Boundary Condition: Chapter 4

The Human Element

So far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain. And so far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
— Albert Einstein, 1947, "Geometry and Experience."

In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
— Yogi Berra, circa 1980

They had a big feast that night, with Chip and Robert doing most of the cooking and Jim doing most of the cleaning up. Dave and the Swiss Guard were still looking a bit green and didn't eat much, and at first the setting was quiet. Having the Pope over for dinner had made everyone shy, and the near-accident this afternoon had knocked a bit of the stuffing out of them, too. It could have happened to anyone, and it could have been bad.
But the silence ran deeper than that. For six months, Dewey Park Station had been home to five people — its very first tenants — and though they'd enjoyed good contact with the ground — by email, by phone, by video conference — they'd become a pretty tight little society up here. More so than Jim had realized; having any strangers at all here felt really weird, really cramped. Like hosting a dinner party in your car.
It must be strange for the new crew as well. They'd been training together for six months, but mostly during the daylight hours; afterward they'd gone home to their families. This was probably the first night they'd all spent in the same place. And it was an unfamiliar place, too; they would have spent time in the Franklin mockup at Offutt Base, but a lot of the systems there were fake, or modeled after the other two stations, which differed from Dewey Park, and from each other, in small but meaningful ways. And there was no gravity here; that made a big difference all by itself.
And then there was the privacy issue: Jim and company would be moving out of their cabins in the morning, except for Robert who offered to cede his to Pope Dave tonight, and sleep instead in the command cupola. Everyone else would be sleeping in bags out here in the wardroom, or on the shuttle, or (if they really really needed the quiet, and didn't mind the cold) in one of the airlocks. It was a camping trip with an unfamiliar crowd.
So here the new crew was, watching the old one go through their dinnertime paces with practiced ease. Dealing with spills, with errant food particles, with appliances and utensils and power management systems… Jim could see it in their eyes: it was a lot to take in, and they weren't completely sure they could handle it. All this and danger too! They were happy to be here, yes, but a wee bit overwhelmed.
Still, that was life in the 'Service. Pope Dave broke the ice by saying a short grace in English, and Lisa followed with a story about her husband, a chain saw, and a bolt of lightning that had flashed out of a mostly clear sky. It wasn't a funny story per se, but she laughed while she told it, and by the end her giggles had infected everyone but the Swiss Guard, who probably understood English but were good at pretending they didn't.
Then Robert launched into one of his Stormbreaker tales. "At twenty thousand feet you have time to respond when a microburst hits, but it'll take your breath away. Suddenly your air speed is a hundred kilometers faster, and aimed at the freaking ground. The good part is, you're falling along with the hailstones so your chance of a windshield strike is smaller. But there was lightning crashing around us as well, and in the darkness it was blinding. Just blinding.
"Anyway, wouldn't you know, our load of CloudKill powder just wouldn't deploy. I'm, like, pulling the handle over and over, because I'm ready to get out of there, but there's ice in the vents or something. So I'm screaming at Howard to kick on the heaters, kick on the heaters, but Howard's tossing his dinner all over the cockpit. It took me five whole minutes to break the center out of that anvil and climb away, and truthfully I'm not sure the plane ever flew again. I bet the wings'd fall right off."
"Cool," someone said.
Jim didn't have any stories like that. There were a few close calls in his air tanker days, but nothing that really made for good anecdote. He had his own vivid memories of the storm in question, but he'd been working the ground side of the operation. Just as critical, but the drama of it was harder to convey.
He toyed with the idea of telling his Pope joke, but thought better of it, and settled instead for an account of the EVA slip, heavy on detail and light on emotion or judgment. People were curious about that, and the details were still fresh in his mind. Fortunately, no one seemed particularly to blame him, or Dave, for what had happened. Which was good, because Jim wasn't sure himself whether he'd been brave, stupid, lucky, unlucky, or just plain careless. Or maybe victimized by a sadistic miracle?
"You saved my life," the Pope had said, a few minutes after it happened.
"I endangered your life," Jim had corrected.
