Boundary Condition: Chapter 5

5.
A Fire in Heaven

The proper season is when the weather is very dry; the special days are those when the moon is in the constellations of the Sieve, the Wall, the Wing or the Cross-bar; for these four are all days of rising wind. A wind that rises in the daytime lasts long, but a night breeze soon falls.
— Sun Tzu, circa 300 B.C., "Five Ways of Attacking with Fire."

Mission Control was unaccountably understaffed; three of nine people had failed to show up for work, and their backups took forty minutes to plug in and come up to speed on the mission details.
"Is there a plague?" Robert wanted to know, grumping into his headset microphone.
"Just a gorgeous July morning," the capcom officer on the ground had answered. He sounded like a kid, and nobody on the station seemed to know who he was in more than a recognize-the-name kind of way.
Anyway, this put departure ops nearly an hour behind schedule, which necessitated all sorts of rushing around. There wasn't much time for sappy handover sentiment, or for proper procedural training. In six months the station crew had settled into a very efficient routine, which they'd had little chance to run through with the new crew. Galley power off before you switch the water heaters on, etc., etc. But if they missed their landing window it would be another full day before they could get out of here, and nobody seemed willing to consider it.
"Take care of her," was pretty much Robert's sole instruction to the new commander.
Jim, for his part, told Kennet to call his cell phone if she needed anything. The phone didn't work up here, of course, but once he was on the ground — or even near it — he'd be back in that part of the world again. The Noosphere, Tielhard had called it. The buzzing atmosphere of information that surrounded the planet, thicker and thicker every year.
Amusingly, Pope Dave had a heavy-looking satellite phone that did work up here. He spent several hours yakking into it in Italian while the crew rushed and fussed around him. "I'm told this thing would work on the moon," he remarked to Jim at one point, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. "It's secure, too; heavy encryption. Pretty cool."
Hmm. Perks of the job. "The chicks must love you," Jim answered, then caught himself. He'd just zinged the Pope. A regular-guy kind of Pope, to be sure. Easy to talk to, all that. But a billion people did look to him as their spiritual leader. Would Jim talk to the President that way? To a movie star? Probably, yeah, but he ought to watch it just the same. The Swiss Guard didn't like him already, and made no particular secret about it.
Finally it was time to seal the hatch, to isolate the atmospheres, electrical systems and computer networks of the shuttle and station. Jim and Chip walked through the steps together, each making sure the other hadn't left anything out.
"Some Russians died that way," Chip noted. "Left a valve open and suffocated."
"Pretty crappy valve design," was Jim's answer to that. General Spaceplane did a much better job of idiot-proofing. Still, since idiocy was one of the universe's truly limitless resources, he trusted nothing and triple-checked everything.
"No, no, vi ho detto," the Pope was telling his guards when Jim and Chip worked their way back to the mid-deck airlock. "I'm not riding in that thing. I want to see."
"See what?" Chip asked.
"Reentry." Dave jerked a thumb at the pair of jacks behind him. "These guys expect me to sit in the escape pod the whole time. There isn't even a monitor screen. I spent the whole launch sequence in there, and never saw a thing until we were already in orbit."
Hmm. Jim had seen that escape pod — was in fact about to check its circuit breakers and air vents — and he wouldn't want to ride in it, either. It was a two-seater only slightly bigger than a Mercury capsule, or a really compact sportscar. Still…
"Reentry's the most dangerous part of our flight profile, Dave, and this is clearly the safest spot on the ship. It would look pretty bad for the 'Service if anything happened."
The Pope considered that unhappily. Here was his one and probably only trip into space, and he couldn't look out the window? "I'm here as your guest," he allowed. "Naturally I'll follow whatever course you recommend."
Hmm. Yeah. "We can tie the door open with a bungie cord," Jim suggested. "From here if you… if you lean forward and crane your neck you should be able to see the mid-deck monitors. That's all we have to look at, me and Tomo and Chip. This isn't a tourist ship. Your guards can ride up in the cockpit, where the actual windows are."
"Nein," said one of the jacks in a thick European accent. "One in the cockpit. One in the pod with His Holiness. I insist on it."
That was no skin off Jim's nose either way, so he ran the arrangement by Robert and Lisa, who approved it without complaint. So, five minutes later when the systems were duly isolated and cross-checked, he strapped himself into the seat immediately forward of the pod, with Chip on his right and Tomohiro on his left. "Ready?" he called back to Dave and the guard.
"Whenever you are," the Pope confirmed. Boy, he did look cramped back there.
"Mid-deck ready," he said into his headset, pressing the push-to-talk.
"Aaah, roger that," answered Lisa, then rattled off a string of numbers for the benefit of Robert or Mission Control or somebody.
And then, with surprisingly little fanfare, they detached from the station, drifted away for a minute and a half, then fired a series of bursts on the attitude control motors, to turn the shuttle ass-backward in its orbit. They were behind schedule, so a whole series of checks and rechecks were skipped, while the pilots went straight into the deorbit routine.
"Point-three gee burn, eleven minutes nine seconds duration," Lisa said, presumably reading the figures off one of her displays up there. "Ignition in three minutes forty-one seconds."
"These are going to be a long three minutes," Dave noted, not over the headset but just calling forward.
But they weren't, really. Much longer was the deorbit burn itself, with the unfamiliar tug of gravity — or acceleration, anyway — on their bodies, on their chests and faces. They were all on the best gravity drugs and had kept to the exercise regimen so their bones and muscles didn't wither. Even so, after six long months of zero-gee, the pull of anything on your body felt more than a wee bit suffocating. Jim felt it most in his throat — a squeezing sensation, a feeling that his windpipe was no longer round, but some sort of oval. At point-three gee! They'd be pulling five times that much in a few minutes, when the shuttle turned around to face, nose first, a wall of gluey atmosphere at bone-searing temperature and speed.
The burn wasn't loud — just a hum and roar, like the sound inside a moving car — but nobody much tried to talk over it. When it was finally over, though, Jim turned and looked back into the pod.
"You okay back there?"
"Perfectly, thanks."
And as it happened, these were the last clear words ever spoken aboard that ship.

