Boundary Condition: Chapter 3

The Stars Themselves

Do not assume more variables than necessary.
— Summa Logices, William of Ockham, 1320

How do you say no to a request like that? How do you say yes? The Pope had none of the appropriate training, and on a NASA or Air Force station they wouldn't let him touch a space suit, much less wear one. But this was the National Weather Service, where safety didn't come first, and anyway Robert's mingled sense of responsibility and deference gave him a lot of leeway.
"Promise me you'll be careful," he'd said to Dave. And a few minutes later, to Jim, in the relative privacy of the command cupola: "If anything happens, Gomez, I'm not letting you back inside. I mean that. I'm Catholic myself."
And Jim could almost believe the threat, and it made him kind of resentful. Why him? Why was he suddenly the babysitter for untrained VIPs? Because the Pope asked for him, yes. Because he could be spared right now, and because he'd done it a dozen times before and knew the dangers well, whereas Kennet had never been in space at all until today. But it was a huge responsibility — he could cause a hundred different kinds of international incident — and Robert wasn't asking his opinion.
Dave himself had done so, much to his credit. "I won't force myself on you, son. It's entirely your choice."
Which was still no choice, because refusing would make Jim look nearly as bad as screwing the pooch out there.
"It's no trouble," he'd lied.
So here they were, Pope and Weatherman, side by side in the airlock while the pressure slowly bled down.
"Aaah, what do you do about the itching?" asked Pope Dave, reaching up with a stiff, gloved hand and clawing at his helmet visor in mock distress.
"Aaah, you live with it," Jim told him. Then, because that seemed a little brusque, "It's not so bad once you're outside. More than anything it's the sensory deprivation in here. You get bored, you start looking for things to feel and do and worry about."
"I can smell my breakfast. And my teeth need brushing; I smell that too. I feel like I've crawled inside my own mouth."
Thirty seconds later, "I want to thank you for this. It's a dream come true, albeit a sin I'll pay for eventually. If those cardinals hadn't lost their minds last spring, I'd be on the ground right now with a billion other tourists who can't afford a ticket. Frustrated astronaut that I am, I saw my chance, and I jumped."
"Try to slow your breathing down."
"Ah. Right. I'm a little nervous."
"That's normal."
Another pause.
"You don't like to talk in here, do you?"
"Well, it's a safety issue. Simplex channel, you know, only one person can speak at a time. Chatter could mask a distress call."
"I see."
"It's just a reflex; I don't mean to be rude. Habcom, this is EV1. Are you all right with a bit of chatter?"
Around a burst of static Lisa Goho's voice cut in, "Habcom here. You've briefed our guest on the hand signals, right?" Lisa was originally from England, and had a gorgeous radio voice that cut through any amount of static or distortion. Her vowels and consonants were crisp; she got the words out quickly, without seeming to rush.
"Aaah, that's affirmative," Jim answered, in his own run-together Nebraskan.
"Then go right ahead, EV1. It's just me and this guard fellow on the channel, and I've got tank heaters to check. If you like, you can erase the recordings when you get back. For privacy."
"Roger that. Won't be necessary, but thank you."
The other reason, of course, was that chatter was simply more difficult out here. You had to have your squelch and volume set just right, and you had to keep your voice down to avoid blowing out your buddy's eardrum. And you had to trigger the vox with that stupid "Aaah," and you couldn't breathe too hard because that would set the microphones off, too. On the other hand, spacewalking with the Pope was something he could tell his grandkids about, and maybe that was worth a bit of effort.
"You track Satan as well as God, I hear," the Pope said, floating the words out like a straw archery target. "Two kinds of miracles, working at cross-purposes."
Sighing to himself, Jim dutifully took a shot. "We just track forces of nature, sir."
"I know it. And I want to understand what that means. I'm not simply here on a fact-finding mission; I wanted to meet the 'Saints' in their natural habitat, so to speak. I've got five quantum physicists on staff at the Vatican, and we've discussed these matters at considerable length. I've been to MIT, and to le Centre Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, where they're trying to catch these miracles in a bottle. But there the issues are academic, not practical. I want to hear your opinion. I want to know how you feel about all this."
