo then helped him raise it without banging it — there were no cushioning pneumatics here — and then slipped into the docking module feet-first, like a cold-weather diver going down through a hole in the ice. Jim followed behind, headfirst but with his feet curled up against him. He pulled the hatch down after him and sealed it, while half-audibly in his headset, CNN boasted of "Yet another upset for Green Bay!" and then cut to a laxative commercial.
It was gray-white in here. The docking adapter was mostly thin plastic, which was frightfully reassuring given the larger-than-normal spaceplane barreling toward it at what looked like higher-than-normal velocity.
"Holy crap!" Jim said, putting his face up against one of the portholes. "What the hell is that thing?"
"It's the 210," Tomo answered, with his own nose pressed up against the other porthole below Jim's. "Fresh off a line at General Spaceplane."
"Really? Already? I thought the first one wasn't due until next year."
"Might be the prototype. Look, the thing has been modified. Cargo bay looks bulging, and those aren't the stock bay doors. They look like blowaways. And what is that thing behind the docking collar? Is that a reentry vehicle? Some kind of escape pod?"
For a weatherman, Tomohiro Sato knew an awful lot about spaceplanes. It was why the Japanese government had sent him here, Jim supposed, and why the NWS had accepted him.
"Is he coming in a little hot?"
Tomo shook his head. "I don't think so. It just looks fast because the shape is more… well, I don't think so."
Jim watched the nose thrusters firing little puffs of white steam, like the pipes of an old calliope. The oversized craft slowed, and slowed some more.
Jim's headphones said, "Commander Cass here, to all Dewey Park personnel. I am suddenly informed that this is not a standard relief mission. We've got some sort of VIP in there. You've all got active clearances, right? Because as of this moment, everything that happens until that shuttle leaves is classified Confidential under diplomatic seal."
There was a clank, as the shuttle's docking ring made contact with the larger adjustable ring on the station's dock module. Tomo kicked on the electromagnets, and Jiminy immediately started cranking the physical clamps shut, so an errant puff from the shuttle's attitude motors couldn't pry the two vehicles apart at some not-so-funny angle. Within moments, the seal was air-tight and very strong; the ship and the station were one.
"Docking clamps at full compression," he said, slapping the push-to-talk on his belt.
"Aaah, roger that," Bob Cass replied. "Please equalize pressure and stand by while the hatches open."
The "please" wasn't so much a courtesy as an NWS radio convention, indicating that what followed was an order rather than a recommendation or an info request.
"Roger that," Tomo replied, twisting the valves open partway. Once he was satisfied they weren't sucking vacuum, he opened them fully. They hissed for a moment and then fell silent.
Jiminy could see Tomo itching to open the hatch as well. Properly speaking, it was the station crew's job to open this side, and the shuttle crew's job to open the other. Tomo was just as impatient as Jim to get back to Earth, a process which obviously could not begin without an open hatch. But in NWS jargon, "please stand by" was roughly equivalent to "sit down and shut up," and left little room for personal initiative.
Below, there were squeaking and banging sounds, as of locking wheels being rotated and doors being opened. But whoever was down there, they were taking their own sweet time about it.
"VIPs," Jim snorted. "The last one we got here was you."
"I was a VIP?" said Tomo, sounding surprised. "It's funny, the service hasn't been that good. I mean, who do I have to sleep on to get a beer around here?"
"Sleep with," Jim corrected helpfully; he also considered himself Tomo's Gutter English tutor. "We've been over this. And you really should work the phrase 'the living fuck' into it somewhere."
Jim was hanging upside down when he said this, and as luck would have it the hatch chose that precise moment to swing open, with a person's head prairie-dogging up right behind it, so that the word "fuck" was breathed directly into the face of Dewey Park's mystery visitor. And this turned out to be a really bad way to start off the morning, because the face belonged to none other than His Holiness, Pope Dave the First.
"Bless you!" the pontiff returned brightly, as if excusing a sneeze.