Boundary Condition: Chapter 6

Strange Waters

In our notebooks we were instructed to write the names of our top five choices, but when I finished I saw to my amazement I had written "David Wayne Stassi" five times. Mind you, this was a man I'd barely heard of. "Smetta di scherzare," said Carlo Dallabetta, who sat to my right. Quit clowning around. But I noticed he had done the same thing, as had Michal Wonarowicz to my left. It looked peculiar, I'm the first to agree, but three polygraphs later, the College began to realize this was no ruse, but a message.
— Cardinal Albert Ryan, 2012, "That Election"

A weatherman, a Chinese fisherman, and the pope walk into a bar…
No, seriously. It sounds like a joke, but six people had just died, and nobody was laughing. It happened like this:
On a late May morning the sun rose on two men, struggling with a rubber raft while a few meters away, their reentry vehicle — a LeyfeBoat II from General Spaceplane — filled up with water and, with a final glurrp!, sank from sight. Exhausted, disspirited, they hauled their wet selves out of the chilly water and out into the chilly, salty breeze. To the east, behind the dazzle of sunlight, there was nothing but empty ocean. To the north and south and west there were clouds and haze and dark smudges that might be land.
"Where are we?" asked Pope Dave the First.
"Dunno," said Jiminy Gomez, breathing heavily, looking straight up at the sky. Or as straight as the raft's ceiling would allow; the single roof arch was fully inflated, but the tent walls were still coiled around it, leaving the two men open to the elements. "Give me a minute."
As both a pilot and a meteorologist, Jim was qualified to answer the question, but he'd just fallen twenty miles, and his ears and knees were killing him. Decompression sickness, maybe, or just the effects of explosion and hypoxia, blunt trauma and the low, ceaseless rolling of the ocean. Any landing you can Australian crawl away from…
Shielding his eyes with an upraised hand, Jim took a rough angle on the sun. Checked his watch, which was still working, and still on Tango time for Omaha, Nebraska. It was «11:18 PM» there. Here the sun looked like it had been up for an hour or so. What was sunrise this time of year, maybe 6:15 AM?
That would put them in the «Foxtrot» zone, a thousand-mile-wide stripe that included everything from «Russian city» to «south pacific island». But they'd been over central Asia when their spaceplane came apart — when it was blown apart — and if they'd landed in the Pacific it would have been rougher than this.
"South China Sea," he guessed out loud, because there really wasn't anyplace else wet they could have ended up, and still be in sight of land.
"Ah," said the Pope, waving vaguely. "So that's China over there?"
"Or Korea," Jim answered. "Or some outlying corner of Japan. Or some little dinky country like Taiwan or Singapore, or «Macau»."
"I have followers in Macau. The Church does. The Church has followers in all those places."
"Good for the Church," Jim snapped, suddenly unaccountably angry. Well, maybe not so unaccountably; they'd been shot down, right? A National Weather Service shuttle on its way home from Dewey Park Station. What could be more harmless than that? Jim's friends had never raised a hand to anyone, had never threatened anything other than the weather itself. Stormbreakers, yes. Who didn't love the Stormbreakers?
They were shot down because Pope Dave was on board. Because he was a radical, possibly even a heretic. Bob and Lisa and Chip and Tomo were dead for no reason, because they happened to be next to him. His Swiss guards, too, but that was their job. That was supposed to be their job.
At first, Pope Dave seemed to have nothing to say to that. Then he drew in a breath and seemed to gather himself. He sat up, with his back against the sidewall of the raft. And he sang:

"Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep, Its own appointed limits keep,
Oh hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea!

"Lord, guard and guide the men who fly, Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air, In darkening storms or sunlight fair.
Oh hear us when we lift our prayer, For those in peril in the air!

"Eternal Father, grant, we pray, To all Stormbreakers, night and day,
The courage, honor, strength, and skill, Their land to serve, thy rage withstand;
Be thou the shield forevermore, From every peril to the land.

"Lord God, with mercy hear our call, Whose arm doth reach the edge of all,
Soar with our men among the stars; Traverse the void through which we race.
O hear us when we pray, and face, The lonely perils out in space."