In a way, Jim could hear two voices coming out of this man. One belonged to Dave Stassi the human being, and wanted simply to connect and converse in the normal way. The other belonged to an ancient organization still immersed in the pomp and stoicism of Rome. That voice had to be careful what it said, even to an outsider like Jim. Even on a private channel. A bishop could maybe take a few liberties here and there, but Jim understood that a Pope simply couldn't speak through cute furry puppets, or comment on the merits of Coke over Pepsi.
In a funny way it made him feel closer to the guy, because the same kind of thing had happened to Jim in his transition from bush-league cargo pilot to respectable scientist. Science had its own voice, too, its own list of things that couldn't be said, topics that couldn't be broached. Like communism, science in the real world never actually seemed to occur in its pure form. Its supporters had their own axes to grind, nests to feather, corners to cut and whatnot. The solemn weight of science had crushed so many prejudices and superstitions already, it was tempting to heave it at anything offensive. But a real scientist was expected to ignore this obvious truth, to at least pretend his aspirations were incorruptible. They ought to be, certainly.
What Jim said was, "An informed opinion requires more information than we actually have. It's important to be cautious."
"Obviously," Dave agreed. "I'm not trying to put you on the spot, or compromise your ethics in any way. I'm certainly not going to quote you. But you have an opinion, informed or not. Can I ask you to share it?"
Well, that was a harder question to refuse. Reluctantly Jim said, "There are…. Look, in a star there are competing forces, too. Gravity wants to crush it; heat wants to blow it apart. Neither one is good or evil; neither one is intelligent, or cares about human beings. That's just how it is. In my opinion, sir, these decoherence storms are no more purposeful than the radio beacon of a pulsar. Those were very mysterious, too, when they were first discovered. Now we know they're just the field emissions of a spinning neutron star. I think we'll find something similar in this case, and all the people screaming about God will end up eating their hats."
Pope Dave thought that one over. "Did I misread your paper in Nature? That comet really did hit the back side of the moon."
"It was always going to."
"Are you sure? With two competing forces wrestling over it? After eighty thousand decoherence events wiggling its little molecules, you're sure its course remained exactly the same? Is that what you're telling me?"
Ah. This man was cleverer than Jim had given him credit for. And he was onto something, too, in a way. Werner Heisenberg had proven that the trajectory of a subatomic particle could never be known exactly, because it simply wasn't exact to begin with. There was a built-in slop factor that would let it jump across gaps, or briefly appear to be in two places at once. Indeed, a lot of electronic gizmos relied on this principle.
Jim answered, "I see where you’re going with this. And you know, it's not entirely crazy; if the particles in my little universe were Heisenberg particles — if their positions and velocities had some mandatory uncertainty built in — I could wiggle them around without anyone noticing."
"Except that you'd trigger a decoherence," said the Pope. "You push a particle to the very edge of its uncertainty envelope, and you pin it there by collapsing the waveform. For just a moment. Bit by bit, you could move mountains that way. Or comets."
"Yeah. I mean, that's not quite… It doesn't really work like that. I know what you mean, and it's… well. There's a way to interpret the results which kind of matches your line of reasoning here. Kind of. But I'd be very leery of drawing any conclusions."
"Of course you would."
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And you'll never find it."
"No? So we shouldn't even look? Shouldn't even try? That strikes me as the proverbial counsel of despair, Jim. Even if you're right, and there's a little void in the center of science that can only be answered with faith, is that so bad?"
Jim shrugged inside his suit. It was swelling around him, getting stiff, like a blowup doll he'd somehow gotten inside of. "People believe all kinds of things. I don't have a problem with that, as long as they don't come around telling scientists how to do their jobs."
The red light above them finally went out. The green came on in its place.
"EV1, this is Habcom," said Lisa in his ear. "Decompression complete; you're free to open the outer hatch."
"Roger that. Your… Your Holiness, just, uh, stick very close. I want you to stay in the lock while I clip your tether. Can you do that?"