"No, I did that myself: went outside in a quantum storm without knowing what I was doing. You're not responsible for my choices."
Ah, but what about his own? Jim had long suspected he was a bad decision maker. Sure, he'd landed one of the coolest jobs on Earth, which in turn had gotten him off Earth, but the separation had apparently cost him his family. Not that he and Carla had been doing all that well beforehand. More bad choices, in the face of bad events dished out by the world. Could he have handled it differently when Rachel got sick? Were they all doomed from the outset?
Fortunately, Chip saved him from further thought on the matter by hauling out his guitar and playing a couple of songs, during which a pint of Scotch whiskey appeared as if by magic, and made the rounds, disappearing almost as quickly. Even the Pope had a snort, though his guards did not.
Then for a few minutes Dave was off in a corner, talking with the guards in low tones, and then one of them went down to the shuttle and never returned. Then finally, inevitably, the conversation turned toward matters religious. Had Dave ever been a cardinal? Had he known he was a candidate for Pope? Where was he when they first told him he'd been elected? These questions were duly answered: No, Heck no, and buying a pair of shoes at a store in Philadelphia.
More questions followed, involving God and Jesus and even more obscure issues, like sin. Jim had no interest in these things, and was suddenly feeling unaccountably low, so he floated off to his cabin and slid the fanfold door over until it latched. He would call his family, such as it was, and let them know he'd be home soon. Not to stay, alas, but to say hi and pick up his things.
Unfortunately, the call went poorly, and ended with shouting. In a more philosophical mood he might've mused on the intertwining of love and pain; the people who brought you real distress were the ones you built your life around. And they were the ones you hurt in turn. In a perfect world there'd be no force stronger than love. In a world where little girls needed brain surgery and two-income families went bankrupt, things were more complex.
"I love you, Rachel," he told his daughter, trying not to look too sad. Trying not to see her scars. Trying hard to believe her when she smiled in that funny new way of hers and said "I love you, too, Daddo." But where exactly did love reside? Did losing half a brain have perhaps some small impact on a person's feelings and memories? The girl who'd recovered from that terrible surgery was not the one who'd laid down for it. That girl was dead, and Jim knew in his heart that by agreeing to the procedure, he'd helped kill her. Of his own free will?
"I need to talk to your father," Carla cut in at that point, her voice cold and angry.
"Hey, Sweets," Jim tried. "How's MalevoLink?"
"LeverLink!" she snapped, moving her angry face into the picture. "That's LVLK on the Nasdaq, Bub, up fifty points this morning alone. Anything else you want to trash while we're at it?" And things had gone downhill from there.
By the time Jim hung up his shoulders were cranked bowstring-tight; his fists were clenched and looking for something to punch. But even his bed, even his pillow, would shake the whole station. What he really needed was a long, cool walk beside the Platte River, or at least a quick run around a track somewhere. Here, the best he could manage was a jog on the treadmill with his body held down by rubber bands, and if he did that the noise would drown out most of the wardroom's conversation. Still, with the emotion boiling inside him he found his cabin too small, too confining. If he stayed in here, he would smash something.
Damn! How had he ever loved that woman? And why did he love her still, even now? She'd never understood his Rachel feelings, much less condoned them, and the money woes had stolen away the last of her charm, leaving nothing of the saucy 23-year-old he'd long ago fallen for. In all the ways that mattered, she seemed to be dead as well.
With a sigh of disgust, he unlatched his door and yanked it open only to find, for the second time that day, the face of Pope Dave waiting for him on the other side.
"Oh!" said Dave.
Jim sighed again. "Hi. Sorry. Did you hear any of that?"
Dave offered an apologetic look. "I think the whole station did. Is there… anything I can help with?"
"No." Well, that sounded bad. Ungrateful, undiplomatic, unprofessional. "I mean, thanks for offering, but some situations are beyond repair."
"No pain is beyond repair, Jiminy."
Jim flashed him an angry look then, and said in a low voice, "Don't give me any of that Pope routine, all right? No offense, but you're brand new in the job."
"I've been a priest for thirty years," Dave answered without rancor, "and a bishop for four. I've seen a lot of things. Every situation is unique, but pain feels the same for everyone."