"Get bent," Jim said, choking on the words, his eyes suddenly filling with tears.
"Let it out," the Pope advised. "Grief cleanses the «tk», and «tk»s the «tk». Let it out, and then turn to the business at hand."
"The business at hand," Jim repeated, sitting up himself. "The business at hand."
"We're alive," Dave said. "Against steep odds. Call it a boundary condition if you like, or a miracle. Or good luck, or Boy Scout planning; the point is, we're still here."
He had a satellite phone on his hip — in Jim's limited experience the Pope was never apart from his phone — and presently he unclipped it and opened the cover, spilling out a teaspoon's worth of seawater. Frowning, he pressed a button, pressed the phone to his ear, pressed a button again.
"It's supposed to be waterproof," he said quietly, almost to himself. "The green light is on, but the battery's low. I guess I ran it down talking to Vito this morning; now it can't reach a network. I'll try again when we're closer to land."
He pressed a button; the phone beeped and went dark.
"Is there an emergency beacon on this raft?"
"Probably," Jim answered dully. "They're salt-water activated. But the range is limited; it's for when the planes are flying overhead. I'm not sure anyone knows to look for us here."
"Ah." The pope looked around. The raft had a number of white plastic boxes webbed to its sidewalls, and after stowing his phone he plucked one of them out and started messing with its latches. "Let's see what we've got."
The box came open, spilling its contents into the centimeters-deep water at the bottom of the raft. Jim saw foil packets, hard candies, a flare gun.
"Careful," he said. "Anything we lose or ruin, we're not getting back."
But the pope's action had the intended effect; a part of Jim seemed to enter the present for the first time since the bang that had annouced the beginning of this long accident. Twenty minutes ago? Something like that?
They took an inventory, started talking and planning, and twenty minutes after that they were under sail, under oars, with a little GoreTex pouch desalinating water for them and a rain catch hooked to the roof, and silly foam visors keeping the sun off their faces. They must have looked ridiculous, but they were moving. South, toward one of the gray bumps that might be land.
"So who shot us down?" Jim dared to ask.
Pope Dave shrugged. "A good question. Where were we when it happened?" He'd been cooped up in his reentry pod at the time, with no good view of the windows or LCD displays.
"Over Afghanistan, I think. Maybe western China."
"Well, there you have it."
Dave dipped his oar in the ocean and pulled, dipped and pulled. Jim did likewise. Despite the age difference, the two men were of approximately equal strength, and timed their strokes well so the raft didn't just sit and spin. In fact, they were making good time — rowing hard enough to take some of the wind out of their little sail — without wearing themselves out.
"OK, I guess I walked into that. But why?"
"You're asking me? People's motivations are complex, Jim. Someone panicked, saw an opportunity, and acted. How many antisatellite beam weapons are there in the world? How many regional commanders with firing authority? I'll bet you can count them on your fingers. The weapons' components aren't well regulated, though, especially in the former Soviet Union. With determination and money, all manner of rogues could get their hands on one."
Spoken like a world leader, Jim thought sourly. The sort of people who could think like that were the favorite targets of other people who could think like that. In spite of his upbringing, Jim didn't put much stock in religious authority; the Vatican was a small country, and this man was its king, one of the few absolute monarchs left in the world. But of course it was the religious stuff that got him shot down.
"Someone doesn't like your agenda," Jim said.
Dave took it in stride, or rather, in stroke. "A lot of people don't like my agenda, especially where it intersects with yours. I know, I know, you're a meteorologist. Nothing to do with faith. But you measure the incidence of miracles."
"Boundary conditions," Jim corrected. "And properly speaking, I measure their absence. The Free Will Index is the inverse of the BCI."
"Nevertheless. You think science doesn't have enemies? You guys make people nervous, Jim. At least as much as I do. Stripping away life's mysteries is bad enough. Not only predicting the divine, but calling it part of the weather! But your work promises a measure of control, implying that even God's storms — if that's what they are — can be broken, can be contained and channeled like the effects of global warming.
"Do you have any idea how threatening that is to people who don't understand? It's why I came to Dewey Park, to bridge that gap before it widened any further. I'm truly sorry my visit brought such misfortune. That's one burden of this office I'd hoped never to experience: being a catalyst for violence. The pope can be a bull in a Waterford crystal shop if he's not careful, and I clearly wasn't careful. For a moment in time, I gave common cause to all our enemies, yours and mine."
And here Jim surprised himself by saying, "Don't beat yourself up. Under the circumstances, under your circumstances, coming to see us was the right thing to do."
It was a kind of blessing, an absolution from the cool, condescending hand of science. The Pope looked at him for a long moment, saying nothing, then turned away and commenced rowing again.