"Naturally," the Pope answered. But his breathing was faster, shallower. That was bad, because it would fill his helmet with carbon dioxide, which would trick his lungs into breathing even faster.
"Hold on, I'm going to adjust your oxygen."
Tightly: "Is something wrong?"
"No. You just expend more energy when you move."
Which was true.
"Why aren't you adjusting yours?"
"I will," Jim assured him. "I tweak it up and down all the time. For you, I think it's better to set it a little high. We'll only be out here for a few minutes."
"Oh. Is that all?"
"Sure. Just out to the end of the forward boom, and back, and out to the aft boom, and back again. Then we recompress. We'll actually spend more time in the airlock than we will outside."
Jim went ahead and opened the hatch. Sunlight flooded in, which of course caused His Holiness to breathe harder again. This time, Jim let it go. He'd smoke up his tank pretty fast if he kept that up, but as long as the scrubbers didn't fail the tank was designed to last four hours. No problem there.
Moving carefully, he climbed outside, clipped his tether to the safety wire, and then proceeded to untangle Dave's line from his own.
"I'm clipping you now," he said. Click. "Okay, you're done. You can come out whenever you're ready."
Huff-puff huff-puff. The Pope sounded like he was in the middle of a hundred-meter sprint. His head poked out into the sunlight, then turned to face the glow of Earth.
"My God," he said, then rattled off some prayer in Latin. "Such glory. Such incredible glory." He turned again to face the stars, and the tiny crescent moon hanging serenely in the distance. Everyone said it: the moon looked smaller from up here.
"We look around us," the Pope said. "Our homes and our cities, our web sites and phones, and we think that's the world. That's creation — God's grand design. We forget the universe that dwarfs us all around."
"Yup," Jim agreed. Here at least he could agree wholeheartedly. Going outside always made him feel that way; it was a great reminder of how small the problems in his life really were. He gave the man a few minutes to look around, to comment in wonder.
"The moon affects it, too," Dave said at one point. "The phases of the moon. It seems a funny thing, doesn't it?"
"Something to do with dielectrics," Jim suggested. That was the going theory, anyway. "The moon is an insulator; it blocks electric fields. When it's new, the moon is between the Earth and Sun. When it's full, it's out behind us, out of the way."
"And yet," the Pope mused. "It's another foolish old wives' tale, isn't it? Another superstition proven correct. The full-moon crazies. Do you know what I think?"
"No," Jim said, because why would he? "We're going to climb thataway, hand-over-hand. Whatever direction you're moving, it's best to think of it as up." Then, to be diplomatic, "You can talk to me while you're climbing. Sometimes it helps people stay calm."
"I'm calm," Dave said, a little defensively.
"Sure? All right, then. Follow me."
They climbed for a few seconds in silence. Dave's breathing quickened.
"You were going to share a theory with me," Jim prompted.
"Right. The Church needs to take a position on these matters. It needs to."
"How about, 'no one knows?'"
"Aaah, no. It's my duty to interpret these things. Not just to tell the truth, but to imagine what it means, and pray that that imagination is guided by outside truths. It worked for the Greeks; they deduced the atom. They invented geometry. By clearing their minds and dreaming. Scientists today spurn faith, spurn gnosis especially, but they do so at their peril. Where do they think testable hypotheses come from?"
"Hmm." Jim was going to have to mull that one over. "What's your idea?"
"Well, when I was having my DQ tested, I tried a little experiment: I prayed. And for those thirty seconds, my decoherence rate dropped close to zero. Returned to normal when I finished. I understand meditation has a similar effect."
"I've heard that," Jim agreed. It was anecdotal evidence — no one had done a rigorous study of it yet — but he had no reason to disbelieve it.
"And deeks can't overlap. Something in the construction of the universe forbids it."
"That's true. You doing all right back there?"
"Fine. Thank you." Though his breathing was very rapid, Dave pressed on. "That means free will prevents God from acting. Prevents Him from decohering the space you occupy. Our mere presence deflects miracles."