#

Death comes upon us in strange ways, shockingly sudden and disarmingly weird. Even months in a sickbed can't really prepare us for what's to come; the event arrives on its own time and terms, and everyone is caught off guard. Living one moment, struggling the next, and finally just gone.
There was no contrail. There was no explosion. Initially at least, there was no debris. Whatever you might have heard, it wasn't a missile. But there was a sudden streak of ionized air molecules, here in the wispy tendrils of the upper upper atmosphere. As near as Space Command was able to figure it, the shuttle Oberon was struck by an antisatellite energy weapon — most likely a hydrogen-fluoride laser based somewhere in central Asia. The Free Will Index was very high in that region; the choice to fire was made deliberately.
Shall we imagine human malice reaching out through a window of favorable weather? Shall we speculate on an agenda furthered, a To Do box checked off, a connection to the disappearances of NWS staffers in Omaha? Perhaps God or some other force could have intervened, or (troublingly) perhaps it did, in planting the seeds of these events. But the telemetry is clear enough: the beam passed completely through the fuselage in a tenth of a microsecond, unimpeded, leaving two fist-sized holes.
Jim's own perception was more muddled; one moment everything was fine, and in the next there came an orange flash and a loud noise, like the popping of air-filled bags. Bang! Bang! And there was a fierce wind, and sharp bits of something flying all over the place, and everyone was screaming.
The strangest property of accidents is the way we perceive them: not as movies but as comic books. "It happened so fast. It happened so slow." People say both of these things, and mean them, because the event breaks up into a series of discrete, vivid snapshots.
Flash: Jim was somehow out of his seat, and looking aft at the escape pod, and the Swiss Guard was there with a panicky look on his face, trying to pull the hatch closed and punch the fuck out of there. But the hatch was bungied open.
Flash: Something lurched, hard, and suddenly Jim was back there on the pod, falling against the door in some kind of weak gravity. He was trying to draw a breath from the roaring air; he was hot and cold and hotter still. Flash: the guard, in his space-jack flightsuit, was rolling up out of his chair and grabbing at the bungie cord, realizing the hatch wouldn't close until he somehow untied the thing.
"You're panicking," Jim wanted to tell him. "Just slow down and watch what you're doing."
But the words wouldn't come, and the part of Jim's brain that composed them was at the back of his skull, somehow — a passenger watching quietly while Jim himself panicked and thrashed. He wanted to help with the bungie cord, but that desire didn't seem to connect in any way with the actions of his body.
Flash. Finally, somehow, the bungie cord was floating free, and the Swiss Guard was bouncing away on a trail of jiggly blood spheres, and a hand was reaching out and hauling Jim into the pod. But whatever was happening here, Jim hadn't wrapped his head around it yet. He resisted, then actively fought. Get off me, let go, a part of him thought.
And then there was fire, and the ship was breaking up around him, and that clear, quiet part of his mind was noting, with absolute calm: could use a damned miracle right about now.
Said a voice from the ground, "Track loss, track loss. The radar filter has multiple targets. Oh my God. Does anyone have lock?"
But no one did.
"Seal the mission control doors," said the flight director. "Call security. Get me a next-of-kin list. Nobody talk to the press."
But everyone did.
A sad story? A martyrdom in the grand tradition? This is what happens, sometimes, to those who can't leave well enough alone. As it turned out, though, the escape pod fell away with two bodies sealed and rattling loose inside. Parachutes? Barely. No radar saw it come down. But the conspiracy theorists will tell you: the Pope and the Weatherman survived their fall and are still out there somewhere, arguing about God and Heisenberg while they make their slow way home. And truth be told, in a world of provable miracles, stranger things have been known to happen.
But really, who's to know? Where such miracles hide in the shadows of quantum mechanics, they must work — by definition — in subtle and mysterious ways. And that's a good thing, right?