Exhausted, sunburnt, panting with salted thirst, the pope and the weatherman dragged their raft up on a pebbly shore. This was no deserted island; houses lined the embankment as far as the eye could see. Which wasn't very far given the curve of the shoreline, but still. There were taller buildings across the street, and from a mile out they had spotted what looked like docks and a harbor to the south. But the wind and the current had carried them here, and they were too tired to fight it. The whole land mass was maybe ten miles wide, a lucky hit. The mainland was a lot farther away; they wouldn't have reached it for hours longer, even if the sea had cooperated.
Jiminy Gomez wasn't shy; he threw aside his foam hat, got down on his knees and kissed the ground, relishing the feel of damp grit on his lips. Still alive, by God! After falling out of the fucking sky.
Pope Dave's thanksgiving was more stylized and formal, involving muttered prayers, hand gestures and a set of beads that came out from behind his damp flight suit. It seemed almost rehearsed, like the Catholic church had a specific routine for crash landings and narrow escapes. But then he, too, kissed the pebble-strewn sand.
Then, supporting each other, the two of them staggered up the embankment on wobbly sea legs, wracked with cramps but grinning and chuckling with relief. In spite of the exercise equipment up on Dewey Park, though, Jim's own legs hadn't supported his weight under actual gravity for six long months, and he needed more support than Dave did, and a lot more than he would have liked. But the ordeal was nearly over, well on its way to becoming his own personal war story.
"Did I ever tell you about the time the pope and I got shot down during a shuttle reentry?"
Knocking on the back door of a little «stone» house, they got no answer, so they slipped around to the front. There were no yards, few trees or hedges; the houses were squeezed between a dirt road and a narrow strip of shoreline. But everything was brightly painted, a riot of secondary colors, and there was no litter. The roofs were made of glazed ceramic tile, turned up at the corners. No gutters, no downspouts.
But there were people in the street — a few pedestrians, a few bicycles — and while they turned interested eyes on Jim and Dave, they didn't seem overly shocked to find a pair of white guys in sky-blue flight suits limping up onto their island. That wasn't something that happened every day, obviously, but clearly they saw their share of strangeness here, and considered themselves worldly and unflappable.
One of the people — an Asian woman wrapped in layers of dull, heavy cloth — called out to them in a singsongy voice. The words were alien, but in context her tone was clear enough: "Well, look at you. Do you need help?"
Before they could answer, a little Honda pickup truck came rattling around the bend. It was green and very rusty, with white wooden rails rising up on either side of the undersized bed. The the windshield was cracked and the back was full of fishing nets, faded nylon rope, styrofoam floats and other stuff like that.
Dave flagged it down like a taxi and, seeing him, the driver stepped on the brakes, raising a cloud of dust before skidding gently to a stop. The windows were rolled down, and he looked out at Dave through the passenger side, calling out something not unlike what the woman had said.
Surprisingly, the pope answered in what sounded like the same language. But the driver fired something back, quick and complicated, and Dave reverted to English.
"We've had an accident. Can you take us somewhere?" He pointed to himself and Jim, then at the back of the truck, then down the road.
Smirking, the driver looked at them and jerked his head sideways, toward the truck bed, in the universal gesture that meant, "Get in."
"We have no money," Dave told him, turning out a pocket to demonstrate. "No… won? No yen? No yuan?"
"No yuan," the man agreed, then rapid-fired something else at them. He sounded politely concerned, politely amused. This business interested him, and he wanted to see it through. And since the yuan was the currency of China, the matter of their location was settled as well.
"You speak Chinese?" Jim said to Pope Dave.
But Dave just shook his head. "Just enough to be polite. That was nearly all of it right there."
There was a bit more discussion after that, wherein Dave pointed back down at the beach, offering the life raft and its contents to their would-be rescuer. Transcending language entirely, the man explained that he had no use for a thing like that — indeed, the very concept amused him. But it had to be gotten off the beach in any case, so with the help of some good Samaritans they gathered up the things Jim and Dave had dropped, threw them into the raft, dragged it up onto the street, and tossed it in the back of the truck. Amazingly, it fit, though they had to roll it onto its side.
When they got to the bar, Dave had already tried his phone again, without success. It couldn't reach the satellite network, couldn't interface with any of the local ones, and complained bitterly about the state of its battery. It was ironic, because of course there was electricity all around them — a dense canopy of wires seemed to enshroud the entire island — but nary a drop to drink, as it were. No charger, no adapter, no spare batteries of compatible type. Interfaces were the Achilles heel of technology.
So Dave went to the back of the bar to find a land line somewhere, while the fisherman talked to his chums, pointing all the while at the blue-suited strangers. It didn't seem too much to hope for, that one of these guys and dolls might speak English. But apparently no one did.
However, in a weird bit of twenty-first century serendipity, there was a beer company doing some sort of promo here — actually, they were just setting up their banners and cardboard signs — and as part of it they were passing out red plastic monocles that, when held up near a human eye, came alive with arrows and numbers and precise little Chinese characters.
Smiling and gesturing with professional politeness, a woman in a green silk dress pressed buttons around the rim of the monocle and handed it back to Jim, saying reassuring things to him.
ENGLISH MODE / DRINK «TSING TAO», the display said when he looked through it again. And then, to his amazement, he saw that the arrows were pointing down at the heads of some of the patrons, and the text above them was stating their names, ages, education, and occupations. The woman herself showed up as:

«Jing Pei», Agee 29
Bach Degree, «Beijing University»
Sales Rep, «Tsing Tao» Browing Co

The ENGLISH MODE sign was persistent, though; it hovered in front of everything else. To read the beer girls' labels, Jim had to move his head back and forth, like a reptile. Also, of the twenty-odd customers in the bar, only six seemed to have a profile in the monocle's database.
"Must be Saturday," Pope Dave observed, sidling up.