"Um, okay." That was five times more mystical than it needed to be, but not fundamentally wrong.
"Unless we pray. You see? Prayer is an act of surrender. It quiets the storms inside us, literally creates the opportunity for God to act through us. In exchange for a few moments of our free will."
Jim couldn't help laughing at that. "Ho. Well. That's an interesting belief, sir. But if it were true, your prayers would empower the other side, too. Satan could operate through you just as easily as God. The holiest thing you could do would be to pray on a full-moon Saturday night. That's the most free will you could ever hope to surrender, right? But not to God: to anyone. In theory, even a human being could generate miracles large enough to affect you. Just press your heads together! I don't think so, sir. I really don't."
The Pope had no answer to that.
Jim began to feel guilty. Was it his job to demolish this poor guy's belief system? No one had all the answers — least of all Jim Gomez. If you asked him, the whole God thing was a coin toss: the universe was rich and complex and did give rise to thinking, feeling creatures. Cosmologists insisted this was the result of a delicate balance of fundamental physical constants; tweak any of them even a little bit and the whole thing would have collapsed, or stayed a cloud of hydrogen forever. Supposedly the universe was going to blow up, in like 40 billion years or something, but didn't everything have an end? The amazing thing to Jim was that there should be all this stuff in between.
There was no particular reason it should be so unless (a) there were a very large number of universes, all with different values for those magic numbers, and this universe, however rare and wonderful, fell somewhere in the natural range. Or, (b) the whole place had been constructed deliberately, for the express purpose of creating complexity and intelligence. Either answer was fine with Jim, and if someone could devise an experiment to prove it one way or the other, he'd accept it and move on.
Theology was not a real science, but there was a time not long ago when meteorology wasn't, either. You didn't perform experiments; nature did. You could look at other planets, or rare weather events here on Earth, and you could cobble up computer models — Tinyverses grown massive and wildly complex — and throw all kinds of weird conditions at them. But that rarely taught you anything new, and it didn't predict the rain.
But in the Stormbreakers' era every wall cloud was a laboratory, every hailstorm and tornado an empirical indictment of shoddy methods or failing equipment. NWS predicted the weather, yes, and then they did something about it. In his younger days Jim had wandered from physics to engineering to pilot school, then back to the ground again when his left eustachian tube stopped clearing properly and made every flight a pain in the ear. He'd found meteorology by accident, while running the clock out on his Air Force enlistment. And loved it.
Later, he'd found flying a desk at the 'Service at least as thrilling as anything the rest of the world had to offer. With the click of a mouse he could fire a hell of microwaves up at the ionosphere, heating and raising it, lowering the barometric pressure underneath and sucking in storms to deflect them from croplands or at-risk population centers. That was a miracle. And when he'd turned out to be a "Saint" as well, the 'Service had dusted off his physics training and sent him right past the weather, to heaven itself.
Looking down now at the Earth, he could see a tropical depression out over the Atlantic, and a cold front rolling its way across the east coast of Africa like a line of cotton-balls aflame in the sunset. The sun was over America; everything east of Liberia was already in darkness.
"Let's pick up the pace a little," he said to Pope Dave. "The sun's going to set in a few minutes."
"Oh," said Dave. "Will it be cold?"
"Like winter driving with the heater on. You'll feel the cold, but you won't be cold. It'll be dark, though."
He had reached the end of the boom by now. Retrieving the dosimeter was a simple matter of unclipping a bracket, slipping the thing out and into a leg pocket, and replacing it with a fresh one from the same pocket.
"Can you see this?" he asked the Pope. Because even the dullest tasks seemed mysterious and wonderful when you did them in vacuum, with the unblinking stars all around and the lights of Earth flaring beneath you. Jim's first spacewalk — also known as an "extravehicular activity" or EVA — had been with Chip: a repair mission to splice a damaged cable. The thirty minutes they were Out still ranked among the most vivid in his life; since then he'd done longer, harder EVAs, and they'd all been magic. But nothing could match that first-time intensity. And fear.
"I see," Dave acknowledged breathily. "Thank you."