"Uh huh."
Dave dropped the subject as easily as he'd taken it up. Instead, he fished in his pocket and then held out a silver coin or medallion of some sort, in a clear plastic case. "I stopped by to give you this, as a token of my thanks."
"For putting you in harm's way? And yelling obscenely?"
"For taking me outside. You had your doubts, and rightly so, but you did it anyway, at some risk to yourself. Also for talking with me, for letting me observe your scanning session. You've given me a lot to think about, and whether you take that seriously or not, it'll affect the lives of a billion people."
Jim looked down at the medallion. One side bore a chalice and some Latin writing, the other a picture of David Wayne Stassi himself, with the words "DAVE I" and a date underneath.
"Keepsakes like this are one of the perks of the office. I worry about the vanity of it, but as an encouragement to good works they do seem useful. They've also been specially blessed."
"By you?"
"That's right. Believe what you like about it; this is something tangible I can give you."
Jim hefted the thing. It was heavy: a full troy ounce of silver, or maybe forty grams. The embossing was nice as well; where the coin didn't shine like a mirror, it had a frosty, marbled, rainbowy kind of look to it — some kind of subtle hologram thing. Computer-generated microtexture? The portrait didn't move or change in any overt way, but there was an animated quality to it nevertheless. Mint condition, probably never removed from its package.
"Um, thank you," Jim said, brought up a bit short by this. The thing was probably worth a thousand bucks, and worth even more as — yes — a memento of this strange encounter. "Always happy to do my part."
The Pope paused for several seconds before asking, tentatively, "May I offer you some advice?"
"Sure," Jim said. Why not? The cardinals had presumably picked this guy for some reason; he certainly wasn't stupid.
Dave put his hands together and said, "Trust."
Hmm. Was that it? "Trust what?"
"Yourself. Your wife. Your feelings. The laws of nature."
"Trust in God?" Jim asked, oozing skepticism.
But the Pope's answer was mild. "Absolutely. To you, God is just an idea. A symbol that stands for a lot of complex things. My advice is, trust him anyway, because the things he stands for are worthy. Clear your mind, Jim. Try praying. The very worst that could happen is, it won't work. Then again it might surprise you with answers and insights, mysterious bouts of good fortune… We may not grasp its full implications yet, but there's a quantum-mechanical basis for believing."
At that, Jim couldn't quite help rolling his eyes. "Believing came first. You're just here to confirm what you think you know."
"Like the atom," Dave agreed. "Absolutely. And here's a little something for you to think about: the president sent Stormbreakers up here. Not chasers, not trackers, not patient data collectors."
"We are collecting data," Jim said. "Patiently."
"Oh, I know," the Pope agreed. "No offense intended. But your very presence here has an inhibitory effect. How many hypercones will never reach the ground, because your own thoughts keep them from forming? You guys are the barrier island on which God's storms can break."
Oh, so it was like that? Angrily Jim said, "You're here to shut us down? We're blocking your heavenly reception? Shit. You can take back your stupid medal, Dave."
He handed the thing over, but the Pope just looked at it, refusing to reach out. "Jim, I'm not your enemy. Really. The stuff you guys are uncovering here could change the world. Think of all the wars, all the genocide we see in the name of religion. What if we knew? What if we could map the will of God? Whether you choose to believe it or not, you and I have the same goal: the truth."
"Yeah?" said Jim. "Really? What if the truth doesn't match Christian doctrine? If all the little holes don't line up perfectly, you're not just a radical Pope. You're a heretical one, and they'll nail you to a cross for your trouble."
Dave just smiled. "Me? I'm a puppet show guy from PBS." Then he did an odd thing, pressing the heel of his hand against the middle of Jim's forehead, not quite hard enough to push him back into the cabin. "Blessings of the Lord be upon you. Sleep soundly tonight."
And it was probably just hypnosis or something, but Jim felt a slight buzzing sensation and remembered nothing more after that until he awoke, snug in his bag-bed at 06:30 the following morning, with a dream of fragrant roses leaching away through the corners of his mind.