"No problem, Your, uh, Your Holiness. Now, it's time to go back the other way. Do you want me to climb over you, or would you rather go first?"
"Could I? Lead? I'd love to. And call me Dave, please. I mean that. You're not of my flock; my titles should not compel you."
So they started back. Or started to start back, anyway; as luck would have it the sun chose that exact moment to slip behind the planet and cast them into darkness.
Said Lisa, "Uh, Jim, I thought you might like to know. Kennet's down in the chair right now running system diagnostics, and she's reading a big jump in activity. A big jump."
"Roger that," Jim answered. You couldn't feel a deek, couldn't tell when a boundary condition was slapping you in the face. Not that it mattered, especially. "I'll keep it in mind."
"Whoa," the Pope said, somewhere ahead in the darkness. Then, more emphatically, "Whoa! I'm slipping, I'm… I can't feel my hands on the rail!"
Jim reached out and grabbed for Dave's foot, which was right where it ought to be. His eyes needed time to adjust, but to the extent he could see anything by starlight and moonlight, the Pope seemed to be still clutching the ladder, as before. And even if he weren't, the safety wire would catch him. And if that somehow failed, Jim had a jet bottle with him and would effect a rescue. And if all of that somehow failed, the whole station could be moved to a slightly different orbit, which would intersect the paths of its wayward astronauts.
In the movies you could lose your grip and fly away forever; in real life you were still co-orbiting with the station, and it would take a big, big rocket motor to get you up to escape velocity and off into deep space.
"It's vertigo," he said, in his best EVA-buddy tone. "Just close your eyes and breathe deep. Lisa, kick on the floodlights, please."
They should have come on automatically, but with the shuttle drawing power from the station's batteries, maybe the power management system was trying to cut corners. For good measure, Jim flipped on his suit's own headlights.
"Oh. Damn," he said a few moments later.
After that, everyone tried to speak at once.
"Help! [puff, puff] Jim, help me!"
"Papa, stai bene?"
"Floodlights inoperative. We may have tripped a circuit
twisted in the wire or something"
your status. Please advise"
"Ich wusste, dass wir nicht ihn draussen gehen lassen sollten. Help him, idiot!"
Jim tried three times to get a word in, but the channel was bursting with traffic. The Pope was a mess, too, struggling in the jumping shadows of Jim's lamps. He'd fallen forward into a loop of his own tether, then tried to jerk free or something. Then things had gone really wrong, and now he was tangled so badly that his arms couldn't reach the rail. He had one boot tucked underneath, and he was pretty much dangling by that, and reaching in vain for a handhold.
"Clear the channel," Jim said, repeating it five times so it had some chance of getting through. Then: "Dave, you're all tangled up. Hold still, please. Hold still. I've got your foot."
"The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…"
"Be quiet, please."
"He leadeth me beside the still waters…"
"Stop it!" Jim said, shaking the Pope's foot for emphasis. "You're not going to fall away. Do you hear me? You're not going to fall away. You can't, and if you somehow do, I'll catch you. Okay? Just relax."
"Sorry. Sorry."
"Just relax." Jim moved as far forward as he could without getting his own tether's carabiner caught up in the tangle. Examining the situation, he bit back a curse. Because to unravel this puppy he was either going to have to roll the Pope a few revolutions to port, or he was going to have to unclip the harness. In fact, he'd have to unclip it anyway. Damn. That did make a bit of a safety problem. Still, the worst thing to do in a crisis — even a minor crisis — was nothing at all.
He moved forward a bit more, getting his head and shoulders up over Dave's feet, then unclipped the carabiner. Without saying anything, he unwrapped it from around Dave's oxygen pack, then solemnly wound it underneath him until he could free the loops around the pontiff's arms.
"I'm slipping," Dave said at one point.
"I still have your foot," Jim assured him. Of course, he was working one-handed and hanging on by his own toes, but he saw no need to bring that up. Just two more turns, pulling the carabiner through here and through there… and it was done.
Except that Jim's own tether, floating loose and slack, had gotten mixed in there somehow. Now it was looped around the ladder and knotted to itself, and how that hell had that happened? Dave's wire was wrapped up in it, too. It was like a bloody miracle, this ability of strings and wires to snarl themselves without help. The thing was probably just two quick moves from freedom — a pull here and a tuck there — but which two moves? Jim couldn't see them. So, sighing, he unclipped his carabiner as well. Twist, twist, and now both cables were free, as easily as that.
"I'm really slipping," the Pope warned.
Jim was just about to hook the two carabiners back onto the guide wire when Dave suddenly lurched, and twisted, and floated free of the ladder. And so did Jim.
And suddenly Jim was terrified, because he and the Pope were tangled up in a knot of their own — a human knot — and they were a meter from the ladder. A meter and a half. Two meters!
"The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…"
"Quiet. Please."
"He maketh me to lie down in
"Shut it! That's not helping!"
But the Pope couldn't hear him. Now they were spinning a little, too, and the ladder was still retreating from his grasp, centimeter by centimeter. Damn! Making no effort to hide his curses now, he grabbed Dave by the backpack and rotated him firmly out in front.
"Hold still, hold still!" he growled. Why was he so scared? He knew exactly what to do, and even if he somehow panicked completely, Lisa was guiding the station, and she knew what to do.
Indeed, Lisa's voice cut briefly through the channel with, "— whether you require assistance, EV1."
"Negative, negative," he tried, his voice tight with fear.
The Earth and stars wheeled by slowly, and when the rotation had brought them back around again, Jim hurled the Pope back toward the ladder, not hard but firmly. Dave floated back in a straight line, sans rotation.
"Aaah, grab on tight!" Jim commanded, repeating that several times to make sure it got through. And whether Dave heard or not, he surely complied, grabbing the ladder hard in his gloved hands the very moment he could reach it. He then surprised Jim by retrieving and inspecting his tether cord, sliding his hand up to the end, and clipping the carabiner back on the guide wire again.
"—you all right up there?" someone asked around a burst of static.
"Just shut up for a minute!" Jim snapped. Per Isaac Newton, that push to Dave had just added half a meter a second to Jim's own velocity; he was getting farther, faster. Still, there was little question what to do next. Working slowly and carefully, he got out his jet bottle and took a very firm hold of it against his center of mass. If he lost it now he was screwed, so he cradled it, aimed carefully, and waited for his moment. When it arrived, he pulled the trigger for nearly a full second.
Jim had never seen the plume of a jet bottle in hard vacuum before. It surprised him, blowing in all directions like a fountain made of white fog. Some of it even came straight backward, striking his faceplate and bouncing away in straight lines. But it did the job; his rotation sped up a little, but his linear motion had reversed.
The floodlights were finally on, so even with his lamps pointing off to nowhere, he could clearly see he was just twenty meters from the station — still too close to take in the whole thing at a glance — and he was moving toward it. Almost exactly toward it.
He was going to hit with his back, though, so he pulled his knees in and rotated his arms, swiveling like a high diver or a dancer. Or an astronaut. This did nothing to kill his rotation, but it turned him around so the timing was right: he would hit the ladder arms-first.
"Bravo!" said the Pope, looking up at him.
Jim said nothing, waiting for the slow-motion collision that would bring him back in contact with the ladder. When it came, he grabbed on and, like Dave, got clipped to the wire again as quick as he could.
"So calm. We were never in danger at all," the pontiff marveled.
At which point Jim disappointed himself by answering, "Bite me, jerk. You just about screwed us both. Don't ever do it again."
To the Pope himself, yeah. Not the sparkliest moment in his lifetime, that. He clung there for half a minute, getting his breath back.
"Aaah, I can see you," Lisa said from the command cupola. "Looks like you're all right. Can you confirm?"
"Roger that," Jim puffed.
"You still have the other dosimeter to retrieve," she said apologetically.
Surprisingly, it was the Pope who answered that one: "I'm up for it if you are, Jim. It's gorgeous out here. Is that Madagascar? Who'd've thought it would need so many lights!"